The Not So Normal 5K is finally here!
After two days of pre-race events around town on Friday and Saturday, the race will take place in Carrboro Sunday morning – with proceeds going to benefit dozens of local charities, especially the ArtsCenter in Carrboro and NC Children’s Promise.
Then at 4:00 pm, the event concludes with a free concert inside University Mall, featuring performances by DSI Comedy, local musicians Ella Bertram and the Buzztown Band, and the Nashville-based band Stereosparks.
Brian Buzby of the Buzztown Band stopped by WCHL this week to speak with Aaron Keck on “Aaron in the Afternoon.”
It’s being billed as “a celebration of community and philanthropy” – and it’s hitting Chapel Hill on the weekend of September 12-14.
It’s the “Not So Normal 5K.” Organized by Jay Radford – a dad who writes the “Mom in Chapel Hill” blog – the event is ‘not so normal’ because it will benefit not just one, but dozens of local charities. Proceeds from the 5K on Sunday, September 14 will benefit the Carrboro ArtsCenter and the NC Children’s Hospital; participants are encouraged to bring book donations for Book Harvest or food donations for TABLE and PORCH - and participants are also encouraged to form teams and solicit sponsors to raise funds for any non-profit in the area. (“Run for what moves you,” says Radford.)
And in keeping with the ‘not so normal’ vibe, the event is not just a 5K – it actually spans the entire weekend, from Friday through Sunday, with comedy shows at DSI Comedy Theater, a Pajama Party at the ArtsCenter, a movie on the lawn at Weaver Street Market, pre-race dinners at restaurants across Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and more.
The weekend culminates with an outdoor concert Sunday night at University Mall, headlined by rising country star Frankie Ballard (whose single “Helluva Life” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart earlier this year) and featuring Nashville-based performers Casey Jamerson and Stereosparks as well as local kids’ entertainers The BuzzTown Band. The concert is being presented by WQDR radio, 94.7 FM – so tickets to the show cost just $9.47.
Organizer Jay Radford spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck on “Aaron in the Afternoon.”
Aaron also spoke with the concert headliner, Frankie Ballard…
…as well as Casey Jamerson, who performed on Broadway and in Australia before starting her Nashville career…
…and Storey Condos, the lead singer of Stereosparks.
For a complete schedule of events and ticket information, visit NotSoNormal5K.com.http://chapelboro.com/news/non-profit-news/september-fundraiserconcert-normal/
Photo via DeepDishTheater.org.
The Deep Dish Theater Company opens its 2014-15 season this Friday with Daniel Pearle’s “A Kid Like Jake,” a moving story about parents seeking a better life for their son.
Directed by Deep Dish veteran Tony Lea, “Jake” stars Meredith Sause and Jim Moscater as Alexandra and Greg, two parents trying to get their four-year-old son into a prestigious kindergarten. Jake loves dressing up like Snow White and Cinderella, and Alexandra and Greg are being encouraged to play that up in their application – and that in turn leads them to question their own beliefs.
Meredith Sause and Deep Dish artistic director Paul Frellick joined WCHL’s Aaron Keck on the air this week.
“A Kid Like Jake” just concluded a highly-acclaimed run off Broadway. It opens on Friday at Deep Dish and runs through September 20.
Deep Dish Theater is located in University Mall. For details and ticket information, visit DeepDishTheater.org.http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/direct-nyc-kid-like-jake-opens-deep-dish/
University Mall’s Chick-fil-A restaurant is hosting a school supply drive to benefit Orange County teachers and students.
The drive is in partnership with the PSF-East Chapel Hill Rotary Teacher Supply Store, and the Store is making even more of an effort to assist local teachers by offering a $75 voucher to buy supplies in store for their classrooms.
In the recent history of state legislative budget cuts, North Carolina public education has taken one of the hardest hits. The General Assembly is currently working out an 11 percent pay-raise of teachers, as North Carolina holds one of the lowest rankings of teacher pay in the country.
“Our Chick-fil-A team is honored to help collect school supplies for the Teacher Supply Store,” said Sammy Culberson, franchise Operator of the Chick-fil-A at University Mall in Chapel Hill in a statement. “We encourage the community to come out and help local teachers and students start the school year poised for success.”
