Sunday, December 26, 2004

Send Lawyers, Guns and Money

Sorry for the cheesy header, but it fits the story, as you'll see.

Daniel Finney is a writer/reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the local daily. Rather, he was; he's had a miserable Christmas season. He's now become the latest poster boy for Internet stupidity. Allow me to tell the tale.

The St. Louis alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times did a short squib a couple of weeks ago (last item; scroll down) about a blog they had found: Rage, Anguish and Bad Craziness in St. Louis. It's since pulled down. You can find a Google-cached page from September here. A search of the Wayback Machine archives turned up nothing. I've saved the page to my hard drive in the event it disappears from Google. You can also have a gander at Finney's Sitemeter info, which is still available. Note his account name: newsmanone.

Seems someone had tipped them to the blog, apparently run by a reporter at the Post-Dispatch who was anonymously spilling all kinds of dirt and bile about himself, his paper and his colleagues. Stuff like this:
News today out of San Francisco, the Chronicle reports that Jason Giambi testified that he, in fact did use steroids between 2001 and 2003.....

I also take steroids. Mine, however, are the new, really good kind. They work in reverse. The more I take, the flabbier my body gets. But my dick is huge. Huge, I tell you. Did I mention huge?

Speaking of dicks, I've been reading the Post-Dispatch's annual 100 Neediest Cases stories. The bottom line is that there are a lot of poor people who need stuff. It is a worthy cause. And, at some level, I feel sorry for these people. But at another level, one in which your friend Crazy Roland is much more in touch with, I must admit that I feel as if a good number of these needy cases could be avoided by a well-placed prophylactic...

Instead of giving these people free stuff, perhaps we ought to be striking the problem where it hurts. We should send the police out across the metro area breaking up bad couplings.

"YOU THERE IN THE RENT-CONTROLLED HOUSING," the officer would shout from his bullhorn. "STEP AWAY FROM THE DICK! THAT'S RIGHT! PUT ... THE ... DICK ... DOWN!


Oh yeah. Days later, a "100 Neediest Cases" story appeared with Daniel Finney's byline.

Of course, a lot of folks saw through the nom de blog -- Roland H. Thompson -- pretty quickly. It seemed a tribute to Warren Zevon's great classic "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." Hence my bad pun header for this post. You can also note that this name contains references to Roland Hedley, Doonesbury's reporter, and to Hunter Thompson, the gonzo journalist of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The following issue, the Riverfront Times ran a follow-up. The Post-Dispatch had identified the blogger as Finney and suspended him. The Times reported:
Several of Finney's colleagues at the Post-Dispatch provided an account of last week's events, on the condition that their names not appear in print.

They say Finney's hard drive was confiscated on Thursday, December 16, the day after the Unreal item was published, and that he was informed of his suspension shortly thereafter.

A 29-year-old native of Des Moines, Iowa, Finney came to the Post in May 2003 after stints at USA Today, the Des Moines Register and the Omaha World-Herald. For the Post's "Everyday" section, Finney specialized in youth and culture, reviewing books, comics and DVD releases, as well as the occasional feature profile. One colleague says Finney's work received mixed reviews in the newsroom. "The features staff -- the brass -- thought he was swell," the source says. "The young people thought he was an idiot."

Others noticed his eccentric habits, including a desk crowded with action figures.
Yeah, hit a guy when he's down -- the classic journalism sideswipe. I recently worked with a woman whose desk was a virtual shrine to her granddaughter: pictures everywhere, cards, Bible and Hallmark quotes that contained her name, things she'd drawn, etc. It was nothing but grandmotherly love, but it would be easy to make it look really creepy, if you chose. Cheap shot, Riverfront Times.

So, anyway, Finney's story got around. You can read press stories, beginning with this Editor & Publisher account, which is spawning most of the national coverage. Romenesko also has it. A site called has two good, short bits with some insightful comments here and here. The second article notes that Finney has now resigned, on Christmas Eve no less! Another journalist who has his own blog, M. G. Tinker's Beyond Deadline, has some good thoughts. (The link is bloggered. Scroll down about halfway to "New Rules.")
Now, this is not a case of someone being fired over political principle or sexual preference or anything like that. No, this was a reporter who did a very bad job of hiding his contempt for his coworkers, employer, subjects and himself. He tried to post anonymously and failed miserably. From the little I’ve read of what he had written, I think the paper would have been on very solid legal and moral ground firing his butt.

So now we come to the subject of journalist bloggers who work for companies, particularly “old media” types like my employer. In fact, Mr. Finney is going to cause quite a lot of folks like me to give pause before writing their next blog entry.

In fact, he’s earned a flogging if for no other reason his case will discourage folks who should be trying out this fun new tool from jumping in....

I’m a front-line grunt for the biggest news organization in town. While I’m just a cog in the machine, what I say and do reflects on my employers and colleagues. And whether I like it or not, that extends to my own little slice of the blogsphere on this page as well. In exchange for doing something I like very much for a living, I give up a little personal freedom.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be goofy, contrary, cranky or irreverent. All those are part of my personality and if you’re not going to put some personality into your blog, then just hang it up. However, I won’t cross into certain subject areas, even though I’m dying to jump into the fray.

Perhaps there are some would-be journalist-bloggers out there who are wondering “How do I do this and not get canned?” Better yet, some of them might even be thinking “How do I blog off the clock ethically.”
He goes on to give some good advice. Read the whole thing.

The local daily, the Commercial Appeal, has a stable of in-house bloggers, but only one employee (that I'm aware of) who also blogs personally. Eric is very self-aware and scrupulous about what he says. The alt-weekly, the Memphis Flyer, only has one employee/blogger that I'm aware of: Chris Davis. His blog is explicitly and vehemently political, but he avoids worktalk, generally.

On the television side, it's more unusual. To my knowledge, only one station has any bloggers at all, and they have a veritable bumper crop! At WMC TV-5, the news director, a marquee reporter, and two videographers (Jason and Ted) all regularly blog about work. They are also all responsible and self-aware. For local news junkies, the WMC news crew are an excellent view into the workings of local news operations: critical, open and willing to talk about mistakes. It would be a shame to see this valuable window closed because of the Finney debacle.

In all these cases, the employers are aware of the blogs. And all the bloggers are aware, in turn, of the precariousness of their situation.

The lesson? Be very, very careful if you blog about your workplace, especially if you use your blog to vent. Same for blogging about your industry. Don't count on anonymity, as you can be outed all kinds of ways. There was a Memphis blogger who was reporting all kinds of behind-the-scenes Memphis media stuff, for a while, counting on blog anonymity. A simple error on the site led some folks to figure out who the blogger was. Panic set in and the blog was closed. Haven't heard a peep from that person since.

Even scrupulously maintained anonymity can be breached. Another blogger used to run SouthTV News, a website of information, updates and some gossip about Southern television markets, including Memphis. A couple of months ago, the anonymous blogger learned that a "media ownership group" was trolling around trying to learn his identity. He had no idea why, but supposed it was because he was reporting behind-the-scenes information. In fear for his career, he shut the site down. After consulting an attorney, he brought it back. Then, suddenly, he took it down for good, for another, unspecified, reason. He wasn't doing anything wrong or unethical or ill-advised, but his anonymity was threatened.

(BTW, I'm happy to fill his shoes, at least for the Memphis market. If you have information from behind the walls of Memphis' newspapers or television news operations, please feel free to send it in. I'll run what I can.)

I don't really have much more to add here, except to say that if you're counting on anonymity to protect you from the repercussions of what you write, don't blog. People talk, they share, you'll be found out sooner or later. The general rule of thumb I've always heard is: Never say anything on your blog you'd be afraid to say face-to-face.

One last interesting note: I did a search of Daniel Finney's name on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch site and found no stories on Finney's blog or his supension and subsequent resignation. It's always amusing to me that newspapers -- which demand transparency, accountability and unrestrained access from their subjects -- become closed forts when the spotlight turns on them. Happens nearly every time. The gentleman's agreement that has dominated newspaper self-reporting is finally crumbling in the Internet age, and that's only a good thing.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Once More, I Cannot Stop Myself

Yeah, yeah.... Not blogging yet, yaddayaddayadda.

As is his wont, James Lileks posted an old magazine ad on his blog recently. The smug little twerp just begging to be popped in the kisser resembled a certain Minnesota sourpuss who has been in the news lately. Wheels began turning, grist was milled, bilious mixtures began to bubble in the cauldron of my mind, flocks of birds took sudden flight, children began to cry for no apparent reason. Here's the result:

Monday, December 06, 2004

How Low Will They Go?

No, I'm not back to blogging. It'll be January 1 at the earliest before I even decide on that. But I saw this front page article in Monday's Commercial Appeal and was so stunned and outraged, I had to comment.

How much do you think any business would pay to have the top half of the front page of the daily newspaper? Invaluable, right? Unheard of, right? Apparently not if you're FedEx/Kinko's!

