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All the News That Fits in a Day

Tonight is opening night for our annual amateur theatrical turn in the Gridiron Show, a satirical song-and-sketch revue that the local media types put on to raise money for the lost cause of journalism scholarships. That means last night was an exhausting dress rehearsal, followed by a cast gathering at Harry’s Uptown Bar & Grill, so it’s been hard to keep our usual keen eye on the news.
While working with our news-mongering friends, though, it’s been hard not to notice some worrisome stories about the news business. Foremost at the moment is the Sinclair Broadcasting Company’s attempt to add another 42 local television broadcasters to the 189 it already owns in 89 markets by taking over the Tribune Company’s television markets, which would give Sinclair access to 72 percent of the nation’s households and make it the largest local television operator in the country.
We’re usually not inclined to worry much about media monopolization, as the internet and the proliferation of cable channels and other market innovations a offer wider and more diverse range sources of news than ever, but this is troubling. Sinclair recently made news by forcing all of its news anchors to read from the same script criticizing other media for their biased “fake news,” a criticism frequently made by President Donald Trump, its outlets have a well-earned reputation for bias toward Trump, and there’s worry that it might be meant to curry favor with the Trump appointees on the Federal Communications Commission that has to give approval to Sinclair’s buy-out of Tribune’s local TV holdings.
Sinclair is certainly entitled to its pro-Trump point of view, and there are historically valid reasons why the federal government has the power to regulate over-the-public-airwaves broadcasts, but there’s something smelly about this.
The FCC gets to regulate the rather narrow range of over-the-public-airwaves radio and television broadcast frequencies because the radio stations used to amp up their broadcasts to the point they overwhelmed their competitors, and in the early days of television there were only four players, but even then there was a First Amendment and a broadly recognized understanding that the federal government did not have the right to regulate the content of whatever news any old news disseminator might disseminate. Networks rose and fell, newspapers rose and fell and merged, new news media emerged through some market innovation or another, but somehow the First Amendment always survived.
This time around, though, despite our preoccupations, we can’t help noticing Trump’s thumb on the scale. The president has lately “tweeted” Sinclair is far better than the “fake news” Cable News Network or the even more “fake news” National Broadcasting Corporation, along with his ongoing criticism of any print or radio or televised or internet critics as “fake news.”
At the same time, he’s been especially harsh in his criticisms of the Cable News Network, and “tweeted” misspelled insults against its chief executive officer, who used to head the news department at NBC, where Trump had once had a hit reality show and there expected better coverage. The gigantic media conglomerate that owns CNN is in the process of being sold to an even more gigantic entertainment-and-news media conglomerate, that also requires the approval of several federal regulatory agencies, including the Trump appointees, and that seems to be dragging out more than usual.
The big-media conglomerate that owns CNN is just as constitutionally entitled to it’s to anti-Trump views, as far as we’re concerned, and we don’t see any reason the government should be any more averse to its acquisition by by an even bigger media conglomerate than it should about Sinclair’s acquisition o the once-formidable Tribune company’s holdings. Let Sinclair buy up those local television stations, too, and in any case let the buyer beware.
In the long run we’ll let  the buyers beware, and after the past few weeks of rehearsal with our fellow local media types we’re heartened that they’ll also do their best.

— Bud Norman

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Mulling the Matter of Mueller and Trump

