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May 10, 2007

The Lileks Controversy

James Lileks, if you didn't know, was stripped of his job as columnist at the Minneapolis (Red) Star-Tribune and offered the lesser position of acting as a straight news reporter covering the fascinating Minneapolis scene. In other words, the newspaper chose to take away his national status -- he was of course frequently linked to nationwide -- and make him all but unread.

This piece at ABCNews (of all places) by Michael S. Malone discusses this.

The most heated topic in the blogosphere this week was the announcement by James Lileks, one of the world's most popular bloggers, that his longtime employer, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, was taking away his print column and putting him back on the reporting beat.

This announcement, which first appeared late Monday night in Lileks' column, initially drew shocked disbelief, then an explosion of anger mostly in the form of letters to Lileks in support (including one from me) and to the Star-Tribune in righteous fury. On his radio show, Hugh Hewitt devoted a couple hours of precious airtime to the news.

Such an outpouring seemed to astonish even Lileks, whose blog about his daily life, typically featuring his dog, Jasper, and daughter "Gnat," have become staples of many readers' daily lives. Hewitt, I think accurately, compared it to the New Yorker asking E.B. White to switch to restaurant reviews, the L.A. Times transferring Jim Murray to the county government beat, or -- in an analogy especially appreciated by this longtime Northern Californian -- to the San Francisco Chronicle asking the late Herb Caen to give up his column and cover the police blotter. Even Dave Barry waded in to shake his head at the sheer stupidity of newspapers these days.

One of the reasons for this intense reaction is that for most of us in the rest of the world, the only thing we know about Minneapolis these days, and certainly about the Star-Tribune, is what we read in Lileks.com. In other words, James Lileks is far bigger than the newspaper that employs him, is its single most effective bastion against falling subscription revenues, and is its most powerful marketing and promotion tool.

To rip that platform out from underneath its single most important asset now makes the "Strib" the poster child for the astonishingly stupid and suicidal decisions made by newspapers in the 21st century.

Malone calls this a case of stupidity. I disagree. The Red Star isn't being stupid; it's being egotistical. Malone views Lileks' prominence and national reach as a boon for the paper. As would most reasonable people.

But the paper obviously doesn't view it as a boon. They view it as a chastisement and an embarrassment. A single writer has more readers and national influence than an entire organization of several hundred employees and several million dollars of budget. The fact that the Red Star's actual star is a Red Stater further humiliates them.

Economists often wonder why, given the fact of liberal media bias, more media companies don't make a play for the great underserved conservative-leaning market and skew to the right instead. Or, even, to the middle. It makes perfect sense if all you're talking about is money. But the fact is people don't get into news to make a lot of money; there are nonpecuniary compensations -- "doing good," "serving the public," "advocating for change," "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable" -- that are a major part of the compensation package in a media job.

CBS just had its worst week of news ratings in "many years" (so many, in fact, the reporter here is unable to probe back far enough to determine the magnintude of Katie Couric's dubious record). It might make sense to replace her with a more centrist, or even right leaning, anchor -- let NBC and ABC fight it out for the one-third of the country that is liberal; CBS will have no broadcast competition for the half of the country that is conservative or at least conservative-leaning.

It makes money sense. It makes business sense. It makes market sense. But CBS will never do it, because the media is so overwhelmingly liberal it's doubtful that CBS could actually hire the talent needed to field a full network news organization should it make a break to the right. The resignations and the outright refusals to tender job applications would turn the division into a ghost-town. The liberal media types just couldn't live with themselves if they were working for "The Enemy."

So, Lileks was the Red Star's most famous, most quoted, most widely read writer. So what? Malone notes this as if that's a good thing. It's not, at least not from the Red Star's perspective. They just can't live with themselves for granting such a degenerate font of evil to speak from their platform.

Of course, they are in fact ultimately stupid, as they'll soon realize. They think that they're somehow denying Lileks his national reach just by taking away the imprimature of the scary-important, scary-influential Star Tribune gig. As if it was the Star-Tribune's seal of approval that made him readable.

Their sense of self-worth depends on believing this -- they're the ones that should be nationally read, quoted all over the world. They, after all, are the straight media types with the right pedigree and the (politically) correct political views. Therefore they must believe that they can take down Lileks just by denying him the credibility and prominence they were providing him.

They're about to be disappointed again. They weren't providing him any prominence nor credibility; his own writing was. All they were providing him with was a paycheck -- a fungible thing that will soon be coming to him from someone else.

They're about to find out that Lileks never needed them, but that they themselves did need him.

They probably suspect that, worry about that -- but their egos can't let them truly accept it. Denial comes first. And last, and always, for these people.

The Red Star will go back to being an unread rag, scarcely read even in Minnesota. But in their hearts they'll know they did the right thing, and are happier being more pure and more ignored.

They just couldn't live with themselves for thinking they were contributing to thep popularity of Lileks. The hell of it is, of course, they never did contribute to his popularity, so their bloated egos and their precious consciences could have rested easily regarding that point.


Related: The Red Star's retiring deputy editorial page editor says that the paper's token-ish hiring of conservative columnists, due to the paper's outlandishly kneejerk liberal company line hurting profitability, made him "hold his nose" in disgust.

Again: It's better to do what's "right" than do what it takes to get people to buy newspapers, or even read newspapers, for that matter.

A greatest hit from "laughinstock liberal" Boyd recounted fondly from Powerline, which, I think, consists of the last three people in America reading this piece of shit.


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posted by Ace at 09:38 PM

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