Woodward the Intern

Bob Woodward– he of “All the President’s Men” fame– used to be a journalist. He’ll probably be honored forever for his celebrated expose– with Carl Bernstein– of the Watergate scandal.

He probably doesn’t know why.

He is now an iconographer of the worst sort. He belongs to the Barbara Walters school of pseudo-journalists who think that it is better to write fawning little laudatory tracts from the inside, than incisive, perceptive, important news from the outside.

Bob Woodward is in. He is invited to join President Bush and Cheney and the whole gang in the White House for an “insider” look at the presidency of George W. That’s like getting an “insider” account of the 9/11 bombings from Osama Bin Laden– if he really even had anything to do with it.*

The Bush administration, which, believe it or not, still has few holdovers from the Nixon era, must love the irony of it all, tee hee. Just imagine– one of the most famous journalists on the planet, known primarily for his role in bringing down the Nixon White House, gives his imprimatur of approval to a president that is as far to the right of Nixon as McGovern was to his left.

If George W. Bush had any real character, of course, he would have invited a reporter with acuity and objectivity, to see that he really is, ahem, doing a good job. Democrats sometimes like to do this, because, after all, they are the party of tolerance and diversity. That’s why Clinton had David Gergen on his staff for a while. That’s why President Bartlett on West Wing brought in Ainsley as Sam Seaborne’s nemesis for a while. (Why is it that you just know that a similar show with a Republican president and republican sensibilities would never bring in a liberal to ensure diversity of opinion? Because they believe they’re always right, that’s why.)

Instead, Bush, having established to his satisfaction that Woodward was politically sympathetic, and eager to please, invited the little toady, a naïve little fawn, an intern, for heaven’s sake, into the oval office for what can only be described as journalistic fellatio. Woodward’s stained dress is his “casual” and coy references to files marked “Top Secret” left within his view, and the flattering portrait of the president and his staff as personable, patriotic, and steely-eyed with determination to do something noble, be it whacking the Iraqi’s or giving billions of dollars in tax rebates to the rich.

I don’t mind Woodward fawning over Bush and writing pornographic iconography (pornography of the political mind). I do mind him continuing to pass himself off as a journalist on CNN and other talk shows, and acting as if he has any kind of objectivity left.

Woodward, take off the dress. It’s time to go home.

* I know some people will think it is pretty strange when I say “if he even had anything to do with it”. I’ll repeat it: if he even had anything to do with it.

If you are at all familiar with Nazi history, you know about the concept of the big lie. The idea is that any idea, no matter how ridiculous, can be sold to the general population as unquestionable truth by simply repeating it over and over again, no matter what anyone says.

That is what has happened with Osama Bin Laden. He is absolutely regarded as the mastermind behind 9/11 even though no proof has ever been adduced to that effect. Without a doubt, he approved of the attack. Without a doubt, he hates the United States. Without a doubt, he supports terrorist activities against Israel and the United States, and Western Civilization altogether.

But that is not proof that he orchestrated or financed or designed the attack on the World Trade Centre, and it bothers me, even if it doesn’t bother anyone else, that he would be hanged on the spot in the U.S. if he was ever found there and no one would mind at all

Get Your Own #%%!@## Format!

Here it is– another great solution to the movie and music piracy problem!

It’s so mind-numbingly simple, why didn’t George W. Bush think of it?

The music industry and film industry should get together and create new recording medium. It wouldn’t be very hard at all– the technology is there. There are dozens of modifications they can make to existing technologies in order to create a new medium that belongs only to them. A special type of DVD with special coding at the start that prevents it from being played in any existing DVD player. You heard me right– but hang on. I’m not crazy. They can call it the “Super Media Content Diskie” or “SMCD”.

The music and film industries will own this standard and will not license it to anybody but themselves. They will contract out with factories to produce a new SMCD Player. The codes required for playing a SMCD will be hard- coded into a special chip, and thus almost impossible to copy or hack.

Then the music and film industries will start releasing all of their “content” only on these special disks. You won’t be able to buy a SMCD version of “Titanic” or “A Few Good Men” or a CD version of Bruce Springsteen or Britney Spears. You will only be able to buy it on SMCD, for which you will have to buy or lease the SMCD player.

And thus piracy will end. No digital copying will be possible. No digital quality copies of songs or movies on the internet, though, of course, some people might be able to make passable copies by recording, with microphones or video cameras, right off the SMCD player screen. (The music and film industries have made it plain that while they’ve always been concerned about copying in general, from any source, it is really the digital copying that gets their goats.)

Problem solved.

It will never happen.

It will never happen because the music and film industries know damn well that they don’t really want a world in which they have absolute ownership and control over their product because in a world like that they won’t make any money.

