February 24, 2006
Don't know much about history?
If you don't read readers' comments on this blog, you missed two interesting ones about American history in response to "Sneak preview," my entry on Ken Burns and his World War II project. I'll copy excerpts of those comments below, hoping to spur more comments from readers -- positive and negative -- about the teaching of American history. Please chime in.
Reader one: "When I was in high school, back before there was electric lighting, my history teacher sort of back-loaded the agenda. He got so carried away with old history that he never got to new history, i.e., the 2d World War. I suspect that this same thing is true today. . . .
"It's sad how little the average American knows of his country's history or governing traditions, and that lack of knowledge can help to erode those traditions."
And reader two: "My son, a sophomore at CHS, was studying last night for a history test on WWII. His brother is a junior at CHS who took 'Land of Promise' (American History) last year. Neither knew who the Axis powers were. My son the junior couldn't identify where D-Day took place, even though every night he plays 'Medal of Honor' a computer simulation game from WWII. He wasn't sure what decade it occurred."
February 22, 2006
Work in progress
Sen. John E. Sununu came to the Monitor for an editorial board meeting today. You can read about the substance of the interview in the paper, but I walked away from the meeting thinking about what kind of senator Sununu has become - or is becoming.
The question that prompted this musing came from Ari Richter, our opinion editor. He asked Sununu to assess his Senate colleague, John McCain.
McCain, Sununu said, is passionate about his work and more intense than most senators. He can turn his passion into action. “He understands how to use his skills to be an effective senator,” Sununu said.
I regret that we did not follow up by asking Sununu to assess his own performance. But here are my impressions on the basis of both the interview and a decade of watching him in public office.
Sununu has just finished his third year in the Senate. He is a party regular most of the time, but when he runs with an issue, he does so from conviction. Most recently he bucked the White House on the Patriot Act. Before that he became an outspoken leader on Social Security reform, an issue the White House was pushing.
I disliked Sununu’s plan for Social Security privatization, but he is right about runaway entitlements. Based on his reading of coming election cycles, it could be six years before a president or Congress moves Social Security to the top of the national agenda again.
Not that anyone should go tilting at windmills, but I’ll be disappointed if Sununu doesn’t find ways to keep both Social Security and Medicare in the public eye. He could make entitlements reform a signature issue, as Sen. Warren Rudman did with deficit reduction.
Sununu’s biggest positive is that he is brainy and serious. I had a puckish fondness for Bob Smith, whom Sununu bumped out of office in a hot GOP primary in 2002, but Sununu brings much more to the table than Smith did. Although Sununu can be as excruciatingly deliberate in speech as he is cool in demeanor, he has a strong grasp on the facts behind the issues. This is true whether you’re talking about Hamas’s prospects in the Middle East or alternative energy sources.
The Monitor endorsed Jeanne Shaheen against Sununu in the 2002 election. I strongly believe the country would be better off with divided government, that is, with the out party in charge of at least one chamber of Congress. I disagree with Sununu on fundamental issues, from his support for the Iraq war to his pro-life views on abortion rights. I wish he were more independent of ideology.
All that said, there are worse things than having a really smart U.S. senator who keeps his ego in check and sometimes takes principled stands and follows through on them.
February 21, 2006
Ken Burns’s latest mega-project is World War II. He and his company have been working on a 15-hour documentary to be aired next year.
Yesterday at St. Paul’s School, where his daughter was once a student, Burns showed excerpts from a rough cut. He told the students they were the first people outside his Walpole studio to see any of the work.
Why World War II? In speaking with the students, Burns cited two pieces of polling data about American perceptions of the war. If the data is correct, half of Americans believe the wars in the European and Pacific theaters were fought in different time frames. Four in ten think the United States fought as Germany's ally against the Russians.
Will Burns do for World War II what he did for the Civil War? Will he put his distinctive stamp on the war? Will his documentary stir the public to talk and read about the seminal American event of the 20th century as he stirred it to talk and read about the seminal American event of the 19th century?
More than 15 years has passed since Burns’s Civil War documentary aired. I’m not sure anything on television this side of the grand finale of American Idol can capture the kind of audience that Burns’s Civil War did. That series truly became a national experience, connecting the public with its history in a way that no other television event has.