Under the headline Ship a bull's head? 'Yes, we can,' at FedEx Kinko's: United capabilities put new stores' staffs to the test is an article that reads like a feature rewrite of a press release. It is nothing but a long, pointless advertisement for FedEx/Kinko's. It has no news purpose, no news value, no point! It fits into their new "Business is good. Rah rah, sis-boom-bah!" Business section, but transplanted to the front page, the main news page, it's flabbergasting in extremis:
The corner Kinko's was always a can-do kind of place, abuzz with ink cartridges hitting on all cylinders.

Now, as part of FedEx, the FedEx Kinko's Office and Print Center is a multitasker's dream, a place where you can drop off your problems, get them solved and have the solution shipped.

"Our mantra is: 'Yes, we can,'" said Julie Clark, manager of the region's first new FedEx Kinko's at 6641 Poplar.

"There's no other option. We ship packages, and we solve problems."

When a local taxidermist brought a 65-pound bull's head for shipping, new hire Lauren Howell admits she blinked. Then she started looking for a box.

"With these difficult-to-ship items, people think we won't be able to do it or that it will be a big hassle," she said. "It isn't at all. Sure, we have a box to ship your golf clubs. Sure we can wrap a baseball bat."

Besides being loaded with user-friendly technology, including wi-fi and digital image processing, Kinko's gives FedEx a storefront on Main Street.
Is this what Chris Peck's Commercial Appeal is becoming? I'd expect this from a Shopper's News or the North Shelby Times, but the venerable daily newspaper? The paper of record for Memphis and the Greater MidSouth? (Or the Memphis Omnipolitan MegaGeopolis, or whatever they're calling it.)

It's worse than unconscionable. With everything going on in Memphis, Shelby County, the MidSouth, America and the world, this is top-of-the-front-page news? This is what's most important to know on Monday morning? I wonder if any of FedExKinko's competitors will get an equal-footing opportunity like this? Ya think?

A bad paper keeps getting worse. What's next for the front page? Pictures of kittens? Headlines like Not that many dead: It could be worse? "Your ad could be here?" COUPONS?

You think this paper is hitting bottom, then they bust open the secret tomb and new chambers are revealed.... And it'll be years before we get out from under this crap-pile of tapioca.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Never Mind

Whew! Crisis narrowly averted. I let my emotions and enthusiasm carry me away there, as I so often do. I started making promises and commitments I couldn't possibly keep. I was heading down the same old road of disaster once more.

At least it only took me 12 hours to realise my mistake this time.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Move Along

The blog is closed. No need to keep checking in. Y'all take care.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Sorry to Have Bothered You

[The original post has been restored. An East Tennessee news-blogger had linked to this the morning I posted it, sending throngs of gawkers wanting to stare at the blog burnout. It pissed me off, as the following was intended for regular readers, not the slack-jawed types who slow down to gape with dull, round-eyed wonder. It's been a while now since that happened, so I'm restoring it for those of you who wanted to know what happened to me. Thanks for all your emails.]

I had one of those long dark nights of the soul over the weekend. The upshot of it is that I'm suspending the blog for a while. I don't know for how long. I'm not even sure if I'm quitting, although the temptation is strong to say so. I feel I should tell people this time so you won't keep dropping in wondering what's going on and where I've disappeared to this time.

I was given one of those panoramic views of my self and my life that makes you realise just who you are. One of those clear-eyed, pitiless and unsparing overviews. The word I settled on to describe it all is "disappointing." I am a constant disappointment, great potential always unrealised. Have been my whole life; will be for the rest of it. It was humiliating.

Anyway, my self-appointed task with this blog was to counter the actions of dozens (hundreds!) of folks who daily labor in their jobs in the local media and government. It's a constant for me: my ego demands to make a point and, having barely made it, loses interest. I push up briefly from the grey plain of depression until I tire, then gravity pulls me back down.

I do this blog as a part-time thing, for no money and little recognition (No one has ever hit the tip jar in all the time it's been up there.), for slivers of respect and dollops of disdain. I'm just some guy with a website. I don't know much more than the average Joe or Jane here in Memphis. And yet I'm more than happy to tell paid, credentialed, experienced people how to do their jobs. Who the hell am I to think that? No one, that's who. A loser with too much ego and not enough discipline or ambition to back it up.

I'm tired, bitter. I'm a fraud, a dilettante. I don't have the discipline to do this. I'm once again in way over my depth and humiliating myself. I should've stopped before I started.

I'll leave you alone now.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Update on Tim Blair's Visit

Hi guys. I just got an email from Tim saying that he's running behind but still looking forward to meeting us tonight. I gave him my home phone; he said he'd use it if there's a problem.

So, the plan is to meet for dinner at the BBQ Shop (1700 block of Madison, just west of Cooper) after 6. (6:30-ish or 7? I'm going to shoot for 6:15-6:30.) We'll eat, hang out, wait for Tim. Then, drinks at their bar and much hilarity. If he's not too tired or we're in the mood for moving, we go elsewhere. Mark "Scene" R. suggests Blue Monkey or one of the Zinnie's, so if you arrive later and no one's at the BBQ Shop, try those two.

Tim thanked us all for putting this together. Keep your fingers crossed.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Tim Blair in Memphis

I haven't heard from Tim yet today, so all plans for his visit are still provisional. But as it stands, we'd meet tomorrow (Wednesday) at the BBQ Shop on Madison (1700 block, two blocks west of Cooper) around 6 or 7PM for dinner. Then we'd repair to the bar for a while. Then, decide on which bar or wherever to move on to for the bulk of the evening. Or maybe stay put.

I hope folks can come out. Tim's a very funny guy in print and reports are he's the same in person.

I'm halfway hoping I can talk him into going down to County Hall tomorrow for a gag picture of him being denied entry into the building. Two international incidents in one month!

Please leave a comment if you can come, or with suggestions for which bar would be good on a Wednesday night. Not loud or expensive, nor too young, preferably in the Midtown / Downtown area, as I think that's where he's staying.

More as I learn it.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Failed Pilot Theater

I saw a television show earlier this evening that consisted of failed television pilots. Pilots are the debut shows for potential news series. If networks like the pilots, they order more episodes and run the series. If not, no one, until now, saw them. There are a lot more pilots made in any year than what you see on the air.

Anyway, the failed pilots were fascinating. There was one where Scott Bakula (Captain Archer from Enterprise) is a scientist who does teleportation experiments in a lab room next to a woman scientist doing satellite weapon research. Yup! He accidentally beams into her lab and gets fused with her satellite prototype to become half-man / half-machine. But the fun part was, right before he presses the fateful button, he says, "Beam me up, Scotty." I don't think he's ever said that elsewhere, and I hope some Star Trek fan recorded that.

I once ran across a photo from the pilot for an American adaptation of the British sci-fi show Red Dwarf. Craig Bierko was Lister, Terry Farrell(!) was Cat, Janes Leeves was Holly and some actor I recognise but can't place was Rimmer. I've always wondered how bad it was and they showed a bit of it tonight. It was bad. Cheap effects, bad video. Holly looked like the actress was just standing underneath a box meant to resemble a monitor. Amazingly unfunny dialogue. What was weird, though, was that we didn't see even a mention of Cat or Rimmer. Problem getting clearances (rights to play) from some of the actors? I noticed that in some of the other clips, there were faces that were pixelated out. Oh well.... But now I know just how bad the American Red Dwarf was.

Gene Roddenberry got checked twice. Once with The Questor Tapes (Robert Foxworthy as an android sent to save Earth, with Mike Farrell). But the other was the episode of the original Star Trek, "Operation: Annihilate," that was meant to serve as the sidewise pilot for a show with Robert Lansing and Terri Garr. Gary Seven, anyone? It's a widely repeated rerun, so I don't know how it got on this show.

Speaking of William Shatner, he was in a pilot for a series based on Zenna Henderson's The People stories. Set in the modern day, but concerning a group of "people" who are actually aliens from another planet attempting to blend in on Earth, but in a low-tech, Western-Amish kind of way. Except they have all kinds of psychic powers.

There were a couple of Monty Python related shows. One was Nick Derringer P.I., which starred Kenny Baker (Time Bandits) as a dwarf private investigator. He's like a short James Bond. "Have you ever had a man stand behind you and kiss you in the back of your...knee?"

And Graham Chapman costarred in some show about a 20th century kid sent back to medieval England. Chapman looked pretty funny, but the show was bad.

And they had a few Marvel Comics pilots! One was something I'd heard of but never seen: Generation X, an X-Men spinoff from the Nineties. (Most of these pilots were from the Eighties.) I recognised Emma Frost, Havoc and Jubilee (I think. Dazzler, maybe?). It looked a bit cheaper than Mutant X but at least the characters used their powers! Didn't seem half-bad.

Another was a bizarre take on Daredevil. He was still Matt Murdock, blind attorney, but his uniform was solid black, slightly baggy, and made from some kind of foamy-looking artifical material. The actor was awful and he "played" the character as a blind man. It's hard to explain, but he exaggerated a lot of actions and threw in a lot of strange hesitations. They had one shot where DD is supposedly swinging on a whip across the skyline of Manhattan that was stupendously fake looking.

