Friday, November 27th, 1998

Every time I look at (that’s look at, not buy) a copy of the Sunday Journal-Constitution—a massive bundle of ads wrapped in and around a minuscule news hole, I think of the hilltops I’ve seen in the Pacific Northwest, stripped of trees. Stripped for…what? Twelve pages of department store ads? For lame coupons? For the thoughts of Jim Wooten?

To tell you the truth, even with all the romance I’ve always had for newspapers—these days, the thought of that much forest being consumed to crank out something so overblown and obsolete as the average daily paper makes me sick.

Yes, I do know that newsprint makes for a convenient package (gee, not unlike the one you’re holding now), and try as they might, our pioneers of technology haven’t quite made the breakthroughs yet that will make digital paper a reality—but call me an optimistic techno-dude: it’ll happen some day. We will have the clarity and immediacy of internet news with the convenience and ease of use that ink on dried, flattened wood pulp has offered since Gutenberg’s day.

But somewhere between now and then, the Journal-Constitution has to do something to beef up its web site, which is really a page that zaps you to That redirection happens because the AJC’s web site (and WSB’s and the rest of the Cox empire) are under the aegis of Cox Interactive Media, and I must say that they don’t do a bad job with creating a generally useable package here and in several other cities.

But my beef is that the content they’re working with, in the case of the AJC, is rather thin indeed. Instead of giving us most, if not all of the printed paper’s news (like the dotcom versions of the Washington Post and the New York Times), we get an online mutant thing that has selected stories from the paper, and a hard-to-find page (it’s ‘news@tlanta’, if you’re lost) containing news summaries, only a few of which link to longer versions of the story. As if to make up for that, they include bizarre features like ‘Vixana’ and an ‘alt.frontpage’ that are mercifully left out of the print edition. The former is apparently a gabby twentysomething partier-about-town who sprinkles phrases like n’est-ce-pas every paragraph or two to impress someone in her immediate family. Recently she wrote about attending one of the recent functions for—you guessed it—Tom Wolfe. Perhaps these confections are designed to capture a younger demographic than the print paper, just as an increasing number of papers create hipper versions of their home editions for sale on the street. Feel targeted?

The rest of the site is taken up with instant polls, news-you-can-use filler, a bunch of ads, and a more than a few annoying animated GIFs.

I’m not saying junk the whole thing—just pump up the content—fire up that mighty repurposing engine, so I don’t have to kill any more trees to keep up with what’s happening in our town. It’s such a delight to be able to connect to great reporting from places as far-flung as New York, Washington, San Jose, London, and Toronto each and every day. I’d like to make a worthwhile part of my morning surf, too.

All Wolfe, all the time.

Friday, November 13th, 1998

Hey, check it out. There’s a web page that tracks the movements of Tom Wolfe through Atlanta—up to the second, complete with a Java applet that flashes a little guy-with-a-white-suit icon in the precise neighborhood where…oh, I’m just kidding. Let’s all take a deep breath.

Sure, the pop journalist turned pop author wrote an Atlanta white pages-size story largely set in Our Fair City, and yeah, in predictable fashion, greater metro Buckhead’s movers and shakers were alternately swooning over and repulsed by the strength of Mr.Wolfe’s attentions. One could have forecast as well the Godzilla-level promotional blitz—aided and abetted by the all-too-available author who plopped down in talk show chairs from PBS to CBS in support of his latest movie—er, novel.

But even I’m stunned by the meta nature of this particular frenzy, where we seem to be talking about the event of the book’s arrival, not the work itself. (And yes, that’s just what I’m doing here.) “It’s really big!,” we’re breathlessly informed. “It took 320 million years to write,” we are led to believe. Even normally sober NPR anchor Robert Siegel presented Wolfe with the results of his math homework: “By my calculations, the title of the book appears one-tenth the size of your name on the cover.”

With Virginia-gentlemanly good humor and something resembling detached bemusement, Wolfe seems to egg it all on. He patiently spun the same anecdotes for Charlie Rose that he dropped in his Time cover story—which was worth watching if only to see how Rose would work in the fact of his ex-marriage to Mitchell-house-saviour Mary Rose Taylor. (Answer: rather clumsily.) And Wolfe told any interviewer within earshot about how at first he led the novel astray, setting it in New York. Finally, yes, we know—after a visit or two here—and to the south Georgia estates of Atlantans with more money than sense—he was convinced that the path to his true Zen Dickensian opus was right down Peachtree.

So when Wolfe’s and Atlanta’s paths again crossed over the last few days, we’ve been treated to the spectacle of a daily “Tom Wolfe Watch” in the Journal-Constitution that, while it didn’t take note of which specific public washrooms he favored while in town, came darn close. I’m closing my eyes now and trying to imagine an editor committing limited newsprint and newsroom resources to this kind of tripe. I’m trying to imagine a reporter being ordered to summarize everything—everything Wolfe does, mumbles, dines on, and regurgitates within a four area code region. I’m trying, really.

Maybe as a public service, I should summarize the genuine world news the JourCon shoved out of the way for this hoo-hah. A volcano is getting serious in Mexico…two earthquakes hit China…intense winds battered the Pacific Northwest…what? You don’t care? You prefer to know who got to touch the hem of his really white garment at the tony History Center party? You’d like to know, really, was he making fun of our town, or..uh..what?

