Archive for the ‘recession’ Tag

In the shadowy trenches of the Tea Party

America’s so-called Tea Party movement has been a fixation of pundits both left and right for many months now. It got considerable credit for one of the biggest electoral turnabouts in a long time. But elusive, it seems, is who or what exactly constitutes this gathering storm of grassroots rage. And is it worthy of serious attention?

If a recent spate of coverage digging deeper is an indication, the answer is yes, although nobody has quite been able to say what the movement portends. Angry populism is an age-old theme in American politics. What is intriguing about the contemporary manifestation is that it seems to be as incoherent as it is alarming.

A Tea Party rally in Washington in September. (Photo: Amanda Lucidon/New York Times.)

In a lightning rod of an Op-Ed this week, Robert Wright pondered whether Joseph Stack, the anti-tax crusader who piloted a suicide mission into a Texas office building, could be considered “the first Tea Party terrorist.” He also wondered about how “purely conservative” the Tea Party movement actually may be. “Yes, it mobilized against a liberal health care bill and the stimulus package, but it also opposes corporate bailouts,” Wright noted. “Sure, Tea Partiers hate taxes, but that alone doesn’t distinguish them from many Americans. On social issues the Tea Partiers include some libertarians along with a larger number of family-values conservatives. And when you move to foreign policy, things don’t get more coherent. Though some Tea Partiers are hawks, many follow Ron Paul’s lead, combining a left-wing critique of military engagement with a right-wing aversion to the United Nations and other multilateral entanglements.”

A lengthy dispatch from New York Times investigative reporter David Barstow earlier this month cast light on the rising fringe of the movement: “Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, [President] Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.”

Maybe it’s just that tough times in America call for a tough kind of paranoia. As Barstow further considered:

A popular T-shirt at Tea Party rallies reads, “Proud Right-Wing Extremist.”

It is a defiant and mocking rejoinder to last April’s intelligence assessment from the Department of Homeland Security warning that recession and the election of the nation’s first black president “present unique drivers for right wing radicalization.”

“Historically,” the assessment said, “domestic right wing extremists have feared, predicted and anticipated a cataclysmic economic collapse in the United States.” Those predictions, it noted, are typically rooted in “antigovernment conspiracy theories” featuring impending martial law. The assessment said extremist groups were already preparing for this scenario by stockpiling weapons and food and by resuming paramilitary exercises.

(Photo: Lucian Read/MoJo.)

Enter the Oath Keepers faction of the movement, a loose-knit group of military and law enforcement officials who vow to disobey orders they deem unconstitutional — and to mount violent resistance to the U.S. government if necessary. Reporting for the latest issue of Mother Jones, Justine Sharrock trailed the Oath Keepers for months, also encountering a murky organization and ideology. “Oath Keepers is officially nonpartisan, in part to make it easier for active-duty soldiers to participate,” Sharrock explains, “but its rightward bent is undeniable, and liberals are viewed with suspicion.” Yet, some of the group’s objections to federal power would seem to align them directly with the fiercest critics of the George W. Bush government. Oath Keepers keep a list of orders that they should refuse to obey, according to Sharrock — including conducting warrantless searches and holding American citizens as enemy combatants (e.g. José Padilla) or subjecting them to military tribunals.


“In the months I’ve spent getting to know the Oath Keepers,” she reports, “I’ve toggled between viewing them either as potentially dangerous conspiracy theorists or as crafty intellectuals with the savvy to rally politicians to their side. The answer, I came to realize, is that they cover the whole spectrum.”

Buried by the Haiti disaster

Haiti’s devastation, now almost a week since the big quake, continues to saturate the media. It’s a lot to sift through and absorb; here’s where I’ve posted a handful of the most compelling links I’ve come across in recent days. For more, see Robert Mackey’s skillful curation over at The Lede blog.

One consequence of the historic disaster has been the burial of other developments that normally would’ve (and should’ve) been bigger front-page news:

Blackwater still gets away with mass murder in Iraq, despite that three of its security personnel present at the notorious events three years ago testified to what they saw as wanton killing and cover-up. “All three were horrified by what they thought was an unprovoked attack in 2007 that left 14 Iraqi civilians dead,” according to previously sealed court documents described by the Washington Post. Their testimony further confirms the war zone “horror movie” reported by others long ago. Five Blackwater guards on trial for the attack walked at the beginning of this month, acquitted on procedural grounds.

