Monday, May 18, 2015

Will Polite Enforcement Work?

An ancient axiom holds there is some good in every situation. Indeed, there are indications that police forces in many parts of the U.S. are examining their practices and policies and making positive changes as a result of  a rash of documented brutality in dealings with the public they should be safeguarding, especially the reprehensible shootings of black men without sound justification. Justice may yet be served properly.

However, one might ask if the pendulum could swing too far the other way, a characteristic of American political life and social change seen often in the past.

The new sign pictured here popped up recently on a route we travel often between a home improvement store and our favorite supermarket. I am certain that the old sign it replaced said, "VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED."

Saying less forcefully they "may be" prosecuted, it seems to me, opens a loophole for miscreants who might be willing to play the odds and take a chance they will be among those who escape punishment. There also could be an administrative problem. Who decides which dumpers will be prosecuted? Based on what? The volume of junk they drop off? The esthetics of the stuff? The nastiness of any odors?

Could it be this type of more sensitive warning could go so far that tellers with their hands raised might say, "Please don't rob our bank. You may be prosecuted." I'm sure the bandits would pay a lot of attention to that sort of notice--right after they entertained the hostages with a round of  LOL.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Not a Packers Draftee

With pro football's draft day looming, it appears da Bears, Green Bay's arch-rivals, are once again trying to pull off some sort of trickery. According to a Chicago radio station report (probably a plant), local authorities have called in the FBI to search for a man who allegedly robbed a Chase Bank branch in Chi Town's Woodlawn neighborhood while wearing a Packers cap.

Surveillance camera footage supposedly taken inside the bank shows a robber with a
Definitely not one of ours.
Packers logo on the front of his headgear. Suspicion is mounting in Green Bay that the image has been altered.

Odds are about as long as those favoring the Bears to win the Super Bowl that this man is a Green Bay Packers fan. We are not above stealing the Bears' signals or some of their better players (Julius Peppers comes to mind), but we have no need for Chicago money.

Cash is not a Packers problem. Again this year, the corporation's 100,000 or so stockholders will get no dividend despite multimillion dollar profits.

No one knows for sure what da Bears are up to with this robbery story, but now that we're on the alert the plot is destined for failure--like a Jay Cutler pass in a key situation

Monday, April 20, 2015

Modern Media Work Magic

Critics lamenting the vast changes in American news media continue to mutter throughout the land, and my voice has been among them for some time. The main concern is the disappearance of investigative reporters as newspapers continue to decline and die.

We oldsters reason that without ethical media watchdogs to create awareness of government, corporate, or ideological excesses democracy cannot flourish, or perhaps even exist. But recent events bring hope. Perhaps the old dogs simply are being replaced by a whole new breed that may prove capable of doing a better job of guarding the public interest.

Recent events in Indiana show that internet media can expose unsavory political actions and force change. And they can do it with remarkable speed and effectiveness.

On March 26, Governor Mike Pence expressed pleasure as he signed into law a "religious freedom" bill that supposedly had the benign purpose of defining  rights generally protected by the U.S. Constitution. The measure had overwhelming support in the legislature. Laws in one-party states, such as Indiana, enacted by wide margins and enthusiastically supported by the governor usually are impossible to overturn or modify without major electoral upheaval or campaigns that can take years to develop.

Justice was served remarkably quickly.
Yet the Indiana law bit the dust in a matter of weeks. The opposition said the law clearly would allow discrimination against a minority, in this case LGBT people, and that was intolerable. A huge storm of protest erupted within days. Statements by individuals on blogs and in social media led the way. Facebook and Yelp participants played major roles in the outcry. Businesses and organizations took action to penalize Indiana economically by canceling meetings, postponing investments, or threatening to pull operations out of the state.

Gov. Pence quickly went on television to explain that the law really did not promote discrimination. He failed miserably to make the case. As criticism and punitive actions mounted, he surrendered and backed a change in the law to make it clear it will not permit discrimination because of sexual orientation.

