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Googling and Binging and Trumping

Around this office we never “google” anything, as we prefer the Bing search engine for our internet queries, but that’s partly because we hate these cacophonous neologisms that make a verb out of everything, and mostly because we find the soothing photographs on the Bing.com search engine’s home page more appealing than Google.com’s always garish and too-often annoyingly didactic artwork. Both search engines have always answered our arcane questions well enough, but President Donald Trump is recently complaining that Google is rigged against him.
In a couple of conspicuously early morning “tweets” this week Trump has griped that if you type in “Trump news” in that box at the Google search engine you’ll find the first several pages of links are to stories that reflect unfavorably on his presidency. He even hinted that perhaps some government regulation is needed to correct this, although he later seemed to back down from that in a chat with reporters, even as he continued to condemn Google for its obvious bias. There were also some reiterated complaints about various social media companies silencing conservative voices, but that’s another and equally weird post-modern matter that we’ve already commented on.
Trump didn’t mention any other search engines, but when we typed   “Trump news” into the box on the Bing page — for the very  first time, as our queries are usually far more specific — they featured pretty much the same first few pages of links. There are probably other search engines available on this newfangled internet thingamajig — we’re old and not at all hep to the young whippersnappers’ high-tech lingo, and are too tired to “bing” it, so we can’t name them — but our guess is that most of them would yield pretty much the same desultory results.
Trump blames the internet’s bias on its reliance on such left wing media as The New York Times and The Washington Post and the few other remaining big city newspapers, as well as the over-the-air newscasts and a couple of long established cable networks, and although they all do seem to relish in bad news about Trump it’s not “fake news” in almost every case, and for now they’re still so widely read and watched that they turn up on the first few pages of any old internet search about “Trump news.” Perhaps there’s an algorithm that would pop up only reports about the low unemployment rate and the the recent rains here in Kansas, with news about vanquished Democratic foe Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama and their “deep state” conspiracy to depose Trump, but it would have to compete with a lot of more convincing noise from that establishment media.
The death of bona fide war hero and former Republican presidential nominee and lauded-as-a-statesman on both sides of the aisle Sen.John McCain couldn’t be kept out of any honest accounting of the recent news, and it would have been hard to come up with a front page link to a story lauding Trump for courageously continuing his express his disrespect even after the hero’s untimely death. Somewhere out there on the internet or talk radio you’ll find a full throated explanation of why Trump’s campaign manager recently being convicted on eight felony counts and his former deputy campaign manager and national security advisor pleading guilty to felonies and his former lawyer and longtime top business executive cooperating with an ongoing investigation into the “Russia thing” is just proof of that “deep state” conspiracy,but it would take some doing to put them at the top of a search engine’s priorities.
Our understanding is that these so-called “algorithms” are so called in honor of Vice President Al Gore, inventor of the internet, and we don’t claim to at all understand how the heck they work, but we’re not the least bit surprised that Trump is displeased with the news they routinely come up with. Our advice to the president is to stay out of the news for a cycle or two, starve them of anything to report about but latest unemployment numbers and the absence of any recent wars, and hope for a bombshell report about the Democrats and their dastardly “deep state” conspiracy, but even in these crazy days either possibility seems unlikely.
We have our own complaints with these danged newfangled search engines, which never seem to put such an august internet publication as The Central Standard Times on the first few pages unless your queries are pretty darned specific, but we’ll not call for any governmental regulations to address this grievous error. With all due respect to the office of the presidency, we hope Trump will do the same.

— Bud Norman

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Hard Times at Your Hometown Newspaper

