Sunday, August 31, 2008

Creeping synergy

I recently received a notice from a woman who delivered the Plain Dealer to our mailbox every morning.  She advised us that she had been summarily dismissed by the PD  because the Beacon Journal, its one-time drop-dead  rival, would now deliver it in certain  precincts in the county.  A few days later I got a letter from the BJ announcing a price increase for my home delivery, which seemed a strange decision  for a paper trying to increase circulation during hard economic times.  And now the staffs at both the PD and BJ are facing tough decisions on whether to accept  buyouts. The BJ, alone, is cutting 20 jobs from its news room , I'm told, and is offering pay up to one year's salary and no medical insurance to persons 55 and older.

The latest round of shrinkage would hit the people with the most instititutional memory the hardest.  The mood is funereal these days.   "We just clench our fists and grind our teeth," one reporter told me.  The bosses say they have no choice with a budget that is nothing more than a Hobson's choice.   People with families must choose between accepting a meaningless buyout package or face layoffs later.  What to do when somebody's turned off all the lights?  

The front office is quick to remind the  critics that their problems are industry-wide, and so they are.  Circulating internally at the BJ is dire piece from the Poynter Institute, the respected journalism education center,  that reads like an obituary.  It quotes a startling prediction  by Vin Crosbie, an industry consultant:  "More than half of the 1,439 daily newspapers in the U.S." says Crosbie, " won't exist in print, e-paper, or Web formats by the end of the next decade.  They will go out of business."  There's a lot more downbeat stuff from Crosbie, but you get the point.  Small wonder that some of the BJ staffers are gravely pondering who will make the cut.

For those of us who have followed the media battlefield reports for a long time, none of this seems overblown.  Cable TV, bloggers, electronic access to everything from home-fried recipes to 5-star resorts - all have taken their toll of once-healthy newspapers. But some of the plunge was hastened by dumb decisions by the stubborn people who claimed prescience in reviving the patient.   

Editors and their consultants who should have known better 20 years ago opted for glittering graphics, gallery-size color photos and minimal text (We used to call it news) and when circulation continued to fall despite the hip look of the front page,  the deciders force-fed even more of the same.  The new era of graphics-inspired encapsulated newspapers didn't produce a miracle then, and it's producing even less today. The young people it was supposed to attract didn't bother.  And the older core readers, largely unimpressed with their hometown paper, began drifting away along with editors and publishers who stayed long enough for coffee and a taxi ride to Cleveland Hopkins to  higher corporate ground  - or oblivion.    

Papers are now past the point of no return with few battle ribbons for those who clung to their ways to brake the fall. I have no idea what will happen to the PD and BJ in the near future. But the cross pollination of delivery, as well as the exchange of bylined stories beween the papers, is clear evidence of  a creeping synergy that will doubtless increase in other ways.  One possibility:  the PD  will begin  printing the BJ at its modern West Side plant and ship it south to distribution points in the Akron circulation area.  Only a guess, mind you. 
But what is the media today if nothing more than  organized guesswork?  

Affirmative action

It took some time for the  100 billion neurons in my brain to react a bit, but I think there is an unspoken reason why Palin stands with McCain at the top of the GOP ticket. Like Cheney, she was given the opportunity to screen all of the Veep wannabes, and, Cheney,  she chose herself.  

Saturday, August 30, 2008

McCain and former Queen Noor

It now seems clear enough that the operative word in the McCain campaign is "maverick," as in:  "John McCain proved he is a maverick because he picked a maverick to be his running mate." Oh?  

First of all, there seems to be plenty of evidence that McCain's political agenda was rather traditional before he chose Sarah Palin;  and secondly, I'm not convinced that she was his personal choice  to be what he had frequently insisted  would be "the person most qualified to take my place."  He either dismissed that attribute for a vice president, or his  cynical handlers dismissed it for him.  I believe that it was the latter case. He admittedly had no more than a brief get-acquainted introduction to her.  If he had really wanted a woman to complete the ticket with a worldly  presence , he would have been much better off choosing the dashing former  Queen Noor.  People hiring hamburger flippers are more familiar with what  they're getting.

