Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 > 2013: The most wonderful time of the year

THE NEW-generation holiday LED lights are a positive thing for the environment. They’re smaller in size but they generate the same amount of light as the older, mini-incandescent bulbs while using less energy, saving you money. This would be a wonderful thing if only they weren’t tasked with illuminating this holiday season, when all the LED technology in the country can’t move the darkness that feels … everywhere right now.

Oh, the shopping numbers will apparently be pretty good, when it’s all settled. The Retail Federation of America reports that 2012 holiday shopping will total an estimated $586 billion, according to its most recent forecast. That’s up more than four percent.

But still. This was the holiday season that didn’t feel like the holiday season. And we all know why. At the end of the day, the Christmas holiday season that right or wrong predominates in our culture is all about the children. By definition, Christmas is about children. And it’s hard to reconcile an ancient birth in the Holy Land with the deaths of twenty innocents in a contemporary instant in a small Connecticut town.

And then there’s the economy, our economic futures and finances on a knife-edge, utterly dependent on what Washington does, or fails to do. And the gnawing fear that things may not turn around, or at least turn around fast enough to save us from the undertow, that dogged toothache feeling of everything moving too fast and out of your control, no matter what you do. What next? we ask ourselves, with more than a pinch of dread.

It’s not saying much when the real “most wonderful time of the year” is right before that year ends.

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But not to overdo the downbeat. The year definitely had its high points. President Obama won re-election in a presidential contest that, we know now, was never as close as many had hoped or as many others had feared. And coincident with that big win, downticket contests resulted in victories for women, minorities, marriage equality and personal liberties across the United States. People stood up for the right to vote when people in certain quarters thought they never would.

The great immigration divide got narrower this year, giving hope to people for whom hope deeply matters. The Supreme Court upheld Obamacare constitutionally, cementing the infrastructure for the greatest leap toward universal health care in the nation’s history. The year just ending is the safest for commercial air travel ever. They finally got Abraham Lincoln right in the movies.

And we all had a global adrenaline rush back on Oct. 14, when in the middle of the nonstop chaos around us everywhere, Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian adventurer with titanium stones and a daring to match his outsize convictions, took a high-tech balloon to an altitude of 128,000 feet above this ball of confusion … and jumped.

And plummeted at a free-fall top speed of 834 miles an hour, shattering altitude and speed records. And landed, seven minutes later, without so much as a stumble, like it was a walk in the freakin’ park.

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WE NEEDED stunts like that this year. We needed things that, when you think about it, weren’t so much “stunts” as events symbolic of what we were capable of, if we had the nerve. I'm not talking about a literal leap from the stratosphere; Baumgartner made that look easy, made it look almost elegant and effortless (even though we know it wasn’t).

But it’s about to be the New Year. It’s time for leaps from our own respective stratospheres. It’s the time for leaps of faith. We took some memorable ones this year. It’s an overworked literary reference (thank you Charles Dickens), but it’s true for 2012: it was the best and worst of years. The president was re-elected by a fat margin; and the nation began coming around to the idea that, you know what, LGBT people deserve to get married like anyone else, and smoking pot is nobody’s damned business but yours.

And that election and the panoramic human tapestry that made it possible seemed to say something hopeful: We’ve had enough with lies, mendacity, obstruction. We’re tired of walking around looking and feeling wounded by forces we can’t control, forces we sometimes can’t even understand.

Like the malign energy that led a troubled suburban kid to kill 20 schoolchildren, eight adults and himself.

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Even in the face of those forces, we’ll get it up tomorrow, one foot in front of the other, realizing that the New Year is as much about looking forward as it is about looking back. It’s more about looking forward than it is about looking back. It has to be. It better be.

“What’s next?” is a question with dual applications. In one context, it’s an implicit anticipation of things getting worse and worse. In another, the one we need right now, it’s a heads-up anticipation of a future more hopeful. And whether that “what’s next,” that future spreads out over the next 50 years or the time it takes to walk outside and get hit by a bus … whatever it is, if you’re like me, you want it. All of it. Every minute on the clock, every mile on the meter. And nothing (besides birthdays, of course)  celebrates that idea quite like how we feel about the New Year.

“So this is the new year,” Death Cab for Cutie once observed. “And I don’t feel any different.”

Really? I do. Bring it. Let’s go. Onward. We got this.

Image credits: Christmastime in Newtown: David Goldman/Associated Press. President Obama and Vice President Biden: Spencer Platt/Getty Images. Baumgartner: Balasz Gardi/Red Bull Stratos.

There go my heroes (2012)

SOMETIMES, it’s easy to look the other way about things we know we should do. The flood of misfortune, chaos and disorder that forms the backdrop wash of our daily lives make it hard to really see what needs to be seen.

Larry DePrimo could have done the New York City okey-doke, walking past the homeless, unidentified, shoeless man he encountered while walking a beat on Seventh Avenue and 44th Street in Manhattan on Nov. 14.

Anthony DeStefano of Newsday reports on a warm heart on a cold night:

“I had two pairs of wool winter socks and combat boots, and I was cold," DePrimo, 25, said Wednesday, recalling the night of Nov. 14, when he encountered an unidentified, shoeless man on the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue near 44th Street.

DePrimo offered to get him socks and shoes.

“I never had a pair of shoes,” the man replied, according to DePrimo, who's assigned to the Sixth Precinct and has been on the force nearly three years.

The officer walked to a Skechers store on 42nd Street and shelled out $75 for insulated winter boots and thermal socks. He returned to the man, knelt down and put the footwear on him.

“He smiled from ear to ear,” DePrimo said. “It was like you gave him a million dollars.”

The officer asked the man if he wanted a cup of coffee, but he graciously declined and went on his way.

“I didn't think anything of it,” DePrimo said of his generosity.

Somebody did. A lot of somebodies. DeStefano reports that, as it turns out, Jennifer Foster visiting the city from Florence, Ariz., took DePrimo’s picture and took it viral. It’s on the NYPD Facebook page. As of today, the picture has more than 618,000 Likes.

There are 8.24 million stories in the city of New York. This is one of the better ones. One that ennobles all of us.

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IN A TIME when insensitivity almost seems to be a badge of honor, when candor is prized above all else, a North Carolina newspaper’s editorial decision is a hopeful sign. Some months before the film “Django Unchained” was released, and after some in the mainstream media accidentally brought the debate about “nigger,” the n-word, front and center all over again, editor Jeff Gauger of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., took an action that suggests that maybe we haven’t all thrown decorum out the window after all.

The newspaper reported in July about a banner bearing a racial epithet that was hung at a school district’s office, the latest flap in a dispute over the movement of a Confederate soldier monument in nearby Reidsville. The paper reported that the banner “included 21 words printed … in red and black ink, a racial epithet, a reference to the Ku Klux Klan and a pledge to ‘get our monument back.’”

