Friday, October 29, 2010

State of Iowa Computers Conflict of Interest?

October 29, 2010, 8:10 p.m.

Senator Kim Reynolds' Role Needs Clarification
(bought to you by*)

It's unlikely there are many Iowans who haven't already voted, or at least made up their minds how they're going to vote, for the state's next governor.

It's less likely that many will make their decision on the basis of the governors' running mates for Lieutenant Governor.

And less likely still that if they still had questions about the Lt. Governor candidates that they would be looking to this blog for answers.

So, notwithstanding the timing, this blog entry is not designed to help or hurt anyone's campaign.

It's simply prompted by a headline in this morning's Gazette that caught my eye: Erin Jordan, "Reynolds' Role in Vendor Selection Questioned," The Gazette, October 29, 2010, p. A7.

Iowa State Senator Kim Reynolds was selected by former Governor Terry Branstad as his Lt. Governor running mate.

Reynolds was elected to the Iowa Senate a year ago, in November 2009. Two months later she was hired by ABC Visual, a software company as the company's "Business Development Manager." ABC Visual has ended up with a lucrative contract from the State for processing "hundreds of millions of dollars in tax payments each year through Iowa Treasurers," according to Jordan. Reynolds had been Clarke County Treasurer for 14 years, and served on the Senior Policy Group of the Iowa State County Treasurers Association until 2008 -- the group that recommended ABC Visual in 2007 (although she was not officially part of the committee that selected the firm after competitive bidding in 2009).

Iowa Interactive, the firm that had the contract for all 99 counties previously, has complained that she let ABC have an unauthorized access to Interactive's web site that could have given ABC an unfair advantage in the bidding process.

On the company's Web site, where she is prominently displayed immediately after the CEO B.J. Do, the company bio says she "was instrumental in the implementation of the Iowa State County Treasurers Website." ABC Virtual/About/Our Management Team.

Another interesting detail is that the ABC Virtual company is in receivership (and probably was when she first recommended it), and that its CEO was successfully sued by a former officer and shareholder for $1.6 million damages for what the court characterized as "a freeze-out of a minority shareholder not tolerated under Iowa law."

The court continued, "Do caused ABC to invest in GSE, a Vietnamese company used for outsourcing, and then refused to provide . . . information concerning the investment . . . [that] leads the court to believe that Do had and has something to hide relative to this investment, most likely because it benefits Do personally rather than ABC as a whole."

So the matter becomes, as Alice said in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, "curiouser and curiouser."

Obviously, I'm not charging anything, because I've done no independent investigation. Nor, as I've already explained, would I be so naive as to think this blog entry would have any impact on the election, even if that were my purpose, which it is not.

But I do think, whoever becomes Iowa's next governor on November 2, for Kim Reynold's sake as much as anything, there ought to be some relatively formal and independent effort to ascertain exactly what did and did not go on here. Worst case, perhaps one of the state's major newspapers could put a little more time in on the story after the election.

Meanwhile, here is a report from the online Newton Independent from last September that I came upon only today while trying to find out more. It further supports Erin Jordan's story today, and makes one wonder even more why the state's media were not digging into this months ago.

Reporter's Notebook: Some questions Ms. Reynolds?
The Newton Independent
September 27, 2010

Ever since Kim Reynolds was named as the running mate for gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad, I've been waiting to pick up the paper and read how the campaign is reacting to what could be a huge potential conflict for the former Clarke County Treasurer.

What? Don't know what I'm talking about? Well, let me spell it out from what I've found in just a cursory look using only Internet sources.

When Branstad announced Reynolds, I, like many other Iowans, had never heard of her. A former county treasurer with just two years of statehouse experience under her belt didn't seem like a logical choice. So I did some looking.

Going to the Iowa General Assembly home page, I found a brief bio, her committee assignments and the fact she was Business Development Manager for ABC Virtual Communications. An external link to the Iowa Republican Party web site provided a little more detail.

The GOP site notes she was appointed by then governor Branstad in 1996 to serve on the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System Board and served as president of the Iowa State County Treasurers Association in 2000.

But there was something that took on a little more importance after I noted the GOP web site was created by ABC Virtual Communications, the same firm her bio says she works for.

"(Reynolds) also served on the three-person Senior Policy Team that was instrumental in the research, development and implementation of the Iowa State County Treasurers Association website which brought online property tax and vehicle registration applications to all 99 counties at no cost."


So off to ABC Virtual Communications. Yup, right there on management team page is a picture of Ms. Reynolds, right under the mug and bio of the company's founder, BJ Do, outlining her background for her position as director of business development for the company. Interestingly, the site says she was hired on at ABC in January 2009, the same time she assumed her duties as a state senator. Again, the site notes her role in the implementation of the county treasurer's association e-commerce web site.

Under ABC Virtual's portfolio section on customers served, the Des Moines area company goes on at great length about the program it "designed, developed and implemented" for the Iowa County Treasurers E-Government Alliance (ICTEA). Basically, it allows for online payments of property taxes and motor vehicle registrations for a small fee to the user. In April 2008, the county treasurers association put out this Request for Proposals concerning bundled banking services.

Starting to get my drift?

But there's a little more. First stop, campaign disclosure reports. Sure enough, in November 2008 Mr. Do of ABC Virtual provided a $1,000 check to Ms. Reynolds campaign. And interestingly enough, in January and February 2008 David Jamison of Ames, the Story County Treasurer running against State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald in the November election, provided two checks to Ms. Reynolds totaling $150.

So off I went in search of more information on ABC Virtual. What I found makes it appear the company is in a bit of a mess, and has been for some time.

Way back in August 2006, Vinayak Hedge filed suit in Polk County District Court against ABC Virtual Communications Inc. and BJ Do. The online court docket identifies Mr. Hedge as a "property co-owner."

Since that time, there have been hundreds of court filings in the case, including such notable entries as former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark McCormick's withdrawal as Do's counsel, the appointment of Paul Juffer of LWBJ Capital Advisers as receiver of the company back in November 2007, an order compelling the release of encrypted e-mail messages (coupled with sanctions against ABC and Do for not doing so), a June 2009 trial, an April 2010 order for judgment against ABC Virtual Communications and BJ Do for $1,626,204, the defendant's appeal of the ruling and judgment to the Iowa Supreme Court (which will now make it difficult to get one's hands on the file to find out what the hub-bub was about in the first place and potential other avenues to explore) and the June 2010 expansion of the receiver's duties with Mr. Juffer taking "charge of all assets of ABC Virtual Communications."

