Quite the World, Isn't It?

Death of newspaper reports premature

July 31, 2009

Tags: newspapers, journalism, history

The Columbia Journalism Review has an item today in which writer Ryan Chittum crunches some numbers through his own formula to conclude the death of newspapers was called too early. His methodology is suspect, but his conclusion seems spot on -- yes, readership and advertising in this historic Great Recession are down, but most papers are hanging in there. And most people still get their news from the print editions.

Too often reports on the health of newspapers focuses -- as does Wall Street -- on the most recent quarter or numbers, and the riveting fact has been the declines in readership and revenue. Tribune's problems stem from a whole added layer of debt from Zell's buyout of the company.

But big papers are still big, just not as big. The repercussions are clear -- fewer stories are being covered by fewer people, which is not good for society (under the old saw that an unexamined life is not worth living). But the papers are hanging in there (well, most of them are). And in the next three years or so they will go through yet more transformations.

But they'll still be around. The internet is abuzz with Twitter and Facebook and other social network toys, but the vast majority of people in the country aren't part of that world. Nielsen reports Twitter has only touched 10% of online users, and Facebook reports 120 million people log in each day -- worldwide. That's a big number, but it's hardly the kind of dominance the online buzz would have one conclude.

As students in my classes hear me say often, the LA Times might not sell more than 1 million copies a day any more, but it still sells more than 700,000 copies. That is still a big paper. The severe contraction has taken some severe adjustments, to be sure, and more are likely. No one knows what "stable" is going to look like.

But the dinosaurs aren't dead yet.

Former photo colleagues fending for themselves

July 30, 2009

Tags: journalism, newspapers

The meltdown in the newspaper industry has left thousands of highly skilled journalists -- ahem, including someone we all know and love* -- out on the street. And there just aren't that many jobs out there for seasoned journalists -- most of the scant openings are for the young and inexperienced (and the gigs pay accordingly) with tech skills that editors presume veterans don't have and can't get. They're wrong, but c'est la vie.

Now some unemployed photographers, mostly from the Los Angeles Times, have decided to jump in together and through former colleague Matt Randall have created a web site to showcase their work and troll for freelance photo assignments. It's a great idea, and I wish them tons of success.

In fact, it's such a great idea you can look for a similar effort from a couple of dozen of us former LA Times (non-photo) staffers to launch in the next week or so.

ADDED: *Slipped right by me, but it was a year ago Tuesday that I got my layoff notice from the Los Angeles Times. Oddly, I remembered the anniversary of the start of the Detroit newspaper striike July 13, but forgot this one. My, how time flies, and personal worlds change... ...

This just sounds like they had an awful lot of fun

July 28, 2009

Tags: journalism, history

The new August issue of Orange Coast magazine has a small piece by me on the old Crystal Cove Yacht Club, which had no yachts or even a dock, and in which everyone was a life commodore.

The club had more to do with partying on the beach, frankly, than boating, and in talking with folks involved in it they sure seem to have had a blast over the years.

Crystal Cove, for folks outside of Southern California, is a decades-old beach community in Orange County, among the last of the old enclaves of huts and shanties that used to dot the coast. Now part of the Crystal Cove State Park, the cottages are being renovated and rented out to members of the public by a first-of-the-month reservations system.

It really is a great spot.

Oops -- military flack seems to admit abuses at Gitmo

July 27, 2009

Tags: journalism, politics, media

The Washington Post had a piece over the weekend about a male Navy flack dealing with Guantanamo Bay complaining to the Miami Herald that its female reporter covering Gitmo had subjected him to sexual harassment through rude comments.

Sexual harassment, like racial harassment, sometimes lies in the eyes of the victim, so I'm willing to give the flack room to make his case. But buried in the Post story is this quote from the flack, Commander Jeffrey Gordon:

"Her behavior has been so atrocious over the years," Gordon said in an interview. "I've been abused worse than the detainees have been abused."

"Worse than the detainess have been abused." That rings like a hell of an admission by a military spokesman that the military ha been abusing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Barreling through the mine field

July 24, 2009

Tags: journalism, politics, media

UPDATE: The ,a href="http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jqwi0TSVtxC458-6AKpUuaTpH5FgD99N2MB00""target=_blank">911 tapes indicate the neighbor who called might not have been a neighbor, just a passerby ho had been hailed by another woman, and that she didn't delve into the race of the men at the door until pressed. The more we know, the murkier it gets.

