Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mindless Data

For them, Ralph Nader has always been running for president of the United States.
Hard liquor has always been advertised on TV.
“The Daily Show” with John Stewart is their preferred source of news.
Fox News and MSNBC has always been locked in a struggle for the hearts and minds of Americans.
Hong Kong has always been part of China.
Ads for prescription drugs, noting their jaw-dropping side effects, have always flooded the airwaves.
Thanks to digital technologies, they have never had to hide their dirty magazines under the bed.
“Good feedback” means getting a bunch of likes on their Facebook page.
Since Toys R Us created a toy registry for kids, a visit to Santa is a mere formality.
Say hello to this year’s incoming college freshman class, born in 1996, scheduled to graduate in 2018.
Or so say Ron Nief and Tom McBride of Beloit College in Wisconsin. They call it the Mindset List and have been busy compiling and publishing it since 2003.
And while it’s good for a few laughs, the authors claim it has a serious side as well.
“There are always some serious issues about the future of the class and their role in the future of the nation,” noted Nief and McBride. “The digital technology that affords them privacy from their parents robs them of their privacy amid the “big data” of the NSA and Google.
“How will the absence of instant online approval impact their performance in the classroom and work-place?”
“This generation is able to do what, once upon a time, only celebrities could do: advertise their self-designed personalities. Will that keep them from ever finding their authentic selves, or will they go through life with a ‘virtual’ identity?”
Navel-gazing material, indeed.
Not to be outdone, a survey on the BuzzFeed website gives a once-over-lightly look at kids who are entering high school this year. Its findings:
If you say, “You sound like a broken record,” chances are they won’t understand you.
Some of them were born the same year the first Apple stores opened.
They’ve always had GPS and have never had to look up directions and print them out.
“Roll down your window” has no meaning. Neither does “don’t touch that dial.”
They’ve never had to untangle a phone cord or straighten an antenna for TV reception.
Enough already. Despite the authors’ attempts to attach some gravitas to their work, what we have here is fluff, a kind of journalistic catnip which attracts frenzied media attention but tells us nothing.
Is a high school student without a GPS system doomed to wander lost for days on end?
Does a college student can’t remember when Hong Kong wasn’t a part of China remain ignorant of international politics?
Do kids who watch John Stewart become brainwashed into becoming unrepentant liberals?
We don’t know, of course, because there is no analysis attached to the factoids herein.
The real result of all this — intended or not — is to make older people (like me) feel like time is spinning out of control, that nostalgia is remembering what happened in the last week, not the last century.
Do we care? Sure we do. Because it puts artificial distance between our children and ourselves. That’s too bad, there is a lot to share.
For another, these surveys presume that the collective wisdom of young kids is confined to the time they have spent of the planet, that they have been untouched by history even though they were exposed to it every step of their educational way.
This, of course, is bunk. I never pushed a plow, fired a musket or made my own candles but, thanks to history, I know it was a fact of life in Colonial times.
I suspect these kids do, too. After all they’re going to college.
I have an old-fashioned solution to understanding the young and their life experiences: talk to them. I hear it’s extremely enlightening.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Factual Follies

"TOPEKA, KS—Planned Parenthood announced Tuesday the grand opening of its long-planned $8 billion Abortionplex, a sprawling abortion facility that will allow the organization to terminate unborn lives with an efficiency never before thought possible.”

Controversial? Yes. Improbable? Yes. But Remotely Possible? Yes. True? No.

This bit of journalistic sleight-of-hand came to us from the Onion, the leading practitioner of satirical journalism in the U.S.

Not everyone got the joke, however. Congressman John Fleming, a Republican from Louisiana, linked to it on his Facebook page with the notation “More on Planned Parenthood, abortion by the wholesale.”

Fleming joins a multitude of people and organizations who over the years slipped  on the banana peel of satire, exposing a certain lack of sophistication while gaining immediate membership in the Bonehead Hall of Fame.

If the Abortionplex is Exhibit A, Exhibit B would be the Washington Post blogger who breathlessly announced to the world that Sarah Palin had signed on as a contributor to the Arab-owned Al Jazeera American News network.

"As you all know, I'm not a big fan of newspapers, journalists, news anchors and the liberal media in general," Palin allegedly said. "But I met with the folks at Al-Jazeera and they told me they reach millions of devoutly religious people who don't watch CBS or CNN. That tells me they don't have a liberal bias."

