Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Neda Agha-Soltan - The Birth Of An Icon

The videotaped killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot to death by an unknown gunman while watching a demonstration in Tehran, spread quickly through the world via the Internet, and has made her the martyred symbol of the protests that followed her country's disputed presidential election.

When the 40-second video of Agha-Soltan's death appeared nine days ago, the powerful image of a defenseless woman silenced by a brutal regime cemented her place in history as the symbolic victim of oppression. The 26-year-old's death has outraged the world and brought almost universal resistance to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election as President of Iran.

The videotaped killing is forbidden viewing in Iran, and the government quickly declared the killing a fabrication. Ahmadinejad on Monday ordered a public investigation into Agha-Soltan's death, calling it "suspicious," but don't expect a reversal of claims that the state militia had nothing to do with it.

"Interference by enemies of Iran" was among the explanations that Ahmadinejad cited as a reason for the death. He also blamed "propaganda by the foreign media." He said that reports that Agha-Soltan was shot by pro-government Basij militiamen from a rooftop near where protesters were demonstrating was fabricated by western media. This prompted Iran's ambassador to Mexico, Mohammad Hassan Ghadiri, to give his view of who was responsible: "It was the CIA."

The timing of Ahmadinejad's sudden response into the death of Agha-Soltan's is no coincidence. It comes just as Iranian officials finished their recount of the vote in the disputed election between Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi. The government announced on Monday that the results remain unchanged.

What was supposed to be a close race ended in a landslide, and there remains no explanation for this. And the government knows that just saying the file is closed is simply not enough. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iran's powerful Guardian Council, both released statements last week saying the results are final and that no errors were found. The protests have continued, however, even as the government has continued it's crackdown.

Protesters are not likely to be swayed by reports, whether on election fraud or the death of Agha-Soltan, put out by the same government officials that most people blame for these crimes. The government can win back the streets, but it has no control over myth making. As writer Howard Chua-Eoan said in the recent issue of Time magazine, Agha-Soltan "died on the Web, and she is being given a second, perhaps eternal, life on it."

By her tragic death, Neda Agha-Soltan became a powerful, larger-than-life symbol of protest. The Iranian government can't control the powerful image of her dying as we watch on YouTube or on the evening news, or as protesters carry pictures of her bloodied face. Ahmadinejad can try to divert the public's attention, but it won't work. The videotaped killing has become the defining image of her country's corruption, and Agha-Soltan has become a symbol of that corruption. Fueled by Internet sites, blog posts, Twitter messages, and the traditional media, the gruesome death of a young woman in a nation in turmoil has given birth to an icon.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Joe Jackson - "I'm Grieving On The Inside"

Joe Jackson, the father of Michael Jackson, seemed rather jovial in an interview last night with CNN's Don Lemon at the BET Awards. He has a weird way of showing his grief. When asked by Lemon how he and his family were coping, Joe Jackson ignored the question in order to promote his new record company. He plugged a Blu-Ray disc of his son's music that he's selling.

Joe Jackson and the Reverand Al Sharpton held a press conference earlier today to discuss the pop star's shocking death on Thursday. Why Sharpton was there was not explained, but he is reportedly a family friend. As for his new record label, a way to capitalize financially on the tragedy, Joe Jackson was heavily criticized. Rev. Sharpton explained it like this: "He wanted to send a signal to the world that the Jackson family's going to continue doing what Michael did...give music and love to the world across all boundaries."

"I wish that Michael could be here to see all this," Joe Jackson said at the press conference, "instead of waiting for something to happen like this." As he spoke, he was smiling and looking over the large crowd outside his Encino residence. He could see dollar signs.

Michael Jackson's financial empire is a total mess. He made millions during his career, but he spent more. Now he's dead, and according to Amazon.com and other music news sources, his sales are going through the roof. In death, Michael Jackson has made the comeback he so much desired. Like Elvis Presley, he will surely continue to make money, and for now, bundles of it.

What Joe Jackson knows, and maybe the reason his grief seems to be tempered by relief, is that finally his son's spending habits have come to an end. You can't spend millions of dollars a month on rare animals, oxygen chambers, golden toilets and mummified bodies when you're dead. When asked about his seemingly happy demeanor, Joe Jackson told CNN: "I'm grieving on the inside." On the outside, he's making plans to cash in on his son's popularity.

"Michael is a superstar all over the world," Joe Jackson said. That much is true. He's grieving all the way to the bank. Ka-ching!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Paul Solomon Changes Format

If you have been paying attention the last few days, you may have noticed a change in the format of this blog. Originally started as way of communicating a short paragraph of my daily thoughts, the commentary got longer and longer as the days went by. Because of this, and because of reader feedback, I am adding paragraph breaks.

On Friday, I was writing about the over-the-top media frenzy surrounding disgraced South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who a day earlier had given a long and rambling news conference explaining his disappearance from the state for six days while he was having an extra-marital affair in Argentina. In mid-sentence, Michael Jackson died. I had to switch gears and change the subject. Hence: paragraph breaks.

My wife was on her computer and she yelled over to me that Michael Jackson was hospitalized. I walked over to her computer and on her Twitter feed, the words came up that stunned the nation and the world: "Michael Jackson died." The news came that fast. One second he's hospitalized, the next second he's dead. A day earlier he was rehearsing for a comeback tour which was to start in London.

The world is a different place than when I was a kid - when Walter Cronkite wiped tears from his eyes after telling the nation the John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The news filtered slowly through a cumbersome method of news gathering such as the Associated Press news wire, the land line telephone, and fact-checkers who had to wait in line for verification before confirming events. There was no cable news and no Internet, so hours went by before we got official confirmation on the evening news. Walter Cronkite was the bearer of bad news. But there was a certain comfort hearing it from "Uncle Walt".

When Michael Jackson died, the news spread throughout the world instantaneously. Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites helped spread the news. Rumor turned into facts in a matter of minutes, and within a half-hour of his death, Michael Jackson was the story on every channel, and not just the news channels.

As news of Jackson's death came in, nearly every broadcast station cut away from regular programming to report on the sudden events. The cable channels stayed with the story almost exclusively for the next few days. Other news topics were ignored, although there wasn't much to report about Jackson, other than he most likely died of cardiac arrest. The rumor that drugs played a part in his death came in slowly, but we had heard drug rumors when he was alive. Once this issue was explored, the media spent hours looking for news that wasn't there.

To say the media was unprepared is an understatement. The biggest news that came out was that people were originally putting flowers on the wrong star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The pop icon's star was covered up by a red carpet for a premier of Sasha Baron Cohen's movie "Bruno". 73-year-old English-born radio personality Michael Jackson's star covered by flowers and surrounded by fans of the other, more famous Michael Jackson. Of course, the dead Michael Jackson happened to be more famous than anyone.

No matter what you may think of his private life, the eccentric oddball with the common name was anything but common. The lawsuits and legal settlements, which caused embarrassment but never a conviction for anything, are a thing of the past. His fans are numerous, and he is even bigger in other parts of the world. There are those who haven't forgotten the scandals that plagued Jackson over the latter part of his life, and many people believe he is guilty of something. But there's no denying his popularity, and in death, Michael Jackson is being remembered for his groundbreaking musical career.

The best-selling album of all time: "Thriller". Now, thanks to his death, Michael Jackson is again outselling everybody else. A day after his death, Amazon.com announced that sales of Michael Jackson's music were up 721 times what they were before he died. That's 72,100%. Correct me if I'm wrong.

For the record: Because news events happen so quickly, and I type over 75 words a minute, I am no more immune to mistakes than other news outlets. I said in Friday's column that toxicology reports would be released in a little over a week. The actual time is four to six weeks. So, now, even though we are getting other news mixed in with news of the death of "The King of Pop," expect the story to continue.

We've heard from Quincy Jones, Liza Minelli, Elizabeth Taylor and even Corey Feldman. Larry King has turned up little-known friends to interview. Michael Jackson will remain in the news for awhile. And thanks to him, I'm now using paragraph breaks.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Other News Besides Michael Jackson

The last two days, no matter where you were in the world, if you looked at a newspaper or turned on a TV, you saw the face of Michael Jackson. On Friday night's half-hour broadcast of "NBC Nightly News" host Brian Williams spent three minutes discussing news other than Michael Jackson.

Now that the shock has warn off, fans are celebrating Jackson's life, rather than mourning his death. News of possible drug use is surfacing in the Jackson case, and to fill the time, reporters are now discussing his financial empire, which is in disarray. But we already new that. The news media is now finding time to devote to other matters.

The main beneficiary of the sudden and worldwide media storm over the death of Jackson was South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who disappeared for most of last week, leaving his family and staff scratching their heads wondering where he was. The state was without a leader, leading some to speculate what would have happened if there had been a state-wide emergency. The Republican governor held a news conference Wednesday admitting to an extra-marital affair with a woman in Argentina.

