The Same Rowdy Crowd

Ruminations and Fulminations on Communication

Give the Women the Keys, Please

NEW SLAUGHTERThe gist of a “Daily Show” bit last week was, given the open sewer of fake rage, naked opportunism and incompetence that is Congress today, what sort of person even wants the title of U.S. Representative? “Reporter” Aasif Mandvi began with a personable state legislator — a woman — out in California who is resisting pleadings from state Democrats to run for Congress. As I translated her explanation it was, “Oh good lord, the place is an open sewer of … “.

So no, she isn’t interested, today. Smart gal.

Cut to GOP Cong. Steve Latourette, a kind of go-to guy for Capitol reporters looking for something crusty, cranky and vaguely wise from a Republican currently serving on The Hill. (That last one takes some doing.) The conclusion of that conversation? The only people running in the present environment are “ass[bleeps]”. In fact unless you’re an ass[bleep], don’t even try because you’ll be forced into connecting with your inner ass[bleep] by an opponent way more of an ass[bleep] than you can ever be.

(My wife tells me I cuss too much on this blog, and that I’m polluting a thoughtful environment populated by bona fide communications professionals, real adults, who instinctively no better than use harsh or inflammatory language where they might be quoted. Hence the [bleep].)

Continue reading “Give the Women the Keys, Please”


News flash:  Minneapolis is a snobby city.  This from Travel and Leisure:

In the annual America’s Favorite Cities survey, we asked readers to rank 35 major metropolitan areas for features such as trendy food trucks or good-looking locals.

To determine which city has the biggest nose in the air, we factored in some traditional staples of snobbery: a reputation for aloof and smarty-pants residents, along with high-end shopping and highbrow cultural offerings like classical music and theater.

But we also considered 21st-century definitions of elitism: tech-savviness, artisanal coffeehouses, and a conspicuous eco-consciousness (say, the kind of city where you get a dirty look for throwing your coffee cup in the wrong bin).

Minneapolis ranked 4th, trailing San Francisco, New York City and Boston, but edging out Seattle, Santa Fe and Chicago.  The Travelers’ and Leisurers’ take on us:

Perhaps readers felt intimidated by these bookish, indie-music-loving, craft-beer-drinking hipsters, who also ranked highly for being exceptionally tidy. If these Minnesotans feel self-satisfied, is it any wonder? They also scored well for being fit and outdoorsy; you can join them at the Chain of Lakes, where, depending on the season, folks are hiking, paddling, or even ice-surfing.

Snobby?  Really?  Isn’t having interesting stuff in your community a desirable thing?

Of course it is.  Having the option of experiencing something new and different that isn’t available just anywhere is a huge advantage of living in a great city like Minneapolis.

But T and L got it right.  Minneapolis is a snobby city, because having new and different things is not enough for many Minneapolitans.  They feel obliged to look down  from their lofts and rooftop cafes judging people who don’t worship at the altar of all that is new and different.


For instance, God help you if you express dislike for Surly Furious beer inside the Minneapolis city limits.  It’s perfectly reasonable that some people would enjoy the bitter taste of the hop-heavy brew, and some would not.  Preferences are preferences.  But to hipster Minneapolitans, a distaste for the hops in IPAs is a clear sign that one is not sufficiently evolved.

The same thing applies to food and wine.  If my God-given tastebuds just can’t distinguish between a ten buck meal and a fifty buck meal, does that really mean that I’m a closed-minded rube?  Maybe it just means that I’d rather hold onto the extra forty bucks to buy four extra ten buck meals.  Saffron and truffle oil?  Can’t taste it dude.  Hints of oak barrel?  Even if I could taste it, why would I necessarily desire it?

I also plead guilty to wearing khakis and not possessing a single pair of skinny jeans.  Why?  One, BECAUSE I’M NOT SKINNY.  (Neither, by the way, are many of you.)  Two, because I still have khakis in my closet from the 90s that have some more miles on them.

And then there are bicyclists.  Minneapolis is thick with them these days, and I’m all for them.  I support more bike lanes, bike racks, and people out of cars, if that’s what works well for them.   But just because I prefer not to arrive at meetings drenched in sweat and expect bicyclists to obey traffic laws doesn’t make me a Neanderthal bike hater who doesn’t understand the profound awesomeness of Amsterdam.

The fact that many Minneapolitan hipsters equate rejection of a trend with inferiority is what makes them snobby. Trends are fine.  Enforcement of trends is snobby.

It’s a little more difficult for me to understand when snobbery happens in a city of folks who are largely transplants from small towns, suburbs and rural areas.  Even most of the free spirits in Uptown and downtown lofts did not grow up in Soho or Greenwich Village.  They are only a few short years removed from enjoying Folgers, Mogen David, Buckhorn and IHOP.  If those folks find that  Peets, Pétrus, Surly, and Café Lurcat brings them more joy, enjoy already.  But really, there is no need to evangelize and snigger.   We hayseeds are perfectly comfortable, in all our glorious frumpyness.

– Loveland


I haven’t weighed in yet on the biggest trial of the year because I wanted to get my response together.

I believe the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was the legally correct one.

The prosecution lost that case; it had no story stitched together based upon neither evidence nor witnesses who were credible nor experts who didn’t end up biting the prosecution backside (and some witnesses actually ending up helping the defense). None of its case was “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

I became a trial junkie on this case. When it was first presented in the media, the narrative presented was: “Neighborhood watch captain shoots and kills unarmed teenager.” My first thought was, “That’s terrible.” – and I put it out of my mind.

You see, the evening news is glutted with horrific stories – babies being left to roast in parked cars; children falling out of 4th floor windows; women being held hostages, beaten and raped; old men being kept prisoners for their government aid checks. And, yes, gang violence, drugs, guns, murders, guns and more guns.

And the horror, the horrors, suffered by billions of persons in the rest of the world cannot be comprehended, nor can it be spoken of.

But when this trial resurfaced, I became fascinated by it. My husband would say “obsessed” – but, we quibble. Always.

The best and most fair summary online of all evidence presented at trial is at Wikipedia. This crowd-sourced site is more reliable than anything you’ll find on personal blogs because every statement submitted has to be documented. Also pro-con forces call out errors and balance each other.

So go here and read this:

Here’s one excerpt that might explain “why” Zimmerman stopped that night when he was on his way to get his lunches for the week:

“From January 1, 2011 through February 26, 2012, police were called to The Retreat at Twin Lakes 402 times.[47] During the 6 months preceding the February 26 shooting, Zimmerman called the non-emergency police line seven times. On five of those calls, Zimmerman reported suspicious looking men in the area, but never offered the men’s race without first being asked by the dispatcher.[62][63][64] Crimes committed at The Retreat in the year prior to Martin’s death included eight burglaries, nine thefts, and one shooting.[65] Twin Lakes residents said there were dozens of reports of attempted break-ins, which had created an atmosphere of fear in their neighborhood.[32]

“In September 2011, the Twin Lakes residents held an organizational meeting to create a neighborhood watch program. Zimmerman was selected by neighbors as the program’s coordinator, according to Wendy Dorival, Neighborhood Watch organizer for the Sanford Police Department.[4][4][66]

“Three weeks prior to the shooting, on February 2, 2012, Zimmerman called police to report a young man peering into the windows of an empty Twin Lakes home. Zimmerman was told a police car was on the way and he waited for their arrival. By the time police arrived, the suspect had fled. On February 6, workers witnessed two young black men lingering in the yard of a Twin Lakes resident around the same time her home was burgled. A new laptop and some gold jewelry were stolen. The next day police discovered the stolen laptop in the backpack of a young black man, which led to his arrest. Zimmerman identified this young man as the same person he had spotted peering into windows on February 2.”

On the night Martin would die, here’s the transcript of Zimmerman’s original call to the Sanford Police.

He does not say, “There’s a young black punk wearing a hoodie that doesn’t belong in my neighborhood.” Instead, the operator asks for a description: “Is he white, black or Hispanic?” Zimmerman answers, “He looks black.”

It was dark out and raining. Frankly, I think each guy was startled and/or scared of the other guy.

We know that Martin approached Zimmerman who was in his truck because there’s audio of the dinging of an alarm when Zimmerman opens his truck door. That’s also what he reports to the 411 dispatcher. We’ll never know why Martin walked around Zimmerman’s truck. Maybe Zimmerman flashed his flashlight in Martin’s face – an aggressive enough move, certainly.

We’ll never know who said what to whom. MARTIN: “What are you looking at?” is just as likely as ZIMMERMAN saying: “What are you up to?” In his walk-through the following day with police (which he consistently stuck to and his neighbors’ descriptions on 911 seem to back up the vast majority of the time), Zimmerman says Martin was wandering slowly through the rain, sort of looking into the windows of houses. It’s just as possible Martin was looking for his father’s place in this huge development of hundreds of identical-looking homes.

