Saturday, May 28, 2005

New (?) review

From the Speculative Literature Foundation...

Rich Horton's Market Summaries:

Anthologies: Miscellaneous, 2004

...From Absolutely Brilliant in Chrome, Daniel Conover's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (another near novelette) was pretty fun satirical stuff about aliens kept under wraps by the White House for the technological knowledge they promise....
Mine was the only short to get mentioned from Chrome, though Carl Frederick's "Deep Flows the River of Time" was noted (not particularly strongly) among the novelettes.

Spoletoblog update

At the moment, Spoletoblog is close to notching its first 1,000-hit day (975 at 4:35 p.m.), although I've figured out that that's 975 since this time yesterday, which is not quite the same thing. Anyway, a thousand hits is good for a blog like this, no matter how you count them.

The comments, however, are lagging. Obviously it's time for me to insult somebody's mom (although, on the bright side, we got our first really good comment just after midnight:
What a contrast between the Opening Ceremonies and the opening night opera! At noon, in front of the oldest public building in America, the wife of the Govenor of South Carolina told us that Spoleto attracts "the right kind of tourists." Tonight, in a building that was formerly a popular movie theatre, Spoleto Festival USA gave us the US premiere of a work that was banned by the Nazis who wanted to eliminate those who were not the right kind of people. Robin Zemp
I'm loving it as a multimedia medium right now: in the past 24 hours I've done traditional posting, posted my own original photos, put up a 45-second audio clip of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's brass ensemble, and added four quick, loose sketches from this afternoon's trip to the Piccolo Festival's Ground Zero: Marion Square. While I sketched it, Janet photographed it. So we're a family blog.

Somewhere in all of this there has got to be a first. My guess would be that I'm the first newspaper guy to cover an event by drawing it and posting the results to a newspaper blog. OK? Got it? I'm staking a claim.

Let the rest of history pass me by, but let it be recorded for arcane posterity that I, Daniel Arnell Conover, was the first newspaper arts festival sketch coverage blog correspondent. So maybe that's not the most major development in New Media, but by gawd, it's my contribution.

Yes, I'm aware that this makes me pathetic. What's your point?

Friday, May 27, 2005

Abusing the Koran, and our trust

Joe Conason has a new piece up at Salon advancing the Koran desecration story. If you're not a subscriber at Salon, be prepared to watch a little ad to get your free site pass (clever, que no?). It's relatively painless.

Anyway, to summarize briefly: A Defense Department civilian employee assigned to military intelligence units gave Pentagon investigators a sworn statement last summer in which he described what happened when an interrogator in Afghanistan "took a Koran, threw it on the floor and stepped on it." Result: The detainees rioted.

The civilian employee goes on to describe the policy of
"Pride and Ego Down," a means of breaking down the resistance of hard-case detainees.

Let's pause here, take a deep breath, and review the situation.

Newsweek was wrong. Even if someone someday somewhere finds proof that a Koran was flushed down a toilet (can you say "call a plumber?"), Newsweek will still be wrong. Journalism is materialistic. Truth isn't. Hence, Newsweek's standard is provable truth, and it fell down on that job. Nothing changes that.

The United States government has changed the rules for intelligence gathering and interrogation. The White House says that those rules don't condone torture. The rest of the world, including me, is not convinced. Just look at what Amnesty International has to say. (Scott McClellan, by the way, responded to the AI report by saying "The United States is leading the way on human rights.")

Instead, evidence suggests that the United States government has engaged in systematic torture and abuse ever since we were attacked in 2001. When this evidence is presented, the White House blames the problem on non-commissioned officers and enlisted soldiers. Bad apples.

Now comes a sworn statement about Koran abuse. It could be right, it could be wrong, but it is sworn and it is a document. It exists. It must be dealt with. I find it initially credible, in large part, because it fits so clearly with the pattern that Sy Hersh has been uncovering for the past year or so.

Some will argue that such things shouldn't be reported. Some will argue that it's bias to point out only the bad things. There's a whole litany of diversionary complaints that surround such unhappy facts: un-American, troop-hating, liberal, elitist. None of them address what I consider to be the central issue: Does such behavior represent the America we want to be?

The issue should not be "Can we excuse our behavior?" but rather "Are we proud of what we do?" When the answer is no, then we must reconsider our actions, make sincere corrections and do what is possible to repair the damage. If that's good advice for Newsweek, shouldn't it be good advice for the White House?

For those of us in the news business, at whatever level, these are all important questions. The media has been blamed for practically every problem in the country, and if we look at things honestly, there are lots of things we do poorly. We are not blameless -- far from it. We simply have to change.

But what lesson should we learn? Is the conservative critique the one we should pay the most heed?

If the White House critique is the conservative critique, then the answer is no. We are far from perfect, but journalists as a group are far more committed to truthfulness and integrity than is the White House Press Office.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Judge: Enough with the paganism

How pathetic is this? A judge in Indiana has prohibited the divorced parents of a 9-year-old boy from exposing him to their "non-mainstream" Wiccan religion.

You could almost see it if somebody was complaining, or if one parent was trying to limit the other parent's rights. But their religon is one of the things on which the divorcing parents agree. This was nothing more than a judge simply not getting it.

But no worries. This will work out over time. People think paganism is weird and creepy and that's going to change slowly. As much as you'd like to see discrimination reversed overnight, it just doesn't work that way.

Fortunately, Taoism has better PR...

Spoletoblog on the eve of the festival...

The 2005 Spoleto festival starts at noon, but as far as I'm concerned it began tonight with a preview performance of Mabou Mines DollHouse (one of the things I'd actually like to see this year, having interviewed director Lee Breuer and found him utterly fascinating). Since we're actually going to start promoting the blog tomorrow, I figured it would be cool to go out and catch just a bit of the scene before all hell broke loose tomorrow...

So I drove downtown, ran inside the ritzy Charleston Place hotel to check on "The New Mexico Amigos," a business group that an editor thought might be here for the festival. I don't think so, but whatever. I snapped digital photos of them and an industry group posing on the grand stairs, collected a few other images, then parked illegally and took some quickies of folks going into the Dock Street Theatre (one of the great things about Charleston: The Dock Street Theatre isn't on Dock Street).

Got home, downloaded my memory card and uploaded five photos into a new "Spoleto Scene" photo album. The editor called to ask about the amigos, but I told her to wait just a bit and she'd have the actual post. I got the whole thing up before 9, including a little bit of atmospheric prose arranged around two of my own photos, both of them less than 45 minutes old by the time I hit the "save" button.

That immediacy is a natural high for a journalist. But the depth of connection to the material is special, too. The control...

A lot of people don't know this about me, but long before I was a writer, I was a visual artist. My first newspaper job was cartoonist (at age 14; $10 a cartoon for the small paper in Madison-Mayodan, N.C.). I was a commercial artist in Charlotte in 1983 (designed the packaging for an ill-fated food brand called "El Mexican Fiesta"). In 1990, while working as a pasteup clerk at The Chapel Hill Newspaper, I complained so much about a crappy illustration by the staff artist that the city editor said "draw something better!" I jammed out a reply with a Sharpie on a piece of scrap paper in about a minute. He took one look, said "That is better," and ran it on the front page. In 1994, I took second place in an NC Press Association illustration contest at The ShelbyStar... where I was the city editor.

