Political Emails Reach New Lows

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With Joe Biden’s presidency nearing the six-month mark, the Republican National Committee sent out a “Biden Report Card”—a poll in which Biden’s performance is graded from A to F.

The RNC email begins, “Friend, Let’s be clear. Joe Biden is a FAILURE.” It goes on: “Biden is out of touch and out of control, which is why we’re turning to YOU to get your unfiltered opinion on Biden’s performance by completing the Official Biden Report Card.” I have no idea what the “results” were, but the set-up seemed certain to create a real nail-biter.

The next day the Democratic Governors Association sent an email with a banner that flashed in bright red and white, URGENT POLL. The message read, “Tell us before midnight: Do you approve of Biden and Harris?” The voting options were “yes” and “no”—and, just to make it more scientific, the word yes was on a red button while no was on pale gray.

Nonstop campaigning isn’t new, it’s a sad fact of politics. What’s changing is intensity and relentless messaging.

Modern media, both professional and social, were supposed to create a better informed electorate and a rich diversity of political opinion. Instead, our tools are used to build barriers. Email is worst. At least when campaigning via regular mail or with paid ads in print and on television, out-of-pocket costs force some limits.

Political emails are ridiculously rigid: Even 42 months before the next presidential election there is no middle ground, no semblance of open-mindedness. As an experiment, I submitted contrary votes in both “polls,” giving President Biden an “A” in the RNC survey and a “No” in the Democratic poll. It didn’t matter. Both of my votes opened pages that pushed toward the same pre-determined conclusions.

“Are you concerned that Donald Trump will run for president again?” was the follow-up query in the Democrats’ Biden poll. “Will you invest $100 to help Democratic governors stop Trump’s hateful agenda?”

The Republican survey wasted little time getting to its point: “Please contribute any amount right now to directly fund our efforts to defeat Biden!” (Remember, I had just voted to give Joe Biden the highest possible grade.) The suggested donations were $45 to $2,900.

A simple course for those of us who hate this email nonsense would be to “unsubscribe.” But concerned voters understandably want to hear what their party has to say. I don’t want to cut off my nose just to stop the stink of foolish emails.

Both parties shamelessly use whatever hook they can find to ask for personal information and money. “You may not know me yet,” began an email from Marie Boyd, “but you do know my husband, DNC Chair Jamie Harrison, which is why I have a special request for you. Jamie is so fired up about this grassroots team and the future of the Democratic Party—so I want to surprise him with a card signed by incredible supporters like you this Father’s Day.”

I discovered that the digital card for Harrison could not be submitted without my cell number. Really? And, of course, the message contained a request for money—with $2,000 among the suggested sums.

Just a few days earlier, a GOP email solicited signatures on “President Trump’s ONLY surprise birthday card.” This pitch also asked for a phone number, as well as an email address and, of course, a donation of up to $2,900.

Political emails are giving spam a bad name. And relentless off-season badgering for cash undoubtedly leaves many civic-minded citizens with headaches.

The Democrats’ email containing the Biden approval poll said its purpose was to help “heal our democracy.” Reading bogus surveys and email blather from both parties, I have to say healing is not what comes to mind.

Copyright 2021 Peter Funt distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Funt’s new memoir, “Self-Amused,” is now available at CandidCamera.com.

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There’s Too Much Breaking News to Bear

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Lost in the press of recent world events was news from Washington state about a dramatic jury trial resulting in the conviction of a 77-year-old Ilwaco woman, who now faces a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

Doris Parks pleaded not guilty, just as she did back in 2014 when tried on similar charges. That trial was interrupted when prosecutors offered a deal, resulting in a $500 fine but no jail time.

The latest case hinged on gripping testimony from officer Paul Jacobson. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, Jacobson conducted extensive video surveillance. Despite objections from defense attorney Killian Dunkeson, the footage was played for the six-member jury, accompanied by testimony by an expert witness, Scott Harris, a wildlife biologist.

A turning point came during officer Jacobson’s testimony about surveilling the Parks’ home. He told Judge Nancy McAllister that he saw a bear walk up Parks’ driveway and onto her deck.

