LIGHTS, CAMERAS, SIZZLE: WHY EXECUTIONS SHOULD BE TELEVISED

Election Day affirmed that Californians, progressive on many issues, are still brain dead when it comes to the death penalty. As are 30 other states with capital punishment on the books.

On the recent California ballot was one proposition that would have repealed the state’s death penalty, making life without parole the maximum penalty —it failed—and another narrowing the appeal window for the condemned. That one passed. The message, kill ‘em faster.

Well, sure. But if we’re going to do it, I say let’s do death big.

Televise it.

My thinking on this has never changed. I remain opposed to these state-sanctioned killings  that ignore –and  I’m quoting a Los Angeles Times editorial here—“clear evidence of wrongful convictions, disproportionate targeting of the poor and people of color, exorbitant costs, and an appeals process that, while critically necessary, often adds to the arbitrary nature of who ultimately gets executed.”

California is no killing field like, say, Texas, which rolls out executions like tumbleweed. California’s death row has as many residents (more than 700) as some housing developments, its last execution coming in 2006. Nationwide, moreover, the pro-execution crowd continues to shrink.

But where executions are public policy—and paid for with tax dollars—they should be made accessible to the public via TV, which would mean they would ultimately go viral on the Internet. This would give proponents the opportunity to see the full extent of what they endorse instead of getting secondhand, sometimes conflicting accounts from designated witnesses.

The condemned would have to give permission, of course.  And each telecast, live or not, would air late at night and give appropriate attention to the crime or crimes for which the condemned is being executed.

There would be other controls:

No Super Bowl-style packaging with promos, billboards, teasers or hyperbolic pre-shows. No whistles and bells. No marching bands. No beer or popcorn munchies. No breathless commentary or instant analysis. No media slugs with their noses pressed against the widows of the death chamber as if it were a candy store. No debates with commentators taking sides.

Just the process—the sights and sounds of someone being methodically killed.

In California, it would be by lethal injection—accompanied by tight shots of cardiac monitors and various intravenous lines intersected by memorable homages to the victims and testaments to the viciousness of their murders. For some this would be a moment of deep somberness and even repugnance, to others a long-awaited moment of justice, sweet revenge, closure and celebration.

I’ve been advocating televised executions for years, and it’s lonely out here on this limb. I’m not the only one to call for them, however. Talk show host Phil Donahue once raised this banner boldly prior to exiting TV, but was unfairly attacked and accused of wanting to use his cameras to exploit executions. And in 1992 a San Francisco public TV station sought to beam a San Quentin execution into homes, but the state said no.

Would televising executions be too gruesome for the public? Well, no one would command you to watch.  And gruesomeness is the point. You have to wonder, for example, how Floridians would have responded had their state televised executions when it used an electric chair nicknamed “old sparky” because in some instances executees’ hair were reported to have flamed up when the switch was thrown.

Opponents would argue, also, that cameras would transform executions into circuses, as if they are now gleaming symbols of taste and decorum. And as if the spirit of Barnum & Bailey weren’t already present in the media hordes that cluster outside and afterward hang on every descriptive word from those who serve as official witnesses.

We who favor abolishing capital punishment would cheer if supporters found televised executions sufficiently barbaric to rise up and demand a state-by-state reversal of policy. But that’s not the point, for just as likely these repetitive telecasts would desensitize most viewers to the process, resulting in no change. Or perhaps their graphic nature would deter potential murderers, and thus bolster arguments in favor of capital punishment.

In any case, what are we afraid of? In the interest of transparency, the logic of televising executions can’t be ignored.

THE A-HOLE ACHE

So does this mean Billy Bush is back?

Maybe in the Trump administration as special assistant in charge of procuring “P” for someone destined to be a hands-on President in the most literal sense.

It’s hard to respect the office when it is about to be occupied by someone of such low character.

Black Tuesday:

One glass of wine helped a little, a second glass helped more. But an entire bottle wouldn’t have washed away the crushing tonnage of watching election coverage into the wee hours. And then—affirming this was no nightmare from which we would awaken and spring from bed in joy and relief—watching Hillary Clinton make her concession speech in the morning.