The fallout from the protests was dramatic. Pence's approval rating within Indiana plummeted. He went almost instantly from consideration as a presidential candidate to a man fighting for his political life.

I doubt any such change would have happened in the past when newspapers, radio stations, two press associations, and three television networks constituted our media.The Indiana law signing might have rated a couple of paragraphs in the Indianapolis Star. The Associated Press might have condensed that to a few sentences if its editors decided to circulate the news at all. Chances of the item drawing any national media attention would have been extremely low.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which keeps an eagle eye out for injustices, perhaps would have launched a protest. And probably few people would have paid any attention to it. It is doubtful the law would have become any sort of factor in Indiana or national politics.

Our traditional media developed over many years. Internet media still are the new kids on the block. The newcomers just proved they can work magic in righting a wrong that the institutions being replaced could not match.

Many questions of responsibility and ethics surround the internet as a news purveyor. But there always were similar issues with traditional media. Perhaps we critics of media change should relax a bit and just watch the new kids grow up and see if they mature into solid citizens.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Not Your Father's Badgers

Thanks to regional television connections that cover just about everything that moves on the Big Ten sports scene, I've watched more than 30 University of Wisconsin basketball games this season. The Badgers have a 31-3 record at the moment.

Seven-footer Frank Kaminsky is hard to stop.
The UW team is an interesting group in many ways. It features a seven-footer who handles the ball like an athletic little guy and swishes long three-point shots with ease, a Ho-Chunk Indian lad who went from sub to brilliant team leader, and a fifth-year senior nicknamed "Captain America" who is said to top the league in floor burns caused by diving recklessly for loose balls. These guys are fun to watch.

I was a student at Madison for four years in the 1950s. I attended one basketball game. Wisconsin basketball was not fun to watch.

Wisconsin won its only NCAA championship in 1941 under coach Bud Foster. Six years later the Badgers made their way to the national tournament, but were quickly eliminated. They didn't qualify again for a postseason tourney for 42 years!

Coach Foster hung around for 25 years, continuing to teach the same, old pattern game that was a winner in 1941. His strategy was producing perennial losers by the 50s. Most students responded by skipping basketball games altogether, even though an athletic ticket book cost $8.50, as I recall, and several basketball passes were included.

Curiosity got the better of me in 1955 when the Indiana Hoosiers arrived for a game. Indiana was a basketball powerhouse. They won the Big Ten and NCAA titles the year before, and were well on the way to another conference championship. Wisconsin, in 1955, was to finish with 16 losses. The Badgers tied for eighth in the Big Ten, and those were the days when the conference really had ten members.

I carried a very thick history book to the Fieldhouse. The plan was to do some required reading during timeouts and at halftime.

The superb play of the Hoosiers held my full attention for the first few minutes of the game. The inept work by the Badgers more than compensated. Using the history book for a head rest, I stretched out across several seats (there were plenty of empty spaces). I dozed off and stayed oblivious to events on the court until a fellow student shook me awake after the final buzzer. I actually only saw part of one basketball game during my college days.

Coach Bo Ryan arrived in Madison in 2001 with new ideas and a record of success. The Badgers have been winners since, and nobody is snoozing as the "Grateful Red" fans celebrate win after win. The Badgers may not be able to get past undefeated Kentucky and several other high-powered teams to once again become NCAA champs, but it will be fun watching them try. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bibi Deserves Boot

Indications are that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi to his friends and some others) will be retained in office after Israel's elections next week. That's too bad. Netanyahu's recent actions, and some past actions, ought to earn him political retirement, not a continuation in power.

Netanyahu doesn't lack gall. He recently insulted the President of the United States, and then proceeded to insult the thinking part of the American public, while carrying his reelection campaign to Washington, DC. His address to the U.S. Congress was featured on television and radio in Israel. Because of that, some believe the whole episode was a contrivance to enhance his chances of reelection. It probably did that; recent polls show the parliamentary coalition backing him gained some ground after his appearance.
A two-faced, worrisome creature.

