Some of my
journalism

Quite the World, Isn't It?


On Walmart, HSBC, and the irrelevancy of laws and morals

December 11, 2012

Tags: current events, politics, press

So Walmart says it bears no responsibility (transparently false) for the Tazreen garment factory fire in Bangladesh because the work was being done under orders from a subcontractor, and without Walmart’s permission. And HSBC is going to buy its way out of potential criminal charges over allegations of illegally moving money for drug dealers and nations under international sanction, because to send guilty bankers to jail might endanger the massive bank’s existence.

When committing an immoral act, or an illegal act, has no consequence, why have morals or laws at all?

We have in recent decades seen a massive swing by various levels of government to put corporate and financial interests ahead of the interests of people. It’s a major propellant in the move to globalism, removing barriers to the flow of goods and cash that allows corporations more freedom to operate. But their freedom has led to a sharp decline in the health and vitality of American communities, from the standards of living that have crumbled across much of the country, to the education and health of our citizens. And it is in part because the people making decisions at corporations know they most likely will get a pass from the legal system and, of they are not caught, a bionus from their bosses.

Instead, in the case of HSBC, there will be a fine, maybe a lost job or two for show, and then business as usual. With the fine not coming from the pockets of the miscreants, but from the shareholders.

From the New York Times this morning, on HSBC:
Given the extent of the evidence against HSBC, some prosecutors saw the charge as a healthy compromise between a settlement and a harsher money-laundering indictment. While the charge would most likely tarnish the bank’s reputation, some officials argued that it would not set off a series of devastating consequences.

A money-laundering indictment, or a guilty plea over such charges, would essentially be a death sentence for the bank. Such actions could cut off the bank from certain investors like pension funds and ultimately cost it its charter to operate in the United States, officials said.
And from a separate item on Wal-Mart’s Nixonian evasions of responsibility:
Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said the new documents raised additional questions about Walmart’s role at the factory.

“If Walmart’s claim that they were the victim of one rogue supplier had any shred of credibility, it’s gone now,” he said. “Walmart is limited to one of two options — to say, yes, we know these suppliers were using the factory or, two, we have no control over the supply chain that we’ve been building in Bangladesh for more than 20 years.”
Nope, wasn't us, Walmart says, it was those uncontrollable subcontractors who do our bidding to drive down costs to keep our goods low-priced for the American consumer. And the consumer is always right.

You know, we vote with every dollar we spend. So spend more wisely. And morally. And, dare I say, righteously.


The fine line between tax incentives and extortion

December 2, 2012

Tags: current events, politics, press

The New York Times is publishing some strong work diving deeply into a practice that I've long found bizarre, and corrosive to stable communities - the granting of tax incentives to companies to attract development, or to keep them from leaving.

I wrote about this, but not with much depth, in my Detroit: A Biography. Former Detroit mayor Coleman A. Young, even as he took part in the bidding, used to argue that communities competing against each other for corporate investments does nothing but reward corporations. He was right then, and the problem continues. Corporations play local governments against each other to gain the best tax-reduction deal they can, often just shifting the jobs from one site in a metro area to another. And when the commitment expires (or sometimes before, as the Times reports), the companies pull out anyway. Ultimately stockholders benefit, but the community the business abandons suffers; the community that wins the business suffers in increased infrastructure costs and reduced tax support; and that second community suffers again when the corporation's next move is overseas.

The practice ought to be banned, but good luck getting any such measure through Congress (and it would likely face a Constitutional problem over states' rights anyway). The practice is yet another example of governmental support for corporations and businesses ahead of communities. And yes, I know these deals create jobs, but as the Times analysis shows, the cost does not equal the benefit. From the story:
A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.

Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, creating a high-stakes bazaar where they pit local officials against one another to get the most lucrative packages. States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race with the goal of defeating their neighbors.

While some jobs have certainly migrated overseas, many companies receiving incentives were not considering leaving the country, according to interviews and incentive data.
The Times also put together a searchable database of the concessions. It's a sobering overview of a misguided practice, and one that adds yet another layer of financial stress to communities reeling under the recent recession; balky hiring by companies hoarding cash instead of investing; unfunded state and federal mandates; and this bizarre expectation of voters that they shouldn't have to pay for basic services.

It's a mess, and one without easy solutions - and no discernible political will.


On Election Day here in the United Stasis of America

November 7, 2012

Tags: current events, politics, press

Well, if you read my post from the other day, you know that I’m happy with yesterday’s presidential election result. But I greet it not with a sense of elation, but rather a sense of relief. And a bit of resigned foreboding, for in the end, after all those hundreds of millions of dollars spent in campaigning up and down the ticket, very little has changed.

The best news: The Tea Party-infused ideas that the Romney-Ryan ticket brought to a national referendum were rebuffed, and one can only hope this means the end of it. Though I doubt it, and that brings us to the bad news. The Senate remains Democratic, and the House remains Republican with no meaningful shift in the ratio of seats. More significantly, the Tea Partiers retained their clout within the Republican caucus in the House, even if they lost some seats, or chances for seats, in the Senate.

What this suggests is that across a broad electorate, the hard-right positions that cropped up during the campaign were rejected. But with the inherent corruption of gerrymandered Congressional districts, those ideas stay alive. If we’re ever going to find a way out of this morass of partisanship in Washington, we’re going to have to find a way to blow up the redistricting process, end the gerrymandering of safe seats for both parties, and move to a open primary system across the nation in which the top-two vote-getters in a primary face off in a general election in non-gerrymandered districts.

Otherwise, the system remains locked in stalemate here in the United Stasis of America.

Ironically, the framers of the Constitution saw the House as being responsive to the mercurial whims of the electorate, as the members face election every two years. The Senate was the to be the chamber of stability, with members selected every six years on a rolling schedule (one third up for election every other year). But with gerrymandering of Congressional Districts - unanticipated by the framers - the House members are now nearly as stable under a system in which the only real change seems to come from political pressures within the two major parties (Tea Partiers winning primaries in GOP-heavy districts, for example).

And so the nation toddles dysfunctionally on. And, as Billy Bragg sang, all we get is the sound of ideologies clashing:
While we expect democracy
They're laughing in our face
And although our cries get louder
The laughter gets louder still
Above the sound of ideologies clashing


In defense of some fellow undecideds, as I vote by mail

October 28, 2012

Tags: current events, politics, press

Well, we sat down Friday night for our annual date with the election guide, and to fill out our absentee ballots. It was finally time for this undecided voter to decide, and decide I did. But my indecision was not what you might think.