Then, Zimmerman says, Martin disappeared. “He’s running.”

I believe that’s when Zimmerman gets so frustrated with “these assholes” and “fucking [unintelligible].” Read the 411 non-emergency transcript again. I do not believe “these assholes always get away” refers to any race; it applies to the burglars who have been breaking and entering in his neighborhood and threatening the sanctuaries of families’ homes.

The telephone responder does say: “Are you following him? (Yes) OK we don’t need you to do that. (OK)” But later on the same responder is trying to get an address out of Zimmerman that Zimmerman can’t find.

Another point about this call to police is that Zimmerman identifies himself by name, address and phone. He also, and this is important, takes great care to try to ensure the responding officers will find him. He even wants them to call him so he can escort their car into the correct area of the development. Would someone will evil intent do that?

Again, we don’t know who threw the first punch. Zimmerman ended up with documented head injuries consistent with his skull being pounded on concrete; he also had a dislocated and bloodied nose.

Martin ended up dead.

Of course there is no comparison to be made there.

A 17-year-old walking home from a store with Skittles and Arizona Tea should not have died that night. And Zimmerman should not have shot him that night.

But, and here’s my opinion, I believe it is George Zimmerman’s voice one hears repeatedly screaming for help on the 911 calls (neighbors’ recordings). I believe him when he says Martin ended up on top of him and was hitting him, pounding Zimmerman’s head.

The tragedy would strike soon when Martin began putting his hand over Zimmerman’s nose and mouth. He was in pain. He couldn’t breathe. And then – then he THOUGHT he felt Martin’s hand reaching toward his gun. Zimmerman took it out of his holster.


Zimmerman says (and a neighbor confirms he said) that he did not even realize Martin was dead.

One other point: Zimmerman did not have a rap sheet a mile long. According to

“Court documents obtained by on Tuesday evening show that George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, went to court in 2005 and 2006 for accusations of domestic violence, tussling with a police officer and speeding.

The three incidents took place in Orange County, Fla.

In 2005, Zimmerman, then 20, was arrested and charged with “resisting officer with violence” and “battery of law enforcement officer,” both which are third-degree felonies. The charge was reduced to “resisting officer without violence” and then waived when he entered an alcohol education program. Contemporaneous accounts indicate he shoved an officer who was questioning a friend for alleged underage drinking at an Orange County bar.

In August 2005, Zimmerman’s ex-fiancee, Veronica Zuazo, filed a civil motion for a restraining order alleging domestic violence. Zimmerman counterfiled for a restraining order against Zuazo. The competing claims were resolved with both restraining orders being granted.”

Sounds to me that Zimmerman was a stupid 20-year-old who got caught drinking and probably driving, resisted arrest and shoved a different officer at a bar during another act of stupidity. The domestic violence case sounds to me as if its two immature (probably drinking) 20-year-olds who should have had restraining orders granted against them.

But that’s the extent of Zimmerman’s rap sheet. It begins and ends in 2005. No domestic disturbances have been filed by his wife or neighbors.

Zimmerman will have to live with the knowledge that he took the life of someone who’ll never be able even to reach 20 years old. That’s no victory. Nor could a “guilty” verdict have given the Martin family any lasting comfort. They will never see their son again and that’s an unimaginable for any parent.

So, do I think you can draw a direct line from the NRA’s relentless campaign to arm Americans to the shooting of Trayvon Martin? Yes. But let’s also include many other factors: Conceal and Carry Laws, Stand Your Ground Laws (which, by the way, always have been the way of the Wild, Wild West), crime, longstanding racial suspicions, Americans’ alienation from selves and neighbors, media hype, political opportunism, fear, the effects of divorce, of dreams unrealized, and the pressure we put on young boys so they end up believing they must grow up and fight – to the death, if necessary – to be like real men.

It’s an American tragedy.

Sociopaths. American Royalty.

NEW SLAUGHTERThe best thing about the Anthony Weiner/”Carlos Danger” circus is that it gives American media something new to concentrate on other than “the royal baby”. Newsrooms make editorial decisions based largely on what they believe their audience is most interested in. That said, the assessment that Americans can’t get enough medieval/celebrity pageantry affirms the worst cynic’s view of our “lamestream” information-delivery system. More specifically, the gooey, fawning coverage of everything “royal” is a calculation on the interests of American women who are far and away the primary audience for morning TV, where the most shameless fawning always takes place. One of my fonder hopes is that some day there is an insurrection among the “Lean In” crowd against this kind of pandering.

But until then … we have the latest episode of shameless sociopathy in Anthony Weiner/”Carlos Danger’s” sexting escapades. As summer news fodder goes, this thing is a chartbuster. Once again, tabloid headline writers and late night comics fall to their knees thanking whoever/whatever they worship for the gift of something so right into the wheelhouse of what the public eats up … sex, the lust for fame and power, hypocrisy and, for the female demo, a beautiful, poised wife. This particular episode is so over-the-top, hilariously squalid it will live in infamy until the sun implodes. I mean … “Carlos Danger” … and the dialogue of those texts … in New York City?

Weiner/”Danger” is obviously one seriously screwed up, pervy dude. To the point, where I think sensible women are quickly moving toward the question of why the lovely Huma bothers with him at all? Yes, there’s the Hillary and Bill precedent, and that’s entirely plausible explanation. You have to know Hillary has offered counsel. But does even Huma believe Weiner/”Danger” has Bill Clinton’s political prospects? If she does, her standing among the “Lean In” ladies drops by about 80%.

But more interesting to me is the sociopathy of Weiner himself. There’s a book out, “Confessions of a Sociopath: Hiding in Plain Sight”, purportedly authored by a Mormon woman — writing under an alias — partly explaining, partly defending her status as a sociopath, which as I’m led to understand it, is the preferred, 21st century name for what we used to call a “psychopath”. Her definition of herself is this: “I am generally free of entangling and irrational emotions, I am strategic and canny, I am intelligent and confident and charming, but I also struggle to react appropriately to other people’s confusing and emotion-driven social cues.”

Weiner/”Danger” is a textbook “sociopath”, at least if you can contort being free of “irrational emotions” to explain a near complete lack of impulse control. But as I got into in a recent post on Eliot Spitzer, there’s a much broader realm of this kind of behavior than guffaw and snicker-inducing sexual hijinks. A number tossed around by psychologists in the context of sociopathy is 4%. As in 4% of us can be described as having a chronic, “lack of remorse, a penchant for deceit, and a failure to conform to social norms.” A heavy proportion of the prison population qualifies as sociopathic. But “Confessions” (which hasn’t been all that well-reviewed, in part because of the author hiding behind an alias), is about the sociopaths among us and the weird allure sociopaths have to the general population.

Again, this is way … way … too deep for the morning chat shows or the headline media to get in to. The newsroom assessment being that their viewers are busy people getting their families out the door. They don’t have time for turgid psychological babbling, because … “Oh, look … Buckingham Palace … the Queen’s beautiful horses … and the window … where any minute now the Princess will appear with her baby … .”

But the cult of sociopaths in the context of contemporary political and celebrity figures hogging the spotlight, blotting out rational conversation and clotting the public narrative to their own selfish ends (Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, the Kardashians, etc.) is something that ought to prey on the newsroom conscience a lot more than it does. Moreover, as I said in Spitzer piece, a savvy media consumer, like the “Lean In” audience, should exercise intense skepticism over the scant attention paid to forms of sociopathic behavior other than sexual buffoonery.

Pop quiz: Can you identify Dennis Kozlowski? Joe Cassano? Angelo Mozilo?

Local media tycoon Stanley Hubbard will never be mistaken for a hand-wringing liberal, but several times in conversations with him he’s asserted his belief that “5% of CEOs are sociopaths”.

5% … 4%. The similarity is striking. But like Bachmann, Trump, the Kardashians and countless others, as long as that 5% produces the right numbers they can be assured treatment fairer than they deserve.

Hell, they’ll be treated like royalty.

Blame the NRA for George Zimmerman

NEW SLAUGHTERIt’s not difficult at all, and I believe pretty valuable to draw a direct line from the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman to the work of the National Rifle Association.

Since last Saturday night’s verdict there have been demonstrations, hand-wringing over our racially distorted (i.e. racist) justice system, punditry excoriating Zimmerman, jurors, the defense, the prosecution, and even Martin himself, the dead kid … for looking too much like the sort of menacing guys insulated, law-abiding white folks have every damn good reason to be afraid of. (It’ll be a long while before the Washington Post lives down the racial/classist reek of columnists Richard Cohen and Kathleen Parker. Lord I hope their limo never breaks down in Anacostia.)

