Media postsThursday April 18, 2013
The True Vice of Vice: Advertisers with Editorial Input
Besides selling banner displays and short ads that play before its videos, Vice offers its advertisers the option of funding an entire project in exchange for being listed as co-creator and having editorial input. Advertisers can pay for a single video, or, for a higher price—one to five million dollars for twelve episodes, according to Vice—they can pay for an entire series, on a topic that dovetails with the company’s image. (The North Face, the outdoors company, recently sponsored a series called “Far Out,” in which Vice staffers visit people living in “the most remote places on Earth.”)
At the highest end of the sponsorship spectrum are verticals, in which companies can sponsor entire Web sites. If you go to Vice’s main site, Vice.com, you’ll see the weird, ribald material that defines its brand (“New York Fashion Week . . . On Acid!,” “India’s Street Doctors Will Bleed the Sickness Right Out of You”). Tabs at the top connect to Web sites on single subjects: Motherboard, which focusses on technology; Fightland (ultimate fighting); and Noisey (music). The content on these sites is sponsored by companies such as Garnier, Toshiba, and Scion. Vice’s sponsored verticals tend to be in softer areas, like music and art. As Smith said, “Crest doesn’t want to be next to severed heads.”
Smith describes sponsored content as a return to the soap-opera model of early television: “It’s ‘As the World Turns,’ sponsored by Procter & Gamble. And you’re going to do that show anyway. And Procter & Gamble just sort of fits in.” But when I spoke to Spencer Baim, Vice’s chief strategic officer and the head of Virtue, its in-house advertising agency, he pointed out that mere sponsorship has become “a dirty word” among advertisers. “Being a sponsor is just slapping your logo on something and not being strategic about it,” he said. Instead, he added, sponsored content should represent something “fresh”—a true creative collaboration between Vice and its advertiser.
Almost nothing about Vice appeals to me. I'm not their demographic (male: 18-34), but even when I was their demographic I wasn't, because I hated this kind of shit. Widdicombe accurately calls the sensibility “adolescent, male and proudly boorish.” It's actually worse. It's part of the downfall.
It's not hip. It's sponsored.
Going About My Business After Boston
I have no insight, no wisdom, about the bombings that took place at the Boston Marathon yesterday. I heard about it relatively early, followed it for about an hour, then did what we all have to do: I went back to work. I continued to write. I did the laundry. I changed those two light bulbs in the kitchen. I fed Jellybean at 6 and again at 8. I read my friend John Rosengren's biography of Hank Greenberg.
Monica Guzman, columnist with The Seattle Times, tweeted about the bombings yesterday at 2 pm. She'd just heard. She was horrified. An hour and fifteen minutes later, she tweeted this:
No answers from the president's briefing. We still don't know who, we still don't why...— Monica Guzman (@moniguzman) April 15, 2013
“Still.” We want zip-zip in this culture. The future is now and now is so 10 minutes ago. We keep trying to keep up with the nothing that's yet to happen.
But there are obvious dangers in rushing to answer. Here's the initial report from The New York Post:
The Post ran other headlines: “Authorities ID suspect as Saudi national...” They kept these headlines up long after we knew that 2 (later 3) were dead and the Saudi national wasn't a suspect.
For a time, people thought the JFK Library had been attacked, too. That was an electrical fire, apparently.
I tend to slow down in moments like these. It seems like the rest of the world gets frantic and angry and demands answers while I just slow down and get sad. I know I'm far away from the scene. I know I'm just experiencing all of it through media. I know real tragedy is happening to real people, as it does every day, but I'm here, viewing it through a screen, and can't help. Wringing my hands doesn't help. So I go back to work. I follow the directive of the cop at the scene: I go about my business.
I know the answer to the question that everyone is asking, WHY?, a word the Reno paper splashed across its front page, will come to us eventually. I also know, as we all know, that that answer will be sad, and small, and stupid. We're just waiting to find out what kind of sad, and small, and stupid.
Founding Dish Member
In case you haven't heard, Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish is creating his own business model.
What writing, in the digital age, is worth paying for? Sullivan's, I would argue, so I signed up. Even though I could still read most of his blog without paying a dime. There will be no paywall. But I figure I already owe him that much. $19.99 for a year? Please.
The New Yorker, too, is worth paying for, despite their new online love for Andy Borowitz, and I'm already paying for that. Ditto The New York Times. I'd pay for Joe Posnanski if he asked. Maybe I'll buy him a beer when he's in town. Let me know, Joe.
What about you?
Brave new world that has such blogs in it. You can sign up for Sully here.
Your Liberal Media at Work: The Times' Awful Puff-Piece on the New Mitt Romney--Annotated
The following is courtesy of that liberal rag, The New York Times, and its journalist Michael Barbaro:
From the moment that Mr. Romney ended his first bid for the Republican nomination, he complained to friends, advisers and family that he had felt cheated out of a chance to explain himself to the country. He had emerged from his debut on the national political stage, he told them, as a caricature he did not recognize: emotionally uncaring, intellectually inauthentic, ideologically malleable. As opposed to now?
Over the next three years, a little-examined period in his life, he sought to reclaim his public identity with the self-critical eye, marketing savvy and systematic rigor of the corporate consultant that he once was. Permission to throw up, please?
When Willard Mitt Romney, 65, delivers his acceptance speech Thursday night in Tampa, Fla., reveling in his success at winning over a fractious party and endeavoring to sell himself anew to Americans, he will owe the moment in no small measure to what he did during this time. Or in large measure to the fact that every other GOP nominee was a loon.
It was a restless period when he labored to persuade voters to see him as he saw himself: a man of deep convictions and big ideas, a credible party leader and inevitable presidential nominee. I see few convictions, old ideas, lots of money, and a man who desperately wants to be president.
He coolly (coolly, Gracie?) assessed the failings of his 2008 campaign and undertook an intensive yearlong tutorial on everything from the tax code to global jihadism. He wrote a book laying out his vision and values to answer conservative doubters and counter charges of flip-flopping, elbowing aside a ghost writer who he felt could not accurately channel his voice. Well, he does like firing people. He bought good will in his party by crisscrossing the country to raise money for hundreds of candidates, even cutting a check for one lawmaker’s portrait in the New Hampshire State House. The GOP: party of good will.
Mr. Romney returned as a far stronger candidate — a crisper debater, a more decisive manager, a better strategist and a stick-to-his-message campaigner whose chief selling point this time around, his business expertise, was well suited to the political moment. Didn't he just change his message again? Completely? And isn't his business expertise in taking over and breaking up businesses, and sending jobs overseas?
Etc. This is the biggest pile of horseshit I've read in a long time. It's typical of the genre, the lack of success that led to the present success, “the turnaround,” but it makes up for its lack of meat with a whole messa adjectives and adverbs. It's basically saying that after 2008, Romney, retrospective, changed himself from an emotionally uncaring, intellectually inauthentic, ideologically malleable losing candidate to the winning candidate we see today: who is emotionally uncaring, intellectually inauthentic, ideologically malleable. Thanks, Times.
The new Mitt Romney: Now with more whitener.
Quote of the Day
“I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn't ever have to rely on the press for my information.”
--Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
How the Daily Beast Screws Up Its Articles
I saw this article the other day on The Daily Beast. I was there for Andrew Sullivan but saw this.
Didn't click on the link but questions were inevitably raised about the use of (I assume) Paris Hilton:
- Does she represent the media's depiction of girls?
- Does she represent girls?
- Is she there because she's hot, you'll notice, possibly click on the link, and help the bottom line of the Daily Beast?
I'm guessing a bit of 1) but mostly 3).
Seriously, it's dopey enough having a media site like the Daily Beast talk up the problems of “the media.” But for the Daily Beast to then offer up the very thing it's condemning is a sign either of schizophrenia or a vast, horrible unscrupulousness.
How great is it to be as stupid as Maureen Dowd?
In her latest column, “Eggheads and Blockheads,” Maureen Dowd chastises the Republican party as the “How great is it to be stupid?” party, which it is, by comparing its current front-runner for president, Rick Perry, to ... wait for it ... John Wayne.
So she attempts to trash a man by comparing him to one of the most iconic heroes of American cinema? How great is it to be as stupid as Maureen Dowd?
Dowd uses John Ford's “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” as her prism for the upcoming presidential race. She casts Barack Obama as Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), the thin lawyer from the east who is often bullied by the likes of Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), whom, in a final showdown, he shoots and kills. From this he gains acclaim, becoming an ambassador to England and U.S. Senator. But it's all a lie. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), from behind a corner store, was the real man who shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard's shot missed high and wide.
What's the connection between Ford's film and our current reality? None. The comparison is facile. The connective tissue is barely there. She merely sees Obama as an egghead (forgetting Stoddard's rage), Perry as a blockhead (forgetting Doniphan's heroism), and the rest of us as the townsfolk caught in the middle (forgetting that most were stereotypical Scandinavians, a favorite Ford trope.)
As she puts it:
So we’re choosing between the overintellectualized professor and blockheads boasting about their vacuity?
