Knee Jerks & Reaction – Free speech or Gun Control?

Whether the tragedy in Arizona was caused by bulls-eyes on web sites or placards or vitriol may never be fully known. But in the response to this tragedy – to say or do something that will make us feel better – we again see a typical American response of “let’s put a band-aid on this” right away. There are already urgent calls for a quick-fix regardless of its long-term implications.

By Sunday there were calls in the media and Congress to restrict what can be said or used in political advertisements. There were calls to limit free speech. There were calls to put limits and penalties on what could be said in a country where it has been our historic right to protect free speech – even when some of what is said is odious.

It seems peculiar that these proponents are seeking to put a fix on free speech instead of looking at the real problem – the absolute proliferation of handguns – semi automatic weapons better suited for war than for sale at a sports store to an individual who will most likely plead an insanity defense for his senseless and selfish actions.

It would be a sad ending to this tragedy that our rights become victims of emotional decisions and knee jerk reaction.

Stupid is as stupid does – again

Sitting in for Sean Hannity on FOX News this week Tucker Carlson called for Michael Vicks execution for pet abuse. Gawker has the clip.
Is this for ratings? Attention? Is it racism? Is it just reality TV?

The question of why the FOX bosses allow this is obvious – cloaked in “free speech” it garners attention and column inches, like these.

But is any one thinking of the longer term damage to discourse? Of course, if it is Tucker’s opinion calling for executions of pet abuses, then he’s welcome to it. Maybe he wants his own show again and feels this is the best way to accomplish that goal. But it just doesn’t pass the smell test of reasonableness… So why say it? For effect? For attention? One can only surmise he was motivated by being quote-worthy. He succeeded. But at what price?

What is the price for discourse? What is editorially responsible? Where is the line? Where are the editors? The managers? The grown-ups?

Comparisons of Stewart to Murrow & Cronkite are misplaced

Today’s New York Times story portraying comedian Jon Stewart’s advocacy role in support of 9/11 responders to that of CBS news icons Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite seem out of proportion to history, to journalism and to impact.
Mr. Stewart – though both popular and persuasive – does not merit comparison for his remarks on a single show or position compared to the risks that Murrow for instance took when he spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy or the Army hearings; nor that of Cronkite when he editorialized about the long-term future of the Vietnam war. Stewart – to his credit – did speak out using his platform and popularity to ridicule what he felt was happening in Congress, but in doing so he did not risk nor face the same consequences as Murrow or Cronkite.
In our rush to make comparisons to the past – all of us – journalists, professors, every one must be more careful to make more apt, thoughtful comparisons than what is offered today by both the Times and a quote from a professor of popular TV culture at Syracuse.

Is doing enough actually enough?

Joshua-Michéle Ross who writes a nifty column Opposable Planets on social media has written Be Committed but Not Attached offering a phrase “be committed to the work that you do, the purpose you have, the intentions and integrity of your actions. Don’t be too attached to the results.”

I’ve been pondering this for the last few days.

Applied to the work: media – especially the challenged world of multimedia communications today – is just being committed enough? In times of tumult – of change – of business challenges while one cannot live daily on the edge, doesn’t one have to be committed to results? Is there any other way that is as rewarding?

WikiLeaks – media or messenger?

A friend asked for my thoughts about the WikiLeaks story based on diplomatic cables… what the NYTimes currently explains is a (treasure) trove of documents offering perspective on US allies and enemies.

I responded: Troubled… I worry that (what appears to be) an indiscriminate use of Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs) is abusive and not journalism. It is troubling that regurgitating huge amounts of data without the legwork invested by and associated with solid reporting masquerades as journalism and contemporary media. I think it does a disservice to all true journalists. Good reporting is less about volume and more about substance, perspective and context, and that does not appear to be reflected here.

