Monday, December 26, 2016

What Will Media Mean in 2017?

Mainstream media took it on the chin in 2016, condemned from the right for not respecting Donald Trump and from the left for respecting Donald Trump.

It feels a bit like we’re in a fact-free social media universe, and pointing out that the emperor has no clothes or the new President has no clue is not a way to win hearts and minds these days. If anything, as a culture we’re too heart oriented anyway, with feelings easily trumping facts.

Well, I’m not sure what the New Year will bring. Frankly, it was a mystery to me that anybody ever paid any attention to Breitbart News in the wake of the 2010 Shirley Sherrod scandal. Then again, that was six years ago in another time and place, a country BT (before Trump) when quaint things called “facts” were sometimes shared and understood.

So, good riddance to 2016, year of the “fake news.” Let’s hope you were some kind of nadir, because if we’ve not hit bottom yet, I’m not sure I want to experience how low we can go. Then again, it remains to be seen what four years of a presidency dominated by an ignorant narcissist with low regard for facts and little knowledge of the First Amendment will do.

Anyway, while the national mainstream media are in full post core meltdown mode, there are changes that are important, if less momentous on the local level.

I wrote about changes in local media for my column in the Corridor Business Journal.

Since that November column, it’s been revealed that two mainstays of journalism at The Gazette are retiring—George C. Ford, a business writer; and Orlan Love, who covers the outdoors and environmental issues.

The Gazette had interesting stories about both. It’s business editor wrote this about Ford. A former metro editor wrote a very nice guest column about Love.

Monarch this summer at Cedar Lake. My photo.
Love is more prominent in my mind, although, I admit, that’s partly because I’m more of an environmentally aware gardener than a business aware person. I actually sought out Love’s stories in the local newspaper. I enjoyed his insights. Although he is a hunter and a fisher—two things I am not—as a gardener and bicyclist, I still enjoyed his outdoor adventures.

This year, I wanted to start an effort to plant milkweed at the university where I teach. Nothing has come of that effort yet, but I plan to pursue it next year. Anyway, I wrote about the idea on my gardening blog, and referenced a story by Love in that post.

Love received what seems to me to be one of the most meaningful legacies a reporter could hope for. A donor in summer announced that a $200,000 donation will be made to create a pollinator habitat in his honor, as reported in this Gazette story. It's not exactly a Pulitzer Prize, but still--it's an entirely appropriate ongoing remembrance of an important local writer.

So, there have been a number of media changes in 2016. I hope that 2017 doesn’t stack up to be too similar a year. Journalists have a duty to try to persevere through adversity and to serve the truth. These are not easy times for that effort. But may it carry on.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Bring a Hankie for These Blog Posts

That's a big hankie. My picture from 2010--was it really 6 years ago? Mount Mercy College had just become Mount Mercy University. And today, I'm pretty proud of my MMU writing students. Keep your blogs going, students ....

OK, that headline is a bit tongue in cheek, but still …

There are several writing classes that I teach at Mount Mercy University were I require students to maintain personal, public blogs. It’s partly because these are classes that attempt to teach professional writing skills, and professional writers need to be used to the idea that their writing is public performance. Of course, the downside of blogging is that it doesn’t teach another key point—that if you are a professional writer, you have a right to be paid for your work, but that’s a rant for another place and time, especially since I’m writing this as a blog post for free.

The blog assignment also serves to introduce students to the genre of blog writing. Doing multiple types of writing in different voices and genres is something media pros must be comfortable with—and, these days, students have to get used to thinking about their personal online “face” or media “brand”  to the world, too.

Anyway, I’ve given this assignment for several years. Many semesters, it feels like students resist and resent the blog assignment. It seems to be that something  different happened this semester.

I don’t’ know if the students who started personal blogs plan to continue them, although I hope they do. I check the blogs on a two-week rotation, and I just finished a two-week cycle.

And, well, wow. There is lots of good writing here. Writing that shows my students have the chops to be media communication pros if they keep at it. And writing that stands on its own, that’s just good to read.

Here are some examples of what was a very good recent cycle of blog writing:
  • If had fairy dust: “Race: The Factor.” A half Black, half White student writes movingly about her racial identity and what it means. “Almost any time I meet someone, I get the famous question ‘Well what are you?’” I suppose homo sapiens is really the correct answer. To quote the font of all knowledge (Wikipedia): “Homo sapiens is the binomial nomenclature for the only extant human species.” And in biological terms, it wasn’t all that long ago that all of us emigrated from Africa, a fact we sometimes seem to want to forget. Anyway, please read this post. It helped me as a middle-aged White man see the world a little bit through a different lens.
  • My life, My life, My life: “#JusticeforDanky.”  “Danky” is the nickname for an African American young man who was shot by police in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My student writes movingly on what this case means and how she honestly feels about it. It’s a sad situation that is still unfolding, and I join her in hoping it doesn’t tear our town apart.

Well, there you have two posts on the rather heavy topic of race in America. I’ve been hoping for a sports theme for the next Fall Faculty Series, but maybe race needs more attention now in a semester-long conversation.

And, as they say in only the best quality “as seen on TV” ads: But wait, there’s more. Race wasn’t the only topic that prompted deep thoughts and good writing on recent student blog posts:
  • IowaMatt: “Transcending Baseball.” I’m not personally a baseball fan, but I like his insight into the World Series this year from the point of view of a Cubs fan. Sure, he’s happy—but he’s thinking we all need uplifting, and I think he’s right.
  • Courtney K. Snodgrass, Most days, I write: “The First Novel.” May she get to revising it so we can experience her finished product. Anyway, what does it really take to be a writer? It’s something this blogger considers.
  • One of These Snow Days: “True Heroism.” This student makes me want to see a Mel Gibson movie, which is no small feat. Then again, given that my daddy served in the ETO in WWII, I guess I’m a sucker for a WWII story.
  • Life As Kaylee Rae: “I Am Who I Am Because …” She has a positive take on small-town Iowa life, and I would want her to explore the downside, too, but if you ever wondered why people love “fly over” country, this is a good post to read. It’s only Iowa, it’s not Heaven, but there is much to love about Iowa life.

