Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Media Under Siege

The Media, Under Siege:
And What KHOI Can Do About It
Nicholas Johnson 
KHOI-FM 89.1 Fundraiser: An Evening with Nicholas Johnson 
Ames, Iowa 
November 16, 2018

Thank you for the invitation I join you this evening. The only thing nicer than being asked to speak is to be invited back to speak.

The topic, and speech title, you have requested is “Media Under Siege.” Always the conscientious student, I feel obliged to say something about the assignment you’ve given me, and we’ll begin with that.

But it might be useful to put that siege in context, especially during our discussion period. So I’ll also have something to say about our democracy under siege; what it takes to create and maintain a democracy, the role of media in that process, the role of KHOI, and what you and I can do in our daily lives to help revive that democracy.

Media under siege. Five months ago, June 28th, five journalists were assassinated in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette, near Annapolis. Last month, October 2nd, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist working for the Washington Post, was brutally assassinated in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Sadly, these six journalists are a small percentage of the 1000 journalists who have been assassinated over the past ten or fifteen years. Assassination is the ultimate silencing of the media, the ultimate example of media under siege. And those assassinated are just the ones killed because of the content of their reporting. Many more have died while reporting from a battlefield or during other dangerous assignments.

Assassinations are not the only threat. Newspaper subscription and advertising revenue is about half of what it once was. Television network affiliates, formerly guaranteed at least one-third of the potential viewing audience, now find themselves competing with 500 cable and satellite channels.

The influence of both broadcasters and publishers is further diminished by the competition for eyeballs. Every hour we spend staring at a laptop or smartphone screen, searching the Internet, checking our Facebook page, answering email or texting friends, watching YouTube videos, playing video games, reading or watching the thousands of online social media, news sources, podcasts and videos, are hours not spent looking at a TV screen or newspaper.

I’m informed there are some people who spend time tending their gardens, taking a walk in the woods, or reading books, without any electronic devices. Frankly, I find that unlikely; and at best a minuscule percentage.

Finally, media are among the first institutions to come under attack in the 49 nations headed by dictators, authoritarian strongmen or wannabes. Such leaders conduct massive propaganda campaigns. They revise the schools’ textbooks. The ruler’s control of the media can take the form of personal or government ownership of stations and newspapers, intimidation and punishment of publishers and journalists, criticism designed to erode the public’s trust of independent media, or blocking citizen access to external broadcast signals, Internet sites and publications.

We will return to the media in a few minutes and during our discussion period.

The Context: democracy under siege. But first, let’s provide a little context for KHOI and its need for our financial support. KHOI is a much more essential institution, in this place and at this time, than even its fans may be aware.

For the media is not the only essential institution that is under siege.

Our democracy may well not survive the current attacks upon it from home and abroad. Let me repeat that. Our democracy may well not survive the current attacks upon it from home and abroad.

Like climate change, there comes a time when the red line has been crossed, when the life of a democracy, or even life on Earth, can no longer be resuscitated.

Like a good marriage, a good democracy is something we must work at. An apocryphal story reported a poll in which local citizens were asked which they thought the greater problem in their community, ignorance or apathy. Most answered, simply, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

A democracy requires people who do know and do care; people who have an almost religious faith in both the idea and the reality of democracy. It needs those who know the questions to ask, have access to accurate and relevant facts, the education to understand them, and the interest, energy and motivation to act accordingly, to fulfill the responsibility democracy places upon us.

When one of the kids would come running into the house after school, they would say to my wife, Mary Vasey, “Hey, Mom, make me a sandwich.” Did you have kids like that? Mary’s response was to place her hand on their head, and solemnly incant, “You are a sandwich.”

Unfortunately, the creation and preservation of a democracy is even more difficult than turning a child into a sandwich. And yet the destruction of a democracy can occur almost as quickly as you can turn a sandwich into a child.

Most often democracies yield to dictators, not from external military aggression, but from internal defection, using the very freedoms and processes democracy provides. We like to say that it can’t happen here. But it has already happened here. On February 20, 1939. 20,000 Americans, dressed as Nazis, filled Madison Square Garden, with arms raised in the Nazi salute. They cheered as the speaker called for a “white, Gentile-ruled United States.”
Only three weeks ago tomorrow an anti-Semite with an AR-15 turned the Tree of Life Synagogue into a tree of death for 11 Jews in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Reports of hate crimes took a big jump last year, up to 7100.
You can’t buy a democracy in a store. You can’t create one by passing a law. In that sense there is no such thing as “democracy.” There are only the nations, and their people, whose institutions make a democracy possible. These institutions are to a democracy what the columns, or pilings, are to a beach house, raised above the relentless storm surge.

Democracy's institutions.
  • Education. Well-funded free public K-12 and higher education
  • .
  • Libraries. Free public libraries for those with the education to use them
  • .
  • Courts. A respected, independent judiciary to check the leader’s abuses
  • .
  • Voting. Legislators representing constituents’ interests, not special interests, elected from districts that have not been gerrymandered, with voting systems designed to encourage, rather than discourage, citizens’ participation
  • .
These are among what I have called the Columns of Democracy in my most recent book by that title. If those institutions are supported, adequately funded, respected, and encouraged a democracy is possible. When they are damaged or destroyed democracy collapses, just like that beach house when it loses its columns.

Communications. All of these institutions are essential to democracy. But communication and the media were thought to be central by our founders and remain so today.

Look at all our predecessors did.

Thomas Jefferson said, “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.” To which he immediately added, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
["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 man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." – Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington," January 16, 1787, Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 11:48-49 (emphasis supplied).]
In two sentences he made the case for the First Amendment, free public education, and universal postal delivery of newspapers, magazines and books at subsidized rates. Jefferson made no mention of his presidency on his tombstone, but did include, “Father of the University of Virginia.”

We’ve had public schools since Boston Latin School in 1635, a central purpose of which was always civics, turning Americans into participating citizens.

Jefferson also saw the necessity of libraries. Following the 1814 Library of Congress fire he doubled the former collection, making available his personal library of about 6500 volumes.

In addition to the postal system with its Pony Express, the subsidization of canals, railroads, universal telephone service (plus today’s broadband), airlines and the Interstate Highway system also served in part to facilitate communication.

Let us first be a little more precise about what we mean by “the media” and its contribution to democracy. Much of what’s on radio and television, and in books and magazines, has little to nothing to do with the Columns of Democracy or citizenship. It may even be counterproductive.

Entire sections of newspapers are devoted to sports. Even the New York Times has its popular, if incredibly difficult, crossword puzzle.

The 19-minute “ABC World News Tonight” contains little world news and even less of the information citizens need. It deliberately attracts an audience that apparently likes to be frightened, even terrorized, by an exited anchor person’s dramatic portrayals of the day’s worst disasters and dangers – some of which aren’t even legitimate local news where they occurred. Storms are “deadly”, a driver was “trapped” in her vehicle, school buses were involved in “tragedies,” there was a “scare” at sea onboard a listing cruise ship. There are “deadly” airline and highway accidents, shootings and stabbings, fires and floods, explosions and hurricanes.

ABC comes a lot closer to what Paddy Chayefsky predicted as the future of news, in the movie “Network,” than any CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. It certainly makes a fellow want to stay safely indoors watching television.

No, what we want to focus upon is the information a democracy’s citizens need to address the challenges and opportunities confronting their democracy; all sides of the problems and solutions, the public policy questions, and the answers offered from other communities and nations.

And speaking of other nations, let’s separate and identify some categories of the information we need and the media that provide it.
International news. What’s happening on the world’s continents, and nations’ capitals? There’s no shortage of sources. My iPhone has apps bringing me news from the world’s best newspapers: the Guardian in London, Le Monde from Paris, others in Berlin, Moscow, Karachi, Doha, Erbil, Beijing, Mumbai, Tokyo.

National news. For us, that’s mostly what happened in New York and Washington today, plus some regional centers like Chicago and Los Angeles – along with an occasional midterm election or huge California fire. Again, we can have multiple sources and apps on our smartphones: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, AP, Bloomberg, plus PBS and NPR.

State news. For state news, the Des Moines Register used to self-identify as “the newspaper all Iowa depends upon.” And it was; delivered by truck around the state, available on the counter of every small-town café. There is no equivalent today, although The Gazette does a nice job of state news for eastern Iowa, and the Register still serves central Iowa.
Local news: communication and community. All of which brings us to KHOI, perhaps the Ames Tribune, and the subject of local news.