There's been a lot of noise about those who remain undecided in what has been a presidential campaign of stark contrasts. And a lot of mockery of us undecideds, from our purported stupidity to our lack of a political gyroscope. To which I call bullshit. For two key reasons. One, we aren't all centrists wavering between right and left. And two, some of the most unthinking people I've encountered during my many years of political campaign coverage are those who make up their minds early, and for irrational reasons. Talk about an unthinking engagement with the political process, how about all of those folks who vote Democratic or Republican simply because that's what they always do? Even when their candidate lacks the credentials or credibility to hold public office?

I'm quite certain I follow political campaigns and issues much more closely than the average person, and more closely than many of those who've disparaged us undecideds for our perceived lack of engagement. So my ballot was not cast in a fog. It was well thought out.

In fact, I knew early on who I would not be voting for: Romney. Naked political ambition unleavened by a discernible philosophical framework is a recipe for leadership disaster. He persuaded me during his rightward lurch in the GOP primaries that he was indeed the Etch-A-Sketch candidate, and as a result not someone to be taken seriously sitting in the Oval Office. I became convinced that if he was sincere about many of the positions he had taken, he would lead this country into a Depression-style crisis domestically, and into warrantless wars overseas.

My indecision came over Obama, for whom I voted with pleasure in 2008 (note: as a matter of professional habit I did not vote in elections I covered; I stopped covering the 2008 race in September, so felt free to cast a ballot in that one). He could have been an agent for real political change, but over three years Obama proved to have been a much better campaigner than leader, and to have been co-opted by the Clinton-style pro-corporate centrist policies of the core Democratic Party. He entered office with serious political capital but squandered much of it. It wasn't all bad. The auto bailout was a significant success, and I believe some of his other policies mitigated the economic disaster brought on by the Republicans.

But there's more at stake than money. The health care plan, lauded by Democrats, was too little for the problems we face. Obama could have done better. He was slow to get us out of the wars he promised to get us out of (and added troops to Afghanistan); Guantanamo Bay is still a prison for suspected terrorists (many of whom are being held on the sketchiest of evidence); the National Defense Authorization Act that Obama signed is chilling in its unconstitutional throwback to the McCarthy era; the Obama administration has been even less open than the Bush Administration, as hard as that is to conceive; and Obama is still campaigning about the need to close loopholes that reward corporations for shipping jobs overseas - something he campaigned on the first time around, to little effect.

So my indecision was not between Obama and Romney, but between Obama and someone else. I often turn to the Peace and Freedom Party for my protest vote, but they nominated comedian Roseanne Barr, a joke I can't go along with (and, frankly, destroying its credibility as an alternative party). The Green Party has put up a serious slate led by Jill Stein. And I almost sent my vote there. But in the end I went with Obama essentially as a loud rebuke - well, as loud as a single vote can be - to the Republican Party and its policies, and to the Machiavellian candidacy of Romney/Ryan.

But I'm not happy about it. I may have voted for Obama, but I'm still ambivalent about his leadership, and stand in stark opposition to what the one-time Constitutional law college instructor is doing to our civil liberties.

So in the end, I guess I took the turn Ralph Nader has cried against for years: Don't vote against something, vote for something. This time, I voted against. And while four years ago I voted with a sense of hope, this time it is with a nagging fear that I may have made a mistake. I hope Obama wins, but more significantly, I hope he proves that my fears are unwarranted.


On global warming, presidential politics, and irony

September 28, 2012

Tags: current events, politics, press

As you know, we spent most of the summer on the road driving cross-country where, as you also know, the weather set all sorts of records for heat. We encountered 107 degrees in Austin, 102 in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and high 90s just about everywhere else. You all sweated through it, too.

A couple of weeks ago, scientists reported that the Arctic ice cap had reached a modern low as a result of global warming, and one expert predicted it could melt completely by the time of the next presidential election. Some 4.6 million square miles of ice melted, with 1.3 million square miles to go, all over the course of a summer. Yes, it will refreeze, but the issue is the thaw's devastating effect on Arctic life and its unknown influence on the world's weather patterns. And the receding ice means more of the environment exposed to human degradation. Where environmentalists see disaster, capitalists see dollar signs.

Yet, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out in a New Yorker blog post, the single biggest threat to our health and safety is an asterisk during the presidential campaign. We focus on the inane (exercise routines and gaffes) over the insane (our environmental and energy policies) at a moment of great world peril. From her post:
You might have thought that with the Arctic melting, the U.S. in the midst of what will almost certainly be the warmest year on record, and more than sixty per cent of the lower forty-eight states experiencing “moderate to exceptional” drought, at least one of the candidates would feel compelled to speak out about the issue. If that’s the case, though, you probably live in a different country. Remarkably—or, really, by this point, predictably—the only times Mitt Romney has brought up the topic of climate change, it has been to mock President Obama for claiming, back in 2008, that he was going to try to do something about it.
Romney's election, I think, would be a disaster for the country, but he's right to mock Obama's environmental policies. More drilling in the Arctic and piping crude oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico are not only risky, they continue our dependence on fossil fuels.

Here's where the irony comes in. As temperatures increase, more people use more electricity to run air conditioning systems, which means burning more coal, which adds more crud to the atmosphere exacerbating the global warming that makes us turn to the air conditioning .... you see where this cycle leads. And no, the irony hasn't escaped me that we encountered all that summer heat while driving cross-country, adding our own little puffs of carbon emissions to the weather engine (we don't have air conditioning in our house).

There are a lot of incidental arguments for not dealing with this problem - we need power for industry, jobs, etc. - but none of them come close to the argument for doing something. The earth will go spinning on. The mountains will rise and erode. The seas will surge and churn.

We're the ones making that environment more and more inhospitable to human life. And we're the only ones who can do anything about it.

So let's talk about that. No, let's do something about that.


On the most significant political poll question

December 30, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

Like a lot of people, I've been watching the unfolding fight for the Republican presidential nomination with a sense of fascination. I'm not going to get into a back-and-forth about the merits/non-merits of the individual candidates, but it is remarkable to see how unsettled the Republican electorate remains in Iowa. (For political junkies, I recommend this site, Real Clear Politics, which does a great job of tracking the myriad polls.)

Most of the coverage of the recent polling is on who's leading, the classic horse-race approach. But to me the significant aspect is how little voters are connecting with any of the candidates only four days before the caucuses. The most recent NBC News/Marist Poll finds only two of five likely Republican caucus-goers "strongly support" the candidate they tell pollsters they are currently backing. Another two of five said they "somewhat support" the candidate, and one in five said they might vote differently than for the candidate they had just told pollsters they were supporting.

