Saturday, September 24, 2011

OMG, excuse me while I duck


As I write this a rogue satellite is hurtling through the atmosphere and is expected to smash into earth, possibly somewhere in the United States, later tonight. Did I mention that in my high school yearbook I was selected as Most Likely to Be Struck By a Falling Satellite? I'll take my chances, especially since the satellite is far more likely to smash into Bayonne, N.J., birthplace of the real life Rocky whom the news web sites inform me I'll be hearing a great deal more about as an ESPN special and a movie about the "Bayonne Bleeder" come to fruition.

But I digress. What the plummeting parcel of space debris brings to mind, for me at least, is the sometimes cruel sense of humor newspaper people have. Rarely does a tragedy occur that doesn't find newspaper staffers sharing jokes about it within hours.

A case in point. In 1979, I had a supervisor who shall remain nameless but who had, shall we say, issues with his weight. I worked with this fellow for ten years at the New York Post before following him to the New York Daily News, and I'm not ashamed to say he was even a bit of a mentor. But he had a bit of an issue with his weight -- for instance, he went through a phase of bringing salads in to work, smothered in Russian dressing. He also had a daughter who, sad to say, had a bit of an issue with her weight.

And my often non-chubby colleagues, with their sharp journalists' senses, were all too keenly aware of this fellow's issues with his weight. When scientists and the wire services -- this was long before Twitter was a twinkle in its creators' eyes -- one of my colleagues, behind the rotund supervisor's back, where there was plenty of room (slapping myself in face), came up with the idea of appending the appellation "Skylab" to said supervisor's daughter.

The sports department, where I worked at the time, got quite a kick out of this, and it was all they could do in the days before Skylab actually fell to earth in Australia, to not mention the Skylab thing in front of him. So despite their sick sense of humor, I guess they had a touch of humanity as well.

While I'm dwelling on the past, I'd like to mention another newspaper tradition, one which has eluded me through the decades. Today was the last day at work for my colleague Sarah Johnson, who at the ripe old age of 27 (ok, not until tomorrow) is embarking on a solo entrepreneurial career. I got to thinking about how over the years I worked at three newspapers -- roughly ten years at the New York Post, another ten or so at the New York Daily News, and almost 20 at the Bergen Record -- with great, and I mean damn good great -- illustrators. My favorite of them all was Jerry Schlamp of the Daily News, but google him now and all you can find is a little schlampoon here and there. But it was a tradition at all three papers and I'm sure at many others, that when a longtime employee left, either the illustrator or in house cartoonist would make him or her a big cartoon and everybody would sign it.

Mind you, the only one of these I can remember was when a fellow left the Daily News to go to Hollywood where a friend of his was going to help him get a start in screenwriting, and Jerry Schlamp, at least I think it was Schlamp, made him a big cartoon of a fellow lying in bed next to a horse's head, with a scantily clad woman standing next to the bed saying something like "Now, about that screen test ..."

On a sadder note, when I was a clerk at the New York Post I had a colleague named Joe Marcus who at the ripe old age of 37 was still a clerk. I was 18 or 19, maybe 20. Joe was diabetic and missed a lot of work which meant I'd get called at all hours asking if I could come in and work. And then Joe came down with some kind of cancer and was hospitalized.

The Post's cartoonist made him one of these big get well drawings, I forget what the picture was but the word in the balloon was "Fuhgeddaboutit" -- Joe's favorite word. The cartoon sat in the office for three or four days because nobody went to go visit him who could deliver it, and in the meantime Joe passed away. The cartoon was given to his son. I would like to say it always haunted me that I didn't go visit him and bring him the cartoon, but the truth is I forgot about for many years until I got to thinking about this subject.

I left the New York Post following its purchase by Rupert Murdoch and I didn't get a cartoon. And I left the Daily News in a downsizing when so many people were leaving that almost nobody got cartoons, who knows, maybe the cartoonist left, no, he stayed on, but I didn't get one. And I left the Bergen Record with no cartoon in another mass downsizing.

