No rest for the wicked or the innocent alike

In Judeo-Christian tradition, three days are set aside for the dead to find their way to heaven.  This is also a time for the families of the departed to grieve, but to grieve knowing that members of their family or community are guarding them against prying eyes or other grave-robbers in their moment of vulnerability while they deal with the tragedy that has befallen them.  The impulse is to put on a brave face for the public, to try to keep it together, as if one should be able to shrug off such a horrible loss with nothing more than a mannerly tear or two.

Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, and the generalized addiction America has to outrage, this period of grief has been streamlined to about three minutes.

Earlier today, a terrible tragedy befell a town in Connecticut.  A young man, for reasons unknown, stormed into an elementary school in Newtown and viciously murdered 26 people – twenty of those small children, none more than ten.  This is a monstrous act, and one that we may never be able to understand.  I want to make clear that my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families touched by this horrible act – whether their children lost there lives, or merely their innocence.

Within hours of the shooting, I received emails from two different political organizations asking for my help in using the tragedy to push through laws favoring strong gun control – and donations were more than welcome.  I also received email from an organization opposing gun control, asking for similar assistance.  I have no reason to believe this is the last I will hear of these requests, but the fact that they were sent out before the dead had even all been positively identified – that their deaths were being politicized even before their bodies had gone fully cold – is also a monstrous, ghoulish act.  Less than six hours after the shootings, Mark Kelly, who is familiar with tragedy, being the husband to former Congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords, issued a statement offering condolences to the families who lost children, and in the same breath calling for gun control hearings, saying “This can no longer wait.”

Forgive me for disagreeing with you, Mr. Kelly, but I think it could have waited at least a day.  I think it could have waited until the parents of the children that were lost had time to draw a breath that didn’t immediately catch in their throat.  I think it could have waited until the children who survived finished crying themselves to sleep.

I think it could have waited until the families had a little time to mourn.

We’ve become addicted to sensationalism – we’re obsessed with more, with bigger, with better.  This is the culture that produces interviews like WTNH’s Erin Logan interviewing a young girl who survived unharmed, asking her what it was like – and when the answer wasn’t as sensational as she wanted, as we have come to expect, prodded her further and asking if everyone was “…crying, scared, wanting their parents to come get them?”

Pardon the vulgarity, but what the hell do YOU think? Is it really good journalism to poke at a victim clearly in emotional shock, and demand to know just HOW freaked out everyone was? Do you really need to push a small child into making a horrible, terrible tragedy worse by recounting the screams and cries of terrified children?  Is it truly newsworthy that children in danger will be upset?

There’s a difference between reporting the news, and manufacturing the news – and inappropriate questions like that plainly cross the line.  It’s obvious that the children were terrified – what next, shall we ask for direct quotes of the screams?  Recordings of the crying?

When does it cross the line?  As far as I can see, that’s long past.  Let them react on their own schedule, Ms. Logan.  Don’t pry the gory details out of a child.  Don’t pick at the scab before it’s even started to form.

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Professional Courtesy

Welp.

My wife, Mimi, had been in communication with a recruiter for some job up in Connecticut, and the topic of salary came up. She was countering his offer with a request for a higher wage, because after all, as she put it, ‘a girl’s gotta eat’.

His response was a picture of a half-naked anorexic girl – anorexic to the point where her abdomen was hideously deformed and the contour of her organs were visible. He apparently thought this was funny.

After she finished her immediate reaction (shock and horror, to be precise), she called the company’s front desk to get to HR. It was shortly after 5PM, however, so they were closed. She replied to the email he sent with a request to have his supervisor call or email.

Within moments, her phone rang. It was the person who had sent the email, trying to talk her out of getting him in trouble because hey, it was just a joke, right?

I’m not sure exactly what he said, but it must have been good, because Mimi decided to leave it at that provided he didn’t contact her anymore. She also commented that she was no longer interested in the position, as if that were not obvious enough.

What sort of person thinks sending an image like that in professional communication is acceptable in any way? Unfortunately, this happens all the time: Far more often than any statistics will tell you, women and minorities are harassed, marginalized, and oppressed in ‘professional’ environments all over the place. Let’s analyze the event and really see what it COMMUNICATES from a psychological perspective.

