Here’s what I remember about President George Herbert Walker Bush

Here’s what I remember about President George Herbert Walker Bush, on the occasion of his passing.

In 1990, on a meandering cross-country road trip, I drove out of Yosemite National Park to see an enormous column of smoke reaching into the sky, so titanic and towering I at first wasn’t able to make sense of it or understand what it was.

The park was on fire, one of the epically huge fires of our times, and listening to the radio as I drove down out of the park, this gigantic pillar of sacrificial smoke and flame pouring in slow-mo up into the sky, I learned also that Operation Desert Shield had commenced.

Desert Shield … setting the stage for all the war and terror that has consumed the Middle East and the world since. If only we had given up oil and the carbon economy 10 years earlier, none of that military intervention would have been deemed strategically necessary by President George Herbert Walker Bush.

I ended up in D.C. and became a bike messenger for a spell. The big march on Washington happened and I participated. It seemed like a very happy event, full of drums and facepaint and all such. My thought was that if everyone were marching silently instead of banging drums — wearing black with tears painted on their cheeks instead of clown faces — that would have been a stronger statement, but, I get it. Joyous resistance and all.

A year later I moved west, to San Francisco, and I saw pictures of the Highway of Death, a chilling and grotesque monument to the blood we’ll shed to protect American access to oil resources. And around that time my car was parked on a hill and got hit and totaled by a driver that lost control … I collected the settlement, and haven’t owned a car since.

Many patterns were set in motion that are still playing out today.

I can still hear his strident, pinched tones decrying Michael Dukakis as a “card carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union” during his successful presidential campaign.

And those are my memories of President George Herbert Walker Bush.

“How Many Black Male Teachers Did You Have Growing Up?”

Black Enterprise Magazine poses the question: “How many black male teachers did you have growing up?”

(h/t Nettrice Gaskins for posting the article in her social feed.)

In WASPy Caldwell/West Caldwell, N.J., the faces of ethnic diversity were Irish and Italian Catholics, Greeks (Orthodox, natch) and the occasional Jew.

At James Caldwell High School, George Harriston, who taught Latin and Honors English, was AFAIK the sole African American teaching at the school and possibly the school system at the time.

He knew his classics cold, adored Thomas Mann, and made us sit through “Death in Venice,” his favorite movie, the subtleties of which were utterly lost on us. But his reaction at the movie’s denouement has been stuck in my mind ever since … a long, wistful sigh and an expression of longing for something lost and gorgeous.

His Honors English class was one of the few times I got an A in anything, because his class was one of the few I gave a damn about.

He was universally loved, his Latin students called him “Georgibus Rex,” deliberately misusing the conjugation (which I only know because he told me, I never took his Latin class, though I wish I had), and he would wave his hands in exasperated dismissal of the wiseacres while smiling slightly as he turned back to the blackboard.

I remember once, a shocked rumor went around the school … Mr. Harriston had been pulled over by Caldwell police en route to a faculty party for something that would later be called in mass media “driving while black.” That terminology wasn’t commonplace in that town at the time.

We (the students) couldn’t believe it. Pulling over MR. HARRISTON? WTF???

He never discussed it, never shared any of his experiences as an African American with us. It was never a topic of discussion and I never heard — or heard of — any derogatory racial discourse about him

While racism against African Americans undoubtedly existed in my home town, no one expressed that around me. Ditto for slurs against Asians or Latinos. It all seemed quite taboo. The derogatory jokes I did hear were largely aimed and Poles and gays, occasionally Jews, and were mostly told in elementary school.

I have come to understand now that racists, even today, are pretty careful about whom they express their views around; they ‘test you out’ with a few mild key phrases to see if you respond, and if you don’t, they clam up. Perhaps that’s why my ears were so virginal in those tender years.

I imagine today, knowing what we all now now about race in post-racial America, that Mr. Harriston probably dealt with racism on a fairly routine basis.

It haunts me, that this brilliant, kind, sarcastic man, with his faint smile and love of letters, should have been subjected to such behavior. That it would be a common denominator in his life and in the lives of millions of other African Americans.

George Harriston died in 1999 and any donations in his memory were put in a college fund for JCHS.

