Food, Travel, Culture, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Pandemic and Protest for the Impoverished

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I’ve spent the past week working on an article (cover story, July 2020 Editor & Publisher magazine), for which I’ve spoken to news editors around the country, to better understand how they’ve managed through months of pandemic – and now, during protests and civil unrest. It feels like crisis on top of crisis on top of crisis for news organizations already fiscally challenged, with newsrooms gutted.

It got me thinking about life here in northern Vermont, and how communities have managed through the protests and pandemic.

Last week, a group of students from an international boarding school in St. Johnsbury staged a protest, and maybe a hundred local residents came out to demonstrate their frustration with the disproportionate number of police shootings and killings at the expense of black families. The incident was not without its own strife. There were a few arrests of protesters who blocked the entrance to the local police station. One overzealous officer manhandled a tiny sprite of a woman, tossing her like a doll down the concrete stairs leading to the entrance.

By the next day, the small town had returned to its sleepy status. The protesters had been replaced by a small group of maybe a dozen “Blue Lives Matter” counter protesters, who planted themselves on the sidewalk in front of the station, hoping for honks from passing cars, in support of cops. It didn’t surprise me, this kind of support for the men and women in blue. Here, as in most small towns across the country, cops aren’t wooed from other towns; here, the officers live in the community. They know everyone, and everyone knows them. This kind of co-dependent relationship makes it untenable for the police to overreach their authority, and it makes citizens more respectful of the force made of their neighbors and family members.

Crime is, of course, a little different here. The local paper’s crime blotter this week reported a local man over in Burke who was arrested for pelting a woman with eggs after a night of, admittedly, excessive drinking.

Only about half of the residents you see milling about in towns, or driving to and from them, sport “PPE.” You won’t see many N95 masks. More often than not, they have the cloth kind that someone stitched by hand, or bandanas wrapped snug. I saw a man yesterday who was heading into a local pharmacy with a grimy, old white t-shirt haphazardly wrapped around his face and tied in the back. At least he was trying to be accountable to his community.

It’s not that the others are unaware of COVID-19. It’s not like they don’t take it seriously. The local health clinic always has a full parking lot, and the low-tech “website” for our town – a metal billboard at the end of our dirt road – reminds people of the risks and to socially distance themselves, as if that were even a choice.

It’s more likely that people here are simply nonplussed by it. There is a sense that, no matter what happens here, that life will go on, that poverty will endure.

I’ve been introduced to a number of residents who came here from Connecticut, where I still live full time. Each has a similar story – that they came north for a more idyllic perspective, an active lifestyle – snowmobiling, hunting, fishing – and to escape oppressive taxes. But what they found in northern Vermont is that life’s challenges simply take on a new form.

From the previous owner of my little cabin, I inherited some relationships with a couple of locals who help me maintain the land. The local town selectman is my plow guy. He maintains the town roads for a living, and plows out the driveways of his neighbors for $30 a visit. He automatically shows up anytime we get more than six inches.

I have a young man who comes to shovel paths around the house and to pull the snow off the metal roof when it piles up. His mother is the town clerk a few hollows away. We got to talking during his first visit, and he explained to me how much he loves it here, especially being able to navigate the region by snowmobile during the winter. It’s a practical, affordable and thrilling alternative to automobile transportation.

But he said that he may have to go back down south to Connecticut, after all, because there’s just no opportunity here, no work for him.

He spends his summers doing landscaping and mostly fighting off the dreaded black flies. We called upon him to mow a meadow, because it had gotten high from the spring rains and because we knew he could use the buck.

Back home, I’m used to landscapers showing up with a veritable fleet of vehicles, equipment and personnel. He showed up with a riding mower on in the back of his pickup, its blade and cover dangling precariously off the side of it. Rusted through, he had to hold onto it, guiding it across the grasses and adjusting the height by hand, courtesy of a string he’d tied to it.

It’s hard to invest in your business when jobs are scarce.

For so many Vermonters here, pandemic or not, the barn still needs a new roof they can’t afford; the tractor still needs repairs. The fields around the house need to be groomed, and the ruts in the road – caused by the freeze-and-thaw cycle of mud season – need to be smoothed out. Farm animals and pets still need feed, and rotted wood on the cabins needs to be replaced with whatever scraps of lumber can be found in the shed.

