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Notes and observations on the press, politics, culture, technology, and more. To sign up for e-mail delivery, click here. To send an e-mail to Dan Kennedy, click here. For bio, published work, and links to other blogs, visit www.dankennedy.net. For information on Dan Kennedy's book, Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes (Rodale, October 2003), click here.

Friday, February 28, 2003

Did Iraq disarm after the Gulf War? The media-watch organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is focusing attention on a report in the current Newsweek suggesting that Iraq had destroyed all of its weapons of mass destruction as of 1995. The article, which has gotten little notice, "may be the biggest story of the Iraq crisis," according to FAIR.

Newsweek's John Barry reports that Saddam Hussein's son-in-law General Hussein Kamel, who defected to the West in 1996 and whose interviews with US intelligence officials are often cited as evidence of Saddam's weapons programs, had actually told his interrogators that Iraq had destroyed all of its chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles forbidden under the terms of the Gulf War surrender.

Was Kamel merely doing his father-in-law's bidding? Not likely. Kamel eventually decided to return to Iraq -- and Saddam had him executed.

Where does this information fit into the current debate over war and disarmament? It's hard to say. Even if Kamel's testimony is completely true, Saddam has had since 1998 -- when UN weapons inspectors were kicked out of the country -- to rebuild his stockpile.

Still, the possibility that Iraq was weapons-free as recently as eight years ago is significant information, and it should have received more attention than it has.

posted at 9:46 AM | link

Those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it. And Governor Mitt Romney wants to get rid of the state inspector general's office (Globe story here; Herald story here), which is dedicated to rooting out the waste, fraud, and corruption around which Romney has constructed his permanent campaign. Yes, the IG's office been too low-profile and more political than perhaps originally envisioned. But this is madness.

posted at 9:46 AM | link

Thursday, February 27, 2003

A "difficult public face for NBC in time of war." Phil Donahue's now-canceled MSNBC talk show will not be long lamented. Still, there remain questions as to whether he was done in solely by his show's pathetic ratings or for more sinister reasons. Rick Ellis, writing for the television website allyourtv.com, says that MSNBC executives concluded that Donahue had to go because they didn't want an antiwar liberal in their prime-time line-up at a time when the White House is preparing to launch a war against Iraq.

Ellis cites an internal report that criticizes Donahue as "a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace," and that goes on to call Donahue a "difficult public face for NBC in time of war." What's interesting about this is that Donahue's ratings, though miserable, were rising at the time that his show was canceled (as the New York Times reported earlier this week), and that his audience share was also bigger than that of longtime MSNBC host Chris Matthews. To be fair, Matthews has also been a persistent war critic; but his over-the-top anti-Clinton, anti-Gore diatribes of a few years back presumably give him some immunity among conservative cable news viewers.

But aren't they all watching Fox anyway?

posted at 10:43 AM | link

The Three R's: reorganization, reform, and Romney. So what to make of Governor Mitt Romney's budget/reorganization plan? Not to cop out, but it strikes me that an instant reaction would be foolhardy. I don't know if it's "bold" (the word of the day in the Globe and the Herald), but it certainly is sprawling, encompassing everything from a drastic repositioning of the state's higher-education system to new Medicaid fees.

At first glance, much of the Romney proposal appears to be a mixed bag. There is, of course, a certain amount of psychic satisfaction in seeing UMass president Bill Bulger squirm as Romney tries to eliminate his job. (Globe coverage here; Herald coverage here.) By most accounts, the former Senate president has done an excellent job in building up UMass. But his high salary ($309,000) and his refusal to testify before a congressional committee about his homicidal brother (understandable on a personal level but incompatible with holding high public office) make him an inviting target.

Still, forcing out Bulger is one thing; doing away with the UMass president's office and decentralizing the state's high-education system is quite another. Is it a good idea? It's too soon to say. The Globe's Joan Vennochi is already calling it "a fraud and an insult," and compares Romney's plan to "setting off pyrotechnics in a low-ceilinged nightclub." Wow. That's, uh, way more than a bit much.

In a considerably more measured column, the Globe's Adrian Walker criticizes Romney's "cynicism" and observes: "Part of the beauty of the assault on Bulger is that his fate -- not education -- becomes the story line." Indeed, the get-Bulger angle is more than enough for the Herald's Peter Gelzinis, who cackles, "The Napoleon of South Boston would appear to be fading away right before our very eyes." (Gelzinis also laments that Bulger's powerful friends may yet save his job.)

But let's be honest. Can anyone really say for certain right now that Romney's higher-ed plan will be good or bad for the state and the students who depend on it?

