Showing posts with label journalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label journalism. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Speaking Of Ponderous Matter

Yesterday's New York Times reported the award of the Nobel Prize in physics for the Higgs Boson, that gives mass to particles in space, or something like that. When experimenters at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland detected the Higgs Boson, it completed the verification of the Standard Model, which is a very big thing in physics.

The article explained the function of the Higgs: "According to this model, the universe brims with energy that acts like a cosmic molasses, imbuing the particles that move through it with mass, the way a bill moving through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming more and more ponderous and controversial."

What most needs explaining now is the origin of the New York Times' tortured analogy. My theory is that the Times had no science writer to do the article, but because of the shutdown of the US government, there was a political reporter available - one who usually covers Congress and to whom such an analogy makes sense. Otherwise, there is no rational explanation.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tony's Back

There is always a bit of an empty spot in public discourse when Tony Tharp's blog disappears, as it did a week or so ago.

I don't read him because I agree with him, though I often do. I read him because he makes me think.

That's a good thing.

Today he says he has made his last comment on Oriental politics for awhile.

I hope that isn't true.

Nevertheless, there are bigger and perhaps more interesting fish to fry in North Carolina politics.

What is happening in this state is worthy of Tony's analytic talents.

What do you suppose he means by "worth plowing through?"

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Communications Intelligence: Press Disclosures In 1942 - Chicago Tribune

The Snowden affair calls to mind an earlier history of U.S. Intelligence efforts targeting communications. In the 1920's and 30's, the United States targeted foreign diplomatic and military communications. The early origins of the effort remain murky. The entire field of cryptography and cryptanalysis burgeoned after the introduction of radio communications. Intercepted radio message traffic provided intelligence analysts vast quantities of material to exploit. During World War I, the main target was Germany.

After WWI, for a time the effort continued using combined resources of the Army, Navy, State Department and Justice, under leadership of Herbert Yardley, who had headed the Army's communications intelligence effort during the Great War. This effort, known officially as the Cipher Bureau and unofficially as the American Black Chamber, continued until it was closed during the Hoover Administration in an apparent economy measure. Or, alternatively, it was closed as a result of Secretary of State Stimson's discomfort with the program. "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail," he declared.

Japan had been a major target of US communications intelligence which played a key role in US diplomatic success during the Washington Naval Conference of 1922. The Navy began its own effort at communications intelligence in 1926 (probably building on earlier efforts). Here is an account of the Navy's efforts leading up to WWII.

Something to bear in mind is that US Government efforts to intercept, decode, translate and distribute foreign message traffic was in clear violation of the Telecommunications Act of 1934. These efforts, which played a key role in US operational success in both oceans during WWII, continued to violate US law until an exception was made by statute in 1978.

In the intervening decades, there were several instances of inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of US communications intelligence. Here is an account of what happened in 1942 concerning one such unauthorized disclosure concerning Midway:

