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Thursday, Nov 1, 2007

You thought that one would have been enough, didn’t you? One being the number of entries we would have on Halloween this year? Yeah, me too . . . until my daughter walked in last night looking like that and said: “Hey, Dad. Guess what I’m going to be for Halloween?”

And after I’d given her the up-down, head to toe routine, and cluelessly uttered: “um . . . inside of a ketchup bottle” (to her consternation), then “heartthrob” (to her delight) and finally “matador’s cape” (to her distaste), and after she’d stopped rolling her eyes and clipping my shoulder with each bone-headed guess, she said: “No Dad, now be serious this time.” But, then again, it was me she was addressing, so how likely was I going to succeed at that? So, finally, in exasperation she relented and said: “Okay, fine . . . I’ll give you a hint. This is what I’d wear if I was in a production of Faust. Ring a bell, now, daddy?”

Oh, well how in the world would she have expected

me to have guessed that


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Wednesday, Oct 31, 2007

Daniel Kraus’ PBS sponsored documentary about local law enforcement in a small southern town is an outright masterpiece. Sheriff strives to do little more than give us a look behind the badge as Ronald E. Hewitt secures the North Carolina community of Brunswick County. What we get instead is the broadest scope of human drama as depicted within the tinniest of backward burgs. Hewitt’s family has a long tradition in the area – several streets and buildings in town are named after his kin. But it’s the buzzcut Baptist who rules things now, his God, country and Colt .45 mentality a breath of fresh air in these days of questionable police practices and criminal oriented news reporting. In fact, if Hewitt could be cloned and his doubles resituated around the country, it’s a foregone conclusion that the crime rate nationwide would decrease ten fold.

Following the cinema verite style of fact filmmaking, Kraus isn’t out to have talking heads narrate Hewitt’s life story. Instead, he rides along, quasi-Cops style, as the compact constable goes about his daily chores. One day, he could be speaking to a school assembly. The next, he could be investigating the robbery and murder of a local attorney. Over the course of the film, we see Hewitt dealing with a life or death manhunt, coordinating a roadside dragnet, and busting up an illegal video poker emporium. Always the gentleman, this sheriff never looses his temper. He doesn’t curse like a sailor or aggressively pursue suspects. Instead, Hewitt believes in using the techniques he’s learned on the job, in combination with the close knit nature of the surrounding area, to aid in his investigations. He can even work the local media, when necessary.

When we first meet Hewitt, he appears like your typical Southern lawman, his deceptive drawl putting him instantly into the canon of stereotypical country bumpkins. But Kraus doesn’t let that caricature carry. Within seconds, the man is wooing reporters, directing child services to help a pair of juvenile victims, and phoning other locals for added technical and scientific support. Suddenly, the Joe Higgins/Jackie Gleason version of the sunglass donning Confederate copper is replaced by a brash, intelligent man with a keen instinct for solving cases. During a particularly telling montage, Kraus intercuts various statements Hewitt has made to TV, and the sheriff’s use of carefully moderated words and specific terms indicates a thoughtfulness and caution that is indeed rare. Even more amazing, we see him coordinating and communicating with his constituency. While some may argue such an approach is necessary to maintain one’s political position, we sense there’s more to it than that – at least, to Hewitt.

Indeed, he’s the human representation of dedication and determination. He never quits until the last lead is followed up and never rejects a request for assistance. When he travels to a State Sheriff’s Conference and, unexpectedly, wins the award for outstanding sheriff, his humble thank you and acknowledgement of his peers is priceless. Thanks to the manner in which Kraus captures the on the job moments – directly, precisely, without any identifiable motive or manipulation – we view Hewitt is pure hero worshipping terms. He becomes the guy we wish was looking out for us, the type of peace officer your parents once advised you could trust and rely on. While there are probably a few skeletons in his closet (everyone’s life has them, even if they’re incredibly minor at best), we are sold a full blown family values version of small town swagger. And we love it.

