Thursday, December 21, 2006

Offering gifts and hopes this holiday season

Published 12.21.2006 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
As this is the season of giving and sharing, I wish to publicly share the following holiday gifts and warm wishes for the new year to some specific recipients.

To project managers of the Marquette Interchange reconstruction or anyone else supporting this multiyear mess: I give a hand-selected bag of high-caffeine coffee that will speed up the work (whether or not it is ahead of schedule now). May all the inconvenience caused by the next state highway project take place no closer to me than Plover but no further from you than your favorite grocer.

To all Wisconsin men and women in the armed forces who won't be home this holiday season: I offer my gratitude for your service and prayers for a safe trip home. For those who want to give more than good wishes, go to the state Department of Veterans Affairs Web site: dva.state.wi.us/supportourtroops.asp or call (800) 947-8387. There are a number of ways to get gifts to our service members overseas.

To Sen. Hillary Clinton: I give the strongest encouragement to run for president in 2008 and speak your mind without reservation. Your candidacy is the single best hope Republicans have to retain the White House.

To the aging, sniveling cynics who welcomed back American soldiers from Vietnam by spitting on them or calling them "baby killers": I didn't have time to get you anything, so why don't you just meet me for a quiet drink at the local VFW? Oh, and take a cab. I have some friends who would be happy to give you a lift home. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself as our service members return from the Middle East and that your children don't act as disgracefully as you did in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

To the anonymous donors of $25 million to Marquette University: You are doing God's work. No joke. However, my Christmas fund is almost depleted, so I believe I can scratch you from my list without much worry that you'll miss the Sam's Club membership card I had intended to send. I'm not sure where to send it anyway.

To the Milwaukee Public Schools and City Hall: No gift to you would be sufficient in that you already have given so much to Milwaukee taxpayers in the form of that inadvertent (but perhaps temporary) $9.1 million tax break. Now, could you extend your good deed by convincing Madison lawmakers that the rest of us in Wisconsin need more tax relief, too?

To the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents: At considerable personal expense, I have had made several engraved copies of the Supreme Court's 2003 decision striking down the practice of the University of Michigan's Law School to award an extra 20 points to its applicants purely on the basis of minority status. Please read it with a warm holiday beverage in front of your fireplace and recall what your dear grandma once said about two wrongs never making a right. Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable, even the kind that works in reverse.

To every jewelry store owner or jewelry department manager in southern Wisconsin: I give a large bag of price tags. Please place them in plain view in your merchandise displays so I don't have to repeatedly waste time or feel embarrassed by asking the price of items that I cannot afford to buy.

Finally, my personal holiday wish to all readers, regardless of what you celebrate at this time of the year: God bless you, and may 2007 be just a tad better for us all.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

When speaking of speakers, courtesy rules

Wikipedia image
Supposedly, our most common fear is public speaking.

Yet some experienced speakers, overly comfortable at the stump, blithely deliver presentations with so little regard for their audience, one wishes they’d contract this phobia and never speak publicly again.  And yet many other speakers, who are utterly paralyzed by the prospect of giving a speech in public, are the ones we ought to hear from. Sad irony.

Fortunately, most public speakers are conscientious enough to adhere to a few intuitive rules and share their knowledge, views, etc. in a responsible manner. Only courtesy and common sense are needed. 

Back in 1992 retired U.S. Admiral, Stanford University professor and Ross Perot running mate James Stockdale began to speak at a vice presidential debate by asking, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” 
His opening was greeted with laughter and later parodied on TV. I laughed too. At the moment, Mr. Stockdale sounded like a stunned buffoon before a worldwide audience.  More sad irony since he was, of course, a genuine American patriot, scholar and highly decorated Vietnam War veteran.

Although Mr. Stockdale, who died last year, was mocked for those lines, he began that debate by trying to explain exactly who he was and why he stood before us. So simple, yet how many times do speakers drone on without giving even the most perfunctory information about who they are, what their organization does, or what we can expect to learn from them?

Before drafting your presentation, consider what your audience really wants or needs from you.  Then stick to it. Save your meandering town hall style for friends and family.  Start by explaining who you are, your organization’s mission and your role. Share an agenda or an outline for the presentation that tells your audience the sequence of topics you’ll cover. Mention that after your prepared remarks, you’ll take questions. Don’t leave us guessing or assume we know any of these things. We don’t.

