Death of an American hero – a real journalist

As many know, Ben Bradlee, the famous editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate story and Pentagon Papers passed away. His funeral service was held yesterday and attended by a who’s who list of journalists and others. Bradlee was amply played by Jason Robards in the movie “All the President’s Men,” which many folks said captured the essence of the man. He wanted to be the first with a story, but he also wanted to be accurate.

He gave the freedom to be reporters to his staff, but unceasingly challenged them to get it right. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were about to accuse the President of the United States with being a crook. So, they better make sure the story was correct. Bradlee asking them to continually verify the facts is what makes the movie version of what they did so compelling. If they got it wrong, it would have been a disaster. But, the fact that about fifty people, including Richard Nixon’s key lieutenants, went to jail showed they got it right. But, the other key was Bradlee backed up his reporters in the face of a mountain of criticism.

We should all have bosses like that. Watching Woodward and Bernstein speak with Charlie Rose about Bradlee, a telling comment came out of which we should remind all journalists and pseudo-journalists. Woodward said Bradlee was often known to say “slow down” encouraging the reporters to take their time to do the homework, do the reporting and tell the story to the public. We need this more than ever, as too many want a quick sound bite report, sometimes on a Twitter feed, which leaves context, depth and accuracy at the train station.

So, we citizens, voters, and readers/ watchers of news need to challenge ourselves to get news from sources that are more trustworthy and offer more in-depth news reporting. We need to avoid the sensational and question things. We need to slow down. We need to be truth seekers. We need to hold our elected officials accountable and ask more questions of them. Truth be told, with so much money in politics, the hypocrisies, poor decisions, and conflicts in interest are rampant and the stories abound. We just need to slow down and pay attention. Thanks Ben Bradlee. *

 

* More on Bradlee can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Bradlee#Other_work

 

The Porch People

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Clifton Taulbert, the author of “Eight Habits of the Heart” and “When we were Colored,” which are terrific reads and offer a series of life lessons told through a historical lens. Yet, a book he wrote called “Little Cliff and the Porch People” with the illustrations of E.B. Lewis is also helpful in telling his history growing up in the Mississippi Delta and sharing the importance of relationships and community. You may be saying to yourself what an odd title and who are these “porch people?”

Cliff was raised by his great-grandparents and on Saturday, his great-grandfather would coax little Cliff to go get ice cream in the town thirty miles away. What seemed like a journey to nirvana would become a test of patience for little Cliff. You see, his great-grandfather would use the journey to stop and visit with everyone whose house they passed, who were out sitting on the front porch.

Back then, it would be so hot inside a house in the Mississippi Delta, the people would migrate to the front porch built with shade and cooler breezes in mind. Before television and the internet, people would pass time chatting on the porch waving at passers-by. Little Cliff’s great-grandfather knew this, so he made a special effort to see everyone, to check in on families to learn about their illnesses, recoveries, needs and joys while sharing fellowship.

For a child wanting ice cream, Cliff notes this was a huge test to put off his desire for ice cream. But, he began to see the pattern and learned the importance of visiting with others. Just listening is critical. Offering words of support and the occasional piece of advice is helpful. And, as part of the community, he would learn that sharing people’s needs with his family would create a chain reaction to offer help to those who could use it, even if they did not specifically ask for it.

In the book, Little Cliff tells of his great-grandmother sending him off to borrow some butter to cook with asking him to not stop anywhere and hurry back. Cliff had learned that this was not possible, as he was obligated to stop and chat with folks along the way. The quiet truth is the great-grandmother knew this as well, which is why she sent him on the quest. He would learn the importance of speaking with others and she would gain knowledge of how others are doing.

People have always been in need and will always have needs in the future. Sometimes, the needs cannot be resolved by themselves, so the community can help lift people up. Even though front porches have been replaced by back decks and fewer people are walking, we need to remember the “porch people” and make sure we take the time to check in on folks and see how they are doing. We can hope they would do the same, as you never know when I kind word or a friendly ear can help.

Let’s lessen bureaucracy, but acknowledge the need for regulations

When I hear we need fewer regulations, I usually have two thoughts running through my mind. First, I believe many confuse bureaucracy, which we need less of, with regulation, which are needed. Second, we do need to review our regulations to make sure that they are providing sufficient governance. Some may need to be loosened, some may need to be tightened and some could be eliminated. But, at all times we should look to make the regulations effective and not bureaucratic.

