Thursday, November 30, 2006

Odds & Ends

Our Short Memory. Gore Vidal, who's lived and written long enough to have just published his second
memoir (here's his first), likes to call his native land The United States of Amnesia. But Los Angeles is perhaps even worse than the rest of the country. In a recent NYTimes piece, the acutely insightful urban historian Joel Kotkin had this observation about the city he's called home for the last 30 years: "Los Angeles is such a rapidly evolving city. There is an enormous turnover of people here. You talk to people about the '80s here and it's like you are talking about the Conquistidors."

Google Tends to Take the Path of Expediency.
Adam Penenberg, a business writer turned journalism prof (who is credited with blowing the whistle on infamous New Republic plagiarizer Stephen Glass while at Forbes Magazine) has a great piece about Google in the current Mother Jones Magazine. He notes that the company bears keeping a close eye on, since it has better information on most people than even the infamous National Security Agency. He writes: "From the start, Google's informal motto has been 'don't be evil,' and the company earned credibility early on by going toe-to-toe with Microsoft over desktop software and other issues. But make no mistake. Faced with doing the right thing or doing what is in its best interests, Google has almost always chosen expediency." And speaking of Mother Jones, that article that I mentioned some time ago about Cleveland's foreclosure scandal (written by Penenberg's NYU colleague, journalism prof Alyssa Katz) is now online. Do read it when you can. It's an eye-opener. And while you're on that subject, you might also check out some great additional coverage by my favorite grassroots factsmonger, Bill Callahan, here.

Our National Tourette's Syndrome. I thought Time's James Poniewozik had
one of the more interesting takes on the whole Michael "Kramer" Richards racial-rant affair. When combined with the latest Mel Gibson outrage, the scuttled O.J. Simpson book and other bizarre moments, he writes, "it's as if the U.S. were experiencing collective Tourette's, regurgitating decades of dutifully sublimated hate." He also makes a great point I'd never thought of: that our often-reflexive distrust of political correctness can sometimes get us in trouble. Speaking of the (what I consider lunatic) popularity of the Borat movie, he writes "it's reasonable to ask whether our culture has become so anti-p.c. that a racist comic can defend his rant, as Richards did, as going into character."

God Bless Sy Hersh. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh is in his 70s, but you'd never know it by his astounding output. He fired away again last week with
this rousing piece on the White House's plans for Iran, in which he explores whether the post-election ouster of Rumsfeld will only prove to be so much window dressing without a real corresponding change in policy. While the uneducated masses might consider his longtime rival Bob Woodward America's leading investigative reporter, more discriminating readers (I hope) understand that he's merely been playing the part for several years. Hersh, though, is the real deal. And it's his stamina (along with his moral seriousness) that sets him apart. I count 19 major articles carrying his byline in this New Yorker archive of post-9/11 coverage, and it may be missing a piece or two. The way he has uncovered what's really been happening behind closed doors in the capital for decades simply defies belief. I would argue that his relentlessness on this subject helped change the entire course of the American media's coverage of the war (as they tried their best to keep up with him), and thus influenced the elections and the course of history. There will never be another like him.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The White Man's Slavery

'White men like to dig in the ground for their food. My people prefer to hunt the buffalo as their fathers did. White men like to stay in one place. My people want to move their teepee here and there to different hunting grounds. The life of white men is slavery. They are prisoners in towns or farms. The life my people want is a life of freedom. I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to move in the open country, and live in our own fashion.'
--Lakota Chief Sitting Bull (1831-1890)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Last Angry Novelist

Novelist Richard Ford, the poet laureate of middle-aged male ennui, has a new book out, The Lay of the Land. It's the third in a trilogy, and if it's even half as good as the
first two, it'll be a delight. For the record, I'm putting it aside to savor over the Christmas holiday.

Naturally, its arrival has been marked by the predictable wave of articles about the book and its author, most of which break little or no new ground. One gleaming exception is a profile in the current GQ Magazine, of all places. Little-known staff writer Devin Friedman does his homework and renders an unforgettable portrait of a proud, angry writer.

The piece isn't online, so I'd recommend you go find it somewhere in a bookstore or library. And I don't want to ruin it for you by giving away too much, but here are just a couple of highlights that hit me. One concerned his reaction to a bad review by fellow novelist Colson Whitehead. "Two years later, when Ford saw Whitehead at a party, he approached him and said something like, 'I've waited two years for this. You spat on my book.' Then he spat in Whitehead's face."

He also had this to say about our current president: "He's a fuckup. A rich, world-class fuckup. He's been a fuckup all his life. He's a fuckup now. He's always trying to prove he's not a fuckup. And every time he tries to prove he's not a fuckup, he fucks up." This review notes that he also vents his anger at Bush in the book.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

PBS's Glaser on Josh Marshall's Latest Innovation

Mark Glaser's excellent Media Shift blog covers important developments in digital media. He recently took a look at how Josh Marshall, of Talkingpointsmemo fame, is doing with his spin-off site, TPMMuckraker. The latter has thrived amid the recent spate of political corruption. Let's hope there will be less grist for this mill in coming years, but I wouldn't hold your breath. Earlier, I wrote briefly about Marshall here and here.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Noise Before Defeat

'Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.'
--Chinese General Sun Tzu. You get three guesses about why I might have found this quote timely.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Day to Remember and Give Thanks

Thanksgiving is a moment to remember
How little we can do to move the stars.
All we are and have we must surrender,
Nor is Earth less inscrutable than Mars.
Knowing this, we know the need for friends
Sharing both our pleasures and our pain,
Giving, though it may not serve their ends,
In joy the love that will our love sustain.
Very much like water in a lake,
In sum we serve as mirrors to the sky.
No one alone can heaven's picture take.
Given friends, we know the reason why.
--By Nicholas Gordon

May you enjoy a blessed and restful holiday weekend, gentle reader. And thanks for all your interest, ideas, encouragement and input throughout the year. They've sustained me in more ways than you can know. God bless you all on this Thanksgiving day.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Plea on Behalf of Email 2.0

The talk about Web 2.0 seems endless, and a couple of Sundays ago the New York Times' John Markoff published this interesting look at what's being called Web 3.0. But Nick Usborne, a prominent Vancouver-based web copywriter, recently made a good point about the need for the second version of email, and about all the missed opportunities he sees in email marketing. In his newsletter, Excess Voice, he wrote:

'Every company I do business with online has my email address and permission to email me. But when I do receive emails, they are either bland confirmations of a recent purchase, or equally bland suggestions that I buy more. Why the total lack of imagination? Why don’t companies attempt to engage my attention? Why don’t they entertain me? Or get to know me? Or make me smile, or laugh even? And why don’t they involve me, as apart of a community of people who have an interest in their products or services?'

