Saturday, October 08, 2005

NYT phones it in this morning

I'm trying to remember what Nora Eprhon once wrote about the New York Times but failing. It's something along the lines of you read out of fear that if you don't, it will be that one day where the Times actually has something worth reading -- paraphrase, "Fortunately that rarely happens."

Though I can't remember Ephron's wording, today is a must-miss paper. When even Douglas Jehl has misteps, what's to read? (Jehl addresses the move by the Defense Department to allow military intel to investigate 'more freely' Americans on domestic soil. Jehl never explains why the rules currently in place are in place and that's a very key part of the story that should not be missed or "set aside" as a change is considered.) Jehl's actually got three bylines in this morning's paper that I'm seeing so maybe he was overtaxed. (Scott Shane's nowhere to be found which either suggests he's been given the really big mop to address one of the more glaring mistakes of the last week or he's cracked from the strain of always having to fix too many reports by fluffers.)

We'll note Craig Smith's "Atomic Agency And Chief Win The Peace Prize:"

The award was a vindication of a man and an agency who have long sparred with President Bush and his administration over how to confront Iraq and Iran. It could strengthen the agency's position as conflicts loom over preventing Iran from obtaining fuel it could use for nuclear weapons and disarming North Korea.

Gardiner Harris is presumably on the avian flu/bird flu beat. Presumably, the article was filed early and that explains why he is unaware of (as noted in World Briefing) the fact that Romania is testing ducks after "[t]hree domestic ducks have died of avian influenza in the easter village of Ceamurlia." (This briefing is sourced to the AP.) Despite Rebecca's rightly stating that the nation needs to have a serious discussion on whether or not to turn the country over to the military in the case of an outbreak, Harris' article has no mention of it. The failure to note Romania might be countered with, "He's running down a plan!"

Does the plan exist in isolation? Does the plan not have something to do with a perceived crisis? It's called perspective and it's missing in Harris' article. Book reports (the Times has a sneak peak at a forthcoming report) are not news reporting.

Eric Lichtblau tells us that Timothy Flanigan has withdrawn as a nominee for deputy Attorney General due to issues arising from Tyco and a relationship with Jack Abramoff. This reads like a lengthy headline. You expect that a paper will already be exploring nominees so that even if an "abrupt" withdrawal catches them by surprise, they will have leads that will pay off. That's not the case here. It's public statements by Flanigan and what appears to have been twenty minutes of phone calls asking for statements.

In fairness to Harris and Lichtblau, the Times isn't interested in investigative journalism and is just happy to go with headlines. But it doesn't make for an interesting paper or an interesting read.

Let's leave the Times for a moment to note the latest from Dahr Jamail's Iraq Dispatches, "Violence leads only to more violence:"

Ongoing military operations continue unabated in Al-Anbar province. With names like 'Operation Iron Fist' and 'Operation Iron Gate' which was launched just days after 'Iron Fist,' thousands of US troops, backed by warplanes, tanks and helicopters, began attacking small cities and villages primarily in the northwestern area of Al-Anbar.
According to the US military and corporate media, the purpose of these operations is to "root out" fighters from al-Qaida in Iraq, along with so-called insurgents.
An Iraqi journalist writing under the name Sabah Ali (due to concerns of retribution from US/Iraqi governmental authorities) recently returned from the Al-Qa'im area of Iraq. Her report tells quite a different story.
Venturing into the combat zone at the end of September/beginning of October, Sabah visited the village of Aanah, 360 km west of Baghdad, accomplishing a feat no non-embedded western journalist has dared undertake. The following is the report from Sabah, with photos, which shows the effect of these operations on civilians in the area:
There are 1,500
refugee families located now in this very new and modern city of Aanah (the old Aanah was drowned under the Euphrates when a dam was constructed in the eighties). The Aanah Humanitarian Relief Committee (AHRC) said that there are 7,450 families from Al-Qa’im and surroundings areas scattered in different western cities, villages and in the desert. The AHRC report said that a few hundred families are still being besieged in A-Qa'im; they could not leave for different reasons. Some have disabled members (there are many now in Al-Qa’im), or have no money to move, or they prefer to stay under the bombing rather than living in a refugee camp.
Many families could not leave. Abu Alaa', for example, whose house was damaged earlier this year, whose wife lost her sight in that attack, could not leave because his wife and his father in law were shot again last week, injuring his wife again in abdomen; she is still in the hospital, and he could not leave. We call upon the international society to demand that these families are given the chance to leave before the city is devastated. People who stay behind are not necessarily fighters. They simply could not move.Families remaining in the area are in the following towns/villages/locations: The Projects area (2,500 families), Okashat, (950 families), Fheida (500), Phosphate factory (400), Cement factory (350), Tiwan (400), Aanah (1,500), Raihana (100), Hasa (200), Jbab (125), Nhaiya (100), and Ma'adhid (75).
People are squatting in schools, public buildings, offices and youth centers. Many are in
tent camps, living in tents donated by various local relief committees.
The luckiest are those who have friends or relatives to stay with in proper houses. Many of them need medical help, the children and the youth do not go to schools, they already lost a year last summer, and the women are having unbelievable difficulties trying to keep the families in impossible conditions. Aanah
youth center is turned into a refugee camp. Here there are 45 families who live in tents, 17 families in the building.

