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My last year end list: The five turning points for media in 2012, from Newtown to the 47 percent

mediadiet.jpgFrom the killing of an unarmed, African-American teen in a Sanford, Fla. subdivision to the results of an election that confounded major segments of the nation’s conservative media structure, the biggest turning points for media in 2012 turned out to be the biggest turning points for all of us.

We here in Florida learned that firsthand -- again! -- when George Zimmerman’s Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin became an international story debated in newspapers from Great Britain to South Africa, fueled by a petition drive and social media campaign which reached sympathetic ears across the globe.

Besides speeding up the news cycle to ridiculous proportions, our new media ecology has made us more distracted and distractable than ever, with tablet computers and smartphones propped on our laps even as we’re supposedly relaxing while watching television. (Forget about savoring that dramatic moment on Mad Men or Walking Dead; gotta post a quip about the scene on Twitter before anyone else does!)

The result: a pace of media so frantic most every major detail originally reported about the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. by major news outlets was wrong or misleading.

Clearly, we have a lot left to learn about our new media lives.

Here’s a step in the right direction: My list of The Five Biggest Turning Points for Media in 2012.

newtown-woman.jpg5) Media Gets Too Much Wrong in Newtown. Bad enough that CNN and Fox News initially mis-reported the Supreme Court ruling upholding much of President Obama’s health care law. On Dec. 14, when a gunman killed 28 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., much of what was reported for hours during the emergency was completely wrong.

The shooter wasn’t 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, but his 20-year-old brother Adam. The killer’s father wasn’t shot in New Jersey, but his mother Nancy Lanza was killed in Connecticut. Nancy Lanza didn’t teach at Sandy Hook Elementary and Adam Lanza didn’t target one of her classes there. All of this information was initially reported by respected news organizations such as CNN, NPR, the Associated Press, the New York Times and ABC News, citing unnamed law enforcement sources.

Some experts have suggested this is price for a social media-drenched journalism process, with tremendous pressure to get and keep audiences by offering the latest developments. But it has always been easier to galvanize audiences by disregarding journalism rules; we learned long ago such moves sacrifice long term credibility for a quick audience that mostly gets a front row seat to our mistakes.

4) Fox News Election Night Meltdown. Watching conservative political mastermind Karl Rove forced to concede an Obama win in Ohio by the vote-crunching election desk at conservative cable newschannel Fox News, you had the sense of a corner turned.
For months, an array of conservative media outlets, pundits and news sources had been assuring their audiences of Republican victories Nov. 6. When that didn't happen, media figures and the GOP itself were forced to consider that their ideology had become so impervious to outside facts, it was trapped in its own bubble of unreality.

3) Newspapers and Magazines Retrench, Curbing the Era of Free News. The decision by New Orleans' Times-Picayune newspaper to cut staff, focus on its online platforms and restrict its print run to three days in most weeks was one of the most-visible examples of an unwelcome trend. Newsweek also announced plans to end print publication this year, while Mashable notes the number of newspapers with paywalls limiting their free content online doubled in the past year.

3-26-12-trayvon-martin-rally_full_600.jpgThe result: fewer journalists in print and less free news on the Internet.

2)Trayvon Martin Case Bursts Open Racial Divides in Media. By the end of March, the Feb. 26 shooting death of Martin, an unarmed black teen, had become the year's second most-covered news story, seriously dividing media.

Anchors on left-leaning MSNBC wore hoodies on air as PoliticsNation host Al Sharpton also served as spokesman for Martin's family in its quest to see shooter George Zimmerman prosecuted. And online outlets such as the Daily Caller and Business Insider published photos and tweets taken from the dead teen's social media accounts that made him look thuggish. Here's a look at some of my comments on the coverage.

1) Mitt Romney's 47 Percent Video. More than anything in media, this video, secretly recorded at a fundraiser in Boca Raton, may have crippled GOP candidate Mitt Romney's presidential effort. Posted by liberal newsmagazine Mother Jones in September, it revealed the multimillionaire telling a roomful of wealthy patrons that 47 percent of the country would vote for Obama because they felt "entitled" to things like health care, food and housing.

As proof fate isn't without irony, consider the final figures on Romney's percentage of the popular vote:

47 percent. 

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My latest NPR adventure: NBC's ratings success a warning bell for network TV business

thevoice2-e1347376649369-1024x579.jpgAfter years serving as a serious punchline in the TV biz, NBC climbed from worst to first in the crucial 18 to 49 ratings this fall.

The occasion merited stories in the New York Times and a sigh of relief from some critics (okay, me) who saw the network's latest entertainment head, former Showtime executive Bob Greenblatt, as a smart, creative guy working hard to bring good shows back to the Peacock Network.

But the way NBC won it's crown -- on the strength of unscripted shows The Voice and Sunday Night Football -- hints at a dark future for network TV, where few new shows were considered successes this year and no new program emerged as a breakout hit. (No, adventure drama Revolution retaining much of The Voice's massive lead-in audience on Mondays doesn't count.)

Here's my NPR piece exploring it all below:


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Salon magazine: Is Quentin Tarantino the baddest black filmmaker working in big-time Hollywood?

django-unchained-character-banner---quentin-tarantino.jpgWhen the good folks at the online magazine Salon saw how much I loved Quentin Tarantino's new film Django Unchained, they asked me to write about it for them.

django-unchained-poster-3232012federico-mancosu.pngBut they didn't want a typical review, which their critic would handle, calling Django an "incoherent, three-hour bloodbath." Instead, they wanted me to write about Tarantino and race; the way he delves into subjects other directors would fear to broach, including wide use of the n-word in many of his movies -- sometimes used by the most visible characters.

