Here's one of the mysteries of the media world: Newspaper chains routinely make profits that Fortune 500 companies only dream ofwe're talking 20% plus hereand yet everyone says newspapers are about to go the way of the horse and buggy. What's up with that? As Eric Klinenberg explains in "Breaking the News," in our current issue, there's actually no disconnect between fat profits and the demise of the great American newspaper. In fact, the cutting back on reporting and content to wring more money from newspapers is what's killing them. Nope, the Internet isn't to blame. (Though newspapersand magazines [ahem]still have a thing or two to learn about making money online.) Klinenberg, the author of the just-published Fighting for Air, takes a close look at the ongoing Los Angeles Times debacle, a case study in how to turn a world-class newspaper into a shadow of its former self, all in the name of satisfying shareholders and equity-chasing investors.
Klinenberg's article is worth checking out even if your fingers haven't been smudged with newsprint for years. Because even if you're an online-only, blog-reading, indy media type, you still need newspapers whether you realize it or not. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're doing the kind of reporting that blogs can't. Or as Kevin Drum explains in his companion piece, "Why Bloggers Need the MSM":
In fact, blogs and the MSM [mainstream media] are symbiotic. Blogs at their best improve on MSM reporting both by holding reporters to account and by latching onto complex topics and talking about them in a conversational style that professional reporters just can't match. But the blogosphere would shrivel and die without a steady diet of news reporting from paid professionals.
Even if newspapers printed on dead trees disappear, we're still going to have to get our daily news somewhere. Back to Klinenberg:
"What's really at risk here is not the future of newspapers but of the news itself. While our democratic culture could survive the loss of the daily paper as we know it, it would be endangered without the kinds of reporting that it provides. It's the journalism, not the newsprint, that matters."
These stories are just part of a larger package that includes Sridhar Pappu's look at the implosion of the LA Times, plus an interview with former LAT editor Dean Baquet, and a nifty chart [PDF] of media mergers and acquisitions from AOL-TimeWarner to Google-YouTube. Check it all out here.
Doug Feith, the former undersecretary of defense who helped set up the Pentagon operation that stovepiped bad intel about WMD and Saddam-Al Qaeda links to the White House, has been trying to clear his name recently. Now he says he was just asking "tough questions" about the CIA's work, not trying to peddle bogus theories to justify an invasion of Iraq. Just a skeptical public servant holding those in power accountable. And if you believe that, I have a war to sell you. Feith's latest effort in name-clearing is a website that promises to challenge the "media myths" and offers glowing quotes about his character from Donald Rumsfeld and General Peter Pace. Funny, but Feith has conspicuously left off what's probably the most memorable quote about him by a military man he used to work with. Here, let us fix that:
In 1733, James Oglethorpe established Georgia as a haven for the "worthy poor" to work off their debts. If he'd only known that nearly 275 years later, the entire United States would be a giant debtor's colony, one nation in the red, subject to compound interest, indentured to Citibank.
This is the bleak financial landscape explored in Maxed Out, an enlightening tour of America's dangerous love affair with easy credit. James Scurlock, a Wharton grad who blew his inheritance on a Boston Market franchise, is an engaging guide to the corporate numbers games and the personal side of financial ruin. As he tours the country filming a documentary (just released under the same title), he meets collection agents, personal finance gurus, families with kids or moms who killed themselves to avoid credit card bills, and Dee Hock, the aptly named visionary who realized Visa could get away with charging 18 percent interest. He also elicits some frightening admissions from people in the credit business, such as the mortgage broker who explains how he helps clients lie about their incomes so they can "afford" $400,000 homes, knowing that the banks turn a blind eye to such tricks.
I know, I should just ignore David Brooks, especially when he does his grumpy old man routine. But his latest "kids these days" schtick is unusually misguided. (Sorry, no link, the column is behind the NYT content wall.) Yesterday, Brooks tackled the scourge of hipster parents, decrying the "Park Slope alternative Stepford Moms" who are "fascistically turning their children into miniature reproductions of their hipper-than-thou selves." Their sins: Giving their kids pretentious names like Anouschka, making them listen to Radiohead, and dressing them in annoyingly precocious t-shirts. All because they "refuse to face that their days of chaotic, unscheduled moshing are over." (Not to be confused with the orderly, scheduled kind.) This is serious stuff: "The hipster parent trend has been going on too long and it's got to stop."
