Sunday, May 12, 2019

President Trump wages war against news media and is winning

This post first appeared in the May 11 Wilson Times.

In my 33 years as a newspaper editor, I became accustomed to people complaining about press coverage or the “Mainstream Media,” a phrase popularized by Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, as if the media (a plural noun) were one massive news organization promulgating one-sided views of the world. Instead, it was (and mostly still is) a variety of thousands of news outlets in cities and small towns across the country.

Although newspapers have changed drastically with big news corporations and even hedge funds buying up independent newspapers in hopes of making profits by consolidating production, cutting jobs and reducing pay, most smaller papers (about as “mainstream” as you can get) are still largely independent.

So it came as something of a surprise to me to read in a column by Charles Blow of the New York Times cite this statistic: “A Quinnipiac University poll last week found that Republicans say 49 to 36 percent “that the news media is the enemy of the people. Every other listed party, gender, education, age and racial group says the media is an important part of democracy.”

This tells me that President Trump’s strategy of crushing the news media, regardless of what the First Amendment says, is succeeding. Trump has attacked the news media and news reporters viciously and repeatedly since he began his presidential campaign in 2015. He calls reporters “the enemy of the people” and gets away with it. He tells his followers that you can’t believe what you read or hear in the news. His followers are so loyal that I have to assume they don’t believe weather reports or details of new laws state legislatures or Congress passes or reports of forest fires or wars. It’s all “fake news” until they read about it in a tweet from their leader.

Trump seems determined to undermine the First Amendment. He wants the public to distrust the news media. He wants to limit the ability of news organizations to report on his administration. He has banned certain reporters and certain organizations from press briefings. He has threatened to launch a federal investigation into “Saturday Night Live” because it has mocked him. He has said he wants to change libel laws to make it easier for political figures to collect damages because of honest errors or disputed facts in news reports.

Trump has succeeded at least this far: A poll last year found that 43 percent of Republicans polled agreed that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” When the president can shut down news outlets, there is no freedom of speech or of the press.

The Founding Fathers had a reason for including a free press in the First Amendment. They knew that the new nation’s future depended upon an informed electorate who would choose wisely based on a diversity of sources. A free press allows anyone to report on what they know or have witnessed.
Freedom of the press is an extension of freedom of speech. Editors and publishers have avoided special protections for the news media, depending instead on every citizen’s right to be informed through public records laws and open meetings laws. Notice that when an authoritarian regime takes power, one of its first moves is to shut down all independent news organizations, thereby limiting the information the public receives to the information the government wants the public to have. This strategy has been used in Bolshevik Russia, in Nazi Germany, in Franco’s Spain, and more recently in Iran, Egypt and other authoritarian countries.

Knowingly or not, Trump is following the playbook of oppressive regimes, and at least some American citizens are following along.

Hal Tarleton is a former editor of The Wilson Daily Times. Contact him at

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Not all heroes wear uniforms

This post originally appeared in the Wilson Times May 4, 2019.

             Remember this name: Riley Howell. A college student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Howell was in his classroom Tuesday afternoon when a former student barged in and began firing his handgun at students. Instead of sitting, paralyzed by the incongruous scene in the classroom, Howell ran at the gunman, tackling him.

            Howell died for his effort. The gunman shot him, point blank, and killed him. He was 21 years old. Another student was also killed, and other students were injured.

            Howell is being lauded as someone who always wanted to help, who would always put others first, who would rather be hurt himself than to see others hurt.

            The gunman, whom I will not give the dignity of a name here, faces two murder counts and other charges. His motivation seems vague. He told police that he just went into the classroom and started shooting guys.

          There is little doubt that Tuesday’s shocking news would have been far worse without Riley Howell’s heroism. He turned what might have been a massive death scene into a tragedy that could have been far, far worse. Courageously attacking the gunman, Howell knocked him off his feet and gave law enforcement additional moments to respond to the “active shooter” alert.

            The National Rifle Association likes to say that a “good guy with a gun” is the best defense against mass shootings. How much braver is it for an unarmed hero to attack an armed maniac? Maybe what you need is a good guy or two, even without guns. Remember the brave good guys on Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. They rammed their way into the hijacked cockpit of the airliner and disrupted a plot to crash the aircraft into the Capitol or the White House.

            Let us applaud the heroes like Riley Howell and the passengers of Flight 93. America loves heroes so much that some people call anyone with a military service record a hero, although most veterans never faced hostile fire. Those who did, who attacked a machine gun nest or risked their own lives to save comrades under fire, have earned the title of hero. So has Riley Howell. He won’t win the Congressional Medal of Honor, but he is a genuine hero who deserves recognition and memorialization.