The Henry Louis Gates, Jr.-Cambridge PD showdown caught my eye when it first cropped up -- Facebook friends might remember I posted it there -- and I planned to just ignore it afterward. But that's proven impossible, since you can't escape it. And that echo effect is what has been preying on my mind.

The back story: Gates returned to his rented home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He was with a male friend -- both of them black. He had trouble entering his own front door, so used his shoulder to force it, an action that caught the eye of a neighbor (I think she was white based on scene photo when this first broke that I can't find now). She phoned police, reporting a possible break-in.

The first cop to arrive, Sgt. James Crowley, spotted Gates -- whom he didn't know -- standing in the foyer. He identified himself through the front door, said he was investigating a possible break in and asked Gates to step outside. Gates opened the door and said, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" The discussion deteriorated from there, all of it inside the house (Gates during the encounter eventually provided the cop with ID). Crowley's version of events are in the police report, available in several places on the Internet, including here.

Context is key. I won't pretend to know what it is like to go through life as a black man in America, but the hurdles, prejudices and lifelong encounters are pretty clear. Like all of us, Gates responded to the situation framed by his personal experience and expectations. As, one presumes, did Crowley, augmented by professional training. It seems to me as though he was doing his job fine until this point -- responding to a call, ascertaining whether there was indeed a crime being committed.

Where he stumbled was when, with Gates yelling, he asked the professor to step outside (ostensibly because Crowley couldn't hear his radio in the loud confines of the house). Once outside he told Gates, in essence, to pipe down. And when Gates didn't, he arrested him for creating a public nuisance. Gates wasn't creating a public nuisance until he obeyed the officer's request to step outside. Inside his own home, Gates was committing no public nuisance -- unless his voice really resonates (the charge eventually was dropped).

I won't go into all the political fallout from this -- it's been as much a distraction as whether Miss California hates gays -- including President Obama's decision a couple of hours ago to skin back his defense of Gates (or at least the words he used). But it's frustrating to see it soaking up so much of our attention -- driven in part by asinine media questions. I am dismayed that this caught fire after a reporter raised the issue during a press conference about health care -- why can't my fellow journos stick to a topic, rather than light a political fire that does not need lighting?

Missed in all of this is who exactly may have been guilty of racial profiling. My nominee: The woman who didn't recognize her own neighbor and mistook him for a burglar. Gates over-reacted, the cop appears to have entrapped him (asking him to step outside where his bellowing could be a crime) and now the news cycle is dominated not by efforts to fix a health care system that is helping bankrupt the country, or even over the scope of racial profiling in America, but over whether the president dissed a cop.


Trying to have it both ways

July 23, 2009

Tags: journalism, writing

I missed this when it cropped up last week, but a judge in San Francisco has upheld that a freelance student journalist working a story without an outlet for it is still covered by California's Shield Law. Under the ruling, the reporter is not required to share notes and film with police investigating a murder witnessed in the course of covering a story.

Good decision, that, though I know folks less enamored with journalists and the work we do won't see it that way. But if people perceive that whatever they tell a reporter is tantamount to telling the cops, reporters will find it much harder to report stories involving crimes. And while witnessing a murder is an extreme case, the Shield Law also precludes prosecutors and police from going on fishing expeditions of journalists' notes from street demonstrations, political events and other less incendiary junctures of civic engagement and improper acts by law enforcement. It' a good law.

And this is where I'd tell you the student's name -- but I can't, because the court has sealed that part of the record and, at the request of his lawyer, the San Francisco Chronicle isn't publishing it. It's unclear from the bits I've seen, but the journalist apparently fears retaliation from people involved in the murder.

The fear is understandable, but the argument to keep private the name of the journalist is not. Instead of acceding to the student's lawyer's request for anonymity, the Chron should be fighting the court decision to seal the name. This is an open court proceeding involving a case of significant public interest -- the rights of journalists -- and all aspects of it should be completely open.

The student journalist can't have it both ways. Sometimes doing our work gets us into dangerous situations. But the principles of free speech and openness are our lifeblood. We can't fight for public access to the courts on the one hand, and hide ourselves on the other. Imagine how this story would be playing out if the witness in this case wasn't a journalist -- would the Bay Area media be granting him or her anonymity during court appearances?

