anticipation, dissipation, history, politics

Why Elections Matter

American soldiers in Iraq walk past the word VOTE spray painted on a blast wall. From New York Times.

Apologies to Joao Silva/New York Times for using their photo. But look: American soldiers walking past a
spray-painted blast wall in Al Awad, Iraq, yesterday.

The first time I voted in a presidential election was in the 2000 election. I was a senior in college in New Hampshire. I voted absentee in Alaska. Before election night, the campaigns had seemed like exercises in pure politics. The country was doing well, the government was running a surplus, and the U.S. seemed pretty invincible, in spite of apparent anomalies like the recent USS Cole bombing and the earlier African embassy explosions. Bush was promising humility, compassionate conservatism, and explicit opposition to nation-building. Gore’s posturing, on the other hand, showed up in his physical performance. We seemed headed for a bland, bureaucratic age in which politicians were interchangeable functionaries. In college, we learned about the end of history. My cohort was restless, believing we would inherit a world marked by anomie. Friends were going to rallies for Ralph Nader–Ralph Nader–who gave young people something to rally around, a promise to Shake Up the Status Quo. And then Florida, outrage both real and manufactured, and an election put to rest by a split Supreme Court vote. The age of aimless political gamesmanship was upon us. The next summer we were preoccupied by shark attacks.

All this didn’t last another year.

development, dissipation, lost, unfortunate

Necessary Bohemia

The Hitch is right; San Francisco hasn’t got it. Not anymore.

From Vanity Fair (the emphasis is my own):

It isn’t possible to quantify the extent to which society and culture are indebted to Bohemia. In every age in every successful country, it has been important that at least a small part of the cityscape is not dominated by bankers, developers, chain stores, generic restaurants, and railway terminals. This little quarter should instead be the preserve of—in no special order—insomniacs and restaurants and bars that never close; bibliophiles and the little stores and stalls that cater to them; alcoholics and addicts and deviants and the proprietors who understand them; aspirant painters and musicians and the modest studios that can accommodate them; ladies of easy virtue and the men who require them; misfits and poets from foreign shores and exiles from remote and cruel dictatorships. Though it should be no disadvantage to be young in such a quartier, the atmosphere should not by any means discourage the veteran.

dissipation, journalism, money, ridiculousness

Quantity Through Quantity

It’s easy to babble. It’s hard to write short. Writing short is a decent thing to do; it saves your reader’s precious time. But once you’re in that mode of writing, it seems even harder to write long. I usually inject a lot of “very”s. I find that very effective.

Or, you have to be a better reporter, so that you’ve learned enough worthy material to earn the length. What if you don’t have the time to report, but still need to write long?


Kinsley remarks on a Tribune Company executive’s plans to measure the productivity of his company’s reporters at papers like the Los Angeles Times. It’s worth reading. The executive will do it by counting each reporter’s column inches of text. More words equals better employees.

But better reporting?

Does it even matter at this point?

development, dissipation, lost, San Francisco

The crashing down.

There are several interesting stories coming out of the crane accident in New York City. One was Susan Dominus’s portrait of the typical scene at Fubar, which occupied the ground floor of the destroyed townhouse on East 50th. Although the occupations of the regulars comes as a surprise (advertising, television cameraman, programmer) and doesn’t exactly square with the vision of a neighborhood bar, remember, this is Manhattan, not Boston circa 1982. Not too many house—painters or mailmen in that crowd, anymore.

But what I found particularly resonant were points like these:

And yet for the people who live there, it’s an unusually tight-knit neighborhood, filled with longtime residents who experience the city as a place to live, not a stage set designed to highlight Manhattan’s millennial glamour. . .

It’s hard to miss the symbolism: Old-time neighborhood hangout literally crushed by the force of development run amok.

These sentiments are so resonant because they are so relevant. This is San Francisco, too.

