Archive - July, 2008

Global News Coverage in Decline

According to research by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Center coverage of global news in U.S. print media is declining and now makes up 10.7% of coverage.

Editors say they are reducing both staff and resources for coverage of news outside the United States. The report says staff cutbacks and movement to the Internet will result in smaller newsrooms in the future.

For all the talk about globalization, this trend belies the claim we’re becoming more globally connected. At least, our awareness of our global connections aren’t reflected in the trend.

The Pew report also provides a roadmap for the future, if you base it on how news is presented right now. It points toward coverage of U.S. foreign policy, corporate interests and conflict. Nothing new here.

If we continue down this path, the future will look like the present, only skinnier. Much of the same kind of coverage we’re accustomed to now.

According to the Pew research, foreign coverage for the first six months of this year was dominated by China, Iraq, Myanmar, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Israel, Palestine and Afghanistan.

What that means is we can expect coverage of the world’s hot spots, emphasis on global corporate interests and the continent of Africa presented as a cauldron of corruption, violence and hunger.

Faced with this reality, alternative sources for global news are becoming even more critically needed for those who want a more comprehensive and nuanced reporting of the world we live in.

Global Food Crisis: Part Two

This is our first day in Cote d’Ivoire where I’m meeting with church and government officials to talk about communications issues, particularly radio. In our opening briefing we were told the visit was almost cancelled last week due to price increases in fuel.

Fuel increased fifty cents per liter bringing costs per gallon between eight and ten dollars U.S. Our host said, “Abidjan was like a ghost town. There were no buses running, no cars on the street and people stayed home.”

Food and fuel are inextricably linked. When fuel costs more so does food. Increases in delivery fees are are passed on to consumers, already stretched.

A similar story is playing out in Asia according to a report this morning by Keith Bradsher in the New York Times.

As wages stagnate the bind gets worse. While Bradsher makes the case for Asia being hit hardest, it’s clear this is a global crisis and no developing economy can escape without hunger and pain. If fuel costs are causing the U.S. consumer to back off, consider how it must be for families already living at the edge of survival in developing economies.

The comments section of the previous post asks about ideas from those concerned about the crisis. I invite you to join the conversation and suggest actions we can take.

The Global Food Crisis

Reports from Somalia are the worst I’ve seen in years. Hunger is already threatening over two and a half million Somalis and the United Nations says 3.5 million are at risk of famine in coming weeks.

Security, already terrible, is becoming even worse. A U.N. official was killed as he exited a mosque in Mogadishu and notes threatening aid workers are being left in conspicuous locations. Three medical workers from Doctors Without Borders were killed recently by a roadside bomb.

Aid workers are leaving the country. Humanitarian aid has become a tool manipulated by factions. And while it’s unclear just who is responsible for the most recent events, it’s clear the people already vulnerable will bear the result–even more suffering and death. It’s the story of Somalia in modern history.

Another report about the global food crisis by Kevin Sullivan in the Washington Post says women bear the brunt of the growing shortage of affordable food. They eat last and least, Sullivan writes.

This is not new. Women, especially in Africa, have long been the last to eat after men and children. It’s just more widespread and critical now.

Sullivan points out that because of the high cost of food, women are foregoing medical care and some are turning to prostitution. Children, unable to buy uniforms and pay fees, are dropping out of school.

The crisis isn’t limited to Africa, of course, it’s affected parts of Asia and, to a lesser degree, South America and even some parts of central and eastern Europe.

Bread For the World is encouraging passage of the Global Poverty Act (S.2433) and has talking points on their website giving pointers on what to say when you call your senator.

The Measure of America:U.S. Slips Downward in Development & Health

A report released yesterday says the U.S.is 42nd among developed nations in life expectancy despite spending more on health care than any other nation in the world.

And the U.S. is twelfth in human development which includes income growth, quality education, life expectancy, personal safety, secure livelihood and a say in the decisions that affect one’s life.

