Incoming phone calls!

Remember that scene in “All the President’s Men,” where Jason Robards/Ben Bradlee says, “We stand by our story.” Yeah, it’s fading for me, too. Maybe, someday, it’ll be gone forever. The better for me.

I’m just reading about an editorial in a Massachusetts newspaper, the Lowell Sun. The Sun published a photograph of two men kissing, to go with a story on the same-sex marriages happening there. Some people called to complain and others called to cancel their subscriptions, so what do you think happened?

1) The Lowell Sun’s version of Jason Robards said, “Tell ’em we stand by our story,” or

2) They published a cringing editorial apologizing for the terrible offense.

You know the answer. Here’s an excerpt: The Sun photo wasn’t intended to shock readers. Rather it was to inform them of the freight train arriving at “Massachusetts Station”, whether we like it or not. Soon that train will depart for other parts of the nation, and arrive with similar force.

If The Sun could turn back the clock, we most likely would select a less intrusive photograph not because the original photo was wrong but because it didn’t fit the go-slow approach we’ve endorsed for a better understanding of this sensitive issue.

Now, I didn’t see the photo. Maybe the kiss was really out-there. Maybe one guy was bent backwards, his throat bulging from the pressure of the other guy’s tongue waaaaay down there, plus someone’s hand was on someone’s ass and leather was involved. Maybe one guy was in Elizabeth Taylor drag. Who the hell knows? But I’d be willing to bet the picture was like dozens we’ve seen since this began in San Francisco earlier in the year — two men exchanging a rather tame kiss on the courthouse steps.

Anyway, that’s not the point. Anyway, it sort of ties in with what people have been saying lately about newspapers v. internet news sources, although it sort of doesn’t, either. (Can I see the hands of everyone ready to entertain the idea that some people searching for the Nick Berg beheading video aren’t looking for evidence of Islamofascism but just might be in the same demographic that made “Faces of Death” such a barn-burner? Thought so.)

Anyway, this was the gist of my Fellowship application, all those months ago: That newspapers have lost their nerve, and when you lose your nerve, you don’t have much more to lose. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked, in a newsroom, “Do you think this will offend our readers?” I wouldn’t be looking for a job today — I’d be living in my beachfront villa in Barbados. And it wasn’t over gay kissing and beheading videos, either; one editor fretted that running a photo of an Olympic beach-volleyball player going up for a spike would offend our readers, because her shorts had ridden up enough to show a sliver of her ass. It just never ended; for years we had an across-the-board no-dead-bodies-ever policy, which had a way of being suspended if the dead bodies were really far away. (In other words, we didn’t run the Pulitzer Prize-winning, iconic photo of the Oklahoma City bombing, but we did run an utterly gruesome picture of dead bodies in the Moscow theater after the hostage siege.) We didn’t run “grief” photos. We dashed out words like “hell” and “damn.” We trod on eggshells.

Now, it’s not as simple as just “throw the stuff in the paper no matter the content.” Your daily newspaper is one of the few general-audience publications left in the household, and in trying to offer something for every niche, it has to be careful. What offends Grandma doesn’t offend her grandson, but more grandmas than grandsons are subscribers these days, and so nine grannies on the phone to the editor can swing a hell of a lot more weight than the membership of the AARP in Congress.

Only guess what? Granny is dying, and her grandson isn’t taking over her subscription, and all over the country editors are tearing their hair out, holding meetings where everyone agrees: We need more pop music coverage in the paper! When the answer, in my opinion anyway, is really very simple: Lead with confidence you’re providing an indispensible product. (Also, this part is very important: Provide an indispensible product.) If Granny calls about the kissing men on Page One, you say, “Ma’am, this is what’s happening in your community. This is our job. Thanks for your call.” None of this go-slow crap. You can’t edit your newspaper to be inoffensive. The news is offensive.

If you’re now thinking, why should I listen to you, you big Hoosier loser?, well, go ahead. You can see where this bold thinking has led me in my brilliant career. It’s just something to consider.

On to other topics:

During my stay in the undisclosed location, I picked up Jane Smiley’s new book, “A Year at the Races.” It’s all about horses, and as a middle-age-horse-crazy gal myself, I’m enjoying it very much. You might, too.

However, avoid “Something’s Gotta Give” if at all possible. That’s unless you’re doing a master’s thesis on the fine art of the phoned-in performance across the board — actors, screenwriter, director, everyone — in which case it’s your foundation text. Roger gave it three and a half? God help us all.

Posted at 10:50 am in Uncategorized |

15 responses to “Incoming phone calls!”

  1. Mindy said on May 20, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    Giddyup, Nance. Wardrobe malfunctions are only part of the news and all the the news is what a newspaper is about. Grandma should indeed be told that her call is appreciated but that the editor stands by his story. Magazine editors don’t seem to mind. Mom complains to Dear Abby that the cover stories on Cosmopolitan aren’t suitable for her youngster to see at the grocery checkout, but it’s still there. And Cosmo doesn’t publish news.

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  2. Laura Wise-Blau said on May 20, 2004 at 12:15 pm

    Re: wimpy news:

    Well put, Nancy.

