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Crowdies -

The facts that 1) there hasn’t been a post to this site in more than a month and 2) there hasn’t been a general outcry over Fact #1 strongly suggests that we are talked out.

There’s no shame in this conclusion. Over the course of the last seven years we’ve had more than 780,000 visitors and almost 24,000 comments in response to 1,720 posts. That’s a pretty long-running cocktail party.

We, your humble hosts, thank you for coming and hope that you had a good time. We’ll leave the door unlatched and the light on for the off chance that one of us will feel moved to say something here in the future, but I wouldn’t spend a lot of time worrying about that possibility.

- Austin, for the Crowd

PS – I’m actually in a conference room doing real work for a client so the post above comes across a little more rushed than I intended.  While I have a few minutes between Wave 1 and Wave 2 let me add that – by far – the most enjoyable and valuable part of this site over the years has been the people who have shown up to comment on whatever silly topics your hosts have seen fit to post. The smartest, funniest commentary has come from you. The best ideas and the most thoughtful positioning have come from you.  Even the people I’ve disagreed with – especially those people – have taught me much.  Thank you.

Back to Wave 2.

That Damn Hippie Pope

NEW SLAUGHTERMy guess is that Pope Francis was well aware of the appalling orgy of fevered consumerism — Black Friday and the onset of our sacred “Holiday Season” — when he dropped his 50,000 word rip job on “trickle down” economics and our “idolatry of money.” The timing was just too ideal to be a coincidence. And that, you have to hand it to him, demonstrates some shrewd marketing chops, along with a bona fide Christian conscience.

I am not expecting it to do much good though, unless he requires his “shepherds” in local parishes to hammer that message … to the dwindling audience that still sees moral authority in a church degraded by medieval sexual politics.

Coincidentally, news of the Pope’s hippie-like attack on the foundation of American exceptionalism — i.e. unbridled acquisitiveness and status through possession — came on the same day I caught a nakedly cynical Christmas-y ad that began with a lament for the sad state of Christmas today.  (Open with: A montage of Norman Rockwell-like imagery; happy nuclear families, cherubic kiddies, fresh snow, tree trimming). The clear inference being that we’ve fallen a long, long ways from “the true meaning of Christmas”.

Where, I wondered, was this leading?

Cut to a scene from today … inside some tricked out big box super store, with … you know t, a fake Santa and excited shoppers stockpiling massive amounts of crap (excuse me, “gifts”). It was an ad for Gander Mountain or Cabela’s or some much enterprise, which, I think you can see the irony here, has nothing whatsoever to do with the “true meaning” of Christmas and everything to do with what’s wrong with this blessed season and what the Pope was getting at.

Popes routinely bemoan crass consumerism and exploitation of the lower classes. But soon they move on … to negotiating Vatican politics, managing the church’s vast real estate holdings, meetings with attorneys fending off sexual abuse claims and battling homosexuality. The priority stuff.

Maybe Francis, who is off to a good start, will be a transformative figure. Maybe he’ll push this them, especially when he makes his first visit to the United States. But the odds are against him.

Especially here in America, where to watch the network and local news there is no greater unalloyed good than storming the mall — or WalMart — in support of the economy. Sure they all reported the fistfights over 40″ Funai TVs and laughed at the video of the guy loosing his drawers in a WalMart brawl and flashing plumber butt — but nowhere did I see anyone come back from any of this and say, “This is nuts.”

Obviously, TV news has an enormous stake in shilling for any excuse to spend money. But, Barry Ritholtz in the not exactly hippie-dippy Bloomberg View tells us again, it’d help if “news” was actually based in some semblance of fact instead of junk numbers made up by random shoppers and repeated endlessly everywhere you looked.

I still think it’d be interesting to get someone like Barack Obama into a candid conversation about values. Not just the usual platitudinal stuff about “democracy” and “a thousand points of light” but the essential message leaders have an obligation to convey to their citizens.

