Winners & Losers Of The Year (2006) – Part Two

Continuing my look back at the year 2006, here’s the second installment of my year-in-review series.  Picking up where I left off, here’s another round of winners and losers:
 
Winner:  Tom Cruise
 
Yes, you read that right.  It’s not a mistake.  I’m very much aware that I’m in the minority with this pick.
 
It’s true, his fanatical “religious” beliefs have always been a tough sell for those with common sense and intelligence.  (I’ll stick with being an atheist, thank you.) Of course, he’s gone way overboard in selling the public on his relationship with the lovely Katie Holmes and no, I haven’t forgotten that Paramount Pictures kicked him to the curb despite the fact he’s made them billions of dollars in revenue over 3 decades.
 
So, why am I declaring him a winner?  A lot of reasons, actually.
 
Despite what you read in the press, Mission: Impossible III, the much-delayed third installment in his only highly successful franchise was a major financial and critical success.  According to rottentomatoes.com, the well-reviewed film received a fresh rating of 78%.  It might not have made as much money as the increasingly greedy and obnoxious Sumner Redstone would’ve liked (which was the reason Paramount cut its ties with Cruise) but I think a worldwide gross of nearly 400 million is pretty damn impressive.  No wonder Howard Stern defended the guy.  Redstone badmouthed him, too.
 
Not one to rest on his laurels or let anything get him down, Cruise ended up making a deal with United Artists.  Good for him.  I’m sure that company will do very well now.  Investing in this guy is a smart move.  His track record speaks for itself.
 
The Oscar-nominated actor, who once lived in Ottawa many moons ago, remains the biggest box-office draw in the world.  According to Premiere Magazine, he’s still the most powerful actor, too, just like last year.  And he’s married to the lovely and sweet Katie Holmes, a talented actor in her own right, and together, they’re the proud parents of the very cute, Suri.  (Not crazy about the name but the kid seems happy.  She’ll be well looked after.  Now give her some privacy and stop showing her off!)
 
And if that weren’t enough, Cruise was a big enough man to personally apologize to Brooke Shields for the shabby way he criticized her last year regarding her method of dealing with her unpleasant post-partum depression.  He even invited her to his wedding celebration in Italy and yes, she showed up.  Take that, Oprah!  
 
Loser: Michael Richards
 
After falling out of public view for half a decade, the 3-time Emmy-winning star of Seinfeld decided to return to work by getting into stand-up comedy.  During his infamous set at The Laugh Factory, a couple of black audience members heckled him and his method of response will go down in history as being the absolute worst way to deal with verbal disruptions.  Screaming at the top of his lungs, he called them “niggers” and made a joke about lynching.  Bad move.  Audience members started leaving while his hecklers kept driving him crazy.  (One of them ended up calling him “a cracker-ass”.)  It went on for the longest two minutes of Michael Richards’ career and when he was done ranting, he dropped the microphone and left the stage.  The entire incident was captured rather well on a cell phone camera.  (I wonder if sales are up.) 
 
The timing of the incident couldn’t have come at a worse time.  The complete seventh season of Seinfeld was just about to debut on DVD.  Fearing the worst, Jerry Seinfeld made sure Richards apologized during their appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.  Unfortunately, he made things worse by rambling incoherently.  Soon, he was on an Apology Tour making an appearance on Rev. Jesse Jackson’s radio show.  His hecklers want a face-to-face meeting and, absurdly, financial compensation.  Regardless of what happens, it would take a Herculean effort to resurrect Richards’ career.  As of this moment, it’s pretty much dead.  As for Seinfeld: Season 7, sales are brisk.  Good.
 
Winner:  Crash
 
I didn’t see it coming and, thankfully, I wasn’t alone.  But smarter people like Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper foresaw what many of us didn’t:  a Best Picture victory for the 2005 film, Crash. 
 
And what a movie it is.  I finally screened the film on DVD this past August and I think it’s the best film of the decade so far.  The pride of London, Ontario, Director/Co-Writer Paul Haggis has delivered an uncompromising, visceral, compelling movie filled with memorable, surprising characters.  The movie’s best quality is this:  putting each of its characters in two very different situations and seeing how they react.  The results are staggering and jolting.  Like real life, it understands how hard it is to be consistently good and consistently bad.
 
