Friday, January 21, 2005

Sunrise With the Power Plants

Winter mornings are great in the station. Cherry-red light reflects off the transformers at dawn. Rays of the rising sun tint the steam of Trenton Channel Power Plant peach and rose, and turn the glass insulators atop the transformers a glowing amber.

Trenton Channel, both the plant and the geographic location, are to the east. While sunrise would be pretty without that cute little power plant against the sky, Trenton Channel's twin candy-striped stacks add real charm to the picture. So do the tangle of transmission towers and other equipment, at least to my warped view. The 120kV towers from Trenton Channel are kind of cute in themselves; they have an almost comforting squareness. The 345kV lines coming from the other two plants that feed us are larger, a little menacing, with angular 'arms' and pointy 'ears' (or horns).

Fermi, the sole nuclear plant in the system, is to the south of the station. I can't see it from the station grounds, but I have a view of its cooling towers from an overpass near the station. Before dawn, it looks like Hell itself-- the two hourglass shapes, their tops rimmed with red light, pouring forth greyish vapor like volcanic calderae. Two of its transmission lines run parallel to the freeway as they head to my station; the towers are paired up like two columns of soldiers. With horns.

Inside the station grounds, all you see is the steam, and only then on a very cold day. Unlike the distinct plumes from Trenton Channel's stacks, Fermi steam doesn't look like much at that distance-- just an amorphous white wisp.

It's Monroe, to the southwest, that generates a steam-plume like a mushroom cloud. Monroe is twenty miles away, and while its own twin stacks are eight hundred feet high, I can't see them at all from the station. On a bitterly cold day, though, a white ball-shape rises up, right above the relay house that blocks off my view to the south.

Monroe and Fermi, like the 345kV lines that come from them, have less cheery personalities than Trenton Channel. Fermi is, after all, a nuke plant, and those places aren't cute. Even without its reputation as a money hole and regulatory nightmare, Fermi would look a more than a little ominous. Anyone who has watched The Simpsons or read Bloom County recognizes that hourglass shape for what it is; it's as automatic a signifier of "nukes" as a radiation-triangle symbol or the little Bohr-model whirly atom-thing.

Still, the two cooling towers have a serene, otherworldly beauty, especially when compared to Monroe. Monroe is neither beautiful nor serene, and it is not cute. It is pure industrial might, grey and sleek and incredibly huge, with those skyscraper-high stacks punctuated by white flashing light. Those stacks were the highest structures in the area, taller than any Detroit building, when they were constructed. Monroe, like its skeletal-monster towers marching across the landscape, is stark and scary. Its transmission lines veer to the west and then wheel back toward our station, entering it from the rear.

I'll take Trenton Channel any day. Don't get me wrong, I love being in proximity to all three generating plants, but I'm glad the one I have the best view of is the little cutie, the non-threatening plant with the cozy paint job. Looking out at a Monroe sunrise in the morning would be a lot less enjoyable.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Kelley's Kids: reflections on Shattered Glass

If the events of Shattered Glass were an isolated event, a single case of an entertaining sociopath betraying his friends and profession, it would just be the stuff of a darned good movie. Given all the plagiarism/fabulism/moral halitosis scandals that have percolated up in the years since Glass' exposure in 1998, the film has a cultural context that is worth poking through.

One line at the end of Shattered Glass packs massive dramatic irony in retrospect: a despondent TeNR secretary laments that pictures, which TNR doesn't do, would have saved the magazine its trouble; after all, Glass couldn't have provided piccies of his nonexistent people, could he?

Nice thought. Too bad that didn't stop Jack Kelley. Kelley, the disgraced USA Today writer, a five-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, used pix to his own advantage-- like the time he illustrated a woeful tale of a Cuban refugee who died fleeing for American shores with a portrait of a hotel worker, who later resurfaced very much alive. Sadly, Kelley didn't have to provide graphic images of the infamous Jerusaleum pizza-parlor bombing he claimed to have witnessed; his account of three victims' heads rolling down the street in unison was very much at odds with plausibility, not to mention the actual forensic evidence of the scene.

If Glass was clever enough to concoct a fake newsletter for his fake hacker society (a much better stunt that that legendary "Jukt Micronics" site of his, which is as lame as any site I could have made in '98 using Netscape Navigator), photos would have given him little problem. He may have been exposed sooner than he was, but if TNR had required pix, I'm sure little Steve would have provided 'em.

