Tag Archives: Television

Getting Back to School

It is always a trial to grab the attention of teenagers and to keep it once you have it. You would think that a guy who teaches television wouldn’t have much trouble. However, last November my lab was broken into and about $15,000 went out the window. It pretty much set us back 10 years. So now? Instead of working on newscasts we are podcasting. Podcasting is an audio program designed to share information, entertain and let people discuss whatever is on their minds. If podcasting sounds a lot like talk radio it is only because podcasting is exactly like talk radio.  But it’s fun and the students seem to enjoy it.

If you want, you can listen to one right here. If you would like to see the last newscast we did, it’s here.


Is Journalism Dead?

When I was young, the TV news was very important. First, there was a half-hour of local news and then a half-hour of national news. The local news had all the news that happened in my viewing area and it left the national news for the networks. Local interest stories, local sports and the weather. I lived in Washington, DC so a lot of what passed for local news was also, to an extent, national news. But the bulk of the real news was handled by the networks and in my house, it was Walter Cronkite.

Walter Cronkite (November 4, 1916 – July 17, 2009) was there when America went to war in Europe. He was a part of the “Writing 69th“, a group of 8 journalists who were allowed to go on bombing missions over Germany. He landed in a glider to cover Operation Market Garden and he reported on the Ardennes Offensive more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge. He was often called the Most Trusted Man in America and was a solid, solemn voice during troubled times including the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I was a strong proponent of NASA and the American race to space. To this day, I can remember his barely contained glee as Apollo 11 landed on the moon.  He reported from Viet Nam and he was always there.

Even as a child, I knew that Walter Cronkite was a very special man. He was serious and he was, obviously, important. I vaguely remember my parents making time to watch the CBS Evening News and I remember that Mr. Cronkite held my attention, even at a very young age. And as I look back, I have to wonder what he would think now about the sorry state of journalism in this country.

“Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine.”  ~Walter Cronkite

In Cronkite’s day, there were very few places to get your news. You could watch TV, listen to the radio or buy a newspaper. The TV news cycle was longer than it is today. There was a morning show and an early evening newscast. It gave the networks around eight hours to fill the upcoming news cast so stories were weighed against each other and only the stories that were deemed important enough to report made it to air. Of course that means that some of the “lesser” stories were passed by and left to the newspapers to report. It was a system that worked but that was not without some flaws. There was no way to report everything to everyone and make everybody happy. On the other hand, it also meant that network news time was not taken up with stories of drugged out celebrities who missed a court date.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. Now our news cycles never end. MSNBC, CNN, Fox, CNBC, CSPAN have all filled a void that might not have needed filling. Now, instead of filtering the news based on national impact, anything goes. In order to fill a 24 hour newscast the networks have to add a lot of fluff, celebrity news, talking-head “experts”, analysts and opinion. The problem comes when opinion masquerades as news.

Editorials have always been a part of the news cycle. A certain amount of opinion is necessary to get the pulse of a nation. But the editorial has evolved from a single page in the Sunday paper to iconic commentators who have managed to eclipse the issues they speak on. Rush Limbaugh was one of the first superstar radio talk show hosts. His strong conservative opinions reach millions and he is seen, by many of his listeners, as the final word on all things political. But his opinions are not news, they are not mainstream and, some, are not even based on fact. Remember, he is the one who played the song, “Barack the Magic Negro” on his program.

Fox news is another outlet that masks opinion as news. Never in my lifetime has there been a news network that has worked so successfully to be the propaganda wing of a political party. They show unflinching support of the conservative way of life to the point of attacking the Muppets for their stand on corporate America. Fox Business Channel host, Eric Bolling, said on air, “It’s amazing how far the left will go just to manipulate your kids, to convince them, give the anti-corporate message. Hollywood, the left, the media, they hate the oil industry. They hate corporate America.” The attack on the Muppets may have made prime time but it made little sense. Claiming that Hollywood hates corporate America is a lot like saying General Electric hates corporate America. Only an editorialist with an agenda would conveniently forget that film studios are a part of corporate America. When a movie like Toy Story 3 makes over a $1,000,000,000 worldwide, it should be hard to claim Disney is anti-capitalism. But Bolling did just that and no one called him on it. In spite of the fact that The Muppets (2011) was a Disney release, Fox claimed that “Hollywood” was indoctrinating our children in their left-wing agenda. Disney owns 10 TV stations, a dozen or so networks if you count ESPN as one network instead of 13.  They own movie studios, restaurants, radio stations, merchandising companies and, if my memory serves, they have a couple of  popular theme parks. And yet, somehow, Disney is anti-capitalism. News and opinion collide in a cloud of false outrage.