Once away from the White House (and you know he’s got scratch marks on the cell wall counting off the days ) I suspect he’d agree with the Pope. There’s almost nothing about inciting mass psychosis and the constant pornographic exultation of the super rich that meshes with actual Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim) values.

You had to feel . . . NOT!

There are too many life-and-death things happening in the world to be concerned about trivial matters, but I love sports, and so I feel compelled to indulge my revulsion at too many broadcast interviews of athletes.

I sometimes conduct workshops in sportswriting and the craft of interviewing.

A cardinal sin in interviewing: instead of asking a direct question, the interviewer states the answer he is looking for, leaving the athlete an opportunity only to grunt, or lamely say, “Yes.”

Example: “You had to feel great when you made that catch in the seventh inning.”

This approach robs the athlete of a chance to tell his or her own story.

Instead, a reporter should ask: “Tell me what happened when you saw the ball come off the bat.” Now the athlete gets to communicate the experience. And the listener gets to feel it.

Why do so many interviewers cheat athletes and listeners out of feeling an experience? 1) they feel insecure and compelled to let the listener know how smart they are; and 2) they have adopted as models bad habits learned from elders in the business who have risen to high positions despite work that has been mediocre.

The latest version of this wrong-headedness oozed from my radio just this week.
A reporter previewing the football game between the University of MInnesota and the University of Michigan was interviewing the Minnesota quarterback, Philip Nelson, a sophomore who had started only a few games and who could still be considered a wide-eyed rookie.

The interviewer wanted to know how Nelson felt about playing at Michigan, in the biggest stadium in the country — 109,000 seats. Minnesota’s stadium seats only 50,000, and I doubt that Nelson ever played a high school game in front of as many as 5,000. But Nelson never had a chance to answer what was a very good question: the interviewer (as if he were the quarterback), instead of asking a question, laid out his own set of expectations, in great detail and at great length, leaving Nelson merely to agree with the interviewer’s premises and sound like a nonentity.

What I wanted was the raw feeling Nelson could have expressed if he had had to come up with his own answer. That would let us get to know him, instead of getting to know the interviewer.

Years ago I made a documentary film on the values in big-time college football, and the program was memorable, I believe, because it allowed players — without helmets obscuring their identity — to communicate their experiences and feelings.

A few years before that I interviewed the great athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who competed in the long jump at the University of Minnesota. After the meet, in a quiet moment when I caught her alone, I asked her to describe exactly what she felt from the moment her foot struck the take-off board.

She took a deep breath and said, with obvious delight, “No one has ever asked me that before.” She proceeded to explore her experience, moment to moment, and as she spoke she beamed with pleasure at having the chance to explain the passion she felt as she soared through the air.

Interviewers should understand and embrace the principle that they are not the story; the interviewee is. What we’re after is not good questions, but great answers.

I’ve been scrutinizing interviews since I broke into the business, always eager to learn from the best, and from the worst.

A final observation, from an example of the worst: During the Vietnam war a CBS News reporter covering combat was interviewing a an 18-year-old Marine whose buddy had just been shot and killed right in front of him. The reporter said, “How would you characterize your feelings when you saw him die?”

That young Marine may not even have known the meaning of the word characterize; if he did not, the very question may well have intimidated and inhibited him.

Why didn’t the reporter — instead of playing the sophisticate — simply say to the Marine: “Please tell me exactly what happened.” In that way, the Marine could have told his story, and his feelings would likely have become clear . . . and unforgettable.

JFK 50 Years Later: It’s Still … Means, Motive and Opportunity

NEW SLAUGHTERWith the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination comes a lot of predictable commentary.

We’re getting the inevitable re-resurgence of Camelot-era hagiography. “Oh, the glamour!” “Oh, the grace!” “They were our royalty!”, “They were so rich and so beautiful!” Likewise we’re enduring the usual musty, journalistic eulogizing about the immensity of the tragedy and how it was a “turning point” for American culture, our “loss of innocence”, the beginning of our distrust of authority, etc. Ditto another round of conclusive-sounding assertions of the veracity of Warren Commission’s ruling on who-dunnit, assertions that, like the Commission itself, seek to reassure us in the absence of any kind of real certainty.

