Roger Ebert, Esquire and the paid-versus-free debate

Here’s something I don’t think I would have said five, three or even one year ago: the editors at Esquire made a mistake when they posted Chris Jones’ and Ethan Hill’s wonderful profile of movie critic Roger Ebert on their Web site last week. Ebert, as you may know, is slowly dying of cancer* and is writing, literally, like there’s no tomorrow.

We are in the midst of an endless debate over free versus paid content. I generally come down on the side of free Web access. Most news is a commodity, and if you can’t get it from one place, you’ll get it from another.

But the flip side is that when you’ve got something that isn’t a mere commodity, you shouldn’t just give it away. Jones’ story about Ebert, and Hill’s photography, comprise anything but a commodity. This is exclusive, important, heart-breaking, inspirational journalism. And it’s something that Esquire should have used to drive sales of the magazine.

Increasingly I’m coming around to the idea that a newspaper or magazine’s Web site should be different from its print edition. The Web should be about blogs, community, interaction and extra features that aren’t available in print. The print edition should drive traffic to the Web site, and the Web site ought to drive sales of the print edition.

Esquire does offer some online extras with its Ebert story, but it could have offered more (a slide show, a video, a podcast of Jones and Hill talking about the piece) — and less (not the entire story, at least not for a few weeks).

As I look at the Ebert story online, I see just one non-house ad — a banner at the top of the page, currently selling Dockers pants. I’ve read the story, looked at the pictures and have no particular incentive now to buy the magazine. The idea, I think, should be print and online working together. What Esquire has given us is a Web-first approach with the hope that, someday, someone may figure out a business model. How 2005 is that?

*Further thoughts: A Media Nation reader has asked me to rethink my “dying of cancer” construction. I didn’t write it carelessly. The story is replete with references to the limited time Ebert has left (“Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it”), and his health is precarious because of repeated bouts of cancer. Nevertheless, the story also makes it clear that Ebert is, at the moment, cancer-free. Perhaps Ebert will be with us for many years to come. I hope he is.


Competing on the Amy Bishop story

Who could have reasonably hoped during last year’s angst over the future of the Boston Globe that it would still be allowed to spend money and compete with its dominant corporate sibling, the New York Times? Yet here we are, and the Globe and the Times both have long, all-known-facts takeouts today on the bizarre case of Amy Bishop.

The Times is better at explaining why Bishop didn’t get tenure at the University of Alabama at Huntsville: apparently she just wasn’t that good. The Times, though, doesn’t mention Bishop’s years in Ipswich, an episode in her life on which the Globe is strong. The Globe quotes a neighbor named Arthur Kerr: “When she moved out everyone said, ‘Those poor people in Alabama.’ Little did we know.”

The Boston Herald runs a shorter piece focused on the immediate aftermath of Bishop’s fatal shooting of her brother, Seth, in 1986. It ends with a rather astonishing piece of information: Thomas Pettigrew — whose tale of having been ignored by authorities after Bishop allegedly pointed a gun at him 24 years ago has emerged as a key element — is being ignored once again.

Decoding the Times’ Haig obituary

Tim Weiner of the New York Times weighs in with a harsh obituary of Alexander Haig. You should check out his description of Haig’s behavior after Ronald Reagan had been shot — he comes off as a power-mad general intent on staging a coup.

No, Haig did not speak with great precision that day. But do former Reagan aides like Richard Allen, who clearly hated Haig, really believe that Haig didn’t understand the vice president was next in line if Reagan were incapacitated?

The key to Weiner’s piece is this paragraph:

“His tenure as secretary of state was very traumatic,” John M. Poindexter, later Mr. Reagan’s national security adviser, recalled in the oral history “Reagan: The Man and His Presidency” (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). “As a result of this constant tension that existed between the White House and the State Department about who was going to be responsible for national security and foreign policy, we got very little done.”

