Category Archives: Media

A nice takedown of enthusiastic stupidity

Today I saw part of an old Jon Stewart video that had a couple of sharp bits, and it reminded me there was something I wanted to share with you a week or so ago…

It’s the video above, commenting on the idiotic spectacle of the breathless coverage of the first Trump criminal trial — before it started.

This is another one of those things that is a major flaw in today’s news media — particularly TV, which is what brought the term “media” into being. (Before, it was just “the press” — if you conveniently ignored radio.”)

This kind of nonsense is TV’s stock in trade. Not that the press isn’t frequently guilty of much the same. It just looks stupider, and more obvious, on TV.

Things have been like this since… the late ’90s, by my memory. In this instance, Stewart compares the breathless — and I mean gasping — coverage of nothing (occasionally elevated by “pretty much nothing”) to an “event” of that decade. I mean the O.J. Simpson Bronco episode. Stewart says the video image of Trump’s motorcade driving to the courthouse was no O.J. chase. (I forget exactly how he said it and don’t want to watch the whole thing again — this is why I should post these things right when I see them.) Well, the O.J. chase was no “chase,” and was in fact nothing even remotely interesting, beyond the fact that a celebrity was involved. If you care about that sort of thing. Which a shockingly large number of people do, alas.

I remember, in real time, the people who stood watching the stunningly meaningless O.J. scene with their mouths hanging open. My mouth was hanging open too, observing them, the watchers.

At this point I could go off on a long tirade about how this was caused by 24/7 cable “news.” TV news, like traditional press, used to cover news. But there’s not enough news to fill 24 hours. So ya gotta love a slow car chase, right?

But the breathlessness of it all owes something to another TV form — the “reality” genre. I wouldn’t mind people having talent shows, although I probably wouldn’t watch. What I mind is all the garbage between the performances — the dramatic, and yes, breathless, with the participants and those who love them, droning on about how this competition is the most important thing that has ever happened to this person, or ever will happen. In fact, NOTHING has ever been so critical, in the history of the world!

Or do I have it backwards? Does this style of “news coverage” get its breathlessness from reality TV, or was reality TV simply aping the approach of the “news coverage?” I dunno. I suppose they feed off each other.

In any case, it was a good, funny piece about a serious problem in the way we communicate today.

Let me know if you can read these two good Dionne pieces

OK, I’m going to conduct an experiment here. Please help me out.

The last couple of weeks, E.J. Dionne has had two really excellent columns. There’s nothing unusual about that. But there’s something new — or something that I hadn’t previously noticed — about them. Here’s the first:

Did you see that at the end of the tweet — “my column free access?” I’m asking y’all to try to link and read the column, and let me know if you’re able to do so without being a subscriber. Then, leave your thoughts on the column.

I loved the piece, because E.J. is getting to the heart of my great appreciation of Joe Biden. Because I am both liberal and conservative myself, I see Joe as the only hope left to the country. We had plenty of such people to choose from in the decades after 1945. And we needed them. We need them more than ever now. But now there’s just Joe.

But E.J.’s piece also shames me a bit. I say the same things he’s saying here all the time, but I tend to present them as truth without the careful documentation and explanation. This is possibly because I grow weary of repeatedly explaining how I arrive at conclusions that have taken seven decades of thought and observation to reach. And people shrug it off, because they think it’s just the ranting of an alter cocker.

But I guess it’s also because I don’t get paid anymore to put in the time to dig up all the evidence supporting conclusions I reached long ago. So I don’t. Too much time spent doing what little I do to make a modest living. And doing it around those naps that are the residue of my stroke in 2000. I can do all the things I used to do, but I have less time in which to do them.

In any case, I’m very appreciative to E.J. for taking the time to explain it to his readers, especially since I know he’s busier than I am.

Now, the other column, which features the same “free access:”

First, again, please let me know if you can read it. Beyond that…

Another good piece. There are, of course, many things that, considered alone, tell us “all we need to know about him.” You could compile a lengthy list of things that, considered singly, should cause any voter to run the opposite way. But this should be, if not the top item, at least very close to it.

Anyway, I wanted to share these columns because they’re important, and I’m thinking E.J. gets these points across batter than I do.

Beyond that, though, I really want to know whether those links work for nonsubscribers.

This is one of the things that concerns me most about blogging these days. To me, almost everything worth discussing these days is from things I subscribe to. This was fine 10 or 15 years ago, before everybody got so serious about pay walls. Now, it’s a huge problem — I bring up something, and I want everyone to read it so we can have a discussion with everyone fully informed, but most people can’t open it. Because normal people don’t subscribe to four or five newspapers.

So when I get a chance to share, I seize it. But please let me know if it worked for you…

What has the Deep State ever done for us, eh?

I liked this little coincidence today.

First, while I was working out on the elliptical right after getting up, I watched the above video for about the hundredth time, and once again thoroughly enjoyed it.

Then, going through my email just now, I found one from The New York Times, with the subject line “Opinion Today: How the deep state works for you.”

That linked to this item, which began:

It Turns Out the ‘Deep State’
Is Actually Kind of Awesome

As America closes in on a major election, mistrust is brewing around the mysterious government entity that’s now denounced in scary-sounding terms — “the deep state” and “the swamp.” What do those words even mean? Who exactly do they describe?

We went on a road trip to find out. As we met the Americans who are being dismissed as public enemies, we discovered that they are … us. They like Taylor Swift. They dance bachata. They go to bed at night watching “Star Trek” reruns. They go to work and do their jobs: saving us from Armageddon.

Sure, our tax dollars pay them, but as you’ll see in the video above, what a return on our investment we get!…

I haven’t watched the accompanying video, because I don’t need to. I already know what this piece is trying to communicate to me. These are things I’ve known all my life, which is why I’ve watched in horror as the absurdly childish hostility to government has spread like a plague through our society, and is now threatening to end our republic.

Some people seem to need to have these things explained. And this writer is trying hard to explain it as simply as possible, with such pop-culture silliness as “They like Taylor Swift.” Personally, I think this next paragraph says it a bit better:

When we hear “deep state,” instead of recoiling, we should rally. We should think about the workers otherwise known as our public servants, the everyday superheroes who wake up ready to dedicate their careers and their lives to serving us. These are the Americans we employ. Even though their work is often invisible, it makes our lives better….

This reminds me of a regular feature that I inherited when I arrived at The State in 1987. As governmental affairs editor, aside from daily political and government coverage, I had the duty of filling a full page every week in the Sunday viewpoint section. One of the features we ran there each Sunday was something we internally called “Bureaucrat of the Week.” Nobody liked writing this feature — it took them away from keeping up with their own beats — and we spread the pain across the newsroom, beyond that team that actually worked directly for me. The reporter on the schedule for that week would have to go out and find a state employee — preferably one with a job different from others recently featured — who was willing to be profiled in this way.

I liked the idea behind it — let people know what these unsung folks are doing for you. But I thought it was unnecessary. Sure, we’d had several years of Ronald Reagan fanning the embers of anti-government sentiment, but the flames weren’t all that high yet, and I still assumed most grownups understood that their taxes paid for people to do things that were pretty essential to living in a tolerable civilization.

I later realized I was wrong in giving the average voter out there that much credit. That was a good feature. We should have done a lot more of that sort of thing. A few years later, a lot of us realized that, which is where things like “public journalism” came from. That generated a lot of seminar discussions, but not a lot of effective work — probably because even the advocates of the movement didn’t really understand the problem.

