Thursday, August 25, 2016

What Ailes Us

My niece recently had her theatrical debut in a children’s production of “Oz.” And everything that just crossed your mind about what that production would be is absolutely true. She was, of course, brilliant and perfect and I’m proud that she’s continuing the family tradition of experiencing and thriving in the arts. The community theatre production’s tone was set when minutes into the show Toto escaped from the basket on stage and bolted for the door through the audience. It happened a couple of times much to the merriment of the cast and the audience. One of the show’s signature songs “Ding-Dong the witch is dead, the wicked witch” reminded me of what’s happened in the Summer of 2016 at Fox News.

Brian Seltzer of CNN reported: “Roger Ailes has resigned from Fox News amid sexual harassment allegations -- an ignoble end to his legendary, controversial twenty-year tenure running the country's dominant cable news channel.” He has now been replaced by a new management structure that largely keeps the editorial focus consistent. Some call is conservative, I call it anti-progressive. However you describe it – there is no doubt about its impact on the bottom line.

“The Pew Research Center's latest State of the News Media report issued in June 2016 estimated Fox News' 2015 profit at $1.5 billion, well ahead its closest rival Time Warner's (TWX) CNN, which Pew estimated to earn $381 million, and Comcast's (CMCSA) MSNBC, which Pew projected to earn $227 million.”

Fox News generates the lion’s share of profit for 21 Century Fox, the parent company. It is no surprise, then, that the company moved swiftly to isolate the allegations of sexual harassment and protect the golden egg. Equally as important in the month following the resignation Rupert Murdoch, patriarch of the Fox empire, himself “ran” the division.

Fox News has had more than a financial impact. It has changed U.S. politics and by extension America itself. The National Bureau of Economic Research (a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to conducting economic research and to disseminating research findings among academics, public policy makers, and business professionals) did an analysis of Fox News. It looked at the impact from the founding of the channel in 1996 through 2000. They did so in 2006 – ten years ago.  The summary concluded: “Fox News convinced 3 to 8 percent of its viewers to vote Republican. We interpret the results in light of a simple model of voter learning about media bias and about politician quality. The Fox News effect could be a temporary learning effect for rational voters, or a permanent effect for voters subject to non-rational persuasion.”
It’s no surprise then that in its twenty years on the air that every major Republican candidate for President has some relationship with the channel. summarized another half dozen studies: “Fox News has had a significant effect on the political process and electoral outcomes in America.”

Pew Research in 2014 outlined the power the network has amassed. “It dominates the cable news ratings and wields substantial power in the world of conservative politics.”

The meshing of “news” and “opinion” is the signature achievement of the channel and what drives its popularity. Events are reported through a filter that presumes the conservative position is correct. Questions are framed to guests with that opinion integrated into them. Its so pervasive that its easy to miss it. That’s the legacy of the house that Roger built. And its what ails the country because it is far from fair and balanced.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Extreme Hiring

I’ve hired a lot of people in my career. I’ve made some whopper mistakes along the way. I’ve also given people the ability to grow and thrive in new situations. Accurately representing skills, experience and interests is really important when seeking new opportunities. It’s startling how lazy people are when seeking a new position. Whether it’s grammatical errors or addressing the cover note to the wrong company or citing a different position than was advertised – there’s a lot of room for improvement. Many of today’s applicants are not short of confidence, however. Resumes have become thesaurus-like with the wide range of kudos that people give themselves. The slapping of oneself on the back is very much in line with the Presidential election 2016.

Donald J. Trump is the obvious example of hubris. Whether it’s congratulating himself on his ratings, his crowds, his triumphs or his plans – they are framed around his own exceptionalism. So much so that it’s easy to dismiss everything he says.

Hilary Clinton is less obvious because the Trump shadow is so significant. Her campaign surrogates have taken the boasting to a new and different level. President Obama during the Democratic National Convention echoed what many others have said throughout the campaign and has been a social media meme: “There has never been any man or woman more qualified for this office than Hillary Clinton.”

Really? How do you determine who is the most qualified? Is it based on actual experience? Then maybe somebody like Richard Nixon who served for eight years as VP would top the list? Perhaps the determination can be made by number of years in public service. James Buchanan would win that with 30 ¼ years in public office before he became President. By that same measure Theodore Roosevelt would have to be low on the list with only 4 ½ years of service before taking the Presidency.