That Americans would elect this ignorant bum president—and that nearly half of voters endorsed him win or lose—has to be a watershed moment in U.S. history. Much less a footnote than a foot on our throats.

My wife, Carol, and I spent Wednesday strolling the gorgeously sprawling Getty Center in Los Angeles, where she is a docent. It was the perfect oasis to soften the excruciating ache of the election outcome.

We both love art museums, their venerable collections and sense of ageless continuity a reminder, especially now, that 2016 and our lives are a tiny blip on the landscape of history. We tend to forget that many cultures have spent time under a warming spotlight while assuming there were no term limits to greatness. But there are, and the spotlight inevitably moves on.

My brother, a very smart, thoughtful guy who voted for Trump, thinks I’m nutty. But I believe that with Trump in command, this nation, at the very minimum, is now in great peril. While in a long line waiting to board a tram to this enthralling museum on a hill overlooking much of the city, I thought of us as doomed characters in a science fiction movie with the corniest of plots: everyone here seemed happy and unconcerned, unaware they were in great danger.

The Getty was calming. But the excruciating ache hasn’t gone away.

WHAT THEY HAVE TO DO TO WIN

The first of three televised Presidential debates—the Holy Grails of electioneering—arrives Monday as the race enters its homestretch. Finally.

Lights, cameras, arrrrrrrgh!

Somehow we feel cheated if we are not entertained by two candidates who aspire to head the planet’s most powerful nation. Or see it as failure when they don’t come across as warm and fuzzy TV characters yucking it up with Jimmy Fallon.

By historically framing presidential debates as entertainment, in fact, TV creates expectations among voters that have no bearing whatsoever on the realities of good governance. And they use the expectations they’ve created to justify their future reporting.

So get ready for even more excruciating noise, high-volume hooey and crescendoing gab. From Trumpet and Hillary Clinton? Oh, sure.  But equally those tuneless kazoos known as media.

After a stint as party convention critics, many TV reporters and pundits have spent September recasting themselves as debate coaches, just as Trumpet himself has made several dozen costume changes since this odyssey began.

Instead of media chewing on what Trumpet and Hillary must do to serve wisely and honorably in the White House—do you believe in miracles?—their comments about each candidate these days center mostly on potential debate performance and stagecraft.  In other words, the image each must present on camera to prevail in November.

It’s the horse race within the horse race, as if the candidate who meets the most of his or her debate goals is best suited to be President.

Forget that most TV journalists and pundits have no idea what it takes to “win” a presidential debate. Or even what that means. The very idea that many reporters believe their role is to give advice to candidates of either major party—in effect offering tips on campaign strategy and how to sway voters through image rather than substance—is not only surreal but outrageous. It contradicts every tenet of responsible journalism.

The few that remain.

The question of the hour: What does he/she have to do to win Monday?

An MSNBC voice cautioned Hillary not to be “mean” with Trumpet, adding:  “She should be gracious and show “good humor.”

Noted a chin-stroking CNN sage: “He tugs at the heart, she tugs at the head, So she’s got to up her game in talking to the heart, he’s got to up his game in talking to the head.” And if one of them tugs a different body part? Don’t ask.

“She’s very defensive,” noted another CNN voice. “If that Hillary surfaces, the show’s up.” And a guest on Bill Maher’s HBO show proclaimed: “She must come out aggressively.”

But not too aggressively, right? After listening to all of this, I think I get the picture:

Hillary must be aggressive without appearing to be aggressive. She must convey softness through strength and resoluteness. She must make Trumpet appear to be a bully without appearing to be bullied. She must demonstrate she has prepared for the debate but not overplay her hand by appearing to have prepared.  She must display superiority while not giving viewers the impression that she regards herself as superior. She must display command of facts, but not too many facts. She must have knowledge but not too much knowledge. She must show humility, for otherwise she’ll come across as someone Americans just cannot tolerate.

A smarty pants.

