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

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pandering to Reno Aces

A newspaper should have no friends.

--Joseph Pulitzer

The Reno Gazette-Journal coverage of the recent home debut of the Reno Aces was shameless boosterism.

When the Aces, the new Triple-A professional baseball team in the Truckee Meadows, opened their season recently in downtown Reno, the Gazette-Journal treated it as if it were the second-coming of Christ.

Its page one headlines: “A new downtown ballpark captures our hopes and imagination…Triple-A experience is so much more than baseball at today’s opening game.”

That day’s page one index had seven items, including “GAME DAY BLOG” and “ARE YOU ON TWITTER?” On page one the day after the opener the G-J carried an index of seven breathless items, including “MEET THE FIRST FANS THROUGH THE GATE” and “THE HOTTEST TICKET IN TOWN.”

The only thing missing after each blurb was an exclamation point.

Alongside those embarrassing second-day gushes appeared a column headlined: “How are we going to top this?”

Dennis Myers, news editor of the Reno News & Review and media watchdog, was appalled by this complete disregard of any pretense of objectivism.

The G-J and TV stations gave the impression that they owned the Aces with their “reverential and admiring coverage,” Myers wrote.

He decried failure to do a probing report on how the ballpark was financed and “the implications of that financing for the city’s taxpayers.” Myers asked: “Where was the scrutiny of the Reno Aces corporation along with the bubbly, adoring ‘news coverage’? ”

Local news departments have become PR firms, totally ignoring the Pulitzer dictum that a newspaper should have no friends.

The G-J, rapidly decending from a subpar newspaper to a bad one, is now carrying a special section called “Good News.” The very nature of so much news is bad.

The media do regularly run good news. It was good news that the Las Vegas Sun won a Pulitzer Prize last month for public service. The Sun was honored for articles describing lack of construction safety regulations leading to high death tolls. The jurors saluted the courageous reporting of Alexandra Berzon.
It was precisely what newspapers should be doing, not boosting the home town.

In hailing the award, the Las Vegas CityLife expressed the hope that Las Vegas would soon produce another Pulitzer winner. I nominate CityLife columnists Steve Sebelius and Hugh Jackson. They write the hardest-hitting, toughest public affairs journalism in Nevada.

Unfortunately, their kind of commentary is not likely to win a Pulitzer. Newpaper jurors, very much part of the Establishment, prefer safe and sound columnists, not guys like Sebelius and Jackson who tell the naked truth.

Cheering a disgrace

The oldest cry from the Right is that the media are liberal. Would it were so. After President Bush held a farewell press conference, White House reporters gave him a standing ovation.

A standing ovation is highly unprofessional for supposedly neutral journalists. Moreover, how could any reporter applaud the sordid eight-year record of 43?

Prudish New York Times

The New York Times, publishing in the 21st century but with 19th century prudishness, recently ran a story about Supreme Court arguments on the use of the word “fuck” in broadcasts.

“You know the word I mean,” Adam Liptak of the Times coyly wrote.

This is 2009. Sophisticated Times readers can handle that word without blinking.
Another Establishment speaker

I have endured Scripps dinner speakers for nearly three decades at the University of Nevada, Reno, journalism school. All are Establishent to the core.

The speaker this spring was no exception. Edie Lederer, an Associated Press veteran, entertainingly described how she covered wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan. But she never gave the faintest suggestion that these wars were unjust, uttered not a word about U.S. empire-building and gave nary a hint that U.S. provocations led to the 9/11 attacks.

Just say it plain
The Associated Press reported that a basketball player had “a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn meniscus.”

Surely there is a more felicitious way of writing that so it can be understood by readers who are neither doctors nor medical students.

Paul Mitchell, journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a sports authority, learnedly explains the injury:

“The ligament acts as a stablizer for the knee (keeps it in place). The meniscus is a fleshy tissue that acts as a shock absorber.” If the parts wear out, “the athlete risks rubbing bone on bone in the knee joint.“

But, Paul, why couldn’t the AP simply say the player had a knee injury? Newspapers are written for general readers, not specialists.

Failure of moral leadership

Politicians cannot get too far ahead of their constituents. If they do, they will not get elected or re-elected. But for Men and Women of God not to be ahead of their parishioners is reprehensible.

Martin Luther King is a sterling example of a church leader who led the nation into paths of righteousness on race. In contrast, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a lame follower. He will not lead his Anglican flock to higher moral ground on gays and lesbians.

Williams refused to invite U.S. Bishop Gene Robinson to the 2008 Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade meeting of bishops in the Anglican communion. Robinson was uninvited because he is the first openly gay Anglican bishop.

