Archive for March 2009
Chicago Sun-Times bankruptcy reminds us that great journalists are casualties of their bosses’ mistakes
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Tue, 03/31/2009 – 10:16am
There are some who cheer as some of these daily newspapers are biting the dust. The backlash against the MSM, especially among our readers, is enormous. After all, we have a weekly award where we celebrate the ineptness of the MSM.
But unfortunately, many of those who are suffering from newspapers’ lack of accountability are innocent victims. No newspaper has suffered unnecessarily more than the Chicago Sun-Times.
The Chicago Sun-Times has filed for bankruptcy. But the Sun-Times isn’t where it is because of a lack of accountability or because of the severe recession. The name Conrad Black has a lot to do with where the Sun-Times ended up.
The list of sins by Black and his henchmen — and the board that ignored all the warning signs — are too numerous to list here. But think of it this way, the Sun-Times Media Group has no bank debt. But as the Chicago Sun-Times itself put it, “The IRS has said Sun-Times Media Group owes up to $608 million in back taxes and penalties from past business practices by its former controlling owner, Conrad Black, now imprisoned for theft from corporate coffers.”
Stripped of everything but the bare essentials for years, and sometimes having even less than that, the Chicago Sun-Times was the more aggressive of the daily newspapers in Chicago. They have run well-researched, extensive investigations into the seedy nature of Chicago politics.
But the paper, despite new management, is thinner than Keira Knightley. Circulation scandals on top of its other problems haven’t helped.
I should point out that I know a few of the Sun-Times people personally. They are the kind of journalists you would be proud of. They don’t worry about what their bosses think about what they do. You could argue that while they were being robbed blind, they didn’t meddle in what their reporters were doing, and it showed positively in the pages.
The Chicago Tribune is what it is, and I know a lot of people there as well. But the Tribune has always focused on the suburbs, and the Sun-Times focused on the city. If the inevitable possibly happens, and the Tribune gets to be the only game in town, I don’t think they will be prepared to cover the city in the way the Sun-Times could. Dinosaur is too easy to use as an analogy, but the Tribune hasn’t traditionally been mobile or aggressive, especially when it comes to covering the city itself.
For those in Denver and Seattle, two long-time two-newspaper cities until recently, readers divided themselves into “Denver Post” people and “Rocky Mountain News” people; P-I readers vs. Times readers. In Chicago, people literally are Trib people and Sun-Times people.
Those who are “Rocky Mountain News” people and P-I people in Seattle know what withdrawal means. But the current division of resources of the Chicago daily newspapers within Chicago vs. its suburbs will mean a lack of coverage in the city of the third-largest city in the country.
While we live in one of the more aggressive TV markets in the country, their punches against those in power are light. The attitude has been “well that’s the way Chicago/Cook County/state politics are, nothing we can do about it.”
I recently attended a newspaper forum on the future of newspapers in Chicago. The early part of the discussion focused on whether there would be a newspaper in Chicago. I offered up in the Q&A portion that we would have a newspaper in Chicago, though it may not be the Tribune (huge bank debt, thanks Sam Zell) or the Sun-Times (being robbed blind, thanks Conrad Black). But that newspaper has to cover the city and hold accountable the many failings of our politicians. And has to have the money and resources to get that done.
We saw in the forum that there are several online outlets trying to pick up what the Tribune and Sun-Times have left behind. It’s a start, but there is so much more that needs to be done.
If you think this is an obituary for the Sun-Times, perhaps it is. But I can tell you that this paper will literally go out fighting. Many great journalists who toil for newspapers, large and small, have either been told to leave or are hanging by a thread. As one daily newspaper journalist I know said recently, “I am thankful I have a job.” Even though it can’t be easy to sit under the role-reversing Sword of Damocles, these people will work until the last breath to provide great journalism.
Those in our profession do take a bad rap for the sins of those in power. But in the trenches, there are people who do really good work that don’t deserve this fate.
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Fri, 03/27/2009 – 1:38pm
Is Jake DeSantis an economic hero?
Well, the executive in AIG’s financial-products division who sent in his resignation letter to The New York Times did receive a standing ovation from his colleagues. This included his boss, who has been seen in a Che Guevara T-shirt. After all, they might have thought, “here was someone who stood up when the bad, evil people tried to take away our million-dollar bonuses even though they were based on transactions we couldn’t back up. Who cares if taxpayer money paid for my bonus, it’s mine.”
But to whom does the bonus money belong? Of all the possible parties, the least likely answer is Jake DeSantis.
Of course, possession is 9/10 of the law, and DeSantis does have his bonus money. But it’s not really his.
