Thomas Frank: When Newspapers Peddle Influence

Some time last week the Washington Post issued a flier advertising a "salon" on the health-care issue. Over dinner at the home of the paper's publisher, Katharine Weymouth, participants were promised "a collegial evening, with Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds."

The paper's executive editor and its "health-care reporters" would be there too, but not in a "confrontational" capacity, you could rest assured. Everything would be safely "off-the-record." And you could "bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table" for a mere $25,000.

Even in Washington, it's unusual to see an actual price tag placed on a chance to "alter the debate," as the Post's flier tastefully put it. Stranger still is it to see the city's scourge of public corruption -- the Post broke the Watergate story and the Walter Reed scandal, among others -- seemingly offering its own good offices for hire.

It was a moment of rare, piquant hypocrisy. Let us take it slow and savor every drop.

To begin with, just think of the functions of righteousness that the Post effectively put up on the block. Here was journalism's zealous guardian of professional rectitude with its hand apparently out for a little bit of baksheesh. Here was the definer of the capital's consensus, the policer of its ideological boundaries, seemingly offering to adjust its vast reserves of Washington wisdom for you if the price was right.

In such a ham-handed manner, too. When the leading newspaper of the capital city of the world's most powerful country decides to turn influence-peddler, is this the best it can do? An advertisement that reads as though it were promoting expensive scotch? ("Bringing together those powerful few.") Not even favorite Post targets like Jack Abramoff stooped to that.

Even worse were the lame excuses offered by the paper's brass, who blamed one another after the embarrassing story broke and immediately canceled the get-together. The flier hadn't been properly "vetted," they said. Ms. Weymouth had been out of town. Plus assorted other feeble explanations.

If this was a slip it was a Freudian one, the kind that tells us something true and revealing about what is going on inside.

We are living, after all, in a sort of conflict-of-interest golden age. Professionalism is for sale almost wherever you choose to look. Among the forces that most conspicuously drove the late real-estate bubble, for example, were appraisers and bond rating agencies that apparently decided to put themselves on the market.

The city of Washington is an extreme case of this marketized world. The capital swarms with hired guns, payola pundits, and think tanks on a mission. Every bad idea that has ever appealed to the funding class is well-represented here. And with the coming of the health-care debate, as the Post itself has noted, the entire apparatus has swung into well-compensated action.

Then there is the city's cult of power, in which the Post sometimes serves as high priest. Despite its many famous takedowns of the corrupt, the newspaper often seems fascinated with the lives of the rich and the well-connected: their struggles for access, the clever things they say, the trappings of their wealth, the techniques by which they have monetized their power.

In April, for example, one Post columnist described a dinner salon series run by the Atlantic magazine whose guests "are as A-list as they come." Superstar names were dropped. The benefits to journalism were vigorously asserted. Rahm Emanuel himself was quoted hailing the suspension of "the adversarial."

The Post's own confused relationship with power is also often summarized by reference to dinner parties, in this case the ones given by Ms. Weymouth's grandmother, Katharine Graham. "The great men of Washington, up until the Nixon administration, came regularly to Mrs. Graham's dinner parties, the best ticket in town, and as they socialized over good food and wine, the adversarial role diminished," wrote David Halberstam in his 1979 book, The Powers That Be. "They were close, they were friends, these were not just men of power, they were men of good will, events were seen as they wanted them seen."

All that was missing, apparently, was a price tag.

Today, of course, the newspaper industry is in crisis. And public service, along with all such intangible ideals, is quickly disappearing into the cash nexus. The only possible reason to revive Ms. Graham's legendary dinners today is as a revenue stream.

Instead, of course, what the Post's proprietors did was hasten the day of reckoning. If I had $25,000 to spare, I'd advise them to forget about befriending the A-list. Stick to the public -- what you might call the Z-list.

Also in the Opinion Journal:
McNamara and the Liberals' War

A New York Solution for Bailing Out California


Michael Jackson Memorial Not As Big On Web As Obama Inauguration

Depending on your perspective, this is either interesting news or heartening news: Michael Jackson's funeral and memorial was indeed a giant Internet event. But it doesn't seem to have been as big as Michael Jackson's death, and it wasn't as big as Barack Obama's inauguration.

