“The Newsroom”–A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Cable TV News

In the opening episode, veteran news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is asked by a fresh-faced journalism student what makes America the greatest country on earth.  Cajoled into giving a substantive response by the moderator, Will McAvoy throws caution aside and proceeds in a blistering monologue filled with statistics to explain why America isn’t.  The collateral damage becomes significant. His boss (Sam Waterston) considers the episode a meltdown.

The meltdown forces him to reassess his former self–a time when news reporting was about defending the ideals of a culture and truth telling. Then Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), a heroic war correspondent and McAvoy’s former lover, becomes the executive producer to monitor his erratic behavior. For Will this is a nightmare, since their romantic relationship ended in heartbreak. Nonetheless, Mackenzie is the one person who can jolt him out of his apathy.

Aaron Sorkin (the writer of “A Few Good Men”, “American President”, “West Wing” and “Social Network”) commands the viewer’s attention with biting dialogue, a gifted cast, and a flinch-inducing, provocative exploration of American politics. This is not to say that the piercing, no-holds-barred monologues will unite audiences of all political persuasions. If you share Sorkin’s politics, you will watch “The Newsroom” every week in amazement at the tenacity of the script.

Incredibly high stakes are involved:  Who tells us what the truth is?  Who sloppily forgets to get a second verification of facts?  What exactly is involved in news reporting with integrity– under tight deadlines?

The portrayal of personal relationships, however, is a disappointment. Will and MacKenzie as squabbling former lovers are dreary and cringe producing, diminishing their intelligence and professionalism.  The young intern Maggie (Alison Pill) is the love interest for two jealous staff reporters (Thomas Sadoski and John Gallagher Jr.) who should just move on and forget about her. However, Jane Fonda, as the female Ted Turner who owns the network, could prove a wonderfully ruthless foil to electrify the business side of competitive broadcasting in a declining market.  However, Sorkin has yet to exploit Fonda’s potential in this role.

I only hope Aaron Sorkin can keep the monologues at such an intellectually vibrant level, setting the bar so high.  I’d rather watch an edgy show that aims high and sometimes falls short, than one that doesn’t. And I’d rather watch a great screenwriter in action than a run-of-the-mill one.

“The Stoning of Soraya M”–Let He Who Is Without Sin….

“The Stoning of Soraya M. (2009) cuts into the soul with its fierce, unflinching narrative of Soraya Manutchehri, a 35-year-old woman stoned to death in a small Iranian village in 1986 after being convicted of adultery. Her death was the subject of Freidoune Sahebjam’s 2009 novel, La Femme Lapidée, a book banned in Iran.

This award-winning indie film lovingly caresses the beautiful, wounded face of Aunt Zahra (breathtakingly played by the luminous Shohreh Aghdashloo) who is devastated by the stoning of her niece Soraya (perfectly portrayed by Mozhan Marno).  Zahra pleads with a journalist (James Caviezel as Sahebjam)) to tell the world about the outrage which had just taken place the day before. Sahebjam, stranded in the tiny Iranian village where his car is being repaired, does not know what to expect.

Still raw from Soraya’s ignominious end, Zahra unravels the tragedy. Ali, Soraya’s abusive husband, was eager to get rid of his wife so he could marry a fourteen-year old girl.  Wishing to avoid child support for their two young daughters while taking the two young sons with him, Ali concocts a plot to charge Soraya with adultery, punishable by death by stoning.  Blackmailing village leaders to spread false rumors, Ali threatens “witnesses” to testify against her.

Stoning is execution by torture. At various periods throughout history ancient Greeks, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Japanese (among others) practiced stoning. But some of the most disturbing moral issues in “The Stoning of Soraya M” raise fundamental questions of courage in the face of family sacrifice:  how willing are we to come forth and be the bearers of truth in the face of threats to our own loved ones, even when the victim of lies is a close friend? And what happens to the larger community who witnesses and tolerates violence?  Or, to the children who will model  their parents’ behavior and that of other adults in the community?