If Hillary must show strength without appearing insensitive, Trumpet, on the other hand, must show sensitivity without appearing weak. He must exploit Hillary’s aggression by veiling his own aggression in passivity without appearing passive.  He must avoid the trap of being himself by not being himself while appearing to be himself. He must avoid being overbearing by being underbearing, letting Hillary appear to control the debate while actually controlling the debate himself.  He has to be superior by appearing to be inferior while turning inferiority into a strength that makes Hillary appear inferior. He has to talk straight but not too straight, for what Americans despise almost as much as a smarty pants is a straighty pants.

Yet this strategy could favor Hillary, whose best chance to win the debate is to appear to lose the debate without sacrificing superiority.  Got it? I thought so.

DANCING WITH THE DAMNED

Ryan Lochte 2Being a famous jerk still pays.

Take Lyin’ Ryan Lochte.

Please!

ABC didn’t have to be begged. In the Rio bad actor’s near future is season 23 of “Dancing with the Stars,” where he’ll have to be more nimble than in Brazil where he famously made up a story about being robbed at gunpoint at a service station as the Olympics were winding down.

That taint cost the gold medalist swimmer his major commercial sponsors. Not to worry, though. Lochte has since picked up a throat drop account and been named TV pitchman for a company that makes Robocopp, hand-held “sound grenades” that alert people to danger.

“I’ve been traveling a lot lately,” Lochte tells the camera, which sounds like code for his Brazilian stunt, “but it’s a good idea to stay safe.”

It’s not Ralph Lauren, but look, the guy has to make a living.

The culture is forgiving, with television especially known for welcoming bad actors from sports, politics and other areas of life back into the fold of respectability like redeemed sinners.

Coming to mind here is “The King of Comedy,” Martin Scorsese’s memorable 1983 dark comedy with Robert De Niro as a no-talent aspiring comic and talk show host named Rupert Pupkin who attains fame and ultimate respectability only after abducting a major TV personality, for which he goes to jail. Before that he’s a nonentity, a hapless, emotionally unstable wannabe radiating an undercurrent of danger. Afterward, he’s a star.

It’s the way things often happen. Memories fade, but the green of cash doesn’t. However enormous your flaws, you’ll thrive financially if your infamy earns a profit for others. If you’re a famous face who can make someone else money, you’ll always fill a niche and earn a payday somewhere on TV.

Dennis+Rodman 2The Rolodex of Reclaimed starts with the legions of political pundits invited back on TV even after getting everything wrong; you’re watching them now.  More egregiously, the list extends also to Watergate burglar-turned-radio-talk-show host G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, the former Marine colonel who went on to become a radio host, syndicated columnist and Fox commentator despite lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra affair. In sports, we have former pro basketballer Dennis Rodman, hired as a TV pitchman for Carl’s Jr. some years ago based solely on his reputation as an out-of-control, head-butting, cameraman-kicking, Mormon-cursing bad boy. Just as John McEnroe made Bic blades commercials that re-created his famed nastiness and name-calling on the court, cashing in on his petulance.

By the way, “Dancing with the Stars” will pair Lochte with Cheryl Burke, a professional who danced on the show in 2009 with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay after a Texas Grand Jury had indicted him on money laundering charges tied to campaign contributions.

Although no one mentioned here comes close to villainy of epic size, TV’s path to resurrection is open to virtually everyone whose name and reputation will turn heads:

Now, dancing the rumba with Cheryl Burke, everyone’s favorite ruthless dictator, Kim Jong Un.

 

 

American Airlines

ifyoucouldsitThank goodness for a little levity in these stressful times.

The source is the always witty and entertaining American Airlines, which today has a glossy full-page, double-sided insert running in major newspapers. It’s a real hoot, just hilarious, so funny even my cats laughed.

The thrust: If you’re not having a good time flying, don’t blame the airline. Blame yourself. Or those sitting next to you. Or in front of you. Be an adult, please, and take ownership of your misery.

That is meant as a joke, right? A really funny one?

Under a headline “IF YOU COULD SIT BY ANYONE ON A PLANE,” the very strrrrrange ad copy is written as a sort of out-of-body experience, suggesting that the person you’d want to sit by is you.

