Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lingering memories of summer

Today was one of those rare New England November days when the Sun shone brightly, the temperature climbed into the 60s, the air felt soft and welcoming.

Since it also was our day to care for Devon, our 2-year-old granddaughter, we followed our outdoor routine: Walk Murphy, our golden, on the conservation land trail; stop by Wilson Farms to see the farm animals and shop for produce, and, in the afternoon, head to the playground. We finished the day with a flourish and sore backs -- filling another 30 bags with leaves after Devon dove in up to her neck in the pile beneath the big Maple.

You could say Devon was a surprise when she came along. What we're finding though is that
grandparenting has all the joy and none of the edge of parenting. The worries are gone. The pressure to discipline has evaporated. The drive to help your kids excel is muted. Only the moment matters.

With Devon, there are many such moments. She's a character. The other day she accompanied her mom to buy a new brassiere at the mall. Before mom could open her mouth, Devon walked up to the sales clerk and announced, "I want to get some boobs."

Today, sitting in her car seat on the way to the conservation land, she announced.

"I've got on pucker paint," Kathy's phrase for lipstick.

"What kind?" I asked.

"Grape." And then, after a pause, "I love pucker paint."

I laughed loudly, apparently embarrassing her. "Go away Ada," Devon said (she always calls me Ada or da, he names, never grandpa).

Later, as we pulled into the parking lot at Wilson Farm, to see the animals, Devon said something we couldn't quite make out.

"The pig is pretty?" Kathy asked.

"No way," came her voice from the back seat.

It turns out that she was saying the (coy) fish are pretty. As for the pig, maybe Devon could share some of that grape pucker paint next time we go.

On the other hand, you can put lipstick on a pig and .... oh, never mind.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Remembering the day the earth shook

It was 14 seconds I’ll never forget.

Twenty years ago, on Oct. 17, 1989, I was sitting at the San Jose Mercury News city desk, revved up to coordinate the news coverage of Game 3 of the Bay Area World Series between the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants. As pre-game coverage clicked on at 5 p.m. our reporters were all in place. Four minutes later the TV went dead and newsroom’s concrete floor rippled like a ship’s wake.

We all dove. As I lay beneath my desk, legs protruding, I wondered whether the newsroom ceiling would collapse. The room rumbled, but I heard just one voice, that of another assistant city editor.

“Oh my God,” she said softly.

And then the wave stopped.

That night and in the months that followed, the staff at the San Jose Mercury News was at its best. The newspaper had had the foresight in the earthquake-prone San Francisco Bay Area to have a back-up generator. So we published the next morning. Reporters worked deep into the night, even as they worried about families unable to call in or homes sitting near the fault lines everyone in that part of the world can map in their mind. Darkness soon fell and on the blackened streets of San Francisco, fires burned. The Cypress Viaduct in Oakland had collapsed, killing dozens (the count kept changing). We began getting patchwork reports of devastation in the mountainous communities to the south of San Jose.

Late that night, the editors huddled around the news desk to debate the front page headline. They considered “The Big One,” then wisely discarded it. This quake, reported at 7.0 on the Richter Scale, didn’t approach the magnitude of the one that devastated San Francisco in 1906. I can’t recall what headline we actually did use. I can’t imagine readers much cared.

For weeks we worked 60, 70 and 80 hours. When the walls swayed – and they did often at first – we weren’t sure whether we were feeling aftershocks or fatigue signals from our overworked brains. First came the dramatic stories about the dead, the damage and the survivors, heroic rescues, odd and sometimes calamitous coincidences. Then came the long haul: rebuilding devastated homes and businesses, sorting through insurance claims and fraud, reviewing weaknesses in building structures, roadways and bridges.

Kathy and I seriously considered moving back East. For a half year I wouldn’t drive the long bridge expanse across the San Francisco Bay. For awhile, I didn’t stop beneath bridges either. But we stayed. At year’s end, the city desk staff turned from breaking news to a project “We Are Not Prepared,” to identify and push for changes in safety and engineering standards and emergency management systems.

Four month later our city desk staff won a Pulitzer for general news reporting. After the announcement, many of us took our soaking in the moat surrounding the paper as a badge of honor.

My family lived nearly five more years in the Bay Area. I got to participate in other big stories and projects. But none made me prouder to be in the news business or that particular news room than the months that followed the earthquake.

The paper’s Pulitzer made for some pretty gaudy icing, but that’s not why. Looking back on that day and the months that followed, what leaves me nostalgic is that the earthquake allowed us to help our neighbors and communities. It also forged a community in a once-proud newsroom that by all accounts today is a mere shell of itself. It wasn’t something any of us merely covered. It is something we lived and shared.

When faux news obscures the real thing

This post appeared first at, where I am keeping an active blog. See other recent writing there.


Democrats are "increasingly confident" they'll have the votes to pass health care legislation, my morning Boston Globe reports. That's why, as a proponent of reform, I'm nervous. As health care heads down the stretch, I'm bracing for the next big diversion, watching for how the media respond.

The health insurance industry tried to light a rocket last week when, at the 11th hour before the Senate Finance Committee vote on Sen. Max Baucus' proposal, it released a report warning the plan would send family premiums through the roof. That diversion fizzled, perhaps because its timing was so evidently cynical.

But perhaps it fizzled for another reason: It wasn't whacko enough. If there's one thing yet another summer of silly stories reminded us it's that American conspiracy theorists like their faux news diversions to be really faux -- and that cable news knows it well. That's part of why death panels were such a hit for awhile, along with the birther movement that preceded it. Those charges were loony enough charges to really get some traction on TV.

Meanwhile, anyone trying to get a firm grip on the health care debate has struggled to break through the 24-7 noise. As recently as late last month a New York Times/CBS News poll found a majority of those polled remained confused about health care. I'll bet that hasn't changed much.

Granted. Health care reform is complicated. And the multiple bills flying around make it more so. But the news media can't take a free pass here.

Hours of over-the-top coverage of the off-the-wall inevitably divert attention from real issues. And that, I'm quite sure, is precisely what opponents on the right still want. By raising false charges, they often succeed in coaxing a media fearful of seeming biased, eager to boost ratings, or both, to obscure the real debate.

This isn't an issue of ideology. If Democrats were better at tossing around mean-spirited, specious attacks they, too, might seize the day. Obama, for his part, could counter this trend by rapidly counter-attacking each attack and hammering the message he began to sharpen in his speech to Congress.

But even if Democratic tentativeness has made matters worse, the media's job is to cover more than just what's lobbed at them. News coverage involves choice every day. And in a profit-driven 24-7 news environment, news executives often choose with the knowledge that scaring people sells almost as well as sex. (Just witness this week's saga of the missing boy and the drifting helium balloon.)

Though sexy and scary stories sell, however, they also distract from a core mission of news – to inform, to expose the public to an intelligent range of views, to put a variety of rational options before it.

"Fair and balanced” news meant something different before Fox News co-opted the slogan. To be fair, I was taught 35 years ago, a reporter should check his own biases and gather enough facts to glean what truth (with a small t) they appear to point toward. The weight of evidence would dictate the relative balance of viewpoints, not some formulaic "he said, she said" equation. What gets covered and how it gets covered in other words, should be proportionate to the evidence, not to who shouts the loudest.

Perhaps "no drama" Obama is right. Perhaps the shouters, lacking substance, eventually run out of steam. I hope so.

Because when the news becomes merely noise it makes the already difficult task of governing almost impossible.

