Thursday, April 28, 2011

All tomorrow's parties

It’s being called the Wedding of the Century; never mind, apparently, what the next 89 years of this century might bring. The marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton has already obsessed the world’s media. On Friday when all’s said and done, more than 1 billion people around the world will have watched the proceedings from Westminster Abbey.

We wish them all well, but the fact is, in a world that’s increasingly on edge about everything, from wars to the hazards of a global economy gone wrong, a marriage between two people — even two fantastically privileged people — may be just the reliable, comfortably predictable exercise in ceremony we need right about now.

Royal watchers have sliced and diced the differences between this Wedding of the Century and the last one, back in the last century, when Prince Charles married Diana Spencer in July 1981. Of all the distinctions between then and now, they’ve overlooked the fact that Friday’s splashy nuptials will be the first such event in the age of the Internet. The global village that attended the earlier event will numerically pale in significance compared to the audience that’s coming tomorrow.

Thanks to a 24/7 media environment, the relentless power of cable television and the presence of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, everyday people around the world will have an incredible real-time stake in this event. The global village may never be larger and smaller than it will be hours from now.

◊ ◊ ◊

Any good wedding is as much a celebration of the guests as it is a celebration of the principals, and the celebration doesn’t stop when the bride and groom make their way to a secret undisclosed location. For the invited guests, that’s when the party begins.

Wills and Kate’s will be no different, and very different. Pubs in London are already anticipating selling oceans of ale. The Associated Press reported that Home Office minister James Brokenshire said all licensed pubs may be allowed to serve customers until 1 a.m. Brokenshire said the looser drinking rules will be in force on Friday – already a public holiday – and Saturday. London, and other cities in the UK, will be a great place to get your drink on this weekend.

But that’s the party on the ground. The experience for the rest of us will be shared on television. All the pomp and pageantry that’s about to begin will give way to something that’s already longer than the ceremony itself will be.

◊ ◊ ◊

In the United States, people have announced plans to hold “Wedding parties” of friends gathering over drinks and meals timed to coincide with the events in London. CNN reported that one party planned by someone in Australia would enforce a ground rule: everyone has to have a self-invented title.

And what’s the common thread? This time, unlike before, television and the viral media world is the glue that knits every strand of this story together, in real time. So far it’s been incessant, exhaustive, granular to a fault. We know everything about Wills and Kate but the size of their hat bands — and trust me, someone’s got that locked up too.

But tomorrow when the ceremony begins, or just after, a lot of people around this numb, tragic, angry, hopeful planet will tune in, and be there. And later in the day, watching one of the repeats of the repeats … so will you, if only for a moment. We know so much. We don’t want to buy into the fairy tale, but we do, if only to reinforce our defenses against it.

◊ ◊ ◊

In the last three years, we’ve lived through a series of disappointments, watched the economy and our job prospects decline, and hunkered down in underwater homes, beating back the wolves at the door with two-by-fours ripped out of the wall.

Since the year began, we’ve seen an awakening as viral as the media that covers it; across north Africa and the Middle East, a burst of battered but hopeful optimism has emerged, one that, by its populist origins, is viscerally at odds with the very idea of royalty.

But despite all the regal exclusiveness of what’s about to go down … we need this. We need this pause in the mayhem, this weird anodyne moment, this utterly fairy-tale connection of the old to the new. We need it if only to remind us what order looks like.

Prince William and Kate Middleton are getting married. All of tomorrow’s parties will be very much about yesterday. You may think you’re not invited, but you are. The world party set to explode in London hours from now says more about us — is more about us — than about the bride and groom.

Image credits: Wills & Kate plate: Facebook logo: © 2011 Facebook. Libyan protester: Amr Abdallah/Reuters. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Barbour stop

A marriage of long standing is a wonderful thing. It’s a confirmation of the power of marital traditions (and the power of patience) when two people whose lives are so intertwined that, when the need be, one can prevent the other from making a colossal mistake. It’s especially comforting to see that, when one of the two lives in question is a political animal, family and common sense are still matters of the water’s edge.

We have Marsha Barbour to thank, now and apparently for good, for using the leverage of that marriage to stop her husband, Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, from pursuing what would almost certainly have been a seriously quixotic campaign for the presidency in 2012.

Barbour, whose name was always one on the outside rail of consideration in the first place, had been more than toying with the idea. But with more than one unthinkable endorsement (regarding the segregationist White Citizens’ Council with high regard) and an outright insensitivity (famously saying that the civil rights era “wasn’t that bad” for African Americans), he’d have had an uphill climb for the nomination anyway, even in the Southern states — a region of America that demographically isn’t what it was in the South of his youth.

And then, finally, with the not-so-subtle appeals of the person who knows him best, Barbour, a king of conservative family values, was effectively sidelined by that family value conservatives value the most: Family.

◊ ◊ ◊

"I will not be a candidate for president next year," he said in a statement on Monday. "A candidate for president today is embracing a ten-year commitment to an all-consuming effort, to the virtual exclusion of all else. His (or her) supporters expect and deserve no less than absolute fire in the belly from their candidate. I cannot offer that with certainty, and total certainty is required."

Steve Kornacki in Salon writes: “On one level, it's easy to see why Barbour is backing out now. The burden of his tone deaf (and worse) comments on race and his home state's fraught racial history posed two serious problems for him: (1) In a general election campaign against America's first black president, they might distract from or overshadow his and his party's preferred message; (2) The prospect of (1) threatened to cost him primary season support from the conservative establishment -- which might not have a problem with his comments per se, but which is not overly eager to commit political suicide in the '12 election.”

“Still, it's surprising that he didn't take a shot. There continues to be an unusual amount of room to maneuver on the Republican side. There is no runaway favorite gobbling up cash and endorsements and leaving the rest of the field in the dust in horserace polls. Mitt Romney may be the closest there is to a natural front-runner … Donald Trump's recent rise in GOP polls -- which will almost certainly reverse itself if he persists with his candidacy charade -- is a testament to how eager GOP voters are for someone, anyone to rescue them from the uninspiring candidate choices they now face.”