Amazingly, Weiner does not identify Poindexter as (1) a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, which nearly brought Reagan’s presidency down, and which unfolded years after Haig left the Reagan administration; and (2) the mastermind of a surveillance system during the George W. Bush years called, in a nice Orwellian touch, the Total Information Awareness System, or TIAS.

Getting trashed by the likes of John Poindexter is a good thing. Too bad Weiner didn’t make that clear.

More: It gets worse. BP Myers notes in the comments that Weiner claims the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, which cost the lives of 241 marines, took place in “the immediate aftermath” of Haig’s dismissal, as though his policies were somehow responsible. In fact, the date of the bombing was Oct. 23, 1983, a year and a half after Haig’s departure.

Alexander Haig, 1924-2010

Alexander Haig

Alexander Haig, a longtime Media Nation favorite, has died at the age of 85. My high regard for Haig is based on the three most famous incidents of his career. I can’t pretend to know what Haig was thinking, but my strong suspicion is that his contributions to the nation were never fully understood or appreciated.

First, as Richard Nixon’s chief of staff during the final days of Nixon’s presidency in 1974, Haig paved the way for Nixon’s peaceful departure from office — no sure thing at the time. There have been suggestions, never proven, that Haig was in on secret discussions with the Pentagon to disregard any orders from Nixon that could lead to a military coup or a nuclear strike. At the very least, Haig served as an honest broker between Nixon and then-vice president Gerald Ford, who may have promised a presidential pardon during this tense, dangerous period.

Second, Haig sacrificed his career as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state by reassuring a jittery public following the attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981. Haig may not have realized it at the time, but his words before the television cameras — often misquoted as “I’m in charge” — were misinterpreted by his enemies (deliberately, I would argue) to make it sound as though he was attempting his own coup, superseding then-vice president George H.W. Bush. (Haig’s actual words: “As of now, I am in control here, at the White House.”) Haig deserves credit for stepping up at a moment when others were running around like Chicken Little. As it turned out, that moment effectively marked the end of Haig’s public service; he left office the following year.

Finally, and I say this at least partly tongue-in-cheek, Haig entered the 1988 Republican presidential primaries for the sole purpose of sparing the country from George H.W. Bush. Haig had to know he personally had no chance of winning. Thus my suspicion is that he hoped to do enough damage to Bush in order to steer the nomination to Bob Dole. Haig’s classic putdown of Bush in a 1987 debate — “I never heard a wimp out of you” — was aimed at playing off a famous Newsweek cover story about Bush headlined “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.'” And when Haig, inevitably, pulled out of the race, he endorsed Dole. Bush prevailed, of course. But Haig did what he could.

Three major loose strands in Bishop case

Tomorrow marks the one-week anniversary of the Amy Bishop case. And it seems that we may not have even reached the starting line of this story, which began when the University of Alabama professor was accused of killing three of her colleagues at a faculty meeting.

There are three major strands, only one of which is being thoroughly explored at the moment. Give it time. We’ve only just begun.

1. Why was the 1986 Seth Bishop killing not thoroughly investigated? For the moment, this is the only aspect of the story getting a good airing. It simply makes no sense that a 21-year-old woman could shoot her 18-year-old brother, flee the scene, threaten others with a gun, and then have the whole thing explained away as an accident.

Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory has called for Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint “an independent prosecutor to investigate whether local and state authorities were corrupt or completely incompetent.”

At the very least, we are talking about a scandalous level of ineptitude. A proper investigation could implicate everyone from members of the Braintree police department all the way up to U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who was the Norfolk County district attorney at the time.

2. Who sent a letter bomb to Harvard Medical School professor Paul Rosenberg in 1993? Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, says he and Bishop were questioned and cleared. But there was never an arrest. And now Anderson has been caught saying something rather suspicious.

