When The Media Fails to Accept Responsibility

I’m usually the first person to boost NPR.  In this age of editorial slants, #fakenews and the like, it’s one of only a handful of resources I trust to be giving me the information I need to have: I didn’t hear of too many other broadcasters live airing James Comey testifying to the House Intelligence Committee.

So imagine my disappointment hearing an intelligence commentator on NPR’s “On the Media,” a weekend show dedicated to breaking down how media shapes the conversation, portraying Wikileaks as “playing” the media in their CIA information dump.

The segment is entitled “What the Media Got Wrong About the Latest Wikileaks Dump,” but a careful listen to the content and interviewee Nicholas Weaver indicates that the dump itself was exaggerated and “fear mongering” and that Wikileaks intended to create that coverage with it’s own “helpful” analysis. He lets it sit out there that it’s just a fact of life that the news industry is cut throat, people climbing over themselves for the breaking news. Wikileaks “planted” misleading leads.

This takes the media itself off the hook.  Weaver breaks down the dump itself, why it’s really not a big deal, and highlights at least one reporter who did a really good job of actual fact checking: Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post, You know, doing what reporters are supposed to do.  He lets everyone off with the trope that it’s a landrush out there, and even misrepresents the purpose of what Wikileaks actually said.

Wikileaks specifically says there’s more information than reporters, go look for it.  He portrays this as  cynical because they knew reporters would just report what they were given.  My question then is this: is that the work of Wikileaks acting against America or is this a failing of our media to do their job? The media has created this landrush mentality, this media cycle.  Wikileaks may be acting to make the CIA look bad, but make no mistake the media was their witting pawn.

Interestingly enough, Bob Garfield inadvertently admits media corrections are almost universally ignored, making them meaningless because no one pays attention to them.

What this means, then, is that the media owes it as a professional responsibility to get it right and getting it right the first time.  It means that if Wikileaks gets their preferred message out there, far from Ellen Nakashima being exceptional it means she was the exception in that she did her job. It means that printing a retraction or a correction doesn’t relieve the organization when they make a mistake.  They need to be impeccable, particularly when the media in general is being attacked by a particularly in-credible President for their lack of credibility.

NPR doesn’t speak for the entire profession, but this broadcast is designed to provide a window into the profession, and represent it.  When they refuse to take responsibility for their role, and instead allow Wikileaks – whose main purpose was to create publicity for itself – to control the conversation, they’ve minimized their own importance and exaggerated the importance of the subject.  If Weaver is correct and that there was nothing thusfar in this dump that he wouldn’t have assigned to advanced undergraduates, it was the media’s fault for giving the story more credence than it deserved.  It’s the media’s responsibility to determine what deserves credence and therefore newsworthy and what isn’t.  It was the media’s fault for playing the ratings game that the media itself created.  You can’t blame Wikileaks for understanding that game.

Wikileaks probably did play the media.  The information is probably not that important.  So why was it newsworthy?  Because the media was lazy.

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On Being Uncomfortable

Two recent news stories caught my attention in that they highlight a major dysfunction in our society.

At Hampshire College, in the small Western Massachusetts college town of Amherst, someone burned the American flag on campus in the days after the Presidential election, so the school then put up a new flag.  This was lowered it to half-staff, in solidarity with those fearing a Donald Trump presidency (by some accounts) and in mourning for racial violence victims…which sparked backlash from others, and thus they removed the flag from campus entirely.

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“Two Minute Warning” Spider Martin, March 1965

Meanwhile, in Pearl, Mississippi a billboard showed up bearing Spider Martin‘s iconic “Two Minute Warning” (The photo was taken moments before troopers tear gassed and beat protesters) with the label “Make America Great Again.”  This has caused consternation and perhaps even outrage: the headline is Mississippi residents unsure of controversial billboard’s intent, the mayor wants it removed, the governor calls it “divisive.”

So, at the highest academic levels we either don’t know how to or simply refuse to have a conversation about politics, and at the highest government levels we apparently don’t understand the first amendment protections around freedom of speech.  As a populace, we’re not sure we know what to think: we engage more with “fake news” than with “real news.”  Perhaps that’s more of an indictment of our “Info-tainment news than it is an indictment of Facebook algorithms.  

At some point in life you have to take a stand and engage that which is uncomfortable. Life isn’t all about “safe places” and avoiding difficult conversations. The school was wrong for lowering the flag to half staff – that’s not a way to protest the results of an election, it’s a means by which one honors disasters or deaths. Just that act was an affront for which the school would appropriately be chastised. Among their students are veterans or members of military families, but one doesn’t have to be a veteran to be offended by such a violation of flag protocol or by removing the flag altogether.

“Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Finley Dunne

The way one would properly fly a flag signalling distress (in extreme danger to life or property) is upside down, but even that isn’t an appropriate expression here. I’m sure they could argue that there’s an extreme danger to life of minorities or other dispossessed folk (I’m not entirely sure that would have intellectual validity) but they’ve not even chosen that expression.

In response for having their hand slapped, the school took their ball and went home.  Their chosen means of expression was the removal of expression, to deny any solidarity with the country.

This is a school in the business of educating future leaders and they decide to take the flag down because they can’t control vandals, don’t wish to heed those who have appropriately identified their breach of flag protocol/etiquette and last don’t wish to have a dialogue about constructive means by which opposition can be expressed. They can’t separate the president-elect of the United States from the office of the President from the symbol of the United States. It was more important to avoid the conversation than it was to have the conversation.

They could have taken the stand that our nation was larger than any disagreement among us, flown the flag at full staff – protecting it if they deemed necessary – and engaged the campus in a campus-wide discussion about the campaign, what it means, and what needs to happen going forward in a way that the school could support.  I would argue this conversation should have been going on well before November 8 if they were truly interested in a diversity of thought.

From the schools’ president: “we have decided that we will not fly the U.S. flag or any other flags at Hampshire for the time being. We hope this will enable us to instead focus our efforts on addressing racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and behaviors.”  The rationale equating the flag – and the country – with those things is extremely dangerous, and yet the Hampshire College board fails to see it that way.  Symbols are extremely powerful, but so are symbolic actions.

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Cesar Cruz

The billboard was meant to be controversial, specifically designed to cause conversation, and response:  Mississippi overwhelmingly went for Trump, and has a troubled racial history.  The message is provocative because the message conveyed could be any number of things: were this the point of view of the Klu Klux Klan, it would be hate speech; in this case it’s the work of an artist with the express purpose of discussing what we mean when we use a phrase like “Make America great again.”

And so it goes that we have become uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.  In the meantime, we’re faced with a Vonnegutesque warning: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Schools have pretended that to be educated means not having to confront opposition to your ideas, not having to defend your ideas, and that ideas contrary are to be avoided or just not engaged.   We’ve pretended that making anti-discrimination national policy is equivalent to ending the conversation.  We’ve pretended that racial diversity and ethnic diversity is the only diversity that matters, that engaging other opposing ideas is dangerous and that diversity of thought will somehow expose us to danger rather than strengthening our understanding of each other.

Let’s stop pretending that conversation is a bad thing to be avoided, that ideas different from your own can hurt, and that it’s more important to be convinced you’re right than it is to find common understanding. That somehow engaging a conversation is more trouble than it’s worth.

Acute Toxicity: Reaching Election 2016 TLV-C

Acute toxicity.  That’s the best two-word answer to the question “What is the effect of the current state of American national politics?”  We’re not even two weeks out from one of the most divisive election cycles ever – certainly within my lifetime – and the discourse has gone from being one of derision for the opposing major=party candidate to out and out nastiness of supporters of one candidate to those of the other.

TLV-C: ceiling exposure limit or maximum exposure concentration that should not be exceeded under any circumstance

Here it is less than two weeks out, and I was actually battling it out online with someone whom I am convinced shares a similar position on social issues as do I because he felt it an acceptable stance to take to simply silence – “disenfranchise out of existence” – voters who would vote for a certain candidate that neither of us supported.

The Vice-President elect was treated to some impromptu commentary by the cast of the play “Hamilton” on Friday night – straight political commentary, which while perhaps not expected in a theater the subject of the chosen play was political after all – and apparently he was unaware that his status as VP-elect changes his ability to attend a play with his family.  He was asked to keep an open mind to diversity.  On Saturday, the President-Elect demanded an apology.

Sometimes, even the best of us have to suffer through rudeness.  It kind of comes with the territory when you share a ticket with a divisive candidate, whether or not you yourself deserve it.  This is politics man, get over it. Everything you do from this point forward is about the politics.  Sorry – there are no more simple nights out with the fam.

Clinton supporters are racist.  Trump supporters are racist.  Hillary is a criminal.  The Donald is a crook.  Clinton voters can’t seem to understand people could possibly have had legitimate reasons for voting for Trump – he’s a pig, racist, and bigot!! – and Trump voters can’t seem to understand people could possibly have legitimate reasons for voting for Clinton – she’s a criminal, liar, and duplicitous thief!  People talking – screaming – past each other without giving themselves a break to do a little introspection and analysis.

