Category Archives: Essays

Navy journalist by chance

(Continued from last week when I first considered enlisting because I was broke.)

Although I had forgotten completely about the Navy and journalism, chance intervened. My mother’s birthday is in February and I went over to visit her one day. While I was in her kitchen the phone rang. It was Petty Officer Hall. There was an opening in the Defense Information School, the training site for military journalists. Did I still want to enlist? He had to know and get me signed up in order to guarantee me the training. I remember standing there thinking that this must be karma. I rarely visited my mother. If I had not been there at that very moment it is doubtful that I would have gotten the message or acted upon it in time. So I said yes and took the train back to Coney Island to sign the papers. A few weeks later I went off to boot camp to complete basic training and be indoctrinated as a sailor, which was the prerequisite to getting the journalism training that I wanted.

Boot camp was a memorable experience. It is an exercise in brainwashing accomplished through a great deal of yelling and insistence on following meaningless rules just for the sake of building the habit of taking orders. If I close my eyes I can still remember the hot bourbon-and-tobacco breath of my drill instructor, Petty Officer First Class Gibson, standing almost nose to nose with me, screaming, “Do I look like your momma, recruit?” One instance from that 9-weeks of calculated abuse pertains to my journalism saga.

It was about midway through the cycle when I was told I had to take a typing test to qualify for the journalism training program. I used an old manual typewriter. I had to type either a dozen or 15 words per minute accurately. I failed. The boot camp authorities told me I could not go to the training program. No problem, I said. You can send me home. Because I was guaranteed a spot in the school and if you can’t hold up your end of the bargain, I should not have to finish my enlistment. I would have been more than happy at that point to call the whole Navy thing off. But whoever was in charge of such decisions figured it was the journalism program’s problem to teach me to type. Boot camp couldn’t afford to lose a recruit.

Next: DINFOS-trained killer

Stumbling into journalism

My first job in journalism was for the U.S. Navy. How that came to be takes me back to the winter of 1973 when I dropped out of New York University. I was about 19 and barely getting by as a waiter at a restaurant when I got laid off.  I briefly managed to get a job installing windows but I lost that after just a couple of weeks and so one day I found myself with only train fare, then 35 cents, to get myself to the Navy recruiting station in Coney Island.

Why the Navy? To see the world. I naively thought I could enlist and get whisked away that very same day. It turned out to be more involved than that. I also chanced to get an outstanding recruiter, Petty Officer Hall, who took the time to talk me through the various specialties for which I was eligible to get trained.

What caught my eye was a designation called Navy Journalist. Watergate was then all the rage and I was impressed by the potential for having the same title as the guys who had brought down Richard Nixon. Petty Officer Hall told me I would have to wait for an opening in that training program, and I said fine. As the reality of joining the service loomed closer, I had started to get cold feet. He asked me for a phone number. I didn’t have a phone so I gave him my mom’s number. Then I jumped the turnstile to take the train back to the apartment I had expected never to see again – I literally had only one-way train fare at the time.

When I arrived home I found in my mailbox a financial aid check for about $1,500 dollars. I should have returned it but instead I took it as a sign that I was not destined to join the military. I paid the rent and took a ski trip with my then girl-friend.

But the money went quickly and within a month or two I was broke again.

To be continued.

‘Golden age of media’ a golden shower

Kudos to the Progress and Freedom Foundation for assembling a thought-provoking book of Media Metrics (pdf) that argues “we have more media choice, more media competition, and more media diversity than ever before . . .  (if) . . . there was ever a ‘golden age’ of media in America, we are living in it today.” In a blog summary, authors Adam Thierer and Grant Eskelsen hope that, guided by this impressive compilation of tables and charts, “future debates on this subject will be be guided by facts instead of fanaticism and by evidence instead of emotion . . . hyperbolic rhetoric (and) shameless fear-mongering.”

Which fortunately leaves me free to heap derision and disdain on this bean-counting analysis that reeks of moral relativism like a chain-smoking French deconstructionist whose underarms have never been dishonored by deodorant.

Let me explain this seemingly bipolar view. I truly appreciate that this libertarian think-tank used its financial support from nouveau corporate media to pull together facts on everything from Internet advertising trends to magazine expansion (see niche breakdowns page 77) to the revelation, at least to me, that more than 3,000 free-circulation local papers have a “combined circulation . . . larger than all the daily newspapers in America.”

