Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Suicide of Newspapers

There has been a lot of discussion about the death of newspapers recently.  

The younger demographic (younger than I am is practically everyone) gets their news from the internet and television.  But I also have contemporary and older friends who have CNN on constantly - or CNBC, MSNBC.  They don’t read newspapers.

[I should probably explain that I have a minor in journalism - a very old minor - and worked on a masters in journalism at Ohio University.  I completed all the course work, but never wrote my thesis, so I got my first masters degree in ‘communications’ locally.  After I retired I earned an MFA in Creative Writing form Goddard College in Plainfield, VT.]

In Chicago both the Sun-Times and the Tribune appear to teeter on the cusp of extinction.   That’s unfortunate.  Newspapers offer information that the internet or CNN cannot.  At least they used to offer deep information.  Lately, however, they seem to lay off ten percent of their reporters on a regular basis.

And I think that in some ways they have brought this on themselves.  

Until two years ago we subscribed to three newspapers: the Star, which came twice a week and had good local news; the Chicago Sun-Times; and the Chicago Tribune.

The Star changed its format in an apparent effort to make more money.  It treated us South Suburbanites like poor stepchildren, unworthy of local news and hired a reporter to write occasional features about the suburb I live in and the ones surrounding it.  The focus of the Star’s news became the affluent southwestern and western suburbs.  Evidently there was more advertising revenue there.  On the other hand, as news dried up and locals stopped subscribing, which most people I know did, advertising here also dried up.  I think this is called a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If I absolutely need local news, I can get the complete Star on line.  For free.  This seems to me to be stupid and bad economics.  If I can get local news I want gratis, why should I subscribe?

We stopped subscribing to the Sun Times not for editorial reasons, but because our delivery was so spotty.  I called  time after time, and sometimes they would deliver the missed paper and sometimes not.   I finally suggested that if we didn’t get a paper one more morning, we’d cancel our subscription.  We didn’t, and then we did.  There was not a lot in the Sun Times that we can’t get in the Tribune.  The three notables are David Steinberg, a columnist whom I like, the patternless crossword puzzle, and the comics.  Otherwise the same information is in the Tribune and in a (very slightly) less flamboyant way.

The Tribune is a newspaper we still subscribe to.  In the last few months it has become a kind of sensational general overview of the news instead of an in-depth, serious newspaper.  It frequently shoots itself in the foot.  For example, in the election last month, it gave no local results.  Rather, a note that local results were available on the Tribune website steered us once more to the internet and away from the newspaper.

As I write this, I am asking myself why I continue to pay for a newspaper.  The best answer is probably habit.  We do what we learned as children.  When I was young I always waited for the evening paper, spread it on the floor and read the funnies.

I still read the funny pages first thing when I open the newspaper.  And the Tribune has almost two pages worth.  I also read the front section and the editorials, letters to the editor and opinion pieces.

And I seldom watch television news.    I watched too many burning children during the Viet Nam War era.  After my son died in a horrific accident, I could no longer watch news filled with body bags.  Television news is usually too immediate, too emotional, too graphic.

And too repetitious.  

I received a call the morning of nine-eleven directing me to turn on the television.  I watched the Twin Towers fall a couple of times and was totally aghast.  I turned the television off then and watched only sporadically because there was little new information.  I read that a lot of Americans had post-traumatic stress disorder from watching the news that day.  

I escaped that.  But our “leaders” seemed to use our national PTSD and the Twin Tower Card every time they wanted something from Congress and Americans in general. And Dick Cheney seems to continue to use it to criticize Barack Obama’s first 100 days.

Be that as it may, I will continue to buy newspapers as long as I can.  That may not be much longer if they all go under.  I’ll probably get a little news from the internet and television, mostly local obituaries I suspect.

I suspect they may survive by reversing their internet usage.  Instead of being general on paper, they could be general on the internet, and give the details in the paper. 

As always, comment below. 

Just Because I Like It!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dale and Valerie

Congratulations to our friends Dale and Valerie, who just became grandparents - again - of a beautiful boy!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

First Amendment Rights

The First Amendment of the Constitution has come under fire of late from a lot of different places.

It says: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I am particularly concerned about the abridging of the freedom of speech and the press. The Supreme Court has before it the case of Citizens United v. FEC. According to Walter Williams, a professor of Economics at George Mason University who wrote in PA Pundits, a blog:

“During the last presidential campaign, a conservative group, Citizens United, made a 90-minute documentary, “Hillary: The Movie.” Citizens United wanted to pay for its documentary to be shown on home video-on-demand, and for ads promoting the movie to be shown in key states while the former New York senator was competing with Barack Obama for the Democrat presidential nomination. Federal judges said the movie should be regulated by McCain-Feingold, and that ruling was argued Tuesday before the Supreme Court.”

