Wednesday, May 31, 2006

CNN Follows Archrival Fox Downmarket,
While Mo Dowd Delivers Punch Like Old

I hate to be so simplistic, but I'll nevertheless continue (at least until further notice) to use Anderson Cooper as a weathervane for judging the overall health of CNN. To the extent that the once-serious news network continues to use the famously emotive globetrotting glam hearththrob as its poster boy in seeking better ratings, I shall persist in considering it Fox-lite. And really, who needs faux-Fox when you can just flip over to the real McCoy? Sorry, CNN, but those print ads in the serious papers (which depict Anderson doing actual reporting himself, actually wielding a notebook or a camera!) aren't very persuasive to anyone with an IQ in the triple digits. Okay, so maybe we shouldn't focus too much on Anderson, not when have the shrill pseudo-populist Lou Dobbs over on the next set. He exhibits all the grace of Father Coughlin railing about Jews during the Depression, as he awkwardly apes Bill O'Reilly with his crude campaigning about the dangers of outsourcing and immigration. Compared to these two boneheads, Wolf Blitzer and his often-spineless echoing of conservative talking point comes off as almost commiting misdemeanors.

The smart-ass right-wing stylist Matt Labash (admittedly a wicked delight for libs) gets off some good AC lines in this lively Weekly Standard piece. My favorite: he calls Cooper "an enigma wrapped in a mystery ensconsed in a French blue shirt..." And the L.A. Times's indispensible media critic Tim Rutten (who first came to my attention when he beat everyone in the entire media on his excellent ongoing coverage of the alt-weekly chain New Times' failed attempt to carve up the Cleveland and L.A. markets) nicely slices up Dobbs here.

And Speaking of Deconstruction,
this cover story in the current TNR carves up the whole Oprah experience. In typical TNR fashion--at least when taking on the worst of pop culture and other lowbrow and middlebrow topics--it sometimes overreaches (I hope he's joking about the Oprahization of the electorate being the primary cause of both Clinton and George W's elections, though he may have a point with Clinton's) and can get a tad lost in overthinking the subject while drowning it in high-toned ridicule. But I find it entertaining and generally thoughtful, nonetheless. In the end, he concludes, the Big O condescends to her couch potato audience. "Oprah has accomplished an amazing trick, or even a miracle: She has turned living vicariously into living authentically."

A 'Skunkworks' That Became #2 Retailer. Forbes, the self-described "capitalist tool," may be best known for its dubious rankings of the world's richest individuals, an exercise in which it does entirely too little research and takes subjects' word for it entirely too much (Donald Trump is only the best example of many). But the biz mag can also make a good point on occasion. At the end of
this otherwise forgettable piece, there's an aha moment: we learn that in the same year that Wal-Mart was founded, the Dayton Co., now Dayton-Hudson, set up its own discount outlet at a single location, almost as an experiment. That experiment eventually became Target. Proving once more that what was once on the periphery can sometimes become the next big thing.

Mo Dowd Hits a Nerve. NYT columnist Maureen Dowd is as good an example as any of the idea that every presidency tends to get the marquee columnist it deserves. Dowd was that columnist during the Clinton era: the pitch-perfect blend of cultural ironist and smart single gal who could see through all of Slick Willy's disguises. Her finely tuned bullshit detector (she was the daughter of an Irish-American cop, after all) and gift for turning a phrase brought an acid, icy realism to her deconstruction of the Clinton era and its abundant dysfunctions, however good they may look now by comparison. More recently, she's had to sit by and watch her colleague, Princeton economist Paul Krugman, become Bush II's chief nemesis. Tom Friedman, meanwhile, has for the most part kept his fast ball. In the page's constellation of bigfoot columnists, she was lately running a distinct third of three (sorry, but arch-lib Bob Herbert doesn't often move the needle, in part because he's become so predictable, and Dowd's onetime flame, and Howell Raines fishing buddy, the libertarian columnist John Tierney, has mostly been an abject embarrassment).

In recent years, she seemed as tired of the column as many of her longtime readers were, and began turning her attention to books, including an embarrassing volume in which she tried her best to explain her epic search for love as a disgusting remnant of the patriarchy's fear of strong women. There may have been other explanations. When she suddenly began appearing on TV for the first time a couple of years ago to hawk her earlier collection, about George W., some readers who'd never seen her were shocked at her appearance--she looked clinically depressed, all but unable to fake even a semblance of a half-smile for the cameras.

Against that backdrop, her column today hit with an angry, concussive thud (alas, like all NYT op-ed pieces, it's now locked behind the "Times Select" subscriber-only wall. You can get a free 14-day trial here). It's a welcome reminder of the old Dowd, and also a reminder that seriousness about public affairs never gets old. For once, she departs with the punch lines for the sake of punch lines, and delivers a solid, factual argument about Bush and his Iraq war that lands on the solar plexus. Who knew that more reporters have now been killed in this Iraq conflict than either Vietnam or World War II (I certainly didn't)? It's facts such as these, which were no doubt reported elsewhere but which I've missed until now, that help tell a story in ways that burn it into readers' brains.
Welcome back, Ms. Dowd. Here's hoping you keep passing up the punchlines and stay focused on the meat. Lord knows there's plenty to be had just now.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

'The Monetizing of the Public Man'

