Category Archives: Media

The loss of perspective in presentation of the news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is the actual point of this post.

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

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

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

WSJ top stories

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

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

WP Top Stories

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

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

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

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

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

NYT top stories

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

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

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

NYT front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full nyt

 

The day the Pope came to visit us

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

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

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

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

And I replied as follows…

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, you know, we kind of overprepared.

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

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

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

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

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

Fox wants to use that old Biden video again…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the resulting post, in its entirety:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello Brad!

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

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

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

Thank you for your time!

Errin Kelly

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

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

So here you go. Thoughts?

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

Biden speak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

full page, May 21, 1913

The full page from which the items below are excerpted.

Newspapers used to be fascinating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.C. Warthen

A.C. Warthen

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

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

Nope.

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

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

12 lashes

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

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

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

turkey trot

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

Best and Worst Comics (in The State, currently)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

comics 2comics 3

 

 

 

 

 

Did anyone pay attention to the State of the State?

Henry 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Especially not yesterday.

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

Vaccine ships. Don’t get excited.

vaccines

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more anachronistic prices, thanks to Netflix!

updating

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

They’re “updating” our subscription price!

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

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

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

‘The State’ emerges from extinction to endorse Jaime


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Hi, we’re The State.

A post shared by Thomas Lennon (@thomaspatricklennon) on


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

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

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

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

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

So enjoy….

the state

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

Tuesday chart

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

You can see that Monday-morning chart below.

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

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

COVID chart

 

 

 

Some really worthwhile recent podcasts

podcast

The news I just got on my phone reminds me of something I meant to share a few days back.

The news is that a cop — actually, now former cop, Brett Hankison — has been indicted in the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

And it reminds me of some podcasts of “The Daily” that I meant to recommend earlier, but forgot.

Most directly, it reminds me of the two-part series the NYT podcast did on “The Killing of Breonna Taylor” on Sept. 9 and 10. Here’s the first part, and here’s the second.

It was really educational. It started with the recording of an incident that happened long before Ms. Taylor’s death, which actually led to the changes in Louisville police procedures that eventually led to the raid that killed her.

It provided a reality-based understanding of what happened. It was horrific, but also contained all the complex texture of real life. You had the fact that this kind of policing was actually based on “reforms” from what had gone before. You were appalled at the bad intel upon which the raid was based. You were as shocked as the cops were when it turned out her boyfriend (who they didn’t know was there) had a gun, and he fired it and nearly killed the first cop in the door by hitting him in the femoral artery. You felt the fear that caused the boyfriend to shoot, and the cops’ panic as they turned their attention from their initial purpose to getting an ambulance to the scene.

And you mourned the shocking tragedy of this young woman’s unnecessary death.

And, when Hankison was indicted today, you had the background to think, “Well, if one person was going to be indicted, he was the one.” (That is, if he’s the one — and the sketchy reports I’m reading indicate he was — who, in the podcast, was described as stepping away from the apartment entrance during the confusion and firing wildly at the apartment and a neighboring apartment, through the walls and windows. That guy was fired back in June, if my memory serves.)

The podcast gave insights that exceed the simplicity of the black-and-white demands of protesters, or of idiot presidents who criticize those who protest.

Anyway, I recommend it, if you can get past the paywall (I’m not sure how that works with podcasts; I’m a subscriber).

And I also recommend one from a couple of days earlier, which was less depressing — even uplifting — but also ultimately distressing.

It was called “Who Replaces Me?” It was the story, told in his own words, of a veteran black cop from Flint, Mich. You learn of his background as a kid who grew up with a father in prison, determined to be whatever his father was not. You hear about him becoming a cop, and amazing his trainers out on patrol, because on every call, he knows and understands the people on the scene.

You hear about him being the guy who intervened when white cops weren’t giving any basic human consideration to black suspects. You hear the stories of when he has “given out his cellphone number, driven students to prom and provided food and money to those who were hungry.” You hear his quiet pride at the service he provides to his community.

And then you hear of his dismay and disillusionment at such events as the killing of George Floyd. It’s the voice of a guy who finds himself contemplating retirement, but wondering, “Who Replaces Me?”

It’s the story of a hero — the real kind, not the cartoon sort. The kind of guy whose narrative doesn’t fit easily into the narratives of left or right.

