By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Mark Twain

As Mark Twain said of Wagner, I hope Chuck Schumer is better than he sounds

A performance of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” 1917 photo.

What Mark Twain once said of Wagner — “I have been told that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” — could be applied to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer: I’ve heard that he’s not as bad as he seems. Right now, though, Schumer seems really bad in refusing to call for the resignation of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who’s been indicted on lurid federal bribery charges involving everything from gold bullion to a Mercedes-Benz convertible. Schumer went so far as to call Menendez a “dedicated public servant” and said, “He has a right to due process and a fair trial.”

Why do I say that Schumer isn’t as bad as he seems? Because he’s probably having private talks with Menedez right now aimed at getting him to step down, figuring that discreet persuasion will work better than public humiliation. The problem is that such thinking is the product of a bygone age, unsuited to the always-on public performance that modern politics demands. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who’s older than Schumer, figured it out. But Schumer appears to be too set in his ways to make the adjustment.

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More details on the Globe’s tweaked-up opinion section

The Boston Globe’s interim editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, wasn’t ready to go public about this when we spoke last week. But this week the paper announced a project called “Opinion Reel,” which will run “short documentaries with a point of view” submitted by “local professionals, students, and smartphone auteurs.”

“You could even be Ken Burns and we’ll take a look,” Clegg says.

It’s an intriguing idea, and it will be interesting to see what gets posted. I’ve already made sure our journalism students at Northeastern know about it.

• As I wrote last week, the redesign of the opinion pages in print can’t be looked at in isolation. Instead, the two-page print spread should be seen as kind of a “best of” taken from the larger online opinion section. I’ve heard several people say they were afraid the pages were being dumbed down, a concern that makes sense only if you’re still focused on print. (People: It’s 2015.)

Case in point: On Wednesday, as the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev death-penalty case was being turned over to the jury, the Globe posted a commentary by Boston College Law School professor Kari Hong arguing that the time has come to bring back firing squads. Her piece does not appear in the print edition.

As Mark Twain said of Wagner’s music, Hong’s essay is better than it sounds. Hong, an opponent of capital punishment who’s represented clients on death row, makes a strong case that the firing squad would be more humane than lethal injection.

“If jurors had to choose between giving someone life in prison — without the possibility of parole — or putting them in front of a firing squad,” she concludes, “I have no doubt that many would opt for the former.”

Connecticut newspapers in Mark Twain’s court

Paige Compositor. For more photos (including Mark Twain in Legos!), click on image.

Last week I had a chance to attend the premiere of “On Deadline: Is Time Running Out for the Press?”, a documentary about the near-death and uncertain rescue of the Bristol Press and the New Britain Herald, both in Connecticut.

The papers were owned by the Journal Register Co., which, as it was entering bankruptcy in late 2008, threatened to shut them down if a buyer couldn’t be found. (The company, whose largest Connecticut paper is the New Haven Register, exited bankruptcy in August 2009.) The papers were saved by Michael Schroeder, a veteran newspaper executive who, among other things, was a top executive at BostonNOW, a free tabloid that until its demise competed with Metro Boston.

The future of the Press and the Herald is by no means certain; Schroeder made that clear in both the film and in a subsequent panel discussion. But at least the papers have a path forward. The film itself, by John and Rosemary Keogh O’Neill, was enjoyable and worth seeing if you ever get a chance, though I found the drama over the papers’ fate more compelling than the overly nostalgic views of the newspaper business that were expressed by the principals. (Here is the trailer.)

In a delicious irony, the film made its debut at the Mark Twain House, in Hartford, a shrine to a great writer who, among other things, nearly went bankrupt because of his own involvement with the newspaper business. In the 1880s Samuel Clemens sank a fortune into the Paige Compositor, which he believed would make him a very wealthy man, given that it was 60 percent faster than the Linotype machine. The Paige, though, was prone to breakdowns, and it never caught on.

Technology has always been an issue in the newspaper business. It was the rise of cheap, high-speed presses in the 1830s that created the daily newspaper business as we know it. And, of course, it’s technology that is now rapidly ushering us into the post-newspaper age.

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