by Pat Holt
Friday, May 11, 2001
MY GRIPE AGAINST TELEVISION (#6,328)
Everybody worries about American media these days. One needn't have lived through the O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky stories to know that the press is sometimes awfully infatuated with itself - too often it doesn't mind getting in front of stories, mistaking scandals for news or making up bogus events as it goes along.
For example, in "Shutterbabe" (Villard), photographer Deborah Copaken Kogan describes how she and other photographers covered the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the late 1980s.
"After eating, we'd drive around the West Bank and wait for the Palestinian kids to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers, which we knew they would do only once a critical mass of journalists had assembled.
"Then we'd record the resulting skirmishes onto rolls of color slide film while trying to evade arrest and/or seizure of our exposed films by the soldiers. Next, we'd all rush back to Jerusalem to the Beit Agron, the Israeli press office, where we would lie about what we'd just shot ('religious Jews,' we'd say, or 'landscapes,') and get our government-issued shipping forms stamped and signed accordingly."
One can sympathize with photographers who find they have to lie to get their images out of the country. What worries me is how those images were created in the first place (the kids don't create the news "event" until enough media witness it).
More worrisome is how these images are characterized when editors and producers receive them. Would Dan Rather or Time magazine run photos of a "skirmish" created by children for the press? Or is it just easier to call such photos "images of continuing violence in the Mideast"?
TERRY'S GREAT ADVENTURE: 'THE PRIZE WINNER' ON TELEVISION
At least with print, readers can stop the action, as it were, peer into the photograph and draw their own conclusion, But the tendency to blur journalistic boundaries gets slicker with television news, especially as camera technology gets more sophisticated.
Of course, we've all adapted to such changes with typical consumer wariness. But when the crew of CBS Sunday Morning traveled to the small town of Defiance, Ohio - no mean thing - it takes one or two plane trips and hours of driving one one dinky (and gorgeous) two-lane farm road after another - to do a feature on my partner Terry's book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," I had to wonder: Is it possible to condense a 351-page book into a television feature and retain the author's vision and theme?
Granted, this is a "high concept" book, as they say in television, meaning it's a no-brainer in terms of commercial appeal: Terry's mother won hundreds of contests in the '50s and '60s to keep her family of 12 from being evicted or running out of food, and all the fun "visuals" TV editors love have been kept intact - the entry blanks, the photos, the winning submissions.
Then, too, Evelyn Ryan's livelier wins, such as her rollicking 10-minute Supermarket Spree, are perfect for reenactment on television (see #234).
But the deeper, subtler message of the book - how Evelyn stood up to the Church, an alcoholic husband and the limitations society placed on women in the '50s; how she faced a ton of laundry and grinding poverty every minute of every day with indefatigable energy, even joy, and no resentment; how she represents a slice of American history that's long been neglected - the partnership of business and consumers in the post-World War II period that started the whole jingle-laden culture; and how she taught her kids that the key to winning in life is to believe that anything is possible - all this is not so easily translated into images on the tiny screen.
Veteran CBS producer Mary Lou Teel knows all this, of course, having worked for many years with one of the great on-the-road TV correspondents, Charles Kuralt. He was that seemingly jovial guy who got people to tell their life stories and knew how to cull those rare transformative moments from miles of tape.
Mary Lou believes that the way television can uncover the hidden riches of Evelyn's story is to attack it from every possible angle. On her first visit to Defiance, she hires a local crew (camera and sound operators) to capture background elements; on the second, she brings the show's co-host Martha Teichner from New York, CBS cameraman Arny Cantu and soundman Steve Azzato from Chicago.
