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Who the hell is Prince Harry?

The happy couple. Of the moment.

As the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle closes in on us, like a train moving so slowly that you can smell the mustard stains on the engineer’s overalls, it’s a pointless exercise to jump on the overloaded “Who Gives a Shit?” caboose. Not one of my friends seems to care. I haven’t had any Royal Marriage conversations with anyone, not even small talk with strangers encountered in an elevator.

So why is it dominating the news?

I’m told it’s because an heir to the British throne has once again chosen to marry what is commonly referred to in England as “a commoner.” But not a mere commoner. As I read in one news report, Markle is a “major celebrity.” With the added spice of she’s divorced. And of mixed race. And there was apparently some sort of family drama as to whether her father was going to England for the wedding.

At the hotel where I’m staying this morning, I picked up a free copy of the USA Today pamphlet, which is now so small that it’s delivered in bundles strapped to the backs of mice. As usual, it is divided into News and Self-Inflating Opinion, Money, Sports and Lifestyle. Four conveniently apportioned sections: In the editor’s world, there are never more natural disasters and wars to be reported on than there are movies to be reviewed.

All four sections had one or more stories on the Royal Wedding.

Yes, even Sports.

War and crime are always in good supply. So in order to achieve the correct balance in news content, editors are in perpetual need of fresh celebrities. Markle is a “major celebrity” because – and I had to Google this – she is “a humanitarian activist and former American actress.”

Those probably aren’t Markle’s words, so I’m not blaming her. I just want to point out that I have many friends who are humanitarian activists. They donate money to important causes, they volunteer at Planned Parenthood or organizations that work with immigrants, they build churches in Haiti. I don’t think any of these friends has ever introduced themselves as a humanitarian activist. Humanitarian activist isn’t a job title, like architect. It’s something you do. My friends are regular people doing the right thing on a world of hurt.

A “major celebrity?” If Markle has a sense of humor, and a proper level of self deprecation, perhaps she herself laughs at that description. I see she was in a television series called Suits, and the films Remember Me and Horrible Bosses. Like most Americans, I’ve never seen them. No matter how popular your TV show may be, no matter how many theaters may be playing your film, most Americans have not seen your work.

So what, then, is a “major celebrity?” LeBron James is a major celebrity. Serena Williams is a major celebrity. Stormy Daniels is a major celebrity. Longevity, success and circumstances make you a major celebrity. Who are Sutton Foster, Jameela Jamil, Ryan Reynolds, Chris Pratt, Justin Hartley, Channing Tatum, Seann William Scott and Zach Woods? Breeze passing through the internet. I wouldn’t know any of them if they were sitting next to me at the Oscars. But according to the news web site I’m looking at right now, they’re all newsworthy actors, each apparently a major celebrity since they all have résumés equal to, or greater than, Meghan Markle.

If you’re fascinated by the fact that Markle is divorced, you’re unaware that half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. If you’re surprised that Markle is of mixed-race parentage, you haven’t seen any breakfast cereal commercials. And if you’re breathless over which dysfunctional family member may not show up at the Royal Wedding, then your own family is absurdly well grounded.

These major celebrities didn’t invent a life-saving heart procedure or kill a baby seal. They’re media-generated content whose job is to fill a vacuum detected by the gatekeepers who were caught without a press release from the Kardashians’ publicist that day.

Our world perspective is a cracked lens. Prince Harry is a major celebrity. The media has made him so. But he is not a major world figure. I had to look this up: As heir to the British throne, he is fourth in line. Behind a 4-year-old kid.

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.

Stalin’s dead, but the weekend was alive

That’s Stalin on the rug.

Spiritual isn’t a word to be taken lightly. It’s reaching a pretty high level of human consciousness. Yet there I was at Lovin’ Cup Bistro and Brews Saturday night for Connie Deming’s show, backed by Phil Marshall on guitar, with Scott Regan opening. This was a deeply moving event. And yeah, spiritual.

