Monthly Archives: August 2007

The bells toll for Oriana too

Good to see that John Allen is back. His report on the deathbed friendship between a bishop and a famous and feisty atheist — Oriana Fallaci, no less — is moving and, in that almost throwaway manner I have come to expect from him, revelatory. (The notion, new to me, of "Christian atheists," is used as mere introduction!)

Their improbable friendship illustrates an important current percolating in contemporary Western culture, a budding détente between institutional Christianity and some of its sharpest Enlightenment-inspired critics, motivated by a deep sense of shared peril.

The heart of the story, however, lies in Bishop Rino Fisichella’s recollection of Fallaci’s dying days.

Fallaci returned to Italy in her final days because, she said, she didn’t want to die in exile. She asked Fisichella to help arrange a room for her in Florence where she could look out at the famous dome of Brunelleschi atop the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. She also requested a CD with the sound of church bells to play softly in the background.

It was Fallaci’s desire, Fisichella said, that on the day of her funeral, the bells of the cathedral would ring out. It wasn’t easy to arrange, Fisichella said. Though he didn’t elaborate, it’s well known that some Catholics objected to bestowing such an honor upon a professed atheist, while others argued that it would be seen as an endorsement of her stridently anti-Islamic views. Nonetheless, Fisichella said, he managed to pull it off.

PS. I started when I read that bit about the church bells; it is a sound I, too, can listen to, and for hours on end.



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Column: Finding redemption in politics

Published on August 28, 2007

The version available on differs slightly from the following, which is based on the print edition.

On the eve of his proclamation as the 12th winning senator in the May elections, Juan Miguel Zubiri declared: “I just want to buckle down to work and redeem myself.”

I did not realize it then, but it seems that for the three-term congressman from Bukidnon, that declaration could only have been an either-or proposition. For him, work in the Senate and redemption must be mutually exclusive. That is to say, to keep working in the Senate, he has to do—has in fact done—the irredeemable thing. He has filed an absurd counter-protest against rival candidate Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III before the Senate Electoral Tribunal, contesting the results of a jaw-dropping 73,000 precincts. (That’s one-third of the entire country.)

I do not know if the SET will give his counter-protest due course; considering that Pimentel didn’t even have enough campaign funds to show more than a handful of TV spots featuring top celebrity endorser Angel Locsin, the claim that he cheated massively is preposterous.

But Zubiri does not need to prove his allegation of election fraud. All he needs to do is tie up the SET in an interminable recount. Pimentel, who believes he was cheated in 2,680 precincts in a total of seven provinces, is confident that the review of election returns he is contesting would be completed in half a year or so. Zubiri’s protest, on the other hand, would take years to resolve.

Redemption? More like a ruthless gaming of the system. The “Senator from Maguindanao” has cynically exploited the limitations of our election rules, to hold on to his job.

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Between Deadlines: Millionaire wives in the military

The August 25 column features Fe Zamora on the topic of conversation when the wives of colonels and generals meet; Johnny Escandor on Joey Salceda (now the governor of Albay) and his walkout; Norman Bordadora on Vidal Doble’s claims about a mole in Smart; Abigail Ho on Angie Reyes’ steady-wins-the-race approach; and Tarra Quismundo on the long wait for soldiers’ caskets at the airport.

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Under the palm tree

Took a break. Back this weekend!

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Column: Is Ninoy, today, even relevant?

Published on August 21, 2007

This version corrects minor mistakes in the printed edition.

Cabinet Secretary Ricardo Saludo’s essay on the making of this year’s State of the Nation Address (Sona), which appeared on these pages a week ago, is worth a closer look.

“Churning out 4,648 words with video footage and PowerPoint graphics took about two months, from the first meeting with the Cabinet on overall Sona themes to the final fine-tuning of the text and four rehearsals with the TV team,” he wrote.

The striking thing about this year’s Sona, however, for me at any rate, was how it almost immediately became irrelevant, when news about the drought and the looming water and power crises hogged the headlines within the same week.

