Sunday, February 15, 2015

John Piña Craven, American Treasure

February 15, 2015, 2:10 p.m.

October 30, 1924-February 12, 2015

From my choice of parents and place of birth through all the forks in the road thereafter, I have been one lucky fellow.

Through accidents of time and place, as much or more than anything else, I have often found myself in the midst of, and looking up to, my superiors, including some among our nation's "best and brightest." This began with my parents, their friends, professors (at the University of Iowa's University Elementary and High School our teachers were UI professors), faculty colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, and elsewhere (including the UI College of Law), the Fifth Circuit and Supreme Court judges, Covington & Burling lawyers, the White House, the best of the federal civil service, members of the media, and, it must be said, my wife, Mary Vasey.

Throughout, I've run a little competition in my mind. Who, among all those I have known, would be my own two or three "best and brightest"? Of course, that list changes from time to time.

But always at the top, in first place, was John Craven.

He held on past his 90th birthday, but during the early hours on February 12th he left us. He leaves a wife, Dorothy, son, David, and daughter, Sarah (women's rights advocate), each remarkable in their own right.

It was David, a Chicago lawyer, who phoned me with the news of his death an hour thereafter. It has taken me three days to compose myself sufficiently to compose this tribute -- and to bring the news to my own children.

John's knowledge, curiosity, and creativity spanned not only the range of the sciences and engineering, but the full breadth of the humanities and arts as well. He was full of energy, professionally productive, spouting creative ideas -- while thoughtfully expressing them in ways I could understand, even as a child. He had a great sense of fun, and in my experience always exhibited a kindly and humane regard for others.

He could design under-ocean cities (or water-based municipal transportation systems) and play the piano; build innovative submarines, write their history (The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea), find them when they went missing, and sing opera (as he earlier sang in the choir at Trinity in Iowa City with Mary); construct innovative project management tools and write Japanese haiku; demonstrate an engineer's mind that could master a law degree in his later years while maintaining a body that could successfully compete in marathons and triathlons involving open Pacific Ocean swimming; theorize, and then create, a major agricultural innovation of global consequence while writing his own set of Psalms.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

We'll start with some of the basics, followed by some description of his "a pipe, a pump, and a pond" innovation and some other references.

The Basics

John Piña Craven was born in Brooklyn in 1924, and began his studies of ocean technology at the Brooklyn Technical High School. He got his B.A. from Cornell University, a M.S. from Cal Tech, and a Ph.D., 1951, from the University of Iowa (when I first met him and his wife Dorothy, who studied speech pathology with my father). Most remarkable, he decided late in life to undertake, and succeeded in acquiring, a law degree!

Much of his professional life and accomplishments involved the Navy, beginning with a World War II service aboard the USS New Mexico that led to his rank of ensign. He helped design hulls for nuclear submarines at the David Taylor Model Basin outside Washington, which I would bike past on the C&O Canal towpath. We were able to visit then, as I was also in Washington at that time, serving as U.S. Maritime Administrator. (On reading this, my daughter, Julie, told me she recalled evenings in John and Dorothy's Maryland home singing Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary songs.)

When he later worked as the project manager, and ultimately chief scientist, for the Navy's Polaris submarine program, and Special Projects (Deep Submergence Systems Project; SEALAB), he received a number of awards including the Defense Department's highest (Distinguished Civilian Service Award). It was at that time he showed me the innovative project planning PERT (project evaluation review technique) system they were using that I went on to apply at the Maritime Administration. [Photo of John Craven accepting the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society Distinguished Technical Achievement Award, 2004.]

He is best known in some scientific circles for his work developing the Bayesian search theory for locating objects lost at sea. This was used on one occasion to find a lost hydrogen bomb, and later in locating a missing submarine.

After his Navy service, he and Dorothy moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where they both worked at the University of Hawaii, he as dean of its marine programs, she as a speech pathology professor. John was also appointed Marine Affairs Coordinator for Hawaii, and later Director of the Law of the Sea Institute. He entered politics as a candidate for Congress, and President Carter appointed him to the Weather Modification Commission that developed a model for reducing the impact of hurricanes.

A Pipe, A Pump, and a Pond

Fortunately, we have a video in which John and others explain the agricultural contributions of his pipe, pump, and pond.

"Deep Ocean Water Agriculture Application," Macdonald Productions, 2007

An accompanying note on YouTube explains,
"Global Cooling Technology: Deep Ocean Water Agriculture"
Agriculture employing Deep Ocean Water (DOW) can help increase growth rates by cooling garden soil below the dew point, at the Natural Energy Lab where DOW is pumped ashore.

A closed pipe system buried beneath the soil is designed to regulate and circulate the cold water, chilling the soil to 45oF, well below the dew point, so moisture drawn from the atmosphere moistens the cool garden, much like condensation gathers on a glass of iced tea.
One of the better descriptions of his pipe, pump and pond is Carl Hoffman, "The Mad Genius from the Bottom of the Sea," Wired, June 2005. Here are some excerpts:
[M]ost deep-ocean activities - saturation diving, exploring with submersibles, searching for tiny objects on the ocean floor - owe their origins to top secret, cold war-era Navy projects in which Craven had a hand. . . .

Craven is hard to keep up with. His mind darts from why the Navy should make subs out of glass to the sad end of his long telephone friendship with the late Marlon Brando to the remarkable prodigiousness of his small experimental Hawaiian vineyard. . . .

Under Craven, the lab developed the process of using cold deep-ocean water and hot surface water to produce electricity. By the 1980s the Natural Energy Lab's demonstration plant was generating net power, the world's first through so-called ocean thermal energy conversion. . . . Running the frigid pipes through heat exchangers produces unlimited air-conditioning that costs almost nothing. Draining their sweat yields an endless supply of freshwater for drinking and irrigation. The cold water also creates a temperature difference between root and fruit that Craven believes speeds growth.
As I recall, the "pond" came about after the enclosed cold salt water had made its contribution to agriculture, and it flowed into a pond where it would hold the fish that could provide a human protein source.

Given the proportion of the world's population that lives near the sea, this system had the potential to improve the lives of millions.

Other Examples and Books

John's book, The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea (2001), is still available from Amazon, with its four-star reviews, in both Kindle and paperback editions. At this site you can click on "Look inside" and read the Prologue (and other portions of the book) for free. Once you learn the subject of this remarkable story you may well want to get a copy from Amazon, your local bookstore, or library. Also see the numerous references to him in Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage (1998).

A Google search on John Piña Craven will produce about 150,000 hits. Here is a sample.

Much of the early material about John does not appear to be available online, such as his journal, Tales of an Ancient Mariner, or "The Old Man and the Sea" biographical sketch in the June 2004 Hawaii Business magazine. However, the Wikipedia entry provides a good deal of information.

When he was inducted into the University of Iowa Distinguished Engineering Alumni Academy, June 7, 2002, these biographical notes were prepared.