Instead, the religious right  and folks like Rush Limbaugh set down the ground rules for McCain on abortion, stem cells,  gay marriage and global warming and found the poster woman for their cause. Maverick McCain simply  agreed.  If you watched him on the stage as she was being introduced, you saw a subdued demeanor, a man picking at his fingernails, who may have been as surprised as anyone else that she would be his running mate. 

Maybe there will still be energy in his campaign logic, but it's not there yet.  

Friday, August 29, 2008

Panning for gold

YIKES!    McCain really did pick a woman who claims to be an "average  hockey mom"  from 
Alaska, and that state's governor, too.  Sarah Palin, 44, Pentecostal associations  in her proud religious resume, pro-l1fe, solid record on man-woman marriage only, photogenic former Wasilla (that's in Alaska, too) beauty queen.  And a cautious nod from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison:  "Everything I've heard about her is very good."

Take that Mitt, wherever you are.  And Joe from Connecticut,  McCain's ever-present cupbearer from Connecticut; and Rudy and all the other guys from the  primaries. And Carly Fiorina, and Hutchison, too.  Instead, Maverick John went with  the modern version of the Alaska Gold Rush, panning for  a runningmate who would satisfy the religious right's stranglehold on the Republican Party, even if that person has zero experience in national issues other than supporting drilling wherever there isn't a private residence or igloo.  

Within seconds, conservative groups like the Christian Coalition of America and Family Research Council happily  descended into  McCain's camp like those luminescent figures that floated from the ceiling at the Olympics closing night ceremonies.   

Did McCain do it for shock effect?  Did he want to lure millions of Clinton supporters to his partner?  And what might America gain if she had to step into the Oval Office someday?  Well, it's worth a minute of everybody's time.  

Alexis Zorba was once heard to say, "A man needs a little madness."

But this was insanity.   

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama, McCain and Dr. Phil.

According to my overworked abacus, there are 16,798 pundits, third base coaches and astronomers,  liberal and conservative, friend and foe,  now advising Barack Obama on what he must do to win the election.  That's 16,798 more than those telling John McCain what to do.  It may be because McCain is 72 and  was a POW and you don't dare tell a 72-year-old ex-POW what to do to be elected president.  Not in America. 
        I'm older than McCain and at this stage of my life I don't' react kindly to anybody who tells me what to do. And that includes Dr. Phil.
        My attention to these advisories was drawn to David Brooks' thoughts on whether Obama "may yet recover his core focus. "   That's pretty heavy stuff for a country where a lot of people are still unable to  identify Obama or McCain as presidential candidates.  But in the land of punditry, psychological profiling is not uncommon.   Eight years ago (it seems like centuries) some columnists labeled Al Gore as an "alpha". (A what?)  And the rest is history. 
         After years of following political candidates around, I decided that baseball was much easier to understand.  The only question raised about a rookie was: "Can he hit a major league curve ball?" He, and everybody else, would find out soon enough.  


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Kristol Bawl

    I think we should deny William Kristol, the New York Times columnist and Fox fabulist,   his daily lollipop after his childish tantrum about Hillary's speech at the convention.  Although she received  considerable  praise for her  embrace of Obama and the strength of  her remarks, Kristol morosely declared that it was a "shockingly minimal endorsement" of her primary campaign rival.   Did he really expect Hillary to offer Obama her hand in marriage, too?  

