Archive for July 2009

Walter Cronkite’s Death Reminds Us of What Television Journalism Used to Be

July 21, 2009

I never watched Walter Cronkite when he was on television. I was never really a big TV guy. Sure, I watched some when I was little, but there came a time when I decided that there were better things to do in life other than sit in front of a box.

But with the recent passing of Mr. Cronkite (and really, who isn’t dying these days?), I am reminded of a time when TV journalism wasn’t just confined to 24 hour cable news shows. There once was a time, not too long ago, when basic television programs on stations like NBC, CBS, and ABC provided all the information people needed to get through their day. Today, networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC hog all the spotlight.

Mr. Cronkite was known as “The Most Trusted Man in America” because he delivered the news as straightforward and accurately as people needed it. He told us what we needed to know about our nation, our elected leaders, and the decision makers around the world. He let us know what happened during the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam War, moon landing, the civil rights movement, and other momentous occasions in U.S. history.

I regret that I never watched him in action. I am a little skeptical about TV journalism as it is, but to see someone whom people actually trusted would have been a treat. It would be pointless to talk on and on about all his accomplishments and career highlights. I am not as up-to-speed on Mr. Cronkite’s career as other people are, so I should not attempt to make this blog entry a eulogy.

Instead, it should be worth mentioning how it is a TV journalist can be known as “The Most Trusted Man in America.” Today we think of TV journalists as “reporters” who only think about ratings, making money, and upsetting politicians. Anyone who has seen screaming heads on cable TV or “journalists” using valuable air time to cover useless trash like celebrity gossip probably has a low view of television news. But anyone who has seen a journalist like Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow in action might think differently.

Trust is developed when we know the other person is not trying to deceive, manipulate, or use us for any purpose. We know their intentions are good, right, and honorable. We have no reason to question their motives or think twice about what they’re doing or saying to us. Trust is when we don’t have to doubt what is told us and we can truly believe what we’re hearing. Apparently, Cronkite developed that kind of trust with the American people. And with his passing, we have lost yet another voice that we can have faith in.

A trusted journalist is what we need, not just for today, but for all eternity. We need to trust the people whom we get our news from. We need to trust that they are telling us the truth, are accurate about all their facts, and are not trying to mislead us in any form or fashion. Some of today’s more sell-out reporters care more about ratings than they do about serving the people. I don’t need to name names. We all know who they are.

But then again, journalism is a for-profit business. One cannot deny that fact. Newspapers, magazines, TV programs, radio shows, and websites need money in order to survive. Newspapers are closing because they aren’t making money in an era of Internet news. TV news programs are relying more on covering Michael Jackson’s death than anything else because that’s what people are talking about.

This of course, brings about an interesting question: do TV stations cover stories like celebrity news because they think people want it, or do people want it because it’s given to them? I think this is more of a vicious cycle than anything else. Both parties are to blame. So when we see newscasters giving their opinion on matters, when no journalist should ever do that, we don’t think anything of it. Journalists pandering to our interests have become the norm.

Is anyone bothered that anchors like Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity tell us their opinion when delivering the news? Probably not. But I am. I think it gives people the impression that not only should the media tell us what to think, but they should tell us how to think about it. They should tell us that Obama’s healthcare plan is an ambitious but challenging endeavor, or that Bush’s Afghanistan policies were doomed to fail. They don’t trust us to come up with these conclusions on our own. They need to tell us like the children that they think we are.

And with commentary comes biases, and with biases comes that horrible word “agenda.” The so-called media “agenda” is a concept developed by media watchdogs and critics to put blame on the media for creating a conspiracy to brainwash us to think a certain way. There is supposedly both a right winged and left winged media agenda to turn America into a fascist socialist terrorist nation. Is this true? I’ll let you decide for yourself.

