Archive - June, 2008

How has the Web Altered Your Brain?

That’s the question that I cull from an article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic.

Carr writes that he becomes fidgety after reading a couple of book pages. He struggles to do the “deep reading” that once came naturally. He attributes this short attention span to the immediacy of the web and the rewiring of our neural connections that result from the way we read on the web.

Carr writes, “As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.”

It’s this shaping of the process of thought that is changing us. I’ve experienced the same sort of struggle to read deeply and uninterruptedly. It’s a chore.

For Carr’s complete assessment see the full article. And by the way, it’s about four pages long in print, and it goes on forever online.

Off to Côte d’Ivoire

I’ll be in Côte d’Ivoire for the next several days exploring community radio and health programs. I’ll blog from Abijan if possible. If not, I’ll be back here in a couple of weeks.

A Day at the Newseum

We just spent a wonderful day at the Newseum, the interactive museum of news that opened April 11 in Washington, D.C.

It’s a remarkable repository of mainstream media newsgathering techniques, artifacts and interpretive documentation. The one-to-many model of newsgathering–the old one-way information flow–is the foundation for the Newseum.  Much of this is news as it used to be before the digital era when news was defined, for the most part, by editors.

The many-to-one and many-to-many reality of digital media is also treated. The museum gives a nod to citizen iReports on CNN, and to bloggers and blogging, and narrative in one video I watched wrestles with the comparison between mainstream editorial processes and independent, unstructured reporting and opinion. As I reflected on it, however, I mused that it’s too recent and perhaps too multifaceted for the curators to put in perspective just now even if bloggers lay claim to bringing down Dan Rather.

I surmise part of the unique challenge a news museum faces is handling the contemporary, and not merely the historical. When news is instantly available and unfiltered, how do you capture it, organize it, and present it? While ABC’s This Week is taped at the Museum, I didn’t find discussion of the current flap raised by Scott McClellan’s charge that White House reporters didn’t aggressively challenge the Administration’s claims in the run up to the Iraq War, nor reference to such self-critique as Jessica Yellin’s contention that MSNBC senior producers left her with the impression they wanted stories consistent with the political fervor stirred by the Bush Administration.

Maybe I just missed it in the wealth of images and sounds the Newseum serves up. It’s a multimedia wonder.

In fairness, we did watch an engaging live interview with NPR Senior Correspondent Daniel Schorr in a broadcast studio at the museum in which these topics were discussed. Archive video of portions of interviews with journalists and others related to newsgathering can be found on the Newseum website under the Inside Media database. It’s not clear to me if these programs are to be available from within the museum or if they are to reside on the website.

The museum illustrates how the tools of the trade have significantly changed the practice of journalism. Displays trace the expansion from print to radio, then to television and the use of satellites and digital technologies.

Not as clearly represented is how the consolidation of media companies has influenced the craft. It’s given attention in small ways. Former ABC anchor Peter Jennings’ mousepad showing media ownership connections is displayed pictorially, for example, and a narrative refers to consolidated ownership but the subject is touched upon very lightly. Perhaps it’s even fair to call it obtuse.

Whatever the case, I came away with the impression that like a lot of others, the Newseum is ambivalent about the concept of citizen journalism and doesn’t know how to put it in perspective yet. And the contemporary debate about bottom line corporate influence upon editorial content is muted, at best.

This raises an interesting question: Can a digital, state-of-the-art, interactive museum dedicated to the community conversation that is called journalism be contemporaneous with the news (i.e., the conversation) itself?

In more than one exhibit, I was moved emotionally. The museum recognizes reporters, photographers, videographers and producers who have lost their lives in the pursuit of telling stories. Some were covering wars. Others were investigating criminal conspiracies. One was covering the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

A wall with their faces, the vehicles they used, their cameras and a blood-stained notebook brings home the life and death reality of journalism in tough places.

The car driven by Don Bolles, investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic, is displayed. It was rigged with a bomb that fatally wounded him. It’s a moving reminder that the simple act of telling a story can have deadly consequences when powerful, dangerous people don’t want the story told.

