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Shaming our state (10/6/2010)
Making real change (9/29/2010)
Bought and paid for (9/22/2010)
Last month The Ann Arbor News closed for good. But not to worry, we were told by the publisher, a chipper corporate creature with the improbable name of Laurel Champion. Yes, we were losing a newspaper, and 272 employees would join the vast reserve army of the unemployed.
But we were gaining Ann Arbor.com, a combination "local news service and social networking site." Why, even before the paper closed, the dot-com had hired "more than a dozen" former Ann Arbor News employees, meaning no more than 96 percent of the staff had been destroyed. How could anyone complain about that? (Would the old staffers have their same or better salaries? Bet you can guess!)
Not only would this wonderful new thing be on the Web anytime you approached your local coffee shop for a double cap mocha-bismol, it would be printed twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays. I couldn't wait. I zipped over to Dexter and eagerly bought the Thursday product.
Now I like to think of myself as a fairly sophisticated newspaper critic. I've worked for a lot of them, have had bylines in The Washington Post and New York Times, am a newspaper ombudsman, have been on the graduate faculty at the University of Michigan, and have taught journalism full time for years. So I wanted to find just the right way of expressing the quality of Ann Arbor.com in words both the layman and the experienced journalist could understand and relate to.
So here goes: Ann Arbor.com is an appalling pile of crap. And an insult to the intelligence of any functioning adult.
Essentially, it is written for children who are at about the fourth-grade level, possibly, slightly below-average ones. Here's what the top story on Ann Arbor.com was Sunday afternoon: DEXTER PHARMACY DAMAGED IN MINOR FIRE. ("A damage estimate is not yet available. No information was available on when the pharmacy will re-open.")
Not that there isn't a place for that kind of news. However, the real work of journalism is, say, examining how the city council works, spends money, gives out contracts. I would be astonished to see anything like that, ever, on Ann Arbor.com. What makes the website a swindle is that they promise occasional "special reports." (Eat your heart out, Sam Donaldson.) For example, there was one last week.
We learned that — get ready for this — those who fancy child pornography tend "to keep it very hidden" and that most child molesters have child pornography on their computers. They are, a professor at Eastern Michigan University tells us, "looking for things that excite them." Who knew?
What, however, about the printed version that comes out twice a week? The one I examined (July 30) could have been written by a properly programmed computer. We learned, in a hard-hitting lead story, that old people want to hang on to their senior center.
Elsewhere, we are told that there is to be a city council election, find out that a poll shows that stress affects children, and are told how to host a block party ("Get a list of all the neighbors you have on the block …").
Back in the 1980s, I used to teach a beginning journalism workshop at the University of Michigan. I would take the students to Caro, and have them put out a special supplement to the Tuscola County Advertiser. Their work was largely better than Ann Arbor.com.
However, the main purpose of the printed paper doesn't have anything at all to do with journalism. The paper exists as a vehicle for what they used to call the "reds" — the trashy advertising sections that fall out when you pick it up; the company makes money delivering those.
Journalism may be essential to democracy, but not to the Laurel Champions of this earth, who care only about making money for their bosses. If you want to see the immediate future of journalism, it lies in an ad a laid-off Free Presser found on the Internet: "I'm looking for high school/college students to write articles between 500 and 600 words."
Whoever this is wants "well researched and original content on various subjects … I'm willing to pay between $7.50 and $10 an article, depending on quality."
Bet he gets some Pulitzer winners for that. Meanwhile, think of what might have happened had Monica and Kwame been elected to office in Ann Arbor. If it were up to what passes for journalism there these days, they could probably have stolen the pavement before anyone noticed.
Never forget: Can you imagine anything more terrible than dropping nuclear weapons on unsuspecting civilians? So it is worth remembering that exactly one nation in the history of the world has done that. Not Nazi Germany, not the Soviet Union, not the murderous Khmer Rouge. No, it was us — the United States of America.
We incinerated, or condemned to death by radiation sickness, cancers, etc., something like a quarter of a million human beings. That came at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.
Even if you think that at least the first bomb was necessary to end World War II, any sane person would have to agree that this should never happen again. Al Fishman, a veteran now in his 80s, has spent his life fighting for peace and against nuclear war, and he isn't about to stop now.
Back in 1950, at the beginning of the Korean War, he was arrested outside what was then Briggs Stadium, trying to get signatures for the Stockholm Appeal calling for an absolute ban on nuclear weapons.
The ever-tolerant Detroit cops arrested him for "disturbing the peace," and tossed him in the slam, where he spent the Fourth of July weekend. (The charge was later deemed to be improper and dropped.)
"Fifty-nine years later, and I'm still working for nuclear abolition," he said with a chuckle last week. Except now, there is a difference.
He feels with President Obama, "for the first time, there is a real chance." He is trying to make that possible. This Thursday, the Hiroshima anniversary, Peace Action of Michigan is presenting a program at First Baptist Church at 300 Willits St. in Birmingham, starting at 7:30 p.m.
Paul Gunter, a specialist on nuclear energy, security and radiation, is to present a candid program, "Proliferation and Pollution: Nuclear Costs and Consequences." Afterward, Peace Action will lead a silent outdoor procession, carrying images of Hiroshima and messages of peace.
Does that sound tacky? Overdramatic? Some sort of retro-1960s performance? If you think that, you are sadly ignorant. By the way, this columnist has been to Hiroshima. The museum has a large section devoted to the tumors caused by the bomb. As Edward R. Murrow said after visiting a concentration camp, I saw it, but I won't try to describe it.
There are fools who think the nuclear threat essentially vanished when the Soviet Union did. Smarter people know better. Forty years ago, the big powers had a nuclear monopoly, and a vested interest in not blowing each other up. Now, there are nukes everywhere. Pakistan has them; Israel has them; North Korea probably does.
It is likely only a matter of time till someone sets another one off.
Al Fishman and his wife, Marge, have been doing their best for decades to save us from ourselves. By the way, after Coleman Young became mayor, he appointed Al to a high-ranking position with the police department. They promptly gave him a tour, including the ninth floor, where he'd been locked up. "Looked a little familiar," he muttered. As the Prophet Leroy used to say about life, "You just can't make this stuff up."
Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at email@example.com.