MEDIA MASH: Masher All Powerful; New Times Gets Another

The All Powerful Masher

Last week's Media Mash asked, "... can there be a worse magazine than George? Somebody put it out of its misery, please."

And presto, the next day George was history.

"We put $10 Million into the magazine over the past year," said Jack Kliger, president of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, the owner of George, "only to anticipate more losses as the advertising market softens." Wow, what the Masher could do with $10 million.

Dan Kennedy, media critic at the Boston Phoenix, called the Masher on the day of George's demise to joke that the Masher must be the most powerful media critic in America. Gar Smith, editor of the ever-valuable Earth Island Journal added, "... you sure got your wish concerning George, by george. The Masher's wish is Fate's command!"

What should be the next Masher target? How about jettisoning Chris Mathews' "Hardball" show? Or finally sending ABC's John Stossel to some free-enterprise think tank? Or why not sink the whole Fox Network with Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch on board?

The Masher can dream, right?

New Times Buying East Bay Express

The big news in the alternative newsweekly world is that the New Times company continues to expand its empire. Owner of the SF Weekly and more than a dozen other weeklies around the country, most in the South and West, New Times is buying the Berkeley-based East Bay Express. Such a move, at least at first glance, is very disheartening to many Express readers, since the paper is one of the best independent weeklies in the alternative newspaper network. The paper is very popular in the East Bay, which happens to be the West Coast home of the Masher.

But owner/publisher John Raeside, who has been at the helm of the paper for 22 years, says not to worry. Raeside insists that the Express is not going to change and that he will remain in charge.

"The underlying business logic here is that the Express needs to remain entirely separate from the SF Weekly," Raeside told the Masher. "It makes no business sense to do a knock off of the Weekly, since in a number of areas, the papers are available in boxes right next to each other. The goal is to increase circulation in the Bay Area, and the combined papers have more than 185,000 readers." (The Weekly distributes 125,000 copies; the Express 64,000, with 25,000 of the Weekly circulation in the East Bay and 10,000 of the Express's in San Francisco.) Raeside did admit that it was likely at some point that the unusual "long tab" design format of the Express (only the Chicago Reader also uses the format) is likely to go by the wayside and be replaced by the traditional "short tab" format, primarily for technical and economic reasons.

"We had our best year ever this year," Raeside added, "but as I imagined how we could grow the Express, it was clear we needed additional capitalization -- money for technology and especially for circulation growth. This is where New Times comes in. But I don't see the historical character of the paper changing. The goal is to distribute more copies."

The Masher has his fingers crossed. In many cases the New Times cowboys have come in and cleaned house and slapped down their brand, plain and simple. In other situations, they have kept some leadership staff on where there was a successful formula, appearing to be more sensitive to locale, which seems to be the case with St. Louis's Riverfront Times and in Kansas City, where they own the Pitch Weekly.

However, every New Times paper now has the same design and format, an approach that the Bay Guardian's Bruce Brugmann long ago labeled "cookie cutter," and that stigma has stuck on New Times. Hopefully, the New Times brain trust will realize that the quirky Berkeley and Oakland local character is something to reluctantly appreciate and not to be imposed upon. The Express readers will be much happier with what they have come to know and trust over the years.

In a postscript to the East Bay drama, Dan Pulcrano and David Cohen, owners of the Metro Newspaper chain (which owns Metro Silicon Valley, Metro Santa Cruz and the Northern California Bohemian), have gained a controlling interest in the Urban View, a fiesty little alternative out of Oakland. Urban View has more of a gritty editorial take, as compared to the Express's more heady approach.

Will the View eventually go head to head with New Times? It seems inevitable, although the Metro pockets are not as deep as those of the New Times folks. The East Bay Express distributes about half of its copies in Urban View territory. Pulcrano told Tali Woodward of the Bay Guardian that he isn't afraid of New Times.

"They're a national chain and we are a local group, so our foci are different. We're concerned with the local community," Pulcrano said. "And we think Oakland is hot right now."

Peace in Our Time

If you blinked you may have missed the news that retired General John Shalikashvili, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded in a report to the President that without the nuclear test ban treaty, the U.S. would be less effective in halting the spread of nuclear weapons.

President Clinton promptly urged the Senate to place the treaty high on its agenda for the upcoming session. Senate Republicans had rejected it in 1999.

While unpresident-elect Bush opposes the pact, his new Secretary of State, Colin Powell -- a former Joint Chiefs chairman himself -- supports it. Meanwhile, the more conservative Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said he is against it. Pay attention to this one; it could be one of the first showdowns in the Bush administration.

Very Good Death Penalty Reads

One of the lesser-known facts about the death penalty is how prosecutors can have potential jurors thrown off the case if those juror don't support execution in potential capital cases. What this ultimately means is that many minorities and women -- who are more likely to morally oppose capital punishment -- are tossed from jury selection, leaving juries made up of more conservative white males to do the dirty work.

