Thursday, December 05, 2013

While America's press covers the mayoral clown act in Toronto, who’s following the clowns in your own city hall?

This likeness of Toronto’s Clown-in-Chief from the Huffington Post

The American news media, print and television and Internet, seem perversely focused on the biggest municipal embarrassment since the Emperor Nero whipped out his fiddle instead of calling the fire brigade. Yes, I’m talking about Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford, who doesn’t seem to know a municipal budget from a bong. 

For an American press corps rendered indolent by penury and falling standards, he’s a headline-making gift that keeps on giving – even though he’s a mayor in the wrong country.

Meanwhile, we live with a weaker and weaker press – stressed by interrupter technologies, wasting away on shriveling budgets, and milked dry by media conglomerates whose allegiance is to profits, not readers.

You want to know how it used to be? In my own lifetime, New York City had seven mostly-well-budgeted dailies. Actually, they were lavishly budgeted by today's parsimonious standards. Some of them were so hungry for political scandals that they ferreted them out, rather than waiting for God to drop a Rob Porter from Canada in their laps.

When some of those newspapers – like the Herald-Tribune, Daily Mirror, Journal-American and World-Telegram and Sun – eventually got flattened by a tornado of economics forces, the so-called “alt.weeklies” took their places, at least for a while. Raucous little papers like The East Village Other and The Village Voice strode where even the well-financed dailies feared to tread – calling out political crooks, corruption, and outrageous clowning with vigor, barely-restrained vocabularies and youthful enthusiasm.

The Village Voice had a columnist named Jack Newfield who wrote an annual piece called “The Ten Worst Judges In New York.” I once had lunch with a judge in a restaurant near the city court buildings. Just as a waiter was about to take our order, the judge became frantic.

“Move my table!” the distinguished judge, who was known to the establishment and addressed with the title "Judge" when she came in with me, whispered urgently to the waiter. "Move it! Hurry! Move it now!

That’s exactly what happened. In a flash, our waiter was joined by two others who literally picked up our table, glassware and silver on the white tablecloth rattling noisily, and carried it to the opposite side of the restaurant.

“What was that all about?” I asked her, when we were settled into our new space.

“Didn’t you see who sat down at the next table?” she asked. “Jack Newfield! I don’t want him to know I eat lunch. I don’t even want him to know I exist!”

Well, The Village Voice is still there, but now it's the property of a conglomerate from out-of-town, and doesn’t seem to poke its nose much into New York’s municipal affairs these days. And besides, a good many of the people who did the poking are dead or sucking their dentures in old age homes.

There are still a few “neighborhood weeklies” around New York, but from what I’ve seen, most of them are primarily repositories for press releases, puff pieces, frothy feature stories and echo chambers for politicians cheering their own good works.

But you didn’t have to be a New Yorker to commit formidable journalism in the first degree back in the 1960s and 1970s. I offer you here – with the advance warning that it’s lengthy, but worth every last delicious minute of the the read – a brilliantly written obituary by Paul Bass concerning the joys and triumphs of newspaper reporting in New Haven, Connecticut, back in the day.

Enjoy. And weep. And enjoy while you weep.

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