Friday, January 31, 2003

Myths and images from a strange mind. Nearly 100 percent of what I know about the literary critic Leslie Fiedler comes from reading the obituaries in today's New York Times and Boston Globe. I love the detail that he once attended a Bob Dylan concert with O.J. Simpson -- surely a better choice than, say, attending an O.J. film festival with Mr. Z.

Last year, while doing research for my book on dwarfism, I came across Fiedler's Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978). I wasn't able to do much with it. As Jacqueline Ann Clipsham, an artist and political activist who's also a dwarf, has written, Freaks is "a horrendous book, not about people with disabilities but unwittingly about the author's own narcissism and prejudicial fears."

This morning, in looking over the notes I'd taken on Freaks, I came across one passage I thought was worth sharing. Mind you, I'm not endorsing it. But it is a pretty good example of an unusual mind at work. Fielder is writing about the transition of the dwarf community from a gaggle of Freaks (his word, and his capitalization) to an organized interest group, from jesters, sideshow performers, and even gods to agitators for normality and equal rights. He continues:

Looking back over their five thousand years of recorded history, it seems to me that the Dwarfs are, in a real sense, the Jews of the Freaks: the most favored, the most successful, the most conspicuous and articulate; but by the same token, the most feared and reviled, not only in gossip and the popular press, but in enduring works of art, the Great Books and Great Paintings of the West. They have been, in short, a "Chosen People," which is to say, a people with no choice at all; but they have begun, like the children of Israel, to choose at least to choose. How appropriate, then, that they, who began their escape from oppression via the back doors of the great courts of Europe and have prospered in show business in America, take the lead now in organizing for mutual defense, consciousness-raising, and social action.

If, like some Jews, some of them long to disappear into the "normal" world around them, even this seems to me finally fitting and proper.

Odd stuff. To me, at least, this sort of thing sounds thought-provoking, but means little or nothing when you hold it up to scrutiny.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

"Shock and Awe" and death and revenge. Today's Phoenix includes a column I wrote on the media's one-dimensional reaction to Monday's reports by UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei. There's one point I want to expand on -- a report, which I found on Dan "Tom Tomorrow" Perkins's weblog, that the Pentagon has already decided to open the war against Iraq by bombing Baghdad into a pile of rubble, occupied by no one except the dead.

According to the CBS News report that Perkins cites (via a story in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald), the strategy has been labeled "Shock and Awe." I found this description on a Department of Defense website, ascribing it to Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. But what the Pentagon has in mind goes way, way beyond what those military thinkers ever could have imagined. The Herald piece continues:

... between 300 and 400 cruise missiles would fall on Iraq each day for two consecutive days. It would be more than twice the number of missiles launched during the entire 40 days of the 1991 Gulf War.

"There will not be a safe place in Baghdad," a Pentagon official told America's CBS News after a briefing on the plan. "The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before."

The idea, according to the Herald, is to break the Iraqi people "physically, emotionally and psychologically." (The paper uses quotation marks around this phrase, but the attribution is unclear.) This is sick, outrageous, and -- more to the point -- completely counter to US interests.

The original CBS News report contains still more horrifying details:

The battle plan is based on a concept developed at the National Defense University. It's called "Shock and Awe" and it focuses on the psychological destruction of the enemy's will to fight rather than the physical destruction of his military forces.

"We want them to quit. We want them not to fight," says Harlan Ullman, one of the authors of the Shock and Awe concept which relies on large numbers of precision guided weapons.

"So that you have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes," says Ullman.

Think about this: Ullman is explicitly saying that the US is willing to kill vast numbers of Iraqi civilians in order to terrify the Iraqi military into surrendering. Am I twisting this? Is the real intent to destroy buildings while sparing lives? Well, look again. It's Ullman who makes the Hiroshima analogy. I assume he was choosing his words carefully.

It is difficult for someone with no background in military matters to speak out about such things, but each of us has an obligation to think hard and not remain silent. Remember, they're doing this in our name. I oppose George W. Bush's obsession with invading Iraq. But let's face it, it's going to happen. There are ways to do it that would enhance our international reputation, bringing down Saddam -- one of the worst people on the face of the earth -- and doing it with a minimal loss of civilian lives. The Iraqi people would be liberated, sanctions would be lifted, and rebuilding would commence. (And Saddam might blow up his oil fields, launch missiles at Israel, and dispatch terror teams to the US.)

Trouble is, the right way to do it might involve the deaths of more American troops than would "Shock and Awe." Thus it's a terrible argument that I am trying to make: that it is worth the lives of some unknown number of US soldiers in order to avoid a holocaust in Baghdad. What an offensive, arrogant thing to say! To which I respond, if this war can't be prevented, then we should at least do it in such a way that will result in the fewest American casualties -- not four weeks from now, but over the next 20 years.

The reaction of the Iraqi people, and of the Arab world in general, will depend a lot on whether the US behaves as a liberator, or as an imperialist power bent on wreaking "Shock and Awe."

In his State of the Union message this week, Bush spoke of the hypothetical threat of an Iraqi terrorist team entering the US with a small quantity of weapons of mass destruction, the sort of weapons that could take many more lives than the attacks of 9/11.

"Shock and Awe" would surely make such an attack more likely.

Romney buys time. So Governor Mitt Romney bought himself another month, announcing last night that his cuts for the current fiscal year won't be nearly as bad as what he had led us to believe a couple of weeks ago (gee, what a surprise), and putting off until late February or early March his proposal to reorganize state government. That gives him another few weeks to figure out how he's going to explain that his reorg won't accomplish much, and that he really is going to have to slash "core" services, raise taxes, or both.

But give the governor a break. There's no such thing as a bad day when it includes MDC commissioner David Balfour's being told to hit the bricks. Even better, Romney wants to do away with the MDC entirely. (Click here for Globe coverage, and here for the Herald's take.)

Meanwhile, the Globe's Frank Phillips today has a useful analysis of how inaccessible Romney has proved to be, especially when compared to his four immediate predecessors -- Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republicans Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift. To update Harry Truman, Romney already knows he can't stand the heat, so he's staying out of the kitchen.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Seen but not spoken of. More tax cuts for the rich? Well, what did you expect? War with Iraq? Whatever. The real news in last night's State of the Union address was in what President Bush didn't do. For the first time in nearly a generation, the president eschewed the treacly practice of introducing the guests who get invited to sit with the first lady.

Last year, in his first State of the Union address, Bush had no choice: the wounds of 9/11 were still raw. He paid tribute to Shannon Spann, the widow of CIA agent Michael Spann, who was killed during an attempted jail break in Afghanistan; the newly installed Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, and his minister of women's affairs; and the flight attendants who stopped would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

This time, though, his guests were seen but not acknowledged. And thus a cheap publicity stunt begun two decades ago by Ronald Reagan, and continued by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, was finally brought to a close, if only for one year. George W. may yet ruin the country, but at least he restored a bit of dignity to a solemn occasion.