At The Mountaineer in Waynesville, I used to carry a complete photo kit and shoot assignments for other reporters' stories (we had exactly one full-time photographer). I shot high school footbal rivalry games, troops leaving for the first Gulf War, troops coming home. In fact, when we did a year-in-photos section, I got to lord it over the regular photographer that I'd gotten as many shots in it as he did (I still kid him about that... all these years later, we're still in the same fantasy football league).

I'd design pages (back in the days when you did this on paper), and, since I'd been a pasteup artist in college, I'd put them together, too. I was good with an Exacto, and my headlines always lined up plumb, straight and true.

For my 1991 package on trout fishing in the Smoky Mountains, I wrote the stories and the headlines, drew the lead illustration, shot the photos, designed the layout and pasted up the page. And if you've got the skills, that kind of control can be heaven.

Blogging feels a lot like that to me. It's like traveling back in time to a moment in my life when journalism -- that wonderful act of telling other people what's going on -- was actually fun.

Look, it's not that writing and reporting are a chore. I like it. it's a big part of who I am. But for some warped reason, I'm more proud of those cartoons, illustrations and photos than I am of my big pooh-bah news stories. I enjoy expressing myself in different ways. I like the sense of cohesion that you get when the writer is the photographer is the designer is the headline writer.

Community journalism isn't easy, and it isn't always fun. But it can be emotionally satisfying. Blogging is like that. It's hands-on and much more raw and real than the processed-cheese-food stuff that tends to come out of metro newsrooms.

Anyway, check out Spoletoblog, and point it out to your artistic friends...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Alternate realities

Here's E&P editor Greg Mitchell asking an extremely relevant question: In the week after (Newsweek's) retraction, where is the comparable outrage over the military's cover-up of the "friendly fire" death of Pat Tillman?

The answer is, sadly, that those of us on the right are so bitterly entrenched at this point that they simply cannot consider that question. They literally cannot see it.

Orson Scott Card's take on the Newsweek mistake is far from typical, but it demonstrates the absurd extremes of this "discussion."

Some of his stranger bits:
I’m talking about informal consequence, like Newsweek’s correspondents being frozen out of news stories. Being banned from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department for at least a year. But if any administration did such a thing, all of the media would unite to crucify them.
Apparently Scott hasn't been keeping up with the decertification topic over at PressThink, or else he'd understand that pool reporters are already being frozen out for offending the White House. The media hasn't exactly been breaking out the nails and crosses over that offense, but such speculative "truths" are simply articles of faith on the far right.

But shunning isn't Scott's real goal. He wants to make the reporting of damaging truths during wartime an act of treason.
Our country is at war. And it’s a war in which victory absolutely depends on the Muslim world perceiving it as a war between the US and its allies on one side, and fanatical murderous terrorists on the other.

If it is ever perceived as a war against Islam, then we have lost. The world has lost.

So during such a difficult time, even people who think the Iraq war or even the whole war on terror is a horrible mistake still have an obligation of loyalty to the nation that offers them protection, prosperity and freedom.

I mean, what kind of idiot breaks a hole in the hull of his boat during a storm, just because he doesn’t like the guy at the tiller and thinks the storm could have been avoided?

Even if the allegations about Quran desecration were completely and absolutely verified, why in the world would you publish the information during wartime?
Perhaps because some of us believe that such actions are wrong, no matter who does them. Perhaps because some of us think that such actions will be damaging to our country if they are allowed to continue. Perhaps because some of us simply cannot endorse a rationale for war based on the notion that "In order to save our ideals it was necessary to destroy them."

I believe that condoning torture and abusive acts spits on the grave of every American who ever died for the idea of a country that was founded on better stuff.

Scott doesn't believe any of those explanations to be true. He concludes instead that only one group benefits from the reporting of such stories: "People who want to bring down or weaken President Bush and everything he stands for, no matter the cost."

And how does he justify this? By dehumanizing his enemy, the press.

To say that the media culture is unpatriotic isn’t a political ploy, it’s an obvious observation. Oh, if my words actually mattered to them, they’d howl and scream about my illegitimate attack. But in private, they are perfectly happy to mock patriotism in all its forms. They’re only patriotic when somebody says they aren’t.

They are loyal to a community – but it’s not America.

It’s Smartland. The nation of the newsmedia people. That’s where they live. Not in America. These newspeople generally don’t even know anybody, apart from “sources,” who serves America in the military. Smartland consists of a very different crowd.

I know that crowd. I’ve heard them jeer at all the values that most Americans still care about, laughing at religious people, at the middle class, at suburbanites, at the poor ignorant saps who don’t think correct thoughts all the time. You know – the citizens of Heartland.

Once upon a time I considered Scott Card a friend and mentor. He is a tremendously talented and thoughtful human being, a man with an enormous personal generosity. Not only is he an excellent fiction writer, he's also a challenging and charismatic teacher. He wrote the introduction to my first published science fiction short story, and I will always hold those words with great fondness. I know that he is a man who has endured loss, pain and discrimination, and that he has borne up bravely despite it.

But Scott's most recent column is sad evidence of the dangers of the extreme. His rage is palpable. He has been seduced, not by the dark side -- as if right or left had some monopoly on light and dark -- but by the evils of abstraction. His message: You're either for us or you're against us. And this is a dead end on every level I can imagine.

Take a digital photograph and crank up the contrast as far as it will go. Black and white, with no midtones. And the first thing you notice is, it doesn't look anything like reality. It's hard to recognize what you're looking ar.

Scott Card has become like Walter Sobchak from "The Big Lebowski" repeatedly demanding to know "Am I Wrong? Am I Wrong?" Walter's problem is that he's lost all sense of proportion. He pulls a gun on a guy for being "OVER THE LINE!" in a league bowling match, then screams "Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one here who gives a shit about the rules?"

Abstraction to extremism is both seductive and addictive, because human beings hate to be wrong. Pretty soon it is easier to demonize those who disagree as terrorists or elitists or traitors than it is to actually hear what's being said. After a while one is reduced to condoning all sorts of dishonesty from one's own "side," if only because the people you've demonized are pointing out that dishonesty..

I believe a day will come when Scott will look back at words like those above and feel great remorse for them. In his defense of America, he has lost the thread of what America is all about.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Jerry Falwell on evolution

Jerry Falwell is a creationist. Stop the presses.

But I point out this piece by Falwell not for its arguments in favor of creationism (he doesn't make any), but instead for what it reveals about the passion surrounding the issue.

In a challenge directed at Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens, Falwell equates the assault on evolution in the public schools to "the efforts of religious conservatives who want to preserve their rapidly disappearing rights in this great land."

He then goes on to promote a conference on creationism at his Liberty University, and writes the following passage in reference to one of the conference scholars:
Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham, who will be the moderator of our Creation Mega Conference, often states, “If you can’t trust the Bible’s history, how can you trust its morality?” Christians must be equipped to defend their faith and be prepared to give an answer to everyone who challenges them on their views.

Which is, of course, the entire issue in a nutshell. Falwell and his fellow creationists aren't really concerned with science. Rather, they are concerned with literalism and authority. Nothing more, nothing less.

