South Dakota Top Blogs

News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, November 30, 2009

Taking back the country--all the way back to segregation, slavery, the crusades, and The Inquisition

This billboard appears at an automobile leasing and consignment business in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, owned by Phil Wolf.  The dealership, Interstate Sales and Leasing, is part of the Wolf Automotive Group.  Phil Wolf also owns Chrysler product dealerships in Jackson and Pinedale, Wyoming, and a Suzuki dealership in Bozeman, Montana.  He put up the sign.  He has been interviewed a number of  times as to why he put the sign up.

The sign makes a number of claims that have been proven false, except in the minds of those who make up phony reasons for their hatred of President Obama.  The sign implies Obama is  Muslim.  In interviews, Wolf has stated that Obama is anti-Christian and anti-American.  The sign raises the phony claim about Obama's citizenship and birth certificate.  It connects Obama to the shootings at Ft. Hood. 

A former colleague of mine who is a social psychologist specializing in advertising, propaganda, and human resources, points out that this sign, along with those that have shown up at tea parties, and the tea party protests in  general, have made false claims.  He examines the fact that so many of the claims against Obama are apparently and provably without any foundation snd are total fabrications.    Why do people create them and believe in them?

 Pure, simple, good old-fashioned racial hatred, is the answer.  And it is an answer that presumes a divide in the U.S. population that runs deeper and is more pernicious than most Americans would like to admit.

My psychologist friend says that people who supported and elected Obama assumed his election to the presidency marked a final surmounting of the history of racial prejudice, discrimination, and violence in the nation.  But, instead, it unleashed a new wave of racial hatred and resentment that expresses itself in the falsehoods circulated about Obama and his administration.

My colleague likens Obama's presidency to the time when women and people of color began to move into important and influential jobs in the work place.  As the consultant for large corporations, he recalls the problems that the companies experienced when they started promoting minorities and women over other people.   He says at that time, people were at least more forthright about their resentment.  He recalled when a black man was promoted to vice president of labor relations at a large, successful corporation.  Another vice president asked for a meeting with the chief executive and the advisory staff, and blurted out, "Do you realize that you've just made me equal to a fucking nigger?"

My friend recalls the problems were worse when women started moving into executive positions.  A number of people quit rather than work for a female boss.  They said they would not submit to the indignity of being bossed by a woman.  Others did not quit but did everything they could to obstruct and undercut their female bosses.  My colleague says things have not really changed.  While people would not use such overtly demeaning terms as nigger, spick, or cunt to register their resentments, they do so in code by constantly finding other faults and making up false accusations about their bosses.  This is the tactic that the tea party protesters and some in Congress have used to assail Obama.  They are possessed of a seething resentment that a black man has risen to a position over them.  Except for the hardcore KKK types, people will not openly use the deprecation "nigger."  So they challenge Obama's citizenship, claim he is not Christian,  call him socialist, communist, fascist, jihadist and all the other pejoratives, except the one they really mean.  Crude pictures and false representations avoid the words, but do not hide their intention.

The media might be faulted for publicizing signs such as the one in Wheat Ridge.  However, slanderous and libelous expressions, while not subject to court challenge by public figures, is news.  It is not good news.  It is even worse news when the press allows the people who claim that  such defamations are merely an expression of policy disagreements to  remain unchallenged in their dissembling.  At minimum the press should be asking why people persist with such outright and obvious lies.  Attorney Gneral Eric Holder identified the probem when he said that people were cowards about the matters of race that remain a big factor in American life and politics.  Most Americans of the more tolerant sort want to be proud of their country, and , therefore, ignore its history of slavery, racial oppression, and genocide against the American Indians.  And they do not want to confront the racial and the political hatred that is finding expression in the tea parties, the town halls, and on the streets.  They think that as long as the protesters are not using the words "nigger,"  "spick," and "cunt," we are living in a more enlightened age.   A great, dark rage enveloped the country when Obama was elected.  And in trying to maintain postures of conciliation, the progressives are allowing that dark rage to  over the country with an insidious cloud.

 As with that sign in Wheat Ridge, much of the political discussion on  talk radio, cable television, and the internet is sub-literate and incoherent.  Words are symbols of natural facts, but in the current forms of discussions, there is no attempt to connect words with actual facts.   A quick look at any aggregator of South Dakota blogs reveals a devastating record of sub-literacy and incoherence   The new media has the intellectual resemblance of the chatter of the dayroom in a home for the mentally disabled.

The quality of  thought and expression defines the quality of a country.  Popular culture is obsessed with the degradations and intellectual atrocities of the past.  And that is where the author of the sign in Wheat Ridge and his kind are taking us.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fire the lying profressors

There is one way to settle the question raised about the quality of science in climate change: 

     1.  Fire any professor who is proven to have fabricated, distorted, or otherwise manipulated data.  

     2.  Insure that any such firing be attended by the most meticulous academic due process.  

Such due process would require that anyone making accusations of academic misconduct to come forth with the evidence  and to explain their reading and analysis of the evidence.  And such presentations and examination and rebuttal of the evidence would done before and decided upon by a jury of peers.  In this case, peers would be defined as disinterested professors of equal professional stature and qualifications to examine the data at issue.

I do not know exactly what are the rules are for the European and Asian scientists involved  in the charges against professors,  but I know well what rules apply to American professors--although most institutions of higher learning try to avoid the expense, embarrassment, and turmoil of such proceedings as rigorous applications of the rules involve.  I have sat on panels that consider evidence brought against professors and make assessments and recommendations, and I am familiar with many cases.  Many cases of misconduct involve matters of felonies, sexual involvements and sexual harassment, or gross negligence of duty.  Such cases are generally resolved by the professor resigning and quietly withdrawing.  

