Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanks for the First Amendment

Let us give thanks for the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment is the foundation of the planet’s longest-lasting constitutional democracy. Within specific limits drawn over centuries, we can argue that the president is the spawn of Satan, worship toads, or publicly declare our support or condemnation of having sex with children.

The First Amendment protects the expression of ideas that might not sit all that well with the powers to be, whether governmental or as reflected in society. This once allowed a group of Nazis to march through Skokie, Ill, a largely Jewish community. It also allows anyone to advocate the violent overthrow of the government.

This virtually unbridled freedom is unique in the world. That it enables promulgation of ideas and words and pictures that almost anyone would find repugnant is a small price to pay for protection against the greatest tool of political repression: censorship of ideas. As has been made clear by centuries of experience, democracy cannot exist when people are denied the right to exchange ideas and openly argue their worth.

These principles are held so fundamental they are inculcated almost as soon a child can read and write. But they are ignored or even scoffed at by many sophisticated Western nations, our nation’s political and cultural allies.

This was clearly illustrated earlier this week when the British government warned news organizations they would be breaking the law if they publish details of a leaked document said to disclose President Bush wanted to bomb Arabic television station Al Jazeera. First published in the Daily Mirror newspaper, the document went on to say that Bush withdrew his idea only at the insistence of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

A former parliamentary aide and a civil servant were charged with a violation of Britain’s Official Secrets Acts, specifically a ``damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations.'' Thus, David Keogh and Leo O’Connor could go to prison for distributing a document that would do no more harm than cause embarrassment for the American president.

The Official Secrets Acts were first passed in 1911 so they are not a reaction to modern terrorism in an Internet age. They also allow the government to ban the news media from publishing stories the government deems not in its interests -- something called prior restraint, which cannot occur in the U.S. Great Britain has no written constitution, let alone a codified bill of rights. And one of its national legislative chambers is called the House of Lords, none of whose members are elected by the people they govern and have broad veto powers.

In the U.S., governments of both major political parties have sought to limit public scrutiny of their workings or their documents. But the First Amendment also allows citizens to seek redress in the courts and refer to that amendment as the reason they seek openness from those who govern them. Time and again the courts have ruled that the Constitution sets transparency as the default judgment in such cases.

Even when a political administration invokes the principle of “executive privilege” to keep private records of conversations such as those at issue in the UK case, it must justify its decision to a judge. And there is no law preventing an administration from releasing such documents.

At a time of year when we are supposed to reflect and give thanks for what enriches us, it is appropriate to be grateful for the fundamental freedoms given to us by the drafters of the First Amendment and to the elected officials who endorsed it. Without it the democracy we enjoy would not exist.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Email Stupidity

Washington super-lobbyist Michael Scanlon has pleaded guilty to charges he conspired to defraud Indian tribes of more than $19 million.

Why did he not take his case to trial? Probably because of a series of emails to partner Jack Abramoff in which he expressed boundless glee at pulling off his scam."I want all their money!!!" he declared in one. "Weeez gonna be rich!!!" read another.

Despite the number of big timers currently dressed in brightly colored prison jumpsuits because of a poor email decision, people continue to archive their felonious feelings as bits and bytes on some anonymous computer. Why?

First is hubris. Every one of them believes their scam is so impenetrable that there's no reason for discretion. Aren't they smarter than some $60,000-a-year FBI agent or assistant U.S. Attorney? The answer usually comes to them as a pistol-packing civil servant grabs their arm and guides them through a perp walk.

Sometimes they actually believe it's perfectly OK to bribe, steal and cheat so they don't care what they write. Many criminal defense attorneys prefer representing professional killers to working with white-collar crooks because they are tired of hearing: "Everybody does it. Why are they picking on me?"

A prosecutor once told me, "If it wasn't for snitches and the generally stupid behavior of crooks I'd be out of work." He might want to add 'email trails' to the list. Or is that part of the stupidity factor?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Desperate Tactics

Conservative Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., stood before microphones and, his voice choked with emotion, declared American troops should be withdrawn from Iraq “as soon as is practicable.” Literally moments after he stepped away, no fewer than 14 Republicans lined up to denounce not only Murtha’s position but his personal integrity.

Rep. Jean Smith, R-Ohio, the most junior member of Congress, said she received a telephone call from a Marine colonel after the speech. "He asked me to send Congress a message: stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: Only cowards cut and run, Marines never do,” she declared. The White House lashed out with an ad hominen attack on Murtha, labeling him a liberal who sympathized with the opinions of “Fahrenheit 9/11” filmmaker Michael Moore.

The Republican House leadership pushed forward a resolution deliberately and inaccurately labeled as Murtha’s, that called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from Iraq. It was resoundingly defeated.

Unfortunately for his rabid and thoughtless critics, Murtha, 73, spent 40 years in the Marine Corps and the corps’ reserve, fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars and was wounded in both, earning two Purple Heart medals and a Bronze Star. Since he was elected in 1973 he has been one of the U.S. Military’s staunchest supporters on the House Appropriations Committee.

The GOP reaction to this event is akin to the last-ditch tactic used by a military unit about to be annihilated by a superior force: throw all resources into an attack hoping the other side will be so confused it crumbles. A combat veteran, Murtha would recognize the tactic.

