Monday, April 27, 2009

Every Dog Has His Day

Look, I have enough things to worry about theses days.

Can I eat pistachio nuts? Are there Somali pirates in my neighborhood? What's going to happen to Phil Spector in prison? Do I have to learn to love Hugo Chavez?

Thankfully, there is one less furrow in my brow.

Bo, the Obama's new dog, has finally arrived.

This is particularly good news for those downtrodden Washington reporters who aspire to practice great and important journalism but instead have found themselves on the dog beat for the last several months.

Nobody ever won a Pulitzer covering dogs.

Nonetheless, speculation about the Top Dog has been rampant in the press since the Obamas announced after the election that their daughters would be rewarded with a pet.

Indeed, the identity of the dog was a story too big to contain.

White House aides told the AP that the office of the first lady arranged an exclusive deal on the dog story with the Washington Post. But celebrity Web sites and bloggers were abuzz with rumors of the first family's selection of a dog; one site even claimed it had pictures of the future first pet.

A Web site called broke the news, publishing a picture of Bo which it said was originally named Charlie, according to the Post. The celebrity gossip Web site linked to the picture.

So much for the big White House unveiling. For an Obama team that ran a tight-knit press operation during the residential campaign, it was a sign of how tough it can be to keep the lid on things in Washington.

And they think they're going to keep the bank stress test results secret? Not in this dog-eat-dog environment.

But I digress.

Bo is a Portuguese Water Dog, which is not a CIA interrogation technique but a poodle-like animal with boundless energy.

The name was selected by the kids because Michelle Obama's father was nicknamed "Diddley." Bo Diddley, get it?

He is said to be pre-trained: Bo already sits, shakes, rolls over and Twitters. Like all things in Washington, his selection has been, well, dogged by controversy.

The Obamas said their preference was to get a shelter dog, but daughter Malia has allergies so they had to be more selective in their choice. This, of course, put the Obamas smack in the dog house with angry animal lovers who were lobbying for a rescued animal.

But it turns out Bo had been shown the door by his previous owner. So in fact he is a second-chance dog.

"Clearly our best hope was that he (the president) would go to a shelter or a breed-rescue group," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. "He didn't do that, but he also didn't go to a pet store or puppy mill either..."

In fact, the Obamas didn't go anywhere. Bo was a gift from the Kennedy family.

If that's not enough, conservative icon Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and possible Republican presidential candidate, told ABC news that he found all the hubbub over Bo "fairly stupid."

(Which is not as bad as Barney, the Bush Scottish terrier, who earned the wrath of Karl Rove and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rove remarked that Barney was "a lump." Putin said he feels a world leader should own large robust dogs, not smaller breeds. Wait until he gets a load of Bo.)

As White House pets go, Bo is a benign character.

Calvin Coolidge, a taciturn man if there every was one, had six dogs, a bobcat, a goose, a donkey, a cat, two lion cubs, an antelope, and a wallaby. The main attraction in his personal zoo, though, was Billy, a pygmy hippopotamus.

Herbert Hoover's son, Allan Henry Hoover, owned a pair of gators that were occasionally allowed to wander around the White House grounds.

Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection were Benjamin Harrison's two opossums.

To save cash during World War I, Woodrow Wilson brought in a flock of sheep to take care of the White House's groundskeeping duties. Old Ike, a ram, supposedly chewed tobacco.

The Bushes had a black cat named India. The name rankled citizens of the country of the same name to the point that many Indians named their dogs "Bush."

As for President Obama, now that the pet controversy is behind him, he can turn his attention to such mundane matters as a reeling economy, nuclear ambitions of rogue nations and terrorism.

And in the loneliness of the Oval Office when things get tough, he can recall the words of President Harry Truman:

"If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Stop the Presses

"HE who pays the piper, calls the tune."

Words of wisdom from centuries past still ring true.

If you don't believe it, ask Rick Wagoner, former CEO of General Motors.

The American public paid this particular piper billions in taxpayer dollars to keep his business afloat.

When he floundered, the public, through its president, called the tune. It was entitled "Hit the Road, Jack."

There is a place, however, where the piper adage doesn't always play. And you're looking it at.

In the news business, the advertising department, which pays the bills, not only doesn't call the tune - its members aren't allowed in the same room with the piper.

Reporters and editors determine content. No advertising types allowed. The news columns are not for sale.

Would you want coverage of the Wall Street crisis compromised or surpressed because banks and brokers buy ads in the paper? Would you want stories about salmonella-tainted food to go unreported because markets and restaurants spend a lot of money advertising in newspapers?

You get the point.

This has been holy writ since Ben Franklin was a copy boy.

But there is change in the wind.