He was one of my favorite teachers and one of the people I credit for profoundly deepening my appreciation of English language and literature.

The 19th anniversary of his passage is this coming Saturday.

R.I.P. and thank you, always, Mr. Harriston.

http://www.obitcentral.com/obitsearch/obits/nj/nj-misc15.htm

HARRISTON – George E. Harriston, died on Aug. 11, 1999, at St. Barnabas Hospital. The cause was heart failure. Mr. Harriston was an English and Latin teacher in the Elizabeth and West Caldwell school systems for 37 years. He had been an advisor to the school newspaper at Caldwell and served as coordinator of foreign languages. A graduate of Montclair State College, he pursued graduate studies at Rutgers, Seton Hall and University of Minnesota. Mr. Harriston served as a member of the Board of Trustees of Orange Public Library. He also had been an adjunct professor at University College, Rutgers Newark for 20 years. He was a member of the New Jersey Education Association. Mr. Harriston served in the Army Transportation Corps during the Korean War. Born in Elizabeth, N.J., he lived in Newark, Orange, Montclair and Bloomfield during his professional life. In lieu of flowers, those who wish may make contributions to College Scholarship Fund of James Caldwell High School, West Caldwell, N.J.

Noted: “A third kind of freedom inherent in open-source systems”

The freedom to audit. In addition to being free and forkable, open-source systems also have to be accountable:

“The open-source movement champions an approach to product development in which there is universal access to a blueprint, as well as universal ability to modify and redistribute the blueprint. Wikipedia is perhaps the best-known example of a product inspired by the movement. Open-source advocates typically emphasize two kinds of freedom that their products afford: they are available free of charge, and they can be used and manipulated free of restrictions.

“But there is a third kind of freedom inherent in open-source systems: the freedom to audit. With open-source software, independent security experts can scrutinize the code for vulnerabilities — whether accidentally or intentionally introduced. The more auditing by the programming masses, the better the security. As the open-source software advocate Eric S. Raymond has put it, ‘given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.'”

Source: “Let’s build a more secure Internet,” NYTimes, Oct. 9, 2013.

Noted: “Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”

Tom Stites, an accomplished and indeed storied news hound (and a mentor and great inspiration to me), has produced this important article about the continuing decline in civic investment and recognized value of journalism, and original reporting in particular.

Read it, share it. You already live it.

“Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”
http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/12/tom-stites-taking-stock-of-the-state-of-web-journalism/
By Tom Stites

It’s stocktaking time — five years since the Big March to the digital journalism future stepped off in 2006, strutting toward what was widely trumpeted as inevitable triumph. Auspicious events amplified the cheering:

  • The City University of New York launched its Graduate School of Journalism with an innovative curriculum and hired the outspoken citizen-journalism advocate Jeff Jarvis to direct a new interactive media program and teach entrepreneurship.
  • Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society widened its interest in the growing edges of news by adding to its roster of fellows Dan Gillmor, author of the seminal 2004 participatory journalism book We the Media, and the protoblogger Doc Searls.
  • In his widely followed PressThink blog, New York University journalism Prof. Jay Rosen headlined an item The People Formerly Known as the Audience; it immediately became a defining meme for journalism on the web, which empowers everyone to participate.
  • The Knight Foundation, the premier funder of journalism projects, kicked off its $5-million-a-year News Challenge grants program.

So, five years later, how’s the Big March working out for journalism — and for the democracy that’s so dependent on it?

  • As the digital march began, newspaper advertising revenue began its own march — off the cliff: five straight years of decline, verging on a 50-percent plunge. The decline is a bit less grim as it moves into its sixth year, but it shows no sign of turning around. The number of dailies has been in decline since 1973 and — no surprise — the failure trend accelerated with the ad crash. Newspapers are just starting to make some headway with metered website paywalls that show promise of generating Internet revenue that can offset more than a tiny fraction of print losses.
  • A parallel march, of laid-off reporters, editors, and producers leaving newsrooms of all kinds, has cut the nation’s salaried news personnel by almost a quarter over the same period. Despite contributions from varied web journalism efforts, the net amount of original reporting, the bedrock of journalism’s public good, is declining sharply. And so is journalism’s nourishment of civic health and democracy.
  • Two Knight-funded studies of web journalism efforts, including the comprehensive 2009 report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities, have praised lots of interesting efforts but found no business models that are both self-sustaining and replicable from community to community. The Knight News Challenge has run its five-year course and, after strategic review, the foundation says it will shift to three 12-week rounds in 2012; the foundation says it is shifting to include more of a “social investing” venture capital strategy in its work.
  • The most prominent web journalism business model with corporate millions behind it, AOL’s Patch, is drawing wide scrutiny and little if any optimism outside AOL that it will prove sustainable.

