Saturday, April 25, 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Closet Good Guy

First of all, this reference has nothing at all to do with sexual preferences. That's significant, I guess, because the first public figure I ever heard discuss the concept of "the closet good guy" was the estimable Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)

Frank was talking to reporters about a celebrated Washington economist who made his name in the 1980s helping Ronald Reagan wreck the economy and jury-rig the tax code in favor of the well-to-do.

All the time, Frank said, this chap was whispering to those who thought trickle-down economics was taking the middle class off a cliff that he was in fact laboring behind the scenes to make it better, to mitigate the damage. Wink, wink, nod, nod. I'm on your side. Really.

The closet good guy.

Which brings me to my former line of work - the newspaper business. These days the media landscape is littered with closet good guys (and good gals, of course). They're wringing their hands on CNN and MSNBC, furrowing their brows in think tanks and posh universities, typing on the oped pages and yakking on NPR about "What's Wrong" with newspapers.

Most of the answers are already in play. The Internet. Giving away the product. Missing a few fundamental changes in the society. The primacy of shareholder value. Turning the newsroom over the marketing folks. A culture with the attention span of a twitterer.

Most importantly (to me), a loss of faith in the mission and the role of the newspaper. And a pathological need to ignore the base, as they say in politics, and pursue folks who were never, ever going to buy and read a newspaper.

I spent 16 years as a columnist and reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I had a messy divorce from that paper in 1996, long before manufactured-housing mogul Sam Zell and his happy band of new media nitwits took control of the "World's Greatest Newspaper." And what I am suggesting is that the short-sightedeness, arrogance and institutional well-poisoning in the newspaper game didn't get its start in last three years or so.

My experience - and that of many former and current scribes in other papers - is that many editors and managers didn't need a Sam Zell or some equivalent villain to ease them down the road to perdition.

Lots of scrappy reporters who raged over shrinking budgets and shrinking newsholes, unreasonable deadlines, gutless editors and the dumbing down of the product got right in line when they moved into positions of newsroom authority.

Suddenly, the money guys were making a lot of sense when they questioned the need for this bureau or that beat. Sure, an extra copy editor or an editorial cartoonist or an in-house TV critic was nice, but, hey, we gotta start running this place like a business.

From there it was easy.

Now, many in this crowd are numbered among the media commentariat. To hear them tell it, they were all doing the right thing right up until the moment they took the buyout. And there was no back door at the Alamo, either. Everyone died a hero.

So the next time you see a former editor or an ex-publisher or columnist chin-stroking their way through a lofty discussion of the sad state of daily newspapers, consider that they might not have been born in a manger.

It's altogether possible that back in the day they were not strangers to downsizing and closing bureaus, advancing mini-stories and treating disagreeement as insubordination. They might have a newsroom history of their own, and one that will not hold up to much scrutinty.

The truth is, the first time I heard it said in a newsroom that "your job is your perk" was sometime in the late 1980s, about the time that economist was telling Barney Frank they were all on the same side.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"No" to Television

Don't worry. No talk here of turning off the TV, even though the programming has never, ever been worse.

No, this is a high-minded discussion of ground rules and what two people (me and Jane) have determined we will not ever watch. Enter at your own risk.

The thing is, we live in a one-TV home. And we do so by choice. And we never, ever watch anything with:

Sharks. Charles Bronson. Ex-football players dancing, with or without stars. Charles Krauthammer. The fellas in "Entourage." Howie Mandel. Don Rumsfeld. Any of the cartoon shows around "The Simpsons." Extreme Sports (no exceptions). The ESPN show with the four addled sportswriters in the boxes. Pissed-off chefs. Chefs. Sean Hannity. Adam Sandler. Kelly Ripa. The "Money Honey." Jake Tapper. "American Idol." (Again, no exceptions - Gore Vidal once referred to someone as being "blissfully unburdened by the onus of talent". Who knew it would lead to a hit prime-time show)?

David Spade. "The Deadliest Catch." Jack Bauer. Larry King, except when he interviews Bill Maher or Jon Stewart. Mike Barnicle. Dick Morris. "The View." NASCAR (excepting the Daytona 500). Shows about airplane crashes (excepting Capt. Sulley). Lou Dobbs. All shows with brainless, horny 24-year-olds sharing group houses. All shows about legendary surfer dudes. All interviews with Bono. All interviews with Mike Myers. All interviews with Newt Gingrich. Good cable shows you can't ever find ("The Closer," "Rescue Me"). Ben Stein. "Lost." "According to Jim." Shows about enormously fat people trying to lose weight. Dennis Rodman. Donald Trump.