Anyway, if you can, I recommend listening to that, too…

 

 

 

Tempted for once by the grocery checkout rack

Now THAT is tempting...

Now THAT is tempting…

I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything from the magazine racks at the grocery checkout.

But a publication devoted to “The West Wing?” Now that’s tempting…

But I still passed.

And you know, part of it is — why do I need a print product full of “West Wing” stuff? Don’t I have Google? Can’t I already access whatever I want about the show, or any of the characters, or analysis or full transcripts of any episode? Content that is available to me wherever I go, via phone or iPad, without carrying around something as awkward as a magazine?

Yep, it’s printed on nice, glossy paper. But here’s the thing… At some point in the latter part of the ’80s, I first saw a color picture on the screen of a Mac. And I was blown away — even though the resolution and color saturation on that screen was probably pretty pathetic, compared to, say, my phone today.

It was just so — bright and alive. Since then, I’ve never seen a hard copy photo that could compare.

Not to mention the fact that if you want to share something in the mag, the person you’re sharing it with has to be standing right next to you. There’s no sharing by text, email or social media.

So… what’s the appeal of the magazine version?

Everything I used to read on paper — the newspapers I subscribe to, magazines, what have you — I now read on my iPad. Which is always with me.

Compelling content. But the wrong medium…

An actual ‘bias’ in media that tends to bother even me

I share this selfie as a gift to the kids. They can point at it and say, "THIS is who's saying this!"

I share this selfie today as a gift to the kids. They can point at it and say, “THIS old guy is who’s saying this!”

People like to talk about “media bias” — still. With all the stuff going on around us — the virus, the protests, the fact that we have a president of the United States who calls any fact-based reporting “fake news” and encourages millions of others to do the same — people still talk about it.

And generally speaking, the way most people who talk about it define “media bias” is no more relevant or accurate than when Spiro Agnew moaned about the “nattering nabobs.”

Are there inclinations in the MSM that one should worry about? Of course. There are several things that worry me, with the biggest probably being the bias toward conflict, and a particularly stupid, brainless form of conflict — the sports model. Journalists (helped by parties and advocacy groups) have trained most of the country to think of politics the way they, for their own convenience, have defined it: There are two teams on the field, and those two teams are the only ones in the universe, reflecting the only two ways of defining reality. When one is up, the other is down, and vice versa. If you aren’t a fan of one team, you are by definition a fan of the other…

There are others, which I could go on at some length about, but won’t today, because I want to write about a fairly new bias concern that has been bothering me more and more as my white beard has grown. The bias of the young — the problem of depending for critical information on people who are too young to have experienced much of the world.

Today, as I walked around the neighborhood in the unreasonably hot sun, I listened to The Daily podcast. It was the first part of a two-day report: “Cancel Culture, Part 1: Where it Came From.”

Jonah Bromwich. Do you see a SINGLE white hair in that beard?

Jonah Bromwich. Do you see a SINGLE white hair in that beard? I don’t. And I know why…

As I listened, host Michael Barbaro and New York Times reporter Jonah Bromwich first expressed some laughing nervousness over even daring to approach the topic. Then, Bromwich launched into an explanation of the brief history of the phrase and the phenomenon. And as one would expect with a New York Times journalist, his account was well-informed and interesting.

But in launching upon his tale, he dropped a personal reference that went to the heart of this recent concern of mine: “So, growing up I was an enormous fan of Kanye West…”

I listened to what followed, even though my mind was briefly boggled by those few words. The most shocking, of course, being “growing up.”

Kanye West, of course, is the person who is famous for being a rapper and being affiliated with the Kardashians, but mostly for being a big supporter of Donald Trump, and having quite a number of screws loose. Not knowing any more than that, I went to Wikipedia, and saw that his first album dropped in 2004 (although he was making his name as a producer for several years before that).

Barbaro is only 40, but at least has SOME gray...

Barbaro is only 40, but at least has SOME gray…

It seems to me like West has been around, what, about 10 minutes? And this guy was a big fan when he was “growing up?”

This is entirely possible, I find. LinkedIn says Bromwich got his bachelor’s degree in 2011. You know, within the past decade. Which means, assuming he was 22 at the time, he wasn’t a little bitty kid at the time West became big. But OK, I guess you’re still “growing up” at 15.