            Shootings like the one in Charlotte or any of the dozens of others over the past few years raise the question of why do young American males, mostly white and “privileged,” feel a need to shoot someone with a gun whenever things don’t go their way. “Something went wrong, so I gotta kill a bunch of people” seems to be the twisted logic of the mass killers.

            Where does this come from? From overly permissive parents? From video games featuring gunfire and other awesome violence without consequences? From an epidemic of mental illness? From society’s cuddling of children against disappointments or failure, all in the name of “self-esteem”? From the crumbling of moral standards?

            Whatever it is, we need to study the problem, study the offenders and figure out how to prevent these horrific acts. We don’t have enough heroes to stop all the killers.

Hal Tarleton is a former editor of The Wilson Daily Times. Contact him at

Monday, April 29, 2019

Impeachment is not a simple maneuver

This post was published in the Wilson Times April 27,  2019.

In the first 100 years of the American Republic, only one president was impeached (and the senator who cast the decisive “not guilty” vote was lauded in John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage”). In the last 50 years, I have lived through two (failed) impeachments and am now facing a potential third trial aimed at removing Donald Trump from office.

With the release of the Mueller report, it is now up to Congress to decide whether President Trump will be impeached. The special counsel investigation failed to find prima facie evidence of conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign to sway the 2016 election to Trump, but it did find an abundance of evidence of dishonesty, cruelty, misuse of office, malfeasance, abuse of presidential power and abuse of federal officials. It also showed the Trump campaign did nothing to rebuff or discourage Russia’s improper interventions. The Constitution provides for impeachment of a president for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and Trump defenders claim no one has presented credible evidence of a “high crime.”

But did the authors of the Constitution intend to limit impeachment only to specific federal crimes (there were no federal criminal statutes at the time the Constitution was ratified)? Or were the authors of the Constitution intentionally vague in order to punish misbehavior, incompetence or disreputable behavior in office? Many contend the latter thinking was intended in the impeachment clause.

Many elected officials (most of them Democrats) have cited Trump’s blatant lies, his mistreatment of subordinates and international allies, his narcissism, his attacks on the federal courts, his mendacity, his contempt for American values and institutions as more than adequate grounds for impeachment.

Some Democrats and a few others are pushing for Congress to bring impeachment charges against the president, but the Democratic leadership in Congress has advocated caution over any impeachment bill. Theoretically, an impeachable offense is whatever Congress says it is. It is the sole authority on this matter, authorized to bring charges in the House and convict or find not guilty in the Senate. Because GOP senators have lined up behind Trump, no matter what, an impeachment trial conviction is highly unlikely.

Although Congress determines whether an incident is an impeachable offense, there is another factor involved: voters. In the 1974 impeachment case against Richard Nixon, a majority of Americans had lost all confidence in Nixon. His approval ratings in polls dropped into the 20 percent range. The courts had ruled against his refusal to give up subpoenaed evidence of his obstruction of justice. Even then, Nixon had a loyal following among a small minority of voters and a league of loyalists on Capitol Hill. It took the intervention of Sen. Barry Goldwater, the most respected Republican in Congress, to convince Nixon that he had to resign or face certain removal from office.

When the House voted to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998, the president remained popular. He recorded his highest popularity rating — 73 percent — in the month that the House voted to impeach him. He was quickly acquitted by the Senate. The Clinton impeachment came to be viewed as a ghastly overreach by Republicans in Congress. Yes, Clinton had a disgusting affair with a 22-year-old White House intern, and he lied about it, but he lied to protect himself and his family, not to harm the country. Pushing the Clinton matter to the level of impeachment hurt the Republican Party, so Democratic leaders are cautious about going down that road again.

Their caution is sensible, but Trump might not be immunized from impeachment. The Mueller report, at first lauded and then condemned by Trump, did not exonerate the president. It revealed or confirmed a number of incidents that could be criminal misconduct, including obstruction of justice. Congress will investigate Trump’s finances, including the likelihood that his businesses violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution. The Mueller report may be only the beginning of a serious examination of Trump misconduct that could lead to impeachment.

Trump’s next test will likely be at the ballot box 18 months from now, not in an impeachment bill before Congress. Some have raised concerns that Trump might refuse to vacate his office if he is impeached or defeated at the polls. After all, he still contends, against all evidence, that he won the popular vote in 2016. His base of loyal, determined supporters likely will follow him down whatever road he takes. They have made it clear that they are loyal to Trump, not to the Constitution.