The report measures quality of life by U.S. Congressional districts. It’s modeled after the United Nations Development Programme’s global Human Development Report which has been refined over the past decade, making it possible to reliably compare human development and quality of life issues among developed and developing nations.

The report was funded by Oxfam America, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Social Science Research Council and the Annenberg Foundation.

A Commonwealth Fund report on health care echoes the slide downward. The report says benchmarks for access, quality, efficiency, and other key measures of health system performance were all down from its 2006 assessment.

In a New York Times article, Dr. Denis A. Cortese, the chief executive of the Mayo Clinic, says the U.S. has got to create better value (in health care).

Websites to Make You Think

Four websites I’ve been following that make me think:

TED: Ideas Worth Spreading is a remarkable collection of thought-provoking ideas by innovative thinkers and doers in a wide range of skills, some highly specialized, some with unique new thoughts on common subjects. I found Hans Rosling’s thoughts on poverty fascinating.

Big Think: We are what you think offers a variety of experts who provide video talks on a number of subjects providing new insight, new framing or innovative applications that breaks out of old ways of thinking about things. I found the rap by Mark Kramer at Adventures in Philanthropy about General Electric establishing health clinics in Ghana a very interesting take on limited profit corporations and social benefits.

The Washington Post’s Voices on Personal Technology offers the insights of entertainers, activists, politicians and others into the use of new technology and how various technological products or services are changing how we live our lives, and how they are changing our social and civic institutions.

Al’s Morning Meeting blog at Poynter Online also offers a list of a dozen sites Al follows, many of which use media in creative ways including interactive journalism.

Del McCoury Sings of a “Forgotten America”

Moneyland by Del McCoury“Over the last couple of decades, you have turned Rural America into a scene of devastation which can now best be described as ‘Forgotten America.'”

This is the opening sentence of the liner notes on Moneyland, a new bluegrass collection assembled by bluegrass master Del McCoury. It is directed at Washington politicians under a heading of “Obligatory Disclaimer.” The words stake out strong territory, territory once inhabited by Woody Guthrie and later by Pete Seeger. It’s the role of social prophet in a musical voice.

The prophet hears the voices of the oppressed and forgotten and lifts them up, but isn’t necessarily obligated to offer a prescription for social change. The prophet seeks a hearing and calls for justice.

It’s the politicians entrusted with the responsibilities of governance who ought to serve the people and Moneyland makes it abundantly clear that politicians have failed working folks wholesale.  It frames the case in an interesting way. The opening and closing cuts are taken from Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats.

Roosevelt began his chats in 1933 when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression and radio in its infancy. The chats revealed his remarkable ability to communicate with the masses, especially working people, despite his patrician background. To put it mildly, it’s an ability that’s been long absent among politicians with roots in Roosevelt’s social vision and belief in progressive government for all the people.

Sterner and more angry voices today call the treatment of working people contemptuous neglect wrapped in hypocrisy and exploitation. And these themes are vocalized in Moneyland.

McCoury sings of greed and forgotten people. As if to nail down the point, the same week the album was released former Sen. Phil Gramm said we’re a nation of whiners concerned about a “mental recession.” He virtually ignored the real, down-to-earth dislocation that is tearing apart lives in the heartland.

Also included is Merle Haggard’s What Happened?, an unsparing critique of popular culture that asks where the America we once knew has gone.

Haggard says mainstreet has gone the way of Walmart. Jobs have gone offshore. Houses and double wide trailers are going back to the mortgage companies, and more and more families are going bankrupt. And it’s seemed as if no one is listening.

A poignant report in the New York Times by writer Michael Powell recounts the experience of Jeana Brown, a Georgia woman working two jobs. She tells Barack Obama about the sacrifices she and her husband are making to keep up payments on their double wide trailer after they went from $670 to $1,378.

Powell contrasts Ms. Brown’s story with the dissonance of Obama going from this conversation to fundraising events in elegant surroundings with wealthy patrons. Obama wrote in the Audacity of Hope it’s difficult to stay in touch with the hard edge of life when wealth provides both a cushion and distance.