Cases involving professors charged with academic misconduct in scholarship and teaching are less frequent.  The established reasons for firing or taking other disciplinary action against them include instances of:

  • Plagiarism;
  • Fabrication of data or manipulation of data to lead to a foregone conclusion;
  • Gross incompetence;
  • Gross negligence of defined duties;
  •  Scholarly slovenliness;
  • General mendacity in the role of professor, whether on campus or in extra-mural settings.  
The first two rules listed above are the most serious in their effect on scholarly integrity, and a professor proven to violate them will not be a professor any longer or ever again. 

The  general public does not often hear of cases of professors being fired or disciplined for such misconduct because colleges and universities go to great lengths to suppress any hint that something is academically amiss on their campuses.  The cases with which I am familiar often involved a professor who was at odds with an administration, was dismissed, but claimed there was no reason of academic performance in the firing.  Some cases are upheld, but in those where no basis in academic performance is found, a quiet cash settlement is generally made.  The South Dakota Board of Regents made such a settlement with a professor whose dismissal from Northern State was found to be in violation of academic freedom.  In cases where the firings are upheld, the matters centered on plagiarism or the misrepresentation and misuse of data.

The most recent and familiar case of such dismissal was that of Professor Ward Churchill who was dismissed from the University of Colorado for falsifying and misrepresenting materials he cited from other scholars.  The matter probably would not have come up had Churchill not enraged a portion of the  public by publishing an essay in which he called the victims of 9/11 'little Eichmanns."  Although complaints about his use of source materials had been registered, the Colorado regents and administration did not pursue them until the political furor over his "little Eichmann" comment called them into attention.  Churchill claimed that his dismissal was for making that comment and was a violation of his right to free speech and academic freedom.  The professors who reviewed the charges found that his misuse of scholarly materials was sufficient cause for his dismissal.  

However, the case of the e-mails between scientists who developed the global warming theory rests upon a different basis.  Ironically, the invention used to expedite research and scholarly work is being used against them.  The World Wide Web was invented by scientists to permit them to have convenient access to information and to have a means for exchanging ideas and information about theories they are pursuing.  Part of its purpose was to allow them to exchange comments and criticisms over long distances as if they were working next to each other in their labs or offices.  They were looking for a way to exchange the casual comments and concerns that occur to them in the  early, pre-formative stages of analyzing data. In other words, they used e-mails and listserves to exchange what they call "lab chatter," which is the scientists' equivalent of the chatter and banter exchanged between all workmen as they go about the performance of their jobs.  Much of what is said is just venting, which may or may not be relevant to the tasks at hand.

However, when scientists  formalize their theories and prepare them for publication, their work is taken out of the context of lab chatter and the petty politics that is the bane of academic organizations.  Their work is presented in formal papers which review all the literature pertinent to the subject they present, and they build a case for the theory being advanced through a careful and critical analysis of the data.  And because it is a theory, their conclusions will be open to the inclusion of new data and to criticisms and evluation by other scientists.

When the e-mails of the scientists were hacked into, which is in itself illegal, the hackers found statements that they construed to be evidence that the scientists were manipulating and falsifying data that conflicted with the theory of global warming.  The scientists claim that the e-mails were taken out of context and do not represent any substantive information about the global warming theory, and are largely matters of incidental lab chatter that does not bear on the theory itself.

An example is that one of the e-mails cautions scientists to be careful about any information that they copy to the science reporter for The New York Times.  Scholars are always careful about what information they give to reporters because reporters are not necessarily interested in the integrity or the precision of the science when they report on it.  Most scholars prefer to withhold information until they publish their own papers on their work.  Much of the press is interested in finding conflict and sensation and gossip than in reporting the actual science.   The New York Times has an informing overview of the e-mail hacking incident.

The biggest problem is that politics has become a part of this theory.  And so, the tactics of political propaganda have entered into its discussion.  At the outset, a favorite technique of the conservative movement is apparent in the propagandic use made of the e-mails.  The critics find an e-mail that they can construe as an admission that the scientists are not telling the truth to the public.  Then they launch an attack on the character of the scientist, rather than explain and substantiate their reading of the e-mails and the process by which they justify their condemnation on the character of the scientist.  They divert the discussion away from the scientific evidence and the facts at hand to a slandering and libeling of the scientists.  The scientists claim that the comments are deliberately misconstrued and have no bearing on the scientific evidence or the way they have arrived at their theory.

Some websites have called the scientists frauds and are calling for their exposure and dismissal.  

If the academic world operates as it should, these critics should be allowed to make their case where it counts--in a proceeding where they can make their accusations and in which the professors accused have an opportunity to face them and require an accounting.

There is a huge difference in science and the rest of the academic work between having a different viewpoint based on the evidence or of being wrong and deliberately falsifying or manipulating the data.  

Unfortunately,  the internet is a culprit in allowing the intrusion of politics into science.  In a medium where plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification has become a characteristic, some professors have abandoned the precepts of their disciplines in order to satisfy their political perversities.  On the local blogs, one professor blithely plagiarized a newspaper editorial, which also had misrepresented some data it cited. Plagiarism and falsification of data are considered fair and clever practices by some professors when they venture onto the internet.

The universities and agencies involved in the study of the global warming theory have a responsibility to insist that the charges of misconduct of the professors be prosecuted with substantive evidence and the e-mail hacking incident be given full examination.  

The academic world needs to restore itself by getting rid of dishonest and incapable professors.  But first, it has to decide who they are.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Woman from South Dakota pleads guilty to spying for Cuba

Gwendolyn Myers, a woman from Aberdeen, and her husband, Walter Kendall Myers, pled guilty to spying Friday in a federal court, according to an Associated Press story.    Mrs. Myers had worked as a political campaign staff member in Aberdeen and then worked in  state government in Pierre, where she and her husband were contacted by Cuban agents.

Walter Kendall Myers, 72,  will serve a life term in prison and Gwendolyn Myers will serve about seven years. 