The problem was that it was the nature of news people to report what’s wrong. You had to tell people about the airliner that crashed. You didn’t have to tell people about the thousands that did not crash. Apply that principle to covering government, and every day, newspapers were giving people the very strong impression that everybody in government was embezzling, or lying about his resume, or doing something else nasty. Journalists knew better, because every day they dealt with the thousands of honest people in government who were dedicated to public service. Trouble is, they weren’ making news.

And we would never have the resources to cover them the way we covered the scoundrels. (No news organization that ever existed had the people and time to cover all the planes that land safely.) And we also knew people wouldn’t read it if we did. And somehow the less-thoughtful readers — never got the obvious point that we were telling them about the crooks because their behavior was a shocking departure from the norm. So we have the mess we have today.

But I digress. I just thought I’d share the fun video from Monty Python pointing to the absurdity of the kinds of people who go about ranting about things like, well, the “Deep State”…

Regarding the privacy of public people…

I’ve been wondering what to think about all the hullabaloo over the Princess of Wales and her picture. You know what I mean:

Why haven’t we seen Kate? Is she dying? Has her beauty been marred by her illness? Why did the Palace release a doctored picture? Why did Kate say she was the one who doctored it? Was she covering up for somebody? Who really did it and why? Why haven’t we seen the unedited version? When was the original taken? Couldn’t she just lay this all to rest by making a public appearance? Yadda-yadda…

And in her case, I find myself wondering why people don’t just chill. Of course, maybe they will chill now, with the release of that video. But why didn’t they do so earlier?

I mean, what is the legitimate public interest in her health status and how she’s looking at the moment? She’s not a public official. She’s not ever going to be the monarch, although she’s married to someone who will, and is the mother of someone who will, assuming the monarchy lasts that long. And even if she were going to be the monarch someday, what does that mean, in terms of modern expectations of transparency? The main duty of a modern British monarch is to make sure that he or she has no effect on public policy. Any member of Parliament has a greater effect upon the lives of average British subjects. And even if she were going to be the  monarch someday, she’s not the monarch now.

So how does anyone feel they have the right to intrude on her health problems, assuming she’s still having them. What’s at stake to the public?

On the other hand (and this is why I’m still pondering it), the whole reason folks are interested is that this young woman married the heir apparent and has born his children, thereby willingly adopting a huge public role, however we might argue about where the limits of that public interest should lie.

So there’s that question. Another has come up, in my reading of The Boston Globe.

The governor of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, took a four-day trip out of state last month. During that trip, her executive powers constitutionally shifted to the Massachusetts secretary of state.

Despite transparency promises when she ran for the office, she has resolutely refused to share any information about that trip. From the Globe yesterday:

The first-term Democrat told reporters Monday that she intends to share information publicly about her “work-related travel.” But she suggested that even basic details about personal trips, like the one she took in mid-February, will not be disclosed — breaking from her predecessors and further narrowing the scope of what information Healey says she’s willing to make public, and when.

“My personal life is my personal life,” Healey said at the State House on Monday. “I’m going to work to make sure that privacy is maintained for my family.”

At least superficially, this seems creepily familiar to us South Carolinians — but at least she didn’t tell her staff to tell folks she was hiking the Appalachian Trail. And of course there was no wildly oversharing public confession when she returned, for which the people of Massachusetts should be grateful.

So… should she be allowed to make a distinction between private and public when reporting her whereabouts? I’m inclined to say yes, if she draws the line in the right place. Which means, since you don’t know whether she’s done that or not, you have to decide whether you trust her, based on everything else you’ve seen and heard from her.

Of course, you only have a reason to do that if you’re a Massachusetts voter. It’s none of our business down here. Maura Healey has zero obligation to me. But I do find the issue intriguing, in the abstract, from afar…

And He did it with no mass (or social) communication

If you’d come today
You could have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC
Had no mass communication…

— Jesus Christ Superstar

After persusing the various papers I subscribe to this morning, and finding little to engage my interest, I turned to my daily (well, most days) Bible readings for the day, and this was in the Gospel:

“If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is not true.
But there is another who testifies on my behalf,
and I know that the testimony he gives on my behalf is true.
You sent emissaries to John, and he testified to the truth.
I do not accept human testimony,
but I say this so that you may be saved.
He was a burning and shining lamp,
and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light.
But I have testimony greater than John’s….

And it occurred to me that it would be great to know a lot more than we do about John the Baptist. We know he was this highly countercultural dude who lived in the wilderness and wore camel fur and ate locusts and honey. And he baptized people, most famously Jesus himself. And he came to a horrible end on this Earth.

But that isn’t enough to fully explain how big a deal he was in his day. Or apparently was, anyway. To a lot of people who lived in that place and time, it seems like he was even a bigger deal than Jesus for awhile. I infer that from the fact that so often in the New Testament, Jesus is explained to people in terms of his relationship to John. There seems to be an assumption at times that the writer of the Gospel or epistle knows people knew about John, and uses him as a launching point. For instance, The Gospel of Mark starts with John.

It would be great to be able to read a biography of John that’s as in-depth and detailed as a modern book such as Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, or David McCullogh’s John Adams, or Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex. And then go from there to fully grasping the foundation of Christianity.

But we can’t. The sources just don’t exist. And not just about John, but about any historical figure from before, say, Gutenberg came along. In fact, we should be grateful that we have more info on John that we do a lot of the more obscure Roman emperors.

Still, to a modern person, it’s frustrating. So we can all dig Judas’ complaint in “Superstar,” about Israel in 4 B.C. having no mass communication. Or even a printing press.

But you know what? That’s what makes Jesus more impressive. You don’t have to be a believer to grasp how awesome his achievement was. This rabbi from the boondocks took a local religion that was only embraced by this one tribe on the borders of an ancient empire, and made it into the dominant faith of the world (yes, Islam is big, but…). And he did it with word of mouth, for the first generation. That, and a few letters written by others.

Which, to me, is exactly the way God would do it. It’s more impressive (and certainly more dignified) than building a rep on “American Idol” and inspiring a billion tweets.

It’s sort of like the way I view evolution. I shake my head at all the arguments between creationists and Darwinists. Of COURSE evolution (and geology and cosmology and all that other stuff) is the way God would make the world. The abracadabra opening of Genesis is a great way to tell an allegory, but come on, people. Look at the sheer, gradual majesty of doing it through subtle changes over billions of years.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking while doing today’s readings…

St. John the Baptist Preaching, c. 1665, by Mattia Preti

Those Americans are still bragging about their big frigates!

I used Twitter a couple of days ago to bring this to the attention of the two biggest Patrick O’Brian fans I know — our own Bryan Caskey and my old friend and colleague Mike Fitts (who got me interested in the books to start with). And they politely gave me a “like,” which I appreciate.

I thought I’d post it here as well for anyone else who’s been to Boston and checked out this attraction — I know you have, Bud!

I enjoyed seeing it myself so much — how could I not, since it’s the oldest ship still commisstioned in the U.S. Navy, the Service in which I grew up — that on the one day that my wife’s unfortunate back problem prevented her from sightseeing with me, I went back to see it for the second time in three days. That first day had been glorious — we both went aboard with our twin granddaughters, and that night we went to Fenway to watch the Red Sox beat the Yankees! Boston doesn’t get better than that.

And if I lived in Boston, I’d probably go see the Constitution every week or so. (It’s a lot more affordable than ballgames at Fenway — I’d have to save that for special occasions.)

