Monthly Archives: February 2009

FBI Reports Rise In Backstabbings; Economy, Ass-Kissers Blamed

(Editor’s note: I originally wrote this for The Walnut, the satirical business site I operated back in blogging’s stone age: 2002. Unfortunately, it still works with the slightest of updates. Mueller’s still even the FBI director).

WASHINGTON — Signaling a troubling rise in metaphorical violence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week reported a dramatic surge in the number of backstabbings — the first time in more than a decade that crime category has experienced an increase.

According to statistics compiled by the FBI, more than 337,000 backstabbings were reported to law enforcement authorities during the second half of 2008, a 49% increase from 2007. Of those, more than 185,000 were aggravated backstabbings, requiring the victim to seek treatment at a bar during work or even stay home the following day.

“This is the first increase in backstabbings since the height of the last recession in 2001, so there is little doubt that the economy is to blame,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said at a recent press conference. “In desperate times people will do anything to get ahead, often kissing the asses of people they never dreamed of kissing in the past. Unfortunately, that means no one in the halls of corporate America is safe.”

FBI Director Robert Mueller demonstrates the appropriate hand motion for a successful backstabbing.

FBI Director Robert Mueller demonstrates the appropriate hand motion for a successful backstabbing.

Firms employing 100 people or more are particularly dangerous havens for backstabbers, according to Anton Waxman, a professor of office politics at Emory University in Atlanta. Journalists, entertainment executives and attorneys are most vulnerable to attacks. “These people can’t get out of bed in the morning without having to watch their backs,” he said. “That probably explains why they’re so damned cranky.”

Mr. Mueller noted that backstabbing is a particularly despicable crime, because few victims are unaware it has been perpetrated on them until severe career damage has been inflicted. Moreover, their peers are typically unsympathetic, often believing they invited the attack upon themselves. Thousands of such crimes go unreported every year as a result.

“This leaves the backstabbed feeling like they’ve been victimized twice,” the FBI’s Mr. Mueller said. “That’s no doubt borne out by the horrible feelings I’ve had every time I committed such an act myself.”

To deter such crimes, professor Wexler suggests avoiding workplace situations that appear dark and murky. He also recommends eschewing eye-contact with other employees at all times, and never entrusting them with valuable personal information.

“Back-stabbings will happen no matter what, but you can reduce their probability of occurrence by interacting with other human beings as little as possible,” he said. “Take your cue from your supervisor.”

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Hurry Up And…@#%&! WAIT?!?!

Although the stimulus package is now being parceled out, the talking heads at the top of the food chain are still grumbling that something remains terribly amiss. Why isn’t the economy perking up in the same way Dorothy opened the door of her home and glided from the black-and-white burg of (Depression-era) Kansas into the Technicolor realm of Oz?

We move in a world where you can tweet or text and expect instant virtual results. However, real life still insists on functioning, oh, something like real life.
As a small consolation, we do have Munchkins — our endless talking heads — and they indeed yammer a mile-a-minute in a helium-soaked screech. But since our Munchkins are more demented than gentle, they get misty-eyed that the witch was cut down in the prime of life, and fret over who would buy a house with a damaged foundation.

February 23 was a great example of such insanity. As the stock market tumbled 250 points, the Associated Press declared the recession “had no end in sight.” There were similar doomsayers all over the television, well into the night.

Which was funny, because AP’s buddies over at CNN Money knew when the recession was going to end. CNN quoted a new survey of leading economists by the National Association of Business Economics. It concluded growth would resume by the middle of the year. And 2010 would bring a solid recovery. Only when Federal Reserve Bank Chair Ben Bernanke echoed the survey findings to Congress the following day – something the media chose to pay attention to – did the market react positively.
I guess a four or five-month wait is just too much to bear. After all, the Great Depression only lasted 12 years.
Yet that pesky stock market could still dip again, particularly if rumors that the government may take over CitiBank and/or Bank of America persist. After having their free-market disciples run their operations into the ground for a quick buck, any person who believes the federal government could do a worse job is simply delusional. Thus spake the big traders who drive the market, patriots of the highest order.

My theory was proven by Rick Santelli, CNBC commentator and classic dumbass who is perennially confused as to which job is which. The former trader whipped the pit of the Chicago Commodities Exchange into a froth by equating the stimulus package to a rip-off all the millions of hard-working people who selflessly have never asked for anything.

