Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Murder or Suicide?

America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence, [...] the frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition.
Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1891, journalist W.J. Stillman decried the effects of the telegraph on his profession.

This could have been written by an editor of a soon-to-be-out-of-business newspaper in any one of a hundred or more towns and cities last year alone. To update the story, instead of the Telegraph, we need simply substitute the Internet as the cause of the current malaise.

Oh really? Is the internet killing newspapers, or are they committing suicide?

Now, since newspapers not only survived but thrived after the invention of the telegraph, and the telephone and the television, I am prompted to ask why it should be that the internet has managed this feat in 'just one blow' to quote a famous folk tale. Has video really killed the radio star?

I mean, is the Internet really revolutionary, or simply evolutionary?

This may sound like splitting a semantic hairs, but the distinction is a crucial one, I think. It seems like a no-brainer to label the Internet as a revolution in human history when presented with 'evidence' like the way in which it has ruthlessly gutted the newspaper industry in the past ten years.

I don't think so, and here's why.

Just the other day, I read in the Daily Texan a letter to the editor that amounted to a correction even though the editor made no official comment on the letter. The letter writer was pointing out that a recent article--an opinion column, to be more precise--had erred significantly its portrayal of the University Scholastic League (UIL).

Among other things, the writer of the column misunderstood the relationship between the University and the UIL, the source of the UIL's funding and even most telling of all, the UIL's basic mission.

As the letter writer (who was in fact the Regional Director of the UIL) pointed out, a simple call to the UIL would have found someone more than willing to talk about the program and give the 'reporter' all the significant information they would have needed to write a good solid story about the UIL.

Except that the 'reporter' had no intention of doing that.

Instead, in an attempt to make their story line as sensational as possible, the student who wrote the article decided to eschew actual interviews with the principals in favor of their pre-fixed opinion and went ahead with a strident call for the elimination of the UIL program as both wasteful of University money and as an ineffective recruiting tool for students.

Of course the UIL is neither. Thousands of high school students from all over the state compete in Austin every year for hundreds of awards, ranging from literary to athletic. Further, not only does the University Scholastic League not rely on UT for its funding, it also doesn't serve as a recruiting tool for the University. In fact, the mission of the UIL is a public service, which the University facilitates as part of its larger role in State government.

Now, I know I've gone into excruciating detail here, but forgive me, because I hope for this to be more than a general rant. It is not the Internet but the phenomenon of lazy and false journalism that is to blame for newspapers' current demise and there are plenty of specific cases out there in almost every newspaper every day that prove the point.

To ward off the most obvious criticism, I will agree with potential critics who will say that my example, taken from a student newspaper after all, is unfair. The writers there are just learning their trade, right?

However true that may be, for evidence of this phenomenon in the 'professional' ranks, one need look no further than the daily rag, the Austin American Statesman. This newspaper has, for as long as I've been in Austin (40+ years), been on the decline.

I know this because I delivered papers for the Austin Statesman back in 1969, when there were still two 'newspapers' in town. Even then, even as a thirteen year old reading only the front page as I rolled and banded them on the front porch after school, I knew was what I was delivering to the doorsteps of that West Austin neighborhood was truly a poor excuse for a newspaper.

This was a long time ago, dear reader. This was before I'd taken any classes in journalism, before I had any notion that I'd someday be a co-editor of my high school newspaper, before I had any ambitions to be a journalist and, of course, way before the internet gave me opportunity to actually write for both of you.

Like the demise of the traditional auto and music industries, it's been a long time coming. My verdict? Suicide, not murder.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Two Years On

As both readers of this journal will have noted, the frequency, if not the length of my posts has decreased.

This has as much or more to do with my mental health as anything else, and I am happy to report that it is actually a good sign. This is not just because it realizes a net reduction in the number of words to which I subject my readers, but because it's good evidence that I no longer have the desperate need to write as a form of therapy.

Still here I am, two years after Pierre's death, struggling to find meaning without writing, and still failing, albeit not as catastrophically as before.

While it would seem that maudlin introspection is required to inspire me to write, of late I have been cursed with a good mood and a productive agenda which leaves little time for self-flagellating prose. Unless, of course, you count this piece, though I may not fulfill that expectation either.

Actually, in spite of the anniversary just passed, and in spite of the fact that it is cold, grey and wet today, I can't claim to be in a wretched mood. Perhaps my upbeat mental state has something to do with the fact that it actually snowed here today, but more likely it's because I just don't have a reason to be as depressed as I used to be.

I got pretty low last week, especially on the day before the anniversary. But, I spent a lot of time thinking about how and where I'd been just two years ago. Curiously, these were not the same anguished and self-doubting thoughts that have plagued me since the day of his death.