Y’all know I’m really into military history and as historical sites go, Old Ironsides can’t be beat. She’s alive! She’s still afloat! After seeing her that second time, I hiked up through Charlestown from the Navy Yahd to check out the Bunker Hill site. That was nice, and I learned things from it, but nothing compared to walking the living deck of one of America’s original Six Frigates.

Months after we’d been there, I found myself again rereading The Fortune of War, and really got a kick out of being reminded that USS Constitution was the ship that captured Jack and Stephen when it took HMS Java, and transported them to Boston as prisoners. There are several pages in which they walk the decks — and so did I!

And yes, I know they are — to you people — fictional characters. But Constitution actually did capture Java!

Anyway, I’ll go away now, and try to make myself read something new before the day is out…

Bunker Hill was fine, but didn’t come close to this…

I dunno. CAN they?

This is just me griping about media again, like in the last post. This one is about headlines.

I’ve been enjoying my NYT Audio app, but some content is better than others. And today, I’m ticked because earlier this week, I found something that sounded intriguing, headlined “Can Humans Endure the Psychological Torment of Mars?

Well, that grabbed me. Especially since I’m a longtime (since my teens) fan of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which begins:

So yeah, I wanted to know the answer to the question. Was Heinlein right that “the greatest danger to man was man himself?” And could that challenge be overcome? SPOILER: All that work to build a compatable crew didn’t work out so well in the story.

But would it work better in real life? This NYT Magazine story was heavily hinting that somewhere in its thousands of words, there would be an answer to the question. So, even though it would take 43 minutes and 45 seconds, I thought it would be worth the listen.

It wasn’t. I mean, I was on a long walk, and it was interesting and passed the time. But no answer. Yet I kept expecting it, even when, at the beginning, it went into this long examination of how two people who had applied to be “crew” members felt about being chosen for the experiment. (I put “crew” in quotes because they’re just going to be locked up together here on Earth to see how they deal with it.)

They were excited, by the way. But torn about being away from loved ones for more than a year. There. Now, you can skip the first 30 or 40 minutes. Then, at the very end, one of the two excited folks gets cut from the program and replaced just before the experiment begins. She is devastated.

She goes home, and watches the beginning of the mission on TV, and starts trying to get over her disappointment. Which she gradually starts to do. The last sentence of the story is:

Then she baked a whole-wheat sourdough pizza, and she and Jake ate it, together.

Really. That was it. I think I yelled “WHAT?!?” as I walked down the street. Not a hint of an answer to the question posed in the headline.

Admittedly, the experiment isn’t over. The people went into the biodome thingy back in June, and they have months to go yet. But how about an update? How are they doing? Anybody crack up yet? I searched and found a progress report on the NASA site, and this was the most exciting paragraph in the post:

Over the past 200 days, the crew grew and harvested its first crops grown inside the 1,700-square-foot habitat, including tomatoes, peppers, and leafy greens, participated in a host of simulated “Marswalks” with relevant time delay, tempo, and activities consistent with future Mars mission concepts, and took part in science investigations in biological and physical sciences…”

No word on whether anyone has gone bonkers. Which, I suppose, is something they might not want to report until it’s all over. I get that.

But still. I don’t like it when a headline creates expectations that the story — especially an extremely long story — fails to fulfill.

So don’t do me like that…

The day back in June when the “crew” entered the “ship.” As the story said, “It was not a special hatch with airlocks or anything: It was just a plain white office door.” So it appears to have gotten that right.

The real ‘bias’ in the news

OK, here’s another point I’ve made many times before, but the reporting on the Michigan Democratic primary offered another illustration of it.

There is one predominant “bias” in news reporting, and it’s very harmful to the country. It’s journalists’ addiction to conflict. This is very harmful to the country. (Another one that may be just as harmful is the tendency to explain and interpret everything, from global security to pop culture trivia, in terms of the next election. But that’s somewhat less relevant to what I’m writing about today.)

I don’t think reporters and editors are doing it on purpose. Their brains are just stuck in this mode. When they encounter a story that lacks significant conflict, they instinctively exaggerate what little they can find. It happens on a subconscious level, I believe. At least I hope it’s never conscious.

Anyway, we saw it in Michigan, where Joe Biden won the essentially uncontested primary with 81 percent. It was a victory margin Trump would kill for (and assume his MAGA mob would still support him, of course).

And yet what sort of coverage did we see, over and over and over? On the GOP side, it was about how Trump continues to crush his opposition. And as he always does, he gloated and boasted, and everything he said was dutifully reported.

On the Democratic side, headline after headline after headline said “Biden wins, BUT…” (The one you see above from my NYT Audio app — “Biden Takes a Hit in Michigan…” — was the most disproportional, unhinged hed I saw. Most stuck with the milder “but” construction.)

The “but” is a reference to the small number of Democratic primary voters who opted to vote “Uncommitted.” How small? 13 percent. This is attributed to a campaign in that state to protest the war in Gaza.

So, what do you think that means? Not much, as I see it. These voters did not choose to vote in the Republican primary.* They would have been crazy to do so, if their goal is to stop the fighting over there. They apparently realize that Trump is FAR less likely to do what Biden is constantly doing — trying to restrain Netanyahu (which is an uphill battle, since Netanyahu’s best chance of staying in office is to prolong the war). But of course, lots of voters do entirely irrational things — a phenomenon you can see amply demonstrated over in the Republican contest.

And they didn’t vote for another Democrat, presumably because one who will magically make them happier about Gaza doesn’t exist.

Mind you, this small “but” isn’t some harbinger of what will happen elsewhere. Michigan has the largest number of Arab-Americans in the country. This is the one place you would expect such a protest. But what if it did happen elsewhere? What would that 13 percent mean in this primary or another? Nikki Haley got twice that percentage in Michigan, but where’s the foreboding language about what a problem that is for Trump?

The only remotely plausible reason I saw or heard presented anywhere for making a big deal of this was the idea that Michigan is a swing state, and anything that might cut into Joe’s vote even slightly could be important in November. But that’s not gonna keep this Biden supporter up nights between now and then. (This brings up a third harmful “bias” we see in political reporting these days — the obsession with trying to predict WHAT WILL HAPPEN far in the future rather than simply reporting what actually has happened.)

Anyway, I just thought I’d point this out before the memory fades. Media outlets were desperate to find a fight somewhere in this boring non-contest, and this is all they could come up with…

This sort of headline was more typical.

What happened to Apollo Creed?

Hey, he looked fit to ME…

You may start seeing more of this kind of post, now that I’m over 70.

But my concern here grows out of something that’s bothered me for decades.

When Carl Weathers died several days ago, The New York Times reported:

His family said in a statement that he “died peacefully in his sleep.” The statement did not give a cause or say where he died.

Come on, people! How did he die?

This kind of thing has bothered me since my earliest days in the newspaper racket. When somebody dies, the cause of death should be right there in the lede. Especially in news stories, but also in obits. This is particularly the case in people who die young.

I see a person who looks about 20 in a photo with an obit, and the first thing I think is, “Maybe it’s an old picture.” Then, when I see it isn’t, I think, “What happened?”

I mean, don’t you? But too often, you’re told nothing. Or maybe, just maybe, the family will request donations to a fund that fights a deadly disease, and at least you have a hint.

And yeah, sometimes I can understand people not wanting to say, if there’s something about the cause — say, suicide or a drug overdose — that makes an excruciating tragedy even worse, and loved ones don’t want to see it in print. But I gather that lots of people simply don’t want to say, whatever the cause is. It has to do with a notion of privacy which I don’t understand.