On Thursday morning, Gov. Sanford was the was the talk of the media, because we all like a good scandal. Then Michael Jackson died, and Sanford got to dodge the spotlight for a few days, and all the other news went on the back burner. We took a few days to mourn a legend, and now other news items are beginning to pop up in between Jackson coverage. Now we're learning that on at least one occasion Gov. Sanford used taxpayer money to fund his extra-curricular travels. In other news, his wife has gained national media exposure for refusing to stand by the governor after he admitted to having an affair. This breaks the normal spousal response in such matters.

Ex-Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer's wife famously stood next to him last year when he admitted to seeing a high-priced call girl. Silda Spitzer, a Harvard Law School graduate, was noticeably uncomfortable, but she remained stoic, and she held hands with her husband as they walked off the podium after his statement. Hillary Clinton famously stood by her husband through the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Although he resigned in disgrace as governor, Spitzer remains married. We all know about Hillary Clinton. Gov. Sanford, on the other hand, hasn't indicated that he will resign as governor of South Carolina. What we do know, and the news media is eating it up, is that his wife, Jenny Sanford, no longer wants to have anything to do with him. A new media star is born. Jenny Sanford has broken the mold. She's taken the spotlight off her husband. Now she's the news.

In other developments, government leaders around the world are censoring Internet reports of the Iranian protests out of fear it could cause a revolution from their own repressed citizenry, according to the Washington Post. Bloggers and Twitter users in China have colored their profiles a light green in support of Iranian protesters, and some observers have noted parallels between the protests and China's own Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989. The Communist Party in China is reportedly using the playbook of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by portraying the Iranian unrest as a Western conspiracy rather than a homegrown movement. Other countries, such as Cuba and Myanmar, are also working to stop Iranian news reports from gaining attention.

The House of Representatives held a moment of silence Friday for Michael Jackson. While the world wasn't watching, they also, by an incredibly close vote, 219 to 212, passed a climate change bill, despite claims among Republicans that the economy would worsen if we forced to have a "national energy tax." While Republicans complained that the bill would be a "massive transfer of wealth" from the United States to foreign countries, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan said that the bill was needed so that the country would not be dependent on people who want to "fly planes into our buildings." The Republicans fear that the bill will raise the average family's energy bill by thousands of dollars a year. The Environmental Protection Agency said it would amount to a yearly increase of less than $111. The goal, according to Democrats, is to protect the country's national security, improve the environment, and boost the economy.

Back to news of Michael Jackson, as we continue to look into the possibility that drugs were the cause of his death, his family is looking through his finances, which are a confusing mess. His creditors will be busy for years, according to a report in the New York Times. After piling up millions of dollars in debt, Jackson needed a last-second $24 .5 million loan last year just to keep creditors from liquidating the Neverland Ranch in Northern California. "He never kept track of what he was spending," Alvin Malnik, a former adviser, told the Times. "He would indiscriminately charter jets. He would buy paintings for $1.5 million. You couldn't do that every other week and expect your books to balance." Jackson does have his assets, notably $1 billion in publishing rights. His biggest asset in his collection are the rights to the Beatles song catalog, which he bought for $47.5 million in 1985, causing a rift with Paul McCartney. The two had been good friends up until then, but the sale of the Beatles catalog to Jackson was big news after McCartney made headlines with his displeasure.

Speaking of money, and the fact that the news media is making room for non-Michael Jackson news, Bernie Madoff is expected to be sentenced on Monday to 150-years in the slammer, the maximum, at least if prosecutors get their way. It would be an unprecedented sentence, but because of the unprecedented nature of the crime, the maximum would seem appropriate. It was the biggest financial crime in history, and if Michael Jackson had died three days later, it would have gone unnoticed.

News of Michael Jackson's death shocked the world, but life goes on. And so does the news.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson's Fans Aren't Ready To Say Goodbye

A day after his death, Michael Jackson is getting the outpouring of attention he craved so much as his career sputtered in the later part of his life. He died just weeks before he was to start a comeback tour to help resurrect his career and pay his bills. Today, however, in terms of music sales and popularity, "The Gloved One" is "The Only One," according to Amazon.com. History is in the making, as Jackson accounts for the top 15 CD's and the top 7 DVD's, and his music is the most requested, most downloaded and most shared on any Internet site anywhere. According to Amazon.com, his sales are now running 721 times what they were running just before his death. Just yesterday he was alive, an eccentric oddity trying to make a comeback. Now he's dead, and to many, he's a legend. The House of Representatives paused for a moment of silence in his honor.

Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977. "The King" had become a bloated caricature of the superstar he once was. Presley was also working on a comeback at the time of his death. Sadly, his death prompted his comeback. Death has a way of bringing out the best in people. Presley's popularity continued to grow after his death, and his estate continues to rake in millions of dollars a year. This time, it's the "King of Pop," Michael Jackson, dead at the young age of 50. It seems like only yesterday that Jackson moon-walked into the public consciousness, but he started out over 40 years ago, at the age of 9. Presley and Jackson were both struggling with personal and professional problems when their untimely deaths caught everyone by surprise. Although their deaths ended similarly - rumors are surfacing that drugs may have played a part in Jackson's death - there is a huge difference between the two stories.

If we're old enough, most of us remember where we were when we heard of Presley's death. We remember where we were when we heard of John Lennon's death. The same goes for JFK, Martin Luther King, and other iconic figures, depending on our age. We found out after someone told us hours after the fact, or after we saw it on the evening news, usually hours after the deaths were confirmed by the news media, which relied on sources such as the Associated Press and UPI, for news that came off a wire machine and filtered through the newsrooms across America until someone read it on the air.

I found out about Jackson's death pretty much as it happened. It popped up on Twitter. In fact, news about his death spread instantly. We're in a new era where the news travels at the speed of the Internet. People can share their reactions instantly and from anywhere. The news media can confirm reports as they happen. The reaction to Jackson's death was so quick, in fact, that news of it was on every major television station within minutes. Unlike other recent deaths, like Farrah Fawcett or Ed McMahon, this one was not expected. And Jackson obviously was a much larger and iconic figure. News of his death took on a surreal quality; it hit us like an aluminum bat. Jackson seemed to be in good health, other than a bad back. The news didn't have time to filter through the news media as in the past, when people heard about major news stories as they trickled in. This was sudden, unexpected and shocking. Not just America, but the world was stunned.

The news media will be fixated on the death of Michael Jackson for the time being. Toxicological reports won't come in for over a week. Since the instant it hit the airwaves, the story has been somewhat static.

There is new information about a possible drug connection. Jackson was taking as many as seven different drugs, including Zoloft, Xanax and Demerol. Reports have come out that he may have OD'd on a shot of Demerol given to him just hours earlier. There was the mysterious appearance of a doctor who for some reason was with Jackson when he died. Dr. Conrad Robert Murray is being sought for an interview by the police. Liza Minelli, a family friend, hinted that Jackson's death was comparable to Anna Nicole Smith's, in that drugs were used while people looked the other way. Minelli said on CBS's "The Early Show" this morning: "When the autopsy comes, all hell's going to break loose, so thank God we're celebrating now."

The cause of death won't be known until the autopsy has been completed and the toxicological reports come back. As of now, cardiac arrest is being blamed for Jackson's death. That's it. There's nothing new to report, but the media is sticking with the story.

For now, Michael Jackson's fans aren't ready to say goodbye.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson Dies - Media Caught Off Guard

In news that has shocked the world, Michael Jackson has died. The self-described “King of Pop” was pronounced dead today at UCLA Medical Center at 12:26 p.m. Pacific Time, reportedly of cardiac arrest. The exact cause is not known yet, and the television news media has preempted all other programming, although there is nothing new to report.

When the news of Michael Jackson’s death came out, I was working on a story of disgraced South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who admitted in a news conference yesterday that he had an extra-marital affair with a woman from Argentina. He disappeared for four days last week, and his wife said she had no idea where he was. His staff fabricated the story that he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. The media went into a frenzy with the story. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times both led off their news this morning with the story of Gov. Sanford. Then Michael Jackson died.

A collective shock has come over the nation and throughout the world. No matter how bad the press got over the course of his career, and how odd his behavior became, Jackson’s career spanned over four decades, yet he died at the young age of 50. He may not have been bigger than Elvis. He may not have been bigger than the Beatles. But he was around longer. As a celebrity, in this day and age, there’s no one bigger. As the news media reflects on Jackson’s long, historic, and eccentric career, all other news stories are now put on hold. The economy, global warming, nuclear proliferation, the health-care crisis, Gov. Mark Sanford – all on hold. The world mourns the death of Michael Jackson.