My friend and colleague, Sharon Stevenson, now an ex-pat who offers a particularly excellent eye on the media, wrote: “To the editors of the unsigned “A Note to Readers: The Decision to Publish Diplomatic Documents” of Nov. 28, 2010:
I’m wondering if stating that “…it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name,” means you are saying that the government should therefore have no right to secrecy about any communication or deliberation. Because that’s exactly what that statement implies. Do you really mean that we the public should have the right to know everything that is done or said “in our name” by government?
If that is so, then I must as an American journalist of thirty years ask if you are advocating that the government should fail, i.e. lose all power to negotiate, lose all power to react to possible threats, lose all power to be considered an ally since all those actions normally have some aspect of secrecy or confidentiality involved?
By not condemning, or questioning at the least, the wholesale dump of cables and in fact enjoying the fruits of readership by their publication, not as part of stories generated by decisions of reporters and their editors to pursue information, but as part of the illegal stealing of lawfully classified secret documents, you are in fact encouraging more of the same illegal thefts of government information and making a mockery of “freedom of the press.”
You are not recognizing that the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) exists for this purpose to make it possible for legitimate members of the media to get the documents they need to better help the public exercise their franchise, the main reason for freedom of the press in the first place, i.e., for the public to be able to cast an intelligent, well-informed vote.
As much as I have admired and certainly daily read the NYTimes, your reputation for me is now sullied, smirched, dirty, and your actions show you are putting monetary gain ahead of the rule of law and the welfare of the nation.
To help you remain consistent, I hope that from now on the NY Times will record and publish all meetings at the top executive levels of the paper and require reporters to videotape their interviews with all sources and put them on YouTube. Because after all, isn’t it presumptuous to conclude that subscribed American readers have no right to know what is really behind the investigative stories which form the bedrock of your freedom of press?”

The questions posed by this (to me) is that there may be less and less definition between news and text/words. Words become jumbles; thoughts become less important to the absolute volume of content.
The absence of real reporting from so many world capitals makes this all the more alarming. As news organizations have retrenched in the new world economics there are fewer feet on the ground and eyes balls on the scenes to report (and analyze) world and political events, offer perspective and interpretation based on a series of observations, variables and reportage.

WikiLeaks is enjoying surging popularity as if it is some upstart or a David playing against the Goliath of traditional media. Dont forget that Goliath plays a daily role, even if not as glamorous a role as WikiLeaks, an organization that has not invested itself in the daily grind, the less popular but oh-so-necessary role of media.

National Security Trumps the Right to Know, Sometimes Even the Opportunity to Ask

The recent gas explosion that destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno, California offers another example of police and local authorities using the drape of “national security” to push the media back from the scene, to refuse to answer questions, and to deny access to maps and other documents that would give knowledge and comfort to residents, rate payers and tax payers.

Before the dawn of the morning following he explosion I was ordered back from an intersection more than a mile from the fire by a sergeant of the Pacifica (California) police acting as part of a mutual aid response. Why couldn’t we remain where we were parked – and had been parked for some 12 hours? “National Security” was his response as if by declaring those 2 words it precluded any further discussion or need for explanation. One could surmise if we refused to move the skies would be filled with black helicopters and the streets with black SUVs as federal law enforcement would leap from these vehicles as if clowns packed into too small a car in a circus ring.

“National Security” is all one needs to say now in defense of any argument or inquiry. Why can’t the utility PG&E release maps of outs gas lines? “National Security.” I suppose they are worried that terrorists with backhoes will soon be digging up streets to cause unimaginable destruction.

I suppose if I trusted those making the assertion, that in fact there was a real threat I’d be more willing to comply with their instruction. It just so often seems to ring like a hollow excuse. It becomes a wild card for which there is no argument; it trumps all other discussion.

But we have been too-often toyed with before. We are told we can’t make pictures at an airport or along a public waterfront where joggers run and mothers stroll with baby carriages because it might give advantage to our enemies. How about the damage this Draconian approach might cause to a free and open society? Is this truly for our safety or is it window dressing in the absence of a better, more effective plan? It reminds me of the months following 9/11 when the California Highway Patrol assigned a patrol cruiser parked at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge as a final bulwark of security against a cascading truck aimed at the bridge towers. I so often saw the officer in that car asleep in his seat that I wondered how much real security was being provided as opposed to what might otherwise seem to be window dressing.

It is frightening to witness the erosion of media protection. It seems to be a step in the wrong direction to limit access, to thwart entry, and to restrict the free flow of information. If there is a real threat, then there is no argument. If there is no reason except for the desire of authorities to conduct their work free from the eyes of the media and the public, then this must be fought.

OutFOXed or smarter than one?