In fact, I’ve long wished newspapers would refuse to run obits unless the cause of death is stated. That’s never going to happen, since obits are now ads, and organizations as desperate for revenue as our beleaguered newspapers aren’t going to give up a stream of revenue. And back when newsrooms handled them, it still didn’t happen because editors saw obits as a basic public service — you had to reported who had died in the community. But if you ask me, telling readers what’s killing the people around them is a pretty fundamental kind of public service.

But it didn’t bother me so much when people were old. And back when I first cared about obits, I would have seen 76 as old. Of course, I’m wiser than that now (that’s only six years older than I am!), but it still wouldn’t have occurred to me to wonder in this case, until I saw this story this morning in The Boston Globe.

It was about the fact that a Super Bowl ad featuring Weathers is still going to run during the game. Which makes me think, hey: He was healthy enough to shoot a commercial recently, so… he wasn’t wasting away with a fatal disease — that anyone knew, anyway.

Maybe it was a stroke. I know from personal experience how those can sneak up on you (although I was very lucky with mine).

But I’d still like to know. I mean, the guy was only 76…

Our confusion between local and national

It started, more or less, in 1980…

This started as a comment, but I decided to make it a separate post, because it kept getting longer and longer…

This came from an exchange in which Doug Ross chided Barry for his long comments telling about things that happen on the local or state level hundreds of miles from us, and writing about them as though they held national or even universal meaning. Doug called the figures in these stories “political nobodies.” Barry took exception to that terminology. I responded:

In defense of Doug here. I agree with his point, although I would use different words to describe it.

Whether he’s right to say “nobodies” or not, the fact is that these cases shouldn’t get the national attention they get.

There used to be a clear distinction between national (and/or world) news and local news, and everyone more or less understood the difference. Forty years ago, or certainly 50 years ago, people understood that you don’t make a big, national deal out of local news.

That distinction is largely gone now. A lot of thing have gone into making that happen. You’ll see that most of it had to do with changes in people’s information sources:

  • The first step was 24/7 cable TV “news.” They had to fill every second of every day, and they couldn’t just talk about the same few legitimate national and international stories over and over all day. So they started filling some time with local news from everywhere, particularly quirky or shocking crime news. Gradually, people started to look upon those occurrences as having happened in their own communities, which is why people tend to have an exaggerated sense of the prevalence of crime.
  • The nationalization of local and regional politics. As recently as 20 years ago, or certainly 30 (the GOP took over the SC House, and instantly turned it radically more partisan, in 1994), the SC Legislature did not act like Congress. They were more about South Carolina issues than the Beltway Talking Points. A number of things went into this, particularly the rise of Fox News, which had an enormous effect on the Republican rank and file voters, convincing them that the national talking points WERE the most important things locally. Mind you, Democrats were getting more and more this way as well, partly in reaction to the GOP, and partly as a result of being hooked on that 24/7 stuff themselves.
  • The rise of the internet, which took the fire started by cable “news” and poured gasoline on it. The Rabbit Hole phenomenon, which I frequently mention, is a subset of this phenomenon.
  • The more or less complete disappearance of local news sources. You have a number of subfactors under this one. One is that there are far, far fewer — in some areas, I’d say less than 10 percent of what you once had — journalists working on these levels. Another is that so many of these ghosts of newspapers and TV stations still put out a product, but they grab content from anywhere to fill their webpages — a phenom much like what we saw earlier with cable “news.”

To get back to where we started, these people who do awful things in communities far from us SHOULD be covered — by local newspapers and other outlets. And their neighbors in those communities should care. But things are messed up when WE, so far away, regard those things as significant, and nationally meaningful. That distorts everything, including our ability to deal effectively and helpfully with the actual world around us…

Apparently, top editors suspect the Matrix is coming

It really struck me that a day or two back, the editors of two of our nation’s premiere newspapers led their reports with the news that Sam Altman — a guy I’d only heard of, before this week, because I’ve listened to some really deep, detailed podcasts about AI in recent months — had been hired by Microsoft after being fired by OpenAI.

If you haven’t spent years of your life agonizing — and I mean agonizing — over what to put on a front page and how to play it, day after day, this may not seem to mean much.

But it meant volumes to me. Excuse me for oversimplifying the definition of a lede story, but it basically means that, at least for a moment or a day, this guy being hired was more important to the world than anything going on in Israel or Gaza or Ukraine or anywhere else in the world. Nothing presidents, kings or dictators were doing anywhere mattered as much.

Now why would that be? This is something you might expect to see, and sometimes still do, in a paper that’s historically all about business, by which I mean The Wall Street Journal. But these are general-purpose newspapers, and the cream of the crop.

So what pumps this up so?

Well, the guy was canned from OpenAI because some people on the board were worried about what AI might do to the human race, and thought Sam wasn’t as worried about it as they were.

But that’s a tempest in a teacup unless you, the editor making the play decision, think this guy’s work situation really IS of some sort of monumental importance to our shared fates — either because you’re worried about the Matrix or Skynet or some such, or because you think AI is so awesome that you believe where Sam has a job, and who he’s working for, overrides everything else in the world.

You wouldn’t be seeing this if the guy was the head of McDonald’s or something — unless, maybe, in the WSJ. They still love them some business.

So… if I see the White Rabbit, should I follow it? Should I keep an eye out for Terminators?

Maybe this is why I like David Brooks’ work

I’ve said a lot of positive things about David Brooks over the years. I not only agree with the guy a lot, but I tend to wish I had written what he did. I feel like I should have written it. His thoughts just run that much in sync with my own.

I’ve never thought about why, but maybe this is why. Or part of why…

I’ve been enjoying this new app from The New York Times — NYT Audio. It’s particularly great for my walks around the neighborhood, a sort of supplement to NPR One.

Anyway, today’s NYT Audio offered something I haven’t heard before in that format. It was a piece by Brooks, read by himself, headlined “We’re Disconnected and Lonely. David Brooks Has a Solution.”

Early on in the short piece, he says:

My nursery school teacher told my parents, apparently, David doesn’t always play with the other kids. He just observes them, which was great for my life as a journalist, but maybe not great for having strong bonds and intimate connections…

Wow. I really, really identified with that.

Not that I didn’t play with the other children at that age. I did. But there was always that sort of theme in my childhood. Part of it was moving around all the time as a Navy brat. For awhile, I would observe this bunch of kids, and soon I’d move on and observe that bunch of kids, and so forth. And as much as I would enjoy their company, I wasn’t quite… one of them. Not quite.

And yeah, these are characteristics that lend themselves to the profession of journalism. In fact, I’ve noticed that it seems a lot of military brats end up in the trade, and I’ve always thought that characteristic had something to do with it. You know, the habit of observing a community of people rather than feeling fully a part of it.

I’ve also noticed that — it seemed to me (I’ve never tried to quantify it) — it seemed like more journalists were Jewish or Catholic than you would find in the surrounding population. In other words, they were used to looking at things in ways slightly different from the way the majority would. David Brooks isn’t a military brat, but he sorta-kinda fits in both of those other categories.

This tendency to be an observer rather than a participant can be problematic. When you share with other people something you have observed — particularly something outrageous, such as, say, having heard someone else say wildly racist things — they wonder what’s wrong with you that you didn’t react at the time. What did YOU do? they demand. And they have a point. They make me wonder, too.

