A Media Adventure. Sort Of. (2006)

A Media Adventure. Sort Of.

Another in a series of observations about life in West Midwood as it is lived today...or maybe not...

Back in March of 2006 we got a letter from our insurance carrier, who shall remain nameless in somebody else’s column, but in this one, they’re called Allstate. Their letter reminisced about what a crumby year it had been for the insurance industry and all, what with Katrina and stuff, and, oh by the way, we’re canceling your homeowner’s insurance. Apparently we lived on the wrong side of the Allegheny Mountains. Well, word got around and our teenage son has a lot of influential friends in this town, so pretty soon, I’m pulling my car over one night, blocking some guy’s driveway on Stratford Road while trying to have a conversation with a New York Times reporter.

“How did you get this number?” I demanded.

“Your wife gave it to me. She also asked me to tell you if you could pick up some juice on the way hone, she’d appreciate it.”

“Did she say whether it was cranberry juice or orange juice? She drinks both you know.”

“Er, listen, I hate to change the topic but we’re going to press in five minutes with a hard-hitting expose about the insurance industry and I need your help with some trenchant one-liners I’d write myself except they have to be from real people. Can you help?”

Then I sprang it on him: “Look, Tony, I’ll give you some nice quotes, sure. But you can do me a big favor here. When you mention that I’m a homeowner, please give a nod to our Argyle Heights neighborhood here, OK? I mean, some old-timers still refer to it by its Dutch imperialistic name, ‘Vest Midwout’, but more progressive types all say ‘Argyle Heights’, of course.”

Tony sounded amenable. “Sure, sure, no problem.” So the interview proceeded nicely and a few minutes later I was in Key Food on Foster Avenue buying a lot of juice, grateful that eventually our house would get the needed valuation boost it so richly deserved since studies show “Heights” is worth a cool 25k alone if it’s in your neighborhood’s name and …Then the cell rang again.

“Joe, we have a big problem with this story.” It was Tony the reporter again and he sounded terribly frazzled. “My editor can’t find ‘Argyle Heights’ on the map! Plus, he says he’s lived on the Upper East Side all his life and he’s never heard of Vest Midwout either!!”

NY Times On Line Version Has Shortened Title
The result of all this was the next day, on Friday, March 6th, the Times expose hit the stands but it must have shifted its focus in the minute after I was interviewed. Now it zeroed in on Victorian Flatbush’s vulnerability to a Katrina-like catastrophe because we lived down-slope from the raging, tsunami-breeding waters of Prospect Park Lake. The piece - "Allstate to Pare Home Policies in Storm-Prone Parts of Region" - had my brilliant comment ("We're inland, so it would take quite a tidal wave to reach us"), then went downhill in a hurry with: “But his Flatbush house is near the Prospect Park lake and, according to the city's Office of Emergency Management, is only a block away from a surge zone during a major hurricane.”

So I guess the moral here is: the Times doesn’t have a map big enough to show West Midwood (much less Argyle Heights) and the map they do use has mislabeled the Atlantic Ocean as Prospect Park Lake. In the meantime, we moved on and got a good deal on homeowner’s insurance from Hartford (applying a discount from AARP, we are paying less than we did to Allstate). Then in June, the phone rang again and it was an Associated Press reporter who was doing – you guessed it – a hard-hitting expose on the insurance industry. She had seen my name in the Times and…I cut her off and explained how the Times got everything wrong.

“Really?” She sounded excited.

“Sure”, I said. “First of all, I live in Argyle Heights, not Flatbush, and second, Prospect Park Lake ain’t exactly Lake Pontchartrain.”

Silence. “Excuse me”, the reporter said, “But I’m from New Orleans and we’re not interested in your issues, we’re interested in the Allstate angle.”

So this time it was personal. Being a good Source, I gave her a lot of sarcastic one-liners which nevertheless reflected an amazing sensitivity for the people of New Orleans and how Brooklyn is really like New Orleans North and…Well, the net-net was a story that appeared Monday, June 12th (“Insurance Limbo Slows Katrina Fixes”) about how Katrina victimized homeowners in the Big Easy, sure, but the insurance industry was itself victimized by rising re-insurance rates, and was merely passing the cost along and blah blah…Once again, Argyle Heights didn’t make the final cut. Instead there was a general line about how Allstate “canceled 30,000 policies in coastal counties of New York, including Brooklyn, even though a major hurricane has not hit there since 1938.” (Source: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-06-11-katrina_x.htm).

It looked to me like this story about the cancellation of our insurance kept going in the wrong direction. Instead of focusing on the heartache and disappointment of Argyle Heightsians, it was getting distracted by 30,000 other New Yorkers and a few million on the Gulf Coast. And there I thought the matter would end, until one night I found myself out with my buddies in some Manhattan watering hole on the way to find some cranberry juice when the phone rang.

It was a producer for the Comedy Channel’s “Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and they wanted to do a spot on Allstate’s canceling our policy.

YES! Now Argyle Heights would get the recognition it deserved without any censorship or “Flatbush” equivocations. Of course, first I had to get permission from my employer (“Sure, just don’t tell them who you work for and try not to do it in a bar for a change”) and then I had to clear it with my co-workers for the day the Daily Show wanted to do it (“Yeah, right, like you’re going to be on The Daily Show and monkeys fly out of our butts”).

Then the next week the "Daily Show" called.

"Sorry, but we're going with Homeowner Hank instead of you." I complained mightily, of course, since I wanted the satisfaction of sticking it to The Man.

"But, Joe" the producer pointed out, "you own an expensive home and your opinion is sought by the newspaper of record; face it: YOU are The Man."

Oh. The producer did ask if I would pretend to be an Allstate broker or spokesperson since they couldn't get anybody but I turned that down because the lines were dumb ("At Allstate, distance to the ocean is only one of two or three variables we use to decide policy renewal; the other is distance to Prospect Park and your son’s clout with the New York Times").

Well, on August 1st, the segment aired on “The Daily Show” and the Victorian Flatbush homeowner turned out to be our own westmidwood.org web site maestro, Paul Steinfeld (obviously these new media and visual media types stick together)! The reporter for "The Daily Show" was Jason Jones and the piece was called "Brooklyn Dodgers" (you can still find the clip at www.comedycentral.com/shows/the_daily_show/videos/most_recent/index.jhtml?start=225).

Funniest moment:

JONES: Steinfeld, don't you realize that Allstate is actually sending you a message here that your home is about to be swallowed up in some gigantic catastrophe and that you're basically doomed?

STEINFELD: This neighborhood hasn't been under water for at least 10,000 years as far as geologists can determine!

JONES: So that's a yes, you are doomed.

Another funny bit was when Jones attempted to interview Allstate but they refused because he answered "Yes" to these items on their obviously fictitious "Interview Risk Assessment Questionnaire":

* Do you take statements made to you out of context?
* Have you ever been a real pain in the butt while doing an interview?
* Do you hum TV theme songs while your interview subject tries to answer questions?

The insurance industry spokesperson they did manage to get on camera was asked: "If it's ‘Allstate’, shouldn't they insure all of the state?"

The spokesperson stared at Jones blankly and if you looked hard enough, you could discern a dawning awareness that "The Daily Show" might not actually be a real news show.

Thank you, space alien friends, for re-arranging time and space so I did not appear on this show and get publicly humiliated about the Argyle Heights thing. I get enough humiliation when I shoot hoops with my son James. With or without his hot shot New York Times contacts.

Reprinted with permission of The West Midwood Community NewsLetter (Pursuant to stipulation with respect to the “Back Dues Settlement Agreement, Joe, You Weasel”)

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