The view from a small-town bar stool

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The restaurant’s open sign was dark, but the thick, beveled windows revealed that a back table had four men sipping coffee. Behind them on the wall was a big-screen TV showing Saturday cartoons. I tried the brass door handle. Locked.

A temporary sign to one side listed seasonal business hours. I was 20 minutes early.

So, I left, but as I passed the adjoining hotel’s entrance, a white-haired man in bulging half-zip sweater stepped out. His sleeves were pushed up. A stained white towel hung over one shoulder.

“Care to come in for some coffee, sir?” he asked.

I stopped. “Oh, that’s fine, but I’m looking for a place to eat, too, and I see you’re not open yet.”

“That’s OK, sir. I’d be happy to serve you coffee until we do. You come in for some coffee?”

I nodded and said thanks as the man backed aside and motioned me in. The door was heavy and dark like the one for the restaurant, and it opened into a small lobby. Past the empty front desk, which had a slotted wall behind it and a numbered room key dangling from each slot, was a passage to the restaurant.

“Please sit anywhere, and I will bring coffee over to you right away,” the man said as he followed me through.

The restaurant’s décor was as dark and heavy as the door, assuring a gloomy ambiance even on the sunniest days. All the tables and the thinly padded chairs were against the far wall or close to the picture windows facing the street. A long, carved wood bar curved from beside the passageway toward the back near the big-screen TV, which had its volume set at just above a hum.

I slid onto one of the square-backed bar stools. They were aligned at 45 degrees toward the picture windows, through which one saw the gas station across the street starting to receive a flurry of business. The man set a ceramic diner mug in front of me and a one-page menu. He introduced himself as Mo, owner of both the restaurant and hotel. His accented English put his heritage closer to Europe than to the southern Illinois riverbank town where the restaurant sat.

“We’re not open for lunch until 11,” he said as he poured. “But here, you can see what we have, and I will make sure they get it going for you when we do.”

I said thanks. Mo pushed over a carousel of coffee creamer, sugar, and stir sticks, then went over to the back table and sat with the other people who I saw through the window. Though the room was warm, the three around Mo had on light winter jackets that bulged tight around their ample mid-sections the way Mo’s sweater did.

On my second sip of coffee, one of the men chuffed quietly.

“Sir? You called him Sir? When did you start doing that?”

“Shh,” Mo murmured.

“Looks to me like he should be the one calling you Sir.”

Two other voices chuckled. Mo ignored this.

“So, you sold your car?”

“Yep,” said the first voice. “$500.”

“Then let’s go out and get drunk,” the second voice said. More chuckling around the table.

“A 2007,” the first voice continued. “Needed $3,000 for the transmission. Not worth putting that much into it. Found someone in Jerseyville to look at it. Couldn’t get anyone in St. Louis to look at it for me.”

“Not much use going up there for anything,” said a third voice.

“How old’s your car?” Mo asked.

“Mine? Less than a year,” Voice No. 3 responded. “Didn’t want to deal with all that hassle.”

“Well, I would have fixed it up,” said a fourth voice.

“You? Whadda mean?” Mo replied. “You’ve got that big truck of yours. It’s not a month old.”

“That’s what matters,” Voice No. 3 said. “One of those big trucks. Or an SUV, the ones that sit up high off the ground so you can load stuff into it. If you’re going to buy something, buy something like that.”

“Yeah, don’t get one of those small trucks,” Voice No. 4 said. “They aren’t worth it.”

An outer door near the TV opened, and a young woman in a green Southern Illinois University pullover entered. Morning sunshine poured through just long enough to highlight the thick lacquer over the bar and the age of the men around the back table.

“Hello,” she said to Mo. The door thumped closed like a bank vault.

“Hello. I’ve already given the gentleman a menu. What’re you doing here so early?”

Voice No. 3 interrupted. “Change the channel while you’re at it. Something like the news. We should listen to what that new president is saying. Makes more sense than watching cartoons …”

“… More entertaining, anyway,” said Voice No. 4.

Chuckling went around the table again. Then all four took sips of coffee before the man with Voice No. 4 cleared his throat and rose.

“Yeah, well we’ll see how entertaining,” he said. “I want to see him actually do something.”

“About Obamacare?” said Voice No. 3.