Of course, some famous speakers don’t require much introduction or a clearly stated agenda because those things are often obvious to their audience. But famous speakers don’t get a free pass. We come to hear them for the same reason we come to hear ordinary people like me. We want a better understanding about something the speaker knows and the speaker’s job is to transfer that understanding as effectively as possible in the time allotted.

Years ago I attended a breakfast event in Chicago where the keynote speaker was a renowned economist. People, who had paid handsomely to eat cold eggs and hear her views, packed a hall at a swanky downtown hotel.  Midway through her presentation, she began talking about her relationship with one of her children. I don’t mean a short, illustrative anecdote that related to her topic. I’m talking about useless paragraphs spewed out to an audience that just didn’t care. Nobody in the crowd was inherently uncaring; the problem was a speaker who forgot her purpose and indulged some odd impulse to stray.

Finally, if you use technology to underscore your points, make sure it works or don’t use it. If you frequently can’t connect to a website, get that video clip to run properly, etc. don’t hope for the best knowing you can summon an attendant while your audience waits.  Think about a paper chart or sock puppets instead.

In sum, as present to all of us subjected to public speakers from home, school, church, government, nonprofit organizations, or business - when it’s your turn to speak; please respect your audiences’ time and they’ll respect you for it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Opposing gay marriage isn't bigotry

Published: Nov. 15, 2006 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Several months ago, I was struck by a Quick Hit from a Journal Sentinel editorial writer who didn't understand why same-sex marriage was such a "big deal" among people who oppose the concept.

Supporters of same-sex marriage generally fall into two groups. The first group supports it purely on grounds of equality and treating others humanely regardless of race, origin, creed, etc. I can't argue with those supporters' motives, only with their judgment and apparent disregard for the importance of the traditional family unit. I place the aforementioned writer in this camp. At least we can talk.

The second group is more subliminal in practice. Those supporters wrap their arguments around the notion of equality, but what they actually want is societal re-engineering, and they'll say or do just about anything to achieve it. They insist that anyone rejecting the notion of same-sex marriage is motivated solely by bigotry.

Someone from this second camp must have occupied an office across the street from my own on Wisconsin Ave. He or she projected a large banner from a window to persuade pedestrians to vote "no" on the Nov. 7 marriage amendment banning same-sex marriage and in the process to "say no to bigotry."

It's hard to converse with one calling you a bigot, so before we go further, you must accept the premise that it is possible to treat homosexuals with the same decency that any other human deserves while still rejecting the same-sex marriage movement. If you cannot reconcile those two things, read no further; I'll never reach you.

Of course, we ought to treat homosexuals with the same decency as anyone else, but we don't have to embrace the concept that a marriage (and thus a family) stemming from a same-sex couple deserves society's unmitigated Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

But back to that second faction of the same-sex marriage group. What those supporters really want is for the rest of us to dispense with our construct of an acceptable family model. (That's the big deal.) Their imperative to recognize a same-sex union as a marriage has more to do with destroying long-held societal notions of what constitutes a family than it has to do with equality.

After all, there is nothing precluding a same-sex couple from living together, pledging commitment to one another and, increasingly, receiving a partner's benefits from American employers.

To be sure, a heterosexual marriage cannot, in and of itself, guarantee a sublime family life, but that is not the point. With all other factors equal, are well-adjusted children just as likely to emerge from same-sex families as from heterosexual parents?

If you believe in providence or a higher power of any kind, do you really think it is an accident that only heterosexual couples can conceive a child? Should we alter an institution that is thousands of years old to accommodate less than 2% of our population trying to experiment with child-rearing?

Most Wisconsin voters felt the answer to those questions was "no," and I believe many voting with that majority also view the same-gendered couple next door as much two of God's children as a heterosexual couple. We simply reject the notion of some New Age family unit.

To oppose an expanded definition of marriage does not equate to bigotry. Preserving the nuclear family is a cause most people hold as an immutable necessity for a stable society.

All too often, one can, with impunity, accuse anyone of bigotry or racism. Just cloak your arguments under the protective banner of "diversity" or "inclusiveness." No standard of proof or reason is required.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Unity among the divided

Published: Oct. 5, 2006 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

There was a time when we didn't require hyphens to describe our citizenship - we were all just Americans. There was a time when no one, not a head of state or a popular rapper, would have the temerity to call the president of the United States a devil or a racist. There was a time when no one, Republican or Democrat, would go to an opposing party's Milwaukee offices to slash car tires on election day.

