Thursday, May 28, 2009

"I'm going to Disneyland!"

By now you've probably heard the bizarre story of Bonnie Sweeten. The suburban mother of three set off a region-wide manhunt with a frantic 911 call that said she and her daughter had been abducted following a traffic accident in Southampton, Bucks County. Her call was from the trunk of the late-model Cadillac that her abductors, two black men, had stuffed her and her 9 year old daughter into.

For television news, it was the trifecta--abducted blond woman, missing little girl, and black suspects. Who could ask for more? Okay, upon closer examination the story made no sense, but is that important?

Understandably, the police had to pursue every lead as if it was real, because that's their job. When life and death are in the balance it's foolish to jump to conclusions. But the initial story stunk to high heaven. A midday accident and abduction on one of the area's most heavily traveled roads with no witnesses or evidence? Off the record the police said the story didn't make any sense. The local print media covered it, but it was pretty obvious they were downplaying the story. Most of the reader comments on were hopeful but skeptical, and many on local forum with a heavy police presense--agreed that this didn't pass the smell test. And, fortunately, it turned out this story was as fake as it sounded.

So what's up with the Today show? How incompetent, desperate or totally unethical do you have to be to look at a story that raises so many red flags and still decide to give it national exposure? I understand why the locals covered it, but there was no reason to rush such a questionable story to the national stage.
One would think that some producer somewhere might have flashed back to Charles Stuart or Susan Smith, and thought maybe the story deserved another day or two at the local level. But, no....when the victim is a blond white woman, and the suspects are black, it must be true. Right?

Thankfully this story is long on bizarre and short of tragic. Because of that, I can enjoy a little moment in the Annals of Unintended Prophecy. Consider the song Dizz Knee Land, recorded by dada way back in 1992.

Dizz Knee Land

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What's Wrong with this Picture?

The great potential and strength of digital media is in its incredible ease of and speed of creation and distribution. The great weakness of digital media is in its incredible ease of and speed of creation and distribution. Consider this item from the the front page of this morning's, what's wrong with that? Writer Stephan Salisbury does a good job of explaining a fairly complex issue without getting too bogged down in the politics. That's not the problem. It's that damn picture. Ignoring the obvious question of why they would choose an AP file photo, when they have a staff of world-class photographers and extensive archives, there's something wrong with that photo. Something is missing....a couple somethings, really.

That image is at lest 3 years old, and probably more. Philadelphia's skyline has undergone a significant transformation since then.

It's understandable that someone might not notice the absence of the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton. The welcome replacement to the hulking scar of One Meridian Plaza is easy to overlook, being tucked in alongside City Hall's tower and Billy Penn. Harder to miss is the absence of the Comcast Center. At 975 feet, the building dominates the Center City skyline.
Quite a difference, don't you think? Is it a huge mistake? No, but it is the sort of thing probably never would have made it into either the Inquirer or Daily News. Before anything goes into a newspaper it gets passed before several sets of eyeballs. It's all about accuracy, clarity and quality. It's about preventing stupid mistakes like this from happening.

In most digital media outlets there is very little, and often nothing, standing between the content creator and the "Publish" button. More troubling, it seems mistakes are not taken as seriously in digital media. Even after the problem with the skyline photo was pointed out, the picture remained unchanged until the story was bumped off the front page well over an hour later.

Online, mistakes are ephemeral--update the story, and the mistake is gone. Unless someone does a screen grab of your page, or it get's cached, the gaffe is soon forgotten. That is a luxury print reporters just don't enjoy. Screw the pooch in print, and the evidence is on doorsteps and mailboxes, and someone somewhere is likely to stash away, perhaps to show up on eBay in the future. Even television isn't immune these days with the possibility of errant reporting living on in perpetuity on YouTube.

Of course, just because mistakes in digital journalism don't hang around to haunt you does not mean they are somehow less important. That's missing the point. The point of journalism is getting it right for the sole sake of getting right--even the little things. Being honest and, to the best of your ability, presenting a factual picture of the world.

In the transition to digital media there has been a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water. To do away with whole levels of editors because the technology has made them redundant, though it can't replace their oversight. Style, usage, judgment and an eye for detail are now secondary to HTML and Photoshop skills. Getting it out there is more important than getting it right. I've come to expect that mentality from aggrerators like Drudge and Huffington Post where there is little sense of ownership to the content, so long as it supports their agenda. It's more troubling to see it cropping up around publications I trust and respect.

Yes, print media is going to have to make the transition to digital to survive, but if it leaves its core values behind when it does, what's the point?

Friday, May 15, 2009

180 Miles

The beginning of the racing season in cycling takes place in Italy in May. Milan-San Remo, the first of cycling's monuments each year, is also the longest at just about 180 miles. That makes for a long day in the saddle. The pros take about six and a half hours to cover that distance.

This year, Isle of Man native Mark Cavendish had the most left at the end outsprinted some of the fastest ment in the world.

I've never ridden 180 in a day. On a few occasions I've done a vigorous 140, and was pretty much shagged out at the end. Now, the pros are pros, and they train and ride all the time, so I get how they can do 180 miles and still have the energy to sprint it out at the end.

On the other end of the spectrum, consider the case of William Wagner. Long before Cavendish set off for the Via Roma, Mr. Wagner left his home in Havre de Grace, Maryland and set off on his own 180 mile bike ride to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Just as Wagner's destination was less glamorous than Cavendish's, neither was the purpose of his mission. Okay, cyclists ride for money and personal glory, which aren't exactly high-minded purposes....except compared to Wagner's. He rode 180 miles for sex. Sex on a baseball field in a Scranton park. Sex with a fifteen year old girl he met on MySpace.

Cavendish's ride probably secured his position on Columbia-Highroad through 2011, and his name joins the list of other MSR winners, a list that includes some of cycling's greats: Bartali, Coppi and Merckx. Wagner's ride has secured his position with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and his name will join those on the sex offender registry.

Two rides. One hundred and eighty miles. Two very different outcomes. Remember, people, it's not how far you ride, but why, and what you do at the finish line that counts.

Monday, May 04, 2009

"Hit it like this!"

Ever since Vince had his little run in with the law, his wonderful Slap Chop spot has been conspicuously scarce. Maybe that has something to do with the likelihood of Vince and the phrase "Slap Chop" together conjuring up this image. Too bad, because between ShamWow and Slap Chop, Slap Chop was way more fun to watch. So imagine my joy when Hot Chicks with Douchebags pointed out Steve Porter's brilliant remix, Rap Chop.