In an editorial tip-of-the-hat to its generally conservative audience, the self-proclaimed fair and balanced FOX network has built a lineup of high profile, high-powered anchors and contributors, including former governors Mike Huckabee (R-Arkansas) and Sarah Pallin (R-Alaska) among others. It has been an effective strategy that has been coined “talk radio right” and remains largely popular among audiences and, in turn, many advertisers.

Politico points out in today’s The Fox primary: complicated, contractual that with 4 FOX regulars now exploring the possibility of running for president in 2012, at what point does the news network have to make a choice — drop these popular talent entirely; disclose its inherent political support by providing them an unlimited, unhindered platform; assure audiences that coverage is fair and balanced regardless of political ambition or finances; or appoint an ombudsman?
Fox is already counting down the days to this November’s mid-term elections. It would be fair to assume a similar countdown clock to 2012 will be unveiled shortly after November 2, 2010… so, when is the proper time to establish some distance?
It is abundantly clear that Ms. Pallin is already campaigning for something, endorsing GOP candidates and appearing for tea party fund-raisers nationwide. Messrs. Gingrich and Huckabee routinely appear on the political circuit of speeches as they graze the chicken dinners and sample the audience’s response to their message.

Is this apparent conflict of interest a problem for FOX? To an old ethicist it would seem unseemly. How can a network cover one of its own without bias? Without criticism or the basis of impartiality? Or, can it?

But what if this is the new standard? Is FOX comfortable evolving from “Your Election HQ” to becoming the “voice of the nation network”? By covering only those it appears to favor, from Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell, raising awareness and money for their campaigns, is FOX also building the inside track on whatever news and politics from within those in power, those it backed, and those who are dependent on their access to the FOX mouthpiece?

So – has FOX been outFOXed as Politico might suggest, or does the network care? Do they need to? Surely the toothless FCC is in no position to do anything.
In what is an essentially changing media world has FOX simply been the first to pick and back the candidates it favors? Too Machiavellian or just plain strategic?

And what happens after the votes are cast and it is time to pay the piper?

The power of one – a man sings out in protest

There are others who take stages across America to poke fun or satire at contemporary events. I’d venture to suggest they rarely get the attention they deserve. Mr. Seeger is testimonial evidence of a life lived well in pursuit of his passion, in honor of his beliefs, and his desire to persuade others to think and share his commitment.

Pete Seeger is an American legend, a troubadour who at 91 can still raise his voice to shine light on what he believes is wrong. His most recent target is BP for its culpability in the gulf oil spill off Louisiana, and his recording of “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You” was recently recorded in New York. In his aging voice there remains unmistakable power, and through his lips the lyrics written by his friend Lorre Wyatt echo with a tremendous resonance.

In the contemporary media world where opinion delivered with bravado and volume seems more valued than thoughtful wisdom, where pundits seems to predominate over those who have first-hand knowledge and acumen, it is instructive, indeed empowering to witness a sole voice of articulate rebellion and considered dissent. It is illustrative that a single voice – at whatever age – can still be a clarion.

There are others who take stages across America to poke fun or satire at contemporary events. I’d venture to suggest they rarely get the attention they deserve. Mr. Seeger is testimonial evidence of a life lived well in pursuit of his passion, in honor of his beliefs, and his desire to persuade others to think and share his commitment.

It just made me pause for a moment to compare his voice to the noise of so many others who appear to measure their success by achieving sixteen minutes of fame, as compared to a man who has earned a lifetime of applause for a body of work achieved singing one song at a time.

Dog Days of August, News in the Doldrums & the Lower Manhattan Mosque

August is not usually known as a great month for news. The President is often on a vacation while Congress has abandoned Washington to return to their districts. Political campaigns are traditionally in hibernation raising money. Families are on holiday and companies generally wait to unveil new products until after Labor Day.

What little news that does occur runs the risk of being beaten to death, rehashed and regurgitated until all that remains is a little drool, spittle that eeks from the lips of pundits and prognosticators, and a second tier of opinion-makers who are not-so-important that they could take vacation lest they might miss their only chance of the year to be quoted.

August news stories have the same foul odor of rotting food left out in the hot sun… stories that stretch on for weeks… when senior executives abandon NYC for the Hampton’s or the Cape leaving more junior news people in charge who embrace, indeed flog same ol’ stories for days and days.  It is so much safer to go with a 2nd, 3rd or 15th day lead than chart a new course or find something more compelling when what’s old and loud can be resuscitated for another lead.

