Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Fairness Doctrine 2016

I play by the rules. OK, sometimes I play fast and loose – but mostly I stay within the lines. I may have skipped one day of classes during my school years. (It was Senior Skip Day and everybody was doing it so maybe that doesn’t count?) Now in my midlife living it’s rare that I even exceed the speed limit. My halcyon days of yesteryear where I was once stopped for going 110 are history. Rules and policies exist for good reason and if you don’t like them, change them. I’ve spent a lot of time working to make change where I think it’s needed. This blog is an example of drawing attention to issues and being part of conversations about how things could be different. And boy could things be different this election season.

The Boston Globe reflects its core New England audience – largely progressive but with streaks of fiscal conservatism. The paper long ago endorsed John Kasich who it defines as a “mainstream conservative.” On the Democratic side Hilary Clinton received their nod of approval as “the better choice.”

Newspaper endorsements no longer carry the sway that they once did. Same with Union endorsements or even celebrities standing up for a particular candidate. They are important as they can begin to shift the narrative in a larger media environment, but I doubt that many people read The Boston Globe and then say “oh now I’m going to vote for…” Independent minds are the majority.

The paper this week wrote a different kind of editorial. It encouraged Democrats (and Republicans) to vote for any candidate other than Donald Trump. “STOPPING DONALD J. TRUMP is imperative — and not just for his fellow Republicans.” The piece continues with their reasoning. “Trump’s campaign has revived some of the ugliest traditions in American politics, including the scapegoating of religious minorities and immigrants. He has yet to put forth a serious platform of ideas about how he would govern or what a Trump administration would seek to accomplish. Just his nomination by one of the nation’s major parties would be an international embarrassment.”

I don’t support Donald J. Trump. Much of what The Globe says is spot on. But manipulating the electoral system isn’t the answer. If the majority of people want Trump, then Trump it should be. That’s democracy.

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was—in the Commission's view—honest, equitable, and balanced. The FCC eliminated the Doctrine in 1987, and in August 2011 the FCC formally removed the language that implemented the Doctrine.” With the advent of hundreds of cable channels and access to information via the Internet the government no longer felt that was necessary to regulate the airways since different opinions were readily available.

Theoretically social media is another great equalizer. I’m not sure it’s actually true though. Having seen so many ‘friends’ post things like “If I see that you ‘follow’ Donald Trump don’t be surprised when I unfriend you. We have nothing in common.” So a progressive or liberal who wants to keep up with the attacks, insults and even have a defense is automatically assumed to be crazy if they do the responsible thing and gather information from those who they disagree with.

We live in a time where people get their view of the world filtered through the prism that they most agree with: Fox News, MSNBC or even CNN who claims the middle road but has a decidedly progressive leaning. Particular blogs, newspapers and opinion pieces are read and opinions that may present even a slightly different perspective aren’t even considered. It’s why nothing happens in Washington. Even with a deluge of opinions available, citizens are less educated about the issues today than they were under the Doctrine.  

The Washington Post didn’t go quite as far as telling its readers to jimmy the system in its editorial against the GOP front runner. Instead they outlined the lies, prejudices and ugliness that the Trump campaign represents and begs people to stand up to the bully Trump.

The Post has the right idea, The Globe doesn’t. The fair thing to do with a bully is to use the bully pulpit back. It requires looking at issues from multiple perspectives and even embrace things we may not fully agree with – and that is something that is missing the most from our discourse and our politics that is what made America the Greatest Country On The Earth. Ever.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Right. Wrong.

I'm a bit of an Anglophile: I love the United Kingdom. I spent my junior year living and studying in London. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I’ve returned several times and have just made plans to do so again. The abundance of art, music and theatre combined with an incredibly rich and diversity of people make London one of the most vibrant cities in the world. It’s also wildly expensive, busier than ever and crowded unlike it was when I lived there in the 1980’s. There has been a '"special’relationship" ever since Winston Churchill declared it in 1946. That special bond has gotten so close that its nearly indistinguishable to tell one from the other now.

The Washington Post reported that the US and the UK are in active negotiations to allow “an agreement that would enable the British government to serve wiretap orders directly on US communication firms for live intercepts in criminal and national security investigations involving its own citizens. Britain would also be able to serve orders to obtain stored data, such as e-mails.”

There’s a whole lot that’s wrong with this idea. The British would follow their internal rules – getting the Home Secretary to sign off on a warrant. Then that warrant carries the same weight as if a U.S. judge issued it. But instead a foreign entity will be directing private U.S. companies on what actions to take. That in and of itself is disturbing and worrying.

