Who would’ve thought the national public mood would have reared its head so prominently yesterday in a little race for the state Senate in Northeast Arkansas?
Chad Neill made a big bet that very thing would happen. Problem is, winning his six-figure wager depended on getting dealt an entirely different hand.
In the two weeks leading up to yesterday’s special election in Arkansas Senate District 21, voters simply could not escape Neill’s enormous (likely the biggest ever) media buy for a citizen legislator’s job that pays $14,000 and change annually. Neill engaged a proven strategy that flooded almost every local media venue imaginable. In the last 14 days, he owned local television, radio and billboards. Fact is, this is how you buy name recognition. Everyone knows it.
Furthermore, Neill paid thousands of dollars for professional consultants and research that clearly advised him to take hot-button national political issues such as gun control and national health care and throw them into the campaign mix so he could line up with the perceived pervasive mood of his Republican Party.
One published media report indicated Neill was reluctant to participate in a debate since he’d already invested more than $100k in paid media.
This time, at least, an election would not be bought. Not here. Not today.
Money would not be the thing that would impress Northeast Arkansas voters this time.
After watching Paul Bookout throw $50k and change at designer jeans and high-tech surround-sound systems, playing fast and loose with money was already a soft spot with local voters. They clearly were looking to be impressed with something beyond money.
Then, add a barrage of national media coverage over government shutdowns and debt ceilings at a time when every word that comes out of a politician’s mouth is considered mostly BS by anyone who hears it and Neill’s strategy (that in most other circumstances would’ve worked) got him dead last place in his own Republican Primary, That, despite the fact that he spent twice as much as both his opponents combined.
Neill’s own strategy, became the very thing that beat him.
Enter John Cooper, the unlikely candidate, who spent nothing by comparison, and led the entire field. Cooper’s strategy? Good old fashioned shoe leather. Go figure.
First there were seven. Now, four. Cooper and Dan Sullivan will square off for the Republican nomination in three weeks, while Radius Baker and Steve Rockwell will court their Democratic base.
Yesterday’s election results now offer the candidates some interesting lessons moving forward in the January 2014 general election. They’d be well advised to study hard.
Remember the pop-up videos on VH1?
I enjoyed those little factoids and tidbits because they revealed things you’d never know, even if you watched a hundred times. I’ve always enjoyed knowing the story behind the story. It gives you a whole new appreciation and perspective on what everyone else just wants you to see.
If you enjoy House Hunters International, and tune in to our show tonight, here are a few things you’d never know without reading this post.
*The entirety our show was filmed in chronological reverse. We filmed in Ecuador for three days, came home to the U.S., and filmed the “back story” 10 days later. Furthermore, the first scene we filmed in Ecuador was the “reveal” scene at our home, one of the last things you’ll see on the show. It went backwards from there.
*Two days before we began filming in Ecuador I walked outside to our backyard and smelled a terrible stench. It was as if something had died very nearby, times 10. Further investigation proved that our three-month old septic tank had backed up and was overflowing into the yard and toward the house. Panic ensued. We were unable to flush our toilets for about 36 hours, and some very unfortunate Ecuadorian workers had the job of pumping barrels of raw sewage from our septic tank 12 hours before the HGTV crew arrived. I felt so bad for them. Such is life in Ecuador.
*The “realtor” on our show is an American named Joel Lewis. With his red hair, fair skin and freckles, Joel is a gringo personified. He spends most of his time as an English teacher in nearby Jipijapa. We met only a few days before filming, became good friends, and have stayed in touch.
*One of the opening scenes where we “meet” Joel to provide our wish list was
filmed at Sanctuary Lodge, the very nicest hotel in Puerto Cayo. Sanctuary is owned by our friends Roberto Cristi and Jahaida Delgado, and their daughter Isabella. If you ever visit this part of the world, it’s highly recommended lodging.
*We had the same director, but two different film crews in Ecuador and the U.S. Our Memphis crew had experience filming “Great Balls of Fire,” and worked on several of the John Grisham films made in there.
*One of the homes we filmed in Ecuador was rented by an Australian couple and their three children who spent much of their time on mission for the Jehova’s Witness Church. They are lovely folks, and were actually in the house the whole time we filmed. As we moved from one room to another, so did they, just out of camera sight.
*I’ve always admired talented people who work behind the camera, and our chief videographer in Ecuador, Doron Schlair, is immensely talented. He’s filmed documentaries on Billy Joel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and climbed to the top of Mt. Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark. I sat down for a long conversation with Doron one night and we were discussing his work – the intricacies and interplay between light and dark. In his work all across the world, Doron told me at sunset, it gets darker in Ecuador faster than anywhere he’s been. I’d noticed the same thing, but never thought about it until he mentioned it. I suppose it’s because we’re on the equator and the earth’s bulge at the horizon is more prominent than other parts of the world. But that’s just a guess.
