Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Beth's Follow Up: A Conversation

Beth wanted a follow up. We i.m.ed this evening and here's a transcript. This is a conversation, not "Beth asks questions and I answer them."

I've wanted us to do this for awhile and have asked three people. One never responded and two have stated they'd enjoy doing it but haven't had time yet. So today, I asked Beth if she was up for it and she replied: "Let's do it now!"

Beth: Why is it okay for you to not say which journalist or journalists read The Common Ills?

CI: Would it be okay, if someone in the media requested it, if I identified you as a member?
I think everyone that's a member is a member. Everyone has the same right to expect

Beth: Fine. I just thought I knew who it was and wanted to ask. What politician has most influenced you?

CI: What politician has most influenced you?

Beth: Probably JFK. Since I was a child I've heard things about him and his brother. I think they made a difference. They weren't perfect. The womanizing doesn't bother me because . . . I guess I'm thinking "that's the way it was then." But I was going to say, it does bother me about the way Marilyn Monroe was treated. Maybe if other women were people I knew I'd be bothered as well? I don't know. I would say if JFK was an up and coming politician today, I'd be judging him by a different standard and maybe that's fair and maybe not but
that's how I feel. I voted for Cobb by the way.

CI: I don't know that there's one person I could name. Maybe because of the things you cite,
which is going back to the fact that we're looking for heroes and then recoiling when we find
humans. At different times, when I really needed a voice to steer me or let me know I wasn't
alone. There's a long list but to just cite a few people who've inspired me in some way there would be Gloria Steinem, Howard Zinn, Jane Fonda, Alice Walker and many, many more.

Beth: But no elected politician?

CI: I find it easier to get behind and support Medea Benajmin than I do looking to an elected official for leadership.

Beth: What do you think of Kat's Korner?

CI: What do you think of Kat's Korner?

Beth: It's kind of snide and not at all the "Oprah voice" that someone's always saying they hear [that would be Gina].

CI: And?

Beth: Like what I think of it?

CI: Yes.

Beth: It makes me laugh. I usually end up thinking about something. I hadn't thought about "Soldier" really until then. [When Kat wrote about it.] I do see that's dangerous. Little kids walking around singing, "I want a solider" and it's just one more slogan. I have one of their CDs. But I'm not buying the new one and I don't think I'll ever just buy a CD because it's catchy or hot but [instead] think about what is it saying and what are my dollars supporting. I guess my question here is why does Kat get her own section on the blog?

CI: People didn't want to post replies and that [was] fine. We had e-mail. But that usually means getting permission and that means waiting for replies until everyone's had a chance to grant permission. Sometimes someone only wants one line quoted. Sometimes, and you've done this, they only want to be quoted on one section and it has to include all from that one section. Or take Eli who writes hilarious e-mails and that's usually not obvious from what he's comfortable being quoted on. Recently, Denise was outraged by a story in the Times dealing with Saturday Night Live. She wrote about that. I asked if her she wanted that posted but she wanted to rework it. She did that and it went up. I feel she touched a number of important issues and I hope I noted that when we quoted it. Kat wasn't the only one asked. But Kat and I were having back and forth e-mails about the importance of music. And during one of them she wrote that the community really needed to engage in musical discussions. I agreed and asked her if she was interested in it. That's how Kat's Korner came about.

Beth: But I never know when it's going to be up.

CI: She's not being paid for this. She's writing about music and she needs something that inspires her to write about. Then she needs the time in her own busy life to actually write it.
So she does what she can and we're lucky to have Kat's Korner.

Beth: I like movies. Could I get a Beth's Corner?

CI: If you want to address the political implications of movie and culture, absolutelty.

Beth: Why can't you do a post about the site being linked by someone?

CI: That was asked on Sunday. And answered.

Beth: Some of my favorite albums didn't make Kat's Korner. I've got a feeling you have everything that made the list.

CI: You're wrong. Love's Forever Changes is something I bought this past Sunday. Some people e-mailed and they'd counted the list. It was 151 albums listed or a little over 250 albums listed, according to the various counts. I don't have the time to count. But no, I don't have everything on the list. And there are albums I do have that I think are better than some that made the list. What would you have put on the list?

Beth: Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home and Prince's Controversy.

CI: I like Controversy. Bringing It All Back Home came out before 1964 and the list was focusing on albums that came out that year and later.

Beth: Who is Shirley and was she asked to proof each post?

CI: She's a member who's been writing for some time. She might have been one of the first five who wrote [on the second day of the blog], I'm not sure. But she points out mistakes and they get corrected or not. I say or not because there's not always time. The general rule is if it's someone's name, it gets corrected. Or if someone writes in saying that the quote left out a word that gets fixed. After that, if time permits, other things will be corrected. Sometimes Shirley will say, "This section is confusing" or "This section needs to be developed" and, if there's time for that, I'll work on it. It's really more important to me that new posts go up then that spelling is corrected or punctuation. I think most of the time people can figure it out without a correction.