Something fishy

July 22, 2009

Tags: personal

My younger son, Andrew, and I have been talking about riding out to sea on one of the Newport Beach fishing charters for some time now. Whenever we thought we could squeeze it in, something else would come up -- or the daily fish counts would show nobody was catching anything.

But the barracuda are biting just now off the Southern California coast, so we finally got out yesterday afternoon on a half-day charter from Davey's Locker -- not a faith-inspiring namegoogle for a charter boat company, but what the hell, they stock life jackets.

You look for omens on days like this, and I found one -- an open parking space on the street, no meter, two blocks from the dock. And the guy at the counter signing us in -- and collecting our cash -- said the morning boat had taken about 100 barracuda. These are fun fish to catch -- they have to be at least 28 inches to keep, and they put up a good fight.

So Andrew and I loaded onto the boat, which was half-full for the trip. That's a good thing. Full boats are usually an exercise in tangled lines. The captain spent more than an hour chugging northward to a spot near Huntington Beach where several other boats were anchored and busily catching fish. A crewman dropped the anchor, we baited up our hooks, and the fishing was on.

But the fish weren't, at least not for us. Andrew had a near miss -- he felt a tug and yanked to set the hook but nothing, When he reeled in his he found were razor sharp teeth marks near the bait's tail.

Others had better luck. A couple from Las Vegas next to us caught two and didn't relish the idea of driving across the desert with them that night, so they gave them to us. And a regular who caught eight -- eight! -- had four he was giving away, so we grabbed those.

So we wound up with fish, a good time on the sea -- saw a couple schools of dolphin and a jellyfish floated by -- and reason to try again in a coupel of weeks if we can swing it.

A father, a Secret Son and roots of extremism

July 19, 2009

Tags: literature, culture, politics

I'm about half a lifetime behind on my reading, it seems, due primarily to working on The Fear Within, which has me digging into old newspapers and reportage, trial transcripts and memoirs of Communists and anti-Communists, plus doing the freelance stuff (among other time-consumers). So my time for personal reading is pretty narrow.

Which is why I'm so late to the game in writing about my friend Laila Lalami's novel, Secret Son,, which tells the story of Youssef El Meki, raised in a Casablanca slum not knowing that his mother has lied to the world about being widowed. Youssef does indeed have a living father, and how that discovery is made and its impact on Youssef's life propels the book. The key undercurrent: An exploration of how young Muslims can become radicalized.

This is a strong book. Not as good, I don't think, as her collection Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits, which I thought was a remarkable debut. To my eye, Secret Son lacks the scope of the short stories in Hope, a function no doubt of focusing on one main story line as opposed to the intertwined lives of the characters in Hope. But it's still a good read. I recommend you grab both books and read them in succession.

And then wait impatiently for Lalami's third book, whatever and whenever that may be.

Secret Son has been widely, and generally quite positively, reviewed and the New York Times posted the first chapter as kind of a quick peak. Saves you time in the aisle of your favorite (and hopefully independent) bookstore.

Of railroads, the rich, and roses

July 16, 2009

Tags: history, culture

Margaret and I met a friend for lunch in Eagle Rock yesterday to sign a copy of Blood Passion as a gift, then swung by the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino for, I'm embarrassed to say, the first time since moving to Southern California more than 12 years ago.

It's a spectacular place, with some 14,000 varieties of plants spread out judiciously over 120 acres. My favorite sections were the Chinese and Japanese gardens, particularly the bonsai. I am not known as a patient person, and the amount of patience bonsai requires -- well, I'd have it snipped down to the roots before it had a chance to grow.

The gardens were established by Henry Huntington, the rail magnate, whose story is woven into Frances Dinkelspiel's bio of Isaias Hellman, Towers of Gold. Visits to these sorts of museums to the excesses of wealth always leave me of two minds. You can't help but admire the architecture, the design of the landscaping, the shear scope of the ambition. But you also can's separate out that he built all this with profits that grew from the labor of others, from those who built and operated his inter-urban rail lines to the working class that paid the fares to use it.

Such places, for all their devotion to arts, culture and, in this case, horticulture, are also monuments to our national infatuation with the amassing of wealth -- the true religion of America.

Me and my fellow unemployed - more of us than you think

July 15, 2009

Tags: economy

Interesting step-back analysis piece by David Leonhardt on the cover of the New York Times today (and online here).

While the official unemployment rate in California is around 11%, the real proportion of workers who can't find full-time jobs is more like 20%. Yes, that's one in five workers off the job or working part-time, giving California the third-highest rate behind Oregon (23%) and Michigan (22%). The interactive map is here.

