Getting past obvious answers – Trump on Today

Donald Trump in his fledgling try for the White House in 2012 is offering an astounding number of bromides and platitudes, braggadocio and bombast in his wave of TV interviews from O’Reilly (FOX) to Today (NBC). From the old saw of the birther’s claim that the president lacks his US birth certificate to matters of state Mr. Trump seems well prepared to talk over any and all other questions while repeatedly repeating all his preconceived message points. He knows how to talk, and talk, and talk.

In response to a question of what the President (Obama) has done well, Trump replied “he got elected.”
In response to the lack of a national budget Trump assured listeners it was due entirely to “a lack of leadership” that wouldn’t be the case if he was sitting in the oval office.
In response to a question on foreign policy he expounded that the “United States isn’t respected” any longer by the rest of the world.

In fairness questions that were posited to how he would change this if elected but they were parried and thwarted and never answered. The ‘how” of what would be different is often the most important question — not the if or the dreams or desires for change, but rather the execution, the how. Mr. Trump offered nothing to that debate or discourse.

Taking just the question of how the rest of the world may see us… after years of financially and militarily supporting dictatorial regimes all to assure the stable supply of crude oil to fill our gas-guzzling economy, or the nature of avaricious conduct in pursuit of minerals and raw materials to satiate our economic demands at the cost of local economies and indigenous people… these are the core issues of why we’re not liked, not respected. Having the biggest stick, the greater swagger, the most shiny boots on the ground isn’t sufficient to master world respect, much less domination. Assuring audiences this would all ‘be changed’ once he gets to the White House seems insufficient and unrealistic.

The media – all of us who are in charge of the microphone – better start asking the ‘how’ as the 2012 campaign gets underway. There’s likely to be a lot of noise in the coming months – but rather than just close our ears we could decide to have greater impact by thinking about and demanding answers to the real questions. Let’s start with ‘how’?

Was the question rhetorical?

Just after the carnage in Tucson the airwaves, especially cable and talk radio, seemed filled with hand-wringing and calls for toning down the vitriol in political debate.

There appeared to be a chorus proclaiming a need to return to civility.

In the last 24 hours there has been a turn about – with one network in particular proclaiming that since there is no evidence that harsh words, intemperate thought and anger were at cause for the shootings, then they should not be held responsible nor subject to criticism.

I wonder – if things are so good across this country’s political spectrum, is there is no longer a need for civility?
How did things change so quickly? Did we forget already that regardless of the craziness of the shooter in Tucson, perhaps we all might do better with moderation in thought, anger and speech?

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.

Interactive Budget Model – Multimedia Used Well

The Los Angeles Times published an interactive feature called the California Budget Balancer. It isn’t the first such model but it is worth attention and acknowledgment. Just as an example of the choices that one must make, the consequences of each decision, and the impact that every decision has to countless millions of citizens is valuable. Additionally – as a piece of media – it challenges and engages the audience to experiment with clicks and choices.
This is multimedia done well.

The national budget – state budgets – local government and agency budgets are all bloated and out of sync with incomes; yet visualizing this is difficult for both lay people as well as professionals. The Times has made a contribution to understanding using multimedia.

The war we don’t hear (much) about

Arguably the war in Afghanistan drones on into its ninth year with continuing Draconian consequences including the loss of lives (US & Coalition troops and Afghan citizens), a negative effect on US interests and reputation abroad and devastating impact on our national budget, among others. And yet, no one (including, especially the media) seems to pay much attention.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that just 4% of news coverage this year focused on the war and that’s down from the year before when it was a whopping 5%.  According to Afghan War Just a Slice of US Coverage this week, the war just does not merit much editorial interest or coverage.  Is that because the media finds the war uninteresting?  Difficult to cover?  Or is it the impression and/or understanding that the audience doesn’t much care for the story, so why cover something distasteful that’s apt to turn viewers off?  Or, all of the above?

Thinking back to Vietnam when there were thousands of reporters from all over the world covering that war, daily papers and multiple wire services were filled with incisive and comprehensive coverage. Nightly newscasts featured competitive stories. Names like Saigon, Da Nang, Hue, Cam Ranh Bay, Pleiku and so many others were widely known – heard frequently in coverage and by datelines – and discussed. But what of names, places and coverage from Afghanistan? After Kabul what names do come to mind? And could many (any) of us find them on a map?

Whose fault is that? Is it the media? There are fewer than a handful of reporters in country.  Is that because of diminished interest, reduced news budgets? The difficulty (near impossibility) of getting around without the assistance and escort of the US or coalition military? All of the above? But wouldn’t we be better served by more coverage – not just that which is approved by US military and diplomatic handlers?

