Saturday, March 07, 2009

Progress Report

President Obama's weekly five minutes, bringing us up to date on the week's efforts to meet the housing market challenge and get the Recovery and Reinvestment Act implemented. Despite the irresponsible comments of Republicans complaining that Obama's efforts have "failed," even though they know there hasn't been time for anything to take effect, Americans are keeping faith with the President, as evidenced by the latest Newsweek poll, which gives him a 72% favorability rating.

Thursday, March 05, 2009


Michelle Obama helping out at a homeless shelter in Washington on Thursday. Part of what makes this photo so moving to me is that she could be any of the thousands, the millions of (mostly) women who serve food, and do so with a real sense of service, whether it's in a homeless shelter, a cafeteria, a diner. Getting the food on the plate with a smile and a kind word, over and over again. They all have lives, their own thoughts and experiences, but they are there to serve. All in their way are First Ladies.

Health Care Forum: So Let's Get to Work

President Obama opened the health care discussion at the White House on Thursday with these words (excerpted):

"In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages. An additional 9 million Americans have joined the ranks of the uninsured. The cost of health care now causes a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds. By the end of the year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes. Even for folks who are weathering this economic storm, and have health care right now, all it takes is one stroke of bad luck -- an accident or an illness, a divorce, a lost job -- to become one of the nearly 46 million uninsured or the millions who have health care, but really can't afford what they've got.

We didn't get here by accident. The problems we face today are a direct consequence of actions that we failed to take yesterday..."

"The same soaring costs that are straining families' budgets are sinking our businesses and eating up our government's budget, too. Too many small businesses can't insure their employees. Major American corporations are struggling to compete with their foreign counterparts. And companies of all sizes are shipping their jobs overseas or shutting their doors for good."

At the fiscal summit that we held here last week, the one thing on which everyone agreed was that the greatest threat to America's fiscal health is not Social Security, though that's a significant challenge; it's not the investments that we've made to rescue our economy during this crisis. By a wide margin, the biggest threat to our nation's balance sheet is the skyrocketing cost of health care. It's not even close.

That's why we cannot delay this discussion any longer. That's why today's forum is so important -- because health care reform is no longer just a moral imperative, it's a fiscal imperative. If we want to create jobs and rebuild our economy and get our federal budget under control, then we have to address the crushing cost of health care this year, in this administration. Making investments in reform now, investments that will dramatically lower costs, won't add to our budget deficits in the long term -- rather, it is one of the best ways -- in fact maybe the only way -- to reduce those long-term costs."

"But I am here today and I believe you are here today because this time is different. This time, the call for reform is coming from the bottom up and from all across the spectrum -- from doctors, from nurses, from patients; from unions, from businesses; from hospitals, health care providers, community groups. It's coming from mayors and governors and legislatures, Democrats, Republicans -- all who are racing ahead of Washington to pass bold health care initiatives on their own. This time, there is no debate about whether all Americans should have quality, affordable health care -- the only question is, how?"

And the purpose of this forum is to start answering that question -- to determine how we lower costs for everyone, improve quality for everyone, and expand coverage to all Americans. And our goal will be to enact comprehensive health care reform by the end of this year. That is our commitment. That is our goal."

But there are a lot of people out there who are desperate. There's a lot of desperation out there. Today I want them, and people like them across this country, to know that I have not forgotten them. We have not forgotten them."

So let's get to work."

The President indicated his openness to ideas that work. He said that about the stimulus and got nothing but grief and obstruction. What makes health care different? He talked about some of the differences--the fact that the failure of the system that pretty much came into existence after the last debate on health care legislation in 1994 has convinced almost everybody--businesses, doctors and even some insurers included--that the system is fatally broken.

But what about Republicans? The first signs--the participation of many in the forum today and some of the language they used--indicates there's reason for some hope. Not necessarily from the hard right heart of the party, but from some important moderates, particularly talking about universal coverage.