That eagerness might have been the best reason not to get in. At least if there’s a frontrunner (for what that’s worth this far out), there’s someone to focus on, there’s a fixed target for a campaign’s energies. It’s hard to see a benefit in joining a race when you’re already well down in the polls; jumping in under those circumstances would have made Barbour part of the marching band in a parade of horrible choices.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Civil War revisited (latest in a series)

They were everywhere on April 12, the sesquicentennial anniversary of the start of the American Civil War: news stories datelined from Fort Sumter, S.C., the Union stronghold that the Confederates first began bombarding at 4:30 that morning in 1861, officially beginning the hostilities that eventually consumed 2 percent of the nation’s population as casualties, the nation’s bloodiest war that, vis-à-vis race relations, began the future of African Americans.

Since then? Not so much said in the mainstream media about the war that scarred this country and whose impact we endure today. There’s so much else going on in the here and now, goes the apparent thinking; the media took off its hat and bowed its head to the most ruinous war in our history … and moved on to the more genial combat of “Dancing With the Stars.”

But 150 years after the start of the genuine article, what’s compelling is the way in which the Civil War is being re-waged, at a number of levels, in theaters of battles the original combatants couldn’t have imagined. We’re fighting the Civil War by other means.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s not just the continuing presence of re-enactments of Civil War skirmishes and pivotal battles. At various times throughout any given year, on some date that numerically dovetails with an earlier one, car salesmen and mechanics, middle managers and heavy equipment operators gather to wear the uniforms of Confederate or Union soldiers, load cannon with blank charges, and recreate the theater of conflict.

That’s gone on for years, and often from a Southern perspective; battles won by the Confederate forces have a special place in the regional heart, for obvious reasons. The re-enacters have a special fondness for hitting that rewind button.

Or some Southern states don’t reenact the start of the war, they re-create the date of their secession from the Union. In December 2010, the Confederate Heritage Trust of Charleston held its Secession Ball, a gala that began a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Palmetto State’s secession, the first to break from the United States.

◊ ◊ ◊

Certain Southern politicians have shown more of a fondness for outright historical revisionism. In April 2010, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a proclamation celebrating Confederate History Month at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization of descendants of rebel soldiers.

McDonnell’s proclamation, which revived a tradition discontinued in two previous (Democratic) administrations, didn’t include a word about slavery, the “peculiar institution” that gave the Confederacy its very reason for being.

A few days later, after the firestorm of criticism you’d expect, McDonnell made with a kind of a mea culpa: “The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed.”

“It is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war, and was an evil and inhuman practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights.”

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, considered presidential timber by some in his Republican Party, rushed to shore up McDonnell’s defenses, calling the proclamation's omission of slavery something that “doesn’t amount to diddly.” It was revisionist history that celebrated a tradition while overlooking the antecedents that made that tradition possible.

◊ ◊ ◊

Without slavery, of course, there’d have been no anti-slavery position for Abraham Lincoln to campaign on and win an election with; without Lincoln’s election, the rationale for secession and the Confederacy itself utterly vanishes.

Connecting the obvious historical dots like this is lost on some — people like a former colleague at a San Francisco newspaper where I worked in the early 1990’s. An otherwise witty, personable and well-read journalist who was raised in the South, he had a demeanor that switched suddenly when the matter of the Civil War came up.

When that happened once in the course of some conversation, he informed me (in what he thought was a tone of authority but was conveyed with an undercurrent of menace) that the Civil War had absolutely nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with a state’s right to pursue commerce without interference from the federal government.

It would have been a waste of time to show him excerpts of the Cornerstone Speech by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, in March 1861. That was when Stephens said the Confederacy and “its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

It’s this vast blind spot that persists in the national field of vision. It’s this blind spot that’s the terrain where the Civil War goes on today.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s being fought, or at least re-litigated, in our popular culture. “The Conspirator,” the new film by Oscar-winning director Robert Redford, re-examines the Lincoln assassination and the trial of Mary Surratt, the only woman implicated in the conspiracy to kill the 16th president. And we can look forward to Steven Spielberg’s biopic on Lincoln, to be portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s set to begin filming in the fall, with release planned for fall 2012.

And the Civil War has been fought after the fact by black Americans, the descendants of the slaves who were at the heart of the conflict. One of the strategies employed by those descendants on the postwar battlefield was a brilliant rejoinder to the searing power of the Confederate flag, the Stars and Bars whose appearance in the American South and elsewhere has long been a symbol of a tolerance for intolerance.

In 1994, NuSouth, a progressive urban clothing company based in Charleston, S.C., took the emotionally powerful step of reclaiming the Confederate flag, tweaking its traditional red, white and blue colors to the black liberation colors of red, black and green. It was a bold semiotic stroke, one that aroused the ire and the respect of Southerners, an action that sent the notice that black Americans need not be held in check by a flag whose very existence is a signal of disrespect for them and all they represent.

“By using the design to turn a potent symbol of white supremacy and black oppression on its ear, and then reproducing it on clothing worn by everyone from tourists to television actors to members of the hillbilly-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, they have reclaimed the flag for themselves—and for all southerners,” wrote Andy Steiner in the July/August 1999 Utne Reader.

◊ ◊ ◊

And the NuSouth design was, as much as anything else, an existential expression consistent with what black people in the United States have always had to do: achieve genius in survival. Taking the masters’ leavings and turning it into cuisine. Transforming a trail of sorrows into chain-gang anthems and changing them into the emotional infrastructure, the double helix, of the blues.

It’s maybe the best way to survive a war whose casualties have expanded well beyond the geographic boundaries of that war’s location, the chronological boundaries of that war’s official beginning and end. The Ku Klux Klan was coming. So were the lynchings and the murders and disappearances, in the South and elsewhere in America. So were the exploits of Confederate Gens. J.B. Stoner and George Wallace, Orval Faubus and Lester Maddox, and their enablers and apologists into the moment of right now, those who’ve adopted the basis of Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech, privately if not publicly.

Inspired by sesquicentennial numerology, the current revisitation of the Civil War is nothing more than the most recent one, the latest reminder of a sadly resilient national fact: the Civil War is the American war that never ends.

