"Toxic Towns": CNN sticks with strong documentaries

The TV news world may be getting sillier, but CNN keeps making strong, solid documentaries.

A prime example is "Toxic Towns" on Saturday, the first of a string of documentaries this month. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Towering over the Louisiana landscape,
plastic factories dominate life.

They bring jobs and prosperity, but do
they also bring health disasters? That's the question Dr. Sanjay
Gupta faces in “Toxic Towns,” which is launching a month of major
CNN documentaries.

“There is always a fight between
science and anecdotal evidence,” Gupta said.

His background is on the science side;
he's a surgeon and the son of two engineers. But in his alternate
work as news correspondent, he's jolted by the specific stories.

Gupta went to Mossville, La., where
plastics factories rule. “You can't miss them,” he said. “You're
surrounded by 14 of them.”

There, he met locals with cancer, women
with early hysterectomies, one family in which eight of 10 people had
severe problems. So far, there's no statistical link to the

“That's the same thing that was said
about Thalidomide or lead,” Gupta said. “It takes decades to
gather data …. In 1960, we believed (lead) was OK; it took 30 years
to figure it out.”

Growing up in Michigan, Gupta was used
to factories. “You always look at that smoke coming out and wonder
what's in it.”

In recent generations, factories were
lured to Louisiana by a promise of no taxes. One debate is whether
there was also an unstated promise of no regulation.

If states do regulate lightly, then the
federal government becomes the last stop. Gupta is optimistic about
current Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson, but said
the odds are steep in the U.S. “Our whole philosophy has been …
innocent until proven guilty.”

In Europe, he said, industry must prove
they are safe. In the U.S., government must prove it isn't safe. That
takes research that is just starting in places like Mossville.

CNN documentaries this month:

– “Toxic Towns, USA,” 8 p.m.
Saturday, rerunning at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.

– “Toxic Childhood,” at the same
times Sunday. Sanjay Gupta views ways to minimize the risks of
harmful chemicals in everyday lives.

– “The Atlanta Child Murders,”
9-11 p.m. June 10; rerunning at midnight; also, same times June
12-13. Soledad O'Brien interviews Wayne Williams, who was convicted
after more than 25 children were killed; he continues to profess his

– “Dads For My Daughters,” 8 p.m.
June 19 and 20, rerunning at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Gupta profiles author
Bruce Feiler, who created a “Council of Dads,” after he came down
with a rare cancer.

– “Gary & Tony Have a Baby,”
8 p.m. June 24, rerunning at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.; also, same times
June 26-27. O'Brien interviews two gay men who faced medical and
legal battles, while trying to have a baby that has a biological
connection to both.


"Idol" champion: Life soars after a slow start

The best thing about this "American Idol" season is the way two everyday people -- each 24, from Northern roots -- soared.

Earlier (see previous blog) I sent papers a story on Crystal Bowersox, the runner-up. Here's my story on Lee DeWyze, the winner:


Lee DeWyze's victory seems to be
another “American Idol” moment for the common man.

“I'm a real guy,” he told reporters
Friday. “Whether it's on-camera of off, I like to be myself.”

Viewers knew that already. The show
kept reminding them that DeWyze, 24, is the guy who mixed and shook
paint cans at a store in Mount Prospect, Ill.; currently, women are
sporting T-shirts that read, “Lee DeWyze shook my can.”

The extent of his regular-guy life goes
much earlier than that, though. “A big problem for me was finding a
direction,” he said. “I didn't really care about things (except)

He was sent to an alternative high
school, which was helpful. “I got a totally different outlook and
realized there's a lot more out there than my problems.”

Eventually, the music clicked. DeWyze
cut two albums on an independent label. He did gigs in Chicago clubs;
he's particularly fond of a House of Blues gig with the Freddy Jones
Band, on a New Year's Eve show that included Collective Soul and

Then came “Idol,” an odd fit for a
guy who leans to folk-rock. “It was frustrating sometimes, because
there were some songs … I wouldn't sing in a million years. Still,
that's what the show is about.”

Time limits were also frustrating. “I
like to build up to something, but we only get a minute and a half.”

Within those limits, however, he could
soar. “We were given free rein to go th the studio and arrange
songs any way we could, and I did.”

He thrived, always staying out of the
bottom two or three. He seemed tense at times, but relaxed when the
final three were sent home for mini-concerts. “I was only scheduled
to sing three or four songs and I did nine or 10. How do you not?”

Only the time limit stopped him that
night, DeWyyze said. It was a sign that he'll enjoy the time ahead.

Yes, his first radio single is a cover
of U2's “Beautiful Day.” After that, however, the folk-rock-blues
can emerge. “I'm going to be able to do my thing on my stage.”


Crystal: Life-changing moments

Everything in Crystal Bowersox's life seems to be changing at a blurring pace. Here's the story I just aent to papers. I'll be back in an hour with a separate one on Lee DeWyze:


Crystal Bowersox could have continued
her previous life almost forever.

She was a singer-songwriter, working
five years in Chicago's clubs and subway stops.

“For years, people (said) 'You should
try out for “(American) Idol”,” she recalled today. She
resisted. “I didn't think I was that kind of performer.”

Then – after retreating to small-town
Ohio with her son (now 16 months) _ she decided to try. The result
has changed her life in every way; she:

– Was named runner-up Wednesday to
Lee DeWyze. “I love Lee,” said Bowersox, 24. “Lee is great;
he's supertalented and I would buy his record in a heartbeat.”

– Promptly signed a record deal with
the show's producers. In addition, her final song on the show – Patty Griffin's rousing “Up to the Mountain” – was released to
radio stations.