A sample of the obituaries includes The New York Times, William J. Broad, "John P. Craven, 90, Pioneer of Spying at Sea, Dies," New York Times, February 20, 2015, p. B11; the Washington Post: Matt Schudel, "John P. Craven, scientist who directed top-secret Navy projects, dies at 90," Washington Post, February 21, 2015; and the Honolulu Star Advertiser reported, Gordon Y.K. Pang, "Ocean Engineer Left Mark on Isle Research, Education; The Scientist Directed Sensitive Deep-Sea Recoveries Before Relocating to Hawaii," Star Advertiser (Honolulu), February 16, 2015.

A couple other brief bios are "Cool People Profile 06: Dr. John Piña Craven," Adventurer Naturalist, August 12, 2010, PIOS (Pacific International Ocean Station): Colloquy with John Piña Craven," Blue Revolution Hawaii, January 10, 2013 (with picture), and "John Craven," Science Heroes, and David Karl, UH and the Sea (2004), Chapter 6, "Enter John Piña Craven: Founding UH Dean of Marine Programs and State of Hawaii Marine Affairs Coordinator".

I came upon a YouTube video of what appears to be a radio announcer, presumably a Glenn W. Murphy, interviewing John via phone call. Out of the blue he asks John about the BP oil spill, for which John immediately proceeds to explain the chemistry -- during minute 2:00 through 5:00. Following that, John explains why he came up with the idea of "Certificates of No Responsibility" for his staff.

And here is an excerpt from chapter two of Lee Vyborny and Don Davis, Dark Waters: An Insider's Account of the NR-1, the Cold War's Undercover Nuclear Sub (rev. ed. 2012), that gives a sense of what he was involved in regarding the Polaris:
Then Rickover blatantly reached into the DSSP project and stole John P. Craven, the navy’s chief scientist, to be one of the managers of his new program. The fertile imagination of the cigar-smoking, poker-playing Craven was always coming up with new ideas. He even at one time proposed a deep diving submersible made of glass, and at another, considering a small submarine with nuclear power that could go very deep.

Although based in firm science, such schemes were not much more than flights of fancy -the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that constantly flowed from Craven. When Admiral Wilkinson told him with that one of those ideas to create a futuristic vessel might actually be possible, the scientist was intrigued. Rickover pulled together a secret meeting with Craven, Admiral Smith, and Assistant Secretary Morse to work out the details. Again, the money issue arose, for the hasty project was being born outside of budgetary planning.

Rickover demanded to know how much money was available, and Craven replied that he could come up with $10 million from the secret budget for special projects. Morse thought he could shift over another $22 million in ship construction money already appropriated by Congress for other projects. “Good,” Rickover replied. “It will cost $32 million.” The price was growing almost by the day.

In fact, the total had reached a level at which Congress was going to demand some answers. Rickover was unfazed, because he had yet to play his final card. On April 18, President Lyndon Johnson interrupted a holiday at his ranch in Texas to issue a news release in which he announced the navy and the Atomic Energy Commission were developing “a nuclear-powered deep-submergence research and ocean-engineering vehicle.” The president noted that Admiral Rickover would be responsible for the propulsion plant. BuShips would handle design and construction, and the Special Projects Office would have overall responsibility, a point that would keep the ship behind the veil of national security.
All who knew and loved John Craven, or even only knew of him, will retain their memories of this remarkable man and his remarkable family.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Free College Education for Iowans?

January 16, 2015, 7:00 a.m.

Will Germany’s Economic Formula Work for Iowa?

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 16, 2015, p. A7

The Iowa Legislature and Board of Regents emphasize college education for Iowans — at least those whose parents can afford the tuition, or graduates accepting debt with their diploma. Others debate pros and cons of extending 12 years of free public education to 14 ("Too Good to Be True? Time will tell on tuition plan," Jan. 14).

Meanwhile, Germany is only the latest country to realize that free higher education for all world citizens promotes economic growth in each of its states ("Länder"). Other countries with similar programs include Brazil, Finland, France, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden. [Photo credit: unknown. The picture is of students taking break from classes at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. Humboldt is one of the most prestigious universities in Europe, and has educated 29 Nobel Prize winners. Many of these "international universities" offer their free courses in English as well as the native language -- although improving one's foreign language is one of the benefits of study abroad.]

Tennessee is leading the trend in the U.S. with free community college education. Chicago is among the first big cities. President Obama is urging all states to follow.

As an educator, I'd like to believe this movement reflects a simultaneous epiphany among the world's public officials regarding the many values of a liberal arts education. Have they at last come to see that quality education, like universal single-payer healthcare, is a basic human right (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Arts. 25 and 26)?

Alas, that's not the case. Providing free college education to all, like the free food samples at Costco, is just good business.

Germany is part of a global economy. The more world citizens with German ties, the more the Länders' economies grow. It's true whether students from abroad stay, or return home with networks of German contacts. It's equally true of German students otherwise without access to higher education. The German economy benefits when they stay; it benefits when they study abroad, stay, and do business from there.

Iowa, unlike Germany, does not grasp this simple truth. Our leaders believe if Washington can pay for a war with tax cuts, Iowa can create prosperity with tax cuts. Both Washington and Des Moines are in desperate need of remedial math.

Iowa Workforce Development has warned of our challenge "to overcome a skills gap." We don't have a shortage of jobs, we have a shortage of middle and higher skilled workers. Our state universities don't have too many students from abroad and out of state, we have too few. Too few Iowans who have studied abroad and stayed there to help develop markets for Iowa products. Too few from abroad who have studied here and stayed here — or gone back home with ties to Iowa businesses. [Photo credit: UI College of Education. The picture is of Iowa students taking a break from classes on the University of Iowa's Pentacrest.]

This is not rocket science. There's data. There's history. America and Iowa enjoyed an economic boom during the 1950s. Major contributors were the 2.2 million returning veterans of World War II who received a free college education under the GI Bill. California's growth from a destination for Dust Bowl immigrants in the 1930s to one of the world's 10 largest economic powers in the 1960s is directly linked to its deliberate economic policy of free higher education. New York is, in part, a similar story.

Iowa can't gamble its way to prosperity. It can't build a growing economy on tax cuts. It can't sustain economic growth by bribing fickle out-of-state businesses to locate here.

What it can do is look to the history of the World War II GI Bill, and the growth of California. What it can do is try to understand the rationale behind Germany's policy of free education for all. What it can do is, like President Obama, follow a progressive state like Tennessee and city like Chicago.

Will it work for us? Let's think it through.

It would require the uncommon political courage of deferred gratification: putting Iowa's long-term economic growth above Iowans' short-term economic greed. And, yes, it requires a willingness to raise and invest taxes. But that educational investment could prove to be much more profitable than using taxpayers' money to bribe out-of-state corporations or as paybacks to major campaign contributors.
Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City, a former FCC commissioner, maintains and


Note: This column/blog entry produced a number of comments elsewhere -- sometimes including my own. They are reproduced below.