Have you noticed lately that your hometown newspaper is a mere shell of its former self? That seems to be the case all over, and it pains us to say that the situation is particularly dire around here.
A couple of days ago we were taking home some blue-hot Khao-Paad chicken fried rice from the terrific Thai House joint over on West Street, and we ran into a fine old newspaper colleague who glumly told us about the latest round of newsroom layoffs that had come down earlier in the afternoon. We long worked with all three of the victims she mentioned, and well know all of them as good guys who did good work, and it occurred to us that they’re the kind of ever-loyal employees a business lays off right before it goes under.
Our friend told us there were still nearly 20 newsroom employees left, between the writing and editing and photographic and clerical staff, but that’s hardly enough to cover all the daily newsworthy events in a fascinating metropolitan area of half-a-million complicated souls, much less a fascinating state with some two-and-half-million complicated souls. Back when we first started as college drop-outs at the very bottom of the newsroom hierarchy, way back in the year President Ronald Reagan was first elected, the newsroom had well over a hundred extremely complicated employees we dealt with, and even then that remarkably talented group was never quite up to the task.
That was before the epochal internet, however, when the only way to get stock quotations and baseball scores and maybe a few relatively in-depth paragraphs about the latest local and state national scandals was by paying a full 25 cents for a thick and full-sized ad-filled copy of your hometown paper. Our hometown paper was printing money almost as fast as the basement’s presses churned out the state and county and hometown editions, and lavishly endowed its newsroom with well-credentialed new hires and generous expense accounts for statewide travel and even the occasional visit to Broadway for the theater critic and the Paris Air Show for the aviation writer, and it was an exciting time to be in the newspaper racket, and we’d always walk home through the empty downtown streets of early morning downtown Wichita with satisfaction that we’d helped to put out a pretty damned good newspaper for our hometown, and that it was at least worth one measly quarter from a Wichitan’s spare change.
These days the up-to-the-minute stock quotations and baseball scores are just a couple of free clicks away on the internet machine where you’re reading this, and high-tech targeted job sites and the clunky-looking Craigslist and various other for-sell sites have stolen all the once lucrative classified advertising business, so the old business model is no longer sustainable. Which leads to the lay-offs that devalue the product, which then goes up in price, and these days the paper is literally smaller — not quite tabloid-sized, but less than the full broadsheet of the glory days — and the remaining staff is stuffed into a start-up sized office space in Old Town and the rag now costs a full buck and a half. There are still some capable journalists left, but as much as we admire their daily efforts they’re hard press to come up with a full buck and a half’s worth of journalism from a dwindling number of readers every day. The news out of Topeka is mostly reported by the skeletal crew at the fellow McClachy-owned Kansas City Star, which the hometown paper once tried to scoop on any statewide story, the national stuff is all from the decimated wire services, and now that the paper is printed in Kansas City and trucked down the turnpike all of the Royals’ west coast baseball scores are a full day old.
By the time we’d scratched and clawed our way from the copy boy’s desk to a front-page by-line things were changing, but it was just in time to get in on the last of a golden age of local journalism. The expense accounts were no longer so generous, but we still spent an entire legislative session in Topeka, and routinely a couple of fill-ups in the western expanse of Kansas, There was plenty to gripe about with our local newspaper, but its crusty old executive editor frequently feuded with his corporate bosses and allowed us to freely vent during the daily staff meetings, and the paper did a lot of good work. Most of our colleagues had been inspired to enter journalism by the movie “All the President’s Men”, and wanted nothing more than to bring down the local equivalent of President Richard Nixon, whereas we’d been inspired by the movie “His Girl Friday,” and mostly wanted to wear fedoras and shout into candlestick phones and wind up with such a hot sassy gal as Rosalind Russell, but between us we came with a full half-bucks worth of daily reading.
Those crusading left-wing baby-boomers did uncover a lot of shady dealings by both Republican and Democratic officials, and  for a couple of decades we enjoyed a middle class lifestyle by filing factual accounts of some obscure public  another as well as some occasional right-of-center commentary and numerous well-told New Journalism tales of what it was like for some folk artist recreational vehicle owner to be alive on the Kansas plains on a certain day. Despite the occasional corrections and the numerous times that the factual reports largely missed the point, none of it was “fake news,” except in a couple of cases the paper fully confessed while firing the offending reporters, and we still say it was well worth the two or four bits you’d have paid for it.
There was always a certain left-wing tilt to paper, and those out-of-town editors the corporate owners brought in never did get the hang of a place like Wichita, but it wasn’t “fake news,” and we mostly blame the internet and Craig’sList and those high-tech targeted advertising sites and the creative destruction of capitalism that has also wiped out coal-mining and the photographic film industry, as well as the growing indifference and illiteracy of the reading public. We can’t at all blame any of our three recently laid-off friends, and only wish them the best.
The three most recent lay-off victims are just the latest in a decades old decline, which has seen the defenestration of several dozen top-notch reporters and writers and photographers, and reduced our hometown paper to its current sorry state. The paper had already laid off several worthy staffers when we quite in disgust, and we’ve been astounded about who’s been laid off since, and we wonder how long the rest of the emaciated staff will stay on the job. We put in enough time in the corporate chain to be vested in a pension, which assured is not invested in media stocks, and we hope our erstwhile colleagues will eventually enjoy the same benefit, although we don’t know what kind of deal offered when they came on board, and we wish all of us the best.
Which is bad news for everyone who used to enjoy a middle class lifestyle by working in daily journalism, and bad news for the rest of our prairie hometown and everyone in your locality as well. Those public officials can now pad their expense accounts with less worry, the state legislature can more comfortably do something astoundingly stupid with less public notice, and voters will wander into voting booths less knowledgable about the scoundrels they’re voting for. It should go without saying, but these days we feel obliged to vouch that our three recently unemployed friends are by no means enemies of the people.

