The Haberdasher, the General and the Imposter

Harry Truman, commenting about General Dwight Eisenhower succeeding him in the Oval Office, said, “He’s going to sit at this desk and say ‘Do this’ and ‘Do that’ — and nothing’s going to happen.”

As a general, Ike could order people to do things and they’d do them. As president, not so much.

Truman would be amused, but not surprised, watching Donald Trump struggle in the office the haberdasher once occupied. As a businessman, Trump could give orders to his minions and the orders would be followed. Dealing with people now who aren’t on his payroll and who aren’t afraid of him, he’s flopping around, mouth gaping, like a fish tossed on shore.

Giving Orders - WWI

It’s one more piece of evidence that the notion of running the government like a business is so very wrong. It’s wrong because it doesn’t work, and it’s wrong because, philosophically, it’s way off base. Business exists — especially in the grubby hands of bandits like Trump — for private enrichment. The government exists to advance and protect the common good.

It’s very clear that Trump and his family and his henchmen are blurring the line between running the government to serve others and running it to serve themselves. The ethical conflicts of interest Trump and his family have are so numerous and so glaring that there’s hardly a decision the president can make that doesn’t have a financial impact on him and his family. From pipelines to banks to hotels, Trump is using our tax money and mortgaging our national security to fill his Scrooge McDuck money bins. I think he can’t see any difference between his private pelf and the public good. That moral vacancy is frightening.

Business works to increase efficiency to grow shareholder value. And who are the largest shareholders? The white guys who run the company. The impact of business decisions that increase share prices or increase the sales and value of private companies is often damage to the community and the company’s employees. Government decisions have to take into consideration the impact on the public, on the economy, on the nation’s resources and the environment for decades and centuries to come, and on the nation’s security, values and reputation.

Whether it’s a toll road or a privately-built and -run prison or a school or retirement savings, the model of increasing shareholder value just does not cover all the bases. Even without Trump owning stock in two companies involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline, his coziness with big banks and big energy companies makes his approval of the pipeline  at the least raise questions about his motives — serve the public, protect the environment or backscratch his cronies? A spokesminion claims Trump has sold his stock in the pipeline partners — but with his history of lying and his refusal to release his tax returns, who can know?

Government is not a business. It has very different aims and responsibilities than a business has. Its moral purposes are completely different.

It’s actually refreshing to see Trump fail using his corporate pirate tricks. As a business bully he could get away with not knowing the details of the projects he was hustling. Underlings could marshall the facts and figures while figurehead Donald handled the bluster and the bullshit. When he didn’t know much of anything about the healthcare bill he was pushing, House members were shocked, and mocked him.

Trump said over and over during the campaign that he would make great deals. Snarking about President Obama playing golf, Trump said he would probably never play golf (!!!) as president because he’d just want to stay in the White House and make deals. But a president’s deal-making ability has to be in service of something, as LBJ’s was with Medicaid and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Trump just likes to make deals, and then skips town before his victims can heat up the tar and pluck the feathers. And deal-making is only part of what a president does. Other qualities — leadership, inspiration, fairness, judgment, steadiness in crises, compassion, empathy, vision, diplomacy — are just as important. And absent in the current Oval Office pretender.

Harry Truman must have been smiling wryly if he paid attention, from wherever dead presidents reside, as Trump’s odious consigliere, Steve Bannon, tried to carry The Boss’s orders to vote for the Frankenstein health care bill to the Freedom Caucus in the House. Bannon tried the strong arm, telling them “Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” Might have worked for LBJ, a master of carrots, sticks, pork and human nature. Didn’t work for the windbag who told us we’d be tired of winning by this time. One Freedom Caucus member — bless his pointed little head — replied to Bannon: “You know, the last time someone ordered me to do something, I was 18 years old. And it was my daddy. And I didn’t listen to him, either.”

My friend Dave Kuhn, a fellow recovering journalist, taught me so much about helping senior executives deal effectively with the media. People from the military and business don’t like the press, Dave said, because it’s one of the few things they can’t control. So they’re not very good at handling the challenges journalists throw at them or at letting criticism slide off their backs.

Trump’s efforts at strong-arming the media aren’t any more successful than his orders to the House members of his own party have been. And thank god for that.

— Bruce Benidt

So You’re Sean Spicer …

It’s easy to lampoon Sean Spicer, Donald Trump’s press secretary. He does it himself every day.

But what would you do?

Your boss tells you that you need to go out and spank the media, be tough like he is, and tell them that the crowd at your inauguration was the biggest ever. Period. It’s your first day on the job. It’s a job you really like and want to keep. So you give the president your advice, that saying this about the crowd will make all of you look foolish. The president asks you “Whose side are you on?” If you won’t go out there and straighten the press out he’ll find someone who will. Trump’s decision is made, and you have your marching orders.

So what do you do? Easy to say, those of us who don’t have such cool apex-predator jobs, that we’d resign rather than say something we know is not true. But would we? Would you? You make your case, you lose, the boss tells you what to do. He’s the boss.

What about something not so black and white. The message to be delivered today as the House tinkers with the Trumpcare bill is that, by removing the requirements in Obamacare that 10 essential benefits be covered, consumers will have more choice and their coverage will cost less. The essential benefits are things like prenatal care, mental health and substance abuse care, therapy and devices to help recovery after injuries or for chronic conditions, prescription drug coverage and six more. An older man, say, could chose a plan that doesn’t cover prenatal care. Sounds good, right?

But by letting people pick and choose, costs will go up for the people who do need things like prenatal care. And, if the costs get too high and a mother doesn’t get prenatal care, guess who pays for the ensuing problems her child has once born? Everybody pays, especially when care is sought through emergency rooms by people who can’t afford the coverage after it’s been cherry-picked.

So, what you’re telling people — that choice is good for everybody — simply isn’t true. At least that’s a reasonable argument. But your job is not to present both sides of a case. It’s to support the case you’re advocating for. If you’re selling soda-pop, it’s not your job to point out that a 12-ounce can of soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar in it. But it’s probably also not your job to say that soda-pop is healthy.

Spicer today eagerly and strongly asserted that doing away with the requirement that health plans cover these 10 essential services is better for health-care consumers. If you were told to say that, what would you do?

My easy answer #2 is that I wouldn’t work for someone in the first place who has shown his entire career that he sides with the rich and doesn’t give a damn about the little guy, whom he has consistently stiffed. I wouldn’t work for someone in the first place whose values are based on selfishness — I’ve got mine and you’re on your own to get yours, even when mine is crowding out yours.

But Spicer wanted this job. He’s not just some guy who came out of Trump University with a bubble-gum-card diploma. He has a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College. He’s worked in communication for Congress and for the Republican Party. He’s not a rube or a dupe. I don’t think.

So … the president tells you to go out and say, for example, that Paul Manafort played “a limited role for a very limited time” in the Trump campaign. That’s nonsense, of course, for a man who was campaign chairman.

What do you do? Chime in here, let us know your thoughts.