The Washington Post today published this marvelous guide to one of America's oldest stories: how public rectitude often eventually turns to private gain in the nation's capital. Clinton Defense Secretary William Cohen, a former Republican Senator from Maine, was always considered--and always considered himself--among the most stubbornly ethical men in Washington. As a young lawmaker, he voted to impeach his fellow Republican Nixon, and years later, Clinton turned to him to head the Pentagon, universally interpreted as a signal that the former draft dodger would keep hands off the military by putting a person of impeccable stature in charge. Now, Cohen has become that most tiresome type: the buckraking Beltway bandit, an oily lobbyist, trading on his gold-plated Rolodex to undo a lifetime of his legislative work by selling to the highest bidders access to his old contacts. And in the process, he has undone his sterling reputation in a small fraction of the time it took to build it. How sad.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Vanity Fair's On a Roll

Recently, I've raved about the New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. Today it's time to recognize America's third-best magazine (at least in my opinion): Vanity Fair.

Take the current (June) edition, for instance. Even though for some reason it lacks columns by a couple of regulars, Chris Hitchens and James Wolcott, there are plenty of other treats to savor. Just listen to the writing by Nick Tosches in this piece about the Mideast's boomtown, Dubai. Like that sublime New Yorker paragraph I excerpted about folk singer Pete Seeger, this lone paragraph is so good and so descriptive, so packed with interesting detail, that it nearly constitutes a full-blown story:

The Dubai skyline is like no other. Silhouettes of cities come into being over the course of centuries. Here, where a few buildings rose from the dirt 15 years ago, countless stuctures now crowd the land and gasp for what space remains. Here there is no sense of accrued form, no sense of architecural strategy, no sense of past becomes present. Here, there is no sense, period. It changes every day, every night. Looking out one evening, I see Manhattan. The next night, it's a boundless industrial fantasia, a ten-fold Newark-by-the-sea. Then, another night, it is what it is: Dubai, shape-shifting, hammering and grinding madly and somehow silently, toward the sun and the stars. There is no architectural ryhme, no cohesion of design, no defining style. It is the visual equivalent of a bunch of speed freaks babbling incoherently to one another. Las Vegas is a sputtering 20-watt bulb compared with this fire in the desert. Forget about babbling speed freaks. Forget about everything. This is a skyline on crack.

But that's not the only great piece in this issue. Elsewhere, the veteran business writer Bryan Burrough, both a crack investigative reporter and elegant stylist, teams with a writer named John Connolly on the best summation I've yet seen of the Pellicano Hollywood wiretapping case. At the heart of the story is a private detective who was something of a film noir character. He'd become the go-to guy among top Hollywood lawyers and studio powerhouses who needed some dirty work done in order to get a leg up in legal disputes. The writers broke open this story in part because they got Pellicano's ex-wife to talk. It yielded this memorable domestic scene:

For the Pellicano's, a pleasant evening might mean watching the Sopranos or one of the Godfather movies. Mafia rituals fascinated Pellicano, who grew up in Al Capone's hometown, Cicero, Illinois. He was a man who playfully brandished baseball bats, allegedly had a dead fish left on an opponent's windshield, and told clients they were joining his "family"--and no one hurt his family. He named his son after Don Corleone's favored assassin, Luca Brazzi. On occasion, Kat (his wife) felt he took the mafioso schtick a tad too far. "There were times when he would make my children kiss his hand like he was the Godfather," she says. He started to think he was Don Corleone.

Despite all this, the piece notes, he once came home and told his wife that they should convert to Judaism, because the influential Jewish Hollywood attorney Bert Fields thought it would be good for his business. This is all interesting, and well done. But the new piece of information in this piece can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. As has been widely reported, this case first started after L.A. Times (and former New York Times) reporter Anita Busch, who was working on a story about Steven Seagal's possible mob ties, told police that she found a dead fish and a note that said "stop" on her car. The message was later found to be linked to Pellicano, who's now in jail. But she apparently wasn't the only reporter threatened this way.

That same August, Vanity Fair's Ned Zeman, who was investigating one of Pellicano's former clients, actor Steven Seagal, was driving through Laurel Canyon when a dark Mercedes displayed a flashing light in his rearview mirror. When Zeman rolled down his window, the Mercedes pulled up beside him. The passenger rolled down his window and rapped a pistol on the side of his car. Then he pointed it at Zeman. "Stop," he said, and pulled the trigger. The gun wasn't loaded. "Bang," he said.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Bimbo Alert, the Postscript

Among the chattering classes, tongues are still wagging over a lengthy mid-week, front-page piece in the Times on the Clintons' curious marriage.
Slate media critic Jack Shafer expertly deconstructs it in his trademark high-octane, knowing manner, tittering over the article's "time-motion studies" of the extent to which the couple's schedules overlap. He asks a central question: Is the author trying to say that Bill is cheating? In the end, he acidly concludes that "this is the sort of news story that when read leaves you knowing less about the subject than when you were merely ignorant," carefully noting the author's likely lack of culpability, since he was presumably heavily edited by lots of nervous editors.

One way of thinking about all this is to put it into the context of a post-presidential "bimbo alert." That's the yeasty phrase his long-suffering Arkansas staff used as shorthand for their constant Defcon One vigilance over the regular outbreaks of worrisome females hovering near the then-governor. My read: the paper of record, chief vessel for the liberal establishment, may be at least unconsciously trying to signal the Clintons that Americans aren't likely to elect a president whose spouse is living the fast life of an aging trust-fund lounge lizard. But I agree with Shafer that the paper could have been a tad clearer about what they think the story's really about.

