Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bicycles: Why Automobiles Are Like Cigarettes

June 17, 2010, 7:10 a.m.
[For BP disaster see, "Uncanny Prediction of BP Disaster & Response," June 10, 2010; "BP's Commercial: Shame on Media," June 9; "Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government," May 26, 2010; "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

Why Fish Need Bicycles
(bought to you by*)

There's a wonderful column in the Press-Citizen this morning by D.J. Moser explaining why fish need bicycles. It's clever, well written, and analytically sound. It's reproduced at the bottom of this blog entry.

Do you recall the line from the 1970's: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle"?

My own realization that fish might actually need bicycles occurred during Iowa City's 1993 flood, while I was bicycling through the City Park. The sidewalk between the ball fields and the River had a couple of inches of water over it, so I was biking even slower than usual to minimize the water on the bike and myself. Looking down, I saw a fish on the sidewalk, alive but lying on its side, also making its way slowly along the path. As I looked at it I said to myself, "Now there's a fish that really does need a bicycle.

D.J.'s point is less frivolous, more related to the day's news -- as you'll see in a moment.

Anyhow, even though bike to work week is long passed, it caused me to Google myself and "bicycles" to see what I might have written on the subject.

Last December someone kindly uploaded a column of which I had no memory whatsoever, with the notation, "
Federal Communications Commissioner Nicholas Johnson wrote this piece for the New York Times, Aug. 2, 1973." (They also nicely noted, in reference to my candidacy in the Iowa Third District congressional Democratic primary of 1974 -- following which Chuck Grassley won the general election to Congress -- "Imagine what the Senate might be like if Johnson beat Grassley back then.") Curious, I checked my online bibliography and lo and behold, there was the column. So I guess it is my writing, especially since there is a version of it in my book, Test Pattern for Living.

It's my take on how automobiles are like cigarettes. Because it refers to giving up smoking, I should probably quickly add in this anti-tobacco age that to the best of my memory I have never smoked a cigarette. (Unlike President Clinton, who smoked but didn't inhale, since I lived through a time when cigarette smoke was everywhere, I didn't smoke but did inhale!) The line does, however, reflect the true story of my father's path to giving up tobacco -- too late in his short life, as it turned out.

The column, reflecting the spirit of the 1970s, went like this:

"Bicycles are Model Citizens"
The Bicycle -- It's Like Giving Up Smoking
New York Times
August 2, 1973, p. 35, col. 2.

I ride a bicycle. Not because I hate General Motors but haven't the courage to bomb an auto plant. I don't do it as a gesture of great stoicism and personal sacrifice.

I am not even engaged, necessarily, in an act of political protest over that company's responsibility for most of the air pollution tonnage in the United States.

It's like finally giving up cigarettes. You just wake up one morning and realize you don't want to start the day with another automobile.

Cigarette smoking is not a pleasure, it's a business. In the same say, you finally come to realize that you don't need General Motors, they need you. They need you to drive their cars for them. You are working for Detroit and paying them to do it. Automobiles are just a part of your life that's over, that's all.

No hard feelings. You've just moved on to something else. From now on, you just use their buses, taxis, and rental cars when they suit your convenience. You don't keep one for them that you have to house, feed and water, insure and care for.

You ride a bicycle because it feels good. The air feels good on your body; even the rain feels good. The blood starts moving around your body, and pretty soon it gets to your head, and, glory be, your head feels good.

You start noticing things. You look until you really see. You hear things, and smell smells you never knew were there. You start whistling nice little original tunes to suit the moment. Words start getting caught in the web of poetry in your mind.

And there's a nice feeling, too, in knowing you're doing a fundamental life thing for yourself: transportation. You got a little bit of your life back! And the thing you use is simple, functional, and relatively cheap.

You want one that fits you and rides smoothly, but with proper care and a few parts, it should last almost forever.

Your satisfaction comes from within you, and not from the envy or jealousy of others. (Although you are entitled to feel a little smug during rush hours, knowing you are also making better time than most of the people in cars.)

On those occasions when I am not able to cycle through the parks or along the [C&O] canal -- because the paths are rough with ice or muddy from rain or melting snow -- bicycling enables me to keep closer to the street people, folks waiting for buses or to cross streets, street sweepers, policemen, school "patrol," men unloading trucks.

