Quoth McRaven, Nevermore

President Donald Trump’s latest war of words is with retired four-star Navy Admiral William McCraven, and so far as we can tell Trump is predictably getting the worst of it.
After earning a degree with honors from the University of Texas McCraven was commissioned the Navy and volunteered for it’s elite frogman and Seal units, then rose through the ranks during both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, eventually being entrusted with command of the Navy’s special forces and European fleet, but he’s best known as the guy who led the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. One can hardly describe him as a “very low-IQ individual,” or impugn his manliness, and a name like Bill McRaven doesn’t easily lend itself to a taunting nickname, but McCraven’s been publicly critical of certain aspects of Trump’s presidency, so Trump is required by his immutable character to punch back somehow or another.
When McRaven’s name up during a Sunday interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, the most damning thing Trump could think to say is that “He’s a Hillary Clinton backer.” Wallace was trying to explain to his viewers that McRaven is a former Navy seal and all that when Trump interjected, and when Wallace tried to resume MccRaven’s impressive resume Trump once again interrupted to say, “Excuse me, but he’s a Hillary Clinton backer.” Eventually Wallace got to the part about the Bin Laden raid, and Trump sneered that “He’s a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer. Frankly, wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama Bin Laden a lot sooner than that?” Thus Trump stepped boldly onto the minefield.
Pretty much the whole interview was s public relations disaster for trump. He probably figured he was on friendly terrain at Fox, but he apparently hasn’t noticed that Wallace and Shep Smith and Brett Baier and a few other Fox journalists still tend to ask some embarrassing questions from time to time. and Trump was ill-prepared for that sort of thing. He claimed complete credit for some Republican victories in the midterm elections, and denied any blame for the more numerous losses. He also spouted some self-apparent nonsense about how Finland doesn’t have fires like California is suffering because they rake their forests, citing the Finnish president as his source, which resulted in the Finnish president denying to the world he’d ever said any such thing and lots of Finns making jokes about it on the internet, including one waggish Finnish woman who posted a photo of herself in the forest with a vacuum cleaner under the heading of “Just another day in Finland.” Trump also wound up making a rare admission of error by saying he probably should have observed Veterans day despite the rain and his busy schedule.
Even so, the worst fallout was from the feud with McCraven. By Monday McRaven was telling the Cable News Network that “I did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else. I am a fan of President Obama and President George W. Bush, both of whom I worked for. I admire all presidents, regardless of their party, who uphold the dignity of the office and use that office to bring the nation together in challenging times.” We also didn’t back anyone in the last election, although we cast a protest vote for some suitable right-of-center protest candidate, and for all his faults we still miss George W. Bush and lately have a very begrudging newfound respect for the way that Obama at least didn’t go out of his way to start futile feuds with his fellow citizens all the time, so we think McRaven got the better of the exchange.
McCraven has left it to his many apologists to rightly note that he couldn’t have legally killed Bin Laden any sooner without presidential approval, and both Bush’s and Obama’s apologists can credibly argue that these things take time, no matter how impatient the immediate gratification sorts out there might be. Besides, even if McRaven is a damned Democrat it doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything. McCraven once pursued a journalism degree his stellar studies at the University of Texas, and his public complaints about Trump’s ongoing war with the free press, which originally provoked Trump’s ire, sound fair enough to our ink-stained journalistic souls. We rather like how this McCraven fellow fights his war of words in pristine parseable English with facts at hand, and in general we like the cut of his four-starred naval admiral jib, and at the risk of sounding like Republicans In Name Only we can’t say the same for his latest foe.

