Archive for the ‘California’ Category

Hard truths about the Iraq war

1. With such enormous problems at home, it is hard to focus on enormous problems beyond U.S. borders, even when we perceive the dangers of turning too inward.

2. It is hard not to be exhausted of and desensitized to the whole awful mess. A week from this Thursday, it will have been six years since George W. Bush launched “shock and awe.” For the vast majority of Americans who have no direct connection to the war, if we are brutally honest with ourselves, it is hard in some respects to care at this point. (More on this below.)

3. It is but one of two daunting wars we are fighting. (And the new president is poised to make the other one larger.)

4. It is far, far from over.

thegamblecoverDespite items one and two above, distinguished military reporter Thomas Ricks had some tranfixing things to say about the war on Wednesday, during an interview on NPR about his new book. Ricks’ comments are likely to prove distinct from the White House talking points and news coverage that will mark the six-year anniversary of the conflict in the coming days. His reporting in Iraq, including interviews in 2008 with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the top U.S. diplomat there, left Ricks to conclude, “The events for which this war will be remembered have not yet happened.” Here’s a bit more of what was most striking among his comments, from the forbidding magnitude of the problem to some startling attitudes about the war that Ricks encountered while promoting his book recently in the liberal-by-reputation Bay Area:

On the time frame we face:
“I think we may just be halfway through this war. I know President Obama thinks he’s going to get all troops out by the end of 2011. I don’t know anyone in Baghdad who thinks that’s going to happen. I think Iraq is going to change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq.”

On the scope of the disaster:
“The original U.S. war plan was to be down to 30,000 troops by September 2003…. I do think this war was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy. I think it’s a tragedy. I think George Bush’s mistakes are something we’re going to be paying for for decades. We don’t yet understand how big a mistake this is.”

On the destructive prospects of the U.S. military pulling out:
“I think Americans are really sick of the Iraq war…. I was speaking in California last week, near liberal Mill Valley, and I said, Look, if you leave right now this could lead to genocide. And somebody in the audience said, ‘So what.’ And somebody else said, ‘Genocide happens all the time.’ And I thought, my god, Americans are willing to take genocide in Iraq, and just leave.”

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.”

The future of Internet news, circa 1981

This ancient clip from a local San Francisco broadcast has been floating around for a while, but it keeps popping up in discussions about the fate of the newspaper industry, so I couldn’t resist. It’s pretty priceless viewing if you haven’t seen it.

And not just because it’s hilariously antique — it’s also a prelude to a cautionary tale. Believe it or not, the San Francisco Examiner was once working on the cutting edge of the Internet. The Examiner’s David Cole certainly intended no irony when interviewed then about their “electronic newspaper” experiment: “We’re trying to figure out what it’s going to mean to us as editors and reporters and what it means to the home user. And we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t going to make much, either.”

Online media pioneer Scott Rosenberg (at the Examiner himself back in the 1980s and a mentor of mine at Salon in the early 2000s) wrote insightfully about this clip a few weeks back, and how far the newspaper industry hasn’t come:

The spirit of experimentation that the Examiner set out with in 1981 dried up, replaced by an industry-wide allergy to fundamental change. “Let’s use the new technology,” editors and executives would say, “but let’s not let the technology change our profession or our industry.” They largely succeeded in resisting change. Now it’s catching up with them.

That’s probably putting it lightly, considering the current state of the San Francisco Chronicle (a participant in the 1981 “experiment”), the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News and so many others.

Today, a heartfelt eulogy from Nancy Mitchell, a former reporter for the freshly defunct Rocky, carries its own layer of irony. Mitchell’s sentiments are genuine and noble, and certainly appreciated by this fellow newspaper fan and ardent believer in the value of quality reporting.

But Mitchell falls yet into the trap described above — denial of inexorable industry transformation, and a failure of imagination. She blames faceless management types at the Rocky for attempting foolish or half-baked ways to recast the paper in a time of dramatic change. (No doubt they did.) She quietly denigrates experimentation with digital tools like blogs, Flickr and Twitter, as if nobody interested in serious journalism should have to deal with “the anxiety attached to learning the gimmicks.” She seeks shelter in a credo once posted in her managing editor’s office: “Three simple rules, not produced by a focus group: Get the news. Tell the truth. Don’t be dull. I’d like to believe we did all three.”

What Mitchell doesn’t seem to realize is that all three — and more — increasingly can and will be done digitally. The audience will be there to engage with it. Business models will arise to support it. Technology will keep transforming it. It seems obvious to say it’s the way the world is fast going, whether with reporting, commentary or many other information-based creations. Just note where her piece was published, of course, and how you’re encountering it right now.

California notebook: New highs, new lows

dojeradicationSan Francisco’s Tom Ammiano, a former city supervisor turned state assemblyman, wants to go green to help bail out the state from fiscal crisis. His plan would boost weed farms not wind farms. He introduced a bill Monday to legalize recreational marijuana and regulate it in a manner similar to alcohol, with a potential tax windfall of more than $1 billion. (The fragrant green stuff is thought to be a $14 billion cash crop in the state. Then there’s the potential savings in law enforcement costs in the hundreds of millions.) Not likely to fly, despite California’s reputation for cutting-edge policy and a devastating $42 billion deficit. But credit the San Francisco maverick for thinking creatively in a time of crisis. And credit the political opposition with the Most Mangled Cliché Award — said Calvina Fay, executive director of Save Our Society From Drugs, in the LA Times: “This would open another door in Pandora’s box.” (What’s she been smokin’?)

It’s been raining in the Bay Area for almost a week straight, happy news after a bone-dry January. But 2009 is on track for a third straight year of drought in California, with reservoirs still sitting at alarmingly low levels. It’s not just the prospect of shorter showers and less lush front lawns. As Jesse McKinley reported on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times, the twin calamity of recession and drought is hitting the Central Valley, the nation’s biggest agricultural engine, hard. Even as your income may be headed south, you’ll soon be paying more if you want almonds and avocados.

The once venerable San Francisco Chronicle may be the next casualty of the besieged newpaper industry. The paper lost more than $50 million in 2008 and is on pace to fare worse this year. Its owner, the Hearst Corporation, is demanding deeper cuts among an already downsized staff. If that doesn’t stem the tide of red ink, Hearst execs say, “we will have no choice but to quickly seek a buyer for The Chronicle, and, should a buyer not be found, to shut down the newspaper.” As with many others the publication’s reporting capacity has been shriveling as it struggles to survive the industry’s upheaval. But San Francisco without its oldest and largest newspaper? At the very least, another clarion call for digital journalism 3.0 to really get cranking.

Update: David Cay Johnston explains how the Chronicle, tellingly, failed to report adequately on its own serious situation.

What this blog is about

Hard to say, precisely, and that’s the idea, at least for now. I plan to traverse a wide range of interests in this space. For more of a sense of where I’m coming from and where I may be headed, read this.