Needless to say, you cannot claim any depth of understanding as a result of such momentary and chance encounters but by the time I get to the office I do somehow have the sense that I have a much better feeling for the mood of the city that day than if I had come to my office in a chauffeur-driven government limousine.

Although I am willing to brave the traffic and exhaust, I am aware it is dangerous. I think bicycles ought to be accorded a preferred position in the city's transportation system. At the very least, they deserve an even break.

Notice that bicycle riding also has some significant social advantages over the automobile. Cars unnecessarily kill sixty thousand people every year, permanently maim another one hundred and seventy thousand, and injure three and a half million more.

The automobile accounts for at least 66 percent of the total air pollution in the United States by tonnage -- as high as 85 percent in some urban areas -- and 91 percent of all-carbon monoxide pollution; it creates about nine hundred pounds of pollution for every person every year.

One million acres of land are paved each years, there is now a mile of road for each square mile of land. The concrete used in our Interstate Highway System would build six sidewalks to the moon.

Even so, everyone is familiar with the clogged streets and parking problems -- not to mention the unconscionable rates charged by the parking garages.

Automobile transportation is the largest single consumer of the resources used in our nation's total annual output of energy. It is an economic drain on consumers -- in no way aided by auto companies that deliberately build bumpers weaker than they were fifty years ago in order to contribute to an unnecessary bumper repair bill in excess of one billion dollars annually.

The bicycle is a model citizen, by comparison.
If you've read this far you will understand why D.J. Moser's column caught my eye and caused me to smile and applaud.

(Headlined, "If You Give a Fish a Bicycle," I couldn't help myself from playing with the thought: "Give a fish a bike ride and she can ride for a day; teach her how to ride a bicycle and she can ride for a lifetime." Something like that. Maybe you had to be there.)

Here is Moser's column.

(Because it is copyright, if either he or the Press-Citizen objects to my reproducing it in this context I will, of course, remove it.)

If You Give a Fish a Bicycle
D.J. Moser
Iowa City Press-Citizen
June 17, 2010

You've probably heard it said that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. This phrase has been around since the 1970s and is a variant of the earlier observation that man needs god like a fish needs a bicycle.

Without getting into such complex matters as feminine needs and religion -- neither of which I yet understand -- I think it's important to point out that fish do need bicycles and they need them badly. [Photo credit: Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Which fish, you ask?

Well, for starters, the fish that are currently floundering around in the pool o' stank previously known as the Gulf of Mexico.

And what, exactly, are their biking needs? They need us to get off our cans, ride our bikes a little more, drive our cars a little less, and thereby reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.


I know what you're thinking.

Here's another diatribe from one of those hyperintense, neon spandex-clad bikers who slow traffic by riding four abreast on Iowa City roads.

Not the case.

While I do believe that bikers and motorists must learn to share the road, and that choice of biking apparel is both personal and tricky, please know that I'm a regular guy who rides a 1999 mountain bike to work, using the bike lanes and wearing the baggiest clothes I can find.

But my question is this: "Why do so many people refuse, or not even give consideration to, riding their bike to work or on errands?"

Well, I've conducted my own unscientific poll and the answers are generally unconvincing.

• Biking takes too much time. Really? If you take various shortcuts and bike paths, I think you'll find that bike time and car time are actually pretty comparable in a city like ours. Not to mention the fact that you'll be multi-tasking by running your errand and getting some exercise at the same time.

• Biking makes me sweaty and gives me helmet-head. There are a couple options here. Some bike commuters choose to shower and change at work. It's actually pretty easy to do once you get in the routine. (Admittedly, this isn't an option available to everyone, but it is a choice that many simply fail to consider.)

As for helmet-head, just unbuckle and keep your helmet on as you do your shopping. Shoppers might stare at you, but they might be thinking how sporty and awesome you are.

• Biking's dangerous. Maybe so, but if you obey traffic laws and signs and use some common sense, you can greatly reduce your risk. I've crashed my bike twice in the past 10 years with nothing hurt but my pride.

Of course, there have been some nasty and even fatal car versus bike accidents, but plenty of people get hurt while driving or riding in cars, too. So be alert, be visible, and ride defensively, but don't let safety worries keep you off your bike.

• Bikes are expensive, uncomfortable and complicated. This is simply untrue. Many of us have one or more bikes getting dusty in the garage. Furthermore, there is an almost endless supply of affordable bikes available through sources such as Craigslist, eBay, the Iowa City Bike Library, etc.