Wall Street’s top moguls sell Congress some shameless rationale for America’s historic financial meltdown. Testified Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase: “My daughter called me from school one day and said, ‘Dad, what’s a financial crisis?’ And, without trying to be funny, I said, ‘This type of thing happens every five to seven years.’ And she said, ‘Why is everyone so surprised?’” (Without trying to be funny: Who the f—k is he kidding?) Testified Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs: “Whatever we did, it didn’t work out well. We regret the consequence that people have lost money.” (Hear them in their own words, here.) Meanwhile, pretty much everyone working for their bailed out firms is making out like a bandit.

Vancouver wins a key battle in its progressive war on drugs, with a top court preventing the Canadian federal government from shutting down the city’s officially sanctioned injection site for heroin and cocaine addicts. Probably not top story material, but a development of great interest to me personally; I reported extensively on the cutting-edge project from the streets of Vancouver — first in 2003, when the Bush administration angrily declared the policy “state-sponsored personal suicide,” and again three years later, when they were proven dead wrong by Insite’s indisputable success.

Also don’t forget that today is Martin Luther King Day; here’s a video clip of Robert F. Kennedy announcing King’s death by assassination in 1968. And always worth rereading, MLK’s landmark “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from 1963. It continues to resonate in new ways with Barack Obama presiding in the White House.

Obama defines the war that will define him

Another major wave of U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. A Detroit-bound airliner imperiled by a terrorist on Christmas Day. A stunning blow to CIA operations targeting the Taliban and al Qaeda. A surge of political attacks against President Obama led by an aggressively partisan former vice president.

In recent weeks America’s current era of war has escalated to a next level. Obama didn’t preside over its inception, of course, but it is ever his to handle. Although the nation’s economic reckoning is far from over, what happens on the national security front is probably more likely to define Obama’s presidency than anything else.

His speech Thursday night addressing the U.S. intelligence debacle at Christmas reflected this. In his closing remarks, Obama made a point of disarming recent partisan attacks; although he didn’t name Dick Cheney specifically, some of his comments clearly were a retort to the former vice president’s assertion that Obama doesn’t take the terrorist threat seriously:

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been reminded again of the challenge we face in protecting our country against a foe that is bent on our destruction. And while passions and politics can often obscure the hard work before us, let’s be clear about what this moment demands. We are at war. We are at war against al Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.

In the New York Post, Rich Lowry beamed that Obama’s rhetoric could’ve been written by Dick Cheney himself.

Most striking was the president’s reiteration of the principles by which he will prosecute America’s long war:

Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don’t hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am President, we will never hand them that victory. We will define the character of our country, not some band of small men intent on killing innocent men, women and children. And in this cause, every one of us — every American, every elected official — can do our part.

On MSNBC Thursday night, veteran Washington columnist Howard Fineman pointed out how anxious George W. Bush had been to get through his final weeks in office without another terrorist attack taking place inside the U.S. Apparently Bush was plenty eager to get out of town with what he viewed as a clean post-9/11 record.

The equation Obama faces is not a matter of if, but when. American society would do well to accept that reality, as even David Brooks has now said. Fortunately, the current commander in chief appears driven to move ahead with a markedly different approach than his predecessor. “Instead of giving into cynicism and division, let’s move forward with the confidence and optimism and unity that defines us as a people,” Obama concluded on Thursday. “For now is not a time for partisanship, it’s a time for citizenship — a time to come together and work together with the seriousness of purpose that our national security demands. That’s what it means to be strong in the face of violent extremism. That’s how we will prevail in this fight.”

Sharp turn on Wall Street

My cover story for the July/August issue of Arrive is now riding the northeastern rails, a look at the nation’s economic crisis and the role of the financial media. CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, the Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel and others ponder the end of days on Wall Street and what the American economy will look like on the other side of its most vicious hangover in decades.

CNBC has taken some big lumps this year for the behavior of some of its on-air personalities, perhaps deservedly so. But during a lengthy chat for the story earlier this year, after pushing past a bit of canned stuff, I found Bartiromo to be quite knowledgeable, engaging and forthright. And I happen to agree with her take on Jon Stewart’s big beatdown of Jim Cramer and CNBC back in March.

wall_street_signWill America’s investment banking sector soon be a miniature of its turn-of-millennium self? (And would that be a good thing?) Who are the most deserving villains in the blame game? Read on… Meanwhile, during a quick ATM stop at a Chase bank branch yesterday I witnessed an exchange that seemed in some small way encouraging — perhaps an indication that America has started to move beyond the denial/anger stage, and into the acceptance/change stage.

