Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why Does Marty Kaiser Want To Be My Friend?

I have written a lot of awful songs through my many years of amateur folk-rock pretension.  But one I wrote over 30 years ago seems to have some staying power, even though the subjects of the song have not.  It's an ode to the three network anchormen (yes -- men) who dominated TV news dissemination from their desks and chairs after the pioneering days of Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley had passed.

These were the days before Ted Turner's revolutionary CNN created the 24-hour news cycle, eventually leading to the current niche-ification of the news, where you can now browse per your preference for the trivial (sadly, CNN), the (sometimes) thoughtfully substantive MSNBC and the nut-right fact-and-attitude alternate universe of Fox News.  As helpfully instantaneous as these news outlets often are to the chronically vicarious  ("Let's go live to Los Angeles, where a car appears to be going the wrong way down a one-way street...wait, we are breaking away to Ames, Iowa, where Newt Gingrich's head is about to explode..."), more means less in a world where there is no longer a standard set of news-facts we can all argue about and work to change.

Anyway, my song -- "(Why Does) Dan Rather (Want To Be My Friend)" --  is about the three network news anchors as they existed in the post-Cronkite, pre-cable '80s and how they tried to sell themselves to a too-salable public. As essential rock critic Robert Christgau used to write (or still does), here are some Inspirational Verses:

Why does Dan Rather want to be my friend?
I can tell by the way he smiles right at the end...

Why does Tom Brokaw wanna get to know me?
If he's got some news, man -- I wish he'd show me...

Why does Peter Jennings want to read my mind?
I'm just a demographic -- I'm just a certain kind...

...and so on. These days, only Brian Williams on NBC maintains the traditional anchor gravitas, albeit with the occassional knowing smirk.  The revolving chair at CBS has made the Cronkite network irrelevant and over at ABC, former Nixon speech writer Diane Sawyer is still, well, Diane Sawyer. But the network anchor as cultural icon or anything but an occasional curiosity is over.

But, in this post, we are not concerned with TV heads trying to charm us (or, in the case of Fox and Friends, right-wing nobs providing us enough comic fodder for a month of Daily Shows).  We are immune to their supposed charm anyway, bombarded as we are with promotional shots of news show hosts posing in front of the Hoover Dam or in coffee shops. 

No, today, Journal Sentinel President/Publisher Elizabeth Brenner and Editor Martin Kaiser are the ones who want you to like them -- really, really like them. The newspaper, you see, is about to jump off the cliff of pay-for-content in its on-line offerings, starting January 4th.  To prepare you for this abrupt change of paying for the crap you now get for free, the paper ran a full-page ad for itself this morning [can't get a link to it], explaining (sort of) the change and trying to convince you how great it is. Details about how to give them your credit-card information to begin the extractions will follow in due course.

In the ad, er, "letter" (not available at JSOnline and, although there was no companion story in the business pages or anywhere else in today's paper, a story popped up on-line this morning), "Betsy" and "Marty" are featured in glossy pictures like the kind you would see in a Flomax or funeral home ad.   After patting themselves on the back for making themselves irrelevant by endorsing Scott Walker and fighting the recall campaign -- oops, I mean for winning Pulitzers and covering the Brewers' and Packers' playoff runs (tough job, that), they drop the bomb. "Now, it’s time to look ahead," they write.  Oh, oh.  Here it comes.  Hold on to your wallet or prepared to be less informed about the Journal Sentinel's version of Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

The pay-for-content scheme is branded as JS Everywhere -- who, after all, could argue with that, being everywhere, isn't that wonderful? The dwindling number of people who subscribe to the dead-tree version of the paper can be everywhere for no additional cost. And, like the current scheme at the New York Times, you can be everywhere on the website, until you've hit 20 links in a month, then ya-gotta-pay, somehow.  Wonderful apps are promised for all mobile devices "or whatever the next big thing is". Oh, that Journal Sentinel -- always looking forward, except when it comes to radical Republican governors who they could have predicted would run roughshod over Wisconsin tradition, progressivism and bipartisanship.  

I understand all legacy news content providers (i.e.: newspaper companies) around the country are stuggling with a new world where people no longer need their publications to stay what they consider to be informed.  And there is no substitute for the numbers of reporters built up over the years (even with the decimation of staffs at the J-S and everywhere else) to report on local, national and international events.  The economic model has obviously collapsed. 

But much of the Journal Sentinel's increased local coverage (encouraged by newspaper industry consultants to sustain relevancy) has devolved into simply providing hysterically sensationalized stories to give right-wing talk radio something to talk about.  This is especially the case when it involves the struggles of underclass African-Americans, whether it's co-sleeping or child-care providers.  Interesting information to a point, but there is nothing a racist like Mark Belling enjoys more than sneering at the failures of blacks in the inner city.

As long as Journal Communications Inc., through Charlie Sykes and its other wing-nut squawkers on the radio, the rest of their properties -- including the Journal Sentinel -- will always be compromised.  JCI also contributes to the poisoning of the airwaves in other parts of the country, sending the reprehensible J.T. Harris to its station in Tucson and former WISN part-time wing-nut Nick Reed to Springfield, MO.  The question isn't whether the Journal Sentinel will survive in its increasingly-digital form, but whether it deserves to.

As James Brown once said, Take it to the bridge:

I grew up -- with space shots and assassinations
Saw riots in the street -- I watched with fascination
I watched the revolution -- on my TV
Watching Walter Cronkite at my daddy's knee

There, on the floor while we watched Cronkite, were the afternoon Milwaukee Journal and the Sheboygan Press.  That was back when newspapers were newspapers -- not audience-seeking multi-media conglomerates, using consultants rather than news judgement to squeeze every last dollar out of their collapsing circulation.  The Journal Sentinel's pay-to-read experiment will rise or fail on the merit of its content, not because of Betsy and Marty's sugar-coating their own harsh reality.

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