It’s been hours since the news of Jackson’s death, and the news media is still scrambling for something new to say. A news conference was delayed, and reporters were left to talk about the history of Jackson’s musical career. The iconic nature of Michael Jackson and the suddenness and untimeliness of his death made the whole thing seem surreal. The story was on the air, but the news media was caught by surprise. Farrah Fawcett died today, but it had been expected after her long illness – Ed McMahon died earlier this week, but he’s from a different era and he was also ill. The fans, too, were caught off guard. They gathered at the wrong star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, putting flowers on the star of English-born Los Angeles radio personality Michael Jackson, who is semi-retired at the age of 73. The musical icon known as Michael Jackson; his star is covered by a red carpet, put down for the premier of Sasha Baron Cohen’s movie “Bruno.”

All other news is on hold for now, even though there’s nothing new to report. If the massive coverage by the news media is any indication, the child-prodigy-turned-adult-superstar is bigger in death than he even was in life.

News Media Switches From Gov. Mark Sanford To Michael Jackson

There's nothing like a good scandal to send the news media into a frenzy. Until this afternoon, that's all anyone could talk about. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times lead off with the story of Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a rising star in the Republican party, who had an extra-marital affair with a woman in Argentina. The conservative Sanford was a rising star in the Republican party and was considered a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2012. In a press conference yesterday that was carried live on all the cable news channels, Sanford admitted to having the affair with the woman in Buenos Aires, where he spent a good part of last week. He had last been seen last Thursday, and his wife said she didn't know where he was. His staff said he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Most of my favorite scandals have involved Democrats, but I welcome Sanford into the club, along with Democrats Rod Blogojevich, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton, and Gary Hart. Blagojevich tops the list for trying to sell Obama's vacant senate seat in Chicago. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky gave us hours of entertainment because of the news media's insatiable appetite for sexual dalliances involving politicians, and it topped the previous whopper, Gary Hart's sexual romp on his boat called "Monkey Business." Eliot Spitzer comes in a distant fourth in Democratic screw-ups. His was the pretty standard politician-meets-call-girl story, followed by the obligatory news conference with his wife standing by his side, followed by Kristen Wiig mimicking her on "Saturday Night Live." Sanford recently made news by refusing Obama's stimulus money for his state. He has been seen as a Republican in the mold of Barry Goldwater. While Bill Clinton lied for months about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and Blogojevich still professes his innocence, Sanford, like Spitzer, has admitted his sins and seems genuinely remorseful. His bizarre trip is being called Sanford's "Last Tango in Buenos Aires" and he says that he has broken up with the woman he loved to stay with his wife and four sons. But Sanford, who said he will resign from his position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has refused to state whether he would resign from the governor's office. With the media swarming all over the story, and reports have come out today about steamy e-mails in which he professed his love for her body and her "tan lines," Sanford's days are numbered. A story like this can take up a disproportionate amount of news time. Only a major news story can send the media in a different direction.

Unfortunately, as I write this, news of Michael Jackson's death has just come in. A collective shock has come over the nation and throughout the world. No matter how bad the press got over the course of his career, and how odd his behavior became, Jackson's career spanned over four decades, yet he died at the young age of 50. He may not have been bigger than Elvis. He may not have been bigger than the Beatles. But he was around longer. As a celebrity, in this day and age, there's no one bigger. As the news media reflects on Jackson's long, historic, and eccentric career, all other news stories are now put on hold. The economy, global warming, nuclear proliferation, the health-care crisis, Gov. Mark Sanford - all on hold. The world mourns the death of Michael Jackson.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What's Obama Have In Common With Joe Camel?

It's been almost 12 years since Joe Camel retired. A legal settlement in 1998 prohibited the cool iconic cartoon character from being used in packaging and advertising. It turns out that Joe Camel was becoming as recognizable to kids as Mickey Mouse. On Monday, President Obama signed into law sweeping legislation that puts the FDA in charge of the marketing and sale of tobacco products. The new law also gives the FDA the power to regulate what's put in those products, including not only nicotine, but also candy and fruit flavorings marketed toward young people. In 2006, R.J. Reynolds, the makers of Camel, agreed to stop selling flavored cigarettes with names like "Twista Lime" and "Mocha Taboo." Now, all tobacco companies will have to put an end to the subtle practice of luring new, mostly young smokers, with flavorings and fancy packaging. Keeping tobacco out of the hands of young people is the most important part of the new bill. On Monday, when Obama signed the bill, he said: "The decades-long effort to protect our children from the harmful effects of smoking has emerged victorious." The most important issue in the the new legislation, he said, is to reduce the number of new smokers in the future. On Tuesday, however, in a White House press conference, Obama admitted that he was struggling with kicking the habit himself, saying "I'm 95% cured." He was responding to a reporter's question on the subject. The reporter, Margaret Talev of McClatchy Newspapers, framed her question like this: "As a former smoker, I understand the frustration and the fear that comes with quitting. But with the new law that you signed...regulating the tobacco industry, I'd like to ask you a few questions...How many cigarettes a day do you smoke? Do you smoke alone or in the presence of other people?" She then went on to ask Obama if the new law that he signed on Monday "should help you quit. If so, why?" Obama's response: "The new law that was put in place is not about me. It's about the next generation of kid's coming up." The new law that gives the FDA the authority to ban all cigarettes from having candy and fruit flavors takes effect this October. The law will also put an end to marketing practices by tobacco companies such as sponsoring sporting and entertainment events using tobacco logos or brand names, or giving away clothing or promotional items bearing the logo or brand name of a tobacco company. Years ago, Camel had a T-shirt promotion. I still have the shirt with a giant picture of Joe Camel on the front. It was pretty cool at the time. President Obama, like Joe Camel, is a cool and iconic character. We don't need images of him smoking. He's a role model to kids, and it's counterproductive. And yet, after yesterday's news conference, in between talking about the economy, health care, nuclear proliferation and global warming, Obama was talking about his own nicotine habit. He admitted that although he has backtracked on the smoking issue, he does so in private. So why bring it up in the first place? Most news sources, however, ran with the story. That seems fair. After all, once it was brought up, it was a legitimate news story. However, some web sites ran photos of Obama smoking. There's the famous one from the Time magazine college photos of a young Obama looking cool with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Then there's the undated one that ran as part of a story at Examiner.com, with the caption, "Obama takes a Presidential smoke break." Other photos have surfaced from the past, and although some are obviously photo-shopped, some are real. The one that popped up yesterday in the Examiner looks real, and it looks recent. Is there really a good reason to run it? Images of the President smoking should not be made public. Barack Obama is bigger than Joe Camel ever was. Maybe even bigger than Mickey Mouse.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Obama's Smoking Is A Hot Topic

President Barack Obama yesterday signed the nation's strongest anti-smoking bill ever and praised it for providing critically needed protections for kids. At a White House news conference today, the President's own smoking was a hot topic. In between fielding questions dealing with the unrest in Iran, the fate of the economy, and the perils of global warming, Obama admitted that he still smokes occasionally, and that it is an ongoing battle. "As a former smoker, I constantly struggle with it," said Obama. "Have I fallen off the wagon with it? Yes." Obama added, however, that he never smokes in front of his two young daughters and not on a daily basis. During the presidential campaign, Obama occasionally bummed cigarettes from aides, but was never photographed by the media and made sure to emphasize he was working on getting his habit under control. Today, Obama that he is "95% cured," after a reporter asked about his struggle kicking the habit. As to the legitimacy of the question, the president brushed it off, saying "I understand...It's an interesting human interest story." He didn't see however, how it was relevant to the new law, but, in order to satisfy the media's quest for instant gratification on the subject, he wasted time talking about his own struggles. "There are times where I mess up...I get this question about once every month or so. And, you know, I don't know what to tell you, other than the fact that, you know, like folks who go to A.A., you know, once you've gone down this path, then it's something you continually struggle with, which is precisely why the legislation we signed was so important. Because what we don't want is kids going down that path in the first place." The President didn't explain where exactly he lights up, but since he doesn't do it in front of his family, and the media hasn't witnessed him smoking, it seems that the question asked of him was unnecessary. The sweeping new legislation passed yesterday giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco was a major step in protecting children. Obama has said he got hooked on cigarettes as a teenager, and as he signed the bill in the White House Rose Garden yesterday, he said "The decades-long effort to protect our children from the harmful effects of tobacco has emerged victorious." That should be the story, not Obama's own struggle with nicotine. He is, after all, a role model for children. Why complicate the issue?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Online Brands Turn To TV And Print Ads

