Saturday, March 15, 2008

Starting From The Beginning...

Many times we have been asked: Why Switzerland? I'm not entirely sure myself except that Miles, who has never been out of the U.S., had a fascination with the country and I figured indulging it would be the best way to kick off more exotic travels. Miles also loves cold, wet weather -- which he gets virtually none of in Las Vegas -- so going in the off-season made a lot of sense to us. It also was a steal of a plane ticket I found thanks to Kayak.Com.

Miles claims to be a poor flier, but he did quite well -- without drugs! -- on the pair of flights, including the nine-hour ATL-ZRH leg. His only real complaint, besides the lousy film lineup (Bee Movie and Balls of Fury) was that the pilot never informed us when we were flying over anything even though he promised he would.

Not that we could see anything, given the cloud cover. Here was our first, gloriously gloomy glimpse of Switzerland:

And here we are on the ground, waiting to disembark...

Fixing our clocks (Zurich is five hours ahead of Atlanta, eight ahead of Vegas)...

Heading to baggage, with a glimpse of the guy who, despite having an empty seat besides him, nonetheless put his seat back so far he might have been laying in my lap...Grr...

And then we were out waiting for a streetcar to take us to our hotel...

Our home at the moment is Hotel Neufeld, and our room is the one on the third floor with the cute balcony below. It's got this cute little restaurant called the Popcorn Restaurant where we get breakfast included with our room.
I picked this place from an excellent site called TravelRes.Com which seems to have the consistently best rates. And, yes, they do Vegas, too. But another reason I picked it was because the street was named... Friesenberg!

Here's what our cute room looks like...

Mostly, Miles is a little irked that CNN International is the only English station we're getting. We're now up to speed on the unrest in Tibet and the fate of women in Iraq. But we also noticed that even the Swiss papers are enthralled with the "Spitzer schwach." Page 2 of the major paper here had those Myspace pix of the hooker who supposedly serviced the NY gov. How strange that they would care about the sex scandal of a local government official in America.

We took a long afternoon nap on Friday to catch up after the travel and the time change and then headed out to look around and get some dinner. We'll be renting a car on Sunday for the upcoming week, so we were curious about how gas prices were. And seeing this, we got excited...

...until we remembered our metric system and realized that that's 1.79 Swiss Francs (which are actually roughly 1-to-1 with $ right now) per liter, not gallon. And since there's about 3.8 liters to a gallon, that means gas is $6.80 a gallon here. Yikes! Hope the fuel economy is as good as you always hear.

Don't know why it tickled me that the dumpsters are painted like the walls of a kindergarten, but it did... did the idea that this Chinese takeout was called Yummy Yummy...

But then again, this below is where we ended up for dinner, eating pizza.

It doesn't sound very exotic, of course, but I'm still not eating hard food because of my dental mess and, anyway, we're finding that Switzerland is kind of the US of Europe, with heavy influences of German, French and Italian cuisines. So pizza -- and it was really good -- isn't that inauthentic. We did go into a different place but the waitress didn't speak English and Miles got uncomfortable, so we split for this place.

And finally, we leave you with this billboard...

...not for the beefcake but for the intriguing little thing atop the billboard that proves that you're never far from the clutches of corporate America. Can't see it?

More later.

Oh, wait. One more thing. Miles just came in from the balcony. "You know what you don't see around here?" he asked. Then he answered himself: "Police." He's also surprised that there aren't more blond people and I've noticed we haven't seen almost anyone fat. So I guess a fat blond policeman would be out of the question...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Friess: Comment

Wow, what a surprise to arrive here earlier after being awake for 24 hours of travel to find the kind of battle occurring in the comments of the prior post. I went and deleted the one obscene, completely ridiculous remark and then I wrote a response that Blogger didn't seem to post. That was frustrating, but Miles wouldn't let me rewrite it before we had a "brief" nap which became, well, all day.

I'll try to keep this brief, but I do need to answer remarks made here:

* Re: Steve Sebelius' comment about media criticism in Vegas from the last post: I stand partly corrected and will take his word for it on the points he makes about ad revenues and the history of Matt O'Brien's media column. But it still remains a loss to the community that there is no journalist in this city dedicated to media commentary the way other major cities have the likes of Michael Miner or Howard Kurtz. And it still is left to the Internet to be the more independent voices observing the press rather than the editor of a paper owned by the city's largest newspaper. As hard as Steve works, he is still a top official involved in one of these companies. It's very difficult for him to be seen as truly independent even as he genuinely strives to be.