Kraus makes sure to show us Hewitt’s sense of personal pride as well. He is careful in how he dresses, making sure to always look put together and well turned out. He never shows fear, or a lack of confidence, though an occasional aside for a bottle of cold water or a moment alone reveal a very real, very vulnerable human being. Kraus uses his camera instinctually, picking up on points that a more staged approach would probably miss. When the lady behind the video poker counter pleads ignorance as to any remaining money in the building, Hewitt delivers a wonderful little speech about being “right and square” with his suspects. After a little more poking and prodding, the cash she swore didn’t exist magically ends up in his hands.

Sheriff is also interested in the different cultural dynamics of small Southern town life. Hewitt is seen hunting, shotguns slung, daughter along to provide firm parent/child companionship. There is also an intriguing moment when the lawman congratulates his son’s friend for making first chair percussion in the school band. “I told you he was going to do that!”, Hewitt’s son says with a smile. A hug and a kiss confirm another close tie. In fact, most of this man’s life is made up of networks and contacts, links between people he’s known for decades and individuals he’s interacted with on both sides of the criminal justice system. It a closeness that helps support a few Solomon like opinions. While he doesn’t like the local nudist colony, (and many in the community don’t) he still champions the member’s right to live that lifestyle – as long as they are doing it peaceably.

The new DVD from FACETS Video helps broaden our perspective. Along with the original 76 minute theatrical version of the film, we get over 40 minutes of deleted footage, sequences expanding our understanding of Hewitt’s duties and his approach to same. What’s even more compelling is, once we’ve seen the additional material, we recognize that the narrative doesn’t need the extra enlightenment. Kraus has done such a marvelous job of sketching in all the necessary details from the collection of sequences we see in the film that Hewitt and his circumstances come across fully formed and capable of easy consideration. As intimate as it is instructional, and insightful, Sheriff stands as a unique cinematic accomplishment. It’s impossible to imagine that, when Brunswick County was chosen and Hewitt was contacted about this particular project, such a stellar behind the scenes statement would be made.

It’s a credit to Kraus who did something similar with his look at a 40 year old beer drinking wrestling fanatic with Down’s Syndrome named JeffTowne. What seemed obvious at first all of a sudden transcended its borders to blossom into an engaging, irresistible discovery. Sheriff Ronald E. Hewitt could easily become a modern day Andy Griffin, ‘golly gee’ philosophizing making everyone from the Carolina’s seem like hambone hicks. Instead, we see the meshing of modernity with tried and true tradition. The result is something spectacular, a film about a job that actually explains said career’s allure and fulfillment. He may not like the hours, and many of the crimes he must investigate are heinous and inhumane, but this is one lawman who takes pride in the service he provides. He’s a Sheriff, and darn proud of it – and so are we.

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Wednesday, Oct 31, 2007

I’m not much of a fan of Halloween, although I am a big fan of the candy—I like artificially flavored, pure-sugar, teeth-rotting candies that come in little plastic coffins, and the peanut butter cups in the shape of pumpkins, and all that. What I have trouble with is not trick-or-treating, but the wearing of costumes. I realize I’m in the minority in this: NPR reported this morning that about 2 million people were expected at the annual Halloween Parade in Manhattan. But I find seeing people in costumes a bit embarrassing, a bit like peeping through a window into their inner psychic weirdness. Many people probably enjoy it for just that reason; it offers a chance to be exhibitionistic without guilt, and carries with it the illicit allure of the carnivalesque, the loosening of strictures, the subversion of social norms, and all that other Bakhtinian goodness. But the fantasies being unleashed in costume form somehow seem so paltry: people dressed as characters from TV shows, or attempting some other “clever” appropriation from pop culture. But the clever costumes are less embarrassing than the vaguely sexual ones: Spend any time at the parade and you may conclude that most women want to dress up like hookers and most men want to look like women. With an opportunity to dress up and tap into the collective unconsciousness, it seems as though people gravitate to the image that our culture projects as being the most powerful, from an attention and marketing standpoint—that of the beautiful, objectified women who is sexually available. So adults in costumes becomes a depressing reiteration of the way sexuality is so thoroughly bound up with commercialization. I guess in other cultures, where the harvest celebration still has religious overtones, there’s a greater emphasis on the spiritual world—ghouls and demons. Now, it’s become a strictly carnal affair.

