Blame the victim, create the victim. We do both.

The story about the aftermath of an attack on a CBS newswoman in Tahir Square and the obituary for B.N. Nathanson, the famous abortion defender-turned-opponent don’t bear any similarities on the surface. But both reveal the power of provocative views spoken loud.

After Lara Logan was separated from her news crew, beaten and assaulted by a mob, a number of  bloggers, Tweeters and “columnists” took her to task for being there in the first place. And we’re not talking about anonymous idiots; these are commentators with big, visible platforms. (No, I’m not going to link to them. )

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who quickly went after the hateful Logan-bashing writers, as did Kim Barker, ProPublica journalist, also writing for the NYTimes. Other writers are still responding with articulate anger. One of the common points is that Logan is being punished for her sex and looks (attractive, blonde female); more than one writer points out that no one would berate a man for being mobbed and sodomized.

There are two reasons for this kind of blame-the-victim spewing: The spewer is a publicity-seeking fuckwit willing to use any shocking rhetoric to stand out. Or, s/he needs to believe that evil things happen for reasons, e.g. you get raped  if you’re too pretty. The reality of random hate crimes is too frightening to acknowledge. (There is now actually debate over whether Logan was raped or “just” sexually assaulted.)

Now, Nathanson. This intelligent activist doctor had a lot to do with legalizing abortion and moving it from a back-alley butcher’s job to the safe medical procedure that is the right of every woman. Later, upset by the large numbers of procedures he carried out and supervised, he spoke up as an opponent to the procedure. In both incarnations he wielded great power over public opinion. He founded what became the powerful pro-choice group NARAL and he gave the anti-abortion faction their favorite line when he pointed out a fetus’s “silent scream” while narrating a sonogram of an abortion in progress.

The other similarity between these news stories is that they reveal the only-sometimes-veiled misogyny that still exists in our society. Nathanson was okay with abortion as long as not many women exercised their right to make decisions about their own bodies, lives and health. Commentators (and others who silently agree and don’t challenge them) mouth politically correct sentiments about women being equal to men in the world of journalism, until they get a chance to berate them for being too attractive, too female, and for asking for trouble.

In both cases, I wonder how this sexism would hold up if the tables were turned: The hate-blogger gets left alone with an angry mob or the anti-choicer is told that he cannot elect a medically safe surgery, but must instead sneak off with a fistful of cash to a dangerous, illegal appointment.

Sad news: AP jargon gets the shove.

As a former daily-newspaper journalist (and for a short time about 100 years ago, a proud writer for The Associated Press) I am heartsick to hear of the death of some longtime terms of the trade.  Who would opt for “keyword” instead of “slug” or “correct” instead of “cq” or “instead of” rather than the time-honored “sted.” And it gets worse…)

New York (AP) – Subs Lede, the veteran overseer of Associated Press wire-service jargon, died last night in New York City after plunging from an office building at 450 West 33rd St.  He was 90.

A statement released to media outlets this morning by the New York City Police Department’s Tradition Protective Unit (TPU) said that the fall appears to have been the result of a deliberate push by an editor or group of editors working in the building.  No suspects have been named, but one source close to the investigation said that TPU is “looking for a gang of youthful offenders.”

Mr. Lede was well known for his years in the front lines, where he fought alongside his stalwart partner, Recasts Hed, who at this writing is also near death from an accident last week. Police will not comment on whether the incidents are related.

Mr. Lede took countless newcomers under his wings in the field and the newsroom, training such crucial figures as Previous Cycle and the controversial Note Contents.

In 1978, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News with colleagues Fixes Typos and Will B. Led. The trio covered the tragic collision between a Misplaced Simile and a Clumsy Metaphor in airspace over the city. Following the crash, commas and semicolons rained down for a 48-hour period. The prize-winning stories resulted in parentheses being added to unclear phrases throughout the United States.

Mr. Lede was preceded in death by his wife of 50 years, New Throughout; a sister, Adds Graphic-Slug; and a nephew, Adds Byline.