Cramer. Tila Tequila. The traveling Playboy bunnies who kept Hugh Hefner alive with paint thinner or something. Tucker Carlson. "Unsolved Mysteries." Tyra Banks. "Celtic Woman." Larry Kudlow. "Huckabee." All quiz shows except "Jeopardy." "Fox and Friends." Glenn Beck, of course. "Big Love." The National Basketball Association, until the finals of the playoffs. Karl Rove. Judge Judy. The young women trying to read the news in the morning on CNN and their hunky partners. "Extreme Makeover Home Edition." Any Osbourne, doing anything.

Life's too short, my friends ...

Have I left anything out?

My God, I forgot Nancy Grace...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More Salt

Tonight we're waching - and not for the first time - "The Gefilte Fish Chronicles." It's an hour-long celebration of the work of three formidable sisters - Sophie, Peppy and Rosie - as they prepare for Passover. Much chicken, much horseradish, much backtalk and a big helping of family and American family history.

It's the work of friends - Iris and David Burnett. And it's Iris' New Jersey family in the kitchen. Airs on WETA 26/PBS in Washington tonght and in lots more places, we hope. There's a DVD, there's a cookbook, there's a Website. You get the idea. I wouldn't steer you wrong....

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Nothing to Fear

A weekend trip to the Tidal Basin to explore the cherry blossom experience provided a bonus.

The trees, a gift from the Japanese people in 1912, are a big 'ol Washington deal. The bloom, which is spectacular by any measure, is Washington's way of welcoming spring. (Remember, we had no baseball for nearly 40 years).

Tourists flock, as tourists do, and by the way are there any living Americans who do not own digital cameras? Other than Jane and myself?

I have lived here twice for many, many years and of course I had never ventured to Potomac Park to actually see the cherry blossoms. If I had lived near the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 600 BC, I would have gone only if my sister had come for a visit. Urban life deal.

Which helps explain why I had never been to see the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which graces West Potomac Park between the Tidal Basin and the river. It's a great spot to rendezvous to see the bloom, and it's much more.

I grew up in a family that revered FDR as a man who fought for working people and saved the country. All true.

Not a perfect man. You can get an argument that the Great Depression ended with the start of American engagement in World War II. But in 1933 FDR inherited a systemic economic collapse, a dispirted and frightened citizenry, a growing lack of faith in American institutions and a daunting array of foreign policy threats.

The measure of a political figure ought to be how they respond when faced with overwhelming problems. And this unlikely savior was up the task.

In his first 100 days in office he dealt aggressively with bank failures, factory closings and farm foreclosures. There were policy changes and there were new programs, but there was hope as well in FDR's unflagging spirit.

In the most practical of terms, there was under FDR's leadership the creation of the Social Security system, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Labor Relations Board. There were jobs programs, programs to assist business and labor, a regulation of the stock market, and subsidies for home and farm mortgage payments.

Does anything look better 75 years later than the FDIC, an institution that guarantees the bank deposits (up to $250,000) of millions of Americans with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government?

Would we in a different place if the SEC as Roosevelt saw it had done its job in the last decade? Did Social Security do anything less than pull an entire generation of Americans (your parents, Baby Boomers) out of poverty?

There are sculptures and inscriptions here, of course, this being a Washington memorial. A George Segal sculpture of men in a bread line stays with you, as does the portrayal of a single man, a desperate man in a straight-back chair hunched in front of a radio, listening to one of FDR's "fireside chats."

A looming sculpture of an aged FDR in a wheeled chair dominates the end of the route through the memorial.
Visitors have rubbed the patina off one of FDR's fingers, and off the ears of Fala, his beloved pooch.

At his second inaugural in 1937, FDR said: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

The news reports tell us that President Obama has been reading "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt," H.W Brand's new biography.

I hope that's true. And I hope Obama ventures out to West Potomac Park to see FDR, if he hasn't been there.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Opening Day

I'm a baseball fan, though I was never the kind of fan who would get a little dewy-eyed around Christmas and say things like "Hey, pitchers and catchers report to spring training in only eight weeks."

Baseball fans do that, more than you know. And I'm a baseball fan. My Dad was a passionate Yankee fan, even though we lived 300 miles west of the Bronx. He brought the NY Daily News home every afternoon to read about Mantle and Maris and Yogi and Whitey Ford, and I was right there with him.

We had a hometown team for a while, the Corning Red Sox. It was "A" ball, the NY-Penn League, then the lowest rung of the minor-league hierarchy. But we watched the locals take on Batavia and Wellsville and Bradford, Pa., on warm summer nights. Joe Daley, my Yankee-hating maternal gtandfather, Paul Lovette, and me.

