Flack Attack

Given the oh-so-sanctimonious spelling lesson Senator McCain gave Senator Obama last week for using an alternative spelling of the military word “flak/flack,” it’s a good time to remind our readers that one who provides publicity is a “flack/flak,” not a “flak/flack.” And if you use an alternate spelling, you will be deemed by us unfit to serve in such an esteemed capacity.

– Loveland

Ending the News-Editorial Shell Game

No one denies that the Star Tribune has a liberal bias on its editorial page, the place where newspapers traditionally quarantine commentary. But the Strib says a firm wall exists between its liberal editorial page commentary and it’s objective news page coverage.

To be sure, individuals, organizations and causes of all ideological stripes regularly get lit up on the Strib’s news pages. For those who doubt that liberals get torched, see the charred remains of their top standard bearer (Former ubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch), top rising stars (Former Speaker Matt Entenza and Former State Auditor Judy Dutcher), and top legislative priority (property-income tax swap proposal).

Still, like the swallows return to Capitstrano, we can count on conservative shrieks of bias and victimhood whenever someone from their club gets scrutinized on the news pages. The so-called “Red Star” is the target of nearly as many as bizarre conservative conspiracy theories as the Tri-lateral Commission, ATF and Tinky Winky combined.

But there’s one thing that fuels legitimate reader confusion and mistrust about The Wall of Separation. News columnists. The Strib and other papers have long allowed news columnists such as Doug Growe, Katherine Kirsten, Nick Coleman, Dennis Anderson, Ron Schara and others to express red hot personal opinions about policy issues…on the news page side of The Wall.

While the highly sophisticated Rowdy Crowd understands the difference between the role of news columnists and news reporters, I submit that it is confusing as hell to more casual readers. You can’t blame folks for questioning objectivity on the news pages, when a substantial hunk of the news pages are dedicated to biased, incendiary commentary.

I’m not saying these columnists shouldn’t exist. I’m saying they belong on the editorial pages, clearly labeled. If the Strib wants to cut down on the commentary v. news confusion, it has a lot of options. It could put all the commentary in one place. It could more clearly label it. It could even use a different color, masthead, layout, font, and/or format (e.g. magazine style insert). Perhaps those who so frequently call for better disclosure from the public sector should themselves do a better job disclosing.

Of course this won’t stop the complaints. There is no FDA-approved cure for persecution complexes. But maybe it would help reasonable readers better understand and separate the duel function of newspapers – to journal and to opine.

By the way, I don’t mean to single out the Strib. The same applies to many other outlets, especially cable TV news channels. Fox TV, for example, maintains it has unbiased news reporting, yet constantly co-mingles, without labels or predictable patterns, objective news coverage and thermonuclear editorial coverage. Again, as with the Strib, if they want to clear up the confusion, they could make the separation of editorial and news more distinct and clear through better partitioning and labeling.

– Loveland

They Also Serve Who Stand and Protest

I have inappropriate thoughts.

At the Twins game Sunday, the boys were wearing caps out on the field for Memorial Day with NAVY, USAF, USMC and ARMY on them. Honoring the services and the men and women who defend us.

I had this thought. What if one of the players wore a hat with “Jane Fonda” on it? Or “Mohammed Ali”? People who stood up for their country by protesting a war they thought was wrong.

People would go apeshit, basically. Some player wears a hat with “Iraq Veterans Against The War,” another with “John Kerry” on it, for his service to the country fighting in and then protesting the Vietnam war, and it would be taken as a controversial inflammatory political statement. Wearing a cap with “Army” on it is not controversial, inflammatory or political. Because it’s status quo. Establishment.

The power of words. Of symbols. Of words we hold up to stand for things that we value. Of words we take as acceptable, and words we deem inappropriate.

I mentioned my notion to my father-in-law, sitting next to me at the game. He nodded, and said, “Maybe you could get away with Jack Murtha’s name on the hat.” Later he thought about putting “Peace” on one of the hats — he wasn’t a hippie but he may be having flashbacks nonetheless.

I mean no disrespect to the armed forces or the people who serve. I’m damned glad we have military forces and I want them well-supported and well-trained. And we should honor them. And when the civilian leaders who direct the military are wrong, I am also damned glad we have people who will stand up and speak out. And we should honor them. Dissent is patriotic. Dissent is American.

But dissenting against the accepted ways of doing things is too often seen as aberrant. Inappropriate.

Words we wear on our hats. They say a lot.

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.” — Thomas Jefferson. A fitting phrase for a hat this Memorial Day.

    I Like this quote I dislike this quote

— Bruce Benidt

Smart a la Carte?

“Wouldn’t it be nice if you could buy coverage in the media for a flat fee the same way you buy ads in a magazine or on TV? Well, now you can.”

That’s the chirpy pitch being made a Burnsville-based agency, Pay-Per-Interview Technology. In their words, “With a pay-per-placement publicity structure you pay only for stories about your product that appear in the media. Pay-Per-Interview Publicity® is our guarantee that you will get media coverage for your money. We think it’s a better way to sell publicity, and more than 1,000 clients have agreed, making us the nation’s top performance-based PR firm.”

In a world where most PR agencies are offering esoteric value proposition pyramids and selling lots of old wine in “new” bottles, these folks are selling something in rare supply in the PR world — simplicity, clarity and certainty.

