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Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Tampa Bay Times circulation rises nearly 14 percent in new figures

The Tampa Bay Times saw daily circulation rise nearly 14 percent from the previous year in new figures unveiled by the company which tracks newspaper circulation nationwide, the Alliance for Audited Media.

The Times ranked 16th among daily newspapers, with a circulation of 340,260 in the six months ending March 31.  Sunday circulation for the Times dipped nearly 7 percent in the same time, down to 402,422 from the same period in 2012, ranked 20th.

But current circulation figures are tough to judge, given the wide array of publications which can be counted toward the numbers under recent changes implemented by the AAM, once known at the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Figures now include digital subscriptions or special editions “branded” as an offshoot of the newspaper, including commuter editions. Even with the adjustments, overall circulation for 593 reporting daily newspapers dipped 0.7 percent; circulation for 519 Sunday newspapers dropped 1.4 percent, according to the AAM.  

For the Tampa Bay Times, daily figures are boosted by circulation from the free daily tabloid TBT*. Area competition The Tampa Tribune also drops off free editions in select neighborhoods

The Tampa Tribune earned Sunday circulation at 281,086 and daily circulation at 191,477.  

The Wall Street Journal emerged as the biggest daily newspaper, with circulation up 12.3 percent to 2.3 million, followed by the New York Times up 17.6 percent to 1.8 million.

In Sunday numbers, the New York Times was tops with 2.3 million, and increase of 15.9 percent (the business-focused Wall Street Journal doesn’t publish on Sundays). The Houston Chronicle, which saw its daily circulation drop 5.8 percent, still placed second among daily newspapers.

Chart courtesy of Times staffer Jeff Harrington

FLORIDA PAPERS    DAILY (CHANGE*)    SUNDAY (CHANGE)

Tampa Bay Times    340,260 (+14%)    402,422 (-7%)
Tampa Tribune    191,477 (+33%)    281,086 (+7%)**
Orlando Sentinel    161,070 (-7%)    268,257 (-7%)  
S. Fla. Sun-Sentinel    163,728 (-1%)    228,906 (-7%)  
Miami Herald    147,130 (-9%)    190,751 (-10%)  Full Story

Why Tom Brokaw, Barbara Walters and Sarah Palin need to get over sniping about White House Correspondents' Dinner

Comic Conan O'Brien (left) jokes with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday.

Getty Images

Comic Conan O'Brien (left) jokes with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday.

What’s more annoying; the annual hand-wringing over celebrities and excess at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner or the cynical attempts by all to exploit it to their own ends?

 

 

Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters complain that the event isn’t serious enough these days; too focused on silly celebrities for them to attend. But they somehow forget that august names such as Michelle Kwan, Sheryl Crow and Laurie David (wife of Seinfeld co-creator Larry David) attended the dinner way back in 2007.

Or that the entertainment included the Disneyland Golden Horseshoe Revue back in 1969 (personally, I would love to have been there the year before, when streetwise comic Richard Pryor was the headliner).

Sarah Palin called attendees “a—clowns” on Twitter, lowering the level of political-flavored discourse even further, without admitting that her daughter Bristol attended the 2011 dinner. She and Bristol also attended after-party events that year hosted by MSNBC (?!) and Vanity Fair.

What the WHCD really does these days, is confirm how much celebrity has become the most valued currency in all media, thanks to increasing competition everywhere. Once upon a time, “serious journalists” could gather in their own world, with a few well-known names hired or brought along to add a touch of glamour and excitement.

But some of the news media’s highest-profile names aren’t journalists at all, from Al Sharpton, Joe Scarborough and Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC to Anthony Bourdain on CNN, Sean Hannity on Fox News and celebrity kids Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush on NBC.

(Memo to Brokaw: you work for a news division which has hired five celebrity kids at various times, hired Palin to co-host Today when Katie Couric guest hosted on rival Good Morning America and stocked MSNBC prime time with non-journalists.)

Now more than ever, news outlets need to attract and hold attention. Which means leveraging celebrity where ever it comes.

With that out of the way, I’m ready to enjoy the performances, including a relaxed Barack Obama who dropped punchlines rooted in rap – “I got 99 problems and now Jay-Z’s one!” – and TV, noting correspondents had to decide whether to hire Conan O’Brien now “or wait five years and give it to Jimmy Fallon.”

(After all the groans, he missed the obvious comeback: “Too soon?”)

Check it out below:



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TV review: Robert Irvine's Restaurant Impossible brings reality TV storytelling to Clearwater restaurant

Food Network crew films "Creepy in Clearwater" episode at Smitty's Restaurant.

Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

Food Network crew films "Creepy in Clearwater" episode at Smitty's Restaurant.

The big question hovering whenever you watch an unscripted, so-called “reality TV” show is simple:

How much can you believe?

On Sunday, the Food Network aired “Creepy in Clearwater,” a Tampa Bay area-based episode of celebrity chef Robert Irvine’s show Restaurant: Impossible. Each week, Irvine travels the country helping beleaguered eatery owners revive failed enterprises, spending just $10,000 and two days working.

But can you believe it?

 

 

Irvine and his crew landed in February at Smitty’s, a humble, Greek-flavored meat-and-potatoes restaurant in Clearwater. By the looks of the show’s early footage, Smitty’s worked a menu inspired by roadside diners of old, packed with over 200 items and bedeviled by sagging patron numbers.

At the show’s start, owner Gus Gialelis admits the restaurant is now losing $1,500 to $2,000 a week and there are some weeks when he takes home $300 in pay. The family has mortgaged their home to keep everything going and are on the verge of giving it all up.

For fans of the show, this is standard operating procedure. We are introduced to a desperate, often family-owned operation run by folks clearly in over their heads. The early portion of the episode also features a rush of patrons who clamber into the restaurant and immediately zero in on flaws we know will be addressed later: dust and dirt on the ceilings, floors and pepper shakers; bland food; confusing, overloaded menu; drab, uninspiring décor.

And before long, Irvine stumbles on an icky scene -- a clutch of cockroaches living in an unused refrigerator. Instantly, he orders service to stop, kicks out the diners and informs the couple their restaurant may never re-open if they can’t get rid of the cockroaches (fans know this is an empty threat, because Chef Robert rarely fails on camera.)

Somehow, they find an exterminator who can get rid of the cockroaches in hours overnight (Irvine does admit to viewers that several more treatments will be needed over weeks to fully end the infestation). They also find a cleaning crew which performs the miracle of scraping all the crud and gunk out of Smitty’s kitchen and dining area – which seems an impressive feat, given the time frame.