— Bud Norman

The Curious Case of the “QAnons”

A while back we were sharing a beer at our favorite dive with a friend of ours who’s a well-regarded local heavy metal and punk music drummer, and during a discussion of the day’s news she told us that we needed to get on the internet and find out what “Q” was saying about it. Only then, she assured us, would we truly understand what was really going on.
Our friend is a sweet enough gal, but she drinks her beer through a straw, and believes that Hillary Clinton died on Sept. 11 in 2016 and has been replaced by a body double, and that the Illuminati have shape-shifting reptilian aliens who secretly cause everything from the stock market indices to the baseball scores to your own personal and financial problems, so we were skeptical of the claim. We love a good conspiracy the way other fiction lovers enjoy a good murder mystery or cloak-and-dagger novel, though, so we looked up the “QAnon” theory, found it’s plot entertainingly complex but a bit fanciful, and then gave it little thought.
We were reminded of the of the amusing anecdote, however, by President Donald Trump’s latest campaign rally in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday. There was the usual schtick about all the enemies of the people that Trump has lately been vanquishing, and more than the usual booing of the “fake news” media, but we couldn’t help noticing all the white t-shirts with emblazoned with a “Q” rather than “Make America Great Again,” and all the waved signs proclaiming that “We Are Q”.
Which obliges a weary news watcher to familiarize himself with this whole “Q” and “QAnon” craziness, and what it means amidst of the rest of the craziness you find daily even in the most respectable news outlets.
To put it as succinctly as possible, “Q” is the “internet handle” of someone one or another out there who often posts on a couple of internet message boards largely devoted to conspiracy theories, and purports to be a high-level federal official with the ultra-top “Q level” security clearance, and “QAnon” is “Q” and all the anonymous internet “Anons” who are believe his claims and are thus deciphering his cryptic messages to discern what’s really going on. What’s really going on turns out to be pretty much every crazy-ass conspiracy you’ve ever heard, from the Masons to the Rothschilds and certain other Jews and some shape-shifting reptilians and annoyingly liberal Hollywood hot shots and other child-molesting Satanic sorts. According to this unified field conspiracy theory, these evil forces have been running America and the world for decades. The good news in the theory, and what accounts for all those “Q’ t-shirts and signs at the Trump rally, is that the military recruited Trump to run for president, and they are now setting things right.
According to the theory even that special counsel probe into the “Russia thing” is a ruse, and that the special counsel is using the cover to investigate the child-molesting Satanic cults that have wrought such hell on America for so many decades, will ultimately lock up such enemies of the people as President Barack Obama and vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, with Trump’s grateful voters chanting gleefully as the cell doors clank. A long ago “Q” posting was interpreted by the “QAnons” to mean that Clinton and several of her subordinates would be locked up a short time later, and that a general crackdown on Satanic pedophilia would shortly follow, but the faithful still believe in final delightfully vengeful denouement when that smug movie star Tom Hanks and everyone they dislike is rightfully behind bars.
Trump’s more mainstream defenders will rightly note that he can’t be held accountable for the t-shirts some people wear and the signs they wave at his rallies, but they can’t say he’s done anything to discourage such crazy-ass conspiracy-theorizing. Trump has congratulated radio host Alex “THEY’RE TURNING THE FRIGGIN’ FROGS GAY!” Jones on his “excellent reputation,” recommended The National Enquirer’s dubious scoop that Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’ dad was in on the Kennedy assassination for a Pulitzer Prize, use the same language of “globalists” and “elites” and daily insists that everything you’re seeing and hearing about that “Russia thing” is “fake news” about a nefarious conspiracy against him. For now, at least, the “Q” t-shirts and signs will be more welcome at the Trump rallies than the crew from the Cable News Network or the New York Times.
We have our own conspiracy theory that Trump’s campaign coordinated with the Russian government’s now undeniable attempts to influence the election on his behalf, and has since obstructed the Department of Justice’s efforts to investigate the matter, but we base that on Donald Trump Jr.’s own “tweeted” e-mail chains and sworn Congressional testimony by various campaign officials and the indictments and guilty pleas that have already resulted from “Russia thing” investigation and everything else that’s been verified. Even with all that to back us up, we’ll still only say that it looks pretty darned suspicious, and we’ll hope that the Trump’s more mainstream and fringier fans will be just as agnostic, and that the special counsel is allowed to conclude his investigation no matter what it concludes.
It would be fun to eventually find out who “Q” really is, especially if he turned out to be some 400-pound guy sitting on his bed, which is a sly allusion to another one of Trump’s conspiracy theories.

