Roger & Thee

March 7, 2014

loudest voiceWho’s the most powerful conservative in the United States? God knows it’s not Mitch McConnell or John Boehner. Not Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove. Not the former President Bushes or anyone in their family. Not even the Republican Party’s personal Mr. Monopolys, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Nope, America’s most powerful conservative rules his fiefdom from a second-floor office on New York’s Avenue of the Americas. He is Roger E. Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, and as he will gladly tell you, he elected two presidents – and might well have made it three if he hadn’t been busy creating a monster instead.

The brash, mercurial Ailes – part instinctive genius and part paranoid bully – is the subject of a new biography by New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM. It tracks his career from the Mike Douglas TV show where he met and wooed Richard Nixon, to the 1968 campaign immortalized in Joe McGinniss’s classic THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT (with which Ailes eagerly cooperated before having to backtrack and humble himself before H. R. Haldeman), then to TV and theater production, an early attempt at partisan conservative broadcasting, a stop at CNBC, and finally permanent sponsorship in the form of an equally bombastic media magnate who felt “mainstream” journalism was too lefty. Since Fox News went on the air in 1996 (just in time for Monica Lewinsky), it has become the official campfire of the right wing, the nexus of one-sided opinion. Its slogan “Fair and Balanced” was created to get under liberals’ skin, and it’s worked: the channel is anything but either and everybody knows it. Fox News is the broadcast home of a parade of blowhards who never have to answer to the public, not even to Rupert Murdoch himself: only to Roger Ailes.

Piecing together Ailes’s upbringing is beyond any biographer, even one who can get a face-to-face with the subject (as Mr. Sherman could not), since Ailes routinely lies about dozens of biographical facts. For example, Mr. Sherman titles his first chapter after an allegedly traumatic childhood experience in which Ailes’s father extends his hand to catch his jumping son and then snatches it away to let him fall: “Don’t ever trust anybody” is the parental takeaway. The source is an Ailes confidant. The story is almost certainly a lie.

Another fiction which has stood the test of time concerns the signal day when MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW producer Ailes met guest Richard M. Nixon. According to official Ailes lore, there was a belly dancer named Little Egypt also booked on the show, “so I stuck Nixon in my office for 15 minutes. If I’d put Little Egypt in there, I’d be managing belly dancers right now.” This was the conversation – sometimes he says it was an hour long – in which Ailes convinced Nixon that he needed a “media adviser.” Trouble is, as the author reports, “According to several of Ailes’s colleagues who were present and the show logs, there was no belly dancer named Little Egypt booked that day.”

Ailes’s life is festooned with such bits of retroactive “history,” but friends and foes alike note that he has long created a “reality distortion field” as powerful and impervious as Steve Jobs’s. So why should we even care about digging through his shape-shifting past? Because Roger Ailes has become not just a reflector of modern American culture, but a driver of it to an almost unthinkable degree, the thought leader of a rabid, vocal and inward-looking minority. As Mr. Sherman writes, in Fox News’s early days, emboldened by Bill Clinton’s personal foibles, some viewers “kept the channel on for so long that the static Fox News logo…burned the pixels. Before a rotating one was introduced, even when they turned off their sets for the night, the outlines of the graphic remained tattooed to the dark screens.” Some cable channels have viewers. Fox News has believers.

I remember when Rush Limbaugh’s first book appeared in fall 1992. I’d never heard of him, but then I hadn’t listened to talk radio since my grad-school days twenty years earlier, when Atlanta’s WRNG, a 24-hour call-in station, entertained me on long car trips. Stuart Applebaum, Bantam’s corporate spokesperson, predicted a huge hit for our competitor Pocket Books. Why? “Conservatives don’t have anything to read.” And it was true: when I thought of conservative literature, it was ages-old screeds from Barry Goldwater or the John Birch Society, maybe ragged conspiracy-spouting pamphlets for gun-show booths. Well, conservatives didn’t have anything to watch either. For years it was accepted right-wing wisdom that the big-shot media were hopelessly biased in favor of progressivism, from organized labor to women’s suffrage to civil rights. (That continues to be a powerful motivating force on the right, which likes to view itself as the long-suffering victim.) And Rush Limbaugh represented its first shot across the bow, now that mass media had become untethered to even the pretense of objectivity.

For most of the 20th century, on radio and television at least, bald editorializing was actually quite rare. Eric Sevareid’s spots on CBS, for example, were devoted to explicating the news rather than promoting an opinion, which would have been anathema to the longtime journalist. When official opinion was broadcast, station owners – mindful that they were using airwaves licensed to them by the public and guided since 1949 by the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” – would invite an opposing view. This conceit became a weekly 60 MINUTES feature called “Point/Counterpoint,” savagely parodied by the new satirical program SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”). But in 1987 the FCC rescinded the Doctrine, and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush beat back attempts in Congress to reinstate it, on the grounds that broadcasters’ First Amendment rights to free speech were being impinged. That opened the floodgates for partisan broadcasting that had no obligation to present an opposing view. This relatively recent development in mass media is the hottest thing on radio, and despite the public sackcloth and ashes, the leading programs are overwhelmingly conservative. As for television, Fox News speaks for itself – quite literally.

