Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Saturday, November 25, 2006

‘Electronic agora’ fails to yield liberalism

Let thy speech be short, encompassing much in a few words.
Ecclesiasticus (Apocrypha) 32:8

Langdon Winner, one of the academic “stars” that the J school at the University of Nevada, Reno often brings in, insulted the intelligence--and patience--of his audience by speaking recently for one hour during a talk this fall.
Good speakers seldom go beyond 20 or 25 minutes.

Moreover, Professor Winner of Rensselaer Poly Tech asked such fraternity bull session questions as: 1) “What kind of world are we making?” and 2) “What is my role in it?”
Then he spoke glowingly about the “electronic agora,” declaring that the Internet and blogging are “powerful new means of communication.” But he never addressed the question: so what? Many Americans will still be ignorant. Too many will vote against their own economic and class interests because of social issues they find abhorrent.

Winner spoke of his epiphany after learning that former Secretary of State Colin Powell had deceived the nation in a United Nations speech in February 2003. Winner said he learned never again to believe the government. What took him so long?
Hadn’t he heard of the Tonkin Resolution in 1964? Or absorbed I.F. Stone’s indispensible dictum that all governments are liars and not to be believed unless proven to the contrary?

Peter Kirstein, writing for Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, pointed out the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq:
“Both wars were initiated with distorted intelligence such as the nonexistent attacks on the Maddox and Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin and the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Both conflicts became guerrilla wars in which U.S. forces became mired in nonconventional conflict. Building viable nations and winning the hearts and minds of the people failed.”

Winner did, however, say one true thing in his scattershot speech: Judith Miller, former reporter for the New York Times, is shameful. She let Bush administration sources lead her astray with biased, prowar reporting. Indeed, since the Times has such a powerful impact on the nation’s media, you could argue that she was instrumental in leading the nation into the disastrous war in Iraq.

Press critic Norman Solomon writes on the Web page of “Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting”: “The American media Establishment has launched a major offensive against withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. In the latest media assault, right-wing outfits like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page are secondary. The heaviest firepower is coming from the most valuable media real estate in the USA: the front page of the New York Times.”

Lou Cannon, biographer of Ronald Reagan, gave a speech on the UNR campus recently. I did not attend, not wanting to hear the “cannonization” of Reagan. On a scale of 1 to 43, Reagan ranks 42nd, just ahead of Bush II. No need to await the judgment of future historians.
The media speakers on the UNR campus are sometimes entertaining. But they never address the serious problems of the Establishment media: government propagandist, gutlessness, self-censorship and burial of important stories.

Once more into the breach against the perpetual conservative lament that the media are liberal. Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s who is one of the best political essayists in America, was trashed in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review. Lapham was accused of excessive denunciation of President Bush while overlooking his achievements.
Bush achievements? The reviewer did not name any. Moreover, any political observer who isn’t a right-wing kook must constantly denounce Bush. His outrages are perpetrated daily.

I know nothing about country music and couldn’t care less about it. But I do love the Dixie Chicks.
Their vocalist, Natalie Maines, had the guts to say to a London audience in 2003 that she was ashamed that Bush came from their state of Texas. Result: demonization, banishment of their songs from country radio stations in America and much destruction of their CDs. To her everlasting credit, Maines did not back off. She refused to apologize.
While the Dixie Chicks showed immense intestinal fortitude, NBC-TV showed it had none. It refused to run commercials in Los Angeles for a film documentary, “Shut Up and Sing,” about the Chicks.
Their principled stand is worth all the money in Texas.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Election news super but racism persists