“Why don’t you put up a Website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages. Or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water?” Santelli asked his fellow-traveling pit traders. They cheered him on just as surely as they would hawk their infant daughters on Craigslist.

Santelli is drawing a paycheck for this garbage, despite the fact that the stimulus plan has overwhelming public support.

The mainstreamers haven’t been much better.

Maureen Dowd, who traded actual analysis for snark some time ago and is apparently allergic to conducting interviews, entitled her New York Times column over the weekend “Dark, Dark, Dark.” She declared that America is taking “A bullet train to bankruptcy.” I like that. Nice alliteration, and a bit of irony, given our woeful lack of bullet trains. Perhaps Japan, with a surfeit of such trains, is taking an anime spaceship to bankruptcy?

Then there was Dowd colleague Paul Krugman, who actually admitted that things were being done to fight the recession, and we would indeed pull out. However, he was worried that stagnant growth could last five or six years.  He didn’t mention some of the potential upsides: reducing personal debt; a chance to retool toward creating a greener infrastructure; and creating better jobs than the crap retail and service positions the economy has been churning out for the past two decades. If a miraculously strong recovery occurs by the end of the year, we’ll be back to stuffing our homes and garages with flat-screen TVs and SUVs, racking up more debt, and getting right back on track for that permanent screwing many of us richly deserve.

Speaking of permanency, even the Great Depression didn’t last forever. And despite the incessant chatter otherwise, this is not your grandfather’s depression. Bear in mind: national unemployment is still below 8%, and the overall drop in GDP has been little more than 2%. I’ve provided some charts on the Great Depression for comparison below. They’re courtesy of the people who brought you PowerPoint, the single greatest force in the history of mankind for eliminating thoughtful analysis and even middling attention spans. Which explains a hell of a lot.

About a 30% drop in GDP in just four years.

About a 30% drop in GDP in just four years.

A peak unemployment rate above 25%.

A peak unemployment rate above 25%.

A calamitous drop in business investment.

A calamitous drop in business investment.

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A Questionable Time

Journalism Experts: Magazine Exercised Poor Judgment, Taste with Online Feature

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of a major embarrassment for Time Magazine: its decision to darken O.J. Simpson’s booking photo when he was arrested for murder. The manipulated mugshot was published on the cover of Time’s June 28, 1994 issue.

The magazine came under withering criticism from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations. Time quickly issued a plaintive though conditional mea culpa. “Every major news outlet routinely crops and retouches photos to eliminate minor, extraneous elements, so long as the essential meaning of the picture is left intact,” then-Managing Editor James R. Gaines explained in the next issue of the magazine.

Those essential meanings must have been overlooked when Time published on its website earlier this week a list and photos of 25 people it believes most responsible for the current financial crisis.

The printed content was okay, giving brief but concise analysis linking its picks to our current woes.

However, Time superimposed the photos of the 25 people on horizontal “height lines” used to measure criminal suspects when their booking photos are taken. It also almost certainly pasted their faces onto the bodies of other people (I couldn’t get an answer from the magazine). In its portrayal, former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, R-TX, is wearing a suit so much nattier than his normal attire I thought a group of conservative Republicans had surreptitiously lobbied Bravo to revive “Queer Eye.”

Former Sen. Phil Gramm, shilling for John McCain during the presidential campaign, wearing his normal nondescript attire.

Former Sen. Phil Gramm, shilling for John McCain during the presidential campaign, wearing his normal nondescript attire.

Phil Gramm in Time's rendition, apparently vying for a revival of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Phil Gramm in Time's rendition, apparently vying for a revival of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

But if this was a photographic stab at satire, why not put the figures in jail stripes or clown attire instead of business suits, which is just a version of what they normally wear anyway? And why accompany doctored photos with such matter-of-fact copy?

Larry Pryor, a former editor at the Los Angeles Times and now a professor who teaches online journalism at the University of Southern California, was dismayed at Time’s work. “The photos all appear to have been Photoshopped. The heads and bodies don’t match, giving them a curious, unnatural tension, like they (are) suspects squirming in guilt,” he said.

