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Below is a comment I sent to NPR’s All Things Considered in response to a pretty hilarious commentary section on their Tuesday, April 14 show:

I consider myself a person of the left. I’d like to think I’m more open to a wider variety of “crazy” political opinions than many other Americans. But listening to your commentator’s piece on Somalian piracy Tuesday afternoon I found my jaw dropping on the ride home.

What got to me was the suggestion that Jihadists are worthy of more respect than Somali pirates because at “least they are fighting for something they believe in,” rather than cynical self-enrichment. Really, NPR? Really?

I still struggle to figure out why I should hate these raiders from Somalia, this razor edge of Third World capitalism, where no business transaction can exist without at least one sucker; they disrupt the commerce of radical Saudi and Iranian Islamic governments, they are against shariah law and they rarely ever harm their hostages, although that could now be over after the Navy SEALs’ sniper rifle escapade.

What they are doing is unsavory, yes, and no one can begrudge the hostages’ families wanting their captors dead or captured, but I find myself more willing to root for apolitical, anti-fundamentalist and imminently practical pirates who attempt to, as 50 Cent would put it, Get Rich or Die Trying.

After eight years of nightmarish political and religious ideology driving multiple nations, and with the current economic tailspin, a breath of cynical, realist practicality is one of fresh air. If I were Obama, I would be funding these pirates to continue raiding the commerce of America’s real future foes in Central Asia: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Russia.

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I can’t say I agree with the central thesis of the rant, but a number of the lamentations are spot on, fist-pumping true. Namely:

“I am convinced these monopolists loaded up journalism schools with operatives to teach students one thing: that journalists should not expect high wages. Then, drape the profession in the flag and a noble patina and inculcate students with the expectation of low pay.

The monopolists installed these operatives at places like Columbia and Northwestern who charge how much for a degree? What other profession trains their workers never to expect to be successful? Why should any worker providing a valuable service to millions of customers not expect to become wealthy?”

It’s highly doubtful that the grand conspiracy has played out in this literal fashion (I still maintain I received a quality education, however out of vogue it may be to say so), but the frustration and disgust associated with the described outcome is all too true. Go, Anonymous.

Mark I. Pinksy of The New Republic has beaten me to the draw with my own hypothesis for the future of journalism: a government-subsidized central trust, with a strong preservationist/legacy bent to render appearances more benign, around which the surviving private enterprises all orbit, picking up/freely exchanging information and aspiring talent along the way.

WNYC’s On the Media program interviewed Pinsky and profiled the Federal Writers Project. The latter was treated rather fondly–Pinsky’s reception was somewhat harsher. Fair enough, there are legitimate concerns and risks associated with the state funding of any industry previously the sole domain of private enterprise.

Honestly though, I’ve sensed a knee-jerk reaction in not just the brass, but much of journalism’s rank-and-file against the idea of BBC-style “journalism handouts.” An assumption, absolute in its faith, that integrity can only be maintained in the trade through the continued existence of the fiscal wing of the office building as a private entity.

It never ceases to amaze me how eager modern journalists are to help out the blades sawing at their own wrists and jugulars.

Having already been beaten to the chase by Pinsky on one front, I will preempt the other and declare myself what the journalists described above would be wont to call me if I mattered: “Defeatist Journalist.” I won’t give them the satisfaction of having coined that term.

This is all pure speculation.

[20:00] Sync: there’s only one forecast I have that I can say with utmost certainty

[20:00] Sync: the quality of American reportage will decline

[20:00] _____: how is that even possible?

[20:00] _____: American media is already crap

[20:14] Sync: it’s possible

[20:14] Sync: man

[20:14] Sync: if that journalism outsourcing actually takes off soon

[20:14] Sync: Asia could stand to make a fucking killing in the next decade

[20:15] Sync: (as in killing me and my career)

[20:24] Sync: well, to refer back to the original point

[20:24] Sync: just look at the state of american journalism’s command structure as of right now

[20:25] Sync: the current aging dinosaur bosses and owners of media outlets seem to have little desire or initiative to change up and vastly overhaul the business model of modern journalism into something that will actually work

[20:25] Sync: and the next generation coming to replace them?