And that's just among those expressed a preference. More broadly, 12 percent of those who said they were likely to attend the caucuses next week said they were still undecided.

That's a lot of turmoil, especially when you look at the spaghetti bowl of a chart above tracking the field in polls over the past few months.

Meanwhile, President Obama's approval rating is below his disapproval rating in most polls, though neither number is above 50 percent. That makes him vulnerable, obviously, though the general election is a long way away, and Obama has largely sat in the sidelines while the Republicans have beat him up with their rhetoric. It will be a whole different environment come next September, when the general campaign kicks into high gear.

What a spectator sport.


On protests, and why 'the goals' are irrelevant

October 3, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

The national media have been slow to decide that the anti-Wall Street protests are newsworthy enough to cover, and their confusion remains considerable. We'll set aside speculation about how deeply covered the protests would have been had they involved Tea Partiers outside the Capitol Building and move on to something more troubling: Many of my journalistic colleagues don't seem to understand what they're looking at.

A story from the Washington Post popped up earlier today under the headline, "‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests gain steam, but movement’s goals remain unclear," seems perplexed by an inability to find someone in charge to give voice to a specific agenda.

The New York Times had a piece on Friday that was even worse, taking an arch, mocking tone about the names and ambitions of a handful of the participants. You can imagine The New Yorker's Eustace Tilley figure peering down his nose, amused and bemused by all those poor people. Two participants, we are told, stopped by for a few days at the start of a ramble around the country. Two others were named Hero, and Germ. Though maybe not, We're told in the lede that Germ was there, but the story says the two rambles met him at a homeless shelter in Rhode Island. But once you have a name like that in hand, well, it just has to get in the story somehow. "Most of the demonstrators are in their teens or 20s," the story says, "but plenty are older. Many are students. Many are jobless. A few are well-worn anarchists. Others have put their normal lives on pause to try out protesting and see how it feels." Yes, darling, such a lark, shall we trot down to the protests, then, and see how it feels?

More problematic than these stories - there are many others - and their inability to crystallize and present what has been happening, is the presumption that the protests have to have a unified agenda - a list of demands to be met. A way to keep score for the eventual dissection of who won and lost.

But sometimes a scream of frustration, and of rage, is just as simple as it sounds.







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.




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.



Why Anthony Weiner needs to resign

June 8, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

Probity has never been a prerequisite for Congressional service, though judging by the clamor for U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner's Tweet-happy head, you'd think he had violated some sort of private club code. But others have done worse, and survived politically (hello, Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, and David Vitter.

The problem isn't Weiner's betrayal of his wife, even if it was a virtual betrayal. That's a personal matter. And the problem apparently isn't that he violated any laws in sending his creepy Tweets (should we call them Creets?). The problem, which should be our biggest concern, is that the man lied about his behavior once he was caught. That's where we should be most outraged. And why he should resign.

Of course, there's little precedent for a politician resigning because he lied, either (hello, Bill Clinton). If Weiner doesn't resign, his constituents should do the next best thing, and fire him come 2012. Politicians, like little kids, lie because they think can get away with it. We expect honesty from our kids, we should demand it from our elected officials.

Weiner failed in a fundamental way. And that is why he needs to go.


On anger, and the divisions that cripple us

June 5, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

Detroit, summer of 2010
A new poll this morning from Newsweek/The Daily Beast confirms what most of us have already known – the moribund economy has left many Americans angry at the world, and it's affecting everything from personal relationships to sleep patterns (I’ve seen 4 a.m. myself more times than I care to count). But it also reveals a deep crevasse between how Americans live, and how Washington responds.

Overall, 50 percent of the poll’s respondents thought President Obama has no significant plan to balance the budget, and 58 percent said the Republicans are equally stymied, and just trying to blame it all on Obama (presumably for crass political reasons). In other words, most Americans think our political leadership has no idea how to fix this. But more than two out of three believed raising taxes on the wealthiest is a step in the right direction. That isn’t going to happen here in this democracy of ours, mind you, but the will of the masses is there.

The poll also found that nearly one in three Americans said their financial straits left them feeling angry (I would have thought higher), and about half said they felt nervous. “Could the anger fueling the Arab Spring soon bring club-wielding protesters to America?” asked political strategist Douglas Schoen, who wrote the piece. Not likely, for a variety of reasons. And it’s an irresponsible line to toss out there, sounding more like a bogus Wolf Blitzer teaser before a CNN commercial break than a reasoned reading of the situation.

And that kind of breathless speculation erodes what otherwise were some pretty significant findings, because we are becoming more and more angry. And we are, as often happens in our history, turning our anger against each other while political figures use it to push agendas. For instance, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, in the GOP half of the Saturday morning political cartoons (the weekly addresses by the president and someone from the other half of the two-party tango), argued that unions were at fault for the lack of job growth.

Please. It’s a transparently false position, and the kind of red herring discourse that should fuel even more anger. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2010 union membership nationwide was at 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent the previous year. And that is buoyed by unions representing public employees. The rate for private sector workers – the realm Alexander was addressing – was 6.9 percent, hardly the kind of power that would preclude an entrepreneur from opening or expanding a business.

Despite those anemic numbers, Alexander argued that union strength forces capitalists to create jobs overseas. Wrong. Federal policies that have enriched corporations by letting them fire U.S. workers and replace them with labor in lower-wage countries are what has driven jobs overseas, and killed the American middle class. If the unions had the kind of strength that people like Alexander say they fear it does, this would never have happened. It’s not unions that are sending jobs overseas, it is corporate executives and federal lawmakers who put corporate wealth ahead of community health.

So let’s make sure during these dark days that we direct our anger at the right folks, and not each other. The other day a friend on Facebook, whose daughter was rejected for much-needed financial aid for college, responded with a race-based post (she’s white) about people of color getting more government support than white people. In her moment of frustration she vented, in effect, sideways, rather than throwing her anger on the people who created the conditions: Elected leaders and the corporate powers that have excessive influence on how they vote.

Which brings me to this absurd theme coursing through parts of the electorate that because “my private sector job doesn’t give me the benefits that government workers get” that the government workers should be forced to give up theirs. No. The answer is that the private sector employers should restore those benefits. To bring government employees’ wages and benefits down to the level of the private sector continues this bizarre erosion of the caliber of American life. We won’t rebuild the middle class by pushing more workers further down the economic ladder. We rebuild the middle class by raising those from the lower economic levels up the ladder. And, dare I argue, drag some of the wealthy down a few rungs.

