Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Self-censorship adds to dullness of newspapers

Killed Cartoons

By David Wallis. W.W Norton. 260 pages. $15.95.

The American press has many problems: bottom line journalism, huge cuts in staffs, closing of foreign and domestic bureaus, entertainment over news, kowtowing to stockholders and bowing to advertisers.

But perhaps the biggest newspaper problem is self-censorship. Communist governments and dictatorships have overt censorship. American censorship is hidden. And that censorship is being done by gutless, third-rate editors who are usually white and Establishment to the core.

Nearly all American newspapers, including supposedly fearless alternative weeklies, refused to print the Danish caricatures of Mohammed that trigged worldwide Muslim outrage, death and destruction.

Doug Marlette of the Tulsa World is one of the best editorial cartoonists in America. He has received death threats for criticizing Islamic fundamentalists. Yet he pointed out that by suppressing the Mohammed cartoons the American media abdicated its responsibility to keep the public informed. He nailed it: “one of the low points in the history of American journalism.”

The liberal-media theory has been debunked countless times but the myth persists. “Killed Cartoons” provides still more proof that newspapers are not liberal and never will be.

Price Day, editor of the Baltimore Sun in the 1960s, used to say that the problem with newspapers is that no editors are being horsewhipped. It was his metaphorical way of saying that newspapers had become so dull that no one is offended by anything. Since Day’s time the situation has gotten only worse.

All the 92 censored editorial cartoons shown in the book should have been printed by the newspapers and magazines they were drawn for. An artist’s vision should never be squelched. But spinelessness, political correctness, squeamishness about the mildest sexual allusion, and supersensitivity to religious groups and minorities prevail over pungency.

As editor David Wallis writes: “Fear rather than fearlessness is the new reality in American newsrooms.”

One marvelous cartoon by Dennis Draughon was killed by the Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune in 1998. It pictured Matthew Shepard, Wyoming college student who was tortured and beaten to death because he was gay.

Shepard was bound to a fence, a pool of blood at his feet labeled hate crimes. The caption was from Luke: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” The idiot editor said he was “uncomfortable comparing Shepard with Christ.”

Another great Draughon cartoon was spiked. It showed Bush speaking belligerently before flag-drapped coffins returned from Iraq: “BRING ‘EM ON!!” Another slain cartoon was drawn by M.G. Lord, former cartoonist of Newsday. It was a caricature of New York Cardinal John Law holding aloft a coat hanger instead of a crosier. Editor Wallis writes of the cartoon: it “brillantly captures the anti-abortion fervor of a prelate who demonized pro-choice supporters.”

Time magazine in 1997 vetoed a cover cartoon by Tim O‘Brien. “Biting” boxer Mike Tyson was portrayed as a pit bull, caged, with his jaw agape. Editors wrongly said it was racist.

Still another murder: a cartoon in 1998 by Rex Babin, then of the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union. It showed a man representing Big Tobacco speaking through a hole in his throat. As Wallis rightly asks: “Shouldn’t you really show the result of smoking in its most graphic way?”

A quick rundown of excellent drawings slain by stupid editors: a cartoon by Steve Kelley of the San Diego Union-Tribune because it showed a smidgen of teenager butt crack; a wonderful cartoon by Patrick O’Connor of the Los Angeles Daily News showing portraits of dictators supported by the United States; a cartoon by J.D. Crowe of the Mobile (Ala.) Register showing a hefty guy labeled Halliburton and captioned: “Another big league player bulked up on steroids”; a cartoon by Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with flag-draped coffins formed into the letters, “We Lied”; and the outrage of Scranton editors killing a Draughon cartoon showing a doctor putting his stethoscope on a patient’s wallet.

Cartoonist O’Connor points out that sometimes journalism must shock rather than soothe readers, even in the worst of times.

Thomas Nast, giant of 19th century editorial cartooning in America, drew a grossly unfair cartoon of editor Horace Greeley shaking hands with John Wilkes Booth over the grave of Lincoln. But editorial cartoonists make no effort to be fair. If they did, they would lose all their explosiveness, all the cut and thrust of effective cartooning.

An awful lot of opinion page editors in America should be in another line of work--say, accounting. They certainly are not halting the flight of readers from newspapers.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Bush: chainsaw commander in chief

President Bush, who with his minions has trashed the environment for six years, suddenly has the chuztpah to call himself commander in chief of the Greens.

For those unfamiliar with “The Joys of Yiddish” by Leo Rosten, chutzpah means gall, brazen nerve. Rosten’s wonderful example: a Jewish youth kills his mother and father and then throws himself on the mercy of a court because he is an orphan.

Bush, seeking a noble legacy rather than the ignoble legacy he has, has been trying to join Teddy Roosevelt in the Environmental Hall of Fame. Doubtless by Earth Day, April 22, Bush will have invoked other members of that hall such as Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey.