If you're interested, you can read the entire piece here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Democratic Campaign Consultant's Advice:
Don't Forget To Reach Out to Local Blogs

In the current issue of Campaigns & Elections, Democratic political consultant Matthew McMillan has some excellent advice for candidates on how to connect with blogs, which he says "are breathing new life into our democracy by bringing grassroots politics back":

Successful blog outreach is about much more than just engaging with the national political blogs. It's even more important to communicate with local blogs that are read by voters. Before you communicatie with local bloggers, they must be identified. Map your jurisdiction's political community blogosphere and gather contact information. Find local blogs that report on community news, events, and of course politics. Then, just like a traditional media operation, connect with the bloggers. Tread carefully. In advance of any communication, undersand the bloggers' editorial style and communicate with them accordingly. A word of warning: bloggers are fiercely independent and don't take well to being told what to do. As such, sending a bland, impersonal press release to a list of bloggers isn't going to cut it. Instead, just like with traditional media, give them interesing news or unique perspective and the bloggers are more likely to run with the story. Don't be afraid of blogs. Yes, there are some pitfalls, but the benefits far outweigh them. While the campaign could get in a foot-in-the-mouth moment, that's a reason not to campaign in the first place, not to turn down an opportunity to communicate with thousands of voters. Moreover, a campaign that makes allies in the blogosphere and gets in trouble because of it will likely benefit from a fierce defense. That means more money, volunteer resources, and a larger megaphone for your campaign. Blogs are breathing life into our democracy by bringing grassroots politics back. They allow leaders to directly communicate with voters, and they provide a democratizing forum for ideas to compete and be advanced in an online marketplace. In a media environment dominated by the clutter crisis, distributing ideas through blogs and the Internet provide a way for campaigns to break the clutter.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Former Clevelander Scott Raab in Esquire:
Lebron James 'Burns With Brilliant Fury'

'Fate made me a Clevelander and a fan, and so it also has been my fate to suffer long and hard. I've had a single sip of ultimate triumph in my life--one pro championship, when I was 12 years old. I still have the ticket stub (Dec. 27, 1964: Browns 27, Colts 0). And I have Chief Wahoo, the racist Indians logo, tatooed on my arm. And I have a heart bitter with crushed hope. Now, however, I also have Lebron. King James--hero and homeboy, manchild and Moses. I began watching the Cavaliers when the Cavaliers began--in 1970, when student tickets cost a buck--and I have seen all the old gods romp, dating back to Wilt, Russell, Cousy and the Big O. This much I know: What they were--what Michael was, and Magic and Bird--Lebron will be. Mere talent's not enough; James burns with brilliant fury. It was good to see him beat the Wizards and Gilbert Arenas with murder in his eye--and even better to see how he lost to the Pistons. No handshakes: angry and ashamed, he left the court. And after, when someone asked if, as his own coach said, he had been worn out by playing nearly every minute of nearly a hundred games, he snapped off just one word--no--glaring in rage. Once upon a time, I had Jim Brown. And now, Lebron.'

--Cleveland native Scott Raab, writing in November's Esquire Magazine. The sublimely talented Cleveland writer John Hyduck profiled Raab in a 2001 Free Times cover piece, no longer online. To read more of Raab's writing, click here, here and especially here.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

One Thousand Good Words at Panera

To mark the occasion of the latest National Book Awards (more about which here) as well as National Novel Writing Month, NPR did a nice package around how some of the book award finalists practice their craft. Nancy Werlin, a writer of young adult novels, described her typical day:

How She Writes: "Lately, it's been the following:
1) Get to a Panera Bread cafe sometime in the morning.
2) Order large decaf skim latte.
3) Skulk or pounce to get possession of table near electrical outlet.
4) Plug in, boot up and immediately download email using Panera's free wireless access.
5) Waste time on email and web.
6) Finally open file containing novel-in-progress and get to work.
7) Write until lunchtime.
8) Pack up computer, use bathroom, get in line for lunch.
9) Obtain lunch, attempt and fail to reclaim table near electrical outlet, settle for other table and run off battery.
10) Eat lunch while answering email.
11) Return to work writing, eyeing the Daily Goal: 1,000 good words.

Writer's Block Remedies: "I tell myself that all I need to do is open the file and work for 15 minutes. Or ten. Or five."
A Favorite Sentence: "In the end, the survivor gets to tell the story."

By the way, if you're looking for a recommendation from that winner's list, I think you can't go wrong by trying Timothy Egan's book on the dustbowl. While I haven't read it (yet), I'm familiar with some of his other work, which is uniformly excellent. And the subject seems like something he can sink his teeth into. If you do read it (or any of the others for that matter) and have a reaction you'd care to share with the rest of us, by all means please do.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

From the Archives, A Golden Oldie

Here's that 1991 profile of Adele Eisner I mentioned yesterday:

The Right to be a Pain in the Ass
Adele Eisner Challenges Business as Usual in University Heights

By John Ettorre
October, 1991
Cleveland Edition

On the cover of the 1989 University Hts. annual report, in large print, is the headline “To Establish Justice—Government under the Constitution.” Below, a robed figure holds aloft the scales of justice. Inside city council chambers, meanwhile, hangs a six-foot-high framed proclamation: “University Heights Declaration for an American Community,” signed by perhaps 400 to 500 residents.