Soraya M’s situation places the viewer on the receiving end –of a visceral, unnerving experience of stoning, — rather than in a more passive, analytical, removed position.  The astonishing, grisly climax doomed the film’s chances for traditional distribution in the U.S., but the filmmakers insisted realism was essential to call attention to the horror of stoning. I don’t think everyone could watch the camera lingering on the bloody sequence in slow motion. I have never seen such realistic cinematography of an execution, and still can’t figure out how that sequence was filmed. The anger, rage, and frustration at such injustice are a silent scream, palpable in the filmmakers’ voice. If you are not faint of heart, “The Stoning of Soraya M” will remain an unforgettable film that raises uncomfortable, but necessary ethical questions.


Community Colleges– A Change Is On the Way?

California community colleges have some of the lowest tuition fees in the country. And for decades, the community college system has taken great pride in being a “social equalizer”:  operating under several mandates, one of which is to provide inexpensive postsecondary education. But budget cuts have forced campuses to dramatically scale back what they offer. The paradigm has begun to shift. Is it possible our tuition is too low?  How should the community college system follow its other mandate: to prepare students for a career path?  And what about “non-traditional” students interested in “personal development”?

Proposals for two-tiered pricing have just begun…again.  Almost 30 years ago when the state of California’s budget was in budget crisis-mode after the passage of Proposition 13, the state’s community college system experimented with a two-tiered fee schedule:  one for students enrolled for an AA degree and the other for “non-traditional” students.

California’s 112 community colleges have been eviscerated by deep budget cuts, forcing many to turn away an estimated 200,000 this year alone. Tuition levels at the colleges, which serve 2.6 million students, will rise to $46 from $36 this summer. But even after the increase, California’s community colleges will charge less than half the national average in tuition and fees.

That could change if California State Senator Roderick D. Wright gets his way. His proposed Senate Bill 1550 would mandate that all community colleges offer” self-supporting” extension programs focused on technical education or work-force development, a narrower band than the high-demand English and math courses. Senate Bill 1550 would allow community college districts to charge students for the actual costs of the courses, including the cost of instruction, equipment and supplies, student services, instructional support, and administrative overhead (which is considerable). The debate over the legislation is also more complex. One intended objective is to create more seats at community colleges, so students won’t be lured into expensive for-profit degree programs of questionable value.

In our own backyard in Monterey County, the Board of Governors recently voted to approve a new set of rules that prevents students from repeating “activity” courses, such as dance, art, music, and physical education. The rule will begin in August. (See  July 11 Monterey Herald article, “For some community college classes, you get only one shot”)

The curriculum would provide for different levels of achievement in activity classes. In enrolling at beginning, intermediate, and advanced proficiency categories presumably the registration would not be considered a “repeat” of a course and the fee schedule would remain the same for all levels.

But the “different levels of expertise” does not resolve the budget crunch. A two-tiered tuition structure, which does address revenue shortfall, raises fundamental questions about the role and obligations of community colleges. Will the policy essentially block some of the people it is designed to benefit? How are limited taxpayers’ revenues to be allocated for students in degree-granting programs first and for “non-traditional” students second? Since 2008 California’s community college system has lost $809 million in state aid, including $564 million in the most recent budget, even as more students than ever before try to enroll. Many community colleges have reduced class offerings. Santa Monica College has cut more than 1,100 classes from its fall term. Colleges have just maxed out in terms of how many students (both traditional and leisure) they can educate and serve.

I believe we need to consider higher, more realistic and market-driven continuing education fees for those of us who are taking classes for the sheer pleasure of doing so. We should take a more expensive seat in the back of the class and let degree students sit in the front.  Without some kind of fee compromise, the portal to opportunity will not be there for future generations.


