Saturday, May 29, 2010


From Bob Herbert's latest column on the BP disaster:

"The U.S. will never get its act together until we develop the courage and the will to crack down hard on these giant corporations. They need to be tamed, closely monitored and regulated, and constrained in ways that no longer allow them to trample the best interests of the American people."

Friday, May 28, 2010

Colin Crowley: Humanitarian Videographer From Oshkosh

Received a wonderful email yesterday from Colin Crowley. I first met Colin around 2004, when I was running for state assembly and he was doing a barista stint at the New Moon coffee shop. A gifted photographer and videographer, Colin has taken his talents around the globe. A few years ago many of us followed his gripping portrait of life in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As for what Colin's been up to in the last few years, I'll quote directly from his email:

I've been working for the British NGO Save the Children UK since April of 2008. I work for their emergencies team as a multimedia officer which means I create photo essays, make videos, write case studies,and very often contribute to international media pieces on humanitarian crises - sometimes acting as a chaperone for international journalists when they visit Save the Children's programs. The last two years have been great for me, and rather than feeling like a "weird" guy who speaks French and takes photos in Oshkosh - I've fallen into a role where those things are completely normal - expected even in my current milieu.Since I started, my travels have followed major humanitarian emergencies around the globe. China for the earthquake, Myanmar for the cyclone (terrible government, wonderful country and people), DR Congo for the war, Zimbabwe - cholera outbreak, Ethiopia - food crisis, Northeast Kenya - food crisis, South Sudan - everything, Haiti - right after the earthquake (very ugly situation) and a bunch of places in between for this and that. I'm currently in Niger documenting a really bad food crisis that will unfortunately probably pass under the media radar until the World Cup excitement is over with. But anyway, it's been an interesting ride and it's been a great way to see the world and meet people - kind of like a vacation to all the places where you'd never want to take a vacation.

Colin's wife is Kenyan, and they live in Nairobi with their baby daughter. He says that "living in Africa is fun, frustrating, inspiring, relaxed, frightening, easy-going and highly-stressful all at the same time, and very often all those things within the course of 24 hours."

Traveling in the third world has given Colin an interesting perspective on the American "Tea Party" movement: "I have spent the past two years working in countries where governments don't spend ANY money on ANYTHING for their people, and all I have found is overwhelming human suffering. Then I look back home and see all these people shouting about not wanting to pay taxes for this and that. I noted your reference to the "dumbassification" of the American Public and it made me think of just this sort of thing."

Colin spent some time in Haiti documenting the horrific after effects of the earthquake. His photo essay can be found here. He also emailed me a piece he write back in February on what it was like to be a photographer in Haiti after the event. I'll reproduce it here in full:

Some thoughts on the photographer situation in Haiti and what it was like to be a photographer/videographer in the weeks immediately following the earthquake:

…in a lot of ways, I think things got out of hand, because for the population who suffered through the earthquake, they saw about 3000 foreign photographers swarm into their city overnight - long before it was possible to get them any substantial aid in those circumstances. So it put out a lot of mixed messages to Haitians - they saw that foreign countries are able to send people to gawk faster than they are able to actually give out any help. By week two people started getting fed up with this and I certainly felt these repercussions in my own interactions with the Haitian public.

However, as a member of an aid organization, it gives me more flexibility. First off, I'm not under pressure to file the most sensationalistic story I can find so that I can beat out the hundred other photogs who were all within the same area I was when I was following a story. I was also able to take a lot of time to hang out with people and try to establish relationships before I started taking any pictures. Speaking French and enough Kreyol to break the ice helped a lot as well, and it was a bit embarrassing to see how many photographers had flown in without the least bit of French language background

Finally, whenever I was met with mild hostility I could diffuse some of the negativity directed towards me by explaining the relationship between the pictures and video I was taking to the tangible aid they were receiving. In particular, Save the Children was distributing household items, food, water, tents, medicines, doctors and putting up latrines showers and water points in the camps all within the first two weeks. So if anybody got angry asking what the hell I was doing taking photos, I could just take the time to point to these things out and explain very clearly and very slowly that I was trying to help our organization to get more donations so that we could continue providing more aid. Very often these conversations would become the starting points for friendly relationships and people who were initially hostile would end up being extremely helpful. I think it helped to understand that the hostility was born out of very real frustrations.