Gauger ordered that a picture of the banner be smudged to blur the n-word. The editor defended his decision to the Journal-Isms media diversity blog, saying that "doing so best reflected the taste boundaries of our community.”

Gauger wrote to Journal-Isms editor Richard Prince in an e-mail: “[E]diting is one part knowing and reflecting the taste expectations of your community, and one part leading your community toward its better self.

“We blurred the N-word because, after discussion among a half-dozen editors, I decided that doing so best reflected the taste boundaries of our community. The editors' opinions were not unanimous. The decision was mine alone.

“In deciding, I thought of rape victims, whom newspapers almost uniformly do not identify. In a more perfect world, we would routinely identify them because there is no shame in being a victim. The taste boundaries of most communities do not permit us to.

“As rendered, the published photo left no question as to what the word was, even with the blurring. It matched our expression of the word in text, as 'N-----.' Our published report was both complete and respectful of our community's sense of itself.”

I propose a toast: Here’s to a newspaper editor for respecting his readers, honoring his state and his profession, and having the good sense and taste to realize that just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.

Image credits: DePrimo and homeless man: © 2012 Jennifer Foster. NYPD logo: © New York City Police Department. Jeff Gauger: News & Record. Banner: Rockingham County Sheriff's Office/News & Record.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The n-word unchained, again

SIX LETTERS, two syllables, persistent and indelible. The n-word. It’s come up so often in the discourse of the last decade that the blandly anonymizing phrase “the n-word” has come to be the standing polite-company surrogate for one of the most psychically corrosive words in the American lexicon.

In recent years, and accelerated with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” the nation has been coming to a shaky détente with the word “nigger” — certainly not a full-on embrace, nor (given the proliferation of hate speech that bounces around the nation and the Internet every day) anything close to a repudiation of the word, but something like an adjustable tolerance that seeks to defuse the power of the epithet by using it situationally, in some wider, more benign context.

But despite all the immediate attention being paid in the wake of Tarantino’s new film, the n-word has been in the process of being slowly unchained for years. The new focus, courtesy of Tarantino’s funny, savage, cleansingly bloody movie, puts the word again squarely in the spotlight, at the heart of a debate the nation has been having with itself, over and over, for years.

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Tarantino — interviewed in The Root last week at length by Dr, Henry Louis Gates — has explained his use of “nigger” in his well-received film, which pulled down $15 million for its Christmas Day opening, according to Exhibitor Relations. For the Oscar-winning director, it was use consistent with the era of the film, in Mississippi a few years before the Civil War.

Tarantino’s historically justifiable use of the n-word in “Django” — some reports have said 110 times, but if you’re fixated on the use of one word in the film, you’re probably not paying attention to the film — weds it to antecedents in the culture.

At a San Francisco nightclub in 1962, the late comedian Lenny Bruce performed a monologue whose frequent use of the n-word, along with other ethnic slurs, had a trailblazing satiric context. Bruce’s withering dissection of that word, and other dehumanizing terms leveled at other groups, made a lacerating point about tolerance, American society and the way a word’s suppression “gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.”

And if we’re counting the use of the word in American culture, the winner and still champion remains Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the closest thing we have to the proverbial Great American Novel, and one whose use of “nigger” forms the tissue of much of the narrative, as surely as the word was much of the vocabulary of the era of the early 1800’s in which it’s set, and the late 1800’s when it was published.

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BUT FOR polite and professional society, the word’s still a huge taboo. In late March, while reporting on a hate crime case in Mississippi, CNN correspondent Drew Griffin said the n-word on air. It happened again in April, when CNN’s Susan Candiotti used it unexpurgated while covering a story about three African American men who were shot to death, apparently extracting language that police discovered while reading the suspect's Facebook page.

“In quoting someone else’s words, I repeated their offensive and inappropriate language. I deeply regret it,” she said.

In October, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith caught fire for using the n-word offshoot (“nigga”)  on the air — for the second time in 10 months — in his sports commentary. Calls for Smith’s suspension were rejected.

And in July 2007, in Detroit, NAACP officials and city officials went so far as to publicly bury the n-word in a “funeral” at that year’s NAACP national convention. “Today we're not just burying the n-word, we're taking it out of our spirit,” said Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on July 9 that year. “Die, n-word, and we don't want to see you 'round here no more.”

Another effort at eradication happened in early 2011, when much was made of a controversial new version of Huckleberry Finn published by NewSouth — a version that deleted the word from a classic American tract, replacing it with “slave.”

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It’s the word we just don’t know what to do with. “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards did his best to keep the word alive, a la Lenny Bruce, in his legendary tirade at a Los Angeles comedy club in November 2006. This, of course, before starting an All Apologies Tour, and going on “The Late Show With David Letterman” to do the full mea culpa.

Richards has had a lot of help. The n-word, and its five-letter misspelled variant “nigga” have been a staple good of rap and hip-hop for years; despite protestations, “nigga” has penetrated the wider culture in a way “nigger” never could.

Some have tried to get around it by corrupting the word as a kind of transracial- fraternal badge of honor. The term “wigger” — an unfortunate portmanteau of “white” and “nigger” — emerged some years back, meant to establish a solidarity between young white fans of hip-hop and black hip-hop artists.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012: JibJab checks in

LAST YEAR, in a Facebook page comment on JibJab’s Year in Review 2011, and a reaction to the video as being not up to JibJab’s riotous standards, one Michael Kinney of St. Petersburg, Fla., came to their defense. He observed: “It was a tough year to be funny!”

He could say the same thing for 2012. With a mood of doom and gloom that’s permeated the whole year, and with concerns over the national economy already threatening to put a nasty mark on 2013, this year hasn’t been a crystal stair for anyone.

The folks at the Venice, California-based digital entertainment studio have done their best to break down the highs and lows of a busy, fractious year, in two minutes giving us a funny snapshot of most of the stories that mattered in 2012.

There’s the election, of course — maybe the high point of the year for anyone seeking uplift; there’s something deeply satisfying seeing President Obama and Vice President Biden literally kicking Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan in the ass — even if they’re doing it in animated form.

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To the tune of “Down by the Riverside,” JibJab lays it all out, from David Petraeus’ extracurriculars to Rush Limbaugh’s rant against Susan Fluke, from the unrest in Libya to the social media power of “gangnam style” — and all of it against the backdrop of the doomsday prophecy attributed to the Mayans, the one that said everything, and I mean everything, was supposed to end on Dec. 21.

There were other things that no one saw coming; the latest JibJab yearender completely overlooked the “47 percent” meme, the immigration debate, the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the rise of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Keith Olbermann’s latest undignified TV signoff.