“Our job is only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened.” ~Walter Cronkite

Newsman Alfred S. Ochs took over the New York Times in 1896. He was facing stiff competition from the sensationalist papers of the time but wanted to build a newspaper based on reporting “the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.” I have to think that there are still journalists who know that they are not the story, that what they are reporting matters and that their own agendas, thoughts, preconceived notions and opinions are meaningless when telling the facts. But in a world where opinion counts as news, where bloggers are seen as journalists and where journalists want to be stars, I have to worry. Being a journalist should be a sacred trust. It should be an honor to report the news “without fear or favor.” It should be but it isn’t. There are no more Walter Cronkites to look up to. When Jon Stewart can become the most trusted newsman in America for anchoring what he calls a fake news show, it just might be too late.

The End of The World As We Know It…

…and it’s making me a little queasy. (apologies to REM)

I have always said that the end of the world would be televised. But when I said that, I was referring to a huge 2012 kind of apocalyptic ending. Cameras would roll to the last second and some junior reporter would be finishing his or her last live stand-up in front of an earth rending, lava spewing crevasse. I was not prepared, however, for how the world really ended or, for that matter, that end would come and go without anyone really noticing.

The Reality Game

The end of the world was not marked with lava plumes or giant CG inspired tidal waves or even a really big squid from outer-space. Nope. It was marked by a new show on Spike TV, Repo Games. The show is produced by the same group that brought Jersey Shore to our televisions so…at least we know it’s going  be classy. Right? Right?

Repo Games is built on the premise that there are people out there who are so desperate, so down-on-their-luck, that they will

Repo Games on Spike TV

do just about anything to keep their heads above water for just one more day. So, halfway through an auto repossession, they are offered the chance to win their car back, paid in full, by answering three out of five trivia questions while being insulted by a repo man. All for our entertainment. The fact that people actually agree to this is testament to both the power of television and state of our economy. By sinking this low, by turning misfortune into entertainment, we are all diminished.

I watched one episode of Repo Games and it made me feel dirty. As far as game shows go, it just might be the worst ever. It isn’t fun and, unless you’re the kind of person who laughs when someone is hit by a car, it isn’t funny. The “contestants” are a cross-section of society but most are poor and uneducated. They are first hit with a notice of repossession and, during the initial shock, they are asked if they want a chance to win the car back…all while being insulted, put down and treated like a human joke. Answer three out of five trivia questions correctly, and the show pays off your car. Miss three questions and you get to watch your car roll off in the sunset.

The COPS Connection

Producers like to call the show a hybrid of Jeopardy and COPS. They are, of course, wrong on both accounts. We watch Jeopardy to see other people show how smart they are and we play along to see if we are just as smart. It makes us better if even by a little bit. COPS is also different. The people who make it on to COPS have done something to deserve being there. They have broken the law and even though the show states that everyone is assumed innocent, we also know that the producers of COPS aren’t offering Get-Out-of-Jail-Free cards to the good folks who show up on COPS. Jeopardy is a game show, one that has stood the test of time. COPS is, at heart, a documentary look at crime and law enforcement. But Repo Games? It is exploitive and it’s sad.

Don’t Get Me Wrong

I know that everyone who has ever had a car repossessed is having it taken back for missing payments. I understand that by signing a loan contract, the buyer is agreeing to make those payments on time and that after 90 days of missed payments, the car is going back to the bank. I get all of that. What I just don’t get is this…Why do we have to put it on TV for the entertainment of others? Not all repossessions are the result of “deadbeats” are they? The economy went in the toilet three years ago. People all over America lost their jobs and their income. They lost their homes and their cars. All because Wall Street treated American finance like a game and now we want to play out the extreme financial problems of our fellow citizens for laughs. It’s unacceptable and, as I said earlier, it diminishes all of us.

