About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.



Wednesday, April 16, 2014

SitComs Not Always a Laughing Matter



by Walter Brasch

      My favorite new TV comedy is “Growing Up Fisher.” 
      It’s the story of a blind lawyer, his 12-year-old son, a mid-teen daughter, and an ex-wife who is trying to return to her adolescent years. The show is based upon the experiences of D.J. Nash.
      J.K. Simmons portrays Mel Fisher; for most of his life after he became blind at 12, he tried to make others believe he wasn’t blind. Jenna Elfman  is his ex-, Joyce Fisher, who extends the role she played on the hit series, “Dharma and Greg.”
      Because television is a repetitive medium, “Growing Up Fisher” has the look and feel of “The Wonder Years,” complete with a love interest for its pre-teen child.” In this newer SitCom, instead of an older Kevin Arnold (voiced by Daniel Stern) narrating the story of his younger self (portrayed by Fred Savage), it’s an older Henry Fisher, narrated by Jason Bateman, who reflects upon his own younger self, portrayed by Eli Baker.
      In “Growing Up Fisher,” as in “Dharma and Greg” and “The Wonder Years,” the father/husband is conservative and strait-laced; the wife is more of a free spirit,”  common in many comedies, including Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” which had a half-season run on ABC in 1970 after being a successful Broadway play and film.
      The pilot of “The Wonder Years” aired on ABC following SuperBowl XXII; the pilot for “Growing Up Fisher” aired on NBC following the Olympics. Network executives counted on dragging the huge audiences into strong ratings for the neophyte comedies.
      It’s not for the similarities I like “Growing Up Fisher.” Nor is it for the acting, directing, and writing, all of which are above average for a modern TV comedy. Or even because of Elvis, the Guide Dog. It’s because “Growing Up Fisher” doesn’t have an annoying laugh track.
      Charley Douglass, a CBS-TV sound engineer invented the first laugh machine. Its purpose was to improve the studio audience laughs, some of which were raucous and too overbroad, some of which were far less than what the producers wanted. With the change from comedies airing live to the use of tape delay, post-production, including canned audience reaction, became critical for how the producers wanted audiences to perceive the finished product. Ever since the early 1950s, most TV comedies have used a laugh track, even when the show was “taped before a live audience.”  Eventually the Douglass “Laff Box” had more than 300 different canned laughs.
      Instead of developing plot and character, many TV comedies are little more than a series of one-liners stuck together by writers and producers who are too young to know and appreciate the writing of James L. Brooks,  Sam Denoff, Larry Gelbart, David Isaacs, Ken Levine, Bill Persky, Carl Reiner, Gene Reynolds, and dozens of others who were craftsmen. 
      The laugh track now shows up every one or two lines, even if the line isn’t funny.  And it’s not just subtle laughter or mild chuckles. Even the lamest line gets an all-out decibel-popping presence.
      The escalation of the laugh track has become the producers’ way to manipulate the audience to believe every word is a gem, every sentence uttered is golden. In the past few years, the laugh track has become invasive. On “Two and a Half Men,” a lame but popular rip-off of “Three’s Company,” and “2 Broke Girls,” both of which push sexual suggestiveness to the edge of lewdness, the laugh tracks make the shows almost unwatchable. They’re not the only ones.
      At first, the insertion of canned laughter was non-intrusive. Some comedies, including “My Three Sons” and “The Brady Bunch” used less laughter; others pumped laughter at almost every line. Several comedies went without laugh tracks. NBC reluctantly dropped the laugh track mid-way through the second season on “The Monkees,” after all four actor-musicians demanded it, according to historian Paul Iverson. CBS had required “M*A*S*H” to use a laugh track, over the protests of its creators. However, as the comedy’s ratings and subsequent advertising revenue increased, CBS executives relented a bit—laugh tracks during scenes in the operating room were optional, and other laughter was toned down.
Almost none of the classic cartoons had laugh tracks; they didn’t need it—the audiences knew when and how to laugh, even if network business executives, few of whom were ever in the creative part of show business, didn’t.
      Also not needing much “sweetening” are “The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report,” and the late night talk shows. Although all are taped a few hours before airing, live audiences provide the genuine laughter and applause, with the hosts reacting to it rather than delivering a line and waiting a couple of seconds to allow digital laughter to be inserted in post-production.
      For “The Wonder Years” and “Growing Up Fisher,” which first aired more than two decades apart, the producers wisely decided that comedy, if good, will bring its own laughs; the merit of the show will rise or fall based upon writing, acting, and directing, not upon forced laughter.

      [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, satirist, and author. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation into the process and effects of hydraulic horizontal fracturing.]