“Even as the [Knight] Commission did its work, the situation was getting dramatically worse,” Mike Fancher, the retired editor of The Seattle Times who helped write its report, wrote recently in a follow-up white paper. “Perhaps most importantly, emerging media struggle to be sustainable businesses.”

The buzz about how bloggers and citizen journalists will save the day, once almost deafening, has died down to a murmur ….

Read the whole essay at Harvard’s Neiman Lab Dot Org.

Delivery matters.

So you produce some top-shelf coverage, but the target population — the people who need to see it — are not connecting. Why not? More to the point: How do you solve that?

Enter California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Turns out they have an on-staff Public Engagement Manager, who made this cool thing happen:

California Watch’s stories about earthquake safety problems in schools reached hundreds of thousands of people through a statewide network of radio, TV and newspaper partnerships.

But the ones most affected by nonprofit news agency’s investigation were the ones least likely to read it — children.

That’s where Ashley Alvarado comes in. Her job as California Watch’s public engagement manager is figuring out how to deliver information to the audiences who need it most but are hardest to reach. This means that her techniques have to be as unique as the diverse communities that she’s targeting.

With the earthquake safety story, the solution was putting information in a kid-friendly format — coloring books. And not just in English, but also in Spanish, Vietnamese and both simplified and traditional Chinese, the most spoken languages in California.

California Watch had planned to print 2,000 copies, but the demand quickly exceeded that. By the time the outreach campaign ended in June, California Watch published 36,000 coloring books and distributed them for free. The site, Alvarado said by phone, is still getting requests for books from schools and organizations.

A fine example of nonprofit journalism making itself matter.

Source: “California Watch’s engagement efforts show staffers what hard-to-reach audiences want,” Poynter Online, June 23, 2011

Noted: “New F.D.A.: Transparence and Flexibility”

A NYTimes article about the changing culture of the FDA illustrates the power of quality public information and an engaged citizenry:

During the Bush administration, the Food and Drug Administration was mostly a place of black-and-white decisions. Drugs were approved for sale or they were not, and the agency’s staff was expected to publicly support those decisions.

But as Thursday’s landmark decision on the controversial diabetes medicine Avandia makes clear, things have changed under the Obama administration.

. . .

Some of the changes have been driven by people like Dr. Steven Nissen, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic whose 2007 analysis of Avandia’s heart risks stunned doctors, patients and legislators, who asked why the F.D.A. had not done anything similar. When the agency revealed it had done an almost identical analysis a year earlier and found the same result, the controversy intensified.

“You have these third-party analysts setting the agenda for the agency in ways that never happened before,” said Daniel Carpenter, an F.D.A. historian at Harvard.

For the F.D.A., the Nissen analysis presented major challenges. It demonstrated that the agency no longer had a monopoly on the information needed to make drug and device safety decisions. Data from crucial clinical trials are increasingly being posted on public Web sites. And academics are using sophisticated techniques to test whether popular medicines are safe.

Shield Law Wouldn’t Apply to Non-Journalist Journalists

The New York Times notes that an important shield-law bill for journalists is heading for a vote in Congress has been modified in the wake of the WikiLeaks/Afghanistan story:

“Senators Charles E. Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, Democrats of New York and California, are drafting an amendment to make clear that the bill’s protections extend only to traditional news-gathering activities …”

So what exactly is a traditional news-gathering activity? And who, for that matter, is a journalist? Both of these things could be addressed in the bill in a manner that seems hostile to both technological and social innovation.

One step in this direction is to add specific language to the bill …

“… defining who would be covered by the law as a journalist — an area that can be tricky in an era of blogging and proliferation of online-only news media outlets.”

