Frankly, it is still tough to figure where exactly this one started. But somehow the news that Esquire magazine is launching a TV channel collided with news that Maxim magazine has lost its mojo and ran into Hanna Rosin’s year-old piece titled, “The End of Men” before ricocheting off news that Popular Science magazine (large guy readership) is axing its comment section because of witless brawling by (likely male) trolls determined to shout down liberal believers in mushy-headed ideas like … evolution and human-caused climate change. It was a tornadic tumble.
I don’t know Jim Souhan, the Star Tribune sports columnist who kinda stepped in it by saying that the University of Minnesota should, at the very least, keep epileptic seizure-prone football coach Jerry Kill out of public view. But I have some idea how he got himself into a predicament that unleashed a hailstorm of blowback.
But first, let’s be clear, risking and then taking a hammering in the court of public opinion is not always a bad thing. Often enough it is quite the opposite. If no one ever cares enough to complain about you or argue against your point of view you’re really just writing Chamber of Commerce ad copy … which, unfortunately, is what a lot of today’s news managers regard as responsible journalism. The irony with this incident is that Souhan, filing from the sports/entertainment department, over-exercised one of the last remaining licenses left to push an informed, personal point of view in regional newspapers. He over-played a license the Star Tribune and other papers have steadily hobbled in their metro and opinion pages.
Boiled to its essence, the criticism of Souhan is that his tone was cloddish, an affront to both epileptics and common decency. And it’s easy to see how readers got that impression.
Here are some of the problematic lines and why:
” … where the University of Minnesota’s football program, and by extension the entire school, became the subject of pity and ridicule.” (Is “ridicule” really the word you’re looking for here? “Ridiculed” by who? What sort of thoughtless yob sees any level of humor in an epileptic seizure? What percentage of even our local, get-a-life football fandom engages in that kind of “ridicule”?)
“Kill suffers a seizure on game day as the coach of the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium exactly as often as he wins a Big Ten game. He’s 4-for-16 in both categories.” (Souhan’s working a context where Kill’s health issues are bad for the football program. But by elevating Kill’s winning percentage to the same level of concern as his health diminishes the appearance of concern for the latter. It’s what you call “playing too cute for your own good.”)
“No one who buys a ticket to TCF Bank Stadium should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground. This is not how you compete for sought-after players and entertainment dollars.” (College sports’ money issues are legendary and scandalous, even in a football wasteland like Minnesota. But again, mashing the two together — money and a man’s health — is callous, at best, and asking for trouble. Besides, as at least one commenter noted, fans pay top dollar every weekend with some expectation that they’ll see a 20 year-old kid carted off the field with shredded knee or worse.)
“Kill is unable to fulfill his duties.” (Really? I don’t think Souhan came close to proving that point. Or even trying.)
What I mean by the special license sports columnists have is this. They are writing for a heavily male audience that enjoys provocative writing reflective of a “man’s world”, i.e. a place where you call ‘em as you see ‘em, where lousy performance and incompetence are ridiculing offenses and where everyone’s tough enough to play again tomorrow after getting their feelings hurt. Look around the sportswriting landscape today. It’s one of the more talent-rich and compelling landscapes in the mainstream press because writers aren’t pulling punches, slathering their copy with consensus-conscious euphemisms and turning a blind eye to hypocrisy and incompetence. The contrast, as I say, with most papers’ metro and opinion columns is pretty damned stark.
But every provocateur risks going steps too far. It’s very much the nature of the broader media world today, outside stodgy daily newspapers. There’s career traction in upping the ante on “calling ‘em, as you see ‘em.” Hell, push it further and there might even be another paycheck in it, from sports radio, which is far less concerned with hurting feelings and sounding cloddish than mom and dad’s morning paper.
Souhan, who is still living in the shadow of Dan Barreiro, a guy who flexed a dagger with the best of them and has been well rewarded for it, simply “over-exploited” his provocateur license. It happens when you try to push itr “to the next level” to borrow a tired sports cliche. But there was no need to flex tough with an epileptic.