Paul Elie pointed out in a profile of Williams in the March issue of Atlantic that “the prohibitions against homosexuality are theologically unsound.” Strictures against homosexuals in Genesis and in the letters of Paul are un-Christian. So are church teachings insisting that the only place for sex is within orthodox marriage and that the purpose of sex is to bear children.

Williams is an accommodationist. He does not want to alienate those conservatives who oppose gay and lesbian clergy and who find gay marriage abhorrent. On the other hand, he does not want to lose progressives who espouse the Christian viewpoint.
Williams’ via media is to abdicate leadership on the supreme church moral crisis of the day.
The middle way is a cowardly way. Williams has traded truth for unity. He has failed to fulfill the hope he stirred in many of the 80 million Anglican-Episcopal adherents when he was elevated to archbishop in 2002.

Fluoride bill doomed to die

A fluroide bill has been tossed into the legislative hopper in Carson City for decades. For decades it has been defeated. So often state lawmakers don’t know what is good for their constituents.

Backers of a new bill to fluoridate Washoe County water rightly declare that fluoridation will improve dental health.

But foes say it is unnecessary and too expensive. They say fluoride is a toxic chemical. They probably think fluoridation is a death-dealing plot by al-Qaida.

Sparks Councilman Mike Carrigan, chairman of the Truckee Meadows Water Authority board, takes the fatuous position that the people have voted it down so the TMWA should also oppose the plan.

Such thinking is endorsement of tyranny of the majority. Yes, the majority rules in a democracy. But the voters often are not smart. They often oppose their best interests and the best interests of society. If form holds, the people will “win” again.

Lucky teachers

Teaching is a privilege. With that privilege goes a huge responsibility. Teachers can have a great influence on young people.

Teaching at the University of Nevada, Reno, J school, I try to do more than instruct students in the skills of journalism. I try to instill a lifelong reverence for learning, the Baconian idea of taking all knowledge to be their province.

I stress love of ideas and the play of the mind. I hope to open minds that might never have opened.

I encourage student cultural enrichment, to love literature, classical music, art, great films and theater. And I stress the importance of constant reading, books both literary classics and books on the major issues of the day.

I read students the challenging lines from Whitman: “He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own, / He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”

Glad to be alive

Sometimes we pause to realize how fortunate we are to be alive. Such a moment occurred recently when I looked out my office window at UNR.

Above, in a crystal blue sky, I saw a red-tailed hawk, soaring and turning, with striking black wing tips and white underwings gleaming in the sun. What a wonderful sight!

Later, while listening to the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast on WCPE in Chicago over the Internet, I heard the meditation theme from Massenet’s “Thaïs.”

Beautiful. Then I heard several reprises of that lovely theme. How bereft would we be without music.

It us a sad commentary on the campus radio station, KUNR, that I must listen to the glories of opera on an out-of-town station. I have listened, enjoyed and cried over Met performances on KUNR for decades. But the Philistines there now bury the Met at 9 p.m. Sundays.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Progressive: 100 years for justice

Much of the history of the United States in the past century has been told by The Progressive. It pages resonate with some of the greatest leftist writers and reformers in American history.

That honor roll includes Philip Berrigan and Louis Brandeis, Theodore Dreiser and Martin Luther King, Norman Thomas and Ralph Nader, Helen Keller and Jane Addam, Hugo Black and Bill Douglas, Sinclair Lewis and Upon Sinclair, and Noam Chomsky and Edward Said.

Those names glorify the 100th anniversary issue of Progressive published this month. The magazine was founded in 1909 by Fighting Bob La Follette, great progressive senator from Wisconsin.

The anniversary will be marked by a conference in Madison, Wis., May 1 and 2. The lineup of speakers includes Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Klein, Katha Pollitt and Katrina vanden Heuvel, Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinich, Jim Hightower and Robert McChesney, Amy Goodman and Howard Zinn, and George McGovern and Russ Feingold.

Matt Rothschild, Progressive editor, lists its main causes: championing civil liberties, combating corporate power, opposing war and empire and fighting for women’s rights and civil rights, human rights and labor rights.

Rothschild, in his anniverary issue column, writes sadly of unfulfilled goals that Progressive battled for.

“It is disconcerting to read about the need for universal health care by Jane Addams in 1909,” Rothschild writes. “It is eerie to stumble on an article demanding an end of the corrupting influence of money in politics from 1909. It is frustrating to read article after article against the death penalty, starting with Tolstoy’s in 1910.”

Some of the significant issues Progressive fought for over the past century:

Sen. George Norris in 1922 called for abolition of the Electoral College. (It still exists as a mockery of democracy.)

La Follette in 1927 deplored the armed invasion of Nicaragua. “The inevitable result of this harsh, bullying and unjustifiable action is to set the nations of South and Central America against us.”