— Bud Norman

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

Smarter Phones, Dumber People

The news was slow and the weather stormy over most of the weekend, which gave us a chance to ponder some of the big-picture think pieces in the high-brow media. For the past 160 years Atlantic Magazine has been among the most high-brow of them, as well as one of the most reliable sources of ponderable big-picture think pieces, and they offered up an excellent essay about the modern age of the “smart phone” and its dire effects on its youngest generation.
It’s a lengthy and complicated article, but even if you’re not rained in and there’s another bombshell Russian story on the front page we highly recommend it. The author has been spent the past 25 years studying how Americans differ from generation to generation, with his research stretching from the 1930s to the present, and he reports on an anomalous change in the usual ebb-and-flow of cultural shifts that have occurred since 2012. That was the first year that a majority of Americans owned “smart phones,” the author notes, and when “I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states.”
The author also posits there’s a causal connection between these two things, and based on our more anecdotal evidence we think he’s on to something. He briefly and glumly summarizes all the widely-observed ways that “smart phones” have altered the daily lives of all generations — a more complete assessment would require shelves of upcoming social science dissertations and satirical novels — but finds his most alarming data among the youngest generation that never knew what life was like before the damned things. What the author calls the “Gen-I” generation reports markedly higher levels of lack of social interaction, loneliness, depression, and suicide, and links these to hours spent on texting, social media, and other time “on screen.” We’re short at the moment on very young friends, as all of our friends’ kids are all grown up but haven’t yet had kids that are even old enough for “smart phones,” and we’re proudly among the dwindling minority of Americans who still don’t own one of the damned things, but we’re not surprised by the author’s findings.
At this point we’re tempted to take some time off and write a satirical novel of our own about “smart phones,” so outraged are we with the way the damned things have made people so damned dumb. When we’re out arguing politics with our friends at the local hipster dives we always notice the attractive young couples sitting across a booth from one another and staring into their “smart phones” rather than into the other’s eyes. A conspicuous number of our similarly-aged friends lately seem frustratingly forgetful, and instead of an unexercised and flabby memory rely on their “smart phones” to tell them the name of the guy that they’re talking about. By now all of the great adventures tales would have to be re-written if they were up-dated to an age when the hero could ask the palm-sized device in his pocket for an answer, we have friends who can’t get from one place in Wichita, Kansas, to another without help from a “smart phone” global positioning system, and we don’t count it all as progress.
Shudder to think, then, what it’s like for those poor kids who can’t remember the good old analog age of actual rather than virtual reality. The Atlantic’s highbrow correspondent also provides the unsurprising and commonsensical data that children who spend less time “on screen” and more time social interactions with other children in extra-curricular activities and religious services and sports and local playgrounds, and spent their other hours with either family or books, were less likely to be lonely, depressed, or suicidal. The real world is a daunting place, but people there seem happier than the ones in the virtual world.
All the data shows the younger folks tend not to date, in the traditional sense of the term, and although that’s had a salutary effect on the teen pregnancy rates we think it’s a mixed blessing. The Atlantic reports that teens are also postponing getting a driver’s license, which would have been unimaginable to our teenaged selves, or any previous generation of red-blooded Americans, and spending way too much time in their bedrooms and worrying that the picture they posted on Instragam won’t get a self-affirming number of “likes.” The youngest of them are now tethered by a global positioning system every hour of the day and every day of the week to their parents, too, and we shudder again to think of what that must be like. We were blessed with diligently watchful parents, but we’re sure they won’t mind us saying that we’re also grateful that the technology of the time didn’t preclude those occasional moments when we were blissfully free to act according to our own better judgement. Every previous generation, after all, had those moments.
This might seem yet another old folks’ rant against modernity, but we’ve got some state-of-the-art social science data from such a highbrow publication as Atlantic to back it up, and we think there’s something afoot that’s even more significant than the next presidential “tweet.” We finally got an old-fashioned “flip phone” a while back to be constant communication with our still-watchful folks, who are now old enough to require our watchfulness, and we have to admit we’re taking up some of your own “on-screen” time, so we can’t deny that some progress has been made. Every generation has also lost something dear to every technological revolution, though, and we hope that the next one will still know something of a real-life and primal childhood.

