Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Tuesday Stuff

Peace Festival. Did you know that activists have staged a peace festival in Cleveland the last few years, as a counter-demonstration to what they consider a militaristic Cleveland Air Show? Until recently, I didn't. Here's one leftie's
account of this year's proceedings.

Parents of College Kids, Take Heart!
Open source textbooks might one day deliver you from the outrageous prices for college textbooks.

Piercing Media Tropes. You've gotta love how the prolific Michael Lewis returns to his native New Orleans and
vividly describes how different it is from the cartoonishly surface depictions you might have noticed in most media accounts. I especially enjoyed his lampooning of the fake storm reporting overseen by ABC's resident fake reporter, Charlie Gibson. Just the latest reminder of how TV, where it's increasingly only about the ratings, rarely gets even mildly complex stories right.

A New Addition to My Must-Read List. Do you want to know what's really going on with defense and foreign policy issues? Then I suggest you occasionally peruse
Steve Coll's new blog on the New Yorker's website. He's the former managing editor of the Washington Post, author of two important books (which you'll find here and here) about Osama Bin Laden and related subjects, and now a staff writer for the magazine. With Sy Hersh writing far less than he used to, Coll has partially filled that vacuum.

Smarmy Joe. New York magazine nicely deconstructs one of America's smarmiest politicians, the oily and obnoxious Joe Lieberman. The good news is that McCain was talked out of naming him as his running mate at the last minute. That means he gets to return to the Senate, where the fate he's earned for himself awaits him: an outcast in his own party, but a man who can't really be respected by the Republicans either. At least we won't have to keep seeing that oily smile of his so much, as his national profile begins to slowly wane.


At 9:42 PM, Blogger Michelle O'Neil said...

I like a falafel as much as the next lefty, but the word counter"punch" seems a bit counter-intuitive to peace.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good point.

At 10:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"ABC's resident fake reporter, Charlie Gibson" is set to do the first "real" Sarah Palin interview. It will be seen on "20/20" Friday.

[sarcasm]Bet that's a real free-wheeling and frank exchange.[/sarcasm]

At 7:18 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I think he could surprise people (at least I hope he does), because A). the expectations for him are so low, and B). he knows the eyes of serious journalism are upon him, and no one wants to be embarrassed in front of their peers, if indeed that's the right word. The other day, Slate.com's resident media columnist Jack Shafer, a vastly influential and widely read guy throughout the media, posted this series of questions he suggests for Gibson, to try to pin her down despite the coaching she'll get on evading real answers. I'd be surprised if he hasn't studied it closely and thought about it.


At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At best, he will be interpolating between the demands of Palin's handlers, his Disney bosses, and the good opinion of his journalistic colleagues, if indeed he identifies with that group.

At 9:48 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I'm sure he still identifies with them, if for no other reasons than he lives and works in Manhattan and is in that social circle, and because he's a veteran of a time when network TV news was a far more serious pursuit than it is now. That formational ethos counts for something, if less than you or I might prefer.

And by the way, the aforementioned Slate media column includes this interesting passage, which harkens back to a mini-debate you and I had a few weeks ago in this venue:

"Gibson and his team got knocked by Washington Post columnist Tom Shales as "shoddy," "despicable," and "prosecutorial" after they hosted the April 16 debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Although I think the transcript tells a different story, Gibson will surely approach this interview on tip-toe lest he become the story again."

At 10:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Gibson is part of the new breed that would look at the Shales column, then look at his paycheck and think for a millisecond or two about which is more important.

He must maintain at least a faint simulacrum of professional integrity to keep the paycheck coming. That consideration is likely to be more motivating than the ephemeral pronouncements of some squeaky critic.

He must also calculate and bet on who will be in the White House in January, as that will bear on how his questioning seen in retrospect by the above-mentioned parties.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Sorry, but I have a blanket policy against debating with anyone who can properly use the word "simulacrum" in a sentence. Seriously, though, you bring up an important point: the absurd salaries these people make. I'm sorry, but one of the things that made me laugh (however silently) when all the encomiums were being heaped on Tim Russert as being a great journalist was thinking about his $5 million annual salary. You don't make anywhere near that kind of money for doing actual journalism. That kind of pay is for show biz.

At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, Harry Smith interviewed a physicist on the CBS morning show yesterday. Afterwards, he seemed almost deliriously happy at havimg done something other than the fluff he is usually tasked with on the show.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I can actually remember a time when that poor bastard was half-serious. That's something like 20 years ago, when CBS was still a place that could call itself the Tiffany Network without prompting outright guffaws (though even then, it was still existing on the fumes of its hallowed past, owing to Ed Murrow and those he influenced). Poor Harry made his pact with the devil years ago. What a way for an adult to make a living, huh?