What was he thinking? I'm still trying to wrap my brain around something that Syracuse University television scholar Robert Thompson told the Globe's Mark Jurkowitz, who weighs in today with a piece on new 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager. Noting that 60 Minutes' ratings have been falling during the last few years of the Don Hewitt era, Thompson said, ''Once 24-hour cable television kicked in, 60 Minutes couldn't stay in the same cultural positioning it once had.''

Now what, exactly, is Thompson referring to? The lamebrained idiocy of the Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes? The tabloid trash of Connie Chung's show on CNN? The breathless efforts of the well-meaning Phil Donahue as he fails in his attempt to prove to MSNBC that he's still relevant?

There are a few good shows on cable news, but not many, and precisely zero with the deep reporting of 60 Minutes. Or perhaps Thompson was thinking of MSNBC Investigates, with its hard-hitting stories on tattoos and -- gasp! -- the shocking things that are picked up by in-store security cameras.

As Fager himself told Jurkowitz: "It's amazing how much crap makes it on TV."

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Farewell to David Shribman. The Globe's soon-to-be-former Washington-bureau chief, David Shribman, has his last weekly "National Perspective" column in today's edition. It's a moving piece about his uncle, who was killed on a PT boat in World War II, and the relevance of his heroism to the all-but-certain war with Iraq. Whether you agree with Shribman's conclusion will depend, in part, on where you stand on President Bush's aggressive foreign policy:

At stake are not only the freedoms that the nation was founded on and the freedoms that generations of Americans have fought to add to our national culture, but also, as the World War II generation used to put it in an evocative shorthand, the right to boo the Dodgers. At stake are all those things, plus -- and this is what makes our home-front war different -- the right to go to a Dodgers game or to the mall or to the airport in safety.

I don't buy Shribman's notion -- suggested but not quite explicitly stated -- that Bush's eagerness to launch a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein is the moral equivalent of World War II. But his appreciation for his uncle's sacrifice is beyond argument.

Shribman now assumes the reins as executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and will continue writing a weekly column. According to the Globe, that column will appear on the Globe's op-ed page "periodically." Well, gee. Shribman is one of a tiny handful of columnists ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for the Globe, and he's got local roots as well, having grown up on the North Shore. If the man's going to write a weekly column, you'd think it would be a no-brainer for Globe editorial-page editor Renée Loth to run 'em all.

Backhanded compliment. An odd column today from the Herald's Wayne Woodlief, who devotes half his space to an analysis of how Governor Mitt Romney is handling the budget crisis. Woodlief praises Romney for his "fast and stylish start," but what appears to impress Woodlief most is Romney's ... disingenuousness:

Romney and his aides are playing a great game of good-cop, bad-cop on some $500 million in cuts the governor is set to make this week to meet an emergency revenue shortfall in the state budget for the fiscal year that ends in June.

In orchestrated leaks to the press, aides revealed that Romney has decided against cuts in basic education aid under Chapter 70 to some poorer schools (of course, the state might have been sued on constitutional grounds if they had been cut) -- and also rejected slashes in money for veterans.

Yeah, great job, Mitt. Woodlief might also have noted that Romney got elected, at least in part, by being the only candidate for governor last year to claim that there wouldn't be a budget crisis in the first place.

Who's a neocon? Regarding my post yesterday on the antitrust investigation of the LA Weekly and the now-defunct New Times LA, reader CS writes: "First Meyerson, and now you. Whatever else NT was, it was NEVER -- by any stretch of the imagination -- neocon. Jeez!"

I should have made it more explicit that I was attributing that judgment to LA Weekly columnist Harold Meyerson. As a side note, I am reliably told that Meyerson is, indeed, still at the American Prospect as editor-at-large, and that his position at the Weekly is strictly part-time. The LA Times' description of Meyerson as the Weekly's executive editor was wrong.

Monday, January 27, 2003

The politics of media antitrust enforcement. The Justice Department's decision to end its antitrust probe of the alt-weekly chains Village Voice Media and New Times Media -- and to settle on the cheap -- raises some troubling questions.

On the one hand, the deal that the two chains reached last fall would appear to be classic collusion. Each agreed to shut down a weekly paper rather than continue to compete. New Times closed New Times LA, a market long dominated by the Voice-owned LA Weekly. In Cleveland, Voice Media stopped publishing its Cleveland Free Times, ceding the market to New Times's Cleveland Scene. Moreover, Voice Media paid New Times a reported $8 million for its LA disappearing act; New Times, in return, paid a much smaller sum to Voice Media for the Cleveland deal.

On the other hand, you've got to wonder what the motivation was for John Ashcroft's Justice Department to get involved. As Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, told the NY Times' David Carr, it is indeed "odd that the government decided it must prevent two small newspapers from closing after it stood on the sidelines for years as the AOL Time Warners of the world swallowed entire industries."

I'm not about to start criticizing any effort by regulators to do something, at long last, about media consolidation. But as Tim Rutten reported in Saturday's Los Angeles Times, there are reasons to believe that Justice's unprecedented quick action had as much to do with politics as it did with the economics of antitrust law. The LA Weekly's respected political analyst, Harold Meyerson, reports the details in a column this week.

The key passage in Meyerson's piece is his assertion that "according to people close to the case to whom I've spoken, the government is concerned that the assisted suicide of New Times in Los Angeles reflects a narrowing of political perspectives in the city, and that it is the government's responsibility to create more ideological space." This is, as Meyerson observes, a breathtakingly broad view of antitrust law." Both the late New Times LA and the LA Weekly are free papers; the law is intended not to protect political viewpoints but, rather, advertisers, who would presumably be hurt by the monopolization of the alt-weekly market in a given community.

If that sounds crass, consider the absurdity of requiring publishers to keep putting out free papers, against their will, in order to protect a certain political viewpoint. Yet the Justice Department may have come perilously close to doing just that, particularly in LA, one of the nation's leading media capitals. Surely it's no coincidence that New Times took a neoconservative stance, and that the LA Weekly is a left-leaning paper. And surely it's no coincidence that -- as Carr reports -- Voice Media, as a result of the settlement with Justice, had to agree to help former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan launch a new conservative weekly in Los Angeles later this year.

By the way, what's the deal with Meyerson? It's 5:45 a.m. on the West Coast as I write this, so I'm not going to call him up. But has his incredibly shrinking job with the American Prospect shrunk still further? Meyerson was hired away from LA in June 2001 in order to become the executive editor of the Prospect. Rutten's LA Times piece describes him as the "executive editor" of the LA Weekly, the job he held before moving to Washington. But the Weekly's online masthead describes Meyerson as the paper's "political editor," a position he could presumably hold while continuing to work at the Prospect. And the Prospect's Meyerson bio calls him the magazine's "editor-at-large," the position he assumed last year because (a) it was just an incredibly wonderful opportunity or (b) he had clashed one too many times with co-editor Robert Kuttner.

