Blue Jays announcers promote the mute button

In recent days, the Blue Jays have traded for a couple of big stars. Too bad they didn’t ship out TV announcers Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler in the deals.

I’d watch every game, beginning to end, if there was a switch on my remote to turn off the Sportsnet mouthpieces and listen to the natural sounds of the ballpark.

Instead, I’m compelled to engage the mute button or click away to ice my ears for long stretches of a broadcast.

Buck and Pat can wear you down – pitch by pitch, batter by batter, inning after inning, game after game, season after season, Tylenol after Tylenol.

It’s now a year since I began talking baseball via email with a trio of old pals: one in San Francisco, another in Vancouver, a third in Toronto.

For more than 30 years, we’ve shared a love of baseball. And the messages have mined that vein: an appreciation of players such as Kershaw and Bumgarner and Trout, remembrances of Koufax and Marichal, Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

But the three of us in Canada often wind up ranting about the dreadfulness of Martinez and Tabler.

  • “Buck just said these teams are evenly matched. I am going insane.”
  • “They sound like a couple of high school dropouts doing a cable-cast in their basement.”
  • “It’s only spring and Buck and Pat are in mid-season form – inane and annoying.”
  • “I realize how hard it is to do a three-hour broadcast – and how easy it is to find some mistakes or bad takes – but these guys are awful.”

I was born in the Bronx, a Ballantine blast away from Yankee Stadium, grew up listening to Red Barber, Mel Allen and Vin Scully.

These days, I occasionally get to hear Vin’s poetry on Dodgers’ games; enjoy the mellow banter of the Giants’ guys, Kuiper and Krukow, and sometimes catch the contagious giggles of Orsillo and Remy with the Red Sox.

Each contributes something to the experience, the enjoyment of watching a game.

Buck and Pat add nothing. They detract.

It all comes across as a fractured rendition of Who’s on First.

Buck: “Bautista is two for three on the night so far.”

Pat: “He and Melky are both perfect at the plate.”

Huh?

Buck: “Machado lays down a perfect bunt that just rolls foul.”

Yet more imperfect perfection.

Pat: “He’s a nice little hitter.”

The batter is six-foot-two and weighs 225 pounds.

Pat: “Hutchison has retired 20 batters in a row.”

Buck adds immediately: “Hutchison has retired 20 straight batters.”

Buck, in the Bronx, declared: “Manhattan is about seven or eight miles from Yankee Stadium.”

Dear Mr. Martinez: Just outside the ballpark is a little bridge. If you cross it – it takes only a minute or so – you will be in Manhattan.

The geographically challenged struck again recently on the Left Coast.

Buck: “When you think about it, Seattle is not that far from Vancouver.”

Most of us don’t think about it. We know where Seattle and Vancouver are.

Other sportscasters make mistakes, are boring, or stupid. The bar is already low, particularly for ex-jocks.

But Buck and Pat are in a class all their own – perhaps a remedial speech class at a middle school in Embarrass, Wisconsin (pop. 405).

They offer no insight into the game they played or the players who play it now.

They just yak and yak and yak, non-stop, often at high volume, stating the obvious, occasionally erupting in laughter for no imaginable reason. (Is Tabler the sole person on Earth who finds Buck funny – besides Buck?)

Only their unabashed flackey can explain why Rogers, which owns both the Jays and Sportsnet, gave these guys new five-year contracts last fall.

“Jaysus,” one of my email correspondents cried, “now I can’t have the audio on until 2020.”

I covered the Jays for the Toronto Sun in 1978, when the workmanlike Don Chevrier and Hall of Fame broadcaster Tony Kubek manned the TV booth. It’s been pretty much downhill since.

Because I was a Red Sox fan until they won a second World Series in 2007, I didn’t care much.

I’ve since tried to root for the team down the road in Toronto, the one that gives me 162 games a year on free TV.

I really want to see the remainder of this season, after this week’s additions of Tulowitski and Price, to join the likes of Bautista, Donaldson and Martin.

Regrettably, I’ll continue to stay tuned only if it’s a crucial juncture in the game, or the final inning when the score is close.

I did linger recently when I heard Buck and Pat talking about all the fans from Canada they meet on the road, who ask for photos and autographs.

“And they’re starting to bring us gifts, Buck,” Pat said with a chuckle. “What did we do to deserve that?”

Excellent question, Mr. Tabler.

Insulting Canada for fun and profit

The Canadian news media are again proving to be a PR bonanza for a smart satirical comedy show south of the border.