Erskine Bowles, of the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Committee, was asked to co-chair this committee after serving as President Clinton’s Chief of Staff. Bowles got this position after he had served as Clinton’s Director of Small Business Administration (SBA) once he left a very successful business career. One of his claims to fame as director was he reduced the SBA application for assistance from 42 pages to 2 pages. He noted the repetitive nature of the form and that it caused far too much work for the applicant and reviewer. This streamlining of bureaucracy is a model for others.

John Oliver on his most recent “Last Week Tonight” show highlighted another terrible bureaucracy which is offensive to those who serve. His show is a comedy, but within its format, he does some excellent news reporting on various subjects, better than many newscasts. Oliver noted that we have committed to help the many Afghani and Iraqi interpreters who helped our troops in these countries. These people saved the lives of our troops many times and are valued members of their squads. Yet, they are in danger once we departed and some members of their families have been killed.

We promised to make them citizens, but the forms and process are so unbelievably bureaucratic, only a handful of the interpreters have made it here. This is beyond shameful. Oliver notes after Vietnam, we patriated hundreds of South Vietnamese who helped us, through an organized process in Guam that took about eight months. Some of these Afghani and Iraqi interpreters have been waiting almost three years. This process has to be changed to make it work better for everyone, while still allowing risk management over people we need to closely at, but these interpreters saved US lives.

Yet, we need regulation as human nature demands it. One of our constants is the “haves” will take advantage of the “have-nots.” It has always been thus, and will forever be this way. The system will be gamed no matter what the government and economic construct. President Teddy Roosevelt took on the Robber Barons who ran the country going against his own party. He wanted a “square deal” for everyone. Today, in America, we are returning in some respects to the Robber Baron period, with the vast amounts of money to win elections and the undue influence that follows.

For those who disagree with my opinion, let me offer some true stories, some in the public domain, some I am aware of through my consulting work experience.

Greed is not often good – altruistic leaders are not common

  • I have known a CEO who had every perquisite and a multi-million dollar income, but he invited customers to his daughter’s wedding, so his company would pay for the cost.
  • I have known executives who tried to have animal hospital bills paid by their spending accounts, expense light bulbs, etc. purchased for their homes and got a second company chauffeur, as the CEO and COO’s wives fought over the use of the lone chauffeur.
  • A colleague worked with a minister of a large church who answered his question about the scope of a compensation consulting project with these immortal words – “Your job is to look after the shepherd; the Lord will look after the flock.”
  • We have more immortal words uttered by the former head of the PTL Club to Ted Koppel on ABC Nightline about the extravagance of a solid gold faucet in his house at the expense of innocent donors – “The Lord wanted me to have nice things.” This was before he went to jail for defrauding his flock..
  • We had a local CEO of the United Way who single-handedly decimated future funding levels of the United Way from $40 million to $15 million, with her trying to ram a Supplemental Executive Retirement Plan through for herself without the full Board’s knowledge, coupled with a PTL Club worthy expense account.
  • Then, there are the tales of the Rigas family who led Adelphia and Dennis Kozlowski who led Tyco International, who basically treated the corporate money as theirs which led to scandals over lavish spending.
  • Bank of America and former Wachovia (I am a shareholder of both), one of which is now owned by someone else, have had a series of aggressive marketing, fraud, malfeasance, insider trading, etc. settlements (of course, without admitting guilt) which have totaled in multiple tens of billions of dollars. They both have been part of three of the worst merger transactions in banking history – the names Moneystore, Golden West and Countrywide will live on as reminders of poor decision-making that harmed many customers and employees, in addition to shareholders.
  • The name Enron will live on as well as its executives had code names for various financial gimmicks that sheltered earnings or created fictitious gains for reporting purposes. And, when the company was about to get caught, its CEO was asking employees to buy more Enron stock in the 401(k) plan to prop up the price.
  • Beazer Homes is one of the poster children for the financial housing crisis as they inflated a buyer’s ability to buy a home, did not disclose they owned the mortgage lender, did not fully describe variable loans, and did not let people know the realtor and inspector were in on the game. So, people bought a house they could not afford under terms that were not suited for their income. The CEOs recent appeal in Court was denied and he is back to jail.
  • The other financial crisis culprits were rating agencies like S&P, Moody’s who stamped AAA ratings on more risky financial products which packaged all these bad loans together and sold them to investors. They sold their ratings by gaining more business from the people whose products they were rating. Goldman Sachs got chastised for selling these products to clients while betting against them with their own money. The above sleazy activities are why the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau exists and should remain.
  • A West Virginia coal mine owner paid for a judge’s campaign for office, so penalties for EPA violations would go away or be lessened. Later, this sloppy operator later had a coal mine collapse which killed many.
  • The petro-chemical and fossil fuel industries have made so much profit, they will effectively use those profits to get their way with regulators and sway public opinion. The movie” Erin Brockovich” is a great movie as it shows how one person can fight an industry that was harming people, but her heroic efforts should not be an anomaly. I would encourage you to watch “Toxic Hotseat,” “Living Downstream,” and either/ both “Gasland” movies to show how industry can steam roll people. If someone says we should do away with the EPA, ask them why on earth would anyone want to do that?

