Sunday, November 05, 2006

Death of the Press

It's the death of the press as we know it (and we feel fine). If you didn't get that word, you must have missed Michael Wolff's Vanity Fair article entitled "Panic on 43rd Street." It's a regular 10th Avenue Freeze Out, to read Wolff's article.

We're not disagreeing with it, but as obit after obit keeps coming in on the press (right now the obits are about the daily papers, not long ago they were about the evening news and, if Time-Warner makes the announcement some are anticipating, look for it to shortly be about the mainstream magazines).

But always the mainstream press. The ghost of Judith Miller seems to hang over the funeral procession. Oh, Judy, who knew you had so much power?

Independent media apparently. And it's surprising that there's no obit for them. Are they dying? Who knows, but it's as a good a gas bag topic as any other, right?

The ghost of Judith Miller lingers over independent media as well. It leaves a bad smell, in fact. Not because of anything she contributed to the format (she did, however, once write for The Progressive) but because of the fact that so many are so eager to water the dead fern one more time that they've taken to ascribing articles to Miller that she didn't, in fact, write.

Make no mistake, Miller's resume is dotted with spotty reporting. (Many of which bears co- bylines from fellow offenders such as Michael R. Gordon and Warren S. Hoge -- both of whom have been let off with very little criticism.) In fact, the resume is so crowded, we honestly don't grasp why so many in independent media feel the need to push the lie that she wrote a November 2001 piece for The New York Times linking Saddam Hussein and 9-11. (The piece was written by Chris Hedges.) Is it because she's a woman? Is it because she was once of their own?

The death of the independent media actually happened some time ago. It's actually why a Judith Miller could, eventually, land at The New York Times. All the life and spirit has been drained out of it with very few exceptions. There is no 'alternative' to independent media unless by 'alternative' you mean printing up the reverse image of the mainstream.

If the mainstream cried "Hillary Great!" the response from independent media would be "Hillary Bad!" and somehow, we would all be expected to be better off and feeling informed. If you have any doubts that the needle is on "E" for independent media, reading Katha Pollitt's latest column (and we like Pollitt) should help you put away your doubts. Writing of a person that far too much has been said already (Hillary Clinton, or as Pollitt calls her "HRC"), Pollitt wastes a column coming to Hillary's defense. We understand the column. We've had the knee jerk reactions ourselves over some of the sexism that's passed for 'critique.' We just didn't waste our time writing about what has to be the most written about woman after Princess Diana.

So Pollitt chases down the sexism or attempts to. She notes CODEPINK and quotes CODEPINK. They're harder on Hillary because she's a woman, we're told. Pollitt's had quite enough of that, thank you very much. And she goes to great lengths to explain why.

She just forgets one word -- a word the right never forgets. That word is "feminist." Hillary may not be our idea of the ideal feminist, but she's certainly promoted herself as one in the past and she's been tarred and feathered by Rush, et al for it.

The expectations on Hillary don't derive simply from her gender. There is the fact, which Pollitt leaves unspoken, that Hillary has identified and been identified as a feminist. Is it too much to expect a feminist not to water down reproductive rights? Is it too much to expect a feminist to oppose an illegal war?

We'll never know because even Pollitt (whom we do like) was caught in the knee-jerk.

In fact, the knee-jerk appears to be the dance independent media does (over and over) these days. We get silly little transcriptions of radio interviews (lengthy, wide-ranging radio interviews that are reduced, in print, to something that reads like a Q&A with Bobby Sherman from a vintage issue of Tiger Beat). What's the purpose of that? What's the purpose of, for instance, taking an interview with Gore Vidal and pruning it so that he comes off like the sound-byte king and unable to speak in anything other than short sentences?

If they'll render Vidal stupid, who won't they? If Vidal's comments are edited so that it sounds like he and the interviewer are going through a checklist in ten minutes, what's the value in printing the interview? What has independent media to show for it other than that "OH, WE GOT GORE!" moment?

