A photo speaks a thousands words and one editorial point of view

On the evening of September 11, 2001, my family piled into the car and we drove to a restaurant to have dinner. During the five mile drive on a mostly deserted freeway, we talked about the events of the day and how the kids felt about them. My daughter — who was 10 at the time — was the most affected. As we passed by a gas station, she noticed a line of cars forming and blurted out, “Daddy, my friend said we should get gas NOW because it will be $10/gal by night. It’s already $5/gal in Indiana!”

I smiled because I could. I was driving and she couldn’t see my face from the back seat.

I asked her why she thought that was true? I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it amounted to ‘prices moving west to east’ just like the weather. We talked through this a bit more and then she realized that the logic her friend had was not entirely accurate. Prices don’t work like weather patterns.

Last week, The New York Times started a “What’s going on in this picture?” as part of their Newspaper in Education program, the Learning Network. It has been several years since I created newspaper lesson plans so I found myself a bit rusty as to why this bothered me so much. Then I remembered my recent exchanges with @NeilHedley on editorial point of view on some photos during this election cycle and found my bearings.

I don’t mean to disparage The New York Times and their Newspaper in Education program. They are following a model that has been set for a long time by educators. But I think we can do better by our kids.

During my time at Newspapers in Education at the Dayton Daily News, we did not play “guess what this is” games. We crafted the KidsINK pages like they were real editorial. That meant photos captions that explained what was going on in the photo.

But that does not mean the photo was not carefully edited. Photos on the KidsINK pages were as carefully chosen and cropped as were the words to describe them as were the words written to tell the story. The editorial point of view of photos mattered then 10-14 years ago and matters even more today.

Stick with me.

Part of what is challenging about teaching literature or history — and this case, news — is relying on the student to “discover” the plot that is somehow buried in a sea of words or behind a series of pixels on a photo. For most of them, withholdig the plot or what is happening in a photo seems like “gotcha” learning. Kids today are not in short supply with people telling them what they are looking at.

Finding out the facts or the plot is easier than ever with tools like Wikipedia and Google. The primary skill most students need now is not the ability to discover what is happening, but whether or not what they are being told and shown is factual and true.

Tell kids what is going on in the photos; don’t make them guess. Now, ask them, “Do you believe it is true? How about factual? What about the photo makes you think that? What about the photo makes you doubt that? Why do you think it is important that someone thought you should know that?” and then perhaps most importantly, “What do you believe the photojournalist is trying to convince you to believe?”

Skills our kids need to navigate their futures.
Bon Stewert wrote this excellent piece about sending kids out into the wild unprepared. Please read it (but after you finish this post.. I promise, we are almost done.)

Let’s fast-forward to The New York Times’ election day issue (the New York edition, which is different from the National Edition) photo above. A click on the photo will lead us to the full page*. What does this photo tell you?

At first glance, it is the First Family walking on stage before Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech. But why that particular photo? What else is going on? What about the family, the election and the country did the editors want the readers to know? What is being said in that photo? What is the editorial point of view?

Here is my take. I think the position of the two girls — Sasha and Malia — is screaming volumes about what was accomplished on election night. Look at where they are relative to the president and first lady. They are in front of them, almost leading them on stage. I think the editors are telling us that while Barack Obama may have won a second term, it was really the generation coming after them that won the night. The next generation solidly includes members who are strong, non-white and female and not ever, ever, ever going to be breaking up with America.

In case you think I may be reading too much into the photo, take a look at the library of photos available to the front page editor. The photo featured above was chosen — consciously or subconsciously — for a reason. The photo is a self-contained story that the editor wanted to tell. There is no such thing as “just a pretty photo, embellishing an article” in a newspaper.

Kids need to know what is going on — and they need to go through the discovery process themselves — but they also need truth assessment in far faster and larger quantities than their parents ever did. In many cases, they don’t have the luxury of fact-checking against an encyclopedia or library. Media lies to them in a constant stream in real time; on television, on radio, on the Internet and in conversations with their friends and peers.

*Dear NYT lawyers: Please consider this Fair Use for educational purposes. Please?

Two questions we should ask Mitt Romney

Last night, Mitt Romney conducted some hastily-organized interviews with the major networks in part to respond to the deluge of attacks by Barack Obama about his role at Bain Capital. He did not do very well because I think he was confused by the lack of understanding of corporate governance the reporters exhibited in their questions.

Ironically, as the GOP pushes to slash education budgets, more and more Americans are learning less and less about how business works. Most kids are now being trained to go to work, punch a clock and expect money for work. They don’t understand the difference between passive and active income, an executive vs a shareholder position in a corporation or the relationship of a board member to a CEO. All they know now is you are either the boss or you isn’t.