At 10:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harry's "colleagues" were unmoved by his effusion. They seemed contemptuous, as to say, "Enjoy your memories of being a real reporter, old man."

At 10:34 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That is indeed what makes it doubly sad, pathetic even, the fact that he's getting up there in age. It's one thing to make a fool of oneself in your 20s, 30s or even 40s. But by the time you're 60 or more, it's wince-inducing to watch someone make themself look silly.

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charlie Gibson made the jump to anchor from a position equivalent to Harry Smith's.

He is probably acutely conscious that the best way to keep the muttering classes at bay is to stay in the top saddle by doing whatever is expedient.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, and come to think of it, he only got that job after that predecessor fellow got gravely injured in Iraq, and the silly twin anchor experiment (two relatively unknown, model-perfect news readers with little reporting experience) collapsed. He was the only possibility left on what was once network news' deepest bench. If he lacked and still lacks gravitas, well, he's not exactly alone these days, is he? That's why the wonderful Bob Schieffer of CBS stood out so well. The guy just seems tempermentally incapable of being unserious about the news. Viewers instantly get that. And that's why he was selected to moderate one of the presidential debates.

At 11:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that Schieffer is the best of the lot, and I think Moonves was nuts for throwing all that dough at Couric.

We know the demographic for evening network news is skewed to the senior side. So why not hang onto Schieffer, keep some news credibility, and appeal to your audience? He had good ratings, too. Of course, he may have served notice that he was headed toward retirement.

I'm not saying I think Schieffer is fair. When he interviews Democratic guests on "Face The Nation," he is the onscreen personification of the internet "concern troll," who posts his worries for the opposition on their blogs.

When the GOP talkers come on, out comes the sunny personality, and outrageous talking points go mostly unchallenged. They are the right kind of people to Schieffer.

He'll surprise you occasionally though, which is more than Brokaw or Couric will do.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Ugh! Moonves. Now there's a name that puts a chill down my spine. You can learn everything you need to know about how he's rethinking network news for the post-serious era by reading this profile:


As for Schieffer on Face the Nation, I'll have to take your word for it, because now that you mention that show, I'm not sure I've seen even a minute of it in over a decade. My bad.

At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moonves is like Fred Silverman and before them, movie mogul Harry Cohn, astute programmers who lean heavily on their own personal taste.

Cohn once said, "When I'm alone in a projection room, I have a foolproof device for judging whether a picture is good or bad. If my fanny squirms, it's bad. If my fanny doesn't squirm, it's good. It's as simple as that." (Herman Mankiewicz, future writer of "Citizen Kane," lost yet another job with his ripost, "Imagine, the whole world wired to Harry Cohn's ass!")

I can understand Moonves wanting to break the demographic mold for network TV, but I don't see younger viewers making a date with the TV for the news. He may be a little old to relate to the way younger viewers are getting their news.

You can only have the golden touch for so long if it is based on your personal congruence with the times.

CBS News was already headed down the road toward entertainment values with CBS news chief Van Gordon Sauter in the mid-80s. When Larry Tisch bought them in '86, he put the news departmemnt on a toboggan to hell, which is where all three networks reside today.

At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Minor corrections to my note: I meant to say "I can understand Moonves wanting to break the demographic mold for network TV NEWS." And it's "riposte" not "ripost."

At 12:36 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, you're right about Larry Tisch. If I'd point to any one person or time period as the locus of the beginning of CBS's serious slide in quality, it would be him and the year he bought the network. Today, there are unsettling echoes of his ignorant beancounter's approach to an industry he didn't remotely understand in another real estate moguls's purchase of a major journalistic property, Sam Zell and the Tribune Company.

As to your point about older people not understanding how to reach younger, I can only point you to this idea that a journalism student just raised on his blog: putting newspapers on video games, where his age group is sure to see and perhaps engage with them, given how much time they spend there already. Folks over a certain age would shudder at this (me included), but I imagine those 25 and under wouldn't.


At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sounds like good, out of the (X)box thinking.

I've recently been training people in their twenties as part of my job. Don't know if they are a representative sample of Generation Y, but games are their life. So it makes total sense to me.