Last August coverage focused on the proposed death panels associated with health care reform.  Stop – if just for a moment – is it really credible that the United States government would propose death panels for its citizens as a matter of public policy?  Does that Mengele-esque concept pass the credulity test?

This August we have the Manhattan mosque.  In a year’s time, with reflection, will this be about a proposed building or rather the question was this suggested mosque about actually building it, or merely asking for permission?  Was the media, in turn much of the public, played by the question – what if we said, “No”?  What if we said there wasn’t the right of freedom of religion or of speech?  What if we had said that we do not honor the tenants of the Constitution, or in outright rejection made it globally clear that we were a nation where there was such repression that the US resembled a nation ruled by religious zealots and where freedoms were not respected?

The musical The Fantastics, music by Harvey Schmidt, book and lyrics by Tom Jones, a play itself about hate and bigotry capture the essence of confusion about what was really what… in a song called “Plant a Radish” they wonder about the mystery of raising children to act and do as their parents want. In a more macro version, did we sing this same chorus asking ourselves what we thought, what we wanted, and what we thought was the question, but in fact, we missed it?

In Washington you usually don’t challenge some one’s plan but rather their motives, that is, you seek to find out the why a particular individual supporting a law or idea is gaining credence and destroy him or her instead of attacking the issue directly.  Here that old standard seems to have been turned on its head… instead of attacking the motives of those responsible we have attacked the plan itself.  The mosque, whether a single room as part of a larger community center, in many ways a Muslim equivalent of a YMCA, is not the issue as much as its proponents wanted to place the question, a challenge, in front of the American people.

Are we truly as good as we would have ourselves believe?  Did we get played by the media, many of whom went into swirl mode trying to breathe life into an emotional reaction instead of looking at what may lie beneath the noise?

And just in passing, supposing this mosque is approved and construction money can be obtained… does any one really expect the trade unions to willingly join in the building process?  Will steel arrive as planned?  Or other building supplies and  crafts people?  Will the NY Fire Department expeditiously sign off on permits and licenses?  In New York, a city renown for its distinct reactions, does any one think this building has a serious expectation of any completion?

This wasn’t about a building, this was about the American process.  Welcome to another August; September begins in just two more weeks.

News obituary – the audience is dying and so is the programming as we have known it

Older audiences for network newscasts may signal the death of the evening news – oh wait, maybe this obituary is already past due for newscasts that cost too much to produce for too little profit for too small an audience.  That is a trifecta representing the end of news as we know it.

Audiences are aging and networks have largely failed to capture the attention or loyalty of the younger Gen X, Gen Y, Millenials, Gen R and other audiences.  As the network news audience ages the doom and gloom around those once proud organizations becomes more intense.

I’ve heard an internal number at ABC News shows the average World News Tonight audience is 61.3 years old.  Public numbers are not as venerable.  At that increasing age medical-pharmaceutical and a few other advertisers are about the only ones who will find this audience at all desirable.

It foretells the end of the evening news as we know it today. Is that a bad thing? Is this just another evolutionary step? In the cafeteria era of news, will the end even be noticed?

From TVNewser, “Report: Broadcast TV Aging Faster than the Population.

Broadcast television viewers are getting older at a faster rate than the general population, according to a new report from analyst Steve Sternberg.
The report does not mean that literally, of course, but rather the median age of network TV viewers continues to rise every year, outpacing the general public.

The median age for CBS last season as 55, with ABC at 51 and NBC 49. Fox, which does not have a network news division, was the youngest of the big four at 44 years old.

So what does it mean for broadcast TV news?

For network news divisions, the aging is troubling, but unlikely to affect their economics in the short term. With the proliferation of cable news outlets, broadcasters have already been hit hard, and seen their audiences erode over the last few years…
As a result CBS News and ABC News, which do not have cable networks to prop them up, have been through a series of devastating layoffs and cutbacks.

Because news shows typically sell ads targeting viewers 25-54 years old, it gives them more room to maneuver as the networks continue to age upward. Only CBS has a median age above the key demo.

Longer-term however, it is a troubling prospect. The entertainment programming typically drives most of the profits at the broadcasters, and as they age up and the audiences decline, the profits will get smaller.

Smaller profits means that the network will look for more ways to cut back. Those cutbacks could end up coming from the news divisions, with its already small margins.”