Friday, June 30, 2006

I was in Colorado two weeks ago, and finally kept a pledge to myself. On the way down from Breckinridge to the airport in Denver, I stopped off in Idaho Springs and tracked down this statue of Steve Canyon.

It didn't take much tracking. I asked for directions at a tourist information booth a little way up the highway and the fellow drew me a map. The instructions were, basically, to get off the highway, turn right, right again at the second street and follow it out until just before the Safeway. And there it was.

There are two plaques on the front. The larger one on top reads "Steve Canyon - whose name has been given to a valley near here by the people of - Idaho Springs, Colorado -- This statue is dedicated to all airmen who wore the uniform of the armed forces of the United States in time of conflict, and who stand ready in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard to fly again in defense of their country, should the need arise. -- carved by the Indiana Limestone Company and flown here by the 327th Troop Carrier Squadron, USAFR -- July 1950"

The smaller one below says "The United States Treasury salutes Steve Canyon -- and, through him, all the American cartoon characters who served the nation as salesmen in the Independence Sales Bonds Drive, May - July 1950"

So now you know, and knowing is half the battle!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

This photo, by the AP's David Longstreath, is on my desktop for no other reason than the exuberance of these kids. Seeing them joyfully waving back each day is a tonic.

Did I say "kids"? They're young, but they're engaged in serious business. These are a group of Nepalese communists celebrating the successful conclusion of the demonstrations in that country that forced the king to restore parliament. And so there were a couple of factors here I found intriguing, when Nellie covered the story a few weeks ago.

To begin with, there is the political factor. I don't think these communists are the Marxists who have been waging war in the region, but the fact remains that the Marxists did declare a ceasefire in order to make common cause with the other groups who (peacefully) sought justice in the course of the demonstrations. The potential for reconciliation is encouraging, especially if the overall mix includes more moderate socialists such as I imagine these kids are, to mitigate the intensity of those guerrillas.

The other is the Sprite bottle, the Bob Marley t-shirt and the other accoutrements of Western culture -- and the fact that a couple of these kids are pretty natty, especially the guy in the bright blue shirt with his headband folded just so. They didn't just climb out of the mountains drinking fermented yak's milk and blowing on their panpipes.

Maybe they do that, too, at other times, and I would support the move to preserve national cultures, but I think it behooves us in the West to stop thinking of these other nations in terms of their most isolated peasantry.

My friend and colleague, Rina, for example, lives on the island of Borneo, which, in our culture, is a symbol of remoteness. For us to say that something is "on Borneo" means it's practically on another planet. But she and I exchange email readily and she, being in her 20's, is more up-to-date on pop culture than I am, being in my 50's. And I am regularly surprised at how often, for example, the movies that are just opening here are also just opening there.

So a bunch of kids in Nepal are drinking Sprite and wearing Bob Marley shirts, while a young artist in Eastern Malaysia is watching "Cars" and commenting on the animation. The world is indeed getting smaller.

Here's another thing about this picture: In 1989, I interviewed Arlo Guthrie and he was commenting on the number of young people who came to his concerts and were familiar with his music to the point of silently mouthing the words to "Alice's Restaurant" while he was performing it. And they weren't all coming with their parents, either, he added.

I asked him -- granted that we are both of an age but that he was immersed in the music industry and I wasn't -- if I was being unfair to think that there wasn't much going on in popular music at the moment. He responded that, no, I was probably correct that there wasn't much going on in the music, but that this was only natural because there wasn't that much going on in the country.

Rather, he suggested, things were happening in Czechoslovakia (where the Soviet grip was loosening) and Berlin (where the wall was about to come down) and China (where the Tianamen Square protests were ongoing). There, he said, the young people had things going on, just as we had in the days of Vietnam and Civil Rights and the sexual revolution and so forth. And a generation from now, he suggested, it would be their children who would say, "Wow! What was it like to be young in your day?"

I've often said to my contemporaries from those olden days that we were awfully lucky to have been young in the age in which we hit our teens and twenties. For those Nepalese kids, now is that time and this is that moment. Is every day going to be as joyful as the moment in which that photo was snapped? Of course not. And our days weren't universally pleasant, either.

