Friday, August 28, 2015

The Inconvenience of News

"No news is good news."

I always wondered about this oft-used phrase.

Is it saying that there is no such thing as good news, or that when you find yourself without any news at all, that's a good thing?

However you choose to decipher "No news is good news," I have one for you that is without ambiguity.

"The news isn't convenient."

There shouldn't be any confusion over that, but yet there is.

In the whirlwind of social media sharing and updates in the wake of the horrific murders of two young television journalists---one a reporter, the other a photographer---in Roanoke, VA on Wednesday during a live interview, we had ourselves a genuine "made for TV" violent crime, and there was much pontificating about what to do with it.

The alleged shooter of reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward, Vester Flanagan, aka Bryce Williams (on-air name), a reportedly disgruntled and frustrated TV reporter himself, crafted a highly premeditated act that was designed to be as sensational as possible.

Flanagan brought a camera with him (likely his cell phone) and carefully framed the image so that viewers would be able to see Parker being pierced with bullets. Flanagan then faxed a 23-page manifesto (a word that only seems to be associated with atrocities committed by a single person) to ABC News.

But Flanagan was far from done.

The video of the shooting was then uploaded to his Twitter and Facebook accounts, for as many people to see before the accounts were suspended. Flanagan also tweeted some snippets that gave some insight as to his motives.

Flanagan referenced alleged racial discrimination and blasted Ward for going to human resources against him. Flanagan also lamented the hiring of Parker, who he said had made some "racial comments."

But what got the pontificating going were the videos of the crime---both the version shot by Ward during the live interview and the killer's version.

Yes, this was some chilling stuff. Extraordinarily so.

This wasn't Lee Harvey Oswald being gunned down by Jack Ruby, which also happened on live TV, on November 24, 1963.

Parker and Ward, 24 years old and 27, respectively, were just a couple of kids doing their jobs, at 6:45 in the morning, doing a fluff piece about tourism.

All horrific stuff, for sure.

But as stated above, news isn't convenient. It's not pretty and it doesn't always exist to make us feel good. Often times, it makes us feel very bad.

So while those who strongly suggested that the videos of Parker and Ward's murders not be viewed or shared meant well, this puts news gathering down a slippery slope.

Of course, Flanagan's staging and posting and faxing were all designed so that he could "go out with a bang," so to speak. He used the very same media that was once his livelihood as a means to make sure that a record of his victims' last moments would forever exist, somewhere.

Because that's what Flanagan wanted, so many Americans wanted to try to deny him that. It was the least that could be done, they figured.

The pleas to not share or view the videos were made in the name of respect for Parker and Ward.

That's very honorable and well-meaning.

It's also dangerous.

Alison Parker and Adam Ward

We ought not cherry pick which news and which videos we pump and promote, and which that we chastise their viewing and sharing.

Like it or not, what Flanagan did was news. Horrific, disgusting, grotesque news, but news nonetheless.

The notion that those who chose to view or share the videos are somehow less feeling or less human, is misplaced.

To view or share isn't tantamount to approval, nor is it tantamount to gratuitous sensationalism.

Two young TV people were killed in cold blood, live on camera.

That's news.

I also don't know what is hoped to be gained by the discouraging of viewing or sharing the videos.

Facebook and Twitter moved swiftly, yanking down Flanagan's accounts without hesitation. They did their jobs.

But barn door being closed, meet the horses that got out.

Two questions, similar but different.

How does not viewing or sharing the videos of Parker and Ward's killings help things?

And, how does viewing and sharing the videos hurt things?

Frankly, these videos could have been worse. Much, much worse.

We could have seen a head shot. Or blood and gore. We saw neither.

We did see, in Flanagan's video, the muzzle of a gun and we heard the gunshots. But we never saw bullets striking Parker---at least not obviously.

It was kind of like the shower scene in "Psycho." We think we see the knife strike Janet Leigh in the shower, but thanks to clever editing, we don't.

We think we see Parker being riddled with bullets, but we really don't.

Obviously, Flanagan's video doesn't need blood and gore to be shocking. But oh, how much worse it could have been.

News is news. A lot of times, it just plain sucks.

The better question is, what is news?

Invasion of privacy and other matters that masquerade as news are the real bane.

The definition of what is news seems to be broadening as technology keeps advancing.

But there's no question that in the Parker and Ward killings, this was news.

As much as you'd like for it not to be.

We can't decide what others should view or share, in the matter of genuine news.

That's a path we truly should not want to be sent down.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Roses Have Thorns

My memories of Lynn Anderson are rather sardonic, but that's not her fault, necessarily.

Singer Anderson, 67, passed away the other day of a heart attack in a Nashville hospital while being treated for pneumonia.

She was best known for her song, "Rose Garden," which peaked at no. 1 on the country charts and no. 3 on the Billboard charts in early-1971.

But around the campus of Eastern Michigan University in the 1980s, Lynn Anderson became a notorious figure, forever linked to the school's outrageous efforts to keep its football program in the Mid-American Conference (MAC).

Let me explain.

By 1983, MAC officials were considering kicking EMU's football program out of the conference, because of poor performance on the field and more importantly, poor performance at the turnstiles. The latter was a direct effect of the former's cause.

The conference pretty much gave the university an ultimatum: lift attendance to a minimum threshold (I can't recall what that threshold was, but I think it was in the 10-15,000 per game neighborhood), or risk being booted.

Being asked to leave a Division-I conference would have cost EMU lots and lots of money in revenue, so the push was on to increase attendance, real quick.

Shuttle buses were sent to dorms to pick students up and drive them to Rynearson Stadium. Ticket prices were slashed, because the ultimatum wasn't based on revenue sales---it was based on the number of fannies in the seats. EMU didn't care what price folks paid to get in, or whether they paid at all. They just needed warm bodies in the stands.

But it was going to take more than the above to get students to take three hours out of their Saturday to watch a football team that was mostly miserable.

So EMU brought in halftime performers.

They brought in stand-up comics (I remember the legendary Skip Stephenson showing up one night). They brought in the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, who were booed because they didn't wear their iconic halter tops and go-go boots because the night air was too damn chilly. The girls ran onto the field wearing blue Lycra bodysuits, and that didn't go over too well with the male fans.

And the university also brought in Lynn Anderson.

Anderson was well into her 30s and her career had taken a downturn by the time EMU signed her up for a halftime performance. This was circa 1984.

Things gut ugly when Anderson was found to be obviously lip-synching, which by itself isn't a crime, but it's one of those things that, if it's blatant, can turn an audience against the performer.

The jig was up when the recording had technical difficulties. You can imagine the effects of that.

Anderson was booed off the stage and in the next edition of the school newspaper, The Eastern Echo, a graphic ran in the editorial section that depicted a photo of Anderson being flushed down a toilet.

Now, whether Anderson insisted on the lip-synching, or if the school decided it would be best due to the logistics of performing outdoors, is anyone's guess. Regardless, Lynn Anderson took the hit and she was mocked, panned and derided.

All told, Anderson had 18 country Top 10 hits, including five No. 1 songs. Among her other hits: "Rocky Top," the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant tune that's one of Tennessee's state songs. Anderson's version hit No. 17 on the country charts in 1970.

"I am a huge fan of Lynn's. She was always so nice to me. She did so much for the females in country music," country star Reba McEntire said in a statement.

I'm sure all of that is true. But on a chilly Saturday night on the football field at EMU in 1984, Lynn Anderson became a twisted footnote in the history of Eastern.

EMU made its attendance commitment, by the way, and stayed in the MAC.

We wore "I survived the Big MAC Attack" t-shirts on campus, a play on a McDonald's ad campaign of the time.

Fun times.