The context of the event is a discussion of salary for a potential new job. The recruiter has made a salary offer, the potential employee is countering with a request for a slightly higher salary, with the lighthearted comment ‘A girl’s gotta eat’. The recruiter responds, agreeing to the higher salary, attaching the aforementioned image. The image is not referenced in the body of the email. The potential employee responds, asking what the image was about, and he replied "You said a girl’s gotta eat, the one below doesn’t look she has to eat" [sic] . One assumes he meant to say that the girl did not look like she had to eat.

At best, at absolute best, he is being sarcastic and was trying to indicate that she would not starve on the wage. However, even if we assume the best, we are still faced with the fact that we are dealing with a person who thinks that a crippling disorder is funny. We are still faced with someone who looks at the plight of young girls driven to mental illness by the culture of misogyny, whose illness manifests in literally starving themselves to death for fear of being fat and therefore ‘unpersoned’ by our culture – a person who looks at that and finds it amusing, and sees nothing wrong with referencing that in professional communication with a woman.

I want to be clear here that there is nothing wrong with having a peculiar sense of humor – myself, I have a very dark sense of humor. I laugh at things that many people find broadly offensive, and that’s fine, because I am not forcing my idea of what’s funny on people in a professional environment. There is a certain level of etiquette that is expected in the workplace – and discussing the particulars of a potential job with a recruiter counts as ‘the workplace’ – that is expected to be followed. This isn’t even merely an issue of politesse, this is federal law.

Furthermore, the fact that the recruiter called her directly instead of putting her in touch with his supervisor is also questionable – when a line has been crossed like that, you forfeit your right to make it better on your own. When you are the problem, and have offended someone that profoundly, you must not make it worse by inflicting yourself on them any longer. Even if you suddenly understand your offense, and are granted a moment of clarity so you are certain you will not be offensive again, your mere presence in the conversation can be seen as oppressive or offensive by the person you offended. If I punch you in the face, and then tell you that I’m very sorry and promise not to do it again, you’re still going to be paying more attention to what I am doing with my hands than what I am saying with my mouth. So it is with offensive communication: If I confront you with an offensive image, and then apologize for it, you’re going to be thinking more about the offense I committed than what I am saying.

As it stands, Mimi is no longer considering employment with that firm. If she had been put in touch with the supervisor as she requested, the recruiter would definitely have been called onto the carpet for his actions, sure. But having a third party to discuss her concerns with may have allowed Mimi to regain some comfort, and not only soothed the damage, but also saved the business deal. For the recruiter to smooth things over himself saved his own skin, but sacrificed the business deal. It also subconsciously reinforces to the recruiter that his actions were acceptable, and that Mimi overreacted. Because after all, if he talked her down, that means everything’s okay, right? Perhaps getting disciplined by his human resources department – or undergoing mandatory sexual harassment sensitivity training – would have given the recruiter a much needed wake up call, and forced him to reconsider such actions in the future. I guess we’ll never know.

This isn’t the first or even the hundredth time I’ve been shown evidence that professional courtesy is anything but, but the sheer audacity of it was surprising. I can only hope the recruiter had simply started drinking a little early, and this was a result of temporarily impaired judgment instead of chronically impaired judgment.

It’s pretty sad when your best case scenario involves likely alcoholism.

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Labor Day, Trade Unions, and My Buddy Jack

Let me tell you about my friends Diane and Jack, and why I consider Labor Day one of America’s most important holidays.

Jack is a journeyman ironworker, currently working in New York City on the 9/11 memorial site at Ground Zero.  Diane, along with their three children, lives in Wisconsin, where they moved a few years ago because they couldn’t afford the high cost of living in New York, and because one of their children has special needs that simply weren’t being addressed.  So for large parts of the year, Jack gets on a plane, flies a thousand miles away from his family, and literally rebuilds America.  Diane is trying to get into social work as a means to give back to her community some of the assistance and guidance she and her family received as NYC expatriates – basically, helping to identify families in need of assistance, and providing counseling and guidance for where to find the assistance that best suits their needs.  I’m not trying to wrap them in the American flag too tightly here, but these are the sort of folks that build good communities.