The Battle of Midway continued long after the combatants retired. Because of the confusion that surrounded the nascent and relatively unfamiliar U.S. Navy policies governing secrecy and need to know in 1942, the Battle of Midway was refought in the newspapers and courthouses of three major U.S. cities - New York, Chicago, and Washington - for several weeks after the battle actually ended. At issue was how the Navy knew of Japanese plans, how that knowledge came into the possession of a newspaper reporter, and how the government should handle a serious security violation. In the end no one was ever formally punished for revealing to the public the role communications intelligence played in the Japanese defeat. Whether the Japanese ever discovered that U.S. cryptologists had successfully penetrated their most secret operational code, or even suspected the magnitude of the warning provided by COMINT, remains a matter of conjecture to this day. At the time, however, officials within OP-20-G were certain that subsequent almost draconian corrections in Japanese communications procedures and cryptography were traceable directly to the following events.
On 17 May 1942, the survivors of the Lexington were en route to San Diego and San Francisco aboard the USS Barnett and the USS Elliot. (One account said that Admiral Fitch and Captain Sherman were aboard the transport Chester.) Anticipating their arrival in the United States, CINCPAC sent the following message to Admiral Fletcher, CTF 17, with information copies to COMINCH and the Commandants of the 11th and 12th Naval Districts:
It is imperative that all survivors Coral Sea action being returned Mainland be instructed that they are to refrain from any mention of the action upon their arrival west coast port. Com11 is requested berth transports where debarkation can be conducted without contact with newsmen. All personnel will probably require reoutfitting. There will be no publicity regarding this matter until Navy Department release. Barnett and Elliot will stop at San Diego to discharge excess personnel en route San Francisco. 
Despite these precautions by CINCPAC, events aboard the Barnett resulted in even more damaging revelations than those CINCPAC had hoped to prevent. In ancillary actions, CINCPAC learned that medical reports filed in Navy Bureau of Medicine channels revealed the status of American carriers after the battle. In a hasty message on 3 June 1942, CINCPAC notified COMINCH and requested immediate action to suppress the errant reports. At 2050 on 8 June 1942, COMINCH sent the following message to CINCPAC:
Contents of your 311221 May were published almost verbatim in several newspapers yesterday. Article originated with correspondent Stanley Johnson [sic] embarked on [USS] Barnett until June 2d. While your despatch was addressed Task Force Commanders it was sent in channel available to nearly all ships which emphasizes need of care in using channels para. Cominch investigating on Barnett and at San Diego. 
CINCPAC's message of 311221 May contained his final appreciation of the Japanese order of battle prior to Midway.
True to his word, COMINCH immediately convened several formal inquiry panels, which began gathering depositions from witnesses. The panels inquired into the circumstances aboard the Barnett, which, in addition to most of the crew, carried the executive officer of the Lexington, Commander Morton T. Seligman, and a newspaper correspondent, Mr. Stanley Johnston, back to the United States, and in Chicago in the headquarters Colonel R.R. McCormick's newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, where the story had originated. According to Admiral King's biographer, Thomas B. Buell in Master of Seapower, Admiral King "was in a white fury at his headquarters while his staff frantically tried to discover the source of the leak."
By 11 June all of the principals had been interviewed. Those aboard the Barnett were interviewed more than once. Out of this work emerged a very unpleasant picture of official neglect and confusion concerning the safeguarding of communications intelligence both on the Barnett and in the newspapers. Because of the perception that newsmen accompanying U.S. forces were sworn to secrecy, indictments of the principal employees of the Chicago Tribune were sought on 9 June, even before the inquiries were completed. They were returned on 7 July by a Chicago grand jury. At this point serious snags appeared at every turn, and the matter lay in the hands of the grand jury and a special prosecutor for several weeks while the navy added depositions to a record that increasingly showed that Johnston, a British subject, had, with the help or negligence of others, betrayed the trust placed in him.
While many in the navy focused on finding a suitable punishment for Johnston, COMINCH issued another memorandum on 20 June 1942 similar to those he had originated in March and April. It was sent to CINCLANT, CINCPAC, and CDR- SWPACFORCE bearing the subject "Control of Dissemination and Use of Radio Intelligence." Within the navy this would prove to be the only remedial action to come out of the Johnston case.
On 24 June the New York newspaper PM published a story without attribution announcing that the Justice Department did not plan to prosecute anyone, either in the newspapers or in the U.S. Navy, as a result of their role in the revelations. Ironically, three days later the navy discovered that Johnston's own government had earlier declared him "unreliable" as a correspondent. It was the same government, however, that subsequently forged the ultimate solution by addressing the correlation between the Johnston revelations and safeguarding communications intelligence.
On 14 July, the special prosecutor, Mr. William D. Mitchell, transmitted his comprehensive "Report on the Chicago Tribune Case" to Attorney General Francis Biddle and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. His conclusion, after he had reviewed the law, the evidence, and the circumstances surrounding the "leak," ended by suggesting that "the game may not be worth the candle" and that the national effort would be better served if the case were dropped.
In the mind of the special prosecutor, none of his major reasons for dropping the case concerned the safeguarding of communications intelligence. Three salient points concerning the merits of the government's case were cited instead. All were related to the personal behavior of the principals: "1) Johnston said (on 8 June) that he got the information from a paper he found on his desk; 2) Two officers testified seeing Seligman working at a table in his quarters and that before him was a 'writing on Navy paper' giving a list of Jap vessels divided into a 'striking force, support force, etc.'; 3) If, as appears likely, some officer left a copy of that dispatch lying around, it may fairly be said there was as much carelessness on the ship as the Tribune was guilty of, and the Jury may think so." 
