Category Archives: Media

Colin Powell was a very impressive guy, period

Colin Powell was a very impressive guy, a hero and role model for us all.

He was a man who radiated leadership and strong character. Four-star general. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Secretary of State. He was someone many wanted to see run for president, except that he didn’t want to. (Which makes him preferable in my book than all those people who run for the job every four years when no one asked them. And I don’t hold it against him that he declined. He had given enough to his country, and gave more later.)

So I’m a bit bothered by the way his death was covered by many:

  • Reuters — Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state, a top military officer and a national security adviser, died on Monday at age 84 due to complications from COVID-19. He was fully vaccinated, his family said.
  • CBS — Colin Powell, first Black secretary of state, dies at 84 from COVID-19 amid cancer battle
  • CNN — Colin Powell, first Black US secretary of state, dies of Covid-19 complications amid cancer battle
  • USAToday — Colin Powell, first Black secretary of state, dies from COVID-19 complications
  • LATimes — Colin Powell, America’s first Black secretary of State, dies at 84

And here are some headlines that were on the right track, more or less:

  • New York Times — Colin Powell, Who Shaped U.S. National Security, Dies at 84
  • BBC: Colin Powell: Former US secretary of state dies of Covid complications
  • The Washington Post — Colin L. Powell, former secretary of state and military leader, dies at 84

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Colin Powell wasn’t impressive “for a black guy.” He wasn’t great because he was black.

He was impressive for anyone. I suppose some people think there’s nothing special about earning the rank of four-star general. Such people are wrong. It’s a huge accomplishment, and worth a salute from everyone, especially us civilians. But then he went beyond that. And every job he did was a testament to standout characteristics that had nothing to do with the amount of melanin in his skin.

Was the fact that he was black and held these posts interesting, and even a testament not only to his abilities but to the country he served? You bet. As he said during confirmation as secretary of state:

“I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country. It shows to the world that: Follow our model, and over a period of time from our beginning, if you believe in the values that espouse, you can see things as miraculous as me sitting before you to receive your approval.”

Don’t leave it out. Include it in the history book. For that matter, include it in the obit. Celebrate it. (And don’t forget to mention that the man who did these things was a son of immigrants, yet another reason for all of us to take pride in his accomplishments.) But don’t make it the first thing you have to say about him, please.

Because he was much more impressive than that.

How about an ‘I ALREADY GAVE’ button?

I don’t mean to pick on Wikipedia here. I find it to be an amazingly useful tool, the handiest reference source to which I or anyone else has ever had access.

This is just something I wonder about sometime.

For instance, when I’m listening to the NPR One app. Not the radio, because the radio version can’t address the problem. But it seems that anything that comes to me over my phone, my iPad, my laptop, or any device to which I am logged in in a way that identifies me, should be able to leave me out of the “please donate” pitch, if I already gave.

So no more pitches that I’ve heard a thousand times urging me to give to South Carolina Public Radio. (Especially ones I’m forced to wait through — the app lets me click past a news story if I’m not interested, but that’s not an option during the begging segments.)

And, in the case of Wikipedia, no more having large portions of my screen filled with a fund-raising appeal when I look something up.

For you see, I am one of the 2 percent who give to Wikipedia. Oh, don’t think I’m topping it the nob or anything. It’s a pittance. But they said that’s all they need. Near as I can tell, I’ve been sending them $3.10 a month (although it’s not easy to find that out — I had to infer it from my bank account). I don’t know how I came up with that amount. It’s a money thing, which means five seconds after I did it, my brain had tossed out the information.

And for that wee bit, I don’t even expect thanks, much less a ticker-tape parade. But it would be nice if you would see that it’s me using Wikipedia on this Chrome browser through which I’m logged into my Google account (and all sorts of other things), and spare me the message. I wouldn’t even mind specifically logging into a Wikipedia account, if that would do it — as long as I only had to do it once.

Or, if you MUST show me the appeals, offer another button in addition to the ones that say “MAYBE LATER” and “CLOSE.” The new one would say, “I ALREADY GAVE,” and clicking it would make the box go away.

I mean, this artificial intelligence thing ought to be good for something, right?…

Giving NPR another try…

I thought the reboot of 'The Wonder Years' sounded OK, but I didn't watch the first one, either, so...

I thought the reboot of ‘The Wonder Years’ sounded OK, but I didn’t watch the first one, either, so…

Editor’s note: I’m experimenting with editing the new version of the blog.

Following up on my previous post about how fed up I am with most news these days…

I just did a quick walk around the block (it’s a big block, just under a mile) — after lunch and before diving back into work.

I listened to NPR One, and resolved from the start that I would immediately click past anything that had to do with any of the topics mentioned in that post. (That includes, as an extension of the ban on Afghanistan stories, anything that tried to take a “20th anniversary of 9/11” approach, which tends to get you into the same stuff). Oh, and I also clicked very quickly past anything that smacked of Identity Politics. You know how I am about that. You can take any interesting subject in the world, and ruin it by trying to interpret it solely in demographic terms.

I was trying to be optimistic. I was hoping to find something like the Myers-Briggs podcast I wrote about in this separate post.

That didn’t happen.

In the more than half an hour I walked, I only allowed three stories to play, and only one of those all the way through. Two of them dealt with people who play the piano — a 4-year-old prodigy, and a… well, I didn’t listen to enough of it to remember. (Sorry, Phillip!)

The one thing I listened to all the way through was this piece about the TV season about to be unveiled. I was curious because, this not being 1965, I didn’t realize people still seriously talked about “the new fall TV season.” In fact, if you had asked me whether any such thing even still existed, I might not have answered correctly.

I listened all the way through because I was curious to see whether any of the shows mentioned would be something I might want to watch. None met that standard…

I DID listen to this one, but it wasn't awesome...

I DID listen to this one, but it wasn’t awesome…

The story of how Myers-Briggs happened

OK, enough with the complaining!

I do occasionally find things to read in my various newspapers and magazines that I actually enjoy. And while I find myself clicking through the stories on NPR One rather quickly and impatiently these days, I occasionally run into something I can dig there as well.

Like this…

I was flipping through the aforementioned NPR app while walking, and found something fun. Longtime readers know about my interest in the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator. I’ve written about it often enough. And of course, I know a lot of smart expert types look down on it. But I like it, possibly for some of the reasons they hate it. More about that in a moment.

Anyway, I ran across this three-part podcast about how the MBTI came to be, and I was immediately hooked. Really. Go listen to the first few minutes, and see if you don’t find it intriguing, even if you thought it was an excruciatingly stupid topic before.

Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, early 1900s

Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, early 1900s

One of the first things you learn about the test is that it wasn’t whipped up in a psych lab by a couple of nerdy colleagues in white coats named Myers and Briggs. No, it’s named for the eccentric, uncredentialed woman who developed the test, over the protests of experts, based on the theories of her own equally-if-not-more eccentric mother, Katharine Cook Briggs. The mom, born in 1875, was unusually well-educated and only had one child who survived infancy — and then dedicated herself to discovering innovative ways to raised the perfect child. The daughter was named Isabel, and she married a man named Myers. She developed the personality-type inventory — based on her mother’s ideas about types — as a way of figuring out why she and her husband were so wildly different and incompatible. It saved her marriage, and gave rise to possibly the most widely-used personality test in the world — which she named for her mom and herself.

Why is the test so popular? Well, one thing you learn is that the system tells everybody, from INTPs like me to our irritating opposites, the ESFJs, that we’re all fine. None of our personality quirks are problematic. We just all have different strengths. The test offers us ways to understand each other and work together better, with an appreciation of the differences that helps us not throw lethal objects at each other. Everybody feels affirmed by what they learn. (I suspect this is sort of related to why LGBTQ people like to go to “Pride parades.” Everyone feels affirmed, and we all like that, right?)

That’s how it was offered to all of us editors at The State in the early 90s. We had a newsroom managers’ retreat — and back then, there were more editors with managerial responsibility than there are employees today at the whole newspaper. Anyway, an HR person out of Knight Ridder headquarters in Miami tested us all, and then released the results about everybody to the whole group.

People who look down on the MBTI tend to think it runs on the Barnum effect. Sort of like fortune cookies in a Chinese restaurant. It tells you something vague and nonjudgmental that is allegedly about you, and no matter what it says, you tend to nod and cry, “So true! How did they know?”