But for all its hosannas to the Constitution and the concept of community, some dark undercurrents run through the political life of this suburb. The city government is run as a kind of private club, where residents are largely made to feel unwelcome. With no serious media attention focused on it—and precious little of any kind—and a well-entrenched 13-year mayoral administration installed as something of a low-grade political machine, the situation only grows worse.

If you were Adele Eisner, certainly you’d be less than impressed by the soothing platitudes about democracy in University Heights. Vice-mayor Jeffrey Friedman has publicly called her a fool and a hovering bird for aggressively pressing her demands for information on how the council conducts city business. A former councilman, Leonard Davis, turned his back to her when she spoke before council, and even tried to drown her out by crumpling papers near a microphone when she talked.

But that was only a warmup. Earlier this year, the University Heights Council unanimously passed an ordinance limiting total citizen comment at council meetings to 15 minutes, and individual speakers to five. It has come to be known as the Adele Eisner rule. Council members have informally acknowledged that it will be enforced selectively—meaning solely against her.

“Last Monday night, the University Heights Council killed the basis of the democratic process in this city: the right of freedom of speech and the right to dissent,” she later wrote in one of her frequent letters to the Sun Press. And at a council meeting last April, she stood in what has become her customary bi-weekly spot at the microphone and bitterly addressed members of council seated in a semi-circle before her: “I stand here holding a picture of a room where Nazis stored confiscated books that reminds me of the direction of the University Heights city government.”

The League of Women Voters, several shades less florid in its language, later sent a letter, politely—perhaps too politely—asking that the rule be reconsidered. Even the Sun Press momentarily awoke from its slumber to label the time restriction “chilling.”

Far more chilling, though was the final blow: a defamation suit that Jeffrey Friedman slapped on Eisner late last year after she sent a letter to another councilman, seeking details on the bidding process for the three police cars the city buys each year. For months, she had demanded to know why Marshall Ford is awarded the business each year despite never offering the lowest bid. She raised the possibility that it could be linked to the fact that Fridman’s law partner is related to the owner of the dealership, and that Friedman should thus completely remove himself from any involvement in the selection. This time, her agitation landed her on the wrong end of a lawsuit filed by Friedman, who charged that she had damaged his professional reputation by suggesting a possible link between his council position and his role as a private attorney.

Her search for an attorney to defend her against the suit didn’t foster in her much additional confidence in the political/legal system. The first one she talked to told her to trash every record in her possession that might have some bearing on the libel suit. Do what Nixon forgot to do, he told her. Then she visited prominent civil rights lawyer Terry Gilbert, a locally celebrated defender of the unpopular and outrageous (including flag-burning Cheryl Lessin). But he quickly lost interest in representing her when he learned it would involve taking on one of his landlords, Friedman, whose firm also refers him some business. “I don’t shy away from anything,” says Gilbert, “but…” Finally she found an attorney who got the suit dropped, though only after she wrote a three-sentence apology that seems to have struck in her throat like a dinosaur bone.

You don’t have to be a legal scholar to know that Adele Eisner has a constitutional right to be a pain in the ass. And when I suggest to her that the odds would have been long for a public official to win such a case—involving something said concerning city business—she agrees. But her vision was something less than 20/20 at the time.

“Everyone said, ‘You’ve got to look at the practical side of life,’” says Eisner, a single mother who owns her own marketing/advertising business. “I was scared,” she says, crying. “I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the time.” And so she wrote her apology.

But she’s since made time—to carry her battle to the source, by running for a seat on the University Heights City Council. “They pulled me into it—I’m really an apolitical person,” she says. When her full attention is engaged, she can be formidable. At one recent neighborhood block party, she says she persuaded five people to scratch their names from other candidates’ petitions, and to instead sign hers.

The timing of Friedman’s suit suggests the possibility at least that Eisner was a scapegoat for his mounting anxieties over his professional reputation. Only days before he sued her, Friedman had been publicly reprimanded—slapped on the wrist, actually—by the Ohio Supreme Court for a technical violation: failing to disclose why the Florida Supreme Court had reprimanded him for a transgression in that state. Ohio officials apparently never looked into the case, and he got off with a brief notice published in the Ohio Bar Journal.

According to a clerk at the Florida Supreme Court, however, the disciplinary case there arose after Friedman sent a letter to the parent of a teen killed in a traffic accident. Along with a letter offering his legal expertise, Friedman sent the parents a clipping from the Plain Dealer about a similar case in which he had won a $600,000 judgment for his client. With scant information on the case involving their son, he suggested that he might be able to win for them a similar settlement.

Years ago, before attorneys won the right to advertise in 1977, that letter might well have been sufficient grounds for permanent disbarment. Now, it’s merely considered operating on the fringes of legal ethics, which seemingly grow murkier by the day. Florida, in fact, disciplined him on the slimmest of technicalities: state law obligates attorneys to stamp the word advertisement on both the envelope and each page of such a correspondence, and Friedman’s warning appeared only on the envelope. Legalisms aside, though, it seems a dubious method for soliciting business, ambulance-chasing carried to troubling extremes.

Eisner isn’t the only political agitator in University Heights who has collided with Friedman. Two years ago, the target was Gene Fixler, a University Heights policeman who ran for mayor, the first serious challenger for the office in eight years (his campaign manager, not coincidentally, was Adele Eisner).

The night before the election, Friedman informed the Sun Press that he had received phone calls from five merchants who, he said, had lodged complaints with him that a uniformed Fixler intimidated them by visiting their shops and requesting them to replace Mayor Beryl Rothschild’s campaign posters with his own. Friedman later said he hired a private investigator—a former FBI agent—to look into the matter, and then forwarded his findings to the Ohio Ethics Commission (which he said eventually ruled it out of their authority). Later, he said the investigation was handed over to the county prosecutor’s office. But after two years, there is still no word on the outcome of what by all appearances would be a straightforward probe.

