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San Francisco Chronicle Still Desperate, Unions in Talks With Hearst

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 9:15 PM EST
Representatives from the San Francisco Chronicle's employees unions met with Hearst officials to discuss possible layoffs and wage cuts today, confirms Chronicle spokesman Michael Keith. The layoffs, as I blogged earlier, are meant to offset the $50 million loss the Chronicle suffered last year. Hearst, which owns the paper, has threatened to try to sell it in the case that costs cannot be cut significantly; or close it altogether. No word yet on whether the unions have reached a deal with Hearst. "Today's meeting was just the initial discussion," says Keith. "We're not really expecting anything to come from that."

Hearst hasn't laid out any specific timeline or number of positions to be cut, but one of the unions reports that as of today, at least 50 jobs will be axed. The union also said in a statement on its site that it's discussing removing some jobs from union protection and outsourcing certain positions, among other options. Keith expects the next move is for the two employees unions to meet and discuss options jointly. 

"It's really a sign of market failure to imagine a major city like San Francisco without a daily paper," says one Chronicle staffer. The staffer is anxious about the impending layoffs, or worse: if the Chronicle closes, 1,500 people will be jobless.

The Chron need only peer north for sorry company. Hearst also owns the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which it plans to close or produce exclusively online if a buyer cannot be found by the end of March. And even if staff cuts could make up the $50 million, Hearst would still be stuck without a revenue stream. Currently, it costs $10 to produce and deliver a $2 Sunday Chronicle: yes, that's right, ten dollars. Layoffs will barely alleviate that burden, and apparently the paper is hemorrhaging money, losing $1 million a week. It'd take a lot of Extra, Extra to pull out of that hole.

Spokesman Keith says not to expect any updates to the situation soon, but if any insiders with a scoop, e-mail me at jphillips at motherjones dot com, or catch me up in the comments. Some have theorized that Hearst's threat to close the Chronicle "within weeks" is nothing more than an attempt to intimidate the unions or accomplish other nefarious corporate ends. To which I can only say, nefarious? Hearst? Definitely plausible. Other theories?

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Teh Google

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 7:33 PM EST
In his column today, Michael Gerson tells us that at a recent meeting of conservative activists, Bobby Jindal didn't talk much about personal history or social hot button issues:

Instead, he uncorked a fluent, substantive rush of policy proposals and achievements, covering workforce development, biodiesel refineries, quality assurance centers, digital media, Medicare parts C and D, and state waivers to the CMS (whatever that is).

Italics mine.  Brad DeLong snarks, "At the very least, a columnist for the Post should hide his ignorance rather than be proud of it."

But what Gerson is actually doing here is using the time honored rhetorical trope of feigned ignorance to suggest to his audience that Jindal must be some kind of rocket scientist.  This is something that I used to do occasionally too, but it's really not possible anymore and Gerson should know that.  Why?  Because the web makes research too easy.  If you Google "CMS" the very first hit is Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.  It takes five seconds.  Outside of things like live panels, it's a very 20th century affectation to showily pretend not to know this kind of stuff anymore.

Mining Reform: A Golden Opportunity

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 6:58 PM EST

In the midst of America's financial crisis, one of the biggest government giveaways goes to an industry that least needs it: gold mining. Even as prices for gold hover near historic highs and mining exacts a deep environmental toll, the General Mining Law of 1872 allows $1 billion in hard rock minerals to be taken from federal lands each year royalty-free. All told, mining companies have been exempted from paying at least $100 billion in royalties, taxes, and fair land prices.

On Thursday, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a hearing on updating the 137-year-old law, which was enacted during the Grant administration. The House is expected to pass sweeping royalty and environmental reforms, but the bill must also clear the Senate, where last year a similar effort stalled in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the gold mining industry’s most powerful ally.

Reid faces a delicate political dance. Typically a reliable ally to environmentalists, he’s also the son of a gold miner, father of children who maintain ties to the industry, and representative of a state that mines more gold than all but three nations. In a nod to his virtual veto power over mining reform, last year the House held a similar hearing in the town of Elko, ground zero for Nevada's mining industry. There, Reid expressed his support for "real and reasonable reform" before ultimately turning on the House’s reform bill as "not something Nevada can accept."

A spokesman for Jeff Bingaman, who oversees mining legislation as the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, sees this as the year that a reform bill finally passes. With the treasury bleeding dollars and the gold mines swimming in cash, Reid may be headed for the final showdown between two seemingly incompatible sides of his political identity. Whatever compromise he supports could make him an historic statesman, put him out of a job, or both. I explore how it all might shake out in the March/April issue’s feature, Gold Member.

Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack Scores Big Post-Oscar Bump

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 5:39 PM EST
The ceremony was shrill and silly, and A.R. Rahman was forced to share his big musical moment with John Legend (who was himself replacing Peter Gabriel), but things worked out: the soundtrack to best picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, as well as best song "Jai Ho," have both registered significant post-Oscar jumps in sales. The soundtrack, which includes both of Millionaire's nominated songs as well as M.I.A.'s already-pretty-popular "Paper Planes," is now the number one selling album on iTunes, outselling both The Jonas Brothers and heavy metal monsters Lamb of God. Nice. Perhaps more intriguingly, the ecstatic, driving "Jai Ho" is now a Top 5 sales hit, climbing to #5 on the iTunes singles chart today. The official Billboard charts have not yet caught up with this week's sales, but it will be intriguing to see how those look next week. Also, for some reason the music industry powers that be decided it would be a good idea if the Pussycat Dolls did a "remix" of "Jai Ho," which one hopes might engender interest in the original amongst otherwise clueless demographics, but one worries might, er, hasten the end of the world. After the jump, the song in its original form (accompanying the dance scene from the film) and the new, Pussycatted version.

Why Bobby Jindal Must Call Jay Leno ASAP

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 4:17 PM EST

There was only one phone call Bobby Jindal needed to make on Wednesday--and that was to Jay Leno.

The Republican Louisiana governor utterly botched the GOP response to President Obama's address to Congress. In the White House press briefing room on Wednesday, reporters were cruelly joking about Jindal's performance, noting he had gone quickly from a political rising star to a black hole. "He made Sarah Palin look good," one said. Another quipped, "No doubt this was a strategic attempt to lower expectations--and it succeeded wildly."

The reviews have been universally awful. Even on the right. David Brooks called Jindal's speech "insane." Rightwing blog Little Green Footballs huffed, "Bobby Jindal...seemed to be trying for the same 'inspirey hopey changey' theme as the Big O, but came up with almost no specifics about anything at all....[T]the most specific point in his speech was the slam against volcano monitoring. And that came across as ignorant to me, and pandering to the anti-science far righties." Fox News commentators put it down:

BRIT HUME: The speech read a lot better than it sounded. This was not Bobby Jindal’s greatest oratorical moment.

NINA EASTON: The delivery was not exactly terrific.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Jindal didn’t have a chance. He follows Obama, who in making speeches, is in a league of his own. He’s in a Reagan-esque league.… [Jindal] tried the best he could.

What's an exorcist-loving, young Republican to do in response?

Jindal ought to steal a move from Bill Clinton and seek salvation on Leno's set. In 1988, Bill Clinton, then a little-known Arkansas governor, delivered the keynote address at the Democrats' presidential convention. It was a horribly boring speech. He droned on for what seemed like forever. And when he began his summation and said "in conclusion," the audience cheered. He immediately became a national punchline. But Clinton moved fast to stop the bleeding. He joked with reporters about his terrible performance, and he quickly booked himself a spot on Johnny Carson's show. (For you youngsters, Carson hosted The Tonight Show before Leno.) Sitting next to Johnny--after Carson gave him a very, very, very long introduction--Clinton engaged in self-ribbing and made good sport of his abysmal performance. Four years later, he was elected president of the United States.

Clinton was a survivor who turned a lousy moment into an entertaining bit. By doing so, he showed he was in touch with reality and could pivot accordingly. (Of course, some might say that Clinton was able to pivot too easily.)

Can Jindal pull as deft a move? At this stage, Leno is his best bet. And if he can get on the show before Saturday Night Live takes its shot, all the better for him and his now-less-than-brilliant political career.

How Food Policy Gets Made: Finland vs. the US

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 4:09 PM EST

Matt Yglesias has a post up contrasting how the creation of health policy differs in Finland and the United States. Here's his description of Finland's process, as it pertains to school lunches:

...in 1999, parliament passed some legislation guaranteeing a nutritionally balanced school lunch. So the National Nutrition Council wrote some guidelines dictating that a properly balanced lunch would feature fresh or cooked vegetables covering half the plate, a starch (potatoes, rice, or pasta) covering a quarter of the plate, and meat or fish or a vegetarian protein alternative covering the remaining quarter.

...what's crazy about it is the way it happened. Parliament felt children should eat a well-balanced meal, and so guidelines were written by a government agency and then implemented. Like magic!

By way of contrast, here's an example of how food industry lobbyists hijack the system in the United States, courtesy of the very good American News Project:

The next issue of Mother Jones, which is either on newsstands near you or will be soon, is on how to fix food. Most of the content is not online yet, so if you want to read more you'll have to settle for this conversation we had with Michael Pollan, a longtime MoJo contributor who has more neat ideas on reforming food policy than just about anyone.

