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Appreciating Non-Mainstream Media

By Ben L. Kaufman · November 28th, 2012 · On Second Thought
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An insight from The Nation last week reminded me of the importance of print media outside the mainstream. 

Other columnists and analysts parroted the conventional wisdom that the election changed nothing; Obama and the GOP in the House and Senate remain gridlocked.  

Wrong. We re-elected our first black president with popular and Electoral College majorities. As the The Nation understands it, nothing is the same. Obama’s not a blip.

That’s why I value small publications with strong opinions or reporting. I’m not talking about publications by, say, the Hoover Institution or Southern Poverty Law Center. Useful as they might be, they’re newsletters or fundraising vehicles.

Rather, the small publications that I turn to live off subscriptions, a few ads, wealthy benefactors, foundations and/or myriad smaller donations.  

They often provide information and ideas that escape mainstream journalists. Sometimes, I rethink my opinions. Sometimes, others should rethink theirs. 

Mother Jones’s coup — the video of Romney denigrating 47 percent of American “victims” hanging on the federal teat — forced Mitt to recant and Republicans to try to explain his rich man’s candor.

The Nation, Mother Jones and Rolling Stone — which buried Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal with a report of his military aides’ contempt for civilian leadership — are left of center. 

CityBeat writers practice this complementary local journalism as part of the national urban weekly world. 

Meanwhile, neoconservative Weekly Standard remains a readable and reliable promoter of failing GOP vice presidential candidates. They gave Palin to McCain and promoted Ryan as Romney’s running mate. With Fox News and others, Weekly Standard created an alternative universe that collapsed Nov. 6. Even when Romney advocated essentially what Obama was doing, Fox, Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal assured the faithful that black was white and up was down. 

Venerable National Review is a major player with its unrelenting devotion to post-WWII conservatism while New Republic moved from centrist liberal to bellicose neocon. Commentary died as an intellectual influence that doesn’t know it’s dead. 

In the 1950s, two tiny publications influenced my choice of journalism as a calling: I.F. Stone’s Weekly and The Petal Paper. Both were liberal when that could be financially or personally fatal. 

Izzy Stone — whose afterlife still is bedeviled by Commie hunters still seeking Reds under every bed — was a fine reporter with attitude. Whether he was a Soviet agent, a fellow traveler, an anti-fascist or a liberal in the Cold War doesn’t matter; his best reporting did.  

P. D. East created the Petal Paper in Petal, Miss., in some of the darkest days of segregation. His weapons were humor or ridicule. As the University of Southern Mississippi McCain Library website says, “by 1959, his caustic editorials and liberal racial views had resulted in the loss of all his local subscribers and advertisers. The Petal Paper survived, with sporadic publication, until 1971, through donations and subscriptions from liberal supporters in other areas of the country.” 

Harry Golden’s sort-of-monthly Carolina Israelite was another tail-twister in the segregated South. The New York Jewish Week credited him with Golden Plans “designed to integrate the Jim Crow South. Give black women white babies to carry so they can gain admission to movie theaters … Take away diner stools so everyone, black and white, has to stand (he called this plan Vertical Integration). Put out-of-order signs on whites-only drinking fountains so people have to share.” 

Small magazines that I no longer read regularly include National Review, leftwing Dissent, and Human Events, long a rightwing reservoir of American paranoia. 

In the late 1960s, I subscribed (free) to English-language papers from Hanoi and Havana. Their propaganda was an alternative to steady garbage from Johnson and Nixon White Houses. An FBI agent supposedly asking about a civil rights complaint I filed instead focused on those reading choices. I have no idea what he reported; if the feds tried to get me fired, the Enquirer paid no attention. Havana and Hanoi long ago dropped me from English-language freebie lists.

Today, I still rely on small magazines/newspapers. CityBeat, New York Review, Weekly Standard, Progressive, Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, etc. I read Rolling Stone, National Review or Vanity Fair after encountering a mention elsewhere. They complement my subscriptions to the New Yorker, Economist, daily Enquirer and New York Times and online access to foreign press and links provided by online aggregators. 

I only wish I also could afford the Wall Street Journal.


 Curmudgeon Notes:

• It was a double scoop when HUC Prof. Ben Zion Wacholder and doctoral student Martin G. Abegg Jr. released their bootleg translations of previously unpublished Dead Sea scrolls. 

Their highly accurate texts were created without seeing the scrolls and they shattered secrecy created by a cabal of scholars who for decades restricted other researchers’ and translators’ access to the ancient documents.

Steve Rosen’s recent Page 1 story in the Enquirer got that right.  The other scoop was my 1991 Enquirer story reporting Wacholder and Abegg’s triumph. Our photo showed visually impaired Wacholder looking at a dramatically enlarged image on a Mac.  

Their ordeal had its origin in a promise by then-HUC president Nelson Glueck in 1969. He agreed to house 1000-plus photographic images of the scrolls lest something happen to the originals.