From the Times’ story, “The low levels of coverage reflect the limitations on news-gathering budgets and, some say, low levels of interest in the war among the public. About a quarter of Americans follow news about Afghanistan closely, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

“Inside the United States, you’ve got audiences that are beginning to suffer from war fatigue,” said Tony Maddox, who oversees international coverage for CNN.”

Competition among journalists in Vietnam as well as the wider range of published, conflicting and divergent viewpoints did contribute to the divisive nature of that war as well as to its ultimate peace.

The current crop of Afghan stories – according to what was published in the Times – seems to focus on whether the war is in fact winnable? A fair question – an obvious one at the end of the year and prior to the upcoming new Congress and State of the Union.

But – from a media standpoint – and a critical one – how is it that a war which is sucking resources at an appalling rate only merits 4% of the annual news coverage to begin with? Incidentally this isn’t just the fault of the media, for whatever our many sins might be, we have also become victims of the business culture which seeks to please audiences by giving them news they want, news they will be entertained by – not necessarily the news they need to make sober, serious and informed decisions. Afghan news is deemed to be unpopular unpleasant – it’s certainly foreign – and to be discriminatory or bigoted it is about people and a country we don’t generally think very highly of! There, I said it. From a media management standpoint – though they may not want to admit it – if honest they’d say their audiences don’t understand these people – don’t relate to these people – and don’t believe that our being in country is going to make much of (if any) reasonable difference. We’re marking time until the body county, blood-letting and money loss is so unsupportable that we’ll skulk out having declared a win, proudly asserting we had established a toe hold for democracy and proclaiming a peace. Whatever the hell that will look like.

The real question is this – from a media standpoint – 4%. Is that the best we can do? Is that a measure of how little we really care – and its failing Y2Y.

So as we enter 2011 let’s watch for stories with more bang-bang than politics. And stories about Presidential visits – 3 hours at an US air base – instead of a texture piece on the complexities of the Afghan government. And let’s not minimize the panache of visiting news anchors – Beauties in Bush Jackets – who visit from time to time to do their own ‘in-depth’ personal reporting conducted from the safety of US military escorts. This isn’t reporting. This is white wash. We deserve better… we don’t want to pay for it, we don’t want to be bothered by tough reporting and serious questions… and so instead we wait for Beltway pontificators to fill in what we don’t get from the field — offering platitudes and opinion instead of reportage.  It is however a poor alternative for the real thing.

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.

The whole world is in a terrible state of crisis, and we dont hear much about it.

The foreign correspondent has become a casualty of the economy.  The days of the dashing foreign correspondent, trench-coated and adorned on top with a fedora are long-gone. 

Newspapers which prided themselves on their overseas commitment and the breadth and depth of their coverage have long since shuttered their news bureaux overseas.  So too have networks preferring to import pictures of breaking stories to London to be voiced there before being re-transmitted to New York.

So what’s lost?  The foreign correspondent is dead. Long live the foreign correspondent piece in today’s Guardian by Timothy Garton Ash is a thoughtful, insightful view as to what’s lost when we no longer care (or are willing to pay) to find the news ourselves.

His closing graphs, “For all my experience cries out to me: there is nothing to compare with being there. However many thousands of fantastic clips, blogs and online transcripts you have, there is nothing to compare with being there…

The unique value added by the 20th-century foreign correspondent consisted, at best, in the combination in one person’s experience over time, the considered throughput in a single mind and sensibility, of all three elements: witnessing, deciphering, interpreting. If we can somehow preserve that, in the journalism of our day, then we may yet achieve both more and better foreign news.”

The Guardian story is worth a look…not so much because it breaks a headline about the dearth of competent foreign journalism as much as it is a reminder of what we have lost… and to think about the consequences of our ignorance, a lack of awareness or interpretive appreciation and an absence of understanding.

In 1924 Sean O’Casey ended Juno & the Paycock with the admonition “”th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis”. Never did it seem that was more true than today.

Long live the foreign correspondent.

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.

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.

Civic Journalism a la francais

Video of a forced eviction of an African immigrant from a makeshift tent camp near Paris is causing alarm and stirring debate among politicians in France.  The video was shot on July 21 by an observer from a group called Right to Housing and has aired on CNN as well as the French cable news site France24. It clearly shows police carrying a pregnant woman using what many critics say is excessive force, but beyond that what makes it noteworthy is that the video has been screened online more than 300,000 times!

Under laws in 3 states here recording video of police in action is now illegal Use a Camera Go to Jail. It is interesting to note that state of alarm generated by these pictures in France and one cannot help but think of other US-based incidents, such as Rodney King in Los Angeles, stories that would never have come to the public’s attention had it not been for private citizens having the courage to capture video of police transgressions.

It fuels the debate over the public’s right to monitor their public servants; cameras in the hands of civic journalists has long been a global occurence whether in France or Nepal or Iran, and efforts by law enforcement and politicians here to thwart this are at odds with a free and open society.