We, the taxpayers, bailed out his company. We own 80% of his company, and it would have been more except Republicans cried out that nationalization would be bad, as opposed to this sewer we’re swimming in now. Oh, and the bonus is likely based on transactions with no financial backing.
But DeSantis wants to be “fair” about it, since we are giving him and his co-workers grief. DeSantis is willing to donate the after-tax proceeds, all $742,006.40 of it.
That is why I have decided to donate 100 percent of the effective after-tax proceeds of my retention payment directly to organizations that are helping people who are suffering from the global downturn. This is not a tax-deduction gimmick; I simply believe that I at least deserve to dictate how my earnings are spent, and do not want to see them disappear back into the obscurity of A.I.G.’s or the federal government’s budget. Our earnings have caused such a distraction for so many from the more pressing issues our country faces, and I would like to see my share of it benefit those truly in need.
On March 16 I received a payment from A.I.G. amounting to $742,006.40, after taxes. In light of the uncertainty over the ultimate taxation and legal status of this payment, the actual amount I donate may be less — in fact, it may end up being far less if the recent House bill raising the tax on the retention payments to 90 percent stands. Once all the money is donated, you will immediately receive a list of all recipients.
Doesn’t this sound like the end of a Jimmy Stewart movie? Not quite.
He doesn’t want it to “disappear back into the obscurity of A.I.G.’s or the federal government’s budget.” Now I’m no tax expert, but let’s say his bonus, pre-tax, is about $1.1 million, maybe $1.2 million. What could that kind of money be used toward in the federal government’s budget? It would be half a drop in the overall budget, but it could mean the construction of a crumbling school or extra money toward scientific research or rehabbing a veterans’ hospital. You know, the obscure parts of the federal government’s budget.
But perhaps you say that DeSantis might donate it to some worthy cause. After all, he promised to give us a list of all recipients once the money is donated. And you can always trust an AIG employee, can’t you?
Let’s assume that DeSantis is straightforward, and will do exactly as he said. This is, after all, similar to politicians, when caught getting a campaign contribution from some apparent nefarious source, promising to give the money to charity. But why do they get to pick the charity?
Our tax system offers tax breaks for those who give to charity. So even when a politician stumbles upon this situation, or in DeSantis’ case, they do benefit financially.
DeSantis makes it clear that “this is not a tax-deduction gimmick.” But it is. Never having made a $742,006.40 charitable deduction (but only because everything I have ever made and all my possessions add up to less than $742,006.40), I don’t know how much tax savings one can get, but I’m sure it’s a lot.
“I simply believe that I at least deserve to dictate how my earnings are spent,” said DeSantis. Well, let’s make him this deal: if he can convince us how he “earned” this money, we should consider letting him have the tax deduction. If he can write as many words about how his skills and talents allowed him to make this money legitimately as he did in whining about how unfair all of this is, we might be inclined to see things his way.
DeSantis wrote his letter to The New York Times, hoping for sympathy for his plight. When the financial world is crumbling all around us, when dreams and lives are literally shattered thanks to the exploits of those that worked in his company, he is looking in the wrong spot. If he really insists on donating our money in his “bonus,” there are plenty of people who really need his help, thanks to the efforts of AIG and other companies.
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Fri, 03/27/2009 – 10:06am
Chuck Todd had a nice idea, in theory: ask those on the Internet to help him come up with a question to ask President Obama during Tuesday night’s press conference. We complain about the Washington bubble, and how the MSM is insulated from the problems of the world outside the nation’s capital. So Todd, perhaps seeing that frustration, solicited questions via Newsvine.com and a plug on MSNBC’s First Read.
So what did Chuck Todd ask when given the chance Tuesday night?
“Why, given this new era of responsibility that you’re asking for, why haven’t you asked for something specific that the public should be sacrificing to participate in this economic recovery?”
In response, Obama noted the sacrifice made by companies receiving taxpayer bailout money. Then he shifted to Todd’s overall point.
“With respect to the American people, I think folks are sacrificing left and right. You’ve got a lot of parents who are cutting back on everything to make sure that their kids can still go to college. You’ve got workers who are deciding to cut an entire day — and entire day’s worth of pay — so that their fellow coworkers aren’t laid off. I think that across the board people are making adjustments, large and small, to accommodate the fact that we’re in very difficult times right now.”
It was a stupid question asked at a presidential press conference — there are plenty of those. And it was pretty insulting since it used Bush as a standard for a question in dealing with Obama. But what makes the question more insidious than normal was that Todd actively was trying to escape the bubble.
Chuck Todd told Rachel Maddow on Monday about getting outside the bubble, the Amtrak corridor between New York and Washington.