As for being uncomfortable and complicated, bikes are getting more user-friendly every day. Take a look at any bike rack in town and you'll see that practical, comfortable bikes are all the rage.

Maybe you're already biking occasionally. If so, great job. Keep up the good work. But if you're using one of the above excuses, please reconsider. Just ride once this week -- just once -- and see how it goes.

You'll be giving the fish the bicycles they need while becoming less addicted to companies like BP.

Ride Baby Ride!
As you see, it all circles back to the prior blog entries linked from the top of this one.

You want to know what you can do about BP's pollution of the Gulf of Mexico.

Here's our suggestion. Think about it.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
# # #

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Governance: School Boards and Superintendents

June 15, 2010, 2:00 p.m.
[For BP disaster see, "Uncanny Prediction of BP Disaster & Response," June 10, 2010; "BP's Commercial: Shame on Media," June 9; "Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government," May 26, 2010; "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

Praise of Plugge and Reflections on Governance
(bought to you by*)

The Gazette had a nice editorial about ICCSD's departing Superintendent Lane Plugge this morning. There are some excerpts and a link at the bottom of this blog entry. I wrote and posted my own ode to Debbie and Lane last Christmas Eve, "The Plugge Era: 1999-2010," December 24, 2009, so you can read it there if you care to, rather than my repeating the sentiments again here.

But this was one of those mornings when two sufficiently related items hit my desk at the same time to warrant a blog comment. (Actually one hit my kitchen porch and the other was an email that crept quietly upon my computer screen.)

So you can understand the relationship between the editorial and the email, let me set the stage with a quote from my ode to Lane, linked above:

I remain convinced that any school board that would properly do its job, expressing its goals and governance wishes with clarity, would find that Lane would be doing his best to give the Board whatever it said it wanted -- within the bounds of federal, state, and local law and regulations. Requiring a superintendent to perform the board's job as well as his own is as unfair as it is inappropriate.
Earlier last year I had written about what I perceived as governance problems between the Iowa City City Council and its City Manager. "River City's Problem: Council-Manager Governance; The Necessity of Governance Theory and Practice," April 18, 2009.

As you'll see if you check it out, ICCSD School Board President Patti Fields put in a comment there about "the Carver model" of governance (saying she had found it a "barrier"), and others put in comments as well.

One, from "John Barleykorn," included the sentence, "You don't need to have a specific model, you just need clearly defined roles and expectations" -- a sentiment with which I agree and have often expressed. (I put in a comment myself on that blog entry: "I do not, and need not, make a case for Carver. [T]here are alternatives. The only alternative I find unacceptable is no governance model, policy or rules. That's true chaos . . ..")

Like Board President Fields (whom I like and respect), others in Iowa City also have, as I perceive it, "thrown the baby (clearly defined Board-Superintendent roles and expectations) out with the bathwater (the John Carver governance model)."

And so it was that an email from the State of Washington brightened my day. It was from Rick Maloney, someone I do not know, but who obviously shares the approach that I (and "John Barleykorn") take to board-CEO relations and allocation of responsibilities. It is reproduced here with his permission.

I stumbled across your writing about governance on the internet while researching for a presentation to a Western Washington University superintendent certification cohort on the subject of school boards.

I very much enjoyed the ideas that you shared with your fellow school board members in 1998, then was pleased to find that your board subsequently transitioned to the Carver model. Our board did exactly the same during 2001-2003, also without the assistance of a high-priced consultant, mostly by thoroughly reading and applying the principles in Carver's books. We did attend a training session as a board-superintendent team in 2002, but then accomplished the policy development and 'launch' (and 7 years, so far, of operation and maintenance of the model) by ourselves. I keep up my learning by presenting on the model and writing on related topics.

As for the WWU superintendent candidates, I plan to give them, as potential future manipulators of school boards, a sense of 'there is a better way to govern' (that boards really do have their own role, and that administrators don't necessarily know what that role is) without trying to detach them completely from reality. I have a visceral reaction to people like Doug Eadie and Paul Houston who teach about the "care and feeding" of boards. Of course the reality is that if boards drop the ball and go into reactive rather than proactive mode, it is incumbent on the superintendent to lead not only the district but also its board of directors. But I want to give them a feel for the appropriate role that a board CAN take if it leads, and delegates to the superintendent the authority to manage the district.

