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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Memorial Day 2011 in Santa Ana, California



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On Memorial Day, and the wars behind it

American cemetery at Normandy. Credit: American Battle Monuments Commission
Some years ago – okay, a lot of years ago – Margaret and I went to Europe, a zip-around trip to France, England and Ireland. It was part vacation, part work, as I did a series of stories on “sister cities” to Rochester, N.Y, where I was working for the Times-Union afternoon paper.

A trip like that spawns a lot of memories, but one that sticks out persistently was near Rennes, France, where we visited a war memorial. I remember it as a large colonnaded building, and when you walked inside, the white marble walls were covered floor to ceiling with the engraved names of the dead.

It was an impressive monument, the kind of place where people default to hushed whispers. We walked around, scanning the names, overwhelmed by the sheer volume. Then I noticed near one wall a low white marble monument best described as an ark, about thigh-high and the dimensions of a coffee table. I walked closer to read the inscription, and discovered that this little box-like thing was the memorial to the dead of World War II. The names on the walls, I realized then, were the dead of World War I. Two massive wars within a generation, the first so devastating that the dead of the second were treated almost as an after-thought.

Few American families have not been touched by war (in our case, the service of relatives, though fortunately no deaths in the modern era). But not like this, where a generation of young men from one geographic region were, for the most part, exterminated over the course of a few years of folly and political hubris.

War is about winning, and the way you win is to kill enough soldiers fast enough on the other side that they give up before your side does. Sometimes they give up quickly; sometimes they don’t. And it is those who died in the process whom we properly focus on today.

We should focus more on why they were there in the first place. I’m at heart a pacifist, though not so beholden to it that I can’t recognize that some wars are necessary. Those have been few and far between. Stopping the expanding Nazi empire was necessary. World War I, with its convoluted politics and Wall Street investments, was not. Korea and Vietnam were also questionable ventures. Afghanistan was a conundrum going in, and I’m still arguing with myself over whether that was a morally defensible action. Iraq certainly was not.

Here on Memorial Day, we think of the dead, and why they died. They are men, mostly, who did the bidding of their political leaders. And as I think of the ruptures in families, and the countless agonies large and small, I think, too, of the people who sent these men and women to their deaths. As I remember the soldiers for their bravery, and for their devotion, I also wrestle with questions about the wisdom of national leaders who, over the years, have reached so cavalierly for a military solution to a political problem.

In the end, I realize, the dead bear more integrity than the living.

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On Mitch Albom, ethics, and journalism's image problem

An item popped up on the Romenesko journalism blog the other day about Mitch Albom, the author and Detroit Free Press columnist, getting into an on-air radio spat with Frank Beckmann, a local radio talk show host. The issue was ethics - it seems Albom, who also dabbles in screenwriting, has been advocating that Michigan keep a tax break for production companies that film in Michigan. One of the beneficiaries is a project he's working on.

Beckmann had a problem with Albom's ethics. Nothing new, I thought. Many of you know I was deeply involved in the Detroit newspaper strike, during which Albom scabbed, crossing his own union's picket line to return to work. He mentioned going out on strike in July 1995 in the early going of his best-selling Tuesdays with Morrie, which he seems to have begun while most of the rest of us were pounding the picket line. And near as I can tell (I couldn't get through the book, which struck me as a Hallmark card with chapters), he didn't mention later in the book that he eventually scabbed. Not everyone sees crossing a picket line as an ethical failure, which helps explain the plight of the American working class today. But I do, as do my labor-conscious friends.

Fast forward to 2003, and the release of Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven. The Free Press commissioned a review, which Albom reportedly saw after it was filed, "had some type of hissy fit" over the reviewer's slamming of the book, and the negative review got spiked. I think most people would have a problem with the ethics in that one.

Two years later, the Free Press published a column by Albom about two NBA players attending a Final Four basketball game to cheer on Michigan State University, their alma mater. Problem was, the players never got there - Albom wrote the column ahead of time, but filed it as though it had happened. In short, he made stuff up, a cardinal sin in journalism (as Albom himself pointed out during the Jayson Blair affair, Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute reminded us).

And now he's actively engaged in a political process over tax breaks for an industry in which he has a vested interest. Which has me thinking on this Saturday morning, why is he still in journalism? How many ethical lines does a journalist have to cross before he is benched? And, more broadly, why are newspaper editors surprised about the public's cynicism about our profession, when they turn a blind eye to such lapses of judgement?

Although I guess we should be thankful Albom's not doing something more problematic, like inviting sources to special nights of insider entertainment while rubbing elbows with top political figures in Washington. Read More 
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On Massey, and the burden of guilt in a mine disaster

The first of several anticipated investigative reports into last year's disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, in which 29 miners were killed, came out today, and, not surprisingly, it laid the blame for the killing explosion at the feet of mine operator Massey Energy.

I've written about that tragedy before, and it's significant that the state investigative panel in part shares my take on it. From the conclusion:
Ultimately, the responsibility for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine lies with the management of Massey Energy. The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry safety standards.