The source? A satirical news outlet called the Daily Currant. The editors who let it get into the paper?  Probably now making minimum wage at Wal-Mart.

Alas, it seems satire being presented as actual news has become a full-blown phenomenon, thanks in no small part to the advent of bloggers, tweeters, citizen journalists and others who have checked their critical thinking skills at the door.

In fact, just this past week, Facebook decided its 1.28 billion users were so gullible that it is attaching a “satire” tag on entries that are, well, satirical.

For example, a recent Facebook posting taken from the Onion, announced that “Apple Promises to Fix Glitches in Map Software by Rearranging Earth’s Geography.” Funny?  Not to one reader who angrily responded, “Is this really cost effective?”

Another Onion offering on Facebook headlined “Study: Nation’s Third-Graders Now Eating at Ninth-Grade Level” brought this comment: “I’m sorry, but isn’t this a huge waste of money?”

A simple “Satire” tag would have prevented these angst attacks.

I decided to try it.  I posted an Onion piece on Facebook that shows Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell with bloated neck and jowls headlined “Mitch McConnell Inflates Throat Pouch in Show of Dominance Over Fellow Congressional Males.” 

No “satire” label was attached.  Maybe it was too believable.

So are people just getting dumber?  Or is it that so many spend their lives in a state of perpetual anger about what they see as the decline and fall of civilization that nothing seems too far-fetched for them to believe.

Perhaps the answer lies in a study by the Media Insight Project that found “roughly six in 10 people acknowledge that they have done nothing more than read news headlines in the past week." 

Or maybe the clue can be found in a Time magazine survey that asked readers to identify "the most trusted newsperson in America." John Stewart of Comedy Central's satirical "Daily Show" was the runaway winner.

Whatever the case, the satire business is booming at the same time traditional news outlets such as newspapers are facing extinction.

Among the most popular satirists:

The Borowitz Report, unique because it actually appears in a legitimate publication, the NewYorker.Com. Its latest entries tell us that the recent indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry “has sparked widespread bipartisan support for the concept of sending politicians to prison for ninety-nine years.” We also learn that “As the West ramped up its sanctions against the Russian Federation…Russian President Vladimir Putin convened a high-level meeting of his imaginary friends to craft a response.”

A site called Cabrolic Smoke Ball, which advertises itself as “news unencumbered by the facts,” recently came up with this blockbuster:Donald Sterling: World Community Should Not Associate With Boko Haram Because Its Members Are Black.”

The aforementioned Daily Currant headlined “Russia Bans U.S. Food Imports, Obesity Plummets” and “Saudi Arabia Seriously Considering Allowing Women to Use Forks.”

A Free Wood Post story reveals that “New Poll Reveals Ebola More Popular Than Congress.”

But when it comes to fooling some of the people some of the time, the Onion gets the last laugh:

--- Its story saying that Neil Armstrong is convinced that the moon landing was staged was picked up in numerous foreign papers.

--- A piece claiming that Congress is threatening to leave Washington, D.C., unless a new capitol with a retractable dome is built made headlines in Beijing.

---A story claiming Harry Potter books sparked a rise in Satanism among children became the topic of a widely circulated chain e-mail.

--- A satirical piece claiming President Obama sent the nation a rambling 75,000 word e-mail was picked up by a Fox News website.

--- A story saying that a 1998 homosexual recruiting drive was nearing its goal was embraced by Fred Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church fame.

--- The Mecklenberg County, Va., Republican Party thought there were really on to something when they posted an Onion story that Obama’s 19-year-old son made a rare appearance the Democratic National Convention.   On their Facebook page, they wondered why no other media had picked up the story.

All of which proves that folly is not that much stranger than truth.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Days of Future Past

The 1950s are seen by many as a sort of golden era of American life.

We had saved the world from tyranny and were ready to settle down and enjoy the good things this country had to offer. After all, America was so popular, according to one historian, that even the French loved us.

We all liked Ike, marveled at a new medium called television, drove cars that resembled fanciful rocket ships and moved to the suburbs. Moms wore aprons, Dads smoked pipes and kids roamed the neighborhood on shiny new bikes.

If life imitated art, the picture was painted by Norman Rockwell.

Lurking in the shadows, however, was a world teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation, a place where racial segregation remained rampant, we lived in fear of “commies,” air quality was abysmal and the straight jacket of conformity was the uniform of the day.