Beth: I want to see more opinion.

CI: Others have said that too. I enjoy snapshots and may do one of those tomorrow or tonight. Where various sections of various articles are pulled together so that hopefully you end up with a better picture of an issue or an event then if it's just one voice.

Beth: What's the community's age span?

CI: I have no idea. I know that of people who've given their age, Eli is our oldest. I know that we have college students and one high school student. If there's anyone younger than high school they haven't identified as such. I don't ask anyone's age.

Beth: I'm 27. I've written Kat twice and she hasn't replied.

CI: That's something you take up with Kat. If an e-mail comes into the site ( for her, it's forwarded to her account. She gets a lot of e-mail at the site and I'm sure at her e-mail account ( She's reviewing music and if she thinks something is worth including, I'm sure she will. But as for her replying to every e-mail, that's something you take up with her. You might also try making sure you state what you're writing about in the message heading because she's talked about getting spammed. If she thinks you're sending spam, I'm sure she won't bother to open it.

Beth: What's the most e-mail that's come in during one day?

CI: It would be the Thursday when Senator Barbara Boxer was the only senator to stand up for voting rights and sign on to Congress woman Stephanie Tubbs Jones' petition. I don't know how many e-mails came in that day. I know there were 397 on that subject because I counted. But Molly wrote that day [about privacy concerns] and she had to wait for a reply until Saturday. She wasn't the only one. I did try to reply in some way to each of the 397.

Beth: Were you suggesting on Sunday that you would let someone else handle the e-mail?

CI: No. I was whining. If someone else handled it, I might get a report on what was most on people's minds but I wouldn't really be in touch with what the other members were concerned about. But it is sometimes too much, if I can whine. If I forget to bring up something you asked me to, e-mail me again to remind me. In one of Daniel Okrent's columns, when I was reading them all one after another a few Saturdays back, he wrote, I believe, that the Times got 80,000 e-mails or letters. I was astounded at how low the number was. And, because I've contacted the Times many times, how many times they didn't even bother to reply. Forget the reporters a second, the editors have assistants. With e-mail, it takes five seconds for them to do a quick reply. And if anyone suffers under the delusion that if you write a letter to the paper, you will get a reply, let me clear that up because it's simply not the case. Now I have noticed that if you write in about something you liked, they tend to always reply and to reply quickly. I think they need to review how they handle negative criticism.

Beth: Maybe they're afraid it's a spam campaign either by e-mail or letter?

CI: I know of four members who subscribe and always do something: note that they are subscribers and give their address in any contact they have with the paper. I'm not saying the people who subscribe are better or more important than the ones who buy the paper at a newstand or store. But the people who subscribe can be very easily verified. The paper wants you to pay them over $460 a year. [Bad with math but I believe the full price for a year is $552 -- check the math, it's $46 dollars a month.] I think for that kind of money, if you have a problem, they should be able to at least send you a form letter.

Beth: What's about the public editor?

CI: Most of the time, if I've gotten a reply, it's been from Arthur Bovino, Daniel Okrent's assistant. And I've probably gotten a reply for evey eight times I've written. That's poor customer service. If you're writing to note a problem and they can easily verify that you are a subscriber, what message does that leave you with? You've already got a problem with something that has appeared in the paper. You take the time to contact this company that's taking over $460 dollars of your money a year and they can't even reply in some way? Yes, they get a lot of mail but since I've never not gotten an immediate reply when I've written in to say "Good job," I have to wonder about the culture at the paper that allows them to ignore any criticism that isn't positive. The reader writing in already is bothered by something and the policy of the paper is to then aggrevate the situation by ignoring the reader? Daniel Okrent hasn't helped at all. I know that from members who've shared copies of the e-mails they've sent in. There are these huge areas that never get covered. He has no interest in the dining section or the arts section. (Though he can be quite chatty in an e-mail to someone writing in about the sports section judging from the forwarded e-mails that I've seen.) The book review was a mess before it changed leadership and it's only gotten worse in the view of most members. But he doesn't want to touch on that. He writes his silly op-eds, for instance attacking the Times for how he expects they will cover the Tonys, and every now and then he'll do some general piece that deals with a large topic. If you wrote in about the Times getting something wrong -- have you written in?

Beth: Yes, about an article on Madonna.

CI: About them cherry picking from SoundScan and Billboard figures?

Beth: Yes. And I got no reply.

