Media essays

The conspiracy theory card

The other day, Politico ran a typically sneering article about the Bilderberg Group. As usual, anyone who shows the slightest interest in the hyper secret meeting of some of the most powerful people in the world is a “conspiracy theorist.”

This is smug, childish, mindless establishment journalism at its worst. By any traditional standard of journalism, a secret meeting of some of the most important people in the world is news. How you handle that news is certainly debatable but to ignore it completely is simply incompetence.

Consider this. The recent G-20 conference produced over 10,000 news stories. The next Bilderberg event, about 150 – none in the conventional media according to a Google scan.

Yet how newsworthy was the G20 conference? Robert Kuttner put it well when he wrote:

“Since they began at Rambouillet, France, in 1975, these annual economic summits have been treated as momentous events, but they are memorable mostly for being forgettable. Only very infrequently, as in the 1999 Cologne summit’s embrace of debt relief for the third world, do they produce lasting achievements. This Group of 20 meeting was notable only because the club of seven leading democracies plus Russia was expanded to include emerging world powers such as India, China, and Brazil. . . But the 2009 summit, whose extensive press clippings will soon be fish wrap, succeeded mainly because it managed not to fail.”

Of course, nothing much may happen at this year’s Bilderberg conference – to be held perhaps in Greece in either May or June (only conspiracy theorists care where or when). On the other hand, Belgian viscount and current Bilderberg-chairman Etienne Davignon pointed out to the EU Observer that the Euro was created in part by the Bilderberg Group in the 1990s, certainly more newsworthy than anything the G20 crowd has been up to lately.

One of the reasons Bilderberg is so heavily censored by the archaic media is the number of publishers and owners who attend. The Washington Post, the New York Times, LA Times and all major networks’ ABC, CBS and NBC have participated. All participants are sworn to secrecy.

Bilderberg denies its existence, and all the resorts at which they hold their meetings require their employees to lie and deny they are present.

Among those reportedly present in 2007 were Donald Graham, chairman and chief executive officer of the Washington Post, Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, John Vinocur, senior correspondent of the International Herald Tribune, Paul Gigot, editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Beytout, editor-in-chief of Le Figaro, George David, chairman of Coca-Cola, Martin Feldstein, president and chief executive officer of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Timothy F. Geithner, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Vernon Jordan, senior managing director of Lazard Freres & Co., and Anatole Kaletsky, editor at large of the Times of London.

Any journalists who don’t think such a crowd, meeting at a secret place at a secret time for secret reasons, is not worth covering deserves to have their press pass cancelled.

How newspapers can save themselves

SAM SMITH – It’s been about 17 years since I last offered any advice to Don Graham of the Washington Post. He wasn’t interested. Oddly, about a year later, the circulation of American newspapers, including the Post, began a slow decline that continues to this day.

This morning, however, I was so struck by the thin size of the Post that I actually compared the number of pages of the major sections from the previous week: there were five less. So now I actually feel sorry for the guy and would like to pass on a few more ideas:

– Newspapers early surrendered the image battle to TV when, in fact, TV only shows images for a few seconds at which point they are gone forever. Newspapers should go back to the approach to photos that made Life Magazine so appealing: images that made you stop and look either because of the quality of the photo or because of the story that a series of photos told. When, for example, was the last time you let a photographer edit your page design?

– Dump the Pulitzer porn such as your recent series on black men. That dreary combination of abstractions, stats and not all that interesting stories makes for poor journalism, especially over breakfast. Besides, you can’t make up for years of ignoring the problems of black men with an occasional series even if it does win a prize.

– Put news on your front page. I define news as something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership.

– The one exception to filling the front page with news would be a story or two that are just interesting, which is to say ones about which readers will ask their friends, “Did you see that story about. . ?”

– Use the “holy shit” principle of news editing. If your reaction to a story is “holy shit” and the story is true, many of your readers are going to feel the same way.

– Run more and shorter stories. You can get the edge over both the Internet and TV through quantity rather than just style of news. And the more names the better.

– Run more local stories, more stories affecting different ethnic groups, and more stories about sports people play rather than just watch.

– Go back to pyramid style reporting or at least get to the point within the first paragraph or two.

– Stop burying stories that affect ordinary readers in the business and real estate sections and put them in the front of the paper where they belong.

– Run more stories that affect ordinary readers. Handle your news from the viewpoint of your readers rather than from that of your advertisers, sources, or journalistic staff – few of whom live in some the toughest yet newsworthy parts of town.

– Have a labor section as well as a business section. After all, you have more employees than employers in your circulation area.

– Slash the number of stupid, spinning, or sophistic quotations from official sources used in your paper.

Words and cruelty

Listening to Diane Rehm the other morning as she and her panelists turned the horrors of Abu Ghraib into just another matter of politics, policy, and process brought to mind the question: what if the prisoners had been Jewish and the time 70 years ago and the place Germany? How would Diane Rehm have handled that story?

It is not just our arguments, but our words, that reveal us. For example, the panelists — two from the Washington Post publishing empire and one a rightwing law prof and sometime adviser to Donald Rumsfeld (though passed off merely as being with the Council on Foreign Relations) — clearly did not like the word ‘torture,’ with Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh favoring “these techniques.” Rehm even had a hard time with another word, referring to “the scandal — if you will.”

They likewise discussed the Geneva convention against torture and other abuses as though morality were simply a matter of international legalisms — with humans permitted to engage in any act not prohibited by specific mention on paper of the particular cruelty or status of the victim. Thus, if you were not in the protected class of combatants then, one gathered, it was fine for Donald Rumsfeld to do what he wished to your genitals or your mind.

Diane Rehm is not alone. Here is a truly remarkable example from another icon of the Washington establishment, Jim Lehrer, as he was interviewed by Chris Matthews about the failure of the media to critically analyze the basis for the Iraq war:

Lehrer: The word occupation, keep in mind, Chris, was never mentioned in the run-up to the war. It was liberation. This was a war of liberation, not a war of occupation. So as a consequence, those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.

Matthews: Because?

Lehrer: Because it just didn’t occur to us. We weren’t smart enough to do it.

Just how smart do you have to be not to realize that when you invade a country successfully, you’re going to end up occupying it?

But again, Lehrer was not alone, Antonia Zerbisias writes in the Toronto Star that “I did a quick Dow Jones database search on ‘exit strategy’ for the first three months of last year and came up with 316 references — the vast majority of them referring to Saddam’s exit strategy for avoiding war and/or being killed or captured. Not very scientific, of course. But it indicates that, while the media cheered U.S. troops going in, few thought about getting them out.”

In Washington these days, morality is defined not by philosophy or principles but by restrictive words written by lawyers and ambiguous phrases concocted by public relations experts. Politicians, their academic groupies in the think tanks, and the media accept these words and phrases with little question. Thus justice becomes not a matter of broad decency but of narrow definition and indefinable euphemism.

The problem is the one that Edgar Alan Power described: “By ringing small changes on the words leg-of-mutton and turnip, …. I could ‘demonstrate’ that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be, a leg-of-mutton.”

For example, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to “to influence corruptly, by a consideration.” Another 16th century definition describes bribery as “a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct” of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving “money or other thing of value, with intent to influence” to a government official.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time a few years ago when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official “for or because of an official act” didn’t mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like “inappropriate gift,” or “the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Another example is the remarkable redefinition of money to mean speech. You can test this one out by making a deal with a prostitute and if a cop comes along, simply say, “Officer, I wasn’t giving her money, I was just giving her a speech.” If that doesn’t work you can try giving more of that speech to the cop. Or try telling the IRS next April that “I have the right to remain silent.” And so forth. I wouldn’t advise it.

The verbal blanding of the brutality in which the Bush regime has engaged is a form of acquiescence and even encouragement. Further silent support of official cruelty can be found in the broad media refusal — save a few exceptions such as the New York Times’ Fox Butterfield — to report parallel violent mistreatment of those in domestic prisons.

You don’t just need techniques and instruments to torture. You also need the right words to justify it. Marshall Rosenberg, who teaches non-violent communication, was struck in reading psychological interviews with Nazi war criminals not by their abnormality, but that they used a language denying choice: “should,” “one must,” “have to.” For example, Adolph Eichmann was asked, “Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people their death?” Eichmann replied, “To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy.”

Asked to explain, Eichmann said, “My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache — ‘office talk.'” In office talk “you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, ‘Why did you do it?’ you say, ‘I had to.’ ‘Why did you have to?’ ‘Superiors’ orders. Company policy. It’s the law.'”

Just like “those techniques” at Abu Ghraib.

Stupid journalist tricks

One of the ways that journalists and their employers dismiss or trivialize a problem they don’t want to deal with is to call it a conspiracy theory. Journalists didn’t always act that way. There was a time when broad skepticism was one of the hallmarks of a good reporter. But that changed as American democracy, global reputation and culture began to disintegrate even as journalists gained status in a failing establishment responsible for these declines.

With a major vested interest in elite decisions, those who criticized or doubted them were increasingly assigned the role of conspiracy theorists, whether out of journalistic bias, ignorance or indolence.

Despite the ubiquity of the canard, Lizzie Widdicombe of the New Yorker deserves notice for taking it all to a higher level. The New Yorker, which too often serves as an intellectual Leisure World for smug liberals, ran a trivial piece by Widdicombe about electronic voting that began: “Nothing excites an electoral conspiracy theorist like electronic voting machines. There’s the latest foul-up in Florida (eighteen thousand votes lost in the Thirteenth District in November), or the Princeton professor-you can watch him on YouTube – who in less than a minute hacks into a voting machine and plants software redirecting votes from candidate – George Washington” to “Benedict Arnold.”

In 2002, the federal government mandated that states upgrade their voting systems. New York is among the last in the country to do so-the slowness, depending on whom you ask, derives either from caution or from incompetence. In the meantime, the city’s Board of Elections has called in an unlikely authority: the voting public.

“A couple of weeks ago, a notice appeared in local papers announcing that all voting-machine venders being considered for a state contract would give a demonstration of their wares in Staten Island. The event was part of an “American Idol”-like series of shows around the city, to culminate in a hearing at which voters will voice their opinions about the machines. . . “

A serious journalist might at least wonder why New York is treating such an important matter as a popularity contest rather than as an objective examination of one of the most important issues of our democracy.

But even more significant in this case is an article by Ronnie Dugger that appeared in 1988, one of the first to point out the dangers in electronic voting. If media and politicians had paid attention to Dugger (and similar work three years earlier by David Burnham in the NY Times) we might have saved ourselves a lot of misery. As Dugger’s article noted two decades ago: “As of the most recent tests this year, errors in the basic counting instructions in the computer programs had been found in almost a fifth of the examinations. These ‘tabulation-program errors’ probably would not have been caught in the local jurisdictions. ‘I don’t understand why nobody cares,’ Michael L. Harty, who was until recently the director of voting systems and standards for Illinois, told me last December in Springfield. ‘At one point, we had tabulation errors in twenty-eight per cent of the systems tested, and nobody cared.’ “

This piece of rank conspiracy theory appeared in the New Yorker. The moral is: be careful whom you call a conspiracy theorist. It may just take 20 years for the truth to begin to seep out.


