Archive for the ‘Other’ Category

I can’t add much on Haiti, but I can do something

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

I’m torn by the devastation in Haiti.

All the images of desperation, the anguished cries for help, the total destruction – it’s numbing to the  mind and the senses.

Never in my recollection has their been an event so totally heart-wrenching. It makes Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami seem small in comparison. While the tsunami killed something like 230,000 people, the deaths were spread over a wide area. As many as that may have died just in a few square miles of Port-au-Prince.

There has been widespread criticism of the speed of relief efforts. But as it becomes more clear how overwhelming the obstacles are, it also seems to be clear that the best efforts would have struggled.

Probably because of Katrina and the controversy created by the bureaucratic stumbles during the relief effort in 2005, journalists started asking whether the relief was arriving too slowly on the first day after the Haiti quake. That  line of questioning has been a regular part of the news story from the beginning.

I understand why. At some point, those questions will be relevant and finding the answers will be important.  But it seems absurd to be focusing on what went wrong at this point, rather than what can be done.  

And what can be done? For most of us here in the U.S., about all we can do is send money to whatever relief agency seems to make the most sense – the Red Cross, the Bush-Clinton fund, UNICEF, etc.

At Monroe County Community College, professors JoEllen Locher and Alex Babycz and administator Brian Lay all have ties with Haiti and have been encouraging the college community to participate in the relief efforts. They’ve also provided reports from friends and relatives in Haiti – making the media images seem more personal, more real.

Haiti was a mess before the earthquake. Maybe there is a glimmer of hope that as the crushed infrastructure is rebuilt, the international relief effort can also raise the quality of life in Haiti.

I don’t know. I don’t have any solutions, and I don’t know what could have been done better.  But at least I can add a few of my dollars to the effort, along with my hopes and prayers.

Ups and downs of journalism in 2010

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster, and I’m exhausted.

I’ve spent the last few days sorting through all the Web sites, blog posts, e-mails, newspaper columns (both print and digital) that I’ve collected for the last two years on the subject of online journalism.

Since I began thinking about teaching journalism at Monroe County Community College about two years ago, I’ve been tucking away every  “how to” reference I’ve found on the digital new world of journalism.

I knew that eventually I would be teaching online journalism – how to write stories, shoot and edit audio and video, produce multi-media, blog, twitter and friend on the Internet.

Now, at the beginning of my third semester teaching at MCCC, it’s happening. The new class, which I’ve been developing for more than a year, starts Monday.

Most of the curriculum is set. Now I’m going through my files, checking out all those tips and hints and suggestions that I’ve squirreled away over the months.

Included are long, thoughtful blog posts predicting the imminent death of newspapers. There also are long, thoughtful blog posts predicting the long life of newspaper companies as they carefully manage the transition from print to digital.

There are cool new Web sites that make the work of journalists easier by providing wonderful new tools.

And there are frightening new Web sites that just steal news from wherever they can find it,  giving Internet users a reason to avoid real news sites.

As I’ve sifted through, moving some things into the save pile, some into the “use in class” pile and some into the round file (figuratively; it’s usually just a delete key), my emotions have been through a wringer.

 Bottom line: I’m still happy to be a journalist and excited about the future. Newspapers have a tough row to hoe, no doubt about it. But journalism, in some form, is going to survive and thrive.

And there are so many great new tools for telling stories, it’s like being a kid sneaking around under the Christmas tree. I just have to figure out which ones to open and share with students.

Wilson book and the CIA bombing …

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

News reports of a bomb killing seven CIA agents in Afghanistan touched me more closely because I just finished reading Valerie Wilson’s book on her career with the CIA.

About half of Wilson’s book, “Fair Game,” was about how the Bush administration outed her because it was embarassed by her husband’s criticism of the invasion of Iraq, and about half was a fairly detailed description of her career as a covert CIA agent.

It was my first glimpse behind the scenes at the workings of the CIA – if you don’t count spy movies. Because the book is a personal, first-person memoir, it puts a face, an individual personality, a human soul, on the otherwise mysterious, faceless silhouette of a secret agent.

