Saturday, February 22, 2003

A SAD SALVATION Music reviews are pretty hard to make interesting or smart even when you're not operating under the weight of stiff ideological constraints. (Unless you think "cuddlecore" is an ideology.) I mean, what excuse did Gina Arnold have? But music reviews written for a publication with a pretty specific political agenda are almost guaranteed to be both uninformative and gratingly sincere. Take this not-quite-Lester-Bangs-level squib from The Socialist Reivew:

The growing global anti-war movement means that great anthems of hope and inspiration, which celebrate the joy of mass resistance, can be recorded. . .The great thing about having big names produce music for a mass movement is that it takes them down off their pedestals and away from the trappings of glamour. And we don't feel like passive consumers in awe of fame--rather we sense that we matter and these people are just contributing towards our own strength, which we gain from the movement. Ginger Tom's 'Hey Hey USA: How Many Children Did You Kill Today?' was in a sense written by all of us who have marched and chanted over the last 18 months. . .

I'm sure it's just as good as it sounds.

The Nation plays sprawling Mudhoney to the economical Nirvana of The Socialist Review in an entire issue devouted to "The Power of Music." Sounding an especially creaky note, guest editor Ann Powers lauded a group at a Seattle protest who "traded acerbic raps above swirly guitar solos and some deft conga maneuvers," while an editorial asked us to "turn up the volume, you may hear the politics." Oh, where's the mute?

The rather weak record (ahem) of politically informed music reviews makes World magazine's "Bestsellers" column (which predates Slate's similarly concieved "Number 1" department) a welcome surprise. The music coverage is by Arsenio Orteza, and its presence in the evangelical rag (edited by the man who coined the phrase "compassionate conservatism," no less) is surely meant to serve as a guide to wary parents. He also provides some of the best short-form music writing since Spinal Tap was downed with just two words.

On Ry Cooder's latest cultural tourism export:

Ideal incidental music for a hard-boiled detective B-movie set in Havana.

On Joseph Arthur's Redemption's Son:

Definitely above average as Christ-haunted albums go.

Granted, it's sometimes hard to tell if you're reading absurdly dry wit or just bonecrushing humorlessness, but who cares what the motivation is when you're treated to such excellent eviscerations of flavor-of-the-moment types like Sigur Ros:

With turgid, title-free songs almost entirely bereft of melody and eerie, meaning-free singing almost entirely bereft of human characteristics, this album constitutes an extraordinarily ambitious exercise in pretentiousness, leaving one little choice but to conclude that it exists mainly to prove there's (still) a sucker born every minute.

Can I get an "Amen"?
ANTIC EXCLUSIVE: WE'RE NOT RETALIATING AGAINST YOU, WE'RE RETALIATING WITH YOU You'd think a mayor saddled with a 31 percent approval rating, not to mention the always-looming threat of a terrorist attack, would have more urgent matters to attend to than wreaking petty, misdirected revenge in response to not-entirely-negative comments made over a year ago. At least the terrorist threat has a chance of improving. The hamfisted way Bloomberg News editor in chief Matthew Winkler has gone about trying to burnish Hizzoner's image suggests the approval ratings have yet to bottom out.

The Antic Muse has obtained emails Winkler sent last week to people who had written him about the cancellation of NYU's Bloomberg journalism fellowships. While claiming that the company did not, contrary to reports, pull the fellowships as retaliation for negative comments made by NYU prof Mark Crispin Miller, Winkler went on to say that the company "didn't feel comfortable" sponsoring the fellowships "unless there was a way for NYU to distance itself from the denigrating comments by its professor."

On Thursday and Friday, respectively, Newsday and The New York Times both reported that Bloomberg would no longer support the business journalism fellowships. A Bloomberg spokesperson insisted that it's only because NYU didn't apply for continued funding, but Stephen Solomon, director of the business journalism program, said that's only because early last year, Winkler "made it absolutely clear that Bloomberg would not approve" the fellowships if NYU did apply. Solomon said he heard from Winkler after a New York Observer piece quoted Miller's critical take on the mayor and his company. He called, for instance, a press tour of the renovated City Hall "product placement" for Bloomberg terminals. (An irony, for those of who care about such things: Miller doesn't even work in NYU's journalism school. Misidentified in the Observer article, Miller's appointment is actually in the graduate school of education, where he is a professor of "media ecology.")