Netanyahu improperly accepted an improper invitation to address Congress. The Israeli had appeared before Congress before, and he followed the accepted procedure to get there. Protocol dictates that foreign heads of state  get White House blessing before invitations are issued to address Congress. House Speaker John Boehner knew full well he was seriously out of line when he didn't bother seeking administration approval before issuing an invitation to Netanyahu, and so did Netanyahu when he accepted it.

Boehner of late has excelled at insulting President Obama, so the invitation came as no surprise. Netanyahu tried to mask his insult in accepting it by once again demonstrating his less desirable characteristics. In an amazing show of two-faced rhetoric he opening his statement by detailing at great length all the fine things the American president has done to support Israel. He then made a frontal assault on Obama's competence and the cornerstone of American foreign policy pursued by the president for the past six years--a preference for negotiation and formation of coalitions to deal with problems, taking military action tailored to the situation only after careful analysis shows it is necessary.

Netanyahu labeled negotiations over nuclear development between Iran and a five-nation coalition Obama played a lead role in forming "a bad deal," ignoring the fact that no proposal had yet been finalized. Key to Netanyahu's argument was his assertion that the Iranians can't be trusted. He has some expertise in that area. He once agreed to stop allowing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, then continued to allow them, and later said they would be encouraged.

President Obama, who shows admirable restraint after experiencing unwarranted attacks for all sorts of things, gave a measured response to Netanyahu's speech. He said he had no intention of  agreeing to anything that did not include rigid controls on Iran's nuclear program, and that the Israeli prime minister offered nothing new in his talk.

There is little doubt Obama was miffed by the whole scenario. But he's a big guy, and he'll get over it. Although Netanyahu's attitudes and actions have been extremely irritating, there is no reason to believe they will cause a reversal of U.S. support of Israel. I have endorsed American support of Israel as long as I can remember, and that's not going to change. However, Netanyahu's antics certainly added unnecessary strain to U.S.-Israeli relations, and I believe some formerly staunch supporters of Israel may reevaluate their positions.

My feathers were ruffled by an element of a "beggar wanting to be chooser" arrogance in Netanyahu's speech. The U.S. has given Israel about $3 billion a year for many years--the current appropriation is nearly $3.4 billion. In addition we are giving Egypt more than $1.5 billion in aid (mostly military) and funding Jordan at about $1 billion (about one-third military) per year. I consider the Egypt and Jordan subsidies as bribes to keep those countries at least fairly neutral in their positions regarding Israel

A prime minister whose country gets that kind of support from a country that has budget problems of its own has no business sneaking in the back door to lecture the donor nation's leader about his policies. And we don't need visitors from foreign lands promoting scare tactics and saber rattling. We have enough fools of  our own doing that. 

Monday, March 02, 2015

Let It Snow, Let It . . . Argh!

Among the presents under the tree on my ninth Christmas morn was a shiny new snow shovel with my name on it. The shovel was a little smaller than the giant scoop Dad used, but it obviously was intended for serious work, not as a plaything.

I became intimately familiar with the duties of an only son in northern Wisconsin. Calls for "snow relocation" seemed endless during the long, cold winter seasons. I was expected to answer. Our house was on a corner lot bordered by concrete sidewalks. There was no need to go to the gym for exercise.

Much later, we lived for 16 years in a townhouse within a homeowners association in Utah. Monthly association fees covered snow removal. I never tired of cheering on the workers as they removed the white stuff from our driveway and sidewalk. Having long ago mastered the art of battling snow drifts, I was pleased to leave the job to others.

Nearly seven years ago we moved to southwest Michigan. We had visited the neighborhood of choice several times--never in winter. I noted with a degree of satisfaction the absence of sidewalks in the rural community. Responses to questions about winter weather generally took the tone of "not too bad." I thought clearing a driveway once in a while would be good exercise.