President Donald Trump and his lawyers and all his unpaid supporters in congress and the Trump-friendly media seem quite cocky that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the past presidential election will completely vindicate Trump of any wrongdoing, but just in case they also want you to know that Mueller fellow can’t be trusted.
There’s an obviously coordinated effort by Trump administration and family members and the more loyal congressional Republicans and Fox News and several prominent talk radio hosts afoot to discredit Mueller and his staff, and it’s lately intensified. Donald Trump Jr. recently warned the “USA Student Action Summit” of college-aged Republicans that “there are people at the highest levels of America who don’t want America to be America.” Some Republican congressmen are calling for a special counsel to investigate Mueller’s special counsel investigation, citing some leaked e-mails and other evidence they believe prove it’s all what Trump himself often calls a “witch hunt.” The Fox Network’s “Judge” Jeanine Pirro wants unnamed-but-Mueller-affiliated peopled hauled off “in cuffs,” and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Mark Levin have lately spent most of their combined nine hours of broadcasts on a local talk radio station casting further aspersions on Mueller and his fellow investigators.
They always note that several members of Mueller’s team have given generous campaign donations to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, which is undeniably true and worth noting, but they never note that so did Trump’s top lawyer Ty Cobb and favorite daughter Ivanka Trump and that idiot husband of her’s who’s somehow a top senior advisor to the White House in charge of solving everything from America’s opioid crisis to Middle East peace, and that Trump himself was once a generous funder of Clinton’s senatorial campaigns and the Clinton family foundation that his supporters now want to investigate. They relish in the suspiciously leaked e-mails between a couple of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who were having an adulterous sexual relationship and sharing sharply anti-Trump sentiments, but they rarely acknowledge they also shared anti-Clinton and anti-Bernie Sanders and anti-pretty-much-everyone-else sentiments, and that Mueller reassigned both of those bitter agents as soon as he got wind of their outspoken political opinions.
The Trump apologists have some outraged and undeniably true allegations about the past administration’s tapped phones calls of Trump campaign and administration officials, but they don’t mention that the phones being tapped belonged to Russian officials, which Republicans and other conservatives have always wanted tapped. They might have some plausible legal arguments that the Americans on other side of those conversations shouldn’t have been “unmasked,” in the legal jargon, but they’d just wind up making the argument that it’s a bigger scandal that attempts to track a political nominee’s possible collusion with a Russian plot to affect an American presidential election is more abhorrent than the plot itself.
We’ve been Republicans long enough that we still feel the pain of President Richard Nixon going down for his ultimately undeniable misdeeds, and we assess the current situation accordingly. Given how complicated this is, our instinct is to take measure of both Trump and Mueller by some blind test of the two Republicans.
One of the two is a life-long Republican. He was born into a fairly well-to-do family as the son of a high-ranking DuPont executive, and excelled as a student and athlete at the rigorous prep school he was able to attend, and his high marks earned hi admission to Princeton, where he graduated with honors and bachelor’s degree in political science while starring on the lacrosse team. After earning a master’s degree in international relations from New York University he volunteered for service in the Marine Corps and won numerous combats medals including the Purple Heart for his service in the Vietnam War.
After Vietnam subject A earned a law degree from the University of Virginia, and after three years of distinguished service to a prestigious law firm in San Francisco commend a distinguished career of public service as a U.S. attorney in northern California. In the Reagan year of 1982 he was moved over to the Massachusetts district, where he enhanced his reputation by uncovering all sorts of Democratic misbehavior there. After another brief but noteworthy stint in Boston’s private sector he was nominated by Republican President George W. Bush as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was unanimously confirmed the senate, and served another two years in the post at the request of Democratic President Barack Obama.
He’s also been a lifelong Republican all along, and been married to the same woman, and is not only an Eagle Scout but generously endows a college scholarship for other Eagle Scouts, and as lifelong Republicans and improbable Eagle Scouts we can’t help but like the guy.
Subject B was a Democrat and an independent and Reform Party candidate before becoming the winning nominee and putative leader of the Republican party. He’s the son of a multi-millionaire real estate mogul who was once arrested in a Ku Klux Klan riot, and he was such a proudly defiant punk his father sent off to a military school, where he did well enough in sports but was such a middling student that he wound up at Fordham University for two years. His rich dad made enough contributions to the low-level Ivy League University of Pennsylvania that he was admitted there, and would always lie that he graduated from it’s more prestigious master’-level Wharton School of Business. After that a doctor found some bone spurs that prevented him serving in the Vietnam War but didn’t seem interfere with his much bragged-about-golf game, and he went on to a much-bragged about fortune in real estate and reality television that he freely brags was facilitated by political bribes, and survived several bankruptcies and lawsuits about his penchant for not paying bills and currently has an undeniably odd relationship with his third wife and a penchant for gratuitous insults to fellow Republicans.
Even the blind know by now that Subject B is the President of the United States and the putative leader of our Republican party, but if it comes down to who you’re gonna believe we can’t help a certain affinity for Subject A in our blind test. We’ll let them sort out their arguments in the court of public opinion and the inevitable courts of law and hope that some semblance of our old-fashioned Republicanism survives this awful mess.