All quite interesting. And it leads to several questions:

* Just how instrumental was Ms. Reynolds in helping ABC secure the contract and who else was a member of that "three-person Senior Policy Team?"
* Any perception problems for Ms. Reynolds in taking a job with the company she (apparently) helped land an account? And just how is ABC paid, and how much?
* Why would a county association select a firm that was under receivership when it was reviewing RFPs? Were association members aware of this fact at the time the decision was made? Are they aware Ms. Reynolds now works for ABC?

Hopefully the answers to these questions, and what likely are a lot more, will eventually come out. The way things stand now, however, they may not. But I'll keep looking.


* 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
# # #

More on NPR and Juan Williams

October 29, 2010, 7:30 p.m.

Some (Hopefully) Final Thoughts
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On October 27 I wrote a column in the Press-Citizen about Juan Williams, fired a week earlier by NPR. It was primarily focused on my interpretation -- based on the total context of what he said -- of his intended meaning behind the line seized on by NPR as grounds for firing. (It was his confession that he sometimes feels "nervous" when he sees Muslims on a plane he's flying.) Nicholas Johnson, "NPR Botched Its Firing of Juan Williams," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 27, 2010, p. A15. It followed one blog entry, Nicholas Johnson, "Unacceptable Remarks: Ex-NPR Juan Williams; What Words Warrant Firing?" October 22, 2010, and was embedded in a second, Nicholas Johnson, "NPR Botched Firing of Juan Williams; Sacked for Speech," October 27, 2010.

By tonight, it has triggered over 60 comments on the Press-Citizen's online publication of the column -- well above average for a Press-Citizen news story or opinion piece.

Normally I don't respond to comments, either on a newspaper's site or on these blog entries. But on this occasion it seemed appropriate to respond in the form of a summarization of some the points I made in the column as well as some that I did not -- due to the word limit, and the focus on the "meaning" of the words he uttered.

I agree that what Williams said, whether in or out of context, is subject to various reasonable interpretations. As quoted in the column, I simply thought that the most reasonable interpretation of everything he said, especially in the context of his challenging Bill O'Reilly's views, was that Williams was emphasizing the dangers of bigotry and prejudice, rather than arguing that all "Muslims" are rightly to be feared.

I also agree that Williams, like all of us, speaking extemporaneously, under pressure in a shouting match with Bill O'Reilly, did not speak in as organized, analytical, and literate a way -- with explanations and qualifiers -- as he would have when he was a Washington Post reporter with time to proof read, revise, and rewrite.

I disagree that Williams was expressing an "opinion," or that he was taking a position on a "controversial issue." The quote that seemingly got him fired was a confession of his feelings. One might lie about one's feelings, but a declaration of one's feelings is a statement of fact, true or false, not an "opinion." (An exception would be if one couldn't remember, or was unclear as to what their feelings were on a prior occasion, e.g., "I don't know for sure, but my opinion is that my feelings on that occasion were . . ." -- in which case the opinion would not be about the content of the feelings but rather about their existence.) Nor was it a "controversial issue." Whether it's appropriate to conduct full body x-ray scans of airline passengers is a controversial issue about which people can and do express diverse opinions. How Juan Williams feels when he boards may have started a controversy about his being fired, but it does not turn his internal, personal feelings, as such, into a controversial issue.

Given that Williams was working for Fox before, while, and after being hired by NPR originally, I agree that it is a bit disingenuous of its executives to now complain that when he works for Fox he becomes a part of its partisan shouting matches. It seems to me the concerns and complaints NPR executives were raising when firing him were not significantly different from what should have occurred to them when hiring him.

Therefore, I also agree that if NPR's displeasure with Williams' Fox affiliation has been an ongoing matter of concern over time it should have been dealt with long ago -- either by not hiring him in the first place, or some lesser punishment (such as a suspension), or if necessary firing him, but hopefully in a more low key way, and after talking to him face to face.

I agree that it is not only permissible, but highly desirable, that media organizations think through, and clarify for employees, the ethical standards they will enforce -- including when, where and by whom personal opinions are, and are not, acceptable from those whose job it is to do "straight news reporting." These concerns would also affect what is and is not acceptable in terms of potential influence, or conflicts of interest, from relations with significant others, financial investments, political, religious or ideological affiliations.

Working for dual, or more, employers raises at least potential problems that can be most cleanly dealt with by prohibiting them entirely -- as we've just seen in the case of Juan Williams. This is a challenge, however, now that America has moved from three TV networks and a half-dozen national newspapers to 500 TV channels and a nation of bloggers. I assume that NPR pays much less than Fox, not to mention ABC, CBS and NBC. If NPR would like to have the service of someone in that league, a high priced celebrity journalist may be willing to pick up the extra pocket change from appearances on NPR -- but would not be willing to work full time for NPR, on an NPR salary, with no opportunity to earn additional income elsewhere.

Finally, we have the additional problems raised by the new technology. Optavia Nasr was fired by CNN for a tweet. Helen Thomas' interview was recorded on a hand held amateur video camera. In the law of privacy we have something called "a reasonable expectation of privacy." Is there any venue remaining in which one might claim a reasonable expectation that one can freely express oneself without every offhand remark (in or out of context) risking the possibility of costing a job? Should employers take evolving technology into account, judging expression in some venues more serious than others?

These responses of mine do not exhaust all the possible replies to the issues raised in the Press-Citizen readers' comments. But they may, hopefully, help to explain my reactions to many of 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
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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NPR Botched Firing of Juan Williams

October 27, 2010, 6:50 a.m.

And see the earlier, expanded, "Unacceptable Remarks: Ex-NPR Juan Williams; What Words Warrant Firing?" October 22, 2010, and subsequent "More on NPR and Juan Williams; Some (Hopefully) Final Thoughts," Oct. 29, 2010.

Sacked for Speech
(bought to you by*)

On October 27 the Iowa City Press-Citizen ran two columns related to NPR's firing of Juan Williams one week ago today. I wrote from one perspective. Shams Ghoneim, coordinator of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Iowa, wrote from her perspective. Ms. Ghoneim is also a community member of the Press-Citizen's Editorial Board. Her column is reproduced following mine.