One of the most impressive aspects of the right-wing establishment is its message discipline. Do you remember just after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, when presidential spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, “I’m not going to engage in the blame game,” and continued to use the term repeatedly during his press briefing? Then the same term was picked up by Congressional Republicans, conservative talk radio and Fox News. It also happened when President Obama refused to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse because “we don’t need to spike the football”: the instant right-wing meme was that he was doing exactly that (perhaps hoping we’d forgotten George W. Bush’s flight-suit strut on that aircraft carrier), and this exact phrase tumbled from right-wing mouths for two days. What, does Fox hold meetings to decide what today’s talking points are going to be? As Mr. Sherman reports, why yes, as a matter of fact it does. That’s the exact opposite of reporting news, but that’s also what creates Fox fans. Besides, simply repeating something, no matter how preposterous, gives it weight, as Fox News has proved with the “Swift Boat” campaign against John Kerry and its laughable annual “War on Christmas.”

Many observers, including me, have long wondered whether the on-air opinionators of Fox News are simply performing for the camera or genuinely subscribe to the principles they’re spouting. After reading this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of the on-camera talent may indeed be pontificators-for-pay (Glenn Beck in particular was never an Ailes team player and stuck to his own messages, and Bill O’Reilly’s main orientation is apparently Bill O’Reilly), but Ailes himself actually believes a lot of this stuff. He is an intensely paranoid man who sees conspiracies lurking everywhere – perhaps they are remnants of his time spent with Richard Nixon – and is so afraid of assassination that he had his Fox News office bomb-proofed and installed a bunker beneath his mountaintop country home in Putnam County, New York (after purchasing the sleepy local newspaper and turning it into an advocate) to weather an attack, which will be easier for him to spot after having cut down the nearby trees and bought as many surrounding houses as he could.

Is Fox News the official organ of the Republican Party? You may recall that no less than Dick Cheney directed that all tv sets in his vice-presidential hotel suites be pre-set to Fox, and a host named Steve Doocy flabbergasted observers one day by casually consulting a GOP talking-points memo on the air. Or is it the other way around? After all, it was Fox News – particularly its acerbic host Sean Hannity – which fanned the flames of the nascent Tea Party and probably cost Republicans control of the Senate for two straight election cycles; hyperventilating bombthrowers can win Senate primaries, but it turns out they get clobbered in the more rational general elections. (In the gerrymandered House, quite a few bombthrowers actually won, and collectively became Speaker Boehner’s worst nightmare.) Whatever Fox News is, it’s here to stay for a while, if not exactly at full strength: the channel’s core viewers are aging white men, and most of their potential younger replacements have long since learned to laugh rather than obey. Let’s face it, it’s more fun — and more lucrative — to be Roger Ailes when you have an enemy in the White House; whatever would Fox run 24/7 during a Romney administration? For now, railing against the Kenyan socialist (while secretly hoping for another Clintonian punching bag?) will just have to do.

3/9/13: Read this great story on Chris Ruddy, the guy behind the Newsmax empire, who is ready to give Ailes a run for at least part of his money on television. Ruddy has calmly discerned and exploited the market potential of serving right-wing-but-not-frothing boomers, and in real life he’s an independent who makes up his own mind.

Hot Type, Cool Times

February 28, 2014

Remembering an old friend, a beloved Mississippi newspaper columnist who passed away last week after a life in the profession, got me thinking about earlier days, when both he and I were just scamps yipping around the newsroom of the local daily. Things were so different back then that it seems like a dream. I’m not talking about the cultural shift from newspapers to television to social media for most breaking news – that subject’s already been done to death by bigger brains than mine. I’m talking about the physical process of getting the news out every day in print, in a long-lost era when the term “ink-stained wretch” was more than just a metaphor.

The principle was quite simple and hadn’t changed much since Gutenberg: lay down a mirror image of what you want to see, slather just the right amount of ink over it, and press the ink onto a piece of paper with just the right porosity. Lift up the paper and you have a legible positive. But to get that mirror image required one of the most funky-looking yet way-cool machines ever invented: the linotype.

Mergenthaler_LinotypeThis doodad, in the hands of a skilled operator, could cast complete print-ready “lines o’ type” from a cauldron of molten metal (mostly lead), cool ‘em down, stack ‘em, and hand off to a compositor who physically picked them up and “slugged” them onto a page like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

A line o' type.

A line o’ type.

A chunk of type ready to be "slugged." (Can you read the headline? I can.)

A chunk of type ready to be “slugged.” (Can you read the headline? I can.)

Before the linotype showed up in the late 19th century, you had to set each letter by hand. Because of this tremendous physical burden, no pre-linotype newspaper was longer than eight pages. Linotype technology busted the newspaper business wide open and ruled for about 75 years. But I’ve always connected the machine with an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that premiered exactly 51 years ago today, in which a devilish Burgess Meredith used a linotype to report on news events before they happened.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