There were all kinds of terribly unfunny sitcoms and other failed shows. A Marilu Henner sitcom that was astonishingly cheap and shoddy and unfunny. A John Denver show where he's an FBI agent and guitar picker. Some show about a man's child who dies, then is reincarnated as a toy monster robot that sometimes morphs into a thirty foot high monster-truck robot dinosaur that breathes fire and moves in veeeeeeerrrrrrrrryyyyyyyyy ssssssslllllllooooooowwwwwww motion. And some show about a boy and his troll called Fuzzbucket, which is just as howlingly bad as you think.

There was something from the late Eighties / early Nineties (judging by the video, lighting and cinematography) about a female terminator thing. I recognise the actress and she was really, really hot here. Apparently all she does is kick ass and try to have sex. I would've watched that show!

I hope they make another special like this. Isn't there some program on cable somewhere that's similar?
The Petition is Up

The Concerned Citizens of Memphis website is finally working. You can download a PDF copy of the petition file (14K) there. I'm also hosting it on the site. You can get it here. and I'll be leaving a small notification banner across the top of the blog as well.

If you want to see some forward motion on bringing the City's pension scheme down to more manageable levels, get a copy of the petition, take it around your neighborhood and collect signatures, then mail it in. If the City Council won't fix things, then we will.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, scroll down for the post "The Pension Charter Commission." Citizen democracy in action!
Neologism of the Day

Via a typo at Thursday Night Fever (Don't change it, Roboto. You're a trendsetter now.) comes this word:


The trendy fusion of Asian "sensibility" with American "lifestyle."

Sunday, August 15, 2004

What a Photo Op That Would Be

John Kerry, call Teresa and tell her to get out the checkbook. The last PT boat made is up for sale:
Businessman Bill Bohmfalk, 47, purchased the PT-728 in 1994. In July 2002, he started taking Florida Keys visitors on island harbor tours that included a simulated torpedo run. He said he hopes to get at least $750,000 for his boat. The starting price was $500,000, and no bids had been placed as of Saturday afternoon.
Ummmmmm...simulated torpedo run.... [/close Homer donut voice]
Tim Blair is coming! Tim Blair is Coming!

Tim Blair is an Australian reporter, media watchdog, political commentator, blogger, raconteur, and auto enthusiast. He's been in America recently covering the Democratic and Republican conventions. While he's waiting for the 'Pubs to gather, he's on a driving tour of the Southwest and South.

According to his website, he'll be in Memphis this Wednesday! No idea where he's staying, but I sent him an email inviting him to dinner at the BBQ Shop on Madison where, it is important to note, they have a bar. Libations are important to Tim. (Yours truly is a teetotaller, so I can be designated driver if anyone has too much fun.) He may have other plans, he may want to go somewhere noisy and gaudy. Who knows yet?

Anyway, I'm hoping to hear back from him, and that he'll hang with the Memphis blog community. Clear your schedules and let me know if you want to meet up with him, if we get the OK. I'll post developments as I learn them.
Give Him Some Love

The author of Memphis Media blog is feeling a bit down today. Head on over there and say hi. Leave some nice words in his comments.

If we're lucky, he'll post more pictures of Carrie McClure! Or maybe Holly Hancock or Bora Kim or....
The Pension Charter Commission

John Lunt, of Concerned Citizens of Memphis (I'm getting time-out errors when I try the link), was a caller today on the Andrew Clarke radio show (WREC AM600; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 3PM). He spoke of the petition signature drive his group is undertaking to get an up or down vote on convening a charter commission on the a ballot November 2nd.

The charter commission would be created to force a change in the City's generous pension scheme, where now anyone with 12 years of service gets a lifetime pension. Conceivably, a person could start work with the City at age 25, work their 12 years, retire at 37 and draw a pension for the rest of their life. That could be up to fifty years! At $1500 a month, that's $18,000 a year and over fifty years would total $900,000! And consider some of the many upper-level City employees whose pensions will be considerably larger than this example. Don't forget, too, that Mayor Herenton has created almost 200 appointed positions in his administration since the pension change in 2001 that qualify for this bounty.

Lunt's group wants to return the pension plan to its old structure. You had to work 15 years to get a pension, and then could only start getting it either at the regular retirement age (55 or 60) or when your age and years of service exceed, if I recall correctly, 70. That's the proper way to do it. The current scheme is nothing more than a second income at City taxpayer's expense.

In our interview earlier this week, City Councillor Carol Chumney talked about her experience bringing a bill that would change the pension plan up for a vote. When she offered up the bill for a second, there was dead silence from the Council chamber. It literally died for lack of a second. She thinks that the threat of a charter commission alone might be enough to get the Council to take action.

I was initially skeptical of the idea of a charter commission. The way it works is this: Citizens must collect and turn in by September 2nd, 10,000 valid signatures. Lunt wants to collect at least 15,000 for safety's sake. If the petition succeeds with the Election Commission, and survives the likely challenges in court, it goes on the ballot.

Voters (in this case, only registered voters who are citizens of the City of Memphis) will either say "yea or nay" on November 2 to the creation of the commission. If approved, then all citizens are free to run for one of the seven positions on the commission.

John Lunt has said that his group will offer up a full slate of non-politicians carefully vetted. But anyone can run and be elected. There will be a second election (I don't know the timeframe on that.) where we vote on the commission members.

Once commissioners are selected, the commission convenes. It is here that I get nervous. The commission has total and unencumbered freedom. They can propose and approve anything they want. Anything. That's a whole lot of power to put into a commission's hands. It's intoxicating, tempting and dangerous. They could do anything.

That's been my worry point. But on the Andrew Clark show today, a gentleman named Larry -- who said he was on the first and only charter commission ever created, in the Seventies -- called in to clear up the matter. (By the way, I was the other caller on the line with him and Andrew. Mike in Midtown.)

All the commission can do is convene themselves and then develop a list of proposed changes. They have no actual power of change themselves. All they do is meet until they vote on a resolution for voters to approve. The commission's final recommendation is put on the next ballot and sent before the voters. Voters would then vote "yea or nay" on the resolution.

In the case of Larry's commission, called to return the new Mayor/Council government to the previous form of City government, the commission met one time and adjourned. They never proposed anything. The commission was stacked 4/3 with people sent there to block them. So, it evaporated without action.

In the case of Lunt's proposed commission, action on anything other than the pension plan is likely to put off enough voters that the motion would fail to pass. Any perception that commission members were being unduly influenced one way or another (assuming the news even reports it) would have the same off-putting effect. If the commission went berserk and started proposing changes willy-nilly, again, the voters would likely be disgusted and fail to pass it. Even if the commission fell into rancor and dischord, it would fail to pass a resolution for the voters.

And then there are the voters. No matter what the result of the charter commission, it must pass muster with the voters.

In other words, there are simply too many checks and stops in the process to warrant undue worry about a rampaging commission playing havoc with the City. It's more likely they'll stop or fall apart or fail to impress voters than it is that they'll remake Memphis.

A professional commissioner campaign with professional, carefully vetted candidates, sworn to only consider the pension issue, could be the outcome. I only worry that the loudest yammerers or the ones with the most money behind them to boost name recognition, or the ones who promise free lunches, will get on the commission, diverting its purpose.

But that kind of commission is most likely to fail, so there you go.

I called Mr. Lunt and offered to host copies of the petition file online for him, and to advertise them on Half-Bakered. He said that John Malmo was working on a professional site (see link above) but it doesn't appear to be working. I told him I could have the petitions online within hours of him emailing a file to me. The idea is to get the petition file where anyone can download and print a copy off, then walk around their neighborhood collecting signatures.

Even if the Malmo site gets running, I'd still be happy to offer my services just to help. Why? I'm a firm believer that every once in a while, elected officials need a strong, shocking reminder of who is in charge. They need to be shaken up and made to fear the public. If we don't keep them a little worried, then you get the "culture of entitlement" (Tom Jones) and the "loyalty of friendship" (AC Wharton) that creates the mess we're now seeing in the Jones / Thorp / Lanier scandal at County Hall.

So, go and download a petition, once I get them from Lunt and get them online. (You can contact Lunt directly at 683-1011.) Get your signatures and turn your petition in. Do it now. Do it for democracy.
More Grammar

Down a few posts below I had some fun with language. I have more questions on a pair of phrases I see used a lot.

Toe the line or Tow the line? Which is correct? Is it the idea that a line was drawn on the ground and all the men must place their toes along it, to create an orderly rank, as in soldiers or in a challenge? To toe the line as in submitting? Or is it that all the men must grab a handful of a towline and pull? To tow the line in the sense of contributing, the expectation of fair share? Or even in the sense of a group action to create movement, or more broadly, change?

I've always understood it to be something like, "You will toe the line or there will be hell to pay!" In other words: do it right, discipline yourselves, I'm the boss.

I've always assumed the other version is just sloppy writing, or misspelling, because even then the sense of usage is almost always still submission.