Image credits: Bob McDonnell: © 2010 Gage Skidmore, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Alexander Stephens: public domain. Conspirator poster: © 2011 Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions. NuSouth flag: © 1994 NuSouth Apparel.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Beating the clock on hitting the ceiling

The most visually boring Web site in the country may well be the most important Web site in the country, thanks to the steady accretion of the national debt and the inexorable, mounting wall of fear that no one — in this generation or the next three — will escape its impact on our culture, our psyche and our lives. is the go-to site for all things related to the national indebtedness. It’s an online variation on the National Debt Clock that’s hummed for years at varying speeds on the side of a building in midtown Manhattan. And more. A lot more. The USDebtClock is an indicator — on steroids — of how much worse the problem of U.S. obligations (and our own) has grown in the United States, how it’s gotten so complicated that one array of numbers can’t contain everything that’s at stake in 2011.

The Web site’s main attraction is a home page whose explosion of rectangular calculator modules instantly compute, in real time, the various dimensions of the national indebtedness, everything from total U.S. debt, tax revenue, total consumer debt and total debt per citizen to gross domestic product, corporation assets, official number of unemployed, actual number of unemployed. Your dollar, where it goes, where it’s spent, where it stays and where it’s never around for very long, broken down six ways to Sunday.

You can bet your underwater mortgage that President Obama has it bookmarked on his computer in the Oval Office. House Majority Whip Eric Cantor? Maybe not so much. The numbers he’s paying attention to aren’t the billions breathlessly whizzing past on that Web site. Cantor’s focused on the numbers of votes he needs in the House to prevent the debt ceiling from being raised — ushering in what’s predicted to be a catastrophe of nightmare proportions.

What Cantor recently called a “leverage moment” for the Republican Party is dead ahead. But the demand for serious spending cuts doesn’t end with the GOP. Democrats want the national credit card limit reined in, too. And that fact sets the stage for what could be the first real bipartisan test of the will of our lawmakers to do something about the debt — not just nibble around the margins, but to take the problem head-on. How deftly, boldly and imaginatively President Obama navigates this problem, one that strikes at the heart of the heart of the American economy, may well define his presidential legacy.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s already generally conceded, by people in a position to know, that the default on our obligations that would result if the debt ceiling limit of $14.3 trillion isn’t raised would be disastrous. Rick Mishkin, a former Fed Reserve governor, told CBS News as much on April 14: “This is what they do in countries like Argentina. This is not what we do in this country.”

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said it plainer still on CBS the same day: “It would shake the very foundation of the entire global financial system.”

Something needs doing right now to prevent what could be, sometime between May 16 and early July, the true literal tipping point for the American economy and the U.S. dollar’s vitality as the world’s reserve currency. The call for serious reform, the “leverage moment,” doesn’t conveniently break along party lines.

"What I've told anyone who will listen to me in Washington, including my leadership, is that I'm not going to vote for [raising the debt ceiling] unless there is a real and meaningful commitment to debt reduction," Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor told the Political Animals Club at a meeting on Wednesday, as reported by Fox News.

And the line in the sand that starts within the Beltway isn’t staying in the Beltway. According to a new CBS News/New York Times poll released Thursday, “a clear majority of Americans” are against raising the debt ceiling. “Just 27 percent of Americans support raising the debt limit, while 63 percent oppose raising it,” the poll reported. “Support for raising the debt limit is just 36 percent among Democrats, and only 14 percent among Republicans.”

◊ ◊ ◊

What will be on the table is where to make the deep slashes to the nation’s spending. Will Democrats accept cuts in entitlement programs, education and other areas sacrosanct to liberals and independents? Will Republicans accept deep trims in the military budget, and can they live with higher taxes for wealthy Americans?

There’s thinking that at least some of the drama behind the issue is nothing less than the “political theater” Cantor condemned recently.

“While Republican leaders are reportedly acknowledging behind closed doors that they will not let the United States fall into default, they are considering demanding everything from a balanced budget amendment to statutory spending caps to a 2/3rds voting requirement to increase taxes,” CBS News reported Thursday.

◊ ◊ ◊

For the American people, the brain-locking immensity of the problem has led to an inability to distinguish between the deficit and the debt. The deficit is, on a fiscal-year basis, the gap between what the U.S. government takes in and what the government spends — what you and your partner wrestle with at the kitchen table every two weeks.

The national debt is the total of accumulated fiscal years of deficits — all the money that the government owes FY after FY. Add ‘em up and you’ve got an accurate snapshot of the national debt (for a fraction of a second).

The monstrousness of that amount has meant that, for American lawmakers, the weight of that debt has been kicked down the road for years. The scope of the problem stems in part from the foundational hubris that has to arise when one currency is the default generator for the world economy. When you’ve got the printing press for the world’s reserve currency in your very own basement, the whole concept of debt takes on a very different meaning. Until it doesn’t. Until, ultimately, “debt” means what it’s always meant.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s that moment of the absolute, that reckoning, that’s on its way in. If this is political theater, the third act — will they beat the clock on hitting the ceiling? — is about to begin.

David Stockman, the former deputy White House budget director under President Reagan, said as much recently on MSNBC, when he described the U.S. financial crisis in terms as practical as they were frightening.

From his knowledgeable perspective, it’s finally ‘round midnight. The idea of shared sacrifice is no longer subject to debate.

“The wolf is at the door,” Stockman said. “We have gotten away with this massive deficit financing for years now, because most of the debt was being bought by the central banks. We’re now at the point where the Fed is going to stop buying the debt in June … the Japanese are going to start selling U.S. Treasuries, probably, not buying them … [and] the biggest bond fund in the world, PIMCO, announced over the weekend that they’re short the Treasury bond. It’s an indication that this problem is coming at us very rapidly. It’s here.”

Image credits: National debt maladjusted for inflation: All other images from USDebtClock.  From top to bottom, the amounts shown are a real-time reflection of the public debt as it climbed between 4:16 and 4:55 this morning: give or take ... $63 million in 39 minutes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The GOP weighs its options

The sun rose this morning in the eastern time zones of the United States and set in the West, regular as clockwork, reliable as the tides. But in the political world in Washington, there’s been evidence of a change in the tidal gravity ruling the Republican Party. The elephant may be morphing into a creature we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.