President Bush flunked ignominiously the midterm examination administered by the American people. The wonder is that it took so long to expose the Maximum Leader for trashing the nation and running roughshod over the world.
As Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote, the “Rovian scare and divide tactics,” used by Republicans to win the previous two elections, no longer worked. Neither, for the most part, did the GOP smear, slime and gutterball tactics.
The capture of the U.S. House and Senate in voting last week is the best news America has had politically for six years. Bush is so unfit to be president that he once referred to the Constitution as “just a god-damned piece of paper.” And he acted that way too. “The Decider” has been little different from the notorious dictator Pinochet of Chile.
Bush, the self-proclaimed uniter not divider, became the Great Divider. The self-described compassionate conservative proved to be devoid of compassion.
One sad aspect of the national triumph for decency and humanity: racism. It still rules the South. Tennessee Republican, senator-elect Bob Corker, trailed the Democratic candidate, Harold Ford, a talented black Democrat, in the polls.
Then the GOP played the race card, a tactic that has served it well since Nixon’s Southern Strategy played on atavistic fears and prejudices. (Willie Horton. The black-hand ad in South Carolina to keep a racist in the Senate.)
The Tennessee television spot showed a bare-shouldered white woman declaring that she had met Ford at a Super Bowl party (attended by 3,000 others). She beckoned to Ford with a come-hither look and cooed “call me.” Hence: a stereotypical “black buck” chasing white women.
The ad worked, defeating the man who would have been the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
Back to the positive. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco will become the next speaker of the House, enhancing possibilities for liberal legislation.
One of the legislative priorities in her Rooseveltian first 100 days is to ban gifts from lobbyists, including free rides on corporate jets, and to require disclosure of earmarks. Her agenda also includes an increase of the paltry minimum wage. Pelosi holds out the possibility of prolabor legislation after the long union hostility of the GOP.
More good news: the 110th Congress will have progressives heading committees in the House and Senate. Among them are Rep. Henry Waxman of California of the House government committee. Waxman’s powerful legislative assaults on government will now get the attention they deserve.
Another is Rep. John Conyers of Michigan of the House judicary committee. He is one of the most radical--and justifiably angry--politicians in the country. He will make the GOP squirm.
On the Senate side, liberals will replace conservative and reactionary GOP chairs of committees. Some key liberals are Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, environment; Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, judiciary; and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, armed services.
Another notable triumph: Bernie Sanders of Vermont who won an open seat for the U.S. Senate. Sanders proudly calls himself a democratic socialist in an era when far too many Democrats are barely distinguishable from Republicans.
And another joy: the eco-fascist Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, Calif., was defeated. He was a fierce foe of environmental regulations and had wanted to toss out the Endangered Species Act.
Nationwide, results on social issues were generally upbeat. In the abortion wars, the prochoice forces rejected an abortion ban in South Dakota. California and Oregon voters defeated a parental notification anti-abortion measure.
Arizonians turned down a proposed state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. And in Missouri, voters approved a measure to allow stem cell research.
But the election also showed that Nevada is still in the Dark Ages politically, defying all national trends by electing two Bush-clone Republicans to Congress, Jon Porter from the South and Dean Heller from the North. Nevada is still a terribly conservative state.
The election of Jim Gibbons as governor is shameful. He is totally unworthy to be governor. As Dennis Myers wrote in a political analytical piece for the Reno News & Review, damaging charges against Gibbons raised “character issues” and undercut his “standing as a candidate of moral values.”
On ballot questions, Nevada voters wisely approved tougher restrictions on smoking, banning indoor smoking except in casinos.
However, they joined the phony “war on drugs” by defeating the legalization of small amounts of marijuana. Alas, puritanism still reigns in the Silver State.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

On editorial endorsements and mammon

In ancient times I was an editorial writer and columnist for the Detroit News, one of the most conservative metropolitan newspapers in America. It always struck me as strange for a newspaper to go against the grain of Detroit, a lunch bucket town, a black town, a progressive town.
I was the house liberal, outvoted at editorial conferences something like 7-1. I wrote mostly on city-state matters because I could do the least harm to the newspaper’s editorial policies. But sometimes my editorial words were changed or my columns killed.
One day I wrote an editorial about the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. My words, police riot, were changed to disturbance. A column lauding a socialist candidate for governor of Michigan was spiked. (I naively believed that a personal column did not carry the lofty cachet of the Detroit News.)
My 15-year career in newspapering was totally undistinguished: no scoops, no brilliant stories and no Pulitzer Prizes. But I did have one triumph.
I interviewed candidates for city and state office and then presented my endorsement slate to the board. Once I induced the paper to endorse two Marxists, not out of any ideological fervor, but because they were the best candidates.
I did not tell the board that they were leftists. That would have nixed the endorsements. Reporters for the rival Detroit Free Press, a liberal paper, told me that the News’ endorsements were better than those at their paper.
Anyway, I liked polemical journalism. It’s one of the best jobs in newspapers if—if you have absolute freedom. I doubt if there is a newspaper in America, other than the Sparks Tribune, where writers have that precious commodity. Not more pay, not more weeks of vacation, but freedom.
Lack of freedom is why most editorial pages are so dull. They are a product of consensus thinking. But nothing done by committee has that wonderful spark of individuality.
All of which leads to the Reno Gazette-Journal opinion pages. They are weak and wishy-washy, done with a focus group mentality.
Incredibly, it opposed an election ballot issue that would have raised the pitiful minimum wage. It opposed a sensible proposal to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
It cynically endorsed state Republican Sen. Maurice Washington of Sparks even though he is one of the worst lawmakers in Nevada.
The politics of Washington are backward and his ethics profoundly disturbing. But his re-election would give two votes to Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio to protect the perceived interests of northern Nevada before the surging political power of southern Nevada.
The paper did endorse Democrats Dina Titus for governor and Jill Derby for Congress but tepidly. It backed Republican U.S. Sen. John Ensign, a reactionary Bushite.
Which leads to another serious problem for northern Nevadans. The RGJ is a mediocre newspaper. You cannot have a good newspaper by worshipping mammon, which the Gazette-Journal does for its Gannett chain.
The RGJ is woefully understaffed, leaving reporters no time for analytical stories and interpretive journalism. It has no Las Vegas bureau, no Sparks bureau--and, most damning, no Reno bureau. It does not have a regular Reno City Hall beat reporter. It offers no “think pieces,” those important behind-the-scenes reports of politics and public affairs.
Its reporters are forbidden to use anonymous sources. Yes, blind sources are tricky. The entire story should not be based on them. Readers can judge the credibility only if sources are named.
But sometimes anonymous sources are essential. They protect sources from retaliation while giving readers important insights. Why was that athlete kicked off the football team? The RGJ sports writer knows. But he can’t inform readers because anonymous sources are prohibited. (The New York Times uses them constantly, contributing to reader understanding.)
Sadly, the RGJ is run by accountants, advertisers, lawyers and third-rate editors--in that order. Even Gannett’s new information center with multi-media coverage 24/7 will not lift the paper above mediocrity. Oh, yes, the center means more work, no more pay and an expectation that reporters should carve out the extra hours on their time.
As for editorial endorsements, they are of scant worth. Readers do not need to be told who to vote for in high visibility races: president, governor, Congress. Endorsements might be of some use in low-visibilty races. But as President Franklin Roosevelt used to say: give him the front page and you can have the editorial page (which has half the readership of page one).

