Sunday, March 01, 2015

Fair Weather Friends

I’ve head the same story at least a dozen times in the last few weeks.

“I just (called/texted/e-mailed) my (friend, relative, co-worker) who lives in (Boston/Albany/Glacial Acres, New Hampshire) who told me they had (6 inches, a foot, 20 feet) of snow overnight and the temperature is (5 degrees, 15 below zero, colder than a polar bear’s toenails).

“I told him/her it was 85 degrees in L.A. and we were attired in (shorts/Speedos/bikinis/absolutely nothing). They told me we were (lucky, boorish, insensitive).”

Call it Southland Schadenfreude, the latter being a term which means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. It was coined by --- who else? ---the Germans.

We’ve all indulged in it. Some years ago when my wife’s family lived in western Pennsylvania, I would call my brother-in-law in the middle of January to tell him I had just walked off the golf course and that I was bummed because I got dirt on my shorts.

He was good natured about it, although he was probably making a mental note to slip finely ground glass in my martini next time we visited.

Even the ultra-provincial New York Times was forced to admit, “Among the pleasures of living in Southern California, none may be as wonderful as the climate, and the ability of residents to use it as a meteorological bat against the collective heads of their fellow Americans.”

It’s all true. We often behave badly when it comes to weather-shaming. It’s almost as if we’re covering up for an inferiority complex although I can’t imagine why.

We are second to none when it comes to majestic mountains, roaring rivers, spectacular deserts, forests, fields and streams.

We have sparkling cities, world class wine, great universities, movie stars and championship sports teams. We have In N Out Burgers, the juices from which drip down our shirt-sleeved arms.

They have stifling humidity, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, basketball-sized hailstones, the polar vortex, white outs, ice storms and blizzards. And White Castle burgers.

 I sincerely believe if the European explorers would have made landfall in, say, Newport Beach, everything east Palm Springs would be largely unpopulated to this day.

The rest of the country knows this. They can talk about enjoying the changing of the seasons, fireflies on a summer night, white Christmases, fall foliage.

Bunk. They’d dump it all faster than you can say “pass me a margarita” for a chance to live in California. Schenectady or Santa Barbara? Are you kidding?

But there’s an inherent danger in our boasting. If you persist in e-mailing Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe in Boston pictures of your tan lines, they may just show up on your doorstep for an extended stay with their hyperactive kids who have been housebound for two months.

They may be followed by a thousand other Marys and Joes who have decided to  exchange the Ice Belt for a spot on the 405 freeway each day.

Worse, the reason we are enjoying these balmy winters is that we’re in the middle of a severe drought. While we may enjoy poking fun at our snowbound Eastern brethren, we will pay a steep price for our endless summer.

According to one report, California, for the second year in a row, saw its warmest December-January, with a monthly average temperature 5.1°F higher than its 20th century average. With that heat having continued into February, it’s almost certain to be the warmest winter on record in California, surpassing the previous record set just last year.

Two storm events, one in December and one at the beginning of February, have brought some moisture to California and parts of Oregon and Washington. But snowpack is California’s main source of drinking water, and the tropical origins of the storms, called atmospheric rivers, meant that winter rain fell instead of snow, the report said.

One forecaster characterized it as “being down by nine touchdowns in the 4th quarter of a football game. It’s not a score you’re likely to catch up to.”

The result of all this is that we may have more severe water rationing come this summer. We’re not talking reduced lawn watering. It could be real life-style altering stuff.

The Metropolitan Water District put it this way: “Southland consumers have responded to the water conservation challenge this past year. We all, however, need to be prepared to take water saving to another level this summer if water supply conditions don’t improve.”

When that happens, get ready for an onslaught of texts and e-mails from the folks back east asking if they will be replacing the bear on the state flag with a camel. And other drought-related insults.

Payback can be painful.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Attack of the Killer Bots

"There's a great big beautiful tomorrow/Shining at the end of every day."
--- Disneyland’s Carousel of Progress, 1967.

