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Keith Olbermann fired by Current TV, host promises lawsuit amid dueling press releases

keith-olbermann-vertical.jpgWhat began with bravado and high hopes has now ended in dueling statements and threats of lawsuits.

That’s how things look at Current TV following news the cable channel has fired its biggest star, Keith Olbermann, replacing him at 8 tonight with onetime New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Officials at Current say Olbermann failed to live up to the terms of his $50 million contract. Olbermann, releasing a statement over a series of posts on Twitter, implied that owner and formner Vice President Al Gore along with his partner Joel Hyatt had not lived up to promises of "investing in a quality news program."

Olbermann had only been appearing on Current since June 20 of last year, having landed at the channel after a stormy departure from MSNBC in January 2011.

Below are the dueling press statements. 

Keith Olbermann's full statement:
I'd like to apologize to my viewers and my staff for the failure of Current TV.
Editorially, Countdown had never been better. But for more than a year I have been imploring Al Gore and Joel Hyatt to resolve our issues internally, while I've been not publicizing my complaints, and keeping the show alive for the sake of its loyal viewers and even more loyal staff.

Nevertheless, Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt, instead of abiding by their promises and obligations and investing in a quality news program, finally thought it was more economical to try to get out of my contract.
keith-olbermann-and-globe.jpgIt goes almost without saying that the claims against me implied in Current's statement are untrue and will be proved so in the legal actions I will be filing against them presently. To understand Mr. Hyatt’s “values of respect, openness, collegiality and loyalty,” I encourage you to read of a previous occasion Mr. Hyatt found himself in court for having unjustly fired an employee. That employee’s name was Clarence B. Cain. http://nyti.ms/HueZsa

In due course, the truth of the ethics of Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt will come out. For now, it is important only to again acknowledge that joining them was a sincere and well-intentioned gesture on my part, but in retrospect a foolish one. That lack of judgment is mine and mine alone, and I apologize again for it.

From Current TV:
We created Current to give voice to those Americans who refuse to rely on corporate-controlled media and are seeking an authentic progressive outlet. We are more committed to those goals today than ever before.

Current was also founded on the values of respect, openness, collegiality, and loyalty to our viewers. Unfortunately these values are no longer reflected in our relationship with Keith Olbermann and we have ended it.

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Trayvon Martin update: Story is now more covered than presidential race

zimmerman-trayvon.jpgThe Project for Excellence in Journalism says press coverage of the Trayvon Martin case, simmering in social media and some websites for more than a week, exploded on March 17 to become the first story in 2012 featured more than the presidential race on top news outlets.

Of course, March 17 marked the release of 911 tapes which contradicted some facts disseminated by police -- they had said Martin's shooter, George Zimmerman, didn't know the teen's race, but he told the operator he was black -- and added details, including the screams of someone who abruptly stopped yelling after a gunshot.

trayvon_martin_zimmerman.jpgAccording to the PEJ, different types of media outlets have focused on the case in different ways. On Twitter, there's mostly been outrage at Zimmerman and calls for justice, on cable news and talk radio discussion has focused on the state's laws for self-defense and gun control, on blogs the focus has fallen on race.

Just as predictably, the story has been a bigger focus on MSNBC, where the storyline of a black teen killed by a non-black person fits the channel's liberal sensibilities and one of its signature anchor personalities, Rev. Al Sharpton, is an adviser to Martin's family and has led rallies pressing for Zimmerman's arrest. Conservative-oriented Fox News has offered less coverage, focusing more on who Martin is and defending Zimmerman.

Last night, CNN also had interviews with a witness who claims to have seen the moment Martin was shot. But that person, whose identity was concealed, couldn't add much beyond saying Zimmerman didn't look injured after the shooting and there may have been two shots. Also on CNN, Piers Morgan had an interview with a new voice, Zimmerman's brother Robert, though he added little beyond restating the story his brother has already told police -- that Martin attacked him, noting that medical records will prove his injuries.

thugification-of-trayvon-martin-thumb-400xauto-33021.jpgThe channel also has a town hall meeting planned for tonight, hosted by Soledad O'Brien.

While listening to his story, I did recall a thought which has occurred to me before; what if Zimmerman, who says the fight started when he reached for his cellphone, inadvertently made Martin think he was reaching for his weapon instead? Might explain why a kid with no history of violence would go after a strange guy who is following him in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

Also, as Gawker points out, the effort to de-legitimize Martin by uncovering information which makes him look like a thug might involve a white supremacist who hacked into the teens social media accounts. Lovely. 

 

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Mary, Mary and Niecy Nash hint at latest trend in cable TV: Series targeting black women

1331659438821_leave-it-to-niecy_2048x1024_overlay_590_295.jpgYou know all those so-called reality TV shows where women are drinking, fighting and pulling each other’s hair over everything?

niecy1.jpgNiecy Nash wants you to know that her new unscripted show has one thing in common with all those shout-and-fight-fests:

It stars a woman.

“I didn’t think I was a good fit for reality television, because, you know, the nature of it right now is so combative and volatile,” said Nash, (Reno 911, Dancing with the Stars) whose unscripted comedy series Leave It to Niecy, premiered Sunday at 10 p.m. on TLC. “I’m a lover, not a fighter….If you want to take a break from seeing somebody get slapped in the mouth, you can watch Leave It to Niecy.”

But Nash’s show may also be the tip of a tantalizing trend, as a small but growing number of cable channels develop TV series starring and targeting African American women, who have emerged as an increasingly sought-after viewership group.

braxton-family-values.jpgOn female-centered cable channel WE Tv, African-American gospel duo Mary, Mary debuts their self-titled, unscripted show at 10 tonight, airing just behind the season finale of the channel’s most successful series, Braxton Family Values. The Braxton show, centered on the drama among R&B singer Toni Braxton’s mother and sisters, draws nearly 1-million viewers weekly – 88 percent of whom are black.