That seems impressive until you realize those are “shoppers” as we used to call such advertising-only weeklies when I was a small town businessman in Eureka, California, where the Tri-City Weekly was a fine example of that genre. So when the authors of Media Metrics call this a golden age of media, what they really mean is that this is a golden age of advertising. There has never been a better time for national and international brands to advertise goods and services. And that is not a bad thing until you consider that banks are failing, household debt is high, and “the U.S. is experiencing the worst food inflation in 17 years,” as MSNBC reported in April.

So one might fairly ask whether this more-is-better analysis makes sense when getting more media offer more temptation to buy more things with money we don’t have.

I especially enjoyed chapter six on “the natural decline in media localism” in which the authors make two contradictory arguments. First, they say, the “decline of ‘localism’ is much-lamented but quite natural phenomenon as citizens gain access to news and entertainment sources of broader scale and scope.” Translation – people are more interested in Paris Hilton’s life than in their own.

In the event, however, that our logic rejects this rather specious supposition, the authors offer a contradictory fall back — a 2007 University of Missouri report, “The Community Newspaper Study,” which offers statistics about satisfaction with local news coverage. The 2007 report is compares to a 2005 report to assure us that if we do decide to act locally instead of leer globally that we already have satisfactory local news outlets.

But from what little I know of statistics the Missouri report seems to lies somewhere between extraordinary anecdote-gathering and piss-poor statistical sampling.

For instance the report summary says: “In the 2007 survey, 505 interviews were completed with adults who lived in areas whose total population was 25,000 or less in the United States . . . in 2005, 503 interviews were completed with adults who lived in newspaper markets of less than 100,000 people.”

Even assuming that sub-25,000-person communities are the same as the sub-100,000 variety, how do we know that the communities surveyed in each of the two years are equivalent for statistical purposes, so that we can lump all 500 or so interviews together? And what is the margin of confidence on a sample that small?

We aren’t told, but come to think of it who cares! Paris Hilton’s videos are more engaging than the city council meetings I can watch on my local cable provider’s public access channel.  So thank you, Progress and Freedom Foundation, for giving me evidence instead of emotion, and for helping me realize that this is a golden age of media — in fact it is a golden shower raining down on civic-minded Americans from sea to shining sea.  

Can citizens find and punish illegal wiretappers?

Legal, non-violent, direct action can succeed where Congress has failed

The U.S. Senate seems poised to pass an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act that will retroactively protect telephone companies that made illegal wiretaps for Bush Administration. Senators Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd have filibustered the bill but their principled action has no chance. It’s not like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The pro-wiretapping faction has more than the 60 votes needed to force a vote, reports The Nation. Majority Leader Harry Reid will send the bill to the floor despite his supposed personal opposition. Apparently, he lacks either the courage to just say no, thus forcing the cracen Senate majority to remove him before voting their cover-up.

On this Fourth of July weekend this knowledge makes me heart sick. But I’m past the point of being sad. And I don’t want to get mad, or even. I want to get active.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. The Tenth Amendment reserves ultimate power to the people. Let’s form some hybrid of grand jury and/or citizen posse to re-establish the rule of law in this regard — to defend our rights and the Constitution in this case in which our elected representatives have let us down.

Here is what I will do: I will send this note to the leading groups already involved in this fight, notably the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and suggest that interested parties form a new ad-hoc web site as a center of direct action. The mandate of this direct action website should be simple while clearly spelling out both the goal and the range of permissible tactics.

I think the goal should be to force the Congress to investigate the illegal wiretaps and report to the people.

The methodologies should as imaginative as the American people themselves. I will hint at a few below after suggesting one ironclad requirement — each and every action should be legal and non-violent. And by non-violent I mean that not just a prohibition against physical or verbal assault. Not so much as a strand of wire should be touched. We are right and they are wrong. Dirty tricks subtract from our moral authority.

The image of Gulliver being tied down by the Lilliputians (see above or click here) suggests the theory behind this approach but as for tactics, here are some starter thoughts. What if we knew there were legal declarations that telecos are required to keep in district offices. Or what if we learned of state regulatory hearings, of the sort that common folk regularly avoid, but we might be able to persuade a couple of activists to take the day off from work to attend and speak. Would it be legal to organize a 411-day in which thousands of Americans dialed directory assistance, and ask for a supervisor? The Constitution allows Americans to petition the government for a redress of grievances. But perhaps, to paraphrase the Doors’ in the Soft Parade: YOU CANNOT PETITION AT&T WITH PRAYER!