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The longing for competence: the death of Morgan Lewis

Daniel Zwerdling is a professional journalist for National Public Radio.  He came up with a document that shows that Maj. Nidal Hasan, the killer of 13 soldiers at Ft. Hood,  had raised questions about his competence among his superiors.  An evaluative memorandum lists problems with Major Hasan's performance and his personality.   The memo does not say anything about any tendency in Hasan toward becoming a violent jihadist against his fellows, although it notes that he did some inappropriate religious proselytizing.  Here is a transcript of the relevant evaluations and conclusions in the document:

3. The Faculty has serious concerns about CPT Hasan’s professionalism and work ethic. Clinically he is competent to deliver safe patient care. But he demonstrates a pattern of poor judgment and a lack of professionalism. In his PGY-2 year, he was counseled for inappropriately discussing religious topics with his assigned patients. He also required a period of in-program remediation when he was discovered to have not documented appropriately an ER encounter with a homicidal patient who subsequently eloped from the ER. He did successfully remediate this problem. At the end of his PGY-2 year, he was placed on administrative probation by the NCC GMEC for failure to take and pass USMLE Step 3 and to obtain an unrestricted state medical license by the end of his PGY-2 year; as a result he was not promoted to PGY-3 on time. He did eventually complete step 3 and get a license and was promoted to PGY-3. He was counseled for having a poor record of attendance at didactics and lower than expected PRITE scores. One year he failed to show for his PRITE examination at all.  During his PGY-3 year, he was counseled for being consistently late to NNMC morning report. During his PGY-4 year, he was discovered to have only seen 30 outpatients in 38 week of outpatient continuity clinic. He was required to make this missed clinic time up using his elective. He failed his HGT/WGT screening and was found to be out of standards with body fat % and was counseled on that.  Lastly, he missed a night of call for MGMC ER and then did not respond to numerous pages by my office the next day.

4. Taken together; these issues demonstrate a lack of professionalism and work ethics.  He is able to self-correct with supervision. However, at this point he should not need so much supervision. In spite of all of this, I am not able to say he is not competent to graduate nor do I think a period of academic probation now at the end of his training will be beneficial. He would be able to contain his behavior enough to complete any period of probation successfully. My purpose in writing this letter is to give the credentials committee the benefit of full disclosure and the opportunity to modify CPT Hasan’s plan of supervision following initial privileging.

Some people are reported in the press and are using blogs to use this document as the basis for tirades about the incompetence of big government.  In so doing, they misrepresent the facts.  The facts are that a superior of Major Hasan's did note the problems with his performance, but also noted that further disciplinary action at that point would seem counterproductive.  The memo was made part of a record to be used in consideration of Major Hasan's future assignments and evaluations.  There may be further documents that bear on whether Major Hasan's alleged eruption into a murdering jihadist could have been predicted.

There are those who are misportraying this document as evidence of  bumbling when, in fact, it is a careful assessment that shows attempts are being made to correct Major Hasan's deficiencies of performance.  Unfortunately, some of those making the false portrayals are in the teaching profession.  One can only hope that their superiors are  putting on record their incompetent and slovenly performances in representing what very competent reporters publish and that appropriate remediation or disciplinary action is taken in those cases.

I am not defending the Army or government in this matter.  I am pointing out the absurdity of the incompetent and devious calling someone else incompetent.  I decry the incompetence of all huge bureaucracies, including the higher education bureaucracy for which I once worked.  My own take on the Army is supplied by my father, who carried U.S. mail for 34 years.  When I was inducted into military service, my father drove me to the train station, and used the F word the only time I ever heard him do so.  He commented that I tended to attempt to rectify what I pereceived as wrongs, and he said, "Just remember that the government and the Army are so f**ked up so far back and so high up that there is nothing you can do to  change it."   I listened and remembered, although that did not keep me from joining in some efforts to change some wrongs, which resulted in the courts martial of some people who were mistreating recruits.   But for the most part, my father was right and there is little one can do to fix incompetence.  Or perfidy and mendacity and malice in those who hold those qualities as  basic tenets of their value system. 

And that is not to say that I did not also come across instances of brilliance and unparalleled competence in the service.  Or in higher education.  But they are subverted by those who dwell in the lower regions of human sensibility.

In yesterday's news was also the announcement that the last chance to examine the death of Dr. Morgan Lewis, an assistant professor of German at Northern State University who was found dead at the doorway of Seymour Hall Nov. 1, 2004, of a gunshot wound in the back of his head.  The Aberdeen Police Department eventually labeled the case a suicide and closed it.  The Police Department or other authorities never released the evidence or investigative record on which they based their conclusion.

Some litigation ensued.  It was over insurance,  which the agencies involved would not have to pay if suicide were proven.  The latest suit against Prudential Life Insurance was settled to the satisfaction of  the parties, according to the news report, but it closed off what is probably the last opportunity to examine the evidence and the investigative record for veracity and competence in the handling of the case.

In the case of Major Hasan, his personnel records, at least in part, are being made available.  In the case of Dr. Lewis' death, the records are not released because some bureaucrats have the authority under South Dakota law to keep them from public knowledge.

Dr. Lewis' death came during a time of chaos and controversy in the Aberdeen Police Department.  A chief of police had recently been forced to resign.  The reasons are kept confidential because they are "personnel" matters.  Two detectives were fired and protested their firings, on which some kind of settlement was reached.  The reasons for the firings and the settlement were never explained to the public because they are personnel matters.  The policeman who patrolled the NSU campus at the time of Dr. Lewis' death was forced to resign  The reasons, which had something to do with the handling of the Lewis case, were never revdaled because they were "personnel matters."

Still, at the federal level of government, when a time of great tragedy and concern occurs as in the Ft. Hood shootings, the personnel records of Major Hasan are released as a mater of pubic information so that the record can be examined and appropriate action taken.

The Hasan case will go on for years.  But at least we can take assurance that some people involved have performed competently and professionally.  However, in South Dakota in the handling of the Hasan personnel documents and in the withholding of information on the Morgan Lewis case, we are left to long for integrity and competence. 

We can only long for disclosure and freedom of information laws that the federal government and other states have.  But that would  be relying upon big government to enforce the rights of tax-paying citizens to know what their tax-paid employees are doing.  And if they are competent enough to hold their positions. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

John Thune: one big macaca moment

Now comes Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post to speculate about John Thune rising to the role of savior of the Republican Party,  following on the heels of David Brooks' paean to Thune's cowboyiness.

