What I Didn’t Miss During a Long Walk in the Woods

NEW SLAUGHTERHere’s a list of things I didn’t miss during a week hiking down Isle Royale.

1:  Senate Republicans failing to come up with the 70 votes supposedly needed to give Speaker John Boehner “cover” to support immigration reform without the support of the majority of his neanderthal caucus. This was the presumption as we boated away from Grand Portage 12 days ago and nothing much changed, so what’s to miss?

There are only so many times I … you … paid pundits … the drunk on the next stool … can belabor the head-slapping destructive/self-destructiveness of this current crop of Republicans. And as much as road-blocking immigration reform is perhaps the single most damaging thing they could do to their election chances (in 2016, but very likely in 2014 as well) it just isn’t news anymore that these characters really are so … well, stupid is perfectly adequate word … that they will drive a stake through the heart of the one piece of legislation that might give them standing with the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. A group big enough to turn … Texas for crissake … blue in another couple of election cycles.

It also isn’t worth mincing words about “why”. This isn’t another exercise in the hyper right-wing’s phony pursuit of Constitutional purity. It’s racism, pure and simple. The hillbilly sensibility of the Republican base has no time or sympathy for intruder factions unconnected by origin to new conservatives’ cockamamie mash-up of Hollywood westerns/xenophobia/Ronald Reagan hagiographies and snake oil punditry.

The fog that rolled up and over the Greenstone Ridge had the effect of blotting out a lot of toxic buffoonery.

2:  Even though I predicted it, I did not miss the minute-by-minute updates on where Edward Snowden was and might be going. Commercial media are incapable of engendering and sustaining a national conversation about anything of genuine importance … unless there’s a celebrity sex angle. The fact they’re treating Snowden the fugitive as “the story” and not the still-emerging details of the US’s multi-multi billion dollar cyber systems is too dismaying to “miss”. A hot shower after 50 miles of sweat, DEET and black flies, yes. A cold beer, yes. CNN, no.

3; Speaking of … I hadn’t been giving George Zimmerman a lot of thought, frankly. Although news of his trial start did make the crawl on a screen in the bar at the casino where we stayed the night before leaving. But upon return … I mean, WTF? Zimmerman is a bigger story than a military coup in Egypt? Even MSNBC has gone monomaniacal.

The Zimmerman trial is several rungs of significance up the ladder from the latest Jodi Arias/Casey Anthony sluts-who-slaughter convulsion, but round-the-clock?

Yes, I understand it’s far, far cheaper than sending crews to Cairo. And yes, I understand that certain key demographic groups will devote obsessional amounts of time watching a murder trial. But are we really at the point where we don’t even pretend “our viewers” have an interest in the meltdown of democracy in the anchor nation of the Middle East?

Don’t answer that question.

I get that CNN’s new boss, Mr. Early-Morning-TV-Works-in-All-Dayparts, Jeff Zucker sees an audience of attention-span deprived emotional adolescents, people who need a cooking segment and celebrity hype-chat to break the monotony of revolutions, car-bombings, cyber-warfare and legislative gridlock … but … passing mention? Imagine if another Carnival cruise ship flipped over in Miami harbor? You’d never hear of John Boehner again.

4:  Finally, I didn’t miss the story and intense local discussion about old Carl Pohlad’s tax troubles with the IRS … because they weren’t reported in the local press. Forbes magazine put out the story of the old man’s serious Mitt Romney-like gaming of the tax code … to the advantage of his heirs, a couple of whom at least have done some commendable things with the loot … they didn’t turn over to the common coffers.

Now that I’m back, after trying to cook my fabulous tuna schmeckler under a raggedy pine tree in a steady rain, would it be okay for someone in this town to get impertinent with one of the Pohlad boys and ask how exactly they justify the fantastical level of accounting magic that took their family off the hook for their “fair share” of taxes?

I understand every media outlet wants to be the Pohlads’ BFF. But now that this is “out there”, perhaps some tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoner reporter could “request” a first person comment from one of the boys.

I know, I know, it doesn’t have the reader interest of a list of “10 Great Places for Patriotic Dining”, but it is kind of like … news.

BTW … The beach at Siskiwit Bay was … idyllic. I’m already missing it.

A Tragedy Runs Through It, and Through Us All

My editor, when I was a young reporter, tells me to interview a mother whose son has just died in a fire in their apartment. I ask my editor why. My editor tells me to interview the family of a marine held hostage in Iran when the Desert One rescue mission crashes and burns, leaving the hostages still hostage. I ask why. What am I going to ask? How do you feel?

The crowd at the memorial service for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters killed in Arizona cheered when a speaker asked the media to stay away from the lone survivor, the young man who’d been the lookout and barely escaped.

Why do those damn reporters want to interview the survivors of tragedy? Heartless bastards. Ghouls.

Reporters capture and transmit life. And tragedy is part of life. And feeling all of life keeps us human. That’s why. But still we bitch about the reporters. While we read their work, their heartbreaking work.