— Bud Norman

The Wrecking Ball and the Press

Our local newspaper’s longtime headquarters is slated for demolition this week, so on Saturday they invited all the former employees to drop by for a last look at the place. The event offered an opportunity to see some cherished friends and respected colleagues we haven’t seen in a long while, and some of the conversations were quite convivial, but there was a funereal feel to it that lingered through the weekend.
The paper isn’t going out of business, and the reunion also included a tour of the swank new digs located nearby in the trendy Old Town drinking and dining district right next to the ritzy Warren Theater, where you can watch movies in an easy chair and have waitresses bring you cocktails, but the whole affair was nonetheless a frank acknowledgement of an institution in decline. Although it has ultra-modern and remarkably comfy chairs and two computer screens at every desk and all the steel pipes and chrome doors and sharp angles you’d find in some cutting-edge start-up venture, the most conspicuous thing about the new place is that it’s a whole lot smaller than the last one, and by far the smallest building the paper has occupied since Civil War veteran and founding father Col. Marshall Murdoch moved out of the clapboard printing shop that’s still lovingly preserved at the old-west reenactment Cowtown Museum over in Riverside.
There wasn’t any sense of a cutting edge start-up to the new place, despite all the up-to-date accoutrements, and neither did it suggest a more venerable enterprise. As we walked from the new office to a nearby after-party on top of some young people’s bar, a good friend who used to be a very good aviation reporter for the paper and now gets by on free-lance work remarked that it didn’t seem at all like a newspaper office, as it didn’t have the smell of hot lead and photographic chemicals and cigarette smoke, or the sound of clacking typewriters and telephones ringing rather than warbling, or that big imposing block-long presence that a city’s newspaper is supposed to have, and we couldn’t argue.
The old building was an architectural monstrosity, a concrete and feces-brown blob typical of what was being built for expanding businesses back in 1961, when the paper moved from a smaller but much more elegant building nearby, but you used to be able to walk in from Douglas Avenue and be transported back to a more pungent and noisy and vibrant era of American journalism. Our first visit was on a school field trip, where they took us down to the printing presses and let us watch the typesetters do their Ed Sullivan-worthy legerdemain and see actual reporters shouting into telephones while pounding out the next days stories on typewriters, and it seemed way cooler than the field trips to the Steffen’s Dairy or or the Kansas Gas and Electric Company or the Coleman factory or any of the other very important and now long-gone  local institutions. The folks had already inculcated in us their daily habit of reading pretty much the entirety of both the morning and afternoon papers, and the old black-and-white movies on the late with the fedora-topped reporters shouting “get me re-write” into candlestick phones fascinated us, and we also started noticing that Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Jim Thompson and Tom Wolfe and most of our favorite writers had worked on newspapers.
And so it was that we walked into the local paper as a newly-hired 20-year-old with all sorts of literary ambitions and romantic notions, way back in the white-hot summer of ’80. We’d dropped out of college and fallen in with the local punk rock crowd, which included a most delightful fellow who’d written for the paper some years before, and he suggested we apply for a newsroom opening he knew of, telling us which people to drop his name to and which not to, and because we could type fast and had a couple of relatively impressive jobs on the resume and seemed very enthusiastic about the newspaper we became “editorial clerks.” That’s a rather fancy term for what the old-timers called a “copy boy,” and although it was hard work it was often fun and a better education than what we’d been getting in college.
We typed up enough obits to fill several cemeteries, answered phone calls from angry readers and people trying to get in touch some reporter who wasn’t around, copied and distributed the daily budgets to all the departments, sorted mail, ran errands, listened to the police scanners and alerted the crime desk to the latest atrocities, watched the local news broadcasts just in case they might have something the newsroom didn’t know about, took dictation from reporters in the field, and reveled in the frantic atmosphere. They were still typing on typewriters back then, with a conveyor belt sending hard copy from the copy desk to those typesetting magicians downstairs, and although the state-of-the-art IBM Selectrics didn’t make quite the right clickety-clack sound it was still pretty noisy, and there was this great old guy developing all the pictures in photographic chemicals back in the dark room, and not only could you smoke cigarettes in the newsroom, pretty much everyone did. It looked and sounded and smelled and had a feeling right down to your bones of a real newspaper, just like in the movies.
Nearly all of the then-numerous reporters and editors and everyone else outranking us on the staff had been more inspired to enter the newspaper racket by “All the President’s Men” than by “His Girl Friday,” and when we all watched Ronald Reagan being elected and started getting the headlines downstairs we were the only ones celebrating, but for the most part they were a good bunch. There was still a lot of the wise-cracking and banter we’d come to expect from the old movies, and some of the same instinctive anti-authoriatian streak, and several of them took a liking to a punk college drop-out and generously shared their considerable knowledge with us. Although we’re still pure-bred prairie Republican goyim our most influential mentors about the craft turned out to be Jewish Democrats from Back East, who really were so common in the press back then they even wound up in such remote places as our hometown, and we also lament that the latest iteration of the hometown newsroom lacks a certain Jewish favor.
