Sunday, August 02, 2015

Stormy Weather

Back when a city desk was my workplace, my colleagues and I would exchange knowing glances each year as firefighters solemnly announced their predictions for the upcoming fire season.

It was never good news.

If it had been a dry year, they would warn us that the brush could explode into a conflagration of Old Testament proportions.  If we had experienced a wet year, we were cautioned that all that rain had caused more brush to grow, raising the specter of even worse fires.

It seemed like we couldn’t win at the weather game.

I was reminded of that when we were told a powerful El Nino condition this year could mean our parched little corner of the world could get good and wet.

Drought-weary residents are so overjoyed at the prospect that they’re dancing on their artificial lawns and toasting each other with overflowing glasses full of tap water.

But El Nino is not always a good boy. And his appearance should be viewed with  caution and cynicism. 

As we have seen already this year, heavy downpours cause damage. Mudslides and flooding have already occurred and if this is indeed the climatological Big One, as many predict, it could be far worse.

Our very own Bill Patzert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena said recently, “This is not a puny El Nino but a Godzilla El Nino.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen “Godzilla” but if memory serves, the legendary monster trashed half the Pacific Rim.

Just to refresh our memories, this is how the last big El Nino event was reported in 1998:

“A big storm, driven by El Nino and expected for months, hit California with driving rain and hurricane-force winds yesterday, sending thousands fleeing to high ground…
“Eighteen-foot waves threatened beach homes in Southern California and winds up to 80 miles an hour uprooted trees and left thousands of people without power. A falling tree killed one person in Northern California.

“High waves in Southern California battered piers and eroded the dunes that protect beachfront homes. Santa Barbara County got some of the heaviest rain, with more than 13 inches since Sunday. Waves over 30 feet high were reported at Pacifica, south of San Francisco.

“Interstate 80, a main link for communities between San Francisco and Sacramento, was closed by flooding, and Interstate 5, California's main north-south freeway, was blocked in several spots.

“Amtrak canceled all north-south trains from San Diego to Seattle because of flooded tracks.”

February 1998 remains the wettest February on record in downtown Los Angeles with a total of 13.68 inches. That is more rain than Los Angeles has registered since January 2014.

It was the best of times for roofers, contractors, tow truck operators and umbrella manufacturers.

It was the worst of times for many others. It caused $35 billion in damage worldwide, and 23,000 people died – from wildfires in drought-stricken Indonesia and Australia to catastrophic flooding and mudslides in Ecuador and Peru.

But let’s look on the sunny side, so to speak. El Nino means the end of the drought, right?

Probably not. According to one report, the state needs a very wet winter just to get soil moisture back to near-normal levels, and a good deal more than that to bring California’s reservoirs and groundwater close to their long-term average.

 "It takes years to get into a drought of this severity, and it will likely take many more big storms, and years, to crawl out of it," said NASA’s Jay Famiglietti.

The lesson here is that we need to continue drought-mitigation policies so we don’t spend the rest of our lives in the don’t flush, don’t shower, rip out the grass mode that we find ourselves in today. The worse thing we can do is to decide that El Nino will end our need to conserve.

And then there’s the prospect that El Nino could become El Foldo.

Tony Barnston, lead El Nino forecaster at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, cautioned that while El Nino has predictable effects and this one is strong, what happens next is not exactly certain.
Take the much-anticipated wet 2014-15 winter. It fizzled.

JPL’s Patzert explained it this way to colleague Steve Scauzillo:

“The El NiƱo had a very promising, dramatic surge in January, February and March, but now as we enter summer, all of a sudden it is disappearing. The great wet hope is going to be the great wet disappointment.”

Best advice?  Be prepared for anything.

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Our Cheatin' Hearts

I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.

I have lived and traveled throughout the United States. I have visited numerous foreign countries. I have served in the military.

I have practiced the craft of journalism for nearly 50 years, which requires a finely honed dose of skepticism.

I have been involved in the coverage of thousands of stories. I have seen and heard it all. Nothing surprises me. At least so I thought.

Then I read this past week that an Internet site that caters to married folks on the prowl for extramarital affairs had been hacked. Revelations are threatened. Fear and loathing ensues.

The existence of the website is no surprise. The Internet is full of enough decadence and depravity to make the Marquis de Sade blush.

What caused my jaw to bounce off my chest is that the site, called Ashley Madison, claims to have nearly 38 million subscribers in the U.S. and several foreign countries. You read that right: 38 million. Just for the sake of comparison, there are 68 million married couples in the U.S.