A few thoughts about writing

Just because we are able to speak and write doesn’t mean we have to, As someone once said, what this country needs is more free speech worth listening to. Accumulating verbiage without regard to its content is more likely to lead to indigestion than understanding.

Speak United States. Avoid the private languages of academia, bureaucracies, technocracy and corporations.

As an English teacher wisely noted, you are allowed only three exclamation points in a lifetime. Use them carefully.

Remember that you are talking to a reader, not your therapist. Since you’re don’t pay your readers what you pay your therapist, you should give them something they will enjoy.

If you’re having a hard time, write for one reader: a friend, a relative, your child, George Bush. This helps remove the speechifying and makes the task less confusing.

Do not use all caps except in headlines or acronyms.

If you suffer from writer’s block, just sit down and write crap. Pay no attention to style, content, or spelling. Just write something. Then read it again tomorrow and save all the good stuff.

Capitalized words can be used for anything that would go on a door or a map, in an address book or at the beginning of a sentence. They are not for words you just think are important.

If you’re being funny or ironic, don’t feel you have to say so. Never explain a joke. It annoys your good readers and the dumb ones still won’t get it.

Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker used to say if you can’t be funny, be interesting.

Avoid abstractions. If the evening was indeed ‘fabulous,’ give us some solid evidence. And if you do a good enough job of describing an incident, you won’t need to call it ‘racist.’ Think of yourself as a photographer using words instead of a camera. Good photographs speak for themselves.

Stories are almost always more interesting than opinions. Use the southern approach and argue by anecdote. – 2006

Shop talk

We have had over 4.5 million page views this year, more than double last year’s total. What is interesting, and perhaps useful to others foraging in the Internet wilderness, is that this readership was built largely by word of mouth and accident (aka search engines).

Looking at the latest week’s referrals, approximately ten percent came from search engines, but only 3% from other journals and blogs. The top journalistic referrer was the estimable Robot Wisdom, mother of all blogs, followed by City Pages of Minneapolis- St Paul, Common Dreams, Tom Tomorrow, talk show host Mike Malloy, Z Pub of San Francisco, Arts & Literature Daily, and Doug Ireland.

Why no more mainstream or liberal sites? Well, for mainstream journalism things like the Progressive Review are to be ignored with a few exceptions such as the Wall Street Journal which lists us as one of its web favorites: “idiosyncratic left-wing site.” During the 1960s and 70s, your editor would regularly get calls from mainstream reporters wanting to know what the action was about, but those days disappeared with the corporatization of journalism. As for liberal publications like the Nation, the Review has always been too idiosyncratic and not sufficiently politically correct for its liking. For example, while the Washington Post gave favorable reviews to two of your editor’s books, the Nation has never opened one of them.

Knowing this reality, when the Review hit the web in 1995, it was clear that we would have to grow like a member of AA: one step at a time. It has been an experiment in guerilla marketing, capitalizing on the early noticed fact that when people like something on the web they pass it on.

Without any advertising, for example, a graduation speech your editor gave in the 1970s has received over 40,000 visitors while chapters of his memoirs dealing with the Coast Guard, Harvard and 1950s radio days – again without promotion – have had more than 25,000 visitors each.

The other thing that became apparent was that the site was not a single project, like the later invented blogs, but a combination of things: a journal, a library, an almanac of useful stats and information, not to mention a collection of articles that were just fun to read. The overall feeling became one of running a large bar, only serving information rather than drinks.

This created a different ecology than, say, an ideological blog or a sanctimoniously serious daily newspaper. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily attract more readers; it is clear, for example, that huge numbers of people on both left and right come to the web for confirmation rather than information. But you do find yourself with an immensely intelligent, curious, and enjoyable readership, which we would trade a million hits to get any day.

Thanks for coming and thanks for staying.

Harder to read than Ulysses

All along your editor has thought his problem was that he didn’t speak opaquely and complexly enough to make it with the Washington crowd. Now the Amazon text rating system has proved otherwise. As reader CH put it, “I’m laughing my ass off. I first found out about this feature yesterday at Jorn Barger’s weblog, Robot Wisdom. His example is James Joyce’s famously difficult Ulysses which only requires a 7th grade education compared to your 12th. Sam, either you need to simplify your style if you want your message to be accessible to the average American, or the methods Amazon is using are worthless.”

According to Amazon, Ulysses has a fog index of 9 while Why Bother has one of 15. Sixteen percent of Why Bother consists of complex words while only 10% of Ulysses does. Ulysses has 1.5 syllables per word while Why Bother has 1.7. Ulysses has 12.1 words per sentence while Why Bother has 22.

While some of the complex words cited in Why Bother may just be misspellings, I am still stunned. On the other hand, Ulysses has far more “statistically improbable words” including ute ute ute, tooraloom tooraloom tooraloom, matrimonial gift, base barreltone, quaker librarian, absentminded beggar, pensive bosom, met him pike hoses, charming soubrette, editor cried, brown macintosh, retrospective arrangement, learning knight, seaside girls, croppy boy, and old sweet song.

The only one Amazon could come up with for Why Bother was new capitalism. And while this phrase appears six times that’s nothing like the 17 times it shows up in The Experience of Middle Australia: The Dark Side of Economic Reform by Michael Pusey.

I think where I may have foiled Amazon is that, while liking all manner of words and not being opposed to sentences coiling lazily around the tongue like a sultry snake, usually when one reaches the period you still know what the hell I’m talking about. My view is that there is no point in having words if you can’t play around with them a bit. Unless I guess wrong, the mathematical models Amazon uses would be happiest if I wrote like, say, Donald Trump.

As I was considering this, a quotation from a Japanese tourist cited years ago by the New Yorker came back. It is a good reminder that one can maintain meaning even when you break every rule. The tourist in Pennsylvania Station had been told his bags were missing. His response: “Pretty damn seldom where my bags go. They no fly. You no more fitten master baggage than Jesus Christ’s sake, that’s all I hope.”

What shall NPR hath wrought?

ABOUT A MONTH AGO, I wrote, “[Bob] Edwards’ best quality is that he is so easy to go back to sleep to except when he is putting on his patronizing – we know this is silly, don’t we, listener? – airs.”

I’d like to take that back. Some of my best thinking is done between 6 am, when I wake up to Edwards, and a few minutes later when he puts me into what I call my delapse, those wonderful extra moments when I get to cheat the morning of my presence.

And this morning, during this brief period, it hit me: those supercilious bastards at NPR are going to try to cheer me up, they’re going to try to sound hip, they’re going to be effervescent, they’re going to be sincere, they’re going to be you know like you know really so with it, they’re going to be so thoughtful and clever that I’ll be out my bed by 6:07 just like I am when I forget to turn off the alarm and wake on Saturday morning to Bonnie Connors telling me how to parent a 4 year old: “Dr. Winfred, can you give us some educational and productive ways to make your child smile?”

Maybe they’ll have the Star Date lady trying a bit too hard to give her male listeners a hard-on with her diurnal report on planetary positioning. Or perhaps they’ll use that aural Prozac, Diane Rehm, who can turn even a major earthquake into a policy issue.

Worse yet, they may bring in that warren of faux sophisticates on ‘Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” or extend “Market Place” to an whole hour and make “Morning Edition” an non-stop cheery commercial for rogue capitalism.

One thing’s for sure. They won’t use Michael Feldman or the Magliozzi brothers of “Car Talk” or anyone else who could make the new day actually seem a pleasure. For NPR and its associated production companies are not in business to make our lives happier, but to get us to respect them and therefore give them more money. And our smiles must always be productive and educational.

Increasingly the sound of public radio is not the sound of real people but of a self-important elite that can barely contain its smugness. Bob Edwards, boring, obsequious to the powerful, and indifferent to the collapse of the republic as he may be, never intruded on my bedroom or my matinal miasma with jarring reminders of how significant or clever he thinks he is. Instead, there was the quiet comfort of knowing that after all these years, still nothing drastic enough to get Bob Edwards excited was happening to the world. The day was safe.

Thank you, good sir, and curse those who would replace you with a chirpy, phony sophisticate trying to make me feel better about it all

Sycophants to sociopaths

Few things get the conventional media more riled up than one of its own who doesn’t play by the rules, such as the requirement demanding sycophancy towards whatever sociopaths currently lead the country and, coincidentally, provide the propaganda that the media passes on as news.

Thus it is that Kitty Kelly is under full fire these days: unreliable, sensational, lack of facts and so forth. So just for fun, we’ve been reading these attacks to learn some facts about Kitty Kelly and all we’ve found is the unreliable, sensational and a lack of facts. Kelly, who has never been successfully sued, apparently does her mischief so cleverly that the uptight media toadies power can only allude to it without actual citation. A typical example from the NY Times’
Michiko Kakutani

“Though Doubleday is promoting Ms. Kelley as ‘a master investigative biographer,’ she lavishes all too much of her admirable energy on trying to ferret out personal peccadilloes, ranging from drug and alcohol binges to temper tantrums, from weight problems to bad taste in gift-giving. Certainly family members (particularly George W. Bush, running in the aftermath of the Bill Clinton scandals) have to some degree invited this sort of scrutiny by selling themselves as a close, wholesome, all-American clan, but Ms. Kelley’s relentless concentration on these matters, often to the exclusion of far more serious issues, makes for a tacky, voyeuristic and petty-seeming narrative.”

This from a paper that consistently misled its readers on the far more serious issue of what was going on in Iraq.

The preferred alternative to the Kitty Kellys of the world is someone like columnist Jonathan Yoder who in his new memoir writes of having dinner with George Will and the Washington Post’s Meg Greenfield: “I would have said at the time that there had been no more stellar gathering of journalistic stylists since Walter Lippmann dined alone.”

Age has encouraged little modesty for later Yoder complains about the treatment of his efforts by editor Greenfield: “I had no doubts about the standard of craftsmanship; only George Will’s seemed to me, so far as I could judge, consistently higher.”

This, gentle reader, is how people in Washington actually talk. As Isaiah Berlin noted way back in 1943: “No town has ever taken itself so seriously with so little reason.” And when you take yourself that seriously, intimations that those up to whom one sucks might be sleazeballs, coke addicts, or just plain crooks is just too much to bear.

Go for it, Kitty.