Regan is generally identified as the weekday morning host Open Tunings on WRUR-FM (88.5), but he needs more recognition as a songwriter. He knows a great song needn’t be simple, it can go two places at once. So he sang one about trading baseball cards. Indians and Braves, exchanged without a thought to their homeland, accompanied by a high, lonesome-wind chant by Regan. Regan’s not a classic voice, but he’s evocative in a Willie Nelson way; earnest, like an armadillo scratching through the desert sand, looking for grubs.

Marshall backed him for a song, then Regan played solo, then Marshall returned with Deming. Deming is no desert mammal. Her voice soars, it goes wherever the story takes it. She draws inspiration from many places. Often her autistic son. Or from what she detected her listeners needed when she was playing group homes for the autistic and the elderly. And when she covers an old standard, like “Stardust” – at Marshall’s urging – it takes you to a place that is both long ago and timeless.

Marshall plays those standards for people in hospice. He’ll play whatever the dying want to hear, whether it’s Hoagy Carmichael or The Beatles. In a decision made just that morning, Deming asked Marshall to play a half-hour set, right in the middle of her own set. So we heard songs Marshall had written, inspired by his work in hospice. And he told stories about his work. Some of these stories were touching, some were funny, but never at the expense of the dying. Marshall is always the foil, because he’s learning something from these people.

After the show, Marshall told me he has been reluctant to play these songs and tell these stories for audiences. He’d even joked between songs about how uplifting it would be to play “Grief Walks In” in a bar on a Saturday night. He felt it might be exploitative. But no, it’s explanatory. It’s sharing something that we’ll all experience, if we haven’t already at the bedside of a friend or relative.

This show wasn’t tightly scripted. They made it up as the evening went on, the songs found their proper places. It was the kind of organic, nocturnal animal that might not appear again.

There was more. Early Sunday afternoon, The Death of Stalin was playing at The Little Theatre. A film that should win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but that’ll never happen. This tale of the Soviet Union in the days following the death of Stalin – he falls ill in a pool of his own urine, which I suppose is better than dying in someone else’s urine – is too insane for serious awards. Comedy crashes headlong into tragedy as we see fearful Soviet authorities comically scrambling to kiss ass and save their souls while in the background people are being strong-armed into basement rooms, where they are executed. This is hilarious! Why are we laughing, someone else is being shot in the head! The performances are brilliant, at times the movements of these Soviet leaders look as though they were choreographed by The Three Stooges. You know Steve Buscemi as the googly-eyed, bandy-limbed stringbean with the look of a guy who thinks a safe is about to fall on his head. But with the aid of a little padding and some loose suits, yes, he becomes a very convincing Nikita Khruschev.

So the movie’s over, and we spill out into The Little Café, where there’s a reception for this month’s gallery show, Off the Page: Creative Responses to Writing. It’s an unusual show, created by 10 women from a book club who have interpreted favorite books through various art mediums. I’d brought a couple of novels – Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and John Fante’s Ask the Dusk – to loan to My Friend Tony, who is recovering from back surgery. Sitting at his table, in the midst of people I know, I eavesdropped on strangers’ conversations about art and food and cars and listened to Steve Piper playing guitar and singing over and around the roar of the crowd. Thinking: Why isn’t every weekend like this?

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.


The failings of Emblidge, Holland and myself as journalists

Norma Holland and Doug Emblidge.

I know Doug Emblidge and Norma Holland. I’ve been to Emblidge’s house, we drank wine, he played guitar. Holland I’ve gotten to know mainly through her work with EstroFest, Rochester’s all-women comedy ensemble. So we’ve shared a few laughs.

Emblidge and Holland are also quality television journalists. They care about the profession.

Both news anchors at Rochester’s Channel 13 WHAM are now newsmakers since the web site Deadspin released a compilation of TV reporters reading a script provided by Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation. It’s hilarious, as the anchors earnestly mouth the message in unison. They’ve been compared to zombies. To political prisoners reading a propaganda statement prepared by their captors. It’s also chilling. Because the free press isn’t meant to be like this. Our local journalists should all be free thinkers, of their own minds, they shouldn’t be reciting corporate memos.