Apparently, there’s a whole lot of cheatin’ going on.

Or not. There are a lot of ways to look at this: (1) The website has greatly exaggerated the number of clients or (2) many who go on to the website are curiosity seekers who don’t indulge in actual adultery. Or (3), 30 million of the subscribers are teen-age boys who are getting their jollies on the Internet.

Of course, there is also (4) we are a morally corrupt people who preach devotion while practicing deviousness.

The answer is probably (5) all of the above.

According to several published articles, cheating isn’t cheap.

The site offers a guarantee that you will find someone: "We guarantee that you will successfully find what you’re looking for or we'll give you your money back.”

However, the guarantee is so restricted by conditions—one must buy the most expensive package, send "priority" (more expensive) messages to 18 unique members each month for three months, send 5 Ashley Madison gifts per month, and engage in 60 minutes of (paid) chat per month,—that qualifying for it is  difficult and expensive.

And, cha ching, female members are allowed to send "collect messages" that male members must pay for in order to read them.

Making this somewhat less than user friendly is that "more men than women use the service, with the disparity increasing as they advance in age," and "Men seek sex, while women seek passion.” 

What’s most astonishing about all of this is that are 38 million people who have no problem giving up their credit card numbers, sexual proclivities and adulterous intent to a bunch of strangers running a website.  What could possibly go wrong?

Something did.

A group of hackers called The Impact Team reportedly has posted some data already and is demanding that parent company Avid Life Media, shut down Ashley Madison and a sister site,, according to Krebs On Security, a blog run by former Washington Post reporter Brian Krebs.

In a manifesto obtained by Krebs, the hackers said: “Avid Life Media has been instructed to take Ashley Madison and Established Men offline permanently in all forms, or we will release all customer records, including profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses, and employee documents and emails.”

All of this raises a question: Does hacking an Internet site and revealing information about its clients constitute a worse offense than infidelity?

Perhaps these statistics will shed some light on the issue.

Asked about infidelity, 22 per cent of married men admit to having strayed while 14 per cent of women admit to cheating at least once. But 74 per cent of men say they would have an affair if they knew they wouldn’t get caught while 68 per cent of women agree.

So the fear of getting caught in flagrante delicto is a major deterrent. And what’s a sure-fire way to get caught?  Send your darkest secrets off to a sleazy Internet site.

In this case, perhaps hackers hold the moral high ground. After all, The Impact Team doesn’t appear to be interested in financial gain or to have a political agenda. Instead, their purported motivation is moral outrage.

Interestingly enough, a 2013 Gallup Poll that listed behaviors and societal realities that included porn, gambling, abortion, polygamy, and the death penalty, 91 percent of survey respondents flagged adultery as morally reprehensible. It drew a higher rate of disapproval than any issue on the survey.

Instinctively, we sense that lying to and betraying the one person we’ve sworn fealty to is far worse than simply divorcing that person. Condemnation of divorce has decreased since 2001, but disapproval of adultery has held steady.

All of which proves that 38 million people can be wrong.

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Flights of Fancy

When I was young, I spent a great deal of time in outer space.

I read every science fiction book I could get my hands on and watched every movie from "Destination Moon" to "Star Wars" in hopes that someday the world they portrayed would be a reality in my lifetime.

We would travel the solar system if not the universe on flights of adventure and fantasy. We would encounter strange new civilizations whose inhabitants we would befriend. We would also fight bad guys, from Ming the Merciless to Jabba the Hutt, in our quest to establish freedom, truth and justice throughout the galaxies.

Alas, at my age I’ll not see those fantasies become reality unless someone invents warp speed next week. But we have come so very close. When my time comes to leave Earth, I will have loved the future that I lived.

When I was young, there were no astronauts, no moon walks, no space stations, no Mars rovers. Now, with the Pluto fly-by this week, we have visited every planet in our solar system. It is an amazing feat considering we were Earth-bound a mere 112 years ago.

And while our search for extraterrestrial life continues, our voyages have become de facto journeys of self-discovery, teaching us that our planet is a very special place in a vast and violent universe.

The voyage of the New Horizons vehicle past Pluto was much more than a trip through time and space. It allowed us to see a place so shrouded in mystery, so cold, dark and distant, that it has held the public’s imagination since it was discovered by an American, Clyde Tombaugh, in 1930.

As a literary subject, Pluto is the stuff of dreams.

