Friday, August 18, 2017

The President of Fake News

MMU series logo
During a press conference this week, the embattled president answered a query from a CNN reporter by asserting: “You’re fake news.”

Fake news—it’s not a term The Donald invented. According to a dictionary reference cited by the Huffington Post, the term fake news became popular late in the 19th century—which is not exactly a shock. That was a time of yellow journalism, of sensationalism in the news media, and some writers  then decried the trend and hoped the public would grow weary of the hype—of the false narratives, of the fake news.

The Telegraph, a national newspaper in Great Britain, posted an interesting analysis of the roots of the term fake news and its use by Donald Trump. I’m exploring the term “fake news,” its modern use and origins, as part of a presentation I’ll do in early September at Mount Mercy University. This year’s Fall Faculty Series is about our current era of divided politics. Entitled “Divided We Fall: Finding Common Ground in a Fractured Age,” the whole series seems suddenly more relevant.

The idea of a fall series itself is relatively young—the first one took place in fall 2014 and covered the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Since then, each fall the faculty at MMU has presented a series of public lectures by MMU professors and guest speakers on various big topics. We covered the legacy of the Vietnam War in 2015 and the debate over immigration in 2016.

I coordinated those first three series. Now, the series is under the leadership of Dr. Joy Ochs, professor of English and immediate past chair of the faculty. So this year, I get to watch rather than getting caught up in all of the details of putting on the series. That’s good news, not fake news, to me

On Sept. 7, I am taking on the topic “Fake News and the Free Press,” a rumination that will cover the president’s use of that pejorative term vs the traditional role of the press as a vital part of our democracy.

I am looking forward to this fall’s faculty series. I hope you’ll come hear me try to illuminate and explore the idea of fake news and what it means, and that you’ll also come to our many other speakers. We’re covering important topics that need to be talked about in our country now.

No faking.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Make Me A Robot—Amelia 2.0 is Compelling Movie

Art used on movie poster, from Facebook page for the movie.

“Make me a robot, take, take my soul.” Tessa Violet.

I had hoped to go to the premiere of the movie “Amelia 2.0” at Collins Road Theater, but did not make it. But I did see the film Aug. 10, when my wife and I attended the 4:50 p.m. show.

At the showing, there was a fairly small audience, and that seems a bit of a shame. “Amelia 2.0” is a well done, compelling movie the raises life and death questions. From a play produced in Cedar Rapids called “The Summerland Project,” “Amelia 2.0” tells the story of Amelia Summerland, a woman who dies of a brain aneurysm. But as she slips away in a coma, a high tech corporation, with HQ in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, makes Amelia’s husband an offer.

Sign a nondisclosure form and medical release, and we’ll scan your wife’s brain into a robot.

That’s the vehicle for the movie to explore basic questions. What does it mean to be human? If thoughts of a human brain could be mechanically reproduced, would the machine have a soul? If you could preserve the consciousness of a loved one in a robot, would you?

The answers are neither simple nor straightforward, and different characters in the movie are allowed to react in different ways. For example, there is a conservative senator from Iowa who leads a crusade against the project—but he’s not an evil character at all. He has decent motivations, and his own mortality is an important plot point. One of the scientists working on the project basically falls in love with Amelia, even though he helped create her as a robot. Her husband ends up not being to accept that she’s human, while one of her creators develops feelings for her as if she were.

And maybe she is. The movie steers away from presenting a final answer. It’s the same question posed by Robert Heinlein in what I think of as his best book, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” If a machine can think and feel emotions, is there a point where it’s no longer a machine?

Given the nature of the “Amelia 2.0” story, it seemed inevitable to me that the project would go wrong. Frankenstein didn’t exactly have a happy ending. This movie is a tragedy in a classic Shakespearean sense.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so. And I hope the popularity of the movie will spread. I hope future showings at Collins Road will be packed. You’ll see some familiar faces—the movie stars some actors that have been in major films—and it’s nice that local actor Angela Billman moved from the play “The Sutherland Project” to play Amelia is “Amelia 2.0.” The Gazette reviewer enjoyed this film, too.

It was also fun to Cedar Rapids on the big screen. There was a movie of that title (“Cedar Rapids”) several years ago that was cringe worthy, and seeing the city in a movie of more depth was nice. The cameo by Mercy Medical Center and the Cedar Rapids Public Library as key locations was fun to watch. And I did like the embedded plug for TCR.