So I pulled together a piece for them comparing Tarantino to Paul Simon, taking a swipe at Spike Lee and challenging the mind behind Jackie Brown and Django Unchained to actually help black filmmakers tell stories about black culture at the same level he does.

Here's how it starts:

"There are some folks who won’t like to read these words: White guy superstar director Quentin Tarantino may be the baddest black filmmaker working in big-time Hollywood movies today.

That is a possibility which angers some, frightens others and disgusts a few more, saying as much or more about the sorry state of movie audiences today and the still-closed world of big-time filmmaking than any tart provocation Tarantino has managed to splash on the screen.

The reason we’re having this conversation — again — is thanks to the latest addictive confection of revenge film, spaghetti Western, Blaxploitation movie and anti-slavery fantasy Q.T. dropped on us all to close out 2012: “Django Unchained.”

Beyond the fact that it is gleefully bloody, luxuriating in crimson-splattered shootouts at a time when America is deeply conflicted over how much it loves this stuff, “Django Unchained” uncorks the perfect revenge fantasy for black people descended from slaves and living in a still-white-dominated society."

Read the rest of it by clicking here.

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Salon's Blue Glow TV Awards pick Homeland, Claire Danes as best show and performance of 2012

salon-blueglow-topten.jpgThe online magazine Salon hit up 15 critics across the country, including yours truly, to try gauging the top 10 shows of 2012 and the best performances. They basically asked us all to list our top five shows, assigned each a point value and listed the top 10 winners.

As you might guess if you've read any top critic's lists before now, Showtime's Homeland took the top prize (followed closely by a show which didn't make my top five list this year, Mad Men). Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Girls and Louie rounded out the top five, proving that the best, buzziest TV isn't hard to guess if you're paying attention.

But the folks at Salon also asked us to riff a bit on some trends, including our favorite scene and funniest joke or line. Few of us picked he same stuff, but every choice was an interesting and revealing one. 

My answers are below; click here to go to some of the other critics' answers:

the-walking-dead-amc-2-wide-560x281.jpg1. Show of the Year. AMC's Walking Dead. This is a show which once and for all burst the bubble of the broadcast networks, which have complained to any critic who will listen that they can't be as adventurous or challenging as cable because they have to draw bigger audiences. Harsh, explicit and uncompromising in its 3rd season, AMC's zombie adventure still drew a record number of 18 to 49 viewers. What's broadcast's excuse now for giving us such lame crap?

hank1.jpg2. The Best Scene. When Breaking Bad's dogged DEA agent Hank Schrader sits on the toilet in his brother-in-law's modest home, fishes for reading material and picks up a book with an inscription written by a dead meth cook proving his nerdy host is the biggest drug dealer in the Southwestern U.S. As creator Vince Gilligan first said, a truly "oh shit" moment.

3. Performance of the Year. Leading lady Claire Danes gets all the showy scenes as bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison. But British actor Damian Lewis has amassed an amazing pile-up of great moments as a POW-turned-terrorist agent-turned-informer, lying to his wife, kids, Congressional constituents, terrorist handlers and the CIA -- sometimes within moments of each other. 

esq-parker-posey-072012-lg.jpg4. The Funniest Joke or Line. It's not a line or joke, but Louis C.K.'s monologue in which his character asks out a beautiful, smart bookstore clerk played by Parker Posey is brilliant in how it veers from comedy to pathos and allows Louie to ask a woman out by essentially throwing himself on her mercy. "Please don't answer yet," he says, moments into his plea, "because I know you might have a 'no' cued up in your head already...I know that being a woman in New York must be hard because it’s basically disappointing ... You try to be nice to men as human beings, and then they respond just by torpedoing towards your vagina. I want you to know that I'm aware that you're young and beautiful and I'm not either of those things and part of me knows as soon as my lips stop moving you're gonna say no...I grow on people, women. Some time goes by, you get past the bald head and I sweat a lot and I’m lumpy.” After all that, when she says yes, we're as surprised as he is.

june-600.jpg5. The Series That Best Evoked Life in 2012. Tempted as I am to say the presidential election itself (or the debates), I'm gonna slide toward cynicism and say TLC's unreality show about a 6-year-old beauty pageant contestant from rural Georgia and her working class family, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. It's exploitive, demeaning, filled with stereotypes and literally encouraging a child to act out in ways she is likely to regret later in life. It feels like a troubling allegory for too much in television and life; guilty, damaging pleasures we pretend have higher meaning, but are often just an outlet for our worst impulses (told you it was cynical). 
6. Personality of the Year. In an election year, this title goes to Daily Show host Jon Stewart, hands down, for repeatedly exposing the hypocrisy and danger from too much of what passes for political dialogue and journalism in America. His reprimand of Fox News pundits Bill O'Reilly and Bernard Goldberg for lamenting the end of traditional America -- which folks at the turn of the previous century felt didn't include Jewish people or Irish people -- was just one of many priceless, spot-on social critiques.

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J.R. Ewing and Claire Mathison top my list of TV's Most Compelling Characters in 2012

250px-miles_matheson.jpgThe sad reality about television is that sometimes great performances get trapped in not-so-great television shows. So, as we wrap up 2012 in arts coverage, I decided today to list my Most Compelling TV Characters of the Year. These are the characters who kept me tuning in, week after week, even when I knew the show they appeared in wasn't so great. Or they added extra sizzle to a series already on my must-see list.