# # #

NPR botched its firing of Juan Williams
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 27, 2010, p. A15

NPR fired Juan Williams.

They botched it.

Even NPR's own ombudsperson, under the headline "NPR's Firing of Juan Williams Was Poorly Handled," said of her organization, "a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare."

It's not the first time. NPR stirred up a comparable storm when it fired NPR pioneer Bob Edwards.

Fox TV immediately responded with a multi-million-dollar contract to keep Williams in grocery money. And the Congressional conservatives who never did like public broadcasting now want to eliminate NPR's funding.

NPR's CEO, Vivian Schiller, said Williams violated the rule that NPR employees should keep opinions to themselves, while offering her opinion that he should see his psychiatrist. (He has none.)

A number of persons were fired this year for a single utterance. Williams is only the latest in a long line that includes Tony Hayward, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Octavia Nasr, Rick Sanchez, Laura Schlessinger and Helen Thomas.

Williams "offense" is most like that of Shirley Sherrod, fired by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. In a 40-minute speech explaining her evolution regarding race-based reactions, she confessed to an early one of her own (a white farmer; ultimately she saved his farm).

Williams was interviewed on Fox by Bill O'Reilly, who was making some statements about "Muslims." Williams, a prize-winning civil rights author and advocate, said, "there are people who want to somehow remind us . . . it's not a war against Islam." After Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building "you don't say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That's crazy."

He warned, "Bill, here's a caution point. The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby's neck . . . or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero. ... We don't want in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked on the street, because they heard rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly and they act crazy."

In the course of taking on O'Reilly, he made his own Sherrod-like confession that, "when I get on the plane ... if I see people who are in Muslim garb and ... they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

It's not easy to have a "conversation" with Bill O'Reilly. But when Williams' confession is fairly evaluated in context, he was not saying "all Muslims are terrorists" anymore than Sherrod was saying all whites are unworthy. He, and she, meant just the opposite.

As Slate's William Saletan said, "Sometimes a confession of prejudice is part of a larger reflection on the perils of prejudice. That was true of Sherrod. And it's true of Williams."

Williams is saying in a country and age of suspicion and fear some people will respond emotionally as "worried and nervous" -- even when they know better intellectually, as he does. And that fact imposes an enhanced responsibility on those with microphones not to foment hate speech -- and actions.

The anxiety is not limited to Williams.

Jesse Jackson once said, "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery -- then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."

NPR forbids "news analysts" expressing "opinions" and taking "personal public positions on controversial issues." But Williams' report of his emotional feelings on planes is a statement of fact, not opinion or advocacy, and certainly doesn't involve a "controversial issue."

New media don't help. Nasr was fired for a tweet, Thomas over an amateur video. Now Williams for a well-intentioned extemporaneous remark during a shouting match with O'Reilly.

NPR and other institutions can hire, and fire, whomever they please. But there are consequences -- for them, their employees, and all who believe in fairness and a robust democratic dialogue.
Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner, teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains
# # #

Addressing fear and xenophobia
Shams Ghoneim
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 27, 2010, p. A15

Juan Williams, former NPR news analyst and now full-time Fox News political commentator, recently said that when he boards a plane and sees "people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, that they identify themselves first and most as Muslims, I get nervous and worried."

As a member of a minority community and an expert on the history of civil rights in the U.S., Williams should have known better than to publicly share both his ignorance and Islamo-phobia for profit and to create national controversy so close to the Nov. 2 election.

Ethical journalists should not mix their personal opinions with facts. And Williams -- in this most offensive and biased remark -- not only violated this journalistic code of conduct, but also used his public position to spread more prejudice and fear mongering against a minority religious community. Muslims in America have become a punching bag for right-wing commentators, public officials, fringe religious figures and even some elected officials.

This is not about freedom of speech. This is about journalistic ethics as well as the personal responsibility that go with this ethics. I feel compelled to ask, "What would Williams think if a white American were to say, 'Each time I get into a store or a plane, and I see a black man, I get nervous and worried?'"

Williams not only has offended millions of law-abiding American Muslims, but he also has demonstrated the worst kind of journalism. I personally think NPR was right to fire him for his bigoted statements alone. I'm disappointed that Williams chose to be in the company of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others. And if he wants to be in the company of such admired journalists such as Bill Moyers, Thomas Friedman, Christiane Amanpour or Fareed Zakaria, then I think Williams needs to re-evaluate his conduct as well as his professional goals.

But the Muslim Public Affairs Council recently issued a statement that criticized the firing of Williams.

The council stated, "In the past few months, a number of high profile commentators and journalists -- including Rick Sanchez, Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Helen Thomas -- have been fired or quit due to offensive comments they made. These incidents have made it clear that more discussions need to take place addressing race, religion and American identity in the face of xenophobia and fear."
Shams Ghoneim is a community member of the Press-Citizen Editorial Board and the coordinator of the Muslim Public Affairs Council for Iowa.

# # #

* 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
# # #

Friday, October 22, 2010

Unacceptable Remarks: Ex-NPR Juan Williams

October 22, 2010, 8:00 p.m.

And see Nicholas Johnson's published column on the subject, embedded in Nicholas Johnson, "NPR Botched Firing of Juan Williams; Sacked for Speech," October 27, 2010, and the subsequent reply to Press-Citizen readers' comments in "More on NPR and Juan Williams; Some (Hopefully) Final Thoughts," Oct. 29, 2010.

What Words Warrant Firing?
(bought to you by*)

Juan Williams, a former Washington Post reporter and prize-winning book author, is employed by Fox News and, until Wednesday evening, October 20, 2010, by NPR as well.

See Brian Stelter, "NPR Fires Analyst Over Comments on Muslims," New York Times, Oct. 21, 2010, p. B2; Brian Stelter, "Two Takes at NPR and Fox on Juan Williams," New York Times, Oct. 22, 2010, p. B1; "RAW DATA: NPR Internal Memo on Juan Williams,", October 21, 2010 (Fox News publication of alleged NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller's internal memo regarding Williams' firing); Juan Williams, "I Was Fired for Telling the Truth,", October 21, 2010; Alicia Shepard, "NPR's Firing of Juan Williams Was Poorly Handled," NPR Ombudsman, October 21, 2010.

