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New Media and You

nightly_newsJournalism suffered a few blows this week and not for the reasons you might think.

First, NBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams was suspended and had his pay slashed in half after he apologized for conflating a story in which his war correspondence was at issue. I’ve written that I’m giving Williams (if not NBC News) the benefit of the doubt, which he’s given me no prior reason not to grant, though I think it’s clear that he is an example of journalism driven by having fans, not gathering, having and reporting facts. Still, I think NBC News is more responsible for whatever wrong has been done, given what is currently known. That the nation’s top anchorman was caught conflating (there is no evidence of lying) the truth, which he acknowledged and for which he apologized, who was, in turn, vilified by the press and the public without a proper and thorough inquiry and then suspended without half his pay before either exoneration or proof of wrongdoing strikes me as a disincentive for others to step up when they make a mistake. That NBC News, which is totally infected with subjectivism, is not at all transparent about what is known by its investigators compounds the problem. No one should expect NBC, which is controlled by a crony cable utility, to be objective about Brian Williams, his replacement or the news. What happened to Williams is, as I wrote when the story broke, a black mark on today’s journalism and not only because of Brian Williams. The blame also lies with those who watch.

This was my point a few years ago when I wrote about comedian Jon Stewart, who announced this week that he’s quitting his Comedy Central program. It’s the audience that ultimately propels today’s media and the vicious cycle of mistaking satirical, cynical, absurdist humor mixed with facts for news is that it leads to more reasons to feel like sneering at the world and its corollary that the whole world deserves it. So what’s left is a landscape of shockmeisters such as Howard Stern, Greg Gutfeld, Bill Maher, and other crude, sniveling types where once the public tuned in newsmen such as Harry Reasoner, Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace. In between, even hosts and publishers such as Johnny Carson, Hugh Hefner and Tom Snyder were serious and intellectual compared with today’s often vacuous and self-centered TV personalities such as Oprah, Barbara Walters and Bill O’Reilly.

American media has been in a steep decline for decades, since Woodward and Bernstein made headlines out of relatively trivial matters and, perhaps through no intention of theirs, became bigger than the stories they covered. This made personality-oriented print and broadcast journalism all but a necessity in the age of new journalism. The fabricating began in earnest and it never let up, from Janet Cooke at the Washington Post to Jayson Blair at the New York Times. But the padding and airheaded advancement of stories not based on facts and truth emanated from the highest levels and the most vaunted institutions, not working class blokes like yours truly and other less anointed bloggers, freelancers and scrappy, self-made journalists. The list of those caught lying or concealing is not only long; it includes today’s biggest names: Mike Barnicle, Fareed Zakaria, Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Joe Klein, to say nothing of the newspaper scandals in auditing circulation and the Los Angeles Times‘ Staples Center fiasco.

If you’re reading fake news, why not watch fake news that admits it’s fake?

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Enter Jon Stewart and his cohort the ascendant Stephen Colbert, owing to the godfather of fake news, the Weekend Update segment on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Could Borat, stunts by Breitbart and Michael Moore’s Sicko among other fabricated stories be far behind? Now, Stewart, coddled by and nuzzling up to his intellectual cousin O’Reilly, formerly of the torrid A Current Affair, moves up into a presumably higher status. The circus goes on while the public knows less and seeks only to laugh through the sneer. So, the cycle continues: subjectivism spreads. Laughing with, or even at, the irrational as an evasion of being rational becomes a heavy burden that gets heavier with each major development. The Simpsons, once a segment on a Fox variety show, has been on the air for decades. Stewart has been on The Daily Show (note its antithesis to the nightly news) for 15 years. Deterioration of cultural discourse parallels the rise of the absurd and the asinine.

Last night, news came that punctuates the point. CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, who traveled the world, took risks and was captured by an Arab dictatorship and held for 40 days, died in a car accident at the age of 73. Police said Simon was not wearing a seat belt and there may be more to the story.

But the fawning, personality-driven, subjectivist media wanted very little or nothing to do with facts. Fox News hostess Megyn Kelly mentioned Simon’s death briefly and then moved on. The Los Angeles Times did not find it necessary to bother addressing, let alone reporting, the circumstances of the car accident. CNN invited its leading newsman Anderson Cooper, who had his own syndicated daily talk show, as a guest to talk about working with Bob Simon. But, rather than discuss the facts of Simon’s death, Cooper kept saying that Simon’s death is “incomprehensible”. The fact is that dying in a car accident is not incomprehensible, especially if one is not wearing a seat belt.