And, as a veteran leader in both war and poltics, he won't be confused and will continue to hold his ground.

Monday, November 07, 2005

California Election Predictions

1. Whoever loses tomorrow will claim the other side used sleazy tactics and misleading advertisements to gull the voters.

2. If the proposition stripping the legislature of its redistricting powers passes, lawsuits will fly claiming it violates who knows how many other parts of the State Constitution.

3. Most taxpayers will forget the election cost them more than $50 million which could have been better spent on other things they really wanted -- regardless of what they wanted.

4. Countless news publications will once again question whether the California is governable by any kind of system.

Cynical? No. Just experienced.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Unintelligent Design

For thousands of years native Hawaiians believed that volcanic eruptions were a sign that the goddess Pele was angry, the Norse people believed lightning was sent by a ticked off Thor and folks in myriad cultures around the globe figured that murdering a virgin would ensure a good harvest for the tribe. Their thinking was based on a simple question: "You got a better explanation, pal?"

Now comes the "intelligent design" crowd, who contend the absence of a rational, scientific explanation for everything in nature is evidence an intelligent being or spirit created and guides all life.

More artfully put than in ancient times, their argument still comes down to, "You got a better explanation, pal?" and makes about as much sense as eating the heart of your enemy to gain his courage.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Breasts, Prostates, and Money

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

This fiscal year, Congress budgeted about $485 million to research the cause and cure of prostate cancer, which is expected to kill 30,400 men.

Congress also allocated $850 million to research the cause and cure of breast cancer, of which an estimated 40,410 women will die.

That doesn't mean less money should be spent on breast cancer studies. But it does mean a whole lot more should be spent on prostate research.

Insuring Failure After Katrina

My home sits on the edge of a flood plain that hasn’t flooded in more than 40 years. My mortgage lender requires me to pay about $700 a year to insure my dwelling against flood damage. I don’t like having to fork over that money each year, but looking at it logically, I see the point.

New Orleans is located below sea level, below river level, and below lake level. It regularly suffers the ravages of tropical storms and hurricanes. Yet the majority of homes and business in the Big Easy never purchased flood insurance. In some Katrina-ravaged areas along the Gulf Coast, fewer than 10 percent of property owners thought it important. With different numbers attached, the same was true of property owners wiped out by the Midwest floods of 1993 and 2001.

Now, as then, thousands of angry people who volunteered to live in a flood zone but declined insurance are screaming for the government to bail them out, figuratively as well as literally.

Monday, August 08, 2005

More Religion in Schools

Kids today are denied a real chance to learn more about the world in which they live - a world that, because of air travel, the internet and immigration patterns is staring them in the face every time they look around their classrooms. To a large degree this is because anything involving religion is banned.

Religion, faith, belief – whatever label one cares to stick on it – shapes cultures (Islam v. the West.) It infuses politics (the Christian right in the U.S.) . It starts wars (the Crusades.) It sets the foundation of acceptable behavior in societies (the Ten commandments and Judeo/Christian ethics.) Understanding religions and their impact on world history deepens knowledge and helps people understand each other.

There is a wide gap between learning about religions and becoming religious. But too many people make the words synonymous. Reading the Q’ran to learn more about the basic tenets of the Muslim faith is no more likely to prompt a conversion than is reading the bible – either or both books. Jews who fled persecution and settled in the Ottoman Empire found a haven in the heart of Islam but didn’t necessarily embrace the religion espoused by almost everyone else they met on a daily basis. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew and spoke Aramaic. Today, most people named Jesus are Roman Catholic and speak Spanish.

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans the establishment of a state religion. But state religions exist all over the world, including in such democracies as Germany, the UK and Denmark. None of these countries block the study of the impact of religion on the world except the U.S., where some public schools go so far as to bar copies of the Declaration of Independence because it references God.

Public school students usually receive only the barest smattering of instruction on world religions before they enter college where even taxpayer-funded schools can offer courses and majors in comparative religion.

Denying younger students the opportunity to learn about the role of religion in life and history - both positive and negative - sets them back as they confront an increasingly mobile and multicultural society. If colleges and universities can teach about religion without trying to inculcate a particular creed, then surely public schools can, too.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Blather Over China and Oil

Some of the wackier types in Congress are all worked up about the Chinese government's oil company trying to purchase Unocal.

They claim the purchase will threaten national security by giving a foreign government (and a commie regime, to boot) an economic lever that, if pulled, could stun the U.S. economy and bring democracy to its knees.

Nonsense - as usual. Not only is Unocal petroleum production a drop in the barrel, Congress has already handed the Chinese government an economic weapon of far larger caliber.

Let's take Unocal off the table immediately. Its domestic production is about 58,000 barrels of oil a day. That's about 0.8 percent of overall production and about 0.3 percent of daily consumption. Because oil is a globally traded commodity, such a shortfall could be easily replaced. So, even if the Chinese government shipped every single ounce of Unocal crude off to Shanghai, U.S. highways would still be jammed with SUVs with fuel left over for the tanks and planes needed to repel a Chicom invasion.

Anyway, there is a much bigger threat at hand.

Each year Congress raises the ceiling on the overall national debt, which as of July 19 amounted to $7, 860,109,040, 549.45. In March of 2005, China owned about $224 billion of that - slightly more than the cost of Iraq war to this point. That's money owed in U.S. dollars to the same Chinese government being kicked around the halls of Congress at the moment.