Well, I did feel the test pegged me, particularly on the first two categories, because I am about as introverted and as intuitive as people get. (On the other two, I’m closer to the middle.) But personally, I feel like I learned a great deal about my co-workers as well, and while it didn’t revolutionize the way we worked together, it helped explain some things. For instance, there were certain people who I knew I tended to irritate, sometimes a lot. And I wondered about it. It turns out they were all S types, who tended to think we intuitive types were, for instance, just making stuff up and trying to foist it on them without justification. I couldn’t change the way they were or the way I was, but at least I could better understand the cause of the friction. And maybe I could explain my conclusions more patiently — show more respect, for instance, for steps 2, 3, and 4 in making my wild leaps from 1 to 5. That is, if wanted to. (We extreme introverts are known for not caring very much about other people’s opinions of us, yet another irritating thing about us — especially when combined with the intuition thing.)

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Oops — just realized I posted this at some point when I meant to save it as a draft. Oh, well. I was almost done. I wrote all of the above yesterday when I had only heard the first two installments, and today I heard the third. Anyway, I recommend it. It’s a good listen. Give it a try…

Are you consuming more news these days, or less?

WashPost

For me, it’s definitely less. I can only bear so much.

And maybe the problem is just me. You know, I lived and breathed this stuff for so long, and I subscribe to multiple newspapers so I don’t miss a beat, and maybe I’ve just reached an age where I’m like, “Nobody is paying me to do this anymore, so…”

But I don’t think that’s it. At least not entirely.  I think the news is actually worse. More than that, the way people engage issues has become so counterproductive that immersing oneself in it seems pointless. Once, we had energetic discussions of issues we disagreed about, and found elements to agree upon. Now, we yell at each other. And too often, it’s not even about trying to win an argument. It’s about establishing one’s bona fides as a member of this or that tribe, and expressing how you hate that other tribe more than anyone else does.

So much of it is depressing. Other bits are just stupid. Often, the items I read and hear are both.

This past week, whenever I call up one of the papers I read or turn on my NPR One app, I’m greeted by one of the following:

  • Abortion. Abortion, abortion, abortion. This is particularly true whenever I turn on NPR. It’s usually the first story, and it goes on and on. One story that was on when I entered the kitchen a day or two ago must have used the word, “abortion,” ten times in the first minute. I tried to be positive about it. I tried to say, “Well, at least these folks are being honest and using the actual word, instead of evasive euphemisms such as ‘women’s healthcare’.” But that didn’t cheer me up. I just turned it off before having my breakfast.
  • Masks. And other repetitive stuff about the coronavirus, but mostly unbelievably moronic disputes over wearing masks or being required to wear masks or being forbidden to require people to wear masks, just on and on and on and over and over again. This is particularly a problem when reading South Carolina news. And this one fits securely into the “stupid” column. But of course, it’s so stupid, and persistent, that it’s also deeply depressing.
  • Afghanistan. The utter misery of the situation, the idiotic things that are said about it, the stunning fact that apparently all sorts of people seem surprised that our precipitous abandonment of the enterprise would have any other effect than the one it did, the lifetime of misery that is ahead for people who are there and can’t get out, and the disastrous effect it is all likely to have on U.S. foreign policy for so long into the future, and I just can’t go on…
  • Mind-numbing local horror. This one, of course, is as far into the depressing column as you can get. A couple of nights ago, my wife — who watches TV news shows, even though I don’t, called my attention to the screen, on which was an early story about the two babies dying the van. Horrified, I had the pointless thought, “I hope it wasn’t twins.” Somehow, I thought that would be even worse, although that’s debatable — is one family suffering such a double tragedy necessarily worse than two families having their joy destroyed forever? Of course, it was twins. I’ve done my best not to read or hear another word about it, because it’s just too painful.
  • Bad weather. Or, if you prefer, call it “global warming.” Now I know that those of you who want to call it global warming and those who don’t want to yell at each other, so go ahead, but out of my hearing. And comfort yourselves with the knowledge that if a break occurs between hurricanes, it will be filled with huge fires in California. So you can keep yelling.

So I’ve generally been avoiding news this week. You?

 

How about if we pay attention to reality instead?

Oh, look -- Henry's "urging" vaccines! But read the actual story. The news is that he's NOT mandating masks, and he's only URGING vaccines....

Oh, look — Henry’s “urging” vaccines! But read the actual story. The news is that he’s NOT mandating masks, and he’s only URGING vaccines….

For a couple of months, I’ve had in mind a certain blog post, but haven’t written it because of the time it would take — time I don’t have. The basic idea was this: As you know, I’m sick and tired of the usual stupid news stories with ideologues yelling about whether people should, for instance, wear masks in public.

My idea was to contrast that with the real world. When I go out in public — to the grocery, to Lowe’s, to Walmart, and especially to medical facilities (which I visit a lot, usually to take my parents to appointments), people, generally speaking, wear masks. Everyone does at the medical facilities, because otherwise they don’t get in. Elsewhere, sure, fewer people were wearing them, but it was never perfect. Even at the worst moments of 2020, there were always some twits who didn’t wear them — in places where folks in charge lacked the nerve to enforce the rules. This summer, the numbers of maskless were greater — even serious people were starting to think they didn’t have to — but it wasn’t some ideological war. Reality was complicated, and most people were trying to be sensible.

But I missed my time for writing that. In recent days, things have changed. For instance, on a personal level, last night my wife told her high school classmates she would not be attending the 50th reunion in Memphis. Everyone else in the class was sending in similar messages. She attending a Catholic girls’ school that had only 37 seniors graduating in 1971. Of those, 22 had planned to attend. Now none are going, so once again the event is postponed.

This morning, she followed that up with a note of regret that she would not be attending a wedding she had planned to go to while in Memphis.

As she did these things, I nodded, because it seemed consistent with what I’ve seen around us in recent days — hospital beds filling back up, people re-evaluating gatherings and resuming precautions when they go out, all because of such factors as the Delta variant and the insanely large number of people who have refused to get vaccinated. Here and there, you even see a report of someone who had refused but has wised up.

Normal, rational human behavior — people adjusting to shifting circumstances. All that is in the real world in which we live.

But then I look at the world being described most prominently in media we consume — from mainstream to social. And I see the idiotic ideological arguments, the same taking of absurd positions that would be laughable if they weren’t so harmful to public health.

You know what I’m talking about. Locally, our alleged “governor” continuing to refuse to take any responsibility for public health. (At least he’s consistent, right? This is what the majority out there voted for, to its great shame, in 2018.) Our attorney general reaching out to try to prevent other elected officials from taking any such responsibility as well. Other such behavior across the country, from local to federal levels.

Occasionally, I comment, usually on social media, when things get really far from reality:

But mostly, I just look around and wish I could see more reporting on what’s really going on, and less about what stupid things “leaders” who refuse to lead are prattling about.

Sometimes I do see it. For instance, there was this, put out by The State in the past 24 hours:

Lexington Medical Center is experiencing a critical shortage of intensive care unit beds as it approaches a record-high number of COVID-19 patients, hospital officials said.

More than 90% of the West Columbia hospital’s 557 beds were occupied Tuesday morning, including 146, or about 26%, of which were filled with coronavirus patients, Lexington Medical Center spokeswoman Jennifer Wilson said.

“We are approaching our highest number of COVID patients hospitalized at one time ever,” said Wilson, who added that the situation at Lexington Medical Center was “very serious” and encouraged South Carolinians to get vaccinated.

The vast majority of the hospital’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, she said.

Only 16% of coronavirus inpatients at Lexington Medical are vaccinated, and just three of the 43 COVID-19 patients in the hospital’s ICU are fully dosed….

That’s about the hospital that you can see from the street I live on, if you walk down that street a bit to get a better angle on it. What’s going on there, and in the hospitals across South Carolina — and the nation, and the world — is infinitely more important to me than the pronouncements of people who have made it startlingly clear, over and over, that they will in no way do or say anything that reflects what’s happening in the world.

Oh, and by the way, Jennifer Wilson — quoted in that news item I cited above — is married to that same attorney general mentioned above. The difference between them is that she lives and works in the real world, while her husband lives in one in which continued employment depends on showing people you are devoted to Trumpism.