*You’ll see some scenes of us riding our blue scooter on the beach. During the filming I made a turn on some rocks, and Dana and I shifted our weight in different directions. The result was a pretty good tumble with the scooter landing on both of us. It caused quite the scene on the beach. I know the director thought we were going to sue for damages. We were just really embarrassed.
*You’ll see lots of Ecuadorian people in background shots. Every person you see signed a release for the show. The director was very strict about that.
*There’s a scene at the Agua Blanca mud bath where Dana and I jumped in the water for an impromptu swim race. As we jumped in I accidentally swallowed some of the water (which tastes just like sulfur) and nearly choked. I tried not to let the camera see it because we had to get the shot in one take.
*Speaking of takes, it’s interesting that our entire show was filmed with one camera. But each and every scene is filmed from three different angles. This obviously means each scene is filmed three times, and that’s why it takes 40 hours to film 22 minutes of television.
*In the hours before the crew arrived for Ecuador filming, we were working feverishly to clean the house. As we finished cleaning, and just as I was about to take my shower, on cue, the electricity went out, and stayed out. I filmed the entire first day without the benefit of a shower.
*To make the show interesting, the director always wants a little conflict going on between husband and wife. So for us, it was Dana’s focus on a beach house, versus my interest in staying on budget and living close to the locals.
I can hardly wait to watch the show and see which one we choose!
- House Hunters International in Ecuador: Answers to the Questions (stevenwwatkins.com)
- Linda Benya “Breathes in Freedom” on House Hunters International (stevenwwatkins.com)
So several of you are thinking about, or say you are in the running for the Arkansas State Senate District 21 seat. Contrary to many media headlines, it’s not, and never was, Paul Bookout’s seat. It belongs to the people of Jonesboro and the surrounding area. That’s one thing. Just for the record.
As you move forward in your candidacy, and perhaps beyond in your service … a few suggestions to consider:
1. Your candidacy, platform and service should be based in how you see things differently four years from now. What will have changed for the better, and what legacy will you leave? The fact is, for the most part, we’ve had a horrible group of state legislators from this area, who’ve brought us as much embarrassment as they have good. The truth is, we’ve enjoyed fair success, not because of, but in spite of, goofy and lazy state legislators whom we can only blame ourselves for electing. There were a few decent ones. Not that many.
2. On that note, keep in the back of your mind the state’s most widely circulated newspaper publishes its list of the 10 Worst State Legislators following each meeting of the General Assembly. We had a state senator who made that list not too long ago, They said he was as effective as a “piece of furniture.” Yes, furniture. The best you could say about him is that he was arrogant, yet ineffective. Two days ago, the man who carries that dubious distinction said he is running again. Whichever of you is elected to the District 21 Senate seat, do us a favor and don’t make that list. It embarrasses us.
3. You’ll inevitably say your platform gives high priority to education. Please don’t say that if you don’t mean it. Consider actually doing something that would make a difference in a first grader’s life 25 years from now. Want to ensure that young kids today have a job 25 years from now? Mandate second language fluency for graduation. Students in the European nations will be fluent in three to four languages upon graduation. Most students in Arkansas don’t even know grammatical English. The kids today who have second language fluency 25 years from now will never lack for a job. And have you ever read the educational guidelines from the Arkansas Department of Education? Could they be any more convoluted? Another idea? How about right here in Craighead County, maybe we should have one superintendent of schools rather than seven. I dare you to tackle that one. It’s the right thing, no matter what anyone says, or what turf they try to protect.
4. Lately, some state office holders have said our ethics guidelines are “gray.” Not really. Good ethics are pretty simple. You err on the side of caution. Always. If you can’t properly interpret state ethics guidelines, you probably shouldn’t run for office in the first place.
5. If you raise money for a campaign, spend it on a campaign. Spend it all. Don’t carry your funds over. Nip temptation in the bud. State legislators need not carry over campaign funds.
6. If you make a mistake, admit it, and don’t be so arrogant or self-absorbed with your own well-being, that you refuse to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s not cool, and the voters will never forget it.
7. Don’t try to be a big shot. In this job, you are a citizen-legislator. There’s a reason “citizen” comes first. It’s a part-time job where you are elected to serve and sacrificially give of yourself. Don’t try to be a big shot. It didn’t work out so well for the last guy.
8. If you are running for this office as a spring board to something beyond. Don’t do it. Run because you want to make a difference here.
