Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mother Jones Magazine Reviewed

Mother Jones Magazine Reviewed
BY Jon Carroll

A while back I expressed some doubt about whether Mother Jones could be an effective magazine with two editors. I have been in co-editing situations, and the dynamic often makes the process of putting out the magazine more about power than content. It was suggested to me that because the co-editors (Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery) were women, the collaboration might be smoother. Again, my experience (which I would, of course, make no generalizations from) is that women are not immune from quarrels over authority and control, although women do work collaboratively on specific projects much better than men.

Anyway, that was all theory. Now we have had a look at the practice, and oh boy, was I wrong. Mother Jones right now is as good as I've ever seen it. I'm not sure what they're doing right, but they should keep at it.

(Full disclosure: I once wrote an article for Mother Jones, but that was five editors ago. I don't recognize any of the names on the masthead except Adam Hochschild, and I think Hochschild is to Mother Jones as Colonel Sanders is to KFC, and his name and image will appear in the magazine long after his physical body has returned to the deep black earth.)

The editors seem aware of Mother Jones' historical problem: Its urgent sense of mission has led to too many issues of the magazine bathed in High Seriousness, very ideologically pure but not very useful for general readers. A mass-market magazine is popular journalism, and being entertaining is not the same thing as being bought out by the soulless devils of capitalism.

The current version of Mother Jones is almost rollicking. A lot of the information is packaged in bite-size data pockets, useful koans to use in meditating on corruption, scandal and greed. In the current issue (September-October; stick figure on a blackboard cover) has a two-page bushel o' factoids written by Dave Gilson about the credit crunch. It includes such interesting tidbits as:

The average U.S. household owes $9,658 on its credit cards. Sixty percent of Americans have been in credit card debt for more than one year. People who pay off their credit cards bills in full every month are known in the industry as "30-day-wonders" or "deadbeats." A "preferred customer" is one with "a taste for credit" who's "willing to make minimum monthly payments - forever."

And my favorite: Americans owe $850 billion in credit card debt. The world's 54 poorest countries owe $412 billion in foreign debt.

Another feature is called "Heckuva Job" and presents profiles of current administration officials who have landed on their feet despite well-publicized failings and misdeeds. Then there's Mother Jones' annual campus activism roundup, which includes this paragraph:

"It was a brilliant way to get attention from the nostalgic lefty press: reviving Students for the Democratic Society. Since being reconstituted last year, 'New SDS' has opened chapters in 148 colleges and 50 high schools. It's got some new tricks, such as SDSwiki - because there's nothing like a wiki to prevent the kind of infighting and petty bickering that doomed its predecessor."

Mordant satirical humor! In Mother Jones! Life is good!

The center of the magazine still belongs to the kind of investigative reporting that Mother Jones has done so well for so long. The cover story, by Jennifer Gonnerman, is summed up in its subhead: "Eight states are sending mentally retarded and emotionally troubled kids to a facility that punishes them with painful electric shocks. How many times do you have to zap a child before it's torture?"

The article is about a place called the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts, which does indeed administer punitive electric shocks to the children in its care. The story includes a link to Mother Jones online (, which provides a bunch of primary documents and interviews supporting the facts in the story. Would that every print publication used its Web presence that way.

The Mother Jones Web site is a lot more than a digitized magazine; it's a really splendid collection of breaking news and blogs, much in the manner of the Huffington Post but without the HP's reliance on provocative personalities. It's a really good site; please go visit it and get its click rate up.

Other stories in the magazine include a look at Hillary Clinton's prayer circle (very real; too real); an extremely good essay by Ted Genoways on fake news found in places other than Fox News; and a brilliant photo essay about the effects of global warming on the small arctic village of Shishmaref.

Subscriptions are a low, low $24 per annum. Mail checks to Mother Jones, P.O. Box 334, Mount Morris, IL 61054. That's just a subscription fulfillment house; the magazine's offices are still in San Francisco.

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