I Seek Kung Fu in the Traffic of Life

by Jeff Siegel

“I seek not to know all the answers, but to understand the questions.”

-- Kwai Chang Caine

Post-modern life got you down? Tired of celebrity news excess, corruption and stupidity in Washington, and trying to drive while every car around you is doing the cell phone lane swerve? Then may I suggest a little Kung Fu?

Kung Fu ran on ABC for 41 episodes over three seasons, ending in 1975. It was, like many television programs then and now, formulaic and clichéd. In addition, too many of the female characters, supposedly living on the 19th-century American frontier, looked like they just came from the department store makeup counter. But when King Fu was right – and it was right most of the time – it was a revelation, and it remains so today.

The program starred David Carradine as a Shaolin priest who fled to the U.S. after killing a member of the Chinese imperial family. Caine, whose father was Caucasian and whose mother was Chinese, wandered the West, trying to avoid bounty hunters and corrupt sheriffs, sticking up for the downtrodden of all races and classes, and having flashbacks to show how he became a priest. Also, because this was network television, Caine had to kick the crap out of bad guys – literally – every 20 minutes or so, always in self-defense, often in slow motion, and usually with some terrific lighting.

Shaolin is a sect of Zen Buddhism, and its monks study martial arts as part of their commitment to the eightfold path that is central to Buddhism. What made Kung Fu so remarkable then, and makes it even more remarkable today, is that in much of each weekly 60-minute episode, as much time is spent espousing non-violence and discussing philosophy as it is practicing hand-to-hand combat. One hallmark of the show: The sayings, like the one at the top of this piece, which reflected a variety of Confucian, Tao and Zen thoughts.

Consider how revolutionary that is – a network television program where the plot isn’t advanced through bathroom humor, family dysfunction, tight tops on women, or mind-numbing violence. Yes, as a 16-year-old American male, I loved to watch Caine beat up three guys, but I was also mesmerized by the dialogue. Here was a character who was so cool that he scared the bad guys just by talking to them, and he never had to raise his voice to do it. Imagine how much I wished I could do that in high school.

As an adult, I still enjoy the fights, but I enjoy the talking even more. Carradine’s performance is a mixture of shrugs, half-looks, and a heightened intonation here and there. He genuinely wishes the bad guys would stop doing whatever it is they’re doing, because he genuinely doesn’t want to kick them into unconsciousness. There’s an episode in the first season, in which Caine is trying to help a man wrongly accused of a crime. Near the end, the man double crosses Caine, mostly out of greed but also stupidity. Caine looks at him, shakes his head, and says quietly, “It is a difficult path you have chosen.” How many TV shrinks could put it any better in an hour of screaming at their guests?

I try to think of that line every time a numbskull driver cuts me off in traffic. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a whole lot better than screaming at the driver. His path does not have to be mine.

(Poster from the Kung Fu series from Warner Home Entertainment.)

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Live Earth & Inhofe’s Petty Revenge

by Rick Rockwell

Rock 'n’ roll is still a political threat, apparently.

Consider the political hurdles faced by the Live Earth concert series in getting permission to play a free concert on the National Mall in D.C. this summer.

Live Earth applied for a permit from the National Park Service. After some delays, the Park Service told the Live Earth organizers the Mall was already booked by the Smithsonian’s annual folklife festival and for a religious group. The Park Service refused to disclose which religious group had reserved the Mall, fueling criticism that the decision to deny the concert was politically motivated.

Now, for those who aren’t plugged into the Live Earth concerts, this is a project of Al Gore, the former vice president. So indeed there may be political reasons behind such decisions. But Gore also has his own political ties, and he decided to go for an end-run. He took it to his friends in Congress: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME). This bi-partisan group is backing a resolution that would allow Gore and Live Earth permission to use the Capitol’s lawn for the concert. As its own branch of government, Congress doesn’t need permission from the Park Service or the Department of the Interior to sanction a concert.

