Some of my
journalism

Quite the World, Isn't It?


Progress on Detroit - the book, not the city

September 26, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

We're at that crucial stage of book production - editing and copy editing - which is both grueling and fun. Grueling because a couple of sharp-eyed editors are plying me with questions about facts, word choice and writing style. Fun because this makes the publication of the book, due out in April, feel even closer.

The next step will be proofreading the pages, which is when the book begins to feel real in a physical sense. And I've already had a sneak peak at the cover, and am very pleased with the way it's turning out. I'll post a copy of it once we have the final version.

Meanwhile I'm slogging along with a little teaching and some freelance work while trying to figure out a next project. It's an odd process, trying to zero in one something that will bear two or three years of obsession, and that would be of sufficiently wide interest to make doing the project worth the time and effort.





On CNN, the Tea Party, and blogosphere blowback

September 15, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

I posted an item a couple of days ago calling into question CNN's ethics in teaming up with the Tea Party for the debate in Florida, and argued that no media outlet should co-sponsor debates with the entities they are supposed to cover. That sparked some rock-throwing by a few folks that I feel needs addressing.

First, in the initial post, I wrote that CNN didn't team up with political progressives to co-sponsor a debate in the 2008 campaign. Faulty memory: A commenter on a post at Andrew Breitbart's Big Journalism site (see below) pointed out that CNN had teamed with the Congressional Black Caucus and its Political Education and Leadership Institute for a presidential debate in South Carolina. Though one might argue the CBC's institute isn't necessarily politically progressive, the point is right: CNN did team with a splinter political group then, and I had forgotten it. So consider that corrected.

But it doesn't change the basic premise of my argument. In fact, I fault that partnership, as well. The media should not partner with the groups they are covering. This item by P.J. Salvatore criticizes my logic, but then misconstrues what I wrote.
Also, Martelle’s logic fails him a second time: he complains that only two parties are represented while also taking the stance that the tea party shouldn’t be represented because it’s an entity to be covered — which conflicts which his complaint that only two parties are ever represented. He suggests that the tea party is a third party, thus this would be a fulfillment of his request. But it’s a conservative group, so again, his bias is betrayed, all while complaining about bias. If Martelle intended to define irony with his remarks, he’s brilliant; it it was unintentional, he’s comedy gold.
I did not say the Tea Party shouldn't be represented, I said CNN should not be represented, at least as a co-sponsor. To be as clear as I can: No media outlet should partner with any political group - left, right, or center - for things like debates. If the Democrats or Republicans or Tea Party or Green Party or whomever want to hold a debate, by all means cover it. But don't sit on the panel and ask the questions. A better approach is for the media outlets to hold their own debates and invite the candidates they feel have something to add to the discussion, and from whom voters need to hear. We should act from outside the political process, as journalists, not from within it as partnered participants.

Further, a consequence of the media's joined-at-the-hip relationship with the Commission on Presidential Debates - controlled by the two major parties - is that it lets the two major parties select from whom the American voters will hear. That cedes too much authority to the parties. That's also something, one would think, that the left and the right would both find problematic. And something that the media should be writing about, instead of tacitly endorsing by taking part.




On poverty, and the obscuring nature of numbers

September 14, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Detroit: Summer 2010. Photo/Scott Martelle
The U.S. Census has released new estimates that show poverty levels in the U.S. jumped last year to 15.1 percent of the nation, up from 14.3 percent the year before. Percentages are usually the best way to understand such shifts, because they help set the context. But in this instance, focusing on the poverty level as a percentage obscures things, turning the real into the abstract.

For instance, that increase of .8 percentage points over the year before represents, in real numbers, an additional 2.6 million people who were living in poverty in 2010, who weren't living in poverty in 2009. For scale, the city of Chicago's population is about 2.7 million. So imagine adding the nation's third-largest city to the poverty rolls in the span of a year.

Overall, and in real numbers, some 46.2 million people are now living in poverty, nearly equal the entire population of the three West Coast states (a combined 47.8 million people).

So what qualifies as living in poverty? For a single adult, living on less than $11,139 a year ($11,344 for those 65 years old and younger; $10,458 for those older). The average family size in the U.S. is 3.1 people. The poverty threshold for a family of three is $17,374 a year, and it increases to $22,314 for a family of four. Average gross rent nationwide - which swings wildly from population centers like Los Angeles and New York to impoverished rural areas across the Great Plains - was $878 per month last year, or $10,536 for the year.

Our definition of what constitutes poverty is absurdly, and indefensibly, low. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens are struggling in deep need - with more being added every day. Tens of millions more are struggling to live just a few rungs above the poverty levels. This isn't an abstract, philosophical thing. These are flesh and blood people. Our neighbors. Our relatives. Our friends.