In “Plutonian Depths” (Wonder Stories Quarterly, Spring 1931), a short story by Stanton A. Coblentz was the first to take advantage of the newly discovered and named world. In “The Red Peri” by Stanley G. Weinbaum., the title character is a space pirate with a secret base on Pluto.

“First Lensman” (1950), a novel by E. E. "Doc" Smith, features an alien race colonizing Pluto without ever realizing that life existed on Earth.

In “World's Fair 1992” by Robert Silverberg (1968), a U.S.-led expedition reaches Pluto in less than two weeks using a nuclear-powered spacecraft capable of continuous acceleration. The spacecraft collects five crab-like indigenous Plutonians and returns them to Earth orbit for study.

In a July 1958 comic book, Superman journeys to Pluto to obtain some giant snowflakes, frozen so solidly that they will not melt on Earth, for inclusion among the collection of “space trophies” which he is gathering for the Metropolis Museum.

In the sitcom “Mork and Mindy” (1978), Mork informs Exidor that he's been to every planet in the solar system, even Pluto, which he derides as a "Mickey Mouse planet."

Even more famously, astronomers drew the wrath of the public when they declassified Pluto a few years back, deciding it was a “dwarf planet” and not worthy of membership in good standing of our solar system.

In a compromise that pleased no one, it was later declared to be a “plutoid.”

Perhaps the highest honor to be accorded the Pluto mission is that it has given birth to conspiracy theories.

The “truthers” have adjusted the tin foil on their heads and declared that the whole journey is a fraud,  announcing that “Pluto is only at Disneyland’ and “NASA’s mission is to ensure we know nothing about what is outside of our world.”

Others believe that NASA has indeed captured real images of Pluto but that there’s a possible cover-up involving aliens and buildings on the surface.

Now that be have traveled our solar system, what's next?  Most scientists believe a manned mission to Mars will be attempted by the mid-2030s.

There are no press releases or Kennedyesque pronouncements (“we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”).  NASA is doing its planning quietly. 

Faced with an ever-changing political landscape and the scope and expense of a program that may take 20 years, it is better not engage in chest-beating.

Jason Davis, in a Planetary Society blog, put it this way: “There is indeed a plan to put humans on Mars. Vague? Yes. Hard to see? Absolutely. But that's because… NASA officials are playing the long game. And right now, it may be the only game they can play.”

NASA’s budget in 1966 was $43.5 billion (in 2014 dollars). Today, NASA gets about $18 billion. Add to that an apparent lack of political will to go to Mars.

“So NASA has less than half the money to execute a program that is twice as ambitious and will take twice as long (as it did to go to the moon),” Davis writes. “Nevertheless, they'll need a methodical, step-by-step approach like the one used in the 1960s with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

“Furthermore, officials…want to avoid Apollo-style one-and-done Mars visits. They'd rather see NASA establish a sustainable, long term presence in deep space.”

Insurmountable?  No. Man will visit Mars someday. And beyond. After all, exploration is part of our DNA. Had it not been, we would still be living in trees.

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Get Your Hands Out of My Guacamole

Musings from an ink-stained wretch:

The New York Times, chief tambourine shaker for East Coast elitism, has decided to stick its fingers into our guacamole.

After all, what do we know about Mexican food?

Times food columnist Melissa Clark recently published a recipe that calls for English peas to be added into a traditional guacamole dish.

In the column she writes, "The peas add intense sweetness and a chunky texture to the dip, making it more substantial on the chip."

For those who think this is a really bad idea, the Times smugly added the two most feared words in the English language: “Trust us.”

What’s next?  Cauliflower tacos? Brussel sprouts Rancheros?

I’m all for fusion in cooking but simplicity is the hallmark of Mexican cooking and we don’t need to fancy it up to make it taste better.

Besides, I’m convinced the Good Lord in his infinite wisdom created avocados to provide us a simple but delicious appetizer. Then he created televised football as the perfect place to enjoy it.

But I’ve got to hand it to Clark. She managed to do something Americans thought was impossible. She united our political parties.

“Respect the nyt, but not buying peas in guac. onions, garlic, hot peppers. Classic,” tweeted President Obama.

“You don't put peas in guacamole,” tweeted Jeb Bush.

Donald Trump, reached at a Taco Bell drive-through at 1 a.m., said he would have no comment.

Not surprisingly, the Texas Republican Party, well known purveyors of paranoia, declared that the recipe was proof that the New York Times was declaring war on Texas.  

And Fortune magazine pointed out that the whole mess was bad for the environment. “…based on data from the Water Footprint Network, one ounce of avocados requires 9.1 gallons of water. For one ounce of peas, you’ll need a staggering 44.5 gallons.”