 Thune's current claim to prominence is his efforts to put an end to TARP, which is in contradiction to his performance in support of those things that made TARP necessary.  And then there is his legislation to prohibit any taxing of cow farts and burps, despite the fact that no one has actually proposed such taxes.

He could really promote his presidential ambitions if he were to sponsor legislation prohibiting the Obama gun fairy, which sneaks around at night trying to wrestle guns from the hot little hands of those who live in constant fear that someone will come and take their favorite toys away in the night.

Thune has no opposition in his run for re-election in 2010 so far.    That is no opposition except that held in the minds of those who really know his record in the House, where he had to be dragged screaming and hollering to join the agriculture caucus, look at water development, and stop his opposition to all expenditures on the South Dakota infrastructure.

Then there is the tea-party campaign he ran in 2004.

Thune is making a lot of noise with his quiet poses.  He reads scripts well.  It is thinking and doing constructive things that he has trouble with.

The descent into pettiness

Having covered agriculture and business for many years, I have developed a huge disrespect for corporate bureaucracies.   There are dangers to big government.  But bureaucracies are bureaucracies, no matter their setting, and they operate on the lowest common denominator--the stupid, the mean, the incompetent, the crooked, the retarded.

All people are created equal in the sense that no  one is to be regarded as more or less valuable than anybody else.  But they are not created the same.  They are equal but different.  And many people just are not very smart or very decent or very noble.  But we give them equal status, and that is why we find ourselves dealing with incompetent idiots much of the time.

Nothing is more idiotic than yammering about the dangers of big government.  If they want to talk about the incompetence, inefficiencies, and crookedness of big, let us talk about General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, AIG, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Citicorp, Enron, Worldcom, and the list is almost endless,  because it would include almost every large enterprise.  People have a huge capacity for stupidity, and bureaucracies cater to it.  That is a basic premise of bureaucratic culture.

My own position on the matter of bailouts is that we should just let the greedy and fatuous fools who got the economy to where it has sunk  go under.  I realize that the government took the actions because it realized that the rest of us would go under with the huge, incompetent bureaucracies and not all of us should have to reap what the big corporations have sown.  About 17 percent of our people who are unemployed and can't find jobs are reaping the raping of the economy by being asked to bend over and smile while they take the reaping up their individual wazoos.  There is a huge denial of equality when some people can't get enough to eat and others can garner million-dollar bonuses from bailout money from American taxpayers.  Some people defend corporate executive pay scales and bonuses as a capitalistic right.  I think it is their right to reap the consequences of their mental and moral failures and go to the end of the soup lines.  But Bernie Madoff is the capitalistic Jesus and the only people we permit to pay for the bureaucratic shystering are the poor.

Obama ran on the promise to change all that kind of nonsense.  He is a smart man.  He is a decent man.  His flaw, which may prove to be fatal, is that he is a polite and considerate man.  In making nice to an opposition which is on the side of economic and actual rape, he has squandered the opportunity to drive the rats out of the ship of state and has allowed them to derail real reform.  His opposition will oppose anything he proposes or stands for.

One of their latest complaints is that Obama bowed to the emperor of Japan.  He also bowed to the Saudi King and the Queen of  England.   Obama is a bower.  Some people think that a bow is a sign of respect and good intentions.  Like in dancing the Virginia reel which begins with the men bowing to the women and the women curtsying to the men as a demonstration of respect and good will.  But the opposition sees the Obama bow as the damned field slave being so enthralled at being received by his massas in the big house that he falls to his knees in a gesture of supplication that pledges slavehood to the royalty.   On the other hand, any attempts to give the ordinary, working people some equity in their country is decried as socialism and communism. The fact that such mean and petty nonsense is circulated around the country shows what a mean and petty and utterly stupid country we have  become.

Just as the corporations deserve to reap what they have sown, it may be time to let the country itself reap what is sown.  We have serious issues that could be talked about on the basis of sound information and intelligence, but the GOP has decided to put on displays of stupid obstinacy and false accusations.  Health care is one of those areas  which a would-be ruling class uses to put the American serfs in their place.  The reform efforts have been compromised by making nice to the "rulers."  The GOP has launched a barrage of insanity.  The Democrats have allowed themselves to be drawn into the noise of idiots venting their sound and fury as if idiots can be reasoned with.  And so, we are left living at the level of the mean and petty and greedy and nefarious, who would rather slur the President than solve the country's problems.

Critics of American democracy have said from its inception that it was doomed to failure because it would be dominated by the lowest motives in the human spirit.  Perhaps, it is time to see the government as being operated on the same moral and intellectual basis as the big corporate bureaucracies.  It might be time to let it fail and let people confront the reality of what we have become.  There will be turmoil and atrocity and obscenity of the kind that takes place daily in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.  It may be time to put the theories of those persistent critics to the test.

The voices of indecency, the sound and the fury, are loud and clear.  It may well be time to let America fail and see if what endures is the better angels of human nature or the malevolent demons that thrive on the mean, the petty, and the stupid. 


Monday, November 16, 2009

Lou Dobbs and the struggle for journalism

Lou Dobbs suddenly announced on his CNN show Wednesday that it would be his last appearance on the network.  The moment could hardly be regarded as the product of clear objectives and careful planning.  Only a few follow-up stories delved into the reasons why Dobbs left so abruptly, after being one of CNN's originating anchors and having a news show during the prime hour for news. 

The Sunday morning talk shows have rehashed the points to which Dobbs drew the most attention.  They are his crusade against illegal aliens, about whom he made provably false statements, and his joining of the nonsense about President Obama's birth certificate, even after CNN executives told him it was not a story.  

There were disagreements between Dobbs and CNN management, but  Dobbs' sudden departure is indicative of the general problems facing news organizations.