But my larger point here is the irony that Souhan style calling-out of sacred cows is now entirely the province of the sports department … where adults write about games.
The Star Tribune, which memorably prohibited its columnists from writing about the final stages of the presidential campaign in 2008, has taken a route much like every other regional, second-tier paper, avoiding partisan controversy by focusing on stories and themes with much higher levels of consensus. This, as I’ve said before, despite the presence of Michele Bachmann, and to a (slightly) lesser degree, Tim Pawlenty, people who should have been to any healthy “call ‘em, as you see ‘em” newspaper columnist what Les Steckel, Norm Green, Mike Lynn, Ron Davis and J. R. Rider have been to the sports department.
The fair question has always been, “Are you exercising journalistic responsibility by ignoring or grossly under-playing flagrant, unprecedented dysfunction and dishonesty by the highest-profile characters on your beat?”
It’s hard to get too upset over an outburst from the toy department, when the adults are hamstrung by their unwillingness to get seriously tough with people who actually matter.
I just did a survey of the three major cable networks…CNN, Fox and MSNBC…primarily to see how each of them were covering the Navy Yard shootings. MSNBC and CNN are devoting substantial coverage to the shooting. Fox, however, went nearly 30 minutes before even mentioning the event. Instead, they spent nearly 10 minutes covering House hearings on Benghazi and nearly as many minutes on a new report claiming manmade impact on climate change is insignificant and the “criticism” by two former Secretaries of Defense – Leon Panetta and Robert Gates – of President Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval on Syria. After all that, they did about 30 seconds on the shooting focusing on the question of how the shooter could get and keep a security clearance.
As I’ve often said, I think it’s very important for all of us to get our news from multiple sources. I’m glad Al Jazeera is broadcasting (though I’m not impressed so far) and would love to see more news networks on my menu of choices. Today’s anecdotal survey proves the point.
Writing for MinnPost, my friend John Reinan declares the Affordable Care Act to have had “the worst new-product rollout in memory.” He writes:
[T]hree years after the passage of Obamacare — which itself took place after two years of heated, publicized debate — Americans understand very little about the program. In fact, a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half of all Americans (44 percent) don’t realize that Obamacare is actually the law of the land. Fewer than one in four Americans has gotten any information recently about the health care law from a doctor, a health care organization, a federal agency or a state agency.
That’s just nuts. With three years to inform the public about the new law, the federal government has failed miserably. If this were a new car, a new soft drink or a new movie, people would be getting fired.
Emphasis mine. Perhaps this is a bit different in Minnesota, where our state’s new health insurance exchange, MNsure, has launched a full-on marketing assault in the lead-up to Obamacare open season in October. According to WallStCheatSheet.com:
Minnesota’s marketing scheme was also designed to address another problem; Kaiser’s August survey also showed that a large proportion of respondents, 19 percent, said they got most of their information about the Affordable Care Act from comedy programs like The Daily Show, while just 14 percent said they got most of their information from state agencies.
The god damned Daily Show. With an un-American (literally) as its pinch-hitting host for the summer. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what your Daily Show can do for your country.
It is fair to describe the standard progressive-liberal attitude towards American military intervention as one of intense if not intractable skepticism … to the point of knee jerk pacifism. And the rationale for that attitude is pretty solid.
Liberals, with a more nuanced view of history, aren’t just suffering from a Cheney-Bush Iraq hangover, where we were flat-out lied to and thrown into an incompetently managed war that when all is said and done (with veterans’ benefits and interest) may end up costing multiple trillions of (unbudgeted) dollars, but we also remember and continue to process the Tonkin Gulf charade that got us into Vietnam, followed by the atrocities of indiscriminate carpet bombing, napalm and white phosphorous attacks. And sliding further back, having studied history, we haven’t forgotten the blanket fire-bombing of not just Tokyo but four dozen other Japanese cities by Gen. Curtis LeMay/FDR in WWII, followed by two nuclear bombs.
After that we factor in all of this country’s nefarious, frequently counter-effective intelligence activities.