MILES MATHESON (Billy Burke) NBC's Revolution. This post-apocalyptic show about a mysterious process that snuffed out the world's electricity is a thin collection of TV tropes that would have died messily if it weren't airing after NBC's super-successful The Voice. But Burke's Matheson, a world-weary good guy who once led a brutal militia that took over part of the United States, is a serious highlight. He's a less frantic, more deadly Han Solo, annoyed by those who insist on idealism in a dangerous world, even as their open-hearted ways rub off on him.

jr-ewing.jpgJOHN ROSS "J.R." EWING JR. (Larry Hagman) TNT's Dallas. Those eyebrows! That honey-coated southern accent! That ability to sound convincing while saying the most devilish things! The TV world lost a landmark character when Hagman died last month of complications from throat cancer. His J.R. Ewing was a scenery-chewing delight through every iteration of the 35-year-old nighttime soap opera. One consolation: there's more J.R. coming in episodes taped before his death airing Jan. 28.

WILL MCAVOY (Jeff Daniels) HBO's The Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin's fictional cable news anchor is, in many ways, a liberal's dream TV journalist: whip smart, fearless in confronting hypocrisy, entertainingly irascible and an avowed Republican who still somehow agrees with lefties on all the important issues. Daniels, better known for playing rumpled, less astute characters on film, turned McAvoy into an authoritative blend of Tom Brokaw and Keith Olbermann.

lastresort_review_marcuschaplin_1600.jpgCAPT. MARCUS CHAPLIN (Andre Braugher) ABC's Last Resort. As the captain of a nuclear submarine that refused a hinkey order to fire on Pakistan, Braugher's Chaplin was a principled, tough leader whose gift for strategic thinking made him a standout character. Too bad ABC canceled this series before we could see exactly why the U.S. government was so keen on wiping Pakistan off the map.

LOUIE AND THE SECRETLY MALADJUSTED BOOKSTORE CLERK (Louis C.K. and Parker Posey) FX's Louie. Louis C.K. delivers one of the year's best TV monologues when he asks Parker Posey's cute, sympathetic bookstore clerk out by saying "some time goes by, you get past the bald head and I sweat a lot and I'm lumpy." But on the actual date, Posey's character reveals herself to be manic in a way that is both intoxicating and a bit frightening. When she dies of a mysterious, nose-bleed inducing ailment after bumping into him on a bus in the season finale, it all feels sadly appropriate.

KRISTINA BRAVERMAN (Monica Potter) NBC's Parenthood. NBC's family drama knocked it out of the park this year, with poignant episodes on the n-word, adoption struggles, post-traumatic stress disorder and the splintering of an awkward engagement. But the struggle of Potter's Braverman to beat breast cancer has been the linchpin of a heart-tugging season.

xxx-walking-dead-morrissey-484--4_3_r560.jpgTHE GOVERNOR (David Morrissey) AMC's The Walking Dead. You'd never know it from his Marlboro Man-deep baritone or laconic on-screen charm, but the man bringing the Walking Dead's secretly twisted leader to life is a British actor, best known for playing English politicians in acclaimed TV dramas. Here, he's a sly charmer hiding the iron fist he uses to rule Woodbury, a town full of people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse.

HANNAH HORVATH (Lena Dunham) HBO's Girls. Entitled, aimless, vaguely ambitious and trapped in a demeaning relationship, Dunham's Horvath embodies the attitude of too many young twentysomethings aware of the life they'd like to lead with no idea how to achieve it.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND SHERLOCK HOLMES (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller) on the BBC's Sherlock and CBS' Elementary. Both men play updated versions of the classic sleuth Sherlock Holmes, but Brit actors Cumberbatch and Miller offer highly different takes. Cumberbatch's Holmes is in England, a straitlaced sort gifted with an Aspergian ability to notice detail. Miller's Holmes is also brilliant, but a tattooed, recovering addict living in a seedy New York apartment with a female sober companion (Lucy Liu) who is claire-daines-as-carrie-mathison.jpghis Dr. Watson.

CARRIE MATHISON (Claire Danes) Showtime's Homeland. There may not be a more interesting character on TV than Danes' Mathison, a bipolar CIA agent whose manic impulses led her to discover a U.S. war hero was a secret double agent working for Middle Eastern terrorists. No one plays a woman hanging on by her fingernails like Danes, and Mathison spends more time dangling by her cuticles than any character on TV today.

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Does NRA press conference mark moment gun industry turns into cigarette industry?

nra-pressconference.jpg"This is the beginning of a serious conversation...We won't be taking questions today."

That was the oddly ironic statement by NRA president David Keene closing out one of the most jarring press conferences in recent memory, as the National Rifle Association's president took to a podium on the 7-day anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings to blame everything but lax gun ownership laws for the nation's continuing problem with such tragedies.

As the website BuzzFeed handily clarified, NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre blamed video games, Hollywood celebrities, devotion to sports stadiums, reductions in President Obama's budget for school policing next year, gun free school zones and much more for massacres such as the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

nra_facebook.jpgThough billed as a press conference, LaPierre took no questions, introducing former U.S. Congressman Asa Hutchinson, who announced a National School Shield program to advise schools across the country on creating "a comprehensive strategy for school security" featuring "armed, trained qualified school security personnel." See NRA's transcript of the press conference here.

Keene said the group would be happy to talk anyone on Monday, one day before Christmas. Left unanswered was the question of why they couldn't take questions at their own press conference, before a group of journalists already assembled. 