That is why I'm bracing for the next big diversion, the next effort to stop health care reform by peddling nonsense. Stories of lost kids and balloons can only last so long. And the mavens of 24-7 news are always on the lookout for raw meat.


Democrats are "increasingly confident" they'll have the votes to pass health care legislation, my morning Boston Globe reports. That's why, as a proponent of reform, I'm nervous. As health care heads down the stretch, I'm bracing for the next big diversion, watching for how the media respond.

The health insurance industry tried to light a rocket last week when, at the 11th hour before the Senate Finance Committee vote on Sen. Max Baucus' proposal, it released a report warning the plan would send family premiums through the roof. That diversion fizzled, perhaps because its timing was so evidently cynical.

But perhaps it fizzled for another reason: It wasn't whacko enough. If there's one thing yet another summer of silly stories reminded us it's that American conspiracy theorists like their faux news diversions to be really faux -- and that cable news knows it well. That's part of why death panels were such a hit for awhile, along with the birther movement that preceded it. Those charges were loony enough charges to really get some traction on TV.

Meanwhile, anyone trying to get a firm grip on the health care debate has struggled to break through the 24-7 noise. As recently as late last month a New York Times/CBS News poll found a majority of those polled remained confused about health care. I'll bet that hasn't changed much.

Granted. Health care reform is complicated. And the multiple bills flying around make it more so. But the news media can't take a free pass here.

Hours of over-the-top coverage of the off-the-wall inevitably divert attention from real issues. And that, I'm quite sure, is precisely what opponents on the right still want. By raising false charges, they often succeed in coaxing a media fearful of seeming biased, eager to boost ratings, or both, to obscure the real debate.

This isn't an issue of ideology. If Democrats were better at tossing around mean-spirited, specious attacks they, too, might seize the day. Obama, for his part, could counter this trend by rapidly counter-attacking each attack and hammering the message he began to sharpen in his speech to Congress.

But even if Democratic tentativeness has made matters worse, the media's job is to cover more than just what's lobbed at them. News coverage involves choice every day. And in a profit-driven 24-7 news environment, news executives often choose with the knowledge that scaring people sells almost as well as sex. (Just witness this week's saga of the missing boy and the drifting helium balloon.)

Though sexy and scary stories sell, however, they also distract from a core mission of news – to inform, to expose the public to an intelligent range of views, to put a variety of rational options before it.

"Fair and balanced” news meant something different before Fox News co-opted the slogan. To be fair, I was taught 35 years ago, a reporter should check his own biases and gather enough facts to glean what truth (with a small t) they appear to point toward. The weight of evidence would dictate the relative balance of viewpoints, not some formulaic "he said, she said" equation. What gets covered and how it gets covered in other words, should be proportionate to the evidence, not to who shouts the loudest.

Perhaps "no drama" Obama is right. Perhaps the shouters, lacking substance, eventually run out of steam. I hope so.

Because when the news becomes merely noise it makes the already difficult task of governing almost impossible.

That is why I'm bracing for the next big diversion, the next effort to stop health care reform by peddling nonsense. Stories of lost kids and balloons can only last so long. And the mavens of 24-7 news are always on the lookout for raw meat.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Come visit my new blog at

I've begun a new blog, called News prints, at Please stop by. I'll be doing all my blogging there for the foreseeable future so I will no longer be posting to this blog. The link is below.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

'Fair & Balanced' Fox sprinkles a bit of racial hatred

It's a tactic card-carrying members of the white right have long used to good effect.

When a black guy says something reasonable about, but critical of, the white establishment, the white right pounces. Makes him out to be uptight or, better yet, anti-white. Deflects the real issues -- whatever they are -- by taking the offense to marginalize the critic.

Only this time the black guy, the one being called a "foreigner" by some and now a racist by others, happens to be our president. And the name callers aren't run-of-the-mill bigots. They are talk-show hosts sometimes posing as journalists.

I'm not just talking about Mr. Republican, Rush Limbaugh.

For starters, add Mr. Anti-Immigration, CNN's Lou Dobbs, who has now jumped on the bandwagon of barely veiled bigots spreading not-so-subtle vitriol about President Obama's mixed-race background through a well-orchestrated campaign to question whether he's even American. They suggest Obama may actually be a citizen of Kenya, thus disqualifying him to lead our country. There's no evidence, mind you. Just lots of noise. (Obama was born in Hawaii, as state officials felt compelled to announce yet again this week as the suspicions of the so-called "birther"movement continue to spill from the right-wing blogosphere into the mainstream press).

Add Glenn Beck, an anchor on the "Fair & Balanced" network-- Fox -- that bastion of even-handed, anti-Democratic propaganda passed off as news.

Right out of the blocks of a 10-minute segment on "Fox and Friends" Tuesday about the Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s arrest, Beck said of our president, "This I think has exposed him as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seeded hatred for white people and the white culture."

And later, "This guy is, I believe, a racist."

Wow. Our president hates white people? He's a foreigner? Sounds like a terrorist to me. And if any crazy down the line takes a shot at him, the seeds will have started with the likes of commentary such as Beck's.

So did anyone on the show challenge Mr. Beck, ask him, for example, whether he had anything resembling evidence for his off-the-wall assertion? Ask him where they could buy drugs good enough to see what he's seeing? Or other germane questions such as, "Wasn't the president's mother white?" Not really. Beck's assault was just another point in the conversation, it seems. A minute or two later, someone on the show did suggest that Obama had plenty of white people around him. That was it.

And Fox executives? They were outraged, right? They apologized for Beck? Reprimanded him for such seemingly baseless accusations against the president? Questioned the tastefulness of his comments? Nah.

The Associated Press reports that Bill Shine, a Fox News senior vice president of programming, told an interviewer that Beck had "expressed a personal opinion which represented his own views, not those of the Fox News Channel. And as with all commentators in the cable news arena, he is given the freedom to express his opinions."

It warms my heart that Fox is standing up for the First Amendment. But I wonder if the network would say the same if one of those commentators did something unthinkable, like praise any aspect of the president's program.

By now anyone who has not spent the last week in a cave know the basic facts behind this.
A Cambridge police sergeant arrests and handcuffs eminent Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. for breaking into his own home in Cambridge when he couldn't get the front door open.
Gates in all likelihood is angry, maybe even belligerent, when police come into his house and start asking questions. The officer who responds, James Crowley, likely doesn't like that but clearly over-reacts in cuffing a guy for being angry in his own house. (Can you imagine how you might feel if cops started asking you what you were doing in your own home?) All charges are dropped the next day.

Enter the president. In answering the last question of a press conference on health care, he acknowledges he doesn't know all the facts yet but suggests, in the context of a much longer, sober answer, that the police might have acted "stupidly." The country goes ballistic, debating the issue ad nauseum because it's summer and something as important as the health care of 300 million Americans really shouldn't dominate the news when people can scream at each other about a bunch of facts that aren't really facts anyway but instead two people's different perceptions of an event.

Obama tries to tone things down. He invites professor and cop to the White House for a beer.
He suggests both might have been a little over the top. (Sounds like a racist to me.) It takes two tries. But he gets things right.

In her Sunday column, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, summed things up nicely.

As the daughter of a police detective, I always prefer to side with the police. But this time, I'm struggling.

No matter how odd or confrontational Henry Louis Gates Jr. was that afternoon, he should not have been arrested once Sergeant Crowley ascertained that the Harvard professor was in his own home.

