Hi guys. I wrote a thing about Aaron Sorkin’s amazing new show, The Newsroom. I like it. Check it out. http://thedigitalamericana.com/wall/#/aaron-sorkin-modern-tv-an-ode-to-the-american-playwright-kind-of

Tim Russert Dies at 58

June 14, 2008

Tim Russert died today of a heart attack while doing a voiceover.

To go along with its death-of-a-newsman coverage, the AP ran a series of reactions to the death of Tim Russert. All of these would be admirable if not given by many who probably wished Russert dead long before the unexpected took its course.

I apologize in advance to his family and friends, but he wasn’t the greatest journalist in the world or American history. I don’t say that in ironic understatement, the way you would say the Milwaukee Brewers aren’t necessarily the most successful of baseball clubs. I say it because of the deep insult and dishonor that has been done by those pretending to honor and laud the man.

Let’s go punch-for-punch from the AP reaction-piece:

“I think I can invoke personal privilege to say that this news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice. He’ll be missed as he was loved – greatly.” – Tom Brokaw, NBCNews anchor emeritus.

No quarrel here. A colleague saluting the fallen. I don’t know their personal history and it could be lip service, but I have a congenital difficulty disbelieving anything that comes out of Brokaw’s mouth.

“We have lost a beloved member of our NBC Universal family and the news world has lost one of its finest. The enormity of this loss cannot be overstated.” – NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker.

Bullshit. If the “NBC Universal family” name-drop wasn’t proof enough, the final sentence should clue you in that Zucker viewed the loss of Russert in parity with anyone else employed by him; he was a financially calculable asset lost to bad timing, not a person. It’s corporate boilerplate and no one deserves that on their headstone.

“Tim epitomized excellence in journalism and unflinching commitment to the craft. Our profession has lost a stellar journalist.” – Sylvia Smith, president of the National Press Club.

More boilerplate. I feel like if I’d ever worked a day at a professional publication she’d say the same thing about me, which is nice…ish, but it’s a sound bite. Even in your worst imaginations of Russert, even if you believe that he was a soulless careerist devoted to squeezing the lowest form of communication out of his interview subjects, not even a sound bite artist deserves a sound bite memorial from a fellow journalist.

“As the longest-serving host of the longest-running program in the history of television, he was an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades. Tim was a tough and hardworking newsman. He was always well-informed and thorough in his interviews. And he was as gregarious off the set as he was prepared on it.” – President Bush

Come on, dude. You’re a president that so notoriously hates journalists that you’ve changed the paradigm for White House reporting. Just shut the fuck up and let us honor our dead.

“There wasn’t a better interviewer in television. Not a more thoughtful analyst of our politics. And he was also one of the finest men I knew.” – Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

Less genuine than Bush. Fuck that last sentence.

“He was truly a great American who loved his family, his friends, his Buffalo Bills, and everything about politics and America. He was just a terrific guy.” – Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

I’m cool with this one. I don’t know from personal experience how “terrific” he was, but the rest at least sounds accurate to McCain’s mind.

“He delighted in scooping me and I felt the same way when I scooped him. When you slipped one past ol’ Russert, you felt as though you had hit a home run off the best pitcher in the league.” – Bob Schieffer, host of CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”

Ol’ Russert. Home run off the best pitcher in the league. I don’t know what to think about this one, except to ask, when in the last five years has either of these guys scooped the other on something worth scooping/being scooped by?

“Today, broadcast journalism lost one of its giants, who will be remembered along with names like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. The city of Buffalo has also lost its favorite son, who loved his city and its hometown team, the Bills.” – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

I wish I could somehow see how long after the news of Russert’s death reached Pelosi’s office it took her interns to Google “Tim Russert,” “Buffalo,” and “Journalism.”

I don’t want to keep going. The other quotes are as preening and full-of-shit as you could ask for. What a terrible way to send a journalist off: lying. And not even a good, hard lie someone could call out, but fake sentiment. It’s easy to befriend a dead man; he’s not there to tell people what you really think.

I never particularly sought out Russert for truth, but I enjoyed the Buffalo connection and I enjoyed watching him more than others on his network and in his medium. But I can honestly say I didn’t know much or anything about the soul of the man, where his ethics or credentials came from. And neither did many of the politicians that submitted sound bites to this article. They did it because they know Russert has a base of fans that they want to impress or enlist, and so they spoke, venally, to his honor, regardless of their actual thoughts of the man or his profession.

In other circles, we merely raise our glasses, toast the game, and go to work.

As if you needed any further proof that the Cato Institute is a completely full of shit mouthpiece used to skew debate and media coverage with asinine commentary, we now have this article from CNN.com.

In an effort to provide balanced news coverage, CNN’s Rachel Oliver took a story about Amtrak promoting itself through the proven energy efficiency per passenger-mile of rail travel over airlines or automobiles (Ch. 2 – Energy, Tables 2.4-2.6 or here) and transformed it into he-said she-said nonsense.

According to Amtrak, which was behind the event, trains are more energy-efficient than cars or planes so should be celebrated and actively encouraged as the ideal mode of transport among today’s travelers.

