Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Peter Principle Inverted

I rarely watch television news, with good reason. I think if you rounded up a hundred people with IQs above room temperature who had learned to breath without opening their mouths and asked them what word came to mind when they thought of the evening news, the most common printable response would be “stinks.”

The reason for this is obvious, when you think about it. (Okay, maybe only if you think about things the way I do, which is not recommended for the faint of heart.) The major networks (and Fox, too), take their most promising correspondents and groom them to be the centerpieces of the network. These golden children get the prime assignments, lots of air time, and occasional guest anchor gigs when El Numero Uno goes on vacation or is abducted by space aliens. (That space alien thing didn’t really happen, but Dan Rather would have been sooner or later.)

The fledgling correspondents build their resumes, braving war, riots, pestilence, and getting blown down the street by hurricanes on national television. Upon reaching the top of the pyramid, having outlasted and out-achieved all of their former peers, what happens to them? They become anchors and do nothing but read the news, which George W. Bush or a parrot could do, given some training. (Bush may need somewhat more training than the parrot; that’s not germane here.)

What other occupation does that? Where else can you become the best in your business and be relegated to talking about what people not fit to tie your shoes send up to you for reporting? Did GE put Jack Welch in charge of the company newsletter instead of making him CEO? Is Bill Gates Microsoft’s blogger-in-chief? Did WorldCom put Bernie Ebbers in charge of corporate communications? (Bad example; maybe they should have.)

In newspapers the best guy often gets to be the editor and essentially run the joint, if he wants to. Many don’t. You know why? Because editors don’t get to report anymore, they just mark up what’s written by the people down in the trenches where they used to be. At least newspapers put the best men in positions of authority. TV news departments aren’t even run by newsmen, they’re run by empty suits with “MBA” tattooed on their coin-flipping—er, decision making—hands.

As for local news, the only printable word that comes to mind is “execrable.” When’s the last time you saw a key local reporter “promoted” to anchor, except for weekends or as a vacation or rehab fill-in? Roughly never. Hair is what gets you promoted to local anchor, even in the big markets, that and a high Q rating. (Not IQ; some of these people couldn’t spell “IQ,” let alone tell you what it means.)

In England they call the person who reads the news the “newsreader.” It is not the highest-paid or most widely sought after position at the BBC. They pay the people who actually do the work. And they get better work because of it. Listen to the BBC sometime. (It’s easy in Washington; the local public radio station doesn’t play classical music anymore, the bastards.) See how many times you hear a reporter walk up to someone who just saw his house, possessions, family, and both cows swept out to sea by a tsunami and ask him how he feels.

People sometimes look at me like I’ve grown a third ear when I say I don’t watch television news. “How can you not watch the news?” they ask.

I have a better question: “How can you?”

Sunday, March 27, 2005

American Political Leadership, 2005

Writing anything about the Terri Schiavo case is difficult. There are no winners here, and the best any of us can do is hope we never find ourselves in the situation of either her husband or her parents. That’s what to hope for; if you’re the praying type, pray that Congress has something more urgent to do (like being scandalized over a stray nipple) if you ever are in this situation.

Lest anyone get his or her dander up too soon, this will be a bi-partisan trashing. We’ll start with the Republicans, since they’re still teed up from last week. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist used his heart surgeon experience to look at an hour of selectively edited home video and decide Ms. Schiavo was really in a persistent vegetative state, regardless of what specialists and tests have shown for fifteen years. That got the ball rolling in the hallowed halls of Congress.

Frist, Rick Santorum, and Mel Martinez got together a rump session of the Senate, had a quick debate, and shoved through by voice vote a bill allowing Terri’s parents access to federal courts. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, desperately needing to show what a fine moral person he is in the face of a growing ethics scandal, rounded up as many House members as he could for a vote at 12:01 AM Monday. Rain Man flew back from Texas on Air Force One just to sign it.

The Schindlers have now been to every building they can find with a flag on it, looking for a judge to order Terri’s feeding tube re-inserted. Not only has that been unsuccessful, they can’t even find a judge who will hear the case. Their attorney now has his own personal seat at the rail of the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta and the Supreme Court in Washington, sort of a frequent flyer privilege so he doesn’t have to stand in line to file the appeal du jour.

Shoving bills through Congress on virtually no notice with virtually no debate is bad practice, and not what the Founding Fathers had in mind, no matter what these allegedly strict Constitutional adherents say. Writing law for a single individual is at least as bad an idea. The precedent isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous, and absurdly hypocritical for these flag-draped advocates of limited government.

