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Syndicates: Brenda Starr Takes Swipes at the Media.

Since Mary Schmich took over the writing of "Brenda Starr" 20 years ago this April, she has used the comic to periodically comment on the media in general and newspapers in particular. Which makes sense: In the Tribune Media Services (TMS) strip, Starr is a reporter for The Flash newspaper. In real life, Schmich is a Chicago Tribune columnist who's enjoyed a long newspaper career of her own.

"I've been in this journalism stew for years," she says. "There's a lot of inside information about newspapers in the strip."

But in the past two or three years, Schmich has commented on newspapers and other media even more in "Brenda Starr." And, she says, this commentary is "not a flattering portrait of our craft."

That was especially noticeable in February and March, as Schmich took digs at egotistic media stars, journalism-award ceremonies, pundit payola, and the way close proximity to powerful politicians can blunt a reporter's edge.

The setting of all this was Washington, D.C., where Brenda had gone to work temporarily in TV as a liberal counterpart to conservative Slash Burns -- an overbearing character seemingly modeled on Fox News host/Creators Syndicate columnist Bill O'Reilly.

A synopsis of the February and March strips: Slash's wife tells Brenda during a clandestine meeting in a diner that Slash feels threatened by Brenda's strong TV presence. She also tells Brenda: "That moral values stuff? He [Slash] doesn't believe it. He just knows it sells."

Then Slash -- driving by the diner in a limo with his assistant (and apparent girlfriend) Tres Smart -- spots his wife and barges into the eatery to tell her to go home. He has his own smarmy chat with Brenda, after which he gives her tickets to the "Annual Pundit Party."

At the bash, Brenda devastates Dennis Miller by not knowing who he is. Slash opines: "A pundit would rather be despised than unknown." And Brenda muses: "All this self-importance would be suffocating, if it weren't so entertaining."

The President of the United States -- looking a lot like George W. Bush -- appears at the podium in the Feb. 27 strip to present Slash with the first "Govie Award." Columnists such as Arianna Huffington (TMS) and Pat Buchanan (Creators) are pictured in the audience, but Slash is nowhere to be found. Brenda accepts the award on Slash's behalf.

At the podium, the president recognizes Brenda. "The president knows my name! I like him better already!" thinks Brenda, before an imagined Brenda on her shoulder warns: "That's how the seduction and corruption begin, Starr!"

Brenda proceeds to give a brief speech, saying: "Imagine! In a democracy, the government tries to bribe journalists! And some journalists can be bought as easily as chewing gum. Most journalists are honest. But parties like this and awards like this compromise us all!"

Schmich -- who wrote that speech for Brenda before the Armstrong Williams and other pundit-payola scandals broke -- then continued the sequence by showing Slash accused of murdering Tres Smart.

Why is Schmich lampooning the media more these days? "I feel that in the past few years the media has evolved into a new critter -- a more backbiting, self-referential critter," she tells E&P, noting that blogs, the Romenesko Web site, and other digital-age outlets make it easier for journalists to snipe at each other publicly.

At the same time, Schmich has somewhat reduced the emphasis on Brenda's love life. "How many romances can a woman have without beginning to look trampy?" she asks with a laugh.

Schmich said "Brenda Starr" includes authentic references to journalism while remaining exaggerated and campy in certain ways. But the strip is arguably more realistic -- and Brenda more mature -- than when Dale Messick was doing it.

Messick, who turns 99 on April 11, created "Brenda Starr" 65 years ago -- and its title character hasn't aged a bit. "I think Brenda looks absolutely amazing for someone born in 1940," says Huffington.

Schmich credits June Brigman for making Brenda and the comic look good. "June is a great artist," she says. Brigman certainly drew excellent likenesses of Huffington, Buchanan, and others in the recent sequence.

Actually, Schmich didn't know Brigman would draw Huffington and Buchanan, or that Dennis Miller would be dissed by Brenda. "I told June to put in any pundit she wanted," says Schmich.

That might explain why the Feb. 27 strip inexplicably showed the liberal Huffington as one of the pundits wondering if she might receive the "Govie Award" that ended up going to Slash. "While I'm flattered that the people behind 'Brenda Starr' would include me as a guest at their swinging 'Pundit Party,' the idea that President Bush would ever consider giving me an award after what I've written about him makes me question whether they've read my column in the last decade," Huffington says. "On the other hand, he did give a Medal of Freedom to George Tenet, so I guess anything's possible!"

Given that the sequence featured pundits, E&P asked National Society of Newspaper Columnists President Suzette Martinez Standring to take a look at it. She e-mailed this comment: "Slash Burns is a comic-strip pundit prone to corruption. In the real world, what about the corruptors? The Brenda (and Brendan) Starrs of the world need to flush out the government tempters -- those giving false documents to the media, those underwriting 'independent' opinions, and those granting questionable security clearances. Who are they and what are they getting in return? Brenda Starr, a woman's work is never done."

Putting media commentary in "Brenda Starr," says Schmich, has helped the long-running comic survive by "giving it a niche that's not just general soap opera." The strip currently runs in 20-plus papers, including the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Daily News, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Schmich mentioned that the sequence has brought "Brenda Starr" more publicity than usual. "It's always interesting to me," she says, "that the way to get noticed by the media is to write about the media!"
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Comment:Syndicates: Brenda Starr Takes Swipes at the Media.
Author:Astor, Dave
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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