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Shark Patrol 

Thursday, Feb 13 2003
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Illustration by Shino Arihara

LATELY, WITH ALL THE SANCTIMONIOUS, WAR-JUSTIFYING dreck flowing out of the White House — the kind of talk absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco was doubtless referring to when he coined the phrase "cascades of caca" — I've been feeling newly grateful for media outlets that aren't afraid to voice the Ionescan point of view. I've always listened to Pacifica Radio in the morning with the blow dryer running and in the car between cell-phone calls; now, as we count down to war, it gets my undivided attention. KPFK, The Progressive magazine, In These Times and the L.A. Weekly itself — all have quickly emerged as a collectively small but crucial portal through which I can both breathe out anxiety and take in the oxygen of reasonableness and prudence that's been all but absent from Capitol Hill these last two years.

I'm not even talking about inhaling leftist air, which would be a luxury in anybody's administration. I'm talking about the oxygen of ordinary people of various persuasions who share significant and persistent qualms about the simultaneously imploding economy and exploding military buildup. It's not that mainstream outlets like The New York Times aren't expressing any qualms at all, but they're not expressing them with the force necessary to move them past the leonine paper of record's arcane (and, frankly, uncourageous) notion of objectivity and fairness. When they're not being baldly conservative, big media like to think of themselves as expansive and detached because they're always careful to quote people on both sides of an issue — think CNN's Crossfire — which maintains the dangerous illusion that all opinions are equally valid and worth considering. But the eternal distraction provided by so many opinions is exactly what we don't need right now; what we need is to know that we're sailing straight at an iceberg and that we might be dashed to pieces at any moment.

So I listen and read avidly about the height and breadth and depth of the iceberg, not only on officially anti-war KPFK and in the similarly inclined Progressive, but in the pages of this paper, a 25-year-old alternative that has survived wild demographic shifts and fluctuating political tastes to remain pretty much intact as an alternative. We rail against Bush with the best of them, sometimes with more elegance and humor than the subject deserves. In a deliberately muddled philosophical landscape, we still range clearly to the left. Given how mushrooming governmental transgressions encounter little editorial resistance at most papers, the Weekly is part of the solution, which is certainly not something all conscientious journalists can say these days about the places they work.

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THERE ARE OTHER THINGS WRITERS CANNOT SAY about the places they work that I am going to say here, too, because the Weekly is still a place where you can say them. For some time there has been a philosophical disconnect between our parent company, Village Voice Media (VVM), and the editorial content of the papers it owns, which include the Village Voice as well as the L.A. Weekly: VVM has in recent years been sharpening its nose into that of a corporate shark. Last year, VVM vigorously opposed a union organizing drive in the advertising department here at the Weekly in the same way that corporations typically oppose such things (full disclosure: I was then, and still am, president of the union local). The difference, however, is that a corporation running alternative papers should watchdog other corporations, not mimic them. There's a certain idealism and maybe even a touch of willful naiveté bound up in such a belief, especially in the age of Rupert Murdoch and media conglomeration, but the role of alternative media — from the paper on up to the company boardroom — is just that: to seed idealism in the worst possible soil.

Last month, after weeks of being investigated for possibly violating federal antitrust laws by agreeing to shut down its Cleveland paper at the same time it bought and closed New Times Los Angeles, VVM agreed to a fee settlement in lieu of a trial. Nobody admitted guilt, but everybody paid to keep guilt at bay. The matter was resolved bloodlessly and blamelessly in a manner that corporations always prefer to resolve problems, if possible, before they puddle into public-relations messes. I was less relieved than chilled by the efficiency of the whole thing, and a little sorry that a source of lively underground debate among some fellow Weekly staffers who were also troubled by the New Times deal was suddenly gone. Part of the debate was why it had to be so underground, why management didn't appear to mind dissent so long as we kept it to ourselves and didn't challenge its regular assurances that the company was fine, spirits were in perfect health and the investigation mattered not at all.

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