Yes, reporters should continue to cover what the governor and AG say and do. Who knows, they might even run across a “man bites dog” story like this one from Arkansas: Arkansas’ governor says it ‘was an error’ to ban mask mandates. You know, a point at which reality and Republican political speech actually coincide.

Maybe someday our governor will stop trying to outstupid Texas, and instead endeavor to outsmart Arkansas.

But while you wait for that actual astounding news to develop, cover the reality more, please…

News I can do without

Oh, be quiet, Kitty. Jeff Bezos owns you now...

Oh, be quiet, Kitty. Jeff Bezos owns you now…

Earlier today I said that at some point, I’m going to write a post about how tired I’ve been getting lately of reading and hearing the news of the day, and I might just stop at some point, because I’m sick of hearing the same unpleasant stuff over and over.

This is not that post. I don’t have time now to write that post. But as a tiny example of what I’m talking about…

Right after I wrote that, I went for a walk around the neighborhood. And I started out by listening to the last half-hour news summary on NPR. The stories were:

  1. Mass shooting with multiple fatalities in San Jose. I definitely don’t ever want to hear about one of THOSE again. Especially since I know we’re not going to do anything about it. (And no, that’s not a pitch for gun control, because as you know, I’m pretty pessimistic that we could ever pass any gun control that would actually deal with the problem. But I’d sure like to be offered some hope.)
  2. Secstate Blinken in Jordan. OK, I do want a summary about that. But I didn’t need the long digression about how Hamas doesn’t want aid from anybody because they don’t need it because Iran keeps giving them all the money they need as long as they keep firing missiles at Israel and getting them to strike back.
  3. Amazon buys MGM. Mildly interesting, but you notice how all our major economic news lately is about people buying and selling entertainment content? Does this bode well? I enjoy my movies, but maybe we should start shifting back to making useful things…
  4. Where COVID came from. I forget what the upshot was, but I think it was probably like the other gazillion stories I’ve read and heard, which said, “We don’t know.” In fact, I’d be perfectly happy for you to not mention the subject again until you DO know. At least, thank God, we didn’t have to listen to a discussion of the President of the United States saying “Jina” caused the “Kung Flu.”
  5. There was some sort of plot to pay bloggers in France to pass on lies sowing doubt about vaccines. Something was mentioned about Russian involvement. Not that I want the Russians to go back to putting nukes in Cuba and shooting people trying to cross the Berlin Wall, but at least back then they weren’t perpetually insulting everyone’s intelligence.
  6. The Dow was up. OK, nice. But talk about monotonous. One day it goes up. Another day it goes down. It seldom does anything interesting, and if it did, it probably wouldn’t be good.

After that summary, I switched to a Kara Swisher podcast that promised to be interesting, but it wasn’t.

So I switched to Pandora. I do that a lot lately.

So what is this? Ennui? I’m just getting kind of… jaded from this stuff. Was it always this tiresome and repetitive, or is it me?…

 

Where are all these stupid cicadas, anyway?

This story on my Washington Post app this morning was the last straw that caused me to write this.

This story on my Washington Post app this morning was the last straw that caused me to write this.

Have you heard enough about the stupid Brood X cicadas? I have.

I mean, one story saying, “Hey, it’s the year when this one big bunch of cicadas will be out and buzzing” would have done me. A take-note-of kind of thing. Although it would not have hurt my feelings not to have even that one story, because when the cicadas come, I can hear them.

And that’s the thing. I keep seeing, and hearing (via NPR One) all this coverage. But I haven’t heard, much less seen, any big noisy bugs. I’m hearing a lot more from bullfrogs this year than I have in recent years. I hear them in the evenings near the two lakes in my neighborhood. It’s nice that we’re hearing from them, because I’d been kind of worried about them.

But I haven’t noticed any cicadas. Or if I have, they’ve blended into the background, so they’re not at a volume that would demand attention.

But let me try to read any of the national newspapers or magazines to which I subscribe, on any day, and I see as much coverage of these bugs as I do the insurrection in Washington on Jan. 6. Here are headlines from just one of those publications — The Washington Post — in the past week.

A cicada’s life

People love Brood X so much they’re taking cicada-cations

Want to try cicadas? Give the Brood X insects this spicy popcorn treatment

Freaked by cicada swarms? You could just stick a fork in ’em

A fungus could turn some cicadas into sex-crazed ‘salt shakers of death’

Wet hot cicada summer: An endless buffet for hungry animals and entomologists

My life in cicadas

Wet hot cicada summer: A timeline of Brood X

As we enter cicada peak bloom, here’s where they’ve already emerged

Zombie-like cicadas strive to mate despite losing the necessary parts

An open letter to the emerging cicadas in my backyard

All hail Queen C: Female cicadas are choosy and in charge

Partly cloudy with a chance of cicada pee

Who’s all in favor of eating cicadas? The scientists who study them.

Billions of cicadas blanket the Washington region. The Smithsonian is looking for a perfect few

Periodical cicadas are an evolutionary marvel. Enjoy the show.

So as you see, I’m not making this up. We are subjected to an actual plague of cicada stories. Throw this many cicada stories at Pharaoh, and he’d have let Moses’ people go in a skinny minute.

You’ll note that a bunch of them are about humans eating cicadas. Something that, again, if you must tell me, once would suffice. For awhile, the great fad was tongue-in-cheek features that pretended cicadas were intelligent beings who needed to be brought up on all the news they’d missed over the last 17 years. Which, again, was a mildly cute concept maybe once. Here’s one of those, from that same paper. Here’s another from elsewhere. And another. Oh, and yet another. I’ll stop now…

So again, I’m wondering, Where are these blasted bugs?

The answer, apparently, is not here. I found this in a newspaper in Ohio, which apparently is Cicada Central. Or at least it’s next door to Cicada Central, which is Indiana.

The story said that mainly, this is where you’d find them:

  • The southeast corner of Pennsylvania, almost all of Maryland, parts of Delaware and New Jersey, and a few areas in New York.
  • Ohio, almost the entire state of Indiana, a few areas in eastern Illinois, and northwest and eastern parts of Kentucky.
  • Western North Carolina, east Tennessee and a scattering around west Tennessee and the northern part of Georgia.

So not here. Our own cicadas won’t emerge until 2024. So now you may ignore this blog post, and all those other stories…

cicada map

 

Bringing back the Op-Ed page, sort of…

A random NYT Op-Ed page: Monday, April 12, 1993.

A random NYT Op-Ed page: Monday, April 12, 1993.

I don’t know whether you saw this mentioned anywhere, but the original op-ed page just died.

The other day, the current editorial page of The New York Times announced that the paper was retiring the term. There will no longer be an “op-ed page” at the Gray Lady. You may not see why this is a big deal. Op-ed pages have disappeared all over the place. The State hasn’t had one in years. In fact, The State no longer has a true “editorial page” for an op-ed page to be “op” to.

But the NYT invented the modern op-ed page, and the first one ran on Sept. 21, 1970. Of course, since five years was a long time back then, by the time I graduated J school in 1975, such pages seemed an old establishment, and every real newspaper had to have one.

A word about the term. A lot of people don’t understand it. The Times EPE explains:

It was so named because it appeared opposite the editorial page and not (as many still believe) because it would offer views contrary to the paper’s. Inevitably, it would do that, too, since its founders were putting out a welcome mat for ideas and arguments from many points on the political, social and cultural spectrums from outside the walls of The Times — to stimulate thought and provoke discussion of public problems…

Some people, I have noticed, even misunderstand it to mean “opinion-editorial” and particularly got confused when we used the term “op-ed” to refer to an individual piece that appeared on the page. As in, “I wrote an opinion-editorial for The Daily Bugle.” Well no, I’ve explained many times. You didn’t write an “editorial” of any kind. That’s impossible, since you’re not a member of the editorial board, and you weren’t expressing the official position of the newspaper. What you wrote was a guest column for the op-ed page.

This always produced an effect: A blank, uncomprehending stare. Well, I knew what I meant, and the distinction mattered to me. But life goes on.

Anyway, I mourn the loss of the “op-ed page” at the Times, even though I think the reasoning is sound. As the editor said:

In the digital world, in which millions of Times readers absorb the paper’s journalism online, there is no geographical “Op-Ed,” just as there is no geographical “Ed” for Op-Ed to be opposite to. It is a relic of an older age and an older print newspaper design…

Anyway, all that aside, I’m today reviving the concept, at least symbolically. And I’m starting with Paul DeMarco.

