Saturday, December 6, 2008

Roadside Palintology and preparatory promulgations

This American dinosaur was spotted in southern Virginia. I believe it's the first post-Sarah Palin sighting of dinosaurus Americanus. The fossil record is unclear about the stars and stripes motif, but most paleontologists are pretty sure that this was not what influenced Betsy Ross when it came to designing the flag. Most Palintologists are just confused:

Coming back to Virginia the next day, this bit of signage was seen just below the Virginia line in North Carolina. No time like the present to get ready!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Brainfood #3: Mars according to Kim Stanley Robinson

I've always enjoyed how the best science fiction both reflects on, and speculates about, the possibilities inherent in the human condition, regardless of where people frolic in time and space. The genre excels when it successfully redefines setting and context while playing around with long-established literary themes. (How's that for an introduction that tries to impart a certain scholarly air to a genre oft-associated with pulp fiction?)

A prime example is Isaac Asimov's monumental Foundation Trilogy, which draws deeply on human political history, particularly Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Like the fine novelist that he was, Asimov places his well-defined characters in a quickly-paced narrative that adds a personal element to historical events and political machinations. Foundation, as a political entity, is the product of individuals and their actions, and we're privy to their conversations and thoughts as they shape the fate of the galaxy. It's not so much a retelling of Gibbon as it is an interstellar Greek drama based on the story of Roman imperial decline, a tale where individual actions have consequences of epic import. But because it's sci-fi, these tales aren't bound by terran limitations: they bounce from planet to planet, providing Greek tragedy with a healthy side dose of intergalactic space flight. Greek with geek, if you will.

My interest in sci-fi comes with a planetary sized caveat: the genre, sadly, is rife with some truly mediocre writing. Sometimes it seems like sci-fi editors will forgive stilted narrative and lame character development as long as the gizmos giz and the zappers zap. Caveats aside, there is plenty of brilliance in the genre, and one master that I've recently caught up with is Kim Stanley Robinson.

Robinson's Mars trilogy has been on my reading list for some time, but I finally got around to it this month. He presents an environmental challenge: given a blank planetary slate, filled with the proverbial "building blocks" to support life, how would humans create a habitable environment on a planet from scratch? Over the course of three novels, Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996). Robinson traces the colonization and terraforming of Mars, where several generations of colonist render a stark, freezing planet into a place fit for human habitation.

Yet as anyone who has paid attention to the environmental movement in our current time and place (Earth, circa 2008), environmental science is constantly battling with corporate interests and an array of related political wiles, ruses, and shenanigans. As it is now, so it is in Red Mars. Without spoiling the plot, a struggle develops among the settlers between keeping Mars in its pre-human contact condition (a group known as the "Reds,") and turning it into another Earth-like planet, with surface water, vegetation, and a breathable atmosphere (these folks are known as the "Greens"). As colonization develops, transnational corporate interests ("transnats"), with an unwavering eye toward profits, bring in settlers from war-torn and overpopulated Earth to work the Martian mines. A corporate police state develops, with eerie parallels to Appalachian coal towns and other dark sides of labor history.

While Robinson's initial acclaim came from the Mars novels, he's gained recent attention with his Science in the Capital trilogy, a set of novels examining the effects of Global Warming, consisting of Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). And it's not just sci-fi fans who have notice Robinson's work; indeed, his environmental literature earned him a 2008 "Hero of the Environment" designation by that bastion of mainstream news reporting, Time Magazine. Last month, AMC announced plans to make a TV series based on Red Mars. His work is quite popular, and the Web's abuzz with information about him. One interesting source is the KSR Encyclopedia wiki.

Inside the Gusev Crater on Mars, from the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

Isaac Asimov hawking Radio Shack TRS-80 computers in 1982.