But I still tend to look at the person asking that rather blankly. Because when confronted with something really wild and strange, I tend to simply observe more intently. I might even think, in frustration, I can’t take notes, however much I want to, without interfering with this phenomenon. Which I wouldn’t want to do, because it would change the nature of what was happening. And not necessarily for the better. Sure, it might make the person act differently, superficially in that moment. But I always want to know what he or she is really thinking.

Way back during my reporting days, I was conscious of that on the job. A lot of reporters feel at home in a press box, or otherwise labeled and sequestered. I never did, because I was conscious of the Observer Effect, which in one thing in physics, but in journalism could be stated as, If the newsmakers are aware that a reporter is present, they will act and speak differently, and the news will change. Sometimes, that can be a salutary thing. But if you really want to know what they’re thinking and doing, it is not.

Anyway, in recent years I have rethought this mode of being, as you have seen. And so has Brooks, and that is the larger point of his little recited essay. It’s not about him. It’s about the fact that just when he started trying to change and engage better with other people, he saw that people in the surrounding, observable world were getting more distant, less engaged and even more hostile toward each other.

Which caused him to resolve:

I’m going to double down on spending as much time as I can, as effectively I can, and seeing another person, in trying to understand their point of view, and trying to make them feel seen, heard, and understood…

The ending is sort of upbeat. On his effort to be more of a full human, “maybe I’ll give myself a B minus.”

Which is better than flunking…

I’d mention 9/11 today, but I don’t want to show my age

Hey, remember when this old movie came out? It was the same year the Iraq War started — and yet it was in COLOR!

Yes, you are meant to laugh at that headline. I certainly did, at the thing that made me write it.

I’m not used to laughing right out loud while walking down a quiet street, but this time I did.

Speaking again of NYT podcasts, I’m also fond of Ezra Klein’s programs, and had fallen behind on them. So while walking in the neighborhood a couple of days ago, I listened to this one from Aug. 15: “This Conservative Thinks America’s Institutions ‘Earned’ the G.O.P.’s Distrust.”

It was pretty good, and most of it wasn’t funny. But part of it was.

Remember my recent post about the accelerating acceleration of our sense of time as we grow older? I was trying at that time to remember some examples of the absurd (to me, and what other perspective do I have?) things I hear young people say. I wish I’d had this one to mention.

Ezra was out, and his substitute was Jane Coaston, who is currently the host of a podcast I used to listen to, “The Argument.” And she did fine, until she got to the point of saying something about recent current events.

What she said began with, “I’m old enough to recall the events that led up to the Iraq War…”

I didn’t just laugh out loud when that came through my hearing aids (which Bluetooth allows me to use like earbuds), it was a kind of sharp, piercing sound that carries. I stopped immediately, and glanced about to see if I had any neighbors standing stock-still out in their yards, staring at the demented hyena.

Fortunately, I did not.

When I was listening, I didn’t realize who the substitute interviewer was. When I looked back at the transcript just now to see, I thought I would check out Jane Coaston’s LInkedIn page, and while I don’t know her age, she received her bachelor’s degree in the same year that my newspaper career ended after 35 years. (For the sake of you young folks, that was about four years after I started this blog.)

So the difference in time perception is perfectly understandable. And as I say, she did a fine job overall. But she would have done better not to have expressed the reference to her memory quite that way. Usually people use that rhetorical construction when they mean, “I remember back this far, so you should trust my experience and wisdom.” But what she communicated was, This kid is so young she thinks that was a long time ago…

Anyway, if anyone wants to offer memories of 9/11 today, you could do it here. But beware — if you have personal memories of it, that might make you even older than Jane, and folks may start offering to help you cross the street….

Yes, this is what governors should do

I’ve mentioned before, I think, that one of a number of reasons I enjoy reading The Boston Globe is that it tells stories about serious people dealing with real issues in ways I don’t find morally and intellectually offensive and painful to read.

I saw that in the lede story in the paper a couple of days back, headlined, “Healey tells Biden administration Mass. has ‘desperate need’ for faster work authorizations for migrants.” That was the online headline. As you can see above the print version was shorter — print headlines require greater discipline. There are no space constraints to speak of on a web page.

An excerpt:

Governor Maura Healey on Thursday implored the Biden administration to quickly grant work permits to the thousands of migrants who have overwhelmed the state’s shelter system in recent months.

“The significant influx of new arrivals . . . shows no sign of abating,” Healey wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Massachusetts, she added, faces a “desperate need” for federal funding, changes to federal immigration policy, and, most urgent of all, faster processing of work authorizations for migrants who are legally present in the state’s shelters but not allowed to work.

The firmly worded letter followed an August meeting between Healey and Mayorkas about the state’s escalating migration crisis, which has led the governor to declare a state of emergency and to deploy the National Guard in recent weeks…

Of course. Speed up the work permits. It’s absurd to hold desperate people indefinitely and not let them do what they came here to do: work. Especially when your state needs the workers, as the governor went on to explain in the press release about all this:

“Massachusetts has stepped up to address what has been a federal crisis of inaction many years in the making. Communities, service providers, and our National Guard are going above and beyond to ensure that families arriving in Massachusetts have a safe place to sleep and their basic needs met,” said Governor Healey. “We are grateful to Secretary Mayorkas and his team for meeting with us to hear about the emergency we are facing and the help we need from our federal government. This letter memorializes our requests for additional federal funding and changes to the work authorization process that would support families, reduce the burden on our shelter system, and help us address our state’s workforce needs.”

“Massachusetts is facing twin crises that aren’t unique to our state – we have rapidly rising numbers of migrant families arriving here who want to work but can’t get their work authorizations, and we are facing severe workforce shortages in all industries,” said Lieutenant Governor Driscoll. “We have the opportunity to not only address both of these issues, but also to grow our economy and strengthen our communities in the long run. We are hopeful that the federal government will take these requests into serious consideration.”…

Now, I don’t know this Governor Healey at all. Maybe the next 10 things she does and says will be idiotic. But she certainly makes sense on this, in this particular instance. And I’m not used to it. I see too much of governors doing things such as this. Or this.

Immigration is a federal matter. And when the feds aren’t doing the job right, and you’re a governor whose state is being affected, get on them about it, and tell them what you need.

But get on them for the right things. Speeding up the process of letting these folks work is a good place to start.

You don’t wish the migrants hadn’t come, and shake your fist at the heavens — or worse, endanger the lives of people determined to come to America and make a better life. And you don’t ignore the problem. You look for practical ways to address the challenges, and they are indeed many…

A great extended quote from ‘Matter of Opinion’

Y’all may remember that years ago — like, pre-COVID — I happily shared with y’all the fact that I had finally figured out something painfully obvious: that the best time to listen to podcasts, which I had been meaning to do, was during my long walks each day.

Anyway, at the time, I mentioned that one of my favorites up to that point was “The Argument,” a New York Times podcast. In fact, I linked to a specific episode from those days. That program was very good when it featured David Leonhardt, Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg. Then those people started falling away from it, and the topics started to be things that didn’t interest me, and I got out of the habit.

I’m only recently discovered an adequate substitute for it. It’s called “Matter of Opinion,” with Michelle Cottle, Ross Douthat, Carlos Lozada and Lydia Polgreen. It has only one former Argument participant — Douthat — but it very much has the same kind of thoughtfulness and intellectual heft that The Argument once had. And it has one other essential ingredient: civility. Here are people who are about as wide apart as you can get on issue after issue, and yet they not only discuss these differences in a civil manner, but they enjoy each other’s company. It’s rather like another NYT feature in that regard: “The Conversation,” featuring Gail Collins and Bret Stephens.