Amazon.com and other Internet online brands are turning to television ads and other offline media to sell their products, according to a report today in AdWeek. The success of Hulu.com, as a result of TV ads featuring Alec Baldwin, has spurred companies such as Kayak.com (travel) and Zappos.com (clothing and shoes) to look into more traditional types of mass advertising such as television, radio and print. Robert Birge, head of marketing at Kayak, says "in spite of the popular folklore, human beings do not live sitting at a browser 16 hours a day. They still watch TV a lot, read newspapers and magazines, drive places where they see billboards and read their direct mail." Hulu, though is directly geared toward the TV audience, because it is an online service that allows viewers to watch their favorite TV shows and movies anytime they like online, making scheduled family viewing hours obsolete. To many in the entertainment community, it seems odd that Alec Baldwin, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, is asking viewers to watch shows on the Internet, where as of now, actors aren't being adequately compensated. The recent SAG contract gives actors some residuals for shows that are shown for free on the Internet, but many actors, including former SAG president Ed Asner and Martin Sheen, feel that it isn't enough, and have been vocal about their disapproval of the contract as it now stands. Many feel that because of the bad economy, SAG is delaying the issue for two years, when the next contract comes up. Alec Baldwin is making more money from his commercial appearances for Hulu than he is from his appearances on his NBC comedy "30 Rock" that show up on the Internet. Some members of SAG are not happy about Baldwin's participation in Hulu's success. On the other hand, money from online Internet sites is finding its way to the mainstream media, and TV and print outlets can use the infusion of cash. The irony is that Hulu.com is spending advertising dollars on TV and at the same time exploiting actors on the Internet. At least Amazon.com and similar sites don't have this type of conflict of interest.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day News

The protests in Iran over the recent election results are taking over the airwaves on cable news. Although no foreign reporters are allowed in the Iran, social networking sites are allowing citizens to send information via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Images are being shown on the TV news from the cell phone cameras of ordinary citizens. It's disturbing and hard to watch, as Iranian anti-riot police use clubs, tear gas, water cannons and in some reports, guns, to combat protesters. In America, in order to balance the violent images coming out of Iran, we look for the lighter news that can give us something to laugh about as we celebrate Father's Day. The "cocaine-in-the-frozen-shark" story became old news when a man in Oklahoma was mugged for his bologna sandwich, with a street value of 76 cents. Now we find out that a city in Florida has a new dress code that requires city workers to wear underwear and use deodorant. The city council in Brooksville north of Tampa recently approved the "personal hygiene" code. Last week's report about a man who set off fireworks in a bathroom in an Arby's restaurant, blowing up a toilet, was upstaged by a story on Friday about two wayward cows in Massachusetts who went AWOL from their farm and walked over five miles into New Hampshire. Nashua authorities tracked down the cows with the help of concerned citizens, who called 911 with reports of the stray cows. Thursday's story about a Washington man who drove over three miles on I-5 in reverse is still being talked about around the water cooler. But the story last week about an Indiana lawyer who was found asleep headfirst in a neighbor's trash can after a night of drinking has been largely forgotten. Then there's the story of the New York woman who has been dead for six years who showed up at the DMV to get her driver's license. Actually, it was her son, Thomas Parkin, who dressed up in drag, reminiscent of the movie "Psycho". The incident happened in April, but the Associated Press has picked up the story and is running with it. It's spreading through all the major Internet news sites. As new information comes in, we're finding out that Parkin impersonated his mother for over six years and has collected over $100,000 in Social Security and housing benefits using her identity. Although he's been caught on the DMV security cameras dressed in drag, Parkin still professes his innocence. He is awaiting trial at Riker's Island on larceny and fraud charges, and he is giving interviews from prison. Parkin has reportedly hired a publicist, and this is one story that won't go away. That's OK. We need a little levity on Father's Day.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

All Hell Breaks Out In Iran - Quiet Weekend In U.S.

It's Saturday, and I'm resting comfortably on my lounge chair by the pool drinking mojitos. In Iran, all hell is breaking out as anti-riot police are using tear gas and water cannons to silence angry mobs of demonstrators. The country's Supreme Leader, Ayatolla Ali Khamenei, yesterday cut off any further investigation into the country's disputed election results, and declared that any more demonstrations would be illegal. According to CNN, Twitter and other social networking sites are being used to spread the word about the protesters who are ignoring the Supreme Leader. Since foreign journalists have been barred from reporting in the country, YouTube images are being circulated, showing images of defiant protesters, some bloodied and beaten. Tensions are continuing to rise, and there are reports that injured protesters are being arrested as they arrive at hospitals. Twitter messages are urging the injured to be taken to foreign embassies that are sympathetic to their cause. The Australian Embassy, the British Embassy and the Italian Embassy, among others, are being listed as safe havens. The U.S. has no embassy in Iran because it has no diplomatic relations. In America, we're more concerned with Jennifer Anniston's new date, the rumored split of Brad and Angelina, and David Letterman's feud with Sarah Palin. As for me, I'm just trying to find some guacamole for my chips.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Theft Of Bologna Sandwich Is Major News

A man waiting for a bus in Oklahoma City claimed he was punched in the face by a man who stole his bologna sandwich. According to the Associated Press yesterday, 24-year-old Roger Hamilton told police he was sitting on the bus bench ready to eat his sandwich when a man began staring at him. Before he knew it, Hamilton had a swollen, bloody lip, and the attacker had made off with the sandwich. The attacker has not been found, and the police report listed the value of the sandwich at 76 cents. What is interesting about this story is not the story itself, but the fact that the AP report was picked up by so many news sources, including AOL, Yahoo, and television and news stations. There are literally thousands of Internet news sources and this has made the news accessible to just about everyone, and the news comes out instantly. But is the theft of a 76 cent bologna really worth the news coverage that it got? The "cocaine-in-the-frozen-shark" story earlier in the week about a Mexican drug smuggling operation was national news because not only was it about the seizure of over a ton of cocaine, but it dealt with a major problem affecting both Mexico and the border states in the U.S. The oddness of the story just made it more newsworthy. It's no doubt that the theft of a bologna sandwich is weird, but does it warrant the media attention? Framed in the context of the economic recession we are now facing, the story does deserve mention. But does Roger Hamilton deserve the requisite media attention, the talk show appearances and the million dollar book deal? And what about the other top stories flying through cyberspace at breakneck speed. The Delaware State Fire Marshal's Office yesterday said a man damaged a toilet by setting off fireworks in an Arby's restroom. The AP story was quickly picked up by all the major news outlets. As Delaware State Police investigate the damaged toilet, the Arby's is being besieged by the media looking for more on the story, and money is being offered for any surveillance video. So far the man hasn't been arrested, but he would be wise to turn himself in. The publicity would give him his 15 minutes of fame and maybe more. It was just a toilet, after all. How about the story released earlier in the week about Jacob Skipworth, a Berrien Springs, Michigan man facing felony charges after allegedly spitting on a police officer's McDonald's Egg McMuffin. Originally reported by the AP, the story immediately caught the media's attention. According to the report, the unidentified officer bit into his sandwich and immediately realized something was wrong. The sandwich contained a "stringy with mucus" substance, according to the McDonald's assistant manager. Skipworth, who turned out to be a parolee who spent 14 years in an Indiana prison, said he has nothing against the police. A witness, however, overheard him saying, "I got that cop good." Skipworth is being held in the Berrien County Jail on $10,000 bond, charged with a "felony adulterated food count," according to The Smoking Gun website. A June 23 preliminary hearing has been set, but in the meantime, Skipworth reportedly has retained a public relations firm to handle media requests. The Internet has changed the way we get our news. Newspapers and magazines are going bankrupt, but there's no shortage of news. The Internet news sources are exploiting the advent of free or very cheap news content, and the overhead is next to nothing. The news comes out as it happens, instantly, and with little or no editorial oversight. And the weirder the better. While we are all stressed out about the current economic recession, we are comforted by news that makes us forget about our stock portfolio and our home mortgage. In this economy, the theft of a 76 cent bologna sandwich is major news, and thanks to the Internet, we hear about it as it happens. The "cocaine-in-the-frozen-shark" drug deal is already old news.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Majority Trust Obama To Solve Health Care Crisis