The media’s herd mentality on Bob Simon’s death is that it is ironic because Simon lived in such a risk-oriented manner but died in a preumably random car accident. As the LA Times reported: “60 Minutes boss, executive producer Jeff Fager, noted the irony: Simon “had escaped more difficult situations than almost any journalist in modern times” but lost his life as a passenger in a hired car that smashed into a Mercedes Benz at a stoplight.” As usual, the Times reported only partial truth and they reported it as the definitive and final account. Strictly speaking, the Times report is false. Simon’s life was not lost in the manner the newspaper describes; Newsday reported that Bob Simon wasn’t wearing his seat belt and “died from blunt force head trauma as well as other injuries in a Manhattan car wreck” and that “a law enforcement source said his driver had nine past license suspensions and two outstanding traffic summonses.” Simon’s death is not ironic. On the contrary, if Newsday‘s report is true, Simon died as he’d lived: knowingly risking his life.

This aversion to reporting facts in favor of framing the story, in this case the Times‘ compulsion to impose an irony theme on the story regardless or in absence of the facts, is subjectivism. It starts with the public accepting, following and buying fake news and demanding more of it to consume and laugh at, lulling them into the plausible denial that the world is collapsing. Subjectivism ends, and objectivism in news begins, with thinking for oneself and demanding facts even if it means making an effort to gather, grasp and analyze facts. This means tuning out fake news and tuning in (or learning how to look for) real news. To use a noble phrase which is more likely to be satirized, being objective means seeking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about reality.

The Grammys (2015)

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The 57th annual Grammy Awards were another showcase of mostly mediocre music and an unabashed advertisement for the host television network, CBS. There were no major breakthroughs, surprises or flubs. The main reason I watched was the enormously popular work by Sam Smith, whom I wanted to see perform, speak and, hopefully, win (which he did—four times).

Smith, who paired for a warm and inviting duet with Mary J. Blige of his introspective hit song about the one-night stand, “Stay with Me”, spoke with humor and rationality. He spoke of the man with whom he fell in love that broke his heart and led to his writing the tune. He also spoke of choosing to stop living for others and instead being true to himself as the turning point in achieving his goal. What he said is especially insightful for one so young and I have every reason to believe he’ll have a great career in music. Read my review of his brave album, In the Lonely Hour, which has sometimes been damned with faint praise for lyrics that are too plain—the more I listen, the more I think his simple, rhyming words are among his top talents—here.

Other Grammy highlights included a spontaneous Paul McCartney grooving to the music, Usher exuding confidence while singing a Stevie Wonder song while accompanied by a harpist, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine singing with a slouching, lackluster Gwen Stefani and carrying the song by himself very nicely and good performances by Beck, Ed Sheeran and Electric Light Orchestra’s founder Jeff Lynne. I wanted to like what Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett were doing while singing about dancing to “Cheek to Cheek” though I thought it was a missed opportunity. I thought Annie Lennox, formerly of Eurythmics, expelled a lot of energy during her performance.

The problem with the show is that it feels overly staged and forced, with these highly pre-ordained and publicized duets and “mash-ups” or mixtures of songs, artists and styles. There’s an excess of publicity pummeling viewers with promotional Tweets and posts and then an excess of performances that rarely live up to the hype. The announcer kept overselling each number during the telecast, forecasting that everyone would be talking about this or that part of the show. The effect is distracting and depleting. I wish they’d just put on a show and let it be, handing out awards here and there. Good music usually comes with some degree of spontaneity.

There wasn’t much that felt unrehearsed tonight, from the see-through dresses to the pedantic, preachy appearance by the president about creating “a society where violence isn’t tolerated” even as he addressed an audience with prominently violent ex-convicts and as he urges compromise with an Islamic dictatorship that subjugates women, homosexuals and freethinkers. The heavy-handed rap song from the movie Selma, prefaced by a religious song by Beyonce, felt preachy, too, with rapper and actor Common ending with a display of his fist to the audience after lecturing them in a rap infused with the idea that the collective matters more than the individual.