— Bud Norman

A Friendly Evening With the Last of the Media

Several of the last remaining members of the local news media got together Monday night at a friend’s nearby house, and as you might expect it was a rather glum affair. The ostensible purpose of the gathering was to plan for the local Society of Professional Journalists chapter’s annual fund-raising satirical revue, so there was plenty of wine and beer and wise-cracking to go with the chicken tacos, and everyone seemed glad see one another, but the free-flowing jokes kept taking a dark turn. No one was happy about the winner of the presidential race, not even the one or two of them we suspect share our equal or greater disdain for the losing candidate, and everyone had to admit that business hasn’t been great lately.
There were a couple of relative youngsters in attendance who still work at the local newspaper, and another five of us relative oldsters once who toiled there, and we all tried to laugh about what has become of it. These days it’s an undersized and over-priced publication, full of wire stories and copy from the chain’s other papers and plenty of locally-produced fluff pieces. The paper devotes much of its remaining resources to covering local high sports, which is among the only news you can’t get quicker and for free on the internet, and seems less interested in what’s going on with the city and county and state governments, news which is also hard to come by on the internet and arguably more important. Those relative youngsters seemed an earnest pair, to the point they struck us as lacking in the requisite cynicism for the job, but they got all the morbid jokes the relative oldsters were telling.
We signed on to the paper as a copy boy with the glorified title of “editorial assistant” a few months before President Ronald Reagan won election, and although we were the only ones in the newsroom who were happy about that at least business was going great. This was shortly after pretty much every city in the country had become a one-newspaper town, just before Reagan repealed the “Fairness Doctrine” and unleashed talk radio on the nation, well before Al Gore invented the internet, and for a while there our monopoly newspaper was not only printing copies that were shipped from one end of the state to another but also seemed to be printing money. Some J-school-educated rabble rousers kept threatening to unionize and management quelled every rebellion with a generous raise, new hires were being added to crowded and still smoke-filled newsroom and given generous expense accounts to spread out across the state and muck rake or fly to New York to cover the Broadway openings or fashion shows, by the time we worked our way up to a byline in every public office lived in fear of a reporter knocking on the door or ringing their phone, and we were a pretty cocky bunch.
By the time we left after a quarter of a century in a fit of depression it was hard to get gas money to travel into the three other counties where the paper was still distributed, bureaucrats and politicians would scoff at any pesky questions they were asked if they even bothered to return a call, and the charts at the every month-or-so staff meetings kept showing a downward trend in readership and ad revenues. A big part of the problem was technological progress, which had suddenly allowed stock investors access to up-to-minute quotes and rendered our day day-after information obsolete, and provided crossword puzzles and comic strips and major league baseball standings and five-day weather forecasts at a moment’s notice and a 100 percent discount, and worse yet created Craigslist and other more desirable alternatives to the classified ads that were once the bread-and-butter of ink-on-print media, but we must admit the desultory quality of the product was also largely to blame. Despite our up-from-copy efforts the paper reflected the condescending attitudes of the corporate headquarters and the J-schools from which it sprung far more than the diners and factory break rooms where the paper was read, its crusades against nuclear energy and in favor of subprime loans are ridiculous in retrospect, it’s easily detectable bias against Republicans was not a sensible business policy in a red state such as Kansas, and we’re not surprised by what’s happening to it now.
The presses stopped rolling at the local newspaper building some time ago, with the few copies required to sate local demand being printed at the former bitter rival and now corporate sister newspaper in Kansas City, and soon the paper will be leaving it altogether. One of the big agribusiness conglomerates has bought the building for some purpose or another, we can’t really say since we’re reliant on the local media for such information, and the paper has announced will be moving elsewhere, possibly somewhere in the Old Town portion of downtown but by all accounts in someplace much smaller. Within a few years our local newspaper will likely be peddling its undersized fare at overpriced fees via only the internet, so there’s no need for the extra room those delightful deaf printers with their hand signals that could be heard over the din and those scraggly inserters recruited from the nearby skid row used to take up. There’s talk that the big agribusiness conglomerate will tear the building down, and we can’t say we’d miss it much, as it’s a garishly ugly old concrete example of modernism.
Monday’s party also allowed us to catch up with some local radio and television journalists, all of whom are fine people who come up with some important stories now and then, especially when there’s a tornado or some other local event that the internet hasn’t caught up to, but as much as enjoyed seeing them they didn’t have much good news to tell. Ratings are down everywhere, also a clear result of technological progress and professional ineptitude, and as night follows day so are the ad revenues, so all the talk was of budget cuts and skeletal crews and the inevitable resulting screw-ups. A few of us in attendance at the gathering are practitioners of the “alternative media” that have also done so much to undermine the ancien regime of media, but we certainly weren’t any more bullish about the business. The funds that our annual amateur theatrics raise are for journalism scholarships, and after a couple of beers or glasses of wine everyone in the show laughingly agreed that it was a hopelessly lost cause.
We can attest that everyone at the gathering had pursued a journalism career with good intentions, and assume the same thing about most people who pursue such a low-paying and thankless occupation, although in some in cases we’re reminded of that old adage about the road to hell, and we sensed a certain sadness about how it seems to have all come to naught. The blame for this desultory election can be widely spread, across both parties and the entirety of a declining American culture, from the hedonistic groves of Hollywood that promoted one tawdry candidate to the hypocritical evangelicals who made excuses for the tawdry other, but surely some of it goes to the remnants of the news media. Trump voters must admit that the mainstream media ran plenty of stories about Clinton’s probably felonious e-mails and other assorted scandals, even if they didn’t get as prominent a placement on the front page as Trump’s latest idiotic “tweet,” and Clinton voters are all the more obliged to admit that Trump’s countless appalling scandals were more breathlessly covered, even if the networks did devote a lot more time to him than all of his more respectable Republican primary challengers combined, but such even-handedness couldn’t avert this awful election.
By now no individual medium has any noticeable effect on events. Technological progress has brought us to a time when people can choose only new sources that confirm what they already believe, and most choose to do so. Our liberal friends challenge any uncomfortable fact by saying “Where did you hear that, on Faux News,” our conservative friends dismiss anything that’s been reported in “The New York Slimes” or “The Washington Compost,” with the damning italics sneeringly implied, and almost everyone gets their news from Facebook or some slightly dubious-sounding e-mail from a friend of family member. We regard it all with a hard-earned suspicion, and an equally hard-earned understanding that it might just be true, and do our best to make discerning judgments after further digging into more definitive sources, but these days that’s no way to make a living.
Our show will go on, we suppose, and so will the ancien regime media and its many alternatives, and we hope that the First Amendment and the rest of our republic will as well. Still, it seems a rather glum affair at this point.

