Politics & Public Policy

Ted Cruz misses the point, while never missing an opportunity for political stunt

You may have heard about the Texas salon owner who recently defied the State’s shutdown restrictions and opened her salon. She was arrested and brought before a Judge who referred to her actions as “selfish.” Shelly Luther explained to the Judge, who threatened her with imprisonment, that she was merely trying to put food on the table for her family by operating her business. She claimed she didn’t want to be perceived as a political martyr.

But that’s what Senator Ted Cruz created in Luther, when he alerted the media and tweeted about his trip to her Salon a la Mode today. Masked up and surrounded by Luther’s staff – all themselves in masks – Cruz sat cloaked in her stylist’s chair and got spritzed with a water bottle to make his salt-and-pepper hair amenable to scissors.

Cruz was trying to make a political point, of course – that people should defy the law and get back to work. A slick Harvard Law-educated lawyer and politician, Cruz wraps his incitement in words that speak to anecdotally Libertarian minds – “patriotism, liberty,” you know the buzzwords.

Earlier in the day, Senator Cruz had taken to Twitter to poke fun at the notion the Federal Government should pay Americans upwards of $2,000 a month until the country can safely return to some semblance of commerce and normalcy. His disdain for the idea seemingly was at odds with his prior support for the stimulus monies already approved by Congress – the $1,200 per person in exchange for a 2021 tax credit Americans would’ve gotten.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin infamously said the $1,200 payments should help families stay afloat for several months. Mnunchin has a pattern of out-of-touch and tone-deaf comments and actions. Who could forget his notorious trip to Ft. Knox, his taxpayer-funded romantic excursion with his wife to view an eclipse, and that now iconic photo of the couple practically jizzing all over a freshly printed sheet of currency?

I tweeted back to Cruz, asking if he was being prematurely dismissive of this idea. How many months could the Federal Government afford to pay Americans simply by rolling back a fraction of the bloated defense budget? Why are we always so quick to prop up businesses that don’t bank some of their profits for rainy days? Why are we so quick to condemn people and States and Cities for lacking the same rainy-day funds?

Isn’t a pandemic — already sinking the nation into Recession, and by some economists’ accounts, leading to a likely Depression – the perfect time to rethink our nation’s priorities?

I felt great empathy for Shelly Luther when she pleaded with the Judge, expressing that she was trying to make ends meet and had no choice but to defy the stay-at-home orders. I imagine she’s in the company of hundreds of millions of Americans facing the same dilemma. The unemployment numbers today are staggering.

Ian Bremmer offered this perspective on social media:

“Largest ever one-month job loss on record was 2 million (in 1945). 20.5 million jobs lost this past month.”

That is not a hole we’ll climb out of with a hasty reopening of business that have somehow endured.

But what struck me about the Senator’s stunt today and other politicians? They are being disingenuous about framing this dilemma as a two-pronged debate: Feed your family or not.

Or, Liberty versus Tyranny.

Cruz entirely missed the “elephant” in the dilemma – COVID-19.

I’ll use a personal experience to illustrate why it’s disingenuous to suggest this is a binary choice.

Without going into detail here, let’s just say that back in the late 1990s, I had a traumatic experience at a hair salon. That, combined with the fact that I never really had $75+ every month or so to get a ‘do done right, caused me to become pretty good at cutting my own hair for two decades. When I had brain surgery and patches of my hair fell out and I had to wear soft-knitted hats and scarves for two seasons, I became even less concerned with vanity and how my hair presented itself.

But just before pandemic descended upon us, my husband encouraged me to go to a salon. I suppose he’d grown tired of me complaining, “I can’t do anything with this mop,” as I brushed and ironed and inevitably piled the mess into a ponytail every day. I decided to take him up on the suggestion, and I made an appointment at a salon one town over.

I had to laugh when I went in for my first appointment with the stylist who was kind enough to work me in on a busy Saturday. The place was hopping, mostly with women in the 70s-and-up category – blue-haired beauties getting their “sets” and buying their curls. Definitively middle-aged, I was the youngest patron in the place. Debbie introduced herself and took me to get a wash, which felt heavenly. I showed her some hairstyles on my phone, and she got right to work.

