Devon and me

It may be raining, but I had breakfast with Sunshine.
Factoid of the day: “Santa is the only guy born with a beard.”
Question of the day: “Does Santa give the Tooth Fairy presents?”
Dialogue of the day: “Can we visit the North Pole, Ada?”
“It’s very far away.”
“We cold take the T.”
Ah, grandkids.
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Barack Obama’s historic gamble

Barack Obama has once again assured his place in the history of the American presidency.

Obama acted courageously, if carefully, this week in becoming the first American president to openly support gay marriage. In doing so, he took substantial risks – with religious black and Latino voters, who would normally be potential core constituents; with older voters, who grew up at a time in which gay-bashing was just as common and, in some quarters, at least as acceptable as racial bigotry; and in southern states like North Carolina and Virginia, where the fight for electoral votes will be central in the 2012 presidential election’s outcome. Obama’s words undoubtedly have energized the evangelical GOP base that didn’t care much for Mitt Romney but will now flock to the polls. And the president spoke to the issue just a day after North Carolina voters affirmed their opposition to gay marriage by an overwhelming margin.

But Obama did what was right. Give him credit for that. The denial of marriage rights to gay and lesbian Americans is every bit as much a civil rights issue as was Jim Crow in the South and laws barring interracial marriage that weren’t removed from the books in many states until 45 years ago. In doing what was right, Obama also took an astute gamble that just might help him politically. Surely his actions will energize a thus-far lukewarm liberal Democratic base; will play well among all voters younger than 30 or 35, and will help fill campaign coffers. It also may force Mitt Romney to placate the ugliest faction of the rigid Republican right by focusing more on social issues than he’d like in a year when being a businessman might play to his advantage.

What I don’t accept are those straining to interpret Obama’s actions in pure political terms. “Is Obama’s gay marriage stance all about suburban voters?” asked MSNBC.
“Obama campaign hopes marriage equality support a boon for fundraising,” chimed London’s Guardian. And “Obama’s same-sex marriage reversal rooted in principle or politics?” asked a Fox News headline (Since this came from the Sean Hannity show, you can guess that the answer is negative and inflammatory).

Much closer to the reality of the moment is this lead from the Bloomberg wire service, reprinted at

President Barack Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage marked a rare moment of risk-taking on the most divisive civil-rights issue in the nation, changing the dynamics of his race for re-election.

For all the criticism the president has attracted over time, on everything from the economy to his past timidity in the face of GOP bullying and intransigence, Obama on balance has much to stand on in this first term. Following the worst recession since the Great Depression, he has kept this country in a lot better shape than most of our European allies. He can reasonably claim credit for having rescued the American automobile industry. He tracked down Osama bin Laden, ended the Iraq War, and stopped discrimination against gay and lesbians in the military. Now, he has stepped to the political lead in speaking out on what is perhaps the biggest civil rights issue of the 21st century. A politicized Supreme Court may yet dismantle his moderate but important step forward on health care. A determined Republican ring wing may even succeed in denying him re-election in part by disenfranchising poor and minority voters.

But, at a time when a significant minority of Americans is working feverishly to roll back the clock to a time when a white, male old boys network called all the shots, the president has made clear that as long as he is in charge, he will not let them.

This blog also appeared in OpEd News.

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Remembering Mom

My Mom had opinions on just about everything. And she wasn’t shy about sharing them either.

Ethel Lanson was a teacher — first biology and then, when I was growing up on Long Island in the ’50s and ’60s, a high school guidance counselor. And if her two sons sometimes didn’t do their assignments, in life or school, she’d let us know about it. Or she’d just step in and get things done herself.

Not that I always appreciated her — shall we say — enthusiasm. But, as Mother’s Day approaches during this National Teacher Appreciation Week, I look back at her life and influence with a smile and a touch of longing.

One of my earlier memories of Mom was at a dressy ’50s business affair at a country club for the Madison Avenue lighting company at which my Dad worked. She got into a lively conversation with some of the “ladies,” and protested loudly that I could marry whomever I wanted regardless of race, color or creed. That wasn’t the conversation of country clubs in those days (is it now?), and given that I was only eight or so, I had no plans on getting married just yet anyhow. I blushed, but it’s a memory I carry proudly.

Other memories aren’t so much about Mom as about how seamlessly she organized my life as I followed along, oblivious. This happened a lot.

She herself was a tailor’s daughter, an only child. She grew up on the stoops of the Bronx, read voraciously at the library and stood in the back of the Metropolitan Opera for a quarter. She met my Dad at a camp in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where she was a counselor with a friend of his from Germany. So I guess it’s not surprising that one of the first assignments in the education of Jerry Lanson was to spend summers between age six and 10 at Camp Lexington in the Catskills. There, I tipped a canoe or two, shot archery, camped in the rain, and very gingerly held the garter snakes that Ethel Lanson, nature counselor, was fond of handing me. To this day, I stay clear of snakes.