Yet if there was one overwhelming trait that defined America in the 50s, it was optimism.

That spirit was evident in a document I came across this week assembled by a team of Associated Press writers and editors.

Published in 1950, it attempted to predict what life in America would be like in the 21st Century. It got a lot of things right, some wrong, a nice blend of fact and fantasy. 

And it was upbeat, befitting a country that had endured a Depression and the savagery of World War II in the previous two decades. “If the past foretells the future,” it stated, “many millions of people alive today will live to see peace, prosperity, health, longer life, more leisure and greater luxury than ever were known.”

The highlights:

Science: “The first man-made star will be circling around the earth by the year 2000.  The star’s light will be like that of the moon, reflected sunshine. It will be visible before sunrise and after sunset.  It will circle 400 to 500 miles from earth, or possibly farther…

"Practical uses are numerous. One is a radar beacon.  Another to reflect radio signals for scientific study.  Three of these small ships, high enough and evenly spaced around the earth, might become relays to serve the entire world with television.”

Comment: The authors couldn’t have realized that the Soviets would launch such a “man-made star” a scant seven years after this was written.   It was called Sputnik.

Women:  “The woman of the year 2000 will be an outsize Diana, anthropologists and beauty experts predict. She will be more than six feet tall, wear a size 11 shoe, have shoulders like a wrestler and muscles like a truck driver.

“Chances are she will be doing a man’s job, and for this reason will dress to fit her role. Her hair will be cropped short, so as not to get in the way. She probably will wear the most functional clothes in the daytime, go frilly only after dark.

“Slacks probably will be her usual workaday costume. These will be of synthetic fiber, treated to keep her warm in winter and cool in summer, admit the beneficial ultra-violet rays and keep out the burning ones. They will be light weight and equipped with pockets for food capsules, which she will eat instead of meat and potatoes.

“Her proportions will be perfect, though Amazonian, because science will have perfected a balanced ration of vitamins, proteins and minerals that will produce the maximum bodily efficiency, the minimum of fat.

“She will go in for all kinds of sports – probably will compete with men athletes in football, baseball, prizefighting and wrestling.

“She’ll be in on all the high-level groups of finance, business and government.
“She may even be president.”

Comment: Equality trumped enormity, for which we can be thankful.

Construction: “People will live in houses so automatic that push buttons will be replaced by fingertip and even voice controls.

"Rigid zoning in small towns will insure yards, gardens and trees for each house, where window walls will slip down in slots to merge outdoors with indoors in favorable weather. 

“Signs point to vertical cities and flying suburbs – little airport communities 100 miles or more from skyscraper cloisters rising in the midst of acres of parks and playgrounds.”

Comment: Check back in the 22nd century.

Communication: Third dimensional color television will be so commonplace and so simplified ….that a small device will project pictures on the living room wall so realistic they will seem to be alive.  Radio broadcasting will have disappeared for no one will tune in a program that cannot be seen…

“The telephone will be transformed from wire to radio and will be equipped with the visibility of television. Every pedestrian will have his own walking telephone, an apparatus housed in a wallet-sized kit.”

Comment: And we will use our “walking telephone” device mostly to transmit pictures of cats.

Aviation: New principles of lift and development of designs already begun will end mid-century’s struggle with giant airports…Cruising speeds of 1,000 an hour or higher are probable for deluxe travel…Combination automobile-planes will have been perfected.”

Comment:  Alas, giant planes have created even more gigantic airports. Cruising speeds of 1,000 MPH are attainable but the sonic booms created at such speeds would be intolerable. And flying cars remain the unattainable dream.

Labor: “Many government plans now avoided as forms of socialism will be accepted as commonplace. Who in 1900 thought by mid-century there would be government-regulated pensions and a work week limited to 40 hours? A minimum wage, child labor curbs and unemployment compensation? 

Comment: Didn’t we just hear this at a Tea Party rally?

And this, about the future of the country:

“We’ve feared the worse, while hoping for the best, ever since we have been a nation. We’ve come through wars and depressions. And we’ve come through free.
“Today, almost alone among men, we have the strength – as we may need to prove – to hold the course we choose.”

Comment: Truer today than yesterday.

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, August 10, 2014

The Name Is the Game

I was happy to read the other day that rookie reporters are finally getting paid a living wage.