So in terms of age, that places West’s first release in Bromwich’s life about where, say, Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” fell for me — rather than back at the time of Bobby Darin’s “Splish-Splash.” Which is somewhat encouraging.

But still.

We’re talking Twitter here, and while I see myself as a very late adopter of the platform, I had been a highly active user for two years while this guy was still in college. (Right about the time he graduated, I was named one of the local Twitterati — although probably ironically, as an amused sop to the “old guy” from the kids at Free Times.) I had been blogging for six years. We won’t even go into my decades of experience with older media, professionally observing society, before that.

Which makes this sort of thing… unsettling. Because there’s nothing new about listening to young Master Bromwich explain the world to me. This happens all the time.

And it affects the way the news is covered. Even really big, important news. To me, and to all those South Carolina voters who didn’t get to weigh in until Feb. 29, it was obvious that the only person running for the presidency who was fully qualified and ready to toss Donald Trump out of office was Joe Biden. Once SC ‘splained it to people, everyone else realized it, too.

But for months and months and months and eons — seeming to stretch, in retrospect, almost back to when I was “growing up” — it was hard to find that point of view being given any credence in the coverage we saw.

I was sure there were quite a few explanations for that, but one seemed obvious — and occasionally others gave it voice: The reporters covering this campaign were unbelievably young. I was far from the only one to notice this. From Politico in September of last year:

The first thing you notice at a Joe Biden event is the age: Many of the reporters covering him are really young. Biden is not. The press corps, or so the Biden campaign sees it, is culturally liberal and highly attuned to modern issues around race and gender and social justice. Biden is not. The reporters are Extremely Online. Biden couldn’t tell you what TikTok is.

Inside the Biden campaign, it is the collision between these two worlds that advisers believe explain why his White House run often looks like a months-long series of gaffes. For a team in command of the Democratic primary, at least for now, they’re awfully resentful of how their man is being covered. And yet supremely confident that they, not the woke press that pounces on Biden’s every seeming error and blight in his record, has a vastly superior understanding of the Democratic electorate. This is the central paradox of Biden’s run: He’s been amazingly durable. But he gets no respect from the people who make conventional wisdom on the left….

Of course, none of this was new to me. Back when I was the press guy on James’ campaign in 2018, I was extremely conscious of the age differential. So, I suppose, were the young reporters. When they would, for instance, get excited about presidential candidates coming to SC (I imagine they got tired of it later), I found myself wishing they’d get that excited about covering the gubernatorial race. I had to remind myself that in 1980, I was excited about covering the presidential stuff, too. Because, you know, I was a kid.

At this point I should probably quote Ecclesiastes: One generation passeth away, and so forth.

I am forced to confront the possibility, even the likelihood, that some of those old coots who thought I was too young to presume to tell them what was going on more than 40 years ago may have had a point. Or at least, a perspective with some basis. Or… nahh, what did they know?

The problems of journalism in America today — especially on the local level — are profound and shocking, and mostly have to do with the utter collapse of the business model. It’s not just that the kids doing it are way, way too young.

But sometimes it seems like it…

Kanye West's first release was in 2004. That year, my beard was already THIS gray...

Kanye West’s first release was in 2004. That year, my beard was already THIS gray. And apparently, I still thought presidential politics were fun to cover. At least, a LITTLE bit of fun. And yeah, those glasses were about 20 years out of style THEN, kids…

Seeing Cindi like this is weird on several levels

crowd

So I tried yet again to read the story in The State headlined “SC Gov. McMaster takes side on Strom, but not on colleges’ push to change building names.” My point was to try again to determine what “side” he had taken on the Strom thing.

I didn’t find out. It’s a fairly long story, and it’s not in the first few inches, so I gave up again. Maybe it’s toward the end. Or maybe the person who wrote the headline didn’t actually read Maayan’s story. I did see where “McMaster’s spokesman gave the first indication of where the governor and former state attorney general stands on the Heritage Act.” But it wasn’t much of an indication. He said if trustee boards ask for changes, Henry “is supportive of them doing so and the General Assembly debating them, with public input, as they have done in the past.” And of course, we know how that has gone in the past.

I'm running this small because I know Cindi would hate it. She always hates pictures of herself.

I’m running this small because I know Cindi would hate it. She always hates pictures of herself.