The New York Times today runs a story recounting the last text messages between a Granite Mountain firefighter and his wife. He tells her he’s going in to the fire: “I think I will be down there for awhile on this one.” He tells his wife he misses her and their kids already. After awhile he texts a photo of several firefighters heading for the smoke. She asks if he’ll be there all night. There is never a reply.

National Public Radio interviews young people at an informal grief-spattered remembrance for another Granite Mountain firefighter, from California. His sister, fighting back tears, remembers him in cowboy boots lassoing her when they were both kids. Never more, she says. The dead young man’s brother says his only regret is that he wasn’t with his brother when he died. With him.

Makes you think about life’s fragility, transience, beauty, holiness. Makes you feel love for your own folks. Maybe makes you think you’d better tell them you love them, go see them, because tomorrow might be too late.

On a plane a week or so ago I thought, looking at my iPhone, what would I text Lisa if the plane were going down? I decided I’d tell her that being with her is the best part of my life. The plane didn’t go down. I texted her that anyway. We should say that stuff.

Reading about, hearing about, how people deal with tragedy, with strain, with troubles you’ve not yet had, or with troubles you have, brings our humanity up wriggling and dripping from the bland tranquilized surface of every day. We need to see and hear that stuff. Much as we sometimes want to turn away, it’s hard to, and most often we look. At the accident. We listen to the survivor. Maybe it’s “there but for the grace of god…” But mostly we are attracted to tragedy because, I think, tragedy, like joy, makes us feel the depth and power of life. And we need to feel. Deeply.

Norman Maclean, who wrote, late in his life, A River Runs Through It, also wrote Young Men and Fire, a book about firefighters killed in 1949 in a hauntingly similar way to this week’s Arizona tragedy. If you want to get inside what happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, read this 1992 book.

Tell someone you love that you do. Tomorrow never knows.

— Bruce Benidt

A Confederacy of Dicks.

Several years ago I had lunch with novelist-travel writer Paul Theroux. In the midst of talking up his latest book the conversation turned to work he had done earlier in his career for The New York Times. While obviously a superb platform for any writer, the job had its frustrations. Like the piece Theroux was asked to write on the city/subway environment, circa mid-70s.

As you know the Times, (aka “The Grey Lady”), has a rather precious policy towards slang, informality and matters of basic human function. The paper that will invariably refer to “Mr. Hitler”, “Mr. Stalin” and “Mr. Manson” also has a hard and fast rule against vulgarisms such as the word … “shit” … which Theroux noticed in appalling amounts all over the streets of Manhattan and in the subways. (The town is cleaner now, thanks to nanny state regulations.)

But in attempting to offer a full, complete and immediately recognizable portrait of the environment he was asked to report on Theroux was required by his Times editors to imbue the stuff he saw fouling the surface everywhere with florid synonyms that were more, well, refined … like “defecation”, “scat” and “droppings”, the latter of which might lead less alert readers to think the city was cursed with a plague of discarded handkerchiefs.

As we enter the stretch run of a truly appalling siege of electioneering, and look at the roots of the disease that has infected today’s Republican party I’m convinced it would be useful to take Theroux’ advice and “describe what you see on the ground in front of you”. “Useful” at least if your intention is to communicate directly, immediately and without possibility of misunderstanding.

Hence, the indisputably appropriate and valuable use of the word “dick” to describe so much of what has gone in the past few years in conservative media and politics. Karl Rove. “Dick”. Dick Cheney. “Dick”. FoxNews. “Dick”. Michael Savage. “Dick”. Tom DeLay. “Dick”. Dick Armey, “Dick”. Frank Luntz. “Dick”. Michelle Malkin. “Dick”. Eric Cantor. “Dick”. Steve King. “Dick”. Louie Gohmert. “Dick”. Todd Akin. “Dick”.

While respectable, proper dictionaries avoid defining “dick” as 100% of Americans undoubtably understand it, (I think “private dick” has a whole new understanding in 2012), various urban dictionaries get it right, offering “jerk” and “asshole” as common, accepted synonyms.

Test it out. Ask the next half-dozen people you meet to define “dick”, in the context of a person or type of behavior. You and I both know what you’ll get: “A completely self-absorbed asshole.” “Someone who doesn’t give a damn what happens to anyone else as long as he gets his.” “One of those jerks who is constantly fucking over you and everyone he deals with.” “A guy (or gal) for whom the truth is some kind of hostile, alien concept to be routinely ignored and polluted at will.”

Others might just say, “Rush Limbaugh”.

My point is that in the era of Tea Party/talk radio conservatism, when garden variety political bullshit has devolved to shameless “dick-ishness”, the culture as a whole would be healthier if professional observers and reporters described it as precisely what they and their audience both know it to be. If you truly have respect for civility and reasonableness it seems to me you have an obligation to call out the dicks who are polluting those virtues.

For example: If NBC’s Chuck Todd were to come on one night and say, “GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, already well established as a self-glorifying, onanistic dick for lying about his marathon prowess, claiming to have ‘climbed’ dozens of 14,000 foot mountains and inexplicably bragging about his body fat ratio being less than most Olympic athletes doubled down on his thoroughly dickish plan to gut Medicare and fatten the fortunes of his corporate cronies by accusing the Obama administration of destroying Medicare as we know it”, people everywhere would take notice – because they’d immediately and fully understand what he was talking about.