President Obama was right the first time, that the encounter had a stupid ending, and the second time, that both Gates and Crowley overreacted. His soothing assessment that two good people got snared in a bad moment seems on target.

I don't know Maureen. Perhaps we should impeach Obama instead of praising him. Or send him back to Kenya.

No, on second thought, let's send Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck to a desert island and let them star in their own reality series. It could be titled "Conspiracy Windbags." The first one to inflate a hot-air balloon with the flatulence emitted from his daily bull dung could get an all-expenses-paid vacation to Whacko, Texas.

No, I believe it's Waco. And the show could throw in a special guide, a surviving member of the Branch Davidians.

Now that would be justice.

Monday, July 20, 2009

It's time, Mr. President, to talk often and talk tough

Things are starting to look shaky for Obama-maniacs.

Today's Washington Post poll reports his support down 8 points from April's 67 percent.
Fewer than 50 percent of Americans support his health care initiatives, The Post reports. (A USA Today poll found that by a margin of 50-44, Americans disapprove of his handling of health care..) And substantially more Americans are intent on "holding the deficit in check" than spending to stimulate the economy.

What is a president who inherited horrendous deficits and a collapsing health care system to do?

To me the answer seems clear: He needs to take off his gloves.

Ironically, Barack Obama's natural bent to be reasonable and conciliatory, to seek out common interest and common ground, serves him much better in an international arena than it ever will in the United States Congress. In Washington, he is dealing with an opposition party that continues to cater more and more to the fringe right. It never has had an iota of interest in bi-partisanship. Nor does it give a hoot about solving the huge and largely intractable problems the country is facing such as health care. No. It wants to keep the wealthy, wealthy; the powerful, powerful, and the public deluded (which, more often than not, a lot of wealth spun through lobbyists and ad men can succeed in doing).

Listen to Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., on health care reform: "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo," he told Politico. "It will break him." Doesn't much sound as though he's looking for common ground.

Look at this wild scene, a forum at which Republican Rep. Mike Castle found himself before a flag-waving woman who first openly challenged the president's citizenry and then forced Castle to lead the overwhelmingly white audience in a Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

To those folks, I suspect, you're either on "our" side or "their" side -- and if you're the president (read not white), you're automatically on their side. Either these extremists -- and they are just that -- will succeed in kidnapping this country through the venom of their minority views or a majority, led by the president, will manage to marginalize them enough to address some of the vast array of problems Americans face.

Like another president, John F. Kennedy, who in his time also was considered "different," Barack Obama holds the gift of language. He can move millions with his use of it. And as president, he can command a stage whenever he wants it.

It's time for him to remember this, every day if need be. He needs to speak to the American people -- in weekly press conferences, through formal speeches, in town meeting venues around the country. He needs to pummel the frightened conservatives and moderates of his own party by moving the moderates and independents outside Washington to dial their numbers. And he needs to marginalize the know-nothing, do-nothing, tear-down remains of the Republican Party. That, I believe, will be his best chance -- if not only chance -- of moving an agenda -- on health care, on cap and trade regulations for pollution, on a new consumer finance agency and more.

Barack Obama will not succeed as a leader within the Beltway. He has the wrong pedigree.
He was never allowed to join the right clubs. His race remains an obstacle, whether Americans want to make believe they are color blind or not.

Just ask Sonia Sotomayor. Last week, she had to sit through a week of insults in front of the good ole white boys' gallery called the U.S. Senate. Her challenge was to keep quiet, to do no harm, and she succeeded admirably.

Barack Obama's challenge is to lead. And he'll never succeed until he understands the Jim DeMint's of the world for what they are, banner carriers for a United States of America that no longer holds the majority of power outside the Beltway but is still loud and strong enough to dump truck load after truck load of garbage into the middle of the highway.

Sometimes salvation can be found on roads less traveled.

Friday, June 26, 2009

It's not tax season but death keeps rolling in

My hero -- Cool Hand Luke --died earlier this Spring. Actually, the obituary was for Paul Newman, who played that chain gang version of Kesey's McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a rebel whose spirit could not be crushed. Salad dressing and all, Newman always was Luke to me, the guy with the mocking blue eyes, ready for whatever came his way.

This week it was Ed, Michael and Farah, entertainers from different eras, 36 years apart in age but all decades past their prime. I'll blush and be honest. For me, it was Farah, Grade B actress and the focal point of college pin-up fantasies, who hurt the worst.

Next? From all reports, it could be Walter Cronkite, the broadcast news giant of my childhood, the man we all watched to learn "that's the way it is."

I had a professor at the University of Missouri graduate school of journalism who talked about the trajectory of news reading habits. As younger readers, he said, we start by inhaling the front-page headlines. They keep us current (this, of course, was pre-24/7, pre-Internet, pre-Twitter). As we age, we open first to the opinion pages: Being first seems less important than being wise. We want to make sense of the news' meaning and importance. And as we get older, we start with the obituaries. the pages that measure the legacy of those who've gone before, the last shot for those lucky enough to have had at least 15 minutes of fame to leave a lasting impression.

Maybe it's because I turned 60 this year, but I'm starting to read those obituaries regularly. A lot more people who touched my life are dying. Oh, I'm not ready to put my false teeth in a glass at night; I bought a new bike this summer and booked a rigorous hike in the White Mountain hut system. But life and what we leave when it's over do weigh more on my mind.

In his final column, published days after his death, humorist Art Buchwald asked, "What's it all about Alfie?" I'll be darned if I know. To live a full life? To touch others? To be true to one's beliefs? To win the egg-eating wager in the chain gang? Beats me.

"Do not go gentle into that good night," wrote the poet Dylan Thomas. "...Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Unless I'm lucky enough to go fast, someday I'll start raging. I'm hoping that can wait awhile. For now, I'd like to explore some of the remote corners the light still shines on, pausing to peek from time to time at the obits to see who has dropped out of this adventure called life.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A knee-high perspective on the world

My best friend stands about 2-feet tall. She loves to run, play peek-a-boo and read about fire trucks. She is unfailingly sunny, takes regular naps and digs loop-dee-loops in her bubble car.
Her name is Devon, and she's almost 2. She calls me Ahda, her own invention.

They don't have a Grandpa's Day on my calendar. But then, they don't need one. Any day and every day works for me.

As parents, we miss too much of our kids' development. At least I did. I was too busy commuting long distances, too tired, likely too often too much into my own life. Not that I was a bad Dad. We took the kids by train across the country, camped on both coasts. I coached the girls in soccer and basketball, read to them as long as they'd tolerate it, and later sat through endless swim meets. But there is a magic about being a grandfather I wouldn't trade for the world. No need to discipline. No need to hurry; at this point, I have fewer places to go and I'm more eager to smell the flowers, too -- or pick them and try to blow off their petals (only the weeds, of course).

Devon cares no more about being wired, social networked, I-poded, Blackberryed or I-phoned than I do. She likes to walk our golden retriever Murphy, a simple pleasure on an early summer day. She loves the hammock and makes me swing in it. We sit in the back yard and play with her dolls and sand toys.

Devon isn't up on Twitter. She's not counting tweets out of Iran or arguing about Guantanamo. She's not following Britney or Paris or anyone, for that matter, tweeting all day long about ... what do people write about in paragraph-long bursts? She couldn't care less about the rants of Rush or Dick, the caustic commentary of Keith or the bloviators of the Blogosphere . (She doesn't even have a blog.)