We also see Chef Robert and Gus travel to a restaurant supply to store to look for a new, six-burner stove required because the restaurant’s current stove is a fire hazard. A quick look at the Internet shows used commercial stoves with that many burners can cost from over $1,000 to $4,000; Irvine simply says Gus “got a deal” on the stove, with no details on who paid for it or how much.

Another scene features Irvine schooling Gus on how much money he’s wasting by keeping so many items on his menu, showing him a wall covered with paper plates, each featuring a menu item.

It’s a powerfully visual way of demonstrating how much Smitty’s wastes keeping food on hand to cook items never ordered (Irvine cuts their menu to 30 items). But I kept thinking: The drama of the episode centers on how little time they have, thanks to the fumigation, which kept everyone out of the restaurant for hours. So why did they spend so much time attaching these paper plates to the wall?

Yeah, I’m nitpicking. And it gets worse. I kept wondering how Smitty’s got so dirty to begin with, and whether Chef Robert helped them figure out how to keep it clean.

According to a health inspector’s report placed online by St. Petersburg CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10, Smitty’s logged 13 health code violations in March after Irvine visited the eatery, including evidence of live roaches, two dead roaches and bug spray placed too close to food in the kitchen (an inspection two days later found a single violation, involving food management certification/employee training.)

In 2008, Tampa Bay Times writer Ben Montgomery detailed how Irvine told several tall tales around the area while trying unsuccessfully to develop and open two restaurants here, claiming to be a knight of the highest order. In a recent interview with Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley, Irvine said he learned lessons from that period; he more recently bought home in Westchase with his wife of less than a year, professional wrestler Gail Kim.

In the end, it may be tough to get the public to patronize a diner with such visible roach problems, especially when Irvine says on camera it may take weeks to fully eradicate them. (Reiley also showed me a menu from the restaurant after Irvine's visit with its old roster of many different items. Will it change after Sunday's broadcast?)

But the story of a small restaurant given new life is a good one. It's up to viewers whether they choose to take it with a grain of salt. Full Story

'Mad Men' recap: How bad can antihero Don Draper become before we stop caring?

Jon Hamm as Don Draper (left) and John Slattery as Roger Sterling on AMC's Mad Men.

AMC

Jon Hamm as Don Draper (left) and John Slattery as Roger Sterling on AMC's Mad Men.

After five new episodes of Mad Men, I’m convinced this season may come down to a simple question.

How anti can a hero get before he becomes a villain?

Or put a simpler way, how badly can Don Draper behave before we all start treating him like just another jerk?

 

 

The question first surfaced for me two Sundays ago, when Draper initiated a petulant argument over his wife Megan’s love scene during her job as a soap opera actress, only to head home and commit actual adultery with his neighbor’s wife.

This week, it was watching him react to the shooting death of Martin Luther King Jr. not by worrying if his black secretary was safe amid the rioting in Harlem, but by fretting over his mistress, who had accompanied her husband to Washington D.C.

He also skipped accompanying his wife and daughters to a vigil for Dr. King, instead taking his son to a movie (Planet of Apes, in a jarring move). When his wife Megan confronts him about being emotionally unavailable to his children, he admits how much he was faking being a parent when married to their mother, Betty.

“You want to love them, but you don’t,” he says, just before admitting that his son finally did something which made him genuinely proud. And instead of reacting in horror that her husband just admitted he hasn’t really loved his kids since they were born, Megan hugs her drunk, emotionally abusive spouse like he just won a father of the year award.

Creator Matt Weiner has said this season will put Draper through hell, but it feels as if we’re really just seeing him for what he is – a pretender with an open hole of need inside that he is afraid to barely acknowledge for fear it will swallow him whole. And because only those who are truly close to him can see it, he winds up hurting those most who draw nearest, blinded by the lie of a man who is far too scared to simply be himself.

Other oddities surfaced this week, most prominently the characters’ almost uniformly emotional reaction to the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

The great debate over civil rights was a discussion which mostly happened off camera for Mad Men’s 60s-era characters. But when MLK was shot, even greedy patrician Pete Campbell was upset enough to pronounce it a “shameful, shameful day.” (it’s worth remembering that Pete did try, quite a while ago, to get one of the firm’s clients to buy ads in black magazines.)

It’s as if most of the staff at Draper’s firm suddenly got religion on the civil rights movement without really discussing or dealing with it in their office or home life. What are they telling their children about this?  How do they feel among themselves? How will this affect business (besides prompting an odd client to suggest a fightening ad based on a message he says Dr. King delivered him in a dream)?

What surprised me most in Sunday’s episode – besides seeing L.A. Law alum Harry Hamlin pop up for a five-second, odd cameo – was the fact that these people still aren’t talking about civil rights or black people or the struggle for racial equality, even as they consider closing up their business early the day after MLK’s death.

And, as if to remind us that Draper is still a jerk, Weiner buttons up the episode with an exchange where his son can't sleep amid fears his politician stepfather might be killed by a sniper just like MLK.

Draper’s response: “(Stepfather) Henry’s not that important.”

It’s then you realize, stuck between a cold-hearted mother scrambling for an identity and a father who mostly pretends to care about them, that Draper’s children will be lucky if they don’t become serial killers themselves.

And our anti-hero slips that much closer to being just another jerk in a well-tailored suit.

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Gloria Platko and Accidental Racism Disorder: Diagnosing a political malady while puncturing media myth

The song "Accidental Racist" featuring LL Cool J (left) and Brad Paisley leads to diagnosis of a new malady: Accidental Racism Disorder

AP

The song "Accidental Racist" featuring LL Cool J (left) and Brad Paisley leads to diagnosis of a new malady: Accidental Racism Disorder

Anything I can do to bust up liberal media conspiracy, I’m happy to do.

So let me point out, right here, that a Democratic town clerk in Buena Vista Township, Mich. faces a controversy in which she used the n-word to describe a black township official. You can click on the YouTube video below to see a local news story on the dust-up.

Why would you care about this if you didn’t have the unfortunate luck to live in Buena Vista Township? It’s a shining example of how people, sometimes in important electoral positions, can insist they’re not racist on one hand and then commit an act which is horribly racist in another.

 

 

That’s what happened in Saline County, Kansas, when Republican County Commissioner Jim Gile used the word “n----r rigging” to describe a makeshift solution for a problem. Asked for clarification on what he meant, Gile replied “Afro-Americanized,” leaving little doubt he was connecting the idea of an improvised substandard solution to words describing black people.