Rapper Kanye West appeared in sweat pants, looked down and rapped to an apparent electronic manipulation of his voice. Madonna—introduced as “my bitch” by Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj—did her typical routine, emasculating the faceless male dancers, who were once again denigrated and objectified, which appears to be Madonna’s only artistic statement. She dressed as a matador—surrounded by men dressed as bulls—and, after taking the bulls by the horns, ended up being gored to death by them. This came with Obama’s message urging pop stars to lead by example about violence against women.

The only Grammys theme, if any, to emerge, was faith. “I’m at your service, Lord,” Grammy winner Pharrell Williams announced to no one in particular after doing a gothic or death-themed version of his song “Happy”. Beyonce thanked God and so did many others and there were so many choir singers that it felt at times like watching the Christian Broadcasting Network. I half expected Mike Huckabee or some big-haired evangelist to come out and start slapping and singing right along. Indeed, the infidel was relegated to representation by AC/DC’s performance of “Highway to Hell”. Even an Imagine Dragons song during an ad for Target confessed contrition. No one dared to say Je Suis Charlie.

On the other hand, when Mary J. Blige reached out to Sam Smith as they sang the aching, gospel-tinged “Stay with Me”, they finished the song together, ending in an embrace after the performance. Affirming a common bond, they achieved through music a real sense of amity. This is the 57th annual Grammy awards’ telecast’s most genuine moment. There were others, but this is the music and moment which will stay with me.

 

The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens

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The Sower (photo by Scott Holleran, may not be reproduced without permission)

During a recent visit to the Sunshine state, I discovered the former home of Albin Polasek (1879 – 1965) one of America’s fore­most 20th century sculp­tors. The home is located on a small lake in central Florida in a town called Winter Park. The modest waterfront home, adjacent chapel and property have been turned into a museum and gardens showcasing his remarkable work.

Polasek (pronounced by the tour guide as Pull-ah-chek), a Czech-born immigrant to America who adopted the representational art method of sculpture, cre­ated “fig­u­ra­tive works of sound com­po­si­tion based upon the true struc­ture of nature”, according to the museum, which explains on its Web site that

His goal was to show the essen­tial unity of head or fig­ure and the beauty of ‘move­ment,’ the flow of one mass into another. He felt that move­ment made the dif­fer­ence between a work exud­ing life and some­thing inan­i­mate.

The museum is set far enough back from the busy avenue to provide a placid atmosphere for a leisurely visit. The $5 admission includes a general video introduction to Polasek’s ideas, life and work and a tour through much of the home and chapel, which he had built for his private religious purposes. Though he was Catholic—he followed his brother, who was a priest, to America—it’s clear from his work that his views do not align with Catholic Church doctrine.

For example, I was informed that Polasek sculpted one of his most famous works, Victorious Christ, which depicts a strong and exalted Jesus Christ on the cross, because Polasek did not approve of depictions of pain and suffering (the original is in a cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska). Though much of Polasek’s over 400 works are religious, many include essentially secular or distinctly non-Catholic themes, such as his Man Carving His Own Destiny (another version appearing elsewhere on the grounds as Evolution). Polasek sculpted and carved in stone, bronze, plaster and wood. He painted, too.

Eternal Moment

Eternal Moment (photo by Scott Holleran, may not be reproduced without permission)

Born in 1879 in Moravia (now Czech Repub­lic), Albin Polasek appren­ticed as a wood­carver in Vienna before immi­grat­ing to the United States in 1901 at the age of 22, according to the museum. After work­ing as a wood­carver, he began for­mal art train­ing at the Penn­syl­va­nia Acad­emy of the Fine Arts in Philadel­phia, where he learned clas­si­cal sculpt­ing tech­niques and first cre­ated Man Carv­ing His Own Des­tiny (1907) and Eter­nal Moment (1909). Polasek became an Amer­i­can citizen in 1909.

While in Rome on an arts fellowship, his Sower (pictured above and below) earned critical praise and he returned to America and established a stu­dio in New York City until, in 1916, at the age of 37, Polasek was asked to head the Sculp­ture Depart­ment at the Art Insti­tute of Chicago, where he remained for nearly 30 years.

The museum bio says that Albin Polasek retired to Win­ter Park, Florida, in Jan­u­ary 1950, at the age of 70, design­ing the home and hav­ing it built on Lake Osce­ola. It is there that he had a stroke, which left him partly paralyzed, and married his close friend and for­mer stu­dent Ruth Sher­wood, the first mar­riage for both. Polasek was 71 and Sher­wood was 61. When she died 18 months later, he married a second time to a woman named Emily who is credited with encouraging his work.