Jack’s a member of a trade union for ironworkers.  The union taught him everything from knots to crane operator hand signals to rigging – even how to spot terrorist activity.  This is important, because according to this 2009 census of fatal occupational injuries ( http://stats.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cfch0008.pdf ), structural metalworking is the sixth most dangerous job in America today.  It had been number four, but thanks in large part to advances in safety equipment and training (pushed for heavily by trade unions), it’s becoming safer.  It’s still dangerous, though:  The fatal injury rate for structural metalworkers is 30.3 (per 100,000 fulltime workers).  That’s still a little better than nine times the national average of 3.3.  Office and administrative support, by the way, clocks in at a rate of about 0.5.

Along with making sure Jack and his coworkers are provided with the equipment and training they need to keep them safe, the union also helps manage ‘fringe benefits’ like health care, a special unemployment fund, and vacation pay.  Since Jack, like most of his colleagues, doesn’t work for a single company but instead picks up jobs at a union hall, he winds up working for a lot of different companies on a lot of different projects.  This would be a logistical nightmare if he relied on the different companies he works for to manage his benefits, so how it works in a nutshell is that the money that the employer would normally pay to benefits providers (like insurance companies), they instead pay to the benefits management team in the union, who make it all happen.  Occasionally, and especially lately, the economic downturn and associated lack of work means that he has to fall back on the union unemployment fund, but another big benefit of Jack’s union membership is the community it creates:  true brothers in arms.  Sure, self-reliance is expected, but Jack’s union brothers would never let one another go hungry.

There has been a lot of bad press and debate over unions lately, with many claiming that they are an artifact of a bygone era and no longer necessary.  Make no mistake – Jack, and the millions of industrial workers like him, would not be anywhere near as safe and fairly compensated as they are now if not for the ongoing efforts of trade unions.  If safety training and benefits management were left to the companies employing the workers, cut corners and ghoulish cost-saving measures would be the order of the day.  Jack’s training is handled by an organization that has as its first priority his safety – after all, if he is injured or worse, he can’t work, and no workers means no union.  However, a company need only satisfy legal bare minimums on safety equipment and training – after all, if a worker gets hurt or killed, they can always hire someone else.  Trade unions keep workers safe, compensated, and trained.

In fact, trade unions – or more precisely, the collective bargaining power they represent – are responsible for Labor Day becoming an American holiday.  Back in 1894, President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a national holiday.  Designed to honor the workers whose labors built this nation from the ground up – and also to help smooth relations with organized labor in the wake of the disastrous Pullman Strike ( http://dig.lib.niu.edu/gildedage/pullman/index.html ) , the first Monday in September was set aside, and the holiday was adopted by every state in the Union.  These days, Labor Day parades have fallen out of fashion in many cities, and you don’t often hear speeches by local politicians unless there’s an election coming up.  Labor Day has sort of fallen by the wayside and been turned more into a signpost marking the end of summer and the beginning of football season.

Chances are, most of you reading this work in an office somewhere, and probably even get Labor Day as a paid holiday.  Jack doesn’t.  He usually takes it off anyway, dipping into his vacation time to do so, and enjoys the parades and the barbecues.  There’s a certain irony in the fact that the folks whom Labor Day was intended to honor have to cut into their vacation time to attend their own parade, while office workers and other folks who enjoy the yield of laborers and tradesmen don’t.

This is not to say you shouldn’t enjoy the day off, or even the whole weekend.  Hard work is not the sole provenance of industrial and construction workers, after all.  Simply spare a thought for the people this holiday is really about, and reflect on how you’ve benefitted from their efforts.

Happy Labor Day, everybody.

(Names changed to protect the privacy of my friends.)

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Sexual Torture in America’s Prisons

The town I grew up in, Addison, Maine, has around 1200 residents.  If I were to tell you that in an average year, around 53 of those residents were horribly raped, how would you react?  Would you wonder what law enforcement was doing?  Would you demand that effort be put forward to stop this victimization at any cost, that no amount of money was too much to invest to make sure that nobody has to live under that constant threat of violence on American soil?  Or would you shrug your shoulders and say they probably deserved it?