But I would have liked the movie, I think, if it had been filmed in Madison, Wisconsin, or Austin, Texas. As a narrative, it holds together well and provokes many reactions. Don’t go thinking that you’ll see a light comedy. Do go, expecting to see a compelling story.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Thanks for the family memories, Harry Potter

Image from Wikipedia.
I am a little late to the party, but here’s to 20 years of Harry Potter.

We were living in a tiny town in western Iowa when the novels started coming out. I am not sure how or why we heard of the series, and my wife says she bought the first and second books at the same time, but the novels quickly became a family affair. My wife and I and our kids all read them—indeed, the first few were read aloud to children too young to read them for themselves (or, perhaps, just wanting to hear them read even if they had already read them).

And we bought into the whole hoopla that started to spring up when new installments were published. While we never stayed up overnight in a book line, it always was a bit of a saga to locate the latest installment as soon as possible.

For one of the books, my wife was working second shift as a hospital nurse, and stopped at an all-night grocery store after work. The store was already stocking for the next day—release day—and put out a display of the new Harry Potter book, which my wife purchased two copies of.

The next morning, the kids were very excited that we already had the book.

There developed a bit of a family system for Harry Potter. My oldest daughter and son were “first readers” because they read relatively quickly. My son sometimes would stay up all night and devour a HP book in one massive read fest.

I was always at the back of the line—I am a writer and a reader, but I read like I ride a bicycle. I enjoy it and do it a lot, but I do it slowly.

The series was to our family what baseball was to the father and son in “Field of Dreams.” It was something that united us across generations, a shared cultural experience that was exciting to all of us.

I respect the series on several levels. For one thing, an enduring theme of the Harry Potter universe is that it’s not usually your nature that makes you good or evil, but rather it’s the choices that you make.

The series is responsible for many happy memories for me and my family. Cuddling up together in the evening as a family to hear JK Rowling’s stories is one. There was also the sharing and discussion of the latest book—and the thrill of secret conversations that have to be carefully gauged until, finally, dad read the darn thing.

During one Freedom Fest in Cedar Rapids, my youngest son and I (we must have been at the end of the line) were photographed by “The Gazette” as we awaited a fireworks display at Kirkwood Community College. We were reclining together on a blanket, reading one of later installments of the series.

Harry Potter! To me, you are always first and foremost a book series. It would be sad to know you only via the movies, and I’m glad you were there as I was raising a family of readers. For almost a decade, the hoopla around your books helped make reading cool. That wasn’t so important to my bookish brood, who enjoyed many other books, too—but still.

You were the boy who lived in our imaginations, on the pages we read and as part of our family experience.

So thank you, JK. This muggle is glad that you shared your imaginary world with us. Twenty years—hard to imagine it has been that long.

July 4 addition: After I posted this, my youngest daughter found a copy of the photo from the Gazette. I was (based on the book I was reading) published in 2003:

The son in the foreground is now in his mid-20s and getting a PhD at ISU. Three of my other children are also in the image. The son in the picture looks like an older version of his youngest nephew (and also his oldest nephew). Come to think of it, a bit like older versions of his other nephews, too.

Friday, May 26, 2017

And Another Reporter "Badgers" A Politician

I don’t know what will happen to assault charges against Greg Gianforte, who was elected to the U.S. House in a special vote Thursday despite body slamming reporter Ben Jacobs of “The Guardian” on Wednesday, but the case is yet another sign of the sorry state of democracy in America today.

We like to think we’re a free people in a free country. Sadly, today, we’re wrong.

Violent thugs are attacking journalists merely for being journalists. A conservative Republican in Montana body slams a reporter for asking about the impact of a Republican health care plan This week, I wrote my media column for The Corridor Business Journal on a related topic—taking my House Rep., Rod Blum, to task for walking out on a TV reporter, after claiming that the reporter was “just going to sit there and badger me.”

And the badger language came back in Montana. If a reporter asks a question, then they “badger,” and, apparently, it’s OK to physically attack badgers.

This is not a reporter. And reporters are not this.

This new violent ugliness is dangerous to democracy in its basic sense. It represents a particular and troubling attempt by the right wing of American politics to strong arm the news media.