But only if you were on your best behavior.

Be “kind and considerate” to fellow passengers, the ad urges, and remember: “A smile goes a long way on a short flight.”

Right, rev up that happy face. The comedy writers who created this fantasy should try smiling when they’re squeezed into bone-crunching Coach like caged hens in a poultry farm.

Another of the airline’s soothing politeness guidelines advises passengers to “ask before reclining your seat.” As if the damned seatback wasn’t in your face even when it isn’t reclined.

“We’re all in this together,” says American soothingly, “so let’s all be great up there.”

Where is an airbag when you need one?

This hugely tone-deaf and upchuckable ad arrives the same week as a ConsumerReports issue on the challenges of flying. Yes, passengers do occasionally misbehave. We know because those cases immediately go viral. Yet as University of Hawaii psychologist Leon James tells the magazine: “The airlines are pitting passengers against each other by toughening their environment and creating less friendly and more competitive interactions.”

     ConsumerReports illustrates these shoulder-to-shoulder flying ghettos in a series of revealing drawings. They show how airlines have shaved inches from seat width and distance between rows during the last two decades as a way of packing in more passengers and, of course, building revenue.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been urged by advocates and some legislators to impose minimum size and space standards for seats on U.S. airlines. As in leaving room to allow breathing.

By the way, ConsumerReports readers rank American 10th (of 13 U.S. airlines) in Coach comfort and fifth (of seven U.S. airlines) in First/Business comfort, undermining the “altitude over attitude” philosophy expressed in its latest propaganda. Not that comfort is the entire story.

Consumers Union, the magazine’s legislation-seeking arm, reports that seat-space shrinkage also generates “serious health and safety concerns, including the risk of deep vein thrombosis and the risk that passengers won’t be able to evacuate safely in an emergency.”

Nothing to smile about.

STILL MOWING THEM DOWN

No contest!

Donald Trump wins TV interviews through attrition, abetted by his questioners’ incompetence or resistance to bending their rigid program formats in the interest of truth and clarity.

Trump famously wears down interviewers with marathon stream-of-conscious riffs, benefiting hugely when they don’t require him to back up his tall tales—demand it on the spot—before speeding forward to the next question. Most of these interviewers haven’t the will or mental dexterity to engage in close-quarters combat with Trump. So they wilt; after each encounter, you can see his footprints on them.

And the smarter, more competent interviewers are too shackled by their stopwatches—must get on to the next interview—to go off script and take time to make him fully accountable.

Take the host of ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” a very bright guy who does better than most with Trump. But still falls way, way short. That was true Sunday morning in an interview that was taped the day after the Democratic National Convention.

George Step-Trump interview

To his credit, GS threw in some pointed follow-up questions. But not nearly enough I found when watching the interview and later picking through the transcript.

His missed opportunities were plentiful, a list as long as Trump’s Pinocchio-lying nose. Here are a few:

–When questioned about former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Trump-trashing speech at the Dem convention, Trump responded, “…I think he made a deal with Hillary where he gets a job because he’d like to— ’’

STOP!

GS should have interrupted and asked: Do you have evidence that Bloomberg agreed to speak in exchange for a job in the Clinton administration? If Trump obfuscated (who, him?) or didn’t answer, GS should not have continued until he did answer. But the clock was ticking, and he moved on.

–Trump all but accused Clinton of rigging the coming three televised Presidential debates so that two would air against highly popular NFL games, implying she was fearful of losing and wanted as few voters a possible to see her face Trump: “You know, Hillary wants to be against the NFL—”

STOP!

GS should have cut in and demanded that Trump cite his evidence. But he didn’t.

–When GS brought up the anti-Trump Dem convention speech of Khizr Kahn, whose Army captain son, Humayun, died in Iraq, Trump asked, “Who wrote that? Did Hillary’s script writer write it? Everybody—”

STOP!

GS should have asked Trump for evidence to support his message that someone in the Clinton camp had written Khizr Kahn’s heartfelt speech. But he didn’t, instead letting Trump ramble on and leave behind his usual dungy trail of nasty innuendo.

