May 17, 2009

There's been a lot of news coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq in recent weeks, and none of it has been good. Last weekend, a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan's Farah province killed scores of civilians. Predictably, Pentagon officials greeted this latest in a series of reports of civilian casualties with a flurry of denials and obfuscations.

Lapdogs that they are, the corporate media ran with the Pentagon spin. Taking their lead from military spokesmen, pundits and TV talking heads lamented the detrimental impact this latest atrocity might have on public opinion at home and abroad. As for civilian casualties, the chattering classes were uncharacteristically reticent. For the "inside the Beltway" crowd, the less said about the human costs of the air war in Afghanistan, the better.

May 3, 2009

This past week offered abject lessons in media responsibility. Addressing the outbreak of swine flu at his primetime press conference on Wednesday night, President Obama told reporters that the situation was "cause for deep concern, not panic." Sound advice, to be sure. Too bad the U.S. press corps didn't take heed. The media frenzy over this story is hard to ignore -- but you might live longer if you did just that.

It should go without saying that the press has the responsibility to relay critical health issues to the public in a timely and accurate fashion. But there's a fine line between responsible reporting and fear mongering -- and based on the wall-to-wall coverage this episode is receiving, a great many news outlets have crossed that line repeatedly.

And why not? After all, fear is a great motivator; like sex, fear sells. If you ignite fear in the body politic you are certain to keep audiences coming back for more, and that's good for business. The rolling cable news channels discovered this long ago. In recent years, they've turned fear mongering into an art form.

May 3, 2009

What has happened in the first hundred days of the new administration? What’s the record? It’s time to reflect and take stock.

In April, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report cautioning against a rising wave of militant right-wing activism. Fueled by racism invigorated by the presence of a black man in the White House, the DHS warned that the wave was likely to turn violent and the nation should brace for and prepare against acts of right-wing domestic terror.

Of course that such was possible, possibly even likely, wasn’t news to anyone who had turned on a television, or radio, or picked up a newspaper. On the milder side of the spectrum were simply calls for things like the secession of Texas, by that state’s Republican governor.

April 19, 2009

By now everyone knows the new Supreme Court tilts to the right. Bush’s nominees, Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts, lead a conservative five-justice bloc, where reproductive health rights have been cut back and the president’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives will keep getting very real public money. No surprises from the Old Men in Black there.

But what’s less known is the court’s new major function, which is acting as an institution of corporate power. Since Bush’s appointments, the court has begun hearing far more business cases, and in case after case has “pushed the law in a direction favored by business,” as the Wall Street Journal reports. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, America’s most powerful business lobby, took a position on 15 cases before the court in 2007, and its side won in all but two.

That makes sense, since Roberts previously represented and filed briefs on behalf of the Chamber and other prominent business organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers and other corporate clients. The Financial Times refers to Roberts and Alito as “pretty much the dream candidates of economic conservatism,” calling Justice Roberts himself “a white-shoe corporate lawyer” and noting “Justice Alito often sided with employers in his prior life as a judge.”

April 19, 2009

A hundred and forty-eight years ago this month, the southern states fired the first salvos of the Civil War. The rebels attacked Fort Sumter and for the next day pounded it relentlessly until the skeleton detachment of Union soldiers encamped within ran up the white flag of surrender.

Charleston's residents celebrated their first victory against the north the traditional southern way. They got drunk.

So began the war between the states. A bloody, pointless, fracas between one culture so debased that would fight and kill its fellow countrymen to preserve its entitlement to hold human chattel. Or it would die trying.

March 22, 2009

"Outrageous." That's the word on everyone's lips these days.

At a White House press conference last Wednesday, President Barack Obama told reporters "Obviously, the whole issue of AIG and these bonuses that have been paid out have been consuming a lot of attention ... But what I think is also important and just as outrageous is the fact that we find ourselves in a situation where we're having to clean up after AIG's mess."

Making the rounds on the television yak shows last week, Lawrence Summers, the director of the National Economic Council said, "There are a lot of terrible things that have happened in the last 18 months, but what's happened at AIG is the most outrageous."

March 8, 2009

Three cheers for C-SPAN. Were it not for the cable network's coverage, I would have missed out on the thoughtful, incisive conversations at the 10th annual State of the Black Union (SOBU) on Feb. 28 in Los Angeles.

C-SPAN was also on hand to cover the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington D.C. This three-day meeting wrapped up this past weekend as well. Thing is, I didn't have to be a cable subscriber -- or a news and public affairs geek, for that matter -- to hear about it.

CPAC received extensive coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Times, CNN, Fox and NPR. In contrast, the State of the Black Union barely got a mention in the mainstream press. I did manage to find a 593-word write up in the Metro section of The Los Angeles Times, but not much else.

February 22, 2009

So much for the afterglow. Scarcely a month has gone by since Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, and all that talk about the progress we've made and the need for national unity in the face of adversity seems like ancient history.

When Obama made history on that frigid day in January, there was a palpable sense of possibility and promise. Now, it seems, any prospect for consensus, collaboration and bipartisan leadership is gone with the wind.

Partisan politics reasserted itself within days of the inauguration. The talk of the town in Washington turned on a dime from self-congratulation and genuine social progress to the "business as usual" brinksmanship and political maneuvering that breeds gridlock and corruption.

February 8, 2009

In its front page report on former Senator Tom Daschle's decision to withdraw his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services, the New York Times observed: “It was the rockiest day yet for the new White House.” Most news outlets, including public radio and television, presented the story along similar lines.

Framing the story in terms of a public uproar over Daschle's unpaid taxes, and President Barack Obama’s subsequent admission that he “screwed up” his ethics reform initiative, is a great way to generate controversy and attract audiences.

But like so much that passes for vigorous reporting these days, this story generates more heat than light. Despite all the bluster, this latest episode exemplifies one of the fundamental problems with American journalism.

February 8, 2009

“Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” – George Bernard Shaw

That was the thought circulating in my mind as I thought about a young friend living, for the time being, with stage-four metastatic breast cancer.

Her doctor feels she needs to be on two “specialty” pharmaceuticals that enhance the efficacy of her chemotherapy. Only one little problem: the pills cost $6,000 a month, and her insurance won’t cover “specialty” drugs.

She applied to the pill’s manufacturers, both large pharmaceutical companies, one domestic, the other foreign, for financial assistance. Their answer? “You make too much money to qualify for assistance.”

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