Let’s Give Sorkin and “The Newsroom” Due Credit.

The underlying irony of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show, “The Newsroom”, and I’m sure he’s well aware of it, is that as much as he wants to use it to frame a discussion about the half-assed, highly compromised job so many outlets of professional journalism are doing in this country today, he too has to dilute and diminish his product to keep it commercially viable.

I had to play catch up with the three episodes that have aired so far. The first, where lovable-but-curmudgeonly cable network anchor Jeff Daniels (aka Will McAvoy), goes off on a Northwestern coed for her “let’s all reaffirm each other” question about why America is the greatest country on earth, was ripped about a hundred new ones by virtually every critic on the planet. The knives were obviously out for Sorkin. (There are even video mash-ups of “Sorkinisms”.) Having caught up … the fault I find with the main thrust of the criticism is that it gives too little credit to Sorkin’s larger ambition. The guy has ambitions beyond making another fortune. In its best moments it is plain that he wants to elevate the grade-level discourse of modern commercial entertainment from the fifth to maybe the eleventh, with a dash of college prep work here and there. Can we at least acknowledge that he has other interests than padding his bank account with yet another cop or hospital show stocked with maximum-allowable beef and cheesecake?

Gratuitous name-dropping paragraph … so I asked Sorkin over drinks in a Pasadena restaurant … why he had so consciously avoided the truly unhinged, insane levels of naked partisanship of the Clinton era while cooking up scripts for “The West Wing”? Earlier, I had asked him much the same at press gatherings. His answer remained constant. He wanted to imagine and paint a better world, a world where large-stage politics wasn’t primarily about venal rat-fucking and shameless self-aggrandizing. (He didn’t use the phrase “rat-fucking”, but I knew what he was talking about.)

My counter argument was that if he wanted the frisson of stark reality to drive audience interest (and pundit attention) how could drawing lessons from a protracted bogus scandal like Whitewater, with all the craven demagoguery and serio-comic arm-flapping involved, hurt the ratings? His basic answer was that “West Wing’s” ratings were just fine, thank you.

The commercial dilution factor of “The Newsroom” isn’t in the “speechifying” which seems to annoy both TV critics and general audiences, (but really is pretty entertaining), but rather the “personal relationship” factor. Translated: “Romantic interest” for those forced by their spouse or date to sit through McAvoy railing on about how, in actual fact, more Americans believe in angels than understand their own health insurance. Even Sorkin has said that the success of the show hinges on how much we care about the characters.

Well, dude, on that point you do have some problems. I freely admit that at my advanced age I have only limited patience with still more self-consciously whip smart post grad students agonizing over their romantic choices and failings. But then, that stuff kinda bored me when I was 24. Is life really made better by over-analyzing every remark and statement you make and is made to you? More to the point, while Sorkin’s opening dialogue in “The Social Network”, (via 50-plus takes by director David Fincher), was quite clever, let’s not forget that Mark Zuckerberg was/is trying to “out-asshole” everyone else, including nice girls who might have modified him for the better, though maybe not the wealthier.

Week Two of ‘The Newsroom” was particularly ghastly in terms of the latter-day Tracy-Hepburn ratta-tat-tat battle-of-the-genders dialogue between the kiddies. The contrast between the big, serious, fat-and-ripe news and culture story lines and the cutie-pie love stories for the masses stuff is so extreme whenever the kids come on the screen they might as well put up a card saying — “Adults Are Advised to Use the Next Four Minutes for Bathroom Needs”.

This past week’s episode, with Jane Fonda as the network boss, re-balanced the show in favor of the stuff that Sorkin, who is now 51, (so a ways past grad-school flirtation and angst) knows best, thinks most deeply about and therefore best distinguishes “The Newsroom”.

There are plenty of things to quarrel with in terms of how the newsroom in question functions. Let’s not get started again on the likelihood of any newsroom on any planet advancing the Deepwater Horizon story as far as Sorkin’s crew did on Day #1. But the larger point in Sorkin’s favor is this: At a time when both mainstream entertainment and mainstream journalism, TV in particular, tip-toe only reluctantly and fretfully into large festering cultural issues such as — how the not so bright base of the Tea Party has been radicalized to protect and serve powerful forces largely indifferent to their quality of life — Sorkin not only has identified that trend as epochal, but has the talent and industry standing to produce it as mass entertainment — America’s best form of lubricated instruction.