Tragedy in the 24/7 News Media



by Walter Brasch

      CNN is the 24/7 media trumpet for news about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that is presumed to have crashed in the Southern Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia. On that flight were 227 passengers and 12 crew members.
      CNN grabbed every iota of information, pumped it full of digital frequencies, and broadcast it to what it thought was a world salivating for every syllable of thought.
      When there was news, CNN broadcast it. When there was no news, CNN broadcast it. When there were outrageous theories, CNN was the source to find out who was saying what. When there was a rumor, CNN broadcast that, only to have to retract it hours later. Through chatter and repetition, CNN kept the story alive.
      This wasn’t the first time the media became fixated on a story. It certainly won’t be the last. There was non-stop coverage of the death of Princess Diana, the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials. Fox News grabbed onto Obamacare, President Obama’s alleged birth in Kenya, and the Benghazi story, even when the facts didn’t support its preconceived conclusions. More recently, MSNBC’s evening anchors have given non-stop wall-to-wall coverage of the Chris Christie “Bridgegate” story, another story that was hyped by constant repetition.
      “All News-All Day” isn’t new. During the Yellow Journalism age and circulation wars in the late 19th century, media giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer often sent to press several editions a day. Hearst, whose jingoistic determination helped bring about the Spanish-American War in 1898, was not adverse to publishing as many as 30 editions a day to “update” his million subscribers and millions more readers of the New York Journal, all of whom were willing to pay three cents per edition to get even more news each day.
      In the early 1960s, the radio medium developed all-news stations. However, the news package was often a prepackaged cycle that ran every seven, nine, 11, or 20 minutes, with new content every now and then.
      The 24/7 news cycle, as we now know it, was initiated by CNN more than three decades ago, and became a necessary part of information dissemination during the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. CNN had correspondents in Baghdad; the coverage was critical in keeping Americans, especially family members of combat troops, informed of the reasons for the war and numerous issues that developed from that war, as well as hour-by-hour coverage of the war itself.
      Since then, the CNN concept of all-day coverage, which had been spoofed and held as an example of what not to do in news, has been successfully copied by MSNBC, Fox News, other cable news operations, and dozens of web-only news-commentary operations.
      Newspapers, which have often lagged in innovation, began to go 24/7 by a combination of once-a-day print production and continuous updates in their web editions. Reporters at one time wrote a story, turned it in to the “desk,” forgot it and went to other stories. Copyeditors often improved the story, gave it a headline, put it onto the page, and sent it to the “back shop” where it became a part of pre-press composition and the “press run.” However, in the “we want news right now—and make it short because we don’t have the attention span” world, reporters are writing the story for the print edition, while also recording it on cell phones and digital cameras, sometimes narrating the footage, for the web edition. If anything changes during the day, the reporter then spends the rest of the day juggling other stories and updates on the original story.
      But there is a major problem when the media—print or visual—become fixated upon one story, such as Flight 370. Other stories are swept aside. The mudslide near Oso, Wash., that killed 30, with at least a dozen still missing, is one of those stories that should have dominated the news media. The cascade of a 600-foot hillside is the most deadly landslide in U.S. history. Yet, it was often the second or third story on evening news, behind what still wasn’t known about Flight 370.
      Dozens of stories, both breaking news and features, could have—and should have—been written and broadcast. While local media did exemplary work in keeping the story fresh, the national news media—apparently believing Washington state is only on the fringe of the continental United States—gave significantly less coverage to the mudslide than to the missing flight or the latest Hollywood gossip.
      Among stories that should have been reported, but were either given minimal coverage or shoved aside for the airline story, were reasons why the hill collapsed and the ecological and environmental harm it caused. There should have been stories about why the hillside wasn’t protected and the political reasons why. There should have been stories directed to people in other parts of the nation on how to protect yourself against various kinds of natural disasters. There should have been stories about the emergency management agency and its responsibilities, about the first responders and the 400 search and rescue workers, including their training, what they were doing, how they were doing it, and how they overcame innumerable problems. There were dozens of unreported stories about the work of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other social service agencies. There should have been extensive reporting about the psychological trauma affecting workers and residents. There should have been stories about the city itself, its businesses, and how they responded. There should have been stories about the effects of the mudslide upon the schools, and how the youth unselfishly helped. Yes, there were dozens of stories that could have, and should have, been reported to a national audience.
      Both Flight 370 and the mudslide are tragedies. But, CNN was fixated on a missing airline, taking a few hours off to cover the Fort Hood shootings; Fox was fixated upon attacking President Obama; and MSNBC was fixated upon a New Jersey scandal.
      Not one of those stories matter as much as what was happening in Oso, Wash.

      [Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and author. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation into the process and health and environmental effects of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to mine gas.]

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Good Wife v. The Bad Congress


      For almost a year, the people of the critically-acclaimed and popular CBS drama, “The Good Wife,” kept a secret, one so powerful that viewers were shocked by the abruptness of what happened on screen, March 23.
      Will Gardner (portrayed by Josh Charles), one of the major characters, was killed by his client during murder trial. Within seconds, even before the show’s conclusion, viewers were texting and tweeting, shocked and confused and angry and upset and sad, all at the same time. There was no hint in the entertainment media that Will would be killed off.