The public should have even more personal reasons for watching Burns’s World War II documentary. Even more than 60 years later, most of us have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who lived through it -- or didn't.
As a subject, World War II also has some technological advantages over the Civil War, the main one being moving pictures. The snippets screened for the students at St. Paul’s yesterday showed the bodies of U.S. Marines bobbing in the surf off the beaches at Tarawa. Such images tell a story as no still picture can.
No doubt Burns knows more about story-telling than he did in the 1980s, when he made his Civil War film. But even then he knew the importance of telling such a big story chronoligically. He is committed to this approach for World War II, which should give viewers a sense of just how global the war was for their forbears.
To narrow that approach to particulars, he has chosen to tell the story from an American perspective through the experiences of four municipalities: Mobile, Sacramento, Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn.
From the little bit of the film I saw, and from what Burns said, he plans to do much more than follow the fascinating stories of veterans and others from those four places. He will also show the distant social and economic milieu of that time. He will tell the story of race (a favorite theme, whatever his subject), of the internment of Japanese-Americans, of the place of Jews in our society and of how the Holocaust dawned on the American conscience.
Something else might happen as a result of the Burns film. It could be that editors like me all over the country will look for ways to tell their communities’ and states’ World War II histories in conjunction with the documentary’s showing. Burns appears to have chosen his communities well, but this is a big country, and World War II dominated life in every community.
Anyway, it was a privilege to get an early peek at Burns’s project. I hope he succeeds. I hope he reawakens Americans to their history. What happened then matters now, and the better we understand it, the more confidently we can face the future.
February 17, 2006
Question No. 6b
A blog respondent asks:
Why are Republicans who are in the middle often labeled “moderate” while Democrats who are in the middle often labeled “conservative?”
I’ve always disliked such labels and counseled journalists at the Monitor to avoid using them. I also dislike characterizations like long shot, dark horse and frontrunner in news copy during election campaigns.
But they do sneak into print. The reason is not so much that the news media aim to pigeonhole politicians. Rather, it is in the nature of our business to try to inform people in the quickest and most concise way possible. Labels can be convenient shorthand in a complex story.
That said, I’m not sure I buy the premise of the question. Centrists in both parties are often referred to as moderates.
And “liberal,” "moderate” and “conservative” don’t mean what they used to. Unless Goldwater conservatives of 1964 have changed with the times, which many no doubt have, some would be seen as moderate today. The evolving meanings of these labels is another reason to avoid applying them to politicians in print.
February 15, 2006
Question No. 6a
The questioner in yesterday's entry responds:
"Do you think the media favors moderate/dissenting Republicans over conservative Democrats? For example, Joe Lieberman rarely seems to enjoy the type of generous coverage that Hagel, McCain, Chafee, et.al regularly receive. When Lieberman crossed party lines recently to support President Bush on a several issues related to the war in Iraq, I didn't see any editorials or profiles championing his brave stand against Harry Reid.
"President Clinton complains in his autobiography of suffering from a similar phenomenon, especially on welfare reform and deficit reduction.
"Are conservative Democrats just less enticing subjects than maverick Republicans?"
I don't think so. Just to cite the Lieberman example, the story of his pro-Iraq war stance did get widespread play. Not all of it was unfavorable. The Monitor editorial on the subject appreciated Lieberman's sincerity and consistency on the Iraq war while disagreeing with his position. It also said the Democratic Party needs to be big enough to include Lieberman and his views.
Further on Lieberman: He got extensive coverage during the 2004 Democratic primary. I mean, he literally moved to New Hampshire for that campaign. But for voters it proved not to be a case of "the more I see Joe, the more I like him." Press coverage, and editorials, reflected this.
On Clinton: The only thing he has to complain about is too much coverage on certain subjects. I think his complaint in the biography was that the media didn't give him enough credit for deficit reduction and welfare reform. His administration produced balanced budgets, but because the economy was booming, how much credit he should get for that is open to question. Clinton may well deserve more credit on welfare reform, which was a smart direction for him, the party and the country. But that's just my opinion, and opinions on this varied widely during and after the debate.