Perhaps in that Amtrak corridor, people are not having to sacrifice. But outside that bubble, people are doing plenty of sacrifice.
Todd told Maddow in going over the questions that it was like Olympic scoring, throwing out questions from the left and the right. But the theme Todd noticed was people asking about their own personal stories.
“People say they vote their pocketbook when they vote in an election sometimes when it comes to the economy and things like that — a lot of that questions in the middle there, Rachel, are very much sort of like, okay but, what does this stuff mean for me.”
So Todd explains on Monday that people out there are making imposed sacrifices already, and recounts several examples of those stories. On Tuesday, Todd asks a question to the president in front of a nationwide audience on why Obama is not asking those people to make sacrifices.
Todd should meet the poor woman in Mississippi who makes $42/week from unemployment if she was making sacrifices. Or anyone else in Mississippi who makes the maximum unemployment mark of $230/week. Or Braddock, PA Mayor John Fetterman who went on the “Colbert Report” offering his town for experiments because, well, they don’t even have a restaurant in the dwindling town.
I remember the excitement over the YouTube debate during the presidential campaign where actual people would get to ask questions about the candidates. But then, the “adults” screened the questions, so only questions that fit what they wanted aired during the debate.
The online town hall this week was a lot closer to what we’ve been looking for, getting closer to improving democracy.
Todd doesn’t seem like a bad guy, and he’s certainly not the worst White House reporter we’ve seen. But he committed the cardinal sin of the MSM: the assumption that they know us better than we do.
Todd’s other sin was saying he would try and failing miserably. If you are going to ask for our input, you better use it. Assuming Todd received truly heartfelt questions of those who are suffering, why didn’t they get representation in the news conference?
Getting input from real people is a great way to add to the quality of a presidential press conference question. But, Chuck Todd, you have to actually use the information in order for the process to work.
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Thu, 03/26/2009 – 2:35pm
Occasionally, we succumb to bad television, one guilty pleasure we don’t normally admit we watch. No, it’s not “Dancing with the Stars” or “Lost” or any reality show on E! (Seriously, who the hell are the Kardashians and why should be keeping up with them?)
My guilty pleasure is “Homeland Security USA,” well until it was put on hiatus two weeks ago. This was a 13-part series of 1-hour episodes on ABC about the inner workings of the border patrol and its various related ventures, ICE, CBP, and other fun acronyms.
I started watching it for the Canadian-U.S. border crossings, being something of a fascination of mine. But the show is mostly devoted to people and things crossing between the United States and Mexico.
You realize that you watching propaganda disguised as entertainment. As you watch the program, you see drugs caught every time, shot after shot in the Arizona desert of helicopters with night vision, capturing all the allegedly illegal aliens every time.
In the show, we see the dogs who sniff out the drugs. We are told they are trained to pick up multiple drugs by their sense of smell, and we see the crafty and not-so-crafty ways of smuggling drugs into the country. Yet, they all get caught every time.
But if reality reflected the program, there wouldn’t be problems with drugs and guns between the United States and Mexico.
The program is propaganda — entertaining on some level, though — but the current reality is far graver. But having grown up with 55 years of television where the bad guys are always caught, we don’t often get to see the reality.
When you watch the show, you certainly get the impression that it’s very difficult to get things across the border that you shouldn’t, especially drugs, guns, and people. But somehow, it happens — a lot.
Thought it will never appear on “Homeland Security USA,” it would be intriguing to have a TV show on how these items do get across the border. The nay-sayers would say that it would only encourage people to smuggle guns and drugs across the border, but it’s happening right now anyway without the cameras.
Somehow, a lot of stuff goes across successfully. Maybe they aren’t crossing at the car lanes at Ciudad Juarez or Tijuana. But somehow the items make it to the country of choice.
No matter what extreme tactics we will take, border crossings are an imperfect science. An improved economy on both sides would help. The fact that the gun violence is escalating now is no coincidence; desperate times call for more desperate actions. Economic revival can reduce gun violence and drug trafficking, another reason why President Obama needs to keep doing the multitasking.
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Thu, 03/26/2009 – 12:22pm
What is it about being in the media that makes you want to work for the government and vice versa?
The classic example is MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough, former Republican Congressman. But others are following or contemplating those footsteps.
Using the Rod Blagojevich example seems a little silly, since it was only a one-time, 2-hour stint on right-wing talk show outlet WLS-AM in Chicago. The station did offer the former governor a show if he quit his day job. Though right now, Blagojevich doesn’t have a day job, unless you count preparing for his defense in court.