— Bruce Benidt

Melissa-McCarthy-Spicer-650x330

 

 

What Now? Can We Find Peace Amid Rising Waters, Rising Gorge?

God willing and the creek don’t rise…  I wrote earlier this week about the likely election of Hillary Clinton.

The creek rose. And now so will the seas. And now what do those of us, more than half the country, who think Trump is horrendous do to find some equilibrium? Anger shock and griping isn’t a healthy plan for living.

Donald Trump’s first act as president elect will ensure that his son Baron and Baron’s children will live in a world of horror. You think there are refugee problems now, Mr. Trump? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Wait until your know-nothing policy on global warming has its effects and tens of millions of poor people who don’t look like your voters flee the rising seas. Trump named Myron Ebel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute to head his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. The fox has entered the henhouse. “Mr. Ebel has asserted that whatever warming caused by greenhouse gas pollution is modest and could be beneficial,” The New York Times writes today. Bye Bye Paris climate accord. Bye Bye livable earth.

Every day there will be another outrage like this. But these won’t be like Trump’s campaign outrages. Those could have still been addressed by the voters. Too late now. Too many of these new daily outrages will become policy.

Can I stand to be outraged every day? Angry? Depressed? Clinton in her concession speech said we owe the president elect an open mind. I’ll try. I’ll have to or I’ll go crazy. Or I’ll have to go up in the hills and live alone and become a helmet, as Maynard G. Krebs said.

Perhaps this man will grow in the office. He seems not to have fixed convictions, and he’s certainly not an orthodox Republican. So I suspect he’ll sometimes pleasantly surprise us. He may push for government-supported work repairing infrastructure that was the first thing the Republicans blocked President Obama from doing eight years ago. Clips and pictures of him meeting with Obama yesterday showed Trump looking as if he’s realized what deep water he’s in. That, or he was already bored.

I can’t live in anger for four years. People who thought Obama was an abomination and that his policies were ruining the country felt every day for eight years what I’ll feel now for four. Their representatives in Congress did little but bitch and say no. That wasn’t very satisfying or useful. I don’t want to do that.

So I’ll watch and read less news. Try not to wallow in the daily transgressions. Read more books. Write more books. Watch more movies. Talk with Lisa more instead of sitting next to each other watching MSNBC. Bowl. Do something. Actively try to stop some of the worst things Trump and his backers will do. Are already doing. But I can’t be sad or angry every day or the cats will hide under the bed and Lisa will make me live on the screen porch where my black cloud won’t foul the air.

Half the country is crawling out of their cellars these last three days and looking around at what the tornado rearranged. It’s an apt cliche to say we’re in shock. Moving slow. Staring off in the distance. Wishing it weren’t so.

The dark parts of me want to say to Trump voters, “You picked him, you got him, don’t come to us when you realize he’s screwing you.” And the nasty parts of me want to say to Democratic primary voters, “You picked her, a terrible candidate, and look where that got us.” The late great Molly Ivins wrote a book about George W. Bush’s years as governor of Texas to show voters what Bush would be like as president. And he was (sort of) elected anyway and he acted just like Ivins warned he would. She wrote a second book before Bush’s reelection and said in the introduction “If y’all hadda read my first book I wouldn’t have had to write the second one.” If we’d paid attention to Carl Bernstein’s study of Hillary Clinton’s actions and character “A Woman in Charge” we would have put up someone this year who wasn’t so reviled and could have won.

But that didn’t happen. And I have to stop moaning about it all. For my own peace, and so people and small animals don’t flee from me on sight. Pick a few important causes to back and then back away from the daily deluge. Find quiet corners.

We survived eight years of Reagan (the poor didn’t survive very well as income disparity started to skyrocket under this earlier actor who played a president). We survived eight years under Bush (the soldiers and civilians killed and maimed in Bush’s endless wars didn’t survive very well under this earlier front man who didn’t know much). We can probably survive four years of Trump. But the planet and our progeny?

Get thee to a hammock, Bruce. Squeeze a cat pet a dog love the kids. Turn down the temp inside yourself. And send Elizabeth Warren flowers.

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— Bruce Benidt

 

“I Voted.” Small sticker, precious step

Today I’m as powerful as Sheldon Adelson, Sean Hannity, Paul Ryan, John Roberts, David Axelrod or Elizabeth Warren.

My vote counts as much as each of theirs. And as I cast my vote today my heart lifted. I could feel it. For too many months I’ve been worrying and griping and moaning and arguing and living in fear of the unthinkable. An hour ago I took action. I feel empowered.

img_5163Our country has flaws. Disparity of rich and poor. Gross overconsumption of the planet’s resources. Poor education and a paucity of hope for too many. A system designed by those who already have the most to assure they get more. And our election system is far from perfect. Voter suppression. Hanging chads. Too much influence by the wealthiest. Gerrymandered districts that permit little challenge to incumbents.

But I just cast a vote that counts the same as Barack Obama’s. And it will be counted. The regular citizens who handed me the ballot and watched me slide it in the machine are the volunteer custodians of the dream the founders dreamed. My Uncle Bob died in World War II to protect the vote I cast today. John Lewis had his skull cracked to preserve the right of all of us to not just speak up about where we’re going as a country but to put our hands on the wheel.

There was a man standing at the corner of the street that leads to our local government center where Lisa and I voted. He was showing the world a life-size picture of Hillary Clinton behind bars. I firmly believe he’ll be disappointed a week from today. And as we drove past him I felt less of the despair I’ve been feeling for months, despair that the candidate he supports might actually, how could this possibly be true, win the election. I felt less depressed because I had just taken action. I had voted. To turn away that man’s vision and to bring my own closer to the light.

In a world full of despots I stood up and said to the preposterous, self-absorbed, ignorant, immature poseur who would be president: “I banish thee. Slink back under the foul rock you crawled out from. Begone.” Little old me, a guy of scant power, wealth or influence. But a guy with a vote.

In the car, Lisa and I did a Barack-Michelle fist bump. Is this a great country or what?

— Bruce Benidt

Hillary — Meet the Press, Dammit

Let’s just say it out loud: Hillary Clinton is wrong, selfish, stupid and irresponsible to not hold regular press conferences. Or at least one for goodness sake.

She is either a coward, or her ambition has crowded out her soul and what shreds of ethics she may still keep in a jar by the door.

If you read Carl Bernstein’s book A Woman in Charge, you’ll take this great journalist’s view that her ambition leads her to do whatever it takes to get to where she wants to go. Whatever it takes.

Including spurning much of the media. She hasn’t had a news conference in almost nine months. Yes she does some interviews one-on-one. Yes she calls in to some chosen news shows. Yes she sat down with Chris Wallace of Fox, one of the best, most fair and toughest interviewers out there. And she stuck her foot in her mouth.