CNN changed the news business.  Initially, for the better. By 1980, television news had become the major source for most Americans, but was delivered by the three major networks in 20 highly-edited minutes per day during their half-hour evening newscasts.  For people who wanted more detailed and expanded information,  print journalism filled the void.  Then Ted Turner, amid a storm of skepticism, stepprd in with his 24-hour cable news network, CNN.  

Initially CNN intensified the reporting aspect of news.  It emphasized reporting and the generation of facts and information based upon on-the-spot coverage and carefully sourced and verified facts.  CNN was a success, and it inspired rival cable networks devoted to news.  But the task of filling 24 hours a day with news proved a strain.  At first the format was hourly segments which, while emphasizing breaking news, were repetitive.  To provide a change of focus and pace, CNN,and its competitors, programmed "news magazine" segments, modeled roughly (and I mean "roughly") after public television's News Hour, with in-depth interviews and panel discussions.  They found that the interview-and-discussion format was a cheaper and easier way to fill the time than having a bunch of reporters out digging for facts and another bunch of editors checking those facts. 

Ted Turner started CNN as an alternative to news programming that was merely an adjunct to entertainment programming, which draws the larger audience.  A staple of entertainment programming was the talk show.  While the late night talk shows emphasized show business and variety, the day time talk shows centered ostensibly on issues.  But their real attraction was that issues spark controversy and conflict.  While conflict is one of the dozen or so criteria by which news value is evaluated, it has taken over cable news and internet reporting almost to the exclusion of other criteria and to the oblivion of the journalistic processes by which they are applied.  Some people find conflict entertaining, as they did when Jerry Springer prodded people on his show into such degrading rage that they physically attacked each other.  Conflict and its devious and nefarious expressions are a staple of the "reality" shows which feature people being vicious and hateful to each other.  For a very significant portion of Americans, watching other people being abused and humiliated is a favorite entertainment.  Social psychologists point out that the popularity of such debasing spectacles is partly because it gives the audience the chance to feel superior to the subjects of humiliation, a chance for those who feel inconsequential in their work-a-day lives to feel  part of an "elite."  Television has serviced the less-than-admirable motives of its audience, and this servicing has shaped the way news is presented in the media in general.

For cable news, the appeal to the baser instincts of its audience is in the constant bickering and prattle by "experts" over every topic that comes up in the news.  Cable news also finds that appealing to people's prejudices, notions, ignorance, and distorted world views  builds audiences.  People like to feel that their perceptions, notions, and attitudes are legitimized as part of something larger.  That is what Fox News and MSNBC are using in their attempts to win audiences and ratings.

In the ratings wars, CNN has dropped behind its two competing cable networks, Fox News and MSNBC, who have openly decided to base their editorial decisions on different sides of the partisan divide.  Fox, a part of the Murdoch empire, which includes the Wall Street Journal, is devoted to propagandizing far right wing propaganda.  MSNBC takes the left wing perspective.  Although both of those networks have news gathering operations, their partisan manipulations of information take away the credibility of anything they offer as hard news reports.  As MSNBC uses reports from NBC News, its partisan stance compromises the work it uses from the professional journalists.

This kind of compromising of the integrity of professionally developed reports is where Lou Dobbs got into trouble.  His news hour showed that he had a partisan agenda in both his selection of news and the slant with which he delivered the stories.  He used work and had interchanges with reporters on which he imposed his slant.  This caused complaints from CNN's hard news workers and they felt uncomfortable appearing on his program and being associated with the distortions he imposed.  His distortions became particularly noticeable in the antagonisms he consistently expressed against Barack Obama.  Journalists both within CNN and outside the network remarked that Dobbs had abandoned reporting altogether for propagandizing and he violated the basic premises of factual accuracy and credible sources in the process.

While Latino groups and other civil rights organizations launched a campaign to have Dobbs removed from the network more than a year ago,  professional journalists began writing to CNN that, aside from the major network newscasts and the PBS News Hour, there was no cable show devoted to hard reporting during the prime news time across the nation.  The emphasis on what people with conflicting viewpoints said about a few issues displaced the news itself.

Ted Turner whose interests in CNN were bought out and who was eventually displaced on the CNN board of directors has commented on what CNN has become.  He lost a good portion of his money in market  collapses and says he does not have enough to buy his way back into the cable television business, but he is disappointed in the abandonment of hard news reporting as the primary function of CNN.  He would to see the network give up the fluff and return to news reporting as its central commodity.

The departure of Lou Dobbs reflects that CNN management is sensitive to the criticism of the network news role.  It has previously let Glenn Beck go and appears concerned about its reputation as a news source rather than a partisan chatter source. 

CNN has competition coming on strong.  Bloomberg has openly announced that it intends to become the most influential news organization in the nation.  CNN has reason to scramble to regain and maintain its credibility as a reliable reporter of the news.  

News organizations in general are looking at downsizing but finding a niche in the real news market in which they can survive.  CNN may have to forget the ratings races and serve the audience attracted to it.  At a time when it is becoming apparent that "citizen journalism" on the internet is just more chatter and a total failure by journalistic standards, responding to the challenges on the Internet is not the way real journalism can survive.  More organizations may have to take the measures CNN seems to be taking. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

David Brooks gets off on John Thune

Basing his opinions largely on John Thune's appearance and demeanor as a cowboy who has not as yet visited Broke Back Mountain, David Brooks in The New York Times touts Thune as a leader in the model of Barack Obama who could save the Republican Party.  The piece is so gushy that one suspects if Brooks were to visit Broke Back Mountain, he would like to go with John Thune.

Conspicuously absent from Brooks" appraisal is John Thune's record as a representative in the House, the nature of his campaign against Tom Daschle, the absurd and pointless and hypocritical legislation he is currently sponsoring, and the fact that he is a script reader who plays a role designed by political hacks.  Brooks has ventured into the realm of celebrity gossip in this column. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The ghouls invade Ft. Hood

The killing of 13 people and the wounding of 29 at Ft. Hood is an occasion for respectful honor and somber reflection about those killed and harmed. But not for some who turn it into a frenzy of manic bureaucratic blame-placing and a harvest festival of wingnut malevolence.