“This should have been published as an editorial cartoon instead,” said Kent Kirkton, director of the Center for Photojournalism and Visual History at California State University, Northridge and chair of the university’s journalism department. Kirkton added that many readers of the feature may not have been aware of the specific purpose of the setting, given the horizontal booking lines are only labeled for height in a group montage.

Kirkton believes Time took itself off the ethical hook by labeling the pictures photo illustrations.  This follows the ethical code of the Society of Professional Journalists regarding photos. However, the code also includes such admonishments that photos “not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context,” and “never distort the content of news photos or video.”

Nonetheless, Kirkton still dismissed the feature as “junk journalism.”

Ed Wasserman, Knight professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University and a former columnist and editor with the Miami Herald and editorial director of Media Central, believes the intent of the feature is fairly clear as satire. “They’re being held up to ridicule,” he said.

However, Wasserman, Pryor and Kirkton all agree that the Time feature was in terrible taste. Wasserman was greatly offended by the poll that accompanied the feature: vote on whether each individual is “guilty” or “innocent” of damaging the economy.

“Although the pictorial was lame, I could live with it,” Wasserman said. “What I don’t like is this…bogus poll that they’ve attached to it, based on this distorted summary of supposed wrongdoings that are based on immensely complicated patterns of behavior. I find that sort of populist referendum objectionable; it gives (Website visitors) a false sense of public participation.” He noted that such a poll creates a feeling that participants are getting an opportunity to “lynch” the people on the list.

Former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo's standard corporate mugshot.

Former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo's standard corporate mugshot.

Pryor didn’t directly equate this feature with the darkening of O.J. Simpson’s booking photo, but he said the comparison was telling.

“If anyone of color had participated in that editorial decision, the photo would not have been used, much less darkened,” Pryor said by e-mail of the O.J. blot. “I’m not up on what Time’s staff looks like these days, but from reading the online product, it would seem the lack of diversity has been more than compensated for by hiring young guns who revel in failure and humiliation … or maybe it’s just one prolific idiot. But it does give one the sense that the Web features are written by (a) cubicle of preppies raised on Mad Magazine.”

Time’s conduct went beyond a potential SPJ code violation, Pryor suggested. Only one person portrayed among the 25 — Bernard Madoff — is facing criminal charges. The others will certainly never face arrest or prosecution for their economy-related (mis)deeds.

In Time's rendition, Mozilo's body is shrunken, and he wears an ill-fitting suit.

In Time's rendition, Mozilo's body is shrunken, and he wears an ill-fitting suit.

“It’s way beyond bad taste and stupidity. I suspect some of the 25 might at least want to chat with a libel lawyer,” he said.

Anthony M. Glassman, a noted Los Angeles libel attorney, likely won’t represent any potential clients that might arise from this incident. The feature, according to Glassman, “would appear to be non-actionable opinion based on disclosed facts from which their readers can make their own judgment,” he said in an e-mail response.

Time spokeswoman Betsy Burton declined to answer questions. Not surprising, since my roles as snarky blogger and rather obscure journalist automatically relegate my concerns to the pay-no-heed file. But I wonder if Burton would take the same tack if I was actually employed by a mainstream publication?

More troubling is why the dwindling number of colleagues who enjoy such a rarefied position in the world haven’t been asking these questions.

Whether or not Time replicated its O.J. faux pas, will it continue down this potentially precipitous path? They actually do a lot of things right in the online realm: the crisp design of their website is one of the few that successfully replicates the tone of its printed product (the New York Times is the other such standout). However, Time has stumbled with its gimmicky “Best and Worst Lists” section (from which the “25 most to blame” feature was birthed). It exists solely to titillate and amuse readers. Some of its pieces, such as the “50 worst cars of all time,” written by the wickedly witty L.A. Times automotive writer Dan Neil, are informative and well worth reading. But most, like the “Top 10 Celebrity Twitter Feeds,” or “Romance, Movie Style,” are a mockery of competent journalism.

Wasserman believes that publications such as Time are not only under pressure to keep readers, but also communicate to the younger sections of their audience that they’re hip and cool in the same way as “The Daily Show,” Comedy Central’s highly popular sendup of news.

“Print publications, magazines and even newspapers seem to have this notion that ‘we have to be telling the news with more attitude…a bit of flair and swagger,’” Wasserman observed, adding that more publications are printing analysis pieces that go beyond traditional straight reporting. But aside from the blogs and other online supplements that have become staples of online journalism, Wasserman was unable to provide an example that correlates to the tone of the recent Time feature.

