I keep reading about Fred Thompson, and the will-he-or-won’t-he speculation about his candidacy. Interesting little tidbit that might reflect Internet demographics: no one’s mentioned he's been sitting in for Paul Harvey for some time. That’s a rather sizeable megaphone. I caught some of it today, and he was remarking on the pathetic state of the British navy, its inability to project power to combat the Iranian causus bell-eye, and so forth. Buffing his hawk cred? Not that he needed any, I guess. Maybe he’s thinking Veep. I no longer think it’ll be Rice, since there’s so much disenchantment over her State performance; she sank up to her waist in Peace Process quicksand, and the only reason she hasn’t sunk to her neck is because she’s standing on the shoulders of those who have been swallowed whole before. Besides, people are just sick of the Bush team in general. Then again, I’m starting to think that you could put Godzilla in charge of State, and in two months he’d be four feet tall, breathing perfume, and proposing a Tokyo-reconstruction loan program and a six-point program for getting Mothra to sit down with Gamera.

At the office now, in the coffee shop at the old spot, watching the rain. It’s pouring out, a good spring shower – but it endampens the mood, and the gray sky presses hard on a Minnesota heart hoping for sun. Well, there’s always tomorrow. (When it will snow.) It’s my weekly trip to the office to remind myself why I don’t come to the office. There’s simply no need. If I’d stayed at home I would have been done with the daily column by now, but when I come here I chatter and gossip and talk about things I will write and visit websites long welded into my office browser, but never accessed at home. It’s a different world, in all ways – but it beats sitting at home watching the rain. It helps to talk to other people, and to realize that the paper is not full of people walking around trembling with fear or fury. It is what it is and it feels as it’s always felt. Says the guy who floats in once a week and makes a snap judgment.

Put it this way: I’ve worked in one newsroom with high morale, and that was in college. Every other place has been dominated by the smothering dyspepsia that afflicts people after twenty years in the business. And woe to the chipper c’mon-let’s-put-on-a-show type who regards this all as an opportunity instead of a Sacred Calling. I swear: to judge from some of the mottos people have at their desks you’d think we were the Cancer-Curing Trust-Busting Priests, or something.

Just had an interesting conversation with a colleague about the Appropriations bill brouhaha. He was noting that the bill does not demand a total immediate pullout, but only requires the redeployment to begin. What would be the harm, then, if the President signed the bill, made a nominal gesture towards redeployment, and said he’d complied with the bill? Well. Hmm. First of all, it would be spun as a success for the other side, and would be trumpeted as the beginning of the withdrawal, even if two (2) soldiers were moved to Qatar for the weekend then rotated back. Second, it would be an admission that Congress has the right to dictate such matters, which is not something anyone who is, or would like to be, Commander in Chief wants to see ceded. Third, it would quickly lead to a call for a stepped-up tempo for withdrawal, and once the point had been supposedly conceded, it would be hard to stuff the genie back in the bottle and put the bottle back in Falljuah. If there’s one atom of blood in the water on this matter the piranhas will gather with such momentum you could surf on the froth their fins would produce. And so on. We went back and forth on the matter, and it was an interesting & civil discussion. A nice reminder that such things are still possible. I spend too much time on the internet, and read too many hideous comment threads – it tends to diminish your faith in the ability of people to handle flammable material without exploding.

It’s an interesting question: did we always have a substantial population of vile rude ghouls, or did the Internet create them by putting things together in a combination society had never seen? (warning: link goes to the classic Penny Arcade cartoon which has cuss words.) It’s not just the combination, though; it’s the general acceptance of ideas that were previously held private. If you started ranting about FDR - effin' Bolshie crip and his lesbo wife! - at the coffee shop, which I’m sure some did, you probably got a hard look or bum's rush from the counterman, or a AW PIPE DOWN from a guy a few stools away. I doubt the rest of the counter joined in. Reveling in someone’s cancer because they held different opinions on taxation and social policy was just not the sort of thing a decent person did, but now it's a sign of passion, which has become synonymous with conviction, which has become the equal of truth. Anger is a badge that lets you kick down any door.

As long as I’m dribbling insights about my profession: The other day a colleague gave me a book called “A Manual of Radio News Writing.” It was written in 1947. “Why must radio news be specially written?” it begins. “Why must its style be far simpler and easier of comprehension than that of the newspaper story?”