Congressional leaders even had the temerity to rip the first federal judge to deny the case for the dreaded “judicial activism,” a term usually reserved for judges who overstep their authority and find rights the conservatives don’t think are in the Constitution. (It’s funny how no one ever cites the Tenth Amendment when talk of fictional rights comes up. Those of you lacking the time or interest to look up the Tenth Amendment are just going to have to guess what it says. I’m not your eighth-grade civics teacher.) What would they call it had the Democrats tried to pull something like this, interfering in a personal legal situation? The aforementioned Mr. DeLay would be on the Dems like cheap veneer.

Ah, yes, the Democrats. Remember how they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore when they lost not just the presidency, but seats in both houses of Congress? In what must have been a tribute to Tom “I Have Kids so I Must Have Had Balls Once” Daschle, new Minority Leader Harry Reid couldn’t dredge up one senator willing to demand a roll call or ask for a quorum count. There can be only one explanation for this: they didn’t want any backlash from right-to-lifers.

This shows why the Dems have been out of power for several terms and aren’t likely to get it back soon. First, they’re stupid. No hard-core right-to-lifer has voted for a “progressive” Democrat since Bill O’Reilly got his own impartial, unbiased show. Second, and even worse, they’re pussies. Stand for something, for crying out loud. I doubt that a majority of the American people agree with the whole conservative Republican agenda, yet they keeping voting for its shepherds. Why? Because the Democrats don’t have enough starch to stand for anything themselves. It’s like a car crash or a football tackle: the object providing the momentum more likely to inflict damage than to receive it. Republicans will win until some counterforce is applied.

The Dems’ just desserts are in the polls. Large majorities of Americans think Congress pulled a boner this time, grossly overstepping any measure of propriety, if not authority. It doesn’t seem to matter which end of the political spectrum people are on, they don’t like it.

Democrats didn’t have to make a political football out of this, all they had to do was what’s right. We’ve had precedents and processes in place for well over two hundred years. Stand by them. It’s been so long since Democrats stood for anything other than not being Republicans, they probably don’t remember how.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

News of another surreal week

The Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s were known as the Broad Street Bullies, winning several Stanley Cups with a rough, penalty-filled, (go ahead, say it) vicious style of hockey. (Nostalgia alert: Anyone else remember the Stanley Cup?) The Flyers’ theory was to commit so many penalties the referee look like he was picking on them if he called them all. (I read this in an interview with team captain Bobby Clarke several years ago. I don’t remember where I saw it; read George F. Will if you want research and documentation. He has a staff; I have a job.) The Republicans seem to have adopted the same policy regarding sleaze. Three items head the list this week. I’m sure there were more.

This week in Republican shamelessness hit the ground running when the Bush Administration told the GAO to pound salt after the GAO suggested it might not be legal and ethical to send pre-packaged, fluff, “news” stories to local television stations in the guise of actual news. (The professional standards of the television stations accepting and presenting these stories as unbiased reporting will be addressed another time.) This fell under the “covert propaganda” statutes proscribing such activity. The Bushmen say it’s all right when used for purely informational purposes. My cynical side suggests any information therein will be purely beneficial and flattering to the White House. Anything allowing for doubt or disagreement isn’t likely to be included.

Presenting only one side of a story sounds a lot like media bias. I’ve been busy lately, but isn’t that something conservatives whine about every fifteen seconds on “un-biased” programs like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Fox News? This looks, quacks, and waddles like another one of those conservative Republican “this is different because we’re in charge” deals.

Page Two. (Sorry, Paul Harvey. I couldn’t resist.) House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has begun a new political action committee named “DeLay and DeNy.” DeLay now has more ethics questions circling him than there are flies around a dead elephant. The Republican leadership has responded by attempting to rewrite existing ethics rules and shoving the changes down the throats of Democrats, refuting of a couple of hundred years’ tradition of bi-partisan approval of ethics changes.

The Dems predictably revolted, effectively shutting down the ethics machinery in the House and playing into Republican hands. Now the GOP can claim the Dems have walked away from their responsibilities. They won’t mention the fact that the proposed rules are so timid that the most recent chairman of the Ethics Committee, a Republican, was replaced over his refusal to go along, apparently believing ethics to be a concept applying to all more or less equally. This may fly with some of their more mouth-breathing constituents, notably in those states where incest laws are considered mere suggestions, but won’t hold up under closer examination.

New rules require all ethics investigation to be concluded in 45 days. This effectively means that the more complicated the alleged offense, the greater the chances it can slip through the cracks. DeLay’s rat’s nest of PACs and fundraisers can barely be recited in 45 days. Multiple parties may now also use the same lawyer, which will make it impossible to get any straight stories, since each individual’s best interests will now equate to those of the group being investigated.

Republicans have already amended their “holier than Dan Rostenkowski” rules requiring House members under indictment to relinquish any committee chairmanships. DeLay isn’t under indictment (yet), but just about everyone he ever had lunch with is. This change could well be called the “DeLay Rule.”