The linotype operator used a different keyboard than the “QWERTY” arrangement you and I (and the reporters) use. It was as if he could speak, or at least type, a foreign language. ETAOIN SHRDLU (in lower case; I used the caps so you wouldn’t worry that I’d just had a stroke) is what you get when you run a downward glissando with your finger on the first two columns, because somebody figured out that this was the order of frequency of letters in English. When you hit an “e,” the machine grabs that letter and sets it in place, waiting for the rest of the line and its forthcoming lead bath. So the most-used letters were physically closest: the keyboard layout was strictly a mechanical issue, and lower-case ETAOIN… was a quicker, easier way for an operator to signal a break or an end than the journalist’s fancy-pants “-30-“. Sometimes, as you may have already suspected, “etaoin shrdlu” actually made it into the paper by mistake; there are thousands of examples in newspaper morgues across the country, but not enough have survived digitization to make my cursed spell-checker quit trying to “correct” it for me. But don’t feel so superior. If I made a big honking Mergenthaler linotype appear right now, sat you down, and gave you some copy to set, a skilled letter-by-letter hand-setter would beat you by a mile, because John Henry would know what he was doing while you were hunting and pecking the day away. Simply stated, the linotype operator knew something you didn’t: that foreign language expressed through his fingertips and thus translated back into English. Toward the end of the era, AP and UPI would send longer non-time-sensitive features on a roll of tape which could operate the linotype automatically, but the operators’ arcane arts were still absolutely essential until computerized typesetting came along.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

I was already familiar with “hot type” when I started working for the local daily because our high-school newspapers were printed the same way. A few staffers used to trot out to Keith Press in Raymond, Mississippi and spend the whole day there, because as part of our “journalism training,” we were the ones who physically slugged the pages for the printer. Sometimes you’d want to change something, or the operator had made a typo, and you had to replace the offending line(s) of type – and only the bad ones – by hand. Some of us thus developed an interesting skill: standing at the head of the page, we got very good at reading type upside down and backward. Piffle? Not at all: I’ve read quite a few upside-down letters and memos sitting across the desk from an interviewee who’s busy taking a phone call, and once or twice I learned something I wasn’t supposed to know.

Although the news and sales departments were entirely separate, advertisements paid the bills and ran the show. The compositors made up the ads at the bottom of the page first, and the “editorial” content went in whatever space was left. There’s a practical reason journalists were taught to use an “inverted pyramid” in writing news stories: get the important stuff as high as you can and trail off with less-critical detail toward the end. The reason is, if the piece won’t fit into the available space, you dump the last paragraph, then the next-to-last one, and so on.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

When I got to the city’s daily (like most midsize cities by the mid-Sixties, Jackson was down to one newspaper owner, publishing morning and afternoon papers and a combined edition on Sunday), we weren’t as chummy with the linotype operators. They weren’t even on the same floor. To communicate with them, we’d roll up our copy and stick it in a pneumatic tube like the ones you can still see at some drive-in bank tellers. Off it sped, Jetson-like, to typesetting (down in the dungeon with the presses and all), and later the tube would pop out a printed proof for us to read and correct. It also showed us the length of the piece in column inches so we could lay out pages with paper diagrams. This proof was the first time you saw your name in print (if you got a byline) and gentle readers, I became addicted, which is a succinct but comprehensive autobiography.

Any big paper had a line o' linotypes.

Any big paper had a line o’ linotypes.

Newspaper offices are much quieter than they used to be. The clickety-clack of teletypes – not to mention linotypes – was once the sound of news. Even typewriters (they were manual and we typed hard onto huge rolls of three-copy carbon paper) were noisier than today’s keyboards. I’ll bet there are also fewer flasks of booze stuffed into desk drawers today, and the unfinished novels alongside them are probably unfinished screenplays these days. Things change, which is really what news is all about. My late friend stuck around long enough to see all those wonders get replaced by new ones: he was a real newspaperman and justifiably proud of the printer’s ink that ran through his veins. It’s a profession worth honoring, as the term “news” continues to be diluted and trivialized by too many of the mass media. Sue me, but I miss the days when etaoin shrdlu actually meant something.

To the memory of Orley Hood

Hurrah For The Economist!

September 11, 2013

econcovThe blokes over at The Economist are spending this week celebrating their 170th anniversary, which is amazing, since it’s become the world’s leading English-language newsmagazine not only by excellence, but also by stamina.

Of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report – all 20th century creations – only the former still exists in a print edition, and it’s an anemic shadow of its former self. Everybody else has long gone digital. Yet since September 2, 1843, the British “newspaper” – that’s what it still calls itself – returns solid, intelligent, sprightly-written but resolutely fact-based journalism, each and every week. Articles are unsigned, as they used to be in America’s newsmags, and regular opinion columnists are identified only by historical personages: “Lexington” for the U.S., “Bagehot” for Britain, “Charlemagne” for Europe, “Schumpeter” for business and economics, etc. The journalists behind these names may change – and they often say so long in their final columns before a new writer picks up – but the bylines remain the same.

A leading American businessman told New York magazine last week that you could learn all you need to know just by reading The Economist and Bloomberg Businessweek. (This individual happens to own Bloomberg Businessweek, but he’s right: it’s a great, lively mag these days.) The Economist covers everything else with a charming Old World objectivity; it’s instructive to get the British take on American subjects, and even to be chided about our own odd obsessions, such as with the President’s place of birth or our Bizarro-world relationship to our guns. Here was the paper’s entire coverage of a certain spring 2011 event, in its world roundup section: A young man and his fiancée were expected to get married in central London on April 29th. Millions of Britons took advantage of the opportunity to take a foreign holiday. This in a week when Time and Newsweek both had the royal wedding splashed all over their covers (and thus missed the killing of Osama bin Laden).