But there are also little pleasures. With spring comes picnics with the family. The woodstoves go cold, while charcoal grills fill the air with the seasonal scent of smoke. Kids run free and play outside, and when night comes – as was the custom in our home growing up – the parents bathe them of the grime and check their heads for ticks.

Joy feels smaller here. Expectations are managed. Passersby aren’t always inclined to smile, but they do wave and nod. Conversations are truncated and efficient. People don’t feel the need to be constantly entertained.

There are no fine dining experiences or nights at the theater to miss – let alone to protest until they “open up.” A date night might take of the form of a retired couple sitting on a front porch and sharing a bottle of wine, watching the occasional truck rumble by. No one is in a rush, after all.

Life is simple by design, by necessity, and by geography. They know the virus will come, and that there’s nothing to do but wait for it and to carry on.

Photo: G.A. Peck, 2020

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The Roof, the Roof, the Roof Is On Fire

Unlike George Floyd, who literally choked out his last words …

“Don’t kill me.”

“Momma.”

“I can’t breathe.”

… I only figuratively choke on words to chronicle this moment in our nation’s history. I feel inadequate and inarticulate. Nothing I can put to paper is profound enough. What can I write that I haven’t said before, after each injustice I’ve paid witness to in my lifetime — this life of mine that tonight feels privileged and impossibly long?

What have I not already said about the racial disparities that plague our culture? How can I, an inept bystander really, somehow define and encapsulate the festering wounds of racism and our pathetic inability to destroy it, once and for all?

I think I choke on these words because it’s not my story to tell. I think on these matters, as a white person who knows that I can go about my days — somedays even myself breaking laws — without that omnipresent fear that others will inherently aim to target me, harass me, disparage me, or even kill me, I might be best to shut the fuck up and listen, or better yet, to act as a conduit, a megaphone for others who know these atrocities firsthand.

I need to do a better job at making sure those stories are told. That is my mission and vow.

I may be better equipped to speak about protests. A child of the 60s and 70s, I have been witness to Vietnam-era rebellions, Los Angeles, Ferguson, and all the modern-era injustices that have led people to the streets to speak to their rage, to show the world their anguish.

I have myself marched, when there seemed like no other way to break through. This is all too familiar to me.

Tragically, rather than acknowledging their numbers and hearing their cries – rather than listening to their plight and empathizing with their anger – too many in this country will look at anecdotal property destruction and discount these protesters’ voices, wholesale. They will criticize them, or worse, tsk-tsk them and just move on about their days.

I sat up all night again, watching live feeds of fires burning in businesses, a news network under siege, tear gas canisters flying, and I think back to a demonstration I took part in years ago. I found myself side-by-side with a perfectly mild-mannered and otherwise peaceful, law-abiding person, who was so caught up in the moment, so unable to tamp down his rage, that he screamed out, “Burn it all down!”

That’s what rage does to human beings. That’s what being unheard, for years, decades, centuries, does to us.

As the day breaks, American cities will awaken to carnage today. They will find their neighbors and friends nursing wounds, glass on the streets, fires still smoldering. Talking heads on TV and social-media commenters will ponder, “Why have they done this? What purpose does it serve?”

They don’t understand it, because they haven’t tried to understand it.

I think about erupting rage and wonder how this anger is any less valid than the grievances that inspired this nation to elect Donald J. Trump as our 45th President? So often I’ve heard from Trump voters who say they voted for him to “drain the swamp,” to “shake things up.”

What they really meant was, “Burn it all down.”

The thing is, when you have that level of power – as a member of Congress or as President – burning it down proves rather easy and clean. No muss, no fuss. You don’t need to take the streets. K Street comes to you. You meet in chambers at the Capitol and with pen strokes, you dismantle it. You exploit that rage that sent you there to undermine law enforcement, intelligence agencies, the very system of justice that governs our land. You quietly leverage the courts to take mere access to healthcare away from millions who desperately need it. You slickly undermine public education. You put a price tag on the environment and sell it to the highest bidder. You champion war criminals and demote military heroes. You strike down laws intended to protect workers and people from businesses that will harm them and make them sick. You enrich your friends and starve the rest.

You challenge long-established Constitutional laws, because you can, and because you feel it’s what you were elected and emboldened to do.

You see a plague coming and you shrug it off, knowing that it might kill millions, especially in the cities for which you have disdain, cities that didn’t vote for you.