Attributing the information to Amtrak makes it appear as though Amtrak – an obvious financial beneficiary from increased rail travel – is the only authority claiming rail travel to be a more energy efficient mode of travel. Amtrak is, of course, highlighting and publicizing this information – but it also happens to be the truth, as the above-linked documents show.

So Rachel has shown one “side” of a non-debatable, fact-based issue. Let’s give everyone a chance, people! Balance, balance, fairness, balance:

In an April 2008 report Cato said the U.S.’s train lines “generate more greenhouse gases than the average passenger automobile,” before adding,”rail transit provides no guarantee that a city will save energy or meet greenhouse gas targets.”

Well. A fifteen-car passenger train creates more greenhouse gas than your Mazda. And Oliver doesn’t even say one train – it’s all of them. The combined greenhouse gas output of every train operating in the U.S. is greater than that of the average passenger automobile. Sounds like a reasonable counterbalance quote, don’t you think? Next we’ll hear that the homeless – once thought to be our most destitute and needy citizens – are actually okay after all, because everyone who isn’t homeless has money and a place to live.

Dodged that bullet, I guess; jester, a round for the house!

Then there’s the second half of the quote: “rail transit provides no guarantee that a city will save energy or meet greenhouse gas targets.” Well, no, it doesn’t. Rail transit also provides no guarantee that the city will not be sucked into the gaping maw of the earth’s crust as the result of a massive earthquake. It provides no guarantee that people will not simply start lighting gas stations on fire or burning truck tires in their backyard. It’s disingenuous nonsense and it’s what the American press does on a daily basis.

Demand better.

Over the past few days I’ve been stuck in my own head: barely following the conversations I start, trailing off my sentences, paying little or no attention to the people and events that surround me, etc.

Some who know me may say this is my natural condition. To paraphrase Lucille Bluth, I don’t care what you’re talking about and I won’t respond to it.

I’ve been obsessed with peak oil and its implications for the past week or so. I’ve spent hours, whole days even, reading articles and websites about what is in store for the industrial world in the coming years. I read until the sun came up. I took sleep breaks and then read some more. I read until I was late for work. Then I read more and showed up frazzled and out of touch (again, more so than usual) and barely able to keep up in the kitchen.

When I wasn’t reading, I fretted. I worried about my kids and if I would ever have them. I worried about their kids if I did and if they could. I worried about riots and wars and the expanded draft and green guerrillas and food shortages. Preservation of knowledge, re-learning of old skills like farming and woodworking and blacksmithing and simple printing, access to seeds and equipment. I worried about why George W. Bush’s Crawford estate is “off-the-grid” and green while Al Gore’s isn’t, and how if we all drove a Toyota Prius we could make the problem worse, and could be worse for the environment than a Hummer. Population die-offs, hospitals forced to shut down, senior citizens cut loose from expensive and energy-consuming health care. I convinced myself I would be locked up in a U.S. domestic detention center for even thinking about such things.

It might be a sort of guilty over-compensation, a pained look at time wasted, spent ignoring an issue I cared deeply about as I saw it undiscussed by my leaders – the people who were supposed to tell me what to do – and underreported by the media – the people who were supposed to tell them to tell me what to do.

Three years ago, I researched and wrote a story on peak oil for the magazine I was working for at the time, UB’s Generation. It ran on the cover of our first issue of the new school year in August 2005, but the journey really started for me at the end of the previous semester, during finals. For weeks, my father had been telling me about a guy who wrote incisive social commentary about national and local issues named James Howard Kunstler. He lived in my dad’s town, Saratoga Springs, NY.

Of course, I ignored my father; I was a media professional, for crying out loud (at $200 a month and six English elective credits), I didn’t need him pointing me in the direction of every yahoo in the Capital Region with a subscription to Harper’s and an AOL account. Then, while searching for Matt Taibbi articles to plagiarize, I happened on a Rolling Stone article by Kunstler called “The Long Emergency.”

The article is available here. Take twenty minutes and read it if you haven’t already.

I’ll wait.

As Emerson would say, I saw with new eyes.

It was the smartest thing I’d ever read. As a kid raised an hour’s march from the nearest gas station, I watched as this person I’d never heard of with no degree I knew of ripped apart everything I’d ever been told was dependable and permanent. The suburban environment was critically out of line with reality, beyond any criticism my faux-punk, post-adolescent white bread angst could have mustered. But even that had some merit. And it all made logical sense in ways none of the political or social commentary I’d read ever had before. It was like someone walking past a con artist’s mark and whispering, “There’s no shell, dumbass; take your money back.”

And so for the next seven months, I became what I’d thought I was all along: a professional journalist – though often my methodology tailed towards that of the obsessive psychotic. I read Kunstler’s book (twice) and two others on peak oil. I called Department of Energy clerks and had them send me statistics on energy production in the United States. I called professors, members of congress, industry reps, public transportation advocates. I requested a personal copy of that year’s energy bill (still waiting, DOE). I called Kunstler himself and asked him annoying questions about information I could have found elsewhere for an entire summer. I moved into my apartment in Buffalo a month before I had furniture so I could drive a hundred miles twice to and from Titusville, Pennsylvania, the town where Edwin Drake struck the first successful oil well in American history, where I attended the Titusville Oil Fest and called local Titusvillians to inquire as to the state of the local economy.

