Ratings Distort Content: How the News Isn’t Just News

Television producer Ariana Pekary left her job at MSNBC recently, saying it’s a bad time to leave, but she can no longer stay. Her criticism touches more than this particular network.

It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would “rate.” The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices — it’s practically baked in to the editorial process – and those decisions affect news content every day. Likewise, it’s taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it’s simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing.

But behind closed doors, industry leaders will admit the damage that’s being done. “We are a cancer and there is no cure” . . .

I’ve even heard producers deny their role as journalists. A very capable senior producer once said: “Our viewers don’t really consider us the news. They come to us for comfort.”

Heir to the Raven, by J. Wesley Bush

She approached the gate. God must be on the other side. She pushed it open, but did not find paradise, but rather a void filled only with noise and shifting colors that made her mind hurt. Amid the tumult, she felt something moving. No moving, really, but coming.

What pact are you seeking, child?

Larissa knew about pacts. They were dangerous if you used the wrong kind of faie. Whoever this was didn’t have a body, but she could feel it close by, as if it filled her very bones. It sounded like a woman.

“Vyr are trying to kill us all. We need to kill them instead.”

Heir to the Raven by J. Wesley Bush is a thrilling read, an original story well told.

The story begins with young Larissa, one of the few magical characters in this fantasy of kingdom politics. She stumbles into saving her village in the scene quoted above, but that raises everyone’s fears that she’s a witch. They summon the duke’s men to take her away to be examined by the king’s magician. She eventually learns she has taken the greatest risk of her life.

Heir to the Raven by J. Wesley Bush

Next we meet Selwyn, the duke’s fourth son who wants very much to kill a wild boar-like animal so that he can become a scholastic knight. If his hopes pan out (meaning he doesn’t die), the hunt will be the most warfare he ever sees. His father won’t like it, but he hasn’t liked anything about him for years. As a knight, he can escape his family and do something interesting, if not worthwhile.

All of that comes to an end when Selwyn suddenly becomes the new duke of the Jandarian savanna, moving this novel into the coming-of-age category. That would be true for both Selwyn and Larissa, but with so many characters, political mysteries, suspicions and deceit, the young stars don’t get much time to stand around and watch their feet grow.

In this light-handed fantasy we hear of a few unusual beasts and a bit about greater and lesser faie, both light and dark. Securing an agreement with an outer faie is called pactmaking. The uses and dangers of it color most of Larissa’s story. But most of what we see of it comes from the bad guys, shamans ushering barbarous throngs into battle as an act of worship to a dark faie. At times I wondered if someone could throw out some good magic, but that probably doesn’t fit the scope of the story.

Somewhere I read Bush describing his tale as a strong PG-13; it definitely is that. There are some nasty deaths, plenty of natural vulgarity, and some sexual subject matter only lightly described.

The meat of it is in realistic characters with many diverse perspectives. A conniving villain doesn’t stare out a window, twirling his mustache; instead he professes loyalty to the king as he works quietly to undermine him. The brash soldier is not a bumbling rebel, but a loyal subject. Even the petulant king, which is a character type I dislike, is handled skillfully.

And this being book one of a series, it wraps up nicely while leaving many ends loose. You really should go buy this book, if only to support the creation of the sequels. I look forward seeing what happens next.

‘Wyatt’s Revenge,’ by H. Terrell Griffin

Book Number Four in H. Terrell Griffin’s Matt Royal mystery series is Wyatt’s Revenge. In Wyatt’s Revenge, one of Matt’s old friends, Lawrence Wyatt, is murdered in his condominium. Police have no clues, and there seems to be no suspect with any motive. Matt, former Green Beret and retired lawyer, takes the deaths of his friends very seriously. And when things start getting sticky, he has well-connected, dangerous friends to whom he can turn for backup. Even if the trail leads to Europe and old Nazis.

Wyatt’s Revenge, like all the books in the series, is fast-paced and exciting. But I begin to weary of the author’s tricks. He tends to repeat his action scenarios. And he relies too much on coincidence to keep his hero alive – an error aggravated by his having Matt say that he doesn’t trust coincidences.

Also, he doesn’t know the difference between a clip and a magazine.

But I’ll read at least one more. The books aren’t bad, just a little limited in creativity.

