Monday, December 20, 2004

Christmas Week

I love Christmas. No, let me try that again. I REALLY love Christmas. And I like it even better when it's cold and snowy outside (as it is just now in Cleveland and much of the east and midwest), and when I have some pre-planned time to stop a little and enjoy the season, spending time with those I care most about. In my mind, this is a week for looking back at last year and then ahead to next. A time to take stock of personal and professional plans and goals, committing them to paper (sorry, much of that will remain private) so as to hold myself, at least, accountable for when I look back next year at what I wrote this year.

Yes, I know some people do this kind of thing in the form of those long, maudlin brag letters they send around with Christmas cards each year. You know the kind I mean: the ones that go on about what Bobby accomplished and what a genius dear Susie is (as for the family photos, why don't they ever include the parents?? Why kids-only in all of these holiday photos? My currently operative theory: middle-aged parental vanity). But as my close pal and valued SPJ colleague Wendy Hoke wrote recently on her excellent, even soul-stirring, Creative Ink weblog, most creatives never get around to sending these out at the holiday season. Hell, we're lucky if we even send Christmas cards, which we often don't think of until it's too late.

Anyway, here's the thing. While I know that Thanksgiving officially occurred about a month ago on the calendar, my personal thanksgiving season happens to land during the week leading up to Christmas and the days between then and the New Year. In other words, beginning about now. So I'm going to try to spend the rest of what small portion of the year that remains telling you, precious reader, about the things I value most, the people I hold the dearest, the things I couldn't, or at least wouldn't want to, live without. I'm going to celebrate them aloud. Actually, I cheated a bit, beginning that theme last week, with my little riff about Loganberry Books. Look for more of the same in the next couple of weeks. For years, my friend Roldo B. issued a special holiday-season special issue of his Point of View newsletter, in which he conferred his "Scroogies," tongue-in-cheek anti-awards to those local Dickensian characters whom he thought did the best job of ripping off the public or taking part in some such similar offense. But unlike Roldo the Old Testament guy, with his emphasis on fire and brimstone, I'm afraid I'm rather more of a New Testament guy. So in coming days, look for a celebration of those glasses half full, and those people who are doing wonderful things. But don't worry: We'll get back to those Bush gangsters and other scofflaws, fools and brigands early next year.

Friday, December 17, 2004

A Pearl of a Place--Don't Miss It

'Reading is thinking with text.'
--- Dorothy Strickland, professor of reading at Rutgers University and past president of the International Reading Association

We've grown so used to high-quality chain bookstores--some of which are better than others at feigning reverence for reading and all things intellectual--that even the most serious readers among us may have grown a little rusty in our ability to distinguish the real thing from the pseudo, the bookstores which cater to class rather than mass. And those that are fixtures of their own communities instead of small dots on a larger canvas. If you do nothing else in this pre-holiday season, PLEASE visit what may just be the best remaining locally owned and controlled shrine to real bookloving in Cleveland, Loganberry Books (here), just off Shaker Square on Larchmere Boulevard. And while you're at it, don't just visit, but try to patronize it as well, supporting a wonderful place now celebrating its tenth anniversary. You can even order online. Why not use their Pay Pal-enabled online capabilities to order a gift book or two, rather than giving the business to far away Amazon just this once?

On a visit yesterday, I was reminded of what a special, even hallowed, place this is. I had an extra 13 minutes in my schedule, running early for an appointment (as I tend to do about maybe twice a decade). And despite the time crunch, I left feeling inspired and renewed. The space, newly enlarged and renovated last year, is inviting enough to the senses. The combination of acres of wood bookcases crammed with books, plenty of lush oriental rugs, tasteful track lighting and a generous helping of plants bespeaks much thought put into making the interior inviting. But the smaller touches that Harriett the owner has included are even more telling. In a cramped passageway between two rooms, you'll find a billboard to your left and an old-style lecturn to the right. On the lecturn, browsers are invited to add their signatures to a petition the American Booksellers Association has organized against certain privacy features in the Patriot Act pertaining to reading, I'd never seen this anywhere else, including at no other bookstore. Meanwhile, on the bulletin board, I learned that Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights is having a high school Writers' Festival in March. That was new information to me as well, despite the fact that I know the school well, since my wife has worked there for the better part of the last 15 years. Click here to learn more about that program, which I plan on telling the world about.