A bank employee was walking out just as a long-time customer was walking in. The customer asked the bank employee if in the past few weeks it had gotten any easier to get a loan. (The specific type wasn’t clear, though it was obviously either a home mortgage or small business loan.) “No, it hasn’t gotten any easier,” the bank employee said, with a cheery smile. “As you know, they’re asking a lot more questions now.” The customer smiled back, unfazed, and headed into the bank, paperwork in hand.

On Mark Bowden’s NYT takedown

The so-called crisis in the news industry sure has generated some sensational stories of late. “American journalism is in a period of terror,” announces Mark Bowden in a tome of an article appearing in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Mostly a deft hatchet job on Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, Bowden’s piece sent the media cognoscenti into a tizzy, although nobody seems to have noticed its one truly illuminating segment.

Photo illustration by Vanity Fair.

Photo illustration from Vanity Fair.

Even the mighty Times is facing financial peril these days, and Bowden’s premise is that the newspaper scion “has steered his inheritance into a ditch.” He abuses tools of the trade to help suggest his case. As one unnamed “industry analyst” tells us, “Arthur has made some bad decisions, but so has everyone else in the business. Nobody has figured out what to do.” Earth shattering. Perhaps Bowden should pick up a copy of the Times and read Clark Hoyt on the suitable use of anonymous sources. For a substantive take on contemporary debacles across the business, check out this recent piece by Daniel Gross.

In fact, I’m a big fan of Bowden’s. Right now I happen to be reading his 2006 book “Guests of the Ayatollah,” a riveting account of the Iran hostage crisis. Particularly in the realm of national security, few reporters are as exhaustive, persuasive — and downright exciting to read — as him.

On the media, not so much. There he has tended toward the self-involved, maybe a particular pitfall for great reporters covering their own vocation. (See the opening line of the Sulzberger article, which zooms in directly on… Bowden himself, as he receives a phone call from Sulzberger: “I was in a taxi on a wet winter day in Manhattan three years ago…” Especially telling, I think, given that in another recent piece orbiting the news business, a profile of David Simon, Bowden also wrote himself prominently into the narrative.) The Vanity Fair article is exquisitely timed with the accelerating upheaval in the newspaper industry, and reads mostly like, well, a salacious, insider-y Vanity Fair article.

And yet, buried deep in the 11,500 words is one of the best analogies I’ve encountered anywhere conveying the potential for digital journalism:

When the motion-picture camera was invented, many early filmmakers simply recorded stage plays, as if the camera’s value was just to preserve the theatrical performance and enlarge its audience. To be sure, this alone was a significant change. But the true pioneers realized that the camera was more revolutionary than that. It freed them from the confines of a theater. Audiences could be transported anywhere. To tell stories with pictures, and then with sound, directors developed a whole new language, using lighting and camera angles, close-ups and panoramas, to heighten drama and suspense. They could make an audience laugh by speeding up the action, or make it cry or quake by slowing it down. In short, the motion-picture camera was an entirely new tool for storytelling.

Bowden uses the comparison in the service of whacking Sulzberger — but it also points directly to a broader stagnation in media companies’ use of the digital platform. There is experimentation going on, but often without much imagination: Digital video clips are all the rage? OK, we’ll put reporters on camera describing the stories they’ve just published! Online communities and reader interactivity are the latest buzz? OK, we’ll feature the shouting matches in our comments threads as actual news!

The rising multimedia and publishing capabilities of the digital realm are charged with promise, and demand deeper thinking about their optimal use. With any given subject, which digital tools are most effective for gathering information and telling the story? How can the information-rich ecosystem of the Web enhance the knowledge gained? What new ways are there to produce reliable, authoritative and compelling content, taking maximum advantage of a decentralized and participatory technology like no other we’ve ever known?

Soon enough we may all be getting our news on a kind of flexible digital paper. The possibilities for what it could contain are big, and they’re just beginning.

UPDATE: Mark Bowden responds.

Waking up to America’s economic nightmare

April2DowWith the roughly 1,500-point rise in the Dow Jones average since early March, it seems investors have been dreaming about the good old days. This Bloomberg chart from last Thursday’s trading marks the apparent disconnect — you don’t have to be a stock market maven to sense that the dramatic rally will likely prove to be, in the parlance of Wall Street, the kaput kitty hitting the pavement.