Anyway, that’s not my point. I’m not even much interested in whether that building is named for Strom or not. (I was just somewhat curious as to what Henry had said about it, if anything.) My point is that I was using the maddening browser interface, and as always it urged upon me a video at the top of the story. If you have experience with this sort of thing, you know these videos tend to be two things: 1. Only marginally related to the story, shedding little light on what you came to read about, and 2. Quite old.

But I saw something on that little box at the top of the screen, and for once I didn’t just click on the little X to make it go away, but stopped and watched it.

That something was the face of my longtime friend and colleague Cindi Scoppe. As much as I enjoy seeing Cindi any time, it was weird on three levels:

  1. I still can’t get used to seeing Cindi do stuff like that. She’s a writer, a writer about South Carolina government and politics, and easily the best at it among those still paid to do it. (Actually, she was the best at it even when lots more people were thus employed.) Therefore, back when there were other people to do other things, she insisted upon sticking to writing about S.C. government and politics. She let the rest of us (actually, me, back in the day) do blogs and social media and video commentary.  But now she does those kinds of things, and as always does a good job at them. But it’s not her chosen line of work. If you think you see something like that in her expression on this video, well, congratulations. You’re right. That’s her “I’m doing a job here, dammit” look.
  2. When I still worked with Cindi, even if you HAD seen her do a video, she wouldn’t have been doing one on the flag. It would have been Warren Bolton or me. Cindi has never wanted to set herself up as the expert on something that is someone else’s beat. Of course, by the time this video was made, pretty much everything was her beat. Warren must have been gone, and I was long gone. Of course, again, she does a great job with it. It was still weird — to me.
  3. Cindi has not worked for The State for almost two years. I’m not sure on that date. I was working for James’ campaign at the time. I’m thinking it was about September 2018, although it may have been either August or October. Anyway, she’s been working at a whole other paper, a competitor, for way over a year.

That last one is probably the weirdest. At least, you don’t have to be me to get it.

But am I suggesting The State take down the old video on that basis? No. Not if they want to have a clip explaining the history of the flag that used to fly at the State House. No one who works there now has that kind of perspective. (There are good people at the paper, but I can’t think of anyone who has that kind of broad perspective on the flag, even though it wasn’t Cindi’s beat back in the day.) I suppose they could get someone else to do it and just say all the same words, but that would be a lot of trouble to go to just to achieve the same thing…

We have really nice people in Columbia, just FYI…

screen

This was nice.

I was reading along through the Opinion section of The New York Times this morning when I found this piece headlined, “What It’s Like to Wear a Mask in the South.” So of course I had to read it. I mean, when the NYT makes the effort to offer something from a Southern perspective, you’ve gotta check it out.

It was written by Margaret Renkl, who “is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.” She’s apparently from Nashville.

I was reading along and thinking, “I wonder if our friend, regular contributor David Carlton, knows her.” Because, you know, writers and college profs sometimes cross paths within the context of a community.

But then, I forgot about that when Ms. Renkl turned her column over to blurbs from other people around the South, and suddenly, there was an old friend from right here in Columbia. It was Allison Askins, who in a previous life was one of our two religion writers at The State. (Yes, there was a time when The State had not one full-time religion writer, but two. We were rather proud of that.)

Allison’s was the very first blurb. Here’s what she wrote:

“I have been making masks for two groups our church is providing them for — an organization that aids the homeless and the Department of Juvenile Justice. I try as I am sewing to be intentional about the act, thinking about who might wear it, hoping they are protected in some way by it and lifting up a prayer for their life, that it might somehow turn for the better in spite of this experience. I find it so sad to think that there are people who maybe are not wearing them simply because they do not know how to get them, can’t afford them or maybe really do not know they need to. It is these among us who I believe most deserve our mercy and our love.”

I just wanted to pass that on because Allison is a very nice and thoughtful person, and I thought, you know, it’s always a good time to stop and take note of the nice and thoughtful people here among us.

Answer the readers’ questions, please! Or mine, anyway…

As a cranky old editor, I often have a problem reading news stories. It’s not the poor writing I sometimes encounter, or occasional typos, or the “bias” so many laypeople think they see. It’s this:

Too often, they fail to answer the most basic questions.