I was thinking about our big beautiful tomorrow recently when I watched a video produced by a Google subsidiary called Boston Dynamics.

In it, they introduced their latest invention, a robotic dog called Spot who weighs in at 160 pounds, can run, jump and climb hills and stairs with the best of them.

The company has produced several other “animals” that run faster and jump higher than their human overlords. They share one other trait: they are terrifying.

Spot is no Golden Retriever.  He is a headless, tailless menacing machine that looks like it was rejected by “Star Wars” as too evil looking.

During the video presentation, a Boston Dynamics employee stepped into camera range and delivered a swift kick to Spot’s midsection. The “dog” staggered briefly, legs flayed, then regained his balance. You could almost hear the growls.
When they figure out how to pack a brain into one of these contraptions, Spot and his buddies, remembering that kick, may someday gather in packs and chase us off a cliff.

Or, as one wag remarked, “An artificially intelligent elevator will ask him "Are you the guy who kicked the robo-dog?" just as the doors are closing.”  Fade to black.

We’ve been assured that we have nothing to fear from robots, even nightmarish creatures like Spot. And being a nation that embraces technology, we believe it.
Then we read this recent news dispatch:

 “When a South Korean woman invested in a robot vacuum cleaner, the idea was to leave her trustworthy gadget to do its work while she took a break from household chores.

“Instead, the 52-year-old resident of Changwon city ended up being the victim of what many believe is a peek into a dystopian future in which supposedly benign robots turn against their human masters.

“The woman, whose name is being withheld, was taking a nap on the floor at home when the vacuum cleaner locked on to her hair and sucked it up, apparently mistaking it for dust.

 “Unable to free herself, she called the fire department with a “desperate rescue plea” and was separated from the robot’s clutches by paramedics, according to a South Korean newspaper.”

Then, there was this:

“A Swedish company has been fined 25,000 kronor ($3,000) after a malfunctioning robot attacked and almost killed one of its workers at a factory north of Stockholm.

“The incident took place when an industrial worker was trying to carry out maintenance on a defective machine generally used to lift heavy rocks. Thinking he had cut off the power supply, the man approached the robot with no sense of trepidation.

“But the robot suddenly came to life and grabbed a tight hold of the victim's head. The man succeeded in defending himself but not before suffering serious injuries.”

OK, so things go wrong sometimes. But what happens when things go wrong with something more deadly than a vacuum cleaner? Think of Spot with a heat-seeking missile strapped to his back.

The day of the Killer Bots is not that far away.

Gen. Robert Cone, the chief of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, was quoted in a published report that he thinks there’s a chance the size of the military’s brigade combat teams will shrink by a quarter in the coming years from 4,000 total troops down to 3,000.

Picking up the slack, he said, could be a fleet of robotic killing machines akin to the ground versions of the unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, increasingly used by the world’s armies.

We are already beginning to develop robots that can coordinate autonomously—that is, with no human input—in order to complete team objectives. Just last August, Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences invented a robotic swarm consisting of 1,000 small robots that worked to form shapes.

So here we stand at the threshold of a great big beautiful tomorrow populated by robotic killing machines that can think for themselves.

No less a visionary than Stephen Hawking, the preeminent physicist, has warned that success in creating artificial intelligence “would be the biggest event in human history, [but] unfortunately, it might also be the last.”

It’s serious enough that in Geneva this past year, 118 nations present at a UN conference agreed about the need to tackle the future threat of robotic killing systems, according to Human Rights Watch.

Abandon the research and development of robotics? No, but let us proceed with caution.

Let’s hope this is one case where the human race doesn’t learn a lesson through trial and error.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Jobs Report

There is enough data on jobs released in this country each month to choke a hippopotamus. It is discussed, debated and analyzed, politicized and probed until it becomes a statistical Tower of Babel.

I don’t pretend to understand it. But I do know this. Job hunting for journalists is treacherous. Openings are so rare these days that they’re passed around the Internet like so many puppy photos.

