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.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Resolutions and Other Myths

What a year it was, this 2014.

Untold thousands of Americans recorded themselves having ice water dumped on their heads in a charity fund-raising gimmick. It was later learned that the CIA had used the same technique for “enhanced interrogations.”

General Motors recalled every car it has ever manufactured. New jingle: “See the service bay in your Chevrolet.”

Donald Sterling.

The Super Bowl was decided by halftime. Nonetheless, slack-jawed viewers made it the most watched television event in history.

CNN’s Don Lemon asked if a missing Malaysian jet liner might have been sucked into a black hole. Those watching wondered if they had suffered the same fate.

Not to be outdone, Fox News anchor Anna Kooiman suggested that an AsiaAir flight went missing due to foreign pilots being trained under the metric system.

Also missing in 2014: The Democratic Party, whereabouts unknown.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un prohibited his nation's citizens from having the same name as him. He also banned the names James Franco and Seth Rogen.

But enough of all this. We will leave the year-end wrap-ups to others because this column believes in looking forward, not back.

Instead, we will focus on New Year’s resolutions many of which have already been broken in the last four days.

For example, I resolved not to write any more columns on lightweight topics like New Year’s resolutions. So much for that.

According to a Marist poll, more than four in ten Americans expect to make a resolution, and weight loss tops the list of improvements for the New Year. 

That would include your correspondent whose girth is beginning to prevent his arms from reaching the keyboard.

But wait. The poll also revealed more Americans have let their resolutions slide. Of those who made a promise going into 2014, only 59% kept their word, down from 72% the previous year. 

Why? Who knows?  Perhaps we have chosen to imitate our political leaders who talk big and do little.

Weight loss is the top resolution this year cited by 13% of Americans who vow to make a change in 2015. Exercising more follows with 10%. 

We do this because we know in our heart of hearts that skinny people are happier, healthier, wittier, better looking, richer, more athletic and more interesting than the rest of us slobs. Just tune into any commercial to verify this fact.

Perhaps we should consider the Evo Diet.

As part of an experiment for BBC-TV, a group of volunteers set up a tent in a zoo - and ate like the apes for 12 days. A nutritionist devised a "three-day rotating menu of fruit, vegetables, nuts and honey."

The results were impressive: Cholesterol dropped an average of 23 percent. Blood pressure fell from a level of 140/83 to 122/76. An unintended side effect was weight loss: 9.7 pounds.

The bad news is that you have an insatiable desire to live in a tree.

Other weight loss plans include the Edenic diet, based on what Adam and Eve are believed to have consumed in Garden of Eden. It’s either vegetarian or vegan, and based predominantly on fruit.  Lay off the apples, however.

If all else fails, try Breatharian diet, a diet in which no food is consumed, based on the belief that food is not necessary for human subsistence. Or the KE Diet in which an individual uses a feeding tube and eats nothing.

Other resolutions Americans are making according to the Marist poll:

Nine percent want to be a better person while 8% mention improving their health. 
With 7% each, stopping smoking, spending less and saving more money, and eating healthier rounds out the top-tier in the complete list of 2015 New Year’s resolutions.

The top resolutions for 2014 were spending less and saving more, being a better person, and exercising more each with 12%. Weight loss came in fourth with 11% while health improvements, eating healthier, and ceasing smoking each received 8% of those who were likely to make a resolution for 2014.

From this we can extrapolate that in the past year, we have gotten fatter, wealthier but still lacking in good words and deeds.

The last and best words on resolutions comes from Mark Twain:

“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.

“Yesterday, everyone smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath.  Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever.

“We shall also reflect pleasantly how he did the same old thing last year about this time…

“New Year’s is a harmless annual institution of no particular use to anyone save a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”

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.