Friday, February 27, 2004

Thundering Thundertech

Jason "I am a fullback" Therrien (click here) is one of our favorite folks here at Working With Words. He's been called, among other things, a poster boy for the new generation of Cleveland entrepreneurs as well as the best example of what Jesuit education (in general) and John Carroll (in particular) can produce. So we got a special kick out of his being mentioned this week as a successor to no less than John D. Rockefeller in Ch. 3's otherwise light and syrupy new series, Making it in Cleveland, which WKYC hopes can be something of a counterbalance to the steady drumbeat of despair that has become the PD's/Ideastream's The Quiet Crisis. And as long as you're checking out that story, why not also take a moment and review Thundertech's newly relaunched site, a wonderfully upgraded version that describes its work with a light wit and imagination (even a zen quote) far too rare in the oh-so-serious world of web developers, whose websites are becoming increasingly alike in their blandness. You go, guys...

A Few Thoughts on Media Access & Democracy

The conversations and coverage are at fever pitch just now, in this election year, and I see a single (though quite complicated) thread running through much of it: how do democracy and access to the media megaphone relate to one another?

The Super Bowl halftime fiasco, coming in the middle of a presidential race, had the effect of forcing the issue of the tide of crap culture washing over us. If you can't escape it even in the one remaining program that much of the nation still shares in these days of fragmented TV, where can you? Howard Dean dismissed the resulting uproar as a silly sideshow taking up oxygen from more important issues, as did many intellectuals and thinking folk, and I understand their point and even partly agree. But I also think they utterly failed to understand how this single outrage served as a useful last-straw focal point for tens of millions of Americans who are tired of all the crap shoveled at them from every direction in this culture and don't want to put up with it any longer. Clinton, with his high-frequency political antenna and educated gut, would have understood that immediately. Dean didn't, which was just one more reason why his campaign ran out of gas with average people otherwise inclined to like his message.

In any event, the Super Bowl incident has now given rise to radio giant Clear Channel's decision to install a no-tolerance policy for shock jocks (among the main offending polluters of the crap culture) carried on its stations. That's got Jeff Jarvis, a nationally influential blogger and Stern fan about whom I've written before, in high snit. He went off yesterday about how it means "the death of broadcast." And the reactions have been overwhelming--that entry drew 219 comments (and counting) from his readers. As a freedom of expression purist, he's upset about the opening this provides for the usual suspects to go after anything they don't like, and I can partly sympathize. But in the end, I'm even more eager for the country to begin to have a real dialogue about how we can intelligently deal with verbal and visual pollution just as we've dealt with dirt in our air and water. And Howard Stern and his open sewer of a show is as guilty of fouling up our culture as any giant, pre-Clean Air Act chemical company ever was.

But don't be fooled into thinking that the FCC's Michael Powell is on the side of the angels here. He's merely using this issue to try to win back some small shred of his reputation, lost by being a shill for giant conglomerates that want to further merge, giving us fewer voices. Time columnist Joe Klein, in this recent column, talks about "television's ability to lobotomize democracy," an apt phrase. It has already done that, and sometimes I despair over how there seems almost no way to reverse that toxic grip the medium has over everything, the way it seems to infect everything it touches.

But then something comes along to renew my spirits and remind me that we can indeed take our country back, one step at a time, one angry and organized citizen connecting with other similarly angered citizens. My friend Mike Quinn did that for me not long ago. While enjoying my coffee and Times at Talkies cafe one Saturday morning, warming myself before the roaring fire, I bumped into Mike and his wife, who had been shopping at the West Side Market. It wasn't long before the talk turned to local TV. Mike and his wife, newly empty nesters with the last of their children away at college, have relocated to the Shaker Square area, and love it for its convenience and cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Which is why Mike became especially incensed over some typically reductionist, cartoonish Fox-8 coverage of a routine robbery there. The idiot "reporter" used the Rapid station as a backdrop, suggesting that these kinds of crimes are made easier with the use of a new-style getaway car--a Rapid train. "Police say this guy could be from anywhere. That's because the train drops people off and picks people up right near the apartment complex (where the robbery occurred)." Mike's anger was almost volcanic--for a moment, I was concerned he might bust a blood vessel or two. He seemed to treat that as almost a blood libel on urbanism and anyone who chose to live in a non-suburban setting (and Shaker Square devotees are understandably touchy these days about its mounting difficulties). He later showed me a copy of an angry email he sent to the station and the PD, its cadences thundering like passages from the Old Testament, demanding an answer, and threatening to file complaints with the FCC and anyone else he could think of. It helped that video production is his business; he knows how to skillfully deconstruct the message. "He had NO EVIDENCE that the Rapid had ANY INVOLVEMENT in the crime. What does he think anyway? That someone is going to take the Rapid to Shaker Square, commit a crime, and then wait for the next car out? That kind of reporting is totally irresponsible, to put the idea in people's minds that the Rapid Transit has anything to do with making Shaker Square more unsafe than other neighborhoods. Has the jackass ever heard of buses? They can bring outsiders into virtually ANY neighborhood--except probably the one he lives in!"

For a moment, I was reminded of the iconic moment in the prophetic 1976 movie Network, where the Howard Beale character thunders to the heavens (and cameras), "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" At his best, Howard Dean had some of that quality too (as does Bill Moyers and Charles Lewis), a focused anger about all of the petty and not-so-petty outrages that have combined to leave the average American feeling as though he or she no longer has any say in the affairs of their country. And while his campaign may have gone away, his widely shared anger hasn't and won't. Mike's beef with local TV--increasingly an open sewer whose formulaic pretty-warehouse-fire-signifying-nothing/I-Team-gotcha-"investigation"/tightly-focused-shot-of-poor-inner-city-black coverage got me to thinking about a possible new grassroots line of attack on this cancer that subtly saps a community's spirit. We don't have to stand for it. It's time to get in people's faces...