The greatest debasement of our hallowed institutions came in the past few days, as our “leadership” got involved in the Schiavo case in Florida. For anyone even more disconnected with life than I am, Terry Schiavo has been in what doctors call a “persistent vegetative state” for fifteen years. Her parents have been locked in a life-and-death struggle (literally) with her husband over whether her feeding tube should be removed, allowing the rest of her to join her brain in the embrace of the Icy Hand of Death™.

Florida courts and politicians have been on this like a shroud on a corpse, not to rush things. Jeb Bush even got involved, with less success than in the 2000 election. The Florida Supreme Court recently (and supposedly finally) decided to accede to the husband’s wishes and disconnect the tube.

Enter Washington Republicans, stage right. Scandalized by the idea this woman would die if not fed artificially, they decided to pass a law to allow federal courts to intervene. The good news is they apparently have nothing more pressing to do than look into individual cases, now that the troops are home from Iraq, the budget is balanced, and Social Security has been taken care of. Even so, changing a law is something that can’t get done overnight (not until the expedited ethics procedures become more widespread). What do to?

They used the same cleverness that found a way to investigate baseball’s steroid abuses of several years ago after baseball came up with a policy to address the current situation. This week the House subpoenaed Ms. Schiavo to testify in hearings on the pending legislation. She can’t be allowed to die until they’ve finished their spectacle with her. Kafka would be proud.

Senate Majority Leader and former heart surgeon Bill Frist then got into the act. Frist watched a heavily-edited hour of home video shot by Ms. Schiavo’s parents and decided he saw signs of life that had been missed in fifteen years of intensive observation by specialists in disciplines more germane to her situation. (It’s not a heart condition that has her in this state.)

For people so caught up in the wonderfulness of heaven, why won’t these publicity-grubbing bastards just let this poor woman go? God has been calling her home since about 1990; it’s only the infernal machines of man that keep functional the shell she used to live in. This is where the powers that be have taken us, imposing “life” on a woman so her loved ones cannot move on while accepting over 1500 deaths of American troops in the aftermath of removing Weapons of Mass Destruction that weren’t even there. Curiouser and curiouser, as Lewis Carroll would say.

Now, Where Was I?

It’s been a busy week at The Home Office. (No, this isn’t going to become a suburban Lake Wobegone tale. Calm down.) I’m still settling into the new job, which is going well. The commute is coming along, although finding good ways around the Capital Beltway at or near rush hour is as challenging as finding something Tom DeLay thinks he isn’t allowed to do. (We’ll get to him another time.) The blog has suffered as a result.

(Editor’s Note: The above sentence “The blog has suffered…” invokes a level of license with which we are uncomfortable. The frequency with which the blog has been updated has suffered; the quality of the writing has not. The quality of writing here will reach its most consistent when the Icy Hand of Death™ gives the Home Office Correspondent a lesson in brevity.)

Much of this week was spent with the Sole Heir Correspondent, always a good thing. Not to be too much the stage father, but she was given the option this week of deciding if she wanted to attend an International Baccalaureate high school, the county’s magnet for science for math, or continuing on the humanities track she followed in middle school. The IB and magnet programs involved rigorous exams, and she did well enough to get the choice of where she wanted to go, so she’ll be attending the International Baccalaureate program for the next four years. I couldn’t be more proud of her.

I’ll be back at being my crabby old self in a day or so. Enjoy the respite.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Blow Out the Candles, or Else

Mickey Spillane’s 87 today. Big deal? Yeah, maybe, if you’re someone spends most of his free time doing things you never would’ve thought of except for him.

It was a day like any other day. The old man and me were cleaning out the cellar. A paperback book fell out of a drawer. The Twisted Thing. I said, “Who’s this Spillane character?”

“You like Dirty Harry?” the old man said between squirts of tobacco. “You’ll love Mike Hammer.”

He was right. (Again.) The Mick’s heyday was past, but he still sold enough to find him in the paperback racks. I read all I could find. I, the Jury. My Gun is Quick. Kiss me, Deadly. Mike Hammer was Harry Callahan on steroids. Velda might have been the subject of my first wet dream. I don’t know. I was asleep.

Then there were the Miller Lite commercials. Mickey and The Doll. A Columbo appearance. The Mick had staying power. His books still sell. They’ll sell in twenty years. Fifty. John Grisham only wishes he sold books like Spillane sells them. Something like a hundred million.

He’s not my favorite now. I learned, I grew up, my tastes got refined. Raymond Chandler. Elmore Leonard. Ed McBain. More texture, subtlety, shading. Made you think about the people in the stories, maybe even more than that. All Mick ever made you think about was hearing your rod barking when it put one right between the horns, or whether he’d find out if the blonde was a natural in Chapter Six or Eleven.

