John and I just returned from a month of U.S. travel (travel-logs are forthcoming). Our mutually agreed news blackout was quickly obliterated by Hurricane Ike, and we were then free to marvel at the nomination of $7 Sunday NYT on TuesdaySarah Palin and the painful circus of financial collapse and executive bailout.  Our primary sources were motel CNN, John’s BlackBerry, and the very occasional New York Times. And boy was I hungry after a week in Montana where the only New York Times we could find was in downtown Missoula. The Sunday issue. For seven dollars. On Tuesday.

We’re home for a few days before heading off again. After weeks of being teased by television, BlackBerry-friendly newspaper sites, and email forwards, I’ve finally caught up on the internet video party. In this realm, it’s no contest between the financial scandals and Sarah Palin. Wall Street execs are smart enough to keep a low profile. So here’s what I’ve watched so far: 

At this point, I decided there was no need to watch Palin’s RNC speech, or even voyeuristically dig for videos of the child she’s leading into motherhood and (possible) marriage. The New York Times put it well in a Sept 13 editorial:

If [John McCain] seriously thought this first-term governor — with less than two years in office — was qualified to be president, if necessary, at such a dangerous time, it raises profound questions about his judgment. If the choice was, as we suspect, a tactical move, then it was shockingly irresponsible.

Nearly as shocking is that Palin accepted. Sarah Palin does not know just how much she does not know. That is beyond stupid, it’s dangerous. 

I am glad to have had only a couple of days for this bullshit. She’s wasting everyone’s time. Except that of McCain and his staff, who didn’t waste much time vetting her. Seasoned journalism operations and world leaders are having to treat this joker as though she is a real player. I have enjoyed learning about this nutter, but I should have been doing it in furtive scans of People magazine while in the doctor’s office.

However, don’t think for a minute I’ll be missing that VP debate… I’m searching for pubs in Kent with satellite dishes and Tivos as soon as I hit “Publish” on this post.

John read this passage about the Dalai Lama in The Times of London in an article entitled, “Defiant people yearn for the ‘political monk in Gucci shoes'”:

When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 he described himself as “a simple monk from faraway Tibet”. His existence as a symbol of the struggle for freedom have won him a huge following in the West. But his position is complicated; he has been described as “a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes”.

John then wrote the following letter to The Times:

Interesting that the journalist does not mention that the person credited with the “monk in Gucci shoes” remark is none other than the proprietor of The Times, Rupert Murdoch. Mr Murdoch is hardly the most objective commentator given his considerable efforts to curry favour with the Chinese leadership while trying to expand his media empire into China.

I feel the journalist is being a little disingenuous with this omission, especially as the quote is used in the title of the piece…

— John Grant, Cambridge, MA

The BBC attributed the quote in question to Mr. Murdoch back in 1999. What’s striking about the Times reporter’s omission is that this remark did not pass quietly into obscurity. It’s still a favorite for watchers of the media mogul and his Buddhist nemesis.

What’s also striking — and amusing — is that both Murdoch and the reporter in his employ attribute the quote to nameless, faceless others (albeit in the way that a child closes her eyes and thinks no one can see her):

Murdoch, 1999: “I have heard cynics who say he’s a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes.” (I can’t source the original Vanity Fair interview where Murdoch reportedly said this because, as with much of our cultural heritage, it’s buried in some paid archive management service.)

Reporter, 2008: “…he has been described as ‘a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes'”.

Murdoch is known to strongly influence the coverage of the media properties he owns. But it’s always a little shocking to see that influence in action. Nice catch, John.

Overheard while strolling down Main Street in Santa Monica:

Guy with clipboard: “Stop torture?”

Woman entering cafe: “I like torture.”

Me, to myself: (Tee hee.)

Woman: “I’m from Texas.”

Me: (She was kidding… right?)

Today I saw an AP story about a former administrator for the National Museum of Natural History who is accusing the Smithsonian of softening the language and presentation of an exhibit on climate change. The administrator, who resigned last fall, said the alterations came not out of direct pressure, but out of a general sense of concern over losing government funding. Of course, Smithsonian officials and the White House denied any political influence over the exhibit.

The exhibit is rather bizarrely and obviously obliquely titled “Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely”. The Web site indicates a narrow focus on neutral observation of what’s happening. Not even a why — well, one why, with the answer:

Arctic Meltdown
Arctic ice and snow have been shrinking. And that means our planet’s air conditioning system may be in trouble. Why?

The light color of snow and ice reflects most of the Sun’s energy back into space, rather than being absorbed by the dark color of land and open water. That is one reason the Arctic’s cold is so extreme—and our planet does not overheat

But with less ice cover, the ocean and the land warm up, causing more ice to melt, further warming the planet.

Sure, that’s a why, like saying gas prices are high because oil is expensive. Not quite the answer I was expecting.

It reminded me of my eye-opening, depressing experience attending another exhibit at the Smithsonian 3 years ago. I wrote about the exhibit and the related book on Amazon:

Beautiful book, sad exhibition, May 5, 2004
Reviewer: A reader

I bought this book because there was no other way to understand the photos that were on display at the Museum of Natural History. I was not alone; several people walked around Banerjee’s exhibition with their books in hand. The curator had removed all descriptive labels, and the introductory plaque emphasized how small the Arctic refuge is compared to other such reserves throughout the country. The photos were mounted in a corridor leading to an elevator. It was poorly lit, and crowded with people passing through. It was in the back of the building, and hard to find. It was a startling contrast to the Eliot Porter exhibition in one of the main exhibition halls above the ground floor. That exhibition was well designed, well described, and included copies of books like “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, hardly a neutral text. The only message I could take away was that environmentalism is “safe” to the Smithsonian curators only when it’s at least 30 or 40 years old.

The treatment of Banerjee’s photos was so troublesome that Congress held hearings on the matter. But no news report could compare to the feeling of being there, near the elevator.

I took the book home with me, trying to understand whether or not the poor installation was due to poor material or to poor museum administration. Banerjee’s photos, and the stories and writings around the photos, are greatly compelling. The story of how hard he worked to get those photos, and of how in the process, he became a better photographer, stood out to me. I highly recommend the book, but I hope I have helped some enthusiasts know just how controversial the notion of natural beauty can be, and how the Smithsonian does play politics. Apparently, reading Banerjee’s book can be considered an act of protest.