Inquiring minds want to know: did Rutten make a mistake, or has Meyerson packed up his bags and moved back to LA?

Paranoia runs deep. Reader YH told me to check out the latest from Peggy Noonan on It includes this passage:

Four months ago a friend who had recently met with the president on other business reported to me that in conversation the president had said that he has been having some trouble sleeping, and that when he awakes in the morning the first thing he often thinks is: I wonder if this is the day Saddam will do it....

Which begs the question, what does Mr. Bush know that he hasn't said about Saddam's intentions and ability to strike America?

Of course, Noonan is prepared to give President Bush the benefit of the doubt, and then some. What's interesting, though, is that even a sycophant such as Noonan acknowledges that Bush hasn't even begun to make a case for why war is necessary. What seems not to have occurred to her is that perhaps there isn't a reasonable case to make.

A strong critique of the MCAS. Boston Herald political editor Joe Sciacca today has a good column on what's wrong with the MCAS, arguing that high-stakes testing makes no sense in a time of deep cuts in the education budget. And he offers this advice to Governor Mitt Romney: "If the governor truly wants to do something bold, he will revisit MCAS and ask, honestly, whether it is realistic to pump resources into a single and expensive high-stakes test at the expense of overall educational quality."

Saturday, January 25, 2003

Resistance is futile. A little over a week ago I posted an item on a software dilemma. After years of a pretty much Microsoft-free existence, my book editor was asking me to switch to Microsoft Word so that we could use the "Track Changes" editing feature.

I did some experimenting to see whether I could avoid such a calamity, but to no avail. His "Track Changes" comments did not survive the arduous journey from Word to AppleWorks when I translated his documents with MacLinkPlus. Another option -- an inexpensive alternative called ThinkFree Office, which is supposed to be Microsoft-compatible -- was even worse. Even allowing for the distinct possibility that I was doing something wrong, I could find no sign that ThinkFree supported "Track Changes."

I received some e-mails from readers, and they broke down into two camps. One side argued that, though they sympathized with my anti-Microsoft stance (admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since I do, after all, own a few shares of Microsoft), MS Word was nevertheless a pretty cool program. The other, more militant side suggested I check out open-source alternatives.

Tempting as the militants' vision may have been, I decided that the time had come, at long last, to get with the program, so to speak. I managed to pick up a legal version of MS Office 2001 for Macintosh on eBay for a little more than $200, a huge savings over the $499 list price. I installed it yesterday, and, well, here I am. I write Media Log with a long-since-discontinued program called Claris Home Page, which is now close to being the only non-Microsoft software I use. Word, Excel, Entourage, Internet Explorer (which was already my browser of choice) ... I mean, what the hell. The only thing left to do is ditch my PowerBook G3 and pick up a Wintel laptop. (Not going to happen.)

I'm rattling on about this because, to me, it demonstrates perhaps the key ingredient of Microsoft's success, which is, well, its success. Illegal monopolistic behavior aside, the most important reason for me to use Word is not that I've fallen in love with it (it is, in fact, a notably unlovable program), but that everyone else uses it. No longer will editors have to waste time reformatting stuff I send them. My book editor and I can exchange "Track Changes" comments to our hearts' content.

It may be true that Microsoft's monopoly has stifled innovation. But when you need to get things done, innovation is less important than compatibility. And Bill Gates has done more than anyone to ensure compatibility by crushing the competition, by any means necessary. It ain't pretty, but it works.

We don't need no education. Hey, Mitt: Go ahead and cancel every last penny of state aid that goes to the Medford Public Schools. If they won't take it seriously, why should the taxpayers? And how would you like to be the parent of a Medford student, having to scramble for child care at the last minute because superintendent of schools Roy Belson decided it would be a neat idea to take the day off? One last question: Why is Belson still employed?

Friday, January 24, 2003

Who smeared Scott Ritter? Good interview with former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter on the website of WRGB-TV (Channel 6) in Albany, New York. (I found the link through's "Best of the Web," which is enjoying Ritter's torment.)

In the past few days we've learned that, in June 2001, Ritter was arrested at a Burger King and apparently charged with attempting to arrange a sexual encounter with an underage girl he'd met on the Internet. According to Ritter, the charges were dropped and the record of the case was sealed. But that didn't stop someone from leaking the information at a particularly inopportune time.

Here are a couple of key exchanges with WRGB's Darcy Wells:

Q: Do you think this was an attempt to silence you?

A: Again, I don't want to get into that. I think that's a question that maybe you journalists should delve into more.


Q: Who do you think leaked this information?

A: I don't know, but whoever did should be held accountable. I mean, I'm held accountable to the rule of law. I was called forward. I stood before a judge.

There has still barely been a word about this in the national media. But the fact remains that someone leaked sealed court documents about a leading (if misleading) critic of the White House's Iraq policy on the eve of a likely military invasion. Is anyone in the media going to get to the bottom of this?

It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. Wow. In today's New York Times, William F. Buckley Jr. defends affirmative action for the children of rich alumni, but not for African-Americans. On the same page, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof defends the affirmative-action policy that got a mediocre student named George W. Bush into Phillips Andover Academy, and wonders why Bush can't understand that others deserve the same opportunity. Hey, Bill: Read Kristof.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Silencing an antiwar voice. For the past year or so, former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter has claimed loudly and ceaselessly that Iraq had largely gotten rid of its weapons of mass destruction before kicking out the inspectors in 1998. He hasn't been particularly effective. As the Phoenix's Seth Gitell has pointed out, much of what Ritter now says contradicts his earlier statements, and he has failed to articulate a convincing explanation for his switch.

Richard Butler, who headed the inspection team on which Ritter served and who emphatically does not believe Iraq has disarmed, has been far more persuasive in his joint television appearances with Ritter -- even as he asserts, as he did on MSNBC's Donahue last week, that he agrees with Ritter that the United States has no right to invade Iraq unilaterally.

Still, Ritter has been a visible and articulate spokesman, as well as something of a rallying point for those who oppose George W. Bush's apparent plan to launch a war against Iraq. So it is curious, to say the least, to watch the latest attempt to discredit him unfold.

Last night Ritter appeared on CNN's NewsNight not to talk about Iraq, but to answer questions about a very different matter. It seems that, in June 2001, Ritter was arrested at a Burger King near Albany, New York. I'm not sure why Ritter agreed to go on CNN, since he resolutely refused to answer any questions other than to say the charges had been dropped and the case has been sealed. But, reportedly, Ritter was accused of seeking a rendezvous with an underage girl whom he'd met on the Internet. If news reports are to be believed, he was met not by a teenage girl, but by undercover officers.