I don't think most Christians feel this way, but those who are in a "go along to get along" mood on intelligent design might want to consider the priorities of the people pushing this agenda.

Monday, May 23, 2005

A new kind of journalist

Jeff Jarvis promotes a link to a post in BusinessWeek's Blogspotting blog. I'm not familiar with the source, but the topic is interesting and pretty much in line with the conversation many of us have been having.

What will journalists be? The description of the city editor of the future sounds an awful lot like Superman.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

In the morning, our paper will publish its 2005 Spoleto special section and, with it, the URL for our first blog, the cleverly named Spoletoblog.

(For those of you who are "From Off," Spoleto is a three-week arts festival in Charleston, S.C. Each May, it brings world-class music and theater to our small, historic city. Piccolo Spoleto, a companion festival, offers a wider array of arts at more affordable prices. Together, the two festivals transform Charleston each spring. It's a big deal for the newspaper and the community ... even though, in all fairness, most of our citizens have little connection to the festival. More on that in another post...)

Hence, this is an interesting moment for us. Some people are excited about the experiment. The new boss, who truly impresses me, understood the importance of blogging from the moment I suggested we try this. He required zero pitching and made things happen immediately: no committees, no studies, no ego-soothing. On the other hand, some of my coworkers don't yet know what to make of all this. They're waiting to find out if this is safe before they touch it.

On Friday, I made this comment in an administrative post (now removed in preparation for the public go-live) on the subject of blogging and its audience. It's something bloggers tend to understand instinctively, but for people who come to the medium from the newspaper world, where publications are products to be marketed and maximized, it's a subtle concept:
The blog will be promoted off the Spoleto page, but I'm downplaying the idea of heavy-duty promotion. Why? Because it's generally a good thing for a blog to grow with its audience, and vice versa.

The success of Spoletoblog won't be measured by the size of its audience, but by its quality. Do we reach the people who are interested in the subject? Can we become the first stop for anyone who are passionately about Spoleto?

That's success for a blog, and it depands far more on good content than it does on promotion.***

For those of us in the online "New Media" conversation, Spoletoblog represents a moderately interesting experiment. I've invited more than 30 reporters, editors and critics to participate as authors; we've avoided all the typical newspaper control-freak tendencies on free expression; and we're doing this completely outside our in-house web operation.

In fact, I'm the one running it: A features writer, not a web guy.

For us, it's a good experimental subject. If it works, we'll take the lessons and apply them to other projects. If it flops, well ... Spoleto will be over in a month, and we won't look foolish if the blog just fades away. Come to think of it, should this thing fail, the only person with anything on the line is ... me.

Please feel free to drop me a line, pass me feedback or suggest improvements.

*** The blog "quantity v. quality" subject came up in an interview I did in March with Dave Slusher of The Evil Genius Chronicles fame. It occurred to me that perhaps the goal of podcasting wasn't mass audience success and that building a relationship with the right audience was more important. I asked Dave about it, and he launched into a brilliant examination of the idea. Clearly, Dave had been giving it some serious thought. He went on to do a Clambake riff on the topic, and it remains one of my favorite podcasts. It also stands out as one of my favorite interview moments of 2005, one of those rare events when you ask the question that someone has been dying to answer. Those of you who do interviews for a living understand the sheer joy of such an experience. dc

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

I become a whiner

Rather predictably, the fallout over the Newsweek/Isikoff blunder drove me right into the ditch. I was so foul-tempered and snippy that I left a comment at PressThink that is so whiney and unintentionally ironic that it actually made me laugh at myself.

My grousing complaint: People who complain about the press being ignoble, inaccurate, blah blah blah focus on the blunders, when of course the reality is that the true blunders are rare. When they occur, we're all called to account for them. Result: Everyone learned what they already believed before the Newsweek story.

But of course, what I said was, substantially, the same thing that the Bush Administration and Fox News have been saying about the War: "Oh, the liberal media, they focus on the bad stuff because they hate America and freedom. Nobody wants to talk about the schools and the wells and the smiling children, all the great stuff we're doing every day."

Which, by the way, is a critique that I've always thought we'd be wise to consider in any story. Note that I said consider, not follow by rote.

Anyway, I have now officially become what I hate: an angry, whiney apologist.

Monday, May 16, 2005

First the WSJ, now the NYT...

The New York Times launches itself as a premium content site with TimesSelect, but what I like about this one is that you get it as part of your subscription to the print edition.

Critics will say "but the spirit of the medium is a la carte... why bundle?" I say that establishing yourself as a multi-dimensional information source is a good thing. You subscribe, you get all the web stuff free. You don't subscribe... well, stuff is gonna cost you.

In essence, this says that you subscribe to the New York Times experience. This is a good deal, too, because the NYT has positioned itself as a national paper. This is a big incentive to drop your local paper and pick up the Times as your daily.

As I've said before, the WSJ works pay-to-read online because it's a niche pub. The NYT might work online behind a limited pay wall because it's a national media brand.

But would anyone care if the Chicago Tribune offered the same deal? How about USA Today? The Charlotte Observer?

I don't think so.

Dang. Monday.

Had to bury another cat this morning, so that now I've got a matched set of little rescue kitties sleeping in the dirt next to the too-small stray I took in while Janet was out of town last August. The great irony: Janet went out and got the two littermates to "cheer me up" after the little one gave up and died.

Both have now been hit by cars. Pixie survived long enough to reach the emergency vet, who told us she was paralyzed with no meaningful hope of recovery. The good news is she got pain medication and we were able to comfort her during the euthanasia.

We have a fourth cat: Janet went and got him from the shelter about a month ago because Pixie was acting so depressed after Prez was killed.

*Here's a survey that will start your week off right, he said sarcastically: (E&P) "New Survey Finds Huge Gap Between Press and Public on Many Issues"

*From the NYT's review of the final Star Wars episode:
"This is how liberty dies - to thunderous applause," Padmé observes as senators, their fears and dreams of glory deftly manipulated by Palpatine, vote to give him sweeping new powers. "Revenge of the Sith" is about how a republic dismantles its own democratic principles, about how politics becomes militarized, about how a Manichaean ideology undermines the rational exercise of power. Mr. Lucas is clearly jabbing his light saber in the direction of some real-world political leaders. At one point, Darth Vader, already deep in the thrall of the dark side and echoing the words of George W. Bush, hisses at Obi-Wan, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." Obi-Wan's response is likely to surface as a bumper sticker during the next election campaign: "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes."

*Newsweek backtracks on its Koran desecration story... because the Pentagon denies it? This is just so ... wrong...

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Running out of patience...

Whatever you do, make sure you check out this link from E&P: It's a transcript of Scott McClellan blowing smoke up the White House press corps' collective ass on May 12, the day after the Cessna incident.

Several things jump out at you:

1. McClellan's talking-points act is wearing thin (can you imagine having to deal with such an insufferable jerk day in, day out?); 2. The WH press corps, which has rolled over repeatedly for this administration, reacted with some gumption when the story involved a threat that frightened and inconvenienced them.

The elephant in this room isn't difficult to spot, but it's the simple truth that no one dares speak: Bush isn't in charge. He never was. He wasn't in charge on Sept. 11 and he wasn't in charge on this day, either.