But this is part of how you let America see you. You meet the press. This is part of what we voters deserve. To see how you handle tough inquiries from reporters in an uncontrollable scrum. Unruly? Sure. Unpredictable? Yes, thank god. And an important part of democracy. The media is not part of your marketing department, Madame Secretary. I’ve worked with a few public relations clients who felt that way. It’s wrong. It’s cynical.

Listening to Clinton answer journalists like Anderson Cooper’s questions on why she doesn’t hold a press conference is excruciating. If Clinton listens to herself she must shiver like someone tasting spoiled milk, or like John McCain every night when he realizes he’s gone another day without retracting his endorsement of Donald Trump. “Well Anderson I talk to lots of reporters, as I am right now with you, and I have done hundreds of interviews and…” blah blah blah. Answer the question. Answer them all.

Are you a less-skilled communicator than Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s VP nominee, who in 1984 took questions from 200 reporters for nearly two hours about shady financial dealings she and her husband were accused of? She stood there and took everything they could throw at her. And here’s Ragan’s PR Daily’s assessment of the outcome, from a 2011 piece on Ferraro’s death:

It helped reverse the narrative that she was not transparent;

It turned her into a more sympathetic figure;

It offered Ferraro a vital opportunity to show her mettle as a female candidate who could endure the intensity of the media’s scrutiny.

Don’t you have Ferraro’s guts, don’t you have what it takes, Madame Secretary? Is that why you’re hiding?

I’m a former daily newspaper reporter and a former college journalism teacher and I believe deeply in the role of the free press in helping us make crucial civic decisions. Those who avoid the press, who seek only to manipulate it and use it for their own ends, are putting their own interests before the best interests of the country. It’s wrong. It’s pathetic. Stop hiding, Hillary. Let us see how you handle tough times. Yes, we’ve seen you stand up to tough questioning before, as with the House Benghazi committee. Get out there again. Regularly.

Your failure to meet the press undermines any criticism you rightly make about Donald Trump’s despicable and willful refusal to release his tax returns. His failure is greater, but it’s on the same scale of cowardly hiding of what the public has a right and duty to know and understand.

Some people in your campaign are saying you’re playing a “run down the clock” campaign now, lying low to not blow your lead. If you are doing that, you risk my vote. I’m very liberal, I agree with you on most policy positions, but your actions are showing deep character flaws. I hope you thank god every night that the idiot Republicans have put up a barbarian to run against you. An actual human being would defeat you. And you’d deserve it.

— Bruce Benidt

The Incoherency of Donald Trump

NATOThe foreign policy world is abuzz today about the latest pronouncement from Donald Trump that casts doubt on his willingness to fulfill our NATO treaty commitments.

The policies Trump puts forward are wildly outside the mainstream of any Republican or Democratic administration in the last 60 years, but what really caught my eye in the transcript of the interview – which was put out because the campaign is now claiming Trump was misquoted – is the basic incoherence of his words. At almost every point, the words Donald Trump speaks literally make no sense.

To wit (emphasis added):

“If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich. Then if we cannot make a deal, which I believe we will be able to, and which I would prefer being able to, but if we cannot make a deal, I would like you to say, I would prefer being able to, some people, the one thing they took out of your last story, you know, some people, the fools and the haters, they said, “Oh, Trump doesn’t want to protect you.” I would prefer that we be able to continue, but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth — you have the tape going on?”

“In the meantime, what have we done? So we’ve kept peace, but in the meantime we’ve let North Korea get stronger and stronger and more nuclear and more nuclear, and you are really saying, “Well, how is that a good thing?” You understand? North Korea now is almost like a boiler. You say we’ve had peace, but that part of Korea, North Korea, is getting more and more crazy. And more and more nuclear. And they are testing missiles all the time.

“And we’ve got our soldiers sitting there watching missiles go up. And you say to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Now we’re protecting Japan because Japan is a natural location for North Korea. So we are protecting them, and you say to yourself, ‘Well, what are we getting out of this?'”

Just so you understand though, totally on the record, this is not 40 years ago. We are not the same country and the world is not the same world. Our country owes right now $19 trillion, going to $21 trillion very quickly because of the omnibus budget that was passed, which is incredible. We don’t have the luxury of doing what we used to do; we don’t have the luxury, and it is a luxury. We need other people to reimburse us much more substantially than they are giving right now because we are only paying for a fraction of the cost.

By the way, and I know what I’m talking about is massive. If we ever felt there was a reason to defend the United States, we can always deploy, and it would be a lot less expense.

“I don’t think so, but I do give great credit to him for turning it around. You know, the first hour, it seemed like it was over. Then all of a sudden, and the amazing thing is the one that won that was the people. They came out on the streets, and the army types didn’t want to drive over them like they did in Tiananmen Square when they sort of drived them over, and that was the end of that.”

“Meetings. If I ever have the opportunity to do it, meaning if I win, we will have meetings, we will have meetings very early on.”

David, I have statisticians, and I know, like if I went to Pennsylvania, I say, “Give me the statistics on what is going on with respect to manufacturing.” Numbers — 45, 55, 65, I have states that are so bad. New England. Look at New England, what happened.

Cyber is absolutely a thing of the future and the present. Look, we’re under cyberattack, forget about them. And we don’t even know where it’s coming from.

Because we’re obsolete. Right now, Russia and China in particular and other places.

Yes. I am a fan of the future, and cyber is the future.

We have nuclear that we don’t even know if it works. We have nuclear where the telephone systems are 40 years old and they have wire that’s so corroded that they can’t call from one station to the next.”

And I hope you say that I do know my subject. And I do know it. I know it better than, I know it better than the people that do it for ——

It’s possible to puzzle out of these comments what the reader THINKS Mr. Trump is saying but the reality of the words he speaks are incoherent and nonsensical. He does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. No one should level up his words. He deserves to be judged on the basis of what he actually says and the way he says it.

– Austin

 

How Trump is Making America Great

It sets my hair on fire that journalists treat Donald Trump like he’s remotely qualified to serve as president of the United States. By casting this election as simply a more extreme or unusual of politics as usual, they make Mr. Trump appear more acceptable and mainstream. He’s neither.

Consider, for example, this lead from The Atlantic:

On Wednesday, Donald Trump gave, by his standards, a restrained and subtle speech.

True, the Republican candidate referred to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as “a world-class liar,” “maybe the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency,” and someone whose “decisions spread death, destruction, and terrorism everywhere.” And yes, the speech was full of lies and half-truths. Yet Wednesday’s speech, delivered at an upscale hotel the candidate owns in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, was nonetheless the most focused and cohesive address he has yet given, one that laid out a cogent populist argument without resorting to overt racism or long insult-comedy riffs.

This is how “normalizing” happens. This is how we become desensitized to the awfulness of Mr. Trump’s candidacy. By giving him credit for occasionally not making racist, misogynistic, violence-inciting comments. By being quick to give credit to him for a speech that is – in parts – coherent (which are clearly written by someone else and spoken by Mr. Trump who gives this speechwriter every impression that he’s reading the words for the first time).