‘Tidin Rennur’ on my birthday

The title means something like “Time Runs On (like a river).” It’s a beloved hymn of the Faeroe Islands, sung here by the world’s greatest singer, Norway’s Sissel Kyrkjebo. She’s singing in Faeroese, which I understand only a little better than you do. It’s an ancient dialect of Old Norse, and the Faeroese claim that it’s closer to what the Vikings actually spoke than modern Icelandic is. But the gist of the thing is that time runs on like a river, and I am in a little boat. Who will bring me safely home? Only Jesus can do that.

Appropriate thoughts for my birthday. I had a nice day. Went out to lunch with a friend, and reveled in the pleasure of having paying work, and the promise of more to come. Thank you for your friendship here.

Mountain Retreat

This has been a tough year on everyone, but not equally tough. When we first got fitted with a tailored lockdown, several people were saying, “Looking for ideas on how to pass all this extra time you’ll have? Here’s a list of books, studies, and movies.” Nice thoughts, but the people in my party were wondering where they could get some of this extra time.

Our days had only gotten more intense. Our work had been growing more earnest, maybe more hectic, since February, I think. Everyone began working from home March 20, and until early May everyday felt like a crossway. Would we continue this direction or turn?

Even after the intensity lessened, I worried we couldn’t take a vacation, because taking time off could be a problem, and if we did, would the right things be open? But I got approval for time off, and the kids were also feeling the stress of their work and school responsibilities, so we rented a cabin on the edge of Helen in the Northeast Georgia mountains.

The picture above is from the city park, facing one of the main shopping areas and the town clock tower, I think. (I heard a clock chiming the hour several times but never identified the source.) The town took on a Bavarian style in 1969 and has leaned into it as much as it can with European food stores, German restaurants (I had a brat with kraut for lunch), and a few nice stores, like Lindenhaus and Wildewood, mixed among the regular tourist fair. It will celebrate its 50th Oktoberfest in a couple months (in a subdued fashion). The town has a bit of a beer-drinking feel, but we found enough to hold our interest, such as the Hansel and Gretel Candy Kitchen. I finished my chocolate and caramel-coated pear tonight.

We didn’t entirely avoid crowds. On Tuesday we went to Alpine Mini Golf and Ice Cream Parlor, where there were 17 groups on 18 holes. I’m glad the whole day wasn’t that crowded; people tended to emerge as the day burned. On Monday we floated down the Chattahoochee River and enjoyed it so much we returned the next day. I must have thought I was an experienced seaman the second time down, because I fell in the river three times trying to negotiate the rapids. Didn’t lose my glasses though.

We avoided the crowd our first day by visiting the marvelous Hardman Farm historic site. They open at 10:00; we took the 10:00 tour and had the run of the place. We also visited a couple art centers and the nearby folk pottery museum before heading home. I hope the year will go much smoother now that we’ve laid back for a bit.

‘Blood Island,’ by H. Terrell Griffin

Continuing H. Terrell Griffin’s Matt Royal mystery series, we come to number three, Blood Island. This one was a bit of a disappointment, in this reader’s view.

Matt Royal, you may recall, is a retired lawyer living on Longboat Key, near Sarasota, Florida. He is also a former Green Beret who keeps his skills up – which is handy because people keep trying to kill him for one reason or another.

In Blood Island, Matt gets a call from his ex-wife Laura. She left him with good reason years ago, when he went through a self-destructive period that might have pulled them both down. She’s remarried, but they still care for each other. She has a stepdaughter named Peggy, who has disappeared unaccountably. Matt is happy to help her out, and starts hunting for her, assisted by his friend Logan Hamilton.

It all leads to a big terrorist plot, originating with a delusional Christian evangelist who runs a string of brothels (!). I was disappointed with that plot element, though it was made clear that this guy was crazy and not representative of evangelicals generally.

My other main problem with Blood Island was plausibility. Author Griffin works hard to keep stuff moving fast, but it didn’t move fast enough this time out to overcome my skepticism. If a civilian tips a bunch of law enforcement agencies off to a terrorist plot, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t all agree to put the civilian in charge of their operation, even if he’s a former Green Beret with a superspy buddy.

There’s a tragic subplot which worked fairly well, but not well enough to sell the overall plot to me.

However, I’m not disillusioned with the series yet. I’ll give it another chance.

The work of a translator

I’ve told you of my woes enough in this space; I owe it to you to report my good days. I had a good day on Monday, and I’ve been upbeat all week. Which is an excellent thing when you’re my age and approaching a birthday.

I told you a while back that I was out of the script translation business. Well, I’m happy to say that I’m back in it. My outlawry has expired. I shall be cagier in the future about telling you what I’m working on, but working I am. Or will be, when the next job shows up. I am, as Bertie Wooster would say, “chuffed.”

