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

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Final thoughts on the Oscars

A few things I forgot to mention in my Monday morning post about the Academy Awards:

* Why, when gushing about Meryl Streep's 15 Oscar nominations, do movie pundits never mention that she's lost 13 times? Or that her last win was 27 years ago? Her only two Oscars were for Best Supporting Actress in 1979 (for "Kramer vs. Kramer") and Best Actress in 1982 (for "Sophie's Choice"). Since then, she's been little more than the Susan Lucci of the film industry.

* I can't help but wonder whether Heath Ledger's family and the people who flew the "Slumdog Millionaire" kids to Hollywood were told in advance of the impending wins in their respective categories. I mean does anyone really believe the Ledger clan would have come all the way from Australia or the "Slumdog" kids would have been brought over from India if there was even the chance of them going home empty-handed?

* I honestly don't get what's so great about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. (Oops, sorry. I mean "Brangelina.") Both are decent actors, I suppose, but they're hardly the best in the business. It seems to me that the people who fawn over them are willing to accept great looks as a substitute for great performances. Thankfully, the academy looked past the power couple's celebrity status and rendered them also-rans on Sunday.


My response to the response

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in delivering the GOP response to President Barack Obama's address to Congress Tuesday night, repeated the mantra that Republicans think the federal government should stay out of people's lives.

Why, then, do Republicans even bother to run for federal office?

And, by the way, Gov. Jindal: "Volcano monitoring," the cost of which you criticized in your remarks, is used to detect seismic activity in and around volcanoes so that eruptions can be predicted and lives can be saved; and invoking the lessons of Hurricane Katrina in making the Republican argument for anything is just ludicrous. Our memories aren't that short.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Economic reality check

How about we start telling the truth about the U.S. economy?

The current recession is not the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, as the national news media keeps insisting, as if wishing it to be true.

Three of the economy’s key bellwethers – inflation, unemployment and interest rates – were all much, much worse during the recessions of 1975 and 1982, making those downturns far worse than the one we’re in now. (How quickly we’ve forgotten painful price hikes, double-digit joblessness and borrowing rates of around 18 percent.)

But instead, we have Fox News’ robotic, brainless on-air personalities predicting this downturn will become a depression, that continued economic weakness will cause rioting in the streets and that the Dow Jones industrial average is headed for 6,000 or lower.

And even the usually reliable and even-handed Associated Press has gotten in on the doom-and-gloom routine. Last week – when a new government report showed the nation’s “leading economic indicators” (which predict economic activity six to 10 months ahead) had risen for the second consecutive month – the AP’s daily story on the economy buried that bright spot in the 13th paragraph.

The bottom line is this: Recessions are equal parts economy and psychology, and they can be self-fulfilling prophecies. If people are led to believe the economy is bad, even when it isn’t,they’ll make it bad. And if they’re led believe it’s catastrophic, even when it’s only bad, they’ll make it catastrophic. It doesn’t take much more than consumers slamming their wallets shut - because they've been scared out of their minds by exaggerating news reporters - to create the ripple effect that can ruin even the strongest economy.

All I’m saying is the current economic downturn should be portrayed for what it is: Bad, yes, but not the end of the world; and nowhere near as severe as the Great Depression - when the unemployment rate reached 30 percent and people stood in line for food handouts - or even the downturns of the mid-1970s and early 1980s.

The national news media need to keep things in perspective. And so, by the way, does the new president of the United States.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar afterthoughts

I went 10 for 12 in my Oscar predictions (see previous entry). Not too bad. My only misses were in the categories of Best Supporting Actress, where the field truly was wide open, and Best Foreign Language Film, where the Japanese entrant, "Departures," upset the favored Israeli film "Waltz With Bashir."

Beyond that, it was mostly a "Slumdog Millionaire" night, which was fine with me. "Slumdog" was a great film that deserved all the awards it won.

As for the Oscar show itself, I found it typical: Too long and largely uninteresting. Every year, we're told this snoozefest is going to be shorter and better, but it never happens. Instead, we get painful song-and-dance routines (like Hugh Jackman's interminable opening bit and the overdone musical number in the middle of the show with Beyonce, et. al.), scripted jokes that fall flat and Queen Latifah singing while pictures of movie industry folks who died last year are shown. Ugh!

And bringing out five previous winners in each of the acting categories to gush about this year's nominees - rather than just having the traditional two people read a list of names - added at least 20 minutes to the show. No wonder this thing ended at midnight instead of the scheduled 11 p.m.

At least they managed to tighten up the presentations of the who-gives-a-damn technical awards and kept the Jerry Lewis tribute relatively brief.

The only truly memorable moments of the night were Sean Penn's Best Actor acceptance speech (in which he bashed opponents of gay marriage), Ben Stiller coming on stage as a presenter dressed like Joaquin Phoenix looked on David Letterman's show last week and Ulster County resident Philippe Petit balancing on Oscar upside down on his chin after "Man on Wire," of which he was the subject, won the Best Documentary Feature award.