Donald is going to have a task in front of him to repair these fractures in the American politic, and frankly I’m not sure Steve Bannon is the guy to help him do that.  I’ve voted for President now in 8 elections.  I’ve voted for the winner exactly once in all those times, so I’m not exactly unfamiliar with being on the side that doesn’t win, but in almost 30 years of voting, I’ve never seen the electorate so polarized.

In 2008, David Duke if he didn’t “endorse” Obama for President, he came close to doing so. The thinking being that a man of color becoming President of the United States would incite white supremacy to rise up (note how Duke enunciates “Barack”). I submit that Duke may have been right: the Obama Presidency has simultaneously emboldened groups such as Black Lives Matter to stand up and identify social injustice as they see it, and those predisposed to see them as thugs and anti-law.

Trump has emboldened the “alt-right,” white nationalists.  More than 8 years after interviewing David Duke, NPR interviewed  Joel Pollak, one of the framers of the alt-right and got lit up for “normalizing” racism and hate speech. It’s the liberal left that’s now responding to a Trump electoral victory in the same way Duke imagined neo-cons rising up about the Obama victory.  They suggest censorship over critical thought, criticizing NPR for talking to Pollak, because clearly the great unwashed can’t think for themselves. Presenting the ideas is somehow equivalent to “normalizing” them.  [As an aside, I love the fact NPR had Michel Martin interview Duke, perhaps an important piece missing from the interview with Pollak].

What we need now is conversation, yet we’re distinctly unable to engage one.  Polls projecting a Clinton 4% lead in the popular vote and political sites projecting a 99% chance Clinton would win failed to take into account the rural votes, inadvertently answering the question why they would be so inclined to vote Trump: Trump paid attention to them while the media and the Clinton campaign failed to. Folks, this is the conversation that’s been happening all the long, it’s just that now you’re hearing it for the first time and it’s shocking as hell to you.  You made the same mistake the media did – you haven’t been listening.

Rule #5 of Franklin Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People – Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Let’s listen to each other just a little bit, before we decide the other is a bunch of racists, or bigots, or anything else.  There are legitimate reasons a person of good faith and fair dealing would vote for Trump that aren’t that they don’t like the LGBT+ community.  There are legitimate reasons a person of good faith and fair dealing would vote for Clinton other than that they don’t care about improprieties and opacity.

Most Trump voters aren’t out to overturn civil rights and most Clinton voters aren’t out to take all of your money.  Maybe we should listen more to each other because in reality these two candidates are about as alike as the election would suggest: Trump 47%, Clinton 48%.  Spend your time being angry, and you’re just a reactionary – whether your candidate won or not.  If you really care about the state of the country, you’re engaging conversation, not antagonizing it.

 

 

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 5

Bhumibol Adulyadej

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from kyotoreview.org

 

King Bhumibol the Great  served for over 70 years as king of Thailand, a reign ending with his passing this week at age 88.  Consider the degree of change occurring in this southeast Asian country over the course of his lifetime and monarchy and realize he held this once remote, impoverished country together through the upheavals of coup d’etats, the Vietnam conflict, the bombings of Cambodia and Laos, Cambodian civil war – all going on around his country, without dragging it into the conflict.

 

Now, it’s hard to know just how genuine the Thai people’s reverence of their monarch is due to the lèse majesté laws in place – it’s illegal to criticize the king – but by most accounts it’s apparently quite genuine. He was seen as a stabilizing force in a country and region notoriously unstable.

When asked how he wanted to be remembered, he said on numerous occasions that he wanted to be seen as “useful,” to have acted for the poorest citizens.  Indeed he spent the 1960’s and 1970’s  deliberately visiting the rural poor, and learning of their needs.

He was born in the United States, educated in Switzerland, spoke English and French, but had no apparent desire to travel – there was too much to do at home. Due to political circumstances early on, he focused his attention on development projects, building away from agrarian to modern industry.

This was an apparently humble man who accidentally became king, and made the best use of his authority for his people as he saw it for more than 70 years.

Let’s Define The President’s phrase “Meaningful Action”

We, My fellow Americans, are not a nation of deep thinkers.  We’re just not.  We’ll spend our time building opinions on who should win “The Voice,” or a couple of hours debating the relative pros and cons of the BCS and think this passes for serious consideration.  Even better, we’ve become a nation of “reposters,” passing along clearly outdated, inaccurate, or partially accurate stories which outrage us on Facebook without ever deciding to do our own fact checking before doing so.

