Thursday, March 31, 2005

Veronica rocks

Heather Havrilesky is exactly right about Veronica Mars, which is easily the best drama on television.

It's simultaneously a realistic slice of high school life from the perspective of an outsider, a compelling long-term mystery, a fast paced and fun series of weekly stories, and a slightly off kilter universe of quirky but very well drawn characters.

I don't get why it's not getting the buzz and audiences of Buffy. Hell, I didn't even like Buffy and I love Veronica Mars.

Video game journalism hackery

Video game journalists are not known for having the highest of ethical standards. As one person in the industry told me recently, publicists at publishers generally take the attitude that if you send them free games and give them lots of food at events, they'll always swallow your spin and never print anything before you're ready to "announce." (Which means tell the world about something you've been doing for months or even years.)

But I recently noticed something what I consider to be a pretty disturbing breach of journalism ethics even coming from video game reporters.

As those of you in major cities might have noticed, Sony is buying up all the ad time on major stations in 5 big cities during drive time this week for "PSP Radio." Essentially, it's a fake radio show hosted by Carson Daly to promote the new Playstation Portable. Here in L.A. I have heard it on Indie 103.1 every night this week.

It's annoying to listen to a five minute long ad produce as a fake radio show, but whatever. That's the state of marketing. Mostly, Carson interviews game developers or celebrities about how great the PSP is and he repeatedly refers to it as "sick." Harmless stuff.

But on two separate occassions this week, I heard him talk to video game journalists. One was Geoff Keighley, a freelancer who writers for EW and Business 2.0 according to his website. The other was Dan Hsu, editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly. They were both interviewed by Carson about how awesome the PSP is.

Howzat? Journalists willingly appearing in an advertisement for a company they cover? How is this possibly ethical? Any journalist from Variety who was in an ad for a studio or network talking about how great their films or shows are would be fired, and rightfully so. Along the same lines, imagine if Bill Keller or Adam Nagourney of the New York Times (editor and political reporter, respectively) appeared in an ad for George W. Bush and then went back to covering politics. People would be outraged.

I should note that I have no reason to believe Keighley and Hsu weren't telling the truth in their interviews. From the limited time I got to check it out, the PSP does seem pretty dope. And I have no idea whether they were paid by Sony to do these interviews. (If they were, this goes from a serious appearance of impropriety to total impropriety; if not, then I think they were cheated.)

(Update 4/1: Hsu and Keighley have both since made clear that they were not compensated for doing the interview.)

I should also note that Keighley just wrote a story for Business 2.0 about the PSP and Hsu's publication has of course covered it extensively. So something definitely doesn't seem right here.

I know, I know, it's "just" video games. But people in the game world are always upset about that attitude and want it to be taken seriously as media and a business. One step along that road would be for journalists who cover video games to act like real journalists.

(Admission: I cover video games, amongst other things, for Variety and Daily Variety. Whether my journalism meets the standards I discuss here is of course for others to decide, but I can safely say I would never appear in an ad for Sony or any other game company, both because I would be fired and I prefer to be taken seriously as a journalist.)

Update 4/1: Dan Hsu has a thoughtful comment below that's worth reading. He indicates that he didn't know that the interview he was doing would be advertorial.
Since Carson Daly also hosts a regular radio program, I believe, it seems like a reasonable mistake to make.

It thus seems that the problem lies with Sony misleading the journalists they interviewed for their "PSP Radio" marketing campaign. If I were these guys, though, I would be pissed that Sony was making it appear that I was participating in advertising.

Crucifixtion wallpaper for your cell phone

The following pitch from a publicist came my way recently:

As you know, the recut version of the blockbuster film “The Passion of The Christ” was just released and continues to touch the lives of millions. Complementing the new version of the film, and coinciding with the Easter holiday, exclusive content from the movie will soon be available on a wide variety of mobile phones. For the first time premium content – such as ringtones from the soundtrack and premium images including movie posters and pivotal scenes from the film – can now be downloaded to cell phones.

Crucifixtion wallpaper? Ringtones of the apostles wailing when Christ is being nailed to the cross? This sounds like loads of fun...

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Hip hop fantastic Big Mac Attack

Building on my interest in fantastic corporate trends, as evidenced by the below post, I had to share the following tidbit from the world of corporate marketing.