If you didn't notice the dust-up at the Los Angeles Times recently, you missed what one Web site called the "defining moment in the waning days of newsprint."

With the blessing of the publisher (and none of the editors as far as I can tell), the Times printed a bought-and-paid-for story on its front page that was nothing more than a shill job for a new NBC television series.

It was ham-fisted, it was ugly and it was one of the most egregious violations of trust between a paper and its readers I've ever seen - and I worked at the Times for 33 years.

Worse, it was apparently done at the suggestion of the Times.

Several days later, the Times published another shill job, this time for a movie, that was made up to look like one of its sections.

I wonder if the revenue collected for these products offset the subscription cancellations that followed.

Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein said he decided to run the NBC ad despite newsroom objections because he was trying to ensure that The Times could continue to operate.

"Because of the times that we're in, we have to look at all sorts of different - and some would say innovative - new solutions for our advertising clients," he said.

Whether readers knew this was advertising or not was beside the point, said Geneva Overholser, director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

"Some people say readers are smart and they can tell the difference, but the fundamental concept here is deeply offensive," she told The New York Times.

"Readers don't want to be fooled, they don't like the notion that someone is attempting to deceive them."

All of us in the newspaper business are in survival mode. This paper is no stranger to furloughs, staff cutbacks and other attempts to keep our heads above water.

But, to paraphrase another saying, what good does it do to sell advertising and lose your soul?

Advertisers won't advertise if there are no readers left. And there will be no readers left if they don't believe in the integrity of the product.

I hope the Times' foray into deception is not a trend. The real path to survival for newspapers is a great leap forward.

While print will survive in some form, the industry needs to devote all its energies into producing a top-rate digital product. If not, it's just trying to sell buggywhips to astronauts.

Digital journalism is the answer not just because it's trendy but because it can do the job better than print.

Unlike TV and radio, which are stuck with people reading out loud, customers of digital journalism will get the best of all media forms, according to author and journalist Mark Bowden.

They can wade into any story that attracts them as deeply as they wish. Readers will gravitate toward prose, while those who prefer sounds and images can simply watch and listen. The digital report will not be locked into the strict chronological format of TV and radio news, but will be much more like a newspaper, which permits you to begin with sports and weather, if you wish, or go right to the editorials or comics.

Bottom line: More people read the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times online than in print.

Bottom line Part II: My morning routine now consists of reading this paper and the Times with my first cup of coffee in the morning.

With the second, I scan the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, CNBC and whatever outlet strikes my fancy via my laptop on the kitchen table.

If this old dog can learn that new trick, so can everyone else.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Gavin Comes Calling

Gavin Newsom, the man who would be governor of California, blew into town the other day, deciding, I presume, that while his heart may be in San Francisco, his potential voters are in Southern California.

Newsom is the Democratic mayor of Bombast by the Bay, perhaps best known as a prominent and vocal opponent of Prop. 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative that was passed by voters last fall.

It was a stance that cut both ways.

An infamous film clip of Newsom wound up on a pro-Prop. 8 commercial, in which he was seen grinning broadly and saying of gay marriage, "This door's wide open now. It's going to happen, whether you like it or not."

How that notoriety continues to play out for Newsom remains to be seen. Clearly, gays are a potent political force in San Francisco and a mayor who wants to keep his job had better be a friend to that community.

Gays are a political force in Southern California as well but not enough of one to have stopped the Prop. 8 movement. The initiative passed in every county here except Santa Barbara. That's territory Newsom would have to win to achieve election.

So chalk that up as one delicate issue on Newsom's plate. Another is that he's testing the political waters on the home turf of a potential rival, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Villaraigosa is nothing if not a photo-op. When it comes to visibilty, he beats Newsom hands down.

But on closer inspection, these two have something in common.


On Jan. 31, 2007, Newsom's campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff, Alex Tourk, quit after learning of a sexual affair the mayor had with Tourk's wife, Ruby Rippey-Tourk, in late 2005.

At the time of the affair, Rippey-Tourk worked in Newsom's office as the Mayor's aide for commission appointments.

After leaving her job in Newsom's office in August 2006, Tourk received $10,154 in catastrophic illness pay, which is usually reserved for those who are terminally ill, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

An investigation by the San Francisco city attorney cleared all those involved of legal wrongdoing.

Newsom apologized for the affair, saying, "I hurt someone I care deeply about, Alex Tourk, his friends and family, and that is something that I have to live with and something that I am deeply sorry for."

He announced that he would seek treatment for alcohol abuse.

In the meantime, Villaraigosa, prompted by a report in the Los Angeles Daily News, was revealing an ongoing, year-long affair with Telemundo anchorwoman Mirthala Salinas, which was widely believed to have triggered the breakdown of his marriage.