“About that, immigration, anything,” he replied. Unlike Mo’s accent, his and the others’ fit the region. I wondered what they thought of Mo the first time they met him?

The others also rose and replaced the chairs under the table. One by one, they carried their mugs to the end of the bar and turned to leave in single file.

“See you later,” Voice No. 2 called over his shoulder. “Thanks, Mo.”

“You’re welcome, boys.”

Mo put the mugs on a tray disappeared through a door behind the bar. The woman was already busy wiping up the rest of the bar as the table emptied. On the TV, the channel remained unchanged. A “South Park” rerun was starting.

“So, I think Mo let me in because he saw me at the door,” I said to the woman. “But did I interrupt something?”

“Nah. Just their usual weekend gathering,” she answered as she brought over the coffee pot to refill my mug. She introduced herself as Jessica, a senior at the university represented on her shirt who after three years was working her last weekend for Mo before starting an internship. “Every Saturday, they’re here. You must have come up close to when they were breaking up anyway.”

“You open at 11. How early do they come in?”

“Oh, it can be early. Sunup sometimes.” She held up the half-filled pot. “This might be their third or fourth.”

As she replenished my mug, Mo reemerged and headed toward the lobby. It was still too soon to unlock the restaurant’s main entrance.

“Jess, I’m going home now for a little bit. Call me if you need anything.”

“OK.”

The lobby door thumped closed right as another woman emerged from the door behind the bar. Her gray-blonde was hair tied up above her neck, and her chef’s coat was clean but fraying around the collar and sleeve cuffs.

“So, where’s he going?”

“He’ll be back,” Jessica said as she replaced the coffee pot on its warmer.

“Well, text him to come back with ice. The ice maker’s out again.”

“Hmm.”

“And are we changing the channel?”

“They’re gone. Whatever.” Jessica turned back to me. “Do you have a preference?”

I said no.

She reached beside the coffee maker to pick up the TV remote, a black bar of plastic almost as long as her forearm. Jessica held it over her head with both hands. The channel change ended on Fox News and aerial video of women’s marches taking place that morning around the country. She set the remote back down and returned to work. The sound remained on the edge of audible.

The woman in the chef’s coat clicked her tongue at the images on the 60-inch screen.

“Yuh huh. I heard some sort of marches were happening everywhere today. Think there’s one in St. Louis, too, right?  I don’t have time for any of that.”

“Me either,” Jessica said without looking back up. She wrung her hands. “I just don’t understand what all the fuss … I mean, I’ve got too much else going on in my life right now to worry about anything like that.”

Jessica’s college major is criminal justice. In a week, she begins interning with the county probation office pushing paperwork she hopes will push people out of the legal system and into assistance. She knows that about 90 percent of the cases involve drugs – heroin and methamphetamine foremost among them.

She knows about 90 percent of the people, too. She grew up here; she understands their pain and the frustration causing it. Those people, not the marchers, are her inspiration, which is why her fingers are crossed that the internship turns into full-time work.

She is not optimistic, however – about the job or the people.

“If they get out, there’s nowhere for them to go,” Jessica explained after the woman in the chef’s coat left the room. “State doesn’t have any money – they get out and go right back to what they were doing: nothing. No jobs. I’m not saying jobs will keep them off drugs. But if there’s something out there they can look forward to, they might not go back to drugs once you get them off.”

Jessica glanced back at the TV screen, then at the floor.

“I mean, I know these marches matter. But Trump says he’s going to get us jobs. Right now, to me, that matters more.”

Journalist’s job change reminds me of old T-shirt

 

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During my time in high school and college, cheap cotton shirts sporting witty or funny phrases defined my fashion. They were must-haves more than the jeans or running shoes paired with them. I loved seeing people pass and smile, or laugh, or look at me quizzically if they missed the joke. They also were great icebreakers for someone often too shy to just say hi.

A few shirts ensured an opening. The one with “I’m the one your mother warned you about” made girls giggle, which eased me past “Hi” within that group. Another that said, “Detroit: Where the weak are killed and eaten” so tickled a Motor City native at a buffet in Florida that food shot out his nose.

But my favorite shirt, because my understanding friends liked it so much, said in white Courier lettering, “I’m in journalism for the money.”

The shirt is long gone, but a recent question-and-answer article in the trade publication Columbia Journalism Review recalled it. In the article, business news reporter John Carney discussed his rationale for moving from The Wall Street Journal, a publication that steers from a defined political agenda, to Breitbart.com, which drives headlong into one.