Reference:

“After Afghan War Leaks, Revisions in a Shield Law Bill”
New York Times, August 4, 2010

Net Architecture and the Future of Journalism

Our best hope for journalism is that it adapts to the Internet as a medium, by adopting a decentralized organizational structure, in sync with the Internet’s basic/essential architecture as a network.

In the network, power and access are distributed, everyone’s equally capable and embedded in a peer context. Thus the enterprise of journalism should focus on good process and good practice at the peer level: to facilitate collaboration, resource exchange, and the circulation of information/ideas/dialogue.

Check out this except from John Naughton’s essay in The Guardian, “The internet: Everything you ever need to know”:

“The answer lies deep in the network’s architecture. When it was being created in the 1970s, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, the lead designers, were faced with two difficult tasks: how to design a system that seamlessly links lots of other networks, and how to design a network that is future-proof. The answer they came up with was breathtakingly simple. It was based on two axioms. Firstly, there should be no central ownership or control – no institution which would decide who could join or what the network could be used for. Secondly, the network should not be optimised for any particular application. This led to the idea of a’ simple’ network that did only one thing – take in data packets at one end and do its best to deliver them to their destinations. The network would be neutral as to the content of those packets – they could be fragments of email, porn videos, phone conversations, images… The network didn’t care, and would treat them all equally.

“By implementing these twin protocols, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn created what was essentially a global machine for springing surprises. The implication of their design was that if you had an idea that could be implemented using data packets, then the internet would do it for you, no questions asked. And you didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission.”

Can you imagine? Journalists who don’t have to ask permission, working in a peer community. Democracy requires nothing less.

Noted: NPR’s Vivian Schiller at the IRE conference

The speech by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Las Vegas indicates that the wise teachings of the small, independent news nonprofit are going mainstream:

Partnerships=good. Competition’s in the blood, but teaming up multiplies impacts and extends limited resources.

Innovation=decentralized. Schiller doesn’t actually up and say this, but the revelation is there, waiting for its moment:

“[I]nvestigative reporting, often the most painstaking, labor intensive and sometimes solo form of journalism, has also been at the very forefront of experimentation and innovation.”

It makes sense that this “painstaking … and sometimes solo form of journalism” should spur innovation: Working on one’s own, or with a small team of collaborators, relieves, albeit temporarily, the news producer of the heavy hand of the vertical/institutional power structure.

Innovation happens in practice, in action, among the multitudes, in a massively parallel process of individual and small-group effort. A topheavy power structure just gums that process up.

Indeed, she notes the experience of NPR Executive Editor Dick Meyer’s “very first contact” with “the weird new thing called the Internet” at a similar IRE conference in the early 1990’s:

“At that early conference, he says he learned about ‘user groups’ to find sources and witnesses in disaster areas where phone and cell service might be out — what we now call crowdsourcing. IRE invented computer-assisted reporting and database reporting. You’ve been using social networks before they were called social networks — there were ‘gophers’, list serves, more user groups. Technology allowed reporters to use objective methods to develop and analyze empirical data — of campaign contributions and spending, of budgets, of pollution. Reporting about institutions could in this way move beyond the anecdotal, beyond personalities and even beyond conventional scandal. You — the people in this room — invented much of that.”

Precisely. Absolutely. Innovations in the use of technology do not happen in the board room. They happen in the lab, and in the field, where people are actively putting the tech to expedient usage.

Now perhaps I can shoehorn in a corollary to all this: The sooner that journalists can shake off centralized production and management models, the sooner the Fourth Estate will be able to live up to its idealized role in our democracy.

Investigations=fundability. About this, we shall see. While it is true that there’s a renewed interest among funders in supporting investigative work — a tacit recognition of the threat to democracy presented by what Tom Stites calls our “wildly corrupt” business/political milieu — the larger issue of philanthropic support for vital news and public-information projects and processes remains knotty. The need greatly outstrips the resource, at this time, for reasons that are far too complex for this brief discussion.

That stated, the renaissance that Schiller notes is indeed gathering steam.

However, it’s been a long time coming, and the work is hardly done. Indeed, it’s hardly begun. Much more infrastructure needs building, and much more systemic reform and reinvention awaits the courage and opportunity of those who care about the future of journalism and democracy.