It's a difficult issue to have any optimism about. The Clinton initiative was so popular at first that President Clinton could actually wave a pen at his State of the Union and threaten to veto it if it didn't meet his standards. But in the course of a few weeks it was dead, killed mostly by lobbyists and a well financed disinformation campaign.

It's particularly tempting for me to be cynical about it, because I've been uninsured for years and I've known for years that my most likely cause of death is being refused treatment, or simply being unable to pay for it, and unwilling to burden others because of the outrageous costs. So I will believe this when I see it. But it does seem that the time is right for something to happen to improve what has been the most tragic result of a system that refuses all responsibility as long as the rich keep getting richer.

Frances Perkins Revisited

The portrait on the left is of Frances Perkins, who 76 years ago today was nominated to be the first woman in the U.S. Cabinet--FDR nominated her to be Secretary of Labor, and she was confirmed. Here's what we owe to her leadership: "the first minimum wage, massive programs to put people back to work and enhance our infrastructure, standardized hours for workers, and the expanded right to organize a union." And something called Social Security. Frances Perkins was a mainstay of the FDR government for 12 years, long enough to become a legend in her own time, as evidenced by the panel above right--it's a detail of a mural by Edward Millman of Outstanding American Women, painted as part of the Public Arts Work Project of the 1930s--this is called the Frances Perkins panel, and can still be seen at Flowers Vocational High School in Chicago. There are many murals like this in public buildings all over the country, a lasting legacy to this FDR program--and to Frances Perkins. Her example is one to remember, especially right now.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Sign for Better Times

This is the logo unveiled in Washington on Tuesday that will appear for projects funded by the Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It's also the logo for the web site,, where information on programs and projects funded by the Act will appear, including state level projects. More on recovery in the post below.

Hope is On the Way

As markets wobble down, Americans are keeping faith with President Obama. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows "that 41% of Americans say the country is headed in the right direction, up dramatically from 26% in mid-January, before Mr. Obama took office, and up from 12% before the election." The jump since Obama's Inauguration is the strongest ever recorded except for right after 9-11.

"Part of the explanation for the numbers is that few blame Mr. Obama for the bad economy, with the vast majority of Americans saying he inherited the situation. About half the people will give Mr. Obama at least two years before assigning him responsibility."

"Overall, two-thirds of all Americans say they feel "hopeful" about Mr. Obama's leadership."

Hope is just starting to become tangible as the first projects funded by the Recovery and Reinvestment Act get started. Money is starting to flow to the states to support hard-pressed programs, the boost in unemployment payments is beginning (and that spending will likely enter the economy quickly) and HUD is starting on some $10 billion in projects. Eventually this act alone could stimulate 3.5 million jobs, with almost 400,000 here in California. More initiatives in the budget bill will mean more jobs and economic activity, geared to present needs and future strength.

More work needs to be done in Washington. Though efforts to help the housing market and hard-pressed homeowners are ramping up , efforts to stabilize the financial sector don't seem to be having results, and more drastic action might be necessary.

But as Englands Prime Minister is in the U.S. to discuss global regulations of banking, it's very notable that while European attempts to deal with the crisis seem to be floundering, Obama's leadership has the U.S. on a firmer footing.

"With uncertain leadership and few powerful collective institutions, the European Union is struggling with the strains this crisis has inevitably produced among 27 countries with uneven levels of development," according to the New York Times. "Europe’s difficulties are in sharp contrast to the American response. President Obama has just announced a budget that will send the United States more deeply into debt but that also makes an effort to redistribute income and overhaul health care, improve education and combat environmental problems."

Monday, March 02, 2009

Arcata Evening Sky

Our largely rainless winter continues, scary but beautiful.

When the Newspaper Dies

On Sunday I posted a diary at Daily Kos about the rapid end of newspapers and the threats to magazines. I called it Gloating Over Dying Newspapers? Think Again because I noticed a certain glee in blog posts (at Daily Kos and elsewhere) over the death or threats to the existence of newspapers. Some comments that followed denied anyone was gloating, followed by a number of other comments that, well, gloated. I tried to keep the post direct, uncluttered with a lot of links, to make a simple point. Judging by some comments, I'm not sure I got through. I noticed later that Paul Starr at the New Republic made similar points--though with excellent historical background and analysis--and got similar responses.

