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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

Friday, August 30, 2013

Syria seriously

The controversy over what to do, if anything, about Syria and the deaths of non-combative civilians, whether by poisonous gas or not,  points up the failures of America and its press. The coverage emphasizes the deadly dysfunction into which the U.S. has fallen. 

For the press in the U.S., the story is Obama and what he plans to do about Syria.   At best, the press glosses over the actual circumstances that Obama and anyone else confronted with the problem must face and what the considerations are.  

The press is predominantly interested in providing space for the Obama-haters and opponents.  It feeds on the controversy in its quest for readers, assuming that American readers are driven by their dislike or like of Obama.  But regarding Syria, Obama is not the story.  The deaths of innocent, vulnerable people is the story.  

The vote of the British Parliament against participating in any military action on Syria was for the press merely an occasion to run out and get lots of quotes on what Obama might do, not to examine what other countries might do and what is possible to be done.  Its mission is to inflame the feelings people have about Obama in the hopes of capturing an audience excited to vent its opinions on him.  Almost ignored in the coverage of the British vote is that the U.N. inspectors on site in Syria have not issued their report, and how the conclusions drawn in that report might change the factual basis on which decisions about Syria are made.  

There are precedents to be considered.  In that regard the Nazis and the Holocaust are relevant.  In regard to political discussions, Godwin's Law is a popular dodge. It posits that “if you mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis within a discussion thread, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.”  However, Godwin was referring to the mindless accusations in political discussions, not thoughtful examination of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust is the predominant moral touchstone regarding the oppression and extermination of human beings.  When those acts are encountered, the Holocaust will inevitably be used as a moral gauge.  As one military observer expressed it in post World War II Germany,  when the Nazis marched the Jews down the road to the cattle cars that would take them to the death camps,  did the people think they were being taken to a Sunday School picnic?  The remark was made in regard to the evasion and denial of the German people about what was being done to the Jews.  

That is a question that must be raised in regard to Syria.  After 9-11, the U.S. invaded Iraq on the premise that it possessed weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to be true.  And it invaded Afghanistan because that is where Al Qaida trained the 9-11 attackers and the mass-murder squads it prepared for other attacks against western culture.  Syria is known to possess nerve gas and it is apparent that someone used it on the Syrian people.  The salient fact is that Syria possesses the weapon and its people are being exterminated and driven out of their homeland.  So, do we have any moral obligation to do something about it?  Or do we dismiss these deaths and oppressions as none of our business?

Another precedent is Kosovo.  We felt a moral obligation to stop the ethnic cleansing--read mass murder--taking place there.  

The situation in Syria is more complicated.  Some of the rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime are Al Qaida adherents, and they are not exactly driven by any moral fervor to stop the killing and oppression.  Rather, they tend to want to be the privileged killers and oppressors, as the Taliban are in Afghanistan.

The west faces a problem with the Islamic-oriented factions.  There is absolutely no moral common ground between the Islamists and west on which any dialogue can be exchanged.  

The person who speaks most knowledgeably about the precedents is retired Gen. Wesley Clark, and the only major medium to consult with him on the circumstances is National Public Radio, which American conservatives have targeted for extermination.  He commanded the NATO forces during the Kosovo campaign. 

We know that any actions involving ground troops would embroil us with the rebels as well as the Assad regime.  There is the danger that if we bombed the Assad weapons caches, the poisons could be released and spread over that part of the world.  Possibly, surgical strikes against communications systems, radars, and some weaponry might slow down the killing of the innocents.  But that is all conjecture and possibility.

We can ignore what is happening to the Syrians, and then try to live with it through denial and evasion.  The Syrians can go to that massive Sunday school picnic in the sky.  So can we, as we relinquish what moral high ground we ever claimed. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

No country for old journalists

The resignation of Kevin Woster and Mary Carrigan from the Rapid City Journal has caused a buzz in the South Dakota Internet social media. (I have spent the last month on duties in other parts of the world and have been able to read but not write much.)  The loss of journalists of their caliber further weakens the possibility of democracy in a state which reserves the privileges of that form of government for those who need groups of people to malign and suppress.

Journalism in the U.S. is in a state of flux, as the established print media are losing advertisers and audience to the Internet and cable news media. The Woster-Carrigan resignations occurred in a context of puzzled expectation nationally as Jeff Bezos, the founder and leader of, purchases one of the icons of American journalism, the Washington Post. The Post has been struggling financially for some years, and has floundered journalistically as it has tried to compete with the electronic media. It hasn’t done well, and journalists wonder if Bezos will make authentic journalism possible in some way or will further transform the news organization into a marketing device.

