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.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Dear Old Dad

When it comes to gift giving, there’s nothing quite like Father’s Day.

Who among us hasn’t feigned delight in presents like loud ties, funky slippers, power tools, nose hair trimmers, a copy of “Fatherhood for Dummies,” screwdriver sets, bacon scented candles, barbecue aprons or beef jerky in a bag.

It’s stuff men like as imagined by women and children. But that’s part of its charm.

If you’re a Dad, it’s important to remember that when the kids surprise you with something like a World’s Greatest Dad T-shirt emblazoned with a likeness of Darth Vader, it’s the thought that counts.

Besides, the hugs and handmade cards are usually the best presents of all.

Moms have been worshiped since time immemorial. Dads, not so much. Now, as another Father’s Day looms, it’s a good time to discover who put the Pop in popular.

To hear tell, the first Father’s Day was held in Spokane, Wash., in 1910.

It was the brainchild of a woman with the lyrical name of Sonora Smart Dodd, who wanted a day to honor her father, a Civil War veteran named William Jackson Smart who as a single parent raised six kids.

Local pastors bought into the idea and preached the virtues of fatherhood from their pulpits on June 19.

It didn’t exactly spread like wildfire.

There were several mitigating reasons:  (1) It was, after all, Spokane, an Indian word meaning “that other city in Washington,” a place primarily known not for unique ideas but for being 20 miles from Idaho. (2) Ms. Dodd fled the city for the bright lights of Chicago where she studied at the Chicago Art Institute and undoubtedly saw things she never saw in Spokane. (3) The suggestion of a Father's Day was often met with laughter, according to several historical accounts. It was the target of much satire, parody and derision, sort of like National Accordion Awareness Month is now. (4) Shockingly, many saw it as the first step in filling the calendar with mindless promotions.

It was up to Ms. Dodd to ride to the rescue.

According to a book called “The Buying and Selling of American Holidays,” Dodd returned to Spokane in the 1930s and started promoting the celebration again, raising awareness at a national level.

 She had the help of those trade groups that would benefit most from the holiday, for example the manufacturers of ties, tobacco pipes, and any traditional presents for fathers. By 1938 she had the help of the Father's Day Council, founded by the New York Associated Men's Wear Retailers to consolidate and systematize the commercial promotion.

Sentiment aside, there were more Dollars than Dads driving this celebration.

In 1957, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith wrote a proposal accusing
Congress of ignoring fathers for 40 years while honoring mothers, thus "singling out just one of our two parents." To no avail.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson issued the first presidential
proclamation honoring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June
as Father's Day.

Finally, the day was made a permanent national holiday when that
go-to guy Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972.

When it comes to family celebrations, Mother’s Day is the gold standard.  Father’s Day ranks somewhere in between National Potato Chip Day and National Tap Dance Day in importance.

Mother’s Days means flowers and champagne brunches. Or dinner at a place where the menus don’t have prices. Father’s Day is a barbecue slaved over by the honoree. As one small boy once observed, “It's just like Mother's Day only you don't spend so much." 

In some places, Father’s Day takes on a life of its own.

In Germany, it’s traditional for groups of males to do a hiking tour with one or more wagons containing wine or beer or other assorted alcoholic beverages along with traditional regional food. Not surprisingly, many men end up getting drunk, according to press reports. The Federal Statistical Office of Germany says that alcohol-related traffic accidents multiply by three on this day.

Nothing says love like Dad, full of schnapps, lying face down on the floor.

In this country, more phone calls are made during Mother's Day than during Father's Day, but the percentage of collect calls on Father's Day is much higher.

Best definition of a Dad? “A father carries pictures where his money
used to be.”

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 07, 2015

Dodger Blues

I am a big Dodger fan. True Blue and all that.

This was the team that brought the major leagues to my minor league city when they moved to L.A. from Brooklyn in 1958.

No matter that in their first season, they finished 21 games out of first place. These were players I had only seen on baseball cards and Wheaties boxes before they came west. And now they were my guys.

I have remained hooked, partially because of the success of the team but also because of the joy of hearing Vin Scully calling the Dodger games.  It isn’t broadcasting. It is baseball set to poetry. And it has been a welcome constant in my life.

Then, a year and a half ago, it all came to an end. The Dodgers and Scully were  ripped from our lives, the result of mismanagement, greed and insensitivity.

It seems Times Warner Cable ponied up a cool $8 billion for the broadcast rights to the Dodgers, then couldn’t sell the package to other carriers because they needed to charge too much to recoup their outrageous purchase price. The result: Only Time Warner customers received the games. That cut about 70 per cent of fans in the greater Los Angeles out of the action.

It could have been resolved by Time Warner. It could have been resolved by the Dodgers. It could have been resolved through political pressure. It wasn’t. Fan loyalty be damned.

Now, there is a breakthrough. Time Warner and Charter Communication have decided to merge. Charter, a cable company which operates in my area, will begin offering Dodger games next week.

I should be delighted. But I am dismayed.

I was a reluctant customer of Charter for many years.  I had no choice.  Charter monopolized the area in which I live and it was either them or rabbit ear antennas.

It was a relationship characterized by absurdly bad customer service coupled with  poor quality reception and frequent outages. 

Among my memories of Charter:

--- An automated call-in system so complicated it could serve as the entrance exam for Caltech.

--- The day two repairmen showed up to fix something wrong with our reception. After about 45 minutes, I found them both standing motionless in the back yard. When I asked what was wrong, one replied, “Well, neither one of us is in charge so we can’t tell each other what to do.”  With that, they left.

