Dark Days for Democracy, Dangerous Days for Journalism

Asked to choose “whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” Thomas Jefferson stated, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Today, Jefferson wouldn’t have that choice; due to economics, electronic media and the internet, newspapers face extinction. In their stead, according to the Pew Research Center, about 45 percent of US adults get their “news” from Facebook, while Fox is the most viewed cable news network.

But both Facebook and Fox have stated that their business is entertainment, not news.

All contracts — including the social contract we call democracy — require “informed consent.” But millions of Americans are deeply un-informed: 34 percent of Americans reject evolution; 22 percent of millenials are unaware of the Holocaust!

There’s good reason why children, lunatics and those of “diminished capacity” — folks who can’t understand what they’re signing up for — are legally barred from signing contracts. There’s reason to worry that gobs of us now fall into that “diminished capacity” category — folks who vote without understanding what they’re signing up for.

Upon retiring after 40 years of newspapering in the Roaring Fork Valley, John Colson told The Sun that, “people need newspapers or some equivalent…to keep them informed about what’s going on around them, so people can make educated decisions about politics, about society. I believe an informed electorate is critical to the American Experiment at the very least, and maybe to the future of the world.”

Corey Hutchins, Columbia Journalism Review’s Rocky Mountain correspondent, says that Colorado provides a microcosm for journalism nationwide. Here, he writes, “We have elusive billionaire newspaper owners, secretive hedge-fund owners, reader-supported nonprofits and family owners.”

For years, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Denver Post was the only news organization that covered statewide politics and elected officials. But more than two-thirds of the Post’s newsroom has been axed in the past decade. Last April, when the paper’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, demanded deeper cuts despite profitability, staff rebelled, penning an editorial describing Alden managers as “vulture capitalists.”

In the last 10 years, the loss of half of Colorado’s press corps has predictably led to “a new generation of public officials…accustomed to fielding fewer tough questions, handling fewer open records requests, and having fewer cameras pointed at them than their predecessors.” That observation comes from Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene.

Greene is alarmed. Not only was a reporter handcuffed for photographing Denver cops arresting a naked panhandler, but Colorado’s Supreme Court has also refused to open records about a prosecutor’s misconduct. The Court’s decision in the Mario Owens case, Greene writes, “has made Colorado the only state without a presumptive First Amendment right to review any court documents. No other court in the nation has gone so far.”

Since 1733, when New York Weekly Journal publisher John Peter Zenger was imprisoned for criticizing a corrupt royal governor, reporting has at times proved  hazardous: In 1984, neo-Nazis murdered Denver radio host Alan Berg. Reporter Chauncey Bailey was murdered in Oakland in 2007. But last April’s shooting of five staffers at the Annapolis Capital Gazette thrust us into foreign territory — the US now ranks among the top nations in journalists killed on the job!

Although Trump expressed sympathy for the Gazette, he nonetheless instigates. He calls the press “the enemy of the people” and rails against “fake news” while having told 4,229 documented lies since assuming the presidency. Supporters at his campaign rallies wore T-shirts that read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”

The Washington Post’s motto puts the danger succinctly: democracy dies in darkness.

Through the murk, I do see a couple of rays of sunshine: Sept. 10 marked the dawning of the Colorado Sun, a statewide, online news organization formed by 10 journalists who fled the Denver Post. Last week, The Sopris Sun published its 500th issue.

Although I count this valley fortunate in still having local newspapers, they’re all financially fragile. Greene explains that “a free press is a financially sustainable press that’s independent enough to keep asking hard questions of people in power, regardless of fallout from funding sources.” None of our local news outlets are robust enough to ask hard questions, let alone powerful enough to investigate local businesses that buy ads.

That’s why I’m taking Greene’s advice and paying for my news. In addition to subscribing to the New York Times and Washington Post, I donate annually to The Sopris Sun and KDNK radio. I also have added a Colorado Sun subscription.

