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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Miley mess

Now that the TV media, the blogoshpere and even The New York Times have been hyperventilating for about 24 hours over the Miley Cyrus photo flap, what say we catch our collective breath and examine this for what it really is?

So desperate are the gossip mongers for a scandal involving the wholesome “Hannah Montana” star that they’re willing to completely cast aside truth and objectivity and refer to a Vanity Fair photo of Cyrus partially wrapped in a satin sheet and exposing her bare back as “topless,” “nude” and “racy.”

The reality is that the photo (above) is none of the those things. If anything, it’s tame by today’s standards – showing far less of a teenage girl than one is likely to see at a public pool or beach and even less than we saw of Cyrus herself at the recent “Country Music Awards,” where she performed in a low-cut dress that made her cleavage the star of the show.

Of course, Cyrus herself made the Vanity Fair situation worse than it had to be when, on Sunday, she issued a written apology for posing and said she felt “embarrassed” by the photo. It seems the situation would have gotten much less attention had Cyrus not portrayed it as an error in judgment. (And by the way, Miley, what you’re embarrassed by is the negative publicity, not the photo. It’s not like you didn’t see the thing before it appeared.)

But then again, one can’t help but wonder whether this is all a carefully choreographed publicity stunt by Cyrus, her father Billy Ray and the folks at Disney, who own the “Hannah Montana” franchise – all eager to keep the teen queen’s name in the news at a time when Miley fatigue certainly has begun to set in. Nothing like a good scandal to prop up music and video sales, right? Just ask Madonna, who elevated manufactured scandals to an art form in the 1980s and 1990s. (Remember the “Like a Prayer” and “Justify My Love” dust-ups? Don’t think it might not be happening again.)

As an aside, it’s worth noting that the bosses at The New York Times apparently realized as Monday progressed that they had made a mountain out of a molehill. The headline above the Cyrus story in the Times’ print edition Monday morning referred to the photo as “topless.” By Monday afternoon, the word had been changed to “revealing” in the headline on the newspaper’s Web site, and the word also had been removed from the opening paragraph of the story.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

They're stars, and I'm not

Great to hear that Jimmy Fallon, a 1992 graduate of Saugerties High School who spent eight years as a cast member and writer at "Saturday Night Live," is taking over from Conan O'Brien next year as the host of NBC's "Late Night." (O'Brien is jumping to "The Tonight Show" to succeed the departing Jay Leno.)

Affable, funny and with just the right amount of sarcasm in his delivery, Fallon (pictured at left) should do fine as the host of the after-midnight talk show. And I'm proud to say I live in the county where he grew up.
And it turns out that Fallon isn't my only "SNL" connection. Kristen Wiig (pictured at right), who's a member of the current cast, is a graduate of my high school -- Brighton High School in suburban Rochester, N.Y. -- though she passed though its hallowed halls 10 years after me, so we never met.
And Eddie Murphy, one of the show's stars in the 1980s and later a successful movie actor, spent a summer in my hometown when he was a teenager, living with one of my high school classmates as a participant in New York City's "Fresh Air" program, which lets city kids spend a few weeks away from the hectic streets of Gotham.
Oh, yeah. And my wife has a cousin who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. Does that count, too?


Monday, April 21, 2008

Remembering Dave

Shortly after writing about the death of Danny Federici (see below), I learned about the passing of the Freeman's longtime systems manager, Dave Hyatt.

Same age. Similar disease. Equally unfair.

Dave was a giant in our building -- able to juggle numerous problems at once and solve all of them. You sometimes could see the frustration on his face and hear it in his voice when the work became overwhelming, but he always found a way to get through it.

And Dave, more than anyone else on our staff, had to be available virtually around the clock. An off-hours computer problem, database crash, power outage or other such crisis meant Dave got called at home, had to drop whatever he was doing (eating, showering, sleeping, watching a football game), come to the office and put the pieces back together. And seeing him walk through the front door a few minutes later always resulted in a collective sigh of relief among the staff, because we knew everything would be back to normal soon.

We used to hold our breath when Dave went on vacation, hoping nothing too terrible would go wrong while he was, say, playing golf in California. Yes, others in the building (myself included) knew how to get around some of the minor computer glitches and keep the systems running, but no one had Dave's knowledge or abilities, and we always secretly feared "The Big One" would happen with Dave nowhere nearby and that the newspaper would be unable to publish.

We also used to wonder how we'd get by if Dave ever left the Freeman. Eight months ago, when he began the sick leave from which he never would return, we began to find out. People who knew some of Dave's tricks sharpened their skills, others were taught, and a new systems expert joined the staff and began the process of filling Dave's big shoes.

And somehow, we still manage to put out a paper every day.

No one will ever be able to replace Dave. But the people he leaves behind will work hard to live up to his professional ethic and make him proud.


Phantom Dan

The music world lost a giant talent, though perhaps not a household name, last week when Danny Federici (pictured at left) died at age 58 after a three-year battle with melanoma.