Had Bush been in the White House instead of riding his bike, then McClellan would have said that the president was notified and directed the response ... it might not have been true, but more significantly, it wouldn't have looked so patently, bluntly, obviously, undeniably false.

Instead, Bush was safely out of town, and his Secret Service detail let him continue his bike ride because... well, clearly, the thought of telling the President about a possible attack on Washington and the subsequent evacuation of more than 30,000 people never occurred to anybody.

As McClellan keeps saying, protocols were activated. Procedures were followed. All is well and everything went as planned. Oh really? Then clearly, Scott, those protocols don't include notifying the president. Remember Sept. 11? Cheney ran the show. Bush was told it wasn't safe for him to return to Washington and assume command, and so the commander-in-chief went for little airplane ride.

So what does it say if the President of the United States can't be trusted to lead the response when the nation is under threat of attack?

In February of 2001 I had a good-natured argument about Bush with novelist (now turned conservative online columnist) Orson Scott Card. Card said Bush was a good man. I said that this might well be true, but that to me the bigger issue was who had put him in office. Card thought that was typical liberal media bias.

My case: The lesson the GOP learned from its 1996 Dole debacle was that it should no longer leave its future vulnerable to extraneous, random indignities such as candidates and voters. Dole got the '96 nomination because people felt he had earned it, that it was his turn. In 1997, such notions were determined to be distinctly Old School.

Afterward, key leaders in the GOP decided that for the 2000 election, their elite was going to select one candidate, get everyone on board long before the primaries, and then fend off all challengers. This alliance, while not illegal, sought to soak up not only the available money, but also the majority of the party's political talent. This is why the McCain candidacy was typically described as an "insurgency."

Of course, when a few wealthy donors, insiders and operatives decide to short-circuit the democratic system, they don't so with the gee-whiz notion of selecting a president who is going to take office and then tell them what to do. When these people interview you as the possible receipient of their support, they're not checking to see if you've got good ideas. They could give a damn. All they want to know is whether you're going to stay on the plantation once you get elected.

My argument to Card was that one would be naive to look at Bush as an independent leader considering 1. His lack of independent achievements and qualifications; and 2. the weight and power of the group that selected him as its candidate.

Critiquing my own theory today, I would say that Bush has set the tone for much of US policy in the post-Sept. 11 world, and that he has been a stronger leader (though, I think, in a negative way) than what I considered possible in early 2001.

But I also contend that, for all his bluster, Bush has never left the plantation. Compassionate conservative? Maybe he was in Texas, but he hasn't been in Washington. Bush is a company man, and the company in this case is called the Project for the New American Century.

Besides, whatever Bush's role as a "big-picture man," the reality of character and power is always revealled in crisis. On May 11, 2005, as on Sept. 11, 2001, Bush was a bystander. Actually, he wasn't even that. A bystander is at least observing.

I think the press is finally losing its last scraps of patience with the President and his supporters. One can only be patronized, placated, manipulated, teased and insulted for so long before the consequences of stepping out of line are no longer worse than continuing to accept the status quo. Things will really get interesting once we stop focusing on Dubya's affable Everyman personna and start taking a closer look at the people around him (Bolton... Hager... Horsley... DeLay... Gannon (and by the way, check out the Talon News site these days)... Eberle... Rumsfeld... Sciafe... Robertson... Cheney... oh, and ExxonMobil...

Liberal media bias? Yeah, whatever, Mr. McClellan. That's like complaining about a leaky faucet when the house is burning down.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Letters to the editor

Two back-to-back letters on the pagan package, the only ones that have appeared so far.

Appalled at section
I was appalled at this past Sunday's section of Faith & Values. The editor(s) missed a great opportunity with this section and showed a great lack of judgment, publishing a section almost exclusively on paganism, witchcraft and Wicca.

One would think you could have come up with a better edition of this section for Mother's Day.

I would never have thought that such a section of a newspaper in Charleston would ever be dominated by articles on paganism and witchcraft, let alone on Mother's Day. There was only one article on mothers, and none on the place of motherhood in religious faiths and teaching. Even the apostle Paul, when writing to his colleague Timothy, indicated the important place of mothers in our faith walk: "I am reminded of the sincerity of your faith [he writes to Timothy], a faith which was alive in Lois your grandmother and Eunice your mother before you, and which, I am confident, now lives in you" (2 Timothy 1:5).

On Mother's Day, my church was filled with mothers who brought their children, young and old, with them on this special day. Where is the honoring of our mothers and their sacrifice? You missed the boat on this one and infuriated multitudes of your readers (in my congregation alone). I hope to never see such a display in this section of the paper again.

St. John's Episcopal Parish
3673 Maybank Highway
Johns Island

Positive religion
Accept my thanks for running such a wonderful story on Pagans and Wiccans in the Lowcountry. I have spent much of this past decade speaking with people of all faiths to explain to them that this is a positive, faith-based religion. Your reporter, Dan Conover, has written a wonderful, well-researched and positive piece. I can only hope that this article will help others understand that we all live in the light of the divine.

As I have come to accept and cherish those who follow other faiths, I hope that this piece will assist others in better understanding mine. Where there is light there can be no darkness. Where there is love there can be no hate. Where we find acceptance, we find peace.

The Foundry and the Spring
1125 North Blvd.
North Charleston

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The pagan story: What we learned...

On Sunday, my story on neo-pagans in the Lowcountry appeared on the cover of our Faith and Values section. The mainbar ran about 95 inches and told a story of the last 14 months in the local pagan community, beginning with the suicide of that community's most visible and controversial figure.

The sidebars, just counting the text, ran another 80 inches. You can find my links to all the elements of the package here, on the special blog I created just to keep the subjects of the story connected to the final assembly of the package.

Janet, who in addition to being my wife is also the paper's chief designer, put the whole thing together, giving good play to photos by staff photographer Mic Smith. It sprawled across four pages of broadsheet newsprint.

Writing about neo-paganism was one of my first goals when I returned to reporting. As an editor, I had dealt with so many people -- including cops and a police chaplain -- who assumed that Wiccans were devil worshippers. They simply didn't know better -- and if you've been told that someone worships the devil, why would you go out of your way to hear their side of the story? Pagans have a story to tell, but their well has been poisoned by centuries of Western civilization.

We didn't have a Faith and Values section when I started reporting the story, but once it was created I figured that was the appropriate place for the package. The big question was, would the paper's editors be comfortable running such a story in a section that many of our readers still call "the church section"?

Answer: Despite some nerves and obvious discomfort around the newsroom, the paper's leadership never flinched from this story. That in itself is a minor miracle. I can say with no fear of inaccuracy that such a thing would never have been allowed six years ago.

With that resolved, I began thinking about the readers. What kind of reaction were we likely to get? My feeling was that the package would likely be panned by a few, but that most people in Charleston are mature enough to see that explaining another religion is not the same thing as an attack on their own religion. However, I did expect a bit of a "normative" reaction, people upset that we were giving legitimacy to a group they wanted to view as "weird."

On Friday, as the piece went to press (with extremely minimal edits), everybody I spoke to said the same thing: "I hope you're ready for the phone calls." I attached my phone number and e-mail address to the story.