Times have changed. Yet there are still bright moments for those who believe we have some collective principles as a people. If you ever felt moved after someone you don't care for takes a public stand to defend you, you'll know what I mean. Something triggered that feeling recently.

Consider the words uttered on national television Sept. 21 by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Rangel is a highly visible politico, a street fighter with a law degree who never minces words for his base on the left (some would say far left). He is a formidable debater who usually manages to alienate people like me - until recently.

Referring to the anti-Bush blather delivered at the United Nations by Venezuela's Fidel Castro-adoring president, Hugo Chavez, Rangel said: "You don't come into my country, you don't come into my congressional district and you don't condemn my president."

Recounting his words still gives me a chill. You just wanted to hug the guy.

No, I don't care for Rangel's politics, but I must concede it takes integrity to rise above your differences and publicly defend a bitter adversary - after that adversary has been smeared - because your love of country compels you to do so.

Chavez's performance was reminiscent of a college speech given by some over-caffeinated student who accuses "the establishment" of causing every misfortune in the world. Instead of a youthful prima donna, though, it was a head of state. And instead of blaming everyone with a job, the target was one man.

What happened to decorum and tradition among national leaders? President Reagan even refused to remove his suit coat in the Oval Office, citing a tradition and sense of respect that previous presidents had had for that hallowed place. Contrast that with Chavez.

There are acceptable boundaries of dissent when critiquing the way American power is projected throughout the world. Once the boundaries are breached, Americans will often come together to say, "Wait! This is my country."

There must be something that unites us as citizens, something we agree on, something we'll come together on, regardless of political disposition.

In June, a Milwaukee jury came together in federal court and returned a guilty verdict for a former state official in the travel contract scandal. It's doubtful the defense team or judge would've allowed a group of stalwart Republicans to pack a jury, so people of differing political persuasions must've acted together to reinforce the ideal that Wisconsin needs a government that doles out contracts ethically and within the law.

That notion is something we can all embrace - from Racine to Rhinelander.

Whether on a local or a national stage, divided as we are, it's still gratifying when opposing Americans can come together for a common purpose.

John Maddente of Delafield works at an international audit firm. His e-mail address is jmaddente@wi.rr.com. His Web log is at www.maddente.blogspot.com

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Learning to save lives

Published September 13, 2006 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Normally, I find medical matters as interesting as a gossip column about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. So with some trepidation, I trudged off to learn about cardiopulmonary resuscitation and other first responder techniques for medical emergencies.

CPR conjures a TV image of someone blowing air into the mouth of a victim and performing a series of rapid thumps on the person's chest using the heel of a hand. With that in my mind, a dozen or so other middle-aged guys and I convened at our local church hall for evening instruction.

We were joined by two experienced emergency room nurses and a number of flaccid, half-bodied mannequins strewn across the floor. The program, which was conceived to train church helpers (in our case ushers) about emergency procedures, has been in place for some time.

The techniques have been used on more than one occasion after a parishioner turned victim during Sunday services. Ironically, my own father had his first heart attack in 1968 while serving as a church usher.

Oh, but all the things I'd rather be doing tonight, I thought.

The nurse began by discussing the church locations and characteristics of a device she kept referring to as an AED. "Excuse me, what's an AED?" I asked. Answer: automated external defibrillator. Then I knew what she meant, but again, only from television.

For the medically uninitiated like me, an AED is that box-like device with cables at the end of which are pads that adhere to a victim's chest to deliver an electrical shock. I had no idea that these machines are increasingly being deployed throughout public buildings or that AED operation is no longer the exclusive domain of emergency room doctors, paramedics and TV actors.

Of course, no one should "play" at administering CPR, operating an AED or trying to help someone who appears to be choking. It's not child's play. Without proper training, one can do more harm than good before professionals arrive on the scene.

What about the legal liability after trying to help someone who ends up dying during or after CPR you administered? Presuming that the individual trying to help has been properly trained, acts reasonably and is not paid for performing CPR, he or she will most likely be protected.

According to the American Heart Association's student workbook, all 50 states have good Samaritan laws and no "lay rescuer has ever been successfully sued for performing CPR" because these laws protect someone acting in good faith to save a life.

No, it doesn't mean that you won't get served for trying. I hope in that fateful moment when someone drops before me, I won't be paralyzed by fear of a lawsuit. Legal fears preclude a great many of us from performing otherwise humane deeds.