It’s this disconnect that McCoury focuses on with clarity and sharpness. Both McCoury’s album and Ms. Brown’s story hint at something stirring in the heartland. It’s the stewpot of betrayal that a lot of people are feeling–economic exploitation, hypocrisy, greed, a toxic culture of consumption and unresponsive politicians.

I heard a man say recently, “This is not the country I grew up in.” When McCoury and Haggard put this disaffection into song it means there’s an audience for it. Something’s afoot.

Ms. Brown told Powell she hasn’t voted in 32 years, but she’s going to vote this year. Now that they’re being directly affected by the greed and neglect, folks who have felt they weren’t being heard and have little stake in the civic process are sounding like they’re ready to join in making change.

Whether it’s hope or desperation, it doesn’t matter, this is a time of opportunity that could re-energize the democratic process if this renewed interest can be harnessed and given active expression.

But it’s not only politics that has failed these folks. (I know this essay is too long and I’ll stop after this.) Much of the mainline religious community has been equally neglectful, sometimes even holding them in disdain, our only contact being when they repair our air conditioners or tune up our cars–despite the fact that some of us are them. We are working class but we got educated and got above our raising, as another Haggard song puts it.

In the process, mainliners lost the the ability to talk with working people and they figured out that mainline churches were no place for them and, maybe, religion was irrelevant anyway. Those who did reach out to them (fundamentalists, evangelicals and religious entrepreneurs) offered biblical interpretation devoid of social justice alongside a privatized expression of faith that was in some cases coopted by political operatives who wed right wing politics to conservative religion and claimed it was family values.

As I see it, the distance of the mainline from working folks is even more serious than the politicians because it’s a fundamental betrayal of the biblical admonition to stand for justice and express concern for your neighbor, especially the excluded and forgotten. (Matt. 25:35-40.)

So McCoury’s album is a prophetic poke at mainline religion as well. Mainline theologians and preachers could do worse than listen to McCoury, Haggard and others on this album and reflect on its themes. It expresses a deeply human, and therefore, deeply religious yearning for respect, dignity and community that deserves to be heard and given attention.

They also show us how the deepest yearnings of the human spirit can be expressed through story and sound, and in doing so point us toward recovering the ability to communicate with folks who are taking it on the chin right now and about whom we should be urgently concerned.

For some of us, “they” are us, but we need to close the gap.

The Social Security Disinformation Campaign

John McCain’s widely quoted criticism of Social Security repeats an on-going misinterpretation that seems to have as its goal the privatization of retirement accounts.

“Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that’s a disgrace. It’s an absolute disgrace, and it’s got to be fixed,” he said.

He attempted to clarify his initial remarks by saying younger workers “are paying so much that they are paying into a system that they won’t receive benefits from on its present track that it’s on — that’s the point.” Well, that’s clear enough, maybe.

Obama’s interpretations in the past haven’t proven much better.

But the question is, “Is this accurate?” Is the system heading off the cliff? Many informed people don’t think so, and politicians who use Social Security as a tool for their own policy positions (unsurprising but disappointing) rather than working to improve the system and keep it functioning for the benefit of all continue to add to the fog.

McCain’s assessment flies in the face of solid analysis by the AARP and economists familiar with the current system.

None of the dire predictions is even remotely likely. And privatization might well do more harm than good,” according to Fred Brock in his retirement guide, Retire on Less Than You Think.

“Why all the fuss?” Brock asks. “Think hidden agendas, on all sides.” He points to the attraction of 2 trillion dollars to commission-driven Wall Street brokers. The same folk, it’s worth noting, who gave us Enron speculation and the current mortgage bundling investment opportunities. Thomas Frank called it the “trillion dollar hustle” back in 2002.

What bugs me, among other things, is that this goes beyond inaccuracy. It scares the dickens out of retired folks who don’t know all the facts and are afraid their retirement is jeopardized right now. These folks, many of whom have no other retirement support, don’t deserve to have their fears stoked by politicians with agendas.

