• 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
  • 20
  • Oct
  • 09

Post-modernity has changed the lifecycle of tragedy, introducing into the milestone human experience a series of iterative loops that effect steep cliffs of human interest punctuating long, banal plateaus. What was once a natural camelhump when one learned of something horrible, uncovered its true meaning and eventually adapted enough to move on was made by cable television a jagged Afghan landscape; a metaphoric mountain made from what was formerly a mole hill.balloonboy_wanttobelieve-560x700

Last week played host to the latest permutation of this cycle when an attention-seeking dad stashed his kid in the cupboard and let a homemade balloon go into the air. We sucked it in like a diabetic for his insulin with blood vessels now cast-iron from the constant poking of made-for-the-moment journalisms lapping up the sweet taste of scandal like our lives depended on it.  We gasped as the rush overtook us, captivated by the vaguely extraterrestrial cocktail in the sky, showcased with a perpetual John Woo sweep of a helicopter shot.

Shaking some feeling into the numb extremities of our 24/7 lives, it offered the perfect excuse to delay the daily doldrum of paper shuffling and simple arithmetic that we convert into food and rent.  “There is a kid in that thing!” we exclaimed, pointing at the browser window of some burnt Jiffy Pop container floating through the sky, wondering quietly where the hell a boy would fit in such a thing.

“Where is the basket?  Don’t these things have baskets?” we asked ourselves, putting our lives on pause to marvel as the latest updates flew by on Twitter.  “He must be so scared,” we mused, watching replays of the municipal, county and state government press conferences while hastily plinking out the emails to our bosses delivering another excuse why our deadlines wouldn’t be met.  “Don’t be such a pessimist!” we rebuked the inevitable cynic who rolled into our water-cooler conversations suggesting that the whole thing was a hoax, like Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift, Borat’s ass in Eminem’s face, or September 11th, 2001.

For every ten minute burst of new information we tuned into two hours of endless repetition.  “That’s all we know,” the talking heads declared, quickly followed by more imagery of this boy and speculation the various end scenarios.  What if it runs into a plane?  What if it runs into a building?  Can the boy breathe inside there?  Is his voice all squeaky?  Would the Air Force shoot down a boy in a balloon if it gets too close to the Pentagon?  How much do you think that balloon cost?  Wouldn’t Frank’s backyard be big enough to launch one?

We texted each other the latest as soon as we heard it, right up until the inevitable news that it was all a lie.  We feigned outrage with all the energy we could exhaust before clicking up on our remotes.  We were disgusted by such horrible parenting, suggested we would never do such a thing, and proclaimed that such depravity has no place on television.  That this psychotic man and his weak-willed wife should never get our attention; that the coverage of the crime was giving him exactly what he wanted.

Then we turned the channel to Kate Gosselin on The View or Nadya Suleman on Larry King.  We watched Michael Jackson’s father lay claim to another chunk of his departed son’s estate and Roman Polanski get rejected bail.  We watched a former Republican whip shake his ass on Dancing with the Stars and a former Democratic governor announce his intent to be on Celebrity Apprentice.

And when we went to bed that night, we shook our heads once last time, scoffing at a sensational media that would create an environment that would drive a man to pretend his boy was carried away in a balloon.  We continued to pretend that we weren’t feeding the pig that made that balloon fly.

  • Rob Spectre
  • 05
  • Aug
  • 09

“We are doing everything we can.”  It’s a hard line to accept when yours are being held against their will in a hostile land.  For the five months San Francisco’s own Euna Lee and Laura Ling were held in North Korea, the Obama administration didn’t leak a word of its work to free them.  Every week the question was brought up in the White House press room, and every week Robert Gibbs said the same line.  Every time a White House official with even peripheral influence on foreign policy would appear on Meet the Press, David Gregory would ask about Lee and Ling with the same response.  The community of “citizen journalist” shocked at the seizure of their kin wrote their representatives, posted videos, and demanded explanation.

Every time without fail a tight-lipped, oblique answer.  “We are doing everything we can.”

Last night, their secretive effort finally became apparent to those following this tragic story.  Former President Bill Clinton returned from North Korea after meeting with its infirm leader Kim Jong-Il, with the two women in tow.  Reading like a Tom Clancy thriller, extracting the Current TV correspondents involved the combined diplomacy of the top levels of the last and current Democratic White Houses stealing away in complete secrecy with a careful wrangling of a concerned press.

It’s the kind of intrigue one thought had no place in the 21st century, the kind of heroism of which one imagined government was no longer capable.  It’s callous and perverse to refer to the safe return of journalists as a political win, but it is a strain of victory that should be properly celebrated.  These two women are back home with no blood shed – an outcome many wrote was not possible.

It’s less a success yielding political leverage than one winning public credibility.  In the short lifespan of this administration, the Obama doctrine of engagement can easily appear impotent, particularly with comparison to his direct predecessor.  Talking instead of bombing is a new thing for America.  A successful product of that policy – even if it took five months – makes more such victories likely.

Last night we learned from this administration what “everything we can” means.   All bullshit aside -it seems like a lot.

  • Rob Spectre
  • 07
  • May
  • 09

The title on the docket read “The Future of Journalism” and if the U.S. Senate Subcommittee for Communications, Technology and the Internet is an accurate barometer, the forecast for print is poor indeed.  Those testifying at the hearing included a high-profile Google exec, a television producer, and the head of a non-profit investing in new media for local communities.  In fact, only one representative of the current print media was present and he – James Moroney of the Dallas Morning News – is renown for his push of that paper onto the web.

Joining them was the hearing’s headline act, Arianna Huffington, a noted liberal public voice, onetime gubernatorial candidate and co-founder of lefty news blog The Huffington Post.    Having experienced no small success at the head of one possible manifestation of journalism’s future, Huffington had this to say about traditional media and its stifling effect on keeping the public informed.

