Saturday, June 22, 2013

Packing for the Airport (A Continuing Series)

No comment really needed about this week's TSA tally of guns found at airport checkpoints, except to point out that the average numbers are growing.

Here's the link to this week's TSA blog.


Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Visit Tucson" Ad Seems to Extol Putting Graffiti on Saguaros

Actual graffiti vandalism at Saguaro National Park (my photos)

Well, you do get what you pay for. But really, someone ought to be asking who paid what for a new "Visit Tucson" ad campaign, launched to much local media giddiness this week here in Tucson.

The ad campaign features concepts by a company called MMGY Global, including one (see center panel of above photo from yesterday's Arizona Daily Star) that depicts a saguaro cactus defaced with the inane slogan, in graffiti form,  "Go, I heard. And Go, I did."  Right, an ad showing a graffiti slogan on a saguaro.

That's a bad mistake, especially given recent publicity about odious vandals who damaged more than a dozen giant saguaro cactuses in Saguaro National Park, while park rangers were asleep at the switch (well, except one who did report the crime, a certain volunteer ranger who got fired for telling the media about the vandalism). Maybe the crack Keystone Kops who botched the actual graffiti vandalism incident last month and then tried to cover up their malfeasance by firing a volunteer for "approaching the media" can add the ad to their files.

Incidentally, here's an atta-boy or atta-girl to the Daily Star editor who clearly saw the irony in the photo they published, without comment.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Packing for the Airport (Latest in an Evidently Interminable Series)

Today's report from the Transportation Security Administration on the number of our fellow citizens who try to take guns through airport security -- the tally from the past week: 43 guns, 36 of them loaded.

Here's a link to the always entertaining TSA Blog on the current week's haul of weaponry.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Too Damn Much Local TV 'News,' But Gannett Is Watching

Media watchers are scratching their heads today over news that the Gannett company is buying a company called Belo -- which owns 20 local TV stations around the country -- for $1.5 billion.

Why would anyone want to buy assets of declining value like local TV stations, which used to be financial powerhouses but are no longer, now that cable is king. Oh sure, there is the value of retransmission fees from  cable companies that want buy programming, yada, yada.

But the real reason is simple, it seems to me, and I refer you to the post here the other day about there being "too damn much local news" on TV. 

Gannett has always been known not for any measure of quality, but for a constant drive toward monopolization, as has been its long and undistinguished record in the newspaper business. 

Buying Belo will make Gannett, which is already a major player in the local TV station market, into the fourth largest TV station operator. And it says it might become larger in that market with future acquisitions. And the race is on to merge. For example, Media General and New Young Broadcasting, two other major owners of local TV stations, announced a merger last week, which will give Media General ownership of 30 local TV stations in 27 markets. (Yes, that means three will directly overlap. Wonder what happens there?)

For Gannett, how does buying a new bunch of local broadcast outlets this fit with Gannett's well-establish taste for monopolistic behavior? 

Well, take those local TV stations (please!) Most of them have declining viewership, but are characterized by one thing: Seemingly endless local "news" programming. At some stations, the local news is on eight hours a day. That doesn't mean there is enough local "news," or sufficient staff, to cogently fill eight hours, or even a single hour, with actual news. It means that the local TV stations are ginning up hours and hours of desperate attention-seeking gimmicks -- shouts of "Late Breaking!" all the day long being perhaps the most pernicious, along with promotional features, video produced by outside corporate interests and presented as legitimate news, even blatant advertising that's presented as news. Yes, the actual commercial ad-time is sold cheap, but there is so much more to sell!

Nationally, local TV stations have been sharply increasing the amount of time in their broadcast days that's filled by local "news" programming. In 2011, according to the Pew Research Center, a leading media researcher, local TV stations in the U.S. devoted an average of 5.5 hours each weekday to local news. In 2004, the average was 3.6 hours. Obviously, that doesn't mean there is more local news to cover, or (God forbid) that your local TV station has developed a sudden interest in serving the public's need to know. It means there is more money to be made selling local advertising on tricked-up marketing and promotional programming disguised as news.

Meanwhile, there's another trend at work. The Federal Communications Commission and other supposed regulators long ago rolled over in favor of cartel behavior in broadcast news. Rolled over to the point where in some markets, Tucson being one of them, two supposed competing TV stations are jointly producing their local news programming under only the flimsiest covering pretending to indicate that they are in fact separate.

According to a report out of the University of Delaware public policy school (link), of the 1,300 commercial TV stations in the U.S. in 2010, 177 had "station duopolies" -- agreements on shared services such as providing local news programming. That trend has intensified since 2010. 