Summer at a farm camp in North Carolina followed, not Mom’s best choice. The owner was a gentle, elderly Quaker. But this was the South in the early ’60s. My counselor was from Ole Miss and bigotry, in his words and those of the townies with whom we’d play softball on Saturdays, intruded often.

Kinhaven, the bucolic Vermont music camp Mom picked out the next year, made up for it. There, I spent the three most wonderful summers of my childhood, barefoot but for the weekly trip to town to buy fudge, playing French horn by morning and capture the flag or, on rainy days, endless Monopoly games, by afternoon. The camp had no TV, radio or record players. And today’s “technocopia” was decades away.

High school eventually came to an end and Mom was ready with a list of six college choices. I shrugged and applied. I did at least pick which one I wanted to attend. Mom didn’t get to pick the girl I married either; I managed that myself. But she did have her say. During a college semester when Kathy was studying abroad and I started a semi-serious relationship with someone else, Mom stormed in the door of my brother’s New York apartment, where I had brought that other girl, and she made plenty clear that she did not approve. I always wondered about her impeccable timing on that occasion.

As Mom grew older and moved to Vermont, living there first with Dad, then after his death in 1980, alone on a 14-acre hillside overlooking the Connecticut River, she, ever the teacher, caught tadpoles and frogs with our two daughters in her pond, reminded me (more than once until I got it done) to cut the lawn or take out the trash, and volunteered in the local elementary school.

Sometime during the late ’80s or early ’90s, her weekly letters began. She’d always enclose clippings — for our girls, on acne and menstrual cramps, vitamins and summer camps, and for us, articles on education, politics, travel and, more than likely, knowing Mom, relationships.

I generally groaned when they arrived, but missed them more than anything else when she died in November 1999 at age 83, in her own bed on that Vermont hillside.

When Mom turned 80 she had asked for just one thing: letters from friends and relatives and their kids, sharing a memory of her. I remember being amazed at the outpouring and today pulled out and dusted off the big black binder we put them in with “Happy 80th Birthday” lettered on the outside in our daughter Betsy’s hand.

One of my favorites was written by a young woman who grew up on the other side of that frog pond in front of my parent’s house. She’s a music teacher today and was when she wrote, too.

“Sometimes, when I hear the buzz of the school, I think of ‘Aunt Ethel,'” she wrote. “How much she values education and always craves more. Her love of the arts has been a great influence on my life.”

Four years after Mom’s death, her house and property beginning to show the strain of disrepair, we sold her beloved retirement home to the writer of that letter and her guy. I know on Mother’s Day she’ll walk down the hill to where Mom’s ashes rest under the big maple and have a little chat with her.

 This blog appeared first on Huffington Post.
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Moving on

Dear friends,

Though I’ll keep this address for the occasional family piece or travel piece, I’ve moved most of my blogging to the Huffington Post. From there, I’ll push it out to those who are Facebook friends or follow me on Twitter.  That way, should you see something of mine on Word Press, you’ll know it has not appeared elsewhere.

Here is my Huffington Post homepage address:


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Is it time to consider new standards for news?

Investigate. Verify. Publish.

Journalism used to seem so much simpler.

As a graduate student at the University of Missouri in the mid-1970s, I memorized the somewhat lofty language of the Hutchins Commission, which in 1947 urged American journalists to “provide a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.”

As recently as 2001, I drew solace from Bill Kovach’s and Tom Rosenstiel’s well-respected “Elements of Journalism,” with its earnest evocation of the profession’s enduring virtues.

“In the end,” they wrote, “the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art…. Journalism alone is focused first on getting what happened down right.”

So how did such words of inspiration get morphed into “tweet it now: fast, furious and first?”

Last week, following a string of tasteless, careless or just plain erroneous tweets by reporters and columnists, I suggested that news organizations need to establish clear ethics policies for Twitter.

Since then I’ve been thinking about whether the journalism profession should consider something else: attacking the speed at which rumors spread by taking these rumors apart in special news sections and teasing out what’s true and false. Sort of a consumer’s guide to the birth and spread of falsehood.

If you had asked me a few years ago, I’m sure I’d have told you that this was a bad idea. During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, I got really angry one day after reading a piece on the front page that looked at the persistent rumor that Barack Obama was a Muslim.

“The rumors about Obama have been echoed on Internet message boards and chain e-mails,” The Postnoted, elaborating on many of them along the way.

At the time, I thought the paper had gone off the rails. By talking at length about something so untrue, I figured The Post would simply spread the misconceptions and smears it was repeating.

Today, as I watch reporters run wild in the Twittersphere, as happened recently when word spread fast of the alleged tax problems of South Carolina’s governor, I’m changing my mind.