The Department of Justice recently released a study on prison rape (located here:http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2202 ) indicating that 4.4% of the respondents to the poll had reported being raped or otherwise sexually victimized within the 12 months preceding the study.  In 2009, 2,297,400 men, women, and juveniles were held in prisons, jails, and detention centers (source:http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/law/research/icps/worldbrief/ ).  That means that judging by the numbers released by the DoJ, 101,086 inmates are victimized every year, or one about every five minutes, every hour of every day.  In the time it took you to catch up with The Simpsons on television, six people – six American citizens – were horribly and violently sexually victimized.

And nobody seems to want to do anything about it.

It’s very easy to dismiss prison rape as a consequence of crime – after all, everybody knows rape happens in prison all the time, so if you don’t want to get raped, you shouldn’t break laws.  It’s easy to see the victims as Other, as less-than-human because after all, they wouldn’t BE in prison if they weren’t already bad people, right?

The United States of America imprisons more of its own citizens per capita than any other nation on the planet:  748 per 100,000, or 0.748%.  Out of the 217 countries that I could find statistics for, that’s more than the bottom 21 combined.  It’s more than China and the Russian Federation combined.  It’s more than Iran, Taiwan, and the UAE put together.  Surely we as a nation aren’t so sinful that each and every one of those 2,297,400 people deserve to be put in a place where there’s a good chance they’re going to be raped?  In fact, the vast majority of those in prisons or jails – about three quarters – are there for nonviolent offenses, like tax evasion, three-strikes convictions for marijuana possession, and having too many traffic tickets.  Hardly the sort of crimes for which brutal rape is anything resembling a fair trade, not that there is such a thing.

Many of you reading this are wondering why we allow this to happen.  Why haven’t we told the Department of Justice to do something about this?  Actually, we did:  In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was signed into law.  This Act put together a National Prison Rape Elimination Commission that, after considering reports, funding, statistics, and testimony, gave US Attorney General Eric Holder until June 23, 2010 to establish new standards for reducing rape and sexual assault in prisons.  The standards wouldn’t even have to be mandatory, though prisons would see reduced funding if those standards were not met.

The findings of the commission were sent to Holder in 2009, giving him one year exactly to come up with some new standards.  This apparently was not enough time for the Department of Justice, who has stalled the process by hiding behind cost analyses and budget concerns.  Although the findings of the commission recommended that the new standards not impose undue costs on the operating budgets of the prisons, it is worth noting that money spent preventing prisoners from being raped by other prisoners and guards (yes, of that 4.4% of prisoners getting raped every year, 2.8% – more than half – was by the staff) is money not spent on medical and mental treatment of the victims.  Money spent preventing rape is money not spent on prosecuting rapists.  Money spent making sure the staff isn’t sexually torturing the prisoners is money not spent replacing the staff and trying to hide the fact that the new prisoner is an ex-guard (because, after all, we wouldn’t want the ex-guard to be targeted for violence).

At what point do we say enough is enough?  At what point do you contact your congressperson or senator and tell them that you are furious at the constant stalling by the Department of Justice and that we need to send a message to them demanding that something be done about this NOW and not later?  If for you, that point is now, you can find contact information for your congresspersons here (https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml ) and your senators here (http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm ).  Take a look at the report by the DoJ (linked above) and see the data for yourself – glance at the summary page at the very least.  Take a look at the World Prison Brief (again, linked above) and see for yourself how many people we put in prison.  Then ask yourself:  Is this justice?

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The Road to Hell

A few days ago, the construction site of a Muslim community center in a suburb of Nashville, TN was attacked by arsonists.  Construction equipment was damaged and destroyed.  Although no person or group has come forward to claim credit for the attack, the message is clear and echoed by members of the local community:  No Muslims Allowed.

