Dear New York Times

Spend any time (and I really don’t recommend this) watching Fox News or wading through the cesspool that is the conservative blogosphere, and you’ll detect a palpable Schadenfreude when it comes to the financial struggles of old-world media. And chief among the targets of that right-wing glee has to be the New York Times.

The Grey Lady of American journalism, our national newspaper of record, with at this point, precisely zero credible competitors, finds itself ten years into the third millenium in a strange position. It has, by dint of its undoubtedly superior writers, research, and journalistic standards carved out a place on the web as the most visited newspaper site in the world. A site that has, for at least the last two or three years, been totally free of any sort of paywall. And yet in the last quarter, the Times managed to lose $25 million in the third quarter of 2009.

Now, losting $25 million in a quarter doesn’t mean the company is going to fold up and disappear anytime soon. (A closer look at the Times financials reveals they actually threw off almost  $90 million in cash in that quarter. Much of the loss is attributable to depreciation in the value of some of their non-core assets.) But obviously the company cannot continue indefinitely losing money. How then is the Times going to remedy the situation?

I can’t answer that question. If I had the gold-plated answer to newspaper’s financial problems, I wrap it up in a shiny business plan and sell it to a bunch of investment bankers.

But I will say this: The NY Times is the most prestigous newspaper in the world. I pay 75 cents a day for my local newspaper – buying it from a box near my favorite coffee shop. That paper probably provides me about 10 minutes of actual news reading. Roughly five minutes on local stories – and the rest on national and international. But those “non-local” stories – almost all of them I’ve already seen on the Times website. Columns by Tom Friedman or Maureen Dowd show up a day or two after they’ve been published in the Times. Most of the “value” I get out of my local paper is the (laughably easy) crossword, a couple of other puzzles, and reading the comics. The “news value” I get from the local paper is close to zero. But I willingly pay almost a buck a day for the convenience of a paper to hold n my hand as I sip my coffee and fill out the crossword.

Dear NY Times: We love you, we need you. Figure out a way to get that 75 cents a day from me, and the millions like me.

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Eating their own dogfood. Believing their own bullshit..

Jon Stewart appeared on the Bill O’Reilly show last night.

O’Reilly is, of all the Fox news opinionators, probably the least offensive. Which isn’t saying much. But the thing that is most interesting about this interview is the fact that O’Reilly obviously believes that Fox News really is “fair and balanced.”

I would struggle to believe that any objective analysis of Fox News would support this conclusion. But it is quite instructive to me: the people at Fox literally believe their own bullshit.

And that is part of the entire narrative when it comes to the right-wing noise machine. They literally believe the lies they been telling themselves (and the rest of the fools that listen to them) for so long. It goes a long way to explain the complete breakdown in journalistic standards with these organizations. They literally would believe anything negative about President Obama, any Democratic politician, or any “liberal” or “progressive” organization. Which is why the right-wing blogosphere jumped all over the O’Keefe/ACORN story. And why they are so slow to recognize the criminality of O’Keefe’s attempt to infiltrate Lousiana Sen. Landrieu’s office.

The first criteria for any journalistic organization or reporter is objectivity. Just the facts, ma’am.

Its quite illuminating to see that the originator of the “no-spin zone” – is actually the biggest “spinner” of them all. Fair and balanced is unfair and slanted. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and truth is Lies. Can these really be far behind?

Gloomy Economics – Pt II

For the purposes of this discussion, lets us (somewhat arbitrarily) date the beginning of the US modern economic history to the inaugruation of Franklin Roosevelt as President in 1933. Not that the nineteenth century battles over the Free Coinage of Silver or the First and Second Bank of the United States aren’t important – but by the early 1930s these issues had pretty much been settled.

In 1933 the Federal Budget of the United States was approximately $4.6 billion, with revenue of just under $2 billion – leaving a (then considered terrible) deficit of $2.6 billion. Of the Federal budget, Defense constituted $1.4 billion – of which more than half ($700 million) was spent on Veterans – mainly pensions and benefits to veterans of the First World War. Of the remaining $600 or billion in current defense spending, the greatest share went to the Navy.

The US Army, by way of contrast, was a relatively tiny force. With approximately 200,000 men (and they were almost all men) in uniform in 1933, the US Army ranked considerably below Greece or Czechoslovakia in military firepower.  But of course, in 1933, the USA really didn’t need much in the way of a large standing army. The navy (plus two conveniently wide oceans) would keep any potential aggressors at bay. And the US was sufficiently large, and well supplied with natural resources, to have much to fear from a maritime embargo.

The first two four years of Roosevelt’s Presidency were marked mainly by an attempt to prevent the total social collapse of the US as a nation. When we worry about unemployment today (around 10%) we need to keep in mind the 30% of the Great Depression. And while we pity homeowners stuck with underwater mortgages, we’re still a lot better off than the savers who lost everything when their banks failed in those pre-FDIC days.

One little-known episode of the Great Depression was the Bonus March of 1932. Some 17,000 Veterans of WWI, along with their families, marched on Washington and demanded that certificates entitling them to a cash payment be paid early (the certificates had a maturity date of 1945.) President Hoover ended up ordering the Army to remove the marchers – which they promptly did, resorting to bayonets, tanks, and a primitive teargas containing arsenic. The oepration was commanded by then Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur. His deputy was (later President) Dwight Eisenhower, and the cavalry charge that rousted the bonus marchers was led by George Patton. (See, I told you how small and clubby the pre-war Army was..) Reading about these events, from the benefit of almost eighty years of hindsight, one can only wonder what Fox News would make of such events.