At. Mr. Lede’s request, no funeral service will be held. Donations may be made to Updates with Color.

(Staff report moved on wire 20:38 2 July 2010. This obituary written by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett was sent by the service late on July 2, 2010.)

Goodbye Senator Byrd. Be glad you missed the news today.

One of the faceless commentators talking during the solemn carrying of Senator Robert Byrd’s casket this morning observed that the most significant thing about the late Senator’s tenure is the enormous social change on his long watch.

Byrd himself exemplified that change, moving from membership in the Ku Klux Klan as a young West Virginian to a supporter of civil rights measures as a seasoned statesman.

The comment no doubt gave a lot of other people pause as it did me. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would have thought longer and deeper about the thesis had the footage of Byrd not been followed by a live studio shot about the oil spill.  On the set was one of the new news-hotties stretching her long legs from a tall chair facing the camera, chatting with Phillipe Cousteau Jr, grandson of the revered Jacques Cousteau.

Yes, Senator Byrd lived a long life. Long enough to die on a day when “news” comes from a nitwit in snakeskin high heels schmoozing a low-wattage, high-ancestry bullshitter about one of the worst environmental disasters on record.

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

A snapshot of us.

Sometimes an hour with the newspaper is all I need to see the immense contradictions and ironies of this country. These New York Times pieces are a case in point.

A story by Katie Zernike ponders polling of resentful Tea Party supporters.  I am ashamed of these fellow citizens; their racism, their short-sighted, self-serving demands for a return to the so-called  “real America” — code for a class system that keeps them snug and well-fed while shutting others out:

“In the poll, Tea Party supporters …were almost unanimous in their dislike of President Obama. Overwhelmingly, they said he does not share the values most Americans live by and does not understand the needs and problems of people like them. They are significantly more likely than Republicans or the general public to say that too much attention has been made of the problems facing black people, and that the policies of the Obama administration favor blacks over whites and the poor over the rich or the middle class.”

Then I turned to the obit page and saw that another highly visible figure in the civil rights movement has died: Benjamin L. Hooks. age 85. Hooks, who headed the NAACP for many years, was a minister, businessman and the first African American to be named a judge in Tennessee’s criminal courts. He was also the first to be appointed to the Federal Communications Commission. Hooks struggled to keep issues of civil rights in the forefront when Americans began to take the gains of the 1960s for granted. He wasn’t the most compelling public voice in the movement, but to look at his life and work is to understand the crucial changes wrought by Americans who would no longer tolerate Jim Crow.

And, finally, a profile of Eddie Feibusch, the undisputed king of zippers, reminds me that this is also a land of opportunity, imagination and very good stories.

The piece by Ralph Blumenthal describes the indefatigable 86-year-old:

“He sold a zipper for Margaret Truman’s wedding gown when Miss Truman, the president’s daughter, married Clifton Daniel in 1956, he is proud to say. He sold zippers to Nike for Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. And a prison in North Carolina called for a zipper for Bernard L. Madoff. Why? He doesn’t know.

New York City’s garment industry once had lots of zipper shops, some bigger than his, Mr. Feibusch says. But little by little they relocated, to China, India, Costa Rica. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks. ‘They couldn’t get their goods in,’ he said. “That was the end of the business.’

But not for Mr. Feibusch, a prewar refugee from Vienna who overcame not just the Nazis but also Velcro…”

Pulitzer winners: Yes, we’re doing a victory dance in our PJs

When a newsroom wins a Pulitzer, it is a moment like no other. The suits are happy, the mid-level managers are happy, the worker bees are happy. If there’s any other event as uniting and uniformly appreciated, I have not witnessed it.

I’ve never so much as spell-checked a Pulitzer entry. But I am proud to say that while at The Seattle Times I did once sew the ripped pocket back on the jacket of a winner so she’d look good for the “We won a Pulitzer!” photo about to be snapped in the newsroom. And you know what? I was so excited I could hardly hold my hands still enough to thread the needle.