Fast forward about a year. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo is still smarting from Congress' opposition to the Unocal deal. Then he discovers the nickname President Bush assigned him and it's even more offensive than "turdblossom," the monicker given to presidential adviser Carl Rove.

Wen throws a fit and starts an undeclared war - but leaves his soldiers in their barracks. Instead, he starts dumping his stash of U.S. government bonds on the market in great big chunks. Prices plunge and the Chinese government loses billions of dollars. But lots of other folks lose too because $3.3 trillion of U.S. debt is held by investors; state, local and foreign governments; and individuals.

Can we say global economic chaos? Yes, we can. And all because Congress turned over great power to a tiger and then twisted its tail over a trivial business deal.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Terror Dollars

Is the terrorist war on the West being run by MBAs?

Looking at terror in terms of business models and dollars - even if by reasonable estimates and guesswork - discloses that there are some pretty savvy bad boys out there. It's not just the people who finance terror, it's the folks who handle corporate strategy and day-to-day operations.

Neutralize the rhetoric and ideology, go up to 10,000 feet, and look at terror as an enterprise. What emerges from the smoke of the car bombs is a low-overhead, high return-on-investment operation that, by its very existence, forces competitors to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to stave off entry into their markets.

Talk about a New Economy.

Take the 2004 al-Qaida train bombing in Madrid. A few hundred thousand bucks to put the team in place, some stolen explosives, and all of a sudden there's a new government that quickly pulls its troops out of Iraq. Add to that the intangibles of global PR for the cause. The anti-war but studious New Priorities Project estimates the U.S. regime change action in Iraq will have cost taxpayers about $208 billion by the end of the year (

Any business will tell you that it's expensive to find new employees. The Department of Defense spends more than $ 4 billion a year keeping its uniformed ranks filled. The Army, though, fell 42 percent short of its recruiting goals in April, even with the offer of $20,000 signing bonuses. Given that the majority of the current crop of terrorists come from the ranks of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, and that the majority of them live in poverty, and that half of them are under age 25, al-Qaida and other groups need to offer little if anything to keep their units fully staffed.

Then there's customer service. The proposed budget for the Department of Homeland Security is $47.4 billion. That doesn't include all the other money spent on anti-terror stuff by the military, the CIA, the FBI, and virtually every other federal government department, all of which have security components in their spending plans. Be conservative, double the Homeland Security budget and total spending pushes $100 billion.

Do federal authorities stop potential attacks in the homeland all the time? Yes, they do. But, we're at 10,000 feet and looking at return on investment. At the cost of one car bomb and one dispensible fanatic, the U.S. government would spend tens of millions of dollars. on the investigation, congressional hearings, and new budgets to make sure "this won't happen again." Add in lost productivity as people turn their focus to the tragedy and figure who's making a profit.

If this war was played out in the world of high tech, Microsoft (the government) would find a way to purchase its small but innovative competitor (organized terror) and take it out of the marketplace. But in the world of global politics, terrorists don't want to sell - they want to become Microsoft.

Friday, May 13, 2005


There's been a lot of unwarranted self-righteousness among newspaper editors around the country in the wake of a Spokane Spokesman-Review investigation into allegations the mayor traded public benefits for sex with young men.

As part of its news gathering, the newspaper hired a private eye to dip into a gay online chatroom and seek confirmation of the mayor's screen name. To do this, the investigator posed as an 18-year-old and, well, chatted the mayor up.

Far too many editors around the country clucked at this technique, saying the Spokesman-Review was wrong to use subtrefuge to confirm information it already had. They claim strict adherence to the rule that reporters must always identify themselves.

Apparently these editors rose through the ranks without ever telling a lie or misleading someone to get a story. If they did, they undoubtedly gained all their experience writing for the Religion & Ethics pages.

"Hi chief, this is Bob Jones at the Times. I was just talking to the mayor about possible cutbacks in the police department. Can you confirm that at least 20 officers will be laid off?" Bob did talk to the mayor about possible cutbacks. But they mayor told Bob to buzz off.

Tom is at the bar of a restaurant popular with legislators. The senate majority leader - tanked - is standing next to him running his mouth to a lobbyist about his plan to kill the governor's tax reform plan. The next day Tom calls the senator, who denies any such plan exists. "But isn't that the information you gave (lobbyist's name here) last night?"

Reporter Ann never dates the powerful committee chairman but, then, she never really tells him she won't. Her pal Susan knows more about the Department of Water and Power than most of the people working there. But when she calls the supervising engineer seeking details on a controversial project, she acts like an airhead to wheedle the information out of him.

All of those reporters identified themselves, but all of them lied to the people they were talking to in one way or another. Such techniques are used every day by journalists - even at the papers run by people who talk a far better ethics game than they can play.

The Spokesman-Review didn't set out to probe the mayor's personal life. It wanted to test the credibility of sources who said the mayor misused his office in exchange for sex. By hiring someone more experienced in online investigations than its own reporters the newspaper demonstrated its commitment to fairness and accuracy. That's what really counts.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Parties Are Over

About three million Californians have rejected all political parties, registered as independent voters, and, in the arcane jargon of the government, morphed into “decline to states.”