   In 2020 voters will choose whether to believe a president who dismisses as “fake news” anything that makes him look bad or fails to bolster his ego against someone (a candidate to be named later) who will promise a return to respect for federal agencies, institutions, laws and standards.

Hal Tarleton is a former editor of The Wilson Daily Times. Contact him at

Monday, April 22, 2019

Technology aside, stick shifts have some advantages

This post was first published in the April 20, 2019, edition of the Wilson Times.

            Last month, the New York Times published an article suggesting that maybe the newest technology isn’t in the best interest of motorists. Self-driving cars have been involved in serious accidents that an attentive human driver could have easily avoided. Self-driving isn’t the only problem. Modern technology creates many distractions for drivers, and cell phones are not the only culprit.

Adding music from a radio, a tape deck, a CD player, a Bluetooth connection with your iPod or streaming services all distract the driver from his/her primary task, which is avoiding an accident while driving at 60 or 70 mph. Small distractions can be deadly. By my calculations, when you’re driving 70 mph on a highway, you’re traveling 103 feet per second. How long does it take to glance at your phone or change radio stations? Three seconds? You just traveled the length of a football field. I hope nobody was in your way.

Maybe it’s time, the NYT writer suggested, to get back to standard transmissions. Now you’re talking.

            I drove stick-shift cars almost exclusively for 16 years and taught my children how to drive a stick. At one point, we owned three vehicles, all with stick shifts. The stick shift has several advantages over automatics, which have become standard over the past 60 years. You can’t hold a cell phone or apply makeup while driving a stick. And a stick shift makes your car far less likely to be stolen. There have been numerous reports of attempted carjackings (including one in Wilson around 20 years ago) that were foiled when the carjacker realized he couldn’t drive a car with a manual transmission. Car thieves appear to be too uncoordinated to drive a stick, or maybe it’s the difficulty of shifting gears while holding a gun that thwarts them. At any rate, your car is far less likely to be stolen if it has a clutch pedal.

            The greatest disadvantage to driving a stick shift happens when you’re stuck in traffic. In a two-hour backup like the one I was involved in on I-95 recently, you can wear out your left knee in no time, shifting from neutral to first gear, to neutral, to first gear, ad infinitum as traffic creeps along. My leg aches just thinking about it. There is also the disadvantage of starting on a hill, which requires coordinating left and right feet to find the friction point and just the right amount of gas so you don’t stall or make the engine roar.

            Those small disadvantages didn’t bother me in the 14 years I drove a sporty, nimble little two-seat roadster. When I decided I needed to replace the car, which had developed several age-related problems, I looked for another stick shift, and I found out how rare manual transmissions had become. A friend in the new car business said his dealership used to get about 40 percent manual transmission vehicles, but that had plummeted to 8 percent and now is even lower. Even “performance” cars such as Corvettes, Porsches or Miatas have gone to automatics, so I settled on a used six-speed coupe that didn’t have a removable roof or the agility of my smaller roadster.

            I’m currently driving a small sedan with an automatic transmission, Bluetooth and other technology I craved. Since I usually keep a car for more than a decade, I was concerned that my left knee might not hold up to the clutch-engaging stress in my eighth decade.

            I find myself like most car owners, driving a car that is comfortable, well-equipped, smarter than I am in many ways, equipped with all sorts of warning devices, including a rear-view camera, a vehicle that requires little activity from me and offers many distractions.  While I yearn for the fun of that long-lost roadster, I worry about getting too comfortable in my car. There are a lot of distracted drivers out there, and I don’t want to join them.

Hal Tarleton is a former editor of The Wilson Daily Times. Contact him at


Thursday, April 18, 2019

Modern cardiology techniques are truly miraculous

This post was published in the Wilson Times April 17.
        The pinhead-size dot on my right wrist is hardly noticeable, but it bookmarks a miracle.

            That dot marks the spot where cardiologists inserted a catheter into the artery just below the skin, then maneuvered that catheter up my arm to my shoulder then into my chest, where it reached the coronary arteries of my heart. That nearly unimaginable journey up my arm and into my heart was just the beginning. My doctor deployed a tiny laser from the catheter and used its concentrated light to obliterate the plaque that had constricted a coronary artery by more than 90 percent.

            He was not done with these incredible advances in cardiology. He then deployed from the catheter two stents that were expanded to prop arteries open in two places. One of the stents, which are expandable mesh cylinders, measured 3 mm by 28 mm. The second stent was 3 mm by 24 mm. Three millimeters is about the thickness of a penny and a dime sandwiched together.

