‘Futureland’ and a co-worker’s racism harsh my Obama high

January 21, 2009

futurelandFROM JASON’S GRITTED TEETH — My outlook swings day-to-day from gloriously optimism to blood-boiling pessimism.

Yesterday, watching Obama take control of the mess into which the executive branch had fallen, was a good day. In the evening, I told Andrew I believe we’ve done much more than we realize to eliminate racism in this country, or at least make it so socially odious that it might as well not exist.

Today, however, was a pessimistic day as my idealism was smashed. In the cubicle next door, I heard a co-worker raving about an encounter with a client he labeled “a damned Arab.”

“They’re all terrorists. Even the children… You can’t trust any of them. I don’t know why they have to call me, talking all Arab. We should blow them all up,” he said.

I am sheltered. I normally associate with people of extreme education, raised in a strict environment of social correctness. This co-worker’s words were alien and loathsome. There was nothing in them to which I could connect on any level.

They were not the starry-eyed hope I felt during Tuesday’s inauguration. This co-worker clearly does not agree with Obama’s words: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

The fever of the inauguration had given me a temporary peace. But my co-worker’s words jogged me into a blacker vision for our nation’s future, one that’s been reinforced in the last week while reading an excellent science fiction work by Walter Mosley, titled Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World.

This dystopia is no Idiocracy; it’s a world of corrupt geniuses and the helpless victims pulled into their sphere of influence. Futureland is a place of designer brain-viruses, corporate city-states and megalomaniacal dictators, genetically-engineered slaves, and politically oppressed masses.

It’s a place where children are drafted into government cabals; where the race and gender divides have exploded; where the Supreme Court allows citizenry to be revoked from anyone the authorities deem socially dangerous; where property rights have been all but abolished; where pre-teens live in underground concentration camp castes while the rich cavorte in the streets above; and where science and religion have been merged into one InfoChurch to keep the desperate under thumb.

Some days Mosley’s futurescape seems laughable. Others — when a co-worker reveals such ill-masked, torturous hate — his grim vision seems as imminent as the vignets he ties together in this book. And then I wonder whether we’ve really progressed at all as a nation, or whether we’ve simply deluded ourselves into thinking our attitudes are evolving at all.

Do Not Call List is permanent now

February 20, 2008

telemarketer.jpgFROM JASON’S JADED LITTLE WORLD — Years from now, when Andrew and I are in some petty little Internet political debate and he challenges me to name one — just one! — tiny shred of good done by George W. Bush, I’ll have an answer ready.

Friday, the bastard-in-chief signed the House’s Do-Not-Call Registry Fee Extension Act of 2007 (H.R.3541) and the Senate’s Do-Not-Call Improvement Act of 2007 (S.781).

In plain English: He helped Whack-a-Mole telemarketers over the head with a shining mallet of privacy.

The Do-Not-Call list was established in 2003, and marketers were banned from calling any U.S. citizens who chose to enroll — at least for three years. After that, you had to sign up or your home phone was fair game again for armies of crapsters hucking insurance, phone services, “special” offers, and pyramid schemes.

Not anymore. Now, once you sign up, that phone number is on the Do-Not-Call list as long as you have it. No more pitches for you, my friend.

Not only is this a win for Bush (though it doesn’t exactly make up for… oh, I don’t know… IRAQ), but it’s also a victory for Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. You might remember him as the strapping young gentleman who thinks the Internet is a series of tubes. Hey, even a broken clock….

For my part, I haven’t been bothered by a telemarketer now in more than four years. Most of the time you’ll find me arguing for a laissez faire approach to government — the fewer laws and the fewer regulations on the economy, the better — but here is one instance where I think government interference has actually been positive.

It pains me to say that.

If you’re an American, you can sign up here.

God, I’m practically humming Stars and Stripes Forever over here.