We’re lucky they didn’t suggest adding almonds to our guac.

Give peas a chance? Not in my house.

Speaking of Donald Trump, it’s time for the bloviating, bullying billionaire to pretend once again he’s a serious presidential candidate.

Which means it’s time for Republicans to shelter in place and hope be goes away quickly.

Trump’s presidential aspirations appear every four years like some sort of flu bug. And every four years, the American people decide that their nation isn’t ready for a President who combs his hair with a Cuisinart and isn’t acting in his role as a snarling boss/jerk on a reality show.

But he’ll stick around long enough to inflate his ego and inflict damage on the Republican Party with his special brand of buffoonery.

“When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best," he said during a recent speech. "…they're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they're telling us what we're getting."

And what would he do as president?  "I'd probably say ‘you have to go back.’ Do I like doing that? No, I'm a nice person believe it or not, I mean I have a heart. But I'd probably tell them ‘you have to go back.’

Mr. Nice Guy followed that up by declaring that he would win the Latino vote.

So why does the media continue to cover this nonsense? Long ago I swore off Glen Beck, Ted Nugent and Keith Olbermann. Why not Trump?

“Everyone knows that Donald Trump is not the brightest bulb in the pack and his political ramblings are completely meaningless. Everyone also knows that it’s fun to cover him anyway," New York journalist Chris O'Shea explained.

In other words, as long as Trump is out there promoting himself, whether in the context of a presidential campaign or not, we'll be seeing the snarky stories from those who don't take him seriously. Why? Because everything he says is, in some way, designed to make news. 

"The media covers Trump because people want to read about him," O'Shea added. "He’s the living embodiment of a car crash—you know it’s going to be bad, but you look anyway." 

I stand guilty as charged. I promise never to do it again. Until next time.

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Monday, July 06, 2015

A Not-So-Great Debate

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Republican presidential primary debate presented, produced and controlled by Fox News.

“We come to you tonight from the Rose Bowl, the only venue big enough to accommodate the 146 announced candidates, their staffs, advisers, flaks, fund raisers, lobbyists, loyalists, lawyers, accountants, donors, do-gooders, political junkies, groupies, mistresses and assorted hangers-on. Not to mention wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins, all of whom are on the candidates’ payroll.

“We don’t expect the general public to witness tonight’s debate in person. Since all of the declared candidates are busy raising money in California, the Secret Service has blocked off every major thoroughfare from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border for security reasons.  We are assured all affected will be able to return to their homes sometime in the near future.

 “In addition to the usual suspects --- sons of Presidents, current and past senators, members of congress and governors who will all claim they are ‘political outsiders’ dedicated to ‘cleaning up the mess in Washington’ --- there are a few candidates you may not be familiar with.

“Buford T. Biblebelt is a former police chief who believes in the three B’s: Baptists, Bourbon and Batons. He advocates the frequent use of nuclear weapons as a foreign policy tool and wants to impose reforms at home based on his curious  concepts of Scripture that would make Sharia law look like a day at Disneyland. His law-and-order platform recommends 25 to life for jaywalking. He equates freedom of speech with disturbing the peace and favors repealing all the amendments to the Constitution   except the Second. He is backed by the Society for the Preservation of the Dark Ages.

“Malcom X. Wellborn III is the candidate of the Conservative Republican African Party. He grew up in upper-class surroundings but claims he pulled himself up by his boot straps. Those boots, however, were made by Gucci. He is the author of a book entitled “White Is the New Black.” He claims to be a humanitarian. He once saw an old woman struggling to carry two bags of groceries home. So he slashed her welfare payments. Now she only has to carry one bag. He is supported by white people who complain that blacks complain too much.

“Allister B. Affluent. A billionaire industrialist, he advocates closing our borders to foreign trade except for the occasional Mercedes Benz or Ferrari, outlawing trade unions and reestablishing the minimum wage at $1.25. A day. He believes global warming is a hoax and yearns for a United States that runs on coal, a commodity in which he is heavily invested. He believes all immigrants are felons and probably terrorists. He is prepared to spend a billion dollars on a campaign which will be a tougher sell than hawking sun screen to the Eskimos. He’ll be the favorite of the pampered and politically tone-deaf.

 “Because of the number of participants and because Fox’s new hit reality show, “Bikini Bachelorettes From Bakersfield Stump for Trump” will be shown immediately following the debate, candidates will be limited to a one-minute statement followed by a short scurrilous remark from somewhere in the audience. Remarks directed at Donald Trump will also be delivered in Spanish.