But it takes political will to do that. And, even with a former community organizer in the White House, there’s not much will in Washington to make life better for the poor, the working class, the middle class or average American neighborhoods, now ravaged by a housing crisis that was created by lack of oversight over the greed-mongers on Wall Street. And so we seethe. But do we act?

No. We watch “American Idol.” And maybe think think about Steve Earle's "America v. 6.0":
Four score and a hundred and fifty years ago
Our forefathers made us equal as long as we can pay
Yeah, well maybe that wasn't exactly what they was thinkin'
Version six-point-oh of the American way
But hey we can just build a great wall around the country club
To keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through
Yeah, I realize that ain't exactly democratic, but it's either them or us and
And it's the best we can do.


Truth wins out at White House photo ops

June 1, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

A few weeks ago, when President Obama announced that U.S. special forces had found and killed Osama Bin Laden, he did it from behind a podium in the White House on life TV. After the television camera was turned off, and under a long-established practice, the media handlers ushered in news photographers and Obama returned to the podium and pretended to give the statement again, so the still photographers could make the image. They were barred from the live speech over fears that the clicking from the cameras would be picked up by the president's microphone

In other words, the photos that ran in most newspapers around the country were a fraud, and few noted that fact in the cutline.

Journalism has enough problems with credibility without adding to it with such absurdities as pretending a staged photo op is a live picture. Oddly, it was the White House that decided to suspend the practice, not the photographers assigned to the beat.

But the Washington Post's Paul Farhi reports this morning that the photographers have worked out a new protocol. They'll be "pooling" such events in the future, which means one photographer will be allowed to shoot it, and will share the pictures with his or her colleagues, with no restrictions on their use.

A reasonable solution, and one that should have been obvious back when they all agreed to play this little charade. Now if they can only do something about the White House Correspondents Association dinner.



Op-ed: We're asking the wrong question

March 18, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

The Sacramento Bee today carries an op-ed I wrote about the policy implications of the Japanese nuclear catastrophe, and looking at the assurances we are given that nuclear energy is safe - a response to the natural question embedded in the plume of dispersed radiation predicted to waft over Southern California today.

But we're asking the wrong question. We shouldn't be wondering whether it is safe; we should be wondering whether the risk is worth the benefit. I say, no. From the article:
Most of California is blessed with an enviable climate that promises intense, harnessable, sunshine nearly every day of the year. There is no environmental risk to capturing solar energy, and it is indefensible that the state does not require all new buildings include solar panels on the roofs. (The state already is making strides toward tapping wind power, though more could be done). ... sometimes the solution to problems moves beyond dollars and has to be weighed against risk. Requiring solar panels to all new construction, including building additions, would add relative pennies to the cost of buildings that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This is something state energy policy officials should be pursuing with vigor, while the rest of us begin to shake loose of our assumptions of what is safe, and what is sustainable.

We need to start asking ourselves the right questions.


On David Broder, and the passing of a class act

March 9, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

I've been in a bit of a funk since reading the news this morning that David Broder had died of complications from diabetes. He had, for decades, been one of the best and most influential political journalists in the country, a standing surpassed only by his gentlemanly and generous manner.

David's longtime colleague at the Washington Post, Dan Balz, wrote this very nice tribute summarizing neatly what made David so influential. I've been a fan of his work since the early 1970s, when I was first thinking about going into journalism, and was drawn by his political coverage. It was, as I mentioned to Balz in an email exchange earlier today, one of the reasons I gravitated to campaign coverage.

Two anecdotes. I crossed paths with David several times over the years, which was a bit of a rush for me. During one trip David asked me to join him for dinner in some remote spot where he, of course, had eaten many times before. His cell phone rang while we were at the table, and it was his wife. He chatted for a moment and then said he was having dinner with a friend and would have to call her back. He overstated the relationship (we barely knew each other) but it was a moment of personal pride, and one that I cherish, that he would use the word. His inclusiveness should be contagious.

Another time during the 2004 primaries David and I were on the same bus in some significant primary state (2004 Kerry campaign in South Carolina? Edwards' bus? I don't recall specifically, and the specifics don't really matter). I had complained about having to write two stories to be ready depending on what the primary day results would be. The LAT hadn't sprung for the full exit poll data, or at least wasn't forwarding it to me. Late in the afternoon David wandered back and asked if he could sit down next to me, then flipped open his notebook to where he had written down the exit polls through the second cycle and said something to the effect that it might help me decide which version of the story to spend the most time on. It's one thing to share with a colleague; something else to so generously help out someone who in theory is your competition. It was a small moment but obviously memorable moment, and indicative of what a class act David was, beyond being a tremendous journalist.

None of us is irreplaceable. But David was pretty damn close.


HuffPo and FB: Two different sorts of plantations

February 14, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

There's an interesting column in the New York Times this morning by media writer David Carr looking at the absurd valuations for companies like Facebook and Twitter on the heels of Huffington Post's agreement to be swallowed up by AOL.

Carr is usually a pretty astute critic, but I think he missed a crucial differentiation here. He argues, correctly, that Huffington Post ratcheted itself to the value of $315 million on the unpaid work of thousands of bloggers, and perhaps to a bigger extent by doing little more than aggregating the paid-for output of professional media organizations.

If that's not outright thievery, it's pretty close. And, to me, highly unethical. HuffPo breaks very little news, and does very little reporting. It's a parasitical relationship with the mainstream media, and Arianna Huffington has been richly rewarded by it.

Facebook and other social media venues are different beasts, though Carr lumps them together with HuffPo. The difference is intent. HuffPo intends to draw readers to its aggregated links and bloggers. Facebook's intent is to give users a forum with which oi interact with each other. Both sell ads on the side, and thus generate significant cash. But Facebook isn't drawing people with content in the way HuffPo is. It's drawing users - and eyeballs for advertisers - by giving them a forum through which to interact with friends, not by publishing their content. It's the difference, I think, between publishing a newspaper with purloined or unpaid content, and operating a coffee shop, where your customers hang around in your space and socialize.

That's a much more legitimate business model. It's not objectionable on ethical grounds. Huffington Post, on the other hand, is. And all the more so because of the political outlook of the site. There's something deeply suspicious about an ostensibly politically liberal organization so devaluing the works of individuals, and of journalism as a profession.

Maybe what HuffPo needs is a strong union.