His comments were greeted with laughter from some at the public meeting, before a newspaper report introduced his slip of the tongue to the wider world. Some conservatives have suggested national media isn’t salivating over the Buena Vista Township matter in the same way because Township Clerk Gloria Platko is a Democrat.

I’m not sure I buy that. But what is obvious to me, is that both Gile and Platko suffer from what I call the habit of “outsourcing racism” or “Accidental Racism Disorder.”

Cribbing a name from Brad Paisley’s ill-advised recent song, Accidental Racism Disorder describes a malady in which people mistakenly assume they can’t commit actions rooted in prejudice and racism simply because they aren’t bigots.

Gile and his wife explained publicly that he was using an old expresson, he has a close friend who is black, he builds homes for “colored people” through Habitat for Humanity and more. When Platko apologized for using the n-word to describe a black person while on the phone with another black official who recorded the call, she said it was “slip of the tongue,” it “wasn’t directed toward a race or a group of people” it was a habit she was taught when she was young and it was said during a private conversation.

In other words, she only uses the n-word to describe black people she doesn’t like, not all black people.

That reminds me of the incident in which Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young made national news using the term “wetback” to describe Latino workers who picked tomatoes on his family’s farm years ago.

His story was news, not only because he’s a member of Congress, but because his remark came as Republicans were trying hard to convince Latinos that they care enough about their issues that the GOP deserved a greater share of the Hispanic vote in national elections.

But that is a tough argument to make when Congressman from the party uses a slur against Latinos in a radio interview.

The point is, lots of people can harbor horrible stereotypes and prejudices about people without living their lives as full-on bigots. The real challenge is for people of good conscience to face down their worst beliefs and admit how awful this stuff is – no matter the excuse or explanation.

So let me break any notion of a liberal conspiracy to keep news of Platko’s severe case of ARD from the world.

Because I’m happy to take on anyone willing to sue the n-word in such a way, no matter which party they hail from.

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"F-bomb" anchor A.J. Clemente visits NBC's Today and Letterman, revealing serious problems with small town TV news

North Dakota news anchor A.J. Clemente, right, was fired after uttering a profanity as his first words on air.

UPI.com

North Dakota news anchor A.J. Clemente, right, was fired after uttering a profanity as his first words on air.

Appearing on NBC’s Today show this morning, fired North Dakota TV anchor A.J. Clemente spoke up about the most embarrassing on air mistake since New York anchor Sue Simmons let the f-word fly just before a commercial – revealing, in the process, why he probably shouldn’t have been allowed to anchor in the first place.

Today is just the first stop for Clemente, whose inadvertent use of a couple choice four-letter words in his first TV anchor appearance made him a viral video star and also earned him a spot on CBS talk show star David Letterman’s couch tonight (Wednesday).

After appearing on the sydnicated show Live with Kelly and Michael this morning, hosts Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa offered Clemente the change to cover the red-carpet opening on Pierce Brosnan's new movie Love is All You Need tonight; he'll return to their show Thursday to show how it all went.

What his mistake really reveals, however, is just how low the quality of local TV news is in Bismarck, the 151th TV market in the country -- leaving larger questions about how badly the modern media environment has hurt small TV news operations.

Clemente’s mistake has been broadcast to the world courtesy of cable news and morning TV shows addicted to viral video hits; he had the bad luck to exclaim “f---ing s—t” under his breath just before his very first appearance as an anchor on NBC affiliate KFYR-TV on Sunday.

In 24 hours, he became the best-known ex-TV anchor in the country fired by the station as its news director posted an apology to the station’s website.

But in the odd world of buzz-addicted news, Clemente has drawn more attention off the job; Letterman devoted his Top Ten List on Monday to Clemente’s mishap.

The clips of Clemente’s mistake also reveal a weekend news broadcast which looks little better than a college telecom assignment, with thin-sounding audio and co-anchors with scarely more poise than newbie Clemente. The new anchor’s name was even misspelled in the on air graphic displayed beneath his image while he was making his big mistake, leaving a period off the “J.”

Today show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie helpfully noted this morning that Clemente didn’t have an earpiece allowing him to hear what was being broadcast on the air. He also didn’t know the broadcast had started, presumably, because no one in the studio gave him a verbal cue the program was starting, either.

That seems like an odd omission for a newscast featuring guy who was starting his first show; surely, his more experienced co-workers could have helped him? And where is the scorn for the manager who allowed him to be stuck in this position?

Clemente himself still seemed to struggle with nervousness while on the Today show set, coming across as an earnest but inarticulate guy – a tough sell, when your primary job is to read things comfortably in front of a camera. Given his issues, he really wasn’t ready for any kind of anchor chair; still, a vote on Today’s website revealed more than 80 percent of respondents thought he shouldn’t have lost his job.

Celebrity is a currency with increasing value in today's media world, so it may not matter much why Clemente has grown so famous. If he doesn't have another job by the time his media tour is done, he'll really prove he doesn't deserve to be in the business.

Still, there's an important reason why I didn’t laugh when I really paid attention to the clip of Clemente’s mistake.

Because, beneath the amusing error, is evidence of just how ill-served some communities are by local TV news operations struggling to maintain the simplest elements of a news broadcast outside the country’s largest markets.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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Hack of Associated Press Twitter account dings stock market, makes users wary

Screenshot of AP's hacked account

Screenshot of AP's hacked account

Facing an audience in Los Angeles Sunday, I told the crowd that the double-edged sword of our modern media environment was that, in exchange for access to more information at their fingertips than ever before, they had a greater responsibility to check a wide range of sources to validate it all.

I had no idea the Associated Press would prove my point so well, days later.

 

 

Just after 1 p.m. today, the Twitter account for the worldwide wire service sent out a message saying there were explosions at the White House and President Barack Obama himself was wounded. According to the service's Twitter page, more than 1.9 million accounts "followed" messages from the news wire's account.

Within minutes, other AP employees were warning that the message was a fake issued by a hacked who had gain illegal access to their account. Minutes after that, Twitter suspended the account, though retweets of the message seemed to live on. AP also reported its mobile twitter account was hacked and would also be suspended.

According to a chart tweeted by Wall Street Journal reporter Charles Forelle, the Dow Jones stock market dropped more than 100 points for the brief moments that the tweet went uncorrected, returning to previous levels instantly. (I wondered if some of that was due to the impact of trading by computers, which react to shifts in the market so quickly, they sometimes magnify reactions to mistaken or misleading news.)

Combined with the ugly sight of widespread erroneous reporting connected to the Boston Marathon bombings, it seems obvious that the phrase caveat emptor never applied better to social media consumers, even when dealing with typically impeccable online news purveyors such as her Associated Press.

