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Even Reporters Were Mesmerized by Kitt

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Journalists Recall Encounters With Legendary Diva

When Eartha Kitt, "who purred and pounced her way across Broadway stages, recording studios and movie and television screens in a show-business career that lasted more than six decades," in the words of the New York Times, died on Christmas Day at 81 of colon cancer, some reporters were forced to 'fess up: She mesmerized even them. 

The Times and Democrat in Orangeburg, S.C., gave prime real estate to a star who had a love-hate relationship with her home state."Even as a pre-adolescent growing up in subarctic Rochester, N.Y., watching Eartha Kitt's Catwoman taunt Adam West's Batman always made me feel a little, um, hot," Reed Johnson confided in an appreciation Saturday in the Los Angeles Times.

"I saw Ms. Kitt in concert once. It was years ago in Miami," Mario Tarradell, music critic of the Dallas Morning News wrote, in a piece headlined, "For Eartha Kitt, the gay dance-club scene is purrfect." "Dressed in a skintight, knee-length number that showcased her shapely legs, the South Carolina native charmed in her wickedly coy way. She was a true original, a campy seductress of the first order."

Rob Hoerburger wrote in his New York Times obituary, "From practically the beginning of her career, as critics gushed over Ms. Kitt, they also began to describe her in every feline term imaginable: her voice 'purred' or 'was like catnip'; she was a 'sex kitten' who 'slinked' or was 'on the prowl' across the stage, sometimes 'flashing her claws.' Her career has often been said to have had 'nine lives.''

"What made Kitt so memorable, aside from her exotic beauty, was that she was almost as scary as she was seductive, as I found out firsthand as a young writer," Larry Katz told readers of the Boston Herald. "In 1980, with less than a year's experience as a reporter for the long-defunct alternative weekly the Real Paper, I was sent to interview Kitt the morning after her concert in Boston.

"I arrived at the old Ritz-Carlton on Arlington Street and took the elevator to her suite, where I was greeted by two women, Kitt's publicist and manager. A lavish breakfast table was set up in the center of the room. Before very long the legend herself swept into the room, a regal figure clad in a long, pale blue silk robe.

"After being introduced and seated at the breakfast table, I began to set up my tape recorder. I apologized for not being able to attend her performance the night before. Then I nervously babbled what I thought was an innocuous question.

''How did it go last night?'

"Kitt frowned and stared at me. Finally, in the voice of a queen addressing a particularly dimwitted clod, she spoke seven icy words I will never forget.

''Is that what you ask your lover?'

"I sat stunned. I suspect my face turned crimson. I knew I had been put on the spot and had to say something. Which I did. I wish I could tell you what, but half-paralyzed with fear of both Kitt and the possibility that our interview would be over before it had begun, I confess I no longer have any recollection of my response.

"But I remember Kitt's. After glaring at me a little longer, she laughed. Loudly. She turned to her two companions at the breakfast table and said, 'He's OK. I like him.'

"Then she turned toward me, her eyes alive with a devilish glint, and smiled.'

The interview proceeded smoothly.

Reporters in South Carolina wrote of Kitt's long "love-hate relationship with her birth state," as John Monk did Friday in the State in Columbia.

He quoted her 1956 autobiography: "Thursday's Child," in which she "discusses the pain of being a child in poverty, unwanted and abused because of her mixed race.

''My first scene in life was a long dark dusty road. I could not see the end of it, for it just went down, down, down- to end in what to me seemed like hell.''

The Times and Democrat, which publishes in Orangeburg County, where Kitt was born, quoted former staff writer Thomas Brown, who wrote about Kitt's return visit in 1997. "Eartha was a diva and she played that up." Brown said. Brown quoted Kitt at an appearance at a tribute held at Benedict College in Columbia. "I had no idea how I'd feel coming home. I left in tears but it seems I've come home to love. I have been in over 108 countries and today you make me inextricably proud to say that I'm a South Carolinian."

John Cochran of ABC News recalled being with Kitt in South Africa at her most un-divalike. It was the 1980s, and a boycott of apartheid South Africa was in place. "But as the New York Times notes, 'Kitt was typically unapologetic; the tour, she said, played to integrated audiences and helped build schools for black children,'" Cochran noted.