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

God, with Chicken & Pork

It was annual drum roll time for the Summit County Republicans who crowded into  the party's finance dinner at Hilton Akron-Fairlawn on Monday night.  Following a tradition dating back to the days of Ray Bliss, more than a score  of party achievers filed into the ballroom   to be introduced individually much like the privileged athletes who race onto the field at the Major League all-star baseball game. The price for the 500 or so loyalists on hand to witness the event after a meal of chicken and pork (on the same plate!) was $250 per.
       But the money arrived in the campaign treasury as part of a three-stage rocket, the first blast occurring at a private fundraiser for John McCain ($170,000), the second and third stages from the dinner and another fundraiser for the county party  and U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette.  Alex Arshinkoff, the party chairman, was pleased to announce that the aggregate total for a night's work was nearly $900,000.  It sounded close enough.  
       Despite the distant sound of the cash register, the evening was largely a laid-back affair. The Republican guests at these dress-up affairs  are usually courteous, collegial and comfortable.  The upbeat  news in the lobby was that Obama was stupid to pick Biden.  "The Democrats made it easier for us," was a the pre-game analysis of several guests.  "It should have been Hillary." That overlooked, of course, last winter's expectations from Republicans that Hillary carried so much baggage - much of it stored safely  in GOP computers - that she would be a pushover.     Even Rudy Giuliani is whistling the pro-Clinton song, sharing the shreds  of his inept political insights that proved fatal in the Republican primaries. 
        The headliner for the evening  was Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota governor who is being mentioned as a possible veep candidate with  McCain.   A short, low-key speech is not enough to assess a potential candidate, but Pawlenty did seem to like the idea of associating McCain with Ronald Reagan, leap-frogging both Bushes - neither of whom were mentioned from the dais.  McCain,  Pawlenty emphasized,  was "hopeful, decent and an optimist" who would privide "Reagan leadership."
       Another on Republican bandwagon was the Rev. Ernie Kemppel, of the Akron Baptist Temple.  In his invocation laden with political commentary,  the reverend appealed to God to get involved in the presidential campaign and have a "real impact on the election."  Kemppel prayerfully  reminded God that now was not the time to place a novice in true leadership - God Bless the Republican Party."  Tall order, I'd say. 
      Arshinkoff, as is his wont, topped off the formalities of the evening with an angry blast at the Beacon Journal for refusing to send a reporter to the event that might showcase the next vice president of the United States.  Noting the presence of several broadcast reporters and another from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Alex challenged the crowd to guess who wasn't there. It wasn't  a trick question. 

Monday, August 25, 2008

Oh-Oh... it's O'Biden...

Well, it's over. The secret is out.  It's Obama and O'Biden, as some minor linguists have gushed.  When news arrives at 3 a.m., that's understandable.  That's usually around  the week-end moment that the White House prefers to ooze  out bad news reports to a sleeping nation.   Not that the time made that much difference.  Many of the folks the Bush crowd appealed to in 2000 and again in 2004 dozed through most of the campaigns anyway, only to finally wake up a couple of years later to regret it.
       Now that Biden will be trying harder to strengthen the ticket, it has forced the GOP flame throwers to spend their days poring over the military archives to check the Delaware senator's name, rank and serial number.  Alas, they won't find anything as damning as, say, Kerry's Purple Heart.   As a young man, Biden chose  instead to place himself in harm's way by getting himself elected to the Senate.
       Think of it: the two guys at the top of the Democratic ticket have no military experience, as opposed to... well, you know where this is going.
         Of course, the rules of nasty engagement have changed since Bush-Cheney managed to duck out from military service for personal reasons or something less pressing on their time. They were then celebrated as the perfect warriors against our enemies, elevating their credentials above two Democrats who served honorably in the pre-Swift Boat days. 
          Among those who now want to set the record straight  on Obama-Biden is Bill Sammon, a former Plain Dealer reporter who is now a  political reporter for the right-wing Moonie Washington Times.  Sammon immediately cast a shadow on the Democratic duo with a column on the Fox website that insisted that some mysterious conversation between Bush and Biden never took place.  Sammon "documented" his report by quoting as his authority a "Bush confidante".  Of course.   He concluded gleefully that  "Biden's embellishments could provide easy fodder for GOP."  This is worth mentioning only because you'll be hearing a lot of insider  "confidante" stuff as the campaigns move on.     
         Now to the conventions:  As anyone who has attended any of these road spectaculars knows, much of the time is spent shopping at the better boutiques in the neighborhood.   (Bush was right: the most important response to serious matters is to go shopping.)  When John Glenn was hustled into a New York City hotel room by reporters in 1976 to explain his mysterious disappearance from the convention while Jimmy Carter pondered the choice of a running mate, Glenn easily explained it.  He had gone off to buy some shirts.   No scoop.
        Jim Rhodes played tag with conventions, coming later after reports that he might not come at all.   "They should all stay home and mail in their votes," the governor blustered before conning the national media that he would   arrange a  Reagan-Ford deal at the top of the ticket.
        I suspect that more than one deal - , broken, imagined or confirmed - will keep the  TV analysts quite busy this week.  
       On the other  hand, will there be much notice given to the fact that more Americans were forced to give up their homes in the past several months than the residents of Baghdad after five years of devastation?