As Leonhardt points out, those numbers only reflect folks who have been looking for work. In places like Detroit, Buffalo and other economically smacked urban centers, the percentage of work-age people without jobs is much higher.

"The Great Recession," Leonhardt calls it. Seems about right.

So, where'd they all go?

July 14, 2009

Tags: journalism, newspapers

Well, as long as we're getting all nostalgic about loss of income, family stresses, careers under threat and the occasional bruise and run-in with pepper gas (see posting below), I thought it might be useful to give a sense of where some of the Detroit striking journalists went.

I've wrestled with the concept of measuring a void, which of course is damn near impossible. How can one quantify what isn't there? I look at current coverage of the California budget crisis by a capital press corps that is a shadow of what it was three years ago. Given the breadth of the crisis, there is much in the way of enterprise reporting that is not even being conceived. How does that lack of outside spotlight affect our democracy? Darkness has never been good for the public welfare.

There really is no way to measure the impact of the Detroit newspaper strike on journalism in Detroit, except to note that about half of the striking Newspaper Guild members crossed the line and returned to work, and scores more -- such as recent Pulitzer winner Jim Schaefer, music and pop culture writer Sue Whitall and investigative reporter Norm Sinclair -- went back in good graces as the strike ended. So some of the institutional memory and reporting chops of veterans were there.

Others left, myself included. I wound up at the Los Angeles Times until this past fall, and had a good run of interesting stories and assignments (and, as with every career, some dogs). Now I'm in a hybrid role of freelance journalism, writing history books and teaching journalism at Chapman University and a nonfiction storytelling workshop at UC Irvine (both part-time).

I'm not sure what my individual departure meant for journalism in Detroit -- some might argue it improved things. But I tried to focus there on the stories others weren't telling, the narratives that helped explain Detroit to itself.

I think other departures were probably more significant. These are focused on former Detroit News writers, because they are the ones I know best. Allan Lengel, who went on to the Washington Post and now runs his Tickle the Wire site watching federal law-enforcement, was wired in with the feds in Detroit and broke many stories. Bob Ourlian, now with the Tribune's DC office, did great journalism in Detroit on development issues, among other things. Philip Kennicott has become an influential culture critic at the Post and now a blogger, as well -- after being a Pulitzer finalist in editorial writing in St. Louis. Paula Yoo went to People magazine for awhile but now writes children's books and young-adult novels. (*I was reminded, watching a couple of old West Wing episodes tonight that Paula also was a scriptwriter there and for a few other TV shows). Robin Mather Jenkins worked at Cooking Light and then the Chicago Tribune before getting laid off recently, and now is starting a freelance career.

Janet Wilson, Reed Johnson and Marla Dickerson all wound up out here at the LA Times, as well, though Janet has since been laid off, too.

It's a long list of ex-patriates and there is no way of knowing what was lost by the departures, beyond the financial stability of a few bars. But we, and Detroit, are different because of it.

Feel free to add "where are they now" [*former strikers only, please] updates in the comments section ....


Happy anniversary, Detroit newspaper strike

July 13, 2009

Tags: newspapers, journalism, history

Fourteen years ago today the union I belonged to, Newspaper Guild Local 22, walked out on strike at The Detroit News in response to the paper unilaterally imposing work conditions after it declared contract talks at an impasse. In reality, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, owners of The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, had been laying plans to drive the unions out of their businesses for many months.

Most of the media coverage at the time focused on a list of contract points that were in dispute, but in reality the strike was about the survival of the six unions representing workers there, from the Teamsters covering the truck drivers to the GCIU handling folks in the back shop.

It was a long and nasty affair, with occasional flashes of violence. You can see some wonderful photography by fellow strikers Daymon Hartley and George Waldman on their web sites (and George sells copies of his book, Voices From the Strike, though his).

I often get asked at speaking engagements whether my involvement in the strike radicalized me, and I have to say no. But it did energize me. Before the strike I had a long and deep interest in progressive history, and labor history, something i trace back to reading John Dos Passos' USA trilogy, which first exposed me to those slices of America's past. And I believed in unions as a mechanism for workers to unite their voices to work for their common good -- same as businesses working together through chambers of commerce and other organizations to amplify their voices.