I’m not sure, the whole point being to put our head together in a way that has never before been possible in human history to coordinate a series of action directed at the lawbreakers themselves. And to continue these small but persist actions so as to cost them little bits of money that will — if we are united and determined — add up to big bits of money. And that should eventually get the attention of their shareholders who may step in an perform the investigations and take the corrective of Congress seems incapable.

As for why make this suggestion on this issue, I suspect anyone who has read this far already knows. Because this is how the Nazis started. A lot of people get their knickers in a twist when the other N-word is used, so lets not get hung up on labels. Maybe this is just a period of compassionate fascism.

But whatever it is I don’t like it. And this is where I’d to draw the line between mere discontent and direct action. Alone, I am nothing. But if we band together, quickly, I am certain we can succeed. I’ll circulate this and report back if there is interest. Meanwhile, if you like this idea, do what you can to circulate it and begin the process of forming this ad-hoc group.

(On an ironic note, I found the above graphic at the bottom of a White House web page headlined, “Governing with Accountability.” From this I infer that these guys have a sense of humor, because otherwise their self-identification with Gulliver would suggest they see themselves as beleaguered — which would be so clearly irrational as to suggest they have a bunker mentality. And I do not wish to further inflame the situation.)

Learning to think like a molecule

In 16 years as a daily newspaper reporter I’ve covered some mind-expanding stories including the race to map the human genome which revealed nothing so much as our stunning ignorance of the baffling complexity of the smallest, dumbest purposeful thing in the universe, the organic macromolecule.

Molecules, you will recall, are strings of atoms. Macromolecules are more complex strings. I’m not certain whether only organic molecules can form macromolecules; polymers are non-organic and may be macromolecules. But I do know that organic macromolecules, such as most famously DNA, do engage in purposeful action. And non-organic molecules do not. The most prolific macromolecules are more colloquially known as proteins. Our science has no idea how many proteins exist in life’s repertoire. But what we do know is that proteins are tiny little machines that run every function in every living organism. These macromolecules — think of proteins as long strands of rough pearls — literally fold and unfold, just as you might open and close your hand. Proteins are the smallest functioning unit of cells. They are the gears and levers of life. Proteins direct my fingers to press the appropriate keys on my keyboard. Proteins focus your eyes on the words and conduct them to the brain where they are reformulated as thought. To borrow a phrase that might succinctly explain the magic of life: It’s the macromolecules, stupid!

I felt obliged to offer that background before I tried explain what molecules have to do with media because it was a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, speaking at a biotechnology conference in 2003, who first drew the connection between the ability of stupid proteins to perform miraculous feats and the possibility that the machinations of macromolecules hinted at a revolution in the coordination of human affairs.

The conference in question turned out to be my last junket as a biotech reporter and it was held in a swell California venue, the seaside city of Monterey. The event commemorated the 50th anniversary of the characterization of the shape of the DNA molecule which opened up a new way of thinking about the inner workings of cells as collections of gazillions of complex organic machines.

My published clip for that event made no mention of the Marine general’s remarks* which were so amazingly incongruous so as to stick in my head. So imagine this ramrod-straight Marine Corps general telling a few dozen slouching scientists and their hangers on like me that he found leadership inspiration in molecular biology. More often than not, the general explained, the Corps anticipated that future “battles” might involve two or three Marines from a platoon engaged in guerrilla conflict, none above the rank of private –  and God forbid they should get cut off and out-of-radio contact, and be unable to think for themselves.

Now despite the fact that enlisted Marines are commonly known as “jarheads” I do not mean to suggest that the general compared them to dumb-as-brick proteins. But as a former enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, I still recall quite vividly the night when a bourbon-and-cigarette-breathed drill instructor stood nose-to-nose with me to shout, “DO I LOOK LIKE YOUR MOMMA, BOY?” — which absurd question I did not take personally but rather as proof that insofar as the Navy was concerned I was indeed a dumbfuck as was the swinging dick to my left and right to use the Boot Camp parlance.

Thus it struck me rather forcefully to hear this retired jarhead general talk about a form of organization that fell rather lightly on the rank and file because on the day that two riflemen get stuck in the boonies, back to back, with nothing between them and being overrun but their training and wits, they will be truly fucked if they have been conditioned to act purposefully only when orders are delivered in a shout at nose distance.

That was in 2003, but since I was then 49 and did not anticipate going into combat I had no immediate use for the thought. So I parked it until three years later when a brief meeting outside yet another conference in Monterey — Technology, Entertainment and Design or TED — caused me to dredge it up from memory.

