James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Stop pretending Democrats are real alternative

“The Democrats could screw up a one-car parade,” a friend of mine says frequently.

Well, actually, the words he uses usually are stronger, but that's the gist of it.

He's right, of course. Even if there's only one car, the driver needs some idea of where he's going, and the people who control the structure of the Democratic Party – on every level – are so directionless they can't find their own behinds with both hands and a compass. Lord knows where their heads are.

Poor Howard Dean is undermined at every turn – even by his own staff, it appears. The organizations of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry seemed designed to draw money and support away from the party structure under Dean. The rest of the aimless Democratic leaders – yes, it's an oxymoron -- seem able to focus only on clinging to their comfy Congressional seats and party offices and the nice pay and great benefits.

In the March issue of the Progressive, Molly Ivins said this:

“I have had it with the D.C. Democrats, had it with the DLC Democrats, had it with every calculating, equivocating, triangulating, straddling, hair-splitting son of a bitch up there, and that includes Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

A growing number of very intelligent and knowledgeable people are saying pretty much the same thing, though not usually so effectively. To that group, I hereby add my own tiny voice, along with some suggestions that, I admit, advocate taking considerable risk.

As a group, the Washington Democrats are a despicable collection of cowards and lamebrains. It is foolish to waste either time or money on the party. The only action that makes sense in the face of the near-total meltdown is to find the few articulate, intelligent and brave progressive candidates around the country – there are some --and give them what support you can afford, and to hell with the rest. And keep doing whatever you can to expose the felons who run this country and to help others understand the extent of the Neocon/corporate/Pentagon crimes against humanity and common sense.

I recommend refusing to vote this year for any stupid or craven office holder or candidate, even if withholding votes gives an office, or most offices, to the wildest of neocons. If the Democrats insist on slithering through Washington like Gollum through a lightless cave, we do more harm by allowing them to hold office.

I know. I'll say it for (some of) you: “But we have to take back Congress. If the Republicans stay in control of Congress, it's just going to get worse and worse. We have to get a Democrat back in the White House or the world will come to an end.”

We went all through that in 2004, in 2000, in a dozen elections before that. We went for “the lesser of two evils” in practically every election, and we are way behind.

Guess what, people. The “lesser of two evils” really isn't. Lesser, that is. Nor does being only “lesser” inspire voters and win elections.

We had Bill Clinton in the White House for eight years, and he might have, probably should have, called himself a Republican. Far from slowing the race to the right, he took the pole position. Under his leadership, the plutocrats solidified their power, this country continued its drive to ruin its own and other economies around the world through unfettered “free trade” and other right-wing stratagems, and the military-industrial samurais continued popping steroids in preparation for what we now have.

Meanwhile, those in Congress who claim the name Democrat continued to suck up to the money boys, regardless of what the money boys did to the country and you and me. Who cared? The jelly-spined pols enjoyed their fact-finding missions to Oahu and their cozy sinecures in Washington.

It's a fact, now widely acknowledged: The present mob of Democrats offers us nothing. Being “not Republican” is nothing.

All but a handful of Congressional Dems and many in state houses and legislatures around the country make their decisions according to what they are told by the oracles and voodoo queens who throw the chicken knuckles and run the polls. Principle doesn't come into it. The word evokes sneers and cynical laughter.

The Republicans, when they were down, gave themselves over to the snake handlers and neocons, who began a long, hard fight to change the polls by changing public perceptions on issues. They won eventually, to the great detriment of this country, its citizens and the world beyond. They had no stand-up opposition; they could hardly lose.

Democrats as a party have made it clear that they have neither the brains nor the guts for such a fight; they have chosen to be the permanent weak opposition. They will be that until the corporate powers grow so strong that they no longer have to tolerate even the buzzing of gnats.

Nothing illustrates the cowardice so well as the recent scramble of Democrats to disassociate themselves from Sen. Russ Feingold and his resolution to censure George Bush for using illegal wiretaps against U.S. Citizens.

