Annals of Communications

When Johannes Gutenberg peeled the first broadsheet off the first printing press and began to read it, he reportedly cried out, “Whoa…! This article is far too wordy; the syntax is awkward, the grammar is atrocious and the whole thing makes no sense.” Thus was born the first editor.

The craft of editing had failed to flourish in earlier times because cuneiform was notoriously difficult to correct once chiseled in stone, and papyrus easily damaged by erasure and strike-overs (cf: Scrolls, Dead Sea).

Five centuries after Gutenberg, publishing had morphed into a massive global industry known as Mass Communications, and it was at that point that Albert Arnold Gore, Jr., a rising young American politico, invented the Information Superhighway, a.k.a., the Internet.

Encouraged by this breakthrough development, countless millions of people decided to become writer-editors, launching more uncurated verbiage onto the World Wide Web than had been written since the start of recorded history, ca. 3200 BC. Missing in much of this was the guiding hand of The Editor, a woefully diminished breed, few of whom had survived the recent near-death experience of the legacy media.

What this fractured history lesson is meant to convey is that in a world wherein everybody—left to his own devices—is destined to become a spontaneous news and information provider, and/or will be seeking employment in a business environment where exceptional communications skill will be ever-more in demand, we’re going to have to learn to do it better. At premium will be the sort of skills aspiring journalists learn in journalism school.

Enter Jan Schaffer, executive director of the J-lab at American University, graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern U., and Pulitzer-winning veteran of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Writing in MediaShift, she posits that “It’s time to think about trumpeting a Journalism degree as the ultimate Gateway Degree, one that can get you a job almost anywhere…”.

Journalism schools would have to articulate a new value program, fleshing out their traditional journalism curricula by adding more liberal arts courses overlaid by instruction in digital competence and social media skills.

Importantly, the practice of journalism per se isn’t going away, it’s merely going through a massive platform shift, albeit a stunningly painful one.The market for news and information is, if anything, on the increase; it simply has to be better audited.

In my opinion, Schaffer’s idea offers a promising scenario. It could re-invigorate our schools of journalism (now suffering from under-enrollment); re-focus the study of journalism as a profession; provide a gateway degree to the college-bound seeking a rewarding career: provide employers with articulate workers trained to be persuasive, persistent, and media-savvy; and give the rest of us a decidedly more informative, reliable, and enjoyable media experience. Best of all, it would put all those beached editors back to work.

Tempest in a Treetop

SANDWICH – The town was abuzz this week with word from usually reliable Washington sources that the White House was about to issue an executive order barring the construction of a zip line at Heritage Museums and Gardens.

Described as an “aerial adventure park”, the project has been the subject of considerable local controversy since it was first announced, but the matter had seemed to have been put to bed by the recent go-ahead ruling by the zoning board of appeals..

Simeon Snively, president of Tarzan Lives!, the video game company contracted to design and construct the project, said, “This is typical of big-government fun-police interfering in the free exercise of constitutional property rights by those who got there first. Of course this attraction will create traffic jams in the summer, that’s why it’s called an attraction! We believe that such minor inconveniences are more than offset by the creation of the one full-time and 11 part-time jobs being generated by the project. Furthermore, we have tenders from fifteen fast-food franchises anxious to occupy the food court we’ll be bringing to Heritage once the adventure park is in place.”

Queried about this unprecedented outreach into a local issue by the federal government, the White House declined to comment.

All Politics is Local

A recently unearthed video in which a charismatic young state senator from Chicago’s South Side, appearing on a restaurant-rating TV panel on WTTW in 1991, decides to play it safe and order the “Southern Sampler” rather than boldly going where he has never gone before, and risking biting into an ill-considered selection that might bite back.

Some might say that this demonstrates a characteristic that he has carried over to his present job as leader of the free world.

Others might say that this is the mark of the ultimate pragmatist, wisely keeping his options open, in order to eventually make a more informed decision.

Whereas still others might say: good grief, do you news people have to politicize everything!?

Judicial Error

WASHINGTON – This week’s revelation by the influential Borowitz Report that a staggering $4 billion was spent on influencing the midterm elections, was nowhere felt as keenly as at the U.S. Supreme Court which today issued a press release headlined: “We Made a Terrible Mistake”.

It appears that in rendering its highly controversial opinion in the 2010 Citizens United case, the majority had relied heavily on Justice Anthony Kennedy’s conclusions that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to…the appearance of corruption,” and that “… the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy.”

Since Tuesday’s purchase of many of the 436 seats in the house and 36 in the Senate by vested interests would seem to bring such conclusions into question, Chief Justice John Roberts launched an immediate investigation into the provenance of Justice Kennedy’s assertions. It turns out that they derived not from meticulous historical research, as had been assumed by the majority, but were dreamed up under last-minute pressure by one of Justice Kennedy’s law clerks who, according to unnamed sources, had just come off a Netflix-fueled weekend of binge-viewing all seventeen seasons of The O’Reilly Factor.

“We really f****d up on this one”, said Chief Justice Roberts, his choice of ribald candor over genteel circumspection being duly noted by this reporter as evidence of genuine remorse. He further averred, ipse dixit, that Citizens United would be unanimously overturned by SCOTUS at its next session.

Breaking News

WASHINGTON – We have it on good authority from our embedded White House whistle-blower that the flap over “Chickenshit-gate” currently imperiling Israeli-American relations is simply the consequence of a clumsy attempt at euphemism.

An as-yet-unidentified Administration official had, in fact, meant to call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “pigheaded”, but was reluctant to offend Jewish dietary sensibilities.

