"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Thursday, July 30, 2015

#AllLivesMatter: A Parable of Sorts

As the fire trucks screamed down the road heading toward the burning house, she ran out to the curb hoping to flag down at least one. Her house was quiet -- neatly cut lawn, roses adding a touch of red to the picture. Quiet. Clean. Her block a model of stability.

She could smell the fire, the burning wood. It was faint, wafting in from at least two blocks away.

"Stop!" she screamed. She waived her arms. The trucks whizzed past. Police cars raced past. She kept waiving.

"Why won't they stop?" she said.

A reporter pulled up. He'd heard about the fire on the scanner, but was intrigued by the woman. Perhaps there was a story here, he thought.

"What's the matter." he asked.

"Why won't they stop?"

"The firefighters?"

"Oh, my house," she moaned. "My house, my house!"

"Is it on fire?"

"No."

"A burglary? Were you attacked?"

"No."

"I don't understand," the reporter said. "There's a house on fire down the street. Surely, that house is what matters."

"Surely," she said. "The burning house matters. But all houses matter. All houses matter."

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Quote of the day: Baseball's problematic moralism

I think this comment, from today's edition of The New York Times, fairly sums up the problems with penalizing an entire era of hitters (and one pitcher) because of steroids. It is time to reconsider Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and others -- and to stop penalizing via guilt-by-association guys like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell -- and vote them into the Hall of Fame.
“The Bonds story may be the most complicated moral question of our sporting times,” said Stephen Mosher, a professor of sports management and media at Ithaca College. “It’s about an institution that wants to punish these guys but was also an institution that more or less encouraged them by turning a blind eye to what they were doing to keep the cash registers ringing.”


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Monday, July 20, 2015

The drum shot that changed the world

Fifty years ago today, Bob Dylan released the single, "Like a Rolling Stone." A month later, the album Highway 61 Revisited was released. Here are my thoughts on that important album -- one of the earliest punk records, as far as I am concerned -- in a piece I wrote several years ago for Pop Matters.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Journalism 101: Bad questions guarantee bad answers



The interwebs have been abuzz the last couple of days with video of an exchange between President Barack Obama and CBS reporter Major Garrett. On the left, the response has been glee -- praise for the president shutting down a disrespectful questioner; on the right, the exchange is evidence of an imperial president unwilling to answer hard questions.

Ultimately, I don't see this little exchange being all that important as news -- the president was asked a bad question, answered it in a way that deflected the underlying assumptions and the audience is left without anything useful to walk away with.

From a journalistic standpoint, however, I think it is worth discussing. My problem is two-fold. One, Garrett's question was poorly constructed. It was unnecessarily confrontational, assumed motivation on the part of the president and seemed designed to do nothing more than elicit a piqued response. That is bad journalism.

The goal of all good journalism has to be to get useful and necessary information for the audience. What we needed to know from the president was what exactly the administration was doing to bring home the four Americans held in Iran and why their fate was not a part of the nuclear deal. That was the question that needed to be asked and that was implied by the Garrett query. The problem is that Garrett's approach allowed the president to turn the question back on Garrett, to make it a question of respect and agenda and not one of information. As I say in the Facebook exchange below, we are talking about Garrett's question, rather than the issues he was attempting to have the president address. That, to me, is bad journalism.

I'm curious to know what my readers think -- especially those in the business or who have been my students.

Vocabulary, language, sentence composition... a powerful thing. If I can credit conservatives with one thing they have...

Posted by Ken Paris on Thursday, July 16, 2015
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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Notes on the Iran deal

The reaction to the Iran nuclear deal is instructive in its speed and the lack of context with which it has been received. On one side, the criticism has moved beyond the specifics of the deal itself to a broader critique of U.S.-Iranian relations (here is a typical conservative take), as though the United States was the only nation at the table. Supporters, for their part, are making claims that may not hold up once real scrutiny is applied to the details.

I'll be honest. I am not prepared to say whether this deal is a good one -- though I do start from the perspective offered today by Roger Cohen in The New York Times: The deal has to be considered against the alternatives -- I.e., that a negotiated settlement is preferable to military action, that it is a starting point, and that the sanctions regime under which we currently operate was about to fray.

As Cohen writes:
The Iran nuclear deal is not perfect, nor was it ever intended to address the long list of American-Iranian grievances, which will persist. It must be judged on what it set out to do — stop Iran going nuclear — not on whether Iran has a likeable regime (it does not) or does bad things (it does).
If negotiations had collapsed, he writes (in a knock against critics of the deal), would mean
renewed war talk as an unconstrained Iran installs sophisticated centrifuges, its stockpile of enriched uranium grows, Russia and China abandon the sanctions regime, moderates in Iran like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are sidelined, and a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic draws closer. 
Ultimately, my issue with the critiques -- at least from some quarters -- is that they are not focused on the specifics of the deal itself, but instead on peripheral issues (there are exceptions, like this column from conservative Charles Krauthammer). These are issues that need to be tackled, to be sure, and can be as we move forward, though we will have to acknowledge as part of any future negotiations over Iran's role in the Middle East, over its belligerence toward Israel, or its commitment to human rights that Iran is a sovereign nation and that our influence, ultimately, is limited.

The key issue, in this case, was the Iranian nuclear weapons program and the deal should be judged solely on whether it effectively shuts that program down. Again, I don't know if this agreement will accomplish that. In a perfect world, what would happen next would be a fairly open and honest debate that results in an expanded understanding of how this deal will work, how it will affect nuclear proliferation and what legitimate alternatives might exist. It would subject all claims (including this one from the president) to in-depth analysis and critique, explain who the players are (both nationally and internationally) and what their allegiances mean for their claims.

The chances of that happening, however, are slim given that we are in the middle of a presidential race, that we have a national media apparatus more interested in conflict than in providing useful information (see Juan Cole's analysis), and because there are too many interests out there who stand to benefit from creating controversy.

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