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Thoughts to Frame the Day

"Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings."
--W.H. Auden

"I have trusted to intuition. I did it at the beginning. I do it even now. I have no idea how things might turn out, where in my writing I might go next. I have trusted to my intuition to find the subjects, and I have written intuitively. I have an idea when I start, I have a shape; but I will fully understand what I have written only after some years."
--V.S. Naipaul, from his Nobel literature prize acceptance speech

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Double Addendum

Last Friday, I wrote about Howard Dean and his erstwhile race for the White House. And while I hope I sufficiently emphasized that several factors did him in, including his own fatal mistakes and perhaps those of his advisors, you couldn't have missed that I was also leveling much of the blame on the major media. They no doubt rightfully understood that much of Dean's thundering, righteous critique about anti-democratic insider elites applied just as much to them as to anyone on Capitol Hill, in the White House or along Washington's K Street lobbyist corridor. And so they stuck it to him every chance they got. But don't take my word for it. The Nation Magazine's increasingly timely website has just posted a splendid piece by the incomparable William Greider, in which he begins with a provocative observation: "In forty years of observing presidential contests, I cannot remember another major candidate brutalized so intensely by the media, with the possible exception of George Wallace." Please read it all when you get a moment. I've raved about Greider before. He's been a hero of mine at least since his eye-opening book on the secretive Federal Reserve, Secrets of the Temple, which did for the Fed what The Brethren did for another famously closed culture, the Supreme Court. Only the latter book took two authors to crack the code, Scott Armstrong and Bob Woodward. The Nation, like most of the other serious, high-minded political magazines of its type, has long hovered around 100,000 circulation. But with its enemies in control of the government, the century-plus-old journal has seen those number steadily rise, with a 25-percent jump (to a total circ of about 160K) late last year alone. And Greider is easily the best the mag has to offer...

Roldo Remembers. Institutional memory is easily overlooked but indispensible to journalism. And we have far too little of it in this town. I remember the PD's Brent Larkin once recounting at a holiday party how, when an editor began planning a 20-year anniversary piece on Cleveland's default, he looked around the newsroom at 1801 Superior and silently made a note of who had been around at the time in order to write about it today. Larkin was it, and so he got the nod. Larkin's longtime foil, independent muckraker Roldo Bartimole, has a similarly broad horizon when it comes to all things Cleveland, even though he happened to grow up in Connecticut. And he uses it to brilliant effect, reflexively putting each new development into a larger context. Last year, in the same week that the Jayson Blair-NYT plagiarism story broke, I happened to bump into Roldo at Ruthie & Mo's. When the subject of a reporter making up stories came up, he immediately thought of a similar incident that took place about 30 years ago at the PD, involving a young hotshot reporter who liked to invent his own facts. After getting bounced from the paper in a celebrated case, that writer later went on to a long career as Hollywood's most infamous screenwriter, where he could make more appropriate use of his gift for fiction. And now Joe Esterhasz has a new book out, Hollywood Animal. I don't think his fellow Cleveland ethnic, Senator George Voinovich, will enjoy curling up with this book, since it recounts how his beloved daughter was once one of the many young women who offered her sexual services to the Hollywood Animal...

Anyway, let me get back to my point here. Like any good writer, journalist or historian (and he qualifies as all three), Roldo supplements his long and useful memory with a trove of documents and recordings, just in case he'll need them later. After I wrote recently about Tim Hagan, who's running for his old seat on the Cuyahoga County Commission, Bartimole sent me a brief transcript outake of one especially interesting recording that he made at a Gateway meeting about a decade ago. I think it speaks volumes about Hagan's electability, specifically his arrogant lack of interest (at least in this case) in citizen input on an important issue. Would he conduct himself similarly in the future when we revisit the Convention Center plans? The following is a slightly edited version (pay special attention to the meaningless distinction of whether this fellow represents an organization, or merely represents himself as a citizen entitled to a straight answer on a question involving a major public expenditure):

The meeting was a public session, and Roy Kaufman, a long-time lawyer-activist, was having an exchange with Commissioner Hagan on the issue of government bonds for Gund Arena. Kaufman said that he was disturbed that Hagan had already made up his mind "before all the facts were in."
Kaufman to Mary Boyle, chairing the meeting: "You just said Miss Boyle that you have to digest, you have to go through the lease, you have to get your attorneys to go over it. But here we have Mr. Hagan already saying, this is a done deal as far as he's concerned."
Hagan to Kaufman: "Thank you for your views. I went through 100 hours and I have some knowledge of it (Cavs lease). I think generally it is the (best) for this community. My colleagues and I will review this in light of the fact we have hired counsel (Squire-Sanders) to give us the best judgment legally, and you as a lawyer understand that, and the financial review independent of Gateway. When we do that we'll make our judgment. I've said from the very beginning that I think it's good for the community. Period. and I don't equivocate on that issue.
"And I don't see why you or anyone else thinks that because you speak as an individual in the public (it's) the public that you think you represent. But you're only representing yourself. (You) have this outrage. I fail to understand it. I'm expressing my view as an elected official."
Kaufman: I'm sorry you think I represent myself. I'm here for an organization, a watchdog for the people.
Hagan: Fine. Thank you very much for your self appointed watchdog of the people. Every four years the people appoint, eh, elect people in a democracy to represent their views. If you would like to be involved in being more than that, then run for political office. But when you come in and say you represent people and you are, you're self-
appointed, I respectfully will tell you that you're one of the individuals in this room as a public citizen. I'll listen to you....(but I'm) not exercised about it."

Pity the Catholic Hierarchy

The poor Catholic Church. Or more precisely, the poor Vatican and Catholic hierarchy. They can never seem to catch a break when it comes to timing.

Just as the mummified conservative old guard was catching its breath last year and beginning to rally back from the tremendous blow to its morale provided by the metastizing clergy sex abuse scandal, an elderly retired bishop in Phoenix happened to pick the worst possible moment to flee the scene after hitting and later killing a pedestrian. It couldn't help but fan the flames of media coverage. It dramatized what appeared to be a hierarchy completely out of control, seemingly used to taking as its due whatever it wanted, whether that involved the sexual innocence of a defenseless young child or even the life of a bystander.