Now, about that headline. Those, without the OMG, were the last words of a forward artillery observer in World War II. His son, Duane Richter of Thermopolis, Wyo., once placed an item in the newsletter of the 90th Infantry Division asking if anybody remembered his father. He got some 80 responses, including one from a veteran who'd been on the phone with Duane's dad when he spoke those words.

So excuse me while I get back under my desk until this darn satellite crashes to earth.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Art of headline writing is alive and, well ...

The art of headline writing is alive and, well, I'm probably shooting myself in the foot (owch! ooch!) but I'm going to say it: as hackneyed and uncreative as ever. If I had a nickel for every newspaper and blog entry that began with the headline "The Help cleans up at box office" I could buy passage on the first vessel to take members of the public into outer space, which is where I imagine my former employers would like me to be (oops, I almost forgot about that non disparagement clause).

Well, maybe I wouldn't have found that headline so bothersome -- I should note here that I have neither read the book nor seen the movie -- if numerous oral historians who've dealt with the subject addressed in "The Help" were not outraged by the stereotyping and language in the movie.

That said, it also could be that such a headline bothers me because it's what's known in headline writers' lingo as "a gimme." Okay, there is no such thing as headline writer's lingo, I just made that up. But it's still a gimme. I prefer to see a little more thought go into a head, like maybe "The Help sweeps into first ..."

"Help sweeps" why, that's as idiotic a head, I say, as idiotic a head as my Aunt Jenny's corn puddin'

OK, case in point, here we go. I googled "The Help cleans up" (I tried Bing, but the only thing that came up was "The Help is dreaming of a white Christmas...") and here's what came up:

"The Help cleans up after Spy Kids' trail goes cold ..." The Guardian (note: Spy Kids' trail goes cold. Clever)

"'The Help' cleans up" ...

"The Help" finishes at top of box office ... Inside Movies/ (good and straightforward, but it should be noted that a day earlier, according to google,'s box office report noted: The Help cleans up with $20.5 million)

The Help cleans up at box office ... Chicago Sun-Times

The Help cleans up at the box office ...

"Help moves upstairs with $20.5M ... weekend/ (Moves upstairs, I like that)

Box office bloodbath: The Help cleans up ...

The Help mops up competition ... (Give that headline writer a Nat Sherman cigar ... okay, okay, it's almost football season, and maybe that headline writer is a woman)

The Help cleans up at the box office ... Richmond Times-Dispatch

Movie review: The Help cleans up the South too much ...

Did 'The Help' Clean Up? ...

Drama 'The Help' cleans up ... BBC News

"Fly me to the moon ..." (That's me, collecting my nickels)

There are several more pages of the same. Oh, wait ...

"Help" Beatles the competition ... I made that one up. Ten four, out the window (phweeeeee...THUD)

I say, you were supposed to throw the headline out the window, I say, not yourself. Looks like you done landed in my Aunt Jenny's corn puddin. That stuff is hard as a rock!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Arianna Huffington commits heinous, I say heinous, act

It's been said that the Internet is killing the newspaper industry. Alas and alack, I say, looka here, it certainly, I say looka here I say,  has contributed to the elimination of ink stains if not of ink stained wretches. Be that, I say I say, as it may, looka here I say -- excuse me, Mister Leghorn -- the Huffington Post is killing the craft of headline writing.

A little foreshadowing may be in order. Numerous entries ago I noted my confusion over a headline that included the name of a popular Christian music band that I had never heard of. A commenter noted that the band's name might have been included in the headline because someone searching the Internet might type in the band's name and be directed to the article; hence, increased visibility, I say I say.

Which brings me to Arianna Huffington, a.k.a. Huffington Shmuffington. Ever since the Huffandpuffpost was bought by AOL for several gazillion dollars, there has been a proliferation of headlines featuring the names of people and places that nobody has ever heard of, or if anybody had heard of them, they could neither spell nor pronounce them. Names like Anders Whatsisface Breivik and places like Svalberg.