— Bud Norman

Another What-If Episode

Many of the old television shows that used to take up far too much of our childhood would occasionally encounter a creative lull about mid-season and resort to the old gimmick of having the characters transported by harp music and a wavy dissolve into some alternate reality. What if the guys at WJM had met the irresistible Mary Richards when they were single, or Felix and Oscar had never met? What if Gilligan or the Skipper had bothered to check the damned weather forecast before that three-hour cruise?
The Republican Party’s reality show of a presidential nomination race was reduced to the same hackneyed formula Thursday night, inviting viewers to imagine the storyline without the love-him-or-hate-him star-of-the-show-as-always Donald J. Trump. Being on the booing-and-hissing side of the divide of the show’s fans, we happily accepted the invitation.
If you’ve been binge-watching the series thus far with the same rapt attention as ourselves, you already know that Trump wrote himself out of the script because the episode was being broadcast by the Fox News Network, which always elicits booing and hissing from the left and is now the hated by the supposed savior of the right because it employs Megyn Kelly, a most comely and seemingly competent broadcast journalist who had the lese majeste in an earlier to episode to ask Trump about his longtime habit of calling her less comely sisters by such names as “‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.'” When Trump responded afterwards that the seemingly calm and undeniably comely Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes” and “blood coming out of her wherever” it seemed to us to prove her implied point yet nonetheless improved his poll numbers, and viewers will recall it it was one of the highest-rated episodes ever. Trump declined the long-anticipated sequel, with all his fanzines proclaiming it a stroke of tactical genius, and next Monday night’s much-anticipated “Iowa Caucus and Actual Voting” episode might yet prove it so, but we’re hopeful the next episode will reawaken to a different storyline.
Trump might have reasonably calculated that he would be all the more conspicuous by his absence from Thursday night’s episode, but he was only mentioned in passing. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the main rival for the love-him-or-hate-him starring role, got some laughs by doing some Don Rickles shtick and saying “that concludes the Trump portion,” and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is the embodiment of the hated “establishment” hovering over the whole series even in the harp-music-and-wavy-dissolve transition to an alternate reality, sounding quite reasonable and even statesmanlike as he noted the higher tone of the proceedings. For the most part, it was pleasantly easy to close one’s eyes and imagine what it would have been like in an “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Donald J. Trump had never been born. All the candidates would still be talking about the unavoidable costs of both illegal and legal immigration to be weighed against their widely doubted benefits, there would still be same unavoidable discussion about Islamic terrorism and all the other international problems the Democrats don’t seem to want to talk about, there would d be the same talk about free markets and individual liberty, only without all the bragging by the front-runner about the politicians he’s bought off and the powers he would seize, the hated “establishment” would still be hated no matter how reasonable and statesmanlike it sounded, and the storyline would still be lively enough to generate some ratings.
Even in the would-be world of Thursday night’s debate there was a love-him-or-hate-him character in Cruz, and although we’re inclined to love him we think he got the worst of his first night in the crossfire. His opening bit about Trump’s tiring insult comic act played well enough, but a later attempt at ironic humor seemed to backfire when the audience didn’t seem to get his joking threat to leave the stage if he got any more tough questions. His reasonable arguments for his consistent resolve on illegal immigration inevitably got bogged down in talk of amendments and parliamentary procedure and all that stuff that even federal neophytes are bogged down with, and his blunt talk about those ridiculous ethanol subsidies that are so beloved in first-in-line Iowa and hated everywhere else probably did him little good in Iowa but boosted him past the absent Trump everywhere else, so some blows were clearly landed. He came off with the requisite ratings-grabbing feistiness, and landed a few blows of his own here and there, but he probably should have more relished the villain’s role.
There were some good lines by the unimportant New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the bumptious but establishment guy, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the establishment but bumptious guy, and even the loony libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and as always we thought retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was quite good with his brief few lines, and Bush somehow didn’t come across the least bit villainous, but the surprising co-star of the night was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Longtime fans of the show know Rubio was the handsome and youthful character who was once the true-blue conservative hero of an earlier season but then fell in with the Gang of Eight who conspired to unleash the immigrant hordes upon America, and has since been on a mission of penance, but he made a good accounting of himself. He swore his newfound toughness and noted the similarly evolving position of the anti-immigrant horde Trump, who bravely chose to not be around to defend himself from the undeniable charge, and he rightly noted that he was at least more anti-immigrant horde than Bush or any of those other guys, and he bogged Cruz down in all that talk of amendments and parliamentary procedure, and he wound up sounding more electable in a general election than the rest of them.
After the next round of harp music and slow dissolves we’ll be back to real world where there really is a Donald J. Trump, and all that entails, and by late Monday night or early Tuesday morning we’ll find out how the story resumes. We’ve also been watching the Democrats’ mini-series, which is weirder yet, and we’re starting to worry that might be the weirdest of these reality shows.

— Bud Norman

Whatever Happened to the Democratic Race?

A few of our neighbors have planted “Bernie ’16” signs in their lawns, enough of them that we pass by one on any route out of Riverside, but otherwise we might have plumb forgotten that the Democratic party is also having a presidential primary race. The only mention of it we’ve seen lately in the press was Foxnews.com’s report on how the press isn’t mentioning it, and the matter rarely comes up in conversation.
There are perfectly innocent explanations for this, of course. Conventional wisdom and the most up-to-date polling hold that Hillary Clinton’s coronation is all but inevitable, and the Republican race has the attention-grabbing presence of Donald Trump, so it’s understandable that any editors with an eye on circulation figures or overnight ratings would go where the action is. Still, there’s something slightly suspicious about all that silence from the Democratic side.
We’re always suspicious of conventional wisdom and up-to-date polling, for one thing, especially when it doesn’t quite jibe with the anecdotal evidence we encounter in everyday life. Just about every Democrat we know is for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, his yard signs and bumper stickers and lapel pins seem to vastly outnumber Clinton’s around here, and we haven’t yet heard anyone express anything resembling enthusiasm about a potential Clinton presidency. Even if those up-to-date poll numbers are correct the Clinton lead isn’t so large Trump’s in the Republican race, and the conventional wisdom hasn’t yet resigned itself to his inevitability, so for now at least her nomination doesn’t seem any more a foregone conclusion than it was the last time she ran.
As recently as last summer there was a flurry of news about Clinton’s use of a private and unsecured and most likely illegal e-mail server, which led to a renewed interest in her failed Libya policy and the resulting murder of an ambassador and three other Americans in that anarchic country, and the big and enthusiastic crowds that Sanders was drawing was also a hot topic. The e-mail scandal continues to unfold, and there was some slight attention paid to the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation assuring that a strictly apolitical criminal investigation also continues, which seems a rather big deal, and so far as we can gather from scattered local newspaper reports Sanders is still packing the young folks in and racking up a large war chest from small donations, which is slightly reminiscent of the last time Clinton ran and turned out to not be inevitable, yet the stories have stopped.
Last summer’s coverage of the Clinton campaign was so uncharacteristically harsh that we assumed it was intended to clear a path for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Vice President Joe Biden or any other remotely credible Democrat to get into the race, but Warren and Biden both bowed out and there was a sudden realization that there are no other remotely credible Democrats, even by Warren and Biden standards, and ever since we’ve heard only that deafening silence. Better by far to focus on the Republican race, and to give Trump 25 times the attention paid to the rest of the field, and to make sure all coverage has that familiar sorrowful tone about it. The Democratic party’s big-wigs are doing their part by scheduling few debates, scheduling them against the most popular sports broadcasts on Saturday nights, and making sure the candidates are both boringly nice to one another. With Sanders pitching in by stubbornly refusing to go negative, despite the target-rich environment Clinton offers, and despite an anti-establishment sentiment among the Democratic base is that every bit as palpable as the more widely remarked one on the Republican side, we don’t expect to hear much about the Democrats until convention time.
It might work, but we can’t recall the last time any party won a national election by staying out of the news.