Beyond that, the 81st Annual Academy Awards were little more than 3-1/2 hours of my life that I'll never get back.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Now see this!

In case anyone cares, here are my Oscar predictions in 12 major categories.

Picture: "Slumdog Millionaire"
Director: Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Actor: Sean Penn, "Milk"
Actress: Kate Winslet, "The Reader"
Supporting actor: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"
Supporting actress: Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler"
Original screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, "Milk"
Adapted screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Foreign language film: "Waltz With Bashir," Israel
Animated feature: "Wall-E"
Documentary feature: "Man on Wire"
Song: "Jai Ho," from "Slumdog Millionaire"


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bailout blues

For nearly 18 years, my wife and I have made our monthly mortgage payments on time and in full. Never late. Never anything less than the total amount on the bill.

So I'd like to know: Where's our reward? I mean if people who haven't been meeting their obligations are getting $75 billion gift-wrapped by the federal government, shouldn't those of us who have met our obligations get something, too? Has this become a society where only bad behavior is rewarded?

Silly question, I know. This is, after all, the country's whose government is spending $700 billion to prop up financial institutions that couldn't manage their books and tens of billions more to rescue automakers whose bad business decisions have pushed them to the brink of bankruptcy.

I guess the only thing my wife and I can expect for our good financial management is the ability to sleep at night without worrying about losing the building in which that sleep occurs.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

ill, annoyed

Burress. Burris. They sound the same. They act the same. Plaxico shoots himself in the leg. Roland shoots himself in the foot.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that someone connected to corrupt former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has turned out to be a liar, but enough already!

Roland Burris - who first said he had no contact with Blagojevich's people about Illinois' vacant Senate seat but later admitted that, prior to being appointed, he discussed raising money for the pay-to-play governor - needs to resign from the Senate immediately, and his seat needs to be filled with the winner of a special election.

It's the only chance - remote though it may be - that the good people of Illinois will have honest representation in Washington.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

TV's one-track mind

I have a confession to make: I get some of my news each day from television. (A shocking revelation from a lifelong newspaper guy, I know.)

I find television news informative, sometime even relevant.

But tragedies like last week's plane crash near Buffalo prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that newspapers are far better than television at keeping people informed.

Yes, TV has the advantage of being able to show moving pictures and provide up-to-the-minute information, but when a plane crash or some other tragedy occurs, the all-news TV networks (CNN, MSNBC and Fox) make the mistake of covering nothing but that one big story.

Anyone watching the cable TV news outlets last Friday was left to believe the Buffalo crash was the only thing going on the world. Never mind such other important stories as the final votes on the economic stimulus plan or a suicide bombing in Iraq that killed 40 people; as far as CNN, MSNBC and Fox were concerned, the agenda for the day was "all plane crash, all the time" - even if there was no new information to report for hours at a time.

Newspapers, on the other hand, recognized the plane crash for what it was: a big story, but not the only story of the day. At the Freeman, for example, we ran a photo montage from the plane crash on our front page, a main story (with photo and map) on page B1 and a few related stories on page B3. But all the remaining space in the paper was devoted to the other stories of the day. Because, after all, there was other news to report.

And most other newspapers - those near the crash site notwithstanding - handled the plane crash about the same way we did.

Too bad TV news execs didn't have the sense to see things our way.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sports shorts

Three quick observations about the sports news du jour:

* New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre announced today that he's retiring from professional football -- the exact same announcement he made 11 months ago. My guess is he changes his mind about a month from now and signs with a team desperate for a field general and willing to fork over a bundle of money.

* It takes a special kind of talent in professional basketball to score 127 points against a dismal team - and lose. Leave it to the Knicks - beaten 144-127 on Tuesday by the Golden State Warriors, who were 17-35 going into the game.

* A suggestion to the folks who pick each year's inductees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Resolve to never, ever, ever vote for a player who has tested positive for steroids. It may mean fewer plaques on the walls in Cooperstown, but at least the dignity of the institution will be intact.


Monday, February 9, 2009

The needles and the damage done

It was nice to see Alex Rodriguez come clean Monday afternoon and admit to ESPN's Peter Gammons that he did, indeed, use steroids from 2001-03.

He was forced into it, of course, because he was outed by Sports Illustated over the weekend. But the mea culpa was appreciated nonetheless, at least by this longtime baseball fan.

But A-Rod's "young, stupid and naive" explanation was laughable.

Young? Sure.
Stupid. No doubt.
But naive? Spare me.

The word "naive" suggests Rodriguez didn't know what he was doing. Of course he knew what he was doing. This was 2001 - three years after Mark McGwire's 70-homer season and all of the drug suspicions that came with it, and long after the word "steroids" became part of the baseball vernacular.

A-Rod - like McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmiero, Andy Pettitte, Miguel Tejada and yet-to-be-indentified others - was a cheater, and he knew he was a cheater.

