Friday, July 31, 2009

Remembering America's Most Trusted Newsman

My father called him “Mister Disease”. He wasn't slagging on America's most trusted news man, he was just cracking a joke. In his mother tongue, German, the word “krankheit”, pronounced the same way as Walter Cronkite's surname, meant ill health or disease.

The world of news reporting was a lot less sick than it is today when Walter Cronkite held forth on the CBS Evening News each weekday at about the time most of us were eating dinner. There was more emphasis on hard news and news analysis, and even though there has always been a spin factor in news, it seemed to be much less prominent at least on Mr. Cronkite's turf. His competitors, NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, had an excellent daily news program which ran for a full 90 minutes. It too featured hard news and news analysis. Its theme music was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which gives you a very good idea of how highly network executives thought of their viewers.

Today, the only extended-length daily news programs left in America are National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Weekend Edition and All Things Considered. Television news, once an intellectual oasis in the vast wasteland that was and is commercial TV, is now just more “entertainment” programming. “All-news” channels repeat the same 20 minutes' worth of headlines over and over again, taking little time for covering details or doing in-depth analysis. The emphasis is now on celebrity gossip, hot-button political issues and high-profile disasters. AM radio is chockablock with cookie-cutter programming by loudmouths who appeal to the basest emotions of a frustrated working class with inflammatory rhetoric. One fair and balanced TV network is so disdainful of fact and of viewpoints other than its own that it's ended up becoming the biggest propaganda outlet since the Soviet house organ, Radio Moscow went off the air. Newspapers are folding one after the other. Pundits blame TV and the Internet, but their unceasing rah-rah drumbeat of blind support for the Bush administration's misadventures is said to be another factor which turned off many now-former newspaper readers.

Walter Cronkite lived to see and report on the assassination of a U.S. President, the resignation-in-disgrace of another, man's first landing on the moon, the worst commercial nuclear accident in our history and the Cuban Missile Crisis which almost plunged us into World War III. And he lived to see the profession he devoted his life to, the one which our nation's founders considered vital to the functioning of a free society, mutate into a cheapened, weakened and thoroughly co-opted shadow of its former self.

And that, as the man used to say every evening, is the way it is.

Friday, July 24, 2009

We interrupt this blog for a public service announcement

From Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator from New York via The Huffington Post:

There is a historic effort underway in Washington right now to finally address the health care crisis in this country, and I need your help.

As I've written over at DailyKos and as I told Howard Dean last week, I believe that a robust not-for-profit public option must be a part of the health care reform package Congress passes this year. I feel that opening up a Medicare For All type system to everyone would lower costs and increase efficiency by injecting some much needed competition into the market. ...

Read the entire article here.

In other news, a bulletin from Bill Maher.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

GM, Mark of Failure

My first car was a 1968 Oldsmobile Delta 88. Rocket-455 V-8 engine (bigger than the one in a Hummer H3). 10 MPG city, 15 highway. (Cost of a gallon of gasoline when I had the car – about US$0.89). The car has a special place in my memory not only for that reason, but because it was my grandmother's car. Shortly after she'd bought it, she took me on its maiden voyage. We took a road trip, just her and I, to Quebec City. I was in charge of reading maps. I sucked at it. Instead of hitting the brand-new, high-speed four-laner, I mistakenly guided us to slower but much more scenic back roads, some of which ran parallel to the new highway. We stayed at the historic Chateau Frontenac. We walked around the charming old section of the town. I tasted Veal Cordon Bleu (the real deal) for the first time. I watched an episode of Lost In Space which had been dubbed in French. Nothing like watching Dr. Smith cower before an alien-possessed Will Robinson and grovel for his life in a language which I would not study until I began high school that fall.

My grandmother kept the car until the late 70's when my parents drove it up from Florida. My younger brother got it a few years later. He drove it until the mid-1980's, when it was handed down to me. It had its issues, as you would expect with a four-owner car, everything from occasional funny noises at certain speeds to refusing to start on winter mornings without radical intervention when the temperature went below freezing (read:squirting starting fluid into its carburetor and begging jump starts from passers-by). Nonetheless, for a car its age, it delivered stellar performance. Despite worn springs it had the rock-steady ride of the massive cars of that era. It got worse mileage than a modern SUV, but it had the kind of styling and grace that today's butt-ugly iron-box-on-wheels monstrosities don't. It was easy to fix, which was a good thing because it needed a lot of fixing. Its cracked and crazed paint looked like soil after a long drought but the body was thick steel; fender rot didn't set in until very late in the game. It looked beat-up on the inside, bit it was comfortable. Decrepit though it was, it accelerated on a nanosecond's notice. Passing cars was a piece of cake. It laughed at steep uphill grades. It met an untimely demise in 1991 when, while parked on the street, it was crashed into by someone driving another Oldsmobile - same model, same color, and exactly 10 years newer than my car (cue music: theme from Twilight Zone).