But getting back to the late Walter Cronkite, I don’t think there are too many people who believe he had a preconceived and planned “agenda” to brainwash Americans to buy into government (or anti-government), corporate, or political propaganda. He just told us what was going on without considering what special interest groups would think. He wanted to inform us, not persuade us to think a certain way.

Some say these values are missing in today’s journalism. I think that is true to a certain extent. This is definitely a fair accusation in the mainstream American media, but not in all corners of the news reporting world. There are journalists out there who stand for telling the truth and informing us on what is important in our world. We just need to find them. They’re out there, trust me.

For now, it might be fair to say that a man of Cronkite’s statue might never be seen again in TV news. His death, while tragic and sad in its own right, does not signal an end to an era. His era of straight talk news seemed to have died years ago.

Will Cronkite be sorely missed? Perhaps. But what he stood for will be missed even more.

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Sins of Foreign Policy Are Always Clearer in Hindsight

July 11, 2009
Robert S. McNamara remains one of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history.

Robert S. McNamara remains one of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history.

Things are always easier in hindsight. Ask George W. Bush. Ask FDR. Ask John F. Kennedy. Ask former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Decisions that seemed so right at the time can later be proven to be so gravely wrong. And you’ll never figure this out until it’s all over. What a shame.

McNamara’s recent death has brought about a rebirth of decades-old debates about foreign policy, the Cold War, and the disastrous American adventure in Vietnam. One cannot help but to think about Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney when McNamara’s name is mentioned. All three men were hated in their day. They misled the American people, lied to them, and told them their decisions would protect them from evil. One lie followed another.

The Kennedy White House believed in the “Domino Theory,” a theoretical prediction that if one nation were to fall to Communism, their neighbors would do the same. If South Vietnam were to fall under Soviet influence; Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan would soon follow. Then Greece, France, West Germany, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. Then eventually the whole Western world. Then us.

Historians have debated whether the Domino Theory was a plausible reality or just a product of irrational fear of losing American hegemony. And even if all of Southeast Asia were to fall to Communism, what would happen then? Would tyranny, poverty, despotism, and institutionalized atheism overcome our way of life? Would our national security come into serious jeopardy? All these possibilities were considered by the Kennedy administration.

But it is unfair to paint Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, McNamara, and Dean Rusk as the only ones who thought this way. The infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy thought the infiltration of Communism onto American soil wasn’t just a theory, but reality. His Communist witch hunts of the 1950s destroyed many people’s lives and blinded us to believing that the enemies were at our gates, when such fears proved to be nothing but just that: fear.

Much talk has come up about how such smart, intelligent, and enlightened men like Kennedy, McNamara, and Rusk got us so close to nuclear war and later architected a war in Vietnam that would take the lives of 58,000 U.S. troops and close to 2 million Vietnamese. People have argued that they were nothing but a bunch of liberal fascists, much like how Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice are considered right winged fascists.

But maybe all these accusations are a little off. Consider the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that I believe played a very significant role in beginning the Vietnam War. For thirteen days in October of 1962, the Soviet Union and United States went on the brink of total annihilation. Thanks to “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD for short, both sides had the ability and will to completely obliterate the other side. If one side launched their missiles and destroyed most of their enemy’s homeland, that side had the ability to return the favor. Thanks to B-52 bombers and nuclear submarines, this can happen.

Then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev didn’t think Kennedy had the guts to kill more people than Adolph Hitler. Hitler had a whole war to slaughter millions. Kennedy just had one simple phone call to make. I hope you shudder when you think about this.

Kennedy later estimated that there was a 33%, or a one in three, chance of nuclear war breaking out at that moment. Rusk believed the odds were much lower. Either way, it was close. The presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba was intolerable. Fidel Castro could not have been trusted to not use them. The Soviets didn’t like our missiles in Turkey, a country just in their backyard. We compromised, mutually agreed to remove our missiles from both sites, and total annihilation was averted. Whew.