The Economist would probably fall into the “moderate Republican” camp if it were American; in other words, there’s no place for it in Congress. Socially open-minded and fiscally conservative, it can’t possibly agree with your point of view every single week. (It is currently acting quite hawkish toward Syria and is aghast that Parliament declined to support a military operation for the first time since 1782.) But, aside from the clearly delineated opinion pages, you can trust it for straight, unadorned news. There is no better way to learn about our complicated, interconnected world than in the spinless pages of this international paragon. Happy 170th, mates, and have a pint on me!

Rolling Away The Stone

July 20, 2013

rscov1188Rolling Stone [full disclosure: my grad-school beer-money provider and record-shelf-filling helper] is in the hot seat just now for selecting as its current cover photo not an Annie Leibovitz or Mark Seliger portrait of a celebrity, but a “selfie” cameraphone shot of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber who’s still alive. This image has caused a tsunami of outrage, especially in New England, where the vicious April 15 attack that killed three and wounded 264 others still has many in a state of shock.

Some companies have banned the issue outright. First, New England-based CVS/Walgreens and Tedeschi Foods announced their refusal to sell it. They were later joined by – as of this posting – Rite-Aid, Kmart and 7-Eleven company-owned stores (the home office will encourage its franchisees to follow suit). Knee-jerk cries of “censorship” have inevitably followed, but this is a tough moral call for many of my well-meaning friends, who are really wrestling with the issue. I am too.

The first thing we think of has to be the hundreds of victims and their anguished loved ones. That’s why we can understand the outrage even when we don’t share it in a visceral way. What would we do in their place? Probably scream and shout – and weep – as well. Grief isn’t rational, and it hasn’t been that long since half a million people came out on a beautiful spring day to celebrate a Boston tradition and cheer on their heroes. This wound is only beginning to heal; it’s still there.

Note that there’s little objection (in fact, I haven’t heard any at all) to Janet Reitman’s cover story itself, a fine piece of journalism that you can read here (make note of the editors’ response to this controversy at the head of the piece). It calmly depicts how the kid next door could turn into a radical and ultimately a monster, the precise word used on the cover. The troublesome part isn’t even the image itself. It can’t be. Back in May it was printed on the front page of the New York Times, in color, in the center, above the fold, and nobody said a word.

The May 5, 2013 front page.

The May 5, 2013 front page.

What bothers people is the juxtaposition of this image with Rolling Stone, and the outrage has to come largely from people who don’t read Rolling Stone (let’s be honest, that’s most people). I infer this from comment after comment decrying the magazine’s “glorification” of an alleged murderer. From the outside, Rolling Stone probably looks something like Tiger Beat: it’s only youth culture, the cover should rightly depict nothing more profound than the latest rocker or pop-culture sensation. Heck, getting on the cover even inspired a Top Ten novelty hit in 1973. What outsiders don’t realize is that Rolling Stone is one of the last bastions of long-form journalism, and has been practicing this venerable profession since its founding. Not a single issue goes to press without at least one piece, maybe even the cover story, which has nothing to do with show business but is meant only to inform and illuminate its readers on the issues of the day. Longtime RS readers were not surprised to see this image on the cover, only found it remarkable for its stated purpose. Here’s your bomber, this…kid.

“They made him look so glamorous.” Nope, it’s only a selfie, that’s you doing that, by virtue of his proximity to the Rolling Stone logo. What you can’t tell from looking at the digital image above, what you can only suss by holding the printed copy in your hands, is that unlike most of RS’s cover portraits, on which you can damn near see individual hair follicles, this photo began so low-res that, blown up for the RS cover, it almost loses focus; here, you can see pixels. In person, it registers instantly that this shot was clearly taken by the subject with a cameraphone. Like the selfies you take. He’s a tousle-haired teenager with a mobile phone, just like RS’s core audience, and that can’t help but unnerve some of them. The image’s power issues from its very normalcy: to any even remotely contemplative kid, it’s uncomfortably like looking into a mirror. Which leads to…

“He’s become a role model. He’ll inspire others.” Any kid unhinged enough to view what Tsarnaev allegedly did as a good thing, to conclude that being on the cover of Rolling Stone is worth an act of mass carnage, will be sorely disappointed to find that they’ve already done their terrorist cover. Besides, we’re full of enough self-hating, gun-toting, random-snuffing “role models” to satisfy a nation of over-armed, sick depressives, and nobody does boo about that, not even when the victims are a room full of first graders.

Another role model?

Another role model?

“They just did this to make money.” I would strike the word “just,” but they publish every issue to make money, and choose every cover subject to attract attention. Will newsstand sales of this issue spike? You’ve already seen the cover, and you can read Ms. Reitman’s story with a single click, so maybe not – especially since it won’t be available at all those outlets. But as New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote, when’s the last time somebody asked you, “Have you seen the cover of Rolling Stone?”

You have the right to decline to sell anything you like. (As a Times editorial pointed out, in CVS’s case, this means cigarettes are fine, Rolling Stone not so.) You also have the right to refrain from patronizing a particular company for whatever reason you like: an ugly logo, a surly server, an act of censorship — or a cover image that offends you. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Daisey, Changed

March 18, 2012

This has to be the week of progressives calling out their own. (Yes, poor “victimized” right-wing media, it does indeed happen.) First, Bill Maher airs a one-sided view of Mississippi and then compounds the error with an oafish election-night tweet. And Friday, the exemplary THIS AMERICAN LIFE radio program “retracts” the most popular story in its history, a piece by Mike Daisey about working conditions at Foxconn Technology in Shenzhen, China, where iPhones, iPads, and many of our other most prized devices are manufactured – mostly by hand.