And this week the church's hierarchy is being hit with the lastest bit of awful timing. On the very day in which the Vatican's clueless official statement--that the American Bishops' zero-tolerance sex-abuse policy is an "overreaction"-- hits the American papers, the young man who helped touch off this latest sad chapter turns up dead, the apparent victim of suicide. Patrick McSorley helped push the entire sordid chapter into the open by bravely agreeing to go public with his testimony, in court and in the media, that Boston-area priest John Geoghan had molested him. Eight-five others later came forward with the same charge, in the process helping the Boston Globe break its explosive series, which touched off a wave of coverage elsewhere (to its lasting discredit, our own Plain Dealer had uncovered a mountain of its own reporting, by the talented David Briggs, on similar clerical abuse in this diocese, but chose to hold on to it until after the Globe helped open the flood gates). Patrick McSorley's name will be remembered as long as martyrs to monstrous crimes are recalled. His tormenters--and perhaps even more importantly, the dazzlingly robed cowards who continue to defend them--richly deserve all the ignominy we can muster.

To Read More: If you have the stomach to delve any deeper into this sad story, I recommend that you check out this indispensible web tool, the Abuse Tracker, ably begun by the Poynter Institute, a stalwart journalism organization, but now housed on the National Catholic Reporter's recently upgraded website.

Monday, February 23, 2004

"The President is Not a Statistician"

That astonishing assertion came last week from presidential press secretary Scott McClellan. He was trying his best to stave off aggressive questioning from the White House press corps, seemingly reawakened by the growing Bush credibility gap, about some job-forecast numbers. In its pithiness and hilarious counterintuitiveness (who, after all, thinks poor George W. is a statistician?), I think it has a fighting chance to become one of the really memorable statements of this presidency--at least among comedians. It may never rank up there with "I am not a crook" or "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky," but then George W. somehow offers historians and pundits both so much less and so much more to work with than even Clinton and Nixon when it comes to material. Let's just make sure that we don't get four more years of this dreck, shall we?

Besides, I think these press jackals are missing the real story, which is featured prominently on the home page of the White House website: the death of the president's dog, Spot (yes, like the old Dick and Jane monosyllabic readers, your president has, or rather had, a dog named Spot). I especially love how you can click on the larger story to read Spot's bio. I know poor McClellan would prefer that our attention be focused today on Spot, may he rest in peace. But I prefer to dwell on some of these other issues of lagging credibility.

Vasectomy Zoning. If you live long enough, you'll encounter just about everything in this life. This fascinating new coinage is shorthand for that growing cohort of increasingly militant married but childless couples who insist on the same respect as that accorded their "breeder" counterparts. Check out this interesting piece on the growing movement in this week's Boston Globe Magazine.

Finally, we bring you a great quote from the writer Alfred Kazin, who once honored the impossibly felicitous essayist Edward Hoagland with some of the highest praise one writer can give another. Hoagland, he said, "is a virtuoso of the reader-capsizing sentence." Now, if that doesn't convince you to track down some of the great one's writing, nothing will...

Friday, February 20, 2004

Howard's End, or a New Beginning?

The role of third parties in American politics, historian Richard Hofstadter famously observed, is to "sting like a bee and then die." And while insurgent Democrat Howard Dean wasn't technically running a third-party race, he was running from so far outside of the single party of big money, pliant politicians and arrogant media power wielded like a nightstick on anyone who dares venture beyond the elite consensus, that it might well have been.

Today we learn that a major union official--who first thought he might ride the Dean coattails, but later clambered off the bandwagon to place his bets elsewhere--thought the guy was "crazy" for refusing his suggestion to back out of the race and go away gracefully. How quaint this is, almost a throwback to the mid-20th century, when squat, built-like-sparkplug union leaders with fat cigars barked orders at would-be presidents. Imagine the nerve of this candidate, refusing to bow to his major investors.

But did Dean also do himself in? Of course he did. As the contributions rolled in like a tidal wave from the web, he got overconfident and even spendthrift, absurdly spending precious dollars on valet parking (!!) for fans arriving for his many live rallies. And anyone who's worked just a single day in the media could have told you that his implacable, self-righteous anger aimed at the traditional media would eventually come back to bite him. In perhaps the most over-the-top detail yet reported about the campaign's touchiness about the media, The New Republic's Ryan Lizza learned, by hanging around the campaign HQ in late January, that one over-caffeinated campaign geek had actually gone to the trouble of writing some computer code that purported to rate the anti-Dean tendencies of various members of the media. Pathetic.

My friend, the uber-geek/single-man-about-town and stylish writer Dan Hanson, happened to mention the other day (in another context) the interesting notion that people invariably tend to overestimate how much technology will change things in three years, while underestimating its effect over ten. I think the concept applies precisely to politics and the new ways of raising money. The Democratic establishment so wary of Howard Power and yes, even the Republicans, are nevertheless going to have to do a serious study of the phenomenon of his campaign, which continued to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars EACH DAY even after he started losing primaries. There's something to be learned there about bottom-up politics coupled with smart use of the web.

Former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, now a talking head on MSNBC, is a smart (some say too-smart) fellow who designed much of the failed strategy. You might call him Dean's Karl Rove (in my favorite anecdote from the campaign, Trippi was so busy and unreachable at the height of the frenzy, that his personal accountant, unable to reach him through conventional means, took to trying to reach him through the campaign's blog chatter). But he also may have taken his newbie client to the cleaners just a bit, drawing a consulting fee percentage for all the ads the campaign ran--a pretty surprising conflict of interest, at best (but dismiss the silly stuff the right wing is pushing about how the billings were $7 million. The bulk of that figure included the money actually paid to broadcasters for the commercials, with Trippi's consultancy merely being the pass-through conduit. Details, details...).

Anyway, Dean, defiant as ever, is going down in blazing glory. Now, as even some of his most once-ardent supporters are referring to him as "a vehicle, not a destination," the candidate himself is boasting that his cause has helped awaken the Dems from their slumber. And he's probably half-right. Kerry at least looks awake now, no longer a candidate for the embalmer. But that's hardly to say that he's caught fire. The poor fellow, in the supple coinage of The Atlantic's Jack Beatty, continues to bury "his applause lines in the gray lava of his monotone." And if you happened to catch his acceptance speech the other night in Wisconsin, you might have noticed the hilarious way in which his batty wife visibly recoiled from his awkward smooch for the cameras. Not sure the country's quite ready for four years of this odd couple.