I asked Saludo: Did the drought ever come up in the two months of preparation? He replied, by SMS: “Dry spell is addressed by irrigation and rural roads projects, so there was no need to give it special attention.”

Reasonable enough, but also intriguing. If things were in hand, why did Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita even suggest emergency powers?

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Between Deadlines: Breaking the Isafp code

Today’s column features Norman Bordadora on Joe de Venecia’s hard-habit-to-break, Tarra Quismundo on Oscar de la Hoya’s gift to Filipino boxers, Allison Lopez on the new libel case to watch in Manila, Fe Zamora on the use of code names in the Intelligence Service of the AFP, and Jocelyn Uy (last year’s most outstanding police reporter, according to the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption) on Bono Adaza’s promise of, well, land for all.

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Not ideology, just plain banditry

Via ABS-CBN, the news that the Abu Sayyaf Group has circulated a video on the Internet for the first time.

SITE (the Search for International Terrorist Entities institute) reports that the video was uploaded on August 15. Nothing in its introduction to the video clips, however, points out that both Janjalanis featured in the fund-raising pitch are already dead (and the third Janjalani brother, Hector, is in jail).

SITE also misreads the Abu Sayyaf as an “Islamic movement.” It may have had such pretensions at the very start, but very quickly it turned into a bandit group. It still is.

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Between Deadlines: De Venecia rebuffed

The August 11 column features Christian Esguerra on JDV’s German brush-off; Dona Pazzibugan on the "missing" Lito Lapid; Nikko Dizon on the comedy of Lintang Bedol; and Riza Olchondra on a Court of Appeals justice with an ironic sense of humor.


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Between Deadlines: The President’s whiz kid

The August 4 column features Anselmo Roque on Fr. Ed Panlilio’s honeymoon (or lack thereof); Dona Pazzibugan on the Senate’s lounge lizards (former congressmen, of course); Abigail Ho on Popo Lotilla’s made-to-order job in Congress; Fe Zamora on casualties in the propaganda war; and Juliet Javellana on why Angie Reyes is this generation’s new "whiz" kid.

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Between Deadlines: Looking for Tintoy

Between Deadlines, a behind-the-scenes column written by contributing reporters and correspondents, ran in the Inquirer from 1986 to 1991. It was revived last month, and now comes out every Saturday, on the second page of the Inquirer’s Op-Ed section. I edit the column in its reincarnated format and work with the contributors; some time ago it occurred to me that linking to their work might not be such a bad idea.

The first column came out on July 28: It features Fe Zamora on the search for Jonas Burgos; Dona Pazzibugan on Gringo Honasan’s "delayed reaction"; Norman Bordadora on Ronnie Zamora’s chutzpah; Abigail Ho on the mass exodus at the Department of Energy; and Allison Lopez on Fred Lim’s cellphone preferences (hint: he has none).

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Pulp non-fiction

Just how bad was yesterday’s monstrous, flash-flood-induced traffic jam? Bad enough to get famous American director Quentin Tarantino, on his way to a ceremony in Malacanang Palace, out of his limo and into a pedicab.

Jove Francisco has the scoop. (ABC’s intrepid reporter, running late for the Palace event too, witnessed the surreal scene.) AFP has a story on it too.

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“Not once but twice”

from Paul Ricoeur’s “Adventures of the State and the Task of Christians”

“It is of decisive importance for a Christian interpretation of the State that the writers of the New Testament have bequeathed us not one but two readings of political reality: one, that of St. Paul, which offers a difficult justification, the other that of St. John, which offers an obstinate mistrust. For one, the State has the face of the magistrate; for the other, it is the face of the beast.”


“This double theological pattern is full of meaning for us: we henceforth know that it is not possible to adopt for ourselves either a religiously motivated anarchism under the pretext that the State does not confess Jesus Christ, or an apology for the State in the name of “Be obedient to the authorities.” The State is this dual-natured reality, simultaneously instituted and fallen.”

