Monday, January 25, 2010

The Politics of Disaster

Even to a hardened soul who has spent most of his life reporting the news - much of it bad - this week was particularly dark.

The news from Haiti was gut wrenching, tens of thousands dead, an entire nation displaced, in an earthquake that devastated a people who must surely believe they have been put on earth to suffer.

And those who dwell in our hillsides and canyons, survivors of what seemed to be a never-ending firestorm this summer, now are lashed by rain so severe that it threatened to bury their neighborhoods in a tsunami of mud.

Yet in the midst of this gloom, there was a beam of light. And it came from an unexpected source.

Former President George W. Bush, a man who spent eight years squandering the respect of his nation, appeared at a White House Press Conference this past week, along with former President Bill Clinton and President Obama, to raise money for Haitian earthquake victims.

If there was ever a time to push politics aside, this was it. And President Bush did just that, praising President Obama's swift and timely response to the disaster.

In doing so, he appeared poised and presidential, regaining a measure of stature in the eyes of the American people while distancing himself from the extreme wing of the Republican party.

More than that, Bush's gesture was a sign of national unity, something we haven't seen since Obama took office.

There was irony that Bush was there in the aftermathof a catastrophic emergency. He had fumbled the Katrina disaster. Obama was no doubt mindful of that as he formulated a decisive reaction to the Haitian crisis.

But that backstory wasn't in evidence this week. "Now's not the time to focus on politics. It's time to focus on helping people," Bush said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Clinton agreed. "When people see us together - look, they know we have differences, even though we're friends," he said on CNN. "The only political thing I hope that comes out of this is that people keep their differences of conviction, but they treat their neighbors as friends."

Unfortunately, not everyone could resist turning the Haitian crisis into a political football.

The inevitable Rush Limbaugh, for example, said that the disaster enables Mr. Obama to highlight his "compassionate" and "humanitarian" credentials and to "boost his credibility with the black community."

He also criticized the White House's promotion of charitable organizations through which people can contribute to the disaster relief. "We've already donated to Haiti," he said. "It's called the U.S. income tax."

Further, Limbaugh continued, "I do believe that everything is political to this president. Everything this president sees is a political opportunity, including Haiti, and he will use it to burnish his credentials with minorities in this country and around the world, and to accuse Republicans of having no compassion."

Glenn Beck, in a burst of verbal tossed salad that was as hard to understand as it was to imagine, criticized President Obama for reacting more quickly to Haiti than he did to Afghanistan and the the Fort Hood shootings. In fact, he pointed to this as example of how Obama is further dividing the country.

In the meantime, Ann Coulter took the White House press conference as an opportunity to tee off on President Clinton, calling him a "horny hick" and referring to his involvement in an attempt to help the millions suffering in Haiti as a "shame and embarrassment."

Then there was Pat Robertson, everybody's favorite purveyor of that Old Time Religion, who declared: "Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it," he said. "They were under the heel of the French ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, `We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French."'

It is almost beyond comprehension that each of these people, who have enjoyed a measure of success in their chosen professions, have somehow in the process lost their compassion and sense of sorrow for the plight of their fellow man.

It is incomprehensible that they would view the horrors in Haiti and not, at the very least, be moved to throttle back on the rhetoric until the bodies are buried.

It is incomprehensible that they would in the future be viewed as any more than they are: heartless messengers of fear and cynicism whose agenda is shameless self promotion.

They would be better served by living by the words of the American patriot and Founding Father Thomas Paine who said, "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Welcome to My World

I would like to welcome Sarah Palin to the ancient and honorable order of journalism.

I doubt she will accept the invitation, however. Because, despite her new gig as a Fox News commentator, I'm not sure Sarah is quite ready to describe herself as a member of the Fourth Estate.

I don't think we'll see her hanging out at the bar of the local press club anytime soon.

She doesn't have a lot in common with most of us. I mean, she's a former vice presidential candidate who will make big bucks engaging in Fox's legendary "fair and balanced" coverage.

Most of us are a humble but a proud and resourceful lot who are a few thousand notches down on the glamour scale. No Louis Vuitton? No problem.

Sarah operates at a different level. For example, documents obtained by the Politico web site reveal the going rate for the former Alaska governor: $100,000 a speech, with a discount to $75,000 for West Coast appearances.

