Friday, January 30, 2004

I'm no defender of Lee Enterprises, as this week's column attests. But I usually defend the company, or at least the Gazette, from liberal bias charges. It's not that I think there is no liberal bias in the media, it's that I think the public perception is so wildly overblown that it would be closer to the truth to cavalierly dismiss all the allegations rather than try to sort through them.
But even I have a hard time defending this headline from Tuesday's Gazette. Does the story back up this remarkable claim? Not in the least. Rehnquist defends the right of judges to decide for themselves whether to recuse themselves from cases. If he defended the right of judges to be biased, it didn't show up in the six paragraphs that made it into the paper.
The headline is accurate on its face. People do have a right to be biased. But judges have no right to let that influence their legal decisions. And copy editors shouldn't let bias influence the headlines they write.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Wesley Clark is catching heat for failing to repudiate Michael Moore's charge that George W. Bush was a deserter. You can find the relevant transcript here. For the pro-Bush side of the argument, go here. Plenty of places to look for the anti-Bush position: You could start here.
It strikes me that Michael Moore uses "deserter" the same way Ann Coulter uses "traitor," as a political slur of convenience, with no respect for the actual meaning of the words. But he is a provocateur par excellence: His bandying about of the word may have hurt his candidate, but it struck the right chord to stir up a web's nest -- close enough to the truth to provoke debate, close enough to libel to incite Bush fans who would prefer to let this sleeping dog lie.
I'm not sure why I find the debate over Bush's military record so fascinating. I decided long ago that everybody gets amnesty for actions during the Vietnam War, from the gung-ho first lieutenants to the Canadian refugees. I'm willing to give Bush amnesty, too, but I wish he would at first own up to what really happened during his mysterious military career.
After all, if anybody seriously challenged my military record, I know exactly how I would respond: I would ask the Department of Defense to release every scrap of information in my military record; I would dig up whatever documents I still have in my possession; I would scrape together the names of buddies I served with who could vouch for where I was and what I did. In short, I would be able to account for virtually every day I spent in uniform.
I was neither a brave nor a happy soldier, but I served honorably and have nothing to fear from whatever scrutiny anyone might wish to bring to bear on the issue. Why doesn't Bush feel the same way?

Sunday, January 25, 2004

In his Sunday column, Ed Kemmick gives Meriwether Lewis credit for writing the "most decorous and roundabout description of breaking wind ever set down."
Roundabout, maybe. But surely no more decorous than Mark Twain's classic description of farting as a "clearing of the nether throat."

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

I'm beginning to get a handle on my two new jobs, so I will take a few minutes to post now and again.
Sorry I didn't make the Blogger Bash. I had two reasons that seemed good at the time:
1. I haven't actually been blogging, and there's the moral from a Hemingway anecdote: Don't talk about why you're not writing. Just write.
2. I would have had to go back to work afterward. I hate going back to work after having a couple of beers, even more than I hate going back to work after not having a couple of beers.
I do want to weigh in on Steve Prosinski's comments from City Lights about Gazette editorial endorsements. He was responding to criticism by Eric Coobs that Gazette endorsements are anonymous and predetermined. I have no reason to doubt Steve's account of how the process worked in the race Eric was in. No argument there. I do know that on occasions in the past Gazette endorsements have made independently of, and probably prior to, the editorial board's interviews with candidates. I know because I was on the editorial board at the time, and I am not proud of it. But that was a different era.
The larger point is about the anonymity of endorsements. Steve says they aren't anonymous; they are made by an editorial board whose members are named on the editorial page from time to time. It's an argument I have made myself, and it's accurate as far as it goes.
But Eric's complaint is such a common one that I wonder if editors aren't missing something here. When George Bush gives his State of the Union speech tonight, no one will complain that he failed to name the speechwriters who actually composed the words. Everybody understands that the speech is a group effort and that the president is ultimately responsible for what comes out of his mouth.
Historically, newspaper endorsements have operated on the same principle. The "official" editorial, usually in the upper left-hand corner on the opinion page, was designed as the publisher's space. No matter who actually writes the editorial, it represents the views of the publisher, and the publisher is responsible for those views. Even on newspapers that have editorial boards, the publisher normally operates on the "plus one" rule: Every member of the editorial board has one equal vote. The publisher has votes equalling that total, plus one. Even publishers who voluntarily surrender control of the board, are still responsible for its decisions.
It actually isn't a bad system. Under the best circumstances, it allows editors and reporters to do their work more or less free from the publisher's influence. And the publisher can still use the space on the opinion page to tell buddies at the Chamber of Commerce that she (or he) is on their side. At a seminar I once attended on editorial writing, the presenter was asked if it bothered him when the publisher killed one of his editorials. Not at all, he said, so long as the publisher writes another one of the same length.
To modern editors, though, that all sounds a bit autocratic. They want the paper to come off as the reader's pal, a friendly, democratic kind of place where decisions are reached by reason and consensus. And publishers, as the good corporate drones they have become, aren't fond of sticking their necks out. So they set up elaborate editorial boards and never explain how they really work. Readers smell something fishy and react the way Eric did.
The solution? One, of course, is to get rid of "official" editorials. As many critics have complained, newspapers can't have opinions; only people can.
On the other hand, I still think there is something valuable going on when a newspaper takes a public stand on issues of importance, such as on who is going to get elected. If nothing else, endorsements let readers know where biases lie. But papers could be more open about what those official opinions really mean.
Forgive me, Lord, for I have blogged.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