“It is thus with this double guide that one must orient himself politically. The modern State simultaneously progresses along the line of the ‘institution’ (what St. Paul called taxis) and along the line of ‘power,’ of seduction and threat.”


“All these threats are suggestive, as are also the resources of reason, of order and justice that the State develops in unfolding the history of power. What makes the State a great enigma is that these two tendencies are simultaneous and together form the reality of power. The State is, among us, the unresolved contradiction of rationality and power.”


“If that analysis is true, it is necessary to say that we ought simultaneously to improve the political institution in the direction of greater rationality and to exercise vigilance against the abuse of power inherent in State power.”

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Column: Working within the system

Published on August 14, 2007

Note. This version corrects two inadvertent but crucial editing mistakes: It restores the limits on the quotes I used.

It is painful to see lies and half-truths work their insidious way into the public discourse. When even an eminent columnist unsuspectingly accepts Senate President Manny Villar’s less-than-accurate version of events, about how he came to form the so-called “Manny coalition,” the pain becomes more acute.

In describing the new reality of floating majorities, the columnist took a look at the dynamics in the Senate and, perhaps distilling the content of many news stories published last week, wrote very much in passing: “An attempt by his fellow opposition senators to replace him prompted him to form his own majority.”

This, Villar’s version, is plain cock-and-bull.

There was, in fact, no opposition attempt to replace him as Senate president — unless, of course, Villar saw the effort to draft Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. as a candidate, as tantamount to replacement.

The truth is, most of the senators in the opposition did not even hear from Villar. They found out that he had already reached a concordat with the administration senators the same way most of us did: through other sources. As one of them plaintively asked: “Why didn’t he talk to us?”

* * *

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On the same page

A reader from Los Angeles, a former resident of Basilan, emailed me last month, asking for a copy of the special report I put together in 2003, to mark the second anniversary of the infamous Lamitan hospital siege. He had come across a reference to it, he said, on Howie’s blog. (Just for the record, the report was not censored; but the second part did give rise to a P20-million libel suit.)

The email from LA—-the capital of the Third World, I first read sometime in the 1980s—-came at the right time. I had just found out about Typepad’s new Pages feature, which allows bloggers to put up so-called permanent pages. I thought: The report, or at least the first part, would make a good candidate for perma-posting.

So here it is, together with a nifty infographic that artist Ernie Sambo designed for the Inquirer’s front page. For good measure, I added a copy of the long story I filed in the last days of the 2004 campaign, on Fernando Poe Jr.’s run for the presidency. (You can find them all near the top of the sidebar on your left.)

I will, of course, add more in the future—-now that, ahem, we’re on The Same Page.

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Column: Father Ed’s excellent adventure

Published on August 7, 2007

In the last couple of weeks, speculation on the 2010 race has centered on two presumptive rivals, each one closely identified with a traditional political party. I caught a glimpse, however, of the results of a very recent nationwide survey, still under embargo, and — how do we say this? — the frontrunner status of the two rivals is not reflected in the results.

The polling organization showed its survey respondents a list of six prospective candidates, and then asked, “Who would you vote for, if the elections were held today and these personalities were in the running?”

Of course, it is far too early to place bets on 2010, but it certainly seems like the moneyed rivals (and the real frontrunners on the list) have their work cut out for them. Image-building, party-building, alliance-building — that’s a whole lot of infrastructure investing.

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Column: What’s not black and white but gray all over?

Published on July 31, 2007

Opposition Sen. Loren Legarda’s name has been floated as a compromise choice for chair of the Blue Ribbon committee. That trial balloon is worth a closer look.

Legarda has spent time in the political wilderness; she knows what it means to be out of power. At the same time, she continues to enjoy wide popular support; she is only the second Filipino to top two nationwide Senate races, after the venerable Jovito Salonga (who went on to top a third).

Not least, she is invested in our political system; she has spent millions of pesos in her electoral protest against Vice President Noli de Castro. Given our politics of scandal, our culture of speculation, the simple expedient of putting our money where our mouth is—say, by filing a case in court, or pursuing a complaint even without the public spotlight—is an underrated civic virtue.

