Thursday, December 31, 2009

MEGA-CHURCH PASTORS VIE FOR PENNIES FROM HEAVEN

Oh God (and as you’ll see if you keep reading, I use the name appropriately here). Everything old is new again. Rick Warren (right,center, with John McCain and President Obama)--the celebrity pastor who helms the Saddleback mega-church, and who was invited to speak at President Obama’s inauguration – has sent a letter to his tens of thousands of congregants. It says this:
“With 10% of our church family out of work due to the recession, our expenses in caring for our community in 2009 rose dramatically while our income stagnated. Still, with wise management, we've stayed close to our budget all year. Then... this last weekend the bottom dropped out. On the last weekend of 2009, our total offerings were less than half of what we normally receive - leaving us $900,000 in the red for the year, unless you help make up the difference today and tomorrow.
Warren issued his plea this week, and made it clear the money has to be in place by January 1.

Hello? Does this kind of desperate last minute plea by a celebrity clergyman ring any bells? Let me refresh your memory. High profile pastor Oral Roberts – 1987 – remember? That was the year he told his congregants that unless he was able to raise $8 million by March 31 the Lord would call him home. Whew! Lucky for Oral, he raised $9.1 million quick and the Lord didn’t call him until this very week.

Meanwhile, what about Rod Parsley (left)? A less familiar name, perhaps, but equally as desperate as Rick and Oral. Parsley is the head of the Ohio-based World Harvest Church. This week, Parsley told his congregants this:
“…Everything is at stake…I’m facing the greatest financial attack in 30 years…All I’m asking is for you to help save this great ministry…Let’s turn back this demonically-inspired attack against this ministry…”
The bottom line? Parsley wants members of his flock to pony up $250,000, and fast. And what’s worse – apparently the devil is to blame. Not the U.S. economy, not mis-management of funds, not over-spending, not anything man-made. The devil!

Color me skeptical. Even color me cynical, if it makes you feel better, but I have watched these guys over the years and one wonders: Why do the financial crises of mega-churches always occur so desperately at the eleventh hour? Why are the churches that take in more money than some mega-corporations, not doing a better job of managing their businesses? They are indeed businesses. Purportedly, they are non-profit businesses, but they are businesses just the same. They have customers called congregants and a product that is of great value to the congregants. They have cash flow, real estate, investments and a promotional machine in place that could easily rival the NFL, AIG and Bank of America combined. So, why do they find themselves in such desperate straits?

Further, why are the Warrens, Roberts and Parsleys of the spiritual world always such controversial figures? Warren, you will recall, is the guy who in 2005 said Michael Schiavo’s decision to remove a feeding tube from his wife Terry, who was in a persistent vegetative state, was “an atrocity worthy of Nazism.” He is also the man who publicly crossed the divide between church and state by endorsing Proposition 8, the 2008 California bill that eventually outlawed gay marriage. Warren is also the guy who gathered thousands of young people in a stadium and talked about how powerful Hitler was when he gathered the youth of Germany together in 1939. Watch:


And Parsley? Well, Parsley, who calls himself a “Christocrat,” and who makes no bones about his political views ("The left has chosen the courts as a major battlefield over social issues”) strongly allied himself with John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign. By Spring of ’08 McCain publicly denounced Parsley’s characterization of Islam as “inherently violent.” Still, as recently as two months prior to rejecting Parsley’s endorsement, at a campaign rally in Cincinnatti, McCain hailed Parsley as a “spiritual guide.” Parsley may have taken his spiritual/political connection a bit too far by 2006, when a group of Ohio clergymen charged that Parsley had violated his church’s tax-exempt status by publicly taking sides on political issues.

Men like Warren and Parsley increasingly come off as extremists in the public arena. Their followers are often average Americans in need of spiritual guidance and affiliation. Those are legitimate human needs that appear to be trampled on by celebrity pastors who prey on their followers’ often limited finances. From the outside looking in, one tends to see these guys as financially predatory toward congregants who are not just looking for something in which to believe, but for someone in whom to believe. The media tends to operate as a societal watchdog, and frequently Warren and Parsley have taken verbal shots at media organizations. Do they fear public scrutiny of their closely guarded finances? Are there elements of successful mega-ministries that their keepers feel are not suitable for public consumption? And what about these last minute, frantic please for funds? Why?