Or take local aid. Romney proposes both to reform it, so that communities that have not been pulling their fair share will have to cut spending or raise taxes (good), and to cut it by five percent (bad). When Romney promised during his campaign not to cut core essential services, or whatever his slippery phrase was, he apparently didn't count cops, firefighters, and teachers as being essential.

Finally, the Globe today reports a Romney initiative that is so bizarre that I'm wondering if it's really true. According to the article, by Cynthia Roy, the state Department of Public Health will start charging a $50 fee for tuberculosis tests -- and "a $400 fee for those who test positive." Can this be right? A quick perusal of Romney's budget proposal on the state website sheds no light: it merely shows a new line item for tuberculosis testing that would bring in $300,000 in fiscal 2004.

I'm trying to imagine how this would work. Would you have to pay $450 in advance, and then get a $400 rebate if you test negative? ("Congratulations! You've won!") Would you be billed an extra $400 if you test positive?

This is so screamingly insane that I'm going to assume that there's at least a chance that the Globe got it wrong or left something out. But if it's true, then Romney ought to find out who put this in his budget and add him or her to the long list of state employees who are getting laid off.

posted at 9:37 AM | link

Okay, so call it a tie. Jonathan Last, the online editor of the Weekly Standard, takes issue with my item praising the New Republic's new digital-delivery system. Last writes:

While TNR has done a great job with both their print and web redesigns, I'm not sure if they really go us one better. They only part of the magazine we don't put into HTML is the letters page. TNR now puts their letters page on the web, which is great, but we make much more of our HTML magazine content available to non-subscribers.

A fair observation. For some reason, I had thought that the "Contents" column on the left-hand side of the Standard's website consisted only of highlights, not the entire magazine (minus letters). I've also learned that not all of TNR's print articles are available in HTML -- the other night, when I tried to read a Robert Kaplan piece, I was greeted with a message that I had to download the entire issue in PDF format if I wanted to read it.

So, my revised assessment: the Standard and TNR both have very good websites. Each could be improved. (Since TNR's print articles are now available to subscribers only, why can't they all be in HTML? And why can't the Standard put its letters up in HTML?) And the third political weekly, the left-liberal Nation, really needs to get with the program and start making all of its content available to the people who pay the bills. No, I don't mean Paul Newman! I mean the subscribers.

posted at 9:36 AM | link

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Giving up on Donahue. So there were Phil Donahue and Peter Jennings last night, having a civilized conversation about Iraq on MSNBC. Earlier in the day, Donahue's show had finally been put out of its misery, which was no surprise, since it hadn't attracted much in the way of ratings since its debut last year.

I can't say I shed any tears. I almost never watched it, and am not much of a fan of Donahue's arm-waving, hectoring style. But was it really necessary to give up this quickly on the only liberal talk show on cable news? As Bill Carter points out in this morning's New York Times, Donahue's ratings were bad, but they were getting better, and he actually had the highest ratings of MSNBC's sorry prime-time line-up.

MSNBC, of course, is completely and utterly lost. Soon it will debut a Saturday talk show by right-wing hatemonger Mike Savage. Donahue's slot may eventually go to new celebrity hire Jesse Ventura, who proved to be a more compelling wrestler than political leader. The network is also talking about a prime-time newscast to be anchored by Sam Donaldson -- not a terrible idea by any means, but it was only last year that it allowed Brian Williams, a far more supple anchor than Donaldson, to flee to sister station CNBC.

Donahue's show wasn't particularly inspired, but it was better than much of the trash that's on cable news.

posted at 9:28 AM | link

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

The return of the $43 million error. In an otherwise impressive essay for the New Republic's "Liberalism and American Power" issue, Samantha Power recycles a hoary old canard. As an example of the Bush administration's inconsistent foreign policy, Power writes, "We can go to war against the Taliban, never acknowledging our previous aid to the regime -- we offered a grant of $43 million as late as May 2001 -- for its help quashing opium production." (Power's piece is online here, but is available only to TNR subscribers.)

As I reported more than a year ago, and as others have reported as well, this was simply not the case, an inconvenience that has not prevented it from attaining the status of accepted truism. The fact is that the US distributed $43 million through the UN and non-governmental organizations to help feed starving Afghans. Even in announcing the aid package, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointedly criticized Afghanistan's Taliban government.