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Fraternity house president ruining America

I think our country sinks beneath the yoke,
It weeps, it bleeds and
each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds.


(Second of two columns on mid-term elections)
Everything about President Bush can be summed up in a sentence: he trades fart jokes with his svengali Karl Rove.
This is not prudishness. Rather, it is indicative of Bush’s absolute shallowness, an ignorant Frat Boy who has usurped the most powerful office in the world.
At a Group of Eight summit meeting last summer in St. Petersburg, the Frat Boy gave an impromptu neck rub to the horrified chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, as if she were just another fraternity brother.
Torture? Hey, it’s just fraternity hazing. Waterboarding? Just fraternity hi-jinks.
A New York Times book reviewer, commenting on Bob Woodward’s new book, “State of Denial”: “Bush emerges as a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader.” Frank Bruni in a recent book, “Ambling Into History,” calls Bush “a timeless fraternity boy and heedless cutup.”
Maureen Dowd, New York Times columnist, strikes the same note:
“The president has enshrined his immaturity and insularity, turning every environment he inhabits--no matter how decorous or serious--into a comfortable frat house…he brings the same DKE diction, bearing and cadences, the same insouciance and smart-alecky attitude, the same simplistic approach, swearing, swaggering (and) talking to Tony Blair with his mouth full of buttered roll.”
His Animal House antics have produced a disastrous six years for America. The daily outrages are legion. Bush has made America a contemptible country in the eyes of much of the world.
The title of a 350-page report by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan sums up the Bush dictatorship: “The Constitution in Crisis, The Downing Street Minutes and Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retribution and Coverups in the Iraq War and Illegal Domestic Surveillance.”
He presides over an administration of lackeys who refuse to speak truth to power. Two of them, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, are ignorant, purblind and crude. Cheney: waterboarding is a no-brainer if it saves lives.
Bush promotes and praises incompetents. He appoints racists and hacks to the federal courts. He goes out on the hustings to support a racist senator and a married congressman accused of throttling his mistress. (The congressman paid her $5.5 million to settle a suit.) Bush names foxes to guard the chicken coops at government agencies.
His administration Swift-boats justificable criticism. It outs CIA agent Valerie Plame, a criminal act, because her husband wrote a critical column about a pretense for war in Iraq.
Kevin Tillman, who served in the Middle East with his brother Pat, the pro football player killed in Afghanistan, cried out in anguish over the ever-shifting Bush reasons for a senseless war:
“We were sent to invade a nation because it was direct threat to the American people or to the world or harbored terrorists or was involved in the 9/11 attacks or received weapons-grade uranium from Niger or had mobile weapons labs or had WMD or stop an insurgency or stop a civil war we created that can’t be called a civil war even though it is…
“Our elected leaders were subverting international law and humanity by setting up secret prisons around the world, secretly kidnapping people, secretly holding them indefinitely, secretly not charging them with anything, secretly torturing them.”
Congress, instead of providing the necessary balance to a mad White House, has become a mere mouthpiece. Its partisanship is nasty. The Dracula Congress has brought 20 bills to vote between midnight and 7 a.m. hoping no one will notice.
As columnist Paul Krugman has written: “The Bush administration and its allies in Congress saw the terrorist threat not as a problem to be solved but as a political opportunity to be exploited.” The GOP has won two elections through fear and seeks to win still another.
The Military Commissions Bill, the torture bill, is enacted with just an hour of debate.
GOP ranks are riddled with gays in important administration positions yet its evil genius, Karl Rove, plays the homophopic gay card during Bush campaigns going back to the lesbian whispers against Texas Gov. Ann Richards in 1994.
King Bush is the worst president America has ever had. The first step to dethroning him is the midterm elections Tuesday. “Let America be America again,” as poet Langston Hughes wrote.