No further action was taken until 15 August 1942, when the British Admiralty delegation in Washington sent a letter to Admiral King expressing concern that the Hearst revelations posed a danger to special intelligence methods, that a trial would further compromise this source, and that "preservation of this invaluable weapon outweighs almost any other consideration." King's reply reassured the British that the U.S. Navy would not do anything to increase the harm already inflicted by the original news story.  Five days later, the Chicago Daily Tribune carried the front page story, "U.S. Jury Clears Tribune." This story signaled the end of the grand jury investigation, though no reasons were ever given to the press by Mr. Mitchell, the special prosecutor.
What were the facts in the strange case of Stanley Johnston? As noted above, CINCPAC 311221Z May 42, was the message that passed CINCPAC's final appreciation of the Japanese order of battle for the Battle of Midway to the commanders of Task Forces 16 and 17, Admirals Spruance and Fletcher, respectively. The message was passed in communications channels available to other ships. Contrary to normal practices, which expected communicators to ignore traffic not addressed to their ship or commander, it was probably decoded by communications officers from the Lexington en route home from the loss of their ship at Coral Sea, who were acting as watch standers aboard the transport USS Barnett (AP11). Their reason for doing so may have been the presence of the Lexington's executive officer, Commander Morton Seligman. The message was given to Commander Seligman, who, apparently under the impression that he was authorized to do so, showed the message to Johnston, who had been aboard the Lexington during the battle and was being evacuated with the crew. Johnston and Seligman may have shared the same quarters aboard the Barnett
On 7 June 1942, five days after Johnston's arrival in San Diego and one day after CINCPAC's "POA Communique #3" appeared announcing "a momentous U.S. victory," Johnston's story of U.S. foreknowledge of Japanese forces and their plans appeared in the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers in Washington and New York. The headlines that introduced the story on page 4A in the Washington Times Herald for 7 June 1942 revealed without a doubt that the author had been privy to secret material concerning Japanese intentions and strategy: "U.S. KNEW ALL ABOUT JAP FLEET. GUESSED THERE WOULD BE A FEINT AT ONE BASE, REAL ATTACK AT ANOTHER."
Though he could not know the extent of the duplicity involved, Walter Winchell, in his column in the New York Daily Mirror, characterized the Tribune as having "tossed security out the window." Understandably, Johnston's repeated denials that he had ever seen CINCPAC's message were received with cynical disbelief in Washington. Even his media superiors readily admitted they could not otherwise account for the similarities. 
On 8 June, following an inconclusive meeting between high naval and newspaper officials, Johnston and his editor in Washington, Arthur Henning, met privately with Vice Admiral Russell Willson, Admiral King's chief of staff. It was during this meeting, as noted by the special prosecutor, that Johnston may have contradicted himself (Admiral Willson was to say that Johnston "confessed") and admitted seeing a list of Japanese vessels.  With the concurrence of the secretary of the navy and the president, Admiral King barred Seligman from promotion forever. Seligman retired in 1944.
OP-20-G's assessment of the damage done by the Johnston revelations took a long time to develop primarily because the Japanese themselves were slow to change their procedures. Nevertheless, OP-20-G maintained it was no mere coincidence that within a few weeks of the Johnston expose drastic changes were made in virtually all Japanese codes and ciphers including the Japanese Fleet General-Purpose System, which changed on 15 August, only two months into the current cipher. Consistent with these changes, navy monitors also noted the omission of message serial numbers beginning on 15 August and a major change in the Japanese callsign system on 1 October 1942. 
All of the Japanese refinements were justifiably described by OP-20-G analysts as serious threats to their capability to produce current intelligence.  Thus, it is difficult to say at this point that a single event occurred that prompted Admiral King to decide what course of action he would take. It may have been OP-20-G's concern that a jury trial would have even more painful consequences than those already experienced, or Admiral Willson's reading of the meeting he had had with Johnston, or the trauma of preparing highly classified testimony to be given before a Chicago grand jury. Clearly, Admiral King had decided not to implement the 7 July grand jury indictment when he responded to the British letter in August; and the evidence suggests, albeit weakly, that as early as 20 June he had begun to regret even seeking the indictment.
Throughout the Johnston affair, OP-20-G consistently sought a plausible cover story to minimize the damage already done. They appealed to King for future safeguards to prevent the loss of a vital advantage to the navy. King's reiteration of his restrictions on distribution on 20 June, while perhaps not all that OP-20-G wanted, strongly suggested that these appeals were heard.
Questions concerning the appropriate applications of communications intelligence to wartime emergencies of all types continued to arise. One problem addressed in December 1942 affected how newspapermen and radio broadcasters treated information they knew originated from enemy communications. A new paragraph was prepared for insertion in the "Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press" by the secretaries of war and navy and sent to the director of censorship for implementation:
To the end that the enemy may not have information concerning any success the U.S. may attain in deciphering his encoded or enciphered communications, no mention should be made of available or captured enemy codes or enemy ciphers, or about the intelligence gained from intercepting and studying enemy radio messages.
A prestigious trade journal gave immediate approval to the addition while at the same time registering the idea that after the war censorship should not continue. After citing a post-Pearl Harbor report that "monstrously exaggerated" U.S. losses as an example of irresponsible behavior, the editorial concluded with some ideas that are still relevant:
As between an ethical professional requirement that a journalist hold nothing back and a patriotic duty not to shoot one's own soldiers in the back, we have found no difficulty in making a choice. Freedom of the press does not carry with it a general license to reveal our secret strengths and weaknesses to the enemy. 
It was not until 1985 that anyone from the Pacific COMINT centers received any formal recognition for his contribution to either the Coral Sea or Midway victories. In 1985, in response to a massive outpouring of affection from his friends, Joseph Rochefort received the Distinguished Service Medal posthumously from the secretary of the navy. For the rest, their epitaph was most fittingly expressed by a perfect stranger many years later:
History, with its flickering lamp, stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to man is his conscience. The only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations, but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Remembering Weegee