Today I have the temerity to speak for the hundreds of former journalists sitting home in their PJs pretending to freelance; the retired copy editors who worked overnights so long that they will always have trouble going to bed before dawn; the countless people who refuse to believe that good news-gathering and news-writing are at death’s door.

So, Pulitzer winners in Seattle: Way to go.

Sursum corda…and your voices too.

I’m not always wowed by what Maureen Dowd writes in her column for The New York Times. But when she nails it, she nails it.

She’s been a fiery commentator about the Roman Catholic Church and its sinful cover-ups of clergy who prey on children and adult parishioners. The more pundits, pulpits and parents who join that chorus, the better. This fight takes more than rhetoric, it takes heart and courage of the faithful.

Dowd’s latest piece on the Church mess is very good, and an unusually humble approach for she-of-the-sturdy-eg0. She turned the column over to her brother Kevin, a creche-collecting conservative Catholic. One snippet:

“The church is dying from a thousand cuts. Its cover-up has cost a fortune and been a betrayal worthy of Judas. The money spent came from social programs, Catholic schools and the poor. This should be a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.”

The Vatican and the top-tier of the Church in this country are furious at Maureen Dowd. They dismiss what she says in ways direct and subtle. It won’t be so easy to ignore her brother.

Read the whole column here.

Reviewing the reviewer.

Michiko Kakutani is a powerful book reviewer, whose work in The New York Times can kill book sales or torpedo an author’s career in a few column inches. I’ve been reading Kakutani’s reviews more closely these days, considering the pieces’ success as essays rather than endorsements or rejections of new books.

I now picture Kakutani sitting alone in a small office, a room that no editor ever dares enter. I imagine that the critic’s copy goes directly from keyboard to the newspaper’s website or printed page with nary a word questioned or touched. (She provides no end of speculation along these lines. See her Wikipedia entry and a good piece by Ben Yagoda for Slate.) Salman Rushdie supposedly called her “a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank,” a description that hits uncomfortably close to home for just about any critic, truth be told.

Few reviewers can match Kakutani’s heat-seeking-missile style:

“Unfortunately for the reader, “Fun With Problems” is a grab-bag collection that’s full of Mr. Stone’s liabilities as a writer, with only a glimpse here and there of his strengths.”

And even fewer get away with so many overly chewy phrases:

“This description might suggest that Ms. Shriver has constructed a didactic or lugubrious novel, willfully topical and laboriously relevant. She hasn’t.” (From a review of “So Much for That” by Lionel Shriver.)

And probably no one else writing for a large audience wrote seven such reviews in a month, as Kakutani did in January.


Man hits tree; hell breaks loose

Ah, yes, the Tiger Woods accident story.

It was only a generation ago that the only really big news story likely to feature a black man and a tree was one about lynching.

Still, it’s too much of a stretch for me to call it “progress” just because every newspaper, “news” broadcast, chat room, social network and a zillion websites are carrying something about the silent hero and his low-speed crash the other night.

Okay, at first I was as guilty as a lot of other gawkers who can’t stop themselves from looking as they drive by someone’s misfortune. I typed “Tiger Woods accident” in Google a couple of times.

My support’s on the Tiger side of the ticket — the celeb spin doctors who say it is his “obligation” to speak publicly about the incident are, let’s face it, in the bullshit business, and their comments should be considered accordingly.

In my last search, I came up with a clever blog post that captures the pathetic and occasionally hilarious frenzy over a celeb electing to remain mum — how dare he! — until he’s damn ready to talk.

It’s James Ponewozik’s post in Time, here. His humorous jabs cajoled me into quitting my web crawling over this topic, which frees me up to criticize those of you who are still digging into Tiger’s business. Leave the guy alone, already.

Scribe pride

Now and then I read something that makes me proud to have anything to do with writing and newspapers.

