Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Amidst all the headlines about Middle Eastern countries imploding, Federal budget debates in Washington and citizen vs. Governor demonstrations in Wisconsin, here’s one you may have overlooked:
I had to read the headline twice just to make sure I wasn’t misreading it. It seems Detroit has a huge public school budget deficit - $327 million. State officials in Michigan, in their lofty wisdom, have determined that this deficit must be wiped out by 2014, and the way to do that is to simply close half the schools. And get this: by closing the schools, the average class size in a Detroit high school will be 60 students.
Have you ever stood in front of a classroom full of high schoolers and tried to teach something? Those 20 or 25 faces that peer back at you are generally jaded and disinterested in education. Place 60 kids in a high school classroom and a good number of them will likely disappear. Best evidence? The dropout rate tells the story. In 2008, only 52 percent of high school students graduated after four years in America’s top 50 largest cities, according to Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

Guess which city has the highest dropout rate in the country – Detroit. The vast majority of high school dropouts in the U.S. are either black or Latino, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Detroit’s population is 81% black, according to Detroitareaconnect.com, a demographic tracking service. In 2009, the Washington Times newspaper did a story about poverty in Detroit.

Here are some of their findings: Between 2001 and 2009, the median household income in Detroit dropped 24 percent about $35,000, well below the $54,200 figure statewide. The literacy rate for adults in the city is just under 50 percent. Fifty percent of the city’s children live in poverty. The public school system received a D+ from the National Council on Teacher Quality in the group’s 2008 annual report.

So there you have it: Detroit on paper sounds much like a third world country. The city is always on the list of the 10 U.S. cities with the highest murder rates. And it is this city that the state of Michigan has decided should close half of its public schools. The other half will remain in their decaying, sub-standard facilities. Reportedly, in 2007 Detroit had 201 public schools. It now has 142. When the new cuts are made it will have 72. Oh, and worth mentioning – Detroit’s unemployment rate tends to hover around 10 percent. When the schools close, that figure is likely to spike, with hundreds of newly-unemployed teachers.

So, let’s review: Detroit is poverty stricken, racially unbalanced, inordinately illiterate, grossly under-employed and extremely dangerous. With all of that knowledge in their back pocket, the state government still decides the solution to the deficit problem in Detroit public schools is to close half the schools.
Detroit may be ground zero for the national public school crisis, but how many other cities will emulate its budget cutting, education slashing quick financial fix? Will New Orleans be next? East L.A.? Camden? Birmingham? Cleveland? South Chicago? East St. Louis? It is estimated by the American Association of School Administrators that 275,000 U.S. education jobs will be eliminated this year due to budget cuts. For each of those positions, how many students suffer dire consequences? One can only imagine the environment in a Detroit classroom where 60 students are crammed into a room meant for half that number, where lighting, textbooks, plumbing, desks and more are so old and decrepit as to inhibit the full impact of even the best teaching methods. Add to that a huge drug crisis among high school aged kids and federal budget cuts to drug education and rehab programs, and what you have is an academic Armageddon.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. is projected to spend more than $100 billion on the Afghanistan war this year. And for what? Meanwhile, public schools coast to coast are crumbling, losing teachers, over-populating classrooms and at an extreme – closing. In the near future, keep your eye on this: President Obama has proposed in his 2012 budget big increases in spending for public school education. But MN Rep. John Kline, head of the House Education and Workforce Committee told the New York times this: “Over the last 45 years we have increased our investment in education, but the return on that investment has failed to improve student achievement. Throwing more money at our nation’s broken education system ignores reality and does a disservice to students and taxpayers.” Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


If there is one country that would seem worth visiting in the Arab world, it is Bahrain. Less restrictive than other countries in the region, Bahrain is a sophisticated, upwardly mobile culture with a thriving economy . It is, by most accounts, an enviable place to live if you are in that part of the world. That is, until this week. Following the lead of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the citizens of Bahrain have now taken to the streets in protest of what they perceive as an oppressive government. The message is that they want democracy, a tighter focus on human rights and equal treatment under the law.

In 2004, flying back to the U.S. from Singapore, the plane stopped in Bahrain (below, left, in more peaceful times), on the way to London. Of course I had never been to that part of the world, and even now all I can say is that I was in the airport in Bahrain. But during the layover, I was astounded at the upscale quality of the airport. High end retailers lined the lower level, including a jewelry store featuring items one might find on Fifth Ave. in New York. The airport was spotless, full of nicely dressed travelers and residents and generally a surprising introduction to the Arab world. About a half hour into the four-hour layover, all of the electrical power went out in the airport. Pitch black. Scary, actually. But soon enough, from wherever, employees with flashlights and other illuminators made the place comfortable, and people were strolling the lower level with silver trays, offering tea. It was quite civilized, I must say.