But it wasn't easy, and some days I would go out and visit the little girl and family I was following and I could just tell that they didn't want to have their picture taken. One aspect of being photographer in these situations that is difficult for me is that on my end there is a level of excitement about being able to document peoples' lives and tell their stories at this huge moment in history, and this is accompanied by adrenaline and an enthusiasm for my work. But the point of view of the people whose situations I’m documenting is completely different - they've just lived through a catastrophe that destroyed their homes, killed their friends and family, turned their city upside down, and put them out on the streets living shameful conditions - and now there's this guy here who wants to take pictures of us!?

So I definitely have some things to process and think about. This is actually my third post-earthquake trip and I have to admit I have a morbid fascination with the visual beauty of all this destruction. The figure of a human being standing amidst a pile of ugly, urban rubble is for me, this overwhelmingly powerful symbolic image.

But what it symbolizes exactly, is a question I'm still grappling with. For now, all I can really come up with is "the best laid plans of mice and men..." A lot of journos started getting rocks thrown at them in the second and third weeks - mostly with good reason - i.e. not knowing when to put the camera down, not attempting to communicate with people, and in some instances taking pictures of woman and girls while they were bathing in makeshift showers in the camps. I would like to think that I have some sort of immunity to this, and while I think having a good head on your shoulders and making judgment calls that incorporate a certain morality can help keep you out of trouble - there is always the unknown factor and randomness of a crowd of people that get pushed to an extreme and spontaneously degenerate into frenzy. Just look at Dan Eldon's example to see proof of that - no matter how careful you are or how good your intentions, there is always the possibility that you will get caught in the wrong place at the wrong moment.

Finally, after the initial period of voyeurism passes and the Haiti earthquake fades out of the 24-hour news cycle, we should consider the very real possibility of there being "too few" photographers in Haiti. While these immediate weeks have brought the eyes of the world onto Haiti, we all know how short the attention span of the international media can be. The response to this crisis is not going to be finished in five months, a year, or even five years, but is going to literally take a generation. How the world pays attention to this, and the kind of attention they pay will largely affect how well the people of Haiti are able to recover.

Finally, finally - as a French speaker and certified “Creolefile,” I would like to say that despite the sensationalistic reports of looting and rioting post-earthquake, Haitians are just an awesome people – resilient in ways that are unimaginable to us in the States, and strong in their ability to cope with unthinkable extremes. Haiti, despite its grave problems is still a wonderful place.

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
February 10, 2010

Colin says that "my goal is to just let people speak for themselves as much as possible and tell their story in their own words - without imposing too much of a spin onto what they're saying." Here are some examples:

A boy dealing with the food crisis in NE Kenya 2009

A former child soldier tells his story in South Sudan 2010

A girl talking about her experience of the Haiti Earthquake 2010

As noted, Colin is currently in Niger documenting a bad food crisis. He will soon be blogging from the area. I will put the link on T2T.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Rooting For Clegg and the Lib Dems, Part II

Even though the flawed plurality voting system resulted in his Liberal Democrats actually losing seats in the recent UK elections, Nick Clegg today sits as Deputy Prime Minister, Liberal Democrats now occupy a handful of cabinet seats in a coalition government led by Tory (conservative) David Cameron, AND the citizens will have an opportunity to vote in a referendum on an alternative voting system. The Tory/Lib Dem policy agreements can be found here.

The lesson for American third parties? Actually, there are a few lessons:

1. Televised Debate Participation: Third party participation in nationally televised debates greatly changes the campaign dynamic. Had Nick Clegg not been allowed to participate in the debates, it's doubtful that he would have had the credibility necessary to be part of coalition government--especially given the fact that his party actually lost seats in the election.