As journalists learn early on, even when your mother declares her love, you better check it out with a second source.

Turns out, Twitter users would be wise to follow the same credo, even for news coming from outlets with a better track record than mom.



Why are TV writers making so many of today's TV cops so stupid?

Police officers on TNT's Southland buck the trend of TV's stupid cops.

TNT

Police officers on TNT's Southland buck the trend of TV's stupid cops.

This is the moment that made me throw a pillow at my TV screen last week.

 

 

A policeman has stopped a car as part of a roadblock looking for a fugitive who once was the county sheriff and is also a member of a murderous cult. (I know! Stay with me here.) The missing fugitive is a white male suspected of helping hide another serial killer; the car has a white male wearing a hat and sunglasses sitting in the passenger seat.

The policeman has his eye on the passenger as he gets out of the car, hand on his holstered gun. Somehow, the passenger, who is the fugitive, of course, whips out his own gun and shoots not only that officer, but another policeman standing farther away, like Wyatt Earp on his best day.

This is the level of police stupidity required to further the plot lines on Fox's latest drama series, The Following. And I have had enough of it.

For those who missed my earlier column on TV violence, The Following is movie star Kevin Bacon's first foray into life as a TV star, featuring the onetime Footloose lead as a damaged FBI agent drawn into a cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer played by James Purefoy, literary professor Dr. Joe Carroll.

But for the plot line to work — the serial killer recruits a legion of cultlike followers, escapes from a maximum security prison and kidnaps his wife and son out of police protection — every cop in the show has to be dumb as a box of hair.

Even Bacon's character, Ryan Hardy, isn't exempt. The show's backstory includes the notion that Hardy was once so stupid he consulted Carroll to help him catch a mysterious serial killer who turned out to be the professor himself. (also a bit of a ripoff of the Hannibal Lechter movie which predated Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter. There, Will Graham was a damaged FBI agent who had been attacked by Lechter after figuring out he was a killer while consulting with him on crimes.)

Hardy's stupidity was exposed again in last week's episode, when a follower of Carroll's showed up claiming she was leaving the cult to take an immunity offer.

A police officer pipes up and says he has frisked her for a weapon. But he somehow misses the sharpened sticks in her hand, which she whips out and stabs into the eye of the FBI agent in charge. Wonderfully shocking end to an episode, achieved by making a roomful of FBI agents look dumber than everyone watching at home.

It also got rid of a character who, not surprisingly, was questioning whether Hardy was right for the job. A smart leader would have sacked everyone within sight of this case when Carroll escaped from jail. Or when an agent was kidnapped from his hotel and tortured by the cult. Or when the sheriff they were consulting turned out to be a Carroll followed named Roderick. These guys have screwed up so many times, it's tough to pick the worst one.

This is a dynamic worse than the typical TV crime show formula, where one cop is particularly smarter than all the other detectives (The Mentalist, Elementary, The Closer, Law & Order and Criminal Intent). At least on those shows, someone is smart enough to close a case and stop the bad guy.

And it doesn't stop with The Following. NBC's new serial killer drama Hannibal features Casino Royale bad guy Mads Mikkelsen as the legendary foodie/serial killer Lechter, who also manipulates a department full of skilled federal agents into considering everyone but him as the killer they're all searching for.

All these shows could learn a lesson from Showtime's Dexter, which allows Michael C. Hall's serial killer Dexter Morgan to outwit the entire Miami police department without making them look incredibly inept. (Showtime just announced that the show's 2013 season, debuting at 9 p.m. June 30, will be its last.)

Indeed, next season unfolds after Morgan's sister Deborah discovered his secret and killed another cop who also figured out his crimes. It might have taken them seven seasons to work it out, but at least one Miami police officer eventually sussed out that their blood spatter technician was so good at figuring out murderers because he is one, too.

Better yet, Following creator Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson's Creek) could watch Southland, TNT's amazingly excellent cop series that aired a season finale Wednesday which looked an awful lot like a series finale. (At press time, the show hasn't yet been picked up for a new season.)

Southland's cops are street smart, observant, distracted, misguided and struggling to cope with a job where survival and success often feel like a roll of the dice.

Last week, troubled veteran John Cooper (given a marvelously layered life by Michael Cudlitz) was shot by his fellow officers while beating a belligerent neighbor. He had just survived a hostage situation weeks earlier where his partner was killed.

When shows like Southland are fighting for their lives in a tiny corner of TNT's schedule, somehow it seems unjust that the bonehead vision of law enforcement on The Following and Hannibal should get such a wider platform.

We can only hope these show creators realize, by allowing their characters to be a little smarter, it gives us all a better story.

 

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Race-Baiter update: What I've learned after a spring of talking race and media everywhere from CSPAN to CSUN

EricDeggans.com

As I write this, I’m in Los Angeles finishing up an amazing spring spent talking about my book Race-Baiter to audiences ranging from George Washington University in Washington D.C. to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the campus of the University of Southern California.

Along the way, I’ve faced audiences in college classrooms, bookstores, auditoriums, TV call-in shows and radio programs to talk about everything from the travesty of CNN’s reporting on a bombing suspect as a “dark-skinned male” to Brad Paisley’s massive fail of a racial reconciliation song, “Accidental Racist.”

What I’ve found: The general principles in my book of talking across race, recognizing prejudice and stereotypes in media, pushing back against harmful images in media and understanding the history of such images in our culture tend to surface on a regular basis. Every week or two, a new crisis arises in which race, gender or cultural issues in media play a prominent role.

 

 

There are those who want to tune out these discussions, of course. They say such talk is mostly about giving people of color unfair advantage in an evenhanded society, and accuse those of us pressing for these discussions of looking to profit by sowing seeds of division in an already fractured society.

But, too often, that feels to me like a particularly pernicious form of denial. Pointing out a ditch in the road doesn’t mean I created the hole; I’m just trying to keep too many people from stepping in it.

Indeed, I’ve felt a particular honor in spreading word about this book and hearing the stories of others navigating America’s perilous cross-cultural waters. There was the Latina student, brought to this country as an illegal immigrant, making a documentary film on the arduous process of achieving citizenship; the Puerto Rican girl who looks African American and must deal with the way people from different groups talk and act when they are not aware of her true heritage; the white family raising an African American adopted child, wondering how to keep him from internalizing the worst images in media while connecting him with his heritage.