On Tuesday, Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona whose full-throated defense of the most divisive immigration control law in the country endeared her to the conservative right, vetoes a bill from the legislature, a birther-inspired piece of legislation that would have required every presidential candidate campaigning in the state to show their birth certificates.

“This is a bridge too far,” Brewer said in rebuking her own Republican supporters. “This measure creates significant new problems while failing to do anything constructive for Arizona,” said the governor, who a day earlier vetoed legislation that would have permitted carrying guns on college campuses. The right to bear arms — conservative holy of holies — rejected by one of their own.

In an interview with ABC News, Tea Party darling Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann broke philosophical ranks with the TP crowd she once championed, debunking in fairly conclusive terms the conservative extremist suspicions of President Obama’s place of birth. “That is not the main issue facing the United States right now,” she said.

And in a spirited town hall meeting in Milton, Wisc., earlier this week, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was pummeled by his own constituents when he attempted to defend his Path to Prosperity budget blueprint. An auditorium crowded with conservative everyday Americans who broke ranks with leadership, soundly rejecting one of their own, in a raucous display of populism.

◊ ◊ ◊

This is not the bizzarro world; this is, or what looks like, an unlikely burst of political pragmatism on the part of Republican lawmakers and their rank and file. For a moment, if only for a moment, some highly visible members of the GOP have pivoted toward a startling centrism on matters of public policy and their own identity in the public eye.

This rush to practicality spells the end of two things: If it goes on, it could end the reflexively doctrinaire positions of some in the Republican leadership, as possible presidential hopefuls from the party begin to make the slow but necessary transition toward a wider electability.

And by extension, the new pragmatism of at least some on the political right signals what we’ve known was coming: as a functioning variant of its forebear, the Republican Party, the Tea Party has outlived its usefulness as a means to a political end.

◊ ◊ ◊

There are other signs that conservatives are beginning to realize both the futility of their style of politics, and the impracticality of the bedrock precepts of the modern GOP.

Glenn Beck, the right-wing wind machine and publishing industry, was jettisoned from his prime-time show on the Fox News Channel, after hundreds of advertisers jumped ship. He may have a future role at the network, but for now Beck’s lost that bully TV pulpit of a spot in the national conversation.

In a new McClatchy-Marist poll, when Tea Party supporters were asked if Medicare should be cut, 70 percent said no. In other polls, when conservative and independent voters were asked if taxes should be raised on those earning more than $250,000 a year, majorities supported doing just that — consistent with the long-held position by Democrats.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’d be a mistake, of course, to think this means the conservatives and extremists who’ve villainized the president and compromised his integrity, his manhood and even his birth have all had a full-on come-to-Jesus moment. There’s no reason to believe they won’t revert to type again. An animal is never so dangerous as when it’s fighting for its life. Sarah Palin remains at large.

But something's up. There are suggestions that now — in a nation undergoing dramatic demographic change, months before the start of another presidential campaign season, with no clear serious frontrunner to get excited about, with identity issues that badly need to be resolved before that campaign season can possibly get under way — the Republicans are exploring their options.

On available evidence, one of those options appears to be a willingness to dial back on the zero-sum-game, all-or-nothing brand of politics that has characterized the party identity for generations — the better to make the Republicans palatable, if not electable, for a wider segment of the American people next year and beyond.

Image credits: Brewer: via Talking Points Memo. Beck: Fox News.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Donald Trump: A no-show of hands

Even a dog can shake hands

— Warren Zevon

Donald Trump, the man who would be the Smartest Guy in the American room, is the beneficiary of the proverbial publicity that money can’t buy. As the brusque, sarcastic conservative darling of the moment rides his NBC show to no small profile in the prime-time ratings, Trump has endeared himself to the more extremist aspect of the Republican Party (the obstreperous crew that once loudly but now not so much called themselves the Tea Party).

Some of the recent polling finds Trump in the catbird seat, the preference over other presumably more qualified (elected) possibles for the 2012 presidential campaign as Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. Never mind that Trump has been playing this crowd, gauging the field of likely contenders and gaining mightily in the right-wing opinion polls by not revealing much about the Trump world view and capacity to govern, not much beyond his … unease about the veracity of the presidential birth certificate.

Never mind that polls this far out, ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire and all the beauty contests between now and then, are essentially worthless, right now proving nothing more than who’s best at wrestling the spotlight away from someone else. Donald Trump’s always been good at that.

But frankly, all the debate and jabbering about whether Trump runs or not is wasted time. Donald Trump won’t run, and he won’t run for a more elemental reason, something that matters more than thunderous endorsements of a crackpot theory or his potential political viability for a badly fractured party. He won’t run because of what running means about having to meet the people he would presume to govern.

Thanks to a phobia that goes back more than a dozen years, Donald Trump won’t press the flesh.

◊ ◊ ◊

Back in October 1999, journalist Margaret Carlson wrote a profile of Trump for Time magazine. She describes her first encounter with Trump, “a man famous for prompting Marla Maples' tabloid headline BEST SEX I'VE EVER HAD, and for refusing to shake hands for fear of germs. As he shakes mine, I ask him if he's got over this phobia. ‘I don't mind shaking the hand of a beautiful woman,’ he croons. ‘It's worth the risk.’”

But that won’t work. Unless the 152 million males in America decide to boycott any and all appearances at the stops on the 2012 campaign trail, the Donald will have some problems in meeting the American electorate at the rope lines and county fairgrounds and fundraisers that lead to the presidency, or not.

That phobia’s followed Trump right up to the present day; it’s already drawn attention from the media. The attention to that quirk-chink in the Trump persona is marginal right now; let’s face it, the birther issue is still the main attraction, the bearded-lady talking point of Trump’s gilded circus.

But Trump’s enough of a businessman to know the reputation of a handshake as a symbol of closing a deal. His rejection of that symbol sends a wrong message to the people he’d need to close the biggest deal of his life. They’re not afraid of shaking hands. They know their presidential history (at least the presidential history they’ve lived through) and they know enough to ask a simple question:

Excuse me, but how you gonna be president of the United States when you won’t shake hands with your potential constituents?

◊ ◊ ◊

Shaking hands is a custom that stretches back literally to antiquity. It’s been noted, via archeological discoveries, as a social custom that extends to at least the 5th century B.C. Sir Walter Raleigh may have played a role in its evolution in the West, but the practice has its variations in other cultures.

