Category Archives: media

Richard Rhodes on Guernica

I thought I knew something about Picasso and Guernica before I started editing this piece, “Guernica: Horror and inspiration,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes. I was wrong. By way of explanation, a sample of Rhodes’ prose:

Most of the buildings in Gernika were constructed of wood above the ground floor. For that reason, the Junkers had been loaded with both high-explosive bombs and incendiaries—the HEs to make kindling, as Kurt Vonnegut once explained to me from his similar experience in Dresden, the incendiaries to light the fires. The HEs were 100- and 500-pounders. The lightweight incendiaries—tubes 14 inches long and 2 inches in diameter, made of Elektron (an alloy of 92 percent magnesium, 5 percent aluminum and 3 percent zinc) filled with thermite—were packed in droppable dispensers, each holding 36 bombs.

Thousands of Elektron incendiaries fell on Gernika that night, skittering down like icicles broken off a roofline. Pure metal burning at 2,200 degrees Celsius, they were almost impossible to quench.The Australian journalist Noel Monks describes the aftermath (Monks, 1955: 97):


[On arrival] I … was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies that the flames had passed over. Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nau-seating. Houses were collapsing into the inferno.

In the Plaza, surrounded almost by a wall of fire, were about a hundred refugees. They were wailing and weeping and rocking to and fro … . Most of Guernica’s streets began or ended at the Plaza.

It was impossible to go down many of them, because they were walls of flame. Debris was piled high. I could see shadowy forms, some large, some just ashes. I moved round to the back of the Plaza among survivors. They had the same story to tell, aeroplanes, bullets, bombs, fire.

This one is worth reading all the way through. It’s part of a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistsspecial issue on art and destruction that is also worth taking a look at. As is the exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, which collaborated with the Bulletin on parts of its Doomsday Clock Symposium in November.

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November 29, 2013 · 6:33 pm

A bridge to nowhere good

If you ever wonder why so much of the “news” you see, hear and read seems to be based on public relations imperatives, watch this video. You will wonder no more.


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By all means, update me on your acne

We await the James Thurber of the Internet Age, the master storyteller and wordsmith who can turn a gimlet curmudgeon’s eye on the digital excess that fouls modern life and obliterate it with razor-edged whimsy. In the meantime, I guess, we’ll have to settle for Roger Cohen and imgres“Thanks for Not Sharing.” Which is OK for now.

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Koch, the unreal thing

I found this KochFacts page accidentally, as I was trying to click something else on Poynter’s MediaWire (which gives me one more reason not to go there very often). The page is an amazing feat of unintended self-revelation. According to KochFacts, the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer, Bloomberg Markets magazine, Bill McKibben, the Wall Street Journal‘s Jacqueline Palank, and Forbes magazine have all been telling dastardly lies about Koch Industries Inc. But the list doesn’t stop there; the list of haters on and liars about Koch seems to go on and on, and the language used in attacking all those liars and haters is a study in apparently unacknowledged paranoia. The page seems to  live in an alternative universe, one that reminds me of the Wonderland of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where once upon a time this was said:

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

 Or has the site just gone Through the Looking Glass, where  once upon another time this was said:

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Either way, KochFacts is fabulously entertaining and, it seems to me, a glimpse directly into the shriveled, baleful soul of the people who sponsored its creation. For those of you who can stand the sight, it’s a soul worth apprehending.

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The missing filibuster

I’m rushing a bit today and don’t have a lot of time for comment, but Jim Fallows has been on a tear over at the Atlantic about the major media’s inaccurate reporting on President Obama’s jobs plan, pointing out that they keep saying it  has “failed,” in whole and in parts, when actually it has been the victim of a long-running, unprecedented Republican strategy to filibuster any bill that might possibly benefit Democrats or the president. His explanation of why the media approach to this obstructionist strategy is just … plain … wrong makes compelling reading (much more compelling than anything I could possibly tap out today — or, likely, any time). Perhaps more compelling is the entire string of Fallows’ posts on this subject; if you have time,  you should follow them out, which is easy to do from the post I’m highlighting. If you do, you’ll realize that Fallows is not writing inside baseball; he’s setting out a significant, repeated failure of major media to tell the truth. That failure has already had enormous impact on the country and could well have ramifications for who wins the presidency in 2012. I’m not quite ready to say the missing filibuster reportage is the equivalent of the media’s failure to question the Bush administration’s WMD justification for going to war in Iraq. But I’m not ready to rule out an equal sign here, either. And for those of you who wonder: This is not about ideology or partisanship. It’s about a failure of news organizations to do their job that leads to an unfair ideological/partisan advantage.


