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After I wrote my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” and after I became an email pal of travel master Paul Theroux (after he cheered and plugged my findings of fiction in “Travels With Charley”), I read this 2009 piece Theroux wrote for the Smithsonian magazine about his one-way dash across the USA from LA to Cape Cod.

He touched only a few of the places I did along the Steinbeck Highway a year later — Route 66, Amarillo cattle country — but he drove alone and fast and describes a country I recognized from my travels.

Here are the final paragraphs summing up his car trip, which, while far better written than anything I could come up with, are frighteningly similar to what I concluded — that the USA was big, empty, beautiful, safe and friendly.

Theroux, from his article “Taking the Great American Roadtrip”:

In my life, I had sought out other parts of the world—Patagonia, Assam, the Yangtze; I had not realized that the dramatic desert I had imagined Patagonia to be was visible on my way from Sedona to Santa Fe, that the rolling hills of West Virginia were reminiscent of Assam and that my sight of the Mississippi recalled other great rivers. I’m glad I saw the rest of the world before I drove across America. I have traveled so often in other countries and am so accustomed to other landscapes, I sometimes felt on my trip that I was seeing America, coast to coast, with the eyes of a foreigner, feeling overwhelmed, humbled and grateful.

A trip abroad, any trip, ends like a movie—the curtain drops and then you’re home, shut off. But this was different from any trip I’d ever taken. In the 3,380 miles I’d driven, in all that wonder, there wasn’t a moment when I felt I didn’t belong; not a day when I didn’t rejoice in the knowledge that I was part of this beauty; not a moment of alienation or danger, no roadblocks, no sign of officialdom, never a second of feeling I was somewhere distant—but always the reassurance that I was home, where I belonged, in the most beautiful country I’d ever seen.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/The-Long-Way-Home-USA.html#ixzz2bU1thRB0
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter

 

The 1980s was the Golden Age of newspapers.

In that greedy decade the Los Angeles Times, where I thoroughly enjoyed working as a copy editor and freelance writer/reviewer, was a major national media power.

Its profits were obscene. It still had about 1.1 million readers and more international bureaus than the CIA.

It could afford to pay top writers $50k a year to write three mega-stories per annum that were too long to read, or assign two investigative reporters to the Scientology beat for years without them ever printing a word. It had about 1,100 editorial employees then, more than twice what it has now.

Today the Times is like most dinosauric daily newspapers in the post-Digital Age. It’s shriveled and sickly and still unable and/or unwilling to adapt to the Internet and its culture of openness.

It’s too late. Culturally and politically, the L.A. Times is nationally irrelevant and cloutless. Worse than Time or Newsweek.

The Times and its bankrupt corporate daddy the Tribune Company are up for sale for about $600 million — a fire-sale price.

As a libertarian, and as the only open libertarian I knew working at the Times in the 1980s, I hope the fabulously rich libertarian Koch brothers buy the paper with their pocket change and give some of my few surviving liberal friends there a taste of their own medicine.

It’ll be interesting to see how my fellow journalists react to having bosses — i.e., devout libertarian/conservative publishers and the non-liberal editors they will certainly hire — who don’t have the same political biases they have (and don’t know they have).

The Times, as any non-Obama-loving reader or non-liberal journalist knows, desperately needs some more ideological diversity (ID) — on its editorial pages but primarily among its subeditors and reporters. It needed ID in the 1980s. I’m sure it still does. All big-city papers always did and still do.

Meanwhile, rooting through my Los Angeles Times archives the other day I found shocking evidence of just how far the mighty L.A. Times, aka the Daily Titanic, has sunk in terms of what it once spent on the gathering and spinning of news and opinion.

Two nicely typed pages detail the Times’ enormous 1982 editorial budget (which included my paltry $30,000 a year salary as a part-time copy editor in Calendar, the arts & entertainment section).

 

la times budget 1982la times budget page 2

A lousy $45 million isn’t much in an age of $3.5 trillion federal budgets. But it’s about $105 million in 2012 dollars, which is almost enough to buy what’s left of the L.A. Times itself and about a sixth of the price the whole Tribune Company and its eight papers is expected to go for.

The 1982 budget report looks like just a bunch of big boring numbers to civilians.

But it’s a real shocker for the survivors of the Great Daily Newspaper Crash. They will scream and cry and remember the good old days before blogs and tweets democratized journalism and made everyone with a thumb an amateur George Will.

Almost $15 million spent for the Metro desk (local news) is impressive, even in 2013 dollars, but not as impressive as almost half a million for a stand-alone Sunday book section. Today there’s hardly a book section still alive in a North American newspaper.

A cool $1.1 million for the Times in-house library. A million bucks worth of editorial writers.  More than $700,000 for copy messengers, transcribers and the Times newswire.

Email, the Internet and PCs put many of those people out of their jobs and should have saved the Times a ton of money,  if only the paper had been managed well. But by the beginning of the reign of Bush II, the Times had upwards of 1,300 well-paid editorial employees and was about to hit the iceberg.

