Watergate: The 2017 Edition
If you follow the national news, there's a word you hear more and more these days: Watergate.
The pundits, commentators, anchors and scholars who populate our 24/7 news cycle are drawing comparisons between what's going on in Washington today and those historic events of almost 50 years ago that led to President Nixon's resignation.
We don't know yet if those dots connect, but it makes one wonder if the current state of affairs will spur one of the results that followed Watergate: An explosion of interest in journalism.
I was just at the beginning of my media career when the Watergate story unfolded. Like every other journalist at a major newspaper, the reporting from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was mesmerizing. We huddled around the Associated Press teletype machines and watched every word in rapt fascination.
Suddenly I didn't feel like the geeky kid who worked on the school newspaper, but a First Amendment soldier in the battle to save our Republic. Working for a newspaper was cool. The movie "All the President's Men" only reinforced that. It was an amazing time and certainly a proud moment for all of us in the business.
One result saw students flooding into journalism programs at colleges across the country, aspiring to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. It was reported at the time that there were suddenly two hundred J-School graduates competing for every available job.
Of course, it's a much different media world today. Newspapers have declined to half the size they were in the Watergate era; the influence of broadcast news has waned while 24/7 cable news dominates the TV landscape. But looming large over all is the Internet, with its billions of users, where headlines move at light speed between thousands of news websites (both fake and real), blogs and social media.
You don't have to go to J-School to be in the game. All you need is an Internet connection. This is both good and bad. Good that it expands the playing field; bad that it undermines credibility and trust when anything can be passed off as fact without the checks and balances J-School taught us to apply.
One thing that isn't different: We still have the Washington Post, the New York Times and others aggressively and bravely carrying out their First Amendment duty. And thank God for that.
The Story of Us
Whether it's movies, fashions, gadgets or books, we tune our antenna to the latest "buzz." Lately, my "buzz" sources have been lavishing praise on a book entitled "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and professor.
Originally published in 2011 in Hebrew, with an English version in 2014, it become a bestseller that has been translated into 30 languages. The hardcover edition runs 400-plus pages and is heavy, both in subject matter and actual weight (they used the good paper).
"Sapiens" traces the entire history of the human species, from its origins in Africa over two million years ago to today, with a closing look to the future. It attempts to answer the who, what, when, where and why of human actions and interactions -- how we went from the Stone Age to the Space Age, mastering fire to walking on the Moon.
Readers should fasten their seat belts; Harari takes us on an amazing journey, mixing popular culture with meticulous historical reseach, written (thank goodness) in layman's language. The story is told in three distinct phases that got us to this point: The Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Be forewarned: He pulls no punches in assessing both the achievements and the damage we have done to ourselves, other species and the Earth in our march to world domination.
Of special note is Harari's scathing indictment of the food industry's treatment of cows, chickens, cattle and pigs. It may well push you into the vegan camp.
He also expounds on the idea that much of our modern-era society, truths many hold dear, is based on collective beliefs that exist only in our imaginations, ranging from organized religions to nation states to the money that enables global commerce. If enough people were to stop believing, our society might well collapse.
Unraveling and understanding our roots is as much about biology as history, and Harari effectively weaves evolution and DNA into the discussion throughout. With cold indifference, evolution has defined what we are and created its own limits of what we can be ... until now. Harari uses the last part of his book as a cautionary tale, where technology and genetic engineering are rapidly taking Sapiens to a potential new future where we shed our human skin altogether.
"Sapiens" is not light reading, but it is fascinating, insightful and breathtaking in its scope. Take the time to look into Harari's mirror -- you'll never see yourself the same way again.
His newest book is "Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow." You can also find his history course on YouTube.
Happy 35th Birthday, StarText
May 3, 2017 marks the 35th anniversary of something I was very proud to be part of: StarText.
What's StarText? Quite simply, the newspaper on a computer.
While the Internet has made online newspapers commonplace, it was pretty rare to find one 35 years ago. In fact, StarText was among the first, and for a span of over 15 years, one of the most successful local services in the country.
In this case, local means Fort Worth-Dallas. StarText was launched by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, initially in partnership with the Tandy Corp. At that time, Tandy saw "videotext" (or "videotex," if you will) as a service that could help them sell more personal computers, which were just coming into the marketplace.
The Star-Telegram saw it as an opportunity to "test the waters" on an emerging technology without going too far out on that "cutting edge" limb. Cutting edge or bleeding edge, it was all so new we were literally making it up as we went.
I was one of three newsroom veterans who volunteered to staff this new venture, excited to boldly go where no (or few) newspapers had gone before. We worked in shifts, 6 am to midnight. Our job was update the news. Subscribers -- there weren't many at the outset -- with computers and a modem could log in and view the stories on their TV sets or monitors. What a difference from today, when just about every person on the planet has the power of a PC on a phone in their back pocket.
While primitive by today's standards (no pretty pictures -- only text), and so s-l-o-w, the idea we could provide "the news you want when you want it," was both revolutionary and magical. Despite the technical limitations, the era of "instant news" had arrived, and we were among the pioneers who would pave the way for the Internet settlers who would come later.
But at that time, the consumer Internet was a full decade away. During the years before the World Wide Web, StarText had thousands of subscribers. It added an online encyclopedia, which helped make it a mainstay in school districts across the Metroplex. It partnered with InterFirst to create one of the first home banking services in the country. Because of the success it enjoyed, industry leaders from as far away as Japan and Norway made the trip to Cowtown to learn first-hand about our "secret sauce."
The secret to our success was simple: It was people. Calling themselves "StarTexans," a core group of our subscribers became our extended family. They wrote columns, hosted get-togethers and interacted with each other and the staff before Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was born, literally. It touched people on a personal level -- so much so, almost 20 years after StarText ended, a group of dedicated subscribers still keep its spirit alive.
The founding force behind StarText was Tom Steinert-Threlkeld. A Harvard MBA, Tom was both a business reporter at the Star-Telegram and Director of New Technologies for its parent company, Capital Cities. He championed the idea of a joint venture with Tandy and was instrumental in its launch. Tragically, Tom died as a result of a bicycle accident in 2013.
For Tom and all the other pioneers at the Star-Telegram who rolled the dice on StarText, including then-Publisher Phil Meek and MIS Director Joe Donth, I salute your vision and perseverance. Besides earning a place in the online history books, StarText achieved something special. And showed a skeptical industry online really was the wave of the future.
If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the Story of StarText, a work in progress.
Yes, I know it's spelled like "Jerry." No, I don't know why it's pronounced "Gary."