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February 2003

The Year of
Switching Commanders

Dispatches from the Front by Burl Burlingame

2/2/03 Slipping the surly bonds
It had been a late, late night at the office, and I'd onl;y been asleep an hour or so when the telephone rang in the predawn hours. It was my great good friend Kathy, a fellow space enthusiast. Turn on the televison! she cried. Her voice was choked. Turn on the television right now!
And so another shuttle was lost in the dangerous business of space exploration, along with a crew of brave souls. It was totally off the Star-Bulletin's news cycle, and would be more than 24 hours before we could report a word on it. So instead I concentrated on television, and stewed about George Bush the Elder scrapping a follow-on program for the shutle in 1991, and George Bush the Younger scuttling planned safety upgrades for the shuttle earlier this year.
Naturally a lot of time was spent on Reagan's speech following the Challenger disaster, written by Peggy Noonan, in which he invoked the John Gillespie Magee poem "High Flight. I'm sure any number of people believe Reagan made up the phrases on the spot.
I had actually applied to be an astronaut in the early '80s, and was a Hawaii representative for the Journalist-In-Space program. The JIS was cancelled after Challenger, which was profoundly disappointing. I would have gone, and I'd still go. Space exploration is the dream and destiny of humankind.

2/3/03 The Stupor Bowl vs. the State of the Onion
Coming as it does a few days after the Super Bowl, the president's annual State of the Union speech is another national event most Americans share in. As usual, the real question is whether the President will walk the walk after he talks the talk, but that's the nature of politics.
This year's speech, more anticipated than most because of the grim situation in the Middle East, had it's number of memorable moments -- Tom Ridge staring at the president with I-love-you in his eyes, Hillary Clinton stifling giggles while the President presumed to invent health-care reform, the President himself attempting to pronounce "hydrogen" (hyderjinn?).
Talk about must-see TV. The State of the Union is our national sermon, subject to endless parsing and spin, and plenty of material for interpretation and analyzing.
But I couldn't get my own kids to watch it. It's not required for school, they said.
Has it ever come up in school?
No, never. So your teachers never urged you to watch it, just to see what's on the minds of Washington? No. Aren't you the seeds of an informed electorate? Huh?
Did your teacher ever mention the Super Bowl?
Oh sure, plenty of times.
And so it goes with future State of the Nations.

2/5/03 That's why they call him Shine
Jeez, the stuff I get asked. Some 'Tiser folks are wondering why Gannett editor David Montesino is sporting a shiner. I don't know if that's true or not. But the people I asked all had incredibly rude, bizarre and fanciful explanations, one of which is probably true.

2/7/03 Now they're making some real money
Gannett's fourth-quarter earnings for 2002 are actually higher than expected, the company announced yesterday. This due not only to its way-profitable TV stations and roadside-ad business, but to some improvement in the newspaper end as well.
They're optimistic about the future, hoping to cash in on an Iraq War, providfed it doesn't drag on. "We expect the economy to continue to grow this year barring external factors, but there is obviously uncertainty surrounding geopolitical events and that uncertainty is not good for the markets .... nor is it good for our advertising customers," said chairman, president, chief executive and dungeonmaster Doug McCorkindale.
Their profit rose 40 percent. Holy cow! Hard to justify pleading poor-mouth in union negotiations at the Gannett Advertiser with that kind of dough padding their pockets.
For the first time last year, Gannett's annual profit broke the billion-dollar mark. The company earned $1.16 billion, compared with $831.2 million a year earlier. Gannett's total revenue for 2002 was $6.42 billion.
Other publishers such as Washington Post Co., E.W. Scripps Co. and Knight Ridder Inc. were also reporting increases in both revenue and profit as ad sales began to bubble after a two-year fizzle. In general, this should be good news for the Star-Bulletin and MidWeek as well.

