Thursday, October 31, 2002

Taylor made for the Prospect. The American Prospect today announced a huge move at the top of its always-tumultuous masthead. Former Boston Globe publisher Benjamin Taylor will become the new executive editor, replacing Harold Meyerson, who had moved over to an editor-at-large slot sometime earlier. (Actually, yet another person briefly occupied the executive editor's chair between Meyerson and Taylor, but that's hardly worth a mention.) The official announcement from Prospect publisher Robin Hutson:

The American Prospect has named Benjamin B. Taylor its new Executive Editor. Mr. Taylor was previously Executive Editor (and subsequently Publisher) of the Boston Globe. Ben's 17-year reporting career at the Globe included stints as a political reporter, metro editor, and four years in the Globe's Washington bureau where he covered Congress and the White House. He served as Publisher of the Globe between 1997 and 2000 [actually 1999].

Taylor, an affable but guarded old-fashioned Yankee, lost his hereditary title at the Globe when he was summarily dismissed by Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman of the New York Times Company, to which the Taylors had sold their heirloom some six years earlier for the then-unheard-of price of $1.1 billion. Taylor's role at the Prospect -- a liberal biweekly whose ideological niche lies at the midpoint between the neoliberal New Republic and the left-liberal Nation -- will no doubt be to serve as the designated adult, an approachable uncle who'll keep the staff's contact with crotchety co-editor Robert Kuttner to a minimum.

Meyerson himself is a former executive editor of the alternative LA Weekly who was named executive editor in 2001 in a bid to boost the Prospect's Washington presence.

The Prospect's most important financial backer, Bill Moyers, has reportedly been seeking to cut his losses in recent months, according to Slate's Mickey Kaus. (Click here and check out the item for Monday, May 13.) Moyers will like the gentlemanly Taylor -- no small consideration given that Moyers has apparently considered cutting funding to the point where the Prospect would have to dial back on its publication schedule.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Mitt in his own words.

"Romney promised to lobby to make Medicaid a level playing field for all states. Currently, federal reimbursements rates range from 50 percent, which is the rate in Massachusetts, to 77 percent, which is the rate paid in some southern and western states. If Massachusetts received 77 percent federal reimbursement, the state's federal share would increase by over $1.7 billion annually, he said."

-- Romney campaign press release, August 6, 2002

"Well, it's a fantasy number, but you're the one throwing it out there. I haven't said I'm going to get $1.7 billion from the federal government. I have not said that, and that would be an absurd number to get from Medicaid. I'd love to get it, but I don't think that's a number that's realistic. I do think, however, that it's not appropriate that if you look at the reimbursement rates for all the states in terms of Medicaid dollars, that we get 50 cents on the dollar returned for our people who are poor whereas other states get as high as 77 cents. So what I would like to do is find a way for us to get up to the level that some of the other states have been able to accomplish."

-- Romney to O'Brien, October 29, 2002

It depends on what the meaning of $1.7 billion is. One of the worst moments for Shannon O'Brien last night was when she accused Mitt Romney of claiming he'd get the feds to boost Medicaid payments to the state by some $1.7 billion. It was, she said, a perfect example of Romney's proclivity for pulling numbers out of thin air. Romney looked at her with that hang-dog expression of his and sorrowfully intoned that he had never, ever said any such thing; that the notion that he could somehow talk the federal government into forking over another $1.7 billion was ridiculous; and that it was just sad that she would make up such a ludicrous accusation.

Romney was utterly convincing. I was horrified, assuming that O'Brien's staff had made an egregious error and left the candidate with her mouth hanging open.

Well, now. Along comes the Phoenix's Seth Gitell today to show that O'Brien did, indeed, know what she was talking about -- that Romney really had suggested that he could come home with another $1.7 billion. O'Brien's team produced a Romney press release to that effect after the debate.

Then there's this, from a Stephanie Ebbert piece in the Globe on August 7:

He [Romney] also focused heavily on Massachusetts' low federal reimbursement rate of roughly 50 percent, saying Massachusetts needs to increase its share of federal funding. He suggested politics were at play and he could negotiate a better rate; a 77 percent reimbursement would raise $1.7 billion annually, he said.

Has Romney no shame?

Debate detritus. Shannon O'Brien, what I liked most about you in last night's debate were those shoulder pads. If I were the quarterback and I saw you coming after me, I would ditch that football as fast as I could. And yes, I would love to see your tattoo. Mitt Romney, what I liked most about you was that ghoulish make-up, slathered on two days before Halloween so that you could scare the kids who happened to stumble on you and Shannon instead of SpongeBob SquarePants.

What I liked least about both of you was your mindless insistence on arguing about things that aren't relevant to the public. It's not that I don't like negative campaigning. Quite the contrary -- I love negative campaigning. But it ought to be over what challenges the next governor is facing, not impenetrable accusations about each other's minuscule roles in corporate malfeasance. And even though I share O'Brien's suspicion (to cite one example) that Romney does not, in his heart of hearts, believe in a woman's right to choose, he's laid out such an unambiguous pro-choice stance that it would be impossible for him to back down. As Romney reminded viewers last night, O'Brien hasn't always been pro-choice, either.