From a former Iowa City City Council member, via email and with permission:

Hello Nick: About your opinion piece in today's Press-Citizen.....I could hardly agree more. As far back as the 1950s when I was in school, the informed philosophy was that a college education was of benefit to far more than just the individual earning the degree.

Shannon Janes, a long time friend and former colleague of mine at ACT, is one of the brightest people I know. In the 1970s he was promoting higher education being a logical extension of public education. Thus, the present increasing conversions and proposed conversions in higher education/postsecondary education isn't something new to me.

I hadn't previously thought of your illustration that the post-World War II vets' access to the GI Bill does reflect well on the nearly global benefits of postsecondary education.

Do you know if any citizen efforts are developing for expressing strong support for extending K-12 to at least K-14?

Again, thanks for the interesting and most informative opinion piece.

Bob Elliott

Iowa City Press-Citizen Online Version Comments

Ed Flaherty · Iowa City, Iowa
As usual from Nick, excellent. We must change our investment policies. If we value private accumulation of wealth more than the health of our planet and of future generations, we lose our humanity and moral compass. January 15 at 9:10am

Rudolf Schmidt · Top Commenter · University of Iowa
The trouble with "free college for all" is the same problem that we have with "easy credit for college" in that we matriculate a lot of people who don't finish, and those who do finish end up with a generally worthless degree and tens of thousands of dollars in debt because of poor advice and poor planning.

Not everybody needs to or should go to college or university, but the main view is that everybody should go. Why is that? Why can't we talk about dropout rates and how young people who can't legally buy a beer are suddenly entrusted to sign away the next 20 or 30 years of their life to the government for loan payment on questionable majors? January 15 at 2:36pm

Nicholas Johnson · Top Commenter
Rudolf Schmidt:

Thank you for reading the column and posting your comment.

We mostly agree; but I'd like to draw some distinctions.

Whether free or high tuition, I agree that "not everyone needs to go to college." I suspect there are those who don't need to go to community college either -- though I'd guess a much larger percentage would benefit from the additional two years.

I also agree about the downsides of students graduating with very substantial debt -- that is but one of the reasons I'm advocating free college.

And, whether free or tuition-funded, I also agree that we could probably do a better job with admission standards that produce lower dropout rates. (However, I suspect that there will always be some students who wouldn't meet the standards who would do well if given a chance -- for, say, a limited six-week, or one semester, opportunity to show what they can do before being denied the opportunity.)

-- Nick January 16 at 7:55am

Holly Hart · Top Commenter · Works at Iowa Shares
Skills shortage? Then why is it impossible to get the training for what the state claims is needed? And why do they call :skills" things like working with Microsoft office? We have a job shortage, period. January 16 at 1:58pm

Sam Osborne · Top Commenter
A good education is not worthless to one that gets one. And, our institutions of higher education should be something other than machine shops the mill subtends into interchangeable parts to fit into the profit making efforts of others.

The supposed dropout out problem of a student leaving school prior to graduation can be done away with by simply referencing the student leaving as are other such changes---as a worker finding new opportunity, a former golfer having taken up fishing, a CEO stepping down and into retirement, a professional athlete wrapping up his career and any of us exiting into well earned retirements.

Free education is as good of an investment as is all of the money spent propping up moneychanger capitalism that is leaving this and soon coming generations of young people the red ink of debt that should have been a warning check mark against the elders who were not smart enough to avoid their own failing. January 17 at 10:07am

Rick Whitten · Top Commenter · Information Technology Specialist at State of Iowa
Nicholas: Long term thinking?? That sounds almost, um, conservative!

Facebook Comments

Note: The column/blog entry produced a lengthy exchange on Facebook. It is too long to format and reproduce here -- at least this morning. My response toward the beginning of the exchange provides a sense of what it was about.

Nicholas Johnson

Chuck Schmidt and Steve Hanken: I very much welcome your spirited exchange. That was my goal with the op ed column in this morning's [Jan. 16] Press-Citizen.

Germany and other countries are not offering free college education to every potential entering student in the world because it's a nice thing to do. They, like California years ago (prior to becoming the 7th largest economic entity in the world), are doing it because they find it promotes their economic growth faster and farther than other investments. Tennessee is doing it for the same reason with its community colleges, and the President thinks other states should follow their example.

I'm just suggesting we, and our elected representatives in Des Moines, ought to at least think about it, and the rationale of Germany, and others, for doing it. We should either do it, too, or come up with some very darn good reasons why it only works for other countries and states but not for Iowa.

It seems to me from your exchange that much of your difference derives from an unarticulated distinction between "expense" and "investment." Which is the "cheaper," or the "better buy," for an Iowa farmer: A $95,000 Tesla automobile, or a $150,000 John Deere tractor? Both are a "cost." But they are not both an "expense" (as I'm drawing the distinction). The Tesla is an expense. The tractor is an investment. Eisenhower's Interstate Highway system was an investment, not an "expense." The U.S. universal free K-12 public education systems in 15,000 school districts represent investments. So will be free 14 years of education instead of 12 (community college). And so, Germany believes, is its states' investment in free higher education.

-- Nick
January 16 at 10:42am

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Friday, January 02, 2015

NFL: Just Another Rigged TV Show

January 2, 2015, 8:30 a.m.

Better Than Tribal Conflict and Revolution?

I can kind of understand someone being a fan of high school football. In high school the fans know the players. Players sit alongside the other students in class. Parents come to the games. It's a community thing; a neighborly thing. Sometimes the fans' enthusiasm gets a little out of hand, but mostly it falls short of physical violence and destruction of property.

Even small college football retains some of these qualities. Big money college sports? Not so much.

But NFL football? What is that all about? [Image credit:]

Big money college ball at least engages in the pretense that the players are "student athletes." There's less hypocrisy in the NFL. It is a big money-making commercial enterprise pure and simple. It does not even pretend to be anything else. Fans cannot possibly have even as much of an emotional or nostalgic tie to their "local" NFL team than they would have to their local Ford dealer.

Think about it. With the exception of the community-owned Green Bay Packers, NFL teams are "owned" by someone, just like that Ford dealership is owned. The local citizens' tie to the team is primarily the contribution they made, as taxpayers, to building a multi-hundred-million-dollar stadium where the millionaire players of the billionaire owner stage some of the most profitable television programs in the industry. Many of those owners, and most of the players, have had no prior tie to the community. Few citizens have the sense of having grown up with them. Indeed, given the ticket prices for the games, few citizens could afford to ever see those owners and players anywhere other than on their television screens.

Now don't get me wrong. I'll be watching Super Bowl XLIX along with millions of my fellow Americans who will make it one of the highest rated TV programs in 2015. It's good television. In fact, as an FCC commissioner, ABC's football coverage struck me at the time as probably, from a technological perspective, a form of programming that optimized what TV has to offer. It's live, unrehearsed, and unpredictable in outcome. It takes place within a defined area, permitting the positioning of lights, cameras, and mikes for optimized coverage including closeups. The timeouts enable commercial breaks consistent with the programming. And it inspires the innovation of instant replay, digitally positioned scrimmage lines on the field, and other features -- now with the virtually 3-D appearance with HDTV and large home screens.