Ritter claimed he was barred from discussing the matter, but the host, Aaron Brown, dismissed that. Brown told Ritter that CNN had consulted legal authorities who concluded that though the government was prohibited from talking about a sealed case, Ritter, as the person who was arrested, was not. But Ritter wouldn't budge. At one point Brown told Ritter:

I'm trying to give you an opportunity, if you want to take it, to explain what happened. And here's the point of that. And you know this is true. You are radioactive until this is cleared up. Until people understand what this is about, no one is going to talk to you about the things that you feel passionately about.

Ritter disagree, replying that "the bottom line is, the rule of law must apply here and we must never lose sight of that. I think you hit on something. I was a credible voice. I am a credible voice. And I will be a credible voice in regards to issues pertaining to Iraq." Unfortuntely for Ritter, that's probably wishful thinking.

For days, now, Ritter's year-and-a-half-old arrest has been a cause célèbre among the prowar right. The right-wing website has been all over this, passing along lurid details from local news reports. Ritter's troubles have been the subject of much clucking and chuckling on Rush Limbaugh's radio show as well.

I hold no brief for Ritter. But the fact that sealed police records regarding one of the country's most prominent critics of Bush's policy in Iraq would be leaked -- days or weeks before war may begin -- is absolutely chilling. Rather than snickering at the hapless Ritter, the media could perform a far greater public service by finding out who was behind this sickening attempt to smear a White House foe.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

A brilliant takedown of SUVs. The New Republic published it a couple of weeks ago, but only last night did I have a chance to sit down and read Gregg Easterbrook's brilliant, entertaining, and only occasionally overwrought essay on SUVs. Titled "Axle of Evil," the piece is notionally a review of Keith Bradsher's book High and Mighty: SUVs -- The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way.

But Easterbrook's essay takes on a life of its own, from original sin (Richard Nixon's decision to exempt Jeeps from environmental regulations; it always comes back to Nixon, doesn't it?); to Arnold Schwarzenegger's role in making the Humvee a commercial success ("The Hummer screams to the world the words that stand as one of Schwarzenegger's signature achievements as an actor: 'Fuck you, asshole!' Maybe this class of vehicles should be called FUVs."); to Senate majority leader Bill Frist's heroic, unsuccessful attempt to save the lives of two children in an SUV-rollover accident ("Will Frist become an advocate of SUV reform, or will he return to Washington and join his colleagues in the next round of cover-ups and exemptions?").

Weirdly, the person who may be damaged the most by Easterbrook's piece is Bradsher, even though his book is described as "dazzling," in the tradition of Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed and Ida Tarbell's The History of Standard Oil. That's because the review clocks in at just shy of 10,000 words. Having read Easterbrook's remarkably comprehensive overview of the sordid history of the SUV, I can't imagine needing to know more.

On the other hand, High and Mighty has been on bookshelves since last fall. Maybe Easterbrook will draw renewed attention to it.

Fenway's final years. Herald columnist Cosmo Macero is right: it's time to start thinking about moving the Red Sox to the South Boston Waterfront. At least that way there will be 81 days a year when people can admire the empty convention center.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Even Lily Tomlin would gag. The danger in trying to say anything nice about the Bush White House was once nicely summarized by the political philosopher Lily Tomlin: "No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up." Yesterday I posted an item about the happy irony of George W. Bush's top two foreign-policy aides, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who are both African-American, disagreeing over affirmative action.

Within hours I heard from reader MG, who pointed me to a truly disheartening item that had appeared last week in TNR &c., the New Republic's political weblog. Remember that Washington Post story reporting that Rice had taken a lead role in shaping Bush's anti-affirmative-action decision? &c. recounts a Post follow-up reporting that the White House had dragged Rice's name into it, apparently without her permission or even her knowledge, in order to give themselves political cover (scroll down; don't read this on a full stomach).

Rice and Powell's disagreement seems legitimate, but this kind of sleazy maneuvering isn't.

Monday, January 20, 2003

MLK Day musings. It's a holiday, a lot of people aren't working, so no heavy commentary today. Not to be a Pollyanna, but there's something to be said about celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday at a moment when the top two foreign-policy aides to a Republican president are both African-Americans, and they disagree with each other over the president's policy on affirmative action. Of course, I happen to think Colin Powell is right and Condoleezza Rice is wrong.

Speaking truth to Mitt. Economist Ed Moscovitch has a terrific op-ed piece in today's Herald on Governor Mitt Romney's campaign to slash $200 million in local aid. Unfortunately, it's not yet on the Herald's website, but Moscovitch makes two main points: (1) Romney, in refusing to consider a tax hike, is not telling the truth about how much money even a modest increase would bring in. Simply raising the income tax to 5.9 percent as of March 1 would bring in $200 million this fiscal year, thus canceling the need for local-aid cuts, Moscovitch writes, contradicting Romney's assertion that a tax cut this year would come too late to make a difference. (2) Romney's plan to cut local aid equally and across the board -- supported by the House but opposed by the Senate -- will have a disproportionate effect on poor urban areas. "A 15 percent cut across the board would cost Worcester $192 per person, but Weston only $57," Moscovitch writes. "This is fair?"

More on Mary Jo. Globe ombudsman Christine Chinlund reports that many readers failed to appreciate the "brutally ironic" tone behind Charlie Pierce's reference to Mary Jo Kopechne in his recent magazine profile of Ted Kennedy. Even so, I still can't understand how anyone could not get it.

Safire on media consolidation. Excellent commentary today by the New York Times' William Safire on the dangers of corporate media consolidation. Safire says nothing particularly original or startling, but it's important that the powers-that-be understand this isn't just a liberal issue, and that conservatives can get riled up about it as well. Thanks to Jay Fitzgerald for giving me a nudge on this.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

Sex and the jealous columnist. Bob Somerby's Daily Howler has a hilarious, dead-on deconstruction of Brian McGrory's column on John Kerry that appeared in last Tuesday's Globe. Writes Somerby: "Baby Boy Brian is very upset because John scored some chicks in a bar." Not to be missed.

Friday, January 17, 2003

It's Bill Gates's planet. The rest of us are just visiting. For many years now, I've been able to lead a digital life pretty much free of Microsoft's bloated, expensive products. I use a translation program called MacLinkPlus so that my MS Word-using editors can read my AppleWorks-generated files, and though the solution isn't perfect, it's been good enough.

Now, though, I'm dealing with an editor who wants me to be able to take advantage of Microsoft Word's "Track Changes" function. I've never seen it, never mind used it, but apparently it will allow him to make comments and changes on my files in one color, and for me to respond in yet another color. Actually, it sounds pretty cool. But no matter how we've tried to translate each other's files, it comes up in black and white on my screen.