Talk about indefatigable. A critic in the background may go around listening for the substance of the book; but you can't beat these guys for spending an inordinate amount of time capturing the look and feel of the book. So the taping goes like this:
*Three hours at Defiance College, where an exhibit of Evelyn Ryan's photos and contest memorabilia provides an in-depth look at the effect that Dial Soap, Tootsie Rolls, Kool Aid, Chevrolet and other sponsors had on American culture in this region;
*Two hours on a trip to the even smaller town (pop: 1200) of Payne, Ohio, to interview Dortha Schaefer, another contest winner, now in her 80s, who introduced Evelyn to the group of women called the Affadaisies, who shared box tops and tips and family news while earning surprisingly lucrative incomes through contest wins; *Three hours filming Terry's autographing session at the Chief Supermarket, where siblings, former co-workers, family friends and store managers are interviewed individually and in groups;
*Two hours filming Terry and her siblings at her mother's grave in the town's beautiful cemetery, a woodsy and serene glen by the quietly spectacular Auglaize River;
*Two hours filming Martha's interview with Dortha and Terry together; *Two hours in front of the house that Evelyn won (twice), where Terry and Martha do a "walk and talk," as TV people call it, up and down the sidewalk and under the railroad trestle and by the Catholic school nearby; *Three hours filming the Supermarket Spree re-enactment and follow-up interviews; *Two hours of Terry and Martha doing a one-on-one at the Defiance College library; *Several hours of borrowed film - from Defiance Community TV's taping of Terry's speech at Defiance College (see #230); from WTOL-TV in Toledo of Terry's first autographing and reception; from home movies recorded by various family members;
*And several hours of "b-roll" - background shots of Defiance's old fort grounds, local kids playing baseball, the town's gorgeous Carnegie library, enough tree-lined streets to send you to Norman Rockwell school for life and the two historic rivers, the great and muddy Maumee and Auglaize, that merge in "slow collision," as Terry calls it, right in the middle of town.
AN UNEXPECTED ANNOUNCEMENT
Yet all of this is only the prelude, it turns out, to an unexpected announcement that deepens the emotional content of every inch of videotape already shot.
This occurs when the faculty of Defiance College - a tough Lutheran college with a distinguished graduate program - votes unanimously to award Evelyn L. Ryan a posthumous Doctorate of Humane Letters at its May 2001 commencement ceremony.
It's a huge honor for a woman who never attended college and became one of the great autodidacts of her age. Evelyn Ryan came to know more, read more and teach her children more than many professors of her era, and despite contesting requirements, her writing showed flashes of brilliance reminiscent of Dorothy Parker or Ogden Nash.
(Here's one that earned a whole dollar:
"No woman problem had young Adam, Being made before they had 'em." )
But the honorary PhD. has an even greater effect on her 10 children, many of whom remember being placed in remedial classes because, as Terry herself tells her mother in Chapter 10, "the nuns at school think I'm dumb, Mom."
Evelyn explains that Terry is among the smartest kids in town. "You know who's dumb, Tuff?" her mother says, using Terry's childhood nickname. "THEY are. They equate poverty with stupidity. Forget them."
So it's one thing to say that well into adulthood, Evelyn Ryan's kids have tried to tell the world about their mother and her contests - a fun story, a unique story, a moving story, we all know now. But it's quite another to acknowledge the meaning of that story, which is the way so many mothers find resources they never knew to somehow, often against enormous odds, give their kids an equal shot at life's opportunities.
Thus does the faculty of Defiance College look beyond the family's poverty and the funny jingles - even beyond the great heart of Evelyn Ryan - to one woman's enormous body of work and find in it the kind of literary merit that adds something to a community, that contributes to posterity.
And it is Mary Lou Teel's chance to take her CBS Sunday Morning camera and march right into that Defiance College stadium and somehow get the soul of these academic proceedings on tape.
So on the day of commencement ceremonies at Defiance College stadium, as a berobed and doctorial Terry Tuff Ryan marches with the faculty onto the stage to the music of "Pomp and Circumstance," Mary Lou has her people crawling through the audience to film family reaction; placing microphones on the collars of Terry's siblings for intimate running commentary; shooting the President's introduction and Terry Ryan's acceptance speech from the press box, the bleachers, the 50-yard-line seats and even (a chin shot) on their knees under the podium.