From Wikipedia:

Generation Y and technology,
in a survey of 7,705 college students in the US:

97% own a computer
97% have downloaded music and other media using peer-to-peer file sharing
94% own a cell phone
76% use instant messaging and social networking sites
75% of college students have a Facebook account
60% own some type of portable music and/or video device such as an iPod
49% regularly download music and other media using peer-to-peer file sharing
34% use websites as their primary source of news
28% author a blog and 44% read blogs
15% of IM users are logged on 24 hours a day/7 days a week

These are the future consumers of news content.

I find it interesting that I myself fit this profile fairly closely (I'm probably not too much older than John.)

Where I differ is in the social networking aspect of it. I just don't crave it, though IM is a great work tool for me. I also spend no time on online games, which were oddly omitted from the list.

At 3:25 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, that's why I pointed to this, because I agree that it's going to take this kind of fresh thinking to keep news and information vibrant for this generation, and that thinking is likely to come from the most unlikely places, and probably from that generation itself.

Having said that, there's obviously a built-in problem here: how much are we going to dumb down, rev up, water down, etc. the kind of basic news that's fundamental to a democracy (well, in our case a republic, a kind of democracy with driver training brakes on it) as we try to get younger folks interested in it? And just how much attention will they really be paying to serious stuff when it comes wrapped in the context of video games? These are no small issues.

At the same time, I admit I did have a glimmer of newfound respect for video gaming for the first time ever, after reporting a story for the Cleveland Clinic magazine a couple years ago. The topic was minimally invasive surgery, a huge new trend in medicine (or at least at the upper reaches just now) that proceeds from a wonderful idea: if the Hippocratic oath tells us we should first do no harm, why continue to cut giant holes in people during surgery, thus delivering more trauma than is generally necessary to the patient, when we can instead operate through relative pin pricks by using instruments called laproscopes (which have video monitors attached to the end, allowing surgeons to see what they're operating on)? The world-class surgeon who was my guide through this story told me that it's common knowledge in medicine that those who have grown up playing video games generally pick up this important new form of surgery with relative ease compared to those who didn't. I thought that was something of an aha! moment.

At 3:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Presumably gamers would prefer video-oriented information and in relatively bite-sized segments. Same problem as with TV: video lends itself to emotional appeal as opposed to thoughtful analysis. And who aggregates the bites that get presented?

(Then again, maybe gamers would be open to text as well.)

Josh Marshall over at TPM is thinking ahead. TPMtv is a relatively new feature on his site, and it is good. But to an extent, his blog and others are preaching to the choir. Whoever or whatever is involved in forming the choir has the most power.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, any medium where image is paramount is going to be a problem that way. TV has basically ruined everything it's touched, from pro and college sports to politics and on and on the list goes. I think you know I'm a huge fan of Josh Marshall and his talkingpointsmemo.com empire. He's always skating out well ahead of where others are at any moment, but where they'll eventually be.

Anyway, what's your take on Lieberman? Did you read that link I provided above from New York Mag?

At 4:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to take away from the excellent discussion on the link between video gaming and new media and young people, but as I was reading through the stuff on ABC and Gibson, I kept thinking about how NBC compares, specifically, Brian Williams as anchor, who in my entirely non-expert/media hound view does a good job.

Any thoughts?

At 4:46 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Welcome, Miles. Good to see you the other night, but only wish we could have chatted a little more. And we're all non-expert media hounds, so don't be bashful about that.

I'm on record here (in some earlier back-and-forth with Mr. Bluster, I believe) as saying I think NBC's news operation is far stronger and more serious than either of its historic rivals, ABC and CBS. In part, that's because they have a steadier, more strategic owner than the others. While being owned by the omnivorous GE has all kinds of obvious potential drawbacks (most of which haven't come to pass, but media hounds need to remain ever on alert), it's also had some benefits.

But the larger reason they're better may have something to do with MSNBC. Unlike CBS and ABC (the latter of which established a cable beachhead not in news, but in sports, with ESPN), NBC made what now seems like a visionary decision to partner with Microsoft in establishing a news channel on cable. MSFT pretty quickly learned it wasn't a good fit for them, nor a business where they really had that much to add, and they've since gone away. But it's been a great thing for NBC.

It's given them lots more hours on which to let on-air people shine--which helps retain old talent and attract new--given them more outlets for more news, and more air on which to sell ads, which invigorates the entire news division (which needs lots of financial invigoration under GE's ownership, since their operating motto has long been that all their divisions have to be either #1 or at least #2 in their industry, or else).

I think Williams is by far the most watchable of the network anchors, simply because he's the least frilly and most serious. He got lots of practice on what was then considered the minor leagues, the cable channel. I also think he's a major improvement over his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, who always seemed pretty phony to me. Williams is refreshing that way. What you see is mostly what you get. I think he was a junior speechwriter for Jimmy Carter back in the day. Now there's a job that's WAY harder than anything he's now doing.