His case would seem to bear more similarity to that of Shirley Sherrod and Octavia Nasr than Helen Thomas -- all of whom were also fired for a casual remark. That is to say, if one examines the entire transcript of the relevant portion of the Bill O’Reilly October 18, 2010, program on which Williams appeared, Williams was not criticizing, and certainly not condemning, all Muslims. In fact, if his blog comment is to be believed, he was doing exactly the opposite -– in the course of which, not incidentally, he was criticizing O’Reilly.

Williams statement was about himself, not Muslims. In the context of a discussion of the terrorists attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, he conceded that even he felt a little nervousness when there were Muslims among the passengers on his plane. The point was, and is, as William Saletan put it in, “Sometimes a confession of prejudice is part of a larger reflection on the perils of prejudice. That was true of Sherrod. And it's true of Williams.”

Moreover, given the totality of Williams remarks and writing, and that he continues to fly, it's clear that, intellectually, he has a fairly accurate benefit-cost sense of the mathematically insignificant risk of any plane he's on being blow up by Muslim terrorists.

Muslim extremists aside, there are individuals who have a fear of flying. They might be willing to concede that when they are on airplanes, like Williams, "I get worried; I get nervous" -- notwithstanding the fact that they, intellectually, know they are safer when flying on a commercial airline than when driving a car.

Since 9/11 the government has told Americans to be on alert, to report anything "suspicious." In calculating risks, irrational attitudes about race, religion and ethnicity may play a role in one's emotional response. None other than Jesse Jackson has said, "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery -- then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved." Remarks at a meeting of Operation PUSH, Chicago, November 27, 1993, quoted in Mary A. Johnson, "Crime: New Frontier -- Jesse Jackson Calls It Top Civil-Rights Issue," Chicago Sun-Times, November 29, 1993, and in Stephan Themstrom and Abigail Themstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 263. An African-American friend has told me of similar feelings when she is walking at night and followed by a number of African-American male teenagers.

Here's six minutes of video from the O'Reilly program in which Williams participated:

And here are some textual excerpts from the range of his comments on the show. It was his first response (to O’Reilly’s question, “So, where am I going wrong there, Juan?”) that has caused the furor. Williams replied:

I think you’re right. I think, look, political correctness [i.e., in this instance, a refusal to acknowledge the reality that a disproportionate share of the terrorists wishing, and practicing, harm to America claim to be doing so in the name of Islam] can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.

I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts.
However, he immediately continued:
But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam. President Bush went to a mosque –

. . . Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don’t say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That’s crazy.

. . . [Y]ou said in the talking points memo a moment ago that there are good Muslims, I think that’s a point, you know?

. . . But, Bill, here’s a caution point. The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby’s neck and says he’s attacking him or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero –

. . . I don’t know what is in that guy’s head. But I’m saying, we don’t want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they heard a rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy. We’ve got to say to people as Bill was saying tonight, that guy is a nut.
After he was fired, Williams wrote in his blog:
Yesterday NPR fired me for telling the truth. The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims.

This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims. In a debate with Bill O’Reilly I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith. I pointed out that the Atlanta Olympic bomber -- as well as Timothy McVeigh and the people who protest against gay rights at military funerals -- are Christians but we journalists don’t identify them by their religion.

And I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to the violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without the fear of having your throat slashed. Bill and I argued after I said he has to take care in the way he talks about the 9/11 attacks so as not to provoke bigotry.
CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called on NPR to “address the fact that one of its news analysts seems to believe that all airline passengers who are perceived to be Muslim can legitimately be viewed as security threats.” While that is one possible interpretation of what he said, it is at least equally possible to conclude that he said precisely the opposite; that is, that all “perceived to be Muslim cannot legitimately be viewed as security threats.”

One can observe that, like Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack’s impetuous response to the selected excerpt from Shirley Sherrod’s speech without first examining the entire videotape or transcript, NPR’s executives also weakened their case by lifting a portion of Williams’ comments without considering, or at least crediting, its meaning in context.

Or one might suggest, as David Brooks did in the case of Nasr, that if any punishment was warranted, a fixed-time suspension might have made more sense than a dismissal.

Or if, as NPR claimed, it was Williams’ dual role of news analyst for NPR and commentator for Fox that had been a troublesome conflict and violation of its rules for years, it might have been a better strategy to wait a few weeks and slip the dismissal smoothly under the radar on those grounds than to jump on the specific statement of his that was chosen as "cause." Of course, this was not the first time NPR mangled what could have been a smooth departure. (“The decision by National Public Radio to replace [Bob] Edwards as Morning Edition anchor [in 2004] was one of the year’s more peculiar media stories.” “2005 Annual Report – Radio Content Analysis: NPR’s Bob Edwards,” Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, March 15, 2005.)

The NPR's own Ombudsperson seems to share some of my judgment about NPR's flawed process:
Williams . . . said he was told his contract was terminated without an opportunity to come into NPR and discuss the firing.

If he is correct, that’s too bad. I think NPR owed him a chance to explain himself.

I’m not privy to the why this announcement was so hastily made. NPR could have waited until his contract ran out, or possibly suspended him pending a review. Either way, a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare. Alicia Shepard, "NPR's Firing of Juan Williams Was Poorly Handled," NPR Ombudsman, October 21, 2010.
NPR CEO Vivian Schiller spoke to the Atlanta Press Club on October 21, 2010. Given her concern about her “news analysts” taking “personal public positions on controversial issues” because it “undermines their credibility,” and putting aside that Williams’ factual statement about his feelings while flying involved neither a “controversial issue” nor an "opinion," it is a mite ironic that NPR itself reports she was so quick to express her own opinion and “personal public position” that Juan Williams should have kept his feelings between himself and “his psychiatrist or his publicist.” Mark Memmott, "NPR CEO Apologizes for 'Psychiatrist' Remark," The Two-Way, NPR's News Blog, October 21, 2010.

Her kind of ad hominem outburst truly does "undermine credibility," suggests a motivation more of petulant personal pique than calm and balanced judment regarding NPR's best interests, and a lack of basic fairness and decency. It has undoubtedly contributed to, rather than ameliorated, what NPR's Ombudsperson has accurately characterized as a "public relations nightmare."