If nothing else, last night was a good show. Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell's decision to bring in celebrity interviewer Tim Russert as the moderator provided to be inspired. As Mark Jurkowitz notes in today's Globe, Russert did a better job of keeping them focused on issues (if not necessarily the issues) than anyone else has been able to manage. Still, I would have preferred a local moderator -- say, someone like David Brudnoy or Christopher Lydon. At one point, Russert repeatedly pressed O'Brien on whether she would ease Proposition 2 1/2 to allow financially pressed cities and towns to raise their property taxes. Trouble was, Russert seemed not to know that they already can, through a local referendum. And Jurkowitz confirms that it wasn't just my imagination: Russert really did pronounce House Speaker Tom Finneran's name as "Finnernan."

Though it would be hard to pick a winner in this debate, I guess I'd have to give it to Romney on style. The guy who couldn't even best the barely coherent Ted Kennedy eight years ago struck upon a fairly effective approach last night, as Joe Battenfeld notes in the Herald. To paraphrase the old lawyer's saw, when he could argue the facts, he argued the facts; when he couldn't argue the facts, he argued politics; and when he couldn't argue politics, he looked mournfully at O'Brien and said, Oh, Shannon, Shannon, Shannon, that's so unbecoming; can't we elevate the tone just a bit? Sure it was disingenuous, but in the final days of a campaign you're trying to win over the undecideds -- the least interested and least knowledgeable members of the voting public. They're going to remember Romney's wounded tone long after they've forgotten what O'Brien claims is on pages seven and 11 of Romney's position papers. O'Brien's been pulling her 7-Eleven stunt for weeks now, and it hasn't worked yet. No surprise there: by her own telling, Romney has proposed taxes to discourage SUV ownership and development that would encroach on open space. All she's succeeded in doing is making Romney look like a better environmentalist than she.

One thing that did work in O'Brien's favor last night was the absence of Green Party candidate Jill Stein, the only one of the three "other" candidates to make much of a favorable impression to date. Stein's presence in two previous debates served mainly to remind liberals how short O'Brien falls of the progressive nirvana they seek. Without Stein, O'Brien was able to posit herself as a far more reliable defender of liberal values than Romney. For all her centrist mush, O'Brien managed to make it clear last night that she would protect us from the dehumanizing evil of capital punishment, and would assent, however reluctantly, to another tax increase before she would dismantle public education or destroy programs on which senior citizens depend. The Globe editorial page, which has already endorsed O'Brien, declares her the winner on points. That's probably about right. The question is how many viewers were keeping score.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

The two Thomas Jeffersons. Part one of Ken Burns's documentary on Thomas Jefferson aired last night on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), and it was a worthwhile 80 minutes. This is the first major Jefferson project to be put before the public since the revisionist view of him set in. These days, we are as likely to think of Jefferson's vanity and weakness (thanks to David McCullough's biography of John Adams), and of his probable dalliance with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, as we are of the towering visionary who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Burns deals with both Jeffersons, and asks a central question to which there is perhaps no good answer: can Jefferson's genius and some of his less-sterling personal attributes be reconciled, or was he a hopeless hypocrite?

On the PBS website, Burns asks the historian John Hope Franklin, an African-American, whether Jefferson's contradictions made him a "tragic figure." Franklin gives as good an answer as we're likely to get:

No, I don't see Jefferson as a tragic figure for these contradictions. For most men are -- and women are -- a bundle of contradictions. Despite the fact that we are endowed with reason, and despite the fact that we regard ourselves as rational beings, we at the same time have contradictions within our lives, within our beliefs, within our practices which, if we analyze it very closely, would perhaps be tragic inasmuch sense as Jefferson's contradictions were tragic. I think it's a part of the character of humankind to go off in different directions, to have different beliefs, some of which contradict each other, some of which complement each other. And when they contradict each other, it is not so much a tragedy as it is a human quality.

Jefferson was a great thinker and a great writer. He was hardly unusual in his failure to live up to his own ideals.

Monday, October 28, 2002

Barbara Anderson battles health woes. Excellent story in today's Salem News on anti-tax crusader Barbara Anderson's battle with cancer. [Whoops! Link gone as of Tuesday a.m.] Anderson's health woes are no secret, but she opens up more with reporter Alan Burke than I've seen elsewhere, disclosing that she came close to dying twice in the past year. She talks about waking up in the hospital and finding her two ex-husbands, an ex-boyfriend, and her current boyfriend in her room. "And they all got along," she says. Anderson's fierce tax-slashing crusades made her the activist that liberals love to hate, but her two-decades-long defense of Proposition 2 1/2 has been immense in preserving Massachusetts's quality of life. She was one of the two most significant unelected political figures here in the 1980s, the other being now-retired radio talk-show host Jerry Williams, a frequent Anderson ally. Her relevance waned in the '90s only because Republican governors Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift made her no-new-taxes mantra their own. If you can afford to live here, thank Barbara Anderson.