What's awful about Dowd is not just her myopic dichotomies, not just her clumsy Hollywood analogies, but the fact that she misses the bigger picture. Because what's fascinating about modern Republicans, who continually trash Hollywood, is how their candidates fit so easily into Hollywood western and action-adventure archetypes. This is intentional. The party that trashes Hollywood is the party that apes Hollywood. Both the GOP and Hollywood create wish-fulfillment fantasies in good vs. evil battles because that's what we, the public, wish to see. Until reality intrudes. Which makes us wish to see it even more.
It's not an insult, in other words, to compare Rick Perry to John Wayne. It is, in fact, the whole point to his awful, awful career.
Your Liberal Media at Work
The above screenshot is from The New York Times. Their lede? Perry drowned out a heckler with a Texas college football reference. Now you know who to vote for.
So let's see if we can't get away from the Times front page for a little perspective.
Over at Salon.com, Joan Walsh puts the Texan on the grill:
Perry's Texas leads the nation in minimum-wage jobs, uninsured children, high school dropouts and pollution. He balanced the state's budget with stimulus money he railed against. His record won't back up his bragging.
The Wall Street Journal Op-Ed is hardly enthusiastic:
The questions about Mr. Perry concern how well his Lone Star swagger will sell in the suburbs of Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where the election is likely to be decided. He can sound more Texas than Jerry Jones, George W. Bush and Sam Houston combined, and his muscular religiosity also may not play well at a time when the economy has eclipsed culture as the main voter concern.
Meanwhile, Paul Krugman, the Times Op-Ed columnist, is perhaps sharpest on the matter. How is Perry's Texas doing so well economically? In “The Texas Unmiracle” he gives two reasons: Big Oil and surprisingly strong mortgage regulations--the kind Republicans are usually against. Plus they're not necessarily doing well:
From mid-2008 onward unemployment soared in Texas, just as it did almost everywhere else.
In June 2011, the Texas unemployment rate was 8.2 percent. That was less than unemployment in collapsed-bubble states like California and Florida, but it was slightly higher than the unemployment rate in New York, and significantly higher than the rate in Massachusetts. By the way, one in four Texans lacks health insurance, the highest proportion in the nation, thanks largely to the state’s small-government approach.
So what about all those jobs Perry claims he added in Texas? The result of population growth more than anything:
Many of the people moving to Texas — retirees in search of warm winters, middle-class Mexicans in search of a safer life — bring purchasing power that leads to greater local employment. At the same time, the rapid growth in the Texas work force keeps wages low — almost 10 percent of Texan workers earn the minimum wage or less, well above the national average — and these low wages give corporations an incentive to move production to the Lone Star State.
So Texas tends, in good years and bad, to have higher job growth than the rest of America. But it needs lots of new jobs just to keep up with its rising population — and as those unemployment comparisons show, recent employment growth has fallen well short of what’s needed.
Quote of the Day II
“Whatever the case, the last laugh has been his. Murdoch knows something that his assailants will seldom concede, and that renders their call for radical change, in the rapport between governance and the media, both tardy and redundant. The change has already happened; culture, media, and sport are not in Murdoch’s pocket, but the British, not least in their yen to watch soccer and cricket on Sky, have reached into their pockets and paid for his feast of wares. The country is in uproar just now, but outrage en masse functions like outrage in private: we reserve our deepest wrath not for the threat from without, which we fail to comprehend, but for forces with which we have been complicit. The British press has long revelled in the raucous and the irresponsible; that was part of its verve, and it was Murdoch’s genius, and also the cause of his current woes, to recognize those tendencies, bring the revelry to a head, and give the people what they asked for. He reminded them of themselves.”
Quote of the Day I
“That is why witnesses at the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media, and Sport, which summoned Rupert Murdoch and his son James to appear on July 19th, were so taken aback. Almost the first move of the father, as the session began, was to cup his ear toward an interlocutor, and, with that tiny gesture, he broke the spell—the wicked charms that he had wreathed around the United Kingdom for decades. Here was no beast, no warper of souls or glutton for companies; here was an oldster, tortoise-slow on the uptake, with head drooping, shoulders slumped, rousing himself now and then to make a point by slapping the table before him. Though meant to sound decisive, the slap reminded some viewers of a grumpy grandpa asking when his Jell-O would be served.”
--from “Hack Work: A tabloid culture runs amok” by Anthony Lane in the latest New Yorker
The Real Culprit in the British Tabloid Scandal
The scope of the phone-hacking scandal that killed one of Britain's oldest tabloids, and has knocked from their perch some of Rupert Murdoch's most high-flying executives, including Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton, keeps widening. Now Prime Minister David Cameron, who had a “cosy and comfortable” relationship with Murdoch's executives, meeting with them 26 times since May 2010. Now Scotland Yard, who apparently had evidence of the phone hacking back in 2006 but did nothing.
But the biggest culprit is hardly mentioned.
Not Murdoch himself. I'm talking about the people who actually buy this shit.
The tabloids do what they do, or did what they did (or will do again), for a reason: It makes money. People lap it up.
I remember working at a grocery store in the early 1980s and seeing people, mostly women, mostly fat, seemingly dim, who would buy one, two, five copies of U.S. tabloids like The National Enquirer, and its stories about celebrity scandals, real or made-up, and UFO sightings and the like. The whole thing made me shudder. What a waste, I'd think. How can you encourage that? I'd think.
I still think that. The tabloids may be intentionally appealing to the lowest common denominator, but it's our lowest common denominator. Save your outrage for the person next to you in the check-out line.
Married to the Beast: Andrew Sullivan and the Carrie Bradshaw of Websites
As soon as I heard about it, I had a bad feeling. She seemed too slick, he too homey. This feels wrong, I thought.
No, not Will and Kate. I'm talking Andrew Sullivan and The Daily Beast.
Sullivan was my main blog source for so long, a fiscal conservative who backed Obama early, memorably labeled Sarah Palin's nomination “a farce,” and gave us a blow-by-blow of the Iranian green revolution on a Saturday afternoon while the mainstream media slept. He was bald, bearded, British and frumpy, and thus seemed perfect for the Atlantic monthly site, which has something almost ink-stained about it. You get the feeling the folks there are still trying to edumicate us. You get the feeling its writers don't have to craft first sentences in accord with SEO best practices.
Not so the Daily Beast. It's a slick site whose slogan, “Read This Skip That,” borders on stupidity. It features slideshows, news on Will and Kate, forms of titillation.
You know the way Republicans are obviously privileged but portray themselves as put-upon? I get that same vibe, that same disconnect, but from a female perspective, on the Daily Beast. “Frat Culture's Woman Problem” in one corner, “What Turns You On?” in another. It feels like the Carrie Bradshaw of websites. It's all about her.
Here are the latest promiment headlines on the Atlantic site:
- Barbour Won't Run for President
- Is Congress Going Too Far to Protect Women in College?
- “Do I Have Knees?”
- America's Post-Ownership Future
- The Ongoing Disgrace of Gitmo
Here are the latest prominent headlines on the Beast:
- What Turns You On? New Book Finds Some Surprises
- Who's In, Who's Out? (At the Royal Wedding)
- Obama's Awful '70s Show
- Serial Killer Victim's Secret Life
- The Vote Igniting the Middle East
So what do you do when a friend winds up with someone who's obviously wrong for them? Play along? Smile?
I love you, Andrew, but ... I don't know. That place you're staying ain't you. I'll still check you out, but mostly I'll be hanging over here with the ink-stained wretches. While they last.
Andrew Sullivan, stuck on the Carrie Bradshaw of websites.
Want Ad of the Day
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The Meaning of Charlie Sheen
I've ignored the whole debacle up to now. An overpaid TV star says insane, egomaniacal shit and everyone tunes in to cluck their tongues and confirm how awful celebrities are; then we make online mashup jokes: Charlie Sheen and Muammar Gaddafi; Charlie Sheen and New Yorker cartoons. Etc.
It didn't have any meaning for me. The opposite. It showed how meaningless our culture is.
Then I read an article in the New York Times yesterday, “The Disposable Woman,” on Charlie Sheen's long history of domestic abuse. I posted it to Facebook under the title, “Time to stop laughing...” I expected others would chime in on the awfulness of it all.
I didn't expect a friend to suddenly defend Charlie Sheen.
This column is completely and utterly missing the point about Charlie Sheen. He is mentally ill. He has bipolar disorder. It is a disease. Blaming him for his disease is like blaming someone for having a kidney stone.
Anyone who has ever been close to someone with bipolar disorder — especially someone in the midst of an unmitigated, unmedicated manic attack — can watch about 10 seconds of these Sheen interviews and make the diagnosis.
All these journalists are making fools of themselves by failing to recognize what's going on.
There should probably be some kind of law against holding up someone's mental illness for public inspection, condemnation and ridicule, even if it does make for riveting television.
Initially I resisted this line of thought. “Yeah, blame it on 'bipolar disorder.' Like a husband blaming his infidelity on 'sex addiction.' Next.”