One suspects that NPR's objection was precipitated not so much by a violation of its "rules" for "news analysts" as for the content of Williams' remark (which was both taken out of context, and, as noted, was about his personal feelings of insecurity, not Muslims as such). One wonders if he would have been fired had he said, "Notwithstanding 9/11, when I get on a plane and see passengers dressed in Muslim garb, it makes me proud to be an American, and of the way we respect all people as individuals."

However, Williams was not fired because of his statements taken alone. He, like Octavia Nasr and Helen Thomas, is "a journalist" (most broadly defined). As such, a media employer has a legitimate interest in the public's perception of his absence of bias. Moreover, NPR has the legal right to fire him for any reason whatsoever (consistent with his contract). Nor is this a First Amendment case.

More significant in this instance, NPR certainly has a right to create its own rules regarding journalistic ethics, and preservation of the appearance of its reporters’ (what they call “news analysts”) impartiality. Having done so, it also has the right to investigate, judge, and impose penalties for the failure to comply with its rules.

NPR makes a distinction between what it calls "correspondents" (something similar to what are colloquially referred to as "reporters") and "news analysts." The latter presumably are supposed to interpret the news, tell the audience its significance, or perhaps provide "the back story." It is said that Williams "crossed the line" between "news analysis" and "opinion," or taking a "personal public position on controversial issues." But I can imagine that, at best, that "line" would sometimes be as blurred as the line downt the middle of the highway under a heavy morning fog.

Whether NPR's standards are too strict, ambiguous, difficult of administration, and were appropriately applied in this case are issues about which media owners, editors, journalists, media critics and academics will be debating for a considerable time to come.

* 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
# # #

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why Conservatives Support Judges Retention

October 17, 2010, 6:00 a.m.

Those Supporting Removal Are "Conservatives in Name Only" (CINO)
(bought to you by*)

Whether to retain three Iowa Supreme Court justices is one of the most important issues, or "races," on Iowans' November 2 ballot.

I've written about the issue in this morning's Gazette. The Press-Citizen editorialized about it yesterday and the Des Moines Register this morning. Judges here and elsewhere, lawyers, law school deans and professors, have weighed in on the subject, warning of the dangers of voting judges out of office because of disagreement about a single opinion.

Some, claiming to wear the cloak of conservatism, are urging Iowans to remove the three Iowa justices up for a retention vote. They are CINOs (conservatives in name only), attempting to mislead true conservatives as to the proper conservative vote in this "election."

My morning's op ed column is an effort to set the conservative record straight. It is below. Following it are the editorials in the Press-Citizen and Des Moines Regislter -- also taking the true conservative position, but not identifying it as such.

The Conservative Case for Judicial Retention
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette
October 17, 2010, p. A17

Federalists, constitutional originalists, Tea Party members, and other true conservatives will vote to retain Iowa's Supreme Court justices.


Because they are steeped in American history.

They believe the founders' intentions are as valid today as they were more than 200 years ago. They honor and follow the Constitution our founders wrote and ratified.

Many conservatives are members of the Federalist Society -- a self-identified "group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order." It is rational for them, when interpreting the Constitution, to look to The Federalist Papers, some 85 essays you may recall from high school civics.

During 1787 and 1788, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay published those essays. They represent their effort to promote ratification of the U.S. Constitution -- a Constitution conservatives want to read literally. Today, when lawyers and judges try to do that, The Federalist Papers remain among the best evidence of the original intent of the drafters, and what our Constitution meant to them.

It fell to Alexander Hamilton to explain the court system in general and the rationale for the life tenure, retention and removal of judges in particular. His essay, "The Judiciary Department," is "Federalist No. 78."

There are those today who do not agree with conservative values.

There were "anti-Federalists" in Hamilton's time, too. Their essays make up "The Anti-Federalist Papers." One author, New York Judge Robert Yates, wrote under the name "Brutus." In the spring of 1788, he authored a series of essays ("Anti-Federalist" Nos. 78-84) in the New York Journal.

Liberal Yates recognized the need for judges' independence from the legislative and judicial branches. But he believed the Constitution provides too much independence, such as the life tenure for "good behavior" (Art. III, Sec. 1), and removal by impeachment only for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" (Art. II, Sec. 4).

Judges need to be responsible to "some superior power," he argued. This would not be a direct vote of the people. In his day even senators were not to be directly elected (Art. I, Sec. 3).

Instead, he proposed removal of judges be done by "some supreme . . . body of men, who depend upon the people for their places" - presumably a popularly elected body of some kind.

Federalist Hamilton responded to Yates in June 1788. He did not believe judges should be removed when voters disagree with individual opinions.

Judges need protection from legislators and the people.

Conservative Hamilton believed an independent judiciary is "one of the most valuable of the modern improvements in the practice of government ... [a] barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body ... the best expedient ... to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws ... to keep the [legislature] within the limits [of the Constitution]." Independent judges can also restrain "serious oppressions of the minor party in the community ... an essential safeguard against the effects of occasional ill humors in the society ... as no man can be sure that he may not be tomorrow the victim of a spirit of injustice."

Conservatives know that Hamilton's principle, and rationale, for independent federal judges in 1788 is equally applicable for independent Iowa judges in 2010.

They agree with Hamilton that impeachment or a vote against "retention" of a judge should not turn on approval of the outcome from a judge's individual opinions.

Conservatives will vote to retain Iowa's judges because they are patriotic, honorable and consistent conservatives who love this country, respect its Constitution, and the wisdom of those who wrote, fought for and ratified it.

Nicholas Johnson, a former Federal Communications Commissioner, teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law.

# # #

Protect the Independence of Iowa Judges
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 16, 2010

There might be reasons other than the 2009 marriage equality ruling for individual Iowans to vote against retaining one or more of the Iowa Supreme Court justices up for retention votes this Nov. 2.

Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, for example, has presided over some very tough economic times, and many of the people affected directly by budget cuts in the Judicial Branch may disagree with the decisions she has made.

That might be one of the reasons why Ternus received only a 72 percent support ranking on the 2010 Judicial Plebiscite prepared by the Iowa Bar Association while Justice David Baker received 82.8 percent and Justice Michael Streit received 83.7 percent. (The supporting percentages for the six judges up for retention in the Sixth District, in contrast, range from Stephen Gerard with 81.4 percent to Sean McPartland with 96 percent.)

But in its regular survey of the lawyers who work with these judges, the Iowa Bar Association found that all three justices and all 71 judges standing for retention this year are "well qualified to remain as judges" in terms of their:

• Knowledge and application of the law.