The fact that such acts constitute terrorism is plainly evident.  Terrorism – the use of terror as a means of changing the behavior or beliefs of a population or a segment thereof – is not the sole business of Muslims, despite what some others would have you believe.  If you attempt to intimidate others into changing their thoughts, beliefs, or behavior with violence or the threat thereof, you are committing terrorism, period.  There is no ‘except Christians’ or ‘except white people’ clause.  There is no ‘unless you think they deserve it’ clause.  There is no ‘but I’m on the RIGHT SIDE’ clause.

The fact that anti-Muslim sentiment is growing in this country is also plainly evident.  Mosques and community centers that had existed peacefully in communities all over the United States are suddenly finding themselves the targets of vandalism, hate crimes, and in too many cases, attacks.  Pipe bombs in Florida.  Arson in California.  Drive-by shootings in Seattle.  Graffiti and thrown stones in too many places to name.  Protests everywhere.  Signs claiming Islam is a religion of hate and terror, that Muslims are not welcome here and should go home.

As the sentiment grows, one is forced to consider its logical continued growth:  There are already a disquieting amount of elected officials who have been caught uttering anti-Muslim sentiments, and if the growing hatred of Islam is any indication, that number can only be expected to grow.  Add to that the concept that for each elected official or member of government that we know of harboring this hatred, there is likely at least a few more, and it becomes truly worrying.  At what point will the assumed minority of Islamophobic members of government become a majority?  At what point will they become too great a majority to effectively control?

At what point do the pogroms start?

In 1920′s Germany, anti-Semitic sentiments were growing steadily.  Jews were not yet oppressed as a matter of legal policy, but they would find their homes, businesses, and places of worship vandalized on a regular basis unless they stayed in their own neighborhoods – and often even then.  Public outcry against the Jews was common.  And then one day in January of 1933, a charismatic leader came to power and almost immediately codified the existing cultural hatred of Jews into law.  Any student of history knows what happened next.

I want to make clear one point, however:  The Holocaust happened not because one evil, charismatic man steered an otherwise innocent populace into evil acts.  The Holocaust happened because a culture of hatred and fear grew in Germany, perhaps not even a majority of the German population – and then one charismatic leader stepped up from that culture and steered the nation into evil acts.  Hitler didn’t give birth to the idea of anti-Semitism in Germany, the idea of anti-Semitism in Germany (among other things) gave birth to Hitler.

A culture of hatred and fear, as a consequence of its own growth and evolution, will eventually produce an avatar and attempt to gain control of its surroundings.

The sticky part is that there is no quick solution to disarming the hatred and fear.  You could round up everyone waving signs with anti-Islam sentiments, but then you’re committing the same horrible acts you’re worried they will commit.  You could attack and vandalize the homes, businesses, and places of worship of those who would steer our nation into a new dark age, but then you’re doing the same thing you accuse them of doing.  If our nation is going to be saved from the culture of hatred and fear that is growing inside it, the only way to do it is to counter that hatred and fear with knowledge and acceptance.  Until and unless it gets to the point where any man or woman of conscience must take up arms to defend their nation from threats foreign or domestic, the only way to protect our nation without destroying it is to use our hearts and minds.

Many of the people who read this have their own fears of Islam or Muslims to address.  I urge you, do not indulge those fears and stoop to hatred, even if – especially even if – you harbor that hatred silently and do not act upon it.  Do the only right and brave thing and confront your fears.  Look inside yourself and seek understanding of what exactly it is you are afraid of.  Seek assistance from counselors or religious leaders if it will help.  Learn what you are afraid of, and then educate yourself to see if those fears are justified.  Learn about Muslims.  If there is one near you, and you think you can handle it, tour a Muslim community center.  You will find that Muslims are all around us, they exist at all levels of society, they are employees and business-owners and teachers and children and mothers and fathers.  In the American melting pot, they are yet another culture to blend with our own.  In fact, there is no ‘they’ – they are us.

I noted above that especially those who harbor fear silently should educate themselves – on the surface, this seems foolish.  After all, isn’t it more those who actually would commit hate crimes and terrorism who should make the greatest effort to prevent those very crimes?  Sure, but consider also this:  Most people who graduate to terrorism do not start out with a desire to commit atrocities and needing only a target.  Most people who graduate to terrorism start from a place of fear and hatred, and only by allowing those fears to fester do they seek an outlet.  Furthermore, those who commit hate crimes and terrorism can be prosecuted and imprisoned – but only if the laws exist to prosecute them under.  Laws that must be voted upon and enforced by those who did not commit them – many of which are, you guessed it, people who harbor those fears silently.