He also agreed with scholars controlling access to the scrolls that no one else would see the HUC negatives while the original scrolls existed.

That included Wacholder. To his frustration, HUC honored that promise even after Glueck’s death and despite the growing international controversy over restricted scholarly access to many of the original scrolls.  

Today’s Biblical Archaeology Society website, biblicalarchaeology.org, recalled how Wacholder and Abegg got lucky in 1989. Chief editor of the scrolls John Strugnell sent a copy of a secret concordance of the Dead Sea Scrolls to Wacholder. It “consisted of photocopies of index cards on which every word in the unpublished scrolls was listed, including its location and the few words surrounding it.” It was their Rosetta Stone.

Wacholder and Abegg programmed the Mac to apply their knowledge of ancient literature to the data in the concordance. "I'm sick and tired of all this waiting," he told me at the time. 

In 1991, the society’s Biblical Archaeology Review published the reconstructions, breaking the more-than-40-year-old monopoly on the scrolls.

And when jealous scholars challenged the accuracy of the reconstructions, Wacholder was dismissive. "I'll match my knowing of the . . . texts - even blind — any of them.

Wacholder died last year. Abegg became professor and co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University in British Columbia. 

• I’ve described my fear that the Cleveland Plain Dealer — long Ohio’s best daily — will follow other Advance Publications into print obscurity.  PD journalists also heard the clatter of bean counters and created the Save The Plain Dealer campaign. Earlier this year, Advance — another name for Newhouse family publications — the New Orleans Times-Picayune as a traditional daily. It fired lots of journalists and now is printed three days a week to accommodate heavy advertising. Surviving journalists also work online every day. With that innovation, Newhouse made New Orleans America’s largest city without a daily paper. Smaller Advance dailies suffered the same fate. Poynter.com quoted an email from PD science writer John Mangels earlier this month:

The multi­media campaign will begin Sunday with a half­-page ad in The Plain Dealer, to be followed by bus and billboard ads throughout the city. TV and radio ads will appear soon. There will be mass mailings and e­ mailings to elected officials, political and business leaders and other people of influence. We’ll have a Facebook page with an abundance of content, a petition on Change.org, and a Twitter feed. We’re also working to organize community forums where we’ll discuss the future of journalism in Northeast Ohio, and the potential impact of the loss of the daily paper and much of its experienced news­gathering staff.”

Later, reached by phone, Mangels told Poynter that PD  management hasn’t said anything about Advance’s plans. “The only detail that we’ve been told by our bosses here is that major changes are coming, layoffs in some number are coming,” Mangels said. 

• Have you noticed how GOP aspirants for the 2016 presidential nomination are using long-reviled mainstream news media (MSM) to distance themselves from Romney and his disdain for retirees, veterans, Hispanics, African Americans, and young adults? I love the GOP’s irony deficit. They’ve spent decades teaching True Believers that the MSM is an evil, liberal cabal, not to be trusted. Now, these same Republican 40-somethings want voters to believe what the mainstream news media tell them about their aspirations and sagacity. They’re also fleeing Romney’s transparent hypocrisy and its blowback; benefits to Democratic constituencies are meant to buy votes but benefits for GOP constituencies never, ever should be understood as a way to woo financial support or votes.  

• Here’s an angle I haven’t encountered in post-election coverage: an almost inevitable GOP win in 2016. Not only is a second elected term unusual for modern Democratic presidents, but a third term for either party is rare. Since FDR in 1940, only popular Republican Ronald Reagan was succeeded by a Republican, George H. W. Bush. I’m not alone if my reading to liberal columnists is a fair indicator of grudging agreement. They want Obama to push through agendas they’ve advocated for the past four years and to find the cajones to fight for his nominations when they go before the Senate led by Kentucky Pride Mitch McConnell. 

• Propaganda-laden cable news and TV/radio talk shows can lull angry, fearful partisans and voters into believing what facts refute. And I mean refute not rebut. Anything out of sync with those GOP media was rejected as MSM bias. Whether it was a Pavlovian response, delusional thinking or magical realism, the result was Republican candidates, consultants, strategists, voters and Fox News were stunned when state after state went for Obama. Carl Rove went into a spin of denial on Fox News as election returns came in; he believed what Fox News had been telling him for months: Romney in a walk.  What was that cliche, something about drinking the Kool-aid?

• This from Eric Alterman in his What Liberal Media? column in The Nation: “They watched Fox News, read The Wall Street Journal, clicked on Drudge and the Daily Caller, and listened to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, Karl Rove, Dick Morris and Peggy Noonan promise them that their Kenyan/Muslim/socialist/terrorist nightmare was nearly over. One election was all that stood between them and a country without capital gains taxes, pollution regulation, healthcare mandates, gay marriage and abortions for rape victims.”