Still not persuaded to take the time to learn these procedures? The Milwaukee office of the American Heart Association provided me information that might compel you or someone you know to obtain training:

• About 75% to 80% of all out-of-hospital cardiac arrests happen at home, and about 900 Americans die every day due to sudden cardiac arrest.

• Effective "bystander CPR" provided immediately after cardiac arrest can double a victim's chance of survival.

• If bystander CPR is not provided, a sudden cardiac arrest victim's chances of survival fall 7% to 10% for every minute of delay until defibrillation. Few attempts at resuscitation are successful if CPR and defibrillation are not provided within minutes of collapse.

You don't have to invest a ton of time, either. The American Heart Association created CPR Anytime for Family and Friends as a simple, affordable way for people to learn CPR in their homes. It costs only $30 and includes a CPR mannequin, a DVD and resource booklet.

To find an American Heart Association CPR or AED course or to order the CPR Anytime kit, call (877) 242-4277.

It's more interesting than a Hollywood gossip column any day.

John Maddente of Delafield works at an international audit firm. His e-mail address is jmaddente@wi.rr.com. His Web log is at www.maddente.blogspot.com

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Religion in sports? Amen

Published: Aug. 15, 2006 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The first thing I noticed was the likeness of Reggie White and a crucifix in a half-page spread. Hundreds of miles from home, I found the prominent article about the late Green Bay Packer in a national newspaper a welcome sight.

The second thing was the not-so-humble headline: "Reggie's (whole) story." Unsure how one can reveal the "whole" anything in one opinion article, I grabbed my hotel copy of the July 31 USA Today.

The article was timely because White would be posthumously inducted into Pro Football's Hall of Fame that week.

So what was the startling news, I wondered? Reading the first paragraph about White's "regrets" of preaching while in uniform, I began to anticipate some bombshell admission made just prior to his death. Maybe someone discovered a tape White recorded before his short life ended in 2004.

I prepared to have the image of a man whom I admired not only for devastating play on the football field but also for an unabashed faith life off the field altered in some way.

However, the article failed to deliver what one might have expected from its headline, first paragraph or closing sentence: "Let's remember Reggie's story - all of it."

That's when I became more intrigued with the author - Tom Krattenmaker, who holds a master's degree in religion from the University of Pennsylvania and serves on USA Today's board of contributors.

Krattenmaker's work reveals a recurring theme of what troubles him. With all that imperils professional sports today - bloated payrolls, steroids, player scandals, etc. - Krattenmaker worries about the increasing menace of overt displays of faith practiced by Christian athletes and religious organizations supporting them.

Several of his works that sound a warning include: "Going long for Jesus," "Playing the 'God' card" and "A 'war' on Christians? No." But back to his article on White.

The first problem is that there is little new in the article. Indeed, Krattenmaker simply recycled the same quotes from his Jan. 3, 2005, piece titled "Rushing for Jesus" (published at Salon.com).

Team chaplains and public displays of faith among professional athletes are not new, either. Wisconsinites old enough to remember the Lombardi era will recall St. Vince's oft-repeated mantra to players about three priorities: God, family and football.

Yes, the framers of our Constitution took care to preserve a separation of church and state. They didn't want religious fanaticism to supplant the role of government. They also wanted to protect the rights of citizens to worship, or not, as they choose.

But Krattenmaker invokes the church-state boundary by reminding us that sports facilities used during displays of Christian faith are publicly financed. He forgets that attendees at these games are voluntarily voting with very private dollars - the same private dollars that patronize advertisers feeding the money machine of pro sports.

There is our check and balance. We do not need a separation of church and locker room.

The second problem with Krattenmaker's work is that there is no arresting feature or strong indicators to support his assertion that something is increasingly awry in professional sports due to "the conspicuous religiosity that we witness in pro sports today." And we can't know had he lived longer whether White would have fully adopted Krattenmaker's cause.

The quotes used in the article do reveal that White felt sports ministries had exploited his fame, that deeds are more important than preaching and that he was living that ethos more than before.

But that's it. I see thin evidence to justify a mission to identify what Krattenmaker calls "the appropriate place of religion in pro sports" or to control a force he describes as "problematic."

Krattenmaker is working on a book about the influence of religion in pro sports. I'm content to close this chapter with words from White's widow, Sara, addressing fans on Aug. 5: "I encourage you to live like Reggie lived."

Amen.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The destruction of Arthur Andersen

On March 22nd, 2002 I published this letter on the Op-ed pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

"The recently announced blanket indictment of Arthur Andersen is not appropriate or beneficial for anyone.