This started bugging me big-time shortly after I made the move from news to editorial, at the start of 1994. Time and again, there would be ONE QUESTION that I had when approaching a news item, a question that was essential to my forming an opinion on the matter. And not only would that one question not be answered in the story, but too often there would be no evidence that it even occurred to the reporter to ask the question. Worse, it didn’t occur to his or her editor to insist that it be asked. There would be no, “answer was unavailable,” or “so-and-so did not respond to questions” or anything like that.

I decided something about the news trade from that. I decided that the problem with news is the opposite of the one that people who complain about “bias” think they see. The problem was that, since the reporter and editor are so dedicated to not having an opinion on the matter, the questions that immediately occur to a person who is trying to make up his or her mind don’t even occur to them. Their brains just don’t go there. They’re like, “I got who, what, where, when and how, so I’m done.”

Too often, there’d be no attempt to determine who was responsible for a thing, or what the law required, or why a certain thing came up at a certain time.

This was maddening to me, and not just because it meant I’d have to do the work they’d failed to do. It was maddening because, well, why do we have a First Amendment? We have it so that we’ll have an informed electorate. And they’re not going to be very informed if they don’t know what to think about a news development because basic questions aren’t answered.

I knew news writers couldn’t care less whether people up in editorial didn’t have enough information. But it seemed they could care, at least a little, about arming readers with sufficient information before they went to vote.

(And I would, after a moment’s irritation, dismiss the whole thing from my mind — which is why I don’t recall a single specific example illustrating all this. I just remember my frustration. There was nothing to be done, because it would have been uncool to raise hell with news about it. Believe me, I tried once or twice, and it didn’t go well.)

Of course, sometimes my irritation isn’t so high-minded. Sometimes, I’m just ticked because my basic curiosity isn’t being satisfied. It’s more like, here’s a matter of something that didn’t matter to me at all as a voter, but I just wanted to know, and didn’t understand why I wasn’t being told…

Y’all know I don’t read sports news, unless something just grabs me. The other day, something in The Washington Post grabbed me. I saw that a professional baseball player’s wife had died of a heart attack. First, I thought, That poor woman! Her poor husband and family!… And I was about to keep scrolling down to the National and World parts of my iPad app (which for some reason the Post positions below sports), when I had a question, which I clicked on the story to answer.

What do you think it was? What would it be naturally? Well, of course, I wondered, How old — or rather how young — was she? Professional baseball players’ wives don’t die of heart attacks normally, and why? Because they’re young! As a 66-year-old who recently had a stroke, I was more curious than I would normally be, thinking, Even people that young are having heart attacks? And it was natural to wonder, well, how young?

But the story didn’t tell me. And I suppose that’s understandable under the circumstances, since the news broke on Instagram, rather than coming from a press briefing where there was the opportunity to ask questions. But still. For me, it was a case of, Here we go again…

Yes, I know. A decent human being would only care about the human tragedy, and wouldn’t get bugged about the details. But I am a longtime newspaper editor, so don’t expect normal behavior.

And I have this tendency, as an old guy, to think, These lazy reporters today… After all, beyond this one incident, I’ve noticed a trend in recent years to not bother with people’s ages even in hard news stories. That used to be an inviolable rule that, at least in hard news, you always gave a person’s age right away. The very first reference to a significant figure in a story would say something like, “John Smith, 25, was being sought by police for…”

But I’m not being fair to the kids. I’m just hypercritical. I was hypercritical back when I supervised reporters, and got worse when I moved to editorial, because I naturally wanted to know even more, so that I could opine. And then I just wanted to know because I wanted to know.

And sometimes I find evidence that I’m wrong to think reporters of yore were more thorough.

Lately, I’ve been looking at some fairly old journalism, from way before my time. Ancestry has started uploading newspaper stories as “hints” attached to certain individuals, particularly if they lived in the right markets. For instance, I recently received about 50 or so hints about my paternal grandparents from The Washington Post because they lived in the Washington suburb of Kensington, Md. Most of the items about my grandmother were social, such as an item noting that she had recently returned from a trip to South Carolina and was staying with friends until her mother returned and opened the house (because, of course, a young lady would not go stay at the house alone).

Most of the items mentioning my grandfather, who was once recruited by the Senators organization, were about baseball. They would usually mention that he had been captain of his team at Washington and Lee. And every time he turned around, he was attending a meeting to form a new team, and there’d be a news item about it, naming who was there and sometimes disclosing what positions they would play (he would usually pitch or play infield).