— Bud Norman

The Washington Post’s Latest Scoop

Nothing so warms as the heart as a good old journalistic screw-up, especially when the self-righteous watchdogs of democracy and unforgiving judges of other people’s failures in the most almighty media are forced to admit that they are also mere humans. We had a good chuckle, therefore, to hear about The Washington Post’s premature announcement that Vice President Joe Biden has entered the Democratic presidential race.
The story was quickly retracted, profusely apologized for, and we don’t for a moment believe there was any nefarious intent. There was a for-internal-use-only “slug” on top of the story and “XX” markings where information was apparently supposed to be updated, so it was clearly pre-written copy intended to be used in the event that Biden did announce his candidacy, and some unlucky Postman or another simply hit a “send” rather than a “save” button and inadvertently thus sent it out over the internet. Anyone who thinks that the mistake indicates some inside knowledge of a Biden candidacy should know the paper almost certainly has another story in its computer files about how Biden has announced he isn’t running, and that it could have just as easily been the one that was published by a click on the wrong button.

We have some sympathy for the accidental offender, as even our humble operation has occasionally clicked on the “publish” icon rather than the “saved” icon and thus sent out unfinished and un-headlined columns to those readers kind enough to “follow” us on their “mobile devices” or those who just happened drop by during the short interval before the article was finished and headlined, although we can proudly note that has only resulted in some momentary confusion and a chance to watch how our word craft is so carefully polished, and it has never obliged us to apologize that what we posted was completely untrue, even if it was slightly incoherent. During our long years of toil for the local newspaper we gave first-hand witness to some truly spectacular and thoroughly retracted journalistic screw-ups, too, and on one occasion long ago very early in our obituary-writing days it was entirely our fault, so we try not to be too judgmental or self-righteous about such things. Still, this error seems to have resulted from journalistic tendencies that can be easily corrected.
Almost of all of those spectacular and thoroughly retracted journalist screw-ups we witnessed first-hand resulted from some editor or another’s insistence that the truth be written up and published before it could possibly be known. On one still locally infamous occasion two of the local aircraft manufacturers were vying for a sizable military contract, and in a city where aviation is still the most significant component of the local economy the editors were very interested in the outcome of the competition, and the poor fellow on the aviation beat, who was a good reporter and a buddy of ours, was under intense pressure to announce the result before the government or any of the television stations did. He buckled under and went with his best sources and best guess, both of which turned out to be completely wrong, and the winning company paid for a full-page in the local media’s satirical “Gridiron” revue to show a photo-shopped Harry Truman holding up the local newspaper’s headline where “Dewey Beats Truman” used to be. Our friend’s career never recovered, the careers of the editors who insisted on reporting the news before it happened never suffered, and we see it happen all the time.
Editors seem all the more eager to publish the truth they prefer before it can possibly be known. Nearly every mass shooting, even the frequent ones that occur abroad, usually begin with editorial assumptions that soon require more inconspicuous retractions. Natural catastrophes and real unemployment rates during Republican administrations seem prone to inconspicuous retractions than during Democrat administrations, too, and we can’t count how many times the “Tea Party” has been inconspicuously retracted from stories. Pretty much all the coverage of the unpredictable Democratic and Republican presidential primaries has been unaccountably cocksure, and the watchdogs of democracy and unforgiving judges of other people’s faults seem as ever.
Not that we’re entirely averse to the time-honored newspaper practice of writing up two plausible alternative stories in advance, just in case you’re right enough to be able to get a few minutes ahead of the competition. Many election cycles ago we were relegated to some forgettable congressional race, and as our deeply buried dispatches warned it turned out to be a nail-biter. Foreseeing this we had written three stories, with lots of “XX” markings for last-minute-before-deadline information, and one proclaimed candidate “A” the victor and the other one candidate “B,” and the third apologizing that as of press time no victor was apparent, yet even 10 minutes before deadline our editor was demanding a submission. With the latest polling numbers showing a single-digit margin we agreed to hand in the third option, but she rather haughtily insisted we tell our readers the outcome whether we knew it or not. She wound up as a the big-time editor at a newspaper down south, which happened to be one of the last two-newspaper towns left in America and where her drunken-driving arrest was front page fodder for the competitor, and we’re proud to say we withheld our byline from any story that purported to tell the truth before it was known.
Those pre-written stories almost always need to be re-written, too. By the time Biden does or doesn’t get into the race the storyline will be much different, and will need to include Donald Trump’s latest “tweet,” and the who, what, where, when, and why of a couple day’s ago will seem incoherent by the time paper hits your front door step, and your best bet to spare you a spectacular journalistic scandal and complete retraction is that third option conceding that you really don’t know what the hell is going on. So long as you keep your computer files free of any more cocky files, you won’t have this kind of embarrassment. Besides, the presses run all night and you’re going to be on the doorsteps of your readers before they wake up, and after the electronic media have beat you to the wrong story, so take a little extra time to get it right.