A keyboard player for Bruce Springsteen since before the Boss’ group was called the E Street Band, Federici was a quiet and unassuming but unrivaled talent, and he was content to be a vital, rather than visible, member of one of rock ’n’ roll’s most famous ensembles. He seemed comfortable, in fact, to be situated at the left-rear corner of Springsteen’s stage - far from the spotlight that has shone throughout the years on Springsteen himself, sax man Clarence Clemons and guitarist Steven Van Zandt - and to be known by fans as "Phantom Dan."

Federici’s main job in the E Street Band was that of organist - and perhaps that was part of what made him so special. The sound of his instrument, an oddity in rock music, added something to Springsteen’s songs that a simple piano or electric keyboard could not. And Federici’s occasional use of an accordion or concertina - most notably during the wistful “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” from Springsteen’s early catalog - was unlike anything in popular music and always made the song stand out when it was performed live.

I was lucky enough to see Federici perform with Springsteen eight times, and it saddens me that I’ll never see him again. I have tickets to see Springsteen and the E Street Band twice this summer at Giants Stadium, and though the Boss will be at his best, I’m sure, and Federici’s giant shoes will continue to be ably filled by Charles Giordano (who’s been sitting in since the beginning of this year), it just won’t be the same.

“Now you see him, now you don’t,” Springsteen once said in introducing Federici at a concert.

How sadly right he was.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Yankees' YES men

When it comes to the New York Yankees, the YES network has all the objectivity of a proud mother displaying her kindergartner’s artwork on the refrigerator door.

That said, I have no doubt the powers-that-be at YES will waste no time in dubbing Wednesday night’s Bombers-Bosox game — a 15-9 win for the Pinstripers that lasted, typically, more than four hours — a “Yankee Classic” and start rebroadcasting it ad nauseum as soon as possible.

The reality is that the game was dreadful. Indeed, any baseball game that features 30 hits and 14 runs — including 10 runs in one interminable inning — is notable only for bad pitching and how incapable each side was of getting the other out.

“Classic” means “serving as a standard of excellence” or “notable as the best example.” Wednesday night’s game was no more classic than a Little League contest in which each team keeps scoring the maximum allowable runs per inning.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What a tease!

One of the Hudson Valley's other newspapers has a "teaser" at the top of its front page this morning (April 16) that reads "The big Northwest-Delta merger: What does it mean for you?"

I'll find the answer on page 6B, the teaser informs me.

Arriving at page 6B, I discover the following headline: "Airline merger impact unclear."

So much for finding out what the merger means to me.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Silliness at the Stadium

You’ve probably heard by now that construction workers at the new Yankee Stadium have dug up a Red Sox jersey that was buried in concrete at the site by a former laborer who roots for Boston.

It took the crew five hours on Saturday to reach the offending shirt and remove it.

Five hours. On a Saturday. At the site of a project funded partially with public money. My point being: Did we pay for this ridiculous endeavor? Did we pay the workers an overtime rate on Saturday because this 'Big Dig' was done on a weekend? If so, I want my money back. Now.

Making this even more absurd is the Yankee organization announcing it’s considering seeking criminal charges against Gino Castignoli, the worker who buried the shirt.

I say "absurd" because I can’t imagine what the guy would be charged with – “Rooting for the Red Sox within the Borough of the Bronx”? – and also because the Yankees’ brass swore up and down last week, after the jersey burial first was reported in the New York Post, that the story was a fabrication.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Prisoner escapes!!! ...NOT

Just before 8 p.m. Thursday, we received a fax in the Freeman newsroom that began with these three lines:


The next line of the fax contained the name of the corrections officer who sent the fax and his rank (lieutenant), and Thursday’s date.

The fax went on to identify an inmate by name and provide the following description of him: male, 53 years old, white, 5-foot-11, 160 pounds, medium build, gray hair, brown eyes, glasses.

Below that was a state Department of Corrections inmate serial number, a picture of the inmate (which was too dark to make out) and the prison’s phone number.

As the supervising editor in the newsroom, I knew I needed to do two things immediately: Call the prison for additional information (i.e. details of the escape, what the guy was locked up for, how the search was being conducted) and get at least a short story on our Web site in order to alert the public.

The call to the prison was answered by an automated voice that instructed me to press 0 if I needed to speak with someone. I pressed 0, was put on hold for several seconds and then was cut off. So I made the call again, pressed 0 again and got cut off again. After this happened a third time, I decided to post on the Freeman’s Web site the small amount of information that I had – figuring a short story was better than no story – with a line at the end that read “More details will be posted here when they become available.”

I pounded out a few sentences and quickly got the story online, with the headline: “BREAKING NEWS: Inmate escapes from Napanoch prison.”

I then moved to another, slightly faster, computer in the newsroom to make sure the story had posted correctly, and, while sitting at that screen, I called the prison again.

This time, an officer picked up.