The point is that the single biggest value of having a standard is that -- well, it's a standard. Much as I prefer AppleWorks, as long as 95 percent of the universe is using Word, my recalcitrance makes life more difficult both for my editors and myself. I probably can't hold out forever. And thus does Bill Gates chalk up another small victory.

Later today I'm going to try a free trial version of something called ThinkFree Office. It's supposed to be 100 percent file-compatible with Microsoft Office. Since this is something other Mac users would be interested in, I'll post a follow-up describing the results.

Right-wing bias at the New York Times? Al Giordano has posted a fascinating inside look at the Times' coverage of the crisis in Venezuela. The article, on Giordano's website, reports that Caracas correspondent Francisco Toro has resigned because of his ties to the oligarchs who are attempting to overthrow Venezuela's democratically elected president, Hugo Chávez. And though the Times certainly was right to accept Toro's resignation, Giordano recounts a long list of incidents in which the Times has casts its editorial lot with the right-wing opposition.

Free Ellis. John Ellis has posted his fine Wall Street Journal commentary on the future of AOL Time Warner on his weblog. If you're not an online subscriber to the WSJ, have a look.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Irony, incomprehension, and that Mary Jo Kopechne reference. One of the many fine touches in Charlie Pierce's recent Boston Globe Magazine profile of Ted Kennedy was this swift turn of the knife:

That's how you survive what he's survived. That's how you move forward, one step after another, even though your name is Edward Moore Kennedy. You work, always, as though your name were Edward Moore. If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.

Brutally vicious, yes; unfair, no. I certainly didn't think there was any mistaking Pierce's intent. And it was confirmed for me last Thursday, when James Taranto, in his "Best of the Web" column on, wrote, "Charles Pierce must really hate Ted Kennedy," and described the excerpt above as a "paragraph of pure poison." Indeed, a letter published in the Globe Magazine last Sunday described Pierce's piece as "truth, even though it is a savage attack that strikes too close for comfort."

But it appears that not everyone got it. Last Saturday, former Globe columnist John Ellis ran just the last two sentences of the poison paragraph on his weblog under the heading "Only At The Globe" -- the implication being, I guess, that Ellis thought Pierce was an addle-brained bleeding-heart who believed Kennedy's lifetime of liberal legislating had wiped the slate clean with regard to his role in Kopechne's death.

On Monday, Ellis acknowledged that some of his readers had taken him to task for failing to get it, and he ran a lengthy e-mail from a friend of Pierce's. The next day, Jay Fitzgerald weighed in with a long post on the affair, and came down on Pierce's side -- that is, that the Kopechne reference was intended as harsh ironic criticism, not as expiation. For good measure, Fitzgerald included an e-mail from Ellis himself, who said he regarded Pierce's bit as "border-line obscene" and "a spurious line of reasoning." Hmm. Well, okay, but that's certainly not what I took away from the line "Only At The Globe."

Yet Ellis's misreading -- if that's what it was -- was minor compared to that of Mark Steyn, who wrote a column about Pierce's piece on Monday in Canada's National Post, which was passed on to me by a reader. Steyn quotes the same Kopechne excerpt and then adds:

... Mr. Pierce's point is a simple one: Sure, 34 years ago, Teddy fished himself out of the briny, staggered away and somehow neglected to inform the authorities until the following morning that he'd left some gal down there. But, if he was too tired to do anything for her back then, he's been "tireless" on her behalf ever since....

But among the orthodox left the Clymer/Pierce view is the standard line: You can't make an omelette without breaking chicks. This is subtly different from arguing that a man's personal failings are outweighed by his public successes. Rather, they're saying that a man's personal flaws are trumped by his ideological purity, regardless of whether or not it works. I doubt whether a 62-year-old Mary Jo would regard Senator Kennedy as "bringing comfort" to her old age.

(The Clymer reference is to New York Times reporter Adam Clymer's biography of Kennedy from several years back, once labeled by our only president as "a major-league asshole.")

Steyn not only doesn't get it, he twists Pierce's meaning beyond all possible recognition, making explicit what Ellis had seemed to suggest implicitly. Taken within context, Pierce is clearly, sneeringly saying that Kennedy's many small accomplishments over the years can never undo his reprehensible behavior at Chappaquiddick. Steyn, by contrast, asserts that Pierce gives Kennedy a free pass. I wonder whether he even read Pierce's entire article. Steyn is so sloppy that in his second sentence he describes Pierce's piece as "a 10,000-word profile." It is, in fact, about 8700 words. Not a big deal, but why say it if you can't be bothered to get it right?

I sent Pierce an e-mail yesterday asking him to comment. Here's his reply:

As to Ellis, whom I assume is the Bush cousin whose WSJ piece you mentioned on Wednesday, well, we knew from Fox News that he couldn't count honestly. Now we know he can't read honestly, either. [Media Log aside: Whoa!] As for young Mr. Steyn -- what can I say? If he was Navajo, I'd blame it on the peyote. My respect for Mr. Taranto grows by the hour.

Pierce adds that he may write about this tomorrow when he fills in for Eric Alterman on his Altercation blog. Should be interesting.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Oh, yes he did. Some curious backtracking today about the investigation into Pete Townshend's visits to child-pornography websites. (He admits that it's true, so no "alleged.") Today's New York Times update includes this weasel paragraph:

Mr. Townshend, who says he suspects he was abused as a child, said he had viewed child pornography on the Internet -- but had not downloaded it -- while researching his autobiography and as part of his longtime campaign against child sexual abuse.

The Boston Globe ran a correction on page A2, blaming it all on the Associated Press and adding: "Townshend said only that he had used his credit card to enter the site and told a London newspaper he had never downloaded child pornography." And, yes, the AP has "corrected" its original report.

Geez. Don't these people know anything?

If Townshend "viewed child pornography on the Internet," as the Times reports, then he downloaded it. Every page you visit on the Web downloads to your computer. When the little "E" or "N" is moving in the upper right corner of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, it's telling you that the page you've requested is in the process of being -- yes -- downloaded.

Townsend apparently means that he didn't save any of the images he'd downloaded to his hard drive, but that's a distinction without a difference. As his lawyer has no doubt explained to him by now, the images he admits to having looked at may actually be on his hard drive, whether he realizes it or not. Unfortunately for Townshend, his computer is currently in the hands of the authorities.

If the editors at the AP, the Times, and the Globe had an ounce of understanding about the way the Internet works, they would have realized that no correction or clarification was needed.

John Ellis's Case history. Former Globe columnist John Ellis has a terrific piece on the post-Steve Case future of AOL Time Warner that appears on the editorial page of today's Wall Street Journal. Paul Gigot must agree, since it's been left off the free site and is available to paid subscribers only. (In case you do subscribe, here's the link.) Here's my favorite part:

The notion that the company can now coalesce around a common purpose is laughable. Time Warner has always been about egomaniacs running fiefdoms and raiding each other's turf. Division heads collaborate only to kill off rivals. They collaborated to kill off former COO Robert Pittman and Chairman Case. Now they'll start on each other.