When journalism went bad

YOUR EDITOR has occasionally noted that when he started out in what was then the trade of journalism, over half the reporters in this country only had a high school education. Ben Bagdikian, a bit older, describes in his memoir, Double Vision, an even less pretentious craft:

“Before the war a common source of the reporter was an energetic kid who ran newsroom errands for a few years before he was permitted to accompany the most glamorous character on the staff, the rough-tough, seen-it-all, blood-and-guts police reporter. Or else, as in my case, on a paper with low standards, reporters started off as merely warm bodies that could type and would accept $18 a week with no benefits.

“Prewar journalists had their talents and occasional brilliances, but the initial demand on me and my peers was the ability to walk fast, talk fast, type fast, and never break a deadline. And to be a male of the species. Some of us on that long-ago paper had college educations but we learned to keep quiet about it; there was a suspicion that a degree turned men into sissies. Only after the war did the US Labor Department’s annual summary of job possibilities in journalism state that a college degree is ‘sometimes preferred.'”

Even in sophisticated Washington ten years later, I kept quiet about my Harvard degree as I learned the trade. Then the trade stopped being a trade as not only a college degree but a masters in journalism became increasingly desired. Further, journalists – with the help of things like the Washington Post’s new Style section – began joining the power structure by increasingly writing themselves into it.

Then came yet another transition: the journalist as professional was replaced by the journalist as corporate employee, just another bureaucratic pawn in organizations that increasingly had less to do with journalism.

By standard interpretations the trend – at least from uneducated tradesman to skilled professional – was a step forward. But there is a problem with this interpretation. First, with each step the journalist moved further socially and psychologically from the reader or viewer. Reporters increasingly viewed their stories from a class perspective alien to many of those they were writing for, a factor that would prove far more important than the ideological biases about which one hears so many complaints.

This doesn’t mean that because of education, these reporters needed to lose the reader’s perspective and the best ones certainly didn’t. But it meant that they had to be aware of the problem and learn how to compensate for it. Too few were or did.

One reason was the second problem: as journalism was increasingly learned academically instead of vocationally, the great curse of the campus descended, namely the abstraction of the real. Reporters, regardless of their perspective or biases, became removed from their stories. Instead, they were merely ‘educated’ about them. And the news stopped being as real.

Finally, the corporatization of news meant that everyone in the system from reporter to CEO reacted to things with the caution of an institutionalized employee. Thus, the decline of investigative journalism as it was too much of risk for all involved.

In short, journalism has become more scholarly, more snobbish, and more scared and, in the process increasingly has separated itself from the lives of its readers.

Morning sickness

I ADMIT THAT I don’t do my best media criticism before 7 AM while prone and subject to relapses into a unpredictable somnolent state where no one is trying ever so creatively to tell me what’s important. Nonetheless, I have the strong sense that Morning Edition has lost something more than Bob Edwards. To put it in non-technical terms, the missing object appears to be the news.

What seems to have happened is that Morning Edition has been turned into a broadcast feature magazine. To test this thesis I checked out the various segments that I had been awake enough this morning to recall and came up with this list along with the length:

3:38 Discovery of an ancient Spanish ape
3:16 A movie about Sponge Bob
4:41 Pure chocolate recipes for the holiday
6:19 Museum of Modern Art’s new atrium
3:03 Spin from the chief of Central Command
7:51 Iraqi contractor fraud

Some of these were actually good stories but driven into the ground. To get an idea of how long seven minutes and 51 seconds is set your kitchen timer and see how much you get done before the bell rings.

There is nothing wrong with feature journalism, but the difference between, say, the New Yorker and Vanity Fair and Nominally Public Radio is that I can read the former whenever I want. Not only can I not pick up NPR’s Sponge Bob piece off of the table and take it into the bathroom with me, the network is actually waking me up to tell me about it.

Compounding the problem is the fact that my local NPR station seems to be expanding its not too interesting local news while also changing its tone. This not only cuts into Morning Edition but forces me to deal with new concepts like “Here is your forecast for the day.”

It is not my forecast. My forecast for the day is that I’ll try futilely to finish up everything I was meant to do earlier in the week and then take it home for the weekend. I don’t need the help of any psychics at WAMU (or more probably some expert who told it I’d feel better if the station personalized the weather).

Worse, WAMU wastes ten critical minutes by turning over some of its Morning Edition airtime to the repulsive Marketplace, a program dedicated to the worst instincts of contemporary corporate America and a signal from the station that, when the chips are down, it stands with Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Michael Orvitz rather than with their employees or customers. Its one virtue is its timing: coming on at 6:50 AM it helps get me out of bed and on my way before 7.

Add it all up and you come up with 40 to 50 minutes out of an hour of critical airtime filled with stuff I don’t need, don’t like, or could use considerably less of. And I still don’t know what the hell is going on.

But then what do you expect from a vice president of programming like Jay Kernis who helped to explain the replacement of Edwards last spring by saying “We also want to get our hosts out of the studio and into the field.” A programming chief who doesn’t even know that the proper place for his hosts is at home and not wandering around some field is not the sort of person to trust with your radio.

As for Edwards he not only went into the field, he went into space, joining satellite radio. I think I may join him. I’m asking for an XM radio for Christmas.

The media’s anti left bias

Dana Milbank’s snotty attack on critics of White House behavior as revealed in the Downing Street memos illuminates a carefully concealed truth about the media: its definition of objectivity stops at the edge of anything left of center. Standard Democratic policy is okay, even a liberal quote or two, but anything further to the left is simply excluded from coverage unless – as in Milbank’s case – it is there to ridicule. Milbank’s dislike for the left began long ago and writes of it in a style that might be called unmaturated preppie.

For example, in September 2000 the Washington Post reporter said of one of the presidential candidates, Ralph Nader, that his “only enemy is the corporation.” Skull & Bonesman Milbank also described Greens as “radical activists in sandals.” Since your editor was soon to speak with Nader at an event in Washington, I brought along a pair of sandals so Milbank’s description would not be totally false. Of course, he didn’t show up because Nader and the Greens fell into that classic media category: important enough to scorn but not important enough to cover.

Being among the last progressive journalists in the capital I am conscious of the massive disinterest of the rest of the media in anything left of center. When I started in 1964, my work was appealing enough to mainstream journalism to be offered jobs at the New York Times and the Washington Post. I was frequently called by journalists wanting to know what was going on in the civil rights or anti-war movement. These calls were seldom hostile: the left was a reality that needed to be covered and even the Post had some good reporters on the case. I tried, then as now, to serve as an helpful interpreter rather than as a rhetorical advocate and even developed a few friends along the way. But these days I rarely get calls from the conventional media.

Jim Ridgeway of the Village Voice, down the hall from my office, reports a similar phenomenon. Two guys with decades of history and background about progressive politics that is considered totally irrelevant by establishment Washington. The left, progressive movements, and social change are simply not thought to be worthy subjects by the corporate media – or by NPR for that matter.

The exception is that it is generally presumed amongst the media that progressives are fair targets for mockery. In a recent article in the faux hip Vanity Fair on Jeff Gannon, David Margolik and Richard Gooding offered as a positive that Gannon “balanced off some of the left-wingers in the room such as Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter, and a Naderite, who once asked McCellan whether, given the administration’s support for the public display of the Ten Commandments, President Bush believed that the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ applied to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.”

The fact that the authors considered that a stupid question tells much about the sorry state of Washington journalism. Further, Russell Mokhiber often tells more important truths in one column than Vanity Fair does in a whole issue. The trend is also confirmed by Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian who has published a list of a score of political blogs that DC journalists like. Not one is to the left of Democratic Party liberalism, which these days means saying, “right on” to whatever conservative Democrat is in charge. Of the 20 sites, only two are on my list – the libertarian Hit & Run and the poll-heavy Real Politics. The common characteristic of many of the others is their utter predictability.

Put simply, the media doesn’t like the left, social change, Greens, or progressive thought. It deals with them by ignoring them or mocking them, in either case excluding them from its own perverted definition of objectivity.

Smackdown with Bill O’Reilly

Reader Chas Edwards used the right word when he described your editor’s appearance on the Bill O’Reilly show as a “smackdown,” for television of this variety has far more in common with professional wrestling than with professional journalism. And like a professional wrestler I went on the show knowing full well that I was the designated loser. Bad Bubba O’Reilly was to show his infinite skills against Ultimo A-Train Sam with the latter left humiliated on the mat.

Some have inquired, and not too gently, why I would submit to such nonsense. Reader Weld in Brunswick Maine, for example, writes, “In exchange for a diatribe against the Clintons, O’Reilly agrees to let you air three common sense ideas. Take a shower and don’t forget to scrub. You could at least have asked about his fake Peabody Awards.”

Leading aside the shameful truth that I enjoy nonsense immensely, things like the O’Reilly show are merely the outward and most visible sign of an artificiality that pervades television. I learned this early when I was seriously considering television at a career. In January 1961, I made my only foray into the real world of network television. I was hired for Kennedy’s inauguration by CBS News as a news editor. Along with fellow WWDC newsman Ed Taishoff, I sat all day capped with a headset in a ballroom of the Washington Hotel, turning phone calls from CBS correspondents into stories placed on Walter Cronkite’s personal news ticker. If there was one thing Ed and I knew, it was how to take news from callers, turn it into copy and get it on the air fast.

But when the calls weren’t coming in, I looked around the room and tried to figure out what the scores of CBS minions and executives were doing. As far as I could tell, Ed and I and a few people in front of dials and screens were doing most of the work. Yet we were badly out-numbered and under-paid by men in suits who tore around yelling and looking concerned or angry or wanting to know where something was. It all didn’t look like much fun and I think it was when I decided I didn’t want to be a network anchorman after all.

I would also cover events with my little battery operated tape recorder and felt blessed with the speed I could set up and depart compared to those in television. It seemed like every time they wanted to do something, a giant Leggo set would appear between them and the something and nothing could happen until they had assembled it.

The result is that everything that television does becomes television rather than what it starts out to be. For example my few minutes on Fox required numerous phone calls, including a “pre-interview,” follow-ups and useful advice on how to facilitate the O’Reilly experience. Upon arrival I was layered with powder to make me look as much unlike myself as possible although, as I pointed out to the duster, making me up is a bit like George Bush trying to balance a budget. And then I sat for 45 minutes as people rushed back and forth on unknown but important missions including Britt Hume who sincerely wished me luck tackling O’Reilly and Bill Kristol who said hello and then quickly turned and left when he realized that it hadn’t been necessary.

And to what end? To spend a few minutes talking to a wall that for the purposes of television I was to imagine as Bill O’Reilly. How an industry that spends so much money on everything else can only give you a wall to talk to leaves is puzzling and I know of no one who has experienced one of these remote interviews who finds it comfortable.

I comforted myself by recalling the time I was interviewed in my office and placed in a chair in front of the camera. A bored young intern sat in a chair under the camera and I was told to direct my answers to him, answers to questions being provided over a speakerphone 160 degrees off my starboard bow by an interviewer in New York. Three minutes into the interview the intern fell asleep, a development unnoticed by the crew on the other side of the camera. So for the next ten or fifteen minutes I had to inform a dormant slacker on some matter of great concern without totally breaking up. On the whole, I prefer walls. Besides, on the other side of that wall was not just a TV host but his audience, real people, decent people, un-pre-interviewed, without mikes, cameras or makeup.

