Some of my
journalism

Quite the World, Isn't It?


On the most significant political poll question

December 30, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

Like a lot of people, I've been watching the unfolding fight for the Republican presidential nomination with a sense of fascination. I'm not going to get into a back-and-forth about the merits/non-merits of the individual candidates, but it is remarkable to see how unsettled the Republican electorate remains in Iowa. (For political junkies, I recommend this site, Real Clear Politics, which does a great job of tracking the myriad polls.)

Most of the coverage of the recent polling is on who's leading, the classic horse-race approach. But to me the significant aspect is how little voters are connecting with any of the candidates only four days before the caucuses. The most recent NBC News/Marist Poll finds only two of five likely Republican caucus-goers "strongly support" the candidate they tell pollsters they are currently backing. Another two of five said they "somewhat support" the candidate, and one in five said they might vote differently than for the candidate they had just told pollsters they were supporting.

And that's just among those expressed a preference. More broadly, 12 percent of those who said they were likely to attend the caucuses next week said they were still undecided.

That's a lot of turmoil, especially when you look at the spaghetti bowl of a chart above tracking the field in polls over the past few months.

Meanwhile, President Obama's approval rating is below his disapproval rating in most polls, though neither number is above 50 percent. That makes him vulnerable, obviously, though the general election is a long way away, and Obama has largely sat in the sidelines while the Republicans have beat him up with their rhetoric. It will be a whole different environment come next September, when the general campaign kicks into high gear.

What a spectator sport.


The year ahead: Plan, or live?

December 29, 2011

Tags: personal

California, here we come, December 30, 1996.
Fifteen years ago today Margaret and I, with two young sons in tow, were in the final stages of a life-changing move. After nearly 18 months of walking a picket line (among other things) during the Detroit Newspaper strike, I took a reporting job with the Los Angeles Times, watched as the movers packed up our things, and after spending Christmas with Margaret's family in Rochester, New York, flew to Southern California on December 30, 1996.

It was a leap of faith in many ways. Margaret had been to San Francisco once, but otherwise hadn't been any farther West than Nebraska. I'd had a few more forays but, except for the job interview, had only spent a couple of days in Los Angeles, and that was to cover the 1987 visit by Pope John Paul II, so really had no idea what the place was about.

My job with the Times lasted three more years (though I still freelance for them) than did my nine-year job with The Detroit News, and at 15 years, I've lived here in Irvine longer than any other place in my life. Maybe it's a function of the way we landed here, amid tumult and uncertainty, but at a deep level it still feels temporary.

Or maybe it's a function of the seasons. And I don't mean that old Easterner's lament about missing the changing colors of fall, the first snowflakes of winter, that musty smell of warmth carried on the first warm winds of spring. It has more to do with how someone whose formative years were spent in the Northeast marks time.

Memories tend to cleave along the fractures of the year. Events back East didn't happen two Februaries ago, but two winters ago. Or five summers ago. Here, in a place where the seasons are marked by the length of the day, and the relatively slight ebb and flow of temperatures, time has a sense of standing still. We moved here fifteen winters ago. Or at the start of this endless summer.

So fifteen years feels like a few blips, not the span of our younger son's cognizant lifetime. What has happened through all those changeless seasons? A lot of journalism. Some book writing. A little parenting here and there, and some time off on our own with Margaret. And significantly over the last three years of freelancing and book writing, I've found I've been doing less planning, which I've also found has meant less stress.

Love, work, and play - quite the trifecta. As John Lennon once sang, life is what happens while making other plans. So in the year ahead, plan a little less, live a little more....


On Congress, and the gutting of the Constitution

December 16, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Washington, it seems, is incapable of learning the lesson of unintended consequences.

In June 1940, Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed on a bill that struck them at the time as quite reasonable and prudent given the rise of fascism in Europe and the growing strength of communist movements elsewhere. It was called the Alien Registration Act, or the Smith Act, after U.S. Rep. Howard Smith (D-Va.), who pushed it into law. Much like the current National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which is cruising through Congress and headed to a newly receptive White House, the Smith Act contained a provision that gutted a basic civil right that Americans take for granted.

And that’s the lesson Washington needs to heed.

Analysts from the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, among others, argue that the NDAA, which for the most part authorizes funding for defense programs, also grants the military the right to indefinitely detain anyone anywhere, including U.S. citizens arrested on American soil, if military officials suspect the person is involved in or supporting terrorism.

No judicial review, just arrest and detention until the war on terror is over.