That third party participation in debates changes the campaign dynamic is not news. Indeed, Ross Perot's showing in 1992 and 1996 led to the Republicrats creating debate participation criteria that effectively rule out anyone but them from participation. It will be difficult for American third parties to make progress at the national level without such participation.

2. Coalition Politics: The Liberal Democrats were formed in the late 1980s when the Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party merged. The Social Democrats included former Labour Party politicians. The merged party had enough credibility to win seats in the Parliament.

I know it's difficult to imagine here in the US, but I can envision a scenario in which a variety of third parties coalesce , recruit former Democrats and Republicans, and win some seats in the Congress. There actually is some precedent for that here in Wisconsin, where the Progressive Party controlled state government for a brief period in the 1930s and won a few US House seats.

3. Voting Reform: Clegg's maneuvers resulted in the conservatives agreeing to have a national referendum on voting reform. It's not clear yet what kind of reform proposal will be voted on, but it will probably be along the lines of a system that will ensure that a seat cannot be won with less than fifty-percent of the vote.

In essence, Clegg has succeeded in putting the ball in the court of the UK citizens. If they want to see fairer, more representative elections, they will have to support the referendum. Expect Labour and the Tories to fight like hell to defeat whatever proposal comes forward.

In the US, we're seeing a growing number of establishment politicians running as Independents. Most want to follow the Lieberman Model in Connecticut: take advantage of one's name recognition to score a narrow victory in the rotted plurality voting system.

All the Democratic Party outrage at Lieberman doesn't seem to translate into any action on their part to change the voting system. Consequently (and as is typically the case in American politics), it's going to be up to grassroots activists to do the heavy lifting.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


That stands for "Citizen Statement Irony." At last night's Common Council meeting, for the first time the Council allowed citizen statements at the end AND at the beginning of the meeting. The only caveat is that if a person speaks at the beginning, they cannot speak at the end and vice versa.

Some were concerned that allowing statements at both ends of the meeting would result in more speakers and thus, longer meetings.

That still could happen, but I found it ironic that at last night's meeting we had a grand total of zero comments during the citizen statement period(s).

In this age of extremes, we'll probably have 100 statements at the next meeting.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Rooting for Clegg and the Lib Dems

UK citizens go to the polls today, and have an opportunity to send a loud message that could be heard across the Atlantic. Dominated for generations by two major parties (Labour and Tories; roughly the equivalent of the Democrats and Republicans), the star of the campaign season has been Nick Clegg of the opposition Liberal Democrats. Should Clegg end up as Prime Minister, it would represent a stunning rejection of the "Coke v. Pepsi" politics that has dominated Britain and the US since, well, the 19th century.

Why the Clegg surge this year? Because he was allowed to participate in national televised debates. Clegg persuasively argued that Labour's Gordon Brown and the Tories David Cameron are merely more business as usual, "making the same promises and breaking the same promises." John Nichols examines the phenomenon here.

Given the British parliamentary system, the odds of Clegg actually becoming PM this year are not great. But whatever the result, his performance has been a wake-up call for the establishment parties. Additionally, it is now clear that in the US, the so-called "Commission on Presidential Debates" must no longer be allowed to exclude legitimate third-party candidates from nationally televised debates.

Another lesson we should learn from the Brits is to shorten our campaign season. The general-election season in Britain is 30 days; less time for the monied interests and political hacks to undermine the process. Also less money wasted on big media advertising and less chance of the voters just getting sick of the candidates.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Media Rants: Health Care, Dumbassification, and the Fairness Doctrine

Health Care, Dumbassification, and the Fairness Doctrine

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

From the May 2010 edition of The SCENE

Did you catch any of the broadcast “debate” over the “historic” health care “reform” legislation? On television and talk radio, health care news and commentary sounded so detached from reality that I half expected to see the “expert” pundits escorted out of broadcast studios in straitjackets.

