December 17, 2008 - December 10, 2008
. I'm going to start this in left field, so try to keep up.
There will be a point to it all, I promise. Have you heard of The Jesus
and Mary Chain? They emerged on the U.K. rock scene in 1992 with a
single called Upside Down,
which was (according to Wiki)
"reminiscent of 1960s 'wall of sound' pop music of the like created
by... Phil Spector, but Upside Down
gives the material a noisy post-punk treatment, with brutally simple
drums and one guitar playing shrill feedback throughout most of the
song.". Here's what else Wiki says about them:
Sounds like fun, doesn't it? The band ascribed its impact to the fact
that they were better than everyone else, although they seemed
simultaneously pleased by the rioting and disdainful of the audience
generally (see here
for riot footage and band interviews). They broke up in 1997, well
short of worldwide superstardom. But like many other flashes in the
pan, they have recently reunited. Here's what they're doing now:
So the one-time bad boys are at last becoming commercially savvy, aware
that at some point you have to turn toward
your audience and maybe even cater to the low tastes represented
by Hollywood cheesecake and mass-audience television series.
Apparently, the capitalist component of their Scottish heritage is
reawakening. Now they want to take credit for having been very bad boys
in the past, but they intend to be good enough to reap some financial
rewards in the future. So much for negative thinking and hating rock
But what does this have to do with the decline of capitalism and the behavior of the mass media? Quite a lot, actually. There was never anything very new about the Jesus and Mary Chain. If you'd cared to think about it, you could probably have made them up yourself as a next-generation successor to the Sex Pistols, who rebelled against the titanically successful corporatized rock and roll of the Rolling Stones who, may I remind you, started the whole sex-drugs-and-screw-you bad boy act in the first place. But something got unhooked along the way. Entertainment is a business, dependent upon popular appeal. Jagger and the Stones (Keith notwithstanding) always understood that. The Sex Pistols didn't. They built their careers on the back of the very band they professed to contemn; without the Stones precedent, no one would have been looking for the next badder bad boy of rock, and no one would have given a moment's attention to a band that was proud of not being being able to play very well or even play a set without a snootful of heroin. A generation later, nobody would have been interested in a band that turned its backs on the audience, hardly played any songs in a set at all, and sabotaged the ones they did play with ear-splittingly screechy feedback. You can pretend that all of these are artistic developments, but what they really are is the narcissistic pretensions of wannabes who've forgotten what their business is.
Which is what made me think of this history as a way of looking at what's become of the news business. When you consider it carefully, the Rolling Stones are a near perfect metaphor for the ascendancy of the "profession" of journalism in America. Newspapermen didn't used to be journalists. They were reporters. They were the wrong side of the tracks of the writing life. On the one hand you had poets, novelists, playwrights, critics, and academicians, all of whom had been to college or the equivalent, and on the other you had the blue-collar wordsmiths who knocked on doors, asked terrible questions of grieving mothers and widows, and practiced a stripped down use of words that may occasionally have intimated truths but for the most part prided itself on sticking to the facts: who, what, when, where, and how. For the literateurs words were paint, music, characters, and ideas. For the reporters, words were just tools: the hammer and nails that turned facts into a chronological story.
Most of you don't remember the parallel rise of the Beatles and Stones. Beginning with the Rubber Soul Album, the Beatles were appropriated by the literary set, which was a real first for rock music.. They were described as poets, innovators, emotionally nuanced, musically sophisticated, a cultural prodigy regarded as transformational and transcendent. (I can remembr a classically trained music teacher playing "She's Leaving Home" for the class with tears streaming down his cheeks.) The Stones were the dark side of the British invasion, crude, vulgar, and dirty, musically derivative, and just possibly Satanic. (Which they proceeded to exploit to great effect, of course.) But it was ultimately the Beatles who fell by the wayside, the Stones who kept on trucking to become "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World" (an epithet they coined for themselves btw).
Now think of the rise of modern American journalism. There's definitely a Beatles/Stones flavor to it. Journalism came very late to the profession game. Harvard Law School was founded in 1817. Columbia's School of Journalism was founded in 1912. And it took many years after that for journalism to take on the habiliments of a profession. As late as the 1960s, most major cities had two competing newspapers -- one Republican and one Democrat, with no one doubting the slant each provided to the news of the day. (The Chicago Tribune vs. the Chicago Sun-Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer vs. the Philadelphia Bulletin, The San Francisco Chronicle vs. The San Francisco Examiner, The New York Times vs. The Wall Street Journal vs The New York Daily News/Sun/Post/Observer, etc.) The editorial pages of these papers were partisan; the news pages were Joe Friday's "just the facts, ma'am." It took television to turn the news business into show business. Edward R. Murrow, Eric Severaid, and Walter Cronkite on CBS News. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC News. Personalities began to predominate over the news itself. Ed, Eric, Walter, Chet, and David became The Beatles of journalism. Just like the Beatles, they were deceptively friendly but still in thrall to an agenda. With one possible exception, they were all classical New Deal Democrats, but also, and also classically, determined to appear as unprejudiced as possible.