Breitbart’s tilt is so pronounced if it were the Leaning Tower of Pisa it would have toppled by now. Founder Andrew Breitbart built the site around his libertarian views then pushed a more populist message in the years before his death. Today, Breitbart.com is better known as an alt-right megaphone that spent the 2016 presidential campaign delivering a high-volume screech for Donald Trump.

Carney said he embraced Breitbart.com because it lacked a business news division and he was asked to help create one, and because the site appears well-positioned poised to cultivate Trump’s economic message.

“Very few people really got the rise of Trump as right as (Breitbart) did and I think they deserve a lot of credit for being ahead of the curve on that,” Carney told CJR. “We’re going to use that as our model. Perhaps a lot of the reason some of us in mainstream media have been behind the curve is because we bought into too many of the orthodoxies.”

Which is what reminded me of the old journalism shirt. By orthodoxies, Carney means balance: the attempt by news media to hold government and institutions accountable and present facts without political tarnish – a historically hard job given that journalists must also exert personal accountability to do it well.

The problem is that accountability is not naturally sexy, even back when I was wearing that shirt. My friends and colleagues in journalism school and later through a 30-year newspaper career were called to accountability, not doomed to it. They enjoyed the endorphin rush from pursuing truth for the sake of public service and civic justice. They laughed at my shirt because low pay seemed to be a canon in the journalist’s professional code. Those who balked at small salaries lacked commitment, college debts be damned.

For example: In my senior year, the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid sent recruitment letters to prospective graduates working at the campus newspaper. The two-paragraph statement hinted at a starting salary of $50,000, more than twice what was typical at the time. Given the Enquirer’s reputation, my friends laughed at that harder than at my shirt. But two in our crew who quietly inquired and were rejected distanced themselves from us without our prejudice. They appreciated the code but preferred not to buy into it. Soon after they distanced themselves from journalism as well.

Today, the media marketplace spans the width and breadth of the Internet and has no admission requirement or ethical constraints. Journalism degrees no longer announce a commitment to the craft but the ability to write complete sentences. Average salaries are lower now because many news and alt-news outlets believe compensation is measured in clicks and likes and retweets and shares – much more valuable to anyone who prefers brand-building to public service. Breitbart.com saw its readership soar after hitching to Trump’s bandwagon and now draws more unique readers than even Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and Fox News.

Another boon to the media marketplace for people like Carney: the rise of relative truth. Once upon a time, truth was buttressed by supporting facts and diametric to falsity. Now, we are encouraged to believe that truth comes in multiple flavors like ice cream, and we are allowed to choose the one that suits our tastes.

Breitbart.com has “a very single-minded dedication to not being respectable, but as I look at it, to just tell the truth as they see it. And that’s what I want to do,” Carney said. “I find that spirit of willingness to be the dissenting truth-tellers very attractive.”

The truth as they see it. We already have a word for that in the dictionary: opinion.

Truth is never easy to obtain because it is like gold; you have to mine for it. Those who fit the unexpurgated definition of a journalist still feel the same call to service I did when I was in the profession and possess an innate duty to hold others accountable for the sake of our republic. Indeed, theirs is a vastly different playing field dotted with obstacles unimagined when I was in the game, but they suit up daily with eagerness and vigor.

When I tell them about the shirt, they laugh, they get the joke. They wish they had one. If I made a new one substituting the word “clicks” for “money,” they would laugh at that, too.

Carney? Probably all I would get from him is a quizzical look – if not his middle finger.

Trump’s tweets hurt his support in the Heartland

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Image courtesy of Vocativ.

My aunt’s glittering Christmas tree remained up and surrounded by presents well past New Year’s. Outdoors, Trump-Pence campaign signs posted around her rolling rural Missouri community did, too – for much the same reason.

“It’s too cold to do anything,” one of my cousins said. “Door froze shut on the car yesterday.”

Across America’s Heartland, one southward bending jet steam after another pulled down bitter cold from Canada since the week after Thanksgiving. Feels-like temperatures had minus signs in front of them, turning county and backroads into strips of ice and freezing my family’s travel plans to my aunt’s house.