And there were national matters that would have been impossible to make light of in any way. The Trayvon Martin case. The Jordan Davis case. Aurora. Oak Creek. Portland. Newtown. All contributing to a pall of sadness that hung over Christmas like the frigid air that’s blanketing much of the country right now. The kind of things that felt like the end of the world.

Happily, that end-of-days prophecy was wrong, and good thing it was. Now we can look forward to JibJab’s next retrospective, and the events that’ll make it possible, a year from now.

Here’s hoping we’ll all be here then. Me? I feel fine.

Image credits: All images from JibJab Year in Review 2012: © 2012 JibJabMedia.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Pollsters’ postmortem: When enthusiasm didn’t matter

THE AFTER-action reports for the 2012 election have been trickling in since the election was over; there’s not much left to debate except the future leverage of President Obama’s winning margin, and the ways the 47 percentile number will be Mitt Romney’s eternal contribution to the national political folklore.

But the pollsters have taken stock of the race; some have come to conclusions that call into question the validity of enthusiasm polling. One analysis in particular, from a conservative-affiliated polling outfit, tells us two things:

(1) For a significant number of voters, enthusiasm — any unalloyed, spasmodic passion for a candidate — didn’t necessarily figure into their turning out at the polls; and (2) enthusiasm as a statistical indicator is too squishy and imprecise to be meaningfully used for presidential polling in the first place.

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In a Sunday story on campaign polling accuracy, Mark Blumenthal of The Huffington Post notes how pollsters have begun analyzing their own results for the election and found that “questions about the accuracy of self-reported enthusiasm as a predictor of turnout have intensified since Election Day.”

Blumenthal references an infographic produced by Resurgent Republic a GOP-connected polling org. He reports that the infographic “shows that self-expressed enthusiasm by various demographic subgroups just before the election had virtually no relationship to turnout (as measured by the change in size of the subgroup in exit polls from 2008 to 2012).”

According to an analysis page at the Resurgent Republic Web site, “Key subgroups of President Obama's winning coalition including Hispanics, young voters, and unmarried women outperformed their 2008 turnout levels, even though these cohorts exuded less enthusiasm to get to the polls than Governor Romney’s core supporters.”

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The analysis thoughtfully breaks the issue down cohort by cohort:

For voters 18-29: “Despite having low enthusiasm levels throughout the election, voters 18-29 had a 6 percent increase in turnout compared to 2008, up one-point overall to comprise 19 percent of the electorate. President Obama won the youth vote by more than 20 points (60 to 37 percent), but he did so by a smaller margin than 2008 (66 to 32 percent). Latino voters 18-29 propelled the increase among the youth vote, expanding to 4 percent of the overall electorate, while whites and African Americans equaled their 2008 levels.”

For unmarried women voters: “With two-thirds support in November, Democrats hold a commanding lead among this growing segment of the electorate.”

For African-American voters: “Turnout among the black community equaled the sizable percentage increase seen in 2008. From 2004 to 2008, the African-American vote saw an 18 percent change, going from 11 percent in 2004 to 13 percent in 2008. Unlike President Obama’s other coalition groups, African American voters were the most enthusiastic to turnout of all voting groups.”

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And for Latino voters: “The fastest growing minority group had an 11 percent increase in turnout compared to 2008, up one-point overall to 10 percent of the electorate. Republican support reached a high point in 2004, but has dropped by nearly 20 points over the past two presidential cycles.”

And then, the stunning stat that the GOP better pay attention to: “Meanwhile, the political influence of this voting bloc will increase exponentially as 50,000 Americans of Hispanic descent turn the age of 18 every month for the next two decades.”

Turnout results for other groups — whites in general, seniors and white evangelicals — were more solid for Romney, but their overall participation was diluted relative to a younger, browner, smartphone-dependent, estrogen-powered electorate.

From the Resurgent Republic analysis: “[T]he overarching trend of a less white electorate will continue as Hispanics, Asian Americans, and other minority groups increase their political participation and the white vote continues to age (white seniors increased to 14 percent in 2012).”

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THE MISTAKES made by the Romney campaign, and its internal pollster mouthpieces, were too numerous to go through here, but chief among them was the assumption that those cohorts of voters had nothing to turn out for — that the, uh, enthusiasm they had for Barack Obama in 2008 was not transferable to the 2012 campaign.

Team Romney & pollsters also overlooked or ignored a corollary of our voting history. It’s a standing assumption that Republicans turn out in greater numbers for midterm elections; it’s also generally held that Democrats tend to turn out strongly for general elections. What made them think this pivotal election would be any different?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Wayne’s world: The NRA doubles down

WHEN THE National Rifle Association resurfaced from its absence from the national conversation after the Newtown murders, about five days after the event, the pro-gun lobbying organization released a statement that suggested that, just maybe, the NRA would break from its position as an advocate of all guns being available to just about everyone.

"The National Rifle Association of America is made up of four million moms and dads, sons and daughters – and we were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown.

"Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting.

"The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”

The organization announced a news conference for Friday, with the promise of a more definitive explanation of the NRA’s plans to be offered by Wayne LaPierre, the group’s reliably combative director.

What took place on Friday was both a disaster of public relations and an unintended revelation — clear evidence that, to go by a somewhat unhinged LaPierre, the NRA is feeling the heat of a nation's painfully evolving feelings on gun access. Its years as a shadow dominator of American politics and the national gun debate are more clearly numbered now than ever before.

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On Friday, LaPierre took the podium at the Willard Hotel in Washington on Friday, one week after 27 people died in a spasm of gun violence in Newtown, and doubled down on the 4.3-million-member organization’s longstanding position. More guns in schools is the answer, he said, not fewer of them.

“I call on Congress today to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation, and to do it now to make sure that blanket safety is in place when our kids return to school in January.” LaPierre said.

“The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection,” LaPierre said. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

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THIS B.S. QED was implicit in other parts of LaPierre’s address, which contained a certain fiendish strategic logic built on the use of firearms to protect other precincts of American life. “How have our nation’s priorities gotten so far out of order? Think about it. We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards. American airports, office buildings, power plants, court houses, even sports stadiums are all protected by armed security.

“We care about our president, so we protect him with armed Secret Service agents. Members of Congress work in offices surrounded by Capitol Police officers. Yet, when it comes to our most beloved, innocent, and vulnerable members of the American family, our children, we as a society leave them every day utterly defenseless, and the monsters and the predators of the world know it, and exploit it. ...”

“So, why is the idea of a gun good when it’s used to protect the president of our country or our police, but bad when it’s used to protect our children in our schools? They’re our kids. They’re our responsibility. And it’s not just our duty to protect them, it’s our right to protect them.”

