Monday, May 23, 2011


In case the name Bill Keller doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the executive editor of the New York Times. Keller, somewhere in his early 60s, has been a print journalist his entire adult life, and has worked for the Times in one capacity or another for most of his career. So, it is not surprising that he is evidently feeling somewhat intimidated by the emergence of new media, particularly Twitter. Last week, Keller wrote a piece called “The Twitter Trap,” in which he seems to be agonizing over up and coming technology that enables citizens to learn of events in an immediate way. Said Keller, “Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.”

Oh Bill (pictured below, left). Bill, Bill, Bill. Do you know how typical you sound of journalists of your generation? And guess what Bill. I’m not much younger than you, and still I can see that you are feeling threatened by pathways of information that do not require your lifelong accumulation of skills. Let me spell it out: It was via Twitter that the world first learned of the unpredictably safe landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in 2010 by Captain Chesley Sullenberger. Remember the great earthquake of 2008 in China? Twitter. Oh, and Michael Jackson’s death? First reported by when major news organizations were unsure whether it was a hoax or not, the story went worldwide via Twitter minutes later. And then, of course, there was the big daddy tweet of them all: Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsefeld's chief of staff Keith Urbahn first let the world know about the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound - via Twitter. I could go on, but you get my drift – print journalism is not dead, but it’s not keeping up with consumer demand.

In the above-mentioned column, Keller wrote:
“My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?”
I’d like to answer that: Now that the calculator eased our way to solving math dilemmas, maybe our brains have more room for other endeavors. Do you really believe your “innate sense of direction” is hampered by a G.P.S.? Come on, Bill. Typing killed penmanship? Here’s all I have to say about that…R.I.P. penmanship. The culture evolves in a way that streamlines life. That is what is happening now.

And don’t just take it from me, Bill. Listen to what Gizmodo’s Mat Honan has to say about your ramblings:

So, Bill, I’m just wondering: Should we also worry about digital cameras that may have killed the lost “art” of the darkroom? Or, what about birth control devices that now allow us to have as much sex as we want to for pleasure instead of simple procreation? And how about Rachel Ray and her ilk who taught us how to make a full dinner in a half hour? Did Miss Ray effectively kill the all-day cook-a-thons that were once a part of our culture? I could go on, but you get my drift. It is called innovation and progress, Bill. Did you also badmouth that first computer they put on your desk at the Times? Are you similarly reluctant to embrace dating web sites because they eliminate the need for endless small talk, smoke and alcohol in a bar you didn’t want to be in in the first place? Bill, catch up. It is, contrary to your apparent preference, 2011. You do not have to wear a dark suit to work every day and you do not have to even go to work every day if you have yourself properly outfitted elsewhere with the necessary technology.

Oh, and Bill...guess who agrees with me about social media -- your own CEO, Janet Robinson, who told the graduates at NYU's Stern School of Business: “The New York Times has more than 3 million Twitter followers on its main account.That is nearly 2 million more than any other newspaper. We’re proud of that….For some people, all the news that’s fit to print means all the news that fits in 140 characters or less in real time.”

She also said this:

“We used to wonder: If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Now we ask: If a tree falls in the woods and your smartphone doesn’t buzz, did it happen?” Janet rocks. And briefly.

I am so discouraged by men and women of my age and older who simply are not ambitious enough to learn the advantages that technology affords us. Keller says Twitter and YouTube are “nibbling away at our attention spans.” No Bill, that is not the case. Our attention spans have become shorter because the amount of stimuli around us has increased exponentially, and the sheer volume of information that confronts us requires greater mental time management. We have more to see, hear, learn and discuss because we have allowed ourselves to live outside the 1950s box. The brevity of Twitter and YouTube are simply the current day results of 1980s MTV fast videos, which were that era’s result of mid-century TV sitcoms that told a story with a full conclusion in 24 or 25 minutes. Those sitcoms were really the result of earlier 20th century radio programs that lasted 15 minutes. Those 15 minute shows were the result of an industrial revolution that shortened the waiting time for various types of societal gratification.

With all of that said, I will add that social media has not yet firmly found its place in our culture. It is still used more for entertainment than for business, education, finance, government, and other essentials. We still have the Facebook user who posts, “I am at the grocery store buying peaches.” Who cares? We still have Twitter users whose real goal is only to see how many other Twitter users they can persuade to follow them. We have pop culture celebrities like Ashton Kutcher (above, left) who somehow feel validated because his Twitterverse followers number in the millions. And there is the dark underbelly of it all, such as individuals who lure people with false promises on Craigslist, simply so they can commit crimes including rape and murder. Bill, nobody said we are there yet. But we are making progress.