But some in Congress are tired of being upstaged by Gore, his environmental views, and his Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth. Enter Senator James Inhofe (R-OK).

Some know Inhofe as Senator Denial. He is one of the greatest proponents on the Hill of the idea that global warming is a myth. Of course, the top five contributors to Inhofe in 2006 (according to the Center for Media & Democracy) were energy firms. Inhofe also represents a state that depends on the petrochemical industry.

Inhofe is leading a group of Republicans who have stalled the resolution that would approve the concert. They say Live Earth is a partisan event, not worthy of being sanctioned by Congress. Never mind that the Capitol lawn has hosted Earth Day events in the past, and other activities that some would see as only mildly political.

Despite Inhofe’s opinions, Live Earth will still hold events at seven other locations on all the world’s continents.

Not coincidentally, Inhofe announced his views on Live Earth this week after getting upstaged by Gore and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) at a Senate hearing on global warming. Inhofe, the former chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wanted to hijack Gore’s committee testimony for his own political theater instead of allowing the former vice president to answer questions. The new panel chair, Boxer, cut off Inhofe and held up her gavel to make her point that he no longer controlled the committee.

So now Inhofe wants to keep D.C. from seeing a part of Live Earth because of his own petty need for revenge.

Isn’t a right to assemble in the Constitution? Sure, there’s no guarantee that anyone gets to listen to rock 'n’ roll or rock with a political message. But certainly, shutting down this event and trying to tune out Gore and his message speaks to how Republicans see freedom of speech and how they do not value a diversity of opinions in a democracy. Apparently, if you don’t get with the pro-business, pro-oil party line, you should just be quiet. So much for the idea that in a free country you have the right to dissent. But really, isn’t Gore’s cause something that should transcend politics? The bipartisan group backing the Live Earth effort certainly thinks so.

Consider the shrinking snows on Kilimanjaro. Consider the receding ice cap on Greenland. Consider the melting glaciers on Antarctica. Is there any doubt that global warming should be one of the very top issues for the U.S. and the world? Thwarting Live Earth is just the deniers’ way of preserving their own closed-minded world view.

(The photo of the earth was taken by NASA from the Terra Satellite; the photo is in the public domain. To see an excerpt of the Senate hearing with Gore, Inhofe and Boxer, please check below.)

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iVoryTowerz Radio=Mexican Radio

Don't worry or despair. Almost all of this podcast is still in English. But this program includes not just a steaming set of Latin rock, but also our tribute to the rock radio revolutionaries who had to go to Mexico to broadcast their special brand of music. Now, our podcast takes up the same spirit to give you the music you deserve to hear instead of what the corporate programmers want you to buy.

(This program is no longer available for download.)


“Mexican Radio” by Wall of Voodoo
"Friction" by Television
“I Wanna be Loved" by The Heartbreakers
“Send in the Clowns" by Judy Collins
Jeff’s New Wave: “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins
Cover Me: "Nights in White Satin" by The Dickies
"Message to Rudy" by The Specials
"If I used to Love You" by Daniel Lemma
"Sunday Morning Coming Down" by Kris Kristofferson & Steve Earle
“Won't Get Fooled Again” by Pete Townshend
“We Got a Hit” (extended version) by The Who
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “The Pot” by Tool
“Mas y Mas” by Los Lobos
"Oye Mamacita" by Los Lonely Boys
“Jingo” by Santana
"Higher Power" by Boston

(Mp3 Runs - 1:25:27; 79 MB.)

(Photo ©Nicolas Raymond of Quebec, Canada and used with the terms outlined via morgueFile.

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Objectively Good? Part I

by Hilary Crowe

Good music gets me out of bed every morning, the kind of music that gets the baser cranial anatomy sending good vibrations down tangles of nerves and vessels, straight to the heart. Quite honestly, I don’t know where I’d be if an equally bored peer in the U.S. government hadn’t recommended Rocket to Russia, or if I wasn’t able to convince my Dad to buy his 14-year-old daughter Fun House. My ever-developing love of music has since led to extracurricular successes and the happiest moments of my young life.