Law Enforcement has a difficult time getting access to the data it needs. An example: “London police are investigating a murder-for-hire plot, and the suspects are using Hotmail to communicate, and there’s no connection to the United States other than the fact that the suspects’ e-mails are on a Microsoft server in Redmond, Wash. Today, the police would have to use the mutual legal assistance treaty process and wait months.” Innocent until proven guilty. That sometimes means waiting to get it right.

New York City police are like the population it serves: impatient. It has been reported that “The New York Police Department has used cell-site simulators more than 1,000 times between 2008 and May of 2015.” What that means is that police have used “cell-site simulators. [They] work by masquerading as 2G cell towers, pulling information from all nearby phones but disrupting cell service throughout the area.” In other words you could be walking down the street and the NYCPD will capture your call information without a warrant because they're grabbing everybody's info in a broad sweep. A court order is needed which doesn’t have the same threshold of evidence as a warrant. The NYCPD is literally on street corners capturing everybody's private information without a warrant.

Just yesterday (2/17/16) Apple was ordered to build a back-door to break the encryption on the iPhone because law enforcement can't. Apple is fighting the order but it's another example of the governments appetite for accessing personal information from private technology companies. 

Does all of this sound familiar? As I detailed in a blog last year - the U.S. has for years tried and failed to get legal precedent to violate American's privacy. “A Federal appeals court found ruled that the National Security Agency program that systematically collects American’s phone records is illegal. The USA Patriot Act is the basis that the NSA used to justify the program.” The Act was set to expire but didn’t. It was renewed. The program was meant to be stopped and it kept operating. The only difference in Feb. 2016 is that originally the Government was to capture and hold the meta-data of people’s cell phone calls, texts, emails – but now the underlying phone companies are supposed to.

To summarize: the U.S. Government captured American’s private information for a decade and a half under a program that was deemed illegal repeatedly by U.S. courts. Rather than shut the program down it kept running until the law could be changed where U.S. private companies are required to hold the data and give it out when a warrant has been issued. U.S. and U.K. officials are negotiating a mechanism where a non-court, non-judicial office in Whitehall will issue a request for information for these records and the private companies that are now required to hold the data will be forced to comply.

Well you’ve got to give the Obama administration points for creativity at circumventing the law. Instead I’ll go with the British expression “right.” Americans think of it as a substitute for “okay.” But the slang dictionary tells us that right is an “Adjective. Used as an intensive. e.g."I made a right mess of that." At least the NYCPD doesn't pretend - it just grabs the info it wants. It's all just wrong.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


I did not watch The Super Bowl, 2016. The third-most-watched television show in history had 111.9 million TV viewers. I wasn’t interested in the match nor in the half-time concert. I know. Send me off to a Russian gulag as I’m clearly an enemy of the state. Football never held much fascination for me – not sure whether that’s because I’m just not much of a sports guy or a tragic week in eighth grade that is better left to another blog at another time.  While it’s not my thing – I don’t begrudge others who enjoy it. I’ve always resisted the idea that taxpayers should support such sporting franchises or facilities. Usually that manifests itself in tax breaks, incentives, etc. for a team to build in a particular place over another. Beyond these breaks we now learn that the Pentagon has paid the NFL $5.4 million dollars to honor veterans.

The Business Insider reports that 14 teams “accepted millions of dollars from the defense department over the course of three years in exchange for honoring troops and veterans before games.”

Before a game begins the teams take to the field and bring out veterans and service members to ‘honor’ them. It’s a powerful and symbolic way to tie the inherent heroism and patriotism of the American military with America’s sport. There is an implicit assumption that the ‘honoring’ is due to respect, appreciation and affection. Nope. It’s due to cash. Who’s paid for this propaganda? The taxpayer has funded this through the Pentagon.

Perspective is important. $5.4 million is a lot of money to me personally, and to most people. It is for most organizations too. For the Pentagon, however, whose 2017 fiscal year budget request is $582 billion – the $5.4 million cost is 0.0010% of its expenditures. Tiny. One penny out of $1,000. But that’s not the only financial support American give the league.

The taxpayer also underwrites the league in other ways. The NFL has 32 teams – each has an average valuation of $2 billion per Forbes. Not one penny of this $64 billion dollars is subject to taxes. USA Today reported that In 1966 “Congress amended the law to specifically list professional football leagues as 501 (c) 6 organizations — along with chambers of commerce and boards of trade. It happened as a result of horse trading with Congress that included an antitrust exemption for the NFL that helped it merge with the AFL, a rival league. In exchange, Congress received pledges from the NFL, including a promise to add a franchise in New Orleans.” As the head of this not-for-profit Commissioner Roger Goode earns upwards of $30 million per year.