[20:27] Sync: They seem to be happy being eternally happy-go-lucky about blogging and the unfettered nature of the Internet, not bothering to be very concerned about how online journalists will make any money

[20:28] Sync: I’ve described them essentially as sitting there with their emo glasses and dumb grins on their faces more than happy as they stab themselves repeatedly in the belly

[20:28] Sync: slitting their own hamstrings

[20:28] Sync: “BLOGGING IS THE FUTURE OF FREE PRESS!”

[20:30] Sync: so there will be a gazillion free-to-access, free-to-work for online sources of reportage

[20:31] Sync: “staffed” almost entirely by part-time “citizen reporters,” ie: people already connected tenuously and questionably to the stories they have leads on in their local areas

[20:31] Sync: who almost certainly work other jobs totally unrelated to journalism to make a living and aren’t trained as professional journalists

[20:32] Sync: hence: the quality of American reportage will decline

[20:33] Sync: “BLOGGING IS THE FUTURE OF FREE PRESS!”

As a token unemployed American cub journalist, I’ll try to provide some constructive commentary about this MSNBC article and why articles of its sort pop up every so often.

The reality of the mainstream journalism industry in the U.S. today is that less and less staff writers are required to produce more and more stories on ever-shrinking deadlines. While I’m not sure of Alexander’s job status with MSNBC– “contributor” is a pretty vague term, contributing editor? Semi-regular freelancer?– it’s a reality that every mainstream journalist has a strict quota on how many articles they need to pump out. These “cultural” pieces are easy to do, usually sound really good and have pre-established sets of sources that you don’t even need to leave your desk to call up and interview. After that you can call it a day, easy bump to your story count. I know this for a fact, on my college newspaper we secreted fandom/subculture “Woah-check-this-out!” pieces all the time.

Secondly, since my assumption is that MSNBC essentially functions like a daily news source, I’m guessing there was little to zero fact checking that went into this article. Another American journalism reality: only monthly magazines and publications with longer production times have the luxury of dedicated fact-checking staff. A daily newspaper makes the assumption that the reporter will fact check his or her own article, on risk of losing reputation for not doing so and being outed. Ostensibly, when the department editor(s) and copy editor make their passes over the article they are supposed to be making checks for factual accuracy as well. But how many copy editors at MSNBC do you think are read up on the deep thematic undertones of Legend of the Overfiend and Gurren Lagaan?

In episode #72 of the Anime World Order podcast, Macias mentions that he offered to fact check the article for Alexander. Placed in the same situation I would have made the same offer, but I would never have expected any real response in the affirmative. As a rule of thumb, the journalist never, ever accepts any offers of checks from “the outside,” especially if that offer came from someone who is a source in the actual article. It’s a bias thing. Simply mentioning to your editor that such an offer was made to you would likely get you in trouble (you’re supposed to totally ignore them)– taking up the offer and telling your editor after the fact and/or not telling them at all is usually grounds for instant dismissal, should your editor find out.

Of course, I don’t think these points totally redeem Alexander’s article. The misconceptions put forth as fact in it are bad enough, but what really gets me is the simple sloppiness. It is blatantly obvious to anyone who has taken an introductory news writing class that Alexander used the absolute minimum amount of sources: three. None of this is a slag on Kinsella, Eng or Macias, obviously all three are valid sources despite whatever marring of voice may have been done via misquotation etc. The fact is, however, that three sources is pitifully few to provide a holistic, unbiased view of such an expansive subject. Where are the interviews with book sellers? With local, ground-level fan clubs and artists? The fact that Kinsella, an anthropologist, is quoted a grand total of once and in a fashion suggesting an interview, when the attribution clearly indicates all Alexander did was read part of a book, is particularly lame.

I understand Alexander may not be a true-blue reporter per se and that Sexploration is in the column format. I can point you to the long, dry media law briefs from the Supreme Court that clearly state that opinion-based columns in any mainstream journalistic venue are beholden to the same basic requirements of factuality and non defamation that straight news articles follow.

In case anyone is suspicious about my own familiarity with this subject, I’ll have you know I typed out this entire response listening to Silent Survivor from the Fist of the North Star OST on loop.