Educated by good Quakers, I learned early not to shun the present but to follow the instructions of George Fox and “walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one,” in which he would presumably include Bill O’Reilly. The Brazilian Archbishop Helder Pessoa Camara once declared: “Let no one be scandalized if I frequent those who are considered unworthy or sinful. Who is not a sinner? Let no one be alarmed if I am seen with compromised and dangerous people, on the left or the right. Let no one bind me to a group. My door, my heart, must open to everyone, absolutely everyone.”

Unfortunately, the tradition of personal witness regardless of context is far stronger among the religious and the right than among liberals and progressives. Especially in recent years, liberals have taken to shunning, often proudly or pompously, those not of their ilk, which is, among other things, a hard way to win votes. One needn’t be a proselytizer, only a witness or, in the Hubert Humphrey tradition, a happy warrior moving through alien ground with a smile and a dream.

Besides, I got to talk with the Bosnian driver of the car Fox News had sent for me. And by the time we had reached the UAW headquarters where my next meeting was, he had indicated that he would switch from his current political apathy to voting Green in the next election. So you see, it was worth it, after all.

Counter journalism and the vote

THE DISPARAGING ATTITUDE of major media – from the NY Times and the Washington Post to NPR – towards Internet coverage of election fraud is not just bad journalism. It is counter-journalism that aims to discredit and discourage those attempting real reporting, i.e. trying to find out the story as opposed to merely accepting the ex cathedra statements of officialdom.

Further, the lectures are coming from those who bought the administration’s lies on Iraq hook, line and sinker; have yet to tell people the true financial condition of Social Security instead of just the worst case scenario; and avoid mentioning single payer health care in their stories despite its widespread popularity. These are not folks from whom you want to take lessons in journalism.

The rise of counter-journalism within the archaic media reflects a number of changes in the trade:

– The old media considers itself an exclusive institution like a club, church, or the Masons, entitled to judge internally how both members and pretenders are supposed to behave. The lack of respect shown by the new journalism to these rules appalls the anachronic press.

– The media used to be on the outside looking in. Now thanks to the rise of corporatism and journalistic social climbing, it has become part of what it is covering. The result is a severe loss of independence. For example, the term White House correspondent has become a contradiction in terms because even if a reporter tries to do a good job there, the slightest rebellion against the collegial rules of the palace puts the courtier parading as correspondent in danger of losing favor and sources. And what precisely do these sources provide? They tip the reporter off to a cabinet secretary’s pending resignation but not, say, to his million dollars stashed in a Cayman Island bank. White House reporting has become a stenographic rather than journalistic activity, as has the coverage of other American institutions.

– The nature of the corporatized press limits the desirability of investigative reporting. Neither employer nor employee wishes to replicate the recent unpleasantness at CBS with Dan Rather. A successful investigation is a risky way to climb the media ladder for the reporter and a threat to the next quarterly return for the boss.

But since you still need news, one way to make it seem as though you are doing something is to outsource your journalism to groups like the Center for Public Integrity or the Project on Government Oversight. Gone is the day when every reporter was meant to be a project on government oversight; now you let POGO do the investigation, you write it up, and if the story’s wrong it’s not your fault but POGO’s. Nice deniability, just the thing a corporation likes. On a single day, for example, three reports by grantees of the Fund for Constitutional Government (on whose board I sit) were featured in the NY Times. Such groups have become a timid media’s secondhand nose.

Groups like the aforementioned, independent investigators on the Internet, and lonely holdouts from journalism’s past are all doing something much closer to what American journalism is meant to be about than the censored, spun, and desiccated version you find daily in the same elite media that pompously patronizes those who refuse to be servile sycophants like themselves.

The former, however, will increasingly get the story while the latter continue to tell you not to worry, everything’s just fine or recite fairy tales about Iraq and why it needs invading.

The journalist’s job

On the same day recently, we received a letter lambasting us for being anti-Dean, another wondering why we were so pro-Dean, and a third complimenting us on changing our mind about Dean.

It was the sort of day that makes an editor happy. Especially one mucking around in cyber space, because I had noticed a somewhat unsettling trend: readers seemed to be increasingly flocking to sites that reflected their own views, and expecting not news but reaffirmation of their fairly precise inclinations. As a site with a point of view but putting news first and attracting quite a range of readers, it leaves us a bit of an oddball.

Now, from a wonderful place called Word Spy, I learn that my sense was not misdirected. Word Spy’s Paul McFedries picked as today’s word of the day

cyberbalkanization ( n.

The division of the Internet into narrowly focused groups of like-minded individuals who dislike or have little patience for outsiders. Also: cyber-balkanization. –cyberbalkans n.

And he offers a couple of examples of usage:

“The Internet became the ultimate tool for finding like minds and blocking out others long before supporters of candidates began seeking one another out on With online dating sites where searches can be tailored by age and income, e-mail forums for the most narrow band of subjects, bookmarked sites and even spam filters, the Web allows users to tailor the information they consume more than any other medium. Social scientists even have a term for it: cyberbalkanization. —Amy Harmon, “Politics of the Web: Meet, Greet, Segregate, Meet Again,” The New York Times, January 25, 2004

“A growing body of research suggests that on-line participation by so-called e-citizens may be qualitatively different from off-line forms of civic engagement and participation. The personalization features of the Internet provided by various filters and customization tools have the potential to lead to the “cyberbalkanization” of the on-line public sphere into increasingly insulated groups of like-minded “interest-based communities” who increasingly know and care more and more about less and less. — Graham Longford, “Canadian democracy hard-wired?,” Canadian Issues, June, 2002

The Review has done extremely well – one popular listing service rated us the ninth most read progressive news site. On a per-staffer basis we’d do much better than that for we are one of the few publications for which the editorial ‘we’ is a blatant lie, if not a sign of schizophrenia. There is nobody here but me and what one reader referred to as “my gnomes.” And they tend to disappear when I need them.

And while I am a happily prejudiced individual, I am just as happy to challenge my own prejudices if it involves a good story. As I explained to one interviewer, if I found Ralph Nader driving an SUV I’d report it.

The journalists’ job is not the make the stew but to gather the ingredients. So don’t jump to too many conclusions about what I dump on the table. It’s only the result of today’s forage. Tomorrow may be a whole ‘nother story.

Summer reading

[Your editor was invited by Counterpunch to be one of those suggesting a summer reading list of the most important American novels of the past century. Here was my response.]

I don’t read that many novels in part because I resent novelists. They write lies, then get to call it literature, and turn beautiful women gooey-eyed at parties. Journalists write the truth, then get to call it news, and turn bleary-eyed listening to politicians at press conferences. If they start writing like novelists, it becomes a major scandal, witness the recent troubles at the Times.

There are plenty of literary truth-tellers and any summer would be better spent reading them than the average novel. I particularly recommend the work of The Initials: E.B White, A.J. Liebling and H.L. Mencken, as well as anything by James Thurber. Consider, for example, a good novel that makes my list: “All the King’s Men.” Fine as it is, it doesn’t match Liebling’s description of another Long in “The Earl of Louisiana.”

Further, having more than enough dysfunction in my own family, I get no particular joy out of reading about other people’s problems, whether fictional or mildly disguised. And I agree with Joe Rauh who told me that he once declined an invitation from Arthur Miller to see a tragic play because “I didn’t see why I should have to pay to see what I try to avoid in real life.”

But, unlike novelists, journalists tend to do what they’re told, so here’s my list:

Sister Carrie; The Great Gatsby; Brave New World; Catch 22; 1984; Slaughterhouse Five; Animal Farm; All the King’s Men; The Sun Also Rises; Catcher in the Rye; Lord Jim; Lord of the Flies; Invisible Man; Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Finally, when I do read fiction, it tends to be detective mysteries. I’m convinced that Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Nero Wolfe, and Michael Innes tell all one needs to know to get along in this life and how to avoid trouble along the way. As Chandler once wrote of the detective hero, “He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. . .”

Telling the story

Since editors, by law, are required to engage in end of annum pronouncements, I will tell you that one of the things I brag most about these days is the exceptional quality of the Review’s readership. I am reminded of this each time I make a mistake, no matter how obscure. For example, just today, reader George writes to point out that I hadn’t really coined the word “corporado” as I had thought. On the other hand, a Google search for its English usage found only 157 examples so I’m at least an early enabler.

The Review’s readership ranges from the extremely conservative to radical anarchists, with plenty of socialists, Greens, liberals, libertarians, punks, journalists, and apathetic strugglers squeezed in between. From the correspondence, it would appear that our readers are literate, curious, not too rigid, have a sense of humor, and are willing to tolerate the unconventional. They like freedom, fairness, and have a generally friendly and tolerant view of others. In short, they would make an excellent core for a movement to revive those American ideals that are currently in such tatters. They would undoubtedly argue about health policy but just as certainly agree on the basic nature of cooperative decency.

I stumbled upon the Internet nine years ago as an alternative journalist long accustomed to being read only by those who essentially agreed with what I wrote. On the Net, however, you have no control over who drops by for a click or two. This creates an entirely new atmosphere that leaves one feeling less like an editor and more like the owner of a busy, somewhat rowdy, yet still pleasant bar. Instead of serving drinks, I serve news and ideas.

It’s not that I’m that broad-minded, either. I have strong opinions, but since arriving on the Net I have discovered something I had almost forgotten: well before my political views were formed, I had the soul of a reporter. I ran after fire engines, I put out a family newspaper at 13, and I eavesdropped on what they were saying at the next table. The Net has brought me back to my roots which includes the conviction that a good story trumps ideology any day.

I operate on the Holy Shit Principle of journalism, which is to say, if the editor reads something and says, “Holy Shit,” and it turns out to be true, it goes in.

Some of you have thus credited me with a sense of fairness when in fact I was just titillated, fascinated or surprised. In such ways have I also betrayed some of my more didactic political allies who expect me to stick loyally to business and not be distracted by the noise of news and the search for better words with which to describe it.

George Orwell faced something similar and wrote, “Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.”

One thing I do know: if I screw up too badly, you’ll let me know. –

John Cole

I WAS REMINDED THAT I was in Maine when the lead story on the Portland radio station reported that “John Cole crossed over last night at his Brunswick home.” Mainers put their own cast on death. After my brother-in-law died, my sister was told without any disrespect by a friend, “I heard Chad won’t be coming down to breakfast any more.” And the morning our mother died at Maine Medical, the doctor gave us a full report and then added matter of factly, “Basically she’s shuttin’ down.”