When I asked her for her reaction, however, she merely replied: “While I believe the Blue Ribbon should be chaired by an opposition senator, I have not expressed interest in chairing it. But I wish to be a member.”

Even at the top, one must manage one’s expectations.

* * *

One more anecdote from the Supreme Court-organized summit on political violence, before the details of that historic event slip into the treacherous mists of memory: By far the most bizarre presentation was by Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez. He gave a rambling talk, at one moment citing depressing statistics (“we lack 800 prosecutors nationwide”), at another taking a swipe at political enemies (“during the last budget, Senator [Frank] Drilon capped the Witness Protection [allocation]”).

And then he concluded with an impassioned defense of … himself. “I fought for human rights, more than many of you here, I fought for human rights in the darkest days” of the dictatorship. “Nobody can tell me,” he started, and then changed tack: “Nobody understands human rights better than I

Perhaps that explains why we had the summit in the first place.

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Ethan’s secret

I’ve been reading Ethan Zuckerman for over a year now, after I saw him in action at the Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace conference in April last year, at the Asian Institute of Management. (I only managed to say hello, when we exchanged cards.) His blog remains my all-time favorite. He acts, to borrow a conceit from Bergson (which I found rooting through the columns of the late I. P. Soliongco), like a man of thought, and thinks like a man of action.

I wrote about the quality of his conference liveblogging last year, describing his work as “reported documentation” and offering it as an example for Philippine bloggers and journalists.

Last month, Ethan finally found the opportunity to explain how he does it —- in a blog post that’s characteristically modest, personally engaging, technically savvy, eminently applicable. It’s practically begging to be put to use. I bookmarked it immediately. (The comment thread has since grown, with many useful inputs.)

Here’s the link.

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Column: So young, and so disappointing

Published on July 24, 2007

At last week’s historic summit on political killings and politically motivated disappearances, Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno opened his keynote address with an unusual — and for precisely that reason highly evocative — salutation: “My fellow apostles of human rights,” he began.

* * *

It is no secret that Puno takes his religious commitments seriously; the Court’s website informs us, for instance, that he serves as a lay preacher in the United Methodist church. It was evident that his faith, and that service, animated the keynote speech; the language, the imagery and even the very structure of his thought were positively biblical.

He spoke about parrying initial skepticism about the summit “with the patience of Job.” He said that one of the reasons for calling the summit in the first place was to “revive our righteous indignation” (he had noted that the sheer scope of the problem of political violence had “anaesthesized” the public’s “sense of shock”). To drive his points home, he borrowed both the phrasing and the rhythm of the psalms: “The Constitution is not only the refuge of the worthy but also the worthless, it is not only the fortress of the strong but also the weak.”

He even managed to return a hallowed phrase in jurisprudence (“on the altar of,” a formula constitutionalists use to death) to its religious roots. “By calling this summit,” he said, “we are affirming that before the universal altar of human rights there can be no atheism, nor agnosticism on our part.”

* * *

Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano led the opening prayer in yesterday’s first session in the Senate, calling on “Lord Father God” to help the chamber “pass laws that will prosper the nation,” and quoting extensively from Psalm 1. It was an inspired choice. The first psalm distinguishes between two ways of life: no, not between majority and minority, but between the good and the wicked.

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Column: GMA’s insurance policy

Published on July 17, 2007

The “national consultative summit” organized by the Supreme Court to search for solutions to the related problems of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances enters its second, more participative day today. The delegates will divide themselves into 12 “breakout” groups, each to be chaired by an associate justice of the Court, to discuss specific proposals. That the summit was convened is already, in the words of former Senate President Jovito Salonga, “unprecedented in the history of this Court and elsewhere.” That the justices themselves will run the workshops — well, this must be one for the books.