As is the custom at beauty salons, Debbie was the chatty sort, and we talked about this and that. We really hit a conversational stride when we spoke about what it’s like to be a caregiver of an elderly parent. I told her the still-raw story of my father-in-law who’d passed away the prior spring, and how difficult it was to find resources and services – let alone pay for them – for our aging or infirm loved ones.

Debbie told me that she was the primary caregiver for her mother – elderly and in the throes of dementia. They shared a two-bedroom apartment nearby in town. Though her mother required full-time care, Debbie admitted that she wasn’t able to provide it for her mother, because the salary and tips she made doing hair – the only thing she knew how to do, she said – was barely enough to keep food on the table and that rented apartment’s roof over their heads.

Debbie herself had no healthcare coverage, but was grateful that her mother was able to see doctors, courtesy of Medicare. There was no possibility to have in-facility care nor in-home care. Medicare and Medicaid alone would condemn her mother in a facility that no one’s mother should have to endure. Trust me. I’ve seen them.

Instead, Debbie had to rely on the generosity of dear friends to stay with her mother while she worked or went out to run errands. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done anything social. There were no dinners out with friends, no trips to the theater, and forget about leisure travel. She’d resolved that she’d never live out her dream to see Europe.

I thought about Debbie who has likely been out of work since shortly after cutting my hair – beautifully, I might add. She’s quite talented. I wondered how she and her mother must be getting by. I wondered if they were still able to cover the rent or if they had food on the table. I wondered what would happen if her mother’s dementia might require full-time nursing care and what that decision would look like in a time of pandemic, when more than 10,000 of our loved ones have died in nursing homes across the country.

I thought about Debbie and her mother, in context to Shelly Luther in Texas, and that binary choice that Ted Cruz was championing.

If it had been so easy – to work or not – I’m confident that Debbie would’ve been at that stylist’s chair, cutting old ladies’ locks and standing on her feet for 10-hour shifts, only to go home to bathe and feed her mother, to try to get her to sleep, when sleep eluded her.

I’m certain Debbie would’ve gone right on doing what she’d been doing for years. But now, Debbie would’ve also had to take into consideration this deadly virus, and whether it would kill her and her aged mother if she brought it home with her at the end of the impossibly long day.

To Ted Cruz and other politicians who make this seem like a simple choice, maybe try sitting in Debbie’s chair next time and listen to her risk-benefit analysis – when the risk is the death of your family.

 

 

 

 

 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The White House Task Force Briefings Should No Longer Be Televised

Since the creation of the White House task force, and the President’s naming of his Vice President, Mike Pence, as its mealymouthed leader, there has been a steady drumbeat from media critics who think the Press should tune out.

They’ve argued that the President has done more harm than good by holding these nearly daily on-camera events. I wholeheartedly disagreed, primarily because he’s the President, and without a functioning Press Secretary – the new one refuses to work with us, like her predecessor – these are precious opportunities to carry the President’s messages to the American people, allowing them to judge for themselves the content, and to question him, challenge him, and speak truth to power, as is our role and responsibility.

I have held that belief for all these exhausting weeks, even when the President missed every opportunity to express genuine, sincere empathy for those who are sick, the tens of thousands who have died horrific deaths, or to their families who are forced to grieve in silence, alone.

I believed we had to cover the briefings even when it became clear that the President’s posturing would always be to deflect criticism, to shirk responsibility, and to pick petty fights with Governors who have been desperate for information, gear, equipment and financial aid – desperate to try to save their constituents lives.

I felt we should still cover the briefings even when the President would openly question his own appointees to the task force – infectious-disease experts who come equipped with data and analyses that he flippantly disregards in real time.

Even when critics cried, “He’s using these as substitute campaign rallies,” I still felt we have to cover them. To ignore them would be irresponsible and a dereliction of our duty, right?

