Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ben Bradlee

The Washington Post became a great newspaper under Ben Bradlee, and he cut quite a dashing figure we all would like to have emulated, especially in his role defending freedom of the press when it was truly under attack. 

However, there was a great deal negative about his reign. Foremost among them, in my minority opinion, was the creation of the Style Section, which abandoned journalistic standards to invent celebrity journalism. There were colossal errors in the Post, the worst of which was the Janet Cooke creation of the 8-year-old heroin addict. I read that story in bed one Sunday morning, knew and said out loud, “This can’t be true” and never gave it another thought because it was the kind of crap I had come to expect from the Post, even only a few years after Watergate. It was the kind of "holy shit" story that Bob Woodward (who I believe also invents things) held up as the standard for Post journalism. 

The Style Section gave license to writers who could not report accurately or use the language correctly. It reported inaccurately that national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski unzipped his pants in a jokingly lewd manner inside the Oval Office. The author of that gigantic investigative piece was one Sally Quinn, who had not been a journalist before she rose at the Post, rising in the most old fashioned of ways. (The most loving of tributes to Bradlee contain anecdotes that portray him as a sexist pig with a preoccupation with the male anatomy.   

One Style profile I remember, of Lillian Gish, called her “pixilated.” Maybe the writer meant “pixiesh,” but in my book, “pixilated” means drunk. Another profile of a male movie star referred to him as a “bohunk,” which used to be an ethnic slur against Hungarians. After Bradlee’s departure, but in keeping with his view of what Style should be, the Post hired the single most obnoxious feature writer I have ever read: Hank Stuever, whose first piece was a stream-of-consciousness account of what was going through the minds of people attending George W. Bush’s first inauguration.   

My favorite definition of news is “what happened to the editor today.” The Post began to reflect what happened to Bradlee, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a social climber who got all his jobs through old family connections, who made his name in journalism by sucking up to his Georgetown neighbor, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy. If news is what happened to the editor today, then the Post truly was writing for the “1 percent.” I will never forget a front-pager in the early ‘80s about the effects of an economic downturn on local residents, in which someone mourned that “we won’t be able to go to Europe this summer.” The Post wrote not the people of the D.C. area but for its advertisers.  

Yes, Bradlee made the Post great,  even though his personnel management was called “creative tension,” which resulted in two reporters being assigned to cover the same event and fight for space. I loved the news and sports sections, hated Style and the editorial pages (except for the cartoons). The fact that Henry Kissinger is allowed to publish op-eds at will is insane. I finally unsubscribed this summer because there was not enough volume of real news to drown out the fluff, because the sports writers had been hired out of bad-grammar-school, and because its new ownership promised nothing of value to me. 

Bradlee did say one thing that I repeated all the time when I taught journalism, “We don’t print the truth; we report what people tell us.” That may sound like a cavalier copout, but it is all a reader should expect. The Post came close to the truth most of the time under Bradlee because the newspaper knew a lot of people who wanted to use its front page as a social and political bulletin board. And that isn't bad, at all.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

I May Be Wrong But I Doubt It

There are three weeks left in the regular season, and here is why the Nationals, if they even make the playoffs, will self-destruct in the first round.
To quote the great Mike Royko, “I may be wrong, but I doubt it.”

The Nationals are simply not as good as giddy fans and broadcasters believe. Forget the won/loss record. When they win a string of walk-off victories, in each case it was because they blew a lead or an easy chance to win in nine innings. They have an excellent record against mediocre-to-bad teams, but struggle against good teams, like the ones they would face in October.

While their lineup has guys any other team would start, no one is even close to being a potential Hall of Famer, no one to carry the team, and no one the other teams are afraid of.

It is my belief that their talent is done in by a collective stupidity rarely matched since Toronto voters elected Rob Ford.

There are only three Nationals I am confident in to play the game the right way and come up big: Anthony Rendon, Asdrubel Cabrera and Craig Stammen. The vaunted starting pitching corps is suspect in big situations, able to dominate for four or five innings, but prone to giving up a crushing long ball or utterly collapsing in the middle to late innings. Stamina. They don’t have it. I think Steve McCatty is an atrocious pitching coach. I wish Doug Fister could start every post season game with Strasburg and Zimmermann in relief.

Adam LaRoche looks classy when he swings – and misses. For his entire career, he is a streak hitter. He has had his streak. I don’t see him producing against tough pitching in October.
Ian Desmond is overrated defensively and hitting badly because he has no sense of the strike zone or of a pitcher’s plan of attack.

Bryce Harper needs no introduction. He is a triple-threat “ me-first” idiot at bat, on the bases and in the field. He has carried the stench of arrogance, egotism and stupidity since he was 15. Don’t tell me “he is only 21.” So are American soldiers. All that might be excusable, but he doesn’t produce. In fact, Desmond and Harper are the two most likely Nats on whom post-season failure will be blamed – that is, they will perform at least one mind-blowing act of incompetence at bat, in the field or on the bases in a game that should have been won.

