Politics: National Security

As Gates Departs, His Legacy Hangs in the Balance

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June 30, 2011, 2:07 a.m.

Sen. Blanche Lin­coln (D) “said get­ting wo­men and seni­ors to show up at the polls is key to her re-elec­tion hopes” 10/7.

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Lin­coln: “(They) some­times are the cat­egory of people that in a mid-term elec­tion are less likely to come out in the num­bers that they’ve come out in a pres­id­en­tial year.” She “said she hopes for a large voter turnout — one that would in­clude more than just people vot­ing out of an­ger.”

Lin­coln: “Ex­pect­a­tions have been heightened in pres­id­en­tial years, and you get to a mid-term and people that are most likely to be angry or up­set are people who wanted something to hap­pen overnight. And it’s not go­ing to hap­pen overnight. So they’re more likely, per­haps, to come out. People that are prac­tic­al and real­ize that noth­ing hap­pens in­stantly or overnight might be com­pla­cent and say, ‘Well, it doesn’t really mat­ter.’”

Rep. John Booz­man (R-03) “said a large turnout ac­tu­ally would fa­vor him.” Booz­man: “As I go around all over the state … the people of Arkan­sas are very up­set with the ad­min­is­tra­tion. They’re up­set that in­stead of agree­ing with the views of Arkansans, she’s voted with the ad­min­is­tra­tion 95 per­cent of the time” (Ly­on, Arkan­sas News Bur­eau, 10/7).

Lin­coln, on trail­ing Booz­man in polling: “I’ve nev­er been a fan of polls, though some mem­bers of my staff are. The thing to re­mem­ber is that polls are a snap­shot in time. You have to look at all the vari­ables - are they polling spe­cif­ic groups of voters or a cross-sec­tion or not? … We have in­tern­al polling show­ing my race a lot closer than the num­bers out there.”

She “said she has been dis­cuss­ing her ef­forts to make the new health care re­form law a more trans­par­ent pro­cess, job cre­ation and get­ting the na­tion’s de­fi­cit and debt un­der con­trol in com­ing years.”

Lin­coln, on the fin­an­cial sys­tem: “One of the big dif­fer­ences between Con­gress­man Booz­man and my­self is that he backed TARP but not our Wall Street re­form bill that be­came law this sum­mer. He was all for bail­ing out Wall Street but not for clean­ing things up.”

She “said” that “some” $21M “has flowed in­to the state” for neg­at­ive ad­vert­ising “against her re-elec­tion ef­fort” dur­ing the primary, run­off and gen­er­al elec­tion (Chil­dress, Jones­boro Sun, 10/7).

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story mis­tated the name of The Times-Pi­cay­une‘s former food crit­ic.

When the levees broke in 2005 and New Or­leans began to fill with wa­ter, the staff of The Times-Pi­cay­une took flight to Houma, 90 minutes away. If they were go­ing to put out a daily news­pa­per, they needed work­ing equip­ment on high­er ground. But someone had to cov­er the des­cent of my ho­met­own from Bay­ou idyll to hell­s­cape, so a dozen du­ti­ful staffers — re­port­ers, ed­it­ors, pho­to­graph­ers — hunkered down in a colum­nist’s up­town house. They chron­icled the en­su­ing agony (the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter) and ec­stasy (rooftop res­cues). They worked them­selves raw. They won a Pulitzer Prize.

Next time a hur­ricane decim­ates New Or­leans — it hap­pens a few times per cen­tury — don’t ex­pect these hero­ics. This week, Ad­vance Pub­lic­a­tions, the me­dia con­glom­er­ate that owns The Times-Pi­cay­une, cut the news­room staff by 49 per­cent to 89 em­ploy­ees. When the over­haul is com­plete, the daily will be a Web-first pub­lic­a­tion that prints thrice weekly. In any town, this de­vel­op­ment would render hand-wringing. In New Or­leans, the re­ac­tion is closer to hor­ror. Prac­tic­ally every civic, culin­ary, re­li­gious, and artist­ic lead­er has begged Ad­vance to re­con­sider.

That’s be­cause New Or­leans has a spe­cial love af­fair with it­self. It’s not just garden-vari­ety civic pride — the self-jus­ti­fy­ing way people con­vince them­selves that their place is the best place. No, New Or­lean­i­ans are ob­sessed with the ana­chron­ist­ic, easy-liv­ing, macabre, glut­ton­ous, and jin­go­ist­ic at­trib­utes that make the city what it is. And they’re largely right: The Cres­cent City is a place of glor­i­ous and con­flic­ted weird­ness. Im­pov­er­ished black freed­men gave it mu­sic, their former mas­ters gave it Mardi Gras and a love of rituals, and im­mig­rants — Creoles, Cajuns, Itali­ans, French — pitched in cuisine.