But no one to date that I’m aware of has made a point of fingering the NRA for being the heavy it is, from the roots up, in this tortured drama. My guess is that since we are now seven months past the Newtown slaughter and the NRA has prevailed in Congress again, the four million member fire-arms lover/super patriot organization is old news … again.

Same old same old. Boooring. Must have fresh villains.

Never mind that it was the NRA in Florida pushing, excuse me “extorting”, votes to pass the state’s Stand Your Ground law, as it was after  that when Florida adopted Conceal Carry.

Lacking either, young Mr. Martin would still be alive, although given his record for domestic abuse and other outbursts of violence Mr. Zimmerman might likely be incarcerated somewhere. (In fairness, the deceased was a known pot smoker.) Under standard NRA lobbying, a record of violence is not a disqualifier for purchasing a gun, hell several guns, and gobs of ammunition, over the Internet. With over half its funding coming from the country’s gun manufacturers, the NRA is and has been for a generation the marketing arm for the likes of Smith & Wesson and rent-a-mercenary companies like Xe, formerly Blackwater. With that in mind you’re going to say and do everything possible to get a gun in the hand of every one who can still pull a trigger, and they do.

I always pity the poor dumb cracker, sitting down the bar from me at my favorite northern Wisconsin watering hole, proudly telling everyone in earshot, (but mainly the two low-lidded gals sucking down Marlboros and playing penny video poker) how he wrote the NRA a check for $100.

“And why”, I ask? “Well … ” and then the story starts to spin-off into the time two black guys in Superior — 25 miles through the woods and down the hill — looked at him funny while he was picking up a prescription at Walgreens, and how “with that crowd that’s in there now” the NRA’s the only people stopping the Feds from breaking down his trailer door, grabbing his guns and leaving him defenseless … most likely against blind drunk white guys careening down the dusty back roads blasting away at Deer Crossing signs.

The fear a yob like that feels is also an effect of NRA marketing. Every politician who votes against Conceal Carry, Stand Your Ground/Castle Doctrine, registration, whatever == assault rifles for psychopaths — has to have a salable reason,  and the talking points the NRA has used since it dropped that silly Boy Scout shit about firearm safety and realized that the real dough was in regular checks from the manufacturers, is the pitch they use. “it’s damned terrifying out there and as an exceptional American who loves John Wayne, Dirty Harry and the Constitution you owe it to your family to pack heat. That is if your family left a forwarding address.

So it is when your average terrified-of-the-next-nut-in-the-next-primary Congressman/state legislator gets back in the district in front of “outdoors” activists . Out rolls all the paranoid NRA verbiage about the vulnerability, threats and carnage of modern American life, usually in code language with the unmistakable inference that they’re referring to black guys, young black guys in particular. (The flab and paunchiness of the paranoid crowd contrasts pretty vividly with the young buck-ness of the black guys that scare them the most.)

There’s zero chance the Justice Department is going to launch a racial case against George Zimmerman, and not because it’d fry the tin foil antennae of the black helicopter crowd. Proving racist intent would be all but entirely impossible. More likely is that Trayvon Martin’s family will file a civil suit against Zimmerman, who, like most sweaty-palmed pistol-packers, is not anyone’s idea of a genius with money. So good luck with a pay-day.

Maybe Mike Bloomberg will take this opportunity to hire David Boies and make the NRA a co-defendant in a suit against Zimmerman.

Ruthless Egomania and Sex

NEW SLAUGHTERThe very high moral dudgeon directed at Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, (but mostly Spitzer) for attempting comebacks is duly noted. Both gentlemen were bad boys. They are also big boys who have thick enough skin to take headline punning, jokes by late night comics and insults hurled at them by yobs on the street as they press the flesh … oh, sorry … “campaign” for a second act, as the media has been describing it.

The Strib picked up John Dickerson’s rant from Slate, in which he writes, “[Spitzer’s] appeal based on forgiveness asks voters to demonstrate a quality he has never shown in public life and which he implicitly promises not to show in the future.  Before Spitzer became known as Client No. 9, he was known for his brash, hardball tactics. As New York’s attorney general, he built a reputation as a fierce opponent of Wall Street, which created a successful platform for his gubernatorial bid. … Spitzer may be asking for forgiveness of his sexual indiscretions, but he’s running on his reputation as attorney general, which was built on ruthlessness.”


Based entirely on what I’ve read  — which is to say that like practically all of us I’ve never met the man and can only try to cull of realistic portrait from the usual heavy-breathing coverage — I accept that Spitzer is a serious piece of work. Rapaciously ambitious. Egomanical. Ruthless. Monomaniacally focused, and vain. Then you get to the softer virtues, which are compromised by all the above, like a shrewd tactical mind, relentless energy and, I’m inclined to believe, a unique determination to apply equal justice to, as Dickerson says, some of the “venerable” masters of Wall Street.

Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s documentary on the Spitzer story, “Client No. 9″ has its critics. But the film, in my humble opinion, offers more balance and nuance than most of what passes for reporting and expert punditry today. Spitzer’s faults are there for everyone to see, but so also are his legal and political objectives. Did he see aggressive prosecution of heretofore impregnable Wall Street banks, brokerages and insurance titans as a pathway to (much) higher public office? Yes. And who wouldn’t?

Did it mean making potentially lethal enemies with not just some of, but the most influential (i.e. wealthiest) people on the planet? Yes it did, and he was not naive about who he was going up against.

Could all that legal threatening have been a cynical ruse in which he accomplished nothing but looked good enough to be congratulated for the fight? I suppose. Stranger things have happened. But you don’t get that feel from Gibney’s movie or from the titans with whom Spitzer locked horns. They hated the bastard, and said enough publicly and on the record to powerfully suggest they were fighting him off with every tool at their disposal, which when you’re talking AIG, (read this Wall Street Journal commentary — and note the publication date for the raw irony of it all), and Goldman Sachs is every tool any of us can ever imagine.

Dickerson and Spitzer’s other morally aggrieved critics argue that his sin is much more hypocrisy than sex. He was simultaneously prosecuting prostitution rings while dialing up pricey hotties for tension relief. But as Dale Bumpers said defending Bill Clinton in his impeachment trial, “You’re here today because the president suffered a terrible moral lapse, a marital infidelity. Not a breach of the public trust, not a crime against society, the two things Hamilton talked about in Federalist Paper No. 65 — I recommend it to you before you vote — but it was a breach of his marriage vows. It was a breach of his family trust. It is a sex scandal. H.L. Mencken said one time, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money,’ it’s about money.” And when you hear somebody say, “This is not about sex,” it’s about sex.”

Hypocrisy about sex is still about sex, even as, like Clinton, Spitzer was reckless enough to hand his powerful enemies the sharpest of daggers.

“Sharpest” because I fail to see how Eliot Spitzer’s “violation of the public trust” even begins to compare to the violation done to Americans’ (and damned near everyone else on the planet) actual damned lives by the titans he was attacking. Spitzer is the glowing example of the double standard for public violation. Abuse our quaint-to-voyeuristic concept of sexual propriety and you forever wear the scarlet letter, disqualified from serious consideration for serious work. Abuse our muddled-to-pornographic notions of success and stature and … well, life is a complicated process where the means often have to justify the ends. Or, as the mob likes to say, “It’s just business.”

I continue to say that nothing … nothing … is more important to the pursuit of happiness of everyone from the 90th income percentile down than re-balancing this country’s truly grotesque mal-distribution of wealth. Three successive administrations have either abetted the distortion that continues to expand or have proven feckless at combating it, in each case largely out of fear of counter-strikes from parties at least as influential as the U.S. Justice Department.

Eliot Spitzer — like a half-dozen other prominent politicians I have actually met — is not someone I’d want to be trapped with on a long road trip. But I’m not looking for a drinking buddy in people like that. I just want them to do their damned job. And in prosecutors genuinely protecting “the public trust” I’ll take a ruthless egomaniac (capable of focusing and sustaining public indignation) every day over a cautious, pennies-on-the-dollar conciliator.



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

“Quiet” is the Outlier in a Huckster World

NEW SLAUGHTERI finally got around to reading Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. And I’ve actually had people guffaw when I told them.

“You!?”, they asked … with a real off-putting mix of accusation and incredulity. The point of their reaction being that I’m some kind of hopeless, congenital extrovert, the sucker-of-air from every room I enter and a human emblem for the Anthony Robbins’ system of awakening my giant within by force of unmodulated personality and raw dominance of personal interactions. From in here looking out, that’s an alien image. But their response is so definitive I haven’t even bothered to counter it. (How would you go about arguing that you you are not the sort of person who dominates-to-win social encounters?) But the fact that I’m pretty much post-caring what the unintuitive think confirms my self-diagnosis as an introvert. I feel no need to “sell” myself 24/7, never have and I’m embarrassed for those who do. (Born and raised in Minnesota, you know.) And the aversion to self-selling is at the root of Cain’s point about “the power of the introvert”.