When pressed for details and an update, Friedman is fuzzy. Could you give me some names so that I could privately confirm their intimidation complaints? I ask. No, he says, they were made anonymously. If they were made anonymously, then what, precisely, did he pass along to the ethics board and later to the prosecutor’s office? I ask. “Uh, let me see…” he says, followed by some shuffling of papers. But he offers no answer. Nor can he recall the name of the private investigator he says was hired by the city. “We hired blank, and I can’t think of the name.”

Given all that, picture the following alternate scenario: there was never any real investigation because there never were any bona fide complaints.

But because of all the press coverage merely parroting Friedman’s charges, in the mind of the average University Heights resident, there was one very tangible result from a seemingly intangible investigation: Gene Fixler—wasn’t he the one that used strong-arm tactics in that election? It has at least partially helped to remove Fixler as a serious electoral threat in the future. Adele Eisner’s case is different, but she seems to have suffered at the hands of not unsimilar tactics.

In many respects, Jeffrey Frieman is a most unlikely tormentor of gadflies. A one-time Ohio student coordinator for Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, he ran his own aggressive council race in the early ‘70s as a 21-year-old law student, vowing to pry open the governmental process in University Heights. His campaign manager was his political science professor, a Jesuit priest.

You might, in fact, say that 20 years ago he was this city’s Adele Eisner. Friedman, as one Plain Dealer reporter wrote soon after the new councilman’s election in ’71, “is not a cigar-smoking, closed-door politician.” Rather, by Friedman’s own reckoning, he was an idealist—the new type of politician who is concerned about the people.”

But like his hero Bobby Kennedy—a hard-nosed pugilist in Senate hearing rooms whom revisionist Kennedy groupies and the family’s publicity machine have labored to remodel into a crusader for the little man—Friedman’s iron-fisted means are difficult to reconcile with his romantic self-image.

After breaking his neck in a car crash in 1964, two days after his 17th birthday, Friedman is now a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair made famous by the television commercials run by his firm, Friedman, Domiano & Smith (another local personal injury law firm—Nurenberg, Plevin—responded with its own series of ads depicting a man in a wheelchair, but they didn’t seem as effective—largely because he was obviously an actor).

Friedman, on the other hand, is no actor. “The world warped for Jeff Friedman on a soft summer night before his senior year in high school,” the eloquent Dick Feagler wrote 20 years ago in the Cleveland Press. “Molehills had become almost unconquerable mountains. A flight of steps was the Alps. A one-inch-high threshold in a doorway was a great deal to reckon with. A narrow doorway was a vice.”

And so the man in the wheelchair launched a crusade, suing to open public buildings to wheelchair access. He had a gift for theater that helped attract media attention. When he filed a lawsuit to force Cuyahoga County to add ramps to buildings and enlarge entrances to bathrooms, for example, he arranged to have three friends hoist him up the 15 steps leading to Lakeside Courthouse to dramatize the plight of the wheelchair-bound. A judge eventually ordered the county to make $100,000 in ramp construction and other changes to the new Justice Center.

The resulting publicity seems to have stoked his political ambitions, arching them a few degrees beyond municipal politics. In 1980, just one month after becoming vice-mayor of University Heights, he announced his candidacy for Cuyahoga County Commissioner (though he later pulled out of the race for lack of funds).

But his long wait for higher office might be tantalizingly close to an end. Some in this suburb predict that in 1993 Rothschild, who by that time will have served as mayor for 15 years, will step down from office. The inside track to her job would then belong to Friedman.

“I was certainly the one rocking the status quo,” he says, acknowledging some curious parallels between himself and his current nemesis. “But I did it responsibly. I didn’t say, hey, you, Mr. Banker, you’re a crook.”

Responsible, of course, has as many meanings as people prepared to formulate a definition. One person’s irresponsibility is another’s outraged demand to be heard. It’s far easier to sound and act responsible from behind a council bench than while parked in front of a microphone owned by the city, with the clock ticking off the seconds you have remaining to speak.

Decorum is a prized trait in this community, which, Friedman boasts, “probably has more attorneys per capita than any city in America.” But the suburb’s demographics are more complicated than caricature would allow: It publicly bills itself as the City of Beautiful Homes even as it privately worries over the creeping advance of less savory classes (next-door neighbor to the east, Cleveland Heights, now has a 10% poverty rate. And the western edge of University Heights is beginning to look far different than what residents in the more prosperous eastern portion of the city often call “upper” University Heights).

In this orderly, striving community, the brassy Adele Eisner—with a mouth seemingly powered by the world’s most advanced diesel engine—can come off a little like fingernails on a chalkboard. She smokes too much, peppers her conversation with expletives, and hastily covers up erotic sketches scattered around her office, demanding that that element be omitted from the story. Her second-floor Cedar Center office is an agreeable mess, crammed full of documents from both her marketing work and her after-hours political crusade. “Sam, do you know where the 91-25 files is?” she calls out one evening in her office to her daughter Samantha, who helps distribute campaign literature. Eisner, in fact, spent last Memorial day aboard her bicycle, distributing her desktop-published jermiads (The only proven choice for getting truth, democracy and citizen choice back into University Hts. City Hall reads one of her recent fliers).

One political observer remembers how at a candidate’s forum two years ago, televised by local cable TV, she showed up in a too-tight dress, walking back and forth in front of the camera—without ducking.

If she’s a touch rough around the edges, Eisner also shows more than a few indications of genius. In the early ‘80s, WVIZ officials noticed her uncommon energy while volunteering on a phoneathon and hired her to publicize a program on computer use. “She just made all kinds of community contacts,” remembers Beth Brown, who directs educational services for the public TV station. “I think we got maybe 1,000 people to show up.” Results like those have become imbedded in the memory of local marketing types, even though the project was competed nearly a decade ago. “I was just very impressed that she got a lot of PR out of it,” says Carol Rivchun, a vice president of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. She’s considered a master caligrapher: her work hangs in Mayor Beryl Rothschild’s office in University Heights City Hall, as well as in the Holocaust Museum in Israel.