I write this just to note here what an amazing cultural conversation is already going on in our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods and our workplaces. These past few months, I’ve been privileged to lead a few of these conversations and provide context and tips for others to continue the discussion.

Below is a grab bag of videos below from some of my appearances, including a Q&A appearance for the LATimes book festival on C-SPAN and an interview conducted by students as California State University, Northridge. Click here to see a panel from the LATimes festival on the Front Lines of the Culture Wars.

Check out some of the discussions. If you want to learn more click here to buy a copy of my book and feel free to email if you’d like me to bring one of these discussions to your area.

Click here for more on the book, including purchase info:

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Why did media make so many mistaken assumptions about Boston Marathon bombers' race?

The New York Post highlighted two innocent men on its cover Thursday.

New York Post

The New York Post highlighted two innocent men on its cover Thursday.

WASHINGTON D.C. --- Now that we know the men who seem to have placed the bombs at the Boston Marathon were Eastern Europeans who weren’t dark-skinned and may have been from Chechnya, what do we do with all the misleading, race-based assumptions that flooded media this week?

CNN analyst and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile had a suggestion, speaking at a forum I also attended Thursday on Race in the Race for the Presidency at George Washington University. She suggested CNN reporter John King should apologize for airing a vague description that the bombing suspect was a “dark skinned male.”

 

 

“I cringed,” said Brazile, when asked about the description by GWU professor Frank Sesno, a former correspondent and Washington Bureau Chief for CNN himself, noting that the description inviting profiling of a wide range of non-white people. “I think an apology is due.”

King’s description also drew rebukes from the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for its vagueness and invitations to racial profiling. The description itself seemed an attempt to avoid such charges - focusing on the suspect’s possible skin color rather than a presumed ethnicity.

But King’s reporting blunder revealed two important facts about the modern reporting environment. First, there is enough diversity in America that providing a criminal suspects presumed skin color is really no help at all in finding the culprit.

And it is not enough, in such heated circumstances, for journalists to accurately report what law enforcement thinks at the time. They have to be careful not to pass along law enforcement's mistakes as cold facts.

It is sad to note that this incident has led some to accuse reporters themselves of being racist, when there's no proof of that at hand. As I note in my book, Race-Baiter, it is easy for people to act on or enable stereotypes without actually being racist. Such notions are persistent, comforting and a consistent part of society in so many ways, it is easy for journalists and media figures to echo such notions, particularly if they are not vigilant.

There's a reason groups such as the NABJ advise against using vague descriptions which might enable racial profiling. It's not about hurt feelings or political correctness; it's about providing accurate reporting and useful information.   

Beyond King’s unfortunate reporting, the New York Post highlighted two men on its cover Thursday with the inflammatory headline, “Bag Men,” including a 17-year-old Moroccan who insisted on his innocence to media afterwards.

The Post also initially reported that 12 people had died in the bombing, when the death toll currently stands, days later, at three. Such headlines seem rooted in echoing – and selling papers by exacerbating – the wave of hysteria and anti-Muslim paranoia which swept through the nation in the wake of the bombing.

That the newspaper has tried to defend its reporting only makes the problem worse, as average consumers are left to wonder if they can trust anything passed along by the news media is the early aftermath of a traumatic disaster.

NBC’s justice correspondent Pete Williams has stood out as an example of measured, well-sourced reporting, pushing back against mistaken reports of an arrest on Wednesday and revealing .

Salon columnist David Sirota weighed in with a column titled “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American,” noting that white privilege allows murderous terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh to be seen as lone wolves, while terrorists of a Muslim background are seen as part of a conspiracy, even if they are also lone nutsos.

But the column title also revealed a suspicion also percolating in some areas of social media that the bomber might have been a white American in McVeigh’s style. As we learn more about the men zeroed in by police this morning, it seems obvious both assumptions were dead wrong.

What we should learn from this debacle, is that any speculation is domed to be wrong. But in an age of endless cable TV pontificating and Twitter-fast news reporting, pining for the days when journalists could wait for corroboration seems quaint.

After each post-disaster debacle reveals itself, media critics like me write columns like this pining for restraint and sensible reporting. But if the widespread mistakes in reporting on Newton and Boston weren’t enough to convince media outlets to step back in such reporting nothing will.

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Netflix's new series Hemlock Grove proves cutting edge TV isn't always good

The poster for Netflix's new series, released on the service today, Hemlock Grove.

Netflix PR

The poster for Netflix's new series, released on the service today, Hemlock Grove.

Not every step in the new TV revolution is going to be a great one.

That's my reaction after wading through three episodes of streaming video pioneer Netflix's latest attempt to redefine television: Hostel director Eli Roth's moody mess of a horror series, Hemlock Grove.

 

 

The show itself is a disappointing collision between Twin Peaks, Freaks and Geeks and True Blood, setting a supernatural series about a bloody killer in a quirky town where the most dysfunctional teenagers on television are attending the gloomiest high school west of Transylvania.

But Hemlock Grove is also an example of what I like to call "too much of a good thing" syndrome in TV. And it's a silent killer felling many promising television projects.

The symptoms are easy to see. Pointlessly explicit sex scenes. Jarring, yet unneeded curse words. Lush, finely crafted visuals that showcase empty scenes. Ace actors trapped in a series going nowhere, hemmed in by its own lack of boundaries.

Once upon a time, critics like me railed about great shows cut low by a lack of resources or network TV's narrow conventions. But with everyone from Netflix and Amazon to the Discovery and History channels trying to get into the quality scripted TV game, the script has flipped.

Projects such as Hemlock Grove, Starz's new drama DaVinci's Demons and HBO's new TV movie starring Al Pacino as superstar producer-turned-murder suspect Phil Spector all have the same, slightly different problem.

Too much of the good things. And not enough of the necessary things.

Like a compelling plot. Characters you can't stop watching. Stories that actually mean something.

Hemlock Grove debuts today on Netflix, which will release all 13 episodes of the first season at once. So, with no commercial breaks at hand, Roth takes his time moving through this story. It isn't until the beginning of the third episode that the show's dramatic framework, the search for a brutal killer of young girls in a gloomy Pennsylvania town, is clear.

That wouldn't be a problem if the characters were compelling. But everyone here is a mysterious sad sack, from the poor gypsy kid everyone says is a werewolf to the self-pitying rich kid who might be a vampire and his mother, played by X-Men movie alum Famke Janssen, striding through scenes like the personification of a man-eating demon.

Oh, and the vampire kid has a giant, mutant sister with a bloated right eye and hands wrapped in gauze. Seriously.