I gather you might also like Williams? Or maybe not.

At 5:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do like him and I agree that he is certainly the most watchable. But as we all know, too, looks go a long way in the TV news biz, and Williams has that... I don't know... almost Murrow-like look to him, but without the hard edge that Murrow had. I mean, the guy goes on The Daily Show and banters with Jon Stewart and in that banter you can tell he "gets it," that he's a part of the ominous big bad "media" but that he's doing what he can to not make it such a circus.

I guess you could say he has just the right amount of gravitas, as well.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Well said. I know he got a lot of abuse for going on the Daily Show, but it seemed to be mostly a big to do about nothing. As for his looks, you can't miss that terribly crooked nose of his, which looks like it's been broken a dozen times. Just enough to mar the usual pretty boy anchor look. And I know women tend to think the word "gravitas" is a synonym for "male." So be it. Linda Ellerbee, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill (among others) all have it. Katie Couric doesn't, and never will.

At 11:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You will probably be unsurprised to know that I'm not a fan of Brian Williams either, and here's one good reason.

Remember the New York Times story about paid TV analysts who were, in fact, shills for the Pentagon? It was completely ignored by all the networks.

Here is a reader comment on Williams' blog:

"Brian, I am wondering if you read this front page piece in The New York Times the previous Sunday, "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand"? You can find the link below. Did you report on it? You seem to have plenty say on the Daily Nightly blog about numerous other articles in the NYT but not this one (which actually DIRECTLY concerns your network). What do you have to say about this one? Either your comments about The New York Times are a cheap shot or you are clueless, which one is it?"

Williams follows up the next day:

"I've worked with two men since I've had this job -- both retired, heavily-decorated U.S. Army four-star Generals -- Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey. As I'm sure is obvious to even a casual viewer, I quickly entered into a close friendship with both men."

A reader commented:

"Which, as any journalism textbook will tell you, is critical for maintaining objectivity in vetting sources."

That is only one of the blistering and on-target comments following Williams' shrug-off of the criticism. Read some of them, they're pretty good. An honest man would take some of them to heart. But he, like the other network anchors, have made their pacts with the devil.

At 8:15 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Ah, good point, Dr. Bluster. That's a relatively fresh outrage, and I was quite outraged by it at the time as well. But not surprised. Anyway, thanks for providing yet another good example of the incredible investigative bird-dogging the NYT has been doing during the Bush years. They've been the opposition party more than the Dems.

At 8:15 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

But we (or at least I) would still like to hear your take on Weasly Lieberman.

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He's the real "Bridge to nowhere" guy; he has burned his with the Democratic party, and the GOP is likely to lose a fair number of seats.

As the article says, he seems to have taken his loss in the Connecticut primary personally. He seems to have taken on Messianic airs (maybe a symptom of being all in, plus having a huge ego.)

The netroots are out to get him and almost did in the 2006 election, so maybe he has a persecution complex, too. (Remember that giant, crude papier-mâché sculpture on a flatbed, "The Kiss," that dogged Lieberman's campaign stops?)

He put all his eggs in McCain's basket (sickening metaphor,) but no VP nod. He is likely to lose the precarious power he has after the election.

Maybe he will do a spotlight-grabbing switch to the GOP. In his mind at least, he could be their October Surprise, if they can't trot out bin Laden in time for the election.

The puzzle to me is trying to understand how he sees himself. I gather that his hawkishness plays well to the Jewish groups he speaks to. Maybe his close identification with Israeli interests makes him view any U.S. involvement in the Middle East as a good thing. It seems to have blinded his political instincts. I wonder how happy Israeli leaders are with his antics.

Personally, I'm with the netroots on Lieberman. That droning, holier-than-thou voice of his grates almost as badly as Palin's.

Speaking of whom, how did you like her Bush Doctrine answer? At least Gibson stayed mostly on track. I think you were right, he did feel under the gun from his colleagues. Still, he was far softer than he would have been with any normal candidate. But that's show biz.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

As usual, some extremely astute and sophisticated analysis in there, Bluster. I'd agree with all of it. And I especially like your point about the hard-right sympathies of too large a slice of the American Jewish community when it comes to Israel and related topics. That played a crucial role in driving the Bush administration neocons to new heights of geopolitical wing-nuttery in recent years, and they have much to answer for, I think.