Some of you blog old-timers may remember Paul. He’s a physician who lives in Marion. He was one of our more thoughtful, civil commenters in the early days — the wild days when I had no civility code, never barred or deleted anything, and the unruly rambles would go on and on, hundreds of comments a day.

Paul stood out in that jostling crowd. So I was sorry to see him sort of drift away from the blog, and by the time I ran into him at a campaign event in 2018, I almost didn’t recognize him with his hat on (see below). Of course, I was so harried in those last days of the election that I was doing well to recognize anyone.

Anyway, a few days Paul wrote to me with an idea. He’d been thinking about writing guest columns for the Florence paper. And he wanted to see if I’d be interested in running some of his pieces on the blog. He sent me a sample piece, which you will see appear on the blog a few minutes after this explanation does.

I thought about it for a moment, and said sure, let’s give it a try. This was uncharacteristic of me — I’m always turning away unsolicited offers of copy by saying, “I write my own stuff.” I did this for a couple of reasons: I don’t post myself as often as I’d like these days, so this can supplement what I do offer. (Although it’s not a substitute for my own copy, as I think you’ll clearly see when I comment disagreeing with Paul’s positions.)

But I also made some caveats clear to Paul, including:

  • This is not a commitment on my part. I’m not going to run everything you send me. Even with Cindi and Warren and the other full-time, paid writers at the paper, I didn’t run everything they wrote. I didn’t run all of Robert’s cartoons. This used to confuse some people, I’m sure, but sometimes I would reach out and ask someone in the outside world to write something for us (for free) and submit it, but I would always add, “not that I’m promising to run it. I have to see how it turns out first.” An editor must always reserve the right to say “no.”
  • I’m going to edit you. Respectfully, and not capriciously. I’ll just make routine changes for style and clarity (I won’t bother to discuss replacing “over” with “more than”), and when I think you’re making an unclear, illogical or inaccurate point, I’ll discuss it with you, and it will be up to you whether to make that more substantive change.
  • I need some pictures to go with it. Which as you will see, Paul was happy to go out and shoot.

So we’re proceeding, with those rules — necessary rules on an “op-ed page” — in place.

And we’ll see how it goes.

Now, the obvious question: Will I run others on this “page?” Perhaps, now that we have this precedent. But no, I haven’t opened the gates to anyone who wants his or her own posts. I approved this plan because Paul is a good guy and I think it will be good to have him back, and he made a good pitch. So we’ll see how it goes.

I hope y’all enjoy it….

The last time I ran into Paul Demarco -- at a campaign barbecue in Florence,

The last time I ran into Paul DeMarco — at a campaign barbecue in Florence, Oct. 30, 2018.

 

The loss of perspective in presentation of the news

The Post's print edition had the Afghanistan story presented with proper perspective. But how many people still read the Post this way? I don't.

The Post’s print edition had the Afghanistan story presented with proper perspective. But how many people still read the Post this way? I don’t.

I could go on about this all day, for many thousands of words, and it would bore you to death, so I’m going to try and say it as quickly as I can.

Back when there was such a thing as newspapers (by which I mean healthy, adequately staffed newspapers in cities across the country), senior people with many years in the business would spend considerable time each day meeting to hash over what they had for the next day’s paper. They argued vociferously over the relative weight to be given to each story, to decide first whether it would made the front, and once there, would be accurately played to reflect its relative importance in relation to the other stories on the page. (There was never much time for the senior group to discuss relative play in the rest of the paper; such decisions were made at a lower level.)

During a certain part of my career — when I was the news editor in Wichita — I was in charge of this process. The assigning editors from each area (and I, in the case of national and international news) would present what was available that day and what was known about each story at that point, and then we’d discuss what to do with each — what would make the front, and how it would be played in relation to the other 1A stories. Then, since production of the front page was the most prominent of my many duties in that job, I would go out and implement the plan.

Our executive editor at that paper, Buzz Merritt, had very definite and detailed ideas about how things should be presented on the front page. I’ve written about this before. He had such an arcane set of rules we should follow that the designers who worked for me were frustrated and intimidated, always sure they’d do something wrong and draw his ire, and far too often, I just went ahead and handled front page and A section production myself. This was a personnel problem I never succeeded in solving at that paper — I did it because I understood what Buzz wanted, but others did not. (They tended to see his system as a set of unworkable principles about the length of the book of Leviticus.) So I found myself spending the rest of the night down in the guts of the machine doing the work, rather than supervising the process. It was a mess.

I don’t blame Buzz for this. I agreed with his views about what the front should be. And I labored mightily to explain it to my unconvinced subordinates. But for this discussion, I’ll just focus on one, simple concept, sort of the Great Commandment of Buzz: He insisted that a lede (here’s a brief explanation of what a lede story was, as he defined it) should communicate one thing very clearly to the reader, even the casual reader, whether consciously or not: Is my world safe?

So much of what we did centered on that. The lede was the most important thing happening in the world, although it might not be a particularly interesting story — in which case it would have a very small headline, and the reader could glance at the part of the page where, under Buzz’ rules, the lede always was, and know: My world is safe enough that I don’t even need to read the lede story unless I want to. I’ll move on to something that interests me more.

That’s a small thing, right? But it translates to a huge service provided to society — that the most reliable and comprehensive news source available to citizens every day (and that’s what the daily paper was, in communities across the country) gives everyone a sense of perspective on the world.

Nobody does that any more, at least not in a way that it provides a shared perspective for a significant portion of society to work from. Which is one of many reasons why we’ve gone from living in a world in which we could all agree on what reality was, and then argue over what to do about it, to a world in which there is little general agreement about the situation before us. So the tribes of liberals and conservatives and all the smaller tribes can’t (and won’t) talk with each other meaningfully about what do DO about reality, because they have different realities.

I’m not blaming anyone for this; everyone’s doing the best they can under the circumstances. And I have no prescriptions: I’m not at all sure that anything can be done about this loss, given the current state of technology and the media marketplace in which we now dwell. (I’m not going to try to explain why that is the case here because I’d never get up from my keyboard, although maybe I’ll elaborate some if y’all are interested in a discussion), but I’m just making the observation that we have this problem. And I’m thinking about it today because of a particularly clear example of it that stands before me.

Which is the actual point of this post.

At one point yesterday, the news broke that Joe Biden planned to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan, without conditions, by Sept. 11. And The Washington Post, which still has many senior, serious editors overlooking the process (for which we can thank Jeff Bezos I suppose), led their browser-based interface with a very large headline to that effect (sorry, I didn’t do a screenshot at the time that I can now show to you, and I can’t now because it no longer exists).

Anyway, that was the right call, for the moment. Not a hard one to make. That’s pretty much a consensus call: Were we back in the ’80s when I was handling the front page of the Wichita paper under the watchful eye of Buzz, I assure you that would have been the lead story on the front of just about every metropolitan-or-larger daily in the country — with some deviation from that norm in markets where there was a huge, overriding local story that day.

But then this morning I was looking at my Wall Street Journal app, and noticed something: They had the Afghanistan story prominently displayed, but it wasn’t the lede. They went with the pause on the Johnson & Johnson:

WSJ top stories

On the one hand this is significant because the WSJ‘s app, unlike a lot of apps, pretty much apes the makeup of a print page, and it doesn’t change during the day (they have a separate interface on the app for the latest news). Of course, the Journal — while it has become more and more conventional in its approach to news play in recent years, is still somewhat idiosyncratic, causing it to play business news (its old wheelhouse) bigger than other things. And Johnson & Johnson is, after all, a business.

So I went to look at a more conventional paper, the Post — which, if you’ll recall, was leading with Afghanistan yesterday when it first happened. Here’s what I found:

WP Top Stories

No mention of Afghanistan on the first screen — it’s all J&J and the Chauvin trial.

That’s the way things are done now. To see the way the Post would have done it in the old days, you look at the actual print product that was delivered this morning to the homes that still take it. It’s at the top of this post. Not only is Afghanistan the lede, but it’s a big lede — four columns, with only one other headline above the fold — a single-column hed on J&J.