Americans may have multiple sources for international, national, and even state news.

But if you want to know the arguments for and against the new water plant, who’s died and who’s opened a new business, what roads are closed for construction, what’s happening with property taxes, or the results of your local school board election, for most Iowans neither the New York Times nor the Register are going to be much help.

Unlike international and national news, there simply are no alternative sources for the local news that is the most important supporting column for a community's democracy. This is an essential need that KHOI is uniquely positioned to provide for Ames.

Like every other industry, some newspapers are doing better than others. But the national average is that subscriptions and advertising revenue are now about half what they once were. Hundreds of papers have gone out of business. Virtually all have had to cut back on reporters, and therefore the number of government agencies, subjects and local news stories.

Television and radio stations have an ADI, their “area of dominant influence,” the geographical area within which residents not only can but do receive their signal. Newspapers have “circulation areas.” For many purposes, those ADIs and circulation areas are the most meaningful geographical definition of our “communities” – regardless of where the “city limits” may be.

Think about the number of words beginning with “c-o-m-m”: commune, the commons, communal, communitarian, yes; but also, community and communication. For community is the essential chemical element from which democracies are made. And communication networks are what create and define our communities – whether the family as a community; the teachers, parents and kids in a K-12 school; a church congregation; the workplace; suburban development; city, county, state, nation, and for some, their sense of being a part of a global community.

Without communication communities disintegrate, and without communities democracies fail.

What can we do? What can KHOI do? What can you, you and I, do?

Political. We can increase our political participation. Only 55% of Americans eligible to register actually vote. That makes us 26th in the world; eight countries are above 75%; Belgium is 87% and we’re 55%.

Iowa City is in Johnson County; what some call the “Peoples Republic of Johnson County.” We’re only two percentage points above the U.S. average. Of Iowa City residents eligible to register, often less than 10% vote in school board, City, or County Supervisor elections. Hopefully, Ames is better.

But merely voting is not enough. As Frederick Douglas observed, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” We must keep in touch with our elected officials: with personal visits, phone calls, emails, letters, and demonstrations.

You can volunteer to work for candidates or political parties. You can run for office, or agree to serve on one of our multiple governments’ boards and commissions.

Media. When conventional media suffer so does our democracy. If you have a business, support your newspaper by advertising. Think of it as a charitable contribution; one you can take as a tax-deductible business expense. Become a subscriber. Be a contributor of columns and letters to the editor. And support independent, nonprofit media financially: KHOI, Iowa Public Radio and Television.

If local media are not able to assign fulltime beat reporters to the school board or city council, consider doing it yourself. Become familiar with Ames’ Website, Learn about your 26 local government departments – the Planning & Zoning Commission, or Parks & Recreation Department – pick the one that most interests you. Then follow its work, write about it in a blog, social media, and submissions to newspapers. Produce or participate in a KHOI program reporting on local institutions.

K-12, Higher Education, and Public Libraries. One of the earliest purposes of American schools was “civics;” giving students the knowledge and skills they need to be citizens in a democracy. How well are your local schools performing that historic and essential function? If you don’t know, find out. Are they adequately funded?

Over 100 years ago Iowans decided that eight years of free public education was not enough. We began requiring12 years and high schools. Isn’t it about time Iowa go from K-12 to K-14, with free public community colleges, as Tennessee, California and other places are doing? You can play a role in increasing public funding of Iowa’s K-12 schools, community colleges, and higher education institutions like Ames’ own Iowa State University.

Free public libraries are an essential companion to education in creating and maintaining a democracy. Are yours – and Iowa State’s – adequately funded? Is there more you could do locally to increase citizens’ use of their resources?

Judiciary. We want a rule of law, not the law of rulers. How much do you know about legal services for the poor, our local and appellate judges, their qualifications, their independence, their budgets, the efforts to turn the judiciary into just another partisan branch of government?

Community. Each of us can do more to help build a sense of community with the little things we do each day, including the smile and greeting we give a stranger we pass on the street. We can do more to promote civility in our relationships; to go beyond tolerating diversity to celebrating diversity and the richness it adds to our lives. We can try to learn more about the needs of individuals in various segments of our community; needs for housing, nutrition, healthcare, transportation – and what’s being done to meet those needs.

And there is a role for KHOI with each of these Columns of Democracy: politics and governing, media, education, libraries, the judiciary, community building. You’re already doing much of this heavy lifting. But is there more you could do with your programming, identifying issues for discussion, and giving electronic voice to Ames’ voiceless?

When Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention a stranger asked him, “What kind of a government did you give us? A Republic or a Monarchy?” To which Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

For 230 years we’ve kept it. Our democracy has had its challenges – the Civil War, the Great Depression – but it has never before been threatened with extinction. Now that’s a possibility. We can no longer take it for granted, no longer assure our grandchildren that America’s democracy will forever survive.

Whether our democracy continues is up to us, how much you and I are willing to do, and what you do with KHOI. That’s what I’d like for us to now discuss.

# # #

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Futility of War

The Futility of War and the Path to Peace
Nicholas Johnson
Remarks on Armistice Day
November 11, 2018, 11:00 a.m.
Veterans for Peace, Chapter 161
Iowa City, Iowa

It is a very special honor to be invited by you, Veterans for Peace, to speak at this commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. This is America’s day to recognize both those who have fought and died in our wars, and those who have fought to prevent future wars. [Photo credit: unknown; Wikimedia. "This photograph was taken in the forest of Compiègne after reaching an agreement for the armistice that ended World War I." November 11, 1918.]

You have told me to speak about war under the title “The Futility of War.” Fortunately, that title is consistent with my beliefs. Had you chosen, say, “The Case for Increasing Military Spending” this talk would have taken much longer to prepare.

You and I seem to agree – both about the value of peace, and why understanding the futility of war is the first step toward that peace.

In our brief time this morning I will suggest five reasons why.

First, Lessons From Viet Nam

Fifty-three years ago, President LyndonJohnson, who had appointed me Administrator of the Maritime Administration, or MARAD, asked that I look around Viet Nam and southeast Asia, and write an assessment of the war. Although based in Washington, MARAD kept a small staff in Saigon assisting with the agency’s responsibility for merchant shipping sealift.

The futility of that war was immediately obvious to me. As I concluded my report, “You can’t play basketball on a football field.” Not incidentally, that conclusion of mine for President Johnson led to a conclusion of his that I would make a terrific Federal Communications Commission commissioner.

Why no basketball?

It started with my arrival. Chatting with the officer driving me from the airfield into Saigon, I looked up and saw a banner over the street. “What does that say?” I asked him. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Do you have any officers who could read that?” I asked. “None who I know,” he said. [Photo Credit: Daniel Graham Clark; NJ delivering speech at Veterans for Peace gathering; first on Pentacrest and continuing inside Old Brick, Iowa City, November 11, 2018.]

My suspicion continued during a conversation with a Vietnamese gentleman. Our military was fighting a war of futility over a specific hill. I asked his advice. “Read some Vietnamese mythology,” he said. Befuddled, I asked him to explain. “If you Americans knew anything about us,” he began, “you would know that every Vietnamese schoolchild is told the story of the origins of our people: the union of a Chinese dragon and an elf.” “OK, so?” I asked. “The elf emerged from that hill,” he replied. “You will never take that hill. Move up the road two or three clicks and you’ll find the going much easier.”

Even if one wants to engage in war there is a futility of war in some places and times. It’s like trying to grow a garden on a concrete parking lot or play a trombone under water. Although, in my case, there’s a futility to my playing a trombone anywhere. The best and the brightest in our military know about the futility of war. Unfortunately, few of those who send them to war are as well educated.

The first example of the futility of war is when these eleven conditions are present:
• our troops are only the latest in a centuries-long string of invaders;
• in an ongoing civil war;
• we can’t read or speak the native language;
• know little of the people’s history, religion, culture, literature, or tribal relationships;
• our enemies don’t wear uniforms, while we, who are already easily identified, do wear uniforms (a British problem you’d think we’d recall from our own Revolutionary War);
• it is impossible to distinguish enemies from our local allies and employees;
• our troops’ choice is between killing innocent civilians, or being killed by those who look like innocent civilians;
• creating a conflict between “winning hearts and minds” and “burning down the village to save it;”
• the longer the fighting continues the more counterproductive it becomes;
• increasing rather than decreasing chaos and civil war;
• on a battlefield with no frontline, with territory repeatedly gained only to be lost again.
That’s what I meant by “you can’t play basketball on a football field.”