Even after all these years, news myths thrive

November 25, 2007

bostonnewspaper.gifFROM JASON’S SNAP-BRIM HAT AND TRENCH COAT — Seriously, folks. The first American newspaper, Public Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, was printed in Boston in 1690. You’d think 317 years would be long enough for people to figure out how this business works.

But no — those old misconceptions about non-existent laws that supposedly limit what may be published continue to prosper. Many still don’t understand exactly what it is that reporters do. And too many people out there still think they are entitled to absolute privacy, no matter what the circumstances.

I run into these misguided myths and attitudes of entitlement nearly every day in the course of my work as a journalist. They annoy me. Hopefully, these few points will enlighten the billions who read Quaedam every day:

1) “You can’t print that! It was off the record!”

reporter.pngThere is no such thing as this chimerical “record” that pop culture has created. But thanks to old noir films featuring grungy, stereotyped reporters with press cards in their hats, people believe that “on the record” and “off the record” are relevant and binding concepts.

The Deep Throat scenario from All the President’s Men has ingrained this fallacy into the minds of three generations. Woodward and Bernstein’s method was the gross exception that proved the rule.

True, we do use the term as an informal agreement of confidentiality, but the fact remains that the record has no legal bite. Stating that something is off the record does not necessarily make it so. It is up to the reporter’s discretion to decide whether to grant a self-imposed moratorium on information.

If ever we do accept a statement as off the record, it is in exchange for either better information or a favor. I’ve agreed to put irrelevant information off the record just to bank against a source I may need down the road.

The only negatives consequences of using of-the-record info are loss of reputation and potential loss of that source in the future. Sometimes those losses are acceptable if the trade-off is big enough.

Statements made in public are never off the record, though. I once had a police chief walk by me in a city council meeting, muttering under his breath that a council member was an idiot because he would not increase his police budget. I printed that the chief called the legislator an idiot in public, and the he was irate. He tried to claim the comment was off the record because he did not intend for it to be heard. Too bad.

2) “You’re not allowed to put my child’s name in the paper.”

There is no law against publishing the names, crimes, or other actions of juveniles. Newspapers typically volunteer to withhold the names of people under the age of 18 who are charged with a crime or sexually victimized.

This, however, is not an absolute, and is left open to the discretion of the editors and publishers. Often, children who are charged and tried as adults will be named. Young people who are hurt in accidents or by criminals may also be named.

Reporters do not need special permission from parents or guardians to print the names of children. In some cases, however, there may be special rules surrounding coverage of juvenile courts. As always, judges have the final say in how proceedings are covered. There is also an element of forgiveness on the part of newspapers — mine, for example, does not cover juvenile courts unless there is a compelling public interest.

I recently covered an incident in which a 16-year-old boy was accused of shooting his parents. His mother was killed almost instantly, and his father (who was shot in the face) survived after being hospitalized for a month. We thought it prudent to print the boy’s name when he was charged.

superman.png3) “Reporters are private investigators.”

I am not Clark Kent, nor am I Kal El. It is not my job to solve crimes or catch criminals. I do not track down leads about where your husband is sleeping these nights, unless your husband is a an on-duty police officer soliciting prostitutes instead of patrolling the streets.

If you don’t want it published, don’t call me. If you want someone to help you find order, call the police. If you want someone to help you find justice, call a lawyer.

Many callers to my office want an intermediary to help make their problems go away. That is not what reporters do. We take information and transform it so the masses care and understand an issue. Reporters are professional gossipers with social and financial agendas.

A couple once called me complaining that a city had violated a contract to build a road in front of their house (they allowed the city to build a water tower on their land in return).

I made inquiries at the mayor’s office to find whether the allegation was true, and the next day cement trucks rolled into said neighborhood to pour the road. Once they were gone, the couple called to tell me they didn’t want the story in the paper, and even mentioned legal action.

I laughed and ran the story. I didn’t put pressure on the government for their gain. I did it for mine.

4) “My paycheck is none of your business.”