2/8/03 A vision of the future?
Speculation over whether Gannett will save or raze the historic News Building in downtown Honolulu continues. Since Gannett has kept the building off historic registers while also contributing to the Historic Hawaii Foundation smells quite a bit like First Hawaiian Bank's demolition of the equally well-known Damon Building in the early '90s. HHF officials tell me that Advertiser publisher Mike Fisch has talked enthusiastically about saving the facade of the old building, in which case we'll likely wind up with a structure similar to the image at left. The real question, of course, is whether Fisch is deliberately blowing smoke up their keesters, or if he's even empowered to speak for Gannett on this issue. Given past history, it's likely Fisch's interest may be genuine, but Gannett will later hang him out to dry as a scapegoat.

2/9/03 Happy belated birthday
Our managers decided not to make anything of it this year, but the Star-Bulletin turned 121 on Feb. 1. We're the oldest daily newspaper in the Pacific and still alive, thank you.

2/10/03 Maybe he went down swingin'
I've been assured that Gannett editor David Montesino's black eye is due to a sports injury. Or maybe it was a sports-bar injury. Whatever.

2/11/03 Happy belated birthday reply
Here's a note from a reader: Happy belated birthday!! I'm glad you mentioned it on your website. On February 1st I went through the paper cover to cover twice looking for mention of the birthday. It's too easy for such a grand legacy to become lost and forgotten, therefore I really think that next February 1st the paper should jump to Vol. 123, No.1.

2/13/03 The wacky Phillips family
A Washington Post reporter called me a couple of weeks ago to chat about the Rupert Phillips days when he was Gannett's bagman at the Star-Bulletin. I couldn't tell her much because Phillips wasn't around much -- he did his screwing from afar. The Post this day has a profile of Phillips' son Ryan, and the two of them are not only killing their own product at the Journal newspaper chain, they're behaving strangely as well. One detail I had forgotten ? Rupert Phillips acquired the papers in a turn-around from Gannett about 18 months before doing the same with the Star-Bulletin. But the story is really about Phillips Junior's bizarre behavior -- editorializing about the size of a coucilman's "man-bosoms," offering to sell the chain to local politicians, keeping guns in his desk and a Confederate flag on the wall, arrests for exposing himself to coeds, running for office as a Republican. 'Why do we need copy editors? All they do is cut copy that sits around the ads, he once asked the staff. And here's one of the more charitable comments: There is an air of arrogance that comes from the fact that Ryan Phillips is a spoiled rich boy with no sense of what it means to work for a living. His own news editor mistook him for the pizza delivery guy. The story also noted that Phillips rides a Harley, like, that's a bad thing.

2/17/03 --30-- George Chaplin --30--
Former Honolulu Advertiser editor George Chaplin died this day. As the Advertiser's own online history described his time there: George Chaplin, who had just come to The Advertiser, succeeded (Ray) Coll as editor. Formerly editor of the New Orleans Item, Chaplin had seen Honolulu during World War II as editor of the Pacific Stars and Stripes. He attracted the attention of publisher (Lorrin) Thurston in part through a series of pro-Hawai'i statehood editorials in the Item. Chaplin served as editor-in-chief at The Advertiser for 28 years. Under (Thurston) Twigg-Smith and Chaplin, The Advertiser shifted in style and policy, gradually giving up the red-baiting tone established by Lorrin P. Thurston to a more moderate, racially progressive approach.
I recall Chaplin as a gentlemanly Southerner with both impeccable manners and a lively interest in the world. We disagreed once in a panel discussion on the role of newspapers in a community (bottom line, he thought papers should impart spin in news judgement -- he was a real civic-booster type) but Chaplin never took competition or philosophic disagreement personally. He was far more intellectual, polite and genteel than the sullen thugs who currently run the paper, and he'll be missed. His book "Presstime in Paradise" is as good a personal history of Hawaii journalism as you're likely to find.

2/20/03 Gearing up for the (ad-sales) war
The Gannett Advertiser's ad-sales department is festooned with posters showing the American flag and GOD BLESS AMERICA and GOD BLESS THE ADVERTISER SALES DEPARTMENT. Huh! Guess they're psyching up the troops to hit retailers if war breaks out.
Already gone from the Advertiser are several busines writers, including John Duchemin and designated Gannett propagandist Frank Cho, who -- no surprise -- has become a public-relations flack.