The paradoxes are jarring. Dougray Scott, a Scottish actor known for missing out on opportunities to play both Wolverine and James Bond, delivers a note-perfect American accent, while Dutch actress Janssen speaks in British tones so awful she seems to slip out of them in mid-sentence.

There's also an animal attack shot to look like a sex (or rape) scene; the most disgusting (and, admittedly, creative) werewolf transformation in recent TV history; and the fact that the show's only major non-white character doesn't show up until somewhere in the third episode. (see the tranformation, which is bloody and might be NSFW, by clicking here.)

Sadly, big budgets and loosened constraints don't always add up to great art. (Imagine how dumb Jaws would have been as a movie if Steven Spielberg hadn't been forced to create mystery by filming around a mechanical shark that rarely worked?)

According to the analysis firm BTIG Research, Netflix's 28 million subscribers now watch an average 87 minutes of streaming video every day. Those are viewing levels that would place it among the most-watched cable channels on TV, including the Disney Channel.

So perhaps it's time the service had a dud after the success of its first series House of Cards and before the highly-hyped return of the rebooted comedy Arrested Development — due to debut in a 15-episode rush May 26. Now we get to see how TV's most disruptive platform handles its first dog of a show.

It's a bitter lesson. Sometimes, removing all the boundaries for an artist leaves nothing to push them toward greatness.

See the "red band," explicit trailer by clicking here.

 

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Daily Show star Lewis Black raises ranting to a fine art in Tampa tonight

Lewis Black bring his 'The Rant is Due' tour to the Straz Center in Tampa at 8 tonight.

Comedy Central

Lewis Black bring his 'The Rant is Due' tour to the Straz Center in Tampa at 8 tonight.

Lewis Black has a theory about why life seems so jacked up these days.

“In my humble opinion, we all have ADD,” he pronounces, using a slightly less energetic version of the feverish shouting fans know from his standup specials and appearances on The Daily Show.

 

“I didn’t get it until I was 45, but I’m certain I have it now,” added the comic, 64. “Twitter and Facebook and all the other distractions we’ve managed to accumulate in our lives that have nothing to do with what’s really in front of us…Multitasking is a just a euphemism for ADD.”

So does that mean he’s off the social media grid, like some wisecracking, media savvy curmudgeon?

“Well, I got drunk with my friend (and fellow standup comic) Kathleen Madigan and she insisted, so now I’m on Twitter,” Black admits with a sigh, saying he only entered the social media world to let fans know when he was coming to their towns. “I have a Facebook page, I have a website, I got all the crap you could possibly have, and people still didn’t know I was coming to town.”

Welcome to the world of Lewis Black, where no disappointment or shortcoming is too slight to acknowledge with an energetic rant. Or two.

Once upon a time, he was a struggling playwright with a master’s degree in fine arts from the Yale School of Drama. Born Lewis Niles Black in Silver Spring, Md., he was raised the middle-class, Jewish child of a teacher and an engineer who spent 20 years writing plays no one went to see.

“I would get ‘em up and done, but mostly nobody showed interest. I think I was mentally ill,” he said, shrugging off the suggestion that perhaps he was just a stubbornly creative artist.

“No, I was stupid; stupid is a better word,” Black insisted, recalling one 25-minute play in which Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz goes back to her black and white world, only to find everyone got killed by the tornado which whisked her away to the land of Oz. “It’s 25 minutes long. By the time you realize you hate it, it’s over.”

Black’s work hosting productions of his plays led to a standup comedy routine which, thankfully, proved more successful. Based on acerbic, borderline bitter amazement at how absurdly disappointing the world can be, his jokes reflect the artful, politicized rants also indulged by contemporaries like Dennis Miller and Will Durst.

Consider this joke: “"In my lifetime, we've gone from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. We've gone from John F. Kennedy to Al Gore. If this is evolution, I believe that in twelve years, we'll be voting for plants."

Or this, on The Apprentice star Donald Trump’s possible candidacy for president:  “Finally, a leader that talks to other countries the way they deserve -- like a bookie from Staten Island."

Small wonder Black found a home on Comedy Central, which broadcast a number of his standup specials and made him a regular part of its news satire The Daily Show back in the mid’90s, when original host Craig Kilborn was in the driver’s seat.

The big difference between the Kilborn days and Jon Stewart’s current reign? Focus.

“Jon really spent, I would say, a good three to five years getting the show focused,” Black said. “There’s few shows that have substituted as well as they have…They never skipped a beat from losing Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, which was major. The show became what Jon wanted it be…it takes the issues we’re pounded with every day and says ‘here’s the funny.’”

That’s what Black also hopes to do in a new standup special airing at the end of August on a platform yet to be determined. Fans attending his show in Tampa tonight will get a sneak preview of that performance, which is a still a bit of a work in progress.

But even as contemporaries like Louis C.K. rewrite the rules for standup specials – he distributed one show directly to fans online; his next one aired on HBO last Saturday – Black worries the lack of profit makes it tough to keep the form around.

“I was producing something for X amount of dollars; now it’s half that,” he said, noting that, because cable channels are paying less for specials, he’s working with friends to find an alternative model. “If I was 40, I might have a part of my day and brain that could deal it with it. But I have people around me that I trust and we’ll see if we can pull it off.”

He’s also developing a play to be produced in Cape Cod later this year called One Slight Hitch, along with a book project. Though it all, Black holds onto that peculiar mix of hopefulness and cynicism that keeps fans engaged.

“I felt that the election was a reboot…the American people basically said, ‘We do want healthcare and we do want this other stuff…it’s basically a civic duty. (Voters said) ‘Somebody has to fix the world, a—hole.’”

In Black’s world, politicians seem like deliberately clueless boyfriends, acting like they don’t know how to get things done until their girlfriend – the American people – stop asking.

“That’s exactly what it is,” he said, laughing. “It’s really like a bad date.”

Get ready for his show tonight at the Straz Center in Tampa by checking out his latest Daily Show rant on consevatives and the poor below.

 

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Mistaken reports on Boston bombing arrest highlight dangers for media in anonymous sources and speculation

Juliette Kayyem, Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper navigate confusion on Boston bombing investigation reports for CNN.

CNN

Juliette Kayyem, Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper navigate confusion on Boston bombing investigation reports for CNN.

Confusion exploded across television news outlets and social media today, as several reputable news outlets reported that a suspect had been identified and arrested in Monday’s bombing at the Boston marathon, only to turn around and recant the news as official sources denied the reports.