I’ve long believed the new “dick” conservative has consciously strategized their dick-ish policies and behavior knowing they can rely on the quaint prissiness of the mainstream media to put a “Grey Lady” gauze over their most vulgar distortions, flagrant lies and transparent duplicity. The likes of Michele Bachmann (a Queen of Dicks), Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney can operate as baldly as they do because their essential dickishness will be given an inappropriate, misleading, respectful makeover by a responsible, respectful, civil press uncomfortable describing — precisely, in a language most familiar to their readers —  what is right there in front of them.

A couple of days ago, while out in the Aspen area,  I made a pilgrimage to Hunter Thompson’s favorite bar, the Woody Creek Tavern, where you do reflect on how rare, wonderful and valuable it is to have someone describing the game of politics so vividly and precisely. When Thompson described Hubert Humphrey as campaigning “like a rat in heat” you knew exactly what he was talking about. Likewise, his description of the soul of Richard Nixon as emblematic the “dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character”, was a completely apt description that made an indelible imprint on the mind of the reader.

There are only a few practitioners of Thompson’s “call-a-dick-a-dick” art on today’s mass media scene. There is of course Charles Pierce at Esquire, who so accurately describes Paul Ryan as a “zombie-eyed granny-starver” and ” … a smiling, aw-shucks murderer of opportunity, a creator of dystopias in which he never will have to live.” (I’m also quite fond of his description of Scott Walker as, “… the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to run their midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin”.)

Likewise, Thompson’s far less chemically-infused heir at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, fully exploits his license to describe a dick as a dick.

But notice how infrequently either appears in the allegedly in the-tank liberal press.

Too much vividness and precision is a liability when you have to be concerned with upsetting a handful of customers who prefer the look, sound and feel of Dick World.

One of Our Own…

Kudos to our blogmate Souder for birthing another book, On a Farther Shore, The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring and it is a fitting time for a top-flight author like Bill to look back on what that book did – and didn’t – mean for the environmental movement and how it came along just as the American people (and others) were first awakening to the idea that “Better Living Through Chemicals” might not be true in every instance.

Mr. Souder gave a nice interview on the book to MinnPost that’s available here and you can – I’m sure – expect to see other interviews pop up on whatever passes for a press tour today.

Well done, Mr. Souder, except for the collateral damage of making the rest of your blogmates look like slackers.  We’d welcome any posting you’d care to make about the book, Ms. Carson or the research and writing process.

– Austin



Real Journalism Done Right

ImageNo matter what your feelings about WalMart, you have to give props to the New York Times for its impressive reporting on the alleged use of bribes in Mexico and the company’s efforts to sweep the investigation of the matter under the rug.  This kind of piece reminds us why we need good journalists in order to be a good democracy and it reminds us what the Times is capable of when it puts its mind to it.

Highly recommended.

– Austin

Ham(line) Handed PR

Kudos to Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin for by far the best coverage of last week’s dispute about former GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer’s bid to become a professor at Hamline University.

In last week’s coverage, Emmer was claiming he had an informal handshake agreement, though not a contractual agreement, to teach at Hamline. Emmer maintained that Hamline later reneged under pressure from liberal faculty members.

From last week’s coverage, I couldn’t tell if Emmer was exagerating the firmness of the handshake agreement he and Hamline had actually reached. But in his Sunday column, Tevlin uncovered several Emmer emails that show the claimed Emmer-Hamline handshake was bonecrunchingly firm. There are unambiguous statements from Hamline leaders in those emails, such as “Tom Emmer is going to teach it.”

Tevlin did the by far best reporting on this issue, and he also did the best opining:

I have no idea if Emmer would be a good teacher. He’s certainly not known as an intellectual or deep thinker, but a lot of colleges are convalescent homes for retired or failed Democrats, so he’s certainly not a stretch. I’m guessing he’d give a lot of students the opportunity to hone their arguments, and there’s value in that. My two best professors in political science were a socialist and the then-head of the GOP. They both made me think, and that’s what education is about. Hamline could have handled this worse, but I’m not sure how.

Hamline didn’t break a contract, but it did reveal itself to be narrow minded. They should have let Emmer teach.

– Loveland

Misinformin’ Norman

When the Deep Marine accusations against Senator Norm Coleman became public, I wrote: “I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that Texans McKim and Thomas are being reckless with the truth…(about their accusations that Coleman was having corporate gifts illegally directed to him through his wife)”

So, yesterday’s news that there would be no federal legal action taken against Coleman was not a shocker. It looks like the Texans were lying about Coleman, and I feel bad that happened to him and his wife during a delicate time in the 2008 Senate campaign. It was unfair, and that damage can’t be repaired. In a race decided by 325 votes, it may have cost him a Senate seat. That’s not right.

But before you feel too sorry for Senator Coleman, read today’s stories a little more carefully. While Coleman apparently did nothing illegal, he did tell a whopper to voters. Repeatedly.