But I Googled it anyway. I'd certainly heard of the disorder but I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know, for example, that bipolar disorder type I is what we used to call manic depression. Its symptoms:
- Inflated self-esteem (delusions of grandeur, false beliefs in special abilities)
- Little need for sleep
- Noticeably elevated mood
- Increased energy
- Lack of self-control
- Racing thoughts
- Over-involvement in activities
- Poor temper control
- Reckless behavior
- Binge eating, drinking, and/or drug use
- Impaired judgment
- Sexual promiscuity
So I asked: Has he been diagnosed with it? If so, why is he off his meds?
People with bipolar disorder are notorious for not taking their meds. When they are manic, they feel as high as a kite. They feel invincible.
The exchange made me rethink the little I'd thought about Charlie Sheen up to then. It actually restored meaning to the entire, week-long episode for me. Instead of an ass surrounded by cameras and guffaws, a scenario in which no one comes out clean, we have a mentally ill person surrounded by cameras and guffaws, a scenario in which at least one person comes out clean.
Erik Lundegaard and the Power of Kissing: A Valentine's Day/ABC-News Exclusive
I should be happy that I'm mentioned in an ABC-News article on the power of kissing.
But I'm more bemused than happy.
Here's the article: “First Kiss Is More Powerful Than First Sexual Encounter” by Susan Donaldson James. I'm mentioned near the end:
Some of the most memorable kisses have come out of Hollywood. Burt Lancaster's famous kiss in the surf with Deborah Kerr in the 1953 film “From Here to Eternity,” still ranks as the most memorable of all screen kisses, as rated by entertainment writer Erik Lundegaard. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst ranked second in their upside-down kiss in the 2002 movie “Spider-Man,” followed by George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” and Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in the 1990 move “Ghost.”
How much do they love me at ABC? Let me count the errors:
- Burt Lancaster's famous kiss ... still ranks as the most memorable of all screen kisses, as rated by entertainment writer Erik Lundegaard. The article they're referencing is here, or, really, here. I wrote it five years ago for MSNBC.com to coincide with Valentine's Day. But I didn't rank the kisses. I categorized them: the desperate kiss, the kiss in the rain, the manhandle, the woman takes charge, etc. I also wrote how many Hollywood kisses, stuck in the rut of their perfection, are actually unmemorable.
- Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst ranked second in their upside-down kiss in the 2002 movie “Spider-Man”... Again: not ranking anything. Are they just counting pictures here? They seem to be.
- ...followed by George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” and Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in the 1990 move “Ghost.” Now it gets odd. I mention “Tiffany's,” but negatively. “Ghost” I don't mention at all.
- ...as rated by entertainment writer Erik Lundegaard. The link should lead you to MSNBC's site or to the index page of my own site. Instead it goes to my review, from last April, of the movie “Kick Ass.” Which has nothing to do with kissing. It merely begins with a k-i and ends with an s-s. What bots are doing ABC's research for them?
Four mistakes from one little paragraph. Impressive. Made me think of two Elvis Costello's songs from “King of America.” The first, “Our Little Angel,” reminds us the man knew a thing or two about heartache and Valentine's Day:
You think that you'll be sweet to her but everybody knows
You're the marshmallow valentine that got stuck on her clothes
The second, “Brilliant Mistake,” reminds us that the man knew a thing or two about news divisions:
She said that she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use
Dowd on Dowdy
This is one of the dumber paragraphs I've read this week, and, big surprise, it comes from Maureen Dowd. Lamenting media coverage of Elena Kagan, Dowd dissects the difference between "single" and "unmarried" and writes of the double standard women endure:
But if you have a bit of a weight problem, a bad haircut, a schlumpy wardrobe, the assumption is that you’re undesirable, unwanted — and unmarried.
Not only is this not a double standard—since it applies to men, too—but it seems the very definition of undesirable in our culture: fat and dowdy.
Dowd's real complaint is that a male version of Kagan—successful, outgoing, but no George Clooney—would still be seen as a sexual being, but this is because of a different double standard: the premium women place on male success. The problem, if you even want to view it as a problem, is yours, Maureen.
The whole column is an embarrassment. I don't doubt news coverage of Kagan has been awful, but Dowd's corrective is no corrective.
Who's Controlling the News? Not Auletta
"You missed it."
I kept thinking of that line from “All the President’s Men” while reading Ken Auletta’s Jan. 25th New Yorker piece, “Non-Stop News: Who’s Controlling White House Coverage?” Auletta missed the story. Shame. I normally like Auletta.
The story for me doesn’t begin until the fifth of 11 sections, the one beginning “Like other American workers, journalists these days are crunched, working harder with less support and holding tight to their jobs” and ending with a quote from Chuck Todd, who, this section tells us, is not only NBC’s White House correspondent and political director, but is busy from dusk 'til dawn with appearances on “Today,” “Morning Joe,” his own (aptly named) “The Daily Rundown,” along with the usual blogging and tweeting from and to various sites. The news cycle is now a cycle in the way that time is a cycle. It never stops. As a result, Todd, and other journalists, have no time for in-depth coverage or even deep thought or analysis. “We’re all wire-service reporters now,” Todd says.
The sixth section is also about how technology has transformed media matters but this time from a White House perspective. “The biggest White House press frustration is that nothing can drive a news cycle anymore,” Republican political advisor Mark McKinnon says. Auletta then goes on to criticize the Obama White House for being too slow and reactive. He criticizes Press Secretary Robert Gibbs because “he rarely asserts control from the podium, to steer the press onto the news that Obama wants to make.” I.e., He’s not telling the newsmen what the news is. One could argue he’s treating them like adults.
So if we’re all wire-service reporters now, and the Obama White House isn’t steering these reporters towards the news, who is? That’s where it gets scary. Auletta writes: “What the press is paying attention to, [former Obama White House Communications Director] Anita Dunn says, is cable and blog attacks on the Obama Administration.” And who’s steering those? Guess.
That’s the story: In an increasingly fragmented, perpetual news-cycle world, who or what is steering the news? That’s even the story in Auletta’s headline, isn’t it? And he still misses the story.
Because much of Auletta’s piece is old news. Has the mainstream media been pro-Obama? Is Pres. Obama too prickly with the media now that the honeymoon is over? Should he be lecturing the media on its faults the way he does? About how the media focuses on the most extreme elements on both sides? About how they’re only interested in conflict?
Early on, Auletta quotes from a PEW Research Report on Obama’s early glowing press coverage:
The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan media-research group concurred; tracking campaign coverage, it found that McCain was the subject of negative stories twice as frequently as Obama. (The study says that the press was influenced by Obama’s commanding lead in the polls—the kind of ‘Who won today?’ journalism he now decries.)
Allow me a sports metaphor. Do we assume that Albert Pujols gets more positive press coverage than, say, Yuniesky Betancourt? Of course he does. He’s a better ballplayer. Our eyes see it, the stats prove it. Unfortunately, politics has no such stats beyond poll numbers and votes. I’m not suggesting that Barack Obama is Albert Pujols; I’m merely suggesting that, in dealing with two political figures, we’re not dealing with two interchangeable blocks of wood. I’m suggesting that the mainstream press cannot pretend that the Yuniesky Betancourts of the political, legal or business realms are equal to the Albert Pujolses of same, without losing as much credibility as they would if they misreported facts. Objectivity is not stupidity. Let me add, not being a journalist, that I have no idea how you work this out within the constraints of objective journalism. But make no mistake: This is an issue for objective journalism. If objective journalism is to survive.
Perhaps more importantly, does the Pew Research Center Project include FOX News and conservative radio in their study of mainstream media? If not, why not? The notion that “the media” is limited to The New York Times goes against what should be the brunt of this article. We’re in the middle of a whole new ballgame.
Auletta quotes ABC’s Jake Tapper on the matter. “This President has been forced to deal with more downright falsehoods than any President I can think of,” Tapper says. Auletta then lists off some examples: “Obama was brought up a Muslim; he was not born in the U.S.; he studied at a madrassa in Indonesia.” How about: Obama is Hitler? He wants to kill your grandmother? He’s destroying the foundation of American society? That’s daily fodder in these venues, and it keeps seeping out, and it becomes the story. Even when it becomes the joke story, on “The Daily Show,” or “The Colbert Report,” it’s still the story. In addressing these falsehoods in an objective matter, or a jokey matter, how are you not perpetuating these falsehoods? That’s the issue. This was the issue in the summer of 2008 and in the fall of 2009. And today. And for 10 pages of prime New Yorker real estate, Auletta misses it.
Why Blogging Isn't Writing—I
The other night my friend Tommy and I were talking about a game we both play. When the latest New Yorker arrives in the mail we turn to the “Talk of the Town” section, read the first graph of the first piece, and try to guess whether it’s Hendrik Hertzberg. Usually we can tell. His writing tends to be clearer, more insightful, more playful than the other writers—often very good writers—who also appear regularly in that space.
But I admit I play that game less often now. That first section of the “Talk of the Town,” which once seemed so essential, increasingly feels like old news. Which it is. I think: “They’re still writing about that?” (Something that happened last week.) “I want to read about this.” (Something that happened yesterday or today or an hour ago.) In this way the Internet has made children of us all.
