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February 20, 2005 - Roulette game or a train wreck about to happen?

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World’s Laziest Journalist

Sunday, February 20, 2005

By Bob Patterson


There are two kinds of news stories; there are roulette games and there are train wrecks.  Sometimes even the best, wisest, crusty, old city editors can’t be sure what’s going to happen.  In the past there were times when two opposite outcomes would be written up and two alternative front pages would be prepared.  At the last possible minute, the curmudgeonly (but lovable) city editor would grumble something indicating which of the two to put on the press.  Occasionally the decision was a bit premature, as was the case when the Chicago Tribune printed an edition that proclaimed that Dewey had defeated Truman in the 1948 presidential election.  Sometimes events are like a runaway train where the course of action has only one path to take.  Events lead to one particular result, as surely as a train must follow the tracks and there is no real need to have alternative result stories ready, if truth be told.


One of this columnist’s first contact with a news story that was followed day by day was about a sinking ship, The Flying Enterprise and its skipper, Captain Kurt Carlson.  We went over to a classmate’s home, which was equipped with television, and watched as John Cameron Swayze monitored the story which ended when the ship sank and the captain abandoned ship at one of the last possible moments.  The ship was badly damaged and help was too far away to get to the scene in time to provide any help.


We read somewhere (sorry fact checker that’s the best we can do) that well over one hundred years ago some entrepreneur staged a head-on crash of two railroad trains in Texas and charged admission for the spectacle.  The two trains were empty and devoid of all crew and passengers, but the result was spectacular nonetheless.  Somebody had to do something to amuse people until reality TV could evolve.


Road & Track magazine once did a humorous story for one of their April issues.  They did a road test on a locomotive.  They reported that it handled fantastically well, in the curves.  They said it cornered as if it were on rails.


Life magazine (about 1940) presented a picture of a collision between an airplane and a train.


One of LAPD’s traffic officer’s was very proud of the fact that he had issued a ticket to the engineer of a railroad train.  The train was standing still in a railroad crossing and was blocking traffic.  The engineer got a ticket for obstructing the flow of traffic.


At one point, this columnist attended a press screening for the 1977 film, The Cassandra Crossing.  About 20 minutes into the film, some viewer guffawed.  After that, it seemed like the film should be promoted as a comedy because the laughs came fast and often.  Afterward, leaving the theater, we saw an older gentleman, who was the best illustration for the description “ashen,” that we have ever seen.  One can only speculate about who he was and why he was so shook up.  The film did not produce huge profits and tons of good publicity.  That leaves open a chance to indulge in some sinister conjecture: Could someone from a rival studio have provided the initial laugh at the unfolding drama?


Are some stories on the road to an inevitable conclusion or are they truly subject to various factors that could produce different results? 


John Luther Jones, called Casey by his friends because he was born near Cayce Kentucky, was involved in a collision of two trains near Vaughan Mississippi and was immortalized in song.  He told his assistant to jump to save himself.  Casey stayed with the train, hit the brakes, and died in the crash. 


If a story is a runaway train, do newspaper reporters and TV anchors owe their audience a heads-up about the only possible ending or are they free to portray events as if it really were a roulette game where anything could happen?


For example take this year’s competition for Best Actor Oscar.  Critics and fellow actors were extremely enthusiastic in their praise for Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of singer Ray Charles in the film Ray.  Foxx has won other awards for the role.  That string of wins gives folks a strong hint about who will get to stand on the Oscars stage and thank the members of the Academy for his award.  Even president Bush has indicate that it seems very likely Foxx will be named the winner of Oscar for Best Actor, this year.


Many moons ago, a sports editor cautioned a rookie:  “Never say ‘never’ and never say something has only one possible outcome.”  A few months later, Joe Namath proved that point.


James Swain is a top-notch sleight of hand magician who writes about a detective who is extremely knowledgeable about cheating at cards and gambling.  The detective gets paid to catch the cheats.  We bought a copy of his book and gave it what we thought was a good review.  Sometimes a “sharpie” can get a “mark” to think he is betting on an event with several possible results.  If the deck has been stacked, or if the cards are marked, the victim and his money will soon be parted.  The gullible sucker thinks he had a chance of winning, but the results are almost certain to include a vignette of him shaking his head in disbelief.


Someone with a causal knowledge of what to watch for will not see how someone like Swain does things that seem absolutely, positively impossible to perform.  Reading his mystery books will give people a chance to scan descriptions of what happens, but actually seeing it a few feet in front of your eyes is taking it to the level of hyper-existence.  It’s like the laws of physics have been put on hold for a nanosecond.  (Just like: “Back and to the left?”)


One variation of the swindler’s philosophy says that the victim is sure to be separated from his bank account and it is the duty of the cheater to take that fellow’s cash as fast as possible so that all that money will have a warm loving, secure, and intelligent place to reside.


Do journalists owe their audience a warning that the game is fixed or is it just good sportsmanship for them to go along with the ruse that “anything is possible?”  It may help sell more tickets to a sporting event, it may help boost ratings for a quiz show on TV, or it might make a politician’s friend even wealthier.  Hasn’t America always believed: caveat emptor? 


The “newsies” can always just say that they didn’t know the game was rigged and were also caught unawares.


Have you noticed that the conservative talk show folks seemed to have put the blinders on for one particular story?  When the qualifications for the “king of the softball question” at the White House press conferences came into question, the folks who asked for the “head on a platter” solution for Rathergate and Easongate, were silent on the Talon reporter question.  A curious inconsistency, eh Watson?


When a PR agency is paid about $10 million to help a war win approval, where does all that money go?  It’s not like they are an advertising agency and have to be reimbursed for the cost of running ads in various publications.  Where does all that money go?  They don’t have to submit a detailed accounting do they?  There’s an old accounting adage that says: “The money has to go somewhere.”  Where did it go?


Are some wars inevitable?  Well, it sure seemed that way in Iraq in 1991 and 2003.  This columnist wouldn’t want to be living in Iran, right now, that’s for sure.


If whistle-blowers say ahead of time that the “fixeroo” is in, the charlatans can always respond: “Thanks for the tip, we’ll watch to make sure that doesn’t happen.”  If the skeptical comments come after the event (like the famous “phantom punch”) the cynical perpetrators can just deflect most (all?) criticism by saying:  “Prove it.” 


There was an old joke that asked:  “Where was Steve Brody when he jumped off the Brooklyn bridge?”  If you say “on the bridge,” that’s wrong because that was before he jumped.  If you say “in the air,” that’s wrong because that came after he jumped off. 


People who don’t read Arnaud de Borchgrave’s columns and one in particular from April of 2004 will think things happen by chance.  His readers may be more sure about what’s going to happen.


Bartlett’s 16th Edition credits Robert Lowell (page 741 second note) with saying: “If we see a light at the end of a tunnel, / It’s the light of an oncoming train.”


The disk jockey is supposed to play The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, but sometimes he is impossible to control, like now, because he seems determined to make a playing of Red Sovine’s Phantom 309 inevitable.  We’ll chug on out of here for this week. Do you know where the Liar’s Hall of Fame is located?  Next week, we’ll tell you where to go (It’s up the road a bit from Concordia, Kansas!) if you want to see that particular tourist attraction.  Meanwhile, have a week in which happiness is inevitable and a PR agency is being paid to promote that course of action.





Copyright 2005 – Robert Patterson


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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