You don’t expect CIA spies to be the girl next door. But that’s what Valerie Wilson was to her family’s neighbors in a Philadelphia suburb. A smart girl who did well in school, excelled at Penn State, then took a job in Washington that required a lot of travel. None of them knew that those years spent overseas were as a spy whose main job was recruiting double agents.

So when I read about the bombing in Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA employees and contractors – including a woman who had headed the nearby CIA base and was a long-time counter-terrorism officer – my thoughts immediately went to Wilson.

The woman who died may have been someone  much like her – I suppose it could have been her, if her husband hadn’t challenged the Bush administration over its claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

But Joe Wilson, a former longtime State Department employee who briefly was U.S. ambassador to Iraq under the first President Bush, knew that President G.W. Bush had lied about claims that Iraq was seeking uranium for a nuclear weapon from Niger.

Wilson had been sent to Niger by the CIA to check on the rumor, and reported that it was false. Despite knowing about Wilson’s report, Bush (or his speech writers; it’s unclear what the president actually knew) included the claim in his 2003 State of the Union speech.

When Wilson challenged the administration, he became public enemy No. 1, and was the subject of a withering public relations attack by Republicans. Part of that attack was leaking to the press that Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent – apparently so they could claim that his trip to Niger was just a junket proposed by his wife.

Although it took a few years – she didn’t finally resign from the CIA until 2006 – the leak and resulting publicity ended Valerie Wilson’s career with the CIA. So there was no chance she would be in Afghanistan working as a covert agent this week.

But the seven people who died were probably much like her – folks with families and friends back home who knew them as bright and motivated young people destined for success at whatever they tried. People who chose a career of secret government service partly to fight for the cause of freedom, but probably also for the excitment and adventure.

In her book, Valerie Wilson went into some detail discussing why she chose to apply to the CIA. She came from a military family. Serving her country was in her blood. But she also had the kind of personality that craved challenges.

And the CIA was a challenge: being accepted into the agency; surviving the exhausting physical and mental  training; winning a coveted spot as a field agent; and then being chosen as a super-secret, non-official agent.

The agents who died probably will not be identified, for obvious reasons. Other lives could be endangered if their roles in the CIA are revealed. So it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to read the kind of touching stories about the lives of the heros who sacrificed their lives for our freedom that we read after military deaths.

But thanks to Wilson’s book, I have a pretty good idea what kind of people our country lost in that bombing. And they deserve – even if it’s anonymous – our thanks for their sacrifice.

Tiger Woods and the media

Monday, January 4th, 2010

I haven’t weighed in on media coverage of Tiger Woods because my mouth has been hanging open with amazement.

Of course, no one should  be surprised by the entertainment media’s capacity for invasive and voyeuristic  journalism.

I call it journalism, even though it causes a distinct wince, because most people consider the celebrity-based coverage of pop stars and athletes that dominates the news to indeed be journalism.

Unfortunately, most folks don’t distinguish between serious coverage of relevent news, which relies on verification of truth before print/airing/posting, and the anything goes if it titillates style of entertainment coverage that now seems to dominate the news.

What left my jaw hanging was that it wasn’t just supermarket tabloids jostling for attention as each new Tiger affair was announced. Many traditional media outlets that once had standards joined the fray.

It’s no wonder the credibility rating of journalists has been plummeting for years.

I saw somewhere that the number of alleged affairs has topped 80. Even semi-legitimate news organizations have reported up to a dozen. Each time a new woman comes forth to claim a liaison with Tiger Woods, there are magazines, Web sites, TV shows, newspapers, blogs galore willing to print the claim, even when it’s probably-most likely-almost certainly phony.

As soon as one blog/tabloid/cable TV show – no matter how questionable its practices – reports a new “sexual liaison,” all the others, even legitimate, serious news organizations, feel compelled to repeat the “published report.” As if something  being published makes it true.

At this point, I’m pretty certain that Tiger Woods had an affair. Maybe more than one.

And, like every other human being on the planet, I’m disappointed in Tiger Woods. 

But I’m much more disappointed in the news media overall, and particularly in the serious news organizations that threw journalistic standards out the window while reporting every new scurrilous claim.

Shame on Tiger. But Tiger messing up only hurts one man and his family.

When news media fall over themselves to report untruths, halftruths and alleged truths, the damage to all journalists is much more troubling.