I say looka here, what's in a name? In the sports department of a newspaper, a name is something to have fun with. A-Roid. An A-Bomb from A-Rod (okay, that's an announcer's appellation, but I love it anyway). The news desk, at least one on which I spent several years, tends to handle the names of people with a little more A-plomb. I can still recall some 15 to 18 years ago the debate that rivaled Lincoln-Douglas or Nixon-Kennedy over whether to identify Leona Helmsley by her first name in a headline. The editors begrudgingly yielded, and Leona became a staple of the headline writer's craft.

But a headline is supposed to tell a story, maybe entertain a reader, maybe entice some poor sap into reading a story that isn't worth reading. The message of the Huffpost is that none of the above is any longer applicable. The sole purpose of the headline is to tag a story and you better remember that or you can go back to the Podunk Tumbleweed instead of working for Her Huffingtonness.

Headline Guy cuts to chase

Allow me to cut to the chase. Just today, some examples:

Connecticut Babysitter Loni Bouchard Arrested For Allegedly Having Sex With 14-Year-Old

Loni who?

Rudolf Alexandrov, Chesnut Hill Adjunct Professor, Kills Himself In Front Of His Students

(Now looka, I say looka here, I just googled Rudolf Alexandrov, and guess what came up number 2, right behind the CBS News story which only identified him as a Philly professor in the headline)

James Moss Sentenced To Weekends In Prison For Putting Son In Oven

Alan Gross Trial: Cuba Upholds 15-Year Sentence

Here I am trying to help people write clever headlines when the trend is screw clever, tag the story in the headline and get an edge over the saps who only tag the story in the section that says "tags". Search engine optimization. Damn the headliner writer's creativity. I have seen the present and it sucks.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Implied racism

I can't stand it anymore. When my Yahoo! AT&T page appeared on my screen with all its little newsblurbs, one of them said "First lady shines on Africa trip." I don't watch much TV but I kind of like "The Chicago Code," that Jennifer Beals makes for one hot police chief, go ahead call me sexist if you will, you think I watch it for its plot featuring corrupt politicians? I used to live in New Jersey. But I digress. The prime villain in "The Chicago Code" is one Alderman Gibbons, a black guy.
What's wrong with these pictures?
Sometimes people forget just how racist a country this is. Or maybe I remember too much, like when I was cutting my journalistic teeth (owch! ooch!) in the sports department of the New York Post circa 1745 (would you believe 1969?), and the wags on the sports copy desk would plunk two paragraph stories about Japanese baseball games into hot type holes on various pages with headlines that said "Toyo Carp nip Yomiuri Giants," at any rate, "nip" seemed to be a favorite verb of the oldtime copy editors until one day some pre politically correct editor came along and whacked that in the bud. Need I explicate why? No more nip headlines, the edict came down, although to this day hot type is alive and well, usually as police chiefs or coroners in crime shows. But I digress.
Not long after "nip" got whacked, similarly the verb "shine" was outlawed when describing a black athlete, although it was okay if the subject were caucasian. I  unwittingly used it a couple of times myself. Who knew that "shine" was a euphemism for a black person? Apparently a lot of racists did. Equally apparently a lot of the yahoos at Yahoo! don't. But if a headline like that risks eliciting one snicker from a racist, a different word should be used.
Oh, don't be such a namby pamby, I can hear the chorus sing. Now tell me that a gibbon isn't a monkey -- maybe it isn't, I'm not a biographer, but it sure looks like one -- and then tell me "monkey" isn't a demeaning term used to describe African-Americans. Then tell me there wasn't some probably unknown to the scriptwriter ingrained form of racism at play when he developed the character of Alderman Gibbon for the "Chicago Code."
This was going to be a short post. End of rant.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Look out, up in the sky!