Anyway, it’s like looking at an artifact from another time: The morning newspaper, putting the entire previous 24 hours into global, historical perspective. You can read it today, or look back at it 20 or 100 years from now, and it will clearly and unambiguously tell you what was most important among the things that happened on April 13 in the Year of Our Lord 2021.

Which is a fine, solid, reliable and helpful thing to have, if you want to be well-grounded in what was happening on Tuesday. But who will benefit from it? How many people will even see the print version? For that matter, I sincerely doubt that those people looking back 20 or 100 years from now will be looking at the print version, unless they possess the kind of esoteric, geeky understanding of the way newspapers worked a few years ago — and still do, on the print version, when they have the people to do it. That last point is a qualification that few papers can boast today. And even those that can do it, only do it on the print version.

But, I’ll end on a higher note: The New York Times found a way today to keep today’s proper lede at the top even on their iPad app — while still reflecting that in proper 21st-century fashion, time moves on quickly:

NYT top stories

Of course, they did it with a second-day hed. No ringing, historic “U.S. to exit Afghanistan by Sept. 11.” Assuming you know that already, they go with the analysis story: “Will Afghanistan Become a Terrorism Safe Haven Once Again?” They go on to, “What happens next?” So they’re readers, particularly the younger ones, don’t think they’re a bunch of old fuddy-duddies who don’t know how a smart phone works.

I’m impressed, but not a bit surprised. The New York Times is the most conservative major newspaper in America. This may confuse some people, but remember I’m a geek. I’m not talking ideology. I’m saying that for my entire career, the Times has been the most reliably Old School paper around, the very epitome of the kind of steady, reliable approach to presenting news that Buzz embraced, and aspired for the Wichita paper to achieve. I know this because every night when I was agonizing over my front page out in Kansas, I would see the advisory the Times put on the wire stating what they were planning for their front. If it was close to the calls I was making at that point, I’d feel some reassurance. If it wasn’t, I’d take a harder look at my own plan. It might stay the same — they were serving a different readership — but I’d think harder about it anyway, because they were that good at news play. That was something I had never fully realized until I had that job, and a boss like Buzz, and spent that much time looking at what everybody else was doing night after night — and thought hard about it.

And the NYT is still that good at front-page play. Here’s the top of their print version this morning, which is perfect, because this was indeed a banner-headline-lede day:

NYT front

Note that the NYT hed is even more historic in the feel of its headline than the Post‘s print version. But both papers served history well, within the bounds of their own respective design styles.

For the dwindling number of people who see the print version, that is.

Why does any of this nit-picking by the old editor matter? Well, you know how I keep agonizing over the Rabbit Hole thing — which I finally decided recently explains the Trump phenomenon (by which I mean the fact that unbelievably large numbers of American adults are fully ready and willing to believe some really crazy s__t these days), as well as the decade or so of increasingly wild partisanship that preceded 2016. (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, look back at posts I’ve labeled in recent months with the Rabbit Hole designation, starting with this one.)

But it’s not just about the way various social media — Facebook, YouTube and many others — cater to readers in a way that leads them farther and farther down often bizarre ideological dead ends. (You liked that? Well then you’ll love this, the algorithm says to the user, over and over, in order to keep you on the site.)

Even the most reliable, staid, responsible print media outlets, the ones we should rely on the most if we’re thoughtful, responsible consumers of news, now present that news in a way that creates separate realities. One of us sees an app or a browser page at one moment, and one thing is the most important in the world, and another thoughtful person checks the same site five minutes later and gets a different take on the world.

And nobody’s doing anything wrong. In fact, editors would be grossly neglectful of their duty to their readers if they didn’t take advantage of this wonderful technology that allows us to update everything over and over throughout the day. I used to daydream in the ’80s and early ’90s about how wonderful it would be if, the moment I hit send on a story I had finished editing, it went straight to the reader. Well, now it does, and that’s great.

But it leaves us all living in a very fragmented, nerve-wracking news environment. Few of us ever experience that moment that used to be common to the American reader — when they opened their papers in the morning (or better yet, when the afternoon when those papers still existed) and saw the world laid out before them in a way that said, OK, here’s what you need to know most urgently about today’s real world, and here are some other things that will interest you as well, presented in order of significance.

(And before someone gives me one of those populist rants like “You mean, what you danged liberal editors say is important,” allow me to tell that person that he doesn’t know what he’s ranting about. I’m not offering an opinion on today’s news. I might do that in a separate post, since this is an opinion blog. It’s important whether you like it or hate it, whether you hold this ideological position or that one.)

By the way, doing it right meant playing all the news right. To keep this absurdly long post as short as possible, I just concentrated on the lede, and I chose to do it on a day when there would have been broad consensus among professionals as to what the lede was (on lighter-news days, you’d have seen more variation from paper to paper).

But to give you the broader picture, handled the way it should be by Old School standards, below is the entire NYT front page of today. They did a great job all the way down the budget; Buzz would approve…

We’ll all be better off as a society when someone figures out a way to give you the best virtues of the old way combined with the fantastic advantages provided by new technology (both carefully discerned perspective and immediacy, to oversimplify a bit). Unfortunately, almost no one is doing a great job of that so far…

Full nyt

 

The day the Pope came to visit us

Our then-pastor, Leigh Lehocky, welcomes Pope John Paul II to St. Peter's on Sept. 11, 1987.

Our then-pastor, Leigh Lehocky, welcomes Pope John Paul II to St. Peter’s on Sept. 11, 1987. Sadly, I missed this part.

In a comment on a previous post, Doug T. asked me to address the death of Jim Holderman. I did, but it’s one of those things that I know so much about that it’s hard to tell whether what I said would make sense to someone who didn’t live through the same things. So I emailed Doug to ask whether I had adequately addressed his question.

Doug wrote back and mused further on the subject, at one point saying, “Remember when Holderman brought the Pope to Columbia?  A really big deal…” He also mentioned something about all the hype about how Columbia would be immobilized, and how that scared people away (Doug included), so that there was just a pitiful few lining his motorcade route…

And I replied as follows…

Oh yeah, I definitely remember the Pope’s visit.

I learned about it the day I came to Columbia to interview for the job of governmental affairs editor at The State. It was like the beginning of July 1987. I’m thinking Tom McLean told me about it over breakfast, which was how I started the long day of interviews.

I also learned that in the next few months Billy Graham would be having a Crusade here. I thought, “Seems like God’s trying to tell me something. Maybe I ought to come here, too.”

Sorry about scaring everybody away like that. I kind of thought my fellow editors were overblowing that, but I was the new guy, and widely regarded as the “Knight Ridder spy,” so who was going to listen to me?

We planned for it like the Normandy invasion. It was the first time I ever used a mobile phone. It was a huge bag phone. I was asked to take it home with me, sometime before the day the Pope came, and try it out. While stopped at the traffic light at Huger and Blossom, I called home and said, “Guess what I’m doing! I’m calling you from the car!”

We got the phones because we assumed our reporters at the Horseshoe and even at the stadium — which was right next to the newspaper building — would be immobilized by the crowds, and this would be the only way we could communicate.

So, you know, we kind of overprepared.

We editors thought we couldn’t leave the building, so I wasn’t able to be there when the Pope visited my church, St. Peters.

Some of us did go up on the roof — only time I was ever up there — and watch the Popemobile approaching the stadium. Couldn’t see much, but that was exciting…

I guess, now that I’ve typed all that, I should post it on the blog…

The huge plaque just inside the front door of St. Peter's -- a few feet from where Msgr. Lehocky welcomed the pontiff.

The huge plaque just inside the front door of St. Peter’s — a few feet from where Msgr. Lehocky welcomed the pontiff.

Fox wants to use that old Biden video again…

A very blurry Sen. Joe Biden, in Columbia in 2006.

A very blurry Sen. Joe Biden, in Columbia in 2006. Click on the image if you must watch the bad video.

It’s probably the worst video I ever shot, technically speaking. It’s horrendous. You can hardly make out what’s going on. I didn’t have my little digital camera I used in those days, so I shot it with my phone. We’re not talking iPhone here — no HD or anything. It was 2006. I shot it with a Palm Treo, if I remember correctly. That’s even worse than my old Blackberry.