Before that, stretching to Election Day, dripping skies turned the rich, dark soil to mud around this mid-Missouri farming landscape, literally and figuratively freezing it in place since Nov. 8.

But when the thaw comes, I wonder if the Trump signs are pulled down before the Christmas decorations.

The hint that they might came during a TV news break between playoff football games. My aunt, whose prayers for clear roads and a big family Christmas were answered, was picking up bits of wrapping paper left after a 90-minute cacophony of gift-giving and food consumption in her broad living room. Recovery victims slouched in every chair and nook between them. About half the sets of eyes aimed at the TV were half open.

Then the news announcer reminded viewers of Donald Trump’s pointed and petty Twitter exchange with Arnold Schwarzenegger two days earlier. A low grunt oozed out on either side of me from a couple of people I knew to be Trump supporters.

“God, I wish he would just shut the hell up,” one of them muttered at the screen.

My ears tingled. The rest of the audience remained quiet. The news announcer was in mid-sentence when some smaller members of our brood returned from playing upstairs. So, later, as the mutterer and I were in the corner of the kitchen nudging second helpings of pecan pie onto fresh paper plates, I leaned in to whisper an inquiry.

“So, eh, not happy with Trump?” I ventured delicately.

This violated protocol on this side of my family, which keeps its ties to one another closer than to politics. In a house brimming with contrasting and conflicting viewpoints on virtually every topic, conversations hew eagerly to health and happiness, weekday labor and weekend relaxation, the severe weather and the cheerful coos from the newest great-grandchild experiencing her first Christmas. Political discussions remain stored with the lawn chairs awaiting the warm-weather days when they can drift harmlessly on sultry breezes.

The mutterer, another of my cousins, applied two dollops of whipped cream to his slice of pie and also whispered.

“Yeah, well, yeah. It’s just … you know …”

He paused.

“I mean, he keeps saying all this stuff that doesn’t really matter and makes him look silly.”

“Hmm.”

“Stuff that makes it look like he’s not paying attention or doesn’t want to.”

“You mean, on Twitter? That Schwarzenegger thing?”

“Yeah. That stuff doesn’t matter to anybody.”

It is safe to say my relatives around here know what does. They work on farms and at schools, in construction and manufacturing. They have watched generations of prosperity devolve into desperation. They see jobs continue to disappear and livelihoods diminish, and they know the reasons are multiple, varied, and complex. When my aunt hosts Christmas, they know it is not just a celebration of togetherness, but also her valiant effort to ward off the same creeping desperation, if only for a few hours.

When my family went to cast their ballots Nov. 8, they did it for the sake of change – the sake of their community – not for a celebrity.

“So many people I know are out there looking for work. Still looking,” my cousin said. “(Trump) says he’s bringing back jobs. Man, I am hoping.”

“But it won’t happen right away,” I said. “It’ll take time. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” said my cousin, extending the syllable and staring down at the whipped cream. “Yeah, it will. And I’d like to hear him say what he’s got in mind to do it. But … this.” He glanced back at the television, which was showing the kickoff for the second game. “This is what he talks about.”

“You think maybe the news should ignore it?”

My cousin sighed. “Nah, nah, that’s not it. They’re going to say things. Everyone will believe what they believe. I think it’s him being on Twitter all the time complaining about things that don’t matter to anyone.”

He moved to leave. I touched his elbow to stop him. “So, you still going to give him a chance?”

He shrugged. “Got no choice. He’s ours now.”

“But if you thought he might keep tweeting like this, would you have supported him?”

Another shrug. “Man, I don’t know. Maybe. I really didn’t like that Hillary Clinton – didn’t like her one bit. But all this tweeting … man … makes me wonder why I voted for anyone at all …”

An arm attached to one of the grandchildren, then the rest of the grandchild, squeezed between us for the pie. My cousin and I ended the discussion and worked through the growing kitchen crowd back to our places in the living room. We settled back into the joy of the occasion. (Trump used Twitter again two days later to slam another star, Meryl Streep, who criticized him at the Golden Globe Awards.)

Later, as everyone said their farewells and packed to leave, I commiserated.

“My best to your friends,” I told my cousin. “I really do hope for their sake that Trump delivers.”

“Thanks, man,” he said and patted my shoulder. “But I think this is all we’re going to get from him.”