That seems like a high note to end on. There were other good blog posts in this cycle, too—interesting reviews of recent Netflix series, a track athlete’s rumination on the end of the season, a food review that made me a little hungry—but you’ll have to click the links and see what you think.

And it only seems appropriate that I promote my own blogs here, too. Check out some fall photos on my bike blog, or see my wrap-up of the 2016 Fall Faculty Series at MMU on my general blog.

I do hope that my students keep writing. They have worthwhile things to say.Check out their posts and leave them some comments--show them someone is reading!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump v Hamilton—Who Looks ‘Overrated?’

Anybody who knows me knows I’m not a fan of Donald Trump.

In fact, the president-elect has made almost uniformly abysmal choices for his new administration so far, and I’m not expecting a great four years. It took President Bush 8 years to bring the U.S. economy to the brink of collapse—I’m just hoping Trump isn’t such a “great” leader he can pull that trick off before mid-term elections, but I’m not betting.

Here’s hoping that there are no wars started during President Trump’s term.

So it may come as a surprise that I partly agree with The Donald, in that I think the cast of “Hamilton” went over a line. When Mike Pence, the vice-president-elect, attended the theater Friday night, he was a patron, a member of the audience. The play should speak for itself, and any statement a cast member or cast members wants to make should have been saved for another time—a public note to Pence thanking him for coming and expressing the fears that many Americans have, for example.

Still, the statement that was read in the theater after the play was a pretty tame affair. “We hope this show has inspired you to work on behalf of all of us.” As rude behavior goes, this was about as mild and polite as behavior can be. And it happened after the show was over, so it didn’t spoil anything for Mike Pence.

Indeed, Pence himself has been pretty mild about the kerfuffle. Not so Pence’s boss, the soon to be POTUS. He soon began unleashing his inner Tweets: “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!”

OK, I also found what the cast did mildly irritating, possibly bordering on rude, but “harassed?”

Trump was not done—in subsequent Tweets he said the theater must be a “safe and special place.” How, again, was it not safe or special? And then Trump started to give his thumbnail review, saying “Hamilton” is “overrated.” He also stated, in a Tweet that was deleted, that the cast didn’t memorize it’s lines (because Brandon Victor Dixon read the statement?).

The whole sequence of Tweets is disturbing on multiple levels. One is that I’m blogging about it, pretty much in the same news cycle when Trump settled a fraud lawsuit for $25 million (the next president of the U.S. is a shoddy, shady business person who runs fraudulent enterprises) and the other weekend dustup was the reaction to Sen. John McCain saying that torture can’t be authorized by President Trump because it’s not legal, while Pence says, however, it can.

Trump U and torture are much worse and more dangerous than being booed by a Broadway audience.

A POTUS has to recognize that many people, Broadway actors included, are going to say all kinds of things—some true, some less true, some fair, many unfair—about him or her. And that’s OK. It’s the nature of the beast. Besides freedom of speech, the First Amendment specifies we can “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Sadly, I think, given the mercurial character of the new POTUS, there will be a lot of grievances in the next four years.

When a president or president-elect wants to answer back, he or she can use the bully pulpit to make a point loudly and clearly. But Trump didn’t just call out the cast of “Hamilton,” he demanded an apology. Future POTUS, you can’t do that. Well, you can, but it makes you look churlish and small. And it makes you look like you oppose the people’s right to discuss you and your administration in open and often rough terms.

And didn’t someone send Trump the memo about what a VP is for? A VP is supposed to be the attack dog, and the POTUS is nice cop, in a normal administration. Yes, yes, I know, whatever the Trump administration will be, it certainly will be abnormal.

A CNN writer said that the “Hamilton” controversy is Trump’s “dead cat.” That is, it is a diversion from other issues. Maybe it is.

But in any case, Trump’s White House staff has a tough job: Find and hide the smart phone from the the crazy man with the orange hair—the petulant toddler who also has nuclear codes. Man. It’ll be a long four years.

That is, unless Trump manages to get himself impeached before then. Maybe he’s up to that. Communicating like a president? At that, Trump certainly is already overrated.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

So Trump Enters the Big Show, from
flckr user Gage Skidmore.
Hillary Clinton.
Compare the speeches: Clearly the one who was more presidential got the most votes.

But sadly, she didn’t win. Hillary Clinton delivered a good concession speech. She offered to aid President-elect Trump. And she avoided much of the bitter rancor that has lit up the social media universe in the wake of Tuesday’s Trump victory.

I applaud her for that. I understand the fear, anger and frustration of the many who are worried about fundamental human rights and healthcare as the Republicans are champing at the bit to repeal the Affordable Care Act and name near Neanderthals to the federal bench, and I share the sense that difficult times are ahead.

But I won’t raise my middle finger at America nor declare the electorate fatally mentally challenged. I think we—the collective we, I voted for Hillary—are in for a boatload of buyer’s remorse soon. But Clinton is right. Trump now gets to enter the world stage for the biggest act of his Reality TV career.

The depressing truth, to me, is that I think Trump treated the campaign as a Reality TV show. He Tweeted and said provocative, outrageous, misogynist, bigoted things and then denied them—just to draw attention, like a compelling but slightly evil camper on “Survivor.” He never carried much of a narrative thread—that is, he never had a coherent policy position that allowed his voters to support something of substance. And the Trump Reality TV campaign worked. American went for the “as-seen-on-TV” candidate.

The odd thing, of course, is that in fact the plurality of votes when to Hillary Clinton. More Americans chose her than chose Donald Trump, but under our odd, anachronistic electoral system, Trump won.