They are the fastest-growing segment of voters and, because they can vote in primary elections, Democrats and Republicans chase them like a frat boy looking for Saturday night action. But when election time is over and the pols are sworn in, they are treated exactly the way said frat boy treats his date the next morning.

There is a way to fix that, though: make everyone an independent. Amend the state Constitution to declare that all elected offices are non-partisan. Erase the Ds and Rs and Gs from ballots. Individuals could still belong to political parties, they just couldn’t run as a representative of the party.

Think lots of positive results and much entertainment.

If every candidate is independent, more could run. The traditional parties could still put up their anointed and give them the money the need to breathe in and out. But, so could other organized groups or parties– big business, enviros, gun nuts and even (dare we speak the word?) moderates. Over time, people would dole out campaign contributions to people who represent their interests rather than holding heir noses and writing a check to the lesser of two evils.

This system would also change how government is run Instead of a single party deciding who gets which parking space, coalitions would rule. Fiscal conservatives would band together during budget deliberations, but the same individuals would join a different club on gun control issues. There might be party positions on issues, but when there’s a dozen or more of them roaming the halls, compromise would rule.

Does this smell like a parliamentary system? Not to fine-tuned noses. The U.S. Constitution bars apportioned representation based on such factors as party identity, ethnicity, religion or birthright (ref: the House of Lords in the U.K.) Individuals, not party leaders, would assume office. One-person-one vote and winner-take-all would finally mean something.

(Note to cynics: Yes, the two main parties would continue to rule for awhile. But if just a few real Decline to States get elected all hell would break loose. That’s when the entertainment would start.)

The biggest challenge is to get the right words on a statewide ballot. Maybe Arnold “Let the People Decide” Schwarzenegger could pull it off as a lovely parting gift in 2010.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Social Security Rescue

Why not impose the 6.20 percent individual Social Security tax on all earned income rather than merely the first $90,000?

The conservative Heritage Foundation notes that only about 10.4 million wage earners would be affected nationwide. The Foundation also calculates a total of $1.2 trillion would be raised over 10 years, thus extending the Social Security System's solvency by seven years.

That means about 5 percent of all U.S. workers would pay more taxes to forestall or eliminate Social Security benefits cuts, extend coverage to more people for a longer period of time, and all without increasing the tax burden on 95 percent of wage earners.

It's a no-brainer for the 95 percent. But the GOP won't bite because they say raising taxes on anyone for any reason is something akin to endorsing incest. Better, they say, to cut benefits. For a large portion of the 95 percent.

The two most powerful Republicans espousing this view are President Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Take a peek at their taxpayer-funded Golden Years plan.

Bush is already eligible for a $189,000 federal pension, an office, staff, postage, some travel, Secret Service protection, and a multi-million-dollar state funeral. Plus an endless stream of five-figure speaking engagements. Plus the book. Plus the movie rights, including final say over who plays him. (Mel Gibson, of course.)

Hastert's congressional pension would depend on a number of arcane factors, but the current average for ex-members with his level of tenure is about $50,000. Plus Social Security. Plus his pension as a former schoolteacher. Plus whatever he makes from speaking fees and product endorsements. (Hey, Bob Dole did it.) He's set.

And the 95 percent?

The typical American worker is a 40-year-old female earning about $22,000 a year. Should she give up waiting on tables at age 67, she would pull in about $11,196 a year at current Social Security rates. (Yeah, benefits are indexed for inflation, but that just keeps her even.) Bill Clinton spent nearly that much taxpayer money on postage last year.

Once everyone wades through the endless and fetid chatter on the issue, Social Security System changes will focus on politics. That means taking care of the constituency. And, for the Republicans, that clearly means the 5 percent, not the 95 percent.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Finger Food Finale?

Anna Ayala was arrested for allegedly faking the finger-in-the-chili incident at a San Jose Wendy's. Police said they grabbed her as soon as they discovered the finger showed no signs of having been simmered at 170 degrees, the Wendy's standard for chili.

As the late attorney Johnny Cochran might have said: "The finger wasn't cooked, so she was booked."

Monday, April 18, 2005

Jimmy vs. Arnold

California Democrats are giggling at the mere suggestion that Arnold’s popularity has taken a dive.

They need to get real.

Voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis to make it clear that the Democratically controlled state goverment was so out of step with what they want that it was square dancing at a hip hop club. To eliminate any possible confusion, they chose as Davis' successor a charismatic actor who promised to kick butt.

Now that Arnold's approval numbers have slipped below 50 percent, Demo leaders are drooling at the prosepct of a comeback. But their recent political group hug at the state convention masked the fact they have no real alternatives to charisma and slick messages. The best-kown among them is former Gov. Jerry Brown, who is looking to run again for a statewide office. But even though he's sleeping on a bed instead of the floor these days, his career peaked in the 1970s when Davis carried his briefcase as chief of staff.

Instead of recruiting candidates from geriatric wards, the Democrats need to fight glitz with glitz, Hollywood candidate with Hollywood candidate. No, not Rob Reiner – unless the debates consist of who's wearing the most expensive sweater.

There’s someone better.

He’s Hispanic and born to a working-class family. He holds two college degrees. He earned a U.S. passport at birth. He’s fought for the rights of minorities. He’s a solid family man. His wife is beautiful and has her own career. He starred in two major television series that gave him almost universal recognition. Women of all ages love him. He’s old enough (49) to deliver maturity but far younger than anyone in the state political spotlight.