Baby maybe, doggie definitely. One way to tell whether or not a couple ought to be allowed to adopt a child is if they would choose a dog over a baby. Maybe the state has no right to tell prospective parents that they can't have a German shepherd in the house. But it is one way to sort out the ones who are serious from the ones who aren't.

Kathleen Brophy and Maria Melchionda chose their dog over a baby. That's fine. But would someone please tell them to shut up?

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

BU J-school prof: Edit pages are partisan. Get over it. The Globe's Mark Jurkowitz today has an overview on the controversy at the Herald over the hiring of longtime Republican politico Virginia Buckingham as deputy editorial-page editor. The editor of CommonWealth magazine, Bob Keough, gets off the best quote, telling Jurkowitz, "If she were going to get a desk in the newsrooom, that would be a problem. I'm not sure it raises that many red flags to be on the editorial page." But Buckingham made me wince in saying, "My dream has always been to pursue a writing career," which only highlights the yawning gap between her complete lack of experience and the plum job she's been handed.

Meanwhile, Boston University journalism professor Mike Berlin can't understand what all the fuss is about. He sent a long and thoughtful e-mail to Media Log, which appears below:

I heard about the Buckingham conflict at the Herald on "Beat the Press," and found myself quite puzzled about why reporters took it upon themselves to voice a protest, and what conflicts of interest there could possibly be for a person whose job it is to reflect the views of the publisher/owner and commit those views to print.

When your boss writes about expanding Fenway Park to swallow the Phoenix office, there are conflicts of interest inherent in his viewpoint. But as the owner he is entitled to express it in an editorial or have an editorial writer express it for him, and since they are his views, it doesn't much matter who the writer may be.

If he were a former state commissioner with some link to a party or a faction, one would expect him to reflect the viewpoint of that party or faction, very much the way that Herald publisher Pat Purcell is linked to various people, issues and ideology and is expected to reflect that viewpoint on the editorial page of the Herald, or through the people he chooses to hire to do the writing for him. If they can't write very well, then that's his problem, and perhaps he will get an editor to look over their copy before it runs, or perhaps he won't and people will think less of his views because they are not well expressed.

Readers should be aware that the editorial page reflects the views of the owner. If they are not aware, that is their lookout, not his. He already has an ideologue of his choosing as the editor of the page, and columnists who reflect the views he wishes to have expressed. It should be clear where the Herald stands. If Purcell is generous enough to listen to other voices before expressing the paper's views, that may be a bonus, but no one should expect it.

But you want people on the edit page who have strong opinions and advocate causes, not people who are neutral, cautious and dull, and write editorials that waffle and don't come down on one side or another.

But why should this matter to the reporters? Their concern is to maintain the wall between news pages and editorial pages; ensure that readers are aware of the difference; and fight to prevent the editorial-page views from slopping into their own copy and their editors' news choices. That is what they should be fighting for. When I worked at Dolly Schiff's New York Post, Paul Sann, the executive edtior, reveled in running stories that made Dolly's viewpoints, and thus Jimmy Wechsler's editorials, look silly. It was his way of showing the city that the news/editorial wall was impregnable.

The bad rap on Rupert Murdoch and his style of journalism is not that he hired frothers-at-the-mouth to run his edit page and sound like ideologues. That was well within the American tradition. The problem with his journalism was that he didn't let the news pages run on the basis of journalistic choices, but forced out stuff that he didn't like editorially (stories about environmental threats, or stories that made Jimmy Carter look good) and forced in stories that were politicized. And in a modified form, that remains true today of both Boston newspapers; readers do think that they pull punches on news stories to match editorial-page views.

By protesting the choice of an edit writer, Herald reporters are suggesting to the public that what is printed there does in fact tarnish the news coverage. They are admitting a link that they should be rejecting and denying.

I speak as someone who wrote edits as a summer replacement both under Dolly and under Rupert, when he attended the weekly editorial meeting personally and had long arguments with Jimmy Wechsler about abortion, afffirmative action and other issues (he was against capital punishment) and then went back to my job as a reporter, fighting as best I could to get stuff into the paper that the boss wouldn't like, and to keep stuff out of the paper that was propaganda for the boss's pet projects.

Buckingham is simply a reminder that all editorial pages are appropriately opinionated, slanted, biased, and reflect the viewpoint of the owner (or the owner's willingness to allow a range of viewpoints to be expressed), rather than fair and balanced and open to all viewpoints, as the news pages should be.

Media Log goes policy wonk! People don't want smaller government and lower taxes. They want bigger government and lower taxes. They want it all, and they want it right now. Politicians can choose between trying to explain that, you know, stuff costs money, or they can pander. The latter is a sure route to success. Mitt Romney last year pandered his way right into the corner office.

During the campaign, Romney said he could close the state's gaping budget deficit by putting his world-class management skills to work, by slashing the bureaucracy and eliminating duplication while not raising taxes and not cutting "essential" services. (Essential services are things that you need. Non-essential services are things that somebody else needs.) Of course he couldn't, and he began backtracking the moment he was elected.

Now he wants the legislature to give him the authority to cut local aid to the bone, which will force schools to close early and police officers and firefighters to be laid off. (Click here for today's Globe coverage, and here for today's Herald coverage.)

Since the legislators lack both guts and brains, they're almost certain to go along, notwithstanding their plaintive cry to Romney to explain what he's got in mind. But they shouldn't. Here's what they ought to do:

  • Borrow the $600 million needed to get through the rest of the fiscal year without any further cuts.
  • Reform the state tax system. That means going ahead with the voter-approved mandate to return the state income tax to five percent, but rethinking and possibly repealing the $3 billion to $4 billion in tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy that were passed during the 1990s. That's where the money is. Here's a good place to start: reversing the special-interest tax break that Fidelity got in the mid-'90s. Wonder what former Fidelity executive Robert Pozen -- currently receiving all kinds of praise for serving in the Romney administration without pay -- would think about that?
  • Go after the hackerama head-on. Today's Herald reports that MDC commissioner David Balfour continues to run amok, and that virtually the first act of Tim for Treasurer was to reward one of Tom Finneran's coat-holders with the six-figure job of "running" the Lottery. Ugh.

Monday, January 13, 2003

Give Buckingham a chance. She has no obvious qualifications, as I wrote last month. Her conflicts of interest make one's head spin, as Northeastern University School of Journalism director Steve Burgard argues. Certain elements of the newsroom are skeptical, to put it mildly (third item). But the Herald today, as expected, announced that former Massport director and Republican political operative Virginia Buckingham will be the paper's new deputy editorial-page editor.