I don't think the conservative Democrats vs. Republican mavericks comparison is the right one. Almost everything depends on political skills and strategy. And, of course, if you're looking for a conservative - or at least moderate - Democrat who attracted heavy media interest from the get-go, Clinton is exhibit A.
February 14, 2006
Question No. 6
My Sunday entry touted Joe Lelyveld’s profile of Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a possible Republican contender for president, in Sunday’s Times Magazine. In response, a reader suggested that the story might be “yet another example of the mainstream media’s bias towards non-mainstream Republicans.” He asked:
“As an editor, do you think the media is biased towards figures like McCain, Bruce Bartlett and Hagel? Do reporters gravitate towards these politicians because they are skeptics of the Iraq war, or support condoms in Africa, or occasionally oppose Bush? Or is it just that their unpredictable quotes make good copy?”
Through my experience here during seven presidential primary campaigns, I’ve come to think that, in general, candidates get the coverage they deserve. This also applies beyond New Hampshire in presidential races.
I understand what the reader is suggesting, but I don’t buy his premise that journalists operate out of political bias. Rather their decisions on who gets what coverage depend on how accessible, candid and interesting the candidates are. Especially in a grassroots campaign like New Hampshire’s, the media are just that: media. They convey to interested, savvy voters what – and how – the candidates are doing.
The example that might best speak to the reader’s question was the 2000 New Hampshire race between Sen. John McCain and Gov. George W. Bush.
At the time, the definition of “mainstream Republican” was in flux. The Gingrich revolution had petered out, and the party had been out of the White House for nearly eight years. Bush was certainly the establishment candidate – he had all the money. But his positions on the major issues facing the country were mostly unknown.
Bush used the money, in part, to insulate himself from the populace. His campaign events in New Hampshire were staged, infrequent and business-oriented. He did not use New Hampshire’s grassroots tradition to define himself and to meet the public and answer voters’ questions. Nor did he allow much media access.
McCain, meanwhile, rode around New Hampshire on a bus called the Straight Talk Express. He did 114 “town meetings” in which he usually stayed until the last voter's question was answered. He was almost always available to the media and, as advertised, at least seemed to say what he meant and mean what he said.
The media’s coverage of the two candidates had little to do with ideology. Rather it reflected the way they ran their campaigns. Reporters are paid to be perceptive. They know when a candidate is dodging them or delivering canned lines. They like it better when a candidate is available and willing to talk.
Of course, along the campaign trail in New Hampshire you’ll find the gravestones of plenty of straight-talking one-time media sweethearts from both parties who did not become president. These include McCain, Bob Kerrey, latter-day Bob Dole, Bill Bradley, the late Paul Tsongas and the likable Patrick Buchanan.
Now, about Hagel, Lelyveld and 2008.
I don;t know why Lelyveld chose Hagel as a subject, but it might have started with the Nebraska connection. In his memoir, Omaha Blues, Lelyveld writes about his parents’ sending him, at the age of 9, to live with strangers on a Nebraska farm. Hagel’s dirt-poor, knock-around childhood in Nebraska is a riveting segment of the profile.
On politics, Hagel, like Bush, is pro-life, pro-defense and pro-tax cut. I took from the profile that Hagel has three big differences with the president. He had doubts from the outset about the wisdom of invading Iraq. He thinks even a person with strong religious convictions can – and usually should – separate those convictions from his or her public life. And Hagel believes Bush’s big federal programs – No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug benefit – were mistakes.
Yes, Hagel’s old-fashioned notion of separation of church and state will be a problem with the religious right. But do his positions really put him outside the Republican mainstream? I hope not.
It’s way too early to handicap the next presidential primary, much as I wish the campaign would start tomorrow. Lelyveld’s profile raised the right question at this stage: If McCain runs, will Hagel?
February 13, 2006
Old-fashioned love songs
I have a friend with an odd hobby. I have never heard of anyone else with such a hobby. But it is a wonderful hobby, and Valentine’s eve seems like a good time to mention it here.