They are far too quick to drop a story-even a good one, in their eagerness to move on to the Next Big Thing.  [Online journalists] chomp down on a story and stay with it, refusing to move off it until they’ve gotten down to the marrow.

Huffington’s got it right in the sense that online journalists, with their virtually unlimited print space and dramatically lower content costs, do lack the constraints of their traditional counterparts.  The luxury of living without word limits or column inches lends online work to invest the kind of time in smaller stories magazines and newspapers often must let go in favor of breaking news.  But does luxury mean the format change will produce higher quality news?  Will bloggers beat world-class newsrooms?

Let’s look at two small, but significant stories from the past week neglected by mainstream media outlets.  Last week the Justice Department dismissed its case against two former pro-Israel lobbyists employed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  A case of true sedition and espionage, a pair of lobbyists were accused of covert back-channel communications of national security secrets with a wide swath of the US government, funneling that information back to Israel.  The four-year legal battle involving the wiretapping of a congresswoman, the possible testimony of Condoleeza Rice and a number of Bush administration insiders and a complex web of business and political interests that almost certainly compromised classified information to a foreign government.  A foreign government not only armed with nuclear weapons, but also in the middle of a sweeping political change and fresh from armed conflict just months before the case was dismissed.

The story was dumped in Friday’s trash and largely ignored since by outlets more concerned with swine flu, Specter’s switch and a SCOTUS opening.  The Huffington Post did hold on to it, though to what effacacy?  HuffPo has only run two stories on the AIPAC case since the dismissal, both op-eds by David Bromwich and Harry Moroz.

The latter focused on Obama’s promise of freeing the White House from lobbyist influence and the former focused on an out-of-context quotation from the New York Times and a related 2004 investigation of Ahmed Chalabi.  While both of course are valid, neither could be rightly considered getting any closer to the marrow of the Fed’s bone with the Israel lobby.  Neither had any previously unreported perspectives or new primary sources.  This is reporting through Lexis-Nexis; obviously accurate but hardly insightful.  The AIPAC story needs a Bob Woodward grade breakthrough gained through an extensive set of relationships and penetrating access, not further exposition by someone adept with search engine skills.  Deft Googling is not going to expose those pulling the levers of these grand machines.

The second is the story of Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA and the plastic paragon of the anti-gay movement.  The artificial and inarticulate blonde made headlines after she voiced her support for California’s Proposition 8, bringing the culture wars to the otherwise banal Miss USA beauty pageant.  After the queen publicly opposed gay marriage, the Huffington Post has run 19 separate stories focused on her and her views.  MSNBC, by comparison, blessfully has run four.

One story died because someone powerful wanted it to; the second died because it should have.  But in neither case did Huffington’s vision of online journalism exceed the quality of her traditional competition.  Indeed, in both cases, they could only offer less restraint on editorial excess, with the simpler of the two stories getting radically more attention.

The Senate Subcommittee does have it right – traditional journalism is dying and its future is online.  But, the public needs more than the charge people like Arianna Huffington are leading.  While creative non-fiction and editorial perspective – the kind this website offers that you are reading right now – has a place in the broad body of American journalism, it is not a replacement for real reporting.

The Huffington Post, Daily Kos, ThinkProgress, and Dream Not Of Today are all valuable contributors to a free society.  But how free would our society be if they replaced the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post and Time Magazine?

  • Rob Spectre
  • 21
  • Apr
  • 09

Last week with little pomp and even less regret, Rolling Stone magazine left the city of its birth, closing its final shop in San Francisco, California.  Started in 1967 on $7,500 borrowed from family and friends, the music mag Jann Wenner built into a cultural icon has finally, unceremoniously departed its hometown.  The launchpad for the literary careers of Lester Bangs, Tom Wolfe, Cameron Crowe, and, of course, Hunter S. Thompson.

“It was one of the energy centers of the cultural, rock ‘n’ roll scene of the mid- to late ’60s,” [former editor Ben Fong-Torres] said. “For Rolling Stone to be in San Francisco gave it a particular strength, a singularity.”

Photo: Rolling Stone

Photo: Rolling Stone

Large format with no writing guidelines, it became a home for the hard-edged and verbose looking to write on the West Coast. In those days, literary culture flourished in New England, but was bare across the West Coast with only the entertainment sections of the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle serving as the principal employers of writers writing about rock n’ roll.  Wenner moved the headquarters to the Big Apple in 1977, extracting the last of the editorial staff shortly thereafter.

All that remained of the Frisco manifestation of the magazine in 2009 was a closet.  At its closing was an admin, two sales reps – one of whom was fulltime for one of Wenner’s other media outlets, Men’s JournalRolling Stone wrote a couple paychecks in the city limits, but had left the city a long, long time ago.

Though it really left San Francisco decades ago, a strong argument could be made that it left its heart here.  The change from long format, the wane of its relevance and the scarcity of its serious long form political work all began when it moved to New York, and its slow, heartwrenching decline into a gentrified museum for classic rock more typical of the suburbs of the Bay Area than its metropolitan center.

Calling San Francisco “a provincial backwater” on his way out of town, Jann Wenner’s personal work never got any better than that he wrote here.  Though undoubtedly his life was more comfortable and fulfilling, his magazine more efficient to operate and its ads easier to close, his interview with Bob Dylan in 1969 has an edge, an insight and an unproven, hungry passion completely absent from his interview with the same subject in 2007.  For whatever gain he got in the move, San Francisco is where he and arguably Rolling Stone left their best work.

San Francisco may not be a town where anyone should spend a lifetime, but does have an undeniable grip on the finest creativity of her citizens.