His name is Jimmy Smits. Scandal-free, full of energy, and smart, Smits is the Demos’ man.

Smits is currently playing Rep. Matt Gonzalez, D-Texas, the charismatic underdog Democratic nominee for the presidency on the NBC show, “The West Wing.” That means the producers must decide if Gonzalez wins (and the series continues) or Republican Sen. Arnie Vinick (Alan Alda) takes over and the series gracefully eases into TV history. That can be handled, though, because the scripts for next season aren't finished.

What does Smits say? Who cares? Matt Gonzalez was ready to dump his political career and move back to Texas before he got dragooned into an ultra-long shot White House race. Maybe the California Dems can do the same kind of arm twisting on Smits himself.

Smits is defintely "signable" and his election is "doable." California voters chose The Terminator as governor and the polls show they're getting tired of his hyper-macho act. There's every reason to think the better looking, far more sensitive Det. Bobby Simone/Rep. Matt Gonzalez would be a viable replacement.

To make it happen, though, the Dems need to blow the dust out and say, as Arnie Vinick did in the West Wing season finale, "OK. Let's go out and win this thing." Either that or step aside and let the West Wing producers take over.

This post is also available at Blogger News Network.

Monday, April 04, 2005

High Tech Software Talk

They say: Enterprise Solution
They mean: We need to take over your company's computer and software systems to deliver any value.

They say: CRM
They mean: We have a searchable customer database just like everyone else.

They say: Integrated
They mean: We make nice with Oracle and SAP.

They say Scalable:
They mean: So is any other database worth a damn.

They say: Web-based
They mean: The earthquake hits, you're dead meat.

They say: World-class
They mean: Some geek in Ukraine bought our beta version.

Monday, March 21, 2005

What Would Congress Do ...

if confessed child murderer John Evander Couey had a massive stroke, lapsed into a vegetative state, and his family wanted to pull out his feeding tube?

Congress has already decided that it is comfortable making life-and-death choices for individuals and families. It's already concluded it doesn't require knowledge of such situations beyond what it sees on the news. And the Terry Schiavo memo from the GOP leadership outlined the potential political gain in such tragedies.

What would congress do? Probably pass a bill to keep Couey alive in the hope he'd recover enough to be executed.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Want to be a News Reporter?

Newly minted journalists face the most brutal competition in the history of the business.

There are fewer jobs, even at the smaller publications and broadcast stations where new journalists are expected to learn their craft. Even when they fight their way into a full-time job, rookies often find themselves on a self-education program because the pace is faster and there are fewer editors to teach and mentor.

Eventually, Judgment Day arrives and they are graded and evaluated. And some of the best don't make the cut. They may have demonstrated rapid growth and glow with potential. But they are sent away simply because they are terrible employees.

They show up late more often than on time. They dress inappropriately. They try to fake their way through a mid-week party hangover. They don't read the work schedule. They complain about having to work nights and weekends. They ask to take vacation they haven't earned. They leave editors idling next to their desk while they finish their personal phone calls. These are the same people whose mantras include, "I forgot," "I'm sorry, and "nobody told me to do that."

This kind of behavior is a regular topic among editors and senior reporters, many of whom are of the Baby Boom generation, supposedly the most indulged in history. An endless string of theories are offered, all true in part. Some believe that adolescence is lasting longer. Others argue that many young people possess an outsize sense of entitlement and believe their wants and needs are always supreme. A few suggest that journalism teachers don't offer enough tough love to prepare students for the real world.

Far too many young journalists treat the professional newsroom as an extension of their college experience. No editor should have to tell anyone that a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops are unacceptable attire when covering a funeral. (It happened.) No editor should have to answer the question "Why?" after telling a reporter it's important to arrive for work on time. (It happens all the time.) And the more a reporter needs such parental guidance, the less likely it is the reporter will have the opportunity to grow in their profession.

Consider the recent college grad whose first question during the job interview was "How's the surfing around here?" (It happened.) Consider two "A" reporters, one who consistently shows she's serious about her job and one who can't give up her image as a rebel in all ways. Guess who didn't get a job in the first place, and guess who would lose hers if layoffs were announced.

The best newsrooms embrace fun - even some silliness - and operate in a generally collegial way. But that can only work when people trust each other to be reliable and professional. New college grads and even those with a few years of experience face dozens of obstacles in their path to a career in journalism. They should avoid erecting their own.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Farewell, Koko

To: Koko The Talking Gorilla
From: Bill
Subj: Breaking Up

For some time now, I've felt you drifting away. I hoped it was just a phase and that you would once again embrace me. I kept my increasing turmoil to myself because I loved you and wanted to give you your own space. My dream was that you would work through your issues, return to my side, and sign "cute kitten" as you gazed into my eyes.

But the exposure of your fetish for female nipples has ruined everything. We're through.

I was confused when you asked me to hire a dozen strippers to entertain you on your birthday. But I did it anyway because I loved you and would have done anything to make you happy. I spent all my money on warehouse-sized sacks of Hershey's Kisses, just to see the look of ecstasy on your face. When you watched wet T-shirt contest videos and clapped your hands I believed you were mocking the behavior of us silly humans.

I was so naive.