I, along with so many of my colleagues in news, have cringed when he’s used the precious time to admonish journalists, especially women reporters, accusing anyone who asks a pointed, legitimate question of being “fake news” or worse. The tough-guy act feels like a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it’s textbook Orwellian; if you can convince people not to believe anything, they won’t believe the truth about you. The other purpose, I believe, is to create audio and video clips for conservative media outlets to run, showing the President “fighting back” – macho and chest thumping.

I suppose with some people who are firmly planted in the President’s corner, no matter his egregious unforced errors, it works to get their blood boiling, their anger stoked. It juices up the base.

A hard-boiled German who’s been around, even I welled up the day the President boasted about how great the ratings were for his briefings, as New York City and other communities across the nation zipped up hundreds of body bags in that single day. The lack of empathy was shocking, gutting really. It made me question if we’ll live through this – as individuals and as a nation.

Admittedly, as the time has passed, I have questioned the approach of the Press sitting before him. I believed that if they could simply target their questions to the experts and keep them keenly focused on the public health and safety information Americans need to know, that it would somehow keep these briefings from veering off course.

I suggested to broadcasters that they factor in a longer delay so that they could digitally filter out anything that was overtly false or potentially harmful to the viewing public. None of that has worked.

The President went on to use the briefings to recklessly promote a drug that hadn’t been rigorously tested through clinical trials as a treatment for COVID-19 infection. Despite warnings across the globe that its use was linked to heart failure and stroke in these cases, he continued to promote it. Lupus patients suddenly couldn’t get their prescriptions filled for the drug, putting their very lives at risk while the President continued to promote it. We later learned that he has a financial stake in the pharmaceutical company that makes it.

Donald J. Trump also used taxpayer dollars to produce a campaign video, which he shamelessly played during one notorious briefing, perking up the ears of watchdog agencies. He’s defied social/physical distance rules established by the White House Correspondents Association, designed to keep the Press and the President himself safe from infection during these daily meetings. He’s repeatedly invited pet network OANN into the room in defiance of these very rules, allowing its “reporters” to pitch him softball, seemingly planned and scripted questions designed to stroke the President’s ego and disparage political opponents. It’s right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.

I have been hyperaware of the lack of real leadership on display here. A leader, even in cases of notable accomplishments and success, reflects back and thinks: “How could we have done even better?” There’s no introspection by the President of the United States. He is incapable of it.

And still – even with all this in our wake – I was of the mind that the Press had to broadcast and cover these briefings, because he’s the President of the United States, and it is our duty to shine lights on him whenever we have access, and especially when we don’t.

But that’s all changed for me now. I have come around to the position the critics have taken – that we should no longer broadcast these briefings in real time. My professional opinion changed when the President used last weeks’ time before the American people to encourage the protesters who have taken the streets – some dressed as if they’re going to war, some sporting swastika and other antisemitic symbols, others with Confederate flags – to defy the very orders his own task force established. For weeks, the President, the Vice President, the doctors, and other members of the Administration have stood before us preaching the importance of following the guidelines and reading from lists of things that the President said we should all be grateful for – Federally supplied personal protection equipment, respirators, financial aid, military vessels and personnel, field hospitals, short-lived testing sites, and more.

Now, the President and the Vice President are lauding the protesters, empathizing with their “cabin fever,” and refusing to admonish their reckless disregard for the health and safety of not just “the others” – their fellow American citizens – but their own health and that of their own families. It overtly demonstrates that the President and the Vice President have not taken their roles seriously, that they haven’t even bought into the guidelines they’ve established, and that they do not care how many Americans will die as a result of their politicking.

There’s a Willie Nelson song that goes, “Turn out the lights; the party’s over. They say that all good things must end.” The White House Task Force briefings had the potential to do some really good things – to inform the public, to help keep us all safe. They haven’t risen to the occasion.

Legitimate news organizations should shut off the lights and remove the cameras from the briefing room. Send in your reporters, but cover the briefings straight, giving no room for the President to make an on-camera mockery out of them and us.

The public-servant doctors on the task force should take a different approach, too. It’s time to “go rogue” and speak directly to the American people without the President’s political filter. It’s long overdue. Our nation is depending on you.