The channel already has announced plans to turn its Thursday night over to programming focused on black women, with a June 7 debut planned for Hair Divas: Hollywood, an unscripted show focused on Beyonce and Mary J. Blige hairstylist Kim Kimble. And it’s ordered eight episodes of Tamar and Vince, a Braxton Family Values spin off starring Braxton’s sister Tamar, who is developing a solo singing career.

“Once (Braxton Family Values) hit the air, it became clear people related to relationship between the sisters; it wasn’t just about Toni, it was about the sisterhood,” said WE tv president Kim Martin, noting the channel has committed the next 18 months of Thursdays to such series. “What we realized, is African American women are an underserved audience. But we’re also programming to women across America who are putting family at the center of their lives.”

mary-mary-.jpgMartin’s take isn’t an unusual one, said R. Thomas Umstead, who covers multicultural issues for the industry trade magazine Multichannel News. Umstead wrote about the trend toward targeting black women in November, noting that channels such as the religious and family-friendly network GMC have begun “quietly” creating original, black-centered gospel plays filmed for television, developing the same kinds of stage productions which originally made Tyler Perry a brand name in African American households.

But some channels are wary of being pidgeonholed as solely black-centered platforms, even as they reach out to the new audience, Umstead said.

“They realize there’s an audience out there of black women who are becoming more affluent, more educated and heading up more households than ever before,” he added (ratings company Nielsen issued a report in September noting $1-trillion in buying power among black households, where women increasingly control purchases). “They’re the ones paying cable bills, going shopping buying clothes…It’s a perfect storm for the advertiser if they know how to reach them.”

Already, channels such as TBS, VH1 and Bravo have done well with black female viewers, with shows such as Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, Basketball Wives, and the Real Housewives of Atlanta.

And some channels which primarily target black women, such as TV One, wonder if their new competition will stay devoted to the audience they are courting.

“They’ve discovered what we already know; African American women watch more television than any other demographic group,” said Wonya Lucas, TV One president. “Many of these network have targeted women for years, but never really paid any attention to African American women. I’m not sure they totally understand the African American female viewer.”

Nash said her show might not completely fit the trend, because she starred in a wedding special for TLC in June which drew nearly 5-million viewers --more than Mad Men's return, Sunday -- prompting the channel to suggest a “docu-sitcom” based on watching her new husband and his son join her three daughters and mother under the same roof.

Still, she understands why black women may flock to shows starring women who look like them.

“If you don’t see yourself, you’re hungry to find women who you identify with,” Nash said. “You know, the Brady Bunch was a TV show…my dog pees on your feet, my momma’s in the mix and my kids, my stepson…it’s a cornucopia of foolishness, but its what we got 'ta work with.”   
   

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Martina Navratilova first to leave Dancing with the Stars; does anybody notice?

martina-navratilova-440.jpgIt's always odd -- and rare -- to see a pro athlete who doesn't move very well.

That's why it's surprising to see tennis legend Martina Navratilova take the long walk first on ABC's Dancing with the Stars, undone by some obvious mistakes made during a Foxtrot on monday where she missed a step or two. Or three.

But the biggest question is whether anyone is paying attention.

Producers this year drafted a lineup of competitors stripped of the show's usual mix of reality TV stars, gossip magazine fixutres or oddball comics, leaving a slate of competitors packs with faded stars and unknown performers.

Even the show's legendary spark plug, diva dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy, has mostly been a pussycat, partnered with brittle ex-child star Melissa Gilbert -- a person so emotional she cries when he compliments her.

Entertainment Weekly reports ratings for Tuesday's results show were down 30 percent from the first spring results show in 2011. Bad sign.

Given renewed competition from The Voice and a desperate American Idol, it ill be interesting to see if this drama-free, star-challenged line up can stick to the top of the viewership charts.

 

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Full two-hour Mad Men premiere now online, showing Don Draper as lion headed for winter

abc_mad_men_premiere_dm_120326_main.jpgSo now that AMC had a chance to get all possible Mad Men fans to crawl in front of the TV for Sunday's show, the channel has posted the full two-premiere for anyone who wants to relive it or see what all the fuss is about outside of cable.

It may be tough for newbies to catch up; so much of Mad Men's resonance is about knowing these characters. When Elisabeth Moss' Peggy Olson complains about her hard work going unnoticed, fans know this is a gripe she's had for a looong time -- compounded by her concern that star character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) seems about as focused on their advertising firm as kid with a bag of candy and attention deficit issues.

The show started with something Mad Men fans have rarely seen -- black faces. Show creator Matt Weiner told me this scene was deliberately calibrated to make you think the crowd of black protesters were in front of Draper's firm of Sterling Cooper, Draper and Pryce. But we quickly learn it's another agency, which winds up looking awful when its executives toss water bombs on the civil rights protesters.

slapclap_mad-men-bull1.jpgWhen I first saw this scene, it felt a lot like Weiner pushing back against people -- like me -- who have lamented that the show has never featured a major black character. Contrary to what some say, history isn't much of a defense; there were some rare black advertising executives even in the mid-'60s. If Mad Men can turn some of its story over to a woman's journey from secretary to copywriter, it would certainly do the same for a black executive. After all, how many ad executives in the '60s took the identity of a dead soldier in Korea?