"She assumed she would have to endure more assaults from friends or former friends for returning to South Africa. It was similar to the kind of criticism she had leveled years earlier at her old friend, Sammy Davis Jr., when he supported Richard Nixon. But she was still defiant." She was unglamorous, and at first pessimistic when Cochran interviewed Kitt there. "In my experience, the coloreds were the saddest and angriest people in South Africa. She was sympathetic to them. She, too, was of mixed-race. The illegitimate child of a black Cherokee woman and a white man, she had endured abuse from blacks as a youngster for looking too white." 

But her mood suddenly changed. "The snap and crackle were back: 'What the hell! Things will get better. They've got to. Can't let the bastards get us down.'"

Wil Haygood, in the Washington Post, most likely wrote the piece that connects most with journalists who are not on expense accounts.

In the Post's Style section on Friday, Haygood told of finding himself dining with Kitt in New York while on leave from the paper to write his 2003 book about Davis, one of Kitt's romantic interests.

"Kitt's office suggested the Carlyle. Being on book leave, without a steady income and counting pennies, I gulped: The Carlyle wasn't the place for a penny-pincher. But I needed the interview, so I dared not back out of the chance to talk with her.

"The next 90 minutes were unforgettable. There were stories of men she had conquered (Sammy Davis Jr. among them), foreign lands she had traveled to, songs she had sung. I remember what she ordered because I held on to the receipt for years to show to people: salmon, asparagus, white wine, two glasses, which turned into three glasses. I wanted to cry every time I saw her motioning for the waiter: 'Water, please, and bottled.' But every other minute brought forth some delicious revelation."

The bill was $138.06.

"It remains, to this day, the most expensive lunch I have ever paid for. But it was Eartha Kitt, in white fur, with poodles. It was worth every penny." 


"Buff Bam Is Hawaii Hunk"

December 24, 2008

Returning Dec. 29, barring breaking news

Photos of Shirtless Obama Drive Media Frenzy

Some outlets had a field day. "Forget Barack Obama's staff making contact with a governor charged with corruption. What's got everyone talking is the president-elect's fine first form," Lisa Tolin wrote Wednesday for the Associated Press.

"'FIT FOR OFFICE: Buff Bam is Hawaii hunk,' the New York Post gushed on its cover Tuesday above a photo of the future president strolling without a shirt in Hawaii. The Drudge Report called him 'President Beefcake' while TMZ said the president-elect is 'still humble enough to do laundry - ON HIS ABS!'

"The photos were distributed by Bauer-Griffin, a photo agency more typically found on the corners of Hollywood. Photographer Chris Behnke simply strolled along the beach to get the shot, said agency co-owner Frank Griffin."

"And while all the cable news channels are talking about the photo (and the others snapped of the Obama family in Hawaii)," Liz Cox Barrett added on Tuesday for Columbia Journalism Review, "Fox News's 'Fox & Friends' thought to design a special rotating graphic for the occasion which lived, this morning, on the bottom right corner of the screen, flipping between an image of Obama's face (not the image in question) and the words 'Beach Body,' and continued to so flip even as the story above it moved on, reminding viewers, Yes, 'Plane Crash in Denver,' but also, 'Beach Body.'"

Behnke also published photos of Obama and his family headed to the Oahu seaside to hold a small memorial service for his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died of cancer at age 86 on the eve of the presidential election. That prompted questions about whether the Obamas' privacy was being invaded.

"The paparazzi shots were frustrating for the photographers who are part of the press pool following Obama in Hawaii, but are restricted from approaching the president-elect's compound," Carrie Budoff Brown and Nia-Malika Henderson wrote Tuesday for Politico.

"They wound up having to explain to their editors why they don't have the same photos.

"It turns out a paparazzo with a large telephoto lens - and in apparent full view of the Secret Service - parked himself on the beach in Kailua, which is public."

The AP story continued, "Griffin has submitted his photo agency for credentials for Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20. He said it's too soon to estimate how much Bauer-Griffin will earn from the beach photos 'within tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands.'"

The beach photos weren't all.