It seems to me that anyone has the right to say and publish - in whatever form - whatever s/he wants to. The Constitution clearly guarantees this. It bothers me, however, that the people with the most money have the most access to spreading their ideas across a large spectrum of society, including those who do not or cannot think independently and clearly.

And the people with the most money, unfortunately, seem to be the ones who have the most extreme and deeply held opinions. That is a matter of economics. It holds true for people who are enthusiastic Republicans and support the right, as well as those who support more liberal ideas and contribute to Both of those groups manage to draw people who contribute. People who feel deeply about something contribute money for it. If this were not true, Rush Limbaugh, who spews hate and half- (or quarter-) truths would not be making upwards of $37m each year.

Those who are more middle of the road, however, who see more than one side of a question, who consider and think more deeply and broadly, are less likely to have extreme opinions. And therefore less likely to contribute to either extreme. And there aren’t many groups that collect money for the BMP, Broad Middle Politics.

Jonah Goldberg writing OpEd for the Chicago Tribune about the same film documentary on Hillary Clinton on April 2, wrote:

“Just last week, the Obama administration argued before the Supreme Court that it has no principled constitutional problem with banning books.”

He went on to explain, “Several justices asked the deputy solicitor general, Malcolm Stewart, if there would be any constitutional reason why the ban on documentaries and ads couldn't be extended to books carrying similar messages. Stewart, speaking for a president who once taught constitutional law, said Congress can ban books "if the book contained the functional equivalent of express advocacy" for a candidate and was supported, even slightly, with corporate money.

“Such advocacy, Stewart conceded, could amount to negatively mentioning a politician just once in a 500-page book put out by a mainstream publisher.”

This is a potential attack on our freedom of speech and of the press of an enormous magnitude.

In one more noteworthy news story, Notre Dame University has been widely criticized for asking President Barack Obama to speak at Commencement next month.

The criticism is that he advocates policies contrary to doctrine the church requires a Catholic Institution to espouse.

As with the earlier example of the Hillary Clinton documentary, there is a large group trying to put a filter on what we can see or hear.

Our freedoms of speech is strengthened when we can say what we want, with few exceptions. These include Justice Holmes’ note about crying Fire in a crowded theatre, and slander and libel of private citizens with untrue statements. Public figures are exempt, however, and President Obama could well be vilified because of the positions he takes that are contrary to the Roman Catholic Church.

The airing of HIllary: The Movie, I suspect, would have produced more heat than light, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. But like Obama’s commencement address, it could cause discussion, and any examination of ideas and public figures seems to me to be a good idea, one that strengthens our right to free speech and a free press.

But we have the means to keep our constitution strong, even at a grass-roots level. The KKK held a white power rally recently, only to be met with a bunch of clowns who infuriated them by holding up signs that said things like Wife Power; White Flour and throwing flour in the air; and ending up with Tight Shower. The KKK organizers tried to attack the clowns, and were arrested. In the meantime their rally lost all power, white or not, and fell apart. Click here for the whole story.

As always, feel free to comment below. My thanks to my friend Myron for suggesting this topic.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tea Bags and Taxes

According to the Chicago Tribune this morning tax protesters yesterday had a field day with tea bags. They said that the government wastes our tax money, and President Obama is to blame.

I quite agree that we have too much waste in government. I wish this were something we could blame on Barack Obama. But it’s not. The political parties in the United States have worked at getting reelected by filling necessary programs with pork, currently called entitlements.

The Republican Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska is a prime example. It is true that Governor Palin did put the kibosh on the bridge, but she kept the entitlement money, which she spent on other things (but not comprehensive sex education for high school students, evidently).

Over half of federal taxes go to military spending of various sorts. Barely over ten percent go toward the operations of government.

I just checked my records, and my monthly federal tax deduction is $688. On the other hand my health insurance costs my wife and me $2,030+ each month, in addition to our out-of-pocket expenses. They include deductibles, medications, and like that. That comes out to just about thirty-five bucks a month less than three times the federal tax deductions. When we figure that we get money back from the feds each year when we file taxes, we can honestly say that our health insurance is three times our federal taxes each year.

Back to the “teabaggers.” [By the way, teabagging is frequently a sexual act, and the term that Fox News has applied to these people is probably ill advised.] According to the news, thousands of people all across the country protested with millions of tea bags in an act of rebellion that supposedly mirrored the Boston Tea Party, which started the American Revolution.