Anyway, that makes me one of those lame people who goes to costume parties without one. Why they can’t be more like 18th century masquerades, where many wore the same costume, the eerie domino suit, and the emphasis was on concealing your identity altogether—and generalized licentiousness—rather than trying to come across as cool, a heightened form of one’s true self?

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Wednesday, Oct 31, 2007

This question came up in a music mailing list and I wondered about this myself.  I remembered then that a good part of the answer came from another field- politics.

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Wednesday, Oct 31, 2007

By Edward Wasserman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Surely it’s good news when a super-rich couple pledges $10 million a year to found a crack team of investigative journalists whose mission will be to dig out the best stories they can find.

After all, elsewhere in the news media budgets are bled white to slake the thirst of Wall Street predators, seasoned reporters are coaxed to pasture so their pay can be banked, out-of-town bureaus are shuttered, and editorial energy is redirected onto online initiatives to engage and cultivate twitchy market segments that shrug at boring old tales of exploitation, injustice and corruption.

When today’s chieftains of the news business consider its future, they’re more likely to drool over Facebook, the social networking sensation, than to draw inspiration from the great reporting of the past.

So who’s going to pay journalists to do the grimy, old-line work of holding the rich and powerful accountable?

Enter Herbert Sandler, a Northern California financial services billionaire, and his wife, Marion. The outfit they’re funding, Pro Publica, is to be a New York-based reporting powerhouse of 24 investigative journalists led by Paul Steiger, for 16 years managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and a highly respected guy.

Pro Publica’s staff will work on the elusive, important, long-range stories that few news organizations have the stomach or money to take on. Once the stories are done, they’ll be offered to newspapers and broadcasters or posted on Pro Publica’s own Web site so the public can read them.

This is good, bold stuff. Yet the plan does have flaws, some of them serious.

First, Pro Publica’s own ambitions are a problem. Its backers make it plain they’re in the business of hunting big game, “stories with significant potential for major impact.” In finding outlets for the stories, they’ll “likely be offered exclusively to a traditional news organization, free of charge, for publication or broadcast with an eye toward maximizing the impact of each article.”

Together, as the Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner wrote in one of the few criticisms of the plan, these elements suggest that Pro Publica will proffer top-notch journalism to big, powerful news organizations, the ones that need it the least.

Second, is it even true that we have insufficient coverage of tough, front-burner national stories from the high-impact media Pro Publica wants to feed? I wonder. With the Bush administration leaking like an overripe melon, and a torrent of first-rate books about high-level deception and stupidity, the real problem may not be what’s out there - in newspapers, magazines and online, from domestic and foreign sources; it’s what the public can be induced to pay attention to.

Breaking stories is one thing; setting the public’s agenda is quite another.

Third, the implication of the plan is that the stories that truly matter are national. Many are. But many more aren’t. The isolated and beleaguered
eporters who are breaking their picks hacking away at local zoning scandals, crooked landlords, corrupt courts and local environmental disgraces fall beneath Pro Publica’s gaze.

Unfortunately, the Pro Publica model suggests that if these people want to make their mark they need to pack up and head to Manhattan, which already has the richest concentration of journalistic talent on earth.

This country’s journalism profession is already being hollowed out, and it’s hard to see how that process won’t be aggravated by creating an elite squad
of ace reporters composed mainly of top talents who can readily find work elsewhere - many of them drawn from places where the need for their unique
skills is acute.

A culture of accountability, to be truly national, needs to be built in the provinces as well. If the Sandlers are thinking about shedding another $10 million, they might consider bringing aboard a second kernel of supervising editors of the integrity and skill of Steiger and his colleagues. Then they should use most of the money to seed newsrooms throughout the country with endowed investigative positions, whose occupants would be advised by these editors and whose sleuthing would be focused on the small-bore social and political outrages that affect people most directly and most insidiously.

So let’s welcome Pro Publica, and acknowledge the role that philanthropy can play in funding the indispensable coverage that market incentives cannot alone guarantee. But let’s also hope this is the first step, not the last.


Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. He wrote this column for The Miami Herald.

Tagged as: journalism
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