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
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
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
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.
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
– 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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.
journalism and the vote
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
– 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.
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
The division of
the Internet into narrowly focused groups of like-minded individuals
who dislike or have little patience for outsiders. Also: cyber-balkanization.
And he offers a
couple of examples of usage:
became the ultimate tool for finding like minds and blocking
out others long before supporters of candidates began seeking
one another out on Meetup.com. 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
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
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
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.”
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. . .”
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
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
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
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. –
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.”
correspondent also found the clam chowder too creamy and referred
to Maine’s classic as “the old-fashioned side of Portland
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
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
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
Here are a few clues for following
– 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
– 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
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
So stay curious, stay skeptical,
and don’t let them embed you, too.
The alternative media
What is the alternative
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,
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
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
was mentioned in 22,013 stories but “corporate welfare”
in only 2,351 and “corporate welfare reform” only 17
Number of corporations
in America: 450,000 Number that buy 75% of the airtime on TV
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
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.
By dawn’s early
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
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
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
conspiraphiles are back
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
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
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
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.
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
In the last week
– 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:
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.
way is up?
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. . .”
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
The making of a
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
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
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
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.”
answer. Issues are just another tool of the trade.
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
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.
back to the newsroom
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
[Which is how
readers in Washington DC were finally introduced to Dave Barry.
Schwimmer is still missing.]
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:
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
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
Post Office pays a visit
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:
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