Donations can be dropped off in the restaurant during the mall’s open hours from Saturday, August 2 to Saturday, August 16.
Items requested by the Store include: Pencils (no.2), colored pencils, glue sticks, markers (fine line and broad tip), Sharpies (fine and ultra fine), highlighters, index cards (ruled and unruled), Post-It Notes, Scotch tape, composition book and construction paper.
For each guest that brings three items, Chick-fil-A is offering a complimentary Grilled Chicken Sandwich.http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/umall-chick-fil-holds-school-supply-drive/
WCHL kicked off Hot Diggity Days at University Mall on Friday with a live remote.
Hot Diggity Days is UMall’s summer sidewalk sale and featured special guests like Marilyn Monroe, Illusions of the King tribute artist, Keith Henderson, and more. The event ran through Sunday.
The University Mall has announced three new expansions for the upcoming years: Tacos y Tequila this coming June, Planet Fitness this December, and Aveda Institute in early 2015.
Tacos y Tequila is a contemporary Mexican restaurant, serving a broad selection of south-western cuisine. Planet Fitness is a fully-staffed gym, possessing a wide variety of exercise machines and circuits for mall attendees to utilize. The Aveda Institute is a beauty and cosmetology school, complete with a spa and salon.
The General Manager at University Mall, Peter DeLeon, is excited about these new additions and the momentum the mall has carried along with the changes.
“What I want to make sure everybody remembers is that this isn’t just a few new stores. This is a continuation of what we’ve been doing,” says DeLeon. “What’s happening because of all this change, it’s creating a lot more interest in the marketplace for University Mall, and we have a lot of things in the pipeline that we’re hoping to announce sooner rather than later.”
While the mall is expanding as well as becoming more luxurious, DeLeon assures that they intend to make sure there is something at U-Mall for all patrons.
“I’d like to think we do have something for everyone,” assures DeLeon, “and where we’re going, what we want to make sure what we’re doing for the community, is making sure we have things that are relevant for them. And as we’ve been in the marketplace, these are the kinds of tenants people want.”http://chapelboro.com/news/entertainment/university-mall-adds-new-tenants/
Last Thursday, at my friends’ insistence, I finally saw the movie “Thor.” It’s a big-budget action spectacle, with lots of lights and noise and CGI, but the basic premise is Shakespearean: cast out of his family by the machinations of his scheming half-brother, left broken and penniless in an alien land, our brash, headstrong hero prince (read: he’s a jerk) must regain his status as favored son and heir by proving his moral worth to his aged, tough-but-kindly father.
So you’ll understand why I was feeling a bit of déjà vu the following evening, sitting in Deep Dish Theater for their production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s “Life Is A Dream” – a classic Spanish play (often likened to Shakespeare) that follows pretty much exactly the same plot.
Eat your heart out, Joseph Campbell.
Written in 1635 during the Golden Age of Spanish literature, “Life Is A Dream” is the story of Segismundo, a prince who’s been imprisoned literally from birth by his father the king. Seems he was born under a dark cloud—the stars have decreed he’ll grow up to be a tyrant—and so for the good of the country, his father has kept him locked away, ignorant of his rightful status as heir to the throne. (Why the king doesn’t just kill him outright is never entirely explained.) But as the king grows old—and his other would-be heirs begin sparring over succession—he relents: okay, he says, we’ll take Segismundo out of his cell, reinstall him as prince, and see how he handles it. If he behaves, terrific. But if he acts like a tyrant—we’ll simply drug him, lock him back up, and tell him the whole adventure was all a dream.
Meanwhile, subplots abound: a woman named Rosaura disguises herself as a man (seriously, have I mentioned Shakespeare?) to infiltrate the kingdom and take revenge on the prince Astolfo, who’s stolen her honor; the king’s closest aide discovers her secret and realizes he’s duty-bound to her too; and meanwhile Astolfo schemes to marry his cousin, the princess Estrella, to lay claim to the throne, but he may or may not still be pining for Rosaura. It’s not easy to keep up with it all: the plot is about as complex as “Hamlet,” but while that narrative unfolds slowly over three-plus hours, Calderón crams all his plot points into an hour and 45 minutes. (“I have no idea what is going on,” I overheard one audience member say during intermission.)