Nearly 46 million Americans have no health insurance, and another 25 million are underinsured. Total health care spending in the United States averages $6,714 per person. Compare that to the United Kingdom, where the cost is $2,760 per person, or France, where the total is $3,449 per person. And if you think we're getting better health care, you're wrong. The United States ranks 50th in life expectancy, and 44th in infant mortality rates, according to most reports. So what exactly does President Obama plan to do? A major point of his plan is to create a government-sponsored health insurance program that would be available to all Americans, much like Medicare is now offered to Americans over age 65. He wants everyone to be able to get insurance at a reasonable rate, even if they have pre-existing conditions. Employers are able to get cheaper rates than individuals because they pool their employees together, therefore the cost is spread around, and people with pre-existing conditions are included. But more and more employers have stopped offering insurance to employees because of the high cost, and more people are being laid off and left to their own resources. How does the president plan to pay for his plan? He wants incentives for people to use preventive services and wellness plans. The best way to keep costs down is to not get sick in the first place. Obama wants doctors, hospitals, and patients across the country to make prevention the top priority, as opposed to curing illness with pills, tests and procedures. He has already identified "hundreds of billions of dollars" worth of savings in the federal budget that could help finance health care reform. Much of his attention is being paid to root out waste and fraud in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and he wants to reduce tax deductions for high-income individuals. In addition, he wants to standardize and computerize medical records, which will save millions of dollars in the long run, but will cost individual doctors up to $36,000 per physician, which includes the costs of servers, computers and software. Obviously, many doctors and the American Medical Association are against a universal electronic medical record system, even though it will save money in the long-run, but can prevent mistakes and keep patients from taking unnecessary medications or duplicate medications. Republicans are against a government-sponsored health insurance program for all Americans. They are afraid that employers would opt for the government option, which would be less expensive, but they say it would also be lower in quality. Both Obama and Senate Minority Leader John Boehner, who speaks for Republicans, agree that no insurance plan should deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Neither side, however, has explained how insurance companies would be forced to insure people with pre-existing conditions. That's what makes the issue of health-care reform so complicated. Until we get answers to questions like this, we shouldn't be blamed for skepticism. Most people believe that Obama, who is known for his intellect, is listening to his advisers and medical experts, and has options that he's weighing. The American Medical Association said that while it believes in health-care reform, it "does not believe that creating a public health insurance option is the best way to expand health insurance coverage." Other medical groups, however, support Obama's plan. The National Physicians Alliance, the American Academy of Family Physicians and other groups this week put out a statement of support: "Having the choice of a public health insurance plan will help make health care more affordable for patients, foster greater competition in the insurance market and guarantee that quality, affordable coverage will be there for our patients no matter what happens," they jointly wrote in a statement. While the AMA won't budge, and individual doctors are still balking at the high cost of things such as universal electronic medical records, the support of these groups is encouraging. Pretty much everyone, including the AMA and the Republican party, agrees that reform is needed in the health-care system. A new Gallup poll showed that 58% of Americans trust President Obama to make the right decisions. Let's hope they're right.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cocaine Hidden In Frozen Sharks

Mexican drug smugglers get extra-credit bonus points for creativity after attempting to smuggle over a ton of cocaine inside 20 frozen shark carcasses. "Those in charge of the shipment said it was a conserving agent, but after checks, we confirmed it was cocaine," Mexican Navy Commander Eduardo Villa told reporters Tuesday. Navy officers at a port in the southern Mexican state of Yucatan searched a container ship yesterday after becoming suspicious of its contents. Drug gangs are coming up with creative ideas in order to get drugs into the United States. They've used sealed beer cans, religious statues and furniture, as Mexico's military cracks down on the cartels tapping the lucrative market north of the border. Details have not yet been released as to where the sharks were being delivered and to whom, but an unidentified spokesman said there is no truth to the rumor that the sharks were en route to an after-party for Lindsay Lohan.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Obama: Multi-Tasker-In-Chief

Yesterday President Obama gave a major speech about health care to the American Medical Association. It was a tough crowd - he was talking to doctors, who feel they will be negatively impacted financially if there is major health care reform. David Donnelly, national campaign director of Public Campaign Action Fund, said that Obama was "speaking to a group that is acting more like a typical Washington special interest than one that is concerned about the well-being of all Americans." But Obama was speaking to the American people. The speech was carried live on the major cable news outlets, and the evening news focused on the highlights. Obama's big sound bite was heard around the world: "If we do not fix our health care system, America may go the way of GM." This is a tough issue to tackle, as the country is on the verge of economic collapse, and many Republicans are saying we just can't afford to do anything about it right now. But clearer heads are prevailing on the Democratic side. Obama has the support of Democrats when he says that fixing health care right now is paramount to begin fixing the economy. In a speech on March 25 at a DNC fundraiser, Obama talked about why the issue is important in the overall plan to fix the economy: "Because we know that the crushing cost of health care is bankrupting families and businesses, and bankrupting the federal government and the state government, our budget reflects reforms that will bring down costs and improve care, and guarantee Americans their choice of doctors and hospitals." Since coming into office, Obama has has to deal with the collapse of the banking and auto industries, two wars, the nuclear threat of Iran and North Korea, the issue of stem cell research, the Guantanamo prison, "Don't ask, don't tell," abortion legislation and other less relevant issues. Obama has repeatedly reminded us that President John F. Kennedy didn't choose between Civil Rights and going to the moon. But Kennedy didn't have to deal with an economy that has been described as "the worst since the Great Depression." The $100 billion it took to land on the moon would have come in handy right now, although we're talking trillions, not millions, of taxpayer money to deal with fixing the economy. George W. Bush handed over a giant mess to Obama when he left office. Bush seemed out of his league when trying to deal with the imploding economy - he seemed to want to leave it to his successor. Obama said in his DNC speech March 25 that "the American people don't have the luxury of focusing on one problem at a time." In his whirlwind first 100 days in office, Obama proved he has the ability to multi-task, and he has continued all the way up to the AMA speech and beyond. While Bush can't walk and drink Red Bull at the same time, Obama seems capable of tackling an enormous workload. "I'm not going to kick these problems down the road for another four years, another eight years, for the next President, the next generation. I'm going to tackle them now," Obama said in his March 25 speech. "That's why I ran for President. That's why you helped me become President. That's why we are not going to stop until we get this thing done." He was talking about his comprehensive economic recovery plan, but he emphasized that health care reform is a key component. I'm betting on Obama, not the doctors representing the AMA, who may have to give up a little so the country can gain a lot.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Obama To AMA: "America May Go The Way Of GM"

Sound bite of the day: "If we do not fix our health care system, America may go the way of GM." That was what President Obama said earlier today in a speech to the American Medical Association. He insisted that his plan for overhauling the nation's health care system would be good for them. Obama promised doctors that "we can build a health care system that allows you to be physicians instead of administrators and accountants." Obama said that limits on medical malpractice lawsuits could be necessary. He cited the need for doctors to cut costs by reducing the number of unnecessary procedures and tests that are performed in an effort to reduce the risk of malpractice claims. Under his cost-cutting plan, Obama said that restrictions on malpractice liability to protect doctors may be needed. Although he said he's not advocating putting caps on malpractice awards, Obama said "we need to explore a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first, and how to let doctors focus on practicing medicine." He said that doctors should be able to put their efforts into curing patients as apposed to worrying about a bureaucratic system that bases pay on the amount of tests and services. The AMA agrees with the Obama Administration that health care reforms are needed, but does not support the creation of a "public option" paid for by the government to ensure coverage for the 46 million Americans who are currently uninsured. Everyone agrees, however, that health care costs in this country have spiraled out of control. America spends 50% more per person than the next expensive nation, Switzerland, and our average lifespan is three years lower. "The costs are crushing us...We can't continue on this pathway," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Nation". She said that Obama is open to whatever ideas will work. Obama has kept his campaign promises to make health care reform a top priority of his administration. He has emphasized that health care is a major cause of our economic troubles. Obama said that rising health care costs could force America to follow in the footsteps of bankrupt automaker GM. If we follow that path, he said, we'll be "paying more, getting less and going broke". Obama also told the AMA: "Make no mistake, the cost of our health care is a threat to our economy. It is an escalating burden on our families and businesses. It is a ticking time-bomb for the federal budget, and it is unsustainable for the United States of America." It's a ticking time-bomb for the average American, which is the category that I fall into. In all probability, America won't go the way of GM. As far as health care reform, Obama's on the right track. He's the right man for the job. That's why I voted for him.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Paul Solomon Takes Weekends Off - Part 3

An excerpt from Friday's column:
Twitter - For people with short attention spans.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

FCC Wants To Restrict Loud TV Commercials

I'm sitting in my barcalounger eating Cheese Doodles and watching the "NCIS" marathon on the USA channel. It's Saturday, and I'm taking the day off. I don't want to be distracted by having to make decisions or pay bills on the weekend. But now, as another commercial comes on, I'm thinking to myself, "enough already, there ought to be a law." I reach for the remote to turn down the volume. Is it just me, or is the commercial way louder than the regular programming? Yes and no. It seems broadcasters are allowed to air commercials at a volume equal to the peak volume of the program during which they play. For instance, there's a loud bomb blast in an episode of our favorite show. All the commercials during that program can reach that level. In other words, the commercial is constantly running at the loudest volume possible, while the actual show balances the explosions with dialogue at a natural level. The shows have a realistic pattern of volume that ranges from whispering to loud dialogue to loud blasts, while the commercials constantly blare at the peak volume. This issue has confounded TV viewers for years, and is now being investigated by the U.S. Congress, which this week heard from experts on the subject while considering HR 1084, the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM). The appropriately named CALM Act would require the FCC to restrict television commercial volume to the average sound level of the program that it airs on, as opposed to the program's peak volume. As I keep having to reach for the remote during each commercial interruption, I'm comforted by the fact that the day of the ear-blasting announcements for male enhancement products, AARP membership and bipolar medication may be coming to an end. Soon there could be a law.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Twitter Takes On Facebook