The New York Times reported yesterday that on Thursday the Chicago Sun-Times fired all of its photographic staff. Twenty-eight employees. Their crime: not only did they commit photo journalism, they insisted on being paid.

Apparently the scheme is to get their writers to take snapshots for the paper with cheap digital cameras and also get photos from the public.

With the demise of Life and Look magazines and the use of national inserts in newspapers rather than locally produced rotogravure, the public's awareness of photo journalism has itself been in decline.

Photo journalism is a craft. It shows the world to the public and the public to the world. It is not an unskilled profession.

One of the most skilled practitioners, Henri Cartier-Bresson, described the task as that of capturing "the decisive moment." This obviously applies to sports photography, but less obviously to other events as well.

As I pondered the event, I was reminded of Weegee. That was his pen name (or stage name, I don't know), but he was a well known free lance photographer in New York City. His photos, published on this web site, give a feel for what a working photographer could do. He showed us to each other in all our human guises.

He worked, by the way, mostly at night, with a 4x5 press camera and disposable flash bulbs for lighting. Developed and printed the photos himself in a darkroom as the sun rose. Primitive equipment. But it did the job.

There were many other skilled photographers in the genre. Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstadt, the list goes on. Browse the works of Weegee and enjoy.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Unfreedom Of The Press

Dan Froomkin of Huffington Post interviews two of the most trusted neutral political observers, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of Brookings.

Ornstein and Mann severely criticized press coverage of the recent election, particularly the effort to blame both parties equally for political lies and extreme language.

"I can't recall a campaign where I've seen more lying going on -- and it wasn't symmetric," said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who's been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, "but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top."