But as with all in love, my heart is easily broken, perhaps band break-ups, make-ups and deaths have tugged at this girl’s heartstrings and weakened them a bit too much. I don’t dare play Iggy Pop’s primitive, sensual snarl for my female friends, and I avert my eyes when playing Fugazi’s lithe yet limping “Cassavetes” for anyone who makes it past “Waiting Room.” I cringe when I hear of a Stooges reunion tour, but weep when I learn it’s sold out.

So, when I happily agreed to guest DJ on a friend’s radio show here at American University, “Dueling DJs” as he proudly dubs his creation (see "Five Songs" for another take on the program on WVAU), it took a few days for the weight of my decision to crush my enthusiasm. It took that time for it to finally sink in that in just five short songs, 24 minutes, I would have to convert nonbelievers and agnostics, to jockey against my opponent for their electronic votes. Hunched over my laptop at my campus-issue, faux-oak desk, frantically scanning my iTunes library for the perfect songs to compose my winning playlist well past 1:00 AM, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Is anything really objectively good?” Especially the abstract and creative medium of music? The more I reworked the ordering and placement of songs - Sonics next to Stooges or perhaps just before Fugazi? – the more I thought not.

In my book, The Stooges beat the hell out of Radiohead any day, but many critics and coeds would heartily disagree. Who’s right? Some would judge a song’s greatness by its hook. Is it catchy? Melodic perhaps? Iggy thrives on dissonance, while Thom Yorke prefers soaring melodies and sophisticated harmonies. Lyrically, what’s better – a cacophony of raw, primal yelps paired with a piercing growl lamenting sexual and social frustrations, or a breathy incantation of higher emotion without those man-imal calls to instinctual drives? Here, goodness seems to be relative not only to the song’s context, but also, as the adage goes, to the mind’s eye of the beholder.

(Please continue this essay in Part II or scroll down.)

(Photo of graffiti art by Banksy, who offers photos free of copyright. Banksy is also the graffiti artist.)

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Objectively Good? Part II

(This is the second part of an essay about objectivity and art from
Hilary Crowe
. Please see Part I, to begin.)

So what constitutes high or low culture? Is pop art any less valued in the social stratosphere than impressionist or classical works? Warhol has been criticized as parasitic; he enthralled in creating celebrity and art out of thin air, his works devoid of content beyond face value. But in museums the world over, Warhol and Picasso hang feet away from Monet and Cézanne. Each has its place in a separate gallery, but each artist’s importance and achievement is equally celebrated, recognized.

Also, a new art form is emerging, most notably with Londoner Banksy’s guerrilla graffiti art. Art should be a public good, not housed in stodgy mausoleums but part of day-to-day life – street culture. Banksy’s art, though illegal vandalism, at times, manages to disseminate highbrow appeals to social conscience in what is largely considered a lowbrow medium. Does art need an institutional stamp of approval, from MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art), Rolling Stone, or the Academy, to be considered good?

I’ve never been concerned much with what is universally deemed superb. I know what I like and run with it. But when I must present my tastes and opinions to a wider audience, on radio, in a review for the newspaper, or even in this blog, I become self-conscious and self-censoring, at times. As I duel this other DJ, equally vested in his or her playlist, what should I say to win? Play to win? Do I even want to win?

I suppose no one, really, is the authority concerning what is good and right in the world. The best one can do is present one’s opinions honestly, unabashedly. If someone’s got to convince the media-conscious world what to see and hear, I might as well give it a shot.

(Banksy offers photos of guerrilla graffiti free of copyright. The photo is an example of Banksy's work.)

(To see the beginning of this essay, click here.)

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Photo Essay: The Black Cat Menagerie

(Photographer and music critic Stephen Tringali was on hand for three acts at The Black Cat this past weekend: The Black Lips, Panthers, and The Ponys. His photos tell the tale of a night of punk rock.)