Again my story about that TED conference made no mention of my chat with Rod Beckstrom, a co-author of “The Starfish and the Spider,” a book subtitled: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” But you can see the obvious connection and understand my receptivity to the notion of leaderless yet purposeful groups. However, as I had no venue to write about that in the newspaper I once again put that fanciful notion to bed.

Recently, however, I revived this idea of a leaderless media in a posting of my own titled, The Pyramid and the Cloud. That posting looked backwards at corporate media and was part of a series of blog entries in which I argue that hierarchy of journalism is at war with its truth-seeking mission. That is quite a conundrum given that the only journalists who draw regular paychecks work for corporate hierarchies. Those essays which start with a posting titled, Take Me To Your Leader, suggest reforms for corporate media to loosen their control mechanisms through blogging and thus delegate more independent truth-seeking power to the rank-and-file.

So I obviously hope for some movement in that direction on the part of Organized Journalism by which reference I do not mean to liken Corporate Media to the La Cosa Nostra. But after 16 years inside the system, I fear that newspaper leaders may not be as progressive as Marines in recognizing the need for new forms of organization to meet the operational challenges of competition for attention in a networked world (here let me mention “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” the book/philosophy by Web guru David Weinberger).

Meanwhile, let me redirect my molecular thinking toward creating a metaphor that would help unorganized journalists aggregate in purposeful ways with minimal overhead. That is the lesson I extract from nature. Systems of extraordinary complexity can function smoothly with no one shouting orders! Tomorrow I will suggest how some of the mechanisms to coordinate purposeful combinations of scattered content creators may already exist — and how we can use molecular biology as a template to help us understand what other software tools, social norms and perhaps loose organization might be needed to derive greater purpose and profit from Disorganized Journalism which is not a knock on citizen journalism but a statement of fact.

* Though I did not write about Lt. General Paul Van Riper’s remarks on molecular biology I learned that he had played an Iranian leader in a 2002 wargame in which his tactics inflicted, on a U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf, the worst (simulated) defeat in naval history. I wrote a story about that in 2003. Earlier this year a New York Times article about U.S.-Iranian tensions in the Gulf repeated Van Riper’s lesson about how a loosely coordinated attack by inferior forces had so completely bamboozled America’s overconfident military brass.

Manzi says let’s Gather to revive media

Sea of Faces by Livefunky and Jessica Torrant

Jim Manzi of Lotus fame has a new interest in the reinvention of media. Below are excerpts from an an essay, (The End of the Literary Industrial Complex) that he published at the Boston startup In the essay Manzi both laments and celebrates the fracturing of the mass audience:

We might retreat into information ghettos . . . societies also require a shared understanding of key precepts; shared values at some level; and a willingness to search for, debate and ultimately invest in a societal common ground . . . a common information experience in the last thirty years is the demise of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite where more than half the nation might gather for their daily dose . . . People have been looking for some time for new, personal centers of gravity to replace other centers that have been marginalized or destroyed . . . No longer must I accept much of my content from what I have called the Literary Industrial Complex, that group of concentrated media organizations with their small elites and self-reinforcing arbiters delivering my news and information ‘top-down.’ . . . Gather, with its member-contributors, has an opportunity to create a new kind of community.

Manzi goes on to talk about creating an Information Republic. I am not sure what that might mean but having been introduced to the thought (thanks to Rosemarie Moeller) I’ll look into this further.

I have my own ideas on how to re-aggregate the scattered contributors to online media forums and, being a conservative sort, I prefer to adapt rather than invent. I wrote a series of essays a while back that looked at content producers much like Prairie farmers. Content producers stand at a disadvantage to network providers, much as farmers were once held hostage by railroads. So the farmers formed producer cooperatives — assemblies of individual producers bound together in a legal way to increase their clout. I laid out that vision in a three-part series titled: Food for Thought. Please take a look if you have the time. I think my job at this point, is to reduce those three essays to a quick slide show.

Thanks to my sister, Rosemarie Moeller, for bringing this to my attention.

Thank the Lord for the people I have found

Tom Abate, also known as MiniMediaGuy; drawing by Dan Kelly

Let me pause today to thank the people who have helped me spell out the problems with professional news-gathering and suggest the blog- and people-centred approach that makes better ethical and business sense.