In today’s Pioneer Press, this important point was made:

On “one or or two” occasions, (Coleman campaign donor Nasser) Kazeminy purchased dress suits for Coleman at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis before Coleman was a senator, (Kazeminy attorney Louis) Freeh affirmed under questioning from news media.

The revelation confirmed at least part of a different allegation against Coleman that dogged him through a portion of the 2008 campaign. He and his aides sought to dismiss it repeatedly –and never acknowledged it was true despite weeks of questioning. At one point, Coleman himself said, “Nobody except my wife and me buy my suits” – a statement the Pioneer Press and several other media outlets reported as a denial such purchases ever happened.”

This was very responsible reporting by the Pioneer Press’s Dave Orrick. For others, particularly those outlets that questioned Coleman’s campaign for months about the suits, it was a glaring omission.

So, the good news from the investigation: Former Senator Coleman isn’t a law breaker. The bad news: He was lying to us for months.

Both findings are relevant to Minnesotans.

Who Are Minnesota’s Most Heinous “Job Killers?”

These days Minnesota’s GOP state legislators mutter the word “jobs” several hundred times per day — sometimes with Tourette-esque usage and timing — to assure us how very, very committed to job creation they are. Similarly, any initiative Republicans oppose earns the label “job killing” _____ (fill in the blank).

The limitation both parties’ aspiring “job creaters” face is a’ $5 billion budget shortfall, which the Minnesota Constitution says must be eliminated every year. Both major options for closing the shortfall – increasing taxes and cutting assistance to families and communities – hurt the employment picture. Both approaches are job killing, but the question remains, which kills more?

Continue reading “Who Are Minnesota’s Most Heinous “Job Killers?””

To Win, Beat ‘Em Like Rented Mules.

Apparently it will take an act of God to get Martha Coakley elected in Massachusetts today. A wonky, aloof bureaucrat — albeit an effective one, for what little that matters in 21st century elections — she seems poised, like the principal in the pep rally dunk tank  — to lose, lose badly and very possibly take what little is left of health insurance reform (and Barack Obama’s first year strategy) with her.

Clearly there are other factors at play here. Coakley may be a stiff in an era that rewards telegenic sloganeering, but her demise, if it plays out the way the polls are saying it will, also demonstrates the potency/virulency of the Destroy Obama movement. After everything the, uh, “conservative opposition” has done to gut and de-tooth the early, misty-eyed dreams of health insurance reform, you’d think they’d be high-fiving their insurance lobby accomplices (insurance industry stock prices are soaring today in expectation of a final kill), popping corks and turning their attention to driving a stake through financial reform, energy reform, climate reform and all the other Obama-inspired dominoes set up and primed for collapse under the weight of a “loss” on Issue #1 (health insurance). But, no. They know they need the finality of the Martha Coakley nail, and they may well get it.

As sliced and mutilated as it is — Think:  The  Black Night in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” —  the health insurance reform bill is still a “win” as opposed to a “loss”. A “win” I say if only because nothing like it has ever gotten this far, and despite all the giveaways to UnitedHealth, etc. and every crackpot pet issue of Blue Dog Democrats who by any right should be Republicans, (and would be in any era other than the GOP’s current Tea Party/Beck/Palin foaming-dog mongrelness) it still provides coverage to a huge chunk of people who would never have any without it. So okay, a very ugly “win”.

I have ultra-progressive pals who are furious with Obama for failing to deliver on this issue and publicly hoping the whole thing crashes and burns. Their attitude being that “then we can start over and get the single-payer system we want”. You know, just like the French and the Scandinavians and the Canadians and every other first world democracy. I generally like these people. They make much better dinner guests than fact-averse Tea Baggers, but they couldn’t be more deluded.

There is no “start over” on this thing. The current congressional majority is as good as it is going to be for quite a while, and where a “win” might — might — disspirit radical conservatives to the extent that they’d think twice about ginning up the same misinformation and lunacy against financial reform and the rest (how many times can you scream “socialism”?) — a “loss” adds serious octane to the Destroy Obama machine, which has a startling volume of fuel in it already. “Start over” … dream on.

But against this we have veteran media journalist Ken Auletta’s piece in the latest New Yorker, “Story Control”, about Team Obama struggling with the new 24/7 media model. A business model hopelessly obsessed with its principal bias, which (as some of us have been saying for years), is “conflict” far … far … more than liberal bias, or even corporate status quo bias.

The takeaway from the Auletta piece is that Obama, advisor David Axelrod and even as shrewd and ruthless an operator as Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have wasted precious time (as in very limited public attention) and energy trying to contrive a “bi-partisan” spirit in an era utterly dominated by media engines producing and/or “reporting” on “conflict”.  Given the media’s appetite for conflict and for “freshening” the brawl several times a day, to keep ahead of competitors and sustain a story that holds eyeballs, a far better approach would have been to attack — to assert villainy where it was richly deserved, (UnitedHealth, Cigna, etc., lobbyists, bought-off politicians) — and regularly remind people how bad the eight years before this really were.