Let 100 papers bloom III. The Framingham-based MetroWest Daily News, the flagship and by far the largest (circulation: about 54,000) of Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell's 100-plus community newspapers, has endorsed Democrat Shannon O'Brien for governor. That, finally, ought to put to rest the conspiracy theories that Purcell had allowed a few of his weeklies to endorse the Green Party's Jill Stein for the sole purpose of hurting O'Brien and helping Republican Mitt Romney.

Big brains back online. Arts & Letters Daily, the egghead portal that died when Lingua Franca went belly-up, is back, as enticing and daunting as ever -- maybe even more daunting, given that it appears to have undergone a subtle redesign with a smaller typeface. This is good news. ALD -- rescued last Friday by the Chronicle of Higher Education -- functions as sort of a Romenesko for intellectuals, and though Media Log hardly claims to be an intellectual, it's useful to be able to see what academia is chattering about. Random links today: Gore Vidal claiming that George W. Bush knew 9/11 was coming, from London's Observer; two attacks on Daniel Goldhagen's attack on Pope Pius XII, in the Weekly Standard and London's Telegraph; and Judith Shulevitz's essay on Harold Bloom, which appears in this week's New York Times Book Review. Yikes! Hand me the sports section.

Sunday, October 27, 2002

The instant-runoff bandwagon gains another passenger. Nice to see Globe columnist Eileen McNamara jump on the bandwagon today in writing that the instant runoff would make it oh-so-much-easier for liberals to choose between Democrat Shannon O'Brien and the Green Party's Jill Stein. (Click here, here, and here for my past bleatings on the issue.) Give Eileen a comfy seat -- there's plenty of room up here!

Here's how the instant runoff would work in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race. There are five candidates on the ballot. You would rank them in order of preference, one through five. Or you could cast a vote just for the one candidate you like. Or you could choose a first and a second, and leave it at that. The likely result in Massachusetts is that a lot of liberals would vote for Stein first and O'Brien second. A few anti-tax, pro-gun extremists on the Republican side might vote for Libertarian Carla Howell first and Republican Mitt Romney second. (Sorry, Barbara Johnson, but I cannot envision any scenario under which the instant runoff would help you.)

What's great about the instant runoff is that you could give your first vote to the candidate you really want and the second to the candidate you could live with. As it stands now, of course, every vote for Stein is essentially a vote for Romney. With the instant runoff, if Stein didn't actually win, her votes would go to whoever her supporters had designated as their second choice. In most cases, presumably, that would be O'Brien. And if it turned out that O'Brien's margin of victory had come from Stein supporters, then O'Brien would have a powerful incentive to tend to her liberal wing as governor.

It's easy to imagine how two recent presidential races would have turned out differently if the instant runoff had been in effect. In 2000, many of Ralph Nader's supporters would almost certainly have designed Al Gore as their second choice, ensuring Gore's victory. And just to show that this doesn't always go one way (that is, to the left), in 1992, I'll bet that a majority of Ross Perot voters would have marked George Bush the Elder as their number two, thus depriving us of a Bill Clinton presidency for another four years (at least).

Of course, there are unintended consequences to everything, and it's easy to think of a big one if the instant runoff were to become a reality. There's something about the winner-take-all system that forces voters to think like adults -- to put some real effort into deciding not just who they find the most likable or ideologically compatible, but who is actually the most capable of doing the job. I can foresee ways in which the instant runoff would trivialize voting, in which people would designate a fringe or protest candidate as number one and a more serious candidate as number two. Too much of this behavior and the fringe candidate might actually win. Again, consider Stein and O'Brien. If you think Stein would actually be a better governor than O'Brien, well then by all means you should vote for Stein. But if you really think O'Brien would make a more able, competent governor, then it would be frivolous to vote for Stein as your first choice and O'Brien as your second for the sole purpose of sending a message to O'Brien.

Give the instant runoff a try. But let's not assume it's going to be the answer to all of our problems.

Weird but strange. In the middle of today's Globe endorsement of the Shannon O'Brien/Chris Gabrieli ticket is this bizarre phrase: "strong but workable." As in:

Partly thanks to Gabrieli, a policy omnivore, the Democratic ticket has advanced several strong but workable approaches to the economy, education, and health care.

Try rolling "weak and workable" around your tongue. Or "strong and impractical." Isn't anyone thinking over there?

Friday, October 25, 2002

Let 100 papers bloom II. No sooner had I posted an item yesterday praising Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell for letting his community-newspaper editors endorse the Green Party's Jill Stein than I heard from two fellow pundits criticizing me for such naivete. Didn't I realize that Purcell was doing everything he could to undermine Democrat Shannon O'Brien? Since Republican Mitt Romney is presumably anathema in Boston's most liberal suburbs, Purcell obviously directed a few strategically placed Stein endorsements as a backhanded way of helping Romney.