Comedy Central, HBO and others have learned that all you have to do is insult Canada in any way and you’re guaranteed free publicity from coast to coast to coast.

It happened again Sunday night when John Oliver, on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, used the hacking of a sleazy Toronto-based website to deliver a line guaranteed to trigger a Canadian media knee-jerk: “Ottawa is a depressing, frigid shithole and always has been.”

I watched the show, nudged my dog beside me on the couch, and said: That shit will hit the news sites first thing in the morning.

Sure enough, as fast as you can say, “Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite,” news outlets across the country raced to post stories with such semi-serious, quasi-journalistic leads as:

In the wake of reports that as many as one in five residents of Ottawa were on the cheating website Ashley Madison, late-night talk show host John Oliver took to the topic of the controversial site and the residents of the nation’s capital. (Toronto Star)

Comedian John Oliver is taking the residents of Canada’s capital to task for their alleged extra-marital affairs. (Canadian Press)

Ottawa the butt of a joke for something other than politics, or being boring? Believe it. (Ottawa Sun)

Canadian news is yet again providing fodder for American late-night TV. But this time Rob Ford is nowhere to be seen. (CBC.ca)

Ouch. Comedian John Oliver took aim at Ottawa and its reported love for cheating site Ashley Madison on Sunday night’s episode of Last Week Tonight. (Huffington Post)

Canada has, once again, become the butt of American late-night television jokes — this time with the focus squarely on the nation’s capital, aka “the city fun forgot.” (Global News)

Nearly all also linked to a clip of the show’s 4:41 segment on Canada.

A more appropriate lead: Order HBO Canada right now, so you don’t miss out the next time John Oliver fires a spitball at the True North.

A followup story should lead with: Damn. Chumps again.

This is not the first time Oliver has scored a publicity coup by sassing Canada since his show debuted last spring.

In June, he lampooned the audit of Senate expense claims: “Wow, hockey tickets and fishing trips. This scandal couldn’t be any more Canadian if public money was used to get Drake to drink maple syrup on Niagara Falls.”

And last October, he made this pitch for Rob Ford’s brother for mayor: “Doug Ford doesn’t have a drug problem, he’s just an asshole – a non-chemically assisted asshole. So please, Toronto, I beg you, let us laugh at your asshole for another four years.”

Cue the Canadian media. This lead is from the National Post: “As the city of Toronto prepares to elect a new mayor – with, thanks to departing mayor Rob Ford’s high-profile shenanigans, the world likely watching – comedian John Oliver has given the city’s electorate some unlikely advice: elect Doug Ford.”

Unlikely advice? Seems right on target for a comedian.

Oliver seems to be taking a page from the playbook of his old Daily Show crony, Stephen Colbert, in setting off the Canadian insult-detector, which, in turn, cranks up the publicity machine.

  • Colbert called Windsor “the Earth’s rectum.”
  • In a wag-the-dog takeoff, he suggested the United States invade Saskatchewan to boost President Obama’s poll numbers.
  • He managed to goad the mayor of Oshawa into a hockey bet, which Colbert won – forcing the city to declare a Stephen Colbert Day in 2007.

When he did a bit on the loonie challenging the mighty U.S. dollar in 2012, Colbert railed against “our poutine-sucking, health-care-addicted nemesis to the north.”

While the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business website acknowledged the segment was “shtick” and called it “hilarious,” it nonetheless surrendered hundreds of words and linked to a clip of a comedy show.

Dear American entrepreneurs: Want to make money fast? Set up a pirate network, with transmitters in places such as Calais, Maine, Plattsburgh and Niagara Falls, N.Y., and along the 49th parallel from North Dakota to Washington state.

Start sniping insults across the world’s longest undefended border.

Satisfaction guaranteed.

Trump scrambles media chickens

On the day after Donald Trump announced he was running for president, the headline in the New York Times was: Donald Trump, Pushing Someone Rich, Offers Himself.

Nice. Appropriate. Somewhat mocking.

The lead, under the byline of Alexander Burns, read: “Donald J. Trump, the garrulous real estate developer whose name has adorned apartment buildings, hotels, Trump-brand neckties and Trump-brand steaks, announced on Tuesday his entry into the 2016 presidential race, brandishing his wealth and fame as chief qualifications in an improbable quest for the Republican nomination.”

Garrulous? Precisely.

Repeating the Trump name and attaching it to ties and steaks? Suitably sardonic.