Credits: Photo of Kim Stanley Robinson by Beth Gwinn, from the KSR Encyclopedia. The tracks were made by Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity when it scampered in and out of the Victoria Crater. The Mars images are from NASA's Mars Exploration Program website. The Asimov ad is blatantly ripped from the Web, but it was so cool I just had to do it. To help offset any guilt I have about stealing a Radio Shack ad, I promise to go to Radio Shack as soon as possible to pick up one of these cool TRS-80s. I've always wanted a color computer!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

First snow!

Much to my surprise, the forecast of flurries actually left some snow on the ground -- a bit less than an inch fell this morning, imparting a magical air to our walk. Asta, of unknown-but-possibly-Arctic-dog-lineage, had a blast scurrying around in the white stuff. And the forecast is for lows in the teens tonight. Here's some assorted shots of this lovely transition into winter:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Full Frost Moon

With a bit of hazy fog in the air, this photo of the Frost Full Moon was taken from my backyard in Blacksburg last night. Fog and haze gave way to clouds overnight, and it was raining when I woke up this morning. The November full moon is also known as the Frost Moon or Beaver Moon. According to the Farmers' Almanac, it's called the Beaver Moon because it was the time "to set beaver traps before the swamps froze, to ensure a supply of warm winter furs." This particular full moon marks the closest the Moon will be to the Earth in 2008, just a scant 356,566 miles away. Touchable, don't you think? Gather beaver pelts? I think not - I'll opt for fleece and merino wool, thank you, but the folklore reminds us that the Frost/Beaver Moon is yet another autumnal sign of approaching winter.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Falling into the State: Veteran's Day

Dad was no poetry fan; he sometimes traced his antipathy back to an English professor at East Carolina Teacher’s College in 1943. “He made us read his poetry, and it was awful,” he said. “I never did like it after that.” But I often think he would have liked Randall Jarrell, the poet and former North Carolina Women’s College professor whose poems documented his service with the 8th Air Force during World War II.

Like Jarrell, my father fell into the State in 1944, when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. He was assigned to the 449th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force and stationed in Grottaglie, Italy, where he flew 52 combat missions as a gunner in B-24 bombers. On his very first mission, on January 14, 1944, the B-24 developed engine trouble and he had to bail out. Only 3 of the crew of 11 made it out of the plane. It was Dad’s first mission, but because the plane crashed before they reached the combat zone it didn’t count, and Dad went on to fly an additional 52 missions.

He rarely talked about the war, and then only in generic terms, but he did save his parachute ripcord and his membership in “The Caterpillar Club,” an honor given to men who parachuted from planes using silk ‘chutes. Years later, when he was a professional picture framer, he framed the ripcord and the Caterpillar Club card (that's them above). He wore the tiny caterpillar lapel pin for the rest of his life.

Dad became a military man, a cold warrior. Unable to find work after the war, with a family to feed, he reenlisted in the newly created Air Force and served a total of 23 years, retiring as a major in 1965. During that time he worked as the ordinance officer for a fighter squadron with nuclear weapons, and went on to command a Titan II missile launch trainer just before he retired. That's a photo of him sleeping in a B-29 sometime in the late 1940s, I believe when he was stationed in Roswell, New Mexico.

But he never took to poetry, preferring the newspaper, history books, the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer – I come from well-established Episcopalian stock on my father’s side. Yet on this Veteran’s Day, with Dad being gone a full eight years now, I turn to Randall Jarrell to honor my father’s life. Dad was lucky - he made it home and lived to age 78. Many of his friends, including the man I was named for, didn't share the same fate.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
-Randall Jarrell

Dad and me, sometime in the early 1990s.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Autumn leaves: seasonal musings

We've celebrated fall with this array of gourds in an old bread mixing bowl. My aunt drew the chalk pumpkin paintings in her later, self-described Grandma Moses years. Our good friend CindyLou made the fairy.

