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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On protests, and why 'the goals' are irrelevant

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.

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On CNN, the Tea Party, and blogosphere blowback

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.

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On poverty, and the obscuring nature of numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CNN and its ethics problem with the Tea Party debate

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.

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The right song for today

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On death, and the politics of executions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of society have we become?

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Joe Hill, and the killing of an icon

There's a new book out next week - not by me - that comes the closest I've seen to figuring out what really happened in a century-old murder case that led to the execution by firing squad of Joe Hill, a Wobbly organizer and songwriter who became the face of radical American labor.

The book is The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, by William M. Adler, who my Detroit friends might recognize as the author of Land of Opportunity, the story of the eastside Chambers brothers crack empire.

Hill, whose songs were largely parodies of contemporary pop music and religious hymns, was an agitator of the lyrical kind. Others wrote songs for the Industrial Workers of the World - the Wobblies - but none with as much wit, or drive. So when Hill turned up wounded in Salt Lake City on the same night a father and son were murdered in the family grocery store, Hill made a convenient suspect for the Salt Lake City police. It didn't help Hill's case that the Wobblies were actively organizing in Utah at the time, much to the consternation of the local business leaders and the local newspapers.

And drawing on a long-forgotten letter, Adler establishes to a point of near certainty that Hill was not guilty of the killings, that he had been shot by a rival for a woman's affections (it's her letter Adler found) unrelated to the grocery store case, and that Hill had been railroaded by a local power structure blinded by his radicalism and intent on stomping out the Wobblies. The New York Times this morning has a nice overview of the book and Adler's findings.

Incidentally, Hill's story overlaps with that of the Colorado coal field war and the Ludlow Massacre, the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. The grocery-store killings occurred in January 1914; the Ludlow Massacre came that April; Hill was executed in November 1915. While Hill's trial and the coal field war were separate events, they both occurred against a backdrop of significant class frictions, upheaval, and a rich-poor gap that rivaled conditions today.

I encourage you all to pick up The Man Who Never Died. Even if you're not that interested in the history of radical Americans like Hill and the Wobblies, Adler has done a fine job of finding the human story behind a complex set of details, and lays them out in a highly readable narrative. It is a story of injustice, but also about an odd sense of chivalry, and Hill's eventually fatal desire to keep his lover's name out of the public eye.

Ultimately, it turns out Hill likely was executed by a Utah firing squad because he put too much faith in the American court system's ability to discern truth, and justice. Maybe now the truth has won out. But it's far too late for justice to have been served.

Embedded here is a contemporary cover of one of Hill's best-known songs.

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The Blue Hole: Scuba diving on the High Plains

Kids diving into the Blue Hole as divers begin a lesson. Photo/Scott Martelle
Well, I went 0-2 on selling travel stories this summer, and as with the Chautauqua Institution piece, I'd rather share this story here than have it fade away on my laptop. An outlet that was interested before I left on the trip was less so after a mid-summer budget adjustment, and I couldn't raise interest in it elsewhere. Not sure if that says something about journalism budgets these days, or my choices of travel destinations.

By Scott Martelle

SANTA ROSA, N.M – For a few minutes, I thought my friend had lied to me. Or at least maybe stretched the truth a bit. I had risen before dawn to catch the early light at a place called the Blue Hole, an artesian-fed pond out here in the middle of the high plains that, my friend insisted, was the most popular scuba-diving spot between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

It was the anomaly that drew me: Scuba diving in arid eastern New Mexico, where annual rainfall barely breaks into double digits, the temperature often hits triple digits, and the horizon is as bleak and unbroken as an ocean.

So a few minutes after 6 a.m., hoping to take some pictures in the soft morning light, I pulled up to the park gate just a few blocks from old Route 66, Santa Rosa’s main street and lingering claim to fame. The gate was locked; Not a good sign. I tooled around town for a few minutes – in truth, that’s all you need to see the whole place – took some photos of a cemetery, cooled my heels back at the hotel then returned a little after 7 to find the gate wide open. A single motor home had backed up to a shaded picnic table on the far side of the dirt parking lot from the Blue Hole, and a couple of other people were walking their dogs.

Nary a diver in sight. I should have figured divers in a desert was too good to be true, even though my friend, M.E. Sprengelmeyer, owner of the Guadalupe County Communicator weekly newspaper, had promised me it was so. I parked and waited, the car door flung wide to catch a scant breeze as I entertained evil thoughts about my friend and his tales of the Blue Hole scuba divers. I finally gave up around 8 a.m., and as I drove toward the gate, I glanced at the motor home and there, hanging from the rafters of the picnic shelter, were two wetsuits swaying in the morning breeze. Nearby, Doug and Crystal Lang were going through their safety check ahead of their morning dive.

Ah, I thought, Sprengelmeyer doesn’t lie.

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Hiroshima aftermath; there are no words

Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb (3 of 5) by Harbert F Austin Jr in Japan

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On Chautauqua, and a travel story not taken

Alan Alda (right) in conversation with Roger Rosenblatt at Chautauqua's Amphitheater.
Last summer, during an extended driving trip to New York and researching my Detroit book, I stopped by Chautauqua Institution for a day with plans to write a travel piece. The outlet that was interested in it then wasn't so interested this summer (getting a little tired of this "non"-recession), and I haven't been able to find another taker for it. Rather than watch it molder, I'm posting it here. Hope you all enjoy it (photos are mine, too, for better or worse).

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. – It was late on a chilly June morning and all of ancient Palestine lay at my feet – with a white-striped chipmunk scurrying Godzilla-like over the hills just east of the Dead Sea, and Alan Alda’s voice echoing faintly in the distance. But they were mere distractions from the task at hand: Finding the musician’s practice shed in which George Gershwin finished one of his signature compositions.

The juxtapositions can get confusing here at the Chautauqua Institution, which began in 1874 as a lakeside summer training camp for Methodist Sunday school teachers and has evolved into one of the nation’s most enduring enclaves of arts, faith, and the genteel embrace of popular culture.

If Las Vegas is an adult Disneyland, then Chautauqua Institution is an adult summer school. In a good way, not in a “if you had studied algebra better you wouldn’t have to make up this class” kind of way. Hundreds of thousands of people over the years have traveled here to the southwest corner of New York State to sit, read, listen and think.

This also is a place of history, from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “I hate war” speech delivered in 1936 (Ulysses S. Grant was the first of four sitting presidents to visit, in 1875), to Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” which he finished 86 years ago in
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