So let me be counterintuitive for a moment. Buckingham is young, smart, and hardworking. She's a moderate conservative, presumably live-and-let-live on cultural issues. One fear is that she'll serve as a mole -- a back channel from the Herald to her Republican friends. But is that really fair? After 9/11, Buckingham was pretty much hung out to dry by everyone. The Weld-Cellucci-Swift crowd (though not Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci themselves) piled on. As for the new crowd, Mitt Romney has surrounded himself with aides to former state treasurer Joe Malone, against whom Buckingham fought as a top political aide to Cellucci in 1998.

In other words, there's every reason to believe that Buckingham is finished with politics and wants to do a good job at the Herald. She deserves a chance to prove it.

Steve Case's amazing swindle. Steve Case's epitaph is that bamboozling Time Warner -- the largest media company in the world -- was an insufficient qualification for running it. Case quit as chairman of AOL Time Warner last night because the company's stock price has tanked since Case's AOL acquired Time Warner two years ago.

But as James Surowiecki observed in the New Yorker a few months ago (no link; I'm going by memory here, so bear with me), Case actually did spectacularly well by his shareholders -- that is, the folks who held hyperinflated AOL stock before the merger. AOL Time Warner's stock at this moment is $14.88, which is a lot lower than the $56 or so that it commanded at the time of the merger. But if Case hadn't gone out and bought a real company with his pile of AOL funny money, his crappy and outmoded online service would probably be trading for less than $5 right now.

Of course, the real reason I'm writing this item is so that I can recycle a bit from Tina Brown's debut column last fall in the Times of London, in which she quoted Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes's priceless letter to former Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin, the man who, more than anyone, got swindled by Case. Hughes's letter begins:

How can I convey to you the disgust which your name awakens in me? The merger with Warner was a catastrophe. But the hitherto unimagined stupidity, the blind arrogance of your deal with Case simply beggars description.

How can you face yourself knowing how much history, value and savings you have thrown away on your mad, ignorant attempt to merge with a wretched dial-up ISP? . . .

I don't know what advice you have to offer, but I have some for you. Buy some rope, go out the back, find a tree and hang yourself. If you had any honour you would.

Is that great or what? Thanks to Joe Conason for the link.

Saturday, January 11, 2003

Poisoned Apple. Filmmaker John Farrell saw my post on Apple's renewed war with Microsoft and sent along this link. It's from a website/blog called USS Clueless, by Steven Den Beste, and it's a long, difficult, but ultimately rewarding trip to the Heart of Geekness.

Den Beste's depressing conclusion: things will continue to get worse and worse for Apple, because its closed architecture and low volume have locked it into an endless cycle of higher and higher software-development costs relative to its Wintel cousins. And because of bad decisions Apple has made over the years, there's really nothing Steve Jobs and company can do to reverse course.

I still want one of the new 12-inch G4 PowerBooks, though.

Farrell and his father, retired Globe columnist David Farrell, have a website and blog that you should check out.

Friday, January 10, 2003

Jurkowitz on McDonough. The Phoenix website has posted a classic profile of Will McDonough that Mark Jurkowitz (then of the Phoenix, now of the Globe) wrote in January 1994. The headline: "Jurassic Jock." And I think it's the single best piece anyone has ever written about the two-fisted sportswriting legend.

Will McDonough's legacy. He was a crank. He was a legend. He was both. Globe sports columnist Will McDonough died last night at the age of 67, depriving Boston of one of its most cantankerous and original voices. The news is just starting to break, so there's not much out there yet other than this Associated Press report. He died with his boots on, watching ESPN's SportsCenter.

I would imagine the place to be for McDonough fans today is Mike Barnicle's 10 a.m.-to-noon show on WTKK-FM (96.9 FM), where McDonough was a regular Friday guest. A couple of years ago McDonough officially retired from the Globe, although he continued writing his column on a freelance basis. Talk about having your cake and eating it too: McDonough was able to work out a sweet deal, continuing to draw a paycheck from the Globe while taking potshots at the Globe's young, liberal newsroom during his stints on the air.

As recently as last week McDonough swung hard at Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, who's embroiled in a feud with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner appears to hate Lucchino so much that he's willing to spend even more of his money than usual (not an easy trick) in order to keep the Red Sox well out of contention. McDonough endorsed Steinbrenner's characterization of Lucchino as a "chameleon," adding:

Lucchino has a face for all occasions, but, unfortunately, very little knowledge of baseball. He was slotted into the Red Sox job by his good friend, Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, who wanted to ensure that he would have Boston's vote in his pocket whenever he needed it.

The Globe also ran an excerpt from the McDonough-ghosted Bill Parcells autobiography last week to shed light on Parcells's decision to become head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

One of the raps on McDonough was that he talked only to owners and to the biggest of bigshots, such as Parcells and Red Auerbach. But the flip side was that, more often than not, they talked only to him, giving him a steady stream of exclusives. In an era of bland, faceless journalism, McDonough offered personality and vitriol, making him one of the most consistently readable columnists in the Globe.

Here's an interview McDonough did a couple of years ago with Teen Ink, a website for teenagers.

And here's an archive of his recent Globe columns.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

J. Bo strikes back on his baby-eating story. The Weekly Standard's J. Bottum today responds to what by his own account were numerous critics -- including Media Log -- who told him he'd fallen for an urban legend or two in his heinous post last Friday on alleged baby-eating in China. Here's what I wrote about it.

Bottum's long response is worth reading in its entirety, but first, a few observations.

  • In essense, Bottum challenges his critics to prove that it didn't happen. Hasn't he ever heard the tired-but-true saw that you can't prove a negative? There really is no documentary evidence that it did happen, and plenty of reason to be skeptical.
  • Bottum asserts that the very fact that these stories are circulating -- and that Chinese performance artist Zhu Yu claims to have eaten a stillborn baby -- says something important about the culture, regardless of whether these stories are actually true. His conclusion: "The picture of a culture of death is being created in front of us. Don't look at the individual pieces as they are held up, one by one. Look at the puzzle that's being filled in." Actually, I suspect he could have written a pretty good column about what it means that such apparently bogus stories are circulating. But that's not what he wrote last Friday. Is it really necessary to say that the truth matters?
  • The headline on the e-mail version of my piece -- though not the Web version -- referred to Bottum's original post as a "blood libel." Bottum notes that the urban-legends site that I referred to uses the phrase "blood libel," and then casually adds that "this is where the Boston Phoenix lifted the 'blood libel' bit." Lifted? Is Bottum always this careless with language? Hey, J. Bo, look at my first post again. I not only linked to the piece, but I also quoted from it, including the "blood libel" bit. Since when did quoting become "lifting"?

It's a man's world. You might read Joan Vennochi's column in today's Globe -- in which she argues that Massachusetts is a particularly inhospitable environment for women politicians -- and say, "Oh, come on."