“Scottsboro”–The Inexcusable

“Scottsboro: An American Tragedy”  is a 2001 PBS documentary in the American Experience series about the notorious trials of  nine black teenage boys accused of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. The landmark trial magnified rampant racism, denial of a fair trial, and the continued North-South animosity that existed almost 70 years after the Civil War had ended.  The miscarriage of justice on the part of several judges, jurors, and witnesses belies the assumption that justice will prevail in the face of truth and obviously false testimony, including the recanting by one of the victims to all charges. No crime in American history– let alone a crime that never occurred– produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, appeals to the Supreme Court, and  retrials as did the “Scottsboro Boys” case of  March 25, 1931. The series of trials included two separate appeals to the US Supreme Court resulting in two landmark decisions over a fifteen-year period. The first ruling was that adequate legal representation applies to all citizens.  The second ruling declared a constitutional right to a trial by one’s peers, in this case, mandating that the jury include blacks. Spanning the Depression, the Scopes Trial, and the end of World War II, the trial of the Scottsboro Boys foreshadowed the rise of the civil rights movement that would reach a feverish pitch three decades later.

On March 25, 1931, nine black teenage boys, ranging in age from thirteen to nineteen, hopped off a freight train traveling between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee to be accused by two young white women (Victoria Price and Ruby Bates) of rape. Arrested in the small town of Scottsboro, found guilty in a rapid set of kangaroo trials, eight of the nine defendants were sent to be executed by electric chair on July 9, less than three months after the trial ended.  (The thirteen-year-old defendant was considered too young for execution.)

Many Northerners, particularly in Harlem and in the Communist Party, organized street demonstrations supporting the Scottsboro Boys.  The American Communist Party decided to get involved in the battle for equal representation under the Constitution enlisting the renowned lawyer, Sam Leibowitz.  Second only to Clarence Darrow (who was willing to take on the case for the NAACP), Leibowitz was known for his brilliance as an attorney.  But his overreaching self-confidence would be his downfall, failing to anticipate the “Mason Dixon” animosity by the South, and their hatred of Jews and Northerners, as much as their racism towards blacks.  Nonetheless, Sam Leibowitz is a profile in courage.

In October 1932 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Scottsboro trial denied due process to the nine young defendants, who encountered a mob atmosphere and endured poor legal representation.  After a second trial yielded the same verdicts, Leibowitz again appealed, in 1935, arguing that the systematic exclusion of African Americans from jury duty was contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. The US Supreme Court ruled, in an unprecedented decision, that African Americans are entitled to have a jury with black jurors in order to guarantee a trial by one’s peers. Ruby Bates (who had run off to New York City) recanted her testimony, admitting that Victoria Price had bullied her into fabricating rape charges. The jury, however, found all nine defendants guilty as charged, discounting Ruby Bates’ testimony as tainted by her “Northernization”.  Judge James Horton, who had political aspirations to be governor, set aside the verdict and granted a new trial, despite death threats and the annihilation of any political future.  With attorney Sam Leibowitz now relegated to an assistant counsel’s role, a jury—now with one black member—returned a guilty verdict.

Alabama abandoned its legal fight after the second Supreme Court decision, realizing that the cost to the state’s budget and reputation was too high.  Charges were finally dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the remaining five ranged from 75 years to death. All but two served prison sentences. One was shot in the head by a prison guard, suffering irrevocable brain damage. Two escaped, were charged with crimes, and sent back to prison. Clarence Norris, the oldest defendant and the only one sentenced to death, escaped parole and went into hiding in 1946. He was pardoned by Governor George Wallace thirty years later and wrote a book about his experiences. The last surviving defendant, he died in 1989.

The Scottsboro Boys led to the end of all-white juries in the South and served as a core inspiration for the civil rights movement. The case also has been retold in the award winning “Scottsboro Boys: The Musical” on Broadway and is currently at the ACT in San Francisco.  The history and analysis of this case deserves to be in every history book of 20th Century US civics.