Black Lips' bassist Jared Swilley led the chaotic choruses of the band's performance.

Black Lips' guitarist Ian St. Pé rocked his gangsta grill with pride and contributed to the night’s few stage antics by jumping on amps and smashing a beer bottle.

Guitarist Cole Alexander and Swilley (right) threw everything they had into the music. The band offered frenzied takes on songs from their latest studio album, Let It Bloom.

Panthers' lead singer Jayson Green spent much of the performance teetering on the microphone as though it were one of his appendages. Panthers' guitarist Justin Chearno is in the background churning out riffs reminiscent of Wolf Mother.

The Ponys' lead guitarist/singer Jered Gummere lets loose with a solo. The Ponys played plenty of material from their new release Turn the Lights Out.

Ponys' rhythm guitarist Brian Case and bassist Melissa Elias lay down a post-punk groove.

Guitarist Gummere takes flight for the Ponys.

(All photos by Stephen Tringali. These photos may be reused with a proper link back to this site and a Creative Commons attribution license.)

(For more background, please see "Experience The Black Lips." Or you can find Hilary Crowe's concert review here. For a touring schedule of The Ponys and The Black Lips together, please check here.)

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Executive Powers

by Laura Snedeker

If President Bush has his way, there won’t be any C-SPAN broadcast of the Senate Judiciary Committee grilling White House aides on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. There won’t be any grilling at all, just a few polite questions – not under oath, of course, and certainly not transcribed – as to whether the Bush administration pursued a policy of punishing lawyers who were not “loyal Bushies.”

Once again, the issue is less about specific actions taken by the administration and more about the scope of the executive branch’s powers. To be specific, at issue: the executive branch’s power to fire people based on their degree of loyalty to the president and the executive branch’s power to control the Congress.

The White House fully intends to refuse the committee’s subpoenas of Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, and William Kelley, despite the threat of “contempt of Congress” charges. (For more on the status of Congressional hearings, check the latest on NPR.) Minister of Information Tony Snow indignantly called the White House’s offer “extraordinarily generous,” implying that the executive branch is providing a complementary service to an inferior branch of government.

In the inside-out world of the Bush administration, the White House only has to comply with Congress when it feels like it. If the president wants to enact a loyalty program for government employees, that’s his right. How dare all those other branches of government get their sticky paws in the cookie jar of power?

There’s another legal controversy brewing halfway around the world in Pakistan. Pakistan is home to our good friend and ally General Pervez Musharraf, Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, and several hundred very irate lawyers.

Musharraf suspended Chaudhry over secret allegations and Pakistani police have violently raided the offices of attorneys. As in the United States, the question is larger than whether or not Musharraf was right to suspend the judge. Does the executive branch have the right to unilaterally make decisions for which only pathetic explanations are offered? Or does it have a responsibility to answer to the people?

I’m not saying that the Bush administration’s actions are equivalent to the brutality of the Pakistani government. But there are disturbing patterns and similarities in authoritarianism. President Bush doesn’t have Musharraf’s unfettered power, but their attitudes are the same. The difference between the two leaders is the magnitude of their power, not their lack of commitment to democracy.

We’ve seen the slow erosion of democratic principles in the United States. That this isn’t the first White House to bend the rules a bit speaks to the stability of our democracy. How long can it last against attrition by authoritarian-minded leaders and apathy by a disinterested populace? We’re not going to wake up tomorrow or next week or even five years from now and find ourselves living in a totalitarian society. But members of Congress have noticed, corruption becomes entrenched in the political system, each successive leader bending the rules just a bit more and building on the advances of his predecessor.

The entrenchment and normalization of corruption as a way of life is subtle. It arrives not with a scowl and an AK-47, but in a distinguished business suit with a firm handshake. It is respectable. But it is dangerous, nevertheless.

(White House photo of Gen. Musharraf and President Bush by Susan Sterner; the photo is in the public domain.)