Snowfalls indeed were "not too bad" our first several years in Michigan. They gradually worsened. Last winter they were awful; this season has been worse, reminding us that weather runs in cycles. We may be in for a long and unpleasant series of winters featuring large and frequent "lake effect" snows.
Reaching the end of our driveway on a snow removal day is cause for celebration (or soaking in a tub and a nap).
It turns out I perhaps should have worried more about driveways than sidewalks when searching for a new home. Our driveway is long and about three times as wide as the sidewalks that surrounded my boyhood home. Rough measurements indicate a big net gain in concrete area from the days of my youth when shoveling was tiresome. Now it just plain wears me out.

I compensate by hiring trusty neighbor Chad to remove the heaviest stuff  (as much as eight or ten inches several times this winter) with his snow blower. When accumulations are only an inch or two, son Lee, beautiful wife Sandy, or I take care of things by hand.

So far this year, Chad has cleared the driveway ten times. The "Klade shovelers" have done the job eight times. It has not been a lot of fun. The last time I pushed a light, one-inch accumulation out of the way the temperature was 9 degrees F. What's forecast for tomorrow?  Most of the weather gurus think we'll get up to three inches of new snow followed by ice showers and then freezing rain. Should be wonderful.

In Idaho they're planting gardens. In Utah they're playing golf. In Michigan. . . Argh! 

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Wizardly Oz

Who is the leading celebrity quack in the U.S.? It's none other than the charismatic Dr. Mehmet Oz. Watch and listen to him at your peril. (But watching and listening to John Oliver take on bad guys and groups on HBO television can be both enlightening and entertaining.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Journalist, or Just Another Pretty Face?

After considerable study, I remain puzzled about one important aspect of the Brian Williams case, but have made up my mind on the bottom line. Williams until very recently was managing editor and anchor for the NBC Nightly News. He now is suspended for six months without pay for making false claims that he was in a helicopter fired on by enemy forces in Iraq.

Some say the penalty is too harsh; others believe Williams should be fired right now. A few facts have emerged from the discussions:

1. Williams initially (in 2003) correctly reported the helicopter incident in a Nightly News segment.

2. Williams later changed his story during various public appearances, and he lied as he embellished the tale. The false versions make him somewhat of an heroic figure, or at least part of the story rather than merely an observer as a good reporter should be.

3. There is evidence of several other instances in which Williams strayed from the facts in reporting important stories.

4. Williams' employer had no doubt he deserved punishment. NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke called Williams' actions "inexcusable" and said the suspension was "severe and appropriate."

5. Several sociologists and psychologists pointed out that humans tend to have problems with the accuracy of long-term memory and that people who participated in military actions often inflate the importance of their participation. Those views seem credible, but I doubt they are good fits in Williams' situation. It is hard to believe a news reporter with years of experience would fail to clearly recall being shot at in wartime or any other time.

I have grappled with two major questions:

Good journalist, bad journalist?
1. What might motivate a person who has risen to the top of his profession to believe it necessary to twist facts to enhance his image? Williams gained his position at NBC Nightly News, the most watched American television news program, ten years ago. A few months ago he signed a new contract for about $10 million a year. Surely, he had reached the pinnacle of his profession, and had no need for more material gain.

2. Is it proper to classify Williams as a journalist, or is he more properly an entertainer who uses the public's thirst for news as a self-serving platform to produce large financial gain for himself and his employer?

I can't come up with any good answer to question 1. Only Williams knows his motivation, and he is unlikely to share that knowledge. Question 2 leads to another fundamental consideration: What is a journalist? I propose that a person becomes a journalist in one of three ways:

1. Earning a degree in journalism from an accredited college or university.

2. Working up through the ranks without benefit of formal journalism training, but sometimes aided by advanced education in related fields such as English or political science.

