Nov. 24, 2002, Rocky Mountain News
by David Kopel
'I missed John Ashcroft desperately" wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, perhaps demonstrating that her visit to Saudi Arabia was addling her brain - and also making the point that by Saudi standards, even Ashcroft is an ultrafeminist civil libertarian. But Dowd's words didn't appear in The Denver Post's Nov. 11 version of the column. Anti-Republican bias by the Post? Some readers wrote me to complain, so I asked the Post. It turns out that the cuts were just made for length. Since the Ashcroft line appeared in the penultimate paragraph, it was especially at risk of being cut, as are all words near the end of an article.
Dowd's Arabia columns have been quite good, offering details of life not covered by ordinary political articles - such as shopping in a sexy lingerie shop in Riyadh. But when Dowd is back home in Washington, her columns are hardly important enough to merit running in either the Rocky Mountain News or the Post.
Dowd was very hot in the '90s, even winning a Pulitzer Prize. But over the last several years, her columns have grown increasingly snarky and empty. Rather than offering insight or constructive ideas, she piles on sarcastic but not very funny comments - like a sorority girl who seemed witty in September, but has become tiresome by May. While the Times' Thomas Friedman and William Safire are so influential that they arguably merit running in both dailies, Dowd's snide pieces - as well as the predictable Upper West Side platitudes of Nicholas Kristof - aren't informative enough to deserve to appear in one Denver paper, let alone two.
The Post used to have exclusive rights to New York Times columnists, but the Times ended the exclusivity seven years ago. One of the two Denver papers would do well to drop Dowd and Kristof. There's not a large overlap between the weekday readership of the Post and the News, but my hunch is that the kind of readers who buy both papers every day are the kind of highly literate and civic-minded readers who love the opinion pages. Denver's dailies ought to offer those readers something better than second-rate columnists already available elsewhere.
The News reported twice (Nov. 15-16) on Senate President Ed Perlmutter's concern that Gov. Bill Owens' proposed accounting trick to balance the budget by delaying state employee pay by one day was unconstitutional.
But the News never said what part of the state Constitution the proposal might violate. Readers can't possibly make an informed judgment without this information.
Closer to home, the News reported on Nov. 16 that a Boulder sales tax increase for police and fire "is winning by just 61 votes," pending the counting of provisional votes, while a Boulder transportation tax increase also held a small lead. The News was doubly wrong. The same day, the Boulder Daily Camera reported that the county clerk's final results showed that both tax increases had lost. Based on election night returns, before the provisional votes were counted, both tax increases had been trailing.
My recommendation for the best recent media book to give as a Christmas or Hanukkah present is Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives, by Todd Gitlin, a leftist New York University professor and former president of Students for a Democratic Society. In the first part of the book, on "supersaturation," Gitlin shows how the escalating presence of media is actually a trend that has been going on for centuries - beginning with the profusion of paintings in Dutch middle-class homes, escalating with the proliferation of theater in small cities and the birth of the "penny press," which made daily newspapers affordable for the working class.
Gitlin introduces readers to the early 20th century sociologist Georg Simmel, who looked at the effect of the media torrent in big cities (e.g., electric billboards), and found that they created a blasé character, who reacted to the media surfeit by becoming emotionally detached, and telling himself that he was above it all. (Think David Letterman.)
After describing the current acceleration of the media, Gitlin even finds a quote from The Communist Manifesto which is more apt today than a century and a half ago: capitalism creates the "constant revolution of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation . . . All that is solid melts into air."
Linda Seebach's excellent Nov. 16 column in the News provides a modern addendum to this observation, detailing the rise of Web logs or "blogs" which disseminate information - and debunks false facts from the media elite - with breathtaking speed.
Gitlin's concluding analysis of the effects of the media torrent on American politics is less persuasive than his discussion of American media exports. But the breadth of Gitlin's view is amazing, his style erudite and witty, and his eye for detail precise.
Gitlin provides media watchers of all political persuasions with fine conceptual tools which will help them understand media better.