Ah, now we can see right up Gannett's alley. 

Gannett has pretty much given up on the newspaper business, which incidentally it did its best to diminish over many years. Its local newspaper operations are now called "community digital information centers" or something to that effect. And the longtime Gannett CEO and corporate pirate Al Neuharth is now pushing up the daisies (my suggested sunny USA Today-type hed on his recent obit: "Most in USA Still Alive Today, Excluding Al Neuharth"), USA Today is exposed as a revenue-suck. I give it less than a year of survival as a print paper. Al -- long retired but considered something of a guiding light in the company till his recent death -- at least was a newspaper guy, if a lousy one. But he is barely cold in the ground and Gannett is galloping elsewhere. You've noticed all of those buyout-takers at USA Today in recent months?

Gannett's move more forcefully into local TV stations can only be driven by one thing. It clearly believes that the FCC and the Justice Department will continue to encourage anti-competitive behavior in broadcasting. There are enormous opportunities to do in local broadcasting what Gannett has so assiduously done in newspapers: Squeeze out competition, maximize profits, cut costs to the point where the cheapest possible product generates the highest possible revenue with the least required corporate effort. That is the tried-and-true formula. (It's no great coincidence that this formula has certain similarities to that utilized by some sweatshop in Guangzhou producing cheap Halloween ornaments for the U.S. market.)

Voila! News at 4, 6, 8, 10, noon, 3, 6 and 10! Also on our sister station, same damn news!

UPDATE: In a credulous story in the Gannett-owned Arizona Republic in Phoenix today, Gannett says that buying the Belo stations will result in a "super group" of stations that could reach a third of all U.S. households, but not to worry! Even though both companies have broadcast operations with overlap in five markets, including Phoenix, they will nevertheless "compete head-to-head." 

Uh huh.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Too Damn Much Local 'News'

A local TV station here in Tucson, a town that, to its credit, not much really happens in, airs eight hours of local news a day. The other stations have similar schedules.

And it does so with fewer than 10 reporters and a few exhausted anchors and weather people, all required to holler "Live! Local! Late-Breaking!" during these newscasts, all day and all night -- when "breaking" is defined as having some poor overworked reporter stand on an empty street corner where, hours before or hours in the future, some event of marginal or little note either happened or is anticipated to happen.

Having the poor reporter hustle back out to the "scene," you see, is how they make it "Live!"

By the way, I have news for you, o local TV station managers all across the country. "Local" is only a big deal when something of note is being shown.  "Late-breaking" is almost always untrue. And "live" is no big deal. TV was live in 1949. They since invented news film and then, lo, video tape and then digital video.

This constant exhortation to witness "breaking" news (when no news is actually breaking) is dangerous, as well, in that it baffles the sensible while encouraging the simple-minded in their delusion that the world is out of control. Each new phony news excitement fades, to be replaced by still another.

The other day, for example, local TV stations stayed live for an hour showing a Southwest Airlines 737 landing routinely in Phoenix and discharging passengers on the tarmac -- because some idiot had called in a bomb threat (which is something that happens with some regularity, causing planes to be diverted, in the U.S.). But to anyone chancing upon the breathless TV reports, it looked like a major news event was playing out. And to the simple-minded, it was seen, no doubt, as still another critical threat to the security they presume is constantly under attack. Not to mention as more evidence of the dark media conspiracy to cover up these constant threats, since the plane taxied away without incident and the matter was never referred to again once it had been milked for one morem ounce of phony drama on the night's ten o'clock news.

As a journalist, I originally came out of Philadelphia in the 1970s, when there were four daily papers (including the Inquirer and the Bulletin in a titanic struggle). There were two competing all-news radio stations. And all of the local TV stations had aggressive, savvy news operations that were, by way of both geography and of career paths for TV journalists, just a stone's throw from New York.

Those days are long gone in the big markets, but in the small and mid-sized TV markets, they never really were. And today, the local news reports are also laced with "news" segments that are sometimes nothing more than PR video from local enterprises (Raytheon PR video is always presented on the news as legit news footage here in Tucson, and you even see "news" segments built around advertisers, including car repair shops). The weather? Well, try keeping it local and compelling in a place where the skies are always blue and the weather is always nice, except sometimes it gets really hot and once in a blue moon it rains and everybody carries on about that for days.

The barrage of cooked-up local news is sad, but it's certainly not the fault of the TV reporters and anchors, who no longer make the dough that used to be available in local TV news and who far too often are working at an insane pace.

So. long story short ("Late Breaking!" but not "Live! Local!"), here's an interesting piece about burnout in local TV news.