Down the road, I fully anticipate mainstream media’s acceptance of social media as an equal. We must bear in mind it is in its infancy. Besides Twitter and Facebook, most social media companies have not yet found their footing or their patrons. I envision a social media world in which the free enterprise system exercises its considerable gravitas and earns itself a new and more efficient way of doing business. In the meantime, it matters that we continue to teach people how to write a decent sentence, how to appreciate literature that relied on more than 140 characters to get its point across and how to look at one another eye to eye and tell the truth.

But Bill…listen….about those 2,000-word stories you are still allowing in the Sunday Times? I suggest you let your reporters and writers in on what I tell my journalism students – learn how to say more using fewer words. It’s what I call the Greenberg Rule. There is no turning back, and blame it on Twitter if that makes you feel better, but it really is more about information supply and demand.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Picture this: It is 3 a.m. and you are sound asleep. The house is dark. Your kids are asleep down the hall. Suddenly and without any warning, the front door of your home is kicked in and several men enter the house. You can’t see them because the house is dark. What would you do?

If you own a gun and you can get your hands on it quickly, you’d probably use it, right? You would do whatever it takes to resist the intruders and protect your home and your family, right? Instinctively, you switch on a light to see who you’re dealing with. It turns out your unwelcome intruders are cops. What are they doing there and what can you do about it? Well, as it turns out, if you’re in Indiana, there is absolutely nothing you can legally do about it. This week, the Indiana Supreme Court sent down two outrageous rulings: First, last Monday the court ruled police serving a warrant may enter a home without knocking if officers decide circumstances justify it. (Previously, police serving a warrant had to obtain a judge's permission to enter without knocking). Then, three days later the court said this:
"We believe ... a right to resist an unlawful police entry into a home is against public policy and is incompatible with modern Fourth Amendment jurisprudence," David said. "We also find that allowing resistance unnecessarily escalates the level of violence and therefore the risk of injuries to all parties involved without preventing the arrest."
In simple terms, your home in Indiana is no longer a sanctuary. It is fair game for law enforcement officers to simply barge in and do what they wish. If you put up a fight, you are viewed as potentially violent and therefore in violation of the law. Oh, and that Fourth Amendment they mentioned? Just as a refresher: The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures this legal right -- “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Indiana evidently feels secure in its imaginary power to defy the U.S. Constitution. I can’t help wondering: Since when is the U.S. Constitution negotiable? So, you may wonder why this came about. It seems that recently in Vanderbergh County (the county seat of Evansville), police were called about a domestic disturbance. When they arrived at the home, the male resident resisted their entry and shoved a cop. He was subsequently neutralized with a stun gun. Indiana apparently doesn’t take kindly to cop shoving, so a brouhaha ensued that went all the way to the Indiana Supremes, who issued the aforementioned rulings.

So here’s the problem (besides the Constitutional fuzziness here): What if, for example, you are a single woman in the house by yourself and suddenly the cops burst into your house? What if it turns out they actually had the wrong address and they were supposed to be investigating the house next door? Do you have a right to resist or are you suddenly a criminal if you do? Or, consider this: What if an intruder who is not a cop bursts into your house and announces he is a police officer? Suppose his goal is rape and/or robbery and he accomplishes one or both of his aims?

How is Indiana Supreme Court (left) going to justify that? Here’s how: The prevailing wisdom of the Indiana Supremes is that you have a legal right to file a civil suit against the above-mentioned cop with the wrong address or the robber/rapist who defiles you and your property. Seriously, that is what Indiana says you can do about it. First, how far do you think you’re going to get by suing a cop who entered your home with the full blessing of the highest court in the state? And if you sue the robber/rapist, hasn’t the harm already been done? What good will a law suit do?

The bigger implication here is even scarier. We have already lost almost our last shred of privacy in this country. Whether you know it or not, you are on camera almost every time you go anywhere in public. Security cameras on private properties and businesses share intrusion of privacy rights with city-owned cameras used in the name of public safety and security. So, the last bastion of privacy you had was your home. Indiana has now taken that away from you with the full blessing of the judicial system. What if their actions are emulated by other states and ultimately sanctioned by the highest court in the land?

Make some noise, America. Speak up now. If you don’t, you’re about to be reduced to a caged animal in your own space, and the only ones with the keys will be the men and women in blue. Is it just me or is there something distinctly un-American about this? Oh, by the way: In Evansville, IN, you can join the police department at age 21 with a GED. You don’t even have to have really gone to high school. This might be who knocks down your door in the middle of the night. I don’t know about you, but it makes me just a little bit uneasy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, a group of young men and women who bravely boarded interstate busses en route to Southern states, in an effort to challenge racial discrimination laws. The activists would be seated interracially on public transportation, and blacks would even sit up front, which was strictly outlawed at the time. Predictably, the Freedom Riders met with mob violence in various Southern cities, with the most vicious attack culminating in a bus being set on fire and the door blocked so riders could not disembark. Somehow they did manage to exit the bus, only to be brutally beaten. Efforts to lynch some of the riders failed, but mob violence would follow the group city to city. Whites who tried to help the battered blacks were roundly ostracized by their communities. I could describe the subsequent bloody beatings with iron pipes and wooden planks, the inhumane treatment of those who ended up in the Mississippi State penitentiary and the law enforcement officers who stood by and allowed the riders to be battered into unconsciousness. But it’s all in the history books and archives of the civil rights movement.