An independent analysis by Electoral-Vote has been done comparing the efficacy of Presidents based on their experience prior to winning the Oval Office. There is no correlation between the greatness or effectiveness of a President and the years of experience before taking office.

Vox a progressive policy and politics site investigated the claim. It comes to the same conclusion as the independent analysis: “Qualifications are a fine thing to have. But history suggests they’re far from the most important thing when it comes to effective presidential leadership.”

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States. 
ARTICLE II, SECTION 1, CLAUSE 5 of the U.S. Constitution.

Both Donald J. Trump and Hilary Clinton meet the minimum standards of eligibility to hold the Office of the President. Then again, so do I and probably lots of you readers.

Secretary Clinton is absolutely qualified to be President. She has an impressive resume from her service as First Lady of Arkansas to her role in Healthcare in the 1990’s to representing New York as a Senator and then serving one term as Secretary of State. Compared to The Donald her experience in public office overshadows his tremendously. Gary Johnson, Libertarian candidate for President, has eight years as New Mexico’s Governor – more governing experience than either Clinton or Trump.

Having a diverse resume doesn’t make her “the most qualified person” to ever seek the office. It’s just not true. It’s not true on so many levels – not the least of which is that “qualified” hasn’t been defined. More importantly – it doesn’t need to be true. It’s like those hyped up resumes that fly across my desk – she doesn’t have to be “the most qualified person to ever seek the office” in order to hawk her credentials and compare them against Trump. 

It’s this type of exaggeration – the one that’s silly and not needed – that makes some people suspect of her honesty. Just like when I review a resume. If somebody is going to take liberties on that – what else are they hiding that’s more serious? For somebody like Secretary Clinton who has a trust deficiency in the public mind – you’d think the campaign would be very diligent in not overstating anything.

It used to be that some humility went a long way towards the public choosing a President. The 2016 campaign of Extreme Hiring has changed that, and we’re all the worse for it.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Reconcile Headlines

Every month I balance my checkbook to the penny. It’s old-fashioned, but I do it. It stems from a job I had early in my career where I was responsible to reconcile hundreds of bank accounts –a full time job for this conglomerate. On one of the largest accounts – where there were thousands of transactions and some $10 million flowed through the account I got the difference down to $0.50. I was ready to “write off” the difference because it was so small. But my boss wouldn’t let me and I had to start the whole process over. My arguments that the company was spending more in my time to find that $0.50 fell on deaf ears. It had to balance to zero – and I understand why. Every account I’ve dealt with since has fallen into that same level of rigor. The Pentagon would never hire me. It was revealed that $6.5 TRILLION – with a T – has gone missing.

The Pentagon has never balanced its books. I’ve written about this before. Apalling but #notnews. The new discovery is from the Department of Defense itself. It’s Inspector Generals report summarizes how bad the problem is:

Per the Fiscal Times: “The Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the behemoth Indianapolis-based agency that provides finance and accounting services for the Pentagon’s civilian and military members, could not provide adequate documentation for $6.5 trillion worth of year-end adjustments to Army general fund transactions and data.”

The article continues: “There’s nothing in the new IG’s report to suggest that anyone has misplaced or absconded with large sums of money. Rather, the agency has done an incompetent job of providing written authorization for every one of their transactions – so-called “journal vouchers” that provide serial numbers, transaction dates and the amount of the expenditure.”

This is not a new problem. Reuters published a scathing analysis in 2013 called “Unaccountable.” Part of the story reads: “For two decades, the U.S. military has been unable to submit to an audit, flouting federal law and concealing waste and fraud totaling billions of dollars. Linda Woodford spent the last 15 years of her career inserting phony numbers in the U.S. Department of Defense’s accounts.”

Congress, never one to be too rigorous on the Military Industrial Complex has even drawn a line in the sand demanding that the books be balanced by September 30, 2017. President Reagan tried that too to no success.

You’d think that $6.5 TRILLION dollars not being allocated would be a big deal. There are entire television networks dedicated to frothing over sums that are much smaller with much less impact. It’s a HUUUUGE amount of money. The military is woven into the fabric of the American economy. However the money is being spent it needs to be reported on. That’s one of the key tenets of democracy, transparency and common sense.

The real outrage, however, is in the public discourse. There isn’t any. Congress has held hearings on a wide range of nonsense issues has not turned up the heat on $6.5 TRILLION dollars not being accounted for.