There’s the troubled, racist cop (played by deserving Oscar-nominee Matt Dillon) who needlessly harasses TV Director Terrence Howard and his wife, Thandie Newton, one night, just as they are on their way home from the Emmys.  Many scenes later, incredibly, that same cop pulls off a miraculous rescue.  (We also find out about his sick father who he cares for all by himself.)  The more we learn about him, the less we understand.  How can he rescue the same person he once molested?  A fascinating question.  The movie’s smart enough not to provide an answer.
 
Then there’s Dillon’s partner (Ryan Phillipe) who, nobly, wants nothing to do with him anymore.  In a later scene, his overreaction results in a needless tragedy followed by an act of coldheartedness, the revelation of an ugly side we never expected.
 
But the most interesting character, by far, is the one played by Ludacris who has a bright future ahead of him in the movies.  Having now seen the film, I can’t believe he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, as well.  He’s given extraordinarily intriguing dialogue which he easily makes his own.  His character is from a long line of philosophical criminals who seem too smart to be stuck in a dangerous game.
 
Crash is complex and rich.  It’s not a message film, it doesn’t preach and it doesn’t have any solutions.  Instead, it reflects the world we live in and notes how difficult it is to escape the eternal stain of prejudice.  The film also won Oscars for its original screenplay and for its editing.
 
Loser:  Sun Media
 
What happened to this company?  I’ve always had problems with their Editorial Boards and a number of their columnists, but something really weird is happening to the second largest media conglomerate in Canada. 
 
It all seemed to start in the late 90s when their longtime rival, The Toronto Star, tried to purchase the paper in a hostile takeover.  At the last minute, Quebecor swept in and The Star decided to back off.  A few years later, numerous employees of the flagship paper, The Toronto Sun, for the first time, decided to unionize, an unthinkable proposition in the old days.  Founding editor Peter Worthington criticized the move while in the United States at the time.  Joe Warmington responded to Worthington with a literary bitchslap and there hasn’t been a comment, pro or con, about the decision since.  What was the reason for the move to unionize in the first place?  Numerous layoffs.  The latest round happened this year with 120 employees pushed out of the company.  And yet, it remains a mystery why some staff members have been safe and others have fallen on their swords.
 
Speaking of that, have you noticed the number of writers and columnists who have disappeared from Sun Media this year?  (This doesn’t include Bob McDonald and Jim Hunt, two longtime columnists who died this year while still employed at The Toronto Sun.)  First, there was Hartley Steward, another longtime columnist who also helped start up The Ottawa and Calgary Suns.  He suddenly retired in the late spring.  His final column appeared on June 18 and not once did he mention his exit from The Sun.  That was left to Linda Williamson who mentioned it at the tail end of her column in the same edition of The Toronto Sun.  Mark Bonokoski ended up writing a proper tribute to him shortly thereafter.
 
Then, there was Max Haines.  He used to write all those crime flashback columns.  Like Steward, he never mentioned he was through with The Toronto Sun.  It was left to fellow columnist Mike Strobel to perform that duty.  He’s been gone since the summer.
 
Mary Dickie used to work at Impact Magazine and was hired to replace Kieran Grant to cover the local Toronto music beat a few years ago.  At the bottom of her August 17 column she very briefly announced that it was her last appearance in the paper.  She did not elaborate on her exit.
 
Douglas Fisher, the former politican turned newspaper scribe, signed off on July 30 after 50 years in the media business.  He’s 86 this year (which I didn’t realize) and of all the departures from the company this year, his is the only one that doesn’t seem suspicious.  Still, very few, veteran Sun writers ever retire from their job.  They love it too much to ever even consider quitting.  Could he have been forced out, too?
 
Charles Adler is a Winnipeg-based talk radio host who used to write for The Winnipeg Sun.  Then, his pieces started surfacing in all the Sun Media papers.  That didn’t last very long.  Now he doesn’t write for any paper in the Sun chain.  There has never been an explanation for his disappearance.
 
Also gone from The Winnipeg Sun is Lydia Lovric who once wrote for The Hamilton Spectator.  After a column in late October, her name is no longer among the list of writers for that newspaper.  What happened to her?
 
Political columnists haven’t been the only casualties.  Steve Simmons, a sports columnist for The Toronto Sun, noted that two of his colleagues were no longer employed with the paper:  Mike Ulmer (that goofy-looking guy who always wrote that annual column outlining his mistakes) and Perry Lefko (he had just covered the 2006 World Cup Finals with Terry Jones of The Edmonton Sun in the summer).  Why were they ousted?
 