But it’s been popular, particularly among people who want to take a dig at Joe Biden — or, worse, support Trump. So popular that, as bad as it is, it’s garnered 111,000 views, I just saw from glancing at YouTube. (I think that’s a record for me, although it’s been so many years since I checked to see which of my vids were most popular, that I’ve forgotten how to do it.)

I wish, if people were going to make such a fuss over it, they’d have chosen something that makes me look like I can handle a camera. But such is life.

This was shot at a Rotary meeting on Nov. 27, 2006. Joe Biden was our speaker, and while I had heard Joe speak, energetically and at great length, before, he was outdoing himself that day. When he got so worked up that he left the podium and started wandering about among the tables of Rotarians, I thought, “I’ve got to get some video of this for the blog,” with or without a decent camera.

Here’s the resulting post, in its entirety:

South Carolina, Joe Biden really, really wants you to help him get to the White House. I’ll write about this more later in the week, but for now I’ll refer you to this video clip I shot with my PDA (meaning it’s even lower quality than MOST of my videos) at the Columbia Rotary Club.

The clip begins right after he left the rostrum and waded into the crowd to answer a one-word question: “Immigration?” Note the passion, the waving arms, the populist posturing, the peripatetic delivery. Joe Biden has always loved to talk, but this Elmer Gantryesque performance went far beyond his routine style.

Most of his speech was about Iraq, by the way. And it went over well. This Rotary Club never goes past its 2 p.m. ending time, but he had the audience still sitting politely listening — some of them truly rapt — past 2:30.

It was quite a performance. You may think politicians act like this all the time, because of stuff you  see on TV and in the movies. But I have never, in real life, seen a national candidate get this intense seeking S.C. votes two years before the election.

That’s it. As you can see, what interested me the most was the Iraq stuff (although after all this time, I can’t tell you what he said about it now). But that’s not what has drawn attention since then. It has been passed about, and used on FoxNews and elsewhere, because of what Joe was talking about during those two minutes and 51 seconds that I captured on the Treo.

That was about immigration, and Joe was trying to win over that conservative crowd by persuading them of how tough he was on controlling the border. He talks about having voted for a fence, for instance. And he does so with the same intense animation that he used in talking about other things (I suppose — it’s been a long time). That, of course, is why Trump fans love the video.

Being me, I wasn’t interested in the immigration stuff. I was interested in showing people how pumped up Joe had been at Rotary.

Others, of course, have been more interested in the immigration stuff.

I’ve been vaguely aware of the video cropping up from time to time — cropping up, I mean, somewhere other than the blog, where it has sat for all these years. Back in the fall of 2019, I was more aware than usual, because Erik Wemple at The Washington Post reached out to me to talk about it. He wanted to talk to me for a piece he was writing that criticized Fox for failing to credit the source of material they used. And in this case, they had apparently become aware of my video not from my blog (which is a shocker, right?), but from this CNN piece by Andrew Kaczynski.

“Acute stinginess in terms of crediting CNN is something of a pattern at Fox News,” Wemple wrote — and my video was the first of several instances he offered.

The part of the video that seems to fascinate everyone, especially the folks at Fox, is when Joe says, as his blurry, low-res image moves about the room, “Folks, I voted for a fence, I voted, unlike most Democrats – and some of you won’t like it – I voted for 700 miles of fence.”

This apparently is the bombshell. Even though it was no secret. And even though, as Kaczynski notes, “The bill was also supported by then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.”

What do I think about what Joe was saying there? Not a lot. In the end, his point was that yeah, I voted for a fence, but you can build all the fences (or walls) you want, but you’re still going to have the same problems unless a.) things get better in Mexico and b) U.S. employers stop hiring illegals.

The first of those two points is pretty much what I’ve thought for many years. The U.S. should be working to improve conditions in Mexico and Central America. That would be tough, but worthwhile. It’s rather crazy to complain about people wanting to come here when they live in intolerable conditions where they are. No, I don’t have a grand plan, but this is why I have over the years supported such things as NAFTA, so maybe things get better south of the border.

Laura Ingraham was apparently delighted by my video because “He sounds like Trump there,” according to Wemple Well, no. If it had been Trump, he’d have said his big, beautiful wall was going to solve everything. That’s not at all what Joe was saying, because Trump is an idiot and Joe is not.

But they love it nevertheless. And now, they want to use it again.

Over the last couple of days, I kind of let my email get stacked up again, and so I just saw this one from two days ago:

Hello Brad!

My name is Errin Kelly and I am a producer on Fox Business Network. I hope you are doing well! With your permission and credit to you, our show would like to use this video of President Biden at The Rotary Club in 2006.

Did you shoot this video? If so, may we please have permission to use on Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox Nation and all Fox News Edge affiliates across all platforms until further notice with courtesy to you? Do we also need anyone else’s permission?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15djRzWG3_0

Thank you for your time!

Errin Kelly

Well, at least they’re asking this time, and promising to credit me, which should please Wemple. Beyond that, I had the following series of thoughts in quick succession:

  • Here we go again. I guess this time they’re going to try to use this, somehow (it will require some gymnastics), to hammer Joe about all the kids stacking up down on the border. The Trump-lovers really think they’ve got Joe on the ropes on this one. (Here’s what I think about that.)
  • I guess I’ll tell them OK, as I pretty much always do. Let the chips fall, yadda-yadda.
  • I’ll also ask them to give me a heads-up when it runs, so I can see what they did with it.
  • Or should I say no, or ignore it? It would be interesting to see if they use it anyway. I guess that would be Wemple’s prediction. (Hey, since it’s been two days, they may have used it already.)
  • I know what! I’ll ask folks on the blog what they would do!

So here you go. Thoughts?

Yes, I now have a knee-jerk response to this kind of analysis

Biden speak

This came up over the weekend, and I meant to post something about it at the time, but just had too much going on. Before it gets too far in the past, I’m just going to put it up for discussion, and if y’all take it up, I’ll join in and say more.

Howard Weaver, a retired VP from McClatchy newspapers with whom I frequently trade tweets, brought this to my attention on Sunday:

Howard’s reaction to it was, “A pointless, reflexive inside-the-beltway example of savvy swagger. Stop it, @nbcnews

It certainly hit a nerve with me. I jumped in with:

I may have overreacted a bit. A bit. But there’s a reason.

Look, folks, Joe’s going to do some things wrong, and when he does, people should call him on it. I don’t think all the evidence is in on his administration’s failure to go after MBS over Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, but there’s plenty there to challenge, so have at it.

But this nonsense I keep hearing saying Joe Biden is somehow failing in his “unity” pledge when Republicans decide not to vote for something he advocates is ridiculous.

Mind you, in NBC’s defense, they didn’t quite say that — they suggested this bill isn’t bipartisan because it didn’t get bipartisan support. You can certainly assert that, and support it. And if this was the only thing I’d seen about it, I wouldn’t even take notice of it. And if you called it to my attention, I might even agree. But I see it within a context of multiple assertions about that poor, deluded (or dishonest) Joe Biden and his stupid, or alleged, belief in bipartisanship — a bunch of yammering we’ve been getting from all sides ever since (and even before) Inauguration Day. That makes it come across differently.

It gets asserted repeatedly by people on the left who don’t want any bipartisanship and see Biden as a doddering old fool for believing in it (something deeply rooted in the campaigns of all that huge crowd of people Joe had to overcome to get the nomination), and people on the right who claim, every time Biden expresses what he believes instead of what they believe, that he’s a big, fat liar. And media types who prefer that the two sides fight, because in their book that makes a better story — or certainly a story that’s easier to cover in their usual, simple-minded manner.

And it’s stupid, and I’m tired of it. Tired to the point that I react negatively to something that even suggests it.

So that’s the way my knee’s jerking these days. How about yours?

“12 lashes, well laid on,” and other news — lots of it

full page, May 21, 1913

The full page from which the items below are excerpted.

Newspapers used to be fascinating.

No, this isn’t a post about how “newspapers were better back in my day.” We’re talking about way before my day. As in my great-grandfather’s day.

If you’re an Ancestry member, you’re familiar with the “hints” they frequently offer. To explain to the rest of you, the app is constantly offering little bits of documentation of the lives of the people on your tree. It might be something highly informative, such as an obituary (the “survived by” part is very helpful in establishing relationships) or a death certificate, or a photo you didn’t have. Some are less so — a mention in a city directory, which tells you little more than that someone lived in a certain city at a certain time.