The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris. A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking. The April 5, 2010, explosion was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been anticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards and put too much faith in its own mythology.
The report also points out that there are many similar post-disaster reports from past tragedies gathering dust on regulators' shelves. Yet the conditions persist. The new report offers some recommendations, but the one that rings the loudest is to criminalize corporate behavior when workers are damaged by blatant disregard for laws and regulations. Maybe if corporate executives begin serving jail terms instead of foisting fines off on their shareholders, fewer lives would be lost to greed.

That isn't likely to happen, though, given the power of corporate cash in Washington. It is the relentless sense of corporate hubris that is most chilling here. And not just in buying the political process. The operators of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform had faith in their technology. The operators of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station misplaced their faith in their technology, too. Massey went them all one better with a blatant disregard for the safety of its workers, a throwback to practices of a century ago, but that is about the only regard in which their hubris differs from those of their corporate peers.

Technology has done wonderful things for the quality of life around the world. But it has also, when misused or imbued with a near-religious sense of faith, been the cause of great calamity. From Bhopal to Upper Big Branch, the persistent undercurrent has been an appalling disregard for human safety. It's almost enough to make a Luddite out of you. Or, at the least, a harsh critic of a culture that exalts wealth over health, and corporate profits over personal safety.

What the hell kind of society have we let ourselves become? Read More 
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Wishing a friend success with a great book

A couple of years ago a close friend, food writer Robin Mather, already suffering from some health problems, hit a buzz saw of personal crises: Her husband told her he wanted a divorce, and she lost her job writing for the Chicago Tribune (part of the same corporate convulsion that cast me off from the Los Angeles Times). She wound up retreating to the small lakeside cottage in a remote part of western Michigan that she and her husband had bought anticipating a retirement home some years down the road.

We spent a lot of time on Skype talking, me from my desk in sunny Irvine, Robin from the metaphorical morass of gray clouds at the edge of the Michigan lake. Neither of us is suited to wallowing in our own miseries, and Robin's plan quickly took shape. We're writers, after all, and the best thing a writer can do is write, So she proceeded, with the help of some friends and the irreplaceable agent we share, Jane Dystel, to write her way out of the clouds,

The result is The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week), which is due out in a couple of weeks. I have an early copy, and finished reading it last night, coincidentally the eve of my own party to launch The Fear Within.

Robin's done a splendid job. The concept of the book was to write about her year trying to piece her life back together, while also trying to live within a severely diminished budget while patronizing and supporting local food producers, from truck farmers to butchers. Organized seasonally, it is a collection of essays, accented by recipes, of engaging with life, knitting together a fresh network of new friends, enjoying the benefits of relationships with geographic neighbors (not just our new communities here in the Internet), and even the restorative powers of a walk through untrammeled woods. In the end, she writes, the clouds began clearing:
The good food that I found near my home strengthened and nourished me and, together with the work of my own hands, gave me a sense of pride, security, and peace that I have never known before. The search for it led me to new friends and new ways of thinking about myself and the world in which I live. It provided me with the luxury of having enough to share, even on the spur of the moment, when money was tight and the future uncertain.

My life is newly deep and full of riches. I hope yours is as well.
Great writing. And a wonderfully evocative look at getting your feet back under you when you've been knocked astride. Pick up a copy.

Oh, and Robin's recently moved on from the solitary life on the lake. She's now an editor of Mother Earth News. Read More 
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On author James B. Stewart, and circles of lies

Today's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart's new book, Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, which is a detailed look at some notable cases of high-profile lying scandals from the 2000s. The review begins:
"For a nation whose romanticized history includes a young George Washington confessing to chopping down a cherry tree because he 'cannot tell a lie,' we seem to do an awful lot of lying. But then, the story about Washington is a lie itself, so maybe we're just being true to our national character.

"In his new book, 'Tangled Webs,' Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart dives deeply into four recent cases of high-profile conspiracies of lies. What he finds does not say good things about us.
As I mention in the review, the book almost chokes on the amount of detail Stewart has dug up from inside each of the scandals: Martha Stewart, the role of White House officials in outing Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative; Barry Bonds; and Bernie Madoff.

Yet the details are worth wading through. Stewart does a good job at looking at how the powerful (and the powerless) react in times of stress, and challenge. In the end, it is the ease with which so many choose to lie, and the myriad reasons, that is most sobering. And before readers cheer over clear evidence that seems to confirm the belief that top figures in the Bush II White House saw the truth as a malleable thing, remember Bill Clinton's wriggling when caught with his pants down. Lying to the American people is not the hallmark of one political party or another. And, as Stewart makes clear, it's hardly limited to politics.

So why is it so prevalent in American life? Because people keep getting away with it. And nothing breeds success like success. Leavened, apparently, by a few well-told lies. Read More 
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Social networking, and how we get our news

As many of you know, I teach journalism part-time at Chapman University here in southern California, and as the news spun last week about the killing of Osama bin Laden, I conducted an exercise in class that feeds directly into a new report on how we get our news online.