2/21/03 ... and another major American city slides toward monopoly
In a brief, unexpected meeting this day, virtually the entire staff of the San Francisco Examiner was fired and given an hour to clean out their desks. During the meeting, the telephones and computers in the news room were turned off so no news could be filed. The Examiner will continue as some sort of giveaway for the time being, or at least until Hearst's annual subsidy runs out.
Buffoonish James Fang, son of publisher Florence Fang, nervously broke the news by reading a one-sentence statement to the staff and then fleeing the room. A human-relations employee passed out eight days' worth of severance pay, and then security guards were brought in to escort staffer away from their workplace.
The Fangs took control of the paper from Hearst in late 2000, a deal that helped Hearst slide past antitrust approval for its $660 million purchase of the larger San Francisco Chronicle. Part of the deal was a $66.7 million subsidy from New York-based Hearst, spread over three years.
There were parallels to the situation in Honolulu at the time, and legal precedents in both cases helped save both papers. The Bay Area, however, is home to a dozen nearby dailies that could fill the gap of a failing Examiner; Honolulu had no fallback. The situation is more like Honolulu in 1993, in which Gannett deliberately selected a doofus to "own" the paper it was selling, knowing that even if he failed to run the paper into the ground, he'd pull the cord when he was ordered to.
The San Francisco Examiner was one of the world's great newspapers in its day, and helped define the business of journalism.

2/22/03 Examining the Examiner
Friends in the Bay Area tell me that ever since the Fangs took over the San Francisco Examiner, they've been deliberately dumbing the paper down. "It's already at the point where it would be embarrassing to be seen reading it," says John, a historian pal. "It makes the National Enquirer look top-notch."

2/23/03 Plane crazy
I've been experimenting with texture-mapping while compositing aircraft profiles using the "layering" option in PhotoShop, and it gives great control. Here, an online modelling-news site reproduced one of my test images, a Battle of Midway Brewster Buffalo.

2/25/03 Oil upon troubled politicians
Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified before Congress that the United States has no interest in Mideast oil.
Until that moment I'd never wondered -- aloud, too! -- if Rumsfeld was either a liar or an idiot.
Of course we're interested in oil. They got it; we gotta have it. Of all the reasons to declare war on that region, grabbing the oil makes the most sense and passes the logic test. The United States runs on oil. We've piddled away alternate-energy research on the forlorn hope that oil will always be available, and on the supposition that if the corner dealers get uppity, we can just take them out. We may not have hydrogen-powered cars, but we have cruise missiles, baby. Hands up!
The United States is the junkie with the big gun, and we need that oil fix. Cough it up, Saddam, or it's lights out.
War is diplomacy by other means, and we means to keep on mainlining petroleum until the Earth is sucked dry.
On the other hand, maybe the guys in charge really aren't thinking about oil or the long-term social, political or financial effects of our absolute dependence on oil. Now, that's scary. Cold-Turkey Day may be coming sooner than we dream.

2/27/03 That mean old comedian
Ian Lind reminded me that Jay Leno made fun of the Star-Bulletin last week on his "Headlines" segment. He actually named the newspaper and wondered aloud, what were these copyeditors thinking? Well, it's context, baby, context. Our opinion and editorial pages had a longish think piece about how Ronald Reagan's political and economic methodologies have been passed down to his "heir," George Bush Junior. We found pictures of Reagan and Bush in identical poses and headlined it "Like Father Like Son." The piece was about philosophies; Leno's people chose to present it as if we actually believe Bush Junior is really Reagan Junior. It got a laugh on Leno; and more than that, it got applause. Huh!

2/28/03 BumfWatch: pygmy uprisings!
Here's an actual wire-service correction we received yesterday that cracked me up: NOTE TO MOLLY IVINS EDITORS: THERE IS A CORRECTION TO THE MOLLY IVINS COLUMN FOR RELEASE THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 27. THE THIRD SENTENCE OF THE FIFTH PARAGRAPH SHOULD READ AS FOLLOWS: Bush, ever the soft-spoken diplomat, told a reporter that he "loathes" Kim Jong Il on a "visceral level" and also called the dictator "a pygmy."
NEXT! March 2003
Deaths and Departures

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