It doesn’t matter that they usually read something like this:

“An award-winning bi-weekly located in the Midwest is looking for a sports editor to lead a two-person staff. The Global Observer, located in Feed Lot, South Dakota serves roughly 2000 square miles of largely uninhabited territory.

“The winning applicant will direct coverage of sports at our only school in addition to the weekly cow chip throwing contests that pit our many local taverns against each other. Coverage of 4-H Clubs and church potlucks is also required.

“The editor is expected to assign, edit, write, shoot pictures and videos, design the pages and do light janitorial work in the office. It’s the perfect opportunity for you young folks who didn’t get that internship at the Washington Post. Salary is negotiable but it will be helpful if you can hunt and kill your own food.”

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But only slightly.

Here’s an honest-to-God posting from a New Orleans business publication that appeared recently, admonishing we can smell desperation from a mile away (strangely, it’s reminiscent of bacon). So take the time and write an original cover letter if you want to be considered a candidate.

“… send me your mind-blowing cover letter. If you don’t think it’s mind-blowing, at least make it sincere and original. If it’s lame, I might just post it here so that you are mocked and scorned…”

Sound like someone you’d want to work for? Me neither. Which proves that writing a job posting takes as much care and thought as answering one.

This example is more like it:

“We want to add some talent to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigative team. Every serious candidate should have a proven track record of conceiving, reporting and writing stellar investigative pieces that provoke change. However, our ideal candidate has also cursed out an editor, had spokespeople hang up on them in anger and threatened to resign at least once because some fool wanted to screw around with their perfect lede.

“For those unaware of Florida’s reputation, it’s arguably the best news state in the country and not just because of the great public records laws. We have all kinds of corruption, violence and scumbaggery. The 9/11 terrorists trained here. Bush read My Pet Goat here…

“Our new governor once ran a health care company that got hit with a record fine because of rampant Medicare fraud. We have hurricanes, wildfires, tar balls, bedbugs, diseased citrus trees and an entire town overrun by giant roaches (only one of those things is made up). And we have Disney World and beaches, so bring the whole family.”

Then there is this one, courtesy of Kevin Roderick’s LA Observed website, which goes to show you than no matter how well written, it’s a tough sell:

“This position is responsible for management of the online Antarctic Sun newspaper and management of the photo library archive. The Editor will create a budget of story ideas and timelines, conduct interviews, write articles, take photographs, edit, obtain approvals, and publish news and feature content about the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) research and operations.

“You must pass rigorous medical and dental examinations before going to the Antarctic. Antarctica is an extreme, remote environment, and medical facilities are limited. U.S. Antarctic Program facilities are equipped and staffed to provide routine ambulatory care that would be expected in a U.S. clinic, and have the capability to stabilize and manage a range of emergency medical and dental conditions before transporting patients off the continent. However, medical evacuations take a lot of time and effort and place others at risk, even when the weather allows travel. Remote field camps and research vessels pose additional difficulties. Therefore, the physical qualification …process administered seeks to screen out people with conditions that cannot effectively be managed on the Ice or aboard ship.”

No mention of pay but I assume it’s in cold, hard cash.

I’ve had it both ways in my career. I worked for publications small enough that job listings suggested covering Palmdale was a notch above the Paris beat.  I’ve worked for newspapers so big that applicants were told they needed a Pulitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize and a Medal of Honor, awarded simultaneously, just to get in the door.    

One of the most infamous job postings is from a literary journal is Britain warning that “Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the Internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.”

At least they were honest. 

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Sky Is Falling

Ah, the joy of flying. It brings out the animal in all of us. Airports resemble stockyards. An aquatic hierarchy governs boarding: Big Fish in front, sardines in the back.

Then there’s the bad food, bad air, bad equipment and a guaranteed bad attitude when you deplane. Nobody is going to remember this as the Golden Era of Air Travel.