Mr. Trump should not be given any credit for “pivoting,” “rebooting” “moderating” or “being disciplined.” All he’s doing is pretending to be something other than he is: a shallow, ignorant, incurious, emotionally immature narcissist who is less qualified to be president than the average person on the street. (I’m not kidding about that, by the way: I think I’d take my chances with a person chosen at random from anywhere in America than Mr. Trump.) All he should be given credit for is a willingness to do anything he thinks will advance his interests at any given moment. That includes reading aloud words written by someone else. Any notion that he understands, agrees with, will be bound by those words is simply wrong.

I’ve buttonholed a couple of journalists on these points and they have uniformly 1) gotten defensive about the media’s efforts to report on the various aspects of Mr. Trump 2) hidden behind the notion that “it’s not their job” to decide who and who isn’t qualified to be president. I’ve also seen in their eyes the panicky look that says they know I’m right (or that I’ve gone stark raving crazy and they’re trapped in a conversation with a lunatic).

In normal elections – i.e. any other election in my lifetime – I would agree with them. Not this one. This election makes a higher claim on all of us to not simply do our jobs but to stand up and be counted. As the saying goes, “When your grandchildren ask you, ‘What did you do to stop Donald Trump?’ what will you say?”

That applies to journalists too.

– Austin

A Rose by Any Other Name…

I’m going to start a collection of Donald Trump descriptions and invite you to play along at home. I’ll update this post whenever I stumble across a new one.

The rules are simple: Any description is eligible as long as you can cite a link to an article or video somewhere on the web. Descriptions can be positive or negative, as short as a single word or up to a sentence in length.

At the end of the election, we’ll hold a vote to pick our favorites.

Here’s a couple to get us started:

Positive

“The best sex I ever had.” Marla Maples, Access Hollywood (h/t to Ellen Mrja)

Negative

“…dangerous buffoon…” Frances Wilkinson, Bloomberg View

“…a small, insecure money-grubber…” Elizabeth Warren, Huffington Post

“…a thin-skinned, racist, sexist bully…” Elizabeth Warren, Huffington Post

“He is a man-baby.” John Stewart, CNN (h/t to Mike Keliher and Jeremy Powers)

“…a megalomaniac…” Trump: What’s the Deal (h/t to Gary Gilson)

“…a pathological liar…” Carl Bernstein, CNN

“…a strong man who doesn’t believe in democratic institutions.” Carl Bernstein, CNN

“…a grifter always dancing one step ahead of bankruptcy court and concocting one failed scheme after another to separate people from their money.” Paul Waldman, Washington Post

“…a shallow, ignorant, incurious, emotionally immature narcissist.” Jon Austin, The Same Rowdy Crowd

I look forward to your entries.

– Austin

 

 

Enough. No more liberal coddling.

In the days since Orlando I’ve become more afraid. And I’m ready to abandon my liberal “We Are The World” views and adopt harsh measures to assure American safety.

We are facing a threat to our very existence. Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine called the threat “an extinction-level event.” And the normal, nice, politically correct responses won’t work against it. Terrorism is inside our borders, playing out on our televisions every night, the unthinkable and the horrifying becoming the normal.

We have to exclude the terrorists and we have to root out the communities that hide and support them. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, abridging some rights to save all rights. We need to stop pussy-footing around the problem and go to the source — and stop it. Plug the holes so more terrorists can’t get in. Expel the terrorists who are here and hold those who are like them responsible for their acts.

One force is creating paralyzing fear among Americans. That’s the definition of terrorism. That force is causing us to abandon our principles and sink to the level of the  terrorists. That’s the result of lighting these fires and fanning these flames. I’m tired of it. It has to end. Or we won’t have a country.

My modest proposals:

  • Our most horrible threat comes from a German. So we must immediately stop immigration from Germany. Round up all Germans now in America and throw them the hell out of the country. You don’t have to have been born in Germany to be a German. Your parents being German is enough. Or your grandparents. Or maybe you once lived next to a German. Or ate German chocolate cake. You’re gone.
  • The terrorist who presents the greatest threat against America is a capitalist. So we must immediately bar any capitalists from entering the country. And we must stop all immigration from areas of the world where there are capitalists or where people support capitalism.
  • The steaming, fetid, amoral, immoral, festering hotbed of capitalist terrorism is Wall Street. We will build a wall around lower Manhattan, from the Empire State Building south, to keep all capitalists in so they can’t further infect our country. And, of course, we’re going to make Goldman Sachs pay for the wall. It will be beautiful.
  • We must stop the politically correct language that hobbles our response. Liberals and their running-dog media partners call the threat a “candidate” and analyze his “policies.” They talk about him giving a “speech” and about who are his “advisers” and what kind of “analysis” he engages in and what his level of “knowledge” is. C’maaahn. Let’s call a Drumpf a Drumpf. This is a dangerous, immoral, raving narcissist who, to increase his own false sense of his grandeur, will hurt anyone, trample on our most cherished beliefs and wreck our way of life. He doesn’t have bad policies. He doesn’t pay enough attention to anything beyond his own aura to have policies. He has infiltrated this country through our most-vulnerable yearning — the hope of the masses to someday not be among the masses. He now poses a threat that, because it seems so unlikely, is horrifyingly real. This force of terror is a threat to everything that makes America exceptional.
  • Enough. We have to stop Radical German Capitalist Terrorism. And it must start now.

In the immortal words of an American solider in Vietnam, talking to the late Morley Safer as he lit a Vietnamese family’s house on fire, “Sometimes we have to destroy a village to save it.”

–Bruce Benidt

Vietnam village

The Long Hot Summer

Our lesson for today:

1. demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than through rational argument

2. fascist: a political leader who believes in authoritarian nationalism

3. moron: a person who is okay with either or both of the above, which, according to recent polling, includes nearly half the American population

4. conventional wisdom: a banal, soul-crushing substitute for actually knowing something

5. pundit: idiot (Not to be confused with moron, as pundits do not care about what the government does, only who will get to be in it.)

6. eternity: the time remaining between now and November 8

 

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.

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.

 

 

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:

Continue reading “The LA Times Applies a Factual Standard”

A Rowdy Crowd Pop Quiz

NEW SLAUGHTERWhat father of what politician preached this … ?

“There are some of you, as a matter of fact I will dare to say the majority of you, that your anointing is not an anointing as priest. It’s an anointing as king. And God has given you an anointing to go to the battlefield. And what’s the battlefield ? The battlefield is the marketplace. To go to the marketplace and occupy the land. To go to the marketplace and take dominion. If you remember the last time I was in this pulpit, I talked to you about Genesis chapter 1, verse 28, where God says unto Adam and Eve, “Go forth, multiply, TAKE DOMINION over all creation.” And if you recall, we talked about the fact that dominion is not just in the church. That dominion is over every area – society, education, government, economics…

Continue reading “A Rowdy Crowd Pop Quiz”

Not Just “Unconditional”, A Faceplant Surrender

NEW SLAUGHTERSo, it has come to this. A complete, unconditional, unequivocal faceplant surrender by John Boehner. I should feel more Schadenfreude and vindication than I do.