With the comprehensive nature of this indictment, the Department of Justice has chosen to imperil an 89-year-old institution and the livelihood it provides for tens of thousands of innocent Andersen employees, including around 650 Wisconsinites.

How will former Enron Corp. employees receive "a bit of solace" - as the March 15 editorial "First blood in Enron debacle" put it- if other blameless people join their ranks?

Two wrongs never make a right, and the indictment of the whole Andersen organization by the Department of Justice, for incidents that Andersen itself reported to the department, is already drawing suspicion in the court of public opinion.

Stay tuned."

Post Script: On May 31st, 2005, the United States Supreme Court unanimously threw out the Arthur Andersen conviction.

How do you rate on the phone etiquette meter?

Telephone, Wikipedia
I have fumed about this issue for years. It’s called phone etiquette. 

When one calls someone else, one is invading their office, their home, or their peace. One is an invader, perhaps a friendly one, but nonetheless an invader. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon YOU, the invader, to identify yourself FIRST.  Hear me? Identify yourself first.

As a boy, I was raised to answer our home phone thus:

“Maddentes’ residence, John speaking, may I ask who is calling please?"

OK, I don’t do that any longer; and I don’t ask my children to that either, however, I still identify myself first when I am calling someone at work, or at home. It is the minimum courtesy one ought to expect. To make a person answering the phone have to guess your identity, is rude.

This issue applies to work or home life. My daughters get phone calls from school mates and as soon as I answer, the caller usually begins by saying something like “Hi is Lauren there?”  Sometimes, there is not even a greeting, it’s just, “Is Katherine there?”

Whoa! You are asking me to function as a switchboard operator and just turn the phone over to my daughter without the courtesy of even knowing who you are?

I suspect it’s generally how one's parents used the phone that affects the way one practices (or chooses not to practice) phone etiquette. I just penned this post after taking a call from an adult who after hearing me answer said simply, “Hi is Caitlin, there?”

Now I immediately responded with “I’m sorry, you must have the wrong number.” As it turns out, my daughter got on an extension in the nick of time and said “Dad, hold it, she’s here!” I knew my daughter had a guest over, but I know her as “Katy” not “Caitlin.”  Had her Mother began the phone conversation by saying, “Hi, this is Caitlin's Mother calling…” I would have made the connection and spared us both the embarrassment.

My wife gets calls from a neighborhood friend (whom I really do like) and I have a little unspoken game with her. The woman calls, doesn’t identify herself and simply says “Is Mary there?” I answer knowing full well who she is because of her familiar voice - and I reply - “May I ask who is calling please?”

We both know how the game is played and we both never change our lines. Once she says, “Its Gladys Pickover" (name changed  I immediately break in with something like, “Hello Gladys, good to hear from you!”

That’s how we play the game.  When I answer, she knows she’s going to get “the question” from me, but instead of beginning with a simple “Hi, it’s Gladys” she puts us both through the paces and I stick to my part of the game by asking who is calling.  It drives my wife nuts, but I won’t change (and I doubt Gladys will either).

Again, this principle applies equally well to home or work. Yesterday, with our office assistant on vacation, a few of us were trying to figure out how to work the postage meter. One employee, while trying to solve the problem, received a call at her desk. To make myself useful (and keep her focused on the postage problem) I answered the phone for her.  It was an internal call from another office, but before turning the call over to the employee, I asked the caller, “Could I tell her who is calling?” 

I wouldn’t think of doing less.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A blockbuster book on Enron

For a definitive account of the whole Enron matter, grab a copy of Conspiracy of Fools (Broadway Books) by Kurt Eichenwald, a New York Times Reporter, based in Dallas.

At over 700 pages, you won't exhaust this book in one day, but I guarantee you'll have difficulty putting it down.

Unlike creators of the TV movie "The Crooked E" (I still can't believe they cast Mike Farrell as the late Ken Lay) or authors of the well-titled, but shallow account Final Accounting by Barbara Ley Toffler and Jennifer Reingold. (Yes Ms. Toffler it's true, partners at professional services firms must sell work!) -- Mr. Eichenwald delivers substance.
Ken Lay, Wikipedia

Eichenwald manages to avoid easy stereotypes of all the major players in his meticulously-researched tome.  He writes with the verve of a mystery novelist, so you can't turn the pages fast enough, even though you know how the narrative ends.