And let’s face a salient fact: “Daily Show” anchor Jon Stewart regularly notes that the news reporting he produces – as hilarious and insightful as it may be – is fake. Time isn’t in that business. Yet.

Kirkton thinks that the rising tensions between producing news and revenue while hanging onto readers is creating the type of ethical laxity that permitted this feature to appear.

“When the commerce becomes so important, other constraints, such as the truth and ethics, kind of disappear,” he said, later adding, “all the rules aside, the main purpose of photojournalism is to tell the truth. This feature doesn’t tell the truth, and it’s not funny. So what was its point?”

Perhaps Time would do well to heed its recent story by its former managing editor Walter Isaacson, “How to Save Your Newspaper.” Although it was not a departure from his typical long-windedness (he grandly succeeded a few years back in making Benjamin Franklin dull), it did have a few good points. Among them: come up with a reliable system to charge for online content, because journalists “must produce things that people actually value.”

Which makes me wonder: what would Time have charged its audience for this questionable exercise in photo arts and crafts? To paraphrase that noted social critic William Shatner: name your price.

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Fight of the Long Knives

Barack Obama hit the campaign trail, reached across the aisle, talked tough when he needed to, and got a nearly $800-billion stimulus package to help the economy. It’s a victory that could spell his doom.

Hopefully, as Obama maintains his unruffled mien, he’s learning a valuable lesson that never quite stuck to Slick Willy: The Republicans reject evolution, but relish Darwinism.

The Repubs to a man (and their few women) play long-knife politics – a willingness to do anything to destroy their opponent, their own destructiveness be damned.

That’s among the reasons why the Republican leadership issued such statements during the stimulus package debate as this one from Republican Congressional Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia: “You can call it a safety net bill, a relief bill. It was a spending bill,” he said. That more than disingenuously linked the stimulus to a welfare state that exists only in the narrow recesses of his mind.

long-knife tactics are in order.

Obama: long-knife tactics are in order.

Such swinish conduct is a mostly brainless play to the base. Although that base would never consider voting for someone who isn’t a Repub themselves, this faction keeps shrill, relentless pressure on their elected reps. They always suggest they’ll vote for that nice, clean-cut crypto-Fascist next time around if they don’t get their way. The Repubs’s knee-jerk response to such empty-headed hysteria is why a functional illiterate like Joe the Plumber can actually lecture Ivy League-educated Congressional aides.

So, Obama and the Democrats do what they do best when unfairly attacked: they backed down. Tax cuts were tossed in, and $100 billion has been trimmed from the $789 billion package. According to the Washington Post, Moodys.com says that the pared-down package will create only 2.2 million jobs between now and 2010, leaving unemployment rates at double-digit levels.

I’m not quite sure how you can create that many jobs and have the unemployment rate go up by more than two percentage points from its current level of 7.6%. Perhaps the Post eliminated its newsroom calculator as part of a cost reduction campaign.

So, throw out that math, but keep the date in mind: 2010. That’s where the Repubs have their eyes. They hope that if the stimulus package was diluted enough, the economy will remain sluggish by mid-term elections. Then they can paint Obama as an incompetent and snatch back enough Congressional seats to derail plans he might have for energy policy, healthcare reform and all the other non-cosmetic damage left by the previous White House tenant.

Paul Krugman of the New York Times got the Repub venality and the weak-kneed compromise correct in yesterday’s column. However, he ended being weak-kneed himself, complaining of “a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” and trying to channel William Butler Yeats. For some reason I began feeling ill myself.

Krugman did call for Obama to be stronger, an amusing request because he got where he is by being composed of steel. What he actually needs to be is meaner. And if Obama doesn’t want to do it himself, he should promptly delegate.

Certainly Obama is intelligent enough to know that the center and left are still burdened by the concept of fair play. Indeed, that’s why there hasn’t been a Long Knife Democrat since Lyndon Johnson. His demons drove him to stomp on anyone who meandered into his extraordinarily coarse way. One example: during a Congressional campaign, Johnson wanted to infer his opponent was particularly enthusiastic about consorting with barnyard animals. Johnson acknowledged to his campaign manager that this smear wasn’t true, but he wanted to put him in the position of having to deny it anyway. Sound familiar?