The reason is very simple and obvious. The consumer would never accept such a system. And some smart musicians and independent movie makers would immediately realize this and start to offer their products on popular media like DVDs and CD’s. And the music and film industries would lose their power and control over the entertainment market and quickly capitulate and that would be end of that.

No, wait— there’s a better solution! The music and film industries can try to seize control of the existing technologies– VCRs, computers, CD recorders– and try to shove their copy-protection schemes down our throats.

And that is what is happening. No one is required to issue movies or music on DVDs or CDs. They do it because they know damned well that the public adopted those media because they were widely accepted standards. They were widely accepted standards because they were broadly licensed to many manufacturers and PC makers. They were broadly licensed because they were sold to us as media, not content. The music and film industries benefit enormously from those widely accepted standards. And that is why, if they don’t like the consequences of a broad, open standard, they should get the hell off it and start producing their own proprietary media that nobody can copy. If they don’t like the SMCD idea, they can go back to vinyl. If they don’t like the internet, they go back to AM radio.

It would be the best thing that could ever happen to the entertainment industry. You would get loads of Third World bands and movie-makers who would be more than happy to give up some protections of their materials in exchange for wide distribution and exposure. They would issue their stuff on popular media formats and would soon blow Hollywood out of the mass market. You would see Demi Moore and Bruce Willis traveling to Bombay to make a new action flick, in English.

This is why Apple is tiny compared to Microsoft. This is why Betamax never caught on. This is why the Laser Disk never made it. This is why Advantix film by Kodak will never succeed. This is why rock’n’roll succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations (the AM battery-powered radio).

The truth is that music and film industries don’t really compete with each other anymore, and don’t want to have to compete with anyone else. They price their products in lock-step with each other, and hate having to actually produce and develop new talent while they can still pimp off their old established stars.

And when their control starts to diminish, because of computers and the internet, instead of becoming leaner or meaner or more competitive– which requires work and talent– they start stuffing your congressman’s pockets full of cash and get the DMCA passed. Now they want congress to require all electronic recording devices to give control over what and when something can be copied to these pimps at the RIAA and MPAA (Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Pictures Association of America).

This is an outrage. It’s one of the five or six biggest scandals of the last twenty years. The Music Industry has every right to negotiate contracts with radio stations and hardware makers about how and when they can put their content on their media. Why the hell should the government step in and make laws to govern– and penalize offenders– an arrangement that should absolutely be a contractual agreement between the record companies and radio stations?

Their control of the world-wide entertainment industry is threatened by any technology that gives more power and control and choice to the consumer. Most consumers wouldn’t give a damn about Britney Spears if it weren’t for the monopolistic control the music industry has over radio, print, and television, but most consumers don’t know that.

They would find out in a hurry if something prompted them to start looking elsewhere.

Yes, I know it’s a symbiotic relationship. New technologies are often created by content companies (or at least companies that have a content division, like Sony and Phillips) at least partly for the purpose of creating new markets for their products. Sort of what I described here as “SMCD”. But Phillips also licensed their technology to many companies to make recorders, players, and car decks. So it benefitted by the very open standard that most content providers now want to kill.

It doesn’t always work that way– few people buy a minidisc to listen to pre-recorded minidiscs– but Phillips certainly intended the cassette as a mass market music media. But the relationship is ambiguous. For example, the recording industry needs radio and television media exposure in order to sell their products. Yet they now want to charge Internet Radio broadcasters for playing their music! Here we have the RIAA acting like a bullying monopoly. Why, for heaven’s sake, won’t some competing independent producers come along and offer their goods for free play on the internet? They would, but the RIAA of America is doing everything it can to not let them. They want their policy wishes to be the law, instead of a contract between themselves and the radio stations, which is what it should be. Because if it was only a contractual arrangement, then competing music producers could offer a better deal!

Unenforceable Clauses

Marilyn Shafer of the New York State Supreme Court has just issued a ruling that all of us should celebrate.

Network Associates, a software company that makes anti-virus software, had a little clause in their customer purchase agreement that should sound familiar to most of us, in tone if not exact content.

The clause states that no customer may review the product purchased without the prior consent of Network Associates.

I know from my experience arguing with people on the internet that a lot of people firmly believe that a company can force you to agree to anything as a condition of buying and using their product. These people believe that there is some kind of absolute right of private property out there, that companies have no obligations to society other than to provide the product they promised on the terms they specified to the customer who agrees and pays.

But companies do not exist in a vacuum. Like you and me, they are part of a complex of relationships and obligations that constitute membership in a society. If you live in America, you have to obey the law, pay your taxes, and shoulder your share of the burden of providing roads and schools and policing for everyone– unless, of course, you are a rich person under a Republican administration.

In return for meeting your obligations, you receive enormous benefits. You receive protection from the police, medical care, education, roads, assistance in times of natural disaster, military protection from foes abroad, and so on.

If you don’t like that deal, you can, as they say, go live elsewhere.