Of course, we know people back then were really into baseball, but still… you’ve got to be impressed by such depth of coverage — reporters digging up such hyperlocal minutiae going on in their communities (these guys weren’t even playing — they were just talking about starting a team!), and publishing it in those extremely dense, gray pages. I always have been. I mean, wow. This is driven home by the fact that Ancestry posts the entire page, which includes several times as many words as a typical newspaper page today, and you have to sift through the whole page to find the mention of your ancestor (which is why I still haven’t gone through most of the hints about my grandparents).

But sometimes they don’t seem so thorough.

For instance, I recently added an item about my great-grandfather Alfred Crittenton Warthen, father of the baseball player. It’s from the Frederick, Maryland, Evening Post on July 3, 1911. It’s way down on a page topped by a picture from the coronation of King George V (you see him and Queen Mary in their carriage), which contains news about a Boston rector who had traced the royal family to the lineage of David in Judea (which I suppose explains the picture). The page includes stories revealing that immigrants in quarantine in New York eat with their fingers rather than knives and forks, and one about an Englishwoman who was “Relieved from Hysteria Very Speedily” by visiting Coney Island. No, really. It was in the paper.

But eventually, I found this:

bells

And while it was a small item, I found it very interesting. Editorially, of course, I was ambivalent. As someone who hates noise, I’m obliged to feel some sympathy for Mr. Potts. At the same time, I have to think he’s a bit of a nutter.

I didn’t let myself be bothered by the fact that there should be a period after the second mention of Kensington, or a comma in the next line between “Town Council” and “Potts.” Such things happen.

But beyond those things, I had all sorts of questions, and no way to answer them:

  • I see Potts is “a resident of Kensington,” but is he a member of council? Or could mere residents present an ordinance in a way that council was required to spend time taking it up? I could see if he, as an observer, brought it up in a Q and A session, but an actual ordinance?
  • Why were Dr. Eugene Jones and my great-grandfather present? Had the fact that such an “ordinance” would come up been publicized, or even passed on first reading? Or did they attend meetings all the time, and just happened to be there? My great-grandfather was in the construction business. Did that bring him there? Was he there to get a permit or a code variance or something?
  • If they were there just because of this item, were they representing someone? Had the local ministerial alliance or someone like that asked them to be there? And was my ancestor someone who was often asked to speak out on local issues — or often did so, whether asked or not?
  • Did they object “so vigorously” on religious grounds — how dare this heathen seek to silence church bells? — or were they just irritated by the fact that the council was spending time on something so frivolous? Or somewhere in between? (I’m hampered by not knowing much about A.C. He died when my father — the last living member of his generation — was very young, and Dad only recalls seeing him once.)
  • The writer possibly didn’t bother to dig further into the matter because it was “said” that public sentiment was very much against it, and it was going nowhere. He was just reporting a local curiosity.
  • Was there a crowd at the meeting, given that public sentiment? Was there drama, and noise (which would have been hard on Potts, poor fella)? Or did the folks who opposed it trust A.C. and Dr. Jones to deal with the matter?

Today, of course, this item might have gone viral on the Web. Our president would probably have, at the very least, put out a Tweet defending church bells, and QAnon would say Potts was an agent for Hillary Clinton.

But as things are, I am just left to wonder…

One of only four pictures I have of A.C. Warthen. He's shown with my grandfather and my Dad's much-older brother Gerald.

One of only four pictures I have of A.C. Warthen. He’s shown with my grandfather and my Dad’s much-older brother Gerald — A.C.’s first grandchild.

Finally, Michelle Goldberg gets it! For a moment…

argument

For close to a year, I’ve been listening regularly to the NYT’s podcast “The Argument,” starring three of the paper’s op-ed writers.

There are two people on the left — David Leonhardt and Michelle Goldberg — and one on the right, Ross Douthat.

That may sound a bit lopsided, and for me it is, but not in the way you think. Week after week, I agree to varying degrees with liberal Leonhardt and conservative Douthat, and get really frustrated and turned off by the views of Michelle Goldberg.

One reason for that is that she’s always dissing my man Joe. It started before he got into the race last year, with her strongly expressing her wish that he NOT get in the race. After that, she continued to be a prominent voice among the nattering nabobs of the left competing to see who could be more dismissive of the former VP.