Trump appears to have a very limited vocabulary and little command of the language. But the one word he’ll understand is the one he never hears.

STOP!

GAVEL-TO-GAVEL GAB

I’ve been wall to wall with the GOP and Democratic conventions, and here is how the media shake out.

Throughout modern history, we’ve heard from movie critics, theater critics, music critics, dance critics, media critics, literary critics, architecture critics, culture critics, food critics and critics of critics. Have I omitted any? Oh, yes, inane and blustery (blush) TV critics.

Now it’s come down to this. TV anchors, reporters and commentators—mentally twiddling their thumbs as the two major parties execute their camera-ready stagecraft—have evolved into an arcane new species.

Speech critics.

Yes, thumbs up/thumbs down political journalists who generate blurbs as if writing for movie ads: glorious, superb, breathtaking, beautifully expressed, loved it. And slams, too, of course, with pundits and other Great Minds informing you if the podium speeches you watched were good or bad, electrifying or dull, effective or ineffective. As if you had to be told.

Take Tuesday night’s Dem headliner Bill Clinton. I experienced his speech from the perspective of someone who would rather Hillary possess the nuclear codes than hair-trigger Trumpet. It’s not that I don’t favor eliminating ISIS, only that I’d prefer not eliminating the entire planet at the same time.

Bill Clinton 3

So, I found Clinton’s speech masterfully written and delivered—sweet and personal leading to a big-bang payoff—however much of it may have been embroidered or flat-out erroneous. C’mon, I want her to win. So if the goal was to soften his wife’s image and show her “other side,” he nailed it.

I thought.

Though most of the reviews were positive, the beginning that I liked (“In the spring of 1971, I met a girl…”), a few speech critics didn’t dig at all. Several felt dwelling on the Clintons’ courtship was “risky,” given his famous philandering.

Not that assessing these speeches as entertainment value has a place in news.

Much of media see all of this as a kind of show biz, and approach it that way. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews can be an enjoyable hoot, for example. But you wanted to slap a strait jacket on him the way he raved about the Trumpet propaganda video at last week’s GOP convention, going on and on about Jon Voight’s narration, and again pounding that theme late Tuesday night after Clinton’s speech.

His is not the only media pulse pounding like a Tom Tom these days.

Yet the GOP and Democratic nominating conventions are rarely more than tailored-for-TV-and-iPad infomercials, and their speakers as much gussied-up  hucksters as Matthew McConaughey in a Lincoln. All of it is self-serving propaganda.

Nothing is written in stone about media being responsible for giving presidential candidates “bounce” in the polls via free exposure at these partisan extravaganzas.

Nonetheless, these suckers are covered live and lavishly like the blockbuster news events they aren’t, when, with a few obvious exceptions, a 90-second daily TV summary and half column of newspaper or Internet space plus a few photos would suffice. For junkies, there’s always gavel-to-gavel no-frills coverage on C-SPAN.

One speech that hardly merited live coverage in its marathon entirety was Clinton’s Hillary toast. You couldn’t have detected news in it even with a Geiger counter. Nor much breaking news of any kind in both conventions.

Good people disagree about whether the present system of having state primaries and caucuses cumulatively pick major party presidential nominees is better or worse than the combustible oldies where choices for the top job were dictated by wheeling, dealing party leaders. What would the Bernie-or-busters say about that?

I’m no nostalgia-nik. But oh, for the good old days when these suckers were shows you could count on, a real rumble of action and insults, several days of suspenseful infighting over naming the party’s standard-bearer.

That hasn’t happened for years. Let’s see, what was that guy’s name, Grover Cleveland?

But seriously…it is true that no convention since 1952 has gone past the first ballot. Not for decades, in fact, has there been a truly definitive one whose top nominee was not taken for granted in advance. Whose undecided delegates truly made a difference. Whose TV interviews had relevance beyond filling time and justifying the expense of mounting this absurd level of coverage.

As for this month, my blurb: Enough already.