And it just got worse.

Faced with the gloomy prospect of a long flight, any ray of sunshine, anything that could put a smile on your face is to be embraced.

For me, and many others, it was the SkyMall magazine, in the seat pocket in front of you, just behind the dog-eared airline magazine whose crossword puzzle had been filled out in ink and the barf bag.

A veritable kaleidoscope of items nobody really needed, it was nonetheless a diversion that helped you forget that your knees were pushed up under your chin and that the guy in front you just went into full recline mode while the kid in back of you kicked the seat.

Besides, it beat the hell out of reading the emergency safety instructions card.

Alas, SkyMall is no more. The magazine is a victim of the same forces that batter many publications theses days. Its owners said it had been affected by new regulations that allow passengers to use their smartphones and tablets during flights. 

"With the increased use of electronic devices on planes, fewer people browsed the SkyMall in-flight catalog," Scott Wiley, the CEO and CFO of Xhibit Corp., SkyMall's parent company, said in court filings.

Another scalp on the belt of progress.

But there was more to it than that. It was undercut by websites like Amazon that sold similar products but at a cheaper price. And its parent company was involved in some questionable business decisions.

No matter. Its owners are requesting an auction in late March to begin the process of liquidating remaining merchandise.

SkyMall, Inc. was founded in 1990 by a bunch of guys with a great idea: "get customers to order within 20 minutes of landing and have the goods waiting for them on arrival."
That would have required SkyMall to operate warehouses near major airports. According to one report, this business model translated into a $6 million loss per year.

Then they had a better idea. They wouldn't carry any products, they'd just be a magazine where other companies could advertise. These companies would either pay a flat advertising fee or pay SkyMall a percentage of each transaction. The companies that advertise in SkyMall would be responsible to "drop ship" their products directly to the customer, according to a story in Atlantic.

But what products! 

A bar contained in a replica antique Italian world globe. A spatula with a headlight for flipping burgers at night. A head massager. An underwater cell phone system.  A paper towel holder with USB ports. A pizza scented T-shirt. A mounted squirrel head. A laser guided pool cue.

But wait, there’s more. A selection of lawn ornaments such as a ceramic Sasquatch, 8-foot-tall giraffe, or "muscular god of the sea." A dainty wooden box that emits laughter when opened. A living room end table that doubles as a litter box. A foot tanner, a high heel bottle holder, a Star Wars Darth Vader toaster or a glow-in-the-dark toilet seat.

For the person who has everything there was the Velociraptor Dinosaur Statue. It was described this way:

“This Jurassic-sized, meat-eating prehistoric replica dinosaur statue is realistically sculpted with terrifying teeth, retracted foot claws and an S-shaped neck, then cast in quality designer resin and hand-painted with powerfully convincing color and texture as faithful to the ancient species as possible.

“This large-scale, display-quality sculpture transforms any home, garden, restaurant.”

The last sentence can only be described as an understatement.

There is an upside to the decline and fall of Skymall, especially if you’re an airline CEO.

According to an article on the Wired website, the company’s bankruptcy could improve airlines’ bottom lines, because they’ll no longer carry the catalog in every seat-back pocket.

Airlines are obsessed with cutting weight, because lighter planes need less fuel, and jet fuel is, depending upon who you ask, an airline’s no. 1 or no. 2 expense. That’s why airlines are investing in thinner seats, lighter trash compactors, and entertainment systems that use sleeker electronics.

So tossing those catalogs will save airlines like Southwest (which already planned to ditch them), United, and American hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Will the savings quickly be passed onto the traveling public? When pigs fly first class. Or Velociraptor statues become all the rage.

I’ll miss SkyMall.  I’ll rue the day I didn’t order the Justin Beiber travel kit or the sippy wine cups.

Like air travel itself, the fun is gone.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Empty Rhetoric From On High

Despite all the time and effort the media invest in covering the State of the Union address each year, it remains remarkably bad theater, a production whose importance is dwindling along with its audience.