— Bud Norman

The Show and the News and Real Life Go On

An otherwise successful opening to the annual local Gridiron Show was marred by a family medical emergency that occurred just afterwards, and instead of drinking it up with our fellow cast members we spent the remainder of Thursday night and the first two hours of this morning in a nearby hospital.
So far as we can tell from the doctors’ carefully worded statements, things will likely turn out just fine, although our beloved Dad wound up spending the night in the hospital for a night of observation. At his stubborn insistence we took our beloved Mom home and then returned to headquarters for a glance at the news, hoping to keep our years-long writing streak intact with at least a brief post.
The lately essential Washington Post’s web site was filled with the usual depressing news. China has escalated its recent trade war with America, although this time the stock markets didn’t seem to mind. During a campaign stop in West Virginia President Donald Trump literally tossed out the carefully worded script that had been prepared for him, complaining that he found it “boring,” and instead went on one of his usual stream-of-consciousness rants full of taunts against his perceived enemies and plenty of outright falsehoods. There was also an interesting piece about the final statements of some recently ousted Trump administration officials, and their all-too-credible accounts of Trump’s chaotic management style.
At the bottom of the page we found the most depressing report, that Kevin Williamson has been fired from The Atlantic Magazine after just one column. If you’re not familiar with the name, Williamson has a long history in newspapers and magazines and was most recently a prominent columnist for The National Review, where he frequently annoyed many of that venerable conservative journal’s readers with his principled conservative Never Trump stance and by advocating the same tough-love solutions for the white underclass that conservatives have always advocated for the black underclass, and as far as we’re concerned he’s the best political polemicist of the day, our own formidable selves notwithstanding.
Although Williamson’s principled conservatism had so annoyed National Review’s Trump-loving readers, his hiring by The Atlantic outraged it’s more stridently liberal readers. As the oldest and most venerable monthly magazine in The Atlantic has published influential and widely anthologized essays by still-famous writers on both the left and the right over it’s more than 150 distinguished years, under the leadership of legendary editors from both sides of the political spectrum, and Williamson’s keen analysis and elegant writing is well worthy of that august tradition, but of course there were angry e-mails and “tweets” and some attention paid by more traditional media.
These days, liberals are no more interested in reading keen analysis and elegant writing from some damned conservative than conservatives are in reading any keen analysis and elegant writing from some damned liberal.
Eventually Williamson’s critics came up with some off-the-cuff and not all written-down comments three years ago on a couple of internet “podcasts.” Like most conservatives and a large chunk of the country at large, Williamson has moral objections to the practice of abortion, based on his widely-held belief that human life is sacred and begins at the moment of conception. In those unearthed “podcasts,” Williamson took this belief to its extreme but logical conclusion that the law should therefore consider abortion murder, and despite his his usually carefully considered writing he conversationally used some controversial language about hangings.
Despite our own moral objections to the practice of abortion, this is taking things further than we’re comfortable with, and many conservatives agree, and so does the biggest chunk of the population at large, including all those outraged liberals who have some equally extreme ideas of their own about abortion and the sanctity of life, so of course it was too much for the venerable Atlantic. We can hardly blame the magazine, given the current political climate, but it does seem a damn shame.
At the end of a long, long day we expect that such a formidable writer as Williamson will land on his feet, and that such a formidable fellow as our beloved Dad will do the same. Until next Monday, you beloved readers, we expect the news will continue, and the show must go on, so we wish everyone the best.