While in Singapore, I met a couple from Bahrain. They were in their late 30s, very well dressed and really gregarious. We were attending some of the same functions at an international food expo, so we got to know each other. I found out from them that they loved living in their country, even though now and then little tidbits about sexism, racism and xenophobia would leak through their conversation. Upon further examination revelations came forth that if you are from Asia or Bangladesh, you probably do not want to be in Bahrain. If you are a woman, the glass ceiling is quite low. If you’re gay, well, best to keep that to yourself. (It is reported that recently about 200 gay men were arrested at a private party).

That brings us to ABC News correspondent Miguel Marquez, an openly gay reporter who was severely beaten by what he described as a group of “thugs” just as he was filing a report on the unrest in the streets of Bahrain. Listen:

Just days after CBS reporter Lara Logan was raped in Egypt, Marquez is just the latest in a string of violent attacks on western journalists. Truth be told, Marquez was probably attacked more because he is a journalist than because he is gay. But should ABC send an openly gay reporter to cover a story in a country that often imprisons or otherwise abuses gay people? Yesterday, my question was should CBS send a beautiful blonde reporter in to Egypt, where violence against women is commonplace? Last week, my question was should CBS send Katie Couric (below right), of all people, into the streets of Egypt to report from the center of the violence? I think not, but there she was.

At the risk of sounding redundant, it is time for media organizations to step back and take a hard look at who is being sent where to cover important news stories. This morning on a talk radio program, a commentator said he felt it was critical for news organizations to have “boots on the ground” in volatile countries. “Boots on the ground” is military slang. Reporters are not soldiers. They are communicators. Unless journalists are going to start “enlisting” in their profession and carrying the same arms that soldiers carry, the commentator’s remarks are unfounded and ill-conceived. We do need global reporting, even (or especially) in times of uprisings, but we also need to safeguard our journalists. From where I sit, it seems increasingly risky to be an international reporter.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


While I would like to think of what is happening in media as “growing pains,” it seems some of it is just plain foolishness. If you scroll down a bit you’ll see a piece I posted on Feb. 3 called “Are They Journalists or Warriors?” At that time it had been reported that Anderson Cooper was attacked in Egypt. My take on the whole thing was that it is insane to keep sending journalists into areas where physical danger is not just possible, but imminent. Since I wrote that just a couple of weeks ago, one Egyptian journalist was killed in the street riots, several others were injured and two Fox journalists were badly beaten. And now comes word that CBS reporter Lara Logan was brutally raped by at least 20 Egyptian men.

As the Middle East becomes increasingly violent in its attempts to redefine itself, why didn’t “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeffrey Fager step back and consider the big picture before he sent beautiful blonde Logan to Egypt? The term “beautiful blonde” is used here to emphasize how Logan’s persona was bound to be a target in a land where women are routinely abused and disrespected. It is widely known that Egypt is unwelcoming to the press, especially those who come in from the West. It is also widely known that rape is common in Egypt. Women routinely report being groped, verbally and physically harassed on the streets. Anecdotal information informs us that rape is rampant in Egypt, that even police are often the perpetrators So, let’s do the math: Logan is female, a journalist and American. Some might say that Fager should be held accountable for what happened to her. He probably will not be. After all, he was just recently elevated to the newly created post of Chairman of CBS News.

In published reports, Egypt’s Interior Ministry reports 20,000 rapes occur annually in Egypt. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights counters that, suggesting that if that is what the Ministry reports, we should probably multiply it by 10. This is lion’s den that Fager found acceptable to send Logan into.

Here in cushy America, we are not going to affect any change in Egypt’s misogynistic culture. That’s not the point. But perhaps we need to take a hard look at our own media culture, and decide if every story is going to be covered in the same manner. Do we send all professional journalists into a battle zone, or do we step back and consider the culture we are covering? I doubt we would send a black reporter to do an expose on the current state of the Ku Klux Klan. Lest we forget, Jewish reporter Daniel Pearl (right) was beheaded by Al-Queda in 2002. And if we do continue to send reporters into areas where they will be physically abused or worse, are they not being victimized by the corporate media entities for which they work? Corporate America is still a boy’s club. Everybody knows that. So, if a female reporter refuses an assignment to cover a story that may result in something like Logan’s experience, will she be labeled as “the girl who couldn’t handle the job?”