Autumn has become my favorite season - full of richly hued colors that slowly give way to a myriad of browns and tans, offset by darkly green conifers and other evergreens. This wasn't always the case, for in my younger days I preferred summer, reveling in the heat and humidity of the southern Appalachian mountains. Fall holds sway now, and I love the colder nights, the lay of the light as the sun angles lower in the afternoons, and the views that are beginning to emerge from hillsides as foliage falls. Offered here are some autumnal musings.

Mid-afternoon oak leaves, backlit by the slanting sunlight. War Spur Loop trail, late October.
Autumn is a time for festivals and celebrations, when the harvest is brought in and victuals are stored for the upcoming winter. Nearly every culture has some form of harvest festival, dating back to festivals in ancient Egypt, China, and Babylon. A contemporary version of the traditional harvest festival is the modern America celebration of Thanksgiving, complete with all the patriotism and mythologies associated with European colonization.

Of course, the Pilgrims were fleeing Britain, which has a pretty well established set of autumnal celebrations. Tucked into mid-November after Hallowmas, is Martinmesse, or Martinmas. While widely celebrated today, it's been called the "forgotten festival" of Great Britain by scholar Martin Walsh, who says that Martinmas "is seen as both the last harvest festival and a curtain raiser for the extended revelling season, in effect, a 'Carnival' in late autumn" (if you're curious, see the citation below). Celebrated in honor of Martin of Tours, a "pacifist soldier-saint," Martinmas falls on November 11, and is marked by butchering beasts and testing new wine. Walsh cites scores of literary references to revelry accompanying St. Martin's festival in British litertaure, and unlike the holy reverence that Martinmas has in other European countries, Walsh notes that "St. Martin quite comfortably belongs in the raucous world of the Elizabethan tavern" as part of "a long English tradition of Martinmas inebriation."

A cult of St. Martin developed in early England, and persisted for centuries. But such merrymaking wasn't always seen in a good light. In fact, the Puritans cited the cult of St. Martin as one of the problems with the Catholic Church in 1580 in the tract Beehive of the Romish Church, where they lambasted the poor saint thusly: "St Martin...the aleknight, tavern-hunter, and drunkarde." Another anti-Romish tract of the time associates St. Martin's behavior, "drinking deepe in tankardes large," with the coming of the Antichrist. That's St. Martin on the right, and he appears curiously sober.

Festivals aside, autumn's a wonderful time to go hiking. We took a hike up to War Spur Loop a few weekends ago, and Asta had a great time. That's her on the left, zipping down the trail with abandon. I had stopped to take some photos and Barrie had gone ahead, so this is Asta coming back to herd me.

Hiking brings this Zen poem to mind:

Visiting the Mountain Hermitage
of a Monk at Gan-Hua Monastery

He waits at dusk, bamboo walking stick in hand,
at the headwaters of Tiger Creek,
leading us on as we listen to mountain echoes,
following the water's way.

Patches of wildflowers bloom.
A solitary bird calls from the valley floor.
We sit evening zazen in the empty forest:
quiet pine winds bring the odor of autumn.

Morning light on Poverty Creek, mid-October.

Finally, a few live performances of a seasonal favorite, "Autumn Leaves," originally written by Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prev with French lyrics and the title "Feuilles Mortes." Johnny Mercer wrote the English lyrics for the 1956 film Autumn Leaves, and the movie version was performed by Nat King Cole. It's a true jazz standard now, having been recorded by dozens of musicians. These two versions are by two of my favorite piano trios. The first is the great Bill Evans Trio:

The second is Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Peacock:

Another backlit leaf and moss. Love that autumn light!


"Medieval English Martinmesse: The Archaeology of a Forgotten Festival, by Martin W. Walsh. Folklore, Vol. 111, No. 2 (Oct., 2000), pp. 231-254

"Visiting the Mountain Hermitage of a Monk at Gan-Hua Monastery." Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Boa Editions, Ltd., 2000. p97.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sun dogs, serendipitous searching, and sunsets

This pair of sundogs were in the sky the other morning over Paris Mountain east of Blacksburg. Sundogs, which appear like little partial rainbows, are also called parahelia, or mock-suns, and are the result of atmospheric ice crystals refracting light. The ancient Greeks considered them a harbinger of rain, and various American folklorists have documented similar ideas in Iowa, Illinois, and the Ozarks. See a sundog, Ozark folklore contends, and the weather's going to change. Seems like they're called sundogs because they accompany the sun, but that might be apocryphal. Or just wrong.