But the black protesters are again just a footnote of sorts, showing up at Sterling Cooper after the firm runs an "equal opportunity" employment notice, mostly just to tweak the firm which water bombed the protesters. After limiting the applicants to women for secretarial jobs, I wonder if Weiner will allow one minor black female into his mostly-white world.

madmenseason5140239--300x450.jpgDraper, of course, remains torn between living the life he's created for himself and revealing more of his true self. (for newbies, Draper took the identity of another man in the Korean War and has spent the past few seasons coping with the revelation of that deception to his wife and select co-workers). Having married the secretary who fell in love with the illusion, Draper seems happy but occasionally distracted, unwilling to focus on his work now that he has a new love at home.

Draper's new wife Megan is the unexpected emotional core of the two-hour episode. Even after months living as his wife, she somehow missed how deeply embarrassing he would find a surprise birthday party held at his home. For a man who spends so much time holding most of the world at bay, having work friends over to his home was like stripping naked in Times Square; Megan's decision to sing him a sexy song only made it worse, because Draper knows what the other men in his office will say.

Sure enough, Megan learned the hard way after she returned to work that all she did was feed the male staffers' fantasies of having sex with her and stoke the female staffers' jealousy of her connection to the firm's Alpha Male.

That's some of my thoughts after seeing the two-hour show at least three times (one addition: sad to see actress January Jones' pregnancy kept her out of the show's blockbuster return).

Check it out below and add your own thoughts here:

 

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In absence of facts, Trayvon Martin case becomes a war of images and reputations online

3-26-12-trayvon-martin-rally_full_600.jpgHere is where the media circus takes a decidedly ugly turn.

Even as protests spread across the country and celebrities from Sinbad to M.C. Hammer weigh in on the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, supporters of shooter George Zimmerman -- including some conservative websites -- are weighing in with attempts to turn Martin's image from innocent kid to dangerous thug.

The website the Daily Caller Monday featured tweets from the dead 17-year-old's now-closed account, topped with a huge photo of the teen showing off his gold teeth (a spokeswoman for the website says they got the photo from his Twitter account and are sure it is Martin).

According to the website, he tweeted under the name NO_LIMIT_NIGGA, passing along messages joking about school and friends with all the profanity and sex you would expect from a teen boy.

"Our readers, and most Americans, are keenly interested in the personalities and character of the two men involved in the altercation in Sanford, Fla.," said Daily Caller executive editor David Martoko, author of the story on Martin's tweets, in an quote emailed to me. "This information, which was in the public domain for months before the Twitter account was disabled, fills in some of that information. We chose that photo of Trayvon Martin because it was the picture he chose to represent himself on Twitter -- and also because, unlike the years-old photos of Martin that are accompanying most media reports, it represented what he looked like nearer to the end of his life."

The site also features a story on how Communist Party members "infiltrate" the protests in Sanford dedicated to Martin and a piece on a former NAACP chapter leader in Garland, Texas accusing activists Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of "exploiting" the killing.

cnn-ewok-and-stewart-via-screenshot.jpgAnother website, Wagist, complained that the widely-circulated photo of Zimmerman was a mug shot from a 2005 arrest, while photos released by the family of Martin seem to be years old, showing younger, less threatening youth. So the site posted pictures from a Twitpic account featuring what it says are Martin's multiple tattoos, eventually concluding he "may have been a small time drug dealer."

Conservative media critic Bernard Goldberg sent a tweet asking a question I had seen other conservatives ask online: "NYT calls Zimmerman 'White Hispanic.' Why add white?"

My explanation: because Hispanics can be white, black or brown, and journalists have been trying to communicate why people initially assumed Zimmerman was white, including the Sanford police. (of course, Goldberg tweeted a different explanation: "because it fits the media storyline: WHITE vigilante kills unarmed black teen.")

And conservative pundit Michelle Malkin's new site Twitchy earns the Geraldo Rivera award for media overreaching after publishing a photo it originally labelled as an image of Martin, showing a shirtless black teen with his pants hanging low, underwear showing, flipping off the camera. Of course, they had to apologize after learning it was a photo of the wrong Trayvon Martin. (and a police officer in New Orlenas just got suspended for posting a message to a website saying "act like thug, die like one."

In a media world where everything is political, Martin's killing has become a tug-of-war between those who see his case as an example of the dangers of racial profiling and those who contend liberal activists have hijacked the process for their own ends. And one of the primary battlegrounds is located where news of Martin's death first circulated: online and in social media.

And you should pay attention to what I write because my good friend, Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly, says I'm an "active civil rights person" so my "point of view carries some weight in this case."

Wonder what that phrase -- active civil rights person -- even means? Or why Bill never listens to me when I disagree with him on racial issues?

On Monday, the Orlando Sentinel published a story featuring leaked information from the Sanford police department detailing Zimmerman's allegations that Martin started a fight which ended when the volunteer neighborhood watchman shot the teen in self-defense. Zimmerman alleged the teen tried to take his gun before the fatal shot.

blog_trayvonrally.jpgThe story also revealed that Martin had been in Sanford because he was suspended from school in Miami after officials discovered an empty baggie in his possession with marijuana residue.

Some TV outlets seemed to treat the news of Zimmerman's story as a momentous revelation. But reporters who have been covering the story from the beginning knew that Zimmerman alleged the teen attacked him; Fox affiliates in Orlando and Tampa had already aired footage of an unnamed witness who claimed he saw Martin on top of Zimmerman, fighting him before the shot rang out.

But the Miami Herald published a story Monday detailing multiple suspensions for Martin in school, noting in one incident, he was spotted by a school officer marking up a door with graffiti. When they searched his bookbag they found women's jewelry and a screwdriver the officer described as a "burglary tool."

abc_ht_trayvon_martin_george_zimmerman_2_jt_120318_wg.jpgDuring a press conference Monday, Sharpton told cameras that the family and their attorneys told him about all the issues in Martin's life which might come up as they pressed for Zimmerman's arrest. "When we first got involved with this case … I had a very candid and open conversation with the attorneys and then with the parents," he said. "I was told of all of the particular issues that they may try to raise. We saw them as irrelevant then; we see them as irrelevant now."