So, will the desperate Rick Warren succeed in raising almost a million dollars in a two-day period? And will the equally anxious Rod Parsley encourage his followers to ante up 250 grand in record time? Compared to the late Oral Roberts’ campaign to raise $8 million way back in 1987, Warren and Parsley’s requests are peanuts. And sadly there are an awful lot of trusting people out there who will heed the call. Call it a hunch, but I predict the pastors will way, way exceed their stated financial goals.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

HANK KRAKOWSKI'S $5 MILLION LAPSE IN JUDGMENT

How about that Hank Krakowski, huh? What a party animal! Wait…what? What did you say? Oh, you don’t know who Hank Krakowski is? There I go again, making assumptions. Sorry. I just figured you must have known him because he just spent $5 million of your money on a three week party in Atlanta.

Krakowski (below,right) is the chief operating officer of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). You know, the FAA – the agency in charge of our air traffic control system and responsible for flight inspection standards. Gosh, who knew they had 3,600 managers? And how fun is this? All 3,600 got to go to the party in Atlanta, 1200 on each of three successive weekends. And Hank? Oh please, Hank was there the entire time, and he got to stay in the plush hotel’s “Governor’s Suite.” By all accounts, the booze was flowing and those crazy managers were partying like it was 1999.

You know…1999, when national unemployment was not in double digits, when the country was not spending billions of dollars annually on two wars, when millions of Americans were not experiencing home foreclosures. But listen, let’s not get judgmental here. The FAA needs a few cocktails. With all the plane crashes this past decade, the reports of safety violations, the commercial airline pilots flying drunk, airliners overshooting their destinations because pilots are “distracted”…I mean come on. Hank and his posse need a martini. Or two. It’s stressful being the FAA. How much bad press can one agency take before it just cracks? Bad publicity like the time that FAA internal report got leaked in 2005 – the one that revealed that weak FAA management had undermined passenger safety at some of the FAA air traffic control facilities. Jeez, it’s always something, right? I mean who can forget all those pesky rumors about the FAA having received 52 warnings about the 9/11 attacks well before the tragedies, in plenty of time to have prevented thousands of deaths? I ask you…who wouldn’t need a jello shot after that?

So it comes as no surprise that Krakowski, no stranger to controversy, arranged the three week party, er, uh, I mean convention – after all, the chief reasoned to an undercover ABC reporter, “This is worth it because we have to get the frontline managers on-board with what we're trying to do.” What Krakowski purports that the FAA was doing was training managers on the new contract enacted for air traffic controllers. Here’s the rub, though: The contract in question went into effect in October, and the big par-tay happened in December. Kind of like a big 1999-style hotel Christmas party, you know? Watch this ABC News report:


There’s one thing that is sort of bothering me about the party, though. I mean $5 million, right? I think Krakowski thinks we taxpayers forgot about things that could directly affect our safety. Things like revelations that air traffic controllers are still, in many locations, using communication technology developed in the 1960s. Things like the 2008 Time Magazine interview with a veteran air traffic controller. He said, “The FAA had a mandate from Congress to start running things like a business, to be more cost-effective. That has manifested itself in the rise of runway incursions [airplanes invading each other's ground space]. These are very clearly the result of a reduction in staffing, a decline in experience, and an increase in the use of employee overtime, which leads to increased fatigue. The result is a 300% to 400% increase in operational errors.”

Let’s review: Staffing reductions, fatigued air traffic controllers, terrorist threats, antiquated technology and “operational errors.” Add to all of that interminable flight delays and I’m thinking what may be needed here is a COO who is a tad more careful with each $5 million that he oversees. And I’m thinking cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and party weekends for 3,600 managers in plush hotels may be slightly inappropriate at this time. The FAA is, and has long been, mired in controversy, questionable safety oversights and inadequate staffing. Krakowski’s management style and priorities have often been called in to question by people in high places. His judgment has also been questioned. And if there is one thing we need regarding air traffic control and airliner safety, it is impeccable judgment.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

NO, Ms. Napolitano - The System Did Not Work

If you are one of the millions of travelers who spent a portion of your holiday trip battling the angry airport crowds or desperately trying to re-route yourself due to severe northeast storms, chances are your focus was simply getting from point A to point B. The good news? Well, really there is no good news right now about all that. The bad news? Your airport/airline experience is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to air travel issues.