With their skyrocketing fame and salaries, they did for reporting what the Beatles did for rock and roll. They made it acceptable, respected, even highbrow. But then came The Rolling Stones of the newspaper biz. Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post revived the concept of the bad boy reporter and brought down President Nixon. And just like the Stones, theirs was the template that took over an entire industry. There have been no heirs of Lennon and McCartney capable of filling stadiums and selling multi-platinum records. When the history of rock and roll is written, Jagger will be seen as the most influential figure ever. He has personally spawned hundreds of direct imitators, most of whom have not survived him. So it was with the Jagger/Richards combo of the Washington Post. The thought that a journalist could bring down a president, "make a difference," and "change the world" was responsible for recruiting multiple generations of professional "journalists" who thought their job was not to report the facts but to sway public opinion in the direction they preferred.
But here's what's really interesting. They didn't follow the one truly successful model -- The Rolling Stones, who until recently managed to court controversy without taking explicit political stances. Instead, they fell into the same trap that has given us The Sex Pistols and The Jesus and Mary Chain Gang. They thought they could keep upping the ante until their very contempt for the audience would guarantee their success. It doesn't. Never has. Never will.
The mainstream media are the Jesus and Mary Chain. They turn their backs on an audience without whose support they have no chance of surviving. They are open in their contempt for the education, understanding, and life experience of the people they expect to buy their papers, watch their TV shows, listen to their insights. Working for economic institutions that have become monopolies, they can't even remember that pissing off half the potential market is the stupidest career decision anyone could make. We're really supposed to admire them and buy their product because of their repeated arrogant assurances that they're smarter than we could ever hope to be. Unless we agree with them in every particular.
MAJOR CHANGE OF DIRECTION: Sorry. This is an old-style instaPunk entry, the kind that gets us slammed by lefty websites who think that anything long is automatically self-indulgent and pretentious. Maybe it is. But I'll keep going anyway. You see, I was going to contrast the self-destructive behavior of the media with the normal conduct of business, just to show how stupid it is to expect continued prosperity from a practice of disdaining your customers. AS IF the journalists were the only ones guilty of that.
And then I remembered. I have actual personal, professional experience in both the banking and automotive industries. And they have come to their current pass by acting exactly like the journalists.
I used to be a management consultant. I worked with both General Motors and what was then the NCR component of AT&T. The last time I addressed a large business audience was at NCR, in a conference on the the hot topic of the day, customer satisfaction. I told an audience of executive and senior executive bank vice presidents that they were in a unique position. I told them all the assets they made decisions about and used to make more money with didn't belong to them or their shareholders but their customers. I told them how ironic it was that they were nevertheless the only major industry who systematically treated their customers like criminals. I compared them unfavorably to the automotive industry, in which product warranties had reached the level of guaranteed maintenance and repair for as much as five years of product life while they, the bankers, were still punishing customers for overdrafts based on the (absolutely in the age of electronic transactions) fraudulent pretense that it took five days to process a check from Pennsylvania to Ohio. I invited them to remember that they were more, not less, dependent on the continuing faith of their customers than industrial corporations. I invited them to regard their institutions as businesses with customers who could be driven away, not as sinecures for their automatic success. I suggested that the acquisition fever which then gripped the banking industry was a form of denial, which could not forever hide the business problem of an industry that hated its own customers. When I finished, there was no applause. I was never invited back.
I could have saved a lot of time by saying "Don't play your music with your back turned to the audience. If they decide they don't like you, you're done."
And then I also thought about my time working with General Motors. And with the UAW (under a separate contract). The more I thought about it, the more I realized they've also turned their back on the audience. Not publicly. They haven't run the advertising campaign which suggests that everyone who doesn't "buy American" is a traitorous malcontent none of us should invite over for dinner or go bowling with. They've done it in far more serious and fatal ways. Their corporate cultures have commanded ignorance and denial. I worked with GM management for four years on quality improvement and the implementation of Toyota's Just-in-Time manufacturing methods. I wrote executive speeches, video scripts, training materials, and did in-depth research to help them translate theory into valid implementation models. The more work I did for them, the more darkly they regarded the Toyota MR2 I drove into the lot. I was warned about the danger of getting keyed or otherwise vandalized, and I was warmly congratulated when I finally bought a GM SUV (that was twice stolen on business trips to Detroit).