Some called it a textbook definition of how not to present a press conference, leaving the NRA looking like a group of older, white male fatcats refusing to discuss any restrictions on gun ownership.

nra-press-conference-protestor.jpgThe optics were awful, with the group's leaders baldly insisting they were starting a dialog while refusing to take questions from reporters and escorting two different protesters from the room. And there was the fact that this all occurred one week after a man armed with an assault rifle killed 20 elementary school students.

Others said this was a message for the NRA's most ardent supporters, calculated to make the media pile on in criticism and turn the group into a sympathetic victim.

But I think this was a line drawn in the sand for the American people. The NRA has just refused to help draft sensible legislation limiting access to weapons whose only real purpose can be killing large numbers of people, or pretending you're doing so on the shooting range.

So the question rises: Is this the moment when the gun industry turns into the cigarette industry -- a business which even many smokers believe profits by selling a product which kills people?

By allowing no middle ground on this issue, the NRA is challenging those who believe in gun ownership but want some limits on the weaponry available to join their side or leave.

But even among the conservatives who support the NRA, there must be some who balk at the idea of spending tremendous sums of money to pack armed guards into schools -- many schools already have such guards, anyway -- at a time when our national debt is already soaring. To say nothing of the intrusion on personal privacy involved in creating a national registry of people with mental health issues, as suggested by LaPierre; something I would assume some conservatives would also resist.

NPR's Fresh Air had an interesting conversation with Tom Diaz of the Violence Policy Center, who said the NRA and its supporters in Congress have pushed for laws keeping the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and Centers for Disease Control from studying or releasing data on which types of guns are used in what types of crimes and the impact of gun violence in society.

Regardless of where you fall on the issue, shouldn't our lawmakers and public have access to all the information that's available?

Some conservatives seemed to agree that this marked a step into crazytown for the NRA. "Conservatism truly is broken," tweeted former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum. Fellow CNN analyst and editor of Erick Erickson tweeted a more measured reaction: "While I agree with the NRA and LaPierre's points in substance, I'm not sure this presser was good in style a week after Newtown."  

The NRA seems to be betting it's "you're with us or against us" philosophy will rally enough of its supporters that it can weather tough questions on gun control laws.

But I have a feeling even those of us who feel Americans should always have the right to own guns for hunting and personal protection will balk at a no-compromise stance which refuses to consider that better gun control laws, paired with other solutions, can curb gun violence in America.

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Talking Race-Baiter with critics from Newsweek and AOL TV/Huffington Post

51d37-cnz1l._sl500_aa300_.jpgSince my book came out right before a crucial election, I'm not surprised that so much discussion of Race-Baiter has centered on politics, news media and social issues.

But I also tried to talk a lot about how prejudice and stereotypes affect entertainment television; from so-called "reality TV" to scripted television. Regular readers have seen my pieces on the Black Best Friend and the Five Biggest Lies About Reality TV,  and Race-Baiter gave me the opportunity to expand on these ideas, interviewing alums from some of TV's biggest reality shows and talking to star Blair Underwood about why he briefly worried President Obama's election might have ended his career as an actor.

But I didn't get much of a chance to expand on those ideas in interviews about the book until I got calls from two of the smartest critics in the business, Verne Gay at Newsday newspaper and Maureen Ryan, the former TV critic at the Chicago Tribune, now at AOL/Huffington Post, who has an amazing podcast about TV and life called Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan.

In Verne's piece, we go from talking about the news media stuff to entertainment TV, packing a lot into our brief time talking. My discussion with Maureen was much more freewheeling, covering issues such as sexism and racism and why more mainstream TV critics don't talk about these issues so much (to see her most excellent work on this subject, check out her amazing piece asking why TV has such trouble hiring and promoting female writers). 

28779_10151134332257475_1816024905_n.jpgI also wrote an interesting piece for the New York Times' Room for Debate column about reality TV and society, expanding on some of the themes contained in the book, noting "the question of whether reality TV is pop culture's greatest boon or worse nightmare is a bit of a false choice: it's both."

It's been hard to spread word about this book, because so many people don't want to believe the ideas I'm discussing and the urge to avoid these topics is so strong. So I really appreciate the kind words from folks like Verne and Maureen -- national-level critics who have been in the trenches as long or longer than me.

Apologies too for readers who feel I talk about this book too much in this space and my social media accounts.

But when you spend two years pulling a project together like this ,you want to take every opportunity to let the world know that its available and some pretty cool people are recommending it. (at left, the discussion during a St. Petersburg book signing at Studio@620)

Believe it or don't, it makes a great Xmas gift and with Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and Black History Month around the corner, issues of fighting stereotypes and prejudice are sure to surface again and again in 2013.


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Django Unchained: Nevermind the n-words, Quentin Tarantino has created a new black superhero

django-unchained-fan-poster-black-brown.jpgBefore we go any further, let’s get one thing straight: Quentin Tarantino’s latest masterpiece, Django Unchained, has an astounding amount of lines featuring the word “nigger.” According to the trade magazine Variety, it’s used 109 times.

And while that makes Tarantino’s tribute to his beloved spaghetti westerns one of his most provocative and politically incorrect films ever, it doesn’t make it racist, or even racially insensitive to this African American critic’s ears.

I have no idea whether such usage is historically accurate, as some critics have implied. But such baldfaced profanity does obliterate the tentative, halting attitude other filmmakers display in depicting how black people were treated in the Old West – either refusing to feature black characters at all or pretending they were treated as equals to white people.

In Tarantino’s world, that means extended conversations where white characters sling around the n-word like extras in an N.W. A. video, poking at the sensibilities of modern audiences. Meanwhile, black characters must stand by, powerless to resist those who insist their degradation is the natural order of things.