That brings up Denard Span, everyone’s favorite lately. Aside from overrunning tough line drives in centerfield (where almost any team will have a comparably good defensive players), Span has a habit of getting picked off first base.

Jayson Werth tries hard but he is no longer agile, fast or strong armed – if he ever was. He isn’t much of a rightfielder, even when the sun isn’t shining. Remember all the trouble he had in his first year in DC with fly balls hit into the twilight? Until last Thursday, I would have said would never lose you a game.

Wilson Ramos is a threat at bat, but can't run. I am astounded by his biggest failing as a catcher – the inability to actually catch a thrown ball, whether from a fielder or a pitcher. This is fatal in a close game.

Danny Espinosa. A reminder of Mike Rizzo’s fallibility. A totally useless waste of a uniform.

The bench – Hairston, Frandsen, Lobaton, Schierholtz, Moore. They are bench players for a reason and interchangeable with any other group of scrubs.

The bullpen is vastly overrated, and my evaluation is based on several years of watching Clippard walk the first batter he faces, Storen coming apart in tight situations,  and Soriano making one wonder why someone thought he was worth $11 million a year. I will waste no more words on this hunk of horsepucky. Storen will forever live in infamy for his Oct. 12, 2012 performance for the ages. The Dark Ages. Matt Thornton has real possibility as a real closer, which is what he used to be.

I have left Ryan Zimmerman out of this because I have no idea what his future is. Maybe player-manager soon.  

The point of all this is to say that the Nats cannot win against truly good teams.  As of this writing, they are 17-20 against their most likely opponents in the National League postseason and 4-9 against potential World Series opponents. The formula of comparing runs scored vs. runs yielded, which produces an expected win total that is usually accurate, shows the Nats should have won three more games than they have at this writing. That difference is attributable to managerial ineptitude or player stupidity. 
At least I can look forward to getting a healthy refund on post-season tickets.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Casey Jones, You Better Watch Your Speed

I fought the law today, and the law won. Naturally. 

But I did get a chance to question an “automatic traffic enforcement unit” supervisor and engage in some byplay with nice-enough June Cleaverish judge whose legal career has awarded her realm over the county court dedicated to speed camera violations. 

Some people are outraged by abortion, some by the easy availability of guns, some by war. The single issue upon which I will vote for or against local candidates is the misuse of speed cameras (I am kind of.a okay with red light cameras, because running red lights does cause accidents.)  

As everyone knows, these cameras are set to enhance revenue for jurisdictions whose leaders are too chicken-shit to actually raise taxes. As I have told the several public officials I know, “Tax me, but don’t disguise the act as traffic enforcement.” 

The camera in question has nailed me in the past, so I naturally am somewhat careful on a heavily traveled road I have used approximately 3,000-4,000 times. I and the spousal unit have probably gotten a total of five speeding citations, which we have routinely paid because the county (and state) will not assign points or contact your insurance company, even though you are menace to life and limb. 

My questions and testimony dwelt on the fact that no matter how fast you may be going, the camera always records your violation at 12 miles above the artificially low posted speed. I asked the officer, “If I were going 100 mph, would the citation read 100 mph.” He replied with the “factual inexactitude, “Yes.” 

A similar road elsewhere in the county has 50 mph limit, and I learned from the judge and officer that these limits are set by community groups. Boy, would I like to get on one of those! I am against speeding. I am against reckless driving. I sometimes wish I had a James Bond car, or a Batmobile, that could evaporate offenders. But these cameras are placed on roads (especially hills) and in neighborhoods designed to scoop up money that would go uncollected if the violations were actually seen but not noted by an actual police officer. Of course the cameras are operated by a private company. 

There might have been 100 names on the list of cases, but only about 20 showed up for this morning’s court (the rest having paid already or decided to skip and wait till their registration renewal is denied.) 

I went, knowing what would happen, but I have time these days and I wanted at least the judge to hear the enmity that local government engenders it is driving public. A few other people, one a scientist, said her three tickets recorded at exactly the same speed “strained credulity.” (I think she had to pay only one of them.)  

The result was, for showing up with an oral excuse, that the $40 fine was cut to $20 plus court costs of $22.50. You do the math. Plus the $4 it cost to park. 

As a bonus to having the judge and other traffic miscreants hear my case (one of them congratulated me on my performance later on in the hall and I recalled Abbie Hoffman’s dictum that “In the halls of justice the only justice is in the halls) there was someone taking notes on every case on a reporter’s notepad. 

She is an “investigative producer” for a local station, which already did a piece on this abomination of justice – with the reporter doing the “standup” guess where – at “my” speed camera. I expect to contact her.
I may even start a political movement to rid the county of speed cameras and replace them with a rotation of actual cops, whose presence for one week at a given location, will reap benefits for months. What if such a movement of everyone at a given location going exactly the speed limit tied up commerce so badly that politicians had to listen? What about establishing "rolling roadblocks" on multilane highways at exactly the posted limit?