In the United States, in a political context, the handshake has a meaning that is synonymous with our deeper civic aspirations. Simply put, the handshake is foundational to retail presidential politics, and it is so for a reason: nothing else experienced, by the candidate or those he seeks to woo, brings the political phenomenon so close to the literal human touch. And the American people know it.

In 2003, in his first run for California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger embarrassed his opponent, incumbent Gray Davis, with a variety of cosmetic and stylistic moves that helped endear the unlikely candidate to the state’s voters. Among those strategies was Arnold’s full-on embrace of the sheer relentless physicality of American politics. He waded into the crowd, shook every hand he saw, arm-wrestled and jostled, cajoled and laughed. For those brief shining moments, Arnold was one of them. Schwarzenegger won in a walk.

◊ ◊ ◊

Look at just two of our best and brightest. They never held back. John F. Kennedy embraced the crowd with a feverish intensity. Robert F. Kennedy shook hands with people on the campaign trail until his own hands bled. There are others besides, way more the rule than the exception. LBJ. Clinton. Reagan. Obama.

Political inclinations aside, they relished what this nation was and is, up close and personal in a way that Donald Trump never will. For the serious presidential contender, accessibility is the price of admission. And Donald Trump’s not willing to pay that price.

Trump’s core identity, his basic aspect is to be A Thing Apart. It’s obvious in the marketing of his hotels and casinos, in the branding of his jets and his books. Gold, gilt, privilege, elevation, rich Corinthian leather. He’s spent his life and his career putting distance between himself and everyone else — the ones he’d privately call “the great unwashed.”

Why the hell would anyone believe he wants to be “one of us” now? He wants to be president? Why should he presume to embody our hopes, our values, our John and Jane Q. Public dreams when he won’t even shake your hand?

◊ ◊ ◊

The Donald will ride this fatuous hot-air balloon of birther publicity a while longer; at some time close to the season finale of “Celebrity Apprentice” — and maybe that night — we can expect Trump will do a drumroll and cough up a lofty hairball, a statement about his having considered all his options and decided that pursuit of the presidency is not right for him at this time.

Or maybe not. He could surprise us; he could tough this out; the Donald may decide that there’s enough hand sanitizer in the country to permit him to make a presidential run after all.

But failing that, and that will fail — phobias run deep — the nation will have to content itself with Donald Trump as the pitchman who will never be president. The show of hands he won’t shake is the same show of hands he’ll never get.

Image credits: Trump: Fox News Channel. Hera and Athena: Marsyas, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license. Robert F. Kennedy, 1968: © 1968, 2011 Bill Eppridge, via Vanity Fair

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen,
Donald Trump and the Blacks!

The word “the” is a powerful thing. The definite article, for all its three-letter smallness, has a way of embracing everything that follows it in one presumptive lumpen collection of the same.

This is a linguistic subtlety that’s apparently escaped Donald Trump, the self-described Smart Guy who is flirting again with a possible run for the presidency in 2012.

That lack of subtlety in the context of political constituencies was apparent in a radio interview the Donald had today on Talk Radio 1300, in Albany, N.Y. When discussing the overwhelming support that President Obama continues to enjoy among African Americans in New York state and nationally, Trump volunteered his own sense of how well he fares with those U.S. citizens. “I have a great relationship with the blacks,” he said. “I've always had a great relationship with the blacks.”

When you first hear it, the mind refuses to come to the immediate, obvious conclusion. No one could be that ethnically insensitive a decade into the 21st century. You want to give the billionaire entertainer the benefit of the doubt.

The charitable soul wants to believe that maybe the Donald was into the theater during his days at the Wharton School. Maybe his statement was just an early tribute to the author of “The Blacks,” the French playwright and novelist Jean Genet, who died in Paris 25 years ago tomorrow.

Or maybe Trump sits in with the reconvened New York improv jazz-funk band James White and the Blacks, on the weekends. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Absent those distant possibilities, it’s hard to imagine how a prospective candidate for the American presidency could be so tone-deaf to the sadly homogenizing aspects of his own world-view.

According to USA Today, a Trump spokesman said in a statement that the Donald may announce the time and place of a campaign-related press conference on the season finale of his NBC show “Celebrity Apprentice,” on May 22. At that news conference, Trump will declare “whether or not he will run for president.”

Maybe that’s when he’ll spell it all out for The American people.

Image credits: Trump: David Shankbone, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license 3.0 Unported license. Genet:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The sand in the lines:
Obama’s bring-it moment

In his 2008 presidential bid, as a way of arousing the drive for Change that was his campaign’s centerpiece, Barack Obama was fond of occasionally using a line attributed to the lore of the Hopi Indians: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

In a speech today in Washington, in a way that can’t be conveniently spun or tweaked or manicured, Barack Obama took the gloves off to become — finally, apparently — the full-throated Democratic president we’ve been waiting for.

His speech at George Washington University addressed the ballooning national debt in general strategic terms; this was not a speech for the details, the specifics of the how. What the speech did, and more effectively than we’d thought possible not so long ago, is to call out the Republicans on their lack-of-vision thing, the “Path to Prosperity” budget plan offered by the House Budget Chairman, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. In his 40-minute speech, the president threw down a gauntlet in front of the Republicans — after hitting ‘em in the head with it first. Bring it, he told them. Take your best shot.

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama used the speech to announce his plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years, an approach that “will require us to put everything on the table and take on excess spending wherever it exists in the budget.” That includes cuts at every level of government, including Medicare. But implicit in that statement, there’s also the intent to end the sacred-cow days of (among others) the ever-ballooning defense budget.

You could almost hear the Democratic base cheering when Obama said flat out that Medicare would not be reduced to a system of relatively worthless vouchers, and described the intent of the Republicans’ slash-and-burn legislative proposal as “less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.”

And you could sense the alarm bells going off in Republican circles when the president said, in language almost pugnacious, that not reviving the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of the American people would figure in his deficit reduction plan. “I refuse to renew them again,” the president said.