You burn it all down while surrounding yourself with blue-suited middle-aged white men cheering you on, never getting any grime on your hands at all. It’s all disgustingly dignified.

But the People don’t have that power. They’ve got to get their hands dirty.

The People don’t have those commemorative Executive Order-signing pens. They only have the streets. They only have their rage. They have only year after year of screaming into a void. And, so, they want to burn it all down the only way they know how, until the powerful listen, until they command their attention, until the change they demand comes.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Telling the Story of the Weight of the World

There’s a saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and for good reason. Graphics can be a powerful representation, somehow distilling down what is otherwise complex and difficult to process.

This Sunday morning – on the eve of Memorial Day, when we honor our fallen – readers found The New York Times’ front page free of graphics. Yet, the image of 1,000 printed names, a mere fraction of the American lives stolen by a global pandemic, is shockingly graphic.

You may read about the Times’ editorial decision to publish this stark and poignant representation here.

As of this writing moment, an estimated 342,000 people around the world have perished from COVID-19-related illness. Here in the United States, where everything must be politicized nowadays, the figures are undermined. You’ll hear plenty of pundits trying to shirk government’s blame for its slow response, its dragging of feet when mitigation was critical.

They say things like, “If a person has a heart condition or is dying of old age and they contract the virus, are they really dying of COVID-19, or are they dying of those preexisting conditions?” Dr. Deborah Birx was asked to address this at one of the maddening press briefings. She clarified that, in cases of this kind, it is the virus that’s the acute cause of death.

This is not a controversial medical opinion. If a patient is hospitalized for an injury or illness, and while in the hospital contracts an infection and dies, it is the viral infection that kills the person, not the condition that put them there.

But there is good reason to question the figures, which are flawed and fluid, and may, in fact, be conservative estimates at this point. It is unknown how many Americans during these past few months have been sick and died in their residences, in their workplaces, or in the streets, who were never afforded a post-mortem test for COVID-19. The disease is so wildly unpredictable and adept at subterfuge, with symptoms ranging from fever and the obvious respiratory ailments to neurological and vascular breakdowns. Even younger people with no underlying conditions have died of heart failure and massive stroke.

We still have so much to learn and to understand about this virus – known to be exponentially more contagious than flu-like viruses that have proceeded it. We don’t really know how it so effectively spreads. We don’t know why those symptoms vary widely. We can’t even say with certainty that those who have contracted the virus and lived to see the other side of it cannot be re-infected.

This story is not yet written.

Because everything is so politicized and polarized in the nation today, it is not surprising that pundits have stoked the anti-media flames, accusing the Press of somehow manufacturing the story, of inflating it, and causing people to fear for their lives.

I’m of the opinion that a virus that potentially makes you so sick that you feel that you’re drowning – not for minutes, which is what it usually takes for a person to die by drowning – but hours, days, weeks, deserves a perfectly rational level of fear. But if that’s not enough to give all Americans pause, to consider the seriousness and solemnity, certainly the number of deaths should.

97,426.

Our culture relishes comparison.

Those trying to diminish the virus like to compare it to annual flu deaths. Various strains of flu virus are to blame for 24,000 to 62,000 American deaths each year, measured over the course of 12 months. Nearly 100,000 people have died from COVID-19 in fewer than four.

It is true that more than 600,000 people died from cancers in the U.S. last year. But can you imagine if we simply gave up the quest for answers and cures?

An estimated 58,200 American soldiers died fighting the Vietnam War, a gut-wrenching statistic that erupted the country in protest. Can you imagine if the Press never reported on it, or never published the Pentagon Papers?

Nearly 3,000 people were slain on 9/11. Our government used those dead as opportunity to invade two countries. Can you imagine if the Press merely shrugged it off? Can you imagine if politicians and their “fans” told grieving, frightened Americans to “just move along, nothing to see here?”

I’m in the midst of writing a 2,000-word piece for Editor & Publisher magazine about how news organizations are covering the pandemic, for which I’ve spoken to a number of news organizations – from large national newspapers and broadcast companies to small community and non-profit digital publications. It has flipped newsrooms upside down, shaking them like snow globes, with more stories than they can tell falling down all around them.

Every single story today is colored by COVID-19, because the effects are far-reaching and disturbingly influential: Economics, business, labor force and unemployment. Critical public health and safety. Long-term healthcare. Education and schools. Parenting and caretaking. The food chain and food banks. The supply chain. Personal interest stories, and on and on.

