Friday, July 27, 2007

Is Free Speech Bad For Us?

Last night I was reading last week's New Yorker article on the protests in Pakistan, where the military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, recently sacked the country's Chief Justice without cause. Thousands of lawyers, students, and other pro-democracy protesters took to the streets, and the judge was eventually reinstated.

At some point my mind wandered to issues of democracy and dictatorship more generally, and I had the startling thought that here in the U.S. - where the President has just fallen short of crowning himself, and declaring the world his fiefdom - perhaps some of deepest-held principles of our democracy have abetted the kings and king-makers.

Here's the radical thought: free speech anesthetizes our outrage. Our ability to say whatever we want, and to have a multitude of platforms in which to do it, has instilled in us a feeling of power. If only we pry deep enough, and shout loud enough, we will be heard! Our newspapers will uncover corruption, and the popular upswell against it will carry the traitors to justice. It's a romantic notion, and the cornerstone of the Bill of Rights.

Meanwhile, those that actually have power spend much effort carefully building an array of defenses. They've coddled their special interests and hidden behind a rabid, reactionary "base." They've hired sycophants and pocketed the right politicians.

So now, scream as we might, it does no good: The money still flows through the proper channels, the required votes in Congress are still there at roll call, and the President gets told he's doing a good job.

Case in point: Bush pardons Libby, a collective roar goes up, and a week later fades to nothing.

Contrast this to a place where free speech is not a given, a place like the Soviet Union or China or Pakistan (esp. pre-Musharraf Pakistan), so that when someone does vocalize his/her condemnation of power, at great personal danger, it ripples like a shockwave. An attack on authority still carries meaning. Here it's par for the course, and authority has learned to emasculate it.

Kishore Mahbubani said something similar in an essay. "The U.S. press has been second to none in exposing the follies of the U.S. government," he wrote. "But have all their exposures served as opiates, creating the illusion that something is being done when really nothing is being done?"

The alternative certainly isn't attractive - government repression is rarely fun. But it would be nice for words to mean something again.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Slouching Towards News Corp.

It looks like Murdoch is going to win his bid to take over the Wall Street Journal. I work in Midtown about a 10-minute walk from News Corp. HQ, and I can hear the cackles echoing up Broadway.

I've done a one-eighty on my Murdoch-buying-the-Journal position. At first I was gung ho, and thought he'd inject some much needed liquid funds into a paper that, in the last five years, has been forced to close foreign bureaus, sell divisions at a loss, and trim the physical size of the paper to save on pulp costs.

Plus, there's something heroic in the old wizard that appeals to me. He's like the empire-builders of old, ceaselessly acquisitive, natives (aka Journal employees) be damned. More directly, he's like the press barons of the late 1800s, who essentially controlled public opinion and used it to build castles and dynasties.

As much as I find the guy exciting, he's bad for journalism. The Times, the New Yorker, and the Journal all have written pieces that investigate Murdoch's use of his media empire to further his business concerns. The most damning allegations - and the biggest risk for a Murdoch-owned Journal - is that he censors criticism of the repressive Chinese Communist Party in order to keep his lucrative broadcasting licenses there. Don't expect to win any Pulitzers writing about Hu Jintao's love of gardening.

I've talked to a few Journal reporters about the impending takeover; they're remarkably blasé about it all. I guess I would be too. The alternatives, at this point, are gloomy. The most hoped-for wish at one point was for a rival suitor to come along, like Warren Buffett. But even a jolly round guy like Buffett would put business first and foremost, slashing costs and staff like Zell will probably do at Tribune. At the very least, Murdoch will throw so much money at the paper it'll think it's an expensive stripper.

The other alternative would be for things to go back the way they were before, the Bancrofts in charge and the stock price at a little over 50 percent of what it is today. Unfortunately, the Bancrofts were never the benign owners we like to think they were; they used their supervoting shares to ensure hefty dividends to keep their pleasant, patrician little lifestyle intact. Journalistic independence came at a cost. A great piece in the Columbia Journalism Review casts light on the Bancroft's cash machine, noting that with average yearly dividends of a dollar a share and 20 million shares between them, the 35 Bancrofts make a cool $571,000 a year each for doing nothing. (Following through on the math, at Murdoch's offer of $60 a share, the average Bancroft take-home will be $34 million.)

Murdoch put it best when he said that “a year ago, they made $81 million after tax and paid $80 million in dividends. You can’t grow a company that way.”

So while I'm no longer gung ho about a Murdoch takeover, unfortunately it may be the lesser of three evils.

Monday, July 16, 2007

I'd like to see the Geico guys fight a woolly mammoth

Just saw this trailer for 10,000 B.C., and even thought it's from the director of The Day After Tomorrow, arguably the most pungent piece of shit ever to be put on film, I am so psyched for cavemen that aren't ironically hip and schilling for insurance companies.