Were I his producer … I would strongly advise him to shift focus steadily away from the kids’, “OMG! Did he just say that to me?!” jabberings and devote steadily more energy to the conflicts inherent in trying to/daring to describe (as opposed to avoiding) the roiling ocean of dramatic material informed adults see playing out in front of their eyes every day … and night on TV news.

This century needs another Paddy Chayefsky, not another John Hughes.

The show also needs a Tucker Carlson-like character to be foisted on McAvoy as a “balancing” foil, a la the early days of MSNBC, when the network suits looked up from their demographic research and told Phil Donahue he had to book two conservatives for every liberal guest he (unwisely) placed in front of their network cameras.

“In Order to Form a More Rowdy Book Club…”

Crowdies –

I have an experiment I’d like to propose.  Let’s read the new book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein and have a virtual book club discussion around it next month.

The book talks about the dysfunction afflicting the Congress and the confluence of forces that have contributed to – and perpetuate – that dysfunction. Mann and Ornstein are serious and longstanding Congressional and political observers, are not bomb-throwers from the left or the right and have some cred: Mann is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution and Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

What I have in mind is something similar to what we did in 2010 with gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner: I’ll put up a post on a certain date that kicks off the discussion and then let the discussing – and cussing – begin.  I’ll extend an invite to both authors to join us (you never know) but even in their absence, we could have an interesting conversation and – who knows – we might learn something.

Book clubs seem to meet on Wednesdays for some reason so how does Wednesday, August 8 sound?  That gives us a month to get the book and read it.

No need for a show of hands!  Go forth and read!

– Austin

Digital Hipsterism

Blogging is dead.

I know what you’re thinking…and it’s not did he fire six shots or only five. You’re thinking the irony of blogging about the demise of blogging is pretty rich. It is. But bear with me.

The death of blogging has been widely reported in the online world lately, on Twitter and Facebook, and by any number of prominent authorities, not the least of them being Virginia Heffernan, the high priestess of all things digital and lately uber-correspondent for Yahoo! News. In fact, in the wake of the recent calamitous Facebook IPO, Heffernan wondered if social media might also be headed for the dustbin of digital history.

Virginia Heffernan

As welcome as that prospect might be…wouldn’t it be great if we could all get back to doing real work…I suspect most of the social media and even blogging are not dying but are instead evolving. I think all of these forms, as they adapt and refine themselves to the conditions in the digital ecosystem, will not only survive but get better. Let’s face it: How could they not?

They’ll survive by getting smaller and smarter and much, much less democratic. Information does not want to be free and it doesn’t want to come from everywhere all at once. Information wants to have value. What the heap of words reduced to bits and bytes that is the blogosphere needs now is a little natural selection. Let the hacks and the poseurs and the self-indulgent and the wingnuts of every persuasion go extinct.

There is a kind of digital hipsterism in force in the online universe…a constant, lurching, desperate search for a ride on the Next Big Thing. This leaves behind a trail of semi-useful tools that got discovered, over-used, and that are being gradually abandoned by people who no longer find them worthwhile, or who hate the loss of privacy that comes with every new digital identity, or who simply never had anything meaningful to communicate in the first place.

Where it once seemed that someday everyone would have a blog that nobody read, it now appears that just the opposite may come to pass: We have begun to look for voices that matter, prose that tracks, judgments that are more than the idle head-scratching of the uninformed. The blogosphere isn’t dying…it’s just ready for a heavy winnowing out. In the future, not everyone will blog. Those who remain will be those are read.

The same thing is happening with self-published books. Until recently, it appeared that ebooks had thrown open the door to anyone wanting to call himself or herself an author. The reality is that the odds of success with a self-published book are vanishingly small and are a function not only of the vastness of the competition but also the fact that most of the people who give this a try are, however earnest, simply not any good. The door may be open, but rarely does the real thing walk through it.

For those of us suffering in the transition from the analogue past to the digital future…the very subject of Virginia Heffernan’s forthcoming book Magic and Loss…that new sound that can now be heard faintly amid the din on the Internet is the the sound of our analogue hearts still beating.

A Song At Twilight

I didn’t want to read this goddam book. It’s a Minnesota poet telling the story of her parents, in love for half a century, falling apart with Alzheimer’s. Drying up. Blowing away. Husks.

My mom died of Alzheimer’s. Dad died of ALS. Wasting diseases, stealing little bits of ability, little bits of dignity, day by day. Once strong, vibrant. Sinking fading falling. I don’t need to go there again.

But it’s my friend John Gaterud, the best editor and writer I know. The small press — Blue Road Press — that he’s created with his daughter Abbey. He tells me about the book as he edits, as they design, typeset, proof, birth it.

