Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One Nation, Under God...DIVISIBLE

Growing up in the 1960s, every morning in school we had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” We would stand by our desks with our right hand over our hearts – every single day. There are so many words in those two pieces that simply don’t work anymore. First, in the Pledge, we would say, in part, “…one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” By the late sixties we found out that our country was indeed divisible, and liberty and justice were relative terms. Today, there is controversy brewing even over the use of “God” in the Pledge. Citizens coast to coast are questioning the concept of liberty in America, throwing around words like socialism and dictatorship. And justice? Well, according to some Americans, justice has everything to do with your skin color, sexual orientation and/or socio-economic status. America is divided right now unlike any other time in history, except for the Civil War in the 19th century and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. We are fractured. We all know it, even though we go on about our daily lives as though we were still that America that pledged and sang every morning.

After the divisive health care debate last week, the fa├žade that we have counted on for so long began to crumble. Here are a few recent examples of how divisible our country has become:
• Item: John Lewis, U.S. Representative from Georgia’s 5th District, who once marched his heart out with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, and who was viciously beaten by police (left) for doing so, was once again victimized last week. On his way into the Capitol, Tea Party members demonstrating against the soon-to-be-voted on health care bill yelled, “Kill the bill, nigger.”
• Item: Barney Frank, U.S. Representative from Massachusetts’s 4th District, distinguished as one of the first openly gay members of the House, was called “homo” and “faggot” as he approached the Capitol.
• Item: An Alabama man, Mike Vanderboegh, who refers to himself as a “militia leader” is openly leading an effort to break windows in Democratic party headquarters coast to coast. The movement has succeeded so far in doing so in Arizona, Kansas, Rochester, NY and Niagara Falls. On his blog, he writes, “Break them and run to break again. Break them under cover of night. Break them in broad daylight. Break them and await arrest in willful, principled civil disobedience. Break them with rocks. Break them with slingshots. Break them with baseball bats.”
• Item: Reportedly, as many as 10 members of Congress have requested added security for their homes and offices. Some have received death threats. Watch:


• Item: Rep. Louise Slaughter, of Niagara Falls, one of those whose office windows were broken, reports that a voice mail was left on her office phone threatening to “assassinate” the children of lawmakers who vote in favor of the health care bill.

The anger many Americans feel right now is often exacerbated by talk radio hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh. Recently, Limbaugh said some surgeries cost about the same thing as buying a new car, so if one can buy a car he should be able to pay for his own operation, without health insurance. He also told a caller who said he broke his wrist and had to pay $6,000 out of pocket for treatment, “Then you shouldn’t have broken your wrist.” Entertainer Glenn Beck called last weekend’s vote on health care reform an “affront to God,” because it was being conducted on a Sunday. Beck, of course, is the one who recently told his listeners to leave their churches if they were being encouraged to support social or economic justice. He invoked communism and Nazism in his rhetoric.

Sean Hannity has been getting himself so worked up over healthcare reform lately that he appears ready for his first stroke. Of course, this comes just as it was revealed that his and Oliver North’s charity, Freedom Alliance, is spending inordinate amounts of its donations on travel, perks and accommodations, and donating only 12% of its revenues to the children of wounded soldiers education funds.

What we are witnessing now is much like what we saw during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, except with a high tech element. Talking heads are rallying their troops to fight the government in the name of freedom. Those among them without health insurance have yet to tell us how their medical expenses will be paid if they get sick. They will expect to be promptly and well-treated in emergency rooms coast to coast, without insurance. Further, even if their objection to national health insurance were valid, we have yet to hear from them any viable alternatives. All we have heard so far is that Americans should have a choice whether to be insured or not. If a grass roots movement is to gather true steam, it needs substance. It cannot go the distance on hate alone.

When supporters of health care reform point out that auto insurance is required of every driver, opponents say we are comparing apples and oranges. Are we? I think not. When supporters of health care reform point out that Medicare and Social Security could be considered just as socialist as the new reform, the opponents do not seem to respond. But they do expect their Medicare reimbursement and social security checks to arrive on time.