Take your pick of grim indicators. For the last two months the Consumer Confidence Index has plumbed its lowest depths since its inception in 1967. As we learned Friday, the nation lost another 663,000 jobs in March, bringing the total to 5.1 million since the recession began in December 2007. Unemployment may be a lagging economic indicator, but there’s little to suggest that the wave is cresting or will be any time soon.

But the worst sign of all right now may be this: America is still stuck in the anger stage. Recently I overheard a classic strain of the outrage in a coffee shop in Noe Valley (hardly ground zero for hard times), in a conversation between two rather comfortable looking middle-aged adults. One was wailing away on America’s preferred punching bag, Mr. Wall Street Executive, for “raping the taxpayers” without remorse. His hair was so on fire that I feared his head might actually explode. Soon the talk hit on the hypocrisy of the Obama administration’s forcing General Motors chief Rick Wagoner to fall on his sword while Wall Street’s lords of finance so unfairly kept feasting on federal bailout funds. Somehow the disastrous story of the SUV-bloated American auto industry didn’t come up.

Indeed, we must also be in a recession of genuine awareness. While New York Times columnist Frank Rich can himself be shrill at times, he’s got it right regarding the continuing blame game:

Why is there any sympathy whatsoever for a Detroit C.E.O. who helped wreck his company, ruined investors and cost thousands of hard-working underlings their jobs, when there is no mercy for those who did the same on Wall Street? Might we, too, have a double standard? Could we still be in denial of the reality that greed and irresponsibility were not an exclusive Wall Street franchise during our national bender?

A prominent financial expert I interviewed last week for a forthcoming magazine piece on the economic crisis said to me at one point in our conversation, “Almost everybody who was part of the system failed.” He wasn’t only talking about Wall Street institutions, government regulators and the media.

Easily enough we get whipped into a frenzy over unjust executive bonuses or the sins of the media’s prime time ding-dongs. But what of America’s common financial lifestyle over the last two decades? As Rich continues, in answer to his own question: “Any citizen or business that overspent or overborrowed in the bubble subscribed to its reckless culture. That culture has crumbled everywhere now, and a new economic order will have to rise from its ruins.”

Even better put, it will have to be built from them. That will be painstaking, no doubt — block by block, brick by brick, as has been said by a certain someone. But right now, it seems, too many people are still standing on the outskirts shouting about who plundered the village, rather than heading into the collective rubble and really starting to pick up the pieces.

UPDATE: On a related note, Wall Street conspiracy theorists and/or Hollywood screenwriters will find plenty of grist in this Times front-pager on Larry Summers’ enriching hedge fund days at D.E. Shaw prior to joining Team Obama:

D. E. Shaw does not like to talk about what goes on inside its modish headquarters near Times Square. There, esoteric trading strategies are imagined, sketched on whiteboards and modeled on supercomputers by an elite corps of math wizards and scientists, most of them unknown to the outside world….

At Shaw, Mr. Summers, the professor, was often the student. The arrogant personal style that turned off some Harvard colleagues seemed to evaporate, Shaw traders say. Mr. Summers immersed himself in dynamic hedging, Libor rates and other financial arcana.

He seemed to fit in among Shaw’s math-loving “quants,” as devotees of math-heavy quantitative investing are known. Traders joked that Mr. Summers was the first quant Treasury secretary because he had once ordered dollar bills to be printed with the transcendental number pi — 3.14159… — as the serial number.

Paging Dan Brown and Ron Howard?

Guardian’s Twitter move, GM’s bailout madness

It’s adding up to a strange day in the news, my friends, but then again these are no ordinary times.

The venerable 188-year-old Guardian, apparently seeing the ugly writing on the wall for the media business, has taken perhaps the boldest step yet to embrace digital technology. Will such an all-in bet on rapid-fire reporting pay off?

kravitzMeanwhile, in the heart of Silicon Valley, a hotshot entrepreneur has moved to capitalize on social networking technology in a different cutting-edge way. If the producers of “The Bachelor” take notice, look out for a full convergence of reality TV and the Internets even sooner than already anticipated.

And in what can only really be considered a desperate move, General Motors apparently is grasping for a solution to its epic troubles by way of two well-known, if irritating, car experts.

More odd stuff going on across the pond.

Could marijuana light up the economy?

The debate about whether to legalize marijuana in the United States has never been a mainstream one. So it’s been fascinating to watch how much attention the concept has gotten lately, however viable it may or may not be.