I imagine Devon probably would consider Barack Obama a pretty nice man, a Dad, not the socialist, fascist or muslim terrorist an astonishing number of his most rabid detractors try to paint him. And I'm sure she'd love his daughters and the swing set on the White House lawn.

Like our president, Devon for now at least is growing up without a father. Like him, she's bi-racial. Mind you. I certainly have no ambitions for her to follow Obama's footsteps. I wouldn't wish his job on anyone. But I do hope that our internationally schooled, non-white president will have paved the road toward a new America when Devon goes out into the world alone. I hope it's one with fewer labels, fewer assumptions and fewer barriers. Obama's election, I believe, shows this country already is heading down that path.

There's one other thing I hope. Decades from now, as she looks back on her Ahda and Nana, and the role they played in her childhood, I hope Devon will smile and tell her children about the bubble car, her walks with Murphy, and the fire trucks we used to count. I hope she'll remember us warmly, and pass on values and stories from an earlier time. That would be the best Ahda's Day gift of all.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Newspapers need to reclaim community roots

This piece first appeared June 10 on the website of the Christian Science Monitor

The Boston Globe moved a step closer to the brink this week when its editorial union rejected what amounts to a 10 percent wage cut, leading management to follow up on its threat and slash pay even more.

Conventional wisdom holds that newspapers have been crippled by the flight of advertising to the Web. But they've been crippled just as much by corporate profiteering, arrogance, elitism, and encroaching dullness that have driven away readers, sometimes in droves.

Newspapers must look back to have a future. They need to reclaim their populist roots – roots that the Web increasingly controls.

Consider what newspapers long did best: Even when faced with the immediacy of radio and then TV, good newspapers offered their communities serendipity and surprise, originality, readable-to-good writing, a sense of purpose and shared experience.

The best papers set the agenda in their news and opinion, offering not the tepid voice of the referee seen in the recent Obama-Cheney torture "debate," but a strong voice of moral leadership. It was the courage of a few Southern newspaper editors, for example, that helped end segregation. They took a stand. They didn't, in the name of "balance," give integrationists and segregationists an equal voice.

Newspapers can reclaim this legacy and their leadership by acting more and reacting less. Three steps come to mind:

1. Stop giving readers yesterday's headlines today.

A week before its staff voted, the Globe featured a single story above the fold that "informed" readers that "President Obama said yesterday the government's majority stake in General Motors Corp. will help create a leaner, more competitive automaker, hours after the company filed for bankruptcy...." It was leftovers, not news.

2. Develop more enterprise that measures the impact of government policies on people and community.

Let the wire services cover politicians' speeches and announcements. Newspapers should use their staffs to measure who is affected and how. I'm not talking year-long, Pulitzer-sized projects here. Instead, newspapers should be investing in strong, daily, manageably sized enterprise that leads to change.

3. Spend less time covering the bankers, power brokers, and masters of spin who dominate news, and spend more time in coffee shops and corner stores, bowling alleys and backyards. Beat expertise still counts, but that expertise should be focused on readers, not sources. It should be used to set the paper's course, its agenda. Reporters need to cover how the other 90 percent of us live – and not only when we commit or are victimized by crimes.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Looking at a modern newspaper landscape whipsawed by focus groups and quarterly earnings reports, I wonder whether he'd have said the same today.

In Jefferson's time, the press was often scurrilous but also vital. No one talked about newspapers as the fourth branch of government, a role too many of today's elite journalists seem to take literally.

Since journalism polished its veneer of professionalism in the last century, more reporters hold cum laude degrees. But far fewer live in the communities they cover. Perhaps it's not too late for more of them to wander away from the halls of power onto the streets, away from those making policy pronouncements and toward those living under their weight.

The Internet can create virtual communities for just about any niche audience. But at their best, only newspapers bring together a broader community – one of disparate values, ages, and backgrounds – in a single marketplace of information and ideas.

Economic realities being what they are, more newspapers will fold. But if they work to forge community in real space, if they help us discover what's current in our neighborhoods as well as in our nation, most newspapers will survive.

First, however, they must remember who they are writing for and where their roots are: With us, the people.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Times flunks Journalism Ethics 101

For all their equivocating, the reporters, supervisors and public editor of The New York Times know better. Or at least they should.

Certain guidelines are standard in journalism ethics codes.
1. Plagiarism, the lifting of someone else's words without crediting them, is a cardinal journalistic sin, one that The Times own ethics' code suggests can result in dismissal.
2. Reporters should never take gifts from or be paid by those they cover. (The implication, if they do, is that the news and opinion can be bought. For readers, the appearance of conflict is self-evident whether or not the journalist has actually been influenced.)
3, It's a clear conflict of interest for reporters to cover an issue in which they are deeply enmeshed.

So what happened in the last couple of weeks? A prominent Times reporter and two star columnists violated all three. That's breathtaking at a newspaper that positions itself as the standard bearer of journalistic integrity, as the brand that cradles credibility instead of celebrity, the broadsheet that stands for T-R-A-D-I-T-I-O-N and standards in the face of a blogosphere it views as filled with poseurs and shoot-from-the-hip opinion mongers.

And how did The Times handle these three blatant infractions of journalistic ethics? Again, it equivocated.

Let's take them one at a time. The plagiarism reportedly led to a correction and the late addition of web attribution in a column Maureen Dowd wrote about Dick Cheney and torture. She told Times public editor Clark Hoyt that she lifted a paragraph nearly verbatim from the blog of Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo repute because -- get this -- she was in Hoyt's words "talking with a friend who suggested the wording without telling her where it came from."

Pardon me. But as they said in the Long Island neighborhood in which I grew up, "Get real." First it turns out the "conversation" with Dowd's friend was an email message. Secondly, since when do columnists turn to friends not merely for inspiration but for the actual wording of their columns? Does Dowd write columns by committee? I submit, ladies and gentlemen, that this is horse manure.

How Dowd picked up Marshall's wording is unclear. The fact that she did is unequivocal. If The Times really gives a hoot about the dozens of pages of ethics codes it prints, Dowd at minimum should be required to give a credible explanation, should publicly apologize to Marshall and her readers, should be suspended from the column without pay for a significant period of time and should be directly questioned about whether this ever happened before.

Case No. 2 centers on a $75,000 speaker's fee that Times columnist Thomas Friedman accepted, according to Hoyt, from a "regional government agency" in Oakland, Calif. Now one might wonder how and why, in the midst of a recession that has nearly bankrupted the state of California, any government agency in that state has an extra 75K to hand out for a speech. Friedman told Hoyt that his agent had presented him with an opportunity to talk at a "climate protection summit," a subject about which Friedman has developed much passion in his columns over the last year or so.

Friedman, at least, returned the speaking fee -- considerably more than the average annual U.S. individual income -- without dispute. But then, he can afford to. Hoyt reports that Friedman gives "15 or more" paid lectures a year and that he charges $75,000 as his standard fee. If you quickly do the math, that means Thomas Friedman makes more than $1 million a year in speaker's fees.

One has to wonder: Does that influence the choice of topics he covers? Should journalists be making that kind of money to make public speeches? Hoyt reports that The Times has a policy that requires staff members earning more than $5,000 a year in such fees to file an itemized annual accounting of their appearances. (He does not explain why, but one might surmise it is to guard against influence and potential conflict of interest). But Hoyt further notes that "almost no one has been doing so." This policy, it turns out, is not enforced.