* My alleged bias against the Sun. Take a good look at this blog. Take a look at all the entries related to the Las Vegas Sun. Here, I'll help you since you wish to make uninformed comments without any backup.  The vast majority of the time, I have great praise for the Sun. My time at the R-J taints me? Why would anything else you have to say be credible when my public record on this is so easy to access and so obviously not as you present it?

* The NYT piece in CityCenter. Yes, I spoke to several public arts experts, including Jack Bender, publisher of the Public Art Review and executive director of Forecast Public Art, as well as Richard Lynch of Americans for the Arts, the leading public-art non-profit. And there were others. But sometimes in journalism we interview lots of people we don't get to quote because (a) there's not enough space and (b) all the experts said pretty much the same thing. And what they said was (a) the MGM project was genuinely impressive in its ambition and scale and (b) it was most certainly public art in the sense that it will exist in spaces that are publicly available to anyone. In fact, that's one reason they're not putting any of it in the CityCenter casino; children can't go there. What's considered "public" is a bit different in Vegas than elsewhere; ordinary people know they can tramp through fancy lobbies and casinos and never feel out of place even if they don't spend a dime because it is customary here for people to do so. I've tried this in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong and was asked by some attendant whether I had a reservation. It's a different world. Furthermore, we journalists do strive for balance. That's why I called on the art critic Joan Altabe  of the Robb Report. She was the most virulently anti-Vegas-for-art in 2002 when I wrote about a Faberge exhibit at the Bellagio and, later, a Monet exhibit. And yet SHE said she was "dazzled" by the CityCenter effort and couldn't wait to come see it. So that felt like an art-world consensus to me that this was a credible and possible game-changing public art effort. That quote, too, was trimmed for space.

* My alleged Vegas-is-tacky posture: See my current Las Vegas Weekly column. I'm the guy in the mainstream media that is very, very quick to take note of unnecessary anti-Vegas bias and inaccuracy. The set-up of the NYT piece on public art actually came directly out of my interview with Maya Lin and two other artists. They were  terribly amused by the idea that they would be the least likely Vegas headliners. It's not anti-Vegas bias to note what the world expects of Vegas -- and I wonder who thought Sinatra was tacky anyhow!?! -- and toy with that.

* Re: Cliched anti-USAT bias: So it's wrong to point out Vegas' traditional history but it's OK to insult hundreds of journalists whose newspaper has vastly improved since, uh, the 1980s? I write longer pieces for USA Today nowadays than I do for the NYT. I am very proud of the pieces I did from China for USAT. The experience of crawling around a country where the press are brutally mistreated with a minimal grip on the language, relying on a network of friends and translators, and being able to turn around textured, lengthy pieces with sourcing from both China and the West (which meant working all night for days sometimes to reach those sources) was a great challenge and a terrific learning opportunity. The USAT staff nowadays is made up of Nieman fellows and Pulitzer winners. To insult its quality because of a 25-year-old reputation is like, well, calling Vegas tacky based in Excalibur.

* A 535-word correction is seriously newsworthy. It is the media's equivalent of a politician being shown to have or having admitted to have exhibited significant incompetence. The media doesn't just shrug when that happens and say, "Oh, OK. Carry on. Thanks for letting us know." Have there been longer? Sure, no doubt. But not that I know of here in Vegas, where I work and observe. And evidently the industry's trade publication, E&P, also saw it as news, which is saying something. And what's more, a newspaper that demands responses from its sources amid controversy has show it does not feel it ought to comment -- even to give a courteous no comment -- amid one of its own. That's hypocrisy, see. And there are many, many questions the public should be asking about the quality of its newspaper and the integrity of its editors in these circumstances. That's not personal any more than any other journalist gets personal covers any other controversy. It's what we do. But we don't often take the time to explain our methods, point out or own worst moments or respond to our readers as I've done here. And, ironically, it is THAT effort that has made people who wish to see a personal vendetta here when, in fact, I have a history prior to this of recommending Joe Schoenmann to editors of major newspapers.

* Back to that Sun bias thing. JeffinOKC is close when he says I make 20 percent of my income from the work I do for two Greenspun publications. It's more like 15 percent. Not a small sum. Which tells you something. I've followed through on this coverage despite knowing that it's vaguely possible that someone could get ticked off and I could lose that important revenue stream. But I do it anyway because I believe it's important. At the very least, I have to believe Joe Schoenmann put more effort into balancing his stories and triple checking his facts knowing my readers and I are watching carefully, and that's good news for everyone -- including Joe. But when was the last time you, oh brave nasty anonymous blog poster, did something that could seriously jeopardize your livelihood just because you felt it was the right thing to do? Never, I'm sure.