— Bud Norman

The Medium is the Mess

We’ve lately been spending a lot of time with some fine people who work in what’s left of the local news media, preparing for our annual brief appearance on the amateur stage in the Society of Professional Journalists’ satirical song-and-skit “Gridiron” show, and although it’s been fun and a good reason to get out of the house we sometimes wonder what’s the point. The show is a fund-raiser for journalism scholarships, after all, so we can’t shake a guilty feeling that we’re contributing the delinquency of a minor.
Better that those fresh-faced youngsters should be preparing for careers in horse-and-buggy engineering or telegraphy, as far as we’re concerned, and we’re apparently not the only ones who think so. A recent survey by something calling itself CareerCast just published its annual survey of the worst careers to pursue, and for the third year in a row being a newspaper reporter came in number one. Newspaper circulation has been plummeting rapidly, with advertising revenues falling even faster, the resulting salaries are also low, and by now the prestige factor is in negative territory.
Things were vastly different way back when our fresh faces embarked on a career in newspapering. We had recently dropped out of college, and after a series of desultory jobs were eager to accept an offer to be an “editorial clerk” at the local newspaper, which meant writing obituaries and listening to the police scanner and answering calls from irate readers and doing whatever menial errands almost anyone else in the newsroom might find for us, and it was grueling but fun and seemed to hold out some promise. Almost all the reporters were “J-school” graduates who had been inspired by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman bringing down Tricky Dick in “All The President’s Men,” but we were drawn to profession by “His Girl Friday” and “Nothing Sacred” and all those black-and-white movies about men in fedoras shouting “get me re-write” into a candlestick phone, and we even managed to work our un-credentialed way to a “staff writer” by-line as the last of the up-from-copyboy reporters.
That was so long ago, though, that we were on the job the night Ronald Reagan first won the presidency. It was a grand old time in the journalism industry, when almost every city in the country was becoming a one-newspaper town, and it was before Reagan revoked the Fairness Doctrine and unleashed talk radio and then the internet and all its gloriously unedited commentary and more up-to-the-minute sports results and stock market quotes, and even worse Craig’s List and all the other on-line advertising options, so for a brief shining moment journalism was the monopolistic place to be. Our newspaper was basically printing money along with all its widely distributed daily editions, the raises kept coming along with every threat of unionization, the drama critic and fashion writer were getting annual paid trips to New York City, the political writers got their calls immediately returned from even such disdainful sorts as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and even we were pretty cocky about it.
In retrospect, of course, we should have seen it coming. That night Reagan won the presidency we were the only ones in the newsroom who were glad of it, and we’re still owed twenty bucks from a reporter who bet us that the world surely would end in a nuclear conflagration within four years but who’d moved on by then, and we look back on their discredited crusades against nuclear energy and that “red-lining” nonsense that led to the subprime mortgage fiasco that led to the great recession of ’08, which somehow led to the disastrous Obama presidency with the unabashed cheerleading of our local newspaper, and even without the internet and other aspects of the creatively destructive nature of capitalism it was bound to end badly. Now the paper isn’t even printed here, but is for some reason or another outsourced to the now corporate-sister Kansas City paper, which used to be the paper that our local paper hated to be scooped by on any Kansas story, and what difference, at this point does it make?
Our friends in the radio media aren’t faring much better, with all those internet stations that play only the songs you want to hear stealing their audience, and the conservative talk radio hosts splitting into every smaller shares with every new schism in conservatism, the one of the only people we know from local television was fired for letting the “f-word” slip at the end of a broadcast and is now vying for a state House of Representative seat. It’s a sorry state of affairs for the people who decided to pursue a career in any sort of journalism, and for the city at large.
For all the windmills that our colleagues tilted at over our quarter-century of local journalism, they also pointed to some serious problems that were quickly addressed, and on other occasions they at least forewarned their readers of the problems to come. Our radio friends have warned of us upcoming tornadoes and traffic jams and tax hikes, and even that foul-mouth and quite likable TV reporter also brought us some valuable information, although we’ve told him we’re not supporting his out-of-our district campaign, and we hate to think of what our local officials might be up to without such watchful scrutiny.
Still, we hold out no hope that “J-schools” are going to do any good, given that they all still seem obsessed with inculcating Reagan-hated into their charges, and what with all the computerization in the dying newspaper business there aren’t any copy boys left to work their way up to “staff writer.” Which leaves us wondering how people will know what their public officials are up to and what problems need to be addressed and which problems can only be forewarned, and whether anyone will really care. We’d like to think that there is still a demand for such information and that a free market system will therefor provide a supply, but so far no one’s figured out how to make it profitable, and until then we’ll enjoy the company of our last remaining media friends and encourage those fresh-faced youngsters to into gerontology or video game-making or some other promising field.