In short, Loganberry Books is what a serious bookstore should be--a cozy community for the mind, a clearing house for all things reading, writing and books. And, I should add, a place not to be missed during your busy holiday season. Let's patronize our grand and important places, lest they shrivel up and go away.

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."

Monday, December 06, 2004

Catch-Up Day

I was a blogging laggard last week, and so it's time to make up for lost ground. So here we go...

Newsweeklies Struggle for Relevance. With the imminent retirement of two out of three of the longtime TV network anchors, the focus has been on how the telenetworks are becoming increasingly irrelevant. But I think an equally interesting, though far less-examined, phenomenon is how the major weekly news mags are dealing with those same forces of more competition and declining relevance. For decades, there were three dominant networks AND the same number of newsweeklies--Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report. The latter mag has pretty well fallen by the wayside--for all practical purposes, I think it essentially ceased to be a factor after its failed experiment with letting a serious editor, Jim Fallows, try to revive it into something worth reading. Since he was let go in 1998, it's mostly fallen off the journalism radar screen, except for its splashy annual college rankings and some lingering attention paid to its owner Mort Zuckerman and its conservative columnist John Leo (a poor man's George Will). But Time and Newsweek continue to scrap it out, running eerily similar cover stories and photos most weeks. This week, they're evidently hoping to catch the Red State spiritual zeitgeist in the run-up to Christmas, though with a twist that they probably hope allows them to retain a morsel of Blue State respectability: they're both fact-checking the Biblical story of Jesus' birth in cover stories, concluding (stop the presses!) that the literal story is interwoven with some myth. I ask you: Do we really need two magazines to do this kind of stuff?

Here's a big moment for For the first time ever, the online retailer is selling more consumer electronics than books. Which must be sweet news indeed for its visionary founder, Jeff Bezos, who has stubbornly insisted for a decade, through both extreme highs and lows in his stock price that he wasn't concerned about how the stock was doing but was instead intent on building what amounted to the Wal-Mart of the web. Once millions of shoppers were comfortable with the system, selection and service he offered, he reasoned, there's no limit on what he might sell them. Which appears to finally be proving true. Good for him for sticking it out over the long haul.

Pekar the Pack Rat. A few months ago, I finally did the unthinkable. After years of inertly muttering assent to my wife's pleas to go through the giant piles of magazines I've accumulated and throw out what I no longer need, I finally went ahead and did it. Of course, only hardened magazine lovers can appreciate that the choice of which magazines you'll "need" is a meaningless distinction. And of course writers always have the built-in excuse that you never know what factoids you'll need to consult later for some as-yet-unimagined article. Anyway, it was with a mournful attitude that I began going through them, making decisions that amounted to a kind of Sophie's Choice, deciding which of your offspring to save from death. Should I keep those GQ's from the early and mid-'90s with the brilliant reporting and writing as a sad reminder of what it once was before it chased the so-called "lad mags" downmarket? How in hell can I possibly pitch that New Republic from the late '80s with its cover piece by the future right-wing hit man Fred Barnes (now of the Weekly Standard and Fox News)? I see from this piece that Cleveland's most famous former file clerk, Harvey Pekar, hasn't yet succumbed to his wife's entreaties for domestic tidiness. And so his piles grow ever larger. Good luck with your struggle, Harv. As a fellow clutter addict, I can tell you there is life after one pares his piles. But there's no getting around the fact that it's likely to be a slightly more vanilla existence...

Le Monde Gets Behind Blogs in Big Way. For the most part, U.S. newspapers are still mired in tired, hyperdefensive debates about how blogging will never replace, much less supplement, mainstream journalism. Meanwhile, France's most distinguished paper, Le Monde (which bore that famous headline "We are all Americans" after 9/11) is offering to set its readers up with their own blogs. No word yet if John Kerry, alleged by the Republicans to be secretly French, will take them up on the offer.

