A few words in defense of #CNN

cnn.mousepad

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.

Review: ‘Poisoning the Press’ by Mark Feldstein

Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal CulturePoisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture by Mark Feldstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am fascinated by Richard Nixon.

The man is straight out of Shakespeare — sometimes Iago, sometimes Lear, sometimes (in his better, though rare, moments) Prince Hal himself. (Never Falstaff, though.) Nobody doubts his brilliance or cunning, but oh, what venality. He could never get over the contempt he had for the kinds of people LBJ called “the Harvards” — those golden boys who effortlessly controlled the levers of power and sneered at awkward ladder-climbers like Richard Nixon.

Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning the Press” pairs Nixon with one of his fiercest critics, muckraking columnist Jack Anderson. In Anderson, Nixon had more than a foe in the media — he had someone who was surprisingly like the 37th president himself. Like Nixon, Anderson had a ne’er-do-well brother and a fractious relationship with his father; like Nixon, Anderson was a working-class striver; like Nixon, Anderson grew fond of a wealthy lifestyle at the expense of his ethics. (One of Anderson’s early gets had to do with payoffs Nixon received from rich benefactors. Anderson would later sacrifice much of his regard for money.)

Naturally, the two became mortal enemies.

Continue reading

A break from social media

hendy_woods_state_park
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.

Continue reading

Sunday read: The little graffiti that started the great big Syrian civil war

59e79cb733d147d3a3ae18fd8ba34cb1_18
Image from Reuters via al Jazeera.

Power tends to corrupt, Lord Acton is credited with saying, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So it’s been for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who was supposed to be a mild-mannered, London-trained ophthalmologist but has proven to be at least as ruthless as his father, Hafez al-Assad.

That’s been particularly apparent during Syria’s civil war, during which al-Assad has presided over the destruction of his country, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and a refugee crisis that has shaken the world. Yet he holds on to power thanks to what an Atlantic writer called “the devil’s endgame.”

And the whole thing started with one scrawled line: “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad.”

Continue reading

Waiting for the end of the world

27223605-wasteland-wallpapers
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”?

Continue reading

Sunday read: Ne’er the twain shall meet?

33813470
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.

Continue reading

‘1984 Revisited,’ now with #alternativefacts

commissar
Image from WorldLiteratureEblock.

In 1984, there was a lot of talk about “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel was referenced in one of the great commercials of all time, the Apple Macintosh ad directed by Ridley Scott that aired during the Super Bowl. “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984,’ ” the commercial proclaimed.

Later that year, a film was released based on the novel. John Hurt played protagonist Winston Smith. The work was critically praised but didn’t do well at the box office — no surprise for a piece that ends with the hero, who has sought to break free of his totalitarian state, tortured and once again loving Big Brother. (A similar film, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 “Brazil,” was more inventive — when you had Bob Hoskins as a malevolent technician and Robert De Niro as the fix-it hero Tuttle, how could it not be? — but also had a downbeat ending.)

But the work I remember was a CBS documentary that aired in the summer of 1983, “1984 Revisited.”

Continue reading

Urgent: The sun rose today

17-inauguration-preparations-w529-h352
Image from Getty Images via New York magazine.

Per the Constitution by way of the 20th Amendment, at noon today Donald J. Trump took the oath of office and became the 45th president of the United States of America.

The earth did not open up to reveal hellfire and sulfurous caverns, nor did the clouds part for heavenly trumpets.

The temperature in Washington was 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It was cloudy with a band of rain moving through town. A friend tells me it’s been raining on and off with gray skies. It was a winter’s day.

Anyone who’s read this blog (both of you) know that I’m not a fan of the new president. I worry about his unpredictability and impulsiveness. I cringe at his bullying need for dominance. I disagree with many of the positions he’s espoused and with the stands of many of his cabinet appointees.

I find myself seeking comfort in one of the watchwords of the Jewish people — not the Shema, but a song from the great bard Mel Brooks, “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.”

Continue reading

Will Donald Trump make journalism great again?

170111180313-trump-presser-exlarge-169
Image from CNN.

Jack Shafer in Politico:

 

In his own way, Trump has set us free. Reporters must treat Inauguration Day as a kind of Liberation Day to explore news outside the usual Washington circles. He has been explicit in his disdain for the press and his dislike for press conferences, prickly to the nth degree about being challenged and known for his vindictive way with those who cross him. So, forget about the White House press room. It’s time to circle behind enemy lines.

On the one hand, I think Shafer is right. Donald Trump’s adversarial attitude, like Richard Nixon’s (a president Shafer refers to later in his column), should force major news organizations to turn to old-fashioned shoe leather instead of taking handouts from D.C. panjandrums. (I threw that word in there for my old copy editors.) Some of them, most likely Marty Baron’s Washington Post, will probably do some great work. (The Post’s David Fahrenthold already is.)

But the cable news networks? We shall see.

CNN reportedly made $1 billion in profit in 2016. I’m not sure the powers that be at Time Warner or News Corp. or pick your large multimedia conglomerate will want to take a big hit to their bottom line, especially if they’re being hounded on social media. (Hell, William Paley wasn’t a big fan of what Walter Cronkite said about Watergate in late ’72. After all, he had CBS and its affiliates to look out for.)

Of course, Trump will make for good television. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

The ‘we’ in ‘Yes we can’

170110213256-02-obama-slider-2008-restricted-super-169
Image from Getty Images via CNN.

President Obama gave his farewell speech last night. The man has a gift for soaring rhetoric.

There were some cavils from the right (and the left), but in general it seemed that most people appreciated the heartfelt eloquence.

One thing that struck me was something the former community organizer emphasized both in 2008 and last night. It was his use of Cesar Chavez’s call to activism, “Si se puede” — “Yes we can.”

Continue reading