— Bud Norman

Explaining Harry Reed’s Face

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada showed up in Washington earlier this year with a face that looked like it had been worked over by some brass-knuckled mobsters, along with an improbable explanation about a rubber band snapping on an exercise device in his bathroom, and most of the media were content to leave it at that. The general public and those pesky bloggers are more curious about such things, however, so there was eventually talk that the improbable tale of the exercise device in the bathroom was too improbable to be true and that maybe the rumors circulating in Las Vegas about Reid being worked over by some brass-knuckled mobsters were at least somewhat more probable.
Such gossip has now reached a point that the impeccably liberal Matt Yglesias at the impeccably liberal Vox.com site acknowledges it has “migrated from the water cooler to the mainstream,” the Bloomberg news service feels obliged to give it a “second installment of ‘Whoa, If True,’ an occasional look at the conspiracy theories that migrate from the wilds of the internet to the well-covered tundra of presidential campaigns,” and the left-wing Wonkette.com web site gave it the full snark. None of Reid’s defenders can definitively disprove the beaten-up-by-mobsters theory, of course, and none of the right-wing crazies being criticized for perpetuating the theory have actually said that Reid actually was beaten up by mobsters, just that it sure looked like he had been beaten up by mobsters, and that it seemed somewhat more probable than that obviously phony-baloney story about rubber bands and exercise devices in his bathroom, but such is the state of modern journalism, and the state of modern American politics.
Ordinarily we would feel some sympathy for any person forced to defend himself against fact-free slander, even a politician, but Reid is not an ordinary case. Among the myriad characters flaws that have made Reid one of the most odious public figures of his generation is his tendency to level the most outrageous accusations against his political opponents with no proof but full confidence that the target won’t be able to disprove them in time to ward off electoral defeat. The most notable example occurred during the 2012 presidential election when Reid took to the Senate floor to declare that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney hadn’t paid federal income taxes in several years, which was not a mere mistake or slight exaggeration or the usual election-year rhetoric but rather an outright lie, and in a recent interview with CNN he said “They can call it whatever they want. Romney didn’t win, did he?”
So if that’s the standard Reid wants to set, we’ll go ahead and figure that he got roughed up by some mobsters that he double-crossed. Come to think of it, it does seem at least more probable than that rubber band in the bathroom story.

— Bud Norman

An Ink-Stained Wretch

Even by the melodramatic standards of newsroom intrigue, the latest dust-up at The New York Times is noteworthy for its nastiness. The acrimonious departure of executive managing editor Jill Abramson features accusations of sexism, a plea of poverty, and an intriguing tale of an ill-advised tattoo.
Abramson was installed as editor of the Times in 2011 amid much self-congratulatory hoopla about her being the first woman to hold that once-prestigious position, but was replaced on Thursday by former deputy Dean Baquet, who was introduced at a news conference where Abramson was conspicuously absent, and with much self-congratulatory hoopla as the first African-American to hold the once-prestigious post. The past three years of newspaper gossip have chronicled Abramson’s frequent clashes with both the staff below her and the family heir owner above her, but according to the insiders at The New Yorker the final conflict occurred when Abramson discovered that she was being paid less than her predecessor and concluded that sexism was the reason. The accusation is so embarrassing to the Times, which has crusaded relentlessly and often embarrassingly against real and imaginary sexism in other corner of American life, that it responded with a frank admission that its bottom line no longer allows for the generous compensation it once offered to the editors who oversee its precipitous decline in readership and ad revenues. Our occasional freelance work for the Times has not brought us anywhere near contact with Abramson, so we cannot attest to the veracity of any claims about her difficult nature, which of course have also led to accusations of sexism, but our long experience of the newspaper business suggests that the economic explanations are quite plausible.
In any case, we were more struck by the odd detail in the International Business Times that Abramson had celebrated her editorship by getting the modified serif font “T” from the Times’ distinctive masthead tattooed onto some undisclosed location on her body. The 60-year-old Abramson spoke of the tattoo last month on a podcast interview, and said she also had three others that included a representation of a New York City subway token and the trademark “H” of Harvard University to honor both her alma mater and the husband she met there, leaving listeners to speculate what the fourth tattoo looks like. We’re hoping it’s a big red “Mom” or a likeness of Betty Page, but we suppose that even in this day and age she’s entitled to some privacy regarding the matter. So long as she’s willing to speak of the modified serif “T” we’ll avail ourselves of a chuckle about it, though, as it reminds us of a heavily-tatooed friend of ours who is forever adorned with the name of an ex-husband on one of her formidable biceps. Abramson is still married to her Harvard beau, they’ll never take that degree away her from, and one can only hope that subway token will always retain its meaning for her, but that modified serif “T” is likely to be a painful reminder of lost love.
Even more painful to contemplate is what that tattoo says about both The Times and the times. Back when the Gray Lady was The Newspaper of Record and would settle a bet in almost any barroom in America, its editors did not have tattoos. They countenanced the likes of Walter Duranty whitewashing Stalin’s mass murders and Daniel Ellsberg’s espionage and Jayson Blair’s affirmative action fabrications and countless never-mind corrections, but at least they were serious enough they weren’t sitting next in line to some trendy twenty-something co-ed at the local tattoo parlor. It is saddening but no longer surprising to learn that someone so high in the still-influential world of journalism is trying to keep up with the teenaged hipsters, as the age of the grown-up has clearly passed. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial rightly bemoaned the “selfie-taking, hashtagging” administration, where National Security Council members dismiss the Benghazi scandal by saying “Dude, that was, like, two years ago,” and the President of the United States is doing late night comedy bits with the hippest hosts and denouncing the opposition party’s proposals as a “stinkburger,” so it should be expected that those covering their reign with proper respect have a similar sense of style. This might not have anything to do with the rapid decline of the newspaper industry or the similarly rapid decline of the country, but it seems an interesting coincidence.