The report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, called "Navigating News Online," offers an interesting analysis of how we navigate the web in search of news. Not surprisingly, most of us happen upon articles by chance, or as the result of a specific search. But the report also notes the growing role of social networking, such as Facebook, in directing people to articles or blog posts (so yes, "share" this).

I teach two sections of "Journalism: Theory and Practice," this semester, with a total of 30 students. In each class last week, I asked each student how he or she first learned of Bin Laden's reported death. Almost all heard it through social media -- Facebook and Twitter - or from text alerts they had subscribed to that fed directly to their phones, or in conversations with friends. Only one saw it first on a news site; they all knew about the reported death within an hour or so of the initial reports.

What did they do after hearing the news? Almost to a person, they went to sites maintained by the New York Times, CNN and other mainstream media outlets, or turned their televisions to major networks or channels, to get the details.

So what does this tell us? That social media is revolutionizing how we learn about news events. But then we go to the old guard sources to find out the details. I find this heartening. In a sense, journalism isn't dying, it is getting a jump-start from social media, and remains the foundation upon which significant information flows.

Now if the business-side folks could just figure out how to make money from that, maybe we can reverse this long trend of less and less, and start shoring up an institution critical to our democracy. Read More 
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Just Kids - a (slightly) counter opinion

Patti Smith signing Just Kids for a fan at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Photo credit: Scott Martelle.
Now that the buzz-saw of writing and researching the Detroit project has died away, I've started chipping away at an embarrassingly high stack of books that I really should have read by now, some by friends, some that have just struck my curiosity. And since it's too late to review the books for publications (and I couldn't review many of them because of personal conflicts), I'll be sprinkling some short takes into the blog mix over the next few weeks.

I finished Patti Smith's Just Kids the other day, her National Book Award-winning memoir of living and trying break through as an artist in Manhattan in the late 1960-early 1970s. The book couldn't live up to its advance buzz, and true to form, I liked it, but also was disappointed by it.

Manhattan was defined by creative counter-cultural energy in that era, and Smith and her lover/friend Robert Mapplethorpe hovered near the center of it. To read Smith's take on the time was interesting, and valuable, but it also fell short of full truth, I feel. I was talking about the book with some other reviewers at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books over the weekend, and we agreed that she over-romanticized what were nearly impossible living conditions in sections of Manhattan - heatless flats, hustling sex for food money, drug deaths of those who experimented too wildly.

And Smith's depiction of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, who became one of the most divisive photographic artists of the era, was remarkably thin on two levels. First was their romantic relationship, which transformed radically as Mapplethorpe began embracing his homosexuality - a revelation that would cause deep emotional turmoil for most women, but that Smith all but shrugs off. And despite her closeness to Mapplethorpe, and her descriptions of the different art forms he was experimenting with before he shifted fully into photography, by the end of the book you have little sense of what was driving his - or her - art beyond Mapplethorpe's lust for fame.

There's plenty of name-dropping in the book, and one charming anecdote of the poet Allen Ginsberg, who was gay, mistaking the rail-thin Smith for a young man and trying to pick her up at a food automat. But mostly it is a thin revisit to an era. By definition Smith limited the book to the New York/Mapplethorpe years, but one wonders about her emotional reaction to the death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, five years after Mapplethorpe died of AIDS. The deaths of two significant players in the emotional life of a poet are worth exploring, and reading about. But Smith doesn't touch on it.

In the end, I suspect the book received such critical acclaim, and strong sales, because it serves less as an informative memoir of two influential artists than as a generational touchstone. For those who lived through that era, Smith's book is something of a vicarious trip down memory lane. For those too young to have tasted New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Just Kids offers a small, if somewhat romanticized, window into an era. But for a memoir by a poet, Just Kids lacks significant emotional punch. Read More 
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Day Two at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

The 2011 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
It was a little warmer, felt a little less crowded, and was a lot of fun for the second day in a row. And oh, yeah, I was on a panel.

The theme was "History: Democracy and its Discontents," moderated by Celeste Fremon, who came incredibly well-prepared, and included Barry Siegel and Thaddeus Russell. It made for an interesting conversation, with Russell talking about his A Renegade History of the United States, a "ground up" look at influential but ignored sectors of American history with some iconoclastic takes on such things as prostitutes as early feminists.

Siegel, a friend and former Los Angeles Times colleague, as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winner, talked about his Claim of Privilege, and the lie that stands behind the U.S. government's ability to evade court disclosures of uncomfortable information by claiming to do so would violate a state secret. And I talked about The Fear Within, which has a nice overlap with Siegel's book (both of our subjects turned on decisions by the same Vinson Supreme Court).

The session was aired live on Book TV over CSPAN-2, and via its website, and is now safely lodged in its archives. So if you missed it, you can watch it at your leisure here. And yeah, it's true, a TV camera adds a few pounds (but then, so did the dinner at El Cholo afterward with my wife). The program begins with the tail end of a prior, unrelated interview, but you can move beyond that). Unfortunately, there was no link for embedding the program on my site. Read More 
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