Free rein or Free reign? I've always assumed it was free rein, like giving the horse his head by letting up on the reins. Free rein is something I do for the horse's benefit. I am the actor. "This is your project, Sally. You have free rein." In other words, I'm still in charge, but I'm giving you wide latitude to act.

Free reign implies that the king or queen is free to do what she wants. But that's always the case with a sovereign. They have absolute rule, even if custom has removed the exercise of many powers and the lesser aristocracy threatens not to support the imperial action. Free reign is swimming. It's not quite a non sequitor, but it's a bafflement. "This is your project, Sally. You have free reign." That's almost contradictory, isn't it?

At least to me. Your thoughts?

While I'm at it, let me also mention that I have a real problem with excess emphasis in my writing. I do it all the time! It's awful!! Make me STOP!! All those bolds, italics and exclamation marks. They litter my writing like Burma Shave signs litter the highway. It's a reflection of my punchy speaking style but in print it just looks amateurish. I try to stomp it out, but constantly find myself wanting to hit certain words and phrases. I go back, reread those posts, and wince. I look like some worked-up high-schooler or an angsty, art-damaged collegian.

I've said it before: I need an editor.
Media Bias Frames

Thanks to Tim in the comment to "Journalism, Patriotism and Containers" down below. He pointed me to a couple other Jay Rosen columns, one of which I'd already read. (His "Joe Moderate" column.) The other column looks at how charges from the left and the right end up creating a middle-ground dynamic where the press takes up residence:
In the media id of the Left, temptation lives. Dumping everything to the right of The Nation magazine into the "conservative" bin is an intellectual temptation. When it happens, journalists at ABC can plausibly become "right wing" in the observer's eyes. And they actually are to the right... of The Nation. Progressives, people on the Left, call it the corporate media, which dispenses captured news, news that is essentially propaganda for the system and its rich friends, or a distraction from unjust things happening all around the world, which do not get reported.

In the media id of the Right, temptation also lives. It wants to call everything to the left of the Washington Times the "liberal" media. When that happens, journalists at ABC can become "left wing" in the observer's eyes And why not? They are in fact to the left... of the Washington Times. Conservatives, people on the Right, call it the liberal media. The liberals who run it are hostile to traditional values, intoxicated with their own social agenda, eager to expand the power of government, reflexively anti-Amercan, and we see it all over the news.

To Jennings, this is all quite odd. ABC News, he firmly belives, isn't left or right, pro or anti-war. It isn't "political" at all in that way-- it's a professional news operation, "designed to question the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public," but equally designed not to take sides. He and his colleagues do not let political temptation color the news; they work hard at curing their reports of any undue bias-- failing often but only because they're human. That kind of caution is basic to how we operate, he says, second nature to any journalist. The public's failure to grasp this struggle in the journalist's soul makes possible a common charge like, "you're the anti-war network."

In the ritual of this exchange, it's forgotten that all three parties can be for truth, if you understand what each is saying.

* Mainstream American journalism actually is to the right of The Nation and it pushes against the left's view of the world to engineer its own balance. This creates hostility, as shown in my cartoonish dialogue above.

* Mainstream American journalism actually is to the left of the Washington Times, and pushes against that worldview too-- for balance. This creates hostility from the "opposite" direction.

* Mainstream American journalism actually is neither left nor right for the people who make it. But it pushes against both sides, and against others who can help in the performance of news balance. This tends to create hostility, which will baffle the balancers. Pretty soon it's the critics who are unbalanced people.

But even in objectivity there is id. Temptation for Jennings and his colleagues does not involve taking sides. It does not mean "coming out" as anti-war or pro-Rumsfeld or skeptical about American power in the Middle East. Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for "vocal critic," and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism. It can't be that simple, that beautiful, that symmetrical... can it? Temptation says yes.
He also helped me to "get" the idea of corporate media. If you look at the national news shows, you'll see only a smattering of news about the products and people that the media owners want to sell you. But, if you go down to the next level to the Today and Good Morning America shows, you see a big jump in the number and length of stories about media celebrities, products and services, and concepts they want you to adopt. (Travel, lifestyle purchasing, impulse buying, media consumption, health and mental health issues as treatable illnesses, etc. But go down another level, to the Entertainment Tonight and Celebrity Justice shows, and its all media self-referentiality. Everything is reduced to emotionalism and consumability.

Newspapers are a self-contained version of this multi-tiered world. Every Wednesday and Sunday (and now Friday) come the flood of ads. Fridays and Saturdays have the media blitz. Sunday is lifestyles.

It's that news collection and reporting is expensive to do right. The marriage of news to business is understandable. But business is an amoral thing. It's only concern is the creation of profit. It pushes and pushes at every available opening to find more. Every opportunity is probed for fresh profit. That's not a bad thing in the same way that a garden gone riot is not a bad thing. It's just growth, competition and opportunity.

Newspaper love to tell you that the business side has no influence on the reporting side. That, obviously, is not true. The bulk of the pressure goes to the publisher and top editors, and production designers, but its there. Simply step back and look at the design and layout of the paper itself.

So, yes, there is corporate media influence. But when it comes to what to write about, how to cover it, where to place it, what words to choose, which opinions to feature and which to deprecate, which narrative to use, that is almost completely in the judgment of the writers, reporters and editors. And there, time after time, studies show that the newsrooms of America are significantly to the left of the masses of America. Corporate pressures may lead to favorable business and civic planning coverage, but beyond that there is free rein for reporters.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Firefox Evangelism

Many thanks to Jemima Pereira for pointing me to Switch 2 Firefox, a website about why you should switch from Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser to the Firefox free browser.

IE is just a gigantic target painted on your computer. It leaves all kinds of doors and windows open to whatever criminal happens to wander past. Some of its "features" are actually dangerous to you. It doesn't even do a good job of showing you the websites you're looking at.

Firefox is a better way. Trust me, once you try tabbed browsing, automatic pop-up ad blocking, built-in cookie control (all initially set high to protect you; you can lower those settings later if you want) and the 100 other neat features of Firefox, you'll never, ever want to go back. Very few security problems happen with Firefox, unlike IE, and those problems get fixed very, very quickly. No denials of problems while your computer gets hammered, either. And there is a large and friendly community of people who will help you with your problems.

Plus, Firefox is endlessly customisable. You can hide or eliminate all kinds of features you don't want or use. You can even peruse an enormous list of add-on tools that you select and download to your browser easy as pie. All this flexibility means your browser fits you like a glove and works only the way you want it to.

Not everyone agrees, but the vast majority of folks I know who have made the switch have been happily surprised. It helps if you like to tinker, because the possibilities for play are endless. But if you just want to download and go, then Firefox does that right out of the box.

Download the program, run the set-up, zoom. You're going. Give it a try. You can have it on a computer alongside IE, but after just a while you'll find you don't need IE anymore, nor much want it. You'll be happier and your computer will be safer. It's a win-win.
A Successful Blog

Via Rodent Regatta, No Silence Here and Jemima, comes this post from D. Keith Robinson with some thoughts on what makes a successful blog.

It's all good, common sense advice, though there is some room for discussion, as the comment thread shows. The only ones of his list of suggestions I fall down on are with consistency and frequency of posting. Regular readers have learned that sometimes I just go away for a while. Might be a few days or, like last time, a whole month. It's just depression and failing self-confidence (Why would anyone care what I have to say, much less take it seriously?), but that doesn't matter to you. Folks get used to coming here, but they can also get used to not coming here. It's very hard work to build a readership, but astonishingly easy to lose it, then even more difficult to rebuild it once the author-reader bond is broken.

Still, I think I give good value for money.
Three Thoughts

I had the following three things on my QuickNote pad. They're old now, but let's at least get them out there. Discuss amongst yourselves.

1. With the release of The Passion of the Christ on DVD it's a good time to ask: Where was all the predicted anti-Semitism? The Anti-Defamation League was making all sorts of threats based on their dire predictions of outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence after the movie's release. Doesn't seem to have happened. Where is the ADL to apologise for the hysteria?

2. Some enterprising bureaucrat or lawyer should look into extending consumer safety regulations to encompass the sale of newspapers and magazines. Almost every other product on the market falls under the Consumer Product Safety Commission, why not newspapers? Editors and publishers will claim First Amendment protections, but those were never intended for commercial speech, just individual speech. I'd like to see someone try to make a case that newspapers and magazines, because they are products sold on the market for the purpose of producing a profit, fall into a commercial product definition.

Remember, the primary purpose of modern newspapers is to sell eyeballs to advertisers. Paper stories are partly tailored to attract a certain segment of the community. Newspapers set their ad rates based on how many and what quality of eyeballs are looking at their pages. Higher circulation figures and high-spending readers mean big profits. That's the newspaper game.

So, why not hold newspapers accountable for the damages they cause to businesses and individuals? Allow lawsuits and recovery for faulty reporting that causes harm, to enforce accountability? Sort of like libel laws, but with wider scope and reach.