— 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

Jumping the Gun

The horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon dominated the news again Tuesday, even though there was nothing new to report. There were the sympathetic portraits of the victims and celebratory tales of the kindness and heroism that also occurred, both of which are obligatory rites of journalism in the aftermath of such tragedies, but nothing to answer the crucial questions of who was responsible.
Journalists are obliged to write something about such events, however, and after 35 years of working for newspapers we can attest that most of them are loathe to admit when they have no answers. We’ve had numerous editors over the years who insisted on answers to unanswerable questions, apparently under the impression that the ultimate truth is just another phone call and any failure to provide it is a dereliction of journalistic duty, and in today’s dwindling labor market too many reporters are eager to oblige them even without any sound proof. There are always the sympathetic portraits to write, which make for grim duty but contribute some small human aspect to the truth, as well as the celebratory tales of kindness and heroism, which are also a true part of the story and certainly merit celebration, but in his heart the typical reporter of our experience wants to be able to point a finger of blame.
All the better if one is able to point that dreaded finger at the preferred villains, which explains the eagerness of so many in the establishment media to note that the culprit might be a right-wing extremist. At this point it is quite true that it might be so, given that no definitive evidence has been uncovered to prove otherwise, but it would be just as true and just as pointless to note that it might also be a left-wing extremist or an Islamist extremist or any number of other sorts of extremists. The main evidence offered for the right-wing extremist theory is that the attacks occurred on the day that income taxes are due, but the more pertinent fact would seem to be that it occurred on the day of the Boston Marathon.
Other sources would prefer to implicate Islamist terrorists, which seems at least as plausible as any other explanation. There is some circumstantial evidence for the theory that is worth reporting, such as the similarity of the bomb to the improvised explosive devices that have been used against American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it does not constitute proof of anything. Should the theory be proved it will surely be followed by reminders that the work of a few extremists should not reflect poorly on a broader ideology, a point that those blaming right-wing extremism have not made on behalf of conservatism, but to much of the press Islamist terrorists are not the preferred villains.
Journalists needing something to write about as they await real information about the Boston Marathon bombings have no lack of material. The on-going debates about guns and illegal immigration have been so completely overlooked in the aftermath of Monday’s bombing that a savvy Senator might well choose to rush through something that would provoke widespread public outrage in different circumstances, and there’s a trial of an abortion doctor going in Philadelphia that much of the press has been looking for reasons to ignore.
The bombings in Boston are of the utmost importance, of course, but that’s all the more reason to wait until there are hard facts to report.