It is the perfect environment for the perfect revenge fantasy, and Tarantino turns Django Unchained into a glorious mishmash of genres to achieve that feat. Long known as a film geek who wears his influences on his sleeve, the antic mind behind the ‘70s homage Pulp Fiction, the chop socky kung fu film homage Kill Bill and the war movie homage Inglourious Basterds has created his own genre while paying tribute to so many others in Django Unchained.

Let’s call it the blaxploitation spaghetti western love story.

The plot is quirky yet simple: Jamie Foxx is Django, a slave freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Basterds’ Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) to help him find a trio of men with a price on their head who brutalized Django and his wife after a failed escape attempt.

Django is the only one who knows what these men look like, so the two hit on a bargain; the former slave points out the men, the bounty hunter kills them, and Django gets his freedom, plus a little coin. But the ex-slave, who must pretend to be Schultz’s valet to enter the plantation where the men are working, proves to be a quick study in the killing-villainous-white-folks-for-profit game.

django-unchained-wallpaper-christoph-waltz.jpgBefore long, Schultz and Django have a new bargain: Teaming up to rescue the ex-slave’s German-speaking wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, moonlighting from ABC’s Scandal) from the clutches of a new plantation deep in the heart of the worst slave state, Mississippi. Thusly, black and German culture is united to smash American slavery in another delicious, Tarantino-bred irony.

django-1966.jpgThe filmmaker’s influences are woven into the movie’s fabric. He whips the camera around for crucial close-ups – Leonardo DiCaprio’s introduction as the villain, plantation owner Calvin Candie is a prime example – just like Sergio Leone’s classic Italian “spaghetti” westerns (though Django Unchained is more directly inspired by Franco Nero’s 1966 film Django.)

And the often-operatic, graphically slow motion violence plays like one of John Woo’s classic action films, as blood splashes across walls and wounded men scream in visceral agony.

I also wonder whether Tarantino found inspiration in another unlikely place: The TV miniseries Roots.

Not only has he created a bold depiction of black empowerment against all obstacles – not even betrayal and scorn from his own people keeps Django down for long – Tarantino seems to have borrowed a sly casting trick from ABC’s historic miniseries about the journey of author Alex Haley’s family from Africa through slavery in America.

Just as in Roots, Tarantino casts well-known and liked white actors in some of the film’s most villainous parts, keeping white audiences engaged. That means Dukes of Hazzard star Tom Wopat shows up as a sheriff, Bruce Dern appears as Django’s brutal onetime owner, Miami Vice alum Don Johnson is a blithely racist plantation owner and Titanic heartthrob DiCaprio plays Candie as the oily, entitled organizer of to-the-death fights among slaves, known here as “Mandingo fights.”

django_unchained_leo.jpg(Kudos, too, to Samuel L. Jackson’s crafty turn as Stephen, Candie’s head slave and feisty confidant.)

But Foxx’s Django is the movie laconic, quick-thinking center; a talented gun hand who overcomes his limited slave education, outwits the few white men he can’t outfight and emerges as 2012’s first black movie superhero at a time when most big-budget action films relegate people of color to cool sidekick or tough boss archetypes.

Foxx even rode his own horse in the action sequences. How cool is that?

Some will blanch at such extensive use of the n-word by a white filmmaker; others will question the avalanche of bloody violence amid a cascade of real-life mass shootings. And they will all have a point.

But Tarantino has pushed those buttons to create something unique: A bold vision of what a black hero can be in a period piece developed with a modern film geek’s eyes.

Thanks, Q.T., for the best Christmas present this fan of racially conscious films and blockbuster action movies could ever imagine.

The movie opens Christmas Day. My grade: A-.

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Understanding Newtown: When does shielding victims trump the press' push to know?

newtown-media.jpgAs the dust settles in Newtown, Conn., the stories have begun about the press hounding a community trying to heal after one of the most horrific mass shootings in recent memory.

The Facebook postings from some residents, as displayed by BuzzFeed, are damning. One accuses a CBS News staffer of pretending to be a friend of grieving mothers to get onto her property; another said six journalists questioned her during a visit to a vigil site.

Florida residents and journalists know these types of scenes well. Most recently, a similar scene unfolded on Bayshore Drive in Tampa, as journalists staked out the home of local socialite Jill Kelley after her named surfaced in connection to former CIA director David Petraeus' admitted affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell.

Residents of Sanford, Fla. suffered a similarly serious attack of media as the shooting death of unarmed African American teen Trayvon Martin became an international story.

Still, much as some resent the media's intrusion, other families have spoken up about their fallen relatives. Those of us with the unfortunate experience of covering tragedies know there are often times when people at the center of such events find talking cathartic -- helping them process their emotions (can't count how many times that's happened when interviewing spouses or relatives for obituaries, for example.)

And for every person who says such coverage isn't necessary, there are others who want to know exactly why and how such an incident happened. Unfortunately, there's few ways to get those answers without asking lots of people who knew shooter Adam Lanza, his murdered mother Nancy Lanza and others connected to that family and the victims' families.

Despite a request from the local Newtown Bee newspaper that out-of-town media cool it, doesn't seem likely these media hordes will go away anytime soon.

Should they? Can a hyper-competitive news media walk away from one of the biggest stories of the year with so many questions still unanswered? I'll be talking to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation tomorrow morning about this issue; what should I tell them?