The difficult case of Wikileaks, and Julian Assange

December 5, 2010

Tags: current events, politics, press

"The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."
--Thomas Jefferson, 1823

The noise and grandstanding surrounding Wikileaks and its puckish promoter, Julian Assange, hit full voice over the past few days and it’s a chilling thing to watch. You all know the circumstances: Assange and his colleagues have posted hundreds of thousands of leaked documents detailing the U.S. prosecution of wars, and the U.S. diplomatic corps’ perceptions of foreign government figures, both allies and enemies.
Thomas Jefferson
None of the material, from what’s been bandied about, has directly imperiled U.S. military actions, though the now-public documents have detailed questionable past practices and policies, and helped us better understand how events have transpired. And the diplomats seem to have been tripped up by a basic reality of the modern communications world: Never put in writing something you wouldn’t want to see published on the front page of the New York Times.

More chilling, though, is the U.S. government’s response, from hindering access by federal workers and contractors to coverage of Wikileaks to warning would-be diplomats (college students) that to discuss the leaked documents in a public venue could kill a future career. The Pentagon earlier filed charges against Bruce Manning, a soldier who provided Wikileaks with documents. Ever since the Pentagon Papers, U.S. courts have held that it is the government’s responsibility to keep its secrets, not the media’s. Though, given the details contained in the leaked documents, one hopes the soldier gets some coverage from whistleblower-protection laws.

And no, this is not espionage, no matter how the braying right wing may seek to define it. This is an established, award-winning new media journalism site. Look at it as the globalization of the media – a rootless collection of people fighting to shed more light, not less, on the workings of government and big business, from the United States to Kenya. That is the basic role of journalism in America, and it’s indefensible that our government treats Wikileaks any differently than it would the New York Times or Washington Post.

Then there’s the shunning of Wikileaks by Amazon, which bounced the site from its servers. That is entirely within Amazon’s rights, but still the kind of act that will send more of my online buys to Powells. Paypal's decision to stop processing donations to Wikileaks is even worse, claiming that Wikileaks violated its polices against handling money to be used for illegal purposes. Paypal (I’ll be closing my account) seems to have appointed itself responsibilities we tend to reserve for the courts. At their heart, Amazon and Paypal’s reasons seem contrived, at best, and one can sense the backroom phone call from Homeland Security warning of the consequences of aiding an “enemy” of the U.S. Government.

Over the past four years, Wikileaks has published a wide range of government and business secrets that, in total, have made the world a better place. Or at least a better-informed one. And over the past few months the Obama administration has shown itself to be as thin-skinned as the Nixon Administration, from its petty response to Wikileaks to the FBI raids on homes of antiwar activists in Minnesota and Illinois under the guise of an anti-terror investigation.

Given the broad usurpation of civil rights under the USA Patriot Act – which allows the government to conduct warrantless searches without judicial overview – you have to figure that the recent public, warrant-backed raids are just the tip of the iceberg. And perhaps a warning against those who would defy government policies. Against that backdrop, pending sex-abuse charges from Sweden against Assange are suspicious in their timing. Still, the work Wikileaks is doing is more than Assange’s public pronouncements and private problems, and to focus attention on his legal bind diverts attention from the real issues – a U.S. government that is increasingly acting against the interests, and rights, of its citizens.

So where will this end? Badly, I fear. Over the past nine years, the U.S. public has shown a frightening lack of interest in the reality of how its government works, and the acts that have been taken in our names. As long as I’m invoking old adages here, let me finish by pointing out that in a democracy, we tend to get the government we deserve. In this case, we’re being represented by arrogance, and ignorance, ever a dangerous combination.


Candidate hands a bullet to his opposition

February 22, 2010

Tags: politics

This is a bit local, but bear with me. Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley is running for California Attorney General. He's a career prosecutor, and has been in the DA's office since the Nixon Administration, as Patt Morrison points out in this Q-and-A in the Los Angeles Times.

The piece also contains this head-scratcher:

Could you stand living in Sacramento?

Oh, no no no no. That's not how it works. Look out this window [he points down Spring Street and laughs]: The Ronald Reagan State Building. That's where Steve Cooley's gonna be hanging out! I'm not going to Sacramento, in this age of faxes, e-mail, Twitter.


That just makes it too easy for the opposition: "Steve Cooley: Does he really want the job?" Or, even worse, that lets them portray Cooley as a politician who says up front he'll be a "no-show." Not completely accurate, but since when has that mattered in American politics?

Answers like that make you wonder whether Cooley is ready for prime time.


Sarah Palin's Going Rogue a roll of the career dice

November 12, 2009

Tags: journalism, politics, media

I have a piece in today's Los Angeles Times that raises the curtain on the release next week of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue: An American Life (and managed to scuff the title in the original piece. Sigh).

The upshot is that whether the book helps or hurts Palin depends on what's in it, and what she wants to do now that she has quit as governor of Alaska. After my piece ran the Associated Press got a hold of a copy of the book, and reports that it's a pretty straight-forward recap of her life and the 2008 campaign. And yes, the Palin and Mccain folks didn't play well together. But we knew that.

Palin also apparently takes some shots at CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, whose rather routine interview with Palin exploded when the Republican vice presidential nominee bobbled easy questions -- like what newspapers she reads. Palin came across as not-ready-for-prime time, and it helped cement the public image of her as unseasoned.

So will the book help or hurt? I'm guessing it will be a wash. She doesn't seem to have drawn any fresh blood, at least according to the AP write up. And she didn't ratchet up the flame-thrower enough to propel her to a hosting seat on a cable talking-head show.

So maybe she just did it for the reported $7 million from Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins. Come to think of it, she may not have needed any other motive.


A CEO excessive-pay solution that will go nowhere

October 23, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has a column today looking at "executive pay czar" Kenneth R. Feinberg's decision to curtail executive compensation at firms that received massive government bailouts. He could do that because of the public investment in the businesses, but the problem extends far beyond a few troubled banks and GM. It is endemic in the private sector, with executives receiving millions of dollars for, in effect, screwing up.

Nocera suggests that the ultimate power needs to be held by the shareholders in the companies, and there's some merit to that. They are, after all, the ones immediately shouldering the weight for those obscene pay packages. But getting corporations to change their governance structure to let that happen isn't going to be easy. As good revolutionaries know, those who hold power aren't likely to let it go without a fight.

