Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It's Been Summer...

Life was too nice to spend it posting. But things have been happening, so it's time to get back into gear.

First, though, a search for "That's the Press, Baby" on Google brings this link to a clip from the Bogart movie posted by a fan in Italy, with this as the famous last quote:

"È la stampa, bellezza. E tu non ci puoi fare un bel niente!"

Can't you just hear Bogey saying that!


Before going on to newspapers, a couple of comments on department stores. You may remember the snarky article the New York Times did on J.C. Penney Co. when it opened in Manhattan. Not only did the story seem to insult a goodly number of Americans, it may have missed the point on Penney's as well. Elizabeth Wellington, the fashion writer for my paper, notes that Penney's more fashion-oriented advertising is being backed up by actual trendy merchandise. (At least in women's wear. I've made a couple of passes through Penney's men's department and found it awash in polyester; also at both stores I have been in recently, the lighting and roof tiles seem unchanged since the malls opened. But you have to start somewhere, and just changing the color of "JCPenney" on the signs from white to red wasn't going to be enough.)


Finally there's a new-this-year site called the Department Store Museum. The blogger, whose name is given as "BAK," mentions that he was laid off recently. If so, he has used his time well, although I hope it becomes remunerative. The wonder of his site is that in addition to historic photos, he posts old logos, store directories, and branch locations. Thus, if you want to know what was on the fourth floor at E.W. Edwards & Son in Syracuse, you can find out it was housewares, wallpaper and paint, and fabrics. BAK started off with a bang and slowed down in July, and I hope he has gotten a job ... but what he's done is immensely helpful in tracking major department stores in the 1950s through 1970s, when they were branching out but also trying to maintain their large downtown presences.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sometimes It's Clear

Part of my job is overseeing our corrections column. Normally I hear from the aggrieved, but today I got a call from a guy with a radio talk show who asked about a story we ran Saturday. Actually, he was asking about the story because we had run a really minor correction to it.

The story concerned a new trial ordered in a 1996 murder case in a prominent suburb. Our mistake concerned a current use of the historic building where the crime occurred -- we said there were many things there, including a restaurant, but there actually is no restaurant. One had been planned, but it never opened.

That mistake didn't draw people's attention. What did get them talking, the host said, was the order of a new trial. They hadn't seen the story Saturday, even though it was very prominently played. They knew a new trial had been ordered because it was mentioned in the clear, through the "A story Saturday about the ordering of a new trial..." throat-clearing manner of Clearing the Records. Then they were calling up the host saying, "Why was there a new trial?" (I don't think he had seen the story either, so he wondered if I could tell him what it was about.)

Well, beat me with a switch, but when a Clearing the Record item gets people's attention more than the actual A1 story, I'm left scratching my head. The headline was prominent and accurate, and mentioned the name of the previously-found-guilty party, as did the Clear. While the lead was in the third paragraph, it wasn't a story that one had to read past the jump to find out what was going on -- it was all laid out pretty quickly.

It was a summer Saturday, so maybe no one read the paper or checked the Web site. Of the three local papers I get at home, one doesn't even publish on Saturdays. So maybe the people who are saying "The world will get along just fine without newspapers" have a point. But clearly it was read in the corrections column during the week. So that's not it.

One answer I can come up with is that the Clears, like News in Brief items, are -- brief. Yes, people read them to see how we've screwed up again. But they're also bite-size -- we try to write tight corrections. Still, I don't think that's the main point.

Most days we publish Clears. We publish them every day in the same place -- on the fourth page of the A section. Thus, they're something predictable, like the weather, the comics, the sports agate.

I'm sure it looked differently at the time to an adult, but when I was a kid, newspapers had a wonderful predictability to them. Not just in the comics and the TV listings, but in the narratives. Every day there would be a story about whatever they were doing perfidiously in Moscow. Every day there would be a story about what the president did. (Alas, every day there would be a story out of Saigon as well.) On the world stage, there was a set cast of characters -- Charles de Gaulle, Willy Brandt, Kwame Nkrumah, spade-bearded Walter Ulbricht -- who appeared regularly. There would be reports of accidents and fires, much like the previous day's report of accidents and fires. There would be, in TV terms, the mini-series, like Bobby Baker. And then there would be the specials -- the Coliseum explosion, the Evansville Aces plane crash, let alone the Kennedy assassination -- that would rivet one's attention.

The newspaper, in that sense, was comforting at the same time it was provoking. There might be a report about Mongolia, but it would be presented as news of a far-away land of which we know nothing. The newspaper "habit" that was a fixture in American houses was in part seeing what was "new," but seeing it in the context of what wasn't -- which was most of what you read. You checked your team, your stock, your crossword, your funny pages, your police blotter, your Berlin Wall. For other amusement, you might check the society column or, for those who enjoyed it, the Personals ads. ("Tom. Come home. All is forgiven. Jane." Followed by: "I am not responsible for any debts incurred by persons other than myself. Tom Smith.")