And these games are just a TV show in another sense. The NFL, as a television production company, is in many ways a single corporate entity. The individual teams are only competitors for the time of the game on the field. To make sure that competition is close enough to be exciting, efforts are made to equalize the ability of those teams -- through rules about the draft of new, replacement players (similar to "replacement smokers" for the tobacco industry), and the sharing of revenues. The team owners are kind of board members of the parent corporation, the NFL, who make the rules and hire the CEO. The players are sometimes traded between teams, know each other, and often appear quite friendly to the "opposing" players following the game in which one team "lost" and the other "won" -- because, in reality, both won a lifestyle otherwise unavailable to most of them.

So what is this fan loyalty about? I think it's a part of our DNA; a carryover from when our family loyalties extended to our tribes -- tribes that still war in many parts of the world where the NFL has not yet offered an alternative. Without the NFL, if Americans really understood the income inequality from which they suffer we might have another American revolution. Without our tribal loyalties to NFL teams we might be even more inclined to go to war.

So relax. Give thanks to the NFL. Enjoy the games. But if your favorite tribe loses, remember: It's not just "only a game." The reality is that "it's only a TV show."

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Re-Elect Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig

December 29, 2014, 3:20 p.m.

Looking for the recent blog essays about Sony, North Korea, and the movie, "The Interview"? Here are the links: "Threats and Sensibilities: Presidents Kim, Lynton and Mason," Dec. 20, 2014, and "Sony's 'The Interview': A Film Review," Dec. 26, 2014.

Note: This Letter to the Editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen, published May 17, 2014, was inadvertently omitted as a blog essay at the time, and is now being published "for the record." -- N.J.

Re-elect Rettig for Supe, She Knows What She’s Doing

Nicholas Johnson and Mary Vasey

Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 17, 2014

Janelle Rettig is worthy of your vote for Johnson County Supervisor on or before June 3.

In our lifetimes of dealing with politicians and officials at the local, county, state and federal governmental level in this country and abroad, she stands out as one of the best.

Rettig has our vote and support because she knows what she’s doing, works hard, does her research, listens, answers questions and concerns and finds satisfaction in serving everyone in Johnson County.

She also happens to be a wonderful person. We could go on and on about Rettig and her joy in living, but it embarrasses her. So we’ll stop now.

Just don’t forget to vote for Rettig for Supervisor on June 3.

Mary Vasey and Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Sony's 'The Interview': A Film Review

December 26, 2014, 1:00 p.m.

Initially "censored" by Sony and distributors, "The Interview" has now been released. I have just come from streaming the movie in my living room. Here are some thoughts.

The producers of "The Interview," were not trying to put it on some list of "America's 100 Best Films Ever." Accordingly, it's unfair to fault them for failing to make that list.

Do you believe that self-censorship is rampant throughout our society, from the family dinner table to the corporate workplace, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be present in the film and television industries as well? If so, you may want to fault them for failing to seek a second opinion about the wisdom of a storyline about the CIA's desire to assassinate North Korea's President Kim. See, "Threats and Sensibilities: Presidents Kim, Lynton and Mason."

If you don't believe that, whatever you end up thinking about the quality of the film, you'll give them credit for reversing course and making it available to us, notwithstanding the risks.

There are film snobs, and many less-film-sophisticated adults, who fear they may be snubbed for their poor taste in film if they do not reject out of hand any films that create uproarious laughter from junior-high-aged male movie goers. These critics profess to be offended by some of the "shocking" and "disgusting" language and scenes in such films. If you are among such adults, you will probably not want to see this film either.

There is a class of films I refer to as "fifteen-year-old" films. They are not films from 2000, 15 years ago. They are films designed to appeal to 15-year-olds. They are not among my first or favorite, let alone my only, choice in films. But neither do I reject them out of hand. I judge them for what they are. Many are quite funny. Some are embedded with serious lessons.

"The Interview" is much more than a fifteen-year-old film -- although it is also that. Much of the script is very well written. Any adult who can sit through it without numerous big laughs is no one with whom I'd be interested in spending much time. The acting and directing are excellent. There are illusions to real events that many adults will catch, though most of the kids will miss. Hidden within that humor is some serious content and commentary -- including its critique of today's "news media" and our CIA's tactics.

In short, I think the producers, director, and actors accomplished what they set out to do, and have provided all of us some genuine entertainment as a result.

Ironically, if anyone should feel upset by the caricatures of the characters, it should be any Americans who feel they are being portrayed by the bumbling American talk show team or our assassination-plotting CIA, not President Kim. Throughout much of the film the likeable Kim is actually portrayed very sympathetically.

I wanted to see it because I had written about the initial controversy, felt obliged to inform myself about the actual movie, consider it a kind of major year-end news event for 2014, and suspected that I would enjoy it -- for what it is -- as I did. As they say in the auto ads, "Your mileage may differ" -- you may not have my motives for watching, and may really not like it at all.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Threats and Sensibilities: Presidents Kim, Lynton and Mason

December 20 and 22, 2014, 10:00 a.m.

And see, "Sony's 'The Interview': A Film Review," Dec. 26, 2014

The Price of Free Speech
What the University Owes Students
The Values of Free Speech and a Proposal
Pictures of Presidents
"The Interview" Trailer and Pictures of "Art"
Quotations from . . .
President Barack Obama
The Guardians of Peace (the Hackers' Threats)
Sony Statement
UI President Sally Mason Statement
UI AAUP President Katherine Tachau Message
First Amendment
Alternatives to Law -- and Censorship:
Professor Lawrence Lessig
Mason Williams

The University of Iowa should consider developing a course for entering undergraduates’ first semester that exposes them to the values underlying the First Amendment, the history of protest movements in this country – and on this very campus.

-- Nicholas Johnson

Remember the line: “Gravity. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law”?

The Price of Free Speech

So it is with free speech – it’s a good idea, and also the law. With two distinctions from the law of gravity.

(1) The “law” doesn’t always apply.

Although the First Amendment to our Constitution merely forbids Congress to make a law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” the courts interpret “congress” to mean all government action – things done by city councils, school boards, and yes, state universities like the University of Iowa. But that means the First Amendment gives you no protection from restrictions on your speech at the family dinner table, or in the corporate workplace.

Courts also permit governments to restrict “freedom of speech” in a variety of contexts – how companies can advertise and label their products and new stock offerings, restrictions on sound trucks blasting messages throughout suburban neighborhoods after midnight, and a prohibition on airline passengers telling jokes as they pass through TSA security.

(2) And even when free speech is legally protected, it’s not free.

Speech is free like food is free in a Michelin four-star Paris restaurant. You tell the waitperson what you want, it’s presented before you, and you eat it. Only after the final cup of coffee, when you’re preparing to leave, do you pay the price.

This speak-now-pay-later quality of free speech made the news recently from Iowa and California.