My friend’s name is Al Hutchison. I have known him for more than half a century. When I was a tyke, he was the best friend of an older cousin of mine. Later, our paths crossed often throughout our careers. I occasionally wrote for him when he was a Sunday magazine editor. He hired me as an editor in Florida and later recommended me to the Monitor’s publisher. We were both editors of northern New England newspapers when he retired six years ago.
But Hutch’s hobby (alter-ego, actually) has nothing to do with journalism. He is a closet deejay. For nearly 20 years, he has made programs and mailed them to his friends, first as tape cassettes, now as CDs.
The programs consist of 16-20 songs with Hutch’s commentary in between. He knows music – classical, jazz, blues and swing especially, but also some folk and country and even a little rock. He has introduced me to many terrific performers that I might never have heard without him, including the late Eva Cassidy, the late Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, and Mark Knopfler in his non-Dire Straits personae. He’s also made me appreciate such before-my-time greats as Etta James and Nat King Cole.
Often Hutch ties something going on in his life to the music we listeners are about to hear. Occasionally his programs have a theme. He has done memoirs and travelogues, for example, and made several programs of New Orleans jazz and Zydeco after Hurricane Katrina devastated the state.
Hutch calls his station WKIT – an acronym for “We’re Keeping In Touch” – and he emphasizes the “we.” He wants feedback. A side benefit for his audience is that some of us (though far from all) have known each other in past lives. Some are even related. When he hears news from a listener, Hutch often finds a way to work it into his next program, multiplying the notion of keeping in touch.
Valentine’s eve seems like a good day to mention Hutch’s unusual hobby here because his CD for the holiday was listeners’ choice. He borrowed an idea (from NPR, I think) and asked each listener to let him know his or her favorite love song.
This was a harder question than it seemed. Over a couple of days, two dozen songs riffed through my head before I settled on Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream on,” which I knew from Sleepless in Seattle (Greg Brown’s “This Band of Gold,” Elvis’s “Loving You” and Cole’s “Unforgettable” were other finalists).
Anyway, with thanks to my friend Hutch, here’s the play list for one of the two CDs he made for WKIT listeners for Valentine’s Day 2006:
Art Garfunkel – Disney Girls
London cast, West Side Story – One Heart, One Hand
Louis Armstrong – A Kiss To Build a Dream on
Roberta Flack – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Bing Crosby – Let Me Call You Sweetheart
Eva Cassidy – Yesterday
Andy M. Stewart – A Fond Kiss
Barbra Streisand – Evergreen
Ray Price – For the Good Times
ABBA – The Dancing Queen
Willie Nelson – Harbor Lights
The Spitfire Band – At Last
Patsy Cline – Crazy
The Four Aces – Love Is a Many Splendored Thing
Jo Stafford – If I Loved You
Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey – This Love Of Mine
Ella Fitzgerald – Every Time We Say Goodbye
Michael Buble – The More I See You
Patsy Cline – I Fall to Pieces
Frank Sinatra – My Funny Valentine
Diane Schuur – My One and Only Love
February 12, 2006
Check this out
Today's New York Times Sunday Magazine has a terrific profile by Joe Lelyveld of Sen. Chuck Hagel. It's one of those early introductions that New Hampshire presidential primary watchers feast on in the long off-season.
Hagel's a conservative Republican and Vietnam combat veteran who has been critical of the Iraq war and President Bush's big domestic programs. He's not committed to a run for the presidency, but he's thinking hard about it and visiting all the right places, including a trip to New Hampshire next month.
The profile is fascinating. Check it out.
February 09, 2006
In my mail stack yesterday was a letter from Irene Ackley of Concord. Here’s how it began: “In 1939, Vincent Lombardi was hired to coach football at my small high school – St. Cecelia’s – in Englewood, N.J.”
Regular readers of the Monitor will quickly guess why Mrs. Ackley was writing to the paper about her brush with the man whose name adorns the Super Bowl trophy. Her account will soon run on page B1 as part of “Seeing stars,” our irregular series in which local readers tell us about their encounters with famous people. The latest in that series – Tom Laurie’s two-hour 1974 conversation with Jimmy Stewart – ran earlier this week.
I can’t imagine readers not enjoying these personal accounts. As time goes by, I expect we’ll receive many more letters and calls with stories like Mrs. Ackley’s.
