A little later this morning folks will gather at the Ludlow Massacre site in Southern Colorado for a program marking its addition to the roster of National Historic Landmarks. For obvious reasons, I wish I was there, but events conspired against it. I am, though, there in spirit.
As most of you know, the massacre and the surrounding 1913-14 coal field war were the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, so on a personal level I'm glad to see the site get formal recognition. More than 75 people died during that strike, which was effectively a guerrilla war between the coal mine operators and their striking workers. It took the intervention of the U.S. Army to end the fighting after the union side had seized control of some 275 miles of the Front Range. The biggest convulsion of violence came as the strikers routed the Colorado National Guard after the April 20, 1914, Ludlow Massacre in which 11 children and two mothers suffocated as National Guard-spread fire whipped through their tent colony.
It's long been a source of frustration to me that this kind of violence could erupt on American soil and not be entered into the public history. In school we get taught about the Shays Rebellion and other flare ups, such as the anti-slavery activities of John Brown. But we don't teach about this brutal struggle between labor and management, in which the Colorado events were part of a long and vicious arc.
Interestingly, when the Ludlow Massacre does get mentioned, often the details are wrong, reflecting the success the union side enjoyed at the time in using the deaths of the women and children to draw attention to their struggle. Tellingly, the Ludlow Massacre is what we focus on, not the broader guerrilla war in which they died. And the massacre technically wasn't one, since there's no indication from the historic record that the women and children were intentionally killed.
That does not exonerate the National Guard of brutal acts, but it's important to put such events in as accurate a context as possible. The accepted history is that the abusive companies brutalized their workers, forced them to work in appalling conditions, and then killed their families when the workers stood up for themselves.
The reality is much more nuanced. The owners were brutal and the conditions appalling (mules were valued more than miners because a mule had to be bought, and a miner's time was rented). In my book I argue that the coal miners were in effect freedom fighters rebelling against a corrupt local political and economic system. They were hardly passive victims. Of the dead, most were National Guardsmen (under the control of the coal operators), scabs and mine guards. The strikers won this war, even if they lost the strike. All in all, it reminds of this key passage from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
To my mind, the strikers -- most of them immigrants -- were acting in the grand American tradition of throwing off the bonds of tyranny, even if it was of the local and corporate variety. We do a disservice to our understanding of what we are as a country by ignoring this part of our history.
A couple of weeks ago the nation's TV stations went completely digital, dropping the longtime analog system for a digital system that ostensibly frees up airwaves for public safety uses. In general, a good plan. In execution not so much.
I do most of the cooking in our house (when I'm not on the road), and have a small TV on which I watch sports, the news, and the occasional Sunday morning talking-heads show while I work. The TV is older, I think, than our sons, one of those clunky, remote-less 13-inch models that takes up way more space than it needs to.
But it's worked perfectly fine, except for some snow on Channel 2 and a few of the UHF stations, which is understandable -- we live 45 or 50 miles from where most of the Los Angeles TV stations have their antennas.
So now we've been forced into digital land -- and can't get diddly on the set, even with a new antenna and the federally subsidized converter box. I've moved the antenna, re-scanned, moved it again, re-scanned again, but still get hardly any of the major stations, and even those are so weak we get that impromptu stop-action as the screen pixilates and freezes for a few seconds.
There are other sets in the house hooked up to cable so we're not cut off from the world but it has me wondering -- how has this affected low-income, cable-less families in sprawling metro areas like this, or in rural areas?
I have to think this has been a boon for the cable and satellite providers -- I'm contemplating adding a line to the kitchen -- and the phone companies (from whom the government chose not to take bandwidth). But I also have to think a few more ounces of flesh have been taken from the poor.
By now you all know Michael Jackson died yesterday, seemingly of a heart attack. There's a ton of coverage out there, some very solid (check out my friend Ann Powers' lovely tribute at the LA Times) and some pretty bizarre, such as the fan who told KABC-7 here in Los Angeles that the death was "life-changing." Well, yeah, in a binary, lights on/lights off kind of way.
A few things jump out at me. Jackson was a powerfully talented singer, songwriter and entertainer, with a shrewd sense of media manipulation and an admirable ability to break down barriers. He was also a tragic figure with a suspicious devotion to children that eventually overwhelmed his standing as a pop music icon (to most of the public, at least).