Yes, people do that online, and yes, in many of the same ways. But before everyone had broadband, newspapers had already chucked many of the habit-forming aspects. Not in the comics, which are still with us, and not in the business and TV agate, which fell to the Web. But it can be hard to make an attachment to ongoing themes in the news. It's the downside of today's enterprise-and-insight-driven newspapers: We cover a story, try to do it thoroughly, offer enlightenment, and then, having done our job, move on to the next story.

People develop habits because the same thing satisfies their needs time and again. Newspapers, often run by ADD-afflicted personalities wanting to cover the world and looking for what they don't know, want to not do the same thing over and over. Thus, amid the onslaught of a world of unrelated chaos, people find out about a story through the corrections column, because it's there for them every day.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Ultimate Lightness of Revolution

This has nothing to do with copy editing or department stores. But...

I've always been sanguine about the fact that in the late 1960s and early 1970s I was among those who protested the war and thought that maybe there was more to Che than to, say, Everett Dirksen. I'm far from ready to forsake that and grab onto a neocon flag of repentance. But Richard Wolin's review of Pascal Bruckner's "The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism" in the Aug. 12 New Republic has made me wonder.

It can get tough going, and like too much of the New Republic it can read as if it had to have a ritual insertion of something pertaining to Israel in order to be published. Still, it makes one think about the different worldviews between the international-referencing class and the national-referencing class -- views that I think are as much behind the culture wars as the specifics of abortion, taxes, or bowing to the emperor.

Some excerpts:

"The process of decolonialization and the concomitant rise of multiculturalism have resulted in a surfeit of competing cultural claims. By degrees, the ideal of cultural excellence, which at one point seemed more or less self-evident, has ceded to an overextended and anthropological definition of culture: the idea of culture as the 'expression' of a way of life of a group, a tribe, a people."

Which even gets at the famous statement about rural Pennsylvanians clinging to their religion and guns amid the stress.

"The unintended consequence of this development has been a paralyzing incapacity to make significant cultural judgments and distinctions."

Which seems to cover so much of the culture war -- one out of many, virtuous and (at least in our own minds) superior, or one among many, with all having some good points or bad points, and it's bad form to say one is superior except by being superior enough to see that none are... ?

"France's historical badge of distinction had been the Great Revolution of 1789. This is the heritage that accounts for French 'exceptionalism': the obsession with insurrection as a vaunted and permanent feature of the national political imagination."

But is not the tea party...?

Quoting Bruckner: "We searched for a more intense and, therefore, more innocent version of ourselves in Angolan soldiers, Bengali Naxalites, and Bolivian guerrillas."

I'd never made a connection between intensity of feeling and authenticity before in that manner -- but if you think about it, it also partly explains the press' preoccupation with gaffes and gotchas (as revealing the 'real person' instead of just another facet) and the ongoing desire for a utopia that informs so much online theorizing. If we can simply throw off the Don Draper we have worn, we can again be who we think we really are, or at least who we dreamed we would be. Except that Don is also part of us...

Quoting Bruckner: "Wearing such outfits [looking like Cuban guerrillas, etc.] was an attempt to make mere loitering look like the Long March. (If I pretend to be the Other, his victories become my victories.)"

And not just for Che or Ho, of course. This has made me think of athletic-team jerseys in a different way. It's not just showing support; it's imagining oneself as a part of the team. (I don't wear jerseys, and when I was a student radical I wore dress shirts and polyester pants. Obviously a failure of my imagination.

Again quoting: "From existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter's hypocrisy, violence, and abomination. The whole world hates us, and we deserve it. That is what most Europeans think."

I have no idea what most Europeans actually think, but clearly much of the criticism from the right of the "you liberals hate America" variety seems to revolve around the idea in this sentence. We held ourselves to a higher standard; we failed to meet it; therefore we should be condemned; or, we held ourselves to a higher standard; we tried to meet it; therefore we should be praised and should praise ourselves. And neither side understands the basis of the other. This plays out every day in attacks on newspapers and other media.

"In reasonable quantities, of course, self-criticism and repentance are praiseworthy: necessary stages in working through a politically or morally compromised past. Yet when indulged to excess ... they turn into an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that shuts down the capacity to live fully and honestly and constructively in the present."

Yet demonization of others can yield the same outcome, and again we face the tea party.

Quoting: "Romantic fascination with exceptional beings -- with the insane, the criminal, the genius, the artist, the pervert -- stems from our fear of being lost in the flock, in the stereotype of the petit bourgeois man. 'I am different from the rest.' That is the motto of the man of the herd."

Well, somehow I doubt I will ever see "Mad Men" in the same light -- or the "Newsmakers" column.