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Stateside with Rosalea: Yeah, right!

It's a little phrase that slipped into my vocabulary with ease, epitomising as it does laconic cynicism. I found myself saying it out loud a couple of months ago as I walked into a movie theatre late and heard the stirring words of the voiceover on the trailer for "Pearl Harbor". I swear I heard it again this morning in the news item about the Russian spacecraft blasting off with Dennis Tito aboard. That was one big "yeah, right!" in response to the US claim that a malfunctioning robot arm was keeping the US shuttle there and there'd be no parking. Go, Dennis! After all the problems he had with the US trying to get to the space station he might well have adopted Vinegar Joe's motto of "Illegitimati non carborundum".

Vinegar Joe is not a comic book character (well, maybe) but I came to him via WonderCon last weekend. Yes, I went back on the Sunday lured by doughnuts and coffee and the Sunday Funnies panel, and found out something so important that I delayed writing this until after I'd been downstairs to pick up my historic revamped issue of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday edition. A little yellow square 9cm by 4.5cm says it all: "The Funnies. New lineup, new place, same Blondie. Inside". It's that last word that makes the difference. The Chron’ was the last paper in the Bay Area to still wrap its Sunday edition in comic strips - usually with the top three panels of Blondie showing above the fold, so you'd have to buy the paper to see the fourth.

Poor Blondie. Not only are the comics relegated to the inside of the paper, but she is relegated to the inside of the comics section. Frontpage, under the banner, is now Doonesbury by Gary Trudeau. In case you don't get this strip in NZ, I should point out that it very often concerns itself with a central character consisting of an asterisk wearing a stetson. Perhaps Mr Trudeau doesn't want to waste ink and effort on drawing George W. Bush, or perhaps the asterisk represents a much more subtle judgement - in any ratings system something with an asterisk isn't even within the margin for error.

But wait! There's more! Steak knives brandishing, the Examiner Sunday edition this morning has moved its comics from the inside to the outside! Not only do they also have Doonesbury as the top strip, but they have Boondocks by Aaron McGruder on the front page. This is an often controversial and very plain-speaking cartoon about African Americans, whose main character I once saw in person. Well, of course I don't know if the character is based on an actual live model or if the character is so popular his looks are being imitated. I just want to make the point that the Sunday Funnies are a very serious business in the US. One of the cartoonists on the panel at WonderCon opined that the whole plummeting newspaper industry might be saved if only the decision about what cartoons are run was moved out of the news department and into the marketing department.

Television news of course has long since made that transition. It was dollars to donuts that the TV news channel that got the first big interviews with those handsome young men in their spying machine once they got back from China would be the one that's owned by Disney. And yes, it was ABC. So I was thrilled to get the opportunity this week to attend a seminar on how television covers politics being given by Av Westin, former Executive Producer of ABC News.

I didn't get to ask him about it though as he talked mainly about the Florida call-it-for-Bush fiasco, laying the blame firmly at the door of newsroom budget cuts that have led to all the networks - and wire services - relying on one outside provider of data, and that organisation having to cut from 100 to 10 the number of precincts it bases its models on, also for financial reasons. Westin also said that the imperative to call it right has been replaced by the imperative to call it first. Serious news - a term he says is "shorthand for good journalism, well reported" - is becoming a niche and is no longer a universal goal. But he also said that within 5 years "we'll see the net delivering quality news".

Later in the week a panel of visiting fellows doing research at the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, part of the Brookings Institution, held a roundtable discussion at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and little things spoke volumes. Things like the bored look of the fellows, who were being trotted out yet again like so many circus curiosities and who knew that of course it would be the latest Big Thing of US arms sales to Taiwan and Chinese-US relations that would be asked about.

Then there was the seating that they took up. Xiaoping Li, executive producer and program director of the international division of the current affairs department of CCTV from 1994-2000 chose not to sit beside the other four fellows, though there was room for her there. She sat instead at the opposite end of the not-round table from the Dean of the GSJ and had to be coaxed to say more than a few words about herself. She had heard more than enough, she said, about 'evil empires' in the earlier discussion with journalism students.

The other four researchers were Hao Chen, news director of the TVS-ERA Group in Taiwan; Chungsoo Kim, senior analyst for economic affairs on the Korean-language "National Daily" newspaper; Alexander Lukin, who among other things is adviser to the Governor of Moscow Region on foreign economic relations; and Chris Yeung, political editor of the South China Morning Post. What did they think of the US media?

Kim expressed relief for every day that Korea was NOT reported in the news here. In response to an audience question about what news story he'd most like to cover if he was offered a job on a US newspaper, Lukin said he wouldn't accept a job on a US newspaper because they wrote such funny things about Russia. Hong Kong-based Cheung said that at least US reporting attempts more balance and diversity these days. And Chen cautioned patience on the part of US media covering Taiwan - the recent political changes there are so far-reaching that they will take 10-15 years to play out.

I didn't get the chance to ask them what they thought of my 'wish I could draw' editorial cartoon for the week. It would show the participants at Quebec sitting - drooling - around a camp fire above which a beast labelled "Western Hemisphere Free Trade" is being roasted. Outside the circle of firelight are the Asian nations, being told by the Uncle Sam to "go and play among yourselves" while being handed missiles and knives and submarines.

And who was Uncle Joe aka Vinegar Joe? That's the nickname earned by the acerbic Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell whom President Roosevelt tried to force Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek to place in command of all China's armed forces in July 1944. I'm reading about him in a 1970 book by Barbara Tuchman, the late historian who is very popular with cartoonists because of the human scale of her histories.

By the way, Stilwell's aforementioned motto means "Don't let the bastards grind you down", and he had no time for stuffed shirts and politicians. With amazing foresight he even once wrote in his diary: "I am just scribbling to keep from biting the radiator."

Lea Barker
Sunday 29 April, 2001

P.S. It's official. I'm a BC-20 girl. A page three girl, I am not. A cover girl, I am not. But there, between pages 4 and 5 - in the netherworld of pages made possible by regional advertising sales - are some extra letters to the editor of US News and World Report. Among them is one I sent in response to a March 5 feature called 'A world of resentment'. I'm sure they only published it because of the Berkeley address (those greenie wackos!), but who knows? And if they sold those ads in Washington as well, I may have gone undercover into the White House. "First Among Ladies" the April 30 edition says of its cover girl, Laura Bush.

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