She gets a little touchy-fuzzy for my tastes in parts, making her case for how the world’s listeners and mullers and methodical analyzers eventually exert their influence in society. There’s a lot of wishfulness in the case she lays out. But she’s definitely on to a malaise in our social media-connected, perpetually-interactive, sell-or-be-sold world.

When she describes studies demonstrating how test groups of strangers will invariably identify those who talked the most as “the smartest”, it rings a familiar bell. How many times have you watched someone, usually a male, (since bloviating women suffer an annoyance penalty that men of their kind rarely do), gas on … and on … doing everything short of holding a gun on the rest of the group just to sustain themselves as the center of attention … and are then rewarded with group approval for being “so bright”, “so intelligent” … when all you could think was, “Is this moron ever going to shut up?”

Cain makes only passing comments on our media culture. But her indictment is so explicit she hardly has to belabor it. Pick a medium and it is dominated by … those “who can’t stop talking”, by people who are (and probably always have been) compulsive about selling themselves; what they know, what they think, what you should think of them and what advice of theirs you need to follow. The familiar encouragement to pundits before going on air, to “be passionate” about their opinions and “feel free to engage” their fellow panelists is part of the same syndrome. Authoritative and loud equals winning. You can quantify it.

Over the years I’ve frequently been amazed at self-professed journalists who seemed incapable of shutting-the-fuck-up. The old line about how, “I never learned anything listening to myself talk” apparently never resonated with them. Interviewing subjects for stories involved 10-minute questions larded with anecdotes demonstrating mastery of all matters at hand, followed by barely enough patience to listen to a fifteen second answer. And that’s when they’re on the job. Over drinks these characters fall of a cliff of self-absorption. Or so it seems to me … because I generally detect yawns and wandering eyes 15 seconds into anything I say, even if I’m ordering lunch.

There’s no superficial pop test for determining introversion or extroversion, as Cain sees it. (The book is structured around her travels from researcher to researcher on the subject). We all embody aspects of the furthest poles ends. We all have our immobile, mute fetal tuck moments and our Russell Brand moments. But the surest test of your essential nature is understanding where you go to charge your batteries to do what most satisfies you. “Natural extroverts” need a fresh audience. “Natural introverts” need time alone.

She even makes the claim that Barack Obama is more introvert than extrovert, in that he is clearly someone who does his best thinking away from the spotlight and microphone and has visible distaste for engaging in cheesy bon homie and rabble rousing.

My broader cultural point — as opposed to Cain’s — is that this reflexive, mass celebration of those “who can’t stop talking”, of the compulsive super-salesmen/pitchmen is an environment saturated in superficiality and contrived conflict. “Stars” are those capable of drawing and holding attention, usually far beyond the intellectual value they provide, and the conflict of competition for attention (and ratings, and money) distorts the actual divisions between people and groups. Meanwhile, those who have run the numbers, done the math, tested the waters and read the footnotes are ignored, or need “encouragement” (i.e. a kick in the ass) to stand up and politely say, “Uh, excuse me. I’m sorry. But what you said is complete and utter bullshit.”

As Jack Abramoff  — a sociopathic extrovert — once said, “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people”. Susan Cain presents an underlying explanation that probably never occurred to old Jack.

Eddie Snowden’s Girlfriend is the Key

NEW SLAUGHTERMaybe the “celebrity-fugitive-with-hot-girlfriend” aspect of the massive NSA spying “scandal” is what will keep it alive long enough to have an intelligent national discussion of what it all means, how we want to conduct our war-without-end on terror … and how much we’re willing to pay for it.

Because, as it is, this one is disappearing faster from radar contact than Darrell Issa’s IRS investigation.

The NSA/PRISM/Snowden story has a lot of interesting facets, few of them all that surprising to me.

My first reaction to the SHOCK!!! of the Guardian/Glenn Greenwald story was, “Well, what do you think they’ve been doing with all that money?” But then I’ve never quite gotten over the collective freak-out in the aftermath of 9/11 that so seamlessly transitioned the country’s military-industrial complex (beatin’ on the Rooskies) to the intelligence-industrial complex (beatin’ on the jihadiis). America’s warrior lobbyists fully exploited a national disaster and over the course of the decade that followed turned five of the counties surrounding Washington DC into the most affluent in the country and sucked thousands of whip-smart kids into “top-secret” jobs, not as lowly-paid, grey gummint employees, but as quite nicely remunerated for-profit junior executives, with stock bonuses from their work in The War on Terror for Shareholder Value.

While there just might be a hint of disingenuousness to the Obama administration’s claim to “welcome a discussion”, I think it’s abundantly clear that this program, PRISM, far exceeds anything Team Obama could ever assemble. In fact, this is a classic view into the country’s permanent government, the agencies and contractors who outlive all but the hoariest, senile Dixie legislator. The staggering amount of money freaked-out Congress threw at “national intelligence” after 9/11 — as much as an additional $80 billion a year (or closing in on $1 trillion for 12 years … plus of course the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan) — reinvigorated a contractors-at-the-trough feeding frenzy that hasn’t stopped since Word War II.

Hell, I doubt you could win in a district as blue as Manhattan’s Upper West Side if you were accused of being “soft on terrorism”.

Overall, I’m pleased young Ed Snowden connected with Greenwald and all this spilled out. Pleased, because I seriously doubt the revelation that the US can track patterns in phone and internet connections is news to any terrorist mastermind, and might … not likely, but might … lead a few courageous voices to demand the same kind of efficiency and reduction in fraud and waste in intelligence-gathering that so many in Congress routinely demand for food stamps, Head Start and college loans.

The classic line about the Pentagon is that its in-breeding with defense contractors has created a “self-licking ice cream cone”. Ditto, with the NSA, the CIA and the blizzard of corporate spooks nuzzled up against them just outside the DC Beltway. This is a system that creates and sustains itself, with every cycle of fear-mongering adding octane/tax dollars to the tank.

One way to judge Obama’s commitment to an open discussion of how we protect the country against stateless villains is if he issues a blanket pardon to Snowden. The kid’s been fired by his private contractor firm. That’s good enough for me. That precedent alone will chill any further “disclosures” from those thousands of young brainiacs now paying on fat mortgages, BMW payments and booking kids into private schools in the rolling hills outside DC.

The better move is to bring an immunized Snowden up on Capitol Hill and have him (and his former employer) explain how exactly he got into a position to have access to what he did, and what he really knows.

Better yet, set up a Booz, Allen terminal in the Congressional hearing room and let Snowden access the phone and internet records of a couple of Senators sitting right in front of him  — (come on, you want to know what Ted Cruz downloads after a tough day at the office) — and a couple of media news stars, too. I’ll suggest Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs. Let him show the country how this stuff really works, and what we’ve paid (another) trillion bucks for.

But the way our media culture operates today, it’ll take racy pictures of his dancer girlfriend to sustain this story at the supermarket checkout lane.

Emmer Guarantees More of What Made the GOP What It Is

NEW SLAUGHTERIt was a tough enough week for our fringy conservative friends even before Tom Emmer decided to leave talk radio and make a run for Congress.

I saw Emmer up close only once during his dare I say “clumsy”, (but nearly successful), run for Governor. It was at a Sixth District rabble-rouser at some sports bar up in Big Lake in late 2009. The assembled faithful had mainly come to see Michele Bachmann, so Emmer and fellow candidate Marty Seifert (and ex-House Speaker Kurt Zellers) were merely the warm-up acts.

This was the event where Zellers warned the choir that if Obama had his Kenyan/muslim/European/Socialist way with high-speed trains they (the audience of farmers, small town businessmen and spooky apocalyptics mumbling about “righteous reckonings”) would be “astonished” by the flood of welfare cases pouring into Minnesota from Chicago. To diagram the inference (which was lost on no one): Spendthrift black guy in White House provides express train service for a lot of high-crime, low-cash types who don’t look much like anyone in the Sixth District to ride up and squat in Minnesota.

And that was one of the classier moments of the evening. (I was eventually kicked out by the sports bar owner, despite having paid the $10 to get in.)

What Emmer guarantees is another competition to see who can out-crazy the other for the hearts and alleged minds of the Sixth District’s rabid, caucus-going base. To be sure, if you’re him, it’s worth saying whatever it takes. Because the winner, almost certainly a Republican, unless Bud Grant or Ron Schara (or Raven the dog) decides to play Democrat and run for office, is guaranteed a sweet and easy ten-year run, at minimum. Do the math: $140, 000 a year plus federal pension. For Emmer it sure beats a Clear Channel talk radio contract. (Believe me, I know).