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Core Principles

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 3:54 PM EST
AP reports on Barack Obama's plans for financial regulation:

In remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday afternoon, the president offers no specific regulatory framework, but calls for "core principles." Among them are consumer protections, accountability for executives and a regulatory plan that covers a broad series of financial transactions that have escaped regulation in the past.

Atrios says Obama is "making the right noises" here, but I'm not quite so sure.  Consumer protections are fine, but frankly, not really central to what caused the financial meltdown.  "Accountability" for executives is mush.  They're already accountable in most meaningful senses of the word.

That leaves a "regulatory plan that covers a broad series of financial transactions that have escaped regulation in the past" — which is fine but could mean pretty much anything.  What's the core principle here?

I know everyone is probably tired of hearing me say this, but I wish Obama would talk more about a real core principle: regulating leverage more effectively, and doing it everywhere and for all types of securities.  This isn't easy, especially when you need to get practically the entire world on board, but more than any other single change it would force financial institutions to be more responsible; it would make future asset bubbles less destructive; and it would fundamentally put a stop to the casino atmosphere and outlandish paydays that have permeated Wall Street over the past decade.  If we really wanted to get ambitious, we might even try to set up a countercyclical regime that increased capital requirements in good times and lowered them during bad times.  But regardless of how the details turn out, if our new regs are driven by a core concern for regulating leverage, they'll do some good.  If not, it's likely to be a repeat of Sarbanes-Oxley: lots of good intentions, but not much bang for the buck.

Jim Bunning, Please Don't Go Anywhere

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 3:37 PM EST

Jim Bunning, the slightly daft Republican Senator from Kentucky who revealed over the weekend that he knows exactly when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will die, is threatening to sue his own party if it supports a primary challenger against him in his 2010 reelection campaign. Bunning, who is 77 years old, is (1) so old and (2) so peeved at his own party that he is apparently willing to say anything about anyone. Check out this broadside against fellow Republican senator John Cornyn, who controls the GOP party organ that oversees Senate racess:

"I don't believe anything John Cornyn says. I've had miscommunications with John Cornyn from, I guess, the first week of this current session of the Senate. He either doesn't understand English or he doesn’t understand direct: 'I'm going to run,' which I said to him in the cloakroom of our chamber."

That is fantastic. I hope Bunning is around for seven or even 13 more years, launching attacks on everyone who crosses him. Now that Ted Stevens is gone, the Senate needs a new curmudgeon.

The First Dog

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 2:35 PM EST
The Obama family has apparently settled on the type of dog they want:

First Lady Michelle Obama told People Magazine that the the family wants to find a rescue Portuguese Water dog.

....But the name is still a source of familial tension in the White House."Oh, the names are really bad. I don't even want to mention it, because there are names floating around and they're bad," Mrs. Obama said. "I think, Frank was one of them. Frank! Moose was another one of them. Moose. I said, well, what if the dog isn't a moose?"

As I recall, my mother pretty much let us kids name the cats when we were young.  This produced inspired names like Meow (my sister's doing, I think), Tippy (white tip on her tail — at least until the day I slammed a door on it accidentally) and Butterfly (a huge black cat who may have been the least butterflyish animal ever born).  But you know, they all seemed like pretty good names to us.  So if the Obama kids want to name their dog Moose, I say let 'em.

Democracy in the Middle East

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 1:15 PM EST
PIPA's latest survey of attitudes in Muslim countries is out, and for the most part there are few surprises.  Long story short, most respondents don't approve of attacks on American civilians (though they largely do approve of attacks on soldiers), but that's about it for the good news.  Broadly speaking, they don't like the U.S., don't like our presence in the Middle East, and think al-Qaeda's goals (if not its methods) are admirable.

The chart on the right demonstrates the depth of our problem.  Virtually no one believes that the United States truly supports democracy in Muslim countries, and who can blame them?  We don't — and all the airy talk in the world won't change that.  Only genuine change will.  Marc Lynch:

The most important starting point is to recognise that American policy is the most critical issue. No amount of public diplomacy will convince Arabs or Muslims to embrace American actions they detest. The Bush administration’s conception of public diplomacy generally involved putting lipstick on a pig — attempting to sell policies formulated in isolation from their likely reception. Even when public diplomacy officials had a seat at the table, they have had little influence on shaping decisions.

Improved public diplomacy from Obama — including his still unscheduled big speech in a Muslim capital — will be valuable, but only if it's accompanied by policy changes as well.  Getting out of Iraq will help.  Seriously engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will help.  And supporting democracy more consistently will help.  But if the PIPA poll is accurate, it's going to be a long, hard slog.  There's a helluva lot of ground to be made up.