Terry knows that the trick with her speech is not just to accept the award but to convince this august body that her mother was more not just a jingle writer - though like Evelyn she can't help reveling in the playfulness of such entries as "The boat and the basket went over the dam; but Dad is our hero - he rescued the Spam."
She continues: "This doctorate of Humane Letters is especially appropriate for Mom, since her love and humor and positive attitude — the essence of 'humaneness' — are reflected in all her writings and were given to her community with a sense of scholarship and of good will.
"For example, my older brothers went on to pitch for the Detroit Tigers in the minor leagues, but when they were young and had no one to play with, Mom was out there in the batter’s box with them: She wrote this poem about it:
"My mother was self-educated and would be proud of this award," Terry concludes. "It acknowledges not just her particular expertise with language, but her tremendous life experience and her ability to raise ten children on nothing more than the written word."
At this, the microphones in the audience record a bit of sniffling from some of the Ryan brothers and sisters, and I can't help it either. Like them, I look at Terry Tuff and see Evelyn, walking off the stage, "her elbows back, her head up," as Terry's brother Barry says, "probably composing a poem about it before she hits the second stair."
In the end by my count, CBS Sunday Morning departs Defiance with at least 10 full hours of tape in the can, all of it to be condensed into 9 MINUTES on the show.
Can they do it, and do the book justice? If you're interested, you can see for yourself this Sunday, May 13, when the segment airs. (The show appears at different times throughout the country, so check local listings.)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just had to comment on your Amazon.com article (see #235). I remember a very good column you wrote a few months ago about an article in the mainstream press trashing Amazon.com with all kinds of vague statements and a lack of any real information. In this case, Pat, I believe that you have gone down the same path that you earlier criticized, very correctly in my opinion.
Where is the evidence of the "seeming demise" of Amazon.com? If anything, recent results have shown a company that's stabilizing and maturing. What's the big deal about 1 analyst downgrading their stock, causing a 4% drop in stock value? Two months ago their stock went up 20% in one day because their was a rumor of a high-profile venture with Wal-Mart, I believe, that turned out not to be true. This stuff is just not very significant, in the long run, Pat, and you do a disservice to your readership when you jump on the sensationalism bandwagon.
It remains to be seen where Amazon.com is going in the long run, but they've proven the ability to weather a lot of market and economic fluctuations and the fact that some analyst wants to make big allegations about them in order to get on TV is fairly irrelevant.
Holt responds: You're right, I assumed everyone agreed with me (what? you don't?) about Amazon's demise, and I apologize for any vague statements. Here are some reasons for the "demise" I believe has set in: The one constant in Amazon.com's lifespan so far has not been the little bounces of 20% or 10% for a day or two but the long and steady decline of stock values from well over $100 to the current mid-teens and under. Rumors about Wal-Mart or Bertelsmann are too fleeting to have much effect beyond the short-term. Lack of real evidence that Books and Music divisions are making a profit continues to show a hollowness inside the company's financial picture that is anything but promising. The closing of distribution centers and layoffs of staff indicate more trouble inside. Not just one but a number of financial analysts have gone through a sea change about Amazon.com and are advising clients to sell. Amazon's basic business model has been proven time and again to be losing money with no solution in the foreseeable future.
All of that is background to the current disclosure, that Amazon is "losing customers almost as fast as it adds them," as the analyst declared. Amazon's "answer" to this - that the analyst's method of counting returning customers is wrong - by spokesperson Bill Curry seems specious to me: "If you flew with Airlines last summer and you don't fly with them until Christmas vacation this year, are you lost?" I should have included that quote in the story.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
On branding as a self-inflated myth by Jeff Bezos. Branding has been around for a long time and has been successful amongst independent retailers in hardware, car parts, etc. Yes, it was part of the Amazon.com myth that Bezos spun off with such ease, perhaps to his surprise. The myth was, for a few years, a subject of religious veneration throughout the country. Where was the business press to warn us of its illusory charms?
Ultimately it may have been just too much investment money chasing too few really good investments.