Although Jacobson conceded under cross-examination that he never saw Parks feeding bears, he said the animals he observed were obese.

Officers had been alerted by a neighbor, Gerry Douglas, who testified that he compiled more than 60 video clips of bears on Parks’ property. Asked by defense lawyer Dunkeson if he had ever personally witnessed Parks feeding a bear, Douglas conceded he had not. However, he told the court, “I have seen the door open up there, on the patio, and I have seen a hand with food slide out.”

Biologist Harris told the court that he examined the video evidence and concluded that some bears in the footage appeared “huge” considering that it was spring and the bears had only recently emerged from hibernation. He said he was “kind of amazed” that the bears returned to the same place so often.

Testifying in her own defense, Parks said she only feeds raccoons and birds, noting that raccoons “have very good manners.” She added that she is cautious around bears, but “I have never seen a bear hurt anyone.”

The jury took only 30 minutes to deliver its verdict, finding Doris Parks guilty of “intentionally feeding, or attempting to feed, large wild carnivores or intentionally attracting large wild carnivores to land or a building.” Sentencing is due later this month.

I’d like to thank reporter Brandon Cline of the Chinook Observer for his close-up coverage of the trial. It’s a shame that in these tense and troubled times, so much breaking news is easily overlooked.

Copyright 2021 Peter Funt distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Funt’s new memoir, “Self-Amused,” is now available at CandidCamera.com.


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Abnormality Has Its Virtues

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It’s normal these days to applaud the return to normality. But I’m going to miss some of the abnormal stuff we’ve been doing during the pandemic. The Top 10 things I hate to lose:

10 – Home Haircuts. For a year my wife Amy has been cutting my hair, but now that we’re both vaccinated she’s making unsubtle suggestions that it’s time for me to go back to Al, whose shop is a 30 minute roundtrip from our house. Al is a nice guy who keeps me waiting, talks too much, and often nicks my ear. For this I pay 25 dollars plus a 10-dollar tip.

9 – Quiet Ballgames. I loved last year’s fan-free games on television. I could have done without the cardboard cutouts but nothing beats watching a TV game without incessant cutaways to rowdy fans with funny hats, silly signs and spilled beers.

8 – No-Contact Takeout. Isn’t it amazing how quickly restaurateurs arranged hassle-free takeout when they had to? You order online, pay in advance, and pop your trunk for the food without saying a word. Why would we ever want to give that up?

7 – Zooming. Sure, some business meetings work better when participants are all in the same room. But with Zoom, OMG, no commuting, no waiting, no schmoozing. And, no shoes? No problem.

6 – Excuses. There will never be a better excuse than the pandemic. “Sorry, I can’t come over to see how well your herb garden is doing.” “No, I can’t go shopping for patio furniture.” “Alas, I can’t schedule that colonoscopy right now.” It’s not me, it’s the pandemic.

5 – Sweatpants. The last time I bothered with zippered pants was March 6, 2020.

4 – No traffic. If by chance you had to drive somewhere during sheltering, what a breeze it was! To my utter astonishment, a two-hour drive to San Francisco during the pandemic took…two hours.

3 – Grazing. When you’re cloistered at home, three meals a day can easily become five or six. Nothing takes your mind off not having anything to do like a second lunch, and a third Bloody Mary.

2 – Amazon. The Bezos behemoth isn’t going away, but during the pandemic it was a lifeline to everything from electronics to groceries to over-priced toilet paper. How Amazon cajoled the Postal Service to deliver on Sunday, I’ll never know.

1 – Masks. OK, masks are a nuisance and, for some, a political distraction. But like the Lone Ranger, many of us enjoyed hiding some emotion behind a mask. No smiles. No frowns. And, when my dentist told me I needed a new tooth I worried about having a gaping hole for a few weeks. “No one will ever know,” he said. “Just wear a mask.”

I hope whatever the next normal is like, it retains some of what we came to enjoy during the recent normal.

Peter Funt’s new book, “Self Amused,” will be published this summer.

Copyright 2021 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.

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What’s in Store for Biden on SNL?

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NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” returns with a new episode on March 27 and it remains a mystery whether the show will have someone portray President Biden. A bigger question: Will SNL dare give Biden the same treatment it gave Gerald Ford?