We want to treat childhood obesity by banning “Big Gulps,” and mandating what kind of lunch goes to school.  We blame the Xbox.  How about the idea that in 1970 Americans consumed 2160 calories daily on a per capita basis compared with 2674 in 2008, and that we expend less energy while doing so.  We have built suburbs where the only means by which to get around is via automobile.  We bus our kids to school instead of having them walk.  We don’t know our neighbors, so our kids don’t play outside – they go on pre-arranged play dates in a familiar others’ home.  Our whole way of life – up to and including how we’ve built our neighborhoods – plays a role, but we decide that the coke machine in the high school café is the culprit. Meanwhile no one is reconsidering how we build our neighborhoods.

When a tragedy like that which visited Newtown Connecticut occurs, even before the grief has subsided, we have political pundits on both sides of the gun control debate and frankly the mental health profession staking their ground for the debate that will ultimately occur.  We allow ourselves to be polarized to believe there is but one cause and effect to such a senseless tragedy.  There is not.

The President told us the day of that tragedy it is time for meaningful action, where upon the analysis from the pundits was “make no mistake, the President was talking about ‘gun control.’”   I am willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt when he says “meaningful action,” and as such I don’t know what makes me angrier – that the pundit went to that place so quickly, or that he might be right.  The question, then, is “what is meaningful action?”

Meaningful action is not a simply debate on gun control.  We continue that debate on the bumpers of cars all across this country.  Meaningful action is not a vast expansion of mental health benefits to an already expansive health care reform mandate.  I’m not entirely sure “meaningful action” is within the purview of the Federal government, but I’m quite certain “gun control” is not where the conversation should start.

The second amendment was the framers’ guarantee that the American people could protect themselves from the government.  A gun control debate is really a question of how much of your constitutional protections you want to cede back to the government from which the founders sought protection in the first place.  I know – I’ve seen infographics on Facebook about how many more deaths occur in the US due to gun violence in any other industrial country.  Fact is, I don’t know of another industrial country that has the constitutional right to own a gun – Haiti, Mexico, and Guatemala do.  It’s part of our constitution – for the politicians out there, if you’re going to accuse each other cowardice for not doing what we need to do for gun control then I challenge you to propose rescinding the second amendment and let’s have that debate.

Meaningful action should be a meaningful debate – serious consideration on ALL of the factors that could lead a young man to slaughter his own family and then visit evil upon elementary school innocents – and determining what is the Federal Government’s role (if any), the State governments role, and most important our own INDIVIDIUAL roles.  This man was able to execute his plan because he had access to guns – perhaps the question is what his plan would have looked like if he didn’t have access to guns.  Doubtless, seeing the violence inflicted, it would have been just as vile just executed in a different way.   We do know this school shooter killed himself when he knew the first responders were approaching – I wonder what his tack would have been had he to consider that any of the adults in that building could have been an armed first responder.

We want so much to fix that which is wrong, but we spend exactly no time thinking about the cumulative effects of everything that’s wrong.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we allowed the Federal government to turn our airports into military encampments, and ultimately federalize security.  Frankly, we’re no better protected than we were 12 years ago – we just have the Federal government controlling the system.  We allowed the Bush administration to pass the Patriot Act, which granted the government sweeping powers – in other words we allowed the government to restrict our personal liberties and gain control.  Political opportunism knows few bounds.

We need meaningful action and thought about accessibility to mental health services, to be sure, but we also need meaningful action and thought about what causes dispossession and disconnect leading someone to seek mental health services.  The shooter here was the 20-year old son of a public school teacher; because he was under age 26 (under heath care reform), we would have been eligible to have been on his mothers health insurance – insurance which if it is typical of most public employee plans, would have included relatively rich mental health benefits.  Access here was not the issue, and while that is not the case in every instance, the fact remains that even if this is a “mental health issue,” the cause and effects are broad and the solutions are myriad.  The answer is not “better MH funding.”  It seems to me that individual responsibility comes to bear here, those closest to him had to know something was wrong; it further seems to me that if there is a funding issue for MH Services, it would be access to general education for those living with a loved one with mental illness.  Last on this point, that’s just my view on this case and my own prejudices – lets have that data-driven conversation, put our assertions aside and see what the data tell us.  THEN we can form our opinions on what the data are and debate that.

In response to massive house foreclosures, the government made it easier to refinance underwater homes if mortgage payments were late.  So those who overbought their homes, and could no longer pay their inflated mortgages and stopped paying, could keep those houses.  Meanwhile, those who were bought a responsibly priced home, kept making mortgage payments when hard times hit, couldn’t refinance because they were current on their mortgages.  It’s exactly these counter-intuitive results I’m warning of and arguing against.

We don’t need a response to violence of one person.  We need a broad understanding of the consequences of the structures we have in place – we need to be thinking about these issues before we have a school shooting, not in response to one.  We need to thoughtfully consider ALL aspects of what our society has built instead of slapping yet another series of regulations down to cure the problems caused by the aggregate.