But before the strike I personally was an indifferent union member, never active, attending only informational meetings about contract negotiations, etc. My take at that point was that, as a journalist, I shouldn't belong to any organization, including a union (I made an exception for the Dearborn Rovers, my soccer team). But as the machinations made a strike, or union capitulation, the only two options, I changed my view. One could, I decided, be an objective, conscientious journalist and still work with fellow journalists for our common interests.

As timing had it, I was on vacation in Rochester, New York, with my wife and sons when my unit of the Guild walked out rather than accept the imposed working conditions in what we believed to be an illegal act by Gannett management. When we returned to Detroit a week later I became active in the strike, walking the picket lines and getting my share of bumps, jostles, pepper spray and, on one occasion, a scab trying to run me down with his car (I managed to hop and roll over the hood/fender -- shades of the running of the bulls). After 18 months, and after deciding that even if we won a contract I couldn't in good conscience work for that management again, I left to join the Los Angeles Times as a staff writer.

Oddly, nine months later, while living in Irvine, I received letter from The Detroit News telling me I had been fired for picket line behavior. Odd timing, that. It turns out they were firing all the activists they could, fearing a series of legal decisions that had gone against them would mean they'd have to take us all back (ultimately the unions lost the legal fight, no real surprise given how the deck is stacked against labor).

Some six years after the strike began, after hundreds of lives were radically altered, some for the better, most for the worst, the unions finally won new contracts. They were watered down, and included provisions for an open shop to replace the closed shop that existed before. But they were contracts nonetheless. The papers never did recover, and to this day are viewed with suspicion and skepticism among many of Detroit's fervent union supporters. In the end, I see the strike as a draw.

Ultimately, though, for journalists it turned out to be a test. Of the six unions involved, five held firm. But about half of the Newspaper Guild members -- my fellow journalists -- crossed their own picket lines and went back to work. On an individual level it was a trial of character: Do you live up to your commitment to stand together, or do you cut and run for personal gain? The truck drivers, press workers, layout folks, etc., almost to a person stuck to their commitment. My usually idealistic fellow journalists, not so much.

For those of us who stayed firm, it was an invigorating experience. As professionally detached journalists we don't often get a chance to act on our beliefs. So it was good to be engaged, as painful and life-disrupting as it was. Some marriages crumbled under it; others were forged. Mine grew stronger.

So that's another little slice of history. Fascinating to me because it's mine, and I hope at least passing interest to you. Our of these small moments lives, and countries, are made.

On bacon and beer -- no, really

July 11, 2009

Tags: food, family, travel

One of my must-stops in San Francisco is the San Francisco Brewing Co., which I first visited back in the late 1980s while in the city doing some advance stories for Pope John Paul II's United States tour. Margaret was able to join me for that trip -- pre-kids -- and it was our introduction to a city that has become one of our favorites.
So last week, after hitting the San Francisco Zoo, we stopped in North Beach for a late lunch at the SF Brewing Co. (which was included in my recent travel piece on the brew coast). Like most brewpubs, the place has an erasable board where it tells customers which of its arsenal of brews are available on any given day.

The new beer for last week: Bacon Beer.

I figured, what the hell and ordered a pint. It wasn't bad. Brewmaster Brandon Crain stopped by our table and we chatted about the beer for a bit. We agreed it was fun but, as Crain called it, a "one pint beer." He brewed it by using crumbled bacon as the dry hops -- a technique Crain played with after tasting a bacon martini at another San Francisco bar. The martini didn't work -- the flavors would be impossible to mesh, I would think. But it got him thinking.

The best part of the beer was the jokes -- "A pint of pig, please." As we were finishing lunch two regulars came in and ordered a couple of pints -- one of them saying it made him want to order a side of ham and eggs.

Blood Passion gets an airing in San Francisco

July 11, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing

Sorry, a little slow to post this -- hard to juggle online responsibilities from the road. But the reading Wednesday at San Francisco's Modern Times Bookstore went very well. Some 25 to 30 people stopped in, and my part of it went for more than an hour, with lots of great questions from the audience. (Thanks to organizer Steve Zeltzer for the photo).

One theme that has come up since the book was published came up again: Whether there are plans for a movie. So far we've had a few inquiries but nothing has materialized, which is disappointing.