So, here's phone/e-mail/misc. comment tally, as of Tuesday afternoon:

Phone calls: Two. One was a guy asking me to put him in touch with one of the witches because he had a suspicion that somebody had hexed him, the other just a "normal" guy calling to say how much he liked the story and that he "had been reading this rag for 22 years and I can't believe (you guys) could pull this off." This doesn't include phone calls from people who were in the story, who called up to say they were happy with it and hearing nothing but good things.

E-mails: I stopped counting the good ones. I'm still waiting for the first critical e-mail.

Misc.: The editorial page received this e-mail on Monday as a Letter to the Editor. However, it cannot run as such because the writer did not want her name to be used and didn't give her contact information.

I was appalled at the article on the front page of Faith and Values. I do not think that suicide is a value we should uphold! And to give place to Wicca on the front page is not appropriate on Sunday when our country is founded on Christian beliefs. The bible says that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft and I don't think that should be promoted on the front page!! I was deeply distressed to see more than 3 pages on paganism worship in this newspaper!
I know I am not alone in this and hope that from now on, we can count on Faith and Values--Values of Life! Sincerely, (Please withhold my name)

Also, this morning our ombudsman ran this comment and response in her column (emphasis added by me):

Q: I am thoroughly disappointed that on Mother's Day, The Post and Courier did not feature the strong belief of the mothers of those boys who were lost at sea. Instead you feature pagans and witches on your Faith and Values section. I understand the need to report on a point of view different from mainstream religions. But why on a day when you had this option? Mary Rhett, peninsula.
A: I think you'll agree that (the paper) has not shied away from addressing the spiritual side of the rescue story. Reporters have interviewed the boys and their family members about how their faith sustained them. Front-page headlines said "It's a miracle!" and "It was just me, Troy and God." It is tempting to revist that story because it feels so good. Inded, on Sunday there was a front-page story chronicling the seven-day ordeal. Interviewing the mothers again would seem to me to be overkill.

Do I think we've heard all the response we're going to get? No. The story came out on a Sunday, so all the sermons were already written. It ran inside the paper on Mother's Day and was barely promoted off the front. Sometimes stories like this need a little time to perculate through the community before they find the people who are going to be angry about them.

But I think this lack of a violent reaction also says something about Charleston. We are stereotyped as backward. We aren't. And even though this is, without a doubt, a conservative community, it is not generally an ignorant one. Charleston is far more cosmopolitan than the general image people have of the South.

Everyone who writes for the public must work with an abstract image of their audience. Every now and then, reporters and editors do well to update that image. This might be one of those times.

After notes (5/11/05):

Here's a different perspective -- a pagan who disliked the article:

Dear Mr. Conover,
Being one of the people you first contacted through Witchvox when you decided to do
this article (although I chose not to be involved publicly, due to my husband not
wanting our name known and having to deal with backlash in his frail health), I
followed the path you were taking in your investigation and research, in the emails
you sent all of us and the blog you kept. I was excited when I learned the article
was to be published this past Sunday, and eagerly ripped open the paper that morning
to read it. My excitement died and saddened dismay and disbelief replaced it as I
reached the end of it. Instead of a straight forward, no-facts-witheld article on
paganism and WIcca that I was expecting, we got a highly sensationlized piece that
focused on the suicide of one local pagan group's leader, due to accusations of
improper conduct with a minor and its resulting loss of his business/depression, and
his covens reaction. And then to include the hint of possible resentment and
dissension between local groups? You dropped the ball, Mr. Conover. All the
disjointed little side pieces you included along with the article should have been
what your article was really about. You have done low country pagan's and Wiccan's
no favor in the publication of this piece. If anything, you have hurt how the
public views those who follow these alternate paths even further. I am proud of my
religious choices, and will vehemently defend them. But it saddens me that those
who don't know the truth about my path, and the path chosen by thousands of others,
still do not know the truth despite your disjointed efforts to enlighten them.

Blessed Be,


Oooo, I wouldn't have told that one...

Here's one of those things that you just couldn't make up (link).

Well, I guess you could make it up. In fact, it reminds me of a joke...

...WHICH I won't tell here. In summary, the joke concerns a church revival in which members of the congregation come down to the altar and confess their sins (murder, adultery, coveting, the works), and after each confession, the preacher says "Well, that's a terrible sin, but God loves you." And finally a man comes down and tearfully proclaims, "Pastor, I'm so ashamed: I've been doin' it with a goat." Everything goes stone silent. PUNCHLINE: The pastor says: "Ooooo, I wouldn't have told that one."

One final clarification: I grew up country in Brown's Summit, N.C., and I can say with great confidence that the vast majority of my friends and peers 1. Never had a mule for a girlfriend; and 2. Never grew up to become anti-abortion terrorists.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Google ranks credibility

Here's a BTC piece on Google doing something akin to what I first suggested online back in January: scoring the credibility of information sources.

Starting with news organization and bloggers is one thing, but what you're really grading here, it seems, is popularity and clout. It's not what I want, but whatever. It's a start.

The real trick is grading EVERYBODY: Let's pin the Long Tail on congressmen, senators, cabinet secretary, party officals... and, yes, you bet: Presidents. You want to pin that tail on celebrities, pundits, documentary movie producers, TV anchors and citizen bloggers? Fine. Pin it everywhere, but pin it the same way on everyone.

We have short attention spans and lengthy to-do lists. It's too easy in today's media-saturated world take blatantly false claims at face-value (the irony is, it's never been easier to find the contradiction, but you have to want to look), and with little downside and plenty of benefit to spinning, many leaders and organizations hold integrity and truthtelling in low regard.

But what would happen if we could create an integrity/truthfulness grade that would follow each of us throughout our online and public lives? That might just change some basic equations.

Could it be abused? Duh. But that's a dodge, not a critique.

Geek humor

A clever little lyrical romp by a talented and complex software designer.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Recognizing and writing about proxies

Perhaps the most valuable realization I ever had while running the local news operation came in the 1990s during the "Where Are My Glasses?" scandal. Given the right set of circumstances, a story can become a proxy for a complex set of emotions and grievances.

When that happens, you've really got two stories, not one. And you should act accordingly.

The "Where are my glasses?" story in a nutshell:

The setup
A black kindergartener with poor eyesight returned home one day from school with the words "Where are my glasses?" written on her face in marker by her white teacher. The child's mother called a local TV station, which came down and recorded her complaint about the "racist" teacher. She said the marker was permanent and that the act of writing on her child's face was akin to the branding of slaves -- a sensitive subject in Charleston, the port of entry for the ancestors of 70 percent of today's African Americans.

The background
The white teacher, in her first year of teaching, had a history of writing on children's faces as they left school at the end of the day. The messages were usually supportive and upbeat, and the children reportedly enjoyed the attention. The white teacher team-taught with a black teacher who said there was no pattern of treating white and black children differently when it came to writing on them. The writing was in watercolor marker. The administration knew about the practice. No parent had ever complained before. The teacher had reminded the girl to bring her glasses to school previously, and had spoken to the mother about making sure the child wore them. The girl could not see the board without them on.

The deep background
Charleston has a complex racial history and its schools remain largely segregated to this day. Black Charlestonians who attended public schools have deep resentments about the second-class treatment they received. The city's only downtown high school was 100 percent black the year this story broke, and it was in need of replacement or repair. Numerous county schools were in terrible disrepair, and predominantly black schools were generally in the worst shape. School board politics were divided along racial lines. School board spending on black schools was considerably higher, per capita, than on predominantly white schools, but the desegregated schools were also better able to raise funds for activities through other means (PTA, etc.).