While I wait for script work, I’m working on promotional material for my friends at Saga Bok publishers in Norway. I’ve told you that they’ve been translating the massive Flatøy Book of Icelandic sagas into modern Norwegian, the first time in history that’s been done. That project is complete now – six big, leather-bound volumes, copiously illustrated by the artist Anders Kvåle Rue, all on the market and selling well in Norway. Did I mention their next project is an English translation?

Before you ask, no, I’m not doing that translation. That’s being done the right way – by an Icelandic scholar from the original language. But they’ve asked me to translate some promotional material. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment. A fun project. I hope there’s more. You can read about the English project here, though the interview comes from 2016. Now it’s underway. If you’re interested in the project, and have money to donate, I can put you in touch. Just saying.

‘Murder Key,’ by H. Terrell Griffin

If the criminals hadn’t been stupid enough to try to kill Matt Royal, they’d have been home clear. Retired Florida lawyer Matt recently discovered three men near a beached boat while out jogging. Two of them were dead, the other just hanging on. Matt called the police and got help for the survivor. That’s how Murder Key begins.

Shortly after, Matt and his friend Logan are minding their own business in a bar when somebody tries to kill Matt. Logan saves his life. Then somebody tries to kill Logan. Matt has no idea what’s going on.

It’s time for him to call in the big guns – his childhood buddy Jock, who happens to be an agent for an unnamed, super-secret government agency. Before long Matt and Jock are headed to Mexico to learn about the illegal immigrant pipeline, and then investigating a slave labor camp back home in Florida.

Lots of action, interesting characters, a good story. This is entertainment worth the entrance fee, and (unlike the last book) I didn’t figure out the big surprise ahead of time.

Recommended.

‘Longboat Blues,’ by H. Terrell Griffin

If your taste runs to Florida beach bum private eyes in the tradition of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, there seem to be plenty to choose from. I suppose it’s the lingering McGee mystique that inspires them, and I’m not complaining. H. Terrell Griffin’s Matt Royal seems to be another example, and I liked him just fine.

Matt Royal, the hero of Longboat Blues, is a former lawyer. He used to fly high, working around the clock, making the big bucks, loving the game. But his obsession finally destroyed his marriage, and then he went into a tailspin. His ex-wife’s intervention and one last high-paying case turned him around. He retired with enough money to live in his adopted home of Longboat Key, Florida (near Sarasota), fishing and loafing and enjoying a low-stress life in paradise.

Until one day a woman in his social circle is strangled to death, and her body is found on the condominium balcony belonging to his friend, Logan Hamilton. Desperate and without resources, Logan asks Matt to defend him. Matt can’t say no. But Logan has been framed so neatly that it will involve a lot of investigating to identify the real killer, who is well protected.

I liked Matt Royal as a hero right from the start. He’s thoughtful and easygoing, and (if I understood certain hints in the text) essentially conservative. There was plenty of action in the book, and the mystery was engaging (though I figured out the real villain fairly early – the author needs to work on camouflaging his clues). I have read the second book already and am working on the third. Good stuff. I didn’t notice any offensive language; there were some typos, though.

Recommended.

Amazon Prime film review: ‘Come and Get It’

Still up to my ears in translation, so I’ll reach back all the way to earlier this week, and review a movie I watched on Amazon Prime. One of the oldies again. This one was of particular interest, because it was based on a book I’ve reviewed here, Come and Get It by Edna Ferber. And I have family connections to the setting.

As you may recall if you have photographic memory and nothing better to think about, Come and Get It is Edna Ferber’s novel about the lumber industry in late 19th and early 20th Century northern Wisconsin. The hero is Barney Glasgow, a man with a dream of being rich which he fulfills, but at cost to himself and others.

In the film, the great character actor Edward Arnold plays Barney , which is a case of miscasting. Barney in the book was a big man, but not fat, at least at the start. Still, he gets the character right – a classic American go-getter, an obsessive A-Type before those labels were invented. When I watched a couple clips from the film on YouTube while reading the book, it appeared to me the movie took a lot of liberties. But watching the film, it seemed to me pretty faithful to heart of the story.

The book starts with Barney going to work in a lumber camp as a boy. The movie prunes the story at both ends, jumping forward at the beginning to the moment when Barney comes to visit his friend Swan Bostrom (Walter Brennan, whose Swedish accent might have been worse, I guess) in Iron Ridge, Wisconsin (standing in for Hurley, Wisconsin where my great-grandmother was born). He’s been working out in the camps as a foreman, but now he’s got a big idea to sell to the boss. If the boss goes along with it, Barney will be a partner.