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The blowback to LaPierre’s proposed expansion of firearm availability, at odds with the national mood, was literally immediate. Protesters attending LaPierre’s presser made their feelings known:

Others reacted to LaPierre’s appearance at the press conference, the NRA executive director all but snarling at times. The New York Times called LaPierre out for a “mendacious, delusional, almost deranged rant” in a Friday editorial. “Mr. LaPierre looked wild-eyed at times …”

All in all, it was a poor rhetorical performance, tone-deaf to the mood and gravity of a nation, and a community that was, as of Friday, still burying the young victims of the Connecticut killings.

“It was worse than if the NRA had not spoken at all,” said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based image management concern that’s worked with gunmakers before. "The same message about the culture in another time and place might have made sense, but in context of tragedy, it seemed mean-spirited, cold and misguided," Grabowski told The Huffington Post.

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FOR ALL his fulminations on Friday, LaPierre managed to evade the issue that’s rightly commanded the national attention, and he’s adopted an over-the-top position to do it. Bad as it was, the Newtown incident was only a symbol of a wider American problem.

The issue isn’t strictly about protecting children in schools; it’s about what can be done to set rational limits on the firepower of ordinary citizens — the better to prevent access to the kind of high-volume weaponry that made Newtown possible in the first place. A conservative judge in San Diego made the argument perfectly clear in an L.A. Times op-ed last week.

LaPierre sidestepped the issue of a need for gun registration, or the call for background checks — something that everyday members of the NRA support. A poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 74 percent of NRA members and 87 percent of non-NRA gun owners back mandatory criminal background checks for anybody buying a gun; 74 percent of NRA members think permits should only be granted to applicants who have completed a course in gun-safety training.

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Commenting at New York Magazine’s web site, Nibblybit makes uncommon good sense: “[I]f you want to decrease the number of guns out there, instead of having the government outlaw them ("take guns away") make circumstances so that owners give them up voluntarily. Make ownership onerous, through taxes, registration, licensing, and especially liability, so that someone will want to own only one, two or a few, not an arsenal. It would be too expensive to properly store or keep too many.

Instead of the attitude of ‘you can't have any because we know better,’ go with ‘ownership comes with responsibilities and if you fail them, we as a society will harshly hold you responsible.’ ...

“[I]f the government can require safety and other requirements on carmakers -- airbags, gas standards, frame requirements, etc — not to mention seat belt, cell phone and DWI restrictions on drivers, the government can require gun manufacturers to put more safety features on guns. Trigger locks, RFI or other permanent id on every gun so that each can be traced, a national registry, etc. that again promote responsible ownership and liability, instead of a ban.”

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COUNT ON IT, La Pierre will be on the hot seat for most if not all of these issues when he goes up against David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press” later this morning. The staunch defender of the Second Amendment can expect to respond to The New York Post, whose Dec. 18 editorial calls a question LaPierre would otherwise ignore: “Has technology rendered the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution obsolete?

“That is, has the application of modern military design to civilian firearms produced a class of weapons too dangerous to be in general circulation?

“We say: Yes.”

“Weapons designed expressly to kill human beings, and then modified (wink wink) to meet the federal machine-gun ban, have no legitimate place in American society.

“Time to get rid of them.”

Image credits: LaPierre: Press conference feed, via CNN. NRA logo: © 2012 National Rifle Association. AR-15 drum magazine: GunWebsites via YouTube. Dec. 21 New York Post  front page: © 2012 New York Post/News Corporation.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

Apocalypse 2012: Looks like we made it

HELLO? Is anybody out there? If you’re receiving this transmission, it means that — all due props to some interpretations of the Mayan prophecy calendar — the world didn’t end today. Hope you haven’t already hit the DELETE key on your financial records. The bill due at the end of the month is still. You can put the freeze-dried chicken and the duct tape away. Come down from the mountains and out of the caves. We’re fine. Really.

The so-called Long Count — the 5,125-year cycle of the Mesoamerican (Mayan) calendar, ends today, and with it, according to any number of true believers, the end of days. The day’s not over yet, of course, but as of now, with 12/21/12 well under way everywhere on the planet, we can be cautiously optimistic that the third marble from the sun has mileage on the meter.

It’s not the end of the world as we know it, and we feel fine. Well, alive, at any rate.

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It was getting out of hand. Armies of cultists, would-be seers and New Wave acolytes were preparing for the end in ways that got in the way of everyday life.

The Telegraph (UK) reported: “In the French Pyrenees, the mayor of Bugarach has attempted to prevent pandemonium by banning UFO watchers and light aircraft from the flat-topped mount Pic de Bugarach.

“According to New Age lore it as an ‘alien garage’ where extraterrestrials are waiting to abandon Earth, taking a lucky few humans with them.”

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APOCALYPSE? No. All along, skeptics and intellectuals have been emerging to rebut the claims. Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the director of the Vatican Observatory, said it was “not even worth discussing the scientific basis” of claims of the world’s end on today’s date.

And Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, said that to consider Dec. 21 in apocalyptic terms would be "a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in." Noble told that to USA Today in March ... 2007.

Maybe the ultimate contrarians in all this are the Mayans themselves. The Telegraph, quoting a Mayan authority, reported of how a natural cyclical event in their calendar has been confused with end-times prophecy.

“Mayans themselves reject any notion that the world will end. Pedro Celestino Yac Noj, a Mayan sage, burned seeds and fruits to mark the end of the old calendar at a ceremony in Cuba. He said: ‘The 21st is for giving thanks and gratitude and the 22nd welcomes the new cycle, a new dawn.’”

Now he tells us.

Image credits: Earth: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/SuomiNPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring.

Person of the Year(s)

THE LAST TIME Barack Obama showed up on the cover of Time Magazine as Person of the Year, back in the halcyon day of 2008, it was an image that riffed on Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama campaign HOPE poster: the face of a man who embodied the nation’s aspirations in ways that were patriotic, multicultural and a clean break with the past.

What a difference four years make. In a repeat appearance — only the eighth U.S. president to be so honored — President Obama graces the cover of the current issue of Time as Person of the Year 2012. But the new cover isn't saturated with the upbeat colors of Time's POY cover of 2008; the Obama 2012 image, by the celebrated photographer Nadav Kander, is more circumspect, restrained, muted almost to the point of being monochromatic.

The intervening four years tell the story of the difference between the two images, and explain why, the singular achievements of others notwithstanding, Obama was the only real choice.

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Time’s recognition confirms what we’ve lived for some time: that Barack Obama has been, for the last year and the previous three, the indispensable American, and indispensable in ways that are less about the office he holds than the man he is.