Online, "searches are soaring for 'obama pictures' and, in a realm normally reserved for prepubescent idols, 'obama shirtless,'" Vera H-C Chan wrote Tuesday for Yahoo.

"The latest act of online voyeurism comes from a confluence of three recent pictorial events: Two include Barack Obama's return to Time magazine's cover as Man of the Year and the release of never-before-seen college photos, in which the future No. 44 posed in a Panama hat, leather jacket, and occasionally with a cigarette for a hopeful photographer's portfolio. That momentous puff induced a teacup-sized tempest as people zeroed in on the 'obama smoking' pic."

Meanwhile, Patrick W. Gavin of FishBowl DC listed "A rough compilation of our journo colleagues working on their tans in Hawaii:


"NBC - Savannah Guthrie (with her producer, Antoine)

"ABC - Sunlen Miller, Yunji de Nies

"CNN - Ed Henry

"CBS - Ben Tracy (LA correspondent)

"FOX - Steve Centanni. Bonney Kapp, Aaron Bruns


"NYT - Jeff Zeleny

"WP - Philip Rucker

"Chicago Tribune - John McCormick

"Politico - Carol Lee

"AP - Phil Elliott

"Reuters - Ross Colvin

"Bloomberg - Kim Chipman

"60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft has been chronicling the Obamas for nearly two years. Sunday's program, which airs on CBS, summarizes the family's narrative to date.

"60 Minutes," New York Times Tap Into Obamamania

CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" is devoting its entire hour Sunday to Barack Obama's journey to the White House — one that "60 Minutes" cameras and correspondent Steve Kroft have chronicled for nearly two years, the program announced.

"The most complete picture of the Obamas to date includes never-before-seen footage and the best moments from highly acclaimed 60 MINUTES segments and interviews with his family and closest advisors."

Meanwhile, the New York Times announced Monday it was producing "Obama: The Historic Journey," a hardcover book to be published on Presidents' Day, with an introduction by Executive Editor Bill Keller and principal text by Managing Editor Jill Abramson.

This 240-page book also will include profiles of important figures in Obama's life, reporting by Times journalists, commentary and essays by Times columnists, excerpts from Obama's most important speeches — including the inaugural — and more than 200 photographs by Times photographers, according to a news release. Columnist Bob Herbert is the only Times journalist of color listed as involved with the project.

A special Young Readers Edition of "OBAMA: The Historic Journey" is to be released simultaneously.

credit: Tim Jackson   

Columnists Debate Filling Illinois, N.Y. Senate Seats

Efforts to fill two Senate seats made vacant by the election of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and his intention to nominate Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to be secretary of state continue to generate commentary.

On Tuesday, "A report issued by Barack Obama's transition concluded that the president-elect had no contact with Gov. Rod Blagojevich or his office and no one acting on Obama's behalf was involved in any 'quid pro quo' arrangement the governor allegedly sought for filling the vacant Senate seat with a candidate of Obama's choosing," as the Chicago Tribune reported.

"One might think that releasing a report at 4:30 p.m. on the day before Christmas Eve would be a good way to have it avoid notice, but that was never destined to be the case when it came to the Obama transition team's report on contacts with embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich," Kevin Hechtkopf wrote Wednesday on the CBS News political blog, summarizing the mixed editorial-page reaction.

In New York, columnists debated Caroline Kennedy's declaration that she is interested in the Senate seat that would be vacated by Clinton.

Buffalo News columnist Rod Watson wasn't impressed by Kennedy's visit upstate last week, when she spoke with politicians rather than average voters.

"After all, she won't hear about our glut of politicians from the politicians. But maybe after hearing it from taxpayers, she could find federal incentive money to offer as leverage to build the region from the core out while shrinking the levels of overlapping bureaucracy," Watson wrote on Friday.

"Or she could have stopped at one of the local auto plants where workers are on edge about the possibility of being out on the street as Washington dithers over a bailout. Ditching the politicos and listening to assembly line workers would give her a much better appreciation of this area's reliance on the auto industry, which experts say accounts for about 8,200 jobs here plus perhaps twice that number in related industries."

NAACP Scores Lack of Progress on TV Diversity

The NAACP Hollywood Bureau said on Friday that its latest report on the media "shows the entertainment industry, particularly television, continues to fall seriously short in achieving diversity.