But that disclosure also raised uncomfortable questions about the activist, who also hosts a 6 p.m. show on MSNBC PoliticsNation. If Sharpton knows details about Martin's life he isn't sharing with MSNBC -- a spokesman for the channel says the activist/anchor's producer notified NBC News about the youth's last suspension about 40 minutes before the press conference Monday -- does that make him less effective sharpton-trayvon.jpgas a host covering an exploding news story?

All of this seems to be a massive reaction to the fact that there are no witnesses publicly known who have seen the entire interaction between Zimmerman and Martin. So the ultimate fate of this case may boil down to the word of the only person who survived the encounter: the shooter, Zimmerman.

When Martin's death first blossomed into a nationwide story, supporters wondered how the news of his killing would have been treated if the teen was a less sympathetic figure.

Now we may have an answer, as the same social media tools which spread word about his death are now turned to try and present a rougher image of his life.

And we are all left with an uncomfortable question: Even if Martin dabbled in drugs, carried himself like a gangsta and wore tattoos, did Zimmerman have the legal right to kill him that night? 

 

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MSNBC responds to questions about Sharpton's role in Trayvon Martin case as witnesses surface

blog_trayvonrally.jpgThere were few new protests, but the weekend still brought renewed attention to the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, as advocates for the shooter spoke up and I went on CNN to ask questions about media coverage.

Appearing on CNN's Reliable Sources show Sunday, I joined host Howie Kurtz in asking about the propriety of allowing Rev. Al Sharpton to serve as host of his MSNBC show from the same Sanford, Fla. rally where he was  also serving as lead activist -- joining the family in meeting with the Justice Department. Sharpton, along with many other protesters, are demanding police arrest George Zimmerman, the 20-something self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer who shot the unarmed teen as he was walking back from a convenience store.

After our segment, I emailed MSNBC about the questions we raised; spokesman Jeremy Gaines replied: "When Rev. Sharpton joined MSNBC, it was with the understanding that he would continue to do his advocacy work.  We're fully aware of that work and we have an ongoing dialog.  His participation in these events is very public and our audience is completely aware of where he stands on the issues.  mary-cutcher.jpgIt's because of this work and his decades of activism that Rev. Sharpton brings such a unique perspective to our line up."

Tampa Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 also made an impact, building a story around an interview with a witness who claimed to see Martin fighting with Zimmerman just before he was shot. The interview appears to have been posted on the website for Orlando's Fox affiliate the day after Martin's Feb. 26 death, but WTVT didn't air the story until Friday, sparking links on a host of websites across the country.

The video became part of a backlash to the protests and public pronouncements criticizing Zimmerman, as some noted the witnesses statement that Martin seemed to be on top of Zimmerman, beating him before he was shot. But that account still leaves open the question of who started the fight and whether Zimmerman can claim self-defense if he shot the teen while losing a fight he started.

Another witness also began speaking out over the weekend, Mary Cutcher, who says she believes the person heard screaming in the george-zimmerman-personal-friend-speaks-out.pngbackground 911 calls is Martin (police say Cutcher told them a different story in the immediate aftermath of the attack). Zimmerman has told police he was screaming for help, not Martin.

Zimmerman's attorney and a friend, Joe Oliver, who was once an anchor at an Orlando TV station, also began talking to media over the weekend, declining to reveal any new details about the shooter's story, but insisting he did not single out Martin because of his race.

Their media appearances seemed an attempt to humanize Zimmerman, who has not spoken publicly and remains in hiding as protesters demand his arrest and fringe group New Black Panther Party offers a $10,000 "bounty" for him.


 

Witness: Martin attacked Zimmerman: MyFoxTAMPABAY.com

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Mad Men creator Matt Weiner begs me to preview new season without spoilers

matthew-weiner_240.jpgIt isn’t often that a nine-time Emmy winner asks me for a favor.

So when Mad Men executive producer Matthew Weiner comes oh-so-close to begging that this story avoid revealing certain details about Sunday's two-hour return of the show, I’m willing to play along.

After all, with 17 months passed since the last season, anticipation is high and fans are ready to settle back into the show’s patented mix of retro cool and uneasy cultural criticism.

But the problem is that Weiner, a charming, sharply intelligent guy with passionate zeal for controlling many things connected to his show, wants almost everything held back.

What about the character who doesn’t appear in the first episode? “I don’t want people to know that,” he said. “I want them to be waiting to see (that person).”

Okay. What’s the significance of the gathering which starts the show? “I really don’t want to talk about that in the article,” Weiner said, firmly. “They’re gonna be shocked.”

Can we at least say whether Jon Hamm’s star character Don Draper actually marries the secretary he proposed to at the end of Season Five?

No way.

“I don’t want people to matthew.jpgknow, because there is a lot of pleasure, in the first half hour especially, in finding out where we’re landing on our feet,” Weiner added, admitting he was asking a lot, considering that AMC provided critics with copies of the two-hour premiere weeks ago.

Weiner spoke to me for a story in Sunday's Latitudes section, which you can read here. Below, I've included more of his quotes from our interview, and he's promised to speak with me after the debut airs to talk in detail about what happened.

His explanation for being so tough on spoilers: “That is a big piece of entertainment: the surprise,” he added. “I know for a fact, no matter what anybody says, even when people come to my set, they don’t want to know what they’re watching. I want their pulses to be racing when the theme music comes on and then be put in a world where they’re completely…the experience of not knowing is part of the theme of the season.”

(To remember where the characters left off, check out my review of last seasons finale right here).