Serhat Tanyolacar, a visiting assistant professor in the University of Iowa art department, declaring that he was “displaying the horrifying truth, the fact of racism,” put a seven-foot sculpture of a klan robe on the university’s central campus. It was covered with prints from newspapers’ stories of our country’s racist past. The artist’s intent – not that it’s necessarily relevant – appears to have been one of encouraging more serious discussion of what has long been an American problem, to “trigger awareness” by putting in historical context the current demonstrations and other reactions to a number of police shootings of unarmed African American males.

His speech was “free.” His price was the protests of some students who said they felt threatened, which was, in turn, considered a threat by a University administration trying to increase enrollment, and which responded by censoring his art, by removing it from the campus, and censuring him for displaying it.

Among the administration’s unfortunate rationalizations for its actions were the sentiments that, “There is no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays on this campus. . . . The UI respects freedom of speech, but the university is also responsible for ensuring that public discourse is respectful and sensitive.”

Meanwhile, out on the left coast, members of the “creative community” (as they like to call themselves) had exercised their free speech in the form of a hilarious satirical film about a couple of bumbling Americans the CIA asks to assassinate North Korea’s President Kim. It cost a little more to create than Serhat Tanyolacar’s sculpture, but was otherwise just as free, in the sense that it suffered no prior censorship. It was supposed to open in theaters all across the country this Christmas week.

However, also like the sculpture, there was a price paid for this free speech. Like the students who felt threatened by the art displayed in Iowa, there were North Koreans who felt threatened by the art displayed in California. Clearly, the threats, not to mention the cyber attacks, leveled at Sony were far more serious than any consequences for the University of Iowa. (The hackers had threatened, among other things, 9/11-style attacks on the U.S. and theaters displaying the films.)

But the institutional response from both institutions (the University and Sony) were otherwise similar. Both Sony and most theater owners simply censored the art (Sony didn’t release the film; theaters refused to show it). The statue was not displayed on the campus, and the film was not displayed in theaters.

What the University Owes Students

By now it may surprise you to read that I believe there is something to be said for the University’s position – not much, but something.

During at least the first half of the last century, college administrators were said to stand in loco parentis to their students. It was an old English common law concept, Latin for "in the place of a parent," that imposed on the college the legal responsibility to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. There were separate men’s and women’s dorms, both with relatively early-to-bed curfews that carried significant penalties for violations, prohibitions on alcohol, even dress codes.

Today’s equivalent includes programs endeavoring (mostly unsuccessfully) to reduce students’ binge drinking and the resulting sexual assaults and harassment, or to control the outbreak of campus-wide flu or other disease.

Few would question universities’ efforts to protect their students from physical harm. However, many are questioning the propriety of a university’s protecting their students from intellectual and emotional discomfort by insisting that all “public discourse is respectful and sensitive.”

Abraham Maslow gets credit for the line, “it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” It is a contagious disease of first year law students, who begin to see the law as offering solutions for most human conflicts and challenges. Sadly, there is an occasional law professor for whom the condition is chronic.

Of course, there are legal issues involved in the kerfuffle surrounding Tanyolacar’s sculpture. For example, as a state-funded (in ever decreasing amounts) institution, the University of Iowa is constrained by the First Amendment. If the campus is a “public forum” – that is, space where the University permits all kinds of speech and displays – UI administrators cannot deny speech or art because of its content. On the other hand, if it is a “limited public forum” – that is, say, space set aside for nothing but the discussion of graduate students’ doctoral dissertations – it could forbid all other speech there. Faculty are employees. As a matter of contract, the Board of Regents could tell professors what subjects they will teach and what they will say about those subjects in the state’s classrooms – except for the fact most faculty would then resign. Similarly, if the contract provides for “tenure” and “academic freedom” there are restraints on Regents’ and administrators’ ability to fire. There are many more legal issues and nuances.

But everything is not a nail; while complying with law, there are other considerations as well in the college environment. (There are even additional systems that sometimes exert more influence over our daily behavior than “the law.”)

A university is not a Marine Corps boot camp. We don’t throw entering undergraduates into the deep end of the new recreation center swimming pool to see if they can dog-paddle their way to the surface. We may no longer be in loco parentis, but there are valid reasons to create and maintain an environment conducive to students’ learning.

I lived and worked in the South during the 1950s, when the Klan was still burning crosses on people's yards (including that of a judge on the court where I was a law clerk). As a result, I probably have even more understanding and empathy than most for the African American students' reactions to the sculpture. Especially those students who had not viewed it closely, or were otherwise totally unaware of the artist's actual intent. In no way do I trivialize their concerns.

One way to avoid those kind of reactions is the way chosen by the University of Iowa. Forbid “divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays” and speech by “ensuring that public discourse is respectful and sensitive.” Unfortunately, in the context of higher education, that’s kind of like reducing automobile accidents by forbidding drivers to move their vehicles along roads or highways; or reducing NFL players’ injuries by forbidding any physical contact during games.

The world outside the campus – and to a significant degree on campus as well – is filled with divisive, insensitive, intolerant, and disrespectful speech and art. Central to the core mission of an institution of higher education – and what should be the mission of high schools as well – is an alternative approach to that of the University of Iowa. It is to prepare students for the world they are about to enter, rather than to shield them from it.

Provide them the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and analytical skills that enable them to confront that world. To learn of cultures, religions and languages different from their own. To understand, even appreciate, the arts – graphic, theater, dance, music – as another form of language, of communication, and the role they have played in protests throughout history. To learn the language of science, and its applicability in daily life. To challenge the beliefs with which they first arrived on campus.

The Values of Free Speech and a Proposal

Why is free speech a good idea as well as the law? An enormous volume of literature explores the reasons. Here are five often mentioned. (1)In our “search for truth,” a “marketplace of ideas” is far more effective than government-approved speech. (2)It can provide a “checking value” on abuses by government and other large institutions that would otherwise be supressed. (3) It is a far more peaceful way of providing an outlet for citizens’ grievances than the efforts to silence them that can end in violence – as we have recently seen. (4)Communication, expression, is central to individuals’ self-actualization and development as humans. (5) It is essential to citizens' maintenance of a successful self-governing democracy.

Note that these values, or benefits, or consequences of the First Amendment are not limited to institutions and situations to which the First Amendment is applicable. To the extent you find them valid and valuable, they are equally applicable to a retail establishment, hospital, or airline.

So what is my proposal for balancing these and other values of free speech (and the related core values of higher education) against the desire to maintain a supportive, learning environment?

The University of Iowa should consider developing a course for entering undergraduates’ first semester that exposes them to the values underlying the First Amendment, the history of protest movements in this country -– and on this very campus. What has been the role of the arts in those protests, and the changes they have brought about? Why is there a value to challenging one’s beliefs? Why is it central to a university’s educational mission to provide that challenge, to expose students to ideas they may hate – along with the tools for analyzing and presenting arguments about them?