“Seeing stars” appears in what it known internally as “the rail.” This is the one-column strip down the left side of lead Local & State page. Before we introduced our new type faces last November, that column was called Noteworthy. Just one problem with that: Little noteworthy ever showed up there.
As we worked on the Monitor’s content-driven redesign, we set out to make the rail a must-read – something readers would look to even on their busiest days to be informed and entertained and to learn something new about their neighbors and their place. Sometimes a short piece of interesting breaking news appears there, too.
But the key has been to turn the rail into a variety show. We want readers to come to it with high expectations but to be surprised by what they find. Yesterday, in our “5 questions” series, the subject was a woman who had gone swimming for charity (br-r-r-r) last weekend. Some days you’ll see an unusual New Hampshire eBay item in the rail. Others you might learn an interesting tidbit of local history.
The Ed Sullivan of our variety show is Hans Schulz, the Monitor's longtime city editor. With plenty of help from the entire staff and contributions from readers, it is up to him to keep the rail fun, informative, quirky and interactive.
When we introduced the rail four months ago, some of us – including Hans – worried about whether we’d be able to keep it up. So far, so good.
And as we move forward with our overhaul of content in the Monitor’s arts and entertainment coverage, you can bet we’ll be trying to involve and engage readers in similar ways.
February 03, 2006
Question No. 5 (We get letters)
How do you decide which letters to print?
During public appearances and meetings with readers who visit the Monitor, this is the question I am almost always asked.
I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that the Monitor devotes more space than most newspapers to letters. The second, a logical partner of the first, is that Monitor readers are so outspoken, well-spoken, sharp, cranky, warm, funny and thoughtful that their letters get high readership. Every survey we have ever done confirms the popularity of the letters columns.
I have been handling Monitor letters to the editor for nearly 25 years, and it is one of my favorite tasks. In an age when fewer and fewer people write letters, I get more than a dozen almost every day. Increasingly they come by e-mail, but that makes my job easier. It means we can publish letters in a timelier manner, and it tends to mean – note the “tends” – that the letters are shorter. Most people see e-mail as a medium for quick notes.
From my perspective, short is good. Less is more. The more you can boil down your point, the sharper you will make it and the more readers you will attract.
Now, to get to my point . . .
We publish almost all the letters we receive from within the Monitor’s circulation area on issues on public interest. This is a wide berth, and when in doubt, we err on the side of publication.
I edit most letters, which means I fix spelling and grammar, correct obvious errors and break up overlong sentences. Nearly every letter you read in the paper has been cut. The main purpose for this is to create more room for other writers.
We have a couple of dozen regular letter writers. This does not trouble me as long as they are not repetitious. I am relatively strict in enforcing the rule that no writer may appear in the paper more often than once every two weeks.
We publish some letters from elsewhere in the state. These are almost always on state issues. Often they are about Monitor content since that content is now available online.
We publish a few letters from outside the state, especially those that comment on Monitor content or make a good point that I have not seen in other letters.
Occasionally, a national interest group floods us with letters, presumably after someone has linked members to a Monitor story through the group’s website or a blast email. This has happened most recently with the anti-Justice Souter gang and with divorced fathers angry about custody and child-support issues. We run only one or two such letters to give readers a flavor of the mail.
And occasionally, at the editor’s (my) whimsy, we run letters from far-flung places. Even though the internet is no longer a novel technology, I remain amazed by how many corners of the Earth the Monitor reaches.
Dec. 29 was a red-letter day in this respect, as, one beneath the other, we published letters from Thunder Bay, Ont., and Nakhon Pathom, Thailand.
February 02, 2006
Et tu, Moskowitz?
In one hoot of a letter to the editor, Rep. Steve Vaillancourt of Manchester pronounces Monitor reporter Eric Moskowitz:
– Guilty of liberal bias.
– A demonizer (of Vaillancourt, of course).
– A willing dupe.
– A fellow traveler.
That’s a mouthful even for Vaillancourt, whose words often get away from him.