The four years of the Obama administration have seen change as conceived and advanced by the Obama White House, on a broad array of fronts, from health care to marriage equality, from ending the war in Iraq to boosting fuel efficiency standards, from passing Wall Street reform to resuscitating the U.S. auto industry, from taking out Osama bin Laden to reversing the hemorrhage of American jobs and a downward spiral of home values.

But this year Team Obama also benefited from things beyond its control (or anyone’s): a woeful circus of Republican opponents nobody saw coming; a politically tone-deaf Republican nominee; a popular exhaustion with prohibitions of the past, including marriage inequality and marijuana criminalization; and the fullest flowering of a new demographic coalition, a body of younger, smarter, multi-hued, technologically savvy Americans of which President Obama is the avatar.

Richard Stengel, Time’s managing editor, writes: “There has been much talk of the coalition of the ascendant — young people, minorities, Hispanics, college-educated women — and in winning re-election, Obama showed that these fast-growing groups are not only the future but also the present. About 40% of millennials — the largest generational cohort in U.S. history, bigger even than the baby boomers — are nonwhite. If his win in 2008 was extraordinary, then 2012 is confirmation that demographic change is here to stay.”

◊ ◊ ◊

THE PLAYWRIGHT Arthur Miller, in a fine 1972 essay on the George McGovern presidential campaign, once observed: “Democracy is first of all a state of feeling. A nominee, and later a president, is not a sort of methodical lawyer hired to win a client’s claim but an ambiguously symbolic figure upon whom is projected the conflicting desires of an audience.”

On Sunday, Jan. 20, President Obama will take the oath of office as both the symbol of those “conflicting desires” and the beneficiary of them. The crosscurrents of the national life are as turbulent now as they’ve been in our lifetimes, and more so than they were in 2008. But the president retakes the helm of the greatest and most reliably participatory democracy on earth as the first of his party in generations — since FDR — to win the presidency with more than 50 percent of the popular vote twice. He’s also the first since FDR to do this with (or despite) an unemployment rate above 7.5 percent.

What Time’s selection of the president as Person of the Year seems to recognize, as much as his signal accomplishments, is his ability to ride these countervailing forces; his unique sense of control and deliberation; and his ability to communicate steady-as-it-goes, even when (or especially when) the going is anything but steady. That’s a temperament that leaps out at you in the image on the new Time cover. That’s a quality he’s transmitted to the nation from the beginning — not one year ago, but four.

Image credits: Time Person of the Year covers 2008 and 2012: © 2008, 2012 Time Inc. Obama HOPE poster 2008: Shepard Fairey. 

Gun-law reform: A conservative makes common sense

WHAT FOLLOWS is about half of an op-ed piece published on Thursday in the Los Angeles Times. The piece, written by Larry Alan Burns, a federal district judge in San Diego, is a passionate but clear-eyed call for gun-law reform from the refreshingly balanced perspective of a gun owner and a Republican. The common sense laid out here — and in the rest of the piece you’ll find at this link — demands a common-sense response, both from the National Rifle Association, which curries favor with Capitol Hill, and the Washington conservatives that work to do its bidding.

Bring back the assault weapons ban, and bring it back with some teeth this time. Ban the manufacture, importation, sale, transfer and possession of both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Don't let people who already have them keep them. Don't let ones that have already been manufactured stay on the market. I don't care whether it's called gun control or a gun ban. I'm for it.

I say all of this as a gun owner. I say it as a conservative who was appointed to the federal bench by a Republican president. I say it as someone who prefers Fox News to MSNBC, and National Review Online to the Daily Kos. I say it as someone who thinks the Supreme Court got it right in District of Columbia vs. Heller, when it held that the 2nd Amendment gives us the right to possess guns for self-defense. (That's why I have mine.) I say it as someone who, generally speaking, is not a big fan of the regulatory state.

I even say it as someone whose feelings about the NRA mirror the left’s feelings about Planned Parenthood: It has a useful advocacy function in our deliberative democracy, and much of what it does should not be controversial at all.

And I say it, finally, mindful of the arguments on the other side, at least as I understand them: that a high-capacity magazine is not that different from multiple smaller-capacity magazines; and that if we ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines one day, there's a danger we would ban guns altogether the next, and your life might depend on you having one.

But if we can't find a way to draw sensible lines with guns that balance individual rights and the public interest, we may as well call the American experiment in democracy a failure.

There is just no reason civilians need to own assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Gun enthusiasts can still have their venison chili, shoot for sport and competition, and make a home invader flee for his life without pretending they are a part of the SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden.

It speaks horribly of the public discourse in this country that talking about gun reform in the wake of a mass shooting is regarded as inappropriate or as politicizing the tragedy. But such a conversation is political only to those who are ideologically predisposed to see regulation of any kind as the creep of tyranny. And it is inappropriate only to those delusional enough to believe it would disrespect the victims of gun violence to do anything other than sit around and mourn their passing. Mourning is important, but so is decisive action.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Enough Moment

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S response to the events in Newtown, Conn., had so much fire, so much power, so much promise, you could be forgiven if you watched the president at Sunday’s interfaith vigil in the stricken town and thought, “Now, finally, we’re going to advance the issue of gun-law reform in America beyond rhetoric. Now, maybe, something gets done.”

But the days that followed were much like the years that came before. Positions by pro-gun advocates are starting to come together on Capitol Hill, despite the temporary absence of the National Rifle Association from the debate. Gun-control supporters are digging in for the long haul, buoyed by the president’s Sunday speech and his first response to events on Friday.

What’s taking shape in the weeks to come? Dueling dilemmas: The Democrats are in one because of the president’s historical reticence to act boldly on gun-law reform because of the forces in Congress arrayed against him. The Republicans in Congress are in one because they’re arrayed against the president, and prepared to oppose whatever changes Obama is likely to propose on the issue.

Both have explaining to do as the groundswell of public sentiment in Newtown's wake indicates the American people are ready to move the ball of gun-law reform down the field. Even if the leaders of the American people aren’t.

◊ ◊ ◊

President Obama justifiably earned high marks for his speech at Sunday’s vigil in Newtown. Because he set the terms of the debate in language both lofty and practical, the president won praise across the board. In a tweet, Obama biographer David Maraniss gave it perhaps the highest encomium: “People will long remember what Barack Obama said in Newtown ... his Gettysburg address ...”

Excerpts bear out the notion that the president sought to reach for the stars, our faults and ourselves in a clearly moving oration.

“Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America — victims who, much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

“But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.”

◊ ◊ ◊

BUT REWIND to May 1 of this year. A story in The Wall Street Journal reports on an Obama administration policy that, despite its international focus, reveals a president of a different mindset on gun control.

“U.S. homeland-security and law-enforcement agencies have objected to Obama administration proposals to relax export restrictions on high-powered firearms, threatening a centerpiece of the president's trade and national-security agenda.