But the intensity of riding that roller coaster, with its incredible highs and its swooping lows and the exhilirating transitions between, is a privilege that not every generation gets to experience.

Looking at their smiling faces makes me nostalgic for the moment when my own youth and one of those rare historic moments happened to intersect.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I don't intend for this to be a political blog, but when an issue touches on the First Amendment, it's certainly on-topic here.

In choosing the cartoons for this week's "Drawing Conclusions," I anticipated dealing with the NYTimes disclosures. However, there weren't enough relevant cartoons available by deadline Tuesday. I expect to come back to the matter next week, and I hope by then there are some intelligent anti-Times cartoons rather than just dumb, frantic, paranoid recitations of right-wing talking points. There could be a smart discussion of when the press should publish and when it should shut up, and I'd prefer to see it treated with wit and insight from both sides.

But maybe that discussion can't emerge from this particular example, for the simple reason that this is a stupid example.

The rightwing is asking, well, what if the press had announced the date of the D-Day invasion back in 1944?

Aside from the point that invading Normandy didn't involve authorizing a violation of the Bill of Rights, here's how the question should be phrased: "What if the press had announced the date of the D-Day invasion four years after the president himself announced it?"

Here's what our Dear Leader told FEMA employees, on October 1, 2001:

"As you may remember, I made it clear that part of winning the war against terror would be to cut off these evil people's money; it would be to trace their assets and freeze them, cut off their cash flows, hold people accountable who fund them, who allow the funds to go through their institutions; and not only do that at home, but to convince others around the world to join us in doing so.

"Thus far, we've frozen $6 million in bank accounts linked to terrorist activity. We've frozen 30 al Qaeda accounts in the United States and 20 overseas. And we're just beginning."

There's more to this story in an excellent takedown on the Columbia Journalism Review site:

The illustration today is a July 3, 2003 cartoon by Ann Telnaes, whose work I greatly admire. Her site at is always worth a visit.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

This week in "Drawing Conclusions," we look at the recent attempt to raise the federal minimum wage, as seen through the eyes and pens of Ann Telnaes and Stuart Carlson.

Meanwhile, Nellie Bly examines the UN conference that seeks to limit the marketing of illegal arms, and the furor it has stirred up within the National Rifle Association.

Comments are always welcome!

Another favorite cartoon from a favorite cartoonist, Wiley Miller. This one ran back in 1993, coincidentally about a month after I left the newsroom, though I didn't see it until considerably later when I gave my daughter-in-law a Non Sequitur collection for Christmas and, of course, read it before wrapping it.

I miss being an instant expert, but you have to understand, I was uniquely qualified for the position. I majored in being an instant expert. There were several times when I bought the books for a course the day before a term paper was due. Of course, I graduated in the top 85 percent of my class, but I like to think I probably placed much higher among the subset of students who hadn't read the material.

As a business reporter, I specialized in Sunday section covers and I worked for a tiny paper, about 22,000 circ, which meant I didn't have the luxury of sitting back and taking a month or three to research and write each of these things. I'd start at 9 am Monday with an idea and would file by 5 o'clock Friday, and in the interim would have to continue to cover daily events in business and the occasional fire as well.

In other words, it was a lot like college. It was rougher because I had a term paper due three Fridays out of every four, but that was more than balanced by the fact that my professors in college had known when I was bullshitting and my editors didn't. They'd change "that" to "which" in my copy or break up a long sentence, but they wouldn't come back to me and say, "That's not how avoided costs are calculated in compensating non-utility generators."

Which brings us to Wiley's point -- Reporters who cover subjects they don't understand.

I loved the variety in reporting, especially in a small newsroom. You'd come into work thinking you were going to write a piece about health insurance for small businesses but then the scanner would go off and you'd find yourself up to your ankles in mud watching somebody's barn burn to the ground.