Black Charlestonians lined up behind the mother, with little public dissent. They wanted the superintendent to fire the teacher. Fellow teachers, black and white, lined up behind the teacher. The board split.

The more we covered the story, the more apparent it became that the facts of the incident showed really weak judgment, but nothing like the racism that black people seemed to attach to them. The more we covered it, the angrier they became.

Somewhere in all of this, it occurred to me that there were two things going on. There was the individual case, with all its relevant facts, and then there was the larger story of racism in Charleston, particularly in its public schools. The reason we couldn't "get" the story right was because the event had become a proxy for generations of mistreatment and institutional racism.

Once I made the connection and explained it to the reporting staff, our coverage improved and the climate warmed considerably. We wrote about the case and pointed out the facts, which tended to support the teacher and not the mother, but we also assigned and published stories that dealt with the frustration many black adults felt with the school system. By disconnecting the two, we were able to address the real concerns of our readers without crucifying the teacher as a racist.

Ultimately, the white superintendent fired the teacher. The move did not save him: He was later run off, and for a variety of good reasons.

Our "proxy-savvy" coverage didn't change the outcome. Nor did it "fix" all the problems. But I think it made things better -- not only in the community, but in the newsroom. The community was tense, but so were we. We needed to be able to understand what was really going on in order to formulate a coverage plan that felt right ethically.

Political leaders of all stripes understand proxy issues. They understand that symbols can be manipulated to create emotion and mobilize their constituencies. The modern example is the Terri Schiavo case: GOP operatives and leaders hyped the case for what they believed would be their own political gain. I think they made a mistake, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, Schiavo was one case. But people were energized by the story because it was a proxy for deep-seated anxieties and resentments.

Does that mean that people didn't feel strongly and sincerely about Schiavo? Of course not. But it does argue that much of the intensity of emotion stirred by the story was actually an expression of simmering anger about abortion, about judges overturning popular laws, about the separation of church and state. Terri Schiavo was a tragedy. The Schiavo story was a proxy.

Such analysis fell out of favor at my paper as we went through various editor changes, and it's not something that we do routinely these days. However, I still recommend it to anyone who wants to do journalism that does justice to the individuals involved in a high-profile case while also giving voice to the underlying frustrations and passions that are struggling to be heard.


Sounds like the folks over at East Waynesville Baptist are now fully committed. According to Radosh (and this link off a WNC TV station), the church tossed some members who refused to toe its political line.

Then a bunch more folks quit in protest.

I remember this church from my cub reporter days at The (Waynesville, NC) Mountaineer, 1990-1992. The thing that strikes me about this is that nine people got run off for not supporting Bush, but 40 people (who apparently do support the President politically) quit the church in protest over the principle of the thing.

That's pretty cool.

Afternote: Here's the link to The (Asheville) Citizen-Times story.

Friday, May 06, 2005

And so, in conclusion...

We're all hard-wired to relate to group norms. This is a value-neutral statement.

This behavior is useful, and since we're not going to change our neurology, the best thing to do is to become aware of the dynamic.

Much of the cultural tension in America today is the result of being stuck in the middle of a transition between norms. The new norm attempts to judge others by whether they are constructive or destructive, which implies individual value judgments. It's more complex. The old norm judged entire groups and behaviors.

Media can play a healthy role in this cultural discussion by identifying and exploring the proxy issues that represent all the sides in it.

I'll write another post on proxies later.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Turning it around, again

So I went rambling the other day and wrote this long thing on normative behavior, socio-biology, instinct and media conferred legitimacy. But what happens when I turn that lens on myself instead of using it to peer into other people's heads?

Lo and behold, I do it too.

I get furious when people drive to the front of a line of cars trying to merge and then force their way in ahead of everybody who has been waiting. I don't get too bent out of shape by other people's anger, but if Stranger No. 1 reacts in anger to Stranger No. 2's unintended slight and Stranger No. 2 apologizes, Stranger No. 1 had better accept it or I'm going to want to come off the bench and jump in.

The behavior I'm addicted to is politeness, of a kind. Why? Well, I figure, isn't it obvious? If everybody would just be polite, everything would be so much better. If everybody would just stop the drama and become aware of their neighbors, why, look how smoothly things would work!

Yes, there's a point to such thinking, but if you think about it critically for even 30 seconds the whole notion comes apart like fat in a skillet.

My politeness is just an extension of the same awareness of the norm that I described for certain cultural conservatives. As a perpetual outsider, fine-tuning my normative antennae was a good survival and career-advancement skill. It let me triangulate all sorts of social situations, which is a good skill to have if you're interviewing a Republican congressman in the morning and trolling through a trailer park in the wake of a tornado in the afternoon. Reporters have to be aware of norms.

(Here's a hard thing to say: Americans loved the period between Sept. 11, 2001 and the spring of 2002 because suddenly we could all endorse many of the same norms. We love feeling connected in part because we love feeling accepted. Before it got turned into neo-con kitsch, 9-11 was a reminder to people that we're all in this together, and being accepted by people who usually look at us funny made us practically giddy.)

So I have the same kind of normative awareness as John Graham Altman III, and I can identify some of my normative hot buttons (tellingly, they're things that I feel rather good about). But do I have some of the destructive reactions to deviance that I described in my previous post?


It makes me mad when the neighborhood boys walk by with their pants falling off their asses ("Quit showing off. Stop acting like you're scaring somebody. Why are you trying to attract attention to yourself?"). I react violently when people give me a certain kind of look when I feel like I'm minding my own business. I feel superior from time-to-time when people who lack my tough-guy credentials say something that sounds whiney.

And I think one of the reasons for my occasional bouts of squinty-eyed defiance is a weird mutation of my normative bone fides: Sure, I may be a remarried, gray-haired hippie kid whose preacher daddy wears a dress nowadays, and maybe I read Buckland and Hafiz and Lao Tzu and Susie Bright instead of Tom Clancy, James Dobson and the New Testament, and maybe I'm a member of the liberal media, BUT, I'm still a big-loud-straight-white-home-owning-tax-paying-"Cav-ho!"-shit-kicker. In other words, not only can I pass for normal when I want to, I can pass for the kind of guy that other normal people around here respect.

In some bizarre way, the fact that I can pass for normal makes me feel superior to people who can't ... just as my ability to shift into freak mode makes me feel superior to "normal" people.

My point: Whether the topic is religion, culture war, politics or media, there's what we say we think and there's what we think but can't say. As the great Patricia Anthony once said, "we're ALL full of shit! Ha ha ha!" The ability to recognize that fact about one's self is a big step toward getting a little peace in this world.

Lao Tzu said you could see the entire universe in a leaf, that you could see the world without stepping out your front door. We're like our own little laboratories for understanding the world around us, if we can just listen to our own voices ... quietly, without judgment...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Legitimacy, and who controls it

So this morning Janet and I got into a newspaper-and-coffee-on-the-porch conversation about the paganism package (which I wrote and she's designing), and it dawned on me it might make a good post.