Anybody who believes in the Constitution and the government it allowed us to have for a couple of centuries knows that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and several other big-time felons should be impeached. Anybody who can read knows it won't happen, because the Constitution and the rule of law were discarded as soon as the neocons grabbed power. Loyalty to Bush supersedes all other loyalties, oaths and beliefs. (But, of course, there is no similarity between neocons and fascists.)

The resolution offered by the Wisconsin Democrat was doomed, too, of course. But it offered a first-class starting point if the Democrats had any interest in beginning a campaign to show the people why the Bushies and other right wing extremists are so terribly wrong and to offer strong arguments for alternatives. For one thing, the largely co-opted news media were paying attention, and they rarely give Democrats serious attention these days.

Richard L. (Lee) Dechert, a Twin Cities peace activist, reminded me a couple of days ago that Feingold was the only Senator to oppose the Patriot Act -- the man seems to have all the guts that should be spread through the entire chamber – and that he said before offering his motion that he hoped to create a bipartisan consensus on the limits of presidential power that might forestall impeachment on FISA and other violations of the Constitution.

OK, so Feingold can dissemble a bit, too. That's OK. It still was a good start, if anyone besides him wanted to start a genuine opposition to the neocons.

Republicans, of course, rejected the resolution without giving it a second of consideration.

Washington Democrats, being Washington Democrats, suddenly had to pee, or wash their hair, or dash out and buy a birthday present for the wife. Anything to get out of the room. Democratic candidates who are not office holders but who have the backing of party insiders also scurried for cover.

Mark Dayton, the increasingly erratic Democratic senator from Minnesota – it's a very good thing he's not running for reelection – blasted Feingold for showboating and claimed the resolution was offered only because the Wisconsinite hopes to run for president in 2008. The Minnesotan failed to mention that he, Dayton, endorsed Hillary Clinton awhile ago.

Do not waste your time or money on the Democratic Party.

To those who intone the endless mantra of “lesser evil,” I say what I said here a couple of weeks ago: If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.

There are a few honest, able candidates around. Support them even if they're not in your district or state. (I'll pass along the names of some people worth checking out soon.)

Dechert said that “unless we elect people of Constitutional courage, this outrageous war on the Iraqi and American people will continue for years. So all of Minnesota's candidates should be asked: 'Where do you stand on the impeachment of President Bush?'”

I'm sure he wouldn't limit that to Minnesota.

We may have to face the grim fact that it sometimes takes a catclysm to bring necessary change. The Democratic Party may have to collapse before a real opposition to the oligarchs can rise.

It's a long shot, but to go on propping up useless Democrats will give us no chance at all to heal this country.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Bad news for journalism -- and citizens

This is a sad week for American journalism and that minority of the public that still wants to see honest reporting, and lots of it, on the major happenings and issues of the day.

Wait. Let me take another stab at that.

This week has provided us with a notable landmark in the long, sad deterioration of American journalism and the concomitant deterioration of American democracy.

Many readers will know immediately that I'm talking about the purchase of Knight Ridder, Inc., by McClatchy Co.

Knight Ridder is publisher of the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer and 30 other daily newspapers around the country. Its holdings include the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- founded in 1849, and Minnesota's oldest newspaper-- and the Duluth News Tribune, the daily in northern Minnesota's landmark port city.

McClatchy, based in Sacramento, Calif., owns Minnesota's biggest newspaper, the Star Tribune, and 11 other dailies, plus 17 weeklies, mostly in the western part of the country. In terms of revenue and number of dailies, it is only about a third the size of the company it is buying -- “a dolphin swallowing a whale,” as one industry analyst put it.

The Scarmento company bought what we familiarly call the Strib in 1998. It's been chipping away at the paper's journalism standards and performance ever since, but has become particularly energetic at that task during the past year or two.

More of that a little later.