I provided the second President Bush similar advice in February 2003. The column was headlined, “Ten Questions for Bush Before War.”

Second, Due Dilligence

The second example of the futility of war involves due diligence – what I was urging Bush to do before sending troops to Iraq the next month. It’s not difficult. The process, the twelve questions, are analogous to those Iowa City business persons must answer for bank loan officers. Before war the questions are:
• What’s the problem, or challenge?
• How is our national interest involved?
• Is our goal precisely defined and widely understood?
• What are the metrics for measuring progress?
• Are there cheaper and more effective non-military alternatives?
• How will military force help, and how will it hinder, reaching our goal?
• What are the benefits and costs?
• What will it require in troops, materiel, lives, and treasure?
• Will the American people support it to conclusion?
• Will we be confronting Viet Nam-like impediments?
• What is our exit strategy?
• Once we leave will things be better, worse, or the same?
You may recognize my debt to Joint Chiefs Chair General Colin Powell for some of those questions. Or, as Joint Chiefs Chair General Martin Dempsey put it most succinctly in 2013, “As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome.”

Our founders, fearful of unchecked presidential war powers, created what we today call “civilian control of the military.” But note that the analysis just laid out comes, not from civilians but from the military. That’s why I have only half-jokingly said, what we really need is military control of the civilians.

After the Twin Towers slaughter funded by Saudis and executed by Saudis, what was the civilians’ response? They let other Saudis in America immediately leave, skip the Congressional Declaration of War required by the Constitution, tell Americans to “go shopping,” and start fighting preemptive, perpetual wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Third, Constitutional Restraints

The futility of war is recognized in the Constitution.

The idea of a civilian, cabinet-level Secretary of Peace was first proposed in 1793 by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Many others have urged it since. The closest we have to a Department of Peace today is what was once called the Department of War, and now Department of Defense.

The irony comes, not alone from the Department’s name, but from conservatives’ approach to the Constitution, what they call a “textual” or “original intent” interpretation of its language. For the Constitution’s drafters made unambiguously clear their extreme opposition to a president having a king’s power to both declare and direct wars. As James Madison said, “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty.” His concerns were shared by Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason and others.

The presidents and members of Congress who came along later followed those men’s advice. For 156 years, through World War II, armed forces were increased for a war, following a Congressional Declaration of War, and then quickly demobilized once war ended.

Fourth, the futility of perpetual war and how it happened

How did we evolve from a country without standing armies, that demilitarized after every war, with a Congress that restrained executive war powers? How did we get a go-along Congress that supports the executive’s standing armies, never demilitarizes, engages in multiple perpetual wars of choice, maintains military presence in 150 countries, at an unaudited total cost over one trillion dollars a year, put on our grandchildren’s credit card?

Then, Americans fought in World War I for about 18 months. We wrapped up a multi-front global World War II in four years. Now we display the futility of war by continuing to struggle in Afghanistan for 17 years.

There’s more to this story than we have time to discuss.

Partly what happened is the same marriage of profits and politics that dictates other aspects of our lives and economy. Roughly half our fighting forces are employees of for-profit contractors. Privatize prisons and prison owners lobby for longer prison terms. Privatize the military and private contractors lobby for longer wars. Provide large enough campaign contributions for members of Congress and those who profit from war will reap the rewards of a military budget larger than those of the next five or ten nations combined. Some of this money will be spent on multi-million-dollar fighter planes and multi-billion-dollar aircraft carriers – neither of which provided much protection from pressure cooker bombs for the 23,000 runners at the 2013 Boston Marathon.

The other half of the political equation is the virtual elimination of citizen sacrifice. (1) Those subject to the draft, and their parents, were a powerful force opposing the Viet Nam war. Without a draft we might still be fighting in Viet Nam, as we are in Afghanistan. Now only four-tenths of one percent fight our wars. (2) After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor everyone sacrificed. There was rationing. We did without. After the Twin Towers attack we were told to “go shopping.” (3) World War II was a largely pay-as-you-go war. No longer. Wars are free. We just borrow money from China, and add trillions to the national debt.

Fifth, the futility of wars when we doing nothing; and `what we can do.

What can we do to eliminate the futility of today’s wars? Essentially six things that are the exact opposite of what we’re now doing:
• Reestablish the impediments to war our founders intended.
• Reinstate the draft, for children of the rich as well as the poor.
• Demand every member of the House and Senate cast a recorded vote on Declarations of War.
• Enact a supplemental war tax and pay-as-you-go wars.
• Require all citizens to bear some sacrifice, as in World War II.
• Contribute our own voices to a public debate on the questions I’ve suggested must be answered before going to war.
In that effort, your voices are the most persuasive. When it comes to peace, Americans are more likely to listen to those who have known war than to those who have only preached for peace.

It really is up to us. You and me.

As Edward R. Murrow closed his documentary about the consequences of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attacks on Americans, “We cannot escape responsibility for the result. … Cassius was right. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”

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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Tell Me: Who Let the Dogs of War Out?

Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, August 26, 2018, p. D3

Most Americans and their elected representatives take “ain’t going to study war no more” to heart. They’re neither studying nor upset by war.

Put aside the inability to rationalize continuous wars of choice, personnel in 150 countries, the human slaughter and misery, devastated cities, death and lifelong injury to our troops. Just “follow the money.” When military-related costs exceed a trillion dollars a year, and are put on our grandchildren’s credit card, maybe it’s time to get back to studying war. [Photo credit: By DVIDSHUB - Operation Unified Response - CC BY 2.0,]

Conservatives care about constitutional “original intent.” Liberals care about sacrificed infrastructure, education, healthcare and other needs. Both should care why the founders gave Congress power “to declare war.”

The founders knew burdens of wars fall heaviest upon the people, those who fight and pay for wars. They explicitly rejected giving a president the unchecked power to start wars claimed by kings. They wanted the branch most responsive to the people to declare war. [Photo credit: Foreign Policy, WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images]

As the Constitutional Convention Record reports, “Mr. [George] Mason … was for clogging rather than facilitating war.” James Madison later contributed, “No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Pay-as-you-go war meant increased taxes. World War II rationing meant little or no gas and tires for cars or bubblegum for kids. The draft impacted even small towns during the Viet Nam war. Without the draft we might still be there. [Photo credit: Ames Historical Society]

Not only was there no rationing during post-9/11 wars, our president told us to “go shopping.” No burden of increased war taxes. No young marching protesters, fearful of being drafted. Sacrifice fell only upon those 0.4 percent of Americans fighting the wars.

After 9/11, given the lack of public protest the founders forecast, Congress became more complacent and compliant about executive encroachment on Congress’ war powers.

(1) In 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex. Its grip only tightened as legislators became ever more entangled with their districts’ military bases and generous weapons manufacturers.

(2) For-profit private prisons create political support for longer sentences. Similarly, political support for longer wars results when for-profit contractors’ battlefield employees outnumber the military.

(3) The old Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines have competitors. The CIA, once an intelligence agency, now has its own military arm. Both CIA and Special Operations, like Delta Force or SEAL Team 6, are outside the conventional chain of command and thorough congressional oversight.

These factors contribute to President Donald Trump’s signing a $717 billion Defense Department authorization bill. Like the banks’ insistence they are “too big to fail,” the DOD is “too big to audit.” Trillions can’t be traced. Add $200 billion for Department of Veterans Affairs, war’s share of $300 billion yearly interest on the national debt, billions for Department of Energy’s nukes, other military-related expenses and the total’s well over a trillion dollars.

Whose fault is this?

Those who wrote the Constitution assumed “we the people” – not the president, Congress, or judges – would tightly leash and not let slip the dogs of war. In response to the people’s sacrifice, their paying the human and financial costs of war, they would speak up, protest, organize and otherwise clog the path to war.

War hawks and weapons makers understand they must eliminate war’s impact on we the people if they are to continue their profits from perpetual war.

However, they have not eliminated our founders’ hope, nor our responsibility to honor their hope that we will fulfill our responsibility to resist.