We literally fell in love with one of those mentors, a wise-cracking and rule-breaking and very tall woman who reminded us of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” and when she split town for a job at the bigger paper in Kansas City we followed her there. Our title at that paper was “dethwriter,” the abbreviated journalese for the guys who wrote death notices and the local’s out-of-town traffic fatalities and the murders too petty for the crime reporters to bother with, and as gruesome as it was it provided enough oft-told stories to make for a novel we hope to write someday, tentatively titled “Dethwriter Takes a Holiday.” The newsroom had these pneumatic tubes that brought clips down from the library upstairs, which usually included some fishy news about the many Italian businessmen in Kansas City whose jukeboxes unexpectedly exploded, and there were a couple of very sound and educational friends on the “dethwriter” desk, but all the reporters seemed kind of snooty, and although we still miss her we had reasons to break off the relationship with the witty and rule-breaking and very tall woman, and we wanted to be back at the hometown paper.
After a short stint of cleaning houses we were back at clerking at the paper, doing a very fine job of it if we do say so ourselves, and angling at that up-from-copy-boy story we’d seen in all those late night movies. Eventually we’d done enough favors to the editors and cleaned up so many of those stories the college kids were phoning in to earn a byline, and then a column about the local music scene, and despite the newspaper’s recent fetish about college credentials we eventually wound up with “Staff Writer” under the daily bylines. We like to think of ourselves as the last of the up-from-copy-boy breed, but it also had to do with the fact that newspapers were so big at the time they could afford to take a chance on a punk kid.
This was at a time when almost every city in America was becoming a one-newspaper town, talk radio and cable and the internet didn’t yet threaten the local newspaper monopoly, and the business of printing all those papers and all that money took up an imposing square block and the building was bustling to the seams. Our paper could be purchased for a quarter in racks everywhere from Kansas City’s Strawberry Hill to Mount Sunflower on the Colorado border, with bureaus across the state providing locals news for the trucks that sped out as we walked home from day. The paper had reporters snooping around every office in City Hall and County Hall and the statehouse, the fashion reporter and the drama critic were flying off to New York City for the latest shows, the aviation reporter was at the Paris Air Show, and several we times found ourselves flying on chartered plains through scary thunderstorms to far-flung stories as we rose through the ranks.
We were there when they started bringing the computers in, which at first were shared by every two reporters. The bosses promised these devices would herald a new gold age of the American newspaper, but the time we left after 25 years it didn’t turn out that way. All those magical typesetters were the first round of layoffs, and then a lot of those deaf pressmen who were hired because they communicate over all the news were laid off, and eventually they figured out how to do a lot of the work we’d done as a clerk, which saved the company a lot of the money that was still coming in. Then the computers started letting people buy classified ads on Craigslist, though, and all sorts of internet news sites were popping up that allowed advertisers to buy more specifically-targeted ads, and then the money started going away.
More lay-offs followed, of course, first in the no-longer viable classified ad departments, and the circulation area was limited to the metro area, which allowed all the statewide bureau staffs to be laid-off, and the cuts eventually reached the metro newsroom. The paper has less than a third the number of reporters and photographers snooping around the city as it did back in our good old days, and a big share of that is devoted to local sports, and they laid off all the pressmen when they outsourced the printing of the relatively few on-paper copies they sell these days to that former rival in Kansas City, which also provides the bulk of the state political news, and even in its shiny new but conspicuously small building the old gray mare clearly ain’t she used to be.
Still, it was nice to see all those old friends and respected colleagues we hadn’t seen in years. Several people we would have loved to have seen weren’t there because there because they’re dead, others had their own good reasons, but one formerly helpful editor came all the way from Florida and a guy we kind of like came in Minnesota, and there were some great stories about all the scandals and screw-ups and general editorial ineptitude at the paper at the over years, as well as a few political scoops and astute theater reviews and off-beat feature stories that did the public a full quarter’s worth of good. There are still a few folks at the hanging on the paper the worked with, some of whom we well regard, especially a couple of photographers and a savvy second-generation editor, and it felt good to offer them our best wishes. After all the fond farewells we walked by the cranes and the wrecking balls that are going to tear down that ugly old building, though, and happy ending somewhere out there on the internet seemed far less tangible.