Now, I don’t think all Republicans are ready to resort to the kind of thuggish behavior exhibited by Greg Gianforte. Frankly, even Greg Gianforte doesn’t want that behavior. While his campaign regrettably tried to attack the reporter’s version of the story, even though it had been supported by others who were there, Gianforte himself at least had the class to apologize directly to the reporter in his victory speech.

His victory speech—that’s right, in America today you can attack a journalists and win an election in Montana.

Watch the video of Gianforte’s apology. The scary part is that even as Gianforte apologizes, his supporters are riled up and seem ready for a rematch. There’s a real “go punch another reporter” spirit in the air.

The reporter, Ben Jacobs, doesn’t go along with those who blame President Trump for this climate—he notes in a video posted by the Guardian that he covered the Trump campaign for 18 months and was never threatened by the candidate. But Trump’s clear labeling of journalists as “enemies of the people” has real consequences that we are seeing unfold.

Now, if you’re on the right, you might note that conservatives haven’t always had it easy, either. University thugs have refused to allow conservative speakers on some campuses—mostly notable, Ann Coulter recently at UC Berkeley. And I would agree that what happened at UC Berkeley should not have happened. Ann Coulter is a pretty loathsome human being and has said some pretty near fascist things—but her voice should not be silenced.

There are some key differences between these cases, however. It’s one thing for a conservative pundit to be prevented from speaking by unruly college students or community activists. It’s quite another for a middle-aged adult who is just about to be elected to Congress to body slam a reporter.

I don’t like the threats that keep Coulter away from UC Berkley, and I do see them as part of the thread of cultural intolerance that bedevils both the political left and political right in this country.

Loud and clear: I want the freedom to say what I want to say. You should be able to, too, even if you’re in visceral and total disagreement with what I say. But we should agree together that we should both be free to disagree.

I say enough of the shoving and shouting. Let us each have our say.

But most of all, Mr. President and others on the right: No more rhetorical or physical threats of violence on reporters, please. That’s authoritarian thuggery. That’s getting to Brown Shirt levels of discourse.

If you run for public office—at any level—in this democracy, you should expect, and respond to, questions from all kinds of reporters. It’s a basic obligation you have to talk with people and with the media. Communicating without violence is the least we can expect from our public servants.

The First Amendment exists not to protect politicians from questions, it exists more to protect the questioners. The scary crowd at Greg Gianforte’s victory party is deeply anti-American.

Not a Republican flag. Nor a Democratic one. It's for us all, as is First Amendment freedoms.
Image I shot on my front porch. Someone flies a flag there.
The new slogan of “The Washington Post” is “democracy dies in darkness.” Sadly, in America today, it’s us, our people, who are throwing shade by threatening, and going beyond threats, to attack journalists.

Mr. Trump, it wasn’t a “great victory” in Montana. Not for democracy.

It feels more like the start of a whimpering end to the American democratic experiment.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Bill: Sorry I’m Not Sorry

Photo credit: By Justin Hoch, CC BY 2.0,
Bill O’Reilly is gone from Fox, but probably not gone from our public discourse. My reaction is summed up by the title of my favorite Tessa Violet song: “Sorry I’m Not Sorry.”

O’Reilly was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment at the locker room men’s network known as Fox News. And advertisers didn’t like being associated with a tainted Papa Bear, so they pulled the plug.

I am not sorry to see him go. But, with a multi-million-dollar severance payment and plenty of access to the internet, I don’t think he’s really gone. And I think the O’Reilly case has multiple levels to it.

It was simply a business decision for Fox. His firing wasn’t for any of his misconduct, but because advertisers didn’t want to be on his show—and there is a problem there. O’Reilly worked for the cable news network that was founded with an ideological mission. It was part of an alternative media system that isn’t based on reporting news, but rather on promoting a particular world view.

YouTube Thumbnail.
As Hank the Vlog brother says, it’s cheaper to have nattering heads paid to have different points of view than to engage in serious journalism, and O’Reilly’s huge cable audience was symptomatic of a public shift away from rational, fact-based journalism.

O’Reilly may be gone from Fox. But the alt-right media universe that Fox helped create and that O’Reilly was a star of has morphed into something dangerous, and his being fired doesn’t really change that.