But I quibble with the hyperbole about his influence on pop music. Pop culture, definitely. Pop music, not as much. Most of Jackson's influence was in a specific cul de sac in pop music, the hit-hunting R&B neighborhood. He built on the creativity of predecessors like James Brown and wisely put himself in Quincy Jones' hands, but while he was toe-dancing and twirling and bringing old R&B showmanship on tour and to MTV, punk visionaries and the hip-hop generation emerged and radically transformed popular music. Against that backdrop, Jackson was less revolutionary than evolutionary.
Part of any major breaking news story is the media covering the media, including this bit from Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review. Okay, so here goes an assessment of the assessment. Niles points out that people who use Twitter were tweeting away about the death long before it had been confirmed anywhere outside TMZ, which apparently got the scoop (and a hearty congrats to them). Ignoring the point that the tweets were, in effect, lightning-fast gossip, Niles argues media outlets should drop their use of email alerts about major news events because they make the outlets seem "clueless and slow."
Maybe, but only to the folks who rely on tweets for their news. And this strikes at one of the flawed undercurrents of a lot of media analysis right now -- it focuses on the technology more than the message. Twitter is still a new and growing social network with some intriguing potential for use (and abuse). But it is hardly pervasive. I have an account but don't receive tweets because I don't use text-messaging. The vast majority of people in this country don't use Twitter. In this eternal rush to the new we tend to forget about the established. Even with the startling decline of newspapers, outlets like my former employer, the LA Times, still sell hundreds of thousands of printed copies a day.
We can't forsake the old just because there's new. What's emerging aren't full replacements for newspapers but added avenues of information distribution (with some serious economic consequences, to be sure). Radio didn't kill newspapers, TV didn't kill radio and the Internet and Twitter aren't going to be murderous entities either. Like Jackson, they're more evolutionary than revolutionary. With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, the message is the message.
Anderson copped to the problems in an email with VQR (the magazine was preparing a review of the book), blaming it on a last-minute decision to not use footnotes. Beyond the fact that nonfiction books without footnotes always make me suspicious, for the life of me I can't figure out why deciding late in the process to drop the footnotes makes a difference. Lifting passages verbatim and then footnoting is just as lazy -- and dishonest -- as cribbing them in the first place, as Ed Champion also notes on his blog.
But Wikipedia? I mean, if you're going to steal ...
Since I have some, ahem, time on my hands, and with the school year over, we decided to paint the master bedroom. This kind of project always seems like a good idea when you're standing before racks of paint strips and picking out colors, ignoring that nagging memory in the back of the brain.
Then comes the prep work. Moving everything out of the room. Scrubbing things down. Repairing holes from where pictures once hung. And you begin to remember why you don't like to paint.
Then comes the not-fully-imagined challenge of painting a ceiling covered with that godawful popcorn texturing -- the thick layer of what must have been sprayed on compound that gives the ceiling a shaggy look, like it's molting.
In truth, this stuff is a sponge. One gallon of paint should have covered a room this size. It will likely take four gallons. And as you work with the roller overhead bits of the texturing break loose, raining little sticky cheese curds down on you. They coat your glasses, stick to hair, skin and clothes, and strike the plastic drop cloth with little click/pop sounds, like indoor rain. Which you then step on.
And then you remember why you swore off this kind of project ever again, that you'd hire someone next time. But then, well, you wind up with some time on your hands and figure why not, how hard can it be ....
Back at it later this morning, day two of my own personal paint-flecked hell.
The core issue: Accepting arrangements with drug companies for programs for journalists, including all-expenses trips for conferences aimed at informing the journalists about health care issues. Paid for by the drug companies.
I know the journalism world is on its heels, but wrong is wrong. And this is wrong.
I missed the first part of this story when it rumbled through earlier this month, and only caught up with it when the second yahoo bared a rather disgusting soul.
CrooksandLiars.com has a piece (thanks to friend Anthony DeStefanis for the steer) about two state level political figures -- one in South Carolina, the other in Tennessee -- who recently choked on their own racism. One referred to an escaped gorilla as an ancestor of Michele Obama, and the other emailed around -- on an official government account -- a racist cartoon (portraits of the presidents, with Obama as just a set of eyes against a black backdrop).
Both seem to have apologized, but not for being stone racists. The "gorilla" joker apologized to anyone who was offended. The "portraits" moron said she sent it out via the wrong email. Which, by extension, means she didn't see a problem with the inherent racism of the item.
You'll notice over to the side the little RSS icon, which you can use to load up the blog on your RSS readers. For those not familiar, it's an easy way to keep track of multiple online sources with one easy mechanism.