And that may be the ultimate value of the Newseum, reaching far beyond the impressive technology through which it tells the stories, it reminds us that free speech is something we must never take lightly. It demands constant attention and support. In the highest expression of their work, journalists must not bend to the bottom line of corporate owners, political bosses, crime syndicates or any other self-interested center of power.

At its best and most idealistic, journalism operates as a sacred trust. It’s not just about technologies or tools, it’s about human effort, inquisitiveness and the courage to engage in the never-ending search for truth. As corny as that may sound in our cynical age, it remains the greatest challenge for the journalist and for the preservation of a free society.

Jim Wallis Takes On James Dobson

Thanks to Jim Wallis of Sojourner’s for taking on the disingenuous attack of Barack Obama by James Dobson. Dobson’s claim that he is not a theologian was accurate. Absent solid theological grounding he is reduced to a right-wing political operative pushing his agenda under cover of religious rhetoric.

My concern for a long time has been the implication that Dobson is accurately reflecting biblical values and shaping attitudes toward the wider Christian community because he’s widely quoted in mainstream media. But his positions reflect a narrow segment of the religious community and his statements on public policy are not well grounded in biblical theology. Biblical teachings are far more nuanced, discrete and comprehensive than the simplistic formulas I’ve heard Dobson espouse.

Calling Dobson’s attack on a speech Obama made two years ago a distortion, Wallis writes in Sojo mail, “I have decided to respond to Dobson’s attacks. In most every case they are themselves clear distortions of what Obama said in that speech.”

Wallis also commented on an evangelical television network.

In the meantime, I would sure like to see some articulate mainline theology provide framing of crucial issues we face today globally. This fascination with evangelical filtering of faith is beginning to be tiresome.

Detecting Image Manipulation

I’ve commented a couple of times about image manipulation and today I happened upon the website of Dr. Hany Farid, a professor at Dartmouth, through the StumbleUpon web browsing social network. It presents examples of image manipulation, some of which pre-date by many years digital photo manipulation that’s possible today.

Dr. Farid and his associates have developed methods for detecting photo manipulation, according to the website. The site offers several interesting examples including the bombed out remains of Beirut after an Israeli airstrike in 2006 that got widespread coverage when it was discovered to be manipulated, rather poorly, at that. Others are less familiar.

The images cover the range from the usual celebrity touch-up to less well-known alterations of historical personages, news and misleading political advertisements among others. It’s a fascinating, and also a bit sobering, look at photo manipulation.

White-guy Methodists


A letter to the editor in the Friday New York Times comments on the “white-guy Methodist” self characterization by President Bush while visiting in the UK last week. It is the subject of this commentary. The letter was posted after I wrote the commentary.


If my email is any indication, President Bush’s use of the phrase, “white-guy Methodists” in connection with his foreign policies and his effort to impose “self-government” in Iraq at the business end of a gun has caused something less than a stir in the church. I don’t know if that’s good, bad or a sign of indifference.

Maureen Dowd cited the remark in her column on Wednesday, the Associated Press included it in an article  wrapping up the President’s European visit and it made David Letterman last night. It got notice in Europe and on blogs on the right in the U.S.

If they are not simply bemused at one more gaffe, the few who have written to me are perplexed, offended or angry. No one has questioned the President’s faith but one writer sardonically commented, “Great for branding.” Another asked how Methodist teaching could be attached to the use of force to impose self-governance on another state and third said she was both embarrassed and angry.

It’s puzzling for several reasons. The Bush Administration has maintained a sustained relationship with the evangelical right but has not sought to equally engage the leaders of mainline religious denominations. In fact, the distance and lack of dialogue has been notable.