The professional journalist of the 21st Century will not be a gatekeeper but rather a connector — connecting people to ideas, to other people, and to products or services. The old journalist shouted, “Coups and Earthquakes,” to quote the title of Associated Press writer Mort Rosenblum’s famous if dated book. People sill want to see and hear about great events but the first reports are now more likely to be uploaded by someone on-scene with a camera phone and Web access. The professional journalist will provide context and connections to help the audience react to the news. The Web is an interactive medium. The audience is not passive. Professionals must get interactive or get left behind.

But I needed help to present that argument and a place to work, and both were provided in unexpected ways, starting with the friendship and technical assistance of Charlotte Yee, a former statistician and public information officer for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Charlotte has created the Feds Hall of Shame site for federal whistleblowers — those who disclose official mistreatment or misdeeds to find that the system regards them with hostility. Charlotte completly overhauled the look of my blog and was wise and funny as I worked through the mental gymnastics that helped me take my stand. I owe Charlotte a debt which I intend to pay by helping her to encourage whistleblowing.

Network provider Scot (Birdhouse) Hacker held my hand at critical moments when my primitive understanding of Web technologies made me fear that e-gremlins were conspiring against me. Scot updated my WordPress blog platform the day before I began publishing — which either changed or broke most of my familiar publishing tools. I visited Scot in a panic and left with a tutorial and a workaround to an as-yet unsolved glitch involving Internet Explorer. Thank you for your patience Scot, and blessings to Mary Hodder who aimed me at you some years ago.

Tim Bishop helped with key edits early in the series that helped me set the tone. My kin and lifelong communicant, Deep Cuz, aka The Cuzzola, fed me several very useful links — an astonishing act of mind-reading as I don’t know that I broadcast a message of intent. Yet The Cuzzola discerned my direction and fed me links. May the blessings of Kahoutek be upon him!

Artist and comic novel publisher Doug Millison created the series of illustrations that added a thought-provoking visual dimension (see Mario). Doug is a friend from my UC Berkeley days and his son, Watson, who turned 21 the other day, is the first child of one of my friends who I ever held in my arms. Doug and I will be working together on future visuals around the theme of media reform.

I began writing these posts at the Starbucks in Yucca Valley, California. It offered a wireless hotspot near Joshua Treet National Park where I attended a group campout with my 15-year-old son. The campout was sponsored by the HomeSchool Association of California (HSC). Flailing at the keyboard by day and singing around the campfire at night was how I stayed sane. Or what passes for sane in my context.

I met some great people at that Starbucks starting with Dan Kelly, the artist who created the caricature of me, above. Dan, a retired Lockheed engineer, is a regular at that coffee house and his artworks — of native animals with mythic themes — adorn the walls. He sketched this piece at my request.

I had fun introducing people to each other and it was in playing this yenta role that helped crystallize the notion of the journalist as connector — in this case on a personal level. For instance in separate conversations one day I met Evelyn Bornstein, a retired Los Angeleno, and Carole, a woman of working age who asked that I not use her last name. Both were relative newcomers to that rural locale and we had separate conversations lamenting their cultural deprivation. The next day they happened to come in at the same time and I introduced them. Not bad for a stranger.

Yucca Flats is just west of 29 Palms the site of a gigantic Marine Corps base and I met HM3 Keith Parmalee, a Navy corpsman, the day before he shipped out with a Marine unit for Iraq. May the God bless you and bring you home safe to your lovely wife! ( I will mail out that book I promised to send you later today.)

Susanne Kern, the German tourist traveling with friend, Thomas, thank you for allowing this stranger to accost you with tales of the truly beautiful northern stretch of California. I mentioned Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (about 320 miles north of San Francisco) a magical place where you can hike through cathedral redwoods to the Pacific Ocean. If you visit there you may find a special treat at Rolf’s Park Motel and Restaurant along Highway 101. If Rolf is still there he is a Bavarian chef who makes an awesome Wiener schnitzel.

Mike and Kathy Culwell of Corona allowed me to use their home office for two days at the end of our camping trip. I hope to see you guys at the next HSC campout. I know Aeneas is ready!

After a week in the desert and vicinity I flew to New York City where I got an incredible series of assists from my extended family in the New York metropolitan area. How great is it to have a sister and a brother-in-law who are never home except in the evenings to feed and entertain me while I worked all day, polishing the ideas that I had dreamed up in the desert. I’ll tell everyone I know about the Dolly Inn, where the fabric softener is included with the service.

During the two days I spent at my J-school reunion at Columbia I had a safehouse in Harlem just a stone’s throw from the Cotton Club. What blessings!

Thanks to all, including last but not least, my immediate family who are stuck me in my worst moments.