But the most fun “hints” are pages from old newspapers. I don’t know how much you’ve delved into papers from a century or more ago, but they offer fascinating glimpses into the details of life in those times and places. They accomplish this by telling you every tiny, pettifogging detail of what was going on in that community — about a group of young men who have formed a baseball team, or an odd incident in which a mentally disturbed person did something odd in public, or who attended a wedding, or simply spent the weekend with someone in town.

As a newspaperman, I try to imagine what that was like. These smaller papers (such as, say, The News of Frederick, Md., which inspired this post) likely had tiny newsrooms. An editor, and maybe a cub reporter or two to help. But these people people did yeoman’s work in recording what was happening around them. And everything went into the paper. A single inside page of one of these papers will keep you engaged for quite a while. There is an ocean of type on a single page, sometimes more than you’d find in an entire edition of a modern paper. I get the sense that these people sat there writing these things all day and all night, like a benzedrine-fueled Jack Kerouac typing on a roll of butcher paper.

And one thing Ancestry does not do is tell you where on that page your ancestor appears. So you have to hunt. Which is fun.

Today, I was offered two such hints about my great-grandfather, Alfred Crittenton Warthen of Kensington, Md. This is great, because I know so little about him. He died when my Dad was 8 years old, and he remembers almost nothing about his grandfather.

A.C. Warthen

A.C. Warthen

On the first page, I found him right away, because it contained his obituary, so he was in the headline. This was in 1937, and obviously something of value for the tree.

With the second, he was mentioned in the last line of a tiny item about work he was doing to remodel several rooms in the Montgomery County courthouse in Rockville. He charged $2,700. This was literally the last item I read on the page, of course. I had supposed I would find him among the guests at the wedding of Miss Amy Magdelene Derr, who married the Reverend Elmer F. Rice. Or perhaps he’d be in the “PURELY PERSONAL” column, under the subhed “Pleasant Paragraphs About Those Who Come and Go.”

Nope.

But while searching, I got to reading about John W. Munday, by his own account a recent resident of an asylum in Pennsylvania, who “created a sensation” by driving into town “with $5 and $10 bills twisted in and around his ears and in his hair.” The floor of his buggy “was carpeted with greenbacks.” He was arrested on the charge of “being disorderly in the public square.” Fortunately, we are informed, “The county physician will inquire into his mental condition.”

But I was especially struck by the item immediately below that one. Here it is:

12 lashes

First, did you know that that was a punishment being legally meted out in 1913? I did not. And while I’m not necessarily advocating its return, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate punishment for such a crime. It certainly fits this outrage better than, say, drunkenness aboard one of Jack Aubrey’s ships. And it seems to have worked, at least for the moment. As we see, he was “very meek” after the whipping. Although a Royal Navy bosun’s mate from Aubrey’s day might have questioned whether the lashes were truly “well laid on,” since “no blood was drawn.”

Turning to a lighter matter, there was a lengthy story about the fact that regular Tuesday and Friday night dances were to “commence in earnest” at the Braddock Heights pavilion. These events were apparently organized or sponsored by “the railroad,” although which railroad is not specified. I suppose everyone knew, and that this was somehow a normally thing for railroads to do back in that day.

But the best part was that most of the story was dedicated to the scandalous goings-on among some young people at such events, and how the manager appointed by the railroad would try to keep a lid on it. An excerpt:

turkey trot

Those wacky kids. They just don’t seem to realize what a watchful eye the manager has.

Best and Worst Comics (in The State, currently)

Not great, but not bad, either, considering this is 2021.

Not great, but not bad, either, considering this is 2021.

I hated having to add those qualifiers — (in The State, currently) — because it’s sort of lame limiting oneself to the comics in one paper at a given moment.

You find yourself leaving out legendarily good and bad comics from over the years — from “Calvin and Hobbes,” which is unquestionably the best strip in history, down to lame ones such as … I don’t know… “Snuffy Smith,” or “Kathy.” Or “the Yellow Kid,” for that matter.

Also, y’all know I believe strongly in the Nick Hornby Top Five principle, and if I limit myself to what’s in The State now, it’s hard to come up with that many, for best or worst.

But here’s the thing: These are the only comics I’ve regularly seen, for decades. I subscribe to several newspapers, but since I read them through the apps, I never see the comics — if they have comics.

So for those reasons, while I’ve wanted to compile such a list, or pair of lists, for years, I’ve repeatedly put it off. But now, I see The State is about to revamp the comics, so it’s now or never. (“The State is refreshing our comics and puzzles offerings beginning Monday,” an email ominously announced Friday.) If I’m going to pass judgment on the ones we know, it must be done now.

So, let’s start with the “best,” which is a short list, and a sad one. This is a dying art form (a subset of a dying industry), and has been for some time. At the end of 2020, there was a good piece in The Washington Post about “1995, the year that comics changed forever.” It was accompanied by another headlined, “‘Calvin and Hobbes’ said goodbye 25 years ago. Here’s why Bill Watterson’s masterwork enchants us still.” I recommend them both.

There has been nothing nearly as good on comics pages since that fateful year a quarter-century ago. The first story I mention above reminds us that Watterson ended “Calvin & Hobbes,” Gary Larson stopped doing “The Far Side,” and Berkeley Breathed, the creator of “Bloom County,” abandoned his Sunday-only “Bloom County” spinoff, “Outland” — all in that same year, 1995.

It’s one of the tragedies of the genre that they quit the way they did — although maybe that’s why we remember their work so fondly. They deliberately quit before sliding into the habitual monotony of cranking out repetitive garbage decade after decade — which regularly happened, because once a strip was established, it didn’t have to maintain any standards. Newspaper readers, back when such existed, were creatures of habit who would howl if their familiar strips disappeared.

We all would have been right to howl, though, in 1995. We’ve had an occasional chuckle since then, but not the everyday brilliance to which we were once accustomed.

Here are the best that are left, in this one paper. While they are nothing like the great stuff we once knew, these two rise far above the best:

  1. “Overboard.” It was launched in 1990, and we started running it in The State almost right away. I remember Jim Foster, then the features editor, bringing proofs of it for me to see. I was delighted — while they weren’t “Calvin and Hobbes,” they were really good. I have tried many times to Google my favorite from that era, without luck. It went like this: Two of the pirates are standing by their ship’s rail. I think one is drinking coffee. Otherwise, they’re doing nothing, which is fairly standard with these guys. Another pirate comes and stands on the rail, preparing to swim. He asks the first two whether those are shark fins or dolphin fins down there. One of them says, “Dolphin,” and the swimmer dives in. The pirate who said “dolphin” turns to the other and says, “Like we’re ichthyologists or something….” Now I’m not saying this strip is still as good as it was. (OK, so maybe you needed to see it.) But it still stands out, even though it has resorted to one of the oldest shifts in the book: moving largely from the pirates to concentrating on personified dogs, cats, mice and sharks. But it’s still mildly amusing, and that’s remarkable these days.
  2. “Dilbert.” A lot of people adored this when it came out. I thought that reaction was a bit much. I saw it as good, but even within the limited class of workplace satire, I didn’t like it as much as, say, Mike Judge’s “Office Space.” (Which was brilliant.) But as I say, it was good, and it has stayed almost as good as it started out being. Which is always remarkable, and rare, which is why Watterson quit at the peak of his game — he wanted Calvin and his tiger to be remembered at that level. Scott Adams soldiered on, and hasn’t fallen completely on his face yet, except in the area of political commentary. So he deserves credit for that. By the way, I thought I saw some significant changes in the title character’s arc this past year: Did you notice that during the COVID crisis, the formerly deadpan Dilbert started occasionally getting really frazzled and upset? Like, freaking out? Maybe it’s just my imagination. But I need to say this for Adams: He and Chip Dunham of Overboard did more with the pandemic than any other strip that I paid attention to.

There are miles between those and any others. I still look at “Peanuts” every day, out of respect. Even though they’re all reruns, I’m a traditionalist, and Charles M. Schulz was doing fine work back when no one else was. Looking around further on that page, I can remember when “Zits” was occasionally amusing, but that was a long time ago.