Seek out knowledge for yourself.  Learn about that which you fear and see that your fears are unfounded.  If your friends or family members have those fears, urge them to seek out knowledge and calm their own fears.  Above all, think for yourself and encourage others to do the same.  Nobody can tell you what to think unless you allow them to.  And although those who would tell you what to think may have the best of intentions, those intentions can pave the way to, well, you know.

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Women’s Magazines: Part of the Problem, or Heart of the Problem?

On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America was certified by the Secretary of State.  This amendment ensured that women had the right to vote, and gave Congress the power to enforce this via law.  There was some grumbling from those who argued that the federal government had no right to amend the Constitution in this way when the constitutions of a few states specifically forbade women from voting, but they were quickly silenced by a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court.

It was a great victory for equality and one of many successes, large and small, in the larger battle for true equality of the sexes – a battle which is far from over, as evidenced by an advertisement in the latest Women’s Day magazine.

The ad presents itself as a list of tips for a working woman trying to get a raise, and gives eight ‘simple steps’ – the first of which advises women wanting to be recognized for their professionalism and hard work to wash their genitals with special cleansers and tucking a few perfumed crotch wipes in their bags just to make sure.  Further down the list are less important concepts such as demonstrating your worth to the company, listing personal successes and achievements, and referencing quotes from other people in the company praising your efforts.

Whether the advertisement itself, or the fact that our culture marginalizes and invalidates women to the point where such an advertisement would be offered without a second thought is more distressing is left as an exercise to the reader.  It’s just one more way in which the media reflects and perpetuates the inequalities we as a culture deal with every day.

Let me disclaim here that I am a white male, and although I do my best to seek out and shine the harsh light of day on inequalities as I find them, I am myself the beneficiary of white privilege and male privilege in ways that I may not fully understand.  I certainly know that I have had opportunities and assistance I might not have received were I female or a different race, but I also know that there are many of those same opportunities and benefits that I never realized I got simply because of my status as a white male.  It’s a bit like asking a fish to describe water.

However, I do not have advertisers telling me I will never be pretty or thin or successful enough unless I buy the latest clothing or makeup or jewelry (at least, not to the same degree).  I am not a victim of the subtle sexism of lowered expectations.  I do not have to deal with patronization from those who think I need extra consideration because I’m just a girl in a big bad world.  Although I am thankful that I am spared these frustrations, I am bothered that many are not.

Granted, advertising has come a long way since the infamous ads from the 1920′s telling women they will never be attractive or romantically satisfied unless they douche with Lysol, but as Women’s Day and Summer’s Eve demonstrate above, it’s less a change of heart and more an appreciation for subtlety.

Many of these advertisements appear in women’s magazines – long the domain of such progressive ideas such as ‘how to please your man in bed’, ‘what makeup to buy this season’, and my personal favorite, ‘how to lose weight so you will be pretty’.  Their stock-in-trade is convincing women that they are disgusting shambling horrors, and only the newest makeup, the fanciest clothes, the skinniest waistlines can give them even the tiniest chance of personal fulfillment – which they define as a monogamous heterosexual relationship, children, and maybe a cute little job if the hubby doesn’t mind.

These concepts are heavily marketed to women because these are things many women worry about.  Many women worry about these ideas because they are heavily marketed to women.  We have become a culture that depends on advertisers to tell us who we are and what we want, and this is only one of the uglier symptoms of the larger disease.  We as a culture have lost the ability to define for ourselves who we are, what we want, and what we think.  We cried out for easy answers to those questions, and for our sins, those answers were given to us.

Until we as a culture shift from defining ourselves in terms of others, to defining ourselves – period, this problem will continue.  Women will continue to be told they are ugly until we push back and say no, they are beautiful.  Minorities will continue to be told they are weak and alien until we push back and say no, they are strong, and they are the same as us.