This detailed account confirmed some of my early impressions about the primary players involved.  After reading the news stories, it was hard to come away with any sympathy for the defrocked and now incarcerated, ex-CFO Andy Fastow.  After reading Mr. Eichenwald's book, that hasn't changed for me.

I'm unsure if the fired Andersen partner turned government witness David Duncan, was truly an unwitting sacrificial lamb offered up to the wolves by Andersen's leadership, in order to quash the inquiry, or not.

When reading Conspiracy of Fools, readers are reminded that Mr. Duncan repeatedly ignored and possibly distorted advice given from Andersen advisers rendering in-house guidance on push-it-to-the-line accounting matters.  Still I have some pity for Mr. Duncan and his family.  Like Icarus, he flew way too close to the sun and burned himself...big time.   

I strongly disagree with Mr. Eichenwald's conclusion that Andersen as an entire firm "deserved the death penalty."  Andersen was a dynamic, monolithic institution with a rich history and I was proud to be a part of it -- if even for a short two and a half years.  Eichenwald might feel differently if he (like me and 29,000 other Andersen people in the U.S.) had been displaced by this debacle, because of the actions of a few Houstonians and an overactive Justice Department. 

All that notwithstanding, I recommend that all interested parties read this fine book.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Post-Katrina piece (written autumn, 2005)

After a national catastrophe like Katrina, the usual voices are singing accusatory hymns of indifference to the poor and racism, while a grieving nation fumbles to make sense of it all.

The only thing we haven’t heard was that at the behest of President Bush and a cabal of scheming advisers, the National Weather Bureau conspired with the Army Corps of Engineers to create a level four hurricane to ravage an unsuspecting body of citizens because they are unlikely to vote Republican.

We can decry an inept response to a mammoth tragedy, hold accountable, sack, humiliate and prosecute decision-makers at all levels who controlled resources that could have helped more of our southern citizens. We can blame, excoriate, ridicule and permanently mutilate the careers of those who could have executed a more efficient evacuation from what New York Times Columnist David Brooks described as “the most anticipated natural disaster in American history.”

Let us do all this and more but in the process let us also reject the slanderous voices throwing out their shopworn race card, because their empty charges only extend harm done by the hurricane.

Even contributors on the editorial pages of my local newspaper (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) could not resist the temptation to tar the Bush administration with a recent piece entitled, “A racial rift sadly revealed” (Sept. 9, 2005).

What is bothersome is the notion that if only we’d fund more government programs for the inner cities, tragedies like Katrina could be averted.  Make certain midnight basketball programs are flush with cash and Louisiana levees will hold.  Rap singers call the President of the United States a Racist and columnists are actually tying the Katrina tragedy to “tax cuts for the rich.”  How does that work?

Visit a cocktail party hosted by someone who thinks this way and whisper any dismay over a lack of  responsibility among those forewarned and able to avert Katrina but who chose to remain in the hurricane’s path, or condemn the behavior of those looting stores and the party host will brand you a Racist.  But camouflage talk about Katrina victims in terms of a personal contempt for Bush policies and one comes off like Dr. Schweitzer.

Tendencies to brand American policymakers with accusations of racism after natural calamities is not new. In some cases, the effects can endure. In his last book, To America, Personal Reflections of an Historian (Simon & Schuster, 2002) former University of New Orleans professor Stephen E. Ambrose writes about the propensity of educators over the decades to teach American expansionism in the West as a period where we practiced genocide of the American Indian.
Stephen Ambrose, Wikipedia

Ambrose called such explanations for the complete disappearance of Indian tribes “totally irresponsible.” (My emphasis in bold).   

That our forefathers’ policies equated to a massive land grab, that they broke treaties, that they failed miserably to assimilate Native Americans is all quite true Ambrose reminded us. Yet the only factual basis behind the total disappearance of Indian tribes occurred, as Ambrose wrote,”…because of the introduction of European diseases, most of all smallpox.”

If he was alive and writing about Katrina years from now, perhaps Dr. Ambrose would point out that the Crescent City tragedy in the year 2005 was due to a devastating hurricane and bureaucratic ineptitude -- not racism.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Brokaw & Co., revisited

Tom Brokaw, Wikipedia
Reading a piece about Tom Brokaw and the media, nearly 10 years after I published it, I now feel the landscape has improved to a degree.