John Cole shut down and crossed over after an extraordinary life that included commercial fishing, serving as a tail-gunner in World War II, and, in 1968 (along with Peter Cox), starting the Maine Times, a paper not only an alternative to the conventional media but strikingly different from either the underground press at the time or later publications more interested in alternative advertising demographics than alternative news. Said Cole once, “We kind of wanted to raise hell and people’s awareness about the fact that, in those days, Maine had no protection against being exploited.” The Maine Times treated ideas and issues as news, most importantly introducing people to the numerous facts and problems involved in something most had pretty much taken for granted: the environment.

That Maine today stands as one of the more ecologically conscious portions of the country is due at least in part to the fact that Cole, the editor, and Cox, the publisher, made the environment into news. The Maine Times also inspired younger journalists, including your editor, to keep seeking non-conventional ways to tell the stories around us.

In later years John wrote a weekly column for the Falmouth Forecaster, a lively community paper in southern Maine. Recently John quoted from one of my articles and I felt like the teacher had pinned my paper on the board. His last column appeared the day he died. But it was his penultimate piece about a controversy in the town of Freeport that better gives the flavor of the man.

The town had been in an uproar following the surprise victory of several candidates for council highly critical of the way business was being done. I decided to pay a visit to the town council meeting to get a better feel of the characters and the controversies. I got there ten minutes late and found myself standing with others in the doorway – but the lobbying and discussions in the hall made it impossible to hear the meeting so I left to go watch it on TV. I was still engrossed as midnight approached, in part because among those speaking were residents who had become so incensed by what they saw on cable that they had gotten dressed and driven in the night winter cold just to have their views heard.

I finally surrendered to Morpheus only to learn the next morning from a school board member that, after losing a key vote in their drive to fire the town manager, three of the newly elected councilors had resigned, literally leaving Freeport with no one in charge. Later that day, I paid a visit to Richard DeGrandpre of R & D Automotive, a former member of the “government in exile” that used to meet at a restaurant for breakfast until it suddenly found itself in power. Rich was the one member of the coup who hadn’t quit. He assured me that DVDs of the town meeting would soon be available. I offered him the advice of LBJ: “Just hunker down like a jack rabbit in a dust storm.” Then he gave me a copy of John Cole’s next-to-last column, written before the town council disintegrated. It read in part:

“Relax folks. In all my forty-something years of being paid to observe and report on municipal government in more than a dozen Maine communities, I have never seen a permanent damage done by the charging bulls in the china shops of their own home towns. But they sure are fun to watch.

“And you folks in Freeport ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. In an odd paradox, it’s Maine’s long, cold, dark winters that fuel the fires of municipal rampage. As January closes in and February breaks our hearts, our malice turns inward, conspiracy looms in every dark corner and by town meeting time the hearts of otherwise tepid citizens pulse with winter’s accumulated venom. Oh the tumults I have witnessed in the lengthening days of March in Maine.

“And then it all dribbles away. By June, all is forgotten and mostly forgiven as late sunsets tell every merchant, school child, every harassed mother that the wonders of summer are upon us. Light spills its bright wine into every evening, harbors throb with the sound of marine engines and all of us are much too busy to worry about where our town manager sits.”

It’s just too bad John never covered Congress or the White House.

The NY Times visits Maine

In July, the NYT sent a foreign correspondent to the locale of the Review’s summer headquarters, Casco Bay, Maine, proving once again that the paper is not to be trusted abroad. Daisann McLane was, in best Manhattan fashion, so busy reading menus and price tags that she never actually got to see the place. Here, for example, is her description of one of the most beautiful stretches of water in America:

“The Atlantic Ocean was out there, beyond the boats, but it was a rough, industrial Atlantic, not a vista you’d want to put on a postcard.”

She goes on a tour of Portland and ends up eating cheesecake with her guide:

“‘Izzy’s cheesecake is the best in Portland,’ he said, but quickly cautioned me that, as a New Yorker, I might have ‘issues.’ And I did: it had a good flavor, not too sweet, but it was overly creamy.”

Our sophisticated correspondent also found the clam chowder too creamy and referred to Maine’s classic as “the old-fashioned side of Portland cuisine.”

On the other hand, “the more contemporary restaurants, like David’s take standards like crab cakes and rework them into delicate light meditations on the classic theme. My endive salad, appetizer and char-grilled salmon betrayed an intelligent hand in the kitchen of the sort that you find at the better New York restaurants, for half as much as in New York.”

While she says a cruise around the islands is essential it apparently isn’t as interesting as the cost of a hotel room or the amount of cream in the chowder. She skips lightly over the subject, referring in passing to the “quirky gardens” on one island she visited.

The only person ever to go to Maine for its endive salad next visited Freeport, never leaving the main street’s notorious outlet strip for nearby attractions including one of the best protected harbors on the coast and a highly popular waterfront eatery where the lobsters travel only feet from boat to plate. Still she declared that Freeport a town where the food was “awful” and “there were no fishermen, no docks, no lobsters …. and no trace of ocean smell.” This didn’t bother her too much for, after all, not only had she found a New York quality restaurant but she had “washed up in a safe harbor, where the sheets were clean and discounts deep.”

Transfer this sort of uninformed and jingoistic reportage to Kosovo and one has a serious problem. Maine, of course, takes it in stride. A Mainer, when told that “you sure have a lot of characters up here,” replied, “Yup, but most of them go home around Labor Day.”


Following the war

AND NOW THE NEWS MODELS AT CNN lift up the shell and – whadayaknow? – it’s not Adolph Hitler under there at all but just some dispirited, ill-trained and ill- motivated Iraqis in soldiers’ uniforms looking to surrender.

The news media used the same con in Gulf War One to grab audience and grandiosity – promoting a glaringly false picture of the Iraqi military threat. This is not to say there is no threat – there are major ones ranging from the environmental to the nuclear and chemical – but these dangers are not those of conventional warfare but rather the responses of the desperate and the weak.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows of the disparity between U.S. and Iraqi military expenditures – about 400 to one – but to tell Americans that one little fact would greatly undermine the fraud being perpetrated by the administration and the media. In essence, what has happened is that the Dallas Cowboys have been sent to prove they can beat the Skowhegan Junior High Musketeers.

This fraud can be sensed by the perpetual media reiteration of one little phrase – “Saddam’s elite Republican guard” – which sounds good on TV but this outfit is even less elite, effective or provisioned than it was when it failed to serve any good purpose the first time around. They forget to tell you that.

There are other frauds – such as the illegal premise of the war – but these at least have gotten some public attention if not understanding. It would have helped if just one establishment reporter had pointed out that the determination of whether the purpose of UN resolutions are being carried out rests finally with the UN and not the Bush administration. Yet the media didn’t even notice that the UN might be a better arbiter of its own opinion than the born-again barbarians on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Here are a few clues for following the war:

– If the news articles or TV reports don’t have any bloodied or mangled bodies, you’re not getting the full story. War is a form of state sanctioned murder and without the bodies you’ve got no war.

– Stay away from all those imitations of good story-telling in which some correspondent purports to give you a feel for “what it’s really like” but essentially oozes over whoever happens to be around in uniform. These stories are inherently inaccurate because victims of our invasion will hardly ever be able to give their side, even if they are still alive.

– Stay away from those god-awful thumb suckers in which some somber-looking, camouflage-bedizened reporter attempts to describe the grand strategy of it all. These journalists are, in Russell Baker’s phrase “serving as megaphones for fraud,” reciting whatever has been told to them at the last briefing. The networks’ consultant-generals on assignment from the Pentagon are even worse.

The media is deeply embedded not only in the military operations but in the American elite’s self-destructive view of the world and its role in it. It lacks the means to break free and see any other point of view.

And it didn’t start with Iraq. Every White House and Pentagon reporter is embedded in the incumbent administration. They may not wish to be but all one has to do is to check how many hours a day they spend debedded amongst the general populace to understand what hostages they actually are.

So embedded are they that some with a straight face actually reported that America had commenced to “disarm Iraq” even as they described the first $40 million of extremely armed American missiles landing on Iraq. So embedded are they that they didn’t even look up the term ’embedded’ the dictionary where the definitions include “To enclose closely in or as if in a matrix. . . To make something an integral part of. . . To place or fix firmly in surrounding matter.” So embedded are they that in their callous, clerical incuriosity about the rest of the world, they don’t even know they’re telling you lies.

So stay curious, stay skeptical, and don’t let them embed you, too.

The alternative media

What is the alternative media

Anything that provides news, information, ideas, and argument that differs significantly from that in your morning daily, CNN, MTV, or the last Hollywood movie you saw

It can be a newspaper, newsletter, website, video, or a conference or gathering where information and ideas are exchanged. A letter or a note can be a form of media. Remember that Lincoln wrote the Getysburg address, it is said, on the back of an envelope.

It doesn’t have to be formal. There is a vast and frequent exchange of information and thoughts flying beneath the radar of conventional media. For example, a strong and vital community will have a powerful information flow. In some ways the Internet simply copies the transmission of data in a healthy community. Information is sent out in many different directions with a redundancy and inefficiency that assures an efficient result: the data will actually be received. News may be transferred at church, at the barber shop, at school, between extended family members or on the corner. Simple conversation is also a form of media. The more casual conversation there is in a culture, the more news can be transmitted.

It can be rightwing, leftwing, serving special audience such as punk rockers, blacks, women, environmentalists.

Why do you need an alternative media

Because the conventional media is often wrong, is owned by huge, self-interested corporations, or simply may not cover what you’re interested in

Here’s what columnist Norman Solomon came up with when he did a Nexis search of some phrases in major US newspapers and wire services during much of 1996:

“Free enterprises” was used in 3,489 stories, “free market” in 9,345, and “property rights” in 6,802. “Labor rights,” however, showed up in only 440 stories; “economic justice” in 592; and “economic democracy” in only 38.

“War on drugs” was mentioned in 3,510 stories but “war on poverty” in only 685. “War on discrimination” was mentioned two times.

“Welfare reform” was mentioned in 22,013 stories but “corporate welfare” in only 2,351 and “corporate welfare reform” only 17 times.

Number of corporations in America: 450,000 Number that buy 75% of the airtime on TV networks: 100

Percentage of Channel One newscasts (broadcast in millions of high school classrooms) that is devoted to recent political, economic, social and cultural stories: 20%. Percent of black news sources who are athletes: 42%. Prisoners: 13%.

There is now only one daily in most American cities. Stories can be ignored without fear that the competition will run them.

The labor beat, once an important assignment in major print media, has been eliminated. Workers are now primarily covered as consumers, not as employees.

Important news stories are often hidden in the business or real estate sections.

There is poor coverage of environmental and worker safety stories that might adversely impact corporations and advertisers.

There is heavy editorial support for public policies favoring local business interests such as subsidized downtown development, sports arenas etc. News about citizen criticism of such projects is often suppressed.