What is obvious, after watching the two-hour episode, is that Weiner has captured that sense of off-kilter familiarity which makes Mad Men so special. We think we can welcome these characters back like old friends after four seasons, until he shows us how little we really know about them, even now.

mossandmandmenwomen.jpgI can say that the show opens in mid-1966 -- Weiner publicly admitted replacing a song on Sunday's season debut because it was released in 1967, six months after the events of the episode. The intrepid folks at ‘60s-era ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce stand in new and changing times: Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell remains ambitious as ever, John Slattery’s Roger Sterling still plays the insecure, entitled son of privilege and Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy Olson stays a bit befuddled by the new she’s living.

One subject Weiner will discuss: The feeling that the better Draper’s personal life becomes, the worse his work life turns out.
“The insecurity of the business, to me, is part of why he proposed to that woman to begin with,” said Weiner, acknowledging that a great life outside of work can seem like Kryptonite to the show’s super-talented adman. “(He thinks) ‘my business life is a mess, I’ve gotta nail down my personal life.’ I think we’re all like that.”

Here's some more questions and answers which couldn't fit in my story for Sunday's Latitudes section about Mad Men:

Weiner: I haven’t been off as long as the show has. I went back to work in May and could have been on the air in October but it’s always been AMC’s plan to have the show on in the spring of 2012. They had four shows last year. They do one show a quarter and that’s the way it worked out. I wasn’t happy about it but I’m living with it and the product of it is a two-hour premiere. (laughs)

Deggans: When you started back on the show, knowing it would be off for 17-months, what was Job 1?

W: Well, first of all, you know, the negotiations were really tough and I had to put that out of my mind and be happy that everything worked out and felt very lucky that I had the show and that I was back on it and that christina-hendricks.jpgwe were all going back to work. I suppose people would have gotten back to work without me, with or without me, but the fact that we were all together and that we’re doing it was actually kind of a kick in the pants, you know, in a good way – to say, like, we’re so lucky to have this job and so it was really kind of a great feeling to go back to it, as scared as I always am to start a season. I started writing the first episode and it was just getting longer and longer and longer, and finally I was just … seriously, it is … you can tell from watching it that it is one story. It was even longer than two hours, and we cut it down. But I asked (AMC president) Charlie Collier, how do you feel about a two-hour premiere? I think the audience deserves it. And he totally agreed, and that’s where we are.

You may dispute this, but I’m amazed at how much influence this show has, given the size of its actual audience.
W: My only dispute about it is that it actually has a much larger audience than people think. This show came along in the midst of a huge technological change. We were one of the first shows to be offered on iTunes. It actually happened around the year that we went on the air, and we were an instant hit on there. So iTunes, you know, whatever that is about that audience, is one thing. The audience goes up by close to 80 percent when you factor in the number of people who (watch on DVRs). Then there’s the video-on-demand factor, and I can tell you...I had the same experience. I was like, 'How could this be that there’s so … that this is the amount of people that are watching, you know, the show?' Is it just that journalists like writing about it? But people write about things because there’s an audience for them. So I was sort of trying to question it myself and, you know, you always question numbers but what became obvious to me and to … you know, as you can see from the profits of the two public companies that make the show – Lionsgate and AMC – is that it’s a gigantic audience.

MUCH MORE BELOW

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Discussing Trayvon Martin on WLLD-FM at 5 p.m. today and CNN at 11 a.m. Sunday

abc_ht_trayvon_martin_george_zimmerman_2_jt_120318_wg.jpgJust a note that I'll be participating in a special, two-hour program on the Trayvon Martin case at 5 p.m. today on WLLD-FM (Wild 94.1), and I'll be discussing the media coverage on CNN's Reliable Sources at 11 a.m. Sunday.

WLLD program director and morning man Orlando Davis -- who always busts my chops for calling him about race issues in radio -- was nice enough to ring me up Thursday, after an emotional morning spent discussing the implications of the case.

The special, We Are Trayvon, will feature call ins from listeners, some expert commentary from folks like me, artists calling in with their thoughts and more. It all previews a Million Hoodie March scheduled at 11 a.m. Saturday at the corner of Dale Mabry and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Tampa.

As thousands gathered in Sanford to protest the handling of the case, asking why the man who shot an unarmed 17-year-old walking home hasn't been arrested yet, media outlets provided a deluge of coverage -- including the odd sight of watching MSNBC anchor Al Sharpton hosting his show from a rally he was leading.

On Fox News this morning, Geraldo Rivera offered an analysis which likely made the channel's white conservative audience feel better, going on a diatribe about how Martin's wearing of a "hoodie" contributed to the unarmed teen getting shot to death.

justin-bieber.jpg"Every time you see someone stickin’ up a 7-11, the kid’s wearing a hoodie," he said. "Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it’s a kid wearing a hoodie. You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a "gangsta"… well, people are going to perceive you as a menace."

Of course, it was raining when Martin took his walk, so wearing a hoodie kinda made sense. And even Justin Bieber wears a hoodie. Does this now mean that black kids can't wear backwards baseball caps or carry umbrellas because some yahoo is going to assume they are a criminal?

Davis and I both grew up in Gary, Indiana, a predominantly black city surrounded by mostly white suburbs, so we know that hazards of walking in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong look. I'm hoping we'll have a chance to dissect all the different race and media issues at the heart of this, including whether it's fair for CNN to use its audio engineer to suggest that the man who shot Martin, George Zimmerman, may have used a racial slur during his 911 call.

We'll probably cover similar ground on Howard Kurtz's media analysis show on CNN, facing the biggest question: Why did it take nearly a month for this killing to become national news (my theory: it was the police department's vouching for Zimmerman's story of self-defense and resistance to releasing tapes of the 911 calls surrounding the incident).