After all, what business is allowed to police itself? Why should newspapers (not individual or non-profit speech) be insulated from the courts?

It's just a thought.

3. Speaking of newspapers, what other business can get away with saying that numerous and sustained complaints about their product are a sign of the product being good? If Ford got an unending series of complaints on the Focus could they plausibly argue it's a sign of a good car? If Focus sales declined year after year, while other classes of cars, trucks and SUVs saw climbing sales, would they be allowed to say that drivers simply had more driving options available to them, as an explanation?

If people complained that, say, the cars sold to them as green were really another color, or that the automatic transmissions they were sold were more like manuals, or that the CD players never played music quite right, could the manufacturer simply dismiss those claims by stating that their production lines were just fine and the problem was with drivers' perceptions?

Could they defend the widespread disrepute of their product as a reason to merely do their job better? Would that company be allowed to police itself and take ownership of the process of correcting the problems?

So why do we accept this kind of talk from newspapers?

Again, just an idea, some lateral thinking to up-end the usual assumptions and ways of looking at things.

Have fun!
Another View of the County Pension Mess

Very behind-the-scenes column from Jackson Baker in the current Memphis Flyer about the Jones / Thorp / Lanier mess. unfortunately, Baker repeatedly makes "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" remarks like these:
Mayor A C Wharton gave a convincing representation on Wednesday of a man shocked, shocked at the perfidy of two trusted aides who, he indicated, had connived to shuffle papers and trim corners....

Well, A C certainly looked convincing in his profession of shock Wednesday and seemed for all the world to be close to tears.
In all honesty, I hate these kinds of teasing hints. If he knows something, say it! If he suspects something, say that. But to play these "There's stuff I know, but I can't tell you, sorry." games is just insulting to average Memphians. Time and again, I encounter folks downtown, in television or print news, or in radio who say that this or that breaking story has been circulating for months, or that there are stories they've been hearing but "can't" report. We need to change that.

Not to pick on Jackson specifically, but as good a summation and inside-view as his short column is, it also reeks of the cozy collegiality that exists between many of the news reporters and editors in this town and the officials they are tasked with covering. I despise that. It may be commonplace; it may be the way it's always been. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight it. It's why this blog got started -- to share with you what the well-connected already know. It's what the blogger at Memphis Media does and I welcome his posts. Peggy Phillip does something similar, if more circumspectly, at her blog.

I've often said here that the Flyer's John Branston seems to know a whole lot more than he ever reports. The same goes for Jackson Baker. They should do their duty to Memphians and Shelby Countians and share it with us.

How can voters make informed decisions when information that is vital to understanding our government and the people who run it is held back from us, or worse, shielded deliberately?

It's time to begin afflicting the comfortable, guys. Long past time.
Damn Those Kids

Man, you work so hard to make downtown a swell place. Real world class, ya know? Lots of stuff to do, plenty of places to spend money. And then all those damn kids come in and just spoil it for the rest of us! What are ya gonna do?

After laboring hard, shilling for the greedheads of the downtown cabal, the Commercial Appeal is still beating the drum of "no cruising downtown." The sheer wrong-headedness in this editorial can only be explained by the willingness of the daily paper to propagandise for the developers and property owners who stand to get wealthy from turning the downtown into a clean, shiny, tourist-based shopping district, an island of carefully policed wealth amidst the general decay that is the rest of inside-the-loop Memphis.

The City has been working hard to pack every kind of tourist and sports destination into the downtown, Beale Street and South Main area. It doesn't matter that there's insufficient parking. It doesn't matter that the streets can't handle the traffic load. It doesn't matter that events downtown are scheduled willy-nilly, unnecessarily piling one event's traffic on top of another's. A parking situation that is deliberately kept in artificial shortage is also to blame.

What matters is that young people -- overwhelmingly black and lower income -- are flocking downtown to hang out and be seen. They don't have much money to spend beyond clothes and cars, but they want to be where the action is. Where the party is, where the people are. They gum up the works for the businessmen into extracting cash from adult partiers and tourists. They are bad cholesterol in the downtown's narrow arteries.

They chase away the paying customers.

Then you also have the hoity-toities who want to live in their lofts and towers, just like the really cool people in Manhattan do, but without all the noise and the smells and the bums and the other unpleasant things. You know: the reminders of everyday life for most of Memphis.

Manhattan on the Mississippi isn't like the Park Slope and Upper West Side of some elites' dreams. It's still a bit too much Hell's Kitchen for their sensitive tastes. Something's gotta be done about all the riff-raff screwing it up for them. I imagine there's more than a few who would be delighted if they could turn downtown into a gated community where only the well-to-do and the aesthetically pleasing are allowed to enter.

If the downtown were all private property, I wouldn't mind. But it's not, it's lot of private property being subsidised and defended by my tax money through a series of well-connected "public-private partnerships" designed to repulse assaults on The Dream.

It's not right that much of mid-City and Midtown Memphis must suffer from various kinds of neglect -- some benign and some intentional. Why does the paper of a city of nearly 700,000 people most worry about the well-being and comfort of a mere 10,000? It's shameful that the paper that claims it wants to "tell the stories" of the people of Memphis instead uses its privilege and platform to craft a fictional tale that serves the interests of a wealthy and elite few.

It is a shame, but then it's also business as usual around here. Emphasis on business. Remember, despite all the high-minded talk that comes out of the Commercial Appeal's editorial offices, it too is in the business of making money. Low-income black kids hanging out with their friends don't profit the paper or their allies and customers in the business community. Don't forget that.
Michael Moore Disapproves

Michael Moore disapproves of the next Director of the CIA. Why is this news? Do I care what Bono thinks of Porter Goss' appointment? Or Bruce Springsteen? Barbara Streisand? So why is CNN reporting it?

I don't begrudge any of these folks their opinions. Nor would I want them suppressed. But why is it news? Why does an internationally respected news organisation headline the opinion of an entertainer about American intelligence issues? Does he have some special insight or information that dozens of credentialed and experienced professional intelligence-policy analysts don't? Why not give us a collection of their opinions, instead of highlighting Moore's? Wouldn't that be a more substantive contribution to the national discussion?

Do we now need to consult Steven Spielberg on international trade equalisation? Can Alec Baldwin help us with improving education in American schools? Will illegal immigration problems disappear with Janeane Garofalo's guidance?

Exactly. Either CNN is growing more and more shallow, or they are growing desperate to sway American politics. Either way, it's bad news.
Weather, Cats and Grammar

The weather in Memphis this summer has been spectacular. We've only had a relative handful of days with temps in the 90s, when the norm recently is to have most of the summer there or in the 100s. Temps have been running consistently 10 to 20 degrees below normal. This week an Arctic front blew through and highs haven't gotten out of the 70s! Overnight lows are comfortably in the 50s. I haven't had the air conditioning on in three days.

The only problems is mosquitos. If I leave the windows open into dark, they find their way in and start to feast. Worst is overnight. I'll wake up with bits all over my hands and shoulder and feet. But it's a small price to pay for the gloriousness that is Summer 2004.

There's also a beautiful scent in the air. It's like a pine-spiced version of dry, cut grass, the old late summer staple. Whatever the source, it's relaxing and welcome.

My cat Bennie is loving it, too. She'll normally sleep the afternoon away in her hidey hole under the kitchen cabinet. Around dinner time, she'll appear and check things out, then nap some more until sunset. With the bedroom window fan running, she's been napping on the bedspread, under the breeze and with the afternoon sun warming her up. She's in heaven.

The first night after the front blew through, she was as energised as I've seen her. She was exploring everything like it was new. Tail up, zipping this way and that around the apartment. Running inside and outside and back again. She'd slow down a moment to recharge her battery, then ZING! she was off again. She was like a kitten again. That's my girl.

Now to grammar. Let's discuss the proper spelling of "y'all." That's the proper spelling, OK? It is not ya'll. Why, you ask? Because y'all is a contraction of "you all." Listen to a Southerner speak and you'll hear the elided "oo" sound, almost.

Why the confusion? Maybe it's from Northerners picking up the phrase. Up North, and especially around New York City, the word "you" is often pronounced "ya." As in "Whaddaya lookin' at?" or "Ged oudda here, ya mug." So it would be natural to assume it's the "all" being elided since they shorten and change the end of "you."

At least that's my theory and I'm stickin' with it. Y'all just keep it straight, OK?

But my biggest grammar peeve is the usage of "to try and." There is no "to try and!" As Yoda said, "Do or do not. There is no try." You cannot try and mail a letter. If you try and succeed, you have mailed the letter!

The correct expression is "to try to." I'm going to try to mail the letter. I might fail; I might succeed. I won't know until I try.

Don't ever let me catch y'all sayin' "I'll try and do that." again, OK?

Lastly, just a little word to folks from outside the South who wonder what "fixin'" means. It's not a home repair term. "I'm fixin' to go to the store." means you are about to go to the store, not right away but real soon. Could be a few minutes from now, but might be a bit later if something important comes up. It's as much about intent and plans as it is about motion.