Instead, it seems appropriate to mention something that happened many years before the 1961 Freedom Rides. It was called the Journey of Reconciliation, a bus trip by 16 men, (above, right) blacks and whites, out to accomplish what their 1960s counterparts would replicate. It was led by Bayard Rustin,(left) a 37-year-old black man with a long history of battling against the widespread racial discrimination of the early to mid-20th century. Today, the late Rustin is not a household name like other civil rights activists, but it was he who really stood up to the white establishment and fought racial inequality. Later in his life, he tried to do much the same thing for the civil rights of gay Americans. Rustin was a man who truly walked the walk.

Here is what Rustin and his Journey of Reconciliation companions (eight blacks and eight whites) were up against in 1947. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that racial discrimination in interstate travel defied the U.S. Constitution. Rustin and company were out to see how that was playing in the deeply racist Southern states. Much like Dr. Martin Luther King, with whom Rustin (right, pictured with Dr. King) would later ally himself, the 16 men planned on non-violent, civil disobedience. As we later saw in the 1960s urban riots, non-violence is tough to maintain, but Rustin and his cohorts did it. But here is what happened: Along the way, five blacks and five whites were arrested at various times. Rustin himself ended up on a chain gang in North Carolina, where the treatment was reportedly so brutal and inhumane that the chain gang system was ultimately outlawed.

It has been widely reported that after Rustin was arrested in North Carolina, the presiding judge said this to the white members of the Journey: "It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down here bringing your niggers with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days on the chain gang and I give you ninety."

Such was life in the deep South (even in the judicial system) in the 1940s. Remember, this was way before Rosa Parks (below, left) took her seat at the front of the bus. It was also long before the landmark ruling Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said segregating schools was unconstitutional. It wasn’t until 1967 that blacks and whites could even legally marry in this country, and that too had to be dictated by the Supreme Court. It was, to understate it…a different time in America.

By 1961, when the Freedom Riders boarded busses to push the segregation envelope to its extreme, the U.S. was still deeply rooted in its post-slavery mentality. Blacks were begrudgingly tolerated as long as they shut their mouths and didn’t cross any societally-dictated lines. But often forgotten is the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. Rustin and his group were pioneers. The Freedom Riders were soldiers in the seemingly never-ending war on racism.

Having lived through those tumultuous 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement reached its bloody zenith, I still say that racism today is far more pervasive and divisive than it was then. Back then, society was unfortunately organized around racism. Today it is not. Today racism is more deceptive. You see it in the offices you work in, when equally qualified individuals are up for the same job, but the white male establishment chooses one of its own for the promotion. You see it in school, where the black kids all sit together in the classroom across from the white kids. You see it on television, where it is rare for a lead role in a fictional drama to be played by a black actor. You see it in the movies, where romantic stories are generally built around white characters.

So, nobody’s using separate drinking fountains anymore, or banning entire population segments from lunch counters, or giving whites preferential treatment on public transportation. Instead, racism rears its aged head in more institutional ways. How many fingers do you have left when you try to count the number of black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies? What’s the percentage of black elected officials in the 112th U.S. Congress? I’ll help you on that one – it’s 9.66%, far below the percentage of black Americans, according to the U.S. government’s own stats. How many blacks make it in to med school in America? According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, in 2010 there were almost 50,000 active white enrollees in the nation’s medical schools, vs. just over 5,500 blacks.

Unfortunately, activism is not the main event in America anymore. Where are the Bayard Rustins of the world now? Twenty-five years from now will Congress, corporate America, television, movies and med schools still be lily white? I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist. Twenty-five years ago was 1986 – do you sense a major shift in the arduous climb toward racial equality since 1986? Neither do I. But still, I can’t help thanking Bayard Rustin and his associates, and the many courageous Freedom Riders of 1961 for all that they did. I’m waiting for that same new day in America that I was waiting for back in the 1960s, but no matter what happens next, what happened back then was nothing short of exceptional.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


At the recent White House Correspondents Dinner, President Obama took almost 19 minutes to address any number of recent critics. Oh yes, Donald Trump was there. By the way, what was Donald Trump even doing there? One has to wonder if he regretted RSVPing to this one. If you want to see the intersection of smart humor and real class, watch this guy. Possible future Letterman replacement? Hmmm. I'm just sayin'.