In any event, just as this was unfolding, I came across this illuminating passage in Washington Post staff writer John F. Harris's book, The Survivor--Bill Clinton in the White House. I think it's easily the best, deepest (and fairest) portrait yet written of the Clinton presidency. But listen to this energetic riff and ask yourself if the same combination of a reckless Slick Willy and a knowing press isn't playing out yet again:

The nervous gossip that swirled around the West Wing in 1996 about the president and Lewinsky was not an anamoly. An abundance of other rumors echoed. there was a dazzling West Wing receptionist who had been a flight attendant on the 1992 campaign plane. Several aides and Secret Service officers reported witnessing scenes between her and the president that strongly suggested an affair. Some agents said she had boasted to them of her presidential relationship.

Most White House aides had no direct knowledge and could only guess about the truth of various purported presidential relationships. But the fear of sexual gossip and scandal was a pervasive reality with which senior presidential advisers constantly had to reckon. Leon Panetta once got word about a scheduled presidential meeting with entertainer Barbra Streisand, who had been the subject of speculation before. He struck it from the schedule. One day in San Diego, Clinton's plane was met by Shelia Lawrence, an attractive woman whom West Wing aides called "the widow Lawrence." Before his death, her rich, elderly husband had been appointed ambassador to Switzerland. In view of the press, she embraced Clinton warmly on the tarmac and hopped into his limousine. A few moments later, White House aide Bruce Lindsey raced out of the backup car in which he had taken his seat and hopped into the president's limousine. Back in Washington, Panetta was alerted to the close call.

One of Steve Goodin's assignments was to avoid similar embarrassments. When Clinton gravitated toward an attractive woman in a crowd, or vice versa, Goodin would try to angle his way close to make sure that he was in the line of sight of any cameras. While aides fretted constantly, it often seemed to them that Clinton was intenionally, even delightedly, oblivious to appearances. The day after the incident with Lawrence, Clinton was in Santa Monica, where both Streisand and Eleanor Mondale, the former vice president's statuesque daugher, were in his hotel suite until well after midnight. The next morning Mondale, who had been the subject of rumors, went jogging on the beach with the president at 7 a.m. White House press secretary Michael McCurry scolded reporters to keep their prurient speculation out of print.

For the most part, they did. There were exceptions along the way. Early in his term, a tabloid reported that socialite Patricia Duff, who had socialized with Clinton, was boasting to friends that he was a "full-service president." Clinton was smoldering, his eyes squinting with anger, when Dee Dee Myers told him about the story. "That's a lie," he hissed.

Later, her successor, McCurry, had to delicately explain to Clinton why reporters were suspicious that he did not release his full medical records instead of just a summary. "Sir, they think you have the clap." The president smiled and shook his head, as if to say, what won't those guys think of. It was all a bit surreal--characteristically, McCurry took refuge in humor. Later, during a well-lubricated evening with reporters, McCurry rode in an open convertible through Beverly Hills shouting, "Attention, everyone! My boss does not have the clap!"

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Strap on your helmet. We'll be traveling pretty fast today.

Reaching Out to Citizens, Not Just the Usual Suspects. In an
open letter to the new superintendant of the Cleveland Schools, the always-insightful Bill Callahan does a particularly fine job of explaining the difference between reaching out to the usual suspects in "the community" and staying in touch with average citizens, who will eventually be asked to vote on a school levy. Let's hope Mr. Sanders eventually reads this and reflects on its wisdom.

A Poetic Twist on Yet Another Plagiarism Scandal. NPR's On the Media, aired on Saturday afternoons, is one of the small jewels of the network. It can be lost amid all the larger, gaudier Hope diamonds (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, etc.), but it's always worth tuning in. Last week's fill-in for co-host Bob Garfield, a fellow named Mike Pescas, had an inspired riff on the whole dreary Opal Mehta/Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism story. He invited listeners to think of the affair as their ancestors in the Elizabeathan age might have: by putting it into perspective, and realizing that all writers borrow from others. Parts of her book, he argued, "had the unfortunate character of already having been written." He ended this way: "Eventually, plagiarists will be treated like hack comics. You can steal a joke, but not a career."

Cut and Run? You Bet. That's the headline on
this piece in the new issue of Foreign Policy magazine, written by Lt. General William Odom. The subhead is similarly pointed: "Why America must get out of Iraq now." It closely echoes the message that Congressman Jack Murtha has been sharing with anyone who will listen, which is an increasing majority of the country. "In reality," he writes, "a civil war in Iraq began just weeks after U.S. forces toppled Saddam." As for the argument that withdrawal would undermine U.S. credibility around the world, he says, "were the United States a middling power, this case might hold some water. But for the world's only superpower, it's patently phoney. A rapid reversal of our present course in Iraq would improve U.S. credibility around the world." Interestingly, he seems to have some pretty serious conservative credentials. He's a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and was director of the now-infamous National Security Agency during the Reagan years. If you like to keep up on the world with well-written, authoritative reports, you might consider periodically adding FP's new blog to your reading list.

