A few words in defense of #CNN

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I worked for CNN for 16 years, and I don’t think a month went by when I didn’t bitch about the place.

Some of my complaints were simply attempts to blow off steam. Why is the CMS down again? Why do I have to change that headline? Do we have to do that bullshit story simply because it’s trending?

And then there were my deeper concerns, ones that have provoked debate in newsrooms since there have been newsrooms — questions about ratings/traffic vs. news value, questions about ethics, questions about quality.

But for all of my bitching, I was proud to work there. It was, and still is, full of intelligent, thoughtful people.

I could be cynical — most journalists are — but, as George Carlin was fond of saying, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist. You don’t deal with so much human weakness without a little bit of hope that things will get better, and that you can make a difference.

Compared to many of my colleagues, I was in no way a capital-J Journalist — someone who, in my estimation, lived and breathed for scoops in pursuit of The Story (I would rather delete my overabundance of email and get a good night’s sleep) — but I cared deeply about the news, about covering it right, about fairness and accuracy and truth.

And if there’s one truth I know for certain, it’s that my colleagues cared just as deeply. And they still do.

So it makes me angry to see my old employer attacked as being “fake news,” and to see many of my old colleagues’ faces in an anti-Semitic meme. (By the way, despite my departure 15 months ago, you’ll find me in the bottom row.)

I know a lot of people hate journalists. Reporters, in their minds, are pesky busybodies who won’t leave well enough alone. They don’t pay attention to certain stories, and pay too much attention to others. (And you won’t get an argument from many reporters, who would just as soon be chasing something more meaningful than whatever the shiny object of the day is — and these days, when analytics can tell us exactly what people are looking at and for how long, there are a lot of shiny objects.)

Journalists keep asking why — and when, and where, and who and what.

But consider the recent stories that have prompted much of this backlash against the news media: the tangled relationships and communications of a certain high-ranking businessman/politician. Simply the fact that he’s important (the most important, in fact, the biggest, an incredibly important person) makes the stories newsworthy, and if you’re CNN — or any news organization, frankly — you have a responsibility to see where they lead.

As we saw from the story the network pulled a couple weeks ago, CNN is not infallible. You’re only as good as your sources, and in a volatile world where everybody has an agenda, it can be incredibly hard to nail things down. It’s happened to the best.

But CNN, like most other outlets in the so-called “MSM,” owns up to its mistakes when they happen. I have my issues with the network — I think the TV arm (like pretty much all profit-chasing TV news) has come to feel like an all-day edition of “Crossfire” with too much heat, too little light, a sad reflection of the old local news philosophy that sensation sells. But the organization is full of outstanding and humane people trying to make sense of real life that affects real people, and you can see its work on the website, CNN International and even on the main domestic network when Jeffrey Lord isn’t arguing with Van Jones.

Real life isn’t a wrestling match. And I know I’d prefer a sense of “presidential” that is less like Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (who, to give him credit, was possessed of some modesty).

On this Independence Day, the anniversary of when this representative democracy was founded, we should continue working towards “the more perfect union” the Constitution writes about. CNN and the news media, for all their faults, are central to that effort.

The towns, the cities and Trump

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Image from kinziehotel.com.

Love this article in the latest New York magazine examining the growing political split between city and country. (Even Boise, Idaho, had some overwhelming Democratic strongholds.) It makes a point that hasn’t been talked about enough: That it wasn’t so long ago that cities, now considered overwhelmingly Democratic, once leaned Republican, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Columbus, Ohio.

What changed? Many things, author Justin Davidson writes. If white flight hollowed out cities in the ’70s — with suburbs becoming GOP bastions — revitalized downtowns have brought in new influxes of multicultural and youthful residents in recent years. That’s also made inner-ring suburbs more Democratic. (And, yes, many cities have also become more expensive and less affordable for the middle class — but gentrification is a topic for another day.)

But, for me, perhaps the most intriguing detail Davidson unearths is the importance of mass transit in forging liberal bonds:

Density makes towns more liberal. So does public transit. A band of dark, Clinton-heavy blue follows the Metra commuter rail line from downtown Chicago south to University Park, where it dead-ends in a field of red. Milwaukee’s bus system extends west to 124th Street and north to the county line, and those borders define political boundaries, too: Beyond the bus routes, the map turns from blue to red, literalizing Wisconsin’s dramatic divide. In the Bay Area, tendrils of blue radiate out along train tracks into the deep-red heartland of the San Joaquin Valley. Interstate 5 runs north-south without disturbing the political landscape, but 40 miles east, Amtrak links Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield — each one an isolated dab of blue.