Serendipitous searching for sundogs and folklore led to this posting in a hitherto-unknown blog, The Celestial Monochord, which immediately grabbed my attention with its curious subtitle: "Journal of the Institute for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues." Allright! Now we're talking! The author, Kurt Gegenhuber, is a hardcore folk music aficionado, stargazer, and ardent Dylanophile. And seems somewhat smitten by Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and Griel Marcus' Invisible Republic. In short, a kindred spirit of sorts. A romp through his postings revealed much about such seemingly disparate things as the New Lost City Ramblers, Barack Obama, astronauts, John Prine, and cracked sidewalks. Plus Tom Waits, which is always a plus. Slapped the ol' Monochord into my Google homepage RSS feed just to see what Kurt's got on his mind.

Ramblings and blog postings aside, it's back to our trusty hilltop venue for some sizzling sunset shots, revealing the lovely New River Valley in all its splendor. As winter comes in this will be harder to catch on a weekday, as my daily sojourn to libraryland will bring me home after the horizon has slipped up past this giant celestial orb. But I'm enjoying it in these autumn days.

Here's another sundog, the warmly backlit Asta this time,
gazing off at something across the golf course :

And finally the horizon slips up and swallows the sun. Goodbye!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Let us now praise the humble apple...

Apple trees at Handy's Orchard, Woolwine, Virginia
Autumnal signs over the last week:
  • Winter constellations twinkle above in the pre-dawn hours: Orion, the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, Taurus, and Gemini greet me in the morning;
  • I woke up with cold toes. Donning a pair of socks and climbing back into bed, I grudgingly decided it was time to turn the heat on in the bedroom. Need to add the fleece layer to the bedding - cotton alone will no longer suffice;
  • It's in the low 40's, with a bit of a breeze, requiring a jacket on my morning walk with Asta;
  • Things are afoot! Asta was dashing back and forth across the road this morning, running to the end of the 16 foot leash, nose excitedly on the ground. Scampering squirrels storing foodstuffs?
  • And, best of all, it's apple time in Southwest Virginia.
Apples! One of the great, simple joys of living in the Virginia Highlands is apple season. Apples have a long history in this part of the world. According to the Monticello website around 17,000 different apple varieties were recorded in 19th century American publications. Thomas Jefferson cultivated 17 varieties in the orchards of his "fruitery" at Monticello, including Hewes' Crab and Taliaferro for cider making and Newtown Pippin and Esopus Spitzenburgs for desert fruits. Apples have been a cash crop in America for some time. From the Monticello website:
When comparing the fruits of Europe and America, Jefferson wrote from Paris, "They have no apple to compare with our Newtown Pippin." Known later as the Albemarle Pippin, this apple supported a large industry in Jefferson's home county (Albemarle County) based on export to England. Like the Pippin, the Spitzenburg originated in New York and ruled the nineteenth-century pomological charts when apples were often critically reviewed and competitively rated.
A number of local growers have been bringing apples to the Blacksburg Farmers' Market for the last month or so, and there are plenty of small orchards in the surrounding counties. Last weekend we journeyed down the mountain to visit my mother, stopping at Handy's Orchard on Hwy 8 for apples. Tucked in a beautiful valley outside of Woolwine, Handy's is one of my favorite Virginia orchards.

