Category Archives: comment

National Archive Gets Trumped

As you know I don’t usually report on other reporters. Nor do I link to material behind paywalls, although I support the use of paywalls to enable reporters to make a living. But there is a story justifiably blazing through the cloud that touches on many of the topics I hold dear and deserves a shout-out.

My tip of the hat goes to Joe Heim of the Washington Post and his story, “National Archives exhibit blurs images critical of President Trump.” Tweet National Archives TrumpedHeim, in a Twitter post after the story went viral, said his story was in part due to “chance.” I’ll respectfully disagree. Heim was visiting the National Archive when he noticed something that had nothing to do with his reporting assignment. That’s not chance. That’s good reporting. I’ve often told journalism students the best story ideas come from their own observations. A good reporter always keeps eyes open.

What Heim saw was a large color photograph showing the Women’s March in Washington on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Heim noticed the wording on several of the placards the marchers carried was blurred, and wondered why.

He tracked down the original photograph, and saw that the large version had been altered. In some cases wording critical of Trump was obscured. For example, one sign reading, “God Hates Trump” was blurred so that only “God Hates” was readable. That change probably offended an even larger audience and the change certainly defamed the placard carrier. Other changes blurred wording that contained words of a sexual nature, or which refereed to female anatomy. One that read, “This Pussy Grabs Back” had the word “Pussy” obscured.

The National Archives, created to collect and preserve the records of the United States government and the custodian of the nation’s most treasured documents, including originals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, confirmed that the photograph had been deliberately edited by agency managers and museum staff.

How does something like this happen? I figured there had to be some Trump political appointee in charge, ready to censor anything that put Trump in a bad light. But no. The archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, participated in the discussion regarding the exhibit and supported the decision to edit the photo. Ferriero is 74, a professional librarian, and was appointed to his office by President Barack Obama in 2009.

Heim asked the archives for a comment and reported:

“As a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy,” Archives spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman said in an emailed statement. “Our mission is to safeguard and provide access to the nation’s most important federal records, and our exhibits are one way in which we connect the American people to those records. Modifying the image was an attempt on our part to keep the focus on the records.”

—– Washington Post

Yeah, sure. The Archives has now, to its credit, apologized, removed the altered photo, and promised to replace it with the original image.

So here’s the thing.  We have become so frightened of retribution from political opponents that otherwise intelligent, reasonable and fair people are afraid to speak up and call out those who challenge the very foundations of this nation. In America, we do not censor, we do not lie, we do not make up “fake news,” an oxymoron if ever I have heard one.

If you pull out your hair trying to understand how our nation has reached the state of extreme polarization we now find ourselves in, I suggest you start by looking in the mirror. Whether you are the Archivist of the United States or someone just arguing with a family member over the dinner table, the choice to defend the truth is up to you. You can’t wait for some talking bobble-head on cable television to tell you what to think.

There was a character on the television program NCIS who often quoted from movie scripts to make a point. I should have copyrighted the idea because I was doing that long before Anthony DiNozzo was created by Donald Bellisario and Michael Weatherly. I used to drive my teachers crazy.

There’s this great speech toward the end of the film, The American President, written by Aaron Sorkin. President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas,  has been ignoring all kinds of abuse and personal attack from a political rival, Senator Bob Rumson, believing it is beneath his office to respond to the taunts. Finally, as he seems to be losing both his legislative program and the woman he loves, he boils over:

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours….”

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.

—–Aaron Sorkin, The American President (1995)

Truth is truth and facts are facts. We can’t be afraid to stand up and fight for them.

#####

Issac Asimov at 100

I must have been eight years old. My Uncle Alan, my Dad’s older brother, had already established his expertise at “uncling” by introducing me to the Museum of Science and Industry buying me my first model train set, a Lionel Steamer, and showing me where he stashed his bottomless supply of Hershey chocolate bars.

Now he was to open up my world another notch by leading me to his stack of science fiction. The 25¢ pulp magazines of short stories, and the 50¢ paperbacks. On the top of the paperback stack was I Robot by Isaac Asimov. Right then and there began my decades long love for science fiction.

Before we go further into the writings of Isaac Asimov, who would have been one hundred years old today, let me make a few admissions. Yes, Asimov was far from the most poetic of writers, his prose was simple and direct, very matter of fact. He avoided the romantic, and for the most part anything involving human to human relationships. He rarely placed a female character in a key role, although robotics expert Dr. Susan Calvin is a unifying character throughout the series of short stories that make up I Robot.

But it is easy to put those criticisms aside. For what Asimov did for my eight year old self, and I’m sure for millions of other faithful readers over the years, is open up completely new worlds blending science fact with speculative fiction. He may not have invented the SciFi genre, but he was most certainly a founding father.

Asimov’s worlds were not simply far off locations or future settings here on earth. Asimov went beyond Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon,  H.G. Well’s The Time Machine and War of the Worlds and Karel Capek, who first applied the word “robot” to artificial beings in his play R.U.R. Asimov described entire galaxies where complex societies were so detailed you could see them in your mind’s eye. Which is exactly what great fiction does.

It was Asimov who set forth the operating manual for how artificial intelligence might co-exit with humans with his “Three Laws of Robotics.”

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

—-Asimov, “Runaround,” 1942

An author could have made a career just exploring the implications of those three laws. But the hundreds of stories and dozens of books in Asimov’s robots series was but a small portion of his output, which on his death in 1992 numbered more than 500 books. Along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, he set a standard for modern science fiction, a genre that was, at the time, considered suspect.