Johnson was repellent to the end, but look how much he accomplished as President: The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, appointment of the first black Supreme Court Justice, and Vietnam (what is it with Texans and unnecessary wars?).

Of course, Obama’s a far, far, smoother operator than Johnson. He needs to be. How far would race relations be reversed if he replicated some of LBJ’s more endearing Oval Office moments: showing off surgical scars to reporters, lifting family dogs by their ears, or phoning his tailor to ensure his trousers are given a generous crotch?

Lyndon Johnson shows off his surgical scars to White House reporters.

Bottomless charm: Lyndon Johnson shows off his surgical scars to White House reporters.

However, if Obama doesn’t want to exit the White House in 2013 as Jimmy Carter incarnate, he needs to empower his people with some subtle Long Knife moves. I make my (mostly tongue-in-cheek) suggestions here:

1. Hire a crackerjack hacker and stick him on some secret CIA payroll. I don’t mean some dumb 20-something who can get into Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! account. I’m talking about an expert at slipping child porn onto a home computer while anonymously alerting the FBI. Imagine the amusement that can be had with Clarence Thomas or John Boehner.

2. Rebrand tax cuts. The Repubs had a field day in the early days of the Bush Administration with the estate tax. They successfully pushed for its repeal by calling it the “death tax.” Not a single Democrat had the wit to rebrand it as the “brat tax,” which is who it actually benefits: spoiled kids of the wealthy. That last word should be the mantra of a tax-cut rebranding campaign: “Wealthy welfare.” It’s pithy, appropriately denigrating, and easy to remember. If that term came up every time some Repub called for another tax cut in lieu of thoughtful fiscal policy, they would shut up. At least for a while.

3. Don’t forget Larry Flynt. The head of the Hustler empire is crude and grotesque, but he’s also tied Jerry Falwell in knots, and forced two conservative Congressmen to resign because he outed their extracurricular activities. How many Democrats can make such boasts?

4. Use the IRS. Nixon was the first president to employ this tactic, and it was thus considered guilty by association. But given that Obama’s cabinet nominees continue to have their tax payment habits very publicly aired – no doubt aided by Repub leakers – this practice should no longer be considered off-limits.

Perhaps the economy will rise to the stimulus, and smack the Repubs into temporary silence. Then, Obama can remain on the high road well into a second term.

But just in case, it’s high time to put on the sheathes and get out the whetstone.

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A-Roid and the Ink-Stained Kvetches

Thank God Alex Rodriguez just copped to using steroids. I was beginning to think this recession story had dragged on for too long.

Along with his proclivity for strippers, the slum apartments he owns in Florida, and his belief that Madonna is his “soul mate,” Rodriguez is merely showing he’s in lockstep with the heartwarming judgment exercised by this nation over the past decade. What’s next – buying some Petco franchises with Michael Vick?

Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez misses the signs.

Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez misses the sign.

Despite confessing his sins to ESPN, A-Rod still portrayed himself as the victim. He claimed he turned to performance enhancers because he was under pressure to perform to the level of his record contract he signed with the Texas Rangers in 2000. He also said he stopped taking them shortly before he was traded to the Yankees – coincidentally at almost the same time Major League baseball began imposing penalties for steroids use.

Hmm. Would A-Rod’s move from the backwater of Arlington, Tex. to the New York media scrum and the modest expectations of George Steinbrenner permit him to shed his self-doubt? I wonder if his ex-wife buys that story.

But I digress. What really matters here are the hypocritical harrumphs made by the nation’s sportswriters over the past five years, since Major League Baseball decided to impose penalties for steroid use.
The scribes have stayed on an incessant message: baseball is forever tainted by the steroid scandal. It has been systematically destroying itself.

Very rarely have the writers let this inconvenient fact get in the way: overall Major League baseball attendance has set new records over the past five seasons. MLB also rakes in another $65 million a year just from people willing to pay to watch or listen to games over the Internet, making it one of the few successful providers of paid media content. Here is a case study on on how the news business could run its web operations.

But the consensus is that of Yahoo! national baseball columnist Jeff Passan, who actually acknowledged the MLB numbers, then promptly dismissed them. “Revenues and attendance don’t make a renaissance,” he grumbled. This is an extraordinary denial of reality. Major League Baseball is a business, and as distasteful as some of its employees are, it’s also been wildly successful in servicing its customer base. Passan and his colleagues won’t even deign to do likewise.