Beyond the problematic issue of using the U.S. military for, in essence, domestic police actions, the NDAA provisions don’t define what constitutes supporting terrorism, or set a threshold for suspicion. Hiding a bomb? Sending some money? Reading a treatise? Stating the opinion that, given U.S. policies over the years, one can understand the emotions behind those seeking to destroy the United States? Would understanding the enemy constitute a show of support?

Who knows? It’s a vague, but sweeping, bit of law, granting an abominable amount of power to the military—and, by extension, to the commander in chief.

One can easily imagine the legal and political fights (more…)


On Amazon, and our base desires

December 13, 2011

Tags: current events, history, bookstores

Last week Amazon infuriated a wide range of people by offering a five percent credit to customers who would use its price-checking phone app in retail stores, but then buy the item at hand online. It didn't apply to books, but it did target the non-book items bookstores rely on to make their margins.

It was an appalling move by Amazon, and I'm happy to see author Richard Russo calling the online giant on it in a New York Times op-ed. The best part of the piece, though, was from author Ann Patchett, who recently opened a bookstore in Nashville:
"I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.”

This is the heart of the issue. The app might be cool technology, but the impulse it serves is one of the things that has been tearing apart our communities, and our country. It is this near-religious embrace of the bargain, the pursuit for the lowest price regardless of the consequences. Believe me, as an underemployed journalist and author, I understand the challenges of family budgets.

But Walmart had already shown us the pernicious impact on entire towns when the residents migrate to cheap over locally sustainable. Amazon is embracing the same outlook: Cater to greed, and damn the social costs. Save a few bucks on buying that cheap import, and ignore the American jobs that disappear as a result.

We need to start looking outside ourselves and individual greed and start examining our personal choices within the framework of our communities. That old revolutionary line by Benjamin Franklin comes to mind: "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." In this case, we hold the economic health of our own communities - and, by extension, of our own families - in our hands. Let's do something constructive with it.


Memo: Holiday Party here at Self-Employed

December 9, 2011

Memo

To: All employees

From: Scott Martelle, aka, “The Boss” at Self-Employed Writer

Re: Holiday office party

Hi, all!

Well, the holidays are staring us in the face, and the Social Committee (thanks, Scott) has been doing its usual bang-up job making plans for the annual Holiday Office Party Extravaganza.

After analyzing the results of a poll of the entire staff, we have settled on the date for the Extravaganza: Friday, Dec. 16. We’ll kick things off about 5 p.m. in the Main Office (Scott’s desk) with a cold beer selected by the Drinks Committee (thanks, Scott). Then as the party warms up we’ll move into the kitchen for a non-catered meal of whatever the Food Committee (thanks, Scott) manages to rustle up.

Music is a must-have at any holiday party, and in keeping with the nature of our business, the Music Committee (thanks, Scott) has put together a playlist of songs by solo artists. We think it’s important to support our fellow self-employed, especially during the holidays, so no music by full bands will be included.

As you all know, it’s a difficult market out there, yet this has still been a successful year. The Book Division (thanks, Scott) released a new book in April, and has another coming out this spring. The Journalism Division (thanks, Scott) sold some 40 articles. Yet revenues have not been what we had hoped, so we decided not to appoint a Decorations Committee (sorry, Scott) this year. But after a couple of beers, you never notice the decorations anyway.

A few other cutbacks worth mentioning. Last year the Transportation Committee (thanks, Scott) lined up taxi service – better safe than sorry! But since this is a home office, the cab wasn’t necessary so we’re not going to retain one this year. Ditto for the carolers, especially after that unfortunate incident last year when one of our employees rudely shut the door in their faces while screaming, “Harmonize with this!” I should note that the employee (yes, it was Scott) was reprimanded, and an entry was made in his personnel file. Let that be a warning to you all. Fortunately, no lawyers were involved so we didn’t need to convene the Legal Committee (thanks anyway, Scott).

And, in a final cost-cutting move, we decided not to include spouses this year (she’s busy that night anyway). We realize that having spouses attend can be a useful disincentive for spur-of-the-moment office “romances,” but ultimately decided it really isn’t necessary.

Finally, it bears repeating some of our basic rules of behavior for the annual Holiday Office Party Extravaganza, drawn up by the Rules Committee (thanks, Scott):

-- The copy machine is to be used for copies of documents, only.

-- Don’t monopolize the conversation.

-- Don’t eat all the cookies yourself.

-- Keep the volume down on the stereo (this means you, Scott)

-- Drink responsibly (ditto).

-- Have fun!

If there are any questions about the plans, or suggestions for improvements, get in touch with Scott. And it’s never too soon to start planning for next year, so if you want to join one of the planning committees, let Scott know.

See you at the party!
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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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