Anyone can be elected to public offices in America — that’s the biggest advantage and most dire curse of a democratic republic.

Unfortunately, it means too many yokels with no understanding of civics or the law gain power. I deal all the time with backwoods office-holders who don’t understand public records and attempt to deny access. The big-time politicians also try to claim ignorance of the Freedom of Information Act and open meeting laws.

“Sunshine Laws” (like Ohio Revised Code section 149.43) make it very clear what are the rules of the game. Any document used in the course of conducting public business is a public document. That means e-mails, pay stubs, budgets, court papers, police reports, internal memos, personnel files — even Post-It Notes! — are open to purview.

Every last scrap is my business, with notable exceptions: Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, and information related to security measures may be redacted.

A city auditor once refused to tell me to whom the government was loaning tax money. She said finances and loans were not the media’s concern. I quickly disabused her of that notion. She refused to comply with Ohio law several times (while I recorded her refusal), but reneged when I contacted county and state ethics authorities. I found out she was loaning thousands of dollars to business owners so they could fix their facilities.

5) “You ruined my life by putting that in the paper.”

No, I didn’t. You ruined your life by having sex with that high school principal on his desk during school hours. It was already over when that teenager walked in and saw you; all I did was tell the people who pay the principal how their tax money was misspent and their trust was violated.

There is an implied Constitutional right to privacy in the no-quarter clause of the Second Amendment, but that does not compel the media to help the accused or public figures save face. Once an individual gains a certain amount of notoriety, is given responsibility to uphold the public trust, or is charged with a crime (this is not an exhaustive list), they are subject to scrutiny.

The public’s right to know how its resources are handled and what events have or could compromise its safety outweigh the right to an individual’s privacy.

Congress to MPAA: Let’s get naked and rut like pigs

November 11, 2007

FROM JASON’S MOVING BOWELS — At least you can see Republican ideological pandering coming from miles away. But this time it’s the typically anti-corporate, socialist-leaning Democrats who want to prop up big business.

Go figure. I’m not even going to mention that it’s election time and everybody’s hunting for corporate sponsorship donations.

The U.S. House of Representatives (source via CNET) is considering a bill that is getting kudos from the MPAA because it would force universities to pony up for Napster and other pay-to-peer services in hopes of cutting down on illegal file sharing.

If colleges refuse, the feds want to yank funding. A $100 billion aide cut would be one big matzah ball for the higher education industry to drop.

It’s not hard to immediately see problems with this wonderful legislation. First, colleges would be burdened with the cost of policing for the music and film industries (if I were a lobbyist for the MPAA and RIAA, this would be the part where I break open the champaigne). The cost of new technology and personnel, of course, will be passed from the colleges to the students, from the students to Sally Mae, and from Sally Mae to the taxpayers.

It’s a de facto tax going straight to Hollywood. And you thought Big Oil was the player you had to watch for corruption.

Second, colleges will have to police all file transfers — whether they’re legitimate or not — in order to comply with the law. That means podcasts, In Rainbows, open source software, public domain videos, and all other legal files will have to be monitored, too.

Reduced to its core concept, that means the government is forcing private establishment to enact a police state. It places students under constant surveillance. The same Democrats who fight for privacy and derail the Patriot Act (which they should) are advocating here a breach of privacy and the same kind of wiretapping they accuse Bush of doing.

Third, the government doesn’t have the infrastructure right now to enforce the law. Police are not notorious for their ability to investigate ‘Net crime, though the FBI and other federal agencies have a better track record.

Those same agencies have severely limited resources, though, and have bigger things to worry about — like making sure their intelligence on imaginary WMDs gets fact-checked before it leads to a $2 trillion war in the Middle East.

Universities are completely within their right, which they have so-far thankfully been brave enough to exercise, to complain to Congress about this ridiculous, expensive, civil-rights-violating, and unrealistic plan. I can only hope someone remains on Capitol Hill who actually understands the Internet enough to cast an informed vote.