Image below courtesy of BuzzFeed.newtownenhanced-buzz-18730-1355932852-1.jpg  

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My Top 10 TV shows of 2012 you won't see on any other critic's list

sonsofanarchy1.jpgIf you want to see one list I provided of the Top 10 TV shows from 2012, click here to see the tally I gave

It's a little different than the list I'll present at year's end, just because I wanted to break up the expected tally of high quality shows we all know will land on most TV critics' year-end stories. Any critic who doesn’t cite the Walking Dead, Homeland, Breaking Bad or Louie among 2012 best of picks has some more TV watching to do or is trying to be too cute by half. 

So Hitfix got a slightly different tally, and here I'm trying something new, too: 

My List of the Best TV Shows of 2012 That Won’t Be on Anyone’s Else's Best of Lists.

These are the shows I like to see which aren’t cool enough or ambitious enough or well-known enough to get attention. In other words, its the stuff I'd probably check out even if I didn't get paid to watch TV.

Check them out and see if they would make your list, too:

10) Unsung (TV One). Sort of a Behind the Music for R&B and soul fans, Unsung is a series that digs into the often-messy history of artists who may not have been famous enough with mainstream critics to get attention elsewhere. Watching how Arrested Development’s frontman Speech let his ego get out of control and "Ghostbusters" writer Ray Parker Jr. also wrote the signature guitar lines in early hits by Chaka Khan’s first group Rufus, I felt exposed to a music history lesson few others might know.


9) Chopped (Food Network). There’s lots of food competition shows out there, from the overwrought theatrics of Iron Chef series to the low budget inanity of Cupcake Wars. But my favorite is Chopped; a contest which takes four chefs from a wide variety of backgrounds, hands them a mystery basket of ingredients for appetizer, dinner and dessert categories, challenging each to be as creative as possible in tight time-limits. The results, judged by a snooty-yet-expert panel of Type A food stars, are surprisingly exciting, emotional and mouth-watering.

8) The Steve Harvey Show (Syndicated). Ask for a list of the last people who should be hosting a daytime TV talk show, and I would have put comic Harvey at the top of it (he always looks like he’s one glass of cognac away from cussing out anybody who crosses him). But that was before I saw his program, where Harvey is smart, charming and adept at translating a no-nonsense attitude into compelling segments on dating and handling your son as a single mom aimed right at daytime TV’s female demographic.

7) Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell (FX). This late night show, executive produced by Chris Rock and airing at 11:30 p.m. Thursdays, tackles race, politics, gender issues and more in a off-the-cuff vibe featuring African American standup comic Bell. At times, the show is still finding its voice – like a group of your most talented New York pals putting on a show – but Bell’s riff about the difference between Sheiks and Sikhs, including a shout out to the disco band Chic, was priceless.


6) Longmire (A&E). Based on characters from Craig Johnson’s mystery novels, this series has provided an amazing showcase for Australian actor Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire, a Wyoming sheriff struggling to find meaning in life after his wife’s death. Sure, it occasionally veers into Murder She Wrote land (too many killings in a town the size of a postage stamp), but viewers get a modern western mashed with a modern mystery series, as cases take Longmire to the nearby Native American reservation and beyond.

5) Dirty Jobs (Discovery). I know it was canceled not long ago by Discovery but this cheeky, low-budget series in which host Mike Rowe traveled to the ickiest jobs imaginable, may have been the most subversive reality series on television. Tackling everything from lamb gelding to inseminating turkeys, Rowe showed respect and admiration for folks who found nobility in working hard at awful jobs. That’s a long way from the insulting tone of new-school unscripted series such as Rocket City Rednecks and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

4) David Letterman’s audience-less Sandy shows (CBS). This was the ultimate test for TV’s best late-night host; how to present a rollicking show when weather from the approach of Superstorm Sandy got so bad, CBS sent home the audience one day and didn’t convene an audience the next day. Yeah, it was awkward and weird. But that’s often where Letterman shines, looking at sidekick Paul Shaffer while cracking that he “feels like Clint Eastwood; an old guy talking to empty chairs.”

3) Boss (Starz). Admittedly, I wasn’t initially in love with this series, starring Kelsey Grammer as a powerful Chicago mayor secretly stricken with a debilitating nerve disorder. But the layers of machinations deployed by creator Farhad Savinia was gloriously ruthless and surprisingly compelling. When Grammer’s Tom Kane gets his daughter busted for drugs to serve himself politically, you know you’re in for a ride. Too bad Starz decided to end that ride by canceling the show this year.

2) Vegas (CBS). Another mish-mash of genres, this show blends a modernized western with a Mob story and Mad Men-style nostalgia, showcasing a rancher-turned sheriff policing 1960s-era Las Vegas as mobsters move into the casino business. Yeah, it’s still too-often a CBS murder of the week procedural, but with Dennis Quaid as the irascible sheriff and Michael Chiklis as a wily gangster, it draws me in, week after week.

1) Sons of Anarchy (FX). This is the only show on my list which might make a few other critics’ picks; a brutal drama about a biker gang which humanizes gun-running, drug muling outlaws as roughnecks trying to protect their family. This season, the show’s theme was betrayal from inside, with gang leader Jax Teller framing the club’s former leader and main villain, Clay Morrow for the murder of a major drug lord. With sizable, showy guest roles for NYPD Blue’s Jimmy Smits and Lost alum Harold Perrineau, this season barreled through shocking scenes – An informant bites off his own tongue! A woman burned alive! – leaving us fans shellshocked and begging for more. 