Here are two names with which you may or may not be familiar. Jim DeMint and Gale Rossides. These are two mighty antagonists in this story. Jim DeMint is the Republican U.S. senator from North Carolina. Gail Rossides is the acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. Both are polarizing and controversial figures in this story.

Let’s start with DeMint: Jim DeMint (right) has been a senator since 2005. Before that he served seven year as the Congressional representative from is state’s fourth district, considered by some to be one of the most conservative in the state. In fact, DeMint is often referred to as the most conservative of all U.S. senators. For the record, DeMint supports a no-exception full ban on abortions. He has suggested that all illegal immigrants should be summarily dismissed from the U.S., shipped back to their countries of origin and required to apply for entry into the U.S. Significantly, he was only one of two U.S. senators to vote against the confirmation of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State (the other was our own Louisiana Senator David Vitter). There is nothing remotely moderate about Jim DeMint. And oh…by the way, he is now the ranking member of the U.S. Senate subcommittee on aviation operations, safety and security.

It is that last distinction that matters here. In 2008, President Obama revealed his intention to unionize Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees. The TSA falls under Homeland Security as the agency responsible for security in all modes of travel. Right now, the TSA does not have a Chief Administrator. The Obama administration has nominated counter-terrorism guru Errol Southers for the post. That brings us back to DeMint. The Senator is credited with delaying Southers’ confirmation, due to DeMint’s opposition to allowing collective bargaining for TSA employees.

That, of course, brings us to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab,(left) now and forever to be known as the Christmas Day “underwear bomber.” Abdulmutallab may be one of many such bombers, as the buzz now is that a number of other would-be terrorists are set to destroy U.S. bound flights. Not surprisingly, Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the near-tragedy on the Northwest Airlines Detroit-bound flight 253. What is somewhat more surprising is that reports indicate that Yemen, a poverty-stricken middle-eastern country, may be ground zero for the training of other commercial airline suicide bombers.

The TSA, the agency designed to protect you and me from the Abdulmutallabs of the world, has an acting administrator, Gale Rossides. (right) One could say Rossides does not have the sense of urgency required for the job. In November a government report was released that indicates that air cargo that is to be loaded on passenger planes is not being properly safeguarded in the warehouses where it is stored prior to flight. According to the report, investigators were able to easily infiltrates supposedly secure storage warehouses, and it gets worse: Reportedly, some cargo handlers have not even completed required background checks. In a classic case of understatement, Rossides responded to the report by saying simply that it raises “legitimate concerns.”

Rossides is a bureaucrat. What we need at TSA is an aggressive anti-terrorist problem solver who will put boots on the ground, tighten up screening processes for both passengers and employees, and take all necessary steps stop people like Abdulmutallab from boarding airliners. Evidently, we do not have that leadership at TSA right now. Interestingly it was 10 years, almost to the day between the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber. In that decade, thousands of people lost their lives on 9/11 and al-Qaeda has stayed its course.

While Jim DeMint plays politics with the Obama administration, and Gale Rossides focuses on her often-stated goal of creating the proper “business model” for TSA, al-Queda may be taking advantage of this country’s misplaced priorities by using the time to prepare more bomb attacks.

Contrary to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s proclamations about how the system worked exactly as it was supposed to, it appears there really is no system in place to ensure the safety of American air travelers. And, it is clear that there are individuals, both elected and appointed, in positions for which they are woefully unprepared or politicized to our detriment. I, for one, do not feel particularly safe. Do you?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

HOW TO READ A 21st CENTURY MAGAZINE

You just knew it had to happen. That magazine that turns up in your mailbox every month has become pretty mundane, right? Enter the Digital Newsstand.

The New York Times Reports that Time Inc., Conde Nast, the Hearst Corporation, Meredith and the News Corporation have banded together to not only save the magazine genre, but bring it forward into the digital society. While it seems that this could have happened sooner, and may have saved some now defunct publications (Gourmet, Metropolitan Home, Modern Bride, among many others), at least it is on the horizon.

Here is a quick look at the near future of Sports Illustrated:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

CLUB PRIVACY: WHO'S IN, WHO'S OUT?