San Francisco is my first city. I moved here about six years ago (six years, one month, six days), and though I arrived at a relatively more affordable time, post dot-com burst, I still felt ten years too late. No doubt I engage in some idealization—San Francisco as a working city, where dock-workers actually live and work, same for skilled tradesmen and artisans; where commercial fisherman tie up at Fisherman’s Wharf (see the opening of Gay Talese’s “Silent Season of a Hero”). Even that exercise in anomie and post-modernism The Crying of Lot 49 made San Francisco seem more real, less posed. But that’s all gone. The smithy on Rincon Hill, if it exists anymore, is nothing but an anachronism, shorthand for lazy Chron reporters and lazy so-called-blog writers. I have friends moving into the goliath tower, nearly complete, at the top of Rincon Hill, the one that hulks over the approach to the Bay Bridge and interrupts the San Francisco skyline like an obnoxious interlocutor making his most onerous demand first—and getting it. “In five years, it’s going to look like New York,” one new resident of that tower told the Chronicle. He also said:

“Some people want to live in a funky Victorian until they see this,” he said. “I think San Francisco has changed and it’s changing faster.”

“I represent the new guard.”

The new guard.

And it was about six years ago—when I got to know parts of the city by walking through it each weekend—six years ago when I stepped into Vesuvio, the bar with the famously literary pedigree. And, sure, it trades on that reputation, the Kerouac and red wine mystique next door to City Lights. And, yes, that tends to attract the tourist crowd and those who, in Ms. Dominus’s words, want the city to be a stage set. But not always.

I ducked in there on a Sunday afternoon, seeking escape, profoundly self-conscious from walking alone through North Beach’s jazz festival. There was a guy named Bruce at the bar, who kind of looked like Dave Barry, talking to his friend Jack (Jack the Hat), who was tending the bar. We talked about how expensive it was anymore. And I bought Bruce a beer, and asked how the city had changed in the 30 years he and Jack had lived here, and Bruce said there was all kind of change but these days the thing is that everywhere you go there are frat guys. Just everywhere. They ruin every cool bar, every event. We talked a little more before Bruce left. I ordered another drink and talked to Jack. And wouldn’t you know, a few minutes later the festival let out and in poured a bunch of guys wearing board shorts and pink polo shirts with upturned collars and visors and flip-flops with beautiful bouncing girlfriends clamoring for attention. The frat guys were upon us. So I let Jack get to work and finished my beer and made to settle up and Jack said, forget it, no charge.

dissipation, education, journalism, money, really?, unfortunate

Follow the Money. Or Breadcrumbs. Or Whatever.

Matt Krupnick published an article about the fallout from the dean search at Berkeley’s journalism school in the Contra Costa Times yesterday (“UC Berkeley mum on why dean hire bailed out”). I think it’s worth a read, if only for the summing up that hasn’t appeared anywhere else–and he did a good job considering few would talk to him. He made it onto Romenesko, so people are taking notice.

We might as well pull out all the old journalistic shibboleths for this awkward situation. Is the cover-up worse than the crime? What did people know and when did they know it? Follow the money? Funny how so many tropes stem from Watergate.

The most interesting piece of new information in that story was about money, and it came from Provost George Breslauer. Both John Peabody and I mentioned Cynthia Gorney’s question to Breslauer at last week’s school-wide meeting. She asked if he could guarantee that the university would keep funding coming in. “Done,” he told us, sparking a round of applause.

In my post, I thought it worth noting that “how much, for how long, and for what was not completely clear.”

Turns out Krupnick’s reporting has dug up one parameter: “I’m not prepared to step in and now pour money in to ensure that everything Orville [Schell, the former dean] raised money for keeps going,” Breslauer told him.

That runs counter to the impression he gave at the meeting. “Grandstanding,” one professor called it yesterday.

But who’s asking questions? Or rather, who’s allowed to ask questions, considering what’s been said around the school? This situation has the potential to become, as George W. Bush says, “an accountability moment.” So the buck stops where?

articles, beach, dissipation, energy, environment, journalism, language, really?

Newspapers Say the Darndest Things

Chronicle front page 8 november“Crunch!”? Really? 

A huge cargo ship bumps into the Bay Bridge and spills 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel–not just oil, but bunker fuel–and this is the Chronicle’s headline? Is it supposed to be a joke? 