• Perception of factual issues.

• Attentiveness to arguments and testimony.

• Temperament and demeanor.

• Quality of written opinions.

• Promptness of rulings and decisions.

• Avoidance of undue personal observations.

• Deciding cases based on applicable law and fact.

• Courtesy and patience.

• Treating people equally.

Those are the qualities that we prize in our judges and justices. And Iowa's nearly half-century old system of appointing judges based on merit has meant that very few judges -- only four in 48 years -- abuse their office and authority so egregiously that they need to be removed from office by the voters.

We want to ensure that Iowa keeps this system so our state judges know that they are free to render judgment according to past constitutional and case law and not have to worry about any political backlash if their well-reasoned judicial opinions prove unpopular.

If there is any problem with our current system, it's not that it removes too much politics from judicial appointments; it's that it ties the hands of judges from defending themselves against any organized efforts to unseat them. Especially when that negative information is all potential voters ever hear about the judges in question. Especially when that negative information is focused on a single ruling on an emotionally packed, controversial issue -- such as marriage equity.

Anyone interested in finding out more about an individual judge's record should check out:

• The survey on judges conducted by the Iowa State Bar Association (

• The voters' guide provided on the Iowa Judicial Branch website (

• The published decisions of the Iowa Supreme Court and Iowa Court of Appeals (

But we definitely don't want to see an overtly political campaign -- especially one that seems to be financed largely by out-of-state interests -- succeed in removing any judges or justices for no other reason than doing the difficult job they've been tasked to do.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has come to Iowa to explain the benefits of a merit system. And former Republican Gov. Robert Ray recently joined a campaign in favor of retaining all three Iowa Supreme Court justices.

This election, we likewise endorse the retention over every judge and justice on the ballot.

# # #

This Vote Is About More Than Just 3 Judges
The Des Moines Register
October 17, 2010

Iowa's Nov. 2 general election ballot poses this question: "Shall the following judges be retained in office?" Then it lists the names of three justices on the seven-member Iowa Supreme Court.

This is by far the most important question in this year's election.

Voters will determine who will be governor for the next four years. They will determine who will serve in the Iowa Legislature and in Congress over the next several years. But, in this election, the voters will determine the fate of Iowa's judiciary for a much longer time. The question is whether Iowa's judges will remain independent or be subjected to the mutable forces of popular opinion.

A lavishly funded media campaign, complete with TV commercials and automated phone calls, has been waged to persuade Iowa voters to fire the three Iowa Supreme Court justices standing for retention.

The point is not that any of the three is incompetent or unworthy to serve on the bench because of personal or professional shortcomings. Rather, the campaign is the work of people who oppose the court's unanimous April 2009 decision that Iowa's law denying marriage to same-sex partners violated the Iowa Constitution.

A law that conflicts with the constitution cannot be enforced. That is the constitution's explicit command. Thus, the 1998 state law limiting marriage to a man and a woman could no longer be enforced. That meant the benefits of marriage granted by the state to opposite-sex couples must be extended to gay and lesbian couples - by the state, though not necessarily by churches.

Equal rights tradition

Some believe the ruling in Varnum v. Brien was the first step toward the end of Western civilization. In fact, the ruling is consistent with the Iowa Supreme Court's long record of recognizing equal rights of minority groups, often decades ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court.

This tradition dates back to Iowa territorial days, when the court declared in 1839 that a former Missouri slave living in Iowa could not be returned to slavery. When the court in 1868 mandated that a public school admit a black student. When the court in 1869 declared that women had a right to practice law in Iowa. When the court in 1873 declared that a black passenger had a right to the same steamboat accommodations as white passengers.

Those decisions were contrary to norms of their time. But equal rights guaranteed by the constitution cannot be restricted by contemporary social convention. Indeed, Varnum, like those earlier decisions, is the only reasonable reading of the plain language of the Iowa Bill of Rights, which says, "All men and women are, by nature, free and equal" and that "the general assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens."

Retention v. referendum

Some Iowans disagree with the court's decision on same-sex marriage, which is their right, but it would be wrong for voters to punish the judges for the ruling. That would transform the judicial process into a popular political forum.

Some contend it is perfectly proper for voters to register opposition to a single ruling by voting against judges in retention elections. But that is, in any case, an ineffective exercise. Even if all three of the justices are removed, that will not disturb the Varnum decision.

Some even suggest putting constitutional decisions themselves to a popular vote, in which case we would not need courts or judges at all. That would be absurd, of course, and contrary to the separation of powers plan of state government the framers of the Iowa Constitution designed.

Besides, it would contradict America's promise of liberty to conduct a popular referendum on fundamental constitutional principles, whether it be protecting the rights of citizens against government intrusion, criminal suspects against lawless police or minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

This retention election is about far more than just three judges. It is about the future of Iowa's system of selecting judges outside the realm of partisan politics. The people of this state eliminated partisan elections of judges 48 years ago, and they have been well served ever since by what is recognized as one of the best court systems in the nation. But for the first time in nearly half a century, a campaign is under way to return partisanship to the judicial process. Instead of voting on whether individual judges merit retention based on their fitness to serve, the anti-Varnum campaign is intended to legitimize the idea of putting the work of Iowa's courts to a popular vote.

An undesired outcome

If the voters of Iowa allow that practice to prevail, it will unleash a counterrevolution from those who support various court decisions, and Iowa will in effect return to partisan judicial elections. That is an outcome no one should relish. Many voices have been heard in this election season calling for elected leaders who will to restore and preserve our system of government and our constitution. This is a moment to do that very thing: Protect our system of government, and the checks and balances that rely on the independence of the courts.

The voters of Iowa should make that happen by voting "yes" on all three Iowa Supreme Court justices up for retention in this election. Indeed, unless Iowans know of a credible reason why any judge has proved unqualified to remain on the bench, they should also vote "yes" to retain all 74 appeals- and trial-court judges on the ballot across the state.

That is a vote to endorse not just those judges, but to endorse Iowa's system of justice.

# # #

* 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
# # #

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Disparity in Class Sizes: Simple Solution Rejected

October 13, 2010, 9:00 a.m.