He sends me a copy. No. Thanks. It somehow makes it into my suitcase on a road trip. I pick it up. I don’t want to go back there.

It’s a good book, dammit. A Song At Twilight, of Alzheimer’s and Love, by Nancy Paddock. It’s horrifying. Honest. And it’s hard to stop reading it.

And it’s been nominated for a Minnesota Book Award in the Memoir and Creative Nonfiction category. Deservedly so.

Paddock dissects with brutal clarity the rending issues that twist the souls of children as they watch their parents fall apart. Shouldn’t I take my mom or my dad into our home and take care of her or him? Turn my life upside down and give them the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute care they need? They turned their lives upside down, taking care of me when I was a baby, whenever I was sick. But you don’t. They go into a nursing home. And you don’t visit as often as you should. Guilt. Metastasizing guilt.

And then, as the tragic disintegration drags on and on, you say, but god not out loud — if only this would end. And — disagreements among siblings about what to do next, when to take away more freedom and dignity from your parents. When to move them from the home they love, when to get rid of the furniture and mementos that can remind them of the glory of their lives. And is your brother or sister doing as much as you are? When you’re not doing enough yourself? And money — care for the elderly, for the dying, is expensive, and money is always a bind.

There were moments of astounding heart-filling joy as I was with my parents as they dissolved. A sweet smile, a thank-you, shared laughter at the absurdity of it all. Enduring love. But so often those moments were overwhelmed by the horror.

Paddock shows it all. As a poet does, she evokes the humor and love, and the deep deep pain. Her dad, a lifelong reader, still reads as his brain frays. “He laughed and said, ‘I only need one book.’ Then, with a quick gesture — as if wiping words from his brain — added, ‘It just goes shoooop!'” And her mother, in the nursing home: “‘I stand by the window and want to go out,’ Mama announces. ‘But we’re old so we can’t.’ She says ‘out’ with such fervor.”

Paddock’s father, aware that he’s slipping down a one-way vortex, observes, “Humans ought to come with an off switch.”

I’d like to say this book in inspirational, uplifting. But it isn’t. It’s grim and it’s harrowing and it’s funny and it’s warm like blood and it’s so damn real. It would be a good scouting report for anyone whose parents are starting to fail, because it shows, with compassion, the truth of what’s ahead. The book does what great books do — grabs life and sets it loose pulsing in front of you, whole and ugly and sublime.

As a child of the Sixties, to me every message from the universe is received as “live now, live fully, there may be no future.” And part of living fully and now is, sometimes, rolling up your sleeves and holding life as it dies.

“Loss breaks the heart,” Paddock writes, “but opens the soul.”

Winners of the 24th Minnesota Book Awards will be announced April 14. Good luck, Nancy and John. Dammit.

— Bruce Benidt
(Book cover image from Blue Road Press website)

Ten Years After — The View Out My Screen Porch

“The longer I do this the less I know.”

small business help That was my wife, Lisa’s, former career-counseling partner, Colleen Convey, talking to people at a large Minneapolis company years ago about finding work that fits you, not fitting into work. Then Colleen gave them, humbly, what she’d learned in her decades of counseling, which her years and wisdom had shaped into something simple, clear and deep.

One of Colleen’s and Lisa’s measures of job fit is — when was the last occasion where you lost track of time because you were so engaged by what you were doing? If you can find work that connects with one of those experiences (no, Austin, you can’t make a living doing that) you’ll have work that fits and fulfills.

Ten years ago Colleen’s and Lisa’s advice and support helped me leave, with manageable fear and trembling, a global PR firm to start my own little business. April 1, 2001 I went on my own, an April fool. Ten years later, I still haven’t had to get a real job and I’m still losing track of time when engaged face-to-face with my clients. The longer I do this the less I know — but I’ve become pretty clear about what I do know.

Life is short, meetings are long, presentations are mostly dreadful, most interview subjects can’t spit out in plain English why anybody might care about or benefit from what they do — so anyone who can talk with clarity and passion and examples about stuff that matters to real people is an extraordinary and compelling communicator. After a dozen years as a journalist and a dozen in PR and decades of college teaching, I have focused on training people to be clear and compelling communicators. Not by giving them a formula, but by listening to them and watching them and dragging out, through all the layers of organizational and educational and professional detritus, their own personality and passion. I help people talk about stuff that excites them or moves them — and I get paid for it. For ten years now. Good gig

It’s scary, a little, being out on your own. Most independents I know, like me, worry that the phone will stop ringing. Colleen told me that the first year on your own you worry all the time about not getting work, the second year you think the first year was a fluke, and by the third year you think this might actually work. Ten years in, I’ve embraced worry as an old friend who just croaks in the corner. I miss a good health-care plan, I miss colleagues from the newspapers and colleges and Shandwick, but god I love making an independent living from something I’m good at, saying yes or no when I want to, and now in my dotage not pretending I know more than I do.