And that’s because blogging isn’t writing. Writing is rewriting, and usually rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, and hardly anybody spends much time rewriting a blog post. “To get it wrong so many times,” laments E.I. Lonoff, Philip Roth’s fictional writer, of the many drafts he goes through before he gets a novel or a short story or a sentence just so. His line could describe our online world, which is about immediacy rather than getting it right. It could be the epitaph for our age. We get it wrong so many times.
Me, too. I’m the first to admit that after two years I haven’t figured out what this thing is for yet. In the best blogs—such as Andrew Sullivan’s—the internal process, the thinking process, how one arrives at the thoughts one arrives at, is presented externally. That’s fascinating. But it’s not writing. It’s something else. Milan Kundera has written essays about sweeping up around the final product (the essay, the story, the novel) so that the process is not visible to the reader, so that the product stands alone, like Stonehenge, leaving readers to wonder, “Wow. How did this thing get here anyway?” That’s 20th century thinking. We’re process now rather than product. Even if there is a product, we use the process to sell it. DVD extras and cut scenes. Alternative tracks to popular songs. Here’s what we deemed uncecessary. Here’s where we got it wrong so many times.
This post, too, is process. It's not leading anywhere. It's not really suggesting anything. It's just pointing out mixed feelings.
Unfortunate Graph of the Day
"So [John Lennon] embraced the heady freedom New York offered, leaving his mop-top past behind like a new arrival from a small town, eager to become who he wanted to be. New Yorkers, in turn, saw the city anew through his wide, endlessly appreciative eyes. Sadly, such open-heartedness would prove his undoing in a town that proved tougher than he ever imagined it could be."
— Anthony DeCurtis in "His Kind of Shell-Shocked Town" in The New York Times' Week in Review section, about Lennon and NYC in the 1970s.
- ...leaving his mop-top past behind. By the time Lennon chose to live in NY in 1971, he'd left his mop-top past behind about 5-6 years earlier.
- ...in a town that proved tougher than he ever imagined it could be. Is "tougher" the right word here? How about "more homicidal"?
- ...in a town that proved tougher than he ever imagined it could be. Also, "town"? What connection is there between Mark David Chapman and New York? Almost none. Dude was from Texas, lived in Hawaii. He represented tourists, not New Yorkers, and certainly not New York itself. Odd, odd piece.
Is this another example of a journalist trying too hard to be objective? Or is it merely poor writing?
Read the entire piece (it’s short) by Janie Lorber, under the headline “Cheney’s Model Republican: More Limbaugh, Less Powell,” in The New York Times. Two observations, both by Lorber, stick out. Here’s the first:
The [Powell] endorsement, in a carefully timed and deliberate statement after Mr. McCain chose Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate in a move to fire up the party’s conservative base, helped solidify Mr. Obama’s campaign.
Yes, it did help Obama’s campaign but…doesn’t this graf make it sound that the Powelll endorsement came shortly after the Palin selection? But McCain chose Palin on August 30, while Powell endorsed Obama on October 19. That’s more than a month and a half difference. And a month and a half thick with campaigning. How was that “carefully timed and deliberate”? And deliberate? What does that mean anyway? As opposed to carelessly timed and accidental?
Here’s the second:
Mr. Cheney has been a particularly fierce critic of the Obama administration and a defiant defender against critics of the Bush administration, including President Obama. While his remarks have been striking, they are not unusually outspoken by comparison, for example, to former Vice President Al Gore’s condemnations of the Bush administration when it held office.
True. But Al Gore didn’t criticize the Bush administration immediately, the way that Cheney is doing with the Obama administration. After the 2000 election, Gore disappeared, remember? Then returned with a beard that everyone made fun of. Then 9/11 happened and no one criticized the Bush administration. Gore really didn’t criticize Pres. Bush, et al., until the Bush adminstration began gearing up for war with Iraq in the fall of ’02. And, yes, he was one of the first to do so. To his credit.
I guess all I’m saying, with both points, is: chronology matters.
There’s a summer movie preview (more and more meaningless these days); a Q&A with Cannes-bound Quentin Tarantino in which, among other things, the director talks up “Superman Returns” (I so want to read that piece he’s writing, and I'd love to link the Q&A, but, via their site, I can't find it); a great, fun photo-shoot between QT and new femme star Diane Kruger (right, the face that launched a thousand CGI ships in “Troy”); and, most interesting of all, “Memos to Hollywood,” which includes some quick e-mail notes from Times heavyweight critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis to the heavyweights of Hollywood. Some of the memos, yes, feel easy pickings, some I disagree with (“kill the Oscars”), while Ms. Dargis can be a bit of a scold. But most of the time I felt like Mrs. Bloom: Yes, yes, yes!
- A.O. Scott on animated movies: “Enough with the winking, tiresome pop-culture allusions... Try telling a simple story with conviction. The merchandising tie-ins will take care of themselves.”
- Manohla Dargis on digitial filmmaking: When it was first introduced, the process seemed as if it might expand the cinematographers’ toolbox. But because of their ease of use, those same tools are being usurped by studio executives, producers, directors and even actors who all want a say in how to digitally “fix” the image.
- A.O. Scott: You all keep trying to make Rock Hudson-Doris Day-style romantic comedies with the golden guys and gals of the moment, and the results are sexless, subtextless, bland career-girl-in-search-of-Mr.-Right retreads...
- Manhola Dargis: Audiences complain that there’s nothing to watch, and that may be true if you live near a multiplex that plays only the latest in schlock entertainment. But if you live in a city like New York or Los Angeles, you have no business whining. New York in particular is a cinephile’s dream, and there’s almost always something shaking up the screen at Film Forum, the IFC Center, the Walter Reade Theater, Anthology Film Archives and BAMcinématek...
The Journalistic Mission of Bill O'Reilly
You don’t need to read any more.
Quick: What’s goal no. 1 for any journalist? To get the story first. To scoop the other bastards.
What’s goal no. 2? To be as objective as possible in doing this.
Journalistic mission? These villains? Does he know he's sticking his foot in, if not his own mouth, then his producer's mouth?
And what villains? Murderers? Torturers? Bernie Madoff types?
Not exactly. The ambushees include Mike Hoyt, executive editor of The Columbia Journalism Review, who assigned a story on right-wing media to a writer with a supposed liberal background. There’s Hendrik Hertzberg, my man from The New Yorker, who, the Times writes, “was confronted for what Mr. O’Reilly described as taking a ‘Factor’ segment out of context.” (No word from the Times on how Mr. Hertzberg described the incident.) There’s also Amanda Terkel of thinkprogress.org, who organized a protest against O’Reilly.
These are the villains. People who disagreed with Bill O’Reilly.
From what I remember of those “60 Minutes” segments, Wallace and his producers would use the ambush technique, when they used it, to confront either legitimately powerful people and/or crooks. It was a technique unmotivated by politics or personal vendettas.
Michael Moore, when he uses the ambush technique (which is often), uses it to confront legitimately powerful people: U.S. congressmen and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. His ambushes are, more often than not, motivated by politics but unmotivated by personal vendettas.
Both are examples of the journalistic mission, the journalistic mission, to speak truth to power.
Most of O’Reilly’s targets are less powerful than he is. Thus these ambushes simply seem another bullying aspect of his show. It’s less speaking truth to power than power picking on (often) truth.
Journalistic mission? These villains?
Weekly, Not Weakly
Leave it to David Carr. After reading about dailies folding left and right, and particularly after reading Clay Shirky's sharp essay last week, the question I kept asking myself and others was: What about alt-weeklies? How are they doing? Can they become like the dailies of the 21st century?
I was particularly interested in locally owned, locally produced alt-weeklies like The Stranger in Seattle — as opposed to those weeklies put out by Village Voice Media: City Pages, Seattle Weekly, SF Weekly, etc. National retread crap with only a few local voices.
So here comes Carr, with his Monday Media Equation column, answering, on a singular scale anyway, my very question. The Austin Chronicle, founder of South by Southwest, is doing very well thank you. Money quote:
“We don’t do gotcha journalism, our coverage is very policy-oriented, and always local, local, local,” [Chronicle founder Louis Black] said. “Even during the Bush years, which were a very big deal here, we never put anybody that wasn’t local on the cover. We don’t do out-of-towners."
The new model?
You Say You Want a Revolution
Clay Shirky has an astonishly temperate, reasoned piece on the future of newspapers in the digital age. The money quote, for me:
It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.
He focuses on newspapers and journalism but I'm wondering how much of his argument can apply to the book-publishing industry and authors. It's my assumption that authors can survive on an iTunes model, because, in theory anyway, they're selling something unique: their voice. It's not like, "If I have to pay for the Times' story in Iraq, I'll just read the Post's, which is free." If you want to read John Grisham, there's really only one place to go.
Anyway check out Shirky. Sober reading the day after The Seattle Post-Intelligencer killed its print edition.
Read It Read It Read It
The must-read of the week, for anyone who cares about viable newspapers in either print or Web form, is David Carr's column in The New York Times today. He argues in favor of collusion among newspapers in order to save newspapers. I agree. Whole-heartedly.