--- The day I complained about reception and was told that it would take rewiring the entire block to fix it and that I would need all my neighbors to also complain before anything could be done.

--- When the picture went dark, I would have to call the neighbors to see if the cable was out in their home as well.  Customer service couldn’t tell me if it was just me or the entire system.

All of this led me to switch to AT&T U-verse at the first opportunity.  It isn’t perfect. But it isn’t Charter either.

Let’s be honest here. Beloved cable /Internet/phone providers is an oxymoron that ranks right up there with soothing rap music, efficient congressmen and friendly IRS auditors.

In Bloomberg’s 20 most hated American companies, TV and Internet providers occupy five spots. Charter ranks as ninth most loathed.

Things may have changed since the last time I hooked up with Charter. For all I know, they may be the last word in customer service these days.  But based on my research, nothing could be further from the truth.

On the Customer Service Scoreboard website, 220 out of 238 comments posted were negative. Charter’s customer service is ranked No. 347 out of the 805 companies that have a Customer Service rating with an overall score of 35.36 out of a possible 200. This score rates Charter customer service and customer support as “Disappointing.”

Out of 141 Yelp reviews of Charter’s operations in the Glendale area, 120 gave them one star out a possible five stars.

And, of course, there’s the 500 pound gorilla in the room. The consumer will end up paying for this Dodger fisasco. That $8 billion IOU isn’t going to go away.

So here’s the dilemma: Should I switch over to Charter so I can enjoy my beloved Dodgers again?  Is it worth the aggravation it most certainly will cause?

Or should I wait it out, betting the Dodgers will eventually appear on every cable system in Southern California?

I’ll wait.  At some point, sanity will be restored.

In the meantime, I’ll listen to Scully on the radio, go to a sports bar or wait for the Dodgers to appear on network TV, as they do periodically.

It may not be the best solution but it beats being a Charter chump.

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, June 01, 2015

Thinking Pink

Men excel at a lot of things. Like opening pickle jars, grilling meat, killing spiders, changing the oil, unclogging toilets, moving furniture.

But they also fancy themselves as great problem solvers which may be a bit of an exaggeration.

To underscore this, we need to look no farther that the Wisconsin State Legislature where a mostly male bipartisan group of lawmakers has tackled the thorny problem of how to get more women involved in hunting.

This may seem strange in Los Angeles where the only thing we hunt are parking spaces. But out there in the forests, fields and streams of America, this is serious business.

So after considerable deliberation, the lawmakers decided that the best way to make hunting female friendly is to allow hunters to wear pink.

I kid you not.

Under Wisconsin law, no one can hunt anything except waterfowl during deer season unless at least half of each article of clothing worn above the waist, such as jacket or a hat, is colored blaze orange.

This is intended to prevent your hunting buddy, who may have taken a few belts of Old Grandad to ward off the cold, from mistaking you for an eight-point buck.

It stands to reason then, according to the legislative group, that by allowing hunting gear in a more feminine pink, women will flock to the woods like mosquitoes in springtime.

Which is like saying that if the NFL used pink uniforms, more women would play football.

It remains to be seen how this will play with the women of Wisconsin but don’t expect the male hunters to look pretty in pink. Most guys who slug their way through the northern woods in search of game are getting in touch with their inner-Neanderthal. 

They want to come home from a successful hunt with the kill draped over their massive shoulders, successfully providing food for the clan. Call it Paleolithic Age old school.

Most of these guys would hunt wearing bear-skin loincloths given the choice. Don’t expect them to think pink.

In the meantime, we salute our Wisconsin friends for their attempts at inclusiveness. But their solution may insult more women than it attracts.

Speaking of males, it turns out that British researchers, having apparently wondered for a long time why the gender even exists, have come up with a reason.

From a purely biological standpoint, the existence of the male sex is kind of perplexing: When it's time to create a new generation, the males of a species often contribute nothing but genetic material to the mix.

"Almost all multicellular species on earth reproduce using sex, but its existence isn't easy to explain because sex carries big burdens, the most obvious of which is that only half of your offspring -- daughters -- will actually produce offspring," lead author Matt Gage told the Washington Post.

 "Why should any species waste all that effort on sons? We wanted to understand how Darwinian selection can allow this widespread and seemingly wasteful reproductive system to persist, when a system where all individuals produce offspring without sex -- as in all-female asexual populations -- would be a far more effective route to reproduce greater numbers of offspring."

Many males are deeply involved in the rearing of their children -- take penguins, sea horses, and humans, for example -- but in extreme cases, males are nothing but parasitic sperm-producers that latch onto their females of choice, according to the Post. So 50 percent of most species are capable of producing young, and 50 percent are just around to provide genetic variety. And to look good shirtless.

But the study concluded that males are required for a process known as "sexual selection" which helps species to ward off disease and avoid extinction.

A system where all offspring are produced without sex -- as in all-female asexual populations -- would be far more efficient at reproducing greater numbers of offspring, the scientists said.

But they found that sexual selection, in which males compete to be chosen by females for reproduction, improves the gene pool and boosts population health, helping explain why males are important.

So next time a guy slides up and says, “Come here often?” remember he’s just trying to improve the species.

The good news: I’m not just a Genetic Material Producing Unit. The bad news: Oxford University human genetics professor Bryan Sykes believes that with the declining sperm count in men and the continual atrophy of the Y chromosome, within 5,000 generations (approximately 125,000 years) the male of the human species will become extinct.

You’ll miss us when we’re gone. Especially if you need a pickle jar opened.

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.