Maybe it should be a required course for all. Maybe an elective. To be effective it needs to be more than a brief talk during orientation, or a seminar for a handful of students. Whatever form it might take, it would be clearly preferable to sabotaging education’s mission by “protecting” students from the very thing they should be coming here to acquire.


The juxtaposition of the threats, sensibilities, and censorship involving art, North Korea and the University of Iowa has been an irresistible invitation to commentary by this blog essayist -- especially now that President Obama has taken a position on the issues (quoted below).

There is so much that could be said about the hazardous porcupine of quills projected by the issues that the commentary has been truncated -- however much it may appear to you that has not been the case.

And there's more: some photos and quotes you can explore and think about why they might have been included here.

Here are our principals: North Korea's Kim Jung-Un, SONY Entertainment's CEO Michael Lynton, and the UI's President, Sally Mason.

Pictures of Presidents

"The Interview" Trailer and Pictures of "Art"

And here are some visuals regarding the artistic content in question: A trailer for "The Interview," Serhat Tanyolacar's UI sculpture -- and for contrast and comparison, what an actual KKK member looks like, and what universally acceptable Norman Rockwell art looks like.

"The Interview Official Trailer #2" (2014), YouTube

[Image credit: Norman Rockwell,"Christmas Homecoming," Regency Singers cover art (1997)

Quotations from . . .

Here are some of the quotes I found relevant to the issues:

President Barack Obama

Sony is a corporation. It suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced. Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake. . . . We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don't like, or news reports that they don't like. Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship, because they don't want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended. That's not who we are. That's not what America is about. Again, I'm sympathetic that Sony, as a private company, was worried about liabilities. I wish they'd spoken to me first. I would have told them, "Do not get into a pattern in which you are intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks."

President Barack Obama, News Conference, The White House, December 19, 2014

The Guardians of Peace (the Hackers' Threats)

The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places [that show the film] at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)

Very wise to cancel "The Interview" it will be very useful for you. We ensure the purity of your data and as long as you make no more trouble. Now we want you never let the movie released, distributed or leaked in any form of, for instance, DVD or piracy [or] anything related to the movie, including trailers."

-- Email excerpts from hackers group, Guardians of Peace, to Sony, as reported in The Guardian and Variety

Sony Statement

We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. . . . We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theatergoers.

-- Brent Lang, "Sony Cancels Theatrical Release for 'The Interview; on Christmas," Variety, Dec. 17, 2014

UI President Sally Mason Statement

The goal of the University of Iowa . . . has always been to provide an environment where all members of our campus community feel safe . . .. The effects of the display [of] a 7-foot tall Ku Klux Klan effigy . . . were felt throughout the Iowa City community [and] caused Black students and community members to feel terrorized and to fear for their safety. . . .

Our students tell us that this portrayal made them feel unwelcomed and that they lost trust in the University of Iowa. For failing to meet our goal of providing a respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment, the university apologizes. All of us need to work together to take preventive action and do everything we can to be sure that everyone feels welcome, respected, and protected on our campus and in our community.

-- Sally Mason, "Mason shares UI's response to Pentacrest art display," Iowa Now, Dec. 8, 2014

UI AAUP President Katherine Tachau Statement

Unfortunately, on Sunday, Dec. 7, President Mason issued a further statement that redoubled the administration’s inaccurate and insulting treatment of Prof. [Serhat] Tanyolacar’s “In Their Shoes,” describing it not as a work of public art or sculpture – which it is – but as a “Ku Klux Klan effigy” and a “display.” According to her message, President Mason regretted “that display immediately caused Black students and community members to feel terrorized and to fear for their safety.” Like those who would censor films or books without having seen or read them, members of the UI administration, who had not viewed the actual artwork “In Their Shoes” for themselves, but who had been hearing from students who were outraged by it since Friday morning, adopted the point of view of some of the many spectators who had encountered the work, and acceded to their demands that it be removed from public view.

-- Katherine Tachau, President, University of Iowa Chapter AAUP, "President's Message," University of Iowa Chapter AAUP NEWSLETTER, Dec. 16, 2014, vol. 12, no. 2

First Amendment

Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . ..

-- U.S. Constitution, Amendment I (interpreted by the Supreme Court as applicable to all "state" action; counties, cities, school boards -- and state universities)

Alternatives to Law -- and Censorship

Professor Lawrence Lessig

Behavior . . . is regulated by four kinds of restraints.

[1] Law is just one of those constraints. . . . The law tells me not to buy certain drugs, [and] promises strict punishments if these orders are not followed. . . .

[2] Social norms do as well. Norms control where I can smoke; . . . they limit what I may wear . . .. Norms are enforced (if at all) by a community, not by a government. . . .

[3] Markets, too, regulate. They regulate by price. The price of gasoline limits the amount one drives [as the price of cigarettes is recognized as one of the most effective ways to regulate teens' smoking] . . ..

[4] [T]here is a fourth feature of real space that regulates behavior -- "architecture." . . . That a highway divides two neighborhoods limits the extent to which the neighborhoods integrate. [He goes on to explain, in the context of cyberspace, his distinction between "east coast code" (the U.S. Code, containing acts of Congress) and "west coast code" (the software that determines how the Internet functions -- a form of "regulation by architecture" in cyberspace).]

-- Lawrence Lessig, "The Law of the Horse: What Cyberlaw Might Teach," 113 Harv. L.Rev. 501 (1999)

Mason Williams

Someday I hope that someone
Could appear on television & say:
"The President screws pigs"
& the public would individually be
able to say: "That's not right,
& that's not a nice thing to say.

-- Mason Williams, head writer "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,"The Mason Williams FCC Rapport, July 23, 1969 (in an aural presentation to the FCC, with guitar, urging, in effect, the use of social norms, rather than government (FCC) control of content)

# # #

Monday, December 01, 2014

Three Legged Calves, Wolves, Sheep and Democracy's Media

December 1, 2014, 12:30 p.m.


Democracy's Constitutional Basis

Media's Changes and Challenges

TV's Junk News is to Democracy What Junk Food is to Nutrition

Two Nights with "World News Tonight"

John Oliver: Stand-Up Comic is Democracy's Savior


Thomas Jefferson on Newspapers and the "Prey of the Rich on the Poor"

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every [person] should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.

I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments. Among the former, public opinion is in the place of law, and restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did any where. Among the latter, under pretense of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate. . . .

Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term . . . to the general prey of the rich on the poor.

-- Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington," January 16, 1787, Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 11:48-49.

Lippmann on "Sideshows and Three Legged Calves"

[T]he troubles of the press [like other institutions] go back to a common source; to the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice, by inventing, creating, and organizing a machinery of knowledge.

It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.

-- Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion 275-76 (Pelican Books, 1922, 1946)
Many, including myself, usually just quote from this opening passage Jefferson's revelation that, put to the choice, he would "prefer newspapers without a government." Sometimes we add, if not his change of choice, at least his disparaging remarks after being buffeted about by the press while in office: “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” (Or, as Mark Twain is falsely credited with having put it, "If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're misinformed.")