It would be the first cover story of the new year. It had to be perfect. I was possessed.

When I worked for NYPIRG that summer, I talked about peak oil on doorsteps when I was supposed to be talking about mercury poisoning. I talked about it in the car on the way to the neighborhoods we were bothering. I argued, drunkenly, endlessly about the non-importance of mercury poisoning vis-a-vis the peak oil issue with my co-workers, my friends, and anyone who would listen. I even took the ridiculous step of subscribing to a Google News Alert for the word “oil” – and I swear to you, I read every last nonsensical tidbit of Malaysian trade reporting that vacuum sucked into my inbox from start to finish.

Somewhere during the writing process, the New York Times Sunday magazine ran a cover story about the issue I’d thought no one else knew about but me.

“Mine’s going to be better,” I told my editor and the magazine’s advisor, a staff writer for the Buffalo News.

When it was all over and I’d finished my first draft, I came up with… well, basically what you’d expect from a 22-year-old kid with poor organizational skills and a tendency to curse a lot. The lead was barely readable. I used a lot of phrases like “concrete wasteland” and “the psychic torture of the suburban mindfuck.” The reporting was there, but my emotions burned out any weight the story might have carried. It was the journalistic equivalent of a NoFX B-side.

Slowly, calmly, my professor teased me off the ledge, and I came out with a story that was better than anything I’d written up to that point and is still one of my better clips. No, it was not a better-reported or a better-written story than the one that ran in the Times Mag, but Peter Maass slow-pitched the importance of the story and mainstream media coverage of peak oil is about where it was three years ago, so I still think I’m the better (bitter?) journalist. It ran prominently with two sidebars and photos I’d taken in Titusville, I did a follow-up the next week, and… nothing happened.

No widespread revolution of energy policy. No agrarian right-sizing of the American landscape. I didn’t really expect all that much, I guess (would a Gold Circle have killed you, Columbia?), but what was most distressing was that the media didn’t even follow Maass’s lead and really sink their teeth into this one. I kept writing about it, though, with increasing shrillness and sloppier discipline, until finally I was out of college and out of a writing job. Things were happening on the peak oil front, but I wasn’t paying attention anymore. In all probability we reached the peak in 2005 and passed it some time last year, but no one in a position to influence the kinds of changes we needed was saying or doing anything about it.

So I gave up, in many ways. I canceled my Google Alerts (at one point I received e-mails whenever someone published a story with the terms “oil,” “iraq,” or “amtrak” in the headline or summary). I went from reading three newspapers a day to doing the crossword a few times a week and reading only The BEAST and Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone stuff. I read and began writing fiction exclusively. And then for awhile I stopped watching, reading, or thinking about anything having to do with global issues or American politics. Every time I picked up a newspaper I’d get depressed at the lack of a serious headline involving peak oil coverage or action. Or, worse, I’d see articles in quasi-alternative publications that touched on the relevant issues but missed the boat entirely or blog posts that no possible leader would give a shit about. It was all the presidential race and the candidates weren’t talking about peak oil and no journalist was asking them to. These people had to be smarter than me, so what the hell? If they didn’t care, neither would I. It was easier to jerk off and make food and focus on personal changes I could make to assure that I wasn’t doing too much to add to the rising price of fuel. Forget the rest; maybe it would work itself out. It wasn’t until I started this blog out of sheer desperation to save some modicum of what I used to call my “chops” that I began reading anything at all on a regular basis.

And so now I’m back in it. Everyone’s obviously more interested in at least appearing to be “green” and “sustainable,” but the situation seems to have gotten worse with time. And I can’t stop thinking about it.

But panicking is wrong. Over-analyzing the worst case scenarios is wrong. Bitter resentment of the people or generations that came before me or were in a better position to do something and didn’t is wrong. Thinking I can save the world from what’s coming is wrong. Those kinds of thoughts lead to paralysis and that’s the last thing anyone needs right now.

So I’m going to do what I can and I’m going to try not to freak out. I’m just one man, which means I can’t do everything, but I can do something. But I’ll need help. Everyone does. You do and you don’t even know it. Younger generations need help. Our children need help. And their children need help. They may not be alive yet, but they need it, now.

If you’re reading this and you didn’t know anything about peak oil (and you actually clicked the links instead of just wading through this sobby, self-centered pityfest), take a deep breath. Go to sites like Local Future and The Relocalization Network and YouTube “Richard Heinberg” and learn more and take heart and find a way to do something good to mitigate what appears to be a bleak future, but not one without hope and not one without benefits, though they’ll be hard to realize at first.

If you’re reading this and you did know about peak oil and everything that comes after, leave me a comment and let me know what you’re going to do about it.

And if you made it this far and you take nothing else away from this post, just don’t read the entire two pages of LifeAfterTheOilCrash.net and try to have a good weekend. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Trust me.

This is not the first time I’ve seen a journalist throw up his hands and abandon the industry that pays his kids’ college tuition. Read the rest of this entry »