When I looked at my copy this morning, I originally thought this was a feature recapping some little disaster that I hadn’t heard about. But, no. This is breaking news.

anticipation, dissipation, education, journalism, really?

Sources Say…

John Peabody’s got an inside source who says:

1. There were tenure disagreements. And, 2. potential inaccuracies that are minor, if they exist at all, were in Lynch’s CV.

John Peabody, don’t you remember the finger-wagging admonition not to traffic in rumor and scuttlebut? From our own interim dean, no less? Remember Day 1 of journalism school: you are reporters and we expect you to act that way. Until we tell you not to.

But the possibilities JP and his source raise don’t sound so different from what other students have pieced together. So maybe we won’t be so surprised when the truth comes out, only disappointed by their substance and what that says about this process.

Meanwhile, a message was relayed from Breslauer to the school this morning. Let’s look at it (there’s nothing terribly controversial or revelatory in it, as expected):

Dear Colleagues:

We appreciated the opportunity to meet with many of you on Monday. I
understand that there were many others who could not make it. So I’d
like to take this opportunity to reiterate or elaborate on several
points made at the meeting.

We consider GSJ [Gto be the best journalism school in the country, and
we are committed to keeping it that way. With respect to funding, we
realize that the School has many needs and we are determined both to
work with the School on fund-raising and to assist the School
financially to ensure that its priority needs are met as we bridge to
a mature fund-raising structure for GSJ.

Fuller incorporation of digital media into the curriculum and
research programs is vital to the future of both GSJ and the
university more generally. We are committed to enhancing the
capacity of GSJ in this area.

We will continue to seek the best available candidate for leadership
of the School at this important juncture. A process for choosing a
new dean will be decided soon. It has been our pleasure to work with
Neil Henry as interim dean in recent months as he has worked to set
the stage for the School’s transition. He has provided outstanding
leadership, serving with professionalism, integrity, and devotion to
the interests of GSJ.

George W. Breslauer
Professor of Political Science
Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost
University of California at Berkeley

The only interesting parts come up at the beginning and end. Breslauer starts by announcing that he’s recapping our meeting for the benefit of those who were absent. Somehow he left out the best part and neglected to mention that no questions regarding Lynch’s withdrawal were or will be addressed substantively.

He later points out that there is no set plan for how to choose the next dean–a dean search and related committee is not even broached rhetorically, though my impression is that it is required technically. If not, why go through formal channels, ever? But in the next sentence, Breslauer launches into an encomium of Neil Henry’s interim deanship. So connect those dots however you want.

The fundamental question that this whole episode highlights has to do with many of the complaints and problems that crop up at the journalism school. Namely, where is the accountability?

A second-year student at the meeting asked an important question: Will Neil Henry ask Dianne Lynch to accept some responsibility for this situation and write a letter essentially apologizing to the school for leading it on, only to withdraw at the last moment? Henry said he would ask.

But if the reason for Lynch’s withdrawal that JP uncovered are true, maybe she’s not the one–or at least not the only one–who might consider taking responsibility for her actions.

anticipation, dissipation, education, irony, journalism, politics, really?, ridiculousness, unfortunate

Instant Void: When it comes to the Journalism School’s Dean, you’ve got questions, but we’ve got no answers

Wrote this on Tuesday:
John Peabody has a nice rundown of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s meeting on the surprise withdrawal of Dianne Lynch as incoming dean. She is, and will remain, dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. To recap: Lynch was the favorite candidate among the finalists for the job to succeed Orville Schell. She withdrew late in the game. Provost George Breslauer discussed her reasons for withdrawing with her and convinced her to accept the position in May. Breslauer and the search committee got the UC Regents to approve what they felt was a generous compensation package and official appointment in the summer. Then they started the faculty review. Breslauer said they waited until they could be sure the money was in place before they initiated the review. And then she withdrew, again, last week, about two months before she was set to start, about 5 months after she accepted the job.

Breslauer, along with Vice Provost Shelly Zedeck, and interim dean and professor Neil Henry, a former Washington Post reporter, met with students, faculty, and staff for about 40 minutes Monday evening.

