Monday, April 22, 2013

The Media Bomb

Against my better judgement, I woke up my wife, Melody, at 3:00am last week to tell her all hell had broken loose in Boston and that she probably ought to get up and watch the breaking news. We had already witnessed the terrorist bombs detonating at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and maiming 170, but the resulting manhunt was nearly as shocking. My guess was that the bombers were home-grown knuckleheads of the Tim McVeigh variety. Melody thought it was the work of Muslim extremists, so it turns out we were both right. After the release of the suspects' photographs, within three hours, the police had the two Chechen-American brothers identified and trapped, and when the city-wide lockdown was lifted, the surviving brother was located and taken alive. It was a stunning success for the Boston Police Department, the FBI, the ATF, and all the other agencies that helped track down these miscreants, but it was an extraordinary and historic failure for both print and electronic journalism.

The post-marathon manhunt made for some gripping reality television, only you couldn't change the channel. When the networks joined the cable news channels in wall-to-wall coverage, there was no escaping the unfolding saga. In fact, you could take a nap and afterwards, the same people would be speculating about the same things. It was like watching an endless episode of Dragnet, except nobody had the facts, ma'am. From CNN, to Fox News, to the Boston Globe, so many falsehoods were presented as fact and so many baseless rumors floated as the truth, it's understandable why a good sized portion of the populous doesn't trust the news "industry" anymore. The medium now has more face-men than real journalists, and a woman with an attractive cleavage is valued more highly than one with a journalism degree. For days, all the networks' top stars were based on a Beantown corner, acting like they knew something. Not to demean the seriousness of the event, but the twenty-four hour, non-stop coverage of the search for the terrorists in Boston knocked all the rest of the news off the airwaves. It would seem that if someone from Waco called a news outlet and claimed credit for the massive explosion in West, Texas for Al Qaeda, every news anchor in the business would be sitting in front of a bombed-out fertilizer factory in Texas talking about how they caught us unawares.

The Boston Journalistic Massacre began, predictably, when the Rupert Murdoch owned New York Post printed a front-page picture of a Moroccan-American man, falsely accusing him of being the bomber. As in most violent events, the first lie reported was that the hunted person was a black man. The Post claimed twice in one week that the suspects were "dark-skinned males." After CNN repeated the lie, and during the subsequent media frenzy, an innocent man from Bangladesh was assaulted. Next, Fox News and the Boston Globe reported arrests were made when there were none. The network cameras focused on a man lying prostrate in the street, arms akimbo, while police officers trained their guns on him; wrong guy. They reported on a mysterious person on a rooftop overlooking the bomb site; just a bystander. And in one of the most bizarre scenes of the entire week, a man was forced to strip naked in the middle of the street and was frog-marched to a squad car, private parts pixilated for the cameras, without comment or explanation from the chattering "experts."

When the manhunt moved to Watertown, the bad information shifted into overdrive. First, someone coincidentally robbed a 7/11 while the wanted brothers happened to be in there. Then the robbery became a carjacking and, within the hour, NBC's Brian Williams was seated in front of the Town Diner. When the network cut into a local feed and an announcer was heard saying, "I don't know shit," a red-faced Williams had to apologise for the incidental profanity and remind everyone that tensions were high. At least the guy was honest. The best reporting of the night was done by a bystander named Andrew Kitzenberg who spoke with MSNBC by Skype while a gunfight was raging beneath his apartment window on Laurel Street. Kitzenberg accurately reported the shoot-out which killed one brother, and the reckless escape of the other. Misinformation poured in about explosive devises at MIT and the murder of a campus policeman who was responding to a disturbance, when actually, he was shot while sitting in his car. When the quarantine was finally lifted and the second suspect was located, it was at first by a neighbor that saw something unusual about a ladder and a boat, but it turned out to be the homeowner who went out to his backyard for a smoke. NBC stationed Rehema Ellis in front of Massachusetts General Hospital to await the fugitive's arrival, but in a rich irony, the Islamic Jihadist was taken to Beth Israel Hospital for treatment.

My intention is not to criticize the police- obviously whatever they did worked- so who's to criticise? It's just that I've never seen the total lockdown of a major city before. In the drama's denouement, when it appeared as if every law enforcement vehicle in a tri-state area had converged on the scene, it occurred to me that if I had criminal inclinations, it would be the ideal time to rob a bank. Maybe it's just me, but 9,000 law enforcement officers in pursuit of a wounded teenager seemed a bit like overkill. Someone said it was necessary to have a show of force after a terrorist act. Probably so, but there weren't that many cops out looking for Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Israelis, who deal with suicide bombers on a daily basis, merely clean up and open for business the next day. An argument could be made that, with every camera focused upon them and the entirety of the American news media reacting to their every blood-drenched move, the terrorists succeeded in their goals. One deranged fanatic managed to lock-up a million people while he ran free. Major league baseball and hockey games were cancelled. All municipal transit was halted. They got their man, but now we know what martial law looks like. And finally, the major networks can stop their "breaking news" interruptions to regular programming. What I want to know is, if a thunderstorm were approaching Memphis, would the local stations break-in to the national networks' break-ins?