That's pretty tall corn for a populist politician, not to mention a working stiff reporter.

The last time I was asked to speak was at my kid's school career day. I guess the check is still in the mail.

But, hey, ours is a big tent. So step in Sarah and experience our world.

After all, she has the credentials.

She received her bachelor's degree in communications with an emphasis in journalism from the University of Idaho. Her early ambition was to be a sportscaster. Covering sports is sort oflike journalism, so she passes that test.

She actually worked in the profession, both in television and print, for several years which qualifies her as an ink-stained wretch. Not that I'd ever utter that term to her face.

She left journalism to go into the fishing industry with her husband. Come to think of it, journalism is somewhat like fishing. Every reporter wants to land the big one and sometimes the process stinks.

She's even written a book, "Going Rogue," which as a best seller, even though, like Sarah herself, it received mixed reviews.

The Associated Press challenged some of Palin's statements as non-factual, such as her assertions that she traveled frugally, avoided large campaign donors, was against the bankers' bailouts of 2008, and entered politics for purely altruistic reasons. The analysis concluded by characterizing the book as "a pre-campaign manifesto."

Conservative radio talk show host John Ziegler praised it as "the best book and greatest literary achievement by a political figure in my lifetime..."

But that's the media for you, Sarah. People either hate you or love you, often at the same time. You'll mostly hear from the former.

I guess I would be more comfortable with Journalist Sarah if (1) I was convinced her motives were pure and (2) she didn't always speak ill of her newfound brothers and sisters (in one classic mixed metaphor, she said of the media, "How about, in honor of the American soldier, you quit makin' things up?").

Let's face it, Sarah is more interested in staying on the political radar screen than embarking on a journalism career.

Even though she told CNN that "right now I cannot even imagine running for national office in 2012," she's leaving the door so wide open a moose could walk through it.

I watched her debut on Fox earlier this week. She seemed comfortable enough, considering she considers the media enemy territory. Of course, she appeared with the usually abrasive Bill O'Reilly, who threw her more softballs than next season's Dodger pitching rotation.

She was predictably critical of President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, her critics and anyone to the left of Barry Goldwater.

She espoused the conservative, Tea Party political line that we've come to expect from her.

But I couldn't help wondering what we will hear from Sarah that we can't already hear from the rest of the Fox folks. And if she is running for office, isn't she just preaching to the choir by appearing on Fox?

Perhaps. But Sarah has star power. And a place to display it. I wouldn't count her out yet.

In the meantime, welcome to journalism, Sarah, even if your were just passing through.

Invasion of the Body Scanners

When Richard Reid brought explosives onto an airliner in his shoes, authorities made millions of us remove our footwear for inspection before we boarded our flight.

Along the way, we were also required to carry our deodorant in a thimble and our toothpaste in an eye dropper.

Now comes Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who smuggled explosives onto a flight in his underwear and failed in an attempt to blow up the airplane near Detroit.

Should we now assume that all dignity will be abandoned in the name of security and we will be ordered to fling our undergarments onto the conveyor belt?

Probably not. But you can bet your briefs that we will soon be subjected to virtual strip searches when the government begins to use body scanners to foil terrorist attacks.

Those scanners are coming to an airport near you. Soon.

Should we be concerned? Is our privacy being violated?

The Transportation Security Agency assures us that passengers walk through the machines fully clothed; the resulting image appears on a monitor in a separate room and conceals passenger faces and sensitive areas.

One report says that the resulting images are scrubbed by an "algorithm" so they look like a "chalk etching" or a "fuzzy photo negative."

"It covers up the dirty bits," James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Post.

I seriously doubt that these scanners will "cover up the dirty bits."

Why? Because, if they do, that's exactly where the terrorists will conceal their weapons.

Even potential death in a fiery explosion can't quiet privacy concerns, however. One young woman I know wonders how long it will be before the scanned images begin to show up on Facebook.

Others wonder how much cash a body scan of a celebrity will bring from the gossip mongers in what would be the ultimate paparazzi shot. Can you say six figures?

The alternative is a full body pat-down in front of an airport full of gawkers. Or perhaps we can run reluctant passengers past a pack of bomb-sniffing dogs.

Some suggest we employ the security measures used by the Israelis. In a country surrounded by enemies, no flight out of Tel Aviv has ever been hijacked.