The meeting, according to an e-mail from Henry, was “to discuss the withdrawal and the school’s immediate future with the full school community.”

The discussion of the withdrawal consisted mainly of variations of the phrase, We can’t tell you what happened.

The school’s immediate future was never substantially addressed either. Professor Cynthia Gorney got Breslauer to confirm that program funding would continue, though how much, for how long, and for what was not completely clear. But there’s a promise. In any case, in the same e-mail that Henry sent informing us of the meeting, Henry wrote: “With much School planning and decision-making on hold in recent months pending Dianne’s arrival, I will now move to secure university financial support for various curricular and program initiatives during our continuing transition.” So no surprises there.

There were a handful of notable moments in the meeting, including Henry’s admonition that we should not be curious about rumors, nor should we ask questions about confidential information. Sometimes a person will kick away the dirt to reveal the bright shining line that exists between journalism and bureaucracy.

But all of this secrecy and uproar may have a more pernicious effect. Granted, Breslauer, et al., are bound by the University’s rules of confidentiality related to personnel matters, and thus can not tell us what happened. But Breslauer was careful in describing the timeline of this process (which I summed up above). And he noted that it was during the faculty review process, when materials presumably relating to a candidate’s professional history, are scrutinized by faculty, that she withdrew.

And that’s where the questions start pouring in.

Look at it this way. If one went through the process of getting a high profile job in one’s field, only to withdraw during the professional evaluation–when people are examining your work, maybe calling up a few old colleagues–the casual onlooker might then wonder if something unpleasant was discovered. If it were enough to disqualify someone from being a dean at Berkeley, one might wonder if it might be enough to disqualify that person from being dean anywhere. Yet due to the confidentiality surrounding personnel matters, that other school might not be similarly informed. (Or it might not have seen a problem where others did.) Meanwhile, the reputation of an accomplished administrator and new-media star hangs in the balance.

That’s the uncomfortable situation that Lynch is in, and since there is a void of substantial information, rumors and assertions rush to fill it.

Worse, it may all be the result of bad timing. So Lynch withdrew during the review phase rather than the salary phase. Her motivation may have had nothing at all to do with the review. But because it happened during her professional review, it’s difficult to shake the implication of impropriety. And that, inevitably, is where many questions are headed.

But wait: What if Lynch’s withdrawal didn’t have anything to do with her record? Why withdraw then? Family, yes, which is what she’s told us. (When Karl Rove resigned, citing family reasons, Sara Schaefer Munoz mused about the popularity of the family reasons reason on the Wall Street Journal’s The Juggle blog.)

Could it be the Journalism School, itself? Possibly. Over the course of this whole dean search, a fair amount of dirty laundry has been aired, most of it having to do with the usual departmental politics endemic to any academic institution, though some of it has to do with the nature of journalism and journalism training. If you had a good thing going at your current job, and saw that the new job was rife with vitriolic, internecine feuding, maybe little Ithaca College isn’t so bad, after all. Why leave upstate New York, four seasons, reasonable cost of living, for the big time at Berkeley, if that means trading it all in for a two-season, earthquake-prone den of dysfunction?

Or maybe it’s something else. But I guess that’s the point here.

As long as the confidentiality rules hold, then both sides are technically protected from any potential revelations that they’d just as soon keep hidden. But in the process, both sides risk losing face.

crime, dissipation, journalism, life, San Francisco, talent, unfortunate


In June, the Chronicle ran a good story about a woman who discovered—and pursued—the person who had stolen her identity. It is engaging to read and a lucky score for the Chronicle, a story like that, one that unfolds cinematically and neatly. There are advantages to being the only show in town, as far as full-fledged newspapers are concerned. Where else might we have heard this story, if not the Chronicle? The Examiner wouldn’t set aside the column space to do the story justice; local television wouldn’t have the minutes to spare; the blogs have to deal with the dumb rule that everything has to be short; and, frankly, there are no magazines in town that would have managed to fit the story into their pages–it’s not “big” enough to warrant a feature, but too long to cram into a short front-of-the-book piece (although, if following the trail of the identity thief meant you stopped at The City’s 10 Best Places to Eat/Shop/Fall in Love, things might be different).