On its surface, the script might not seem all that horrible. It is a vague condemnation of fake news. The cacophony of voices never says what specifically triggered this outpouring of crocodile concern. The message simply seems to be: We can all agree, fake news is bad.

But we can’t agree what is fake news, and what isn’t.

Here’s why so many of those Sinclair television anchors have stepped up to confess – some anonymously, some on the record – their dismay at being a part of this charade.  It’s because they know: Sinclair is a smarmy operation. It is the company that produced anti-John Kerry swiftboat stories, a disgusting attack on an American war hero. Sinclair provides the nearly 200 television newsrooms that it owns or operates with “must run” commentaries. Most notably the Terrorism Alert segments that appear virtually every day on its stations. These are generally substance-free reports, loaded with buzzwords about some foreign-looking, brown-skinned guy arrested at an airport. Here’s a typical Terror Alert, from last August:

Two men detained over the weekend at Heathrow Airport are now out on bail. The BBC reports that the men arrived on a flight from Turkey into London, and were questioned after being suspected of preparing for terrorist acts. However, officials say there is no immediate threat to the public and released them.

That’s it. That’s the whole story. Two men “suspected of preparing for terrorist acts.” Except, apparently they weren’t preparing for terrorist attacks after all, and the men were released. It’s not news.

Unless your aim is to create fear.

Vagueness is the weapon. They throw in a line about “suspected of preparing for terrorist acts” and let you fill in the blanks. Terrorists! At Heathrow Airport! Were they on their way here? Of course they were! Thank God we stopped them! This time…

How about our home-grown terrorists? Like the guy who shot and killed 58 people and wounded 851 at a country-music concert in Las Vegas. Or the guy who shot and killed 17 of his fellow students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Those killers are irrelevant, they don’t fit Sinclair’s right-wing scare profile. Those murders, that’s just the price Americans have to pay for our right to own assault rifles.

But I digress. Emblidge went to Facebook to thank those who came to his defense, who realized he’s not the problem:

Thanks to all for the kindness shown at a difficult time. This too shall pass. As I often say … some people have real problems. I don’t.

And I like the words Holland posted on her Facebook page:

The Sinclair message you saw me and my colleagues in has damaged the trust you place in us — a trust that’s taken, me in particular, 22 years to build. That hurts. Here’s the truth: I could have chosen to quit, but who among us has an alternate career in their back pocket ready to go? I have a family to support. That’s not an excuse — that’s reality. Moreover, I have a career I love and worked hard for. Am I supposed to be bullied into giving it up? So, I read the statement and now I’ve been called disgusting names. That hurts, too. One bad day does not speak for a career filled with good.

I’m with her on that. As journalists, all we have to offer is our integrity. Sinclair is hiding its political agenda behind the good names of its employees. People with families to support and no intention of abandoning a noble career.

We have to realize, the First Amendment is under assault. And we don’t know where the next attack is coming from. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s right and what’s wrong. You might not know if you’re getting wise counsel, or fear.

I’ve been in those kinds of uncomfortable situations in the past with my former employer. In my final year there, I had editors kill two of my stories, both featuring musicians and artists and writers calling out the misogyny, xenophobia, racism and bigotry accompanying the Trump campaign. You know, in talking to musicians and artists and writers, it was kind of hard to avoid that subject.

Like when the British singer Joss Stone – a funny, smart and delightful interview – told me that what was happened in the United States after Trump was elected looked “Hitler-ite.” You didn’t read that, it was cut from my story. Rather than allowing you to judge, an editor made the judgment for you.

Perhaps I could have sought out someone to express the other side of these stories. But I just didn’t feel like giving bigotry equal time. Like that piece I did on an art exhibit that was simply a trail of glass shoes, representing victims of the Holocaust. I could have sought out a Nazi to get the other side of that story. I didn’t bother. I guess as a journalist, that’s my failing.

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.

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