President Ford, a star athlete in college, slipped on the steps of Air Force One in June 1975. When SNL had its debut four months later, Chevy Chase played Ford as a klutz, falling down in sketch after sketch – a depiction that helped make Chase a big star. It branded Ford and helped dash his chances against Jimmy Carter the following year.

Last Friday, President Biden had the misfortune to slip at least twice on the steps of Air Force One. He wasn’t injured, but his image might have been hurt. Right-wing commentators already claim he’s too old and frail for the job. They’ll be aching for Biden to get a Ford-style portrayal on SNL.

So far, the NBC series has stayed clear of Biden. He is mentioned briefly on Weekend Update, but there has yet to be a sketch with a Biden character in 2021.

The last time anyone played Biden on SNL was December 19, when cast member Alex Moffat took a turn. Before the election Jim Carrey portrayed Biden and some Democrats felt it was too harsh. Carrey left the role last fall without much explanation except to say it was never meant to be a permanent gig.

Earlier, Woody Harrelson provided a toothy, straight-from-the-headlines version of Biden, and Jason Sudeikis did a spot-on impression of the then-vice president during the Obama years.

I placed a call to Alan Zweibel, who was one of the original writers at SNL and worked on the Ford parodies. “We were at an age where the Republicans were the bad guys,” he told me. He recalls that after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, “Ford comes along and he’s the guy who not only pardoned Nixon, but kept falling down a lot. So, you know, it just seemed like the natural thing to do.”

SNL and its creator, Lorne Michaels, frequently state that they treat both parties equally in search of comedy and satire. But Jay Pharoah, who did a winning impression of President Obama, has said in interviews that SNL went a bit soft on Obama in the latter stages of his presidency. “A lot of the time I was told I had to keep him presidential,” Pharoah explains. “I was just forced to be a part of the machine and try to do the best I can.”

So, what will be Joe Biden’s fate? Will SNL turn him into a Ford-style bumbler who keeps losing his footing? Or will SNL steer clear of damaging Biden’s image at a time when the nation is already so divided on politics?

Chevy Chase is now 77, one year younger than Joe Biden. Maybe SNL will invite him to stumble back into the presidential role.

Peter Funt is working on a book about portrayals of sitting presidents, titled “Playing POTUS.”

Copyright 2021 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.

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The Wonder of Sonny Fox

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Irwin Fox died the other day. If you missed it because you were engrossed in obits about Hank Aaron, Larry King and Cloris Leachman, that’s understandable. Besides, at 95, Mr. Fox had outlived many of his fans.

As a kid in Brooklyn they called him “Sonny,” so he kept it – for the months he spent in a Nazi POW camp during WWII, through broadcasting courses at NYU, and into the offices of the “Candid Microphone” radio program, where my father, Allen Funt, gave him his first job in 1947.

The radio show and its television offshoot, “Candid Camera,” became Dad’s entire career. Sonny Fox moved on, first as a correspondent for the Voice of America during the Korean War, and then as a pioneer in children’s television. He paved the way for performers like Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) and then Fred Rogers, to name two who, like Sonny, could relate to kids on their own level.

“They taught me as much as I taught them,” he said about the children he interviewed. “I had an insatiable curiosity about the inner life that goes on in children.”

His first foray into kids TV came at an educational station in St. Louis, where he answered an ad for “A man who can talk to a boy, man-to-man.” This daily series, “The Finder,” was later used by the Ford Foundation to introduce public stations to children’s programming – the forerunner of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

In the mid-fifties Sonny landed a show on CBS called “Let’s Take a Trip,” a marvel of live-TV production, using full-size studio cameras that had to be lugged around the globe. Sonny and two young companions visited the Truman Library in Missouri, spring training in Florida with the Dodgers, as well as a rope factory, a shoe factory, and a ski slope in Canada.

Today’s kids can go to such places via the Internet, but back then it was unique, embellished by the smooth, gentle, always curious Mr. Fox. Unlike other kids’ fare of the period – mostly cartoons and slapstick – “Let’s Take a Trip,” which ran for three years, was a product of the CBS News Division. Billboard magazine reviewed this series in 1955, noting: “Like so many good things, ‘Let’s Take a Trip’ is so simple it is only amazing it was not done before.”