This seems tailor made for cable TV, doesn’t it? Fox News should have dark music accompanying a fancy graphic with anchors warning about the threat to the republic’s safety since we don’t know where the money is. MSNBC personnel should be bouncing up and down pointing fingers at the hypocrisy of Republicans who claim to be fiscally conservative but can’t find $6.5 TRILLION dollars. CNN should have panel after panel repeatedly asking the same question of each other and shaking their heads: “where IS the money?” and then spending an hour speculating on where it might be.

The leading newspapers seem ripe for a deep delve into what happened. Wikileaks would continue its public service by shedding some light on missing documents.

A Google Search with the keywords “pentagon $6.5 trillion” revealed a number of online stories. None were from major media outlets. It’s not trending on social media. The report was released on the last Friday in July – hardly a high news day.

Do Americans care that $6.5 TRILLION dollars can’t be accounted for? I think so. I think most Americans would be flat out infuriated. I think most Americans would want to know what the candidates for President and other federal offices think.

The role of the media – the fifth estate – is to explore things like this. $6.5 TRILLION dollars. The Pentagon. Graft? Corruption? Maybe just incompetence? What a wonderful, juicy and important story that could be told at a time when Americans are engaged in multiple military conflicts around the globe. Let’s reconcile the headlines and get to the bottom of this story. Or at least let's get the story.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Certain Stupidity

I’m a living time machine. We all are, actually. As the years go by our life experiences somehow move from “current events” to entire chapters in history books. I recently spent time catching up on some long overdue magazine reading. Yes, magazines. I still subscribe to a handful. It took a few hours to zip through some of the lifestyle rags. “The Week” is the news magazine that should be quick to get through as most of the articles are compilations of perspectives and reports from a variety of outlets. I find it a balanced way to capture the events of the week. I was behind so as I zipped through a few months’ worth I was reminded how much events of the past few months have changed what we collectively think.

I skim read a lot of the political coverage because I already knew the result. The horse-race coverage matters much less when the match is over. Even in the calm pages of “The Week” the hyperbolic frenetic activity of the 2016 Presidential Race was captured and reflected the majority of the coverage.

In February and March the commentary class went from “Mr. Trump is this amusing-but-bizarre creature” to “Holy Cow – people are voting for him” to the pre-convention coverage of a stunned recognition that one of America’s great political parties was now being run by what many consider a madman.

The Democratic side had its own narrative that was tolerant bemusement about an old man tilting at windmills who somehow surprised everybody by raising a ton of dough and was winning caucus after caucus. The post-Super-Tuesday view was sputtering outrage that this cranky old man couldn’t count and therefore couldn’t win and still wouldn’t drop out. The pre-convention coverage moved into skepticism that he ever believed in a democratic ideal in the first place.

The future is anybody’s guess. Sure it can be a well-educated guess, but it’s still a guess. Responsible citizens take time to learn about the issues, the candidates and then weigh the information against their own beliefs to come to a determination about whom they’ll support. This may be a “throwback” concept as with today’s avalanche of information cascading at us at the speed of light most are lucky to get clarity on what the candidates seem like they’ll be like and then hitching a wagon to that.

People are busy. The economic reality of today’s world is that most Americans are working longer hours for the same pay they had twenty years ago. The process of raising children is a gigantic undertaking – with there never being enough time to devote to family. The average person sees fivemovies a year and is able to find five or more hours a day to watch television. (Race and age change the average significantly.) It’s not that people don’t care about politics or the nation – I just think the space that it can occupy in most people’s lives is small because the bulk of their lives are all about getting through the drudgery of life only to watch something that takes them away from that same reality.

Thirty-second ads, pithy memes, simple narratives that take root work in this situation. People are fine tuned to being entertained and are consuming gigantic amounts of content thru various devices. Moving and framing politics as entertainment has been happening for a long time. It becomes easy, then, to decide whom to support. How somebody appears versus what they say or stand for becomes the measurement. It’s not rigorous. It’s not researched. It’s instinctive based on the screen. We are emotionally convinced of our decision.

Thinking less conventionally then, it may be that Mr. Trump might not be the evil dictator he portrays. Mrs. Clinton might not be the lying hypocrite she portrays. They each might have some good in them and might be more than their images. Such thinking won’t change my vote or likely anybody else’s – because we know what they’re like...we’ve seen it with our own eyes. William Falk, the editor-in-chief of “The Week” captured this feeling best in a recent editorial. He said: “Certainty is making us stupid.”

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Be Careful what you wish for...

