Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Karma comes home

That’s me, on the left, with WXXI’s Randy Gorbman, reporting live from the jazz fest this summer.

Now, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted…?

Oh, yes. Reporting on the Rochester arts scene. Music, theater, painting, sculpture, dance, literature. Dressing up your dog in holiday-appropriate costumes. The stuff that represents the best of humanity. All of that – or, at least my role in it – came to a skidding halt when I was laid off by the local daily newspaper in September of 2017.

But what the Democrat and Chronicle does not value – and I know, I was in the meetings – WXXI understands. I have been doing two stories a month for the area’s public radio station for a little more than year. Covering the jazz fest, the Fringe Festival. Most recently writing about the loss of Rochester Music Hall of Famer Bat McGrath. And exploring the tale of Lesley Riddle, the black country-blues singer who played a huge role working with The Carter Family to popularize country music in the 1920s. Then he was promptly forgotten, before being re-discovered in the 1960s after having lived in obscurity for more than two decades here in Rochester. A Rochester story that parallels that of blues legend Son House so much, it is almost uncanny.

But two stories a month is not enough for a community whose arts scene is so vibrant, so interesting. We face a lot of problems in Rochester. Poverty. A dysfunctional city school budget. Mistaking a plate heaped with macaroni, home fries, hot dogs and meat gravy as cuisine. But artistic creativity is not an issue in this city.

So on Monday morning, I started at a newly created position at WXXI. Arts & Life Editor, Which, I assume, means I’ll have to check my own spelling. And we have plans. Vibrant, interesting plans, although perhaps falling a little short of Oprah giving a car to every member of her studio audience. YOU GET A CAR! AND YOU GET A CAR! Nevertheless, in the coming weeks, and months, you shall be rewarded.

We’ll make it happen as fast as we can. The only things that will hold us up are technical issues. Like, I’m staring at the phone on my desk. It has 28 buttons on it. I don’t know how to use the thing.

The arts scene is equally complex. Our deep cultural scene must be represented by not only telling the stories of our hometown musicians, and artists, but by treating the city as every bit deserving of attention from the biggest names in the arts as any major city receives. The arts is how we celebrate the triumphs, and address the difficult issues, of society.

It’s important to remain on the razor’s edge of culture. I’m your guy, I stopped wearing yoga pants a few years ago.

I tried to make good use of my two years in exile. I had aging-parent issues. The dog got long walks. I read a lot; Ron Chernow’s “Grant” is astonishing, he wasn’t anything like the guy you learned about in junior high history class. I had my own book published, “22 Minutes,” the story of a Lake Ontario sailor and a tragic World War II naval battle. 

But here’s the best part: the support I received from friends and strangers was unexpected, beyond what I would ever ask for. My last act before walking out the D&C door for the final time was to post a message on Facebook, explaining I’d just been laid off. I expected a few responses. “Sorry Dude, I’ll buy you a drink if I ever see you again.”

Instead, a tsunami of responses hit. Outrage from hundreds and hundreds of people, most of whom I didn’t know. Strangers stopped me everywhere – in grocery stores, in restaurants – to tell me how much they missed my writing, and how they’d cancelled their subscriptions.

And it just kept on coming. An unexpected support system emerged. At my going-away party – we called it “The Freedom Party” – friends presented me with a beautiful laptop computer and read poems about me. Friends gave me tickets to a Paul McCartney concert. There were lots of dinner invitations at friends’ homes. I’d walk into a bar and a glass of red wine would magically appear in my hand. We’d go out to eat at a restaurant and at the end of the night my friends had quietly paid the bill. I had several friends, suspecting financial hardship, offer to loan us money. Not just a few hundred bucks. I mean a few thousand dollars.

Amazing friends. I’ll never forget their support. I’ve written virtually every day on that new laptop. Blogs, freelance stories, a few songs, a novel about surrealist artists and robots. It’s better than it sounds.             

While cleaning the attic one day, I found a stack of newspapers. Democrat and Chronicles, and the now extinct Times-Union. All dating back to 1989, 1990, and when I first moved to Rochester, as assistant sports editor of the Democrat and Chronicle. I’m not sure why I kept them. The big news in Rochester then was serial killer Arthur Shawcross. But looking at those newspapers, now more than two decades old, I was astonished at how large they were. Not only their dimensions, but the number of pages. And on those pages, dozens of local bylines and photos. There were swarms of young and smart reporters like Steve Orr and Gary Craig. Crime news, sports news, society news, threatening weather, bowling scores. Each issue of those old newspapers was a portrait of a day in Rochester, yellowed, preserved like an insect trapped in amber.

It’s not like that anymore. Orr and Craig are still there, still smart but not quite so young, looking kinda lonely in the dwindling newsroom, the job titles on their business cards now reading something like Craig’s “Murder, Dead Gangsters and Ukulele Players Beat.” And he’s pretty good at it. Yet the baseball team, the Red Wings, is covered only when convenient. And our arts scene is a neglected mansion. One of our local rock bands, to paraphrase the president, “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody,” and you wouldn’t read about it.