Janet was a little amazed that there were people around the newsroom who apparently feel no pang of conscience when it comes to making disparaging remarks about the pagan story -- or pagans in general, for that matter. Her point: If anyone had said something similar about Christians, people would have been upset about it.

And this is where it led me: If you really want to understand the cultural conservative position, you've got to think about the issue of legitimacy.

First, let's establish that not all cultural conservatives are alike.

About one of out every five Americans holds a set of beliefs that effectively takes them out of most conversations: The Bible is literally true; everything that operates outside of the church's blessing serves the interest of God's enemy, Satan; evolution is a lie, the planet is 5,000 years old, dinosaur fossils were created by the devil; and the prospect of Hell and eternal damnation is so awful that the truest act of love that one can have for one's neighbor is the tough-love act of bringing them from sin to salvation. My aunt, uncle and three cousins believe much -- if not all -- of what I just described (Bob Jones University graduates all).

These people catch a lot of grief in modern culture, and a lot of times they've caught that grief from me. Of course, it's also true that many of them give as good as they get, but let's set that topic aside. They are roughly 20 percent of the population and as a group they are not concerned about dialog with the rest of us. So to understand what I'm talking about, you have to understand that this group is off in its own little corner. There's no changing them, and I'm OK with that.

Then there's maybe 1 percent that's just whacked out of their minds at the other end of the dial: 5 percenter Muslims, Earth First! eco-terrorists and a couple of leftover Weatherman Underground types.

The rest of the culture is, in one way or another, negotiable: maybe 79 percent of the country, co-existing (though sometimes just barely) on a flexible continuum of beliefs and values.

So why is it that people get so upset about the thought that a newspaper in the South would do a big feature on pagans and neo-pagans? We've written practically nothing about this growing religion in the 11 years that I've been with the paper, but Christianity and Christian ideals are practically a daily topic for stories. As Janet asked, "What is so threatening about just explaining the beliefs of a different religion?"

In the past I've said "Well, because for some people the Bible teaches that a pagan is someone who is doing the work of the devil, whether they know it or not." But that's really just the 20 percent I spoke of previously. The relevant reaction comes from a different group.

On Friday I interviewed local lawmaker John Graham Altman III, who recently became a target of national scorn for his comments about domestic violence. Our topic was South Carolina's referendum on amending the state constitution to ban the acceptance of out-of-state gay marriages and civil unions. You might imagine that JGA3 belongs in that 20 percent I descibed earlier, but the surprising thing is, he doesn't. His reason for disapproving of homosexuality is secular and amazingly simple: He just doesn't like weirdos.

The Altmans of the world are generally viewed as racist, sexist and homophobic, and that's true, at least at some level (many of us are flawed in these areas). But Altman is also often described as being hateful, and I honestly don't find him to be personally hateful -- although there is no doubt in my mind that the effect of his actions in the public sphere have a hateful and hurtful effect on people.

Instead, I believe that JGA3 and those like him are animated by basic socio-biology. Our brains are hard-wired to pick up on the normative cues of groups to which we belong. We instinctively figure out who the Alphas are. We know within minutes who the outcasts are. There is a pecking order in every human social group, and the ability to understand one's place in that order is a survival skill. Life, as someone said, is high school without the mascots.

So no matter how we dress this up, no matter what "values" the JGA3s of the world use to rationalize their dislike of "deviants," the most basic reaction against minority groups is this instinctive one. You don't have to give a lot of rational thought to what you believe to know that non-conformists of any stripe are thumbing their noses at the order by which you live.

Rationally, such a belief is un-American (well, it is if you believe in the ideal America as the melting pot, where all people are created equal, pursuit of happiness, liberty and justice for all, yada yada yada). But the people who are actively "defining" Americanism today are people for whom "America" is more or less an intuitive cultural norm. That's why the people who sing the most about "freedom" are also the most likely to criticize those who use their freedom.

Their message: Sit down and shut up. You're only making this harder on yourself. You ought to be ashamed. Stop fidgeting. Get in line. Stop calling attention to yourself. Why do you have to be so weird?

And it almost goes without saying that the norm to which they bend is a myth to begin with: it's straight, white, middle-class, Protestant, moderately Republican. It is tolerant, but only of those who know their place. It is spirtual, but only for those who are religious in moderation. It is the dictatorship of the Bell Curve.

Its adherents display an instinctive nostalgia for a cultural era in which the majority's dominance was so unquestioned that everyone who existed outside it nevertheless bowed to it. From their perspective, they're not opposed to ANYBODY. Instead, they are FOR positive things: strong, loving families; personal responsibility; integrity. The norm bestows such virtues on those who love it. Why can't everyone just see that things go better when we all agree?

And so long as everyone accepts that the norm is good and right, then even those who cannot abide by its rules live quietly and keep their deviance to themselves.

Consider my Army buddy, a Louisiana gentleman who describes himself as a traditionalist: In his small town, the man who has run the hardware store for 20 years is gay. Everybody knows it, my friend says, and everybody likes him. No one complains that the hardware store owner has lived with the same male "roommate" for two decades. Why? Because the man doesn't "demand" anything of his neighbors. He allows everyone to pretend that everything is normal.

My friend is a good man, and I believe him when he says that he feels no hate for gay people. He says he wouldn't want to do anything to hurt his "good" gay friend at the hardware store, but he tells the same story several times about how one day he bumped into a gay pride parade in New Orleans and a gay man in a diaper scooted past him on rollerblades. For my friend, that's the dividing line. There's something wrong with the country when gay men can rollerblade in New Orleans wearing a diaper and not feel bad about it.

JGA3 says much the same thing: Be gay if you want to be, but don't ask me to treat "your deviant behavior as normative behavior."


This is why gay rights drives so many Americans nuts. It's why some people don't want newspapers to write about Wicca as if it were just another religion (which, by the way, it is). It's not that they hate people who are different, it's just that they think that tradition is better than change, that the only security lies in instinctive defense of cultural norms.

"Ah," you say, engaging your conservative friends in debate, "but 30 years ago tradition said that black people were second-class citizens." And this makes them mad. Why? Well, in part because tradition has changed. Now that white people and black people have been going to school together for a few generations without the world coming to an end, legal equality is the norm. Being black is now normative. Sort of.

I think their big fear is that in a few more generations, it's gonna be normative to be gay, too.

So what you hear is "Well, those people can do whatever they want to do, but they better not do it in my face." Or, "I don't care that people worship trees. They can worship my lawn for all I care, but why do you have to put that in the newspaper?"

So Janet says "If they don't want to look at it, why can't they just put that section down and move on to the next one?"

And that's the answer. Of course they can. That isn't the point. They aren't objecting to people having different beliefs or sexual practices: They're objecting to those practices and beliefs being treated as normal, legitimate, just another choice. That's the mantra we hear from everyone now. Cultural conservatives, for the most part, don't want to make paganism or homosexuality illegal -- they just want pagans and gays to remember that they're supposed to be ashamed of themselves.

That's just not good enough in the 21st century. The more we learn, and the more honest we get, the more myths about homosexuality get swept away. "Common sense" looks less and less sensible.