Trump was right. The system is rigged. And the media were part of it. He was just wrong—it was the Reality TV star who benefitted from the biases and unfairness built into the system.

Now Trump gets to try to govern. I doubt he has any idea what he’s in for. The Republicans have two years before mid-term elections to not mess it up, and I don’t have high hopes.

“I will be president for all Americans,” Trump said. After that hopeful line, the Trump victory speech was pretty terrible. He said the uniting line, his best line, in the first few seconds, but then the speech became rather like the most boring of Academy Awards acceptance speech. “I’d like to thank, Rudy Giuliani, who was always lurking in the background of my campaign like some vampire.” I may be slightly paraphrasing.
Same site, same user, Donald Trump.

The Trump speech was a missed opportunity. He gets lost in the thanks and didn’t do much to calm the fears of the national that he now will lead. There was no articulate or memorable line from the new boss of the free world. I guess I should just be glad he managed to stay on script, even if it was a bland, poor script.

Anyway, other random media-related thoughts sparked by this improbable election:
  • The walled garden is a thing. Our First Amendment was written to foster the “marketplace of ideas,” but that, sadly, is now closed and America has moved into gated idea suburbs, where we echo only the like-minded. I recognize that cutting off people from your Facebook feed who irritate you is OK—Facebook is your own personal place to be in contact with who you want; it’s a cocktail party where you don’t’ have to say in an unpleasant conversation—but the immediate instinct of some Clinton voters to shut off all contact with anybody who voted for Trump still bugs me. And many of us experience ideas and news through links that are posted on our badly named Facebook “news” feed. We, the liberals of this cold new world, are almost as bad as the conservatives in wanting to shut out the other. It’s official now. The Marketplace of Ideas is an empty Main Street with tumbleweeds, and we’re all off in our own, competing, realities. Truth doesn’t grapple with Falsehood. They both stay at their own private barbecues, no strangers invited.

  • The news media isn’t much of a thing. It’s always irritated me that we tended to misuse the word “media,” an elegant Latin plural, as a singular word anyway—and yes, I know that I did it in this point. That was deliberate. There never was one mainstream media, and with the alt-right nuts now firmly in control of the top of our politics, a reality-based media almost seems passĂ©. I don’t mean to write as if that’s a good reality—in fact, I think it’s the great tragedy of our times—but it doesn’t matter much, anymore, what facts “The New York Times” or “Washington Post” or “The Gazette” reports. We’re in a post-news, post-fact world. I don’t want to give up on journalism or journalists, and I hope we find a niche that works, but I think the harsh reality is just a lesson from this election.

  • Our democracy isn’t a democracy. One person’s vote is not equal to the vote of any other person. The system, as Trump charges, is indeed rigged; he was just dishonest about who benefited from the rigging. The GOP engineered a Gerrymander takeover of Congress in the last two Census cycles. Since Citizens United put government up for sale, voters sensed there was something wrong and wanted to toss a brick through the window. But, handing the reigns of undisputed power to the party that carefully crafted the building to its advantage doesn’t seem to me like it will lead to meaningful reform. The people have spoken, but their voices were inarticulate, muted and warped.
And, in this year of magical thinking, I’m not sure of the way forward.

Trump won’t deliver on many of his empty campaign promises, because they were fantasies from the Trump TV show to begin with. Mexico won’t pay for a wall. The wall itself won’t mean much if it is built—in 2,000 miles, there will be some weak points, and airplanes and boats will bypass it entirely. Clinton may be endlessly investigated, but she never came close to an indictable crime in many, heavily investigated, decades of public service. She won’t be locked up. American manufacturing jobs are part of a global economy that doesn’t care who POTUS is, and those jobs won’t come flowing back because The Donald orders it to be so. The rural, uneducated white voters who handed the keys of the White House to a New York billionaire are, I think, in for years of disappointments.

Well, life goes on, even if it feels like it has careened into a scary place. Yet, if the shoe were on the other foot, if Clinton’s electoral fortunes reflected her plurality because her voters had been spread out more in the states like Iowa that gets its votes magnified, I think we Clinton supporters would be rightly indignant at Trump supporters who were too quick to grab their muskets or claim it’s the end of America.

Remember when the scandal was that Trump would only accept the election results if he won? He won. He accepts the results.

So does Hillary Clinton.

We can cry, scream, rend our garments, gird our loins for the long fight, etc. But, Clinton liberals, the vote has happened. If we would have expected DJT to concede had he lost, we should be a bit consistent and accept, unhappily, that he won.

And yes, I would reform the system so that he wouldn’t’ win again under the same circumstances—we do need boatloads of election reform—but Trump’s win was “clean” in the sense that it did fit the twisted, insane rules we live under.

No, I don’t mean we have to sing “Kumbaya” or forget our deep divisions or not be on alert for the tragic coming attempts to take away fundamental rights form the vulnerable among us.

But calm down. If need be—and I think need will be—we can beat him in a landslide next time.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Did Media Fail Us? Were We Listening?

Near Bowman Woods School in my very conservative area of CR. Saw a number of these and no Trump signs on a Saturday bike ride.

There has been a lot of hand wringing about the political discourse this fall. The Gazette had a front-page story today which noted that whoever wins Tuesday, tough times are still going to be with us.

While I think The Gazette reported the story well, it was another example of false media equivalency. That is, while Hillary Clinton may not be the “perfect” candidate, the slime and goo that clog politics this year didn’t ooze from the dark side of the Clinton political machine.

It’s Trump and his minions—the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats aren’t all on his side. Just almost all of them.

Clinton plays hardball like an old school politician. Trump tosses gasoline and throws a match and burns the whole facade down—which some people enjoy, but, frankly, his “straight talk” has done and continues to do damage. He has normalized racial hatred and violence in a way that should give any thoughtful person pause.

I would hate to see what that The Donald would do with the bully pulpit. May we never find out.