I'm attaching an article that I recently wrote for the American School Board Journal on treating board work as a professional calling. A friend and I have put together a website, sharing what we have learned about policy governance with other boards here in Washington State.

-- Rick Maloney, University Place School District #83
[Photo credit:] I always find it reassuring to discover that other school districts have taken the governance issues seriously, and even followed the same process with it that our Board did when I was there.

When working with the government in Kazakhstan some years ago, since my ideas seemed to be more highly regarded there than in Iowa City, I came up with a hypothesis of explanation for the disparity.The theory was that the respect accorded one's expertise varies with the square of the distance from one's home. Thus, since Kazakhstan was about as far from Iowa as one could get without leaving our planet, I should prepare myself for reentry to North America, and then Iowa City.

I am hoping that the same theory will apply to Rick Maloney. At home, his school board chooses to misspell his last name and leave him out of the group picture of the Board. If the theory holds, given that University Place is 1882 miles from Iowa City, that should make his advice at least 3.5 million times more respected in Iowa City than in his school district (and than mine is in my school district).

Clearly, his suggestions will be accorded at least far more respect than my own. And, with luck, his District's Policy Governance Policies, and his Web site, will be sufficiently well regarded in Iowa City to prompt a reconsideration of the value of governance principles for Iowa, and Iowa City, institutions as well.

It would be the greatest gift we could give our new Superintendent, Steve Murley, when he starts to work next month, to save him the impossible assignment of having to function as both superintendent and school board. (See Murley's comment on Board's need for "clear governance system" in "School Boards, Superintendents, Contracts & Candor," April 28, 2010.)

April 28, 2

And finally, here are some excerpts from The Gazette's editorial about Lane Plugge:

Plugge kept focus on students

Iowa City school district Superintendent Lane Plugge dealt with just about everything in his 11 years on the job. . . .

And through it all, he kept a cool head and a firm hand on the wheel.

'He's a person of integrity,' Jim Pedersen, director of human resources for the school district, told us this week. 'He's got a tremendous work ethic. . . ."

Not all Plugge's decisions were without controversy, but there's little question that Plugge always remembered his primary responsibility was to the district's students.

Plugge announced last winter that he'd be leaving the district to take a position as chief administrator of the Green Hills Area Education Agency near Council Bluffs. His last day with the Iowa City school district is June 30.

He served the district during a period of rapid growth - during his tenure, school enrollment increased by more than 1,200 students - and all the challenges that entails. . . .

In more than a decade with Iowa City Schools, he developed a community reputation as being an accessible administrator who listened to public opinion - even if his decisions didn't always please everyone. . . .

Pedersen said it was Plugge's interpersonal skills that anchored his success: He was approachable, articulate and didn't flaunt his authority. . . .

'Anytime you can keep that continuity, that consistency, that shared vision [for the 11 years Plugge was in Iowa City] - if you can keep that person in a leadership role, it's good for the organization,' he said.

Lane Plugge was good for Iowa City schools and students.
Editorial, "Plugge Kept Focus on Students," The Gazette, June 15, 2010, p. 4.

We wish Debbie and Lane well as they settle, still in Iowa but closer to their Nebraska home. It has been my pleasure to know and work with them.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
# # #

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Iowa City Schools & the Betrayal of Representative Democracy

June 12, 2010, 8:00 a.m.
[For BP disaster see, "Uncanny Prediction of BP Disaster & Response," June 10, 2010; "BP's Commercial: Shame on Media," June 9; "Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government," May 26, 2010; "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

School Board's Boundary Decision in Perspective
(bought to you by*)

With a headline referring to a "Betrayal of Representative Democracy" you may be surprised to discover that I am about to provide a little sympathetic perspective to my criticism of the school board's boundary process and decision.

The challenge the board confronted, the choices before them, come from the core of representative democracy theory, and involve a dilemma at least identified (and to some extent resolved) as long ago as 1774.

As the Press-Citizen reported June 12,

School board president Patti Fields said the parents who spoke out at the forums and subsequent school board sessions were clear on what they wanted.

"In the end, it [the school board] felt the community's priority was (in maintaining) neighborhood schools," she said. "People became protective of what was comfortable. Change isn't easy."
Rob Daniel, "School Officials: Process is Working," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 12, 2010.