In the meantime, there are several liberal Democratic local officials – buccaneers – who will never get my vote because they smirk “Don’t speed” as they happily spend public money garnered in such dastardly fashion.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Post Traumatic Stress

In March of 1954, the Washington Post merged with the Washington Times-Herald. I was 6, and what I remember was that I now had twice as many comics to read. I had learned to read at age 4 under the tutelage of my sister and by looking at the comics and the sports section of the Post. Except for the 18 months I worked in another city, I have read the paper almost every day. For nearly the past 42 years, I have been a paid subscriber. I turned first to sports, then to the local  section, then the A-section, then to Style. 

I became a journalist, and though I have been out of practice for some time, still consider myself one. I was a news junkie and was privileged to teach journalism at the university where I learned most of what I knew about the production of what we call news. Needless to say, the Post was a part of my life.

Today marks a passage. There was no Washington Post in my flower bed. I have let my subscription lapse. Last year, the paper dropped its rate by more than half in order to keep subscribers and, frankly, I will lose money by canceling, due the grocery coupons I have been using. 

But the Washington Post is so devoid of useful information that it has become irrelevant. For years, it has been so thin, you could tear even the Sunday section in half with your bare hands. There are few reporters doing anything useful, seemingly no copy editors, a cultural viewpoint aimed at snarky X-ers, who don’t read the paper to begin with. In fact, the last useful thing I  took from the Post was last night – a gorgeous photo of a double rainbow over the national Mall, which is now my PC’s desktop background. 

I kept reading the Post until the daily glut of errors and other insults to my intelligence mounted. My blood pressure is more important than the grocery coupons and pictures. What the newspaper may provide of value I can get online when I choose to look for it or from Facebook friends. 

I can’t think of anything I will miss (besides the coupons), but I most certainly will not miss offensive writers such as Adam Kilgore and Sally Jenkins of the sports section, local columnist Courtland Milloy, national columnist George Will,  the indescribably awful but still occasionally published Sally Quinn, and the new owner, Jeff Bezos. 

Goodbye old friend.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

National Pretentious Radio

I have a secret to confess. I despise NPR. Always have, even though I once tried out for a job there.
My dander is currently raised because when I turned off “Wait Wait” today and then returned to my car an hour and a half later, I heard a most tendentious “An American Life” report from someone who unfortunately shares my first name – a whiny left-winger on an hour-long rant against the makers of Tylenol and the FDA because – get this – 150 people out of the tens of millions who take Tylenol every year die from accidental overdose. 

On this, I am with the extreme right wing. People who are too fucking stupid to adhere to either warning labels or to common wisdom (an overwhelmingly number of people surveyed know the potential risk of overdosing) deserve their fate. Could the labeling be stronger? Sure. And it is. But the portion of the report I heard – produced in association with Pro Publica – was a smarmy indictment of the government and Johnson & Johnson with no smoking pill in evidence.
Every fact sounded accurate, but in totality it would seem that despite the slow grinding wheel of science, there is no scandal. Yet NPR made it seem like people are dying willy nilly because the government is in bed with Big Pharma. It may well be in the long run. But the portion of this report I heard was about an OTC drug that is objectively safer than its competitors but can present dangers to people who can’t read or can’t think. [I also object to the tone of Mr. Glass who said the producer worked a long time on the story and found out things he never knew. Well two points: 1) That is the point of reporting, finding out things you didn’t know, and 2) Working a long time on a story doesn’t mean it’s a good one.] 

But back to NPR. What I can’t stand  is the supercilious delivery of its performers; its reliance on people who  sound like Arthur Schlesinger or Truman Capote; its sleep-inducing subject matter; and – I don’t know if they do this anymore – instead of taking voicers from U.S. experts or journalists – they rely on foreign sources sounding like they were speaking with pinched noses through a cardboard paper towel roll. As if American voices aren't smart enough to be understood.
From the very beginning of public broadcasting, I secretly harbored doubts, believing in the free market of ideas. When there were only three major TV networks and a minimal number of radio outlets broadcasting serious content, maybe there was a need for public seed money. But the irony is that the big donors who fund NPR, the ease with which new players can enter the information industry, the advent of satellite radio and the existence of groups like Pro Publica all make the case against the need for public broadcasting. There’s a market for the pompous crap emanating from NPR and plenty of pretentious donors to provide it succor.

In general, the entire tone of NPR is “I am smarter than you, and you are smarter than your friends because you listen to this supposedly commercial-free (hah!) taxpayer-supported drivel." I want to be entertained while I am being enlightened. That accounts for “Car Talk” and “Wait Wait” as the only times I purposely listen to the station supported by taxpayers like me.