It came my way via the newsletter for a publication Advertising Age puts out called Madison & Vine, which is about the exciting world of integrated brand marketing (The Gap in Minority Report, Coke on American Idol, that kind of thing). It's the summary of an article that looks, really, too good to be true:

March 23, 2005

LOS ANGELES -- McDonald’s Corp. has hired entertainment marketing firm Maven Strategies to help the fast-food giant encourage hip-hop artists to integrate the Big Mac sandwich into their upcoming songs.

What's sadder? The people who do these things unironically, the ones who report on it unironically, or the ones who pay $300 per year to read about it unironically? I honestly can't decide.

All I know is that I truly madly deeply hope this brilliant marketing campaign of McDonalds' succeeds. The contributions to our culture will be just fantastic.

(Note: The editor of Madison & Vine is a former co-worker and a nice guy. Nothing against him. I mock the game, not the player.)

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Totally extreme tax returns!!!

I'm a huge fan of advertising for very basic things blatantly aimed at 18-34 year olds. You know what I'm talking about: They have pictures or video of attractive 20-somethings skateboarding or text messaging or flirting and it turns out the ad is for insurance or a Honda Accord.

I was just visiting the Turbo Tax website and there's a fantastic example on the bottom right of the page. I quote directly:

Are you a young adult? TurboTax now has a site just for you. Fast. Simple. Rock your refund.
* Taxes in plain English
* Get a Russell Simmons Rush Pre-paid Visa® Card
* Best Buy 10% instant coupons
* Up to $200 off cool trips like Vegas and Miam

Of course I immediately clicked on the ad and was taken to the site (I guess TTOweTheGovernment didn't test as well). There are rotating pictures of attractive young people picking each other up, lying on the beach, playing volleyball, and snowboarding. If you use, you'll be attractive and active, of course.

And half the page is taken up with the "playtime" section, where offers you a variety of helpful options on where to spend your inevitable refund: At best buy or on trips to Mexico or Vegas. So it turns out it's just a site where the people at Turbo Tax sign up marketers to immediately suck from us any money that we are owed by the government.

Of course I have to use it, because I am young, hip, and want a totally extreme refund.

You mean we can't teach teens about sexuality like they're five years old??

Speaking of government's desire to control our personal lives, here's the lead from an LA Times article today that should surprise nobody who understands anything about teenagers or education. But it will undoubtedly be ignored by social conservatives who have never let factual information get in the way of their agenda to control our lives:

Young adults who as teenagers took pledges not to have sex until marriage were just as likely to contract a venereal disease as people who didn't make the promise, according to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

So if we don't give teenagers complete and accurate information, they end up making bad choices? What a shocker!

You spend your money, we'll take care of your wife

I don't know enough about the Terry Schiavo case to know what the right answer is. But I do know I'm outraged that so many Republicans are trying to interfere in a private family matter that has been adjudicated in state courts for several years in order to mollify the social conservative base for whom they can't deliver on big issues like a constituational amendment to ban gay marriage or outlawing abortion.

As I read an article about the case for the first time ever in the LA Times this morning, I felt so bad for her husband. Unless I really am wrong and he's a nut, it seems like he's living in this insane world where he's trying to make a wrenching personal decision that people make all the time but he now has the entire U.S. right wing lining up against him. For people from around the country who never knew his wife to be protesting and passing laws condemning his choice for his vegetative wife is just sickening. And Tom Delay, one of the most vile people in Congress, managed to make me even more ill than he usually does with this winner of a quote: "I don't have a whole lot of respect for a man that has treated this woman in this way. What kind of man is he?"

I love that Republicans so passionately believe that people can spend their own money better than the government, but they think the government can make decisions about whether a woman should be allowed to remain in a vegetative state for over a decade better than her own husband. Thank God this law Congress seems likely to pass specifically doesn't set a precedent, since it so clearly seems part of the right wing agenda -- one that Rick Santorum at least has the balls to admit he has -- to eliminate citizens' right to make private decisions about the most important, personal decisions.

Update (3/21):
-Shocking news: A GOP memo shows party insiders see Schiavo as a "great political issue"
-In much better news, more than 2/3 of Americans think it's inappropriate for Congress to involve itself in the Schiavo case. As Kevin Drum points out in this Washington Monthly post, "even evangelical Christians don't support congressional intervention." Kevin forgets, though, that Schiavo's parents are definitely in the GOP camp now and they undoubtedly will tell all their friends to vote Republican. And Florida is a swing state...