In other words, it offers the kind of vibe I am determined to have on this blog.

Anyway, the most recent one was headlined, “The Woke Burnout Is Real — and Politics Is Catching Up.” I frankly did not fully understand the phrase “woke burnout” at first, partly because it didn’t start with any sort of formal statement of the topic. Who was burned out? The right? The left? And why? (I very much hoped it would be for good reasons.) But I think what is meant is what is said in the subhed, “It’s time to start asking if the culture wars actually matter to voters.”

Then, when I looked at it on my PC — seeking the transcript — I found this intro:

Classrooms have been a key battleground in the so-called woke wars for years now. But could the debate over how schools teach history, race, gender and sexuality be coming to an end?

That explained it.

And part of it was wonderful. Especially when Carlos Lozada said that:

… for the last couple of days I’ve had this deep dread and despair weighing on me, knowing we were going to talk about this. The discussions over woke, and anti-woke, and culture wars are soul sucking to me. I think it’s good to have specific debates over affirmative action in college admissions, the problems with boys, the way we teach history. I mean, that’s terrific. And we’ve had that on this podcast, and we should continue to have it. But when we talk about the culture war, that’s not about debating issues. The culture war is about joining a side. It is about picking a team. And the problem with picking a team in the culture wars is that you inevitably end up with lunatics on your team. And the craziest ones are often the captains of the team. And they may want to go much further than you might want to go.

Carlos Lozada

But you’re on the team, and you don’t want the other side to win. So you end up supporting what the team is defending. So you end up fighting vociferously over things you may not know a lot about. You end up policing language and dogma with the zeal of the convert.

And you end up speaking not just for yourself, but for this amorphous community that never necessarily granted you the rights to speak for it. There’s so many great writers and thinkers who get baited into this, and then they have difficulty writing about anything else because they’re no longer making an argument or exploring an issue. They are defending turf.

The irony of the culture war is that the purpose of the war is not to win it. It is to continue to wage it. You are never going to hear a culture war activist saying, you know what? The cause is won. The fight is over. Let’s close up shop. I don’t need any more funding. It’s like a business lobbyist saying, our profits are pretty healthy. I don’t need more loopholes in the tax code. That’s not a thing that happens in a culture war. The fight is never over. The stakes are always rising. There’s a new front, a new trench you have to dig, a new hill you have to die on.

And it becomes a reason for being. It becomes your emotional, and your financial, and your intellectual sustenance. And that’s why I limit the amount of time I write about this or think about this because it is incredibly frustrating to me…

I heard all that as I was arriving back at my house from a walk, so I didn’t hear the rest of the podcast. I need to go back and do so, but there are so many things in the world I keep saying that I need to go back and do that I may not.

But before this fades from my memory, I wanted to share with you what Lozada said. Almost every line of it is a view I deeply hold, and it goes to the heart of why I say so many things I say on this blog. In fact, these ideas are pretty central to why the blog exists. So I wanted to make sure I shared them with you, before I move on to the next subject…

Here are 9 things I prefer to watch. How about you?

This image was under the headline. It’s not nice to call people ‘things.’ Anyway, there are only 5…

By now, you know from all the unending coverage that this is an election year, and a biggie.

Except that it isn’t. The election everyone is so worked up about is next year — in fact, at the end of next year, And the result will depend — to the extent that it is influenced by reality in any way — will depend on what’s happening then, not what’s happening now.

So, when The Washington Post wanted me to read something headlined, “9 things to watch as the 2024 presidential campaign heats up,” I responded this way:

Here are my 9:

1. My grandchildren

2. The seasons changing

3. The AL playoffs

4. The NL playoffs

5. The World Series

6. The last 3 next year, too

7. Detective shows on Britbox

8. My diet and workout routine

9. Pretty much anything but football.

I didn’t have room to elaborate, because that used all 280 characters that Twitter allows.

If I’d had more room, I would have of course mentioned my kids and all the other people with whom I choose to spend most of my time. They’re all way more interesting, and enjoyable, than, say, Vivek Ramaswamy. And I’d have explained that I don’t just watch English murder mysteries. I also enjoy Scottish, Welsh, Swedish, German and French detective shows. And I would have mentioned books, but you don’t “watch” books; you read them. And I’d have put quotes around “diet and workout routine,” to be more honest about it. But there just wasn’t room.

Anyway, what are your favorite things to watch rather than campaigns for next year’s presidential election?


How could we create a local news app that really works?

The challenge: How do you create one of THESE for relevant local news?

One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced on this blog is trying to get interesting, constructive discussions going about local news.

Back when I started this platform, I used to try really hard on that front, but it was so frustrating that I confess I’ve slacked off in recent years.

But this used to be my life’s mission, you see. In a world in which the great national newspapers and wire services had national and international news covered more than adequately, our role was obviously to keep democracy working by informing readers about local matters. This is why, when I was editorial page editor, our editorials and columns were focused about 80-90 percent on state and local matters.

And back when newspapers had some resources, the newsroom did a pretty fair job of covering the proverbial local waterfront. That was a challenge, though, particularly here in South Carolina. As a result of a bunch of complicating factors — weak local governments, barriers to municipal annexation, the Legislature’s dominance of government on all levels, a web of 500 or so local “governments” providing services that should be provided by cities and counties, more than twice as many school districts as there were counties — it was hard to present ONE front page, one newspaper, that was completely relevant to most of the circulation area.

A good illustration of this is what I have frequently mentioned as my greatest frustration on the editorial page. You know how I value candidate endorsements. They are a great way of shedding light on the strengths and weaknesses of candidates, taking voters far beyond the embarrassing “name recognition” level and the shameful party-identification level. A properly written endorsement lays a template for really thinking about your vote. Whether you agree with the endorsement or not, by reading and thinking about it, you give your vote more thought than far too many voters ever do.

This was particularly true on the local level, where the local newspaper was often your only source of any kind of information about the candidates. It was even more true with school boards. I was convinced that school board endorsements would have helped voters have at least some basis for a decision in the booth, and could be the most important ones we did. But I could never figure out how to get it done. With seven school districts just here in Richland and Lexington counties, that would have meant as many interviews as for governor, statewide offices, state representatives and senators, city and county councils, sheriff and other county officials combined. And it was a huge challenge to get through those, even when I had a full staff. Four or five interviews a day for weeks preceding elections, on top of our regular work producing the daily pages.

Back to the news area… in the ’80s, metro newspapers across the country jumped on a bandwagon that was widely touted as the future of journalism — hyper-localism. That took the form of the Neighbors sections you may remember. Separate staffs of reporters and editors produced special weekly sections aimed at this or that portion of the metropolitan area.

But those all went away some time ago, their staffs disbanding well before almost all the regular core newsroom jobs vanished.

Which brings us to what I wanted to write about. The above was all just to set it up.

I had an interesting experience several days ago…

While I was making coffee, my wife read me essentially the ledes of four local news stories that gave us a minute or two each of interesting discussion, in some cases because they were about people we knew, or things someone in our family was involved with. There was:

The few minutes of kicking these stories around there in the kitchen were the most interesting that I’ve spent with local news in some time. It was engaging in a way that the front page — of The State, or The Washington Post, or what have you — almost never is. (I think one of these stories was on the front, the others scattered inside. And not in the print edition, but one of the paper’s supplementary e-paper products.)

It would be great if there was a way to reliably duplicate this experience, and maybe help pull people at least temporarily away from yelling at each other about Trump and Biden, and tie them closer to their communities.