Ah, well. You know where to go for that.

Showdown with..never mind.

Friday, November 13th, 1998

There’s a poster-size chart in the halls of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters that tells the story of that network’s amazing strength—and weakness. It’s a graph of ratings and audience over the past decade or so—and when—and only when—the nation or world is in crisis, when a plane has gone down or something in the Mideast has blown up—CNN’s audience soars.

No surprise. And it’s no surprise, then, that CNN’s crew was in place and ready last weekend to cover the parry and thrust of the latest confrontation between Iraq and the rest of the world.

They made it look easy, the same way that the Braves can, on a good day. Put Wolf Blitzer in the White House, Christiane Amanpour in Baghdad, post correspondents at the Pentagon, the UN, and a generic anchor or two at CNN Center in Atlanta, and switch back and forth, covering challenge and counterchallenge, verbal strike and counterstrike. A statement is made at the White House, and seemingly moments later, the Iraqi official response arrives in Ms. Amanpour’s voice.

"Let’s go to the UN." "Now, let’s switch to the Pentagon." "Now, back to the White House." "Let’s ask…no, we’re switching to the UN, where Nizar Hamdoon is speaking live." This is global village electronic diplomacy at its best, where officials of state argue and negotiate simultaneously through back channels and through the most public front channel there is. They watch (as we do) as actions and reactions accumulate and boil over. This political brinksmanship on a global scale is observed, moderated, and filtered through a control room in Atlanta. Switch, switch, switch. The CNN correspondents are arguably experts at their beats, and when there’s a story to tell, the producers in Atlanta wisely sit back and let them tell the story. The anchor need do little more than take us live from one point on the globe to another, with mercifully little "happy talk," almost no contrived questioning of the field correspondents by the folks back home.

And well into CNN’s second decade, we take this package for granted: the preproduced "Showdown with Iraq" graphics, complete with ominous music.. A dependable stable of political and military experts. Okay, they’ve even fired up the annoying Larry King in "serious mode." They’ve got the routine down.

When CNN’s on a story like this, it can be compelling television. And the rest of the time? I think everyone—including Ted Turner—expected CNN to be able to cover all the world’s news in depth when there isn’t one overwhelming story. But when there’s no crisis to be found, the channel’s coverage is mostly paper-thin, repetitive—almost as if they’re in standby, waiting for the fire alarm to ring again.

Why? It seems that when CNN tries to tell bigger documentary-size stories, audiences—and interest in general—don’t seem to be there. It could be that the channel is a precision tool that can do just one thing—extremely well. Maybe they’ve determined there’s no way to make the other stories compelling. Maybe, during a quiet moment between crises, they should listen to a little of NPR’s All Things Considered, and reconsider.

Not as easy as ABC.

Friday, November 6th, 1998

No, the audio engineer on ABC Nightline’s election night wasn’t drunk, and the technical trouble during Monday Night Football or Live with Regis and Kathie Lee last week wasn’t in your set. The folks from ABC just let some overwhelmed guy from sales sit at an enormous audio board and send deafening feedback into the earpieces of Rahm Emanuel, Orrin Hatch, and Ted Koppel.

After a one day strike on the first day of November sweeps by NABET—the union representing some 2,200 ABC technicians— Disney/ABC decided to lock out the NABET technicians who would normally be getting the job done. Why? Because they want their union to, among other things, give them 72 hours notice—14 days notice before broadcasts with live remotes—before staging any other strikes. In the meantime, what we get from ABC is technically wobbly coverage, guest cancellations (Vice President Gore, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Bennett, and others refused to cross the picket lines), and situations where a technically hobbled ABC can’t cover the news others can.

The one-day strike was actually called over a new health care plan ABC wanted the union—which has been operating without a contract since March 1997—to accept. NABET has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board calling the lockout illegal. Legal or not, ABC must be confident enough to try and push this under these conditions during a ratings period.

The reality is that management at Disney/ABC (and at the other media empires) as well as NABET and other have some adapting to do in the face of new technology, new definitions of news, and the changing face of employment, where more and more work will be farmed out to "independent contractors" who aren’t paid benefits.

* * * * *

ABC’s promofolk seem to be trying one intriguing science experiment during sweeps. During the unwatchable "Mission Impossible" movie last Thursday, the bright-yellow-and-black net ran sixty-second promos that, in todays accelerated age, felt like small programs in and of themselves. (Sixty seconds, for those of you too caffeinated to do the math, is one minute.) In one, Barbara Walters took her time and told us about several upcoming 20/20 segments (explaining to us patiently that 20/20 was on Sunday, Wednesday, Friday, but not Thursday), and in another, we were treated to an extended summary of how NYPD Blue will attempt to grab us by our lapels (followed by some extended heartsleeve-tugging) with the drawn-out departure of Jimmy Smits as detective Bobby Simone.

A promo that long very much has the feel of a theatrical trailer, and is about as far from the ‘blipverts’ we’ve been assaulted by as you can get.

* * * * *

And in a final word in an all-ABC column, I’m compelled to call your attention to Politically Incorrect, snapped up from Comedy Central by ABC a while back. Bill Maher’s little salon of counterchat, which exists to juxtapose wrestlers with politicians retains its edge in an era where, well, wrestlers have become politicians. Highly recommended.