Bottom line: Media is now fully global and consumers expect 24/7 coverage of everything. In their efforts to accommodate the new world, media organizations need to find a balance between their own worship at the alter of the free enterprise system, and the humanity required to protect their reporters. A sea change is required right now so that what happened to Daniel Pearl and what happened to Lara Logan can never happen again.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Some of the most graphic images of the Egyptian uprising were shown last night on CNN, including a police van that sped through the streets of Cairo mowing down protesters. This was followed by a firetruck that raced through allegedly killing at least one protester who could not get out of the way fast enough. Watch:

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Living in New Orleans, I remember in 2005 when a number of news and weather reporters were stationed around the Gulf Coast to do remote reports about the impending storms. At the time, I wondered: Why are all of us who live in the area evacuating, but the reporters are just arriving? Who will protect them when a metal roof goes flying through the air or the wind trumps their own human strength? And I couldn’t help asking, why is it necessary for them to be put in harm’s way simply to communicate about something everyone already knew about?

Fast forward to this week: The societal unrest in Egypt reached a fever pitch, and who was right in the middle of the violent street fights? Reporters. By now, you have probably seen or heard about CNN’s Anderson Cooper being attacked, along with his film crew. And then there was the unsettling footage of Christine Amanpour being verbally harassed by demonstrators and subtly threatened. All of this was disturbing enough, but then came word that two New York Times reporters were taken into “protective custody” by the Egyptian military. This comes right on the heels of reports that a Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television reporter suffered a concussion after being beaten by demonstrators. There were reported assaults on journalists for the BBC, Danish TV2 News and Swiss television. Two Associated Press correspondents were assaulted. And what in the world was CBS thinking when they allowed Katie Couric to be on the ground in the middle of the chaos? That has never been her forte. Footage showed her being swallowed up by an angry, mostly male crowd. Watch Anderson Cooper in Cairo yesterday:

The journalist’s job is to convey information. Sometimes that means being in places they would rather not be. But sometimes the risks are unacceptable. Consider Daniel Pearl,(below, right) the Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief who was kidnapped and beheaded by Al-Quaida in 2002. That was to be the wakeup call for news organizations. The moment it was revealed (on video) that Pearl had been executed, media companies should have taken a giant step back and reassessed their risk/benefit ratio. They did not.

Now, it is nine years later and digital communication and online news have progressed at breakneck speed. The competition among media organizations is much more intense now than it was back then. Everyone wants to be first with breaking news, and that translates into more journalists being placed in high risk areas and dangerous situations. One is not surprised to see Christine Amanpour (below, left) on the ground in the middle of the Egyptian violence. But Katie Couric? Come on. One is not surprised to see Anderson Cooper surrounded by enraged militants as he has been so many times in his career. But now that he has experienced being punched in the head multiple times, does CNN perhaps see a reason for some guidelines related to reporting from violent locations? My guess is that nothing will change.

Not convinced? As I am writing this piece, the Washington Post just reported this:
“We have heard from multiple witnesses that Leila Fadel, our Cairo bureau chief, and Linda Davidson, a photographer, were among two dozen journalists arrested this morning by the Egyptian Interior Ministry. We understand that they are safe but in custody and we have made urgent protests to Egyptian authorities in Cairo and Washington. We've advised the state department as well.”
It is also reported the Sufian Taha, a translator working with Fadel and Davidson has been detained.

Fadel, Taha and Davidson are not human rights workers. They are not political activists. They are not soldiers. They are communicators who the Post feels confident enough in to place them in highly responsible positions. Those positions should never compromise their lives. Never.

And there’s more: Also while I am writing this blog post, it is reported that Anderson Cooper was attacked again. He tweeted: "Situation on ground in #egypt very tense. Vehicle I was in attacked. My window smashed. All ok." And yet CNN sees fit to allow him to remain in the danger zone. Unacceptable. And how interesting that a visit to CNN’s web site reveals nothing about Anderson Cooper being attacked yesterday or today. Could it be that CNN is embarrassed that is allowed one of its own to be put in harm’s way?

I see it this way: There is no nobility in deliberately placing strong, competent communicators in harm’s way. Reportage and video footage should never be life and death situations. I believe the Wall Street Journal, for example, has blood on its hands over the Pearl execution. As much as I respect Anderson Cooper’s courage, I believe CNN needs to reign him in a bit, for the sake of his life. In my gut, I just know that some years from now we are all going to look back on these pioneer days of online journalism and see how truly chaotic it was. These things have a way of balancing out over time, but right now we’re deep in the wild, wild west mode of reporting, and lives have already been sacrificed.

What will it really take for news organizations to place emphasis on the safety of reporters? If an Al-Queda operative holding Daniel Pearl’s head up for the cameras in 2002 did not cause any significant change in the industry, I am not optimistic about the near future of reporting. Once news reporting becomes as life-altering as police work or soldiering, the very essence of journalism has been sullied. I’m sorry to see it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What If The President Could Turn The Internet OFF?