A perfect conspiracy theory -- but wrong. Greg Reibman, the editor-in-chief of Purcell's Community Newspaper Company Metro Unit, tells me that the Brookline Tab has already endorsed O'Brien. (Again, no evidence on the Brookline section of CNC's Town Online website. Nor has the O'Brien-Gabrieli campaign noted it on its website, which is just stupid.) Reibman adds that the three papers that have already endorsed Stein -- the Cambridge Chronicle, the Newton Tab, and the Needham Tab -- chose to do so before last night's debate, since that is likely to be Stein's last extended television appearance. Most of the rest of CNC's 100 papers, he says, will publish their endorsements next week.

Another CNC source tells me he expects that of the 19 papers Purcell owns in the northwest suburbs, five or six will probably wind up endorsing O'Brien. "This time around," he e-mails, "CNC has been given TOTAL editorial freedom to endorse or even not to endorse if editors choose, although some editors have worked together on endorsements to save on time while others localize their endorsements."

There are times, it seems, when it's possible to be too cynical.

Degrees of nuttiness. Not that anyone was watching -- after all, Chief Moose was live, just a click away -- but last night's gubernatorial debate left me worried. Will independent Barbara Johnson's idiotic performance be used to discredit the idea of opening future debates to candidates other than Democrats and Republicans? I'm afraid it will. She interrupted. She constantly ran over her time limit. She said that Libertarian Carla Howell "is ready for a 30-day mental observation," which brings to mind nothing so much as pots and kettles. She continually tried the patience of moderator Chet Curtis, the most patient of men.

The fact is that four people had earned the right to be up there. Democrat Shannon O'Brien, Republican Mitt Romney, the Green Party's Jill Stein, and Howell are all the nominees of recognized political parties, all of which earned that recognition by winning at least three percent of the vote in the last statewide election. You can argue that Howell's ideas are nutty all you want (hey, I won't disagree), but she got 12 percent when she ran against Ted Kennedy in 2000. Go ahead and say that Stein is out of touch. Critics (me included) said the same thing about her party's presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, two years ago, but that didn't stop six percent of the Massachusetts electorate from backing him. Stein and Howell represent legitimate political movements comprising real people. Johnson has proven nothing other than her ability to get 10,000 signatures.

This morning, though, the pundits are lumping Stein, Howell, and Johnson together, as though they all represent something equally frivolous and trivial. The Globe's Scot Lehigh dismissed Stein for her rhymes (whoops, guess he'll dismiss that phrase, too), such as "a boom for whom?" and "payoffs for layoffs." Okay, but here are just a few of the idiotic clichés that the consensus "winner," Romney, mouthed last night: "squealing like a stuck pig"; "a leopard doesn't change its spots" (those two documented by the Globe's Joan Vennochi, among others); and "You can't ride the low road throughout the whole campaign and then say, 'I want to jump on the high horse.' We're not going to change the rules in the middle of the game" (the Herald's David Guarino and Steve Marantz). Compared to those banalities, Rhymin' Stein comes off as positively eloquent.

Putting all five up there is better than restricting it to Romney and O'Brien. But I've said it before and I'll say it again: it would have been a real act of guts and judgment to include the four major-party candidates and exclude Johnson. It's not that an independent should never be included; but poll numbers and the presence or lack of a political organization ought to come into play at some point. The major-party candidates, by contrast, represent organizations have already proven themselves in the only poll that matters, the one that takes place on Election Day.

Oh, who won? Like I said, the pundit consensus this morning appears to favor Romney. The Herald's Joe Battenfeld is particularly over-the-top with his pro-Romney spin. Personally, I thought Stein won. She was better prepared and more focused than she was during the first debate. The only time she seemed nervous was during her closing statement. And she got off the best line of the night, as the Globe noted on its editorial page. In a rebuke to O'Brien and Romney, who talk mainly about their management and business experience, Stein said that what's needed is someone to run the state "not like a business but like a democracy."

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Let 100 papers bloom! The Newton Tab has endorsed Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein -- a pretty amazing statement of support for someone who is almost certainly not going to win the election. The Stein campaign reports that the Cambridge Chronicle has also endorsed Stein, though I could find no evidence of it on the unfathomable Town Online website, which hosts some 100 Community Newspaper Company papers, including the Tab and the Chronicle.

The conventional wisdom has it that Democrat Shannon O'Brien is the best bet for liberals -- that she's a progressive-leaning centrist who knows how to get things done, and is the only candidate who can stop Republican Mitt Romney. But she is, the Tab editorial observes, an unlikely reformer at a time when reform is paramount. The editorial continues:

[O]ther than making a bold statement about supporting gay marriages (which according to some reports upset her handlers), Democrat O'Brien has done little to distinguish herself since the primaries or to suggest that she'll be the reformer Massachusetts needs. And the fact that House Speaker Thomas Finneran has been an O'Brien cheerleader should raise concerns among Newton voters who've been crippled by his heavy-handed rule on Beacon Hill.

That's a pretty tough statement. I suspect O'Brien would rise above her insider connections and be a much better governor than her detractors think. Yes, O'Brien is extraordinarily cautious and has allies who make me queasy. But she's smart, she seems to have good instincts, and she did an outstanding job of cleaning up the corruption in the treasurer's office left behind by her Republican predecessor, Joe Malone. Still, O'Brien has failed to articulate exactly what kind of a leader she would be, and Stein has done surprisingly well at appealing to disaffected liberals and progressives. The candidates get another chance tonight, in the televised debate at 7 p.m.