Monday, April 08, 2013


Now that March Madness has ended and the recruiting season has begun, remind me not to play basketball for Rutgers. I'd prefer to reserve my efforts for someplace where my talents are  appreciated rather than abused. I need to work on my forty minute stamina and some concession for my age has to be made, but before I play for a physically or verbally abusive coach, I'll hang up the sneakers. Of course, I have the luxury of having nothing to lose, unlike the unfortunate student-athletes at Rutgers University who would put their college careers and any hope of playing professional basketball in jeopardy if they had criticized their foul-tempered bully of a head coach. They just had to grin and bear it until someone posted an online video of their practices, which tended to look more like scenes out of Fight Club. And we all know the first rule of Fight Club.
The now viral video, first given to the University and ESPN by a so-called whistleblower, shows ex-Coach Mike Rice shoving, kicking, brutalizing, and screaming epithets at his players, calling them fairies and faggots, while bouncing basketballs off their heads. It only proves just how much these young men have to lose, or else someone would have, and probably should have, cold-cocked him. The resulting public uproar got Rice fired even though Rutgers was aware of his abusive conduct and knew about the incriminating video at the beginning of the season. The University issued a report last December, criticizing the video for "taking many situations out of context," and absolving the coach of accusations that he "created a hostile work environment." The University's examination of the torture video resulted in a 50,000 dollar fine, a suspension for three games without pay, and an agreement that Mike Rice undergo anger-management therapy and have his behavior monitored. The resulting outrage over that petty, hand-check foul caused the resignations of the Athletic Director, the University's top in-house lawyer, and an assistant coach. University President Robert Barchi now claims he probably should have watched the video.
Just when it seemed college basketball could get no uglier, the whistleblower, ostensibly doing a good deed by exposing a bad coach, is now under investigation by the FBI. The Associated Press reports that Eric Murdock, former director of player development under Coach Rice, may have attempted to extort the University before the videos became public. An FBI report says that a lawyer representing Murdock requested a sum of $950,000 from the University to "settle employment issues," or face a lawsuit. Murdock has since filed suit as the good guy, claiming Rutgers dismissed him for being the whistleblower. In addition, it is unknown who originally taped the coach's deplorable conduct, but Murdock received multiple hours of just such incidences and edited the tape down to the thirty minutes currently in public circulation. It becomes difficult to tell if this is college basketball or Abu Ghraib.
No one with a hint of empathy for those cowed teenagers could justify such violent tactics by their coach. But over at Fox News, where groupthink is reality, everyone got the memo to turn a sports story about an ugly incident into a sociological commentary of the state of manhood in contemporary society. Sean Hannity drooled that he approved of the "old-fashioned discipline," while Michelle Malkin nodded in agreement that this was a left-wing, nanny-state condemnation of a tough coach trying to instill discipline in his wards. The most incredulous commentary of all came from a talking potato named Eric Bolling, who blathered that, "this is our culture in freefall," and "this is the wussification of American men." God, I hate that word. Hearing Mr. Bolling call for corporal punishment reminded me of the bad old days in parochial school when the teachers were permitted to beat, pound, and paddle their students. Bolling said a whack across the legs with a wooden paddle "never hurt anyone." I'm hear to tell ya', it hurt me. It turned me into a good didact, but nobody knows what that means anyway. Watching Coach Rice kick those young men recalled those sadistic coaches in high school. These days, that "old-fashioned discipline" would be called "assault."
Rutgers has a lot at stake here. They made the mistake of protecting the coach instead of the players.  Mike Rice's 2012 salary was $655,000 and he was only in his third year with a 44-51 record. But, as called for in his contract, Rutgers will pay Rice a $100,000 bonus for "longevity."The myopic Athletic Director will receive 1.25 million dollars in a severance pay package. Here's hoping that the next coach won't feel so much pressure to win in the Big-10 that he resorts to violence. Coach Rice's former school, Robert Morris University, is now investigating his behavior at that institution. The aforementioned Eric "whistleblower" Murdock contends that there were at least "five coaches-versus-player brawls in practice." Rutgers should look on the bright side. After Robert Morris took leave of Mike Rice, their new coach, Andy Toole, took the Colonials to this years' NIT and beat John Calipari's defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats in the first round. It doesn't get much sweeter than that, proving once again, that you can catch more flies with honey than with vitriol.