Lisa Beyer, former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine, wrote about the Israeli security drill: "They ask a lot of questions, don't hesitate to take their time doing it, aren't embarrassed about profiling fliers and are quick to take matters to a higher level of scrutiny. The point of the long question sessions is to find inconsistencies in a terrorist's cover story, or to agitate him into a panic.

"Almost always, I'd be questioned by one agent, who would then leave to consult with a second agent, who would appear and ask many of the same questions. Then the two would compare notes, often with a supervisor, before the first agent would return with more questions."

That sounds like a procedure that would add hours to the screening process. How much of this is the American public prepared to tolerate?

We had better be prepared to accept all of it.

We are at war. And war requires sacrifices.

We face a ruthless and adaptable enemy that seems intent on targeting the innocent and defenseless. That makes security more complicated.

Can we learn from our mistakes and take measures that are effective without being even more Draconian?

We have little choice but to meet that challenge. That means not only the nation's security apparatus but the flying public as well.

The alternative is obvious and unpleasant.

Jon Adler, head of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, put it this way: "I don't consider the full-body scanners an invasion of privacy. I think a bomb detonating on a plane is the biggest invasion of privacy a person can experience."

Friday, January 08, 2010

A Bucket List

QUICK, name five things that don't exist anymore. My list: typewriter ribbons, ink wells, record needles, Oldsmobiles and the Soviet Union.

An author named Anna Jane Grossman who studies such things instead chooses blind dates, getting lost, porn magazines, looking old and body hair.

My list admittedly dates me somewhat, a point that was driven home when I read a recent piece on the Huffington Post Web site about things that are becoming obsolete.

There are some old favorites here, like handwritten letters and some not so old products, such as CDs and dial up Internet.

Technology is the common denominator. Whatever product is on this particular Bucket List has been replaced by some super whiz bang wireless global positioning satellite-directed hand held high def billion gigabyte gizmo that will simplify our lives but only if you know a Caltech grad who can tell you how to operate it.

The article confirmed my feelings that nostalgia has become the yearning for something that happened several hours ago. Such is progress.

Without further ado, here is the Huffington list accompanied by some personal observations, an act on my part that will never become obsolete.

Calling. That's right, conversation. The Huffington folks predict that texting will replace the call and offer as evidence the 110 billion texts sent in December 2008. None of which were sent or received by me. First of all, the keyboard is so small that any


text I attempt turns out to look like it was scrawled by a drunk writing in Sanskrit. And second of all, I don't have time to learn the lingo, like LTLWDLS (Let's twist like we did last summer) or MTFBWU (May the force be with you). Besides, I like the sound of the human voice.

Dial up Internet. Sure, you could sign on, have breakfast, and return just in time to get connected. But those crackling, buzzing noises made me feel like I was starring in a Grade B science fiction movie.

Encyclopedias. Which are presumably being replaced by Wikipedia, the online equivalent which is written and edited by anyone and everyone. That policy clearly leads to errors.If I need to be absolutely correct, I’ll reach for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

CDs. People download music directly onto MP3 players and the like these days. Indeed, the No. 1 music retailer in the United States is Apple’s itunes. I received a Christmas gift this year of a turntable which will install 78 rpm and 45 rpm records onto a MP3. Nice of them to think of us old folks.

Landline phones. I have trouble giving up my landline phones, probably because I resist wearing my cell phone on my hip like some gunslinger in “3:10 to Yuma.” Or one of those ear pieces that make you look like a cyborg. But there is another good reason, according to experts. With a land line phone, the 9-1-1 dispatch center gets the caller’s physical address — 123 Main Street. With a wireless phone, they get latitude and longitude information from the cell carrier. That is converted into the caller’s approximate location.

Film. Can you even buy it anymore?

Yellow Pages and address books. Many of us still rely on the Yellow Pages. That’s because many of us use them as door stops. For the rest of us, the Internet is the portal to goods and services. As for address books, there’s still something comforting about handwritten entries on paper. And sometimes reading the names you have scratched off over the years can be downright entertaining.

Wires. Huffington explains: “Wireless internet, wireless updating, wireless downloads, wireless charging, wireless headphones: Although wires are still around (for now!), they're well on their way to being a thing of the past.” Sounds great. In the meantime, be prepared to put up with poor service, dropped calls and slow Internet.