Many of my best friends of both genders are passionate about the game as well. They are fierce in their devotion to the Yankees or the Boston Red Sox or the Chicago Cubs or the White Sox, maybe the Baltimore Orioles and, lately, the Washington Nationals.

They have rules, or at least guidelines. They never leave the park before the game is over. They hate goofy mascots, $8 beer and the incessant wail of rock music and/or country music that seems to infest the modern ballyard.

They hate Barry Bonds and steroids, love Cal Ripken, Jr., and Ken Griffey, Jr. They loath the designated hitter and are conflicted about inter-league play. They're convinced today's ballplayers are better athletes but somehow lesser human beings than the players they grew up on.

I'm comfortable with most of that. But for reasons I can't quite determine, Opening Day leaves me cold, as cold as Chicago, where Opening Day this year was scrubbed because it was, well, too cold.

This disenchantment may spring from advancing years, though many of my Baby Boomer amigos have not lost anything off their rooting fastballs. It may stem from the six or so years I spent in a great job as a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune and, before that, at a paper in Palo Alto, CA.

That experience of actually spending time around major league baseball players will change a man. No other way to say it.

When I was writing sports there were a host of bright, talented men wearing the uniform. Two managers, Jim Frey, then of the Cubs and Tony LaRussa, then of the White Sox, come to mind. They were savvy, interesting guys, fun to talk to, though equipped with the wariness that everyone ought to employ when talking to the press.

Not surprisingly, players at the margins tended to be better company than the All-Stars, though not always. But five or six years of hanging around sullen, spoiled, overpaid lads possessed of an arcane skill set will chill the romance.

I imagine most of them felt the same way about me, except for the overpaid part.

These days, many years after I stopped getting into the ballpark for free, I refer to myself as a recovering baseball fan. LaRussa, now in St. Louis, and a handful of graying coaches may be all that's left of the era I got to witness. i never met a single Washington National, and while they are a dismal baseball lot at this point, I find it possible to root for them without equivocation.

Still, I'm happier with the concept of Opening Day than with Opening Day itself.

It's a good thing, it brings some joy to millions, it cements families and friendships, it can galvanize communities in a positive way.

Most of the players don't care about that, believe me.

But if the box scores and the fearless prognostications and the possibility that the Cubs will end their World Series futility in Year 101 leave me stranded at third, I guess that's my problem.

Play ball.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Don't Steal Anything Big

In the precision of the cliche, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was at Disney World when the 16-count federal indictment came down this week. (Why do federal indictments always "come down")?

In the old days he would perhaps have been seeking solace at the Washington Park race track. Lots of history there. It's where an intrepid Chicago reporter named Alfred "Jake" Lingle was gunned down (again, they're always "gunned down," aren't they?), presumably because of his hard-nosed (see!) reportage.

But it turns out Jake was pals with both the police commissioner and a local businessman named Al Capone. Bad idea.

For the most part, Chicagoans love these kinds of stories. I spent a decade there and you will never hear a bad word about the place from me. The locals love their myths and legends the way they love Wrigley Field and, lately, this Obama couple and their children.

And while Chicago is in many ways a big, normal municipality with people going on about their lives, locals of a certain age at least are charmed and in some way proud of the kind of low-brow, pinkie-ring, Mob mopery that seems never to have quite gone away.

One afternoon years ago when I was typing a sports column for the Chicago Tribune, the Managing Editor - a former AP guy who had sloshed through many a crime scene - strode by my cubicle as if he were going to a free meal. Some mobbed-up lawyer/accountant type had been found in the trunk of a car in the western suburbs. The tragedy appeared to be "execution-style" (see!).

The newsroom was abuzz. The natives could not have been happier if they had been handing out Pulitzer Prizes like untainted pistachios. Why worry about global warming or monetary policy when you've got a prominent dead guy in a trunk?

Moving past me, the ME asked if I had heard the good news. I had. "Damn," he said, "this is great. See, we can still do it once in a while."

See, you need to put things in perspective, especially when the last governor - George Ryan - is already in the federal sneezer, and is hardly the first of his gubernatorial breed to to go there.

As for the former governor, well, he was a nitwit before he was the governor. That's no state secret.

Actually, he was a jagoff. Now there's a real Chicago expletive. Jagoff. I believe I heard it the first day I got to Chicago and pretty much every day I lived there.

Jagoff. Rolls off the tongue. Tells you all you need to know.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009