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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.
It used to be that aspiring journalists not wishing to ascend from the Twin Falls Times-News to the Newport News Daily Press to the Sacramento Bee were obliged to consider careers in public relations. Now, they aspire to covering Bosnia for Reuters, or they work toward reporting for Willamette Week in Portland, Ore.
For people in the news business, this expansion of career paths has been a glorious turn of events. For readers realizing they needn't be duped by the presumptive objectivity of their local network affiliate or daily newspaper, it's better still.
Last week my mother, who's been following the war on the Manchester Guardian's Web site, called to say she'd found an article by an old buddy of mine who used to work with me at the Sacramento Union and is now reporting out of Tehran. Three days later my dad called to talk about something he saw on Jimhightower.com. He complained, facetiously, about all the myriad e-mailed war-related articles he's been receiving from friends in rural mountain towns.
I asked him about the boxes stashed under the Berkeley apartment building. He described an early 1960s flowering of alternative media, similar, in some ways, to the flowering of today. Dad discovered publications such as IF Stone's Weekly while attending seminary in Nebraska. Before that he'd been an Ike voter. Eventually he took out subscriptions to 22 obscure publications.
"My professor of ethics was instrumental in getting a segment of the library at Iliff Theological Seminary to include hundreds of periodicals that were not per se religious-oriented," Dad recalled. "I was addicted. I really had a problem because I would get lost in that reading room. It was built in a half circle, and it had really comfortable chairs — the most comfortable chairs in the institution. People who were interested in the publications would stop by, and soon you were talking with people with a broader interest."
By the late 1960s, hundreds of thousands of people inspired by alternative voices in the media and elsewhere were protesting the Vietnam War.
Likewise in 2003, it won't be a reformed Fox News or a cowed San Francisco Chronicle or an NBC repentant for firing Peter Arnett that will inspire Americans to begin rethinking the way their country relates to the world.
Instead, it will be Joe Conason at Salon.com (a site that survives, albeit, on plasma donations from employees). These curious Americans will get their news from Sam Smith's crazy yet great Progressive Review (www.prorev.com). They'll read war coverage on the left from Christian Sojourners (www. sojo.net). They'll find Washington Monthly writer Joshua Micah Marshall's Weblog (www.talkingpointsmemo.com), the New York Review of Books' online edition (nybooks.com), the news site published by Working Assets (Workingforchange.com), the polyglot Libertarian peacenik site antiwar.com, the eclectic left site www.cursor.org, an alternative weekly group (newtimes.com), Reuters via Yahoo.com, the BBC via Google. com, and Middle East news via http://weekly.ahram.org.eg. And there's even Bloomberg world news, which, thanks to the odd frankness typical of financial news, sports breaking, Fox-unfriendly headlines such as this: "Allies in Iraq War Are Cited in U.S. Report for Poor Human-Rights Records" (http://www.bloomberg.com/bbn/windex.html).
There has long existed a convention among news readers, and news reporters, that stories don't really exist until they appear in the mainstream press. Given the recent journalistic debacle in Iraq, an opposite standard may apply: Once you turn off television news, it no longer exists. Myself, I'm heading this week to Berkeley, flashlight in hand, to look for some old apple boxes.