Thursday, September 13, 2018

If you know about a hurricane, thank the news media

My wife and I have been closely monitoring Hurricane Florence the past several days. We have prepared ourselves and our home as best we could for the winds and rain that are forecast. I've used the weather app on my phone, the Weather Channel and a Raleigh TV station to keep informed about the storm.

During this time, I have heard two people tell me how "newspapers" or "the media" have exaggerated the dangers of the storm. They were both hard-core conservatives who blame "the mainstream media" for most everything they don't like and suspect government officials are deceitful. 

I wasn't going to argue with either of them, but it made me wonder what they thought they would do if there were no "mainstream media" to hire meteorologists, send reporters to impact areas, and provide maps and satellite photos showing where the storm is expected to go and when it is expected to arrive at various locations. Who would warn them of the approach of a dangerous storm so that they could prepare for threatening conditions, such as 100 mph winds or punishing rainfall that causes widespread flooding?

Demagogic politicians create a straw man and whipping boy of the news media, blaming them for misinformation, bias, conspiracy and even, yes, being an "enemy of the people." These critics had better hope they don't succeed in destroying the news media that use their revenue (mostly from advertising) to inform the public about things they need to know. Hurricanes are just one example of things the public needs to know.

Some news media-hating people say they'd still know all about hurricanes, tornadoes, elections, governmental decisions (from the courthouse to Congress), court decisions, crimes, new products and treatments for illnesses, and the availability of inoculations or low-cost medical care. But I doubt they've really looked into that.

News organizations are created to collect information such as this and distribute it to the public. A lot of work goes into just finding that information. Yes, there are governmental websites and some independent websites that post information about some government activities, but it takes a lot of work, especially for the untrained and unfamiliar, to find that information, understand it and pass it along.

I used to tell journalism students that one responsibility of news reporters is to be at the meetings, press conferences and events that voters, most of whom have full-time jobs, do not have the time to follow every meeting, conference or event. Reporters, who work full-time at collecting news, go where subscribers/voters don't have the time or inclination to go. Informing the public is the key responsibility of any news organization. It is what motivates newspaper people.

You don't like the "mainstream media"? OK. Unplug the TV, ignore the news websites on your computer or phone, don't heed the warnings, originated by government officials and passed along by the news media, to evacuate or prepare for the next storm on the horizon. See how that works out.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Anonymity is rare in newspaper columns

The New York Times last week published an op-ed criticizing the Trump administration. Nothing new there. Two factors set this one apart: It was published anonymously by the New York Times, and (2) the author claims to be a member of the Trump administration and a member of a secret subset of administration employees who are doing what they can to counter Trump's worst decisions.

The anonymous author claims to be doing right by the country by resisting Trump's bad behavior, but if anonymous thought the op-ed would change Trump, anonymous was wrong. If anything, the op-ed bolstered Trump's paranoid illusions about a "deep state" of career federal employees who "really" run foreign and domestic policy. Trump is well-known for punishing disloyalty in any form and for lashing out at even the slightest criticism.

As a former newspaper editor who spent years battling with people who wanted to write letters to the editor or op-ed columns anonymously, I am having a hard time getting over the fact that the sainted New York Times allowed someone to use its opinion pages without identifying himself or herself. I've read that an anonymous column is not unprecedented, but it surely is among the rarest of exceptions.

On a national scale, I can think of only one one exception to the generally accepted rule that opinion columns should be signed and usually include a brief bio of the author. The exception I recall came in March 1975, when a writer using the pseudonym of "Miles Ignotus" suggested in a Harper's article that the problem of the rising cost of oil and the growing power of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, could be solved by a quick, precise military strike on the Saudi Arabian oil fields. Miles suggested that Americans could produce oil at a cost of five cents a barrel (as best I remember), sell it at $5 a barrel, and give away the excess profit to the Saudis and others to placate Arab interests. Everybody would be happy except the Saudis!

Fortunately, no one followed Miles' advice, and it was another 28 years before the United States decided to invade another oil-producing Arab country, producing a hopeless war, thousands of deaths, a debacle aptly described in the book by Tom Ricks titled "Fiasco."