If you value democracy, I urge you to do likewise. Also, plan to attend KDNK’s Your News, Your Community forum, at 4 p.m. Oct. 13, to hear from Western Slope newspapers in the Colorado Media Alliance about these topics.

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Originally published in the “Seeking Higher Ground” column in the Sopris Sun on September 20, 2018

Beach front property going cheap?

Psst, wanna buy some coastal property?

Despite the news of Harvey and Irma, I was surprised to learn that the husbands of two of my friends do—in Florida no less!

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. The Yale Program on Climate Communication has found that nationally, while 69 percent of Americans think that global warming is real and dangerous, only 42 percent think it will harm them personally.

Personally, I think that buying property in Florida would hike the odds of personal harm considerably.

Real estate appraiser Orell Anderson, who works for Strategic Property Analytics in Laguna Beach, California, says that people “pay significant premiums to be on the water” but notes that most home-buyers arrive at the conclusion that storm-surge flooding “only happens to other people and not me.”

If you’re among them, you’d do well to visit the website CoastalRiskConsulting.com, owned by attorney Albert Slap, who lives in Snowmass Village, high and dry at 8,209 feet. Many of Slap’s clients are in Florida. Although cities and utilities form a large portion of his clientele, any potential property owner can plug an address into CRC’s website to discover its risk for storm-surge flooding and high winds. CRC mashes up scientific data from NOAA, USGS, USACE and other sources to create a comprehensive assessment of current and future flood risk to the property’s location.

Those risks are no secret. In April 2016, Sean Becketti, chief economist for government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, issued a (largely unpublicized) warning that owners ditching their coastal properties could trigger another nationwide mortgage meltdown.

 Even so, neither sellers nor realtors in Florida (or most other coastal states) are required to warn potential buyers of climate-change risks.

Those risks are many and interrelated: rising insurance costs, the eventual likelihood that mortgage companies will refuse to write 30-year loans in low-lying areas, enormous spikes in real estate taxes as cities and struggle to relocate utilities, roads, bridges, even airports. And not just in Florida. In the San Francisco Bay Area, all three airports are at risk from rising oceans. New York’s La Guardia could be swamped with as little as five feet of rising water.

Although few owners have so far sold coastal property due to these woes — the longer-term recovery pattern in New Orleans after Katrina and in New York after Sandy saw property values dropping in badly impacted neighborhoods but rising in those that were less affected and thus seen as “safer”— Albert Slap thinks that sell-offs are inevitably coming. In an interview with Bloomberg News, he opined that people will eventually insist on disclosure for homes that suffer regular floods, just as they have for the risks of asbestos and lead paint. Then dominoes will fall. “There will be a large number of homes that will lose substantial value, and [owners] will default on mortgages, if nothing is done to help them.”

That brings us to politics.

Right now, your right to build or buy in a flood zone is underwritten by the U.S. government. As the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune wrote recently, “Let’s all acknowledge one reason for the vulnerability of Americans who live in low-lying coastal regions of the Sun Belt: The federal government has been paying people to locate there.” The payment isn’t explicit, the newspaper explains, but comes in the form of flood insurance underwritten by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Under that program, private companies insure the homes, but the bills are ultimately paid by the Feds. After Sandy, Katrina and a rush of local floods, NFIP racked up a $25 billion deficit. Right now, the program, which was up for re-authorization this year, needs an infusion of cash.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas, is making a push for reform. “The NFIP in its current form is unsustainable and perverse,” he said. “It is a government monopoly that subsidizes people to live in harm’s way. With pricing structures that do not reflect the reality of risk, it actually encourages the building and re-building — and re-building again — of homes and businesses in flood-prone areas.”

Truly evaluating that risk would include projecting the impact of ocean rise and global warming. That’s something that the current climate-change denying administration is not likely to do, despite the fact that Florida property-owners Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump were both personally impacted by evacuations during Hurricane Harvey.

If you’re actually considering buying property in Florida — taking a risk this fixed-income senior would never consider! — I’d advise consulting Albert Slap’s website first.

Either that, or rent a beach house. And travel light.