McClatchy intends, or hopes, to sell the Pioneer Press, News Tribune and 10 other Knight Ridder papers to someone else.

One of the sadder and most discouraging aspects of the deal is that it was forced on a reluctant Knight Ridder management by a handful of madly greedy super-rich guys led by one Bruce Sherman, who generally is identified as a money manager. He operates under the name Private Capital Management, through which he (primarily) and his investors hold 12.2 million Knight Ridder shares – about 18 percent of the company's stock, making him the largest shareholder.

Sherman's complaint, and the reason he demanded that the publishing company be sold is that it's profits dropped somewhat in it's most recent fiscal year and it returned ONLY 16 percent on investment.

That, for people who don't follow business and economic news, is a rate of return that executives in most companies in most industries would joyfully kill their grandmothers, parents and children to get. It is out of the reach of all but a handful of businesses. But, of course, some newspaper publishers get 20 percent.

In making his demand, which was widely reported, Sherman griped about limited growth potential in newspapers and “the difficulties the company has faced in realizing the fair value of the company for its shareholders.”

Fair value?

The episode is symbolic of what has become of the newspaper business and goes a considerable distance toward explaining why our newspapers get weaker and less responsible by the day.

Simply, a majority are owned by people who regard them as cash cows, people who don't give a damn for journalism – or democracy, or the U.S. Constitution or what we used to call “the American way of life,” for that matter. In fact, they tend to be among the enthusiastic supporters and financial backers of the right-wing politicians who are crusading to turn this country into a plutocracy.

Knight Ridder often has behaved in ways that enraged journalists who care deeply about their profession – chipping away at investment in news operations and squeezing employees financially, demanding more and more for less and less -- but its executives nevertheless have shown far more responsibility than parasites like Sherman, who now infest much of the business.

So perhaps the sale of Knight Ridder to McClatchy is a good thing for journalism and specifically for the newspapers involved?

Nope. Not, at least, for the papers McClatchy will keep.

It's impossible to say yet what will happen with the 12 that will be put on the block again. Some of them may be run into the ground by subsequent owners. There are strong rumors to the effect that a buyer or buyers already are lining up at the counter, and we can hope that stronger papers, such as the Pioneer Press with it's too-small but highly professional staff, will thrive under responsible owners, but it's far too early to see what may happen.

It's not so hard to predict what will happen to the newspapers McClatchy will keep.

A newly released report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an organization tied to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, boils down to this: There is enormous repetition of stories in broadcast and print news; a handful of stories are covered in huge detail, with great repetition, at any given time. Fewer and fewer stories get covered, and of those that do, many are less significant than events that get little or no coverage. To look at all the various aspects of the study, go to http://stateofthenewsmedia.org/2005/

McClatchy is singled out only for the fact that its newspapers, notably the Star Tribune, showed increases in circulation while a majority of papers lost readers.

But the truth is that with the Star Tribune, the company took what was one of the country's best newspapers and is aggressively turning it into television in print. It could be the poster publication illustrating the trends cited by the Project for Excellence study.

The Strib editorial pages have for many decades taken a moderately liberal view of the world, which is very much the tone of Minneapolis and much of the rest of the state. Slowly at first, then very rapidly and aggressively over the past six to eight months, McClatchy has been transforming the opinion pages into a home for the least intelligent of right-wing idealogues – the real dimwits such as Mona Charen and others who usually are published only by papers with openly far-right agendas in both editorial and news operations. Meanwhile, powerful voices from the left, such as Paul Krugman, Molly Ivins and Maureen Dowd, have been all but banished from the paper, and their best and most solidly documented commentaries do not see print in the Strib.

There used to be a pretty fair balance between liberal and conservative-to-right op-ed columnists. Someone on the paper's staff passed me a count of op-ed columns between Feb. 1 March 12 of this year. The count: 19 pieces by liberal commentators, 33 by conservative to far-right columnists.