Good question. Or not. Most contemporary network radio annoys me, because every syllable is freighted with portent and warning. Everything is either dire. The idea of simply reading facts in the simplest manner possible is a lost art, except for some local practitioners. (As I may have mentioned before, KSTP AM has a fellow named Bob Berglund who is the absolute old-school master of just reading the damn news.) Anyway. The book describes the Average Listener, and it’s an interesting snapshot of American culture in 1947:

“His formal education stopped somewhere between the end of grammar school and the second year of high school.”

The average person – or, more accurately, the average radio news consumer – did not finish high school. Interesting.

“In general, he reads slowly, leisurely, and not too widely or deeply.”

But he reads.

“Newspaper reading is an ingrained habit.”

Wow. To repeat: the average radio news consumer is a high-school drop out who’s also a habitual newspaper reader.

“He reads well a few special interest sections, such as the sports, the comics, the columnists, the society page. As for the rest, he hits only the high-spots, letting the headlines and illustrations serve as cues for what he’ll read.”

That hasn’t changed in sixty years.

“He reads all of some stories, just a few paragraphs of others, and only glances at the rest. Some of his interests are constant and deep-seated; many of them are only temporary, and change from time to time.”

Ditto. Now the period-specific details:

“This average listener gleans quite a bit of information from the art work in magazines, which provide a summary background that normally satisfies his curiosity. He picks up other information in bars, on the street, at union halls, and from his fellow workers.”

The author then asserts, probably correctly, that the war made radio news vitally important to people’s daily lives, and made them accustomed to the desire for updates and bulletins about far-away events in far-away places. The war created an appetite for news in a class of people hitherto unconcerned with The World Beyond, and this led to increased newspaper sales. “In his daily newspaper, the complete story plus pictures, editorials, opinion columnists, and background features now have more meaning and interest for him.”

Sixty years later, radio has become the opinion page, and the newspaper has become the radio: a series of brief headlines supplemented by materials available on line.  For others, the newspaper is a medium ignored in favor of aggregating quasi-social sites like MeFi or Fark – which are the equivalent of the bar, the street, the union hall.

There’s a chapter on “Good Taste,” which of course seems dated. “Don’t use profane, off-color words, or words not in good taste for average family groups. The words ‘vomit’ and ‘gutted’ sound quite distasteful to many persons. And don’t get gay with your language when writing up tragedies. . . . “

 I can hear Han Solo deliver that last line to Luke: “Nice copy, kid. Don’t get gay.”

“Remember that children also listen to the news, so don’t oversex your stories. And handle with light fingers (any) news about rape, divorces, and court trials with unpleasant sex angles.”

As opposed to those pleasant sex angles, which you may handle with medium fingers. 

We think we’re living in a unique age, but what age doesn’t? The book concludes:

“Is it possible that there is a single spot in these United States where an individual does not have access, if he chooses to a constant supply of news?

“Total daily newspaper circulation in this country exceeds the total number of families. (my emph.) Nearly 100 of all dwelling units have radios. Never before have there been so many magazines with such large circulations as found on the newsstands today. The wondrous aspect of news is that one disseminating medium never seems to replace another.”

Until television, of course. The word is not mentioned in the book, as if the author fears that uttering the name of the demon will only make it stronger. It made me respect radio a little more, if only because it put up such a civilized front in its last days; the word was still something that had to be processed by the intermediating elements of the ear, the most finely tuned of all the senses. Then came the TV, which had a direct line to the part of the brain stamped MONKEY TOWN, and off we went.


Belated “24” recap: well, that was horrible. The middle of the show has become oddly disconnected from the start of the show. Everyone is totally horrified by Vice-President Pochmark wants to nuke a lightly-populated area of a nation whose name is so super secret it cannot be mentioned. What is he thinking? Where did that come from? What got into him? The fact that a nuclear bomb had already exploded on American soil and a teensy nuke had been Narrowly Averted doesn’t seem to register. The urgency seems to have evaporated from the show, alas, although I’m sure they can bring it back quickly enough. You could tell the episode would be one of the talky-kissy varieties, not the shouty-shooty types. And please, don’t tell me Audrey isn’t coming back in the last episode, because she is. And she will be sleeping with Jack’s father, probably.  

New Fargo, and lots of it. And of course the inevitable Quirk. Thanks for the visit, and I’ll see you tomorrow.