The press in its eagerness to get scoops bears responsibility for a large part of the bureaucratic brouhaha.  One can only wax nostalgic over the days when the press was eager to report the facts, not the pissing duels.

The press is reporting that the FBI and the Department of Defense are embroiled in mud wrestling, which is brought about by the question of whether the government missed warning signs about Major Nidal Malik Hasan.  There are many instances being raised about incidents that may be regarded as foreshadowings of what Hasan allegedly did.  The FBI electronic surveillance network monitored correspondence Maj. Hasan had with an American-born imam in Yemen who advocates a jihad against Americans.  A Department of Defense investigator says there was nothing in the correspondence that did not deal with legitimate questions that Hasan was pursuing.  And so, the blame-placing frenzy begins.

But the press plays a major role.  In both sides of the issue, the press cites statements from people whose names and identities are withheld "because they are not authorized to talk about the matter."  The obvious question:  if they are not authorized to talk about it, why the hell are they talking about it?    And just what gives anything they say any credibility?  Was a time when establishing the credentials of someone being quoted was the first priority in journalistic practice.  But that gets in the way of feeding the appetites of the mean and petty whose sole motive in life is to find condemnations of other people.

For the press to retreat into an anonymous citation because the person "was not authorized to speak" is like those commenters on blogs who post anonymously.  One learns quickly that their facts are seldom accurate and their thinking processes, if they exist at all, are impaired.  Mostly, one learns that they are only interested in venting malice,  and their motive is to poison any discussion that is taking place.

That brings up comments by some bloggers, who are not necessarily anonymous, but whose thoughts and expressions fulfill the requirements of ignorance, falsity, and malice that appears to be the qualifying criteria for posting anonymous comments.  The question has been raised if political correctness caused officials not to investigate Hasan's statements and behavior and to take preventive measures.  In this case political correctness would be to be oversensitive to Hasan's Muslim religion and give him special leniency.  The bloggers ignore the rules of evidence and due process and insist that Hasan should have been subjected to some kind of discipline and punishment.  The one real indication that he had violent intentions was in purchasing the high powered handgun he used in the murders of 13 people.  Of course, requiring information of his gun purchase and pursuing it as an indication of his intentions would be a violation of the Second Amendment.

The wingnut bloggers have taken after Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey for his warning about jumping to conclusions about the Ft. Hood massacre: “I'm concerned this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers, and I've asked our Army leaders to be on the lookout for that,” he said.  The charge by the bloggers is that Gen. Casey is being politically correct and is woefully misguided.

Of course, Gen. Casey is following the rudiments of competence.  As a commander, he knows the history of the Army and that this is not the first time that racial, religious, or sexual persecution has endangered the function of the military.  The military took the lead in desegregation.  It did so because it became apparent that internal ethnic conflicts render the military dysfunctional.  It was a problem during World War II, but in the Korean War it cost the U.S. some victories and many lives.  Units of black soldiers were accused of being bad soldiers.  When the command investigated their performance, it found that the black units were staffed with white officers who were not considered competent enough to be assigned to other units.  And it found that the discrimination against blacks was so intense that black soldiers resented deeply having to fight for  freedom, equality, and justice that they were systematically denied. 

President Truman signed the order to desegregate the military in 1948, but little was accomplished.   In 1951, when Gen. Ridgway was put in command of the troops in Korea and charged with reversing the terrible defeat American forces were experiencing, he asked that he be allowed to immediately desegregate the units under his command, and he took immediate action to do so.  He changed the course of the war. And of racial history,

But the effects of segregation lingered on after a truce was agreed to and prisoners of war were exchanged.  Some black U.S. troops chose not to be repatriated.  They were called "turn coats."  They stayed in North Korea, but not for long when they discovered that the treatment by the North Koreans was no better than the segregated society they would return to in the U.S.  However, these men troubled President Eisenhower, who understood well the dangers of having troops who had reason to distrust and fight each other rather than the enemy.  An exhaustive study was ordered, desegregation in the military was expedited, and the lessons learned played a strong role in the decisions to desegregate civilian society and in the actions taken to enforce it. 

The problems caused by racial discrimination did not end with military desegregation.  I experienced those problems during my time in the Army and  saw the need to transfer some racially motivated soldiers to jobs and places where they could not interfere with and obstruct the mission we were given to perform.  There were instances of violence against blacks and Latinos, and retaliations for those acts of violence, and the participants had to be removed to allow the units to function and perform their duties.

There were flare-ups in Viet Nam with fraggings that had racial motivations.  There were problems when women were permitted to assume the same roles as men in the military.  To win military victories requires first that the demons in human nature be defeated.

Gen. Casey's warning about retaliation against Muslim soldiers is grounded in actual history and in his realization that such retaliations would play into the hands of Al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals by proving their contention that the U.S is not conducting a war on terror but a war on Muslim. 

There are those who want to see a general attack on the 3,000 Muslim soldiers in the military, because they are Muslim.  There are those who want an attack on the blacks because they are black.  The election of a black president has aggravated the racial animosities and has brought us to another confrontation with prejudice.  It is one of the battles that Gen. Casey and his command have to confront in addition to those with enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 Islamic radicalism has to be investigated for any role it might have in actions taken by Nidal Malik Hasan.  Whether it conspired with him or inspired him must be assessed.  But we have loud and persistent "Christian" voices  that dwell on the same notions of persecution and vengeance, and they seem to want a revival of the Crusades.   We have those who presume to speak for Christianity who seem unaware that there is a New Testament.

 Thank God, Gen. Casey is in charge of how to handle what happened at Ft. Hood. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

When people go up in flames

The Democratic e-mail list serves in South Dakota were aflame over the weekend because of Rep. Herseth Sandlin's announced no-vote on the House health care bill. Many people are puzzled by her vote on that issue along with others in which she has sided with the opposition.  What transpires when the Senate takes its vote and health care bills go through the potential reconciliation process will determine the future of Democratic politics in the state.  