The phone did not ring, but he pulled it out anyways. Extracted from his left slacks pocket the battered black and gray thing beamed the time and date on its front mount LCD, but no calls missed, no voicemail waiting, that row of icons lay dark. His breath groaned up from his belly up to the chest in one of those self-destructive reflexes to stress that compel the body to rack against itself. Absentminded, he scooted a millimeter away from the passengers packed in on his left, as if to return the phone to its nest. Instead he jumped and whisked it back out, thumbing the LCD back on and checking the time once more: 4:17 pm. The passengers to his right cursed in their Shanghai way.

Then it vibrated in his hand. He hadn’t used a proper ring tone in six years. A little spike of adrenaline coursed through his limbs and he struggled to get the clamshell phone open and up to his head. The other passengers bitched and moaned with their bodies, writhing back against his jutting elbow. He gets a few looks from his older neighbors, shorter, more malnourished women at the tail-end of their middle years with burlap shopping bags slung and tight black afro curls on their heads. The younger people, suits and neon-hued student types, pretend not to see or stare thirty degrees away into the peeling bulkhead posters.

Four rings in, he got it to his ear. “This is Vasili.”

Richard Aregood, former editor for the Newark Star Ledger and Philadelphia Daily News, now-turned freelancer writer, wrote:

“Some years back, I was one of many Knight-Ridder editors gathered to hear our CEO, Alvah Chapman, speak on the future at an annual editors’ meeting held literally in the shadow of the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes’s amphibious folly… He told us all we should do “more with less”, illustrating with a bewildering rap about cannonballs and grains of sand. The budget cuts accelerated.”

Is Russia as dangerous to journalists as some would have you believe? If you look at the way the stats are collected, then you begin to wonder…

Last Dragon is the most depressing piece of “fantasy/sci-fi” literature I’ve read since, well Nova Swing by M John Harrison. That was just a few months ago at the end of last year.

More on that later.

Last Dragon opens on a dying old empress in her bed, preparing to write her memoirs in the format of a series of letters to someone. In recalling the memories into her deteriorating mind she imagines said realm as a tangle of spider webs where the people she has interacted with throughout life remain tangled and strangled. A sideways reference to eidetic memory? It’s never said.

The style is what makes Last Dragon. The compact, page-long sections of parsed text, the narrator’s voice which stays relentlessly contained within the context of the universe it inhabits, the asides that rip away from the history-style narrative like cold water and the unreliability of the voice all hark to Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The similarities only grow stronger later in the story.

As reviews have already stated, once the fragments fit into a full understanding, the reader finds a relatively simple story. I do not understand, however, why some make it out as a flaw in the novel and novelist’s armor. Style itself can be substance, good substance, especially when the cultural bandwidth is overwhelmed with voices who want to tell their stories without learning an engaging way to do so.

The author has come on record and said that he did not approve of the comparison made between Gene Wolfe and him. It is fair, where much of Wolfe’s works are literally puzzles, inviting multiple rereads and shot through with minutiae that mean much more than the page real estate they occupy, Last Dragon retains a strong sense of cohesion and a laser’s focus in pacing and plot. Everything makes sense, if not on that exact page, then certainly within the next one or two, until the very end. There there can be little confusion to any careful reader.

The lack of lingering confusion is a testament to the author’s skills in plot craft considering the fragments’ staccato progression approach the level of Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist.

Last Dragon is depressing. There is an overlying meta plot that hangs over the entire book, is the entire reason the “memoir” is being written. It is referred to in passing continually and never addressed directly. It is never resolved or even fully explained. An obvious saudade dominates this plot-that-isn’t-really-a-plot, but since the reader never learns the context of it, the effect is a gaping strangeness.

The author has said the book is about a sense of duty. To me, Last Dragon is about the destructive aspects of a notion like duty, bushido, honor, whatever name is attributed to sets of self-imposed “moral” obligations. The preconception is that your duties are solipsisms. They pertain to you as an individual and hence affect only you. The rebuttal in Last Dragon says that duty requires action upon others, drawing them inextricably into our spreading webs.

“Day after day, all that we touch entangles us, and the mind struggles in that net: vast and calm, deep and subtle,” someone once said.