Media tend to defend their local industry more than their local communities. Headlines read BIGGCO TRIMS 4000 JOBS rather than BIGGCO FIRES 4000 or 4000 FAMILIES DISRUPTED BY BIGGCO LAYOFFS.

Big media is more reliant on big advertisers and more vulnerable to boycotts by these advertisers. Newt Gingrich has urged just such boycotts, calculating that the 20 biggest advertisers could effectively silence opposing views.

There is an emphasis on indicators that are of interest to corporations (such as productivity, GDP etc.) instead of those of interest to workers (such as real wages, housing prices etc.)

Fifty years ago there were about 400 cities with at least two daily papers. Today there are only 24

Can’t I just ignore the media?

Pretty hard – you get about 3,000 advertising messages a day. . .

400 on walk to office. . . 50 sitting at a stop light

Number of hours of television a young American has seen by the age of 15: 18,000. Number of hours spent in school: 11,000. [Rainbow Coalition]

A good rule of media survival is use it; don’t let it use you.

We must ignore the role the media has prescribed for us — audience, consumer, addict — and treat it much as the trout treats a stream, a medium in which to swim and not to drown.

The trick is to stop the media from happening to you and to treat it literally as a medium — an environment, a carrier. Then you can cease being a consumer or a victim and become a hunter and a gatherer, foraging for signs that are good and messages that are important and data you can use. Then the zapper and the mouse become tools and weapons and not addictions. Then you turn the TV off not because it is evil but because you have gotten whatever it has to offer and now must look somewhere else.

Does the alternative media do any good?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Here are some of the things that have happened in America that would have been pretty hard to have had without an alternative media

The abolition of slavery spurred by such writers as Frederick Douglass

The weekend – brought to you by the labor movement that gradually won a 40 hour week with the help of over 2,000 labor publications.

The 1960s and the anti-Vietnam war movement. – helped by over 400 underground papers including mine and others, many run by people just a few yeas older than you.

Morning Edition:
By dawn’s early lite

WHILE CRISP, CRITICAL ANALYSIS is difficult when one is only half awake, your editor is reasonably certain that Nominally Public Radio’s morning news show is losing interest in news, favoring instead – and lengthening – non-political features of the sort you’d normally read in a dentist’s office. This morning, for example, I dozed off twice only to find that the feature on fishing on Russia was still droning on, so I pulled the quilt over my head and successfully achieved a hat trick of somnolence.

The shift could be the result of NPR’s boss, ex-government propagandist Kevin Klose, finally hitting his stride, or perhaps advice from broadcast consultants who may have suggested that members of America’s establishment did not want to hear the painful results of their peers’ hegemony. In any case, the network that brings you the aural Prozac of Diane Rehm and a mindless quiz show in which celebrities try to recall what they read in the paper last week is now doing quite a good job of knocking the news out of the news.

It is, of course, precisely the wrong time for this. For example, “Morning Edition” could easily fill a fortnight’s worth of slots by simply reporting the damage being done to each of the constitutional amendments. Or, now that many – if not most – Americans don’t actually favor unilateral action against Iraq, they might actually interview someone who represents that view as other than an occasional oddity.

Propaganda is not just about thinking a certain way about things; it’s also about not thinking about certain things at all. Since the arrival of George Bush, the media has done a particularly fine job of keeping our minds off what is happening to us. It is not just bad journalism. It’s a lie. If there was ever a time for hard news, this is it. – SAM SMITH

The conspiraphiles are back

The conspiraphiles are back at work at the Washington Post, this time lumping anyone who questions perceived wisdom about major events with those advocating alternative theories about what happened at the Pentagon on September 11. The irony is that the story appeared on the same day as the Post was devoting over three pages to one of the larger conspiracies of our lifetime – the massive dissemination of misinformation used to justify the Iraq invasion, albeit now being neatly spun as the fault of intelligence agencies rather than of Bush and his neocon buddies.

I call the Post conspiraphiles because those mainly obsessed with conspiracies are the county’s most alienated and its most established, only in the latter case conspiracies are called things like “well examined policy,” “summits,” “think tanks” and so forth. They involve benign acts of a small number of well educated persons acting on the behalf of the ignorant masses. This is the fundamental assumption upon which Washington functions and is implicitly accepted by politician, academic, and media alike.

Thus both militia and media believe in the great man theory of history. The difference is that the former believe the great men are up to no good and the latter that they can do no harm.

There is an alternative, and more sensible, way of looking at all this, and that is to take each matter separately and to judge it based on the facts. This is not the way it is done in Washington because for every phenomenon there must quickly be a theory, if not by the evening news than at least for the Sunday op ed section. Soccer moms, NASCAR dads, conspiracy theorists, whatever – in the capital to define is divine.

The way that reporters used to be trained to do it was to look at life inductively, which is to say to start with the facts and follow their trail until, perhaps but not necessarily, one reaches a conclusion.

This is the way homicide detectives are meant to work and it’s the way I was trained as an anthropology major as my Harvard buddies were learning to revere Marx and Freud and other icons of the well educated. It always seemed strange to me that so few people should have such a lock on so much wisdom and importance. Still, while I was looking at evidence of human culture, many of my fellow students were absorbing a limited number of theories, ones into which they would learn to stuff all of life’s subsequent events, soon realizing that skepticism was the worst possible road to the top.

Social historians, feminist academics and the like would eventually demonstrate what a shoddy way this was, but in high places the anti-intellectual and anti-democratic notion of truth and wisdom as the property of the privileged few largely continues.

This is why, I suspect, the Post – which has mentioned conspiracy theories or theorist 81 times this year – gets so upset about theories that question the theories of the benign elite.

This is not to say that all things labeled conspiracy theories are true. Far from it. There is, for example, a vast difference between the largely theoretical assumptions of what happened to American flight 77 and the considerable unexplained evidence in the case of TWA flight 800. Or, as the Post did, conflating the Pentagon crash with the wisely questioned JFK assassination, an act either deeply cynical or plain stupid.

There are ways to consider these matters without being either gullible or myopic:

– Stick to the facts.

– Neither suppress nor exaggerate anomalies

– Don’t feel you have to have a theory for every fact.

– Don’t have theories that go beyond the facts.

I have reported on numerous matters outside the realm of establishment approved wisdom. In each case, I have tried to use the model of the classic (albeit today somewhat archaic) reporter or the detective, which is to say, to point out the anomalous and suspicious without leaping to conclusions. Thus, I not know how Vince Foster died but I know it was not the way it is said he died. I do not know what brought TWA 800 down, but feel inadequate attention has been given to repeated sightings of what seemed to some to be a rocket-like trajectory in the sky. While there are many valid questions about the reaction to September 11, one of the most ignored aspects has been the matter of dubious construction materials and procedures used to build the World Trade Center.

Further, I regard a conspiracy in its legal sense of two or more people joining secretly to do something improper or illegal. It happens all the time. But to suggest that it only happens amongst the lower criminal classes is either naïve or grossly self-serving.

That said, much of what goes wrong in and around government is far more a product of culture than of conspiracy. If you plant corn in a field you are going to get corn and not cauliflower. If you impose prohibition – for either alcohol or drugs – you are going to create a massive class of criminals as well as corrupt law enforcement and politicians. If you train young men and women in unrestrained violence you may end up with Abu Ghraib. If you train college students to see themselves as chosen keepers of political and social truths you are going to end up with the Washington Post city room. And so forth.

As America sinks deeper into its culture of impunity, in which corruption is the norm rather than a deviance, the country’s elite will lash out at those who questioned its acts, its morality and its wisdom. But please don’t think there necessarily has to be a conspiracy involved. In many case it’s just the way they growed.

Leonard Downie

2000 – Behind the mediocre and mirthless miasma of the Washington Post lurks the quiet influence of St. Leonard the Incorruptible, AKA executive editor Len Downie. As Charlie is to his Angels, so St. Leonard is to his media minions. Only on special occasions does he step forward to issue a Postic bull, including the other day when he actually wrote the following: “

“As I am often reminded, journalists are people, too. They cannot be expected to cleanse their minds of human emotions and reactions to highly charged political campaigns or controversial issues. But we do ask Washington Post reporters and editors to come as close as possible to doing just that. In my own case, as some know, I no longer exercise my right to vote. As the final decision-maker on news coverage in The Post, I refuse to decide, even privately, which candidate would make the better president or member of the city council, or what position I would take on any issue. I want my mind to remain entirely open to all sides and possibilities.”

If this is true of Downie, it would make him the only person in the history of journalism to possess such qualities. Certainly there is no evidence of it in his paper, one of the most persistently biased journals of the nation. We recommend to him instead of such idiotic cant a more sensible goal of well-reasoned, perceptive, and honest subjectivity which, among other things, would permit the employment of actual human beings as journalists. In any case, at least one member of the Post establishment does not share Downie’s view. In 1992, your editor was accosted on 15th Street by publisher Don Graham who asked whom I was supporting for president. When I told him I was backing Jerry Brown, he grabbed my arm, raised it, and shouted to all adjacent citizens, “Look I’ve found one, an actual Jerry Brown supporter!”



From the Progressive Review, 1999

In the last week or so:

– A reader wrote in to describe TPR as rightwing maggots, fuck heads, and pro-fascists.

– Your editor was described on-air by conventional liberal public radio commentator Mark Plotkin as “the bad Smith,” in contrast with his historian wife, who was “the good Smith.”

– I became the subject of low intensity philosophical debate on a Clinton scandal bulletin board that included these comments:

“If those who began life as Marxist have evolved into more thoughtful individuals, then as far as I’m concerned they are welcome aboard. Would any here consider the ‘enemy’ even if he chooses to espouse a number of untenable positions, which positions, I suspect in the long run will not prove significant?

Which produced this response from Billy:

“That completely depends on what we’re calling ‘significant.’ Personally, I’ve lately said in private correspondence that, for a commie, Sam’s not a bad sort. He most certainly is to be roundly commended for his stalwart intolerance of The Lying Bastard, that’s for sure. However, if not for that particular disaster that happens to bring him and me together, it’s clear to me that we could be serious antagonists over other matters.”

Just for the record, I read Marx but never enjoyed him. I avoided the fate of Ring Lardner Jr. who became a Marxist because he attended the first weeks of his afternoon Harvard economic classes during which Karl’s virtues were explained, but missed the professor’s later criticisms because the Boston Red Sox season had begun.

I firmly believe that Groucho Marx revealed more of God’s ways than Karl did. The difference was best explained by James Thurber:

You may remember that on one occasion when a suspicious plainclothes man, observing that, whereas only two Marxes were seated at a certain breakfast table, there were nevertheless covers laid for twice as many, said sharply: ‘This table is set for four.’ Groucho, in no wise confused, replied, ‘That’s nothing, the alarm clock is set for eight.’ If nothing else set off the Marx Brothers from Karl Marx that would. Karl Marx had the sort of mind which, when faced with the suggestion that the stolen painting was hidden in the house next door, would, on learning that there was no house next door, never have thought to build one. Here is where, again, he parts company with the Marx Brothers. The significance of this divergence becomes clear when it is known that the Marx Brothers recovered the painting.