The House bill is a movement toward correcting injustices in the health care system.   It tries to relieve to some degree the harsh fact that if people aren't well off or otherwise advantaged, they can't afford health care and won't get it. The Democrats at least have acknowledged the problem as a moral issue.  The Republicans avoid it and dismiss it.  When they proffered their alternative,  the Congressional Budget Office pointed out that it would decrease the number of people who possessed affordable health care insurance rather than address the need. Rep. Grayson said that the Republican solution to health care for the needy was for them to "die quickly."

He reflected what has been said in Congressional debates, at the tea party protests, and on the blogs.  The rhetoric of the conservatives last week revealed a great malaise in the country.  But what is worse is that it misdirected attention away from the real problems, and presented another menacing problem.  That menacing problem is the deliberate misinformation and misrepresentation about what the health care bills contain.  While two Democratic governorships were lost last week, the most significant aspect of the week's proceedings was in the level of malevolence, scurrility, and dishonesty that has gained possession of the vocal chords of the Republican Party. The prospect of a resurgence of the GOP is like the prospect of an intensified H1N1 pandemic.  The country needs to innoculate itself against a serious threat to the national mental health.  The flaming on the South Dakota Democratic listserve shows how the internet is a disease vector more than it is an information source.

The exchanges over the weekend failed to focus on the real issues of health care.  That is because the media, old and new, are in the business of serving the baser appetites of an audience fed on conflict and sensation.  The media coverage and discussion has avoided the essential issue:  should people who are sick or injured expect treatment if they do not have the money or resources to pay for it?

And the ability to pay as a criterion for who receives health care puts medicine in the role of a capitalist enterprise, not a humane endeavor.  Congress has accepted that role.  Health care reform deals almost totally with the insurance business as it supports the profit making aspect of medicine.  While the bill passed by the House and the one formulated by the Senate ostensibly address the question of who should receive health care,  their focus has been on the money makers, not the patients. 

There will never be anything more than a slight and passing reform of health care as long as it operates as a corporate business. It is about making money, not treating the sick and injured.  They are considered only in so far as a profit can be made from them.

One of the arguments mounted by the Republicans is that health care reform is merely a scheme to grow big government.  They say reform violates the Constitution and will deprive them of their freedom.  They insist that government bureaucracies are not competent to administer health care, but corporations are.

After the corporate performance of Enron, Midcom, and all the Wall Street and mortgage entities and the American automobile companies, they can say that private enterprise is more able to deliver health care?  What they really are saying is that they want the freedom to be enslaved to corporate fleecing schemes and to be denied and limited in their health care by corporate bureaucracies rather than government ones.

It is realistic to be wary of government bureaucracies.  We should not be forgetful of what the IRS became by the mid-1990s while it performed as an agency of a police state.  The difference between corporate agencies of oppression and denial and those of the government is that we have the right to register our complaints and dissatisfaction with our representatives and have them do something about government bureaucracies when misperform and get out of hand.  Corporations, under our current system of regulation, have no responsibility to the  people they make their money from.  

A television ad being mounted by a conservative group is based upon the shortages in the delivery of swine flu vaccine.  It asks if the government can't administer the vaccination program, how can it be expected to competently deliver health care?  The ad, of course, misrepresents the fact that the problems with vaccine production lies with the pharmaceutical corporations that make it.  The government's role was in deciding how an inadequate supply should be distributed until production catches up with demand.  Again, the significance here is how a political faction uses the media to propagate an accusatory falsehood.  The news arms of the media did nothing to counter the lie.  The media has largely abandoned its fact-digging role in favor of fanning controversies in the belief that conflict is what builds their audiences.  

The public option in health care is an attempt to shift the emphasis in health care from how much money can be made to treating patients.  No one is saying that health care workers should not be rewarded for their work--and handsomely.  The reform deals with the insurance companies, the HMOs, and the corporate schemes devised to milk and fleece the public, not provide it medical services.

The prospects for turning medicine into a science-based humane service are still bleak.  As the Senate takes up health care reform, the same old falsehoods will be raised in the name of rhetoric, and the needs of patients will be diminished as an annoyance.  The best prospect for those who do not have health care insurance and cannot afford it is if you get sick or injured,  ;die quickly. That is how you can best serve the interests of corporate purpose.  Of course, you could also move to another country where you might be regarded as something other than a nuisance. 

There is a political faction that does not wish you well.  The media informs you of that with almost every word.  And as the flaming on the Democratic listserves indicate, people are more interested in participating in abuse than in feeding the hungry and healing the sick. 


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Let us sit down and dither together.

It is better to dither than to blither.  The world and particularly U.S. politics would be better off if much of the blither had not been expressed.  There is nothing wrong with thinking long and hard about a decision to be made.  There is much wrong with not thinking at all or thinking defectively and just letting fly.

The progressive pundits are all over Dick Cheney for accusing President Obama of dithering.  Well, blither is what blithering idiots do, just as bull frogs croak and coyotes howl.   Eight years ago when Cheney and his pack started blithering about weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda conspiracies in Iraq, many people recognized it was all a blither and a blather.  Evidence, or should we say the lack of it, was mounting that there probably were no weapons of mass destruction secreted away in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein was not playing footsie with Osama bin Laden.   But the people who doubted the evidence cited by Bush and Cheney were so afraid of being called unpatriotic and soft on  terrorism that they muted their concerns with feeble murmurs and feckless protests.  When Tom Daschle said he was disappointed in the rush into war on Iraq,  remember the blizzard of outraged blither he inspired from the blathering brotherhood of railroading warmongers?  

Some courageous dithering might have saved some shreds of decency to cling to.  It might have prevented the loss of  4675 lives in Iraq that we now blithely dismiss and bury under avalanches of blither, such as dismissing our collective responsibility for these needless and wasteful deaths by praising their dutifulness and valor.  That praise does not relieve us of being responsible for sending those vital young people to needless deaths.