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Requiem for the alternative newsweekly trade organization. Long live the alt-weekly!

For some time, I’ve been meaning to note a recent change in the news media that went all but unnoticed. But for weeks I never got around to it; other duties got in the way, and then I began to wonder whether the change were even worth remarking. My thought processes may reflect some of the reason the change went largely unnoticed in the media at large. They may have thought it not only insignificant, but irrelevant. What was once the proud training ground for many of the country’s best magazine and book writers — the alternative weekly — had been so subsumed by the rise of the Internet as to need to change the name of its trade association. What had been the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies became the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, meaning, of course, that online-only publications were now allowed to join.

The forced joining of the words “news” and “media” into one may have kept the organization’s acronym — AAN — the same, but the new moniker is a reflection of a new world in which alternative weeklies have a real problem: What, exactly, are they an alternative to? It used to be the monopolistic daily newspapers in their towns, but both the city dailies and the city weeklies have literally been taken apart by the digital revolution, with whole classes of advertising migrating online where, by and large, dailies and weeklies have been late to the revenue and technology party.

Much of what had been staples in the bag of alt-weekly editorial tricks — event listings, music coverage, restaurant reviewing, smart-aleck attitude, general (though not universal) leftyism — was also undermined, coopted, replicated, done better or made obsolete by the rise of a host of online competitors, from the lightly staffed city observer sites (SFist, Gothamist, etc.) to Yelp to Gawker and on and on and on. In the lingo of the trade, the alt-weekly was unbundled, disaggregated, knee-capped by the kind of entrepreneurial twentysomethings the founders of many an alt-weekly had been, once upon a time, back in the historical mists of the 1970s.

But what was actually important about alt-weeklies — and what the best of their founders were most interested in — has not yet found solid competition on the internet. Over the last four decades, the alternative weekly has been the training ground where the country’s smartest and most inventive aspiring writers learned how to accomplish intelligent, long-form journalism. Even now, every year, significant narrative and investigative work at alternative weeklies wins major journalism awards and serves the public interest in many ways. The Village Voice Media group of alt-weeklies has had a long and deep commitment to quality long-form nonfiction, as have other surviving papers, including, notably, the Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper.

There is a real question, however, whether alternative weeklies are going to be able to continue to fund the kind of long-term hanging around — the fly-on-the-wall waiting for guards to fall sometimes called immersion journalism — that distinguished narrative journalism requires.  I was editor of SF Weekly some time back and had the resources to cut a writer loose for 13 months on a single project. The project won a Polk Award, an Investigative Reporters and Editors certificate and lord knows how many other awards for the writer, Lisa Davis. Some 10 years later, Davis has had a pretty good book published by a major publisher (Scribner). (It is called The Sins of Brother Curtis, if you care to check it out.)

And this is my point: Alternative weeklies have been the place to begin and learn the basics for countless writers who have gone on to bring beautiful, engaging and important work to the public. There are the names everyone knows because they are so regularly in the news (The New York Times‘ David Carr, Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer), but there are many, many more. New Yorker staff writer, Pulitzer winner and MacArthur “genius” fellowship recipient Kate Boo, who wrote for Washington City Paper early in her career. Susan Orlean, who wrote for an alt-weekly in Portland, Ore., the Boston Phoenix and the Village Voice before she became a New Yorker staff writer and major author. Nick Lemann, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a staff writer at the New Yorker, started his journalism career at a now-defunct New Orleans alt-weekly called the Vieux Carre Courier. Slate editor David Plotz came from the Washington City Paper. Mother Jones co-editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein have alt-weekly roots (at Washington City Paper and Minneapolis/St. Paul’s City Pages, respectively). Hell, Dave Eggers — certainly one of the brightest of America’s current literary lights, by any standard — did a comic strip and wrote the occasional brilliant story for SF Weekly in the era immediately preceding mine.