But we should not forget the impact of the Cuban Missile Crisis on the thinking of McNamara and Lyndon Johnson, who would later become president after Kennedy’s assassination. If the Domino Theory were to actually happen and all of East Asia were to fall to the Communist bloc, who is to say all of Asia wouldn’t become nuclear? Who is to say mass slaughter like what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime wouldn’t become the norm? No one could know for sure.

Let’s now wind the clock ahead forty years and think about 9/11 and the “War on Terror.” Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the catastrophic 9/11 that never happened. Political analysts have said that our country has changed its opinion on national defense and foreign policy ever since the Sept. 11 attacks. That might be true to some extent. Bush administration officials have defended their questionable practices of torture, invading two Middle Eastern countries, and domestic spying that these measures are necessary to protect our country from our enemies. Similar measures were done in the 1960s and 70s (and during World War II, the so-called “Good War”) under similar justifications.

I am in no way excusing Bush and his team for approving of torture, the horrors at Guantanamo Bay, and invading Iraq. These were decisions that were motivated by anger, greed, revenge, and pride. But then again, we said the same about Nixon when he increased bombing campaigns over North Vietnam and Cambodia. We said this when President Johnson increased our troop presence in a war that was “unwinnable.” Times might change, but mistakes do not.

But this is all easy to say in hindsight. They say hindsight is 20/20 because we know the outcomes and can accurately judge the wisdom of our decisions. But let us consider the fact that we were this close to total destruction in October 1962. Let us consider that from the comfort of our armchairs in the safety of our living rooms, politics and history seem like a piece of cake. Decisions are simple. Don’t escalate the Vietnam War. Don’t bomb Cambodia. Don’t support Saddam Hussein in his fight against Iran. Don’t approve of the Patriot Act. Don’t allow U.S. interrogators to use waterboarding to get information out of terror suspects. These decisions might seem easy and very straightforward 40 years after the fact, but they did not at the moment.

Robert S. McNamara came from a business background, as he was in charge of the Ford Motor Company before becoming Secretary of Defense. In his world, he was a number cruncher. His world was based on facts, figures, theories, and already proven models of success. That is how the business world operates. In foreign policy, there are also rules. We had just defeated fascism in Europe and the Pacific and were now moving on to defeat the Soviet empire. If it worked before, why can’t it work again?

That is why McNamara thought sending hundreds of thousands of more troops to Vietnam would win the war. That is how we defeated Hitler. The D-Day invasion was a large ground assault that aimed at pushing back our enemies till they gave up. Nixon thought bombing the Viet Cong would force them to surrender. That much ridiculed strategy made sense in Japan, when heavy bombing campaigns, ending in the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, broke their will to fight and made them accept unconditional surrender. Nixon and Johnson thought if it worked in the 1940s, why couldn’t it work in the 1960s?

Bush might have thought the same when he invaded Iraq in 2003. He probably figured it would be a short war and that military occupation wouldn’t be such a big deal. We occupied West Germany and Japan after WWII and look at where they are now. They are now first world democracies. Iraq could have a similar future if they would just get their act together.

President Obama is being criticized by his own supporters of not doing enough to reverse Bush-era policies relating to anti-terrorism. Instead of drawing back our forces in the Middle East, he is increasing them by sending 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The scheduled June 30 pullout of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities was a timetable agreed to by Bush, not Obama. Had McCain won the election, that pullout would have still happened.

Obama has not been the anti-war president that many of his peace loving liberal supporters have hoped for. He will completely withdraw from Iraq on the Iraqi government’s terms, not his own. He will increase our troop strength in Afghanistan, a country that is becoming very weary of our continued presence there. Meanwhile, back at home, people are getting tired of war. We voted for Obama to change things, not for them to remain the same. I suppose that’s how politics work. They make promises, and they later break them.