We have a moral responsibility to do something to help them. And in turn to help the nation in general. In a consumer-based economy such as ours, we have, through government and corporate policies, undercut the consuming classes. Sure, free trade agreements like NAFTA may have helped keep prices lower at the retail level, but we're saving ourselves into economic oblivion. A consumer economy without consumers is an engine without gas. The only winners are corporations and their shareholders, who don't care about the community impact of their pursuit of profits.

And who don't care about the growing stain of poverty across the national map.




CNN and its ethics problem with the Tea Party debate

September 12, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

There's another debate tonight among the main candidates for the Republican Party presidential nomination, part of what will seem an endless series, no doubt. But this one is bothersome from the standpoint of journalistic ethics. (See my followup post On CNN, the Tea Party, and blogosphere blowback).

Why is CNN teaming up with a splinter political movement - the Tea Party - to sponsor a debate?

It's bad enough that the main presidential debates, once the two major party candidates have been chosen, are self-selected affairs run by the Democratic and Republican parties. The media accede to this construct, which baffles me, given the implied message it sends that the media perceive the Democrats and Republicans as the only parties worth hearing from. Under the rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates (the nonprofit the parties operate to attract primarily corporate donors and fund the debates), only candidates who have drawn at 15 percent support in five national polls are eligible.

But our role as journalists should make that objectionable - the two major parties in effect stage a political show, and the media goes along with the self-selection as a fait accompli (and I have covered my share of those). So the media coverage becomes an affirmation of the political process instead of dissecting it, objectively and independently, from the outside. We should be telling voters about the disparate voices and viewpoints, not serve as an echo chamber for the two major ones.

But tonight's debate from Florida goes even farther down the ethical hole. A major cable network is teaming up with a political splinter group as an (apparent) equal partner in a televised event. CNN didn't team up with political progressives, who helped shape the 2008 presidential campaign, during that election cycle. Yet here it is proudly teaming up with the Tea Partiers (who, they keep telling us, aren't even an identifiable group, but a shared mindset). My guess is CNN is more interested in wresting viewers from Fox than in maintaining its own credibility.

It is through independence that journalists maintain our legitimacy, and our (fading) credibility. Not by sharing our outlets' names on banners with the entities and people we are supposed to be covering. This is basic ethics: Don't share the bed with the subjects of your journalism.



The right song for today

September 11, 2011

Tags: current events, history





On death, and the politics of executions

September 8, 2011

Tags: current events, history

I sat alone last evening in the living room watching the televised debate among eight contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. Yet this morning I find myself thinking not about the candidates, but about the people in the debate room at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library. The impromptu cheers for the number of executions in the state of Texas - 234 men and women - while Rick Perry has been governor, and what that says about the pervasive meanness coursing through the heart of America.

It did not leave me with a warm and fuzzy feeling toward my fellow Americans.

I oppose the death penalty on a number of grounds, which I won't get into here, since the details don't matter to those who support it. It's a kind of blood lust, as became apparent last night, and reason poses little little threat to that kind of juggernaut. Kill the bastards, is the propelling feeling. And it is feeling, all emotion, not careful analysis. Eye for an eye and all that, not whether executions serve as a deterrent. Not the serious underlying question of whether the execution of a killer actually serves as justice. Revenge, yes, but justice? Never mind the question of whether the executed man or woman was, in truth, guilty.

And they cheered. A few whistled. Gov. Rick Perry went on to defend the system as "very thoughtful" and said the cheering meant "Americans understand justice." No, they don't.

Why does a roomful of people who otherwise believe that government can do nothing right, have such blind faith that it can get the death penalty right? We've seen example after example of cops and prosecutors gaming the system to get convictions - the state of Illinois shut down its death row after such abuses were revealed. So why does a roomful of conservatives, who also otherwise profess to value the sanctity of human life (see abortion stances), cheer executions as though someone just scored at a football game?

It was a nauseating moment. And, I fear, it revealed the darkness at the heart of the American character. There's a tendency to view the world through the us-versus-them prism in everything from who gets executed to who gets a pension. It's a corrosive world view, as we're seeing, and full of the politics of delusion.

What kind of society have we become? And no, that's not a rhetorical question. I'd like answers. What kind of society have we become when we support politicians who put corporations ahead of communities, we cheer the executions of our fellow citizens, and we let ourselves be hoodwinked by implausible theories to the extent that we are blind to our best interests, from environmental regulations to demanding fellow citizens pay their fair share for the nation's upkeep?

What kind of society have we become?






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About me


A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.



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