Improbable quest? Sounds about right

The piece goes on for more than 1,000 words, bouncing between straight news reporting and keen analysis: “He has consistently been a passionate believer in Donald Trump, and his own capacity to bully and badger his way into the best possible deal. That skill set, Mr. Trump has argued, would be an asset to America.”

There was a brief mention, far down in the text, of Trump’s moronic reference to Mexican rapists.

Did Burns bury the lead? No. You don’t lead with horseshit from a horse’s ass.

The story appeared on Page 16 – about where it belonged.

Since then, the Times has devoted tens of thousands of words to Trump and put him on the front page five times.

What changed?

Every time Trump opens his yap, it’s breaking news from Iowa to Uranus, with an endless echo on cable news, the Internet, talk shows and comedy shows, the entertainment media and business media, newspapers, magazines and network news.

The Times and others simply surrendered to the noise.

So, is it any wonder the most incorrigible headcase in the GOP psycho ward is leading in the polls?

Does that alone validate giving Trump so much ink and airtime? Evidently.

If Trump is the egg, the media are the chickens.

I worked as a copyboy at the Times in the mid-1960s. In the dusty ether of the old newsroom, I tasted the words of Homer Bigart, McCandlish Phillips and others who initially inspired my career in journalism.

After I took the subway home at night from Times Square, I watched the 11 o’clock news on WCBS and smiled at the commercial message that often followed the broadcast: If you want to learn more about tonight’s stories, pick up the New York Times in the morning.

I liked that. It was true. But it also acknowledged the early incursion of TV as a threat, a competitor.

I moved on from the Times to better jobs in other places.

When I first came to Canada in the early 1970s, I reserved a Sunday Times at a newsstand in Vancouver, then in Montreal and Toronto.

I’ve been reading it online since it became available, and now pay the $20 a month to start my day with the Times.

The subscription allows me to search – and find a David Brooks column from April 2011, when Trump was similarly soaring in the polls.

Brooks aptly described Trump as royalty in the “realm of Upper Blowhardia,” with the likes of George Steinbrenner and Ross Perot.

And tempered his argument against Trump with what appeared obvious – he was unlikely to purchase the lease to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But here we go again. Different year, same media madness. Please stop aiding and abetting.

Is there no one in a media boardroom with the sense to say: Enough! Or is news value gauged only by clicks and the ability to shock, whether it’s Trump, Ebola, shark attacks or ISIS?

Must the news trucks roll every time a deranged billionaire pisses in the bushes.

It’s not like Trump is doing anything. He’s just regurgitating the same bilge we’ve heard from him for decades.

What happened to the new in news?

Here are a couple of quotes to consider:

  • “There is no one on the world stage who can compete with me.”
  • “I don’t need to go into office for the power. I have houses all over the world, stupendous boats … beautiful airplanes, a beautiful wife, a beautiful family… I am making a sacrifice.”

Sure sounds like Trump. But it’s Silvio Berlusconi, who reigned for nine years as prime minister of Italy.

ESPN misplaces the Clarity Jug

During this weekend’s golf at St. Andrews, the venerable Sean McDonough let slip the equivalent of an expletive on ESPN’s coverage.

“… the British Open – the Open, pardon me …”

The tournament was in Scotland, which, last I checked, remains in Britain.

But it was apparently verboten to link the words “British” and “Open” on the air.

The ESPN logo for the event was THE OPEN. All caps. Announcers called it the Open, or the Open championship.

It’s as if the U.S. network was following the script from a video on the tournament’s website which begins: “This is the ONE, THE ONE.”

All bow to the royals and ancients.

(As did some loyalist sportswriters in Canada – for the Toronto Star, National Post, and the Sun papers.)

For my money, the Clarity Jug goes to the wire services – the Associated Press, Canadian Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse – and such sometime paragons of the printed word as the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

For the benefit of readers, their style principles call it the British Open, not to be confused with national opens in the United States, Canada, Ireland, France, Spain, Russia, South Africa, Malaysia, India, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Thailand, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

But that is of no consequence when the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports makes its pilgrimage to the self-proclaimed Home of Golf.

I used to write about golf, beginning at the 1975 Canadian Open at Royal Montreal, where the press tent blew away in a storm and Weiskopf beat Nicklaus in a playoff.

I love golf on TV, watch it nearly every weekend.

And it’s no surprise to me that a network would pay many millions of dollars to broadcast a sporting event and kowtow to the recipient of that largesse.

But the slurping seems to be especially egregious in golf.

CBS genuflects through the Masters every April, kneeling at the knees of the plantation owners.