Preoccupation with Mexico’s violent drug war is one factor; marijuana is the largest source of revenue for the cartels’ multibillion dollar business north of the border. Commodify the major cash crop through legalization, the idea goes, and its cost will plummet, putting a serious dent in the bad guys’ bank accounts.

taxing_marijuanaBut the larger issue lighting up the idea seems to be the battered American economy. In February, California state lawmaker Tom Ammiano proposed legislation that would regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana, with a potential tax windfall of more than $1 billion to help bail out the state from a severe budget crisis.

On Thursday, the legalization concept wafted all the way up to the presidential level. In a live Internet “video chat” with Americans, President Obama found himself responding to a question that had been voted among the most popular of those submitted by the public: whether the controlled sale and taxation of marijuana could help stimulate the U.S. economy. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama quipped. “The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow the economy.” By Thursday night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was jabbering at length about the idea with law enforcement officials.

The issue of taxation just cropped up in another intriguing way. The Drug Enforcement Administration caused a stir in San Francisco on Wednesday when it raided a locally permitted medical marijuana dispensary. In part there was outcry because just days prior U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had announced that the feds would no longer prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries where they are allowed under state and local law. So why the bust now?

So far the DEA isn’t sharing any details, but according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “A source in San Francisco city government who was informed about the raid said the DEA’s action appeared to be prompted by alleged financial improprieties related to the payment of sales taxes.”

It’s difficult to gauge the Chronicle’s anonymous source, but if accurate, the explanation seems rather odd. Last I checked, there was no national sales tax in the United States, so why would the federal government be interested in that issue? Moreover, while I’m not sure whether it applies to medical marijuana, prescription drugs are exempt under the current California sales tax regime.

The federal government does oversee interstate commerce, and U.S. border security, of course — perhaps better clues to the DEA’s continuing interest in the case. (Was supply at the SF pot club the real issue?) Which takes us back to the headline-grabbing drug war. You don’t have to stare for long at this DOJ threat assessment map tracking the Mexican cartels to notice the densely covered trajectory that runs the length of I-5, from San Diego to San Francisco to Seattle.

Is AIG evil? Let’s hear from the people!

At hearings Wednesday on Capitol Hill lawmakers excelled at one of the things they do best: political theater. The outrage flowed, as Edward Liddy, the current CEO of American International Group, got grilled about the $165 million in bonuses going to a bunch of guys who helped bring the U.S. banking sector to the brink of collapse with immense and immensely reckless insurance bets. (A complicated scheme, but credit to President Obama, who did a decent job Wednesday morning of explaining in basic terms how they did it.)

nypost

To what degree Americans should be angry at taxpayer-backed AIG or our government leaders (past and present) is a murky discussion, but it’s clear that the level of outrage across the country is plenty high right now. (High enough not only to juice a show on Capitol Hill, but also some widely celebrated media blood sport.) What’s interesting to me at the moment is how a number of major news outlets have seen the popular discontent as an opportunity to highlight reader interactivity on the Web.

At the top of its home page Tuesday night the New York Times featured reader diatribes — treating them as news itself. “Some people are vengeful, calling for jail, public humiliation or even revolution,” reported A.G. Sulzberger. Over the last few days, “the most passionate voices, not surprisingly, could be found on the Internet — on blogs and discussion threads — in unusually bountiful numbers.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Washington Post featured a round-up of its own reader comments, if not especially articulate or enlightening. (“Corporate and political self-seeking are devastating our families, our country, and out [sic] world.” Etc.) The Wall Street Journal’s home page gave top real estate to voices from the “Journal Community,” which tended, naturally, to reflect a constituency of a somewhat different kind. “The Obama administration is spending too much time and resources to go after this money,” scolded reader Craig Cohen. “The fact is, it will probably cost the US more money in legislative time, attorney fees, opportunity cost, etc to get these bonuses back than they are worth. But that doesn’t matter to the President. This is not about bonuses. It’s about class warfare. These bonuses went to the elite…. They must be punished!”

A key question on my mind is, how can media companies unlock greater potential with reader engagement and participation? It’s stating the obvious to say that there’s nothing cutting-edge at this point about letting readers loose with their opinions. (Put nicely, it tends to have limited value in unfiltered form.) Are there new ways to generate useful insight and information from the many smart readers out there, rather than just a lot of noise? This is an issue we grappled with regularly over the years when I was at Salon, and I have a hunch it could figure prominently in ways forward with news reporting in the rising digital realm. What if, for example, readers with experience in the culture of Wall Street could begin to add to the picture of how the AIG problem metastasized? Or shed light on how thoroughly it has been reported on?

