Tuesday, October 04, 2011

So long, Washington Post

If, somehow, the Washington Post defies the odds of the economics of newspaper publishing and manages to survive another five, ten or even a hundred years, it won't be because of me. After twenty years of reading the Post on a fairly regular basis, and waiting about the same amount of time for some . . . any . . . just a wee-wee bit . . . a tiny inkling of evidence that it is, in fact, the "great" newspaper that it proclaims itself to be, I have finally come to the decision that it's time to cancel my subscription.

Not that I haven't had a zillion reasons before my latest one (I'll get to it) to give the Post the heave-ho. Where even to start? The pathetic editorial page, which, to demonstrate its "seriousness," generally accepts at face value any statement issued by the congressional majority and presidential administration in power at face value on virtually every issue, and feigns shock that politicians act like politicians by lying, withholding evidence or just plain avoiding any accountability? Of course, the Post does insist that . . . wait for it . . . it is necessary to form the all-knowing, deadly serious and "bi-partisan"Blue Ribbon Commissions on occasion, usually headed by Bob Dole, Donna Shalala, Madeline Albright, Sandra Day O'Connor or some nominally partisan Washington establishment lawyer (Bob Strauss, C. Boyden Gray, Vernon Jordan) or former governor (Thomas Kean, Lamar Alexander) who meets the all-important test of "seriousness" and "bi-partisanship" by not taking a position or stand on any issue that might sacrifice their social, economic or political status in the all-important Washington hierarchy of fame and power.

And how about the stable of thoughtful, erudite and original columnists that grace the Op-Ed page . . . such as Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Richard Cohen, Jim Hoagland, Jackson Diehl, Sebastian Mallaby, Fred Hiatt, David Ignatius and Robert Samuelson? Add to that the Post's new trioka of "women's voices" on "serious" matters . . . Anne Applebaum, Ruth Marcus and Kathleen Parker, and what do you have? Other than concrete proof that the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has allowed women to rise to a level of incompetence to match their male colleagues. Taken together, these purveyors of conventional wisdom constitute perhaps the most incompetent, uninteresting and utterly unimaginative collection of Washingtonians in any one place save City Hall. Imagine the Pundit Class taking the field against the Vincent Gray administration at the next company picnic. Now that would be a corporate softball game to remember.

Don't forget the A section either. Headline: "Nuclear Weapons Explode in Four Different Locations Around the Capital" Sub-Head: "Unclear How Radioactivity Will Shape 2012 Elections." Sub-Sub-Head: "Gingrich, Cheney Tie Attack to Obama's Muslim Background; Pelosi, Reid Struggle to Defend President." Sub-Sub-Sub-Head: "Palin to Switch Countries, Citing Lack of Constituents to Vote for Her." Sidebar: "A Nation Looks to Joseph Lieberman to Find Centrist Path."

And then there is the Style section. Naturally, how much "style" can there be in a city where men wear Timex Ironman watches with their suits and women still wear neon-red suits with big gold buttons as a serious fashion statement? Leaving that aside, there are still, sadly enough, plenty of people in Washington who really do care where Newt Gingrich had lunch last Thursday, or that some ex-Deputy Press Secretary to the Interior Secretary sold her house in McLean to an assistant producer for some blab-fest on Fox or how a couple of congressmen got into the bi-partisan spirit by hosting a fundraiser for the Left-Handed Shortstops Awareness Fund -- and just how much fun it was to "agree to disagree" to raise $15,000 for such an important cause!

Count me out.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sometime around the 10th or 11th grade, I began to think about what I might want "to do" if and when I ever graduated from college, assuming, of course, I would be eligible to attend one. I use the phrase "think about" in the most generous, abstract fashion possible, since pretty much all I thought about at that point in my life was about the next 3 to 24 hours, if even that far in advance. But, growing up in a house of proud, unabashed, anger-on-their-sleeve Nixon-haters -- my father hung a portrait of Nixon over his bathroom toilet so that he could pretend to pee on him every morning and evening. My mother was always pissed at the government about something -- the Vietnam War, foot-dragging on civil rights, the space program, which, she was absolutely convinced, was taking resources away from badly needed investments in education and health care -- so I was acculturated, socialized . . . okay, maybe even brain-washed not to accept authority, especially elected authority, at face value. In 1974, when I was in the 7th grade, the Watergate scandal had become almost as much of a national obsession as it was in our house. My 7th grade teacher, Miss Lynn Powell, had us do a "simulation" of the Watergate hearings being held in Congress. Knowing my mother as she did, Miss Powell chose me to serve as the Special Prosecutor, which meant I got to decide who would be prosecuted and hopefully go to jail. So, while the other kids went home to report their progress in math, spelling and reading comprehension, I was permitted to eat dinner at my family's expense depending on how many people I had successfully sent packing. Really, I'm not making this up. That, and my second place finish in the county-wide social science fair the year before for my "re-enactment" of the JFK assassination, complete with a second shooter behind the grassy knoll, were my two greatest academic accomplishments prior to receiving my Ph.D twenty years ago.

At first I thought being a sportswriter would be a great job, since I could attend games for free, travel to stadiums and arenas I otherwise probably would never see -- at someone else's expense, meet famous people ("Dr. J! How've you been? "Pete Rose? Sure, I saw him last week when the Reds were in town . . .") and get paid to write about sports. And this was long before a job in print journalism was just a segue way into a television gig on ESPN as a screaming head ("GODDAMN RIGHT THEY SHOULD ADOPT NO-TOUCH ICEING! WHAT ARE YOU, SOME KIND OF MORON?"). Then, during a field trip to the Atlanta Constitution at the beginning of my senior year in high school I met a couple of the writers who covered college and professional sports in and around Atlanta.