Case No. 3 is perhaps the most complex. It has to do with economics writer Edmund Andrews.
It turns out that Andrews, who offers Times readers expert information and analysis about the pressing economic issues of our time, was himself so careless about his finances that he risks losing his home. He wrote a book (after informing his editors, according to Hoyt) that tells the story of how he took out sub-prime mortgages that he had no hope of repaying. Hoyt reports that Andrews is still seven months behind in his mortgage payments. He also says Andrews best bet for getting out of economic quicksand is to make lots of money on that book.

The Times helped a bit last week by running a excerpt in its Sunday Magazine. But that's not the big problem here. The problem is that Times editors have continued to allow Andrews to cover stories that deal with America's sub-prime mortgage mess. That is simply inexcusable. Why? Because clearly Edmund Andrews has an enormous vested interest in the outcome of any governmental action on sub-prime mortages. As a result, every word he writes about the subject has to be suspect to readers -- or would be if in fact they were told of his conflict.

Power, it is said, corrupts. It does so by breeding arrogance -- the kind that allows The New York Times to allow a man who can't pay his own mortgage to continue reporting on government action on the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the kind that allows one high-profile columnist to take a sizable speaking fee from a public agency and another to at the very least carelessly use someone else's words off an email from an unidentified friend.

It is this same arrogance that ultimately undermines the powerful, that makes them blind to how they are perceived by others. As the elite news media in this country wring their hands about declining readership and their eroding advertising base, perhaps it is time for them to look at themselves as one of the prime causes of the crisis in which they find themselves.

Elite journalism has become the domain of upper-middle to upper-class reporters and editors. They are educated at America's elite institutions and they expend more ink on hedge funds, derivatives and health spas than on the erosion of health care, the exploitation of immigrant labor, and the struggles of the average working man and woman.

Perhaps when journalists rub elbows too often with the rich and powerful, they see no real problem adapting their values, their sense of entitlement or their ethics. And perhaps the American public has turned away from traditional media because they figure the people writing for those publications as well as those running them no longer cares about average people's problems, no longer do more than give lip service to "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted."

This is the overriding context of The Times ethics trifecta this month. If America's most powerful and influential paper can shrug off such shabby ethics with half-cocked explanations and a public editor's carefully parsed criticism, then our great newspapers -- and the role in democracy that they represent -- are in much deeper trouble than their sinking balance sheets suggest.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On moral issues of war, seeking consensus falls short

Although Barack Obama is barely four months into his freshman year as president, he's already proven to be a political leader of eloquence, reason and considerable adeptness.

America is still mired in a deep recession yet the near panic that seemed to mark its inception has receded. There are signs in some of the hardest-hit markets that housing prices have turned or at least hit bottom. And we've weathered to first round of swine flu without succumbing to the media hysteria that marked its onset.

"No drama, Obama" has set a tone of reasonable discourse, whether the topic be health care or abortion, which he took on at a graduation speech this week at the University of Notre Dame, calling for common ground in efforts to tackle abortion's root causes.

Yet there are signs that the calm and largely transparent course that the Obama Administration has set could be heading toward a squall on an issue that has shipwrecked more than one American presidency. Ironically, it's the very issue that first thrust him to prominence: War.
And his fiercest opposition could come from his strongest, earliest supporters: the Left.

One by one, the president has slowly backed away from positions he articulated during his campaign and even at the outset of his presidency. He extended his deadline for extricating American troops from Iraq. He reversed his position on ending military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees. And now he's backed away from a promise to release damning pictures of American abuse of prisoners.

Barack Obama has said repeatedly that he wants to look forward. Yet the Iraq War and the escalating conflict in Aghanistan continue to pull him backwards. He says he does not want to be mired in recrimination and investigation of the Bush years. Yet by failing to investigate and reveal American violation of international law and fundamental norms of moral behavior, he is assuring that these transgressions continue to drip out, leaving him buffeted by attacks and counterattacks between left and right.

Rep. John Lewis, the Civil Rights leader and Georgia Democrat, said at Emerson's graduation dinner last night that Congress is growing restless over the open-ended cost of the Iraq war. It surpassed $1 trillion this month and it's drives America further into unsustainable debt as services to America's poor, its unemployed and its vulnerable stagger under the growing weight of recession.

This contradiction in expenditures cannot be sustained for four more years -- perhaps not even for one. I believe it has has become untenable to send desparately needed tax dollars overseas to fund a war effort that will never succeed and can at best allow us to save face by withdrawing gracefully.

If Obama seems to be waffling on his commitment to end the Iraq War, he also walking a wobbly line on his promise to bring "change you can believe in" to government in its War on Terror.

After eight years of watching the principles on which the United States of America was founded erode in the post 9/11 era, liberal Democrats quite rightly see no compromise on issues of Civil Liberties and torture.

The Obama presidency began by offering transparency on the issue of torture but rebuffed calls for accountability of those responsible. Now, it is showing signs of retreating on its promise of transparency, too.

Like most Americans, I genuinely like our president. He seems a fundamentally decent and highly intelligent man. But my support, like many others, won't sustain itself through another administration of war without end and without principles. It won't stand for another administration that equivocates on torture or once again twists5 the principles of democracy in the name of democracy. Certain issues cannot be resolved through compromise. This is one.

Perhaps we can learn from the truth commissions established in South Africa after apartheid.
They did not seek retribution, just honest disclosure. America needs at least as much.
It is time for President Obama to appoint a special commission to look at where and how the Bush Administration violated laws that are the basis of our Constitution. If such a commission were set up not to build evidence for prosecution but to provide the world and the American people with both a basis for apology and commitment to change, it could do much more to move this country forward than simply allowing the wounds of the past to ooze.

South Africa emerged stronger from its self-exploration.The United State would do the same.

Poison can't be allowed to fester in the corpse of our politics. Showing our ugly self-inflicted wounds in the War on Terror will cause pain. No country likes to admit that it broke the law. But airing the truth in the clear air of open disclosure is also the only way for the United States government and we, the people, to heal.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Remembering the old days (good, bad or indifferent)

A year's tuition at Harvard University cost $600 back then. The average rent was $70 a month, a postage stamp cost 3 cents and the average new house sold for $7,450.

No. I'm not talking about 1929, the year of the Great Crash and an oft-mentioned reference point to the economic tailispin we're in. I'm talking 20 years later, the year of my birth, 1949. Which means on March 17, in approximately seven days, 11 hours and 24 minutes (who is counting?), there will be no denying I am officially old.

Ah, the good old days. Or were they? I have to confess I can't recall much -- well, actually, anything -- about 1949. At this point I'm not sure I know much about 1959 either. It was a long time ago. But, compliments of brother, Dennis, Seek Publishing's, "1949, Remember When" is bringing me up to speed.

This was the year the first VW Beetle was sold in the United States, a big deal to me since it was the college car of choice for my generation. "Give 'em Hell" Harry Truman was still president. Lousi "Satchmo" Armstrong was the toast of Paris. And, along with me, out popped Bruce Springsteen, Meryl Streep, Billy Joel and Jessica Lange. Let it be noted that I came first.

It's true. This was the year that Ronald Reagan co-started in Warner Bros, "The Girl from Jones Beach," a real place on Long Island where we'd do more cruising for sand crabs than babes as kids. But no one said 1949 was perfect

It was, in fact, like every year, a mix of some good and some bad. Harvard Law School enrolled its first woman students. The first African American, William Hastie, was appointed to a judgeship on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Geneva Conventions, among other things, set standards of humane treatment for prisoners of war.