Paper Wads and Spongebob: When Is It Time To Grow Up?

The picture is a pile of paper wads from a single day. Paper wads. The custodian forgot to finish sweeping the floor and left this in the middle of the room. (Sweeping floors is difficult for a one armed man I guess. He’s not an amputee or anything. I have just never seen him working without a cell phone plastered to his ear.) I have actually watched a student who regularly comes to class with no paper get up, walk across the room and borrow a piece of paper just to wad it up to throw it at someone. Mind you…This particular student won’t use paper to turn in an assignment or anything like that. He just likes to throw paper at other boys.

It made me start to wonder something. Is throwing paper wads a childish activity? Does it rate up there with pulling pigtails and spitballs? Or do grown-ups throw paper wads as well? I know that, as an adult, I have never thrown a paper wad at a colleague. Well, maybe once in a newsroom back when we still used typewriters. And I was either frustrated or flirting. Or both. Probably both. So maybe it is not the paper wads themselves I am worried about. It might be the importance of the paper wads. They just aren’t that important to me but to my 15-18 year old students, paper wads rank up there with cell phones, iPods and girls. And way above education.

So I soul search a little. Was throwing paper at another boy or in the vicinity of a trashcan as important to me when I was in high school? I think I have to say, “No. It wasn’t” I think I was way too busy doing other stupid things but I really can’t remember what those things might have been. Girls were definitely on the list. So were cars and making money. Music? Perhaps but it was all on LP and AM radio. I worked a lot in the summer and after school too. Maybe I didn’t have enough time for paper wads. So I am going to go out on a limb and say that it is a pretty silly thing to do at school when learning is supposed to be taking place.

SpongeBob Is The Antichrist

A sixteen year-old boy or girl should not care about cartoons. Cartoons should not play a significant role in any teenager’s life. But is this as true as it once was? A decade or so ago, some broadcasting genius realized that there was a vast and relatively untapped market out there to exploit. A veritable Bakken Formation of potential ad sales. That market was, of course, tweens. Entire networks soon opened up and were marketing directly to the 8 – 12 year-old demographic. The market expanded as program directors ordered shows that appealed to a wider age group. Parents could chuckle at the Fairly Odd-Parents and the little side jokes their kids would never get. They were too busy laughing at fart jokes and animated spit takes. And then there was SpongeBob. I think that SpongeBob just might be the Antichrist. Or is he?

I read this quote in the Atlantic. The article was SpongeBob’s Golden Dream by James Parker.

“SpongeBob is one of the greatest believers in the American dream in all of children’s entertainment,” says Greg Rowland, whose consultancy, Greg Rowland Semiotics, has performed brand analyses for Unilever, KFC, and Coca-Cola. “He’s courageous, he’s optimistic, he’s representing everything that Mickey Mouse should have represented but never did. There’s even something Jesus-like about him—a 9-year-old Jesus after 15 packets of Junior Mints.”

SpongeBob. Not only has he surpassed Mickey Mouse in terms of potential, he is like young Jesus on a sugar rush. Of course this might just be the definition of Antichrist…That and a broad appeal. Certain cartoon characters work because they reach across age demographics. Instead of being for 8 – 12 year-old viewers or 13 – 16. Now we can market to 8 – 25 or 35 or 55 year-old audiences. And that way, we never have to grow up. And that is a problem.

I don’t remember my father watching cartoons with me. He may have watched Bugs Bunny with me but I am sure that if he had, I would remember. Dad was a very busy guy and he worked very hard. Please recall that years ago, if a kid wanted to watch a cartoThe Monkeeson, he or she had to wait until Saturday morning where the big three networks aired them for three or four hours. That was it. And my dad used his Saturdays to sleep in. He deserved it. And he knew that Mom would be up and that the cartoons we were watching were harmless. So we sat and watched cheaply animated cartoons like Space Ghost, the Herculoids and Jonny Quest. Some weirder shows like H. R. Pufnstuf and the Banana Splits. And the Monkees. I have to admit, I still love the Monkees. And Lancelot Link.