In the 1980s, the Times  was known as “The Velvet Coffin,” and for good reason. No one ever left it until they died, landed a job at the New York Times or got themselves hired by big Hollywood producers, which movie reporters Michael London, Dale Pollock and David Friendly did during my time there.

The L.A. Times paid everyone New York Times/Washington Post salaries and nobody ever had a heart attack from overwork. A lot of money was spent on good journalism, but a lot of money also was wasted. I remember Picasso prints in the mid-level editors’ glass offices.

I don’t remember where or how I acquired my copy of the 1982 budget report, and even if I did I’d go to jail to protect my sources.

But truth be told, I probably swiped it off the desk of the Times’ late, great and under-appreciated Sunday Calendar editor, Irv Letofsky. Or I fished it out of his trash basket when I was emptying it for him.

All I know for sure about the budget is that it’s authentic. And it’s a sad document from a happy newspaper era we will never see again.

Bill Steigerwald, whose columns and commentaries are archived at CagleCartoons.com, worked at the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the 1990s and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the ’00s. He is the proud author of the Amazon ebook “Dogging Steinbeck,” which exposes the truth about john Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” and celebrates Flyover America and its people. Many book details at TruthAboutCharley.com  or go to C-SPAN for his “Q&A” appearance with Brian Lamb.

route66 cover - 2 - final

 

 

  • Three terrible, neocon tweets, possibly preserved in some sort of social networking hibernation in 2004 to be thawed out now:

I didn’t know Eric Holder was soft on terrorists! What a disturbing interpretation!

You’re a parody.

“Playing the victim.”

  • Two different round-ups of more awful responses. The first is from Dan Bier at The Skeptical Libertarian, the second is from Andrew Kirell at Mediaite. The worst one is by far from Nick Kristof of The New York Times. The most banal — to me, and at least before the insane infowars-invaded press conference — was the one from Alex Jones. What the hell else would you expect from him besides spouting off about a “false flag attack”? I’m more impressed that he managed to express some sorrow for the lives lost.
  • And honestly, I think that the Cable News response could have been a lot worse. Some lingering lessons from Tuscon shooting, Sandy Hook, maybe Columbine, for Christ’s sake, seems to have finally stuck in people’s minds. I mean, Fox News still leaned towards terrorists of the brown persuasion (and Cavuto talked to Joe Arpaio, which was terribly enlightening, as you can imagine). MSNBC and CNN used words like “Waco” and “McVeigh” a lot more often. And, ya know, The New York Post lost its fucking mind and continued to refer to a Saudi suspect and 12 dead until at least 6 p.m. But somehow it felt like it could have been worse.
  • Some moving and grisly photos compiled by Buzzfeed. Take their”graphic” warning to heart. If you can stomach seeing a man with half both legs gone, you may be able to appreciate one amazing photo in particular. That sounds utterly callous, but then, so is taking a photo of a naked, napalmed girl. There’s no way to resolve my — or other folks’ — appreciation for hideous, powerful photojournalism. It’s always going to be wrong and necessary to intrude into people’s horror-moments in this way.
  • Dave Weigel on “Why the Conspiracy Theorists Will Have a Tough Time With Boston.” Weigel seems to have forgotten about the existence of the Zapruder film, however. I’m going to have to assume there’s some sort of deep conspiracy there.
  • Something to make you tear up — more concrete even than a Mr. Rogers quote.

This is strangely moving. For Holy Thursday, Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 young detainees in an Italian prison. Two of them were women, one was even Muslim.

And this is still...cool. And it’s also moving. Not all of Christopher Hitchens’ anti-religious pontificating was interesting to me, but his simple profanity, the simple “no, fuck you” as the correct response to Abraham’s order to kill his son Issac speaks volumes. That, offense or not, dear Christians, is what you say to God. That is what you say to anyone who tells you to kill your child. (Jesus, I don’t know, I feel like he had a little more autonomy in the whole crucifiction situation. Maybe I don’t get the trinity.)

Now, a lefty might say that who cares if the Pope washed some damn feet of poor juvenile delinquents — why doesn’t he institute some policies that would help them not be there in the first place? And indeed, the Catholic Church is not necessarily a net gain for the world. But young Roma immigrants in prison are pretty low on the totem pole of life. To see a man who is supposed to have a direct line to God kneeling before people like that seems to be a step in the right direction. And it seems beautiful. Humility in a way that’s not just a lazy word for someone who seems pious.

Besides, it’s easy, I suppose, to sass back to God in theory. Both acts are symbolic after all.

Hitchens’ stance on religion only really offends me when he acts as if non-believers should express nothing but hostility to any religious person they happen to meet. That’s absurd, if only because if I acted that way towards people with whom I disagree on huge issues (oh, say, the Iraq war) I would have exactly three and a half friends. Letters to a Young Contrarian Hitchens is my favorite. It’s from the post-Socialist, pre-9/11 period during which Hitchens’ love of humans, his desire for them to be free (before that was muddled up in his need to smash Islamic theocracies left and right) and his outrage over (his understand of) God as this 24/7 North Korea was highest. And it’s often a strangely beautiful, bracing attitude, even when I don’t always agree. Even his offense over the idea of Jesus sacrificing himself, being tortured, for Hitchens is great in its cussedness. He’s right about so many things, and I’m not an atheist.