Photo ops are everything with Bush. The reality behind the imagery is quite different.

Bush and his acolytes sought to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; let snowmobiles desecrate Yellowstone National Park; woefully underfunded the Forest Service; tried to torpedo the roadless rule in remote areas of national forests; had what the New York Times called a “callous disregard for the country’s natural resources”; tore apart wilderness protections; and, in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle, was the Chainsaw in Chief.

Bush loaned that chainsaw to Gale Norton, the worst secretary of the interior since James Watt in the Reagan administration. Former secretary Norton enthusiastically adopted Watt’s program: rape, ruin and rapine.

She scuttled environmental rules for mining. She exposed 2.6 million acres of supposedly protected lands to commercial development. She presided over an influence-peddling scandal involving megalobbyist Jack Abramoff. She replaced the conservation ethic with commercial exploitation.

Not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties? Don’t believe it. Stewart Udall, interior secretary appointed by Democratic President Kennedy, was an exemplar of the modern conservation movement.

Bush is the only one in the world who debunks global warming. But he sure believes in Business. He favors industrial polluters who are resistant to installation of new pollution controls. (Even his butler, Prime Minister Tony Blair, has a plan to make Britain the first nation to sharply cut carbon emissions.)

Bush refuses to pressure American auto companies and Congress into forcing a real change in fuel economy standards. Ten years ago Dick Bryan, then Nevada U.S. senator, urged a fuel standard of 40 miles per gallon. The mpg is still mired at 27.5.

But even uglier than disbelieving in global warming is placing a gag order on scientists who tell the truth. The Bush administration never lets science get in the way of ideology. The Environmental Protection Agency ignores the advice of its own science committee and spurns the wise counsel of environmental and health groups.

Let no one be deceived by Bush creating a marine reserve in the northwest Hawaiian Islands. His new budget calls for cuts in environmental protection. Those cuts are nearly invisible. In contrast, the marine reserve is highly visible and is easy to create because it offends no one.

Bush has his heart and head with the monied interests not the people’s conservation and ecological interests. As the Chronicle points out, if the Bushies see a tree worth chopping down, they will do it. They have even targeted Sequoia National Monument in Calfornia for timber cuts.

The National Park Service has a maintenance backlog of $5 billion. Many of its 380 parks are deteriorating. Jim Hightower writes in his newsletter:

“Visitors arrive to find such unpleasant surprises as reduced hours, discontinued tours and talks, closed trails, unrepaired storm damage, boarded-up historic structures, leaky lodges, shuttered visitor centers, curtailed education programs, crumbling boardwalks, neglected campgrounds and eroded roads.”

Mark Hertsgaard, in a Nation article, made the point: “No administration since the dawn of the modern environmental era 40 years ago has done more to facilitate degradation of the ecosystems that make life on Earth possible.” To be fair, Bush did back off his ignominious plan to raise the allowable level of arsenic in drinking water.

Justice William O. Douglas, dissenting in a 1972 environmental case, quoted from Aldo Leopold’s wise book, “A Sand County Almanac”: “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals or, collectively, the land.”

Bush, with the crassness of the frat boy he is, has no understanding of the land ethic. He has no feel for the sacredness of the environment. No sense that national parks are cathedrals. To him, they are nothing more than beautiful backdrops for photo ops. He’s a blasphemer.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Nation magazine: a must for leftists

The Nation is unquestionably the best magazine in America. Every week it publishes excoriating indictments of U.S. domestic and international policies. The Progressive is the second best. However, it is less penetrating and comes out just once a month.

Z magazine has good articles but is inconsistent. Mother Jones runs some excellent muckraking pieces but is often ho-hum. Dissent has precious little dissent.

The New Yorker? The Sy Hersh articles on Bush-Cheney warmongering are superb. Hersh may be the best investigative reporter in America. But the magazine is one of those you repeatedly subscribe to then cancel because it is not political enough.

The March 12 issue of The Nation illustrates why it is essential fare for lefties. It carries at least five excellent articles. And a bonus: a full-page ad against the No Child Left Behind Act with 16 cogent reasons why the act is an utter failure.

The five articles are entitled: “A Trial for Thousands Denied Trial” by Naomi Klein; “The Care Crisis” by Ruth Rosen; “Remembering Norma Rae” by Robert Nathan and Jo-Ann Mort”; and “How to Fix Our Democracy” by Mark Green.

The Klein column angrily portrays the worldwide system of psychological torture by the U.S. government. She focuses on the trial of José Padilla in Miami in which interrogators are using inhumane techniques on prisoners.

Padilla, arrested in 2002, was classified as an enemy combatant and locked up a Navy brig at Charlestown, S.C. Klein writes:

“He was kept in a 9-by-7-foot cell with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and (forced to wear) headphones…He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctuated the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds.” He was also injected with “truth serum,” probably LSD.

