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The Show and the News and Real Life Go On

An otherwise successful opening to the annual local Gridiron Show was marred by a family medical emergency that occurred just afterwards, and instead of drinking it up with our fellow cast members we spent the remainder of Thursday night and the first two hours of this morning in a nearby hospital.
So far as we can tell from the doctors’ carefully worded statements, things will likely turn out just fine, although our beloved Dad wound up spending the night in the hospital for a night of observation. At his stubborn insistence we took our beloved Mom home and then returned to headquarters for a glance at the news, hoping to keep our years-long writing streak intact with at least a brief post.
The lately essential Washington Post’s web site was filled with the usual depressing news. China has escalated its recent trade war with America, although this time the stock markets didn’t seem to mind. During a campaign stop in West Virginia President Donald Trump literally tossed out the carefully worded script that had been prepared for him, complaining that he found it “boring,” and instead went on one of his usual stream-of-consciousness rants full of taunts against his perceived enemies and plenty of outright falsehoods. There was also an interesting piece about the final statements of some recently ousted Trump administration officials, and their all-too-credible accounts of Trump’s chaotic management style.
At the bottom of the page we found the most depressing report, that Kevin Williamson has been fired from The Atlantic Magazine after just one column. If you’re not familiar with the name, Williamson has a long history in newspapers and magazines and was most recently a prominent columnist for The National Review, where he frequently annoyed many of that venerable conservative journal’s readers with his principled conservative Never Trump stance and by advocating the same tough-love solutions for the white underclass that conservatives have always advocated for the black underclass, and as far as we’re concerned he’s the best political polemicist of the day, our own formidable selves notwithstanding.
Although Williamson’s principled conservatism had so annoyed National Review’s Trump-loving readers, his hiring by The Atlantic outraged it’s more stridently liberal readers. As the oldest and most venerable monthly magazine in The Atlantic has published influential and widely anthologized essays by still-famous writers on both the left and the right over it’s more than 150 distinguished years, under the leadership of legendary editors from both sides of the political spectrum, and Williamson’s keen analysis and elegant writing is well worthy of that august tradition, but of course there were angry e-mails and “tweets” and some attention paid by more traditional media.
These days, liberals are no more interested in reading keen analysis and elegant writing from some damned conservative than conservatives are in reading any keen analysis and elegant writing from some damned liberal.
Eventually Williamson’s critics came up with some off-the-cuff and not all written-down comments three years ago on a couple of internet “podcasts.” Like most conservatives and a large chunk of the country at large, Williamson has moral objections to the practice of abortion, based on his widely-held belief that human life is sacred and begins at the moment of conception. In those unearthed “podcasts,” Williamson took this belief to its extreme but logical conclusion that the law should therefore consider abortion murder, and despite his his usually carefully considered writing he conversationally used some controversial language about hangings.
Despite our own moral objections to the practice of abortion, this is taking things further than we’re comfortable with, and many conservatives agree, and so does the biggest chunk of the population at large, including all those outraged liberals who have some equally extreme ideas of their own about abortion and the sanctity of life, so of course it was too much for the venerable Atlantic. We can hardly blame the magazine, given the current political climate, but it does seem a damn shame.
At the end of a long, long day we expect that such a formidable writer as Williamson will land on his feet, and that such a formidable fellow as our beloved Dad will do the same. Until next Monday, you beloved readers, we expect the news will continue, and the show must go on, so we wish everyone the best.