Two commentators that I like and read in my local paper, Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald and Mary Sanchez of the Kansas City Star had interesting columns on O’Reilly’s Fox departure. They have different reactions, although I find myself agreeing with both. Sanchez, I think, makes an important point: the male sense of entitlement that helped create the O’Reilly affair is not gone.

Kudos to Emily Steele of the “New York Times,” whose stories helped bring Bill down. She was threatened by Papa Bear back in 2015 but kept going. We owe her a debt because she didn’t back down.

And we ought to thank her because she is part of the old school news media that actually tries to report the news. Unlike Fox.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Horray and Boo: Iowa Wins a Pulitzer

From prize.
Well, it’s a great day to be a journalism professor in Iowa. It’s not every day someone wins a Pulitzer Prize and I get to say: “Hey, I know that guy.”

I lived in Early Iowa, a small town 15 miles south of Storm Lake, in the 1990s. I can’t honestly say I subscribed to The Storm Lake Times for all of those years—but for much of my residency there, I was a Times reader.

And now Art Cullen, the Iowa newspaper editor most likely to be mistaken for Mark Twain, has won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for editorial writing. Bravo.

A journalist's mission to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Cullen wrote his prize-winning editorials about the lawsuit between the Des Moines Water Works and agricultural counties, including Buena Vista in northwest Iowa, that pollute the Des Moines River, the source of drinking water for Iowa’s largest urban area, due to the county's agricultural runoff.

Cullen spoke with the Sioux City Journal about the importance of small-town journalism in a video report that I hope you will watch.

The Des Moines Register made a video of its own, too—but despite being flashier, it lacks something without Art speaking in it.

From the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, Art or Mark.
Photo by Allison Bradley for

I stated before that Art Cullen looks a little like Mark Twain. He’s like Twain in a bit more than looks. Twain was, in his time, an acerbic critic of social norms. Recall the prayer he wrote in 1905 ("The War Prayer") that was a harsh satire of war prayers in general. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking of Twain as a warm, fuzzy storyteller—when in fact he was a clear-eyed curmudgeon, and could be sarcastic.

Cullen doesn’t mince words, either. See his editorials. As he noted, anybody with a nose knows there’s something wrong with water in Iowa. And Cullen is a fierce progressive voice in the extreme conservative King country of western Iowa.

The Storm Lake Times is a family business. In news accounts of the Pulitzer Prize, Art Cullen credits his son Tom Cullen as a co-winner of the prize because the son’s reporting fueled the father's editorials. Art Cullen also says his brother John Cullen, who founded the Times, taught Art Cullen to write.

Well, congratulations Art Cullen. You proved that good, clear, strong writing can come from a newspaper of any size, and you did something that should make Iowans proud.

But even as we celebrate, we need to recall hard realities.

The Iowa legislature is controlled by a virulently conservative Republican party. Terry Branstad is still governor, soon to be replaced by his GOP Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. Donald Trump recenlty appointed an EPA chief who in the past has sued the EPA, and Trump's administration shows no taste for environmental regulation.

The only power that can change the rules to stop the pollution that caused the dust up that led to a Pulitzer Prize is government—and right now, government doesn’t seem to care much about pollution.

Yes, I know, Governor Branstad made a halfhearted try last year to fund an inadequate plan to reduce water pollution, but it was killed by his own party. Rights now, Republicans at the state and federal level are in no mood to tackle any pollution, whether the result is dirty water or global warming.

The big story that the Cullens have been telling is not that a Des Moines water utility sued Buena Vista County. Nor even who paid for the county to defend itself.

After all, that lawsuit has already been dismissed.

No, the big story is that nitrates are still today leaking into Iowa water, poisoning not just Des Moines but also small towns. And a dead zone grows in the Gulf of Mexico as chemicals from Iowa farm fields make their way downstream.

In recent decades, farming as an industry has changed in ways that are not sustainable nor compatible with our collective health and well-being. And, while we can wag our fingers at farmers, they are, for the most part, just a part of a giant system whose rules they don’t set and whose trends push them to this style of fertilizer-intense farming. And farmers are facing tough economic times. Farm incomes have been hit hard as commodity prices fall—and as nitrogen is pumped into the soil, as the waters grow poisoned, and as Iowa slowly turns foul and unhealthy.