And the Press must cover all these angles. To ignore them is a dereliction of duty.

It more than pains me – it makes me irate – when I see and hear people suggest that the Press shouldn’t cover this virus, that we shouldn’t even tell the stories of the individuals who died – people who lived and loved and contributed to the society in some way.

How completely selfish and vulgar it is to look at Press coverage and find it to be inconvenient and uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit into a preconceived, politically crafted narrative.

It’s insensitive, to put it mildly, to suggest that we shouldn’t tell the stories about the aftermath for their families, of grieving from afar and then alone. It’s foolish to ignore the challenges and burdens it has placed upon us, not just on commerce and businesses, but literally on every single one of us – here and around the world.

Pandemic is profound.

I think of what yet has to be told, what will be written in the weeks, months, years, and decades to come.

This morning, I look at the image of that Times’ front page, and I feel the weight of it all.

That image – the picture of a thousand words. A thousand names x 100.

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News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The President’s “Keyboard Warriors” Take to the Streets

I saw this clip when the reporter first posted it — taken at some of sort of a rally. I can’t be sure whether it was a gathering just to celebrate the President or to make some sort of statement about the state of affairs on Long Island, within reach of the COVID-19 hotbed zone, New York City.

I’ve come to expect this kind of vitriol. It’s not new. Some years ago when I was dispatched to photograph a protest/counter-protest of Trump’s speech at the Coast Guard Academy commencement, I took some of this kind of flack myself from several individuals who walked alongside the protest marchers and screamed at the group. To me, they yelled “fake news” and some misogynistic nonsense that I shrugged off at the time. It’s gotten much worse in the years since, with reporters harassed, doxxed, physically assaulted, their gear ripped from their hands and destroyed.

The Constitutionally protected Free Press no longer feels very free. It feels like targets have been painted on their backs.

When this clip first published on Twitter, I had a couple of thoughts: First, note how brave the local TV reporter is as he walks through the frothy-mouthed crowd. See his calm as he navigates individuals/superspreaders yelling in his face and refusing to respect any physical distancing.

I thought, look at how they scream at him, even in front of their young, impressionable children. Look at how they seem to have lost their damned minds, becoming people I doubt they are in everyday situations. I bet they don’t behave like this at family reunions, nor at the workplace, nor in their neighborhoods, nor in their PTA meetings.

I was also hyperaware of the irony of this. Here, we have a reporter dispatched by the local Long Island TV station, to report on their event. Had he and others not been there, they would have been accused of ignoring their plights, blackballing their voices. How many times have you heard from the President’s most ardent supporters, “You won’t hear this on the mainstream media …”

And yet, this is about as MSM as you can get, the guy I bet everyone in the crowd knew by name and face, because he’s on their TV screens every weeknight. Local TV news is about as close to the community as you can get outside of a small-town paper. It’s not just “mainstream,” it’s “Main Street.”

Here he was to capture their moment, to take their story to the airwaves, to interview them and get their perspectives.

And what do they do? They threaten him, scold him, verbally shit all over the guy. They terrorize him.

I shared the clip on social media, and I blamed the President for this vitriol and hate. After all, it’s his words, verbatim, that they practically spit at the TV newsman. Listen carefully, and you can hear them parrot our President.

Turns out, I was right to put the blame at the President’s feet, because in the middle of the night — when the President should either be sleeping, meeting with his entourage at Camp David, or thinking long and hard about how to save lives in the throes of pandemic — the President shared this clip, too. Not once, but twice. That tells me he’s quite proud of these people, this behavior, and his ability to manipulate masses of his “keyboard warriors,” to the point that they have become something other than themselves.

Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

A Parable: Moose Hunts and Pandemic

Long before we found ourselves sequestered in the wilds of northern Vermont, I became concerned about moose. Though a friend who lives in Vermont describes them as “the dumbest animals to walk the earth,” I find them quite intriguing – their fortitude, their height and weight, their ability to adapt to harsh conditions, to navigate treacherous forest floors. I appreciate how the mothers care for their young, how they bed down in the snow, and I’m fascinated with how the males annually grow their awe-inspiring racks. The new antlers are covered with a soft velvet as they emerge in the spring, which the moose violently scrape during by September, rubbing them against trees until the bloody velvet falls to the ground, often taking a tree’s bark with it.