Meanwhile, speculation is widespread in the Capital that an “intruder” run to ground today by alert White House guard dogs was not in fact an intruder but an escapee trying to jump the fence. Usually reliable sources believe that she is, in fact, the author of the now infamous slur, and that she has been placed under quarantine at Walter Reed for observation.

More to come.

Paleo v. Palio

A recent news report suggesting that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a “killer asteroid”, has been challenged by a study released today by the American Sitomania Society (A.S.S.) asserting that what actually accounted for their extinction was an early and disastrous encounter with the now well-known Paleo Diet.

The herbiferous saurians went first, notably the bone-headed dinosaurs (pachysephalosaurs) whose large skull enclosed a very tiny brain, making them easily vulnerable to enticements by wily stone-age nimrods and antedeluvian GOP operatives.

The feathered ones went next because they tasted like turducken, a gastronomic throwback of cretacious-era origin resurrected by Paula Deen on her erstwhile TV series, “Cooking for the Morbidly Obese”, which was  cancelled when researchers discovered that her audience was dying off (literally) faster than it could be replaced with new viewers.

It should be noted here that the Paleo regimen is sometimes confused with the homonymic Palio Diet which is of medieval Siennese provenance and refers to the nine unlucky horses that, having lost the annual Palio race, are served up to the unsentimental citizenry of Sienna as Cavallo perdente rustico.

Robber Barons, Reformers and the 17th Amendment

With the autumnal equinox having now been ushered in by a drenching Nor’easter, a blizzard of puerile political commercials and a deluge of annoying robo-calls, We, the People, will soon be participants in, or witnesses to, yet another epic battle between good and evil (which is which depending upon your party affiliation): the 2014 Senatorial elections.

T’was not always thus.

Those among you who stayed awake during Mrs. McGuffey’s 9th Grade History class will recall that, until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, U.S. Senators were (per Art. 1, Sec. 3 of the Constitution) chosen by state legislatures, not elected directly by the people as at present.

The most contentious issue facing the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the long, stifling summer of 1787 was the question of suffrage; how many legislative representatives were to be chosen, and by whom and for how long? The larger states demanded representation consistent with size, while the smaller ones held out for numerical equality irrespective of geographical footprint or population.

The convention was deadlocked, and in danger of collapse, when Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed what came to be known as “The Great Compromise”: a bicameral legislature with the lower house being directly elected based on population size, and seats in the upper house filled by two senators from each state, chosen by the state legislatures. This latter stipulation was deemed essential to the “federal” character of the new government, i.e., the sharing of power by the national and the state governments. Maintaining such political equilibrium has been a shaky and sometimes lethal balancing act for the past 225 years.

By 1826, reformers were beginning to question the democratic legitimacy of a non-popularly-elected Senate, and calls for a direct-election amendment began to be heard. However, nothing resulted at the time or when it was tried again in 1829 and 1855 during the “Jacksonian Democracy” era.

With the Gilded Age (in Mark Twain’s sardonic coinage) in full noxious bloom by the 1890s, industrialization was producing the sort of huge fortunes and equally large disparities of wealth and power that are the breeding ground for corruption and political malfeasance. The “Millionaires’ Club” (as the Senate was then pejoratively known) was not immune to such influences. We look, for example, at “Copper King” William Andrews Clark who bribed the Montana legislature to secure a U.S. Senate seat, but was caught out before taking office. Then there was Nelson W. Aldrich, the most powerful chairman in the history of the Senate Finance committee who became enormously rich by easing tariff legislation for his cronies in the oil, tobacco and sugar trusts, but stumbled in his bid for a 5th term when his proffered $200,000 bribe failed to get him re-elected.

A contemporary fable about Grover Cleveland had it that that his wife woke him up one night crying: “Wake up! There are robbers in the house.” The president replied: “I think you are mistaken. There are no robbers in the House, but there are lots in the Senate.”

Coincidentally, the era spawned the doctrine of social Darwinism, promoted by the writings of William Graham Sumner and others, which preached a survival of the fittest dogma that the ability to acquire wealth is an evolutionary marker of genetic superiority.

And then there were the deadlocks in the state legislatures that occurred regularly when the lower house was in the hands of one party and the upper house another, and neither could agree on a senatorial candidate. Even more frequent than instances of outright corruption, 71 such standoffs resulted in 17 senate seats going unfilled for an entire legislative session or longer. Needless to say, other important state business went unattended to, and often lesser qualified candidates were selected in desperate last ditch efforts to reach a compromise.

These goings on did not fail to catch the attention of reformers, and the ‘90s saw the ascendancy of the Populists, a potent alliance of western agrarian and eastern labor interests who had not been invited to the party. Trust-busting presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were elected to office in 1901 and 1909 respectively, ushering in the historically significant Progressive Movement, the effects of which are still felt today.

By 1912, the electorate, fed up with the excesses of wealth and power exhibited over the preceding several decades, pressured Congress to pass an Amendment providing for the direct election of Senators, and by the following year it had done so. Overwhelmingly ratified by the states, the 17th Amendment became law on April 8, 1913.

Gone missing in all this ferment was the venerated concept of federalism; the formal presence of state influence in Washington. The role of the states as equal partners in the governing of the nation was ever after diminished. Formerly, state legislatures could, and did, instruct their U.S. senators how to vote; but no longer. Ralph A. Rossum, writing in the San Diego Law Review, notes that the debate over the amendment’s adoption lacked “any serious or systematic considerations of its potential impact on federalism…The popular press, the party platforms, the state memorials, the house and senate debates, and the state legislative debates during ratification focused almost exclusively on expanding democracy, eliminating political corruption, defeating elitism and freeing the states from what they had come to regard as an onerous and difficult responsibility.”

With the 17th Amendment, our great experiment in democracy had passed another stress test, as it had oft-times before, and most certainly will have to again.