There are a variety of readers out there. I use Newsgater but Google has its own reader that seems to be pretty user friendly.
One of the joys of being married to an elementary school teacher is you never get rid of the school-age inspired sense that summer begins sometime in the third week of June. I grew up in the Northeast -- Scarborough, Maine, and Wellsville, New York -- and it became ingrained that the end of school meant warm weather. Even when, in reality, days began staying pretty warm in May and continued into late October.
But it's interesting how the cycles of young life stay with you. As a freelance writer, my time is pretty much my own. For example, I was up at three a.m. today to let the dog out and, unable to fall back to sleep, worked on research for a couple of hours on The Fear Within (reading back through letters from and to one of the defendants, Gil Green) then went back to bed.
And living in Southern California -- well, it always feels like summer around here. So this wonderful sense of summer is a bit Pavlovian, rooted in personal history rather than the reality of the present. Similarly, I don't miss the seasons of the Northeast (though I never minded snow) but after 12 years in SoCal I find I've lost track of time. When you're used to measuring years in quarters, and the tethers of memory are seasons ("No, we did that two winters ago"), well, life takes on a sense of suspended animation.
Which also means it flies by incredibly quickly ... but just for related fun (give it a few seconds to fire up):
The most interesting part of the piece is Ross' take on the state of publishing which squares with what I've been seeing. Things aren't as bad as in newspapers, but it's still pretty tough. Especially for fiction writers. Frances asked him what is easier to sell to editors, fiction or nonfiction:
"Uhh -- well -- non-fiction is easier by a mile. Look, I don't want to rain on the parade, but look at the numbers. Publishers will only look at fiction that has been submitted by an agent. These submissions have been heavily vetted. I would imagine that out of 100 queries received by agents for novels, they might select 1 for submission (probably less). I have spoken with a number of fiction editors. They inform me that of the submissions they receive, they may decide to publish (again) 1 in 100. Just looking at the numbers, selling a novel is like winning the lottery. Of course, if you are a published author with a good track record, you are in pretty good shape. It isn't very hard to sell a new novel by Philip Roth. But if you are a published novelist whose last book bombed, it is extremely difficult. Publishers are making decisions by the numbers now. They have a data base that tells them the sales of every book on the market. Refined taste in literature plays a very small role."
So I guess the good news is the novel I've got stashed away, half finished while I work on The Fear Within, is a mystery. Not much call for refined literary taste there....
A new poll out today from the New York Times shows an interesting disconnect that should be worrisome for the Democrats. While President Obama still enjoys high personal approval ratings, the public is losing patience with his prescriptions for fixing the economy and health care.
There also is a general lack of enthusiasm for his approaches to Guantanamo Bay, and his attempts to help the auto industry.
It's too early for this to have much effect on Obama's re-election prospects -- how these problems play out over the next couple of years will be crucial -- but this is when people begin lining up for the off-year Congressional elections. And if the public remains this skeptical of Obama's policies, the Democrats will face some serious challenges keeping controlling of the House.
This is always a striking -- and depressing -- web site to visit. It's an interactive map of newspaper jobs lost so far this year, with other tabs to look at losses in previous years and one tracking newspapers that have shut down altogether.
There's an irony, of course, in tracking such devastation to the industry through a free online site.
Remember back in November, when Barack Obama won the White House, a victory equally notable for its historic context as for what it supposedly said about a nation sick of politics as usual?
Well, one out of two isn't bad.
Over the past few weeks we've seen a disappointing throwback to the politics of distraction. First some online celebrity gossip asked a real question of a Miss America contestant -- her opinion on a political issue -- and instantly created a martyr for the political right. Never mind that the context for the question, and the political weight of Miss California's answer were completely meaningless (other than as a barometer of the fact that Americans do indeed disagree on some issues).
Add a dose of Dick Cheney, who has shown a remarkable inability to fade into the sunset. So much so, in fact, that one has to wonder whether he's fighting for historical legacy or aligning himself for the future -- a 2012 presidential run, bad ticker, bad polls and all. Then David Letterman cracks a bad joke about Sarah Palin's daughter and Alex Rodriguez, which Palin and conservative commentators twist out of context to extend her 15 minutes of political life.
Now John McCain is back in the fray, spinning off a foolish comment by Leon Panetta that Cheney might be wishing the U.S. gets attacked to validate his stance on the efficacy of torture. Panetta, McCain gravely informs us, must retract his comment.