Yes, eliminate free content. Yes, no more free rides to aggregators like Google. Yes, no more free rides to me. I've paid for The New York Times online in the past and I'll pay for it again in the future, if it comes to that. I hope it does. I'll pay for a good, smart, local newspaper as well, whether in print or online form, whether daily or weekly. A weekly print version, with daily online updates, also makes sense. It just has to be worth my time.
Read Carr's piece all the way through. Times are tough, times are scary, but a world without investigative journalists would be much, much scarier.
First there was that odd, Joker-mask video he did for his Carpetbagger blog. Then last week he clapped the Academy on the back for choosing quality (meaning: “The Reader”) over popularity (meaning: “The Dark Knight”).
But yesterday? He launched into one of my least-favorite journalistic devices: How the popularity of this or that film reflects the nation’s mood.
The Times is infamous for doing this. Just last year, on May 15th, Michael Cieply implied that the upcoming summer movies, including “The Dark Knight,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Pineapple Express,” were just too dark. “The mix,” he wrote, “may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive…”
Turns out “The Dark Knight” was just the refuge people were looking for. So Brooks Barnes took over, and on July 28th, wrote the following: “The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.”
Problem solved. We weren’t repelled from the movie because it reflected our mood; we were drawn to it. Once it became clear we were drawn to it.
See what fun you can have with the nation’s mood?
Carr, whom I love, and who’s a better writer than both Cieply and Barnes, has actually done something worse. He begins his article, “Riveting Tales for Dark Days,” by once again lauding the Oscar nominees. They are, he says, an upbeat lot, particularly compared with the gloom of last year’s “No Country” and “There Will Be Blood.” They reflect our nation’s can-do spirit in troubled times. In one graph he dismisses what he’s doing and then keeps doing it:
Using the Oscars as a prism on national consciousness is a hoary, time-worn activity perpetrated by those of us who must find meaning in sometimes marginal work. But it does seem worth at least a mention this time around that both the Academy and audiences are showering love on such upbeat movies at a rough time in history.Why is this worse? Let’s let “X” stand for “What people would do or are doing because of the nation’s mood.”
Cieply’s X wasn’t verifiable but predictive. It was two months down the road when only idiots like me would remember that he, or someone he had quoted, had made such a prediction.
Barnes’ X was verifiable and correct. People were in fact going to see “The Dark Knight.”
Carr’s X? Verifiable and incorrect. And not just incorrect in a small way. Incorrect in a way that refutes his entire premise.
He mixes two unstable elements. He writes that January box-office receipts are up by 10 percent (true) and that the Oscar nominees are more upbeat than last year (true-ish, though there’s nothing as purely pleasant as “Juno” in the mix). So he concludes people are drawn to these upbeat best picture nominees.
Problem? For whatever reason (and I blame the studios as much as anyone), we’re not drawn to these upbeat nominees. We’re drawn to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” which has made, as of today, $69.3 million. The nominees, save for “Button,” have all made less. Some a lot less: “Slumdog” ($59.5M), “Milk” ($21.9M), “Frost/Nixon” ($12.9M) and “The Reader” ($10.2M). In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, Brandon Gray, over at boxofficemojo.com, has written that these nominees are, at the time of the noms, the least-attended ever. (I’m still interested in his math on this, by the way.)
In Carr’s defense, and despite the “showering love” line above, he does say that the upbeat nominees “reflect an appetite on the part of the Academy, and by proxy, the public, for a nice, big chunk of uplift.”
That’s a nice one. Using the Academy as a stand-in for the public when the two have never been further apart.
So I’m a little worried about David Carr. He’s better than this.
Paul Krugman has a great piece today on — basically — arguments against Republican arguments against Obama's stimulus package. Among them:
- First, there’s the bogus talking point that the Obama plan will cost $275,000 per job created. Why is it bogus? Because it involves taking the cost of a plan that will extend over several years, creating millions of jobs each year, and dividing it by the jobs created in just one of those years. It’s as if an opponent of the school lunch program were to take an estimate of the cost of that program over the next five years, then divide it by the number of lunches provided in just one of those years, and assert that the program was hugely wasteful, because it cost $13 per lunch. (The actual cost of a free school lunch, by the way, is $2.57.)
- Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money. Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.
- Finally, ignore anyone who tries to make something of the fact that the new administration’s chief economic adviser has in the past favored monetary policy over fiscal policy as a response to recessions.It’s true that the normal response to recessions is interest-rate cuts from the Fed, not government spending. And that might be the best option right now, if it were available. But it isn’t, because we’re in a situation not seen since the 1930s: the interest rates the Fed controls are already effectively at zero. That’s why we’re talking about large-scale fiscal stimulus: it’s what’s left in the policy arsenal now that the Fed has shot its bolt.
Rome is burning and the Republicans are fiddling, but it's nice to have a Nobel-Prize-winning economist on your side.
“There's Work to be Done”
Here's a great site, via Andrew Sullivan, that collects the newspaper headlines of the day. Yesterday was the day for it. Interesting to see what different editors chose to highlight or headline. There's almost poetry in it:
“A New Era,” “A New Day,” “A New Beginning,” “A New Start,” “A New Hope.”
“Hope Over Fear,” “Hope Meets History,” “History Made Today,” “History in the Making,” “Remaking America.”
“Hello, Mr. President,” “Mr. President,” “The President,” “The 44th President,” “The 44th and the First.”
“President Obama,” “Obama Ovation,” “Obama's Promise,” “Let's GObama,” “The Obama Era Begins.”
“Change,” “Change Has Come,” “The Time Has Come.”
“Face of a Nation”? “Yes, He Is.”
“Mark This Day”: “We Are Ready to Lead.”
There was also this:
It struck a chord and it took me a minute before I remembered why. It's similar to a line in “TimeQuake,” Kurt Vonnegut's last novel. I reviewed it for The Seattle Times in 1997. Back then I wrote:
Just as Billy Pilgrim could get unstuck in time (in “Slaughterhouse-Five”) and gravity could become variable (“Slapstick”), so Kilgore Trout and the world discover in “Timequake” that the universe isn't always expanding. In the year 2001, the universe has second thoughts and contracts, or hiccups, sending everyone back to what they were doing 10 years before.
It's a perverse form of eternal recurrence. Everyone has knowledge of the next decade but is unable to alter it in any fashion. They essentially become prisoners within their own bodies.
Thus, when the universe gets going again, people are unprepared — asleep at the wheel, as it were — and disasters occur. They don't realize that once again they have to drive their cars or fly their airplanes or concentrate on walking straight. So cars crash, planes plummet, people wobble and fall over.
Trout, one of the first to realize what has happened, tries to wake people out of their stupor by shouting, “You have free will!” When this doesn't work, he tells them, “You were sick, but now you are well, and there's work to do!”
It's January 21, 2009. You were sick. But now you are well. And there's work to be done.
Death-of-Journalism Quote of the Day
"If you’re hearing few howls and seeing little rending of garments over the impending death of institutional, high-quality journalism, it’s because the public at large has been trained to undervalue journalists and journalism. The Internet has done much to encourage lazy news consumption, while virtually eradicating the meaningful distinctions among newspaper brands. The story from Beijing that pops up in my Google alert could have come from anywhere. As news resources are stretched and shared, it can often appear anywhere as well: a Los Angeles Times piece will show up in TheWashington Post, or vice versa."
— Michael Hirschorn, "End Times: Can America's paper of record survive the death of newsprint? Can journalism?" in The Atlantic
From the Vault: Freelance Writing 101
The following is a piece I wrote four years ago that was never published. Some of it is still relevant.
On a Tuesday morning in 2004 I received a phone call at my apartment and a male voice asked, “Do you have time to speak with Karl Rove?” A second later, the senior advisor to the President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.
The next morning a female voice informed me that Walter Mondale was waiting to speak with me. A second later, the former Vice President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.
Who am I that such powerful people contact me at home? I’m the most powerless person in the world. I’m a freelance writer.
In his novel “Waterworks,” E.L. Doctorow got the job description right. “Most freelances are nervous craven creatures,” he wrote, “it is such a tenuous living after all…” Indeed, the same week I talked to Karl Rove and Walter Mondale I drove down to the unemployment office for a seminar on how to search for a job. Maybe I should’ve just asked Karl Rove for one.
This is the most bizarre aspect of being a freelance writer: You’re poor and powerless and yet – if the gig is right – you’re constantly rubbing elbows with the most powerful people on the planet. One of my regular jobs is writing for a law magazine, “Law & Politics,” which was founded in Minnesota in 1990. Seven years later, they created a Washington state version, which is where they met me. Then they created lucrative “Super Lawyer” magazines all over the country, which is where they sent me.
Last year they flew me to Dallas and Houston and L.A. and Chicago. I interviewed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, boxer George Foreman, “Godfather” producer Robert Evans and former Microsoft general counsel Bill Neukom. While calling an acquaintance of a Houston lawyer to set up a quick interview for a quote, I Googled him and discovered he was a Forbes 500 billionaire. Yikes. His secretary answered, put me on hold, then, 30 seconds later, put me through. “Yes?” he asked. I fumbled for my notes. If I’d known I was going to talk to a billionaire that morning I might have showered. Or at least worn pants.