Why write such a long essay on this topic? Well, for starters, I'm all about ending the pointless arguments. I think the way you change a pointless argument into a productive conversation is to find out what ideas are really in play behind the rhetoric. My mother-in-law would sooner cut off her head than offend a gay man if he sat down at her kitchen table for coffee. If a gay couple across the cul-d-sac needed help, she'd go out of her way to give it. But she instinctively opposes gay marriage. We are surrounded by such jarring truths. How do we find common ground?

I think we start by not shutting down and walking away when we disagree. There's too much value in people to discard them, and I think that's a fairly common belief for the 79 percent of us who are actually involved in the culture.

Today, media confers legitimacy. That's not what people say when they complain about liberal bias, but for many of our critics, that's what they mean.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Hot Dang!

Ever have one of those days when you feel like you're water popping on the surface of a deep-fat fryer?

I mean, consider:

Circulation is in big trouble... The Sun in Baltimore just dropped 11.5 percent daily... just a litany of bad circulation figures... E&P called yesterday "Black Monday."

This morning we held our first serious meeting about the future of our online enterprise, and the boss formally endorsed my Spoleto blog plan. "We're doing it," he told the room. I went in to fill out the necessary forms and had the deputy managing editor for filling out forms tell me that I didn't have to fill out anything, that she'd handle it... YOW-SAH!!!

And by the time I'd come back out, I had an e-mail from Andy Rhinehart alerting me to the launch of Backfence, the new community journalism venture that wants to franchise itself like Starbucks.

I forwarded that link around to some of our web group and wound up getting back a link to John Robinson's blog from April 30, in which there is some fretting about inappropriate comments on newspaper blogs... and particularly anonymous posting... a major concern for the people here...

And so I'm reading along in the comments and who should wind up getting into a tussle but blog-hero Ed Cone and childhood journalism hero Jerry Bledsoe, a former News and Record star who went his own way years ago, reinventing himself as a book author. His "Death by Journalism" remains one of my favorite cautionary tales, but the book is reportedly not at all popular in certain corners of the N&R.

It looks like the fuss has something to do with the infamous Greensboro "Nazi-Klan shootout" of Nov. 3, 1979, which has become the city's proxy for race relations. I was a high school junior at Northeast Guilford High School, on Greensboro's northeast/mill village/tobacco farming blue-collar side.

But the shootout had a lot to do with my growing up: One of the men who died, Dr. Jim Waller, was the stepfather of a girl on whom I'd once had a crush. We'd met at Quaker school, which I attended for two years. Plus I was living in a Brown's Summit commune at the time, which meant that we'd had a variety of connections to the lefties who wound up being slaughtered on live TV in the projects.

Waller was a communist, a union organizer, and a committed figure. But 1979 was also the end of the On the Road era for us: the year that people STOPPED passing through, dropping in, staying on. It was the year FBI agents or SOMEBODY working undercover showed up at our door pretending to be traveling hipsters and then stuck around to ask ridiculous cop questions. And when I watched the tape of Waller and others being killed, I remember thinking that this was what it was all going to come down to, sooner or later. Either you stand and fight or you get shot in the head while you try to hide under a car.

I was just starting out as a journalist in those days, writing for the brand new high school paper. I wanted to attend the funeral and cover it. The advisor told me that if I went, I'd be suspended. That and other horseshit experiences convinced me that journalism was something best avoided, so I attended college originally as a biology major.

It's remarkable how things, on certain days, just turn into oroboros. You pull a thread and it seems like every little thing is connected.

Which is not something you can write about in newspapers, by the way.

Monday, May 02, 2005

A cool beta:

Speaking of things that filter and connect, here's a cool beta site: first glance, it seems a pretty simple online aggregator, but what caught my eye was its combination of customized watchlists and editors suggestions.

Happy Birthday, Dave Winer

Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday Dave Winer
You pretty much invented this medium
and we all really appreciate it, at least most of the time...

An e-mail

Here's an e-mail, received this morning from a conservative reader. I like to post these from time to time because I think they capture a sense of fear and frustration that struggles to be heard in the culture.

Is the writer appealing to a nostalgic myth of the past? I think so. Does this statement leave out horrors (public lynchings) and injustices (second-class citizenship for many Americans)? Yes. Are some of the "facts" represented here inaccurate or deliberately misleading. Sure.

But I don't put it up to mock it. There is a yearning for something better here, a yearning for civility and respect. I think the writer takes a narrow, resentful view of things, and I disagree with the glib "Red State Manifesto" tone. But there is an appreciation for simplicity here, too, and a protest that everyone should attempt to understand.

How old is Grandma?

Stay with this -- the answer is at the end -- it will blow you away.

One evening a grandson was talking to his grandmother about current events. The grandson asked his grandmother what she thought about the shootings at schools, the computer age, and just things in general.

The Grandma replied, "Well, let me think a minute, I was born before:
§ television,
§ penicillin,
§ polio shots,
§ frozen foods,
§ Xerox,
§ contact lenses,
§ Frisbees and
§ the pill.

There was no:
§ radar,
§ credit cards,
§ laser beams or
§ ball-point pens.

Man had not invented:
§ pantyhose,
§ air conditioners,
§ dishwashers,
§ clothes dryers,
§ and the clothes were hung out to dry in the fresh air and
§ man hadn't yet walked on the moon.

Your Grandfather and I got married first-and then lived together.

Every family had a father and a mother.

Until I was 25, I called every man older than I, 'Sir'- and after I turned 25, I still called policemen and every man with a title, "Sir.'

We were before gay-rights, computer- dating, dual careers, daycare centers, and group therapy.

Our lives were governed by the Ten Commandments, good judgment, and common sense.

We were taught to know the difference between right and wrong and to stand up and take responsibility for our actions.

We thought fast food was what people ate during Lent.

Having a meaningful relationship meant getting along with your cousins.

Time-sharing meant time the family spent together in the evenings and weekends-not purchasing condominiums.

We never heard of FM radios, tape decks, CDs, electric typewriters, yogurt, or guys wearing earrings.

We listened to the Big Bands, Jack Benny, and the President's speeches on our radios.

And I don't ever remember any kid blowing his brains out listening to Tommy Dorsey.

If you saw anything with 'Made in Japan ' on it, it was junk.

The term 'making out' referred to how you did on your school exam.

Pizza Hut, McDonald's, and instant coffee were unheard of.

We had 5 &10-cent stores where you could actually buy things for 5 and 10 cents.

Ice-cream cones, phone calls, rides on a streetcar, a cup of coffee, and a Coke, were all a nickel.

And if you didn't want to splurge, you could spend your nickel on enough stamps to mail 1 letter and 2 postcards.

You could buy a new Chevy Coupe for $600 but who could afford one?

Too bad, because gas was 11 cents a gallon.

In my day:
"grass" was mowed,
"coke" was a cold drink,
"pot" was something your mother cooked in and
"rock music" was your grandmother's lullaby.
"Aids" were helpers in the Principal's office,
" chip" meant a piece of wood,
"hardware" was found in a hardware store and
"software" wasn't even a word.

And we were the last generation to actually believe that a lady needed a husband to have a baby. No wonder people call us "old and confused" and say there is a generation gap... and how old do you think I am?

I bet you have this old lady in are in for a shock!

Read on to see -- pretty scary if you think about it and pretty sad at the same time.

This Woman would be only 58 years old!