Perhaps I should have shared my misgivings long ago. Maybe deep inside I knew I could never hold the affection of a sophisticated gorilla of the world like you. That doesn't matter now. All that is real to me is my pain.

But more intense than the agony caused by your betrayal is the humiliation. Why did I have to read about this in the newspapers? Why didn't you tell me you had finally come to understand your true nature? Even with a broken heart I would have been willing to share and remain your friend.

I hope that someday I learn to forgive you and focus on all the wonderful times we had together. But I know I will never, ever, again be able to talk to Penny, the woman who launched you down a path that led away from my love. I have attached a photo of me signing a short message to her. Could you share it with her?

Yes, Koko, I'm bitter and angry. Eventually I will move on, but, for now you should know that Koko is bad girl gorilla and hurts man Bill.


Sunday, February 27, 2005

The End of Affordable Housing

It’s 2006.

A high tech mogul purchases and donates to the City of Palo Alto a four-acre plot of commercial land, specifying that it can only be used for affordable housing. The mogul’s husband, a big-time developer, offers to engineer, design and build this housing at cost.

City council members and planning commissioners are ecstatic because this will fulfill a longstanding community need. They unanimously approve needed zoning changes. State Sen. Joe Simitian rushes to the proposed site with a folding chair and holds office hours. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo seeks a federal law to amend. Assemblyman Ira Ruskin creates a blue-ribbon task force to study the feasibility of reviewing needed alterations of state regulations and laws.

The North of East of Wherever Neighborhood Association expands its boundaries over the proposed development and argues the city must preserve the character of the area, which is dominated by tilt-up concrete office buildings.

Three retired HP employees from Barron Park issue a 120-page analysis of who should be allowed to live in the development. It excludes city employees, who, based on news reports, all earn more than $100,000 annually. Fire fighters are banned because all of them have second jobs or side businesses. Police officers are scored on pending lawsuits and criminal charges, but most make it into the pool. Because of tenure and marital status (read that household income) few public school teachers make the cut.

Environmentalists check off because the land isn’t soaked with PCBs and such, but insist parking lots be striped to exclude SUVs.

The school board, stung by serial parcel tax defeats, demands that only people with no children or committed to a childless life, be eligible for residency. Otherwise, it contends, elementary schools will become overcrowded and will have to drop advanced placement genome analysis classes.

Then things cool off. Simitian gets cranky about poor turnout during his office hours. Eshoo gets bored and re-focuses on finding Homeland Security money for the Atherton Police Department. Ruskin holds meetings.

Beaten to a pulp by conflicting demands, the city manager, planning commissioners and city council members escape to an Easalen nude encounter session. Newly bonded, they return to set public hearings at which anyone can talk, but not more than once. They pay a consultant $200,000 to enforce the rule.

It’s 2012.

The developer bails out, angry that his commitment to the project prevented him from bidding on the fabulously profitable new hotel at Sand Hill Road and Interstate 280.

Eshoo retires to a fortified compound in Atherton. Simitian replaces her in Congress and vows to never again waste time sitting on a folding chair on a vacant lot. Ruskin is a state senator and remains willing to champion a coalition to build affordable housing - but only after a new study.

The school district finally gets its parcel tax, then declares that accounting errors caused it to underestimate actual revenue. It uses the windfall to extend advanced placement classes to kindergarten students.

The city council is entirely populated by former presidents of homeowner associations, all of whom ran on a pledge to maintain the character of their own neighborhoods. It deadlocks on building affordable housing because the proposed site lies within the boundaries of an association run by someone who is rude.

The tech mogul has used up all the tax benefits that came from the land donation. She buys the site from the city for pennies on the dollar and builds lavish new corporate headquarters. Her husband’s company gets the construction contract.

Which was the plan all along.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Gay Marriage Redux

A year ago San Francisco extended to homosexuals a right basic to the preservation and enrichment of our society – the ability to create a family through marriage.

Since then, the 3,000 same-sex weddings in that city have been nullified. Citizens of 14 states have amended their constitutions to specifically deny this right to anyone who wants to marry someone of the same gender. Lawsuits have been launched on a long trip toward the U.S. Supreme Court, which will make the final decision on whether people can be denied the bonds of marriage based solely on who they are.

The anniversary of San Francisco’s version of the Boston Tea Party serves as a cue to a society that has largely ignored the issue in the face of war and elections. Surely all the arguments and sub-arguments will resurface and fill news pages and the airwaves. Surely the millions of people who are willing to discuss it will once again get lost in claims and counter-claims.

But the heart of the issue is relatively straightforward.

The Constitution of the United States, as well as those of all 50 states, guarantees equal treatment under the law. That is what the Supreme Court said in 1967 when it struck down statutes barring people of different races from enjoying the rights and responsibilities of marriage. That Joe is Caucasian and Barbara is African-American is meaningless under the Constitution. That Mary and Susan are of the same gender should be deemed equally irrelevant.

The case against same-sex marriage is muddled.

Opponents contend that allowing same-sex couples to wed denigrates marriage and its benefit to society. But the basic concept of marriage -- two people forming an emotional, social, and legal bond -- supports a healthy society. As for harm to the institution, people should reflect on the 50 percent divorce rate among heterosexuals and ask, “could gays do worse?”