Ornstein and Mann don't just criticize. They also point out the mechanism whereby journalists are intimidated and prevented from writing their real assessment.

Their comments lead one to wonder whatever happened to the free press?

Come to think of it, the timidity of reporters who don't want to speak truth to power, who are reluctant to do their jobs "without fear or favor," is an affliction in other lines of work as well. It isn't necessary to go to the mat on every issue, but if you let yourself be intimidated at every turn by those with wealth and power, you are not truly free.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Washington Post Fact Checking

I have mixed views about the proliferation of "fact checkers" as a specialty in many newspapers. I am of the view that reporters themselves should verify the truth of assertions made by interviewees, rather than "he-said, she-said" reports equating two sides. For one thing, there are often if not usually more than two sides to any controversy.

On balance, it is better to have fact checking than not. Still, it is not clear that we must trust the objectivity of the "fact checkers" themselves. Who checks the "fact checkers."

I have been particularly disappointed in the Washington Post "fact checker," Glenn Kessler. Particularly in the area of the national economy, he has from time to time awarded numerous "pinocchios" to statements that were actually true.

Today Kessler takes on Senator John McCain's comments about UN Ambassador Susan Rice's comments on "Face The Nation" on September 16 concerning the Benghazi raid. Kessler reviews the statement and makes it absolutely clear that John McCain completely misrepresents her comments and the context of them. In short, McCain's attack on Rice is a lie.

Kessler awards McCain two pinocchios.

Here is Kessler's scale:

"The Pinocchio Test
Where possible, we will adopt the following standard in fact-checking the claims of a politician, political candidate, diplomat or interest group.

One Pinocchio
Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.

Two Pinocchios
Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.

Three Pinocchios
Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.

Four Pinocchios

Reasonable people can differ as to whether Kessler's own fact checking justifies four pinocchios  or only three. But two? No way!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Weekly Reader

Sad news last night on the network news. The Weekly Reader, source of national and world news for countless schoolchildren since its founding in 1928, is ceasing publication.

In 1946, 47 and 48 I learned from the Weekly Reader about DP's (displaced persons) in Europe, conflict between Iraq and Iran, Civil War in China, the occupation of Japan and Germany, and American elections.

Most memorable was Weekly Reader's coverage of the 1948 presidential election. A week before the election, Weekly Reader printed a two-page spread of all the political parties, their nominees, their official symbols, and a brief explanation of party goals. The list included the Democratic Party (symbol: rooster); the State's Rights Party (nominee Strom Thurmond); the Progressive Party (nominee: former Vice President Henry Wallace); Republican Party (Thomas E. Dewey); Socialist Party; American Communist Party; Democrat Farm-Labor Party; Prohibition Party and Vegetarian Party, among others.

My contemporary, Senator John McCain, resurrected the Vegetarian Party for one of his best lines in his stump speech of 2000, when he asserted that he sought support from all political beliefs, including the vegetarian party.

I would bet that, as a fifth grader reading his Weekly Reader, the young John McCain was struck with the apparent absurdity of a political party dedicated to vegetarianism. I certainly was.

But I paid attention to the 1948 election.

Weekly Reader: Requiat in pacem.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Eccentricities, Etc.

I popped into Town and Country not long ago to buy some essential item and was delighted to run into one of our long-time residents, Tony Tharp.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will reveal that Tony hails from Leland, Mississippi, where Highway 61 of blues fame crosses Highway 82, about a dozen miles from Greenville, where my family lived when I attended Ole Miss. He also once worked for a friend of mine, Hodding Carter, editor and publisher of the Delta Democrat-Times, affectionately known as the DDT. Leland is not very far from where the Southern meets the Yellow Dog.

Tony arrived in Oriental not long before I did, but unlike me (though some may disagree), he is a bit eccentric. This characteristic is not unknown among Oriental residents, I believe.

I learned that Tony is once again expressing his eccentricities in a web site,

Check it out. You may be alternately amazed, amused and enlightened. Perhaps even occasionally enraged.