"I have a relationship with Ms. Salinas, and I take full responsibility for my actions," he said at a news conference.

Salinas was engaged in an enormous conflict of interest by covering the mayor for an extended period while she was sleeping with him, even broadcasting news of the mayor's separation from his wife.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Villaraigosa's admission cast a fresh shadow over his own personal conduct: He has two adult daughters born out of wedlock and his wife filed for divorce in 1994 over a separate affair for which he later publicly apologized. They eventually reconciled.

In the end, Villaraigosa dumped Salinas and won reelection, seeming to survive the scandal.
Salinas, her journalistic career ruined, disappeared from the stage.

At least, Newsom and Villaraigosa won't be able to point the finger of moral outrage at one another.

Politicians survive sex scandals, Bill Clinton being the most prominent example. But Clinton had the political capital to see himself through.

Newsom and Villaraigosa are asking us to forgive and forget at a time in this country when the public is outraged at the moral and ethical lapses of bankers, brokers and, yes, politicians.

That's asking a lot.

Perhaps that is why Sen. Dianne Feinstein, not exactly a fresh political face, is the instant front-runner if she jumps into the Democratic primary field for governor, according to a Field Poll reported in the Sacramento Bee. She comes out ahead of state Attorney General Jerry Brown, a former governor favored my many older voters but a mystery man to many younger ones.

Billionaire former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is the early leader for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. But she is so little-known that her favorability ratings among GOP voters lag behind Brown, a favorite liberal target for many California Republicans.

In a Feb. 20-March 1 poll of voter preferences for potential Democratic and Republican primary contests, Feinstein emerges as the clear voter favorite to date.

The 16-year U.S. senator, former San Francisco mayor and unsuccessful 1990 gubernatorial candidate is preferred by 38 percent of likely Democratic primary voters.

Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are tied for second at 16 percent, followed by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom at 10 percent and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi at 4 percent.

Don't Pass It On

The Internet is truly a boon to all mankind.

If you want recipes for brussel sprouts, for example, there are literally hundreds. This is not a particular help to me since I like mine with an entire brick of Velveta cheese melted on top to disguise the taste. But there they are.

If you want a Rush Limbaugh bobblehead doll, it's there for the taking.

You can check your stock portfolio and then, with a click of the mouse, find the number for a suicide prevention hotline.

But there's a dark side to the Internet, one that I've been increasingly exposed to lately.

My inbox has been filling up lately with messages from well-meaning family members and friends who are anxious to share the Outrage of the Day.

Mostly, these consist of warnings of impending doom in the form of riots and revolution or tales of outrageous abuses of power by our elected officials that threaten our very way of life.

As if there isn't enough bad news out there.

We live in fearful times. Who would have believed our economy could be in the shape it's in now? And the finest minds in the country, so far, haven't been able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Against this backdrop, I guess we're ripe to believe anything.

Which gives birth to these kinds of Internet posts:

Example one: "Sources at the United States Embassy in Beijing China have just confirmed that the United States of America has tendered to China a written agreement which grants to the People's Republic of China, an option to exercise Eminent Domain within the U.S.A., as collateral for China's continued purchase of U.S. Treasury Notes and existing U.S. currency reserves!

"The written agreement was brought to Beijing by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was formalized and agreed-to during her recent trip to China.

"This means that in the event the US Government defaults on its financial obligations to China, the Communist Government of China would be permitted to physically, buildings, factories, perhaps even entire cities - to satisfy the financial obligations of the U.S. government."

This immedialtely raises in some people's minds two horrific images: Chinese Communists and Hillary Clinton.

Outrageous? You bet.

Trouble is, it isn't true.

My first hint came when I searched the data bases of the New York Times, Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times to see how they covered this story.

They hadn't. Think what you will about the media, they're not about to blow off a story that would alter the economic, political and moral landscape of our country forevermore.

Not only has the State Department denied it ("there is no factual basis or substance to this report") the source seems to be a former radio host named Hal Turner who once claimed to have "Amero" coins which proved a secret consiracy to to merge the U.S., Canada and Mexico into a single entity.

Nonetheless, the eminent domain story spread like wildfire over the Internet spread by bloggers who didn't lift a finger to check its authenticity.

The real scary thing is that people were willing to believe it.

Example Two: Petition for President Obama:

"Dear Mr. President: We, the undersigned, protest the bill that the Senate voted on recently which would allow illegal aliens to access our Social Security. We demand that you and all Congressional representatives require citizenship as a pre-requisite for social services in the United States."

Really, Social Security for illegals? I can feel my blood pressure starting to rise. But again, not a word in the nation's leading media.