“At a time when the tax burden of the wealthy is at its lowest level in half a century, the most fortunate among us can afford to pay a little more.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Saying the Ryan plan “paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic,” Obama cut through the clutter of GOP misnomer about Republicans’ real intentions for Medicare. In recent days they’ve said they want to “reform” or “transform” Medicare; Obama said the Republican plan is one that “put simply, ends Medicare as we know it. ... That’s not right, and that’s not gonna happen as long as I’m president.”

As the Republican field for 2012 sorts itself out — Rick Santorum today announced he’s formed a toe-in-the-water committee for a possible presidential run, following Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty — the president’s speech indicates two generally strategic things: That at long last, he’s done with the conciliatory-to-a-fault relationship with the Republicans; and that right now, he’s setting the agenda for the 2012 campaign. He's defining the terms of engagement, no matter who the Republicans run against him.

The kernel of this speech, its fire and heart, will likely be at the heart of his own campaign next year. If the meme for Obama 2008 was Change, the meme for Obama 2012 may well be the Community of shared sacrifice in the nation’s most financially perilous hour.

“We will need to make reforms,” he said. “We will all need to make sacrifices, but we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in, and as long as I’m president, we won’t.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“He drew a line in the sand today,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the Missouri Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Huffington Post. “I hope [Republicans] understand their ability to walk away from negotiations and say they won may have just ended.”

As often happens, one phrase can carry the day in the media universe, and Cleaver’s phrase was spot-on (never mind that the atmospherics of the event, and the brinkmanship implicit in Obama’s speech, meant that the phrasemakers in the punditburo would have come to it eventually on their own).

The president did draw a line in the sand, but there was more beyond evidence of that phrasal convenience. Watching Obama today, there was a new fire, a new spine in the presidential delivery itself. He’s pushed back against his opponents before, but not like this.

“That’s not gonna happen,” “I won’t,” “I refuse.” These aren't the words of a rhetorical gentleman; this is the language of someone ready for a street fight. For all the past suspicions of Obama as appeaser-in-chief, there’s no escaping the stubbornness, the solidity of those phrases — said not by a candidate with no knowledge of the responsibilities of the White House, but by a sitting president with every knowledge of the leverage he now holds.

True, the devil’s in the details, and the follow-through. Rightly or wrongly, Obama’s been characterized more than once as a president temperamentally opposed to confrontation, one who’ll cave under pressure to avoid it, or even before any pressure’s been applied.

But anyone who thought the president would buckle this time had to feel good today. There was sand — nerve, strength and grit — in the president’s lines this afternoon, reason enough for the Democratic base to take heart while the Republicans arrayed against him take cover.

Image credit: Obama: Samantha Appleton/The White House

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Getting the big chair (and the big challenge)
at post-Couric CBS News

The news arrived like a thunderclap, one news junkies had been anticipating for months: Katie Couric, for almost five years the anchor of the "CBS Evening News," would step down from the post later this year, in the wake of declining ratings and some frustration with the evening-news format she inherited.

From almost the moment the news of her imminent exit was announced, speculations began about who'd succeed her.

That puff-of-smoke-at-the-Vatican waiting game is now underway; the early prospects include the three leading internal candidates, Russ Mitchell, Scott Pelley and Harry Smith.

As CBS makes its decision, we can expect those who monitor the progress of black and minority journalists in television news to get behind Mitchell, a frequent CBS fixture and one of broadcast television's most recognizable African-American faces. ...

In some ways, Mitchell would be a natural for the CBS anchor slot. He's co-hosted the Saturday edition of "The Early Show," anchors Saturday's "Evening News," and has even filled in for Couric on the weekday "Evening News." ...

[But] whoever gets Couric's job will be asked to catch a falling knife: to take the helm of the perennially third-rated evening-news program and turn it around -- a tall order for the next CBS News anchor, regardless of race or gender.

Read more at theGrio

Image credit: Couric: CBS News.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Reclaiming April 4th

Considering that the 235 years of American history occurred through a series of 365-day years, 366 tops, it’s inevitable we remember any given date for more than one reason. Pick a date, any date; the American calendar is crowded with coincidences.

April 4 was one of those dates. For more than two generations that date has been seared into the American consciousness for the worst reasons. That was, of course, the date in 1968 when we lost Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to the savagery of an assassin’s action, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

We tend to trace our history with such final, terminal milestones. What we as a nation seemed to lose that day —our faith in the institutions that make this country what it is and what it purports to be, our sense of the grand American possible — wasn’t lost after all. But that national optimism has been in and out of intensive care ever since.

By happenstance and by design, this April 4 was rescued somewhat from its grim associations. On the 2011 edition of that date, we could shift our vision from the rear-view mirror to the road ahead for examples of how this nation is living out the true meaning of its creed.

◊ ◊ ◊

On Monday, in an e-mail and a conference call to supporters, and with logoed ads that hit the major Web sites, President Obama officially launched his re-election campaign.

“We're doing this now,” he said in the e-mail, “because the politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas, but with you -- with people organizing block-by-block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends. And that kind of campaign takes time to build. ...

“We’ve always known that lasting change wouldn't come quickly or easily. It never does," Obama e-said. “But as my administration and folks across the country fight to protect the progress we've made -- and make more -- we also need to begin mobilizing for 2012, long before the time comes for me to begin campaigning in earnest.”

David A. Love, writing in theGrio on Monday, distilled what’s facing the president in the next eighteen months: “President Obama must channel the justifiable anger of the base, independents and disaffected Republicans, and show that he will stand up for their issues and against these regressive, reactionary policies of the right wing. … Despite Obama's tendency to split the difference, find common ground and break bread with his political adversaries, the president must not legitimize Republican overreach by allowing them to control the political narrative.”

But for all that, it’s impossible to overlook the unspoken sweetness of this dovetailing of April 4 and American history. For all the challenges President Obama faces for his re-election, you can’t help but think how the work of Martin Luther King, ended 43 years earlier, was instrumental in the first African American president even having the option, the relative luxury of running for re-election to the highest elective office in the nation and the most pivotal executive position in the world. The president of the United States stands on the shoulders of the preacher from Atlanta.