I was 12 when Kennedy was killed and as stunned as everyone else. (The old Vaughn Meader comedy record was a staple at the Lambert boyhood manse.) A lot of people were still on edge after the previous autumn’s Cuban missile crisis, so word that the accused/likely assassin was a “communist sympathizer” … kicking around 1963 Dallas … had almost everyone fighting back fears of another nuclear showdown.

… and then Jack Ruby killed “the killer.”

I watched it happen that Sunday morning and when it was announced that Oswald had died my first thought was, “Now we’ll never know why he did it.” And we don’t. And there are good reasons to believe that’s why Ruby did what he did.

Respectable, responsible journalism venues, your Time and Life magazines, your New York Times and Washington Posts and your network newsrooms have accepted Oswald as the assassin since the moment he was collared in the Texas Theater. I’d like to say that appropriate, intense skepticism was applied at some point over the past 50 years, but I really can’t. Oswald has always been the one and only.

In my personal experience, discussions with other journalists on the minutiae of JFK killing have been a bit underwhelming. Few if any could explain what Arlen Specter’s Magic Bullet Theory was all about. Most had heard of it, but after that their eyes got pretty glazey. And the glaze got even thicker once I wandered off the plantation and started talking … means, motive and opportunity.

Mainstream journalism runs on conventional wisdom, and after the Jim Garrison meltdown in New Orleans in 1967 every theory counter to the Warren Commission’s became professionally toxic. The accepted default in newsrooms was, and remains, that Oswald acted alone, the government said so, it’s yesterday’s news  … let’s move on. To suggest you remained skeptical, to suggest that the 24 year-old Oswald’s associations in  New Orleans and Dallas were exceedingly odd and that there were parties with far — far — higher levels of … means, motive and opportunity … who might find it useful to manipulate a guy like Oswald was/is pretty much like saying, “I just saw Elvis, Janis and Jim Morrison land a flying saucer in front of the White House.”

So, about 20 years ago, or soon after Oliver Stone’s loony-but-provocative “JFK”, I finally let it go. I’ve rarely talked about it since. Certainty will never be achieved. I’m not interested in convincing anyone of anything. Believe what you want. The ratio of skepticism-to-acceptance we have today is, I’m guessing, pretty much what it’ll be 500 years from now. Moreover, it no longer matters. Where maybe something could still have been accomplished 10 years after the assassination, or even 15 — when the House Select Committee on Assassinations asserted that there was a conspiracy, and even ID’d those with means, motive and opportunity — at 50 years out the horses have long since left the corral and been reduced to glue.

G. Robert Blakey, counsel to the 1978 House Committee has often said that the JFK murder has become a kind of Rorschach test for those looking at it. What we see is in many ways more illuminative of our individual prejudices and beliefs than the reality of the event itself.  There’s a hard truth in that, that I accept.

Just as I accept that I’ll remain a skeptic of the Warren Commission theory for a long time to come.

Without re-litigating the whole case, here’s why:

Over the years CBS, ABC and most recently PBS’s NOVA have argued in favor of the Commission’s view based on the only aspect of the crime testable by science — namely the forensics of the shooting in conjunction with the Zapruder film. Each has hired experts, staged reconstructions, fired rifles, extracted bullets and established in ways that would be convincing in any courtroom that it is possible for one bullet to do everything Arlen Specter and the Commission said it did.

… and each therefore concluded that … Oswald did it.

To which I always say … wait a minute.

It’s one thing to make a case that it is possible for one man to have done all the damage recorded on camera (and in the mangled autopsy) and a whole other thing to say that man was Lee Oswald. But the two are almost invariably mashed together as inseparable conclusions … based on a problematic palm print on the rifle found stashed at the Book Depository and the circumstantial evidence collected and vetted by the Commission.

