Thursday, April 27, 2017

1960s visions of the future of newspapers

When I was a student in the School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina, professors and textbooks talked about the future of newspapers with wildly futuristic visions. Some sources proposed newspapers that would be delivered to your house via telephone wires or broadcast frequencies and printed out in your home on some sort of personal printing press. Others envisioned a newspaper that would appear on your television, and you would be able to read the newspaper by sitting in front of the TV.

All these fantasies were widely dismissed by students and professors alike. The public would not want to give up the printed newspaper that had been part of American life for 200 years. How would you divide up the sections of these news platforms with each family members getting to read a section at the time? That home printing press would be expensive and would fill an entire room. Current technologies couldn't possibly handle the abundance of information contained in newspapers to squeeze that info onto a home printing press or a TV screen. The broadcast or wire transmission of this volume of news would clog the air waves and phone lines and make them collapse from the volume.

The traditional printed newspaper, available for hundreds of years, should be good enough for another few hundred years, most everyone thought, perhaps until messages can be transmitted directly to the brain by brain waves or thoughts transmission.

Earlier this week, I decided not to trudge through the rain to the end of the driveway to pick up my copy of the Raleigh newspaper. Instead, I sat comfortably inside, drank my coffee and read the News and Observer online version on my antiquated, first-generation, hand-me-down iPad.

This technology, far superior to anything the textbooks and professors of the 1960s ever dreamed of, is satisfying and near-perfectly replicates the print version of the newspaper. I see each page as it appears in print. I click on a story I want to read, and it enlarges to a comfortable reading size. I tap to turn the pages. I get to see every story that's in the print edition but without getting soaked while walking to the end of the driveway.

This technology and its cousins have given us a parallel means, arguably a better means, of reading the morning newspaper. At the same time, technology has destroyed the business model of traditional newspapers. Classified advertising, which once consumed a dozen or more pages of high-dollar income for newspapers every day, has now retreated to specialty websites that are searchable and cheaper than anything print newspapers could offer.

As a member of the last generation raised on print newspapers, I am often shocked that young people don't feel a need to read a newspaper, in whatever form. Television and the internet, including news sites on that phone in your pocket (I have one of those, too), have made information more accessible but, often, less enlightening and less reliable than traditional newspapers. Younger generations seem less connected to local, national and world events because their exposure to "news" is selective and often slanted.

Journalism professors of the 1960s were wrong about the future of newspapers. The great cataclysm came sooner than expected and in a way no one could have imagined 50 years ago. Many thousands of newspaper jobs, including one I held, have disappeared. No home printing press, no TV newspaper but a different medium has disrupted newspapers, which are still trying to find a means of providing information to the public in a profitable, reliable way.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Abraham Lincoln and Civil War memories

A North Carolina legislator has compared Abraham Lincoln to Hitler, calling our 16th president a tyrant and holding him personally responsible for 800,000 deaths. People like him are running this state's education system?

First, some admissions: Many southerners reviled Lincoln, partly because he threatened the economic system of the South, which was based on slave labor, but also because of his decision to forcefully prevent the Confederate states from leaving the Union. The Civil War wreaked horrendous damage upon the South, where nearly all of the battles were fought, and where federal policy called for destroying the ability to wage war, which included destroying crops and farmland that could support armies and civilians.

An elderly teacher from my childhood told about a Confederate veteran she had known when she was a child. Given change at a store, the old man refused to accept pennies because they bore the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, a man he hated. That is how ingrained and intense feelings toward Lincoln were.

News coverage of the Lincoln-Hitler analogy raised the question of whether secession of states was constitutional. Some "experts" said the states' ratifying of the Constitution made secession unconstitutional. That, it seems to me, is a stretch. There was nothing in the Constitution that forbade secession or made a state's ratification irrevocable. Secessionists claimed, with some validity, that their decision to leave the Union was no different from the Continental Congress' decision to leave the British Empire.