A huge thanks is due to the people who helped me develop the skills I’ve traded on for ten years — Dennis McGrath, Scott Meyer, Mary Jeffries, Dave Mona, Sara Gavin, Dave Kuhn, Betsy Buckley, Kari Bjorhus, Steve Conway, Mary Milla, Walt Parker and so many more from the Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin Shandwick years. And to Lisa, who encouraged me to jump with no net. And to mein guter freund Jorg Pierach, with whom I jumped in 2001 and who, like me, has withstood two economic collapses and who, unlike me, has built a gorgeous and successful agency of lively cool professionals — FastHorse. Jorg supported and supports me, with drinks and an office and unquenchable good spirit. And to Daniel Pitlik, who’s been at this for years longer than I have and is an example and mensch and sweet human being from whom I have stolen endless ideas and approaches. And to Tony Carideo, a careful and caring businessman/journalist with a philosopher’s heart and degree who’s held my hand the whole way — and whose basement is promised as Lisa’s and my retirement home.

And to my clients — who make me feel part of their teams — huge huge thanks. These are my colleagues and friends — good humans at Medtronic, Best Buy,Thomson Reuters, UPS, Amway, Cargill, Doug Kelley, GCI Atlanta the most frequent, but all of you people I light up when I see as I drag in my camera bag for another gig. The biographer Charles Neider had a formula for whom he chose as a subject for a book — could he take a cross-country train trip with that person and not want to jump the tracks mid-journey? All of my clients I’d climb on a train with — at the bar-car end of course. Some of my clients are former Shandwick colleagues who’ve moved on and kept my number, some former Shandwick clients, some former students, and all have referred me to others, which keeps me out of the bread lines.

In ten years my little business has moved its global headquarters from Eden Prairie to South Minneapolis and now to north of Tampa, where my office is a screen porch looking out on the egret fishing in the oyster bar pictured above. Huge thanks to my Minneapolis clients who keep calling on me even though I’m no longer just a half-hour away. Here near the Gulf of Mexico I’ve learned to distinguish the sharp beak-splash of a kingfisher diving into the tidal pond in our backyard from the flop-splash of fish jumping, and to recognize the twee-twee call of an osprey before I see its speckled wings and striped tail. These are important work skills, I think.

Technology has changed in my ten years. I travel now with three video cameras (plans A, B & C — you can’t waste executives’ time and look like a fool because of equipment failures or lost luggage), the most recent a flipcam. I used to drag to sessions a bag of VHS tapes of interview and speech examples until Sue Busch at Best Buy suggested with good humor that this was one step above cave paintings, so then I switched to examples on DVD. Now it’s YouTube and Ted.com — when a client at UPS a week or so ago said he liked a local preacher’s and Tom Friedman’s speaking styles, we instantly pulled them up on YouTube on my iPhone and analyzed what made them compelling. (Even more important — I’m about to watch the Twins opener on my iPad out on the porch — is this a great country or what?)

Have I changed in ten years? I’m more willing to say no to work I’m not good at, don’t like or don’t know enough to do. Journalism training and natural arrogance have always made me comfortable challenging people, but now I’m even more willing to look at an executive and say, with I hope a blend of compassion and two-by-four, that people will rush for the exits if you talk like that. And I’m more sure I can help the person be more engaging and compelling — partly because the bar is so low in most organizations. I worry a little about not staying current, and I never pretend to be a social media guru, leaving that to Jorg and blogbuddies Mike Keliher and Jon Austin. But the core of communication, I think, is still clarity and passion and zip, no matter the medium.

Personally I remain a manic blend of daily childish optimism and long-term black-hole pessimism, but here in Florida surrounded by birdmusic and the breathing tides and clouds of the Gulf I wallow less in the daily examples of entropy. Once you know the principle that trains crash, Thoreau wrote, you don’t need to know every instance of a train crashing. So I put down the paper or the hand-held and watch a heron alight with delicate wingbeats on the cedar tree across the channel.

Enough. Thanks to all who’ve been part of this journey. And please keep calling — I need the work. And the time face-to-face with clients still flies by.

— Bruce Benidt