Comedian-actor Richard Belzer (“Homicide”, “Law and Order: SVU”) has had a second career for years as a kind of Howard Zinn  of contemporary American politics. He has churned out several books on the JFK hit and when interviewed invariably returns to one moment that for him most undermines the Oswald-as-shooter scenario (as well the Commission’s choice of who and what evidence to accept as most accurate). The moment was when a Dallas motorcycle cop dropped his bike in front of the Book Depository seconds after the motorcade gunned it for Parkland hospital, ran in, yelled for the boss, a guy named Roy Truly, and ordered him to accompany him upstairs. Upon reaching the second floor cafeteria they encountered a guy at a vending machine. The cop asked Truly to identify the man, which Truly did as Oswald, an employee, and they continued on up.

What it means is that within 90 seconds of shooting … the President of the United States, kind of big deal for which a person might both be (and look) a little excited, a not so great a marksman has run across to the opposite end of the sixth floor, stashed the rifle behind some boxes, run down four flights of stairs, dropped coins in a vending machine and appeared composed and unflustered when confronted by a cop. While the speed required to accomplish those actions hasn’t been recreated without signs of obvious exertion, I suspect it is, like other aspects of the Commission’s case possible under a certain set of circumstances.

But it is means, motive and opportunity that carries the day for me. Oswald barely had the first (a for-shit rifle and very limited skills as a marksman), is deep into dime store psychology on the second (“he was a nobody who wanted to be a somebody”) and, were it not for his second floor cafeteria appearance, has indisputable credibility only on the third. He was employed right there on the motorcade route.

As Daniel Schorr, the bete noir of the Nixon White House once told me when I asked about his interest in the JFK killing, “I like stories that are ascertainable”, which the JFK saga most definitely is not. The unascertainable, reputation-sullying quagmire of every theory other than the Warren Commission’s may explain why so few news organizations have aggressively pursued the most tantalizing of the “means, motive and opportunity” angles.

Oliver Stone lost me with his “LBJ gave them their damn [Vietnam] war” angle. Not even in 1963’s subservient media culture would there be a way to keep chatter of an assassination cabal from leaking out of government offices. Governments keep paper records (and recordings). Every reporter has sources of some sort within or close to the CIA and the White House. Ascertainability is possible.

Not so with organized crime.

If you want a practicing, professional journalist to glaze over in disdain, bring up the role of the mob in anything that went on in 1963 or even today. As limited as my press colleagues’ knowledge has been on the topic of JFK forensics, the first mention of Carlos Marcello and the mob always has them scanning over my head for an emergency escape. Since almost none of them has even heard of Marcello, the longtime head of the New Orleans mob … I’m another whacked out “grassy knoller” counting UFOs in the Rose Garden.

I have found very few journalists who know that Bobby Kennedy, prior to becoming Attorney General vowed and immediately upon being sworn in made a top priority of throwing Marcello out of the country … and that he actually did it. RFK literally had Marcello kidnapped off the streets of New Orleans and dumped in Guatemala, simultaneous with an unprecedented, coordinated effort to take down his sprawling operation … which besides the usual racketeeering included seedy strip clubs across the South and Texas. In fact, the 1978 House Committee specifically ID’d Marcello, along with Jimmy Hoffa and Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana as people with … means, motive and opportunity to kill JFK.

But — a reality check here — no ink-stained newsroom beat reporter does ascertainment on the Mob. As I say, to follow the news even today you’d be inclined to believe organized crime has ceased functioning in the United States … a turn of events which truly would make us exceptional in human history. Crime kingpins are brown, scarfaced, moustachioed guys like Pablo Escobar. They operate in sweaty Latin American countries. Based on the lack of reporting we could easily believe they have no peers within our borders. No stateside kingpins. Just street level distributors like Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale in “The Wire”.

More to the point in the JFK era, it was the official view of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI that organized crime was a non-factor in the United States, a view that infuriated Bobby Kennedy especially since the FBI’s “investigations” of Marcello’s New Orleans operations were consistently misdirected and thwarted.

For me this is, ironically, the Occam’s Razor phase of the story.