Still, my political rant is over. Another aspect of this political season I don’t like is the mutual war of words between the Clinton supporters and Trump supporters. While the candidates are far from even, I think the rhetorical nuclear war of words—calling, for example, all Trump supporters woman haters or white supremacist—hasn’t been all on one side.

Sure, I’m partisan. I desperately want Hillary to win. But I know many Trump voters are most concerned with Supreme Court justice choices. And while their concern for a particular constitutional interpretation that would overthrow Roe v Wade is not something I agree with—I understand it's neither woman-hating (the most ardent abortion opponents, in my experience, are women) nor racist.

Many Trump voters aren’t deliberately voting for a fascist, they are voting for what they see as a constitutional conservative.

I get that. And I wish some on the left would tune down their own rhetoric. You can’t persuade voters in the middle by shouting at them or failing to engage with their concerns.

On a bike ride this Saturday, I took an informal “sign poll” in my neighborhood. I expected a Trump landslide because in recent weeks I’ve seen many more Trump signs than Clinton signs on my bicycle rides.

But, I was in for a surprise. I saw many Republican signs for down ballot races, but zero Trumps. I know that was an accident of my route on this particular morning—I know there are many Trump banners in my area—but it was encouraging to me to see Clinton-Kane signage instead.

Signs above and below. Above is a Democrat running for Iowa House, below are two Republicans running for statehouse posts. Neither yard featured signs for federal races, particularly the presidential contest--and that was not unusual on my ride.

I hope that’s a sign. Maybe Iowa isn’t as crazy as the polls suggest. I do want Hillary to win, because she is the only competent adult running in any party this fall. And I have some hope she would try to unite the country post election.

Donald? The world won’t end if he wins, but his damage to American democracy would be profound. The stock market would crash, there would be a big victory party in the Kremlin and the next four years would be a dangerous roller coaster ride that we just hope will end without any use of nukes.

I’d rather have a competent president who can’t do anything because of Republican obstructionists in Congress than a Republican president who can’t do anything because he can’t—he doesn’t understand the job, his role, how politics works, and he won’t listen to smart people because he’s “smarter” than them all.

Sigh. I don’t want a conservative Supreme Court, but if I did, I still don’t think it would be enough. I still could not vote for The Donald.

But, for the record, I don’t want to traduce or write off all of those who could.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Local Student Group Scores Post-Flood Headlines

Front page of MMU Times.
What did you think of the flood of 2016? What did you think of the media’s coverage of the event? How did you learn your information about the flood? What Cedar Rapids or Iowa media outlets did well or poorly in covering the story? Did you watch daily briefings live from the city of CR on social media?

I’m not asking for no reason—I’m interested in gathering information on the flood of 2016 media coverage to write about it. And I’m writing about one small aspect of that media coverage today.

It’s interesting to see how a detail of one story will sometimes grow beyond expectations. Such is the case of one point in the flood of 2016 aftermath. The Cedar Rapids flood narrative is the heroic tale of a city coming together and working shoulder-to-shoulder to save the city. It’s a cool narrative, and there is some fire behind that smoke, although it’s also true Mother Nature was kind to us in that the flood crest this fall was below expectations—in sharp contrast to the disaster of 2008 when the crest exceeded all predictions.

Anyway, the Mount Mercy University business club, Enactus, led by the Energizer Bunny, professor Dr. Nate Klein, was engaged in that sandbagging effort. And students in the club were talking about what would happen to the all the sandbags.

Post flood, the club came up with the idea of turning sandbags into commemorative handbags. And it staged several bag emptying events, which turned out to be catnip to the media. TV needs video. KCRG covered the story, twice. The story was also covered by KWWL. On Saturday, Oct. 8, The Gazette featured it on its front page.

Photo by Liz Martin of the Gazette, posted on their web site, Derick Siddell in U Center.
Audio from the KCRG story was picked up by Iowa Public Radio and run statewide on its noon news show, River to River. The story was also posted on Radio Iowa’s site, although I didn’t hear any Radio Iowa news reports on air—but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some.

Closer look at Times story.

Even the MMU Times, the student newspaper of Mount Mercy University, featured the Enactus effort on its front page.

A student, Derrick Siddell, became the sort of public face of the Enactus in this story. Nate the Great was also recorded, but most media stores found Derrick irresistible.

Well, good for you, Enactus. It’s a good thing that you’re doing. I think the media buzz is a bit out of proportion for the importance of the story, and probably reflects a hunger for more “good news” out of this potential natural disaster, but then again, I don’t fault the MMU group for that. The story brought positive media attention to the university where I teach. So, kudos.

And the Enactus sandbag saga shows that, even on a local level, an aside of a main event can sometimes take on a life of its own and become a new narrative.

What else did you observe about the media and the flood of 2016? Please comment.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Value of Video

These days we can see for ourselves. Lets roll the tape.

Except, of course, there is no “tape,” which is one of the reasons video has become so common. When you can store data in temporary digital files in a re-writable medium, well, it's cheap to do. No tape to buy or consume. Let’s click the video.

An obvious impact of this new reality is the “body camera” solution some are pushing to try to reform policing in response to recent shootings. Maybe that would help.

And there is the Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy. If you missed a program, the staff at Busse Library has been recording the programs and is posting the videos on YouTube.

Here are links to the first two programs:

Sept. 7, “We are All Immigrants” by History Professor Allison McNeese.

Sept. 13, “The First Americans” by Criminal Justice Professor Deb Brydon.

At a later series event, I shot some video myself with my Nikon SLR. It was at Tuesday night’s music program in the Chapel of Mercy—not the full program, but I hope to use some audio for a Mercy Week slide show. We’ll see—editing time is at a premium for me right now.

The Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy, "Building Walls, Building Bridges: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation" has been very successful so far. No TV coverage yet, but at least there is the library video. The next event is Sept. 29 when Mohammad Chaichian, a sociology professor, will speak about border walls, based on a book he wrote on that topic.

Please come--the events are free and public. You kind find them all here.