CI: Well, if, for instance, I picked up the paper and Okrent wrote, "Beth has a problem with . . ."
and then dealt with it, I might think, "Well when are you going to get my issue?" but I'd also be grateful that a real issue had been dealt with. Jim won't mind me repeating this but he thinks Okrent writes "readers" when it's really Okrent writing about a topic he's decided to write about. Jim had four examples and I'm blanking on them now. I believe one was about an article in the Sunday Magazine. Readers are invisible. It's all about what Okrent wants to write. Or "what I want to write about" as he put it in that one column. He's done an awful job. He's mistaken himself for an op-ed writer when he's supposed to be the readers' representative. And because the Times has failed to point that out to him, he thinks it's okay that he quoted from a private e-mail against the wishes of "George" and that it's okay that he identified George by name and location. That's not okay. He's not [Adam] Nagourney's body guard. He's the readers' representative. And when he elected to out "George," he spit on every reader of the paper. If you piss Okrent off in some way, you better know he'll out you and make snide remarks about you. Not just in the paper but elsewhere as well, like his comments in Business Week. Okrent abused his position at the paper and the Times refused to call him on the carpet.
This is something that will be a major embarrassment for them because they didn't address it and it's not going away. People remember what happened and they're going to continue to talk about it. The Times has apparently decided they'll deal with the situation by ignoring it. I don't know who gave that advice but it's bad advice. We addressed that ("Daniel Okrent, Step Down") because a number of members were offended by Okrent's outing of "George." Not just Rob, a large number of people. By refusing to address it, they've allowed it to fester and people are outraged by it.

Beth: Agree but I meant "what about the public editor and his replies?"

CI: Non-replies. He and his assistant could do a better job of responding and they don't. So you read the column thinking, "Well it'll be in this." It never is. You begin to realize that your complaints don't matter at all. It's just this huge box that's overflowing with complaints from various people and at some point (in May?) the box will be tossed in the trash. That makes you wonder how much the paper values it's readers?

Beth: Who picks the links?

CI: The permalinks? The ones that are off to the side and always on the site?

Beth: Yep.

CI: I do. E-mails will come in saying, "Link to this!" And when they do, I do link for a story or an article. I picked BuzzFlash and Democracy Now! as the first two links with no input because I felt they were strong sites. (And no one was giving input then.) After that, Ms. Musing and Dahr Jamail went up. I picked those two to highlight them. On the next round, Naomi Klein's writing had been mentioned so she was an obvious pick and a number of people had asked for a permalink to Bob Somerby's Daily Howler because I wasn't always mentioning it everytime he had a new post. So they wanted a link there where they could just click right away. [Although clicking on BuzzFlash and scrolling down would have allowed them to check both BuzzFlash and The Daily Howler.] The ones at the start of the month were NOW, which I'd said we would link to in a posted entry [ahead of time] and then the blogs that members were asking for links to: Interesting Times, Science And Politics, and Why Are We Back In Iraq? Tonight I made the decision to link to A Winding Road and Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude because those are two of our members who've just started blogging and I wanted to be sure we were supporting their efforts as a community. Is there something you want linked to?

Beth: NAACP.

CI: That's actually going to be linked to at the end of the month. Five other people have asked for that.

Beth: Okay, getting to the last topic. My cousin and I both read and I print it up for my aunt who doesn't have a computer. When I write in or my cousin we always wonder if we'd be quoted if we wrote this long thing about "Oh I love the site it has changed my life. You are the greatest" and like that for three paragraphs, if we'd get quoted?

CI: Has your cousin been quoted?

Beth: Yes.

CI: If someone's telling a personal story, I'll pay attention but if it's generic statements like you indicate, I scan them quickly to find out what they're writing about. Are we not highlighting something? Do they feel something's highlighted too much? Did I offend someone? Do they have something they want to share with the blog? That's what I'm reading for. No one needs to include a kiss-up opening to get a reply or to be quoted. I used to collect autographs when I was a child. At first in person and then I had this huge collection and people (grown ups) would always say, "That's going to be worth so much money one day!" I think I got greedy. Because then I started writing to people for autographs. Three months later, you might hear from someone or you might not. After the first three months, I moved to a schedule where I'd write two people a week for autographs. That way instead of waiting and waiting for a reply, hopefully there'd be something coming in pretty regularly. Point, I wrote a lot of people that were my "back up" autographs. I didn't really admire them, I just wanted the autograph to add to the collection. So I wrote a lot of kiss up paragraphs as I tried to get an autograph. I'm not offended when someone does that in an e-mail but I'm not sitting there thinking, "Oh they love me!"
And it's not about me, it's about a community. So there's no need for it. You don't even have to include a greeting. Rob usually writes very short e-mails and he's been angry sometimes. He's never had to include a paragraph or a sentence praising me or the site to get quoted.

Beth: But some people get quoted all the time.