We are indeed a nation divided by ideology, temperament and intolerance. Racism is boiling, anti-government rhetoric has turned threatening and vile, and grass roots organizers are protesting the very initiatives that were designed to allow them to enjoy their freedom, not rob them of it. Violence, death threats and uncivil disobedience notwithstanding, however, this too shall pass. Just as the violence that rocked urban streets in the late 1960s in opposition to racial equality passed, this will pass. Still, how many broken bodies and spirits will lie in its wake is yet to be seen.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

IS POPE BENEDICT XVI THE NEW RICHARD NIXON?

For the past decade, the Catholic priesthood has become synonymous with pedophilia. That is unfortunate, because the odds are that the majority of priests do not sexually abuse children. However, enough of them have done so that now, we laypeople out here are highly suspicious of Catholic priests. Reportedly, the U.S. dioceses have paid up to $2 billion in victim settlements in the past eight years. Who can forget former Archbishop Bernard Francis Law of Boston, whose complicity in covering up sexual abuse of children by priests resulted in his resignation? For those who haven’t thought much of Law since his resignation, you should know he is currently serving in Rome as an “archpriest,” which means he is the authority over several parishes. He is also a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, which the Catholic Church defines as the body that "promotes the pastoral care of families, protects their rights and dignity in the Church and in civil society.” Law is typical in the church, in that even priests who have personally fondled children or raped them are currently still the in the papal fold. They are often just moved to different geographic locations and placed in lower profile positions.

Just to put the issue of sexual abuse by priests in perspective, watch and listen to the courtroom testimony of Father Patrick Gerald O’Donnell of Spokane, who admitted sexually molesting more than 30 teenage boys, many of them inside the church rectory.

Is it just me, or does there seem to be some dangerous disconnect between the Vatican and societal morality? Lately, the church’s morality has been called into question throughout Europe. Among the most high profile issues that Pope Benedict XVI has to deal with right now is alleged misconduct on the part of his own brother, George Ratzinger. Ratzinger has publicly admitted that sexual abuse of members of a boys’ choir occurred in Regensburg, Germany. Ratzinger directed the school where the abuse happened for three decades. For his part, the Pope says he knew nothing about it. Oh, apparently the Pope also knew nothing of Ratzinger’s common practice of slapping children in the face to discipline them. Are you buying any of this? No, I didn’t think you were. The Pope thinks we’re buying it. That has to do with powerful, egotistical leaders in religion, industry and government worldwide who believe their own b.s. and somehow convince themselves that you will believe it, too.

Does it sound a little Richard Nixonish to you? It does to me. When illegal behavior was taking place in all of the ranks that reported to then-President Nixon back in the early 1970s, Nixon’s initial position was one of complete ignorance. Of course,later we found out that he knew everything and even helped to keep it quiet. Does the Pope know everything, and how much has he done and is he currently doing to keep it quiet? Nixon resigned. Should Pope Benedict resign? Some say absolutely he should. It’s not the first time a Pope has had to step down. Okay, it last happened 600 years ago, but who’s counting years when supposed holy men across the globe are raping children?

Not the 53-year-old Austrian man who recently went on the radio to detail his own sexual abuse at the hands of Austrian priests decades ago. His story is quite telling, because the alleged abuser, Bruno Becker, offered the victim 5,000 Euros ($6,790) to keep quiet about it, calling the payment compensation, rather than hush money. That, of course begs the question: How does the church decide how much cash to ante up for prolonged and repeated incidents of molestation? Did Becker just pull that figure of 5,000 Euros out of thin air? And if so, is there truly anything arbitrary about child rape? Is oral sex worth more Euros than say, genital fondling? Who gets the highest payment? Those who experienced penetration? Is there a sliding scale? I think not, and clearly the church thinks not, because the church is currently shaking in its holy boots as one report after another surfaces about priests using boys for sexual gratification. And so far, the church has been quite mixed in its reaction to European reports.

For example, the spokesperson (read: PR flack) for the Vatican, Federico Lombardi, was arrogant enough to make the following comment in the midst of the mounting reports of abuse: "All objective and informed people know that the issue [of child sexual abuse] is much wider, and to focus accusations only on the Church leads to a skewed perspective." So, if I’m hearing this correctly, Lombardi is saying, ‘everybody’s doing it, so don’t pick on us.’ Again, is it just me, or is there an incomprehensible disconnect between the Vatican and the world at large? Let’s pull numbers out of the air like the church does: If say, oh, I don’t know…10% of child sexual abuse happens through the church and 90% happens everywhere else, should that 10% get a free pass? Lombardi is desperate, and therefore, we know the Pope is desperate. Kind of like Richard Nixon was desperate when he knew he could no longer hide the illegal activity of his administration.