So … prepare yourself for a fresh outbreak of grim, hellfire warnings of “socialist havoc”, “government controlled health care”, “godless liberalism” and “reckless government spending”.

That last one is always fraught with irony, since Emmer is another one of these local Republicans who seems to have a very hard time conserving their own money. (How do you borrow $1.6 million against a house you bought for $425,000? Only a fiscally responsible quasi-Libertarian knows for sure. )

But as I say, Emmer’s return comes at the end of a tough news week for the Grand Old Party, which I would have thought would be all about cleaning up its act from the mess it made last fall.

In order of embarrassments we had:  The Lou Dobbs/FoxNews sausage fest conversation about that study showing 40% of women are the breadwinner in American households with children. Lou and the boys couldn’t paint a darker picture of cultural collapse. Clearly, gals out there picking up a bigger paycheck than their boy toy (if they have one) is a descending peril along the lines of a sun-blotting swarm of pecker-picking turkey vultures. The classic among them was blogger Erick Erickson — a bona fide voice of influence to the literate among the Sixth District base.

Said Erickson, who is also a talk radio host:  “I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science. But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, when you look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complimentary role.”

This set off an internal kerfuffle lead by FoxNews’ main female personalities Megyn Kelly and Greta van Susteren, both of whom were, like Captain Renault, “shocked, shocked” that 1950s-style troglodyte sexism was alive and walking the corridors of Roger Ailes’ and Rupert Murdoch’s FoxNews. (All you could do was roll your eyes at their “indignation”, which really was poorly disguised embarrassment at “the boys” being so crass and obvious about their innate sexism, thereby forcing the women to say something.)

Finally, (and by that I mean before Emmer), we had the really kind of astonishing report from … the frickin’ … College Republican National Committee … describing the party as it is today — led by talk radio jocks, FoxNews pundits, self-aggrandizing mega-church pastors and palpably sociopathic bloggers — as, “closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.” (At least that’s how young “winnable” voters described the party.)

Rolling Stone summarized nine other points in the report. Including these tough-to-dispute gems:

3. “For the GOP, being thought of as closed-minded is hardly a good thing. But if the GOP is thought of as the ‘stupid party,’ it may as well be the kiss of death.”

5. “An outright majority of young people still think those Republican policies are to blame [for the Great Recession] – hardly an encouraging finding.”

8. “Perhaps most troubling for Republicans is the finding from the March 2013 CRNC survey that showed 54% of young voters saying ‘taxes should go up on the wealthy.'”
The point to all this is entirely obvious, I guess.
Namely, if someone beats Tom Emmer to the bile-marinated heart of the Sixth District it will be by confirming every appalling, out-of-touch, discredited thing young people (by and large), immigrants, minorities and the mooching 47% find reprehensible about the Republican party … today.
Worse, the party’s economic message, supposedly its intellectual anchor amid storms over “legitimate rape”, working mothers and blocking gun and immigration reform, is clearly a non-starter among a majority of younger voters. And I’m guessing most of them aren’t even aware of the collapse of the vaunted Reinhart-Rogoff theory, the “intellectual foundation” for the Darwinian economic ideas of Paul Ryan, the party’s designated “brain guy”.
In other words, to beat every other Republican for the Sixth District nomination, the winner is going to have to say and be everything that has the party on the brink of collapse … outside the Sixth.

Michele, My Belle …

NEW SLAUGHTERMichele Bachmann announcing she’s bailing on her beloved Sixth District completes a neat triptych of synchronicity. First there was old Bob Dole saying the current Republican party is such a godawfiul mess Ronald Reagan couldn’t make it out of a primary and that they ought to hang a “Closed for Repairs” on the party’s office door until they get an act together. Next came the study of the Tampa Bay Times PolitiFact archives that conservatives have a rate of flagrant lying three times higher than your average prevaricating liberal. Then … came Michele, my belle, a woman who like Richard Nixon, I’ll miss more (as a piece of street theater) than I dare say outside a confessional.

The connection is fairly obvious, especially when you consider how heavily Bachmann’s routine abuse of fact and logic skewed the PolitiFact numbers and that what Bob Dole was alluding to was the contempt for legislation and government that is the primary feature of the Congressional Bachmanns’ of the world.

Continue reading “Michele, My Belle …”

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 …”

A Gay Day is a Good Day

NEW SLAUGHTERAny day 20% of the population has a basic right affirmed — otherwise known as a “freedom” by our conservative friends — is good day. So it’s easy to appreciate the enthusiasm and celebration taking place over a law putting to rest decades of legal prejudice against gay people in Minnesota.

But I have to confess to a certain emotional detachment. While this may be another symptom  my chronic, morbid, sociopathic tendencies, (I should probably drink more to modulate them), an easier explanation is that as a straight male I’ve never had a direct personal investment in the gay rights campaign.

As a squishy liberal it’s not like I had to be educated in the fundamental injustice at play in the treatment of gays. But since it wasn’t me, it was simple enough to consign gay prejudice to the sloshing bin of intractable cultural malignancies doing their rotting work on the American promise. The same applied, I guess, to the civil rights movement of the Sixties, when all I could do as a kid was watch from a small Minnesota town. (The highest pitch of anti-Semitism was before my time.)

Continue reading “A Gay Day is a Good Day”

“Terror”, Right There in My Hometown.

NEW SLAUGHTERBack in the day, terror in my hometown of Montevideo was pretty much confined to the cops cleaning the last drunks of the night out of Sarge’s Bar or chasing my buddies and me through alleys for throwing water balloons at trucks. But now the old town has real knucklehead poster-boys for the over-armed, paranoid, anti-gummint trailer park militia movement. And they’re feeling the wrath of the Monte cops … and FBI.

The laugh line in this past week’s news out of “Mo-Town”, as we locals refer to it, was that Buford “Bucky” Rogers, his garage full of molotov cocktails and ample reserve ammo withstanding, was not believed to have any “overseas” connections. Riiight.

Continue reading ““Terror”, Right There in My Hometown.”

Bangladesh to Pope and All of Us: We Are You

“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

We are responsible for the deaths of garment workers in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Just as we are responsible for the deaths of garment jobs in the United States. Our never-slaked appetite for more and cheaper consumer goods hurts the livelihoods and lives of millions of other people.sweatshops-240x265

I always sound so preachy when I write something like this. I buy stuff I don’t need too — so I’m talking to myownself here, as well. I am a child (old man) of the Sixties and global ecological consciousness just won’t leave me.

What if we had fewer clothes, and better clothes? Made of good material by skilled workers who are treated and paid well, whether in the US or Bangladesh. What if companies made less profit? Top executives made fewer millions? Investors looked at human, not just financial, return? Business journalism measured and covered more than just financial factors? I know, I know, this is all so “Imagine,” so John Lennon.

Continue reading “Bangladesh to Pope and All of Us: We Are You”

Ted Mondale’s Entitlement Tab

NEW SLAUGHTERMy favorite local news story in recent days was the one about Ted Mondale finally agreeing to a $50,000 clawback of a $150,000 loan he got from Ponzi king Tom Petters back in 2005. The original Strib story was a terse recitation of the known facts. Mondale and Petters shared several business ventures. Petters openly traded on the Mondale name in the process of expanding his nefarious empire. The loan in question was never repaid.

Then a couple of days ago Strib columnist, Jon Tevlin, weighed in, with a juicier telling of the tale, along with mating it to Mondale’s breezy assurance that e-pulltab revenue would help cover the “public share” of cash for the new Vikings stadium, generally believed to be about $348 million.

Continue reading “Ted Mondale’s Entitlement Tab”

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”

Neuter the Rabble.

NEW SLAUGHTERLast Thursday night, during the blizzard before last, I drove out to the high school here in beautiful, misunderstood Edina to catch weatherman Paul Douglas’s act on climate change. The operative cliché for “my people” is that they’re all self-absorbed, hyper-competitive materialists restless-to-bored with any conversation or endeavour that doesn’t add to shareholder value in the next quarter. Nevertheless, over 100 fellow citizens slogged their way through the right-angle sleet to hear what Douglas had to say.

Being that he’s spent the bulk of his career on TV, his name and face are familiar to every Minnesotan over the age of 15, and sure enough there were people posing with him for souvenir pictures in the lobby before the “show”.

And it’s a pretty good show. Douglas, TV performer and demonstrably shrewd businessman, has a polished, credible and engaging act laying out the known reality of climate change. I doubt there was a skeptic in the theater, but the impact of deniers, willful ignorers and utter know-nothings is stark in his story of building effective consensus. (His shtick was the main attraction in a night raising awareness of Edina’s various green initiatives, for which, as Mayor and MC Jim Hovland proudly pointed out, the city — of preening, avaricious capitalists (not his words) — has already won national acclaim and regard as a leader.)