Culture shift is difficult and messy but it starts with one person changing their  mind and encouraging others to do the same.  Stop letting other people tell you what to think, and encourage your friends and family to think for themselves.  Get to know who you are, and then be that person.  If you have children, educate them in media literacy – equip them with the tools to recognize when someone is selling them a thing or an idea, and encourage them to cast a critical eye on the media in general, and advertising in particular.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead, a world-renowned cultural anthropologist said that.  Truer words have rarely been spoken.

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News Corp, General Electric, and the Death of Objectivity

Borrowing a tradition from the government of pre-revolution France, journalism has often been called the Fourth Estate of society – the first being the clergy, the second being the nobility (government), and the third being the public at large. Journalism is most useful when it is separate from each of the previous three estates – although it is not an opponent of either the clergy or the government, it is at its best when it is free from the influence of either. For journalism to be objective and credible, it needs to be able to report on the flaws and failings of the other estates. In a sense, it protects the public from the machinations of the clergy and the nobility.

But what happens when the lines blur?

Recently, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, parent company to Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, donated one million dollars to the Republican Governor’s Association, an organization devoted to promoting the election and interests of state governors who affiliate themselves with the Republican Party. Fox News is, of course, home of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, all of which devote the vast majority (if not the entirety) of their programs preaching the virtues of conservatism and casting aspersions on liberals to a degree that approaches self-parody. Guest speakers advancing liberal viewpoints are occasionally present, but invariably dismissed as socialists, well-meaning simpletons, or simply shouted down.

Keith Olbermann, an MSNBC news anchor and longtime devoted rival of Fox News and its stars, reported on this shortly afterward, mentioning in the interests of full disclosure that General Electric, the parent company of MSNBC, had donated $105,000 to the RGA – along with an identical amount to the Democratic Governor’s Association. The fact that both amounts were identical was presented as an example of fairness and equality. According to CNN, those numbers are not entirely accurate – in the current election cycle, GE has donated $237,000 to the DGA compared with $205,000 to the RGA. Thirty-two thousand dollars, spread across an entire nation’s worth of funding, is a small enough amount so that it could be argued to be irrelevant – but even if Olbermann was accurate, that’s not the real problem – the problem is that news organizations and their parent companies are financially supporting political parties in the first place.

For a news agency to be taken seriously, its statements and commentary must be assumed to be objective. For objectivity to exist, it must be known that the person or agency making the statement be free from conflicts of interest or other forms of outside influence. For a person or a company to make a donation, especially one so large, to any person or group implies that the target of the donation is tacitly endorsed by the donator. You don’t give money to a charity that supports something you disapprove of, after all. Therefore, it can be reasoned that when news organizations donate money to a political party, they are expressing their endorsement and approval of the beliefs and activities of that party. This is the very definition of bias. If a news agency is biased, they cannot be trusted to provide honest, objective commentary on the target of their bias, just as you can’t ask a person about their lover’s personal problems and expect anything resembling an honest answer.

That Fox News is biased toward the Republican party is beyond question. MSNBC’s bias toward the Democratic Party is questionable as GE is not solely or even mostly a news organization, but it is still a troubling revelation. That mass media in general is at the whim and mercy of government or corporate interests is the horrible reality that lies at the root of the whole problem. The only saving grace is that at least many entirely different people and agencies are serving their interests by buying and selling the mass media, so there is often truth to be found by comparing the reports of rival news agencies and seeing where they agree – and more importantly, where they do not.

So where does this leave the person seeking truth? Nonprofit news organizations (a draft list can be found here:http://www.hks.harvard.edu/hauser/engage/artsculturemedia/nonprofit-news-organizations/index.html ) are not guaranteed to be free from outside influence, but as they have no shareholders to serve and no profits to worry about, chances are much better that they will be much freer from bias – or at least be honest and forthright about their bias. Nonprofit news organizations range from the tiny to the titanic, spreading their message everywhere from talk radio to the internet and everywhere in between. As I’ve written many times before, though, you should never depend on any one person or group to be your sole source of news and information – because to do so is to allow that one source to do your thinking for you as well.

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