Even if we assume secession was a legitimate course, it need not lead to Civil War. This disagreement could have been fought in the courts instead of on the fields of Manassas, Gettysburg, Shiloh and other places. Secessionists in South Carolina are primarily responsible for turning the disagreement into armed conflict. They fired the first shot, bombarding Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in an effort to unseat the Union garrison. Lincoln responded by attempting to reinforce and resupply that garrison and by raising an army to enforce Union authority throughout the seceded states.

Small miscalculations often lead to tragedy. The secessionists were certain they could expel federal troops from the South. Lincoln was certain that a show of force would bring the secessionists to their senses. Both were wrong. What followed was the greatest tragedy in American history, but it came with one benefit: It ended slavery decades before that economic system would have died from its own shortcomings and the public's revulsion.

Lincoln did cancel habeas corpus and jailed people without trial, but he was facing imminent assassination and sabotage by Confederate agents and sympathizers. For any errors Lincoln might have made, he gets a pass based on his soaring rhetoric that defines American principles of "government of the people, for the people and by the people," and "malice toward none and charity for all."

His assassination denied the nation an opportunity for more peaceful and amicable reconciliation, with charity for all.

Lincoln as Hitler? Ridiculous! A shameful analogy!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Why the years go by so fast

It's an accepted fact that as one grows older, the years go by faster and faster. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, seasons all come faster than they did a few decades ago, when it seemed Christmas would never arrive. Now, a new Christmas season comes before the detritus from the last one is cleared away. Birthdays click by before you can do the math on the last one.

My wife and I have discovered a complement to this accepted fact about years: as we grow older, there is less time to do the things we have to do, need to do and want to do. Keeping the house clean, keeping the yard mowed, keeping the garden weeded and pruned, keeping the laundry done, preparing meals, shopping for groceries — the time to do all these things gets more difficult to find as the years rapidly pass.

If the years are flying past, I suggested to her, then the hours of each day must also be speeding by like a meteor flashing across the night sky. Look aside and you miss it.

We are trapped in this vortex of continuously shortened years. These shortened years require shortened months, which require shortened weeks, which require shortened days, which require shortened hours, and, therefore, we cannot find the time in these perniciously shortened hours to do the things we need to do and want to do.

We cannot slow down the passing years, no matter how much we'd like to freeze time at moments with our children and grandchildren or with siblings, parents and friends. We can only accept the loss of time and the rapidly compressing windows of opportunity to go to the places we want to go, see the people we want to see, do the things we want to do. We can only live in the moment and accept the unmowed yard, the disheveled house, the unweeded garden. Concentrate instead on what is most important, what is most precious, what matters most, and reserve your shortened hours for those times. Time flies, so grasp it while you can.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Senate filibuster dead and buried

The filibuster is dead. Long live majority rule.

Senate Republican leaders tripped the switch Thursday after Democrats vowed to filibuster the confirmation of Neill Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and executed the rule that a super-majority will be required to end debate on the Senate floor.

The filibuster had been rarely used in Supreme Court nominations, but these are rare times, and Democrats had enough votes to stop the nomination with more than 40 votes pledged to force the traditional, 60-vote super-majority to end debate over the nomination. Frustrated by this barricade, Republicans vowed to destroy one of the most hallowed traditions of the Senate, the liberty to continue debate indefinitely so long as a substantial minority of senators allowed such a delay.

Republicans had a nominee in Gorsuch who was as moderate as any Republican nominee could be expected to be. He was well qualified and well respected. In an ideal world, judges like Gorsuch would be confirmed with minimal debate. But this is not an ideal world, and Democrats were united to fight the nomination. Republicans vowed to do anything to get Gorsuch seated on the Supreme Court, even if it meant tearing apart the Senate.