So let's call it the third-biggest Web event of the year. To date.


Richard Shenkman Calls Reporter Karen Florin While Holding Ex-Wife Hostage (VIDEO)

***SCROLL DOWN FOR VIDEO OF REPORTER’S PHONE CALL WITH SHENKMAN DURING HOSTAGE STANDOFF***

From AP: SOUTH WINDSOR, Conn. – A Connecticut man remains hospitalized and his home in suburban Hartford is still smoldering, after police say he kidnapped his ex-wife and held her hostage in a 13-hour standoff.

A Hartford Hospital spokesman says Richard Shenkman is in stable condition Wednesday morning. Police say it appears he suffered smoke inhalation.

Police say Shenkman will be charged with kidnapping, arson and other crimes.

The standoff ended at about midnight Tuesday when Shenkman came out of the burning South Windsor house. Police say Shenkman’s ex-wife, Nancy Tyler, had been handcuffed but made it out of the house about three hours before the fire began. It’s not clear whether she escaped or was let go.

Lawyers say Shenkman and Tyler have been through three years of contentious divorce proceedings.

Reporter Karen Florin received four phone calls from Richard Shenkman while he was holding his ex-wife hostage in South Windsor. The first call was shortly before 1 p.m. and the last call about 4 p.m.

An advertising executive — who vowed he wouldn’t be divorced until his ex-wife was dead — kidnapped her from a parking lot and called for a priest to give her last rites before setting their house on fire during a 13-hour standoff, police said.

Richard Shenkman gave up about midnight Tuesday as flames destroyed the South Windsor house he once shared with Nancy Tyler. The fire ignited about an hour after Tyler escaped, a handcuff dangling from one wrist.

Police said they don’t know how the fire began, but believe it was set by Shenkman. Police cut power to the suburban Hartford neighborhood and fired nonflammable tear gas canisters and flash grenades after Tyler emerged from the house, police Cmdr. Matthew Reed said.

A bomb squad had been on the scene since the standoff began Tuesday morning. There was no confirmation of explosives in the house even though there were indications, such as “some wires and some other odd items.”

Reed said Shenkman had made several demands during the standoff, but he wouldn’t elaborate. The Day newspaper, of New London, reported that Shenkman wanted a priest to come give Tyler her last rites and asked that Judge Jorge Simon, who presided over the couple’s divorce case, remarry them. A priest came to the scene.

Shenkman’s attorney, Hugh Keefe, said he hoped for a peaceful ending. Shenkman likely faces charges including kidnapping and arson, Reed said.

Shenkman, 60, and Tyler, 57, had three years of contentious divorce proceedings, Keefe said. They married in 1993; a judge granted the divorce last year, but Shenkman has been appealing.

The state appellate court, in a decision released Tuesday, rejected Shenkman’s appeal. Shenkman had sought to delay the divorce proceedings until an arson case against him was resolved.

He is accused of burning the couple’s beach home in East Lyme in 2007 just hours before he was to hand it over to Tyler. The case is pending in New London Superior Court.

Shenkman also has other pending criminal charges, including threatening, violating a protective order and forgery, according to the state Judicial Branch.

Tyler’s lawyer, Norm Pattis, said Shenkman’s behavior during the divorce trial was “menacing, threatening, nothing short of bizarre.”

“The reports that he abducted Ms. Tyler … is consistent with the level of irrationality that he displayed throughout the proceedings,” Pattis said.

The couple’s appellate court file includes a cassette tape of more than a dozen voice mail messages from Shenkman to Tyler, which contain numerous threats.

“We are not getting divorced,” he said in one message. “It is not going to happen. Listen to my words. We’re not divorced. We’re not getting divorced. We were married ’til death do us part. We made vows in front of God. He was our witness, and you can only get your divorce one way, and that’s death. You can only be unmarried by death.”