The work of United Kingdom reporter Lester Haines is a case in point. His stuff appears on the hugely enjoyable and hard-to-pigeonhole tech-ish site called The Register. (The site carries the motto: “Biting the hand that feeds IT.”)

A recent Haines lede:

“Two Swansea yobs who decided, after a night on the sauce, that they’d give a couple of transvestites some stick, came off the worse for the encounter since their targets were in fact cage fighters on a stag night.

The humiliation of Jason Fender, 22, and Dean Gardener, 19, was captured on CCTV as they “singled out the two men walking along a street in wigs, short skirts and high heels”, as the Daily Mail explains.

A shirtless Gardner is seen taking a pop at one of the men, who’s dressed in a fetching “pink wig, black skirt and boob tube” ensemble. A bad move, since the intended targets then summarily lay out both ne’er-do-wells.

The cage fighters are shown “teetering away in their high heels, stopping only to pick up a clutch bag they dropped during the melee.”

Haines (who I found thanks to Portland blogger Bojack) is also the go-to guy if you want to read about the North Face clothing company suing the young man who invented the “South Butt” brand — complete with a logo that the humorless NF folks think is too much like their own. See “The North Face Trips Over South Butt” here.

Flogging the help: Let’s do it right

It’s time to re-think this “public editor” stuff.

Public editors, or ombudsmen as they were called for a time, investigate and write about coverage decisions and mistakes made at their own papers. It’s a great principle that’s not so hot in practice.

The New York Times had a monstrous example of such un-hot execution in Sunday’s Public Editor column about a mistake-ridden obituary for newsman Walter Cronkite.

Now, seven corrections on one obit–yes, that’s right, seven–is surely worthy of newsroom soul searching and public apologies. But when columnist Clark Hoyt answered his headline question of “How Could This Happen” with the following, my heart sank:

“The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.”

He goes on to name names and examine the troubled history of the obit. His column exemplifies the problems with insider commentary on coverage and editing decisions.

Hoyt is no doubt a fine reporter and writer, qualified to investigate his peers. But it’s impossible for an editor, whatever distancing title has been given to him, to sound anything but superior and whiny when ratting out colleagues. At best, he comes off as an ass-kisser, tsk-tisking along with the reader about journalism’s disappointing decline. At worst, he makes the reader instinctively side with the poor slob who stepped in a cow pie when crossing a field full of the stuff.

Hoyt’s probing of the Cronkite mess reveals the many ways mistakes can be overlooked or added to a story in a busy newsroom, and that is useful for readers to understand. But when he goes on to reveal the reporter’s past history of errors, one has to ask: Who is served?

Now we can all associate the byline of this prolific veteran reporter with sloppy mistakes. We can wonder if her latest story somehow slipped by her copy-desk keeper. Having seen this reporter spend a day in stocks on the village green, do you trust The New York Times more? I don’t.

But you can be sure the NYT brass feel better. Now they can go about their business, feeling pleased that they got to the bottom of the mess and demonstrated that they can kick butt with the best of the real CEOs out there.

Outside writers, preferably from places like the Pew Foundation or other reputable media watchers, do a much better job of this sort of reporting. If a newspaper wants to come clean about errors, they can instruct their staff to cooperate when the media watchdogs call. The brass can provide time lines for the process: Reporter A wrote this and got it right, Editor B messed it up, Editor C caught that mistake and made another….and so on.

The best of all worlds would be a revolving 3-person panel made up of, say, a NYT insider, someone from Pew and a veteran journalist-turned-academic. Let ‘em loose to gather facts, forbid them from consulting with each other, then run their conclusions in side-by-side columns. Maybe even let that sloppy reporter have a say beyond the obligatory mea culpa, “This is my fault. There are no excuses.”

We could all learn from that kind of coverage.

I, blogger

“Microcelebrity” is what we bloggers want, and each of us defines that evocative term in our own way.