La Follette in 1942 ridiculed Churchill, that Great Reactionary, for refusing to “preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Norman Thomas in 1946 lamented that 3,200 Americans were jailed for the “crime” of conscientious objection to war.
Philip Randolph in 1948 flayed Jim Crow as an “unmitigated evil” and pointed out the absurdity of a segregated army. Douglas decried the Red Scare in 1952. “Character assassinations have become common...Fear runs rampant.”

In 1949 Stuart Chase declared that Hiroshima was unnecessary, citing a study predicting that Japan would probably surrender in 1945. “The 80,000 children, women and men slaughtered at Hiroshima would thus be alive today if the men who dropped the bomb” had listened to the study group (Foreign Morale Analysis Division).

Martin Luther King in 1960 lauded Southern black college students for their sit-ins at lunch counters while facing “hoodlums, police guns, tear gas and jail sentences.”

In 1963 King wrote that moving classic, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He excoriated the “vicious lynch mobs” and “hate-filled policemen” who “curse, kick, brutalize and even kill.” He denounced white and colored signs in the South. He noted the indignity of being called “nigger” or “boy,” left with “a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness.’ ”

Wayne Morse in 1964 pilloried the U.S. role in Vietnam. “We are pursuing neither law nor peace in Southeast Asia. We are not even pursing freedom.” (America, having learned nothing from history, is doing likewise today in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Noam Chomsky in 1982 deplored the fact that Washington “continues to underwrite Israeli encroachment into the occupied territories.” He denounced the U.S. commitment “to an Israeli Sparta as a ‘strategic asset’ that frustrates the international consensus on a political settlement.” (Nothing changes. Israeli horrors continue with American backing.)

Robert Fisk in 1999 denounced NATO folly in the Balkins, breaking “international law in attacking a sovereign nation without seeking a U.N. mandate and killing “hundreds of innocent Serb civilians.”

Bernie Sanders wrote in 2004 of the yawning gap between the rich and the poor. He called unacceptable that “the 13,000 wealthiest families in this country earn more income than the bottom 20 million families.”

Howard Zinn in 2005 deplored the scourge of nationalism, calling it “one of the great evils of our time, along with racism and religious hatred.”

Alas, America rarely listens to The Progressive and its prophets. Prophets like McGovern who wrote in 1973: “America can accomplish far more by the power of example than by the power of bombing.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Unfeeling GOP, sappy Tuesdays

“This Land Is Their Land.” By Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books, 235 pp., 2008).

Any sensitive soul who reads this book will never vote Republican again. But perhaps that is an oxymoron. No Republican is sensitive.

“The Republicans’ most reliable trick, distraction, is beginning to wear thin,” Ehrenreich writes. “Distraction was the way to get people to vote against their own economic self-interest…The real threats to well-being, people were told, are abortionists, stem cell researchers and matrimonially minded gays.”

She enumerates many of the sins of capitalism: privatizing and profiteering, taking away workers’ pensions and benefits, downsizing workforces, refusing to insure those who might ever make a claim, falsifying records to avoid paying overtime, using child labor and Veblen’s conspicuous consumption.

She deplores “the upward distribution of wealth” built on the low-wage labor of the poor.” She cites the despicable Wal-Mart, “a union-busting, low-wage retail empire” with a $65 billion family fortune.

Ehrenreich rightly decries the fact that health insurance companies are running businesses, “the purpose of which is not to make people healthy but to make money.” They are doing that exceedingly well.

One rebarbative physician, Dr. Prem Reddy, owns eight hospitals in southern California so he naturally disdains the medical needs of the poor. He says patients “may simply deserve only the amount of care they can afford.” He “dismisses as ‘an entitlement mentality’ the idea that everyone should be getting the same high quality care.”

Indeed, Ehrenreich correctly writes that “economic issues are moral issues. Poverty is a moral issue. Forty-seven million Americans without health insurance is a moral issue.”

America remains an immoral nation while so many of its citizens mutter about God and are “noisely committed to Christian values.”

“Tuesdays with Morrie.” By Mitch Albom (Broadway Books, republished with an afterword, 199 pp., 2007).

I have read tons of books over the course of my long life but I do not believe I have ever read a worse book.

The hero, Professor Morrie Schwartz, is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Death is no laughing matter. But the book grows so wearisome that you wonder if Schwartz is worth venerating.

Moreover, you begin to think that Albom, a sports columnist at the Detroit Free Press, has a third-rate mind. (Schwartz was Albom’s professor at Brandeis.)

The author never makes a contradictory point, never even questions “the Great Man’s wisdom.” He is an excellent stenographer.

Originally published in 1997, the book was “a runaway best seller.” It was proclaimed a book that “touched millions of lives.” Well, if the masses applaud it must be bad.

The book is syrupy, sappy and cloying. It belabors the obvious, offers nonsense and repeats that nonsense.