As Cullen noted, anybody with eyes and a nose knows.

That’s a big story. It’s not a pleasant one. We need brave journalists like Art Cullen to continue to tell it, even when we don’t want to hear it.

Congratulations to the Cullen clan on being recognized for their good journalism. And please get back to work.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

What Makes a Good Photo?

My favorites of my photos in the contest--San Francisco Public Library stairs (above), mural in Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, below.

The contest is now closed, and the winner is Audrey Sheller.

When my wife and I visited San Francisco over spring break, she, our oldest son and I decided to have a little fun with photos. We would each pick 10 pictures shot during the week, which would be anonymously posted in the same gallery on Facebook.

Then, we would invite our family and friends to “vote” via Facebook reactions (2 points for love, 1 for any other reaction, 1 for any mention in a comment). You can look and like all you want now, although the voting for the contest is over.

We would have two winners: The one who shot the best overall picture, and the one whose set of 10 scored the highest.

Audrey Sheller won them both. In fact, she had the two first place photos (a tie between a Waldo Street sign and a door with googly eyes) and the next place image, a rainbow flag.

The winners--door with eyes (above) and Waldo Street (below).

The winners earned 10 points, the next place (second or third—two images finished higher, but it had the second-highest score) had 9 points.

Two of my son’s images scored 7 points each.  My highest score was a 6.

The overall point race winner is not a huge surprise. Audrey Sheller was first with 59, next came Jon Sheller with 46 and finally, me with 35.

A crowd favorite, 9 point winner. Rainbow flag from Castro District.
I don’t feel terrible at the results. The “jury” was not professional photographers, and it’s clear emotion played a part in the voting. The top images both feature whimsy. I do think my library stair shot is way more of a made image, but humor counts in this poll.

Here is a list of the photos in the order they appear in the gallery (they were randomly sorted before being posted), who took each, and their scores:

Tree and city hall, Joe, 6.
Clarion Alley images, Audrey, 2.
Waldo Street sign, Audrey, 10.
Golden Gate Bridge, Audrey, 4.
Googly Eye Door, Audrey, 10.
Stars, Jon, 7.
Flower, sky, building, Joe, 6.
Painted ladies full view, Audrey, 6.
Canoe in museum, Joe, 1.
Cable Car museum, Joe, 2.
Lanterns in Chinatown, Audrey, 7.
Pushing cable car, Joe, 4.
Goblen Gate Bridge from levy, Jon, 5.
Park trail, Audrey, 2.
Lombard Street, Jon, 5.
Listen to wall, Jon, 7.
White flower, Jon, 5.
Church in distance, Jon, 4.
Castro, Jon, 5.
Flowers in her hair, Joe, 5.
Sun Dial, Audrey, 2.
Blue hair on garage door, Joe, 1.
Rainbow flag, Audrey, 9.
Haight Ashbury street sign, Jon, 1.
Park stairs, Audrey, 7.
Library stairs, Joe, 6.
Duck, Jon, 3.
Painted ladies skyline closer, Joe, 3.
Cable Car machines, Joe, 1.
Downtown skyline, Jon, 4.

I stopped the count Friday and didn’t include one accidental “like” from Audrey for her own photo (it happened on an iPad, and I understand how clumsy that device is with Facebook and that an accidental like is just an errant finger tap). If a photo was specifically referenced in an overall gallery comment, that comment was awarded to that photo, by the way.

Two images by Jon--yes, the one flower image in the contest was not by me. Flower from Botanical Garden (above) and Lombard Street (below).

Here are other pictures I shot during the week we were in San Francisco. It was a fun contest. It shows, I think, how important subject choice is for photos. We did know when we were shooting that week, at least by mid-week, that the contest was going on, so I can’t fault Audrey for picking the wittiest images.

And yet, Jon and I are the ones who teach photography. Go figure.

Some under-rated images, in my opinion. I just thought the image above felt like a nature shot, even though it is the giant engines that run the cable car system.

San Francisco City Hall and a trimmed tree from plaza by City Hall.

Oh come on, world. It's got sky, flower and building. Winner!

Even our champion was a bit stumped by some of the voting. I think we all agreed this was a cool image Audrey shot in Chinatown, but it did not score very high in the contest.