* * *

Juan Miguel Zubiri, proclaimed senator last Saturday after two hearings in the Supreme Court, has undergone the “crucible of a democratic process” before — almost four years ago, in fact, when together with some 80 other congressmen, he voted to impeach the chief justice. This newspaper called the second, constitutionally infirm impeachment an insidious assault on the judiciary. “The Filipino nation and its democratic institutions have no doubt been put to test once again by this impeachment case against Chief Justice Hilario Davide,” Associate Justice Conchita Carpio Morales wrote in her elegant “ponencia” [authored decision]. (The first quote is from Francisco v. House of Representatives too.)

In one of the many editorials published during the crisis, the Inquirer described the attempt to unseat Davide as an abuse of power. “The action against the head of the Supreme Court was a naked exercise of power, a blatant flexing of political muscle.”

Zubiri must thank his lucky stars the justices do not hold grudges.

* * *

What is at stake in the struggle for leadership of the administration majority in the House of Representatives? The President’s post-Malacañang insurance policy.

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The only constant

Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to start cold, so to speak. But I sort of promised myself I will take notes when I read my next book; found a little time yesterday, so decided to damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead.

Preliminary notes, of course, but I thought if I started writing them, beginning, as it happens, with Austin Coates’ 1968 biography of Jose Rizal, then I might be able to post more often.

Posting more often is again a concern, because I just contributed another $50 to the American economy. I first subscribed to Typepad two years ago; perhaps (hope springs eternal!) I can make better use of my money this time around.

So: Notes on some of the books and articles I happen to read. And: A reposting of my Newsstand column for the Inquirer (it started a month ago, and appears on the right-hand side of the op-ed pages every Tuesday). And: A few stories or opinion pieces I can permanently include as Typepad Pages. And, perhaps: More photos, in the future. And: Regular links to the pieces I post for Inquirer Current. Not least, and possibly: A reposting or at least a link to Between Deadlines, the Inquirer reporters’ behind-the-news column I edit.

Well. I can dream, can’t I?

PS. I’ve changed the email address I use here, to the one I use at the office. I hardly checked the old one, and as a consequence missed out on some urgent or important emails. Mea culpa.

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Notes on Coates’ Rizal: Medieval Twilight

Coates seeks to put Rizal in his proper place among Asia’s pioneer nationalists. He may at times err on the side of hagiography —- “Every one of his early ideas had to be evolved in silence, his only aid being books and his own observation” —- but then who can fail to be impressed by Rizal’s many qualities?

He is compelling in his treatment of Tagalog poetry, and its role in Rizal’s relationship with his mother and the hero’s own role in the making of a nation. A Tagalog poem Rizal wrote when he was eight, for instance, “embodies Rizal’s earliest known revolutionary utterance —- that Tagalog was the equal of Spanish, English, Latin or any other language, and that moreover it was the Filipinos’ own.”

He reminds us of Rizal’s scrupulousness in the handling of facts, a discipline he learned from his own family’s example. “If he ever told a lie in his life there is no reliable evidence of it. The volumes of his correspondence are in content a monument of factual accuracy.”

He fully evokes Rizal’s first infatuation (with Segunda Catigbac, of Lipa; surely a member of the famous Katigbak clan) and Rizal’s first love (Leonor Rivera, she of the almond eyes, the devoted correspondence).

He recreates the hero’s student days at the Ateneo Municipal and at UST —- with a bit of help from Rizal’s own student memoirs.

Above all, in these first chapters, he captures the uncertainty, the “medieval twilight,” of a distant colony ruled by friars.

“In the Spanish Philippines there was no such thing as public opinion, still less divergent lines of it … There was in fact no opinion; it was as simple as that. There was God’s will, as made known by Spanish friars.”

And: “The scene of Rizal’s youth is set in the brilliant sunlight of the tropics; but the mental climate in which people moved was one of perpetual semi-darkness, a medieval twilight in which nothing could be seen clearly, nothing was known for sure, and no one could decide or move on a determined course because no one could say where they were going.”

It is a semi-darkness those of us who lived through martial rule, a hundred years after Rizal was in school, remember all too well.