A few thoughts on the truly ridiculous debacle we’ve just lived through (and may have to live through again in January).

1:  Can a major political party get any closer to the life-or-death decision of whether to self-amputate a body part than the Republicans are today? I keep thinking about Utah hiker Aaron Ralston, sawing off his own arm from under an immovable boulder in order to live to hike another day. The Tea Party has made the Republican party an object of ridicule and contempt with truly perilous consequences for even “moderate”-but-enabling characters like John Kline and Eric Paulsen here in Minnesota.

Continue reading “Not Just “Unconditional”, A Faceplant Surrender”

Jim Souhan Isn’t the Problem

NEW SLAUGHTERI 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.

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

Benghazi, We Hardly Knew Ye …

NEW SLAUGHTERAnd then a big wind came and blew it (almost) all away … .

Republicans can’t catch a break. Just when it felt like they were getting somewhere in their now five-year campaign to neuter Barack Obama, another giant tornado rips through Oklahoma and the national press pretty much drops three mega “scandals”  — Benghazi-gate, IRS-gate and AP-gate — and rushes off to do its professional public comforter thing for the storm victims. “How did you feel?”, “We’re sorry for your loss/thankful for your survival”.

Meanwhile, the effect on the “ten times worse than Watergate” episodes left behind in DC will vary, as they should.

Continue reading “Benghazi, We Hardly Knew Ye …”

Ship-for-Brains Kmart

For many of us, our biggest strength often also turns out to be our biggest weakness.  For ad agencies, their biggest strengths often are their creativity and sense-of-humor.  Those wacky guys in the skinny jeans and pointy shoes crack me up!  But when not checked by clients and agency grown-ups, that strength can sometimes manifest itself as a weakness.

Witness K-Mart’s ad agency, Draftfcb.   (You can already tell how hip they are just by the funky corporate name.)  This is the assignment Draftfcb was given:  Promote Kmart as an online shopping outlet, something Kmart is lightly associated with.

But, it’s also critically important that any ad agency also be mindful of the overall brand backdrop for their narrow marketing assignment:   Historically, K-mart has had shitty stores, a shitty customer experience, shitty customer service, and shitty products, and, consequently, a shitty brand image.  Kmart desperately needs to change both the reality and perception of its wall-to-wall shitty-ness.

So, Draftfcb created, and Kmart approved, this gut-buster:

Continue reading “Ship-for-Brains Kmart”

Who You Calling “Nixonian”, Pal?

NEW SLAUGHTERThere is much to love about the secret taping of a Mitch McConnell strategy session, and I’m not just talking about Mitch himself referring to it as “Nixonian”.

The story, briefly, is that back on Ground Hog Day someone recorded Team McConnell huddled to discuss the points of attack they’d likely take against various Kentucky Democrats positioning to run against their man, Sen. Do Nothing Ever, Oppose Everything Always. Whether the whole meeting was taped we don’t know. But the first eleven and a half minutes, where the team rattled off actress Ashley Judd’s vulnerabilities was and it was given to Mother Jones’ David Corn, the guy who also received the video of Mitt Romney’s now-legendary 47% comments.

The Mitch Machine immediately made a big show of calling in the FBI … the FBI! … to root out the criminal low-life who would make such a nefarious assault on the Senator’s precious constitutional freedoms. (The FBI is required to consider investigating, but hasn’t exactly jumped on it yet.)

Continue reading “Who You Calling “Nixonian”, Pal?”

No Thank You, Hillary, I’ll Pass

Am I really the only liberal in the country who hasn’t already thanked, raised money for, supported, door-knocked for, voted for and attended the 2016 inauguration of Hillary Clinton as President?

I love these conventional wisdom commentators who are all saying the Democratic nod for president is Hillary’s if she wants it. Why? How come? Really?

Hillary for blogI’ve gotten emails every day for the last month saying “please sign this card for Hillary thanking her for her amazing superlative selfless saintlike damngood service to the country, the species and the universe.” It’s as if we’re all so greatly indebted to this masterwoman who lowered herself from her corporate board seats to serve poor drooling humanity one more time.

The latest is an email story from The Washington Post announcing a contest —  Help Hillary name her upcoming memoir. I’ve got a name for Hillary’s book that’s fitting — “ME!”

Let me step firmly off this bandwagon.

Carl Bernstein’s excellent and revealing 2007 biography of Clinton showed her to be soulless, a person driven by whatever is best for her. Measured, focus-grouped, a person whose core principles are all about advancing herself.

Has she done a good job a secretary of state? Yes. Has this been good service to the United States and world? Yes. Does she believe in and advocate for important causes, such as the empowerment of women worldwide? Yes. She, like all of us, is a complicated woman, a blend of selfish and selfless.

But what’s at her core? Watching her last week testifying before the Senate, reading — READING — her remarks about how she stood at Andrews Air Base and watched the coffins return from Benghazi and how she put her arms around the daughters and spouses showed her to be — hollow. Reading these remarks? Did she have margin notes — “Choke up just a little here…”?

This is the person who, in the 2008 campaign, when Republicans were attacking Barack Obama for not being American and for being Muslim, responded when asked about his religion — “As far as I know he’s a Christian.” What a profile in courage. The ugly sewer-level whispering about Obama was benefiting Hillary, so she was going to do the least required of her to deal with it. Compare this to what I’ve posted on this blog several times — Colin Powell excoriating his fellow Republicans for not stamping out this disgraceful canard.

Even my oldest brother, who can cherish a grudge like fine wine, says I have to let go and get over this. But I don’t think I will. Character, or its lack, shows through in key places in a person’s life, and I think with Hillary we’ve seen what we’ll get.

I don’t find her a compelling political leader nor a mind with great vision, as I’ve found Obama. She has a good shot at becoming the first female president — but should she be elected because she’s female? What’s the bumper sticker — “Not just any woman”? There are many women leaders in the country who would make better presidents, even if they would have a harder time getting elected.

But could Clinton get elected? I think her lack of character would show, as it did in the 2008 campaign. Against a genuine and passionate and younger Republican — she’d have great trouble.

But apparently I’m the only one who’s not waving a Hillary 2016 flag. I’m not ready for the restoration — I think it’s time to keep moving in the direction Obama is heading us.

— Bruce Benidt

 

 

(Image from NBC News

The Top 5 Best and Worst Things About the Blogosphere

People either love or hate blogs, with little in between. When I first started writing this one, I was definitely a hater. In fact, these were the first words I ever uttered in the bloguverse:

“Blah, blah, blog.  I hate blogs.  Self-centered, self-righteous, self-reinforcing, self-gratification.  Seldom right, but never in doubt.”

Thus began my self-loathing career as a person who writes blogs, but most assuredly is not a “blogger.”  (Those people are pathetic, don’t you think?)

But almost six years later, my take on blogs is a bit more nuanced and ambivalent.  Upon further reflection, this is how the pros and cons of the blogosphere net out for me.