9. Want to see an example of a pretty good state legislator? You need not look too far to Greene County. Robert Thompson shows every indication of a public servant with integrity, smarts and devotion. I question his decision to give legal representation to Paul Bookout, but it’s not the end of the world. He’s a good example for any state legislator.
10. Please understand the difference between your choice to be a politician, and your duty as a public servant. Politics is a necessary evil and often gets public servants in trouble. Public service, done well, is among the most admirable of vocations. And there is a big difference between the two.
11. When the media calls, call them back. Actually speak to them. Don’t hide behind emails and “press releases.” At the end of his term, the last office holder tried to manipulate his message by having a one-way conversation with the media. Ultimately, everyone saw through that.
(Blogger’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories about the experience Dana and I had filming with HGTV’s House Hunters International. The show, depicting our experience of buying a second home in Ecuador, should air in late August or early September. Here’s the link to the first post in the series: http://wp.me/p2bjEC-1bh)
Linda Benya’s spent her entire career telling stories. And for her, telling stories about others people’s’ adventures around the world keeps life exciting, and fulfills a real artistic talent.
And it doesn’t hurt that she’s always been a big fan of House Hunters International, a show for which she directs more than 20 episodes a year.
“Even as a director, I still approach the show as a fan. I think I’ve always had a real wander lust for meeting people and going places in other countries and learning just what you can get for your money,” Linda said. “I love going into people’s homes and seeing how they live. And that’s the appeal for everyone who enjoys the show, I think.”
A graduate of New York University Film School, Linda worked both on and off camera early in her career. She worked on Animal Planet’s “Dogs 101,” “Cats 101,” and “Pets 101,” as well as “Selling New York” and “The Martha Stewart Show.”
She’s produced shows with the likes of Dancing with the Stars’ Tom Bergeron and hosted on camera with Jeff Probst.
It was at the conclusion of filming a “Dogs 101” episode that she struck up a conversation with a videographer who mentioned he was flying to Columbia on assignment the next day.
“I asked him what he was up to and he said he was heading out for a shoot with House Hunters International. I told him I loved that show, and he said I’d be great.”
Even so, her career went on and Linda said there was a time when she spent six consecutive months working an “office job” for “Selling New York.” For someone like Linda, six months in an office is a long time.
“After those six months, I looked at myself in the mirror one day and said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I’ve got to get back out into the field.”
The rest was history, and that moment led her to a steady opportunity with House Hunters.
For Linda, directing House Hunters International is a job that fits her professional talents, creative personality, and her interests in pushing her own comfort zones.
“There are a ton of responsibilities with this. You fly into a country where you’ve never been, meet up with some freelance assistants you’ve probably never met and you don’t know the culture. You hit the ground running and are required to keep an American schedule in a different culture and that almost never works,” she explained. “And it’s your job to be the creative manager in capturing all this reality.
“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s never boring.”
One of the most challenging aspects of filming a show like House Hunters International is that the scenes aren’t filmed consecutively in the sequence that television viewers may see. It’s all about logistics, efficiency and a clock that never stops ticking.
“We’re weaving in and out of a story and really flying by the seat of our pants, but it’s the challenge that makes it fun. I love the challenge that we inevitably have, and I love working with a team.”
Linda uses both her technical and artistic sensibilities in laying the groundwork for capturing hours of video to hand over to producers who create this relatively brief show.
“This doesn’t just happen. There’s a lot of time and work that goes into a 22-minute show. On TV it looks like we just stopped by and captured a moment of your life, and that’s exactly the way we want it to look, but in reality, there’s a ton of work that goes into one of these shows,” Linda said.
Pulling the whole thing off is an art form, she said, and requires huge attention to detail.
“You have to be keenly aware of everything that’s happening around you, and you have to know how to key in on what makes it special.” But she’s also very much a manager of personalities. “You have to sincerely like people, and there has to be a genuine curiosity somewhere inside of you. It helps a lot if you get excited about learning and discovering new things.”
As director for the show, she’s required to be a subtle micro manager of details without getting in the way of the story.
“My job is to make sure we capture moments. We don’t make those moments you see on television. We simply capture those moments, and if we do it well, it’s a really entertaining show.
“I’m the band leader and I set the tone. I always tell myself, never to let anyone see me sweat. It’s about being decisive, firm and never letting anyone see whatever internal struggle you may be dealing with in the moment. Then at the same time you balance all that with letting the story play out. Gut instincts are important, and you have to know when one thing is less important than another. The work in putting a show like this together is a constant struggle and decision-making process about what’s most important, and how can I accomplish all I need to get done within all the challenging parameters that we’re working within.”