Oops. I’ll bet Mitt did not see that coming. If he had, his explanations would make as much sense to the nails ladies and the dogs walkers as they do to the 1%-ers. In short, he would not be in this pickle.

As someone who holds annual shareholder meetings with the shareholders (me) and my board (me) and my CEO (me) I understand the nuance. Is it silly? Absolutely. I should not have to generate meeting minutes where the Secretary (me) takes role call of all the directors (me) and also calls for a vote on mundane things and seconds them (me and me.) But, the letter of the law and my corporate charter is very specific so we (me) do it.

But we should really move on and away from all this legal crap and into some questions everyone understands.

Question One:
If you resigned as CEO, who specifically was then in charge? What was the organizational chart? Please name the names of who reported to whom. Will you release the Board of Directors meeting minutes that show these votes?

Question Two:
We will accept at face value that you resigned from Bain Captial in 1999. Since then, you have led the Olympics — a non profit — and were governor of Massachusetts, a public-sector job. Since being governor, you have been running for President of the United States. That is a thirteen year gap in your private-sector, for-profit business experience résumé. Please explain how this is not like a typical stay-at-home mom who may have left an executive career to raise her kids and is now trying to re-enter the workforce?

That should do it. Just two questions.

Which news organization is going to take me up on this?

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Why Seamus keeps dogging Mitt and what Melissa Harris-Perry got wrong

Yesterday during her show Melissa Harris-Perry, Melissa weighed in on the dog kerfuffle with Mitt Romney and Seamus (pronounced SHAY-mus) and more recently, with Barack Obama eating dog meat when he was five years old in Indonesia. (video below)

She — along with a lot of Senators and campaign advisors — made the mistake of thinking the whole dust-up is about the treatment of a dog.

It isn’t.

Here is the real issue.

Faced with a complex problem — namely how to transport five boys of various ages, his wife, himself, luggage and a large dog in a station wagon on a five-hour trip — Mitt Romney failed at the solution, specifically for three reasons:

1. The solution he arrived at did not include empathy for the one occupant, Seamus, in the car who was the most vulnerable and dependent on his ability to make a quality decision. Mitt saw him and treated him as property, not as a living being.

2. Mitt Romeny showed poor risk assessment. If the carrier would have broken free of its restraints while the car was traveling at a high rate of speed, Seamus would have died a horrible and gruesome death. The risk is the same reason why it is illegal for passengers to ride in an RV trailer.

3. Ann Romney asserted in an interview that Seamus liked riding in the carrier. Just because Seamus liked riding in the carrier doesn’t mean it was the best thing for him. Leaders need to assess risk against immediate gratification. Sometimes what the population you govern wants something that isn’t the wisest course of action, like a tax cut while trying to reduce the deficit. A leader is someone who has the wisdom and foresight to say “no.”

Like most of the dog-people arguments made before hers, Melissa mistook the plot for meaning. It is the same mistake high school students and college undergraduates make about literature. The Scarlet Letter is not a story about adultery; The Awakening is not a story about a women who cheats on her husband with a playboy. Literature is about something bigger than the plot, yet most people never get beyond the plot.

Melissa committed this sin and never got beyond the plot of the dogs and silly season.

The reason the Mitt-Seamus dog story is substantive is because it is about a grown man — who wants to be the next President of the United States — being faced with a series of decisions to solve a problem and making the wrong choices. The presidency is all about solving complex problems within a set of constraints.

The puppies here at the DogWalkBlog assert that how Mitt Romney solved the Seamus problem gives us a glimpse into how he would solve the inequity of the tax code, health care for the elderly and women and the treatment of war-time veterans as President.

And that glimpse is far from silly. It is positively terrifying.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The agony and ecstasy of Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey

On Friday, This American Life retracted the story “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” because it contains fabrications. The press release is here.

I think This American Life should keep the episode available as part of its official history of the show. Without it, we will lose a critical piece of our own historical culture, much the same way we have when we redacted the n-word from works of literature or shelved films that show actors in blackface. Without the episode, we will know where we are, but will have forgotten the steps we took to get here. Without the episode to remind us, we are bound to repeat this error at some time in the future. Moreover — while deeply embarrassing for Ira Glass — it will remain a stark reminder of his duty to respect his “blink” moments.

It is too easy for the journalism community to condemn Mike Daisey as a liar and blame only him for perpetrating this fraud. “It is about trust and truth!” they pontificate. “Without trust, journalism is nothing.”

I don’t know if it is as dire as all that, but I think the issue is about more than just trust. I think what Mike Daisey was able to pull off speaks more about who we are as an American culture than it does about the nature of journalism, truth or trust.