I’m intrigued by the annual rut – when hormones are on high – and how the males battle for territory. Men!

I eagerly await the first sound of a moose mating call and would likely squeal with glee if I ever stumble upon a cow and her new calf.

My husband’s coworker is stationed up in Maine. He’s a hearty sort, who spends time at a seasonal camp, hunts, and knows just about everything you need to know about living and surviving in the woods. He’s been a wellspring of information for us this year, as we learn to navigate the forest and coexist with the animals that have now ousted us from the top of our local food chain, as they say on survivalist shows.

A few years back, he bemoaned Maine’s tick problem and reported that the local moose population was being decimated by them. He said the moose up there are literally covered in ticks. Here, too.

I looked into this, and read an article about one account of a moose emerging from the forest with an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 ticks on it. I suppose math was involved in that estimation. I doubt they were picked off and counted, one by one.

Ticks are bad here, too. We have to take extra precautions – for us and for our dog – when we return from time spent outdoors.

The moose population in northern Vermont is reportedly not as plentiful as it once was. Locals here tell us that a decade ago you couldn’t drive around the region without spotting them, and that every landowner had at least one moose roaming the acreage. They were everywhere, and the signs along Vermont’s roads and highways are a testament to that bygone era. I see plenty of signs of moose out on the property – horseshoe-shaped hoof prints in the snow and mud, mounds of almond-shaped scat. But I have yet to spot one for myself. Those that remain in our forest are quite adept at keeping a low profile.

The decrease in the moose population concerned me, and even more so when I heard that Vermont was going to allow a rather generous number of moose-hunt licenses this year – 55 licenses are expected to harvest 33 moose this year.

You might wonder why a person would want to hunt a moose. It’s not for sustenance. Mounted bull moose heads do fetch a pretty penny. In St. Johnsbury, we discovered a place that specializes in all sorts of taxidermy – everything from full-standing bear to kitschy raccoons paired up and placed in little birch canoes, like they’re out for a paddle on a river.

Standing beneath a mounted moose head is humbling perspective, and well-done mounts can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But how many people have that kind of money, room, or the desire to have a moose mount on their living room walls? Is there a market for 33 of them of this year alone, I wondered?

It turns out that the reason for the hunt has nothing to do with big-game prizes, and everything to do with the tick population. If ticks can’t find a host, they move along to where they can. In theory, thinning out the moose also thins out the ticks.

As much as I don’t like the idea of gunning down a beautiful, regal, elusive beast – just out loping around in the forest, minding its own damn business – I can understand this countermeasure. If you think about it, it’s not unlike stay-at-home orders during the time of pandemic. The only way COVID-19 continues to thrive and perpetuate is if it finds readily available hosts.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not anxious to be a human-equivalent tick-covered moose, nor a dead moose. Things may be “opening up” around the country, as the idea of “herd immunity” and “culling the herd” – the sacrificing of vulnerable Americans* – seems to be gaining popularity, but I’m going to stay put for now.

How about you?

 

*Vulnerable Americans refers to both the elderly and people with pre-existing, co-morbid conditions. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 50 to 129 million NON-ELDERLY Americans have some form of pre-existing health condition.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

In the social stratosphere, questions are just as important as the answers

I lived in Pennsylvania at the dawn of the fracking boom, which ravaged the State in so many ways. I became interested in fracking because of personal experience with groundwater contamination back in my home state of Maryland – malfeasance that caused most of my family to be sick or to die of cancer. I learned about cancer clusters by being a member of one.

I anxiously watched what was happening in Pennsylvania, as gas-drilling leases were dangled before landowners and farmers as a way to sustain their properties when the local economy had fizzled. I noticed as landowners who’d leased reported obvious well contamination – hazardous materials that you could see and those that you couldn’t see. Pennsylvania’s waterways were suddenly contaminated with nasty things that were meant to stay deep in the ground and by chemicals used in the fracking process, which the industry wasn’t required to disclose to the public.

I chronicled how the gas companies made grandiose vows to communities about a commercial boom that would happen if only municipalities would welcome in their trucks and drills and legions of personnel, only to frack the town and then pack up and move along to the next dupes. I shook with rage as communities were terrorized by armed mercenaries for hire who’d shut down public roads and seal off private lands to prevent citizens from getting a closer look at drilling sites and well pads. I knowingly nodded when landowners who’d leased their properties began reporting that the gas companies were shirking them, using small-print loopholes so they didn’t have to pay landowners what they were rightfully owed.