Serendipity and finding new things

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

I was talking to a student recently when the subject of war and funerals came up.

I mentioned “no man is an island” casually, and could tell she didn’t get the reference.

So I said, “You’ve heard of the John Donne quote about,  ‘No man is an island’ and ‘for whom the bell tolls,’ haven’t you.”

She shook her head, no, with a blank expression.

Since we were sitting at a computer, I Googled “No man is an island,” and several sources of the John Donne quote came up.

To my surprise, the first one I went to didn’t have the usual translation – it was the quote in its original “old English.”

I was delighted. I had never seen this before. Somehow it increased the meaning for me – the 17th Century language emphasized the timelessness of  the message. Here it is:

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

The bell reference, if you’re not familiar with it, involves a church bell tolling for a funeral. There’s a lot going on in those few short words, but they come back to me the most powerfully when I see a funeral procession or hear the church bells for a military service.

The central message – that all mankind is intertwined – is expecially poignant during time of war. All mankind is diminished by each death – whether a U.S. Marine or a Taliban fighter.

The student seemed to appreciate that I shared the famous quote with her. I certainly appreciated the chance to revisit it – closer to its 1624 origins.

Times reporter’s escape from Taliban – amazing

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Talk about mixed emotions…

My mind is reeling with thoughts as I think about the six-part series written by NY Times reporter David Rohde about his capture by the Taliban, seven months in captivity and harrowing escape.

Some of the ideas fighting to get through my brain to my fingers:

  • Pride in being part of the same fraternity of journalists. I’ve never done anything as important or dangerous or exciting as trying to interview a Taliban leader – and getting captured in the process. But as a lifelong journalist, my chest was swelling with pride as I read Rohde’s account. He was trying to do what all good journalists do – get the other side of the story. And he was willing to risk his life to talk to that one last source needed to tell a complete story.
  • Fear and confusion – again – about what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan. One of the themes that came through Rohde’s story was the amazingly different world view held by the young Taliban fighters who held him captive. Whether it’s caused by deep religious fervor or just a life of brainwashing, they really believe the best way to get to heaven is to die fighting the evil U.S. invaders. How do you win a war against that?
  • Admiration for a wonderful piece of journalism. Even if you look past the gripping subject matter,  Rohde’s writing is a classic mix of clear description and elegant prose.  It pulls you effortlessly through the pages. Even though it’s long, at no point do you contemplate stopping reading. He doesn’t give in to the temptation to over-dramatize – the story-telling is calm and understated. Yet there are great lines – metaphors that bring his bleak situation into sharp focus.
  • Concern that I’m not doing enough. As I read about a fellow journalist risking his life to tell important stories that the world needs to hear, I can’t help but ask, “What am I doing to help.” I’ve left a real job in the world of journalism to teach – hoping that I can make a difference by training the journalists of tomorrow. But is that enough?NY Times reporter To paraphrase Gandhi, am I doing enough to find my own Afghanistan?

Okay, that’s a sample. I read Rohde’s piece – published in the Times a couple weeks ago – for the first time yesterday. Then I heard him being interviewed on the radio today, giving a voice to the words. 

I highly recommend the series. Read it, then share your thoughts.

Climate change struggling to climb media ladder

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

 These are the best of times for media coverage of climate change, but they still may fall short of “good enough.”

The environment in general and global warming in particular have always suffered from lack of media attention.

Media in America – both print and broadcast – tend to follow their readers’ and viewers interests. The interests of readers and viewers tend to follow media attention – long called the “agenda-setting” function of the media.

It’s like a dog chasing it’s tail.

Through most of the last half-century, environmentalists have  been marginalized by moderates and conservatives as a movement of the left. Their issues gained widespread popularity – just about everyone was in favor of clean air and water, preserving wilderness and protecting scenic rivers – but  the movement was labled as fringe by the majority of Americans.

As a result, media coverage remained spotty, rising and falling as the dog’s tail sped up or slowed down.

All that is changing with the climate. Global warming isn’t about snail darters and spotted owls – it’s about survival of the planet.

And with the higher stakes comes a higher profile. For the first time in my 35-year career in the media, “green” is a popular color.