According to the Snopes website, which attempts to get to the bottom of urban legends, this legislation wasn't about giving illegal aliens Social Security benefits.

It was a proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform act in 2006 which would have granted former illegal aliens who had since become legal credit for monies they themselves had paid into the Social Security fund while they were in the U.S. illegally.

The Senate, knowing a political hot potato when it sees one, voted to withdraw the amendment from consideration. Which means they killed it.

Indeed, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act never became law.

Example three: President Obama snubbed the Salute to Heroes Inaugural Ball honoring recipients of the Medal of Honor.

True enough. He didn't attend. Vice President Biden attended instead.

Obama didn't show up at any of the dozens of unofficial balls and galas sponsored by entities other than the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

He did, however, attend the official Commander-in-Chief's Ball honoring all U.S. service members, including Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipients, hundreds of wounded soldiers (and their families) from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and spouses of troops currently deployed overseas.

In fact, the American Legion issued a statement saing, "From The American Legion's point of view, the new President's absence was understandable considering the unprecedented logistical challenges presented by the vastly increased number of visitors to this inauguration and the necessary attendant security measures."

My advice: if you get an e-mail telling you to pass it on to everyone you know, don't.

Ed's Really Excellent Plan

If the folks in Washington are looking for new ways to combat joblessness and boost local economies, they need to look no farther than the San Gabriel Valley.

It is there that Ed Roski has come up with a one-man, sure-fire stimulus package. And it's beautiful in its simplicity.

First, announce you are going to build a 70,000-seat stadium and bring NFL football back to Southern California.

Nobody asked for it but, what the heck, Roski, a billionaire businessman, controls the land necessary to build the stadium in the city of Industry and already has a certified environmental impact report for the site.

The price tag: $800 million or so.

So far so good. Building a stadium would certainly create jobs as would having a fully functioning pro football team working there.

But even if a spadeful of dirt is never turned in pursuit of this project, it will directly and indirectly engage many dozens of architects, engineers, public relations people, bankers, bartenders and bureaucrats.

Never mind that the chances of this stadium getting built are about the same as me setting the pole vault record. The NFL isn't interested. Neither are the people of Los Angeles. It doesn't matter. Those working on the project get paid just the same.

Next, alienate people living in the surrounding communities.The city of Walnut has already filed a lawsuit to stop the proposed construction of the stadium. People in Diamond Bar are mad.

The Walnut suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court accuses the city of Industry of approving the stadium without sufficiently reviewing its environmental impact. Neighboring cities "would realize significant traffic impact, noise, air and light pollution and other impacts that would jeopardize the health, safety and welfare of its residents," officials in Walnut claim.

The city of Industry and Roski's people disagree.

I think you see where I'm going here.

The suit immediately initiates the Lawyers Full Employment Act. Hordes of attorneys from both sides descend upon the issue to argue the merits of the case.

Motions are filed. Depositions are taken.

The attorneys in turn hire clerks, researchers, limo drivers, messenger services and pizza delivery boys to fuel their efforts.

Talk about trickle down economics.

But wait, there's more!

The citizens of Walnut are not happy that their elected representatives were late to the party in opposing the stadium. So they are filing recall papers against three city council members.

Help wanted: campaign managers, petition circulators, poll takers, vote counters, printers to grind out political signage. The possibilities are endless.

Of course, there are a lot of people in Walnut who support a stadium. When they get organized, they'll also be looking to employ a few good men, metaphorically speaking, to represent their interests.

And even more: According to the Los Angeles Times, the Walnut suit also claims that the developer's campaign failed to reach the city's large Asian population.

The suit claims that the city of Industry did not properly inform Walnut residents in their native language about the potential impact of the $800-million stadium. Although Industry knew that the stadium-entertainment complex would impact large Chinese, Korean, Tagalog and Spanish-speaking populations in Walnut, it failed to provide notices for the project in any language other than English, according to the suit.

This, of course, opens the door to reams of paperwork necessary to notify the aggrieved populace in at least four different and diverse languages about the project. That requires a veritable United Nations to translate and communicate the appropriate information. Another job creation opportunity.

For the Roski plan to work, he must convince a current NFL owner to pull up stakes and move to Southern California.

Think that would result in a few bigtime lawsuits and the attendant employment opportunities? Is the Pope German?

So notify the Obama Administration. Ed's on to something. Our economic salvation lies in proposing outlandish stadia smack dab in the middle of communities that don't want them. It could cut the unemployment figures in half.

And what happens when the Roski NFL stadium plan falls through? Why, he'll build a giant retail center complete with office space, stores, theaters and restaurants.

Get your resume ready.