Thomas Rider, co-owner
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I want to disagree with recent letters about returns and net pricing. I've been selling books since 1972 and am in a business I truly believe in, so I feel that I can speak with some experience.
A no returns option may be fine for a few bookstores and gift shops, but the good, comprehensive, independent bookshop would cease to exist without the returns option. These stores provide the reader with the opportunity to browse thousands and thousands (in our case over 50,000) titles, to sample the vast array of new titles published each year, to experience first hand the world's intellectual diversity. And they offer the publishers and the authors the exposure that's essential for a book to find each individual reader.
There's nothing mass market about this approach; this isn't the stack 'em up, force-feed the consumer, mark 'em down if they won't buy 'em method that accentuates the few and dismisses the rest. To risk bringing the variety into our stores we have got to be able to return those that did not find an interested buyer. In stores like ours we are talking about at most 1 to 2 copies per title, hardly a large percentage of the print run but when multiplied by several thousand titles a substantial investment for the bookstore that can, by being returned, be traded for a new crop of titles with fresh opportunities for readers and publishers. Imagine the bookstore that could not take this risk, that could only purchase those titles with a guaranteed readership -- I don't really think any of us who care about the future of reading would enjoy such a prospect.
I have long been against net pricing for two simple reasons. #1 there will always be a list price at which the publisher sells direct to the consumer, and this or some price has to be in "Books In Print" and will remain as the base price from which to promote a discount off of. And #2 with no list price, all the chains have to do is offer a few books at less than normal markup and it becomes a simple step for them to create the public perception that all books are going to cost less in their stores since the buyer will have no "normal" price to go by. And though, in all likelihood, this will be inaccurate it is simply another nail in the coffin of the independent bookstore.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm in the Bay Area on business and I'm writing from my laptop. A few moments ago I experienced the best customer service I have ever received and I wanted to share it with someone, your latest newsletter popped up in email, so I figured this might be a good place. I've been an avid reader since childhood, but it wasn't until about ten years ago that my lifelong love became an addiction and I became a first edition collector. Needless to say, whenever I'm in another city, I spend my evenings and lunches visiting the local used bookstores, looking for first editions of my favorite authors. Today I discovered a Mecca of a bookstore, Serendipity Books, on University Avenue in Berkeley, CA. As I walked into the store I was immediately greeted by a bookseller who asked me if she could help me find anything. The first author on my list was Frederick Buechner (an incredible literary author who has never fully been recognized for his writings). Usually I receive a blank stare when asking for Buechner, but she knew exactly who he was and took me directly to the section. There's six books that I don't own and I've been looking for these for a few years now. (I know I could find them on the internet, but I'd pay too much and it takes away from the joy of the search and the pleasure of visiting small bookstores around the country). I was amazed that they had multiple copies of all of his books, including all of the ones I was missing. I was so pleased, I didn't even check the next author on my list. I ended up purchasing two books and since I'm from Oregon, they offered to ship them to my home at no charge, so I wouldn't have to pay the CA sales tax. All of this was incredible service, but this isn't why I'm writing. I'm writing because after driving through the insane traffic for two hours and finally collapsing in my hotel room, I called my wife and shared with her my incredible finds. The two books were only $195 and I had been looking for them for years (they were well worth the $200). There was a pause and she then said that we only had $185 in the account, because of some things she ordered online and it was needed for groceries, etc. for the two weeks (this letter isn't about my lack of communication regarding money). I was informed that they had been sent, but the bookseller said she would talk to the owner. Arlene came back on the phone and informed me that they would credit my account anyway, despite the fact that they had already sent the books out. She then said that it wasn't a problem and when could they recharge the card. I was shocked. A bookstore that was going to credit back $195 to an out-of-state stranger's check card for books that had already been sent. Wow. I have never received such wonderful service before and I can't imagine any other retailer doing the same thing. I can guarantee that from now on whenever I'm in the Bay Area I will be making a trip over to Serendipity Books and who knows how many dozens of people I will share this story with. If someone from Serendipity sees this letter, thank you very much!
A Bibliophile - Donovan
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