Democrats had some righteous indignation on their side. President Obama nominated a well-respected jurist, Merrick Garland, to replace Antonin Scalia a year ago. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider the nomination, contending that the voters in the 2016 election should decide — a unique piece of illogical reasoning in the annals of American politics. Democrats argued that Republicans' refusal to even discuss Garland's nomination was even worse than a filibuster.

Democrats' record in defense of the filibuster has not been pristine. When Obama's federal court nominees languished for months because Republicans filibustered their nominations, Democratic leader Harry Reid pushed through a rule change that eliminated the filibuster in federal judgeships not including the Supreme Court.

Now the filibuster is gone, and no one knows what its demise might mean in the Senate. The hyper-partisanship in Congress can hardly get any worse, and the 60-vote cloture requirement seems quaint in an era of non-stop debate and non-stop campaigning outside the halls of Congress. The death of the filibuster might mean little in the long run. Filibusters have not been what they originally were for years now. Rarely has a senator talked non-stop for days to block legislation as was done in the first 150 years of the Senate. For years now, only the threat of a filibuster was enough to stop legislation. We had filibuster-lite, a watered down, painless blocking movement.

What is being lost, and has been lost for years, is the sense of camaraderie, of principle above party, of public interest over partisan interest. The dead filibuster is just one more symptom of the disease.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Thirty years ago, a new title

On Saturday, April 1, I will observe the 30th anniversary of my promotion to editor of The Wilson Daily Times. I had been managing editor for seven years, and when Roy Taylor retired, he pushed for me to succeed him, rather than bringing in someone from outside.

With that 1987 promotion, I changed desks and earned an actual office with a door that could be closed, instead of a desk in a corner of the wide-open newsroom. My work changed relatively little from what I had done the previous seven years. I wrote editorials, as I had done part-time as M.E., and I hired a city editor to directly supervise reporters, but I still kept close tabs on local news coverage, editing and newsroom standards. I retained supervision of the sports and lifestyle departments.

The next few years were the most satisfying and rewarding of my three-decade career in newspapers. James J. Kilpatrick, the late Richmond editor and columnist, once wrote that being a newspaper editor was the best job in the world. I cannot argue.

At the WDT, we worked hard at giving our readers the best news coverage we could provide. We broke some good stories, and we covered two devastating hurricanes in 1996 and 1999, each of which was a "story of a lifetime." At the same time, we battled the readership and advertising changes that sent the newspaper industry into a near-death spiral. Consultants hired to "fix" the newspaper offered desperate and sometimes contradictory solutions that ultimately failed to repel the societal and technological trends that wiped out newspapers' long-successful business model.

Desperate to stay afloat, newspaper owners shed employees by the dozens at newspapers across the country, and tens of thousands of newspaper jobs disappeared nationwide. I became one of those statistics after 33 years in the business and 29 years at the same newspaper. I chose not to be bitter about that and to seek a new career rather than mope.

On this anniversary, I prefer to remember the good times, which were many.

Monday, March 27, 2017

All Supreme Court nominations are divisive

"A pox on both your houses," Shakespeare might say, were he around to observe the U.S. Senate's "advise and consent" duties in recent years. 

The Senate is headed toward a filibuster over the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Democrats say they cannot in good conscience approve the nomination of such a man. The Republican leadership appears ready to eliminate the Senate's cloture rule, which has been around since the first years of the Republic, in order to get Gorsuch approved.

President Trump's nomination of Gorsuch came a year after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a year in which the Republican-controlled Senate refused to even hold hearings on the nomination by President Obama of moderate Judge Merrick Garland. The Republican rationale was that voters might elect a Republican to the White House in 2016, and that president might nominate someone more conservative and more to their liking. The reasoning they presented to the public was that the 2016 electorate should decide who fills that Supreme Court seat; it shouldn't be filled by the 2008 and 2012 electorate that chose President Obama or by a president who has held office for seven years. It didn't matter whether anyone accepted their thinking, the Republicans controlled the Senate and got their way.