Point being; on a strictly historical basis, the United States stands on a very shaky pedestal from which to claim a moral prerogative to punish someone else for gross abuses of “accepted norms”.
But as much as those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it, history is never a precise mirror on the present. Time, social evolution and technology wear away at the perfect echo from then to now. 2013 is not 1943. Great nation states have not fought a war against each other for almost 70 years, the longest “peaceful” interlude in recorded history, and are unlikely to engage in one for the forseeable future, given the tight interdependency of the world economy. The respective populations of the United States, Russia, China, etc. are simply too well-informed about each other to accept the easy, jingoistic demonization of “the enemy” corrupt governments served up in the past, much less the likelihood of total annihilation.
Those are key facets of the liberalizing effect of technology.
Closer to the moment, Barack Obama bears no imaginable kinship to Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, the architects of the Iraq fraud and disaster. There is no case to be made that Obama is eager for military conflict. On the other hand he is not naive about the presence of abominable cruelty in human nature.
The split among liberals over Syria seems to break along the lines of those whose cynicism toward American motives is complete, and those who believe every new situation, with new characters in leadership in a different era is unique and must be dealt with in a way unburdened by the frauds, failures and genocidal slaughters of those who made military decisions in the decades before them. An irony is that a group for whom “nuance” is regularly embraced as a virtue is engaged in an internal debate over whether there are shadings and distinctions in a chemical weapon attack by a desperate dictator that make Syria distinct from … Iraq, Vietnam and so on.
The former say, “No. Our motives in this situation are no more pure or moral than Cheney-Bush’s in Iraq. No American president or administration can ever be trusted again. War of any kind at any time is wrong. So, no. Never.”
The latter argue that intervening against indiscriminate slaughters like Rwanda and Kosovo and like what Assad is perpetrating on his civilian population are actually far closer to having moral standing in the liberal concept of such a thing, than reacting with the full, profit-pumping apparatus of the military-industrial complex to the “Red Menace” in Vietnam or the oil-tainted imperative in Saddam’s Iraq.
For the latter group, and I count myself among them, the immorality of American/international inaction in Rwanda is still one of the most guilt-inducing memories of the last generation. By what standard was ignoring that “moral”? And how is that different from what Assad is doing in Syria? in the potential consequences to us? The price of gasoline?
And to be sure, the vitality of the debate is almost entirely among liberals. Conservatives, having long since sold their souls to reflexive, unexamined partisanship have, for all intents and purposes, no role in the current debate. They continue to say only whatever they need to say to weaken Obama and stay a step ahead of the next far-far right conservative primary opponent. Consequently, they have no credible standing in matters of practical morality. They are noise without signal.
Obama is going to have to make his case over the next few days, and make it far better than Colin Powell and George W. Bush made their’s for Iraq. Regardless of your views of the moral obligations of the lone mega-state in slaughters like this one in Syria, every liberal is well-advised to bring all the skepticism they can muster to whatever Obama says. And I believe he welcomes both the skepticism and the debate.
But … if they’re being intellectually honest, liberals also have to fully and honestly process the morality of inaction. As Obama said in his press conference in Russia the other day, there’s no one else the entire planet turns to in moments like this. Ever. We are the whole game, and therefore, the moral debate goes, we have a special responsibility to do what is reasonable to destabilize blatant state-sponsored homicide.
If progressive liberals want to sustain and build on their viability as effective leaders — not just on economic and social matters where they are clearly more far-sighted, but the whole range of leadership responsibilities — they/we are going to have to accept that episodes like Syria are a fact of life and may have to be dealt with in very unpleasant, antithetical-seeming ways when dialogue and diplomacy simply are not an option.
My good friend Jim Leinfelder kicked over this “dialogue” on what to do/not do with Syria, wrItten by the New Yorker’s George Packer. It’s intended to engender a rational conversation about the situation, our “responsibilities”, morality, etc. Allow me to jump in …
It begins …
So it looks like we’re going to bomb Assad.
Really? Why good?
Yes, I saw the videos.
And you don’t want to pound the shit out of him?
I want to pound the shit out of him.