The Gloomy Science gets even Gloomier Pt.1

The White House released yesterday it first full year budget proposal. The news is so bad, I wonder if it is not an de facto suicide note.

The Budget Proposal projects spending of about $3.8 trillion, while raising $2.2 trillion – a deficit of $1.6 trillion. The “good” news is that the budget is likely fairly honest, and specifically in some areas a vast improvement in what went before. The bad news is the budget document projects huge deficits stretching out pretty much forever, dipping somewhat in the late second decade, before mushrooming again in 2020.  The potentially catastrophic news, if that is possible, is that the American electorate is likely, in the months and years ahead, to respond to this by electing politicians who will only make the situation even more dire.

Before we come to grips with the enormity of the problem, it may be beneficial to take a look at the modern economic history of the United States, to refresh our understanding of how we got into this mess. I’ll deal with that in part II.

iPad: The Computer You’ve been Waiting for

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It’s still two months before the iPad shows up in stores. But I’m betting that five years from now, it will be looked upon as one of the most important new tech products in many years. Here’s why:

1) Screen size. The Ipad hits a sweet spot in terms of screen size and resolution that hasn’t been tapped previously. I’ve enjoyed -tremendously – the iPod touch. But the truth of the matter is, there simply isn’t enough screen real estate to make it good for more than limited skimming of articles. even the shortest column requires several taps and scrolls to get to the bottom. The Ipad allows you to read in a much more natural, intuitive manner.

2) Instant on. From the earliest days of the PC we’ve been dealing with the annoyance of a “boot time” that varied from a several seconds to a good few minutes. Why? Bloated operating systems and an array of disparate hardware components. Many of us have resorted to leaving our computers constantly “on” – with the result that their electric power consumption is making a serious (negative) contribution to the carbon footprint.

3) Sometimes (really) less is more. Don’t believe me? Think of how “feature riddled” so many products – and especially tech products – have become. Cellphones come with two or three thick booklets, describing all the different features and functions you can use them for. Address books, alarm clocks, calculators, music players. And yet many people are totally baffled by these features.

4) Silence is Golden. For as long as the personal computer has been with us, we’ve dealt with its constant hums, beeps, and groans.  Steve Jobs (famously) virtually crippled the performance of the original Macintosh by refusing to have a fan in it: precluding such niceties as hard disk drives. (One of the most quirky Mac aftermarket products ever conceived was the “Mac Chimney” – a cardboard tube that allowed excess heat to escape from the top of the machine.) But with the iPad the USER is in total control over the sounds emanating from the machine. There simply is no annoying hum or whir – everything is totally solid state.

Sixty Minutes: Fading to black

A week after 60 Minutes re-ran its tribute to founder Don Hewitt (reminding us of what a great, groundbreaking program it used to be) last night’s show was a severe disappointment.

You used to be able to rely on 60 Minutes to keep their celebrity puff-pieces to a minimum. No more than one per episode, and generally far less than that. An in-depth look at an actor or artist with a lifetime of work behind them, tucked into a dozen or so hard-hitting stories about Government or Corporate corruption or other malfeasance.

But not these days. We had profiles of Beyonce and snowboard champion Shaun White. and, almost and afterthought, a somewhat puff piece on the Green Berets efforts to train Afghan special forces. How does this all disappoint? Let me count the ways:

1) doing a segment on singer Beyonce right before the CBS hosted Grammy Show meets my definition of the highest standards of journalistic integrity. Maybe, just maybe, the entire segment was a promo for upcoming  CBS programming.

2) And CBS chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan’s piece on the Green Berets in Afghanistan fell dangerously close to becoming the sort of “war porn” that is an enabler of institutionalized cultural militarism.

While personally likeable, I question Logan’s effectiveness as a reporter. Did she ask a single “tough question” of anyone involved in this segment? No. Instead she simpered and smiled at the soldiers, tossing them softball questions designed to show what good-hearted, thoughtful professionals they really were.

The operations shown in the segment were, not to put too fine a point on it, a series of military disasters.   In two of the operations the only casualties seemed to be “friendly fire” – and in the next, we see a Green Beret opening fire on a speeding truck and critically wounding two (innocent) Afghan teenagers.  In response to the first “friendly fire” incident the Green Berets resort to yelling and swearing at the bewildered Afghan conscripts.

One of the Green Berets interviewed by Logan indicated that prior to enlisting, his job had been “parking cars.” The young man in question obviously was not stupid – anyone with the drive and intelligence necessary to become a Green Beret is a seriously above-average individual. And yet “parking cars” was the best civilian occupation available to such a young man in 21st century America?

Lastly, the training, and in fact the entire mission of the Green Berets in Afghanistan seems fatally misguided to me. Afghans have successfully defeated every foreign invader of their country for the last thousand years or so. And we think that turning them into ersatz Americans is going to work? America’s soliders are superbly trained, led, and equipped. But Afghan soliders are going to have a totally different cultural viewpoint. And they are going to operate in a military structure that is going to be radically less well-equipped than the Green Berets who are training them.

Big Love

Tonight’s episode of the HBO drama Big Love was frankly disappointing. This entire season has annoyed me more than anything. The series seems to have fallen into the same trap as most soap opera, with too many oddball plotlines.

A big problem this season has been the death (murder, actually) of UEB “Prophet” Roman Grant – played by Harry Dean Stanton. His successor son Albie, is too much of a lightweight to pose a serious counterweight to Bill Henrickson. Further complicating things, Albie’s (gay) love interest bears a more than passing resemblence to the Federal Prosecutor, with whom Nicki shared an unrequited crush in the previous season. Making things even worse- Bill and Barb’s youngest daughter (Teency) has been replaced by an entirely new actress.