    I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to review the Cols. Dispatch lately, but aghhh! Just when I thought the paper had hopes of becoming interesting, it instead went ‘cute’ w/its A&E.

    Maybe you can talk some sense into them.



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  3. Jim Sweeney said on May 20, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    Amen, Nancy. If we keep editing and deciding content with 72-year-old retired English teachers in mind, soon they’ll be the only readers we have left. And then we’ll have none.

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  4. jcb said on May 20, 2004 at 2:05 pm

    I liked Something’s Gotta Give. Of course, I’m a Diane Keaton fan from way, way back. Way. Way. Back.

    The commentary track on the DVD gives you a strong sense that Nicholson did not phone in his performance…he takes comedy seriously.

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  5. alex said on May 20, 2004 at 2:23 pm

    Now, now, Jim. I had an English teacher who’s retired and probably a few years past 72. He contributes to the alt weekly in Louisville these days and constantly writes letters to the editor of the Courier Journal complaining about its wishy-washiness, if not outright conservative biases. He’s got a hard-on for Mitch McConnell (and I don’t mean that he’s eroticizing the Senator) for pretending campaign finance is a First Amendment issue, or that AK-47s have anything to do with the Second. He’s also pretty outspoken about gay rights. And he’s a distinguished veteran wounded in WWII and living with disabilities. One of the best teachers I ever had.

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  6. Eric Zorn said on May 20, 2004 at 2:35 pm

    “Something’s Gotta Give” was just awful! Boring, icky, predictable…I watched it on an airplane flight recently and it made the flight seem even longer. I didn’t know Ebert gave it such high marks. I’d like to make a list of the top 10 movies that Roger Ebert liked that were, in fact, execrable.

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  7. Nance said on May 20, 2004 at 7:58 pm

    “SGG” is all of that, Eric. How bad does a movie have to be when you walk out of your own living room? Pretty awful, if you ask me.

    The whole thing played like a big Hollywood in-joke: “And Jack’s going to play himself, and so is Diane! It’s all so Annie-Hall-in-the-21st-century!”

    When he called her “flinty,” I felt like dictating a memo: “Flinty women do not dither. And if you’re going to make Frances McDormand play a women’s studies professor, just TRY to give her a big speech that doesn’t read like it came out of Cosmo magazine, or if she must deliver said speech, let her not do it with an air of discovery. That is all.”

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  8. Linda said on May 20, 2004 at 8:32 pm

    I stopped taking anything Roger Ebert says about movies seriously when I found out he was co-responsible for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”.

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  9. Nance said on May 20, 2004 at 9:07 pm

    Oh, I can forgive him for the Russ Meyer thing — actually, I think that’s pretty funny. You just always have to remember that Ebert judges a movie by the standards of whatever genre it aspires to. So action movies get judged against other action movies, not “The Godfather,” etc. I only really fall out with him when he overpraises crap like “Point Break,” and now “Something’s Gotta Give.”

    In lots of ways, day in and day out, he’s one of the most thoughtful and concise critics working today. You also can’t slight the cycles of the year — I once heard a critic say he could only defend his four-star rating of “The Crow” by noting it had been a long, loong dry spell, and once a movie came along that didn’t suck quite as bad as what came before, well, the stars rained down from heaven.

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  10. deb said on May 20, 2004 at 10:35 pm

    my friend joe — who used to work with roger ebert and was frequently asked by the Great One, “so, what did YOU think of that film?” — had his own movie rating system. the lowest rating was “stinks,” followed by “doesn’t stink” and “better than doesn’t stink.” the highest accolade, reserved for very few movies indeed, was “excellent to the max.”

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  11. John Ritter said on May 21, 2004 at 8:10 am

    This is my happening and it freaks me out!

    C’mon! Any movie with a live scene of the Strawberry Alarm Clock can’t be all bad!

    I first saw this “classic” at school (UVa) with a college audience who hooted and howled as the movie progressed. I knew that I had hit middle age when I watched it on AMC (unfortunately cut) a few years ago.

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  12. Nance said on May 21, 2004 at 9:06 am

    So, John, do you have your own “Beneath the Valley of the Dolls” tarot deck?

    I made this tarot set of the major arcana based on characters from the movie back in 1993 and made one full set of prints. I sent those to Russ Meyer. He called me from his house in Palm Springs and loved them so much he wanted me to come by and have lunch with him. He told me to bring my girlfriend too… especially if she had big tits. Unfortunately, I still haven’t made it up his way.

    I wonder if that’s true?

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  13. Ellana said on May 21, 2004 at 9:06 am

    Does Smiley mention in the book or introduction, that her first thought upon winning her Pulitzer was

    “I can get a horse?” When you win yours what are you going to buy?

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  14. Nance said on May 21, 2004 at 9:08 am

    A 16.3-hand thoroughbred hunter. Sane, sound, big feet. At today’s prices, though, I’ll have to win a Nobel to afford that.

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  15. deb said on May 21, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    a macarthur foundation genius grant might do the trick. it’s half a mil, paid out over five years. so, how’s that application coming, anyway?

    maybe you can become a professional fellow, moving seamlessly from one fellowship to the next. why the hell not?

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