◊ ◊ ◊

A captive of his era, and speaking in the context that he could understand, King rhetorically framed the debate over equality and justice in terms of black and white. But new population figures released by the Census Bureau at the end of March show how and why the American racial experience will no longer be rendered in shades of duotone.

The overall percentage of non-Hispanic whites declined from 69.1 percent in 2000 to 63.7 in 2010, a sharper drop than previously predicted, the Census Bureau reported. Stunningly, the minority population increased from 30.9 percent in 2000 to 36.3 percent in 2010.

The United States Hispanic population in 2010 reached 50.5 million people — up 47 percent in 10 years, the agency reported.

And in a disclosure that could have implications for the 2016 race, if not next year, the new census figures find that 46.5 percent of people under 18 are minority, up considerably from the 39.1 percent in 2000.

In a March 31 piece on “The New America,” National Journal’s Ron Brownstein wrote that: “As recently as last summer, demographers projected that minorities would make up a majority of the under-18 population sometime after 2020. At the current rate of growth, however, nonwhites will comprise a majority of children in the United States by 2015.”

Monday, April 4, 2011

BP: Do-overs in the Gulf

This is my mistake
Let me make it good
— “World Leader Pretend,” R.E.M.

Just when the people of Louisiana and the wider Gulf Coast region thought it was safer to go back into the water, the news broke over the weekend that BP, the British superconglomerate responsible for last year’s environmental catastrophe — an event the fragile regional ecology will probably be paying for for years — has designs on returning to the Gulf. To pick up right where they left off last year.

According to The New York Times, ABC News and the British press, BP has filed a request with federal regulators to resume drilling in the Gulf, specifically to restart work at 10 existing deepwater wells that were up and running before the April 20 Macondo well explosion that killed 11 oil workers and resulted in just under 5 million barrels of oil leaching into the Gulf.

Published reports have the drilling possibly set to resume as soon as July.

BP has reportedly agreed (among other concessions) to permit 24-hour access to its wells by safety inspectors — something that, on the face of it, would seem to be less a condition in the negotiations and more a matter of commonsense S.O.P.

◊ ◊ ◊

The government denies, denies, denies, of course; a spokeswoman at the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement told ABC “there is no deal with BP.”

But the irony of even a possible deal hasn’t escaped environmentalists. Kent Davies of Greenpeace told ABC News on Sunday that “it’s not even a year since the worst environmental disaster this country’s ever seen, and the culprit is being led right back to the scene of the crime and given the keys.”

“Just last week,” The Times reported Sunday, “the Justice Department confirmed that it was considering a range of civil and criminal penalties against BP, including potential manslaughter charges for the deaths of the rig workers, as part of its ongoing investigation into the accident.”

Apparently, in the manner of a durable marriage, the relationship between these two suitors is such that they don’t stay mad at each other for very long. The relationship between BP and the thousands of displaced, financially damaged workers in the Gulf’s fishing industry may be another matter. With $40 billion in claims against BP, you can understand why.

“Do-overs” used to be the classic schoolyard maneuver for kids, a way  to correct a mistake and start over. Now one of the biggest and most ethically cavalier companies on the planet looks likely to get a do-over of its own. If it happens, we expect that new safety regs, a punitive share price, a multibillion-dollar compensation cost and a badly trashed public image will prevent a repeat of a disaster that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

Image credits: Macondo well explosion: U.S. Coast Guard. HuffPost front page: © 2010 The Huffington Post. BP logo: BP

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The birthers’ celebrity apprentice

It’s a blue-moon occasion when liberals and progressives in America have reason to cheer Bill O’Reilly. The Fox News ideologue firebrand and fabulist hasn’t politically reinvented himself; there was no deathbed conversion to progressive values. As it turns out, O’Reilly indicated a common cause with liberals, if only for a moment, when he interviewed Donald Trump last week and made perfectly clear how utterly clueless, how far from reality the Donald really is — even for a Republican.

By now you know that Trump, the tireless egomaniac real-estate mogul and near-billionaire whose dearest currency is publicity, has come perilously close to throwing his fur-lined hat in the ring for a possible presidential run in 2012.

This foolishness started, ominously enough, not at an any-time press conference at one of the Trump hotels, but on Feb. 10, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, the GOP’s coming-out party for putative candidates. That’s where the Donald said “I will decide by June” whether or not to formally declare as a candidate. He followed that with a March 17 interview on “Good Morning America”; when asked if he was for real, Trump said “I have never been so serious as I am now.”

In these recent interviews and appearances, independent of his role as host of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show, Trump’s tried to endear himself to the birther wing of the Republican Party by voicing doubts or concerns about the birthplace of President Obama.

He’s thundered, in the blustery silkiness of the Trump style, that something about Obama's upbringing is "strange," that no one remembers Obama as a child, that in order for his concerns to be resolved, the Donald demands to see the president's birth certificate (which you can see on the left). He advanced that tiresome idea on the “GMA” interview; he did it again about a week later on ABC’s “The View.”

This cry for attention and relevancy is, for Trump, more or less par for the (Robert Trent Jones-designed golf) course. But it’s fraught with political minefields.

Either Trump doesn’t realize it or he doesn’t care, but playing the birther angle puts him in company he’d rather not keep. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and political personality Sarah Palin have spent time among the birthers — not exactly the gravitas wing of the party. Flirtations like this alienate independent voters and those voters in the bedrock center of the Republican Party, the people looking for a serious candidate, the people he’d need on his side to be a contender.

And anyway, it’s just so 2009. Such obvious pandering, such a thoroughly unoriginal entry point into the national conversation, such a weak attempt to play to the Tea Party extremists do nothing to increase the already marginal chances that an obstreperous real-estate mogul with hair like a mullet on acid will be elected president of the United States.

◊ ◊ ◊

Some in the GOP camp oppose him already, but for the wrong reasons. The predictable lament is that with his celebrity and deep pockets, Trump is usurping the public attention otherwise devoted to more worthy probables. But the argument that Trump’s using up all the oxygen in the room loses any power when you realize that, at this point, Trump’s the only one in the room. Others like Newt Gingrich have formed toe-in-the-water committees; they’re flirting with the idea of running, if they’ve gone that far.