But that’s the disaster that’s today’s media landscape. Corporate thinking is silencing one of the most-vital engines of democracy. Today, media properties are junk vehicles being sold for parts.

Robert Siegel, the now-retired host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” was in Rochester two weeks ago, and something he said struck me as the truth. Your local newspaper, wherever you live, is likely owned by some out-of-state corporation. Making decisions not for the community that your newspaper serves, but for the financial benefit of shareholders. Public radio, and public television, is a different business model. It does get some federal money. Sometimes donors step up with a big check: Thank you Betty Strasenburgh, Rochester activist and philanthropist, you’re why I’m sitting in this chair in the WXXI building on State Street. But mostly, WXXI survives through a public that acknowledges it must invest in some kind of media vehicle that stands apart from the forces that have disemboweled newspapers and commercial radio.

Two other D&C newsroom employees were laid off on the same morning as I was, both of whom had been there longer than me; I calculated that nearly 90 years of institutional memory went out the door that day. But WXXI is growing. Monday, my first day here, was also the first day for videographer Max Schulte, who I worked with at the D&C for more than 20 years. Arriving a week earlier, and now working on the fifth floor of this building, is David Andreatta, former D&C columnist, now the new editor of CITY newspaper; it’s a subsidiary of WXXI, so some of my writing will appear there. Denise Young is a WXXI editor, I once worked with her at the D&C as well.

You can see where this is going. The morning I was offered this job at WXXI, September 16, was two years ago to the very day that I was laid off at the D&C. Some folks say karma’s a bitch. But it depends on where you’re standing at the moment. Because karma is often the truth, revealed.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Doing the wrong thing

The main suspects in the death of truth.

If  you have a documented history of lying to the American public – and even admitted to it when being questioned during a Congressional investigation – the odds of being hired by a reputable news organization would appear to be mighty slim. Am I right?

Welcome to the Fox News family, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

You will be forgiven for forgetting that Sanders defended Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, claiming she had heard from “countless members of the FBI” that they had no confidence in him. Apparently, Sanders can’t count very high. According to the Mueller Report, while testifying under oath that she was telling the truth, Sanders admitted that her claim of “countless members of the FBI” rebelling against Comey “was not founded on anything.”

Months later, and freed from that burdensome formality of testifying under oath, Sanders was asked about the Muller Report’s assessment of her baseless Comey charge. And she lied, said her claim of FBI agents rebelling against their boss had merely been a slip of the tongue. And besides, it was the Democrats who were to blame.

So Sanders joins Fox as a “contributor,” joining a roster of fabrication contributors whose long list of lies rivals that of… well, of Trump.

I heartily endorse second chances. Third chances? I’m not so sure. Especially when the individual in question is being granted access to a powerful public platform.

Giving a bad idea a second chance is endemic to media. “McHale’s Navy” was a really dumb television show. Somehow a respectable actor, Ernest Borgnine, was talked into starring as the commander of a P.T. boat and its crew of fun-loving, scamming lunatics. This was set during World War II, mind you, where a lot of people fought and died. The show ran from 1962 to 1966, plus two feature films, and you’d figure that would be enough. But no, someone did a “McHale’s Navy” movie in 1997, updated with Russian terrorists or something, I don’t know, to my credit I never saw it. Perhaps because it starred Tom Arnold.

Brand familiarity is money in the bank. The original “Godzilla,” the 1954 Japanese film in which a giant lizard destroys Tokyo, was a metaphorical tale warning of the dangers of nuclear technology. Released nine years after the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated, who would know better than the Japanese about the horrors of the atomic bomb? And for better or worse, the Godzilla franchise exploded.

Now that’s entertainment. It’s mythology. And in the mythology that increasingly penetrates our news, Fox News – my parents’ only news source for years – is not the only offender.

“The McLaughlin Group” was a shouty news roundtable that played for 34 years on various public television outlets. Now Maryland Public Broadcasting is re-booting the show. The producers are not willing to spend the money necessary to bring back host Tom McLaughlin – he died in 2016 – but they have resurrected the corpse of Pat Buchanan. Buchanan is a white supremacist, and it’s not just a matter of a slip of the tongue here and there. Buchanan is a reservoir of racism.

Buchanan has called Hitler “an individual of great courage” who did not want war, a statement that might be disputed by the Polish people who awoke one morning in 1939 to find Nazi tanks rumbling down their streets. He is anti-LGBTQ citizens, saying that in a just society, “gay people will be contained, segregated, controlled, and stigmatized.” He said of the Civil War, “in a way, both sides were right.” Words that would be echoed years later by Trump after a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended with a white supremacist driving a car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, resulting in the death of a young woman and injuring 28 others. And immigrants are “a third world invasion,” Buchanan has said, adding that, “Americans have the sovereign right to discriminate in favor of some continents, countries and cultures, and against others.”

