Point Austin: Heat Wave
From Philadelphia to Austin, the air is burning
The occasion was the 2008 convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, a now-venerable organization of about 125 weeklies akin from across the country and including a few in Canada (www.aan.org). The papers range from independent, news-heavy warhorses like the Chronicle and The San Francisco Bay Guardian to quality fledgling upstarts like the Jackson Free Press (Mississippi) – four small newcomers crossed into membership during the meeting, with several more standing in line.
And in local news ... several Chronicle folks earned shout-outs for picking up awards in the annual AAN competition: Robert Faires for his redoubtable and attentive arts criticism, Wells "Hollywood" Dunbar for his implacable city-beat reporting, and the entire Web staff (a whole lot of folks with multiple duties) for "general excellence." All well deserved.
The overall tone of the conference was somewhat subdued from last year's celebration in Portland, Ore. Attendance was down, as the weakening economy has hit newsweekly travel budgets like those of everybody else, and there was a lot of talk about stretching available resources, especially when it comes to complementing the print editions with ever-expanding and confounding websites. I managed to sneak a segment of our "City Hall Hustle" videos into New York Times-man David Carr's session on online trends. The audience roared at Dunbar's shameless politicized mugging, but then one editor moaned, "So now do we all have to become stand-up comedians?"
That's why they call journalism show business for shy people. (If you haven't already checked out "City Hall Hustle," I recommend a quick and hilarious visit before Saturday's run-off. And then vote, or we'll let Wells out of his dungeon again.)
Meet Me on South Street
Shameless promotion and editorial nuts-and-bolts aside, we were treated to early-morning tours of Philadelphia's central historical sites (for an absent-minded Midwesterner like me, an emotional education), as well as traditional convention perks like a Friday night pub crawl and a Saturday night concert by the Roots and Gnarls Barkley – invigorating, I'm told, if you're the sort who appreciates an asphalt sweatbox.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell stopped by to praise our host, the Philadelphia City Paper; to declare Democratic Party unity; to suggest Hillary Clinton as vice president is a great idea ("It would show Obama's strength, because he's not afraid to appoint people who disagree with him"); and to declare (at least publicly) his own lack of interest in the job. The swatches of local color, political and cultural, provide the seasoning for each convention; for me, the personal highlight was an early-morning visit to the South Street location of artist Isaiah Zagar's "Magic Gardens," an astonishing, handmade, mosaic-based environment that fills most of two lots; spills over onto neighboring buildings, a nearby gallery, and Zagar's home; and makes a visitor believe again in the power of imagination and hard work (a virtual visit is available at www.philadelphiasmagicgardens.org).
Hersh: 'We're in Real Trouble'
But the combination highlight and lowlight was a talk by legendary reporter Seymour Hersh, who made his journalistic bones nearly 40 years ago when he broke the story of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam and more recently reported in exhausting detail the lacerating scandal of the U.S. military torture project at Abu Ghraib (Chain of Command). Hersh, now 71, is remarkably easygoing for a man who devotes himself to the darkest aspects of international political reporting. But he was in a somber mood at Friday's lunch, not only about U.S. affairs in Iraq and Iran but about what he described as the "nightmare" of Barack Obama's obsequious, saber-rattling speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in the wake of his clinching the presidential nomination. "He didn't need to do that," said Hersh. "He may have thought he needed to do that, but it just wasn't necessary."
Yet Hersh described himself as an Obama supporter – "Let's get him elected, then we can start to kick him around" – much of that conviction due to his overall judgment of the Bush administration: "We've never had a government this corrupt." Pursuing his reporting on Iraq, Hersh has been more concerned of late about possible U.S. attacks on Iran, which he sees as still likely in the coming year. Bush "is the most radical president we have ever had," Hersh said, "and what's more, he's completely uneducable." He said his sources are telling him that there is resistance from U.S. military officials to an attack on Iran, but he is increasingly convinced that "Bush is not going to leave office without doing something about Iran. ... I don't think there is much we can do to stop him." On the Iraq war itself, Hersh described Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus as "basically undertakers: They're in charge of keeping the face of the corpse rouged and the body from smelling until after November."
There was considerably more in this vein, reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci's legendary political motto, "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." Since Hersh was speaking to a convocation of reporters, he counseled doggedness and relentlessness, recalling how even amidst a stoutly conservative regime at The New York Times, he had been able to break stories that revealed the truth about Vietnam and to undermine the officially institutionalized heroic "image we had of war."
Hersh bluntly described our moment and predicament as "the lowest point in American history," and it's hard to argue with him. Afterward, I found myself wondering if those 18th century colonial statesmen devotedly honored in the Philly landmarks would remotely recognize the imperial behemoth that has largely usurped the tiny republic of free states they had risked their lives to establish so many years ago. Men and women like ourselves: All they could ask us is to do what we can, in our own 21st century ways, to bring the latest empire to an end.
"Point Austin" expects to remain in residence for most of the summer. Send tips, stories of turmoil, and evidence of turpitude to firstname.lastname@example.org.