I’m not saying all alt-weeklies are going to stop doing good journalism because their trade group changed its name, and I’m not pounding nails into some supposed coffin of the alternative weekly as a genre. Many weeklies no doubt make money (although one suspects it is small money in comparison to times past), and some have put some effort into expanding their online efforts. (Village Voice, in particular, has created a Craigslist-like franchise that it calls “Back Page” and that, I have read, earns the company eight figures a year.) But the alt-weekly staff cuts just keep coming and coming — I doubt the world will again see an alt-weekly fund a 13-month investigation — and one wonders how long those long, long alt-weekly stories will keep flowing, particularly as more of the business moves online, where revenues are low and the 5,000-word story is often viewed as not just uneconomical, but ludicrous. Although I’m sure there’s an exception to what I’m about to write that someone will email me about very soon, by and large the only thing a valued online journalist is expected to immerse himself in is the screen in front of his face and, perhaps, the phone next to it. Weeks of in-person, on-scene reporting to produce a fully rounded piece of evocative, interesting, important journalism is just not the Internet way, at least to date.

Which brings me to my point: Alternative weeklies are a treasure, and each of them holds a treasure-chest full of long-form journalism in its archives. With the advent of the iPad and other tablets and the Kindle, the Nook and other e-readers, those archived stories could be packaged into e-books, as The New Yorker is doing with After 9/11, a compilation of stories from the decade after the terror attack that has an introduction by editor David Remnick. Imagine compilations of work from star writers at the Village Voice (on municipal corruption, perhaps) and the Washington City Paper (on race, perhaps).

And there is no reason to vend only the past. New long-form work that is distinguished enough can be sold as “singles,” and it’s happening right now at Amazon, with “Kindle Singles.”  There are a whole passel of online startups — the Atavist comes to mind — that deal in some way with selling long-form nonfiction pieces individually via the Internet.

The alternative weekly industry holds the institutional memory for one of America’s most valuable journalism training grounds. That training ground needs to be preserved and transferred into the digital world, somehow. For that to happen, the alt-weeklies’ signature work needs to be monetized online. I am not smart enough to say exactly how that ought to happen, but I do think the owners of newsweeklies ought to consider partnering with an entity that would package, market and sell their long-form work (ala, the video site “operated independently by a dedicated management team with offices in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Tokyo and Beijing. NBCUniversal, News Corporation, The Walt Disney Company, Providence Equity Partners and the Hulu team share in the ownership stake of the company.”)

But that is just one idea for keeping the lights on at one of the best training grounds for in-depth journalism in America. I’m open to others, and offer one in closing this blog post, which I’ve purposely written way, way too long to suit the common Web wisdom on blog posts, just because I’m an alt-weekly alum and I can go on as long as I damn well please: Next time you walk past the newsbox for your city’s alternative weekly, pick one up. Take it home. Leave it on the coffee table long enough that you eventually read the longer piece or pieces in it. You’ll be helping to keep an alt-weekly financially healthy (yes, the papers are free, but the owners track how many are picked up and use the information in setting ad rates) and you just might stumble across one of America’s next great writers.


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Everywhere, any way, all the time. (Sorry, Googlers; this is about news, not sex.)

It’s a little vague on some points, but this Newsonomics post is the first I’ve read in a long time about making money via publishing news that seems to be within a couple of miles of the mark. Oh, sure, it’s also a little gimmicky, with its 1,2,3,4 shtick [i.e., one brand, two revenue streams (ads and people), three products (print, computer and mobile) and 4G (faster connectivity)]. But the explanations of those bullet points are generally smart and deep, viz. this from the brand section:

Steve Jobs’ tablet-launching assertion that search is so yesterday was part sales pitch, part prophecy. The app is nothing if not the re-ascendance of brand, encapsulated in a few pixels. These tiny apps — from ESPN, The Atlantic, Time, the Guardian, and Berliner Morgenpost to The Boston Globe, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — all convey new promise. That promise has found a business model — all-access — to accompany. After years of wandering in the wilderness of customer confusion and self-doubt, news companies are saying: “You know us, you know our brand; you value us. Pay us once and we’ll get you our stuff wherever, whenever, however you want it”. Call it “entertainment everywhere” or “news anywhere,” or “TV Everywhere,” major media are now re-training their core audiences to expect — and pay for — ubiquity.