Having followed Douglas’ career since his KARE-11 days, through WBBM in Chicago, back to (and then out of) WCCO, including more than a half-dozen businesses along the way, his evolution into a prominent consciousness-raiser for climate change is surprising only in a couple of ways. There’s never been a question he is smart enough to grasp the metrics of true science, the only issue was whether he’d take the career-risk of actually proselytizing for what he knows to be true.

But he has. Perhaps most aggressively after realizing that his days with network affiliate TV were over, but he has. And it’s dramatically more than any of his meteorological colleagues left behind at any local station dare to do. In case you haven’t noticed human-caused climate change is a taboo in local weather reports … and not much less on The Weather Channel.

Douglas makes only passing reference to his experiences dealing with nervous news directors skittish about injecting anything into weather (or any element of news coverage) that comes with so much as a hint of political provocation. As he says, “Everyone on TV wants to be loved”. And you’re not creating love (translation: ratings) if you’re making some people irrationally angry.

But who, at this point in the climate change discussion, are we making angry? As Douglas and everyone who is actually conversant in science, peer review, climatology, core samples, etc. fully accepts, the “debate” over human causation is over. (Has been for years.) Those who continue to deny it, citing transparently fraudulent counter-studies (usually underwritten by the Koch brothers or other carbon producers), have no credible standing on the matter. They can make noise, bluster and rage, but from the perspective of everyone who can read a graph on carbon dioxide release, that crowd is the rhetorical equivalent of a drunk armed with the same handful of bogus bar stool talking points.

But as we’ve just seen in the Senate vote on universal background checks, an absurdly small minority of irrationally angry/misinformed citizens still has powerful influence over the well-being of the … vast … majority.

How to reverse that dynamic?

Ninety minute seminars for the choir will only do so much. Likewise, simply writing campaign checks to sympathetic politicians for election season ads has obvious effectiveness issues. Not the least of which is that the crushing majority of ads during a campaign cycle are little more than noise and annoyance to viewers.

My suggestion, both for gun control and climate science awareness, is an experiment in the full, sustained impact of … theater. Paul Douglas long ago learned and honed the techniques of performance. You have to engage and sustain an audience to get your message across. In terms of building broad cultural awareness, what if we combined the talents of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, two industries full of people who “get” the science and the consequences of doing nothing. (Add to them the military and insurance companies, two other entities long past the point of denying climate change.)

Given Hollywood’s progressive attitudes, I have to believe writers, directors, editors, actors and camera people, would fall over each other to be a part of a campaign producing PSAs on the reality of human activity on climate, pulling back the curtain on the disinformation industry, and the modest lifestyle changes that can be made (not to mention the employment opportunities in renewable energy). Ditto, a sustained campaign to further delegitimize the NRA, with the intent of rendering it inconsequential to the election prospects of Bible Belt and rural legislators.

The commonality of climate deniers and ardent gun “enthusiasts” is striking.

And the money for it? How much did Hollywood and uber-liberal fat cats pour into the 2012 election? How fast do musicians volunteer for the latest disaster relief telethon? How much of this kind of work could be had pro-bono? How much (if any) could the networks be pressured to provide at discount through their affiliates? (Okay, forget that one.)

Point being: The vast majority of the American audience is receptive to both messages, particularly on guns. The demographic downside is minimal. You’re not exactly pissing off the well-educated, top dollar crowd. Moreover the artful, entertaining application of humor, visuals and message association would likely have a solidifying effect among the young, much as gay rights has enjoyed, largely due to representations in the entertainment industry.

It’s one thing to ignore the angry rabble. It’s something better to neuter them into insignificance.






Yes, Please. Let’s Keep Calm.

NEW SLAUGHTERBad things have always happened, and always will. Even in a place as “exceptional” as the United States.

I think the majority of the public understands this on both an intellectual and emotional level. Something terrible could happen to any of us at any moment. Such is as life on this planet has always been. If not some meat-eating predator, it could be a drunk in the on-coming lane, or an over-armed psycho blasting away in a movie theater, or someone planting bombs on a public sidewalk as people cheer on a marathon race.

Continue reading “Yes, Please. Let’s Keep Calm.”

A Tradition Unlike Any Other

NEW SLAUGHTERKudos to Bob Costas, NBC Sports omnipresent host, for going where truly none of his high-profile, lavishly remunerated peers dare to go. On a phone interview with Dan Patrick, Costas discussed The Masters — the Holy of Holies of pro golf — and the coverage of said event, by CBS.

“What no CBS commentator has ever alluded to, even in passing, even during a rain delay, even when there was time to do so, is Augusta’s history of racism and sexism,” Costas said. “Even when people were protesting just outside the grounds — forget about taking a side — never acknowledging it. So not only will I never work the Masters because I’m not at CBS, but I’d have to say something and then I would be ejected.”

That this fairly objective observation has been considered news worthy and even provocative gives insight into the degree to which marketing, i.e. the buy-off of all forms of criticism and conflict, trumps basic journalism in major arenas of public “entertainment”. Costas, who freely took on a similar taboo by commenting on our national gun insanity during half time of a (gasp!) Sunday Night Football game last December, has precious little company when it comes to speaking his mind on matters of obvious relevance and/or performing the basic responsibilities of journalism. And in case his more PR-minded brethren have forgotten, “journalism” doesn’t have a lot to do with keeping “the client” happy and insulated from the realities of an interactive world.

To those who say, “Costas is an established superstar. He’s immune to executive blowback. He isn’t risking anything,” I say if that were all it is where are the likes of Al Michaels, Joe Buck, Jim Nantz and on and on in the context of dipping their toes in topics that pose problematic career scenarios? At an essential point, journalism requires courage. The profession is not about gilding the lilies of those paying bills, it’s about getting the whole story and telling that story come what may.

Friend of The Same Rowdy Crowd, John Reinan, (an ex-Stribber now making a living in the PR world), recently wrote about the startling imbalance between those marketing a story (i.e. “a message”) and those still in the game of straining slickly-produced bullshit for the truth of a personality, product or event.

Said Reinan,


  • During the last decade, revenue of PR organizations nearly tripled while revenue of news organizations was cut in half.
  • Over roughly the same period, employment in the PR business grew by 30 percent while the number of paid journalists dropped by more 25 percent.
  • Thirty years ago, there was about one PR person for every journalist. Today, PR pros outnumber journalists by better than a 3-to-1 ratio.”

And those are the numbers for those clearly identified with each profession. The problem with CBS — and their fawning, hyper-reverential Masters coverage is just a prime example — is that we are also living in a period when self-professed journalists, mainly in TV newsrooms, are merrily committing a form of “service journalism” essentially no different from PR houses.  Unpleasant backstories are ignored and avoided. Stories with unavoidable partisan facets, especially where one “side” could only be painted as flagrantly wrong or reckless were the full context reported, are massaged into something with broader digestibility. All, you understand, in the interests of serving “the client”, which is to say the ad revenue of advertisers who don’t like being associated with controversy.

But to confess: I say this as a guy whose antennae are always up for the classicist stench emitted by pro golf, The Masters in particular. How an event encumbered by the kind of racial and sexual attitudes it has maintained continues to be embraced for its embodiment of “achievement” and “grandeur” is a vivid testament to salesmanship over journalism.

My opinion of The Masters was confirmed a few years while talking to a “business friend” of Denny Hecker’s. (Hecker was dropping a ton of advertising coin on the guy’s business, and in turn the guy happily played Denny’s best buddy.) The two had just returned from Augusta. First class the whole way, baby. Corporate jet. Cocktails with a few of the pros. VIP privileges. The guy was beyond thrilled. The American Dream.

What sort of jerk would throw a wrench into that kind of action?

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?”

Another Tragedy at a School…

ImageToday’s news is dominated by yet another attack at a school; a still-unidentified assailant for reasons unknown crosses paths with 14 victims.  We used to count the interval between these events in years.  Now, it seems like months or even days.

Continue reading “Another Tragedy at a School…”

The $1,500 Question: Why Am I Paying Google to Beta Glass?

GoogleGlass_15Let’s start with the obvious.  I am a hopeless technophile and I need help.  I’m not a role model, I’m a cautionary tale.  I’m the people your parents would have warned you about if they had any idea how the future turned out.

The most recent proof of these truths is my – successful – application to be a “Glass Explorer” in Google’s project – Glass – to develop a wearable device that resembles a pair of glasses without lenses that projects a tiny image into the user’s right eyeball.  Think of it as computer that can be controlled with voice, gestures and taps with a display that sits in your field of vision. This project has been talked about for years and Google has offered various glimpses of the technology as it has developed.