That post follows with one quote and link added, and after that a few additional links and quotes.

Some in the blogosphere seem to take great pleasure in the demise, threatened and actual, of U.S. newspapers. Focusing on greedy corporations, some with a political agenda, as well as infuriating big name columnists and political reporters, and glorying in the success of the Internet and the blogosphere, they gleefully greet this rapid series of newspaper deaths--or at least fatal illnesses--as the triumph of the new media over the old.

Be careful what you wish for. While all those objections and characterizations may be valid, they aren't the whole story. The death of major city newspapers and threatened national magazines will deal the blogosphere a mortal blow, as well as leaving major gaps of information that eventually may threaten the civil order. This is a very big deal.

Paul Starr writes, "More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems. It is true that they have often failed to perform those functions as well as they should have done. But whether they can continue to perform them at all is now in doubt."

There is one transcendent reason why this becomes a serious problem for the gathering and communication of news: newspapers pay thousands of reporters a living wage that enables them to report. By and large, the Internet does not.

This is the case of an information medium dying off before its replacement is ready.

What percentage of the content on blogs like [Daily Kos] originates in newspapers? I'd be surprised if it was under 90%, in terms of actual information, actual reporting.

Even when blogs break a story--as Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo did recently in exposing Bobby Jindal's false account of being where he wasn't during Katrina--the information that the stories put together and compare come largely from wire service and local newspaper stories.

Most of what appears in the blogosphere is opinion, comment, synthesis and reporting on reporting. There have been cases where citizen reporters have been marshaled to analyze documents, etc. but those are special instances. There's a limit to how much reporting can be done without reporters paid a living wage to report.

Without newspapers, without magazines, we're left with a small number of reporters for U.S. radio (mostly NPR) and reporters for television news--and all of them depend to a large extent on newspaper reporting.

I'm writing this as people in Colorado are in shock over the closing of the Rocky Mountain News. Despite its right wing advocacy, it did significant reporting, and became integral to a regional identity.

Now here in northern California we learn that the San Francisco Chronicle is weeks away from possibly closing. This will leave a major city, and a major center of future-oriented activity, without a daily newspaper. The Philadelphia Inquirer and News are in bankruptcy. Even the New York Times and Washington Post are on shaky ground.

The reasons for all this are beyond the scope of this diary, except to say if you look carefully, many of these businesses are in trouble not because the newspaper specifically is failing. It's not all about a preference for the Internet as a news source.

What I do want to focus on are the reporters. Newspapers function because they pay people a living wage--most often a union wage. (It seems to me that some of the statements by publishers and corporate types complaining that newspapers have failed to "adapt" is yet more code for getting rid of unions, which usually means the Newspaper Guild.)

A few of the larger blog sites employ reporters and editors. But not many--and I doubt many of these are union wage jobs. I would be very surprised to learn that the total number of paid reporters on the Internet surpasses the number of paid reporters on one daily newspaper in a mid-size American city.

This is not lost on some folks in the blogosphere and elsewhere. Though Josh Marshall is optimistic about the Internet's future, he also admits: "If all the big papers disappeared right now and we replaced them with 50 TPMs, it wouldn't come close to doing the job," he said.

From that same Washington Post article: "If you don't have people out working as full-time reporters, there's this category of information that's not going to appear magically out of nowhere," said Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University's School of Journalism.