Network Associates benefits from all of these and more. Their employees acquired their skills from publicly funded schools and universities. Their products are delivered on our roads and through our airports. They are protected by laws and police, from arbitrary search and seizure (until the Homeland Security Act was passed). They benefit from the enormous structure of laws and procedures that constitute our economic system. As a result, they have an obligation beyond the simple power of setting conditions of sale, to observe generally agreed upon rules of conduct in our society.

The Supreme Court of New York State has struck a blow for freedom of speech and consumer rights, and simultaneously raised the issue of whether these myriad conditions imposed by vendors upon customers are actually “enforceable”.

Not only did Judge Shafer rule that the clause was unenforceable. She indicated that there will be fines in the millions of dollars. She is going to punish Network Associates for trying to trick people into obeying a rule they had no business imposing on people.

I like this judge, and I hope you do too.

Aaron Sorkin’s “West Wing”

“The West Wing” may well be one of the best shows on television right now. I don’t know for sure. I’m not qualified to judge. I can’t stand to watch more than fifteen minutes of most television anyway. Except on Wednesday nights, at 9:00 p.m. I am willing to put up with 20 minutes of ads to watch the latest episode of “The West Wing”. I am even more willing to download commercial-free versions from the internet. God bless piracy.

I do scan tv now and then. I don’t pay rapt attention, but I have watched a few episodes of ER and I’ve sat in on “Friends” a few times, and I actually enjoyed “Seinfeld” regularly. The only shows I’ve liked over the past few years have been “The Simpsons”, “The West Wing”, and “Malcolm in the Middle”, which, bless their hearts, runs without a laugh track. “The Sopranos” looks really good but I can never remember when it is on. As for “Friends”, please, please, please get rid of the laugh track. It’s an insult to your intelligence when such lame comedy is lavished with so much audience hilarity. It is the producers of the show laughing at their own bad jokes.

The West Wing is a good show. It is shamelessly political and topical and intelligent. It shamelessly worships intelligence, which is astonishing for a culture that more typically worships anti-intellectualism. The girl always falls for the sincere dolt and rejects the prissy genius.

It is shockingly liberal in outlook, to a degree. Actually, it would be more accurate to label the show “Democrat”–in the sense of being sympathetic to the Democrat political platform–than truly liberal. It’s Blair and Clinton, not Eugene McCarthy or Trudeau. It’s that phony liberalism that feels shameful about the idealist tendencies in some progressives. Sorkin doesn’t want to be accused of muddle-headed bleeding heart pacifism. Nor does he really want to believe that America is not fundamentally the greatest nation on earth.

After watching a lot of episodes, you begin to realize that Sorkin doesn’t really know very much about the world outside of America. Every foreign crisis dramatized in West Wing has the feel of a CNN report filtered through Oprah Winfrey with Barbra Streisand as guest commentator. A long discussion of health care issues failed even once to refer to the most obvious model of socialized health care in Canada.

It’s well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed. Some of the “ground-breaking” techniques (well, “ground-breaking” only if you never saw “Hill Street Blues” in your life) have grown a bit tiresome, and most of the characters do tend to sound a lot alike. The Steadicam shots should be retired– it’s been parodied brilliantly and accurately by MAD TV and a parody that deadly should be heeded.

West Wing won an Emmy in 2000 but Sorkin was criticized by writer Rick Cleveland for hogging all the credit. Sorkin refused to allow Cleveland to come to the podium with him to accept the award even though the story that won the Emmy for Sorkin was based on Cleveland’s father, who was a homeless Korean war vet. Sorkin went on-line in a chat room to trash Cleveland and claimed that he didn’t deserve the Emmy for the episode, though the Writer’s Guild, which sets the rules in these kinds of disputes, certified that he did. The episode– a good one– concerned a Korean War Vet who died homeless, wearing a coat Toby had donated to Goodwill. Toby made Herculean efforts to see that the man was given a proper military funeral to honor his selfless sacrifice. Sorkin’s curiously muddled but rapt devotion to the military was front and centre in this episode.

The good “liberal” President Bartlett displays conspicuous reverence for his generals– and he ought to– on “West Wing”, they are efficient, rational, prudent, and wise. Gosh. Not at all like the real life Curtis Lemay or Westmoreland.

The generals in “West Wing” treat a liberal Democratic president with respect because he’s tough enough to order assassinations and preparations for armed intervention at the slightest provocation. This is old nonsense– this defensive phony liberalism sees it’s shining emblems in tolerance for gays and feminists, good funding for schools, and preservation of wilderness areas, but, by golly we’re not pussies: if there’s killing that needs doing, we’ll do it.