While she has her admirers among some members of the establishment, Eisner’s roots seem more firmly planted in what you might call the mystical intellectual fringes. She belongs to something called the Possible Society Institute, a loose alliance of doctors, politicians, writers and others (the only well-known name is actress Ellen Bursytn) who share an admiration for the writings of Jean Houston, a Margaret Mead disciple and the author of such books as The Possible Human and The Search for the Beloved. A great-granddaughter of Sam Houston, the founder of the town that still bears his man, Houston, says her assistant in Pomona, New York, “is on call to over 35 countries around the world, and will frequently organizes seminars and meet with the little people who will become agents for change.”

It would be safe to say that Adele Eisner falls in that category. The taped message she leaves on her phone answering device (“Just remember that every thought that you have is creating your future, so have a day filled with wonderful thoughts”) could just as easily be found in the pages of self-help books as in the pep talks delivered at the conventions of Amway distributors.

But her style—marked by almost manic fits of free association and bursts of verbal pyrotechnics—has only made it easier for the smoothly professional, even reassuringly dull, council members to isolate their antagonist. As she has escalated her demands for information on city business, council members have mostly succeeded in painting her as a crazy lady. And the more they’ve done that, the harder she digs in. Wich only confirms their original diagnosis, silently delivered with eyes rolled heavenward: we’re dealing with a nut case here, folks.

No one in the city administration can fathom my acute interest in Adele Eisner and her complaints. “What is your fascination with this?” Mayor Rothschild asks one day in her office. “Our (council) meetings were getting longer and longer, and this person kept repeating herself at every meeting. And it didn’t seem to be leading anywhere.” Of the resulting time limit imposed on citizen speech during the council meetings, she says: “this is not a limit. You go to Washington—how much can you speak in Congress, how much can you speak at the Supreme Court?”

University Heights is a long way from Capitol Hill, in more ways than one. Covering just 1.9 square miles, with city hall and the police station centrally located, the city boasts an outstanding emergency response record. And municipal services are the focus here. The mayor, after all, first became involved in city politics in the mid-‘60s, while pressing a complaint about water in her basement.

Occasionally, residents will show up at a meeting to press what are oddly termed “moral claims”—seeking restitution in cases such as those involving garbage cans allegedly damaged by city trash haulers. But the only set of people who seem to pay ongoing attention to council business are those with a specific financial incentive—stringers from the Plain Dealer among them. If Eisner should win election to council, she would be the third consecutive PD stringer (or part-time correspondent) covering U.H. to later serve on its council, after the current mayor and the mayor’s longtime friend (and present councilperson) Adele Zucker. It’s only natural that such a pattern formed: almost no one else is at the meetings.

(Eisner stopped covering U.H. a couple of years ago when she became politically active, and earlier this year she was informed that she had been fired altogether through a letter from the PD’s personnel office. Her supervisors at the paper either declined comment or failed to return calls).

But no one on this council seems to mind operating without spectators. During a recent meeting, a visitor would have been “greeted” by closed double doors and a room air conditioner droning so loudly in the back of the room that you could barely hear the voices above the inadequate sound system. When the city engineer testified about various points of business, the back and forth with council members was laced with inside jokes that were surely lost on all but the most keen observers in the audience. And there was but a single one of those, in any case: Adle Eisner.

If she delivers them too inelegantly for councilmembers’ taste, Eisner nevertheless raises several good points about the city, and offers documentation for nearly every word of criticism she utters (“she has documents out the wazoo,” says her former attorney). She thinks the city culd find better uses for the $12,000 it spends each year to air a frothy PR program on cable TV called “University Heights Today.” Instead, she suggest adding an extra page to the so-called Garbage News (the nickname hung on the city’s one-page newsletter, delivered by sanitation workers), announcing the dates for council meetings and summaries of pending legislation.

When city officials waved away her complaints saying that everyone already knows when council meets, she took her own poll at Cedar Center, where she says she found widespread ignorance. City Hall, she says, does far more to publicize the schedule for band concerts than council meetings.

More seriously, Eisner says she has confirmed that the city has locked in a vault two sets of architectural plans for a City Hall complex. They’ve refused to share the plans with their employers—the residents—until they can figure out how to marshall public opinion, she maintains.

Most damning of all, to Eisner, was the manner in which the mayor quietly assumed her new role as safety director early last year, at a salary now set at $18,300 (on top of her part-time mayoral pay of $21,500), after the position was left vacant by the retirement of a full-time director. The schedule of events for that January 1990 council meeting briefly described all but one of the agenda items up for vote that night. But unless you happened to know beforehand that the amendment to ordinance 89-10 substantially boosted the mayor’s pay, you weren’t going to learn about it from the city’s document. And neither the Sun Press nor the PD every followed up on it.

Many city residents nevertheless seem to have learned about he mayor’s double salary. As Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary once said, “Don’t believe for a minute that people only know what they read in the papers.”

And thank God for that. The Cleveland Jewish News, headquartered a stone’s throw from City Hall until a move last year to Shaker Heights, stopped sending an observer to council meetings some time ago. The Sun Press, which moved its East Side office to Beachwood only weeks ago, sent no reporter to cover a recent council meeting.

But don’t assume their mere presence would change much: the Sun hires a succession of freshly-out-of-college reporters who naturally tend to treat whatever city officials say as gospel. That’s especially problematic in a city such as U.H. where, for instance, the mayor—incensed that the police auxiliary supported her opponent two years ago in the mayoral race—barred its members from talking to the media, and has since let the force winnow through attrition. “It’s this, ‘I’ll get you’ attitute,” says one member of the back-up force who agreed to break the rule of silence. The city administration, he adds, is “too much Big Brother is watching.”

