Belmont Club

You've Lost That Loving Feeling

Although the drumbeat of crisis in news has been steadily increasing from the end of 2011 it has paradoxically lost much of its drama.  Reports that “North Korea’s new leader vowed in 2009 to wage war if the country’s enemies shot down its long-range rocket” or that Iran “will in the ‘near future’ start enriching uranium deep inside a mountain” or  more bad economic news evoke a shrug and a blank stare in many.

Just as unemployment is ‘declining’ because people are no longer looking for work, interest in news may be waning simply because there is nothing new. It has the air of a blowout; where many had hoped the game would be close, the audience is leaving the stands for the parking lot because the bad guys have everything all but sewn up.

Those calling the play know that nobody is listening any more. Recently 500 current and former employees of the New York Times sent Arthur Sulzburger Jr a letter complaining  about how how unfairly life has been to them, hoping that Sulzberger can change things, but knowing deep in their hearts that he cannot. The letter is ostensibly about the end of defined pensions among its foreign employees, but it is really about the end of an era.

“We, the Guild leadership and many reporters, editors, account managers and other Times employees, Guild members and otherwise, are writing to express profound dismay at several recent developments.

Our foreign citizen employees in overseas bureaus have just had their pensions frozen with only a week’s warning. Some of these people have risked their lives so that we can do our jobs. A couple have even lost them. Many have spent their entire careers at the Times — indeed, some have letters from your father explaining the pension system — and deserve better treatment.

At the same time, your negotiators have demanded a freeze of our pension plan and an end to our independent health insurance.

We ask you to withdraw these demands so that negotiations on a new contract can proceed fruitfully and expeditiously. We also urge you to reconsider the decision to eliminate the pensions of the foreign employees.

We have worked long and hard for this company and have given up pay to keep it solvent. Some of us have risked our lives for it. You have eloquently recognized and paid moving tribute to our work and devotion. The deep disconnect between those words and the demands of your negotiators have given rise to a sense of betrayal.

One of our colleagues in senior management recently announced her retirement from the paper, which is reported to include a very generous severance and retirement package, including full pension benefits.

All of us who work at the Times deserve to have a secured retirement; this should not be a privilege cynically reserved to senior management. We strongly urge you to keep faith with your words and our shared mission of putting out the best newspaper in the world.”

If as in many other places else the “senior management” of news is reserving the lifeboats for itself that is only because they also  are afraid — or know for a certainty — how rapidly the water is rising in the bilges. Its every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.

The NYT and the Washington Post are hoping to sue those who pilfer their articles in order to revive their business. But that’s not going to fix the fact that the narrative is stale. There are no more riveting ups and downs of the economy; just downs. There is no longer the parade of diplomatic cliffhangers; they’ve all gone over the cliff. Where once newspapers could titillate audiences with stories of derring-do on the moon, reportage is now reduced to describing NASA questioning whether the surviving astronauts have the legal right to sell memorabilia. Man’s future in space is now ancient history and so perhaps is the drama that once went with it.

While Barack Obama can still say with a straight face that people alive today are lucky to see a someone who is at least the fourth best President in history — himself — many others wish they were born in some other time, laboring under the weight of what some have called a malaise. Here’s President Obama telling the current generation how lucky it is to have him.

The issue here is not gonna be a list of accomplishments. As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president – with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln – just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history. But, you know, but when it comes to the economy, we’ve got a lot more work to do. And we’re gonna keep on at it.

But most of the nation was not as sanguine. According to the polls confidence in the American Dream isn’t what it used to be. The Gallup polling company reported that only 17% of Americans were satisfied “with the way things are going in the United States … the second-lowest annual average in the more than 30-year history of the question, after the 15% from 2008.”

As the Righteous Brothers once sang, “you’ve lost that loving feeling” not just domestically, but internationally.  Foreign Policy’s police director says President Obama’s new defense guidelines embrace strategic decline. But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon says “strategic decline” is the wrong term for it. The correct phrase he says, is “leading from behind”.

“This is a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America. The President has packaged our retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defense. This strategy ensures American decline in exchange for more failed domestic programs. In order to justify massive cuts to our military, he has revoked the guarantee that America will support our allies, defend our interests, and defy our opponents. The President must understand that the world has always had, and will always have a leader. As America steps back, someone else will step forward.”

In a way the good news for the journalistic industry is that the worst is yet to come. President Obama’s strategy of “leading from behind” means that like Alice going down the rabbit hole they will all pop out again in some alternative universe where the excitement is back and history is on the move again. When things sufficiently tank enough there’ll be more drama than the New York Times can shake a stick at.

The spectators will start streaming back from the parking lot when news spread that the game has changed from football to one gigantic stadium-sized brawl. In that future the Times will have to revive promises of a pension to get their foreign correspondents to shake off that concussion and sally forth once more with the last surviving fast telephoto lens to win one more for the Gray Lady.

The drama will be back. But maybe we won’t like the form in which it will return.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $3.99, print $9.99

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