For months the Koch brothers have shown an interest in acquiring the Chicago Tribune media chain, but last week their spokesperson announced that their interest was withdrawn.  However, they are eying other media opportunities.  

Journalistic doldrums are not new to South Dakota. In the mid-1980s when the first mustering of computer networks was attempted, a bunch of professors on the northern plains put together a Northwest Database. One of its features was a journalism review which was largely contributed to and edited by working journalists. Their consensus was that South Dakota, along with five or six other states, had the worst press in the nation. The consensus was that news selection and editorial emphasis was guided by politics, not any interest in providing readers and viewers complete information about their state.

The recent resignations caused a flurry of blog commentary and speculations about journalism in South Dakota. There was the usual call for bloggers to assume the role of journalists. A large but minority group of people recognize the need for news media which tends to the reporting of facts rather the scurrilous exchanges which the larger audience prefers to hard news.  Sometimes journalistic need can shape the media.

I think of two occasions which spawned impressive journalistic alternatives. The late Sen. Paul Powell when he was a young journalist realized that downstate Illinois was as corrupt as Chicago, but the major newspapers focused almost entirely on Chicago stories. He purchased and coordinated a number of weeklies, consolidated their printing shops to reduce expenses, and ran stories which exposed the corruption, resulted in some reforms, and earned a bunch of awards for his newspapers.

In South Dakota, when SD Public Radio in the early 1980s decided to intensify its news coverage, it hired Mike Marek away from KKAA in Aberdeen. Mike produced an hour-long news show at noon for SDPR that covered state news, but also included stories contributed by radio reporters throughout the state on county and small town government and events. In journalistic circles, it was considered a genuine achievement in providing an accurate daily summary of anything of significance going on in the state. The problem was that the general public was not particularly interested in such extensive reporting. The trend was drifting toward the chatter and bickering that makes up cable, radio, and Internet news for the most part now.

The legacy media has not only been hurt by the Internet and the Great Recession; the nature of the news audience has changed. The emphasis in education as evidenced by the mass testing madness and curriculum revision has resulted in a growing population whose literacy extends only to the rudimentary acts of reading and writing required for low-paying jobs.  Or possibly high-paying jobs if an employee displays a sufficient thralldom to the people paying him or her.  There is a declining number of people who recognize or care for writing that is denotatively precise and accurate and connotatively inclusive and informing. Consequently, there is not a consumer base for skillfully presented news that can sustain a news medium devoted to reporting. 

 In fact, there is a growing audience that resents and resists actual news reporting. A few nights ago I happened on a conservative religious radio station in Illinois for which one of my uncles provided the land upon which it was built. A man was ranting that all news personnel were trained in liberal institutions and, therefore, presented news with a liberal slant.  The accusations that universities teach and news media report from a liberal slant is one of the dearly held fallacies of the right wing.  It is part of the mindset that denies science and any other human endeavor that involves facts.  The academic and journalistic professions stem from the liberal fundamental of investigating and testing matters of fact and of speaking freely in the process.  

The conservative charge of liberal bias is largely based upon the fact that the conservative dogma is not being preached, not that there is a definable liberal policy that is being presented.  Editorials aside, genuine journalism and scholarship are not generated by any political ideology.  Real journalists and academics are merely practicing the disciplines of their professions.  

Kevin Woster has provided a shrewd insight into what ails newspapers.  

The sheer insanity and anti-intellectualism that issues from the conservative movement today evidences the motive that drives the movement.  There are no William Buckleys in today's right wing to elevate the political conversation above the idle and uninformed chatter of the tavern.

There are a few blogs which deal scrupulously with facts in presenting their opinions.  But most blogs shape the facts to fit their opinions and motives, which are too often born of malice.  

Blogging is not journalism. In its decade or so of history, it has demonstrated that overwhelmingly to the be the case.  

An aspect that public opinion researchers are just beginning to confront is that when news organizations invited comments on the stories they published,  the public trust and credibility suffered immensely.  At one time a commentary by a member of the general public had to be earned by integrity, an earnest interest in accuracy and fairness, and by sound writing.

Under the current curriculum emphasis being imposed on our public schools,  no one is being trained to fufill those standards. 

When news organizations in Chicago laid off many reporters,  some of them participated in a news blog just to keep in practice of their profession.  Real journalism may well become a non-paying avocation.  What that means for the country is portentous.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States