Smart people have been working on ideas in this area for some time. Mother Jones has an interesting activist-style approach that it’s experimenting with. Between the ongoing destruction in the newspaper industry and what some major companies are attempting now online in terms of reader interactivity (the two hardly unrelated), I have the sense that whoever begins to unlock the challenge in a more creative, substantive way could make a big splash.

About that big Jim Cramer beatdown

Jon Stewart is getting showered with praise for his showdown with CNBC’s Jim Cramer Thursday night on “The Daily Show.” The culmination of a week-long “feud” (egged on by the salivating media at large) was riveting to watch. (The video is here.) Stewart, long a savvy media critic, brutalized Cramer both for his own and the financial news network’s direct role in the economic meltdown that has vaporized untold wealth and hobbled the United States of America.

stewartcramer

If that sounds a tad overdone, well, indeed. There is plenty of truthiness in Stewart’s point. It’s easy to sift through footage from various CNBC shows and find no shortage of their hosts making wrong calls about the financial markets, cheering on suspect CEOs and exuding what in hindsight was obviously misguided optimism about the economy and the stock market. Not to mention analyst Rick Santelli’s puerile, faux-populist tirade last month about the mortgage crisis.

But there is also some intellectual dishonesty suffusing the big CNBC takedown so in vogue right now. It’s easy to level simplistic snark at the network per above. But few seem willing, Stewart included, to acknowledge what the popular financial news network is mostly about, as I wrote about here recently: daily infotainment, emphasis on tainment.

Let’s be honest, we’re all plenty hungry at present for the villains of Wall Street to be strung up in the town square. But blame-the-media is the easy way out. It’s a bit silly to assign the degree of culpability that Stewart just did to a guy who, on his daily stock picking show, bounces around detonating obnoxious sound effects and exclaiming “Booyah!” like a frat guy on meth.

Stewart has other smart thinkers in the media following right along. David Brancaccio, host and senior editor of “Now on PBS,” told CNN that Thursday night’s show marked an important moment in journalism, especially for financial reporting, and that it may serve as a cautionary tale for those in the media who would fail on due diligence. “I don’t think any financial journalist wants to be in Cramer’s position,” Brancaccio said. “I think [journalists] may redouble their efforts to be dispassionate reporters asking the tough questions.”

That’s just goofy. Jim Cramer is not a financial journalist. He’s a self-cultivated nut-job host of a popular sideshow for Wall Street wonks. His script brims with speculative investment ideas, clumsy jokes and useless if marginally entertaining financial prattle.

The truth of the matter is that while CNBC certainly is ripe to take some lumps in this new era of Great Recession, the network is the easiest of targets. It’s also worth noting that there is substantive reporting in its mix. Last month, in fact, I spent some time interviewing CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo and correspondent Bob Pisani at the New York Stock Exchange for a forthcoming magazine article about the financial media. Mostly I found them to be informed, thoughtful and dedicated to their work as reporters. For one example, see the high marks Bartiromo got for grilling ex-Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain on her show back in January. For another, watch this recent Frontline documentary, which recounts how in spring 2008 CNBC reporter David Faber helped pull the curtain back on Bear Stearns and impacted the timing of the investment bank’s collapse.

No doubt they and others on the network also had craven moments of their own during the boom times. As did so many in American government, business and, yes, out there in TV-viewing land. A dramatic and bloody round of the blame game is quite satisfying to watch right now, especially in the able hands of Mr. Stewart, but the culpability for our economic predicament extends far, far beyond the spectacle of one television channel.

This just in: No newspaper at all

More American newspapers appear to be accelerating toward demise. For anyone who’s been paying attention to the industry, it’s been clear at least since last fall that 2009 would be a year of considerable destruction. Take the spreading flame of digital technology, pour on a vicious economic downturn and quickly you have a raging forest fire. In the New York Times today Richard Pérez-Peña reports on which U.S. cities soon might not have a major daily print paper at all. Perhaps it’ll be Seattle or Denver. Or maybe San Francisco. Just a short while ago the prospect would’ve been inconceivable.