But as with Shakespeare, the plot isn’t as important as the underlying philosophy. Are we free to chart the course of our own lives, or are we fated to turn out a certain way? How can we tell the difference between dream and reality? Is there a difference, really? Is life itself not just as temporary and fleeting and inscrutable as a dream? And what does that tell us about how to live our lives? The intrigues of kings and princes and spurned lovers abound—there’s even a swordfight!—but the real heart of “Life Is A Dream” is in its philosophical musings, and those are handled primarily by two characters: Segismundo himself, and Rosaura’s companion Clarin, a stereotypically wise fool reminiscent of the one in “King Lear.”
Alphonse Nicholson as Segismundo and Amber Wood as Rosaura, in “Life Is A Dream.” Photo by Jonathan Young via DeepDishTheater.org.
So that’s “Life Is A Dream.”
But more importantly: how good is it?
By the time I took my seat, I was already excited about the potential. In the few minutes before the house opened, as all the playgoers milled around in the lobby, we could hear passionate shouts and the clinking of blades on the other side of the wall—just one more last-minute rehearsal, I guess, but it sounded so cool. And the set design (by Lex van Blommestein) grabs your eye as soon as you walk in: angles and windows and disheveled shelves and an ethereal backdrop that evokes mountains, oceans—attractive and forbidding and foreboding, all at once.
But the play itself takes a long time to find its footing. I still remember a production of Craig Lucas’s “Reckless” I saw in college, in which the first act was so bad I almost left at intermission but the second act was some of the best theater I’d ever seen—and I got a similar vibe from “Life Is A Dream.” It wasn’t quite that extreme this time around—the first act had its good moments, the second act had its flaws—but the difference was definitely there. The first act feels like community theater, with all that that entails: nice costumes, fine production value, and performers going through the motions of acting without really finding the emotional connection to their characters. This is not really the actors’ fault, incidentally: “Life Is A Dream” is a fine play, but some of the characters’ motivations are simply baffling, especially early on. Why, for instance, does the king choose to imprison Segismundo for life instead of simply killing him? Having chosen to imprison him, why does he then choose to give him a classical education? Having done that, why does he then choose to free him, and why does he go about it in a way that’s all but guaranteed to elicit the worst possible reaction? John Boni’s performance as Basilio the king is actually quite good (notwithstanding his New York accent), but the character himself is impossible to believe. Same goes for Amber Wood as Rosaura, Anne-Caitlin Donohue as Estrella, and Peter Battis as Clotaldo the king’s aide—all of whom deliver fine performances despite having characters who make a number of brow-furrowing life decisions.
But the second act ultimately redeems the first, and it’s all thanks to the play’s two philosophers, the wronged prince Segismundo and the wise fool Clarin—the two richest and most sympathetic characters, and (as luck or fate would have it) in Deep Dish’s production the two best acted as well. As characters, Segismundo and Clarin actually don’t figure too much in the first act—but they dominate the second, as Segismundo gets swept up in the royal intrigue and Clarin is left alone with his thoughts. And what thoughts! As Clarin, David Hudson is simultaneously hilarious and insightful and touching and tragic; unburdened by all the mounting plot points, he’s free to deliver a memorable performance.
But it’s Alphonse Nicholson’s dazzling turn as Segismundo that truly makes “Life Is A Dream” worthwhile. Sticking with the Shakespeare theme, Segismundo’s journey is a bit like Ophelia’s in reverse: he starts the play half-mad, muttering wild things to himself while life goes on around him, and the plot turns on his gradually reconnecting with sanity and society. It’s a tough part to play, and Nicholson nails it. Intense, fierce, passionate and sympathetic, he commands the stage from the moment the spotlight first falls on him—and it’s his intensity, plus Hudson’s, that finally win over the audience in the end, though it takes a while to get there. During intermission, I overheard an audience member in my row cracking jokes about the play; by the end, I heard the same person gasping (with real emotion) during Segismundo’s final speech. I felt roughly the same way.
(It’s also worth noting, as a side point, that Nicholson is the only black actor in the cast—including Boni, who plays his father. This passes without comment in the play itself—and it’s obvious from the get-go that Nicholson was simply the best actor for the part—but casting a black actor in that role also adds an additional dimension to a story about a man who begins his life in bondage, is freed in a callous and capricious manner by a king who doesn’t particularly care whether he succeeds, is cast back into bondage and is forced to regain his freedom all over again. But the play is seventeenth-century Spanish, not twentieth-century American—so the audience is left to ruminate on that for itself.)