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Bernie's tight ship

As an update to my earlier post about the lack of marketing I received for the L.A. mayoral campaign:

My girlfriend and I both got mailings supporting Councilman and former police chief Bernard Parks for mayor yesterday: the day after the election. That's far down on the list of problems that had him coming in 4th place in Tuesday's election, but it doesn't seem like the sign of a well run campaign.

Unless it was the incomptence of my mailman, which is quite possible. It's a good day when all the main in our mailbox is actually ours and not somebody else in our building.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"Worthless Slate Story" of the day

Today I start what I hope will be a semi-regular feature on this site: the "Worthless Slate Story" of the day (or week, or however often I blog on this).

Slate is, in my humble opinion, America's most worthless national elite publication. Yes, there are occassionally interesting articles. But most of it consists of not particularly insightful opinions from the intelligent but not particularly knowledgeable about any one topic, a bit left of center, and often condescending writers who seem to make up most of its staff. Perhaps most importantly, Slate has never in its history, to my knowledge, reported a single fact. Actually contributing to the world's knowledge seems pretty much anathema to their mission of somewhat intelligent, highly snarky, and contrarian just for the sake of being contrarian commentary.

Bushisms and the pleasingly departed Kerryisms (which we took apart on Spinsanity) are good examples of worthless Slate work. So is most of the stuff written by Timothy Noah and Mickey Kaus, to take the two worst offenders.

(Please note that they are both smart guys and I generally agree with their politics. And I have met Mickey in person a few times and he's a nice guy. But their work never contributes anything substantive.)

Today's "Worthless Slate Story" comes from Tim Noah, whose Chatterbox column is regularly the barely organized thoughts of some guy who wouldn't get much traffic if he wrote a blog. The fact that Noah gets paid a full salary to turn these thoughts into a column 2 or 3 times a week is quite depressing.

In yesterday's "Chatterbox," Noah summarized a story that appeared in the Washington Monthly two months ago. I read it in print form a few weeks after it was delievered to my apartment and then a few weeks later I blogged about it on here.

At the time I was a little embarassed I had taken so long to blog on the issue of the quality of VA hospitals and national service. But, you know, this is just a blog that hardly anyone reads (except maybe when Slate links to me, which I'm guessing they won't do anymore if anyone there reads this) and it's for fun, not my job. Meanwhile, Tim Noah gets paid what I must assume is a solid middle class salary to write for Slate and he doesn't get around to it until yesterday.

His take on the piece -- that it shows the much maligned concept of "socialized medicine" is actually a proven success in the U.S. -- is perfectly valid, if not much different than that of the author, Phillip Longman. But honestly, that counts as a meaningful article in a professional publication read by millions of people and owned by the Washington Post? That is good enough for the people who pay his bills? It's nothing. It's worthless. But it's par for the course over at Slate, America's most worthless publication.

More on this topic soon, no doubt.

The agony of defeat

When I was young and my parents were divorced, my Dad used to vote that you could tell who was going to win the presidential election every 4 years by looking at the bumper sticker on my Mom's car and voting for the other guy. And it was true at that point she had a Dukakis sticker over a Mondale sticker. And she had previously voted for Carter and Ford. (Finally she got one right with Clinton)

I'm beginning to wonder if I'm on the same track, at least when it comes to competitive elections. I have voted for my share of winners: Clinton in '96 and plenty of incumbent Democratic representatives in Congress and the Senate from my liberal home in L.A. But those were races where the winner was never in doubt by election day. When it comes to close elections, I'm pretty much always wrong: Gore, Kerry, against recall, Villaraigosa for mayor 4 years ago, and now Bob Hertzberg for mayor, who just barely lost to Hahn for the second spot in the mayoral runoff.

And it's not just a case of liberals losing the close ones. Hertzberg was arguably the most conservative of the five Democrats running for mayor (at least he was appealing most to Republicans -- I'm not sure how you classify views on local education reform and traffic reduction as liberal or conservative) and I picked him.

One day soon I would like to enjoy the thrill of wondering all night how an election is going to turn out and then being happy about the result.

Maybe I'll get my chance with the Villaraigosa v. Hahn rematch. I'm not a huge Villaraigosa fan, but I think he definitely could be better than our innefective incumbent, so I'll vote for him.

On reflection, it's probably a good thing I don't put candidate bumper stickers on my car.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

L.A. has a mayor -- who knew?!