But Obama isn’t completely breaking his lofty campaign promises. He is shutting down Guantanamo Bay, but it’s moving a lot slower than some people expected. He promised to shut down military tribunals of terrorist suspects, but he has recently re-approved of them. What does this all mean? Simply put, the world is a lot simpler from the campaign trail. Once you get to the White House, read those daily memos, listen to important people in the Joint Chiefs, Pentagon, CIA, and State Department, the world becomes a little more complex. Just ask Kennedy, or McNamara, or even Bill Clinton.

Our current president is realizing that the world is a little more difficult to handle than he had previously thought. He criticized Bush for making bad decisions that further endangered the American people, but now he realizes that you can’t solve the world’s problems with a push of a button. You have to make tough decisions. Even decisions that are unpopular.

I am not saying that Bush did the right thing to protect us from further terrorist attacks. I am not saying that Robert S. McNamara shouldn’t be critiqued for getting us involved in Vietnam when we had no business of being there. Nor am I saying that Henry Kissinger’s “Realpolitik” Cold War strategy was a good idea. Killing others to save others is never that easy of a concept. We should never consider a war to be our only option to solve our problems. We should be more pragmatic in our approach and realize that our actions do have consequences, despite what we may think at the time.

But, regardless, we should not stick our nose at them and believe we wouldn’t make the same choices if we were in their position. If you had a 50-50 chance of destroying your country and other people’s countries, if falling dominoes were more of a reality than a theory, if your country were just attacked by 19 hijackers, your perspective would change. You wouldn’t look at the world the same way. If you had the weight of the world on your shoulders, those so-called “easy decisions” to do the right thing suddenly becomes much more difficult.

This is not to say that people cannot make the right choice. What one can say is that we should be careful to play the accusatory card before really understanding the circumstances behind the decisions made by important people. We should judge their actions, but we should do it in a spirit of humility, perceptiveness, and intelligence. Without that, we become full of “retrospective snobbery,” where we feel free to condemn the sins of the past before thinking about whether we would truly have done things differently.

We may never get the chance to start a war, but we can certainly talk about what we would do if we could. But we should do this remembering that all actions, both horrible and honorable, are a product of its time. And those of us with the gift of knowing how the future unfolds should always keep in mind that years from now, maybe after we’re dead, our actions will be judged by later generations. If we weren’t too kind to our predecessors, who is to say ours will be kind to us?

What Facebook Quizzes Say About Our Society

July 4, 2009

Facebook quizzes make no sense. How can you possibly try to describe a human being in terms of what Harry Potter character they are? Or what neighborhood in Seattle they are most like, or which of the “Rocky” movies they would be.

I realize that these quizzes are nonsensical and are not meant to be any serious measure of who you are as a person. But it is intriguing to think about whether people can be described through abstract comparisons instead of traditional character traits like age, race, gender, weight, height, nationality, and personal interests.

Take, for example, a recent quiz a friend of mine took that told her which Hogwarts teacher she is most like. For those of you who don’t know, apparently “Hogwarts” is the school that Harry Potter and his compatriots go to where they learn their wizardly craft. I have never read any of the books nor seen any of the movies (and things shall stay that way forever, mind you), but I know this at least.

Given the fact that I have never read any of the Harry Potter books, I can assume that each teacher has their own special quirks and individual characteristics. And they all must be different from each other, I suppose. And if the Facebook quiz matches you up with a strict and hard-nosed Hogwarts teacher, that must mean you yourself are a stern and authoritarian person. It must be that simple.

This annoying trend is simple in its approach. We are slaves to pop culture, therefore we are dying to find out how we measure up to the people/characters/movies/television shows/cultural time periods that we love. It might be unfair to call us “slaves” to popular culture, but in reality, what we read, watch, and listen to does in fact occupy a significant amount of our time that we spend on earth.

Besides, all of this is very trendy, after all. The plethora of Facebook quizzes are so numerous that there has even been a backlash against it. I have seen several people update their Facebook status to read that they are sick and tired of seeing their friends take these pointless quizzes. How annoying it must be to have your homepage inundated with the latest news of which Shakespearean character your girlfriend is most like (note to the reader: if your girlfriend is most like Lady Macbeth, get out of the relationship now!).