That's what is known as news. The Times can't find it this morning. They're off in the land of "Maybe the threats were real, maybe they weren't, but we'll provide mulitple stories and act like we're flooding the zone when really we just want to be sure we have enough to point to when Bloomberg calls again to complain about the coverage!"

The Times continues to be scooped by every other paper in the nation (probably including the weeklies) on Plamegate. (It's more embarrassing than Van Fair scooping Wash Post on Deep Throat because this story is active.) Arts Briefing." ER's ratings are tanking. Lori asks that we note Ava and my "TV Review: Time to pull the plug on ER" (The Third Estate Sunday Review). Happy to if only to make sure everyone's awake. (The Times will put you to back to sleep this morning if you stumble through the "hard news.")

Thursday night's uninvolving ER episode had us reflecting on a time when the show actually mattered and wondering what could be done about ER at this late date.
In it's first year, ER was a heavily praised drama. We weren't too impressed. One of us watched the Quentin Tarention directed episode that year, the other made do with the crossover on Friends. We didn't feel we were missing much.
Then Julianna Margulies became the heart of the show as Nurse Carol and we were hooked. We didn't mind that Noah Wylie never learned to act. Oh sure, we laughed at the attempts to "butch up" his Dr. Carter, his bad acting, his George Jetson hair -- we just ignored him.
We watched for Carol and Doug. Doug was played by George Clooney. They had chemistry and Thursdays weren't Thursdays if you couldn't check in on Carol and Doug. Carol got pregnant. Doug split. Not 'cause he didn't dig Carol, you understand. He dug Carol. He really dug her. Dug her like to the bottom of his heart. But, man, this whole concept of hospital rules and regulations was just too much for a renegade like Doug.
That plot development might have made sense in 1963. It didn't in the nineties. But Clooney had a movie star career to get to so everyone pretended that it made sense. We wondered how Carol and the twins (yes, she had twins) would make it through. We took comfort in the fact that despite the hassles of being an ER nurse, a single mother of two and remaining on the show while other regulars checked out (and some back in) like it was a hotel and not a hospital, Margulies continued to have the most amazing skin on television.
When Carol left, the powers that be were smart enough to send her off with a brief scene reuniting her with Doug. We didn't care that Clooney had needed a shave at least five days before the scene was shot, that the Don Henley song was so loud it drowned out what little dialogue there was, or that living so close to the sea probably wouldn't be good for Carol's skin.
We were happy for Carol. We were happy for Doug. We were happy for the twins.We might have stopped watching then. But they'd added the character of Abby played by Maura Tierney and Maura could act. She wasn't the heart of the show, she wasn't ethereal enough for that. But she quickly became the soul of the show.
We watched as Abby became involved with Luka, as she dealt with a her brother who was struck with the family illness, as she sought to leave nursing behind and become a doctor, we even watched, without laughing mind you, when Abby and Dr. Carter did their slow flirtation dance.
Sally Field did a turn on ER and she was one of the few guest stars that actually worked within the framework of the show. (All get praised by critics, few deserve it.) As Abby's mother, she was allowed to touch on emotions she hadn't been able to do in films. She was a powerhouse and riveting. Somehow Tierney held her own next to Field.Goran Visnjic's Luka, who always seemed way too slick with the whole "my wife just died" as a pick up line, even became semi-tolerable once he hooked up with Abby.
And let's be honest, we really started to care about the supporting characters. Not the new ones. The new ones dropped faster than the Bully Boy's poll numbers. (Think Kellie Martin who had the impossible task of humanizing Wyle's Carter.) But hospital enforcer Kerry, we really grew to enjoy her scenes. Not the character because she was so impossible. Until it was revealed that she was a lesbian. By the time she let "Deb" take the fall for her own screw up, we were having complex emotions about Kerry.
And what of Mark and Elizabeth? His daughter from a previous marriage was a frightmare. Always showing up at the worst time and doing the most damage. Who couldn't watch? Then we learned Mark had cancer . . . before Elizabeth did. Then we watched as Elizabeth prepared for the end that we the viewers already knew was coming because Anthony Edwards' contract was up. It was one thing after another for poor Elizabeth. She must have woken many a morning and wondered why she ever crossed the Atlantic. Then her mother would pop up, visiting from England, and she'd remember why.