Most moderates long ago turned the corner, accepting the science of man-caused global warming. Even most conservatives are looking for a way to recognize what they adamantly rejected just a few years ago.

But is it enough to turn the circling dog into a clear recognition that environmental/energy issues should be at the forefront of the public agenda?

Probably not. Health care reform, the state of the economy and whether Fox News is a savior or evil continue to dominate media in America.

Pushing climate change to the top of the media ladder – breaking through the clutter of issues in the way – probably requires a cataclysmic event.

And by the time climate change creates that kind of commotion, it probably will be too late to do much about it.

Today is Blog Action Day, when bloggers around the world are discussing climate change and what can be done to change the tide (no pun intended).

Maybe this kind of bottom-up “new media” involvement can make a difference. The Internet has altered the balance of power in the world, as traditional media suffer and a free-for-all ensues to figure out who fills the void.

Is it a big enough tidal wave to affect world opinion on climate change? Only time will tell.

Glenn Beck has found a winning formula

Monday, September 21st, 2009

I’m fascinated by the success of Glenn Beck, Fox TV’s talented entertainer/comedian/commentator.

Here’s a guy who has figured out how to get rich quick.

Take a group of Americans – it may only amount to 5 percent or 10 percent, but that’s still millions of people – who are worried about their paychecks, their mortgages, their kids’ lack of respect and the general degeneration of society.

Time coverPlay to their emotions, their fears, their distrust of government and their longing for the good ol’ days. Alternate between shouting, crying, pleading and shouting some more.

Don’t worry about facts, because inuendo works so much better. Don’t provide information, just ask questions – pointed, cynical, suggestive questions that let the viewer jump to whatever conclusions they choose.

Glenn Beck is a master entertainer. I get a chuckle every time I watch him, which is generally when a friend sends a link to one of his more vitriolic diatribes.

He’s often compared to Rush Limbaugh, and the comparison is apt. Both are talented entertainers who have found a niche market that is making them very, very rich men. The difference is that Limbaugh pays a little more attention to facts. He may conveniently ignore information that doesn’t suit the point he’s making. But he  generally builds logical arguments based on real information.

I saw one estimate that Beck’s making $20 million a year, between his radio and TV shows and books. Like Limbaugh a former radio DJ, he has found a formula that pays a lot more than playing top 40 hits.

 All this comes to mind because of the Time magazine cover story last week on Mr. Beck. The blogosphere is full of liberal folks ripping Time for not being more critical of Beck, and conservative folks ripping Time for being too critical.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, we seem to be living through an unprecedented time of polarization. Americans see the world through two different sets of glasses. The same set of facts is interpreted very differently, depending on which pair you’re wearing.

Exacerbating the situation is the vast variety of media now available.  Americans no longer sit in their living rooms, all watching Walter Cronkite, all hearing the same messages.

They choose their media, and more and more people are choosing to expose themselves only to media messages that reinforce their own opinions.

So if you get most of your information from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck doesn’t seem so crazy. A little wild at times, but he’s fighting for me, isn’t he?

Excuse my own cynicism, but I think it’s fairly obvious Glenn Beck is fighting for his bank account. He’s found a very lucrative niche, selling a modern brand of entertainment/snake oil.

Since the time of our founding fathers, there always has been a large group of Americans who distrust government and are longing for a champion who will put the bureaucrats in their place.

I say, if you like Glenn Beck, go ahead and watch him and read his books. But understand what he is and be forewarned. It’s entertainment, not fair news commentary. He’s getting rich selling a product. You’re the pigeon, I mean, consumer.

Covering funerals a challenge for reporters

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

As often happens, divergent thoughts converged in my mind last night, creating this blog post.

It started when I read The Evening News’ coverage of Pfc. Eric Harios’ funeral. It’s an emotional subject, and although I’m an experienced and somewhat caloused observer of the news, there was an uncomfortable lump in my throat by the time I finished reading and viewing the photos.

I’ve often tried to explain to young reporters – and now to students – the challenge of covering a funeral or memorial service.  You want to capture the dignity and emotion of the event, but without seeming sensational or voyeuristic.

Usually the family is okay with reporters and photographers at the funeral, because they understand that it’s a way to share their sorrow and their memories of the deceased with the larger community. But sometimes the family is not so sure – they’re distraught and don’t want to have to deal with distractions like newspaper and television reporters and photographers.