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The Tower View

Somewhere in the ether between Friday and Saturday as the weekend moved into full swing, this blog crossed a milestone: 10,000 readers.

Time to take accounts again.

With 10,000 readers accumulated in less than seven months, we are still a tiny secret in the blogosphere. Community newspapers pass out that many copies in a day.

But our audience is growing. At first, it took about a month to gain a thousand readers. We’ve been accelerating ever since.

We have an interesting core audience that has one thing in common: the love of good music. So if you are a hip Europunk in the U.K. or Italy or a rocker from down under in Australia, this is the blog for you. Or if you are a policy wonk in the U.S. working in state or federal government, we seem to be the answer for your discussion of music and streaming podcast needs. Although we still have many readers where we are based at American University in Washington, D.C., our audience stretches beyond the university community.

Although the general demographics remain the same as the last time we reviewed the state of the blog, less than a quarter of our readers now originate in DC. We have strong bases of readers in California and Texas too.

Our lone Texas writer, Jeff Siegel, may be responsible for the Texas readers and much more. Lately, 73 percent of the blog’s readers are new. Jeff’s piece, “How the Media Massage the Pet Food Scare” attracted many new readers during the past week, and now ranks as the most viewed piece on this blog.

During the past few weeks, we also attracted new readers by turning our attention to Latin America. Pieces such as “Bush & Chavez: Invoking Bolivar,” and “Chavez, Walters & The Art of Media Relations” proved to be draws for new readers.

But old favorites also continue to draw attention. Laura Snedeker’s “Nancy Dis-Grace,” remains the most provocative piece on the blog and still draws a steady stream of readers month by month.

For more detailed information about our interesting readers, please see "Truth to Power" and "Internet Café Shoutout #1."

Actually, this blog has attracted readers in 89 countries and territories since it began. Our biggest international audience is in Canada, although as noted, the audience in the U.K., Australia and Italy are also significant.

As long as readers keep coming back for more, we’ll keep climbing into the tower to survey the cultural landscape.

(The photo is from Srdjan Nikolic of Melbourne, Australia via morgueFile.)

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Experience The Black Lips

by Stephen Tringali

The Black Lips, a frighteningly fun rockabilly punk band, will make an appearance at D.C.'s Black Cat Saturday night (3/24/2007). Despite their second billing at the Black Cat, the Atlanta, Georgia-based quartet has managed to generate more press than their headlining counterparts, The Ponys.

You might be wondering how this happened. Pitchfork described their PR philosophy best: “They believe that you bleed and sweat and abuse yourself for rock and roll, and the most fucked-up band wins the prize.”

It appears that this notion is true. The most fucked-up band does come out on top and does receive glowing reviews all around — just because they play every show as if it’s their last. They hurl their music, nurtured by a shameless abandon and illegal substances, against the crowd and hope that something will stick.

Something has in fact stuck: a message the press and audiences understand after only one show. The Black Lips and their combustible live act occupy a transient plateau from which they taunt, “See us now. Before we burn out and die.”

Caitlin Servilio and I can attest (see: "(Mis)Adventures in Ticketland" for more concert trips with Caitlin & Steve) first hand to the power of the all-or-nothing approach of the Black Lips. Last October, we saw the band open for Be Your Own Pet and we were instantly entranced. It wasn’t just their blithe pop meets dirty southern rock that hooked our interest. It was their willingness to embrace the self-sacrifice that rock and punk once perpetuated.

Just picture for a second the band slinking through “Hippie, Hippie, Hoorah.” The lead guitarist, complete with gangsta grill, sets an eastern-tinged riff in motion, while the lead singer, adorned in black-and-white-striped shirt and redneck mustache, croons longingly. Between verses, the rhythm guitarist cackles into his microphone and mutters disturbing ghost noises.

Other notable antics of the night included a quick make-out session between male guitarists, and non-stop, violent flailing. Based on other concert reviews I’ve read, Caitlin and I experienced what might be considered a mild Black Lips show.