At least two factors account for more political balance these days. One is the influence of what you are reading right now. Internet publishing.  People were not blogging 10 years ago, but their influence (though not mine) applied significant pressures for accurate and fair reporting in the years since I published the Brokaw piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Bloggers unraveled the Mary Mapes scandal at CBS, upon which Dan Rather based his hopelessly-flawed reporting of George W. Bush's military service. It was bloggers that broke the story about those bogus documents, not mainstream media.

Of course, there are legions of bloggers leaning right, center and left, working to flesh out facts and stories that "professional" journalists miss, or ignore. That's a good thing for anyone who champions accuracy and fairness in reporting.

Another major reason the landscape has become more balanced, is the surge in conservative talk radio and alternative news and commentary on cable TV.  Why has conservative media proliferated? Simple economics.

There was a palpable demand for conservative vantage points in mainstream media. People who control programming are in it to make money. They saw a market that was ignored and capitalized upon it.  Key point: that market was ignored.

Brokaw & Co. still in denial

Published July 12, 1996, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Perhaps it's just too much to ask, because few prominent journalists will publicly break ranks when asked to comment on the "B" word. The issue of media "bias" surfaced again. And once again, it was drowned by the voices of the renowned.

At a recent National Press Club luncheon in Washington, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw's responses to hard questions about the Fourth Estate did little to foil skeptics. Public television's Jim Lehrer's rejoinders to the same questions were entirely different. You had to believe one man or the other.

The fodder at this event was a well-publicized survey suggesting that 89% of U.S. journalists voted for Clinton in 1992. Asked to comment on the survey, Brokaw dismissed the familiar charge of industry bias by providing an equally tired reason why he feels it just is not so.

Echoing most of his colleagues from print to broadcast and sea to shining sea, he mused, "Bias like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder." In essence, the logic is that since complaints come from interlocutors at both ends of the political spectrum, (moreover, since the Clinton White House complains) the liberal bias issue must be overblown.

Of course, extremists will always cry foul. But most Americans, by definition, fall closer to the center of the political spectrum than either extreme. What could trouble more journalists is that Americans on the whole view the media as a decidedly liberal institution.

Can this group police itself as easily as Brokaw would have us believe? Brokaw theorized that since he and others owning responsible positions still remain, it is at least partial testimony to their objective performances. I think; therefore, I am. It worked for Rene Descartes.

He reminded the audience, "Otherwise, we just wouldn't survive."

Really? If 89% of our media are indeed left-leaning, how do journalists take risks by injecting liberal sentiments before so many ideologically like-minded editors? Brokaw is a pro and few would insist that he has to trash CNN's Peter Arnett to appear fair. However, he could have given the media a bounce on the credibility meter. He could have strayed from the party line and conceded that slanted reporting occurs and yes, it often does tilt to the left.

Brokaw could have said that responsible journalists don't have personal agendas and that others who do should find another way to make a living. He didn't. Instead, Brokaw chose to decry those reporters who have become "too much news celebrities in the eyes of the public." It was an odd attempt at critical balance coming from a regular guest on David Letterman's show.

PBS news anchor and author Leherer shared the podium with Brokaw at the same event. If Brokaw's remarks gave testimony to the continuing miasma of denial among major figures, Lehrer's comments were a sorely needed tonic.

In refreshing contrast, Lehrer drew a sharp distinction between himself and the pack. "Nobody in this room has to agree with me, including Tom," said Lehrer, as he surged with contempt for the "slippage" in journalism. "Remember, we are down there with the lawyers and the members of Congress on the public esteem polls," he opined.

Most repugnant to Lehrer is the subtle coloring of the news by journalists who make it difficult to distinguish an editorial from a news report. "People have just stepped over the line...and I think a very simple solution is just to quit doing it," he asserted.

Amen. Although Lehrer stopped short of calling the nature of the "slippage" inherently liberal, he at least acknowledged that something is amiss and allowed us to ponder its origin.

The most startling development of the entire Brokaw/Lehrer news hours was the scant, but audible applause after Lehrer's carefully worded scrutiny of his contemporaries. For those not watching that day, the word scant is safely defined here as something less than 89%.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Views on domestic "surveillance"

Civil liberties, including the right to privacy, are critically necessary in any free society (the ability to express myself through this site is an obvious example). However, civil liberties do not in and of themselves, supersede national security. By using the term "civil liberties" in this post, I am writing primarily about the right to privacy guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment.

