Author Archive

  • Rob Spectre
  • 23
  • Dec
  • 09

Of the many institutions that failed us during this decade of American decline, none took the face-first diver into a freshly laid steamer like journalism.  The once critical Fourth Estate has not suffered post-modernity well, and its decay only accelerated as humanity turned the corner of another millennium of civilization.  The sensationalism and spectacle for which it was derided during the celebrity trials and presidential impeachment of the Nineties became the only way to sell newspapers and 30 second spots.  The news business became one OJ trial after another where headlines read like car dealership billboards, stories bloated with corporate spin and the street-savvy, careful  insight of the American journalist was replaced by the doe-eyed, photogenics of the beauty-pageant runnerup communications major fresh from community college.

How the media handled the medium can bear much of the blame.  Information technology made the business of distributing information so cheap and easy, the role of the international conglomerate as gatekeeper became obsolete.  A middling deal attorney could become a tech business kingmaker with a ten dollar hosting plan, open source blogging software and a clever domain name.  Two Dutch kids with a Twitter account developed the “news wire service  for the 21st century” out of their dorm.  Even your humble author was able to cobble together a few friends, sneak some work out of a graphic designer and get a platform reaching tens of thousands for less than $500.  Where the audiences flocked in the Nineties to websites that generated compelling content, more came after the turn of the century to those that served as platforms for users to create their own.  The concept of the “broadcast network” – a medium that delivered content to audiences numbering in million -  now applied to several hundred companies instead of a dozen.  Anyone could “go viral” with a piece of reporting and reach millions and expect to get picked up by one of the traditional outlets within a few days. While information distribution became effortless, verifying it became an impossible game of whack-a-mole.

With the lower barrier of entry came competition, generating a demand entirely new to the consumers of news: flavor.  Discussions around water coolers and dinner tables was less about what the news was than where those in the discussion had received.  “Oh, I heard that on NPR/CNN/MSNBC/Fox and Friends/Hannity/Olbermann/Beck/Maddow/HuffPo/TPM/RCP” became the standard response to the news scoop of the day.  Running on half the budget of the pioneer of 24-hour news, the success of Fox News at the beginning of the decade spawned the overt marketing of bias in the reporting of news.  The taglines read “fair and balanced” and “a fuller spectrum,” but the marketing message always spoke differently.  Suddenly it was less about being the leading news source and more being the leading news source with a particular demographic.  This decade marked the final victory of advertising over the newsroom; where the stories were all the same, but all packaged differently.

Accessibility was not the only culprit of journalism’s decline.  The technology for traditional broadcasting was changing as well.  High definition television, followed quickly by full high definition, completely changed the appearance of news anchors.  Looking good enough for television went from a twenty minute session with a skilled makeup artist to a two hundred grand investment in a leading plastic surgeon.  Walter Cronkite would not survive the age of HD – old, experience reporters were out, and young, telegenic talking heads were in.  Kelly O’Donnell could no longer hide her pack-a-day habit with foundation and Andrea Mitchell only looks slightly less decayed than her ancient husband.  The Dan Rathers gave way to the Katie Courics – the harsh realities of broadcasting at near-real resolution made faces more important than the brains behind them.

And once bias became a selling point and the finest minds took a backseat to the fairest skinned, the product began to show it.  We opened the decade with the colossal failure of the 2000 election, where premature announcements plunged the entire country into unprecedented month-long uncertainty over whom its next leader would be.  The next year those same Americans would spend the fretful morning hearing the conspiracy theories of every two-star crackpot in every producer’s rolodex while watching planes crash into the World Trade Center over and over and over – no more informed than at the beginning of the crisis but a shitload more scared.

The breaking news rush to speculation became such an expected consequence of this new era of journalism that an entirely new class of celebrity was born.  “Famous for being famous” was now something one could be in America.  No longer did an American have to produce a record or write a book or win a championship or campaign for public office or land an airplane in a river to become famous.  Now all one who wanted to be famous had to do was do something really stupid.

Celebrity was now attainable through news coverage alone.  One could now have another eight kids without the ability to care for them and get a reality show development deal.  One could hide his son in the attic, launch a balloon, call the TV station and become a Top Ten story of the year.  Even just getting naked on your MySpace page could get one at least to the C-list in this new America.  And if one was just hot and rich, one could get an invitation to the Oscars every year.