Shortly before the trial, the records how, Shenkman was hospitalized because his lawyer thought he might be a danger to himself.

A neighbor, John Cvejanovich, described Shenkman as “oddly secretive” and easy to anger. He said Shenkman installed security cameras on his roof, satellite dish and shed in the last year.

“The rumor going around the neighborhood,” Cvejanovich said, “was to keep a respectful distance and do not engage.”

Tyler is a medical malpractice lawyer who worked for Shenkman’s advertising firm in Bloomfield, according to divorce records. The firm produced “The Gayle King Show,” hosted by Oprah Winfrey’s best friend and a longtime Hartford TV anchor, and did commercials for state government, the records say.


Google’s Biggest Direct Assault on Microsoft: Open Source Desktop OS Based on Chrome

Update: Google (NSDQ: GOOG) has officially announced it. And they are open sourcing it, as I suspected below: “Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks. Later this year we will open-source its code, and netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010.”

Some details from its announcement:
—Later this year it will open-source the code, and netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010.
—Will be lightweight and minimal, similar to Chrome browser.

—Will be completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates, Google says.
—Will run on both x86 (Intel (NSDQ: INTC) and AMD chips) as well as ARM chips (used in mobile).
—Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel.
—All web-based apps will on the OS, but would also run on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux.
—It is downplaying the overlap between Android and Chrome OS.
—This is a rare pre-announcement of a product from Google, who likes to hold cards on products close to chest. This means it is still talking to OEMs and manufacturers.
—Don’t expect an Open Handset Alliance type of organization to help develop standards, as Google did with Android. Likely Google will have tighter control, despite it being open source.
—For perspective, see this latest OS sector marketshare: MSFT’s still in high 80s percen in marketshare, though lower than its ever been.
—This gives more fodder for antitrust investigation into Google’s dominance of the search/online ad market. Won’t effect anything anytime soon, though.


Earlier: Google is preparing to launch a desktop operating system, based on its Chrome browser, in its biggest direct assault on Microsoft’s mainstay, according to NYT. The announcement will be made tomorrow, the story says.

Google has already been making inroads into MSFT’s OS territory for some years now, with its Google Docs service, its year-long support of StarOffice OS, and more recently, Google-supported mobile OS Android, which has moved into Netbooks sphere (though not officially encouraged by Google). All of this hasn’t yet made a big dent into MSFT’s OS revenues; Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) is pretty capable tripping itself up, with Vista and now Windows 7.

With Google Chrome OS, as it is supposed to be titled, its vision of everything delivered through the Web may come a little closer. It will also mean apps would run within Chrome when users are offline (it has already started doing that with some of its services like Gmail). The rise of netbooks—Sony (NYSE: SNE) just announced its own Vaio lines of netbooks this morning—will give Google a new avenue to its OS ambitions: these low cost machines are primarily designed for web browsing and e-mailing, and rely heavily on online apps. For now, about 96 percent of all netbooks in the market run on MSFT’s Windows OS, but with companies such as Acer announcing using Android for netbooks, that may have hastened some of Google’s plans for its own OS. At some point down the line, though, you would have to think that Google’s Android and Chrome OS plans would collide, even though Google has previously said it would not develop an Android version for netbooks. It would be interesting to see how open—or open source—the new OS would be. ArsTechnica has some more info on the new OS plans.


Memo to Katharine Weymouth: Put your salon on the Web

By Tom Grubisich: Former Washington Post staffer and frequent OJR contributor Tom Grubisich checks in with his take on the recent near-scandal at the Post – the paper’s attempt to sell access to its reporters and editors through high-priced, off-the-record “salons” at the publisher’s home.

After Tom makes his points, OJR editor Robert Niles jumps in and adds additional thoughts on how this episode ought to provide inspiration to news publishers trying to preserve and extend healthy relationships with their readers.

The most surprising thing about the Washington Post’s pay-to-play fiasco was not the Jack Abramoff-worthy pitch (“Underwriting Opportunity: An evening with the right people can alter the debate. Underwrite and participate in this intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth….”), but that the Post was wasting its time on a brand-building project that ignored the potential firepower of its nine-million-user-strong website.