But roadblocks like these present a real challenge in ferreting out the truth when you work for a paper that, like most, blindly clings to prohibitions against using anonymous sources. In any case, due to low pay and lousy hours, these young Sun reporters generally move on at the first chance they get, which regularly obliterates much of the paper’s institutional memory. It once prompted Beachwood Mayor Harvey Friedman, another suburban potentate with little patience for the “confrontational” press, to publicly complain about the necessity for city officials to regularly retrain their Sun beat reporters. Says Lolly Jacobsen, president of the Cleveland Heights/Uiniversity Heights chapter of the League of Women Voters, “The Sun Press, I’m afraid, cares mostly about selling advertising.”

As for the PD, despite its much-ballyhooed expansion of metro coverage, the paper rarely stays around long enough for sustained looks at the nuts and bolts of suburban politics. When a high-profile story breaks, such as a drive-by gang slaying last year, the capable Desiree Hicks pounced, producing a long, insightful story. But when the television cameras pack up and the spotlight moves elsewhere, PD coverage of the city mostly reverts to easily digested trivia, largely culled from official sources. In a recent story about a city master development study, for instance, Hicks quotes U.H “resident” Suzie Rivers as approving the plans as “a sign of a progressive city.” She fails to mention that Rivers is anything but a disinterested resident: the former director of the Cuyahoga Plan, now a law student, not only serves on city zoning and communications boards but has earned several thousand dollars from the city for her “sensitivity” seminars for University Heights policemen (translation: how to be civil to blacks).

“We can do whatever we want, the papers don’t care about us,” says one of the few city officials who doesn’t think that’s such a good idea.”

With or without media attention, Eisner is beginning to see some results from her long campaign for open government. The council recently held a public meeting to air the development study with residents (though she grumbles that it will be merely presented, not discussed). The city now solicits bids from more car dealerships. And the law director is looking into the reasonableness of the dollar-a-page fee charged to residents seeking copies of public information. “I’ve changed the course of the river,” Eisner says with a suggestion of world-weary satisfaction.

In a few weeks, though, the ultimate outsider might just find herself installed on the inside—as a colleague of the very councilpersons with whom she has waged a war of verbal attrition. Reasonableness and propriety in University Heights could suffer a fatal blow, but the Constitution at long last might just get a tryout.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Adele The Tireless

I first met Adele Eisner about 15 years ago. A work colleague told me about an engaging woman who was going door-to-door in University Heights, running for a seat on the suburb's council to try to do her part to clean up some petty corruption. It intrigued me, both as a writer and as a citizen. I figured I'd go take a look for myself, never really intending to write anything. Lord, if only I knew what I was getting into.

Over several visits and many hours of talking, she described a bizarre scene in which she kept demanding public information, only to be stonewalled in the rudest possible fashion. She said the council members responded to her in open council by loudly crumpling paper into a microphone in hopes of drowning her out, and once even ritually turned their backs on her. I kept pulling on the string, interviewing others, examing the minutes of council meetings, trying to understand just what the hell had gone on there. Her story was a mess on several levels, though an intriguing mess, because she had begun her bird-dogging as a stringer (or part-time, non-staff correspondent) covering the council for the Plain Dealer. That muddied the situation even more.

Anyway, the result of all this sound and fury was a five-thousand-word cover story I wrote on her in 1991 in the Cleveland Edition, the town's first alt-weekly. It carried a cool photo of her in front of City Hall, as if demanding to be let in to a locked door, and the headline said it all: The Right to Be a Pain in the Ass. And if you know Adele, you know she's surely that, though generally for all the right reasons.

She was panicked at first. She called me the day the article hit the streets, and you could hear how jittery she was even over the phone. She talked about how the story contained various errors and even suggested she might sue. It turned out to be a routine case of journalism jitters, the result of that weird process of having one's life reduced to a story in a newspaper, especially when the story is an invasive, warts-and-all treatment. Anyway, she quickly changed her mind about it as she got a chance to step back and see the larger picture, and understood that it was an utterly sympathetic portrait of a crusading woman who refused to accept what she saw as injustice, and who, like all of us, happens to have some flaws (though hers are more endearing than most). People began coming up to her and congratulating her, some even treating her like a modest folk hero. Eventually, in fact, she asked the paper for the right to reprint the article as a campaign handout. Several weeks later she won office, with what was at that time the largest vote total in the city's history. And as you might guess, University Heights politics proceeded to get really interesting, as her new colleagues who then as now ran a suburban political machine were a little harder-pressed to keep the details of city business from her now that she was officially one of them. I'm pleased to say that she soon graduated from mere profile subject to lifelong friend.

Well, Adele is in the news again these days. Now a grandmother, her particular subject of concern is a little different, but in more important ways she's up to the same thing--trying to keep politics honest. She's driven to distraction by stonewalling county elections officials and electronic voting systems that seem ripe for abuse, and so she's been all over the place as a certified election observer. And this week my friends at the Free Times did a great write-up on her. The author of the piece, James Renner, is a dazzling talent, possibly Cleveland's best young journalist (though the PD's Rachel Dissell and his FT colleague Charu Gupta could give him a run for the money). He sees her clearly, explains the complicated dynamics well, and gets the story cold. I hope it helps at least in a small way to advance her vital work.

Tomorrow I'll post my original story about Adele.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Most Unfailing Pleasure

'Sufficient for the morning is the pleasure thereof, and one of the most unfailing pleasures is to sit down in the morning and write.'