It may surprise you, but I couldn't agree with her more -- on all counts: "change isn't easy," people protect what's comfortable, and in this instance that meant making no change in school boundaries.

The day before the paper's editorial saw it differently:

But the 2010 redistricting debacle also showed that our schools leaders still have no idea how to strike a balance between too little community input and too overwhelmingly much. They either failed to take heed from lessons learned in the 2009 Roosevelt debacle or they simply overcompensated.
Editorial, "A few lessons to learn from redistricting," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 11, 2010.

Frankly, that comes closer to my own takeaway from the redistricting process, but for the slightly different reasons famously analyzed and expounded by Edmund Burke 236 years ago in his "Speech to the Electors of Bristol."

It is [a representative’s] duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to [his constituents]; and . . . to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you . . .. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Edmund Burke, “Speech to the Electors of Bristol,” November 3, 1774, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (1854‐56), vol. 1, pp. 446‐48, as reproduced in The Founders’ Constitution (University of Chicago, 1987), vol. 1, ch. 13, document 7.

Burke did not offer elected officials a simple, clean mathematical model for calculating their decisions on controversial issues with precision. But he did make courageously clear to his constituents that he would be betraying, rather than serving them if he merely surveyed and then sacrificed his own best judgment to, and voted, their opinions.

When a school board redraws its district boundaries, should it be aware of, and give some consideration to, the opinions of parents? Of course. The same goes for the opinions of other stakeholders as well. That is a part of the responsibility of a "representative."

But a school board meeting is not a New England town meeting, with a direct democracy in which everyone votes on every issue and the majority rules.

In 1955 did the Little Rock school board hold community meetings to find out if the Little Rock parents preferred to keep the segregated schools they had, or desegregate them? Did they vote on the basis of "the community's priority (in maintaining) [segregated] schools"? No. Indeed, as President Eisenhower noted, in ordering troops to Little Rock in 1957 to quell the dangerous public violence over the decision, "In May of 1955, the Little Rock School Board approved a moderate plan for the gradual desegregation of the public schools in that city." "Text of the Address of the President of the United States, Delivered From His Office in the White House," White House News Release, September 24, 1957.

I rather suspect that the members of the Little Rock school board, and President Eisenhower, were as fully aware as ICCSD Board President Patti Fields, that "People became protective of what was comfortable. Change isn't easy." They went ahead with desegregation anyway. Not because it was popular, but because it was right.

School board members have -- or ought to have, if they do not -- access to vast bodies of data regarding "what works" in K-12 education. They are not only able, but should feel themselves required, to put in the time to become familiar with the relevant literature and experiences of other school districts nationwide and worldwide.

As a result of having done that homework, like Edmund Burke, school board members also then have an obligation to bring to the decision making process their knowledge and experience, their "unbiased opinion . . . mature judgment [and] enlightened conscience." They need to believe, and act as if they believed, something I heard then presidential candidate, now Vice President, Joe Biden say more than once in 2007 and 2008: "There are some things worth losing an election for."

Admittedly, this is a balancing act. Admittedly, the wisdom, the responsibility, of Burke's perspective is widely ignored by our other representatives -- especially in this election year -- when their polling of our opinions precedes the formulation of their own. But that doesn't make it right.

And that is why my "betrayal of representative democracy" charge is, in fact, at least in some measure an expression of understanding and sympathy.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Uncanny Prediction of BP Disaster & Response

June 10, 2010, 11:00 a.m.
[For BP disaster see, "BP's Commercial: Shame on Media," June 9; "Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government," May 26, 2010; "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

Why Are We Blind to What Artists See So Clearly?
(bought to you by*)

In 1979, on March 16, "The China Syndrome" was released to America's theaters. It was a fictional account of a near-nuclear power plant meltdown and corporate efforts at a cover up (and see "The China Syndrome,"

Twelve days later, at 4:00 a.m. on March 28, 1979, there was a partial core meltdown in a Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "It was the most significant accident in the history of the American commercial nuclear power generating industry, resulting in the release of up to 481 PBq (13 million curies) of radioactive gases . . .." "Three Mile Island Accident",

Life does have a way of imitating art. Indeed, I believe it was in one of Abraham Maslow's books that I first encountered the theory that just as the canary responds to poisonous gas before humans, so do some artists have the capacity to detect -- and project in one art form or another -- the tiny ripples of change in society years before the waves sweep over the rest of us.