CI: People who get quoted more often either reply to requests to quote them with their permission or else they are, like Jim, someone who says "quote me" or "you can quote me"
in their original e-mail. I know you don't feel you've been quoted enough but you usually respond two days after you've been asked and often a post on the topic has already gone up.
Someone else, Gina or Kara or whomever, could say, "Hey, Beth got to do an interview! Why didn't I get to do one?" You wanted questions answered (in an e-mail Saturday night) so I answered those Sunday. Then Monday or Tuesday you wrote, "I want follow ups." So that's why we're here right now.

Beth: One more. What do you hope the community does?

CI: Gets more informed. Thinks more critically about the way things are presented. I don't mean in a negative manner only. The Times did an incredible job of covering the tsunami for the first two weeks. People saw that and we noted it. We should do that when there is good reporting. But when there's bad reporting, we should note that too. And hopefully, with all the sharing going on here, we're able to not just say, "It was bad" but "It was bad because it ___ and it ___." So that's one hope, that we don't just passively read or watch or listen to the news.
Another hope is that we're all becoming a little more informed about the world we live in and each other. You said you voted for Cobb, right?

Beth: Right.

CI: Where did you learn about him?

Beth: I went to a rally.

CI: And the media?

Beth: I don't remember one story on him being on TV, or as Randi [Rhodes] says "right there on my TV screen." I don't remember reading one story on him or by him. If he hadn't showed up in my area, I wouldn't have known about him.

CI: Did you complain to anyone about the lack of coverage?

Beth: No. I should have.

CI: Right because we need to be heard. And hopefully, people in our community that aren't as active will become more active. And hopefully, with us all sharing, we'll manage to learn about something we wouldn't have known about -- an opinion, a development, a candidate, etc. I think I stated on this site before that I did everything I knew of to do in 2004 except start a blog. Friends were always saying, "You should do a blog." I didn't know anything about blogging or how to blog. But after the election, a number of us were looking at where we were successful and where we weren't. That's one reason we don't highlight the Times' op-eds. A good friend of mine feels that they spoke to people who were in a position to receive them but for people who wanted to dismiss them, they were able to say, "Oh, that's the New York Times!" In our [informal] survey, we found out, for instance, that Molly Ivins was far more successful in reaching swing voters because she spoke in a voice that reached them. But we were all also talking about what we could do to make sure the next election went differently. The one things I could think of that I hadn't done was blog.

Beth: And do you think it's made a difference?

CI: You said last question awhile back. I think we've made a difference, we. You've got two members doing their own blogs now. You've got some new names popping up on the entries and some of them are new members but some of them are members who've e-mailed for awhile but only now feel comfortable expressing themselves. You've got people participating in the Times, not just reading it and tossing it aside. There are people who write to say that they always kept their mouths shut when someone at work or wherever was singing Bush's praises. But Erkia's points about the power of yes and the power of no have allowed them to say, "I don't like him."
That's a big first step. There are people who now write the Times about something. And there are some members who'll send in something from our blog to the paper. People are finding ways they are comfortable with to interact. It only makes us all stronger.

Beth: Okay, last question, promise. Three books that you think everyone should read?

CI: I don't think there are only three books and I don't think that everyone needs to read the same books. I'll pick three books that I think might get overlooked and I'll stick with non-fiction. Gloria Steinem's Outrageous Acts & Everyday Rebellions because it drives home the power that we do have. At one point, she's writing about how to get active and one of her points is that we can all take the time during The Tonight Show (I think it was The Tonight Show that she named) to write a letter to a Congressional representative. That book came out in 1983. Today, with the internet, it's even easier to weigh in and be heard. There are a number of reasons to read the book but I think it's strong book and one that's beneficial. Susan Faludi's Backlash is another book I'd put on this list you're asking for. It's funny, it's political and it will make you think not about an isolated incident but about larger connections. I loved that book because there were a number of people around me at that time who would dismiss any discussion on media portrayals as non-important. These are the cultural narratives of our times, our modern day bedtime stories or fairy tales. And we do need to think about the message they send. When people of a certain age dismissed any discussion on media portrayals after Backlash came out, I was always able to whip the book out and say, "Well Susan Faludi says . . ." (I took that book everywhere. Even on a camping trip.) For the last one, I'll pick something more current. In the last two years, a number of great non-fiction books have come out. I'm going to highlight one that I feel was overlooked, Benjamin Barber's Fear's Empire. I think we need to think about the effects of sloganeering and the realities of what's being done when we passively go along. For those reasons, I'll pick Fear's Empire.

Beth: Okay, three novels.

CI: I'll give you three novels if you'll list three and three nonfiction books.

Beth: Nonfiction. Laura Flander's The W Effect, Greg Palast's The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. I think everyone should read them.

CI: I like those books. Fiction?

Beth: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. And everyone should read them.

CI: Of those three, I've only read Their Eyes Were Watching God. My three? John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy and Jay McInerney's Brightness Falls.