The entrée in that case was the Houston lawyer’s name, but generally my entrée is the pub I’m writing for that particular day, which is often no entrée at all. “Who do you write for? And that’s what kind of publication?” Yet somehow it all works, and in this manner the powerless hook up with the powerful.
Unfortunately the powerless are only getting moreso. Fees are dwindling. writing contracts expanding. One place sent me a 10-page contract for a thousand-word article – three times as many words in the contract as in the piece. Another place – OK, the same place – hired a third party to create online invoices, but the process is so cumbersome and non-intuitive that your per-hour wage (which one part of your brain tries to keep track of) bleeds away as you attempt to master it. If I got paid for the hours spent trying to get paid I might actually make money.
The language in these contracts is enough to scare away the best writer in the world: “The publication [and its sublicensees] acquires exclusive worldwide rights in all languages to unrestricted use of your work in all media, existing or to be invented in the future, including in all editions of the publication.” To be invented in the future? Obviously they’re worried another Internet will take us all by storm but can a contract really lay claim to the future? Why not the past, too? Why not other dimensions? The publication [and its sublicensees] retain exclusive worldwide rights on the Bizarro planet and in The Land That Time Forgot, unless otherwise agreed.
Did I mention the dwindling pay? Two years ago, one newspaper paid me $50 less for the same work I’d done the year before. Last year they tried to cut it another $25. I balked. It’s often the puniness of the amount they’re trying to extract that’s insulting. A check arrived last week five dollars short. I searched for an explanation and found it in the invoice: “Deduction: $5.” As long as they had a good reason.
Yet it’s often editors who cause the most heartache. Let’s face it: Most freelancers aren’t in this for money or fame but for the joy of stringing a few words together, and editors often stomp on this joy. If I’ve been lucky lately with my editors, it wasn’t always so. My early editors were often uncommunicative and tin-earred. In my review of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Timequake,” I sketched a scene in which Kilgore Trout tries to wake people in a stupor with this call-to-arms: “You were sick, but now you are well, and there’s work to do!” I wrote: “The metaphor for our time is obvious,” but my editor changed it to, “The metaphor for our time becomes obvious.” Becomes obvious? What does that even mean? Who wrote this crap? “By Erik Lundegaard.”
That was a mere pinprick. Years ago I was working in a bookstore warehouse to make ends meet, and one Sunday morning, lugging books down to the basement in a gray metal tub, one of my co-workers, Chris, mentioned in passing, “Hey, saw your article in the paper the other day.”
I looked up, puzzled. “I didn’t have an article in the paper the other day.”
“Didn’t you? I thought it was you. Yeah, that was you.”
“What was it about?”
My jaw tightened. A week earlier I’d sent the local paper a humorous piece on postage stamps but hadn’t heard back. When I finally saw what they’d printed, my piece had been mangled beyond recognition. I felt like Brando in “The Godfather” pulling the sheet back from Sonny’s bullet-riddled corpse: “Look what they done to my boy.” Mobsters at least have the decency to send along fish.
The next day I phoned the editor. “I sent you a piece last week.”
“It was in the paper on Friday.”
“Nobody told me.”
“Oh?” A chuckle. Then nothing. In his silence was a challenge: What are you going to do about it? I brokered a deal for money when I should’ve just blasted him. Kids: Curse today, for tomorrow the prick may retire, as this one did.
I’ll say it: Freelancing is truly an awful way to live. You start out with big aspirations – a novel, a play – but one day you write a little essay and lo and behold they publish it. Sure, they chop it up, but there’s your name, and suddenly you’re addicted. Even as they change the rules on you you’re addicted. The playing field gets smaller and smaller (1000 words...no, 800 words...no, 600 words), and the rejection notices pile up. You study the pubs, because that’s what people tell you to do, but they’re either celebrity-laden and corporate, or radical and ironic, and you don’t see where you fit in. You write specific pieces for specific pubs – bending your personality to suit theirs – which makes the form rejection notices sting even more. Maybe you’re doing bad work? You’re often doing bad work (“The metaphor for our time is obvious” is a pretty bad line), but what they print is usually worse. You tell yourself your skin is thickening but you doubt it. You feel weaker, not stronger; smaller, not bigger. The silence surrounding your rare successes is deafening. And then you’re at a dinner party and the executive next to you finds out you’re a freelance writer and says, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write,” and it’s all you can do not to slug him.
My friends and family gave me metaphoric backslaps when I got an editing job this winter. It was seen as a step up and it is. Now I’ll send out the contracts with the threatening legalese, and now I’ll have final say on which words go where. But it’s not writing. The writing I’ll still do in the mornings before work. The editing? I’ve spent 15 years learning what kind of editor not to be. Hopefully some of it has sunk in.
The Reductive Headlines of the Seattle P-I
The NY Times, though, is a piker compared to the Seattle P-I, which is increasingly fond of reductive "X or Y" headlines. Their latest from Saturday: BICYCLES OR WILDLIFE? Apparently you can't have both. At issue is the widening of the Burke-Gilman trail for safety reasons, from 8-10 feet to 12 feet. A last-minute argument against widening the trail is the effect this will have on salamanders and wetlands.
The headline is reductive because it's not just cyclists who use the Burke-Gilman, it's all of us. In fact, the primary battle isn't bicycles vs. wildlife, since most cyclists will continue to use the Burke-Gilman no matter what happens. The primary issue is: Safety vs. Wildlife. Or Safety vs. Salamanders. Or Safety vs. Shade. All are less divisive, and thus less jazzy, headlines.
But the P-I got the headline it wanted because cyclists are thought to be pro-environment, and yet, lookee here, when it suits their interests they don't care about the environment at all. If, in fact, that's the issue. And if the issue is looked at myopically.
Because you could say: Well, if the issue is quality-of-life, or safety, or wildlife on the Burke-Gilman, what are the alternatives to widening the path? Is there a way to relieve some of that traffic? And there is. Give bicyclists their own lane on most roadways. A lane with a concrete barrier so they feel safe. Of course that leads us back to the real debate, which is bicycles vs. automobiles. That's "vs.," by the way, not "or."
But that's if this last-minute argument against widening the trail should be taken seriously, and my gut tells me it shouldn't. It's just another argument for doing nothing, which is what Seattle is famous for.
New Ministers of Propaganda
Some recent New York Times headlines:
- MCCAIN IS TRYING TO DEFINE OBAMA AS OUT OF TOUCH
- MCCAIN CAMP SAYS OBAMA PLAYS ‘RACE CARD’
- NAZIS PLAN ‘RETALIATION’; TREATMENT OF GERMAN PRISONERS BY ALLIES IS CRITICIZED
Oh, sorry. That last one I came across while researching another topic on the Times Web site. It’s from May 29, 1940, and it merely confirmed what I already knew: If you accuse somebody of what you yourself are guilty of, it makes it doubly difficult for them to respond. Also the accusation, regardless of its truth, becomes the story.
So it didn’t matter the way the Nazis mistreated its prisoners and citizens. It didn’t matter that McCain is the one who is playing the race (or racist) card. It didn’t matter that McCain, who’s never used a computer, and has never held a non-government job, is the one who’s out of touch. Accusation becomes story. End of story.
When will the mainstream media wise up? When will they refuse to let a political campaign’s talking points become the headline?
And after The New York Times did McCain’s bidding on its front page, day after day after day, what does McCain do? He attacks The New York Times. For its editorials. Accusing him of, you know, taking the low road and playing politics with race.
Those should have been the headlines.
Lundegaard Camp Says NY Times Plays Sap
UPDATE on the post below: Here's today's New York Times headline: “McCain Camp Says Obama Plays 'Race Card.'”
Live and don't learn, that's the New York Times' motto. They give major play, and huge quotes up front, to idiotic charges. Why idiotic? Obama warned that Republicans would try to scare voters by various nefarious means, including the fact that he “doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” Then the Republicans do exactly as he says, using the quote as an example. But the story is the Republicans charge. Why?
Let's face it: The Republicans have been playing the race card, and playing it well, since 1964. Apparently they plan on doing it again. Apparently the New York Times will let them.
That New York Times Front Page
That said, allow me to be enthusiastic again. Here's part of Obama's speech, as reported in the New York Times, before an estimated crowd of 200,000 in Berlin yesterday:
“Will we acknowledge that there is no more powerful example than the one each of our nations projects to the world?” Mr. Obama asked in his speech, then added pointedly, “Will we reject torture and stand for the rule of law?” The huge crowd applauded and waved American flags.
Waved American flags. Wow. It's been a while since I've seen a U.S. politician address crowds that large and enthusiastic. Have I ever seen it? In my lifetime? Here's the accompanying picture, which made the front page, too:
That New Yorker Cover
From one overdone topic (The Dark Knight) to another (that New Yorker cover).