During my career as an editor, I encountered many people who wanted to run anonymous letters or columns, but my fading memory can recall just two extraordinary incidents in which I relented and ran an anonymous letter. One was written by a domestic violence victim who was commenting on the local effort to stem domestic abuse. The writer had been recently divorced from her abusive husband and was living somewhere that he was unaware of. To publish her name and address would have endangered her life, but what she had to say was worth reading. The second incident involved a letter from a college faculty member who was critical of the college administration (I don't remember the issue involved). I agreed to run the letter anonymously because to run the writer's name would have resulted in an immediate dismissal.

Would I have run Anonymous' op-ed about Trump if I were in the opinion editor's cubicle last week? I think not, but it's hard to say what one might decide in a theoretical case. I would have feared the column would have infuriated Trump and made him more paranoid, more unpredictable and more angry.

I'm confident that the New York Times knows the identity of Anonymous, just as nearly every American newspaper expects a verifiable name on every letter to the editor. I knew the identity of the writers of the two letters I can remember from a 33-year career that I agreed to publish anonymously. With all others, I would explain that the letters column was a public forum, and participants in that forum should be willing to stand behind their opinions, as they would in a public meeting. If you are ashamed of your opinion, don't send it to the newspaper editor.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

Commanders in Chief without military experience

The Constitution sets relatively few requirements for holding the office of president of the United States: One must be a "natural born citizen" of the United States and must be 35 years old or older and must have resided in the United States for 14 years.

Few jobs in America have such a short list of job requirements, yet the country has survived for these 229 years since the adoption of the Constitution with presidents meeting only minimal job requirements. A college education is not required. Many of our most admired presidents — Lincoln, Washington, Truman, for example — would have been disqualified by such a requirement. No job experience is required, and the way we choose a president has little application to the overwhelming difficulty of managing a federal workforce in the millions, dealing with foreign countries, both friendly and adversarial, dealing with Congress, and serving as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. That's far different from traveling around the country asking people to vote for him/her.

A week of mourning for Sen. John McCain has brought to mind that last responsibility of the president. If military experience counted, McCain might have reached his dream of being elected president. He was the son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals and had served with distinction as a Navy aviator.

For much of American history, service in the armed forces was a common trait among presidents. Washington, Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Harrison, U.S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt and others served in combat. In my own lifetime, Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush — every president until Clinton's election in 1992 — served in the military either in combat or stateside. Voters have not elected a military veteran, with the exception of George W. Bush, who only served in the Reserves and was never deployed, since the first President Bush lost the 1992 election to Clinton.

Although it's not a requirement for office, it's fair to ask what presidents without military experience are missing in their resumes. Military service teaches discipline, motivation, management, service, sacrifice and patriotism. It also exposes Americans to people with different backgrounds, advantages or disadvantages. In the years of a military draft, well-bred, well-connected college graduates rubbed shoulders with high school dropouts, and they learned to depend on these soldiers or sailors who were very different from themselves.

That experience would certainly enlighten the resident of the White House faced with a decision on military intervention or troop deployment. Presidents such as Washington, Jackson, Grant and others, who had experienced war up close and had been responsible for orders that resulted in deaths of brave, obedient soldiers, certainly would recognize the gravity of their actions in a way that someone without military experience would not.

In today's America, with only a small percentage of Americans voluntarily choosing a military career, it is difficult to find presidential aspirants with a military background. Veterans dominated the White House and congressional leadership from 1945 to the end of the century, but veterans are much rarer now in the halls of power.

Military experience does not inoculate presidents from bad decisions. George W. Bush foolishly ordered U.S. troops to invade Iraq in 2003 in search of non-existent "weapons of mass destruction." But President Kennedy, still scarred by injuries suffered when a Japanese ship sank his PT boat, rejected the advice of his generals and chose a successful blockade of Cuba in 1962 instead of an invasion to destroy Russian missiles there, a strategy that would result in high casualties and could escalate into nuclear war. Unlike the younger Bush, Kennedy had experienced combat and seen good men die all around him.

Monday, August 27, 2018

This solitary man is an introvert

"I'll be what I am, a solitary man."
                         — Neil Diamond

Since I took a Myers-Briggs personality test about 20-25 years ago, I have often thought myself fortunate to be judged an INTJ — Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging. The person who administered the tests to the department managers where I worked said an INTJ like me would be happiest as a researcher in a think-tank or academic setting. I would love sitting in a library carrel every day doing research, learning something new. And I thought, "Yeah! You nailed it!"

Other personality types need human interaction. Some extroverts can't start their day without checking in first with their co-workers. Human contact is essential for them. Not so much for me.