It would be easier, and more effective, to do it through the tax code. Congress could set up an agency, or use Treasury, to develop formulas for acceptable executive pay ratios. It could tie the pay package to the size of the company and to the average wage of the workers, making it some reasonable multiple of what the lowest rung gets paid. And for every dollar over that level the executive is paid, the company is taxed dollar for dollar. So if the level under the formula is $10 million, and the executive receives $15 million, the company pays another $5 million in taxes.

In the short term, the taxpayers get some benefit. In the long term, the brakes are put on this obscene practice.


Obama's beach reads - not so trashy

August 24, 2009

Tags: media, politics, books

The Obamas are on Martha's Vineyard - summer camp for the rich and famous - and spokesman Bill Burton earlier today gave reporters the list of books Obama brought along to read during the week.

We'll skip right past the blatant omission of Blood Passion - we can be adult about this - and look at the list itself:

- Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded
- David McCullough's John Adams
- Richard Price's Lush Life
- Kent Haruf's Plain Song
- George Pelecanos's The Way Home

Pretty ambitious. CNN counted it up: 2,300 pages in all. I bet he skips some parts. But I'm also heartened to see the range of interests. Though you have to wonder how much of these books he'll actually get through. Let's see, big plans, limited time, something has to give. Where have we heard this before?


Presidential primaries: Who should go first?

August 1, 2009

Tags: politics, history

One of the persistent rubs in presidential campaigns is that two of the nation's smallest and most homogenous states - Iowa and New Hampshire - play such significant roles in the political version of "Survivor": Who gets the major party political nominations for president.

The issue came up again the other day in San Diego, as a Republican committee looked into the party's primary calendar.

There are sound demographic reasons for moving to the head of the line any of several states that more closely reflect the national makeup. But there's more at play in the early states than reflecting diversity. We can learn how different candidates appeal to different slices of the electorate through polling (nonbinding, I know).

But Iowa and New Hampshire force the candidates through trial by fire. To win or do well in Iowa, a caucus state, a candidate has to be able to build a machine to woo supporters, and then get them to attend the evening caucus meetings. It is a test of a candidate's ability to build and run an organization - or at least hire the right people to make it work. So the Iowa caucuses vet the candidates on their ability to manage.

In New Hampshire, a primary state, the candidates get an intense round of media scrutiny. The state's proximity to Boston and New York draws exponentially more media, it seems, than in Iowa - or maybe it just feels more concentrated because of the small geographic size of New Hampshire. Still, the media scrums are intense, the questions rapid-fire and the cynicism turned on high. Some have melted under the pressure - a good thing to know at the beginning of a campaign, rather than at the end.

Together, Iowa and new Hampshire force candidates through microcosms of the two main aspects of being president - the ability to lead a team, and the ability to handle the media heat.

Leave Iowa and New Hampshire to their traditions. They serve a solid purpose.


Oops -- military flack seems to admit abuses at Gitmo

July 27, 2009

Tags: journalism, politics, media

The Washington Post had a piece over the weekend about a male Navy flack dealing with Guantanamo Bay complaining to the Miami Herald that its female reporter covering Gitmo had subjected him to sexual harassment through rude comments.

Sexual harassment, like racial harassment, sometimes lies in the eyes of the victim, so I'm willing to give the flack room to make his case. But buried in the Post story is this quote from the flack, Commander Jeffrey Gordon:

"Her behavior has been so atrocious over the years," Gordon said in an interview. "I've been abused worse than the detainees have been abused."

"Worse than the detainess have been abused." That rings like a hell of an admission by a military spokesman that the military ha been abusing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.


Barreling through the mine field

July 24, 2009

Tags: journalism, politics, media

UPDATE: The ,a href="http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jqwi0TSVtxC458-6AKpUuaTpH5FgD99N2MB00""target=_blank">911 tapes indicate the neighbor who called might not have been a neighbor, just a passerby ho had been hailed by another woman, and that she didn't delve into the race of the men at the door until pressed. The more we know, the murkier it gets.

The Henry Louis Gates, Jr.-Cambridge PD showdown caught my eye when it first cropped up -- Facebook friends might remember I posted it there -- and I planned to just ignore it afterward. But that's proven impossible, since you can't escape it. And that echo effect is what has been preying on my mind.

The back story: Gates returned to his rented home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He was with a male friend -- both of them black. He had trouble entering his own front door, so used his shoulder to force it, an action that caught the eye of a neighbor (I think she was white based on scene photo when this first broke that I can't find now). She phoned police, reporting a possible break-in.

The first cop to arrive, Sgt. James Crowley, spotted Gates -- whom he didn't know -- standing in the foyer. He identified himself through the front door, said he was investigating a possible break in and asked Gates to step outside. Gates opened the door and said, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" The discussion deteriorated from there, all of it inside the house (Gates during the encounter eventually provided the cop with ID). Crowley's version of events are in the police report, available in several places on the Internet, including here.

Context is key. I won't pretend to know what it is like to go through life as a black man in America, but the hurdles, prejudices and lifelong encounters are pretty clear. Like all of us, Gates responded to the situation framed by his personal experience and expectations. As, one presumes, did Crowley, augmented by professional training. It seems to me as though he was doing his job fine until this point -- responding to a call, ascertaining whether there was indeed a crime being committed.

Where he stumbled was when, with Gates yelling, he asked the professor to step outside (ostensibly because Crowley couldn't hear his radio in the loud confines of the house). Once outside he told Gates, in essence, to pipe down. And when Gates didn't, he arrested him for creating a public nuisance. Gates wasn't creating a public nuisance until he obeyed the officer's request to step outside. Inside his own home, Gates was committing no public nuisance -- unless his voice really resonates (the charge eventually was dropped).

I won't go into all the political fallout from this -- it's been as much a distraction as whether Miss California hates gays -- including President Obama's decision a couple of hours ago to skin back his defense of Gates (or at least the words he used). But it's frustrating to see it soaking up so much of our attention -- driven in part by asinine media questions. I am dismayed that this caught fire after a reporter raised the issue during a press conference about health care -- why can't my fellow journos stick to a topic, rather than light a political fire that does not need lighting?

Missed in all of this is who exactly may have been guilty of racial profiling. My nominee: The woman who didn't recognize her own neighbor and mistook him for a burglar. Gates over-reacted, the cop appears to have entrapped him (asking him to step outside where his bellowing could be a crime) and now the news cycle is dominated not by efforts to fix a health care system that is helping bankrupt the country, or even over the scope of racial profiling in America, but over whether the president dissed a cop.

Please.