Once again, the culprit seemed to be anonymous law enforcement sources – also blamed for the numerous erroneous reports in early reporting on the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

Reports from those mistaken sources became a part of cable news’ instant round robin of speculation and theorizing, even while some anchors cautioned about the dangers of speculating with so little information. And as the conflicting reports piled up on Twitter, theaudience had the sense of watching a media meltdown occur in real time.

 

In this case, mistaken sources led CNN, Fox News, the Associated Press and the Boston Globe to report at various times this afternoon that a suspect had been identified and arrested in connection with the crime.

Other news outlets, including NBC and CBS insisted that no arrest had taken place; eventually sources in the Boston police department and Department of Justice denied an arrest had taken place, issuing official statements to quell the furor.

“Despite reports to the contrary there has not been an arrest in the Marathon attack,” read a terse post on Twitter by Boston police, issued about an hour after CNN’s initial report that a suspect has been arrested.

CNN anchor John King reported around 1:30 p.m. that police had identified a suspect in the bombing. About 15 minutes later, he added that an arrest had been made, citing sources in Boston police department, backed by a former presidential homeland security advisor-turned-CNN contributor, Fran Townsend.

Fox News also sent a message on Twitter at 2:05 p.m. saying suspect had been arrested; seven minutes later, the Boston Globe tweeted an arrest was “imminent” and three minutes after that, the Associated Press reported on Twitter that a suspect had been taken into custody.

But during that time, from about 2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., NBC and CBS insisted no arrest had been made. “All we can say for certain, is that all of our sources say no arrest,” said Pete Williams, NBC’s justice correspondent. CBs pronounced on twitter no arrest had been made just after 2 p.m.

So what happened?

By 2:33 p.m., CNN reporter Joe Johns was quoting anonymous sources at the Justice Department – one of whom said he or she “triple-checked” the information – to say there had been no arrest and no suspect identified.

“I’m told they have now checked as high as the attorney general of the United States,” King added, returning to CNN’s air at 2:45 p.m. to confirm no one had been arrested. “I went back to the Boston law enforcement source who said ‘We got ‘em.’ I said ‘Got an identification or arrest?’ The sources says ‘Can’t talk to you right now.’ Says there’s significant blowback at the leaks.”

King had also drawn ire on Twitter an hour earlier, noting that analysis of video footage had police zeroing in on a “dark skinned male.”

“I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things," he added. “I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official.” Presumably, the same official who told him about the arrest?

That reporting drew a sharp Twitter retort from PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, who noted “Disturbing that it's OK for TV to ID a Boston bombing suspect only as 'a dark-skinned individual.'"

By the end of the day, the National Association of Black Journalists had also weighed in, issuing a statement objecting to the vague description as an invitation to racial profiling. "There have been various reports identifying a potential suspect as 'a dark-skinned individual.' This terminology is not only offensive, but also offers an incomplete picture of relevant facts about the potential person of interest's identity," read a statement issued by the organization. "When conveying information for the public good, and which can help law enforcement with the help of a vigilant public to keep the country safe, it's important that such facts be put into proper context.

"NABJ in no way encourages censorship but does encourage news organizations to be responsible when reporting about race, to report on race only when relevant and a vital part of a story. Ultimately this helps to avoid mischaracterizations which might encourage potential bias or discrimination against a person or a group of people based on race or ethnicity."

(Full disclosure: I serve as head of NABJ's Media Monitoring Committee, though I had nothing to do with writing or distributing this statement. Click here to see the NABJ's style guide for tips on when to refer to race in news stories.)

What also dismayed critics was watching CNN anchors Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper continue to fill long minutes this afternoon speculating on the situation with Juliette Kayyem, a former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, even after the embarrassing circumstance of retracting reports on an arrest.

What seemed obvious, after the back and forth today, is that warning about the dangers of speculating doesn’t help, if it doesn’t stop you from speculating, anyway.

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Has "Iron" Mike Tyson become the kind of celebrity America can love?

Wife Lakiha "Kiki" Spicer (left) is credited with helping Mike Tyson change his self-destructive ways.

Wife Lakiha "Kiki" Spicer (left) is credited with helping Mike Tyson change his self-destructive ways.

The first thought which comes, when you see how easily he handles the public and media these days, is: Mike Tyson should not be behaving like this.

 

This is the Mike Tyson who once bit off the ear of opponent Evander Holyfield when he seemed to be losing a boxing match in 1997. This is the Tyson who was convicted of raping a former beauty pageant contestant in an Indianapolis hotel room in 1991, serving three years in prison.

This Tyson once cheerfully admitted enjoying the thrill of mugging people as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, arrested more than 30 times by age 13. As the self-proclaimed “baddest man on the planet,” he racked up knockouts in the ring, a brief, tabloid-worthy marriage to actress Robin Givens and raging drug habits.

But on a conference call with reporters last year to tout the start of his one-man, autobiographical stage show Undisputed Truth, Tyson worked the electronic room like the sports world’s version of Ryan Seacrest, calling out reporters by name and sharing inside jokes with a charismatic, upbeat charm.

This was not the guy who once glumly told a TV reporter: “People basically suck; they're always trying to screw you.” This was a guy working hard to charm reporters who once spent much of their time digging up embarrassing stories on his life.

So when the time came for a one-on-one interview earlier this year, the first question was simple: How did you do it?

How did you change?

“Back when I was fighting, I was the baddest man on the planet, self-proclaimed, right?” said Tyson, his high-pitched lisp familiar as any voice in media. “So in order to be that guy, I had to act that guy…So in order to be the entertainer I wanna be, I have to be this guy. I’m very good at…being adaptable. I’m almost perfect at it.”

So how much of this new Mike Tyson comes from real, personal change and how much of it is, well, acting?

“I changed my lifestyle, so my life changed,” said Tyson, insisting life with third wife Lakiha "Kiki" Spicer keeps him from the kind of club crawling which led to arrests for DUI and drug possession years ago.

But there is also a tension in his voice. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago, Tyson quickly warns “don’t ever think my demons are not haunting me.”

He gives the sense that, even now, his life as a family man and a performer -- playing off his tough guy image in The Hangover films and on Law & Order: SVU -- could change.

All it might take is a decision to become a different guy. Again.

Ask how he handles dredging up all these awful moments from his past in the show, and Tyson drops another secret.

It’s easy, he insists, because he’s not himself during the show: He’s playing a character.

“I’m an actor portraying Mike Tyson,” he said. “I don’t look at myself as being Mike up here. I’m not involved emotionally with my past, my feelings, my insecurities. I’m just making fun of this schmuck over here, so it’s not bothering me. It’s all on him. That’s how I separate myself.”