Nobody on the White House staff, in “West Wing”, seems aware of anything America has ever done wrong in the Middle East or Asia or Latin America. They are stunningly unaware of earlier American involvements in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Pathetically, Donna flushes with excitement at meeting a military aide played by Christian Slater. Something about that uniform, I guess. Wow. That may well have been the lowest moment for a good show.  I happen to believe there really are a lot of Donna’s in the world– but their love of men in uniform is ridiculous, not noble.

The best? The unusual character of Ainsley Hayes, a Republican lawyer, hired by Bartlett to work in the office of the White House Counsel. Bartlett wanted her after seeing the diminutive cute blonde humiliate Sam in a debate on network television. Emily Proctor, who played Haynes, was a find. It’s too bad they didn’t find more to do for this character– creating the unfortunate impression that she was a token character, intended only to deceive viewers into thinking the writers were more broad-minded than they really were.

That brings me to the worst episode of West Wing, the premiere episode of 2001, which supposedly came to grips with the terrorist attack on the WTC. Sorkin’s characters, in most episodes, have amazing command of even the most obscure facts and figures on the most diverse topic. But in trying to explain why terrorists hate America to a group of talented high school students touring the White House, not a single one of them, not Toby, or Sam, or CJ, or Josh, could remember an insignificant detail like the coups in Iran or Guatemala or Chile, or the embargo against Cuba, or the bombing of Cambodia, or the installation of pro-American dictators in Iran and Iraq, or the way we used Afghanistan to help bring down the Soviet Union, and then abandoned them to the fangs of the Taliban, or the illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank, or the Viet Nam War.

No, if you were to believe Sorkin, those terrorists hate us because we are free, and because we are prosperous and successful, and they’re really just envious.

Even worse, the high school students themselves– one craved for even a single rebellious mind in the lot of them– asked simpering embarrassing softball questions. Could not Sorkin at least have put one independent, incisive mind among these supposed honor students? For the all the world, they sounded like unduly reverent acolytes, groveling at the feet of their karmic masters. Haven’t any of them ever read Noam Chomsky? Could there not have been one student whose parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Egypt or Syria or something, who had a different perspective? It was shameful.

Sorkin didn’t have to argue that America deserved to be attacked– but it was astonishing that he tried (and succeeded) to get away with suggesting that there was no reason at all for the attacks.

That’s not the issue. The issue is why do so many Arabs and others around the world think that America is a bully? The point is that their reasons for hating the U.S. are founded in real historical actions that resulted from very real, sometimes mistaken or bad, U.S. policy.

The episode was an unmitigated disaster, artistically and thematically. It was an insult to the viewer’s intelligence.

This weird blind spot in Sorkin’s liberalism– he’s obviously liberal on many social issues, like homosexuality and women’s rights– also shows up in Toby and CJ’s tirades against middle eastern Islamic regimes that abuse women. They’re right about the moral issue but they seem blissfully unaware of the fact that the U.S. itself is partly responsible for these regimes. They talk as if the U.S. has been consistently preaching liberal democracy to Syria and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and to Iran under our protégé, the Shah, and that wicked Islamists suddenly came along one day and drove our kindly diplomats out the country and instituted Sharia. It’s a cheap attempt to say, we can be just as militaristic and confrontational as the Republicans because we are liberals– not in spite of the fact that we are liberals.

There might or might not be a political case to be made for the Shah of Iran and American support for a regime that repressed and tortured their own citizens so we could have cheap oil for our oversized cars, but it could not and should not have been ignored, and the apparent sudden and complete ignorance of Toby et. al. of the history of U.S. involvement with Arab regimes was inexcusable.

Governor George Ryan of Illinois

One of the most amazing news stories of the past few years is the story of Illinois Republican Governor George Ryan. Apparently Ryan is about to issue pardons for all of the inmates on death row in Illinois. If you’re like me, you have to read that twice to believe it, in this era of hardline punishment freaks. Yes, a Republican governor is going to issue a blanket commutation for the death sentences of 156 inmates.

Ryan has been investigating the investigations of these men for about two years, ever since it was discovered that a substantial number of them were wrongfully convicted. A law professor in Chicago had made it a personal hobby to reinvestigate capital cases and had remarkable success in showing police incompetence, brutality, and deceit in these cases. After looking at all of them closely, Ryan simply lost confidence in the system. He didn’t believe that he could believe, with any degree of certainty, that any of the men it was his job to have executed was actually guilty of the crime he was convicted of.

In spite of my sympathy for their losses, I always find it repulsive when the families of a murder victim express their horror, shock, and dismay, that they won’t get to see the murderer fry. There are loads of euphemisms for that desire– one of the ugliest and dumbest is the word “closure”– but it always strikes me as nothing more than a passionate desire to do unto the perpetrator the very horror he has visited upon us, and that is illogical. Murder is horrible and evil and obscene, and the evil that it does to us is not undone by repeating the action.

It is undone by acts like those of George Ryan, which show that occasionally we humans can be better than murderers.