Miller's remarks appeared in an article about how Bloomberg News would ensure impartiality in its coverage of the mayor by hiring Tom Goldstein, then Columbia J-School dean, to consult. This makes even a hint of retribution look extra bad, so it's not that surprising that Winkler would try to weasel his way out of this First Amendment fiasco. A spokesperson took care of the papers, giving both the Times and Newsday the line about NYU not applying. In any case, according to the spokesperson, Winkler doesn't have the authority to approve or turn down requests for philanthropic funding. Of course, she admitted, Winkler does consult on such matters. She told the Times that Winkler was unavailable for comment.

But Winkler did respond to others seeking comment. He stuck with the story that Bloomberg didn't cancel the fellowships specifically: "We didn't withdraw any funding. We were asked for more money and declined." Yet he basically confirmed the gist of the newspaper reports with his comment that the company "didn't feel comfortable" giving the school money unless it could some how distance itself from Miller. (What form the "distancing" would take is anyone's guess. Few of any imaginable options would be much in keeping with the ethical impulse that supposedly prompted Bloomberg News to hire Goldstein and generate the article that quoted Miller in the first place.)

Interestingly, he characterized Miller's comments not as critical of Bloomberg, but as having "disparaged a Columbia Dean" and implied that Miller had his own retribution in mind: "the same Columbia from whom the NYU professor sought employment and was turned down." There are several problems with this account. First, it would be a stretch to extend Miller's criticism from Bloomberg to Goldstein. (If anything, Miller's take on Goldstein was complimentary; he just didn't think one hire could make a difference: "He'll certainly be able to halt some of the more egregious cases of conflict of interest, but I extremely doubt any one employee will have the power to keep the situation legitimate.") More serious is the contention that Miller was, in essence, just jealous. Miller says he's never applied for a job at Columbia, much less been turned down for one.

In the emails, Winkler complains that the newspaper coverage "wasn't accurate" because "I never talked to the reporter." Considering what he wrote, it would have probably been worse for Bloomberg if he had.

The Antic Muse has emailed Winkler; he has not replied.

UPDATE Winkler confirms the content of the emails.

Friday, February 21, 2003

WHAT LIBERTIES TAKEN WITH THE MEDIA? G. Beato chronicles his brush with near-greatness over at Soundbitten. I was hesitant to give any more attention to this prose-stealing controversy--didn't want the vast conservative conspiracy to get a hold of it--but then I remembered that no one's reading this.
SO SAD ABOUT THE SALON, PART MCVXXXIII My not-very-inside sources at Salon say that speculation about the impending demise of the site is premature. But who really cares? Salon has hovered near death more often than a whole week of Lifetime Movies for Women, only to recover and continue on its "energetic and self-delusional" way. Media crit types can't even get a good "I told you so" column out of it any more. They must resort to the kind of meta-analysis that, in the end, is exactly what gives this whole internet medium a bad name.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

This is not criticism. This is narration:

Finally, as Ryan knelt in his big David Byrne jacket by a romantic birdbath the other night, Trista accepted his proposal and his square-cut diamond. Erect in her cross-back white gown, she said: "I can now tell you without reservation that I am in love with you. And I hope with all my heart that you feel the same." Ryan shot back: "I love you with every ounce of who I am."

There's a reason I avoid actually watching reality television shows but don't (generally) mind reading about them. Reality television is vapid, degrading, and often pointless--and now I know that writing about reality television can be just as insulting and aimless.