Bushels of Staymans at Handy's roadside stand
Apples are a big cash crop in Virginia, according to the Virginia Apple Growers Association. There are more than 100 commercial orchards in Virginia, producing between 5-6 million bushels each year and bringing about $235 million to the state's economy. Popular varieties include Red and Golden Delicious, Staymans, Galas, Winesaps, Granny Smiths, and Yorks, but lots of heirloom apples are showing up at the Farmers Market. Handy's had a Winter Banana Apple, a green apple that was sweet and crisp. Rural Ridge Orchard, near Charlottesville, runs a company called Vintage Virginia Apples that offers more than 200 varieties of apples and apple trees.

I'll close with this quote from a fine essay entitled "Heirloom Apples in Central and Southern Appalachia," by Paul Gallimore of the Long Branch Environmental Education Center.
No more important fruit tree graces the homesteads, farms, and backyards of Appalachia than the apple (Pyrus malus, also known as Malus pumila and Malus domestica). A member of the rose family (Rosaceae), the gently fragrant and delicate apples blossoms in springtime resemble miniature roses, and their nectar is sought after by bees, which are essential for their pollination ... Apples are the most prolific fruit grown in the northern temperate regions across the world, so Appalachia is no exception. As many as eight tons per acre can be harvested from a properly-managed orchard. In addition to the nutritional value and the health promoting aspects of the fruit, apple wood is hard, durable, and very fine-grained, which makes it ideal for cabinetmaking. Even apple wood chips are prized for use in imparting flavor to smoked fish.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Field Trip: Coal wars, mountaintop removal

The mountains are going away, not too far from where I live. Driving down Interstate 77 through West Virginia appears largely idyllic as you pass through rolling, green mountains. But just a mile or so away the hills and valleys are merging into a flat, lifeless, poisoned wasteland.

This wanton destruction of Appalachia is called mountaintop removal (MTR). If there's any evidence that Mordor lurks outside of the fictional realm of Middle Earth, surely it resembles the scars and devastation wreaked by MTR. Sauronesque analogies to the people who run Massey Energy and other coal companies may seem a stretch, but not much of one.

Last month I joined a few dozen colleagues in a fact-finding trip to the West Virginia coal fields as part of the Surface Mining Study at Radford University. Before visiting an MTR site, we first explored the history of the West Virginia Mine Wars, where coal company owners and hired detectives fought pitched battles with miners who were trying to organize unions. One of the most gripping sites was this concrete pillbox, situated on an outcropping overlooking Cabin Creek, where the coal companies and their hired thugs could train machine guns and rifles on the miners in the valley:

The West Virginia Division of Culture and History provides a succinct summary of events:
In 1902, the UMWA finally achieved some recognition in the Kanawha-New River Coalfield, its first success in West Virginia. Following the union successes, coal operators had formed the Kanawha County Coal Operators Association in 1903, the first such organization in the state. It hired private detectives from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency in Bluefield as mine guards to harass union organizers. Due to these threats, the UMWA discouraged organizers from working in southern West Virginia.

By 1912, the union had lost control of much of the Kanawha- New River Coalfield. That year, UMWA miners on Paint Creek in Kanawha County demanded wages equal to those of other area mines. The operators rejected the wage increase and miners walked off the job on April 18, beginning one of the most violent strikes in the nation's history. Miners along nearby Cabin Creek, having previously lost their union, joined the Paint Creek strikers and demanded:

  • the right to organize
  • recognition of their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly
  • an end to blacklisting union organizers
  • alternatives to company stores
  • an end to the practice of using mine guards
  • prohibition of cribbing
  • installation of scales at all mines for accurately weighing coal
  • unions be allowed to hire their own checkweighmen to make sure the companies' checkweighmen were not cheating the miners.

When the strike began, operators brought in mine guards from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to evict miners and their families from company houses. The evicted miners set up tent colonies and lived in other makeshift housing. The mine guards' primary responsibility was to break the strike by making the lives of the miners as uncomfortable as possible.