Regulations are needed to keep things fair. Regulations are needed to keep our children and parents safe. We should test our regulations to make sure they are effective, but we should be ever vigilant to minimize bureaucracy. Bureaucracy and regulations are not the same thing. If we are not careful, we may throw the baby out with the bath water.

If you don’t take offense, you are not offended

There is a television commercial about Northern toilet paper, where a mother walks up to a clothesline full of toilet paper in her backyard. Hiding behind a tree are two boys giggling about their mischief. The mother smells the fragrant, fresh smell on the TP and asks of one of the boys who is surprised she knows is there, “Tommy, what kind of toilet paper does your mother use?” She then walks away holding an armful of the TP with the boys realizing they failed to achieve their goal of mayhem.

Beyond the advertising message, the larger message is the following - “if you don’t take offense, you are not offended.” The author of this quote, at least to me, is an old friend who was a school counselor, who unfortunately died of cancer a few years ago. I think her words are profound and can apply to so many things. It is not being naïve to think this in this manner. It is a way to say, I choose how to react to something, so I will not let you control how I should feel. In this case, these boys were being mischievous, but the mother truly disarmed them by not taking offense.

Choosing not to be offended is a way to avoid giving your power away. There are some who relish in getting another person’s goat. Sometimes it can be done in a fun teasing way, while other times it can be done by people with less than benign intent. If you choose not to take the bait, the person will cease trying to get your goat, at least on this issue. If they move on to other issues, you can choose is this someone with whom you want to have a lot of contact.

I think being able to laugh at yourself is a wonderful way to disarm people. It means I am laughing with you about something I may have said or done earlier. Or, it could be a simple comment such as “that was not my finest hour.” Then you can move on to another topic. Not biting on comments designed to lure you into conversation is another. This may occur in a line or queue as you await service, where someone will make a derogatory comment about some target, hoping you will agree. A nice smile with no acknowledgment, can permit the subject to change. If needed, you could say, “I don’t agree with that or I don’t feel that way.”

So, when someone intends to offend you or get under your skin with comments, do not give your power away. You choose how to react. If you don’t take offense, you are not offended.

People are blowing this out of proportion says the people blowing it out of proportion

I apologize for the long title, but to me it needed each of the words to state the modus operandi of the mainstream news business in America. I was in a hospital waiting room for about two hours earlier this week, and while I read, the TV in the waiting room was tuned into one of the all news all day networks, this one beginning with a “C” and ending with two “N’s.” For the entire two hours, the coverage was around EBOLA, primarily in the US, with a little seasoning of where the greater risk is in West Africa or the big story that Nigeria is EBOLA free.

The night before on one of the prime time national news, this on beginning with an “A” and ending with a “C,” the network medical news advisor said the scare of EBOLA in the US is being blown out of proportion and we should take comfort in the family and friends exposed to the victim who traveled to Dallas are now out of quarantine without being infected and the two nurses who did catch the virus appear to be doing better. He added that people are blowing the likelihood of catching the disease out of proportion and we should be respectful of the seriousness of the disease, but not panic.

I like the good doctor’s last statement, but his network is one of the ones blowing it out of proportion. The all day news network lives for issues like this, so as evidenced by my hospital waiting room experience, will cover it ad nauseam and then cover it again. Of course, “fear sells” so both the news stations and politicians running for office have seized upon the issue to show how serious-minded they are. Of course, many of these are the same politicians who:

- allowed the sequestration cuts go into play which harmed funding of the NIH, which is charged with research and overseeing the development of new epidemics and drugs. If you recall, the sequestration cuts were a fall back that were supposed to be so severe, that even members of Congress would rationally come to a budget agreement, which of course, they did not.

- would not approve the President’s Surgeon General nominee, because the candidate had the temerity to mention that ungoverned guns kill people. So, we needed to appoint an EBOLA Czar to synergize efforts, as we are sans Surgeon General.