According to the cover story in this week's issue of Time magazine by Steven Johnson, Twitter is "changing the way we live, and showing us the future of American innovation". In this age of short attention spans, Twitter is the one social networking site that adapts perfectly to our fast-paced lifestyle, and is adaptable to most mobile devices. Twitter is gaining on social networking sites like Facebook because it is quicker and more efficient. The 140-character limit allows users to publish "tweets" from anywhere using their laptops or Blackberrys. Although Twitter still trails Facebook, the Nielsen ratings service shows that it's usage has grown by 1,298% since last year. Indeed, Facebook has grown by 217% in the same one-year period, and Twitter is still way behind, with 17.10 million visitors in April of 2009 compared to 71.29 million for Facebook. Because there are so many demands on our time, and many different ways we can spend it on our computers, hooked up to the Internet, Twitter is growing precisely because of it's limitations. Originally, people scoffed at the 140-character updates that limited people to just a few short sentences. But, according to Johnson in his Time article, "hearing about what your friends had for breakfast is actually more interesting than it sounds." Instead of one "tweet," we end up with an endless stream of small messages that can add up to a media event. For instance, Britain's oddball talent show sensation Susan Boyle gained Internet acclaim largely through Twitter chatter, with links to her YouTube site, where views reached record numbers. As it turns out, with millions of people using Twitter, the way it is being used is changing constantly, and it's the users themselves who have been redesigning the site. For example, the grouping of a topic or event called a "hashtag" (#inauguration, for example), the use of the @ symbol for replying to one another, and the ability to search a live stream of "tweets" were all developed by users, not Twitter itself. Thanks to these innovations, following political debates or discussions about our favorite TV shows have become commonplace. "It's like inventing a toaster oven and then looking around a year later and seeing that your customers have turned it into a microwave," wrote Johnson. Twitter is still evolving, and whether it continues to grow at the current astounding rate is not what's important. The fact that such a simple idea can create such a powerful form of communication shows us that anything's possible. In this economic climate, when banks and car companies are going bankrupt, an idea as simple as Twitter is an example of thinking small and making it big. The founders of Twitter reportedly turned down a $500 million offer from Facebook to purchase the site and they may be waiting for a more lucrative offer. Who knows, it might be worth a lot more. I'm just trying to figure out how to put all my ideas down in 140 characters or less.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Letterman Appologizes To Palin - Sort Of

David Letterman offered something resembling an apology for jokes he made earlier this week about Sarah Palin and one of her teenage daughters. The "Late Show" host made his statements on his show, letting the controversy add to his current ratings boost. Letterman joked on Monday's show that Palin's daughter "was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez." The joke appeared to be referring to Palin's 18-year-old daughter Bristol. In his apology, Letterman said he was referring to Bristol, not her 14-year-old sister Willow, who had been at the Yankees game. Indeed, Bristol Palin has been the subject of countless jokes by comedians who have referred to her status as a single mother who has paradoxically come out in the media as a spokesperson for safe sex. So, while Letterman denied that he would ever make a joke about sex with a 14-year-old girl, he seemed to be saying that jokes about an 18-year-old are OK. Letterman acknowledged he was guilty of poor taste, but interspersed jokes along with his apology. Responding to Sarah Palin's comments that charged Letterman with "sexually perverted comments made by a 62-year-old male celebrity," Letterman deadpanned "I am not a celebrity. I'm 62 years old, but I'm not a celebrity." In addition to his near-apology, Letterman invited Palin to be a guest on his show. "Governor Palin, if you're watching, I would like you to consider coming to New York City - you and Todd as my guests - or leave Todd at home," he said, tossing in a little humor with his apology. Sarah Palin's spokesperson Meghan Stapleton said: "The Palins have no intention of providing a ratings boost for David Letterman by appearing on his show. Plus, it would be wise to keep Willow away from David Letterman." Now that's a pretty funny response right there, keeping up with the comedy theme. On his MSNBC show yesterday, Keith Olbermann, who also happens to be a David Letterman fan and has appeared as a guest on his show, weighed in. "In political humor, does anything go?" he asked. "Are John McCain age jokes OK, but "Barack the Magic Negro" songs not?" He referred to sexual jokes going back to when Clinton was president. "Is the outside of the envelope the nightly, endlessly sexual jokes?" Wanda Sykes got flack for her jokes at the White House Correspondent's Dinner in May. About Rush Limbaugh, she joked: "You want Obama to fail? I hope your kidneys fail." She went on to skewer both Republicans and Democrats alike, but the Republicans were the ones complaining, and Sykes was the lucky recipient of their scorn. She has signed with Fox to host her own talk show. It's fair to say that comedians have a little more latitude in being able to bring up controversial subjects by nature of their job description. But this is an age where gender specific remarks and racial slurs are dangerous territory, even for comedians. We are protected by the First Amendment, but David Letterman works for a major corporation, CBS, and he has to follow their rules. You'd think they would intervene. For example, Radio Host Don Imus was fired a few years ago for using a racial slur on the air. Evidently, with Letterman's ratings on the rise, CBS is happy with the controversy. And Craig Crawford, an MSNBC analyst, said on Keith Olbermann's show that he doubted that Sarah Palin was really offended by Letterman's remarks. "I mean, I think she was probably secretly thrilled to be in the 'Top 10' of Letterman," Crawford said. "She has definitely sought political advantage here." If you ask me, it's a win-win situation for Palin and Letterman. Letterman's ratings are up, and Sarah Palin is back in the news, which is where she wants to be.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Letterman Stirs Up Controversy, Ratings Skyrocket

David Letterman consistently came in second to "The Tonight Show" when Jay Leno was the host. Conan O'Brien, who started out with high ratings, has seen the "The Tonight Show" lose ground nightly since his debut a few weeks ago. Last night Letterman passed up O'Brien in the ratings, and he can thank Sarah Palin. Letterman and his "Late Show" writers have had a field day with the Alaskan governor ever since she burst onto the national scene last August as John McCain's running mate. On the show Monday night, Letterman referred to Palin's trip to New York last week when he joked in his monologue that during the seventh inning of a Yankees game "her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez." Then, in his "Top 10" segment, he joked that she "bought makeup at Bloomingdale's to update her slutty flight attendant look." On a radio interview Tuesday, she said Letterman's comments were "pretty pathetic." But Letterman wasn't done. He joked in his opening monologue Tuesday night about Palin's visit to Yankee Stadium, when she sat next to Rudy Guiliani: "They had a wonderful time. The toughest part of her visit was keeping Eliot Spitzer away from her daughter." The reference to the disgraced New York governor who was caught with a prostitute didn't go over well with the Palin family and many conservative pundits and radio and TV personalities. Palin released a statement: "I doubt he'd ever dare make such comments about anyone else's daughter." Letterman didn't say which daughter he was referring to, but since her 14-year-old daughter Willow was travelling with her, Palin's husband Todd referred to Willow, calling the jokes about his daughter "perverted" and "disgusting". As to the joke about Palin being "slutty," conservatives are saying it's demeaning to women in general and Sarah Palin in particular. Letterman has also gotten the attention of flight attendants, who are infuriated over the less-than-glamorous name. Letterman continues to let the media spin out of control without making any public comments about the subject, other than continuing his nightly monologues where evidently no joke is off limits. To be fair, Letterman will make offensive jokes about just about anyone, if given the chance. And Sarah Palin has given him a lot of material since her meteoric rise to celebrity status. This time though, Letterman may have crossed the line. But his ratings are way up, and that's the most important thing for Letterman and CBS, the network that carries his show. Look for more controversy from Letterman. After all, he's got the #1 show. Conan O'Brien's writers are now working overtime to counter Letterman's resurgence.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

First Guantanamo Detainee Transferred to U.S.