A few people have asked about my lack of recent blogging. My holiday hiatus seems to have turned into a permanent vacation. Just for the record: Blogging here will be light to nonexistent for the next few months, if not longer.
Something has to give. I start teaching German again next week, and I need to be reviewing irregular verbs and noun genders. I’ve been struggling through Thomas Mann for the last week – tough enough in a good English translation, downright overwhelming in the original, and a stark reminder of how much work lies before me.
I also will be working in the writing lab at MSU-Billings a few hours a week. At least that doesn’t require prep time, but if I am going to be bright-eyed at 8 a.m. on Monday, I am going to have to finish The Outpost sometime before 6 a.m. That hasn’t been happening often enough.
At the same time, pressure on The Outpost keeps getting worse. I spend twice as much time keeping books as I did a year ago. Our staff size has doubled, which means I actually have to try to be a manager some of the time. I’m in charge of distribution again. One of our best freelancers, Linda Halstead-Acharya, has been hired away by The Gazette.
Worst of all, the Thrifty Nickel keeps cutting rates and signing up customers to long-term contracts in an effort to force us out of business. I don’t necessarily blame the Nickel, which now sees us as a real threat, even though the Nickel’s woes were self-inflicted. We pose no real danger to the Lee Enterprises juggernaut – Lee CEO Mary Junck earned enough in bonus alone last year, not to mention salary and stock options, to run this whole company for a couple of years. But we do pose a threat to the jobs of a few Lee employees who could be shoved out the door if they don’t meet Iowa’s profit expectations. And they have reacted like we were out shooting babies. We are fighting for our survival here, and victory is by no means assured.
The two best pieces of business advice I have ever received keep coming back to me. One was from Chris Dimock, who teetered on the edge of bankruptcy before turning Western Technology Partners around. “Businesses don’t fail,” he told me. “Their owners just give up.”
The other advice was from Outpost columnist Roger Clawson, who has committed occasional acts of capitalism. “You can get more work done in 80 hours than you can in 40,” he said, “but you can’t get twice as much done.”
That law of diminishing results has come home to roost – so much so that I am willing to resort to cliches rather than think out what I really want to say. I work more hours now than ever and get less done. More than six years into this, without a day off in sight for another six months, I’m just tired: tired of working, tired of missing nearly everything that goes on around me, tired of being broke, tired of being tired. I know that sounds like whining, but if you can’t whine on your own blog, where can you whine?
Something has to give. I don’t particularly want it to be blogging, which is mostly fun and sometimes rewarding. But it doesn’t pay, and I don’t see it paying off any time soon. I think the medium has promise, and may even become essential, even though I don’t know that it will ever reach the aspirations of its most enthusiastic practitioners. Despite the promise of the technology, bloggers basically remain pamphleteers. And no blogger has managed to do what an earlier pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, did 200 years ago, even without comments enabled.
The blogosphere’s level of ignorance about and antipathy toward established journalism continues to amaze and trouble me. I’ve even seen bloggers argue that it doesn’t matter if major media disappear because the wire services would still be around – as if the AP would keep cranking out copy all by itself for eternity, like a salt machine at the bottom of the ocean.
A week or two ago, a blogger wrote that the holidays provided more evidence of the superiority of blogging to conventional media, because paid journalists take the holidays off while bloggers keep plugging away. Amazing. I’ve worked more holidays over the last couple of decades than lots of firefighters and police officers, and I worked till 10 p.m. four straight nights this year just to get far enough ahead to take Christmas off. Some bloggers have no clue.
Of course, the beauty of the medium is that it is self-correcting. But I find myself wasting time responding to the lamest arguments. Last weekend I spent the better part of an hour crafting an intricate response to some ignorant posturing about the relationship between profits and objectivity in journalism. The next day I wanted to go back and see if my comments had drawn any response. But I couldn’t remember the blog or the path of links that had taken me there. My comments, as usual, had vanished into the ether.
Something has to give. It’s gotta be blogging.