Unfortunately, this is one error that has been repeated so often, and has been so rarely challenged, that it has taken on the color of truth. Surely the Bush White House's foreign policy has been cynical enough without having to tar it with a grotesque misdeed that it did not actually commit.

posted at 11:08 PM | link

This isn't good, either. Former Boston Globe columnist John Ellis is giving up his weblog, one of the more consistently entertaining and informative of such ventures. Ellis will be a scholar at the new Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Cosmo Macero, who got to this before I did, is so broken up that he's going to keep his Ellis link in tribute.

posted at 2:21 PM | link

This isn't good. Salon editor/founder David Talbot is begging. His most desperate statement: "If every one of our 53,000 subscribers brings in just ONE additional subscription, Salon will finally break even this year." And if every magazine could double its paid circulation, then dogs would be performing neurosurgery.

Paging Steve Jobs!

posted at 11:49 AM | link

From Pony Express to instant delivery. The New Republic has finally, and quite intelligently, solved its biggest problem: getting itself into the hands of paying subscribers in a timely manner.

Last year, I wrote an item urging TNR to emulate the Weekly Standard, which makes its entire issue available to subscribers as a PDF download as soon as it comes off the presses. TNR, which unveiled its upgraded website yesterday, has gone one better than that.

Not only will the PDF edition of TNR be available on Friday mornings, many days before the print edition arrives in your mailbox, but the entire issue is being made available to subscribers in regular HTML format as well. (The Standard makes much of its content available in HTML, but not the entire magazine.)

There are two advantages to the PDF format: it looks exactly like the printed magazine, and since you can save the whole thing to your hard drive, you can take it with you and read it on your laptop without an Internet connection. But the latter advantage is actually less important than it was even a year ago, which is why I think the HTML alternative is such a great idea.

Increasingly, Internet connections are becoming untethered from wires, thanks to high-speed wireless networks (Airport in Apple lingo, WiFi to everyone else). That means more and more people can take their Internet connection with them. And since PDF files can be fuzzy and difficult to read unless you print them out (quite an undertaking except for those who have high-speed laser printers), the HTML files are actually more usable.

The downside of TNR's new digital strategy is that very little of the print-edition content will be available to non-subscribers. As a reader, I don't care. But it does make it less enticing to write about TNR articles in Media Log, since I will not be able to link to them. (On the other hand, TNR is selling digital-only subscriptions for just $20, one-fourth of the usual subscription cost -- an interesting insight into how much money a magazine blows on printing, production, and postage.)

The print edition of TNR is unveiling a new design this week as well, which surely demonstrates that its last redesign -- just a few years old -- was seen as unsuccessful by editor-in-chief/owner Marty Peretz, as well as his new co-owners, Roger Hertog and Michael Steinhardt. Blessedly, those thick black vertical lines are gone from the "TRB" and "Diarist" columns.

There's also been a lot of chatter lately about TNR's supposed ideological revamping. Both the New York Observer's Sridhar Pappu and the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz report that the magazine's publicists have been touting the magazine's move to the right. The nominally liberal TNR strongly supports the Bush administration's Iraq policy, and has been lambasting the Democratic presidential candidates as well.

Please. TNR has been lurching back and forth between neolib and neocon for years. ("Here we go again," is how Pappu begins his piece.) With Peretz's friend Al Gore now off the presidential stage and a young, right-leaning editor, Peter Beinart, at the top of the masthead, it's hardly surprising that TNR is tilting more conservative than it did under Beinart's predecessor, Charles Lane, now of the Washington Post. But Lane's predecessor, Michael Kelly, was seen as so hostile to liberalism that even Peretz could not abide him. Conservative Andrew Sullivan is a former TNR editor as well.

If TNR can even be said to have a consistent ideology, it would be generally liberal on domestic policy, except affirmative action, which it staunchly opposes; and neoconservative on foreign policy. No wonder it's been seen as swinging back and forth over the years.

posted at 10:11 AM | link

A pyro warning. The Boston Herald's Tom Mashberg has a terrific story today on Paul Vanner, the sound man at the Station, who says he warned co-owner Michael Derderian months ago about the pyrotechnics being set off at his club. But it's hard to know where this information fits into the investigation, since Mashberg also reports that Vanner says Derderian appeared to take his warning seriously, and stopped booking bands that use pyro. A fascinating tidbit, but we're still a long way from knowing the truth.

posted at 10:11 AM | link

Can't get enough of those feuding sportswriters? The Herald's Jim Baker has an entertaining roundup today, beneath the laughably false headline "Bickering Writers a Turnoff." The Phoenix's Chris Young, in his online "Sporting Eye" column, weighs in on the Shaughnessy/Buckley/Edes contretemps as well.

posted at 10:10 AM | link

Monday, February 24, 2003

The terrible aftermath. Blute & Ozone had me on for a few minutes this morning on WRKO Radio (AM 680) to talk about the media's treatment of one of their own: Jeff Derderian, co-owner (with his brother) of the Station nightclub in West Warwick, the scene of last week's horrific, deadly fire. The question: have the media gone too easy on Derderian because he's a reporter for WPRI-TV (Channel 12) in Providence and a former reporter for WHDH-TV (Channel 7) in Boston?