* Other bloggers. It is true there are other Vegas bloggers who critique the media, but the generally do it from a serious political perspective. That's a valuable service, but it's not the same as media criticism from a respected journalist with a journalism degree and a lifetime of newsroom experience. Debate that all you want; I stand by my record any day. And other prominent media critics around the country have emailed in recent days to let me know that being accused of being an egomaniac is standard fare for the task.

* Speaking of anonymous blog posts: Some have asked privately why I don't limit this blog's posting abilities. I don't want to do that at this time. The debate is generally healthy, except when it veers into truly offensive language such as what I deleted. I hope nobody thought I was limiting debate by deleting that one notice. It just didn't have any point to it. Well, it showed that whoever was badgering my old editor couldn't win on the merits of a real conversation so he/she went off the wall. But still, it was ugly and unnecessary. I may deputize a friend to delete posts that cross that line while I'm unavailable. Will decide later.

On to dinner in Zurich. Then a little Xanax to readjust the old body clock. Photos coming later!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Schoenmann: No comment.

I'd just had pretty awful dental work this afternoon when Sun city hall scribe Joe Schoenmann came into the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf by UNLV where I was reading the paper before a pre-Switzerland last-minute errand spree. He didn't notice me four-days unshaven in my baseball cap barely hiding unkempt nest of hair, but suddenly I felt incredible nervous.

A journalist friend, via text message, informed me that I was obligated to approach Joe. Here I'd been writing about something incredibly personal, his work and career and the 535-word correction he spawned, for more than a week. I had reached out to him and his editor for comment and received no response whatsoever, a stunning lack of professional courtesy that the Sun itself would never accept from the subject of any of its inquiries. They would, as they should, at very least expect a respectful "no comment." But evidently, the newspaper chose to operate in a stonewalling position that it does not abide in its own sources. I hope its sources take note of that next time they're being chased by someone from the Sun.

Anyhow, I was nervous and I really didn't think I owed anybody anything, but I sucked it up and approached him. I said hello and I must have looked pretty awful because it took him a moment to realize who I was. And I think when he did, his first reaction was to smile before he remembered that I've been blogging about him for a week or so.

I asked why he hadn't responded to my questions. In the nicest possible way, he told me I needed to speak to his editors. I asked him how he was. He looked like he might be willing to answer and then said he didn't want to speak. And that was that.

I've been thinking about this non-exchange all afternoon. I can't say Joe was ever a friend, but I've always found him to be friendly and pleasant, and he was so today even under the circumstances. He did what he should have done if he did not want to give his side, although it is his name that is now forever tied on the Internet to these posts and not that of the people he works for.

Mostly, though, I've been pondering my own role in this. Many colleagues and readers have complimented and supported this coverage and fed me (mostly unsupportable) leads, but many have also wondered where I get off breaking some equivalent of the blue wall of silence and digging in on another journalist.

But here's the problem: There is absolutely nobody else in Las Vegas with the journalistic credibility and the genuine independence to do it. It is one of the saddest facts of this large city that still acts like a hick town, that even the alternative print media (CityLife and the Las Vegas Weekly) are owned by the two competing media conglomerates (Stephens and Greenspun respectively, owners of the R-J and Sun respectively.) The alt-press does occasionally do its job with an item here or there, but it's telling that Matt O'Brien's Media Watch column disappeared in CityLife after it ceased to be owned independently. That may have been a function of Matt's own time constraints as he wrote his book on life in the Vegas storm drains, but if the editors thought it was important, somebody else would have kept it. Instead, the most recent CityLife Media Issue contained not a single bit of media criticism that I can recall.

In fact, if the Schoenmann-Summerlin mess had happened at the R-J, I'd probably worry about my own perceived conflicts because I write for two Greenspun magazines. That's how incestuous this media town is. That said, I have many times in this blog and in private e-mails to editors and reporters, raised coverage concerns (mainly on GLBT issues as a longtime NLGJA leader) and to praise excellent work at both newspapers.

I believe media criticism is an extremely important part of the functioning of the press, especially when the media companies have so many business ties to so many important industries in our community. The newspapers in the major cities are better because they are being watched as carefully as they watch the institutions they cover. The media have far too much power for nobody to be keeping an eye on them.

What should alarm the Las Vegas Sun more than anything is that so many people are looking at this situation and saying, "Eh, what do you expect? It's the Sun." Read the comments on this blog and on Fark.Com and elsewhere where this story has traveled since I started commenting on it. And if you could see my e-mail!