And no, I don’t think my wife has time to go out and read a personalized report to each of you. I suppose I could ask her. No, I’m no dummy — you ask her…

Mind you, I frequently decry the whole personalization of news thing. I think one of the biggest causes of the fragmentation and bitter division in our society today is the fact that digitized media enable people to craft their own “news reports” to tell them only things that they want to hear. We need to all be seeing the same, holistic picture of the world, so that at least we can agree on the facts before we starting arguing our opinions.

But for the reasons I’ve mentioned above, covering the hyper-local stuff in a way that’s relevant to people offers a challenge that’s different from the national, state and even citywide news and issues.

But how do we do this? How do we provide targeted local news briefings as useful and interesting as the ones my NPR One and NYT Audio apps give me on the national and international levels?

The personalization of this hypothetical device would require readers to submit to impossibly long and intrusive questionnaires about every detail of the listeners life and interests, making subjective and intuitive leaps that I’m pretty sure is beyond the current capabilities of AI. That’s asking a great deal more from readers, or listeners, than in the old days when they simply had to cough up a dime.

And when I say “impossibly,” I’m saying, how do you get down to a level that anticipates the kinds of connections I felt to these stories? Asking “What’s your favorite hobby?” ain’t gonna cut it.

I’d be glad to take a crack at drafting the questions if anyone wants to write the coding for this app that will revolutionize the local business (and make us both rich). But I’m telling you, it will take some time…

NOW I will start reading my Boston Globe every day

Recently, I’ve been meaning to write a post about how sad I was to have dropped my subscription to The Boston Globe.

I started the subscription in the easiest possible way. When we were in Boston last summer, I wanted access to local news, particularly to what the Red Sox were doing, since we were going to go see them play the Yankees (and beat them!) one night while we were there.

When the algorithm saw that I was perusing the Globe‘s website, it made me an offer I could not refuse: A subscription lasting six months, for one dollar. I jumped at it. Actually, I did pause for a moment, knowing how bad I am at remembering to cancel “free trial” subscriptions before they start costing me. For a moment. Then I jumped at it.

And I found that I enjoyed it beyond all expectation. I enjoyed it for the Red Sox coverage, to be sure, but it went far beyond that. And it’s a bit hard to explain to you why, unless you have my newspaper background. I saw it with the eyes of one who has spent several decades, decades of days filled with long hours agonizing over every word, and over every aspect of putting those words together with other elements and presenting them thoughtfully to the public. I appreciated:

  • The news judgment. Remember that post I wrote when I launched my Virtual Front Pages? I talked about how hard we thought, back when I was the front-page editor in Wichita, about how to present news in a way that quickly provided readers, in overview and depth, the information that was most important for citizens to possess and ingest. That was already fading as an art back in the ’80s when I was immersed in it. In the unlamented 21st century, I only saw it at The New York Times and a few other elite papers across the country. And I immediately saw that the Globe was definitely one of those papers.
  • The esthetics. What good is it to provide good content if people don’t want to look at it? And this paper was beautiful, in a number of ways more so than the NYT, which remains more firmly wedded to tradition. Of course, there are things I prefer about the NYT — the Globe, for instance, makes too much use of white space, unlike the blessed Gray Lady. But there is no doubt it looks good, each page being a pleasure to my eyes even before I start reading. Consequently, when I open the app, I immediately click on the “print edition” option — otherwise I’d be missing out on a thing made the paper enjoyable.
  • All sorts of other, minor things. Sports, for instance. I’ve mentioned this before. About how this is a paper that understands that “sports” means far more than football, and most of all that it gives proper due to the national pastime. Rare is the day that the Red Sox aren’t given prominence, even out of season — but prominence within a context that clearly recognizes there are more important things in the world than sports. There are other small things, such as the comics. Most comics pages across the country are just embarrassing, they are so lacking in wit. There’s nothing they can do to bring back the glory days of “Calvin and Hobbes” and “The Far Side,” but the Globe‘s editors take the trouble to offer a better selection from among the slim pickings that remain. (OK, it’s only a little better — there’s not much to work with these days. But it’s better.)

Basically, everything shows the work of an ample crowd of very talented people who work hard to present readers with the best paper possible. In a world in which most of the remaining newspapers across the country lie in ruins, very dim shadows of what they were, it means a lot to me to take a deep, refreshing drink at this well. Of course, we’re talking about a full-sized grownup major city, with everything from subways to professional teams in all major sports — so you’d expect them to have more to work with. But the Globe doesn’t take those resources for granted. It makes the most of them.

But then, my $1 deal ran out. And by the time it did, my Boston trip was well behind me. Worse, I wasn’t looking through the paper more than once a week or so. Not that I didn’t enjoy it when I did, but there were just too many other papers I was subscribing to — the NYT, The Washington Post, The Post and Courier, The State — and as a South Carolinian and a blogger, I felt obliged to read those first. Plus such magazines as The New Yorker and America. And there’s only so much time in a day.

And when the deal ran out, I started getting charged more than I was paying for any other paper. I still kept the subscription for awhile, figuring I sort of owed it to the folks up there, after that amazingly generous trial deal. And a paper this good deserved financial support. But when my wife pointed out this summer what a drain it was, I admitted it was time to drop it.

I wasn’t happy about it, though. And I still got multiple emails a day telling me about good stories I was missing.

Then, yesterday, I got a phone call. As my device rang, I saw the words BOSTON GLOBE under the unfamiliar number. So I answered — I figured I still sort of owed these folks that much. I knew what the call was about, and I was prepared to explain that yes, I love your paper, but I just can’t afford it.

I didn’t get that far.

I found myself listening not to an artificial voice, and not to someone named “Steve” from an overworked Indian call center. Instead, I was having an actual conversation with a very pleasant young woman with no sort of accent (to an American ear) at all. (Actually, I would have liked it better if she’d had a Boston accent, but you can’t have everything.) She was nice. She cared. And she was offering me another deal.

She was offering 26 weeks for a total of $12. Uneasily glancing toward my dear wife in the next room, I jumped at it. Then, when the call ended, I confessed what I had done, and my bride grimaced a bit. But she didn’t make me cancel it.

Then the phone rang again. It was my new friend, telling me that she hadn’t been able to charge the $12 to my debit card. Oh, yeah… That’s because my old card is expiring this month, and the credit union sent me a new one and I activated it, so the old one didn’t work. So I told her that my new one had the same number, and here was the new expiration date and secret code from the back, so run it again.

But she didn’t have the old number — just the last four digits. And at this critical moment, I did what I have so many times advised my mother (and my father, in his last years) not to do: I gave her the whole number.

My wife overheard, and when the call was over, expressed shall we say incredulity at what I had just done. I expressed my firm intuitive belief that in this case, I was not dealing with a scam. I said this as confidently as I could. But I immediately called up my account online, and was hugely relieved to see that I had just paid $12 to The Boston Globe.

And this morning, I was able to read the print edition on my iPad app. And it was beautiful…

I’m glad I found these pictures I didn’t know I had…

Before I actually get back to work after finally posting Paul’s column, a few words as to why I haven’t been posting.