Those who insert religion and millennia of morality into the debate should turn to their bibles, specifically the books of Kings and Genesis. There they will learn Kings David and Solomon were polygamous and the prophet Abraham’s first child was born out of wedlock to a slave. Of course that was at a different time and in a different place. And so our time and place is different than when the bible was written.

Some also contend that marriage was created to legitimize procreation and provide a stable and loving environment in which to rear children. That makes sense. It also makes sense to the thousands of gay individuals and couples who are doing their best to rear healthy, happy children.

Civil rights flow from the Constitution, not from personal opinion or societal preference. Denying gays the right to marry is discriminatory. As the Supreme Court wrote in a 2003 case involving homosexuality , “… the Court’s obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate its own moral code.”

Friday, February 04, 2005

Five Rules for Politicians

I really shouldn't do this, but I'm going to give our county's public officials some public relations advice.

I offer these tips because I like our elected and appointed governors and it hurts me to see them stumble and fumble when they deal with media hounds. Besides, snacking on tassel loafers and sling-back pumps is unhealthy and not recommended by Dr. Atkins.

First, my credentials. Over the years, I've worked in both journalism and PR. I've counseled CEOs of Fortune 500 companies on these very matters. I even tried (well, sort of) to flog walnuts to food editors. I was fired from that job and rightfully so.

Rule No. 1: Don't lie.
You may get away with it this time, but you will get caught. Guaranteed. For instance, one elected city official recently told a reporter she knew very little about a particular issue. A week later said official conceded that she had, indeed, been talking about it with her colleagues. Can you say credibility gap?

Rule No. 2: Unless you can prove it, don't claim you were misquoted.
Of course jounralists make mistakes, but they are taking notes and photos while you try to remember your next sound bite. No one's going to believe you anyway; even your mom understands that "I was misquoted" is usually nothing more than code for "I said it but wish I hadn't."

Rule No. 3: Newspapers are supposed to tell you how to do your job. You, however, are not supposed to tell newspapers what to do.
Editors have been really, really touchy about this one ever since that silly First Amendment thing was added to the Constitution a couple of centuries ago. Some people still don't get it, though. A high-ranking municipal employee recently called to complain about the transfer of a reporter he didn't want transferred. After a nanosecond's consideration, it was decided the city official wouldn't gaze upon that reporter's bright and shining face anytime before the next millenium.

Rule No. 4: Unless your name is Richard M. Nixon, editors and reporters are not out to "get" you.
Sure, your inability to give up your loafer-munching will be reported in full. But so will your brilliant solution to a long-standing community problem. And even if your name is Richard M. Nixon, we will feel obliged to note your achievements as well as your less-than-savory activities when you board your helicopter and fly off into history. Could we be more fair? I don't think so.

Rule No. 5: Don't believe your own PR. (This is the one almost everyone forgets.)
Keep in mind that sometimes your face appears in the newspaper for absolutely no other reason that it's a slow news day. Never forget that the dent in the seat of your nice leather chair was made by someone else. And, given term limits and a fickle electorate, remember that someone else will be propping their spit-shined snacks on your desk sooner rather than later.

Copyright 2004, ANG Newspapers. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Tips for Women Over 40

Many single women over 40 who seek contacts with men online are accomplished, educated and independent. However, from a guy perspective, too many write awful ads. Here, from a man over 40, are some suggestions on how to make the online mate search more effective – and less brutal for male readers.

Unless you’re a lesbian seeking a lesbian don’t listen to your female friends’ comments about your ad. They are not your audience. For example, men seldom use the word “cute” without the word “kid” immediately following. And you are definitely not a kid.

Give up the “spiritual but not religious” thing. Just say you’re a Unitarian and move on.

Never post a photo of you embracing your beautiful and sexy teen-age daughters. It will increase the number of responses, but not necessarily from men you want to meet.

Dump the phrase “passionate about life.” It’s a baseline requirement given the alternatives.

If you say, “I would like to meet a man who is part of my world, someone educated, traveled, and with broad cultural interests” then don’t say that his income isn’t important to you.

Be descriptive, as in: “I own two little black dresses, a ball gown and six pairs of jeans.” This avoids the “. . . as comfortable in jeans as I am in a ball gown” cliché men are assaulted by all the time. They will be grateful.

Fitness and health are important. However, declaring you work out at the gym six days a week, take yoga classes at lunch, and run marathons on the weekend is going to make a man wonder if you’ll have any time for him. And if you find someone equally fascinated by fitness you should consider the downside of two obsessive-compulsives living under one roof.

Please be clear. “I enjoy a wide range of activities but what I like best is . . .” works fine. But saying you equally love dining out/cooking at home, the symphony/the blues, gardening/mountain climbing and so on, gives a man no help. He might get the idea a half-pound burger with steak fries and a game on TV will make you just as happy as a tennis weekend in Napa and dinner at the French Laundry.

Above all, don’t treat men as if they are stupid. If you are divorced, and live in a community where the median home price is $3 million-plus you are not self employed. Any man will know that you are likely an attractive, intelligent woman who did very well when your CEO husband left you for his secretary.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Lies, Lies and More Lies

The Palo Alto, California Police Department would like to think that the city’s $75, 000 payment to Jorge Hernandez ended the sad incident in which its investigators’ lies caused him to confess to a terrible crime and allowed the real perpetrator to escape.

