Saturday, February 28, 2009

Five star final

"I don't care what the papers write about me; my constituents can't read," William "Boss" Tweed is supposed to have said. "But they can see those damn drawings." He was talking about the work of Thomas Nast, among others, depicting him and his associates as a cabal of bloated crooks. Strange how potent line drawings can be.

Even now, when literacy is common, there's nothing like an editorial cartoon to touch off anger and violence, as when a Danish newspaper committed the cultural faux pas of publishing drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. The presence of a Muslim or two on the paper's staff could have prevented a lot of trouble -- all it needed was for someone to say (in Danish), "What the hell are you doing?"

I have no idea how many black people work in the editorial department at the New York Post, but apparently none of them saw the infamous chimp cartoon before it went to press. As everyone knows by now, it portrayed a dead chimp labeled "stimulus bill," inspired (if that's the word) by an occurrence the previous day in Connecticut, when police had to shoot a 200-pound chimpanzee which had mauled a woman. A black journalist, or even a culturally sensitive white one, could have pointed out that this drawing would be seen as racist, given the long history of slandering black people by calling them apes and monkeys. A sensitive journalist would have explained, patiently, that even though George W. Bush was frequently compared to a primate (there may still be a website called Smirking Chimp), it was a comment on his facial expression and overall intelligence, not his race. If the Post's editor and publisher didn't get it (and apparently they don't), the journalist still could have warned of the inevitable firestorm from New York's favorite political arsonist, Al Sharpton.

For the record, I thought the cartoon was dumb and insensitive, but probably not racist in intent. It took a momentary topic of public interest -- worth maybe forty-five seconds on Leno or Letterman -- and tried to use it to express a political viewpoint. That's what cartoonists do (classic example: David Levine's drawing of LBJ displaying a surgical scar in the shape of Vietnam). It would have worked just as well, I suppose, if the police in Connecticut had shot a rabid dog or a rampaging bear. The Post's crime lay in not being able to see the cartoon as an African-American might well see it, as a racist slur on Barack Obama. Of course, thanks to Rev. Sharpton, the whole Western world had now seen it, in addition to the paper's relatively tiny fan base. And he had help from people who should know better, like Julian Bond and Spike Lee.

All this self-serving outrage could not have come at a worse time. Yesterday the Rocky Mountain News published its last edition after a century and a half, leaving Denver with only the Post. San Francisco is on the brink of losing its only daily, the Chronicle. The Minneapolis Star Tribune is on its deathbed, too, and many cities and towns have no newspapers at all, leaving them at the mercy of USA Today, which has the substance (and the appearance) of a Howard Johnson menu. Even the New York Times, the self-styled "newspaper of record," is visibly shrinking. The era of the dead-trees newspaper seems to be hastening to its end after roughly three hundred years. Even if some of them survive as online ghosts, they will never be the same. It's not as if we don't need newspapers, but they aren't profitable, or profitable enough.

We at the Sky believe, along with the men who wrote and ratified the First Amendment first, that a free press is more important than all that other stuff -- habeas corpus, personal arsenals, not having troops quartered in your house. We don't believe you can have a functioning democracy if citizens are dependent upon radio and television stations which are on their way to being owned by six people; on the Internet (sorry) where just anybody can write an opinion and call it fact, much as I'm doing now, yeah, I smell the irony; on a handful of papers where once there were hundreds. We believe a bad newspaper like the New York Post is better than no newspaper at all. And we were just about to call upon the Obama Administration to save our press.

Billions for banks, insurance companies, auto makers and Wall Street bastards, but not a penny for newspapers? They are as essential to this country as water, energy and schools. They are disappearing because of the rising cost of everything from ink to transport, not the gross mismanagement characteristic of those other industries. They employ thousands. They are a lifeline for people who, incredibly, still don't have computers. They print letters from the known, the unknown, and the quite mad. They can drive you crazy and turn your fingers gray, but they still bring you a snapshot of the world at the moment the press-run began, a time capsule that isn't updated every five minutes when it doesn't disappear altogether. If they're nothing else, they're the daily crossword. An old, yellow clipping that falls out of a forgotten book can recall the past better than a Proustian madeleine. Go ahead, do that with a dead website.

I love the Internet. It contains multitudes undreamed of by Walt Whitman. That's the trouble. Its very freedom (which I will die defending) makes it a treacherous source of information. We need many newspapers written and edited by serious professionals if we are to make sense of a hopelessly tangled world. If money is the only thing making them disappear, give them the money. Even USA Today is worthier of salvation than the companies that made Hummers and Sierras, or the banks that gave mortgages to the unemployed. For better or worse, a nation's newspapers are its memory and its soul.

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