The media — cash-strapped to the point where it is even more of a pack animal than ever before — would have constantly looked for twists and cracks in that message, but could have been distracted by the sustained vigor of the attack on the flagrant lies of the Tea Baggers (and their funding by insurance industry pass throughs … Dick Armey).

This would of course have required Obama to abandon that lofty talk of building a new culture in D.C. and start thumping his finger on the chest of the worst of the worst … which is not exactly his style, is it? Point being though, that he and his team chose to under-estimate and under-respond to the virulence of the Destroy Obama movement, which is a stunning lapse in judgment considering health insurance reform’s attack on literally tens of billions of dollars of easy profit.

Now, here’s a shocker, I’ve been wrong before. Back in the campaign I thought Obama should have been out there beating McCain and the the Palinistas like rented mules, flogging them mercilessly for being so transparently clueless about everything from high finance to international relations.   But he calculated that crowd would destroy itself, and the country (world) was so sick of the corruption and incompetence of George W. Cheney he was on a pretty straight glide path to the White House.

But, damn it, I believe he’s missed this one. The mainstream media can not be expected to be of any help when it comes to asserting truth in highly partisan accusations, much less offer even short-term history prompts. Network TV news is all about conventional wisdom and celebrity journalism. Very few newspapers encourage provocative opinion from columnists or what little remains of their editorial pages. Papers are in no financial position to upset any potential advertiser. Therefore, the Bush administration has almost completely disappeared from what perspective is ever offered by our (formerly) major news institutions.

The clock was re-set on Jan. 20, 2009, and by mid-summer the Wall St. collapse and the recession was Obama’s problem and doing. Rather than regularly remind the public, with an artful plunge of the dagger into the heart of the Bush (and Clinton)-era SEC or the prominent Republicans sopping up campaign cash from UnitedHealth and the like, and how all that coagulated into a constant drag on the economy (through insurance costs), Team Obama instead worked the (boring,.mostly conflict–avoiding) high road. And while they were up there, appealing to everyone’s better angels, the press engines and blogosphere were down in the fiery pits, reacting to and feeding-off the lunatic fury of the far right.

Obama is a smart guy. He’ll need to be if a Coakley loss takes health insurance reform down with her. He might start his retaliation with an interview with Bill O’Reilly, where he walks Bill’s bitter crowd through exactly how their lives are worse off every time they deliver their “conflict” mass to fights that sustain the vast wealth and influence of individuals and corporations that don’t give two craps about them other than as revenue troughs.

And if O’Reilly squawked? Beat him like mule. It’d get roadblock coverage for days.small business finance nice

… and We’re Back.

Well, that took longer than I planned.

Back last June, when “Lambert to the Slaughter” was suspended, due to a completely forseeable drying up of funds on the part of my patron at the time, I had a fraction of a notion of an idle dream of a plan to resume blogging in a different venue within no more than a month or two. Well … and here’s a shocker … there is a lot of bullshit out there and despite the Herculean efforts of others on my behalf, nothing at all came of those dreams.

But somewhere late this past fall I was reading The Same Rowdy Crowd, with its collection of communications pros, ex-newspaper wretches and a faculty type or two. “You know,” I thought, “if I could figure a way to mix in with these adults, these serious people, I wouldn’t look like the unevolved adolescent I actually am.” To my amazement, when I approached Jon Austin, the Master of Disaster, (he’s Mr. Crisis Communications since his days with Northwest, formerly the airline with a heart), he said something on the order of, “Bleep, yeah … but I gotta ask the others before I can say for sure.” In short; he did, they didn’t rebel and here we are today, launching “Lambert to the Slaughter”, Phase III. (I’ll be negotiating for a self-serving, diva-like logo to sit atop my posts in this ensemble. But I’m guessing money will have to change hands before that happens.)

Anyway, for those who mercifully avoided “LTTS” in its two earlier incarnations, the stepping off point is usually media, with a lot of how various characters misuse and abuse the credulity of commercialized journalism, which is another way of saying I miss Karl Rove and Dick Cheney like a necromancer misses the Black Plague … damn, they were SO good for business.

A frequent complaint was that my posts were “too long”. This usually came from the crowd that needs three sittings to get through Perez Hilton. I yam what I yam. But I’ll try to be less windy. Really.

So a couple quick thoughts on somewhat related topics.

A: Deb Howell. She has been mentioned already here on “The Crowd”, with links to old buddy David Carr’s New York Times piece. I have to say something because Howell hired me at the Pioneer Press in 1989. (One of memorable lines in the interview was her saying to me, “You’re a friend of David Carr’s, right?” At which point I thought, “Fugginhell, I’ve already blown it!” Carr was pretty deep in the throes of his drug battle at the time, but still popping up around town doing free-lance work. If you caught him while he was clean, he turned in terrific shit. If not … well, that’s what you paid editors to clean up.  Howell had just had a run in with Carr. Something about him mangling her title, if I remember right. So she looks at me in that, “you can deliver a message from me” kind of way, and says, “I’d never touch him with a fuckin’ ten foot pole.”) Sorry for the coarseness, but  that was Deb Howell, and “cleaning her up” loses way too much of the flavor.