Scott Reinardy, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, has authored a study in which he surveyed hundreds of TV journalists about the changes in the business and found that more than 20 percent of respondents are showing classic signs of job burnout.
A 2012 study showed that TV news staffs had increased by 4 percent, revenue was up, and stations were producing more content than ever before, often as much as 5 1/2 hours per day.
That says "as much as five and a half hours a day." Late breaking update! Local! It's eight hours in Tucson, and that cannot serve the public interest well, though it certainly gives rapacious local TV station owners (almost always major national chains) more opportunities to sell cheap advertising against cheap programming.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Air Travel Mess Ahead in Paris May Spread Through Europe

This is the notice currently posted on the Airports of Paris Web site, regarding flights at all three Paris-area airports starting tomorrow:
Due to French Civil Aviation Authority strike from Tuesday 11 to Thursday 13 June: 50% of flights cancelled. Contact your airline for more information.
That indicates that a major mess is brewing not only for air travel to and from France, but from the spillover in Europe and beyond. The cancellations are because of protests planned by air traffic controllers objecting to centralized control of air space in Europe.
The strikes may spread to other countries on Wednesday.
So plan ahead, of course.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Duck Walk

I enjoyed the traditional March of the Ducks the other day while staying at the Peabody Hotel in Orlando. Nice hotel, nice touch (imported from the Peabody Memphis, where the tradition began).

Here's a video from YouTube.

Incidentally, duck is not on the menu at the hotel restaurant. I checked.

From the hotel Web site, the background. I can't attest to the accuracy of the numbers. Let's say I'm skeptical of the accounting on the $100,000 penthouse Royal Duck Palace, but hey, it's Orlando. At least the critters are actually alive, and not electronically animated. And you really don't get to hear a Sousa march much anymore these days.

Hotel web site:

"Since opening its doors on November 1, 1986, The Peabody Orlando has continued, in unbroken sequence, the traditional March of The Peabody Ducks which began at its sister property, The Peabody Memphis, many, many years ago.

Each morning, promptly at 11 a.m., the hotel's atrium lobby is the scene of a remarkable ritual. In a special elevator, the five North American mallard ducks, four hens and one drake, comprising The Peabody Ducks, descend from their $100,000 penthouse Royal Duck Palace.
When the elevator doors open, The Peabody Ducks, accompanied by their crimson-and-gold- braid-jacketed Duck Master™, take up their positions on a plush red carpet and begin The March of The Peabody Orlando Ducks to the strident tones of John Philip Sousa's King Cotton March.
They waddle their way in formation through the hotel's marble halls, and when they reach the magnificent, orchid-crowned fountain, which takes center stage in the Atrium Lobby, the ducks mount three red-carpeted steps and splash into the fountain's waters. Tumultuous applause reverberates through the lofty, foliage-draped lobby, and standing ovations are the order of the day by the hundreds of onlookers who daily crowd into the hotel to see one of the greatest shows on earth.

At 5 p.m., the procession is reversed, The Peabody Orlando Ducks marching back to their special elevator, then to their Royal Duck Palace for dinner and a quiet evening together.
The Legend of the Ducks

How did the tradition of the North American Mallard ducks in the lobby fountain of The Peabody Memphis begin? Back in the 1930s, Frank Schutt, general manager of The Peabody Memphis, and his life-long friend, Chip Barwick, returned from a weekend hunting trip to Arkansas. The men had had a little too much Tennessee sippin’ whiskey, and thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys (it was legal then for hunters to use live decoys), into the black travertine fountain of the Peabody hotel. Three small English call ducks were selected, and the reaction was nothing short of enthusiastic. Thus began a Peabody tradition that was to become internationally famous. The original ducks have long since gone, but after 75 years, their progeny live on in the graceful, marble fountain in “The South’s Grand Hotel,” The Peabody Memphis, and also at The Peabody Little Rock and The Peabody Orlando. The Peabody Duck March takes place twice daily at 11am and 5pm."


Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Saguaro National Park Vandalism: This Time, the Rangers Spin the Press to Lay Blame on 'Social Media'

For a journalist, it can be useful, if extremely distasteful, to find yourself on the other side of a story -- and the Saga of the Saguaros at Saguaro National Park in Tucson has been a case in point for me. It's astonishing to see how facts can be so malleable.

Here we have, in the New York Times no less, a spin job by the Keystone Kops at Saguaro National Park that gets much of its information from the very same park rangers who neglected to respond to reports of the incident for 24 hours after I dutifully reported it, including the ranger who failed to respond at all when I informed him of the vandalism when it was discovered one recent Sunday morning.