The Ludlow Massacre was part of the nation's most violent showdown between workers and their bosses. More than 75 people were killed in what became open insurrection by coal miners and their supporters, who routed the Colorado National Guard and controlled more than 200 miles of the Front Range before the U.S. Army moved in as peacekeepers. The story draws in everyone from the Rockefellers to Mother Jones to President Wilson. Some of the players involved here went on to play roles in the events behind John Sayles' movie, "Matewan." I think Ludlow and the coal war would make a great action/historical film. With luck, some day (the rights are still available, as they say in Hollywood).

Meantime, there were also a few questions about the current book project, which was nice to hear.

One of the highlights was the bookstore itself. It opened in the mid-70s as a co-op and though it's a tough model in a tough business, they're still making it work. Shows you what passion and dedication can do.

The talk, as I've posted before, was part of San Francisco's annual Laborfest, focused this summer on the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco general strike. The strike, like Ludlow, was a small moment against the backdrop of the sweep of American history -- but still important to learn and teach about. I hope you're able to take in some of the other planned events.

Collision causes inter-galactic Sig Alert

July 10, 2009

Tags: science, nature

I love this stuff -- from Wired, a bit on four galaxies discovered colliding deep in space.

Of fish, farms, elusive water and pricey tomatoes

July 8, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

We're in San Francisco for a few days to give a book talk and signing copies tonight of Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West at the Modern Times Bookstore (and working on a travel piece). On the drive up the 5 -- Interstate 5 for you Easterners -- Margaret and I saw thousands of acres of usually green farmland sitting fallow and marked by hard-to-miss signs.

This is a regional issue pitting the Central Valley farmers against those who want to preserve endangered aquatic species such as the delta smelt in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins. But the regional issue taps into broader national debates over the balance between nature and human development, and it falls within that long arc of human settlement and the myth of the West as the redoubt of rugged individuals taming the land.

The Central Valley is, in essence, a desert. It is also the nation's agricultural heart, due mainly to the federal government's harnessing and diversion of water. Now, with recent years' winter snows and rains in the West running about half of the usual pace, the fight over water is getting close to the "have/have not divide." With a court ruling curtailing the water flow to farmers in favor of preserving natural habitats, the friction point has been hit. Farmers aren't planting crops they can't water and raise, and thus aren't hiring the already obscenely low-paid farm workers to work the crops. The yellow signs, obviously part of a coordinated campaign, seek to link the present with the era of the Okies, and the Dust Bowl that sent them heading West.

The problem is the Dust Bowl arouse in large part from bad agricultural practices based on greed, which ultimately led to the regional agricultural collapse (catalyzed by drought). The difference between then and now is that California's growers rely on water that doesn't exist locally. The diversion of water has allowed the agri-businesses to flourish, much to the benefit of the nation. But now we're seeing the downside of basing such a crucial component of human development -- ready access to food supplies -- in such a tenuous environment.

And that is one of the reasons tomatoes, now in season here, are running $3 a pound at the chin grocery stores. Call it the trickle down of the drought, and of overdevelopment of terrain that can't support it. And get used to it. Water fights are the future.

Tuesday will be a good day NOT to be in LA

July 5, 2009

Tags: media, celebrity, music

As the lunacy surrounding Michael Jackson's death and wake intensify, I'm increasingly happy I'll be in San Francisco this coming week (giving a talk and signing copies of Blood Passion Wednesday night). Jackson's family has agreed to a memorial program at Staples Center Tuesday night, which seems reasonable.

But 1.6 million people apparently registered for the lottery to win one of 8,750 pair of tickets. For the rest, not to worry -- nearly all the major television networks and a bunch of cable channels will be airing the event live. Katie Couric, the CBS News anchor, will be on hand for that network, which as of a little bit ago was the only major network not planning live coverage.

Give it time.

Live prime time coverage of a funeral for a pop star? At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly... oh, never mind. I'll be in San Francisco, hopefully at a baseball game that night. You have your entertainment diversions, I have mine ...

We hold these truths to be self-evident...

July 4, 2009

Tags: history, civil rights, culture, justice

The other day a neighborhood realtor walked our street planting little plastic American flags in the lawns, something she does every year in advance of the Fourth of July. And the other day I pulled out the one she left at our house, as I do every year. There's just something off-putting about such a blatant merger of PR and patriotism, And as my son Michael joked at the time, nothing says "Independence Day" like a forced display of patriotism.