Ironically, I have not seen either of these items mentioned in news reports, yet this is where something could have been done. It is akin to Congress not passing a bi-partisan bill posed in the spring to begin to address the VA problems that have built over the years and then when the problems bubbled over in Phoenix and elsewhere, saying how could you let this happen? A lesser bill was passed in the summer which can only do tip of the iceberg stuff.

EBOLA is a news story, but playing to people’s fears and inflaming them is not coverage. It is like the local weather folks scaring people over a coming storm. The greater story is in West Africa. The greater story is how politicians can fail to act then ask “how could you let that happen?” when something goes wrong. You had a chance to do something well in advance Mr. Congressman, why did you not vote to address this issue when something proactively could be done. That is a question worth asking.

 

What are the greater threats to humans?

Watching the news these days can seem like an apocalypse is about to occur. Between ISIL, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and other terrorist groups, EBOLA, the festering conflict in the Ukraine, the ever-present threat of North Korea, and various levels of corruption in far too many countries, it could seem the end is near. Yet, while all of the above are scary, the one that we should be most fearful of is the level of corruption, as it gets in the way of addressing the greater apocalyptic threats to humans. The greater threats to humans are: too many people with too few resources, chemically enhanced food products that are leaving us less able to fight off anti-bacterial resistant strains of bacteria, global poverty and health concerns and the impact of climate change on all of these issues.

I am not saying the first group of issues are not severe, especially EBOLA and those impacted by the terrorists groups, but the issues which would impact humans the most are in the second group, with corruption standing in the way of doing measurable things about problems that will be exacerbated by the overarching problem of climate change which impacts everything.

Population planners have answered the question how many people can the earth support with a carefully couched range. If the average human consumes like the average Rwandan, the earth can support over 15 billion people. If we consume like the average North American, the earth could support less than 3 billion people. We are currently between the two with roughly 7 billion of people. The two keys we must always keep in our mind are air and water. “Water is the new oil” as our dearest resource on the planet and it is showing its need to be nurtured more with the extreme droughts in California, Texas, Australia and other parts of the globe. Plus aquifers are not as robust in many areas as needed. Bad air quality is so harmful that we have only begun to scratch the surface on the impact of toxic air particulates that come from fracking, pesticides and other chemicals that are blown or escape into the air.

The chemicals we use to grow more and better foods to feed our growing population, not only are harmful due to the pesticides that need to be ever stronger (we are spraying Agent Orange on some crops), but there is a nastier and more deadly problem that we are seeing surface in hospitals. Chemically enhanced foods are hindering our ability to fight bacteria that gets in our system, sometimes from these same foods. The super-bacteria is increasingly resistant to current anti-bacterial medicines and more people are dying from formerly highly preventable infections. “PBS Frontline” did a documentary earlier this week on this issue and “60 Minutes” did a similar report in the past year.

EBOLA has exposed the global health and poverty concerns in West Africa which impede our ability to fight disease, any disease. EBOLA will be very hard to harness and may result in a million deaths before it is reined in, which is truly a catastrophe. But what happens if one of these anti-bacterial resistant strains gets into people? What it also shows that people in poverty do not have access to healthcare, clean water and sewage to process waste away from where they live. The inability to separate drinking water from sewage water is a key to reducing exposure to disease. Plus, there is a high correlation between family size and poverty, so it is incumbent upon us to distribute birth control materials and education resources.

However, each of these problems will be made worse by climate change on top of the problems climate change will cause by itself. Dr. Sandra Steingraber, biologist, ecologist and author (“Living Downstream” and “Raising Elijah”), notes that we do not talk enough about the impact of climate change on the chemicals in the ground. She notes it is like a chemical crock pot, as the climate gets hotter, the chemicals will become even more detrimental. Author Steven Solomon notes in his book “Water: the Epic Struggle of Wealth, Power and Civilization,” that climate change will impact our water in a huge way through more severe droughts, fighting more forest fires, more unpredictable weather patterns (providing way too much precipitation in some places, with very little in others) and impacting crop irrigation on top of its other concerns.

Plus, those in poverty and without good healthcare tend to get impacted by natural events more than others, so climate change will be more harmful to those who can least afford it. I have written before about the Carteret Islanders whose island is being consumed by the ocean. It has already destroyed their ability to grow crops through the salt water encroachment. The islanders have had to travel to petition leaders of larger islands to move their people there. Ironically, these less educated people have more open dialogue about climate change than we do in our US Congress.