As the intimidation by mine guards increased, national labor leaders, including Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, began arriving on the scene. Jones, a native of Ireland, was already a major force in the American labor movement before first coming to West Virginia during the 1897 strikes. Although she reported the year of her birth as 1830, recent research indicates she was probably born in 1845. As a leader of the UMWA's efforts to organize the state, Jones became known for her fiery (and often obscene) verbal attacks on coal operators and politicians.

Not only did the UMWA send speechmakers, it also contributed large amounts of weapons and ammunition. On September 2, Governor William E. Glasscock imposed martial law, dispatching 1,200 state militia to disarm both the miners and mine guards. Over the course of the strike, Glasscock sent in troops on three different occasions.

After this historical background, our next stop was Kayford Mountain, where Larry Gibson is defending his family's land against the destruction of Kayford Mountain, which is literally being blown away around his land. Gibson's courageous stand garnered him praise from CNN, who named him a "hero" for his efforts to educate and raise awareness about the devistation of MTR, particularly through the Keeper of the Mountain Foundation. Below are some photos from the trip, first of Larry talking with us, then of what's left of Kayford Mountain. Take note of the ridgeline behind Kayford - the mountains as far as you can see are slated for MTR.

Larry Gibson talking with us on his land, with the MTR of
Kayford Mountain actively going on behind him.

There's plenty of great information available about MTR. Here are a few good sources:

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Late summer walks in Blacksburg

Here's a set of photos from various morning and evening walks in my Blacksburg neighborhood, mostly strolls up the hill to the public golf course with Asta. Yeah, I document this a lot, but I walk it every day. Captions are below each photo.

A foggy morning in Blacksburg town in late August.
Trees on the golf course.

The sun coming up through the fog.

Sunrise, a few days later.

The ol' Asta and the Thin Man shot, this time with the sun setting behind us.

A spiky implement of golf course maintenance.

Late afternoon, looking east on the road beside the golf course.
Turn left and you'll see cows and crows.

See! There be crows ! (OK, just one posed for me. There were plenty more, but they were camera-shy. They showed up en masse a few weeks ago. )
The field across the road pictured above. Pastoral. eh? This is in Blacksburg, and this small slice of pasture (about 30 acres) has been established as a conservancy to ward off development.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rice Fields on the Appalachian Trail

A few weeks ago Asta and I trekked up the Appalachian Trail on Peters Mountain to the Rice Fields, on the Virginia-West Virginia border. The day began with a beautiful drive out 460 West from Blacksburg to Pearisburg, with Peters Mountain looming above as you approach Pearisburg. A short jaunt off 460 on Hwy 641 brings you to the AT crossing. The trail starts with a hike up a (then) drought-dry creekbed, then climbs to the top of a spur (the crest of the spur is pictured to the right). A few weeks earlier and we would have found the hillside covered with blueberries, but only a few stragglers remained, which were quickly consumed. Nothing like wild blueberries - call them huckleberries if you want.

After cresting the spur we crossed a saddle, then began a long series of switchbacks up to the top of Peters Mountain. Peters is one of those long ridge-and-valley mountains described in an earlier post, and runs for at least 15 miles along the Va-WVa border. After about 2 miles of switchbacks you reach the top of Peters Mountain, where it's typically very flat, sometimes several hundred yards wide, other times a few dozen yards across. It was wonderfully cool and breezy on the top, and we had a pleasant stroll on the ridgetop for about 2 miles to the Rice Fields.

Asta running atop flat, fern-covered Peters Mountain
Checking out a turtle.
The AT heading north across the Rice Fields.
Looking northwest into West Virginia from the Rice Fields.
Southwest view of WV from the Rice Fields as Asta frolics.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Monday, August 4, 2008

Interlude: Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Murdoch

Perhaps it's because I spent a week at the University of Virginia that I've been thinking about Thomas Jefferson, but the following article about the Fox News empire prompted these meanderings:

In a recent Atlantic Monthly article entitled "Mr. Murdoch Goes to War," Mark Bowden paints a bleak picture of Rupert Murdoch's takeover of the Wall Street Journal and its assimilation into the Fox News empire. When one watches Fox News' rampant disregard for the truth in its quest to score conservative points, it's hard not to think about the yellow journalism of early print tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, when snappy, attention grabbing headlines were far more important than in-depth -- or factual -- reporting. Remember the Maine! Remember WMD!