It’s been a quite some time since “Doonesbury” has appeared in the daily comics. (Based on the Sunday version, we’re not missing much. It lost the raw freshness that made it something special in the early days, decades and decades ago.)

Now, for the worst. This is tough, and the competition is fierce. Two lie far below the others, and I’m likely to pick either as worst depending on my mood. But at the moment, I say:

  1. “Funky Winkerbean.” This was always, always awful, even in its original iteration. Remember when it was a high school “comedy,” a sort of lame forerunner of an actual good strip, “Kudzu?” (Remember that? We lost it in 2007, upon the untimely death of Doug Marlette.) “Funky” was never funny, but it seemed to be making an honest, though inept, attempt to be. It was bad, but in a perfectly ordinary way — not so it would stand out. It could have continued in that vein indefinitely, and I’d be ignoring it now, because it would blend into the herd. But Tom Batiuk wasn’t satisfied. He jumped not only a shark, but an ocean of them. The strip has gone through two inexplicable major changes, with the characters aging. And call me mad for saying it, but I think this was a failed attempt at seriousness. When I read it now, there is often a smirking, smug stab at something that I think is intended to be seen as… meaningful or something. Only it isn’t. Wikipedia respectfully describes the current state this way: “Since the 1992 reboot and especially since the 2007 time jump, the strip has been recast as a serialized drama, though most strips still feature some humor, often based on wordplay.” Yes. I’ve seen some of those puns. The fact that Batiuk has gone to so much effort to take the strip from bad to much worse, and done it in such an odd way, is what earns him the bottom ranking. The other “worst” strip just didn’t try that hard, ever, in my lifetime.
  2. “Mary Worth.” For decades, I have mocked this one as the worst, but frankly, it doesn’t deserve the distinction, because it has never made the kind of effort that Batiuk has invested. How to describe “Mary?” It’s like someone took the worst soap opera on TV, and determined to strip it of anything — sex, or whatever — that might seem even slightly interesting to anyone on the planet. (You know how in soap operas — at least, on the ones my grandmother used to watch — two characters would sit and talk about nothing over sherry, and the conversation would go on for weeks? This is like that, only without the sherry.) This all took shape well before I was born (the strip began in 1938), and it has just lain there and stagnated ever since. Anyway, it feels like I’ve been making sarcastic remarks about this strip for my whole life. About 10 or 15 years ago, I think someone at Free Times heard one of those remarks and misinterpreted it, think that I was saying I liked Mary Worth. I gathered this from a couple of remarks I heard from different people at that paper, who seemed very amused that That old guy Brad actually likes “Mary Worth.” At least, I think that was what was happening. Each time it did, I would challenge the person speaking, and that person would just smile and change the subject. Anyway, it occurs to me that this is by far the funniest, and possibly most interesting, thing that has ever happened in connection with this “comic” strip.

OK, I’m tired now, and frankly, the comics pages are so sad that it’s not really worth it to pick on any others, as lame as “Garfield” and “Dennis the Menace” and “Hi and Lois” and “Sally Forth” (not to be confused with the softcore pornographic classic by the same title, which at least on its own terms was interesting) are. I just don’t have the heart.

The comics were once a wonderful thing, back when newspapers were thriving. We live in a different time now…

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Did anyone pay attention to the State of the State?

Henry 2021

I sort of forgot about it, what with a POTUS getting impeached for the second time and all. And other stuff.

Normally, I’d want to watch and see what sort of excuses Henry is offering for his stewardship of our state, but I was busy and to the extent that I was aware of news, other things were shouting louder.

Once, those were Big Wednesdays for me. They took up a lot of my day and night. My colleagues and I would go to lunch at the governor’s house to be briefed on the speech and receive our copies, and then we’d go back to the office and read the copies and argue over it, then one of us would write the editorial, and the writer and I would stay at work through the speech that night to see if we needed to amend the edit before letting the page go. Which we sometimes did.

All this effort was fitting, since the overwhelming majority of what we wrote was about South Carolina and the issues before it.

But now… I’ve done what I could to help South Carolina get committed, rational leadership that actually cares about said issues — all those years on the editorial board, and those few months in 2018 more directly — and just kept running into the same brick walls. It’s hard even to get people to pay the slightest attention. And now I don’t have the soapbox I once did, so… I don’t follow every word said in SC politics the way I used to.

Especially not yesterday.

What about you? Tell me you hung on every word, and offer some cogent thoughts about what was said, and make me feel guilty for having missed it. Beyond that, I’m just curious: Was anyone paying attention?

Vaccine ships. Don’t get excited.

vaccines

Just thought I’d share a couple of things I had to say about the vaccine today:

Basically, I was just sick of all the headlines that read to me (maybe not to you, but to me) like “Yay, it’s over! Here come the vaccines!” So I added to the above thread:

Of course, part of the thing is that after I switched from news to editorial 26 years ago, I started thinking less it terms of “here’s a fact,” and more in terms of “so what should we do?” I mean, yeah, it’s a fact — vaccine doses are shipping. It’s the beginning of the beginning of a very hopeful thing that we look forward to happening over the next several months.

But what do all of us need most to be hearing right now? It is that this is a very dangerous moment, and we all need to hunker down with masks and social distancing more strenuously than ever.

And instead, the message I keep seeing is, “Look — vaccines!” And I worry about people seeing only that, and not the stories about how bad things are, and how much worse they’ll be if we as a country ignore warnings during Christmas the way we did on Thanksgiving….

If everybody reads a lot, we’re OK. Carefully read the NYT or the WSJ or Washington Post and you’ll get the whole picture. But plenty of people don’t read news at all, and watch TV, where they might see stuff like the headline pictured above. And as we know, lots of other people don’t get information from any professional news source, print or broadcast, and just go by what their friends tell them on social media. Or what Trump tells them, God help us…

No more anachronistic prices, thanks to Netflix!

updating

It’s not a big deal, but this happy notice from Netflix sort of cracked me up.

They’re “updating” our subscription price!

Finally! I had grown so sick of having to pay them every month in drachmas and Deutschmarks. We’ve all known the frustration of searching under seat cushions in the hope of finding doubloons, or at least pieces of eight, with which to finance our streaming. First, they were hard to find, and second, even having to look for them made me feel so passé, so… anachronistic.

Finally, modern prices, which apparently I can pay with modern money! I feel so up-to-date, so hip, so with it!

And only $13.99! Think of it! That would only have been $1.47 in the month when I was born. Sure, it’s a higher number now, but that’s because it’s updated! Take comfort from that…

‘The State’ emerges from extinction to endorse Jaime


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Hi, we’re The State.

A post shared by Thomas Lennon (@thomaspatricklennon) on


Oh, you thought I meant The State? No, no, no, I meant the comedy troupe, “The State.”

I appreciate them going to the trouble to get together and do this, even though only one of them even momentarily wears a mask. Of course, they did it on Instagram, making it harder to just grab the video and embed it, and they also called The other State South Carolina’s oldest newspaper, which it isn’t, but why would you expect them to know better? They’re actors.

However, after an instant’s reflection, they did have the sense to back Jaime, which not all actual newspapers had the sense to do, so let’s give them some credit.

And it’s good to see them together again. I’ve often wanted to use a clip from that series on the blog — such as the practical advice of “Pants,” or “Prison Break,” which if you recall was made impossible by the fact that the open road was “off-limits” — but have had trouble finding them online.

It’s been so long. The series goes all the way back to the days when MTV was still watchable, and rock ‘n’ roll was still alive.

So enjoy….

the state

NYT runs out of room for the people who are NOT sick

Tuesday chart

Yesterday morning I screenshot an interesting graphic from the NYT. It showed people in the White House who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and on the bottom line showed some people in the drama who, thankfully, were still officially OK — such as Joe Biden, Mike Pence, and so forth.

You can see that Monday-morning chart below.

Anyway, they’re still running the chart, but now it doesn’t have any room for well people. As you can see above. The new one has newer cases of infection, such as Stephen Miller and Adm. Charles W. Ray. I’m not sure why it says “And at least 8 others” when there was still room for three of them on the chart. Maybe the guy in chart with the graphic was having trouble keeping up.

To me, it’s sometimes helpful to see a chart. This is sort of one of those time. If you want to dig further, click on the chart above and go to the page where the movements — together, off and on — of these people are tracked over a number of days…

COVID chart