3. Simply claiming to be one. There is no powerful body, such as the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association, that determines who is, or is not, a journalist. In the U.S., the constitution prohibits government from making any such determination.

Williams flunks item 1. Following brief enrollments at two universities, he dropped out after completing a total of 18 credits of course work (a little more than one semester's typical achievement).  It is unlikely that he completed many, if any, journalism courses that would have included ethics in their material. His biographies I could find omitted any descriptions of exactly what he studied in his brief venture into higher education.

Williams and his employer frequently said he was a journalist, so he makes the grade in item 3. He also qualifies by virtue of item 2 activities. Williams started as a local news broadcaster and steadily worked his way up to the big time and finally the top position at NBC News. So he can claim to be a journalist on the basis of his advancement in news broadcasting over many years.

Why is the journalist question important in Williams' case? Were he merely a talking head reading news actual reporters wrote and editors processed he would not be expected to meet high ethical standards. Most of the beautiful people we see on television news programs have questionable claims to being journalists. They are good at smiling and reading words from teleprompters while striking masculine poses or displaying lots of cleavage and tanned thighs. Williams, of course, did that (the masculine part) on the Nightly News. If that was all he did, I think he could be forgiven for embellishing his war story.

But Williams was more than a pleasant, handsome man serving as news anchor. He also was the show's managing editor. That made him a key decision maker in determining what stories would appear, how they would be presented, and what importance would be assigned to them. That, beyond question, is a journalistic function. That made him a very important person in a position to influence millions in a democracy where success or failure ultimately depends on an informed citizenry. Television is a poor medium for informing people in depth, yet that is where the majority of Americans have been getting their news in recent years.

Granting that Williams can legitimately claim to be a journalist by two measures, we get to the really important question. Was Williams a good journalist?

"Good journalists" voluntarily subscribe to a code of ethics developed by the Society of Professional Journalists, or a similar one adopted by Sigma Delta Chi, a journalism fraternity which I and many of my fellow students joined while in college. However, just as "quacks" attach "M.D." to their names and "shyster" lawyers extract maximum dollars from sometimes unsuspecting clients while producing few benefits in return, some so-called journalists merely give lip service to the tenets of their profession. Unfortunately, the number of disreputable "journalists" seems to be on the rise.

The professional journalist's code is only one page long, but it includes 37 specific items in four categories defining how journalists should conduct themselves in their work. The code outlines a difficult path to follow, but thousands of men and women working in radio, television, and print media have accepted the guidance of the code and many consider it a sacred trust. How did Williams measure up?

The first code category is: "Seek the truth and report it. Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information."

The first specific guidance in that category is: "Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible."

As a 19-year-old intern at a small newspaper, I deviated from the code--once. My violation was a fairly minor one; it did not involve dishonesty. Nevertheless, my employer, a journalist respected by all who knew him, told me bluntly and forcefully that if I did not improve my conduct  I should pursue a different profession. He later forgave me, and provided financial and moral support as I tried to become an honorable reporter and editor.

I was grateful for the forgiveness and attempted for more than a half century to adhere to the code of ethics of professional journalism. There were numerous temptations to stray, but I think I measured up. Almost all the journalists I worked with or observed in action measured up. NBC now has a bit less than six months to decide whether Williams deserves forgiveness. He is not a teenaged trainee. He had to know what he was doing, and that it was wrong. In my opinion, he clearly does not consider being a professional journalist a sacred trust.

With what we know at the moment about Williams' conduct, he doesn't measure up as a journalist who deserves respect. Many reporters are continuing to delve into details of his performance. That's not surprising. In the accountability section of journalism's code of conduct we find: "Journalists should expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media."

Unless the current media investigations and NBC's analysis turn up some compelling new positive information, Williams' suspension should be made permanent.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Geekdom Disabled

We're not very high-tech folks, so when computer glitches or complex updates baffle us it's nice to be able to let experts deal with the problems. We buy a Geek Squad service package for that purpose, and it has served us well.