They definitely don't make 'em like they used to.

They can't make 'em like they used to. Economic realities, technological advances, safety requirements and fuel-efficiency laws long ago sent the classic 1960's road-whale the way of the rumble seat and the 8-track tape player. They won't make 'em like they used to. The taken-for-granted reliability of American cars started going downhill in the 1970's. “Buy American” has a nice ring to it. Expensive monthly repairs and frequent product recalls don't. Outsourcing to slave-wage nations and further aggravated the situation.

So now, the company which symbolized American industry for so many years - no, decades - which built my first car, which powered an economy and changed peoples' travel habits forever, is in bankruptcy.

So who's to blame? The Japanese? Well yes, but not for the reasons you might think. They simply made cars with far better reliability than Detroit. Detroit lobbied congress to have tariffs placed on import vehicles. This, they thought, would cement their place in the U.S. Car market. Except that people continued to prefer the Japanese and European cars, even with the stiff tariffs. That should have been a wake up call for GM, Chrysler and Ford, but they apparently chose to ignore it. The imperious, egotistical and stunningly ignorant businessmen who ran the American auto industry into the ditch brought this situation upon not only themselves but all Americans.

Now our government is in the car business whether we like it or not. And I don't think I do. Trouble is, if we need tanks, troop carriers and engines for aircraft carriers, we can't exactly outsource that. The reason we won the second world war so handily is because our industries were up to the task. So the too-big-to-fail GM gets bailed out and Chrysler gets bailed out, for a second time, with taxpayer dollars. This despite years of both firms exporting American jobs to Mexico, China or anyplace else where people work for a daily wage that would get you an order of fast-food French fries here (doubtlessly served up by former autoworkers). The smaller businesses which have gone under or have laid off thousands of family breadwinners never get that kind of treatment. The poor slobs who have been watching their unemployment benefits or lifetime welfare benefit quota get used up don't get that kind of treatment.

To president Obama's credit, he didn't just unconditionally toss cash at these corporate behemoths as the previous administration had a habit of doing. But it still burns my grits that these few big companies in a few towns get a bailout while small business operators watch their livelihoods dry up and blow away.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Quitters never win, do they?

After losing his bid for the governorship of California in 1962, Richard Nixon told the world we wouldn't have him to kick around anymore. 6 years later, he was elected president. Granted, the refusal of LBJ to run for another term and the Chicago Democratic convention riots made Nixon's ascent that much easier, but you get the idea.

All through the mid-1970's, Ronald Reagan's presidential aspirations were considered a joke. No one, it was said, as extremely right-wing as The Gipper could ever get into the White House without buying a tour ticket. I mean, look at how badly Barry Goldwater got trounced by LBJ in '64. Anyway, thanks in no small part to the Ayatollah Khomeini, on November 4th, 1980 then-president Jimmy Carter became a lame duck, and the eighties - AIDS, yuppies, Iran-Contra, Michael Jackson and all - began in earnest.

Between the highly-questionable circumstances surrounding the 2000 election, the most frontal assault on civil liberties seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the worst economic trashing of America since the 1920's, everyone expected George W. Bush to be a one-term wonder. Except that for some reason, perhaps a few bugs in those newfangled electronic voting machines, he got re-elected in 2004.

Sarah Palin is a presidential candidate for the 16th Century. Under her administration we could expect fornicators to be publicly flogged (with the best spectator seats going to the biggest campaign contributors), and intensive drilling in Genesis and Leviticus to replace all of those heretical math and science courses in our public schools. Now, most of us are probably thinking that as ignorant, regressive and dangerous as the rabble-rouser Sarah Palin is, there's no way she could be elected, though to our credit those of us who wished to live in the 21st Century saw to it that her running mate, John McCain ended up giving the concession speech in November, 2008. But deep in our hearts, most of us know that she still has a shot at becoming president. Those of us whose brains aren't owned by Fox News strongly suspect that she's probably attempting a Nixonesque comeback. Why else would she intentionally resign from office halfway through her first term when she probably could have been a 10-term governor without breaking a sweat? Granted, Alaska isn't California and her program was rather strikingly repudiated by voters last fall. All it would take is for health care reform to fail (that's one of the things swept Republicans into congress in 1994) or for the economic policies of the Obama administration to fail, as dittoheads across America are hoping for between doses of OxyContin. Even if President Obama gets to serve out two terms as Bill Clinton did, he's outta there by 2016. If the Dems don't have a suitable opponent to face her down, we could all be living in Alaska, so to speak, by the following year, with officially-sanctioned ignorance blanketing this country like an ice-fog, and McChurches becoming the new town halls as many of them now are.

Remember, eternal vigilance, blah blah, yada, yada.