For the enormous advances of technology and process that made news something you found out about in minutes instead of days, American journalism retreated to its yellow beginnings.  The news business, where it still remained, became less about the story and more about the lead-in.

This decade will not be written in history as the one where American journalism died, but it will be marked as were it started dying – the twilight of the most important instrument of democracy.

  • Rob Spectre
  • 16
  • Dec
  • 09

We greeted this century as a screaming bastard greets the doctor there to catch him as he is unceremoniously ejected from a diseased womb.  Disoriented, ungrateful and angry without cause, we shrieked at it as it embraced us, blinking like we were using our eyes for the first time.  Going hoarse after only a few minutes of sucking oxygen, we may have slowly cried ourselves out of the panic of those first few moments, but we never stopped being shit scared.

We entered this decade afraid.  Fearful that the magnificent machines we had made would fail us once the clock struck midnight.  Fearful that the strange, evil, brown men with the funny beards would detonate our liberty statues and our golden gates.  Fearful our gods were going to ride down from our heavens on their pale horses and judge us before we were ready.  But, perhaps most of all, fearful that this date which had so permeated our cultures high and popular, that had wormed its way into the titles of our song and film, the plots of our stories and plays, had been the end all and be all of the nebulously forecast thing we called future might not

We had done our level best not to get this far.  We spent so much of the first half of the century trying to kill one another off, we spent all of the last half quite nearly assured we would.  For every revolting way we devised to kill ourselves in greater number, we’d devise an equally despicable mechanic for justifying it.  Inhuman philosophy was synchronously developed with inhuman technology, insulating the consciences of staring at the buttons that could kill us all with game theories and defense conditions and survival scenarios.  We not only made the machine gun, we invented the mass production to spit one out for every man, woman and child.  We not only made the tank, we cleared the schools and rectories to get enough hands to build them.  We not only made the nuclear bomb, we devised the nationalism that could justify their use.

It was for good reason we feared the year 2000.  We never, ever expected to get there.

But whether through disaster or design, civilization survived a century at war, living to see the date that had served for decades as the setting for the post-apocalypse fictions we wrote and read to try to grapple with the gravity of our age.  By then, we each had stacks of bad films and worse comic books with “2000″ in big block letters on the front.  It was the milestone that meant cars could fly and men could travel through time.  It was the milestone that either meant global peace or complete catastrophe.  It was the milestone that promised lasers and jetpacks, warp speeds and teleporters, a single world government and a colony on the moon.

It was supposed to be the future.  The future we were never supposed to see.

Is it little wonder then that we have completely fucked up the 21st century so far?  Though scared fuck stupid and directionless, we were riding a relative period of calm and prosperity.  The industrialized nations were generating unprecedented wealth.  Their governments were shockingly running well and mostly in the black.  The developing nations to which those governments sent their checks were between genocides at the moment, suffering as all the poor do but quietly and without mass graves.  Humans were coming around to the idea that they were destroying the planet they were living on and were beginning to stop doing it so much.

Socially, economically, politically – we were set up for success.  We in America in particular had all the grounds for another grand decade.  It was like we had just figured post-modernity out. Like we found the rhythm that could make our complex machine go.

Having our shit figured out was so 20th century.  We entered this decade afraid and now after failing for ten straight years we are leaving it near-petrified.  In this (d)N0t series, I’ll be exploring this decade of fail, ten long years of humanity screwing the pooch in every conceivable way.  From blowing our fortune to shit-canning our health to sacrificing our privacy to obliterating our security to surrendering our liberty and finally acquiescing our sanity, these next two weeks will be a gonzo exploration of these past years and how we fucked every single one of them up.

And if we’re not all reaching for the nighty-night Kool-aid by the end, we’ll talk about the next ten and how we pull civilization back from the brink in front of us and fight this future of which we are so afraid.

  • Rob Spectre
  • 15
  • Dec
  • 09

As the final year of this decade of fail draws to a close, everyone with a keyboard is making a list and checking it twice.  It’s the hour for picking the winners and picking the losers; the snoozer season when writers can phone it in for a few weeks with top ten drivel and self-serving ratings.  For those with an eye on Washington, we are producing a familiar name on lists both favorable and failing:  Joe Lieberman.