"NAACP officials warned that without quick action to reverse the bleak statistics cited in the 40-page report, the industry could face political action.

". . . the report reveals that employment and promotion opportunities for minorities are directly tied to highly subjective practices, a closed roster system and potentially discriminatory guild membership practices.

"The serious shortage of minority faces on primetime television can also be traced to the virtual disappearance of black programming since the merger of UPN and WB networks into The CW network, according to the report.

"To help remedy the situation, the report recommends the establishment of a task force [comprising] network executives, educators and NAACP advocacy partners to update the Memorandum of Understanding between the networks and the NAACP and its coalition partners. The goal would be to create best practice standards throughout the industry."

Iraq Remains Deadliest Country for the Press

"For the sixth consecutive year, Iraq was the deadliest country in the world for the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists found in its end-of-year analysis. The 11 deaths recorded in Iraq in 2008, while a sharp drop from prior years, remained among the highest annual tolls in CPJ history," the organization said last week.

"All of those killed in Iraq were local journalists working for domestic news outlets. The victims included Shihab al-Tamimi, head of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, who died from injuries suffered in a targeted shooting in Baghdad. Soran Mama Hama, a reporter for Livin magazine, was targeted by gunmen in front of his home after reporting on prostitution and corruption in Kirkuk."

. . . Trial of Shoe-Throwing Journalist Set for Dec. 31

"The trial of Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi man who hurled his shoes at US President George W. Bush, will start on December 31, the judge investigating his case told AFP on Monday," Agence France-Presse reported.

"He risks up to 15 years in jail."

In the wake of the shoe-throwing incident, the Internet has been flooded by online games in which users can throw shoes at Bush, or avoid them, the Jerusalem Post reported on Wednesday.

It said at least 10 games were released in less than a week.

"One of the first . . . is the Bush Shoe Game created by Mind360, an Israeli company that develops scientifically based brain training games.

"The game measures response time, a capability that is known to be reduced with age. As soon as the shoes are thrown at Bush, the player must click on Bush to avoid being hit by the shoe.

"According to Google trends, it appears that most 'Bush and Shoe' searches were carried out in Muslim countries, with Pakistan leading the search volume."

Good News and Bad for Future of News Industry

The layoffs that have battered the newspaper industry accelerated this year, with more than 15,000 losing their jobs, while big companies like Tribune Co. and McClatchy were racked by mounting debt, credit problems and declining stock value, Toni Fitzgerald wrote Friday for Media Life magazine.

"Things are looking even worse in 2009," she said.

"Forecasters have predicted more declines in newspaper advertising revenue, hurt by the recession and the continuing competition from the internet. Ad spending could be down anywhere from 9 to16 percent, after falling 10 percent through third quarter 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence."

The same gloom was forecast for broadcasting.

"The new year is shaping up to be crunch time for much of the TV-station industry," the Wall Street Journal said. "Having been walloped in 2008 by a sharp drop in auto advertising, which accounts for 20% to 25% of total revenue for many local stations, conditions are set to worsen in 2009. This year's results were helped by ad dollars tied to the November elections and the Olympic Games. Both those pots will disappear in 2009."

But there is also welcome news.

"David Westphal reports an important and historic crossing of the Rubicon for a major newspaper, recounting a discussion with LA Times editor Russ Stanton at USC: 'Stanton said the Times' Web site revenue now exceeds its editorial payroll costs,'" Jeff Jarvis wrote for the Huffington Post.

"I've long been asked by newspaper people — as a challenge — when the web will cover the costs of the newsroom as it exists. I've said it won't, that the scale of the business is just different.

"But if what Westphal reports is true — and I confirmed via email that I was reading him correctly (and it does make sense since both edit costs and web revenue run at about 10-15% of newspaper budgets) — then it means the Times could support its newsroom as it stands — after cutbacks aplenty — from the web. That's momentous."