There are a number of proposed solutions out there, and frankly none of them seem very good to me.(I am specifically not endorsing charging for information online.) But the first step is to recognize what is at stake here, and this is my first diary in that regard. It's a time to be alarmed. It's not a time to gloat. --30--

Here's an additional quote from an excellent article on the ramifications for local and political news coverage by Marc Fisher in the Washington Post:

Many bloggers say that far from being able to replace professional reporters, they actually suffer from the diminished flow of state news. "What I can't offer on my blogs is the relationships, the institutional memory, the why, the history that reporters who know the capital can bring to their stories," says Waldo Jaquith, who blogs on Virginia politics and runs a site,, that tracks every bill. "Newspapers can describe the candidates for governor in a more balanced, deeper way because you don't have a dog in the race. We bloggers do."

Here are some additional relevant passages from Starr's article:

Should we care? Some observers, confident of the blessings of technology, refuse to shed any tears for the traditional giants of journalism, on the grounds that their troubles are of their own making and of little consequence to the general welfare. In this view, regardless of whether newspapers successfully adapt to the Internet, new and better sources of news will continue developing online, and they will fill whatever void newspapers leave. Others are so angry at the mainstream media--the reviled "MSM"--that they see the economic misery of the press as a deserved comeuppance. Let the bastards suffer.

These reactions fail to take into account the immediate realities and the full ramifications of the crisis threatening newspaper journalism. This is no time for Internet triumphalism: the stakes are too high. Nearly all other news media, except for online news, are also retrenching, and--particularly at the metropolitan, regional, and state levels--the online growth is not close to offsetting the decline elsewhere. Despite all the development of other media, the fact is that newspapers in recent years have continued to field the majority of reporters and to produce most of the original news stories in cities across the country.

Drawing on studies conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director, says that as of 2006 a typical metropolitan paper ran seventy stories a day, counting the national, local, and business sections (adding in the sports and style sections would bring the total closer to a hundred), whereas a half-hour of television news included only ten to twelve. And while local TV news typically emphasizes crime, fires, and traffic tie-ups, newspapers provide most of the original coverage of public affairs. Studies of newspaper and broadcast journalism have repeatedly shown that broadcast news follows the agenda set by newspapers, often repeating the same items, albeit with less depth.

Online there is certainly a great profusion of opinion, but there is little reporting, and still less of it subject to any rigorous fact-checking or editorial scrutiny.

No online enterprise has yet generated a stream of revenue to support original reporting for the general public comparable to the revenue stream that newspapers have generated in print.

Whether the Internet will ever support general-interest journalism at a level comparable to newspapers, it would be foolish to predict. The reality is that resources for journalism are now disappearing from the old media faster than new media can develop them. The financial crisis of the press may thereby compound the media's crisis of legitimacy.

Already under ferocious attack from both left and right for a multitude of sins, real and imagined, the press is going to find its job even more difficult to do under economic duress. And as it retrenches in the face of financial pressures, Rosenstiel says, "More of American life will occur in shadows. We won't know what we won't know."

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Change We Voted For

"I know [the special interests, insurance, banks, oil company lobbyists] are gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this: So am I." President Obama describes his budget, his priorities and the fight ahead, in five minutes.

Change You Can Barely Keep Up With

It's getting nearly impossible to summarize a day in the life of President Obama, let alone a week. But what a week this was! His address to Congress, stating the case for the agenda he mapped out, was a huge hit. More than 52 million Americans watched it on TV, and immediately afterwards, his poll numbers shot up into the stratosphere. His support for change is now broad as well as deep.

A few days later he announced a budget that further propelled his agenda for change, with a special emphasis on health care. It dropped accounting tricks that masked the true spending, and it looked forward as far as a decade down the road. "None of this will be easy or certain, " Newsday concluded. "But by rejecting stealth spending and honestly confronting costly choices about the nation's problems, Obama has challenged us all to do the same."

It was a speech and a budget that defined the Obama presidency--of conviction and long-range strategy, and of--surprisingly surprising to some--doing what he said he would do in his campaign.

If that wasn't enough, there were new initiatives and information on coping with crisis in the financial sector, announcement of the plan to end the war in Iraq, new policies on a range of issues, and one new cabinet appointment with another expected tomorrow. If this seems like a lot of change, it is: in sheer activity, the Obama administration has topped every previous one, by more than double.