Anyway, while the spread of video and the capacity of almost any cell phone to record it gives us more eyes on the world, it’s important to recall that those eyes only see isolated snippets form one point of view, not necessarily a full picture.

For example, I have students that are required to attend cultural events, and one asked if she could instead just view the video. Well, no. It's not the same experience as being there. You see and hear better with your own senses, you can react and interact. So I am glad the library is recording these events, but YouTube is not yet "being there."

And video can be edited these days, so if you see it online, you still need to do a little investigating to ensure what you think you see is actually what’s there.

Still, video can be an interesting new tool. The other day I was watching a Monticello City Council meeting. I’m interested in monarch butterflies, and, promoted by a story in The Gazette about Monticello’s efforts to get a resident to remove milkweed, I’m hoping to spark some milkweed planting at Mount Mercy University, where I teach.

It was both odd and strange to be at my home office, sitting in front of a computer, on Vimeo, seeing a city council meeting in a nearby Iowa town. This will never be a high-rated show. One city council member in particular quickly got on my nerves. “So you’re not serious?” he asked the milkweed-planting resident when the council members plan to have the city plant milkweed instead of the resident wasn’t immediately accepted.

Blah. Sometimes video shows you irritating jerks you would rather not see nor hear. But maybe that is part of the value of video. I not only read about the meeting, I saw it myself.

And, for the record, a resident who has planted so much milkweed that his property is a recognized monarch migratory way stop is clearly “serious.” Sure, it would be good for the city of Monticello to plant milkweed, but why that has to be a quid pro quo to destroy a private  monarch way station is a bit beyond me.

Well. I reacted a bit emotionally to that meeting—because I saw it.

One more impact of video.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Space, the Final Frontier

Photo from the Smithsonian, where the TV model ship from the original TV series is displayed.
Man, who would have thought it? It’s been 50 years since 1966—50 years that the Starship Enterprise has been haunting our imaginations.

I am of the generation that grew up on the original Star Trek TV show. I haven’t followed all of the subsequent permutations since—I don’t know much about the newer TV shows which became popular long after my prime TV viewing years were over (I spent much more time in front of the TV as an 8-year-old boy than I ever did once I had boys and girls of my own).

And I am not exactly a “Trekkie.” I don’t worship the show. I found it enjoyable, and I did think Mr. Spock was pretty cool and I had an early boy crush on Lt. Uhura.

Smithsonian again, another view.

But the show did age in its three seasons, and got pretty bad in the final one. Even if it was entertaining, and did strive for some social commentary in the guise of science fiction, it wasn’t great literature or even great TV.

As Newton Minow said, TV in the 1960s was a vast wasteland. And he didn’t anticipate TVs expansion into cable and YouTube and Netflix, which makes it a 24-hour, 7-days a week, global mind mushing force.

Yes, I do think some TV is worth watching. But the act of watching TV is inherently mentally passive, and it’s a good idea for parents to come up with all kinds of alternatives to, and limits on, screen time if they care about their kids.

But, I digress. What can I say? I am of the TV generation, not always known for its sustained mental concentration.

Anyway, happy birthday to you, Star Trek. Your original cast is aging and passing on, but you did have a big cultural impact. At a contentious time, you represented a vision that there would be a future and that science and rational thinking might be part of it. You paved the way, in your own way, for Star Wars (which paved the way for you to become a movie franchise—media is indeed a strange world).

I do recall that Star Trek looked way cooler on a small black-and-white TV then it does today in reruns in full color. 1960s special effects featured lurid colors and awful sounds. But Star Trek was in an era long before CGI, and nobody loved it for the special effects.

Which is part of the point—at its best, Star Trek did have stories to tell. My favorite episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles” was rumination on population, development, diplomacy and witty writing.

Part of the appeal of the original show is that it touched two popular cultural currents of its time. During the late 1960s, the U.S. was deep in the space race with the USSR, and in 1966 we were closing in on the Moon. We did get there first in 1969. It 1966, the cold reaches of outer space were hot.

I think it’s a bit of a mistake that space is not still hot, by the way. If you elect me president, I promise NASA will be buried in cash. Basic science research overall would get lots of funding, and I believe it’s not a waste to shoot dollars into space—it’s a recognition that Gene Roddenberry was right. Space is the final frontier. And space helps us understand ourselves—the notion that we have to take more care of this planet is partly rooted in the “blue marble in the sky” sense that 1960s space exploration gave us—it’s a very, very big galaxy, there is no nearby other practical home for us, and  while we’re waiting to colonize any nearby rocks in the sky, we have to deal with the reality that for all of us, for almost all of the foreseeable future, there’s only one place we can live—planet Earth.

So, cultural touchstone one that Star Trek tied into is space and sense that looking out is important.

Thread two? Let us consider the ship itself, NCC 1701. Note that Captain Kirk in the opening credits pauses. “These are the voyages of the starship (pause) Enterprise.”

“Enterprise”—it's said with some oral emphasis. And that’s a name that meant something in the 1960s. Frankly, in American history, it still does.

US Navy photo: Enterprise, CV6.
The development of the aircraft carriers was partly a historic accident—the naval treaties that were settled after World War I to try to cap the runaway arms race that helped cause the war targeted the hunger the powers-that-wanted-to-be had for the giant leviathans of the sea invented by the British in 1906—the Dreadnought-class battleship and it’s smaller cousin, the battle cruiser.

In the US, some of the early aircraft carriers were built on the keels of battle cruisers that, by treaty, couldn’t be cruisers anymore. By the late 1930s, the Navy launched its sixth carrier—Enterprise. And as fate would have it, in World War II, that great American crusade, this Enterprise would play a pivotal role.

How did the World War II-era Enterprise become the “Lucky E” or “The Big E?” Why was it tied into the American WW II mythology of a mighty people waking up, discovering their power and banishing evil?