Journalist Dave Lindsdorf's recent Salon article, "The Death Penalty's Other Victims," explains that the process of "death qualifying a jury" is a great way to increase the chances of conviction. For example, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynn Abraham seeks the death penalty from the outset in 85 percent of the murder cases she handles. That way she can toss out jurors who even express vague or minor concerns about execution, which makes it more likely to get higher conviction rates -- and most likely to more wrongful convictions.

(If Abraham's name sounds familiar it's because she was the one who got the ludicrous $1 million bail set for Ruckus Society organizer John Sellers, who was arrested during the protests around the Republican convention. Sellers later had the charges dropped.)

Lindsdorf, who is working on a book about the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, explains that in Abu-Jamal's 1982 murder trial in Philadelphia, more than 20 black jurors were screened out through the death-qualification process (another 11 potential black jurors who weren't necessarily anti-death penalty were also eliminated). As a result, "in a city that is almost 44 percent black, the former Black Panther [Abu-Jamal] ended up with a single African American on the jury that convicted him and sentenced him to death."

In a related January 5 article from the aforementioned East Bay Express, Chris Thompson penned an interesting, multi-layered story about the changing attitudes towards the death penalty, and how they might relate to Stanley "Tookie" Williams, one of the founders of the infamous L.A. gang the Crips, who was convicted of murder in 1981 and sentenced to death.

After a seven year stretch in solitary confinement, Williams had a conversion experience. Since then he has collaborated with Barbara Becnei to write nine books for children, all aimed at convincing kids that gang banging is a huge mistake. The books appear to have some impact, and by 1996 they formed a curriculum for anti-gang education programs in the L.A. School District. Williams's efforts even led a member of Swiss parliament to nominate him for a Noble Peace prize. The question author Thompson raises is, when and under what circumstances might our country be able to forgive someone like Tookie Williams?

WBAI Fiasco

There's much buzz on the 'net and in the media about the move on Pacifica's New York station WBAI by the D.C. management (reminiscent of the mess they created at KPFA in Berkeley). Is this a bad case of repetition compulsion, designed to undermine the local station's autonomy? A classic case of potentially destroying BAI under the guise of saving it?

Only this time -- in contrast to events in Berkeley -- the D.C. management had an insider, Utrice Leid, who was made station manager in the now infamous "Christmas coup" at BAI. Leid was hired awhile back by then-program director Sumari Marksman (who passed away last year) to do a daily 3-5 PM show. More recently, according to sources, many think that Leid coveted the program director job. When passed over by long time station manager Valerie Van Isler, who appointed Bernard White instead, Leid became allied with Pacifica Executive Director Bessie Wash and the Pacifica board leadership in D.C. When management came in over the holidays and fired the key staff, including Van Isler and White, and changed the locks, Leid ended up holding the keys.

No doubt BAI is a chaotic place. Leid may have been able to point to issues and personalities that were problematic to the smooth running of the station. But of course a low level anarchy has always been true at BAI. While messy and sometimes confusing, the station nevertheless provided a vital radical energy and many popular shows on the New York scene, and has been the home of Democracy Now! and Amy Goodman, who was a strong supporter of those fired.

To highlight some of the current issues, the Masher provides excerpts of a letter sent to Bessie Wash from Stephen Brown, a long-time listener and financial supporter of BAI.

"I wish to register my extreme disapproval of your high-handed action in firing or abetting the firing of station manager Valerie Van Isler without consultation with WBAI or its staff, as well as the arbitrary appointing of a new general manager, Utrice Leid, also without station consultation.

In resolution of the current intolerable situation I would very much appreciate your convoking a public (on air?) meeting at which the many serious issues and transgressions alluded to by you and Utrice Leid but never specified can be put on the table and discussed so that they might be resolved openly and democratically and allow the station to get on with its historic mission.

There can be no reason for not using your authority to alleviate the confusion, frustration and near-explosive animosity rampant at the station by brokering such a meeting to resolve this crisis. Failure to do so at once can only confirm the widely held theories, of which you are well aware, that attribute to you and to the national board a secret agenda that has as its goal the destruction of WBAI and Pacifica and the termination of the historic mission promulgated by its founders and upheld through many decades, often at great personal sacrifice, by those who followed them."

CONFERENCE ALERT: Digital Independence 2001

Conference of Independent Mediamakers Confront the Digital Transformation. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco: January 28-30, 2001; Conference registration: $250

The first-ever national conference for independents working in and hoping to take full advantage of new technologies -- from video games to digital cinema, broadcast and cable TV to streaming media. Featuring nationally-recognized media pioneers, technology visionaries, innovative artists, and business leaders. For more information, call the public information line at 415-989-3790 or go to www.digitalindies.com.
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