The “big picture” painted by the media about steroids damaging the game is grotesquely inaccurate. The fans care neither about steroids in baseball nor what the media has to say about it. The ink-stained kvetches’ obstinacy in the face of these facts might be condemned in the Columbia Journalism Review if it wasn’t expending all its column inches trying to figure out why newspapers are going bust.

At least Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Dwyre still cares. He has employed the shrillest voice since the A-Rod news broke. Dwyre also edited the Times’s sports pages between 1981 and 2006.

“The ideal response is that the consumer takes all this as the final straw, stops going to games and watching on TV and sends Major League Baseball into the same economic black hole currently occupied by the rest of the country,” he shrieked about the A-Rod scandal. Oh, and then he got huffy.

Former L.A. Times sports editor Bill Dwyre.

Shrieker-in-Chief: Former L.A. Times sports editor Bill Dwyre.

Dwyre demanded 90-day suspensions for all the players who tested positive for steroids in 2003. He also wanted to “place an asterisk on the plaque of any enhancement-drug user who gets in” the Baseball Hall of Fame. Would that include all the 1950s and 60s-era players who popped pep pills? Or every Prohibition-era player who took a slug before they took the field? You were an editor at a major newspaper, Bill. Shouldn’t you insist on clarity? Many of the headlines that were published when you ran the Times’s sports pages were quite clear:

“64! 65! Sosa ties McGwire with two homers.” (Sept. 24, 1998).
“Whack! Baseball’s flagging image is…outta here!” (Sept. 5, 1998).
“McGwire’s blast could be right out of Hollywood.” (Sept. 26, 1998).
“In Summer of 62, baseball back as national pastime.” (Sept. 11, 1998).

The Times and every other print outlet lionized Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire for what turned out to be a home run race on, er, steroids. The pair were single-handedly credited with reviving the game after the disastrous 1994 strike.
Indeed, when reports surfaced that McGwire had been taking the steroid gateway drug androstenedione – which had already been banned by the National Football League and the International Olympic Committee – the sportswriters all but brushed it aside. That attitude was briefly in line with reality: only the rare prodigy who can hit or pitch a 95-mph fastball on the hands will succeed in professional baseball. Steroids are of no help at all with that.

Only when McGwire and his colleagues were made to squirm in front of the House Committee for Government Oversight and Reform – the spring training site for ambitious politicians – did the media wag its collective finger. However, the huge ongoing success MLB has had in marketing itself suggests that people like Dwyre are awfully lonely in this assertion.

For good or ill, A-Roid will continue to draw crowds. They may even come in greater numbers than before, particularly as he inches closer to breaking the all-time home run record. Can the same be said for the dwindling number of people paid to watch him?

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Los Feliz Haunt

(Editor’s Note: I was working against the clock on this piece, well aware that the L.A. Times’s inestimable cityside reporter Bob Pool had worked up a long takeout, which was published as today’s Column One feature. Pool’s article had been held for weeks, the result of a painfully pinched newshole. I kept my fingers crossed, but these things happen. I do have some photos of the property, and a more contemplative angle.)

There are a lot of haunted houses in Los Angeles.

I don’t mean infested with ghosts and vampires. I mean an event has occurred on the premises so horrific that no one is ever comfortable living within its walls again.

L.A.’s two most famous haunted houses were the scenes of the Tate-La Bianca murders, committed 40 years ago this August. The house on Cielo Drive in Bel-Air where Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered had tenants shuffle in and out for a quarter century after the carnage, with Trent Reznor among its last lessees. It was torn down in the mid-1990s and replaced with a 16,000-square-foot behemoth you can see from miles away. Even with the old house gone, it took more than a year to sell the property, as I recall the defunct New Times Los Angeles reporting. One would-be buyer from Saudi Arabia apparently backed out at the last minute, after being erroneously informed that hundreds of people had been killed there.

The Los Feliz home where Leno and Rosemary La Bianca were stabbed to death still stands, but it’s changed hands many times. It also sports a different address, to keep away the curious.

No such obstacles prevent looky-loos from visiting another haunted property that’s just a short drive from the former La Bianca residence. It’s nestled in a cul-de-sac on the 2400 block of Glendower Place.