Klein notes further: “The techniques used to break Padilla have been standard operating procedure at Guantánamo Bay for five years…These same practices have been documented in dozens of cases of CIA ‘extraordinary rendition’ as well as prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

America an exceptional country? No, it tortures just like any totalitarian regime.

Profound care deficit

Rosen calls the care crisis a nationwide problem: a broken health care system with 47 million Americans without insurance, lack of affordable child care, extremely low wages, job insecurity and employer exploitation.

Scandinavian countries have child care. America does not. Rosen notes that 168 nations have maternal leave. America does not. About 150 nations mandate paid sick days. America does not.

Expensive? Yes. “But the money is there if we end tax cuts for the wealthy and reduce unnecessary wars…and the hundreds of American bases that circle the globe,” Rosen writes. “If we also reinstate a progressive tax structure, this wealthy nation would have enough resources for all its citizens.’

America the exceptional? Certainly not in health and child care for working families.

‘Norma Rae’

Nathan and Mort write that the 1979 film, “Norma Rae,” is virtually the only American movie of the modern era to deal with unionizing, economic justice and factory workers “demanding to be treated as more than slaves.”

More than 23,000 American workers were fired or penalized last year for legal union activity,” they note. Yet: “Moviemakers are in the movie business, not the social change business. And so tomorrow we won’t go to the tenplex and find movies about Wal-Mart workers fighting for health and pension benefits.” Pity.

Fixing so-called democracy

Green rightly laments U.S. electoral “flaws that have long diminished our democracy and frustrated majority support for progressive reforms.” But the main thrust is denunciation of the Great Usurper in the White House.

President Bush, he notes, has evolved a unitary executive theory allowing him to nullify any law he signs, open mail without warrant, condone torture and squander “an inheritance of centuries of democracy progress.”

On Education

The ad: 1) “Emphasizes minimum content standards rather than maximum development of human potential.” 2) “Applies standards to discrete subjects rather than to larger goals such as insightful children.” 3) “Forces schools to adhere to a testing regime with no provision for innovating, adapting to social change or encouraging creativity.” 4) “Drives art, foreign language, geography, history, civics and music out of the curriculum, especially in low-income areas.”

The Nation, founded in 1865, is the oldest continuously published weekly in America. It has been aptly described as “a magazine for the permanent minority.” True--but alas.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

U.S. desperately needs electoral reform

10 Steps to Repair American Democracy

By Steven Hill. 196 pp. PoliPointPress. $11 paperback.

America has never been a democracy and is never likely to be one. The people do not rule. America is a plutocracy, oligarchy and, under President Bush, often a theocracy.

Many of the proposals made by author Steven Hill are essential to repair the torn fabric of democracy in this nation. But, unfortunately, nearly all are impossible politically.

The conservatives who control the nation will see to it that almost none of these changes will be effected. And, they have the lopsided political system on their side.

America covenanted with slavery from the outset. Under the unamended Constitution, blacks were not citizens. They could not vote. Yet they were counted as three-fifths of a person for apportionment of the House of Representatives.

This proviso gave the South an undemocratic control of Congress for seven decades leading to the Civil War. Eight antislavery bills were passed by the House. All were defeated in the Senate.

Today the Senate is so far out of joint that representatives of 15 percent of the population can kill a bill like national health the country needs so badly. Wyoming with a population of a mere 500,000 has two senators while California has just two senators for 38 million people. The Senate may be the least representative legislative body in the world. It guarantees that America will always be a conservative nation.

Seven percent of the U.S. population lives in the 17 least populated states yet they have 34 senators. Senate rules require 60 votes to shut off debate. Hence, conservative senators easily defeated essential measures like a House-passed bill prohibiting striker replacement.

Badly needed: direct election of the president. The Electoral College is antiquated. Four times the presidency has gone to the loser of the popular vote.

Badly needed: voting for president on Sunday or making election day a national holiday.

Needed: instant runoff voting. Voters would list first and second choices. If the first choice doesn’t win, votes would go to the second choice. The goal: a 50 percent winner rather than a minority winner.

IRV would eliminate spoilers like Ralph Nader who prevented Al Gore from winning the presidency. Moreover, it would end the badly skewed first-past-the-post, winner-take-all American way, which often provides minority winners at state, local and national levels.

Or, if IRV is too complicated, hold two-round voting as in presidential elections in France. The two highest vote-getters compete so that the winner has a majority rather than a plurality.

Needed: proportional representation. It worked well when Illinois used it. PR would elect more women and more minorities to Congress, better reflecting the diversity of the nation. PR is used by most of the established democracies in the world.

Badly needed: public financing of all elections, state and federal. This would take the money out of politics.