Tyson said he got the idea for his one-man show after attending a Las Vegas production of Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale. A one-man, semi-autobiographical show in which the Oscar-nominated actor plays multiple roles (film legend Robert DeNiro directed the movie version), A Bronx Tale transfixed the couple, leaving Tyson convinced he could do something similar about his own life.

“(Before) I saw Chazz Palminteri, I didn’t know what I was doing…I was just doing meet-and-greets, going all over the world, signing autographs, shaking hands, taking pictures,” he said. “I wanted to entertain people. I wanted them to hear every word I say, like Mr. Palminteri had me and my wife and the rest of the audience feeling. I wanted to do that to people.”

That’s why Tyson said he doesn’t take questions from the audience for his show. “I wanted people to see me from an artistic point of view,” he added. “That’s why they say this is Mike doing something I never thought he could do.”

An early version of the show had musicians and a vocalist onstage with him. But renowned film director Spike Lee heard about the production and reached out to Tyson, convincing him to work up a version for Broadway which would ditch the band and focus on the ex-boxer himself, alone onstage.

And what may have been the biggest surprise, once the show got going, is that the crowd often loves what bothers him the most.

“The stuff that hurts the most, the crowd laughs at and that takes me back,” he said during the conference call last year. “I don’t know how to deal with that. I go through the show, but I say ‘Wow, do they think that’s funny?’ It’s weird. Part of my life that destroyed me. That’s funny to you? I don’t know.”

Later, in talking about the book he’s now writing about his life – also to be called Undisputed Truth -- Tyson admitted learning something important about himself.

“I’m very insecure; that I’m really ashamed still,” he added. “I can’t believe that I’m still worried about what people think about me. I just don’t wanna bring it up and hear it again, because it always comes up.”

Spend some time on Amazon, and you’ll find nearly two dozen books written about Mike Tyson. What can he bring that others haven’t already said?

“The truth.”

Could he be more specific?

“They don’t know me, so they captured zilch,” he said of other biographers and writers. “They only captured what they’ve seen in the newspaper or what they seen in the ring..My friends don’t even know me. I don’t even know who I am. I can just give you what I am at this particular stage in my life…I might change next year and be a different person.”

Mention that his recent journey from menace to entertainer mirrors the path of another boxer-turned-good guy celebrity, George Foreman, and Tyson suggests their motivtions differ a bit.

“He felt his way after losing a fight, and I felt this way after losing the fights of life…I just gave up on life,” he said, citing his cameo appearance in the first Hangover movie as a major turning point for his career and life. “(I realized) I don’t have to be one of those boxers who had a great time and you read about him dying in the gutter somewhere. I didn’t want to bring that legacy on my family and children.”

He mentions the death of his 4-year-old daughter Exodus, who died when her neck was tangled in the power cord of a treadmill at her mother's home in 2009, as a major influence. He married Spicer less than two weeks later. Now, he's a convert to Islam and a vegan with a boxing clothing collection, a self-named charity and a budding acting career.

In a country which seems founded on the second chance, Tyson seems on the verge of pulling off the biggest redemption story yet.

And the greatest surprise may be that, somehow, "Iron" Mike Tyson became a celebrity America could love.

“My success is not about no money, he said, somberly. “My success is about not going to prison, not killing or hurting nobody, or getting killed or hurt, respecting my wife; not giving her venereal diseases from me fooling around and being disrespectful. Those are my victories. That’s my success.”

Mike Tyson performs his one-man, autobiographical stage show at 8 tonight in Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. Tickets are $500, $300, $100, $75 and $50. www.rutheckerdhall.com; box office (727) 791-7400.



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Tampa Bay Times wins Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing; the ninth award in newspaper's history

Tampa Bay Times staffers Tim Nickens (left) and Dan Ruth won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

Tampa Bay Times

Tampa Bay Times staffers Tim Nickens (left) and Dan Ruth won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

It was an emotional scene this afternoon as past and present staffers at the Tampa Bay Times and Poynter Institute gathered in the paper's newsroom to honor three of their own who had been honored by journalism's most prestigious awards contest.

Staffers broke into cheers as a tinny voice annonced the news over a webcast hasily dialed up on one of the newsroom's large TV monitors: The Tampa Bay Times had won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for a series of editorials that encouraged Pinellas County to resume adding fluoride to the drinking water.

In all, the Times was recognized three times by the Pulitzer board: Tampa Bay Times editor of editorials Tim Nickens and columnist Dan Ruth won the award for a series of 10 editorials,while writers Alex Zayas and Kelly Benham were also named finalists for awards in investigative reporting and features writing, respectively.

The honors marked the ninth Pulitzer win in the newspaper’s history and the first since its name change from the St. Petersburg Times in January 2012. "The name is different but what has stayed the same is the power of a principled, committed newspaper to make a real mark in its communities," said Times chairman Paul Tash.

Nickens, 54, and Ruth, 63, challenged a 2011 vote by Pinellas County Commissioners to remove fluoride from the county’s drinking water, long considered the most effective method to prevent tooth decay. After the pair’s pointed editorials, voters ousted two of the commissioners who supported removing the fluoride, replacing them with candidates who pledged to add it back; after a 6-1 vote, the  county began adding the substance again in March.

Both Tash and Tampa Bay Times editor Neil Brown stressed how every entry honored by the Pulitzer committee brought positive change through its publication, from the the reversal of the fluoride decision to investigations into unlicensed religious children's homes sparked by Zayas series "In God's Name" and the attention paid to the struggles of prematurely-born children revealed by Benham's series "Never Let Go."

Nickens, a Times employee since 1983, was finalist for the award last year along with several other editorial board members (the committee declined to name an award in that category back then). He credited Tash with pushing the board to keep pressing the fluoride issue. "It was Paul's initial outrage that said we had to get on this fluoride and get this back in the water for the people of Pinellas County," Nickens added. "When we would finally write something about it last year...he would say 'That's great. Now what's next?'...It's old style motivation."

Ruth, who worked as a high-profile columnist at rival Tampa Tribune for years before he was laid off, crediting Tash and Brown for allowing him to stay in newspaper journalism by hiring him. "I look at the talent in this room...I feel so unworthy," said Ruth, choking up a bit while acknowledging the support of his wife. "But I'll take it."

"There are three things that run through all of this work,” said Brown as the awards were announced. “the tremendous talent of the journalists, the support of a great institution even in tight times, and the core belief on the part of everyone at the Times that journalism matters today as much as ever."

Click here to see the Tampa Bay Times special coverage page for the Pulitzer announcement.

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