We’ve had presidents like Trump – twice

 

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Events shape U.S. presidencies. Presidential character defines them. History portrays America at its strongest under presidents who took great political and personal risk by putting the nation’s interests ahead of their own and at its weakest under presidents who allowed animus and prejudice into their decision-making.

Abraham Lincoln recognized the moral and civil imperatives in ending slavery despite his own longstanding consent for it. Gerald Ford restored public trust in the presidency, but cost himself re-election, by denying the country his predecessor’s impeachment. Ronald Reagan’s easygoing comportment reassured an anxious, fearful public following an assassination attempt just weeks after his inauguration.

At the opposite end, presidents such as James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce are ridiculed for prolonging slavery, and Woodrow Wilson for defeating his own goal of world peace by yielding to cynicism, arrogance, and vindictiveness.

Character – the sum of individual honesty, courage, and integrity; the aggregate of traits that shape a persona and reputation – frames our responses to other people and contours our world view. It seeds our thinking, cultivates our emotions, and informs our beliefs. It is innate but can change if we are open to that change.

One hopes the man leading in the race to become America’s 45th president possesses that openness in some measure equal to the petulance he has displayed since starting his campaign to occupy the White House. History shows that petulance weakens and undermines presidencies, and none of the 44 people who served before Donald Trump have matched his propensity for, and willingness to display, infantile, foolish behavior.

We have come close to seeing it in two presidents: Andrew Jackson, and Richard Nixon, and their character crises left lasting scars on the country.

Jackson catapulted into public view by defeating the British in the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans then hiring biographers to exaggerate his life story. But his reputation for outrageousness preceded the war: part of his wealth came from selling land promised to Native Americans for resettlement; another part from volume sales of slaves. In politics, Jackson preferred threats and violence to compromise and hired people to victimize and even beat his opponents. He relished identifying with rabble instead of the refined society that produced the six presidents before him.

As president, Jackson juggled cabinet secretaries on a whim, preferred patronage hires that wound up planting corruption deep into his administration, and purged federal office holders by devising false charges against them. His poor upbringing, rough demeanor, and populist views endeared him to the lower classes like no previous president, but his distrust of business and banks dragged the country toward an economic panic in 1837 that was America’s worst until the Great Depression.

Nixon also rose from meager beginnings, yet unlike Jackson lacked the will to tamp down any stigma attached to them. His father’s mantra of victimization, spurred by an early exit from schooling and an argumentative disposition, trickled down to the son, who thereafter in law school and politics envisioned more enemies than opportunities. Nixon reserved special scorn for Jews, blacks, immigrants, Ivy Leaguers, and the media, but his wider animus encompassed anyone on the opposite side of his perspective.

“One day we will get them – we’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist … crush them, show them no mercy,” he told one of his White House advisors.

This put Nixon on a collision course with the national interest. He strived to shield the presidency from the public not for policy reasons but to cloud judgment on the extra-legal and illegal activities unfolding within – activities spilled first by Watergate and later the Oval Office recording system Nixon installed initially to help with his memoirs. The recordings underscored Watergate and subsequent efforts to hush or pay off conspirators and sped Nixon toward resignation in August 1974.

In 1977, during a televised interview, journalist David Frost asked Nixon whether he had obstructed justice while in office. He answered that “when the president does it that means that it is not illegal,” somehow forgetting that when presidents begin their service they swear an oath not to individual fealty but to protect the U.S. Constitution, America’s supreme body of law.

We walk daily amid the debris Jackson’s and Nixon’s character flaws left behind. Jackson legitimized the confrontational presidency. He bent the constitutionally higher power of Congress to his will at the expense of the public’s trust and the presidency’s integrity. Nixon pulled the nation into an unprecedented constitutional dilemma and emerged defiant, unrepentant, and confident that the title “president” equated with “Caesar.”

What will be the wreckage from Trump? Historians and ethicists point to his constant self-promotion and outsized egotism as symptomatic of deeper psychological trouble. They grapple with how Trump’s biases and Twitter tirades will translate into effective policy considering he has to work with Congress and the American people, not in competition with them, to produce measurable results. They see a man who blusters like Jackson, rages like Nixon, and who has instilled anxiety even among supporters over the country’s course these next four years.

History informs our experiences. Character informs our judgment. We can still see the long, injurious shadows cast by our seventh and 37th presidents. Trump’s behavior alludes to the worst qualities of both.