Short Takes

  • Aurelia Grayson has been named senior broadcast producer of NBC News' "Nightly News with Brian Williams," the network announced¬†on Monday. She is to assist executive producer Bob Epstein with all aspects of the show. A member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Grayson arrived at NBC from CBS News, where she's been a senior supervising producer and broadcast producer of "The Early Show" since April 2006. Before joining CBS, Grayson worked at WCBS-TV, where she was a producer for Williams, who said he was eager to work with her again.
  • The Miami Herald Cuban Freedom Flights Database ‚Äî a one-of-a-kind permanent list of the names of the 265,000 Cubans who came to the United States from 1965 to 1973 on those flights to escape Fidel Castro's Cuba ‚Äî "has been visited by thousands of Cuban exiles in South Florida and across the country searching for their names and those of loved ones" since it was launched last week, Luisa Yanez reported¬†Monday for the¬† Herald.
  • IJim Boydn Boston, "Channel 5 veteran Jim Boyd, whose dignified and affable manner made him a station favorite over the years, is retiring at the end of the year after nearly four decades at the station," Jessica Heslam reported¬†Friday in the Boston Herald. "Boyd, 66, told his colleagues of his plans earlier today at the Needham station, where he has worked since WCVB-TV was born in 1972."
  • "AOL's¬†has consistently been the number one African-American web site for news, culture and community over the last 12 months and seen a 66% increase in year-over-year growth," a spokeswoman for the company told Journal-isms. "According to the recent comScore Media Metrix report, BlackVoices hit 6.9 million unique visitors this month which is a site record and higher than any other African-American targeted web site or network."
  • Hector Tobar, who returned to Los Angeles after seven years as the Mexico City and Buenos Aires bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, is writing a weekly column Tuesdays in the paper's California section. "My focus is on the life of the working people of California, not necessarily on 'Latino issues,' though, given the shortage of Spanish-speaking reporters and editors these days, there's certainly a big vacuum for me to fill," he told Journal-isms. California Editor David Lauter made the announcement on Dec. 8.
  • In Los Angeles, "A spokeswoman for KNBC TV has confirmed to the L.A. Weekly that Channel 4 will not broadcast live coverage of January 19's annual Kingdom Day Parade ‚Äî the first time Channel 4 has not provided extended coverage since it began live reporting of the parade in 2001. The 23-year-old event, which celebrates the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is one of the most important dates on the local African American calendar and for communities along its route in South Los Angeles," Steve Mikulan reported¬†Friday for the L.A. Weekly.
  • "Dark clouds are forming against freedom of expression in Kenya," Joyce Mulama reported¬†Wednesday for Inter-Press Service, "following the recent passing of a controversial Bill by parliament. The Kenya Communications (Amendment) Bill, awaiting presidential assent to become law, gives the state powers to invade media houses, seize broadcast equipment, control broadcast content, even taking a station off air. Described by critics as draconian and retrogressive, the law confers new powers on the minister for internal security to raid a media house and confiscate broadcast equipment during a state of emergency."
  • "Amnesty International has issued an Urgent Action Alert regarding the journalist Joseph Guyler Delva, who reports from Haiti. Delva has received threats on his life that he 'believes to be related to both his involvement in an investigation into the murder of Haitian journalist Jean Dominique and his reporting on the controversial election of a former Haitian senator. Amnesty International is extremely concerned for his safety,'" the organization said¬†on Dec. 18.
Happy holidays!

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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Eartha Kitt

I first became aware of Eartha Kitt when she appeared in "New Faces of 1954" in Chicago and I was a lone, black teenager in the audience. She was fantastic. Not too long after, she appeared at the Chicago theater. By that time, I was so smitten that it became the only occasion in my life that I waited outside the stagedoor to see a performer. Years later, as a married reporter with a family, following the civil rights demonstrations in Chicago, I happened to be covering a protest in which Ms. Kitt was a speaker. She was being watched over by a particularly zealous contingent of a group known as The Deacons for Defense. Despite their overprotection, several of us somehow ended up after the demonstration in the kitchen of an affluent black activist in Hyde Park. I happened to be sitting across from Ms. Kitt, who mentioned she was chilly. I offered my sport jacket, which she draped around her exquisite shoulders as the "Deacons" glared at me. I don't know whatever happened to that jacket, but if I'd had any sense, I'd have never worn it again and preserved it in a glass case. Eartha Kitt was truly somethin' else. Joe Boyce

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