But Mark died and, suddenly, they didn't know what to do with Elizabeth. Around the same time, Luka started dating a lot of skanks (including the miscast Julie Delpy). He got drunk and had a nasty car accident with one of them. The sort of thing that made Doug's mini-rebellions look like conformity.
Somewhere along the way, Elizabeth left. Sherry Stringer and Ming Na went the way of Gloria Rueben and Erica Gimpel as well. Pretty much everyone you cared about is now gone. As consolation, the departure list also includes Noah Wylie who never "matured" onscreen. The only thing worse than seeing him strike poses with regulars like Stringer and Tierney and guest stars like Rebecca de Mornay was the show's attempts to show case Carter in a different locale that found him surrounded with new characters you didn't know and few you could care about.(When an actor can't can't find some onscreen connection with Thandie Newton, a very generous actress who draws out the best in most performers on screen, there's a problem.)
The show debuted in the fall of 1994. It's fall of 2005 now. Eleven years on and the show hasn't learned much. The lessons of Noah Wylie should be quickly applied to Shane West who has yet to be given an ER character (or to create his own) but still takes up a lot of space and wastes a great deal of time. Bland as any hospital food, West sinks every scene he was in Thursday night as he came off like a little boy whose Mommy just took away his Playstation.
There may not be anything to do with West at this point. They've covered every story, medical and soap opera, several points over. Watching Tierney and Parminder Nagra deal with a self-involved patient brought a gentle smile, nothing more. ER's been there (many times) and done that (many times).
On Thursday night, we learned that Luca's broken up with a character we've never cared about and that the breakup is effecting her son (whom we never cared about). We learned that throughout the show. In multiple scenes. It dragged on and dragged on to the point that you looked around for the mangy mutt that had to be responsible before realizing that the dog is in fact ER. The show's tempo was so slow that Abby and Neela's leisurely stroll at the beginning may have been the most fast paced things ever got.
A woman, a surrogate, wanted to give birth naturally. While the parents-to-be bickered and whined ("It's my last egg!" or some such nonsense the woman cried) and the father-to-be made noises about a court order, the baby was born brain damaged. There's a time when that moment might have carried weight. We could see Carol quietly going about the business of taking inventory of the supplies after that incident -- the sort of moment where the show would have breathed and you would have realized that the heart of the show was yet again grieving. Instead we got one chatter box scene after another. Nothing carried weight. Moments came and went. It was as though the only goal was to fill up an hour's time minus commericals.
As season eleven begins, we've truly seen it all. The show could do something about that. They could, for instance, make a gay or lesbian character a real lead. That might shake things up a bit. They could realize that Shane West currently has nothing to offer but his looks and play that up. Let him be half-dressed and seducing every woman in sight in scene after scene so that when he finally falls for one of the female doctors or nurses (as we know he will if he hangs around long enough), there's conflict because we've seen him as a player. They can probably set West up with a revelation scene at that point where we find out the reason for his behavior and feel like we've made a discovery.
But this is a show that fails to realize that Kerry without someone to really knock against is a waste of both the show and Laura Innes. It's as though everyone's just collecting paychecks and marking time at this point. Luka's little nothing he just broke up with wouldn't have rated as more than an illness of the week five years ago. Instead she's hanging around, dragging down the show with her low energy levels and glum face.
Worst of all there's Abby. It's not that Tierney's become a bad actress. It's just that we've seen it all before. She makes the retreads of the-ghosts-of-ER's-past watchable but even she can't make them fresh.
Somewhere along the way Abby stopped smoking and that was around the time the show started really going for a high gloss soap opera feel. (Think Marcus Welby meets Melrose Place.) It's hard to be the soul (smoking or not) of such a hollow show.
One that wants you to care about characters even though it gives them nothing to do and it doesn't provide any evidence that the writers think, "How would ___ react in this scene?" Instead, they just try to do the storyline equivalent of a mix tape and there's no weight to it and no reason to care.
Thursday night, catching up with the gang from St. Elsewhere . . . Oops. ER. They only look like the cast of St. Elsewhere these days (and no, that's nothing to strive for).