In the end, if “Life Is A Dream” doesn’t quite reach the heights of Deep Dish’s last production, the quietly stunning “Arcadia,” it’s still worthwhile (stick around, it’ll win you over) on the strength of Nicholson’s performance as Segismundo—who never quite reaches a conclusion on whether life really is a dream, but resolves to make the best of it nonetheless. How that’s to be defined is up to you.
“Life Is A Dream” runs through May 31 at Deep Dish Theater in University Mall.http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/life-dream-deep-dish-redemption-just-time/
There’s one group of Chapel Hill residents that is particularly unhappy about Roses leaving University Mall in June: Senior citizens.
WCHL talked to some senior shoppers at the University Mall store one afternoon this week, and here’s what some of them had to say.
Lula Alston is a retired senior who lives in Chapel Hill.
“I hate it,” she said. “It’s really the only store in town that you can just go in and lounge around. And you can almost find everything you need.”
For Alston, those immediate needs include clothing, household items, and even food. When asked where she will shop after Roses goes away, she had this to say:
“I have no idea right now.”
Another Chapel Hill retiree, Josephine Cundari, takes the bus to the University Mall Roses twice a week.
“It’s bad. Bad news. People shop there. And then they have the senior discounts on Wednesdays. That helps, too. It’s a shame.”
The discount retailer has operated a store at that location since 1973. Roses is owned by Henderson-based Variety Wholesalers, which owns more than 400 discount stores throughout the southeast.
Variety Wholesalers is owned by the family of Art Pope, the budget director for North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.
Earlier this week, Wilson Sawyer of Variety Wholesalers told WCHL that the store is closing due to a rent increase, as well as plans by University Mall to downsize the store.
University Mall is owned and operated by Madison Marquette of Washington, DC. In an email to WCHL, Robyn H. Marano of Madison Marquette declined to comment about a rent increase.
She said that the departure of Roses opens “an opportunity to enhance retail, dining and entertainment” at the mall.
Marano said an announcement about new tenants should be coming over the next few months.http://chapelboro.com/news/news-around-time/whos-really-unhappy-roses-closing-shop-umall-seniors/
Sitting in the Deep Dish Theater on Friday, waiting for the start of “Arcadia,” I overheard a woman in the row in front of me.
“I looked up ‘Arcadia’ on Wikipedia before we came,” she said to her companion. “And thank God I did, because I probably wouldn’t have a clue what was going on otherwise.”
So it goes with “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard’s sweeping, breathtaking magnum opus about knowledge, science, history and fate, now playing at the Deep Dish through March 22. Expertly directed by Paul Frellick (DD’s artistic director) and beautifully acted by a cast of twelve, it’s an absolute must-see—but your brain better come ready to work overtime.
To understand “Arcadia,” start with Tom Stoppard. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1938, he fled the Nazis with his family and traveled to Singapore, Australia, India, and finally England—picking up a world of perspective and insight along the way. His plays—“The Real Inspector Hound,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the screenplay for “Shakespeare In Love”—are ruminations on the human condition, the nature of art, the certainty/uncertainty of knowledge, and the thin line separating reality from theater. (Are those four things all one and the same?)
And “Arcadia” is his masterwork. Set in a single room in Sidley Park, an English aristocratic estate, the play jumps back and forth in time between the present day—where three scholars are trying to unravel a historical mystery tangentially involving the poet Lord Byron—and the early 1800s, where we see the events play out as they happened. (Byron himself never appears: turns out he’s not as important to the plot as the modern-day scholars think he is.)
What’s happening? Well, in 1809, we follow a teenage girl, Thomasina Coverly (Nicole Gabriel), and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Ryan Brock). Thomasina is a genius: like any teenager, she’s curious about “carnal embrace,” but she’s also about to discover the second law of thermodynamics decades before its time. What is the second law of thermodynamics? Entropy, the inescapable process by which things irreversibly break down. What is done cannot be undone, and order necessarily decays into chaos (this is paralleled by Sidley Park’s garden, which—off-stage—is being remodeled from its Enlightenment-era neat geometry into a rough, naturalistic, Romantic-era wildness). Eventually the pair realize the ultimate implication of Thomasina’s discovery: all the stars will flicker out and the universe will settle into a lifeless equilibrium. “We’re doomed,” says Septimus.