Ta-da: I give you Ranger Steve Bolyard, marching around on the front page dispensing wisdom in a story in which "social media" is unaccountably blamed for the vandalism. And I give you crack Ranger and "Chief Interpretation and Outreach Officer" Andy Fisher, hands proudly on hips, posed in the very media itself above a rock showing the very graffiti vandalism that she and others in the Keystone Kops at Saguaro National Park fired me for "approaching the media" about.  You can't make this stuff up.

Weirdly, the park service Tucson division is also evidently trying to make a case, with no evidence beyond speculation, that "social media" is to blame for the vandalism of those magnificent saguaro cactuses that the National Park Service is supposed to be protecting -- when in fact it's trying to cover up its own ineptitude in the incident. and you can blame anything on "social media," just as they used to blame everything on "rock and roll" in the 1950s. Those damn kids and their music  social media.

I found the lede on the report downright hilarious: "When Steve Bolyard checked out a report of black paint on some of the park’s majestic saguaros — cactuses whose towering bodies and upraised arms are as emblematic of the American West as red-rock buttes and skittering tumbleweeds — he did not expect to see ganglike calligraphy covering more of them than he could easily count."

Well, I'll take some exception to that, thank you. If Steve Bolyard finally "checked out a report of black paint" he did so quite a while after that report initially came to his attention and he failed to respond.  And it's untrue that he "did not expect to see ganglike calligraphy" on the saguaros, because I had fully informed him of the vandalism, and offered him all of the photos I had taken of it. He was not interested, at least when I informed him as part of my duties as a volunteer ranger.

As to his reported inability to "easily count" the defaced saguaro cactuses, assuming that he actually did in fact finally hike up the trail at some point to inspect the damage -- well, I leave that to your estimation. Myself, I counted 14.

But then, I was actually there.

Here is what happened at Saguaro National Park on the day the vandalism was first reported, by me, after I got off-duty from a shift as a volunteer park ranger. Ranger Bolyard figures prominently in the tale:

After being informed of the vandalism by other hikers early that morning, I hiked up the trail and checked it out myself, taking photos, during my four-hour shift as a volunteer park ranger.  I then made numerous phone calls that morning to various Park Ranger numbers (and also to 911 and the sheriff's department, which did properly respond, but the deputy sheriff who arrived told me he had no jurisdiction on federal land).  Finally, in an effort to make a full report, I managed to talk by phone with the elusive Ranger Bolyard, who was the ranger on duty, though I never saw him that day.  On the phone, he simply blew me off.   Bolyard wasn't interested in my report or in the photos I had. I told him that I would probably take them to the local media then, and he offered no objection.

So, after having assiduously followed all procedures, including calling 911 and other rangers and speaking directly to the ranger on duty, I went home after my four-hour shift ended and, hours later, concerned that the rangers seemed to be asleep at the switch, I contacted the local paper and one of the TV stations to tell them about the vandalism that every hiker on that trail was seeing that day.

The next day, after a story and photos ran in the paper, the Daily Star (and on the local TV station, KOLD, the night before), the Park Service suddenly went into full cover-up, defensive-crouch mode. To me, the message was: How dare you report vandalism that had not been properly vetted for release by the park's amusingly titled Chief Interpretation and Outreach Officer, Ranger Fisher (reporters accurately refer to her as the flack, incidentally.)

On Monday, the Keystone Kops Park Service hastily put out a day-late press release about the vandalism and released photos that were remarkably identical  similar to those I had taken of the damaged saguaros on Sunday. And then rangers spent the rest of the week trying to force me to "recant" for "approaching the media," including at a disciplinary hearing that I attended with some amusement on Thursday, in which Ranger Fisher and another ranger, Paul Austin, importuned me to admit fault and promise to sin no more in talking to the media. Finally, a day later, they had the ranger in charge of the Park volunteers fire me by phone on Friday after I refused to back down and admit guilt for refusing to renounce  Satan and all his sins "the media." One of the amusing sidebars, of course, is that I have been a journalist and hence a foot soldier in said media for 45 years.

In the lamentable week-long process, I received some good-natured razzing from friends in Tucson for managing to get myself fired from a volunteer job. It was also, as they say, a learning experience. But the truth is, I enjoyed my work as a volunteer on the trails and as a volunteer mounted ranger on horseback, and in days of sharp staff and budget reductions at the National Park Service, the agency needs unpaid volunteers more than ever to assist rangers in their important duties.

Meanwhile, I'll drop my uniform off at the visitor's center, guys. Maybe you can find somebody as good who will mount up and be willing to work with you.

You could also try social media, but that's not so good at hiking a trail or riding a horse.