And you don't pronounce it "fixing." OK? It's "fixin'" or fick-sin. Or if you're rural and black, it's closer to fissin. In fact, the word "to" is often folded in with "fixin'" to get something like fick-sin-na. I'm fick-sin-na godatha stoar.

And in some parts of the Deep South, "store" is a two-syllable word: "stow-urr."

Alright, class dismissed.
Prescient Sitcom

Last night, I happened to catch an episode of a syndicated Nineties sitcom, Dharma and Greg. (See ABC website here.) I know, I know, shame on me, but it was 2:30 in the morning and what else is there to watch without cable? Even MTV2 was re-running some crappy Jackass knock-off, instead of videos.

Anyway, this episode (number 8) was so spookily relevant to this campaign season, it was impressive enough to merit this post.

The show is built around the opposites-attract romance between Greg and Dharma. Greg is the conservative, straight-arrow, fraternity-row son of wealthy, doting parents always worried about money and appearances. Dharma is the free-spirit, New Age-y, shame-free daughter of Sixties hippies who are still keepin' the faith in the Nineties, fighting The Man and living in harmony. On a chance date they fall in love and impulsively get married. The comedy derives mostly from the friction between the uptight Greg (and his upper-crust parents) and anything-goes Dharma (and her flower-power parents). The show is set in California, which serves to facilitate set-ups and collisions.

True to television sitcom form, it is mostly stuffy, embarrassed, stick-in-the-mud Greg who is the one who must change, loosen up, for Dharma. But to be fair, everyone and their beliefs are the butt of jokes at some point or another. Greg turns out to have a goofy side; Dharma later reveals a darker side.

(Digression: This show has one of the most brilliant opening credits ever. Over a soundtrack of a harp-like guitar filigree that sounds vaguely carnival-esque, on a set that is only colored backdrop, we see preppy Greg standing reading his newspaper with a serious expression on his face. Cut to happy Dharma, seated in a lotus position, blowing soap bubbles that float past Greg. They catch his attention. Next we see Dharma and Greg embracing tightly and spinning around happily before the camera. End.

It's only fifteen seconds or so long, and yet it perfectly captures the essence of the show. Admittedly, it's a pretty simple premise to begin with, but still. It's a model of brevity and distillation, a jewel of its type.)

In this episode, Greg (a Federal District Attorney and prosecutor) is approached by a friend of his father's to run for the local Congressional district seat. He accepts, but has to "clean up" Dharma to pass muster with voters.

At his political coming-out he and a Chanel-suited Dharma impulsively slip away for quickie sex. When Greg appears before the cameras, he doesn't realise his fly is still down and his shirt-tail is sticking out. Naturally, his speech is full of accidental double entendres and the cameras are snapping away. Greg believes his campaign has been killed before it could even start.

Of course, word of his slip-up fills the papers and news. But! The public is surprisingly pleased with a man who -- refreshingly -- has sex with his own wife!

Shades of Jack Ryan, former Illinois candidate for the Senate, and his embarrassment over allegations that he tried to convince his own wife to have public sex! That's right, a married man who wanted to have sex with his own wife was found so shameful that he had to drop out of a Senate campaign.

So, Greg resumes his campaign with Dharma at his side. He goes on talk radio, where a caller wonders how Dharma keeps her husband interested.

A few nights later, Greg's opponent Washburn appears at a news conference. This sixty-something man, the typical fat and white-haired pol, with his traditional wife at his side along with a handsome young aide, announces that after thirty years he's decided to come out. He's gay!

Shades of Jack McGreevey, the corruption scandal-plagued Democratic governor of New Jersey, who had to resign steps ahead of a sexual harrassment lawsuit by his younger male lover. McGreevey, wife also at his side, turned the press conference into a defiant stand. "I am a gay American," he proclaimed. The news was filled with a story of his brave coming out, not his corrupt administration's unravelling.

Back to the show. Greg doesn't know what to make of Washburn's announcement. Dharma sweetly notes that Greg's campaign is over. Newly bisexual Washburn trumps monogamous Greg. After all, it's San Francisco!

This episode was made nearly eight years ago. (There's even a Clinton joke.) But it seems to have predicted two of the major sideshows of this campaign season. Amazing.

And now, at last to bed.
Journalism, Patriotism, Containers

Jay Rosen over at PressThink has a very probing and open-ended question he's seeking answers to. He wonders why 9/11 hasn't been the worldview-altering event to journalism that it has been on the personal level to so many Americans. He notes that pre- and post-9/11 journalism are the same. He has examples to suggest that the sameness is willful even. It worries him and he's seeking understanding:
When you actually make the effort, and start the story over, you never end up in exactly the same place. Everyone knows we're in a new situation as a nation, and in some ways radically new across the world. Though everyone knows, we can't forget it, which is another way of saying we have to try daily to imagine it, though normal life resumes, and practices its newsy deceptions.

What do you recall? I recall how much that was adequate in my own understanding on September 10th, I found useless by the morning of the 12th; and people who say things like, "everything changed on nine eleven" are not so much September 11th people as they are struck by a strangeness recalled from the morning of the 12th. I am one of them. We think there was a rupture.

Like the larger claim from which it derives,
everything changed for American journalists on September 11th is not really open to proof or refutation. I believe it's true, and I think the failure to reckon with it is preventing what might be historic progress in professional self-definition for the people who bring Americans their news, and who try to capture in their accounts our life and times.
It's a deceptively open-ended question and I look forward to the discussion.

Already there is a comment posted by Tim that expansively relates the famous round-table discussion from the Eighties where Mike Wallace said he would let American soldiers die because his duty as a journalist required him to remain objective. The furiously acidic response from an American colonel isn't usually told with Wallace's comment, but it's a must read.

Jay's elaboration of his question helped to shake loose and concretise some nebulosities that have been floating around in my head for quite a while. I don't claim to originality or profundity, nor is the analogy perfect. That's the point of analogy. It's not a point-for-point correlation but a way of conceptualising relationships. I knocked this out in about half an hour: write quickly, edit lightly, post. I'm posting it here (slightly edited and expanded) as well so it doesn't get lost in the sea of comments over at PressThink.

Thanks Jay.

=== === === === ===

I'm not sure this is an answer to your question, Jay, but when you speak of journalists' view of America and how they view their connection to America, the thing that popped into my mind was containers.

I suspect "America" for many journalists is a giant container with a lot of smaller, sometimes overlapping, occasionally quarelling, containers inside. In order to cover events and discussions, they must place themselves outside that "America" container, in order to view things impartially and dispassionately. Being inside the container limits the distance needed. Being outside the container allows freedom of distance and view.

Most folks assumed that 9/11 dissolved (obliterated?) the many small containers into fewer, larger ones. Or that many formerly unaligned or opposed containers would find a contiguous surface in a response to the attacks and their perpetrators. Most Americans assumed that smaller differences would be subordinated to the larger interest of defending America and punishing its enemies.

But the press would have to resist that, in order to maintain their freedom of distance and movement and point of view. To move inside the container would be to constrain themselves in their duty. That duty isn't connected to the "America" container but to their freedom of distance and point of view. The pressure to unite had the equal and opposite reaction in journalists of resistance and separation.

Then there is the parallel matter of Election 2000, which created an enormous rift in American society. A new, large and very distinct container came into being thanks to the Florida recount and the Florida and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In a manner of speaking, two parallel Americas came into being -- one where Bush won and one where Bush stole Gore's victory. One America views Bush as the rightful President and another views Bush as illegitimate.

In the second America, the illegitimate President dishonestly brought America into an illegal war for immoral purposes. All actions flowing from the initial wrong are themselves tainted and wrong. For this group, the election this year is an effort to bring these two Americas back together at the point of rupture and erase the events of the past four years.

Reporters, meanwhile, remain outside these containers, but still report on the whole as though there is no rupture. As though the two are one.

This model would explain to some degree the way journalism presents foreign news and stories. Since journalists are outside the "America" container, outside all containers save their own, they do not view these events with the view of Americans. Instead, they see things as a comparison of containers. Therefore, America is co-equal, equivalent, to anything it is compared to. Or in another sense, since America is part of the world and journalists are outside of the "world" container, it may also explain to some degree the way they view the "America" container, in addition to the internationalist politics of modern Democratic liberalism.

I guess this is where my model breaks down, as you can legitimately say that journalists likely view themselves as another container. The unanimity of politics and point of view among the national, and much of the local, press is a direct refutation of the "outside the container" model, since it would imply a lot of diversity in every sense.

I could argue that a container inside the "America" container -- the liberalised educational system, journalism schools, and media watchdogs -- somehow gained a monopoly on control of access to "outsider" status. They were a container working inside "America" with the intent of radically redefining it. One would expect a free and open press to be a diverse, contradictory and vigorous universe of reporting.

Of course, this is an ideal. Reporters are human and even the best training and discipline will slip over time. Especially when the trainers and monitors alone can police themselves, resistant to outside intervention. Solipsism and self-referentiality set in; ossification, too.