The New York Times reports that Anderson said they had received a letter from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that said: “You are hereby cleared in this incident. You are no longer a subject of the investigation.” But former U.S. attorney Michael Sullivan, who was the interim head of ATF at the time, tells the Boston Globe that it would have been highly unlikely for such a letter to have been sent out, especially given that Bishop had not publicly been identified as a suspect. Sullivan adds:

There probably were one or two times during my career as a federal and state prosecutor where I felt an obligation to give that type of letter because a person’s reputation was harmed through no fault of their own and there was an exoneration of the individual.

3. What did officials at the University of Alabama know and when did they know it? Given that Bishop was not charged in either the 1986 or the 1993 incident, I can certainly believe officials there had no way of knowing about her dubious past. But her odd behavior as a professor on the Huntsville campus is becoming an issue.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a colleague had said she was “crazy,” which may have been a factor in both her not receiving tenure and in a gender-discrimination complaint she filed. The professor asked not to be identified because he fears for his own safety. According to the Chronicle:

The professor, who was a member of Ms. Bishop’s tenure-review committee, said he first became concerned about Ms. Bishop’s mental health “about five minutes after I met her.” The professor said that during a meeting of the tenure-review committee, he expressed his opinion that Ms. Bishop was “crazy.” Word of what he said made it back to Ms. Bishop….

The professor was given the opportunity to back off the claim, or to say it was a flippant remark. But he didn’t. “I said she was crazy multiple times and I stand by that,” the professor said. “This woman has a pattern of erratic behavior. She did things that weren’t normal.” No one incident stands out, the professor said, but a series of interactions caused him to think she was “out of touch with reality.”

When he first heard about the shooting, the professor adds, his initial thought was “Oh my God. I bet it was Amy Bishop.”

According to the Associated Press, Bishop’s students knew there was something off about her as well.

Finally (for today), the Huntsville Times is compiling an archive of Bishop coverage that is well worth perusing.

A better year for BlackBerry users?

BlackBerry Tour

I like to tell friends with iPhones that my BlackBerry can do everything their phones can do — just worse. I lusted for an iPhone last summer, when I had finally decided to take the plunge on a smartphone. But I would have had to switch carriers, racking up hundreds of dollars in penalties and lost credits. So I instead became the semi-proud owner of a BlackBerry Tour.

Now we iPhone-enviers are getting some good news. In just the past few days we’ve learned that we’ll be able to run Amazon Kindle software, just like an iPhone, and that sometime later this year we’ll be getting a new Web browser. That’s critical, because the current browser is miserable. I use Opera Mini whenever I can, but it’s not the default, and the default can’t be changed. So if a click on a link in e-mail or ÜberTwitter, it automatically calls up the BlackBerry browser, with invariably poor results.

To be sure, a BlackBerry is a pretty good tool for instant on-the-ground journalism. I’ve covered several news events using the (mediocre) built-in camera to post to Twitter. Although I haven’t tried it, I should be able to post instant video as well — even a livestream via Qik. But BlackBerry’s roots are as a business tool — not as a journalist’s best friend. (Here is my TwitPic photostream.)

Certainly there are some things to like about the BlackBerry. By every measure I’ve seen, Verizon’s connectivity is more reliable than AT&T’s. Since I already had Verizon, the BlackBerry was definitely the nicest smartphone I could get. E-mail is very slick with BlackBerry, and typing on the physical keyboard is pretty easy — though I’d trade it for a bigger screen and a good virtual keyboard, like the iPhone has. (I decided against a BlackBerry Storm because I didn’t like the virtual keyboard.)

And now it looks like RIM, which manufactures the BlackBerry, is determined to close at least some of the iPhone gap.

Scott Brown versus economic reality

“Failure should be admitted in Washington, and not repeated. With last month’s news that we lost another 85,000 jobs, and with unemployment stuck in the double digits, it’s time to admit that while the $787 billion stimulus had the best of intentions, it failed to create one new job.”

— Scott Brown, Boston Globe, Jan. 14

“Perhaps the best-known economic research firms are IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s They all estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency, considers these estimates to be conservative.”

— David Leonhardt, New York Times, Feb. 16