But Soviet A-bomb tests heated up the Cold War. And the New York Yankees won the World Series (forgive me, I'm from Boston now).

The biggest downer: average lifespan. Back then it was 62.9 years, which gives me just 2.9 to get deep into my Bucket List. But that was then. Now, every one keeps telling me, 60 is the new 40

I'm not sure I believe them, but then, we've got little choice. Who can afford to retire these days anyway?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Smallish signs of a really big recession

We Americans are hunkering down.

Sort of.

Cars no longer spill onto the adjacent street from the parking lot at my Lexington, Mass., farm stand each weekend. Business seems to have slowed sharply. A few weeks ago, Kathy and I walked without reservation into a popular Waltham restaurant on Saturday night and had our choice of tables. And this weekend, the news over dinner at the home of friends was uneasy if not downright scary. He works for a well-known Silicon Valley high-tech company. It's frozen all travel in favor of teleconferencing. Recently it announced it was eliminating the annual bonuses that traditionally make up a fifth of his income. And the worst may lie ahead. He's bracing for increasingly likely company layoffs in April. The problem: Business customers are putting off technology upgrades that used to be standard.

The signs that Americans, individuals and businesses, are spending less and staying home more ripple through the news, the stories of friends and scenes of daily life. Television viewership is up. Air travel is down. National Public Radio tells the story of a shoemaker who can't keep up with demand for new heels, soles and zippers. The venerable Rocky Mountain News, a Denver daily, shut its doors days short of its 150th birthday.

But a closer look around suggests that many if not most of us have yet to fully come to terms with the rapid unraveling of the American economic engine. On Friday night, we headed to the chain restaurant Chili's, not known for its gourmet delicacies, to cash in a gift card. The place was packed and by 7 p.m., the hostess was stacking up the names on a waiting list like air traffic controllers used to line up planes on busy big city runways. Across the street, at The Burlington Mall, cars stretched across the acres of parking lot as they have every weekend when we drive by. It could be, of course, that window-shopping-til-you-drop has replaced actual buying on the vapors of diminishing credit. But if wanna-be-shoppers weren't able to at least delude themselves into believing that things will soon get better why would they torture themselves by looking at what they clearly can't afford to buy? Then, this morning, my Sunday New York Times told me that Americans are flocking to the movies again. ("The movie industry has been startled by a box-office surge that has little precedent in the modern era," The Times intoned.).

OK, so much for the theory we're all huddling in front of the TV at home.

That Americans still are spending money isn't something to be outraged about in an economy that relies on consumer spending for more than 70 percent of its gross domestic product. Put another way, if we all got really frugal at the same time, this 15-month downturn could only get worse.

Yet there is a flipside, notes James Grant, editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, in one of a page full of short essays in Sunday's Times under the headline "When will this recession be over?"

"Hope," he writes, "sustains life, but misplaced hope prolongs recessions."

Maybe if we all admit just how bad things are, we can all roll up our sleeves, eat the spinach of sacrifice so few politicians are afraid to ask for and volunteer in ways that begin to make all of us better and richer as a community. The movie industry may not like it. But in the end, there may be better ways to spend our money and our time than in what what one Times source described as that very dark place of escapism.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Hypocrits to the hilt

By the measure of nearly any presidency, the passage of a massive, $787 billion stimulus bill three weeks into the Obama administration is a remarkable achievement. The economic analysts I read and listen to say (a) it probably won't prove enough in the long run but (b) it'll certainly help and may at least keep unemployment below 10 percent in what will be a very painful year.

Republicans, meanwhile, are yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. The measure they say will "mortgage our children's future." They repeat this mantra in lockstep on TV talks shows, at press confeerences, and, ultimately, on the news. They also wag a finger and somberly note that they want bipartisanship, but that it has failed here because of Democrats desire to distribute pork back home.

No House Republicans voted for the stimulus. Three blue state Senate Republicans assured passage by giving the measure their support: Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins and Olympia Stowe, both of Maine. And self-proclaimed "Mr. Maverick," John McCain? He's leading the sanctimonious Republican hand-wringing accusing the Democrats of selling our children's future.

So let's set the record straight. Yes, bipartisanship failed but not for lack of trying by President Obama and not because the measure was laden with pork. I hope the president doesn't waste his time trying too hard to wine and dine the GOP in the future. There is too much work to be done to waste a lot of energy on the party of non-regulation and non-responsiveness.

This is the crowd, after all, that under W. ran up the largest deficit in American history and left the country in the shambles we now find ourselves digging out of. Somehow Republicans didn't worry too much about our children's future when they passed $1.2 trillion in tax cuts while increasing federal spending. They didn't worry about our children's future when they poured upwards of another trillion dollars into waging and supporting a war in Iraq started to stop phantom weapons of mass destruction. They didn't worry about our children's future when they allowed crooks like Bernard Madoff to rip off his clients of $50 billion in the world's biggest Ponzi Scheme or when they stood by while executives at Merrill Lynch awarded themselves 700 $1- million-plus salaries in a year in which the company lost $27 billion.

When the same folks who brought us bankrupting tax policies, the albatross of an unwinnable war and an ethic of unregulated greed now wag a finger of coordinated righteousness, it strikes me as the ultimate act of hypocrisy.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's time to bail out Americans, not their bankers

Would you invest your children’s inheritance in a new-fangled investment scheme on the basis of nothing but talking points? Would you invest your life savings in a mansion after seeing nothing but an architect’s sketch? And, in both cases, would you entrust the supervision of these funds to men and women who had lost oodles of their own and other people’s money already?

That’s sort of what Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the Obama administration seemed to be asking the American public to do on Tuesday. It’s insulting and, frankly, somewhat frightening. From what I read, while we awaited leadership, Geithner trotted out a tweaked version of his predecessor, Hank Paulson’s, reality. While we needed a fresh start, Geithner not only made it easy for the same failed bank officers to stay in place but pushed back efforts to limit their compensation. While we pined for money at the grass roots, to keep banks from foreclosing on American homes at a rate of 10,000 a day, Geithner put off to some undefined future time a plan to help homeowners restructure loans.

Surely, the Obama administration, must grasp this: The American people are not interested in propping up the fat cats of American finance. Nor will they be fooled with smoke and mirrors. Obama was elected to change business as usual. And it sure doesn’t look like TARP2 does.

I’ve always wondered about this “Troubled Asset Relief Program.” Even the name bothers me. Are we relieving the “troubled assets” – and the bankers who made a mess of them? Or are we relieving troubled Americans, lured into bad loans and worse debt by mortgage brokers and bankers who in some cases must have known darn well that the money they handing out could never be repaid in the manner it was supposed to be. If America needs a bailout, why not let Americans have a bailout?

Let’s stop to consider what $700 billion, the amount Congress voted for the financial bailout program during the campaign season, can buy. Using a ballpark figure of 100 million U.S. households, $700 billion is the equivalent of giving every homeowner or apartment renter $7,000. Per family or household. If every American household actually had been given that kind of money, I suspect it would have gone quite a ways toward stimulating the economy. Instead, half that money went to banks, which have hoarded the money. Geithner’s press conference was the roll out how the second half of that installment would be spent. And now there are suggestions the final figure could balloon above $2 trillion. If the United States is going to live off the largesse of Chinese loans – until they’re called due -- can the rest of us enjoy the respite and pay off some bills?