Some people tried to dither when the matters of torture and prisons came up, but the blither won out.  And there is much dithering over Cheney's role in exposing Valerie Plame.  Obama is well advised to dither a bit more about sending more troops to Afghanistan but stop the dithering over holding the right people responsible for America's descent into blithering hell.

And we dither over tea-party dementia and town hall  hate fests and the right to protest the costs of health care while we let the blithering idiots ignore the fact that we have spent $967  billion on our current wars--$697 billion on Iraq and $230 billion on Afghanistan.  (Some estimates on the cost of the wars run as high as $3 trillion.)We let the padded cell candidates scream and whine that some people who they prefer to let die might get health care and keeping them alive and healthy is a luxury we can't afford.  Congress seems to think it is time to stop the dither and end that blither.  

Cheney is by no means the only person who thinks Obama is dithering.  Many of the   people who elected him wish he would stop being so considerate of the people who did not elect him.  There comes a time when dither becomes blither and being too considerate has the aspect of screwing the pooch on the White House lawn.  As Bill Maher put it:

If  Obama had really charged in there riding the forceful energy of the historic election, there really could have been an historic "first hundred days". Instead of what happened, which is the Obamas got a dog.

The blithering idjits, aka GOP, have a strategy.  If only they could deny those who do not have or cannot afford health care long enough, attrition will set in and many of those who support Obama will die off and give the blithering party a chance to gain power again.   

There is a time to look at the problems we face in serious and thoughtful ways, but when all that is produced as alternatives is blithering idiocy rather than substantive suggestions, it is time to dither no longer and do something constructive and decent for the country.  Quickly, please.  We want no more useless deaths and not another $1 trillion spent on unjustified and mindless war.  Make the dithering count.  *

Sunday, November 1, 2009

What brought down the Berlin Wall?

Some Americans like to think that Ronald Reagan bellowed out "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall!" and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.  The Berlin wall came down because it was built on a faulty foundation in the first place.

This week marks the 20th year since the Wall fell and Soviet communism came to an end.  At least for a time.  In a ceremony attended by Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, and George H.W. Bush,  Bush commented that the impetus that brought the wall down did not come from the politicians; it came from the people.  

Professor Gerard DeGroot of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland reviews three books in the Washington Post that give perspectives on why communism failed and what brought down the wall. His major point is that the simplistic explanations for the fall of communism tend to be wrong because they do not acknowledge the complicated factors that ended the Soviet reign over much of Europe.  Essentially, the problem was bad government.  He warns that free elections do not necessarily bring good government.

Many people celebrate that fall 20 years ago as the end of the Cold War.  Few acknowledge that the Cold War itself is what ended the Cold War.  The weapons of the Cold War eventually won out.

I was in Germany at the height of the Cold War.  Our radars tracked aircraft flying patrols along the East German border and our missiles were poised to shoot down any aircraft that ventured into NATO airspace, but to allow defecting pilots from the Soviet bloc to land at allied airbases and turn their aircraft over to the NATO forces.   It was a touchy game.

The isolated post on which I served had vacated the pre-fabricated barracks built after World War II and moved the troops into steel and concrete billets, but they left the pre-fabs standing as a place where military projects could take place in relative secrecy.  Some of those barracks served as debriefing stations for operatives who were sneaking in and out of East Germany.  I won't pretend to know everything they were up to, but they were carrying messages back and forth between East and West Germany to keep families and friends in touch with each other.  In 1959, the wall had not been built and the iron curtain had many holes.  People were escaping to West German constantly.  

 At the time, it was possible to visit West Berlin by getting on a train in West Germany with special papers and travel through East Germany under the vigilant eyes of agents to make sure no one from the west got off or talked to anyone before they reached West Berlin.  However, the real problem was East Germans finding ways to escape to the West, and that is why the Berlin Wall was built.  

What was motivating those defections?  Voice of America and the Armed Forces Radio Network were  broadcasting 24 hours a day, and the radio signals could not be successfully blocked  But it was not the propaganda that was effective.  It was the news reports,  the music, the overall reflections of a free lifestyle that people behind the Iron Curtain craved and envied.  It is often said that the most effective weapons during the Cold War were Levi jeans, rock and roll and jazz, Folgers coffee, and Coca Cola.  To people who had to wait in line for hours to buy bread, these commodities which were common goods in the West were wild luxuries behind the iron curtain.  Most importantly, they represented freedom and opportunity that cast an illuminating light on the repressive regimes behind the Iron Curtain.  

The restlessness of the people in East Germany and the other Soviet satellites exerted a pressure on the governments, and the answer was more oppression.  That's why the Berlin Wall was built and the Iron Curtain was welded shut.  But those measures only intensified the realization by the people that the regimes were incompetent, corrupt, and greedy, and the very existence of America and West fed that dissatisfaction and fueled the resolve to bring down those regimes.

Behind it all, however, was the stark realization that if one nuclear weapon was detonated as a hostile act, the planet was done for.  All aspirations, dreams, and hopes for a better life would end.  Arms reduction agreements were an important part of the transition from the Soviet bloc to independent states which more or less determined the kind of governments they wanted.  The incompetence and corruption did not go away; it was displaced into new forms and new threats.

Once again we are facing the nuclear threat, only this time from people for whom the total destruction of the planet is not a deterrent.  To them a gamma ray is a fast ride to Allah and the 70 virgins or whatever they think paradise is.  As the bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan show, total, indiscriminate destruction is a goal to achieve, not a demise to be avoided.  During the Cold War, the oppressed people were longing for the life represented by America.  During the Islamic jihads, oppressed people long to exterminate America.  

While the nuclear threat is what kept the Cold War cold, and eliminating that threat became a pathway to peace and the end of the oppressive regimes of the Soviet bloc, no such pathway exists with the nuclear threat we presently face.  

And our own country is locked in the prosecutions of petty malice and political obstruction.  The vision that once could perceive the realities of war seems to have vanished with the Berlin Wall.  

There is most likely gamma rays in our future.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States