Monday, December 29, 2014

Re-Elect Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig

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

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

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

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

Nicholas Johnson and Mary Vasey

Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Vasey and Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Sony's 'The Interview': A Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Threats and Sensibilities: Presidents Kim, Lynton and Mason

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

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

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

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

-- Nicholas Johnson

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

The Price of Free Speech

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

(1) The “law” doesn’t always apply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the University Owes Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Values of Free Speech and a Proposal

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Pictures of Presidents

"The Interview" Trailer and Pictures of "Art"

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

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

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

Quotations from . . .

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

President Barack Obama

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

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

The Guardians of Peace (the Hackers' Threats)

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

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

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

Sony Statement

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

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

UI President Sally Mason Statement

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

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

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

UI AAUP President Katherine Tachau Statement

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

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

First Amendment

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

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

Alternatives to Law -- and Censorship

Professor Lawrence Lessig

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mason Williams

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

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

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Monday, December 01, 2014

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

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


Democracy's Constitutional Basis

Media's Changes and Challenges

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

Two Nights with "World News Tonight"

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


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

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

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

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

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

Lippmann on "Sideshows and Three Legged Calves"

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

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

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

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

Democracy's Constitutional Basis

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

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

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

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

Media's Changes and Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is but one example of the phenomenon, process and consequence of journalism's choice of topic and means of presentation: T. Michael Maher, "How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population-Environment Connection," Minnesotans for Sustainability, March 1997 ("Abstract. Recent surveys show that Americans are less concerned about population than they were 25 years ago, and they aren’t connecting environmental degradation to population growth. News coverage is a significant variable affecting public opinion, and how reporters frame a problem frequently signals what is causing the problem. Using a random sample of 150 stories about urban sprawl, endangered species and water shortages, Part I of this study shows that only about one story in 10 framed population growth as a source of the problem. Further, only one story in the entire sample mentioned population stability among the realm of possible solutions. Part II presents the results of interviews with 25 journalists whose stories on local environmental problems omitted the causal role of population growth. It shows that journalists are aware of the controversial nature of the population issue, and prefer to avoid it if possible. Most interviewees said that a national phenomenon like population growth as beyond the scope of what they could write as local reporters.")

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Nights with "World News Tonight"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Lottery," Nov. 9, 2014

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

"State Legislatures and ALEC," November 2, 2014

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

"Sugar," October 26, 2014

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

"Civil Forfeiture," Oct. 5, 2014

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

"Net Neutrality," June 1, 2014

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

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


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

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