Meanwhile, in the present day, two scholars, the hilariously pompous Bernard Nightingale (Eric Carl) and the no-nonsense Hannah Jarvis (Dorothy Recasner Brown), join forces—reluctantly, as they dislike each other—to investigate Sidley Park’s documents in order to determine whether Lord Byron killed a fellow poet in a duel. Red herrings lead them astray—Hannah, for instance, misinterprets a doodle of Thomasina’s, and Bernard wrongly assumes that Byron wrote an essay that we know was written by Septimus—but gradually, very gradually, the truth (or most of it) comes out.
Also, romantic entanglements abound. By the end of the play, Septimus has been involved or nearly involved with three different people (one of them never seen); Bernard, Hannah and Thomasina have each been involved or nearly involved with two. And there are nine other characters I haven’t even mentioned yet. There’s a lot going on here.
Eric Carl is Bernard Nightingale and Dorothy Recasner Brown is Hannah Jarvis. (Photo via DeepDishTheater.org.)
Deep Dish’s production of “Arcadia” is tremendous. The set is deceptively simple—a large table, a few chairs, three doors and some windows, that’s all, but you feel the presence of the house, the gardens, the estate, the swirl of life both on and off stage. The leading actors disappear into their characters—I loved Ryan Brock’s wry Septimus and Dorothy Recasner Brown’s Hannah, and Eric Carl steals the show as Bernard (Bernard delivering his paper in the second act is a tour de force)—but the rest of the cast shines as well: notable are David Godshall as the clueless poet Ezra Chater, Erika Edwards and Adam Sampieri as the brilliant modern-day siblings Chloe and Valentine, and Nicole Gabriel (a high-schooler!) as Thomasina. The relationships between these characters are very delicate—the earliest buds of a romance between Septimus and Thomasina, the love/hate romantic-professional partnership between Bernard and Hannah—and it’s all performed so smoothly that the difficulty doesn’t even register. “Arcadia” requires its actors to shift back and forth, often mid-scene, between virtually every imaginable stage of romance—while simultaneously ruminating on life, death, science, art, history, mathematics, landscape architecture, botany, poetry, and fate—and each of the twelve actors here is more than up to the task.
And then there’s the play itself. What are the themes? Start with the title. “Arcadia” is a reference to the Latin phrase “Et in Arcadia ego,” or “Even in paradise, there am I.” The “I” is death: looming over the play is not only Thomasina’s discovery about the eventual decay of the universe, but also our advance knowledge of Thomasina’s own death—coupled with the end of the Enlightenment, symbolized by the remodeled garden, plus the fact that all the events of 1809, so important to the characters then, will either be forgotten or misinterpreted by history, even when intelligent people are actively trying to piece them all together. (The recurring motif is fire. Pay attention to fire.) It’s all very pessimistic. Or is it? The chaos which violates order is romantic love, “carnal embrace.” The play ends with a dance that reaches across centuries. And while Thomasina argues that things done cannot be undone, Septimus counters that knowledge lost can be regained—a theory that’s apparently confirmed by our present-day scholars, who manage to rediscover the truth almost in spite of themselves.
All of which is to say: good Lord, this play is smart. My friend and I walked out of “Book of Mormon” last week remarking how intelligent a play that was—but “Arcadia” operates on a whole other level. It’s the most intelligent play I’ve ever seen. The best? Well, not quite. But definitely the smartest.
“Arcadia” is two and a half hours long and doesn’t waste a second. There’s a phenomenal amount of dense dialogue here; if there’s a flaw in the production at all, it’s that the actors will occasionally stumble over one or two of their hundreds of lines. (But that’s just probability theory.) The knock on Stoppard, if there is one, is that his plays appeal to the head without appealing to the heart—and yes, there’s an extent to which that’s true for “Arcadia.” Stoppard is writing at the top of his game; there are thirteen characters in the play (one actor plays a double role), and by my count, at least six are certifiable geniuses. Probably seven. Maybe eight.