But I see that as a sad, mammoth insult to the journalists over there who do outstanding, award-winning work and the editors who have taken a unique circumstance -- being folded into a full-service daily with no advertising to worry about and no obligation to cover the daily minutiae -- and have used it to do some terrific enterprise reporting. Just this past weekend, for instance, the Jeff German piece about the couple who got screwed by the LAX Nightclub was a piece that needed to be done, could have been cheesy but in fact rang true and advanced the IRS-nightclub saga by showing how it affects real people. (That piece, incidentally, is the sort of thing the alternative press would've done in any other city, but here the nightclub ads are their lifeblood, so...)

Those within the Sun who think that I'm being petty and personal about Schoenmann miss the point entirely: I'm treating you like a real newspaper. This community deserves every bit of accuracy and shoe leather they would get from one. Go ahead and hold yourselves to a lower standard, but don't be surprised when the rest of the community does as well.

It is absolutely not personal. It was good that I dropped in on Joe today because it reminded me that this is more real to him than it is for me, as is the case for most every story we cover. But there's also a reason why we put our bylines on stories, and one is so people can hold someone accountable when things go horribly wrong. I've been on the wrong side of media controversy before and I know how it feels, but I also knew that I deserved my licking and moved on. (See final item here for my worst media hour. Actually, I didn't just accept it. I wrote an apology to my former colleagues for the boneheaded E&P piece I wrote that caused the ruckus.)

Things went horribly wrong at the Sun and, so I've discovered, in other parts of Schoenmann's work. And something ought to be done to show the reading public that the editors of this newspaper know that. A nine-paragraph correction is a start, but it raised as many questions as it answered.

That said, I'm outta here! We're off to Europe! There's email there, too, I hear, but I suspect that, in the great tradition of Vegas scandals, this one, too, will be swept under the rug and forgotten. Oh well.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Strip is LIVE tonight w/ Maya Lin!

I know, I know. Maya Lin's no Bette Midler. But trust me. She's fascinating. Hear the full interview with her and hear her giggle about her first jaunt through a Vegas casino on tonight's show.

Come on down to the live chat at LVROCKS.Com from 7-8 pm PT. Or wait until Thursday and catch the podcast. Your call. We love you either way.

Fleiss to Friess on Spitz

There's always some Nevada connection, isn't there?

Newsweek called on me to chat about Eliot Spitzer with Heidi Fleiss, who runs a coin-op laundry in Pahrump, Nev., now, since I had the scoop on her big (now stalled) male-brothel plans back in 2005 for the magazine.

The piece is up now and here's the top of it:

‘Dude, These Are Men’

Former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss shares her views on Spitzer, prostitution and payment rates.

If anyone can offer any special insight into the Eliot Spitzer scandal, it's Heidi Fleiss. The former Hollywood madam—who once ran a call girl business that served clients like actor Charlie Sheen and who served 21 months in federal prison after being convicted of tax evasion—says she is not surprised by the New York governor's alleged link to a prostitution ring. "What's the mystery?" she asks. "If the guy wants to get laid, he wants to get laid."

Fleiss now lives in Pahrump, Nev., about 80 miles west of Las Vegas, where in 2005 she announced plans to open Nevada's first brothel for female customers. She's vague about why that hasn't happened, except to say that she's now in talks to go into business on that front with Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch near Reno, which was the focus of the HBO show "Cathouse." Meanwhile, Fleiss has opened a laundromat called Dirty Laundry in Pahrump. Last month she was charged with DUI and drug possession and is awaiting trial in that case. Fleiss spoke to NEWSWEEK about the Spitzer case. Excerpts: 

NEWSWEEK: Does it surprise you that someone as high-profile as the governor of New York would get in trouble like this?

Heidi Fleiss: Of course not. Dude, these are men. They think about sex 98 percent of the time.

When you were running your own call girl business, did it ever surprise you what kind of risks these men were taking?

No. Why would it surprise me?

Well, I'm asking. You knew who they were and…

I wasn't going to tell anything.

I know you weren't, but still, it's quite a risk. Did you ever wonder what was motivating these men?

Well, come on, the guy wants to get laid. If the guy wants to get laid, he wants to get laid. What's the mystery? It's an adult activity.

So if these charges are true, should this be the end of Gov. Spitzer's career?

Absolutely. You can't vigorously pursue prosecuting these prostitution rings—I mean, this guy made a point of it—and then do this. Get that guy out of office. He's a liar. He has no business being the voice of the people.

You don't have any sympathy for him?

Well, you know, who wants a governor who doesn't have sex? That would be creepy. But you can't be a hypocrite and a zealot. He's made prostitution out to be a horrible crime. Obviously it's not if he was doing it. It's just a business that needs to be regulated so the women don't have to always suffer.

Read the rest HERE, but here's a fun nugget that fell out of the final draft because it was a little too far afield of the Spitzer scandal:

I remember you had a lot of birds. How many do you have?