In the last year, Linda’s directed more than 20 shows with four days of filming each show. She’s been in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Argentina, Sweden, France, Germany, Malaysia and Mexico.
She said she finds some common characteristics among participants who go on the show.
“Everyone has a different reason for why they set up shop in a different country, but I think more than anything, they all have a sense of adventure. Whether it works out or not, you definitely can’t do something like the people do on the show without having a real sense of adventure and learning.”
Just the same, Linda said House Hunters has a common appeal to those who enjoy watching.
“I think people love the show, because to some extent we all have a voyeurist nature. It appeals to a sense of adventure and education, especially about how people live in other places. It gives you a realistic look into the lives of people who are choosing to live differently, and that appeals to a lot of us.”
(Blogger‘s Note: For four days during late March and early April, Dana and I filmed with House Hunters International, for an episode that’s coming up on HGTV in a few weeks. Until then, I’m writing an occasional blog post about the experience. This is the first in the series.)
It was December 21 last year. After building a house in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador for nine months (with 100% of the communications via internet) Dana and I got on a plane, beside ourselves with excitement to fly way South, and spend just more than three months in our new far-away, get-away. Truth is, we really didn’t even know if we’d come back.
In my 47 years it’s among the most exciting adventures I’ve taken.
Three days after our Memphis departure, we arrived, just as the workers were putting the finishing touches on our Casa Azul. That’s actually what everyone calls our house, and it’s even our “official” address, as much as addresses exist in Puerto Cayo.
During the next few weeks, we learned about things like cisterns, suicide showers, scorpions, freshly caught langostinos , driving where driving rules don’t exist, and we “unlearned” everything we thought we ever knew, embracing life in a new culture. I hate the cliche’, but it’s true. Our lives have never been, and will never again, be the same.
Puerto Cayo (key port), is a small and beautiful, but remote village on Ecuador’s central Pacific coast. The town has about 4,000 people with maybe 100 “foreign” expats.
Its remote proximity and small size add to the irony that two couples who ultimately became our friends, had previously done their own shows with House Hunters International. When the filming company that produces the show contacted them about anyone else they knew who might be interested, they recommended us, and the lines of communication quickly opened.
A few days later, we found ourselves Skyping several times zones away with a casting director in London, where it really all begins.
The phone call was surreal. There had been days when things (about life in general) weren’t so hopeful. Just a few years earlier we’d invested all we had in our own business – dynamic publishing company – that was born just about the time the economy crashed. I closed its doors in less than a year, and spent a long time wondering what was next. It was during this uncertain time that we became HHI fans and spent many nights dreaming the craziest of dreams despite the circumstances. It was crazy, irrational and unrealistic that we would dream such dreams. But I’m oh, so glad we did. I’m glad we never gave up on dreaming.
House Hunters International is one of those shows that appeals to both men
and women – especially couples who love adventure and don’t mind stepping out of their comfort zones. And there are many things about buying a house in a far-away country that will NOT feel comfortable.
For 45 minutes on the Skype call we shared our story about all the things that had drawn us to Ecuador … childhood dreams, a crazy sense of shared adventure, and a touch of rebellion, all carefully mixed together with a pinch of mid-life crisis … and I knew the conversation was going well. At the call’s conclusion, casting director Michelle James said she’d like to move the process to the next step, and asked us to produce our own three-minute casting video about us and our lives in Puerto Cayo.
I told her it would be ready in seven days.
I couldn’t believe we were really, seriously talking to the people who could actually make it happen, and that they wanted to continue a conversation with us.
Fortunately, Dana had enough foresight early on to bring a tripod on our trip. Over the next three to four days we filmed in our house, on the beach, shopping in town and any number of places that would help convey life in Puerto Cayo. I was the creative director and logistics guy. Dana was executive producer. Three minutes quickly became seven, and we let the length stand, uploaded it to Vimeo and waited. We thought it would be three to four weeks before we heard a peep from them, if we heard back at all.
Four days later, Michelle responded, said the producers loved it, and invited us to work with them. I’ll never forget telling Dana we were going to be on the show.
In life’s grand scheme it’s pretty insignificant, but it felt wonderfully redemptive.
And filming the show was … so … much … fun.
(Future stories in the series: A feature story on our director, Linda Benya, who talks about why she loves HHI; another profile on our videographer, Doron Schlair, who’s filmed just about every star you can imagine; a behind-the-scenes look at some things that happened during our filming that you’ll likely never see on TV; HHI: is it real or is it fake, you tell me; and what it’s really like to live in Ecuador.)