And for that, there is no forgiveness. And there now is no way to trust the validity of any of A-Rod's on-field achievements before, during or after the years in which he admits using performance-enhancing drugs. (This is, after all, the man who swore to CBS' Katie Couric and millions of "60 Minutes" viewers in December 2007 that he never used such substances, so forgive me if I choose to believe nothing he says now or in the future.)

If the Steinbrenners had any backbone, they'd show A-Rod the door, even if it means having to buy him out of his multizillion-dollar contract. But they won't. The Yankees are, after all, the team that allowed admitted juicers Giambi and Pettitte to remain in pinstripes, so there's no reason to believe they'll treat Rodriguez any differently, especially given the amount of money they have invested in him.

The sad reality is that the only way to clean up baseball is to shut it down - for five, maybe 10 years. Let all the current players become too old to return, start over with a fresh crop, and have the new Major Leaguers pee in a cup before every game. If they test positive for any banned substance, they're out of the game ... forever.

Anything less than that and baseball will be just an exhibition rather than a legitimate competition.


Friday, February 6, 2009

The plane truth

The bad news: Starting Feb. 18, US Airways will charge passengers $7 each for an on-board pillow-and-blanket pack (called, I kid you not, the "nap sack").

The good news: The pillow can be used as a flotation device, and passengers can wrap themselves in the blankets to keep warm if they find themselves standing on the wing of a jet in the middle of Hudson River.


Monday, February 2, 2009

You too can be a hero on the Hudson

I can't believe someone has turned the near-tragedy of Flight 1549 into an online game, but here it is. Enjoy. (The game starts after a brief commercial at the beginning.)


Monday morning quarterbacking

Well, Monday evening, actually, but you get the point.

* The Arizona Cardinals have no one to blame but themselves for losing Super Bowl XLIII. They missed countless opportunities on offense in the first three quarters, gave up a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown just before halftime, allowed themselves to get into a 10-point hole early in the game and a 13-point hole early in the third quarter and committed a mind-numbing 11 penalties (for 106 yards). But none of that changes the fact that they were flat-out robbed on their last offensive play of the game when an incomplete pass by quarterback Kurt Warner was ruled a fumble ... and the officials didn't even bother to review the call (despite having reviewed, and overturned, an almost identical Warner "fumble" call earlier in the game). There's no guarantee the final score would have been different if the refs hadn't blown the call, but the Cardinals at least would have had one last shot at a touchdown - from the Steelers' 30 yard line, no less - and could have pulled off the miracle finish. Too bad we'll never know.

* Why is it that the sports commentators, on the Monday morning after the big game, refer to almost every Super Bowl as "the best one ever played"? Yes, Sunday's game was a thriller. But better than last year's, with the Giants' miracle finish? Better than the Patriots' two wins earlier this decade on last-second field goals? Better than the 2000 game, when the Titans fell 1 yard short of the game-tying touchdown as time expired? Better than the Giants-Bills nail-biter in 1991 that came down to the infamous "wide right" field goal try at the end of the fourth quarter? No. No, no. No. And no. Analysts, bloggers and other self-appointed (and self-important) pundits should wait until a few days - or weeks or months - after any major sporting event before trying to put it in historical perspective. Doing so as soon as the game ends almost always results in ridiculous overstatements.

* Is it just my imagination, or are the Super Bowl commercials getting worse every year? The only one from Sunday's game that's getting any real buzz is the Doritos spot in which a snow globe is thrown through the glass window of an office vending machine and then at the boss' crotch. This is what passes for funny and creative these days? Yikes.

* Bruce Spirngsteen and the E Street Band put on a decent show at halftime on Sunday, but having to cram four songs - including the not-very-short "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and "Born to Run" - into a 12-minute span meant dropping verses, shortening instrumental interludes and ending songs more abruptly than at a regular concert. Bruce made it all fit the format, but what you saw on Sunday didn't come close to the true Springsteen concert experience. If you want to see the real deal, Bruce and the E Streeters will be in Albany, New Jersey and Uniondale (on Long Island) in May. Try to catch them.

And on a few non-football subjects

* Former Sen. Tom Daschle, President Barack Obama's nominee to be heath and human services secretary, says he's "deeply embarrassed and disappointed" about failing to pay $128,203 in taxes from 2005 to 2007. I think what Daschle means is he's "deeply embarrassed and disappointed" about getting caught. And Obama should be deeply embarrassed and disappointed about continuing to go to bat for this guy. Tax cheats have no place in the Cabinet, and Obama should show Daschle the door.

* Olympic swimming superstar Michael Phelps, photographed smoking pot recently, has apologized for his behavior, saying it was a mistake and that it won't happen again. He uttered almost the exact same words after being busted for drunken driving in 2004. Forgive me, Mike, if I choose not to believe you this time.

* The price of crude oil is roughly unchanged from where it was one and two months ago, demand for energy products has fallen during that period, and U.S. gasoline supplies have risen. Why, then, has the price at the pump increased about 40 cents since mid-December? Can someone explain this to me? Anyone? PLEASE?