The script:

The President assures his fellow Americans that the State of the Union has never been better while reciting a list of accomplishments that he embraces as his own, which in more than a few cases is an exaggeration.

The President will then lay out his vision for the future, including many initiatives that will go nowhere because his party doesn’t control either the House or the Senate.

He will then attempt to convince us that America’s greatness is the direct result of his party’s stewardship. He will view with alarm, point with pride, call to action.

Rinse and repeat every year.

While this is going on, an army of reporters are tweeting what is being said as fast as their thumbs can dance across their Blackberry keyboards. (“President declares America good, our enemies bad.”)

Members of the opposition fall all over themselves to give a response. While there is one official response, everybody can now get into the act thanks to You Tube.

Within 24 hours, contrarian opinions outnumber cat pictures on the Internet.

In the meantime, dozens of analysts, like archaeologists exploring a mysterious ancient tomb, try to make sense of it all.

The highlight, for me at least, is watching to see how the lack of civility that defines Washington politics is going to rear its ugly head.

A few years back, Democrats lustily booed President Bush when he when he called for renewal of the Patriot Act. The next year they shouted "No!" when Bush pushed for Social Security reform.

Then there was the time that Republican Joe Wilson in the midst of the speech shouted “you lie” at President Obama, thereby cementing his place in the Blockhead Hall of Fame.

And this year, when Republicans derisively cheered after Obama commented that he had no more campaigns to run, he ad-libbed, “I know, because I won both of them.” To raucous laughter and applause. For a moment, I thought I was watching open mike night at a comedy club.

TV viewership for President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night fell to a 15-year low, according to numbers from Nielsen. 

The combined figure is down about 5% from last year's State of the Union address, which drew about 33.3 million viewers. It was the lowest since President Clinton's final State of the Union in 2000. That speech pulled in just under 31.5 million viewers.

To be sure, there have been memorable moments from the State of the Union Speech. Historians agree on these as worthy of recognition:

--- The address had been a written document submitted to Congress, rather than a delivered speech. This changed with President Woodrow Wilson, who chose to deliver his message personally to Congress in 1913.

--- Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 evoked “the Four Freedoms”—freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear—as a powerful justification for what was to be America’s role in a world at war.

--- Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975, his first address since ascending to the presidency in the August of 1974 after Richard Nixon's resignation, pulled no punches when he declared, “I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good.” 

--- Lyndon Johnson promised in his 1964 address that the coming Congress would be remembered as the one that “declared all-out war on human poverty.”

--- James Monroe’s State of the Union address in 1823 outlined a policy which stated that the United States would not meddle in the affairs of European governments and, most importantly, declared that any further efforts by European powers to colonize countries in the Western Hemisphere would be considered an act of aggression requiring U.S. intervention. It became known at the Monroe Doctrine.

--- In 1862, Abraham Lincoln used his message to Congress to tie the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. "Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue.”

Alas, the moments when the lofty rhetoric translates into something meaningful are rare.

So what to do? Should we shut off the cameras, send the pundits packing and let the proceedings take place in some obscure committee room?

No. Despite the politics and posturing, the people’s business should be conducted in public. The most serious threat to democracy comes from those who would govern in secret and speak only among themselves.

So how do we make the State of the Union address relevant again?

Why not a modified debate format? The President and the leader of the loyal opposition are given 15 minutes for an opening statement, then are questioned by members of the media and the public.

At the end of the day, we would ultimately know a lot more about the state of the union than we learn from an oratorical press release conceived and delivered by and for the party in power.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

News and Views From There and Here

News: Say the word California and people smile. Mention the words New Jersey and people laugh. It’s a punchline, not paradise. And apparently not a fun place to live.

Nearly two of every three families making an interstate move involving New Jersey last year were leaving, the highest rate in the country. New Jersey had the greatest percentage of outbound moves of any state nationally with almost 65 percent departing.