Last Friday I was in the middle of Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker piece on Obama’s early days in Chicago when Patricia took the issue to the hairdresser’s and left it there. So I bought another copy at the local Bartell’s. The guy behind the counter saw it and said, “Getting the souvenir issue, huh?” I smiled. What the New Yorker has to do to become a topic of conversation.
I tend to like Barry Blitt, the cover artist whose drawings often accompany Frank Rich’s column in the Sunday New York Times, but this one didn’t do it for me. It could be I have no sense of humor about Obama, or racial matters, or the politics of swiftboating in the Bush era, but, more, it made me think back to Philip Roth’s essay from the early 1960s, “Writing American Fiction,” about the difficulty of making credible — even then — an American reality that always seems to be outdoing the best efforts of any novelist, let alone satirist. I’m surprised more people haven’t brought this up. Is it a satire if you’re merely expressing in cartoon form what others are expressing verbally or via mass e-mails? Sure, what they’re expressing is a lie, but lies work. Lies are taken seriously — often by the mainstream media. It’s built into the system. If the goal of the media is to be objective, to be a kind of he said/she said forum, then the more outrageous the lie the better. It moves the markers of the debate. The swiftboating of John Kerry is a classic recent example and Michael Dobbs’ piece in the Washington Post in August 2004 is a classic recent response from the mainstream media: “But although Kerry's accusers have succeeded in raising doubts about his war record, they have failed to come up with sufficient evidence to prove him a liar.” The lie becomes the debate. That’s the danger.
Can you even satirize a Fox News correspondent calling the Obama greeting a “terrorist fist bump”? That feels like a satire on its own. Since knocking fists is the main source of congratulations in Major League Baseball, which, the last time I checked, was our national pastime, you could do a many-paneled cartoon called something like “More Terrorist Fact Findings from Fox News,” with, in separate panels, a baseball (“Terrorist Danger Orb”), a referee signaling a touchdown (“Terrorist Victory Dance”) and an apple pie (“Terrorist Goulash”). Like that, but funnier. Blitt’s cover? It can just go in those mass e-mails still being sent out with the heading: See?
Hendrik Hertzberg is generally right: Those who will be influenced by the cover wouldn’t have voted for Obama anyway. But that doesn’t mean the cover’s good satire.
Lost in the discussion is Lizza’s article, subtitled “How Chicago Shaped Obama,” which is recommended reading: a reminder that Obama is less the second coming than pure political animal. It’s also a good primer on the history of politics in both its Chicago and racial forms.
David Carr: How That Guy became This Guy
I was surprised a few weeks ago when, in his Monday media column — this one on the dirty tricks Fox News pulls on rival reporters — David Carr wrote about being called a crack addict on Bill O’Reilly’s show, then added, “which at least has the virtue of being true, if a little vintage.”
Carr? A crack addict? I didn’t know. I shrugged and moved on.
This morning, rifling through the Sunday New York Times, I glanced at the cover of the Magazine — not my favorite section lately — which displayed a series of three mug shots and the title “My Years of Living Dangerously.” I assumed the mug shots revealed the subject’s regression, the awful affect drugs had on someone, but, no, the third photo didn’t look much different than the first: Just a curly haired guy, slightly overweight. In fact, only two years separated first and third photos. So what was the point? Then I saw David Carr's byline. Whoa. I didn’t even recognize him. Which is the point.
The article, an excerpt from his upcoming memoir The Night of the Gun, is Carr’s attempt to reconcile his two selves. He writes: “Here is what I deserved: hepatitis C, federal prison time, H.I.V., a cold park bench, an early, addled death. Here is what I got: the smart, pretty wife, the three lovely children, the job that impresses. Here is what I remember about how That Guy became This Guy: not much.”
So he becomes investigative reporter of himself. He interviews the people he knew and examines the gap between their stories and his. You don’t have to be a former crack addict for this to be worthwhile — we all have our stories and most of us stick to them — but, as Carr says, addicts are particularly good at storytelling and mythmaking: “You spread versions of yourself around, giving each person the truth he or she needs — you need, actually — to keep them at a remove.”
There are many (and no) answers to how That Guy became This Guy, but I was particularly intrigued by this section:
Eden House was a long-term therapeutic community, the kind of place that brimmed with slogans. This was the main one: “The answer to life is learning to live.”
This is the point where the knowing author laughs along with his readers about his time among the aphorisms, how he was once so gullible and needy that he drank deeply of such weak and fruity Kool-Aid. That’s some other story. Slogans saved my life. All of them — the dumb ones, the imperatives, the shameless, witless ones.
I lustily chanted some of those slogans and lived by others. There is nothing romantic about being a crackhead and a drunk — low-bottom addiction is its own burlesque that needs no snarky annotation. Unless a person is willing to be terminally, frantically earnest, all hope is lost.
Fox News: Anti-Semitic or merely vindictive?
One of my favorite New York Times writers, David Carr, has a great piece on news organizations dealing with Fox News' organization — particularly its PR apparatus — and the “fair and balanced” network comes off fairly paranoid and vindictive. Nixon's dirty tricks come to mind. Roger Ailes, Nixon's advisor and Fox's chief executive, comes to mind.
You write something they don't like, they won't talk to you for 15 months. You report the facts, they photoshop your face so it looks weathered, haggard, or, in the case of NY Times reporter Jacques Steinberg, virtually unrecognizable — or recognizable only to a Joseph Goebbels. Carr writes, “In a technique familiar to students of vintage German propaganda, [Steinberg's] ears were pulled out, his teeth splayed apart, his forehead lowered and his nose was widened and enlarged in a way that made him look more like Fagin than the guy I work with.”
See their photoshop handiwork here.
See the video from “Fox & Friends” here.
Throw up here.
It's Tuesday and I love Bill Moyers
It's Sunday morning and I love David Mamet, Randy Newman, Frank Rich and especially Elizabeth Edwards
Loudon Wainwright III (M*A*S*H alumnus, father of Rufus and Martha) has a nice song called "Sunday Times" that I've included in more than a few mixed CDs over the years. Although the cost of that paper has gone up four-fold, the song basically reflects my views on the Sunday Times:
Well I’m trying to read my Sunday Times
It cost a nickel and twelve dimes
Bought it late Saturday night I’m almost finished but not quite
It weighed a ton it seemed to me that each one of them must take a tree to make
And also I should think it takes about a gallon of ink
Loudon then goes through the various sections of the newspaper — bleak section one, fun A&E section, boring Business, plus the Magazine ("the crossword will keep you up late/ And there's camp if your kid's overweight") — but the song's main point is that it's so big how can anyone possibly read it all?:
Well it’s Tuesday and I’m still not done
With Sunday’s Times — son of a gun
Monday and Tuesday’s still unread
I could’ve read War and Peace instead
So for those who are reading War and Peace instead, here are a few good articles from today's Sunday Times.
David Mamet has a great piece on the sad wisdom of fighters in movies, including Stanislaus Zbyszko from the great noir, NIGHT AND THE CITY, Kola Kwariani from Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING and my man Takashi Shimura from SEVEN SAMURAI and IKURU. I had an analysis of SEVEN SAMURAI on my previous site but it was among the 50 or so reviews I dispensed with in making the transfer here — it wasn't worthy of the film — but Mamet has some great descriptions of a couple of keys scenes. It's a beautiful read.
Further in the Arts section, Geoffrey Himes writes about the many versions of Randy Newman's song, "Louisiana 1927," and its popularity in post-Katrina New Orleans. At the breakfast table, Patricia mentioned how she always loved the line, "Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline." I immediately downloaded both Newman's and Aaron Neville's versions. Listening to them as I write this.
In the Week in Review, there's Elisabeth Vincentelli on the popularity in France of a fish-out-of-water, city-man-in-the-country comedy, BIENVENUE CHEZ LES CH'TIS (WELCOME TO THE STICKS), and what its popularity means for France and Pres. Sarkozy as France tries to find itself in a global economy (as we all do, as we all do). Then of course I went to my man Frank Rich and his take on how the prolonged Democratic primary really isn't bad for the Dems. The ending, in which John McCain uses prison help to set up tables and chairs for a private fundraiser in Selma, Ala., has a BRUBAKER quality to it.
Finally, there's Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John, on the awful, need-for-narrative, where's-the-beef? campaign coverage of this year's presidential election by the mainstream media. One can say her point is obvious, that everybody knows the media's dropping the ball, but as someone who's been accused of stating the obvious before, I tend to believe that it's the obvious and effed-up things that need more talking about, not less. Besides, Mrs. Edwards had a front-row seat for much of all this and has sharp things to say. I particularly like her thoughts on Joseph Biden (whom I've always liked) and how he was dismissed almost from the get-go by a media who felt they knew where the narrative was heading. She writes:
[That] decision was probably made by the same people who decided that Fred Thompson was a serious candidate. Articles purporting to be news spent thousands upon thousands of words contemplating whether he would enter the race, to the point that before he even entered, he was running second in the national polls for the Republican nomination. Second place! And he had not done or said anything that would allow anyone to conclude he was a serious candidate. A major weekly news magazine put Mr. Thompson on its cover, asking — honestly! — whether the absence of a serious campaign and commitment to raising money or getting his policies out was itself a strategy.