News & Publishing

The Future of Journalism May Live On Through Family-Owned Newspapers

By Gretchen A. Peck

The stories are familiar now. A longtime newspaper family decides to sell off their publications to a larger public corporation (which then slashes costs and lays off employees), or worse, a longtime newspaper family decides to shut down their 100-year-old paper after losing money for so many years.

But that’s not the story for all families that own newspapers. E&P spoke to a few of these privately held companies that are still going strong to discuss their challenges and their successes, and most importantly, how they plan to sustain their family legacy.

Read more at Editor & Publisher.

 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Chris Matthews signs off

Though his political career began long before his first TV appearance, Chris Matthews built his media celebrity on being loud, brash and in-your-face. It’s why the show synonymous with his brand of interviewing got the name Hardball, after all.

It is true that Matthews is passionate about politics and other facets of the human condition. His nightly closings were often insightful, eloquent, poetic, even statesmanlike. At times, his zeal and impatience got the best of him, and he’d veer off course from demanding, probing questioning and into the realm of barking or impeding a guest’s response. In fairness to Matthews, that harsh prosecutorial side of his on-air personality was often inspired by maddening Q&As with pols trying to dodge him. He was too quick to dodge. While his interview subject was still formulating spin on one question, he was already crafting two and three questions ahead in his mind. They were always poised on the tip of his tongue, ready to fire at the person in his hotseat.

Matthews now ends his run at MSNBC, shutting down the show entirely, because he could not withstand the increased scrutiny and the calls for his ousting. Viewers and social media chatterers were angry with Matthews for any number of offenses. He admittedly complimented women colleagues and guests on their physical appearances and attributes. He sometimes spoke in the awkward sexual innuendo language of his generation. He failed to take notice that time had moved on, and language and behavioral expectations had evolved. He failed to see that his remarks and actions may be harmful.

Recently, he came off as dismissive and condescending to Elizabeth Warren during an interview. People took issue with that, citing misogyny.

Matthews has been accused of racist proclivities, which frankly I haven’t witnessed firsthand. I have seen the recent unfortunate viral clip of Matthews mistaking the images of two African-American politicians from South Carolina – one a Republican, the other a Democrat.

I cringed. There was no other possible reaction.

He is, without question, a socially awkward old(ish) white dude. I think he’d freely admit that, and acknowledge that he has volumes to learn about women, minorities, and people who enjoy other cultures.

But Matthews wasn’t cringe-inspiring all the time. In fact, he could be quite informative, jovial, a blue-collar pundit of sorts. He could demonstrate great compassion for the poor, the disenfranchised, the average man and woman, anyone getting screwed over by a politician, the government, or some big institution.

It seemed to me that his Philly accent sort of hinted at who he really is.

My father-in-law used to enjoy Hardball every night at 7pm. He appreciated the array of guests, the quick-fire questioning, and that Matthews didn’t let anyone off the hook, no matter their status in life, nor their Party affiliation. “He can smell bullshit a mile away,” my father-in-law used to say.

Sadly, Matthews didn’t intellectually evolve fast enough to discern today’s mores of workplace and commonplace interactions. He was also at the mercy of live television, where even the most eloquent orators can fumble and offend. I can’t begin to imagine the catalog of stupidity I’d speak if I was on live TV every night for decades.

Wouldn’t have lasted a week.

I imagine Matthews is pining tonight for his heyday as a political speechwriter and policy wonk, when there was time to carefully consider every word choice before committing them to paper that someone else would read. I fear he leaves behind a cable-news void, and that those hardball questions he once crafted with the skill of a seasoned prosecutor — or a nimble journalist — will no longer be asked at all.

 

News & Publishing

Data continues to bulldoze through media advertising hurdles

By Gretchen A. Peck

For news organizations, selling advertising has become a notoriously complicated endeavor as media companies, tech businesses, and platforms compete for a share of the revenue. Though there is still a remarkable amount of money spent on advertising in the U.S.—billions in digital display and programmatic ads last year alone—the competition for ad dollars among print, digital and broadcast media is fast, fierce and sometimes unforgiving. …

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine

 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

On the Bias: Puritanical Headline Outrage and considering sources

By Gretchen A. Peck

Criticism of the Press is sometimes warranted. Let’s begin this observation about news with that fundamental agreement. Bias is “a thing” – inherent in language’s DNA, in every single word choice – and it is the publisher’s, editor’s and journalist’s job to choose: Manage bias, or give it free rein?