— Bud Norman

A Blast From the Past

The youngsters among you might not appreciate the irony of Bob Woodward’s recent feud with the Obama administration. You really had to be there back in the early ‘70s, those halcyon days of the Watergate scandal when the Woodward legend was born, to fully savor its deliciousness.
Woodward was a superstar back then, famed as the late night cop reporter for the Washington Post who covered a third-rate burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters and teamed with Carl Bernstein to doggedly pursue it all the way to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The left reviled Nixon with a red-hot hatred that is difficult to describe today, although it might be likened to Bush-hatred exacerbated by an all-out culture war between the hippies and squares, and thus Woodward was revered with an equal passion by the left for his heroic role in bringing in at long last bringing down their favorite villain. “All the President’s Men,” Woodward’s and Bernstein’s account of the Watergate scandal, became a runaway best-seller. The hit movie starred the famously handsome Robert Redford as Woodward. A Pulitzer Prize and other plaudits were lavished on the duo, and Woodward and Bernstein both enjoyed a celebrity that had never before been attained by mere newspaper scribes. Journalism schools saw a sudden surge in enrollments, and a generation of reporters set out to win the same kind of scandal-driven fame.
Like all legends it was rather overblown, ignoring the role that other reporters and especially the congressional investigating committees played in forcing Nixon’s resignation, and subsequent revelations about the identity of the anonymous sourced dubbed “Deep Throat” have given rise to a revisionist account about his motives. Still, it was true to the extent that Woodward had done an impressive job of reporting, and Woodward would henceforth be referred to as a “journalistic icon.” He continued to do solid work over the decades, focusing on his daily duties as a Post editor and his meticulously researched books about the passing administrations while the rest of the press tried to duplicate his past glories by digging up the hot scandal, and although he would sometimes uncover something embarrassing to a Democrat or flattering to a Republican he retained his reputation as a reliably liberal reporter.
Until now, at least. While meticulously researching “The Price of Politics,” a book about the Obama administration’s dealings with the congressional Republicans over budget matters, Woodward learned from his sources that the idea for a “sequester” had originated at the White House. The revelation attracted little notice at the time of the book’s publication, but now that President Barack Obama is jetting around the country to blame the Republicans for the impending budget cuts that have resulted the claim is suddenly the source of much controversy. Woodward stood by his story even after an indignant White House denial, then further offended the administration by insisting that the earlier deal struck by the administration did not include the tax hikes the president now insists on. White House press secretary Jay Carney went so far as to call Woodward’s allegation “willfully wrong,” the most serious allegation that can be made against a journalist. Not backing down, Woodward has become increasingly critical of the president’s handling of the sequester issue, even going on the left-wing MSNBC network’s “Morning Joe” program to describe Obama’s budgetary threats to withdraw an aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf as “a kind of madness I haven’t seen in a long time.”
This presents a dilemma for the press, which much choose between two heroes, but we suspect that most reporters will opt for Obama’s version. That story features villainous Republicans, and besides, Watergate was a long time ago and Obama has done more for their side lately.
Woodward’s latest scoop probably won’t bring down another presidency, we’re sad to say, and certainly won’t make its way to the silver screen, where Woodward would undoubtedly be portrayed by a more homely actor, but it does seem to have complicated Obama’s efforts to blame the latest mess on his opponents. For that Woodward deserves another round of applause, this time from the right, and perhaps some grudging acknowledgment that his earlier work was more about a pursuit of the truth rather than just partisan politics.

— Bud Norman

The Woman at the Store

One of the dreariest duties of the daily newspaper reporter is the “man on the street” interview. Newspaper editors love to have the resulting quotes in a story, partly because of a belief that it gives a reader some sense of what the average person is thinking about an issue, mostly because they don’t have to harass the random passersby themselves, yet there is little justification for this strange journalistic tradition. The small number of people a reporter can pester before deadline doesn’t amount to a representative sampling of public opinion, the reader is usually an average person himself and is therefore more interested in what better informed sources have to say, and the quotes are almost always banal.
Every now and then, though, a story will contain a quote from some purportedly typical person that actually makes a pertinent point. An excellent example can be found in the twelfth paragraph of a recent Reuters story about how the possibility of the government going over “the fiscal cliff” is affecting Christmas sales. A Linda Hampton, identified only as a New Yorker found shopping at a Best Buy store, is reported to have remarked that “It would be a disaster. Our taxes will go up. But I think our president will step in.”
This is the extent of Hamilton’s contribution to the story, so there is no knowing if the reporters questioned her further about her opinion, but we would have been interested to hear why she has such a touching faith in the president. It seems to us that a plunge over the “fiscal cliff” would result in across-the-board tax hikes that provide the president with more money to dole out to his preferred constituencies, as well as cuts to the defense budget that the president ardently desires yet would otherwise be unlikely to achieve, and so long as people such as Hamilton are so trusting of his intentions he will he gain political advantage from the resulting economic catastrophe. It would have been worth a drive to the Best Buy to hear why she is confident the president will “step in” and save the country from something that redounds so completely to his benefit.
Obama’s boundless empathy for the common man, probably. The president often speaks of it, and the papers have all confirmed it, so perhaps that’s where Hamilton got the idea. There’s no discerning Obama’s concern from the consequences of his policies, which have left the common man poorer, more dependent on government, and less free, but the damning statistics that quantify this decline get less coverage than the good intentions. The common men who are ponying up for the Obama’s multi-million dollar Hawaiian vacation can be assured they will repaid in empathy.
Even the most reliably liberal news media are hinting at Obama’s willingness to go over the cliff, but that’s the kind of complicated and dull story that Hamilton might be too busy to read. Although she’s obviously not one of the many people that the Reuters reporters no doubt spoke with who had never heard of a “fiscal cliff,” we suspect that her news-reading is not so far-ranging that it has brought her into contact with any doubts about the president’s good faith. This does indeed qualify her as a typical American, and as much as it pains us to hear it’s useful to know what’s she thinking. Forewarned is, after all, forearmed.