(But it doesn't have to be.)
I would simply exacerbate my fledgling repetitive stress disorder if I took the time to actually list all the reasons why a liberal radio network is doomed. In any case, one can get a good sense of the scope of the problem just by checking out what a Google News search on the topic turns up: Page upon page of right-wing niche news organizations commenting on what, for them, is the ultimate man-bites-dog-biting-man story. The New York Times may have given it front-page play on Monday, but and Ann Coulter are keeping the story alive.

Yet it's the nominally unbiased Austin-American Statesman who hits the nail on the headline: "Capitalists Plan Liberal Radio Network." You can argue about real political leanings of flyover country until your lips fall off (In fact, if you're David Brooks, please do.), but the network's destiny lays in economics, not audience. As any good liberal media critic will tell you, radio has the most concentrated ownership of all broadcast mediums: 90 percent of ad revenue is taken in by just four companies. The largest company, Clear Channel, takes in 20 percent of all radio advertising dollars on its own and every day reaches 54 percent of all people in the U.S. between the ages 18 and 49.

This is the "hole in the market you could drive a truck through"? One would be lucky to squeeze in the diminutive Jon Stewart. (Many people's ideal centerpiece for this yet-unformed network but who, for the record, keeps pronouncements about his own political affiliation purposefully vague.)

It hardly seems worth mentioning that Clear Channel is the corporation behind Rush Limbaugh.

Of course, the intimidating nature of this virtual quadopoly would be moot if (big if) some magical combination of savvy marketing and actual audience demand turned the Liberal News Network into a populist success. I just can't see it happening, though. Liberalism, by nature, doesn't lend itself to the monologue-friendly conspiracy theories that propel Rush, Hannity, and company. Not that liberals don't have conspiracy theories--they just aren't very entertaining ones. They're too complicated and rely too much on information that the listener either doesn't know or doesn't believe. The two sides of "media bias" debate illustrate the difference between what makes for good talk radio fodder and what makes for an excellent sleeping pill:

Side A says, "Just look at what Dan Rather said! He's clearly biased!"

Side B says, "Before we begin, I'd like to explain the history of FCC ownership regulations and the auctioning off of public airwaves. In the 1930s, the FCC was founded to govern a broadcast business that consisted just over 600 radio stations owned by a diverse group of hundreds of public and private entities. With the advent of television...zzzzzzz....."

Sorry, dropped off there. Liberals are boring.

Actually, the left's considerable public image problem probably stems from how really interesting, talented, articulate people with liberal leanings, people who could make the liberal media bias side of the argument worth listening to, generally don't go into politics. They go to Hollywood.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Today's Washington Post carries an important lesson for the troubled Bush administration: Fear trumps anger every time. A poll of DC area residents found that 44 percent believe the nation's color-coded terrorism alert system "mostly causes needless fear and alarm." The same poll, however, found that an astounding 89 percent have purchased plastic sheeting (and presumably duct tape) to seal off a room in case of attack.

I have my doubts as to the accuracy of the poll--I mean, if there were ever a time to lie to pollsters, it would be about how much effort you've put into protecting your family in a time of national emergency, even though the national emergency is itself based on a lie.

An administration source told at least one reporter that some officials were "extremely angry" that the alert status was raised before the tip that led to the change in status was confirmed. On Sunday, Tom Ridge said that the alert status will likely be reduced to yellow soon.

How soon will, of course, likely depend on the good graces of the powerful duct tape lobby, who clearly still have Ridge wrapped around their sticky little fingers. Just a few days after the administration's somewhat embarrassed semi-retraction of its injunction to go forth and buy, Ridge today launched a new ad campaign to promote terror alertness. Duct tape and plastic sheeting are still high on the preparedness list.

The campaign's slogan advises Americans, "Don't be afraid, be ready," neglecting to realize, I suppose, that fear is pretty much the motivating factor in being ready. Or maybe they realize this fully. The campaign's website,, while surprisingly detailed on what to do in case of an attack ("Some biological agents can cause contagious diseases, others do not."), says zilch, zero, nada about the actual chances of an attack.