The TAL piece was an excerpt from Daisey’s highly successful one-man show THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, ending its encore run today at the Public Theater (the closing date is a coincidence unrelated to this incident). We saw it down there last December. The heavyset Seattle-based monologist employs a cadence, and dynamics, that remind you of DAILY SHOW contributor Lewis Black: he’ll talk softly for most of a sentence and suddenly SHOUT OUT a word or two, so you tend to pay attention. (I had previously seen his monologue 21 DOG YEARS, about his experiences as an early employee of

This time, Daisey’s topic is Apple Inc. First, how wonderful and magical their life-changing products are; and then about the human cost of manufacturing them in China, an aspect that has escaped most Apple customers over the years. (Other companies use Chinese labor as well, but Daisey concentrates on Apple.) I don’t know about you, but I always pictured iPhones and iPods being assembled by robot arms in giant white high-tech clean rooms. Not so. The work is done by hand, with mind-numbing and body-grueling repetition, at places like Foxconn, the mammoth campus which Daisey visited. By Western standards, cheap labor is being sorely misused, and no matter how hip the company – as Nike discovered years ago – its role ought to bring shame and embarrassment, especially if executives in the supply chain are aware of the working conditions, and how could they not be?

But there turns out to be a HUGE problem. Not only can’t Daisey corroborate certain events which happened outside his purview, he also lied to TAL’s fact-checkers regarding the very identity of his Chinese translator who was first to dispute the accuracy of his account – meaning he knew there was something there to be discovered. Here is a detailed look at TAL’s objections. Also note that by Chinese standards, most Foxconn workers, mainly poor migrants, seem happy to have their jobs, even working exhaustingly long shifts for a pittance; instances of abuse and physical harm (such as hexane poisoning) certainly exist but may be rarer than Daisey insinuates; and, most seriously, he can’t possibly have seen everything he says he did in one six-day visit. He is describing something true using a fictional method. Nothing wrong there – most enduring works of art operate that way – but look at his stern assertion in the next paragraph.

Daisey’s halfhearted defense seems to be, yes, but this is theater, I shouldn’t have presented it to TAL as journalism. In response, I’d like to quote two bold-faced lines from the Playbill I was handed as I walked in the theater door (yes, Virginia, there is a straight guy who saves all his Playbills):


If the root issue is real, and Daisey’s heart is in the right place – he has certainly worked and succeeded, through drama, in bringing consumer-electronics labor issues into the public consciousness, and there’s reason to believe things are gradually changing at Foxconn – then why is this so important?

I can trust that Daisey’s basic premise is true not because he says so (though I took him at his word back in December, per that Playbill disclaimer), but because it’s been corroborated by independent news and labor organizations, most notably the New York Times, whose reporters have filed front-page stories about working conditions in China (arguably urged on by people like Daisey).

I can assert that his presentation is at least in part fictional because of those same independent news organizations. In fact, Times reporters in China also questioned specific points in Daisey’s piece as unlikely. Even the one with egg on its face, THIS AMERICAN LIFE, had guts enough to do the right thing retroactively after making one fatal error: they should have never allowed the story on the air after being unable to contact Daisey’s translator.

News and opinion can exist side by side. Away from its editorial pages, which of course are all opinion, The New York Times indicates the difference instantly using typography: each day, any story with a justified-right margin is reporting, truth, accuracy; any story with a “ragged-right” margin, like the one you’re reading right now, is opinion or analysis. TAL itself has a coterie of bright, thought-provoking contributors whose subjective musings are clearly labeled as just that.

But the fact that TAL has fact-checkers at all shows you they’re trying to ensure that what they present as truth actually is. Political blowhards on both sides of the spectrum (world’s most unavailable job: Sean Hannity fact checker!) spout opinion so fast and so loud that some folks probably can’t be blamed for taking it seriously. But if, say, Bill O’Reilly states that something happened today, I’m gonna need corroboration. (He earned my skepticism by inventing or adopting specious news items for his silly “War on Christmas.”)

We need independent news, and thank God we still have some of it amid all the cacophony. Meanwhile, what of the dramatist?

When the lights came up after AGONY/ECSTASY, my wife used an earthier term to say, “He’s a hypocrite.” If he’s so upset, why does he continue to use Foxconn-made gear? And the stars in his eyes during the show’s opening moments, when he’s describing his own happy Apple addiction, are those of somebody who trades in for damn near every new model. We didn’t yet know that what we’d just heard had been juiced for dramatic power. But now I can’t help but wonder if he was telling the truth about Amazon in 21 DOG YEARS. So that’s something that Mike Daisey must share with Bill O’Reilly. No more trust; I now have to verify.

Osama bin Laden, 1957-2011

May 3, 2011


First, can we stop with the criticism that the President is namby-pamby on national security? That corpulent drug addict Rush Limbaugh is already deriding him for alleged overuse of the first-person pronoun in his Sunday night speech, using a Jedi dark side trick to cleanse his own mind of the grotesque flight-suited MISSION ACCOMPLISHED preening of Mr. Obama’s predecessor. But one person has to say, GO: the commander in chief. One person has to, excuse me, pull the trigger. If things had gone better in the Iranian sand for Jimmy Carter in 1980, he would be a national hero and Ronald Reagan would have had to wait four years, maybe forever. That had to be on the President’s mind last weekend, because this was far from a slam-dunk mission. All praise to the brave SEALs, and everybody else who followed the President’s orders at great risk to themselves. But shut up, Rush, when the President of the United States cops to personally ordering troops into harm’s way.