I fell in love with a house back in 2007. It had been on the market for five or more months. The price had been reduced a few times. It was the start of the Great Recession and nobody knew how bad it was going to get. The bank owned the house and had to approve the sales price. During the six months that we went back and forth with the bank trying to close the deal my love affair increased. I brought in contractors, had schematics drawn, estimates made, etc. In the end I gave up, fell in love with another property a few blocks away and closed in 21 days. It turned out beautifully as I rehabbed the house to my exact specifications and enjoyed the process and my time there. It wouldn’t have been so had I got what I originally was seeking.

Many months after that the original property sold I was walking my dogs through the neighborhood and the winning owners were outside tidying up. I introduced myself and congratulated them on doing what I couldn’t – beating the bank.  The homeowner sighed and told me the tale of their winning the house only to discover structural problems and damage that couldn’t previously be seen that carried with it a repair bill nearly half of the purchase price – making the “deal” they got a raw one. Within six weeks the ‘for sale’ sign was up again, months later the property was in foreclosure again and out of curiosity a few years later I saw that it was basically knocked down and rebuilt after the Great Recession receded.

In November 2008 when Barack Obama won the Presidency there was a slew of editorials outlining the list of crises that the nascent President would have to tackle. The conclusion asked why would anybody want the gig with so many problems.

Donald J. Trump’s campaign elicits a similar question. Like so many others I thought his entry into the race was a sideshow, a distraction, a lark. Then he began breaking all the norms of running for the office: racist stereotyping, misogynic statements and a refusal to be ‘politically correct’ by throwing tantrums and calling his opponents names. He has steadfastly refused to educate himself on the issues of the world and is proud to ‘shoot from the hip.’ His flip-flopping on major policies would have tanked any other office seeker long ago.

Since accepting the GOP nomination his public comments have bordered on treason. He’s advocated for the U.S. to violate the basic tenets of the NATO alliance by suggesting that under his Presidency the U.S. would not come to the aid of member nations. In the midst of the Democratic convention he publicly encouraged Russia to release any information from Hilary Clinton’s server that they got from hacking. Encouraging a foreign country to break the law for political gain is a direct violation of the Constitution.

Trump is not a stupid man. He may be many things, but he always knows what he’s doing. He’s pushed the envelope so far that it’s bizarre to half of the country that the other half support him. Perhaps Trump’s as surprised as anybody? This may be wishful thinking, but maybe his mega-ego is in conflict with his true feelings? Maybe he really doesn’t want to be President and he keeps shooting off missile after missile thinking one will blow up this campaign only to discover that they have turned into fireworks.

A Trump victory is likely to be what happened to that house I loved. It’s gonna get knocked down and rebuilt. That may not be a bad thing in concept as Jefferson said: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” Let’s be careful what we wish for.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Best laid plans

I’m a planner. I like to know what’s going to happen. That makes me a good strategist. It also means that I’m not necessarily the most spontaneous person in the world. The trick, of course, is when life happens and things interrupt well laid plans – how nimble one is in adapting is critical. Like most of us I’m a work in progress as to being flexible. In some areas of my life as I age I am much more ‘go with the flow’ while other areas I seem to be getting less amenable. Politics requires a lot of pliability and if you’re planning a coup – you really do need to have your ducks in a row.

On July 15 for several hours there was an attempt to take over Turkey’s government. According to the BBC: “It looks as if the coup attempt was staged mainly by the gendarmerie [national police] and air force personnel.” The rest of the military were not on board and ‘order’ was restored within a day.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fired tens of thousands of workers and thousands of military personnel in a purge to rid the country of traitors. To many it looks like the megalomaniac President who just declared a three month “State of Emergency” is using the failed coup as a way to solidify his power.

Most U.S. news outlets and indeed the State Department itself seemed surprised by the uprising. I wasn’t. In 2015 the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (where I serve as Executive Director) became the first LGBTQ chorus to perform in Turkey. It almost didn’t happen. A short documentary tells of all the details – but the top-line narrative  was that the President of Turkey in his re-election bid canceled the concert. The event went on with thousands in attendance though the state media were prevented from covering it.

Rainbow formed from the water canon used against LGBT people @ Pride Parade 2015

The next day the Chorus was scheduled to lead the annual LGBTQ pride parade. When we arrived at the starting point we were turned away by the police who informed us the parade was cancelled and unless we disbursed everybody would be arrested and detained. We complied though many then went back individually and watched water canons and tear gas used against Turkish citizens by the police.