I later wondered how often she reevaluated her take on Carr, because Howell, although every bit a major media management cog, had an affinity for characters, and very much unlike so many of the newsroom managers of later years and today, she not only tolerated their egos and eccentricities, she encouraged an environment that allowed them to flourish. There’s very little of that going on anymore. Today, “compliance” is a newsroom virtue held in far higher regard than, “unique voice”.

I also remember her looking at my, um, “eclectic” resume. Milk truck driver, garden seed salesman (south Bronx, Manhattan, rural Texas, Ohio), vagabond hippie, grapefruit tree planter and cow barn hand on an Israeli kibbutz, yadda yadda. Not a damned SPJ award to be seen.

She looked up, “I like people who’ve done a lot of strange and different things.”

But then the acid test. I was applying to be the paper’s TV columnist. “Do you really like television?” she asked. My first inclination was to lie like a bastard.  Something on the order of, “Oh golly gosh do I ever! I’ve seen every episode of  ‘The Brady Bunch’ and I can sing the theme song if you’d like!” Instead, I heard myself say, “You know, I’m actually kind of a snob. I think most of it is crap, and I don’t watch much at all.”

Howell laughed. “Good. I’m glad to hear that. It is crap. But we’ve got to cover it.”

So we’ll miss a gal like that.

B.  I was reminded of her again this morning reading Doug Tice’s column on Teflon Tim Pawlenty preparing to survive a court challenge to his “unallotment” dictums. I worked for Doug at the Twin Cities Reader, and I believe he worked for, or with, Howell at the PiPress.  I’ve made a point in previous “Slaughter” venues of saying how much I admire Doug as a writer and as a conservative thinker. In the age of Glenn Beck any conservative who, you know, reads and informs his opinions with facts needs to treated like a fragile vase, kept away from cloddish hands and shown due respect. I’ve said several times that Anders Gyllenhaal’s choice of Katherine Kersten as a sop to both gender balance and Power Line conservatives made very little sense — journalistically — with such a genuinely good writer as Tice already on his staff.

No one will ever confuse Doug with a gun-slinging loose cannon. He’s methodical and meticulous where others — you’re reading one — gleefully go for the easy plunge of the dagger and cheap laugh.

The anemic performance of (what little remains) of the Op-Ed departments of both papers is a pet fascination of mine.  Criticizing the relentless, toothless sappiness of these two mainstays of journalistic probity may be like pulling the wings off flies, but it is a service I enjoy providing.

So I’m tracking with Tice as he revisits Pawlenty’s prior narrow escapes, and as he offers coherent descriptions of the opposing legal arguments, and I’m generally enjoying the way, you know, one thought follows another and the way so little of this sounds like a Cliff’s Notes version of Hugh Hewitt. Until …

… until he gets to his summation, which includes not just the usual, way-too customary Star Tribune “let’s all have a hug” concluding graph, but this business right before it.

Writes Tice, ” Those of us who have covered many legislative sessions have lost countless hours of our lives watching all factions use every power and privilege and parliamentary technicality at their disposal to manipulate, intimidate, obstruct and sabotage their opposition. Unattractive as this ruthless use of power can be, politicians do it in the end in pursuit of the policies they think best for Minnesota. Pawlenty thinks tax increases would be bad for the state; DFLers disagree. That’s what this is about.”

Really? Now, knowing Doug I don’t really expect him to suggest/reiterate the accepted wisdom on Tim Pawlenty and how rarely the state’s best interests are served before  his own. But when Tice — Tice — resorts to this kind of bland, false equivalency — each side applying skullduggery and trickery in equally honest defense of what “the people” need most — I’m only reminded of how little stomach the once influential Star Tribune has for taking the kind of provocative positions that Deb Howell saw as vital to a healthy, relevant newspaper.

Anyway. It’s good to be back.e-marketing nice

Deborah Howell, a Passion for Life and Journalism

Just heard, through Norm Larson’s facebook page, that Deborah Howell was killed Jan. 2 in an accident in New Zealand.

Deborah was one of the first women to a be a major editor at several newspapers, including the St. Paul Pioneer Press and The Minneapolis Star. I had the pleasure of working for Howell, and of being barked at — “Benidt move that goddam copy NOW” — and being splattered with her maniacal laughter all at the same time, all while her eyes gobbled up everything on the screen before her and her fingers danced over the keyboard.

Howell was city editor, I think, at the old Minneapolis Star when I arrived. With Dave Nimmer and wonderful characters like Zeke Wigglesworth and Tom Helgeson, Howell led our Star to beat the dull tight-assed Tribune down the hall as often as we beat the papers across the river. She loved the competition to get a good story, and she loved the telling of good stories. When she’d praise one of my stories — she never overdid it — as a good yarn, I was in heaven. (And the maddening joy of daily journalism is, after you’ve had a piece on the front page, the next words you’d hear from Howell were, “OK, Benidt, what have you got for us today?” Nothing lasts.)