By his own admission, Mike Daisey is a performance artist. The monologue and the story he crafted were always his performance, whether he was on stage in front of an audience, in front of Ira Glass or Ed Shultz. The fact that each of the latter chose to ignore the fact that Mike Daisey was in character and performing was their failing, not his. I’m sure he was just as delighted in duping them as they were delighted to be interviewing him.

The Canon is replete with works by artists and writers who borrow facts heavily to spin their stories. Many times the veracity of the story is never explained as that would ruin the mystery. However, there are hints in each work to suggest that the story — while plausible — is simply not a factual account.

In An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce the reader is led to believe that Peyton Farquhar has somehow escaped his hanging. In the middle of his narrative, the more attentive reader will begin noticing some inconsistencies such as the trees lining up in the forest and the shift in point of view. The reader who becomes wedded to Farquhar’s success will miss the subtle cues.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf does not even bother to hide the fact that she would be lying to the reader. “Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping.” Whether or not there were lies contained in her essay or where they were is up to the reader to decide.

In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne introduces us to the story by way of telling us he found “documents, in short, not official, but of a private nature…I could account for their being included in the heap of Custom-House lumber only by the fact that Mr. Pue’s death had happened suddenly…” and the cloth containing an embroidered scarlet letter. Anyone of the day would have known Hawthorne to be a custom house officer and this accounting plausible. It is only by prefacing the story with The Custom House that made it believable as a historical reckoning. It was, of course, entirely false as was the story of Hester Pryne.

In each of these performances, there were a few details that were just too perfect, just too pat. But the audiences really, really, really needed to believe and each fooled its audience in its time. The cues are what Ira Glass missed. Missing the cues is what is embarrassing him.

Mike Daisey’s performance on This American Life illustrates what he knows intimately about American Culture. Mike Daisey knows the power of story in a highly-charged, desperate culture in the middle of a crises of identity.

We are a culture that will desperately believe in a myth rather than the facts. We want to believe the Olive Garden is authentic Italian food or that what McDonalds puts out as food is actually a hamburger. We believe we are paying the full price of the cell phone service we receive or that books should be free. We believe reality TV is not edited and the indie band we just discovered is authentic and has not been marketed. We believe the music we stole from a locker is justifiably ours because the music industry has been ripping us off for years.

We believe FOX News is really news and not just entertainment wrapped around a set of facts. We believe we can somehow get skinny eating whatever we want without exercising.

We are a culture that believes in a man named Jesus who walked the Earth two thousand years ago and was born of a virgin mother and nailed to a Roman cross to save us from our sins. We believe this so passionately that we are willing to bend non-believers to our will with laws and public shame. We believe this so deeply that we are willing — actually require — the person with the ability to blow up the entire world twenty-seven times over to also believe.

We believe that iPads should cost under $1,000 and blithely turn our attention away from the human and environmental abuses that make that possible. This is what makes a story like Mike Daisey’s plausible, possible and probable. It is the juxtaposition of our deep unease with the reality that people are being exploited with our insatiable need to have cheap stuff that taps our conscience just a little and tells us that Mike Daisey’s story is true, even though it is factually inaccurate.

How could we not know? The truth is, we couldn’t not know. The signs of truth are too blatant.

And we also believe that This American Life is journalism and that journalism does not tell stories. Journalism reports the naked facts, unedited. In reality, Ira Glass is every bit as skilled a storyteller as Mike Daisey is.

For this one episode, Mike Daisey was better. He should never apologize for that.

I became an artist because I hate math

CMYK

During my stint at the Dayton Daily News, I used to do career day at local schools. I think everyone at the paper just wanted a day off from me which is why they always nominated me to go. That’s ok; give me an open mic and a stage and I’m all over it!

So I showed up at a Dayton elementary school to speak to a classroom full of fourth-graders. There was the usual collection of policemen with their uniforms and shiny badges and fireman in hats — with firetrucks parked out in front for the kids to climb on later — lined up ready to speak.

….

Who do you trust?

Dog Cat Trust

When Steve Jobs died, I knew about it a few minutes afterward because I saw a tweet from Chris Brogan asking if it were true. But I didn’t immediately retweet or reply; I went to nytimes.com. And cnn.com. And msnbc.com. And apple.com.

I also turned on my television and tuned to CNN. (They tend to break in with confirmed news fastest, though not always.)

When twitter gets it right, the pundits all point to the powers of social media, how they are scooping traditional journalism and why print and television is dying. When twitter gets it wrong, everyone has a good laugh and points to how silly and lemming-like twitter is.