Alterman continued: “The less wonderful irony involves the supporting role the mainstream media played in this un-reality show. Post-truth politics reached a new pinnacle this year as major MSM machers admitted to a lack of concern with the veracity of the news their institutions reported. ‘It’s not our job to litigate [the facts] in the paper,’ New York Times national editor Sam Sifton told the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, regarding phony Republican ‘voter fraud’ allegations. ‘We need to state what each side says.’ ‘The truth? C’mon, this is a political convention’ was the headline over a column by Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post ‘fact-checker.’ Yes, you read that right.”

How bad was it? Alterman quoted Steve Benen, a blogger and Rachel Maddow Show producer. He “counted fully 917 false statements made by Mitt Romney during 2012. Just about the truest words to come out of the campaign were those of the Romney pollster who explained, ‘We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.’ But not only did many members of the MSM give Romney a pass on his serial lying; they actually endorsed his candidacy on the assumption that we need not take seriously any of those statements the candidate had felt compelled to make in order to win the nomination of his party.”

• In the expanding universe of online calumny, few American public officials or public figures strike back big time in part because of broad First Amendment protections available to defamers.  British libel law  makes it much easier for the victim to win. The latest target of false online vilification is Lord Alistair McAlpine. BBC implicated but didn’t name him in its spreading child abuse scandal. However, so little was left to the imagination that in Britain’s media/politics hothouse that McAlpine was named in myriad tweets. 

BBC quickly admitted error and paid him almost $300,000 to salve his bruised feelings. ITV — Britain’s Independent Television — followed BBC with apology and more than $200,000 for inadvertently accusing McAlpine of abusing children.

McAlpine is offering to accept a tweeted apology and modest payment from most of the tweeters. He’s less forgiving of  20 members of Parliament, journalists and other public officials and figures. They probably face costly libel actions in a country where it’s almost impossible for a defendant to win. 

• Assume every microphone in front of you is “on.”  You don’t warm up with “There once was a man from Nantucket . . . “ on the assumption that mic is dead. Myriad public figures have ignored that Law of the Jungle to their pain. The latest is Jonathan Sacks, Orthodox chief rabbi of Great Britain, who delivers a “Thought for the Day” regularly on BBC radio’s  Today program. 

Here’s the Telegraph report and another statement from the overworked BBC apology machine. After Sacks finished and apparently assumed his mic was turned off, host Evan Davis asked, “Jonathan, before you go, you know, any thoughts on what’s going on over in Israel and Gaza at the moment?”

Lord Sacks sighed, before replying: “I think it has got to do with Iran, actually.”

Cohost Sarah Montague realized Sacks did not seem to know his remarks were being broadcast and she could be heard to whisper: “We, we’re live.”

Lord Sacks adopted a more formal broadcasting manner and suggested the crisis demanded “a continued prayer for peace, not only in Gaza but for the whole region. No-one gains from violence. Not the Palestinians, not the Israelis. This is an issue here where we must all pray for peace and work for it.” 

Later, BBC apologized for catching Sacks off-guard. A spokesman said: “The Chief Rabbi hadn’t realized he was still on-air and as soon as this became apparent, we interjected. (Host) Evan likes to be spontaneous with guests but he accepts that in this case it was inappropriate and he has apologized to Lord Sacks. The BBC would reiterate that apology.”

• So far, I haven’t found a news angle beyond prurience in the Petraeus resignation. Yes, there could have been a national security issue, but once then-spymaster Petraeus went public about his extramarital affair, he couldn’t be blackmailed.  We’ll never know how well the CIA would have run under Petraeus, but turning it further into an almost unaccountable paramilitary force with its fleet of deadly drones killing Americans abroad and others would not have been in the national interest. We need a good spy agency. Killing people you’re trying to subvert and convert is a lousy game plan. 

• Admiring and available women are no stranger to powerful public and corporate leaders. Generals are no exception. Neither are social climbers hoping to use them.  All that’s missing from the Petraeus soap opera is for some just-married junior officer to claim his general exercised droit du seigneur. 

• We can wonder what their frequently mentioned Lebanese origins have to do with the Tampa twins’ roles in the Petraeus soap opera, or whether Paula’s arms are fitter and better displayed than Michele’s. After that, let’s get to the fun stuff: the ease with which law enforcement obtains our emails.  

• And a belated Thanksgiving note. Somehow, I found a turkey on the Copperbelt in Central Africa where I was editing the new daily Zambia Times. I did my best to explain how to roast it with stuffing to the cook in the house I was caring for. He served it that evening with obvious pride. It was brown, roasted over open coal on a spit he’d tended for hours. The stuffing was special beyond my dreams: the sonofabitch had used the kosher salami I’d hoarded for months for stuffing. I thanked and praised him through clenched teeth and dug in. It was memorable. And awful. 



CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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