If you are like many (most?) Americans, you have been listening to news of the crisis in Egypt with one ear. It seems the more global we become, the less we pay attention to what is happening outside of the U.S. But when we heard Egypt had essentially shut down the Internet nationwide, many of us started paying attention. Shut down the Internet? Is that even possible? In a word, yes. Now, two U.S. Senators, Joe Lieberman (Ind.-CT) and Susan Collins, (R-ME) have put forth a piece of legislation that would effectively grant the President of the U.S. the right to shut down major parts of the Internet in a time of national emergency. The bill is called the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010. First introduced last June, it gained notoriety this week, just as Egypt shut down the Internet.

Bad timing? Uh, yeah.

Although we Americans are unlikely to go wild in the streets Egyptian style, you can expect a lot of barking back and forth about this bill. Media types, like me, will cry “First Amendment.” Others will cry “too much big government/big daddy.” Others will defend the bill as a necessary move to protect our national interests. The latter will spout off things like, “What’s more important – being able to read TMZ.com or safeguarding our national security?”

It’s that last group that seems wildly shortsighted to me. First, somebody needs to inform them that about $8 billion in electronic commerce happens every single day. And most of it has nothing to do with regular citizens buying a new blender from Macys.com. It has to do with the supply chain for major industry, internationally. Automobile manufacturers, for example, do most of their procuring and ordering of parts via the Internet. As for media, most news organizations have gone or are almost fully digital now. Even two or three years ago many companies were stubbornly hanging on to traditional formats, such as daily newspapers. But today that is not the case. Did you know that 166 newspapers have gone out of print since 2008, including big names like the Rocky Mountain Daily News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer? The Internet has enabled the 24/7 news cycle to evolve, and Americans need it.

So, how are the two Senators (below, right) justifying introducing what is becoming known as the “kill switch” bill? Here’s what Lieberman told CNN: "We need this capacity in a time of war. We need the capacity for the president to say, Internet service provider, we've got to disconnect the American Internet from all traffic coming in from another foreign country, or we've got to put a patch on this part of it. The president will never take over -- the government should never take over the Internet."

Note to Senator Lieberman: First, you have not really outlined why we need this capacity in times of war. Supporters say a foreign entity could use broadband power to disable the grid that controls electrical power. I suppose it would help if we could hear about this from someone other than a Senator – someone who has expertise in this area.

"A cyber attack on America can do as much or more damage today by incapacitating our banks, our communications, our finance, our transportation, as a conventional war attack," Lieberman claims. Again, as a citizen, I need more information than a simple proclamation by a soon-to-be-retired Senator. For example, do our financial institutions not have safeguards in place that protect them – and us – against cyber attacks? If not, are there safeguards that could be put in place that would make an Internet shutdown unnecessary?

If you read the bill, and I hope you really will, here are a few things to keep in mind. The wording is vague. You will come away from the bill having read that the President would not shut down the entire Internet, but only those parts that would compromise “critical infrastructure.” But what is critical infrastructure, who will decide and how? You will also notice there is no limit to how long the Internet can be shut down. So, if the President cuts it off for 10 or 12 days, the U.S. economy is in the hole at least $100 billion. Can we really allow that? How many small businesses that rely exclusively on the Internet (such as parts suppliers to auto manufacturers) would go under in those couple of weeks? Further, no one seems to want to talk about how the stock exchange would continue to operate in the global marketplace if there is no chance of digital communication or trading.

And what about freedom of the press? The first amendment clearly states that Congress cannot enact legislation that abridges free speech or freedom of the press. In 2011, I cannot think of anything that would cancel out freedom of the press more than shutting down the Internet. How will Congress address that when debating this bill? That debate, by the way, is coming up fast. Congress is tentatively scheduled to vote on this in the summer.

The average age in the current House of Representatives is 62, and in the Senate it is 53.No offense intended and no ageist sensibilities on my part, but is this really the group of people you want to make decisions on advanced technology issues? Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) is 87. Richard Luger (R-IN) is turning 80. Both Senators from Hawaii are 86. Hello? How many of these people don’t even read or write their own email, much less understand the broad implications of canceling out digital communication? Congress is aging, and it is no secret that older Americans are not among the most tech-savvy citizens.

Finally, regardless of your political leanings, do you really want one human being (the President) to have the power to decide if vital parts of the Internet should be blacked out? What if he or she has their own political agenda for doing so? What if his or her judgment is clouded by over-reactive statements from their military chiefs? Also, it would seem from reading the bill that there is no provision for judicial oversight. That means the Executive Branch has carte blanche here. What about the time-tested method of governmental checks and balances?

Too many unanswered questions, and too much potential unprecedented Presidential power, if you ask me. Okay, so nobody asked me, but I am definitely emailing my elected officials about this, and so should you. Meanwhile, you’ll have to excuse me…I have to get back to TMZ.com.