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On Le Conte Avenue, a couple of doors uphill from the edge of the UC Berkeley campus, there's a small apartment building that may, just may — I'm going to check next week — house a treasure trove. In 1963, while moving from his Berkeley apartment, my dad stashed four apple boxes under the building's foundation. They were stuffed with magazines -- weird magazines, obscure magazines, cool magazines from among the eclectic list of nearly two dozen subscriptions he had at that time. Titles included Bullshit, Majority of One, The Manchester Guardian, and IF Stone's Weekly.
"A lot was wannabe, fly-by-night, very liberal stuff; it was people of the day having a good time," recalls my dad, who for years told himself he would retrieve the boxes, but never did. Still, he says, "it would be interesting to go back to see if they were still under there."
I recalled that box of highly opinionated newsprint last week during a conversation with San Francisco Chronicle business and technology columnist Henry Norr on the topic of journalistic objectivity. Norr's bosses suspended him without pay last Wednesday after he took a sick day to be arrested in an anti-war protest. In response, longtime peacenik Norr wrote an extended letter to the widely read journalists' Web site Romenesko. He stated that "the offense the Chronicle is charging me with is falsifying my timecard, but this is a bogus, after-the-fact cover for an act of political retaliation and an attempt to intimidate other employees."
Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein did not return my call requesting comment. But Chronicle brass apparently think political expression of this sort by reporters creates a potential conflict of interest; $4 billion of local business is somehow tied up in the current war, a Chron memo circulated after Norr's suspension said. Norr's a business columnist. So according to this logic he shouldn't openly take a side. To Norr, the objectivity issue rings false.
"I think total objectivity is an illusion," Norr said. "I think good journalism comes from people who admit their biases."
Norr's recent protest activity seemed directed as much at his bosses as at the architects of the war in Iraq. In his Romenesko missive, and in conversation with me, Norr made much of his choice to call in "sick" to attend a protest march, rather than taking a vacation day off. "I did so because I was sick — heartsick over the beginning of the war, nauseated by the lies and the arrogance and the stupidity that led to it, and deeply depressed by the death and destruction it would bring," Norr wrote.
Norr's semantic protest against his bosses seems as misguided as recent street protests against CNN, Fox, and other media with a pro-war bias: Nobody with any brains looks to the mainstream media for truth on the war these days.
It's now clear that, by unquestioningly parroting Pentagon flackery, metropolitan daily newspapers, broadcast and cable television networks, and radio networks misled Americans into believing that the U.S. Army last month entered an easily won battle from which the country could quickly extract itself. U.S. news organizations have, indeed, used the war as an opportunity to distinguish themselves as toadying, superficial, jingoistic, simplistic, and, on too many points, drastically, factually, frequently wrong.
Which brings me to the Le Conte Avenue newsprint, the silver lining to the War on Iraq, and why the Henry Norrs of the world should feel free to come in from the cold.
For all its horror and folly and cynicism, the Iraq assault has one potential merit: It may provide the American public with a primer about the true state of 21st-century media. Here's the scenario as I see it. Hungry for war news, Americans turn to CNN and see ... an inarticulate warmongering space cadet in the form of anchor Aaron Brown. (Didn't the weird, inarticulate spaceheads used to be on the side of peace?) Americans turn to their local daily newspapers and read decontextualized desert travelogues under the guise of war reporting. They see the occasional non sequitur clips of a world outraged at America's war. They thrash and turn for context, understanding, truth — and they discover that America has enjoyed a quiet revolution in news access during the past decade. Sure, television has continued its post-1950s downward spiral, radio's become a vast land of David Koresh sympathizers, and daily newspapers have shrunk their international news holes to mere pinpricks.
But foreign newsgathering has expanded exponentially during the past 10 years. In the early 1990s, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of economies in Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern Europe, U.S. and European wire services specializing in economic news hired hundreds of foreign reporters. Meanwhile, the long-heralded information explosion that was supposed to accompany the Internet is now actually happening, but not in the form of AOL Time Warner-type synergies. Rather, Americans are now able to turn to outlets such as Le Monde, Al Jazeera, Daily Jang (Pakistan), Daily Star (Lebanon), or www.tompaine.com to supplement their news diets. Though the dailies are loath to admit it, the past decade saw some local alternative weeklies become truly competitive with daily newspapers. For thinking people wishing to truly understand their communities and the world at large, network television and daily newspapers have become an increasingly less important part of the media world.