– Broke up with her boyfriend.
Earlier, she had told the audience she was sure he would propose;
instead, she said, they agreed before Wednesday's show to break up.
“Tony's been my rock through all of this. (But) he's a small-town
guy and wants a simple, quiet life.”

– Provided a small boost for
singer-songwriters. While showing her homecoming trip, “Idol”
included her singing “Holy Toledo” – a song she wrote when she
was 17. It was, she was told, the first time anyone on the show had
been shown singing an original.

– Accidentally became a symbol for
diabetes survivors. “I tried to keep it a secret,” she said.

That's common for many young people,
she said – especially for ones who couldn't afford health care. “I
never had a lot of money …. There have been times in my life when I
had to beg for insulin.”

When she did tell the “Idol”
people, she said, everything changed. “A team of people swarmed in
to help me. I never felt more loved.”

She was hospitalized twice, but got to
the finals. At that point, she said, she was convinced DeWyze would
win. Then came host Ryan Seacrest's long pause.

“I had mouthed the words 'Come on,
Ryan' several times. I saw Lee's face and he was ready to pass out.”


"Idol": Well, I used to be right

This is sort of like politician double-speak: I was right about "American Idol" before I was wrong.

I had predicted (see an earlier blog) that Lee DeWyze would win. Then -- after Crystal Bowersox's sensational work Tuesday (ignore the previous blog) -- I switched to her.

Consider that wishful thinking. Instead, viewers have taken the same route for two straight years -- choose the likable guy with a pleasant voice (Kris Allen, Lee) over the fresh and stunning talent (Adam Lambert, Crystal).

I won't be bitter -- well, I'm a bit bitter about Michael Lynche, Siobhan Magnus and Lilly Scott, other fresh forces, finishing only fourth, sixth and 13th -- because Lee is a decent guy with solid talent. Besides, this was a great finale.

I'll have the Crystal-and-Lee interview late Friday afternoon. For now, here are a few comments I threw down chronologically; please add yours:

1) "School's Out" was a rousing start, byut why were so many people wearing silly uniforms? Probably because the show is produced by Englishmen. They assume that's how American kids go to school.

2) The Simon stuff is fun. My favorite line was from Dane Cooke: "You have the honesty of Abe Lincoln and the charm of the guy who shot him."

3) I really like Crystal Bowersox's apparent lack of lipstick. Then again, I think I know what happened: Christina Aguilera used up the entire tube.

4) All in all, however, the medley with Aguilera and the "Idol" women was sensational. The one with the guys and Hall-and-Oates was OK.

5) We've previously established that my local Fox station sometimes accidentally airs old commercials. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that tonight's newscast promo (for an expose on Internet chat rooms) was one they had been around from 1998.

6) First, they showed the beautiful and colorful design Crystal did for her new Ford Fiesta. Then they reverted to the commercial that showed a car in a sickly pea-green color. Maybe they need Crystal to take over their design team.

7) Sure, I enjoyed seeing the commercial where a parade celebrates the Fiesta's 40 miles per gallon. Still, I have to point this out: The Saturn I've been driving for nine years is also rated 40-mpg highway, but ads never seemed to mention it. That may be why Saturn went broke and Ford didn't even need bail-out money.

8) Did you notice how you stop anything and listen to Dennis Haysbert, even in a commercial? President Palmer will always be our chief executive

9) That was a great idea to bring Paula Abdul back as a surprise for the audience. She delivered her material poorly -- she's never been that good working live -- but it was still fun.

10) The number that followed was splendid, bringing together every "Idol" champion -- well, every one except David Cook -- for an epic song.

11) And yes, it made sense to celebrate Simon's years. This was a lowly summer show, when Cowell brought attention by being unique. He brought a spotlight to what became an important show.

12) The surprise guests kept pouring in. Performing were Aguilera, two BeeGees, Chicago, Joe Cocker, Alice Cooper, one Doobie, Hall & Oates, one Jackson, Bret Michaels, Alanis Morissette and Carie Underwood. We also heard from Frank Sinatra and William Hung, but the former was, I believe, recorded.




A real surprise: Crystal can win

Some elections have an "October surprise," some baseball games have a 9th-inning rally, some football games have a Hail Mary pass. And on "Amerian Idol," it's not over until the pleasantly pudgy lady sing.

That's Crystal Bowersox; her final performance -- a rousing, gospel-style version of "Up to the Mountain" -- wrapped things up. I think she'll be the surprise winner on Wednesday.

I had predicted Lee DeWyze would win; many people did. What I hadn't expected was Crystal's spectacular, final-night charge. Here are a few of my comments; please add yours:

1) Hey, I thought there was a rule that every final-song/first single number had to range from so-so ("A Moment Like This") to awful. The show continued that tradition by giving Lee "Beautiful Day." Then it broke its own habit, by giving Crystal a terrific song. I'm looking forward to her single.

2) Earlier, Lee chose "The Boxer." He did a good job, but there's only so much you can do in emoting these lyrics: "La de la; la de la la la la; la de la; la de la de lah."

3) Crystal chose "Me and Bobby Magee," which has its own "na de na na" segment. The rest, however, is passionate and she sang it beautifully.

4) The producer chose "Everybody Hurts" for Lee; it was OK.

5)  For Crystal, the producer chose "Black Velvet," a song so good that Nikki McKibbin sang it well during the first season. I like it as a deeper, more-sultry sound, but Crystal did a great job after nudging it to a higher octave.

6) Crystal got all the breaks this time. The big one was winning the coin flip, so she could sing last.

7) More importantly, she sang that last one beautifully. I was wrong in predicting Lee would win. I think the winner is Crystal-clear.