Jones Day is Everywhere You Want to Be. I was surprised--or on second thought, perhaps, not so surprised--to learn that our favorite hometown (well, sort of) corporate law firm has at least a tangential role in Lewis "Scooter" Libby's defense. The former Dick Cheney aide, dubbed "Dick Cheney's Dick Cheney," became the first White House staff member to be indicted in over a century. And today, the Washington Post
reports that he's singing to prosecutors about Cheney's personal role in going after Joe Wilson and his wife, the CIA agent Valerie Plame. Anyway, according to this week's New York Observer, the Jones Day California office is part of Libby's far-flung, high-powered defense team. That couldn't perchance, be the L.A. office, where my friend Adele Eisner's daughter (Samantha) toils as a presumably overpaid young associate?

Santorum Nearly Toast? Some time ago, I mentioned an excellent New Yorker piece which examined the shifting politics of the abortion debate through the lense of the Pennsylvania Senate race. I'm thrilled
to learn from The New Republic that the neanderthal incumbent, Rick Santorum, seems destined for a loss. TNR: "Even Republicans have privately started to refer to Santorum's campaign as a lost cause and are lobbying party leaders to shift money to more promising contests." We can only hope. I've written before about how the U.S. Senate, once home to enough old lions with safe seats and sufficiently high character to focus more on what's best for the country than partisan concerns (people like Pat Moynihan, Sam Nunn, George Mitchell, Bill Bradley and some others) has in recent years become a place filled with too many ignorant demagogues. These chuckleheads bring disgrace to the chamber where Daniel Webster and Abe Lincoln once spoke to our better nature, and Santorum is certainly high on that list, if not at the top. Let's keep our fingers crossed on this race, shall we?

Can this be the trade mag PR Week? I loved
this Q&A with the infamous (at least in some circles) British muckraker Greg Palast. The walking quote machine wonderfully riffs about how U.S. papers shy away from investigative journalism, opting instead for the straightjacket of "acceptable discourse," as defined by elites. "Forget Watergate and Woodward and Bernstein; Woodward himself today would never, in a million years, as managing editor of The Washington Post, publish the Watergate story. It's official denial against an unnameable source. Forget it." Asked if he's ever thought of writing for U.S. outlets, he responds brightly: "Considered? That's the whole idea. I don't like being in journalistic exile. I don't like my words trying to swim across the Atlantic. They could drown..." But he's not holding his breath, either. Over the years, he's taken plenty of shots at the American media's timidity, and "when you pee on these outlets, they pee back."

And from an equally unexpected source, the ordinarily lame U.S. News & World Report, comes
this powerful piece about how police across the country are using the post-9/11 atmophere to ramp up their spying. It's a deeply reported and well-written account, covering crucial ground I haven't seen covered anywhere else (most other outlets have their hands full just scrambling to keep track of the D.C.-based "security" outrages emanating from the federal government). Here are a few important highlights, but I urge you to read the entire piece, and perhaps share it with friends. "A U.S. News inquiry found that federal officials have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into once discredited state and local police intelligence operations. Millions more have gone into building up regional law enforcement databases to unprecedented levels...Good or bad, intelligence gathering by local police departments is back...Among the changes: Since 9/11, the U.S. Dept. of Justice and Homeland Security have poured over a half-billion dollars into building up local and state police intelligence units reaching into nearly every state." Let's hope all serious media outlets keep close watch on this, along with the well-funded American Civil Liberties Union, which has been getting bogged down in other really pressing matters, like policing the internal dissent of its board members as they object to the latest outrage from this numbskull executive director, late of the Ford Foundation. Just kind of makes you shake your head...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

After Abramoff

After all the nauseating detail from the Jack Abramoff case about political corruption on a scale perhaps not witnessed since the days of Mark Hannah and the McKinley presidency, much of Washington is focused on how to begin fixing it, or at least addressing it in ways that will provide a reasonable enough cover story to voters that it's being fixed. But how to heal the whole corrupt system without striking at the foundation? The new Washington Monthly
cover story by veteran money and politics beat reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum says it all:

Campaign finance laws are built on a legal fiction. To wit: Electoral donations are considered within the law even though they are actually bribes at root. Think of them as "legalized bribery." Through bundled contributions and PAC giving, industries, labor unions, and interest groups of all stripes try to persuade lawmakers to vote their way on the issues they care most about. Donors do not express their desire just that way. They use euphemisms like "buying access" to wink and nod their way toward the same thought. But the truth is the truth. Interests give money to buy votes. Unfortunately for those interests, lawmakers receive funds from so many sources, and also sometimes make their legislative decisions based on factors that have nothing to do with money, that the contributions do not always produce the result they desire. Still, the basic fact remains. The dollars would not be offered unless the donors hoped they would lead to a very specific result.

The Monthly, the little magazine that could, gets much of the original credit for bird-dogging this subject and keeping it in front of larger, better-funded media outlets (which read the magazine closely and for years have hired its reporters, who have gone on to the highest ranks of the profession). Back in the summer of 2003, it ran this devastating cover story, which for the first time, I think, described in a comprehensive way how the Republican congressional leadership's unprecedented merger with the K Street lobbying industry was systematically subverting democracy.

For years, the magazine, founded by former JFK Peace Corps volunteer and West Virginia native Charlie Peters (now semi-retired, he recently published this book), ran a house ad that nicely explained how it saw its mission. It was a sketch of a couple of guys hovering over the Capitol dome, tinkering under the hood as if giving the place a tune-up. This is a magazine that has always seen itself as being mired in the thick of fixing federal policy, but it also had an appealing sense of modesty over its ability to effect change (Peters' cranky column was called "Tilting at Windmills").