“The agencies, in internal memos viewed by The Wall Street Journal, warn the changes could help arm drug cartels and terrorists and make it harder for the U.S. to crack down on gun-trafficking.

“The arms proposal is part of a broader overhaul of U.S. export rules sought by Mr. Obama, with the goal of helping domestic manufacturers compete in global markets, as well as improving U.S. national security by focusing controls on higher-risk items and enhancing the capabilities of allies.”

◊ ◊ ◊

More domestically problematic and less partisan is the judgment of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the gun control nonprofit that issued a lacerating first-year report on Obama’s efforts to contain firearm violence. “From the repeal of Reagan Era rules keeping loaded guns out of national parks to the repeal of post-9/11 policies to safeguard Amtrak from armed terrorist attacks, President Obama’s stance on guns has endangered our communities and threatened our national security. ...

“President Obama’s first-year record on gun violence prevention has been an abject failure.”

But beyond these maters of commission are other concerns related to omission, things the president could have done but chose not to. President Obama has failed to use his office as the bully pulpit for common-sense gun laws. Even making allowances for what he can’t control — like the legislatures and governors of 10 states, from Arizona to Mississippi, that voted to allow guns on college campuses, and in bars and houses of worship — the president has never fully engaged on the gun-rights debate.

That failure to connect with the American people on this in a visceral, populist way (as he did with health care) comes back now to haunt him, as many people see President Obama being as big an obstacle to the cause of firearms reform as the lobby that opposes such changes.

For his detractors on this matter, the cause of strengthening gun laws is as much about Obama reform as it is about anything else.

◊ ◊ ◊

NOT THAT he doesn’t have company. The anti-gun-reform community, helmed by the National Rifle Association, has fought hard for years to maintain the status quo in terms of gun ownership, donating millions to candidates in House and Senate races ($17.6 million in federal races in 2012) and exacting its own pledges of loyalty to pro-gun causes.

The NRA has reinforced its political muscle with a populism enrobed in the permissions of the Second Amendment, and done so in a way that speaks to older, whiter, rural America. Remember Charlton Heston, the NRA’s former maximum leader, smoldering about how the only way they’d take his guns would be “from my cold, dead hands”?

The NRA rode roughshod over meaningful, thoughtful legislation that could have advanced the causes of responsible gun ownership and irresponsible gun removal. Instead, the organization now led by the dapper, bellicose thug Wayne LaPierre, has long since doubled down on demands for absolute fealty to the group’s essential mission: Guns For Everybody. No Limits. The Right to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed. The recoilless rifle in the garage is A-OK.

The NRA’s hijacking of the Second Amendment has likely just ended. Unlike the NRA’s rapid response after previous shootings — no response at all, basically, just laying low and waiting for things to blow over — the organization has in the wake of Newtown hinted at something previously unthinkable: This time, the NRA knows it’s different.

◊ ◊ ◊

No sooner had the Newtown murders occurred than the NRA’s Facebook page disappeared; same thing with the org’s Twitter feed. The Connecticut Mirror reported Saturday that the NRA’s headquarters shut down the switchboard on Friday, too. Radio silence? This was radio nonexistence.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Newtown and America

BACK IN the summer there was a hope, if only a faint one, that Aurora would be the tipping point — that the horrific events of July in Colorado would be the inescapable catalyst that would spark the United States into a frank self-appraisal on gun violence and its velocity into the culture and the national life.

We’d thought that before, of course. We dared to dream the same dream of a full-on dialogue about gun access and gun violence after the Oak Creek tragedy, in August, when a bigoted nightcrawler shot six Sikh worshippers to death in the temple of their faith. We were just as certain that would happen after the shootings in Tucson, in January 2011, when Gabby Giffords was wounded and six of her constituents were killed by another gunman. There was a belief that the nation would have to give itself a good talking-to after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, in which 32 people died at the hands of another assailant.

With Friday’s events in Newtown, Conn., the nation’s just been invited to begin a new gradual onset of amnesia. Professionals are just now debating what social, emotional or biochemical imbalances made Adam Lanza snap on Friday morning, kill his mother at the home they shared, walk into the Sandy Hook Elementary School about 9:30 a.m. with a .223 caliber Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle, and kill six adult teachers and school staff between the ages of 27 and 56; then kill 20 schoolchildren no older than seven years of age; and then himself.

◊ ◊ ◊

Jeff Gardere, a clinical psychologist speaking Friday on MSNBC, said Lanza “went into, I think, that fugue state, knew he was not coming out of this alive.”

Gardere said that, for Lanza, the slaughter “was his major statement about hate towards his parents, towards his mother, but especially [hate] towards the world.”

For Gardere, the architects of such domestic massacre have a binding thread among them: “They have made a decision … that this is gonna be their big statement; they’re gonna blow their whole wad on this, they’re gonna create mayhem, terror, horror, and then they’re gonna take themselves out. There’s no way they’re going back from this, so everybody’s gonna die — including themselves.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Gun-rights advocates are in hunker-down mode right now, content to take the National Rifle Assoaiction’s phone off the hook and murmur “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” as an incantation meant to resolve everything.

In the wake of the Aurora shootings, one pro-gun commenter at a discussion forum on a theoretical ban on personal firearms asked:  “Would it be reasonable, then, to ban all sharp objects? While we’re at it, why don’t we reduce the speed limit on all major highways to 10 miles per hour, thereby eliminating nearly all deaths by traffic accident?”

It’s the same mindless reductio ad absurdum frequently invoked by the myrmidons of the pro-gun movement, a rhetorical defense that fails to realize the built-in sophistry of its argument, doesn’t grasp that sharp objects and speed limits aren’t fundamentally designed to maim and kill. That’s not what they do. That’s all that guns do. That’s all they were ever intended to do.

◊ ◊ ◊

INVOKING THE Second Amendment isn’t enough in the ongoing gun debate, if it ever was. The prevailing realities of today, and its distinctions between now and the amendment’s originating era, make that obvious. When the Second Amendment was ratified in December 1791, the United States was a smaller, more dangerous and unpredictable place, as much raw frontier as manicured cities and towns.

There were literally existential threats to the building and development of the young nation at that time, and in the decade after that time. From the British (again) to the Spanish (over the scope of the Louisiana Purchase), from the native Americans (defending their indigenous status and the territorial rights that came with it) to the basic fact of life in a vast, untamed land mass teeming with wildlife, the challenges facing the people in the United States back then called for the widest interpretive latitudes of the Second Amendment. Keeping and bearing arms was as much a practical necessity as it was a constitutional right. Way back in the national day.

Well, we don’t live in that United States anymore. And we haven’t lived in a nation that wild and woolly for at least two hundred years. And those who endlessly, reflexively parrot the language of Amendment II increasingly do so with no thought of how the viral proliferation of firearms in today’s society has fully eclipsed the elegance, the simplicity — and the relative innocence — of that amendment, and the era of its origin.