I learned in the course of my experience with GM management that the company spent more on market research than any other corporation in the world. I learned that it took two full-time engineers a year to design a taillight. I learned that there were so many layers of GM management and so many meetings that a business unit could operate for three or four months without ever laying eyes on its boss. I also learned that from top to bottom, the people who planned, designed, and built GM cars had never driven the competitors' cars. Way back then, the one reform I wanted to enact at GM was to make all the executives I worked with spend weeks or months driving my MR2, not fulminating at its presence in the parking lot. A few months of that would have eliminated the need for most of their market research. Everything about my little Toyota was better than anything GM did. The fit and finish, the driving position, the quality of the materials, the feel of the vehicle as a unit, the suspension, the smoothness of the motor, every damn thing. They had a direct competitor at the time, the Pontiac Fiero. It sucked. Five minutes in my car would have convinced any GM executive of that. They never got that five minutes.
As I said, I also worked with the UAW. They hired my firm to get better at winning elections in the "transplants"; i.e., the foreign firms who had set up manufacturing and assembly plants for Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Honda in the U.S. Our first recommendation to UAW leadership was to cease persecuting workers at those plants -- stop keying their cars, denying them access to parking spaces in UAW local parking lots, and making life miserable for them generally. They responded that they couldn't do that. Not ever. They, too, had never driven, and never would, a foreign car.
Hell, I drew up driving them both. I'm an American, not a damn Detroit-Stalinist. I've driven everything (can't list it all here), but what I do know is that the best car is not Japanese or Korean or American. It's part American, to be sure, but also part Japanese, part Korean, part British, part German, and even part French. It's a worldwide industry. Here's the worst thing I learned about GM in four years of trying to help them become more competititive: as recentlyy as 20 years ago, GM cars still had excessively small tires and large wheel wells because in Detroit, in winter, you have to put chains on your tires against the snow and ice that afflicts Detroit and Buffalo. But almost nowhere else, let along in America, is that so.
And now they want us to save them. That's beggng for credit for turning their backs on all the rest of us.
I'm not taking the bait. All the crap about "buying American" has allowed them to get away with building inferior product for at least a generation. To this day, there's still no GM car with a driving position I can live with. They've learned nothing. In the final analysis it's not about the unions or the management per se; it's about the vehicles. My current Toyota MR2 (2002, because Toyota has also forgoten how to build a sexy car) cost half what a Porsche Boxster did, goes like a scalded cat, corners at 1.0 g, never breaks, and gets 34 mpg. And according to the media, the Big Three, and the U.S. Congress, I'm supposed to feel guilty for not appreciating how they've been looking out for me with their backs turned.
Truth is, the whole lot of them are guilty of the same sin as The Jesus and Mary Chain. They joined up in a going concern they thought could make everyone rich indefinitely, and they forgot that you actually have to be good at what you say you do.
In the words of Governor Blagojevich, F___ them.
. You have to admire the selfless heroism on
going down in financial flames, Newsweek
are laying off employees right and left, and even The
New York Times is faced with mortgaging Punch's Palace to keep
creditors at bay, while the rest of the newspaper industry is
confronting plunging ad and subscription revenues that threaten to wipe
them out across the board. Yet what is their response when a juicy
scandal falls into their laps even earlier in the Obama era than it did
in the recordbreaking Clinton era? They are moved to explain away the
scandal completely and assure all us curious American dumbshits that
there's nothing to see here, really, so move on. One mentally disturbed government
official with a foul-mouthed slut of a wife went completely nuts for no
reason, and we shouldn't even be interested in pursuing our natural but
ill-founded questions about how this might reflect on the
president-elect and his closest advisers on the transition team.
Wow. Double wow. Dare I say it? Triple wow. That's quite a stand to take when your whole industry, and the livelihoods of everyone in that industry, depends on public curiosity about the rich, powerful people who presume to lead us. Curious about Chicago politics? Forget it. The governor is just some accidental loon. Are, or were, Obama and the governor of Illinois close colleagues and have they spoken recently? Waste of time to even ask. No point. Unthinkable. Did you hear the kind of language the slut-wife used? Well, then. There you go. Barack and Michelle would never associate with that kind of trash for a moment. All of this is just a big misunderstanding, you'll see. Jesse Jackson, Jr? Didn't you hear the thrill of emotion in his voice when he denied knowing that some anonymous idiot -- also obviously crazy as a bedbug -- offered Buggevitch a bunch of money for Obama's senate seat? There you go.