I will mention one more positive from the piece — it’s concise and correct observation that newspapers are going to have to include a lot more video/multimedia if they are going to stay in the game in these new digital times — and then let you read it yourself, in all its sophisticated, well-reasoned and well-written … no, not glory … let’s just say competence.

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Bulletin: senior editor wanted

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has an opening for a senior editor to lead a rather interesting international project. The description is below. It’s a full-time, telecommuting gig that will be a joy for the person with the right background. This won’t be advertised til next week, so if you’re a journalist, you know–right this instant–the value of reading my blog: Maybe a few days’ head start.

If you’re a friend, feel free to ask questions via email or Facebook. All others must use comments.

The gig:

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is searching for an organized, creative, and committed senior editor to develop, organize, and implement a monthly Roundtable, an essay forum on nuclear disarmament, energy, and development. This Roundtable will draw on experts in developing countries and inform policy leaders and civil society organizations worldwide.

For each monthly Roundtable the senior editor will identify and commission three international writers to tackle a Roundtable question. The goal of this feature is to encourage the participation of developing country governmental and nongovernmental experts in international discussion and action on disarmament and nonproliferation in the context of economic and political development.

The successful candidate is an efficient, detailed, and talented editor capable of identifying international experts, commissioning them to write for the Roundtable, and working with them to create copy that is strong in language and provocative and insightful in thought. The editor must have experience working with international authors and be comfortable pushing authors to hit deadlines. The senior editor will also oversee three translators, so the successful candidate must be highly organized, as he/she will be juggling six schedules in potentially six different time zones. This position is a three-year commitment, so we are looking for someone who can take ownership of this project and make it into something truly spectacular. In addition to the Roundtable, the senior editor will also assist in commissioning and editing articles on nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, biosecurity, and climate change for the Bulletin’s website and, on occasion, for the digital journal.

Our authors are leading scientists and experts in their fields.  The senior editor works closely and collaboratively with the editor and with these experts to create compelling articles that are accessible to lay audiences. All candidates must have an interest in disarmament issues. Successful candidates will come prepared with solid ideas for Roundtable questions, as well as a list of writers who could tackle the proposed questions. All candidates must have excellent editing skills, experience editing writers who speak English as a second language, as well as the ability to work with high-profile writers and experts.

Requirements: Candidate must hold a degree in journalism or other relevant discipline or profession, have at least five solid years editing experience, understand basic HTML, and have experience with Drupal or a similar CMS. This position requires not only coordinating a Roundtable each month, but also overseeing three translators and ensuring these translators hit their deadlines. Salary is commensurate with experience, in the range of $47-$57k. This is a full-time, telecommuting position with benefits.

What to send: If this sounds like a good fit for you, please send your résumé, cover letter, three (3) published samples of your editing work (before and after), and Roundtable ideas to; please type “Roundtable Editor” in the subject line. What do we mean by “Roundtable ideas”? Send us three proposed Roundtable questions, along with the authors who you think could tackle each Roundtable—that’s three questions and 9 author suggestions (three authors per Roundtable). Keep in mind that a successful Roundtable is as much about the stellar essays as it is showing off your journalistic instincts of what personalities and perspectives would work in each Roundtable. We will not consider candidates without editing clips and Roundtable ideas.

Your cover letter should tell us about your experience, your editing abilities, and your understanding and interest in the issues that we cover.

What to know: Due to the volume of resumes, we will not respond unless we are interested in interviewing you. Please refrain from sending multiple emails, and please do not call.

Who we are: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was established in 1945 by scientists, engineers, and other experts who had created the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project, informs the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences. Through an award-winning digital journal, our website, and the Doomsday Clock, we reach policy leaders and audiences around the world with information and analysis about efforts to address the dangers and prevent catastrophe.