There’s a niche phenomenon in news criticism that feels fledgling this year: Puritanical headline outrage, I’ll call it.

While it has been the legacy of newspapers to incorporate quotations into headlines, today’s arm-chair news critics declare war with titles over quotations or paraphrases without context – for example, when The New York Times ran this outrage-stoking headline: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.”

In fact, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, the President gave a statement in which he did just that. Of course, anyone who hasn’t lived the hermit life for the past three decades of Trump – the man and the brand – knows that this message is counter to what the President has “advocated for” in the past and present.

A segment of readers seethed over the headline, suggesting that it was biased, and that it provided the President with a megaphone to perpetuate a disingenuous message, by way of the big-font top-of-the-fold headline. Even members of the media said that headline – on top of other such grievances with the newspaper – inspired them to cancel their subscriptions and call for others to do the same.

Today’s (self-appointed) Headline Editors, working from their homes and phone displays, expect news publishers to give broad context in headlines, to tell the full story to readers, in order to remove any ambiguity about the content from the outset.

Could The New York Times’ headline writer have chosen any number of other headline options with 30 characters or fewer?

Certainly.

But when nearing the witching hour of an on-press deadline, sometimes we choose what is expeditious and relevant. Sometimes the moment – the horror of a mass shooting, arguably – calls for an aspirational approach, the common denominator, the sliver of hope, a message that transcends the politics and the politician.

Critics decried that this particular headline was by design, that it was an editorial choice to somehow show favoritism to the President of the United States. This is a theory fundamentally at odds with the very mission of news people and newspapers.

I have to believe that some of this “headline outrage” has more to do with the way people read and process information they read online today. We are a nation of headline surfers. We’ve studied this data.

Today, we viscerally react to headlines and often comment about the content before ever reading beyond it. Naturally, readers who rely so heavily – even entirely – on headlines would want them to tell the whole story. It’s a lofty expectation fueled by illiterate laziness.

To its credit, The New York Times took the criticism to heart and even offered an explanation and apology to readers. It showed that the newspaper was listening, at least.

Let’s use this example – of a newspaper “managing” bias – in contrast to what occurred on FOX News on the morning of Friday, November 22, 2019.

For 53 minutes during a call-in to the live broadcast, the President of the United States led viewers on a rhetorical rollercoaster, a verbal tirade that included a litany of bullshit that would keep fact checkers tasked for the next two days to sort through. The New York TimesLinda Qiu did it, same day: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/us/politics/trump-fox-and-friends-fact-check.html

It is true that the FOX & Friends hosts tried to haplessly interject, but the President steamrolled, and the producers were AWOL.

But they had to see it coming at FOX News, right? This Tasmanian Devil of an interview couldn’t have taken anyone by surprise in the planning meetings or during the live broadcast. They had to expect that the President would behave in this manner. His rally riffs are notorious, and he has a pattern of doing this on past call-ins to the network.

Still, the producers – and to a certain extent those talking heads who had to endure it through gritted teeth and earnest expressions – collectively made an “editorial” decision to give bias “free reign.”

One of the foundational tenets of journalism: Consider your source.

 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

A rhetorical reflection as Impeachment descends over the Nation

Days like this call for sentences using “bloviating,” “preening,” and “grandstanding.”
 
Also, “obscuring,” “omitting,” and “lying.”
 
I am cognizant how words are received, digested, shared, and manipulated in digital space. They catch on and quickly become part of the news-cycle vernacular, thanks to personality and platform megaphones.
 
Some media colleague, or perhaps it was the White House, today bandied about the term “Soviet-style impeachment,” and now every other caller into C-SPAN’s “Republican call-line” references it, even though “Russian impeachment” is an oxymoron. Just ask Yeltsin.
 
That’s a poor joke, because Yeltsin is dead, and three attempts to impeach him failed. In fact, no Russian President was ever successfully impeached.
 
