Monday, September 30, 2013

Partisanship: Past, Present and Future (Updated)

"Put down party spirit; stop the corruption of party elections; legislate not for the next election, but for the next century."
A call for consensus from a frustrated lawmaker on the eve of the expected government shutdown? Or from some columnist, blogger or talking head?
Nope. That was Francis Scott Key's "remedy" for the political viciousness of his era -- from a letter dated Nov. 27, 1813.
The author of "The Star-Spangled Banner" wrote this during the divisive War of 1812. The letter was addressed to Key's quirky friend John Randolph, then a former (and future) congressman from Virginia. Randolph was ousted from his seat in the House of Representatives the year before, after he bucked his party's leadership by opposing the war. Randolph's Dec. 15 reply to Key made it clear that the idea of politics without partisanship was as likely in 1813 as it has proved to be in the 200 years since.
"You will put down party spirit when you put down whisky-drinking," Randolph wrote back.
Randolph was later reelected to his House seat and briefly served in the Senate -- where, by the way, he's credited with helping invent the filibuster. He was known for his witty and scathing oratory. More than Key's plea to legislate "for the next century," Randolph's quips about the politics of their time seem to describe the workings of today's Congress. "We all know our duty better than we discharge it," he once said.
But one Randolph line seems appropriate for this blog -- especially today, with the cable news networks' on-screen clocks counting down the minutes and seconds until the fiscal year officially ends:
"Time is at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions."

UPDATE: Oct. 1, 2 a.m. ET: Now that the government has officially been closed for two hours another appropriate John Randolph line about governing comes to mind:
"That most delicious of all privileges -- spending other people’s money."
And while we're on the subject of governing (versus politics):
Personal experience has left me with little patience for the "lazy government worker" stereotype. Intractable incompetence is hardly the public sector's exclusive domain -- tonight's events notwithstanding.
I was just looking back at some of my old clips from the government shutdowns back in 1995, when I was still covering science for the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina. What I most remembered from that time was the many non-essential government scientists at EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who ignored official furloughs and went to work anyway to tend their experiments. "I don't care if we're essential or not," one senior scientist told fellow reporter Joe Neff and me. "I like the work." I just Googled that scientist; his official page on the NIEHS website lists him as "retired/special volunteer." I guess he still likes the work.

(Nerdy notes on sources: I first saw the Key quote that starts this post in a passage from Steve Vogel's very good new book about the British innovation of 1814, Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks that Saved the Nation. Vogel is a former Washington Post colleague. The full exchange with Randolph is more thoroughly documented in the second volume of Hugh A. Gakland's The Life of John Randolph of Roanoke. Randolph's most famous quotes are best documented in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Suzy Platt, which attributes them to the second volume of William Cabell Bruce's John Randolph of Roanoke, 1773-1833. I wish all quote sites cites ["cites" -- HA!] required some form of attribution, since so many frequently cited quotes turn out to be misquotes. That makes me an old-fashioned futurist.)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

'Night Is Crept Upon Our Talk'

Talk of the Nation was one of my favorite public radio programs, even before I started working at NPR. After a 21-year run, the show's final broadcast aired last Thursday.

For Neal Conan, June 27 also was the last day of a 36-year career at NPR, more than 11 of which he spent hosting Talk of the Nation. He signed off with this call to action for public radio:

"[I]n a minute or so, I will go back to where I started in public radio. I will be one of you again, a listener. Yes, a listener-sponsor, but a listener-critic, too. I will cry and laugh and yell at the radio. And we listeners have a vital function. It is our job to hold member stations and NPR accountable. 
"So right here, I form my own private compact with NPR and my member stations. I will listen and, yes, I will open my checkbook, but I need some services in return. Go and tell me the stories behind everything that happened in the world today. Explain why it happened, and how it affects our lives. Do it every day. Tell me what's important, and don't waste my time with stupid stuff."

Here's Neal's full farewell:

NPR's Kainaz Amaria took the photo of Neal hosting Talk of the Nation's final show that appears atop this post. I'm using it here with her permission. And the headline for this post comes from The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare:

The deep of night is crept upon our talk, 
And nature must obey necessity; 
Which we will niggard with a little rest.
There is no more to say?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

'It's the Coffee, Not the Cup'

That "cup half-full" take on digital publishing in the headline above comes from Tim Ditlow, tapped recently by Amazon to head the company's expansion into children's and young adult books, including a new ebook imprint specifically aimed at teen readers.

I found that line in a post by writer/blogger Roz Foster, who heard Ditlow's talk in August at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. Ditlow urged authors at last summer's Los Angeles gathering to focus on their stories, not the means by which they find their readers -- in print, in digital form, or through audio books, the business he was in before coming to Amazon.

Summing up what she heard from Ditlow and other speakers, Foster described an "industry-severing split between the print and digital sides of the business" -- a split that will sound familiar to people working in most corners of the media biz:

"Print publishing veterans at this conference appeared too established and mature in their careers to be forced to look very seriously for a new digital path. These distinguished agents, editors and publishers remain diehard champions of great, important literature and high-quality print editions.... 
"On the other side of the divide, future-looking folks, or those with a little more time ahead of them in their careers, appeared to recognize that they must face the digital facts.  They’re trying to balance high literary standards with the breakneck speed of the digital marketplace. They’re trying to surmount a steep technological learning curve while software, e-marketing techniques and industry business models innovate by the nanosecond. If this new generation of publishing professionals can stay calm and open-minded enough to spot the pattern of what’s working well in the chaos, they’ll become the heroic vanguard for a new, respected publishing model just now being forged."

Image above by Hocus Focus Studio via iStockphoto.