            When I awoke from the sedation, the intense, skilled and fast-paced cardiology team at N.C. Heart and Vascular Hospital was wrapping up the procedure. Just another day in the heart procedures suite. They were telling me that I had done well (just by lying there!) and that the procedure was a complete success. “When is the next 5K?” I asked, part joke, part bravado. “I think there’s one next weekend,” someone replied, calling my bluff. I had arrived at 7 a.m. to check in, was out of the procedure suite and back in my room in time for lunch and was allowed to go home at mid-afternoon.

            For a good 30 years, I had been avoiding that day. I had attempted to beat what medical people call “family history.” In the long list of factors that contribute to heart disease (smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, etc.), the one factor you can’t do anything about is family history. You can’t change your family; you can’t change your genes. Some of us have great families, but they carry bad heart genes. In my case, my two older brothers had heart problems. One had quadruple bypass before age 55. The other died following surgery to repair a valve and bypass some clogged arteries. My father was never diagnosed with heart disease, but his death certificate (at age 88) gave the cause of death as “congestive heart failure.” His father, who lived to age 78, died of a heart attack in 1955 without ever being diagnosed with heart disease.

            This history encouraged me to do whatever I could to avoid heart disease. I watched my weight; I followed a very active lifestyle; I made it a point to always use the stairs, not an elevator; I tried to avoid stressful situations; and I tried to limit artery-clogging foods in my diet. I had rarely eaten red meat in the past 20 years.

            Nevertheless, I found myself getting slower and slower in my running times. More recently, I was getting exhausted and out-of-breath after running only two blocks. After exercise that I used to breeze through, I became near collapse and had a burning sensation in my chest. The burning, I convinced myself, indicated a digestive problem — heartburn — not heart disease.

            In February, my wife and I attended two Heart Month programs that gave me additional warnings about heart disease factors and symptoms. On a list of heart attack symptoms passed out at one of those events, I saw “burning in the chest.”

Uh-oh! I talked to my regular doctor, and he referred me to a cardiologist. It took a second referral to find one who was in my insurance network. A few weeks later, I was on a surgical table in Raleigh.

            I have to thank Dr. Jobe and his team at North Carolina Heart and Vascular Hospital, and my wife and two daughters (my son kept in touch from a business commitment he couldn’t skip) who sat through the long wait while my heart was being repaired. Thanks to all who prayed for my healthy recovery. I got the miracle, even if it was different from the one you might have envisioned.

            In addition to being amazed at what modern medical science can do, I have learned a few things from this experience. Even if you don’t have symptoms of heart problems, do everything you can to reduce your risk, and if you are at risk, ask your doctor to help you beat the odds. I can recommend a book: “Prevent, Halt & Reverse Heart Disease” by Joe Piscatella. He spoke at the Vidant’s Heart Month lunch in Wilson. He was a captivating speaker.

            If you can, get some healthier parents, grandparents and siblings.

Hal Tarleton was an editor of The Wilson Daily Times for 29 years. Contact him at


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Immigration issue is more than a wall in the sand

This post was published in The Wilson Times April 6, 2019.

Immigration has become the Gordian Knot of American politics, the issue that is impossible to unravel and keeps advocates on both sides tied up.

It wasn’t always this way. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigration was viewed as an overall positive for the United States. The Statue of Liberty (dedicated 1886) symbolizes that national attitude: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free … .” In those days, unskilled immigrants could find jobs at decent wages. But the U.S. labor market has far fewer manual labor jobs and more jobs that require advanced training or skills.

In the 1980s, U.S. politicians realized that illegal immigration, particularly from Mexico and Central America, was reshaping America without any study, planning or control. President Reagan and Congress agreed on the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act to crack down on illegal immigration and provide a means for illegal immigrants already here to come clean and be naturalized as citizens.

The law created paperwork for illegal immigrants to apply for legal status and required employers to check the legal status of employees. The law granted amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants, but it did not slow the pace of migrants crossing the southern border. In fact, the migration accelerated, adding another 10 - 14 million illegals to the U.S. population.

Since then, Congress has been unable to find a consensus on what to do about the illegal immigrants already among us or the millions more who might cross the border illegally in the future. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump simplified the complex problem with three simplistic words: Build That Wall. For all his exaggerations and persistence, Trump has not found a solution to the issue. A wall can be breached, climbed over, tunneled under or blown up and cannot stanch the flow of illegal immigrants at a price Americans are unwilling to pay. (And Mexico has refused to pay for a wall, as candidate Trump promised they would.)