Just how big is the problem of money and politics? For that, we turn to another crack Beltway organization founded by one especially driven man: the Center for Public Integrity, begun by former ABC news producer Charles Lewis. The nonprofit, foundation-sponsored group does some of the finest investigative journalism in the country, keeping an especially close eye on the giant apparatus lobbying the federal government.
This compilation of the largest lobbying firms says it all. I estimate the total at about $3.5 billion.

Birnbaum, who was for years a featured writer for Fortune before he moved over to the Washington Post, notes in the new piece that senior Beltway attorneys knowledgeable in the area of the laws governing lobbying are being swamped by corporations and trade associations looking for advice on how to stay out of trouble post-Abramoff. What he doesn't say is that the crucial part of their service is to coach clients in how to win in this never-ending cat-and-mouse game of remaining technically within the boundaries of what any honest person can see essentially amounts to legal bribery. After all, it's a truism in American politics that you can't take the money out of politics any more than you can prevent water from running downhill. As Birnbaum notes, "many lawmakers and congressional staffers are voluntarily staying away from the fancy dinners and lunches that lobbyists love to host, at least for the time being." Emphasis all mine.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Ever-Smarmy Bill Frist,
Oily Man of the People

For a lot of smart, progressive people (probably northerners especially), the very sight and sound of Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee gives rise to a case of the willies. He's the oily guy with the smarmy smile seemingly pasted onto his face who seems to think he can parlay his brief moment of national fame as Senate Majority Leader (or if you prefer, infamy for his role in the shameful Terry Schiavo case, in which he fed the right-wing hysteria by making a prognosis of her vegetative state via watching a videotape) into a credible case for the presidency. Only serious people understand that he's got a
small problem with financial ethics and that he was elevated to his current leadership job mostly at the behest of the Bush White House, which saw him as a useful fool in doing its bidding.

Given that, he seems to have about as much chance of being elected president as I do. He came in first in a straw poll of Republican faithful earlier this year, but that was before his patron, Bush, started sinking badly in the polls. McCain is now clearly the front-runner for the party's nomination.

When you're a longshot in electoral politics, sometimes you just have to gamble and go for the Hail Mary pass. Could this be part of his gamble: trying to remake himself into a sentinel of free speech and a protector of bloggers' rights? That seems to be the case. Not long ago, he introduced the Online Freedom of Speech Act as an amendment to a lobbying "reform" bill (as a Republican insider, you can imagine how much he really wants to reform lobbying). And here, he pontificates about what a staunch defender he is of the freedom of expression. Sorry, but this just doesn't pass the smell test (I especially love this photo on his PAC site, which depicts him as a global man of the people, posing with some African children).

I think I'll continue to ignore the guy, at least when I can summon the energy to think about him at all.

Wisdom Comes in Threes

“If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.”
--the artist Marc Chagall

“I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.”
--the late author John Cheever

“I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.”
--painter Andrew Wyeth

Sunday, May 21, 2006

How Soon They Forget

Sebastian Junger, he of the pretty facial features and considerable fame and fortune from his book The Perfect Storm, was in town the other day. He's written a new book, A Death in Belmont, about his family's brush with the Boston Strangler. I wish I could have made it to the appearance. There's a question I'd love to have asked him: why do you think you've avoided James Frey's fate?

Frey, of course, is the Shaker Heights native and the author of the harrowing substance-abuse memoir A Million Little Pieces, which was famously revealed as a substantial fraud. But Junger had his own brush with a similar situation nine years ago. Only to the media's great shame, it's largely been forgotten.

In a front-page piece in the New York Observer (no longer online, but
this Boston Phoenix piece masterfully recounts the controversy) in 1997, Warren St. James described how Junger's sloppy reporting and possibly nonexistent "facts" marred the story. St. James later went on to the New York Times, as have so many former writers for the salmon-colored New York weekly, which has become something of a farm team and a finishing school for the paper of record. That progression has, of course, rung doubly loud since it was the Times' relentlessness on the Frey story that ultimately embarrassed Oprah and Frey's publisher to stop defending the indefensible. (Junger had his own little drama with an appearance on the Oprah show, as this piece in the Sacramento Bee explains).

Throughout the Frey controversy, I kept checking various coverage, waiting for the inevitable story in which various similar cases were recounted, including Junger's. It never came, at least that I could find (please, dear reader, if you know of something, do tell).

So I'm left with two conclusions. One is no surprise: we have a short national memory. But the other is perhaps more troubling: unless you get caught up in a big media feeding frenzy, you sometimes get a free pass for your crimes, although to be fair, this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by the energetic and generally authoritative book reviewer and investigative journalist Steve Weinberg, published a year after the controversy first broke, does find his mistakes relatively minor.

In that Phoenix piece, the author made an accurate prediction: "In the publishing world, Junger's reputation will probably not suffer." The good news, though, is that after the Frey case and the subsequent cleansing controversy, anyone caught again playing so fast and loose with the facts in a "nonfiction" book probably will suffer considerably. So there is a substantial silver lining after all.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Why Writers Are Such a Joy to Live With

'...I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I'm frantic with boredom and a sense of waste. Sundays I have breakfast late and read the papers with Hope. Then we go for a walk in the hills, and I'm haunted by the loss of all that good time. I wake up Sunday mornings and I'm nearly crazy at the prospect of all those unusable hours. I'm restless, I'm bad tempered, but she's a human being too, you see, so I go. To avoid trouble she makes me leave my watch at home. The result is that I look at my wrist instead. We're walking, she's talking, then I look at my wrist--and that generally does it, if my foul mood hasn't already. She thows in the sponge and we come home. And at home what is there to distinguish Sunday from Thursday! I sit back down at my little Olivetti and start looking at sentences and turning them around. And I ask myself, Why is there no way but this for me to fill my hours?
--from Philip Roth's 1979 novella, The Ghost Writer. For a smart review of his latest, Everyman, check out this New York Review of Books take, in which the author nicely argues that "an autumnal frost has set in" on Roth and his writing as he has hit his 70s.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Cleveland & Sports:
A Tortured History

To really understand the soul of Cleveland, I would argue, you have to understand at least a half-dozen crucial things about the place.