CBS gave Sonny a second job, in prime-time, hosting “The $64,000 Challenge.” He didn’t care for it – and wasn’t very good, once reading the answer instead of the question – so getting fired was a piece of good luck. He was spared the quiz show scandals that came a short while later.

In 1959 he took over as host of a local kids show on Channel 5 in New York that became nationally renowned, although televised only in the tri-state area. “Wonderama” was a weekly four-hour children’s festival.

“I have no talent – no performing talent,” Sonny conceded. “I don’t do puppets, I don’t sing. I realized that the kids in the audience were the show. I didn’t condescend to them.”

“Wonderama” was a mix of fun and games, but it featured guests such as producer Joseph Papp and a troupe of Shakespearean performers, opera star Roberta Peters, and regular appearances by Sen. Robert Kennedy, who conducted “press conferences” with youngsters.

Sonny went on to serve as head of children’s programming at NBC, and as chairman of Television Academy, but his legacy lies in what he did for children during the fifties and sixties.

W.C. Fields famously advised performers to never work with animals or kids. It’s a good thing my friend Sonny Fox never got the message. “What a long-lasting thumb print we left on those malleable minds,” he said.

A list of Peter Funt’s upcoming live appearances is available at www.CandidCamera.com.

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com. Copyright 2021 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.

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Trading Cards Collect New Fans

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To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling: A good cigar is a smoke, but a cigar box filled with trading cards is a treasure.

My father smoked Dutch Masters Panetelas and the box in which they came was the perfect size for storing baseball and football cards made by the Topps company. Cards came in packs of six, along with a stiff slab of pink bubble gum that had a distinctive sweet smell, while the box, having once held cigars, had a deep earthy scent. In combination the aroma was intoxicating.

With modern digital enhancements, and boosted by pandemic-altered lifestyles, the sports-card business is booming. This month, a single card printed in 1952 by the Topps company, depicting the Yankees rookie sensation Mickey Mantle, sold for a record $5.2 million.

Topps was a family business in Brooklyn, launched in 1938 by Morris Shorin and his four sons. The business, however, was gum—sold for a penny per slab. It wasn’t until 1949 that the Shorins decided they could sell more gum by including “Magic Photo Cards” in the packs, featuring sports stars such as Babe Ruth and Cy Young.

Within three years Topps was producing more than 400 different baseball cards annually. Then, in 1992, after four decades of selling kids candy they no longer wanted, Topps determined it could peddle more cards by eliminating the gum. Besides, buyers hated the fact that, when warm, melting gum stained the valuable cards.

Today’s collectors have more on their minds, as reflected by a recent piece in The Athletic magazine titled, “A guide to football card investing and future speculating.” The focus was on cards produced by Panini, an Italian firm that specialized in selling stickers of soccer stars and expanded to the U.S. in 2009. Having scooped up rights to the NBA and NFL, the company has modernized the trading-card trade and made speculators out of collectors.

Demand is growing for cards manufactured by Panini America and for Topps, which continues to hold rights for Major League Baseball.

As a former collector and current diehard fan, I must say the new card craze leaves me cold. The Athletic reports, “like any investment, speculating on football cards carries risk. But those risks can be minimized given that Panini produces cards for each player in a range of investment levels. Think of these as akin to small-cap, medium-cap and large-cap investments.”

Another recent wrinkle is “box breaks,” in which collectors buy rights to a certain number of cards in a new box or case, usually opened “live” on YouTube or other social media sites. Topps is conducting a Breaker Showcase next month, with “distinguished guests!” and a chance for someone to win the “Platinum Box Cutter!”

In March, Panini will release its newest NFL set: “Six cards per box, 10 boxes per inner case, two inner cases per master case” in what it calls “stunning Optichrome technology.” These are sold at an online auction, with the price starting at $800 and dropping every five minutes until the set sells out.

My allowance used to be 25 cents a week, which bought me 30 Topps cards and five slabs of stale gum. I’m guessing that, even with inflation, today’s kids are priced out of the Panini auction. But, maybe, if they’re lucky, dad will let them play with the box.