I voted for mayor this morning and turnout appeared to be about as high as a mid week show of "Son of the Mask." I suppose that statement personifies the problem, though, since upper middle class Angelenos like myself are more likely to talk about movie grosses than politics.

I keep reading in the LA Times that this has been a particularly intense mayoral race, with lots of ads, mailings, door knocking, etc. But I seem to have missed all of it. I don't watch ads since I have a TiVo, but I do often watch what the ads are as I fast forward through them and the only ones I saw were a couple for Hahn. Maybe the other guys weren't advetising on the shows I watch.

I was shocked that I didn't get a single phone call or mailing about the mayoral face (although our city council member, who ran unopposed, did send a bunch of mailings). My girlfriend and I are both registered Democrats (all 5 of the leading candidates are Democrats) and I get my share of political junk mail, so it seems really weird that we didn't get hit up at all.

Since I was apparently unimportant to the marketing teams for each campaign, I was left to choose my mayor based on the occassional (but surely not enough) articles I read in the LA Times and brief visits to all their websites. I also paid attention to the Times' endorsement since the editors there are probably close to my demographic (upper middle class, well educated, somewhat pretentious), if a bit older.

It's almost weird to vote based solely on newspaper articles and candidates' information -- kind of like a political scientist's wet dream. Since all the candidates (except maybe Parks) seemed like good guys who would be adequate mayors, I had to dig a bit and try to make an informed decision without the associations you usually have after being inundated with marketing (for better or, most likely, for worse).

I decided to vote for Hertzberg, since he seems intent on focusing L.A.'s biggest problems with bold plans. It may be a difficult task given the lack of civic pride in this city and the weak mayoral powers thanks to the charter, but I think we need a mayor who's willing to think big about how to deal with traffic, pollution, the schools, and city unity. Hahn never seemed to think bigger than adding a few left turn signals per year (which he didn't even do well) and strikes me as somewhat corrupt (even if the charges aren't true, I can't say I'm impressed by somebody who grew up in and has spent his entire adult life in city politics). Villaraigosa was my second choice, but some of his ideas like extending the red line to the ocean are probably a bit too ambitious and I think he's focused a little bit more on passion than actual ideas to change the city. I'd still take that over Hahn -- and will vote for him if it's a Villaraigosa-Hahn runoff -- but Hertzberg strikes me as the right compromise between passion and practical ideas.

Whoever wins, though, I think one of the best ways to measure their success is whether a majority of people in the city know who he is (unless it's for a corruption scandal). And if L.A. could get a mayor with Guiliani-size national stature (but hopefully not his politics), that would be a really welcome change.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Welcome Back, Fleischer

I wasn't surprised that Jon Stewart conducted a total softball interview with Ari Fleischer last night. Whether interviewing Democrats like John Kerry or Republicans, Stewart has shown he's easily flummoxed by people who are quicker and savvier than him, in which he case he retreats into mild humor ("Ari fleischer was candid with me.") When he is critical, like the time he told a Republican Congressman that accusations Kerry was the most liberal Senator came from National Journal for one year, he seems to just have one point in mind and hammer away on it.

What really interested me in Fleischer wasn't the way he so casually charmed Stewart (though I did enjoy when Stewart asked if "this White House [is] more restrictive with information than others have been" and Ari just said "yes." No better way to deflect a critical question than to be shockingly honest without actually admitting anything controversial).

I was fascinated by the contemtous attitude toward the press and the effort to make it look like what the Bush Administration has done is nothing special. He admitted that the President sees the press only in part as a group with a special trust in the public and that he sees it in part as just a special interest group. Of course I suspect that most presidents at least part of the time have felt the press was just another group out to get them. But have we really reached the point where an expert spinner doesn't even feel the need to pretend that the president respects the role of the media in a free society?