Also, saw the new Harry Potter movie tonight and was pleasantly surprised. I'm not a big fan of the celluloid versions (love the books, though), but this one and Azkaban make the grade.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

A new article

I have a new article in Newsweek, this time on the Darfur tragedy and some engineers/scientists that are putting their skills to use to make life a little more livable for the region's 2.2 million refugees.

A couple links for more information:

A 10-minute video on the life of refugees.

The website for the BDS project.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Stupid News

What's with news outlets not getting with the technological big picture? I went over to the Washington Post homepage today to look for that 20,000-word series on how evil Dick Cheney is. (Answer: Very Fucking Evil.) I used the WP's internal search and typed "dick cheney angler." (Angler is his Secret Service codename and the title of the series.) Surprise surprise, the series, which is probably the biggest and most important thing the Post will do all year, didn't show up in the first ten results. You get a lot of related blog posts, interview transcripts, and sidebars, but not the piece itself. I eventually went to Google and typed in the same thing. The first result was the one I was looking for.

I've complained, in private and on this blog, about the awfulness of Newsweek's website. News outlets everywhere are purposefully, almost willfully losing readers and site hits by employing sloppy user interface. How hard is it to get search, that most basic of web features, right?

Related: Check out this amazing video from the TED conference, which demonstrates new image management software. This is how we'll be reading newspapers online very soon, I predict. It'll probably take over interface in general. Couple that with iPhone touchscreen technology, and soon we'll have whole walls that are touch-sensitive computer screens. Rad!

Finally, my new time-waster at work is reading future obits. It's common practice in journalism to write obits ahead of time for notables that are likely to croak soon. We've already got ones in the system for Osama bin Laden and Fidel Castro. The one about Fidel is particularly interesting, since the writer goes so far as to predict the medium of announcement ("...we heard this morning from the state-run news service...").

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Fear and Loathing

Anyone else struck by the similarity between these two?

Both are dumb, rich white people who grossly abused their positions of privilege in our decadent society. When called to account for their crimes, both cried to higher authority: Paris, to her "Mommy!" and some public officials oiled by Hilton glitz and money, and Scooter, to his "Decider." Neither could stand a day in jail: Hilton used a few well-timed sobbing fits to weasel her way out of confinement after just two days, and Scooter got pardoned* just hours after a judge sentenced him to imminent incarceration.

Of all the many reasons I hate these two individuals, high among them is their cowardice. Hilton was sentenced to a posh cell block for celebrities, politicians, and cops (which cost the American taxpayers $1,100 a day for her confinement); she never even had a roommate. Libby would have certainly got a similar arrangement. And yet neither could stand a day behind bars, an experience that the less fortunate and less connected cannot buy or cry their way out of. Somebody take an x-ray folks. I suspect their backbones are gelatin, and their hearts a mass of puss**. The whole sorry ordeal leaves me with a bit of longing for this Dragon Lady:

*I know that his sentence was commuted, not pardoned, but there's virtually no difference. Sure, he's still required to pay a quarter million in fines, but I have no doubt that some influence-seeking fat cat Republican will pony up for the "Libby Legal Defense Fund." And pardoned sounds better.

**I also know that you can't see a heart - or puss - on an x-ray. Good God, leave me alone! Poetic fucking license, okay?

Sunday, July 01, 2007


Last night Alisa and I saw Ratatouille. I had been talking about it all week, but wasn't feeling in the mood for a kids' flick around 10pm on a Saturday. Even so, A.O. Scott called it an "almost flawless piece of popular art," so I couldn't find a good reason not to go.

My expectations for the film - already preposterously high - were not just met, but exceeded. I have not been so thoroughly entertained by a film since at least last year's Brick, or more likely, 2004's Eternal Sunshine.

We got to the movie a half-hour early, and despite a packed 42nd St. theater, found incredible seats in the ideal row. That set the tone for me. I'm probably the most anxious moviegoer you know. If I don't arrive 45 mins. early for a new release, I'll be clawing the taxicab leather as we make our way uptown. So finding a perfect seat and not arriving preposterously early was a bit like getting an Indian Head penny with your change.

After Regal's totally obnoxious pre-show "entertainment," and a few relatively obnoxious previews (including one for a new Cuba Gooding Jr. movie about camp, which looks as bad as it sounds), Pixar treated us to a warm-up cartoon called "Lifted," about an alien studying for his body-snatching license. It was much less creepy - and much funnier - than it sounds.

As for Ratatouille itself, there's not much to say that Sr. Scott hasn't already covered. Dir. Brad Bird (also helmed the The Incredibles, which I now will rush to rent) made a film that is both completely adult and a complete joy to children at the same time. It's also relentlessly upbeat. You know how in the third act, the hero must fall to depths never before reached, linger there for a while, only to eventually resurface? The depths that Bird makes his hero, Remy, go through are neither so dark nor - more importantly - so annoying as those in other kids' cartoons.

Five stars, two thumbs up, etc., etc.