He posts his entries from his sailboat, Yoknapatawpha. Those of a literary bent will recognize the name. Few know, though, that the late William Faulkner kept a sailboat on Sardis Lake near Oxford, Mississippi. In the 1950's, the sailboat was maintained by another Mississippi eccentric, V.P. Ferguson.

I'll bet even Tony doesn't know that.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Humor, Censorship and Self Censorship

I try to be reasonably clear where I stand on public issues, but to speak to the substance of policy outcomes instead of relying on ad-hominem arguments. The truth is, that focusing on policy issues frequently comes out as dry as sand. Makes it hard for people to focus.

Sometimes a bit of humor makes the point clearer and also easier to swallow. Unless the humor descends into a mean sneer.

I was a bit taken aback today when a friend of the republican persuasion concluded that I have been too hard on republicans lately. I admit I've been paying attention to the republican debates and find it hard to say anything positive, especially about their economic views. Or their foreign policy views either, for that matter. Still, I don't want to descend into invective. If I oppose a particular policy, I have reasons. Problem is, the reasons may seem a bit Wonky. And I don't for a minute believe that every republican swallows every line put out by the candidates.

I have mentioned before that about sixty-five years ago I tried my hand at a bit of satire. I worked on an underground newspaper at Ole Miss that criticized the state's policy of segregation. That was a dangerous thing to do, but I thought it important enough to take the risk. I've never regretted it.

Doing satire well is a challenge. Sometimes the target of the satire believes you are on his side. Sometimes it just becomes mean. But in a repressive society it may be the only option. I'm out of practice and haven't tried it much lately.

All of this came to mind today when I read the account in the New York Times magazine section of the uses made of humor, satire, puns, visual jokes and other creative efforts by Chinese dissident cartoonists. They use the internet to pierce the efforts at thought control by Chinese authorities.

Read the article: "Where an Internet Joke Is Not Just a Joke." The article also calls to mind the successes of Czech cartoonists in using humor to satirize life in Communist Czechoslovakia. But this isn't just a problem in communist countries. Authoritarians everywhere seem to lack a sense of humor. It is often said that liberals have no sense of humor either, but that isn't accurate.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Cambridge MA, Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I understand from a recently published list of media that cover Pamlico County that mine is a "rambling blog."

I prefer the term "eclectic."

I don't object to "rambling." I certainly never promised to limit my thoughts to certain subjects or to Oriental and Pamlico County.

I hope my readers don't mind.

This week, we're rambling in Massachusetts.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Governing is Prediction

My last post called attention to W. Edwards Deming's observation that management is prediction.

This is true of government as well.

Ideally, both elected officials and civil servants would take into account during policy deliberations some prediction of the effects of the policies. But how can the public follow the issues and know what are the intended or probable outcomes of government measures?

We have prognosticators. Pundits. Professional explainers and predictors. Some write for newspapers and magazines and some talk on television. Surely the most influential of these pundits are the ones whose punditry is most accurate, right?

Not Exactly.

Recently a group of scholars in Public Policy at Hamilton University decided to examine the accuracy of prognostications by professional prognosticators, with interesting results.

This was not a ground breaking study. A more comprehensive twenty-year study of political and economic forecasting was summarized by Philip Tetlock in his book Expert Political Judgment. Tetlock's study was based on predictions by 284 experts on political and economic trends, and a subsequent analysis of the accuracy of the predictions. His findings:

-Extrapolation using mathematical models does better than human prediction
-Education and popularity increase the predictors' confidence but not their accuracy
-Prognosticators overpredict change and underpredict the status quo
-Extremists predict worse than moderates
-Some people predict better than others, even outside their area of expertise
The Hamilton study was more limited in time and scope, but focused on contemporary prognosticators. The most accurate prognosticator in their study was Paul Krugman of the New York Times. The least accurate was Cal Thomas. In general, they found that liberals were better prognosticators, especially if they had no law degree.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Momentous Events

This Friday, April 29, 2011, two momentous events taking place an ocean apart will probably dominate television.