In order to accept that Oswald acted alone you have to ignore/outright dismiss his very strange associations with Dallas’ very right-wing “White Russian” community and the crowd he assorted with in New Orleans, as well as his lack of expertise as a marksman, his jailhouse assertion that “I’m just the patsy” [an interested choice of words] and accept as his motivation that he was … suffering from low self-esteem. It’s not what you call a neat scenario.

By stark contrast, in the Marcello-driven version of events you have a bona fide, serious-as-a-heart attack adversary, requiring by far the fewest assumptions to reach a conclusion … if …  if it is a conclusion you’re comfortable making.

Means: Organized crime, should you choose to believe it exists, has professionals it can call upon to kill anyone. (Ask Whitey Bulger’s FBI compatriots.) And you don’t need an Oliver Stone-sized conspiracy. Just maybe a half dozen guys doing what they do.

Motive: Not only is this little prick Bobby Kennedy coming after one of the leaders of the American mob in that era, he’s a damned Kennedy who appears to have forgotten all the business the Mob and his father did back in the day. Getting harassed and dumped in Guatemala is not a way you treat friends. More to the point, by hitting the brother, you neuter the Attorney General.

Opportunity:  Open car. Parade. Plenty of cover … and a chump, set up to think he’s a player in some spy game, primed not only to take the fall, but be killed off in quick order. (By the mobbed-up owner of a seedy strip club … who did it, we are asked to believe, in order to spare poor Jackie Kennedy a return to Texas for Oswald’s trial.) The hand-the-cops-the-dead-patsy ploy is classic mob architecture. Plus, as a plot, it understands quite well the cultural climate of that era. The “communist sympathizer” angle virtually guarantees  that responsible elder statesmen like Gerald Ford, CIA Director Allen Dulles, segregationist poster boy Richard Russell, and all-purpose Cold War counselor John McCloy will see the peril of super-power confrontation and gravitate to the lone, glory-seeking-nut explanation, which is infinitely easier to make with that particular guy dead.

Also, should there be even the faintest interest in pursuing an organized crime angle, those same statesmen will quickly appreciate that an aggressive mob inquiry means a wholesale re-write of the “fallen King of Camelot” narrative, with the shocked public getting a highly disillusioning education in how Joseph Kennedy made his fortune and how cozy the sexually compulsive JFK was with the seamier side of the show biz-Vegas interface. Bobby Kennedy seemed to grasp the dilemma.

Given the low likelihood that courtroom-worthy evidence would ever to spill out of the mob — no files, no recordings, and no witnesses — the choice for the Commission was actually pretty easy. Build a credible-enough case that sets the long-dead Oswald as the lone shooter, calm the country, let everyone mourn and savor a fallen hero and move on. It’s what patriarchal leaders are supposed to do.

But as Rorschach tests go … this version of the story paints an exceedingly different view of the United States than most people care to entertain.

Lara Logan Has it All Over Dan Rather

NEW SLAUGHTERIf there was ever an example of the quantitative difference between the rage-stoking machinery of the right and the left its in the reaction to Lara Logan’s big Benghazi blockbuster on “60 Minutes”.

Where literally within minutes of its airing nine years ago, “60 Minutes II’s” story about George W. Bush’s essentially non-existent National Guard “service” was under fire from right-wing bloggers pointing to a specific fake document, Logan’s far more amateurish blunder, in using an oddball mercenary’s story as the sole source of a startling new perspective on the Benghazi incident, is fast receding from public attention. Internally, CBS, which can not be pleased with the transparent inadequacy of  Logan’s reporting, may eventually take further action. But lacking a sustained furor, it has the luxury of doing so quietly and in a way it can manage, and … without explaining how it happened.

Lacking any serious of level of heat from outraged liberals — beyond David Brock and Eric Boehlert at Media Matters — this botch, which smells at least as politically inspired as “60 Minutes II” producer Mary Mapes’ shot at Bush — is going nowhere.