The basic problem is not people crossing the border illegally; it is the corruption, violence, poverty and economic hopelessness of Mexico and Central American countries that drives residents to risk everything for an opportunity to work and compete for the American Dream. The problem will not go away until those high-emigration countries improve the safety and economic opportunities of their residents. U.S. immigration policy should include helping those countries reform.

David Frum, writing in the April issue of The Atlantic, puts the immigration problem in perspective. Illegal immigrants are also swamping European countries. Like Mexicans or Salvadorans, these immigrants would rather live in a prosperous country than live a Third World existence.

Part of the problem has been the willingness, even eagerness of U.S. employers to hire immigrants, who often are more eager to work than native populations. Immigrants provide some positive benefits for the U.S. economy, and some negative effects as well. Immigrants contribute to the economy; their birth rate keeps the U.S. population from declining. Immigrants require more government assistance than native born, on average, in costs such as subsidized housing, medical care, specialized education and so forth. U.S. businesses can’t get along without immigrants, but illegal immigrants offer less help. The current policy of accepting low-skilled, poor immigrants has long-term negative impacts on Social Security and Medicare.

Frum suggests we need to reconsider laws on refugees and asylum seekers. If the criteria for asylum are fleeing violence and poverty, much of the world’s population is eligible.

Frum also provides a dose of reality for those on the left who claim Americans should welcome all immigrants because we are all neighbors: “Without immigration restrictions, there are no national borders. Without international borders, there are no nation-states. Without nation-states, there are no electorates. Without electorates, there is no democracy. If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do.”

Hal Tarleton is a former editor of The Wilson Daily Times. Contact him at


Monday, April 1, 2019

Since when is 2019 a presidential election year?

This post was published as a column in The Wilson Times March 30, 2019.

It’s not a presidential election year, is it? This is an odd-numbered year. Shouldn’t we be protected from presidential campaign promises for nine more months?

I guess not.

At last count (the counting done by CNN), sixteen Democrats are in the race to succeed President Donald Trump (who, as an incumbent, presumably will have little, if any, Republican opposition). But wait: CNN lists eleven more Democrats who “might” run. There are also four Democrats who have said they won’t run and another one who officially dropped out of the race.

I hope all of you registered Democrats and Independents (who can vote in either primary, but not both) are paying attention.

Much has been made of the Democratic Party’s lean toward the left. With candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (a 2016 candidate), Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke favoring many of the policies of the party’s liberal wing. A freshman congressman, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, has generated a lot of media coverage for her outspoken leftist views, including a video arguing that socialism is better than capitalism, but she is not in the presidential race … yet.

Not all the Democratic candidates are as far to the left as Sanders or Warren, but most analysts agree that the Democratic base has a stronger leftward tilt this year. Even candidates who are more moderate will be painted by Republicans with liberal colors. Already, Ocasio-Cortez has become the stereotype Trump has assigned to all Democrats.

Although the Democratic base may have shifted, the nationwide electorate has not moved leftward, or at least not by much. Most Americans see themselves as moderates and are likely to vote that way in the 2020 elections. If the Democrats hope to defeat Trump, they will need a moderate candidate who honors patriotism, effective immigration reforms, secure borders, restrained federal spending, free trade, sensible regulatory authority and inclusive “big tent” politics.

The Democratic field for 2020 is “diverse” if nothing else. I counted six women, one Hispanic, two Jamaican-Americans, one Indian-American, one African-American, one Asian-American, one Pacific Islander-American, two Hindu Americans, one gay American, and one “spiritual counselor.” They range in age from 37 to 77. (Some candidates fit in more than one category.)

The ones who seem to be front-runners have not excited me yet. Sen. Cory Booker comes across as sanctimonious and overly aggressive. Sen. Elizabeth Warren hits some good notes, but she also sounds like a policy wonk who is talking down to ordinary voters. Sen. Kamala Harris makes her leftist views sound positive, but she hasn’t won over moderate voters yet. Beto O’Rourke talks and acts like a front-runner, despite limited experience and a loss in last year’s challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz, a 2016 presidential candidate. O’Rourke can raise money, but can he win a big election? Maybe his looks, which remind me of Bobby Kennedy, will help him. If they decide to run, Joe Biden or John Kerry could probably beat any of these candidates in a primary.

I like to remind people that presidential campaigns have grown far too long. John F. Kennedy announced his 1960 presidential bid on … wait for it … Jan. 1, 1960. He managed to do pretty well only 10 months later.

Hal Tarleton is a former editor of The Wilson Daily Times. Contact him at