In a move that is upsetting Republican leaders, a top al Qaeda detainee was flown from Guantanamo Bay to New York earlier today to face terror charges. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was transfered from U.S. military to civilian custody by order of the Justice Department to stand trial for his role in the 1998 American embassy bombings in East Africa. Ghailani is the first Guantanamo detainee to be transferred to an American court under the Obama Administration. President Obama has promised to close the Guantanamo prison by January 2010. Many people, especially Obama's Republican adversaries such as House Minority Leader John Boehner, are wondering if bringing terrorists to American soil is the right thing to do. "This is the first step in the Democrats' plan to import terrorists into America," Boehner said. "There are more than 200 of the world's most dangerous men held at the Guantanamo Bay prison," Boehner continued. "Does the Administration plan to transfer all of them into our nation in this way? Do they plan to give them the same legal rights as the American people? Just what is the Administration's plan for closing this prison?" Another high-profile Republican, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, weighed in on the subject: "Our priority must be to keep America safe, and it defies logic to put the rights of some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world before the safety of Americans by bringing them onto American soil," he said in a statement. "Terrorists spend years trying to sneak inside our borders, and bringing them here ourselves is utterly counter-intuitive." The government is quick to point out that there are 216 inmates in custody in America with ties to international terrorism, and there are 139 individuals custody connected to domestic terrorism. Domestic terrorists, including Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Okalahoma City bombing accomplice Terry Nichols, are safely hidden away in the Supermax detention facility in Colorado, and they're joined by international terrorists Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and Ramzi Yousef, both convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing, as well as by shoe bomber Richard Reid, and Ahmed Ressam, the Millennium Bomber, who plotted to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve, 1999. While most of these prisoners will never see the light of day, Ressam was given a relatively light sentence. By cooperating with authorities by giving them information about terror camps in Afghanistan, Ressam was sentenced in 2005 to 22 years. The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour, said he hoped to send a message that the U.S. court system works in terrorism cases. "We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, detain the defendant indefinitely or deny the defendant the right to counsel," he said. "Our courts have not abandoned the commitment to the the ideals that set this nation apart." With credit for time served and reductions for good behavior, Ressam could be out of jail by 2016. He most likely will be deported, his attorney said at the time, but he didn't exactly specify where. This is the type of case that is problematic for Republicans, causing them to hyperventilate unnecessarily. Some of the prisoners will be getting out. So what? They won't be allowed to loiter in my neighborhood. We have a system in place to deal with their deportation, although rendition for the purpose of torture is no longer allowed. At least that's what the government wants us to think.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Save the Economy, Legalize Marijuana

As California's economy goes up in smoke, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said it's time to study the possibility of legalizing and taxing marijuana. About four weeks ago, he brought up the subject, and since that time, there has been talk in the media about legalizing pot on a national scale, since the country is having serious financial problems of its own. When President Obama was asked in March about the subject, he wasn't interested. "No, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy," he said. Schwarzenegger sparked the debate in California, and the nation is joining in. A Zogby poll, commissioned a month ago by the conservative O'Leary Report, showed that 52% of Americans favor legalization of marijuana, with only 37% opposed. The other 11% were too stoned to comment. Legalizing marijuana not only allows for the regulation and taxation of marijuana, similar to cigarettes and alcohol, but it removes the criminal element, freeing up our legal system and making medical marijuana available without all the obstacles. Like any substance, the potential for abuse is there, but studies have shown that not only is marijuana safer than most drugs, users don't get symptoms similar to what some have called "Starbucks head," commonly known as headaches associated with caffeine withdrawal. Marijuana hasn't always been illegal. Because of sensationalistic stories of murder and mayhem associated with marijuana use, it was criminalized federally in 1937 by the newly formed Bureau of Narcotics. Up until that time it had been used as a household drug treating headaches, toothaches, depression, menstrual cramps and of course just plain stress, and drug companies were working on developing a stronger strain. In 1938, the mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, who it was rumored would light up a joint before important meetings, formed a committee to study the actual effects of marijuana. It found, despite the governments claims, that there was no scientific reason to criminalize marijuana. The study found that it did not cause insanity or act as a gateway drug. It did not cause people to go on killing sprees, and it did not cause other types of deviant criminal behavior. Further studies showed that marijuana use actually cuts down on crime, even when used by criminals, because it makes them more mellow. Even President Nixon took up the debate. In 1972, his Shafer Commission also concluded that marijuana should be legalized. Speculation that Nixon used to get high before giving major speeches has never been proven, but many experts site the famous "Checkers speech," when the then-Senator and Vice Presidential candidate got emotional before millions of viewers, as an example of an obviously high politician. Jerry Brown, the current California Attorney General, was known for his eccentric behavior when as governor of California from 1975 to 1983 he was referred to as "Governor Moonbeam," and although there were rumors of marijuana use by Brown in the governor's mansion, it was never proven. Brown did, during his tenure, however, propose the establishment of a state space academy and the purchasing of a satellite that would be launched into orbit. Interestingly, a similar program was later adopted by the state, as a satellite was launched to provide emergency communications. Supposedly the cost of this venture, and other liberal expenditures by California politicians are what got us into this mess in the first place. In any case, billions of dollars have been spent over the years on marijuana enforcement nationwide. A 2007 report, "Lost Revenues and Other Costs of Marijuana Laws," by Jon Gettman estimated that law enforcement costs relating to marijuana comes to 10.7 billion annually. Taxing marijuana use in California alone would bring in $1 billion a year to the state, according to Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). Ammiano introduced a bill in February to legalize marijuana for recreational use in California, and is urging the Obama Administration to look at the issue nationally. It's not Obama's priority, but Schwarzenegger and California might not have any other choice. California is on the brink of bankruptcy, and decriminalizing marijuana is a logical solution. A recent study showed that cigars are a much worse health threat than cigarettes. Schwarzenegger would be wise to give up his cigars in favor of marijuana. It's healthier.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

CIA Beerboarding Tactics Exposed

Earlier this week I commented on the use of sugarless cookies used by former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan to soften up Osama bin Laden's bodyguard Abu Jandal, a diabetic, who gave up the identities of seven of the 9/11 terrorists, according to Time magazine. This alternative to waterboarding is safe and effective, but I voiced my concern that sugar-free cookies might not be available in the "ticking time-bomb" scenario as seen on TV shows like "24" and countless movies. Let's say for instance, that we don't have any baked goods. On the other hand, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, over the course of a month, so it seems his interrogators would have been able to get some cookies, candy, ice cream, or other goodies at some point after 20 or 30 waterboarding sessions. It turns out the interrogators used what was easiest and most available; water. Recent reports indicate that interrogators even used bottled water, which was easily available. I reported that 2-liter bottles of 7-Up reportedly work just as effectively. One of our readers, Marc (possibly a pseudonym), commented on a secret and highly classified form of torture. "The CIA has discovered a new enhanced interrogation technique that involves forcing terror suspects to down a six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft", Marc wrote. "By doing so, the suspects are given the illusion that they are getting drunk and having a good time, which lowers their inhibitions. This technique is known in the field as 'beerboarding'." Because of the highly classified nature of beerboarding, the CIA has seized my computer and they are now looking for Marc. It seems that terrorist suspects were getting fat as a result of this technique and that because of this, and this is a gray area, it could fall in the category of torture. To combat this problem, and to adhere to the Geneva Conventions, our reader Harrison suggests Light beer: "We don't want them to get fat, right?" he wrote in our comment section. This is not the first time the use of beerboarding has been mentioned. As early as November 3, 2007, the website flyingdebri.com mentioned the controversial technique. However, it's the first time it's been linked to Miller Genuine Draft, and this has caught the attention of the CIA. Marc has some explaining to do, but anonymous sources indicate he's claimed political asylum in Finland. In the meantime, Dick Cheney is defending the practice, and Fox News host Sean Hannity has agreed to be beerboarded for charity. For more on the "Waterboarding vs. Cookieboarding vs. Beerboarding" debate, check out our Tuesday, June 2 blog and the responses by Marc and Harrison in our comments section.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The 65th Anniversary of D-Day

June 6, 1944 - More than 150,000 Allied troops took part in D-Day, 65 years ago today. The Allied forces, made up of mostly American, British and Canadian troops, overwhelmed German forces in the Normandy Invasion. The operation proved to be a turning point in driving the Nazis out of France and doomed Hitler's dream of a Nazi controlled Europe, marking the beginning of the end for Germany in World War II. The operation, code-named "Operation Overlord", was commanded by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Originally intended to be on June 5, 1944, bad weather delayed it until the following day. The U.S. National D-Day Memorial Foundation estimates that 2,499 Americans were killed, along with 1,915 from the other Allied nations, totaling 4,414 dead (much higher than previous estimates of a total of 2,500 dead). Today, on the anniversary of D-Day, President Obama joined France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a ceremony at the American Cemetery in Normandy. President Obama addressed the 288 veterans who attended the ceremony: "You are why we keep coming back." Nearby Omaha Beach was one of the main landing points for U.S. troops involved in the operation, and Obama urged the world to remember what happened there. "Friends and veterans, what we cannot forget...is that D-Day was a time and a place where the bravery and selflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entire century." We defeated Hitler, but we cannot ignore - on this, the 65th anniversary of D-Day - that evil and hatred still exists. The United States is involved in two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are at trying to figure what to do about nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea. Iranian's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a 2005 speech: "Israel must be wiped off the map." North Korea's diminutive oddball leader, Kim Jong Il, was described by CNN as "one of the most mysterious leaders in the world". And the craziest. North Korea has been testing its nuclear weapons, and it's only a matter of time before the United States is within its range. This is a day to reflect on the past, and try to figure out the future. President Obama has his hands full.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Dan Rather Says Cheney Detests Obama