So yes, it’s not an easy play. (Between the two, I found myself more emotionally moved by “Book of Mormon,” a play that actively goes out of its way not to strike an emotional chord.) But you ought to see “Arcadia,” not in spite of its difficulty but because of it. You ought to see this play because it’s brilliant, because it will make you think, because it will make you smarter for having seen it. Its very intelligence will move you.
Will that motion fade? Yes, eventually.
But man, it’s worth it in the meantime.
“Arcadia” runs at the Deep Dish Theater (in University Mall) through March 22. Visit this link for tickets.http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/order-amidst-chaos-vice-versa-arcadia-deep-dish/
A couple days ago I wrote about a disturbing trend in modern journalism: with the economy tight, newsrooms are reducing staff to the bare-bones minimum, making it harder and harder for news departments to conduct investigative reporting (or sometimes even basic fact-checking). As a result, reporters often have to rely on what they’re told. That’s always been true to an extent, but I think it’s even more true now than ever before.
In itself, this isn’t the end of the world—so long as those doing the telling are informed and honest, with no incentive to lie or withhold key details or spin the facts to make themselves look good.
And sometimes that’s actually the case. When police or other government officials want to get vital information out to the public, they use the local media. (I remember getting a call from the Chapel Hill PD earlier this year to ask if we could get the word out about an overnight break-in. As I put it on Facebook later: “Small-town journalism in a nutshell—Chapel Hill Police just called me to report a crime.”) The same is even true—occasionally—with more controversial issues. After the Yates Building incident in November 2011, there was some debate about whether those in charge made the right decision given the information they had, but it was obvious to all that they should have had more information in the first place. I think it was town manager Roger Stancil who called it a “communications breakdown.” So there was an incentive for town leaders to communicate, both with each other and with the public. And though it did take a while (Stancil at one point put a gag order on Town staff), eventually they opened up completely. And positive changes got made.
But when those with access to information do have an incentive to lie, to withhold, or to spin—well, that’s a different story.
Small-scale example: let’s talk about University Mall.
It was in mid-September when the news first broke that Dillard’s was likely going to leave—that was when the store converted to a clearance center and shifted very obviously into everything-must-go mode. But was it leaving? It looked that way, but nobody would say for certain: Dillard’s spokesperson Julie Bull said only that the store was converting to clearance, but insisted that didn’t (necessarily) mean it was on the way out. U-Mall GM Peter DeLeon told us that was as much as he knew as well. “(Bull) stated to us that she has not been given that information that they are closing,” he told WCHL, “(and) at this point we have to respect what Dillard’s is telling us.”
How much of that was true? While all that was going on, I walked into Dillard’s, no press badge, and casually asked a cashier what she’d heard—and although she said she’d heard conflicting reports, she told me they’d been informed Dillard’s was closing within a few months. This turned out to be true, and it was more specific than we (and possibly even U-Mall) were hearing from the company. They knew more than they were letting on. And while it’s possible they were keeping U-Mall in the dark as well, there’s evidence to suggest that Silverspot Cinemas was already in the works too. For one thing, it was already in the rumor mill: someone told us in September that she’d heard U-Mall was bringing in a movie theater, though that information was third-hand and the original source wouldn’t go on record. And then there was last week’s press conference, where mall staff put up several renderings of what the new theater would look like—one of which, someone told me later, was actually dated July.
So it’s fair to say there may have been a disconnect between the reality and the official story.
Well, frankly, in September, neither Dillard’s nor U-Mall had much incentive to confirm the store was closing, even if it was true. For Dillard’s, it’s negative publicity: you’re laying off employees, which never looks good, plus closing a location suggests the company is in trouble. (Even in November they didn’t say much. Here’s the one press release where they announced it: good luck spotting it in there.) Same goes for U-Mall, and there it’s even more crucial: malls depend on strong anchor stores to draw in business, and the nation is already littered with malls that suffered badly because they lost their anchor. So U-Mall had every incentive to hold off announcing that Dillard’s was out until they could tailor the announcement to focus on the nice new thing that was coming in.
And in this case, no harm done. We got the full story in November instead of September. No big deal.
But it’s noteworthy that the media really wasn’t able to crack this nut two months ago—and that’s emblematic of a larger, more troubling issue.