You have to understand its unique racial and ethnic makeup, its location at about the midway point between Minnesota's iron ore and West Virginia's coal. You have to understand that for many decades, it was a welcoming home to the mob--or rather, many mobs--and was in certain respects run by unions, some of which were heavily influenced by organized crime (which in turn was a feature of the town's ethnic hothouse). You have to understand how much of its development, economy and outlook sprung from its brief moment as the headquarters of the world's oil industry, and how that continues to exercise influence to this day, well over a century after the fact (among other things, it explains, why so much of the coatings industry is based here--they're chemical derivatives of oil--and why the base of large law firms is way out of proportion to the size of the city).

You should understand, as well, that its tortured, clashing soul is in many ways a reflection of its triple-chambered ethnography/geography: it simultaneously constitutes the very beginnings of the foothills of the Appalachians (the west side) and that Scotts-Irish stock with the old High Protestant New England Yankee culture of the Western Reserve (the east side). And a half century ago was added the northern migration of southern blacks into the mix. In other words, this town is an amalgamation of incredibly disparate things, people and traditions thrown into a pretty tight geography. It makes the place yeasty and endlessly interesting, but also accounts for many of its serial dysfunctions and maddening divisions.

But one of those topics crucial to understanding the town's DNA is certainly sports. And to understand the town's soul on the subject of sports, you have to understand loss and pain and municipal grief, which has long since become a metaphor for the entire town's larger pains and challenges.

I recently came across a new book by a Philadelphia native in which he makes the argument that that city is the longest-suffering major sports town in America. Why? Because it hasn't won a major sports championship since 1983. To make his town come out on top, he has to engage in a bit of trickery: including only those towns that have four major league sports teams. And to do that, he has to mount what I'd consider a faulty argument: that hockey constitutes a major sport. The National Hockey League's anemic TV ratings would suggest otherwise. Hockey's only a major sport in a relatively small portion of the country--places like New England and the extreme upper midwest, where proximity to Canada (and cold weather) has created deep popular roots for the sport. Everywhere else, it's stuck in there with tennis, golf, motor sports and the like--important to millions, but still a second-tier sport compared to the Big Three--baseball, basketball and football. And of course when you limit it to that trio, it leaves Cleveland as by far the longest-suffering town, with no championship since we rode Jim Brown's back to an NFL title way back in the days of floppy-eared presidents named LBJ (1964).

This is a proud, stubborn town. It's home to arguably the two most non-politically correct corporate logos in the world--the Indians' Chief Wahoo and Sherwin-Williams' globe-drenching paint can, a hoary image so appalling to the modern environmentally sensitive eyes that it often makes me chuckle, no matter how many times I see it. The important point, though, is that in almost any other place both of these logos probably would have long since been banished for something more in tune with the times. Not here, where we value our traditions, sometimes to a fault.

All of which brings me to the point of this meandering piece, tonight's Cavs playoff game.

It could be decisive (or not). Either way, the excitement and intensity of the region for this team is beginning to remind me of the Cavs' Miracle of Richfield in the '70s, Browns fever in the '80s and the sustained fever pitch for the Indians of the '90s. The fervor from callers on WCPN this morning was palpable.

Last year, after shadowing the Cavs and Lebron around the court and into the locker room for nearly half a season, I wrote a piece in which I tried to answer, at least for myself, the riddle of the guy. The world didn't need another profile of Lebron, I figured. And in any event, I was far more interested in a different story: his effect on the town's morale. What has always interested me about Lebron was not so much his game--he's of course got serious game--but his maturity, his almost surreal confidence and self-mastery. Where does a poor ghetto kid with one parent, who was often forced to shuffle him to extended family members who could afford to raise him when she could not, come by that?

This week, the Detroit News
surveyed its readers online, and asked them what they thought the major reason for the Pistons being down 3-2 might be. Nearly half said they overlooked the opponent, the Cavs. We've gotten used to being overlooked, laughed at, ignored, dismissed. After several decades, it's seeped into the pores, affected the confidence. And sports hasn't provided any outlets--if anything, it's driven much of the problem. You can only get so close to the brass ring so many times before it shatters your confidence. What's worse: being beaten to a berth in your first Super Bowl by Denver's John Elway on a seemingly impossible, epic 98-year drive, after you thought your gimpy-legged, ugly-but-effective (another metaphor for the town) hometown boy Bernie had engineered a win, or getting beat in the last inning of Game 7 of the World Series by a recent expansion team? Or maybe Michael Jordan throwing a dagger in your heart? The epic scope of this accumulated heartache is almost unimaginable. It's as if some cruel cosmic playwrite were creating a dense, layered scene of torture. Only you wake up and realize it's your town that's written into the play.

But Lebron is a stunning reminder of how greatness has a way of changing equations.