And so it is that an outfit called Democracy for Sale appears to be looking back through old movies to see what might be coming our way. They cleverly package 9:59 worth of excerpts, and put them up on YouTube.

They have at least two for us already -- which together pretty well explain both the values of BP and the corruption in Washington, D.C., that makes it possible for such corporations to prosper (while taking human life and despoiling the environment in the process).

The 1994 movie "On Deadly Ground" involves an oil company that has an explosion on an offshore drilling rig, tries to cover up the facts, blames the environmentalists for the problem, and then produces a slick commercial. (See yesterday's "BP's Commercial: Shame on Media," June 9.)


As Democracy For Sale explains: "June 10, 2010 — In this purely fictional video, an oil spill causes major damage to the environment. When it's discovered that the oil company cut corners and disregarded safety measures, the oil company responds with an advertising campaign of soothing and reassuring words, then blames the spill on sabotage by environmentalists. Ultimately, the citizens realize that their government and the agencies established to protect them and the environment are really controlled by special interests and the oil executives. Any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental. This video is for educational use only."

So just how does the corrupting process work? Democracy For Sale attempts to answer that question for us as well, with these excerpts from the 1992 movie, "The Distinguished Gentleman," starring Eddie Murphy as Congressman Thomas Jefferson Johnson.

Democracy For Sale explains: "What's Wrong with Washington. February 01, 2010. In a government where democratic representation is sold to the highest bidder, big corporations, not citizens, have a disproportionate share of democratic control. This short compilation illustrates the problem in under 10 minutes. The need for campaign finance reform is very clear. This video is for educational academic use only. Any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental."

Can you think of other examples of feature films that dealt with societal problems that subsequently came to pass? If so, post them here as comments.


* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

BP's Commercial: Shame on Media

June 9, 2010, 8:40 a.m.
[For BP disaster see, "Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government," May 26, 2010; "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

Media's Profit is Public's Loss: BP vs. Mobil Oil
(bought to you by*)

It has been said that we are no more conscious of the media through which we swim each day than fish must be of the waters through which they swim -- unless, perhaps, those waters are are part of the BP-polluted waters of the Gulf, and the fish notice that their family and friends are covered with oil and floating to the surface of the water.

Thus, no one, so far as I have seen, has picked up on what BP has been doing to pollute the media -- and how the media has sacrificed its values and capitulated to the company's public relations efforts (to the media's financial profit).

I'm talking about BP's $50 million public relations campaign, and specifically the commercial starring BP CEO Tony Hayward. And I'm responding to the media's willingness to not only plop that commercial right in the middle of news and public affairs programming -- but to do so without providing a critique of the commercial, or a public service announcement answer to it of any kind from those holding a contrary view.

If you watch television at all I can't believe you haven't seen it. But anyway, here it is:

I trust you picked up on the soothing tones, the seemingly sincere apology, the representation that "we will make this right," the assurance that it "never happens again," and the pictures of clean, white sand beaches and birds with not a drop of oil on a one of them.

Now don't get me wrong. I think BP has a right to make an effort to put its best foot forward in this public relations disaster. I don't buy the Supreme Court's assertion that corporations have all the constitutional rights of persons, that political contributions (money) are the constitutional equivalent of First Amendment-protected speech, and that Congress has no right to try to bring some balance back to the wildly disproportionate power of corporate treasuries thrown into the political arena. But I do think BP has a right to produce this commercial.

My problem is with the almost total absence of any critique of the commercial, the absence of public service announcements from environmental organizations with equivalent production (and psychologically manipulative) techniques, and television's placement of the BP commercial inside news and public affairs programs.

And to help make my point, I want to relate a story from another time, involving another oil company.

I can't warrant that I have recalled all the facts precisely. But neither will I use Mason Williams' line, "This is not a true tale, but who needs truth if it's dull." Mason Williams, "Tomato Vendetta", lyrics with brief musical excerpt ("This song’s about the Tomato Vendetta/and the tale of a man who let a/Hate for tomatoes cause him strife/He lost his job, wife, home, car, kids, and life . . .."). I just acknowledge that my best memory of truth may not correspond exactly with the facts -- including the date, which I'm assuming must have been the early 1970s.

This is a story about NBC and a Mobil Oil executive who was a former lawyer and active Kennedy family friend and political supporter named Herb Schmertz. [Photo credit: Current.]