According to the band’s website, the shows often feature “flying blood, group kissing, sudden nudity, fireworks explosions, and pissing into their mouths and onto the audience….”

No wonder Rolling Stone has called them “one of the best live bands in America.”

(Photo of a Black Lips performance in Münster, Germany by Christian Kock via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a video of the Black Lips playing "Boomerang" in Tijuana, Mexico, check below.)

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iVoryTowerz Radio: A Song for You

When Ray Charles died, his obituaries called him a genius, a pioneer, the greatest pop singer of his generation, and a true American musical original. But none of that was good enough to get Brother Ray on the list of the 200 definitive albums of all time, compiled by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (And this happened, while we took a week off, to add insult to injury.)

So this week on our podcast, we’re giving Ray his due, along with more than a dozen other all-time greats who were snubbed to make room for the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, Kenny G and too many others too painful to mention.

Rock and roll never forgets -- even if the people who make all-time lists do.

(This program is no longer available for download.)


“The Boys are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest
"Dixie Chicken" by Little Feat
“Dirty Belly Button" by The Cigar Store Indians (request) (dedication)
“So You Want to be a Rock 'n Roll Star" by The Byrds
"All Day and All of the Night" by The Kinks
"The Lumberjack Song" by Monty Python
"Miracle Man" by Elvis Costello
Jeff’s New Wave: “Rock 'n Roll High School” by The Ramones
“Intro/Sweet Jane” by Lou Reed
“Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano” by The New York Dolls
“Bullet of Redemption” by Graham Parker
Cover Me: "A Song for You" by Ray Charles
"I've Been Loving You Too Long" by Otis Redding
“Just my Imagination” by The Temptations
"I Second that Emotion" by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles

(Mp3 Runs - 1:18:21; 72 MB.)

(Photo of Australia's AWA Tower from pt56 of Blackburn, Australia via stock.xchng

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Truth to Power

As noted recently (see: “Tunes & Transparency”) every blog learns its place in the greater cosmos of the blogosphere. This blog plays tunes or discusses them for workers in state and federal offices.

Or so we thought.

But lately, our political commentary has been noticed in the halls of power. Someone is reading. We hope they are also listening.

For instance, this week, Jeff Siegel inveighed on the pet food scare and wondered why more heat wasn’t being applied to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Jeff’s piece, “How the Media Massage the Pet Food Scare” got noticed in the offices of the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). We still wonder why more hasn’t been made over how the plant in question was never inspected before this problem. Express also discovered Jeff’s piece. Express is the free daily that the Washington Post Co. distributes on mass transit in the D.C. area. But did any media executives pay attention to Jeff’s complaints about the laziness of how the media approached the story and how they focused on emotion and sensation rather than real investigation? We’ll have to wait on that one, but we won’t hold our breath.

Jeff’s pieces on the Walter Reed scandal ("Who Really Supports the Troops" and "The Walter Reed Phoney Baloney Dance") also got some notice. Various offices in the U.S. Senate read those reactions to the scandal. Folks at Southcom, the military’s command center for most of the Western hemisphere, also gave those a read.

Various offices in the U.S. Senate also were reading Laura Snedeker’s recent piece on a hold that stalled a bipartisan bill on intelligence oversight ("Show Yourself Senator Anonymous"). Last we checked though, that bill was still bottled up.

Our favorite government reader of the past month was at the Fermilab in Aurora, Illinois, where the U.S. Department of Energy experiments with particle accelerators. What were they reading while dreaming of quarks and strange matter? Well, of course Hilary Crowe’s piece “In Tune with Dischord.” Now, that’s some rockin’ particle accelerator!

Sometimes a blog just can’t shake its DNA.

(Photo by Glen Bowman of Newcastle, England via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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Measuring the Value of Human Lives

by Jeff Siegel

The iVoryTowerz blogmeister reports that my effort earlier this week about the pet food media scare generated a ton of hits and even a tiny bit of commotion in the cyber ether. This is all well and good, I suppose, but only if the people who read it are interested in learning how the modern news media make decisions about their product.