After a traumatic layoff 10 years ago, I worked at two jobs at which I was the only employee in the office. It was not exactly the library carrel I subconsciously yearned for, but it was a job where I could work at my own pace, concentrate on tasks without fear of interruption, and enjoy the solitude.

Retirement a year ago, as you might imagine, continued my solitary ways. With my wife still working, the only "person" I had to talk to was our dog. It has been a retirement that has suited my personality and my working style. And the dog seems to have enjoyed our conversations and long walks.

It's not that I purposely avoided human contact, either in my career or in retirement. I have sought out old friends and former co-workers for conversations. While conversation is not a "need" for me as it is for other personality types, I do enjoy seeing people, catching up and sharing thoughts.

In another week, my wife will retire, and we will test the plans we have dreamed of for years. We will have time — to read, to write, to revive old hobbies, to nourish friendships and family relationships, to develop new skills, to reconnect with people from the past, to travel, to walk together and practice good exercise and good diet, to see our children and grandchildren more.

This new reality will give us the opportunity we have only rarely had — to be together without other people for extended periods of time. In the past few years, our longest uninterrupted times together have come on long drives. While neither of us is extroverted or dependent upon contact with other people, we do cherish our time together, especially now as we face what are, no doubt, our final years together. 

This opportunity reminds me of the wisdom from Ecclesiastes Chapter 4, which was read at our younger daughter's wedding:

"Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?" 

I eagerly anticipate the warmth of our final years together. 

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Those who litter shirk responsibility

I was walking in our neighborhood when I came across an eyesore on the tree-shaded street flanked by well-maintained single-family homes. It was a fast-food bag, still partly filled with food or paper or foam wrappings. The bag was obviously tossed out a car window and had been run over by some unsuspecting driver. The nearest fast-food restaurant is about a mile away, but the food may have traveled farther.

It's an eyesore I see more and more these days.

I was walking my dog, as I do nearly every day. I understand that it's my responsibility to clean up after him, so I keep a couple of plastic bags in my pocket to handle such emergencies. 

The fast-food bag makes a bigger mess than my dog does. Its contents get ripped open by passing cars, and small animals check the contents. Wind or rain might move the bag up or down the street. I usually think about picking up the bag and finding a trash can for it — doing what the offending litterer should have done, but I am leery of what might be in the bag. A person lazy or thoughtless enough to toss a food onto a city street might also be sick enough to put a rattlesnake or poison in the bag.

I have to assume that the litterer does not feel guilty about his offense. Someone will clean it up, he thinks, as he callously speeds away. The street is a public entity, so the city will clean it up, he thinks. The city might, but not before other motorists, walkers, nearby homeowners and the weather take their turns at the bag.

The litterer must think, "It's not my responsibility," but of course it is. Roadside litter is a multi-million-dollar problem for state and local governments, all because way too many people think they should be able to use public thoroughfares as their personal trash dumps. Tossing litter onto the street or roadside is against the law, but prosecution is rare.

This problem gets worse. Before I retired, at least once a week in the parking lot of the office building where I work, there would be a disgusting sight of a disposable diaper that had been tossed out of the car after a diaper change. People parking in the lot had to dodge these reeking land mines as they exited their cars and headed to the building. Those who failed to be extra-careful could end up ruining their shoes or sandals, thanks to some irresponsible mother or care-giver who couldn't be bothered to dispose of a disposable diaper in a responsible manner. Knowing a diaper change would likely be necessary, couldn't they put a trash bag in the car to take care of the problem responsibly?

Society depends on people to be responsible for their actions. Criminal courts punish those who fail to be responsible in the most egregious ways, but the daily skirting of responsibility for little things also threatens society.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Mob triumphs over silent statue

The mob rules. Long live the mob.

Last night, 200 or more people gathered around the "Silent Sam" statue in Chapel Hill and succeeded in toppling and destroying the statue memorializing the University of North Carolina students who served and died in the Civil War.

For several years, the statue had been a rallying point for protesters who claimed the statue was not a memorial to former students who died in America's most tragic war, disregarding the inscription on the statue's pedestal and the clear intent of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who funded the memorial. Protesters asserted that the statue was intended to perpetuate white supremacy, although white supremacy was not at issue in the Civil War. White supremacy was part of the culture of 19th century America and Europe. Although a speaker at the monument's dedication added inappropriate racist comments, his words did not change the reason for the memorial.

I addressed the historical background of the statue in a blog post from a year ago.