The Donald’s campaign talk may just be his way of calling out other candidates to get off the fence, get serious or get out. Right now, Trump’s only rival for quasi-seriousness is Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor whose recent shiny, happy ad announcing an exploratory committee for 2012 looks like nothing less than a campaign kickoff.

Matter of fact, Pawlenty released an ad for a book that had the same big-budget, high production values as a trailer for a major motion picture (or a campaign ad):

You want serious? That’s serious.

◊ ◊ ◊

But what really hurts the Donald’s prospects is the leadership question — the same thing that’s in play for his contestant teams on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

He’s a man of malleable mind on topical matters. The National Journal reported that his current anti-abortion stance is “a complete reversal of his position on abortion during a previous flirtation with a White House run” in 1999.

To go by his past political affiliations, he’s a man of malleable political convictions too. The New York Daily News reported in February that the Donald registered as a Republican in New York in 1987, then hopped over to the Independence Party buffet in 1999. At some later point, he morphed into a Democrat before switching back to the Republican Party in September 2009.

Michael Cohen, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, offered an astonishing explanation of his flip-flop on abortion that works just as well for his flip-flop on his choice of party: “People change their positions all the time, the way they change their wives.’’

◊ ◊ ◊

Trump was for universal health care (“Our people are our greatest asset. We must take care of our own. We must have universal health care.”) until he was against it (“you need somebody that is going to beat Barack Obama. You need somebody that's going to knock out Obamacare,” he said in the GMA interview).

Trump has no foreign-policy credentials (beyond real-estate deals in foreign lands); we don’t know where he stands on the environment (but since he’s a developer, it’s easy to guess where he stands on the environment), on jobs and the wider national economy, on two increasingly expensive wars, on the divisions of race and gender and class that have all but socially balkanized this nation.

At the end of the day, we don’t know where Donald Trump really stands on much of anything except Donald Trump. If he’s serious about running, that’ll have to change. But it won’t change, not really, because he’s not serious about running.

O’Reilly, referencing the birther issue, said as much to the Donald himself:

David Swerdlick seemed to say as much in The Root last week: “There's a good chance that Trump's flirtation with the GOP will be over as soon as this season of Celebrity Apprentice ends, and that his real motivation is jealousy that Obama is starring in what he sees as the world's highest-rated reality-TV show: President of the United States.”

As Obama prepares to make his pitch for renewal of that program next year, the public attention will shift to the campaign, and the American people will make their own decisions about what’s relevant, and what’s not. Better that Donald Trump not even get into the 2012 race. It’ll spare him having to hear Americans telling him something worse than his “You’re fired” signature line:

For reasons of arrogance, gross duplicity, philosophical inconsistency … and that hair ... you’re not even hired.

Image credits: Trump illustration: via Air Trump: screengrab from ABC News. Trump on O'Reilly Factor: Fox News. Trump flip-flops: via Google search.

Friday, April 1, 2011

New York Times: The firewall this time

The New York Times ushered in a new world for itself on Monday morning afternoon at 2 a.m. p.m. That’s when The Times officially launched its content paywall, climbed into the wayback machine of an earlier online business model and took point in the free-fire zone of the future of content and the battle for the public’s hearts, minds and willingness to pay for what it used to get for free.

Realizing that its breadth and presence in the modern world of news would prevent any firewall of its own news content from ever being 100 percent effective, the Times has created a permeable checkpoint Charlie: All who come will be granted admission but, for good economic reasons, some of those who come will be first among equals.

The Times has divided this world into the Visitors and the Subscribers. Visitors can read up to 20 Times articles a month free, “as well as unrestricted access to browse the home page, section fronts, blog fronts and classifieds,” according to a FAQ piece in the Times. It’s $15 per month for anything more than 20 pieces a month.

Subscribers, however, get the laminated pass: The top-tier deal is $35 per month for the run of the park: unlimited access to the Web site and archives, wireless access, plus smartphone and tablet apps. Subscribers to the print edition get full access too.

Readers who come to The Times via links from blogs and social media outlets can read those articles regardless of whether they’ve hit their monthly reading limit. Users of some high-volume search engines (obviously Google) will face a daily limit of free links to Times articles.

The come on? The Times seeks to lure would-be defectors from Visitorville across the border into Subscriber City with a low introductory: four weeks for 99 cents. Ninety-nine hundredths of a dollar! Step right up.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Times is no stranger to commingling the garden and the firewall. The company tried it in 2005, with a paywall isolating the TimesSelect opinion section, and charging about $50 a year for access to the work of Times critics, and to the newspaper’s exhaustive archives. You could frolic everywhere in the garden until you came to the wall.

It was a principled try based on recognized appeal and sound numbers: the generally recognized tolerance for an annual online subscription is about $40, give or take. Still, The Times folded the venture two years later in September 2007, chastened by numerous complaints from its own columnists and a decline in page views that amounted to a revolt among the very readers the Times courted.

In 2005, The Los Angeles Times reportedly attempted to charge for access to its arts section, but the newspaper vacated the policy after experiencing a big dip in Web traffic. In late 2009, Variety, the venerable entertainment insider’s bible, rebuilt an earlier paywall for its online content, charging a hefty $248 a year to gain full access to Variety Online.

And Slate, a trailblazing online magazine of commentary launched in June 1996, started charging a $19.95 subscription fee in March 1998. The magazine was widely criticized for the decision to charge for content and, in February 1999, reversed course, returning as a free publication after an uproar from readers and critics.

◊ ◊ ◊

That was then. This time around, the idea may really work, thanks in no small part to the gradual conditioning of the public to the idea — and, ironically, a similar conditioning of old-school news managers, many of whom no doubt had to be dragged kicking & screaming to the Internet to begin with.

This latest rush to the paid-content model reflects, finally, a willingness by news organizations and publishers to push back against the longstanding egalitarian mindset about the Internet, a prevailing ethos concerning online editorial content that insists such content should be, with very few exceptions, free of charge.

We can thank the historical ubiquity of the Internet for giving us this sense of entitlement. But a corner’s been turned. Little by little, news orgs are facing down those who’ve reflexively opposed paying for editorial content online (while having no problem paying for a subscription to a print-based magazine). That inconsistency shows that, for free-content supporters, it’s the immediacy of the delivery system that distinguishes print from online.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...