I’ll always have a soft spot for him, right here. He was a rural kid’s door into a world where tough guys asked their questions after you woke up from their greeting. A place where calling a woman a broad wasn’t an insult. The introduction to the mean streets Chandler’s knight would walk unafraid, taking crap from no one.

Spillane once said he didn’t have readers; he had customers. I won’t argue. What he had for sure was a gift for writing guilty pleasures that read like black and white movies even now, somewhere between the noir of Jim Thompson and the art of Chandler.

Readers, customers, who cares? He had fans.

Here’s to Mike and Velda, Pat Chambers, you and the Doll, Mick. Happy birthday.

Friday, March 04, 2005

A Blast From the Past

President Bush made his first reference to catching Osama bin Laden in a coon’s age yesterday. I guess the fight to change Social Security isn’t going so well and he’s resurrecting the old warhorse of crises to rally the troops.

Bush’s “Government by Crisis” model is getting stale. Laura was a librarian. Maybe she should resurrect Story Time and read “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” to him. It has small words. He should be able to follow along.

This gratuitous swipe was hastened by pending legislation that may limit the capability of bloggers to express political opinions. I doubt it would ever apply to informal journals such as this, but I couldn’t believe they’d allow the FBI to monitor my library books, either.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Puck Drops Here

The NHL probably got more publicity for being the first North American professional sports league to cancel a season over labor difficulties than it ever did by actually playing the games. Much has been said about the future state of hockey, and whether it can survive being out of the public eye for a year. My puckhead credentials are pretty good, as least compared to most residents of Baja Canada, and I have the following theory on that:

You don’t want to play? Don’t play. The only thing that might be killed is the National Hockey League. Hockey will be fine.

I stopped by the local rink last weekend and found myself in the middle of the semi-finals of several local leagues. I took a seat at a fourteen-and-under game with the score 2-0 and 6:45 to play. The underdogs pulled the goalie with 2:30 left and scored twice in the final 1:54. The two teams skated through a scoreless five minute overtime before the team losing when I got there won in a shoot-out.

I went back the next day for the sixteen-and-under finals. This game was tied 2-2 going into the third period. The final of 4-2 came about only after an empty net goal with 5.9 seconds to play.

All four teams left everything on the ice, as they say. There would be no newspaper headlines the next day. No groupies waited for them after the game. Most important, no money changed hands, except for the large sums of money spend over the year for ice time and equipment. The teams got their trophies, mom and dad piled the family into the car, and everyone was happy. My total cost for three hours of highly-competitive hockey: three hours of my time.

Sure, the NHL would be faster, rougher, and more skilled. My teams were evenly matched, and all anyone cared about was giving their best effort to win. Thanks to a media that too often takes the measure of a player by the number of championships won or money earned(?), we forget there is great enjoyment to be had from sport at any level, not just at the top of the pyramid.

Would baseball be better off with a return to the pre-farm system days, where every minor league team was an independent entity, making up their own rosters and playing for a championship that meant something? Sure it would, except for the major leagues. A very successful AA team is near to The Home Office, and the Sole Heir and I enjoy a game there at least once a year. I’d like to follow the team more closely, except for one reason: all games are essentially exhibitions.

Yes, they keep standings and have playoffs. It’s also true that a minor league team can be in the midst of a hotly contested pennant race and have its best player called up to The Show to sit on the bench because the parent team might need a pinch runner twice in September. How much true allegiance can fans build under those circumstances?

You know it’s true if you think about it. Which is a higher level of play, college or minor leagues? Minor leagues, certainly in baseball, since most college players still serve a minor league apprenticeship before going to the majors. Yet which level has closer bonds with its fans, even years after they’ve left the area. Colleges. Why? They play for their own victories and have control over their own hopes. Minor league teams don’t.

We railed last week about the NHL owners being more interested in breaking the union than in playing hockey. Let equal time be given to the concept that hockey players—all professional athletes—would play for a half, a fifth, a tenth of what they make now. Don’t believe me? How many NHL players and skating in Europe and in minor leagues right now?

The NHL might die; maybe it should. A new league would fill the vacuum within a year. Same players, pretty much the same cities, different players on each teams, but we’d recognize everyone. Too many people want to play hockey, and too many people are willing to pay for the privilege of watching them, for it not to happen.

So play, or don’t. People of all ages are playing hockey right now, as you read this, and they’re busting their asses doing it for nothing more than the joy of playing, even in rinks where the only attendees are the players, the officials, and the guy driving the Zamboni. Maybe some family members.

Go see them. It’s the same game. A little slower, not as polished, but the same game. Be amazed at the energy put forth by a crowd ranging from 20–200 people, depending on the relative importance of the game. You’ll be glad you did.