“Promoting and increasing the public's understanding and appreciation of military service in the New Jersey Army National Guard increases the propensity for service in our ranks," National Guard spokesman Patrick Daugherty told, referring to the $377,000 the Jets received from the Jersey Guard between 2011-2014.  

The recent movie “Concussion” detailed the corrupt nature of the sport as it relates to the health and well-being of its players – all the way down to the ‘Pop Warner’ leagues. It shouldn’t be surprising that at the professional level there’s deception as well. This scheme reflects badly on the game and the military. It’s a true fumble.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Oscar is Gold for a reason

The Oscars bore me. Most awards shows do, but the granddaddy of them all seems especially tedious. It’s been nearly a decade since I actively worked in "the industry" so that is part of it. This is heresy to the many friends who live and breathe Hollywood. Perhaps the five years living outside of Los Angeles is part of it as well. More likely my love affair with the little golden man lost its shine in 1992 when Silence of the Lambs beat my favorite Beauty and the Beast. It still doesn’t seem right. My grumble isn’t unique – every year there are a slew of people who are overlooked for awards.

In the past two years the ‘major’ categories (Picture, Acting, Directing, Writing) have only had white nominees. Therefore the Oscars are racist. Or so goes the thinking and social media rants. Missing from the conclusion is any analysis or understanding of the history or the process of the awards.

Nominations for the acting categories, for example, come from those in the acting part of the Academy. Designers don’t vote on acting awards just as actors don’t vote on sound editing awards. That allows the ‘experts’ in a particular discipline to reward those in their own field.

The SAG awards recognize acting talent and are run by the Guild. Only actors vote on these awards as well. In most likelihood the pool of people who nominate and award the winners at SAG are the same pool as for the Academy of Motion Pictures. Lo and behold the January 2016 SAG awards for the leading movie categories had only white actors in them. (Television categories had more diversity as did the supporting categories.)

The directing and writing categories all operate the same…those who are experts in those fields do the choosing. The nominations for the guild awards largely reflect those of the Oscars because it’s really a subset of the same group of people making the decision. Best Picture is where there is a difference – and the rules are designed for that.  Everybody in the academy can vote for that.

Films that compete for Best Picture do so with the same calibrated campaigns as those in the political realm. There are individuals, companies and experts who guide a film through the awards process. Special screenings, Q and A’s with the talent, interviews, advertisements in local publications, billboards – all are part and parcel of raising a film’s awareness for people to vote on it. The industry thrives on such things – and the Academy has some rules aimed at preventing people from ‘buying’ influence. It’s a losing battle.

Since Harvey Weinstein aggressively marketed “Shakespeare in Love” for awards the rules changed. Millions are spent. Why? Aside from the ‘prestige’ and ego of those involved – the average American sees one movie a year with frequent movie goers seeing eight a year. There are over 250 movies released each year so having an award helps. If it’s won an award then it must be good!

Bloomberg Business reported on a study by Randy Nelson that movies with Oscar nominations stayed in theatres longer and had a multiplier on their box office earnings. It’s about money – not about race. As a casual (but regular) reader of The Hollywood Reporter I can see which movies spend the money to promote themselves and their actors and which don't. It's not surprising that those films which do not promote themselves do not get the nominations. It perhaps shouldn't be that way - but it is.

The media exploded over the lack of color in the nominations. The AMPAS decided to change its rules. The Guardian reports on the Academy’s decision to change its rules: “Political correctness played no part in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s move to double the number of female and black and ethnic minority Oscars voters, say AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson.”

Democratic Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton jumped on board saying “it was overdue.”
The idea that white people won’t vote for people of color is in and of itself a racist concept. And it belies the history of the Academy which has awarded honors to people of color. Have the rewards been allocated direct proportion to the country's demographics? Have the awards been fair? No – but that's not what they exist for. They are about marketing.

Mark Reina, a member of the Academy wrote a letter to the AMPAS president that was published in The Hollywood Reporter. His question to her: “I am a gay man and my father is a Latino immigrant. Please explain to me how denying me my right to vote makes the Academy membership and the Oscar nominees more diverse?”

The change in the rules is political correctness run amok. Should more people of color be nominated? Absolutely. What’s the best way to do that? Don’t complain about #Ocascartoowhite – remember that Oscar’s gold and it’s always been about the #green.