Moskowitz’s fine reporting needs no defense from me, but in case you missed it, here is the item from Moskowitz’s Sunday Capital Beat column that set Vaillancourt off. And even if you didn’t miss it, I thought you might want to refresh your memory before reading Vaillancourt’s letter, which I’ve pasted in below it and which will run in tomorrow’s Monitor.
Fightin’ words, left at the beep
Manchester Democratic Rep. Jean Jeudy, the first Haitian-American in the House, was honored recently at the first annual Lionel Washington Johnson Dinner, held in memory of the late Manchester lawmaker and NAACP leader.
The controversial Al Sharpton was the keynote speaker – prompting Rep. Steve Vaillancourt to leave the following message on Jeudy’s answering machine:
“Lionel Johnson was a friend of mine, Lionel Johnson sat in front of me for many years in the State House, Lionel Johnson would be rolling over in his grave to see that people like you – supposedly honorable people – would share a stage with that charlatan from New York City, that racist who happens to be black but is equally vile as any white racist, Al Sharpton! Shame on you, Representative, for sharing the stage in the name of Lionel Johnson with that bigoted racist Al Sharpton.”
The message was extremely upsetting to Jeudy’s wife, Elvire, who was the first to hear it, and who suffers from heart problems and high blood pressure. Jeudy was not amused.
“My wife is my life, so that’s why I am really mad,” Jeudy said. “I told (Vaillancourt), ‘For me, this is harassment,’ and I told him, ‘Don’t call my house anymore. You’re not my friend.’ . . . This is the first time in Manchester somebody disrespected me like that.”
Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, said he was just trying to give Jeudy notice he would be slamming him on his cable-access TV program.
“Before I criticize anybody on my show, I feel that I should let them know what I’m about to do. I don’t feel like you should just randomly or wantonly criticize somebody.”
And here's Vaillancourt’s letter:
Every time I begin to think it’s wrong to accuse the media of a liberal bias, along comes a piece like your columnist Eric Moskowitz wrote last week, and it becomes clear the bias is alive and well.
I took a half hour to explain to Moskowitz why I was appalled when Manchester Democrats chose to honor my friend the late Lionel Johnson by bringing in a despicable demagogue like Al Sharpton. I provided Moskowitz with backup documentation, a piece in which Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jakoby accused the media of giving Sharpton a pass.
Sharpton has incited riots that have led to numerous deaths.
Moskowitz ignored all that and tried to demonize me for pointing out Sharpton’s record. Manchester Democrats should have apologized for bringing Sharpton in, but instead they decided to use Moskowitz as a willing dupe. As Zell Miller was fond of saying, “A hit dog barks,” and this dog was yelping to high heaven!
Moskowitz went out of his way to make it seem like I was “harassing” Rep. Jean for noting his unfortunate participation in the Sharpton dinner. He even brought Rep. Jeudy’s high blood pressure into the equation.
If Jeudy cannot take criticism when he does a vile thing like appearing with Sharpton, he should either get out of the kitchen we call politics or tell his wife not to answer the phone.
I get numerous calls far more critical of me and do not run off to the liberal media trying to hide behind someone’s skirt. Jeudy compounds his shame of being involved with Sharpton, and your young Moskowitz proves that there are indeed fellow travelers in the media.
February 01, 2006
Thanks to a five-star recommendation from Barry Steelman, Concord’s Movie Man, I saw Hustle & Flow last weekend and was pleased yesterday to see its star, Terrence Howard, nominated for an acting Oscar. Barry had predicted as much.
I stopped liking violence on the screen long enough ago that I’ve never seen Braveheart or Gladiator. And I’ll admit to a certain reluctance to rent Hustle & Flow as well as a rush of anxiety when its climax approached. As it turned out, I had to close my eyes for only a few moments.
If I hadn’t rented the film, I’d have missed a truly fine performance.
Howard plays a small-time Memphis pimp, drug dealer and wannabe rapper. Considering this occupational profile, it’s hard for me to believe what a sympathetic character his DJay was – how American, how resourceful, how striving, how responsible, how tender. Howard acts with his face, his voice, his body and his every movement.
I haven’t watched any of the other Oscar-nominated actors, but if any of them beats out Howard, I want to see the picture.