Not really. They never admitted to hurting Hernandez, never apologized, and the investigator that bullied him into the confession says the settlement means nothing to her and how she conducts her interrogations.

In a city with more Phds. per square inch than almost anywhere, we’re guarded by people who won’t learn.

Hernandez, 18, was suspected of raping and beating a 94-year-old woman at an assisted care facility near his brother’s home. Police had discovered his brother’s ring at the crime scene, but the brother had lost the ring a year before and had an alibi. The cops figured younger brother Jorge once had access to the ring and believed he failed to show the proper outrage about the allegations when first interviewed. Under the glare of a national news spotlight and confronted with community outrage, they decided that was enough to get serious about Jorge Hernandez.

During an hours-long videotaped interrogation detectives told Hernandez fingerprints, bloody shoes and a videotape directly linked him to the rape. Hernandez, who had no criminal record, repeatedly insisted he would never hurt a woman. However, he conceded his memory of the night of he incident could be faulty because he had been drinking heavily. Spurred on by his admission, the cops kept at him. Finally, Hernandez broke down, apologized to the victim and was booked.

But there was no videotape. There were no fingerprints. There were no bloody shoes. The victim had failed to pick Hernandez’ voice from an audio lineup. Everything the cops said were legal lies aimed at dragging out a confession that would confirm their instincts and enable them hold him until they gathered real physical evidence.

Two months later, DNA testing proved Hernandez was innocent. But even the most precise science available to the legal system wasn’t enough for investigators to admit they were wrong. “He has not yet been exonerated,” said Palo Alto Police Chief Pat Dwyer after Hernandez’ release. “Our investigation is continuing.”

Eddie Joe Lloyd can relate. While being treated in a Michigan mental hospital in 1985 he became interested in the widely reported rape and murder of a young Detroit honor student. Even though he knew nothing about the case, he offered to help investigators. They were more than happy to talk to him. Their plan was simple: The cops would feed Lloyd details about the crime and he would make a taped confession. Somehow the release of Lloyd’s statement would help flush out the real killer. Lloyd went along with the plan and right on to prison. He spent 17 years behind bars before DNA testing proved his innocence.

“I was thoroughly tricked. Inveigled, enticed, tricked,” Lloyd told the New York Times shortly before his release. “Sometimes the pressure on you to sign a statement is not them twisting your arm. It can be psychological and mental.” Why did Jorge Hernandez confess? “I was so confused, so tired,” he told the San Jose Mercury News. “And I trusted them.”

Jorge Hernandez will now go through life having to explain away newspaper headlines linking him to the rape of a 94-year-old woman. Eddie Joe Lloyd wasted almost a third of his life surrounded by real killers rather than getting the treatment he needed. That they were both released is justice of a sort.

But the crime victims could receive no justice at all. How likely is it that, 17 years later, the family of the Detroit murder victim will ever know the truth? And a 94-year-old rape victim and her loved ones must cope with the fact the man who scarred their lives is still on the loose and has a year's head start on the police.

And all because the cops used legal lies.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Why Newspapers are Dying

An editor recently said to me he didn't believe his newspaper's website was "supporting" his publication. I told him the website should be viewed as an entity unto itself rather than as a promotional device or a tease to print. I also argued that in the near future printed newspapers were likely to become the promotional vehicles for websites -- sort of TV Guides referring readers to audio- and video-rich stories on the website.

"Everyone knows print has advantages that the Web and broadcast can't deliver so we'll always be around," he declared.

He is so wrong.

Portability. Yes, you can stick a magazine or newspaper in your briefcase and read it at your convenience. But soon you'll be able to take three minutes to download a customized newsfeed into your iPod in less time than it taks you to go outside and pick up your copy of the Daily Blat. Unfortunately, for newspapers to be successful they must become less portable; more ads mean more bulk. The Sunday New York Times or Los Angeles Times can weigh 7 to 9 pounds.

Greater Depth. Newspapers take pride in offering longer, more thoughtful analysis than can be provided by media ruled by instant everything. But even when newspapers try to get serious about this, their articles are 24-48 hours old to readers already drowning in comments by pundits and experts on round-the-clock cable news channels.

Many Readers Simply Prefer Print. True, but fewer and fewer all the time. Most publishers forecast that newspapers will hang on for the forseeable future because Baby Boomers long ago developed the newspaper reading habit. They should remember, though, that Boomers (including Tim Berners Lee, co-creator of the Internet) were the first generation to exploit the potential of personal computers and the online world. Most of them are just beginning to retire but they will carry forward and refine their online habits.

The 18-35 age group is lost forever. Boomer children grew up with hundreds of cable channels and the Web. Boomer grandchildren started playing with computers before they went to school and probably feel left out if, by Grade 6, they don't own a WiFi-capable phone.

Publishers are catching on, but far too slowly. They are ignoring their own experience. Sports editors and writers figured out the need to evolve more than 30 years ago when live broadcasts of sports events became ubiquitous. Except for grumbles from a few retirees, newspapers felt little pain when they began dropping comprehensive daily stock tables. Measured progress doesn't work in today's world where growth in the pace of change is expoential.

Despite reality slapping them in the face, publishers continue to focus too much on resuscitating and developing their ink-on-paper products and far too little on exploiting the possibilities of the future. And that is bad for business.