“If they have anything further to say, operators will be standing by to sell them additional air time.”

The above is, of course, an attempt at satire. I’d mock the Democrats too but for the fact that they decided on their candidate years ago. They’re just not fun anymore.

They have elected and reelected an African-American and will try to put a woman in the White House. After that?  Keep your eye on Caitlyn Jenner.

Whimsy aside, the truth about the Republican primary race is almost stranger than fiction.

There are 14 announced candidates with several waiting in the wings. They run the gamut from Mike Huckabee, a dyed-in-the-wool evangelical, to George Pataki, who supports abortion rights and gay rights.

This Tower of Babel is so problematic that the folks over at Fox News have decided to narrow the field by using the meat cleaver approach.

According to published reports, Fox has said it will allow only 10 candidates onto the stage, and it will choose them according to their standing in the five most recent national polls. Candidates who miss the cut become non-persons.

Some polls are so notoriously unreliable that the Fox folks might just as well throw darts at a board festooned with candidate pictures and use that as the selection criteria.

Using the Fox method, Donald Trump might make the cut. His latest polls numbers were shockingly good. But he would not be a welcome presence. According to a Bloomberg report, Trump appearing in the debates "is a nightmare scenario for the Republican establishment, which risks having its presidential field look more like an unwieldy circus of a reality TV show than the self-styled embarrassment of riches."

Just to add a touch of surrealism to the proceedings, Doyle McManus, writing in the Los Angeles Times, envisions this scenario:

“It's more likely that Fox, which is very good at building an audience, will delay its last poll until just before Aug. 6 — and then hold a televised selection ceremony like the suspense-filled ritual that precedes the NCAA basketball tournament.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Slow March Toward Equality

Something I saw on television this past week made me contemplate the subject of race in America.

It wasn’t a news show about the massacre of nine African Americans at a church in Charleston.  Or the disclosure that the alleged murderer was 21-year-old gun wielding racist from the backwaters of South Carolina.

It most certainly wasn’t the inevitable talking heads earnestly disclosing their take on What It All Means.

It was a science show.

It’s called “Star Talk” and it’s moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of America’s most popular and visible scientists.

The subject of this particular episode was the future of NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), where a budget squeeze has caused a justifiable uproar within the scientific community.

Tyson went straight to the top for answers by snagging an interview with the space agency’s top dog.

On one side of the desk sat Tyson, a Harvard-trained astrophysicist who earned a PhD from Columbia.

On the other side sat NASA’s  administrator, Charles Bolden, a Naval Academy graduate, test pilot, astronaut and retired Marine Corps major general.

Both men are African American.

And it didn’t matter. It was an hour of two really smart guys talking about a subject of vital importance to us all.

Most of all, it was an example of what America should be, a place where people interact without labels.

But is it? Against the backdrop of riots, rogue cops and deranged white supremacists marching under the banner of the Confederate flag, can we really say there has been progress in this country toward racial harmony and equality?

A CBS News poll conducted last Spring found that while 59% of Americans — including 60% of whites and 55% of blacks — considered race relations in the U.S. to be generally good, about half (52%) thought there was real hope of ending discrimination altogether while 46% said there would always be a lot of prejudice and discrimination.

About six-in-ten blacks (61%) held the view that discrimination will always exist compared to 44% of whites.

At least we have moved the needle on race relations into positive territory.

I have long believed that, despite recent events and a sordid history, this country more than any other on the face of the earth can make racial harmony a reality and bring an end to discrimination. We have preached the gospel of equality from the halls of Congress to our houses of worship to our schools and workplaces. And most people listened.

Besides, if not us, who?

So I felt a certain satisfaction watching this “Star Talk” episode, knowing that this  country, which has placed so many barricades in the paths of black citizens, could at the same time produce brilliant and accomplished people such as Tyson and Bolden.

It wasn’t easy. Tyson, a kid from the Bronx who became director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, recalled about being interviewed about a plasma burst from the sun on a local Fox affiliate in 1989. "I'd never before in my life seen an interview with a black person on television for expertise that had nothing to do with being black.”

Bolden grew up in a segregated South Carolina. While in high school, he decided he wanted to attend Annapolis which required a letter of recommendation from a member of congress or a Senator. No elected official in South Carolina would write that letter because of Bolden’s race. Finally, a black congressman from Illinois took up his cause.

At the Naval Academy, Bolden graduated with a degree in electrical science, was president of his class and was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer. He went on to earn a graduate degree in systems management at USC.