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Column on Facebook stalking mostly a lesson on how not to implement Affirmative Action programs

roll-call-newspaper.jpgAnother day, another clueless take on a race and diversity issue.

Forgive the cynicism, but I was drowning in it after reading a column Wednesday in the Christian Science Monitor dubbed "Facebook stalking in the name of Affirmative Action."

The piece written by Debra Bruno, someone who once worked as internship coordinator for Roll Call, a Capitol Hill-centered newspaper once owned by my current employer, Times Publishing Co. In the column, the author recalls being told that one of three interns hired must be a racial minority, so she spent time trolling Facebook to see if applicants were people of color from their profile pictures.

Right away, as someone who has written about and implemented diversity programs at media companies, I see a truckload of warning signs. This is a classic example of a badly-implemented diversity initiative, held up as some sort of proof that the concept of Affirmative Action doesn't work well, against the backdrop of the Supreme Court considering race-conscious admissions practices in Texas.

affirmativeaction0312_full_600.jpgTo me, it's like looking at a Yugo and deciding automobiles are terrible. But when you're already uncomfortable with a concept, I guess it's easy to find reasons why it doesn't work so well.

What's oddest to me about the column, is that it describes a lurching, fitful move past the ill-considered practices which hobble most flawed diversity hiring programs to something better. But instead of a lessons learned, we get a lament about using race as part of a selection criteria for an internship program at all.

First, I'd say some of the best Affirmative Action programs work like the NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires football teams to consider qualified applicants of color for every head coaching job. The two key words there: consider and qualified.

That means you're not lowering standards to include people who don't deserve the job. And you're not filling some quota of people you have to hire. It's about breaking down the privilege and social connections which can disadvantage minority groups locked out of certain professions, literally for decades. I'm a strong enough believer in equality to think that, if you put a few talented people of color in a mix of applicants for an internship, you'll hire one because they're as right for the job as anyone else.

facebook_stalking_trend.jpgSecond, finding those qualified applicants of color is hard. And it requires specific work looking for people of color. As uncomfortable as it may seem, overcoming these issues takes sustained specific effort. If it were easy to achieve diversity levels in staff and internship jobs, then this wouldn't be such a tough issue in the first place.

Colleges and other institutions have scholarships and internship programs reserved for women, people of Irish descent and people who attended certain schools. So I'm not as sympathetic to the queasiness over using race as a qualifier here.

Third, I always think diversity initiatives should be rooted in journalism. What do you hope this person may add to your coverage that you don't have now? Could having a Spanish-speaking intern who cares about immigration issues add value? If that person is also Latino, you have diversified your newsroom with the goal of making your coverage more diverse.

unity.jpgBruno also identified herself a significant reason why they had trouble finding people of color to fill internships at Roll Call; they were originally unpaid (later upped to $10/hour). This is also a significant hurdle in raising diversity at top media companies. The only people who can afford to work for free come from wealthy families, a group which has much less ethnic diversity.

When I was a student, I got internship offers from the Miami Herald and the Pittsburgh Press newspapers. I took the one in Pittsburgh because it paid better and I had a family member in that town I could live with, cutting my expenses further. Because I grew in a single-parent household, raised by a schoolteacher, I didn't have the option of working a job which paid nothing for a summer.

Bruno also suggests another "reasonable solution"; formal programs with newspapers aligned with minority journalism organizations such as the National Association of Black Journalists to encourage diversity. I find it disappointing that she didn't know such programs already exist, though they have been threatened by continuous cost-cutting (the Chicago Tribune just laid off Sheila Solomon, one of the nation's longest-serving recruiters and voices for diversity in newsrooms).

What I think Bruno's column ultimately misses is the notion that having a diverse staff and field of interns is a step toward more balanced and less myopic coverage, which hopefully translates into more accurate coverage. On the national stage, everything from the death of pop star Whitney Houston to the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin has benefited from the voices of qualified, perceptive journalists of color who see stories from a slightly different cultural perspective.

Staff diversity isn't about righting social wrongs. It's about accuracy and fairness in our journalism. And not realizing that diversity in staffing is about coverage, makes me wonder how much value they got from having another person of color on staff, anyway.

Bruno frets about giving an "extra advantage" to an applicant of color, without recognizing that we're still trying to unwind decades of prejudice and unfairness which has kept qualified people from getting jobs and getting promoted in the first place.

In the end, Bruno admits she wound up hiring qualified interns who were people of color and helped diversify their newsroom.

It seems like she figured out the problems, corrected them and picked great interns. So what, exactly is the problem?

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How do media images of scary black males relate to the Trayvon Martin shooting case?

trayvonnews0321_215172d.jpgAt least twice yesterday journalists working on stories about the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin asked me this question:

What role did media images of scary black males play in self-appointed watchman George Zimmerman's decision to shoot an unarmed African American teenager walking back from a convenience store run in Sanford, Fla.?

That's the concern expressed by protesters and concerned citizens nationwide, mobilized by social media and growing national news coverage to challenge the fact that police haven't yet arrested Zimmerman. During an emotional public meeting Tuesday night, residents heard from national NAACP president Benjamin Jealous and saw local leaders demand Zimmerman's arrest and the resignation of the local police chief.

trayvonnews0321_215170c.jpgMy answer to that simple question is a complex one. Because I think the racial dynamics here are different and deeper than the superficial stories some national news outlets are telling.

The in-depth reporting I've seen -- and my own scant knowledge of small Florida towns like Sanford -- reveals a neighborhood in transition, with an influx of poorer people, people of color and rising crime rates raising tensions. The Miami Herald reported in the year before Martin's death, there had been eight burglaries, nine thefts and one other shooting in the area. (photos above and left by Tampa Bay Times photojournalist Kathleen Flynn).