When I was starting out, I made a hundred bucks a week. That required me to live humbly, subsiding on Corn Flakes, pancakes and street corner hot dogs. Since we considered beer to be an important food group, we consumed a fair amount of that as well.

Now, a young lady whose family can be best described as an aspiring political dynasty has signed on to the NBC network to do some reporting. She’s inexperienced so she won’t be covering the White House or Congress but will do the odd feature story here and there.

Her name is Chelsea Clinton. Yeah, that Chelsea, daughter of Bill and Hillary. Her salary: $600,000 per. To put that in perspective, it’s three times more than her daddy made as President of the United States.

I caught her act recently on the NBC Nightly News and while she was competent, she exhibited all the charm and warmth of a lamp post. For 600,000 big ones, I would expect a combination Edward R. Murrow and Katie Couric.

She was somewhat less than that. I guess you don’t always get what you pay for.

But the greatest obstacle facing Chelsea the Reporter is herself.

She grew up in the White House as we watched, transforming from an awkward teen to a self-assured young woman who maintained her demeanor despite tasteless attacks from the likes of Rush Limbaugh who once said, “Everyone knows the Clintons have a cat. Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?” The punchline was a picture of Chelsea.  She was 13 at the time.

She has spent her life, not reporting the news, but being the news. So when I saw her on television, my reaction was, “Hey, that’s Chelsea Clinton.” I cannot for the life of me remember the topic of the story she was reporting. 

Who She Is overshadows What She Says. It’s sort of like Angelina Jolie doing the weather on the 6 o’clock news. Who knows if it’s going to rain?

There are celebrity journalists --- Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters, Woodward and Bernstein, Christiane Amanpour and Tom Brokaw come to mind --- who achieved fame through dedication to their craft.

But celebrities as journalists? It’s marquee value and little else.

Undaunted, Vanity Fair magazine has also gone the celebrity route and in the process made NBC’s hiring of Chelsea look like a stroke of genius.

They have brought Monica Lewinsky into the fold, a woman whose claim to fame was her hands-on relationship with President Clinton when she was a White House intern.

She will be contributing to the magazine’s website on an “ongoing basis,” according to Politico. With any luck, Monica and Chelsea will bump into each other covering the same story.

Lewinsky recently wrote a piece for Vanity Fair’s about online rebuttals to personal attacks. In June she wrote an essay about being in the public eye and her "10 years of self-imposed reticence." 

She also appeared on a National Geographic Channel special on the ‘90s in which she said she went from being “a virgin to humiliation” to “the most humiliated woman in the world.”

I guess if you’re Monica Lewinsky, you’ve got lemons so you make lemonade.  Unfortunately, almost anything she says or does will be followed by a snicker.

I feel sorry for her. I believe she was an impressionable young women enamored of a powerful and popular President who as it happened was lecher-in-chief.

It may be cathartic to write about her affair with Clinton, and I suspect she needs the money, but the last thing she should pursue is a career in journalism whose practitioners have already portrayed her as a one-dimensional trollop.

She needs to move on with her life. Run a non-profit. Feed the hungry. Shelter the homeless. Advocate for animals. Work for world peace.  Define herself as something other than Bill’s bimbo.

She said in her Vanity Fair piece that “When I hear of Hillary's prospective candidacy, I cannot help but fear the next wave of paparazzi,  the next wave of 'Where is she now?' stories, the next reference to me in Fox News' coverage of the primaries.”

If that’s true, then she should hold a press conference, declare she has no interest in Hillary’s presidential aspirations or, for that matter, the entire Clinton family. She should then announce she will never revisit the topic again, ever.

Alas, by accepting the Vanity Fair job, she has thrust herself back in the spotlight where the whole sordid affair will be replayed again and again.

Someone needs to tell her that Vanity Fair didn’t hire her because she is a deft and compelling writer. The magazine is exploiting her just like her president did.