"Who here wants to be a sportswriter?" one asked our class. I raised my hand. "Do you like the idea of covering high school sports in a town of 10,000 year 'round for about five years after you finish college?"

"No, no I don't," I remember saying. "I don't even care about high school sports now and I'm in high school and play on the baseball team and run cross country."

"You'd better learn," he replied. "Because that's where you're going to start out."


So, having ruled out a career as a sportswriter, I then decided that I would aim my sights for the big time and become a Washington-based political correspondent and opinion-writer. I thought back to my moment of glory in Miss Powell's 7th grade social studies class, when I brought down the Nixon administration. Although my mother was sure this marked me for a career as a lawyer, I was actually more inspired by the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. I became intrigued by the idea of combining two of my favorite activities, writing and spying on people, into a singular profession. Political journalism seemed like the perfect choice. After all, Woodward and Bernstein were channeling their inner-James Bond as much as they were the muckrakers of the Progressive era. I imagined myself walking softly around parking garages, carefully eavesdropping on conversations by famous people I recognized but who wouldn't recognize me, chiefly because I wasn't famous. I thought about who might play me in the movie version of whatever book I wrote that chronicled my crack reporting . . . Robert Redford? Too handsome. Robert DeNiro? Bad fit. Sean Connery? Wrong accent. I made the mistake of thinking out loud about this one afternoon at a pool party, inspired by perhaps one beer too many.

"Oh, my God," screamed a girl sitting at my table. "You know who should play you?" And then she began reeling off one impossibly dorky, bad-looking actor after another who not only never ended up with the cool girl, but usually found his way to prison or, worse, living in Detroit or Birmingham.

"You know, that will never happen, so it's really not worth getting into," I said.

"No, no, this is really fun," another girl called out. "Hey, who do y'all think should play Ivers if he's ever famous?"

"Ron Howard!!!" shouted one. Oh, boy. Opie from Mayberry RFD

"I got it, that guy from "Leave It To Beaver," Eddie Haskell!!

"Wrong," said a guy I thought was my friend. "It's whoever doesn't get the girl."

And on it went.

That was not the kind of question you asked a bunch of semi-inebriated 20 year-olds on a hot, humid summer afternoon in Atlanta. At that point, I decided that whatever I did in life, being famous was not on my list. Sitting through a casting session would be a precursor to suicide, getting a tatoo or some other form of self-mutilation.

My infatuation with a career as a Washington journalist lasted until about my junior year in college, when I gave the wrong answer to my journalism professor when he asked my Reporting 301 class how many us relished the idea of being rousted out of bed by an editor's phone call at 3 a.m to go cover a fire or mob hit -- and what is it, by the way, about "3 a.m." that screams fire or mob hit or terrorist attack or some other tragedy? Why never 1.30 a.m or 4.45 p.m. or some other time? Everyone raised their hand but me.

"Mr. Ivers, why the objection?"

"I don't really like reporting all that much," I responded. "I'd rather write a column offering my opinion about the fire or mob hit."

Silence. Dead silence. Mass murder silence in the room.

That's when I knew that a career in journalism was not for me.

* * * * * * * * * *

Despite opting for a career in the big time as a political science professor, I remain somewhat interested in journalism, but from the perspective of a jilted lover who simply doesn't understand my ex- sees in the loser she's now dating. The kind of journalism in which I'm interested is not the "journalism" practiced by the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, the major commercial and cable networks and smaller opinion magazines I read (and admired) in college, like the New Republic (now better known as the New Republican). The people who work for these organizations understand how to produce a paper, magazine or broadcast that looks authentic. For substance, though, you're not going to get anything from reading or watching any of them. Establishment journalists in Washington are celebrities, and celebrities are only interested in doing what they need to do to remain celebrities. In Hollywood, actors and actresses get breast implants, face lifts and other cosmetic restoration to maintain their "appearances" or remake them. In Washington, journalists trade whatever interest they might have had when they were younger for a Volvo, a house that gets featured in the Washingtonian, their children's acceptance into the elite network of private schools that effectively serve to condition them to other worthy of their company and all the other accouterments that go with what passes for high society here. How else could someone like David Gregory, a man who has never had or uttered a serious thought in his life, become the host of "Meet the Press" and one of Washington's most sought-after dinner guests and interviewees? In what serious democracy does someone so vacant achieve such "status" as a "serious person?"

For the twenty years I read the Post, it never really offended me or impressed me. It never reminded me as much of any other great media institution of days gone by, for the primary reason that the truly great reporting in American history has never been done by large corporate entities as much as it has by individuals with no ties to the government, membership in the Washington social elite or, something that most journalism "companies" will never admit, to advertisers to temper down their work. The Post reminds me more of Sugarloaf, a rock band from the early 1970s that had one really great song, "Green Eyed Lady," and then disappeared until iTunes put them in the "one-hit wonder" section and made this song available again. Watergate was the Post's "Green Eyed Lady" moment. Since Watergate, the Post has lived off a reputation it never really deserved and hasn't subsequently earned. Pop songs, though, don't really shock the conscience or call into question the moral underpinning of democratic institutions. A newspaper that refuses to call torture "torture," knowing full well that it would not have ever referred to the tactics used by the strongmen of Saddam's regime as "enhanced interrogation techniques," doesn't deserve to survive into the digital age.

Besides, you can get your sports from ESPN.

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