Perhaps the most interesting observation came from Trippi himself, who made this point at a conference the other day:

I fervently believe that we're at a pivotal point in our country.
Broadcast politics has failed us miserably; failed the country
miserably. You have no debate, real debate going into the war. There
was a never real debate about the Patriot Act. That debate isn't
happening anywhere in the country except on the Net really.
There is only one tool, one platform, one medium that allows the
American people to take their government back, and that's the Internet.
It's going to happen because millions of Americans decide to act in
concert together to change America's politics.
And let me tell you something. I said this before. No one is going to
change the country for you. We're going to have to do it for ourselves.
No knight on a white horse in shining armor is going to ride into
Washington by himself and change that place. Not going to happen. He
can be as well meaning as he wants to, it's not going to happen.
There's only one force, it's us, it's the American people, and this is
the place, this is the platform. It is the Internet that gives them the
power to come together as one community and take their country back.

I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with that. You?

And speaking of Dan Hanson, that object of amorous desire among all East Side Irish lasses, his long-awaited first piece for Cleveland Magazine (he's long been the tech editor and columnist for sister pub Inside Business), on the subject of online dating, is an enormously interesting piece of work, rich with his signature self-deprecating humor but also shot through with a kind of oozing humanity and warmth, a tough balance to pull off. In just a few words, he brilliantly describes the awkwardness inherent in meeting a first date: "I’m not sure whether to shake hands, hug or pat her on the head, so I think I manage a combination of all three."

As the oldest living American who can get away with using the word "dude" without managing to sound silly, Dan utterly resists classification. Is he half geek, half writer? A technology guy who writes about it? Or a writer steeped in geekiness? Who knows, and who cares? This piece is merely the latest in a long line of writing projects in which we have watched him blossom before our eyes, steadily becoming surer and surer of his skills, branching out to new topics and different styles, but always delivering highly readable gems. Hats off, Dan...

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Orlean in the Flesh

Back in June, as you may recall, I enthused at some length about Shaker Hts. native Susan Orlean, a writer's writer who brilliantly labors on the staff of the New Yorker, regularly serving up gleaming little gems on the most surprising subjects. Yesterday, to our delight, we got to see her live, in all her understated glory, speaking in a generous-sized room (on the CWRU campus) that was nevertheless not nearly large enough to comfortably accomodate all the people crowded in to listen and learn from the master.

To call her elfin doesn't really do her justice. Yes, she's tiny. But her spirit and energy for her craft makes her seem so much larger. She told any number of charming stories, and I won't try to recount them all. But a few cry out for retelling. She nicely dramatized her by now well-known aversion for dreary celebrity journalism by recounting an early tale of profiling Tom Hanks. She admitted that while it's fun to meet famous people, and it's the obvious path to get into large national magazines, "after a while I began to ask myself 'what am I really learning?'" She played the "Cleveland card" with Hanks, warming him up by noting that she had seen him years earlier perform at the Cleveland Playhouse. And for all of that alloted half hour, he seemed to be taking the bait, graciously telling her that, what the heck, they should have lunch together as well. And over lunch, he subsequently stroked her writerly ego by telling her something he said he'd never told anyone before: that he secretly thinks he's ugly. She ate it up of course.

But she soon learned that he had ladled out the same faux-intimate juicy detail to her two other colleagues, whom the magazine had, in traditional Darwinian fashion for rookie writers, also assigned the profile to. For her, the essential early lesson was this: he's not a bad guy at all, and didn't mean to be untruthful. It's just that by the stilted conventions of celebrity profiles, "you get those tidbits doled out to you" along with the small fragments of a subject's time. And time is what you need to get to the essence of someone. So she has decided to leave coverage of the J Lo/Ben breakup and the like to the thousands of others who ventilate after those kinds of stories. And she's struck off on a different path.

Instead, her beat has become the non-beat, what she calls "the human beat," before correcting herself with "the life form beat," since she's also written about non-human subjects that interest her. The New Yorker even had to invent its own category for her work, because it otherwise defied all their classifications. "Because I don't cover a beat, there are days when I feel there are no more stories. So I'll have to walk down the street to find some. And some days it actually kind of works that way." She's now working on a story, for instance, about pigeon racing, something she first learned about from a little girl she met while walking her dog one day. She went back to her desk and googled the subject, and learned there's a giant subculture. She wanted to learn more.

The heart of her idiosyncratic genius, though, as I wrote about last year, is more an attitude (coupled with a good work ethic). She put a sublime name to it: "non-judgmental curiosity." She credits her dad for much of that inherited impulse, noting how he would insist that they drive through some of Cleveland's worst riot-torn neighborhoods during her formative years, so as to be reminded that not everyone grows up as comfortably as they. "If anything has formed me as a person, and as a writer, because they're not very different," it was moments like those.

And of course, she had to do the obligatory New Yorker inside stuff story for fans of the magazine who can never get enough of that. But even there she came up with her own splendid twist, a fresh tale for even the most jaded veteran New Yorker fan. She recounted how when she first began writing during the Robert Gottlieb era (late '80s), the atmosphere was more like a graduate school faculty than a magazine. She wasn't given any deadlines, story length nor even told how much she'd be paid. When asked about her deadline, her editor responded "Well, when will it be done?" Story length? "However long it has to be." And most importantly, she wanted to know what she'd be paid for writing it. He dryly responsed: "It will be sufficient."

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Does Writing Make You More Literate?

The beauty of online writing, as I've perhaps mentioned so often that you're tired of hearing it, lies in its radical democracy. You don't have to be a geek or an HTML jockey, you don't have to be 15 years old or anything else to almost instantly take part in the conversation. But just as important as the fact that writers need not be techies to have access to a free printing press, is the less-remarked-upon fact that techies and other left-brainers can discover the beauty and power of writing and sharing more fully formed ideas.