Thank God we have some smart journalists at the control switch who can pull the handbrake on this runaway ham sandwich, they remark.

We continue to assess truthiness based on hit volume and forget that only one small child actually had the guts to say the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. According to the Google and Klout (and ABC for print) analytics, only the most viewed and recommended links are trustworthy even if only one small child or one barking dog says otherwise and in the end, turns out to be correct.

It all boils down to: Who do you trust?

We sometimes forget that Twitter and Facebook are commercial products and they have an agenda. This agenda may or may not be aligned with the users’. As Liz Heron of the New York Times remarks, “It’s helpful to have a journalist still.” (30:50 in the clip below)

Even liars have to get you to trust them or the whole game is off.

That is what Rupert Murdoch understood when he shuttered News of the World. Readers didn’t mind being lied to as long as he had their trust. FOX News understands this as well. That is why they spend so much of their time with phrases such as “Fair and Balanced and “No Spin Zone.” Their news day cycle consists of a slow building of “evidence” for their eventual “news” presentation in the evening.

Rush Limbaugh does the same thing by going through a formula of “logical” presentation of the story. He contorts a nuanced story into a blatantly simple ipso facto argument that basically says, “Trust me, I’ve thought all this out, here is the trail of evidence and here is the simple conclusion.”

At the end of the day, however, it boils down to, “do you trust me?” If the answer is “Yes,” then you believe your source.

Below is the opening session of the Journalism Interactive Conference at the University of Maryland, “Social Media: Best Practice in Journalism.” The link is at http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/18160056 in case the embed does’t work. The folks on the panel are Jim Long, Lynn Sweet and Liz Heron moderated by Adam Ostrow. It is probably the most succinct piece on social media for journalism I’ve seen yet. No grandiosity, no hyperbole, no silver bullet solutions. These folks have thought deeply about the issue and it shows. It is an hour long, but worth the listen.



Video streaming by Ustream

Are you sure about that?

Ask Better Questions

Years ago, I was hired in from a field management job to a corporate training job. My job — or so I was told when they transferred me — was to take the training I had developed that produced rapid and reproducible results in the field and apply it across the country. What happened in reality was the training director who was currently doing train the trainer, sales and executive training was ready to move up and he wanted someone to replace him.

And do exactly what he was doing. Exactly how he was doing it.

I spent that first year learning how to be like him, how to deliver the training exactly as he was doing it. His method was very pedagogical. He would seat field trainers (who were used to working with their hands all day, assembling and repairing bicycles) in a classroom for 8-10 hours and “teach” them what he was certain of. For two solid days. And then send them back and expect great results.

….

There is no right or left, only power. The real debt ceiling crisis

us constitution article one

Before I begin, I would like to disclaim that I am not a Constitutional lawyer nor do I pretend to be. But I am an avid reader, one who has read a lot of literature surrounding the pre-Civil War through Reconstruction period. The “mood” of the country, including its values about government, is richly portrayed in these works. I can also read the Constitution, especially the plain language parts that have not been seriously mangled by case law.

Since the end of the mid-term elections last year, the media and Tea Party have been debating this issue of the debt ceiling, mostly as a taunting device against the Tea Party debt and deficit ideology. It made for a good story line of hypocrisy. Most Americans had never heard of such a thing before this, but it sounded bad. Real bad. And for the Tea Party, it also sounded like something that could be used for political leverage.

But since few Americans have ever read the Constitution, fewer still have any idea what the issue is really about. The issue has nothing to do with debt or deficits; it has everything to do with the separation of powers. Congress needs to avoid forcing the Supreme Court to “fix” a glaring hole that House Speakers have been successful at covering over since 1787.

John Boehner knows that. So does president Obama. And by sending a letter to the Speaker in January asking for a clean debt ceiling vote, Timothy Geithner demonstrated that he also supected how the markets would react if it were ever seriously brought to their attention.

And the Tea Party has done just that. Oops. Really, really big oops.

The Constitutional issue:
Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the “Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts” and “To borrow Money on the credit of the United States.” In short, it gives Congress and Congress alone the power to tax, pay debts and borrow. Despite what the Republicans would like all of us to believe, the president has no taxation, spending or borrowing power. Zip, nada, nothing.

Article 1, Section 9 says specifically, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” That means that not even one dollar can be spent that is not appropriated by Congress. The president may have a discretionary budget for the various executive branches, but all of them exist and get paid for through the laws Congress passes.

The US Treasury is responsible for managing the money and cutting the checks, but it can only do so under the authority of the Congress. Blaming the president for spending is like beating up the newspaper boy for bringing me a paper with bad news in it. It is dumb and misdirected. But, since he is right there, he’s smaller than me, and there is only one of him, not 535, it is easier to focus my rage. The bottom line is the president has no legal authority to spend money the Treasury does not have.