Somewhere between the Forties and the Seventies, a conservative press sympathetic to those in power and willing to accept censorship for the sake of the national good (inside the "America" container) became an oppositional, liberal press divorced from an "America" container that many viewed with disdain. That arm's-length distance, that freedom of movement and distance, worked because the wars and enemies were "out there" somewhere.

Even as modern terrorism moved closer and closer, the distance remained. I think many to most Americans expected that the press might collapse back to a Forties-style, pro-America, compliant model. It hasn't and the problems with that outsider viewpoint are becoming clearer every day. It's a component of the success of Fox News, in my opinion. I also think it's part of what drove the earlier success of talk radio -- a desire to hear from a press that considers itself American.

The blogosphere managed to break the control of the j-schools and media monitors, opening the flow of information. We are beginning to see that diverse, contradictory and vigorous universe of reporting thanks to it. Truly, America's new newsroom (the blogosphere) is displaying the diversity we've been promised. We are also seeing a lot more reporting from inside the "America" container. Many bloggers reject the tenet of modern journalism that reporting must be "objective and neutral," ie. outside the "America" container. Many are more than happy to place their identification with America above their identification with modern journalism and its tenets. The change is, I think, what you are looking for, yes? I suspect the remaking of American journalism in the post-9/11, Internet age won't be a process of assimilation and adaptation -- at least not for a while -- but rather a process of replacement.

Thanks, Jay. I've had this formless idea in my head for a while and the discussion helped to precipitate and crystallise it. Sorry for the length of the post.

=== === === === ===

I am not a journalist, just a voracious reader, an omnivorous consumer of modern media, an observer and a middle-weight thinker. (I've often joked that where most people go to big sporting events to watch the game, I go to watch the spectators.) I think I've hit on one way of looking at Jay's question, though likely not a revelatory one. Posting this essay to Jay's blog is exposing it to some very smart, informed and incisive people. I fully expect to be critiqued, savaged and derided. We'll see how well my analogy survives.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Half-Bakered: 1 Darrell Phillips: Late

Tonight's WMC5 news carried a story by Darrell Phillips on questions about former County Mayor Jim Rout and his contracts and connections with SCB Computer Technology Inc.
Action News Five has learned a company that did millions of dollars in Shelby County contracts during Mayor Jim Rout's administration nominated him to their board of directors weeks before he left office. And we've also discovered an effort to push through a controversial last minute contract for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

During Former Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout's administration, a company called SCB Computer Technology, Inc. earned nearly eight million dollars in county contracts, like this $1.5 million contract to help bring County computers to compliance before Y2K.

In fact, there's a long list of deals, sending County dollars to SCB.

Action News 5 has learned that three weeks before he left office, Mayor Rout was nominated to SCB's Board of Directors.
There's just one problem. The Commercial Appeal ran this story two years ago! Of course, it was in an uncritical Business Section news story. Not even the Memphis Flyer asked questions.

What you usually hear when Rout's current life is referred to is his association with Jack Morris Auto Glass, where he's the president of marketing, or some such. His board positions with SCB (now CIBER) and Cumberland Bancorp (now CIVITAS BankGroup) aren't usually mentioned.

Anyway, I was the first person to raise these questions two years ago, on August 15, 2002!
Today's Commercial Appeal has a Business section story about the post-political plans of Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout. It seems he's up for election to the Board of Directors of SCB Computer Technology.

It's a bland story that mentions Rout's salary would be $20,000, plus a bit more. But nowhere in the story do you find anything about SCB's Shelby County connections. And there's the real story.

SCB is a giant firm, with wide and deep roots here in Shelby County. They are players and getting Rout would be a lucrative coup.

Then there's the whole issue of a leading politician going to a huge corporation which has intimate dealings with the local government, which seems like Post-Politics 101 to you and me but is apparently High Latin 650 to politicians and businessmen. Regular goobs like us don't understand how politics works, and how subtle and sopshisticated is the mind of these folks that they can pull off this kind of jump without breaking ethics, rules or laws.

Certainly the highly sophisticated types at the CA aren't bothered by any of this. They didn't even bother to report it!
Also here, on September 15, 2002:
In Friday, September 13th's Commercial Appeal, the paper tries to get us to believe that County Mayor Jim Rout will soon be the main marketer for Jack Morris Auto Glass, nominally called the president. But the story's most important point is brushed past:
Rout is also on the board of directors of SCB
Computer Technology Inc. of Memphis - he was elected this week
- and Cumberland Bancorp Inc., the Nashville-based parent of
BankTennessee, based in Collierville.That is where Rout's real job is going to be. As I covered earlierRout's position at SCB is pretty clearly an ethical bad idea. SCB is deeply involved in County and County Schools business; he'll be selling to his old employees and buddies. Great profits for SCB, though. Same applies for Cumberland Bancorp.

The Jack Morris job is just cover. Watch how the CA refers to him from now on.

Can anyone tell me if Jack Morris is any relation to former County Mayor Bill Morris, of "temporary wheel tax" fame?
Ha! Advantage: Half-Bakered.

I'm glad to see the story finally get some coverage, just sorry it took so long. And hopefully, now that they've found it, they'll stay on it and get some real answers. That's the television news problem: dropping stories when interest wanes or they drag on too long.

Stay with it, Darrell. And call me if you need some help.
Say That Again?

WPTY24 just had a story on their 5PM broadcast (not online) about tinnitus treatment. There's a new treatment where patients are trained to use music to distract them from the ringing and buzzing of tinnitus, thus alleviating the symptoms.

I'm writing about this because I suffer from tinnitus. Ever since I can remember, I've had distinct high-pitched tones in my ears. If you've ever turned on an older television set and heard that high whine from the back of the set, it's a lot like that. It's not loud enough to be painful, nor to block my hearing. In fact, 95% of the time I never even notice it. I've learned to tune it out, so to speak.

But whenever things are very quiet, they become noticeable and bothersome. That's part of the reason I like living in the city. There's always some kind of background noise -- traffic, neighbors, sirens and the other ambient noises of urban living. They serve to mask the sounds in my ears. It's also why I'll often leave the television or radio on in the background, for the soft noise. Whenever I go to the country or sleep in a well-insulated, quiet home (like my mom's old condo), then it will drive me crazy. Too damn quiet!

My tinnitus has never been debilitating. I didn't even realise I had it until well into my teen years. Most folks who know me don't know I suffer, because I'm long past accepting it and learning to live with it.

No real reason for this post, except that the WPTY story reminded me I haven't shared about it here.

Next time: my back pain.
Some Freshwater Thoughts

One link I've forgotten in recent days is this post from Joefish's Freshwater Blog, where he offers some thoughts on City Council Chairman Joe Brown, and links to a story I missed that shows what kind of guy Brown is.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Cool Pic of the Day

Ever wonder what Mars really looks like? Now you know.

(Friday Update: Ummm...this post is notably lacking in context, isn't it? Most color pictures you see from NASA/JPL from Mars have been color-corrected because one of the three cameras used to create color images is shifted farther to the infrared than the human eye. It makes uncorrected images look funny (kinda dark and bluey). However, when NASA types color-correct they operate from the assumption that Mars has a butterscotch sky. Other colors are mixed to match. Clearly, Mars has a blue sky, as numerous Hubble Space Telescope and amateur photos have shown. Only NASA clings to their strange view. That's why rocks and soil in their pictures always look so odd.

The pic I linked to is what Mars would look like if you or I were standing on Mars on a bright, sunny day. True colors. I've seen other pics where you can see clouds in the sky. Thin and high, but clouds! Mars has water. Now, today.

Yes, I'm a science geek.)

Quick. Go read Tom Walter's Commercial Appeal article about Marilyn Loeffel's new radio show on "Family Values Radio," AM990. See if you notice what's wrong. Read the whole thing. I'll wait....

(We built this city... We built this city on roooock and roooooolllllll --) Oh, back already?

What did you see? No, it wasn't all the anti-Christian snarkiness. Inserting those kinds of political opinions into unrelated stories is par for the course at the Commercial Appeal. Heck, you should read Frederic Koeppel's "Book Notes" column on Sundays. Whew!

In a story about a new radio program coming to the air, did you anywhere see where he told you what time it was scheduled? Nor did I. I guess he doesn't want you to know.

Or maybe it's just more snarkiness.
Time For a Trip to the Minors?

I try not to write about Wendi Thomas too much. When I learned the Commercial Appeal's newest columnist was black, I was pretty happy. It marked an effort to include half the City's population in their columnist crew. Sadly, she hasn't lived up to her promise, proving to be predictable, shallow and light-weight.

I try to avoid her now, as she's a fish in a barrel target. But today's column about the Memphis Council for International Visitors (MCIV) is a subject I've been writing about this week and have some investment in and knowledge of. Let's take a look.

First of all, the headline promises something she fails to deliver:
Ball was dropped by all city 'players'
OK, why the quotes around players? Is she invoking black slang? But notice she does say "all."
Politics means never having to say you're sorry.