It has led the nation in outward migration for the fourth time in five years. Nearly half of those leaving New Jersey were bound for Florida (15 percent), California (14), Texas (9) and North Carolina (7.5).

Views: I have visited New Jersey on several occasions. Each time, I also had the irresistible  urge to leave. Now we know what Bruce Springsteen was trying to tell us when he recorded “Born to Run.”

It’s called the Garden State but we’re not sure why. George Carlin once addressed the nickname this way: “I say let them put it right on the license plate, 'NJ, the Tollbooth State.' What does it say now, the Garden State? Sure if you're growing smokestacks, yes.”

That’s not to say New Jersey hasn’t had its moments: During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the state offered begging licenses to unemployed residents, the zeppelin airship Hindenburg crashed in flames over Lakehurst, and the SS Morro Castle beached itself near Asbury Park after going up in flames while at sea. 

It is home to two National Football League teams, both of which identify themselves as being from New York.

As for those remaining in New Jersey, half say they want to eventually leave the state, and more than a quarter of them say their future departure is “very likely,” according to a Monmouth University poll.

And their governor wants to run for president? Get outta here!

News:  Snopes.Com debunks a new bunch of urban legends.

Views:  I visit the website from time to time, curious about what matter of unfounded paranoia is sweeping the nation. What I found recently is that most of the misinformation shares a common source.

Some examples:

--- Police and local investigators say that the 2-year-old toddler that fired a gun in an Idaho Walmart store, killing his mother, will be tried as an adult.  This story which defies credibility on so many levels is brought to us from the Empire News, a satirical operation which also brought us such classics as "College Student Excused from Classes After Dog Eats Grandmother.”

--- NFL referee Pete Morelli mysteriously came into $500,000 and quit his job shortly after he had controversially announced and then rescinded a crucial pass interference call in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys-Lions playoff game the previous day. That came courtesy of Naha Daily which is 100 per cent satire.

--- On Jan. 6, the Daily Currant published an article titled "Obama Wears 'I Can't Breathe' Shirt to Congressional Swearing-In Ceremony." According to the article, President Obama attended the swearing-in of the 114th Congress clad in a shirt commonly worn by those who have protested a grand jury decision following the death of New York resident Eric Garner.

The Daily Currant is a well-known fake news site whose previous fabricated stories includes one claiming Sarah Palin believed that Jesus celebrated Easter. 

--- In 15 December, World News Daily Report published an article titled "'Little Old Lady' Arrested for Making Fur Coats with Neighbor's Cats." According to the site, an unnamed 85-year-old female resident of Waco, Texas, was arrested and charged with unspecified crimes after police learned of her activities.

World News Daily Report is one of many fake news outlets known to fabricate outrageous stories in the hopes Facebook users will pass the tales on to friends
One of their greatest hits was a story headlined, “Dead Cow Brought Back to Life by Lightning.”

It made me wonder if there are more journalists working in satire then mainstream media. Or maybe satire is the new reality. After all, it’s just the truth with a laugh track attached.

News:  Al Martinez dies.

Views:  A friend and colleague from our days at the Los Angeles Times, Al was called the Bard of Los Angeles, a fitting title.

He had the soul of a poet encapsulated in a rugged body, one that was honed on the hard scrabble streets of Oakland where he grew up and on the battlefields of Korea where he served as a Marine rifleman.

He cut his journalistic teeth at the Oakland Tribune where, in those days, your desk mate was probably packing a fifth of Old Granddad is his desk drawer.

He survived that dubious introduction to the news business, thrived and found his way to Los Angeles where he wrote for the Times, the Daily News, television and various other media.

Al once told me that when he had nothing else to do, he would write. Not for practice or publication, just for the sheer joy of writing, much as a musician would tinker away on a piano for his own amusement.

He often sang the song of the common man, trying to survive and make sense of an uncaring world.

He was also an unapologetic optimist.