The Stein endorsements are as much a media as a political story. Both weeklies are part of Community Newspaper Company, the 100-paper chain that Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell bought from Fidelity a couple of years ago, allegedly for the backbreaking price of about $150 million. Does anyone doubt that the conservative Herald will endorse Romney when the time comes? Obviously Purcell means it when he says that CNC editors will be allowed to decide what's right for their papers and their community. Good for him.

Under Fidelity's ownership, CNC wavered back and forth between letting local editors make their own endorsement decisions and dictating those decisions from headquarters -- although the company never, to my recollection, allowed individual weekly papers to do their own endorsements for statewide positions such as governor.

Recycling watch. On Monday I gave the Globe some credit (see what I mean about those permalinks?) for its report showing that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O'Brien had pushed a loan program for water-treatment plants that could have benefited clients of her lobbyist husband, Emmet Hayes. It turns out that the Herald reported essentially the same story in November 2000. Click here for my piece on media composting in today's Phoenix.

Media Log version 2.0. Dan's Iron Rule of Technology posits that anything you try to do with a computer will take 10 times longer and be 10 times more difficult than you'd anticipated, no matter how simple it looked like going in. So it is with Media Log. No sooner had I got this up and running last week -- itself no mean feat, involving as it did firewalls, ftp passwords, and trial runs with several pieces of software, not all of which worked properly -- than I heard from Jay Fitzgerald, the former editor of the Boston Business Journal who writes Hub Blog. Hey, he wrote (I'm paraphrasing here). Where are your permalinks? No one will link to you without permalinks! My response: What the hell is a permalink?

As I quickly learned, a properly run weblog includes permalinks for each individual item so that other bloggers can link to you without having to worry that your item will have slid off the page before their readers can find it. They are also damn near impossible to produce with specialized blogging software. So, starting yesterday, I began producing Media Log with Blogger, a set of Web-based tools that automate much of the process. Media Log now includes automatically generated archives and permalinks, the latter signified by the little "link" thingie after each posting time. I also reposted the last week's items yesterday, with their original dates and times marked in gray.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Saddam's last stand? (Originally posted 10/23/02 at 10:10 a.m.) The most important development in the world right now is the nascent unrest in Iraq following Saddam Hussein's release of tens of thousands of prisoners on Sunday. The move appears to have backfired, as it has sparked a protest movement -- tame and fearful, to be sure -- by families whose loved ones still cannot be accounted for. Slate has a comprehensive round-up of the coverage.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page on Tuesday opined that Saddam may be the next Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator "thought to be the least vulnerable of all Eastern Europe's Communists right up until the time he and his wife were shot on Christmas Day by their own people." That would certainly be the best possible outcome, good for the Iraqi people, good for Iraq's Middle East neighbors, and good for the world as a whole, since it would nullify the Bush administration's threats to launch a war.

If Saddam does fall, it will be interesting to see how quickly the White House takes credit by claiming that American military pressure created the environment that made his overthrow possible. No doubt that would be true, but -- barring evidence to the contrary -- it would have to be seen as an unintended (though happy) consequence. Today, George W. Bush's credibility takes another hit as the Wall Street Journal reports on page one that there is scant evidence for his claim that Saddam has been helping Al Qaeda. (Here's the link, though you have to be a paid subscriber to access it.) Reporter David Cloud leaves no doubt that Saddam's Iraq has been involved in a remarkably inept brand of terrorism over the years, but he writes of the alleged Al Qaeda connection:

Mr. Hussein, in fact, appears to be the type of secular Arab leader -- like the Saudi royal family and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- whom Mr. bin Laden and his Islamic followers would most like to see overthrown, with strict Islamic law imposed on Iraq's relatively nonobserving population.

If Bush's saber-rattling ultimately leads to Saddam's downfall, then he'll have the right to take credit for an unalloyed good. The administration's recent conciliatory statements about the UN are a positive development, too. But that won't change the fact that he brought the world to the brink of war for reasons that were never adequately explained.

Aesthetics and health. (Originally posted 10/23/02 at 10:10 a.m.) The Globe's Anthony Flint, who's done yeoman work covering suburban sprawl, manages to write a piece today on the aesthetics of cellphone towers without making one mention of the possibility that they may also represent a health hazard. To be sure, much uncertainty surrounds the issue, as I learned when I wrote about it more than three years ago. But the controversy at least warranted a mention, didn't it? For more information, check out the website of the EMR Network.

The problem with Shannon and Mitt. (Originally posted 10/22/02 at 10 a.m.) Are the media making a mockery of the gubernatorial race with a series of boneheaded gotcha stories? Or are Mitt Romney and Shannon O'Brien so inherently boring that there's nothing else to write about?