Asimov did not stop there. He wrote mysteries and fantasies. And beyond that, hundreds of works of non-fiction. When I met Asimov in 1990, and of course gushed over his science fiction work, he told me that he most wanted to be remembered as a “great explainer.” His works popularizing knowledge ranged over topics from “The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science” to “Asimov’s Guide to the Bible,” “Lecherous Limericks” to “The Sensuous Dirty Old Man.” Again, before you say it, yes he did have a reputation for trying to live up to that last title, His actions were inappropriate in 1990 and would not be acceptable today.

My experience with Asimov was a result of a public television special I produced for the Nightly Business Report, “Business in the 21st Century.” Ours was a daily broadcast of stock market data and news and we did these special thematic programs for days the markets were closed. Our regular broadcast often ended with a commentary from an economist or analyst and I though Asimov would be great in that spot on our special.

I got him on the phone and I confess he didn’t see my point but agreed to meet me for lunch so I could make my pitch. Once I got him to stop flirting with my production assistant I explained that his trilogy known as the Galactic Empire Series made a prescient forecast of a future world and the role of business within.

Asimov’s future galaxy was held together by intergalactic trade. Barter is employed since fiat currency comes and goes but the rules of exchange are both simple and constant. Asimov described “Merchant Princes” who captain the ships, make the deals and move the cargo, enforcing the standards of contract paramount to success and, not so incidentally, keeping the peace. It’s not easy to carry on essential trade when you are at war.

Asimov warmed to my idea and, naturally, turned in 90 seconds of commentary on this future world. Instead of the usual studio setting we shot, in honor of our guest, at the Hayden Planetarium’s Space Theater in front of a star field projection. My bosses liked the work. I was trilled to have met one of my heroes. And yes, I did have the PA on the crew. I hope Asimov had a good time.

 

#####

 

 

 

The Whistle Blows for Trump

I won’t even try to fight it, as I did in my last blog. Now the whistleblower’s complaint has been released and so was a summary memo describing the telephone conversation Donald Trump had with the President of Ukraine.

Please, I beg you. READ the complaint and the telephone call memo. Make up your own mind. Beware the pundits and the spinners. Even me. It remains both inexplicable and frustrating to me that two people can look at the same material and come to different conclusions. But that’s life. What I can’t abide is people voicing an opinion without having read the material. Each document is only a handful of pages long. Make the effort.

Read more

Why is it so hard?

I think I’ve figured out why it is so hard to get these blogs written. I have a routine. I’ll have an idea, spend half a day thinking about it and doing any necessary research. Then I’ll spend the afternoon writing. Then I sleep on it and the next morning, edit it with fresh eyes and look for a visual or two to insert. Easy, right?

The problem is I keep writing about Donald Trump. He dominates the news and my thoughts. I simply can’t believe what he says. I can’t believe what he does or tries to do. I can’t believe how many people passively remain quiet or openly support his actions. So I write. But overnight, he does something worse. Day in and day out. Now, come the morning, I’m faced with the dilemma, finish the piece from the day before, or drop everything to tackle the latest horror? I’m frozen in the headlights of Trump.

Read more

Parliament: At Least Debate

One of the more esoteric debates in academia for those studying politics is the contrast between the American form of government, with a strong executive and an elected legislature wielding equal power, with the democratic parliamentary system in which the elected legislature is the ultimate power, the head of state subservient to it and the executive chosen by it. In other words, America v. England.

I frequently got into this debate with my father, a true Anglophile, and we never resolved the issue. The compare and contrast form of discussion was, in many way, ironic because of the historical circumstances. England had a strong executive at the time of the American revolution. King George III reigned at that time, had considerable real power compared with today’s Queen Elizabeth II, and was for Americans the perfect example of a leader to be avoided.

Read more

Again With the Guns

I have now learned that a great way to increase the amount of public participation on your blog is to talk about guns. The feedback on my last post set a record.

I have also learned that having a reasonable debate on this subject is pretty much impossible. There is so much disinformation out there that people involved in the discussion seem to be speaking different languages.

Part of the problem is that there really is, as I noted in the last post, not a lot of good data on the effects of gun ownership and gun regulation. I know that sounds crazy and I have to tell you, as one who believes in making informed data driven judgments it is very frustrating. But it is true mostly because the government, which funds much of the academic research in the United States, has for years forbidden the organizations responsible for public health and safety to fund studies into the causes of death by gunfire. That leaves us arguing, for example, on the effectiveness of the assault weapons ban which expired in 2004. 

Read more

Medicare for All: The Possible Dream

Oh, “The Impossible Dream”. How were we to know that David Brooks, a true compassionate conservative torn asunder by the Trump led takeover of the Republican agenda, is a Luddite at heart?

New York Times columnist Brooks is one of my favorite writers. I never miss a column. And I never miss his Friday joint appearances with liberal syndicated writer Mark Shields on the PBS NewsHour. Brooks usually writes from a unique perspective, but his recent effort branding Medicare for All “The Impossible Dream” seems to have been written from the Twilight Zone.

The Blank Slate

“If America were a Blank Slate,” Brooks writes, “Medicare for all would be a plausible policy, but we are not a blank slate.” The problem, Brooks goes on to explain in detail, is that Medicare for all would require vast segments of America to “transition”, and that would, according to Brooks, be unacceptably disruptive.

The devil is in the details and in truth, as Brooks admits, we don’t know just what Medicare for all means or how we would plan to get there. He tends to cherry pick the proposals to focus on the most disruptive versions. But there is nothing in the history of this great nation to suggest that we will be unable to face whatever challenges the endeavor might raise.

Read more

« Older Entries