For the problem is double-sided. Lacking the power to investigate, reporters in the shrunken newsroom increasingly have to rely on what they’re told—to depend on the kindness of strangers, as it were. But even in a relatively minor situation like this, those with information usually have at least some incentive to withhold it or spin it to their advantage.
There’s no malice in this, by the way. These are good people doing their jobs.
But while reporters’ power is declining, their power is growing. And that’s changing how news stories get told.
Here’s the second trend: while the news media has declined, the PR industry has taken off—and it’s made a science of figuring out how best to ‘control the message.’
Public relations has been around forever. As a profession, though, it’s only about as old as psychology, and it’s advancing at about the same rate. (Think about how bad psychology was in 1950 compared to today—PR’s improved by similar leaps and bounds.) And as companies and organizations grow more aware of the importance of “image,” public relations takes on an increasingly prominent role. (This is heightened all the more because there’s been an explosion of new media outlets in recent decades too—from cable channels to the Internet to social media and beyond. Now, if you’re a company, it’s not enough to craft your image on three or four outlets—you have to craft it on three or four hundred.)
As a result: fifty years ago there was one PR rep for every reporter; now the ratio’s closer to 4:1. No reason to think that’s going to change. Career advisors are now actively encouraging prospective journalism majors to track towards PR instead. (Better long-term prospects.)
And that in turn amplifies and accelerates the consequence of all this: what you hear in the news is often just a rehash of official statements and press releases. “Churnalism,” it’s called. We often blame this on journalistic laziness, but that’s not what it is—it’s all these trends at once, coming together. And this is what you get. Government agencies, organizations, businesses all carefully route inquiries to the press office; everyone else is carefully instructed not to speak. You listen to a newscast talk about some national issue, it’s nothing but a Democratic sound bite followed by a Republican sound bite.
Sometimes this is helpful, especially when the PR reps become aware that it’s up to them to determine what gets reported as news. Catherine Lazorko is the public information officer for the Town of Chapel Hill. A couple years ago at WCHL’s Community Forum, she said something that stuck with me: that she finds herself being more careful now, when crafting press releases, about covering all the bases and angles of a given issue—because she knows that her words will very likely end up being lifted directly and dropped into a story. (I doubt that’s changed in the last two years.)
But we can’t assume that sort of altruistic behavior on a regular basis—especially when the organization in question has every incentive to clam up.
In the last three years UNC has had to put up with—well, let’s just say they’ve had to put up with a lot. It’s been three very difficult years. And let’s be honest: some of the headache came from their willingness to be good and open and transparent all that time. Other schools have committed violations far worse than UNC’s—but they locked down, zipped their lips, refused to let NCAA investigators on campus, and basically got off scot-free. UNC did it right, played the game, let investigators on campus, threw open their books, and talked at great length about what went wrong and how best to fix it—and ultimately got hit with sanctions far worse than Miami and Auburn and Oklahoma State and all those other schools put together.
Well, lesson learned.
With the transition from Holden Thorp to Carol Folt, UNC has suddenly become a lot more tight-lipped, at least when it comes to the top administrators. Folt has been incommunicado since taking over, aside from public appearances and carefully prepared remarks; you may notice you don’t hear her quoted in the media nearly as often as Thorp was. (Folt did sit down with us for a WCHL News Special with Jim Heavner, but that was really her first extended interview since she first took over—and it’s worth noting that it aired in November. We usually do that annual interview-with-the-chancellor in August.)
And it goes further. Earlier this month UNC named Joel Curran—senior executive at one of the world’s largest PR agencies—to the position of “Vice Chancellor for Communications and Public Affairs.” It’s a position they just now created.
Three guesses why.
The point is, organizations like UNC have every reason to want to control the message, as much as possible. The PR industry has enabled them to do that more effectively than ever before—and the media’s inability to dig deeper makes it all the easier too. It’s not because of malice or laziness or any personal flaw—it’s the byproduct of several long-term, large-scale trends, and if we want to reverse it it’s not going to be easy.
But that’s where it stands.
And shoot, now I can’t think of a good ending for this post. Well, add your own pithy conclusion here, and I’ll accept it without question.http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/crisis-modern-journalism-part-ii/