— Bud Norman

Stephanopoulos and an Unsurprising Scandal

As much as we relish a good scandal, they rarely tell us anything we didn’t already know about the people involved. Consider the current contretemps concerning George Stephanopoulos of the American Broadcasting Company and his failure to disclose the $75,000 contribution he made to the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. It seems to be a big deal because it makes Stephanopoulos look like a partisan hack rather than the objective journalist he claims to be, and the sleazy sort who won’t disclose his conflicts of interests, but none of that will be surprising to anyone who’s paid attention to his career.
Stephanopoulos in usually described as a “former political advisor to President Bill Clinton” but is better remembered as the guy in the Clinton “War Room” who was always ordering in the napalm strikes, and he’s continued in the same role ever since joining the ABC news division. His critics are charging that the undisclosed $75,000 contributions to his old employer’s favorite charity sheds new light on his recent combative interview with the author of a book exposing the corruption of that same foundation, in which Stephanopoulos asserted that his network colleagues could find no “shred of evidence” to support the book’s claims and alleged that the author was unbelievable due to his past association with the George W. Bush administration, and their point is well taken. Still, even before the revelations about Stephanopoulos’ rather hefty contributions to the Clintons the interview was widely ridiculed for its assertion that there was nothing of note in a book that had already been largely corroborated by The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as the ridiculous spectacle of Stephanopoulos accusing anybody of being a partisan hack. The estimable journalist Byron York even took the occasion to remind readers of a column dating way back to 1996 when Stephanopoulous took the ABC job that predicted pretty everything that has transpired since.
The latest scandal should be helpful in some ways, nonetheless. A few savvy Republicans have taken the opportunity to decline interviews with ABC news, and pretty much all of them have come to the common sense conclusion that Stephanopolous shouldn’t be invited to moderate any more of they party’s primary debates, although they should have figured it out last time around when he kept pressing all the candidates with impossibly hypothetical questions about contraception that had no point but to further the Democrats’ planned campaign theme that the Republicans were waging a “war on women.” The widespread coverage of Stephanopoulous’ contributions and the general acknowledgement that it is indeed a scandal, along with the widespread coverage of the shady nature of that foundation he contributing to, should further erode the Clintons’ popularity, although that should have vanished long ago due to their countless scandals. A sort of apology has been no doubt painfully extracted from Stephanopoulos, which provides some satisfaction, although ABC has generously accepted it and seems ready to move on to the next biased report.
There’s also a faint hope that more people will stop regarding Stephanopoulos’ journalism as anything but partisan political hackery, although we expect that much of what’s left of ABC’s viewership will mind that at all.