--Leonard Woolf (husband and publisher of the more famous Virginia), writing in his memoirs. To learn more about the man often referred to as "Bloomsbury's Older Brother," click here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Hold Your Tongue and You'll Be Glad You Did

'If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.'
--Chinese proverb (with thanks to my friend Doug Mazanec, a.k.a. Infoman, for sending along this interesting resource).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Good Writing Is All About Getting the Details Right

The classic book The Elements of Style, which I think every writer should reread annually, contains an especially illuminating passage that I return to again and again, both for my own writing and when I speak to others about the subject. It's a message worthy of constant repetition:
'If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader's attention is by being specific, definite and concrete. The greatest writers--Homer, Dante, Shakespeare--are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up

A couple of Saturdays ago, New York Times TV reporter Bill Carter published an interesting piece (alas, now available online only via paid archives) about the head writer of the long-running sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," a fellow named Phil Rosenthal. While I'm not necessarily a fan of the show (though it has been known to hold my interest sometimes for a couple moments while I idly channel surf), I found this piece about the collaborative effort that went into its writing fairly fascinating, as well as a reminder of Strunk & White's crucial maxim. Rosenthal attributes the show's popularity to its specificity. "What really made the show stand out, Mr. Rosenthal said, was faithful reliance on truly specific--sometimes minutely so--details of married life," Carter writes. "The details were so specific because they almost always came directly from the lives of Mr. Rosenthal, Ray Romano [the star], or one of the phalanx of married men, and occasionally the women, who kicked around ideas (as well as one another's egos) inside the show's writing room."

And what were his creative influences, you ask? Rosenthal says he came by his respect for such specificity in plot lines by watching The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Honeymooners as a kid. In their day, they, too, followed Strunk & White's suggestion, though perhaps without even realizing it.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Using BFD as a Window Into Place

Dan Gillmor, one of the leading gurus of web journalism, knows a good representative "place blog" when he sees one. The longtime tech writer for Silicon Valley's hometown paper (the San Jose Mercury News) and author of the seminal book We The Media, is building a new search tool called Placeblogger, from his perch at Harvard's Center for Citizen Media. In an election round-up used to demonstrate the experiment,
he points to coverage on George Nemeth's Brewedfreshdaily.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Solid Month of Writing

The writer Anne Lamott is famous in some quarters for her suggestion on how to break through writer's block. "Just write a shitty first draft," she counsels, on the theory that once you have something to begin shaping, polishing and improving, everything gets easier. This month, thousands of writers are taking part in National Novel Writing Month, a group effort in diligently breaking through blocks by writing at least 50,000 words. My friend Jeff Hess is one of those taking part. I'm looking forward to his report on how it went. Meanwhile, this fine Washington Post article explains what it's all about. Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a town with a paper that was all over this kind of story? I'm afraid that'll only happen if I move.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Here's a Chilling Case Study
Of How Rising Political Stars
Get Co-Opted by Contributors

All the hoopla over Barack Obama, supposedly the great new hope to reclaim our national political virtue, seems more than a little tiresome. Mostly, it reminds me of our political naivete, of our constant hungering for something new, as if simple charisma can fix our national problems. If only it was so easy.

Against that backdrop, I thought Harper's Magazine had an especially timely and illuminating cover story this month, on how Obama may already have been subtly co-opted by Washington's K Street lobbying culture. It nicely describes how well-oiled corporate interests weave money webs around promising political stars that make it all but impossible for them to participate in reform, ultimately rendering them politically impotent. Since Harper's is perhaps the least web-friendly of the major American magazines, the piece is not online (though the author does address subsequent complaints about the piece from the Senator's staff
here). So I bring you this crucial passage, in hopes that you'll hunt down a copy of the November issue on a newstand or a library and read the entire thing.

It is startling to see how quickly Obama's senatorship has been woven into the web of institutionalized influence-trading that afflicts official Washington. He quickly established a political machine funded by and run by a standard Beltway group of lobbyists, PR consultants and hangers-on. For the staff post of policy director, he hired Karen Kornbluh, a senior aide to Robert Rubin when the latter, as head of the Treasury Department under Bill Clinton, was a chief advocate for NAFTA and other free-trade policies that decimated the nation's manufacturing sector (and the organized labor wing of the Democratic party). Obama's top contributors are corporate law and lobbying firms (Kirkland & Ellis and Skadden, Arps, where four attorneys are fundraisers for Obama as well as donors), Wall Street financial houses (Goldman, Sachs & JPMorgan Chase) and big Chicago interests (Henry Crown & Co., an investment firm that has stakes in industries ranging from telecom to defense)...The question, though, is just how effective--let alone reformist--Obama's approach can be in a Washington grown hostile to reform and those who advocate it. After a quarter century when the Democratic Party to which he belongs has moved steadily to the right and the political system in general has become thoroughly dominated by the corporate perspective, the first requirement of electoral success is now the ability to raise staggering sums of money. For Barack Obama, this means that mounting a successful career, especially one that may include a run for the presidency, cannot even be attempted without the kind of compromising and horse-trading thatmay, in fact, render him impotent.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Newspaper That Refuses to Die
(see update below)

My latest Free Times
media column is about the erstwhile Cleveland Press, an afternoon daily that went out of business more than 24 years ago--at a time when lots of afternoon papers were dying, both as a result of the changing demographics of readership and the loss of ad base to TV--but whose memory lives on in some interesting ways. In coming days, after I've had some time to pull my thoughts together, I'll tell more of that story than I was able to fit into the column. Meanwhile, I'll naturally be interested in getting your reactions to the column or hearing your stories/memories of the Press, if indeed you're old enough to remember it. If not, perhaps a more salient issue for you would be the whole continuing debate on having two daily papers in a city, something that only a handful of major American cities still enjoy. I'd be interested to learn whatever is on your mind. As they like to say on the radio, our comment lines are open.
UPDATE: This column earned a link yesterday from Jim Romenesko's influential Poynter site, easily the most closely watched national aggregator of news by, about and for the journalism community. I wrote about Jim and his site here, and he was good enough to also link to these two (here and here) earlier columns.