But this ability to absorb, interpret and regurgitate on the fly is not for everyone, and we've all had, I think, the experience of reading a news story on a topic we do understand and realizing that the writer is completely lost. It's one thing to say, "Well, I might have added ... " or "Too bad he didn't consider ... " It's another to say, "What the hell is he thinking? That's not how it works!"

There are C students who do poorly because they can't understand the material, but there are also those who learn, painfully sometimes, the skill of absorbing and reflecting. Senior year, we had a standing joke in seminar that it was unfair to ask questions about material in the last third of the book under consideration, but the fact was, we had a lot to read. We covered "War and Peace" in three 90-minute sessions and Aristotle's Metaphysics in two.

The trick to being a good C-student was knowing how to build on the insights of someone who had actually read the material, and that's the trick to being a good reporter, too. And it's really all the source, or the reader, wants: You are supposed to get into the head of the expert and translate it for the benefit of the readers.

That's why you attribute quotes -- You're not there to say what economic policy is best going to curb inflation. You're there to report on what economic policy the Treasury Secretary thinks is best going to curb inflation. And, just as a good C-student learns which fellow-students around the seminar table to listen to and absorb from and which ones to ignore, a good reporter figures out which sources to go to for backgrounders and balance and which ones are going to try to spin him and make him look foolish.

There are way too many former A-students working in newsrooms today. They don't make good reporters because they think they know stuff. You can't possibly know enough of the random stuff that comes up in the course of writing a news story. Only someone who is experienced in covering up his own ignorance has the skills necessary to be a good reporter.

Hemingway said that a reporter needs to have a good bullshit detector. He was absolutely right.

And it takes one to know one.

Monday, June 26, 2006

It didn't take me long to get to the first post that will "not necessarily reflect the views of my employer," though I hope they don't object to my saying that newspapers have a future, however they view my analysis of the matter.

And just when I was thinking of dropping Slate from my daily media diet, Jack Shafer comes up with a column that I wish would end up in front of more people. According to Shafer, reports of the death of the newspaper industry have been greatly exaggerated.

(N)ot every newspaper will die an extended, lucrative death. Titles with national advertisers and distribution, such as the New York Times and USA Today have natural advantages. Small, local papers can survive by burrowing even deeper into their communities.

True, but I wish someone would tell the newspapers.

As Shafer notes, the media pie is being sliced into more pieces with each new technology, but it doesn't mean newspapers don't have a place, despite the hipsters who dismiss the "MSM" and "dead tree technology."

To spin the expression, I am less worried about the attacks from the newspaper industry's enemies than I am the defenses offered by its friends, particularly those newsroom folks who have, on ethical grounds, studiously avoided knowing anything about marketing, but now have decided to jump in and save us all.

Shafer is right about local papers. We can maintain our franchise by covering our local communities. The big metros have to worry about competition, but nobody is going to come into a small, isolated community like ours and create a profitable on-line site that will outdo our ability to bring together information -- unless we dawdle until the temptation becomes irresistable.

And, boy, do we know how to dawdle, amusing ourselves with wrong solutions to someone else's problems.

If you go to conventions of newspaper people, or read our industry journals, you get a lot of one-size-fits-all prescriptions that emphasize color and glitz and pooh-pooh things like "meeting stories." We need to be more dynamic and exciting. We need to compete with all the other amazing stuff that's out there, if you listen to the new experts.

These experts aren't new. Just newly prominent.

I've met few local features editors who wouldn't rather be working at People or Rolling Stone, but they used to be sent off to play in the features sandbox, far from the decisions about the "real news" that was the backbone of the paper. This is no longer the case.

Sure, a 30-inch story on a city council meeting is boring -- but that doesn't mean you don't cover it at all. It doesn't mean that, in its place, you run an airheaded profile of the newest tattoo artist to hit town, or an entertainment feature from the wire that ran on Yahoo! a week ago.

We need to smarten up. People have a lot of choices in media, but newspapers remain one of them. Will we always be printed on paper? Almost certainly not, though there are several more years before that delivery system plays out. But we're still going to be around, if we don't give up.

We're not dead. Kids will read the paper if you can get it in front of them.

