Saturday, February 19, 2005

Media scandal continues

Today's New York Times reports new developments in the unravelling scandal of fake news from the White House, as reported by Anne Kornblut:

"The comptroller general has issued a blanket warning that reminds federal agencies they may not produce newscasts promoting administration policies without clearly stating that the government itself is the source.

"Twice in the last two years, agencies of the federal government have been caught distributing prepackaged television programs that used paid spokesmen acting as newscasters and, in violation of federal law, failed to disclose the administration's role in developing and financing them.

"And those were not isolated incidents, David M. Walker, the comptroller general, said in a letter dated Thursday that put all agency heads on notice about the practice.

"In fact, it has become increasingly common for federal agencies to adopt the public relations tactic of producing 'video news releases' that look indistinguishable from authentic newscasts and, as ready-made and cost-free reports, are sometimes picked up by local news programs. It is illegal for the government to produce or distribute such publicity material domestically without disclosing its own role..."

In the same issue, Frank Rich comments that there are now at least six fake journalists who have either been on the payroll of the Bush administration "or a barely arms-length ally like Talon News while simultaneously appearing in print or broadcast forums that purport to be real news." He continues:

"Of these six, two have been syndicated newspaper columnists paid by the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the administration's 'marriage' initiatives. The other four have played real newsmen on TV. Before Mr. Guckert and Armstrong Williams, the talking head paid $240,000 by the Department of Education, there were Karen Ryan and Alberto Garcia. Let us not forget these pioneers - the Woodward and Bernstein of fake news. They starred in bogus reports ('In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting,' went the script) pretending to 'sort through the details' of the administration's Medicare prescription-drug plan in 2004. Such 'reports,' some of which found their way into news packages distributed to local stations by CNN, appeared in more than 50 news broadcasts around the country and have now been deemed illegal 'covert propaganda' by the Government Accountability Office.

"The money that paid for both the Ryan-Garcia news packages and the Armstrong Williams contract was siphoned through the same huge public relations firm, Ketchum Communications, which itself filtered the funds through subcontractors. A new report by Congressional Democrats finds that Ketchum has received $97 million of the administration's total $250 million P.R. kitty, of which the Williams and Ryan-Garcia scams would account for only a fraction. We have yet to learn precisely where the rest of it ended up.."

On the other hand, he notes:

"It is a brilliant strategy. When the Bush administration isn't using taxpayers' money to buy its own fake news, it does everything it can to shut out and pillory real reporters who might tell Americans what is happening in what is, at least in theory, their own government. Paul Farhi of The Washington Post discovered that even at an inaugural ball he was assigned 'minders' - attractive women who wouldn't give him their full names - to let the revelers know that Big Brother was watching should they be tempted to say anything remotely off message."

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Regrets in life

There are some people who can look back on their lives and say if they had to do it all over again, they would not do anything differently. I am not one of those.

Among the regrets I have in life, not necessarily in order of importance:

- That I never married and raised a family. My mother, now suffering from dementia, God bless her, is convinced she has grandchildren, and wants to know when she can visit the babies in the hospital. It doesn't matter how many times I tell her otherwise.

- That I did not find a better way of dealing with my disease. For over 30 years I have had ankylosing spondalitis, a form of rheumetoid arthritis where the joints of the vertebrae gradually fuse together. It started probably when I was around 17 or 18, because at that time I experienced occassional back problems, but did not become really noticeable, and properly diagonosed, until I was 27.

- That I did not have a greater sense of purpose in pursuing my education and career choices.

Much of this goes back to choices I made in my youth. When I was in high school, I was very shy, afraid even to try to eat lunch with the various cliques on campus, but my participation in sports as a distance runner became my main focus of energy and time. And the few friends I had were fellow distance runners. I put much more of myself into the sport than into trying to develop some kind of social life or mastering the subject matter of my classes. If it were not for my disability, I might still be running today, in fact I would have competed seriously (although I was never that good) probably until I was 30. But now I wonder, if in retrospect, the running might have contributed to my disease, and that if I had not gone out for sports, maybe I would be healthy today. And I also regret, that after my diagnosis, I did not more agressively resist the natural progression of the disease, through proper exercise and maintaining straight posture.

I know we can't relive the past, but still I regret that in high school and college, that I did not have a better sense of connection between what I was studying at the time and what practical benefits my acquired knowledge would serve out there in the real world. I wish I had taken some shop and particularly auto mechanics classes, but those were frowned upon at the time by those who wanted to pursue the college prep route. And I wish I had taken some business classes too. I also wished I had stayed on top of math and kept at it through calculus, and that I had become fluent in some foreign languages like Spanish and French.

In college I majored in history, but in truth I was just taking whatever classes interested me; some classes I still remember well, such as a Writings of C.S. Lewis course and a Black Existence in American Life course. But overall, if I was going to major in history, my course selection should have been more comprehensive. Better yet, would have been to major or at least minor in something more practical like Business Administration.

I went back to grad school to get a teaching certificate and then Masters degree in teaching high school social studies, but the job market for applicants in this area was so bad that I never got past substitute teaching, which I hated. With spare time on my hands, and new friendships with some Vietnamese refugees, I developed an interest in human rights in Vietnam, first publishing a newsletter, and later working at the UC Berkeley Indochina Archive, where I worked from 1983-2002. But during all those years I worked at the archive, I was paid a small clerical salary, and in fact for many of those years was paid only part time, even while working full time.
Now I work at the main library of the university, cataloging books. But I regret that I did not pursue a different route in graduate studies, perhaps to law school, to business school to get an MBA, or to library school to get a Masters degree in library science. The latter probably would have been the most suitable choice.

Of course I could not live through all my years looking at life through the prism of a middle aged man. It might be boring, But if I were to advise young people today, I would tell them to try to understand how valuable education can be for their lives and to develop a plan for the goals they eventually want to achieve. Maybe not to become a famous movie star or politician, but just to find a decent job, to raise a family and live in a nice home. I think it today's society, with all the cutbacks in public education and outsourcing of jobs, it is more difficult than before, but the goal is still attainable if you work for it.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Protecting Halliburton

In his State of the Union address, President Bush said the U.S. economy has been held back by "irresponsible class actions and frivolous asbestos claims," and urged Congress to pass reforms to limit such lawsuits. It is strange that the President would come to the defense of those who spread a major cause of cancer in this country, in the State of the Union address, no less.

But perhaps it is not so strange when we learn that his vice-president's company Halliburton has just lost a $30 million lawsuit on this very issue. As reported by the Seattle Times:

The Halliburton Co. settled legal claims with about 120 families of asbestos victims in the Pacific Northwest this week, agreeing to pay out $30 million and to create a fund for future victims of the deadly fiber.

The local settlement was part of a $4.3 billion national settlement involving about 250,000 plaintiffs who had sued the company in connection with exposure to asbestos products distributed by Halliburton subsidiaries.

Matthew Bergman, attorney for the local families and one of seven lawyers involved in negotiating the settlement, said Dresser Industries, a Halliburton subsidiary, knew since the 1930s that asbestos was harmful, yet issued no warnings. Locally, asbestos products were widely used in shipyards, pulp mills and power plants.

Many of Bergman's clients worked at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, he said. Some were civilian workers and others were sailors, some of whom remember sleeping in bunks beneath pipes insulated with asbestos, he said.

Our moral values president in action, working to protect companies that destroy the health of the American people.

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