I’m not an atheist and I have nothing but sincere feelings when I look at Pope Francis washing the feet of those kids. Even as I overthink those feelings.

The thing is, Hitchens at his heart seemed incredibly optimistic about people. “No, fuck you” in response to a theoretical and theocratic request to kill his children is love. But kissing the feet of kids who may have nobody in the world, who may have done bad things, poor, immigrant, oppressed kids, that’s love, too. Even if you’re doing it because you’re “supposed to”, because some old, stupid book, some ancient voodoo told you to, kissing those feet is love and it’s loving people.

Wouldn’t dream of trying to spoil anyone’s religious observance of this holiest of  Hollywood nights.

But in dishonor of the Oscars, the most successful public relations event for an industry in history, here’s one of my favorite quotes about Tinseltown and its products, which I captured in Beverly Hills in 1980 when I interviewed a very straight, very lucid and very funny Timothy Leary, 60, on his front lawn.

“The Hollywood system is really a company town, where everyone’s afraid. It’s run by crooks. It’s run by people who deliberately make these movies that make you feel bad, that make you feel helpless. They never give you a movie about good-looking men and women getting together, and getting smarter and moving and doing and getting something better. Alcoholic, rum-dum, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, you know, ‘Postman Rings Twice’ repeats and repeats and repeats… It’s a loser industry for losers.”

Ethan Casey, a friend, is a seasoned book writer/traveler/foreign correspondent from Seattle who’s lived in Pakistan, among many faraway corners of the world. He’s not a libertarian, but when it comes to the use of drones and America’s serial war-making overseas, he’s on the right page as far as I’m concerned.

IMG_0195-1024x768From his website EthanCasey.com is this quote from his essay Drones: What are we doing to ourselves?

“As someone who has been blessed for nearly two decades by the friendship of many Pakistanis and of Pakistan as a society, the word “sickened” is far too mild to describe how I feel about the damage drone attacks are doing in and to Pakistan. And as an American who loves my own country, I’m concerned with the question of whether America is a free country – which I was raised to believe was the point of America – or some sort of consensual military dictatorship.”

read more …

Steven Brill rolled out an 11-part epic in Time to break the news to us that the U.S. health care system sucks.

In just 20,000 words, Brill supplied repeated examples of hospital CEOs who make 7-figure salaries (that’s 1 million or more for us 5-figure proles). And he provided countless examples of  poor citizen schmoes who went broke beyond measuring because they had to pay the list prices of things like cancer cures or hospital blood work out of their own pockets, not the pockets of their fellow citizens (Medicare).

I read Brill’s tome, and so did Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, who discussed it — and came to the predictable conclusion that Brill’s “brilliant” work was ultimately a flop because he didn’t come to the predictable liberal conclusion: Which, as all brainwashed Slate readers know, is that we need still more government in government health care.

Yglesias, who impersonates an economist in his blog MoneyBox, complains that Brill didn’t explain why medical costs are so high. Then Yglesias proceeds not to explain why, either. Hilariously, studpidly, he says the solutions to high health care costs are either universal care (Medicare) or price controls.

I didn’t pick on Yglesias, because he’s a person who writes about economics without knowing anything about how economics works. But here’s what I wrote about Brill’s piece to Slate:

Brill’s Time piece was lousy journalism. He took 11 parts to redundantly/repetitively prove that the health care system is horrible. Consumers and taxpayers get screwed. Doctors and hospital czars have obscene salaries and drug companies make huge profits and buy off politicians to write laws that make health care the bloated, wasteful criminal enterprise it is. He proves that health care is not a free market. But he never talks about/explains why it’s not a real market: It’s because government regs and mandates and subsidies and distortions make a real market impossible. Prices are meaningless and impossible to determine or know by consumers who don’t pay them anyway. Could Brill or his editors have not found half a part of his epic to address the idiocy and damage done by third-party payment schemes? (Send my bill for my new knee to those nice taxpayers in Nebraska and Iowa, please, and make sure I get the most expensive new knee medicine can provide.) Plus, how about the effect on prices of our sacred-cow doctor cartel/union, which uses government laws and licensing to keep the number of doctors down and their fat salaries up (and often obscene). It also would have been nice if somewhere in those 11 parts Brill had found a few paragraphs to bring forth an economist (not Paul Krugman) or free-market health care wonks like John Goodman (not the corpulent actor) or Regina Herzlinger of Harvard to explain why and how government (and political) intervention makes a free market in health care impossible. Has anyone not noticed that when governments run things or design things they are always costly and irrational and backward, plus they suck? Our financial crisis. Our war in Afghanistan. Our Post Office? Our war on _____. If we had government Autocare, we’d have millionaire auto mechanics, $20,000 front-end alignments and no one could afford car insurance or repairs unless they were dirt poor or stinking rich. We’d also have the same idiots calling for universal Autocare because of “market failure.”

Read more: http://healthland.time.com/2013/02/20/sound-off-are-medical-bills-too-high-tell-us-why/#ixzz2LfgcdWRN