Could any brand building be more ridiculously behind the curve than salons at the home of the publisher? Weymouth’s grandmother, Katharine Graham, was known for her Georgetown salons, but in-between those evenings she did things like hire Ben Bradlee to create a first-class newspaper, took the Post public but without the Graham family yielding corporate control to Wall Street, and, while the new public company’s financial future hung in the balance, pledged the Post’s fortune and sacred honor by standing solidly behind the initially risky Watergate coverage of young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Talk about brand building!

Judge Dismisses Parts of YouTube Copyright Suit

YouTube caught a break yesterday, as a federal judge dismissed some claims for damages in a copyright infringement lawsuit brought against the video giant.

This decision wasn’t about Viacom versus YouTube. Rather, U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton ruled that plaintiffs in a separate class-action lawsuit, including Cherry Lane Music Publishing and a Britain’s Premier League, could not request damages for non-U.S. copyrights that appeared on YouTube. Stanton wrote that U.S. law “bars statutory damages for all foreign and domestic works not timely registered” with the U.S. Copyright Office. Additionally, Stanton said that the plaintiffs could not seek punitive damages.

Viacom is not a member of this particular class action lawsuit group, though it is cooperating with it and parts of its case have been rolled into this case.



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What Google Would Do

Is Google’s OS the end of the OS – the long-predicted moment when Google and the web take over the PC? Or is it merely the disruptive OS throwing marbles on the floor for Microsoft and to some extent Apple and the software industry? Or will it be a platform and boon for app developers and PC makers and cloud companies? Or all of the above? Yes.

One may try to parse the motives and implications of the move like Latin haiku, but I think it’s simple; it usually is with Google: It saw an opportunity to serve the end user and took it. The more such opportunities it grabs, the more benefit it brings to more people, the more money it makes. Maps, Docs, Reader, Android, book search, translation tools, GoogleNews are all that. Some attempts don’t stick to the wall; some frontiers remain (it has not won in the social web, the live web, the deep web, and the local web); some things Google has to buy; some still don’t have a clear business model. All have competitors; none is a monopoly, though search and advertising appear that way to some.

How does Google win? Its products are generally but not always better and cheaper (read: free) because Google’s real secret is that it understands the economics of the internet and competed aggressively not against technology and internet companies but instead it competed for advertisers, selling performance over scarcity. The more Google serves end users – and the more it learns about them – the more opportunities it has. These are the economics of free.

I know the question of whether Google is too big will be raised when I appear on Brian Lehrer’s show today (at 11a ET) with Siva Vaidhyanathan. That’s the question Lehrer asked Eric Schmidt at the Aspen Ideas Festival:

“You’ll be surprised that my answer is no,” Schmidt responded. “Would you prefer the government running innovative companies?” No surprise that I agree with Schmidt. Lehrer’s point is that banks needed regulation and that information is becoming as important as money (well, he didn’t go that far). But I say government did regulate banks and AIG and did a horrid job of it. And look at the storm to regulate and break up Microsoft, which is no longer a threat but suddenly a victim. Heh. For that matter, look at what the market did to the oligopoly of Detroit and what Detroit did to itself. Clear Channel, Tribune Company, McClatchy – those are examples in media alone. Big has a way of tumbling of its own weight.

In any case, who’s to say what’s too big? We have a cultural problem of admiring big and then hating big; we want you to grow and then we want to cut you down to size. But this notion of being too big is arbitrary, ultimately meaningless if externally defined.

In this new economy, it may be that Google isn’t yet big enough, that it hasn’t brought its services and innovation – and goad to others to innovate – to enough corners of the internet. We will benefit from there being another operating system that opens up the applications and services to invention, breaking the Microsoft (and Apple) duopoly. We will end up getting cheaper applications and more choice among them. We will end up being able to use cheaper machines because our stuff will be in the cloud.

Yes, Google still has room to grow.

: ALSO: Mashable’s questions about the Chrome OS.