Are there any journalists left?

Precious few.

Today, journalists write books, then they market them, and they become self-interested business people. They blog, and they become self-promoters on behalf of their blogs.

This is not their fault, either. The protective wall that (some) publishers (sometimes) have built to protect journalistic integrity within traditional publications turns out to have been much an illusion. And, as a former journalist, I can say that it was selectively rotted in some places all along, with calls to kill, slant, or emphasize coverage coming from the publisher’s office, usually after a call from one of his or her country club cronies.

Consider this: The traditional news media has traditionally squelched its own reporters’ attempts to cover news unpleasant to big advertisers (from the rise of the Internet, to global warming, to food contamination caused by agribusiness practices) for as long as possible.

Why am I ranting about this?

Jim Benson (J. LeRoy’s Evolving Web) is one of several pundits making a fuss about TechCrunch, a site founder Michael Arrington frankly describes as “different.” Arrington goes on to say:

TechCrunch is all about insider information and conflicts of interest. The only way I get access to the information I do is because these entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are my friends. I genuinely like these people and want them to succeed, and they know it and therefore trust me more than they trust traditional press.”

So, what Arrington is running is essentially a self-published gossip column.

Jim asserts:

Michael Arrington is a commentator. He is not a journalist. As a commentator, he can write about what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants.

Michael Arrington is my favorite kool-aide drinker. I wouldn’t trade him for a box of Steve Jobses. But he is biased, he does answer to what is foremost on his plate, and he blogs accordingly. When I say biased, I don’t mean he lies or distorts – but I do mean that he has a definite focus and that focus impacts what he writes.

Is this really an issue? What Jim is saying about Arrington could be said about just about everyone these days, with the exception of a few hundred investigative reporters, most of them working outside of the US. And Arrington is not doing anything special, except, I guess, trying turn VC gossip into a brand and convince us that he can somehow continue to deliver valuable info to us without pissing off his friends. Which he probably can, if he’s careful.

I guess the issue is that even journalists are not journalists any more. Everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid. Send it out for political/chemical analysis, and you’ll probably find out your latte is spiked.

Teachers we remember

On the occasion of Nevada Day, Geoff Duncan’s Percolating blog pays tribute to his 6th and 7th grade teacher, Mr. Gandalfo, who made state history unforgettable:

He once marched a class of us through seven feet of snow into a meadow in the Sierras; when we got to the middle, he stopped, turned, and said to the exhausted kids, “So that wasn’t easy, was it? When the Donner Party was in this field, the snow was twenty-two feet high. Think about that.” I still do, Mr. G.

This brought back fond memories of Mr. Kitchen, who taught American History at my high school in Northern Virginia. Mr. Kitchen focused so intently on the positive, and the interesting, that even the slackers got caught up in his lectures and disrupters realized they were being ignored (or glared at by the other students). One year Mr. Kitchen got stuck team-teaching with one of the most difficult and unpopular teachers in the school, and never once indicated that he was in any way unhappy about it — something that, in retrospect, I find amazing.

I came away with a fairly decent understanding of American history, and an appreciation for the amount of effort and talent that goes into great teaching. There were no hikes through seven-foot snowdrifts in Northern Virginia, but Mr. Kitchen did show us a highly effective technique for digging yourself out when things got deep. It involved a hieroglyph that looked like a small shovel. He drew it in margin of a student paper wherever he detected a pile of …bullshit.

A writer in the running

You don’t often see an established novelist running for political office, and Kinky Friedman’s independent run for the Texas governorship does much to illustrate why.

Texas-born Friedman, a noted crime fiction writer and a notorious country music entertainer, threw his signature big black hat into the ring and has been busy turning the the four-way gubernatorial race into a three-ring circus. While no one has yet fled the state or pulled a gun (typical activities for Texas politicians) “the Kinkster” has apparently managed to annoy Republicans, Democrats, Hispanics, and black voters, coming across as more of a libertarian than a liberal. If he represents any political party these days, it would be the “Incorrect” one.

What on earth could he be thinking?

Living in New York in 1980, I crossed paths with Friedman once or twice at the Lone Star Cafe, a loud, flamboyant waterhole for Texans who’d somehow found themselves living in Manhattan. Just north of Greenwich Village, the Lone Star was where folks like Willie Nelson and Delbert McClinton played when they were in town, and where Texas liberals like Jim Hightower staged fundraisers. In those days, the Kinkster and his band The Texas Jewboys were the entertainment.

In the 1990s, I encountered Friedman in his subsequent incarnation as a fabulously inventive mystery writer whose fictitious detective was also…Kinky Friedman. (This review I wrote for January Magazine attempted to explain the complex Friedman/Friedman relationship that pervades the novels.)

Friedman eventually shifted the book series, and his own headquarters, from New York back to Texas, where he’s continued to stir things up. Perhaps a run for governor was a logical next step for a pundit who spoofed the Dixie Chicks’ nude Entertainment Weekly photo spread by appearing nude — in triplicate — on the cover of the Dallas Observer.

While Friedman (the politician) is sagging embarrassingly in the polls as election day nears, it’s quite possible that Friedman (the writer) is going come out of this a big winner: I mean, look at the material he’s got for his next novel.

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