— Bud Norman

Too Cool for J-School

How very gratifying it was to read on Sunday that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes had advised a group of journalism students to change majors, especially after we’d spent the past few weeks helping to raise money for journalism scholarships.

The fund-raising was entirely inadvertent on our part, of course. Every year we write and perform a few skits in the annual Gridiron Show, a satirical musical revue presented by the Wichita chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and featuring a cast of local media workers, and although the show has raised more than $100,000 for scholarships over the past 45 years we’re in it strictly to get a few laughs.

At some point in every three-night run the show introduces the lucky recipients of the scholarship funds, and we always stand in the wings looking at these fresh-faced, wide-eyed young people and wonder what they could possibly be thinking. There’s a temptation to grab them by their starched collars and shake them vigorously, telling them it would be better to get a degree in horse-and-buggy repair or telegraphy than to prepare for a career in the newspaper industry, but we always let it pass and allow them their futile dreams.

It’s not just that newspapers everywhere are losing readers and advertising revenue and any hope for the future at a rapid pace, although that probably should figure into any young person’s career planning. It’s also that journalism schools are the worst possible places to learn how to be a journalist.

Newspapers would be far healthier today if the hired people with economics degrees to write about economics, agriculture degrees to write about agriculture, military training to write about military affairs, and so on. General assignment reporters, we believe, should have a broad general knowledge acquired outside of any school. One of the many peculiar conceits of the modern journalism biz is the notion that journalism is hard, and that anyone who can master the daunting logic of the inverted pyramid should find that everything he writes about is relatively easy. This is why there so much insufferable haughtiness among the press corps, and so many mistakes. One of the better reporters we ever worked with had a divinity degree, and he covered the religion beat for the local paper so naturally he was one of the first to go in a series of lay-offs that have more decimated the staff there. Another reporter we came to respect had majored in mathematics, and we suspect he’s still on the job mainly because the rest of the staff is hopelessly innumerate and relies on him to figure out how big that tax hike is going to be as a percentage of an average income.

Worse yet, journalism schools churn out a hopelessly like-minded bunch of reporters. After 32 years in the news business we’ve yet to meet a journalism major who didn’t have the exact same opinions as the rest. The Gridiron Show, which wouldn’t have told a single Obama joke in the past four years if not for our tireless and much-resented efforts, is an annual reminder of how drearily uniform reporters are in their thinking.

Lest we seem too harsh toward our colleagues, this year’s show also provided a reminder that there are still good people in the media. Saturday night’s performance was stopped shortly after intermission by a calamitous prairie storm that dropped a tornado nearby and flooded the streets surrounding the downtown theater. While we waited out the storm in the theater’s flooding basement several cast members headed off to work, and when we finally made our way to the sparsely-attended cast party we heard our friend Ted Woodward already on the air with KNSS-AM advising us of the safest routes to our destination, another example of his indefatigable work ethic and journalistic integrity.

We’re not sure if Ted’s a journalism major, though.

— Bud Norman