One important measure of Lebron's confidence is how he ignores naysayers. Or more accurately, uses them as a challenge to improve himself. Take, for instance, his chief critic, Charles Barkley. The cranky former player was once dubbed "The Round Mound of Rebound," but now he's a sneering bully with a TV-analyst's pulpit, a bad gambling habit and, apparently, a special hankering to put the new boy in his place. All season, he's bated Lebron on TNT, dismissing him as an upstart who's not worthy of the greats of his era.

Lebron chose to mostly ignore him, letting his game be the sole answer. One by one, he knocked down the criticisms. When they said he couldn't take the last shot at the buzzer, he did, but only when it made sense not to pass.

But the other night, he finally answered Barkley, gamely choosing a moment when he knew he'd have a maximum audience, just minutes after leading his team to an unthinkable victory over the NBA's best team, a moment when he and his team were becoming the biggest national story in sports. He talked about the things that winners should never do, before arriving at the last no-no. "And don't ever listen to Charles Barkley--ever, ever." He wasn't smiling or showboating. He certainly wasn't bragging. He was just standing up to the bully.

The Pistons' Rasheed Wallace, another sneering bully, has become famous for the prediction gone bust. But after the crushing fifth-game loss the other night, he stepped back and regrouped to a fallback boast: "one man's not going to beat five," he said. But there's a gaping error in his math. In any pursuit, but especially in team sports, excellence, mental toughness and a good work ethic are eminently contagious. And Lebron's teammates have begun to catch it. Sorry, Sheed, but this one will be five on five. Or maybe six on five, if you count the hometown crowd.

So let the game begin...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tom Slow-to-Judge Friedman

It took a hell of a long time, but NYT columnist Tom Friedman, the mustachioed, globetrotting centrist, has finally had enough. He's looked into the soul of the Bush Administration, and he thinks he smells a skunk. From today's column:

Personally, I think the president can reshuffle his cabinet all he wants, but his poll ratings are not going to substantially recover--ever. Americans are slow to judgment about a president, very slow. And in times of war, in particular, they are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I think a lot of Americans in recent months have simply lost confidence in this administration's competence and honesty. What has eaten away most at the support for this administration, I believe, has been the fact that time and time again, it has put politics and ideology ahead of the interests of the United States, and I think a lot of people are just sick of it. I know I sure am.

Well, one scarcely knows where to begin. This cushioned insider with the gold-plated expense account, winner of no fewer than three Pulitzers, a man who prides himself on mixing the wisdom he energetically gathers from both the world's streets and its executive suites, has only just now figured this out? Much of the country arrived at this conclusion some months ago (at least), and most of the truly smart and informed electorate figured it out about...well, seven years ago, before this ninny named Bush was ever even elected. When he writes that Americans are slow to make judgments, I sense the possibility that he's really delivering a veiled apology that he's been far too slow.

Maybe it's his Minnesota roots, his prarie decency. But in his profession, that can also be a set of blinders (his gruff colleague Paul Krugman may be lacking in social graces, but his vision on Bush and lots of other subjects has been remarkably acute). Or perhaps it's a function of his fragile intellectual position as the one-time provincial who storms the Big Apple and later the globe, but who's always left with the nagging feeling that he must try to please those he thinks are somehow more sophisticated (I always get that feeling when I watch his manic TV appearances or flip through his silly high-concept, faux-profound books that attempt to reduce a complex world into simple metaphors that explain everything). Probably it's a little of both.

In any event, this comically late realization of his made me think of another kind of laughable journalistic tic: the way that beat sportswriters will lionize a star player, coach or owner until the day they're sent packing, after which you'd think they had been immediately transformed into a different person, one who must be attacked viciously because the crowd now demands it. To see this phenomenon practiced at its highest level, you've only to review the output of the entire PD sports staff pre- and post-Art Modell. For years, the salty, cigar-chomping New York ad guy was great copy. But when he moved the Browns to Baltimore, it was open season on him, his character, everything (a similar thing happened to Cavs coach Paul Silas, who seemed to go from genius to bum overnight, or in about the time it took new owner Dan Gilbert to work through his short-guy insecurities and send a signal that there's a new top dog in charge). But anyone who knew about Modell or thought much about his disastrous handling of the team from day one of his ownership (his ego-driven failure to defer to certifiable coaching legend Paul Brown) had to know what kind of guy he reallly was.

Only, these writers never thought to share this knowledge with their readers, at least until it was too late. Why venture into the unknown, ahead of the pack? It's so much easier to pick up the pieces afterward, and join the lynch mob.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Words to Live By

I found these resonant thoughts in Book By Book--Notes On Reading and Life, by Pulitzer-winning Washington Post book critic and columnist Michael Dirda. The Lorain native dedicates the book to his alma mater, Oberlin College.