Today the Globe weighs in with a front-page piece that suggests O'Brien may have pushed a loan program for local water-treatment plants that could have benefited Hayes's clients. It's a mildly interesting wrinkle, but you've got to connect a lot of dots to get from here to there. In the Herald, Romney tries lamely to tie that paper's two-part series on pension abuses (click here and here) while fending off charges -- "charges" might be a better way of putting it -- that Bain, the venture-capital firm that he ran, borrowed money from sleazy junk-bond company Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s. (The Podunk Journal has learned that Fred Smith, a candidate for the board of selectmen, got his home mortgage from a bank whose president was later indicted on tax-fraud charges!)

Yes, there are real differences between Democrat O'Brien and Republican Romney, and I'm not going to fall into the Jill Stein trap of arguing that we should all vote for the Green Party because it really doesn't matter -- as she asserted once again on NECN last night (click here, scroll down, and pray that the Real Media gods are with you). But the candidates themselves are doing little to highlight those differences.

O'Brien, fearful of being cast as a tax-and-spend liberal, comes off as though she's running for chief accountant rather than governor. Romney's biggest problem is that people might decide he's too conservative on social issues. His solution -- run a bland-on-bland campaign in which he tries to come across as everything to everyone -- has not worked, given his failure to catch fire at any point during the summer or fall, a failure that is analyzed this week by the Phoenix's Seth Gitell. Blogger John Ellis, the former Globe columnist, shook his head yesterday over what he sees as Romney's likely defeat, calling it an "only in Massachusetts" development. But Ellis apparently sees attributes in Romney that Romney himself has not shown on the campaign trail. He can't debate, his TV ads are insipid, and his policy pronouncements are so simplistic that he has managed to earn the wrath of a Nobel Prize laureate in economics, according to the Globe's Steve Bailey.

The media deserve some blame for trivializing this race, but it's hard to make the coverage significantly better than the candidates.

David Rockefeller in miniature. (Originally posted 10/21/02 at 10 a.m.) It would take me 30 seconds -- tops -- to tell you everything I know about David Rockefeller. So it's possible that David Brooks's review of Rockefeller's Memoirs, in this week's New York Times Book Review, is off in some crucial way that I missed. But I doubt it. Brooks is simply too smart to let that happen. So I offer it up today as a near-perfect example of economy (Brooks's essay is just 1500 words), style, moral argument, and understanding in summarizing the life of a man whose name everyone knows and yet who remains almost a complete mystery to the general public.

1. Style. After laying out Rockefeller's early years, Brooks describes him at his height, as a key player in international affairs, mostly because he was the Man Who Was Always There. There's a subtle brilliance to Brooks's assessment of Rockefeller, in which he simultaneously professes admiration and gentle mockery. Many writers would kill (Not me! I abhor violence) to be able to craft a passage such as this:

Over time Rockefeller transformed himself into the leading corporate statesman of his day. Wherever there were panel discussions, evenly spaced bottles of mineral water and worthy discourses on the need for increased international dialogue, Rockefeller was there. He was there at the creation of the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Society, the Pesenti Group. He served as chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. His ability to endure tedium must be unmatched in all human history.

2. Moral argument. In Brooks's view, Rockefeller is a good man who's managed to do a lot of bad, cutting deals with some of the world's worst tyrants -- the Shah of Iran, Mao Zedong, the Soviet leadership -- while their victims were dying in the streets or rotting in prison. Rockefeller sees himself as a progressive realist, but his realism in too many cases overtook his idealism. "While the forces of democracy squared off with the forces of authoritarianism, Rockefeller was perpetually in the room with whoever happened to be in power," Brooks writes.

3. Understanding. What ever happened to the Protestant Establishment that Rockefeller epitomized? How could it hold such sway until the 1960s and '70s and then virtually disappear without a trace? Brooks attributes it directly to the Rockefellers' own progressive instincts, their embrace of the new. Rockefeller's children rejected the idea of a Protestant Establishment -- one child, Brooks notes, even bankrolled the Real Paper, an alternative newspaper that competed with the Boston Phoenix for a time in the 1970s. The Establishment didn't collapse. It just faded away.

Apple to Hub: Drop dead. (Originally posted 10/18/02 at 10 a.m.) So, is Apple's refusal to follow the Macworld trade show from New York to the Menino Memorial Mausoleum (a/k/a the Boston Convention Center) the last word? Or is it just a negotiating ploy? Given the hype by city officials and the local media over Macworld's return after a five-year absence, yesterday's news that Apple won't be coming qualifies as a disaster bordering on a catastrophe. And judging from Hiawatha Bray's piece in today's Globe, there's not much chance of Apple honcho Steve Jobs's changing his mind. But is that really the case? The Herald's Scott Van Voorhis reports today that Macworld organizer Charlie Greco will resume talks with Apple next week, after "a three-day 'cooling-off' period." Who's to say the mercurial Jobs won't change his mind? As one perceptive poster on the geek-news site put it:

It's not like Apple is doing so well that they can afford to play the role of protester. Don't they think that if they stay away from the east coast trade show because "IGN [the Macworld organizer] is no longer investing in New York", there might be a significant number of people on the east coast who decide not to invest in Apple? Especially after Boston lobbied hard to bring the trade show back, this is definitely a slap in the face. Apple deciding to take their ball and go home just doesn't make any sense. today points to a report on that offers an answer to the first question I had, namely: Why didn't Macworld officials get this all settled with Apple ahead of time? Answer: They did, only to have Apple sandbag them yesterday. The piece quotes "sources not a part of either IDG or Apple but close to the negotiations with convention organizing groups in New York and Boston" as saying that "IDG had received a vote of confidence from Apple to move the show to Boston some two weeks ago and that the about-face by Apple was 'a shock to everyone,' a source said."'s prediction: Apple will use whatever leverage it can to squeeze a better financial deal out of Macworld in return for its agreeing to come to Boston -- or, failing that, will start its own trade show with the help of another company. (Not much of a prediction, given that it pretty much covers all the bases.)