Glass is also worth examining in context because of the intense racially-slanted analysis of Jayson Blair's journalistic crime spree at the New York Times. I'm not saying race wasn't at all a factor in Blair's rapid advancement and coddling by management, but the rogue's gallery of misbehaving journalists from the past decade cuts across racial, social, religious, and political boundaries.

Stephen Glass: white, well-off (parents from tony Chicago suburb, brother at Stanford, alleged social pressure from parents to practice law like a good boy), Jewish, ideologically unconstrained. Glass wrote for the Kennedy-owned George, for TNR, for the Heritage Foundation... anyone, really.

Ruth Shalit (TNR's other dirty little rotter, aka "La Plagiarista" and "That Darn Ruth"): white, well-off, Jewish, very much on the right side of the political spectrum.

Jack Kelley: white, a publicly devout Christian, allegedly called upon by God to 'proclaim the truth,' and a peddler of vicious stereotypes. Also a generation older than Glass, Blair, or Shalit.

Christopher Newton: nada. I know nothing of this guy, who fabricated bland and useless quotes for the AP. I don't want to look into him, because I cherish the belief he was getting revenge on his bosses at AP for requiring such filler quotes in the first place.

Jayson Blair: Black. Like you had to even ask.

Mike "the Piper" Barnicle: White. Wanted to be for Boston what Mike Royko was to Chicago. Ripped off Royko, and George Carlin, and just plain made stuff up. Recently peddling his tripe on MSNBC. Friend and guest of Don Imus and Chris Matthews-- and friend of the Kennedys and Robert Redford. I dunno what exactly you'd call his politics, but I sure couldn't stand the guy.

Patricia Smith: Black, and Barnicle's fellow columnist at the Boston Glob(e). Invented at least four of the people she quoted and profiled. Passionate about women, blacks, and the poor; also writes poetry.

Jay Forman: tarted up several articles for Slate. Male. Info beyond that is sketchy.

Jeff Jacoby: yet another alum of the Glob. Conservative.

Judith Miller, aka "Miss Suspicious": The center of the whole NYT/WMD fiasco. Most recently seen as a First Amendment martyr, which doesn't exactly compensate for her "wretched reporting" on such a critical story.

And those are just the major cases. We have whites and blacks, Christians and Jews, men and women, and a assortment of political affiliations. ,We have pure fabulists (Glass, Smith, Newton) and a mess of plagiarist/fabulist repeat offenders (Shalit, Blair Barnicle), plus the Very Special case of Miller and her 'sources.'

What do these critters have in common? In the case of Glass, Shalit, Barnicle, and Blair, a common factor is being cosseted by editors in the face of repeated missteps. Shalit was sheltered by Andrew Sullivan, Blair thrived in the climate created by Gerald Boyd and Howell Raines, and Barnicle was kept on at the Globe despite years of accusations against him. Glass was mentored (and enabled) by Michael Kelly, who wasn't corrupt so much as he was too trusting in his wunderbrat staff; Kelly's successor Chuck Lane finally got rid of both The Fabulist and La Plagiarista. As for Jack Kelley, McPaper's internal investigation cited a 'climate of fear' that kept the star journo safe.

Here's the real kicker: Sullivan launched a scathing attack on Raines for not twigging to Blair earlier, despite having gone through the same routine himself with Shalit. And Raines cried foul when Matt Storin at the Globe gave Patricia Smith (far) fewer second chances than he allowed Barnicle. Funny stuff, eh?

Conclusions? It's not about race, that's for sure. A less knee-jerk reaction would be to examine the culture in the newsrooms that produced these blots. That's not consistent, either, though. Sociopathic scribblers have thrived in the bad vibes of Raines' NYT and the USA Today of Kelley's era, and at the cosy Kelly-run New Republic. And what the heck has been going on at the Boston Globe?

And finally, which is the worst of these? Blair's run of deceptions at the NYT caused by far the biggest ruckus, but for my money Jack Kelley and Miller did the worst damage. Miller's badly-sourced columns were influential into leading the US into a messy war (this just in: the WMD search is over ). As for Kelley... a wide audience, critical accolades, and incendiary "issue" stories make for one damaging combination. Remember the one about the Red Crescent ambulance used for a suicide bombing? Remember the one about the Islamist youth pointing to a pic of the Sears Tower and claiming that one was "his" for the targeting? I remember both of those getting wide circulation, and also remember being outraged by the vigilante settlers Kelley profiled. Kelley, it seems, made them all up. In a hysterical, divisive political climate, Kelley manufactured graphic stories that played up to people's worst fears and suspicions. Maybe he thought he was being "objective" because he inflamed people on both sides of the Israel/Palestine issue.