Badly needed: free air time on television and radio. The airwaves are public. The Supreme Court, in one of its most outrageous decisions ever, ruled in 1976 that money was speech.

Badly needed: a congressional act to give the vote to all ex-felons who have served their prison time. America alone in the free world denies ex-felons the right to vote. Florida alone has barriers keeping 950,000 ex-felons from voting.

In some Southern states ex-felons can never vote. In other states the hoops they have to jump through to get their civil right restored are Byzantine.

“Seven million Americans…are behind bars, on parole or are on probation,” Nation magazine recently noted. “They are disproportionately African-American and Latino…just another way to spell Jim Crow.” Such voters are more likely Democratic.

Badly needed: universal voter registration. Under this reform, every citizen turning 18 would be registered by the government. “If we had universal voter registration we would immediately add 50 million to the rolls…mostly minority, poor and young adults,” Hill writes.

Needed: a national election commission to set standards and uniformity for all 50 states to follow.

Needed: regional primaries in presidential races. Say: one in New England, one in the Middle Atlantic states, one in the Midwest, one in the South, one in the Rocky Mountain states and one in the West.

One of Hill’s proposals, however, is off base. He proposes term limits and/or mandatory retirement at 70 or 75 for Supreme Court justices. This would not be a reform. Justices Thomas and Scalia were reactionaries the day they got on the court. Justice Stevens is 86 and a liberal.

That aside, America will never be a progressive nation until most of Steven Hill’s proposals are adopted. The irony is that the Bush administration constantly preaches democracy to the world yet America is one of the least democratic of nations.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Great dissents by great Supreme Court justices

Some of the finest testaments to the ideal spirit of America have been impassioned dissents by Supreme Court justices.

Perhaps the greatest dissent ever written was by Justice Frank Murphy in In re Yamashita (327 U.S. 1, 1946). The case dealt with a Japanese general accused of war crimes. He was tried before a military commission, found guilty and hanged. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction.

But Murphy, refusing to yield to the passion and “anti-Jap” frenzy of World War II, dissented because General Yamashita had been denied due process. He wrote: “No exception is made as to those who are accused of war crimes or as to those who possess the status of an enemy belligerent. Indeed, such an exception would be contrary to the whole philosophy of human rights which makes the Constitution the great living document that it is.

“The immutable rights of the individual…belong not alone to the members of those nations that excel on the battlefield or that subscribe to the democratic ideology. They belong to every person in the world, victor or vanquished, whatever may be his race, color or belief…

“While peoples in other lands may not share our beliefs as to due process…we are not free to give effect to our emotions in reckless disregard of the rights of others.”

The Murphy dissent exemplifies what it truly means to be an American. Murphy’s dissent is a repudiation of false patriotism and ugly chauvinism. It is not draping your house with a huge American flag. It is not putting a flag on a pickup truck.

Another great dissent was written by Justice Louis Brandeis in Olmstead v. United States (277 U.S. 438, 1928). A majority upheld a conviction under a Washington state statute, declaring that wiretapping did not violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. But Brandeis--possibly the best justice in court history--wrote:

“Decency, security and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen…Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher…it teaches the whole people by its example…If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law.”

If only President Bush today would heed the sterling words of Murphy and Brandeis.

The Great Dissenter himself, Oliver Wendell Holmes, penned a classic dissent in Abrams v. United States (250 U.S. 616, 1919). The court upheld the conviction of radicals who had distributed pamphlets calling for a general strike of munitions workers. The court declared that they were not protected by the First Amendment in wartime.

Holmes was furious that the radicals had been sentenced to 20-year jail terms for printing leaflets they had as much right to print as the government does to publish the Constitution. Moreover, he implied that they were convicted solely for avowing a creed that few others shared. Holmes concluded with this ringing declaration: “We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death.”

The Brandeis dissent in Gitlow v. New York (268 U.S 652, 1925) is another classic. When the court upheld a law barring incitement to overthrow the New York government, Brandeis wrote: “If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces in the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.”

One of the great things about dissents is that justices sometimes argue the law of the future, not as the law was in their time but what it would become. Justice John Harlan I did so in Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537, 1896). The court upheld Jim Crow laws, 7-1. But Harlan, dissenting, declared: “Our Constitution is color-blind.” His dissent became law with the school desegregation decision in 1954.

Justice Harlan Stone also argued the law of the future. In 1940 the court in Gobitis upheld compulsory flag-saluting in public schools. But Stone dissented vigorously. He declared that school children cannot be forced to make “affirmations which violate their religious conscience.”

Three years later Stone was vindicated, the court striking down a West Virginia compulsory flag-salute statute. In that decision, Justice Robert Jackson denounced the tryanny of the majority: “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the viscissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.”

The great dissenters on the court have often been the greatest justices.