Some of the nonsense uttered by Schwartz: “No one really believes they’re going to die.” Untrue. Schwartz says men are not supposed to cry. Untrue.

“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” Please. If you don’t learn how to live until you are dying, you have wasted your life. “Love always wins.” Not when a loved one dies.

Schwartz, who couldn’t understand why labor disputes aren’t settled by communication, revealed a woeful lack of understanding that working people cannot communicate with money-mad fiends. Even Albom doesn’t realize that scabs are a subhuman species.

Schwartz talks about the fear of aging. No one fears aging. Aging people just lament that their vigor is fading.

Schwartz on God: “This is too harmonious, grand and overwhelming a universe to believe it’s all an accident.” The professor knew little history and nothing about the world and human nature. Reincarnation? The professor said it was possible.

He says it’s a wonderful thing to see his “body slowly wilt away to nothing” because it gives him long goodbyes. Oh, for a Dylan Thomas to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Why did I persist in reading such a wretched book? Because it was recommended to me by a former student and longtime friend.

The reason he was so enthusiastic about the book was that it made him realize that his frantic 15-hour-a-day pursuit of money was a terrible mistake.

One other truth in the book is a quote from Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops.”

But overall, “Morrie” is merely one of those self-help, feel-good books. It is not fetching but retching.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Bile for rich, love for nature

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Rich Boy”

INDIAN WELLS, Calif.--This is a column that you hope a friend never hears about from another friend who runs across my blog. The reason is simple: it is biting a generous hand.

My wife and I recently vacationed in Indian Wells, staying with an old family friend. Call her Dorabella. She is one of the finest people I have ever ever known: ebullient, politically savvy, a rabid liberal Democrat, the epitome of the happy warrior.

My problem is that Dorabella lives in a gated community. Let me hasten to point out that she is not rich. The reason she can afford this lavish place is that she owned a home near the beach in Southern California for four decades.

She sold that valuable property three years ago, moving here in the Coachella Valley desert. As they say in the real estate business: “location, location, location.”

The name of Dorabella’s community name speaks volumes: Dorado Villas. It is a complex of 10 condominium areas each with its own swimming pool, hot tub and tennis court.

The complexes are surrounded by date palms. The lawns are as carefully manicured as the magnificent Masters golf course in Augusta, Ga. The silence is often eerie, broken only by lawn mowers, airplanes and the twittering of mockingbirds.

The owner of one villa near Dorabella lives there just one week a year. A nearby gated community may be the poshest in America. Bill Gates owns a home there so he can play golf without being bothered by the hoi polloi.

I cannot help detesting such wealth. I have always resented the rich and their huge houses. It seems grossly unfair that they should have it so cushy while so many people struggle to make ends meet.

Gated communities, offensive from the perspective of this once poor kid, reveal such an enormous gap between the Haves and Have Nots. They symbolize the class warfare launched by President Reagan, polished by President Bush II and abetted by soulless Republicans and Democrats who betray their class.

Not even the Democrats have the cojones to note that class war is rampant in America. But The Nation as usual tells the truth: “Concentrations of wealth in America approach Gilded Age levels…America has become a nation of Wal-Mart wages for the many and private jets for the few.”

Giving our hearts away

“The world is too much with us; late and soon, /

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: /

Little we see in Nature that is ours; /

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”


This desert country is paradise for the nature lover, a heaven-on-earth I all too seldom visit. So it is particularly wonderful to commune with nature, to roam the Great Outdoors

In the surrounding Mojave Desert, we visited Joshua Tree National Park, home of the twisted, spike-leafed Joshua.

In the park is Keys View (5,458 feet) with a fine view of the San Andreas Fault--or it has if there is no smog. The fault, the ever sliding boundary between the Pacific and the North American plates, runs from near the Mexican border to northern California.

Mormon pioneers are said to have called them Joshuas because they seemed like the Old Testament prophet, Joshua, waving them toward the promised land.

On another day we drove to the nearby Living Desert park in Palm Desert. The first stop is mandatory: a butterfly cage. The beautiful creatures are so unhurried. Watching them is like the restfulness of seeing fish in a tank. Hummingbirds grace the cage, their reds, purples and greens gleaming in the sunlight.

One day I drove to the Salton Sea, an inland body of saline water south of Indian Wells. The shoreline of the lake, 226 feet below sea level, teems with gulls, pelicans, grebes and stilts.

Nothing new to add to my life list. But it is ever fascinating to watch an egret hunt. The bird stands stock still for a long time then darts its spear bill at prey.

The biggest birding delight of the vacation was to watch a roadrunner scurry across Dorabella’s lawn. Once it carried a twig to its nest in a lime, pausing below the tree, its tail alternately touching the ground and slowly rising above its back.

No wonder the roadrunner is a comic favorite in the American Southwest, delighting birders and nonbirders alike.