It’s not clear what accounts for this political force field that weakens with every mile from City Hall but that’s carried from center to center along transit lines. Do people with strong political views choose to live in like-minded communities, or do the places people choose to live form their opinions about how society should work? Which comes first: real estate or ideology? Either way, the dynamic behaves like an ideological centrifuge, distributing liberals and conservatives in complex but not random patterns.

One of the overall questions of the article is how Donald Trump, born and raised in New York, became so appealing to — and, to some extent, part of — an anti-urban and generally Republican crowd. One of Davidson’s suggestions is that Trump has seldom has had to mix with the city in which he made his name — he’s spent his life in private cars, limos and helicopters. He also came up in 1970s New York, when the city was a poster child for decay. (I’ve seen it written elsewhere that he also grew up talking to the outer-borough hardhats employed by his father, real-life Archie Bunkers who watched New York’s ’60s and ’70s decline and disapproved of its increasingly polyglot politics.)

If only he’d ridden the E and F trains more often. Or maybe he did and they looked like the ones in “The Warriors.”

Au revoir, Atlanta

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Image from Atlanta magazine.
I came back to Atlanta in spring.

It was April of 1991, and I was still recovering from wounds inflicted by pieces of a broken heart. (I write this with apologies to my girlfriend at the time, who succeeded the one over which my heart was broken; she was instrumental in reawakening my soul, for which I’m eternally grateful.) Atlanta was where I had gone to school in the ’80s and stayed for a bit, working at a downtown hotel, feeling rich from the regular wads of tips I made as a bellman (which, in reality, probably added up to less than $15,000 for the year — but my share of the rent was $162.50 a month) and hanging out with friends from college. Some were figuring things out. Others had yet to graduate.

Four years later, some had left and returned; others had never gone away. I needed a place to start anew. I had $500 to my name and bills for many times that amount, but I felt comfortable in Atlanta. It seemed to fit.

And so I loaded my life into my car and drove back down I-85 into its hopefully welcoming arms.

Twenty-six years later, I’m getting ready to leave. I have a new job in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, and though I’m looking forward to it, I can’t say it’s been easy to prepare.

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Sunday read: One day, LaGuardia will not suck

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Image from 6sqft.com.

I hate flying into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and I’m not alone: It’s the poster child of overcrowded, dilapidated airports. As Joe Biden noted a few years ago, “If I blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you would think, ‘I must be in some third-world country.’ ”

To which he added, after his audience started laughing, “I’m not joking.”

I imagine he also wouldn’t joke about Newark, where last summer I sat at a gate with fans — fans! — blowing warm, humid air around because the air conditioning wasn’t working properly.

OK, so New York’s airports are shameful. What about O’Hare? LAX? DFW? They’ve all managed to add some bells and whistles, but they’re still not as sleek as their counterparts in Europe and Asia. (Though, at least, you can take public transit to some of them — which is the norm overseas. How nice it was to land at Amsterdam’s Schiphol many years ago and board a train into the city. Another demerit for you, New York.)

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The startling view from Fukushima

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Image from The New York Times.

Six years after the tsunami that destroyed it, the Fukushima nuclear reactor is still throwing off huge amounts of radiation. And yet people who lived nearby may soon return to their homes and businesses.

The UK Independent reported that radiation levels are still so high at the plant that robots are burning out far more quickly than imagined:

The latest attempt to harvest data on Fukushima failed after a robot designed by Toshiba to withstand high radiation levels died five times faster than expected.

The robot was supposed to be able to cope with 73 sieverts of radiation, but the radiation level inside the reactor was recently recorded at 530 sieverts.

A single dose of one sievert is enough to cause radiation sickness and nausea; 5 sieverts would kill half those exposed to it within a month, and a single dose of 10 sieverts would prove fatal within weeks.

Sunday read: This story made me barking mad

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Image from clearlyveg.com.
As you’ve probably noticed from the occasional photos of my cats, I’m an animal lover.

My family had dogs and cats when I was growing up, and upon getting my first solo apartment, I went out and adopted Queenie (1995-2014), who was soon followed by Thelonious (1996-2000, probably of a kitty version of Marfan’s syndrome), and now I’ve got Gillespie (1999- ), Oscar (2007- ) and Mulligan (2013- ).

If I had more patience and time, there would be dogs, too. Just that I always felt that I spent so much time at work that it wouldn’t be fair to the dog. Short of feeding and scooping, the cats can mostly take care of themselves. (And you know what they say: You own dogs, but cats own you.)