Second, can we agree that American weekly newsmagazines are irretrievably broken? Both Time and Newsweek, which went to press before this happened, feature the royal wedding on their just-landed covers. They lost big on the timing, and now they’re newsstand laughingstocks, unless they rush “special editions” into press – but with what reporting, and who’s gonna pay for it? My hunch: we’ll catch ya next week, America! The only newsweekly which will have a current story is The Economist, which lands in subscribers’ mailboxes on Friday. Oh, by the way: they’re British! And here’s the complete coverage of the royal nuptials in what must now be regarded as the world’s best English-language newsmagazine:

A young man and his fiancée were expected to get married in central
London on April 29th. Millions of Britons took advantage of the
opportunity to take a foreign holiday.

Third, one’s initial reaction must indeed be jubilation: this lousy, privileged bastard who coerced so many down-class acolytes into missions he would be too afraid to perform himself finally got what was coming to him. He preached retrogression, yet chose luxury over the cause, like so many other hypocrites before him. But the American football-style celebrations I saw on tv looked very much like the Arab demonstrations after 9/11. Remove the audio, Photoshop-smudge the pickets and T-shirts, put up an Al Jazeera logo, and what’s the difference? I don’t like the way these images may be playing on the other side of the world. I am a firm believer in the adage, “People are alike all over,” but I fear that malefic others may decide to use our shared zealousness against us.

5/6/11: Time rushed out its next issue, which landed for subscribers by Thursday. It was 70 pages long and had five ads, three of them for drugs marketed to seniors. Newsweek also dropped early, on Friday, 62 pages, similar ad ratio but slightly more upmarket. Rather than doing “special editions,” both mags simply hurried up the next issue — Time even had some non-Osama stuff, but not Newsweek — to get those damned royal-wedding “commemoratives” off the frickin newsstand. They each faced an unusually long span before the next pubdate, and both better hope nothing else earthshaking happens in the meantime, in case they still want to be seen as part of a medium which responds to breaking news. The Economist, 104 pages landing on Friday as usual, complete with the rest of the world’s news, cover-lined: Now, kill his dream. Bin Laden was only one of many stories, and this British mag — now clearly best of breed, my friend — ignored the royal wedding.

7/1/11: Everybody with a deadline misses the big story occasionally, and this week it was The Economist’s turn. All anybody could talk about on Friday was the collapse of the Manhattan DA’s sexual assault case against former International Monetary Fund general manager Dominique Strauss-Kahn over his accuser’s credibility. And it was a big European story as well, perhaps the biggest of the day. But The Economist had already gone to press, and the issue that dropped on 7/1 had no mention of the surprise development.

Word On The Wire

June 15, 2010

The ignominious end of Helen Thomas’s career is a real shame. She’d become increasingly batty ever since she left her employer of nearly six decades to write opinion columns for Hearst Newspapers. She shouldn’t have said what she did; no journalist should. That kind of propagandizing is strictly for clowns like Glenn Beck. But I can remember a time when her objective, well-regarded writing was one of the crown jewels of her former employer. I remember her copy distinctly, because this company employed me too. It was called United Press International.

The UPI logo in its heyday. Surrounding it are the letter identifiers of local bureaus. Jackson was JK, center right.

It’s hard to imagine today, with Internet access to nearly-instant news, but for most of the last century and a half, almost all breaking news was delivered by one of three major wire services, whichever one got the story first. The Associated Press and Reuters date back to the mid-19th century and the invention of the telegraph. AP was originally a pool among five New York papers to share the cost of field reporting. Reuters, in Britain, did the same for the foreign coverage of European papers (it broke the story of the Lincoln assassination to Europe). UPI came along because of cold, hard business.

AP was, and is, an association of member newspapers. It refused to sell its services to the competition, which included Edward Scripps, founder of the US’s first newspaper chain. So, in 1907, Scripps combined some regional news services into the United Press Association. William Randolph Hearst entered the business by founding the International News Service two years later. In 1958, the two merged: thus, UPI.

UP, later UPI, was a fierce competitor to AP, and built a proud journalistic tradition. The most famous alum is Walter Cronkite, who did all his World War II reporting as a “Unipresser.” (He didn’t join CBS until 1950.) David Brinkley reported for UP. So did Howard K. Smith, Eric Sevareid, William L. Shirer, and many others. The rivalry between the two major American news services throughout most of the 20th century is the stuff of legend. When Cronkite, now on tv, told the country about the JFK shooting in 1963, he was reading a bulletin from UPI; Merriman Smith of the Dallas bureau, who had been in the press car, got to a phone first and hogged it, with the AP reporter pounding on his back. A UPI reporter – a guy I worked with! — was first on the scene at the fatal Jayne Mansfield auto accident in 1967. (By the way, she was not decapitated. That’s an urban legend that just won’t die.) To be way ahead like that was fantastic: every second that ticked by without a response from the other wire service meant your story would be appearing in papers, and on radio and TV stations, exclusively. Your side would be judged the authority: the other guys (in the tradition of so many tv commercials, we used to refer to AP as “Brand X”) were only catching up.

