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 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 mutilate the careers of those who could have executed a more efficient evacuation from what 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 voices charging racism, because their empty charges only amplifies the 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).

Rap singers have called 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. 

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., the landscape 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 internet publishing.  People were not blogging 10 years ago, but their influence (though not by the likes of me) applied 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 flawed reporting of George W. Bush's military service. It was bloggers that broke the story about those bogus documents, not the 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 they capitalized upon it. 

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.