A father, a Secret Son and roots of extremism

July 19, 2009

Tags: literature, culture, politics

I'm about half a lifetime behind on my reading, it seems, due primarily to working on The Fear Within, which has me digging into old newspapers and reportage, trial transcripts and memoirs of Communists and anti-Communists, plus doing the freelance stuff (among other time-consumers). So my time for personal reading is pretty narrow.

Which is why I'm so late to the game in writing about my friend Laila Lalami's novel, Secret Son,, which tells the story of Youssef El Meki, raised in a Casablanca slum not knowing that his mother has lied to the world about being widowed. Youssef does indeed have a living father, and how that discovery is made and its impact on Youssef's life propels the book. The key undercurrent: An exploration of how young Muslims can become radicalized.

This is a strong book. Not as good, I don't think, as her collection Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits, which I thought was a remarkable debut. To my eye, Secret Son lacks the scope of the short stories in Hope, a function no doubt of focusing on one main story line as opposed to the intertwined lives of the characters in Hope. But it's still a good read. I recommend you grab both books and read them in succession.

And then wait impatiently for Lalami's third book, whatever and whenever that may be.

Secret Son has been widely, and generally quite positively, reviewed and the New York Times posted the first chapter as kind of a quick peak. Saves you time in the aisle of your favorite (and hopefully independent) bookstore.


Of fish, farms, elusive water and pricey tomatoes

July 8, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

We're in San Francisco for a few days to give a book talk and signing copies tonight of Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West at the Modern Times Bookstore (and working on a travel piece). On the drive up the 5 -- Interstate 5 for you Easterners -- Margaret and I saw thousands of acres of usually green farmland sitting fallow and marked by hard-to-miss signs.

This is a regional issue pitting the Central Valley farmers against those who want to preserve endangered aquatic species such as the delta smelt in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins. But the regional issue taps into broader national debates over the balance between nature and human development, and it falls within that long arc of human settlement and the myth of the West as the redoubt of rugged individuals taming the land.

The Central Valley is, in essence, a desert. It is also the nation's agricultural heart, due mainly to the federal government's harnessing and diversion of water. Now, with recent years' winter snows and rains in the West running about half of the usual pace, the fight over water is getting close to the "have/have not divide." With a court ruling curtailing the water flow to farmers in favor of preserving natural habitats, the friction point has been hit. Farmers aren't planting crops they can't water and raise, and thus aren't hiring the already obscenely low-paid farm workers to work the crops. The yellow signs, obviously part of a coordinated campaign, seek to link the present with the era of the Okies, and the Dust Bowl that sent them heading West.

The problem is the Dust Bowl arouse in large part from bad agricultural practices based on greed, which ultimately led to the regional agricultural collapse (catalyzed by drought). The difference between then and now is that California's growers rely on water that doesn't exist locally. The diversion of water has allowed the agri-businesses to flourish, much to the benefit of the nation. But now we're seeing the downside of basing such a crucial component of human development -- ready access to food supplies -- in such a tenuous environment.

And that is one of the reasons tomatoes, now in season here, are running $3 a pound at the chin grocery stores. Call it the trickle down of the drought, and of overdevelopment of terrain that can't support it. And get used to it. Water fights are the future.


Sanford takes a tango holiday

June 24, 2009

Tags: politics

With the confession from South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford that well, no, he wasn't really hiking the Appalachian Trail, you have to wonder who's left on the Republican presidential bench.

Nevada Sen. John Ensign?

Alaksa Gov. and former veep candidate Sarah Palin?

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal?


So much for a 'post-racial' America

June 21, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

I missed the first part of this story when it rumbled through earlier this month, and only caught up with it when the second yahoo bared a rather disgusting soul.

Absolutely appalling.

CrooksandLiars.com has a piece (thanks to friend Anthony DeStefanis for the steer) about two state level political figures -- one in South Carolina, the other in Tennessee -- who recently choked on their own racism. One referred to an escaped gorilla as an ancestor of Michele Obama, and the other emailed around -- on an official government account -- a racist cartoon (portraits of the presidents, with Obama as just a set of eyes against a black backdrop).

Both seem to have apologized, but not for being stone racists. The "gorilla" joker apologized to anyone who was offended. The "portraits" moron said she sent it out via the wrong email. Which, by extension, means she didn't see a problem with the inherent racism of the item.

So much for the post-racial America...


Obama, the polls, and the Left

June 18, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

A new poll out today from the New York Times shows an interesting disconnect that should be worrisome for the Democrats. While President Obama still enjoys high personal approval ratings, the public is losing patience with his prescriptions for fixing the economy and health care.

There also is a general lack of enthusiasm for his approaches to Guantanamo Bay, and his attempts to help the auto industry.

Add to that Obama's problems with gay supporters, and the administration's persistence in maintaining secrecy despite promises of transparency -- well, there's a political collision looming out there as the aspirations of the Left, which helped put Obama in office, get short-circuited.

It's too early for this to have much effect on Obama's re-election prospects -- how these problems play out over the next couple of years will be crucial -- but this is when people begin lining up for the off-year Congressional elections. And if the public remains this skeptical of Obama's policies, the Democrats will face some serious challenges keeping controlling of the House.


Obama, Cheney, Palin and the politics of distraction

June 16, 2009

Tags: journalism, politics

Remember back in November, when Barack Obama won the White House, a victory equally notable for its historic context as for what it supposedly said about a nation sick of politics as usual?

Well, one out of two isn't bad.

Over the past few weeks we've seen a disappointing throwback to the politics of distraction. First some online celebrity gossip asked a real question of a Miss America contestant -- her opinion on a political issue -- and instantly created a martyr for the political right. Never mind that the context for the question, and the political weight of Miss California's answer were completely meaningless (other than as a barometer of the fact that Americans do indeed disagree on some issues).

Add a dose of Dick Cheney, who has shown a remarkable inability to fade into the sunset. So much so, in fact, that one has to wonder whether he's fighting for historical legacy or aligning himself for the future -- a 2012 presidential run, bad ticker, bad polls and all. Then David Letterman cracks a bad joke about Sarah Palin's daughter and Alex Rodriguez, which Palin and conservative commentators twist out of context to extend her 15 minutes of political life.

Now John McCain is back in the fray, spinning off a foolish comment by Leon Panetta that Cheney might be wishing the U.S. gets attacked to validate his stance on the efficacy of torture. Panetta, McCain gravely informs us, must retract his comment.

The economy remains trashed; the Obama Administration has yet to address in a meaningful way the legacy of American policies that led to Guantanamo Bay, illegal detentions and torture; no progress has been made on health care reform; North Korea is nuke-rattling; the streets of Iran are teeming with protesters -- and this is what the political elite focus on?