I don’t hear, however, about thousands of people protesting the high cost of health care in the United States despite the fact that about fifteen per cent of the population is without any kind of health insurance.

I agree that government spending is out of hand. A large part of it is the high cost of the war in Iraq, a preemptive war that we could have done without. Dick Cheney and George Bush apparently were playing mine is bigger, and the Law of Unintended Consequences took over.

If we were to spend the money we’re pouring and have poured into Iraq, we could fund good health care for everyone. We could fix the infrastructure, we could fund schools, we could fund anti-gang programs, we could fund comprehensive sex education programs even in Alaska, and we could donate tea bags to everyone who thinks their taxes are being wasted.

As always, I invite you to comment below.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter

Traditional ritual met modern communications last night when we attended the Great Easter Vigil, a service dating from First Century Christians.

And I have to confess that we opted to go to mass last night, which begins by lighting the Paschal Candle from a fire outside and then processes into the church (complete with High Mass incense, torchbearers, a crucifer, that is, a person who displays a cross), rather than going to Easter Mass this morning. Followed by an Easter Egg Hunt, a mix of the traditional and the pagan, not to put too fine a cynical note on it.

The Great Easter Vigil begins outside the building in darkness lit only by a small fire, continues with the lighting of the Paschal Candle as I described, and from there the spreading of the light to each parishioner who carries a candle. The symbolism is obvious and really beautiful.

Inside, the church remains dark, save for the individual tapers. It's pretty, and reminiscent of Midnight Mass at Christmas with the symbolic appearance of the Light of the World. Lectors read the Old Testament passages that describe and predict the coming of Christ - by flashlight, an concession to new technology. In the First and Second Centuries, the participants would have recited the scriptures.

At the resurrection Gospel readings, however, the lights come on, thankfully for those of us with old eyes, and the mass continues in a more ordinary fashion. The priest "purifies" the Gospel with incense, after the thurifer steps into the Sacristy, a room behind the Sanctuary, to add more incense and get the smoke going.

It was at this point that the sublime stumbled into the absurd. Tradition met Modern Communication in the form of a direct line to the Fire Department.

The burning incense rose slowly, and immediately before the sermon, the fire/ smoke alarms started going off with flashing lights and loud sirens. Members of the Vestry rushed to open windows, but it was too late. The congregation erupted into laughter, but that's not so bad. Easter is supposed to be a joyous time. And after reading the Passion last Sunday, we needed a little levity. (I read the part of Jesus, not because of my piety, of course. According to the priest it wasn't my beard, either. She said my name came up in the alphabetical rotation, and I wouldn't stumble over the last words in Hebrew [Aramaic?], when Christ calls, "My God, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?" I don't know that I pronounced the words right, but then neither did anyone else in church last Sunday.)

Soon the fire department arrived. No men (or women, for that matter) rushed down the center aisle of the church clad in yellow fluorescent suits carrying axes because someone rushed out to meet them and asked them not to interrupt our service.

Soon we heard the roar of the fire truck engines as they returned to the station. And the Great Vigil continued.

From the time of the Crucifixion on Good Friday until the Great Vigil on Holy Saturday evening, Christ is not in the world, metaphorically.

But this morning, the Lord is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed.

Happy Easter.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

William Blake, my hero

I first read/heard this poem by William Blake when I was a freshman in college in an English lit survey. The professor came in to class and took attendance, started to read this aloud and then started to weep and left the class.

This was the same guy who believed that JFK's assassination was perpetrated by white supremacists. On the day of my first final in college, the day JFK was shot, shortly after lunch, I trudged in shock to his class. He glowered at us, said, "You all helped pull the trigger," and handed out the final. I don't know how I did, probably a B.

He firmly believed, when he heard about the assassination that it was racially motivated. That was the day I lost my innocence, at least as far as the world being a benign place to live. How fitting that this poem is from Blake's Songs of Innocence.

The Little Black Boy

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but oh! my soul is white.
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black as if bereaved of light.

My mother taught me underneath a tree,
And, sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say:

"Look on the rising sun, - there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away;
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.

And we are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

For when our souls have learned the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear his voice
Saying: `Come out from the grove, my love and care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice!' "

Thus did my mother say, and kissed me;
And thus I say to little English boy:
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,

I'll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father's knee;
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.

This poem (and Ben Johnson's "On My First Son," an incomplete sonnet) still makes me weep too. As always, feel free to comment below.