Because that is the truly big story – as well as the most terrifying one. The people who report our news, who shelter under the protection of the Constitution, are in the process of abdicating that responsibility, and they’re doing it in the name of profit. In the old days, which probably ended around the time of the O.J. Simpson trial, reporting the news was everyone’s first duty, and making enough money to do that was just one part of the job. These days, on the other hand, content is chosen to drive profit, and the cheaper the content the better (which is why there are so many celebrity stories). Hence wonderful slogans for TV news like “Not Just What Happens, What Matters” – an excuse to show cute puppy stories to appeal to a specific demographic or to do the same tired health stories over and over.

Certainly, there are exceptions to this. The nightly network news programs, for the most part, still play it as reasonably straight as they’re allowed, and The New York Times remains true to the mission. But the rest of them? It’s pitiful. A friend of mine, who must remain anonymous to protect his job, says his newspaper’s goal this year is not to win a Pulitzer or even do any really big reporting, but to lose a couple of dozen jobs through attrition so no one has to be laid off. The profit margin at this paper, incidentally, is 25 or 30 percent.

Want to find out how little the media actually care about reporting news? Consider this story: According to a report released Tuesday, a Texas oil refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 people and injured 70 – the worst industrial accident in the U.S. since 1990 – was caused, in part, by lax oversight by the federal government and by organizational and safety flaws at the refinery. In other words, 15 people died in an accident that should have been prevented. That sounds like huge news, and certainly more important than the pet food scare.

But you can bet, save for some mention on the networks and in some of the bigger papers, that this story will be ignored. And that’s because, to the people making these news decisions, the deaths of more than a dozen pets are more important to ratings and circulation, in keeping costs down, and in attracting ad dollars, than the deaths of real live human beings.

I truly wonder how these people can sleep at night.

Update #1: As of noon CDT on 3/21/2007, Google News lists 1,085 stories for the pet food scare, compared to 566 for the Texas refinery accident story.

Update #2: As of 7:30 a.m. EDT on 3/22/2007, Google News lists 1,558 stories for the pet food scare, compared to 569 for the Texas refinery accident story.

(The photo is a still from an investigative video produced by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board -- a federal agency -- of the aftermath of the Texas City explosion and fire. This photo is in the public domain.)

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Privilege, Conservatives & The Internet

by Rick Rockwell

Some doubt that a digital divide still exists. That divide between those who take internet access for granted and those who can only get it at school or work or the library if they are lucky has shrunk considerably in the U.S. One source puts regular internet penetration of the U.S. population at about 70 percent.

But a different divide exists. Countries like the U.S. where the upper class and middle class have easy internet access are divided from the rest of the world where the internet is still emerging.

Latin America is certainly one of those regions where internet access is not universal.

Chile has the highest penetration, according to the website Internet World Stats (a firm in Colombia, so likely the Latin American estimates are accurate, and they do correlate with other sources): at about 42 percent. There’s also Argentina at 34 percent, and Costa Rica at 21 percent.

But look at Nicaragua: three percent. Or consider Venezuela, where 13 percent have access.

Is it any wonder then who is using the internet in those countries?

Looking at large swaths of Latin America, usually the internet is only available on a regular basis to the elite. Now, there’s no ideological entryway to the upper class. You can be a rich leftist. But truly, many people in the upper class are conservatives or neo-liberals who are more concerned about protecting their investments than the plight of the poor.

And so, the quality of communication coming from Latin America via internet, especially in countries with elite penetration rates, tells us the information may be skewed from a certain class level.