When Stewart asked him about the "dance" the media plays with a flack like Fleischer, his response was amazing to me. While feigning respect for the press, he painted a victory for the press in that conflict as reporting a presidential decision "12 hours before he announces it." Fundementally, Fleischer apparently sees covering the White House as reporting on what the President does, whether it's a few hours ahead of time or after he does it. But how about news that isn't essentially transcription (or pre-transcription) of what the Presiden tsays. How about investigative reports that tells us when the President is being dishonest, or is doing something that he doesn't want the public to know about and never plans to announce? Like when the press pointed out that there really weren't as many viable embryonic stem cells available for research as Bush claimed in August of 2001? Or the biggest story of the past decade (at least) missed by American political reporters: the con job George W. Bush pulled in convincing the American people Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. That's real journalism and that's where the real conflict between the press corps and the White House should come. (not that we still don't need some of the transcription)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Fleischer engaged in a little bit of dishonesty, or at least trickery, to draw a false comparison. When Stewart asked him about Bush's tendency to hold public events where every question is pre-screened and the whole thing is staged, Fleischer reminded him that "everyone does that," Republicans and Democrats. Well, sort of. Yes, Bill Clinton and many other Democrats have held highly stage managed events. But there was a key difference in the public events John Kerry held in the last campaign and the ones W. held. At most of Kerry's events, anybody could go. At Bush's events, all attendees were pre-screened to make sure they were Bush supporters. No trouble-makers from that half of the voting population who didn't like Bush allowed.

I never expected Stewart to be able to match up against the dark lord of spin. But given how often he points out dishonesty by Bush in the first act of his show, he might have at least asked a follow-up question once.

Greenspan's shit does smell

Bravo to Harry Reid for having the balls to call Alan Greenspan what he often is: "one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington."

I'm not really informed enough to offer an educated opinion on Greenspan's monetary policy. But it does infuriate me that he can simultaneously issue express policy preferences that are pretty clearly unhealthy for the long-term economic health of our country (supposedly his job) while at the same time standing above partisan criticism.

Greenspan's public statements are often treated like the pronouncements of the Oracle at Delphi -- Our role is not to question, but to interpret his wisdom. But let's be honest: Greenspan, when he feels like it, is a political partisan. And like anyone who gets into the political arena, he needs to feel the heat, especially given how wrong-headed some of his views are.

I'm thinking, of course, of his support for Bush's tax cuts and his current support for personal accounts to partially replace the Social Security system. Regardless of whether private accounts or Bush's tax cuts are/were a good idea (they're not and they weren't), this clearly contradicts his advice for the government to get the deficit under control.

I think it's fine for the Fed chairman to argue in favor of dealing with deficits or reforming the tax code, since most economists can broadly agree such steps would improve the nation's economic health and they can be implemented in many different ways. But tax cuts and Social Secrity privatization don't accomplish such goals. They're policy preferences in line with Greenspan's apparent libertarian-leaning political views.

Greenspan should keep his mouth shut about these kinds of issues. Since he won't, I'm glad Democrats are treating him like the partisan conservative he is being.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

W: Bubble Boy

One of the most offensive things about President Bush to me is the way he seems to insulate himself against any opinions differing from his or even information that might contradict his worldview.

This always seems most shocking when Bush has his "public" forums where hand picked people just tell him how much they agree with him or ask him embarassing softball questions. Like the following from a recent Social Security event:

"I think what you're proposing is giving someone that's in my situation an opportunity to be able to take a personal account into my retirement and to look forward to something -- particularly a higher return in what you're proposing."

"So to have something like [a private account] that is left behind to you, that can help you through a very difficult period, I think would be a very, very good thing. It would be a godsend, and it would be fair and it would be just."

My question isn't why the White House organizes this type of event. As Brendan, Bryan and I discussed in depth in All the President's Spin, Bush and co. have no compunctions about embarassingly upbeat public events where there's not a single negative quote for the press to pick up on.

I just honestly wonder what goes on in Bush's head. He obviously knows that many people disagree with him since 48%-plus of the country voted against him. But does he understand what they think? Does he ever pay attention to the opposing sides' arguments?

Or does the president who never hears a regular citizen disagree with him, is surrounded by single-minded advisors who brief him on what he needs to know, and who famously brags about not reading newspaper and is regularly dismissive of the press, live in a bubble? Sometimes I honestly wonder whether he comprehends the serious arguments against his policies.

Remember this is the guy whose campaign wouldn't let any non-supporters into rallies last year. (I always thought Kerry should have made a stink about that; to me it defined W's arrogance and detachment from reality)

I'm struck in debates and the occassional press conference at how he dismisses opponents by caricaturing their arguments so it sounds like they're saying he doesn't think civil rights matter or he never heard that there were no WMD in Iraq. It's not a question of the way the he goes about defining protecting civil rights, or how much it matters that he misled the country about WMD when he describes it.

Of course it could all be rhetorical expertise. But I honestly sometimes think he just doesn't know that there are other valid ways to see the world and his policies. More scarily, I think maybe he doesn't care that he doesn't know.

But at least his public events make great comedy for those of us with a sense of irony.