But why should they be? That's easy. There's no need. But, what do I think about now? What I know to be true about myself now?

One thing is certain: I have changed, yet again. I am no longer in mourning. Misery is no longer comfortable; Hurt no longer needs the daily attention I used to give it.

Simply put, I have gone back to living.

You know, I don't know if it's living well (have I ever lived well?), but I do know that my life requires more than anger or anguish.

For me, to live requires plans for the future and love of the moment. I have both.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


What is inspiration? What is inspiring?

The recent decision to scrap NASA's mission to return to the Moon has many people wondering what happened to that great sense of inspired destiny that seemed to guide the original Moon mission.

Where, they wonder, is the inspiration that NASA brought to that generation? What they wonder, is left to inspire us if our quest to explore space is abandoned?

First of all, I have to say that 'abandoning' the Mission to the Moon Redux makes good sense. Really it does. For one thing, sensible aerospace engineers know--and have long known--that no matter what the political will might be at any given moment, human space exploration will not even advance to and certainly not go beyond the Moon for very long--as in many decades--time.

There are a number of reasons for this reality, not the least of which is the fact that we do not have any real need--scientific or political--to go back.

Scientifically, we need look no further than the well-known but never-remembered Van Allen Belts, which so effectively protect us from deadly cosmic radiation here on Earth that we conveniently forget that they are there. However, humans cannot survive more than a few weeks outside their range, which is just a few thousand miles above the surface.

So, all other things being equal (which they are not) it's really not the getting back to the Moon that poses the real problem for today's technology, but the staying there that would be deadly.

This means that while our currently most visible presence in space, the International Space Station (ISS), is a relatively safe (ad)venture, ambitions that take humans out of low earth orbit for any length of time are, for the moment, actually the stuff of science fiction.

Travel to other planets is even more unlikely. For example, humans traveling to Mars would receive lethal doses of radiation (accumulated in weeks) on the trip over (which takes years).

In any event, American astronauts are not likely to go much further than the ISS in our lifetimes.

What about the political inspiration that a Moon mission might create? Isn't that what the first mission was really all about? Perhaps it was, but historically speaking, this is one of those cases where you want to be careful about what you wish for.

It's been said that going to the Moon was the biggest political setback for science in the twentieth century. At first, I thought this was a merely inflammatory statement meant to rile up those of us that grew up during the Space Race and those who still have faith in the power of technology to change our lives.

However, the more I think about it, the less it sounds like heresy and the more it sounds like truth.

Why? Well, even though going to the Moon was touted as a great and unprecedented scientific achievement, we all know it was in fact more of a political and engineering achievement. And yet, the real irony is that even when measured in those terms, it falls considerably short of success.

In fact, by almost any definition the Moon mission was actually a failure.

Oh sure, we got some things, like Velcro and Tang, but what did going to the Moon and back really do for us? By do I mean what changes have we seen in our society and the culture that defines us? And by us I mean all humans, not just Americans.

The answer, I am afraid, is not so much. But was it a failure in inspiration or merely in execution? In other words, should we try again?

Other than all the new things cluttering the global marketplace, are there any new ideas or directions for us, our children, or our species that grew out of the Moon mission?

Who, exactly, did the Moon mission inspire?

Did it inspire scientists, artists and politicians? Yes, perhaps, briefly. Did it inspire "the public"? Did it move the Wheel of History? Yes, in many ways. Did it really change our lives? Here I am not so sure.

I can only speak for myself. As an twelve year-old boy sitting front of a tiny black-and-white television set in July of 1969, I was inspired. Or at least that's what I'd like to think. Yet, even as I write this, I am still unsure.

The reason I'm unsure is because even now I wonder what, if anything, did sitting in front of the television, looking at those amazing but almost indecipherable images actually inspire me to do? And if they weren't the spark that lit my fire, so to speak, what was? What has inspired me?


Although I consider myself to be a poorly read dilettante at best, especially in comparison with say, Lynda, her friend Len Radoff, or my brother Stephen, as I look back, it is apparent that words have been the principal source of inspiration in my life outside of my family.

It is more than fair to say that authors like L'Engle, Clarke, Bradbury, Silverberg, Heinlein St. Exupery and Vonnegut have changed my life. I'm not just talking about science fiction and romance either. Obviously there are too many other authors who have inspired me to list here and I haven't even touched on the Poets.

So, I still read about space and technology every day, following all the details like I was still eleven years old. I still hope to get to Florida this year for one of the remaining four Shuttle launches. And, if Richard Branson ever gets his act together (and I find a spare 200K) I may yet have the opportunity to go into 'space'.

More likely, though, I will be able to get by on the inspiration that has served me and so many millions of my fellow humans for so many generations: the word.