One unavoidable reality of democracy is that we always get the political leaders we deserve.


This could be a blues song: 'Sentenced to Write'

June 9, 2009

Tags: media, politics, justice

You often hear writers say that they don't write for pleasure but out of a sense of compulsion -- they have to write.

But there's a difference between that and being sentenced to write. Pity the poor Bristol-Myers Squibb exec ordered by New York Judge Ricardo M. Urbina to serve two years' probation, during which he must write a book about his experiences -- including lying to federal officials over the firm's attempt to settle a patent dispute over Plavix, the blood thinner.

Yes, he sentenced sentences.

The New York Times reports Urbina issued a similar sentence in 1998 to a lobbyist who admitted breaking campaign finance laws. Urbina ordered James H. Lake to pay a $150,000 fine and write and distribute at his own cost a monograph about campaign finance laws covering corporate contributions, and distribute it at his own cost to 2,000 fellow lobbyists.

Our particular little writers' prison is already over-crowded, but what the hell, one more can't hurt ...


Prop. 8 stands. Civil rights, not so much.

May 26, 2009

Tags: California, politics, initiatives, culture

Well, the California Supreme Court did the expected this morning and upheld Prop. 8, which bans gay marriage in California. With no legal background, I'm not going to try to parse the details of it -- I'll leave that to Maura Dolan, a former LA Times colleague.

But given how each state has a different take on this issue, it's clear this needs to get to the Supreme Court -- where, admittedly, the deck seems stacked against gay marriage. But I would hope the Loving v. Virginia case would be precedent here. In that case, from 1967, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a state ban on interracial marriage.

That decision held that marriage is a basic civil right and thus eligible for federal protection. A civil right is a civil right, and it defies logic that the federal protections would be limited to opposite-sex marriages. At its heart a legal marriage license, which grants all the perks (tax, survivorship, etc.) is a contract, and such it should be available to all.

And if, instead, it is deemed to be a function of religion -- which is the undercurrent of the anti-gay marriage argument -- then you have to wonder what business any level of U.S. government has in sanctioning a religious rite.



Any Nero Wolfe fans in the house?

May 22, 2009

Tags: literature, culture, politics

I have to admit to a certain fascination with the trial underway in Manhattan over the alleged plundering of the late Brooke Astor's estate. The drama falls somewhere between Tom Wolfe and Rex Stout, the creator of the one-seventh of a ton genius detective Nero Wolfe.

At its heart it's a throwback story, drawing in the top layers of Manhattan's high society, beginning with Astor, at one point the hostess in New York City. Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair's legendary editor, and Henry Kissinger (a war criminal in some quarters; the hero of American diplomacy in others).

But it's also a deeper tale of crumbling families, greed, probably a little jealousy and, deepest of all, betrayal. And that the victim was elderly and infirm takes the story out of all those zones and places it in the heart of nearly every American family that has dealt with a matriarch or patriarch reaching such advanced, and debilitated years.

Damn, it should be a novel.


Unbashed shilling for a friend

May 21, 2009

Tags: friends, literature, politics

My friend and soccer mate Scott Laumann is on a three-month sabbatical in Minnesota with his wife and their young daughter (we're hoping the mosquitoes and black flies are merciful).

But that's not why I'm posting. He's a wonderful artist and remarkable illustrator, with works getting play in the LA Times, Rolling Stone and slew of other places. Below are a couple of samples, but check out his web site for the full array. We have a couple of his pieces (prints) in the living room, part of his giants-of-jazz series.

Great stuff.





WiFi + FCC = Warrantless Search?

May 21, 2009

Tags: civil rights, politics, weird

There's a bizarre story over at Wired that explores something I hadn't seen before. If you have a wireless system in your house, the FCC asserts, then federal inspectors have the right to warrantless entry.

According to the piece, for years the FCC has used the Communications Act of 1934 to enter properties in search of rogue radio stations and other violators of federal communications licenses covering use of radio frequencies (RF). That used to be limited to pirate radio and ham operators, the only folks with radio transmitters in their homes. The reasoning is similar to that under which fire and health inspectors are allowed to make warrantless entries to businesses. But the FCC says we're all suspects, in a sense.

From Wired: “Anything using RF energy — we have the right to inspect it to make sure it is not causing interference,” says FCC spokesman David Fiske. That includes devices like wireless routers that use unlicensed spectrum, Fiske says.

The piece goes on to cite cases in which FCC inspectors entered properties without warrants, didn't find what they were looking for but did find evidence of unrelated illegal activity, and the Supreme Court upheld the convictions.

A troubled process for a troubled state

May 20, 2009

Tags: California, politics, initiatives, budget

I've got an idea. Why don't we have one more California ballot initiative -- a binding, non-reversible proposition that would bar more initiatives? Because, as the old saying goes, this is no way to run a railroad.

Voters yesterday rejected five proposals that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislative leaders said were necessary to close the state's $21 billion budget gap. Now that the measures have been shot down, look for some serious budgetary bloodletting -- not all of the dark-day scenarios the governor trotted out over the past few days were scare tactics.

But we also need to take a step back and look at how California got in such straits. And one of the biggest culprits is the initiative process itself. It began as a Progressive-era embrace of direct democracy, but has become so dominated by money-backed agendas that it has just added another mechanism for lobbyists to influence policy.

And I know it's heresy to say out here on the West Coast, but one of the biggest problems is Prop. 13, which has resulted in our absurd tax structure. A family that just bought the same size and design house as ours, a couple of blocks away, will pay more than double the property taxes. Why? Because we bought our houses at different times.

But back to the process itself. Over the past near-century the process has been used to do everything from trying to deny government service to illegal immigrants to taxing cigarettes to provide daycare. Between 1912, when the first initiatives began, to 2002, nearly 1,200 initiatives had been prepared, 290 made it to the ballot and 99 were passed. More, obviously, have been approved since then.

But this is why we have a Legislature, to handle these issues through the mediation of the legislative process. After years of covering politics I understand fully the cynicism with which most people view politicians and legislatures. But this initiative process has done little more than give people with money and an agenda a way to circumvent the legislative process and get their desires inserted into the law books. Instead of making government more responsible, it has, combined with term limits, made it less accountable -- and made it harder to govern.

So let's have one more initiative: End the process. And while we're at it, let's get aggressive about ending the role of money in the political process. That's the fire behind the smoke.
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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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