Blagojevich played some Elvis on the station that used to be a rock and roll giant in the Midwest, but mostly he repeated his own talking points on why he was treated unfairly in the impeachment process. When he wasn’t promoting himself, he was tearing down current IL Governor Pat Quinn, who amusingly was on WGN-AM radio as a guest at the same time.
If Blagojevich were talking about someone other than himself or Quinn, he might have a career in this field, provided he could find headphones that won’t mess up his hair. (Full disclosure, I worked briefly part-time at WLS radio 16 years ago under previous management.)
Larry Kudlow was trying to go the other way, working from his post at CNBC to a possible run against Sen. Chris Dodd in 2010. Kudlow ran into troubles when while talking about running, he was doing a number of things that conflicted with his supposed objectivity. Kudlow ultimately decided just recently not to run for the seat, mostly since he would have to give up his luxurious seat at the cable business news channel.
While many in the MSM compared Kudlow’s desires to Chris Matthews and Arlen Specter’s seat, one huge difference was that Kudlow was putting himself into clear conflicts of interest, while Matthews was trying to avoid them.
And Matthews, along with the late Tim Russert, made the transition from politics to media.
But that door should be more carefully monitored. Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove had media gigs, yet are using them to have sway on work they are doing outside the media realm. True media people understand conflicts of interest, even if they don’t always follow them. Scarborough’s cheerleading for GE stock was stunning given that he never disclosed that MSNBC is owned by GE.
Mika Brzezinski twice in one segment said, “Parent company” without further explanation, a lame try but still better than Scarborough. Even for a former GOP politician, Scarborough should have had better ethical sense.
Government, like media, has ethics. And despite a considerable lapse in ethics in the media, somewhat due to politicians not knowing any better, we should try and improve ethics in media. Hiring people who understand this would be a start. Making sure they keep observing them would help.
Originally published on MediaPutz.com on March 26, 2009
One of Bill O’Reilly’s passions that doesn’t involve loofahs is to stalk people who publicly disagree with him, even if they are just reporting what he actually said. Well, his passion in the sense that he doesn’t actually participate; O’Reilly is more of a voyeur, getting off on watching people be victimized whose only “sin” was to go against the mighty, powerful O’Reilly.
To give O’Reilly the Media Putz of the week award just for having one of his minions stalk someone would feel so repetitious it would be like giving Tiger Woods Golfer of the Year or in days gone by, giving the New York Yankees the World Series trophy.
No, O’Reilly gets this week’s award for going above and beyond his normal stalking craziness. Meet Amanda Terkel, managing editor of ThinkProgress.com.
Terkel was one of many in the media — and she admits Think Progress wasn’t even the original source — to point out the hypocrisy of O’Reilly speaking in front of a group, the Alexa Foundation, devoted to helping rape victims when O’Reilly chastised a young woman who was raped and murdered and basically saying she was asking for it.
So O’Reilly’s producer went to stalk Terkel; what’s the big deal? Well, the better question is whether O’Reilly and his minions deliberately picked her because she was a woman. And in a cruel fate, Terkel is similar in build to the woman that OReilly mocked that started all of this. O’Reilly could have gone after a number of people to accomplish the same tactic, yet he picked Terkel. And there is also the point of how Terkel was stalked.
Jon Stewart played the tape of someone being stalked on a city bus — not great but out in public. But we’ve also seen stalkees accosted on their private property. Amazingly, the Terkel stalking has a new twist. According to Terkel, O’Reilly and his minions tracked down her home address, waited outside her apartment, and followed her car on a two-hour ride to a small town in Virginia. You are going on vacation with a friend, a brief getaway and you get accosted by a stalker who crossed a state line to commit his act.
So in a story that goes back to a woman who was attacked, raped, and murdered, and to retaliate for literally repeating what O’Reilly said on the air, their revenge was to accost a woman two hours from her home on vacation for a piece she wrote three weeks before, and scare the crap out of her.
“Now, some object to displays like these. But we feel they’re a vital tool in holding public servants accountable for their actions, and we do not go after people lightly. We always ask them on the program first, or to issue a clear statement explaining their actions.”
Terkel isn’t a public servant; in fact very few of his stalkees fit that definition. Terkel says she wasn’t contacted or asked onto the program.
Stalking in itself sounds awful, but it get worse. Terkel was falsely accused of hurting rape victims and the foundation, even though Terkel never criticized either group. And of course, unlike conventional stalkers, there isn’t a camera following them around hoping to catch some actual or edited excerpt that could make O’Reilly joyful sitting there in the dark watching the results.
Keith Olbermann has this easy instructional video on what to do when O’Reilly sends his producers to stalk you. We might even need this if O’Reilly gets angry over winning this award (again).