The LGBTQ community in Turkey fiercely stood up for themselves and in the election that followed Erdogan didn’t win a plurality – and was forced to form a coalition government. LGBTQ forces helped sway the election 18%. When that effort failed new elections were held. ISIS attacks began in-country Erdogan used the politics of fear to win a majority in the new elections. He immediately began instituting new policies and was working on a new constitution giving him more authority.

PRI, a leading international publication wrote in July 2015 “How Erdogan Spurs LGBT Hatred for Political Gain.” A year later the police shut down the LGBTQ pride parade for a second year in a row.

In addition to being courting the extreme right Islamists in Turkey, President Erdogan has a low tolerance for criticism. And he keeps track. In 2015 Reuter’s reports: “Stephen Kinzer, a former Turkey bureau chief for the U.S. daily, traveled to the southern city of Gaziantep expecting to be made an honorary citizen for his reporting 15 years ago which helped save endangered Roman mosaics. His embarrassed hosts at the city council had told him the award had been canceled on the personal orders of Erdogan due to a column he wrote in the Boston Globe in January.”

In 2014 the Presidential Palace that Erdogan designed and cost $615 million was under criticism from the opposition party for excessive spending. The President’s response to the accusations was to threaten to sue and jail those who made the claims.

Politico reports: “Turkey is a longtime strategic partner of the United States that houses a vital U.S. airbase and a small U.S. arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.”

When a country is taken over by a megalomaniac who responds to criticism by lashing out and jailing people, it is a problem. When a President lashes out against a community of people (like the LGBTQ community) to pacify his right flank, it is a problem. That’s all true in Turkey and in the United States. Now let's plan that next coup.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Random Acts

I’m going gray. Technically my strawberry-blonde / red locks are transforming into white – but there’s still a good amount of each. The transformation has been happening for years. My Dad once told me that his hair turned to white in a matter of weeks so once I found that first strand some twenty years ago I’ve been looking at the rest of them for years wondering when the switch will occur. (Dad’s probably looking down with his crinkly eyes and wry smile, happy he got one over on me.) Every now and again I will catch myself in a reflection and marvel at the shift in proportions. There’s nothing to do about it and I have plenty else to worry and obsess about – but it’s one of those things that incrementally been happening and one day soon I’ll notice that one color will predominates any other. I think that’s a metaphor for race relations and violence in the U.S. right now.

From our earliest days as America has been a mix of people. It started with Native Americans and European settlers and then African Americans were brought to these shores unwillingly as slaves. Others came to explore the bountiful opportunities and riches that the land offered or to escape persecution.

We have not handled the differences we have with each other well. There has been prejudice, discrimination, retaliation and fear throughout American History. Try as current columnists might, there is no point to go “aha! This all started with…” without literally starting with the arrival of The Mayflower.

In the past few years the level of violence has increased. Has it? Native Americans were slayed by the thousands in the colonists land grabs in America’s earliest days. The U.S. Government quarantined Japanese people during World War II. More recently black people were lynched (hung from tree posts) in the U.S. for decades before there was a movement to stop that violence. There are too many examples of violence against one group of people based on their difference.

The social media impact on our lives is more reflective of how things have changed. One of the incidents in July 2016 was aired lived on Facebook as the victim died. Everything is happening in real time and is available for immediate consumption instead of a news story that took even a day or two to wend its way through the country. It now takes seconds. Events happen so quickly now that the murders of 49 people in Orlando one month ago (June 2016) now seem distant compared to the fresh events of police shooting citizens and a sniper killing police officers.

There are differences between the races. There are differences between classes of people. If we wanted to we could find and focus on those differences. What we don't do enough of is look at what we have in common.

Are we a more violent society? Or do we just have access to more weapons and they’re more sophisticated?

Are we less tolerant? Or do we now have ‘permission’ to express our fear and dislike of anything different because we know there’s others like us out there?

Is it ever going to stop? No, probably not. It's been going on too long and too many people seem invested in their way and their interpretation.

Can we do anything? Absolutely. These past weeks and months (and years) have been a barrage of random acts of violence and hatred. The optimistic pacifist side of me wants us to all to get along. The more practical side of me will settle for us each taking on a random act of kindness instead. That feels more achievable. It's a long stretch of a metaphor, but accepting that my hair isn't all one color or the other - that it's a true mix and combination is very much like accepting that the world isn't just like me. 

What random act of kindness will you take that on?