Which way is up?

January 1985

It is hard to expect Americans to understand what is going on in their government when the media describes it as poorly as it does the federal budget. It is to be expected that presidents, senators and defense secretaries will prevaricate, obfuscate and waffle, but it was also to be expected that the press would translate all this piffle into something a little closer to what the average person would call a fact — or the truth.

This useful service is in too many cases no longer provided. I suspect this is due in part to the tendency of today’s media to overidentify with its subjects, most especially in Washington — a town filled with reporters who appear uncertain as to whether they are journalists or high ranking civil servants. In some cases, especially on the op-ed pages of our leading journals, one finds correspondents whose delusions have led them so far as to cause them to believe they are actually the secretary of state.

This causes a number of problems, not the least of which is the strange sense the reader gets of overhearing a private discussion between, say, the secretary of state by presidential appointment and the secretary of state by pathological inclination.

Having learned this trade in a simpler time, I remain of the view that if a journalist is going to overidentify with anyone it should be the reader. And the journalist who, after all, is little more than the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader, has to begin — at a bare minimum, by speaking the language of the reader and not that of the subject.

Herein lies the trouble with the budget coverage. If my wife and I decide to “cut our food budget” both of us will understand that what we are talking about is spending less money for food each week then is presently the case. If, however, we were a defense secretary, president, senator or a journalist covering such types, we could mean several other things instead, towit:

” We are going to slow down the rate at which we have been increasing our spending for food, so we will spend only 9% more this year instead of the 12% more we spent last year.”

” We are going to spend 15% more for food this year but that’s really a cut because last fall we talked about spending 20% more.”

” We will increase our spending at a rate less than price index so we will actually be cutting our expenditures.”

In the view of most normal people, none of these decisions would, in fact, be considered a cut and one would be unlikely, outside of the two-bureaucrat family, to find either spouse arguing that it was.

Such is not the case in Washington. Over the past few weeks, I have repeatedly seen the changes discussed in the defense budget described as a “savings” when they are nothing of the sort. This is to be expected of the Moonie-run Washington Times, but surely tight, lively journalism does not require such a distortion from USA Today. Even the Washington Post got caught up in the misleading rhetoric. To be sure, in the stories checked, clarification was finally offered but these pieces were of the “Can You Find the Facts in This Story?” variety, easily throwing off any but the most diligent reader.

For example, a December 14 lead item in the Post spoke in the first paragraph of Secretary Weinberger’s opposition to any significant
slowdown in Reagan’s military buildup,” but then went on to discuss “reductions in Pentagon spending” and plans to “trim defense spending.,’ The headline read, “Budget-Cutting Deadlocked.” After a reasonable start, the Post moved quickly into the distorted language of trim/reduce/cut, thus leaving the casual reader confused as to which way the Pentagon budget was really going.

The New York Times, which tends to be little more careful in these matters, actually used the word “rise” to describe the military budget in a December 7 story and described Weinberger as ready to “fight for a large increase in next year’s military budget.”

The AP, to its credit, caught itself falling into the trap. On December 18 an item was filed saying that “Spokesman Larry Speakes says Reagan has OK’d cuts in the Pentagon budget of $8.7 billion. . .”

Twenty-eight minutes later a correction was run changing the sentence to “Spokesman Larry Speakes says Reagan has Ok’d cuts in Pentagon spending growth of $8.7 billion. . . A note ran with the item: “Fixing to show cuts will be made in spending increase instead of Pentagon budget itself. . .”

Yet here again, the cutting imagery held sway. Phrases like cutting the growth” and “slowing down the buildup” are not as clear as saying “President Reagan has approved a smaller increase in the defense budget than Secretary Weinberger requested,” or “President Reagan has decided that the Pentagon budget will rise less than Secretary Weinberger wanted.”

The problem is that verbs tend to be stronger than nouns and if you cut an increase, a certain percentage of readers and listeners will think you are actually reducing something. This is precisely why people who want an increase like to use words like cut. The press should try to avoid following suit.

If editors and reporters are puzzled how to do this, they should consult their sports departments, which rarely mislead people as to the score or speed and direction of movement of the ball or players. I feel certain that if the Pentagon budget story had been covered by sports-writers rather than by Washington correspondents, the American public would have a far better idea as to just who is winning in all of this.

The making of a mediarch

November 1988

This year’s presidential campaign, otherwise without socially redeeming virtue, has at least effectively destroyed the myth of Ronald Reagan as mediameister. George Bush has proved that anybody can do it.
This had been long concealed because of a natural confusion between cause and effect. Reagan appeared to be manipulating the media when, in fact, he was simply reaping the benefits of being its most diligent and well-behaved student-politician. What appeared to be a stygian skill called from deep within him was nothing more than a long and total commitment to the media’s own rules and mores.

That the effect can be replicated virtually at will was amply demonstrated by the Bush campaign. Bush entered the race absent a verifiable microcurie of charisma, with little rhetorical ability and seemingly lacking even elemental shrewdness. Yet his media triumph has put even that of the Great Prevaricator to shame. What took Reagan years of GE commercials to achieve, Bush mastered in a few short weeks.

The dramatic alteration of the presumed persona of George Bush should come as no surprise to students of the tube. After all, television long ago learned that talent was the least of its requirements. It discovered it didn’t need a comedian as good as Ernie Kovacs, a journalist as good as Edward R. Murrow or some actress imported from Broadway to fill a dramatic role. It could simply manufacture a reasonable likeness out of the endless pool of attractive, inoffensive faces and bodies trooping through its casting offices.

One of the earliest and longest smash hits of television was Howdy Doody, a seminal production that recognized television’s potential as the electronic successor to the Punch & Judy show — in which life is portrayed by farcical characters engaged in fantastic situations evoking the most generic mythical symbolism.

In drama this potential has brought us to Miami Vice, in music to MTV. Our news anchors are Punch & Judy journalists. Ted Koppel symbolizes Thought, Vanna White is Beautiful Woman, Tom Braden does his political transvestite act as The Leftist. Even Saturday Night Live now seems a recreation of the original as performed by puppets. And George Bush stars in this season’s mini-series: The Presidency, Part I with J. Danforth Quayle playing Robert Redford playing a Quayle-like candidate.

The ability of television to corrupt whatever its ubiquitous eye finds can be frequently observed during sports coverage. Coaches and players have learned what television expects of them and even the most inarticulate attempt to adapt themselves whenever the microphone pops up. Similarly, many victims of tragedies have learned unconsciously to speak of their sorrow in modulated and analytical term when confronted with the cameras of Eyewitness News, We all speak television now; American life has become a docudrama in which we keep forgetting which part is real and which we only invented.

In such an environment it is small wonder that we choose our presidents for their symbolic virtue more than for their policies, that political debates are really little more than national screen tests, and that facts have become just the icing on the cake of myth. We are not electing a president anymore. We are selecting a mediarch, one who rules through the media. The person we chose is the one who best performs the symbolic role of president as we would like to see it on TV. Presidential elections have become a process by which the American voting public decides which advertising agency it thinks is best.

The newly trained George Bush looked and acted the part best. Right height, right accent, right smile, right ethnicity. Backed by virulently mendacious advertising aimed at making his opponent look unpresidential, Bush seized the media initiative.

There’s an irony here, because at the start Dukakis had the media edge. He is actually a superb performer, as he belatedly demonstrated during a town meeting with Illinois high school students. Holding a hand mike and wandering around the stage like a low-key Phil Donahue. Dukakis was forceful, convincing and, yes, even likeable. The problem is that we don’t think of our presidents as low-keyed Phil Donahues. George Bush is more like it. You’re great, Mike, but not quite what we’re looking for, you know?

Many who were raised on rationalistic values, educated to respect truth, fact and knowledge, have felt a bit stunned by the insignificance of the real in the 1988 presidential campaign. But if, as mounting evidence suggests, we have moved into a post-rational age driven by symbols and myths, the real may be as unrecallable a piece of nostalgia as the “free enterprise system” is to Ronald Reagan.

One can not, for example, explain the massive change in the poll results from summer to fall based on anything that actually happened Nothing actually happened. Except on television.

I asked one of the shamans of contemporary polities, Democratic pollster Peter Hart, about this. Does this mean issues aren’t important anymore? His reply: “Issues are important because they define character.”

A screenwriter’s answer. Issues are just another tool of the trade.

The Next Hurrah

The era of old machine politics is over, but television, and such related crafts as political polling and consulting, have become our new political machines, machines strikingly different from the previous ones because, fundamentally, they are not really that interested in politics. The political consultant, the polister and the television producer are not out to change the course of American politics or history, but to turn a buck. Consultants take on political clients with the eclecticism of lawyers; pollsters are, they will assure you, independent professionals; and television pretends it is merely an onlooker, reminiscent of one of its earlier creations, the bumbling Cauliflower McPug, whose favorite sound-bite was, “I wasn’t doin’ nuttin’. I was just standing there.”

But there is no way that television can just stand there. It has increasingly dominated national politics, from determining which candidates are visually acceptable to sopping up so much campaign money that there isn’t even enough left for political buttons. Pollsters and the political consultants are similarly intrusive. Many of the latter get paid like advertising agencies, based on the size of their media buys, which means a vested interest in steering politics towards high-cost television ads.

One of the most vivid images of the last campaign came from a PBS program on European coverage of the race. The scene was set in what might be best described as the convention control booth. In the background were monitors showing delegates waving red and blue Dukakis signs. A man — would he call himself a convention producer? — paced up and down yeffing, “I want the red signs down and the blue signs up! Red down, Blue up! Get that? Red down, blue up!” His minions reached for their phones and a close-up revealed a woman screaming into the mouthpiece, “No, get those red signs down!” A few seconds later the monitors showed not a single red sign. Those in the control booth broke into self-congratulatory applause.

I sat there wondering: for this, we got rid of the Richard Daleys of the world? Could it really be that there were no Democratic delegates who would wave their red signs in defiance of capricious orders from some unseen, unelected expert in the control booth? Apparently not in the politics of 1988.

Now back to the newsroom

Television news, most notably CBS, made some effort to counteract the damage its own medium has done. But these attempts, such as pointing out the lies of the Bush television ads, were sapped of their strength by the media’s inexorable fear of appearing unbalanced. Thus the Bush falsehoods were treated as basically no more serious than the largely technical flaws found in Dukakis’s claims. Television news’ on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that approach to such matters actually furthers the falsehoods and may help to explain why so many voters fail to understand the real differences between their politicians.