People like Kevin Drum at “Mother Jones” and Jay Rosen have already laid out the fundamental complaints with Logan’s story, and CBS has endured the inevitable round of ridicule from comics. For me though the most egregious error — the brightest flare in the sky — was Logan basing her story on a guy who was about to publish a book through CBS’s sister company, Threshold Editions, which exists solely as a distributor of (often) paranoid, fact-deprived righter-than right-wing screeds. How was that allowed to happen?

Worse, Logan didn’t disclose that illuminating little detail either in her original story or in her explanation-free apology last Sunday night. As a consequence we have an episode that walks and quacks very much like something cooked and contrived by the producer/reporter.

And that is different — and worse — than what Mapes and Dan Rather got into in 2004. The tragic irony with CBS’s Bush Air National Guard story is that the central assertion — that Bush was all but officially AWOL from a cushy stateside service slot and far from combat during Vietnam — was all but “smoking gun” provable without the tarted-up memo that persons still unknown used to intentionally deceive CBS, Rather and Mapes. (I believe Doonesbury-creator Garry Trudeau still has the $10,000 he offered to anyone who could prove they saw Bush with his National Guard unit at any time he says he was there.)

With Logan, the rapidly-evolving view is that she was the driving force of the bogus Benghazi story, and that to make her story she consciously violated a basic tenet of Journalism 101. Namely, she allowed a single source, one with obvious personal motivations, to push a startling counter narrative with rabid appeal for a specific fringe audience. A stringer for Eagan Patch couldn’t get away with that.

While the controversy will soon evaporate among the general public, media-watchers who suspect Logan pushed the story far beyond what the facts could support will continue to believe she did it to curry favor (for herself?) with a conservative audience that normally sees “60 Minutes” as a threat to their intensely partisan world view. Her now famous, gung-ho, “let’s go get the bastards speech” isn’t doing anything to refute that suspicion.

We are living in a moment where celebrity reporters are routinely carving out brands (and fatter paychecks) for themselves beyond the walls of their day jobs. And Logan, who looks much better in a low-cut dress than Morley Safer, (and did you notice how much more demure her attire was for the “apology”), has all the ingredients for full-tilt, anchor-level stardom.

But since there is a vast difference in the rage machinery of the right and left, I doubt many will notice when Ms. Logan announces a year from now that she has decided to leave CBS and pursue “new opportunities”.

Finally, you can only laugh that FoxNews, which rarely if ever has something good to say about a story produced by actual professional journalists — and rushed to hype the “60 Minutes” piece —  is pretty much alone now in “standing by” the “facts” of Logan’s botched tale.

 

 

Hope and Branding

NEW SLAUGHTERBefore getting to the important stuff, as a member of “the single-payer left”, but also someone sees Obamacare as a substantial step forward, can I just say that I’m delighted to see a resurgence of skepticism among the “lamestream” press over the hysterical claims coming from Obamacare’s entrenched opponents?

First there was Eric Stern’s instant classic, “Inside the FoxNews Lie Machine”, where Stern fact-checked three sets of guests in a Sean Hannity interview. Then a couple of days ago Jim Tankersley of The Washington Post reported a story out of Rome, Georgia on a guy convinced his small business failing was entirely Obama’s fault.  (By all means read through the comments section on that one.) Then yesterday we had Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times doing the same thing as Mr. Stern in a piece titled, “Another Obamacare horror story debunked”.

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The LA Times Applies a Factual Standard

NEW SLAUGHTERTalk about setting dangerous precedents.

The Los Angeles Times recently declared that it was no longer going to run “factually inaccurate” letters about climate change. Anyone who follows the, uh, “debate” on that issue knows what the paper is talking about. Climate science is up there with abortion and gun control in terms of setting off an irrational, emotional explosion among a certain faction of the public … with the notable difference that there is actual science involved in the mechanics of human-caused climate shifts.

A reporter at Mother Jones then called around to nine other big mainstream papers to see what their policies are regarding … reader opinions that have no basis in fact. He got some great weasel-word quotes. The best/worst came from the Denver Post, who said:

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