— Bud Norman

Technical Difficulties

We’re writing this in a booth at The Vagabond, a friendly little hipster dive in the historic Delano neighborhood just across the Arkansas River from our even friendlier home office in the picturesque Riverside neighborhood. because our got-darned internet service went down. All the hipster dives have wi-fi these days, as we’ve long noticed from all the bearded hipsters we see staring into their machines instead of talking with one another and sharing dirty jokes and hitting on the hipster women the way human beings used to do in a bar, so for tonight we’ve reluctantly taken the old laptop on a rare trip out of the house and joined those lonely hipsters in their solitary musings.
It’s an infuriating inconvenience, and although we’re doing our best to be cordial to the pretty and pleasant young barmaid who generously shared the wi-fi password we’re starting to run out of patience with our internet provider. We’ll not mention any names, but it’s a long established company that was once so beloved that Americans called it “Ma,” and until very recently they had provided us many decades of reliable landline phone service, but we’ve recently cancelled the landline and had the number transferred to one of those newfangled cellular phones that everybody uses these days, which took way too many hours of bureaucratic hassles and time on hold to accomplish, and given that the switch-over happened at approximately the same time the internet went down we suspect that has something do with the problem. Several hours on the phone with people speaking hard-to-understand accents and quite a bit of time on on hold failed to rectify the problem, and they’re promising to send someone by between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. to solve a problem that we’re sure could have addressed without that hassle, and we’re not at all confident it will be resolved even by a real live human being in the flesh, but at this point we’re drinking one of the $2 beer specials and hoping for the best.
Back in the good old days before all this technological progress we were somehow content without any internet at all, but these days we seem somehow estranged from the entire world without it. We were reading up on the latest news from a variety of old and new sources, and contemplating the witty and sophisticated response to it all that we would send out to entire world, but that got-darned red light that started flashing on the modem wound up reconfiguring the whole got-darned day. Thanks to the The Vagabond’s wi-fi and the password that pretty and pleasant barmaid shared we’ll get something out to you, and with some hope that a real live human being in the flesh will be able to set things straight we plan another post for tomorrow, hopefully having something to do with the rest of the world, and w’ll try to restrain our temper in the meantime.

— 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

The Strange Matter of the Rent Boy Investigation

At the risk of sounding not only straight but also square we will admit that we had never heard of Rentboy.com until the Department of Homeland Security raided its offices and arrested its chief executive and several other employees on charges of prostitution. According to the ensuing news reports Rentboy.com is a nearly twenty-year-old web site where homosexual “escorts” advertise their services, which made the news of legal difficulties seem peculiar.
Although we’re in favor of strict enforcement of any laws against prostitution, whether of the heterosexual or homosexual or variety, or some other variety we’re not yet aware of, it’s hard for us to see why this is a matter of concern to the Department of Homeland Security rather than the police in the alleged perpetrator’s jurisdiction. A spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, which was also somehow involved the arrests, explained that “As the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE is responsible for the enforcement of laws that promote the legitimate movement of people, goods and currency in domestic and foreign transactions,” but he didn’t explain why a prostitution ring is not a matter better left to the local or state authorities. The charged company is apparently located in a prime part of New York City, in a state and locality that probably have more pressing problems for their law enforcement agencies to deal with than a web site advertising the services of homosexual “escorts,” and given the political influence that homosexuals have in those areas it’s all the more unlikely that the cops would ever get around to raiding the joint, but this only raises the question of whether this is really something that threatens the homeland’s security.
What seems most peculiar, though, is that the federal government, of all people, have apparently picked a fight with the homosexual portion of the country. We guess that most of our homosexual friends share our distaste for prostitution, but an organized segment of the homosexual rights movement seems to believe that the right to rent a boy, or at least a boyish young man, is surely embedded somewhere in all those penumbras of the Constitution, and lately the federal government and the culture at large has been inclined to go along with whatever such organized segments of the homosexual rights movement insist upon. Same-sex marriage has not only been legally enshroud but rigorously imposed on even the most recalcitrant County Clerks and old-fashioned bakers and wedding photographers, the surgical mutilation of human genitals is celebrated on magazine covers and sports network shows, and the White House has been bathed in the pastel colors of the rainbow flag. An odd time, then, for the same federal government to crack down on a web site that facilitates consensual homosexual activity.
These days an observant news-reader will naturally go in search of some political explanation for what the federal government is doing, but in this case there doesn’t seem to be one, which is also peculiar. Given that heterosexual men on the whole are every bit as libidinously irresponsible as homosexual men we assume there are numerous similar web sites advertising the services of female “escorts,” and they still have a broader potential audience than a similar homosexual site, so of all the possible targets it’s hard to see why the feds would want to pick on Rentboy.com. Every time some bureaucrat does something we assume that it’s so he can proclaim that he is, indeed, doing something, but we can’t think of any reason that an executive branch bureaucrat ultimately responsible to President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party would be annoying libidinously irresponsible homosexuals.