What happened last night on a once-peaceful quadrangle of the historic UNC campus had been brewing for at least a year. A year ago, another, smaller mob attacked a Confederate memorial in Durham. While law enforcement officers watched disinterestedly, vandals climbed the statue of an anonymous soldier, attached ropes and pulled it to the ground. Although numerous witnesses, including the do-nothing law officers, and video of the event would have made prosecution an open-and-shut case, Durham prosecutors, through malfeasance or incompetence, failed to get even one conviction. That non-prosecution has provided a green light for vandals, socialists and anarchists.

Monday night's mob was well-equipped with banners that would shield their vandalism from view and with smoke bombs to obscure illegal acts. This was a well-planned operation in clear violation of numerous laws, including destruction of public property. Police mostly watched from a distance.

Silent Sam stood for a century without doing harm to anyone (see Andrew Young's comments from my Aug. 23, 2017, post), but protesters assigned to this inanimate object the burdens of centuries of immorality and wrongdoing. Toppling this statue will not put an end to injustice or unfairness in society. It will jeopardize the rule of law.

What traditional artifact will be next? Chapel Hill's cemetery contains the graves of slave owners, white supremacists and unenlightened Euro-Americans. Their gravestones will be easier to knock down than Silent Sam's statue. The town of Carrboro is named for Julian Carr, who made the offensive racist remarks at the statue's dedication. Should all town signs be removed? Must the town's name be changed?

Who's next? Most American presidents prior to the Civil War owned slaves. Most who didn't own slaves did not consider African Americans their equals. Must all those public officials be disparaged and stricken because 21st century morality differs from the morality as they understood it?

Long before Silent Sam became a flashpoint for civil rights and racial equality, his bronze visage was a remembrance of UNC students who died in the Civil War. His statue was erected by descendants still mourning the deaths of their loved ones and the economic devastation of their entire region. If that memorial is to be removed or hidden, the decision to take that action should be made in an open, rational and democratic process.

The door to mob rule, once opened, is not easily closed.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Un-Real Reality Show at White House

One thing you can say about the Trump administration: It's never dull.

The latest episode of this "reality TV" series involves a "tell-all" (or tell more-than-all) book by Omarosa Manigault Newman. In the book and in a series of announcements and interviews hyping her book, Newman claims President Trump said all sorts of sordid things, including, allegedly, using the N-word.

Don't just take her word for it. She has tapes, and she's played some for the public's consumption (but not — so far — the president using the N-word in conversations). Some debate has arisen in the media over whether Newman has any credibility, despite the tapes supporting some of her claims. An interview early in her book-hyping blitz revealed a contradiction in her account of whether she had heard a damning tape of the president or had only heard of it. This thing isn't over, but news media (including the "mainstream media" Trump hates so much) are looking on the former White House aide with more than the usual skepticism.

What is particularly alarming to the news media gatekeepers is Newman's apparent total disregard for personal honesty and integrity and even for national security. One of her tapes was allegedly made in the White House Situation Room, a tightly controlled and closely monitored secure room that requires a high security clearance for entry. Sneaking a recording device into the room is a breach of national security and may even be a criminal act. Newman doesn't seem to care about national security and has offered no regrets over her extraordinary action.

Trump has reacted in his usual way, attacking his former trusted aide, calling her names and threatening legal action against her. But this is a crisis of his own making. Newman got the job, it seems, because she had appeared on Trump's television show, "The Apprentice," and she lavished praise on him as she sought a White House job following his election. The president was shocked that she would "go rogue" and turn out to be a threat to national security and (more important to Trump) his presidency. After all, the president said, "she said great things about me."

You would think that Trump, if he were the astute, brilliant businessman he claims to be, would know that hiring employees on the basis of how well they lick your boots is not a sound policy.

My experience as a manager who hires employees proved to me that hiring is the hardest part of any management job. A good hire can make your life easier. A bad hire can be a lingering nightmare. It's the most important thing a manager does and the most difficult.

As president, Trump has a pretty crummy record in hiring staff. He has put his daughter and son-in-law on the payroll as advisers. His son runs the family business. In most corporations, this would be forbidden nepotism. The list of Cabinet secretaries and other high officials who have had to resign is long. Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator is just the latest embarrassment of ethical lapses and luxury spending that included HHS secretary Tom Price. The departures began with Michael Flynn, caught lying about contacts with Russians. That kind of turnover, including several people Trump has fired, would raise red flags in any business.