There have been frictions between the Sanford police department and the area's black community. In 2010, the department let seven weeks pass before arresting the son of an officer caught on video punching a homeless man, and in 2005 two security guards with personal connections to the department were acquitted after killing a black man they said tried to run them over.

abc_ht_trayvon_martin_george_zimmerman_2_jt_120318_wg.jpgI think some of this is wrapped up in a very simplistic understanding of racism. We still, too often, act like racism is a switch -- either you're Archie Bunker or David Duke and acting as a clear cut white supremacist, or you're not.

But that's not how I think it works. Very often, people who would never consider themselves racist in other settings have very negative views of minorities in certain circumstances -- say, if they live in a high-crime neighborhood where many offenses are committed by black or brown people.

Zimmerman's father has released a statement saying his son speaks Spanish and has partially Hispanic heritage (his mother is Hispanic), perhaps to suggest that he isn't prejudiced against racial minorities because he's a minority, too. They may also be trying to make any federal civil rights prosecution tougher by pushing back against the notion that he was a white guy zeroing in on a young black male for little reason.

trayvonnews0321_215171d.jpgBut even if that were true -- Tampa Bay Times writer Michael Kruse reports that Zimmerman self identifies as Hispanic on his driver's license and voter registration -- that doesn't mean he couldn't have also been someone who singled out black people for special, pejorative attention while watching over the neighborhood.

Add in a police department with longstanding frictions among the black community, and you have a story which sounds sadly familiar to people who know Florida and race issues. The state has a sad legacy of law enforcement which doesn't always treat people of color with the respect they deserve; if anything comes of this awful tragedy, it should be a close look at how Sanford police handled the investigation and their unwillingness to release material such as audio of the 911 calls.

Click here to read a compelling Huffington post column about the many ways in which Florida legislators have acted to weaken the voices of people of color in the state, contributing to what the writer calls a modern-day "Jim Crow atmosphere." 

In the end, the only people who may fully know what happened that night on Feb. 26 is Zimmerman and Martin. Given the way Florida's Stand Your Ground Law works, it may be tough to challenge Zimmerman's account, despite growing questions.

And as more national media outlets pile onto the story -- and Zimmerman declines to speak publicly -- a narrative is developing that simplifies everything a bit too much.

I'm hoping after the Grand Jury, FBI and Justice Department investigations Sanford police are asked tough questions about their handling of this case. It's unconscionable that the family had to spark a tsunami of national media coverage to get a close look at this case by law enforcement.

I also hope gated communities in that area figure out how to keep watch for possible crimes without randomly questioning every young black male who walks in the area. Walking while black does not justify interrogating people about their destinations and intentions.

But more than anything, I'm hoping for more good journalism peeling back the specific issues at play here. 

That may be the only hope for some progress to come out of this awful situation.

 

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National news media attention to Trayvon Martin death explodes as feds investigate

abc_ht_trayvon_martin_george_zimmerman_2_jt_120318_wg.jpgNearly a month after a self-appointed Neighborhood Watch guard shot an unarmed 17-year-old African American boy to death, the national news media is beginning to train it's lens on the Trayvon Martin case, asking questions about racial bias and Florida's stand your ground law.

Martin, who was visiting his father in Sanford, Fla., was walking back to his dad's fiance's residence when he was followed by neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman. Minutes later, the boy was shot dead; his parents have complained that police have been slow to release information on the case, fearing an attempt to help Zimmerman, who has not been arrested.

Coverage of the case seemed to explode over the weekend, following release of audio from 911 calls showing that Zimmerman followed Martin after the police dispatcher told him "we don't need you to do that." Zimmerman also identified Martin's race, though police had said publicly he didn't know the teen's ethnicity when the confrontation occurred.

Expect those stories to only increase, as the FBI and Justice Department announced plans last night to investigate the killing. 

The chilling tapes of 911 calls from other people in the gated community reveal someone screaming, then a gunshot and silence. Zimmerman has said he was the one who was screaming, but other residents in the area have expressed doubts about that explanation.

Cable TV news picked up the story over the weekend and on Monday, as MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry talked about the incident and MSNBC anchor Al Sharpton interviewed Martin's father and the family's attorney on his PoliticsNation show. CNN's Anderson Cooper also interviewed the father and lawyer Monday, later discussing the case with two legal analysts. And Sharpton announced plans to attend a protest Thursday regarding the case.

Fox News aired a segment Monday wondering if "anti-gun advocates" would use the incident to go after the National Rifle Association. And New York magazine has an interesting piece tracking how big print national news outlets have zeroed in on the story, including USA Today, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

The Miami Herald offered a compelling piece on the issue, examining Zimmerman's history of calling 911 -- 46 times over the past 11 years -- painting a portrait of a vigilant guy who thwarted some crimes but also was accused of focusing on black people. And ABC News today posted a story quoting a teen girl who says she was on the telephone with Martin seconds before he was shot dead, saying Zimmerman confronted the boy while he was trying to run away from him.

Legal experts have said that Zimmerman may never be charged with a crime due to Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows citizens to respond with deadly force to protect themselves anywhere. The Tampa Bay Times published a compelling story on the law back in 2010, noting that in 2009, twice a week someone's killing was ruled warranted using the law.

But the public pressure  is increasing, as even celebrities such as Cher and Wyclef Jean sent messages on Twitter Monday: : We MUST NOT FORGET TRAVOR MARTI !This Beautiful Young man was MURDERED IN FLA. & his killer was SET FREE! (later, the singer apologized for spelling the teen's name wrong.)

: this is real Trayvon martin was only 17 years old! if we let this slide they will keep killin 17 year olds your kid will b next!