Those in my family are barely making do now. They’re worried about Medicare and high drug bills and it just seems unnecessarily frightful to pile this onto their legitimate concerns.

Secondly, it sows generational cleavages. Ageism is a reality and these candidates know it. The idea that younger workers are paying for benefits of older workers that might not be available when they retire is simply not an inevitability and if it appears a shortfall is looming it can be addressed. Pitting young against old is damaging to the conversation and deflects away from genuine problems and the search for solutions.

This issue will take at least forty years to play out according to knowledgeable economists. There is time to work out a solid plan to keep social security as the backstop for retirement for all workers but we need a constructive discussion between Obama and McCain and the nation, not more inaccurate, divisive off-the-cuff musings.

Chrysler Building Sold

Chrysler building in the fog. Photo by GrufnikThe Chrysler building is my favorite skyscraper in the world. News that investors from Abu Dhabi have bought majority ownership brought back a long-buried personal memory.

I was working on a film with an editor in a building south of the Port Authority Bus Terminal off Times Square. We were pulling an all-nighter and at 2:30 am a sound engineer called to alert us the sound tracks we were waiting for were finished. I had to them pick them up several blocks away in midtown.

I started walking in a wind-driven rain. It was a miserable night. I was carrying a significant amount of money and Times Square before Disney was not the calmer family version it is today.

So I had all these worries: getting the tapes back quickly enough to get the matching done, avoiding getting mugged and cleaned of my cash, and finishing in time to make the final mixing appointment later that same day. Such was the life of a struggling documentarian before Avid and Final Cut Pro.

I was miserably wet besides hypertensively anxious. The long walk took me past the Chrysler building. I tried to keep my head down and look inconspicuous while also scanning the environment for muggers. Believe it or not, I was approached by a panhandler at three in the morning in Times Square.

I stopped at an intersection and happened to look up at the Chrysler building in the fog. It was an amazing sight. Its lights illuminated the low-hanging clouds and the silver metal of the facade that form the building’s unique lines. It was breath-taking. Grufnik, a photographer with a photostream on Flickr, captured a very similar view in 2006. His photo is posted under Creative Commons license.

In that tense night, a moment of beauty interjected itself and took my mind briefly to another plane. The city became a different place and the tension melted away for that moment.

I trudged on, picked up the tapes, unloaded myself of the cash and caught a cab back to the editing room. We finished the sound matching in time to make our appointment for the final mix.  The film won some awards. I was pleased, the subjects were pleased and I moved on to the next project, which I’ve forgotten.

But I still remember the Chrysler building in the fog.

Real Faith-based Initiatives:HIV/AIDS, Medicare, & Global Food Crisis

With so much talk recently about faith-based initiatives it occurs to me three significant issues ought to generate action in faith communities. They could truly be faith-based initiatives if people of faith would take the initiative to press the U.S. government to act now.

First reauthorize PEPFAR, The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has been delayed by conservatives because they say it’s too costly and supports prevention programs such as family planning and condom distribution rather than focusing exclusively on treatment.

Second, reverse the 10% reductions in payments to physicians for Medicare services. The poor and those with chronic health conditions have already taken huge cuts in reduced services at the state level. How much more will this country tolerate? Enough damage has been done. Reverse the reduction in fees to doctors.

Third, address the global food crisis. David Beckman, executive director of Bread for the World, wrote to President Bush in April suggesting several policy options to alleviate global hunger. The final point in his letter says, “the next economic stimulus package in this country should include funding for
food stamps.  Hungry and poor families were left out of the first stimulus package, even though they are hardest hit by the economic slowdown.  The best way to reduce hunger in America is through improvements in earnings, income and assets among low-income people.  But the fastest, most direct way to reduce hunger – and stimulate the economy – is to strengthen the food
stamp program.”

Each link above provides steps for direct action.