Continue reading “The $1,500 Question: Why Am I Paying Google to Beta Glass?”

It’s Nerd-TV, and I Like It

NEW SLAUGHTERI really didn’t need that annual “State of the News Media” Pew survey a couple of weeks ago to tell me how badly TV has fallen out of the news business.

If you missed it, the gist is this: “In local TV, our special content report reveals, sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40% of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths shrink. On CNN, the cable channel that has branded itself around deep reporting, produced story packages were cut nearly in half from 2007 to 2012. Across the three cable channels, coverage of live events during the day, which often require a crew and correspondent, fell 30% from 2007 to 2012 while interview segments, which tend to take fewer resources and can be scheduled in advance, were up 31%.”

Like I said. Pretty much what you already know. Only with hard-edged percentages.

Local TV news was particularly notable for a substantial reduction in government reporting and a heightened emphasis on “live reports” which translates into “stuff we can shoot this afternoon and have on the air tonight”. What has been sacrificed is dissection and analyses of what government and business news actually means to viewers.  (No wonder you thought that Vikings stadium funding package was such a wonderful idea, if all you know about it came from TV).

To follow this devolution in “community service” to its natural conclusion, restaurant reviews and Lindsay Lohan sideboob will soon replace what is left of relevant civic issue coverage.

The cable story was notable for MSNBC being declared the clear leading perpetrator in the cheap and easy “interview” segments that have replaced what we used to think of as “news”. Why? Because actual reporting, international style, requires reporters and crews on airplanes and in faraway hotels running up a tab that diminishes shareholder value.

The shot at MSNBC is legitimate … as far as it goes. Never mind that MSNBC never was much a competitor to CNN, much less NBC News, (which seems to spend more money on medical segments for geezers and women than rattling cages on Capitol Hill).

But the Pew survey played in the same cycle as MSNBC was rearranging its primetime line-up (again), and this time for the (much) better.

Continue reading “It’s Nerd-TV, and I Like It”

Let’s Check our Stadium Chump-dom on the Replay

NEW SLAUGHTERThe decent thing to say would be that since all of us blunder from time to time we shouldn’t get all fiery righteous when our elected leaders screw the pooch, even in a really big, major league way.

But I won’t go there. Decency is above me. There were enough of us a year ago screaming that the NFL and the Wilf family were playing us and our top-tier politicians for provincial chumps that we get this moment. We get to screw the phony compassion and tolerance bit and enjoy a moment of sweet, sweet vindication.

Over the past week it has been revealed first by Jean Hopfensperger at the Strib and then amplified by Tim Nelson at MPR (who has followed the Vikings stadium financing saga better than anyone else in the local institutional media) that the state took it’s patently absurd estimates of likely revenue from expanded, electronic gambling … from the gambling industry intent on selling them the iPad-like machines needed to play. As you may have followed, the Dayton administration first said it was unaware of the source of the numbers that showed the state raking in an easy $67 million a year from a new feeding frenzy among barflys and rubes.  More than enough to cover the $348 million “share” the state (i.e. you and me) agreed to kick in to build the Vikings/NFL a new Xanadu-like football palace. Hell, Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans, an otherwise bright enough guy, even called those numbers “conservative”.

Ignore the fact no one had ever attempted to close a $348 million hole in a $970 million deal with this gimmick before.

After Dayton’s office offered that unfortunate “unaware of the source” explanation, Nelson checked the files and re-discovered a two year-old statement … by the Dayton administration … acknowledging that the aforementioned (absurd) numbers were coming from some gambling outpost in Florida. At which point the Team Dayton story switched to something like … “Well there were so many numbers flying around back then who could possibly keep them all straight?”

(And I ask you for chrissakes, Florida? Gambling experts? … in Florida? Mullets, dead manatees, shirtless hillbilly meth-heads hiding under double-wides? And no one was suspicious enough to get a second opinion? What if I said a Russian guy I know has a trunk full of Rolecks watches? Do you start lining up in the parking lot with rolls of Twenties?)

Continue reading “Let’s Check our Stadium Chump-dom on the Replay”

No Non-biological Parents Need Apply

Marriage is about procreation.

That’s what advocates of Proposition 8 said before the Supreme Court to support their case against gay marriage. And that’s what Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to be saying in the questioning at the Supreme Court yesterday. As The New York Times reported: “Chief Justice Roberts said history was on the side of traditional marriage. ‘The institution developed,’ he said, ‘to serve purposes that, by their nature, didn’t include homosexual couples.'”

Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan pointed out that sterile opposite-sex couples get married and couples beyond child-bearing years get married (the always-tasteful Justice Antonin Scalia joked about Strom Thurmond, who fathered a child in his 70s, but Scalia and Thurmond are exceptions in way too many ways). The questions and answers became quite tortured — not surprising on an issue so emotional and so reflective of people’s values and beliefs.

I have respect for people who feel earnestly on either side of this issue. My own thoughts have changed on gay issues in the past decades.

But two forces cry out here — history, and babies.

Dismissing history as a reason not to allow gay marriage is easy for me. History was on the side of slavery. History was on the side of denying equality to women — history is still there, as we see in the rapes in Egypt, where traditional religious leaders are blaming rapes on women becoming involved in the world outside their homes. History was on the side of Jim Crow and is still on the side of racial, ethnic, religious and gender discrimination.

History is a brute. We shouldn’t be ruled by it. Escaping history is a high calling of leaders and legislatures and courts.
Now, babies. Everybody loves babies. But making babies is not the only reason for committing to a relationship, and asserting that making babies is the only or the most-important reason for marrying is ludicrous and harmful, seems to me.

The presumption that women will create babies can eclipse women’s rights and aspirations and potential. Society has traditionally denied women equal standing in most of human endeavor — governing; running or even participating in the institutions of commercial, civic and social life; working outside the home; being taken seriously — so that women can bear and raise children.

Creating and raising children is holy and admirable. But it is not the only reason women exist.

And — seven billion isn’t enough?

Liberals often complain that conservatives are pro-life until the baby is born. Many of us liberals feel that conservative policies are harmful to children now, and harmful to the future, therefore harmful to our children’s children. (I know, conservatives believe this about our mounting debt, and they are right; we disagree on what to do about it.) But it does seem hypocritical to me to be so selectively concerned about children. Let’s stop debating marriage equality and address instead the devastating and growing income disparity in the U.S. and the world. That’s far more harmful to humanity old and young.

Seven billion isn’t enough? Do we need more kids? I don’t want to sound like Jonathan Swift here, but a modest proposal would say let’s not make growing the world’s population a central goal of our policies.

People get married for many reasons, not just for adding the seven-billion-and-first child to this groaning planet. They get married, mostly, to show love and commitment.

I’ve been married three times. That will disqualify what I say here in some people’s eyes. I get that. But here I go anyway. My first wife and I were too young to be ready for kids, and I wasn’t sure the marriage would last. Good thing we didn’t have kids. My second wife already had children, and I was privileged to be part of their raising. We didn’t need “our own.” My current and last wife, like me, has never felt that having biological children was central to her life. We’ve had the privilege to be involved in raising a niece — not the same as growing a kid from the ground up, but rewarding and challenging and wild.

I’ve entered into each of these marriages with joy and hope and commitment. The first two marriages eroded, and the commitment didn’t last. The divorces were sad and painful. In none of my marriages was the main purpose to create children and raise them to adults. Perhaps that’s why the first two didn’t last, one could argue. But that’s a narrow view of the purpose of marriage, which is my point. Marriage is about two people saying they want to live and grow together, and believing, even if wrongly, that they will do so forever. Marriage strengthens the couple, and strengthens society. And having parents who are in a strong marriage helps kids, no doubt about it. Gay or straight.

But marriage’s sole purpose, even its most important purpose, is not to grow children, seems to me.

And that’s just one of many reasons that gays should be allowed to marry. Period. End of story.

— Bruce Benidt

(Image from

A New Pope and the Unholy Sea

NEW SLAUGHTERIt’s an interesting coincidence that a new Pope arrives simultaneous with a survey that shows the United States has never had so little interest in organized religion. And that’s here in “The New World”, where despite Constitutional prohibitions against mixing church and state a politician would more likely campaign as a drooling, yellow-eyed pedophile than an atheist or an agnostic.

The study in question, concludes that 20% of Americans no longer have any religious affiliation, (and have no problem saying so), and that among self-described liberals the number spikes to 40%, with only 9% of conservatives admitting to not giving a damn what any minister says on Sundays.

That all feels about right. Although based on my personal bubble culture the no-affiliation/no attendance number probably floats up in the 70-80% range, but only because I’ve learned to trust and enjoy the company of pagans and heathens more.

