Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Returning to the Fever Swamps of Little Rock & Lake County

You've read all the ultra-earnest coverage of the opening of Bill Clinton's new Presidential library, an unfortunate bit of riverside architecture which some have understandably likened to a giant house trailer. Here, for a change of pace, you can sample an enjoyably wicked little romp, from a Weekly Standard writer who was a young research assistant for the American Spectator, back in the day when the magazine's Richard Mellon Scaife-funded Arkansas Project was doing its best to undermine the presidency. The writer retraces his earlier steps, revisiting some of the impossibly vivid Arkansas dogpatch characters who populated Clinton's life and added color and fabric to his life story, while also giving the right wing plenty of ammunition to use against him. Do try to read it when you get a free moment...

Journalistic Immunity and the Declining Dollar. With a federal prosecutor threatening to put reporters in jail for writing about the brouhaha over the White House's leak outing undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame, the subject of journalistic privilege and immunity from prosecution has come in for renewed debate. Legal Affairs Mag has an interesting online debate, and the Washington Post's Charles Lane (whose name you may recall from his stint as editor of the New Republic during the Charles Glass fiction-writing scandal) does a nice job of summing up the state of the prevailing law here. The White House ignored pressure to name an independent counsel in the matter, instead naming a career prosecutor who's supposedly beyond reproach. But many are beginning to wonder why this lawman is targeting for prosecution reporters who merely wrote about the story, while the guy who started the whole thing by printing the nugget, Bob Novak, blithely ignores the whole mess. In short, it doesn't pass the smell test. And if I haven't already worn you down enough with worries over the declining U.S. dollar, this editorial in the authoritative Economist mag adds some more important points to the conversation. All of this makes me miss former Clinton-era Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin (who in a less-partisan world would be the obvious successor to Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan when he steps down next year). As Bob Woodward famously recounted in one of his anal-retentive insiderish books, The Agenda, Rubin was tutoring the new president on how his most important Oval Office task was controlling the federal deficit in order to gain the confidence of the bond market, when Clinton angrily retorted: you mean my presidency is at the mercy of bond traders? If only Bush 43 could somehow get that same message...

Exurban Mediocrity. The Lake County News-Herald isn't known for great journalism. In fact, it's not even known for mediocre journalism, though it has always been strong in its sports coverage, carrying a column by the venerable and much-beloved Hal Lebovitz , who quit the PD in a huff more than 15 years ago because of the bully-boy tactics of then-sports editor Tom Greer (who insisted that he drive back to the office downtown from his house in University Hts. just to tend to the tiniest change in his stories). In the mid-'90s, during my unforgiving muckraker phase (which eventually passed as I began focusing more on the possibility that the bad guys--or the merely arrogant or lazy--were just as subject to the possibilities of redemption as anyone), I profiled longtime N-H editor Jim Collins in Cleveland Mag (it's not online, but the resolution that Congressman Steve LaTourette read into the Congressional Record to honor his 50th anniversary is). I simply wrote what my reporting revealed: that he was part of a small kitchen cabinet of Republicans who ran the county and used his paper as their megaphone, and that he would wear ties bearing elephant likenesses and other such Republican-themed clothing to work, bating his staff when he wasn't bullying or ignoring them. In fact, his only brief interruption in a more than 40-year reign came when he actually worked for the party itself. Another count in the indictment against him, as I recall, is that he wrote columns about such boring subjects as lost socks. He understandably threw a fit over the story (I was later told), apparently assuming that it would be a softball, a routine kind of professional-courtesy puff piece. To my delight, he even used his Sunday column to blast the piece, which of course only brought more attention to it. Anyway, much of that story came back to me last week, when we heard another reminder of the paper's continuing problems, a pathetic story about a young woman of our acquaintance, a recent college grad, who was first told she was hired, only to be quickly told maybe not. So she's instead setting her vocational sights on TV, and who could really blame her? With all that in mind, I happened to check the paper's website last week, and found something pleasantly surprising. It seems staff writer Scott Heasley is working on a piece about car vs. pedestrian accidents, and he invited readers to email him their stories on that topic. And the invitation to email-enabled reporting was right there on the paper's home page (a few days ago but not now), no less. Good for the News-Herald. Now, if only they could get the rest of the operation out of the stone age...

Some Signs of the Times in Journalism. Good for for experimenting with this. But doubly good for them to ultimately do the right thing in balancing ads and editorial and thus maintain their credibility. And the web does indeed lessen the need for these kinds of auxiliary print editions. The LAT's decision to drop its national edition made me chuckle, reminding me as it did of how I subscribed to the daily Washington Post by snail mail for several months in 1986, after moving from Washington to Chicago. I somehow convinced my employer, a financially flush magazine based in D.C., that I needed to keep up on news from the federal government even as I manned their one-person bureau in the Windy City. Truth be told, the bosses were pretty easy to convince: while the salaries they paid weren't great, the perks were to die for. Just weeks after they packed me off to Chicago, ostensibly to serve as Midwest editor, I was somehow sent to cover an air transport conference in London, all expenses paid. Anyway, today, of course, I'd simply keep up on the Washington Post through its excellent online version. As for that magazine where I first cut my journalistic teeth, I got a major blast of deja vu recently, when my friend Bill Hoffman moved from Dallas to D.C., only to land on the staff of my old mag. Good for you, Billy, and do keep me posted.

One War Correspondent Takes Stock of Another. Former Clevelander Evan Wright, whose fearless war reporting for Rolling Stone ended up in his book Generation Kill (I profiled him here,) doesn't seem to have headed back to Jan Wenner's vineyards. Instead, he showed up recently with this piece in the Village Voice. The book, meanwhile, got a lukewarm review recently in the New York Review of Books. It carried all the more weight because of the outsized reputation of the reviewer: longtime New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges, whose simmering anger over how politicians and the media glorify and sentimentalize war has produced some almost hypnotic anti-war riffs (for which he was once nearly booed off the stage at a college commencement speech). Hedges continues those angry blasts in the review, writing (in the kind of pointed assertions that he could never make in his own paper) that "these Marines have learned the awful truth about our civil religion. They have learned that our nation is not righteous." Just in case you missed the point, he later notes: "We are an isolated and reviled nation. We are tyrants to others weaker than ourselves. We have lost sight of our democratic ideals." As for Wright's book, while he finds it "sensitive, thoughtful, nuanced," he also thinks it shows evidence of a "frightening moral neutrality."


Post a Comment

<< Home