I identified myself by name, title and newspaper and asked the officer for any additional information he could provide about the escape.

“My apologies,” he said. “This is only a drill. That fax was sent to you in error.”

Excuse me?

“Are you telling me there’s been no escape from your prison?” I asked, both frustrated by the knowledge that I had posted a bogus story on our Web site and dumbfounded by the fact that the prison had sent the fax to media outlets.

“That’s correct,” he said. (The fax apparently was supposed to be sent only to law-enforcement agencies, who were aware no escape had occurred.)

I wanted to scold the officer for making such a boneheaded mistake, but I resisted the temptation and simply said “Thank you, goodbye” before hanging up. There was, after all, a slightly more pressing matter that required my attention: removing the escape story from our Web site.

I deleted the story within seconds and, looking at my watch, calculated that it had been “up” on our site for only two or three minutes – meaning few, if any, of our Web readers even saw the thing. Still, I was steamed about the whole ordeal because, like most journalists (celebrity gossip writers notwithstanding), I put accuracy above all else and shudder at the thought of publishing incorrect information.

Then I did something I’ve never done in my 20 years at the Freeman: I called our competitors to alert them to the prison’s goof so the story wouldn’t wind up on their Web sites, too, or in their print editions.

The newsroom phone at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown was answered by Oliver Mackson, who I’ve known since we were teenagers, and he told me that he, too, had called the prison and learned of the mistake. A woman answering the phone at the Poughkeepsie Journal was unaware the fax was fake and thanked me for the heads-up. And Hank Gross, who runs a local Internet-only news service called, was equally thankful for my call.

The prison, by the way, did send a follow-up fax to admit its error, but not until 53 minutes after the original was transmitted.

The second fax was virtually the same as the first, with one notable difference: The words DRILL ONLY were scrawled across the sheet in big black letters.

Oh, well. Better late than never, I guess.


Monday, April 7, 2008

Stating the obvious

I was flipping around the TV channels this morning when I stumbled on an infomercial for some herbal pain remedy.

I watched just long enough to see the host look into the camera and say: "If you're watching this right now ...."

Who else, exactly, could she have been addressing?


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Smile and say 'CHEESY'!

Hillary Clinton and John McCain both paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on Friday by visiting the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of King's assassination exactly 40 years earlier.

Which makes me wonder: Would the two senators have gone to the motel had they not been running for president?

If the answer is no, then their visits to the spot where King was gunned down were the worst kind of political opportunism.

Ironically, presidential candidate Barack Obama - an African-American whose run for the White House might not have been possible without King's efforts four decades ago - didn't go to Memphis on Friday. Perhaps he realized his candidacy itself said more about his gratitude for the civil rights leader than a cheap photo op ever could.


Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Skybus is falling! The Skybus is falling!

Skybus, a discount carrier that served Stewart International Airport in New Windsor for less than three months, has shut down and will file for bankruptcy protection.

Company CEO Michael Hodge blamed rising fuel costs and the weakening economy for the airline's demise.

Gee, Mike, you don't think the $10 tickets your airline offered had at least something to do with the problem?


Friday, April 4, 2008

Hailing Hunter

Minnesota Twins fans are a classy bunch.

Stung during the offseason by the loss of free agent superstar Torii Hunter to the Los Angeles Angels, the Minneapolis-St. Paul crowd gave Hunter ovation after ovation — and even held a special tribute to him — during this week’s season-opening series against the Angels at the Metrodome.

The loudest cheers for Hunter came during the seventh inning of Thursday’s game, when he hit a home run that sealed the Angels’ 5-4 win and gave the Twins’ opponents a 3-1 victory in the series.

Now think of Johnny Damon leaving the Red Sox for the Yankees a few years ago and then returning to Boston to play in pinstripes. If memory serves, the Fenway faithful weren’t quite so kind.


Improper tribute

Fox News this morning referred to today as "MLK Day."

No, Fox. "MLK Day" -- more accurately, Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- is in January and commemorates the birthday of the civil rights leader.

Today is April 4, the day King was murdered in Memphis in 1968. Calling today "MLK Day" -- especially on this, the 40th anniversary of his assassination -- makes it sound like a day of celebration.

But then, Fox has never been fair or balanced. So why should I expect them to be accurate ... let alone compassionate?

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Frankly, my dear

The Boston Herald is reporting that a vending machine in the concourse under the Fenway Park bleachers will dispense kosher hot dogs starting this baseball season.

The franks, according to the Herald, will be prepared, packaged, shipped and cooked under supervision of a rabbi or kosher-certification agency so there is no doubt about the ballpark favorites conforming to Jewish dietary laws. (Many hot dogs include pork, which observant Jews don't eat, or come from cows that were not slaughtered in accordance with rules of kashrut.)

Let's just hope the overseers of this effort also remember to check the buns on which the hot dogs are served. Many breads are made with dairy products, such as whey, and Jews who keep kosher are not allowed to mix meat and milk.