The Worst

Anonymous contributors and the vitriol that brings.  Where blog participants are allowed to be anonymous, conversations get juvenile and shallow in a hurry.   That says a lot about human nature, and it limits the promise of blogs.  For me, this is the worst part of hanging around blogs.

The lack of fact-checking.  When it comes to truthiness, you can trust mainstream news outlets much more than blogs, because there are accountability rules and editors at the ready at mainstream news outlets.  Lots of bloggers don’t care about accuracy, and their readers take them at face value and get deceived.  Even bloggers who care about accuracy make bad mistakes when they are blogging on the fly in the middle of a work day, with no support staff to save them.  All of the inaccuracy in blogs is bad for blog readers, and for the credibility of the medium.

The overwhelming volume of information.  The Google machine tells me that there are currently more than 180 million blogs in existence.  The sheer volume of blogs makes it very difficult to find the worthwhile needles in this cyber-haystack.  That limits the promise of blogs. The “drinking from a firehose” cliche is inadequate here.  Drinking from Niagra Falls?

The echo chamberiszation of the planet.   In the blogosphere, most of us seek out voices that support our preconceived notions.  That balkanizes opinion, insulates us from true contemplation and make us all boorish.

The rush to judgement.  Unlike traditional publications, blogs can be published in the time it takes to click a mouse.  This makes the world move a lot faster.  If bloggers don’t post on breaking news now, they feel like the post will be stale.  As a result, bloggers often bypass education and deliberation, and go straight to pontification.  The world needs more education and deliberation, and less instant pontification, and breakneck speed of blogging aggravates the situation.

The Best

The lack of information gatekeepers.  Pre-Internet, very few of us had the money to start a publication to share our own thoughts.  Very few of us were talented enough to get published.   Even among professional writers, very few were allowed to write whatever they wanted.  Bankers, publishers, and copy editors have historically been among the many powerful barriers to mass unfiltered self-expression.  But free services like WordPress allow anyone to say whatever they want whenever they want.    If their mutterings are interesting or provocative enough, they will get spread around to others, for free.  Blogs have made free speech a little more free.

The lack of money influencing publishing decisions.  Almost no blogger makes money blogging.  That means that blog writing is less likely than mainstream media reporting and commentary to be influenced by commercial considerations, such as “what will the advertisers do if I write that.”   For this reason, there often is more speaking truth to power on blogs than there is in the mainstream news media.

The focus on connecting the dots of the daily news.  Only a relative few bloggers uncover actual news.  The rest of us merely connect the dots of news that is reported by mainstrain news reporters.  What mainstream reporters do is more important than what we do here, because it is a necessary prerequisite of what we do here. But connecting the dots is not unimportant.  News events are not stand alone entities unto themselves.  The interplay of news events matters.  These are  important things for citizens in a democracy to be discussing, and more of that type of discussion is happening because of blogs.

The coverage of previously ignored niches.  Mainstream news reporters necessarily can’t cover every societal niche.  But 180 million bloggers can come pretty close.  For people like me with nichey minds, that’s a good thing.

The lack of editing and style guides.  Many of my English major friends who cuddle up with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and my journalism and PR friends who are slaves to the AP Stylebook, can’t abide the no holds barred nature of blog prose.  They mourn the fact that no editor is used by bloggers to spare readers from the ravages of cliches, clunky phrasing, inconsistent usage, misused-hyphens,  and unconventional word choices (e.g. see “bloguverse,” “nichey,” “The Google machine,” “truthiness”) .  But the raw semantic and syntax anarchy you find in blogs also brings much color, fun, creativity, risk-taking and spontaneity to the conversations.   It makes information exchange a little less stuffy and controlled.  Sorry, Strunk, but I love all of that unsanitized prose.

– Loveland

Speaking of MPR: My favorite member drive segues

It’s gymnastics season on MPR. What? You haven’t noticed any additional sports coverage this past week? You have to listen closely, but it’s there.

One of the best parts of the membership drive at our local public radio station is the verbal gymnastics the on-air hosts regularly perform to bring any number of disparate topics back to the task at hand; asking for support in the form of members and dollars.

As I listened to an especially tricky dismount performed by John Moe, it occurred to me that this endeavor is most likely an exercise in pushing the limits of credible segues and a hell of lot of fun for the put-upon hosts in an otherwise dreary week of on-air panhandling.

With that in mind, I listened a bit more closely this past week and heard some fantastic conversational bridges and share some of my favorites below. Please note that these are much paraphrased and as many were heard while driving, showering, procrastinating or other instances where listening is but one of the many tasks being performed by the author, I do not claim total veracity. However, I do promise that none have been intentionally augmented for entertainment value.

An Assortment of Memorable Segues

Wrapping up an interview with an author discussing her book on the decade of your 20s: “and if you are out there in your twenties, you have some loose cash lying around, so consider sending it to us so we can continue to bring you these discussions…”

Just following a Civil Conversations show on the abortion debate and the importance of hearing the other side:  “We hope you enjoyed that last hour where we discussed the importance of listening and if you listen to NPR, you may want to think about making a donation…”

After a segment debunking a political ad’s claims: “How much is this kind of fact checking worth to you? 10 dollars? 15 dollars? If so, then we hope you will consider…”

At the tail end of a story on the Red Rooster Restaurant: “And you just heard us discussing the positive impact the Red Rooster brings to the community, which is just what MPR does and why we need the community to respond in kind by supporting us here through your member dollars…”

And my personal favorite: “As we just reported, the Obama Campaign just released a new ad featuring Big Bird. Now you will hear that ad discussed on this station but you will not hear the actual ad played over and over and over because we don’t run political ads. We can make you that promise because we are funded by member dollars and without yours…”

And a Few of My Own

But why should the on-air hosts have all of the fun? I don’t see why we can’t play “the home version.” So in the spirit of “contributing” to our friends at MPR, I offer a few additional ideas to effortlessly go from regular news topics to donation procurement.

For instance, coming out of a Planned Parenthood story: “And to ensure you don’t end up with any unplanned advertisements, consider donating so that we may stay on the air without having to resort to commercial advertising….”

Or after a story on affirmative action rulings: “And much like the diversity that affirmative action provides in many areas of society, MPR offers you a similarly diverse range of news and information with the support of your membership…”

Following a discussion with an author who penned a book about finding her birth parents: “And just like the adoption agencies that bring children to loving homes, we at MPR deliver the news and information to you without the hours of labor that go into searching for quotes, facts and sources…”

Ending a report that Tom Brokaw was found in a western North Dakota sweat lodge with two exotic dancers, a local animal control officer and Cher: “If the thought of missing out on any of this great news and information we bring you each day also makes you sweat, then please consider a minimum donation of…”

And of course, immediately after a passenger jet lands due to engine failure:  “Like that United Airlines Boeing 767 that successfully turned back and landed on the foamed Salt Lake City runway sans landing gear, hear at MPR, with your support, we can continue to offer you soft landings as we report on especially turbulent news and events.”