Which is why I was a bit bowled over when I came across this blog posting recently. The fellow who wrote it is pretty clearly a died-in-the-wool geek. And yet blogging has led him to ask a wonderful question--Does writing make you more literate? Do you learn more?--and then to answer it in rather compelling fashion. You can almost hear this guy struggling toward that highest of human goals, balancing the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

"...finding and retelling my own logic, writing it down and causing myself to think through the logic, meaning and flow from one idea to the next, that pushes me to find multiple meanings...And so in writing it down...I feel most deeply connected with the information and the meanings, and the choices I've made in explaining or demonstrating."

His beautifully reasoned argument, while in need of a good editor perhaps, instantly reminded me of the central theme of William Zinsser's powerful book, Writing to Learn, which makes the case that by the very act of writing about it, we can more completely master any subject. If you've never encountered this book, I encourage you to grab it soon from your library.

Bikers Unite
. Good things often spring from problems and disasters. And such would seem to be the case with the infamous WMJI shock jock invitation to convert bikers into vehicular targets. Spirited Solon bike shop owner Lois Cowan skillfully marshalled and organized outrage until it became a national story, and Clear Channel had to not only apologize but do something positive to make up for their employees' potentially dangerous buffoonery. And now the local biking community has collaborated on an incredibly well-produced and well-distributed monthly print publication, CrankMail, which bills itself as "the voice of cyclists in Northeast Ohio," and which ought to serve as a cohesive voice for all the smaller groups. Pick up a copy at bookstores and selected drop-off points. Or check out the less-comprehensive online version here.

Finally, if you have too much time on your hands today...You may want to scan through this fascinating document, the original Stanford research paper in which the two young founders of Google first sketched out their idea for a killer Internet search engine. While the war over web search is about to pick up full steam, Mssrs. Brin and Page may just become paper billionaires in the next few weeks. Talk about the power of connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain...

Friday, February 13, 2004

Assorted Civic Stuff

If you missed the Two Tims debate on Adelphia cable a couple of weeks ago, you'll soon have another chance to witness a debate, this time in live flesh, between the two men who are battling for a spot as one of three Cuyahoga County commissioners. Hagan and McCormack are due to tee it up again at 7 p.m. on February 25th at Cleveland State's Levin College of Urban Affairs, in a program co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Let me state the obvious: this race is a big deal, folks. With the city's financial crisis growing ever worse, we're perhaps inexorably headed toward some kind of county government, and thus the three people at the top of that heap will become even more important than they are now. And in Hagan and McCormack you have two old hands of Cleveland. And while they have each long represented nearly identical strains of conventional Democratic big-city, New Deal-era patronage politics, they now also represent something different: Hagan's slavish servility to the monied interests who are trying to hang on to their last threads of power, and McCormack's modestly more maverick diversion from the same. In short, the money guys want to take him out for not helping ram through their absurd pipe dream of a convention center. If you want to delve more deeply into the many issues surrounding this face-off, I'd recommend you check out our friend Chas Rich's brilliantly sardonic take on it all. In his classic lawyerly fashion, he neatly dissects all the issues, laying them out as he might unfold a case before a jury. I'd call it required reading.

Meanwhile, don't forget an equally important issue on the March 2nd ballot: the levy to support the county library system (you can read the library folks' take on that here). While all the artsy crowd is sucking up much of the buzz and oxygen over their worrisome (to me at least) scheme to tie arts funding to economic development (which the PD's Quiet Crisis point man Joe Frolik admitted during an SPJ program yesterday could end up being little more than a slush fund for the county commissioners' pet projects), I'd argue that the county library levy is far more important to real economic development: the development of an informed, educated citizenry. So do please look into that issue some, will you? After all, as I mentioned in a posting last August, about our ranking on a list of America's most literate cities, this region lagged sadly behind many others around the country in various crucial metrics such as the ratio of adults who hold college degrees. But the one area in which we shine is our better-than-average library system, the seeds of which were planted way back in the 19th century by the wise investments of the old wealthy in the Cleveland Public Library. Let's not squander that heritage, shall we?

The Irish Sports Pages. That's the classic tongue-in-cheek term for the obituary pages, a reference to the Irish-American culture's appealing way of turning the occasion of deaths, wakes and funerals into a chance to knit the community together with something more uplifting than simple isolated grief. From a journalistic perspective, it's long been acknowledged (at least in the more enlightened corners of the industry) that you can tell a good newspaper from a mediocre one simply by studying the level of writing and reporting talent it deploys for the obit task. That's because, as a tool for community-building, historical reflection and immersion in the deepest life of a city or region, obits offer among the best avenues for a paper to gracefully tip its cap at fallen giants--both the most prominent and the most common folk.

And by that measure, the PD has been pretty good of late. The paper already had the services of old veteran Richard Peery, a graceful, felicitous writer and a quiet, no-ego peach of a guy. And Doug Clifton has more recently built on that good foundation by adding a nice occasional touch: the special obit-page feature on common people, nominated by their loved ones. My eyes were opened to it last November, when the paper ran a brilliant look at a lady I knew pretty well, Betty Buckner, who died in her 90s as an old-fashioned community activist. She was the single aunt of a good friend of mine, and I had seen Aunt Betty's stalwart spirit in several capacities, socially and just bumping into her on the street.

But one moment was especially memorable: once, while I was covering an annual meeting of the then-newly merged Key Bank, sometime in the mid-'90s I would guess, I witnessed Betty get up to ask the CEO a question, as an average stockholder. You would have to have witnessed an annual meeting of a large public company to really understand how casually dismissive corporate leaders can be of average-Joe questions from the audience. These meetings are, after all, SEC-mandated affairs, and most companies go to great lengths to stage-manage them so as to come off at least feigning interest in what average shareholders might think. Mostly, it's a simple and directed march to a proxy vote, where the board gets to do what it had already planned behind closed doors.