Washington Monthly Rolls On. Some longtime fans of America's greatest overachieving, underfunded little political magazine, D.C.-based Washington Monthly, might have worried that it would never survive the retirement of its founder, the cantankerous former JFK aide Charlie Peters. He built a legend for hiring squads of young journalists for peanuts, proudly watching as they later became stars in the upper reaches of the profession (fittingly, the offices at Dupont Circle were, and perhaps still are, near America's best muckraker, Sy Hersch). His alumni group reads like a who's who of serious long-form journalism in America: former TNR editor and Slate founder Michael Kinsley (newly installed as editorial page editor of the L.A. Times), Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, historian Taylor Branch, Fortune's Joe Nocera, environmental contrarian Greg Easterbrook, Slate's Tim Noah and Columbia J-School dean Nick Lemann, among many others. Anyway, despite the fact that he turned over the reins (though he still writes his "Tilting at Windmills" column), it seems the magazine is doing just fine recently. Not long ago, it converted its website to a fine blog, thus far a unique development among print mags. And this sparkling December cover profile of Bob Novak, whom I've mentioned recently, shows the print companion continues to perform solidly as well. Take a bow, Charlie Peters, and keep tilting away...

Your Tax Dollars at Work. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the wasteful federal spending that is sneakily stuffed into bills through last-minute horse-trading, including the silly $300,000-plus earmarked for supposed educational programming for the Rock Hall (to my knowledge, no local mainstream media outlet has yet picked up on that little tidbit). But of course the real outrage is larger, deeper and more structural. Bush, Jr. came into office grandly talking about taking a razor to wasteful farm subsidies, which are indeed scandalous. But since his 2000 campaign, there's been scarce followup. Meanwhile, the rip-off of the U.S. Treasury continues. This online database, from the generally reliable enviro lobbying group Environmental Working Group, tracks all the dollars in stunning detail. It shows, for instance, that federal subsidies to just one state (Ohio) for just one commodity (corn) totaled just over $1.7 billion between 1995-2003. And remember: some of these subsidies are for price supports. Which means the government pays farmers not to plant various crops, so as to maintain high prices for other farmers. Read through some of this and weep. Only make sure you haven't just eaten, cause it may just induce vomiting.

Cleveland's Own Thundertech. I've occasionally mentioned in these pages one of the region's best young entrepreneurs, my friend Jason Therrien of the web-development shop Thundertech. He's been a real leader of the town's youthful change agents, talking up the benefits of the Creative Corridor here and playing a key role in getting probably the best of the local young professionals groups off the ground here. And after a recent move from Payne Avenue and E. 40th to larger Midtown Corridor studios, the thriving company may soon outgrow that space as well (but he tells me they'll probably be able to tear down some walls for future expansions). These days, the former Inside Business cover boy is hopeful that Thundertech (named for a time when he was a tad heavier and running over defensive linemen as a JCU running back) will get its second bit of national attention (he was already quoted this month in Ad Age). Thundertech has made it past the first round of cuts for Fast Company Mag's annual Fast 50 competition. You can read his submission here on the magazine's website. If you know him and/or his shop's fine work, please consider leaving a comment on the page, as I plan to do soon.

Finally, this latest bit of Bush Administration idiocy. I wrote recently about the concerns over the falling U.S. dollar, and how having a Treasury Secretary who is an economically unsophisticated former railroad president (John Snow) with little or no credibility on Wall Street or in the bond market is only making matters worse. So what does this band of incompetents do? In recent days, they've begun leaking news that they do indeed want Snow out, only to be replaced, apparently, by someone who has even less of a background for the job: current White House chief of staff Andy Card. His chief credentials consist of being a longtime Bush family retainer and an auto industry lobbyist during the Clinton years. Now, that will calm the financial markets. The ever-astute New Yorker economics writer John Cassidy said it best last week: "Ultimately, the value of a currency is an international verdict on the honesty and competence of the government that issued it. President Bush may have recovered in the domestic polls, but in the currency markets his ratings are still falling." And you, along with your children and your children's children, will pay for it. That is, of course, if you haven't already been bankrupted by those payments to farmers who agree not to plant their crops.