I'm deep into the writing of The Fear Within, which regular readers of this blog know is my narrative retelling of the 1949 trial of the leaders of the American Communist Party, a trial that helped usher in the McCarthy Era. So I've been thinking a lot lately about the promise of America, and the reality of America. And no, this is not some anti-patriotic rant. This is a great country, but that greatness does not mean it can't -- and shouldn't -- be improved. But to do so, we need to step beyond our societal predisposition to embrace myth and engage honestly with our history.

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting, albeit short, op-ed piece today by Peter de Bolla, author of The Fourth of July and the Founding of America, which delves into the popular and cultural misperceptions surrounding the Declaration of Independence, including how July 4 came to be the celebrated day.

Of course, our little "experiment in democracy" is built on the U.S. Constitution, which didn't come into being until more than a decade after the Declaration, and five years after the Treaty of Paris that ceded the colonies to the colonists (we'll leave the whole Native American issue for another time). Within that arc, the Declaration was the act of treason (from the British perspective) that cemented the rebellion. It established nothing -- other than a spirit and a sense of promise, and a defining sense of national identity. It can still stir, centuries later:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Powerful stuff, that.

Countless others have pointed out that the Constitution didn't quite deliver on the ambitions of the Declaration, Most notably, women and blacks were not included in the "men created equal" concept. Those have since been redressed, legally if not culturally, but other civil rights remain bound up. Gay marriage, for instance. In the 1967 Loving case striking down anti-miscegenation laws, marriage was held to be "one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival."
"To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."
Yet here we are, infringing away (on the basis of gender rather than race), state after state.

And we still, in times of stress, tend to flout the basic civil rights that lie at the heart of the nation's founding. The post 9/11 USA Patriot Act, which gives the government indefensible access to our homes and personal records, is only the most recent, and joins a long line of repressive governmental acts, from the Palmer Raids and the first Red Scare to the Japanese-American internments to the second Red Scare to the FBI and local police infiltrations of various civil rights, peace and anti-nuclear organizations.

So I guess today is a good time to sit back and think about what we are as a nation, how we can become better as a society, and what we can do here in our national adulthood to fulfill a little more of that promise from our youth.

Happy birthday, everyone.

Past as present: Hemingway on his newspaper years

July 3, 2009

Tags: writing, books, fiction

I love these little slices of history when they crop up -- in this case in the form of an obituary from the Toronto Star (thanks to Mark Sarvas' The Elegant Variation for the initial link). It seems Lloyd Lockhart, a Canadian reporter with the claim of being the last to interview Ernest Hemingway, has died.

It wasn't much of an interview -- more like tea and chat. And that only after Hemingway spotted Lockhart's wife waiting behind him at the door before he kicked the reporter off his property. This was near Havana during the last days of the Fulgencio Batista regime (Fidel Castro was still leading his band of rebels in the hills).

Hemingway worked for the Toronto Star in the 1920s, and Lockhart, then a Star reporter, had thought that might give him an in with the reclusive Nobel Prize-winning writer. It didn't -- Hemingway had a rather low opinion of his former bosses.
"He complained that the paper blew hot and cold on its newsroom people, that you were a king one day and a dog the next. He told me he had made friends there, had some interesting times but it still rankled him how the Star ebbed and flowed around (long-time editor) Harry Hindmarsh Sr."
Sounds like every newsroom I ever worked in...

Preserving independence and the paper it's written on

July 3, 2009

Tags: history

As we head into the three-day orgy of grilled meat, light explosives and, at least here in Southern California, beautiful summer sunshine, there's a nice little bit in Wired on the steps that have been taken to preserve the parchment on which the Declaration of Independence was written.

Argon, apparently, is the solution to aging.

U2, Barcelona and some shrewd web marketing

July 2, 2009

Tags: media, celebrity, music

A Facebook friend posted this U2 video embedded below, built around the start of their world tour earlier this week in Barcelona. It's an interesting ten minutes, watching the gig come together and getting a sense of the sheer size of the Nou Camp arena, where FC Barcelona plays soccer. The stadium holds 98,000 people, which makes it a little smaller than the football stadium at the University of Michigan, where I used to do occasional stories on the UM-MSU and UM-Notre Dame rivalries. But it's still pretty damn big. For the concert, some 90,000 seats were available. And it took less than an hour to sell out.

What strikes me about this video, though, is the shrewd way U2 uses it for marketing. The video generates some excitement, gives fans a taste of the stage design, offers some close-up, high-resolution video -- but only snippets of songs, presumably to thwart piracy.

So far, only 7,000 views on YouTube, but expect that to grow quickly.

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About me

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.

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