Well, consider: the escort to the Hornet that launched the Doolittle raid? Enterprise. One of two carriers that faced a task force of four Japanese carriers, and turned the whole tide of the Pacific war, at the key Battle of Midway? You know the name: Enterprise.

The Big E became the most-decorated warship in the history of the US Navy, so the word “Enterprise” was already almost holy when the ship was decommission in the late 1940s. And the myth lived on when that name was revived by the Navy in the 1950s.

One reason the U.S. Navy became and remains such a dominant global force is that the U.S. is the only country which has a large fleet of huge, fast, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Now, I know that historic legacy is decidedly a mixed bag—money spent on carriers could be spent on useful things like science and space exploration or national healthcare or other worthwhile things that the government ought to do and does not, and projection of U.S. military might into the world post World War II has often been a dicey proposition with negative and unexpected consequences.

But, in the world of the 1960s, American global power, and our ability to counter the influence of our nemesis the USSR was partly dependent on our powerful Navy. Besides nuclear powered submarines, the reach and potential punch of the U.S. Navy came from long-range, super carriers.

US Navy photo of the latest Enterprise,
eighth ship and second carrier to bear that name.
 And the first of those big jumbo nuclear carriers was CVN 65, launched in the 1950s and a mainstay of American naval might until 2012. Yeah, you already know where we are going—when launched in the late 1950s, CVN 65 was named “Enterprise.”

So the name chosen for the ship in Star Trek tied that TV show to the glorious American crusade of the 1940s—which was still very much on our minds in the 1960s—and American patriotism in the here and now. It also suggested that legacy would continue in the far future.

The world of Star Trek won’t ever exist in exactly the way it was imagined in the 1960s. Then again, "Lord of the Rings" isn’t real, either. Frankly, there is no Maycomb, Alabama, and “Alice in Wonderland” is a book of lies.

That’s true of all fiction—it reflects not reality, but a particular vision of reality. And I think sometimes that vision can give us clarity and depth that mere reality can’t. The starship Enterprise was different from the aircraft carriers Enterprise. It wasn’t part of a gritty, complex reality.

But the starship did make us think about "someday." In my opinion, we should still want to go boldly where no humans have gone before.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Immigration Series Takes Shape

Leslie, an MMU student, designed this logo--and I think she did a great job.

There is a lot of organizing left to do on the Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy University this year, but I’m pretty excited to see our third such series coming together.

The university communication and marketing office just finished the logo for the series. I hope it, and the PR push the university will do, will draw a lot of media attention to what I think is an important topic and conversation.

The logo is pretty cool. It was designed an art student named Leslie, and she did a fantastic job.

Black and white version of series logo.
The series is on a pretty hot topic, in this volatile election year. We’re going to step back from the current controversy and take a deeper look at what immigration has meant to the United States, and why.

What will the series be about?

Well, here are tittles of some of the individual presentations in the series, which begins early in September and runs through mid November:

  • The Immigration Nation Story: An Overview of our Journey History
  • The First Americans: U.S. Policy in “Indian Country”
  • Fear of an Immigrant Nation: Prejudice, Stereotyping, and Discrimination Against Immigrants in the U.S.
  • The Wall: Research and Being Detained Along the U.S.-Mexico Border.
  • When Deportation Means Death: The Church and Sanctuary
  • Our Immigration Stories: Coming to Cedar Rapids and Mount Mercy
  • The Immigration Election: How Has Immigration Become a Hot Topic and How Has it Been Discussed?
  • We are your Neighbors: The Rhetoric of the Mother Mosque
  • The Catholic Church and the Ethics of Immigration
  • The Dollars and Sense of it: What Immigration Does to our Economy

Besides faculty members speaking about these events, the series also includes author Cristina HenrĂ­quez  discussing her novel "The Book of Unknown Americans;" and a performance of "VANG," a drama about recent Hmong immigrants who are farmers. In addition, a staff and faculty group will read and discuss the book  “Empires and Walls: Globalization, Migration and Colonial Domination,” written by Dr. Mohammad Chaichian, who is also doing "The Wall" presentation during the series.

We plan to end the series with a forum that reflects back on of what we learned along the way. I hope you can join us for many of these events. They will be announced soon and listed on the MMU web site.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Iowa State Daily—Seeing the New Newspaper

ISU uses the second floor of this building, located across Lincoln Way from the main part of campus. In my day, that area was called "dog town," although my sons who went to ISU tell me nobody calls it that now.

I was at the Iowa College Media Association meeting in Ames today, and as part of the meeting, got to tour the nice new site of the Iowa State Daily and hear some interesting thoughts from Lawrence Cunningham, the general manager.

The Daily has seen some tough days, and a bit more than a year ago came within a fortnight of folding. Since then, the paper has become a more multi-media organization and has started to gain revenue by selling communication services as a media agency.

It can’t be a development that makes journalists comfortable—but, then again, the world has irrevocably changed, and journalism has to find a way to generate revenue.

People seem hungry for information—but in today’s internet environment, they also expect information to be free. That’s not a sustainable expectation, so the Daily is among the media outlets trying all kinds of new news strategies.

Anyway, the Daily has moved into a new site in a building right across the street from Lake Laverne. It is engaged in a metamorphosis that I’ll watch with eager interest.

Entrance area to ISU Daily part of second floor.

At Mount Mercy, I’m hoping to get the media staff at the MMU Times to adopt a more internet-first strategy. We’ve also used social media, but need to do more in a more consistent, frequent, intentional and controlled manner.

We’re behind the Daily in development—but are inevitably on a similar path. Over the next year, figuring out that path is one of our major challenges.

At least, knock on wood, we aren’t a fortnight from folding. But the world has changed for all media outlets.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Trump? Media Creature Squirms in Media Spotlight

Flag I fly on my front porch. I want America first, too, Donald. It's also my flag.

Much has been written by wiser people about Donald Trump’s surprising rise to presumptive GOP nominee.