After having no public relationship with his church’s leaders and courting the evangelical right, it comes as a shock when the President refers to his Methodist heritage as the basis for his “hopeless idealism” and associates it with his war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it’s nigh impossible to parse this phrase. It’s fraught with enough racial and gender undercurrents to pull anyone who uses it into a dark and watery hole. It’s contrary to the sensitivity and self-critique that is common in the United Methodist community about equity and justice for all persons but especially for women and ethnic persons.

torture.jpgIt’s also hard to imagine what the phrase means when values are considered. The church through its Council of Bishops and other entities has not been supportive of the Iraq war. It has not been supportive of the use of torture and it has called for support of social legislation such as health care for children (SCHIP) and many other pieces of social welfare legislation that the Administration has opposed.

And if these were not sufficient reasons to leave it unspoken, the harmful implications of this phrase about a leadership patriarchy of white males is just too much for me to contemplate. And it’s not as if this is a new issue, it’s been a concern in the denomination a long time.

I’ve not been one to make the President’s miscues a laughingstock. On the other hand, implicating the traditions of the church in his policies, when the church has not been of one mind with him, is no laughing matter, either.

How Mainstream Media Hype Health Care

A post on the Health Beat Blog provides a clear assessment about mainstream media coverage of health care. It isn’t a critique based on ideological grounds, it describes an editorial review process by health practitioners who read articles and watch television reports and assess them against a set of pertinent questions. A response is sent to journalists offering further conversation.

A description of the process is at the link above.

There’s a tendency among some writers, however unintentional, to write stories about new advances in medicine from the point of view of corporations and medical institutions because they are the sources. Logically, corporate communicators frame stories to their benefit.

But the result, according to blog writer Maggie Mahar, is stories that don’t give us the full context, are too simplistic and don’t tell us the economic costs and benefits of new procedures, treatments or drugs. The gradual result is an uninformed public which has increasing expectations and demands for new, and sometimes costly, procedures and tests that may not be appropriate in every case. The way we’re introduced to new advances leaves us without the information to be discriminating patients.

This results in unnecessary tests and increasing health care costs. I recall hearing a physician recently say that when he first started his practice he attempted to dissuade patients from tests he felt were unnecessary and too costly. It was an attempt to practice medicine responsibly.

However, a physician nearby had less compunction. He got a reputation for being thorough because he used more tests. To maintain their practices, other physicians responded in kind. The result was more tests and procedures of questionable value provoked by competitive economic pressures.

At least, that’s how the physician telling the story saw it. The point is, a patient not well-informed about the risks and costs of such tests and procedures, and unclear about their usefulness lacks a solid basis upon which to make a judgment.

Add to this the daily parade of messages from pharmaceutical companies laying out symptoms and medications along with the admonishment to discuss them with your doctor, and the strength of the corporate message is clear.

With strong advertising and journalism that frames stories to reinforce it, the individual is left to fend for herself. Journalism that provides us with more complete information upon which to base judgments is much more useful, as the Health Beat Blog points out.

Pres. Bush–white guy Methodist?

Maureen Dowd quotes remarks President Bush made in the UK about his legacy. He said he will leave behind “multilateralism in dealing with tyrants,” according to Dowd’s column today. And he’s afflicted by “hopeless idealism” about Iraq and Iran.

But the most curious remark Dowd quotes is his reference to his “Methodist” (the complete name of the denomination is The United Methodist Church) faith connection:  “There is some who say that perhaps freedom is not universal,” he asserted, adding that he rejected as elitist the notion that “’maybe it’s only, you know, white-guy Methodists who are capable of self-government.’”

What???

Malawi Adventure

Christine Gorman is writing about her first few days in Malawi in the Global Health Report blog. She is a Nieman Fellow in Global Health Reporting and will be doing work there for the next several weeks.

Her first post is about arriving and going about Lilongwe, the capital in the central region.

She comments on a conversation with a couple of other expats studying midwifery that leads to a brief note that February is the peak month for births and malaria. Gorman writes, “More pregnant women, new mothers and kids under the age of five die of malaria than any other single group.”

Woudn’t it be wonderful if midwives were supplied with mosquito nets for distribution and training with mothers at each newborn delivery?

Spam is the New Steak

The depression is already here.

Item 1: The young man in line ahead of us at the discount store had about fifty cans of generic pressed meat with an awful yellow label. He ducked his head. He was embarrassed. It wasn’t even brand-name Spam, but as we stepped forward the cashier said with an ironic twist, “Spam is the new steak.”