Catalogs. Are you kidding? We still get enough in the mail each year to put a dent in the Amazon rain forest.

Handwritten letters. I think the last handwritten letters I received were from my kids at summer camp. And that was 20 years ago. Oh sure, I get a few missives from angry readers and the occasional Christmas letter but let’s face it, this is a lost art. And that’s a shame. There’s actually a Web site called handwritten that celebrates the art of putting thoughts and dreams on paper. They explain it this way: “... to actually sit down and put a part of you into a handwritten letter, to tell a story and express an emotion to someone important to you, provides a glimpse into who you are.”

Here’s hoping I’m not on the obsolete list next year.

Pratfalls in the Press

Every year about this time, I collect the best of the worst of print journalism, corrections of mistakes that have been made in the gathering of news.

This is not intended to mock the profession that has kept us fed and clothed for many years. Instead it is a recognition that, despite what some think, journalists are human and when you start each day with a blank slate, filling it at breakneck speed will result in slipups.

Add the fact that newsroom staffs and budgets have been cut to the bone over the last few years and it's no surprise that accuracy has sometimes suffered.

Besides, nobody finds it more amusing than the practitioners of the craft (unless, of course, it was your mistake).

Here, then, are a sampling of the corrections that made us smile, if not groan. They have been collected from the Internet, from contributors and from Craig Silverman, who runs a website called Regret the Error.

In the thick of things: In a recipe for salsa published recently, one of the ingredients was misstated, due to an error. The correct ingredients is 2 tsp. of cilantro instead of 2 tsp. of cement. (Publication unknown).

Off the track: Due to incorrect information received from the clerk of courts office, Diane K. Merchant, 38, was incorrectly listed as being fined for prostitution in Wednesday's paper. The charge should have been failure to stop at a railroad crossing. (Publication unknown).

Choke hold: A photo caption on Tuesday's Page A8 said a student was performing the Heimlich maneuver on a dummy. The student was actually playing around and pretending to choke the dummy. (Washington News Tribune).

Dumb and dumber: A headline on page one of the Toronto Sun yesterday was both inaccurate and misleading. In fact, as the story reported, the mother of a boy involved in a high school fight in Keswick said her son "said something stupid." She did not say nor imply he was stupid. The Sun regrets the error and apologizes to the boy and his family. (Toronto Sun).

Cat calls: A reply to a question in Notes & Queries yesterday recommended purchasing lion and tiger urine from Chester Zoo to stop neighborhood cats from urinating in a vegetable patch. Chester Zoo would like to forestall requests for its big cats' urine: It asks us to make clear that it does not in fact sell either tiger or lion urine. Many years ago the zoo sold elephant dung, but it no longer does. (Guardian, U.K.)

No not me: An article on Aug. 2 about older alumni who have been helped by university career counselors referred imprecisely to comments by a 1990 graduate of Lehigh University who lost his job in February when his company was downsized, and a correction in this space last Sunday misspelled his surname. As the article correctly noted, he is David Monson, not Munson, and he was speaking generally - not about himself - when he said that newly unemployed people sometimes mope around the house in sweatpants. (New York Times).

Living dread: An article on May 25, 2007, `The Cult Guru Who Stole My Son' made claims that William Van Gordon was a `brainwashed zombie' and Edo Shonin brainwashed him and that the Buddhist retreat which they ran was a cult. We accept this is untrue. We apologize to both men for the contrary impression given. (Daily Mail, U.K.)

Just kidding: In my column on Aug. 22 I suggested that Sharon Osbourne was an unemployed, drug-addled, unfit mum with a litter of feral kids. This was not intended to be taken literally. I fully accept she is none of these things and sincerely apologize to Sharon and her family for my unacceptable comments. (The Sun, U.K.)

Ho Sweet Ho: In our entry on Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days, we referred to a Prairie Ho Companion; we meant a Prairie Home Companion. This has been corrected. (The Guardian, U.K.)

And last but not least: The Ottawa Citizen and Southam News wish to apologize for our apology to Mark Steyn, published Oct. 22. In correcting the incorrect statements about Mr. Steyn published Oct. 15, we incorrectly published the incorrect correction. We accept and regret that our original regrets were unacceptable ... (Ottawa Citizen and Southam News).