You will hear a lot of debate in the coming days about the issue of privacy for high profile people. The debate happens periodically, but this time it started shortly after 2:30AM on Friday, November 27. That is when golf pro Tiger Woods drove his 2009 Cadillac SUV into a fire hydrant and a tree. Somewhere in the mix, his wife used a golf club to break the back windows. The exclusive Orlando, FL gated community in which they live has never seen so much nocturnal chaos. Tiger’s face was reportedly cut up, but there was no blood on the steering wheel or the dashboard, so some predatory media types concluded that Mrs. Tiger caused the lacerations when she confronted Mr. Tiger about his extra-marital affairs with various women. Of course, many of us already knew about Tiger’s affairs because the National Enquirer had conveniently informed us just two days earlier.

Since then, the Woods drama has played out on every television network, news show, talk show, tabloid, pop culture web site, celebrity magazine and even on the front pages of some major daily newspapers. Social networking sites are abuzz with chatter about the incident. Within a few days all of this will be ancient history. Does anybody remember Kate Gosselin? Richard Heene? Mark Sanford? John Ensign? John Edwards? Each could claim (and has) some level of intrusion of privacy during their own individual scandals. After all, we’re living in the high tech era of le scandale, are we not? Think back: Since we’ve all had access to countless online entities that keep us informed of everything, haven’t scandals just permeated our lives? Eliot Spitzer, Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Chris Brown, Michael Phelps, David Letterman…need I go on?

Almost every time one of the above-mentioned people was caught doing whatever they did, they issued statements pleading for privacy. As a guy who teaches media ethics and admittedly reads lots of celebrity gossip, I’d just like to be the first to clear something up for them all: You traded off your right to privacy when you decided to ask us to love you. You can’t really expect to be able to go to Target to buy socks and deodorant without many of us surrounding you. You saw success and fame as synonymous, and with the fame comes loss of self. If you do not understand all of this, ask some of your elders for guidance. Consult with Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John and Magic Johnson.

I predict each would tell you not to smoke out of a bong at a party, not to party with young women in Vegas and not to pay for sex while holding high office. They will no doubt tell you not to beat up your famous girlfriend on a public street in your car, not to use public funds to travel to see your paramour while you are governor, and not to have sex with anybody who owns a video camera. Don’t tweet, don’t Facebook, don’t text, don’t sext and don’t voice mail. If traditional media doesn’t get you, technology will. Any minute now, we’re probably going to see video tapes of the Tiger Woods incident from the very security cameras he had installed on his own property.

It is truly about bad behavior. This very morning, before I wrote this piece, I read all of the following: Rolling Stone Ron Woods, 62,(right) was arrested for assaulting his 21-year-old girlfriend. Louisiana GOP Senator and sex scandal veteran David Vitter cut in front of a line full of people waiting for coffee at the Russel Senate office building, without so much as an “excuse me.” And Tiger? Well, TMZ reports that Tiger and his alleged mistress were texting the night of the crash. Wife grabs phone, places angry call to mistress. Fight ensues, vestibule of the Woods mansion is badly damaged and, the rest is tawdry history.

A quick media ethics lesson: Privacy is a moral value. We define moral values in our culture as something held in high esteem, something honored and revered. Moral values are part of the cultural fiber that holds us all together. Other obvious moral values are elements such as truth, justice, autonomy and generosity. Bad behavior and moral values do not mix. In media we adhere to a moral value called “social utility.” That is the process of deciding which information is important to convey a story to the public and which is not. After deceiving the public with his fa├žade of a squeaky clean image, social utility informs us that his personal behavior is viable fodder for news. So it is incongruous for Tiger Woods to issue a mea culpa that includes statements like this:

“…But no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. I realize there are some who don't share my view on that. But for me, the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one's own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions.”

I have an abiding respect for the general public’s judgment. People like John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, David Vitter, Tiger Woods and Christian Bale will likely not gain much from asking the public for privacy. But when Mike Tyson’s child died, and he asked for privacy, we obliged. When the crew of the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight asked for privacy, they got it.
When actor Owen Wilson asked for privacy after a failed suicide attempt, the press wrote about him, but did not pursue him for comment.

As a journalist and a media consumer, I would say this to Tiger Woods: All the gated communities, high-level press agents, public relations firms and athletic prowess in the world cannot protect you from the public’s disdain for deception. Success is not about how many tournaments you win, how many millions you earn or how many high profile endorsements you garner. Success is a cumulative, lifelong process that relies on a strong moral compass. Tiger, if you thought you lacked privacy before 2:30AM, November 27, you haven’t seen anything yet.