In difficult economic times as we are in now the voices of people of faith are needed more than ever to seek justice, offer compassion and stand with those who are vulnerable and whose voices are unheard in the halls of power. In such times and under such conditions faith really should mean taking initiative to bring change.

Faith-based Initiatives: Just Say No

It’s hard to tell if Barack Obama and John McCain are merely clumsy in their attempts to appeal to religious voters, if they are cynically pandering to perceived religious sensibilities, if they are fuzzy-headed about religion, or if they have really good ideas about faith-based initiatives.

Obama’s statement on faith-based initiatives last week is causing me to back off and take a long, hard, skeptical look at him. If he’s pandering, he may not be what I thought. If he’s just clumsy about the risks associated with  faith-based initiatives, it isn’t a reassuring trait. And like a lot of other people I don’t think he’s come up with a more excellent way.

A faith-based initiative funded by the government is an oxymoron in the United States. Obama’s comments about having taught constitutional law don’t ease my concern.

Faith-based initiatives are something religious groups should look at carefully and with great reserve. They are a dangerous turn away from constitutional separation of church and state and toward entanglements that could be particularly harmful to them.

Do churches really want to get into a financial relationship with the government, subject themselves to program and financial audits by government auditors and become subcontractors for services that government ought to be providing anyway? See the IRS definition of partnerships here and ask if this is how you want your local congregation defined.

Do they want to set up and keep separate books to account for money and programs with all the attendant personnel needs and administration? Do they want to delineate when monies expended to repair the roof that houses a government-funded feeding program stopped where the shingles covering the worship sanctuary began?

Churches can easily support community groups organized to carry out community service and church members can provide the person power as volunteers to get the work done, but subcontracting services that government should provide has put us in the mess we’re in now with declining public schools, 50 million people outside the private health care system because they lack insurance and inadequate public transportation because government lived with blinders about our dependence on oil and did not step up to support research into alternative energy nor public transport.

In a pluralistic society in which religious expressions range from Scientologists, polygamists, snake handlers and dominionists who want to take over the government, do we want government to define what is distinctly religious in contrast to what is socially constructive and, therefore, acceptable for government funds?

If a church declares that its mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” as mine does, does it not follow that government-funded faith-based initiatives must tolerate this expression of faith, or the church must decide to hold in abeyance its mission at the behest of government restrictions?

The church has, in fact, accommodated to this neutrality by creating  organizations to carry out specialized work. So there is precedent. Entities constituted by religious organizations provide humanitarian services under contract to the government for processing immigrants, providing food aid, carrying out case management in disasters and many other humanitarian needs.

Under these contracts the services delivered are specific, non-sectarian and based on need. They are expressly free of religious conversation and the organizations are highly specialized and uniquely skilled at delivering social services.

Faith-based initiatives that extend beyond these constituted entities into congregational life at the grassroots level will create a more direct and intimate relationship between government and church, putting government funding and regulations into the halls of local congregations, synagogues, mosques or temples.

The risk is great. A faith community is first and primarily a worshipping and learning community. In my church community, worship and response to holy scripture, tradition and contemporary theological insight lead us to outward commitment to social justice, inclusive, democratic governance and concern for the common good.

When it is relevant, the church is an advocate for a government that includes all people and serves them equally but it is not a partner with government nor an agent of government. Our commitment is rooted in faithful response to a loving God, and this is not dependent upon, nor conditional to any form of governance. For us, justice is a biblical imperative.

Admittedly, we have not been nearly vocal enough in recent years about the deterioration of responsible government and have been far too quiet about the misplaced priorities that have led to spending vast amounts on war as federal and state governments cut back basic health, education and social services for those most vulnerable and at risk. But faith-based initiatives are no way to make up the difference.

We’ve already seen enough to know that the melding of religion and politics is a dangerous bond. We need look no further than the influence of the religious right on the current administration.

To preserve democratic society, theological integrity and constructive public policy our best response to faith-based initiatives is just say no.

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