Bless her for that "honestly!" And one wonders: how is it that media momentum is built up in this fashion toward the inconsequential, the wrong-headed, the just plain stupid? Until we can answer that obvious question, we will always be a less-than-serious country in a very serious world.
Tom Toles has been the best editorial cartoonist in the U.S. for years. The cartoon below is from February 11 but I thought I'd post it today to remind the Dems, and everybody, what the stakes really are. We're on some thin ice here. That Toles can still make us laugh with this stuff is amazing:
Hulk smash New York Times!
Today the New York Times has a piece on the controversy surrounding the movie, The Incredible Hulk, which won't be released until June.
I'm not a big fan of these types of articles anyway. The star is bickering with X. The fan sites are saying Y. The first movie "flopped," even though it made over $130 million domestically. It's not "news," since it's not about something that's actually happened; it's just gossip and prediction.
I would've let it all slide except for this line: "The monster was mute in Mr. [Ang] Lee’s film, but this one speaks, a nod to the campy 1978-82 television series that starred Bill Bixby and the bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno (resplendent in green body paint)."
First, the TV show wasn't really campy — the way that Adam West's "Batman" was campy. "The Incredible Hulk" took itself seriously. Parts of it, in retrospect, may appear campy, but that wasn't the intention.
More importantly, and correct me if I'm wrong (Tim), but what nod to the series? Ferrigno's Hulk didn't speak. The comic-book Hulk spoke, generally without articles or proper grammar, but he spoke. If this new Hulk speaks, it's a nod to the comic book not the TV show.
A story in Newsweek claims that the "expert is back" and that user-generated content on the Internet is fading. They say that in this age of misinformation people are crying out for standards and information they can trust, and, as evidence, Newsweek cites the following: 1) Google is creating its own Wikipedia using authoritative sources; 2) Mahalo is creating a search engine with quality-based rather than link-based rankings; and 3)... Well, there is no 3). But the magazine adds some anecdotal stuff about Wikipedia's dustups and Craigslist scammers, and they quote a couple of dudes, like Mahalo's founder Jason Calacanis, who says, "The more trusted an environment the more you can charge for it," but who obviously has a stake in the matter.
The expert is back? I wish.
Here's the real reason why user-generated content isn't going anywhere: It's free. Not to readers but to producers. Ask a professional writer to write about movies and it'll cost you. Ask a "fan" and it won't. Generally a fan's stuff won't be nearly as good as a professional writer's stuff, but, you know, what's "good," right? So as long as the bottom line is looked at — and it'll always be looked at — the people in charge will go for the user-generated content. They'll go for the freebie.
Cute thought, though.
"New Indiana Jones trailer is smash hit"
I live in Seattle and I used to live in Minneapolis and I edit magazines in different states around the country so I visit a lot of newspaper Web sites. It's part of my job and part of my interest. And yesterday I saw the same headline in almost all of them.
About Iraq? Pakistan? About the March 4 showdown between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? No. It was about the trailer for the new Indiana Jones movie.
Apparently it's a smash hit. That's what they all said. In fact, if you Google the entire headline in quotes, "New Indiana Jones trailer is smash hit," you'll get (as of this morning) over 58,000 hits. Smash or otherwise.
They all pulled the same AP story by Regina Robertson. About the viral spread of the trailer. About how it's doing well online. About how kids might not know from Indiana but that's the challenge because that's the demographic. The usual quotes from Paramount marketing execs and the Aintitcool.com dude. It was probably the biggest news story of the day.
I understand why it was big. It was about entertainment so it might appeal to kids but it was about an older dude so it might appeal to the newspaper's actual demographics. Classic analog hero in digital age clash. Who will win?
Here's what bugs me. Paramount estimates that the trailer was seen 200 million times in its first week? When are they going to get the actual figures? Paramount says the 4.1 million hits on the Yahoo movie site was a record? What does Yahoo say? Do they have a say? Do they want one? Or are they just waiting to be bought? Now that's a feeling we can all get behind.
It's not even PR journalism, it's TV Guide journalism, because the brunt of the story is less about what's been (the release of the trailer) than what's about to be (the release of the movie in May). It's all about anticipation and more and more that's what we focus on. Culturally we're a myopic country peering into the middle distance for any kind of good (or cool) news. Because the past is so five minutes ago and the present is unknown and uncomfortable. But that thing that's about to happen? That we can anticipate in this way? Hell, maybe that can pull us along a little bit and get us out of where we are. Maybe it's the old dude in the leather jacket who can finally save us. At least for two hours. In May.
Once he gets here, though, he's done. Because his not being here is exactly the point. Then we'll need a whole new headline.
W.C. Heinz: Rest in Peace
The great writer/journalist passed away earlier this week at the age of 93. You can read his NY Times Obit here.
I haven't read much Heinz but he was the writer with the most clips in The Best American Sportswriting of the Century — a great collection for any sports fan — and a source of inspiration to David Halberstam and the New Journalists of the 1960s. He also tells one of my favorite sports stories ever in his profile of football great Red Grange, "The Ghost of the Gridiron," for True Magazine in 1958. Red Grange is talking:
"Once about fifteen years ago, on my way home from work, I dropped into a tavern in Chicago for a beer. Two guys next to me and the bartender was arguing about Bronco Nagurski and Carl Brumbaugh. On the Bears, of course, I played in the backfield with both of them. One guy doesn't like Nagurski and he's talking against him. I happen to think Nagurski was the greatest football player I ever saw, and a wonderful guy. This fellow who is knocking him says to me, 'Do you know anything about football? Did you see Nagurski play?' I said, 'Yes, and I think he was great.' The guy gets mad and says, 'What was so great about him? What do you know about it?' I could see it was time to leave but the guy kept at me. He said, 'Now wait a minute. What make you think you know something about it? Who are you anyway?' I reached into my wallet and took out my business card and handed it to him and started for the door. When I got to the door, I looked back at him. You should have seen his face."
Great Clark Kent moment and Heinz knows enough not to get in the way of the story. Then he ends the piece poignantly. Read it, if you can.
American Political prisoner?
The basics. Siegelman, a Democratic governor in a Republican state, was running for reelection in 2002 when word leaked to the press that he was being investigated by federal prosecutors; he narrowly lost that election to Republican Bob Riley. The investigating prosecutors were both appointed by Pres. Bush and one of them, Leura Canary, was the wife of Republican consultant Bill Canary.
Two years later, as Siegelman was gearing to run for governor again, he's indicted on charges stemming from an alleged Medicaid scam. The case goes to trial. And on the first day the judge throws it out. Says the government has no case.
Then the investigation expands. For eight months Leura Canary is heading it — despite the fact that her husband ran the campaign for Siegelman's opponent, Gov. Riley. The charge is now bribery. The jury deadlocks once, twice, then votes to convict. The problems? The chief witness against him testified in exchange for a reduced sentence on corruption charges. The smoking gun, a check, was actually cut days after the witness claims seeing it in Siegelman's hands. And the supposed quid pro quo of campaign contributions ($500,000) for political favors (the contributor being reappointed to a hospital board) was, according to Grant Woods, a Republican and the former attorney general of Arizona, not bribery at all; it was politics. Akin to putting the President of the United States in jail because he gave a contributor an ambassadorship.
Even so, Siegelman was sentenced to seven years and led away — literally — in manacles, something unheard of for white collar criminals, let alone a former governor.
There's more: He said/she said about Karl Rove targeting Siegelman in 2002. Allegations that Karl Rove directed the DOJ for political advantage.
Fifty two attorneys general of both parties have asked Congress to investigate.
What's the first thing you read in the Sunday NY Times?
For me it's Frank Rich's column, and this week he's got a good one. (You can read it here.) It's another of the "What went wrong with Hilary's campaign" pieces but it's smarter than most. He compares the strategy of the Clinton campaign with the way Pres. Bush handled Iraq: Assume victory and then flail about when you don't get it. Hilary assumed she'd be victorious by Feb. 5 — she said so much to George Stephanopolous in late December — but had no back-up plan when that didn't happen.
The most telling stats show how disorganized her campaign is. "In Kansas," Rich writes, "three paid Obama organizers had the field to themselves for three months; ultimately Obama staff members outnumbered Clinton staff members there 18 to 3." In Wisconsin she put up ads six days after Obama, and she had only four offices to his 11. She still has no offices in Vermont while he has four. She didn't know the Texas primary system was "so bizarre." All this from someone who claims she's ready to lead from day one.
The most dispiriting part of her campaign is the attempt to marginalize Obama's supporters — a task that grows increasingly difficult as he wins state after state. Some in her campaign are even trotting out the whole "latte-drinking" insults. Obama's supporters, according to one speechmaker preceding Mrs. Clinton onto an Ohio stage, are little more than "latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust-fund babies." C'mon, can't they come up with something more original? I'm an Obama supporter. How about "Honda-Civic driving?" How about "bike riding"? All those elitists who ride their bikes to work and listen to Joe Henry and read The New Yorker and eat chicken. Chicken eaters. Jeans wearers. Book readers. Baseball watchers. Air breathers.
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