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s needed isn’t a repeal of the Second Amendment. What’s needed is a willingness to address the fact that the Framers couldn’t have imagined the vast firepower available to the average American citizen today. What’s needed is for state legislatures to get serious about tightening lax concealed- and open-carry gun laws, one of them (in Kansas) so elastic that gun-permit holders can carry concealed weapons inside K-12 schools — like Sandy Hook Elementary.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sister Act: Rhodes Scholar Edition

TWO SISTERS from the same African nation winning Rhodes scholarships -- what are the odds? For the Mohamed family of Zimbabwe, the lightning of international recognition has struck twice in less than a decade.

In 2004, Shazrene Mohamed, then a Harvard astrophysics student, won the prestigious honor. And on Tuesday, the Rhodes Fund, which administers the scholarships, announced that Shazrene's sister, Naseemah, had won a 2013 Rhodes Scholarship — the only “sister act” in the 109-year history of what may be the most renowned international graduate scholarship program in the world.

Read the rest at The Root

Image credit: Naseemah Mohamed: Courtesy Naseemah Mohamed

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

‘The right to work for less’:
The GOP’s Michigan power grab

ON TUESDAY, Republican Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder followed through on his promise to “reinvent” his state in ways no one could have imagined when they elected him in 2010. The result means there’s some Democratic soul-searching to be done in a state that voted for President Obama last month, and paid for its 2010 vote last night. The hard way.

With strokes of a pen, Snyder officially made Michigan a "right-to-work" state (the 24th in the nation) when he signed into law S.B. 0116 and H.B. 4003, two bills that drastically undercut the power of unions by barring them from compelling workers to pay union dues — a longtime national objective for the Republican Party, and one that weakens the organizing and voter-outreach infrastructure of the Democratic Party.

Snyder moved at breakneck speed to sign the bills, hours after the state House fast-tracked the bills covering public and private employees, and did it without public comment. The law for public employees goes into effect in little more than 100 days, on March 31. The law covering private workers takes effect after existing contracts expire.

“I have signed these bills into law. ... We are moving forward on the topic of workplace fairness and equality,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday.

“... I don’t view this as anti-labor. I view this as pro-worker,” Snyder said.

What President Obama recently called “the right to work for less money” has been a fact of life in many states, particularly in the South, for decades. But Michigan joins Wisconsin and Ohio among northern states whose flirtations with RTW legislation point to a political tactic that's growing in states led by Republican governors all over the country.

◊ ◊ ◊

A lot can happen between February and December. On Feb. 1, Snyder testified at a House committee hearing on the economy and job creation. He said then that right-to-work was inherently “divisive” and that RTW legislation would not be a priority of his administration. “It’s not on my agenda,” he said.

Fast forward to Tuesday. In his press conference, Snyder explained his volte-face on the matter: It’s the unions’ fault. Snyder blamed union support for Proposal 2, a ballot measure that would have cemented collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. The measure was rejected by voters on Election Day.

“The timing of such is something I didn't seek out,” he said. “But really what took place this summer with Proposal 2 triggered the dialogue and discussion on this. I asked labor leaders not to move forward with a ballot proposal because I knew it could trigger a discussion that could lead to right to work being a divisive issue. Unfortunately they moved forward, it became divisive, and it was time to step up and take a leadership position, which I believe I've done, with good teamwork in the legislature.”

But since the voters rejected Proposal 2 on Nov. 6, Snyder’s rationale for signing the RTW bills didn’t really exist. He based his actions on a desire to prevent divisiveness on the issue, when his signing the RTW measures into law only guarantees the very divisiveness he says he was trying to avoid.

◊ ◊ ◊

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka unloaded on Snyder’s move at the organization’s Web site:

“Political partisanship reigns supreme in Michigan today, thanks to a radical group of Republicans ramming through so-called right to work legislation in the lame-duck session, despite massive protests in the state’s Capitol building. The people in the Capitol and around the state are demanding that legislators focus on an agenda that puts families and communities first, yet these Republican legislators and Snyder are willing to put politics ahead of Michigan’s well-being.

“This legislation is about silencing the voices of working families in our democracy at a time when what we need is for people to have a stronger voice in building our future. Now, more than ever, people in Lansing and Michigan need to work together to rebuild and focus on the big issues that bring people together. This could not be more divisive.

“Gov. Snyder’s sideshow of a press conference today was an utterly disingenuous attempt to mislead. With his announcement, Snyder joins a list of other governors—Kasich, Walker and others—who have acted to put the future of their states in the hands of big corporations and CEOs and leave working families behind.”

◊ ◊ ◊

IN WAYS that are obvious right now, Michiganders paid the price on Tuesday for the election of 2010, when a weak state Democratic field went up against a generalized Tea Party-fueled discontent. Snyder won the governor’s chair in a relative walk.

Snyder “benefited from widespread voter dissatisfaction with [then Gov. Jennifer] Granholm and divisions within the Democratic Party that produced in [Democratic nominee Virg] Bernero a relatively weak, cash-poor nominee who started out the general election campaign behind by 20 points and never caught up. Add to that a simple desire of Michigan voters, as happened nationally, to cast their lot with the Republicans.” Peter Luke of Bridge Magazine wrote in November 2010.

But it’s worse than that. Michigan’s workers are also paying for the failure of Democratic party leadership at state and national levels to focus on the small-ball game of local politics, concentrating instead on the White House.

“Since the late ’00s, labor has used much of its political and financial capital to elect, and then re-elect, President Barack Obama, and to a lesser extent, support Congressional and gubernatorial candidates,” reported Micheline Maynard, at Forbes. “There has been less money for local candidates, and few bodies, because membership is not growing.

“Now, the labor movement can see the result: when Republicans take over state houses, they pass measures that hinder union organizing efforts. Thus, local elections have become more important than in the past.”

◊ ◊ ◊

On MSNBC’s “Ed Show” on Tuesday, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow spelled out the new landscape for her state’s workers, and the stakes for workers in the two dozen remaining states that haven’t gone RTW.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Turd Blossom blues:
Fox News shortens Karl Rove’s leash

KARL ROVE has been a fixture of both Republican politics and Fox News for so long now, it’s hard to remember when there was ever daylight between them. The Republican strategist has been part of the fair and balanced network’s programming going back to early 2008.

But the bloom is off the Turd Blossom. On Tuesday, Gabriel Sherman at New York Magazine reported that the founder of the Crossroads GPS SuperPAC, chief strategist for the Bush 2000 campaign and media prince of darkness will be somewhat muzzled by Fox in the immediate post-election future.