The economy remains trashed; the Obama Administration has yet to address in a meaningful way the legacy of American policies that led to Guantanamo Bay, illegal detentions and torture; no progress has been made on health care reform; North Korea is nuke-rattling; the streets of Iran are teeming with protesters -- and this is what the political elite focus on?
One unavoidable reality of democracy is that we always get the political leaders we deserve.
Very cool photos from Wired Science -- and some interesting details about the recovery of a butterfly species in England. Yes, ecosystems are fragile, and the little things -- like unusually tall grass -- can have devastating consequences. Of course, you knew that, but it's reassuring to have it proven again. Now if we were just smart enough to act on it more often...
Some things just should not be contemplated before the first cup of coffee. Like "brown matter," the flow of material that some scientists and astrophysicists speculate is, in essence, a leak from our universe to the next.
So maybe H. Ross Perot was on to something more cosmic than trade policy back in the 1992 election.
I don't know why I find this story so funny when, in truth, it's pretty sad and pathetic. I've mentioned before the shenanigans that preceded the naming last month of the Oxford Professor of Poetry, won by Ruth Padel after persons then-unknown circulated details about a 1982 sexual harassment complaint about rival poet Derek Wolcott.
Wolcott withdrew from consideration and the gig went to Padel, who resigned shortly afterward and eventually confessed that she was involved in the smear campaign.
Now persons-unknown are at it again -- this time with an anonymous poem about it all. Wouldn't a few splashes of graffiti on High Street been easier?
Every Friday morning they do a session with folks from the Stone Brewing Co., which brews some great ales, with smart marketing, i.e., Arrogant Bastard Ale, with the label that warns, "You're not worthy."
After seeing the travel piece the other day, Tommy got in touch and they book me for a short chat about the story. So I got to relive -- briefly -- the road trip I took with Steve Dollar. This is the audio here.
Turns out Hansen and Tommy are doing a July 3 remote broadcast from the Stone brewery, and they suggested I stop down. Though 7 a.m. is a little early for an Arrogant Bastard -- read that any way you want -- I might just show up. Could be fun.
A former colleague, Bill Lobdell, is involved in a new venture in Newport Beach, California, the next city from us in Irvine, that I suspect points the way toward how the Internet-sparked explosion of newspapering will finally settle out.
The project is The Daily Voice, and it's a paperless news sites devoted to hyper-local news.
Lobdell and his partner, Tom Johnson, are both former news executives at The Daily Pilot, the Los Angeles Times-owned local paper in Newport Beach-Costa Mesa. Lobdell also was a religion writer at the LA Times for a while, was a former deskmate of mine there and we shared bylines on a few stories. And he has this book out about losing his religion.
What's telling in Johnson's opening statement is that they couldn't find investors to launch the project -- a sign, no doubt, of the skittishness of the investing market right now, and the absolute confusion over the profitability of media outlets.
But this strikes me as a sensible model (in fact, I've been having similar conversations with other fellow journalists about the theme). No big bucks, to be sure, but it seems like a logical way to start rebuilding news organizations one locality at a time. Local people want local news, and local business owners and managers want a reliable conduit for local ads.
You often hear writers say that they don't write for pleasure but out of a sense of compulsion -- they have to write.
But there's a difference between that and being sentenced to write. Pity the poor Bristol-Myers Squibb exec ordered by New York Judge Ricardo M. Urbina to serve two years' probation, during which he must write a book about his experiences -- including lying to federal officials over the firm's attempt to settle a patent dispute over Plavix, the blood thinner.
Yes, he sentenced sentences.
The New York Times reports Urbina issued a similar sentence in 1998 to a lobbyist who admitted breaking campaign finance laws. Urbina ordered James H. Lake to pay a $150,000 fine and write and distribute at his own cost a monograph about campaign finance laws covering corporate contributions, and distribute it at his own cost to 2,000 fellow lobbyists.
Our particular little writers' prison is already over-crowded, but what the hell, one more can't hurt ...
I picked up this book out of a sense of curiosity, and found myself devouring it like, well, an addict.
Journalist Nick Reding spent a few years immersing himself in small-town Iowa, researching a book about the devastating effects of meth in rural America. I grew up in a small town (I can never say that without a John Mellencamp song bursting into my head) so read it with the eye of a familiar.
"In 'Methland,' Reding sets something that is known to most of us -- illicit meth labs and tweakers, violent hallucinations and destroyed families -- against a broad context of the decline of local economies, shattered dreams and a sense of fate-driven helplessness.
"This is a strong book, and it tells a complicated story in comprehensible, human dimensions. Like all good journalism, it's the hand holding up the mirror, the friend telling us to take a cold, hard look at ourselves."