By some estimates, there are more than 14,000 known victims of sexual abuse by U.S. priests since the 1960’s by up to 5,000 priests. And that’s just one country. How many children have had to live with their own dirty little secrets worldwide, many who will never feel able to come forward with their stories? Right now, for example, the Dutch Catholic church is relying on an independent commission to investigate more than 200 claims of reported sexual abuse by priests. In addition to Ratzinger’s school, priests in two other Catholic schools in Germany stand accused of beating and sexually molesting students. In Ireland the issue has become so pervasive that the Irish government issued a report that clearly details widespread sexual abuse of children by priests over the past three decades. Pope Benedict recently called Irish bishops to Rome to reprimand them. A nice high-profile p.r. move, but who is being held accountable and will anybody go to jail?

That’s the billion-dollar question. Why aren’t the rapists being put away for life like other rapists? If U.S. Congressmen raped children, would they be simply reprimanded? If executives with Microsoft, AIG or Bank of America raped children, would they just be reassigned to another city in a different position? If Harvard University teachers raped children, would they merely be called into the Chancellor’s office and slapped on the wrist? What is going on here with the Catholic Church and why are not hundreds or perhaps thousands of priests worldwide being tried in courtrooms and sent to prison with all of the other pedophiles and rapists?

And, finally: What is it that attracts pedophiles to the priesthood, and is this really the bigger issue at hand? If there is a silent, clandestine understanding somewhere that the priesthood has an immoral sexual component that has been covertly perpetuating child rape for decades and decades, perhaps the gig is finally up. The buck stops with Benedict. For my part, I am just egalitarian enough to be fully ready for this criminal sin to be stopped now. If the Pope is complicit in this dangerous sham, he needs to resign now. His successor needs to take on the international crimes of sexual abuse by priests as job one. And governments, worldwide, need to prosecute priests in the exact same judicial manner they treat all other pedophiles and rapists.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

NATIONAL ENQUIRER & PULITZER PRIZE: MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE?

Here are nine worlds I never thought I would write:
The National Enquirer is up for a Pulitzer Prize.
Before I ask you to wrap your mind around those nine words, let’s review a little history about the Enquirer. First, it is interesting to note that the paper has been publishing continuously since 1926. I won’t bore you with the long history of the paper, but if you’re so inclined you can read about it here.

The Enquirer claims it has a circulation of over a million, and that more than nine million people actually read it each week. Those figures are probably high, especially in light of the fact that in the last couple of years the paper has imposed five-day unpaid furloughs on its employees. Papers do not do that unless finances are tight, and finances are not tight unless advertising is down. So, like other newspapers in the country, it is clear that the Enquirer is not cash-rich right now. However, as it turns out, there would be other kinds of riches awaiting the much-maligned Enquirer.

Who could have predicted it would take the sexual dalliances of a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 to elevate the gravitas of what most Americans considered a rag? Up until candidate John Edwards gave in to his carnal desires with a campaign worker, the Enquirer had a loyal audience who couldn’t resist its salacious editorial offerings, but who rarely really believed much of it. When it was revealed that the Enquirer was right about Edwards, suddenly a lot of us started scratching our heads in disbelief. Then the mainstream media slowly started reporting the story, as if they had initiated it. But the Enquirer was relentless in its coverage, which its owners today say they never paid for. Checkbook journalism had become synonymous with the National Enquirer, but not this time. It was not until the second week in August, 2008, when Edwards fessed about the affair on ABC News that any mainstream publication dared print the story.

All of this brings us back to the nine words: The National Enquirer is up for a Pulitzer Prize – the highest and most prestigious award in journalism. As one who still recalls the days when the Enquirer was running stories about psychic nuns giving birth to aliens, this news is surreal. But it brings forth a number of provocative questions: Why did mainstream media resist their journalistic obligation to pursue the story when the evidence presented itself? If we accept the Enquirer’s contention that no money was paid for information, how did they break the story? And why will they not reveal how they initially got turned on to the story? Should they? They are not legally bound to do so, but from an ethical standpoint, before the Pulitzer board makes a decision, perhaps the Enquirer should come clean about how and from where this information was obtained.