My hope was that Hillary Clinton would win and take revenge by nominating someone far less to Republicans' liking, such as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. (Check with William Howard Taft about the willingness of former president to accept appointment to the Supreme Court.)

(Not that I wanted Hillary Clinton to be president -- I simply wanted the GOP leadership to learn a hard-earned lesson. I thought voters might punish Republicans for obstinately blockading a qualified nominee, but I was wrong.)

What I've heard of Gorsuch's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and what I've read about Merritt persuades me to believe that both men are well qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. A court with five Gorsuches and four Garlands, or five Garlands and four Gorsuches, it seems to me, would be a good, reasonable court.

Consider this: A recent poll found that more than half of Americans surveyed could name even one current Supreme Court justice. It's true that Supreme Court justices serve for decades and almost always influence events long after their sponsoring president has left office. But most voters don't know a single justice.

Judicial nominations have not always been so partisan. When Robert Bork was nominated by President Reagan, it was assumed that the old rules would apply: a qualified nominee would be approved by the Senate in deference to the president's preferences, so long as no ethical or competency issues arose. But Bork's nomination unexpectedly faced a concerted effort by Democrats and interest groups to stop him. Hence, the verb "borked," meaning to be demonized unfairly by lobbying and media campaigns, was born. Suddenly, Supreme Court nominations became national elections without a popular vote (by people who can't name a single justice).

The nomination of Clarence Thomas by George H.W. Bush took a similar path, but he eked out an appointment, 52-48, after an extremely emotional and divisive hearing.

Since then, the partisanship has extended even to federal district court nominations, prompting Democrats, who then controlled the Senate, to change the time-honored rules and stop debate on lower-court nominations, but not Supreme Court nominations. 

Now Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears ready to use the "nuclear option" and halt debate with a simple majority vote on Supreme Court nominees. If that happens, the Republic will not fall, but this change will likely only make the nomination process more partisan and divisive.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Freedom Caucus sells out constituents

The House Freedom Caucus succeeded yesterday in stopping a vote on the Republican bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. Even after President Trump met with the coalition and begged them to come around and allow the bill to pass, the caucus refused. They wanted more concessions. Already, they had wrangled enough concessions out of the GOP leadership to frighten some more moderate members of the party.

The Freedom Caucus leaders criticized the GOP replacement for the ACA as "Obamacare Light." They wanted more than just a halt to some of the essential elements of the ACA; they wanted every vestige of the 2010 legislation ripped from federal law. A ban on pre-existing conditions as grounds for refusing coverage? Out! Allowing 26-year-olds to remain on their parents' insurance? Gone! Coverage of contraception? No! Coverage of mental health as well as physical health? Nope! Limits on higher premiums for older people? No way! Ending limits on lifetime coverage? Out!

The Freedom Caucus is getting its way (even as Republicans in and out of Congress work to find a way to shove their bill through the House), but Republican candidates everywhere might rue the day when the Freedom Caucus succeeded. For all the criticism of "Obamacare" and the GOP's ridiculously redundant votes to repeal "Obamacare," much of the legislation in the ACA has been quite popular. As Americans pay more attention to the details of the law that is being eliminated, it is growing in popularity, even as conservatives in Congress try to eliminate any clause that has any resemblance to the ACA. 

Republicans have a quandary. They can vote to destroy every whiff of "Obamacare" and hope the electorate does not rebel against the loss of decent health insurance coverage, or they can leave the ACA or popular parts of it in place and face questions about why they wasted time voting against the ACA dozens of times but couldn't pull the trigger given the opportunity, at last, to destroy it.

The Freedom Caucus, a basically Libertarian organization, has taken an odd role as the defender of insurance companies' profits. Instead of quashing government intrusions into personal lives (the Libertarian philosophy) and cutting federal spending, the Freedom Caucus is demanding changes that hurt individual taxpayers and benefit wealthy insurance companies.

Have the high principles of the Freedom Caucus been sold out to the insurance industry's billions in campaign donations?