But this is too serious a matter for one-liners. Jefferson, in this context as in so many others, got it closer to right before his presidency.

Democracy's Constitutional Basis

Governments, at least our federal government, were created by the people to benefit the people. They were not created by the people to increase the abi1ity of the 1% to prey upon the poor. The U.S. Constitution begins, "We the People of the United States," and continues, "in Order to . . . promote the general Welfare . . .." The language is consistent with the Declaration of Independence's assertion that "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all [persons] are created equal . . . endowed . . . with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," and it then continues, "That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted . . ., deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed . . .." These documents come from, and gain their legitimacy from "the people," whose welfare they are designed to serve.

These are more than noble sentiments. They are at the core of the Constitution's purpose, they represent the pole star that should light the way of our Supreme Court justices as they search for the meaning of that document's provisions -- rather than, for example, stretching to conclude, along with the Republicans' last presidential choice, that "corporations are people."

As those who pay attention have always known, Jefferson was right: "It seems to be the law of our general nature" that when our nation's central purpose is left unattended and defended we will continue to suffer "the prey of the rich on the poor" -- as we do today. Our government will enhance citizens' "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" only to the extent that the people continually pressure it to do so.

When roughly half of the eligible voters don't even bother to vote, and all too many are so uninformed or misinformed about the issues of the day that they can be persuaded to vote against their own best interests, "the law of our general nature" continues to rule.

Media's Changes and Challenges

There is much to be said about the changed structure of America's news industry today, the last 20 years' impact of technology, the concentration of media power along with the increasing number and diversity of sources, the role of advertising, the alternative digital-only news sources, the decline in hard-copy newspaper readership and employment for journalists, citizen-created news and opinion, foundation-funded investigative journalism and other alternative business models, both the decline (hard copy newspapers and TV) and expansion (digital-only) in global coverage, and the role of social media in limiting, and providing, viewers' access to news.

I recall in the 1960s watching President Lyndon Johnson standing over the AP and UPI teletypes he'd had installed in the oval office, eagerly reading the stories as the teletype keys clattered out the news on rolls of paper. He was the president of the United States, with access to nearly unlimited resources, but even he could not have -- indeed he could not even dream of -- what millions of Americans carry in their pockets today.

The Gazette these days is full of stories reprinted from Reuters, McClatchy, Tribune, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star and other sources. There was a time when that would have been a real contribution for local readers -- and even today I value The Gazette editors' selections. But I can and do get the full coverage of many of those papers on a laptop or smart phone.

Indeed, I not only have some of those Gazette sources -- The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Reuters, Bloomberg -- at the touch of my iPhone, I find some of the best coverage of what's going on elsewhere comes from sources that supplement American media. During the Viet Nam War, the New York Time found the Agence France‑Presse news service one of their best sources; today the online French language Le Monde remains one of my favorite supplements. The BBC, even after budget cuts, is still perhaps the world's best. Pakistan's online English-language Dawn newspapers helped me understand our initial adventures in Afghanistan; the London Guardian went beyond U.S. media's coverage of Ed Snowden's NSA revelations; Aljazerra gives another slant on the Mideast; and my most recent addition to that list of my smart phone's news apps, Rûdaw, provides on-the-ground coverage from Kurdistan.

Many of these services provide another take on news from the U.S. as well as news from their country or region. We also have multiple sources for news from America's largest cities -- especially New York and Washington.

In towns with only one monopoly newspaper, one that's been sold to a chain, or one that's had to lay off a significant number of journalists, enterprising citizens may be able to find alternative sources of international and national news. But they have no alternative ways of finding out what's going on closest to home -- let alone the results of investigative reporting that can serve as a check on institutional and corporate abuses.

We are fortunate in Iowa City to have access to three local papers: the student Daily Iowan (with the largest circulation), The Gazette, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen -- as well as the Des Moines Register and other Iowa papers sometimes reporting our local news. The Iowa City papers' payrolls have been cut, leaving their remaining able and energetic journalists the herculean task of filing multiple, often lengthy stories some days -- something they seem to be doing with great skill and spirit. Even so, there are even major local institutions, such as the County Board of Supervisors, that often have no coverage at all.

But our greatest challenge in reaching Jefferson's ideal of a democracy run by a well-informed, participating citizenry is what almost seems to be the deliberate effort of America's old television networks to dumb down, distract, and discourage their news audiences.

TV's Junk News is to Democracy What Junk Food is to Nutrition

We are a nation of 315 million individuals, many of whom have so little memory of their education, and such an obliviousness to basic information, that Jay Leno was able to make an entertainment format ("Jay Walking") out of it. Our gross ignorance of other countries and cultures helps create everything from "ugly American" tourists to endless, unwinnable wars abroad that actually increase the risk of terrorism at home. Many high school grads headed to Iraq couldn't find it on a map; 10% couldn't find the United States. Most of our major health problems, and costs, come from behavioral choices within the control of patients (e.g., tobacco, alcohol, diet, exercise). From school board to presidential elections, voter participation is 5-50%.

The three or four TV networks may not have the audiences they once had. But it is still true that, on the one hand we have devastating consequences from our massive ignorance and misinformation, and on the other hand we have a television industry with access to the minds of a plurality of American citizens for an average of some three to four hours a day. That is 80,000 to 100,000 hours over a lifetime--at least fifty times the 1800 hours students spend in college classrooms earning a bachelor's degree.

Put another way, when I was an occasional guest on a network late night show I calculated that to reach as many people as that opportunity provided I would need to lecture to a room full of people, every hour on the hour, eight hours a day, 50 weeks a year, for 300 years!

I continue to believe, and try to live by, the old sayings: "with great power goes great responsibility"; "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required"; and "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." [Harry Truman, Remarks in Independence at the Liberty Bell Luncheon, Independence, Missouri (Nov. 6, 1950); Luke 12:48 (King James); President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address (Jan. 20, 1961).]

Is television to blame for everything that needs fixing in America? Of course not. Does it have the power to cure all our ills? No. Nor is this to say that programmers should provide the public nothing but an unrelieved diet of educational, public-affairs, and cultural programming. They would not stay in business long if they did. It is to say that if neither ratings nor profits need suffer from product placement, there is no reason they need suffer from information and education placement either. Entertainment content matters; advertising's messages matter.

But entertainment programming aside, cannot we reasonably demand of the executives who dictate what their networks' news divisions are permitted to do -- using the public's airwaves under licenses requiring them to serve "the public interest" -- that at least that portion of the programming contributes to an informed citizenry?

What a travesty--to be given so much access to such a huge audience, an audience with such serious needs, only to fritter it away with what Walter Lippmann once called "sideshows and three legged calves." The problem is television's nonfeasance as well as its malfeasance -- having been given the power and opportunity to do such enormous good, and then failing to do it. That is the charge; that is the crime.