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America’s no cliche

I remember with a nostalgic mix of fondness and horror my early days of newspapering, when working on holidays and holiday eves was more often the case than not. These are the journalistic workdays when the anniversary syndrome becomes overpowering. A reporter may be sometimes forced to write a story commemorating the 45th anniversary of VJ Day, for example; but legions of reporters absolutely will be tasked with writing yuletide story after yuletide story — often whole yuletide series of 1o or 12 or 15 stories — each and every holiday season. Usually, these kinds of assignments result in stories that range from utter dreck all the way up to cliched filler. But sometimes, something charming occurs. One December, a reporter friend happened to look in the Houston phone book and find a woman named “Merry Christmas.” No, not Mary Christmas — Merry. The woman was happy to describe a childhood, adolescence and early adulthood of embarrassment and constant explanation of the reason her father (and I think I remember it was the father) named her Merry. It was a good story that reflected on the season without wallowing in it — and lo and behold, very shortly thereafter Merry Christmas of Houston, Texas, appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, giving her 15 minutes of about the biggest sort of temporary fame you could get back then.

The 4th of July, of course, is almost as powerful as Christmas in terms of its ability to force young daily journalists working the holiday to write meaningless drivel that reminds people they are having a holiday. The emotional cliches for Christmas revolve around doing good for the poor; for Independence Day, of course, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the flag are front and center. Which is why I bring you this piece from the L.A. Times (“This barn is red, white and viewed”) about a barn that is, yes, painted to resemble an American flag. The story has all the hallmarks of the senseless holiday assignment: Nothing new has actually happened (the barn having been painted this way for years); no one has anything remotely controversial to say about the non-event under discussion; and there is an emotional undercurrent that calls on readers to affirm their common heritage. Though it’s a bit over the top, isn’t this wonderful? the article seems to ask. It’s a question that I can’t help answering with another: In what way?

Anyway, despite the preceding paragraph, it happens that I am a genuinely patriotic person. I think all Fourth of July barbeques should include a reading of the Declaration of Independence; the idea may seem hokey at first, but once you have done it, I can assure that you will feel better than you have in quite some time. At the least, you will be reminded that the idea of America is fundamentally revolutionary and egalitarian, and that it will survive every attempt — journalistic, commercial, political and other — to turn it into emotional pabulum.  There is a reason kids were (and are) chanting American ideas and ideals in the streets of Cairo. It isn’t because they read about the Founding Fathers in holiday editions of their local newspapers.

Finally, to show that I am not 100 percent averse to displays of patriotism, I have inserted a few examples of the many ways Santa Barbarans decorate for the Fourth. May your fireworks all be brilliant.

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Local journalism doesn’t have to be Onion-esque

Once upon a time long ago, Matt Smith wrote for me when we both were at SF Weekly. He’s always been good, but I think the passage of time and changes in how journalism is delivered have made him a near-perfect local writer for our times. Matt’s a columnist for the print Weekly and a blogger and occasional full-length feature writer betweentimes; this mixing of daily and weekly and multi-weekly deadlines and newspaper and magazine sensibilities seems a fine match for this phase of the digital age. But it’s not just that Matt can write across platforms; he can think across platforms to create the right piece at the right length with the right tone for the right publication at the right time. This piece, on H1-B visas in the Bay Area, bears the one true hallmark of the Matt Smith approach: a nuanced  take that you truly did not see coming and that, depending on who you are, could be so absolutely outraging as to set you muttering for days, maybe weeks. Here’s an outtake:

Bay Area CEOs say imported experts are key to Silicon Valley success. In the program, foreign workers are employed by the sponsoring company for up to six years. During that time, the H1-B holders may start the long process of applying for permanent-resident green cards.

Critics say the program is a mild form of indentured servitude. They insist that what employers really seek are compliant workers who won’t complain about unfair treatment for fear of being deported.

The fact is both groups are right: The H1-B program depresses wages for certain U.S. workers. It’s rife with fraud and abuse. H1-B workers are vulnerable to discrimination, isolation, and exploitation. But the program is a necessary evil because skilled and enterprising new immigrants are exactly what the Bay Area economy needs.


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