Fun, huh? Feel free to try one of your own.

Pre-Gaming the First Debate

I’m not sure if it’s actually possible to 1) have the media invest tonight’s debate with any more importance for the Romney campaign than has been done over the last two weeks; 2) come up with another way to lower expectations for both candidates without reducing all of us to fits of giggles; 3) be any more primed for disappointment than all of us – left, right, center – are right now as we are almost certain to see a debate that is probably not going to deliver a knockout blow to Governor Romney, put President Obama on the defensive and the race back into a dead heat or – for the 11 remaining undecided voters in a swing state – illuminate much about what either client plans to do over the next four years.

It is, of course, possible that I’m wrong on any of these points, particularly #3, but statistics are on my side.  Why are nearly all of the most famous moments from Presidential debates from the 70s and 80s?  Because most of the time these events are not particularly memorable and don’t represent turning points in a campaign.

This reality is particularly true when the participants are Barack “No Drama” Obama and W. Mitt “the Robot” Romney.  While different in many ways, both men are generally very skilled at keeping their emotions in check and their talking points firmly in their forebrains.  Couple that with day…and days…and days…of debate camp and the throw down in Denver has all the suspense of two chessmasters replaying a game from the Fischer-Spassky era.  The image of an unscripted and freeflowing debate is just that; an image and not a reality.

None of this, of course, will prevent me from eagerly watching all 90 minutes and then listening to the post-debate analysis on as many channels as my wife will tolerate me surfing.  Here’s what I think we’ll be hearing after the debate: Continue reading “Pre-Gaming the First Debate”

Papal Dispensation: Water to Wine Easier than Broadcaster to Vatican Comms Pro

“Vatican hires Fox News Reporter as Image Maker” read the  International Herald Tribune headline. Here we go again. Another broadcast news reporter off to conquer the world of public relations. This time it’s Greg Burke, formerly Fox News Rome correspondent.

I’d like to say that I have, ahem, faith in this hire, but I have my doubts. The jump from broadcaster to public relations is not the slam-dunk many journalists perceive it to be. The organizations that hire them for their media knowledge and contacts in that world also envision a seamless and instant transition. But few do it successfully and even fewer do it immediately. Why? There’s just a hell of a lot more to the job than media relations.

Now I’m the first to admit the public relations profession is not something you need years of advanced study and multiple degrees to master. And there are some incredibly strong public relations professionals who have come from journalism, some of whom write for this blog. So I thought I’d cut Mr. Burke some slack. Maybe he is qualified to be the first Strategic Communications Strategist the Vatican has ever hired,” according to the Herald Tribune.

Then he opened his mouth.

“If you look at what the White House has, everyone knows who the spokesman is, no one knows who the secretary of communications is. It’s a very similar job.”

Huh? That’s the full quote. I guess he is explaining that he is not taking over the spokesperson role. Why that’s important to share, I don’t know.

Then there’s this.

“It’s a strategy job. It’s very simple to explain, not so easy to execute: to formulate the message and try to make sure everyone remains on message.”

Ah, I see. So it’s a strategy job. I don’t think everyone staying on message is necessarily the Vatican’s biggest problem. Or even something it needs to do better. It certainly doesn’t strike me as strategic.

It’s not that broadcast journalists can’t become fine communications professionals, It’s just that so many think they can step right into senior positions and immediately thrive. It is the rare journalist who does this successfully in a short period of time.

Why? Because they’ve only seen one facet, and arguably, one of the most overrated. They’ve been pitched stories and interviewed trained spokespeople. That’s analogous to a diner seeing a well-prepared soufflé and saying, I can be a chef. As in cooking, roughly 90% of the work in communications comes prior to the presentation.

Burke is right, there is a great deal of strategy involved and even more research, insights, concepting, planning, writing, testing, etc. Skills developed over a period of time.

I leave you with this final excerpt from the Herald Tribune piece:
Asked how he would handle a case where the message was as much an issue as the medium, Mr. Burke said, “I think at that point you say, ‘we have a train wreck coming here.’ I don’t have an answer on how I’d stop the train, but I’d try.”

Perhaps you could stop it with strategy Mr. Burke.

1st and 20 – Romney Drops Back, Goes Deep…

The classic “Hail Mary” pass is a desperation play in the last seconds of the game when the only chance of victory is to wind up and heave the ball into the endzone with the hope that one of your receivers will miraculously come down with the ball and the win.

That said, there are lots of Hail Marys that are thrown much earlier in the game, usually when one team starts to feel the pressure of the clock, is down by a touchdown or so and concludes its game plan isn’t working.

Make no mistake, the Romney campaign has just thrown the first Hail Mary of the 2012 presidential election.  The ball is still in the air, but I’m not seeing a lot of receivers in the endzone.

I’m referring, of course, to Governor Romney’s doubling down on his now-infamous “fuggedaboutit” to the 47 percent of the country who apparently are only voting for Obama out of a lazy, selfish unwillingness to stop feeding off the work of the decent people.  Rather than try to deny the comments (which would have been well-nigh impossible IMHO) or try to mealy-mouth them away, the campaign and the candidate has embraced them and is trying to make them a fulcrum for a debate about a vision for America.  In the revised version of reality, Governor Romney would have us believe he wasn’t pandering to a crowd of rich folks that some people are worth keeping and some aren’t, but was instead “inelegantly” trying to frame a debate about the future of America.  As noted in the New York Times article on this long bomb, one that actually breaks with some very long-held conservative views:

Mr. Romney stood by his statement in an interview with Neil Cavuto of Fox News on Tuesday. “I think a society based upon a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that’s the wrong course for America,” he said, adding that he hoped to improve the economy enough that people would be able to get well-paying jobs and rejoin the tax rolls.

So far, I’m not seeing much evidence that the play will work.  Despite a little razzle-dazzle in the form of the release of a 14-year old audio tape in which State Senator Obama goes on the record in support of – horrors! – “redistribution” in pursuit of the apparently un-American goal of “to make sure that everybody’s got a shot” (the comments were made in the context of how do we help the working poor) that has been slavishly flogged by the campaign’s principals and surrogates, the spin doesn’t seem to be working, even among the faithful (here and here and here and here and here just to name a few).

It’s be a few more seconds before the ball lands (uncaught I think).  That’ll make it 2nd and long with the clock at 48 days…and counting.  What’s the next play, Coach?

– Austin

Let’s Give Sorkin and “The Newsroom” Due Credit.

The underlying irony of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show, “The Newsroom”, and I’m sure he’s well aware of it, is that as much as he wants to use it to frame a discussion about the half-assed, highly compromised job so many outlets of professional journalism are doing in this country today, he too has to dilute and diminish his product to keep it commercially viable.