— Bud Norman

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The Medium is the Mess

We’ve lately been spending a lot of time with some fine people who work in what’s left of the local news media, preparing for our annual brief appearance on the amateur stage in the Society of Professional Journalists’ satirical song-and-skit “Gridiron” show, and although it’s been fun and a good reason to get out of the house we sometimes wonder what’s the point. The show is a fund-raiser for journalism scholarships, after all, so we can’t shake a guilty feeling that we’re contributing the delinquency of a minor.
Better that those fresh-faced youngsters should be preparing for careers in horse-and-buggy engineering or telegraphy, as far as we’re concerned, and we’re apparently not the only ones who think so. A recent survey by something calling itself CareerCast just published its annual survey of the worst careers to pursue, and for the third year in a row being a newspaper reporter came in number one. Newspaper circulation has been plummeting rapidly, with advertising revenues falling even faster, the resulting salaries are also low, and by now the prestige factor is in negative territory.
Things were vastly different way back when our fresh faces embarked on a career in newspapering. We had recently dropped out of college, and after a series of desultory jobs were eager to accept an offer to be an “editorial clerk” at the local newspaper, which meant writing obituaries and listening to the police scanner and answering calls from irate readers and doing whatever menial errands almost anyone else in the newsroom might find for us, and it was grueling but fun and seemed to hold out some promise. Almost all the reporters were “J-school” graduates who had been inspired by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman bringing down Tricky Dick in “All The President’s Men,” but we were drawn to profession by “His Girl Friday” and “Nothing Sacred” and all those black-and-white movies about men in fedoras shouting “get me re-write” into a candlestick phone, and we even managed to work our un-credentialed way to a “staff writer” by-line as the last of the up-from-copyboy reporters.
That was so long ago, though, that we were on the job the night Ronald Reagan first won the presidency. It was a grand old time in the journalism industry, when almost every city in the country was becoming a one-newspaper town, and it was before Reagan revoked the Fairness Doctrine and unleashed talk radio and then the internet and all its gloriously unedited commentary and more up-to-the-minute sports results and stock market quotes, and even worse Craig’s List and all the other on-line advertising options, so for a brief shining moment journalism was the monopolistic place to be. Our newspaper was basically printing money along with all its widely distributed daily editions, the raises kept coming along with every threat of unionization, the drama critic and fashion writer were getting annual paid trips to New York City, the political writers got their calls immediately returned from even such disdainful sorts as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and even we were pretty cocky about it.
In retrospect, of course, we should have seen it coming. That night Reagan won the presidency we were the only ones in the newsroom who were glad of it, and we’re still owed twenty bucks from a reporter who bet us that the world surely would end in a nuclear conflagration within four years but who’d moved on by then, and we look back on their discredited crusades against nuclear energy and that “red-lining” nonsense that led to the subprime mortgage fiasco that led to the great recession of ’08, which somehow led to the disastrous Obama presidency with the unabashed cheerleading of our local newspaper, and even without the internet and other aspects of the creatively destructive nature of capitalism it was bound to end badly. Now the paper isn’t even printed here, but is for some reason or another outsourced to the now corporate-sister Kansas City paper, which used to be the paper that our local paper hated to be scooped by on any Kansas story, and what difference, at this point does it make?
Our friends in the radio media aren’t faring much better, with all those internet stations that play only the songs you want to hear stealing their audience, and the conservative talk radio hosts splitting into every smaller shares with every new schism in conservatism, the one of the only people we know from local television was fired for letting the “f-word” slip at the end of a broadcast and is now vying for a state House of Representative seat. It’s a sorry state of affairs for the people who decided to pursue a career in any sort of journalism, and for the city at large.
For all the windmills that our colleagues tilted at over our quarter-century of local journalism, they also pointed to some serious problems that were quickly addressed, and on other occasions they at least forewarned their readers of the problems to come. Our radio friends have warned of us upcoming tornadoes and traffic jams and tax hikes, and even that foul-mouth and quite likable TV reporter also brought us some valuable information, although we’ve told him we’re not supporting his out-of-our district campaign, and we hate to think of what our local officials might be up to without such watchful scrutiny.
Still, we hold out no hope that “J-schools” are going to do any good, given that they all still seem obsessed with inculcating Reagan-hated into their charges, and what with all the computerization in the dying newspaper business there aren’t any copy boys left to work their way up to “staff writer.” Which leaves us wondering how people will know what their public officials are up to and what problems need to be addressed and which problems can only be forewarned, and whether anyone will really care. We’d like to think that there is still a demand for such information and that a free market system will therefor provide a supply, but so far no one’s figured out how to make it profitable, and until then we’ll enjoy the company of our last remaining media friends and encourage those fresh-faced youngsters to into gerontology or video game-making or some other promising field.