The Geek Squad has an outpost about 20 miles from our home in a Best Buy store.  We journeyed there yesterday with a desk-top puter that had developed several small, but irritating, problems. We also wanted professional installation of a new program similar to one that had been difficult to get running properly in the past.

Help available electronically only.
The resident geek eyeballed us, the tower I had carried in, and a brief want list we handed to him. "Sorry," he said, "our system is down and we can't log in any work. Looks like you have a virus, for one thing. You can call our 800 number and someone will talk you through fixing that."

"But we come here for service because we don't like doing walk-through fixes on the phone. Can't we just leave it here as usual?"

"You can't leave it, we can't sign in any new work until our system is up."

Amazed, I asked if I was failing to understand something. The geek assured me I was not.

Apparently geeks are now so high-tech they are unable to write on a piece of (oh, horrors) paper, the name of a customer, the date puter hardware was left for service, and what was needed. In our case, we even provided the piece of paper with the "what's needed" part already written. A duplicating machine nearby was working perfectly, so an old-fashioned  writer would have been able to hand a copy of a note to us in a matter of seconds.

I've noticed some young clerks have great difficulty doing basic arithmetic when no machine is available to make calculations for them. But this was my first encounter with an apparently fully functional adult who couldn't or wouldn't create a simple hand-written note. How ridiculous is our supposedly sophisticated cyber world becoming?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Failed Hope

Sometimes it's interesting to look back at statements of our hopes to see if dreams came true. A small commentary and remembrance about journalism appeared nearly seven years ago in a book I authored, "Days With The Dads." Obviously, my wish that the "yellow journalism" experiencing a resurgence in the electronic media would turn out to be only a temporary phase did not come to pass.

News reporting in the U.S. has become steadily worse, and there are no indications it will get better. With only minor changes, my 2008 item follows.

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Yellowish Journalism

By the time I became public relations coordinator at the McCoy Job Corps Center in 1967, "yellow journalism" was almost a thing of the past in the U.S. The practice flourished in the 1890s and early 1900s, when powerful publishers emphasized sensationalism, bias, and phony images in their newspapers to boost circulation. 

Although yellow journalism gradually yielded to objectivity in news reporting, some of the bias in images and presentation stayed around a long time.  At the extremes in my lifetime were the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Manchester Union-Leader in New Hampshire.  The Cap Times stood ready to flail any available Republican; the Union-Leader displayed similar antagonism toward Democrats.

The McCoy Job Corps Center was about an equal distance between the communities of Sparta and Tomah in Wisconsin.  News media in Sparta treated us with respect, and often gave welcome support.  Not so in Tomah.  The radio station, especially, seemed to delight in whacking us below the belt at every opportunity.

Sparta businessmen and other community leaders hosted a farewell luncheon for our staff members in 1968 shortly after the announcement that the McCoy Center was being closed. (It was one of 16 centers closed by the federal government for "economy reasons").  My boss, the manager of public and community relations, was away job hunting, so I inherited the task of speaking on behalf of our organization.

I spent several hours preparing my remarks.  Three sentences that brought considerable applause were: "I came here after working for the biggest corporation in this State.  Our center managers sometimes grappled with more problems in the first few hours of a day than the corporate executives had to deal with in a typical week.  But our people faced the challenges, solved every one of the problems, and made the McCoy center a success."

A reporter from the Tomah radio station was taping the proceedings.  Starting that afternoon and lasting throughout the next day, the station played my comments as part of its news reports.  However, the last of the three sentences was omitted.

Unfortunately, the yellow journalism practiced by the Tomah radio station made a comeback in  21st century electronic news media.  Fox News obviously slanted its television presentations and images to support archconservative political views.  MSNBC was accused of doing the same thing on the liberal side. Various talk show hosts were even worse.  Let us hope this is a passing fad and not a trend back to what would be an undesirable norm once again.

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