Early that morning east coast time, the world will be treated to the spectacle of the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

That afternoon, we will see the final launch of space shuttle Endeavor, commanded by Captain Mark Kelly, husband of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head last January by an attempted assassin. Congresswoman Giffords is expected to attend the launching. Oh, by the way, so will President Obama.

By far the most momentous of those events will be the presence of Congresswoman Giffords at the launch of Endeavor.

My guess is that the largest TV audience will be that of the wedding.

A question for the bean counters among us: which event cost their nations the most - the wedding or the space launch?

I have no idea.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On, Wisconsin?

My high school fight song was sung to the tune of "On, Wisconsin!"

That was probably appropriate, since many if not most of my teachers and many students were from Wisconsin. Probably because of the climate, since my High School was in Anchorage, Territory of Alaska.

It was sixty years ago in Anchorage that I discovered The Progressive, founded by Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette in 1909. When I encountered the magazine, I was impressed that it pulled no punches in attacking the controversial issues of the day. I was also impressed at the magazine's dedication to democracy and free speech. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was a frequent target.

I don't remember ever subscribing, but I would pick up the latest copy whenever I saw it at a news stand. The articles were always thoughtful, probing and perhaps a bit edgy.

It hasn't changed a lot.

To get a flavor of it, check it out here.

Maybe it's time I subscribed.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Open Meetings Act and Boards of Elections

Last week the Pamlico County Board of Elections joined other Boards at a training session in New Bern. We (the Pamlico Board) were handed a paper by Bob Joyce of the UNC School of Government concerning the Open Meetings Act and County and Municipal Boards of Elections.

The problem is that in North Carolina, such boards consist of three members and a discussion between any two of them can under certain circumstances be construed as an "official meeting." The previous interpretation by the State Board had been that two members could have a conversation, so long as no agreements were concluded and no votes taken.

The newly-promulgated rule is more restrictive: "Members of county boards of elections should refrain from two-person conversations touching on subjects that may come before the board for a decision." Then the paper goes on to call for common sense. Right.

I have been quite aware of the problems created by the Open Meetings Act. The public is right to be suspicious of back room deals. On the other hand, agreements have to be negotiated. Public meetings aren't the best place for such negotiations. The North Carolina state legislature has exempted itself from most of the requirements of the Open Meetings Act. Otherwise, nothing would get done. Or, alternatively, only the staffs would be allowed to negotiate, cutting the elected or appointed members of the public body out of the loop as active participants.

For smaller bodies - say, the Oriental NC Town Board, with very limited staff resources, drafting ordinances under the constraints of the Open Meetings Act becomes a challenge.

My solution was to start this blog. My theory is, I don't care who knows what my position is on a public issue. I'll just put it out there in the open. Any member of the public who wants to know can just look. What could be more open than that? Should other Board members be among those who want to know what I think, they can look, too. No secrets.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Eyes on the Prize: the Prequel

Watching Eyes on the Prize last night on PBS brought back memories.

A decade before the Selma march, I was a student at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), quietly going about my business while under surveillance by agents of the White Citizens Council and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. It was an interesting time.

In 1956, I worked with a group of students on an underground newspaper called the Nigble Papers. I was essentially the publisher, which mostly meant finding a mimeograph machine somewhere that wasn't under lock and key. It was much like what was known in the Soviet Union as samizdat.

Our paper was later reprinted under the title Southern Reposure by a small group of Mississippi citizens: P.D. East, editor and publisher of The Petal Paper of Petal, Mississippi (near Hattiesburg); Hodding Carter, editor and publisher of The Delta Democrat-Times of my then home town of Greenville, Mississippi; Professor James Silver of Ole Miss (one of my history professors); and William Faulkner.

I recently came across a reference to the event in P.D. East's memoirs, The Magnolia Jungle, in a book of collected narratives by Marion Barnwell.

Our efforts didn't accomplish much in the short term, but I'd like to believe they helped in the long run.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Return of the Masked Marvel

I'm always genuinely pleased when Tony Tharp, (Former) editor of Pamlico Today, makes a reappearance.