This is a beautiful selling proposition, and I bet it sells like corporate welfare in red states. But I ask you, is it the best approach for clients?

American Idiot

I’m sure many of you journalistic purists were loving both metro dailies’ front page coverage of American Idol. Listen, when the United Nation’s inspector documenting nuclear gains for Iran can get 74 million votes, then maybe we’ll talk front page.

– Loveland

Maverick Internet vs. Establishment Mass Media, Part Too

Story on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times about a website that outs criminals who’ve struck plea bargains and will inform on their former cronies and even outs undercover cops and agents. Called whosarat.com, the site uses public records that in the past have been available only at courthouses or cop shops but are now gathered in electronic data bases, making them easier to find and publish.

Good journalism? Horrible judgment? Harmful mischief? TMI? Is this an example of nonprofessional information gatherers and publishers doing something that traditional journalists would not do? Should the site be shut down — it no doubt helps some criminals avoid getting caught and endangers undercover cops — or is this an example of how a free flow of information protects citizens?

The people who run the rat-outing site say it helps defendants know who’s accusing them or informing on them. “Nobody likes a rat,” a spokesperson for the site said. You can make an argument that secret police and unknown accusers sounds like USSR/Arthur Koestler-type stuff.

People can spread information and misinformation for awful reasons, but if you shut them down, the same tool used to squelch their bad info and views can be used to squash your absolutely accurate info and brilliant views. That’s the Nazis marching in Skokie First Amendment case — you gotta defend the right of expression you abhore, or expression you love can be stopped by the same reasoning.

So, Loveland and many others worry about the internet giving currency and reach to amateur sites and sources that are biased and inaccurate. Joe, of course, is advocating critical thinking, not suppression. But there’s always an instinct to clamp down on information that could harm people — e.g. reporting about our military and political problems in Vietnam or Iraq will embolden the enemy, so let’s not harp on the negative.

John Tunheim, a federal judge in Minneapolis, is heading a committee considering how to protect informants, undercover agents and criminal cases without censoring outlets like whosarat.com. As is always the case when rights conflict, as in the rights of a free press colliding with the defendant’s right to a fair trial, this is going to be a balancing act for Tunheim and his colleagues.

Identifying “rats” seems a little crazy, but it’s a challenging example of what happens when anybody can grab a big internet megaphone that has a reach and impact once only available to established media.

What do you think? Here’s a link to the story:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/22/us/22plea.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

— Bruce Benidt

Reason, Democracy, the Internet & Al Gore’s Shrinking Butt on the Fence

Can the internet save democracy? Al Gore thinks so. What do you think?

Just reading the cover piece on Gore in Time, and the excerpt of his new book, The Assault on Reason. Gore says the American public has become disengaged from public issues, government and participating in democracy, largely because we’ve entertained ourselves into a passive flat-line Paris Hilton stupor.

There’s little public discussion of public issues in Congress, he says. Mostly there’s whoring after money so politicians can afford the content-free 30-second ads that have replaced the Lincoln-Douglas debates as today’s public discourse. He blames the media, television’s paralyzing of the brain’s thought, logic and reasoning centers, both parties, and all of us.

More important, he points to a solution. Gore says the internet “is the most interactive medium in history and the one with the greatest potential for connecting individuals to one another and to a universe of knowledge.” American democracy needs “new ways to engage in a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future,” and “the re-establishment of genuine democratic discourse in which individuals can participate in a meaningful way — a conversation of democracy in which meritorious ideas and opinions from individuals do, in fact, evoke a meaningful response.”

The internet is a “platform for reason” and a way to talk to one another, listen, and get off our intellectual and citizenship asses. My language, that last, not Al’s.

What do you all think? Austin’s buying a round. Does the internet get people engaged, thinking, analyzing, participating? Or is it another self-indulgent distraction?

More locally, is what we’re doing on The Same Rowdy Crowd part of what Gore’s talking about? We five who put this together hoped the blog would get people thinking and exchanging ideas, arguments, cheers and insults. It’s been great fun to read what you all have to say. But is it changing anyone’s mind? Is it making you think? Is it going to save the world?

Gore probably relies too heavily on reason as the driver of human progress. That may be why he was such a flat campaigner in 2000. Passion, conviction, spirituality, the magnetic charisma of leadership, and gut instinct play a huge role in how people relate to each other, the world and the great mysteries of life. So democracy needs more than smart people debating in togas. But Gore raises a challenging vision of the internet as an enabler of government of, by and for the people. I hope he’s right, and that’s one of the reasons I keep tapping away at this keyboard.

Whaddyathink?

(And, of course, there’s the great political theater of Gore, on the fence, being implored by many people to run, losing weight, coming out with another book just at the right time…  He was such a dreadful candidate in 2000, so terrified of the aftershocks of Clinton’s penis problem that he dared not claim the benefits of eight years of good government. And he was advised to death. The Time piece claims 2000 was a crucible for him that burned away the caution and has left a passionate human being doing what he cares deeply about. I admire him for not becoming a victim and a whiner after 2000, but moving forward instead and making a difference. I personally think Obama is the leader for this time, but, who knows — we may get a chance to re-elect Al Gore.)

–Bruce Benidt