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Notes on Coates’ Rizal: Introduction

It starts with a bang. “There was to be a public execution, and consequently the streets and buildings were hung with flags. A day of execution was a fiesta.”

If one were writing a biography of Rizal, the day of his execution wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It is the defining moment; besides, it is the most celebrated event in an eventful life. No use keeping it till the end.

A phrase leaps up, recommends itself to memory: “It was the tropics’ apology for winter, the start of another warm blue day …” A detail engagingly imagined (or so I imagine) makes a vivid impression: “the hems of their long skirts [even ladies turn out before 7 am to watch the execution] dampened a little here and there by the dew which still lay on the grass.”

But the rest of the Introduction makes for slow reading. In part, it must be the dated attitudes, which force me to shift in my chair or look up from the book. “His eyes … came out to meet whomever they looked at, as European eyes do.” Or: “He had very little European blood, yet in the broad forehead, the high, straight nose, the firm chin and perceptive lips, could be sensed at once a mental affinity to Europe, expressed through an Asian physique.” [And what, exactly, are Rizal’s lips perceiving?)

But in part it must also be the sweeping statements, the straining-after-universality of a frustrated novelist, that effectively postpone the suspension of disbelief, the reader’s willing embrace of the author. “As he passed, there was silence, while people stared, some in surprise, others with concern, and all with the uneasy sense of being confronted by something they did not fully understand.” All? Every single one?

In the succeeding chapters in Part I, Coates indulges this suspect gift too.

In I: “Comparison with other countries, other histories and other contemporary events are the essence of ideas and change …” Is comparison, in fact, the essence of change?

In IV: “A crucial moment in family life often precipitates a wise decision, one that has perhaps lain somewhere beneath the surface, unable to find expression.” Well, yes, but it can also, and perhaps even more often, precipitate unwise decisions —- precisely because of the pressure of the moment.

In V: “It is a truism that men who achieve something notable in their lives are born at the right time and place.” I certainly think that heroes rise to the occasion; in that sense, they ARE at the right time and place. But surely the accident of birth is another matter. Churchill was an old man when he finally became Prime Minister; it took a Galileo to complete Copernicus’ revolution.

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Self-loathing abstraction

I have written about accidental spam poetry before —- on the first day of the year, as a matter of fact. The first two quarters since have been, ah, uninspired, as far as spam subject headings were concerned. In the last couple of months, however, things started to pick up.

Spam_poetry Here’s a shot of seven that brightened my inbox with unexpected imagery.

“Polka-dotted burglar”? Sounds like a clown who has fallen on hard times. “Flabby ruffian,” on the other hand, sounds like a rabble-rouser gone soft, recklessly indulging a taste for warm beer.

‘Moronic necromancer” can’t read the tea leaves if his life (or death) depended on it, while I am certain “flatulent ballerina” knows exactly what to blame for her failure to land the leading roles.

“Halfhearted pork chop” —- now that seems like meat torn between staying in the freezer and frying in the pan.

The last two, as least to this politically addled mind, are highly political images: “Unruffled anomaly” could very well be, say, the Maguindanao election results, statistically improbable numbers blithely confident they would be counted by an obliging Commission on Elections. And “self-loathing abstraction”? That could be the principle of presumption of regularity itself, which the Arroyo administration has used and misused to cloak the controversial decision, the questionable policy.

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It’s too early to write elegies for the Wall Street Journal, now that the news is in. It seems irrational for Rupert Murdoch to pay $5 billion simply for the right to throw away the Journal’s tradition of reporting excellence but, well, past is prologue, or so they say. We shall see soon enough, maybe in a matter of months. 

(Of course, it’s extreme conservative editorial page, possibly the best-written in the world, is another matter altogether.)

Of the many readings of the true import of the sale, I find this appreciation by the Columbia Journalism Review of the Journal style—-something I’ve learned to recognize from years of daily reading—-the one that speaks to me best.

The Wall Street Journal leder. Has modern American newspapering produced anything better, or at least more elegant?

Go on. Read it and weep.


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