It’s been an event I’ve watched with more than a touch of trepidation. Trump seems clearly to be one of the most ill-informed, inexperienced, walking-talking disasters to ever run for president. The established political rules, such as they are, are clearly off in this election cycle, and that creates a clear sense of unease in the media.

Leave behind the trope about the “liberal media,” which was always a bit too simplistic anyway, and is less true in a media landscape where the Wall Street Journal and Fox News are wildly popular. The media indeed have some biases built into them, but the political one isn’t necessarily the most important.

The media in America are creatures of large corporations that are both hated and loved by their employees. Two competing biases can be seen in the media—that business is evil (perhaps reflecting the actual experience of severely underpaid and insecure media employees), and that the only viable, “correct” form of economics is free-market capitalism.

That second economic bias reflects a strong pro status-quo bias in American media that is not always recognized. And some of what is happening in the media now is status-quo panic.

Let me join in. EEEEEK!

Whatever else you can say about Donald Trump, he clearly is not status quo—but not in some coherent, offers-a-clear-alternative, way. Trump is the inarticulate rage candidate, the burn-the-house-down candidate. And while I can understand the impetus for that feeling, its irrational expression doesn’t say anything positive about the body politics’ ability to think clearly.

Take facts, for example. Although people diss Hillary Clinton as being a habitual liar, on political issues and claims, it’s clearly Trump who is the champion liar, and the competition isn’t very close. See the Politifact ratings of both. For Donald Trump, 77 percent of his statements are rated mostly false, false or pants-on-fire lies. For Hillary Clinton, 73 percent of her statements are rated half true, mostly true and true. When Trump talks, you know he lies because his lips are moving. When Hillary Clinton talks, you can easily disagree with her policy positions, but she is usually citing facts, not wild conspiracy theories or internet hoaxes.

I am a bit worried about a Hillary Clinton presidency. The Bill Clinton years, fondly remembered as they are, also featured a dark underside, a Machiavellian political machine that Hillary was a key part of. Its return to power doesn’t fill me with glee. But Clinton, flawed as she is, is not Trump. And Trump is a genuinely dangerous character, a man whose thin skin and shoot-from-the-hip style would be disastrous if he is elected. Clinton may not be the fairy princess, but she does understand government and is a cautious, wily politician. As a president, we’re far better off with a cautious, wily politician than an ignorant egomaniac.

I know, that’s opinion, not fact, but I’m being honest about where I stand.

Trump promotes a false “Americanism” that isn’t really very American at all. And he is partly a media-created creature—a reality TV star whose political rise has been largely fueled by his greatest talent, which is to draw attention to himself. He may be a policy idiot, but he’s a self-aggrandizing genius. He’s a salesman who knows how to suck all of the media oxygen away from anybody else.

And, as the raucous, entertaining and rather scary primary campaigns are now ending, I’m worried that Trump’s media savvy might continue to make up for his total political incompetence. It feels as if a vast portion of the electorate lives in their own internet gated communities, where opposing views and facts are not welcome.

Still, I do take comfort that the future seems so hard to see. When, in May, Trump became the presumptive winner, my sense was that a terrorist attack and/or a Brexit vote to exit the EU would tip the general election in Trump’s favor. Well, thank goodness for the mouth of Trump. He has shown an amazing propensity to do what Democrats usually do—snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

In the wake of Orlando, a terror attack that highlights fears and thus plays to Trump, his self-congratulatory and inarticulate Tweets made him look looney.

In the 1980 election, the rise of Ronald Reagan was foreshadowed by the 1979 rise of Margaret Thatcher in the UK. But in 2016, when old people in the UK voted that young people deserved no sensible European future, and Brexit passed by a narrow margin, fate would have it that Trump was on hand to ignorantly and ignominiously gloat.

In Scotland for the opening of a Trump golf course, he lavishly praised the Brexit vote, seemingly unaware that he was in one of four countries that make up the UK--and in Scotland, the vote was a landslide victory for the EU so large that the Scottish independence movement is suddenly viable again.

And Trump's Brexit Tweet unleashed a Twitter storm. Nobody holds a candle to the Scots when it comes to name calling. Here is a Facebook graphic someone prepared of the Trump descriptions from anti-Trump Tweets that greeted the Donald's Tweet on the Brexit vote.

Not very PC, and not very good as political debate, either--but rather entertaining.

My worry has been that events would play into Trump’s hands. The fall election will probably be close, because the U.S. is a politically divided country and there are two wildly unpopular candidates chosen by our major parties.

Will Trump win? The Brexit vote suggests that a democracy can easily be hijacked by emotion and xenophobia. Perhaps, like the 1979 Thatcher election preceded the 1980 Reagan election, it could happen again.

Happily, there are reasons to think it may not:

  • The U.S. electorate is way more diverse than the UK electorate. They are 87 percent white. We’re not. As a white male, I say, hallelujah. Our diversity may save us.
  • The Brexit vote was on one issue. Immigration may be our Brexit issue—but it’s not quite as clear how it plays. It’s ironic that the Brits, who 100 years ago ruled a quarter of the world, want to turn away from that world. The U.S. has long been a land of immigrants who are hostile to newer immigrants, but it’s unclear how those competing cultural strains will play out. Important as immigration will be, it’s not the only issue in our election.
  • Trump continues to be Trump. The bombastic Donald played well in the primaries, but so far has been a disaster in the general election campaign. Trump's over-active mouth and bad Twitter habits may yet lose the election for him.

Of course, I won’t take too much comfort from the final point. It’s too many months until the fall election, and Trump’s early summer lunacy will be forgotten. Hillary Clinton is savvy, but not always sensitive to her own shortcomings—Democrats have time to revert to form and blow it.

Anyway, has the media itself learned much? I am not sure. In the wake of Orlando and Brexit, the crazy stuff Trump said dominated the news cycles. What did Hillary think? Her post-Orlando speech was way more substantive and intelligent than anything Trump said—and didn’t echo in our current infotainment media environment.