Why didn’t this country’s native people think of that in 1492?

Here’s the Buchanan quote of all time:

Exceptional women can and do succeed; and women deserve an equal chance at the starting line. But, for women, there is an honorable and honored exit from the rat race – home, hearth and family. It is an option closed, by social sanction, to the average male. By a ratio of eleven-to-one over men, women exercise this option of voluntary separation from the marketplace, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades. The momma bird builds the nest. So it was, so it ever shall be. Ronald Reagan is not responsible for this; God is.

Or, maybe this is the Buchanan quote of all time:

America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known. … We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?

Yes, the gratitude for their ancestors to have been brought here in chains, to be beaten, raped and lynched.

Pat Buchanan. Fair and balanced reporting gone awry.

Republicans are being rightly skewered for quietly stepping aside as Trump destroys the Constitution, divides the country over race, rolls back environmental protections, enriches himself through the presidency, and on and on and on…

And on. Mark Halperin has a book deal. Thanks to more than 75 top Democratic strategists.

Halperin always struck me as a smarmy jerk when I’d see him on MSNBC, as a pundit who seemed to be wrong a lot. And the smarm proved to be real, when in 2017 a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment. That’s a dozen chances to do the right thing. Halperin didn’t, and MSNBC promptly dumped him.

So now Halperin has a book coming out in November. “How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take.” That’s a fine goal, but we don’t need the likes of Halperin. He’s getting real money, while real writers can’t get into print. No one with a conscience should be a part of his career-reclamation project. I can’t imagine what those 75 Democratic strategists – familiar names such as Donna Brazile, David Axelrod, Kathleen Sebelius – were thinking when they heard on the other end of the phone, “Hi, this is Mark Halperin…”

They should have hung up right there.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Mad, and getting Realist about humor

The first issue of The Realist.

When I was a kid, like 10 or 11 years old, My Uncle Robbie was the youngest, and coolest, of my uncles. He had a motorcycle. He went to Woodstock. And he read Mad magazine.

I never had a motorcycle. The Woodstocks I attended were the paler, anniversary ones in 1994 and ’99. But I did read Mad.

After 67 years, the magazine has announced it will soon cease publication, although that “cease” is kind of vague, as it appears Mad will continue to re-issue old content. And some of its legendary contributors said a few days ago that new material may even be published on yet-to-be determined platforms. Platforms that likely contributed to the cause of death: The internet, where anyone with a keyboard has the potential to create brilliant satire in this target-rich era.

Internet humor: A primary suspect in the death of Mad magazine.

Following the announcement of Mad’s approaching death, the tributes poured in. From celebrities including Weird Al Yankovic, fondly recalling how Mad shaped their own humor.

So yes, of course, I read Mad as well. Did, as in past tense. Maybe if I had bought a few copies over the last four decades, it wouldn’t be going away now.

But other culture was creeping into my brain. Mad gave way to National Lampoon. I saw R. Crumb and Zippy the Pinhead as philosophers, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were teachers. The comedy albums I listened to, the mainstream of Bill Cosby, gave way to the edgy non-sequitur humor of The Firesign Theater and Monty Python. I could find Monty Python on television as well – thank you, PBS – and in the movie theater.

The two things I remember laughing at the hardest in my late-teen years, laughing to the point that I couldn’t breathe, were National Lampoon’s “High School Yearbook Parody” and the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where King Arthur de-limbs The Black Knight. “Just a flesh wound.”

We move on with time, and it can be a dangerous passage. My Uncle Robbie is in his late 60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s hit him a few years ago. Now he doesn’t even recognize his wife.

The brain evolves, devolves. I was reminded of how far my own pursuit of the darkest humor went when I read this week of the passing of Paul Krassner, the iconic, counter-culture writer. Krassner wrote freelance pieces for Mad in the late 1950s. But he recognized that Mad was humor for teenagers. And he was an adult. An adult consumed by the oncoming political unrest. So he channeled his taste in anarchy by creating an underground humor magazine, The Realist. This was a proper vehicle for Krassner and his ’60s Yippie cohorts, known for pranks such as nominating a pig for president. Even Norman Mailer, Richard Pryor and Joseph Heller wrote for The Realist.

Krassner and The Realist may have been humor, but they were dead serious about it.

The Realist was over-the-top outrageous. Pornographic. Obscene. Satire is a killer. Why would a humor magazine publish a cartoon depicting dozens of Disney characters such as Snow White and Donald Duck engaged in a massive orgy? I suppose the message might have been one that is the highest duty of humor: to expose hypocrisy and corruption. And to do so with a tenacity that goes beyond a flesh wound. Was the obscenity of the Seven Dwarves engaged in anal sex – a perversion of many people’s definition of All-American entertainment – any worse than the Vietnam War we were watching on our televisions?

BE THE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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