Mainly, it’s been three things, although there’s plenty of other stuff going on:

  • I’ve been trying to rearrange my home office, which mainly has consisted of building new bookshelves of my own rather unusual, rustic design (made mostly with treated wood left over from the revamp of our deck a couple of years ago, which my wife has been eager to see me use or take to the dump). That, and cleaning out the big closet in the same room, space that could be much better used. This project alone, which is still in progress, would have been enough to keep any normal person from blogging.
  • In the middle of all that, we had new windows installed in our house. So I had to rearrange the wreckage in the office so the workmen could get to the windows, and do the same in varying degrees with furniture all over the house. The biggest part was taking down all the louvered wooden shutter-type blinds in most of the windows. The windows are in, and since that happened last Wednesday, we’ve been installing curtains to replace the blinds, which went to the Habitat ReStore.
  • And in the middle of those things, after a week in which hours were wasted in struggling to reconnect to our wifi, we switched internet providers. This has been fubar in most respects since the start. We’re on I think our fourth new router. The second was FedExed to us to replace the faulty first one. When that one didn’t work (something Spectrum was able to confirm, again, remotely), an increasingly frustrated repair guy spending a couple of hours installing a third one, and, when that didn’t work either, a fourth one. Since then, part of every day has been spent reestablishing contact with one or more of the dozen or so devices in our home that depend on wifi. I’m down to one that still isn’t working, and I’m trying to get in touch with the device’s manufacturer.

And lots of other stuff. For instance, this morning we were on the phone with our old internet service provider to make sure we knew how to send back their equipment so we don’t have to pay some outrageous sum for it.

Of course, there have been good things about all this. One was that, when I was moving some books onto one of those new bookcases, an envelope fell out of one of the books, and I opened it and found these two pictures, above and below.

Well, y’all know how much I liked John McCain, so I was glad to find them. I didn’t know any pictures of him and me together existed, much less that I had a couple of prints of them.

Obviously, because of the setting — The State‘s editorial boardroom — this is before or after an interview with the board. Probably an endorsement interview, given some of the people I see in the room. The question was, 2000 or 2008?

Then, in looking closely at the one below, I saw it was 2000, just before South Carolina’s Republican primary. You may notice that in both pictures, you can barely see that there are people standing directly behind both McCain and me, like shadows, making it look like our heads and shoulders are kind of doubled around the edges. But in the one below, the figure behind McCain is emerging slightly from full eclipse, and I can see that it’s Fred Mott — who was my publisher in 2000, but long gone in 2008.

Ironically, Fred is the reason Sen. McCain didn’t get our endorsement that year. Fred wanted to back George W. Bush. The fateful decision was made in a board meeting immediately after this interview. We normally worked by consensus, but this time, being so divided, we actually took a counted vote. It was something of a mess, since some in the room (my good friend Robert Ariail, for instance) weren’t technically members of the board under normal circumstances. But anyway, it was a 50-50 split. And I could see no graceful way to dispute the idea that in a 50-split, the publisher’s side wins.

Let me be clear — Fred is a great guy, for whom I have great respect. He was just wrong this time. If you want to know the reasons why, I’ll let you know if I also find the 4,000-word memo I sent him several days before this meeting. Anyway, I lost that one, but we endorsed McCain in 2008.

Anyway, I’m glad to have these pictures. Now, back to work…

A nice read about a nice guy who gave a nice speech…

Well, here I go again — urging you all to read something that you probably can’t see because you don’t subscribe. But I don’t know what else to do.

Once communities across the country were tied together by common narratives. It was cheap to subscribe to the local newspaper (because the cost of producing the paper was born by advertisers, not readers — and that’s gone away). Their local journalists generally weren’t necessarily oracles of wisdom (I just said “generally,” mind you), but they had little trouble agreeing on basic facts of what had happened, and report it. And a calmer reading public accepted that plain reality, and worked from that as citizens.

But then several things happened. First, starting sometime in the 1980s, politics started getting really, really nasty, and partisan divisions started festering to a degree previously unseen in post-1945 America. Meanwhile, local media’s advertising base disappeared, and press and electronic media were reduced to skeleton staffs, increasingly finding it hard to cover anything adequately. Finally, people started more and more being deluged by media that had nothing to do with journalism, and cared more about advancing the fantasies of their respective bitter factions than about dispassionately informing the public. Tsunamis of it.

Even the best journals in the country, the ones that still had adequate, talented staffs, started focusing more and more on the bitter divisions, the things that separated us more than what we held in common as Americans. Why? Because that’s what the world looked like now. They were describing reality, although painfully superficially.

But sometimes, those journals still something thoughtful, something that offers a little hope for sanity, something that might even make you feel OK about the human race, sort of. In recent years, I’ve focused as a reader mostly on that stuff, not the latest shouting over the debt limit or whatever. Unfortunately, those things appeared in the still-healthy journals to which I subscribe. So I write about those things, and try to share them when possible.

To get to my point…

Today, there was a nice piece about a nice guy giving a nice speech. It was headlined, “At Harvard, Tom Hanks offered an increasingly rare moment of grace.” A long excerpt, which I hope the Post‘s legal department will allow me:

The language of the academy is increasingly centered on who or what is centered — what voices, what values — and there wasn’t the least doubt, on a day that also honored a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, a magisterial historian, a groundbreaking biochemist, a media pioneer and a four-star admiral, that Dr. Hanks was the center of attention. It takes an astute understanding of human physics to redirect all those energies and center the students. Over and over, he found ways to send the focus back to them, rising from his seat to kneel in awe before Latin orator Josiah Meadows, hugging Vic Hogg — who recounted a harrowing recovery from gunshot wounds suffered during a carjacking — grace notes and gestures aimed at the musicians and speakers whose names he wove into his own remarks, and at the parents whose pride pulsed across the sea of caps and gowns.

Our public square suffers an acute shortage of such acts of grace. Leaders find power and profit in crassness and cruelty, and signal that virtue is for suckers. It’s a cliché that Tom Hanks is “the nicest guy in Hollywood,” that he and his wife of 35 years, Rita Wilson, somehow manage to represent decency at a time when the country is so divided we can’t even agree on who is worth admiring. On a brisk spring day, watching the radioactive level of attention on him, and his ability to refract it into pure joy and shared humanity, was a healing energy in a sorry time. You can imagine that normal comes naturally to some people; but how often do people who are treated as being bigger, better, more special than everyone else resist the temptation to believe it?

And when it was time for Hanks to deliver his formal message, the script, while occasionally overwritten, rhymed with the mission. Flapping banners exalted the university motto, “Veritas,” and Hanks took up the battle cry. “The truth, to some, is no longer empirical. It’s no longer based on data nor common sense nor even common decency,” he said. “Truth is now considered malleable by opinion and by zero-sum endgames. Imagery is manufactured with audacity and with purpose to achieve the primal task of marring the truth with mock logic, to achieve with fake expertise, with false sincerity, with phrases like, ‘I’m just saying. Well, I’m just asking. I’m just wondering.’”

The opposite of love is not hate, Elie Wiesel said, but indifference, and Hanks put the challenge before his audience of rising leaders and explorers, artists and environmentalists, teachers and technologists. “Every day, every year, and for every graduating class, there is a choice to be made. It’s the same option for all grown-ups, who have to decide to be one of three types of Americans,” Hanks said. “Those who embrace liberty and freedom for all, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent.” Bracing as the words were, the actions spoke louder. For those of us in the truth business — which is to say, all of us — it was an actor who never finished college who set a standard we can work to live up to.

This is not a big-deal story. Just a writer — Nancy Gibbs, a former editor in chief of Time magazine — witnessing an incident in which a famous person was given a forum and used it to show respect to other people and to say a few words that made some sense. I thank her for sharing that, and the Post for running it, and I wanted to share it with you to the best of my ability…