All of them are scum, really (though I have a soft spot for my interpretation of Newton's AP fabrications). But Jack Kelley is in a different class from the slimy little kiddies who got so much attention.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Shattered Glass: the best movie of 2003 you didn't see

I finally watched Shattered Glass, which had been on my must-see list since its release in 2003, over the weekend. It's a gem of a film, one that did things right, and the things it did right are things Hollywood blockbusters (especially biopics) don't even aspire to. I watched The Aviator weekend before last, and while it was fun, it wasn't breathtaking in the way Shattered Glass was. I'm glad I did see it, and on the big screen at that, but I have no burning desire to see it again and will not be rushing out to by the DVD. Simply put, Mr. Scorsese and his all-star cast did not achieve the brilliant end result of SG's writer-director Billy Ray (who?) and his ensemble of low-key players, some of whom are best known for turns in very bad movies. It's not that I can single out Scorsese's film for major flaws, either-- it was long, but it didn't seem long, it was well-acted, it didn't descend into psychobabble-- it just wasn't a great movie, and I think Shattered Glass is one.

I also think Shattered Glass may be a better film than All the President's Men, which has always been one of my top fave films. It's shorter, tighter, less suffused with solemn import-- on one level, it's almost a black comedy. Now, a film about cracking the Watergate case may be permitted more self-importance than a film about busting a slimy little weasel of a "journalist," but a recent re-viewing of ATPM wasn't the thrill ride I remembered it being. Shattered Glass has the thrills: it's more suspense film than biopic, and it generates that suspense even when you know going into the film that the title character, disgraced journo Stephen Glass, is going to take a fall. That's a neat trick, and Ray and company pull off the even neater trick of making the protagonist (Glass) and antagonist (Glass' fellow reporter at The New Republic, Chuck Lane) switch roles halfway through the film. Kudos to Hayden Christensen (Glass) and Peter Sarsgaard (Lane) for pulling that one off.

As I mentioned above, the actors here are not big stars: none of that Dustin Hoffman/Robert Redford or Leo DiCaprio/Cate Blanchett jazz here, and no Jude Law turning up in a bit part either. Those who are 'names' are playing against type: dig Rosario Dawson as a businesslike writer for Forbes Digital Tool. The characters themselves are mostly confined to the 'real' people involved: TNR personnel Glass, Lane, plus editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) and owner Marty Peretz; Forbes people Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), Kambiz Foroohar (Cas Anvar), and Andie Fox (Dawson). Note that Foroohar's ethnicity isn't white-washed for filmic purposes; it makes for a refreshing touch of realism, and shows up the contrast between the lily-white world of TNR and that of Forbes' online mag.

Two characters are lightly fictionalized, though: Glass' real-life confidant Hanna Rosin is Americanized, Anglicized, and made blonde; her character "Caitlin Avey" is played by Chloe Sevigny, and you can read a bemused review of the film by Rosin's real life husband here. Another friend and sometime co-writer of Glass' receives a sex change, as Jonathan Chait becomes "Amy Brand" (played by Melanie Lynskey, who apparently looks just like Chait!). That one's creepy, given the way Glass kinda-sorta hits on Amy in the film while protesting his heterosexuality.

Outisde of the two composite characters mentioned above, Shattered Glass stays with the facts of the story; Ray's script was based off a (apparently definitive) Vanity Fair article. Ray didn't need to alter the timeline or radically alter characterization to make a successful film, which is another refreshing change from the fact-mangling one expects from a biopic. Even when the factual story is film-worthy in itself, filmmakers can rarely resist the opportunity to make mindboggling changes. I submit VH1's execrable Monkees flick Daydream Believers and the fun but flawed Beatle-pic Backbeat as examples of bizarre, unnecessary fictionalizing. Nor is SG saddled with a "message" more weighty than the basic story can bear. The message here is simple: journalism does not equal making stuff up. Editing a publication does not equal defending your errant writers at all cost. No excuses. That's a darned good message.

One reviewer compared watching this film to the experience of a good public stoning. I'd almost want to see a similar flogging of Ruth Shalit (TNR's other 'kiddie sociopath'), Jack Kelley, Mike Barnicle, Jayson Blair, and the rest of the plagiarist-fabulist hall of shame, but the Glass saga is probably the most cinematic of the lot. The gripping cat-and-mouse interplay between Forbes and TNR, between Glass and Lane, probably can't be duplicated elsewhere. Still, it'd be nice to see La Plagiarista and the rest flayed onscreen.