 

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WTSP-Ch. 10 to air TV versions of PolitiFact Florida fact checks

pantsonfire-politifact.jpgThe Truth-o-Meter is soon coming to a local TV station near you.

PolitiFact, the fact-checking website created and run by my employer, the Tampa Bay Times, has announced an agreement with St. Petersburg CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10 to provide rulings from its Florida-centered operation for broadcast.

Here's the story from Tampabay.com:

PolitiFact Florida, the fact-checking website created by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, is forming an exclusive television partnership in the Tampa Bay area with 10 News, the companies announced Monday.

As part of the agreement, 10 News will air video versions of the fact-checks now appearing on PolitiFact Florida's website, PolitiFact.com/Florida.

10 News also plans to share its segments with two stations in Jacksonville — WJXX, an ABC-affiliated station, and WTLV, an NBC-affiliated station. (editor's note: both stations are owned by Gannett Corp., which also owns WTSP.)

Weekly PolitiFact Florida segments will continue to air on Central Florida News 13 for Bright House Networks cable subscribers stretching from Orlando to Daytona Beach.

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Journalists convince Mad Men creator to change song in debut episode

mad_men.jpgThis is not a detail I noticed -- or cared about -- when I interviewed Mad Men creator Matt Weiner last week about the show's return to new episodes Sunday after a 17-month absence.

But apparently several journalists did notice that a scene featured the song "The Look of Love" at a time six months before the tune would actually have been released. Weiner, being a stickler for detail, says he has replaced the song with another tune.

Here's his note on it all, sent to all us TV critics:

Dear Journalist:

As you know, one of the things I love best about Mad Men is the passionate response I get from members of the press. Recently a few of you have mentioned that the song "The Look of Love," used in our season five premiere episode, was not actually released until six months after the episode takes place.

Because of this we have replaced  this song with one more suited to the time period and you, along with our audience, will hear it for the first time during our March 25th broadcast.

Although we take license for artistic purposes with the end-title music, we never want the source music to break from the time period we are trying to recreate.

As someone who has a deep appreciation for details, I want to thank you for bringing this to our attention.  It's a privilege to work on a show that generates an ongoing dialog with you and our amazing fans so please - keep those notes and comments coming!

All the best,

Matthew Weiner
 

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Walking Dead finale serves up answers for fans, pulls series closer to the book's attitude

episode-13-barn-burn.jpgThere should be no fans left unfulfilled after Sunday's Walking Dead finale. (SPOILERS AHEAD!)

Annoyed that the group kept acting like it was at Disney World, moping around Herschel's farm lamenting a life that was already gone? Sunday's episode shattered that fantasy, as a herd of walkers overran the farm, forcing leader Rick Grimes to torch the barn and scattering the group in a mad dash to get away.

episode-13-patricia.jpgTired of all the marginal characters who writers didn't seem to know how to utilize? Well, two of them died messy deaths in the walker swarm, as Hershel's son Jimmy and pal Patricia were munched up while trying to fight the horde. Swear I kept forgetting Jimmy existed until he popped up to drive a car or something every so often.

Wondering what the doctor at the CDC told Rick back at the end of the first season? (Yeah, feels like a million years ago, don't it?) Now you know what Rick told the members of the group left alive -- that they are all infected with whatever virus causes zombification, and upon their death, however it happens, they will reanimate, which just doubled down on the horror they're facing.

danai-michonne.jpgFinally, everybody who was bugging producers about Michonne, the deadly, sword-wielding lady who lights up the Walking Dead comic books can just chill -- the actress has been cast, Treme's Danai Gurira, and she popped up in Sunday's finale in time to save Andrea's life.

This finale seemed to be a neon sign for fans that the series was going to turn toward their sensibilities much more than it has before. 

episode-13-walkers-fence-2.jpgExecutive producer Glenn Mazzara, speaking on the show's live afterparty program Talking Dead, called it the "beginning of the Ricktatorship," as Andrew Lincoln's battered leader Rick informs his fellow survivors "this isn't a Democracy anymore."

With idealist Dale gone and man of God Hershel shattered, the survivors are now forced to face life in a harsher, more unforgiving world where friends who move too slow are left behind and the only smart decisions are ones which allow you to live one more day.

It remains a bit annoying that the show's survivors, who already knew that walkers traveled in packs from scenes at the start of the second season, were caught so unprepared. They had no lookouts to spot intruders early, no plan for how to leave the house, no supplies or provisions packed and no strategy. Trust that, as they head toward the prison seen in the finale's final moment -- fans of the comic book know what happens there -- that lack of preparation will be remedied.

And Rick's wife Lori remains the character writers fumble with, having her react in episode-13-lori.jpganger after learning Rick was forced to kill his best friend Shane after his buddy tried to shoot him. Of course, Lori knows that she set it all in motion, telling Rick that Shane was a danger and then letting Shane know she still had feelings for him.

Producers may rationalize her shifts as the mood swings of a pregnant woman on the edge of an apocalypse (Mazzara said on Talking Dead she was mad at herself). But they still come off as inconsistent lurchings from one attitude to the next, distinguished mostly by her laser-like focus on her own needs and feelings.

Of course, tantalizing questions remain. Where is the helicopter we saw catch the zombies' attention at the start of the finale? How will Michonne and Andrea catch up with the rest of the crew (and will T-Dog finally get a change to do more than drive a car and look moody, since the Michonne of the comic books hooks up with the African American male character among the survivors)?

How will they introduce the other iconic character from the graphic novel which was recently cast, The Governor?

And how will producers keep up the show's turn toward a dark, survivalist mood without turning off TV viewers?

For now, avid viewers must be satisfied with the notion that Walking Dead has just jumped fully into the land of the fanboy. 

It -- and we -- will never be the same.

 

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