I have 24 now. Most of them have been abused. The birds are my life. They mean more to me than anything to me. Nothing else matters to me but my birds. They were born into a life that’s just not fair. I do the best I can. They’re not caged, they get the best food. I don’t know what I did in my life to deserve these beautiful creatures. They can live to be over 100. I say to my Gino, “You’re gonna miss me one day, Gino.” And I have my big homosexual bird, Reggie. I love him so much. He’s gay, though. There are girls around, but he just loves the boys. I’m at peace with myself when I’m around those birds.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Are These Some of Berkley's Gays?

Vegas uberpundit Jon Ralston loves to refer to the two senators from Nevada -- Harry Reid and John Ensign -- as Harry Ensign because, despite their opposing party affiliations, they seem to have an unusual bond. Given the print layout of this Review-Journal piece by Molly Ball today -- in which I am quoted and this blog is referenced for this posting -- ya gotta wonder if someone over at the R-J is trying to say something.

Aren't they CUTE together?

Joe Schoenmann, Again

It's not surprising, given the enormity of the interest in my posts about the Las Vegas Sun's Joe Schoenmann and his 535-word correction last week that more people would be coming out of the woodwork to observe his work.

I've heard nothing from either Joe or Managing Editor Mike Kelley explaining how that epic correction happened or whether anyone would be disciplined in any way, as most credible newspapers would do in a situation such as this. Evidently, they don't believe that their readers deserve to know what's being done to prevent such a mammoth system failure in the future. I find this funny because this newspaper has shamed a variety of sources with big front-page groans when they don't get responses or access as it wishes. (In addition to the Bill Richardson one last fall that I pointed to in a different post, other readers reminded me they pulled that trick on former Lt. Gov. candidate Barbara Lee Woollen not once but twice in 2006.)

But I did hear from a current Greenspun Media Group journalist (GMG owns the Sun and also owns two publications I write for) who is outraged that nothing has happened to Schoenmann given that "if it were almost anyone else, there would've been some sort of penalty." This employee, to whom I spoke by phone to confirm he/she actually sent this note to me and was who I thought he/she was, made some pretty valid points. Here's a piece of the note:

"To answer your question about whether Joe has been disciplined, I need only to point you to yet another lazy, abysmal front-page piece by him in Saturday's paper. Take a good look at it. You'll notice that it's a love letter to Mayor Goodman, whom Joe routinely sucks up to, in which he seems to claim that because the mayor hired some woman to handle homeless affairs, he's really a good guy on the topic. The only people quoted in the piece are -- you guessed it! -- the mayor and his lackey. Did Joe get off his ass and go interview homeless people or homeless activists? No! That would take some effort."

Yikes. Take a look yourself. It's all true. It's as lazy a piece as the Summerlin one, less the anonymous Web comments to make it journalistic malpractice. This reporter doesn't seem to like to get out and talk to ordinary people much at all, something City Hall scribes really need to be willing to do lest their work end up being sonorous insider pieces about dullsville governmental processes.

Oh, and one more thing noted by this letter-writer: The epic Summerlin correction wasn't the only one Joe was responsible for that week. He also had to correct his Feb. 28 piece on the potential loss of an historic theater in Vegas. If you go to that story, you'll notice that there's a correction quietly appended to the bottom -- so it's easy to miss, unlike sticking it atop the piece where it might be obvious -- that reads: "An error in this story, saying that the Huntridge had a role in several movies, has been removed."

Now how does an error like that happen? And, more interestingly, how does an error like that get corrected? I mean, if the original piece said the place was in the movies, who's going to ring up the paper and say, 'Uh, nut-uh"?

I'd call up and ask, but I suspect I'd get the same stony silence I've gotten so far. They probably think "some blog" isn't worth responding to.

How open is McCarran's Wi-Fi?

Today's USA Today reported that the free wireless Internet at Denver International Airport comes with a tricky little catch: They have software that blocks users from accessing certain potentially objectionable material so that passersby don't die of exposure or something. This became news, though, when that overeager software also blocked the sites of Vanity Fair and Sports Illustrated. (Maybe they thought the term "Sports Illustrated cover curse" was obscene?)

I figured it was worth a call out to the McCarran folks to see if such software existed here. He said no. So good news for everyone -- you're free to enjoy Pornotube all you want while waiting for your flight!

He's going to get back to me about whether anyone has complained about their kids seeing something they shouldn't or what-not.

But I'm wondering if anyone here has any contradictory information. Have you been blocked from anything at McCarran? If so, when and what? What about other airports, perhaps even ones where you have to pay for access?