Specifically, the Enquirer is up for investigative reporting and national news reporting awards. As a guy who was trained in traditional journalism, and one who today teaches journalism in a new media world, here is what I think: The Enquirer, despite its tactics, reputation and blatant resistance to conventional journalistic techniques, apparently 'gets' the new world of media, more than say, The Washington Post or The L.A. Times. The new world demands immediacy and stretching the limits of privacy. Why wouldn’t the mainstream media pursue this story? Simple. They didn’t go after the Edwards story because they underestimated the public’s hunger and demand for insider information about high profile people. Some of them probably considered it, but not one of them had the cojones to publish anything about it, simply because the only source of information at the time was the National Enquirer.

Like it or not, we are now in the high tech universe of TMZ.com and Perez Hilton. The more advanced the technology becomes, the more the public expects to know. As far back as 1920, when Photoplay Magazine became the first real movie fan magazine, the public slowly developed its desire to know the inside story of its cultural icons. By the 1970s when People Magazine debuted with Mia Farrow on the cover, that hunger for juicy details seemed to peak. But the real peak had to wait another 25 years or so for the Internet to evolve. Today, celebrities, politicians and other high profile types can essentially kiss their privacy goodbye. Even when they sue for intrusion of privacy, they generally lose, unless they can prove a case of appropriation of their name or likeness. Unfortunately for the John Edwards of the world, appropriation does not extend to news coverage.

So, will the Enquirer win a Pulitzer for its coverage of the John Edwards baby daddy scandal? In every category that is awarded, the prize description includes the words “distinguished example.” Was the Enquirer’s reporting a distinguished example of investigation or national news? I have a feeling the Pulitzer board will not see it that way. After all, we do know some details of the Enquirer’s methods here. Reporters apparently followed Rielle Hunter, Edwards’ lover, to her obstetrician’s office in order to secure photos of the pregnant woman. Reporters cornered John Edwards in a men’s room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to confront him about the allegations of the affair and paternity. The paper did indeed pay for information about the John Edwards affair – even if they claim they did not pay for information that led to the exact stories that are up for a Pulitzer Prize. So, if we hold that the word “distinguished” refers to excellence, eminence or quality standards, it would seem the National Enquirer doesn’t really cut it.

Still, don’t forget this is not your father’s media world. Remember, the anti-journalist, Matt Drudge was the first reporter to publish the name Monica Lewinsky with initial details of Bill Clinton’s transgression. He was right and mainstream media followed his lead. Further, TMZ.com was the first media outlet to report that Michael Jackson was dead. The news was accurate and then CNN jumped on the bandwagon. The National Enquirer correctly reported in 2003 that Rush Limbaugh was addicted to painkillers, and this followed the paper’s 2001 breaking news that Jesse Jackson had fathered a love child. Do not underestimate alternative, non-mainstream or new media. The truth comes at you from odd places these days, and whether those places are worthy of traditional industry awards remains to be seen. I, for one, am on the edge of my seat.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?


If you want to see the true visual representation of print journalism’s desperation, stare at this picture for a moment. This is the actual front page of the Los Angeles Times, Friday, March 5, 2010. The newspaper that has published since 1881 and won 39 Pulitzer Prizes, has fallen victim to the international decline of the newspaper industry. Now that digital media has taken the fast track to gain the hearts and eyes of consumers, newspapers are doing what they can simply to survive. You are looking at the L.A. Times struggling to survive. The newspaper devoted its entire front page to a paid advertisement for the new Johnny Depp film, “Alice in Wonderland.” The news coverage that you see surrounding the picture is fake. The real page one of Friday’s Times is on the inside. The Times reportedly sold the space to Disney for a whopping $700,000 in badly needed revenue for the paper. The Times has radically reduced its staff in recent years, offered buyouts to many employees, and seen The Tribune Company, its corporate owner, file for bankruptcy. You are looking at the unfortunate result of a major cultural shift in the world of journalism. So, what is to become of the Times? Conventional wisdom says it will probably keep experimenting until it settles into its new identity. As Alice says in “Alice in Wonderland,” “…at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”