The feisty Schmertz was Mobil's Vice President for Public Affairs. [For more background, see, e.g., the New York Times' review of his book, Herb Schmertz with William Novak, Good-by To the Low Profile (Little, Brown, 1986), Bryce Nelson, "Playing Hardball With the Press," New York Times, June 1, 1986.]

Mobil, like BP, had a need to convince the American public and their elected representatives that fish and other creatures of the deep really liked offshore drilling rigs. So Mobil, like BP, produced a slick commercial making the point.

When Herb took it to NBC, however, the network refused to air it. Why? It was controversial. (Moreover, the network may have been concerned that the "Fairness Doctrine" then in effect might have required it to air opposing views -- possibly at NBC's expense, both for production and the absence of paid time).

(More recently, NBC also refused to air one of T. Boone Pickens' commercials about natural gas. Nicholas Johnson, "Tell Me a Story," August 30, 2008.)

So what did Schmertz do? My memory is that he went to some of the environmental groups and offered to use Mobil's money to pay for the air time for them to put commercials on NBC that would respond to Mobil's assertions, including attacks on the company. Otherwise put, Mobil would be both paying twice the going commercial rates for the time it would use, and relieving NBC of any obligation or expense to put on opposing views.

NBC still refused to put on the Mobil ads.

Note that (a) NBC refused to air the oil company's ad, and (b) even the oil company recognized the need -- for both the colloquial "fairness," and the legal "Fairness Doctrine" -- to offer the public opposing views.

So move forward in time thirty or more years and what do we have? BP mounts a $50 million public relations campaign involving offshore drilling, the networks take the money and plop the commercials down in the middle of news and public affairs programming, and neither BP nor the networks make any effort to let environmental and other groups respond with equally hard hitting public service announcements. (Of course, there has been some effort, however inadequate, to provide a little balance in reporting BP's pollution, including some selected and edited comments from environmentalists. However, there is an enormous difference between that and giving them the opportunity to present their views in an unedited, highly produced commercial equivalent to what BP is permitted to do.)

Moreover, the reason why responsible television news programs used to keep such commercials out of their programs is because advocacy commercials create the appearance (and all too often the reality) that (a) they are news, (b) that they represent the editorial position of the news program, thereby raising questions about the impartial nature of the news reports generally, and (c) that they, and the network income they represent, have influenced the content (or even existence) of adverse reports about the program's advertisers.

And now you know "the rest of the [BP media manipulation] story" (with apologies to Paul Harvey).

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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Friday, June 04, 2010

Missing Students: What to Do?

June 4, 2010, 8:20 a.m.

[For BP disaster see, "Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government," May 26, 2010; "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

Preparing for the Unexpected
(bought to you by*)

As BP says, "accidents happen."

And as UI administrators say, sometimes "off-campus students go missing."

The question is not whether all untoward events can be prevented. They cannot. The question (for each of us individually as well as large institutions) is whether all of the most serious untoward events have been anticipated, studied, thought about, and planned for -- both in terms of taking the maximum reasonable precautions to avoid them in the first place, and having plans in place to deal with them when they occur anyway, as they inevitably will.

That goes for the White House anticipating the probability, and consequences, of corruption and "agency capture" by otherwise-regulated corporations -- from unsafe coal mines to Gulf oil disasters. It's certainly applicable to oil companies that start drilling at 5000-to-10000 feet beneath the ocean's surface, and then continue for as much as 20,000 or more feet beyond that into the ocean floor.

And it applies to universities.

Every university administrator knows, or ought to know, that it is not a question of "whether," but only "when," certain publicized disasters will occur.

In one of the world's most heavily armed countries, a university with 30,000 students and 15,000 staff is probably going to have to deal with one of them being shot on campus. (And one of the questions is whether arming campus police is more likely to increase, or decrease, the likelihood of that happening.)

There will be tornadoes, floods, chemical spills, and widespread outbreaks of disease.

Students will be raped -- sometimes by high-profile athletes.

Students will die from alcohol abuse, whether falling from buildings, drunk driving accidents, strangling on their own vomit, fights, freezing in a snow drift, or alcohol poisoning.

Students will commit suicide.

And there will be occasions when "off-campus students go missing." (See Malewitz story, below, at p. A7.)

So it was at the University of Iowa on September 28, 2009.