Fracking wasn’t getting a lot of press coverage then, unless you counted some of the local small-town papers in the northern and western parts of the State, which seemingly were so enamored by the promise of commerce they missed the opportunity to protect their communities. Josh Fox’s Gasland helped ensure “fracking” became part of the public’s vernacular, in Pennsylvania and around the world.

Tom Corbett was Pennsylvania’s governor at the time, and to say he was pro-fracking would be understatement. He wasn’t just in the industry’s pockets, he banked his entire first term and a potential future term on the fracking economy.

I wasn’t on any kind of energy beat then, but I worked Corbett’s office as if I was, placing calls to the Governor’s office nearly daily, which he dodged. I attended every anti-fracking rally and protest I could – reporting on and photographing them. And I took to social media with what I found and the questions I had, including to Tom Corbett’s Facebook page, where I would plead with the Governor to address topics he clearly didn’t want to talk about.

I never name-called. I was never anything other than polite, but I did ask tough questions that I believed were critical to the public’s health and safety. I carved out at least a few minutes of my day to “touch base” with the Governor there.

I took a lot of heat from the gas-company reps who showed up there, too, and from laypeople who still believed that fracking would help Pennsylvania rise from its industrially ravaged ruins, like a fiscal phoenix. I received an onslaught of public and private threats, including on my life.

And one day, the Governor blocked me. Soon thereafter, he lost his bid for re-election. Pennsylvania installed a Democrat to the Office, who was still rather pro-fracking, but managed to straddle the middle by suggesting he’d tax the crap out of the gas companies while still allowing them to wreck the land and sicken the population.

I learned an important journalistic lesson during my time on Tom Corbett’s Facebook page: That sometimes it’s not the answer to our questions that matter; rather, that we have the tenacity to ask the questions.

Today, I often take to Twitter to question politicians and public officials, including the President of the United States, who has chosen Twitter as his bully pulpit. I model my questions there like I would if I were sitting in a Press briefing, or if I had the ear of the politician. With limited characters, I try my best to give context to the questions I ask, so they don’t come off as petty, biased or snarky, which is a common pitfall with truncated communications of this kind.

I do my best to be polite, but my questions are purposeful and pointed, and often formed because I’ve observed the politician being misleading, misinformed, or just unabashedly lying to the American people.

As you may expect, the barrage of clap-backs I get there are sometimes upsetting. Even though I haven’t attempted to be a verified “somebody” on Twitter, I – like so many other journalists, especially women journalists – get lots of attention in the form of harassment, getting doxxed, and threatened. I wish people weren’t so quick to condemn others just asking questions, but that’s the political, polarized nature of our world today. Even the most innocuous topics seem to inspire people to take to their corners and come out swinging.

Sometimes, it gets me down. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t take its toll on one’s psyche, but when it does, I remind myself: If someone took the time to comment, even with a visceral, nasty response, at least they’ve read the question. At least they now know there is a question, a dilemma, something to substantively debate.

At least that seed has been planted.

I’ve had fellow journalists question this approach. Some have reached out to me privately and asked, “Why do you bother? It’s not as if so-and-so is going to respond to your question on Twitter.”

I’ve explained that I have no delusions that when I tweet @ the President, for example, that he’ll respond or even notice – though if a comment trends, I suspect a lot of these politicians do take note. I explain that it was more important to put the question out there, to the benefit of the public. Twitter and other social media platforms tend to be echo chambers. Algorithms and personal settings make it far too easy for us to narrow the information that comes our way – usually, information that’s palatable to us, that supports our own established beliefs, rather than challenging them. A simple question posted to a politician’s feed breaks through that echo chamber.

Of course, tweeting at people – politicians or otherwise – doesn’t supplant traditional means of journalism. You still need to work your sources; you still need to dodge layers of blockers – press secretaries, comms pros, and PR folks – to get to them and to get them on record. None of that has changed.

Some days, Twitter feels as if it’s nothing but bots, pols, and journos swirling the drain together. But if the politicians and public officials are going to be there; if the bots and political operatives are going to be there, blasting misinformation and disinformation, we need to be there as well.

Checks and balances in the digital age. It’s our duty.

—————

 

 

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, 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, 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.