As a naval aviator, he flew more than 100 sorties into North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, in the A-6A Intruder between June 1972 and June 1973. 

These are exceptional human beings, of course. It would be wrong to think they represent the status of minorities in this country any more than Barack Obama or Denzel Washington or LeBron James do.

What about Joe or Jane Average African American Citizen?

The average three-member black household makes about 59 percent of what a similar white household makes — up from 55 percent in 1967 — but the income gap in actual dollars widened to $27,000 from $19,000, according to a story in the New York Times.

The median net worth of white households is 14 times that of black households, and blacks are nearly three times as likely to be living below the federal poverty threshold.

The disparity in homeownership rates is the widest in four decades. As the Pew study stated, those realities are recognized by most Americans, only 1 in 10 of whom said the average black person is better off financially than the average white person.

Indeed, a study by Stanford University found that poor whites tend to live in more affluent neighborhoods than do middle- class blacks and Latinos, a situation that leaves those minorities more likely to contend with weaker schools, higher crime and greater social problems.

In 1960, black men were five times as likely as white men to be in local, state or federal prison. More than fifty years later, black men are six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.

So have we made progress? Some. Before you dismiss that, it’s important to remember where we started. As late as the 1960s, blacks in this country still couldn’t vote in many places, faced blatant discrimination in hiring, in housing, in education. 

On an imaginary scale of 100 charting racial progress in this country, zero being worst, we may be close to 50 now. That’s improvement but clearly there’s still a long way to go.

It’s not 1950s Mississippi. But it’s not the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream, either.

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Brian's Song

I have never been a big Brian Williams fan.

I’m sure he’s a hail fellow well met, but his made-for-TV good looks couldn’t cover up a lack of charisma and his newscast seemed to convey a sense of foreboding and melancholy.

He always looked to me like a guy whose dog had just died.  I don’t need my news delivered by Henny Youngman, but a little pizzazz wouldn’t hurt.

I understand first hand that reporting the news, whether on camera or by keyboard, can be sobering. After all, you’re mostly dealing in tragedy, either human or institutional.

I also understand that Williams was a well-regarded star within the context of evening news broadcasts so my opinion and $2.25 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

But his stardom and his career ended several months ago when Williams became embroiled in a controversy regarding his experiences covering the war in Iraq. He reported that he was in a helicopter that was forced down by grenade and small arms fire.

That turned out to be untrue. The only thing that got shot down was Williams’ credibility. 
And for that and other misstatements of fact, he was suspended and eventually replaced by Lester Holt, a NBC veteran and the first African American to hold down the evening anchor spot.

Instead of reporting a story, Williams became the story. And that never ends well.

Now, in what can only be called the comeback of the year, Williams will return to television on NBC affiliate MSNBC handling breaking news.

He will do so having admitted his mistakes. He was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “I'm sorry.  I said things that weren't true. I let down my NBC colleagues and our viewers. I am determined to win back their trust…”

In many journalistic fields, and print in particular, an intentional skewing of facts would get you a seat on the sidewalk. But in a business where ratings apparently take precedent over honesty, Brian Williams has survived.

That seems odd. Conceived as a progressive alternative to the conservative Fox News, MSNBC has struggled for ratings. Among the news networks, MSNBC followed Fox and CNN, with total day viewers of 316,000 and 85,000 key demo viewers, down 20 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

 In a sign of how dire the ratings slump at MSNBC has become, the fledgling Al Jazeera America beat out MSNBC in the 25-54 demographic during the 2 and 3 p.m. daytime hours.

So what do NBC execs do to save a sinking ship?  They bring in a guy with a enough egg on his face to last a lifetime who will viewed more as a curiosity than a savior.

I’m glad Williams will get a chance to repair his reputation, but you don’t salvage damaged goods with damaged goods. And if I’m an employee of MSNBC, I’m probably less than thrilled about it being viewed as a dumping ground for disgraced anchors. And a news outlet with low standards.

Of course, NBC is the same network that, as a ratings ploy, took on Chelsea Clinton as a rookie reporter at a salary of $600,000 per. She eventually left but I was glad she earned enough to keep her in ramen noodles until she could get her career on track.

In the meantime, Williams will earn considerably less than he did as an NBC anchor which was reported as $10 million per year.

An anonymous NBC source told the New York Times it would be substantially less money, but would not be more specific.

Edward R. Murrow, a famous anchor from years gone by, would sign off his newscasts with “good night and good luck.”

I wish Brian Williams the same.

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.