So anyway…these broad appeal cartoons that started popping up in the 1990s have helped stunt the emotional and intellectual growth of our teenagers. I can mention groundbreaking TV shows in my classroom like Seinfeld or 24 and it results in blank stares. If I mention SpongeBob, even in passing, I can lose control of the room. Everything from a rousing chorus of, “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” to “SpongeBob? That’s my show, Boyeee!” Nobody gets that excited over Masterpiece Theater. But if we live in a perpetually stunted state of intellectual development, when will we willingly grow up? I once heard someone say that the definition of being an adult is developing the ability to listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger. I guess that doesn’t really apply anymore…



Bring in The Cat and Bar the Door! The President Wants to Talk to Our Kids!

On Tuesday September 8, 2009, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, will address the school children of America. And so far, I have received three different official reminders that some parents will be upset about this. Upset. About listening to the President. The President of the United States. Needless to say, I am stunned. But across the nation parents are keeping their children home rather than letting them become exposed to the words of the President. These are the same parents who will happily send their kids to school with the flu.

I Don’t Get It.

“Gang…You have a system that is wildly out of control. And they are capturing your kids…” Well that is what media mad-man, Glen Beck said on his radio show. He was talking in response to a caller’s shrill opposition to the very idea that the President would speak to her kids without her being there. Wow. That must be some message. Is it on AIDS? Birth control? Is the POTUS going to talk about the New World Order or the conversion of all Americans to the new national religion? It must be a heck of a message for people to get so worked up over it. Right? I mean the conservative whack jobs from the FAR right are calling it an “indoctrination”. Oooo…That sounds scary. So. What are we all worked up over?

Here It Is!

OK, brace yourselves people. Here is the essential question in Barack Obama’s speech. A quote from the actual transcript released from the White House prior to the speech being delivered. You might want to shoo the kids out of the room…

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.

Gasp! Wait…what? Everyone has a gift and staying in school can help you succeed? That commie!

Radio talker/big-box-of-crazy Michael Savage said, “Hitler had the Hitler Youth, and Obama would like to have the Obama Youth.” Really? The President said that? No, of course not, but the followers of Savage don’t know that. And Savage knows that they don’t but he keeps feeding people this crap so that his fearful audience will remain fearful and turn to him for guidance. And the occasional commercial message. You see, Hitler had an amazing propaganda machine and Michael Savage wants to be the Propaganda Czar for the next American Reich.  (Cool huh? Anybody can do it. You can try it at home too…Just subscribe to my new course “Be a Media Hack in 12 Easy Lessons or 6 Hard Ones.”)

The Great Communicator.

Ronald Reagan spoke to students once in 1988. I don’t remember a lot of weirdness surrounding it, even though he went on about taxes and the need for tax cuts. He also told the children, “I would say that the most important thing you can do is to ground yourself in the ideas and values of the American Revolution.” Can you imagine what would happen on conservative talk radio if Barack Obama said those exact same words?

My Problem With The Speech.

I have a minor problem with the President’s speech. Remember the quote from above? “Everyone has something they are good at?” Very, very true. however, No Child Left Behind won’t really allow that to happen. It is all about math and science. If you are artistic, you are considered “left behind”. How can teachers teach problem solving skills when they are teaching “the test”? How can they teach math when they are teaching “calculator” instead? In his speech, President Obama lists occupations for young people. Innovator, inventor, lawyer, mayor, Senator, soldier, nurse, doctor.

“We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.But where does that leave the poets? The painters, the filmmakers? If a child wants to be an actor or a singer, that child is “quitting on his or her country”? I beg to disagree. Why are the arts the first thing to go in a bad economy in spite of all the research indicating that a grounding in the arts actually makes students achieve at a higher level?


I still don’t get it. If this were a message from the Pope, I would get it. But this is the President of The United States of America. The whole thing strikes me as being a bit unpatriotic.