As Edward R. Murrow closed his documentary about Senator Joseph McCarthy, “We cannot escape responsibility for the result. … Cassius was right. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”
Nicholas Johnson, as U.S. Maritime Administrator, was involved with military sealift to Vietnam. Comments:

Columns of Democracy (2018)

For those interested in more on this topic and others, Nicholas Johnson's latest book, Columns of Democracy (2018), is now available from Amazon, (scroll to "Books by Nicholas Johnson," click on "Paperback," for "Sort by" select "Publication Date"), Barnes & Noble, (scroll down), Lulu Press,, and all Iowa City bookstores requesting copies from the author,

Friday, August 10, 2018


For a respite from the politics and policy conflicts, the shouting and the shooting, the hostility and hate speech, I thought a word about love might be welcome.

I was inspired to write this blog post by a recent podcast from my favorite electronic stand-in minister, Krista Tippitt ("Speaking of Faith," "On Being"). Her government and media experience, writing, broadcasting and education (including a Masters in Divinity from Yale) has led to many prestigious awards.

The subject of her August 2 program/podcast was, "The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships." [Photo credit: David C. Wong/Flickr.]

Her guest was Alain de Botton, the founder and chairman of The School of Life. His books include Religion for Atheists, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and the novel The Course of Love. (Given his lifetime professional focus on love, he could have appropriately used the title of James Gould Cozzens' book, By Love Possessed.) But most relevant for his conversation with Ms. Tippitt is his article, "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person," New York Times, May 28, 2016.

When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote "Hello Young Lovers" that they began the song with a reference to the troubles that may accompany love -- a kind of "good luck with that, kids" -- suggests they knew of what they wrote:
Hello young lovers whoever you are
I hope your troubles are few
All my good wishes go with you tonight
I've been in love like you
Unfamiliar? Like to hear it? Frank Sinatra will sing it for you HERE

Here are the lyrics for another song associated with Sinatra called "Love and Marriage" ("Love and marriage/Go together like a horse and carriage").

What Alain de Botton wishes to remind us is that love is not the only thing that goes with marriage, and that young lovers' troubles can easily mount up well beyond "a few." In his article, "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person," New York Times, May 28, 2016, he writes:
We marry the wrong person ... because we have a bewildering array of problems that emerge when we try to get close to others. We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: “And how are you crazy?”

Perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us or can relax only when we are working .... The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day. ... One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with.

Our partners are no more self-aware. ... We look at their photos, we meet their college friends. All this contributes to a sense that we’ve done our homework. We haven’t. Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.
So expressed, it is an analysis consistent with that of Wendell Johnson in the first chapter of his general semantics book, People in Quandaries: "Verbal Cocoons." He describes what he calls "the IFD disease." Our "ideals" (the "I") are unrealistically high. They can be high because (1) they are mathematically exceedingly unlikely to be attained (e.g., the junior high basketball player who aspires to play for an NBA team), (2) they are so highly valued (e.g., a young woman whose all-important single goal is to be chosen homecoming queen), or (3) goals can also be unrealistic if they are so totally devoid of a metric that it will always be impossible to know whether or not they've ever been attained (e.g., the young college student whose goal is to be "wealthy," "successful," or "popular"). When these goals aren't attained "frustration" (the "F") sets in. And repeated frustration can ultimately produce "demoralization" (the "D").

As Alain de Botton put it to Krista Tippitt, "Every 'fall into love' involves the triumph of hope over knowledge. ... Love is a painful, poignant, touching attempt by two flawed individuals to try and meet each others' needs in situations of gross uncertainty and ignorance about who they are and who the other person is."

In other words, "falling in love," and "being in love" during the first weeks or months of a romance, days when that is the major focus of one's thoughts and emotions, is the easy part. The challenge comes when we need to know ourselves, and others, well enough to acknowledge that "nobody's perfect," that to be human is to have flaws (even and especially our own). There is no flawless, ideal-in-every-way partner out there. The vaccine for avoiding the IFD disease, and for "staying in love," is to live with that reality.

Many to most middle aged folks either figure this out for themselves or simply live with the frustration. But if you happen to be one of those "young lovers," or wish to be, and have read this far, I don't just "hope your troubles are few." What I hope as you think about what you've read (plus maybe some of the links), and apply it in your own way, that you will become as capable of "staying in love" as "falling in love."
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Saturday, August 04, 2018

Impeachment Petition

Note: Accidentally came upon this document today. While still a federal official I presented this Petition to members of the U.S. House of Representatives in October 1973 urging the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. I just barely remember doing it. It seemed worth republishing in this way. One can read it looking for the similarities with what could be the content of a similar document regarding President Donald Trump. Moreover, it's timely: August 9th we commemorate the 44th anniversary of President Nixon's resignation. -- N.J., August 4, 2018.

A Petition to the House of Representatives Regarding the Impeachment of
President Richard M. Nixon
Federal Communications Commissioner Nicholas Johnson

October 29, 1973

In the course of history of men and nations there are times when citizens must take a stand.

The tumultuous, exciting experiment called the United States of America has brought a number of decision points to its citizens. The Declaration of Independence of our colonies from England was one of the first and hardest choices we had to make as a people. Each war—the Revolution, Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Southeast Asian War—has called for a personal commitment of support, or opposition, from each citizen. And so today, as we ponder the initiation of impeachment proceedings against our President, must each American man, woman—and, yes, even child—ponder the facts and issues as he or she is best able, and come to some judgment.

It is crucial to our decision that we understand what we are, and what we are not, called upon to judge at this time. A conviction following the impeachment of the President—that is, his removal from office, or not, based upon findings by the United States Senate as to his guilt or innocence of charges—is not the issue at this time. Presidents are no more beneath the protections of the law than they are above its prohibitions; President Nixon is entitled to the same presumption of "innocent-until-proven-guilty" as any other citizen.

No, the only question that is now before the American people—and it is they who are the ultimate actors in this drama—is whether the House of Representatives should send to the Senate for trial the allegations against the President regarding the constitutional grounds for impeachment: "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” To borrow an analogy from our more conventional court proceedings, we are not sitting as a jury deciding guilt or innocence; we are merely sitting as a grand jury, deciding whether or not to indict and bring to trial. [President Richard Nixon departing White House August 9, 1974, following resignation; photo credit: U.S. Government; public domain.]

Prejudgments of guilt or innocence should no more frighten us into motionless inaction than should outrage propel us to judgment.

If ever there was a time to put aside partisan considerations, this is such a time. And I believe that, to the extent partisanship has been evident on these issues, it may have been evidenced in the reluctance of Congressional Democrats as much as Republicans. it is charged that some Democrats may have hesitated to act because the polls did not yet indicate majority support for a conviction of impeachment, that others may be fearful they will be charged with precipitate and partisan action, and that all are mindful of the political disadvantages of running a Democratic nominee against an incumbent Republican President in 1976.

I must admit that I am not free of fault on this score. Richard Nixon's political career has been a part of my consciousness for 25 years. During the course of his Presidency, I have detailed some of the offenses that we must now consider in evaluating the propriety of House hearings—his manipulation of the media, the role of big money, and the war in Camobdla. [2] The evidence regarding the conduct of President Nixon's 1972 Presidential campaign has been available to all of us for over a year. The uproar following the resignations and firings in the Department of Justice the weekend of October 20, 1973 was the moment of decisions for millions of Americans. Through all these events I have remained silent.

I can no longer.

As a Presidential appointee [3] and currently active federal official, I recognize the seriousness of this action. But I also recognize the seriousness of continued silence, that “not to decide is to decide.”

Accordingly, I am today sending a copy of this statement to members of the House of Representatives, urging them to support the prompt initiation of House proceedings regarding the allegations of impeachable conduct by President Richard M. Nixon. I am simultaneously urging those of my fellow citizens who share my views to write their Representatives.

It seems both appropriate and necessary that the reasons for my action be set forth.

It is with deliberation that this decision, and statement, have been delayed until the “resolution" of the tapes issue; because, in my view, the allegations compelling House action on Presidential impeachment are unaffected by the events and issues surrounding the tapes. And it has been my desire to present the case without the diversionary complications of that issue.

In the flashing headlines surrounding burglaries, buggings, bribery, and break-ins, the most serious allegations have often been shadowed or ignored. it seems to me useful to review them here.

War. President Nixon ordered a land invasion of the sovereign state of Cambodia by American troops in May 1970 without the Constitutionally-required approval of Congress, and in violation of Cambodia's neutrality, as recognized by principles of international law and the United Nations which the United States is pledged to support. Even prior to that time, he authorized a secret bombing war against Cambodia which was undisclosed and overtly misrepresented to the American people, the press, members of the Senate and House, and even the civilian officials of the Department of Defense.

Free Press. President Nixon has waged a systematic campaign against the news media, including, but not limited to, the subpoenaing of newsmen's notes and films, wiretapping of Washington correspondents, the unprecedented effort to enforce "prior restraint" of publication (the Pentagon Papers), the jailing of newsmen, fraudulent FBI investigations of newsmen (the Daniel Schorr case), frightening non-complaint networks and stations with ominous recriminations (while promising economic protectionism for good behavior), attempting to control the lyrics of popular songs, and trying to influence the funding, programming, personnel, and administration of the Public Broadcasting Corporation.

Impoundment. The degree to which President Nixon has used the impoundment process to defy the authority of Congress to fund legislative programs is unprecedented—over 640 billion for health care, housing for the needy, assistance for children of working mothers, and the handicapped.

Electoral interference. During President Nixon's 1972 campaign there were violations of federal law in the collection and illegal use of campaign funds; a list of “enemies” was compiled for purposes of harassment by the Internal Revenue Services; fraud, espionage, libel, burglary, wiretapping, extortion, false reporting, bribery, and perjury were designed to—and very probably did—have an Impact (whether or not decisive) upon the outcome of that election.

Use of Government Property. Unanswered questions remain regarding the use of government funds to improve private homes in California and Florida—as well as the private financial and tax transactions involving the acquisition of those properties.

Invasion of Privacy. Widespread use of wiretapping (including the wiretapping of his own employees), the secret taping of his own conversations with others, the investigations and spying on private citizens, the maintenance of dossiers on civilians by the military, all indicate a less than full commitment to the letter and spirit of the privacy guarantees of the Fourth Amendment. The President's July 23, 1970 approval of the interdepartmental intelligence project (subsequently abandoned at FBI Director Hoover’s insistence) and the 1971 creation of a special investigative unit (“the plumbers”), indicates an affirmative intention to violate such rights.

Legal Procedures. While Daniel Ellsberg was on trial, White House aides burglarized his psychiatrist’s office for possible evidence, and discussed with the Judge presiding over that trial his possible Directorship of the FBI. In May 1971 over 13,000 people were arrested in a Washington dragnet, on direct orders of the White House, and in a manner subsequently found by the courts to have been unconstitutional. Having agreed to abide by a court ruling regarding his tapes, the President subsequently refused to either appeal from, or comply with, a lawful order of the Court of Appeals—a position from which he subsequently retreated. Grand juries have been urged to return politically motivated indictments.

Intelligence Independence. There is evidence that the President and his aides sought to subvert the independence of the FBI and CIA, using those agencies to serve their own illegal, personal, and political ends.

Bribery. The evidence is not yet fully complied regarding the relationship between the $60 million that was collected for the President's 1972 campaign and every governmental decision that may have been influenced thereby. Sufficient facts have already come to light, however, to suggest that there were at least some instances in which “bribery" may have taken place for which the American people are now paying the high price of a government-ordered “inflation” of "regulated” prices.

Many of these items are, at this point, only allegations that may be proven to be false. They are, however, illustrative of the "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" referred to in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution as grounds for Impeachment.

it is precisely because of—and not in spite of—my patriotism that I believe these charges cannot be Ignored. My childhood was not so different from that of Richard Nixon. I, too, made an early commitment to public life, to study and participate in government, politics, law and law enforcement. I, too, was active in student government from the time of my grade school years. I, too, have participated in party politics throughout my adult life (though in much lesser roles than he). I, too, keep a flag in my office, and can sing the national anthem with the best of them. I, too, have studied the lives of our great American leaders, and have had the privilege of feeling the personal influence and inspiration of some of them—in my case, men like Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black and President Lyndon B. Johnson. I too, have served the federal government during the past decade.

And so I can say that it is precisely because I do love America, because I have a commitment to the genius of its Idea that is sentimental as well as intellectual, personal as well as professional, pragmatic as well as Idealistic, that I cannot sit by silently and watch its decline and fall.

Without a commitment to our Constitution, without a defense of our dream, without the inspiration of our Ideals, America is nothing but another authoritarian industrialized state with rapacious rich and ravaged poor, freeways and factories, and neon signs amongst the natural beauty.

We cannot say “politics has been ever thus.” That is simply not true. The Presidents of my lifetime—Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson—may not have been paragons of virtue in every aspect of their lives. But I take pride in the fact that the cumulative allegations against all of them combined do not equal in seriousness the significance of any one of the nine categories of charges I have itemized regarding President Nixon.

We owe it to those who look to us for leadership to assert unequivocally that the past few years have not been "business as usual” in the land of Jefferson and Lincoln, that the lamp of liberty still burns bright from the Statue of Liberty to the eternal flame in Arlington Cemetery. We owe it to the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who look to us from across the seas, we owe it to our children—before the sparkle of youthful hope and Idealism turns forever to the hard, cold stare of cynical despair. And, not least of all, we owe it to ourselves— those of us in “the establishment,” the opinion leaders, the captains of industry, the educators, the ministers, the officials—who, If we are to lead, must feel of ourselves that we are fit to lead.

For America never promised the world it would be perfect. We are a bustling, brawling, boisterous people. We have a history of more materialism than is good for us, and more wars than have been good for anybody. All we have ever guaranteed is that "all men are created equal” and that no one would be bored. And, with occasional backsliding, we’ve struggled to make good on those promises.

We never said our Presidents, judges, and legislators would be free of fault. indeed, the genius of our system of government is that it quite candidly creates checks and balances to deal with fault. Our leaders are not figures descended from royalty, gods or angels who “can do no wrong.” They are quite human, "of, by and for the people,” with all the strengths and weaknesses of the other mortals they serve and represent.

Thus, the great shame of the actions leading to the charges against President Nixon has not yet come. That the charges have surfaced, that the press has reported them, that the Senate and courts have investigated them, should be a matter of greatest national pride. No, the great shame will come to our nation If, and only If, knowing the charges, the House of Representatives refuses to act.

And so I conclude as I began. It is not my judgment that the President should be convicted after a trial. Under our Constitution, it is the United States Senate that will hear that case and consider the question. And just as all American citizens now sit as an advisory panel to the House, so will we then all sit as judges with the Senate. The only issue before us now is whether the facts, charges, and allegations I have summarily outlined here are sufficient cause for the House to send the matter to the Senate. That they require such action seems to me clear beyond doubt—although I expressly reserve judgment on whether the President should be removed from office following his Senate trial.

It is encouraging and commendable that the House judiciary Committee has begun hearings. I urge every Member to support the efforts of that Committee and to expedite the transmission of this case to the Senate, where it belongs.


1. The text of this petition was taken from Congressional Record, October 31, 1973
[]. The heading was:
Wednesday, October 31, 1973
Mr. DRINAN. Mr. Speaker, all of us are aware of the achievements of Nicholas Johnson, a distinguished Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. Mr. Johnson has taken the very bold and brave step of speaking out before the House of Representatives on the subject of an impeachment inquiry of the President of the United States. I am hopeful that my colleagues will read carefully Commissioner Johnson's petition to the House of Representatives regarding the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon. The petition follows:
2. For example, "Government by Television: A Case Study, Perspectives and Proposals," Earth (March 1971), pp. 50-69, 92-93; "Subpoenas, Outtakes and Freedom of the Press: An Appeal to Media Management," reprinted as "Stations Are Standing By While News is Threatened,” Television/Radio Age (April 6. 1970), pp. 69. 114, 116, 118, 120, 124, 126. 128. 132; “Dear Vice President Agnew," The New York Times, Oct. 11, 1970, p. D-17; “The Power of the People and the Obligation to Dissent,” Los Angeles Free Press (May 29, 1970). p. 15; "Evil Times and Great Wealth,” speech delivered at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa, Oct. 15, 1973.

3. July 1, 1966, by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, not President Richard Nixon.

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Sunday, July 08, 2018

Media Under Siege

The Media, Under Siege

Nicholas Johnson

The Gazette, July 8, 2018, p. D3

“Watch out for the mayor. He has a gun and he’s telling everyone he’s going to shoot you. Watch your back,” warned the caller.

My friend, then a small-town Iowa newspaper reporter, thanked the anonymous source, told his editor, and was assigned a different beat.

The mayor died many years ago. My friend still is reporting.

Other reporters are not so lucky. Reporters Without Borders reports the number deliberately killed for their journalism content (as distinguished from their location, such as a battlefield) totaled 1035 during the past 15 years. (Last year there also were 326 journalists detained, and 54 held hostage.)

On June 28 the U.S. added five to that number after an armed and angry reader in Annapolis, Md., entered the Capital Gazette newsroom, shotgun blazing.

President Donald Trump did nothing for five days, though he’d ordered flags to fly half-mast following other shootings the day they occurred. He affirmatively rejected an appeal by the Annapolis mayor that he do so – until backlash required Trump to relent.

President Thomas Jefferson famously said, “...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.” Newspapers are one of few industries singled out for constitutional protection (“Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press”). [San Francisco Chronicle newsroom; columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross; 1990s. Photo credit: Nancy Wong. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.]

Pew reports many Americans would consider a substitute for democracy, such as government by strongman or military. But most would not. A democracy’s existence requires many institutions – independent judiciary, ease of voting, free public education and libraries. But central is a free, independent, and respected mass media. Assassinating reporters is one form of attack. Disparaging reporters and their “failing” papers as “unpatriotic” purveyors of “fake news” and “enemies of the people” is another. Both can diminish then destroy a democracy.

The newspaper industry nationally is operating with about half the subscribers and advertising revenue it once had. There are still multiple sources of global and national news. My iPhone has apps for a couple dozen.

But local news is another story. None of those hundreds of quality papers carry news of Cedar Rapids and the Corridor. It’s said, “all politics is local.” So is democracy.

The Gazette has dozens of features, sections, platforms, events, even magazines and books. But it’s the Gazette’s news and opinion about local politics, agencies of government, nonprofits and businesses, public policy issues, local challenges, opportunities and accomplishments that make our local democracy possible. There is no alternative source for all it provides. No way to have a democracy without it.

Happily, for reporters working in the U.S. assassinations are rare. Sadly, attacks on the media are not.

For those Americans fighting against forces destroying our democracy here’s a variant of President John F. Kennedy’s advice: “Ask not what your newspaper can do for you – ask what you can do for your newspaper.” You know what to do.
Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and media law professor, maintains and

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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Doing the Wrong Thing Better

Doing the Wrong Thing Better

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 30, 2018, p. 6

Many Americans are appalled by their government’s separating children from parents at our southern border, before even identifying those legally seeking asylum. Inadequate or nonexistent records of children’s names and location preclude future reunions.

Pediatricians and child psychologists say the trauma can create a lifetime of physical, emotional, and mental wounds. Iowa law forbids anyone to “confine an animal” causing “unjustified pain, distress, or suffering.” Why shouldn’t our species’ children get this protection? [Photo credit: Arizona Jewish Post.]

Religious leaders note the separations are immoral, and conflict with religions’ teachings. Lawyers argue violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our constitution and laws.

Even if the Trump administration finds this unpersuasive there are alternative approaches. Board governance guru John Carver disparages many board reforms as “just doing the wrong thing better.” A persistent Trump could at least do the wrong thing better. [Photo credit: Narya W. Marcille, CC BY 3.0 US.]

During a recent brief hospital visit a nurse attached a wristband with my name and birthdate.

My cat, Natalie, wears a collar with her name and my phone number.

Scientists can provide individual identification for every living thing from monarch butterflies to African elephants.

Nazis kept meticulous records of names of Jewish arrivals at Auschwitz.

Trump’s lack of record keeping when separating children from parents, reflecting his unique blend of malevolence with incompetence, can’t even meet the Nazi standard. He’s seemingly incapable of doing the wrong thing better.

— Nick Johnson, Iowa City

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Friday, June 01, 2018

Too Good To Be True? Time Will Tell on Tuition Plan

Our View, Editorial
Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 14, 2015

A program that would allow any American to attend two years of community college for free? It sounds too good to be true.

President Barack Obama on Friday announced just such a proposal.

“Community college should be free for those willing to work for it because, in America, a quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few,” Obama said Friday.

Here’s how it would work:

•The federal government would cover 75 percent of tuition costs while participating states would pay the rest.

•Students would have to take classes at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 grade-point average and make progress toward a degree.

•Colleges would have to offer academic programs that fully transfer to four-year schools or job training programs with high graduation rates that lead to degrees and certificates sought by employers.

•States would have to maintain existing education investments and work to reduce the need for remedial classes and repeated courses.

As always, the devil’s in the details — in this case the financial details — and that’s where the saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” might come into play.

Of course this proposal isn’t “free.” The White House estimates that it would cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years and save students an average $3,800 in tuition per year.

The White House says details on how the president proposes to pay for the plan will be unveiled next month.

Without knowing all the details, we can spot a few pros and cons to this plan.

Pro: This program could help Iowa and the U.S. compete with a 21st century workforce. An analysis last year by Iowa Workforce Development shows a large gap in the number of middle-skill jobs — positions that require more than a high school degree but less than a four-year bachelor’s degree — and the number of workers qualified to fill those jobs. While middle-skill jobs make up 56 percent of jobs in the state, only 33 percent of Iowa workers possess the necessary skills.

Con: The program could divert students and scholarship money away from our four-year schools. The requirement that states maintain their effort for other sectors of higher education might induce some states to not participate.

Pro: This program could help not just low-income students, but middle class students who might not qualify for the Pell Grant but can’t quite afford to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket each year for tuition and other expenses.

Con: Taxpayers would be paying even for those who could pay for themselves. The money might be better spent on those who face the highest barriers, such as by increasing the the number of Pell Grants or changing the standard formula to make them available to more students.

Everyone deserves access to post-high school education and investing in it is a smart, long-term strategy to help improve Americans’ lives and our economy.

Whether this is the particular investment we want to make is yet to be seen. But we’re happy the conversation has begun and hope the proposal gets a fair hearing.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Democrats Should Choose Norris

Introduction: If Iowa Democrats hope to win the governorship in 2018, their strategy needs to change. Most recently, their presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, carried only 6 of Iowa's 99 counties. In 2014 it was even worse. Their last candidate for governor, Jack Hatch, carried only one county, Johnson -- known to Iowans in the western part of the state as "the People's Republic of Johnson County."

Whoever gets the nod in the Democrats' June 5 primary (or June 16 convention) will have the support of virtually all the state's Democrats, and access to the necessary money, for the general election on November 6. Thus, the issue for Democrats voting in the primary really ought to be, not who can win the primary, but who has the best possibility of winning the general election. Iowans registered as Republicans have an edge over the number of Democrats. But the largest political party by far is the "No Party" party, the independents. Whoever is chosen ought to be able to get the majority of votes from Hillary's 6 counties. The question is who can pile up the most votes in the other 93 counties.

Among the five candidates, my intuition, after a lifetime of politics, is that John Norris would do the best of the five in those 93 counties.

But there is a more powerful reason, almost unrelated to partisan politics, why Democrats Should Choose Norris. And that is the subject of this piece in the Press-Citizen.


Democrats Should Choose Norris

Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 23, 2018, p. 7A

Why do you make primary choices? How do you choose from six quality governor candidates?

Politically? Win-at-any-cost? Even so, winners of primaries aren’t always best for general elections.

The best fundraiser? Party officer who’s “earned it”? One with most “Elvis”? Youngest? Oldest? Tallest? Best looking?

Looking for comfort, compatibility? Someone your age, gender, socio-economic class, race, religion? Policy positions closest to yours?

Understandable, after this legislative year, for a Democrat to focus on a winning governor and House candidates.

But once they’re there? Being a wise, compassionate, effective, politically savvy, accomplished governor requires very different qualities and skills from those of a winning candidate.

What are they?

For an Iowa governor: someone with whom Iowa farmers are comfortable; experience in the governor's office and Iowa agencies; party leadership; understanding Iowa's relationship to federal government, international markets and organizations

By these standards? It’s John Norris, hands down. He was a fifth-generation farm boy in southwest Iowa; been chief of staff to an Iowa governor, federal cabinet member, and congressman; chair of Iowa's Utilities Board and Iowa Democratic Party; presidential appointee to federal and United Nations' agencies; worked with a U.S. senator. Experienced at winning, and one fine guy.

Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Sinclair TV Defies Originalism

Introduction: Opponents of Sinclair Broadcasting's drive to acquire the Tribune stations, moving it from "biggest broadcaster" to "even bigger," have tried to frame arguments within the wink-wink loose standards of today's FCC and Congress. By law, local stations are responsible for their local news and opinion. Sinclair management requires local stations' anchors to read pro-Trump commentary from Sinclair headquarters as if it was the opinion of the local anchor/station. That would seem to be a violation.

As serious as that is, it pales in comparison with the "original intent" of those creating the American system of broadcast regulation. I'm not a supporter of knee-jerk "original intent" interpretations of the Constitution by some Supreme Court Justices. But since many conservatives are "originalists," presumably including some supporting this Sinclair power grab, it seemed only fair to measure Sinclair's station ownership and performance against the regulatory intentions of those creating our first Radio Acts.

(1) The first document, below, is an op ed column in The Gazette (as published). (2) Below it is the text submitted (that needed to be edited for space). (3) Below that is a column appearing in The Gazette on the same day (and page) written by the general manager of the local (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Sinclair station. (4) At the bottom of the page are samples of emails commenting on the column. (Usually, and in this case, I do not engage in prolonged exchanges with those criticizing a column, in the belief that (a) visitors to the blog are fully capable of coming to their own judgments, and (b) since I've had my say, those who wish to provide a civil response should be granted as much.) -- N.J.

Sinclair TV Defies Originalism

Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, April 14, 2018, p. A6

Sinclair Communications holds the most TV station licenses of any broadcaster. It wants more, reaching over 70 percent of American homes. [Sinclair Broadcasting Group Headquarters, Baltimore (Hunt Valley), Maryland; photo credit: Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun]

To put this power grab in context, there’s a useful lesson from Supreme Court justices’ interpretation of the Constitution – Antonin Scalia, Neil Gorsuch, and Hugo Black.

It’s called “textualism,” or “originalism.” Originalists believe judges can’t say a word “means just what I choose it to mean” – what it has come to mean, or what they wish it meant. A word means what those who wrote it meant by it, at the time they wrote it.

Suppose we apply “originalism” to Sinclair. What was the intent of those drafting laws regulating broadcasters?

New technology leaves us struggling for vocabulary, let alone understanding. Automobiles were “horseless carriages;” radio was“wireless” telegraphy.

Given the mystery and miracle of 1920s radio, it’s remarkable Herbert Hoover (then Commerce Secretary) could see radio’s “ability . . . to furnish entertainment, instruction, widening vision of national problems and national events.” Even U.S. broadcasters, agreed with Hoover that, “it is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter.”

The Radio Act permitted “the use of such channels, but not the ownership thereof . . . for limited periods of time, under licenses [which shall not] be construed to create any right, beyond the terms, conditions, and periods of the license.” The standard for granting and renewing licenses was “the public interest.”

In 1932 a federal appellate court upheld the Commission’s denial of renewal for a broadcaster who regularly defamed government, officials, labor, and various religions. If broadcasters are permitted to “inspire political distrust and civic discord,” it wrote, radio “will become a scourge.”

Airtime for one candidate required “equal opportunity” for opponents. Personal attacks generated opportunity to reply. A “fairness doctrine” didn’t control content but demanded treatment of public issues and presentation of a range of views.

As early as 1926, when Congress was debating the Radio Act, Texas Congressman Luther Johnson warned, “American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations.” If “a single selfish group is permitted to . . . dominate these broadcasting stations . . . woe be to those who dare to differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.”

As late as 1970 no licensee could operate more than one AM, FM, and TV in one market. The national limit was seven AM, seven FM, and five VHF TV stations. Rules prohibited ownership combining stations and newspapers.

With broadcasters’ pressure on Congress and the FCC, regulations change. Original intent does not. Were it followed today, Sinclair would not have the licenses it does, let alone more. It would not dictate “local” commentaries to stations legally responsible for their content. And it could not be a propagandist for a single official, candidate, or ideology.

• Nicholas Johnson served as commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from 1966-1973. Comments:

Column As Submitted
[before excellent editing/tightening improvements by Gazette Insight Editor, Todd Dorman, in published version, above]

Sinclair Communications holds the most TV station licenses of any broadcaster. It wants more, enough to reach over 70% of American homes.

To put this media power grab in context for TV watchers, there’s a useful lesson from some Supreme Court justices’ interpretation of the Constitution – Justices like Antonin Scalia, Neil Gorsuch, and even occasionally my mentor, Justice Hugo Black.

It’s called “textualism,” or “originalism.” Unlike Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, originalists believe judges can’t say a word “means just what I choose it to mean” – what it has come to mean, or what they wish it meant. A word means what those who wrote it meant by it, at the time they wrote it. Judges are bound by the “original” meaning of the “text,” the original intent of the drafters.

Suppose we apply to Sinclair the idea of “originalism.” What was the original intent of those drafting laws regulating broadcasters?

New technology leaves us struggling, even for vocabulary, let alone understanding. Automobiles were defined by their lack of horses (“horseless carriages”); radio by its lack of telegraph wires (“wireless” telegraphy).

Given the mystery and miracle of 1920s radio, it’s remarkable that Iowa’s own President Herbert Hoover (then Commerce Secretary) could see radio’s “ability . . . to furnish entertainment, instruction, widening vision of national problems and national events.” Other countries agreed, and established public corporations to operate stations. They, and even U.S. broadcasters, agreed with Hoover that, “it is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter."

The Radio Act declared its purpose to permit “the use of such channels, but not the ownership thereof . . . for limited periods of time, under licenses [which shall not] be construed to create any right, beyond the terms, conditions, and periods of the license.” The standard for granting, and renewing, licenses was “the public interest.”

It was a kind of cross between private use of public lands, and politicians’ reelections – use, if benefitting the public, but not ownership; officials’ fixed terms, reelection earned.

In 1932 a federal appellate court upheld the Commission’s denial of renewal for a broadcaster who regularly defamed government, officials, labor, and various religions. If broadcasters are permitted to “inspire political distrust and civic discord,” it wrote, radio “will become a scourge.”

Airtime for one candidate required “equal opportunity” for all opponents. Personal attacks generated opportunity to reply. A “fairness doctrine” didn’t control content but demanded treatment of public issues and presentation of a range of views.

As early as 1926, when Congress was debating the Radio Act, Texas Congressman Luther Johnson presciently warned, “American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations.” If “a single selfish group is permitted to . . . dominate these broadcasting stations . . . woe be to those who dare to differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.”

As late as 1970 no licensee could operate more than one AM, FM, and TV in a single market. The limit nationally was 7 AM, 7 FM, and 5 VHF TV stations. Diversity of viewpoint required banning ownership combining both stations and newspapers.

With broadcasters’ pressure on Congress and the FCC, regulations change with the times. The original intent does not. Were it followed today, Sinclair would not have the licenses it does, let alone more. It would not dictate “local” commentaries to stations legally responsible for their content. And it could not be a propagandist for a single official, candidate, or ideology.
Nicholas Johnson served as commissioner, Federal Communications Commission, 1966-1973., Contact:

Local Journalists Guide Sinclair Stations

Glen Callanan [General Manager, Sinclair station KGAN-TV2, Cedar Rapids]
The Gazette, April 14, 2018, p. A6

The editorial in the April 5 edition of The Gazette “News Consumers can help fight fake news” provided insight into how to protect against false information. That editorial pointed out KGAN CBS2 News and KFXA Fox 28 News here in Cedar Rapids are owned or operated by Sinclair Broadcasting.

We would like to remind your readers and our viewers that CBS2 and Fox 28 produce more than 33 hours of local news every week. As part of our newscasts we do air clearly labeled commentary provided by our parent company Sinclair Broadcasting. These commentaries account for roughly 8 minutes per week. Decisions about what to air and when to air it are made right here in our own newsroom. Our hardworking producers, reporters, photographers, anchors and a host of others work every day to bring our viewers the most up-to date, factually balanced stories from right here in the Corridor, our state, our nation and the world.