But then you turn to the City & Region section and find this lose-your-breakfast piece by Stephanie Ebbert on how male legislators (including House Speaker Tom Finneran) are making Father Knows Best-style quips about having to check with the little woman before deciding whether to take a pay raise.

Next you pick up the Herald, and are told in a front-page report by David Guarino that you're supposed to be outraged that Jane Swift continued to make gubernatorial appointments until she was no longer governor. (Okay, it sounds like she made a couple of bad appointments. Like that's never happened before.)

And you have to conclude that Vennochi is right when she says that "Massachusetts is still very much an Irish-American, Italian-American, patriarchal, Catholic state. Culturally and politically, man is king here -- to himself and to many women."

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Apple's new war on Microsoft. Since Steve Jobs's return to Apple in the late 1990s, the company he co-founded has survived -- even prospered -- under sort of a Pax Microsoftia. Bill Gates invested some of Microsoft's spare change in Apple, and Apple made Microsoft's Internet Explorer the default browser on its Macintoshes.

Far more important, Apple did everything it could to ensure the success of Microsoft Office, the Mac version of which costs an obscene $499, or a considerably more reasonable $199 for new-Mac buyers. Apple's competing product, AppleWorks, was included free of charge only on Apple's consumer-market Macs; buyers of Macs aimed at professionals would have to shell out an additional $79. Moreover, there is no easy, seamless way of sharing files between the AppleWorks and Office worlds, as my irritated editors would be the first to tell you.

Now Jobs has apparently decided to go to war against Microsoft. Yesterday's new-product announcements, at MacWorld in San Francisco, are just the latest sign that David wants to compete head-to-head with Goliath. Last year, for instance, Apple unveiled its quirky and effective "Switch" ads in an attempt to get Windows users to come over to Apple. Of course, Apple has always depended on people preferring the Mac operating system to Windows, but there is a snarky "Windows sucks" tone to the "Switch" ads that belie the two companies' supposed alliance.

Also, the Mac enthusiast site Think Secret reported in October that the next version of AppleWorks -- which could be unveiled any day now -- was aiming for "[f]ull compatibility with Microsoft Office." Since compatibility is one of the few reasons anyone would shell out for the cumbersome Office, the ability to share files hassle-free would amount to a huge disincentive for buying Office.

Thus, the real interest in yesterday's announcement was not the two new PowerBook laptops, cool though they may be. It was that Apple will soon replace Internet Explorer as the default browser with a new browser of its own, called Safari, which is supposed to run three times faster than IE -- and that Apple will also market a $99 presentation program called Keynote that will compete directly with Microsoft's ubiquitous PowerPoint, one of Office's components.

Will it work? San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor is skeptical but intrigued, writing that if Apple really intends to go after Microsoft, "it means more competition. That's healthier all around."

Apple obviously has a difficult road. With something like five percent of the market share, it needs to cater to the needs of customers who live in a Microsoft-dominated world. Who cares how great Keynote might be, for example, if its files are incompatible with those of PowerPoint? Yet unless Apple maintains its edge as a technologically superior alternative, it really has no reason to exist.

That's why I use Apple products, but invest in Microsoft. I don't see any reason to rethink either decision.

Incomparably critical. Bob Somerby's excellent Daily Howler site calls attention to -- and takes issue with -- my recent item on liberal and conservative media bias. Somerby can't believe I said that the liberal media tend to be moderate to conservative on economic issues, and criticizes my "rollover attitude."

Oddly enough, he tries to sic Bill Clinton on me, even though Clinton himself is the very embodiment of modern liberalism, which isn't all that liberal except on cultural issues. Clinton managed the economy like an Eisenhower Republican, and signed a welfare-reform bill that only a conservative could love.

Somerby approvingly quotes Clinton as saying, "They have an increasingly right-wing and bellicose conservative press. And we have an increasingly docile establishment press." Clinton is right. But his successful repositioning of liberalism is one of the prime reasons for that.

Perhaps George W. Bush, by managing the economy like a right-wing extremist rather than an Eisenhower Republican, will help change that. He's starting to make Clinton's cautious centrism look like liberal activism.

The reading list. The new issue of the Unitarian Univeralist World contains an essay I wrote on my weekend with the American Atheists -- an expansion and update of a piece I did for the Phoenix last year. The World also includes a comprehensive overview by Wendy Kaminer on the fate of civil liberties post-9/11.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Farewell to David Shribman. Before David Shribman came to the Globe, the paper had no such thing as a nonpartisan political essayist. In his nearly 10 years here, Shribman has perfected a certain type of column: gracefully written, insightful, and never mean-spirited or ideologically driven. Today's is typical. He takes an obvious story -- the pack of Democrats getting ready to challenge President Bush -- and does the atypical, making smart comparisons between now and 1992, when another pack of Democrats was getting ready to challenge an earlier President Bush, also at a time of war and economic uncertainty.

Unfortunately, we won't have a chance to read Shribman much longer. Soon he'll pack up his Pulitzer and leave Washington to take a new job, as editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He'll be missed.

Bush at Ground Zero. George W. Bush continues to be a disaster on policy (another tax cut for the rich?), but he remains a master political strategist. Now he's actually given himself a longshot but realistic chance of winning heavily Democratic New York in 2004 by scheduling the Republican National Convention in New York City. He'll be able to drape himself in all the patriotic symbolism of 9/11, while the Democrats will be partying with us here in Boston. Hey, I love the idea of a national convention in our hometown, but as politics it's dumb, dumb, dumb.

Monday, January 06, 2003

The snooze on online politics. The Pew Internet & American Life Project has a new report out today on the extent to which people go online for political news. And though the report -- with the scintillating title of "Modest Increase in Internet Use for Campaign 2002" -- is entirely non-startling, there is one aspect that jumps out: the most common practice reported was visiting the websites of large, established media such as the New York Times, CNN, and local news organizations. How ... uninteresting.

The Pew survey did report an increase since 2000 from 19 percent to 32 percent in "online election news consumers" who "went most often to government and candidate websites or sites that specialize in politics." But the overall percentage of people who reported getting any political news online has increased only modestly since 1998 (from 15 percent to 22 percent). The preferred source of political news for most people remains television.

A few years ago, it looked as though politics was going to move to the Internet in a big way. The paradigmatic example was, which hired Watergate veteran Carl Bernstein to make the rounds on its behalf during the 2000 campaign. But began downsizing before Election Day, although it still exists in diminished form -- complete with a blurb from a piece that I wrote for the Phoenix three years ago calling it "the one essential site." Sorry, but it doesn't look all that essential these days.

The GOP's over-the-top attack on Edwards. Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis passes along this link from the Republican National Committee attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. I hold no brief for the faux populist from North Carolina, whose icky habit of commenting on his own regular-guyness was neatly skewered by TNR &c. last week. But isn't this a bit much?