The book's strength lies in the professional distance Reding maintains. He lays out people in full, the heroes with flaws, the tweakers as fully rounded people with crippling addictions. It's a complicated story, and it hasn't gone away, Reding argues. It's just faded from the headlines.
A couple of months ago my friend Steve Dollar emailed from NYC with a proposition. He had a freelance assignment to do a travel piece driving the California coast, following Rte. 1 from around Santa Barbara to where it ends near the redwoods in Humboldt State Park. As an urbanite, he let his driver's license lapse. Steve's at left in the picture here, chatting with my old friend Tony Lioce at Vesuvio bar in San Francisco. Not a brewpub, but a great bar nonetheless.
The began the journey of Driving Mr. Dollar. And here is my travel piece on the trip, which ran in today's Los Angeles Times. It was a fun trip, and I love doing travel writing.
I also used the trip to start experimenting with map mash-ups, this one using Zee Maps, which gives you a sense of the scope of the trip.
Truth be told (sorry, Laila), I have yet to crack the novel, which Laila signed for me when we both were speaking (separate panels) at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Just too many on the stack, though I hope to get to it soon. I loved her first book,Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, a wonderful collection of inter-connected short stories about the illegal flow of migrants from Lalami's native Morocco to Spain.
Laila's a wonderful work -- I recommended Hope to many friends, and none were disappointed. And it looks like Secret Son is just as compelling, and insightful. Below is the book trailer.
If there are any good news items coming out of the GM meltdown and bankruptcy filing, it could be that GM-owned Saturn, recently touted as likely to close, will survive. We bought a Saturn the second year, I think, that they were available, and were very pleased with the car (we finally traded it in for a Ford Windstar, with less success, though we still have it).
Roger Penske's Penske Automotive Group Inc. is in line to buy the Saturn brand, which strikes me as a deal with a lot of upside. Both have solid reputations and are known brands, and this could be the kind of deal that ten years from now will look like a stroke of opportunistic genius.
Dave's book and my Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West came out around the same time, and we've done readings and appeared in panels together. He also, coincidentally, is married to Annie Wells, a wonderful photographer with whom I worked at the late Rochester Times-Union in the mid-1980s.
Dave's award, combined with the recent Bancroft Prize to Thomas Andrews for Killing for Coal, a look at the Ludlow through the prism of environmental history, is beginning to bring more attention to the Ludlow Massacre and the Colorado coal war that spawned it -- more than 75 killed in seven months, with the striking coal miners and their supporters controlling 275 miles of the Front Range until President Wilson sent in the U.S. Army as a peacekeeping force.
I still think the story would make a wonderful movie. So far, I've had a few nibbles but nothing has panned out, unfortunately. Keep your fingers crossed.
So on one of the legs of my trip home from New York City yesterday, I wound up sitting next to a senior journalism student at Northeastern, in Boston. She was taking a gallows-humor approach to landing in this job market (she will graduate in December) and I was taking a gallows-humor approach to trying to stay alive in the business.
There has been so much windy commentary about the future of journalism that there's little I can add, other than to note that I think we're beginning to see the first bits of clarity, and it comes in the form of dedicated online news outlets, often foundation-funded. There are inherent problems with that model, from the potential of the ubers to twist coverage to the questionable sustainability of running such an enterprise off grants.
But frankly, it's little different from corporate-owned media and the sometimes unsubtle influences over coverage areas (witness all the fashion and style coverage targeting upscale readers). And Lord knows there's nothing stable about the current business model-in-ashes.
So take a look at sites like Kaiser Health News, the politics-focused Politico (a for-profit site) and the invetigative Pro Publica. What do they have in common? They focus on specific subjects, like newspaper sections, or beats, spun off into their own little worlds.
If I was a betting man -- well, I am, but damned if I ever win anything -- I'd put money on these kinds of models as paving the way to the future. As our news-consuming habits continue to fragment, we tend to go to sites that tell us about things we want to know about -- either by subject or by geography, like Voice of San Diego, leaving the general-interest tradition of newspapers behind.
I think readers wind up with a shallower engagement with the world that way, but trying to stop it is like trying to stop the tide. Much more sensible to figure out how to make it more flexible with targeted cross-linking, etc. But I rue a news-consumption approach that leads Americans to focus more inwardly at a time when we need to be more engaged with the world around us.
Now excuse me while I step down from the soap box ...
A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.
After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.
An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.
I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.