I discovered that word in a terrific piece of commentary by author Bill Wasik in The New York Times. Wasik compares internet ventures with a young adult’s idealistic move to New York City. He writes:

“The experience of moving online actually bears quite a few similarities to becoming a New Yorker. Disorienting and seemingly endless, the Internet conversation moves at lightning speed and according to unstated social rules that can bewilder outsiders. Also, like New Yorkers, residents of the Internet do not suffer fools, or mince words in belittling them, as anyone who has contributed a redundant post to Metafilter, or an earnest comment to Gawker, can attest.

A down-market version of that experience happens here in Portland. This is a young city, full of the magnetic pulls of great new music, art, food and other art. The hip factor, bike lanes, utterly absent dress code, and infinite number of temp agencies make it a good incubator for those of tender years and big dreams. (And a surprising number of late-career types.)

The Willamette River isn’t the only thing that flows through here. Every six months or so I hear from a Smith College alum (or one of their brothers) who has just landed here to pursue a life of art/social work/activism/journalism and who needs a decent meal/$50/a resume re-write/an evening’s break from the other three roommates. Some cherished friendships have grown out of those calls.

Likewise, as Wasik notes, the internet experience is one of connections and hopefulness–and in this, it transcends generation. Granted, my younger friends waste none of their time marveling at the transparency of life online, while my contemporaries are stunned by their own addiction to Facebook.

Why do I do it? I wasn’t even that wild about the public nature of being a newspaper reporter, never mind this wide-open medium. I think there’s a very attractive combination of forces at work when one blogs. I manage to be both intimate and public, journalist and fiction writer. I choose the news of the day. I revel in inconsistency and I take a morning off when I feel like it.

Oddly enough, blogging also feels more like my early days in a daily newsroom than anything else. Just as I did back then, I rise early and I have a clean slate every day. I know my family and close friends will read whatever I write, and quite a few strangers too. I have an inflated sense of my value, but most of the time I keep that under wraps. I secretly know my brilliance will be rewarded.

Retooling journalism

A friend sent me the URL for Malcolm Gladwell’s book review in The New Yorker. (A magazine I get in print form, and which I read about two weeks after it arrives.)

Gladwell comments on Chris Anderson’s new book, “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” (Hyperion; $26.99),

The book makes the case, as Gladwell paraphrases, that “newspapers need to accept that content is never again going to be worth what they want it to be worth, and reinvent their business.” As author Anderson writes: “Out of the bloodbath will come a new role for professional journalists.”

Well, that’s certainly true. I think “a new role” is a much nicer way to say “broke, uninsured, compromised.” Gladwell quotes from Anderson’s book:

“There may be more of them, not fewer, as the ability to participate in journalism extends beyond the credentialed halls of traditional media. But they may be paid far less, and for many it won’t be a full time job at all. Journalism as a profession will share the stage with journalism as an avocation. Meanwhile, others may use their skills to teach and organize amateurs to do a better job covering their own communities, becoming more editor/coach than writer. If so, leveraging the Free—paying people to get other people to write for non-monetary rewards—may not be the enemy of professional journalists. Instead, it may be their salvation.”

Gladwell goes on to take this view apart. I won’t steal the rest of the review here…buy the magazine and enjoy.

I’ll just say this: At some point we’ll all need to quit shaping this discussion along the lines of “Is this good or bad for journalists?” and concentrate strictly on what this means for readers, especially young ones who won’t be comparing the New Journalism as done by part-time, non-specialists to the stuff we haggard veterans are defending.

In the meantime, I took the online multiple-choice test for the Oregon Food Handlers Permit, which will allow me to wait tables should my freelance life go up in smoke someday. I also can now ascertain if meat is safely refrigerated. (Won’t I be the compelling party conversationalist this weekend?)

Anyone need a cranky middle-aged waitress with no math skills and a poor short-term memory?

No, I don’t know if the damn risotto has cilantro. Just have the burger, well done. And get your elbows off the table.