I was raised Catholic. Not as in wearing horsehair underwear and barbed-wire scapulars. Mom and Dad were more of the small town, “Let’s get dressed up, show our faces and get down to hot pancakes and bacon before the Lutherans break camp” sect of mackerel snappers.

I can tell you the precise moment when “the spirit” of Catholicism left me. It was 1965. I was 14 and still believing what the nuns constantly warned us about. Namely, that if I was having, (or as they phrased it … “entertaining”) “impure thoughts” which, oh yeah, damned straight I was about every sweet and dewy girl in my class, I would for absolute certain writhe in a perpetual furnace of godly retribution … unless I confessed.

But when I tried, in the dark confessional, to an aged, disembodied voice on the other side of the screen, instead of some avuncular bromide about “learning to control our passions”, I got instead a whiff of clerical pederasty. Instead of a penance of a couple “Hail Marys”, I got a wheezy inquisition into exactly what I wanted to do to those tender young things … and to myself, assuming real live girls would remain an elusive prey?

I remember stopping in mid-sentence, processing the blinding realization of what apathetic wretch the guy was, and walking out. I could hear the old guy calling after me.”My son? MY SON?” and then stepping out of his Caligari-like cabinet and scanning the church for the succulent but impudent little pervert who declined the righteous forgiveness of the Lord Almighty.

When our two sons, Uday* and Qusay*, were young and incorrigible we briefly considered “re-connecting” with a parish here in the Twin Cities. That experiment ended on about the third Sunday, when the priest handed the (invariably irrelevant, innocuous and risk-free) sermon over to a local businessman. The guy, tarted up in a $1000 suit (it was the late ’80s) and TV anchor helmet hair, introduced himself as the chair of the newly-created building campaign and, like some Power Point from God, went on for a half hour about the $2 million we rubes were going to be expected to cough up for a new foyer, signage and “community space”.

I believe my first words to my family at that point were, “We’re outta here.” If there was a loose $2 million to be sucked out of that parish, I could come with a list of 2o impoverished Latin American villages and South Dakota Indian reservations that had a more pressing need for the money.

Watching the new Pope do his ritual wave from the balcony at St.Peter’s, I can’t help but be struck (again) by the common miseries of the Catholic church and American conservatives. To reiterate: Aged, predominantly white (to an absurd degree), male (ditto), laden with medieval sexual superstitions, sclerotic responses to science, cultural evolution and the role of women. The Vatican and the Tea Party/Conservative Political Action Conference. Pretty much the same ideological fringy-ness and intellectual intractability. (Although, the cardinals get points for better costuming and pageantry.)

I can still make a case for the role of a massive theocratic infrastructure in the 21st century. But only if that “church” is an indisputable reflection of modern society, with the unimpeachable priorities of re-balancing the distribution of wealth around the world and loudly condemning ideological-inspired warfare and international financial chicanery.

Until that time, (which is a long ways off), I’ll reflect on my innumerable sins while skiing through the forest on Sunday mornings.

* Not meant to be factual statements.

If we had something like Prime Minister’s Questions, Rand Paul wouldn’t have had to hold it for 13 hours

Rand Paul 2011

Matthew Feeney at Reason writes:

The recent filibustering of John Brennan’s nomination to the CIA by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was not only an entertaining and refreshing change to the usual proceedings on Capitol Hill, it also highlighted a deficiency in the American political system, namely that the president does not appear before legislators to take questions. While Rand Paul’s filibuster was an impressive physical and mental feat, I can’t help but think some time would have been saved if we somehow managed to introduce some parliamentary combativeness to the proceedings on Capitol Hill.

Every Wednesday at noon the British prime minister appears before the House of Commons to take questions from members of parliament. The leader of the opposition is granted a certain number of questions every session, and the speaker of the House of Commons calls on other members of parliament (who indicate they would like to ask a question by standing). The practice is part of British political culture and provides an element of theater to British politics that despite at times seeming childish does require that the prime minister be prepared to publically [sic] defend his government’s policies in front of hundreds of unsympathetic colleagues.

‘Tis a familiar refrain.

Where Have All the “Reader Advocates” Gone?

NEW SLAUGHTERAmong the things that continue to amaze me is how little thoughtful, generally well-informed people care about the steady demise of newspapers. It may be that after a half decade or more of hysterical death knells such people have stopped believing the Star Tribunes and Pioneer Presses of the world are really going to go away.

Or … it may be that even the thoughtful and generally well-informed have lost whatever emotional attachment they once had to papers, which is odd considering how the internet with its “comment”-ability would seem to offer more ability than ever for readers to interact — emotionally and otherwise — with those that deliver the news (as those that deliver news define news).

Word that the Washington Post has joined the list of papers dismissing their ombudsman — the allegedly independent voice that both solicited reader complaints and issued a judgment on the quality of the paper’s work —  seems like a good moment to address what’s wrong here. Largely, I’m in agreement with veteran media writer Jack Shafer, who writes:

“As conceived back in 1970, the ombudsman’s job was, in former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s words, “to monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy, and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise from time to time between the newspaper and its readers.” (Emphasis added.) The Post ombudsman was “resolutely autonomous,” Bradlee wrote. Working on contract rather than staff, the ombudsman was given the independence to write about whatever he wanted to write about. He couldn’t be assigned. He couldn’t be edited. And he couldn’t be fired …

But the occupants of this perch have generally shied away from using their power to inflict public punishment or embarrassment on the Post.  … No matter what the ombudsman’s background, the tendency has been to pull punches whenever the Post erred. Instead of roasting the paper for its transgressions, the ombudsman could be relied on to sympathize with the hard job of newspapering and gently explain the newsroom’s mistakes to readers. Worse yet, some ombudsmen have played Monday morning quarterback with their columns, detailing from the safe remove from deadline pressure how they would have assigned, reported, written and edited a flawed story had they been in charge.”

You will not be surprised to learn that neither of our two local dailies has ever turned such responsibility over to someone who wasn’t one of their paid and trusted employees, someone who could be counted on to “over”-represent the paper and apply team-think opacity rather than embarrassing transparency.

The reason for papers’ disinterest in the sort of brave and bold oversight Ben Bradlee suggested echoes a couple recent threads here on The SRC. Namely, the discussion after Bob Woodward’s pissy overreaction to a White House e-mail, and our new policy moderating the worst of the trolls.

Point being no one anywhere likes being told, in public, that they’re wrong, or that they’ve screwed-up, least of all journalists. Reporters and editors have extraordinarily high regard for their probity and wisdom, and already feel perpetually embattled by both cloddish know-nothings and smart-ass ideologues eager to witness their final fiery impact.

If there’s a walking hell worse than the person who outs a reporter for laziness, a breach of ethics, or an entire big city paper for timidity in the face of great civic peril, or gross conflict of interests (**VIKINGSSTADIUM!!**) I don’t know what it is. Maybe a snitch in the Baltimore drug trade. The social/professional peril for that person is nigh on to mortal. But it is what has to be risked to be of any real value, if  “reader advocacy” and “transparency” mean anything besides corporate buzz-blather for “return deflective fire”.

The reason neither local paper bothers with even the pretense of formal, regular, ongoing public accountability is that done badly and irregularly, it only serves to feed its enemies, the PowerLines of the world, adversaries determinedly selling the “reckless liberal bias” meme to their retrograde readership.

But that is almost precisely the reason to have a fully independent ombudsman, on duty throughout the day every day, rather than beard-stroking once every other Sunday. Here at SRC and other good blogs (if I must say so myself) our new “moderation” serves first to block out the worst of the socially maladjusted numbskulls, the inflamed clods who soil the punch bowl for everyone involved, while our interaction, generally speaking, has the intended effect of clarifying gaps in our original posts. (It doesn’t always work that way. But then we’re not always sober, unlike everybody working in newspapers.)

If the Star Tribune parked a Ben Bradlee-style ombudsman on its comment lines, sifting through the most trenchant complaint or observations and offering near-real time response, I kinda think the paper would win national kudos for getting its big boy/big girl pants on right and showing genuine courage in the face of enemy fire. Moreover, based on the comments we can all read on the Strib site, the majority of the complaints border on rank, ideological nonsense and can be easily dismissed with withering authority.

On the occasion that the paper or a reporter really shanks one into the woods … well, it’s not like no one noticed, and they only look worse when they send a hapless employee apologist out to explain how tough it is to do “great journalism” under deadline pressure and the vital need to sustain “open lines of communication” with powerful local business interests.

Just as no one gets ’em all right, the public institutions that try to imply a reputation both beyond and immune to reproach is really only baiting its enemies and dismaying its allies.

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