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Understanding Newtown shooting coverage: Accepting errors in breaking news seems the biggest mistake

newtown-media2.jpgThere's been a lot of talk about media in the wake of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., as the world struggles to understand something that may be beyond rational thought.

Big picture-wise, I think America is experiencing the brutal intersection of many thorny issues: a runaway gun culture we have indulged for too long; a culture of violence which too-often glorifies those who end problems with a fist or gun; a chronically underfunded mental health system woefully unable to help average people struggling with mental illness; and a media culture which can make outsize villains of those who commit the most horrific acts.

It would be nice if the tragedy of 20 children killed in their own elementary school was a big enough shock to prompt some movement at least on the curbing of assault weapons ownership and boosting of mental health resources in America. But at a time when politicians can't even agree on a plan to avoid raising every voter's taxes by the start of 2013, I'm not holding my breath.

newtown-woman.jpgThere is one notion, however that I think should come off the table. The acceptance of the idea that major mistakes in breaking news coverage is the inevitable result of our modern, 24/7 media system.

Days later, it is apparent that much of what news outlets reported in the rush to cover the Newtown shootings was wrong. The shooter was 20-year-old Adam Lanza, not his 24-year-old brother, Ryan Lanza. Lanza's mother Nancy was not among those killed inside the school.

Lanza didn't target a class his mother taught at the school, because she wasn't a teacher at the school as initially reported (several stories online still contain a note that a parent believes Nancy Lanza was a substitute teacher there, but the superintendent denied that to the New York Times.) Lanza's father wasn't killed in New Jersey by the shooter; he lives in Connecticut with a new wife. Nancy Lanza was the relative killed by Adam Lanza at the home they both shared. And so on.

No one expects every detail to be accurate in the haze of a breaking news story, especially one so filled with so much horror and sadness. Numbers of deaths, circumstances of the shootings; we all expects those details to change as reporters get more time to track reliable sources.

newtown-media.jpgBut basic facts such as the identity of the shooter -- which many news outlets said was "confirmed " to be Ryan Lanza, only to recant that confirmation a few hours later -- should be nailed down as completely as possible before reporting. Even the fact that law enforcement sources provided the mistaken information may not be enough, anymore.

To say that such mistaken reporting is the result of dragging the reporting process into full view through social media, as Mathew Ingram suggests here, is to miss the point.

News outlets have decided in the past to limit in-the-moment reporting when doing so brings the potential for greater public harm than good. The best example is our modern elections coverage, in which news outlets don't reveal the substance of exit polling results for a state until polls are closed there, despite having the information much earlier. Thanks to the tremendous debacle of the 2000 election, when news outlets called Florida for both presidential candidates at one point, journalists realized the importance of putting accuracy ahead of speed.

noewotwn1.jpgIt would seem, after a year in which two major news outlets got the results of a Supreme Court ruling wrong on live television and the wrong man was blamed for one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, journalists need to take more control of the process again.

Should we reconsider reporting information from law enforcement in such situations without naming the source? If they aren't confident enough to release the information officially, should we be reporting it? Shouldn't we approach covering such shootings with the same reticence reserved for election coverage, where every result is chewed over by an army of analysts before reporting?

These are questions every major news outlet should be asking inside their newsrooms after Friday's problems.

Simply accepting that there is no solution for reporting huge chunks of a major story incorrectly in the moment sounds like a forward-looking acceptance of social media's impact. But it's really embracing a path which could destroy the news industry.

Consumers expect news outlets to get the big details rights when accuracy is needed most. Failing to do so erodes confidence in mainstream news organizations, making them look reliable as a guy blogging from his bedroom on the day's events.

In the same way tech-savvy people complain about newspapers deciding decades ago to give away free content online, news consumers of the future will ask why journalists accepted a flood of misinformation as a necessary by-product of a connected world.

In the end, most of us in journalism know our credibility is our most valuable asset. Squander that on too many mis-reported big stories, and there won't be enough paywalls in the world to save us.

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Showtime's Dexter and Homeland offer two different visions on how to close a big series' season

homeland.jpgI admit: Producers of Showtime's Homeland snookered me, but good.

Halfway through Sunday's season finale for the terrorism-centered drama, as I was tweeting my boredom with an episode which seemed about cautiously tying up loose ends after the death of terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir, a well-placed bomb blew apart any notions of a complacent series finale.

The bomb, which killed dozens of CIA agents gathered for a memorial to the slain vice president (including David Harewood's magnificently butt-covering director David Estes), was planted in the car of Damien Lewis' Nick Brody, a reformed war-hero-turned terrorist agent who swore he had nothing to do with the bombing.

Fans like me had wondered how Homeland would deal with the end of its terrorist plot, given that the CIA seemed intent on killing Brody once he'd delivered Nazir to them. As it turns out, Brody's salvation came from another of the show's patented plausibility-stretching plot twists; the black ops agent tasked with killing Brody decided on his own it wasn't necessary anymore. As if.

At any rate, the bomb coupled with the public release of a video Brody made back in the show's first season, when he strapped on a suicide vest and nearly blew up the vice president himself, seems to have convinced the world he was behind the bombing.

Which sets the table for a rollicking third season. Will the CIA agent Brody romanced, Claire Danes' bipolar wonder Carrie Mathison, find herself under suspicion for his disappearance? How will she explain not being inside the memorial where all the other agents got killed (she and Brody had briefly left the service to declare their love for each other.) Can she hide the fact that she helped him leave the country?