I don't know. Derderian may have initially gotten more benefit of the doubt than someone else might have, but it strikes me that it's not going to matter much. His claims that the club had never given permission to Great White to set off fireworks on stage are now in serious doubt, and Rhode Island officials are going to push this until they get some answers.

Maybe Derderian wasn't given the full media treatment -- camera crews haven't staked out his house, and he hasn't been chased down the street by rampaging TV reporters. But it's not going to matter in the end. This is a terrible story, and it's not going to come out well for Derderian, regardless of how questions involving criminal and civil liability are ultimately resolved.

The Providence Journal has done some interesting stuff online to expand its coverage of the tragedy, including a fire-related weblog, photo slide shows, and links to additional information. (Free registration required.)

I've seen several well-executed stories on the long road ahead for survivors who've been seriously burned. Stephen Smith's piece in yesterday's Globe on firefighter Raymond McNamara is worthwhile. Here are two other truly exceptional pieces:

  • The 2001 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography was awarded to Matt Rainey of the Newark Star-Ledger for his photos of two college students who were badly burned in a dorm fire. The Pulitzer website has a portfolio of Rainey's work.
  • The Austin American-Statesman website has an in-depth report on Jacqui Saburido, a young woman whose face was virtually burned off in a terrible car accident several years ago. Written by David Hafetz and photographed by Rodolfo Gonzalez, this is very difficult to look at. But it's not sensationalistic in the least -- rather, it's simply the heartbreaking truth.

posted at 9:31 AM | link

Finneran's wake. Scot Lehigh's profile of House Speaker Tom Finneran in yesterday's Boston Globe Magazine serves as a reminder of what a talented and brilliant person Finneran really is. Unfortunately, Lehigh offers no reason to hope that Finneran has learned what he should have learned from his power-crazed mistakes of the last several years, mistakes that have damaged his reputation and driven out many talented House members.

The most telling anecdote is offered by former Senate president Tom Birmingham, talking about the endless budget discussions that the two men held in 1999, when the state's spending plan was finally approved five months late:

"I tried to make the case that we were doing irreparable harm to our institutional and personal reputations by not concluding this," Birmingham says. "And I said, using more scatological words, 'Everybody thinks we are a couple of jerks.' And he said, 'No, I disagree. I think everybody is saying, "Those two guys really know what they are talking about." ' This is like five months into the stalemated budget. Nobody knew what we were talking about."

Birmingham laughs in disbelief at the memory, repeating the remark as though it's the punch line of a favorite joke: "No, I think everybody is saying, 'Those two guys really know what they are talking about.' "

posted at 9:30 AM | link

The Blog Mattress. Barry Crimmins sends word that the sublime Charles Laquidara, the legendary disc jockey for the old WBCN Radio who's now living in Hawaii, has started his own weblog. Lots of antiwar stuff, as you would expect from Charles. He's also posted some great cartoons and pictures -- check out the prices at Tom's Shell.

Barry himself has posted a righteous rant about his recent unsuccessful effort to write and read a commentary for On Point, an NPR-distributed talk show emanating from WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) in Boston. They invited him, I should point out, but his observations about the burgeoning 2004 presidential field were obviously too caustic for a segment that the show likes to keep lite and cheery. Crimmins writes:

Two years into the court-appointed Bush administration's destruction of our way of life and the first call I received from NPR was a request to belittle Democrats. Ostensibly they wanted me to make fun of the fact that the field of candidates had grown very quickly in recent weeks. That's right; NPR was soliciting me to satirize democracy for showing signs of vibrancy. And so this young producer tried to steer me that way. She started by mentioning the size of the Democratic field and then asked, "Do you think any of them has the stature to take on George W. Bush?"

I said, "My dog Lloyd has the stature to take on Bush." But then I allowed, "Of course, I raised him myself."

Obviously Media Log will be happy to post a response from WBUR.

posted at 9:29 AM | link

At CNN, quality counts -- until it doesn't. So now CNN's goal is to position itself as the quality alternative to Fox News, making up in demographics what it lacks in sheer numbers. The New York Times reports this morning that Connie Chung and her cheesy tabloid show may ultimately become the victim of this new strategy. I'd say "good," except that it seems CNN changes direction every six months. So let's just call this good news for the short term, with the understanding that there is no long term -- or even medium term.

posted at 9:28 AM | link


Dan Kennedy is senior writer and media critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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