A list of Peter Funt’s upcoming live appearances is available at www.CandidCamera.com.

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com. Copyright 2021 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.

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Trump’s Game Shouldn’t Fool Anyone

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Donald Trump is trying to win the election with every court challenge and tweet he can muster, but he doesn’t really care how many votes he and Joe Biden wind up getting. That’s because the election Trump is determined to win is in November 2024.

Although Trump and his cable-news enablers mock the polls, Trump has known for some time he wasn’t going to win this year. That was clear months ago as he mounted a crusade against voting by mail – his first salvo in discrediting Biden’s eventual victory.

“Mail-In Ballots will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election,” Trump tweeted on July 2. Why would he do that four months before the election if he actually expected to win? And the brouhaha about alleged vote-counting irregularities in Philadelphia, Detroit and other Democratic strongholds is only designed to further enrage Trump’s base when Biden is officially certified as the 46th president.

Trump’s goals: (a) convince those who voted for him that the system is rigged and they were cheated, (b) promote conspiracy theories to undermine Biden’s presidency, (c) energize cable-TV and talk-radio hosts who will promote Trump and his brand for the next four years, and (d) raise money, starting with urgent appeals to fund bogus legal challenges.

Trump is sending multiple emails per day to supporters, such as this on Nov. 10: “We cannot let the Left go unchecked any longer. There are too many irregularities and room for potential DECEPTION to give up now. We need to FIGHT BACK, but we can’t do it without your help.”

According to Axios and other news outlets, Trump is expected to hold campaign-style rallies in the coming weeks. If he does, his 2024 re-re-election bid will have begun.

In his acceptance speech in 2016, Trump said, “Ours was not a campaign but rather an incredible and great movement.” In a twisted way, that’s not unlike the approach Bernie Sanders took when he lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton. Sanders spent the next four years building a powerful grassroots movement among progressives who believed they had been cheated by Clinton’s forces. They were encouraged by talk shows like “The Young Turks,” and by the time campaigning began again in 2019 Sanders had what many believed to be the best shot at securing the nomination.

Trump just got over 71 million votes – a number that no amount of recounting will change – creating a powerful base for 2024. Many Trump voters are angry. Everything he’s doing now is designed to reinforce that anger so that it survives as a “movement.”

Even as he emailed that the race with Biden wasn’t over, Trump formed what’s known as a leadership political action committee. Such PACs can accept up to $5,000 per year from each donor. While the money can’t be used to directly fund a campaign in 2024, it will be available for travel and other expenses as Trump charts his course to retake the White House.

In 2024 Trump will turn the same age as Biden will be when he takes the oath of office: 78. Many have speculated that Biden will step down after one term at age 82, presumably making possible a run by Kamala Harris to replace him. I imagine that’s a fight Trump would relish.

That said, American politics are increasingly tough to predict. Four years is a long time. The nation faces so many problems right now that even thinking about scenarios four years out is folly.

But those watching Trump’s current post-election circus act should understand what’s up. The man isn’t trying to stay in office, he’s looking for a way to get back. As he said upon winning in 2016: “While the campaign is over, our work on this movement is now really just beginning.”

That’s how Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and others at their network will cast it. To them, Trump will always be crazy like a Fox.

A list of Peter Funt’s upcoming live appearances is available at www.CandidCamera.com.

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com. Copyright 2020 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.

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Voting Ends, Emails Continue

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Those of us who assumed Election Day would mark a merciful end to the torrent of emails asking for money, obviously don’t understand the new normal in politics. On Nov. 5 the Trump campaign emailed:

“Defend the Election. We need you to protect the election results!” It asked for a donation which would be “matched by 1000%.”

Minutes later, the Biden campaign emailed:

“Peter, your donation – right now – to the Biden Fight Fund will help prevent Donald Trump and Republican’s attempts to throw out duly cast ballots and steal elections.”

Does this ever end? What’s next?

Nov. 10 – “Fellow Democrat: Our election victory still faces challenges in court by desperate Republicans. Will you donate $25 today to the Biden Legal Fund?”