Is a golf tournament really “a tradition unlike any other,” as Jim Nantz croons?

How about such traditions as forcing women to wear burkas? Or being nailed to a cross on Good Friday in the Philippines? Or gathering a crowd for your son’s circumcision and then serving bagels and lox?

The most significant tradition unlike any other for CBS’s golf coverage is 21 years and counting, since it rolled over and played dead when the crackers in the green jackets banished Gary McCord from Augusta for being Gary McCord – funny.

NBC/Golf Channel is no better when it comes to sucking up to event organizers and sponsors. Is there a viewer who doesn’t hit the mute button or click to the ballgame when Nantz or Dan Hicks “interviews” the vice president in charge of paper clips at Waste Management or Cadillac?

It’s also a disservice to golf fans that the networks accept the PGA Tour’s constant rewriting of its record books to accommodate sponsors.

Did Zach Johnson really compete on the Web.com Tour, as the ads suggest? Or was it the Hogan Tour? The Nike Tour? The Buy.com Tour? The Nationwide Tour?

Did Willie Smith win the 1899 BMW Championship? The PGA Tour says he did – which is a neat trick since the Bavarian Motor Works wasn’t founded until 1916.

It’s probably best to go along to get along when your winter workplace jets to Maui, Palm Springs or Pebble Beach.

And a trip to Britain in July might be nice. Unless you’re not allowed to recognize what country you’re in.

I watched hours and hours of the ESPN broadcast from St. Andrews. And heard only McDonough go off script until the closing minutes on Monday, when Paul Azinger summed up:

“Zach Johnson is a hard worker and he’s a dreamer. And winning the British Open today, his ultimate dream has come true.”

If it was deliberate – subversive – Zinger is my champion announcer of the year.

Star Man discovers Temple of Doom

Six years into their second marriage, it seems Paul Watson and the Toronto Star woke up one day, jumped out of bed and screamed in unison: Who the hell are you?

Otherwise, how can you explain what happened last week. The reporter resigned, calling it a blow to truth, journalism and the Canadian way. The Star responded by fluffing its editorial feathers and citing its plucking of two sitting ducks – Rob Ford and Jian Ghomeshi.

It looks like the Star believed it had hired Indiana Jones. And Watson found his Temple of Doom at One Yonge Street.

But let’s start at the most recent wedding day, in June 2009, when the Star published a gushing “welcome home” to the Toronto-born Watson, who won three National Newspaper Awards and shared another with colleagues during his first go-round with the paper from 1985 to 1998.

Those were the years when Watson was a globetrotting war correspondent for the Star, slogging through shitholes from Somalia to the Balkans to Afghanistan.

But Watson was “coming back to launch a unique venture – the world’s first multimedia Arctic-aboriginal beat,” announced editor Michael Cooke.

At the time, it seemed to me, the Star was getting what it wanted, another celebrity journalist on its roster – while promising to eat its vegetables.

Watson, in return, got what he’s said was a six-figure salary, a break from the battlefield and an opportunity to do high-minded stories from the high Arctic.

He also embarked on brief stints playing the superhero Star Man – in Syria and Afghanistan – which allowed the newspaper to do what it does best: Self-promotion.

There was The Star in Syria series in 2013 – the Star’s Paul Watson on the Syrian frontline.

But the reporter’s greatest gift to his employer began in 2010, when he featured a 16-year-old Afghan schoolgirl struggling to get an education in Kandahar.

Before you could say “Canada’s largest daily,” the Star was raising money for the girl to pay for online courses, and kept the campaign going until January 2012, when Watson and Cooke brought her to Ontario to enrol in school.

Since then, the Star has milked every self-congratulatory ounce out of its good deed, with dozens of stories tracing her every move in Canada, rarely failing to mention the newspaper’s role as her savior.

Meanwhile, last August, the intrepid Watson sailed into Arctic waters on the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, searching for the remains of the Franklin expedition: the British navy vessels HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and their 129 crewmen lost at sea in the 1840s.

One Yonge seemed to get on board for a while, trumpeting: The Star with the Franklin search.

Triumphantly, on Sept. 9, the splashy headline: How the Franklin wreck was finally found. Under Watson’s byline was a 2,000-word story, with video, maps and photos, the whole multimedia Arctic schmeer.

But Watson wasn’t done. The Franklin followups kept coming, through the fall and winter and into the spring.

As an editor, I would have been rolling my eyes every time I heard the words “Watson” and “Franklin” in the same sentence. This is the Toronto Star, not Canadian Geographic, for Christ’s sake.