The way the two served their customers contained the seeds for a TKO that would eventually send UPI reeling. As I said, AP is a group of member newspapers. UPI was a service that could be retained by anyone. To AP, its papers were and are “members.” To UPI, they were “clients.” AP’s financial model was a cooperative assessment which could be raised at will. UPI’s was a flat fee. Many organizations subscribed to both services, including the dominant paper in Jackson, Mississippi, The Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News. UPI teletypes were there in the newsroom – but AP had its whole bureau there.

I worked a few blocks away, at UPI’s Jackson bureau, as a “vacation and holiday reliefer” while I was in college. It was a five-man bureau, and all five people were needed to tend the print and broadcast output while taking the time to get into the field for original reporting. So while each of the full-timers took their vacations, or celebrated Christmas, Thanksgiving, or other holidays, or even fulfilled National Guard service, I became the fifth man. It was one of my best jobs ever.

Jackson is the state capital, so the legislature provided daily fodder when in session. Mississippi’s legislature wasn’t as dysfunctional as, say, Arizona’s or New York’s are today, but it struggled through the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act in the late Sixties very reluctantly. You could see some progress. You could also see enough dumb, mean Senator Foghorn Leghorn stereotypes to keep things colorful. But that was only my opinion, and it needed to stay in my head, never creep into a UPI story. Every state senator was entitled to the same respect – they all represented somebody. Impartiality wasn’t just sought, it was mandated. That’s one of the reasons I get so offended at the cynical yahoos on the “Fox News Channel.” How dare they use the word “news”?

Andy Reese, one of the finest newsmen I’ve ever known, was the bureau manager. Life in Andy’s domain was measured in seconds. A cardinal rule was, the phone must not be allowed to ring twice. Your answer is “UPI, Dupree.” Get to the point. That hair-trigger mentality sometimes bled over: I can’t count how many times I dove for the phone at my apartment and answered, “UPI, Dupree. I mean, hello.” The rest of the guys in the bureau were just as intense and driven. Friendly enough, but they worked like carpenter ants. The first few days, I thought, I didn’t know there was this caliber of professionalism anywhere in Mississippi. I mean, I’d worked at the local newspaper for years, but these guys were so far beyond, I was amazed that they even let me join them.

On a typical day, the bureau sent out print stories in two versions: for morning papers and for afternoon papers. In Jackson, the two had the same owner and used the same presses, but the AM edition tended to tell you what happened yesterday; the “PMer” told you what happened this morning. This was UPI’s great strength all over the country, feeding afternoon papers, many of which wanted a different perspective than the AMer. Quite a few of our PM clients were in Mississippi, or close enough. Before shutting down for the night at 11:30, we transmitted “oniters” for the next morning’s editions. The broadcast wire chugged along all day, but every hour it would stop for a 20-minute “split,” during which you sent your state and local news in script form for disk jockeys and tv newsreaders. A broadcast script was ALL CAPS, with hyphens for initials (“U-P-I”), ellipses for pauses (“AND NOW…THE NEWS”) and “pronouncers” for tough names (“OH-/BAH/-MA”). A “rip-and-read” broadcaster was learning the news while speaking it, and particular jocks or stations had their preferences. I always thought ours were the tightest and easiest to read. I thought that because I often listened to AP rip-and-read stations to compare.

A TT transmitting station, a little before my time but not much.

OK, you’re jumping for the phone, rewriting AMers into PMers and transmitting them, and filling a 20-minute broadcast split every hour. You are doing this by using a keyboard to punch holes in a gigantic roll of paper tape that will feed into the teletype. You can’t read what you’re typing, because it’s just holes. (Well, real vets could, but not me.) I employ my own “advanced hunt & peck” method of typing, using only six of my ten fingers. I almost didn’t get the UPI job because of this (“You can’t touch type?”): the downside is, I can’t type without looking at the keyboard. But I did get the job because of the upside: despite my unorthodox method, I am screamin’ fast, and fairly accurate too, as I demonstrated. This comes in handy when you’re sitting at the TT console, because you have to go fast enough to keep a loop in the tape, like in a film projector. If the little metal bar rises to parallel because there’s no loop, the machine quits transmitting, and jocks from Southaven to Biloxi clutch their hearts. You can feel when you’ve made a mistake, and go back and fix it – if you have enough time. But more often than not, you’re racing that tape. In extremis, you’re even composing on the fly right into the TT, and you can’t read what you wrote until it’s already been transmitted from here to eternity. Let us say that I came out of my UPI years an even faster and more accurate typist. Let us also say that I laugh at “tough deadlines” these days. Muchacho, you don’t know what pressure is.

Toward the end of the late shift, 2:30 to 11:30, if there was nothing left to transmit, we might chat – more like tweeting, since the chats were very short – with the late-nighters in other Southern bureaus, who were all on the deep-South print feed (for many papers cover neighboring states too). Sometimes we would ask questions. One night the guy in Birmingham intended to inquire, WHEN DOES DUCK SEASON START IN MISS.? But he hit the key to the right by mistake. I was obliged to inform him that IN OUR STATE IT’S PRETTY MUCH ALL YEAR ROUND. Instant virtual howls from the other bureaus. I killed, on a teletype.

The other end, the receiver. They used to be in newsrooms everywhere.