— Bud Norman

That’s Show Biz

All hell could have broken loose the past few days without our noticing. This past week was devoted to our annual appearance on the local stage, and amateur theatrics is an all-consuming activity.
On our drives to and from the aged but still elegant Orpheum Theater in downtown we caught word on the radio that the stock markets are tanking, Ukraine is heating up, and some feisty Nevada ranchers have somehow managed to stare down the Feds, but there wasn’t time to dive into all the details with our usual thoroughness. We tried to keep apprised of the Ukrainian situation well enough to know if our cheeky skit about the matter, which featured Vladimir Putin and a bear hoofing to “Singin’ Ukraine,” was veering into bad taste, but otherwise we were too preoccupied with ironing costumes and memorizing lines and placating temperamental cast members to keep abreast of the rest of the world.
The show closed its three-night run on Saturday, but the cast party went well into Sunday and the rest of the day was devoted to watching the final round of the Masters and recuperating from the grind of show biz. A lack of talent spared us any singing or dancing, and our three short scenes were carefully written within the severe limitations of our acting ability, but it nonetheless proved quite exhausting. Theater is a collaborative art from, which necessarily entails other people, and that always wear us out. The mostly media-affiliated folks who put on the annual “Gridiron” shows for charity and ego gratification and a good bunch, at least, and by now we think they’re almost used to us.
Our humble efforts got some good laughs, more so the first two nights, for some reason or another, and it once again proved an enjoyable experience. After 47 years the “Gridiron” show is a local institution that brings out all the other local institutions, so it’s a good way to immerse one’s self in the city for a short while. We got to schmooze with our district’s reality conservative congressman, Rep. Mike Pompeo, and the director of the nationally-regarded Music Theater of Wichita company, who’s always been nice to us despite the occasional bad reviews we’d write back in our newspaper days, as well as some old friends and comely women. The county commissioner from Haysville was obliged to be less friendly than usual this year, due to his constituents’ recent umbrage at the jokes the show traditionally makes about the town, and there was no one there from the local television station that fired a fellow cast member for inadvertently uttering an expletive at the end of a news cast, which of course was a recurring gag in the show, but on the whole everyone was nice enough.
The show was unusually right-wing this year, too, which was a welcome change from the usual fare that you’d expect from a mostly media-affiliated troupe. That’s partly because the show has recently added some younger folks who are surprisingly sensible about politics, and partly because the past year’s news has been dominated by Obamacare and foreign affairs and other issues that demand ridicule if they can’t plausibly be blamed on Republicans. A staunch lefty on the cast was lamenting the lack of Koch Brothers-bashing, but when we wondered what they should be ridiculed for she couldn’t come up with anything but a hateful glare. The same hateful glare came back when she noticed that the cast party’s host had aluminum and plastic commingling with his other trash instead of being placed in proper recycling bins, but a few glasses of wine she was back to her usual pleasant self, and in any case it didn’t affect our comedy very much.
A day’s rest should have us ready to confront reality, and we’ll even be glad to be back to it.

— Bud Norman

Haysville and the Streisand Effect

Over the years we’ve covered countless controversies, but have rarely been in the middle of any of them. Now we find ourselves at least tangentially related to a minor local brouhaha, however, and are not quite sure how we stand on the matter.
As local theater-goers and regular readers of this publication might already know, every year we play a small role or two in the annual “Gridiron” show. It’s an exceedingly amateur production that has been put on the for the past 47 years by the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as a fund-raiser for journalism scholarships, and features song parodies, skits, topical humor, and enough booze to make it all seem tolerably amusing. The show regularly draws three nights of good-sized crowds to the musty old Orpheum Theater downtown, mostly well-heeled and well-connected regulars who are in on the in-jokes and have come to expect certain recurring gags.
One of the show’s longstanding traditions is making jokes about Haysville, a small community just south of Wichita. These jokes vary wildly in content and quality, but the gist of all of them is that Haysville folks aren’t so sophisticated and cosmopolitan as those of us here in the big city. For years the practice went largely unnoticed, except by the Sedgwick County Commissioner representing Haysville, whose humorous shouted responses from the audience have lately become another recurring gag, but this year several prominent Haysville residents have publicly objected to the practice. Because their angry e-mails were addressed to members of the local media, the story has wound up on the local radio and television stations as well as the daily newspaper, and by local standards it can almost be considered a kerfuffle.
Our first response was that the folks in Haysville are being rather touchy. Most of the Haysville jokes are good-natured, with our own self-effacing contributions to the genre often playing on the absurdity of Wichitans looking down on anybody, and the meaner ones have usually fallen flat. Last year a couple of Okie cousins from Luther came up to catch the show, despite our warnings that about the local humor, and they found the Haysville jokes especially funny because they were reminded of their own disparaged town just north of sophisticated and cosmopolitan Oklahoma City. Besides, Gridiron is so easily ignored that we’d say that Haysville residents have better things to worry about, but that would leave us at the risk of making yet another Haysville joke.
On the other hand, we catch enough Wichita jokes made by the bigger city folks on television to understand the resentment. The jokes have grown rather outdated, too, as the relentless expansion of the Wichita metropolitan area has turned Haysville into a rather affluent bedroom community in the south part of town rather than the isolated rural outpost of ramshackle houses that it was when the jokes started. As insensitive as we are to other people’s feelings, and despite our constitutional traditionalism, our instincts as strictly realist humorists are inclined to find a more appropriate target.
To the extent that we are concerned with Haysville feelings, we think they’d have been better off leaving the jokes unremarked. The resulting controversy has made Haysville jokes more widely known in Wichita than ever before, and no doubt spawned a few new ones. This is sometimes known as “The Streisand Effect,” so named for the widespread viewing of photographs of her palatial home that had been posted on a government web site that was little seen until her objections were widely publicized, and we’re surprised that no one in Haysville was hip to the phenomenon.
Despite our ambivalence about the matter, we’ll continue doing the show the as usual. The only reference to Haysville in any our scripts is a mention of a fictional reality show called “The Real Housewives of Haysville,” and we’ll leave it unchanged because we can’t think of any suitable alterations. The rest of the cast can do as they please, as far as we’re concerned, and we’d like to think that most of Haysville is just as tolerant.

— Bud Norman