Mr. Tharp isn't really masked, though from time to time he seems to wear different guises. And, as I have said before, he frequently raises issues that need raising.

While I disagree with his conclusions from time to time and am often uncomfortable with his personal invective, I agree with him on substance more often than he seems to believe.

Take the case of the letter from Heidi Artley to Oriental's Town Commissioners (or at least to some of them) last February. The entire letter is currently being withheld from the public on the grounds it is a personnel matter. Mr. Tharp wants the entire letter made public. I agree in part and disagree in part.

I just reread Charlie Hall's article in the Sun Journal February 11, 2010. It sounds to me like portions of the letter (which I have never seen) legitimately constitute a personal grievance letter conveying allegations about Mr. Cahoon's treatment of her. Those portions probably must be handled as a personnel matter and may not be made public, even though person(s) unknown who were privy to the letter did release it to the press. This is apparently the basis for allegation number three of the Town Attorney's letter of February 25 to the District Attorney.

The bulk of the letter, judging from Mr. Hall's account, seems to deal with allegations of financial irregularities involving the Town's books. Those allegations deserved serious attention.

A major problem with the allegations is that, as our auditor pointed out last December, the Town has no effective computer software controls. At the time of Ms. Artley's letter, at least four individuals had access to the Town's Peachtree Accounting System software. I believe all four had unrestricted rights to change entries in the system.

So far as I know, that is still the case. There is no integrity to the Town's books.

That's why I recommended to three of the current commissioners as early as last January that they get to the bottom of the matter by causing a forensic accountant to take a close look at the accounting system to uncover what actually happened.

I think it was irresponsible not to do so.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Use it or Lose it II: Our Freedoms

Today's Pamlico News has a front page article reporting a case of alleged "cyber stalking" at Pamlico High School.

It's hard to tell from the report, but it seems as though some students at the High School created an entry on a social networking site pretending to be the targeted school official, and advocated obviously absurd actions on the part of students. It's hard to say what the content of the site was which so offended officials, since the site has been removed.

The great mystery is why school officials chose to make this a criminal matter. It seems as though the students in question intended the site to be a parody or satire.

It might have been used as a "teachable moment." It is now a wasted opportunity. Lawyers are involved. Too late.

A classroom discussion might have examined and discussed the literary history of satire, beginning with Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal." It might have examined acceptable boundaries of satire and parody. It might have examined issues related to the internet.

Classes studying History, Government and Civics might have examined the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. This is one of the fundamental sources of our freedoms, that seems no longer as valued as it once was. In a 2005 study, high school students seemed to favor more government censorship. The First Amendment Center conducts an annual study, that unfortunately reveals widespread ignorance about and lack of commitment to this most basic freedom. The James L. Knight Foundation conducts detailed studies about the future of the First Amendment. The results aren't reassuring.

It doesn't help when people in authority get carried away.

About forty years ago, many young Americans wore T-Shirts emblazoned with the slogan: "Question Authority."

In a democracy, that's an essential practice.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Knock Knock

No, this isn't a joke. Earlier this evening, I heard an insistent and unfamiliar knock. When I opened the door, I was met by a Sheriff's deputy who handed me a yellow document. It was a summons in the case of Tony Tharp and versus the Town of Oriental, William R. Sage, et al. I am one of the et al, along with the town manager and the other members of the outgoing Town Board.

I can't say I was surprised. I have been reading about the suit on Mr. Tharp's new website, PamlicoToday. According to that site, "Tharp is representing himself in the lawsuit against the town. Oriental attorney Scott Davis is likely to get the job of defending the town. Without the suit even being filed, Davis already has billed the town about $300 for telephone consults on PamlicoToday.Com's pending lawsuit."

I wonder how he came to that conclusion.

Being sued, even in an official capacity, is no fun. I would readily decline the honor, if the opportunity arose.

I welcome the reappearance of Mr. Tharp as an active journalist focusing on Pamlico County events. He has in the past covered matters that needed covering, when no one else would. I leave it to the judge to rule on the merits of the case put forth by Mr. Tharp and his client (Mr. Tharp).