Last week, over three days, Watson wrote about 2,500 words on his blog (Arctic Star Creativity) to explain his beef with the Star.

He said he met with Cooke and another Star editor on July 7 and quit over their “refusal to publish a story of significant public interest” – something about “federal civil servants and others” being pissed off about what they “consider distorted and inaccurate accounts” of the discovery of HMS Erebus.

He added a muddled reference to villains with “access to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office, as well as editors at the Star.”

Publisher John Cruickshank, in a memo to staff the next day, denied “this extremely odd idea.” He went on to say: “Suppressing stories of significant public interest is something the Star has never done and will never do.

“Our track record in recent years, such as our ground-breaking coverage of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and former CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi, is proof of that.”

Proof of what? That Canada’s largest daily can take down a crack-smoking mayor and a radio star with a trail of accusers all over town?

Obviously, I do not have a great deal of respect for the Star’s approach to newspapering and the execution of its journalism. (I spent a couple of months in the gulag of the Star’s copy desk in 1998 before turning down a job there.)

But, as an editor, I would have told Paul Watson: “Unless you have pictures of Stephen Harper and Michael Cooke in dive gear, plundering the wreck of HMS Erebus, please go away.”

Brian Williams was set up to fail by NBC News

I could have saved Brian Williams from himself. Any other old pro in the news biz could have done so as well.

All it took was standing up to the Ten Million Dollar Man, waving that bogus script at his chiseled kisser and saying: “We’re not putting this bullshit on the air, not on a news show. You can lie your ass off all over town – and on Letterman, for Christ’s sake – but not from the anchor desk at the NBC Nightly News.”

So, why didn’t that happen? I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

But I do know it didn’t work the way it’s supposed to. And while the public humiliation looks good on Williams – making him a sideshow attraction in his new gig at NBC – what can you really expect from an anchor?

In the 1996 movie Up Close & Personal, Michelle Pfeiffer gets in an on-air spat with the anchor on her TV news show.

As soon as the red light dims, she bolts from the set and further explodes in anger at her boss/mentor/lover, Robert Redford. When she calms down a bit, she sums up her exasperation: “He’s just stupid.”

“He’s an anchor,” Redford explains.

Fiction, of course, can set an unrealistically high bar.

I worked about 10 years at CBC Newsworld in Toronto — after 30 years as a reporter and editor for newspapers and wire services — producing various shows with a diverse assortment of anchors. Not all were stupid.

But one thing is true at every TV news operation: The men and women with the best hair and makeup should never be allowed to put their manicured mitts on editorial content.

Brian Williams should never have been given the rope to hang himself by uttering the sentence: “The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back, during the invasion of Iraq, when the helicopter we were travelling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”

If that item broadcast last January 30th had been scripted under standard journalistic practices, red flags would have been flying all over Rockefeller Center.

Whoever cut the pictures for the piece used footage from Williams’s March 2003 report from Iraq. All he or she had to do was turn up the audio to hear Williams saying: “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky.”

There it is. All that was needed to shoot down the story. It had been in the archives for nearly 12 years.

Was there nobody left at NBC News who remembered the original – true – story? No one on the NBC crew that was with Williams that day? Not his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, who introduced the item in 2003? Not a single producer, or NBC News bigwig?

Did anyone vet that item on January 30th? Did anyone with the duty and power to kill it sit on his or her hands? Or was final approval stamped by the managing editor – Brian Williams?

Which reminds me of another movie. Broadcast News (1987) was written and directed by an authority on anchors, James L. Brooks, who helped create both Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Kent Brockman on The Simpsons.

In an early scene, William Hurt is the dumb pretty boy who works as a local anchor and confesses: “Half the time I don’t get the news I’m talking about.”

He moves to a network, rises rapidly through the reporting ranks and eventually is offered the anchor chair.

“I told them I would be their anchor,” he tells an auditorium of admirers, “but I didn’t want to be the managing editor, that there were people better qualified than I to control the content. And, if there weren’t, we were all in trouble.”

It’s not Cronkite’s fault that he had the credentials – from his days at a wire service and elsewhere – to earn the managing editor title.

But the U.S. networks lost their collective minds when they bestowed the title on every anchor who followed, including Brian Williams.

Why am I doing this?

Because I need to work, to write, to string sentences together. That’s what I did for nearly 50 years. Then, it just stopped. Time to get going again.

But, as I told my journalism students: Writing without being read — or paid — is masturbation.

We’ll see.