I know; shocking, right?
 
Putin probably has a lock on that, too.
 
So it’s a strange comparison that would seemingly be a happy ending for Trump loyalists, except it requires equating Trump to a Soviet dictator who “gets away with it.”
 
In writing about the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, Shakespearean and Biblical parallels are low-hanging fruit, yet effective, relatable to the highly literate and a 10th-grade English class alike.
 
It can be maddening trying to chronicle history when it comes at you fast. The past can feel like the only perspective and guidepost.19c2cdf5-5b31-4c59-a0f5-f44483bb57dc
 
Print news cycles, measured in days and weeks are now brutally, digitally compressed — into hours, minutes, seconds, and Tweet characters. There’s much less time to agonize over word choice. Still, we aim to tell the story with equal parts veracity and verve.
“IMPEACH” photo by G.A. Peck
News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Contemplating the remarkable life of Baltimore’s own Elijah Cummings

One of the phrases I read this morning seemed to perfectly encapsulate the man who wore so many hats for his family, community, and country.

“Unusual compassion.”

That is precisely how I’ll remember him–as a remarkably compassionate, empathetic and forgiving human being. It was his superhuman, superhero strength, and I’m certain, at times, it was his greatest vulnerability.

He was political rarity, especially in today’s gladiator arena that is DC–kind and earnest while also driven and resolved, the stuff of a righteous warrior. The loss is likely still too raw, too soon to fully appreciate how greatly he’ll be missed.

Rest in peace, Statesman.

Photo: The New York Times

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

The Story Behind the Photo

Impeach

I shot this photo in Washington, DC, on the occasion of the first Women’s March, the day after the inauguration of the 45th President, Donald J. Trump. Shortly before this was taken, I found myself in a sea of women flooding a metro station, politely and patiently ascending the escalator and staircase that spit them out closer to the Mall. The mood was upbeat, unified. They sang and cheered. They chanted. They poured into the streets and moved toward the Mall. The streets near the event stage were already packed—women, men, children, arm-in-arm shoulder-to-shoulder.

It was on that walk toward the Capitol that I took this photo. It was one of the few images from the day that I printed and framed. I’ve kept it on one of my desks. People who’ve come through my office may have thought it an endorsement of impeachment. I did not frame it for that reason, though even back then, I had an educated, odds-were-with-me expectation that a Trump Presidency would be disastrous and untoward. Anyone who watched him for 25+ years, as a unethical businessman and epic misogynist, knew it wouldn’t end well for the American people.

It seemed likely that his Presidential fuck-ups and conduct would be so monumental—unsuited to the job that he is—that impeachment might one day mire and divide the nation. And here we are.

Rather, I framed the photo because it felt particularly iconic for the day. It was more about the women marching than the man many were protesting.

The sign the woman crafted is a bubble-style mailing envelope, cut and splayed open. I know this because the night before the March, I’d followed the Maps app to a local office supplies store, where women had overrun the shop in search of poster board and Sharpies. Everyone in the store, it seemed, had traveled to DC with the hopes of locking down those creative supplies once in town. The store ran dry of sign-making stuff, necessitating the creative use of the large mailing envelopes for sign media. They started selling like wildfire. I even bought one. During the March, I wore mine sandwich-board style. It read: “1st Amendment Guardian” in plain black Sharpie.

The woman in my photo wrote IMPEACH on her splayed-open mailing envelope and walked with confidence toward Congress. Maybe she felt prophetic. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. And here we are.

News & Publishing

Watchdog journalism is worth it

investigation-702x336By Gretchen A. Peck

Investigative journalism is often the stuff of drama. Exposing corruption, abuse, inequality and crimes are inherently good, juicy stories—not to mention a core competency and duty for newspapers. It wouldn’t surprise anyone in news to hear that investigative journalism is not just popular among broadcast audiences, but with people who read newspapers in print and online. After all, investigative reporting helps people; it informs communities; it changes things; and thankfully, for the news organization, it brings in revenue.

Read more at Editor & Publisher magazine:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/feature/watchdog-journalism-bites-into-revenue/