The mansion on the 2400 block of Glendower Pl. has obviously been vacant for decades.

The mansion on the 2400 block of Glendower Pl. has obviously been vacant for decades.

The beige Spanish-style house was built in 1925 and is enormous – more than 5,000 square feet, according to public records. It commands a gorgeous view of the Hollywood flatlands, reachable only by several steep and staggered stairways. The only home in the neighborhood with a more imposing presence is the fabled Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis House, which looms over the Glendower home’s surprisingly small backyard.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a horrible murder-suicide that occurred there. According to the Los Angeles Times of Dec. 7, 1959, 50-year-old physician Harold N. Perelson killed his 42-year-old wife Lillian with a hammer while she slept. He also attacked his 18-year-old daughter. When his two younger children awoke to screaming, Perelson told them it was a nightmare, and that they should go back to sleep. They complied.

The older daughter fled to a neighbor’s house. That neighbor went to confront Perelson. By the time the police arrived, Perelson was dead himself, having ingested poison.

The living room of the Glendower house.

The living room of the Glendower house, photographed through a dirty window screen.

The Glendower property is the kind producers, mini-real estate moguls and neurosurgeons salivate over, even in the current down market. But it’s obvious by peering into the grime-caked windows of this manse that it’s been vacant for decades.

In a front room of the house, many plastic bowls sit on sheets of newspaper, which in turn covers either long-rotted carpet or wood. At first I thought they were for feeding pets, but then I realized the flat roof in that section of the house leaks like a sieve. A vintage radio sits on a shelf on the far wall behind the bowls. Most of the pieces of furniture visible in the rambling manse have long been covered with dusty sheets. Two yellow-vinyl wing chairs in the living room looked particularly garish, until I realized they were quite the style in the 1950s, which is probably the last time they were used. A back room is filled with old LPs, an ancient television, and a board game called “Table Tennis,” which looks nearly pristine, even though its graphics suggest it was produced eons ago.

Bowls in a front room; probably to capture water from a leaky roof.

Bowls in a front room. They probably capture water from a leaky roof.

There is a sadness in this unused home and its aging contents, particularly in light of the facts, of which there are few beyond the obvious. The L.A. Times of the 1950s was still a reactionary rag that had yet to practice serious journalism. Its first-day story of the tragedy ended on a singularly useless note: the names of the Los Angeles Police Department detectives who were first to arrive on the scene. It did mention that Harold Perelson had been experiencing some financial difficulties. Even in its current diminished state, the Times delved far deeper into the recent murder-suicide of the Lupoe family (and all the other murder suicides of recent years).

An unconfirmed rumor circulated in the years after the Glendower tragedy: Harold Perelson had been discreetly committed by his wife for depression, then reacted violently when he was released, certain the news of his hospitalization would wreck his Inglewood medical practice. This was an era when even medical professionals would deal with mental health issues through doses of Milltown and a staff upper lip, and wives were often discouraged — sometimes violently — from taking serious family matters into their own hands.

An ancient television and board game (far right), sit in a back room.

An ancient television and board game (far right), sit in a back room.

I tried to revisit the Perelson tragedy myself, locating what I believed to be Harold Perelson’s son Joel, who is living in New York (I couldn’t find the two other Perelson children). Joel was 13 when his parents died; he would be in his 60s now. It was a tough phone call to make. Not quite as tough as some of the obit calls I made as a cub reporter, but nor was it something I was itching to do.

After the line rang perhaps 10 times, I received one of those robotic answering machine messages: “Hello. No one is here to take your call. Please call again later.” I was then cut off. A second call I made the following day was met with the same result. It was exactly the kind of message you would expect to hear from a home where someone did not want to be disturbed by outsiders. Ever.

The Ennis House looms over the Glendower property's backyard.

The Ennis House looms over the Glendower property's backyard.

The only professional trace that remains of Joel’s father was an article he published in the Southern Medical Journal in August 1947. It was entitled: “Occipital Nerve Tenderness: A Sign of Headache.”

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Clichéd unemployment reporting now underway!

I was wondering when my local paper, the Los Angeles Times, would dust off the most shopworn of journalistic practices during a recession: visiting the local unemployment office. Such articles do little more than assay the desperation of the people using the services, and throw in a quote or two from the office staff about how busy it’s been. They provide little a dwindling pool of newspaper readers doesn’t already know.