Community's Choice is "Patch and Mend"
(bought to you by*)

Sixteen months ago, in a Press-Citizen column regarding the disparity in our local schools' class sizes (among other things), I asked: "the issue is whether the community -- the district's stakeholders, including board members -- want to seize this opportunity. Are we willing to consider creative approaches, whether cluster schools or others? Or would we rather continue to patch and mend?"

This morning's Press-Citizen provides the answer. We would rather continue to patch and mend. Rob Daniel, "Board questions class sizes; Disparity among SINAs brought before Feldmann," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 13, 2010, p. A3:
Iowa City School Board members questioned why classes in some schools were so much larger than others Tuesday night. . . .

The numbers, which were as of Sept. 23, showed regular education classes ranging from 12 to 27 students per class in kindergarten through second grade and 13 to 31 students per classes in grades 3 to 6. . . .

West High . . . currently has a Spanish class with 41 students . . ..
This is the community's fault. It's not the fault of the past or present superintendent, board members -- and certainly not Ann Feldmann.

This is really very simple math. And the community flunked the exam.

What we have are relatively fixed boundaries for each elementary school; and very few -- often two or three -- classrooms for each grade level within each school (that is, two or three third grades, two or three fourth grade classrooms, and so forth).

Daniel reports the District's goal is an average of 25.1 students per teacher in grades 3 to 6, but that the actual numbers range from 13 to 31 students per class.

This is like the person with a foot in a bucket of ice water and hand in a pot of boiling water, who is "on average" quite comfortable.

So long as you have 50 third graders in a building you can have two third grades, each with 25 students and one teacher. The goal of an average of 25 per class is met.

But what if you have 63 third graders in the building? If you want to stick to a 25-student maximum you will have to hire another teacher -- to teach a third grade of 13 students. Or, you can have one third grade of 32 students and another of 31.

Do you see the problem?

Now suppose you consider three elementary schools that are near each other as a unit, or "cluster." Parents and students identify with their cluster, rather than an individual building. One has 63 third graders, another 39, and the third 52 -- for a total of 154. Examine those third graders in the building with 63. Who are the 13 who most recently enrolled in that school? If they are moved to the building with 39, one school ends up with two third grades of 25 students each, and the other two schools with two third grades each, all with 26 students per classroom.

The "cluster school" idea is a template, not a cookie cutter. It's like an empty spreadsheet into which you can put whatever data and formulas you wish. You can also use it to reduce the number of principals -- or not. You can use it as a way of redrawing a district's school boundaries -- or not. You can use it to minimize (or eliminate) the disparity in percentages of "free-and-reduced lunch" students in each building -- or keep the disparities that exist, or even make them greater.

Nothing is mandated. It is a way of minimizing (or eliminating) disparity in class sizes -- and usually with significantly increased parent and student satisfaction, and significantly reduced cost.

With "local control of schools" a community can choose to do it, or not. We have chosen not to do it. But having chosen to value lack of "change" over all other values and options, we can no longer complain that we have great disparity in individual class sizes.

We also need to remind ourselves from time to time that ours is a public school system that is only possible with the generous support of local citizens' property and sales taxes, plus some state and federal taxpayers' funding. That means that no individual stakeholder has an entitlement to, or should be able to, dictate the details of its operation so as to provide them with 100% satisfaction in every particular. Cluster schools will improve the operation of the entire District. They will make some happier, and others more frustrated.

Those who wish 100% satisfaction should consider the private schools that exist in the community, or the possibility of creating a charter/magnet school of their own. But so long as they are the beneficiaries of something on the order of $100 million of public money modest compromises that involve both improvement and the dreaded "change" will be necessary from time to time.

Removing the disparity in class sizes is but one example of that truth.

Here's last year's column (as embedded in "Cluster Schools: Option for IC District?" June 3, 2009):

District needs cluster schools

Nicholas Johnson
Guest Opinion
Iowa City Press-Citizen
June 3, 2009

Do we need a do-over, a district-wide rethinking of our elementary schools' boundaries?

Based on citizens' organizations, talk at meetings, this newspaper's editorials, columns and readers' online comments, that seems to be the community consensus.

What might be helpful now are conceptual ideas that attempt to make the most of this opportunity, while taking into account the desires of students, parents, teachers, school board members, central administrators, taxpayers, developers and realtors.

Here are some approaches that, with community input and modification, might have potential.

They could:

• Be politically feasible, minimize family disruption, and maximize developers' and realtors' advance notice, by implementing them gradually over, say, three to six years.

• Reduce busing costs.

• Cut administrative costs by two-thirds.

• Equalize grades' class size.

• Reduce overcrowding and equalize percentage occupancy of schools.

• Provide central administration flexibility in assigning students to schools.

• Maintain present schools while minimizing taxpayers' burden for costly new ones.

• More nearly equalize each school's percentage of free-and-reduced-lunch students.
Obviously, all features and details would be subject to stakeholders' input and tweaking, but here are the basic concepts:

We could have "clusters" of, usually three, contiguous schools.

There could be three categories of boundaries: each school's, each cluster's and the areas outside clusters (like the present flex areas).

Student populations within schools and clusters could be small enough to allow, say, 10 years' projected growth and flexibility.

Those within a given cluster, but outside each of its three schools' boundaries, might attend any of the cluster's schools.

Because each cluster would have more, say third-graders, than would an individual school, we could more nearly equalize individual schools' third-grade class size throughout the clusters and district.

Those students within the district, but outside all individual clusters, could be assigned to any cluster -- usually the nearest one.

Once assigned to a cluster, a student could stay there from kindergarten through sixth grade.

The number of students projected to be within each cluster could be designed to provide all district schools with more nearly equivalent percentage occupancy. For example, if all schools needed to be at 90 percent occupancy to accommodate all district students, a school that can hold 200 would have 180; a school that holds 400 would have 360. None need be overcrowded.

Presumably something like this approach would reduce both the number of students, distance, time and cost involved in busing. More students could walk or bike to school.

With all schools even more equal in quality than they are now, there would be even less reason for increased urban sprawl, creating a more vibrant downtown.

Cluster schools make other creative innovations possible.

If desired, schools could be selected for clusters, boundaries drawn and students outside clusters assigned, so as to more nearly equalize the percentages of free-and-reduced-lunch students in each cluster and school.

Each school could have a "lead teacher" to assist colleagues with curriculum and staff development (rather than a "principal"). With only one administrator-principal per cluster, administrative costs would be cut two-thirds. (Reassignments and attrition could avoid layoffs of principals.)