Trends are common in our society. We jump on any bandwagon that seems exciting at the time. We jump on it especially if our friends are too. Look at the almost record-breaking five day opening of Michael Bay’s loud and disastrous “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” With a $201 million box office gross, it was $2.6 million shy of the record set last year by the vastly superior film “The Dark Knight.” (I will confess that I have not seen the second Transformers movie, but judging from the negative reviews it has received, I think it is a safe assumption that Christopher Nolan’s film is a lot better)

So if taking these myriad of Facebook quizzes are trendy, when will it all stop? Maybe when people discover that comparing your life to superficial pop culture creations are not a very good idea nor a good use of your time. People can be so immersed in popular culture that they feel like they are part of it, not just passive consumers. It might be ridiculous to actually think people will believe that they are comparable to “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” but one can never know.

Consider this: with the recent death of pop singer Michael Jackson (I mentioned his name this time), tributes have poured out all over the world. Everyone from celebrities to politicians to common everyday people are publicly telling the world how much the King of Pop meant to them. Baby Boomers who grew up with Michael Jackson might consider him to be the distant cousin they never had. African Americans of that generation might think of him as a hero for breaking racial barriers in the music industry.

There are folks who are mourning him like they knew him. The same goes for Farrah Fawcett, who died of cancer the same day. This goes for any famous person who has spent years in the public spotlight. Us common people may not have ever met them, but we sure as hell feel like we have.

In a more interesting case, during this past Fathers Day President Obama invited several boys and young men from troubled urban areas to visit the White House. He spoke of his absent father and how his story relates to those of the young boys and men, many of whom never met their own fathers. One 16-year-old boy named Danilo Downing, who never knew his father, said the President’s story resonated with him.

“I think of him as my father now. He’s really special to me. He’s an amazing man,” Downing said.

Downing only shook Obama’s hand and received a pat on the back from him. That’s it. Yet despite their limited meeting, this young man considers, at least in that moment, the President to be his father figure. Not a small deal. This illustrates how powerful a public figure’s persona can be. They can change people’s lives without ever having to meet them.

The same goes for pop culture figures. Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and Captain James T. Kirk have impacted more people’s lives than some actual people. They may not be real flesh and blood human beings, but their appearances on television screens, movie theatres, and pages on a book do just the job.

I’ve had friends who said they cried when a major character in the Harry Potter series died. A character, let me remind you, who exists only on paper. There are those who shed tears for Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Karl Malden, I’m sure. And they never even met them. Is there something wrong with this?

Maybe, maybe not. The media are so pervasive in our society that media figures exist almost like a real person. But this is dangerous. We need to realize that those who are really important in our lives are our family, friends, and close associates. Victims in Darfur might be an exception. But, nevertheless, it is weird to mourn someone who doesn’t even know you exist, let along your name.

So now it makes sense why we love to take these seemingly innocuous Facebook quizzes. We need to find out which “Friends” or “Lost” character we are because they are, after all, our actual friends. They might not be real, but that doesn’t matter. We spend time with them. They make us laugh, cry, and think. What’s so fake about that?

There is a media theory out there that hypothesizes that people treat the media like they treat real people. We expect the media to do things that people do: entertain us, educate us, inform us, titillate us. We want the media to be our escape from reality. We even watch “reality television” because their lives are so much more exciting then ours. Our realities are boring. The Real Housewives of New Jersey are exciting.

But, if we consume media to escape reality, but our reality is becoming more saturated with the media, what’s the difference? What are we really escaping? If we spend all our time sitting on our sofas watching reality TV shows, that becomes our reality. There is nothing else. Nothing else to fill our “free” time. The media aren’t our escape. It’s where we have to escape from.

And that should make your mind boggle. But if you don’t want to think about it, turn on the tube and see what Oprah is up to.