Romney and gays. (Originally posted 10/18/02 at 10 a.m.) Globe columnist Brian McGrory today neatly demonstrates the silliness of criticizing Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney for giving money to his alma mater, Brigham Young University, despite its anti-gay policies. As McGrory notes, BYU is a Mormon institution that reflects the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Romney, of course, is an active member. Why, McGrory asks, isn't Democrat Shannon O'Brien's Catholicism raised as an issue for its own many departures from liberal orthodoxy?

In any case, my Phoenix colleague Seth Gitell wrote an online piece yesterday reminding people that the BYU story the Globe broke as "news" this week was something he'd written about in great detail last April. Still, the overarching point is that Romney is not a leader on gay and lesbian rights -- not even close. Whereas O'Brien supports Vermont-style civil unions and now says she would sign a same-sex-marriage bill if it crossed her desk, Romney's advocacy goes no further than domestic-partnership benefits -- important, to be sure, but so '80s.

"H" is for Howell -- and hemp. (Originally posted 10/18/02 at 10 a.m.) The Globe followed up yesterday's front-pager on the Green Party's Jill Stein with one today on Libertarian Carla Howell. And whereas Stein comes across as a likable ultraliberal who could peel votes away from O'Brien, Howell -- despite reporter Sarah Schwietzer's humanizing touches -- seems unlikely to do much damage to Romney, despite her potentially popular anti-tax stand. After all, even those conservatives who are not fired up about Romney are not likely to desert him for someone who campaigns at hemp rallies.

Sullivan disses Romenesko. (Originally posted 10/17/02 at 12:08 p.m.) Andrew Sullivan has had to take back a bizarre insinuation that Jim Romenesko's Media News is an outpost of liberal bias. Yesterday, Sullivan posted a link to a piece in the Rocky Mountain News on the alleged liberal bias of the New York Times and its executive editor, Howell Raines. Sullivan added this gratuitous slap: "Don't expect Romenesko to link." But Romenesko did link, forcing Sullivan to post this addendum: "It turns out Jim Romenesko actually linked to a piece criticizing the newly leftward spin of the New York Times. I under-estimated him. Let me know the next time he does, will you?" Well, okay, Andrew. What's got me scratching my head, though, is Sullivan's apparent belief that Romenesko ever shows any ideological bias of any kind. What's made Romenesko such a must-read among media insiders is the perception that he has no agenda other than dishing the dirt as expeditiously as possible. What has he done to make Sullivan think otherwise?

Buchanan's dot-com failure. (Originally posted 10/17/02 at 8:35 a.m.) Taki Theodoracopulos, the co-editor of Pat Buchanan's new American Conservative magazine and the money behind the operation, turns out to be a cheap bastard. The magazine's on the Web at the unwieldy address of If you type in the much-easier-to-remember -- as I did, hoping to avoid Googling it -- you're greeted with a pop-up window informing you that the domain name can be had for just $6,000. (Hey, Victor Navasky: Can the Nation scrape up the dough? Could be part of an entertaining fundraising campaign.) Aside from that, only some of AC's content is actually available on its website. The only piece I want to read -- an antiwar screed by Nicholas von Hoffman -- isn't. Damn.

Stein way. (Originally posted 10/17/02 at 8:35 a.m.) Democratic guberatorial candidate Shannon O'Brien lost two to three points this morning, even on a day that brought the utterly unsurprising news that her Republican rival, Mitt Romney, had given money to his alma mater, Brigham Young University, despite its virulent antigay policies. The bad news for O'Brien was the Boston Globe's long, flattering front-page profile of the Green Party's Jill Stein, written up straight by Brian MacQuarrie. I've interviewed Stein and heard her speak. She's impressive, a lot more so than she showed in her halting performance at last week's debate. She also represents a powerful temptation to left-leaning voters put off by O'Brien's centrist mush. By the way, Stein's website is; but for a good laugh, try instead.

O'Brien's righteous flip-flop. (Originally posted 10/16/02 at 9:24 a.m.) Shannon O'Brien couldn't have handled her sort-of endorsement of same-sex marriage much worse. In response to a question at a rally organized by gay and lesbian supporters, she said that if she's elected governor she'd sign a marriage bill if it crossed her desk. Then she said she'd really prefer to stick to her support for Vermont-style civil unions. Then she said to hell with it, yeah, she supports same-sex marriage, it's nothing new, so will you please get off her back? Sheesh. No wonder that the Globe's Rick Klein goes to some lengths this morning to refute her campaign's claim that she hasn't changed her position (She has! She has!), and the Herald story, by Elizabeth Beardsley and Karen Crummy, carries the headline O'BRIEN FLIP-FLOPS IN FAVOR OF GAY MARRIAGE LEGISLATION (She does! She does!).