Classroom Video Part One: Introduction

Its been a while and I thought that I would change the way I do things. I’m going to switch between issues in the media and using video in the classroom. I’m still pretty new at using WordPress so it’s going to be a learning experience…

More and more classroom teachers are introducing video production to their students. It works on several levels. First, students are used to television and the idea of making a short video appeals to them. Second, every video a student makes is like a mini research paper so everything that works for a research paper works for a video. Third, students who are creative or more “hands-on” oriented will excel, gain confidence and self-esteem.

Everybody watches TV. According to kidshealth.org children spend as much as 1000 hours a year watching TV so it’s not a real stretch to believe that kids enjoy television. The idea of making short TV shows is very appealing. Students who have never shown much interest in school have perked up for me in my production class and done very well. Several have actually graduated and moved on to the local community college in order to continue their studies.

The main reason that using video in a classroom is so valuable is the fact that creating a single video requires a great deal of collaborative learning. Donna Lund of Robert Morris College wrote that she has learned to “appreciate the power of video technology to enhance language arts skills of secondary students in many ways.”

Some of the basic skills learned in making a video include writing for an audience, public speaking, research skills, learning to work within a group and problem solving. (Lund) In my class, students must form “Production Companies” that bid to compete for funds. In order to do so, groups must brainstorm ideas within the parameters of the assignment, submit a written program proposal that addresses issues of location, style, genre and the target audience as well as a succinct description of the video. Then they write scripts, cut the audio and gather the images. At this point the students are allowed to start their editing. The final productions are shown on what we call Presentation Day and a blanket invitation is sent out to the teachers and administrators in the school. Students then stand up in front of the group and talk about their video before it is aired.

It can work so well that some of my kids don’t even realize that they are learning. I have had kids come in to my class who are painfully shy, in danger of failing or dropping out or who can’t see the value of school. When these students begin to see that they are capable of great things in a medium that they love, something clicks.

I’d like to digress just a moment and share a story. Early in my teaching career, I was given a student, TD, that no one else wanted. I heard all of the horror stories. He was a disruption. He was lazy. He was trouble and so on. I met him and put him to work on the school news show we did at the time. TD enjoyed it and started to take it seriously. It turned out that he was a bright, creative and somewhat frustrated with school. He was also always in trouble. But he worked hard for me and to wrap up the story, he came to see me at the start of 2008. He told me two things that made my day. One, he stayed in school so he could work on videos and two, he is now in film school and is working on his first film for an upcoming festival.

Self-esteem works and it happens easily with classroom video production.

Next: Getting Started

Bread and Circuses

A pretty young hiker is killed in Georgia just because she wanted to take a walk in the same woods as a madman. Children are growing up in this country unable to read or do basic algebra. Sub-prime mortgages are an economic minefield. We have outsourced so many services and goods that we don’t even notice that our toys have lead in them and when Mattel protests they eventually have to backtrack and apologize to Chinese manufacturers in order to keep the flow of cheap goods into the hands and, in some cases, mouths of our children. We are still at war in Iraq after being told that it wouldn’t last long, it wouldn’t cost over $8 billion and that Saddam was working with the same people who attacked New York and Washington, DC on September 11th. No wait…He had weapons of mass destruction…Or was he a vicious dictator who had to be taught a lesson? Anyway, if you wanted to protest anything during the last presidential election, you were politely moved to a “Free Speech Zone.”

Where is the outrage?

There won’t be any outrage because we have become a nation obsessed with “bread and circuses.” Feed us and entertain us and nothing else matters. The Constitution shredding notion of free speech zones or Britney’s nervous breakdown? Well it’s easy. Give us Britney, sprinkle in some Dr. Phil and, who cares about the repression of free speech? Oh, and don’t forget the sandwiches. We want those too.

But while we sit obsessed with the trials of celebrities and our iPod playlists, we forget that the world is still turning. We forget that there are more gifted students in China than we have students. We forget that, just because a child doesn’t go to college, he or she isn’t a “child left behind.” We forget that what America does in the world matters and that we can do so very much as a nation and as individuals. But the first step is to just turn off the TV once in a while.

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