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Plunge into the Madding Crowd

I’ll probably hate myself in the morning, but I have decided to add one more voice to an already overpopulated blogosphere.


Why? You might reasonably ask of one who has written a couple of thousand newspaper and magazine columns, several books and, better yet, an occasional crabby letter to the editor. Why, for Heaven’s sake, pretend to compete with the modern Mach One field of slick pundits, chatterers, purveyors of doggerel and flim-flam commentators?

Why, indeed. Blame it, perhaps, on some persistent friends who have been nudging me into this direction. “Do it!” they have commanded. “It won’t cost you a dime and it will be easy enough to accomplish.” One even added cryptically that it would be good for a writer’s soul.

Yeah, right. If it doesn’t work, I’ll tell you their names and you can blame them. On the other hand, I cannot escape total accountability for barging into a much-traveled. electronic mine field. I should confess that a presidential campaign that is often openly awkward for both major contestants had a seductive aspect to it.

Granted, a reflective day at the seashore might have encouraged me to settle for another line of work. Instead I have cast myself into a disorderly crowd that has recast the tarnished badge of professional journalism into an unsightly free-for-all of gingham wolves and calico leopards. I dare say I will have to painfully adjust to the new media culture if I will have any chance at all of catching up with any of the sprinters on the other end of the

It was a tad unsettling, for example, to find the word schadenfreude, not in George Will’s column, but bobbing instead from a sportswriter’s on-line column the other day. I can’t imagine Red Smith or Jim Murray going that far to impress a sports fan with what was once a spelling bee snuffer, but that’s how out-of-sync I’ve even become with the folks who report on last night’s baseball games. Since it appeared in a national column, schadenfreude could very well replace zeitgeist as an upscale line of credit in today’s media.

We may, however, be winning on another front. I have yet to hear either presidential candidate described as having gravitas, which may have overstayed its welcome in earlier campaigns. But as one who is guilty of tossing Italian idioms at my English speaking friends for no reason at all, I shouldn’t complain.

Language, after all, is something we should all take more seriously than, say, does George Bush, who would have no difficulty filling the shelves of his new library in Texas with books that have assembled his malapropisms into several volumes, some of which are even in a vague English dialect.

Clearly I am not one of Dubya’s fans, nor that of his potential successor who of late has been parroting Bush’s notions that his old buddy Putin has been diplomatically impolite to order the monstrous invasion of Georgia (not the one bordering on Florida, although that may be next)—this from a lame-duck president whose own popularity is barely above the current Visa interest rate. Besides, does Bush. McCain or anybody else have the slightest hint on what the U.S. can do about it short of barring the Russian Imperial Ballet from appearing at Lincoln Center?

Perhaps the media, which has its own survival to worry about these days, will take its credibility into account as the presidential race wears on. But now that I am at an age that prompts wariness of a lot of things, I must say it is not reassuring to learn that Exxon Mobil is spending some of its soaring oil profits on sponsoring CNN’s broadcasts for both national conventions. CNN, you may remember, calls itself the “most trusted” news network on TV. And that line continues even after it hired Glenn Beck.

The parameters of media control have become so constricted that military-industrial complex is an ancient term that has been updated to media-political-military-industrial complex. I grew up being advised to watch the bouncing ball in sorting out issues. More importantly today, however, is knowing who is bouncing the ball. And in what faraway board room where there are moments of silence to consider the latest Dow averages.

Well, there are times when I might drift into other issues that provoke me, and maybe you, too. One that comes quickly to mind is the voice-over shrieks of cranky kids in restaurants while the servers roll their eyes and the parents whisper meaningless but loving threats to the hell-raisers. But I hardly expect the situation to change, so I won’t dwell on it. And how slow must the sports news be to offer further speculation on where LeBron James will be playing in the next millennium?

I’m beginning to catch on to blogging already.

You can lower your eyebrows now.