Nov. 26 – “Friend, we all have so much to be thankful for. Please click below to make your donation of $10 or more to the Biden Thanksgiving Fund.”

Nov. 27 – “As we continue to digest our election victory, help show your support by sending $50 to the Biden Black Friday Fund.”

Dec. 8 – “Fellow Democrat, the inauguration is drawing near and there’s work to be done! Use the link below to make your pledge to the Biden Inauguration Fund!”

Dec. 23 – “Greetings! Please show your support by signing this digital holiday card for Dr. Jill Biden and President-Elect Joe Biden. Donations to the Biden Holiday Fund are welcome.”

Jan. 5 – “As you know, most presidents wear a red tie for their inauguration, but some have opted for blue. Please take a moment to share your preference for Joe’s big day, and give what you can to the Biden Wardrobe Fund.”

Jan. 6 – “Dear Supporter, we wish you could join us in Washington for the inauguration, but participating in our online gathering is the next best thing! Click here and contribute $50 to reserve your spot for the Biden Zoom Fund.”

Jan. 14 – “Friend, we know you get a lot of requests for political donations. Joe’s team wants to put an end to that. Please help our effort by contributing to the Biden Donation Fund.”

Jan. 20 – “Hello! It’s a new day in America. As Joe takes the oath of office, please help us prepare for the tough fights ahead. Give today to the Biden First Term Fund.”

Jan. 21 – “Fellow Americans, Joe needs your help! Please click below to make your urgently-needed donation to the Biden Re-election Fund.”

A list of Peter Funt’s upcoming live appearances is available at www.CandidCamera.com.

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com. Copyright 2020 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.

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How Real Should Reel Life Be?

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Hollywood must deal with the burden of producing TV programs during a pandemic and at a time of social and political upheaval in our country. Viewers, however, deserve better than to endure heavy on-screen doses of the very things they are hoping to escape in real life.

The issue was brought into sharp focus in the season premiere of NBC’s drama “This Is Us,” which has pleased audiences and won numerous awards. Now, after four years of untangling the complicated fictional lives of the Pearson family, we find the characters discussing George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter, while wearing masks to cope with COVID-19.

Although too melodramatic for some, I’ve loved the series. The writing is compelling, the dramatic themes believable, and the acting exceptional. Most appealing is the show’s deft intercutting of scenes from the characters’ lives spread over several decades.

The producers had long developed a storyline that would play out over the final two seasons. Then, when the pandemic hit and production was delayed, a decision was made to incorporate both the coronavirus and racial strife in new episodes. The show’s creator, Dan Fogelman, said it would have “felt almost irresponsible” to avoid writing actual events into the plot.

The NBC series is not the first to take on current themes. Netflix’s eight-part anthology “Social Distance” fictionalized the lives of people dealing with the pandemic, as did the four-part “Love in the Time of Corona,” distributed by Hulu. But these are limited-run projects, designed expressly to explore the effects of the pandemic.

An established series like “This Is Us” faces different obstacles when dipping into current events. If the Pearsons wear masks and talk about COVID-19, and if Randall Pearson’s Black family agonizes over George Floyd’s death, then who are the Pearsons voting for? How can a series be so “on the nose,” as Hollywood puts it, about viruses and protests, while ignoring the most divisive election of our times?

It can’t. Fogelman was right to skip the election, telling the LA Times, “I don’t think our show is the forum for it.” But he was creatively misguided to cherry-pick other topics from the headlines. Earlier, for example, the show developed a compelling political theme about Sterling K. Brown’s character, Randall Pearson, running for city council in Philadelphia, while staying clear of real-life politics. Similarly, we see Pearson exploring his Black identity, but we don’t need it reenforced by actual news about protests in Minneapolis.

Medical dramas, including ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Good Doctor” have incorporated coronavirus themes for this season. Even the animated series “South Park” had a pandemic-themed special, a standalone episode on Comedy Central.

Hollywood’s rush to relevance could be a serious misjudgment about viewers’ interests during these stressful times. For some of us, the drone of television’s “breaking news” provides as much topical tension as we can tolerate.

Fogelman and his team are taking “This Is Us” down a rabbit hole where art imitates the very things in life we’d just as soon forget, at least for an hour or so.