In a saloon, they meet Lotta Morgan, a saloon singer (played by Frances Farmer in her first major movie role). Lotta falls for Barney, thinking he’s her ticket out of the gutter. However, Barney decides to marry the boss’s daughter, a condition of the big business deal. An embittered Lotta marries Swan instead.

Skip forward a couple decades, and Barney is now sole owner of the company, father to two adult children (Joel McCrae plays his son). He hasn’t learned much with the years; he runs roughshod over his family’s feelings, and feels no responsibility to the land he despoils with his logging. Then he’s persuaded to go back to Iron Ridge to visit Swan. He finds Swan now widowed, but he has a daughter (she was a granddaughter in the book), also named Lotta, who looks just like her mother (Farmer played both roles). Now it’s Barney’s turn to play the fool in love – he hires Lotta and brings her to Chicago with him, hoping he can possess her. But his next rival will be his own son.

I enjoyed watching Come and Get It more than I expected. Critical judgment hasn’t been enthusiastic, but I found it enjoyable and relatable. The ending seemed abrupt and anticlimactic, though, as if the writers couldn’t figure out how to wrap it up.

My grandfather worked in one of those camps as a boy. He started out young – he was tall and could get away with lying about his age. I don’t think he was actually a lumberjack proper; his stories were mostly about moving logs around, in wagons or on trains. He once told me a story about a guy driving a wagonload of timber that I thought was the funniest thing I ever heard. Only I can’t remember it at all after all these years.

I do remember his story about transporting logs on a flatcar. They piled them up high, and a couple guys had to ride on top to keep an eye on the merchandise. One day, he told me, he had to do something else and asked a friend to trade off on that day’s run. That was the day the logs started rolling off, and the guys riding on the flatcar, including his friend, were killed.

Victor Hugo, Classic Bestseller

An anecdote about a telegram from exile leads to this observation from Luke Harrington:

That story is almost definitely apocryphal (not that that stopped the Guinness Book of  Records from once including it as the record for “shortest correspondence,” because, well, Guinness gonna Guinness), but it illustrates something we too often forget about the authors of “classic” books: Most of them weren’t tormented geniuses languishing in obscurity to create “great art”; they were just normal people working hard and trying to make bank. Sure, in the pantheon of literature, you’ll find a few weirdo recluses like Kafka, but for the most part, classic authors were the Michael Bays (Michaels Bay?) of their time, obsessively watching the proverbial box office numbers and high-fiving themselves when they topped a billion or whatever.

And that leads to something about wearing octopuses as hats, I think. No, I meant what I said.

‘Murder at the Fitzwilliam,’ by Jim Eldridge

Sometimes a book shows promise, but the author appears to have bitten off more than they can chew. Such is the case – in this reader’s view – with Jim Eldridge’s Murder at the Fitzwilliam, first in a series starring detective Daniel Wilson.

Danny Wilson used to be a Scotland Yard detective. He worked under the well-known Inspector Abberline during the Jack the Ripper investigation. Having grown disillusioned with the official police, he is now a “private enquiry agent.”

He’s invited up to Cambridge by the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, which boasts an impressive Egyptian collection. A man has been found dead in one of their sarcophagi. The man looks Middle Eastern, but carries no identification. The local police dismiss the matter as an accident suffered by a burglar, but the director suspects more is going on. For one thing, one of their mummies has disappeared.

An employee of the Museum, Miss Abigail Fenton, who discovered the body is eager to help. Danny finds her intelligent and resourceful. Together they start asking questions, as attraction grows between them – resisted by them both.

The essential story here could have worked, I think, but the author wasn’t up to it. I thought the characters were well-conceived in themselves, but they were badly limned. A person’s feelings and attitudes can be suggested in a narrative, without the necessity of spelling everything out for the reader. You need to trust your reader’s intelligence. This book tells us too much and suggests too little. And the romance story line was clumsily executed.

Clearly a fair amount of research went into Murder at the Fitzwilliam, but not enough to be convincing. The dialogue (already clunky) often fell into modernisms. And there were historical errors – the author thinks a photograph could be printed in a newspaper the next day in 1894 – I’m fairly sure you couldn’t do that yet.

I think author Eldridge shows promise as a novelist, but Murder at the Fitzwilliam didn’t work.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture