Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fox News Snub

President Barack Obama seems to be just about everywhere selling his presidency in response to sagging poll numbers. Everywhere, that is, except Fox News, where Obama's snub has caused a stir.

Throughout the summer months the president pretty much stood on the sidelines during the health care debate as House and Senate committees battled over the shape of the bill. The president's posture left an opening for those opposing proposed changes in health care to loudly speak out. And the insurance industry and other interest groups joined in the fray in an effort to rile up Americans against reform through advertisements and an aggressive PR campaign. Town hall meetings disintegrated into shouting matches by interest groups. Ridiculous claims like "death panels" were spread with jarring effect.

But make no mistake about it, the shouting also reflects the general frustration many Americans have with their government, period. An economic collapse, huge unemployment, financial and automobile bailouts and deep American involvement in two wars certainly are enough to get most people's ire up. As Rodney Dangerfield might have said, "take my government, please!"

So over the past few days the president began an all out effort to regain control of the debate. His approach was a media blitz of appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows and David Letterman. The approach is intended to counter the endless chatter on cable news, blogs and tweets that make it hard for any message to break through the din of democracy. An axiom among marketers is, "When you are tired of seeing your own advertisement, most of America is just becoming aware of it." This morning polls indicate that President Obama's blitz may have bumped up his numbers. To quote NBC's Chuck Todd, "If you voted for Obama, it helped, and if you voted for McCain, you didn't change your mind." Welcome to the fast paced, dynamic and ever changing world of politics 2.0.

But there was one notable exception to the president's news blitz: Fox News. The White House say that Fox News has been more than an adversary to Obama, it has very much had an anti-Obama agenda. The president's advisers complain about its one sided coverage especially on commentator Sean Hannity's show, or the charges of racism and "eugenics" coming from entertainer and host Glenn Beck. Or they were unhappy the Fox network did not carry President Obama's recent speech to a joint session of Congress.

Advisers to the president no doubt made the calculation that there was no upside in appearing on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. Wallace's recent interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney was likened to "teenage girls interviewing the Jonas Brothers" by a prominent conservative columnist. Furthermore, most of the Fox audience doesn't believe in the president and his policies, so he is unlikely to get any converts.

As a senior executive for CBS News, I remember being caught in intensive discussions with White House officials working for Presidents Reagan and Bush '41, who were against Dan Rather interviewing their president. In those days Rather was the top anchor, CNN was new and the only cable news outlet and there was no Internet. So suffice it to say that it is not unprecedented for a White House to ban a network for unfavorable coverage. But it is not a good tactic.

President Obama was wrong not to appear on Fox News at the same time he appeared on every other Sunday talk program. Press bans are a slippery slope and are not healthy to our democracy. Limitations or bans against news organizations by the White House runs counter to the spirit and intention of our founding fathers. While many Fox viewers may not agree with the president's policies, they are Americans too. So, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, "Cherish... the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mary Travers RIP

I am sad to hear that Mary Travers has died after a long bout of Leukemia. In the early 60's the folk group Peter Paul and Mary sang against war and inequality. They followed in the footsteps of Pete Seeger and sang protest songs penned by Bob Dylan. They briefly became the voice of a new active generation, and bridged the hip swiveling era of Elvis rock to the British invasion and Beatlemania.

"If I had a Hammer" spoke of the bell of freedom and the hammer of justice. "Blowing in the Wind" asked, "how many times must the cannonballs fly before they're forever banned," and "how many years must some people live before they're allowed to be free." Travers' beautiful voice blended smoothly with those of Peter Yarrow and Noel "Paul" Stookey and was complemented by their folk guitars. "Puff the Magic Dragon" became an international hit, in part because it was rumored to have been about marijuana which was becoming widely popular in the early sixties. And "Lemon Tree" was very pretty indeed.

I went out on my first official date to a Peter Paul and Mary concert in Chicago in 1963. I was able to secure pretty good seats, especially for a high school junior, because they were my date's favorite group. Even more, like Mary Travers, my date had long straight blond hair, played the guitar and bobbed her head to stress certain words as she sang. But she was no Mary Travers. Yet she seemed truly impressed with me that night. Alas, nothing came of the relationship except a truly magnificent memory.

Mary Travers will always have very special meaning in my life. My most vivid memory will be her appearance fifty years ago on that Chicago stage. I can still clearly hear her voice plaintively yet powerfully above Peter and Paul's invoking a call to action, "It's the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, it's the song about love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land."

Mary Travers RIP

Anger Management

Former President Jimmy Carter has always had a knack to say things that are uncomfortable and ill timed. With his remarks to NBC News, and repeated yesterday, he has highlighted a problem as old as America itself and, in so doing, has complicated the debate over President Obama's agenda.

At issue has been the growing lack of civility in protests across the country and before a joint session of Congress directed at President Obama and the U.S. Government. Most appalling examples include signs carried by protesters comparing President Obama a monkey or a Nazi, or Congressman Joe Wilson's inappropriate outburst on the floor of the House calling the president a liar. They also include multimedia entertainer Glenn Beck calling Obama a racist toward whites, or radio show host Rush Limbaugh saying the president's birthplace is Kenya. Some of these acts and comments are so outrageous that they turn off many Americans, even conservative Republicans. So to broadly paint all dissenters with the malignant brush of racism will only drive the country further apart.

"I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American," President Carter said. "And I think it's bubbled up to the surface, because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."

Sadly there remain plenty of people in the United States who are racists. And the fact that President Obama received less that 15% of the white vote in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama is troubling. But it is a mistake to suggest that most of the 75,000 protesters who gathered in Washington last weekend were racists. It is equally wrong to say that most protesters who attended the recent "tea parties" were all racists.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell also sees it differently than President Carter. "The issue is not race, it's civility," Powell said, "This is not to say that we are suddenly racially pure, but constantly talking about it and reducing everything to black versus white is not helpful to the cause of restoring civility to public dialog."

President Obama made history when he became the first African American elected to the nation's top office with 53% of the vote, or nearly 67 million voters. Early on in his presidency he enjoyed a 70% approval rating. That number has now fallen to about 50%. Is President Carter suggesting that the defectors are largely racists?

The simple fact is that there is a lot of anger and frustration out there aimed squarely at Washington, and with good reason. Unemployment continues to grow, although the rate of increase is slowing. But unemployment is on track to surpass 10% in the very near future and many economists predict the nation is most likely to have a "jobless" recovery. At the same time the government has rescued the U.S. automobile industry with billions of American taxpayer dollars.

One year ago Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail and then the world economy collapsed. Government regulators missed all of the obvious warning signs, as bankers over-leveraged their companies and were richly paid in return. This forced the government to pump billions of taxpayer dollars into the financial industry. Today the financial industry is stable, bankers are being paid bonuses (Goldman Sachs paid out $11 billion) and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is approaching 10,000. But most banks are sitting on their toxic assets, there has been no meaningful regulatory reform and some experts warn we a poised for another economic crisis. Meanwhile, comparatively little help has made it to the people on main streets where stores are boarded up and business is awful. And a frighteningly huge number of homes face foreclosure across the country. Millions of Americans are "under water."

As Rome burns members of Congress are mud wrestling over health care. Many proposals are confusing and complicated; take end of life counseling or a "public option." They lend themselves to demagoguery and preposterous claims, like "death panels," government run health care and cuts in Medicare services. Everyone agrees that health care costs are out of control, but insurance companies and their lobbyists are fiercely fighting to protect their profit margins. Adding to the noise and mendacity Glenn Beck accuses President Obama of favoring "eugenics" and Rush Limbaugh calls him a "Nazi.

But it is "the economy stupid." Deficits from growing health care costs, government stimulus packages, bank and auto bailouts, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are adding trillions to the national debt. The last President to have a budget surplus was Bill Clinton and it there is no plan in place to repeat that rare feat.

Can you name a single president who has actually made substantial cuts to the federal budget? They always speak of "waste, fraud and abuse" but nothing happens. Why do we still have troops based all over the world? Why do we still pay out so much in foreign aid? Huge deficits are likely to lead to serious inflation and higher taxes. They are being underwritten by China and Japan, and threaten to severely weaken America globally. Our children and grandchildren will be left with a legacy of debt and serious problems.

"The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual." So said President Carter in a speech to the nation in July 1979. It was his so-called "malaise" speech, a word he never used but was successfully pinned to it by candidate Ronald Reagan. Nonetheless, rather than talking about racism, President Carter might have been more constructive if he pointed to his comments given in that summer of long gas lines and high inflation. For instance:

"What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends."

Yes, sadly racism is alive in America and we have a long way to go, but conditions for most people of all races have improved and, with more minorities achieving influential positions, it will thankfully continue to do so.

On the other hand Washington hasn't changed. It's the same old smash mouth politics. In fact, the explosion of media outlets, multi-platform distribution and instant bloggers and Twitterers has exacerbated the problem. Politicians are too focused on scoring short term political points and securing corporate donations for their campaign. This is the most serious political problem facing our nation today, and there is no incentive or willingness to change the status quo. No wonder everyone is so angry.

Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joe-peyronnin/anger-in-america_b_290588.html

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Din of Democracy

It is hard to believe that it has already been eight years since terrorists attacked our nation. It was a most unimaginable and horrific tragedy that killed thousands of innocent people and has left a gaping scar in our hearts.

But on that day, at that moment, our nation instantly came together as one people to mourn our dead and take action. We rose above partisan differences and geographical divides to unite in defense of our country and heal our wounds.

Today our nation remembers that day, that act, the victims and their families. But at the same time many of our leaders and pundits have retreated to their respective corners. They resort to mindless shouting; mudslinging, distortions and lies all for short term political or financial gain. They choose to divide America by attacking their opponents, after all "It's my way or the highway." They do not see good will in those with differing opinions, only malice and a lack of patriotism. They spout irresponsible and preposterous claims of "eugenics" and "he's a Nazi." They play to biases, prejudices and fears. They stoke the flames of hatred.

They include those who called former President George Bush an "idiot" and a "drug dealer," as well as those who say President Barack Obama is a "liar" and charge he is not even a natural born American. The recent furor by some on the right over President Obama's address to students was just as silly as similar protests two decades ago coming from the left directed at a speech to students by the first President George Bush. For goodness sakes, it's the President of the United States. Washington has become one big schoolyard filled with silly taunts and screams, like "The president is trying to control our children!" Or, "They did it to us first, so there!"

For sure we are blessed to live in a country where free speech is a founding principle. But one has to wonder just how appealing the din of American democracy is when heard from across the ocean. Rather than a "beacon of hope" it may seem more like the "battle of the bands." In an effort to get noticed, bloggers, cable pundits and talk show hosts magnify the already disruptive cacophony of criticism and discordant voices coming from the far right and left.

Certainly the clamor and chaos of politics has been very much a part of our democracy since its founding. Divisions have run deep in our nation before, such as leading up to and during the Civil War, the anti-war movement and civil rights era in the sixties and seventies, and during Watergate, to name a few. But our ship of state has always weathered the storm intact and often even stronger. That is my hope today.

Yes we are involved in two wars, we face a health crisis, unemployment is increasing and the deficits are overwhelming. Already our children will inherit an enormous national debt, which most every recent president has contributed to. Despite all the bitter backbiting I am sure that President Obama will sign some health care legislation by the end of the year. And no matter what that legislation calls for the American people will have a say. The beauty of our system of government is that every two years there is a mid-term election, and every four there is a presidential election.

Nonetheless, it is my hope that our elected officials and pundits lower their voices; that they treat fellow citizens with civility and decency; that they carefully listen to each other. Most of all, that their first priority be what is best for all of the American people.