On July 20, 1969, I watched the moon landing live on a TT, because I was at work. Normally the national broadcast feed looked just like our own during the split: each story was one paragraph long, formatted to rip and read. Now somebody was listening to Mission Control and telling the TT operator in New York what to type. But as Apollo 11’s lunar lander approached the surface, they just handed the operator a headset, feeding directly from the astronauts. It looked something like this, in real time: 100 feet…some dust…50 feet…contact…shutdown…eagle has landed.

There are bells on the TTs. Normally they ring once or twice to let you know the local split is starting. But when something exciting’s happening, there are more, and they attract newsroom bodies like Pavlov’s dogs. You get four bells for a full story, or an important correction, that’s URGENT. Five bells for a short paragraph: that’s a BULLETIN; the full story will come later. The highest level of urgency is something you might see only a few times in your life. The bell goes apeshit, ten rings, and just a few words come out, with Times Square “zipper” precision. One came now:



I saved the transcript, including that FLASH. I still have it somewhere.

That same summer, we had more excitement. A guy had been transferred in because he had been through an unusually stressful recent hitch, and the company was actually concerned for his health. So they traded him to sleepy little Jackson – just in time for Hurricane Camille, the second Atlantic hurricane in history to make landfall at Category 5. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Even after having traveled two hundred miles north over land, to Jackson, Camille was still powerful enough to make trees and cars her bitches. So you can imagine how she pounded the Coast at full strength.

One of our guys got in his car and drove down to the Coast as the storm was approaching. This daredevil was in a hotel, on the phone with us, as it struck. We heard glass smashing and the line went dead. We didn’t hear from him for almost two days. The first thing he said was, “Tell my wife I’m OK,” then he started dictating his story. His byline was on the front page of the New York Times for the next three days – the eyewitness story, from UPI. In the meantime, the rest of us had fanned out. I got to spend most of that first night in the governor’s office, along with other reporters. The governor had an emergency line that was still open, so we pool reporters could give out bits of info that made it seem like someone was in charge. But most of the time we just sat around waiting for word. The governor was John Bell Williams, a gregarious “good ole boy.” That was the first time I ever saw a politician with his hair down, completely candid, no agenda to pursue except to batten down the hatches as well as he could. Williams would clown with us – in fairness, to try and lighten the mood during the long stretches of nothing. For example, every time he felt a fart coming on, the veteran Congressman would say, “Message from the Senate!” and cackle when the deed was done. Hey, I was still in college, so I had every right to dig sophomoric humor. But gosh: that guy lifting his leg was the frickin’ Governor!

A few months later, I was rehearsing a play during the December 2 draft lottery, in which the 366 birthdays were randomly matched to order of conscription. A low number meant the army or Canada. A high number meant you were free and could start planning your life. (I and everyone I knew had “other priorities,” just like that great patriot Dick Cheney, but unlike him, we were plumb out of deferments.) I’d given a UPI colleague the birthdays of all the men in the show, and as their numbers came up over the TT, he called the theater with the good or bad news. My “number came up” (literally!) toward the end: it turned out to be #47. Everybody stared at me; it was like hearing a death sentence. (P.S. I eventually found a solution: not Canada, not Vietnam.) That was probably the low point of my life with UPI.

Finally, I graduated from college and moved to Georgia to seek a Master’s degree in journalism. Lewis Lord, UPI’s Atlanta-based Southern Division news editor and a hero to us because he worked in Jackson during the heavy civil rights years (AP was too cozy with its Southern “members” to make them mad over genuine hard-hitting reporting), said, “Why? A journalism degree is about as useful as a male teat.” But he wrote me a great recommendation, and Andy Reese was also instrumental in getting me a half-time assistantship that made me able to afford grad school. When my prospective boss, checking my references, phoned “UPI, Reese,” he was simply told, “Hire him.” Get to the point.

Now began the slow dissolution of afternoon newspapers. If you were a “two-paper monopoly,” like Jackson and many, many other places, tv news – which was now more than just rip-and-readers – was eating into your PMer’s circulation. Independents too. When Dad (and Mom) came home from work, at cocktail time they increasingly flipped on the tube instead of reading the PMer. The first thing the publisher did was kill the afternoon masthead and consolidate the staffs. Now the morning paper was “thrown twice” on an all-day cycle: home delivery customers could still receive it in the afternoon if they wanted, with the front page maybe made over for late-breaking news. But soon even that pretense vanished. No makeover, no afternoon delivery of any kind. UPI lost client after client, its very backbone. The founding Scripps family sold out, and UPI bounced from bankruptcy to bankruptcy in the Nineties. The real end was in 1999, when it sold all its remaining contracts to – wait for it – AP.

In 2000, a media company owned by Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church bought UPI, mainly for the brand name, and the next day, Helen Thomas resigned after 57 years. There still is a UPI news service of sorts, but that’s only a name. The chug-chugging of TTs – the clichéd sound of news in movie after movie, the audio effect that used to introduce the CBS EVENING NEWS, the beating heart of UPI, is gone forever. I’m proud and grateful to have been a small part of it, and I miss those days like crazy.

7/20/13: Today we learned that Helen Thomas has passed away at 92. Despite some unwise outbursts toward the end of her career, she was a real trailblazer, she fought the fights, and today every serious female journalist is in her debt. If they’re White House Correspondents, male ones too.


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