We had a long discussion last weekend about the current state of journalism, and how outlets like Murdoch's Fox News deliberately mislead the public, reflecting on how it's only going to get messier as the US Presidential election heats up this fall. (To see how Fox News routinely disseminates lies and rumors about Barack Obama, check out "Fox Attacks Obama.") Murdoch asserts that there's a "liberal bias" in the media, thereby justifying his right-wing approach as "fair and balanced."

The truth is that there is no liberal bias, as studies repeatedly show. Just last week George Mason University released a study showing that the mainstream media is tougher on Obama than McCain, hardly a sign of liberal bias. The media watchdog group FAIR has consistently reported on the effects of media ownership by large corporations, resulting in news organizations that are loathe to report negatively on other branches of their corporate entity - more a sign of corporate spin than liberal bias. In such instances, the corprotocracy takes care of itself.

As we all know, the Web is a primary outlet for news (that and Jon Stewart's brilliantly satirical and insightful Daily Show). With the mainstream media losing credibility as valid, unbiased news sources, and with the corresponding demise of print media in general in favor of the Web, it's no surprise that the Web has become the primary information source for many Americans.

But what do you get when you rely on the Web for news? A simple Google search on any controversial topic typically brings up pages of bloggers, each with their own viewpoint. Or pages of supposedly "legitimate" websites offering "facts" about issue A or issue B. We spend a good deal of time as academic librarians attempting to show undergraduates how to evaluate websites for accuracy and authority, but how many Web surfers use these skills? Search, and the answer shows up, providing enlightenment byte by byte.

Given this context, Bowdens' succinct summary of the impact of the Web on serious journalism proves to be quite insightful:

The Web... has yet to develop institutions capable of replacing print newspapers as vehicles for great in-depth journalism, or conscious of themselves as upholding a public trust. Instead, the Web gives voice to opinionated, unedited millions. In the digital world, ignorance and crudity share the platform with rigor and taste; the independent journalist shares the platform with spinmeisters and con artists. Cable television and satellite radio have taken broadcast journalism in the same direction, crowding out the once-dominant networks, which strove for the ideal of objectivity, with new channels that all but advertise their politics. When all news is spun, we live in a world of propaganda.

The worst part of this is, the public doesn't seem to care.

Bowden does point out that good content can be found amidst the din of opinionated blather on the web - excellent journalism can easily be found with a simple Google search, if you're willing to seek. Many respected newspapers have strong Web sites, battered and shrinking as their print divisions might be. Iconic and respected print newspapers such as the Washington Post and The New York Times have done a fine job of crafting a presence on the Web. And other news sources, such as the BBC and NPR, offer Web and traditional TV and radio outlets.

In his Second Inaugural Address, in 1805, centuries before the Web, Thomas Jefferson realized that the risks of an unfettered free press and the potential for falsehood could be tempered by the public's common sense:
Since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press confined to truth needs no other legal restraint. The public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions on a full hearing of all parties, and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness. If there be still improprieties which this rule would not restrain, its supplement must be sought in the censorship of public opinion.
The question, then, is whether an enlightened electorate and the corresponding "censorship of public opinion" have the ability to find the truth? For while ignorance and crudity run rampant on the Web, so does journalistic rigor and taste; good reporting still holds its head high, despite being the same mouse click away as the spinmeisters and con artists. For my money, I hope the electorate adheres to both Mr. Jefferson's vision and to Mr. Townshend's. As in the Who's Pete Townshend, who famously said he "won't get fooled again." Indeed.

Sources: "Mr. Murdoch Goes to War," by Mark Bowden, Atlantic Monthly, July/Aug 2008; Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Religion, University of Virginia