And it's not clear that the advice itself is the best or most current information. When the White House supplied reporters last week with the bibliography on sources used to create the site, the most recent citation was from 1996. A reporter at yesterday's briefing pressed Ari Flescher on this, noting that even this most recent study was "based entirely on emergencies at U.S. chemical stockpiles, not the dangers that come from the kind of threats we've been talking about today." Another study listed "is 20 years old, it's apparently out of print, [we] couldn't find it."

Ari said this is of no concern: "Well, first of all, 1996 is not old; 1996 is current." (I wonder how long he waits to throw milk out.) Further--and if this seems contradictory, just stop thinking so much--"if the information is valid, it doesn't matter how old the bibliography is and whether it spans from 20 years to six years ago, it can also show how accurate it is over time. So the presence of old information being 20 years [in] a bibliography actually shows how consistent the information is."

Okay, now I'm scared.

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Chicago Sun-Times reports that The New Republic is undergoing a visual and editorial "makeover," moving to "bolder" graphics and typeface and more "daring" editorial stances. Among the "daring" opinions the perpetual graduate students over at TNR intend to stake out: "support for a war in Iraq, rejection of George W. Bush's tax cut and a call for Democrats to shun presidential candidate Al Sharpton." Hmm, yes. Daring, indeed. I can't think of a single mainstream publication that would be so bold. Next on the agenda: Editorials deriding "mean people" and favoring "ice cream."

Not to be outdone, Joe Lieberman announced his own controversial "Sister Souljah" position last week: He's strongly pro-dog, and he doesn't care who knows it. Okay, he's actually in favor of a "National War Dogs Memorial." I confess a weakness for this particularly tasty piece of pork. Who could be against honoring war dogs, the furriest and most loyal of all veterans? Certainly not Mr. Lieberman. Just look at all he's done for veterans so far.

Monday, February 17, 2003

More mixed feelings: What to think about Salon going under? I've never been a fan, I still think that in a just world, you'd be reading the "Suck Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors," but I do know and like quite a few people on the staff.

Of course, I think highly enough of all those folks that I've always felt they deserved better than Salon.

I'd like to think that moving to the suburbs hasn't changed me very much, but the move is about the only thing I can think of to explain why it is that I feel so distant from my friends in New York and San Francisco who call and email with news of the latest anti-war protest.

I used to really enjoy protests. There's something primal and punk-rock about the best of them: During the anti-World Bank protests here in Washington two years ago, my friend John and I--we had been watching from the sidelines--decided to join in when the protesters began marching through Fraternity Row of GWU shouting "Fuck the Frats." (I have mixed feelings about some aspects of the anti-globalization platform, yet I can really get behind the abolition of fraternities.) But when the anti-IMF demonstrators last year threatened to shut down the city, all I could think was, "It's going to take me forever to get into work."

With respect to the anti-war protests, for the first time in my life I do not feel called to the barricades. This is not to say am pro-war. As tired as I am of the giant puppets, hemp legalization booths, and poorly executed pop culture references that characterize today's anti-war marches, the other side's simple-minded propaganda is no more appealing. It's an affront to the fragile legacy of Flight 93 to use "Let's Roll" on a poster, and the bloodlust behind some of the more eager appeals to war is an Al Qaeda wet dream.

This said, I would not be unhappy if an invasion of Iraq and subsequent regime change goes smoothly. This is not to say, "without large numbers of casualties." (Few things about this whole debate have made me more ashamed about my fellow Americans than the way support of the war shifts following a question that asks people to consider "large numbers of casualties" as a factor. Any support of military action should assume that people are going to get killed.)

Not really a ringing endorsement of the cause, true, but I can't bring myself to come down harder on one side or another. I would say that I am anti-Saddam, pro-UN, and still deeply suspicious of the administration's motives.

Indeed, how we got into a situation in which the debate is to invade Iraq or not to invade it disturbs me more than the question of invasion itself. While not completely unjustified, this war is an invention of the administration. (Saddam didn't even make the top two of Parade magazine's "Worst Dictators" list.) Perhaps history will prove that the White House's ability to manufacture an attack is the stuff of great leadership.

Or maybe it really is about the oil.