Deb was married to Nick Coleman, the DFL majority leader in the Minnesota Senate — a politician back when that word was a positive in Minnesota. Nick died a lingering death, and that was when all of us in the newsroom saw, as I think Nimmer said it, the definition of grace under pressure as Deb dealt with the loss.

Howell loved newspapering, and held major jobs at The Washington Post and Newhouse newspapers after leaving the Twin Cities. I’ll always remember her zesty crazy laugh, her grin, her wicked wicked sense of humor and the way she made the daily chaos of a metro newspaper flow with as much joy as adrenaline.

In the old Atex computer system at the Star, there was something called the IPL — the interprocessing link — that would get jammed and keep stories from flowing. It drove her nuts, but gave her a metaphor she loved. When she couldn’t come up with a word or a name, she’d shake her tight-curled head, grin and say, “My IPL is backed up!”

Howell believed deeply in the value of journalism in a free society. She believed passionately that somebody had to hold the bastards accountable. She helped me, with her brutally honest “delete” key, cut out the purple prose and make writing simple and clear. She made me proud to be a journalist. And she made the enterprise of daily reporting feel significant and fun. Bless you, Deborah — and thanks.


— Bruce Benidt
(Photo from University of Texas at Austin)government loans nice

Rocket Man

Sack Cartoons Pawlenty rocket man-1Here’s to the Star Tribune’s incomparable editorial cartoon genius Steve Sack.

And i think it’s gonna be a long long time,
Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think i am at home.
Oh no no no, I’m a rocket man!
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.
And i think it’s gonna be a long long time…

– Elton John (channeling Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty)
“Rocket Man”

Walter Cronkite

walterThe passing of Walter Cronkite today probably doesn’t mean much to the under 50 cohort, but for us elders, it’s an important milestone.  Uncle Walter was the last of the great network anchors, an icon of an era when our news choices were so limited that one man’s personality and news judgment could set the national agenda.  When – after watching Cronkite’s report on the Tet offensive – Lyndon Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,” he wasn’t exaggerating; he announced he wouldn’t stand for re-election a few days later.

Walter was – like many of us who grew up watching him – was a space geek and an unabashed booster of America’s space program.  His death coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.  Part of my memories of watching Neil Armstrong step down onto the lunar surface was listening to this consummate journalist get a little choked up as he covered the event.

And that’s the way it was.

– Austin

You Go, Helen Thomas!

Thank God for Helen Thomas.

While many in the White House press corps have become so enchanted with the Obama administration they’re willing to forget the skeptical (if not adversarial) relationship that’s supposed to exist between a free press the government, Helen has not.

Here she is taking on Robert Gibbs..chewing him up and making him look like a doofus. She’s calling him out for the new requirement that WH journos submit e-mail questions in advance of news conferences; reporters who are “chosen” are called the night before by the White House with the stunning news that they’ll be called upon the next day.

This is pathetic. I don’t think it’s the KoolAid people thought they had swallowed.

The Times And the News Biz Are A’Changing

My niece Ally and I got to sit in on the page one news huddle at The New York Times Monday and we saw what’s at stake as newspapers around the world try to figure out how to stay alive when there’s so much free information, including their own, on the web. What’s struggling to stay above water is the wide and deep view of the world’s disparate pieces and how they fit together.

The editors mulled over stories that ranged from consumers downsizing extravagance in the recession to Congress trimming President Obama’s budget priorities, from wrestling with terrorism in Afghanistan to a New York school separating boys and girls to see if that improves learning, from TV shows incorporating the economic meltdown into their scripts to political assassination in Africa. As newsrooms shrink and advertising slips and eyeballs migrate from newsprint to computer screens, how can news organizations continue to provide the broad scope of information that we need to be smart citizens and consumers and family members? Nobody has the answer yet, but I sure don’t want to see the NY Times or our local papers die and leave everything to the bloggers and the specialized websites and publications.

Our guide at the Times Monday was David Carr, former Twin Cities journalist who covers media and culture (media full-time now) for the paper (David is shown here giving my dear niece Ally Prigge the same kind of sage adult guidance he’s given his own three daughters). ny-ally-david-carr-copyCarr is a lively and irreverent thinker and writer, and he’d written a provocative piece for Monday’s paper about how newspapers can stay alive, including charging for web content, charging aggregators (yikes, maybe TSRC would have to pay for putting up this link) and letting newspaper publishers collude in back rooms to find ways to keep at least one paper operating in a place like the Twin Cities. There was a lot of chatter about Carr’s story, in which he’d bitten some nearby hands by calling newspaper publishers, in the best of times, “not a risk-taking bunch.”

If the broad-ranging “school of democracy” kind of daily journalism is to survive in some form, publishers and journalists are going to have to become mighty creative mighty fast. Old ways, and many new ways, of putting out and paying for news are going to have to be torn down and room made for economic and journalistic inventors who’ve been tinkering in their garages and dreaming “that would never work” dreams. Everybody needs to be involved in saving strong daily journalism — journalists, owners, journalist-owners, readers, community leaders, activists, think tankers, academics, truck drivers, everyone. The stakes are high — an informed society, democracy, good cartoons. Carr’s media beat is either going to become an ongoing archetypal story of death and rebirth or just one long series of dirges.