Finally Getting Rove Off Our Necks

Former Bill Clinton consigliere Bruce Reed may have said it best: after losing two straight presidential races they should have won, for Democrats, last night's victory "felt like the weight of a giant Rovian albatross finally being lifted off our necks." Now, we'll see what they do with it all.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Crocodile Tears From the Republicans

Among the sometimes distasteful but nevertheless important duties of the writerly trade is the impulse to sign up for all kinds of communications (in varying formats) from some otherwise odious sources, just to keep tabs on things. Toward that end, the Republican party uses my email address like a party favor, sharing it with local, state and national candidates and party leaders. And I have no one to blame but myself, since I signed up for the duty (but seeing the name Ken Mehlman in my inbox is really going above the call of duty). But I was especially amused by this email today from Ohio Republican party chair Bob Bennett:
We're receiving widespread reports today of Democrats engaging in questionable and possibly illegal voter suppression tactics at polling locations across the state. If you experience any problems with Democrat poll observers inside a voting location or with activists outside, please report them to us by email at Democrats have proven they'll do anything to win an election - even if it means breaking the law. Republican voters are reporting intimidation tactics being used by Democrat activists outside polling locations. We've heard reports of Democrat poll observers engaging in illegal activity by communicating with voters as they vote. Some Republican voters are even being told by Democrat poll workers that they can't cast a ballot. Help us put a stop to these illegal efforts to suppress the Republican vote. Report problems now by sending detailed information to If you have not already voted, the polls are open until 7:30 p.m. We're seeing high turnout in Republican precincts statewide, but every vote is critical! Find your polling location here. Print out a list of your Republican candidates and take it with you when you cast a ballot. Then join us tonight after the polls close for a Victory Celebration at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Columbus.

Good Christ, these people are unbelievable. It's Democrats who are suppressing votes, huh? The absurd things they can say while managing to keep a straight face...

Meanwhile, the editors of The New Republic helpfully point out that increasingly sophisticated gerrymandering (the drawing of electoral district maps so as to benefit the incumbent party's candidates) have managed to rig our congressional elections and thus prevent elections from truly reflecting the country's political will. This is something we're just going to have to find a way to clean up, along with getting rid of the deeply anti-democratic Electoral College.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Support the Independents (Still)

I have a couple of books on order at Mac's Backs in Coventry that I'm looking forward to picking up soon and reading. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I hope you'll consider supporting independent bookstores, because they play an invaluable role in the intellectual life of any community (three years ago, I wrote this about bookstores I've loved). They've been battered in recent years, of course, first by the invasion of the huge national chains, and then by the advent of online powerhouse Amazon. And yet the good ones keep right on going, somehow. I was happy to learn from Publisher's Weekly that bookstores remain surprisingly strong, probably because there's no experience quite like browsing a good bookstore, or even, truth be told, a mediocre one. According to the booksellers' bible, 68% of Americans who purchased a book in the last year did so at a bookstore.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mankind's Real Giant Step

'What can we gain by sailing to the Moon if we are unable to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?'
--Thomas Merton

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Joe Klein Brings It
Just Like Old Days

Joe Klein is a byline that political junkies have known for years. He got his start a long time ago with Rolling Stone, covering the culture in fresh, imaginative ways, presumably channeling the house icon, Hunter Thompson. He later moved on to New York Magazine, where he famously fell in love with then-longshot presidential candidate Bill Clinton. His worshipful but nevertheless insightful coverage of the man helped introduce the future president to the larger media pack, and helped launch him higher still. Later, Klein spent some time with the New Yorker, writing its venerable column from Washington, where one would presumably expect him to stay, having climbed to the top, the absolute summit, of journalism's food chain.

But for reasons that only he can know, he decided a few years ago to decamp to Time Magazine. Time Magazine? That toothless, middlebrow newsweekly, a pub still living on its founder's fumes decades later? I, for one, thought him in need of a shrink. But Time can surprise you. It's consistently interesting these days, packed with good reporting and good writing, full of stories I don't see anywhere else. Once less interesting than rival Newsweek, I think it's now far better. Anyway, Klein can still be maddeningly obtuse in his Boomer enthusiasm for centrist Democrats (The New Republic did a splendid takedown of him a few months ago, on the occasion of his latest book). But his column in the current issue of Time, its election preview issue, shows that he can still bring the heat. Just listen to how he gets started:

First, the Republicans tried to attack Democrats on national security, their old, reliable soft-on-terrorism gambit. But that didn't work, in part because George W. Bush's own National Intelligence Council issued a report that said the Administration's policies were probably adding to the sum total of terrorists in the world. Then the Republicans tried to accuse Democrats of being soft on illegal immigrants. But that didn't work because the President himself was notoriously humane on immigration—and it was the Republican Congress that had failed to produce a tough immigration bill. In recent weeks, the Republicans unwrapped another moldy chestnut, advertisements proclaiming that Democrats will raise taxes. But that didn't seem to be working either because voters were focused on Iraq and Mark Foley. And so last week the Republicans unleashed a series of ads painting the Democrats as sex-crazed, homosexual-loving, porn-perusing—and in the case of the novelist and Virginia Senate candidate Jim Webb, porn-writing—perverts. It was vivid proof that the prospect of a hanging doesn't always concentrate the mind. Sometimes it leads to feral, piss-pants desperation.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Drenched in Words

'One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.'
--Poet Hart Crane. To review the life and work of the Ohio-born poet, go here.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Writing That I Want to Remember

The debate over what, precisely, constitutes literature is an argument without end. Which is as it should be. But I came across one of the better definitions I've ever seen, in Oxford University Professor John Carey's book, What Good Are the Arts? He defines it simply as "writing that I want to remember--not for its content alone, as one might want to remember a computer manual, but for itself: those particular words in that particular order." I think that about says it all.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Calls From DiNiro & DiMora

This dead-on complaint from permission-marketing guru Seth Godin about the phone spam during election season rang a bell with me. His problem is with the actor Robert DiNiro's taped message, while my beef is with Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy "Goodfellas" DiMora . Besides the fact that I know him to be a corrupt fellow, I can now add to my list of grievances against him the fact that he's an obnoxious spammer, those unsavory types who presume to send unwanted mass messages to complete strangers. There wasn't a chance in hell that I would have voted for the slimy & misleading Issue 3 "learn and earn" before his call on its behalf. But now I'll probably do my best to convince a handful of friends to vote against it too.