The basic reason for a First Amendment to include freedom of speech and of the press is to promote a marketplace of ideas. I’m afraid that marketplace has degenerated into a carnival of flashy colors, sound and clowns who draw attention away from ideas and instead direct us to our basest fears.

Perhaps I’m wrong. I hope so. I do take comfort in the fact that I’ve been mostly wrong so far in this volatile year. I voted for Sanders in the January Iowa caucuses—I didn’t exactly pick the primary campaign winner. I thought Cruz would probably be the Republican nominee—and it says something when Crazy Ted was the “rational” Republican choice. So perhaps my fears of a close election and a Trump victory are overblown.

I can only hope so. “President Trump” are words I hope I never hear. “President Clinton.” No, those words don’t make me wildly ecstatic. But they don’t convince me that the body politic and the media have gone crazy, either.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hats Off and On For Graduation 2016

Taylor Zumbach, final graduate of class of 2016, is congratulated by President Laurie Hamen.

The graduation hat, it seems is a new medium of communication.

Not that decorating hats is a brand new idea, but it seemed to really take off this year at Mount Mercy University, which held its 2016 graduation May 22.

Some hats were artistic and interesting.

Samantha Wilson is  under that interesting hat.
Some hats aimed for emotion or humor.

Zane died in a car accident weeks before graduation and memorialized on this hat. Next one aims for humor.

Some hats were id badges or had poignant messages.

"Can you read my hat?" Taylor Zumbach asked. Yes, I could. Other hat is in honor of two basketball players who died in car accidents in recent years.

Some hats sported headlines.

I think this graduate is going to school to become a PA, a physician's assistant. I don't think she is going to Pennsylvania.
Some hats were decorated under the mortar board.

Flowers under the board.
Anyway, I thought graduation went well, as those things go. It is a bit of an ordeal, and the chairs were packed really, really tightly for no discernible reason. The sound system played a bit of havoc, especially with the student speech, which might as well have been in Greek for all that I could make out due to the out of synch audio coming from different spots. Usually, the U.S. Cellular Center has pretty good sound. Not sure what happened this year. I hope I was just in a bad spot, and most people could experience what the speakers were saying.

At Mount mercy, we had our largest graduating class, something that was noted in The Gazette.

Besides the commencement ceremony itself, graduation weekend has lots of symbolic events. There is a nursing pinning, a master’s hooding and an honors convocation.

Some scenes from the honors convocation.

In addition, because MMU is a Catholic school, there is a graduation Mass, which is a nice event that I think is a bit under-attended. It seems to really have an impact on those who go—the blessing of the graduates and the giving of roses at the end is always emotional.

Graduates being blessed and other scenes from graduation Mass.

As a medium of communication, a commencement and it attendant other events is an interesting ritual. It serves many constituencies, which explains why it can get tedious, at times.

I used my extra time partly to shoot images—and one of my former students on Facebook said that mine were better than the official photographer’s. I don’t think that’s true—I was stuck in one spot at the main ceremony and the official crew moved around and got many interesting images from many angles

Maybe it’s a more personal comment, that the student liked my photos of her more than the official ones. That could be more accurate, but then again, the official photographer had close to 600 students to try to record, and I had only a handful that I knew and was watching for, which makes some difference. Also, they were taking hundreds of “graduate standing with the president” portraits—that kind of formal, repetitive image is bound to seem a bit wooden, while I was free to time my photos based on vignettes I wanted to capture.

Also, I can freely choose what to shoot and what to post--I don't have to carry the burden of "official" communication. That, and the fact that I'm senior enough be be sitting in the front row, probably aids my pictures.

Anyway, as I noted, the ceremony inevitably drags, a bit. That says nothing negative about those who planned this year’s event—it’s the nature of the beast. So, I say hats off to the class of 2016 and their classy hats for finding a new bit of bling to bring to this year’s event. A few more images from the graduation ceremony:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Visit to Morning TV Land

Rachael Faust, promotion coordinator for KGAN/KFXA speaks to Mount Mercy students April 26.

I unfortunately didn’t take her photograph or write down her name (since I didn’t write down anything), but for me a highlight of a tour of KGAN CBS2/KFXA Fox28 in Cedar Rapids was a chat with a news producer.

She explained that her job is mostly to write—and it  highlighted a message I often tell students. In any media work—journalism, PR, web, etc.—there are always writers.

In TV, there are many people behind the scenes who make the programs happen.

MMU CO 120 class tours TV studio. Can you spot the news anchor?

KGAN/KFXA kindly hosted a tour by my Introduction to Journalism class from Mount Mercy on April 26. Rachael Faust, the stations’ promotion coordinator, was our guide. Along the way, morning anchor Kelly D’Ambrosio and morning reporter Stephanie Johnson also chatted with the class.

News Anchor Kelly D'Ambrosio talks in TV studio.

It was, I hope, an eye opening visit for students. For one thing, even a small market TV station is a pretty substantial operation, and that spells opportunity for the motivated student. For another thing, if they listened as I did, they heard many pieces of advice that echo messages Joe has said before: For instance, learn all the media basic skills you can. Know InDesign, PhotoShop and basic video editing. In any communication career, flexible, basic skills are important. That was one message Rachael spoke about.

It was also interesting to speak to all several people whose days begin at 3:30 a.m. New Anchor Kelly was just back from lunch at 10 a.m. when she spoke with my class.

A TV studio looks a little like your crazy Uncle Ed's attic.

It was an interesting tour, and I’m glad that local media companies are willing to allow my students to poke around a bit.

And in a recycling bin in the news studio, I had to show several students the discarded scrips. They were done in split format, video on the left, audio on the right, what is meant to be spoken in ALL CAPS.

It looked just like the format students are using for their current video stories.

Fun with the green wall--Logan, above, and Connor, below, at TV studio.