— Bud Norman

The Good Ol’ Days of Media

The old media are dying, and Tina Brown mourns their passing. That she is one of the causes of the death of old media, and another reason to celebrate it, seems not to have occurred to her.
For those of you who are enviably unaware of Tina Brown, she used to be a big deal in the old media. After making a name for herself in the rough-and-tumble Fleet Street journalism of her native England, she emigrated to the United States in the ’80s to edit Vanity Fair and became as notable a celebrity as any of the rich and famous subjects of that plutographic magazine’s posterior-kissing stories. In the early ’90s she took control of The New Yorker, where she cured that one-venerable publication’s stodgy reputation for literary excellence with an infusion of Vanity Fair-style frivolousness. The resulting revival of The New Yorker’s fortunes made her such a sensation that she signed a lucrative deal with Miramax Films to become a multi-media mogul, which resulted in the short-lived and utterly forgettable Talk Magazine and a boutique publishing house that released titles by the likes of Queen Noor of Jordan and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of Clintonland. Since then she’s started The Daily Beast, which is one of the internet’s more widely read sites but a mere internet site nonetheless, and when the site bought comatose Newsweek for the bargain basement price of $1 she wound up as editor of that. Now she’s written a whopper of an editorial for The Daily Beast about the media in wake of the sex scandal involving President Bill Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky, and the unsurprising gist of it is that she’s nostalgic for the good old days when she was a big deal.
The editorial is well worth reading, as it is a masterpiece of self-serving snarkiness and a perfectly illustrative example of what is really killing off the old media. She opens with worries that Lewinsky’s recent reappearance in the news “plunges us straight back into the frothing world of ’90s gossip,” as if she had not become rich and famous in that same frothing world, but bravely marches into her subject because “It may be painful but it answers so many questions about today’s media.” The pain apparently derives from having to recall l’affaire Lewinsky, with its “appalling cast of tabloid gargoyles who drove the scandal.” She doesn’t mean the serial sexual predator who used his position as President of the United States to exploit a starry-eyed and dim-witted twenty-something in his employ, but rather those nasty people who told the truth about it. Even after all these years Brown feels obliged to heap scorn on Linda Tripp, who was dragged into the scandal because she had the misfortune to befriend Lewinsky, and is described by Brown as a “treacherous thatched-roof-haired drag-queen” with “dress-for-success shoulder pads. Conservative commentator and activist Lucianne Goldberg gets similarly snooty treatment, being described as a “cackling, fact-lacking hack.” Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who did the job he was given by Congress all too diligently, is explained as a “mealy-mouthed Pharisee.” The greatest object of Brown’s scorn, however, is the pioneering internet journalist who broke the Lewinsky scandal with a post about how Newsweek had nailed down the story but declined to run it. “Hitting ‘send’ on each new revelation that no one else would publish, the solitary, perfectly named Matt Drudge,” is how Brown introduces the real villain of her piece, “operating in pallid obsession out of his sock-like apartment in Miami.”
None of Brown’s “tabloid gargoyles” were using the Oval Office of the White House to do cigar tricks with a young woman who would soon be subjected to their politics of personal destruction, nor were they guilty of the tawdry and boorish behavior by the president that soon were revealed in the light of the Lewinsky investigation, but Brown somehow faults them for “driving” the scandal. There would have been no scandal to drive if Clinton had acted as a responsible married president rather than a lecherous reprobate, but Brown apparently finds that more forgivable than telling the truth about a politician with the correct opinions and right party affiliation. What’s most unforgivable, in Brown’s telling of the saga, is that “The press was at the height of its power when the Monica story began, and Drudge was its underbelly. The ascendant media that looked down on him has been pretty much destroyed.”
This is a bad thing, Brown explains because it is “how the death of privacy started.” She’s not referring to the National Security Agency’s snooping into every American’s phone records, or the mysteriously unsealed divorce records of candidates who challenge Barack Obama or formerly anonymous plumbers who ask him questions that provoke controversial answers, or the Internal Revenue Service’s illegal interest in the donors who contribute to causes the president dislikes, or any of the other troubling concerns about privacy that have nothing whatsoever to do with conservative journalism, but rather the outrageous idea that a president can’t exploit an intern without having to read about it on some arriviste web site. Perhaps Brown would hold steadfast to the same conviction that what happens inside the Oval Office isn’t a legitimate matter of public interest even when a Republican occupies it, but there is reason for doubt. We can’t recall Brown complaining about the Special Prosecutor who spent millions hunting for imaginary witches in the phony-baloney Valerie Plame investigation that dogged the Bush administration and found nothing but a small fish named “Scooter” telling an inconsequential lie about a scandal that didn’t happen in the first place, and we can’t imagine her ever employing such mean-girl insults against any women on her side of the political divide no matter how thatched-roof-haired or cackling they might be.
So long as it’s acceptable to speculate in print about others’ motives, we’ll venture that Brown is mostly miffed that the once-ascendant media that are still looking down their patrician noses at the upstarts have indeed pretty much been destroyed. For Brown, who enjoyed considerable prestige, power, and an unequal income in the ancien regime, it must be a bitter disappointment to see the likes of Matt Drudge with millions more readers and vastly greater power to make the public aware of a story. That these uncouth sorts who would have never besmirched the pages of Vanity Fair or The New Yorker during Brown’s reign are using that usurped power to expose facts that don’t serve Brown’s preferred politics is surely all the more galling. Lewinsky made her comeback in Vanity Fair, the folks who bought Newsweek for a dollar are now looking to sell it at all, the only television news organization that concerns itself with Democratic scandals is trouncing the competition in the ratings war, and obscure internet sites from obscure places such as Wichita, Kansas, are snearing back at Brown, and that has to hurt as well. Ah, for the good old days of monopoly media and unchallenged opinion-making power when a president could exploit an intern in the Oval Office or lie about a terrorist attack without any pesky questions being asked.
We can well understand such nostalgia, as we were working for a mid-sized newspaper back in the days after every town had been reduced to one daily and before talk radio and the internet and new means of classified advertising changed everything. The money was good, better than in most of the industries that the editorialists railed against for their corporate greed, and there was a satisfying sense of power in hearing the fear in a politician’s voice when you called up with a good question, and there was an even more seductive sense of power in knowing that anyone who wanted to know where the Kansas City Royals stood in the American League Western Division standings or the latest quote on that hot stock they bought or which of their neighbors had recently been arrested had to pony 50 cents for the latest copy of whatever we decided to print. For all their cocksure predictions about the dire future that others were inflicting on the world the titans of journalism never saw the cataclysm that was coming in their own industry, and most still refuse to acknowledge it even as they preside over the death throes of the once-grand institutions they somehow inherited. Technological change was a contributing factor, but just as important was a failure by those titans of journalism to recognize that they could no longer suppress any facts that were not to their liking.
That was another change in journalism, and one that the new technology was required to fix. In an era prior to Tina Brown the solitary fellow in the sock-like apartment putting out each new revelation that no one else would publish was a heroic figure than an object of ridicule, and Drudge would have been considered fitting because of the drudgery that is always involved in getting at the truth. That was an era when journalism was expected to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” an old cliché that journalists still spout when they’ve had a few too many to realize how very ridiculous it now sounds, and we doubt that Tina Brown would have found it any more comfortable than these changing times.