A cluster might devote one school to K-3 students, another to grades four and five and a separate school for sixth graders -- or other combinations.

A cluster's schools might want to share resources, or develop magnet programs in science, math or music open to all that cluster's students.

But those are issues for the future.

For now, the issue is whether the community -- the district's stakeholders, including board members -- want to seize this opportunity. Are we willing to consider creative approaches, whether cluster schools or others? Or would we rather continue to patch and mend?

"Local control of schools" means it really is our choice -- and our children's future.
Nicholas Johnson, a former member of the Iowa City School Board, teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains the Web sites and


* 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
# # #

Friday, October 08, 2010

Want Better Administrators? Here's How

October 8, 2010, 11:45 a.m.

Workplace Safety: Look to China's Coal Mine Solution
. . . and other lessons

(bought to you by*)

China seems to be doing a lot of things right, and I'm not just talking about what appears to be their stealth monopoly control of the world's essential "rare earth" resources. Keith Bradsher, "China Tightens Grip on Rare Minerals," New York Times, September 1, 2009, p. B1.

At a time when we don't seem to have figured out how to make corporate executives and their government overseers take a more serious approach to workplace safety, the Chinese have come up with an approach that can be applied to improving administrators' behavior generally.

"[N]ine men . . . have died inside U.S. coal mines in the six months since the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia, in which 29 men were killed on April 5." David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy, "Mine Safety's Black Hole," Washington Post, October 5, 2010. And see Nicholas Johnson, "Honor Workers Every Day," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 6, 2010, p. A7 (and in "Labor Day: Honor Workers Every Day," September 6, 2010); and Editorial, "Miners Die, Congress Dawdles," New York Times, September 19, 2010, p. A20.

What can we do? Where can we look for "best practices"?

Admittedly, it seems counter intuitive to look to China for coal mine safety. There are seven million Chinese coal miners -- more than in the rest of the world combined. In 2004 6000 Chinese miners died in mining accidents. China produces 40% of the world's coal, but 80% of the mining deaths. Chinese miners die at a rate 100 times greater than in the U.S. Mark Gregory, "Why Are China's Mines So Dangerous?" BBC World Service, October 7, 2010.

But last year those deaths dropped to 2600. Id.

And now Beijing has added another innovation that will not only reduce those deaths further, but offers an insight into reforming the attitudes of elected officials, administrators and managers generally.

"New regulations have come into force in China that require managers of mines to accompany workers down the shafts. . . . The authorities hope that putting officials in the mines alongside their workers will act as a strong incentive to improve safety conditions." Martin Patience, "China Introduces Mine Safety Rule," BBC News, October 7, 2010.

As you'd suspect, China's coal mine managers aren't crazy about the idea. "[A]lready there have been reports of some managers trying to manipulate the new regulation. At one mine, seven workers were given jobs as assistant managers to circumvent the new rule." Id.

How else might this principle be applied?

Professorial humility. At one point I applied it to myself. I'm not a good foreign language student. Oh, I manage to learn and use a few expressions in the native language of all the countries where I travel. But the portion of the brain that seemingly enables some individuals to master a foreign language on a single hearing never fully developed for me. Besides, most of the people I was dealing with abroad were fluent English language speakers.

But a time arrived when it looked like I was really going to need more than a few expressions in Russian. So I took a Russian class with about six other students, many of whom were simultaneously studying Japanese and Chinese. That should have been a clue. I spent time in the language lab; I did the exercises in the book. But there was no way I could master the language as thoroughly and quickly as the others.

Now it's undoubtedly true that there are undergraduates and law students who do not do well in class, and on exams, because of binge drinking, other partying, or a lackadaisical attitude generally. But what I learned from my experience -- deliberately taking a class that I knew would be exceedingly difficult for me -- is that there are also students who are not doing well in spite of really making the effort and logging the time.

It was a lesson that has served me well in the years since. Indeed, I recommend it to teachers at all levels. What are the subjects, the intellectual challenges, at which you have the least aptitude -- advanced math, physics, spoken and written Chinese, philosophy, memorization of historical facts and dates? Take a course in one of those subjects. Feel the pain. It will make you a more sympathetic and effective teacher.

Employing minimum wage workers? Lobby in opposition to raising their pay? Take a page out of Barbara Ehrenreich's book; literally. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Henry Holt, 2001).

As an absolute minimum, all such individuals ought to at least be required to read and reflect on her report of the consequences of such pay for those who have and hold a job, go to work every day, and play by the rules. The conditions confronting America's "working poor" put all of us -- and our elected representatives -- to shame.

Working conditions. In 1974, when I was running for Congress with UAW support, I was talking to some factory workers about their working conditions. What's a fair wage for working in a foundry, in temperatures often in excess of 100 degrees, around machinery that could remove a limb, and next to vats of molten metal that would instantly kill if one misstep caused you to fall in?

It occurred to me one measure might be to ask the CEO what he would require as a fair wage were he to be doing that work. How much better, I now realize in light of the Chinese practice, if he were required to work there every day for at least a couple of weeks before answering that question.

Similarly the foundry workers could take turns sitting at his desk, with carpet up to their ankles, playing golf one or two afternoons a week, following which they would have to indicate the minimum income they would find acceptable for doing his job.

Other. There are no limits to this approach. School superintendents could be required to eat lunch in the school cafeteria every day for a couple of months, rather than in the swanky restaurants their salaries make possible. Doctors could experience the joys of emptying bed pans in a hospital for a week or so. Hotel managers could try to change the linen, make the beds, replace the towels, and clean the rooms in the time they allow their cleaning crews. University presidents could try to personally figure out the building maintenance challenges that daily confront employees, or work along side a night shift cleaning crew trying to do the job with half the personnel they had not that many years ago. Auto manufacturing CEOs would have to figure out how to get at an engine part needing repair that is seemingly impossible to reach. Airline executives could be assigned to serving all the passengers on a short flight with a full plane -- including how to get those carts in and out of the galley.

Stuff like that. Use your imagination. The Chinese used theirs, and it's saving lives. It would be a better world.
"Dark as a Dungeon"

Where it's dark as a dungeon
And damp as the dew
Where the danger is doubled
And the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls
And the sun never shines
Oh it's dark as a dungeon
Way down in the mine
Now here's Johnny Cash singing it to you.

* 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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