Photo: US Senate

Photo: US Senate

He kicked off the 21st century as the base play on the Democratic ticket – the guy who was supposed to solidify the Democratic diehards behind former veep Al Gore during his impossible run against the red state calculus that had tilted in strong favor of George W. Bush.  He was the guy to whip Clinton’s old guard behind the less charismatic, but no less thoughtful, leader of a new Democratic party.  Neither he nor his commander-in-chief-to-be succeeded in either task, little match against a decade of gerrymandered districts and Karl Rove’s timely tactics.

Just under ten years ago, Joe Lieberman was the guy you went to if you needed Democrats on your side.  Now, they can barely speak his name without spitting it.  Particularly as we near the endgame for Barack Obama’s healthcare initiative, Lieberman (I-CT)  may be a pariah in cocktail party circles but his careful manipulation of the letter beside his home state has assured his spot as a power broker in the United States Congress.

This week was one where his handiwork was particularly characteristic.  With a single press conference he catapulted himself from the annoying periphery of voices regurgitating talking points to the place where he always seems to end up – the center of the action.  No sooner was a compromised healthcare package announced by Harry Reid’s Democratic caucus that was it torpedoed effortlessly by a short public statement of opposition by Lieberman.  Within hours of his remarks, party leaders were hurriedly meeting and scurrying about, with Joe’s smug smile to greet them across the table.

A few days later, the public option is out.  Early Medicare buy-in is out.  And several previously core provisions of a healthcare reform bill already neutered in committee now seem to be on the table.  Lieberman is playing coy, saying he is “moving towards a yes vote.”   The store might be sold outright by the time the deal is done, leading some on the progressive side of the supposed Democratic supermajority to squeal.  Even some used to the pariah label themselves are calling for an outright revolt, with former DNC chairman (and real-life doctor) Howard Dean calling for the Senate bill to be killed.

Indeed it would seem that Lieberman holds all the cards in Washington and by the masterful straddling of the aisle until the last possible second, he has usurped even the President of the United States as the sole man in America who says what will or will not happen.

If only Lieberman were that man.

But behind the eye popping headlines is the truth that Lieberman is just an instrument of a larger machine, a pawn in a game with stakes so high the odds are always certain.  Were his stand against the Medicare buy-in the principled stance of a deficit hawk holding firm, Democrats would have great cause for concern with Joe Lieberman.  The problem is, he doesn’t believe a bit of it.  Just this past September – three months ago – he said straight into a rolling camera that he believed that people should be able to buy into Medicare at the age of 55.

What caused the flip-flop?  In September, public universal healthcare looked like it could really happen.  Now with the negotiations dragged on by Republicans and Reid’s ineffective caucus coming up short in the red zone, the public option is thoroughly defeated.  With that obstacle down, Lieberman is free to turn on the firehose to water down the bill even more.  While Obama takes a bath in the negotiating room, the bill soaks up the excess until it poses little danger at all to the status quo.

How did the status quo effect such a dramatic change of heart in Joe Lieberman?  Through over $1 million in donations from health insurance in this decade.    During his last campaign in 2006, he ranked second in the Senate for health insurance donations.  And his home state is headquarters to many of the nation’s leading insurance companies, employing 22,000 in Connecticut.  The private health insurance system that raked in billions keeping America sick during the last ten years paid for Lieberman’s independent run.

And this year, that investment is looking awfully sound.

But before Joe Lieberman is vilified as the Judas Big Healthcare bought to kill the public option, before he makes the tops of the movers and the bottoms of the shakers, we should consider his company.

He’s not the only one on the payroll.
  • Rob Spectre
  • 11
  • Dec
  • 09

Turning the corner at 51st and Madison, she reminded me I had been gone too long.  With her boughs and her bells, with her lights and her garland, she pursed with the quiet patience of the confidently loving.  She knew I’d be back eventually after the excuses became less convenient and the longing became unbearable.  When I walked into the glowing embrace of Rockefeller Center, she mouthed a silent “Hello.”

Her name was New York.  And I fell for her again for the first time.

Her Sunday best in December remains the effortless better of any city in the world.  Slender and elegant, ornate but not ostentatious, New York at Christmastime has a command that would charm the bastard son of the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge.  Every corner shimmers like an evening gown and every surface sparkles like a bottomless hazel gaze.  From the legendary holiday displays at Macy’s to the big, slightly dim electric bows wrapping the storefronts a few blocks uptown, hers is a mirth with a trumpet mute; the mezzo-soprano that never has to belt to be heard.  Even a wart like the Trump Tower looks like a beauty mark this time of year; a slight imperfection that only makes her more stunning.