The paper's own editorial writers continue to be liberal-leaning, but given the pressures now obviously in play, it is reasonable to expect a change, and probably soon.

A while back, the paper's policy on letters to the editor was changed, so that only the briefest of reader comments get printed. On any given day, no more than two letters are likely to be longer than two or three paragraphs, and the longer ones usually are no more than five paragraphs. It's an effective way to keep well-informed readers from saying anything meaningful.

On its news pages, the Star Tribune now often exemplifies the old claim that nothing exceeds like excess.

Former baseball star Kirby Puckett died March 6. As a baseball fan, and a Minneapolis resident, I will gladly concede that Puckett was a larger-than-life personality in this part of the world. His death had to be covered and his career and post-career life reviewed.

But we have seen an orgy of Puckett coverage that has, finally, aroused the ire of every rational Minnesotan I know. It's still going on as I write this on March 14. Most of the stories about the man have been told six, seven or 10 times. The paper is pawing the man's entrails, searching for something to say. The deaths of Dwight Eisenhower and even Jack Kennedy got less ink.

The paper prints a special section every time there is a sports tournament in the area, and sometimes for second-level events that aren't within 1,000 miles. We get, literally, dozens of stories on a “pop culture” --meaning youth culture – phenomenon such as “American Idol” in the course of a couple of months. But significant news stories, especially those reflecting badly on the Bush crowd and other right-leaning political and business leaders, routinely are frozen out.

Almost off the top of my head, here are some stories reported elsewhere over the past few days but ignored or reduced to a well-hidden paragraph or two by the Strib:

*There is a new attempt this week to include oil drilling in the Arctic wildlife preserve in the federal budget bill. The Strib hasn't noticed.

*A right-wing state legislator is pushing a requirement for a (costly) picture ID for anyone who wants to vote in the state; given the makeup of the Legislature, the bill may have some chance. It would suppress votes among the elderly and the poor. Even the author of the bill admits there is virtually no voter fraud in Minnesota. No mention of his move in the Strib.

*The brutalizing of Cindy Sheehan and other antiwar activists by New York cops did not get a story in the Strib, which routinely ignores antiwar activities.

*Several recent reports on the huge profits made by American and British companies operating in Iraq failed to make the Strib's pages.

*There have been several new reports in other places on rueful Americans who were involved in torture in Iraq and elsewhere. At least one report laid the responsibility for orders to torture directly on the doorstep of the Pentagon. The Strib apparently didn't think that was worth notice.

*If you depend entirely on the Star Tribune for international news, you know next to nothing about the horrors taking place in Sudan and now Chad. You will be totally unaware of the constant state of chaos and mayhem in Haiti, and of the fact that the Bush administration is largely responsible for creating the situation and allowing it to continue -- even though there are a number of Twin Cities residents who know the situation well, have seen what's going on first hand and are in regular contact with Haitian residents.

Give me a few hours to pull up files, and I can extend the list by dozens of stories. Literally. No day passes without turning up two or three important stories the Strib ignores or buries. And no day passes that it doesn't fill half its available news space with useless drivel. And I do not count as drivel standard sports coverage or regular, often useful, features such as food columns, home and garden pieces, travel articles and the like.

There also is a major defect in the newspaper's staff-produced political coverage, notably an inclination to use what should be slant-free news articles to support the power structure and belittle liberals and anyone who objects to the status quo. Much of the damage is produced by one particularly smug reporter who regularly is allowed to insert commentary into what are presented as news stories – as when he recently advised a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by Democrat Mark Dayton to "find mainstream positions heading toward the general election, and maybe keep a little distance from liberals such as Dayton.”

The relatively bad Knight Ridder papers will stay bad, but probably look better under design-conscious McClatchy. The good newspapers undoubtedly will be dumbed down to a level that McClatchy executives find comfortable, and, inevitably, those that don't dwell well to the right on the political spectrum will be moved rapidly in that direction.