In journalism, it’s the equivalent of selling your soul to the devil.
Or just not giving a damn.
Not that it doesn’t happen all around, every single day. You just hate it when it strikes so close to home. And so blatantly.
My hometown newspaper is The Jonesboro Sun. It’s been around more than 100 years.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an alumnus of The Sun, and spent eight years working there as a general assignment reporter from 1989 to 1997. After that, I was involved in more than one journalistic enterprise that competed with The Sun for both news and advertising dollars.
As a matter of further disclosure, the newspaper’s top management has never particularly cared for me, and I don’t necessarily love them with all my heart either. Oh, the humanity.
With that disclosure, I believe it’s still quite possible to address the following topic objectively. And that’s what I now aspire to do.
If you live in Northeast Arkansas, and you are one of the few remaining people who subscribes to The Jonesboro Sun, or just believe in the importance untainted journalism, you should be aware of what I’m about to explain.
Today, is the day your local newspaper sunk to an all-time low.
Allow me to elucidate.
Journalistic vehicles (i.e., newspapers, radio, television, et al) exist for multiple reasons, top among which is to hold those in the public trust accountable. It’s an honorable profession, and a demanding one, and because it’s so important as to be addressed in the Bill of Rights, the public, at large, should hold the media accountable as well. When the media becomes corrupt, all is lost.
From the beginning of their educations, journalists are taught that the “news hole” (all the space not dedicated to paid advertisements) is sacred. That space is to be approached without consideration to anything that could affect its content. It’s at the heart of journalistic integrity and objectivity.
This is the point where you should understand how many media outlets sacrifice their integrity. It’s all about the money, and only those who are truly dedicated to quality journalism avoid this at all costs.
A newspaper makes its money in two ways. Subscriptions and advertising. Subscription revenue amounts to almost nothing. Paid advertising is the bread and butter of any print publication. It pays the production, the salaries, everything. So you can imagine how important advertisers are to any newspaper.
Let’s imagine a very large and influential commercial entity with deep pockets makes a 12-month commitment to advertise in a newspaper. Depending on certain variables, that commitment amounts to several tens of thousands of dollars.
And let’s further imagine that at the signing of that advertising contract, the corporate representative of the advertiser hints at the possibility of some nice news coverage of their upcoming grand opening.
The seed is planted and the vision for real journalism now becomes blurry.
Major advertisers wield huge power over editorial content. It happens all the time. It shouldn’t but it does. Weak journalism management (usually with a less than average product) caves to this practice regularly.
It’s a “this for that.” And news should never be for sale.
It happened today in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Not that it’s the first time, or that it will be the last.
It’s just never been quite so blatant.
Among the most precious of a newspaper’s commodities is its front page. If you read a newspaper today, I’ll bet you can’t recite a single headline from page A8, but I’ll bet you can recall at least one or two stories from the front page. Everyone sees the front page, if but for a moment.
News on the front page is the ultimate placement. The judgment for what goes on that space carries the ultimate responsibility and it’s held by the publisher and editor.
A number of years ago, unfortunately, many newspapers went in a bad direction as they started experimenting with paid advertisements on their front pages.
It’s not right, and it was a bad road to go down, but they did it and many still do. Today, you can buy almost anything on the front page of some publications.
It’s a bad idea for the explanation given earlier. Let’s further imagine this fictional scenario.
The county government spends $100,000 a year in the local newspaper promoting tourism. Midway though the contract a county official is accused of sexually harassing multiple county employees. The newspaper is about to break the story and the county treasurer reminds the newspaper publisher that there is $50,000 remaining on their contract, which could be pulled at any moment. Ultimately, the published story isn’t nearly as factual and sharp as it should have been. It was tainted. Less than 100 percent truth.
It’s an extreme, and fictional example, but you get the point.
Today’s front page of The Jonesboro Sun exhibits something I’ve honestly never seen. It includes a paid advertisement for a local hospital in a banner strip across the bottom … and the most prominent news story on the page is about that very hospital, and the headline is not one that you would exactly call objective. It should have had a big Smiley Face beside it.
The photo that accompanies the story even captures the newspaper publisher touring the facility.
It’s the ultimate disregard for a journalists’ responsibility to his reader.
If The Jonesboro Sun can be swayed to sacrifice any integrity it has, and giving this for that by something as harmless as the opening of a new hospital, what can its readers expect when it really matters?
We should demand better.
(Blogger’s Note: As a point of clarification, and before anyone wants to go down this road, I am in no way asserting that the hospital did anything wrong in this case. A marketing department should do everything it can to put its organization in a good place in the public eye. The newspaper, on the other hand, should know how to contain this.)