Being a corporate media expert or talk show host these days requires being or acting delusional. For health care discourse, this means Democrat-leaning flaks must refer to Obamacare as akin to Social Security and Medicare. Republican flaks, meanwhile, find “socialism” in everything Obama.

Rather than expose delusional talking points as fraudulent, corporate media uncritically present partisan propaganda as “mainstream” thinking. Fact: Obamacare is neither socialist nor even FDR or LBJ lite. Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich is spot on: "Don't believe anyone who says Obama's healthcare legislation marks a swing of the pendulum back toward the Great Society and the New Deal. Obama's health bill is a very conservative piece of legislation, building on a Republican (a private market approach) rather than a New Deal foundation. The New Deal foundation would have offered Medicare to all Americans or, at the very least, featured a public insurance option."

Obamacare is a Mitt Romneyish, Wall St. friendly health care scheme that will coerce 30 million people into purchasing a defective private insurance company product. The private insurance industry becomes another “too big to fail” operation. In the topsy-turvy world of modern partisan politics, Democrats call this a great progressive achievement while the GOP condemns it as socialist. Such absurdities are part and parcel of what hip-hop icon Chuck D calls the “dumbassification” of American popular culture.

Too bad Dr. Obama’s health care plan doesn’t treat our ailing, dumbassified discourse. Perhaps a revival of the Fairness Doctrine is the necessary medicine.

The Communications Act of 1934 created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The 1934 Act and 1996 update empower the FCC to revoke the licenses of broadcasters not operating in the “public interest.” License revocation is extremely rare, and almost never the result of incompetent or incomplete news programming. (Threats to revoke licenses are usually the result of broadcasts defined by the FCC as “obscene, indecent, or profane.”).

In 1949 the FCC adopted the “Fairness Doctrine” as a formal rule to promote balanced coverage of controversial issues. The Congress in 1959 amended the 1934 Act to endorse the Fairness Doctrine: “A broadcast licensee shall afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of conflicting views on matters of public importance.”

In a landmark 1969 decision (Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC), the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine. Justice Byron White argued that, “A license permits broadcasting, but the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a . . . frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others . . . It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.”

The FCC never enforced the Fairness Doctrine in a heavy handed manner; Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting essayist Steve Rendall writes that “Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows or editorials . . . The Fairness Doctrine simply prohibited stations from broadcasting from a single perspective, day after day, without presenting opposing views.” Yet Ronald Reagan’s deregulation friendly 1980s FCC revoked the Doctrine, aided by a US Court of Appeals ruling (written by Justice Robert Bork and concurred with by soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia) that Congress’ 1959 amendment did not obligate the FCC to enforce it.

Fairness Doctrine opponents argue that cable television, the Internet, and satellite radio make it irrelevant. That is, anyone upset by one-sided coverage or commentary only need to find alternative views somewhere else. Sounds plausible, except for the fact that most citizens do not “opinion shop” for balanced views, nor should they have to purchase cable, Internet, or satellite services because the media they do have access to selfishly broadcasts a narrow spectrum of reporting and commentary.

Republicans and conservatives tend to be virulently opposed to the Fairness Doctrine, yet ironically they suffer the most from its absence. Conservatives could have established that Obama and the Democrats were pushing a Republican health care bill, while the GOP could have negotiated stronger market reforms. Instead, following the lead of the one-sided echo chamber that is right wing talk radio, they were reduced to renouncing “death panels,” “socialism,” and other absurdities. Said former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum,“We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.”

Delusional Democrat and Republican leaders needn’t worry about the Fairness Doctrine coming back. President Obama’s FCC Chair Julius Genachowski says “I don’t think the FCC should be involved in censorship of content based on political speech or opinion.” Requiring more voices and balance is “censorship of content?” I suppose it shouldn’t surprise anyone that dumbassification exists at the highest levels of the federal government.