There’s even more.  John Crosbie, the former Tory MP at least got the opportunity to write a farewell column after only a 2-year stint with The Sun.  Michael Taube, another conservative writer, also got to exit gracefully with his last piece.  He lasted only a year or 2 in his own right.  The others I’ve mentioned, with the notable exception of Douglas Fisher, haven’t been as lucky.
 
The Toronto Sun has also lost a couple of editorial figures.  Jim Jennings, who came on board in 2004, resigned as Editor-In-Chief this year.  I can count on one hand the number of people who have held that position in the last several years.  Then, out of nowhere in November, Linda Williamson up and quit.  A while ago she switched jobs with fellow editorialist Lorrie Goldstein.  In her last column on November 12th, she noted that she had “decided to pursue a non-newspaper career”, a maddeningly vague reason for leaving the paper.  It was an absolute shock.  Why the change?  Was this a sudden decision?  Even Adrian Monk is stumped.
 
And then, there are the writers who haven’t written in months.  There’s John Derringer, the Q107 morning man, who hasn’t been published since May 26.  Frank Zicarelli, who initially wrote about professional wrestling then covered pro football, has been missing in action since May 31.  Doug Gilmour, the hockey great, hasn’t appeared since June 22.  Pat Watson hasn’t filed a column since August 29.  (Her last one was about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.)  Have they all been victims of “downsizing” as well? 
 
It’s not just The Toronto Sun who are bleeding writers.  There’s also these unexplained absences at sister broadsheet, The London Free Press:   Carmi Levy and Julie Ryan (both missing since September 19) and Chip Martin (missing since July 11).  Christine West, the advice columnist, wrote on September 28: “I’ve been through a tough time lately.  I suspect the revelation I’m sharing today will strike a chord with many of you.”  She never does explain what the trouble is.  She concludes by saying, “Thank you for your letters of congratulations.  I look forward to a wonderful fifth year with you.”  But what if her mysterious trouble isn’t resolved and she doesn’t return?  And if she does return, how long will she stay at that paper?
 
Her fellow columnist, April Kemick, wrote on August 17 that she was going on a three-month trip to Europe.  It is the end of the column that caught my attention:  “…as for my intentions for a final, award-winning column that would impress the brass and rope in readers?  Let’s just say I’m saving that for when I get back.  If I come back.”  3 and a half months later, she hasn’t come back.
 
And what about the quality of the newspaper columnists who haven’t left?  Are Michael Coren and Rachel Marsden the best the paper can do when it comes to showcasing provocative writers?  The former has defended Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, doesn’t believe in evolution, thinks homosexuality is unnatural, and wants to bomb Iran.  The latter hates Liberals and Muslims, rarely criticizes Conservatives, is incapable of fact-checking and has a chronicled history of criminal behaviour (multiple stalkings and false accusations).  I complained about one of Marsden’s error-filled pieces to The Sun’s Readership Editor Alison Downie.  I never received a reply and Downie herself hasn’t written a column in almost a month.  No wonder circulation is down overall.
 
And what about Sun TV?  This is the channel that began as Toronto One (and bankrupted its former owner, Craig Broadcasting) only 3 years ago and is now being run by Quebecor.  According to media critic Antonia Zerbisias, Sun Media employees get a whopping $37.50 each time they appear on shows like Canoe Live, the 6 o’clock newscast, and The Grill Room, a McLaughlin Group for sports fans, which airs at 11 p.m.  Most of the programming, however, is made up of cheap reruns whether its old films or old Canadian TV shows.  (Simulcasted American shows make up the rest of their schedule.)  The big question is:  since the name change and new ownership, are the ratings still bad?  In a word, yes.  And just like Quebecor’s Sun Media properties, there have been numerous layoffs. 
 
So, what the hell is going on with “Toronto’s Other Voice”?  Multiple exits, shrinking profits, a quietly disgruntled, unionized workforce, a number of unaccountable columnists, unpersuasive editorials (Jane Pitfield for Mayor of Toronto, anyone?). 
 
Maybe it’s time to re-name the company, Suck Media.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, December 1, 2006
2:42 a.m.  
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