As for the Palin interview, I missed them yesterday (ABC did a terrible job of promoting them for those who don't ordinarily watch much network news or ABC), but will certainly catch it tonight on 20/20. Meanwhile, I did closely read the NYT's excellent front-page account, which did indeed credit Gibson with being tough enough. I think the dynamics at play there were pretty much as I described them yesterday:


Finally, it would seem you've developed quite a following from my readership, for all the obvious reasons. I've received more than one email recently from your budding fan base asking about you. My answer: I only know that he lives in Oklahoma, is married, and follows politics and public affairs like crazy. Certainly have never met him or talked to him on the phone. But I have shared a few emails with him. Care to share any other slivers of your bio?

At 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's very flattering.

I only started following these things closely once I began to try to make sense of the events of 9/11. I found that the newspaper and TV were little help.

As an internet junkie, I discovered some sites that made an honest attempt to integrate all the information out there (TalkingPointsMemo.com for example.)

I am glad to say I never voted for W, but the only Clinton I have voted for was Hillary (though in retrospect, I would have voted for Bill as well.)

At 1:30 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You've nicely put your finger on what it's all about, or should be, in journalism: honestly integrating all the best available information. Those who do that best will thrive (and are thriving) in the new media environment.

At 1:41 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Hey, check this out, folks. I predict that talk show host Craig Ferguson, a new American citizen, is destined for at least minor folk hero status if he keeps offering up these kind of riffs:


At 2:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was great.

Just a brief return to the topic of gamers:

Some of the games out there are incredibly detailed simulations of the real world. Sim City is about the growth and planning of a city. A new one, Spore, lets the player start with peptides, evolve his creatures, and ultimately spin out into the galaxy.

It might behoove a political candidate to get that kind of perspective and feel for how different variables and choices are interrelated.

Some candidates may prefer point-of-view shoot-em-up games, though.

At 2:53 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Can't you just picture McCain trying to figure out how to operate a video game? Hell, he can't even figure out email or "the Google." But then, I should talk: I probably couldn't make much sense out of any video game post Space Invaders (remember that one?), which I recall playing quite a lot at my favorite neighborhood watering hole shortly after college.

At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's start McCain on Pong. In fairness, he has operated the controls of a jet fighter, so he certainly could have done it in his prime. But is he up to mastering new ideas and technology at age 72? Seems doubtful.

At 3:12 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good point on the fighter controls. The technical mastery that requires dwarfs anything I've ever done.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good point on the fighter controls. The technical mastery that requires dwarfs anything I've ever done.

At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hasten to add, there are plenty of 70-, 80- and even 90-somethings capable of doing email and a whole lot more. I'm just not convinced McCain is one of them.

At 5:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“Are you saying you think Americans are better than other nations?" –Judy Woodruff, 09-11-08

OMG! They’re back. I no sooner reported The Democratic National Committee consigned to the dumper, than it popped up again at the 9-11 Forum On Public Service & Civic Engagement. Held at Columbia University, “impartial moderators” Richard Stengel, managing editor of TIME along with PBS NewsHour Senior Correspondent and Political Editor Judy Woodruff, moderated the forum staged by Service Nation, “a new nationwide coalition.” While no relation to journalist Bob Woodruff, Judy is married to Al Hunt executive editor of The Bloomberg News, DC, bureau. Bloomberg also reported that, “she [Sarah Palin] was arrested 22 years ago on a drunken-driving charge.” The next day, Judy Woodruff reflected on the experience with NewsHour’s Steve Goldbloom. Judy, who envisioned a civilian counterpart to the military conceded that while 9-11 might not have been the most auspicious date, the candidates stayed true to the service mission, as if John McCain were somehow onboard with a civilian mission with military authority. Anyway, The DNC reemerged as The [International] Provisional People’s Collective Party, or PCP. And, guess what the PCP has in store for America: Political Officers, Commissars. The title Commissar refers to either a People’s Commissar (government), or a Political Commissar (military). In the Soviet Union, the Institute of Political Commissars was established to control the military. The state security organizations, KGB, etc., and or People’s Commissars also controlled the Soviet Army, together with the entire Soviet State. Compulsory Public Service is the future. All men will be judged politically; anti-Marxist sentiment shall be crushed. But we first require a state organ with which to train the political functionaries who will hold coequal rank and authority. Welcome comrade, to Hillary’s National Public Service Academy: http://theseedsof9-11.com

At 7:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could I have Thousand Island dressing on my word salad, please?

At 7:41 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good lord, Peggy. I hope you at least know what the hell you're trying to say, because I sure as hell don't understand any of it, with or without Thousand Island dressing.


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