Yet, standing against doing more things to address these issues is corruption and influence, including in the US. We must address these issues now and not wait until they happen. The price tag to fix the impact of climate change or research new drugs, is far cheaper to do it now than after the impact. In the US, we have too many funders of politicians that have a financial stake in perpetuating their interests, which run afoul of planning ahead. It is far worse elsewhere with corrupt politicians keeping money meant for others. For example, Hosni Mubarak has over $80 billion in wealth, yet Egyptians were getting by on $2 a day. Brazil shined up nicely for the World Cup, but not much of the money fell to people in need. The Ukraine president was ousted last fall as he was corrupted by the Russian government, while others suffered in the country.

These are the bigger concerns that could endanger all humans. We need to do our best to address these issues now and plan accordingly than wait until it is too late or too costly.

 

Bull Durham – a baseball movie which is more about life

I was commenting last weekend on An Exacting Life’s blog about being superstitious  and was reminded of the movie “Bull Durham” starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.* While the movie, written and directed by Ron Shelton, is around the subject of minor league baseball, it is more about life and life’s wisdom that is imparted by the two wise seasoned characters – Costner’s Crash Davis and Sarandon’s Annie Savoy – to a budding baseball star who does not think deep thoughts, Robbins’ Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh. You need not be a baseball fan to enjoy this movie.

The movie has some of the best quotes this side of “Casablanca,” which I will share from memory, meaning I will likely be paraphrasing more than quoting. The one I shared about being superstitious is in the climactic scene (I must use this word cautiously as the movie has some scintillating scenes between Costner and Sarandon during the denouement), when Savoy enters Davis’ apartment without knocking to accuse him of telling LaLoosh to stay out of her bed, an idea she started, to channel LaLoosh’s energy into his pitching several weeks earlier. The team began a long winning streak thereafter.

Davis responded by saying he did not tell him that and said “You don’t mess with a streak as they don’t come along often.” He added “If you are winning because you think it is due to your not getting laid, then you are. And, you should know that.” Savoy realizes he is right and professes her desire for Davis, which had been smoldering all season. The irony of all ironies is while Savoy ends up with Davis, in real life, Sarandon falls in love with Robbins after meeting during the filming of the movie which led to a long marriage.

Some of my other favorite lines of the movie, include:

- Davis (who is the catcher) telling LaLoosh (the pitcher) on the mound to “Don’t try to strike out everyone. Strikeouts are fascist. Throw more ground balls, they are more democratic.”

- Savoy notes about LaLoosh “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”

- Davis, after being challenged to a bar fight by Laloosh, who did not know Davis was his new catcher, diffused the situation by tossing a baseball to the wild pitcher, saying hit me with this. The pitcher noted he would kill him if he hit him, to which Davis retorted, “From what I hear, you couldn’t hit water if you fell out of boat.”

- Davis telling LaLoosh after one of his pitches was hit for a long home run, “Man, that ball went so far it needed a stewardess.” This was after Davis told the batter what pitch was coming after LaLoosh kept shaking of the signal.

- Davis picking up LaLoosh’s shower flip-flops which had fungus growing on it. “If you get to the Show (the major leagues), people will think you are colorful (with the fungus). Until then, people will think you are a slob.”

- Savoy telling LaLoosh who needed to think less on the pitcher’s mound, “To breathe through your eyelids like the lava lizards.”

- Savoy telling LaLoosh to slow down when he rips off all his shirt the first time they are alone foregoing the romantic theater. She adds, “Put your shirt back on. I want to watch.”

The most memorable scene, though, occurs when he Davis responds to Savoy’s question when she tells the two ballplayers she will choose one of them to be in a monogamous relationship with during the season. Davis asked why does she get to make the choice and why not one of them? When he later add he does not believe in choice like that in “matters of the heart,” she asks him what do you believe in. Davis characters lays on a diatribe that tells her more than she ever wanted to know about what he believed in such as “I believe Christmas presents should be opened Christmas morning” and “I believe in slow wet kisses that last for three days.” After which she is obviously smitten with him saying, “Oh, my.”

I recognize these quotes don’t do the movie justice, as there are so many well crafted scenes and lines offered by a terrific cast. The dugout banter between the manager and pitching coach is priceless.  If you like the movie, tell me your favorite scenes. If you do not, I would love to hear your comments as to why. And, if you have not seen it, please do check it out.

* Here is a link her to her post: http://anexactinglife.com/2014/10/11/very-superstitious