 

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on September 21 , 2017

Lessons from ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’

The president slammed her hand down on the table and thundered, “These leaks must stop. I’m going to find out who’s leaking, and there will be serious — very serious — repercussions!”

Sound like our nation’s current president? It’s not. There are two tip-offs here: first the pronoun “her”, second, the language is far too coherent to have come from Trump.

But this column is a parable about leaks — and why Trump and Sessions can’t plug them. At Trump’s behest, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that that the F.B.I. had created a new counterintelligence unit to track down those who leak classified information and that the Justice Department “wouldn’t hesitate to bring criminal charges” against leakers.

 I suspect their results will be similar to those Mickey Mouse got as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For those too young to remember Fantasia, apprentice Mickey is weary of fetching water. He casts a spell on a magical, bucket-carrying broom, then splits it with an axe. Each splinter becomes a new broom. The multiplying brooms each grab water pails, and with dizzying speed, flood the place.

That’s pretty much what happened when the president of the private university I worked for threatened dire consequences for leaking. The president – I will call her Judy White – had hired me to promote the university to the media. My first day on the job, a long-time faculty member pulled me into a broom closet (ironic but true!) and asked if President White had shown me the university’s accreditation report.

She hadn’t.

Within hours, the report was in my hands.

Soon, other faculty and board members began making clandestine visits and inviting me off campus “for coffee”.

The report made clear that accreditation was hanging by a thread, the administration had somehow blown an $8 million endowment, its computerized enrollment system didn’t work and faculty on multiple campuses had taken official votes of “no confidence” in President White. None of this had been mentioned when I had been hired to serve as media counsel, a position somewhat analogous to the White House press secretary.

Back in 1946, New York Times political reporter James Reston observed that “governments are the only vessels that leak from the top.” That’s been true through multiple administrations. Truman, Bush and Clinton fought leaks. Via Watergate, Nixon found that hiring “plumbers” can backfire rather dramatically. The Obama administration used the Espionage Act to prosecute eight individuals for disclosing sensitive information, more than all previous presidencies combined. Not one president stopped leaks.

As Reagan once replied when asked how his administration could control leaks, “I’ve been told you don’t. Everybody who has been around here for a while tells me it is just the nature of the place.”

I haven’t served as a governmental press secretary, but my time in academia revealed why those dedicated to public service would risk both careers and censure to leak information; ethics.

In the university’s case, the underlying issue was safeguarding the nonprofit status of a school that idealistic faculty members had devoted many (underpaid) years serving. President White, pressed by finances, was attempting to sell the place to a for-profit corporation. Every inquiry she opened was leaked.

Faculty members, board members and staff who divulged (and sabotaged) her quest did so out of a deep commitment to teaching and public service, ethical values that were being threatened. They held that converting publicly-held assets for private profit was unethical. They acted on values they held sacred. They considered themselves whistle-blowers. And they proved unstoppable, ultimately toppling the president.

Those in the Trump administration who are handing news to the press — recordings of back-room meetings on healthcare, hastily written (and badly spelled) executive orders, transcripts of presidential phone calls, accounts of White House infighting — are doing so largely out of ethics and professionalism. And that’s why they won’t stop.

As David Frum recently wrote in the Atlantic, “Senior national-security professionals regard Trump as something between (at best) a reckless incompetent doofus and (at worst) an outright Russian espionage asset.” Fear of a possible “Russian mole” in the White House is prompting intelligence leaks.

Similarly, at the EPA, staffers fear that climate-denial policies and Scott Pruitt’s leadership amount to fiddling while Rome burns. But it’s not Rome, it’s the planet and the future of our species. That’s why a draft report that concludes that Americans are already suffering the effects of global warming — including Sourcerer’s Apprentice-style flooding in coastal cities — was secretly advanced to the New York Times.