This week's example is provided by City Council chairman Joe Brown, who issued a half-hearted "my bad" Monday to the Iraqi delegation he barred from City Hall last week.

Brown says he's sorry if his actions were misconstrued. Not sorry for what he did, just sorry for those alarmed by what looked like a nasty case of ethnic profiling.

Brown made us look bad, but he shouldn't have to shoulder all the blame.
Actually, he said, "misconstrueded." He deserves all the shame and opprobium we can dump on him. His actions were foolish and hysterical. And if he shouldn't have to carry all the blame, then he definitely holds the lion's share.

Thomas gets him out of the way pretty quickly. She has other fish to fry.
Rule #1: When handling a situation that could explode into an internationally embarrassing mess, cover your behind and your bases.
That was my advice to the Shelby County Republican Party! They didn't like it though. It's important to remember that no one had any suspicion beforehand that the Iraqi visit would explode the way it would.

The MCIV handles dozens of these visits every year. (Read farther down for my talk with David Simmons of the MCIV.) They handled this visit exactly as they handle all their other delegations. Maybe they should have taken the poltical dimension into greater account, but they had no reason to suspect anything. They were following their own long-established process. This was routine for them.
The Memphis Council for International Visitors, which hosted the seven-member group, didn't even put a full team on the field.

No one met the delegation at the airport, so they took a cab. Strike one.
Oh dear. This is factually inaccurate! The Iraqis arrived Sunday night and were conveyed to their hotel just fine. On Monday morning, their transport picked them up as expected, but had the wrong itinerary and took them to City Hall instead of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau building on Union.

Sorry Wendi. Strike one on you!
The MCIV didn't tell the City Council about the visit, but instead chose to rely on council member Carol Chumney, an MCIV volunteer, to pass along the word.

Given Chumney's contentious dealings with most of the council, that's strike two.
Again, it's not normal practice for MCIV to involve city leader types in delegation visits. The MCIV changed their usual practice since the Iraqis were a special case, due to the war.

Approaching Chumney isn't the problem. But her difficulties with her peers was a contributing factor to the fumbled communications and turf-protection that developed.

Call it a ball.
(In a display of her inability to be even the least bit conciliatory, Chumney refused to add her name to the letter of apology signed by all the other council members; since she met with the delegation, she felt she had no reason to apologize.)
Honestly, this one is a wash for me. But it plays no role in our reputation, since she's one of the few Councillors to actually have met and talked with the Iraqis. And y'all already know my thoughts on Chumney otherwise.

Strike one, ball two.
The MCIV could have but didn't make a heads-up courtesy call to local police.
Again, they don't appear to have seen a need to. It's never been a part of their normal operations. Besides, what would calling the police achieve?

Strike two, ball two.
The MCIV could have but didn't make sure the National Civil Rights Museum would be open to visitors the day the delegation was to stop by. A movie was being shot at the museum that day, so the group was forced to postpone its visit.
As Simmons explained it to me, the MCIV doesn't create tour itineraries, but prefers to let the delegates decide their own destinations and work with the transportation to make the visits.

Strike Three. Yer out, Wendi!

But wait, she's not done.
The MCIV could have but didn't supply the group with a local guide who might have questioned the wisdom of, for example, walking downtown in a strange city at 10:45 p.m. to a drugstore that closed at 8. An Iraqi woman and a translator who left their hotel late last Tuesday headed to a (closed) Walgreens were robbed.
MCIV isn't responsible for downtown. That's Mayor Herenton's bailiwick. Try to blame him. Besides, doesn't all the tourist literature rave about our twenty-four hour downtown? Hmmmm...seems like it's not so safe after all? Why doesn't Wendi try to tell Belz and Turley that? I'd love to see that conversation.
Why didn't the MCIV do any of the things they could have done to help ensure a smooth visit?

It's not part of its protocol, MCIV board member David Simmons told me. "We're not responsible for being with them 24 hours a day or their security," Simmons said.
And there you go. Classic journalism setup. Line up your critical points -- boom, boom, boom, boom, boom -- then switch to the dummy whom you whack over the head. It makes them look hapless and stupid.

Simmons' point is correct. The State Department is fine with it, as that's how MCIV has been conducting themselves for thirty years. But Our Wendi knows better, with hindsight.
Besides, he said, the City Council approves the Police Department's budget, and if there weren't enough police downtown to keep the visitors from being robbed, well, blame the City Council.
She switches from a direct quote to a lengthy paraphrase, substituting her words for his. Cheap shot and a tactic to get the quote you need when the subject didn't say it. I'd love to know what he really said.
Simmons won't admit that MCIV dropped the ball, but he did say the MCIV's protocol will be revised to improve communication among local authorities.
Notice she's blamed him and he "won't admit" to her accusation. Again, standard journalism construct.
Too little, too late.

In the week since the flap began, the national media have had their fun with Memphis, and our reputation as a city of good abode has taken a beating.

And neither an improved protocol nor a deluge of mea culpas - sincere or not - can make up for that.
Now let's take stock. She's blamed Carol Chumney, the MCIV and Joe Brown. Is that "all the 'players'?" Hardly. There's Big Willie H., for one, who never did meet with the Iraqis, even though this is his city. There's all the City Councillors who couldn't be bothered to come out.

And I still don't understand the scare quotes around players. Can anyone enlighten me?

It's funny. I was talking to Simmons when Thomas called him. He was actually polite enough to finish our call, which went on for some time, before calling her back! In a subsequent email, he joked about Thomas' attitude in their interview. I can see what he noticed now. Did she even listen to what he said?

Why is Thomas so intent on blaming them? I don't know. If we grant her honest intentions, it comes down to not doing her job, I guess. Otherwise....

I started off my whole investigation believing the MCIV to be amateurs, as I noted early on. I've since revised that opinion. They have been successfully doing these visits several times a month for thirty years. I tend to want to hold our City Councillors and their poor working relationships largely to blame, but with an extra heaping portion for the ludicrously over-reacting Joe Brown, a man with delusions of imperial power.

Sorry Wendi. It sounds like you had an agenda first, not an open mind. You need to be benched for the rest of the season.
Yet Another Blog

The Knoxville News-Sentinel has joined the revolution with a new blog by reporter Michael Silence, called No Silence Here. He's off to a good start. Half-Bakered even gets a mention for the "The Last of Hart" post, which he calls "hard-nose." Yeah!
I Need Me Some'a That!

Great news today for procrastinators like me. They expect to soon have a gene treatment to turn slackers into workaholics. The bad news is that this seems to show that the "work ethic" is biologically based. Expect disability and discrimination lawyers to start suing shortly.
Susan Adler Thorp: Media Spinner

After County Mayor AC Wharton accepted the resignations of Susan Adler Thorp and Bobby Lanier, in the wake of an investigation into Tom Jones doubled pension payments, Thorp almost immediately started talking to the television news.

She's peddling the same story: Jones approached her about his pension. She directed him to Lanier. She assumed the Mayor knew and didn't say anything. Let's assume that's true. Why would Wharton ask for her resignation over that? Obviously, more is going on. The Fowlkes report has been delayed until Friday, so we'll have to wait to see what we learn.

Adler has added a new twist to her story today, one that Jones is also using. She claims that it was perfectly legal for Jones to request to come back long enough to raise his pension benefits. The problem, of course, is why he chose to come through her and Lanier, rather than go straight to the Pension Board. Jones was with County government how many years? Wouldn't he know proper procedures?

Listening to Jones and Thorp on television it seems to me that they are soft-peddling a whole lot of stuff. Except when Jones is claiming endemic "internecine" corruption.

There's also what Mayor Wharton ruefully called the "loyalty of friendship." You can rephrase that as "rule by man instead of rule by law." It's the understandable, though still unethical for government workers, desire to help someone you know well. It is all over Memphis and Shelby County government.

Will the Commercial Appeal take up all these tantalising clues and delve into Pension Board records to see who else might have had adjustments? I'm not holding my breath.

(Note: this post was edited to correctly attribute the correct Wharton quote above.)
A Camo Theme

One thing you don't really see in the local media is stories from the soldier in Iraq. What little you do see is all about the emotion of parted or reuniting families.

So, I've decided to open up this blog to active or returning soldiers who are serving overseas (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) to share whatever stories about their experiences there they would like to. I'd like to get stories about the fighting, of course, but also about day-to-day life for a soldier from the Mid-South. Stories about interactions with the locals. Impressions of the places and peoples. Funny or sad events. Whatever. Just give readers of Half-Bakered the unfiltered, direct, no-bs experience. Tell them what's really going on.

Try to keep your stuff to between 500 and 1500 words, please. Keep the language clean. I won't edit or alter anything, but if you'd like me to check your story for punctuation, spelling, grammar, etc. I'd be glad to. Just say so.

Pass along the word to family or friends in the military from the Mid-South. Happy, sad, joyous, troubling, hopeful or worried. Whatever. Just tell us like it is.

You can send it to the addy up on the top left. Start writing, soldier!