My heart breaks for the families and the children of Newtown, Connecticut.

Election Day

Every 4 years we cast a ballot for electors for the President of the United States.  4 years ago, the candidate (technically the electors) for whom I voted were not elected, but I was proud of my country for demonstrating how far we had come as a nation.  I will not be voting for our President this year either, but it doesn’t change the fact our incumbent President is a person of color and that is what makes this country great.

That said, here is my ballot:

Electors for President of the United States: Gary Johnson / Jim Gray – Libertarian 

I believe the two party system in the United States is a corruption of what the United States should be.  We have two institutional parties manipulating politics toward their own ends – voting on issues and not solutions.  We allow politicians to give us a false choice of one or the other.

“Don’t waste your vote” is a fallacy.  The utter arrogance to hear Al Gore complain that Ralph Nader cost him the Presidency or George HW Bush complain Ross Perot cost him reelection – it presumes that the Presidency belongs to one of two parties, that people casting a ballot for someone more aligned with their beliefs somehow bastardizes the result.

I am voting for Gary Johnson because his articulated positions are more inline with my beliefs than those of any other candidate.  He’s a legitimate candidate, having been the 2-term governor of New Mexico as well as having built his own company.   He stands for the reduction of government power and control.  He stands for the freedom of making your own choices and taking your own consequences.   GaryJohnson2012.com

Massachusetts Senator: Scott Brown – Republican

Senator Brown has had 2 years to put a stamp on the Senate.  It’s been an unremarkable 2 years (particularly given that at least the last 1 year has been spent campaigning), but I like what I have seen from him.  I believe he is a genuine person who wants to do a good job for the people of Massachusetts.  I want to know what he would do with a full term.  I found the whole Elizabeth Warren ancestry issue to be a red herring, and more than slightly offensive – that died the death it deserved to die.  That said, I find the Warren campaign’s distortion of Brown’s record to be equally as offensive.

All in all, I’m going to vote for a candidate who has expressed and demonstrated a willingness to work across the aisle over a candidate running on keeping the other party at bay (as noted above, I believe 2-party politics to be a corruption of what politicians are elected to do) every time.  ScottBrown.com

Referendum Questions:

Massachusetts “Right to Repair” Initiative, Question 1 –  Yes.  This is the intersection between the auto makers’ intellectual property and my access to data I create.  I willingly choose to give away data to such sources as Facebook and Google because they provide a service for which I do not pay; I have bought my car, as part of that cost I expect I am buying the access to the data created by that car.  The legislature passed a compromise bill in July – to my mind, that bill is not comprehensive enough.  I will vote “YES” on this bill.

Massachusetts “Death with Dignity” Initiative, Question 2 – Yes. We should have the right to control our end of life decisions.  Beyond the sound bites, one truth remains: the individual should control his/her destiny on his/her own volition when faced with an incurable disease.  There is no mandate on a doctor – an individual doctor does not have to write a prescription and can choose not to treat a patient in this way. Death is a uniquely personal experience and an individual deserves the authority to make his/her own choices around it.

Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Initiative, Question 3 – Yes.  I don’t believe marijuana should be criminalized to begin with, however in this case if there’s a positive use for it there’s no reason a doctor should not be allowed to prescribe it.   The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police are against the question, largely because of their concerns about distribution, or in other words control – which I believe is part of the problem.  Attorney General Coakley is concerned passage would lead to a “headache” ensuring it’s not “abused,” a concern that would be eliminated if the sale of marijuana were controlled as is the sale of tobacco or alcohol.

The rest of my ballot resembles a Soviet ballot – for all of the other positions, save one, there is but one person running for office.

The one that has more than one candidate (on my ballot) is for Representative in General Court (or Representative to the State legislature); this office has 3 candidates running: a Democrat (incumbent), a Republican, and an Independent.  I’m planning to vote for the Independent, because he’s a little wacky – a little far out – but because he seems genuine and a true counter balance to the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in Boston.  He has been an elected member of my hometown’s light board for 15 years and a volunteer for NEADS Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans and Canines for Combat Veterans for 30.  He’s a small business owner, and has some solid ideas for growing small business – the economic generator this country needs.  And he thinks this experience is qualification for government.  In the ideal world, and in the vision of those who created our system – it is qualification for government.  And he’s got a great name…even if his website is broken.  He says some things I don’t agree with, but he says a lot that I do – and he’s not aligned with either of the major parties.  I’m of a mind to give this man a shot. “Winn Handy.”  I like it.