Whatever. Inartful though her handling of it may have been, O'Brien's new-found support for same-sex marriage is a huge step along the road to full equality for lesbians and gay men. During the Democratic primary campaign, Robert Reich was the only gubernatorial hopeful to voice support for same-sex marriage. No one has attributed his worse-than-expected showing to that stand, but neither did Reich manage to give the cause much of a boost. That makes O'Brien's announcement all the more important.

Friedman to McNamara: Read this! (Originally posted 10/16/02 at 9:24 a.m.) New York Times columnist Tom Friedman this morning offers a brilliant and cogent argument as to why the divestiture campaign against Israel is anti-Semitic -- and he does it without letting the Sharon government off the hook, either. His wind-up: "Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction -- out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East -- is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest." I hope Globe columnist Eileen McNamara, who recently called Harvard president Larry Summers an "intellectual fraud" for making the same point, has Friedman on her reading list for today.

The estimable Mr. Conason. (Originally posted 10/16/02 at 9:24 a.m.)'s Joe Conason, whose "Journal" is without question the finest blog in the known universe, makes a mention of me (scroll down to "Dan Kennedy is back") that has left me flabbergasted. Thank you, Joe, and the check is in the mail.

Saddam in black, white, and gray. (Originally posted 10/15/02 at 9:55 a.m.) The New York Times and the Boston Globe both run front-page stories today on the attitudes that ordinary Iraqis hold toward their maximum leader, Saddam Hussein, and, by implication, toward the United States. Together, they show the difficulty of gauging the public mood in a totalitarian society where speaking out against the regime is likely to get you tortured and killed. The stories appear on the eve of a national election in which Saddam is expected to get more than 99 percent of the vote. Or else!

The Times piece, by John Burns, reports that the surface enthusiasm Iraqis show for Saddam often masks much nastier feelings. Though most Iraqis will offer ritual pro-government rhetoric -- often in terms "strikingly similar" to official "diatribes" -- Burns also found that ordinary citizens rarely criticize George W. Bush or Tony Blair unless prompted, and seem to hold a generally favorable view of the US and Britain.

In the Globe, Anthony Shadid reports that Saddam has boosted his popularity in recent months by increasing food rations and government salaries, and by bestowing special favors on those who hold jobs of critical importance to his regime. "Without a doubt," Shadid writes, "fear keeps the government in power. But so do guns, money, and, in particular, food. The success of Baghdad's overtures is a key reason that, despite intense US pressure, the government remains secure and perhaps even stronger than in past years, according to diplomats who have been closely following Hussein's administration."

The Times and Globe reports do nothing to dispel the fantasies of such pro-war ideologues as Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney that a war aimed at "regime change" will lead to the quick fall of Saddam (likely) and the establishment of a new peaceful, democratic order in the Arab world (what are they smoking?). For that, I recommend James Fallows's thoughtful and frightening cover story in the current Atlantic Monthly on the likely outcomes of a US invasion. The title is "The Fifty-First State?", and the question mark is only to indicate that that is the best possible outcome. The worst? You don't want to know -- but you should.

Missing numbers. (Originally posted 10/15/02 at 9:55 a.m.) Ashleigh Banfield, the youngish, attractive, bespectacled MSNBC anchor/reporter, has always held more fascination for media critics than the public. Yet now that her 10 p.m. show On Location has been canceled, it's the one missing detail that makes all the difference.

Variety reports that Banfield's ratings have fallen from more than 400,000 per night to just 218,000 -- way, way behind the Fox News Channel's On the Record with Greta van Susteren (866,000) and CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown (704,000). Yet Banfield has also had another major competitor from within her own network: The News with Brian Williams, on sister station CNBC, which moved over from MSNBC on July 15, the same night that On Location made its debut. I don't know what kind of numbers Brian has been doing -- for all I know, they suck -- but The News is by far the highest-quality newscast that either of NBC's cable outlets offers.

It seems only logical to suppose that Williams -- the designated successor to Tom Brokaw -- is cutting into Banfield's ratings. Yet a quick search of Lexis-Nexis reveals not a single story on Williams's audience share since The News moved exclusively to CNBC.

MSNBC, which at this point is utterly lost and irrelevant, is bringing back its wonderfully tabloidy MSNBC Investigates in the 10 p.m. time slot. If you don't want to watch Brian, Aaron, and Greta chew over the day's news, you can switch over for such treats as The Inside Story on the World of Tattooing! and Amazing Videos from Store Security Cameras! (I'm not making these up.)

Hello in there. (Originally posted 10/15/02 at 9:55 a.m.) Today marks the debut of "Media Log" on For those of you who have been reading my "Notes & Observations" column on, thank you for coming over. For those who are reading this for the first time, welcome.