'Some people will never learn anything, for this reason, because they understand everything too soon.'
--Alexander Pope

'There is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind, while we live here. Because life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense.'
--Thomas Hobbes

''Remember that every life is a special problem, which is not yours but another's; and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own.'
--Henry James

'Our main business is not to see what lies dimly ahead at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.'
--Thomas Carlyle

'The point is one's life in the full complexity of what one is, which is something much darker, more contradictory, more of a maelstrom of impulses and passions, of cruelty, ecstasy and madness, than is apparent to the civilized being who glides on the surface and fits smoothly into the world.'
--Thomas Nagel, summarizing the teaching of Friedrich Nietzsche

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Some Things Never Change

'When I was a small boy, my father would take me each year around the battlefields of the First World War, the conflict that H.G. Wells called 'the war to end all wars.' We would set off each summer in our Austin of England and bump along the potholed roads of the Somme, Ypres and Verdun. By the time I was 14, I could recite the names of all the offensives: Bapaume, Hill 60, High Wood, Passchendaele...I had seen all the graveyards and I had walked through all the overgrown trenches and touched all the rusted helmets of British soldiers and the corroded German mortars in decaying museums. My father was a soldier of the Great War, fighting in the trenches of France because of a shot fired in a city he'd never heard of called Sarajevo. And when he died 13 years ago at the age of 93, I inherited his campaign medals. One of them depicts a winged victory and on the obverse side are engraved the words: 'the great war for civilisation.' To my father's deep concern and my mother's stoic acceptance, I have spent much of my life in wars. They, too, were fought 'for civilisation.''
--from Robert Fisk's preface to his new book, The Great War for Civilisation--The Conquest of the Middle East

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Life Is All About Balance

'The man who cuts his roots away and denies that they were ever connected with him withers into half a man. The provincial who cultivates only his roots is in peril, potato-like, of becoming more root than plant.'
— Novelist John Graves

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The GOP's Bankruptcy of Ideas

'The emerging Republican game plan for 2006 is, at bottom, a tautology: If the Democrats retake Congress it will mean, well, that the Democrats retake Congress. (Cue lightning bolt and ominous clap of thunder.) Karl Rove and his minions have plumb run out of issues to campaign on. They can't run on the war. They can't run on the economy, where the positive numbers on growth are offset by the largely stagnant numbers on median incomes and the public's growing dread of outsourcing. Immigration may play in various congressional districts, but it's too dicey an issue to nationalize. Even social conservatives may be growing weary of outlawing gay marriage every other November. Nobody's buying the ownership society. Competence? Ethics? You kidding?'
--Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, from his column today. Of course, none of this will give the odious Ken Blackwell a moment's hesitation. Expect him to grimly carry out this bankrupt script of the far right in his march to claim the Ohio governor's mansion.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Some Information to Consider

Bay area superscribe J.D. Lasica has been covering new media since almost before there was anything to cover. He wrote a monthly column on the subject in the
American Journalism Review beginning in the mid-'90s. Now, his brilliant Newmediamusings is full of stuff you should know (his other blog isn't bad either). Including this recent squib on some great free tools:

"Free conference calling. For the past year I've been using to make conference calls with business associates and friends. A lot of people still don't know about it. No gimmicks — it really is free. A number of competitors offer a similar service, which they can afford to do because VoIP is so damn cheap.
Free directory assistance. Just came across this: Phone companies charge you $1.40 or more for a simple 411 information call, even if you don't get the number you're seeking. There's a free alternative: Simply dial 1-800-FREE-411 or 1 800-373-3411 for both local and national directory service. Try it out. Again, no gimmicks. "

English as a Second Language. From the excellent, comes
word that English is not the dominant language in the blog world. And if you guessed Chinese, you're also wrong (it's #3 on the list). Actually, it's Japanese, according to Technorati's David Sifry.

From Ten Reasons Why 2006 Will be a Tipping Point for New Media.

Fellow bloggers, hear this: “Search engines love blogs. Right out of the gate your blog has an advantage in the search engines over traditional websites. But don't rest on your laurels; you must fine-tune your blog.” But how, you ask?
This article in provides some good tips.

The things you can learn when you read. I consider myself something of an amateur historian and a reasonably well-informed baseball fan. Despite that combination, I never knew that the great flu pandemic of the early 1900's had a lasting effect on Major League Baseball until I came across
this piece in the Boston Globe. It notes that the public health concerns of that era led to the banning of the spitball and the custom of regularly rotating new balls into the game. It gets my nod for the most interesting bit of new information I've yet come across this week. How about you? What have you learned from reading or conversation that surprised or delighted you? Breakfast for two (that's me and you) goes to the best anecdote anyone leaves in the comment section. If you're not in my region, or anywhere I'm likely to travel to soon, we'll just have to come up with Plan B.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Bush Summons Comparisons to Prez Buchanan

'Often it is difficult to know when a president has entered the state of political purgatory known as 'lame duck' status. For this president, the questions is no longer whether, but how lame. Political science has given us regretably few tools for answering this question with precision. But our own qualititative analysis suggests that not since James Buchanan has a president been lamer. Second-term presidents often see their agendas stalled by gridlock. But haggling over substance at least has the excitement value of conflict and opposition. Bush, on the other hand, has seen his agenda die from within, of its own accord. The last years of Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Reagan were like watching an angry traffic snarl. The last years of George W. Bush's presidency are like watching a car resting on cement blocks in the front yard.'
--from an editorial in the May 8th issue of The New Republic

That'll Do It. A lively profile on the actor Rip Torn in today's New York Times magazine includes this surprising information: "Torn's most famous career turn occurred in 1967, when he had dinner with the writer Terry Southern and his wife and the actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper to discuss the possibility of his appearing in a film they were pulling together called 'Easy Rider.' Of course the role eventually went to Jack Nicholson, and years later Hopper maintained that Torn lost the role after he pulled a knife on Hopper at the dinner." The piece goes on to explain, however, that Torn eventually sued Hopper for libel, and won a million-dollar settlement.