Two Nights with "World News Tonight"

To the extent we watch television news in our house, it's the "PBS Newshour." Prior to that, if we catch a bit of local news it's on the ABC affiliate, KCRG-TV. As a result, we see the ABC promo for its evening news, and the first minute or two of the ABC news (since the Newshour gets underway a little after the half hour). Those snippets made me sufficiently curious about the rest of ABC's half hour that I watched a couple clear through. But I haven't been back.

"Let's go to the video tape" -- a line Warner Wolf first made famous on WTOP-TV in Washington. Let's take a look at ABC's "World News Tonight."

First, it's not an hour-long program, like the "PBS Newshour." It's not even a half-hour.

When traveling to Japan with some regularity, I once calculated that Japan's NHK provided more news about America each day than the minutes NBC set aside in its schedule for all of each day's news. (Of course, NHK also presented the news from Europe, Asia, the rest of the world and, oh yes, Japan, as well.)

Why is "World News Tonight" not even a half hour? Because of the commercials. After you subtract the time they spend trying to sell us stuff, there's only 20 minutes left in this "half-hour program" for the "news hole."

As if that's not bad enough, let's take a look at what they're putting down that hole -- and, therefore, what they are not telling us about -- and what they seem to be trying to do to us.

So, second, the unifying theme throughout the presentation seems to be a play on our emotions -- 15 minutes or more of drama designed to increase fright, flight and fear, followed by a happy close -- thereby playing with both our adrenalin and dopamine. [Cartoon credit: Wiley Miller, "Non Sequitur,", Dec. 4, 2014.

Third, the subjects covered are mostly a herd of three-legged calves interrupted occasionally by, "Oh, look at the squirrel."
"The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance”

-- Carl Sagan Source: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Here are some illustrations from their equivalent of headlines from a randomly selected couple of consecutive evenings a couple of weeks ago.

In the first: A snowfall is a "deadly" storm. The early use of drones becomes a drone "scare." A White House intruder is a security "scare." Notwithstanding the absence of any supporting video, a pre-verdict Ferguson was a "State of Emergency." We were shown an "alarming image" worthy of a "Holiday Alert" that holiday gift packages are about to be stolen from our homes. There was a "mystery" involving a beauty queen. And the happy close? A couple given $14 million for their idea involving digital photos -- with the lottery-like closing line, "Is your idea next?"

Celebrity news is regularly given time: this first evening it included the cancellation of Bill Cosby's show, Bono's auto accident, and the death of Motown singer Jimmy Ruffin -- kind of what might have been trailers for "Entertainment Tonight," or other video versions of People magazine.

The next night was babies night. We were warned that our babies fingers might be cut off by their strollers. Another "warning for parents" was the segment headlined "Spying on Your Children," which informed us that the Russians were hacking into our security cameras and streaming the content of our baby monitors. We were told that the car crash tests' results were "the worst ever seen," truly "alarming." And then, as if to drive the point home, and add another threat to our survival to our list of ABC-engendered fears, we were shown video of "Car Demolishing a Building" -- "an entire building demolished in seconds in a cloud of dust."

But most of the 20 minutes that night was occasioned by Mike Nichols' death and a tribute to his life -- with occasional references to the fact he had been married to ABC's Diane Sawyer. The evening "news" both opened and closed with lengthy (by ABC News' standards) tributes and film clips regarding Nichols.

So if these are not among the subjects Americans most need to know, what might ABC have been informing us about? Here are some of former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's suggestions:
"The moral crisis of our age has nothing to do with gay marriage or abortion; it’s insider trading, obscene CEO pay, wage theft from ordinary workers, Wall Street’s continued gambling addiction, corporate payoffs to friendly politicians, and the billionaire takeover of our democracy."

-- Robert Reich [from his Facebook post, June 29, 2014]
PBS. For contrast, here's what the "PBS Newshour" included that first night: "A look at the Gulf oil spill after the cameras had gone"; "Will arming school administrators protect students?"; "What's next for NSA reform in Congress?"; "Protecting Afghanistan's Buddhist Heritage"; and "Debating the implications if Obama acts on immigration" -- along with, I should note in fairness, serious reporting of some of the stories ABC had regarding the heavy snow and Bill Cosby's problems.

CBS. To provide more balance I watched the CBS Evening News for December 1. It made two points: (1) My major complaint is about ABC, not all commercial TV networks' news efforts. (2) CBS demonstrates that there can be a commercially viable alternative to ABC's approach -- even within a comparable 20-minute window.

CBS took a positive, factual approach to the Ferguson story: the President's request for $75 million of body cams for police, a Missouri commission devoted to increasing community trust, new technology that can be installed in police guns that immediately reports to headquarters when it's out of the holster or fired (the Ferguson officer's radio was on the wrong channel), and the extent to which the peaceful protests were now nationwide. There was data and insight about "cyber shopping" -- and Amazon's 15,000 robots filing orders. A significant Supreme Court case regarding the application of First Amendment protection of threatening speech was explained, as was the recent AAA research regarding the impressive safety driving records of those over 65. The network has been tracking remedial programs for high school dropouts this year, and closed with a realistic appraisal (as distinguished from "happy news") of the Sunburst Academy.

John Oliver: Stand-Up Comic is Democracy's Savior

For an even more dramatic contrast, consider the fact that John Oliver, on HBO's "Last Week Tonight" (also available on YouTube), within what is intended to be an entertaining comedic show, is dealing with material, and a critical approach, that goes well beyond the journalism that even PBS is doing. Moreover, he is attracting, in online "viewers" alone (2-4 million -- over 7 million for his "net neutrality" bit), as many or more than ABC's news gets in the 25-54 age group it cares about. Here are some examples.

"The Lottery," Nov. 9, 2014

"State lotteries claim to be good for education and the general wellbeing of citizens. But are they? (Spoiler alert: No.)"

"State Legislatures and ALEC," November 2, 2014

"While midterm coverage is largely focused on the parts of Congress that do very little, vital (and bizarre) midterm elections are going unexamined. State legislators pass a lot of bills, and some of that efficiency is thanks to a group called ALEC that writes legislation for them. It’s as shady as it sounds!"

"Sugar," October 26, 2014

"Sugar. It's in everything! Is it good for us? Well, the sugar industry thinks so."

"Civil Forfeiture," Oct. 5, 2014

"Did you know police can just take your stuff if they suspect it's involved in a crime? They can! It’s a shady process called “civil asset forfeiture,” and it would make for a weird episode of Law and Order."

"Net Neutrality," June 1, 2014

"Cable companies are trying to create an unequal playing field for internet speeds, but they're doing it so boringly that most news outlets aren't covering it. John Oliver explains the controversy and lets viewers know how they can voice their displeasure to the FCC. (, for any interested parties)"

This bit had 7.2 million viewers, many of whom responded to John Oliver's suggestion they write the FCC.


A democracy requires an informed citizenry. Necessarily, we rely on the mass media to provide it. The commercial television networks (and the FCC) are failing us with this responsibility -- one that they owe us legally as well as morally, ethically, and journalistically. The most dramatic evidence of their failure is that Americans must turn to one of its best stand-up comics for the serious journalism they need.

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