The Gazette told the story last Saturday: Jim Malewitz, "Study in Contrasts; 2 Students Go Missing and the Responses are Incredibly Different," IowaWatch/The Gazette, May 29, 2010, p. A1.

(As a Media Watch sidebar, this story -- and indeed the entire front page of that issue of The Gazette -- are significant for reasons beyond the substance of the stories. Iowa Watch, the source of the missing student story, is a project of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, devoted to collaborative efforts with Iowa papers on explanatory and investigative work. See Gazette Editor Lyle Muller, "Non-profit center, IowaWatch, launches with report on fall missing person tragedy," GazetteOnline, May 29, 2010. The other two above-the-fold stories, although written by Gazette reporters, were also feature stories -- magazine-like-articles reporting significant events not generated by dramatic news pegs, news conferences or police blotters. Rick Smith, "Shifting Lines; E. Iowa Farm Fences Disappear, as do Livestock Operations," The Gazette, May 29, 2010, p. A1; Cindy Hadish, "Chickens Already Roosting in Palo," The Gazette, May 29, 2010, p. A1. Both Iowa Watch, and the use of feature stories on page one, bode well for the future of a struggling newspaper industry trying to find its way during a digital revolution. To which Jim Malewitz added another piece, including comments from The Gazette's Senior Content Editor, Mary Sharp, regarding the limitations on the mainstream media's response to missing students. Jim Malewitz, "Media Response Depends on Information, Resources," IowaWatch/The Gazette, May 29, 2010, p. A7.)

Most generously put, the UI's response to a frantic parent's effort to find his son was "low key." But the story not only describes what the University did and did not do. It also contrasts what the UI did with what was done when an Iowa State student went missing and his body was found on April 14, three months after he went missing. (Although the names of the students, and university officials, are contained in the stories, it's not my purpose to focus on the individuals involved and therefore I will not identify them.)

As Malewitz reports:

"[The two boys] were each in their 20s. Both were described by friends and family as kind, funny, somtimes sociabile, sometimes quiet. One was the son of a Grinnell lawyer and art instructor, the other the son of a refugee preacher from Haiti.

And 116 days and 108 miles apart, both vanished.

While one community and its university were galvanized by news of the disappearance, the other received no news. While hundreds search for one missing son, a father was left, at times alone, to find the other. The lackluster response in the [University of Iowa] case raises questions about the policies and practices of the University of Iowa and about the slow and minimal response by Cedar Rapids police and news organizations.
Malewitz, supra, at p. A7.

The possibility that the disparity in response could be partially explained by the socio-economic disparity of the parents ("Grinnell lawyer" vs. "refugee preacher from Haiti") is disturbing to say the least, although there is nothing additional in the story to suggest that was the case.

If you're interested in more of the details about the parties, the events, the dead students, the comments and actions of university officials, read Malewitz' story. I won't repeat it all here.

My point, my reason for mentioning the case at all, is occasioned by the memories it brings back of the University's somewhat disorganized response during the aftermath of the alleged rape of a student athlete by football players on October 14, 2007. See Nicholas Johnson, "University of Iowa Sexual Assault Controversy -- 2007-08," August 9, 2008, et seq.

Viewed from outside the events, both would seem to be BP-like failures to anticipate and plan for the inevitable. There is no way to anticipate who, when and where a college student will go missing. But there are many ways, and reasons, to prepare a playbook in advance for what the University's response will be when s/he does -- as Iowa State, and other universities, apparently have done.

Ultimately the playbooks for students' rapes, deaths from alcohol, suicides, murders, and "going missing" are going to have to be prepared. It won't take any more time, staff and money to prepare them before the events occur rather than after. But being proactive in this way can make an enormous difference in terms of human sorrow, a university's responsibility to its students (and their parents) -- not to mention the university's reputation and public relations.

I'm not in a position to write that playbook, or say that its contents are obvious. These are emotionally charged events. Other institutions' approachs can be helpful, but are not decisive. All I am saying is that giving the matter some thought ahead of time, whatever the emerging game plan may be, can at a minimum avoid the appearance -- whether for BP or the University of Iowa -- that those in charge are flailing about, uncoordinated, either ignoring the problem or trying everything they can pull out of the air as the IEDs (inevitable embarrassing developments) explode in front of them.

What seems most unfortunate -- substantively, morally, and in terms of public relations -- is for the University's response to be, as one official put it, that when students go missing off-campus, "It's not my case."

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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