“What I am in the long run is not so much a chronicler of woe or a satirist defining human folly as a messenger of redemption who believes that in the wake of every calamity, spring will come again.”

Words to live by.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What's In a Name?

Ever hear of Kirby Delauter?

Probably not. He’s an obscure councilman from Frederick County, Md. who was  something less than a household name until this past week.

That’s when he threatened a local newspaper with legal action because it used his name without his permission. Really.

The story concerned a debate about Council parking spaces, a minor dust-up in which he was mentioned only briefly.

But it appears that Delauter had a long-simmering feud with Frederick News-Post reporter Bethany Rogers who wrote the parking space piece and decided the time was right to engage in a tirade.

 “Shame on Bethany Rodgers for an unauthorized use of my name and my reference in her article today,” he thundered. “She contacted me by phone yesterday, I did not return her call and did not authorize any use of my name or reference in her article.

 “Use my name again unauthorized and you'll be paying for an attorney,” he threatened. “Your rights stop where mine start.”

Aside from his embrace of an indefensible position, there are several interesting aspects to this story.

First, Delauter is the first politician I can recall in multiple decades of newsgathering who was trying to keep his name out of the paper

Oh sure, there have been assorted elected officials over the years who got lockjaw when questions about their sobriety or marital fidelity arose.

And I’m sure Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard and City Manager Michael Beck, who find themselves presiding over a City Hall awash in allegations of a $6 million embezzlement scam, would just as soon not have to chat with the media any time soon.

But most politicians go to great lengths to get local media coverage whether they are touting a piece of legislation or honoring a crossing guard. Visibility means votes.

As "Big Tim" Sullivan, a high-profile political figure who was part of the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City once said, "I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right."  

Second, Mr. Delauter’s itchy trigger finger thrust him into the national spotlight as a poster boy for First Amendment abuse.

His rant went viral on social media spreading his name far and wide as did the response from the paper’s managing editor Terry Headlee who wrote, “Kirby Delauter can certainly decline to comment on any story. But to threaten to sue a reporter for publishing his name is so ridiculously stupid that I'm speechless.”

The Frederick News-Post then published an editorial response to the news, titled "Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter," in which the name "Kirby Delauter" appears 28 more times. 

He even got a scolding from UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh who said, “Uh, council member. In our country, newspapers are actually allowed to write about elected officials (and others) without their permission. It’s an avant-garde experiment, to be sure, but we've had some success with it.”

It was all too much for Mr. Delauter. He ended up apologizing in a statement to the paper which said, “Of course, as I am an elected official, the Frederick News-Post has the right to use my name in any article related to the running of the county — that comes with the job.
“So yes, my statement to the Frederick News-Post regarding the use of my name was wrong and inappropriate. I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong.”

He headlined his press release, “Frederick County Supports Transparent Government.”

At about the same, a Cumberland County (Maine) judge named Jeffrey Moskowitz tried to tell the Portland Press Herald and other media what they could and couldn’t report about a prominent attorney’s domestic violence case which was being held in open court.

Specifically, he said they were forbidden to report any witness testimony or anything said in court by the defendant, attorney Anthony J. Sineni III.

To its credit, the Press Herald ignored the judge; its lawyer said that “there is a 100 percent chance that the order is unlawful.”

Moskowitz, who was blasted by First Amendment experts, returned to the courtroom the next day to admit that he made a mistake. He said: “It’s certainly very clear that this particular order was not lawful and I should not have issued it. That order is now rescinded.”

All’s well that ends well? Not necessarily.

That greatest threat to freedom of expression and the public’s right to know will not come at the hands of extremists such as those in Paris who engaged in a murderous rampage in the name of their religion.

Nor will it come from Third World hackers who came close to dictating what movies Americans can or cannot see, thanks to the actions of a bunch of spineless film executives and theater owners.

The real threat is from grassroots bullies like Councilman Delauter and Judge Moskowitz who think they can run roughshod over our freedoms to suit their own purposes.

Let us be wary of them.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.