Apr. 26th, 2009

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MoDo, honey, seriously. Are you kidding?

Maybe it’s because I’m staying at the Sunset Tower on Sunset Boulevard, but I keep thinking of newspapers as Norma Desmond.

Papers are still big. It’s the screens that got small.

Now that everybody can check their iPhones and laptops for news that personally interests them, now that they can Google, blog and tweet, as well as shop — and stalk — on Craigslist, old-school newspapers seem like aging silent film stars, stricken to find themselves outmoded by technology.

As a disgusted Desmond asks from behind dark glasses: “And who have they got now? Some nobodies — a lot of pale little frogs croaking pish-posh.”

Well, gracious.

Let's quickly get your leading conceit out of the way - you're not flashing on Norma because of your hotel. You're flashing on Norma because you're running out of material. You used her three weeks ago as a metaphor for american exceptionalism in a column which related Michelle Obama's dress to unfortunate developments in the US auto industry. Note: people say a bunch of zingy stuff about politics in Casablanca. Just a thought.

But I have to be honest with you, hon. It's not that you wrote slightly more exactly the same column as usual this week. It's this

I asked (SF Chronicle editor-at-large Phil Bronstein) to take me on a justify-your-existence tour.

He started by driving me past an old journalism hangout. “That’s kind of a dead thing, a newspaper bar,” he said. Continuing with the obsolescence theme, he showed me the Linotype machine in the lobby of The Chronicle and his old conference room upstairs.

“This is called the Komodo Dragon Room, for obvious reasons,” he said dryly, referring to the time his ex-wife, Sharon Stone, gave him a meet-and-greet session with a Komodo dragon, who mistook his foot for a snack.

Hey, celebrity anecdote. That kind of justifies his existence right there, doesn't it? But wait, there's more.

We drove around the city for hours, looking at places where journalism had had an impact. At police headquarters, he told of The Chronicle’s coverage of police brutality that forced the department to create a database tracking misbehaving officers. He talked about the paper’s AIDS coverage as we drove through the Castro and past San Francisco General Hospital, where the AIDS wards once overflowed. Parked outside the Giants’ ballpark, he praised the paper’s reporting on Barry Bonds and the steroids scandal, noting that “there are far fewer fly balls going out in the bay.”

His tour ended with cold comfort, as he observed that longer life expectancies may keep us on life support. “For people who still love print, who like to hold it, feel it, rustle it, tear stuff out, do their I. F. Stone thing, it’s important to remember that people are living longer,” he said. “That’s the most hopeful thing you can say about print journalism, that old people are living longer.”

Aw. Cute funny old people reading newspapers. Got in the habit in the old days, when newspapers were different. Nobody's getting in the habit any more. What changed, you  ask?

“When I started as a White House correspondent,” the second female in the position in the Times’ history, “there was a lot of criticism from guys saying, ‘She focuses too much on the person but not enough on policy.’ I never understood that argument at all. I just didn’t agree with the premise,” says Dowd. “Even Scotty Reston,” the storied Washington correspondent who joined the Times the day World War II began and decidedly did not groove on women in the workplace, “said that after the president got the bomb, you had to sort of focus on his judgment and who he was as a person, because that’s all you had. All the great traumatizing events of American history—Watergate, Vietnam, the Iran/contra stuff—have always been about the president’s personal demons and gremlins. So I always thought that criticism was just silly . . . as if it was a girlish thing to be focused on the person.”

Well, it's not girlish any more. It's gender-neutral high-level journalism. Hell, you won a Pulitzer for it

Maureen Dowd was appointed a columnist of The New York Times's Op-Ed page in January 1995 after having served as a correspondent in its Washington bureau since August 1986. There, she covered two Presidential campaigns and served as White House correspondent, gaining a wide following of admirers and imitators for her witty, incisive and acerbic portraits of the powerful.

Incisive and acerbic, dude. Yes, you, Maureen Dowd, are the woman who mainstreamed snark.

So you kind of own the commentary career of William Kristol. You were the precipitating cause of Dana Milbank's decline from a damn good reporter into someone who thinks the readers of his paper tune in to monitor the production of his gall bladder, and the godmother of Ron Fournier's figleaf attempt to disguise naked political partisanship as a fearless determination to remain unspun. You, Red, are a shining symbol of the royal road to success that lies in writing low-content trash which amuses the folks your publisher or your great and good friend the managing editor network with.

And here's the thing - lots of folks, now that they don't have to write journalism with standards any more, are better at it than you are. They're also younger and hungrier, and while they may not all have the sterling family political connections that got you your shot at the big time over others equally young and hungry who had to start a bit lower down the food chain, a lot of them are funnier, and smarter, and didn't spend the last eight years writing think pieces about Hillary's fat ankles.

As a matter of fact, since you don't necessarily need a research department or actual reporting to do what you do, many of the people who are better than you at it write for blogs.

After you, the deluge, sunshine. Hope you wore your hipboots.

Although you know what? I don't, really. And one of the lovely things about earning a living doing something other than being some guy's surrogate spite-hose is that you don't have to pretend extra-hard to be too feminine to be as nasty as you look. It's one of the ways feminism didn't fail the people who tried it.

On the other hand, you're definitely ready for your closeup.

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