But Betty wasn't having any of that stage-managing stuff on this day. Instead, she rose to her feet, and began asking a question in the loveliest sing-song voice you could imagine (she would have been a great actress in commercials, playing the part of everyone's favorite doting aunt or granny). When CEO Victor Riley began "answering" her with the kind of pre-selected non-answer that presidential candidates are taught to do in order to stay on-message, Betty stopped him, by politely but forcefully noting that he wasn't being responsive. She was so sweet and so elderly. and yet at the same time so full of moral righteousness that he couldn't help but frame his answer better. Which he soon did. Aunt Betty taught everybody a lesson that day. Shareholders' rights advocacy has come to be a large and at times effective industry, with a full quiver of strategic arrows at its disposal. But Betty Buckner will always serve as reminder to me that there's nothing quite like that one small but persistent voice that refuses to shut up as it tries to get an answer it deserves.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Catch-Up Day

So much to mention, and so little time...Still, I'll make an attempt to catch up on a few small things.

Mr. Viral. Our boy Jimmy Kukral, about whom I expounded the other day, may or may not be virile (only his wife and hairdresser know for sure), but he's certainly been increasingly viral of late. Last week, the nationally influential blogger Doc Searls briefly took note of his new e-book on blogging, which has prompted several other similarly influential bloggers (including the incomparable e-journalism guru JD Lasica) to also pick up on it. The momentum is slowly building. And closer to home, the PD's Chris Seper (who holds much of the thin reed upon which we put our trust in the PD beginning to get online religion) mentioned him in today's print column as well. The ball rolls on...

February Dad's Column Online. Click here to read.

Somebody Please Put a (Figurative) Stake in Nader's Heart. I heard old lefty grouch with a Jesus complex, a.k.a. Ralph Nader, babbling on NPR recently, defiant as always. As always, he's currently embarked on a Hillary-like "listening campaign," deciding if he's being called to one more run for the White House. Now let me stop for a moment here: Like, one would hope, most progressives, I feel nothing but deep respect for Ralph's decades of fearless work in essentially inventing the American consumer movement. When GM meatheads decided to sic their goons on him to ward off his verbal onslaught against unsafe cars, he became an instant living symbol for the cause. HOWEVER: by his continuing insistence that his personal liberty not only permits but almost insists that he should split the left't presidential vote by running himself, he's become a symbol of something else in his last years: obstinate obstructionism. Ralph was meant for Europe, where multiparty systems rule. Here, for better or worse, we have a two-party system, and third-party insurgencies such as his inevitably get absorbed by the major parties. And sometimes, as in the case with Nader in 2000, they help install lying, duplicitous, ignorant people in control of our government. So it's time to think about your place in history, Ralph. Just do the right thing...

Bush Meets the Press. The NBC/Beltway Insiders buzz network cranked on full bore over the weekend, puffing up the Prez's one-hour date with vaunted Tim Russert as if it were a sit-down with JFK or Martin Luther King come back to life. Mostly, it was ho-hum, with Russert doing his usual schtick: a slick form of faux toughness with those who actually hold power, as opposed to a real toughness-bordering-on-savagery with those who don't, or don't yet (such as Howard Dean). Okay, he did ask some tougher questions than Bush is likely to get in many formats, no question about that. But he also let the Great Prevaricator drone on in appalingly evasive ways after Bush numerous times insisted "let me finish," only to finish with laughably bald-faced lies. And Russert rarely followed up by pointing out that what Bush just said was demonstrably false. The worst example (of many): he let stand an outrageous lie that Bush made about how all of the records related to his military "service" in the reserves during Vietnam were opened during the last campaign in 2000. That's just flatly false. We'll see if the press pack now follows up for the Buffalo Choir Boy By Way of JCU and Cleveland Marshall Law School and gets those records pried open, three years after they should have been in the first place. But like most progressives, I've always known (and written) that Bush is an empty suit. Far more telling were post-interview doubts from two Monday-morning quarterbacks who are ordinarily Bush shills, Andrew Sullivan and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. Noonan weighed in almost immediately with a Sunday piece on the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal, admitting that "I am one of those who feel that his performance was not impressive," and calling him "almost bumbling." Surprise, surprise, Peggy. As for Sullivan, after arguing in his obligatory see-no-evil-of-the-right-wing fashion that his hero GWB didn't hurt himself in the interview when it came to Iraq, Sullivan writes that Bush seemed "scarily out of touch" when it came to matters of the nation's fiscal health. I'd say that Sullivan is himself scarily out of touch if he only learned that about Bush this weekend.

FCC Chairman Powell Is Not a Breast Man. FCC Chair Michael Powell, trying desperately to reclaim some shard of his reputation, is now on record about something so obscene that even he has to object: televised nudity during a Super Bowl. Only a boob would argue with that, but he'd have earned a tad more of my respect if he could have also summoned some outrage over attempts by a handful of giant companies to turn the American television landscape into a domestic version of the Arab Oil cartel (it's already bad enough--check this media consolidation tool). Instead, he tried his best to grease the skids for further consolidation, at least until an unprecedented citizen outpouring against that scheme finally convinced Congress to act.

But it's probably too late to save a now thoroughly corrupted medium: TV is indeed the vast wasteland that Powell's predecessor Newton Minnow called it a generation ago, and much worse than he could have ever imagined at that time (the early '60s, now a relative golden era). And the FCC, while certainly part of the problem, has plenty of company in the defendants' pen. As the crowded media landscape makes it ever harder for any one person or company to gain attention, TV (aided by the deregulatory FCC) is increasingly a full partner in the spiraling outrageous stunt arms race. If you doubt that, check out this eye-opening piece in Ad Age). "She opened the door for more people to take risks," says one particularly soulless, shameless New York p.r. guy. But I have just one question for Mr. Powell, whose constant refrain in the past when he was met with outcry over crap TV was a plaintive "why can't they just shut it off?" The answer: crap TV is just one part of the larger crap culture that's increasingly engulfing us, and there's no way to turn it all off. Instead, we have to try to change it...

Friday, February 06, 2004

Evangelizing About Blogging

I've insisted for more years than I care to recall that writing and teaching are but two sides of the same coin. To write anything remotely worth reading takes a lot of input, a lot of learning. And to write a lot of material worth reading, say a long magazine piece, or a book, takes much concentrated learning, otherwise called research or reporting. That's all a prelude to sharing it with readers, which is not unlike teaching.