Every now and then, The Progressive (and yes, we were referring to their "interviews") feels the need to run a pro-war piece and will usually note that they're for freedom of speech or dress it up in some other 'high minded' drag. But the same freedom of speech clause isn't used to offer anything free wheeling. The more radical the person is, the more reduced his or her statements to. (Cindy Sheehan's interview in that magazine is another good example of that.) The interview and the subject get watered down. (And we've heard from at least one subject of an 'interview' in the last year who told us that they felt they came off sounding like an idiot as their replies were reduced to simple, single sentences. Is it sour grapes or wishful thinking on the part of the the one interviewed? Possibly, but we believe it. It didn't read like them when we saw it in print. It didn't read like any coverage they'd ever had before in a lengthy history of coverage.)

Independent media has largely lost the ability to be 'free wheeling.' We're thinking of three well known print magazines: The Nation, The Progressive and the rag we'll mention again just as soon as the one at it who ripped off Mike makes at the very least a private apology. (No, we're not letting that die and Mike's noted that he may very well go out at his site by reproducing his post that was ripped off as well as the 'writing' that ripped him off. Shame apparently is non-existant in indymedia. Which, while we're on the subject, must explain why one of the short stories in our fiction edition this summer appeared three weeks later at a website with slight modifications and comments of praise to the blogger whose fans didn't grasp what a rip-off artist they were reading. When they do that in film, they at least bill it as a 'homage.') They seem to be in some sort of 'respectable' trap these days, looking to the mainstream to figure out the 'big topic' and then printing up a negative mirror image.

There are so much useless pages in print. Take Eric Alterman. (Insert Henny Youngman punchline here.) Does the nation really need The Nation to offer up, in print, his comments on some cable chat fest or story that is three to four weeks old when the issue hits the stands? We don't think so. You can get real time criticism online at any number of sites and Alterman's columns show up dead-on-arrival (and, as Rebecca pointed out, he's so busy humping some man crush's leg, that he usually misses out on the larger story). Offering his no-they-didn't coverage in print is cheating readers who probably have already read such things online.

After all, that's the thinking behind making pieces on Iraq 'web only exclusives' right?

Where is the bravery in independent media (print)? Why does it always read like a staid issue produced in one sitting? Where is the life left in the medium?

As tiring as the Judith Miller tirades are at this late (bravery would be taking on Dexter Filkins), at least those little attempts at drive-bys tend to zing with life. Otherwise, we're luckly to feel like we're reading Time on a good day, and, on a bad day, feel like we're flipping through the 'tasteful' style of Ladies' Home Journal.

A Hunter S. Thompson couldn't be published today in our independent media. A Pauline Kael couldn't be. They'd have to go through the generic processor that robs all the life and spirit out of most writers as they tackled the same issues that the mainstream does. At its best, the commentary reads like good Paul Krugman. That some might take that as a compliment drives home the problem since Krugman writes for The New York Times which is not ground breaking in terms of approach or style.

Why does it matter? If the daily paper is the obit this month, what does that say about independent media which these days reads more and more like an extended section of the op-ed section of The Times?

One of the books we discuss this edition is Free Press: Underground & Altnerative Publications: 1965-1975. While neither The Nation nor The Progressive was ever the underground press, looking through older issues of the magazines, we do so more spirit and more life. (In terms of interviews for The Progressive, we were shocked to read a not-all-that-old Susan Faludi interview where she was allowed to speak in paragraphs and not soundbytes.) We're also thinking of Betty's right-on critique about the recent column by Thomas Friedman: "Then, as that relization sunk in, it struck me that Thomas Friedman was even more useless than I knew. Here he was, with a column on Friday, weighing in about what had been said on Monday. All week long, everyone and their clone had been offering up endless takes on what John Kerry meant, what the attacks from Bully Boy meant, blah blah blah. On Friday, Thomas Friedman shows up with the idea that anyone gives a damn about the tired topic, that all week long, they'd been thinking, 'I can't wait until Friday when Friedman weighs in so I'll know what I really think!' It drove home the limitations of the daily paper and of columnists who sleep walk across the computer keyboard as they attempt to churn out a few superficial paragraphs. Not timely, not insightful, not passionate, his column just sort of lay there lifeless -- as though it was need of viagra."

Independent media should take note (Eric Alterman should take notes). When it's coming down to Katha Pollitt (a great writer) tackling the tired subject of Hillary and failing to note that she's not just "a woman," she's also a feminist, then independent media needs to refuel the tank quick. If the daily paper is dying, if, these opinion journals may not be far behind. They should make an effort to avoid digging their own graves.
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