The folks at Rentboy.com are arguing in the press that they only advertised their clients’ “time,” and not anything that might reasonably construed as sexual, and this might or might not prove a persuasive argument in a court of law, so we’ll keep on an eye on the outcome. Our interest in homosexual escorts is nil, but we can’t quell our curiosity about why the federal government is taking such an interest in the matter.

— Bud Norman

Free Speech and Racist Frat Rats

The latest battle against censorship on campus is being fought at the University of Oklahoma, just a few hours drive down I-35 from us, and it’s an ugly affair. Modern academia and its censorious impulses provide free speech advocates with plenty of opportunities to stand up for reasonable opinions that somehow offend liberal sensibilities, but in this case we are obliged to defend the right to some unabashedly old-fashioned racist boorishness.
It all started when the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers chartered a party bus and decided to celebrate the occasion with a boastful chant about their racially exclusive admission policies, replete with frequent use of a certain notorious fighting word and a jocular reference to lynching, and not in the ironically anti-racist manner of the more up-to-date nightclub comedians. Somebody recorded the event with a cellular phone’s video camera, of course, and it wound up on the internet, of course, and of course much offense was taken. The outrage was such that hundreds of OU students and faculty staged a protest, the national fraternity revoked the offending chapter’s charter, and the university’s president summarily expelled the two students who had been identified as leading the chant.
As free speech advocates we have no quarrel with the peaceful protests, and acknowledge the national fraternity’s right to restrict its membership however it chooses, but the expulsions are another matter. The courts have long held that public universities are bound by the First Amendment and cannot punish students for their speech, no matter how offensive, and for a variety of good reasons. Aside from the plain language of the Constitution, any restriction on free speech will inevitably lead to another, important ideas will be squelched because some well-organized group or another will find them offensive, and given how very touchy academia is these days there’s no telling where it all might end. Already America’s universities are restricting debate on a variety of issues, from the global warming issue to Israel to the “culture of rape” that is said to pervade the modern campus, but the dialogue about race is especially constrained. Anyone challenging liberal orthodoxy on matters of race is routinely branded a racist, even if they are trying to address the frequently disastrous results of liberal orthodoxy for black America, and any effort to ban racism, no matter how well-intentioned, will allow the keepers of the faith to shut down debate completely. Given how many well-organized groups are taking offense at the slightest provocation these days, placating them all would require limiting scholarly discourse to quiet, guilty shrugs and sympathetic nods.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t be offended by those boorish frat boys and their witless chant, or that you shouldn’t avail yourself of a heaping portion of free speech to express your offense, or that widespread public scorn isn’t an appropriate way of dealing with such unambiguously racist sentiments. In fact, we note that such stigmatizing has rather effectively made the public expression of such racist sentiments rare, and improved race relations to the point that a bunch of drunk frats joking about lynching seems to be a more pressing problem than actual lynchings. Similar results might be achieved if society were to once again attach a stigma to deliberately vulgar language and contraceptive abortion and unwed parenthood and a host of other social ills that the left doesn’t seem to find offensive, but even in these cases we would prefer social persuasion to governmental coercion.
The president of OU might soon find himself in one of those courts that have long held that public universities are bound by the First Amendment, and we won’t mind seeing him lose this one. He was formerly a governor and senator for Oklahoma, back when then state used to elect Democrats to such high offices, and was known for his occasional liberalism and constant devotion to state’s oil and gas industries, so we suspect the same political instincts led him to expel those two students. The controversy caused OU to lose a potential football recruit to the University of Alabama, after all, so the students had not only offended liberal sensibilities but also posed a threat to a crucial business interest. This will only exacerbate the public’s scorn for the two students, and further deter future racist chants on campus, but we’re not so concerned. If that potential football recruit truly believes he won’t encounter any racist frat boys at the University of Alabama he won’t be able to comprehend a playbook, much less an American history textbook, so he probably wouldn’t have done the Sooners any good even if those racist frat boys hadn’t been too stupid to know that there are cell phone video cameras everywhere these days and everything winds up on the internet.

— Bud Norman