Everywhere you go in New York it is Christmas.  From struggling Brooklyn cafes to bustling Fifth Avenue shops, from the shoe shine stand by Ground Zero to the projects north of 150th in Harlem, a Christmas unique from within and without Christendom is being celebrated.  A Christmas in the sort of way that appeals to the good nature of even those who don’t hold much faith in the reason for this particular season.  A Christmas that celebrates the city’s unique fraternity.  That sense that these New Yorkers have made it through yet another year together and that such is cause for a moment’s reflection.  That sense that if these people could pull through another year in this town, they could do it again next year.

Photo: Rob Spectre

Photo: Rob Spectre

The heart of that Christmas so distinctly New York sits in front of 30 Rockefeller, a tall and elegant Manhattan gal seasonably fitted and sparkling in any light.  In that storied plaza carrying on the tradition of decades, she is a Christmas tree that dwarfs all others, not in size but in character.  You will find trees taller and wider and more expensively ornamented elsewhere, but that tree in that city square is the physical manifestation of New York’s authenticity.  Huddled around by couples and families, lovers and old friends, it serves as the backdrop of countless Christmas cards and the site of a marriage proposal every hour.

And when the visitor walks through this tradition -  regardless of his religion or custom and irrespective of how naughty or nice – one can’t help but hum the tune of a carol and pine for the taste of an apple cider. When one stands in front of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, it matters less who you are than that you got there.

You can meet me there this year.   I’ll be merry as an elf.

  • Rob Spectre
  • 07
  • Dec
  • 09

We were tossing violently now, the mid-sized commuter buffeted and battered by a strong northerly front. Winter was starting in New York and the weather was beginning to get appropriately dressed, making our final approach a bumpy ride. “The smooth part of our flight is probably over,” the captain had dryly squawked on the overhead a few minutes before, a clear sign to the frequent flyer rewards program members aboard that it was going to be a vomit bag clutcher.

I had landed an exit row seat by myself, and for that I was grateful. The last stretch of turbulence I was on, the blonde next to me yanked in her own lap.  That itself would still have been unremarkable, if not for her putrid vegan diet. Taking these aerial lumps solo was a greater luxury than the legroom – I could quiet my own anxiety with some deep breaths, crank some We Were Promised Jetpacks and land in New York unregurgitated.

About the time of my sigh of relief, as if on some derivative sitcom writer’s cue, he started praying. The deferential, smartly dressed African-American had spent his flight across the aisle quietly reading The Economist and finishing the Times crossword puzzle. In a starched designer button down sporting immaculate handmade shoes, he looked the urbane, confident Upper East Side black man. He seemed the last you would expect to wind up in the throes of charismatic excess.

The first big drop sent him into a spiritual fury.  His fervent prayer spit of his lips like the cattle rush at a Wal-mart Black Friday sale.  Each word emphatically pronounced but near silently voiced, the full span of his enormous hands shook and begged mercy from the sky.  Rocking violently back and forth in his chair like the Orthodox grandmothers I saw in Russia, his conversation with God was like the expressways we were shakily passing over, one-way and blindingly fast.

The plane’s landing lights made a strobe effect against the light snow that was generating our turbulence, lending his charismatic ecstasy alternately a stadium rock show or cheap spookhouse aura.  Huge, practiced fingers snapped with the appropriate gestures of that trade; rigid palms supplicating upwards from clenched, shaking forearms.  His eyes were squinted at the corners in an expression so pitiful you’d think he were a tax evader in front of a federal judge.

He seemed so desperate in those moments while we were landing, making me wonder why he was praying.  I would think one who prayed so well would have his post-mortem ticket already booked, even comped from a life spent in such diligent genuflection.  Shouldn’t his light at the end of the tunnel be prepaid and expecting, leaving little need to remain on this earth?

But I could see in his eyes he was afraid to die.  As he chuckled nervously about it, he declared he “still had work on this earth to do.”  In a rare fit of tact, I kept to myself my confusion as to who was setting the hours for when we should be punching out.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes.  I wonder if there are any faithful as the plane is going down.