Three of my five cats were adopted from shelters; the other two were being given away by acquaintances and needed a home. (Need your own furball? If you’re in the Atlanta area, please visit PAWS. They’re wonderful. I’ll also put in a good word for the fine people at the Humane Society of Huron Valley near Ann Arbor, Michigan.) Nothing against people who buy purebreds in pet stores or from breeders if they can afford them, but there are so many animals who are waiting for a human friend in shelters, and you can have them for the cost of shots and tags.

Which is why this article in Bloomberg Businessweek made me angry. It’s my Sunday read.

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A break from social media

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Image of Hendy Woods State Park from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m going to see if I can go the weekend without checking social media — or most any media.

I used to joke with my friend John Blake about how my media and political intake would increase during election years. I’d start out in January checking a handful of sites maybe once or twice a day, including social media sites like Facebook, to see what was going on. By October I was practically living in cyberspace.

Then the election would come, and regardless how I felt about the result, I would wean myself away, paying attention to major events but generally letting the country flow on the way it has for 200-plus years.

This election, of course, was different. The president loves his Twitter; his opponents and the news media do all they can to keep up. It’s wearying, and yet it seems like it’s all anyone can talk about. Or, more accurately, scream about. (A few days ago, I tweeted — sorry, even I can’t help myself sometimes — that we’re living in a “pro wrestling world.” I’d prefer a Dick Cavett world, but I’m very much in the minority.)

Yet instead of weaning myself, I’m probably clicking more than I did in October. So I’m going to try to go on a digital diet this weekend.

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Atlanta has world-class traffic

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Image from WSBTV.com.

News item:

To no Atlanta commuter’s surprise, the metro recently ranked among the top most congested cities in the world, according to a new report by transportation analytics firm INRIX.

According to INRIX’s 2016 Global Traffic Scorecard, Atlanta ranked eighth in the world for congestion with the average commuter spending 70.8 hours in traffic each year.

Good to see that, along with having the world’s busiest airport, the Region Too Busy To Invest In Mass Transit also has some of the world’s worst traffic. We are an international city after all!

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Waiting for the end of the world

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Image from bsnscb.com.

I’m just catching up with back issues of The New Yorker, as one does, and finally had a chance to read Evan Osnos’ piece on wealthy Americans who are building shelters and investing in New Zealand as a way to survive the coming apocalypse.

Their thoughts are full of doom. Such as this:

Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of “Chaos Monkeys,” an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.”

And this:

He and his wife, who is in technology, keep a set of bags packed for themselves and their four-year-old daughter. He told me, “I kind of have this terror scenario: ‘Oh, my God, if there is a civil war or a giant earthquake that cleaves off part of California, we want to be ready.’ ”

Or this:

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent investor, recalls telling a friend that he was thinking of visiting New Zealand. “Oh, are you going to get apocalypse insurance?” the friend asked. “I’m, like, Huh?” Hoffman told me. New Zealand, he discovered, is a favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm. Hoffman said, “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more. Once you’ve done the Masonic handshake, they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they’re nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.’ ”

Haven’t they read “On the Beach”? Margaret Atwood? “A Canticle for Leibowitz”? “The Road”? “Lord of the Flies”? Even T.C. Boyle’s “Drop City”?

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Sunday read: Ne’er the twain shall meet?

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Image from Mapio.
I’m a city boy: Born in New York, raised in New Orleans, a resident of Atlanta for the last half of my life. The smallest place I ever lived for longer than a summer was Ann Arbor, Michigan, a sizable college town. I love cities: I love their vitality, their diversity, their amazing infrastructure. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a municipality smaller than 100,000 people. (I’m not counting suburbs; living in Mamaroneck, N.Y., is still very much living in New York City’s orbit.)

So I have almost no common ground with the residents of Connersville, Indiana.

Connersville is a town of about 13,500 in east-central Indiana. It’s perhaps 70 miles but a world away from Indianapolis, the state capital and center of a metro area of more than 1.7 million. Eight hundred fifty thousand live in the city itself. If I were living in Indiana, I’d definitely live in Indianapolis. (And I’d probably drive to Chicago regularly.)

I’m not alone. The United States has become very much an urban-rural country, with a chasm of an urban-rural divide. As noted in a recent Atlantic article, “America’s Great Divergence,” Hillary Clinton won 88 of the 100 most populous counties in the U.S.

That, of course, was not enough to win the presidency. Donald Trump overwhelmingly won rural America; 72 percent of Fayette County, where Connersville is the county seat, voted for him.

“America’s Great Divergence” is my Sunday read.

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