Because of my busy schedule, it wasn't until today that I came across an interesting Dan Rather interview which aired on Tuesday on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show." My DVR saved the day, because this was an interview worth watching, especially for a Dan Rather fan like myself. Although the former CBS anchor is known for his eccentric and sometimes biased reporting - he was forced off of the CBS anchor desk for reporting as news, then pathetically defending beyond all reason, clearly forged documents pertaining to George W. Bush - Rather sometimes speaks the truth. He spoke about his upcoming interview with a Guantanamo prisoner who says he was tortured for years before being released two weeks ago. The interview will air on "Dan Rather Reports" on HD Net next Tuesday. The prisoner, Lakhdar Boumediene, described how he was forced to run with shackles on his legs until they were bloody in order to soften him up. He told Rather he continued to be tortured even after Barack Obama became president. "They tortured me in the Obama time more than Bush," he said. Maddow asked Rather how credible he found Boumadiene's allegations. With Rather's spotty record as to what is true and what is not, that was a good question, especially when you're talking about a disgruntled ex-Guantanamo detainee. Rather told Maddow that "he seems believable," but he added, however, that the admiral in charge of Guantanamo for the last year denies the allegations. So whether the allegations are true or not, they keep the debate going as to what to do with the Guantanamo detainees. Maddow asked Rather whether he thinks the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan is taking Guantanamo's place. Rather said there is "a school of thought which believes this to be the case." He pointed out that prisoners have been brought to Bagram from other countries and that "some of the contentions that were made about Guantanamo are starting to be made about Bagram." He went on to say: "The critical thing is, there is no transparency." Bagram or not, a recent USA/Gallup poll shows that 65% of Americans don't want Guantanamo closed. Rather calls it a "not in my neighborhood" mentality, as many Americans feel that terrorists would be released near them if not convicted of anything. "It gives Vice President Cheney some traction," he said. Dick Cheney is being joined by his daughter Liz on the "We Used Enhanced Interrogation Techniques Because They Worked" tour. Maddow asked Rather what he believes is motivating Cheney in his whirlwind torture tour. Rather cited four reasons, saying they were in no particular order. First, he cited Cheney's concern for the Bush Administration's legacy: "He knows the outlook as to how the Bush-Cheney Administration will be seen in history books is not good." Rather said the second thing was that "Cheney seeks to solidify and play to the Republican base, what some might call the most right-wing part of the Republican Party that stuck with him and President Bush all the way through." Rather continued: "Number three, I think he really believes what he's saying. I don't think he's posturing." Then Rather let out what is probably the most accurate assessment of the situation. "The fourth thing, and I could be wrong about this - I think he really detests President Obama, his policies, and everything he stands for." No, Dan, you've been wrong before, but this time you're not.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

R.I.P. NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox

The "Summer Preview" issue of TV Guide is out. In the old days, summer meant nothing but reruns. But TV Guide lists 52 of the "hottest shows" coming out this summer. The magazine lists 35 scripted shows and 17 reality shows. Of the 35 scripted shows, only three are on a major network, and all three belong to NBC: "Merlin," the adventures of the legendary sorceror as a young man, "The Listener," about a paramedic who can read minds, and "The Philanthropist," about a suave billionare adventurer, who, you guessed it, tries to do good deeds involving his money. I hope they're better then they sound. That leaves 32 scripted shows on cable channels out of the 35 that TV Guide believes deserve recognition - shows like TNT's "The Closer" and "Leverage," and AMC's "Mad Men." Other shows mentioned are on channels like Lifetime, the Sci Fi Channel, USA, HBO, and even the Cartoon Network, which is coming out with "Total Drama Action," an animated satire of reality shows like "Survivor." In its list of 52 hottest shows, TV Guide lists 17 reality shows. Seven of them are on major broadcast channels - shows like NBC's "I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!" and CBS's "Big Brother 11." Cable has its share of reality shows - Bravo's "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List" is going into its 5th season - but the lack of scripted shows on the major networks is what is driving the best writers and actors to turn to cable. Stars like Kyra Sedgwick ("The Closer") and Timothy Hutton ("Leverage") are on TNT. Mary-Louise Parker stars on Showtime's "Weeds," and she will be joined this season by guest star Jennifer Jason Leigh, who's playing her estranged sister. The star-power continues on cable as the new show "Dark Blue" comes to TNT starring Dylan McDermott and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the most successful movie and TV producers on the planet. When Jay Leno comes to NBC in the fall, another five hours of scripted shows go with it, so look to cable for quality programming that involves writers and actors - as opposed to talk shows, game shows, talent shows, and other types of reality shows where regular people make fools of themselves at a very low cost. The major networks will be saving money in the short-run by programming cheap reality shows and dropping shows that are expensive to produce. But they will pay for it in the end, when viewers discover cable and never come back. NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox - rest in peace.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reality Shows Sell More Products

Scripted TV shows bring in younger and higher income viewers than reality shows, according to a new survey by the marketing research firm Experian Simmons. Reality shows, however, are cheaper to produce, and according to the web site MediaPost.com, they do a better job of engaging the viewer. For example, reality shows such as "American Idol" and "Survivor" are more "inspirational" and "life-enhancing" than scripted shows, and viewers experience a better "personal connection." Because the viewer connects on a more personal level with reality shows - "Britain's Got Talent's" Susan Boyle is an example of a reality contestant who jumped continents to inspire viewers with her unusual life story - the Experian Simmons survey notes that "advertisers that buy time on broadcast reality programs have a better opportunity of getting their products noticed and ultimately purchased than if they advertised on broadcast dramas." This is not good news for those of us with a higher education and a higher income, who like to come home from a long day at work, pop open a cold Bud Light, and watch CBS's long-running "Without a Trace" or NBC's quirky new cop show "Life". The reality of reality shows is that they are cheaper to produce, and a report showing that they are more effective at selling products, if indeed true, will only mean less scripted shows and more moves like the NBC strategy of putting Jay Leno on 5 nights a week beginning in the fall at 10 p.m. If this type of programming is effective, look for more. Primetime will become a mixture of talk shows and "Celebrities Trying to Get Out of the Jungle" shows. Cable is the last frontier, but look for more shows to get the ax like TNT's "Trust Me," which lasted a season, as opposed to shows like AMC's "Breaking Bad," which is being given time for its audience to grow. But there will always be a need for scripted shows, because if the Experian Simmons survey is accurate, people with higher incomes favor scripted shows. And these people spend more on premium cable channels, so there will always be room for shows like Showtime's "Dexter" and HBO's "Entourage" and "In Treatment." These are on pay TV, so there's no need to worry about advertisers. And as scripted shows disappear on broadcast channels, the ratings are going up on premium cable. The previously mentioned "Without a Trace" (CBS) and "Life" (NBC) were both canceled. But luckily, "Dexter" will air this fall on Showtime. Until then, I'll be watching Major League Baseball on ESPN.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Waterboarding Vs. Cookies

Osama bin Laden's bodyguard, Abu Jandal, was a prime candidate for waterboarding, according to Dick Cheney's manual of interrogation techniques. But, according to a Time magazine report, former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan gave him cookies instead. It seems that Abu Jandal is a diabetic, and he gave up valuable information about al Qaeda, including the identities of seven of the 9/11 terrorists, after being given sugar-free cookies. But what about the "ticking time-bomb scenario?" We only have minutes to stop the hypothetical ticking time-bomb, as seen in movies and TV shows like "24". In this case, let's say we don't have access to baked goods. Recent reports indicate that interrogators used bottled water to torture terrorist suspects. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times. In other words, the first 182 times were unsuccessful, and the 183rd gave us this information: A water bottle was brought in without the label removed, he told the Red Cross, and it was a brand made in Poland, where he was being held at the time. In other words, interrogators used what was available and easily accessible. Interrogators, if they are in a critical worst-case scenario where every second counts, have to use whatever methods are available, the theory goes, and waterboarding is quick and easy. All they have to do is reach in the refrigerator and grab a cold one. And 2-liter bottles of 7-Up reportedly work just as effectively. An executive order signed by President Obama, however, requires interrogators to follow what's known as the "Army Field Manual," which prohibits waterboarding and other forms of "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" favored by Cheney. The "Army Field Manual" outlines 19 interrogation techniques permitted by law. Those techniques which are allowed include lying, misleading, and manipulating - common police procedure. So Abu Jandal could have been given cookies containing sugar. The interrogator merely had to lie that they contained no sugar. Of course, Abu Jandal would have gone into a diabetic coma, which puts it into a gray area as to whether it would be considered torture. So, just to be safe, the "Army Field Manual" should be amended to include baked goods, including those without sugar. Oh, and how about some ice cream too.