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, August 03, 2014

On the Fly

I am an expert on airline travel.
Yet I am not an industry executive, a pilot, a flight attendant, a baggage handler, a ticket taker.
I don’t work in the travel business, don’t report on it on a regular basis, don’t own stock in anything with wings.
I’m just a guy like many of us who gets shoe-horned into sardine class, suffers lousy service delivered by surly employees while dining on meals that appear to have come from the San Quentin Cookbook.
I’m a guy who has better things to do with a few thousand bucks than spend it on first class airfare. But I’m a guy who believes that flying cheap shouldn’t compare to confinement in a Third World jail cell.
I’m a guy who pays extra for checked bags, then hopes they don’t arrive in New Zealand while I’m staring at an empty carousel in New York.
I’m a guy on the receiving end of the shameful U.S. airline industry which is reaping hefty profits but spending none of it on its customers.
And that makes me a de facto expert.
Two stories this past week reminded me of the sorry state of air travel in this country.
One Washington Post story noted that while the top American airlines are making more money than ever, don’t expect it to translate it into lower prices for passengers. Indeed, airline industry trends point toward sustained and even higher prices for consumers amid the reversal of the industry’s fortunes, the Post story said.
Why? Because the flying public is willing to pay increasingly higher prices to get to where they want to go. After all, we are a captive audience. Until they invent a machine that can beam us to our destination, the alternative is a Greyhound bus.
So the law of the marketplace prevails. We’re buying what they’re selling whether we like it or not.
On top of that, the House of Representatives last week rejected consumers’ complaints and easily passed legislation letting airline advertising emphasize the base price of tickets, before taxes and fees are added.
Just to understand: we will be paying more but won’t know exactly how much until the final bill arrives.
The other story involves something called the World Airline Awards, which were presented recently. Thinking this might be something concocted over a few beers at a local tavern, I checked out the methodology.
According to the Airlines Awards website, the survey operated online between August 2013 and May 2014, during which time 18.85 million customer surveys were completed, across a range of survey topics. More than 105 different nationalities participated in the customer satisfaction survey, which covered over 245 airlines, from largest international airlines to smaller domestic carriers.
So bona fides are established.
And the winners are:
Airline of the Year is Cathay Pacific. Runners up included Qatar, Singapore, Emirates, Turkish, ANA All Nippon, Garuda Indonesia, Asiana, Ethiad and Lufthansa airlines.
Best Economy Class cabins: Asiana followed by Garuda Indonesia, Turkish, Qatar, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, EVA Air, Oman Air, Emirate and Thai airlines.
Best Economy Class seats: Saudi Arabian, followed by Korean Air, Garuda Indonesia, Oman Air, Japan, Singapore, Turkish, Cathay Pacific, Asiana and ANA All Nippon airlines.
Best Premium Class Economy catering: Qantas, Air New Zealand, Turkish, Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, Cathay Pacific, British, ANA All Nippon and Japan Airlines.
Are we noticing a trend here? When it comes to competing on the world stage, U.S.-based airlines seemed to be left at the gate.
Narrowing it down geographically, the best low-cost airline in the U.S. is Virgin America, which, of course, is the brainchild of Britain’s Sir Richard Branson. The best airline award in North America went to Air Canada. The best regional airline in North America is Porter, based in Canada.
Even Aeroflot in Russia, once considered the most dangerous airline on Earth, received an award for Most Improved. Meanwhile, the U.S. was even shut out of the Cabin Cleanliness awards.
For the record, in ranking airlines from 1 to 100, American Airlines landed at No. 89, Hawaiian at 88, American Eagle 79, Southwest 71, JetBlue 59, United 53 and Delta 49.
If this was the Olympics, Congress would conduct an investigation.
What can we expect in the future? Are we going to get nickeled-and-dimed so much that we’ll be reduced to hopping that eastbound freight?
Even if we don’t get priced out of the air, the news isn’t all good.
According to Businessweek, the big squeeze is on in the back of the plane. Carriers are changing the shape of lavatories, streamlining galley areas where they store drink carts, and adding “slimline” seats with thinner padding to shave centimeters off the distance between rows.
Boeing announced this month that it will build a new version of the narrow-body 737 Max 8 aircraft with as many as 200 seats. That’s 11 more than the Max 8 that was already under development.
Airbus Group is adding 9 seats to the coach cabin in a competing jet, the A320neo, increasing the total to 189.
That’s the same Airbus Group that is seeking a patent on a new kind of seat that resembles a bicycle seat with a tiny backrest but without a tray table or head rest and offering miniscule amounts of leg room.
We can wait for the largesse of airline CEOs to decide that customer comfort and good service are of paramount importance. But that will be a long wait.
The best we can do right now is to learn to love rubbing elbows, not to mention shoulders and hips, with our fellow travelers.

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.