It’s not that she hated him. It’s just that she, you know… dismissed him. She was all like, Oh, good old Uncle Joe; he’s a sweet guy and I can put up with him at the family gatherings, but we all know he’s past it, and he has no business getting back in the game — the poor guy’s going to break a hip or something. And he just doesn’t get the world of today…

And as I walk about downtown listening to these podcasts, I’m like, No, YOU don’t get it…

But today, I finally got around to listening to yesterday’s podcast, which was about Joe’s triumphs of the last few days, and finally, she got it! She was awesome in the degree to which she got it, and how well she expressed it. I had to go back and listen again to write down some of the great things she was saying, starting with…

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg

So much of what we’ve been talking about the last few months, especially in the debates, has been irrelevant.

People… care less about the details of, you know, how we’re going to pay for universal healthcare, or Medicare for all vs. Medicare for all who want it.

There are people who really care about that stuff. But what most people care about is, you know, the house is on fire; how are you going to put it out, not how are you going to rebuild afterwards….

Yes! Absolutely! I’ve been so impatient with all the idiots out there talking about this process in terms of who got off the greatest zingers in last night’s debate, or how Elizabeth “I’ve got a plan for that” Warren was going to pay for those plans, or whatever…

Who cared? I didn’t. Because the house is on fire! Stop talking about rearranging the furniture!

Also, too many people fail to get that the problem isn’t this plan or that plan of Bernie Sanders. The problem is Bernie Sanders, and the way he and too many of his followers conduct themselves. And a moment later, Ms. Goldberg said some awesome things about that:

I don’t think the Sanders movement understands how alienating it is to people who aren’t already on board with it, or maybe to people who are on board with maybe 85 percent or 90 percent of what they believe.

There’s a sort of paranoid style in that movement…

I’ve been around the left long enough to know that the left has always attracted a certain number of people who, um… you know, who are sort of just in it for the reeducation camps, right?…

Left-wing movements kind of succeed or fail to the degree that they can, you know, marginalize or quarantine those figures…

Yes! Absolutely! You get it! Paranoid style!

When she made that crack about the re-education camps, I laughed out loud, right there in the middle of the household goods department in Belk. (On rainy days, I tend to go do my afternoon walk in the nearly empty Richland Mall, rather than walking across the USC campus and around the Statehouse.)

And one of the guys on the show — I think it was Leonhardt — laughed, too. It was so perfect, so dead-on.

You go, Michelle!

But then, later in the show, she said she was going to vote for Bernie instead of Joe.

And suddenly the member of the trio I love to boo was back. I’m just briskly walking into Barnes and Noble shaking my head. I can’t believe it…

It’s alright, I guess. Most of the world came around and backed Joe this past week. Some people just take a little longer. No way to speed it up without, you know, re-education camps…

Wow, what a gross misrepresentation of reality!

downcast

This blew me away.

Being a fair-minded guy, I wanted to stress that not everyone in the working media lacks perspective. You know that one headline from this morning that I cited and dissected in my previous post? I was going to confess it was a bit of an outlier, and that for every guy like that one, there’s a sensible soul such as Frank Bruni, whose column this morning made the same point I did:

Yes, Bernie Sanders won the state’s primary on Tuesday night. And that victory, coming on the heels of his functional tie with Pete Buttigieg in the dysfunctional Iowa caucuses last week, makes him the indisputable front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

But look at how closely behind him Buttigieg finished, despite furious attacks from Sanders and other rivals over recent days. Look at the sudden surge of Amy Klobuchar, whose strong third-place finish demonstrates not only how unsettled the contest is but also how many Democrats crave a moderate — or female — alternative to Sanders.

Note that while Sanders is hugely well known in New Hampshire and beat Hillary Clinton by 22 points in its Democratic primary in 2016, he squeaked by Buttigieg this time around, as many people who voted for him four years ago obviously didn’t do so on Tuesday night.

And so forth. The real story being the inability of moderates thus far to settle on ONE candidate.

But before adding that, I decided to check my email, and saw an enewsletter from that same, sensible Frank Bruni, and the headline was “What in God’s name happened to Joe Biden?”

OK, fine. Yes, it would have been better had Joe been on the top of the stack of moderates rather than the bottom in New Hampshire, but still — I’m still in a good mood from Joe’s rally at 701 Whaley last night.