In O’Reilly’s screwed-up, borderline psychotic reaction to being legitimately criticized over chastising a rape victim, his reaction was to accost and scare a young, female reporter to make his point. Our reaction is to give Bill O’Reilly the Media Putz of the week award.
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Wed, 03/25/2009 – 10:47am
If we go back all the way to the third full week in August 2008, we saw that there were three unofficial nominees for Barack Obama’s running mate: now VP Joe Biden, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, and Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN). Bayh seemed to be the odd figure in that group: he was plenty conservative and a huge Hillary Clinton supporter when she ran for president. But despite the differences and potential awkwardness, Obama thought highly of him to seriously consider him for the job.
You would think that such trust and appreciation would lend itself well in future interactions. But seven months later, Bayh is leading a group of Democrats committed to halting necessary legislation that Obama thinks we need to get this country moving forward again.
As the O’Jays put it, “They smile in your face; All the time they want to take your place; The back stabbers.”
Everyone is aware that there are moderate Democrats, some of them bending over backwards to please the Republican overlords. Watching Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) on Rachel Maddow’s show was nauseating enough. And some of those moderate Democrats don’t always feel the same way on several key issues.
But the time to organize this group would have been 2001 or 2007, so the better question is not “Why” but “Why now?”
We have already seen the damage done by the moderate Democrats to the stimulus bill, and they weren’t organized as a group.
Bayh’s Conservadem group has gained strength from some of its newest members: Mark Begich (AK), Michael Bennet (CO), Kay Hagan (NC), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Mark Udall (CO), and Mark Warner (VA). All but Bennet did get help from Obama to get elected, and Obama won all their states except for Alaska.
There are the two other leaders, Blanche Lambert Lincoln (AR) and Thomas R. Carper (DE), along with Herb Kohl (WI), Mary Landrieu (LA), Claire McCaskill (MO), Ben Nelson (NE), Bill Nelson (FL), and of course, everyone’s “favorite” “Independent Democrat,” Joe Lieberman (CT).
But clearly, the leader and organizer of this non-pitchfork mob is Bayh. One intriguing area where Obama and Bayh also have commonality is that they have both been keynote speakers at the Democratic National Convention (Obama in 2004 and Bayh in 1996). Since then, Bayh has been a bridesmaid when it comes to VP possibilities: 2008 was the third consecutive presidential year where Bayh was a serious VP contender.
Bayh is also up for re-election in 2010, but has had an easy time winning races so far in Indiana. If his efforts in establishing this group are motivated by re-election possibilities, Bayh could have done a lot less and protected his chances.
Bayh said on MSNBC that “we care about our country more than our party, and so we want to get things done.”
If that were true, the group never would have formed. These centrist Democrats, who admittedly are concerned about the size of the deficit, though they didn’t speak up for the last eight years, would have realized that growing the deficit short-term is necessary to get us out of our deep economic downturn. They would have swallowed their pride, and later put pressure on Obama to reduce the deficit, though they did no such thing when Bush was in power.
It’s difficult to believe Ben Nelson is sincere when President Obama wants to save money by eliminating private funding of student loans — more money for students while saving taxpayers money — yet Nelson is vehemently opposed to doing so.
But like some Republicans, these centrist Democrats aren’t concerned about the deficit itself, they are focused on what we are spending the money on. When we spend money on Iraq, that’s okay with them. When we spend on money on people and programs here in the United States (where we all live), then the pocketbook concerns suddenly spring up.
Ironically, if they were concerned about the party, they would stand up with Obama, since if Obama doesn’t succeed due to underfunded programs perhaps due to meddling by centrist Democrats, they will suffer as well. Some of these freshman senators might be worried about that less than 6 years from now.
In the group’s introductory press release, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who praised the group, said, “If we are going to deliver the change Americans demanded and move our country forward, it will require the courage to get past our political differences and get to work.” But what Reid doesn’t get is that this group is designed to embrace those political differences, not set them aside.
Barack Obama has had many challenges on his plate, and very little cooperation to speak of so far. He reached out to Congressional Republicans in ways not seen in decades, and was rebutted. His dealings with centrist Democrats when they weren’t organized went sour when they felt it necessary to do even more damage to the stimulus bill.
Bayh summed it up well in the MSNBC interview in terms of getting legislation passed. “And it’s going to take the centrists to get us there. And so we want to help make the changes we need. And that’s — that’s what our group is all about.”
No, the group is all about reducing the domestic spending we need to recover from the failed policies that they embraced from the other major party. It’s bad enough when those on the other team aren’t amenable, but when your own teammates won’t help, Obama’s presidency will just be that much rougher.