But watching Thursday we thought of how the female lead in Smallville is contractually bound from cutting her hair short (call it the Felicity rider) and how strange, by contrast, it was that supposed dream boat Goran Visnjic was allowed to sport a hair style with a flip in the back that Florence Henderson couldn't have carried off at the height of The Brady Bunch.
The writers don't pay attention so why should anyone else? Why should a producer pull Visnjic aside and tell him the hair style looks ridiculous when everyone's just collecting another year of paychecks? Even the Warner Bros. website that tracks each episode hasn't felt the need to start up this year. That's how little energy there is in the show and around the show.
Some are hoping that Kristen Johnston will manage to shake things up (her first episode airs this Thursday). We have nothing against Johnston, we think she's funny and are sure she can handle drama; however, when a Third Rock From The Sun cast member is being hailed as the potential savior of a medical drama, that gives you an idea of how bad things are.
Here's the hard diagnosis no one wants to hear. There's no quick fix for the show. They've attempted that in years past and its kept the audience around but done little to advance the show.
Here are our recommended treatments.
1) Johnston and Innes will be at odds. It's time to sacrifice Abby. She's got to get her hands dirty. The only reason anyone will care about the story is if Abby's involved in it. Johnston and Innes should both appeal to her and, in this no-win situation, Abby will choose a side and live to regret it.
2) Shane West. We've seen the young lothario a million times on ER already. Keep him shirtless because that's the only reason anyone's going to look when he's onscreen at present. But how about something really radical? Instead of making the token overture to the gay community, how about letting West play a gay lead? Kerry's not been a gay lead character, not when she's unable to have a love life and a career (partly due to her own disposition). How about giving the audience a real gay storyline with gay leading characters? Ray can keep it on the down low for a brief time but when Pratt finds out, there should be an explosion. The ER chooses sides and the audience waits to see who's left standing.
3) Luka's done everything the character can. Send him out of town with the little nothing Sam or else give him a death scene with Abby by his bedside early on in the season. This isn't Doug & Carol. There's too much between them for this to be a reunion. But give Tierney something to tear into. She's watching a man she once felt something for die.
4) Neela and Archie in bed immediately. And for the twist, Neela's not the one who regrets it. The experience awakens Neela who's ready to start living as a functioning adult with or without Archie.
5) Having watched Luka die and got caught in the crossfire between Kerry and Eve (Johnston's character), think seriously of sending Tierney's character off at the end of the season. She's given all that a character can be expected to give to the show. The future that awaits Tierney (if the show's renewed for next season) is what Sherry Stringer returned to: audience favorite abused by writers who don't know what to do with her.
6) New blood comes in during the month of January. Character are introduced and given ample time so that when fall of 2006 rolls around there's not the usual let down of "Who's left to watch?"
Will ER implement any of the above medical recommendations? No. They won't. Visnjic is thought to be popular. Ratings should prove otherwise to any sane person but sane people don't usually run networks. (Fred Silverman, anyone?) Sane people wouldn't allow Tierney to be trapped in one "cute" scene after another as though, just because Sally Field played her mother, she's now Gidget Goes To The ER. Sane people would grasp that a character like Samantha, who is hopeless and a do nothing, is not exciting to watch. Sane people wouldn't have fired Alex Kingston (Elizabeth). Sane people would have found a way to keep Erica Gimpel on the show.
So we're dealing with the chronically insane. They're not fit to make decisions at this point. You've got ER on life support. It's up to the audience to find the living will to pull the plug.

Coming up will be Ruth's Morning Edition Report and we'll note The Laura Flanders Show. Maria wasn't planning to do the Democracy Now! highlights this weekend but she's agreed to fill in (thank you, Maria) at the last minute so that will be up at some point as well. We're also on a break from The Third Estate Sunday Review because a group of us got together last night to try to get some ideas tossed around and prevent an all nighter tonight. (I'd prefer a Friday all nighter myself to a Saturday one.) (The reality will probably be two all nighters, but there's always hope.)

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