And don't think this is partisan. Fox News is standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the MSM. You should have seen the disgusted look on Steve Doocy's face yesterday when Chicago DJ Mancow reported that in Chicago at least, where political corruption is the very air they breathe, people were speculating that Candidate 5 -- the one bidding a half-mill for Obama's legacy black senate seat -- was Jesse Jackson, Jr. He was icy in his declaration that there was no evidence of that whatsoever. And today, when the Jackson rumor was confirmed as fact, Doocy was absolute in his assertion that none of the wiretaps involved principals, only unnamed whoevers. So there.
With this kind of evident, patriotic integrity, it's harder than ever to understand why people just aren't buying newspapers and news magazines anymore. Why the mass media have an approval rating approaching the catastrophic levels of the U.S. Congress. Why people are gradually tuning out on the cable news networks. Why journalism as a supposed profession is widely seen as dead as a doornail.
Consider the irony. How many years -- how many decades? -- have people complained that the press brings us only the bad news and never the good. Now, when they've made it clear that the news about Obama will be forever, absolutely and incontrovertibly good, they stillwant to kill the messenger. So much the unfairness of things.
I'd leave it there for all of you to stew about in the rank landfills of your degraded consciences, but there's one more point that has to be made. When you circle the wagons around the tents of those who must be protected at all costs, who are you protecting them against? In this case, I guess, it would be the U.S. Cavalry, the constitutionally authorized forces of law and order whom the MSM have long known to be the true ogres on the American scene. That's a formidable enemy to be sure, and it explains more than anything else ever could why the members of the fourth estate are apparently willing to cut the throats of their own businesses, and themselves, to save the One from harm, in advance of the facts they have no interest in reporting.
If The New York Times should somehow survive for another thousand years days,
people will always say of them, "Truly, this was their finest hour."
That sure beats doing their damn job. Don't it?
P.S. [A Notation in the "InstaPunk is always right" file] Here's what I said back in July:
Or, in the current environment, pick your poison. Who was it who said
something about "chickens coming home to roost"? I forget. How about you?
. You've gotta love the new scandal erupting in Illinois.
want to place any bets on whether the MSM will dub it "ChicagoGate,"
"GovernorGate," or "SenatorGate"? We're offering 10-1 against.) To me
it seems there are already two major stories being ignored as the lions
of the media start ripping at the carcass of Governor Buggevitch. How
many more stories will (not) emerge as this sorry melodrama plays
itself out on
TV and in the papers? Well, those are questions for later on. Right now
we're concerned with just two.
How is this not a huge story about mass media negligence? Why are the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, and Boston Globe not being printed on red paper today, or at least pink, signifying the utter embrarrassment they should be feeling? The cesspool of Illinois and Chicago-style machine politics that's being revealed just now was surely relevant to the voters' ability to assess the career of Barack Obama, since all his time in elected office before he started running for the presidency (in Year One of his tenure as a U.S. Senator) occurred in Chicago, Illinois. Think about it. All the crooks we are suddenly learning about, and will be learning about in weeks to come, should have been household names a year ago, revealed by the national media's professional determination to vet a wholly unknown aspirant to the highest office in the land. We should already know everything about politics-as-usual in a state where two previous governors are serving prison terms for corruption and the current mayor of Chicago is the son of the most successful -- and openly acknowledged, to the point of humor -- old-time political boss in the United States, Richard J. Daley. But truthfully, everything we're learning today is news to us. All of us. What a mess. Obama came from this? How exactly? In short, we should already know every jot and tittle of the second huge unmentioned story, which is...
The Fantastic Voyage of Barack Obama. So. Somehow, Barack Obama started his political career in this sewer of corruption, rose to elected office and fame without ever being slowed, sidetracked, or done in by the ubuquitous dirty dealing, and has now ascended to the presidency of the United States just as the whole rotten political infrastructure he cut his teeth on is collapsing, and he is still miraculously above suspicion of doing anything that's not squeaky squeaky clean. Well, hell. That's a tremendous story if there ever was one. No wonder his supporters speak of him in Christ-like terms.
But how exactly does someone -- anyone -- do that? It's almost as if his entire journey through the diseased body of Chicago politics occurred inside a specially constructed cocoon of sterility, something like a tiny, high-tech hospital ship. I'm prepared to believe that. I suppose. But some explanation, based on research and hard factual reporting, would be a big help. All I've got at the moment is a kind of blurry science fiction image that's long on dramatic music and short on, well, everything else.
Or do you see something I don't?
. I hate to interrupt all the
high-finance chatter about the pros and cons of the projected Detroit
bailout. I really do. But I've just performed one act of addition and
one act of division (on my Microsoft onscreen calculator), and I have a
question: What the hell is going on
Let's get right to it. Here are revenue figures for General Motors in 2007.