The Times-Pi­cay­une de­voted it­self to cel­eb­rat­ing those at­trib­utes. It dis­tin­guished it­self by the way it treated its sub­ject — New Or­leans — with ex­actly the right mix of curi­os­ity,  in­dig­na­tion, be­muse­ment, rev­er­ence for tra­di­tion, hun­ger for pro­gress, and love that the city de­serves. As a loc­al mu­si­cian put it re­cently, The Times-Pi­cay­une was “the voice of the city.”

Yes, I’m writ­ing in the past tense. This isn’t just a journ­al­ist’s elegy for his dy­ing in­dustry and the pa­per he grew up with — al­though, yes, it’s also that. Just to re­hearse the main points for pos­ter­ity: It is not pos­sible in a great­er met­ro­pol­it­an area of 1.2 mil­lion people to prac­tice good ac­count­ab­il­ity journ­al­ism with just 89 em­ploy­ees. Writers dash­ing off three Web stor­ies every day will nev­er be able to de­vel­op sources, get to know the sub­jects of their pro­files, or spend enough time just ob­serving to tell ori­gin­al stor­ies. Es­pe­cially when the story they’re try­ing to tell is as vi­tal and com­plex as New Or­leans.

More pro­sa­ic­ally, but even more im­port­ant, it takes man­power to comb through the jail logs and the City Coun­cil budget. Louisi­ana has a his­tory of polit­ic­al cor­rup­tion that ex­ceeds even its repu­ta­tion — a repu­ta­tion brought to life as much by the en­ter­pris­ing work of in­vest­ig­at­ive re­port­ers as by loc­al pro­sec­utors. Mean­while, the city faces a so­cial-justice cata­strophe: 28 per­cent of its res­id­ents live be­low the poverty line (more than double the na­tion­al rate), and its na­tion-high murder rate is nearly 20 per­cent above the next-highest city on the list. The Times-Pi­cay­une says it will cov­er these stor­ies, but the cut­backs be­lie the prom­ise.

I’m not na­ive about the eco­nom­ics. After Hur­ricane Kat­rina, Times-Pi­cay­une cir­cu­la­tion fell by nearly 30 per­cent, roughly mir­ror­ing the pop­u­la­tion de­cline. Al­though Ad­vert­ising Age cred­ited the pub­lic­a­tion with $70.4 mil­lion in print and Web ad rev­en­ue last year — sources in­side the pa­per say it was prof­it­able — na­tion­al trends are ob­vi­ous. (Ad­vance is a fam­ily-owned com­pany, so its fin­ances are not pub­lic. It did not an­swer re­quests for com­ment.) Like all pa­pers, The Times-Pi­cay­une must ad­apt.

But not this way! The print edi­tion had 65 per­cent pen­et­ra­tion in New Or­leans, the fourth-best rate in the coun­try. Now it will pub­lish mostly on­line in a city where 36 per­cent of the people don’t have In­ter­net ac­cess. Ad­vance says the pub­lic­a­tion will fo­cus more on sports and en­ter­tain­ment. (So why fire Brett An­der­son, the be­loved James Beard Award-win­ning food crit­ic in a city that lives or dies with the for­tunes of the food-ser­vice in­dustry?) In oth­er words, it will cater to white and wealthy read­ers in a town that owes its iden­tity to the un­der­class, which stands to lose its voice.

It’s not hard to see Ad­vance’s reas­on­ing. Ex­ec­ut­ives won’t sell the pa­per, be­cause they can’t fetch a good price; and they don’t think it’s their re­spons­ib­il­ity to carry losses for the sake of the great­er good. Maybe it makes sense to try something rad­ic­al. Rip off the Band-Aid, right?

Wrong. A fam­ily-owned me­dia com­pany (no pub­lic share­hold­ers or fi­du­ciary ob­lig­a­tions) can weigh oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions, and in New Or­leans there are many. Surely Ad­vance knows that a news­pa­per is a pub­lic as­set; it should have re­cog­nized that my ho­met­own — be­set by worse-than-nor­mal urb­an patho­lo­gies, ra­cing to re­verse Kat­rina’s an­ni­hil­a­tion — needs one more than any­where else. Ul­ti­mately, the com­pany may be forced to move up­mar­ket. But it could first try this ex­per­i­ment with its prop­er­ties in, say, Ne­wark, N.J., or Staten Is­land, both of which have less poverty and more In­ter­net ac­cess.

And when the busi­ness mod­el no longer works in New Or­leans, as it even­tu­ally won’t, Ad­vance should make the changes gently: Give read­ers time to make peace with them, cit­ies time to gen­er­ate more broad­band pen­et­ra­tion, and pop­u­la­tions time to con­vert more fully to di­git­al life. Cut pub­lic­a­tion but not staff, or not so dra­mat­ic­ally, or not all at once — any­thing that pro­longs the beau­ti­ful “voice of the city.” That, too, has value.

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