Ally and I won our guided tour of the Times last fall at a silent auction for the ThreeSixty journalism program. ThreeSixty is a great approach that, with the help of the University of St. Thomas and a bunch of Minnesota professional journalists, helps kids, particularly minority kids, do journalism. These young journalists are already doing stories in multi-media formats, so they’re ready for the world as it is — I just hope somebody will figure out how to pay them to be professional journalists. It’s probably up to them, to become the media they want to work for. Go nuts, kids. We’re pulling for you. And thanks for the tour, David.

–Bruce Benidt

Election System Enema

ballotBy national standards, Minnesota has a very good election system. And for all our griping about the U.S. Senate recount, this recount will serve to make our elections even better.

First, over the years well-meaning but misinformed election judges apparently have been rejecting legal absentee ballots, inadvertantly disenfranchising thousands of Minnesotans in the process. We learned this when the recount uncovered over 1,600 absentee ballots that were rejected for no valid legal reason. The recount is serving as an seminar for election judges on this issue. Also, I would imagine absentee ballots will be redesigned by policymakers to make them easier to fill out correctly.

Second, we’re identifying technological weak links, such as the outdated Eagle scanning equipment in St. Louis County, which, the recount revealed, had been error prone. The embarrassing publicity around that should lead to those machines being replaced.

Third, we’re clarifying standards for ruling on ambiguous ballots. The work the State Canvassing Board and the State Supreme Court will be doing in the coming days clarifying standards will be instructive to election judges statewide, and make future counts more accurate. It also will give us an improved roadmap for the next statewide recount.

Finally, we’re identifying dumb laws. For instance, based on an outstanding AP analysis released yesterday it looks like a significant number of ballots will be rejected because voters made an identifying mark on them, such as an initial or signature. That law apparently has roots from the days when party bosses were selling votes, and were using signed ballots as a proof-of-purchase.

These voters are being disenfranchised, and I’d be surprised if a single one is involved in a vote scanning scheme. If they are, the identifying mark would seem to make it easier to catch the scoundrels. I imagine many made their mark out of some sense of ballot security, to ensure their ballot was not lost or destroyed. Others may have been simply doodling. Others perhaps assumed that they should sign this official document, just as they sign almost every other official document they encounter.

But I suppose there is an outside chance that someone is running a vote-selling scheme. So if there are an unusual number of signed ballots in a particular jurisdiction, election judges should still have the ability to call for an investigation to see if there is a vote auction happening. But voters should have a presumption of innocence.

Before the next election, one of the best election systems in the nation will have significantly better technology, standards and laws. Call it an election system enema, something that only happens when we stumble through a historically close recount where every vote REALLY matters. It’s been an unpleasant procedure, but here’s hoping it is, ultimately, a cleansing one.

– Loveland

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You Be the Judge…

ballot-challengeKudos to the Star Tribune for giving us regular folks a peek at what a ballot challenge looks like. They have scanned all 2,633 challenged ballots and presented them in an easy-to-use, “You Make the Call” format. I reviewed 42 ballots and gave 18 to each Franken and Coleman and put six others aside as either ineligible, indeterminable or voting for another candidate.

– Austin multi level marketing nice

Jay Weiner of MinnPost Goes Deep on the Recount

I am loathe to put a post on top of Ellen’s, just below, which has something that looks like the NBC peacock on acid.

But I’ve got to point out a great piece of journalism from MinnPost — Jay Weiner, one of the best writers in town, writing about covering the recount. Weiner’s a sports guy, but I’ve watched him cover the Twin Cities’ Olympic bid and saw a solid reporter who can dig through boxes of material as avidly as a dumpster diver going after pizza shards and who can hold his own with anyone writing about anything in Minnesota.

So Jay, calling himself  “a 54-year-old political campaign virgin. Love hurts,” wanders down the yellow-brick road of the recount.  “I am a passenger on The Forked Tongue Express. It’s a grimy ride,” he writes. He describes dueling press conferences, where strategists try to get the edge by steering coverage: “I quickly got the drift. We were fish. Barr was an angler with tasty, quotable bait, and we were to bite.”

Read it. It’s long, but it goes down smooth and fast and funny. Irreverent and insightful — what more can you ask for? You could ask for honest and transparent — and Jay nails that, telling the reader where he’s coming from, what his history with Coleman is, for example. Right on. If MinnPost did more of this, it would be a must-read.

Way to go, Jay. And the editors (probably Roger) who were smart enough to put him on the story.

–Bruce Benidt business expense spreadsheet nice

Long Live Free Speech

My friend Tom Kelly is in the thick of the riots in Belgrade over the declared independence of Kosovo. Tom is a local PR flack who is serving his nation and mankind by teaching democracy to recovering Communists in Serbia, via the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded (USAID) National Democratic Institute (NDI). Today, Tom emailed me this headline from his local paper.      


The Serbians seem to be getting the hang of this whole free speech thing.

– Loveland   event marketing kind