Item 2: Going to work today I sat in traffic on a two-lane road, one lane was blocked by a stalled car. We haphazardly took turns alternating lanes. When I got the chance to pass, I saw the driver and passenger on the sidewalk. One carried a plastic gas container. They had not made it to the gas station.

Item 3: My friend who conducts focus groups tells about mothers in an urban neighborhood talking about diabetes. About her neighborhood grocery, one mom says “The bananas are black (overripe) and cost too much.” The mothers are hard pressed for money for food and their local market doesn’t offer fresh vegetables so they go to an easily accessible fastfood place and buy their kids dollar value meals.

Make no mistake. If you are earning minimum wage, or maybe a little more, the depression is here. Gasoline, milk and other essentials are beyond reach. You substitute pressed meat for hamburger, spend money on gas to get to work and forgo food, and buy cheap hamburgers instead of milk.

Health concerns be damned. Gas tanks and hungry bellies must be filled. You have to work. And if you can get high cholesterol food and sugar water to drink for a buck, you do it.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) says food choices “are often not an issue of nutrition, but of economy.” The group points out that “Federal agricultural policies have contributed to dramatic changes in the U.S. food supply, leading to public health concerns including obesity, malnutrition and diet-related disease; access to and affordability of healthy foods; and health effects from particular animal and crop production methods. Agricultural policies determine which crops the government will support. This support influences which crops U.S. farmers produce, those crops’ prices and, subsequently, which products food processors, distributors and retailers ultimately will get onto our plates and into our mouths.” Public policy finds expression in the bellies of a hungry children.

The New York Times reports that gasoline costs have eaten deeply into the pockets of low wage workers in rural areas where jobs are scarce and spread out across wide swaths of geography. The Times article quotes Fred Rozell of the Oil Price Information Service, “These are people who have to decide between food and transportation.”

A report released this morning by the Annie B. Casey Foundation says the percentage of underweight babies born in the United States has increased to its highest rate in 40 years.

It’s about priorities. Personal and public. But some personal priorities are determined by policies that create realities to which we can only react. We don’t make policy. We depend on government, and lately it’s pretty clear the federal government  has not been notably concerned about the common good and it’s abundantly clear this government has badly misplaced priorities.

According to the National Priorities Project in 2007 the Iraq war cost Tennesseans, for example, $2.1 billion, an amount that could have provided health care for 442,819 people.

According to National Priorities, forty percent of 2007 income tax dollars went to the military while a mere four percent went to education.

The Network for Spiritual Progressives has proposed a new version of a global Marshall Plan. It calls for “the advanced industrial countries of the world [to] use their resources to eliminate once and for all global poverty, homelessness, and hunger; provide quality education and health care for all; and repair the global environment. As an initial commitment, we want the U.S. to donate at least 1-2% of its Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty (though the amount may be less if other countries join in the effort, more if they do not).”

It is a call for a new bottom line, as Rabbi Michael Lerner has stated it, one that measures compassion and justice.

We’re seeing the results of the old bottom line, hyper-individualism that ignores the common good and consumption that can never be satiated. We’re seeing poverty increase and public education decline. We’re seeing low wage workers choosing between food and fuel. For low wage workers the depression has arrived. And now we’re seeing middle class families fearful they’re only a paycheck away from homelessness, and many who have lost their homes.

Public policy can make this different. There is no justification for a child in the United States, Zimbabwe or anyplace else to go hungry. In a world of abundance, there is no excuse for a global food crisis.

But those who care will need to reclaim the values that the biblical writers have called us to honor for centuries. And we will need to speak about these things as if they truly matter as traditional values. And we will need to vote our priorities and hold politicians who make policy accountable.

There may be no more urgent need than for us to reclaim our understanding that we are all connected to each other and the well-being of any one one of us in the human family  affects all of us. We must reclaim our responsibility for the common good, for each other and for every child. It’s just plain embarrassing that Spam is the new steak.

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