John Oliver: Journalist of the year

John Oliver (Photo courtesy HBO)

John Oliver (Photo courtesy HBO)

The best journalist in America in 2014 isn’t American and isn’t a journalist.

He intends to change only one of those things.

“I would like to get into a situation where I’m not suffering taxation without representation, which I’m suffering right now,” British comedian John Oliver told ABC’s “This Week.”

As for the journalist part, Oliver insisted on PBS’s “News Hour” that the title is misapplied.

“I have no moral authority. I’m a comedian.”

Given his latest performances on television though, one is left to wonder otherwise.

The British expatriate and Cambridge University graduate settled in this country upon joining the staff of Comedy Central’s popular “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in 2006. Between assignments, Oliver continued to do stand-up routines and podcasts on both sides of the Atlantic, each refining a style of wit reminiscent of Monty Python. He obtained a Green Card in 2009 and considers himself a permanent U.S. resident.

Then in the summer of 2013, Oliver sat in the “Daily Show” host’s chair for eight weeks while Stewart was off directing the movie “Rosewater” and in that time Oliver displayed a formidable enough stage command to establish himself as Stewart’s likely successor. But before the notion could percolate longer, HBO plucked him out of Stewart’s stable to host the premium channel’s brand new Daily Show-esque enterprise.

What followed was a masterful mix of humor and social commentary that major news media should watch carefully — and learn from.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” does indeed borrow from the “Daily Show” style of squeezing satire out of social and political events and blowing them up to absurd, sometimes mocku-mental proportions. But where the 30-minute “Last Week Tonight” truly distinguishes itself is in the show’s feature pieces, which can last half the program. Among the notable long-form bits in the show’s first 25-episode season were an analysis of Miss America scholarship claims, a look at chronic corruption by World Cup organizer FIFA, and a breakdown of the hypocrisy endemic in the American lottery system.

Oliver does not just parse words. His staff includes former magazine researchers as well as comedy writers who sift for truth as much for laughs. Oliver and his crew understand that a little bit of bizarre behavior floats on the surface of authority and that by shining a light on it we can peer down into, and be less intimidated by, the darkness beneath.

“Last Week Tonight” even displays key information over Oliver’s right shoulder on the screen, noting also the source and publication date. Not even network newscasts do that.

“It is reporting in no sense. But there is a lot of research,” Oliver says. “If a joke is built on sand, it just doesn’t work. … It’s very, very important to us that we are solid.”

This commitment has enabled Oliver to navigate stridently dense, solemn topics such as America’s wealth gap, civil forfeiture, and student debt — topics journalists have reported on many times but with a predilection for the somber seriousness of suffering by which most events are judged newsworthy.

“There is something about playing with toys that are that difficult which become more satisfying to break by the end of our week’s process,” Oliver says.

Not just break — shatter, really. “Last Week Tonight” garnered 1.1 million viewers on Sunday nights. Across all platforms including DVR and on-demand showings, overall weekly viewership topped 4 million. But on YouTube, where “Last Week Tonight” continues to show its vigor months after signing off until February, a feature broadcast in July on the wealth gap has been viewed since then nearly 6 million times. The piece on civil forfeiture has more than 4 million views. The piece on student debt has 3.6 million.

A feature on the typically arcane subject of national elections in India has garnered 2.5 million YouTube views. (HBO releases each segment separately onto YouTube after their initial broadcast).

“It didn’t make any sense to me that the largest exercise in democracy in the history of humanity was not interesting enough for (the major news media) to cover,” Oliver says of the India feature. India has 1.2 billion people; the United States, 320 million.

Even Oliver’s exposition on events in Ferguson, Mo., in a piece mixed with equal parts humor and outrage just one week after Michael Brown’s shooting now has more than 5.5 million views. That number has grown by about 10,000 weekly. Meanwhile, Oliver’s most talked-about feature, the one about net neutrality that was blamed for crashing the Federal Communications Commission’s website, is cruising toward 9 million viewers.

All these numbers constitute a larger audience share per feature than the major news networks can muster per night.

What Oliver and “Last Week Tonight” have managed to do is find a way to engage viewers and keep them engaged on complex, contemporary issues long after the initial broadcast while managing to be informative, a puzzle that network news and newspapers still struggle to accomplish two decades into the digital era.