More of the same won’t work. Americans are still waiting for a real plan, with real oversight, real regulation and real chance of some of that money flowing downhill to strapped and increasing desperate citizens. We don’t need trickle down economics 2 -- without the trickle. We’re not economists but we do have a sense of smell. And something still stinks here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mr. President: Let's clear out the banking dead wood

Let's hope the banking lobbyists aren't still working their magic in Washington. There certainly are signs they could be.

A fascinating story in Tuesday's New York Times suggests that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner prevailed over other high-ranking Obama aides who wanted to impose tougher sanctions on banks and bankers seeking more federal bailout money. On the oped pages of the same paper, conservative columnist David Brooks, an opponent of the stimulus plan, praises this bank bailout.

I consider that a bad sign.

I am no economist and the multiplex of multi-billion-dollar numbers thrown around these days often leaves me dizzy. But I do have common sense, and I have always lived within my means. I play my mortgage on time. I don't load up my credit cards. I defer purchases that I don't have the money to make.

That's why I'm angry -- really angry -- at the profligate SOB's of the financial world who seem to think it's their right to drain my children's future and then have the government run to the rescue, no strings attached. And that's why I'm getting equally angry at the government's unwillingness to punish them for their utter irresponsibility.

OK. So the new plan, as President Obama announced last week, will cap top executive salaries at rescued financial institutions at $500,000 a year until these rescued institutions can again stand on their own feet. Now there is tough love -- not.

I'm sure some of these guys will have to sell a yacht or two -- maybe a home or two -- at a loss to get by on a mere $500,000 a year. But I'll be damned if I can understand why the U.S. government is concerned about keeping their stockholders whole. Or why the salary cap doesn't extend beyond the top executives to all executives. Or why Geithner is loathe to clean house and bring in executives and boards not tainted by a run-up in our national debt that could surpass $1 trillion eventually just to keep the banks afloat.

Change, Mr. President, doesn't mean keeping the same shysters at a half mil. Change means doing something different. Free enterprise doesn't mean that if bank executives act like irresponsible fools, they, along with their banks, get a bailout. It means if they are fools, they should be fired.

The crisis we are in was no accident. Banks began giving mortgages with no downpayments and no credible requirements for lenders to show they could ever repay their mortgages. The banks would then sell these loans to bigger banks, who would sell them to Wall Street and so on. I guess it was all legal, but it sure sounds to a layman a lot like Bernard Madoff's Ponzi Scheme. So why then is the government so concerned about keeping these executives and their boards intact and in place?

I smell a rat, or at least a lobbyist.

Yes, I can, though grudgingly, understand why the Obama administration wants to keep the banks from going under. That would pull us down with them. But I cannot understand why the Obama administration continues to protect the self-centered, arrogant, unethical and unbowed executives who have beaten these banks and this country into the ground. (If they haven't exactly fiddled while Rome burns, they have thrown six-figure luxury "retreats" with taxpayer money that was supposed to open up credit markets, but has not.)

President Obama, your popularity remains strong. You should use it to lead the people - and to leave the Republican Party and the lobbyists behind if they choose not to follow. Splitting the difference in an economic crisis is no solution. As you said yourself Monday night, catastrophe could be close behind. This is no time for subtle shifts in a failed system. It is time to be bold.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Obama walks softly, but carries a big stick


That's how many House Republicans voted for President Obama's stimulus package after he went to great lengths to meet with them to explain the package and hear their views. This gaping partisan divide says very little about President Obama's skills. It says a lot about just who is left in the diminished Republican House ranks.

"Moderate Republican" has become an oxymoron. These mostly guys play to the "base," the 25 percent of Americans who still believe George W. Bush was a great president, the ones who watch Hannity and O'Reilly or listen to Limbaugh, that wholesome threesome who, while the world celebrated the inauguration, were busy wringing their hands about when the muslim hordes would land on our shores with Obama in charge. It's unsettling that nearly one in four Americans actually lives on another planet, seemingly unaware that this one is moving on from their pretty-much-anti-everything view of things. But it isn't unsettling enough to waste too much energy on.

So far, President Obama has struck the right balance, telling one Republican Congressman, "I won," when asked why he wasn't incorporating more Republican ideas, yet continuing to meet with and listen to Republican leaders in what I'm guessing is a slow-moving effort to at least expose them to arguments they don't usually hear.

Two things happened on Wednesday that exemplify the dance step the president is trying to master. In a statement praising House passage of the stimulus package, Obama made no mention of the uniform Republican opposition. But he did say: "What we can't do is drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get ino our way. we must move switly and boldy to put Americans back to work, and that is exactly what this plan begins to do."

Then he threw a cocktail party -- for leaders of both parties. The message seems clear: "Republicans, you can play now or pay later. But I won't demonize you or isolate you, even
as your mouthpieces trash me."

Will the Republicans drop their overt partisanship? No chance. In the House, especially, they're all marching to a drummer most of us just don't hear anymore. But Obama is wise to follow the lesson of a Republican president of a different time -- Teddy Roosevelt. When it comes to economic policy at least, so far he's chosen to "walk softly, but carry a big stick."

Monday, January 19, 2009

ON the cusp of something special

A friend of ours works for the World Wildlife Federation and often travels overseas. She has heard from family in her native Zimbabwe and friends in New Zealand excited about watching Barack Obama's inaugural address tomorrow.

Even in these glum economic times, this is a week of euphoria for many Americans and many around the world. That any politician could reach halfway around the world before taking office is dizzying and a little terrifying. Can any one man live up to such expectations?

It's an interesting exercise to make sense of the giddiness that surrounds Obama and his inauguration. Is it because of his race? His relative youth? His telegenic family? His exotic name and international background? His repeated calls for a unified America, for all working as one without regard to race, creed, religion or party affiliation? Is it because of our utter fatigue and disgust with George W. Bush? Is it because hope is something everyone needs these days?

I suspect all these pieces play some part in sorting out the puzzle. But to me one other, even brighter, element stands out -- the intelligence and humanity of Barack Obama. He reads. And he can write, not only better than most presidents but better then most writers. Watching him emerge and evolve as president is an awfully exciting prospect after eight years of listening to a guy who steadfastly refuses to pronounce the word "nuclear" or to believe in scientific evidence. This bad dream is finally ready to end, though, judging from the wreckage left behind, it was no dream at all.

Yet out of this morass, something special is emerging. Slowly, through the prompting of the words of Obama the story teller, as well as through the reality of Obama, our first African-American president, Americans have begun sharing their own perspectives on and experiences with racial and social divisions in what, in a virtual sort of way, is emerging as a kind of societal dialogue with no moderator and no physical common for the exchange.

So let me join in. I grew up the son of liberal Democrats -- in an all white suburban Long Island town. The only black in our school didn't live there. His name was Matt Snell. He ran like a bulldozer, and after graduating from Carle Place High School, he went on to a Hall of Fame professional football career as a fullback.

One super star, bused in. That's what passed for integration in the '50s and '60s in more than our middle American community. Back then, many hundreds of miles north of cities like Birmingham, Jackson and Selma, places in the news because of their vicious and violent opposition to anything smacking of change from the ways of Jim Crow, we too still had an awfully long way to go.

Northern bigotry was subtler. As a kid, I remember a corporate cocktail party somewhere in Ohio, an affair for the executives of the lighting company for which my father worked. An executive's wife asked my mother what she would do if I -- probably 7 or 8 years old at the time -- were to date or marry a black woman. "My sons can go out with whomever they want," my mother shot back, perhaps a bit too righteously. In my town, you see, there were no black girls, no brown ones either.