Somewhere at or near the bottom of a plastic bin in the 10 by 10 storage unit where the remnants of much of my life are kept is a brown paper bag with two magazines in it.

Both magazines are New Yorkers, and they have the same cover, and the same date. Only one thing is different between them.

Two things, actually. One has the white rectangular mailing sticker on the cover, the other is a newsstand copy.

Which brings me to the Challenger disaster, whose 25th anniversary was yesterday. I must admit I was surprised by the air of celebration surrounding the anniversary of such a sad occasion. But I digress.

Ironically I was in a bank getting a free "financial consultation" when news of the explosion broke over the radio. I say ironically because my finances have been such a disaster over the years, although hardly a disaster along the lines of the Challenger. Nevertheless. I was working at the New York Daily News at the time, the evening shift, I think it was four to eleven p.m. or thereabouts.

Shortly before our "lunch" break a story broke on the Associated Press wire, one of the many "sidebars" related to the Challenger disaster, that the New Yorker, which had already gone to press, was recalling its latest edition because of a cartoon that might be deemed insensitive in light of the exploding shuttle. The article noted that some newsstand copies had already been delivered but subscription copies had not yet gone out.

So on my lunch break I raced from the Daily News building to the State News indoor newsstand on 44th Street and Second Avenue, and bought a copy of the New Yorker. Sure enough, there was the cartoon, somewhere inside. It showed two men sitting at a bar, not an infrequent theme of a New Yorker cartoon.

On the mission following the Challenger flight, I should note, a U.S. Congressman, Rep. Jake Garn of Utah, was schedule to take part. After the Challenger exploded, it was decided to scrub him from the next mission.

So the cartoon in the New Yorker shows two men sitting at a bar. One bar patron says to the other, "I wish they'd send my Congressman into space."

Pretty funny, huh? I can think of several Congressmen I'd like to see sent into space today, along with numerous members of the Tea Party. But I digress. When my subscription issue arrived, there was the same cartoon with the same two men sitting at the bar. Only the caption was different. I forget what the caption was, but it contained no reference either to space or to Congress.

Whenever the Challenger disaster is mentioned, however, my brain goes like one of those two-faced theater posters, one showing a face with a broad smile, the other an equally broad frown.

The sad story is about my mother, Jean Elson. My mother ran a school bus company, and at one point had a modest size fleet of buses. She bought a small garage in Harlem that had one enclosed bay, a cluttered office and some storage space on the second level, and a small lot next door. She also had a larger lot that she rented elsewhere in Harlem, I believe it was a former city bus depot, just off the Harlem River Drive.

The small lot was on 122nd Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. Although she had her office in the upstairs area, most of the mechanical work on her school buses and vans was done at the larger lot. So she rented out the working bay to a fellow who somehow never quite paid her any rent, but she had an old Lincoln Continental that he hoisted on the bay and kept there for several months, if I remember correctly, promising to fix it.

Although this mechanic was something of a deadbeat, he had a son who was an astronaut.

My mother finally gave up on trying to collect any rent and the mechanic finally disappeared, with the Continental still hoisted over the bay. A few months later, suffering from severe financial problems, my mother sold the garage for a fraction of its value, which wasn't all that high to begin with. I'm not sure if it was a week after she sold the garage or a month, but it wasn't long before the Challenger exploded and, well, you know how the media is, somebody sniffed out the fact that Ron McNair, the first African-American astronaut and a member of the Challenger crew, may have been estranged from his father, but his father had a garage in Harlem.

Today that garage is, the last I read about it, a $2 million educational park, and, correct me if I'm wrong, that stretch of 122nd Street has been renamed Ron McNair Street. I try to close my eyes whenever I'm driving up Third Avenue and pass 122nd Street, and I cringe whenever I hear mention of the Challenger disaster.

In the theater, perhaps, the two masks are equal, but I would have to say when the Challenger disaster comes up, the frown kind of outweighs the smile.