Ironically enough, for a guy who got famous yelling “You’re fired” on a TV show called “The Apprentice”, Trump, like Nixon before him, may find that his quest to plug leaks will land him in hot water.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on August 17, 2017

Running the Nation Like a Business – A Modest Proposal

During the campaign, candidate Trump vowed to “run government like a business,” and in March, he tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner to lead an office that would apply business ideas to government.

Déjà vu! That announcement reminded me of a publishing gig where I discovered the company’s nepotism only after the editor-in-chief abruptly and mysteriously “stepped down”. I was stunned; the editor had worked for the company for seven years and seemed to be the only manager who actually knew the publishing trade. Privately, I learned that she was not only the sole person in management with a journalism background, she was also the only one not related by birth or marriage! She was pushed aside in favor of someone’s wife, a recent grad who had about as much qualification for editing as Ivanka Trump has for international diplomacy.

From the get-go, Trump has skirted federal nepotism laws by appointing (but not paying) family members. Although Eric Trump recently called nepotism “a beautiful thing”, the family-run businesses I have known have usually been far from models of efficiency, competence or legal compliance. Unqualified employees who score jobs via “pull”, rather than by pushing themselves to master a professional discipline, fall prey not only to conflict-of-interest misfeasance, they can also commit nonfeasance and malfeasance out of sheer ignorance. Consider, for example, a son who fails to see the loyalty conflict inherent in meeting with a Russian lawyer, or how failing to report that meeting could compromise one’s security clearance.

Last week, when Sean Spicer resigned, I was reminded of yet another company I worked for, the one where my boss proved to be a pathological liar. Although I have wondered how and why any journalist would choose to work as Trump’s press secretary—an obvious career-endangering move—I have felt sorry for Spicer due to having worked for a similarly deceitful leader.

I remember walking out of a cabinet meeting and minutes later having my boss, the university’s president, say, “Don’t do what we just agreed to. Put out a notice that says this instead.” I obeyed. Moments later, my phone rang. It was the university’s lawyer. “Why did you just email the whole university contradicting the plan?” she fumed. I explained. She sighed and said, “Welcome to my world.”

Having worked for a passive/aggressive exec who lied and couldn’t remember major plans—like whether she had, or had not, instructed staff to close a money-losing campus—I think I know how Spicey’s world must have felt during these past six months.

Frankly, my work experiences haven’t made me a fan of running government like a business. In addition to the bosses above, I have also worked for a groper, a fraud, an embezzler, and several execs who thought the law didn’t apply to them. (Sound familiar?)

But even the good businesses I have worked for—and there have been quite a few—make bad models when it comes to government. For one thing, must focus on profits, valuing short-term stock prices over long-term investments. Short-term thinking would never have gotten the Grand Coulee Dam built or put a man on the moon. Then too, how would one measure the profit in preventing terrorism? The number of people deported? The number of attacks that don’t happen?

Many tasks wind up in the public sphere precisely because their results are difficult to measure or because their work doesn’t (or shouldn’t) lend itself to making a profit.

Then too, many profitable businesses were built by ruthless tycoons, buccaneers who skirted or scrapped inconveniences like fair pay, safety conditions, pensions, overtime, and child labor laws. A corporate raider like Carl Icahn, who stripped the assets of TWA, would provide a case in point.

Looking at Trump’s cabinet appointments, perhaps the hostile takeover is the true underlying model?

If that’s the case, we should take USA Today columnist Steven Strauss’ advice, following his modest proposal for stopping the “hemorrhage of cash in money-draining operations” by selling the low-performing states. Starting with Kentucky.

In 2017, WalletHub identified Kentucky as the state most dependent on the federal government. In fiscal 2016, the feds collected $33 billion in taxes there but spent $89 billion, giving Kentucky a subsidy of $56 billion. (By contrast, Massachusetts paid in $109 billion and took back $62 billion.)

I say, if Kentucky goes, Mitch McConnell should go too.

Nothing personal of course. No competent corporate exec would promote a manager who lost money on that scale. But of course, we’re talking Trump here as the US CEO, and I have never understood how six bankruptcies and 3,500 business lawsuits counted as qualifications for the job in the first place.

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