Will anyone explain why the CIA is allowed to violate law and operate inside the U.S.?

homeland1.jpg(Frankly, I'm looking forward to seeing Mandy Patinkin's no-nonsense analyst Saul Berenstein turn into the new Estes. His moment Sunday where he tells Carrie she is "the smarter and the dumbest f---ing person I've ever known" pretty much sums up every frustration every viewer might have had with her character's inconsistencies.)

More importantly, Homeland's game changing season finale stood in contrast to the season finale Sunday of another signature Showtime series, Dexter.

While Homeland's finale opened up a world of possibilities with a single blast, Dexter's last act -- which saw police Lt. Debra Morgan shoot and kill her superior officer to keep Dexter's identity as a serial killer from being revealed -- closed down possibilities in a cluster of implausible turns.

Much as people complained about Homeland's plot twists, I've found Dexter's turns to be less believable, as Debra struggled to cope with discovering at the start of this season that her adopted brother -- who she once admitted loving in a romantic way -- was a serial killer of murderers.

dexter_deb-270x200.pngOn Sunday, their bizarre bond took another step, as Debra killed Lauren Velez's dogged Capt. Maria LaGuerta, in an odd standoff where she had to choose between killing her brother or killing her boss. Nevermind that Debra had fought Dexter over his desire to kill criminals who supposedly "deserved" to die, including the person who ordered the death of his mother 40 years ago; in a moment, Debra moves all the way to killing a woman whose only crime was figuring out that Dexter is a serial killer.

For me, this heralds a season of increasingly implausible situations, leading to the series finale, tentatively planned for the end of next season. Whether the show ends with Debra and Dexter in handcuffs or on the lam, I'm going to feel like I'm watching a series which has flown off the rails in too many ways.

Still, I remain hopeful. After all, they could be snookering me just as smoothly as the Homeland crew.

Below, check out my NPR story previewing Homeland's problems with Persistent Disbelief Syndrome:


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Sam Jackson looses the F-word on the funniest Saturday Night Live in months

martinshortsnl8_620_121212-1.jpgFigures it would take a showbiz pro like Martin Short to pull Saturday Night Live back to one of its most relevant and fun episodes of the season.

It's a crime that my teenage kids had no idea who Short was, being way too young to see him when he was a castmember on SNL or on the Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV. His film turns, in The Three Amigos, the Father of the Bride movies and Innerspace, among many others, were also lost on them.

But they loved his exhuberance Saturday in the show's star-filled opening, futzing with Tom Hanks, Paul Shaffer, Tina Fey and Sam Jackson.

Still, it was Jackson who provided the show's viral moment, slipping up and letting the f-word fly at the end of SNL's mind-bending BET parody What's Up with That? (the premise, where a famous celebrity is always interupted on a talk show where the cast can't stop jamming on the opening theme, always felt more like a parody of what people who don't watch BET think airs on the channel.)

Sam needn't worry. Since SNL airs so late, there's little chance of an FCC fine. But he's going to be the butt of some serious jokes for a while. Check out the skit below - unfortunately, some other cool moments -- including musical guest Paul McCartney fronting the remaining living members of Nirvana in a performance -- weren't included in video clips. 

Go to about 6:20 in the clip below and imagine hearing the word NBC snipped out for the online clip: 



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Confusion reigns as news outlets stumble on suspect's name and interview children in Connecticut shootings

sandy-hook4.jpgAs news outlets scrambled to cover a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school which claimed the lives of over two dozen people, many stumbled on one of the key facts in the case: The exact identity of the killer.

For a while today, news outlets such as the Associated Press, CNN and ABC News reported that the killer who shot his mother and several students in her kindergarten class at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. was Ryan Lanza, age 24. The shooter reportedly killed himself and 26 others -- including 20 children -- in the attack.

But by 3:30p.m. or so, the New York Post was reporting the shooter's name was actually Adam Lanza, Ryan's 20-year-old brother. By 4:17 p.m., the Associated Press corrected its earlier reporting, noting that Ryan was being questioned by police, was not a suspect in the shootings and had a Facebook page where he posted the messages "it wasn't me" and "I was at work."

The AP story said a law enforcement official mistakenly transposed the names of the brothers. (The Tampa Bay Times website featured the AP's mistaken reporting before it was updated.)

sandy-hook2.jpg"We've seen this information shift around," said John Miller, a former spokesman for the FBI and police departments in New York in Los Angeles, now working as a special correspondent at CBS News, speaking during the network's coverage. "That's how these (emergencies) go."

The other delicate issue reporters faced was trying to interview students who might have been evacuated during the shooting, seeking firsthand information without upsetting or exploiting the children.

Kelly McBride, head of journalism ethics programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said anger toward reporters trying to interview children at the heart of this story may be fed by some journalists who do interviews badly. (The Poynter Institute owns the Tampa Bay Times).

sandyhookpic-500x281.jpgThose of us who have covered tragic stories before, know that sometimes people want to talk about what happened, if only to vent their emotions and make sense of what they have experienced. But McBride offered some ground rules.

She suggested reporters should get parental approval and keep the parent close during the interview, asking open-ended questions the child can answer at his or her own pace. Questions such as "was everyone screaming?" put words in the youths' mouths and keep them from expressing themselves. McBride also suggested TV reporters could interview children in a calmer area, away from the bustle of the emergency scene.

"The public gets really mad at journalists when they see them interviewing children," McBride said. "But if they were seeing a quality interview, people wouldn't be so angry."

Columnist Anne Louise Bannon suggests parents don't avoid telling their children about the shooting, since they likely pick up on the notion that something has happened. She suggests keeping circumstances vague for younger children, assuring them that the incident happened some distance away and assuring them they are safe.   

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