I like the forest fire metaphor here because it suggests an essential part of the picture that in many quarters still isn’t getting its proper due: The fertile rebirth that follows the destruction. I’ve been surprised to see a degree of pessimism even from some who’ve already been toiling on the frontier:

burningnewspaper“It would be a terrible thing for any city for the dominant paper to go under, because that’s who does the bulk of the serious reporting,” says Joel Kramer, the editor and CEO of Minneapolis-based MinnPost.com, in the Times today. (Kramer was formerly editor and publisher of The Star Tribune.) “Places like us would spring up, but they wouldn’t be nearly as big. We can tweak the papers and compete with them, but we can’t replace them.”

Really? There’s a tendency to equate the withering of the old medium (newsprint) with the demise of what it has delivered (news reporting). But increasingly it’s going to be delivered digitally. If the old media companies don’t do it, others will, because the demand (and therefore market) for it is undeniable. Sooner than we probably realize, we’re all going to be walking around carrying some kind of digital newspaper in our hands. Organizations will arise and mobilize to provide the reporting in it. And people will pay for it. (Businesses are also likely to advertise around it.)

Indeed, formidable challenges remain to working out viable business models. But the field is increasingly wide open and waiting to be seeded. (New tracts soon available!—see above.) You can look at the crisis as a tragedy, or you can look at it as an opportunity.

As Pérez-Peña notes, the Washington Post had a newsroom of more than 900 people six years ago, with fewer than 700 now. The LA Times newsroom is half the size it was in the 1990s, with a staff of about 600 today.

Call me crazy, but that’s still an awful lot of resources with which to gather and produce stories. Without the major printing and distribution costs of their antique brethren, digital ventures still will probably need to be considerably smaller and more nimble to succeed. (In the near-term economy, at least.) Even if some early experiments haven’t been so impressive, my sense is that those who survive and thrive will do so especially via robust local and regional reporting, fast dwindling in many places now. (Apparently the LA Times has some other strategy in mind.)

Self-described “newsosaur” Alan Mutter offers some intriguing advice for those who reportedly may launch the first digital-only newspaper in a major U.S. city, from the ashes of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Be different” and “cop an attitude,” he suggests. “Think of the site as more of a blog than a newspaper.”

Hmm, it seems there’s no shortage of that to go around… but I like his closing thoughts: “The work you do will play a major role in helping to define the future – and the future economics – of local news coverage. Take risks, try everything and have fun. Whatever you do, don’t look back.”

Faces of the recession in San Francisco

I thought it would be illuminating to get past the abstract brutality of the reported figures, to match some real faces with the numbers. A short visit today to the California Employment Development Department on Turk Street provided about 40 of them.

“Unemployed Men sitting on the sunny side of the San Francisco Public Library” by Dorothea Lange. Feb. 1937. Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center.

“Unemployed Men sitting on the sunny side of the San Francisco Public Library” by Dorothea Lange. Feb. 1937. Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center.

At a “job focus workshop” for people collecting unemployment insurance, the EDD instructor directed the conversation around two crowded conference room tables. People of all kinds listed their occupational fields and spoke briefly about how their job search was going. Not at all well. A few remained upbeat, but the discouragement and resignation among many was palpable. To some degree it was a matter of the diverse Bay Area economy, but the breadth of the carnage was still astonishing. No age or job sector was immune.

There were as many mid to senior-level professionals as working class folks, if not more of them. David, a lawyer for an energy company. Linda, a commercial real estate broker. Michael, a manager from a biotech firm. Also present: several people in marketing and sales, two people in the printing business, two bank tellers, an accountant, a travel agent, a telecom maintenance worker, a warehouse manager, an ice cream delivery truck driver, a construction worker, a creative director for an advertising agency, an environmental consultant, a mental health worker and a professional photographer.

The health care industry is said to be one of the few bright spots right now in terms of prospects. But here, too, was Olga, a soft-spoken middle-age woman, recently laid off from her job at a nursing home. Next she tried to pick up work as a home-care provider, but that didn’t last either. Apparently people losing their jobs are also giving up on health insurance for themselves and their families.

“This week I’ve been going door to door at offices downtown, asking to see if they need a receptionist,” Olga said. “Nothing yet.”

Someone across the room let out a small sigh.

Recently, a friend of mine who works downtown noted that the buses headed there during morning rush hour have been noticeably less full. Some popular lunch spots have started to look sparse. On a recent afternoon she was in a sandwich shop when a Latino man walked in, approached the counter and simply began pleading in a broken accent.

“I need a job,” he said, “I need a job.”

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