Then they all rolled in at once: Times columnists Sandy Banks and Steve Lopez published essentially the same stories over the weekend, visiting California Employment Development Department (EDD) offices in the San Fernando Valley. Although the Times just announced plans to axe its local/California section, the city editors may have already departed.

The same might be said for the copy desk, given this doozy of an observation by Lopez: “I feel for the first time in my life that most of us are one piece of bad news away from the abyss. As I write this, another round of layoffs is being announced by my employer, and a cloud that never moves too far away has darkened another day.”

staring down an abyss, or another deadline?

Steve Lopez: staring down an abyss, or another movie deal?

Lopez’s Points West column is mostly rock-solid, and is arguably the most visible and popular feature in the Times. That’s supported by the fact the paper regularly runs ads showing him in a crosswalk just yards from his office, appearing to stalk either eternal truth or a Frappuccino. In April, Lopez will be portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. in “The Soloist,” which is based on his reporting about a homeless man who is a Juilliard-trained musician (Jamie Foxx).

If your paper’s marketing campaign is designed around you and you have a movie coming out based on your work that’s packed with Oscar-winning and nominated actors, a personal abyss is unlikely unless you commence smoking crack or molesting children. It would have been more intellectually honest had Lopez acknowledged that reality in his column, but then he wouldn’t have been able to file prose as purple as an eggplant.

Banks’s column wasn’t much of an improvement. She reported the recession was hitting the middle-class very hard, but inextricably tied its plight into the recent murder-suicide of a local family committed by unemployed x-ray technician Ervin Lupoe, who gunned down his wife and five children.

“His predicament – deeply in debt, jolted by job loss, despondent over his family’s future – is becoming a familiar story,” Banks wrote. This description is at odds with her own newspaper’s reporting that the Lupoes’s financial situation “did not appear particularly dire” and that their credit card bills were paid up. Banks also filled many, many paragraphs before getting around to mentioning that Lupoe and his wife lost their jobs with Kaiser Permanente not because of the economic environment but because they falsified documents to obtain discounted child-care. Derangement, not despondency, was Ervin Lupoe’s operative emotion.

Banks is more on point when she describes the pricey vehicles many of the office’s patrons were driving. But then she recalled the unemployment her late husband suffered during the 1981-82 recession. Even though he eventually segued out of social work and into a more lucrative career in sales, Banks noted the experience “exhausted our savings, strained our relationship and stole our youthful optimism.” Oy.

Sandy Banks, some 28 years removed from youthful optimism.

Sandy Banks, some 28 years removed from youthful optimism.

Both stories were acutely lacking in analysis. Lopez ticked off the former occupations of the job-seekers: construction, sales, animal hospital receptionist, Wal-Mart clerk, waiter, telemarketer, managing director, etc. He didn’t note that most of those positions are held by people without a college education, and are therefore going to have a tenuous economic toehold during both busts and booms. He ended the story on a slight up-note, discussing how a frequent EDD patron had come up with a great idea to help his fellow unemployed, but added a snarky remark on how the man can tell a growth industry when he sees one.

Neither Banks or Lopez bothered to ask any EDD employees what the impact will be when their offices are closed two days a month and they will suffer a corresponding pay cut part of a cost-control measure undertaken by the State of California.

The one upside to these stories is that they tend to blossom during the trough of a recession, meaning some brighter news may well be ahead. Some are even informative: in a dog-bites-man twist, the Wall Street Journal reported in mid-January on how the unemployment offices in New Jersey have become a source of jobs for people out of work.

The Vancouver (Wash.) Colombian is more typical. It reported on the glitches the unemployed have experienced with Washington State’s mostly automated system to obtain benefits (the second-most shopworn element of this story is to report on the troubles people have getting their payments – and, indeed, the Times chimed in with this piece on Monday). The Colombian noted that at a state-mandated session to counsel the unemployed, “a line of 20 had already formed outside the door” by 7:45 a.m. However, it didn’t confirm whether this is a typical occurrence. It also had its share of interviews with those left despondent by their job losses, and the omniscient overview quote: “This is going to be the longest recession since the Great Depression,” says a regional labor analyst.

Gee, I’m glad I haven’t heard something like that before.

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