Or does he?

The Constitution makes no mention of what to do if the Federal Government has run up bills because of laws enacted by Congress for which there is no money to pay. The Constitution says that only Congress can borrow money, but it does not obligate them to make sure money is there.

But then along came the Fourteenth Amendment that cemented the obligation of the United States to pay its bills for laws enacted by Congress. “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” Still, it does not spell out specifically what to do if the United States Treasury runs out of money.

That, specifically, is the glaring hole raising the debt ceiling covers over and has for a very long time. Neither the Congress nor the President really wants the Supreme Court to decide how to fix this Constitutional issue. For each branch, it would be ceding power to the third branch; something that is even more loathsome to Republican legislatures (actually, all of them regardless of their party) than taxes.

More than likely, the Supreme Court would rule to compel Congress to act by either raising taxes or borrowing money to cover the shortage. And the debt ceiling approval from Congress would be lost forever as leverage. The House does not want to risk that.

But the Supreme Court could also rule that the Treasury Department can continue cutting checks without the approval of Congress, adopting the Gephardt Rule that had long been in place as law. Basically, the Gephardt Rule says by default, Congress is authorizing an increase in the debt ceiling when it enacts a new law. (More complicated than that, but you get the general notion. Google has more info.) That would put the president in the undesirable position of being responsible for increasing the debt and deficit of the United States of America. No more blame game. It would also destabilize the “borrow” powers, much like “declare war” and “wage war” is right now. Congress does not want to risk that.

The effect of pledges
I always found it somewhat perplexing that George W. Bush did not advocate to raise taxes after 9/11 to fund the War in Afghanistan when he clearly had the political capital to do so. Instead, Congress opted to borrow the money, mostly by selling US Treasuries to China. As it turns out, since most Representatives and Senators signed Grover Norquist‘s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, raising taxes was not politically possible. But borrowing money was. The pledge allowed for drunken spending by incurring unsustainable debt, but not increased taxes.

That was the first major step in plunging the United States into the debt it now finds itself. Add another unfunded war, Iraq and Medicare Part D on borrowed funds coupled with revenue reductions that Bush tax cuts created , the largely unregulated banking and mortgage industries and in short order, you clearly have a growing debt issue that is not easy to hide.

Follow the money
The first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton understood the United States of America was only as powerful as its ability to pay its debts. As a new country, the States could bluster all they wanted about life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, blah, blah, blah, but if it could not pay its debts, none of that mattered. The policy has held up well throughout history. We are after all, a market-driven race, sprinkled here and there with altruism. Sparingly.

But times have changed. The stock markets have gotten more global. There is no patriotism in corporations, only profit. The goal is to make money, whether you bet on or against the US Government. From what we have learned with the collapse in 2008, a lot of people can make a lot of money betting against the United States.

What has held and made Congress blink first in years past when the debt ceiling card was played with the threat of the Constitutional hole being exposed and the ability of the president to be able to clearly articulate the issue to the American people. Newt Gingrich tried it and quickly learned how skilled Bill Clinton was in talking plain language with ordinary folk. George Bush was never really challenged on raising the debt ceiling as he operated mostly with a GOP Congress, bound by the Norquist pledge.

But Barack Obama was something new. The GOP leadership — while apprehensive about going to the mat on the the debt ceiling issue — gambled that Obama would not be able to articulate the issue clearly enough to get the American people on his side. And they are kinda right. But what the “mature” GOP leadership did not understand fully is how cancerous and ideological the Tea Party would be.

I’m not sure if the legislators the Tea Party got elected are oblivious on the Constitution, are singularly focused on debt, deficit and taxes to the exclusion of their other responsibilities or are just stooges for the greater monied bosses that got them elected. I don’t believe in conspiracy theory, but I do believe in the power of mobs and the infectious contagion of simple ideology in favor of nuanced, reasoned thought. We are, after all, the country of fast food, the sound byte, CNN Headline News, Twitter and Snooki.

But the markets have become spooked, whether by sheer stupidity brought on by ignorance of the Tea Party-backed legislators or a long-formulated master plan I don’t know. And since we have ceded power of our credit over to the world-wide credit rating agencies (and kinda pissed them off with things like Dodd Frank) the great power of the United States of America is no longer really in charge of its own destiny.

What I do know is to follow the money and to ask who is likely to profit exponentially from the credit downgrading of the United States of America. I’m sure that is where we will eventually find our answer to what is really motivating the Tea Party, whether they are complicit or not.