And then I saw the picture that ran with the eblast, and my jaw dropped.

I was there. I saw Joe and how he conducted himself. He was as upbeat and ebullient as ever. In fact, if I can ever get the freaking thing to upload to YouTube, I’ll show you every second that he was at the podium, and challenge you to find the split-second reflected in that photo above, in which he seems to be delivering a concession speech with a crushed spirit.

Until I can get that up and running (and finally, here it is), here are some representative images:

You can almost always get a picture like that NYT one. You can play a fun game if you use the “burst” function on your phone (akin to the motordrive of old film cameras), and you’ll see all sorts of expressions flash across a person’s face, some of them quite comical and many of them highly misleading as to the person’s emotional state at the time.

But this one is a prize-winner. And I’m shocked that it was used by the NYT, even in an email…

THIS is a representative image illustrating Joe's mood at the event.

THIS is a representative image illustrating Joe’s mood at the event.

For what little NH is worth, Bernie got CRUSHED by the moderates

Bern

My NYT app this morning.

One can sometimes see why there are so many people in this country who can’t stand the news media.

I can get pretty peeved with them myself these days.

There are two phenomena that particularly irritating. Or maybe they’re just one:

  1. They have the attention span of goldfish.
  2. They have a mental block that keeps them from seeing the larger picture.

The last two weeks, it has been astounding the degree to which the media — both straight news and opinion — have been trapped in what’s happening right this second. It has always been thus, but the pace of reporting and the orientation toward social media has made the problem far, far worse.

Instead of a considered, consistent narrative over time, the picture we get of what’s happening is so immediate, it has no value beyond a few moments:

  • There are no results from Iowa!
  • There are still no results from Iowa!
  • Iowa is a disaster! This is the death of the Iowa caucuses!
  • No one should ever see results from Iowa as meaning anything again!
  • Wait! There are results from Iowa! Pete won!
  • No! Maybe Bernie won! This is hugely significant!
  • One thing’s for sure: Biden is toast!
  • Iowa didn’t settle anything, but New Hampshire will!
  • Oh, look, Bernie won! Bernie is triumphant! It’s settled! This is over!
  • No, wait! Klobuchar came in third! This is the big news!
  • One thing’s for sure: Since New Hampshire settles everything, Biden is toast!

Meanwhile, Biden was having a very nice rally here in Columbia before an enthusiastic crowd. And as a Biden support, I would prefer that he had done better among those uber-white people in Iowa and New Hampshire, but as far as I’m concerned, the race is just getting started.

Of course, when Joe wins here, we’ll be seeing:

  • A miracle! Biden’s not toast at all! He won one!
  • But he’s still damaged! Some black voters voted for other people!
  • Also, South Carolina means nothing because it’s TOO black!

And so forth.

And then, Super Tuesday will roll around, and South Carolina will be forgotten and it will be all about Bloomberg or something.

That’s the goldfish part.

The other thing is that so many people out there seem incapable of seeing what happens in this brief moments within any sort of larger context.

My favorite example of that today is a headline that trumpets, “Bernie Sanders Has Already Won,” followed by the subhead, “Whether he captures the White House or not, he has transformed the Democratic Party.”

Uh… no, he hasn’t. First, he didn’t do nearly as well as he did four years ago. I think it’s early to completely dismiss him, but if you go by that one bit of info, his time may have passed.

Second, and most importantly, if we’re going to draw conclusions based on something as thin as the New Hampshire vote, consider: The three candidates appealing to the moderates who utterly reject Bernie’s revolution got a total of 52.6 percent of the vote, compared to Bernie’s 25.7 percent.

They crushed him. They demolished him. They utterly rejected him. Even if you give him Elizabeth Warren’s 9 percent on the assumption that her voters might switch to Bernie, he got massacred.

The real story here is that the moderates just can’t make up their minds. If and when they do, we won’t be hearing any more about the triumph of Bernie.

I — and a lot of voters here in South Carolina — still believe that they would be wisest to line up behind Biden because he’s the one most likely to beat Trump. And nothing is more important than that.

They just haven’t wanted to accept that yet. I get it. I like Pete and Amy, too. But I’m going with the guy most likely to win. And I still remain hopeful that other moderates — sensible folk that they are — will reach that conclusion, too.