Sometime in the same mid-'50s timeframe, my father struck a public blow for racial equality, though I think it was prompted more by a growling stomach than a sense of social outrage. Such was Gunther Lanson. My family was on a ferry, heading, I believe, toward Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay, and the dining quarters on the crowded boat were segregated, though I didn't really know what that meant. All I saw was one area with a long line of people waiting to be seated and another, smaller area, that was nearly empty. That's where we Lansons sat down -- and waited a long time for a waiter to approach. That's when my father had one of his most persuasive temper tantrums -- and the lily-white Long Island Lansons got served in the "Negroes Only" section of the dining room. I'd like to tell you that my father was making a bigger statement that day. But I think he just wanted lunch.

Today, I have to wonder whether my kids have similar insights into their parents. I confess. We live in a town that's only a bit more diverse than the one I grew up in. And, no: Good schools are no excuse for seeking what amounts to self-segregation. Still, I'm starting to make sense of the stupidity of the stultifying racial divides that have too long held back these United States. At least once every week I hold an ambassador of a new America close to my heart, in the squirming shape of my gorgeous mixed-race grand-daughter. I've come a long ways, too, in my interest, understanding and outreach to friends who didn't grow up in -- and back then weren't welcome in -- the homogenous and oh-so-dull communities like the one of my upbringing. Still, like most of us, I have a ways to go before race and ethnicity play no role in perception of the reality around me.

That, too, is why I'll be watching the inaugural at noon Tuesday with a special sense of renewal and excitement. These United States under the leadership of Barack Obama face truly daunting times and truly daunting tasks. But I sense from all that Barack Obama is and represents that we will all be in this struggle together, following a man with a keen sense of the moment and a clarion eloquence to articulate what we can do to make the most of it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

When it comes to democracy, messy is just fine

Let’s get it right this time, not just get there quickly.

That’s the message some Democrats in Congress are delivering to Barack Obama, and I believe they are right to do so.

Just a few months ago, Congress raced to pass a $700 billion bailout for the banking industry after the Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke warned that dilly-dallying could cause a global economic meltdown. Well, guess what:

-- The global economy pretty much melted anyway.
-- No one really knows where the money from the first half of that plan went. It's a mere $350 billion, rouighly 10 times the entire federal budget for Homeland Security in 2008, five times that for Health and Human Services. But the banks have refused to account to Congress for how the the money was spent. Credit markets remain tight. And American taxpayers? They got bilked. It's a ludicrous situation.

Now some in Congress are balking at the broad-stroke provisions of the incoming president's $775 billion stimulus package. Liberal Democrats want the money to be spent on actions that directly create jobs, benefitting citizens and the country, not corporate moguls. They want to see the money spent building bridges, fixing highways, improving the energy grid, investing in the country’s infrastructure. They don't want to water down that investment by handing out one-time, $500, tax credits to citizens who likely won't spend that savings or so-called incentives to small businesses to ostensibly hire new workers. (I wonder if anyone would notice if those new hires got fired after the tax incentives were doled out.)

Republicans, who borrowed and deregulated America into this mess over the last eight years, have suddenly found religion, tut-tutting that a big stimulus would be irresponsible at a time of huge deficits. A hint of the heat scorching Obama from both sides could be seen in two articles on today's New York Times opinion pages. On the left, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman writes that Obama's economic plan "isn't as strong as his language about the economic threat. In fact it falls well short of what's needed."

To his right (but still a moderate by Republican standards) is fellow Times columnist David Brooks. He writes, "The Obama presidency is going to be defined by audacious self-confidence ... This will be the most complex legislation in American history, and as if the policy content wasn't complicated enough, Obama also promised to pass it via Immaculate Conception -- through a new legislative process that will transform politics."

Are they talking about the same president? The same plan?

Whomever Obama listens to he needs to do something other than split the difference. As much as I admire Obama's instinct to forge broad-based coalitions, this isn't the time to give sops to a shrinking Republican minority that has pretty much wrecked the economy with its one-note mantra of "cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes."

I am no economist. But in the face of spiraling unemployment and a recession with no end in sight, I think it's safe to say we need bold leadership now, not collegiality. And if that’s offensive to the 3o percent of Americans who still think George Bush is hunky dory, well, that’s tough. The election made that clear. People are hurting. They want to try a new course. If Republicans try to block it, Democrats should flex their muscles and run over them. The public will be on their side.

But first Democrats need to encourage loud debate from all quarters among themselves. Some people are wringing their hands at the sight of Democrats arguing with Democrats. They shouldn’t. They should celebrate. Democracy is once again a messy business in America. That is what democracy is supposed to be. It's how it works best.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Word from Turkey: Big wait for 'Bye-Bye Bush' shoe

Below is a real email (with picture above to back it up), forwarded by a friend in New York, from a friend of hers who visited Istanbul. Who says the U.S. has cornered the market of brash capitalism?

I didn't want to leave Turkey without visiting the factory where shoe model 271 is manufactured. Never heard of it? Well, it just happens to be the name of the shoe that was hurled at George Bush a few weeks ago in Iraq. The Turkish shoemaker (Ramazan Baydan) recently renamed the shoe "Bye Bye Bush" and is back-logged with orders (well over 300,000). He's apparently hired about 100 extra factory workers to keep pace with the demand. Unfortunately, we couldn't go to the assembly line, but we did see the showroom. The shoes are thick and heavy - good thing Bush was adept at ducking b/c they would have done some serious damage.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Democrats should stop wasting time blocking Burris

No question: Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is a foul-mouthed creep as well as an alleged crook. But even if he did try to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat, there's no evidence that he persisted after his efforts were outed by a federal investigation. The law says two things: (1) He's still governor of Illinois and, therefore, has the legal right to name Obama's successor (2) He's innocent until proven guilty.

So why are Democrats wasting so much time trying to block 71-year-old Roland Burris from taking a Senate seat -- Obama's -- to which he was legally appointed? Is there any evidence that Burris greased Blagojevich's palm? Not that anyone has disclosed. Is there any evidence that Burris was on the take during a career that included a stint as Attorney General of Illinois? Again, not that anyone has reported. Is it likely that, at age 71 and as the beneficiary of an appointment that comes under storm clouds, Burris will wrap up the Senate seat for years to come? No.

Those are three reasons why Democrats should get on with the nation's business instead of their own posturing. If they don't stop trying to look Holier than Thou, it could well blow up in their face and slow much-needed legislation. Today, as other senators are sworn in, Burris has said he'll show up at the Senate to take his seat. Do Democrats really want to turn his arrival into a blast from the past, a photo-op of the '60s South, complete with security guards escorting the only African-American senator out of the chamber? Do they want the story to lead the news for the next several weeks when Americans desparately need Congress to move forward on a stimulus that creates jobs?

Let Roland Burris be. He's neither a nut nor a novice. He's a lifetime public servant, whose only apparent sin is that he's an ambitious but not terribly charismatic politician. Democrats should seat him in the U.S. Senate and then move swiftly and soberly to hold impeachment hearings for the governor, who truly does smell like a rotten fish.

It's true. Blagojevich's nomination of Roland Burris taints the nominee with guilt by association. But if that were the standard for unseating a politician of either party, there would be a whole lot of empty desks on Capitol Hill when the new Congress convenes.

Published on OpedNews, Jan. 6, 2009