Sometimes the people writing from their positions in the class system do not even realize how they sound. For instance, a blogger in Venezuela discusses her feelings about President Hugo Chavez and what she sees as radical transformations of her country. She tells her readers she is from the middle class. That means one thing in the U.S. and Europe, but it may not be an accurate reading of where she actually stands in Venezuela. She is part of that elite 13 percent with internet access. Read deeper: her family has a live-in maid, and she travels to Mexico on class trips. Meanwhile, most Venezuelans live on two dollars a day. So perhaps her protestations of Chavez and his reforms, her threats to become part of the country’s elite brain-drain, and her other concerns come from threats to her economic status rather than any real repression.

If there were real repression from leftists like Chavez, would blogs like The Devil’s Excrement exist, unless it was hosted completely outside Venezuela?

These blogs express fear about threats to freedom in Venezuela. Press freedom groups have complained about Chavez. However, he isn’t shutting down opposition websites or newspapers. Although his moves to shut down one Venezuelan network, on the surface, appear questionable, the history of that network’s connection to the unsuccessful coup gives pause.

The complaints of these Latin American bloggers should not be ignored, because even in a skewed way, they track the powerful. But readers should remember, they are also hearing from a powerful class of writers when consuming that material. Let the reader beware, writers of privilege often have a larger purpose behind their complaints.

(For other recent pieces on this theme, please see:

(Photo by Eylem Cülcüloglu of Istanbul, Turkey via stock.xchng.)

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Chavez, Walters & The Art of Media Relations

by Rick Rockwell

Say what you will about Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, but the man and his public relations folks know how to play hardball.

Or some would say, ABC News got suckered by Chavez into throwing too many softballs his way in an interview.

Either way, Chavez struck with alacrity to grab the media/propaganda high ground at the end of last week. President George Bush went on his longest Latin American tour and even the Latin American media were reporting more about the U.S. attorney scandal in Washington than about Bush’s trip as it wound to a conclusion. Chavez had embarked on a shadow tour of the region about the same time and rallied many to the anti-Bush cause. However, he scored his biggest triumph when he invited Barbara Walters of ABC News to Caracas for an exclusive sit-down, just as the Bush tour was concluding. Chavez got a Friday night primetime slot, while most of the U.S. media were clamoring about Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s embattled Attorney General.

It seems Chavez is applying the art of Sun Tzu to media relations: “One defends when his strength is inadequate, he attacks when it is abundant.”

And make no mistake, the invitation to Walters was an offensive, because Chavez is rarely interviewed by the U.S. media. So Chavez handed Walters another exclusive for her mantle in return for plenty of airtime on 20/20 and other ABC News outlets.

The right-wing blogosphere was aghast at what they called the softball questions she served up to Chavez. Conservative bloggers in Venezuela were upset too. And they were right. Walters did toss softballs. But that’s what ABC gets when they send a celebrity interviewer (sure, she has interviewed presidents and revolutionaries before, but face it, Walters is all about the celebrity) to do the job that reporter Brian Ross should be doing for them.

The problem is that Chavez gets so little in-depth coverage in the U.S. that Walters’ report was superficial and basic, just to acquaint the U.S. audience with the issues. But here are three questions she could have considered instead of one of those softballs:

1) If Chavez is truly successful, why is he pushing for a Constitutional change to be re-elected again after 2012? By then he’ll have been president for 14 years.

2) Why is Chavez closing one of the top Venezuelan networks if he is a true democrat?

3) Why is Chavez currently ruling by decree, instead of working with the National Assembly?

Chavez and his folks have good answers to all of those, but they should have been asked.

However, this is what passes for television magazine journalism today. It’s not what you ask, or how you ask it anymore. It is the mere fact that you landed the interview so it can be marketed and promoted.

Chavez was ready for that. The Martin Luther King Jr. reference that Chavez tosses off in English at the end was both sincere and planned. Chavez, Walters, and her producers know a great soundbite when they hear it. And that’s all you have to have today to win the game of media relations.

(Photo of President Hugo Chavez from the Venezuelan government's official website; the photo is in the public domain. To see the full 20/20 interview between Chavez and Walters, please check below.)

(For other recent pieces on this theme, please see:

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