Mojo - February 2009

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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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.

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.

Supreme Court Puts Kabosh on Vibration Monument

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 12:43 PM EST

Bad news this morning for Summum, the Utah religious group famous for its mummification practices. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, rejected the group's arguments that the First Amendment required the city of Pleasant Grove to install a Summum monument displaying its "Seven Aphorisms" (Number 3: Vibration) in a public park. Summum had argued that because the city had accepted a Ten Commandments monument for the park, rejecting the Summum monument violated the group's free speech rights. A lower federal court had agreed with the Summum, but the justices in Washington were clearly swayed by arguments that a favorable ruling for Summum would open the door to a "parade of horrors" in public space everywhere.

The Summum clearly had a sympathetic case, especially to stalwart believers in the separation of church and state. But they weren't helped by the very real example of Reverend Fred Phelps, the infamous head of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Phelps, who runs www.godhatesfags.com, wants to erect a public monument in Casper, Wyoming depicting Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998. The caption would read, "Matthew Shepard entered Hell October 12, 1998, in defiance of God's warning 'thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.'" If the Summum had prevailed, Phelps might have, too. Justice Samuel Alito wrote that picking and choosing monuments for a public park was not the same thing as deciding who can and can't speak in a public place, as Summum had argued. Alito said "the display of a permanent monument in a public park" requires a different analysis.

My home state of Utah no doubt breathed a sigh of relief at the news, as Summum has spent years tormenting city officials across the state with its proposed monuments, largely as an effort to get rid of the many Ten Commandments monuments in public parks. Today's decision finally puts an end to the campaign, which really is too bad. As a journalist, you always have to root for the story, and this one, where a group that mummifies pets goes up against elected officials who are mostly members of a faith that once practiced polygamy, is pretty good.

Bobby Jindal's Stimulus Lies

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 11:41 PM EST

Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, gave the GOP response to President Barack Obama's speech to Congress Tuesday night. I'll leave the analysis of how Jindal did to David Corn, but it's important to note that Jindal repeated two fairly common Republican lies about the stimulus package. Here's the relevant portion:

[The stimulus includes] $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a magnetic levitation line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called "volcano monitoring".

The truth is that the stimulus bill does not allocate any high speed rail money for specific projects. In fact, any stimulus money for high speed rail would be allocated by Obama transportation secretary Ray Lahood—a Republican.

The 'volcano monitoring' part is almost as misleading. According to ProPublica, the relevant portion of the stimulus money is for "U.S. Geological Survey facilities and equipment, including stream gages, seismic and volcano monitoring systems and national map activities." It seems obvious that employing geologists, building facilities, buying equipment, and paying people to map the country all have a stimulative effect. But more importantly, why does Bobby Jindal think monitoring volcanoes is a bad thing for the government to be doing? There doesn't seem to be any immediate way for private enterprise to profit from monitoring volcanoes (maybe selling volcano insurance?), but there is obviously a huge public benefit from making sure volcanoes are monitored: warning people if a volcano is going to erupt. Isn't that obvious?

Apparently not to Bobby Jindal. But, of course, Bobby Jindal is the person who just tried to tell the nation that the problem with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina was that bureaucrats demanded that people have proof of insurance and registration. It wasn't.

(There's no money in the stimulus to save the San Francisco salt marsh mouse, either.)

UPDATE: You want a cool video on maglev trains? You got a cool video on maglev trains.

DC Will Soon Have Voting Rights; Is Statehood Next?

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 6:14 PM EST
The District of Columbia is poised to finally obtain voting representation in Congress. Is statehood next? Little known fact: Obama supports it.

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Dear Everyone, Please Care Less About the Dow

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 5:53 PM EST

Ned Hodgman at the very underrated Understanding Government blog has had it with the media's unrelenting need to put the stock market at the center of the American economic recovery.

Today's Wall Street Journal front page headline, scanned this morning over coffee by the Journal's 1.7 million subscribers, is "Stocks Drop to 50% of Peak." I’d say we're better off with 50% of the nonsense we had when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was the default indicator of the country’s economic health.

It’s not just the numbing predictability of the news every day — again with the Nikkei average, again with the S&P 500, and now every morning we're supposed to care about the stock futures too.