In just the last couple of years, CBS2/Fox 28 news has won multiple national and regional awards for our local news coverage from the Society of Professional Journalists, Upper Midwest Emmy, RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Regional Awards and the Iowa Broadcast News Association. Our entirely locally produced news public affairs show, “Iowa in Focus” had a run of more than 100 episodes focusing on issues relevant to Iowans including in-depth political reporting throughout 2016 and 2017.

We are also deeply involved in our community, providing support to community events and charities. Our station has a core belief in making an impact to improve our community. The Pay It Forward with Impact campaign is one example. In 2017, we began a twice a month series that features someone who gives back to the community. We tell their story and donate $300 in their name to a charity of their choice. Last year $7,200 was donated to charities such as the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, Camp Courageous and the Cedar Valley Humane Society among others. We are looking forward to helping more charities in 2018.

Sinclair has made a significant investment in our local news operations over the last few years which have allowed us to better produce our local newscasts. This includes equipment that improved the way we cover news, as well as adding jobs to a growing newsroom. When it comes to covering local news on a day-to-day basis, it is our people who live, work and play right here in the Corridor who make it their mission to uncover and report on the stories that affect our viewers.
• Glen Callanan is general manager of CBS2/Fox 28 in Cedar Rapids.


Sample of Email Responses

While I agree with the substance of your argument about the abuses, current and proposed, of the Sinclair operation, dipping into originalism seems risky business in the long-run.

Such is companion, in its demonstrated application by Scalia, et al, to be a companion to biblical literalism. Once published, texts take on a life of their own. They can only be interpreted by live human beings in their present context. History changes the context of the original version of document, published or unpublished.

Freedom of the press in the 18th century did not anticipate the likes of Sinclair, or anything like electronic media. Dealing with such requires wholesale reinterpretation based on current realities and assumptions about the common welfare.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Robin Kash
Cedar Rapids

I read your article in the Gazette today with some interest. As someone who follows the media closely I have several comments on your thoughts.

First let me point you to the editorial by Glen Callahan, also in the Gazette today. He did a nice job of explaining Sinclair's role in their local news coverage. I think the appropriate thought that he presented was that the "origin" of local news comes from his newsroom and not from Sinclair's corporate HQ.

Interesting comment "Originalists believe judges can't say a word means just what I chose it to mean - what it has come to mean or what they wish it to mean". It appears to me today that we have a preponderance of judges who ignore the Executive power of the President when it doesn't suit their political view and then support it when it does. The number of lawsuits regarding Visa and immigration issues reveals a totally corrupt judiciary that have decided "the words selectively mean what I chose it to mean". They decided the same issues differently.

What's more amazing though is the criticism of Sinclair "to dictate local commentary". it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize the major networks, CNN, MSNBC and to a lesser degree the other networks singular hatred of President Trump. All responsible media studies in the past couple of years reveal a 90% negative coverage of President Trump. Claiming Sinclair is dictating news is preposterous when compared to the collusion between the major networks and national newspaper.

"And it could not be a propagandist for a single official, candidate , or ideology." Do you think anyone couldn't figure out which candidate the MSM supported in the election and everyday since? The bias is so loud people seems not to actually hear it over the din.

The free part of the press is almost unrecognizable today.

BTW the "Fairness Doctrine" was a way to stand on the neck of the free press and a means to limit some people's speech. It was not fair or useful in a free society.

Gary Ellis

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Making Sense of Trump's Syria Attack

Why Now?
"A republic, if you can keep it."

-- Benjamin Franklin
reply when asked what
government the Constitutional
Convention created

Our responsibilities as the citizens of a democratic state are a heavy burden, but one we willingly bear.

The pillars of our democracy are under as much stress today as I can recall ever existing during the past 50 years or so. From within our borders and without, there are attacks on the integrity of our media, elections, judges, FBI, political opponents, public education, and the norms of presidential governance and behavior.

Hiring and firing of presidential appointees, financial and sexual scandals, presidential decisions announced by tweet one day and reversed the next, special counsel and congressional investigations related to the president, and more, come at us like the floods of spring. Dramatic revelations and stories that, alone, might normally provide headlines for a week, disappear by nightfall, smothered by those that follow.

The first requirement of our role as public citizens is that we give at least some time every day to informing ourselves, and trying to make some sense out of what our public officials are doing -- and failing to do. These days one could say, "If you're not confused you haven't been paying attention."

So it is with Trump's announcement, and military attack on Syria, last evening (April 13, 2018).

Here's my effort to suggest what may be, if not the only factor, at least one of the motivating factors in President Trump's attack on Syria -- his decision to do what he did when he did it>

I believe my offering can best be conveyed with four videos -- if taken all together, and in this sequence.

(1) The first is German public television's documentary, "Dangerous Ties." It describes Trump's business partners and practices, the role of Russians in his finances, and other matters now being addressed by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, following the acquisition of documents from Trump's lawyer. Matt Apuzzo, "F.B.I. Raids Office of Trump's Longtime Lawyer Michael Cohen; Trump Calls It 'Disgraceful,'" New York Times, April 10, 2018, p. A1.

The 44-minute documentary is called "Dangerous Ties: Trump and His Business Partners." It reveals information that attentive American citizens need to know about their president. But it is especially relevant today, in its relation to the Syria attack, given the New York Times headline that, "Trump Sees Inquiry Into Cohen as Greater Threat Than Mueller" (Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Maggie Haberman and Eileen Sullivan, New York Times, April 14, 2018, p. A1).

Here it is:

(2) The second is Danny Schechter's 2004 documentary, "Weapons of Mass Deception" (2004), describing the interlocked role of government and media in generating American citizens' support for war (1:38:00). If you watch the whole documentary carefully you will never again watch, or read, news stories of America's wars in the same way. I believe it is essential that citizens of a nation that spends more on its military than the next ten nations combined have at least this much sophisticated understanding regarding news of its nation's military.

(3) The third video is "Wag the Dog" (1997). As is occasionally the case, it provides understanding not as a documentary, but as an entertainment feature film -- at least the first 13 minutes of it. Because it grossed $64,000,000 you may well have seen it twenty years ago. If you didn't you should; if you did you need a refresher. (There doesn't appear to be a good quality copy available for free, but you can get it from Amazon (rent or buy) or Netflix (rent).)

The essential premise of the film for our purposes is that a president, caught up in a sex scandal with an important election looming, turns to a political consultant who proposes the creation of a media story sufficiently powerful to drive reporters away from the president's troubles. After considerable reflection, the consultant concludes the only media story big enough would be the creation of a war -- whether in fact or only in believable fantasy. You can get a suggestion of this theme from the first 33-seconds of this original theatrical trailer:

4. Finally, there are the President's remarks last evening. "President Trump Announces Strikes Against Syria," Voice of America, April 13, 2018 (0:7:40). On Tuesday, April 3, without warning to DOD, veering off topic from a speech on trade, Trump called for an immediate removal of American troops from Syria. The next day, April 4, he was finally briefed by his military advisers and backed off. Julie Hirschfeld Davis, "Trump Drops Push for Immediate Withdrawal of Troops From Syria," New York Times, April 5, 2018, p. A12. On April 11 he tweeted, "Get ready Russia, because they [missiles] will be coming, nice and new and 'smart.'" Jonathan Chait, "Trump Uses Social Media to Announce Attack on Syria, Confess to Obstruction of Justice," New York Magazine, April 2018. And by last night (two days later, April 13) they were.

What is the President's mission in Syria; what is his strategy? No one thinks using chemical weapons on one's people is a cool thing to do. But missiles are not a strategy -- especially when following a president's expressed desire to pull out all troops immediately, followed the next day by a reversal of position, and accompanying an express rejection of regime change.

So, why are we there? He has to offer something. It was, he said, because it is "a vital national security interest of the United States," because "the United States . . . is doing what is necessary to protect the American people." What these assertions mean, and why they are true, was left to our imaginations. What can the American people do? He concluded, "Tonight I ask all Americans to say a prayer for our noble warriors."

We will probably never know how much of last evening's missile attack on Syria was about "storming Damascus" and how much about "Stormy Daniels." Clearly, it diverted attention from this weekend's and next week's promotion of James Comey's blockbuster book, A Higher Loyalty, and the revelations of what Michael Cohen and Donald Trump have been cooking up, soon to be revealed in the documents from Cohen's office, home, and hotel room.

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