I'm actually sympathetic to some of Brooks' ranting. I'm a new, un-hip parent who wants my kid to be a sheltered, uncoordinated nerd like I was. I think it's dumb to name your baby Kal-El (unless it's a family name), give him a fauxhawk, and stick him in a Che onesie or a "Boob Man" t-shirt. But I'm not too worried that the progeny of young bobos are being turned into what Brooks calls "deceptive edginess badges"whatever that means. The trappings of hipster parenting are pretty superficial. New parents are naturally self-absorbed, but behind the impulse to be a cool parent with a stylish kid lurk big questions about mortgages and mortality. I'm with Slate's Michael Agger (also an occasional contributor to Mother Jones), who concludes after reading Neil Pollack's parenting memoir Alternadad, "The difference between an alternadad, a banker dad, and a soccer dad is ultimately aesthetic and pointless. Sure, Pollack is psyched when [his son] Eli develops a love of the Ramones and Spider-Man, but most of his book recounts his struggle to find what America used to offer easily: a solid house, a living wage, a decent public school." Child rearing in the U.S. has always been faddish and consumeristic, but the bottom line hasn't changed much: Parentseven the ones with tattooswant what's best for their kids. Brooks should put on some Dan Zanes and chill for a couple of years. By then, the hipsters will have gotten the hang of this post-adolescent parenting thing and will be buying minivans. Now that's scary.
Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of slavery. But since Hollywood doesn't release new titles on Thursday, it's waiting until today to launch Amazing Grace, a new movie about 18th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce. The flick, directed by Michael Apted (creator of the mesmerizing 7-Up documentary series) and produced by the studio that did The Chronicles of Narnia, is getting enthusiastic advance reviews. But nowhere is the film more highly anticipated than among conservative Christians, who see parallels between Wilberforce's moral battle and their faith-based campaign against sex trafficking. But Wilberforce's unlikely victory is also viewed as a metaphor for the Christian right's struggle to remake the culture. Presidential hopeful Sam Brownback was dubbed a "Wilberforce Republican" by the Economist, and has eagerly accepted the title. And check out this email appeal I recently received from Ted Baehr, who runs MovieGuide, an evangelical movie review site:
One man, William Wilberforce, was used by God to abolish the slave trade in England and bring about a reformation of manners.
Imagine what you and I can do together to redeem the media and save our culture! [...]
Because of Wilberforce's willingness to serve the Lord, a Victorian society where women and children were safe and where the Church was addressing social evils in creative ways saved a nation that was quickly falling into rampant paganism.
[...] you can help us bring about a moral reform in our nation that will set the captives free from the bondage and slavery of corrupt media.
This is the chance for the Church in our era to address social evils in creative ways!
Wilberforce has officially been recruited as a culture warrior. (BTW, MovieGuide gives Amazing Grace four stars, though it warns viewers that it contains "female cleavage.")
Of course, Wilberforce's story doesn't just resonate with religious conservatives. His against-the-odds struggle for social justice plucks liberal heartstrings as wellours included. For a progressive interpretation of British abolitionism, see Mother Jones co-founder Adam Hochshild's most recent book, Bury the Chains, which argues that the anti-slavery movement was "the first great human-rights campaign." As Hochschild explained when I interviewed him:
In a time that feels politically grim, especially for anyone in the U.S. who cares about social justice, I hope people will take heart from a story of folks who started a campaign at a time when it looked even grimmer. The idea of ending slavery seemed totally utopian, crackpot, wildly too idealistic. But they succeeded. And they succeeded in 50 years, in the lifespan of some people [...] They went through some very grim times, one of them being the long wartime period like the one we're seeing now. Wartime is bad news for progressives, and it was the same thing [during the Napoleonic wars]. So I guess to the extent that it's possible for a book like this to have any effect, I would just like to see it have the effect of making people working for justice today feel heartened and to know that any big struggle will always be a long one with many setbacks.
I don't see anyone calling themselves "Wilberforce Democrats" any time soon, but that's no reason to let the right lay exlcusive claim to the legacy of abolitionism, or even Amazing Grace. So take a break from your usual pagan film fare and see if it lives up to the hype. (And for you history buffs/Afropop fans, it's your chance to see Youssou N'Dour's silver screen debut as Olaudah Equiano.)