“The post-election soul searching going on inside the Republican Party is taking place inside Fox News as well,” Sherman writes. “Fox News chief Roger Ailes, a canny marketer and protector of his network’s brand, has been taking steps since November to reposition Fox in the post-election media environment, freshening story lines — and in some cases, changing the characters. According to multiple Fox sources, Ailes has issued a new directive to his staff: He wants the faces associated with the election off the air — for now.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That means Karl Rove and fellow political seer Dick Morris, a former Clinton administration adviser, have been pulled from heavy rotation on the Fox News schedule.

“Multiple sources say that Ailes was angry at Rove’s election-night tantrum when he disputed the network’s call for Obama,” Sherman reported. Anyone watching Fox that night remembers it well. With the outcome in Ohio slipping away, and with the network having already called the presidency for Obama, Rove desperately looked for a way around his network’s calling of Ohio for Obama — a decision Rove had the nerve to call “premature.”

Have a look. It’s sad watching a man with too much skin in the game lose his investment.

“Ailes’s deputy, Fox News programming chief Bill Shine, has sent out orders mandating that producers must get permission before booking Rove or Morris,” Sherman reported.

While Rove had millions of other people’s money riding on the outcome, Morris had little more than his reputation as a pundit. That took a serious hit after he, at odds with just about every respectable pollster there was, went on Fox News with a straight face and predicted a Romney “landslide.”

Morris, at least, had the self-possession to man up and admit his error. Writing in The Hill on Nov. 7, he said that a “key reason for my bum prediction is that I believed, mistakenly, that the 2008 surge in black, Latino and young voter turnout would recede in 2012 to ‘normal’ levels. Didn’t happen. These high levels of minority and young voter participation are here to stay. And, with them, a permanent reshaping of our nation’s politics.”

◊ ◊ ◊

NOT SO Karl Rove. Two days after the election, in the first of the postmortems to come, Rove took a novel approach, blaming President Obama for voter suppression.

“He succeeded by suppressing the vote, by saying to people, 'You may not like who I am and I know you can't bring yourself to vote for me, but I'm going to paint this other guy as simply a rich guy who only cares about himself,'" Rove said in a Fox News interview with anchor Megyn Kelly.

Ailes, a longtime media consultant in Republican circles and Rove’s nominal boss, appears to not be so caught up in denial. In an interview with TVNewser’s Chris Ariens, Ailes seems to have opened the door to a more moderate approach to covering the president Fox News loves to hate.

“It’s day to day for us,” Ailes said. “We … we have no agenda. If he runs into a burning building tomorrow and saves four kids, he’s gonna be the biggest goddamn hero Fox News ever saw. But if he leaves four guys behind on the battlefield but can’t explain it, then he’s gonna have a problem with Fox News.”

“I don’t mind praising the guy and I don’t mind questioning the guy,” Ailes said. “It’s day to day.”

That, folks, sounds curiously close to being really “fair and balanced.” We’ll see how long this lasts.

Image credits: Rove, Fox News logo: © 2012 Fox News. Ailes: via TVNewser.

Zucker unbound: The reinvention of CNN

THE SIREN song of change ushered in by the results of the 2012 election has been picked up by the sleep- and ratings-deprived suits at CNN. In the first of transformations at the Atlanta-based network, CNN is bringing Jeff Zucker, the programming titan who transformed  NBC’s “Today” show at the age of 26 (before eventually expanding his brief to running all of NBC Universal). Zucker begins in January at the legacy cable network whose time for a reboot is, charitably speaking, overdue.

The 47-year-old Zucker, who’ll replace the retiring Jim Walton as head of CNN Worldwide, will be about the reinvention of the network that reinvented television — back in the day. Once seen as the paragon of TV journalism at the dawn of the cable era, the brainchild of Ted Turner has been adrift for years now, saddled with a muddy, imprecise consumer-facing identity and fighting a battle to distinguish CNN from any number of younger, hungrier, edgier competitors in a mighty crowded mediascape that didn’t exist when CNN began in 1981.

Zucker’s been brought on to help CNN get its imaging mojo back, even as he and the CNN brass insist that the network’s inclination to report the news without perspective — a philosophy at odds with MSNBC and Fox News, CNN’s most aggressive challengers for ratings — won’t be changed.

◊ ◊ ◊

Zucker’s first job may be the biggest: giving CNN a consistent presence, a voice that runs through all the network’s personae. Today’s CNN has the feel of an earnest, well-intentioned hodgepodge, a mix of styles, personalities and reportorial rhythms that, ironically, adds up to a network with no throughline for viewers to get behind.

For CNN, the challenge is to reinvigorate the brand of being “the Most Trusted Name in News” for a new generation of viewers, one whose daily info-diet is jammed with way more than 31 flavors of perspective and attitude. “The key is that CNN remain true to its ideals of great journalism but at the same time be vibrant and exciting,” Zucker told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Just because you’re not partisan doesn’t mean you can’t be exciting.”

“I don’t want to get caught in the trap of thinking that Fox and MSNBC are our principal competition,” Zucker told Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast on Friday. “That’s way too limiting. Our competition is also Discovery, the History Channel, anyone that provides nonfiction programming.”

While that's technically true enough for a network with a truly global footprint, you’re invited not to believe all that hype. Zucker’s not taking charge of CNN in order to go head-to-head with the History Channel. The one-time wunderkind of broadcast television is faced with retooling the Current Events Channel, and a lot rides on the outcome.

◊ ◊ ◊

IN MANY WAYS, CNN has been producing stellar journalism that pushes outside the frame of our expectations for the network and TV in general. Besides its broad international presence — being on the ground in several world hot spots, or getting there fast, has long been a CNN trademark, symbolized now by Anderson Cooper — the network has produced several long-form projects examining the nation’s emerging demographic groups. Soledad O’Brien’s series on black and Latino Americans, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s specials on emerging health issues have set a high bar for investigative journalism.

But CNN’s talent roster otherwise skews older than its closest competitor, MSNBC. And something about the CNN style, the delivery, the look-and-feel of the programming feels off, a step or three behind its competitors. It’s not a matter of quality, and God knows, with all the players CNN fields on a given day, it’s not a question of quantity.

Admittedly, there’s no statistical metric for je ne sais quoi, but the ineffable something CNN doesn’t have is effable enough to call Zucker in to find it.

Michael Wolff, writing in The Guardian in August, seemed to grasp CNN’s issues: “The hopeless decline in prime time ratings – not the big revenue producer for the network, but the most visible part of it – has meant that, on a cyclical basis of more or less humiliation, there has been a series of hurry up, herky-jerky efforts to re-jig prime time, lending it a weird, side-show-like, always under-renovation, and heading toward the next round of embarrassing publicity, effect.”
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