All of which means I never pass up the chance to get in front of an audience and share some of my enthusiasms. If that's a talk before a group, wonderful. If it takes the form of addressing students (of whatever age) in a classroom, even better. It's really all the same thing, and it all springs from precisely the same instinct that would cause one to persevere in writing over many years: an eagerness to share ideas, mind to mind.

And so I'm grateful to my esteemed SPJ colleague Dr. Dick Hendrickson for an invite last week to talk to his John Carroll communications class about the use of blogs in American politics. The university's overworked but much-appreciated webmaster, Mike Quinn, was good enough to come capture the audio and put up this page, which was much appreciated. By sticking a link on JCU's home page and also mentioning it in an email newsletter sent to thousands in the JCU community, Mike (and of course Dick) helped put this modest little journal you're now reading before perhaps a few hundred new sets of eyeballs. And maybe a handful might return periodically. I was touched to subsequently hear from several old friends as a result. So for all that, I'm thankful.

After the class, Dick treated me to a quick lunch in the basement of the administration building, where we got to know each other better than we've been able to do in the past through quick bursts of group conversation, often about his specialty--open records and state sunshine laws. He told me an amazing story about his second act as a professional, the teaching career he now pursues after 35 years at one newspaper, the Lorain Journal (and stints at the mighty Associated Press before that). He went to work in the field out of military service, only going back to get his college degree later. And after many years in journalism, where he assumed he would end his career, he got a wake-up call that changed his life. Arguing with a newsroom superior about a matter of journalistic conscience, he found himself quickly fired. That woke him up. He had a family and he really needed that job, so he went back to his boss and pleaded his case, apologizing in the process. And so he was hired back.

But he never forgot the lesson of it: how tenuous this job was. And so he began pursuing plan B, his graduate studies that in time led to a doctorate, and which in turn led to one of the rare fulltime teaching jobs available these days in academia, on the John Carroll Communications Department faculty. It was a slow, steady march, but he did it.

His story of disappointment, perseverance and a second act (which F. Scott Fitzgerald got completely wrong when he observed there are no second acts American lives) really touched me that day as I left the campus. I had known Dick for some time, but had somehow never stopped a moment to get his story. But when it finally came, it seemed more than worth waiting for. I hope he finds a way to somehow transmit that inspiring personal story to a generation of students who need to hear it. Tom Brokaw called it the Greatest Generation, and I'd say Dick is precisely the kind of guy he had in mind.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Kukral Rides the Wave

We're not supposed to have favorites in this growing community of bloggerhood (my own coinage, because I choose not to use the pretentious and awkward word in wider usage, blogosphere) . But I say to hell with that. The online world of writers and bloggers is the ultimate meritocracy (which makes traditional writers and journalists nervous, cause now they actually have to earn an audience with the power of their ideas and quality of their writing, a truly scary proposition for the lazy and talent-challenged who worry that the masses having access to a printing press waters down their place in the pecking order). Here, the cream quickly rises to the top.

And the cream is all around us. Inspired in part by my friend and colleague Lois and her splendid, grace-filled two-week experiment in guest blogging at her Hearts @ Work site, I'll be periodically highlighting the best of the blogs in the hopes of leading you toward what I consider some of the more interesting corners of the web. And what a surprise: those corners are ALWAYS a direct result of a single person with a fresh, smart, fearless voice. A few days ago I kicked that off with a mention of Marc Lefkowitz's impossibly brilliant Hotel Bruce, which speaks for itself. I've heard from a number of you who found it a really amazing site (a full-blown online magazine, really), as I knew you would. And when I at last get around to retooling this humble corner of web real estate, I'll be sure to put Bruce Blog in a prominent place, where no one can miss it.

But now it's Jimmy Kukral's turn. He's been at this longer than most, having begun with early iterations of blogs that pre-date the efforts of most everyone I know. In other words, he was a leader rather than a follower. At the same time, he's humble to a fault about both his knowledge and the mark he might make. And for me, that's an especially welcome change from the mass of web humanity, where self-appointed gurus typically think they're geniuses without having supplied much evidence to the rest of us. But here's the life-changing power of humility: since he has never (and still doesn't) think he knows it all, Jim has been in the far more productive posture of being an experimenter rather than an expostulator. Like Edison puttering around his Edison, New Jersey labs around the turn of the last century, Jimmy K. simply experiments with what is still really a young medium. He tried some of this and lots of that, and then blew that up and started something else. When one interesting idea failed to catch sustained fire (though after considerable initial buzz), he took a moment to grumble (though mostly to himself), and simply moved on, though having learned something from that electronic test tube.

But his real genius, I think, stems from his extremely unusual ability to both personally experiment with the technology and then put it into words himself at a similarly high level. Those two talents are rarely found in the same person. Years after I first became a fan of the smartly literate Click Z network, a legendary educational site devoted to teaching professional web workers how to do what they do better by providing some of the sharpest, most incisive commentary and tips on various related themes, I learned that he had been a regular contributor when the site was still in its prime (before a merger robbed it of much of its soul). Check his Click Z archive here. He later did some fine writing for a similar site,

Anyway, Kukral as I said has been at the web business for a long time, especially for such a relative pup of a guy. And he's thrived for one simple reason: he seems to understand at a DNA level (as most people to this day still do not) that it's the ultimate stage for constant R&D, a giant moving target which no one, no matter how smart or energetic, can ever begin to master. Instead, this medium belongs to the tinkerers, the innovators and fast-brained, those who are never happy with where things are at or what they've done, but who are constantly looking to improve and build upon what they know and thus what they can do, which is a constant and humbling voyage of discovery for most of us.

But of course it also helps to have a niche of specialized knowledge. And Jim's is web affiliate marketing, something he knows more about than anyone I know. And most importantly, he understands how that important niche fits into the larger web universe, which means he knows how to get things done and even how one might make some money from that knowledge. Anyway, the hits keep coming for Jimbo. He'll soon have a book out about the business side of blogging, which I've been pleased to be a small part of. And earlier this year he wrote a fine piece about the arcane (at least to some) topic of web usability, and it prompted the world's top guru in that field to quickly respond. His latest news, which he's just posted, is this nice write-up on the giant ABCNews site about his efforts to trim a few pounds. It's a sublime case study about the real power of the web: one modest guy, smartly leveraging one little self-authored website in a tiny corner of the universe (Cleveland), can get noticed all over the world, and for all the right reasons. So hats off to Jim. Keep reading him, and you just may learn something important yourself...