Friday, March 21, 2014

An Injunction Against the First Amendment


Vera Scroggins of Susquehanna County, Pa., will be in court, Monday morning.
      This time, she will have lawyers and hundreds of thousands of supporters throughout the country. Representing Scroggins to vacate an injunction limiting her travel will be lawyers from the ACLU and Public Citizen, and a private attorney.
      The last time Scroggins appeared in the Common Pleas Court in October, she didn’t have lawyers. That’s because Judge Kenneth W. Seamans refused to grant her a continuance.
      When she was served papers to appear in court, it was a Friday. On Monday, she faced four lawyers representing Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., one of the nation’s largest drillers. Seamans told the 63-year-old grandmother and retired nurse’s aide that to grant a continuance would inconvenience three of Cabot’s lawyers who came from Pittsburgh, more than 250 miles away. He also told her she might have to pay travel and other costs for the lawyers if she was successful in getting a continuance.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lettuce Look at Some Prices


      I was resting at home when Marshbaum called to ask if I wanted to go with him to look at the lettuce.
      “The supermarket’s got lettuce for less than two bucks a head,” he said enthusiastically.
      “What’s so unusual about that?”
      “Because it’s going to be extinct in a few weeks.”
      “You’re buying up lettuce and selling it on eBay as antiques?” I sarcastically asked.
      “Don’t be ridiculous! I’m buying the best heads, storing them, and selling them for four bucks in a couple of months.”
      “What makes you think anyone would pay four bucks a head when they can get them now for less than two bucks?”

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Disposable Assets in the Fracking Industry


     The oil and gas industry, the nation’s chambers of commerce, and politicians who are dependent upon campaign contributions from the industry and the chambers, claim fracking is safe.
    First, close your mind to the myriad scientific studies that show the health effects from fracking.
    Close your mind to the well-documented evidence of the environmental impact.
    Focus just upon the effects upon the workers.
    The oil and gas industry has a fatality rate seven times higher than for all other workers, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control. (CDC). According to the CDC, the death rate in the oil and gas industry is 27.1; the U.S. collective death rate is 3.8.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

No Merit Badge for This Scout



      Rex W. Tillerson, a resident of Bartonville, Texas, like many of his neighbors was upset with his city council. That’s not unusual. Many residents get upset at their local governing boards. And so they went to a city council meeting to express their concerns that the council was about to award a construction permit.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Communicating the Atomic Fart


      My son’s best friend bought an iPhone shortly after they were first released in 2007.
      Not long after my son’s friend got his Apple iPhone, he got an app—the Atomic fart. It appealed to his—and millions’ of others’—junior high school sense of humor, although by the time they could digitally play a series of farts, they were long past puberty.
      The First Fart was a simple recreation. There were several upgrades, each of which added numerous possibilities. The current app has 30 possibilities, including a whoopee cushion fart, a fireworks fart, a drum solo fart, and the “1812 Overture Fart.” It was only less annoying than dogs barking “Jingle Bells” at Christmas time.
      For the complete prankster, high-tech programmers have given fun-seekers an app that has a time delay; anyone can secretly place the iPhone near an unsuspecting nebbish, quickly move to the other side of the room, and then wait.
      Far Apps has now sold more than 10 million Atomic Farts, most going for 99 cents. The return-on-investment for the iPhone is even better. Within seven years of the phone’s release, Apple would sell more than 250 million units, about one-fourth of all smart phones sold worldwide.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

No Honor in Killing God’s Dog


      A week before the opening of the Olympics, 759 Pennsylvanians paid $25 each to participate in a sport that would never be a part of any international competition.
      These Pennsylvanians carried shotguns, whistles, and electronic calls; most also used dogs to search out their prey. 
      The prey was coyotes. A “reward” of $100 was paid for each coyote killed; whoever killed the biggest coyote in each of the three-day hunt received $250. Most of the coyotes killed weighed 30–40 pounds, about the size of a Brittany Spaniel; the largest weighed 51 pounds.
      This hunt was organized by District 9 Pennsylvania Trappers Association, which covers seven counties in the north-central part of the state. Other hunts are organized by community organizations and volunteer fire companies in several states. January and February, the months when most organized hunts take place, is when the coyotes breed; gestation period is about two months.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Propaganda Olympics

by Walter Brasch

      For Vladimir Putin, the winter Olympics is not about sports or international camaraderie. It’s a carefully orchestrated propaganda opportunity to try to showcase the nation’s athletes and show the world a Russia that, even with its great culture and arts, may exist only in the imaginations of those who believe in restoring the country’s previous grandeur.
      Sochi itself is not typical city for a winter Olympics. It’s a sub-tropical city of about 340,000, located along the Black Sea. Its selection by Russia was to let the world believe that the country in winter is not Siberia but a resort, suitable for tourists.
      Under Putin’s personal direction, Russia spent more than 1.8 trillion rubles (the equivalent of about $51 billion U.S.) to build the Olympic village, with its buildings, stadiums, and infrastructure. This is a greater cost than all previous winter Olympics combined. It also includes cost over-runs and various forms of corruption. But, disregard that—that’s an internal problem. Here are a few of the real problems.