Maybe there’s room for some other kind of publication that could produce stories like this.

It was written by Mike Weiss. Three months earlier, Weiss wrote about a waitress and bartender who stopped a man from drugging his date. But Weiss doesn’t only write about regular people outwitting the criminal element. He’s one of the best features writers at the Chronicle, possibly the best. He certainly seemed to have free reign for a reporter. His beat covered a little of everything in the Bay Area: San Francisco General Hospital, Gavin Newsom, passion, unsolved crime, solved crime, ash scattering, casualty notification officers, intelligent design, and Duarte’s olallieberry pies, among other things.  In short, he wrote what we vaguely call human interest stories, what editors even more vaguely call enterprise reporting, but what anyone who wants to be a reporter and actually likes to write dreams of getting paid to do–the closest thing around to the old Joseph Mitchell kind of reporting, the closest to the full-steam-ahead Talk of the Town piece.

So should it have come as a surprise that he’s part of the Chronicle‘s Summertime 2007 housecleaning?  Maybe not, but it’s too bad for those who bother to read what’s left of the Chronicle.

Frances Dinkelspiel posted a list of what appears to be all the staff who are leaving the Chronicle this summer. Besides Weiss, some of the others who I’m disappointed to see go include Anna Badkhen (now at the Globe), David Lazarus (going to the LA Times), Keay Davidson, Edward Epstein, Glen Martin, and what looks to be a significant chunk of the photo staff.

Only Catherine Bigelow and David Lazarus really got to say goodbye to their readers, through their columns. Mike Weiss used to have a column, too. And for that, he wrote his own farewell, six years ago. But there was an earlier column, on the 10th anniversary of the 1989 earthquake. He was in Candlestick Park when it struck. He wrote that all in attendance cheered when it was over. It was about close calls and survival.

“We had an opportunity to show what we were made of,” he wrote, “and we did. San Francisco survived to bicker another day. You and I are alive. It doesn’t get any better.”

The whole list after the jump. Continue reading

dissipation, journalism, San Francisco

The San Francisco Chronicle: Can’t Stop the Magic!

So it’s taken me a while to get around to this but here goes.

On the San Francisco Chronicle‘s web site, a new blog popped up earlier this month: “Colleagues Remembered.” Based on the title, it sounds like a bunch of death notices. But it’s actually a series of tributes to various editors and reporters who have been laid off as part of the deep cuts taking place in the newsroom (25% over the summer).

A few of them are familiar names or faces. James Finefrock, for example, whom I met last fall, was the editor of the Insight section of the Sunday Chronicle, one of the few places at the paper open to freelancers (a good example here). Marc Sandalow, who headed the Washington bureau, wrote a farewell message posted here. Meanwhile, John Curley, who started the Flickr Pickr–the only new thing at the Chron that seems to have engaged anyone I know–is out, too. He announced his departure–doesn’t exactly sound like a voluntary buyout (“I am surprised and dismayed that the organization thinks it can have a future without me.”)–on his own Flickr page.

News like this is not exactly the most reassuring to anyone who’s thinking of being a journalist, whatever the medium. Newspaper internships are particularly prized for the opportunity to get bylined stories. That makes it hard enough to get a newspaper internship, harder at places like the Chronicle.

“We only want to hire people with experience, but you can’t get experience without an internship. It’s a catch-22,” an editor from the Dallas Morning News once told me with an apologetic shrug. What’s more, these internships have turned into something different from the learning experiences or apprenticeships most beginners need. They’ve become a way for papers to get cheap labor–or so an editor from the Chronicle told me with a dismissive wave.

Some enterprising survivors at the Chronicle have set up a blog to send job leads and suggestions to their colleagues. Awfully thoughtful, but hardly reassuring, especially for the beginner, also looking for work. How do you compete with all these 20- or 30-year veterans who’ve been kicked to the curb? They’ll get all the good internships.