A list of Peter Funt’s upcoming live appearances is available at www.CandidCamera.com.

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com. Copyright 2020 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.

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Documentaries Are Often Misleading

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Ever since FCC chief Newton Minow famously branded it a “vast wasteland” six decades ago, television has tried to polish its image. One way was with probing documentaries, pioneered by journalists like Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. Today, documentaries are more popular than ever, but as competition to produce them heats up, they’re becoming part of a new kind of journalistic wasteland.

Two of the summer’s popular docs, both Emmy nominees, are examples of the loosened journalistic standards. “Becoming,” Michelle Obama’s personal story, was produced for Netflix by…the Obamas. “Hillary,” Hulu’s documentary about the 2016 Clinton campaign, came from a production company selected by…Mrs. Clinton.

Programs like these are being produced at a frenetic pace, with over 1,000 titles labeled “documentary” currently available on Netflix and Amazon alone. But are they all really documentaries? Or are they infotainment?

Why is “This Is Paris,” a new YouTube film about Paris Hilton, labeled a documentary? It stars Paris Hilton and was produced by Paris Hilton, who is quoted as saying she gave the director, Alexandra Dean, “full creative control over the film.” That’s like hiring a stylist and saying you’ve given her “full control” of your hair.

Slick production and viewer-appeal among current offerings isn’t in question. What’s troubling are the editorial compromises required to make them, and the ways in which cozy relationships are camouflaged.

So muddled are standards for TV’s new quasi-journalistic documentaries that even veteran TV critics are sometimes misled. James Poniewozik of the New York Times began his review of “Hillary” by stating: “During the 2016 election, the director Nanette Burstein got exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the campaign…” That might have been Emmy-worthy had it been true. In fact, Burstein was hired a year after the election by Clinton and producers at Propagate Content. The “exclusive” footage had already been shot by a crew employed by the campaign.

As is often the case when such creative compromises are made, money is at the root. In Murrow’s day documentaries cost little and made even less. Today’s docs are big business. Budgets are soaring because of competition among streaming services and because those who control access to material are driving hard bargains.

My son Danny has been looking into this for the Columbia Journalism Review. Dan Birman, a director who has worked for Netflix, told him: “Documentaries have never been so popular, but it opens up the possibility that people will abuse the form in the name of entertainment.” Birman said that for documentarians, “These are the best of times and the worst of times.”

Music and sports documentaries are particularly prone to behind-the-scenes entanglements. Showtime ran a documentary this summer about the Go-Gos that was produced by the group’s record label, owned by Universal Music. ESPN garnered enormous publicity with its Emmy-winning documentary “The Last Dance,” a project that was only possible after the basketball superstar Michael Jordan stipulated terms by which his trove of behind-the-scenes footage could be shown.

Some outlets, notably PBS, still follow strict journalistic guidelines. In its standards manual, suppliers are advised: “Content distributed by PBS must be free of undue influence from third-party funders, political interests, and other outside forces.” Such rules are largely ignored on streaming services and pay-cable channels, where many popular documentaries are entirely dependent on “outside forces.”

A new twist in the making of modern documentaries is the growing awareness among politicians, celebrities and athletes that the market value of their story is likely to increase in direct proportion to the amount of footage available to tell it. This has created a new job in the entourage of many VIPs: full-time videographer. One of the first to recognize this was the basketball star Dwyane Wade, who arranged to have his career photographed beginning in 1997. After Wade retired last year he marketed the footage for use in a documentary about his life, “D. Wade Life Unexpected,” produced by Ron Howard’s Imagine Documentaries.

It could be argued that today’s documentaries are no different than autobiographies, in which persons of interest tell their own stories. But few such books promote false veneers of objectivity. Hillary Clinton was interviewed for 35 hours by the director she hired, and publicists stressed that “no questions were off limits.” But publicists didn’t mention that Clinton participated in editing.

Viewers would be better served if this popular style of programming were more carefully labeled. At a time when some rail about fake news, there’s little room for faux documentaries.

A list of Peter Funt’s upcoming live appearances is available at www.CandidCamera.com.

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com. © 2020 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.

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