That's force of habit (and a lack of imagination) from the nation's news outlets. The real problem is that the Dow Jones Industrial Average is only one measure of prosperity in this country, and certainly not the most reliable. Let's look back a year or so and see if the Dow's "peak" was a reliable indicator of anything except the coming crash.

Ned has some suggestions on what might make better indicators of the recovery. Might I suggest Bhutan's Gross National Happiness?

Liberals Fight Gun Control To Win Abortion Rights

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:13 PM EST
Last year, liberals in DC were furious with the US Supreme Court for striking down the city's strict gun-control law. In DC v Heller, the high court found that individuals have the right to bear arms, and not just within the 2nd Amendment's famous "well-armedregulated militia." Since then, gun-rights groups have used that decision to challenge gun-control statutes all across the country. Strangely enough, the National Rifle Association is getting some help in at least one of those case from liberal Yale law profs and other activists normally on the other side of such fights. Why?

Legal Times' Tony Mauro explains that the liberal lawyers see progressive benefits to the cases. Doug Kendall, founder of the Constitutional Accountability Center, tells Mauro that if successful, the lawsuits "would have a "lift-all-boats" effect, strengthening free speech, and possibly even abortion and gay rights, at the same time that it bolsters the right to bear arms." Of course, gun control groups aren't so happy about the new-found alliance. The legal director of the Brady Center to End Gun Violence tells Mauro, "It's unfortunate that they would choose to participate in a gun case to grind that particular ax." Still, given that most people think gun control laws don't work, maybe trading useless gun control measures for stronger legal protections for the rights of women, minorities and gays is actually a pretty inspired idea.

Gov't Spending Freeze: A Future GOP Tactic?

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:07 PM EST

I've long worried that the Republicans have a hidden ace card, and I think we're seeing its first playing.

Here's what worries me. The Republican Party, newly enamored with fiscal responsibility, can make a plausible-sounding argument that after the stimulus bill, the Wall Street bailout, the auto industry bailout, and the homeowner bailout, the federal government simply does not have money left to spend. The American people are tightening their belts -- it's time for the government to do the same. Here's Congressman Tom Price, head of the very conservative Republican Study Committee, essentially making that argument while calling for a freeze in government spending.

"Put simply, government spending is out of control," said Chairman Price. "The American people are making tough economic choices, but this Congress is failing to make tough choices as well. As we sink further into debt, Democrats in Congress continue to endorse the causes of the problem rather than embracing a solution. With federal deficits possibly approaching three trillion dollars, a freeze on new government spending is the least we can do. Washington likes to talk about fiscal restraint, but the American people demand more than lip service. It's time to make responsible policy a reality rather than a talking point."

Quick note: I haven't heard or seen that three trillion dollar figure anywhere else. President Obama's fiscal responsibility summit yesterday was meant to suggest to the American people that Democrats can be the party of thrift, that a public worried that the government may spend beyond its means need not turn to fundamentalists like Price. I think we'll see more of this back and forth as Obama tries to move his budget through Congress in the coming weeks.

Update: Looks like the Republican leadership in the House is already making this a major issue.

Virginia Senate Panel Kills Police Prayer Bill

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 12:50 PM EST

A Virginia state Senate committee voted Monday to kill a bill that would have allowed state police chaplains to recite prayers in the name of Jesus and other deities at official events.

The decision ended a dispute that erupted last September, when Virginia's police superintendent issued an order requiring chaplains to offer nondenominational prayers in public. Six chaplains resigned, and a handful of Virginia pols took up the issue, alleging the request was an attack on Christianity. At the time, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith painted the chaplains as victims, saying the state was requiring the men to "disregard their own faith while serving," which infringed upon "their First Amendment rights," leaving them "little choice but to resign."

The situation is stark, but not in the way Griffith sees it: The very law that allows the chaplains the right to identify as Christians also bans the government from sponsoring any particular religion. The chaplains are sworn government personnel who appear in uniform and are paid when they deliver invocations and benedictions at public events. In that capacity, they are representatives of the state, not of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. As one chaplain put it, "When I don my police uniform, I am no longer representing my congregation as a Jewish clergy. Instead, I am representing the government, and therefore the public is my congregation."