Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Happy Birthday, Mort
May 12, 2009
I read in yesterday’s paper that it was Mort Sahl’s 82nd birthday. I wrote a little free-form tribute that got lost when our satellite connection broke. One of the joys of living outside the town limits, about six miles from the Verizon mainframe, too far for their DSL service. Losing the satellite’s signal is just one of the downsides of living in the digital age. I’ll get to the others in a minute.
Being that I am closing in on sixty and have voluntarily destroyed more brain cells than I was probably born with, I could never hope to recreate what I wrote yesterday. It takes concerted effort to remember what I had for breakfast this morning, never mind sharp and quippy witticisms. It reminds me of what Charles Bukowski said, all writers are stupid asses, which is why they have to write everything down. Again, I digress.
Mort Sahl. I saw him not that long ago on Keith Olbermann’s show. He looked pretty good and seemed only a little bit befuddled. Hey… he’s eighty-two. I’ll cut him a good measure of slack. Mort gained prominence as a hip comic during Camelot, with Lenny, Dick Gregory and a few other unique voices. Others in the day were funny, at telling jokes, not necessarily the hard-edged truth. But where Dick Gregory was race-centric, and Lenny was topical, Mort was downright political. Invariably dressed in a V-neck pullover sweater with the sleeves rolled up a bit, over a white button down shirt, usually carrying the day’s newspaper as more than a prop—but the basis of his act, he would rant and riff his way through the news. Then, as now, truth was way stranger than fiction. Beatniks and Commies. Sputnik and fallout shelters. Jackie and Kerouac. It was all game for Mort’s barbs. His delivery and timing was impeccable. Today, a lot of people on television, on the comedy club circuit or in the blogosphere do what they do because of Mort Sahl. In a sense, Mort was the original political blogger. But instead of the “wealth” of self-appointed, opinionated conspiracists that are active bloggers, Mort based his bits on the news, as reported by journalists.
I once saw Mort Sahl sitting in a booth at the McDonald’s on Santa Monica Boulevard, near Beverly Glen. He was nursing a cup of McCoffee and poring over about eight inches of newspapers. If I looked, I probably would have seen The New York Times, The LA Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal and God knows what else. He inhaled the news and breathed it out with sarcasm, satire and an impish sneer. I would never have thought of bugging him. I at my Egg McMuffin and let him be.
Like our current president, I like reading the newspaper. I like to read it over breakfast. Sometimes, I miss some stories. I haven’t been following up on Penny Pritzker’s financial dealings, for example. Whether or not I am missing out on anything is a matter of conjecture. I got used to reading two newspapers a day when I lived in Los Angeles—The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. I like to get a balance. Now, I find myself reading the parochial and most usually syndicated Oregonian, with the even more parochial Statesman Journal. Sundays, I still read the New York Times. Like I say, I may miss an article or two in my reading. I tend to skim. I get pulled in by a headline sometimes.
I am not particularly comfortable reading the news online nor do I follow any blogs, which are decidedly not news. I know this because I write a blog—evidently for a very select audience. I have made the mistake more than once of foisting my political opinions here. Believe me, I do try to stay within the realm of what I know. I spend enough time on the computer, with my work and photography, correspondence and the like to spend more time reading the news and bloggers’ opinions. I don’t go to Youtube unless directed. The same goes for Myspace and Facebook. I have never been to Twitter. What has been happening with the way people get their news is the same thing that happened when Napster hit the music industry. Why pay for something you can get for free?
In last Sunday’s New York Times’ Week in Review, there were at least three pieces about the trouble newspapers find themselves in. The Boston Globe, in particular, is in dire financial trouble. The Globe is owned by The New York Times Company. Ironically, that also makes the New York Times part owners of the Boston Red Sox. Clark Hoyt, the Public Editor for the New York Times wrote that the circulation of the Boston Globe is down 13.7% in the latest reporting period. The paper lost $74.5 million in the first three months of this year and is expected to lose more than $80 million before the year is out. There is one other newspaper in Boston; the independently owned Boston Herald, formerly owned by the Hearst Corporation and then, Rupert Murdoch. When I was growing up, there were a lot more choice, and, in some cases, two editions a day. There was the Herald, the Traveler and Evening Traveler, The Globe and Evening Globe, The Record and the American. Over the years, there have been permutations and mergers; The Herald and Traveler merged and then merged with the merged Record-American, eventually becoming the Herald American. Through it all–for 137 years–the Boston Globe has remained steadfast, a newspaper of lasting integrity and respectable reportage. That is, until now.
The Boston Globe is certainly not the only victim of the internet. The Rocky Mountain News, Philadelphia Enquirer, the Baltimore Examiner and Cincinnati Post, among others, have folded. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Detroit News and Free Press and even the Christian Science Monitor are in trouble. Make no mistake, this trend does not bode well for those wishing to be informed.
Maureen Dowd, in her column (“Put Aside Logic”), quoted Senator John Kerry, who called newspapers “endangered species” in the senate hearing he was heading up.
“David Simon, the creator of The Wire, who worked for 13 years as a Baltimore Sun reporter, testified that ‘high-end journalism is dying,’ and when that happens , and no one manning the cop shops and zoning boards, America will enter ‘a halcyon era for state and local political corruption.’
He said that he thought the horse could be lured back into the barn. ‘I work in television now,’ he said, ‘and no American for the first 30 years of television paid anything for their rabbit ears. Now they pay $60, $70 a month for better content.’”
In his column (“The American Press on Suicide Watch”), Frank Rich compared the current crisis to the knee-jerk reactions from radio, the movies and live entertainment to the mass introduction to television. The fear was that “this new household appliance threatened to strangle radio, movies, the Broadway theater, nightclubs and the circus. And newspapers too… ”
“Yes, journalists have made tons of mistakes and always will. But without their enterprise, to take a few representative recent examples, we would not have known about the wretched conditions for our veterans at Walter Reed, the government’s warrantless wiretapping, the scams at Enron or steroids in baseball.”
And you can add to that list American torture practices, the shady outing of Valerie Plame, the banking scandal, Bernie Madoff, former Governor Blagojevich, and even Penny Pritzker.
Frank Rich: “Such news gathering is not to be confused with opinion writing or bloviating–including that practiced here. Opinions can be stimulating and, for the audiences at Fox News and MSNBC, cathartic. We can spend hours surfing the posts of bloggers we like or despise, some of them gems, even as we might be moved to write our own blogs about local restaurants or the government documents we obsessively study online.
But opinions, however insightful or provocative and whether expressed online or in print or in prime time, are cheap. Reporting the news can be expensive. Some of it – monitoring the local school board, say – can and is being done by voluntary ‘citizen journalists’ with time on their hands, integrity and a Web site. But we can’t have serious opinions about America’s role in combating the Taliban in Pakistan unless brave and knowledgeable correspondents (with security to protect them) tell us in real time what is actually going on there. We can’t know what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street unless teams of reporters armed with the appropriate technical expertise and assiduously developed contacts are digging night and day. Those reporters have to eat and pay rent, whether they work for print, a TV network, a Web operation or some bottom-up news organism we can’t yet imagine.
It’s immaterial whether we find the fruits of their labors on paper, a laptop screen, a Blackberry, a Kindle or podcast. But someone – and certainly not the government, with all its conflicted interests – must pay for this content and make every effort to police its fairness and accuracy. If we lose the last major news-gathering operations still standing, there will be no news on Google News unless Google shells out to replace them. It won’t.”
Happy (belated) birthday, Mort.