I had to play catch up with the three episodes that have aired so far. The first, where lovable-but-curmudgeonly cable network anchor Jeff Daniels (aka Will McAvoy), goes off on a Northwestern coed for her “let’s all reaffirm each other” question about why America is the greatest country on earth, was ripped about a hundred new ones by virtually every critic on the planet. The knives were obviously out for Sorkin. (There are even video mash-ups of “Sorkinisms”.) Having caught up … the fault I find with the main thrust of the criticism is that it gives too little credit to Sorkin’s larger ambition. The guy has ambitions beyond making another fortune. In its best moments it is plain that he wants to elevate the grade-level discourse of modern commercial entertainment from the fifth to maybe the eleventh, with a dash of college prep work here and there. Can we at least acknowledge that he has other interests than padding his bank account with yet another cop or hospital show stocked with maximum-allowable beef and cheesecake?

Gratuitous name-dropping paragraph … so I asked Sorkin over drinks in a Pasadena restaurant … why he had so consciously avoided the truly unhinged, insane levels of naked partisanship of the Clinton era while cooking up scripts for “The West Wing”? Earlier, I had asked him much the same at press gatherings. His answer remained constant. He wanted to imagine and paint a better world, a world where large-stage politics wasn’t primarily about venal rat-fucking and shameless self-aggrandizing. (He didn’t use the phrase “rat-fucking”, but I knew what he was talking about.)

My counter argument was that if he wanted the frisson of stark reality to drive audience interest (and pundit attention) how could drawing lessons from a protracted bogus scandal like Whitewater, with all the craven demagoguery and serio-comic arm-flapping involved, hurt the ratings? His basic answer was that “West Wing’s” ratings were just fine, thank you.

The commercial dilution factor of “The Newsroom” isn’t in the “speechifying” which seems to annoy both TV critics and general audiences, (but really is pretty entertaining), but rather the “personal relationship” factor. Translated: “Romantic interest” for those forced by their spouse or date to sit through McAvoy railing on about how, in actual fact, more Americans believe in angels than understand their own health insurance. Even Sorkin has said that the success of the show hinges on how much we care about the characters.

Well, dude, on that point you do have some problems. I freely admit that at my advanced age I have only limited patience with still more self-consciously whip smart post grad students agonizing over their romantic choices and failings. But then, that stuff kinda bored me when I was 24. Is life really made better by over-analyzing every remark and statement you make and is made to you? More to the point, while Sorkin’s opening dialogue in “The Social Network”, (via 50-plus takes by director David Fincher), was quite clever, let’s not forget that Mark Zuckerberg was/is trying to “out-asshole” everyone else, including nice girls who might have modified him for the better, though maybe not the wealthier.

Week Two of ‘The Newsroom” was particularly ghastly in terms of the latter-day Tracy-Hepburn ratta-tat-tat battle-of-the-genders dialogue between the kiddies. The contrast between the big, serious, fat-and-ripe news and culture story lines and the cutie-pie love stories for the masses stuff is so extreme whenever the kids come on the screen they might as well put up a card saying — “Adults Are Advised to Use the Next Four Minutes for Bathroom Needs”.

This past week’s episode, with Jane Fonda as the network boss, re-balanced the show in favor of the stuff that Sorkin, who is now 51, (so a ways past grad-school flirtation and angst) knows best, thinks most deeply about and therefore best distinguishes “The Newsroom”.

There are plenty of things to quarrel with in terms of how the newsroom in question functions. Let’s not get started again on the likelihood of any newsroom on any planet advancing the Deepwater Horizon story as far as Sorkin’s crew did on Day #1. But the larger point in Sorkin’s favor is this: At a time when both mainstream entertainment and mainstream journalism, TV in particular, tip-toe only reluctantly and fretfully into large festering cultural issues such as — how the not so bright base of the Tea Party has been radicalized to protect and serve powerful forces largely indifferent to their quality of life — Sorkin not only has identified that trend as epochal, but has the talent and industry standing to produce it as mass entertainment — America’s best form of lubricated instruction.

Were I his producer … I would strongly advise him to shift focus steadily away from the kids’, “OMG! Did he just say that to me?!” jabberings and devote steadily more energy to the conflicts inherent in trying to/daring to describe (as opposed to avoiding) the roiling ocean of dramatic material informed adults see playing out in front of their eyes every day … and night on TV news.

This century needs another Paddy Chayefsky, not another John Hughes.

The show also needs a Tucker Carlson-like character to be foisted on McAvoy as a “balancing” foil, a la the early days of MSNBC, when the network suits looked up from their demographic research and told Phil Donahue he had to book two conservatives for every liberal guest he (unwisely) placed in front of their network cameras.

Digital Hipsterism

Blogging is dead.

I know what you’re thinking…and it’s not did he fire six shots or only five. You’re thinking the irony of blogging about the demise of blogging is pretty rich. It is. But bear with me.

The death of blogging has been widely reported in the online world lately, on Twitter and Facebook, and by any number of prominent authorities, not the least of them being Virginia Heffernan, the high priestess of all things digital and lately uber-correspondent for Yahoo! News. In fact, in the wake of the recent calamitous Facebook IPO, Heffernan wondered if social media might also be headed for the dustbin of digital history.

Virginia Heffernan

As welcome as that prospect might be…wouldn’t it be great if we could all get back to doing real work…I suspect most of the social media and even blogging are not dying but are instead evolving. I think all of these forms, as they adapt and refine themselves to the conditions in the digital ecosystem, will not only survive but get better. Let’s face it: How could they not?

They’ll survive by getting smaller and smarter and much, much less democratic. Information does not want to be free and it doesn’t want to come from everywhere all at once. Information wants to have value. What the heap of words reduced to bits and bytes that is the blogosphere needs now is a little natural selection. Let the hacks and the poseurs and the self-indulgent and the wingnuts of every persuasion go extinct.

There is a kind of digital hipsterism in force in the online universe…a constant, lurching, desperate search for a ride on the Next Big Thing. This leaves behind a trail of semi-useful tools that got discovered, over-used, and that are being gradually abandoned by people who no longer find them worthwhile, or who hate the loss of privacy that comes with every new digital identity, or who simply never had anything meaningful to communicate in the first place.

Where it once seemed that someday everyone would have a blog that nobody read, it now appears that just the opposite may come to pass: We have begun to look for voices that matter, prose that tracks, judgments that are more than the idle head-scratching of the uninformed. The blogosphere isn’t dying…it’s just ready for a heavy winnowing out. In the future, not everyone will blog. Those who remain will be those are read.

The same thing is happening with self-published books. Until recently, it appeared that ebooks had thrown open the door to anyone wanting to call himself or herself an author. The reality is that the odds of success with a self-published book are vanishingly small and are a function not only of the vastness of the competition but also the fact that most of the people who give this a try are, however earnest, simply not any good. The door may be open, but rarely does the real thing walk through it.

For those of us suffering in the transition from the analogue past to the digital future…the very subject of Virginia Heffernan’s forthcoming book Magic and Loss…that new sound that can now be heard faintly amid the din on the Internet is the the sound of our analogue hearts still beating.