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Power of the Pen Indeed

We've all, understandably, become used to the notion of seeing computers and other symbols of the Internet and emerging technologies being used as the reigning metaphors for knowledge. And far be it from me to convince you otherwise. The web has increasingly changed my life, and that of most others I know, as it opens new vistas of possibility on just about every avenue of pursuit one can imagine.

Still, regardless of the medium through which they spin their work, most writers naturally harbor a special affinity for the old-fashioned writing instrument known as the pen. We have a tendency to melt in the face of a smooth fine point that glides, frictionless, over a page. We bask in the sensuous embrace of a well balanced pen, whether it be an expensive Montblanc or a 99-cent Bic with an especially fluid feel. Hell, truth be told, we've even been known to occasionally liberate an especially attractive fine-point beauty after taking it for a test spin at the invitation of a waitress who casually, unthinkingly leaves it behind so as to facilitate our signing her credit card slip. Guiltily, we try to protect our own feelings of moral rectitude by the flimsiest self-justification, telling ourselves that such a misdemeanor is offset by the fact that we left a little larger tip in its place.

For years, my collection of favorites grew in lockstep with my attendance at trade shows, where the age-old trick is to lure easy marks into coughing up their business cards, or at least stopping long enough in front of the booth, to pick up a new pen carrying the imprint of that company. When I returned home, I would be met with an automatic question from my good friend Matt Holtz, who's not a writer, but who is very much a fellow fan of good pens. "Okay, whaddayagotfor me?" If I'd found anything worthwhile, I'd better have picked up two. Of course, most were worth nothing, the kind of graphic trash that us hardened penophiles would instantly reject at first glance, except that we also know through long experience that this business can fool you: some of the smoothest pens can be found in some of the most surprising packages. You can't assume that a gold-leafed Cross pen bearing your initials will offer a smoother ride than that plastic cheapie you happened to find on the floor at the mall. You've simply got to try them out.

Anyway, with that as my admitted context, I was both pleased and surprised to happen upon a recent recruitment brochure for a branch of the U.S. military. It was handsome and expensive looking. But most of all, you couldn't miss the big photo of the old-fashioned fountain pen next to the written message, inviting recruits to supplement their civilian learning by signing up for military duty. Hell, if I thought I'd be able to wangle a half dozen of those fine writing instruments to add to my collection, I'd consider packing up and shipping out tomorrow. Of course, I'd first have to try them out on a piece of scratch paper, because you just never know...

Okay, This Was All Leading Somewhere. Ah, so you thought this was merely the self-indulgent rantings of a mad man who's been sniffing too much toxic ink, or perhaps a sly effort to encourage you to be on the lookout on my behalf when next you sign a restaurant credit slip (of course, that would be fine, too). But this exegesis, this rambling disquisition on the pen was actually touched off by a bit of fatherly pride. My Patrick, at the invitation of his teachers, joined a half dozen of his classmates in a fine Saturday extracurricular pursuit known as Power of the Pen. I loved hearing that, having once served as a judge for other kids, and coming away impressed by the organization. After all, who could argue with this mission statement: "It provides teachers with an educational network that shares ideas and instructional materials to improve student's expressive writing skills. Power of the Pen inspires a love for the beauty and power of language for writing as a life skill. It encourages creative and critical thinking, and enriches and enhances the writing curriculum of schools. This is accomplished in a collaborative environment that includes community support and involvement at all levels." Anyway, his team recently learned that they have advanced to the next stage of the competition. But win, lose or draw, I mostly loved that he was just taking part in a wonderful exercise in stretching his mind and learning to value the power of written expression, which can change your life (as producer or consumer or both) no matter what line of work you happen to be in.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Mighty Bruce Blog Strikes Again

I've written before, though not enough, about my friend and colleague Marc Lefkowitz's astoundingly well done Hotel Bruce, which includes the Bruce Blog. While this region boasts a growing list of impressive blogs and other online media, written by serious writers and other thinkers, I'd be hard-pressed to think of another site that combines Bruce Blog's penchant for delivering smartly independent but often real breaking news with its parent Hotel Bruce's uniquely fresh take on establishing a new publication from the ground up. The site's own "about us" language says it all: "Hotel Bruce is a journal of creative living in Cleveland. We pay homage—to the era of three-cent streetcars, fast bars, vibrant neighborhoods, and creative characters—by looking at who’s itching to create a new chapter in our history." How about that for an arresting blend of old and new?

Anyway, this week Marc has once again outdone himself, by breaking a story about CSU housing guru Tom Bier's controversial comments to Future Heights about how much of the problem with Heights High is that 10% of its students don't value education. If you know anything at all about Cleveland Heights or its high school, you know at least two things: A). he's right on (in fact, his estimate is perhaps a bit low), and B). politically correct Cleveland Heights has a way of screaming so loudly in reaction to hard racially charged truths it doesn't want to hear as to all but drown them out (only their deafness won't stop continuing white flight).

Similar outrage was registered by the usual suspects a few years ago after the talented Diana Tittle wrote an illuminating book about Heights High and its polarized, supercharged environment ("Welcome to Heights High: the Crippling Politics of Restructuring America's Public Schools"). I got to experience at first hand what that shrill drown-out-the-bad-news anger felt like when I wrote admiringly of Tittle's book (and truth be told, took a few potshots at the PC Heights lefty crowd) in the Free Times, then headquartered in the middle of Ground Central, along Coventry Road.

Only this time, it will be even more difficult for the suburb's PC libs to ignore this hard truth, since it's delivered by one of their own. For years, Bier has been a widely followed guru who has laid much of the theoretical and statistical groundwork for those battling white flight in this region (in fact, Marc is at this very moment pursuing a master's in urban planning at CSU's Urban School, where he's no doubt being exposed to much of Bier's body of work). It will be interesting to watch how this unfolds. You can check the comment board at Future Heights to read some of the comments, or perhaps to add your own.