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Vic­tory of Moral Law (photo by Scott Holleran, may not be reproduced without permission)

Despite his condition, Polasek was able to work with his right hand – my tour guide told me that an assis­tant would help and added that, at one point, someone who’d worked on Mount Rushmore aided in the creation of at least one work – and Polasek com­pleted 18 major works, includ­ing the anti-Communist Vic­tory of Moral Law (1957) as a response to the Hun­gar­ian uprising against the Soviet Union. The serpent slithering around the world of the sculpture (pictured here) represents Communism.

Polasek had the chapel built on the property because, I was told, he did not like to attend church services and he sought solitude and serenity in prayer. A priest occasionally though not often came to the Polasek chapel for a mass. The chapel is the last part of the tour before the gardens, where guests are welcome to continue self-guided along the lakefront path and examine works such as Eternal Moment and others. The docent was courteous and knowledgeable, though not scholarly.

After the  tour, I circled the gardens, took my time and came back into the house on the other side. The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens are a modest property, located close to the Winter Park Public Library, Rollins College and the Alfond Hotel, which is owned and operated by the college. I ended my visit in the gift shop, having toured the house, where Polasek worked, the chapel, where Polasek’s Catholic Stations of the Cross are on display, and the gardens. The Sower and Man Carving His Own Destiny are located in the front of the house. I was first to arrive for the tour and last to leave. The whole visit took a couple of hours. I think most people stayed for an hour, maybe a bit longer.

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The Sower (photo by Scott Holleran, may not be reproduced without permission)

Of course, Victory of Moral Law and Man Carving His Own Destiny are thematically appealing to me and their execution in various forms (Polasek kept creating and improving) is something to behold. Everything he made, even a statue of Woodrow Wilson he was commissioned to create and woodcarvings for an epic nativity scene he made as a boy in Europe, expresses something meaningful. The male and female nudes are beautiful. A child’s face depicts pure joy. The Sower, from a story in the Bible, sows seeds of good will throughout the world. All of these and the sum total of the experience made the trip to the Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens very nourishing.

But learning more about the artist, who is buried beside his first wife with his own 12th Sta­tion of the Cross (c. 1939) in Winter Park’s cemetery, is an unexpected highlight.

Polasek left Europe for America, settled in the Midwest, carved in wood, changed his mind, went to school, learned, sculpted, earned awards and fellowship in Rome, returned to Chicago, led the Art Institute’s sculpture department for 30 years, moved south to a town founded by a Chicago businessman, survived a stroke, continued to make sculpture and married for the first time at the age of 71, marrying once more when he’d lost the one he’d loved. He appeared to have lived in pursuit of happiness and I think it shows in his best work. Crucially, he understood what the freedom to create means to the creator; he did not take liberty for granted.

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Man Carving His Own Destiny (photo by Scott Holleran, may not be reproduced without permission)

As Albin Polasek wrote:

I am like a piece of rock which has been bro­ken off of the Carpathian Moun­tains in the heart of Czecho­slo­va­kia. Later this crude stone was trans­ported to the Land of the Free: the United States of Amer­ica. This block of stone was myself. Through the oppor­tu­ni­ties that this coun­try gave me, I started to carve out my des­tiny…”

Happy Birthday, Elvis

Elvis_(1979_film)For Elvis Presley’s birthday, I’ve reviewed ABC’s outstanding 1979 telefilm, Elvis (click on image to buy the DVD). Read the review here. Whatever one thinks of Elvis Presley and rock-n-roll, this is an exceptional movie.

Olivia Newton-John to Release New 2-Disc Live in Las Vegas

ONJ_LiveInLasVegas_webLook for a new, live album from Olivia Newton-John sooner than later.

The singer and actress recently announced that she’s making a two-disc album based on her first headline residency in Las Vegas, which premiered last spring (read my review here). The live album, Summer Nights: Live in Las Vegas and pictured here, will presumably include songs from her set list for the Flamingo Las Vegas show. This means it’s essentially a greatest hits live album, though a track listing has not yet been disclosed.

Olivia recorded an extended play record last year, Hotel Sessions, with her nephew, Brett Goldsmith, which I discussed with Brett in an exclusive interview. Previously, her last new recording to go on sale was This Christmas with John Travolta (read my review here) in 2012.