Journalism in its most basic form is the gathering, processing, and dissemination of information related to a particular audience. By that simplistic definition, Oliver qualifies as a journalist.

“I think that becomes more of a sad commentary on news than it does on us” as comedians, Oliver says. “The only responsibility as a comedian is that I have to make people laugh. If I don’t do that — and I am sure that I often don’t — I have failed.”

But in making people laugh, Oliver goes to journalistically admirable lengths to do it. In the feature on Miss America scholarship funding, which the nonprofit Miss America Foundation claimed was $45 million annually, the “Last Week Tonight” staff spent days sifting through 990 tax forms on nonprofit spending from 33 states right up until broadcast to try verifying that number. The amount turned out to be unjustifiable, but “Last Week Tonight” nevertheless discovered that the Miss America Foundation is indeed the largest provider of scholarships that are just for women — which news media then reported.

“I just want it to be funny,” Oliver says, describing the course he and “Last Week Tonight” have charted. “That is the key responsibility that you have to hold yourself to as a comedian. If you’re not making people laugh, what exactly are you doing?”

This is not to say America’s daily news needs a thick layer of humor to help it glide along, or that professional journalists are less capable of engaging audiences than Oliver & Co. But if an expat Brit can reach more people on tough topics than the major news media and incorporate impressive feats of news gathering and accountability while doing it, then the “journalist” label will stick to Oliver no matter how hard he tries to shake it off, and major news media will be compelled to watch him try.

So, Oliver’s success and that of “Last Week Tonight” raises the question: If the major news media have a responsibility of informing and enlightening the public and still struggle at it, what exactly are they doing?

Ted Cruz is wrong about Net neutrality

Net neutrality logoThe last thing any of us need is someone in a position of influence explaining Net neutrality but who doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to understand Net neutrality.

Yet, Ted Cruz has decided to do it anyway.

The junior Republican senator from Texas trumpeted his mischaracterization of the issue last week in the Washington Post opinion piece, “Regulating the Internet threatens entrepreneurial freedom,” in which he champions the idea that online innovation suffers unless the Internet is devoid of federal oversight.

The term “devoid” is not overstatement. Cruz prefers that Washington leave the Internet entirely in the hands of the legislative process, where service providers, market forces and special interests hold sway. To this end, he urges nullification of all Internet regulation, now framed within Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act.

In Cruz’s mind, Net neutrality “would put the government in charge of Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.”

In fact, Net neutrality refers to the Internet as it is now: a place where service providers and government agencies treat all online data equally and access is unlimited; a place where the powerless have as much influence as the powerful; a place where startup businesses can grow into corporations without monopolistic interference.

The issue became a big deal in April when the Federal Communications Commission agreed to consider a two-tiered system where Internet providers can set arbitrary rules on access. Then in May, the FCC also agreed to consider reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, which would prevent providers from threatening to reduce access in exchange for fees.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (Photo by Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (Photo by Getty Images)

President Obama supports reclassification. Cruz however believes the providers should be in control because reclassification is just a nice way of saying the government will levy an Internet use tax. He has even gone as far as calling Net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet,” a catchy little phrase that possesses a certain rubbery, pejorative quality certain to help it bounce around the Web for a while.

Never mind that it misrepresents both Net neutrality and Obamacare; Cruz is a Princeton and Harvard grad, a champion debater and a loyal partisan toady. Conservative straw polls rank him high among likely GOP presidential nominees in 2016.

It would tarnish Cruz’s carefully honed image for him to appear on the same side of an issue as the president. So, it makes more sense for him to mangle Net neutrality’s definition than risk political capital.

To be fair, the term “Net neutrality” is sufficiently vague enough that anyone with a flair for drama and self-promotion can abuse it with ease. One could easily argue that the term also means you’re indifferent about what happens to Internet.

If only it had a better name. Comedian John Oliver suggests that maybe Net neutrality’s working title should be more honest: “Preventing Cable Company F**kery.”

But that might be too honest for Ted Cruz.

Is the Daily Egyptian’s demise a Dunn deal?

Daily Egyptian logoI haven’t seen the man in almost 30 years, yet Bill Harmon still intimidates me.

His sharp-toned advice echoes in my head whenever I try to write or edit a news story. I cringe every time.

Believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

Mr. Harmon was the faculty adviser of the student-run Daily Egyptian newspaper at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale while I lived and breathed journalism there. He served in that role for nearly two decades. He was famous for, among other things, having two tools at the ready. In one hand he clutched a red felt pen that cut through a young reporter’s copy — and ego — like a butcher’s knife. In the other hand was an ever-present cigarette.

The walls of his office and the edges of his moustache were yellowed testaments to his nicotine habit, no doubt aggravated by the likes of cocky young know-it-alls such as myself.

He was gruff, direct, uncompromising, and when he was upset with a journalist for not asking a key question or missing the point of a story even the air in the room escaped to find safety. But when he issued praise, no honor was higher or possessed more value. It was the Pulitzer of my youth.

The staff of the DE strived daily to hear him utter that praise, however mild.

I mention him now because Mr. Harmon’s legacy, and perhaps that of the DE itself, may vanish this summer. Last week, SIU’s Board of Trustees, the principal governing body for the entire Southern Illinois University system, tabled further discussion of a proposed $9 student media fee that, in part, would deliver the DE from rough financial straits by covering an estimated $200,000 operating deficit.

The 98-year-old newspaper relies on advertising to pay the bills yet still struggles, as does every other university newspaper in the United States, to remain solvent. Most of those other student newspapers, however, already receive fee support, including the twice-weekly student paper published at SIU’s campus in Edwardsville.

SIU-Carbondale students endorsed the $9 fee when it was first proposed last summer. Then-SIU Present Glenn Poshard buttressed that endorsement by digging $55,000 out of his own budget to lend short-term assistance.

SIU President Randy Dunn

SIU President Randy Dunn

But on May 1, a new president, Randy Dunn, took over and brought with him a different perspective. He said last week at the trustees’ meeting that he preferred to reexamine the fee proposal and the DE’s finances, and suggested he might take a year to do it. As if the DE had not considered pinching pennies before now.

Despite its name, the DE publishes only four days a week, down from five a year ago. Staff salaries and student work hours have been slashed over and over. The salaries are paid out of advertising revenue, not out of the university’s pocket.

Current DE Managing Editor Eric Fiedler told the Chicago Tribune that he doubts the newspaper can last even a few months, let alone a year, without the university’s commitment. SIU-Carbondale School of Journalism Director William Freivogel said he intends to have the trustees revisit the fee when they meet again in July.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the DE editorial advisory board, and Bill Frievogel was a colleague of mine for several years in the editorial office of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

The easy thing to do now is voice frustration with President Dunn and the trustees for displaying what appears to be a laissez-faire attitude toward a teaching tool that just won 17 Illinois College Press Association awards and was key to the School of Journalism receiving reaccreditation this year.

But I can understand the president’s reticence, to a degree, and it may have less to do with money than with, well, discomfort.

When I was a student reporter for the DE, one of my assignments was to cover the university administration — the president, the chancellor, the vice chancellors, the provost, the deans, etc. The role required attending meetings, analyzing budgets, sifting through sundry official documents, and upholding Mr. Harmon’s insistence that “Titles don’t matter, damn it! Only the facts matter.”

Southern Illinois University logoOften, these administrators begged off from answering my questions, resented them, even ran away from them. Once, I learned through a couple of dependable sources that a handful of SIU officials planned to fly together to Chicago for a conference and discuss university business along the way. I met them on the tarmac at Carbondale’s tiny airport and insisted on going along, arguing that the context of their discussion was required to be public, not private.

At that, all but a couple of the passengers stepped away from the plane, fetched their luggage and left the airport. On his way out, one particularly vexed administrator stormed up to me, pushed his nose to within an inch of mine, and grumbled, “You just ruined my vacation.”

When I returned to the DE newsroom, Mr. Harmon asked, “Were they pissed?”

I replied that they were.

He smiled broadly, snorted and said, “Ha! Good.”

Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian are, first and foremost, public servants both mindful of and responsible to their university communities. Their staffs should be as tough and as diligent as the staffs at small-town weeklies or big-city dailies, because how else do student journalists grow to become professional ones?

Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian should insist on honesty and integrity, and demonstrate the same, no matter the issue or the authority. The least we can do is lend them our support.

They are not obligated to make anyone feel comfortable. Bill Harmon was keenly aware of that.

Perhaps President Dunn is not.