In addition, television news has been irrevocably changed bv television advertising. One of the most instructive articles of the campaign, by Lloyd Grove, appeared in the October 20 issue of the Washington Post.

Grove’s point was that TV news and ad images were becoming intertwined to such an extent that, as polister Marvin Bainman put it, “People are confused as to what is advertising and what is not advertising. To the extent that the ads look like news items or the reverse, that just contributes to the confusion.”

Grove quotes Brian Healy, senior political news producer at CBS as saying:

“In the 1970s, when we looked at commercials and advertising techniques, and the pacing of popular TV programs, we saw that the American mind was capable of handling a lot of different camera angles, quick shots and short bites, because Americans had seen commercials all their lives. So we have borrowed from the advertising techniques of commercial film-making to put our spots together.”

Democratic media consultant Robert Squier says that if you did a history of the sound bite, you’d find that ten years ago, a candidate could get 45 seconds on the air. A 1984 study by George Washington University found that the sound bite was down to 14.79 seconds and this year’s preliminary work at the University of Texas found the average sound bit running about nine seconds.

Timid new world

One of television’s least noted destructive side-effects is how it bullies us into timidity. It has taught us that the reality of the world is too complicated for us to understand, that being perceived as being right is more important than being right, that if we are not threatened by war, famine or flood, we are definitely threatened by whatever exotic disease is used as a crutch for the latest docudrama. The only really safe place is in front of one’s television set.

This lesson has been well learned by the nation’s politicians who, unfortunately, are not in front of the set but inside it. We sit down for a safely contained vicarious experience and find our candidates acting like couch potatoes, i.e. just like us. And the price they pay for projecting security is that they bore us. Late in the campaign, one poll found that nearly two-thirds of the voters wished someone else was running.

But even if a candidate were brave enough to talk about a real issue in some depth, would it work? According to Robert Abelson of Yale University, probably not. Abelson and Robert Kinder has studied the polling samples of the 1980 and 1984 National Election Study and, says Abelson, feelings are three to four times more important than issues or party loyalty in a presidential election.

The samples measured four variables: people’s perceptions of the candidates’ personal qualities, the feelings aroused by the candidates, party affiliation and positions on current issues. According to a report in Psychology Today, Carter was seen as vague and indecisive and Mondale failed to inspire hope and pride. Says Abelson, personality judgements and feelings “are close to our daily experiences; they package a lot of complicated things very neatly. they’re a much more natural response than rational reflections on policy choices.”

Another study, at the University of Minnesota, found that emotional reactions to Reagan and Mondale were twice as important as party affiliation to a sample of 1500 voters.

Still another study, this one at the University of Pennsylvania by Garold Zullow and Martin Seligman, found that you could judge winners by their campaign speeches.

The one with the most optimistic speeches took the White House. As Zullow put it: “People tend to vote for the candidate who makes them feel more hopeful about the country’s future.”

Those who find much of the this alien to everything they thought choosing a president should be about might note that Robert Abelson is not some political philistine. He is an academic trained in the rational, telling us that feelings are a more natural response than rational reflections. While it is unlikely that he would extend to his students much tolerance were they to function on such an assumption, here is yet another indication of the rising importance of the non-rational in American life, even academic American life.

Dave Barry comes to town

[In 1980 your editor got a letter from Peter Menkin of the Features Associates syndicate saying that their columnist – a guy named Schwimmer – was no longer writing but that they had a new offering he thought I would like. I wrote back wondering if there were a backlog of Schwimmer columns we could draw upon and the following leisurely correspondence ensued.]

MARCH 20, 1980 – Dear Mr. Smith: My records show that you have more than enough Schwimmer to last a year. Schwimmer, code named “The Mad Bomber,” has disappeared. Not that we don’t know where he is, for that we do. Schwimmer vacated Manhattan for the Bronx. Next thing we heard, he’d gone legitimate. . . Phone calls won’t prod him to write his column, and for some reason we’ve decided it’s to no avail. We grant that we have some columns of his that you haven’t seen. But phoning New York to get Schwimmer to write isn’t worth the trouble. Not that he isn’t worth the trouble, just that it isn’t worth all the trouble when we now have David Barry.

Who might this be? You ask. Barry is living in Pennsylvania. What effect it has on his mind, we don’t know. The choice is yours: keep using Schwimmer, and ask for some columns you haven’t seen, or take someone alive, like the Pennsylvania fellow Barry. We haven’t code named him yet, but Mad Bomber doesn’t fit. We leave that honor to Schwimmer. – Regards, Peter

UNDATED – Dear Peter: What makes you think I saved the old Schwimmer columns? I thought he would go on forever and was careless enough to shitcan the unused ones. How about sending me the Schwimmer back file?. . . And how about some samples of David Barry? Frankly, I think you’re Schwimmer and decided to change your name. – Peace, Sam

APRIL 28, 1980 – Dear Sam: There is a real Schwimmer, hard as it may be to believe. . . We’ve dropped him, sad to say, but happy to report Dave Barry is the new man and he may not be a mad bomber but as a humorist he is. . . As for back copies of Schwimmer, if you want me to send those, we have. But I prefer not to, since Barry is the new man. – Best, Pete

[Menkin enclosed a Barry column in which it was alleged that “astrologers believe our lives are influenced by bodies far removed from us, such as the Federal Reserve Board. . . I think astrologers are too chicken to tell us what they really mean. . . When they say: ‘Attend to financial matters’ they mean: ‘Your son has stolen the police chief’s band-new Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and run down a pregnant neurosurgeon.'”. . . There followed a lengthy silence, during which I was apparently still mourning Schwimmer, broken many months later by Menkin]

OCTOBER 15, 1981 – Dear Sam: Here’s a backlog of Barry’s ‘Life and Related Subjects’ which we syndicate each week. As before, let’s go with $3.00 a week plus 50 cents postage and handling. That’s a grand total of $3.50 per week. . . That should fit your tiny budget. . . Do what you can to give him top display. He’s tops with us. . . With good regards, Peter

UNDATED – Dear Peter; The price is right, the column funny, so away we go. Keep the faith, Sam

[Which is how readers in Washington DC were finally introduced to Dave Barry. Schwimmer is still missing.]

The Illustrated London News

I lay claim to be the only person to get the word “fuck” into the Illustrated London News, which is the second oldest continuously published magazine and which for more than 150 hundred years served the cause of empire and the better English classes. I was, during its declining era, its Washington correspondent as part of a futile effort to give rebirth to a publication so fusty that, according to my editor, the gardening correspondent had actually died in 1929 but the news had been successfully concealed from readers unaware that they were reading recycled columns well into the 1980s.

It wouldn’t have been the first time the ILN had lagged behind reality. For example, on Saturday, December 21, 1861, it declared:

“Last week it seemed difficult to obtain attention for any subject save that of the American crisis . . . President Lincoln’s Message, as a composition, is conceived in the same low moral tone and executed with the same maladroitness which have characterized the preceding State Papers of his Government . . . The North, in its excess of zeal for civilization, is also elaborately destroying harbours in the South, thus by savage acts giving the lie to the profession of belief that the territory to which the harbours belong will ever again be a portion of the Federal dominions.”

The ILN’s view of its readers was well stated in the July 22, 1848, edition and did not change markedly over the years:

“As a people, it may be truly said of us that we are pre-eminent among the nations of the earth. our spirit rules the world. Our wisdom enters into the composition of everyday life and half the globe. Our physical as well as intellectual presence is manifest in every climate under the sun. Our sailing ships and steam-vessels cover the seas and rivers. Wherever we conquer, we civilize and refine. Our arms, our arts, our literature are illustrious among the nations. We are a rich, a powerful, an intelligent, and a religious people.”

The top editor’s view of me fit this paradigm well. The closest he ever came to a compliment was when he told my boss, “I didn’t know Americans knew how to write.”

My view of “fuck” was that it was a word like all words, to be used in the proper place and the proper way, particularly not to be reduced to a hackneyed phrase. One of those proper occasions occurred in an article I had written for ILN, and to my pleasure the associate editor left it in.

The top editor did not discover the affront until after publication when he demanded of my boss, “how the fuck” the word had defaced his jewel in the crown.

It wasn’t the first time he had missed the boat. When a competing publication celebrated its 2,000th issue complete with a well publicized party and a program on the BBC, the editor told his associate that the ILN ought to consider something like that. “When’s our next big issue?” he asked. My boss said he wasn’t sure. The editor pulled out the current edition only to find it was number 5,000.

When my editor departed this strange corner of the empire, he left me with a year’s worth of assignments. On completion, I sent the editor-in-chief a dozen ideas for stories. He wrote that he would be back to me but never was. Sometime later, I mentioned this to my former editor. “You should never have sent him a dozen ideas,” he scolded. “It was clearly too much for him to handle. You should have sent him one good idea and one terrible idea and hoped he made the right choice.”


The Post Office pays a visit

Government censorship was never much of a problem for us. Other publications, however, did not fare as well. In B.W. (Before Web) the Post Office was the most powerful prude around. As a young radio reporter in 1959, I interviewed the Assistant Postmaster General on the subject of obscenity in his office, a space grandly baroque enough to have pleased a top official of the Mussolini regime. He guided me from his enormous desk to some comfortable chairs in a windowed corner for the interview. On the floor, randomly tossed in a large scattered pile, was the most magnificent collection of sex magazines I had ever seen. I wondered but did not ask why, given the hazard he told me they presented, he got to read them and I did not.

Thirteen years later, in 1972, I was visited by one Howard Roberts, a postal inspector, carrying the current copy of another local paper, The Daily Rag. As I later explained in a letter to an official of the ACLU:

“Roberts informed me that he was delivering my copy of the Rag, but that the Postal Service considered the cover obscene and that he was asking that I refuse the publication and return it to him. Naturally I was titillated by this strange proposal, but upon viewing the cover found it to contain only a dowdy cartoon lady with mammary glands bulbous but properly covered. She was wearing a button that read ‘Fuck the Food Tax.'”

“I told Roberts no at some length, reminding him of existing legislation that adequately provided for those who wished to refuse mail . . . I’m afraid I was angry and did most of the talking, cowing Roberts sufficiently that he refused to answer any of my subsequent questions. He said that since I wouldn’t refuse the publication he wasn’t going to tell me anything more . . . He departed, leaving me with my copy of the Rag. He still, as I recall, had two or three other copies with him. Incidentally, Jean Lewton, associate editor of the Gazette, was in the room during the discussion. Roberts carefully shielded the offending publication from her view.”

In short, the Postal Service was seriously proposing criminal prosecution not only of the Rag, but of those who read it. It was a classic example of the First Amendment problem Lenny Bruce had raised: “If I can’t say ‘fuck’ then I can’t say, ‘fuck the government.’ I called the Rag and other media and after a story or two ran and the ACLU got involved, the Post Office backed off and ever since the capital has been saying “fuck” without fear of criminal sanction.

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