Those little angels at the top of the page are local Headstart kids who get the paper every day and, starting in the fall, will be bringing it home on Mondays as part of Headstart's family support.

That not only gets them into the newspaper habit but will help reach their parents, a generation we have managed to avoid addressing in any meaningful way. My biggest problem is not the kids but their teachers, who are also of that missed generation -- they don't use the newspaper in class because they don't use the newspaper at home. And that's a wider problem than just an issue for newspapers.

Our national disengagement began not with the Internet but with TV and especially the cable explosion of the 1970s. It also began with the loss of family time -- the loss of dinner together and just general hanging out as a family. A generation of Mowgli children raised themselves, and the resulting lack of social engagement is a serious problem for all of us, not just people in the newspaper industry.

But that's a rant for another day. Here's a link to Shafer's column:

Sunday, June 25, 2006

How many bears in hammocks does it take to fill the Albert Hall?

I was on the road for about a week recently, cut off from my computer, and it forced me to experience news as I guess it is seen by people who are not obsessive about it. There was wi-fi everywhere and it occurred to me that maybe I need to get a laptop, but resolving my own lack of access to real news isn't the point. The real issue is, if you do lead the horse to the trough, is there any water in there for him to drink?

The hotel in Denver, where I stayed for most of my time out there, didn't have a newspaper deal with either of the local papers, so I'd get USA Today at my door, usually about the time I was leaving anyway. Without access to a newspaper or a computer, my solution was to get up in the morning and flip around the TV channels, looking for news while I got showered and dressed.

Mostly, I saw video of a bear climbing into and falling out of a hammock. Maybe it was a slow week, but when you're at war and the economy is in the can, I've got to think there's more news than a bear falling out of a hammock. But when I'd turn on the Denver stations, they'd go to the traffic reporter, they'd show the weather and the fires burning on the Western Slope, and then they'd show the bear falling out of the hammock again.

So I'd switch over to Headline News, where you used to be able to get the top stories of the day at least at the top and the bottom of the hour, if you didn't mind sitting through the fluff that began around 10 and 40 minutes past the hour. But apparently Headline News has abandoned that format, because now they have good-looking people chatting and giggling and, yes, showing that damn bear falling out of the hammock.

Oh, and everyone was playing clips from Matt Lauer's interview with Brittney Spears, which was just kind of sad. My experience interviewing celebs was that, however light and fluffy their screen personas may be, they didn't get to that level of the industry without some smarts and a strong drive. Loni Anderson was one of the most intense people I've ever met, maybe because, if she was going to make it in a competitive and perilous industry, she had to protect herself against the obvious pitfalls of looking the way she does. But Brittney was a child star and maybe she got to the top because other people had brains and focus. I've seen people interviewed because they were in a car wreck who had more poise and media sense than this poor child.

Apparently, however, it was only unwatchably bad to me, because the clips were in constant rotation. The bear falls out of the hammock, Brittney snuffles over the way the media cover her marriage, and then the bear climbs back into the hammock and falls out again.

And the people watching -- that is, the millions of registered voters who get their world view from this level of journalism -- said to themselves, "I saw the news today."

Oh boy.

(Today's illustration is from, a very entertaining site that hosts Photoshop contests. This is pretty funny, I guess, but remember that the governor of California announced his candidacy on Jay Leno, and that's where Bill Clinton put on the shades and played the sax. Oh boy.)*

*As noted in the comments, Clinton's saxophone appearance was on Arsenio Hall.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

I guess it depends on your point of view ...

"If you're dealing with a culture, a community of religion, that's inclined to idealize 'men of God'—clerics – and hand their children over to such folk for extended periods, you can expect what the outcome could be."

The Notre Dame Alumni Club?

Apparently he had a different community of religion in mind.

I've spent so much time setting this thing up that I'm going to simply inaugurate it by posting one of my favorite cartoons by one of my favorite cartoon artists. Jimmy Johnson has a blog at that I visit each morning. He's just a tad younger than I am but obsesses over the same sorts of middleage issues I do, and with the same bittersweet affection.

As exemplified here.