National security trumps the right to privacy when the party imposing security measures (e.g. the U.S. Government) is functioning in the interest of the people it is imposing such measures upon, to protect them from those who would do them harm (e.g. Terrorists). That is precisely the circumstance we are faced with today.  I love freedom as much as anyone, but some of the current clamor on domestic surveillance is over the top.

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act enacted in 1996 (better known as HIPAA), for example, the government reserved the right to review your medical records without court approval, if such an action is deemed potentially useful to a federal investigation. I wasn't particularly concerned about that in 1996, nor am I now. How many "abuses" of that law have been documented in the last five years?  Ten years?

Now consider all the domestic surveillance hubbub we hear today and ask: Do you really think the CIA cares about phone calls you have made, or books you have checked out?


Dick Cheney, Wikipedia
I appreciate the slippery slope argument, but I don't want to hamper efforts to locate people who would hurt innocent Americans.  Dick Cheney can check my phone logs (as long as someone I trust can check his).

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Remember that speech Pat Buchanan made in 1992?

Published: Nov. 20, 2004, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

More than 12 years ago, Patrick J. Buchanan spoke these prophetic words during his speech at the Republican National Convention in Houston:

“My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”

Immediately afterward, Buchanan was roundly denounced as a polemicist and even scorned by members of his own party. Some called it a hate speech; others groused about the political fallout and later blamed him for George H. W. Bush’s failure to win re-election in 1992. Whether or not you agree with his politics, Buchanan had the foresight and fortitude to call attention to philosophical warfare that was real then and remains so today.

Since Nov. 2, analysts all over the airwaves and in print are still scrambling to understand the so-called moral values phenomena that proved so pivotal in our recent election. Debate has centered on the phraseology used during exit polls and which voters actually espoused which values in their voting patterns. It is instructive, however, to go back to that summer evening in August 1992, and recall what Buchanan said about America’s moral values, and compare that to what happened at the polls this autumn:

“We stand with President Bush for right-to-life and for voluntary prayer in the public schools.”

Abortion and religious expression have not taken a back seat at the American kitchen table of debate, not even close. Neither has the topic of how American power is projected throughout the world. Although he opposed the invasion of Iraq, few people can turn a phrase on the subject of using America’s military might as effectively as Buchanan did that August evening in 1992:

“It is said that each president will be recalled by posterity - with but a single sentence. George Washington was the father of our country. Abraham Lincoln preserved the union. And Ronald Reagan won the Cold War.

And it is time my old colleagues, the columnists and commentators, looking down on us tonight from their anchor booths and sky boxes, gave Ronald Reagan the credit he deserves - for leading America to victory in the Cold War.”

I felt that the 2004 presidential candidates’ differing views on national security and the war on terror were among the most important factors in this election.
Everyone wants peace and freedom, but I often place it first on my punch list as a voter because without it, little else matters. Sen. John Kerry’s opposition to the 1990 Gulf War, his on-again, off-again support for the Iraq war, his disgraceful Senate Committee testimony as a Vietnam veteran and his disturbing “global test” to see a foreign show of hands before taking action scared me. But back to that Aug. 17, 1992, Buchanan speech:

“We stand with (the president) against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women. “

More recently, on Nov. 2, 2004, voters in the 11 states containing a referendum on the issue of gay marriage agreed with Buchanan. Whether those votes constituted an actual plebiscite on the morality of gay marriage is less clear than the fact that 11 states uniformly rejected the concept, while Democrats remained oddly divided on the subject. Buchanan also made this observation in 1992:

“And we stand with President Bush in favor of the right of small towns and communities to control the raw sewage of pornography that pollutes our popular culture.”

In the old days, when conservatives would complain about overt sexuality in TV movies and programs, the standard liberal retort was, “If you don’t like it, just change the channel.” It worked, too, because if you argued with them, they’d cry censorship and take the debate to a new and wholly unrelated dimension. Now sexual images are so ubiquitous in advertisements that you can’t simply turn the channel or flip the page. These days, even the Super Bowl halftime show has become hazardous viewing for children.

Yet as the dust begins to settle from the harsh 2004 campaign, I am thinking as much about how we treated one another as the convictions we expressed during combat. How we debate our values is a value unto itself. This election season reminded me of how hard it could be to have civil disagreements with any measure of civility. Fortunately, personal attacks, racial or sexual slurs and cheap shots designed to maim the spirit did not win this election.

Unfortunately, in the heat of debate, it was harder to remember that value as easily as it is to write about it now. But Old Pugnacious Pat saw it coming all along.