I was proud of The Evening News’ coverage – it seemed to me that  it not only struck the appropriate balance, but went beyond to achieve an admirable level of grace and eloquence.

Then, the next day, I heard a friend of the family describe how difficult it was for Pfc. Harios’ mother and brothers dealing with “the media.” The reference wasn’t to any particular media, so I don’t know whether they were referring to the local newspaper or nearby metro newspapers and TV stations. But I understand the problem, and I’ve seen it before.

Working with one local newspaper to share your family’s grief with the larger community is one thing – dealing with an army of reporters and photographers is quite another. The local newspaper tends to be sensitive to the family – in effect, it’s your neighbors sharing your story with more neighbors. Big-city media, especially when they’re competing with each other, tend to be much more aggressive. For them, it’s about getting the story.

I’ve spent most of my career on the small-town side of that equation – as a reporter or editor for community newspapers more or less like The Evening News. I’ve worked with many distraught families to assure them that our role as their hometown newspaper wasn’t to exploit their grief, but to help the entire community deal with the loss by participating  in  the funeral experience. I’ve even, when asked, offered advice on how to handle the unwanted media attention.

When handled right, it can be an uplifting experience for the family, as the larger community joins them in celebrating the life of their loved one.

I’ve been involved in coverage of a funeral that left me feeling proud to be a journalist. There are few stories that connect with readers as directly and as profoundly. If you do it right, you can provide a valuable community service.

I hope the Harios family wasn’t unduly troubled by the media. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows – and that’s basically all of us – the pain cuts deeply. You don’t need any extra pain.

And helped by the news coverage – at least what I saw in our local newspaper – the family of Army Ranger Eric Harios can gain some solace in the fact that the larger Monroe County community was grieving with them.

Adding my voice – get out of Afghanistan

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

It’s been about a year since I read, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” Khaled Hosseini’s second novel about life in Afghanistan. It followed his best-selling book, “The Kite Runner,” which has since been made into a movie.

But my mind went straight to that book when I read Deb Saul’s column a couple weeks ago about the war in Afghanistan, followed a few days later by news of Army Pfc. Eric Hario of Monroe County dying in a shootout with Taliban insurgents.

Deb, in her usual thoughtful and eloquent way, pointed out the folly of the U.S. thinking it could succeed in Afghanistan where two other superpowers (of their day) failed – Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

If you haven’t read “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” I highly recommend it, just for the power of the writing and the timeless messages of personal courage and resilience.

But beyond that, Hosseini’s second look at life in his homeland made an indelible impression on me for its insight into the socio/political landscape of Afghanistan.

I remember the heavy feeling in my heart as I put down the book, then thought about the U.S. soldiers dying there in a war that can’t be won.

The point that comes through the book with resounding clarity is that Afghanistan is a nation split down the middle, and both sides are willing to fight to the death for what they believe in.

Roughly half the country wants a democratic, secular government – the kind we’re trying to help them get, where religion and government are separated. And roughly half the country believes passionately that any secular government is evil, and that they have a religious duty to fight it. 

The point is, whichever side is in power, the other side is going to fight. No matter how strong we make the Afghan government and its army, they’re going to keep fighting. And the harder we try – the more innocent people we kill in the process – it will only drive more people to the other side.

The only solution to this is for foreign governments to get out of Afghanistan and let them figure it out on their own.

I know, I know, we can’t do that, for two reasons.

One, we can’t let it return to being an incubator for terrorism worldwide.

And two, after pouring billions of dollars and thousands of lives into Afghanistan for eight years, we have a moral obligation to help with the solution.

But as President Obama and his military leaders mull over what to do next, we can only pray that they’ll figure out that a military solution isn’t the solution. We can’t kill half the Afghans.

Rather, we have to turn all our attention to ending the fighting and starting the talking – the search for a political compromise that will hold the fighting to a minimum and will get foreign soldiers out of Afghanistan.

A “surge,” which seemed to work in Iraq by improving security enough to give the government time to start working, isn’t likely to have the same effect in Afghanistan.

The more we “surge,” the more we’ll turn the countryside against us. And this is a countryside that knows little except how to fight.