— Bud Norman

The Write Stuff

Back in our newspaper days we watched the typesetters, inserters, many of the pressmen, and even much of the clerical staff gradually fade away from the industry, all victims of the relentless progress of automation. We were especially saddened to see the departure of the typesetters, whose painstakingly learned sleight of hand was as entertaining to watch as any of those plate-spinners who used to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, but we always reassured ourselves that a flesh-and-ink-stained-blood human being would always be required to write the stories.
Now we learn that even the all-too-human art of writing news stories can be mastered by mere machines. The Los Angeles Times has already run a story written by what is ominously called a “writer-bot,” and according to the chief technical officer of a company called Narrative Science, another ominous coinage, as much of 90 percent of all news stories will be computer-generated rather than human-written by 2030. This is after our hoped-for retirement date, but the apparent advent of the automated reporter is still a sobering enough development to make us reconsider our career path.
It seems a shame to leave so many decades of journalistic experience unused, however, so we’re thinking of getting on this computer-generated news racket. The classical economists’ answer to automation has always been that it creates a new job for every one it destroys, as people as required to design and build and maintain the machines doing the work, so we’ll simply get involved in the program-writing end of the biz. How hard can it be, after all? There’s something to do with algorithms, we’re told, and so far as we can tell that has nothing to do with Al Gore, but we’ll just get some unemployed computer geek to take care of that gobbledygook while we provide the necessary instructions. Many decades of being reprimanded by mainstream news editors have taught us all the rules of modern journalism, and it should be a relatively simple task to get a machine to obey them.
At the risk of revealing proprietary information, we’ll share with any potential investors out there a few of the stylebook entries we’ll have programmed into our machines. By following these few simple rules our computer-written copy should meet all the requirements of modern journalism.
First of all, any political story with the word “scandal” should omit any mention of the subject’s party affiliation unless he is a Republican. Any economics story bearing bad news should include the word “unexpectedly,” unless a Republican occupies the White House, in which case the words “dire” and “cataclysmic” will be added. All reports of Islamist-inspired terrorism must include a reference to the “religion of peace,” as well as some vague allusion to Israeli intransigence. Stories regarding the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of conservative activist groups will not be written at all, but immediately replaced with the salacious details of the Kardashian clan’s most recent sexual exploits. Partial-birth abortions will described as “what opponents call partial-birth abortions,” at least until proponents can decide what to call it. All stories making reference to the Koch brothers must include the phrase “billionaire businessman, while those mentioning George Soros should use “philanthropist” and “social activist.” Crime stories must omit any mention of race or sex, unless the suspect is white and male, and just to be safe the neighborhood in which the crime occurred should also go unmentioned. Any mention of President Barack Obama should be free of any unflattering adjectives, and any accompanying photographs should be altered to include a suitably hagiographic halo effect.
There are lots more rules, as we have learned through hard experience, but that just means plenty of lucrative work for the aspiring journalistic programmer. The rules keep changing, too, depending on who’s in office, so this scam might yet get us over until the hoped-for retirement date.

— Bud Norman

Illegal Immigration on the Front Lawn

Liberalism can be a lonely philosophy in Kansas, where the office-holders usually run the gamut from moderate Republican to conservative Republican, and even the Democratic politicians feel obliged to pretend that they’re not liberals, but the psychic rewards of liberalism are therefore even greater here than elsewhere. There are more people for a liberal to feel morally and intellectually superior to, one of the primary appeals of liberalism, and the state also provides an ample supply of people that a good-hearted liberal can happily hate.
Half of the Koch brothers live in the state, which should be sufficient to keep a Kansas liberal constantly seething with a satisfying scorn, but it also has Gov. Sam Brownback, an abortion-hating budget-cutter whose squeaky-clean small town persona drives the local Democrats to a state of self-righteous hysteria, and adding to the embarrassment of right-wing riches is Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Kansas Secretaries of State usually keep a low profile and inspire little passion in either their supporters or opponents, and they’ve never had the slightest bit of fame outside the state, but Kobach has become a nationally-loathed figure because of his outspoken opposition to illegal immigration. Before winning office he had served as an immigration adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft, which was more than enough to earn the enduring enmity of liberals everywhere, and then he had the audacity to write tough immigration laws for Arizona and Alabama and the help defend them as a lawyer and essayist. Since taking office he has persuaded the legislature to pass a law requiring photo identification for voting, which the local liberals regard as far more frightening assault on civil liberties than anything the National Security Agency or Internal Revenue Service might be up to, and otherwise taken steps to ensure that only eligible voters are allowed to vote.
The only explanation the liberal imagination can conjure for this bizarre stand is that Kobach must really hate Mexicans, a theory that also handily justifies the local liberals’ red-hot hatred for Kobach. So it was that on Saturday a group of about 300 protestors from something called Sunflower Community Action, sending out the call on the Tweeter “hashtag” of “#KingOfHate,” descended on Kobach’s home to drop a bunch of old shoes on his lawn. The protestors wore t-shirts proclaiming their “Kansas Values,” and chanted for “Kris Kobach come on down, see what Kansans are all about,” and generally seemed to think it the very height of Kansasness to for an angry mob to trespass on someone’s front porch.
Although the tactic has been employed from time to time by some of Kansas’ more militant anti-abortion activists, we can assure you that it is not characteristic of the state’s politics. The state’s media seemed to take it in stride, though, certainly with less indignation than was discernible in the reports of those gatherings on the front lawns of abortionists, and no one seemed to find anything hateful about it. Over at The Kansas City Star our erstwhile newspaper colleague Judy L. Thomas, usually an even-handed sort, even accepted the protestors’ claim that “the majority of Kansas support immigration reform” without question. We would certainly question it, based on our wide sampling of Kansas opinion as well as Kobach’s comfortable margin of victory in the last election, and even if it were true it would not justify a mob trespassing on a person’s home.
Illegal immigration is a vexing issue, and requires an honest debate. Beginning with the assumption that anyone who believes that Mexican nationals should not be allowed to vote in American elections is hateful does not further the dialogue, and it certainly does not excuse the hateful tactics employed by the likes of Sunflower Community Action no matter how good it feels. The protestors are no doubt pleased with themselves, but if the opposition starts showing up at their doors things could become ugly.

— Bud Norman