Just maybe, instead of ignoring rumors — or, worse yet, passing them on as news — news organizations should consciously and consistently address them. Maybe they should set up special sections on their web sites or news pages that explore where the most persistent rumors come from, who is spreading them, and whether or not there’s any truth to them.

Readers, I suspect, would lap this up. And the new “rumor mill” sections could prove a 21st century sort of verification, designed not to titillate but to investigate, teasing out the truth and knocking down the rest.

It’s a kind of deconstructed and annotated gossip that’s not all that different from a couple of well-established political websites. One is, published by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, “a nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” The other is the Tampa Bay Times’, which among other things measures the level of truth and falsehood in political ads.

Maybe respected news organizations should follow their lead — tearing into the gossip and rumor that cascades across their computer screens from all corners of our culture rather than merely discarding it in the trash icon. Maybe.

It would be a step up, at least, from simply resending or reposting someone else’s tweets and hoping they prove true.

But I gotta go. Hot news coming in on my Boston Celtics stream.

#Celtics … Bg trade in wrks. Kobe & LeBron cld head to Bstn 4 top drft choices, inside sources say. 3-team trade. More TK.

This article appeared first in the Huffington Post. 
Posted in ethics, journalism, news, news and speed, news media, social media, twitter | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Media need to establish clear ethics codes on using, posting tweets

Don’t retweet this yet.

Don’t post it on your news site. Not until you check to see if I am who I claim to be.

That I’m a professor and not a charlatan. That my links are real. That I didn’t make up this blog — wholesale — or attribute it to unnamed sources who thought they overheard something.

Twitter has been praised for helping to break major stories from Arab Spring and the Trayvon Martin shooting to Syria’s atrocities. It is a powerful tool.

But along the way, the world of Twitter has led journalism through its own atrocities, or at least train wrecks. And Twitter’s use by reputable news sites, professional reporters and opinion writers at times remains about as sophisticated as law enforcement during the days of Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral.

The latest big error, as the New York Times reported this week, came when reporters from “old and venerable media” (CBS News and The Washington Post) joined The Huffington Post and others in rushing to retweet a false rumor that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was about to indicted on charges of tax fraud. Noted theTimes, the case involved:

…a liberal-leaning 25-year-old blogger eager to make a name for his new Web site, and a buzz-seeking political press corps that looks to the real-time, unedited world of Twitter as the first place to break news.In retrospect, there were clear reasons to doubt the March 29 report, from a blog called the Palmetto Public Record … The blog’s editor, Logan Smith, never asked the governor’s office for comment before he posted his report. Later, in an e-mail, Mr. Smith said he could not be sure whether his sources were correct.

Shame on the blogger. But much more shame on news organizations whose professionalism rests — or should — on checking facts and publishing only what’s true.

That surely didn’t happen. A Times timeline notes that two minutes after Smith posted under the headline “Haley indictment imminent” — this based on two unidentified “well-placed legal experts” — a blogger for the Washington newspaper The Hill had tweeted it. Nine minutes later, The Daily Beast tweeted it; 20 minutes later, the Washington Post — and the deluge of calls to Haley’s office was underway.

Were this some horrible aberration it would be embarrassing enough to journalism, whose very future as a paid profession rests to a significant extent on what of value it can provide readers and viewers beyond the gossip mill of YouTubeTwitter, the blogosphere and “citizen journalism.”

But this is anything but a horrible aberration.

Writes the Times, “This episode is not the first time that a questionable Twitter report has roiled the 2012 elections.”

And national politics has no corner on the market. I teach journalism ethics, and questionable or tasteless uses of Twitter have become a recurring course theme.

1. On Jan. 20, the Poynter Institute told the story of a senior editor for California Watch who tweeted the overheard conversation of a woman he was “99 percent sure” was a Santa Ana City councilwoman. He neither confirmed her identify nor asked for comment.

2. In early February, CNN suspended contributor Roland Martin after he sent homophobic tweets during the Super Bowl, Poynter reported.

3. A week later, Jim Romenesko reported that Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock posted a crass stereotype about Asian-Americans after basketball sensation Jeremy Lin, the remarkable Chinese-American point guard who burst onto the scene this season, led the New York Knicks to victory.

In a letter to Whitlock, the Asian-American Journalists Association wrote: “The attempt at humor … exposed how some media companies fail to adequately monitor the antics of their high-profile representatives.”

The list goes on. Which raises the question: Why?

When it comes to issues such as plagiarism or conflict of interest, most high-profile journalism organizations have clear, blanket policies — don’t. Don’t steal other people’s work, don’t serve on your school board when you’re covering education, don’t endorse presidential candidates.

But the rules for Twitter are murkier, if articulated at all. For example, the New York Times’ lengthy ethics code, posted online with 139 separate points, has an entire section on blogs, but nothing on Twitter. Then again, the policy is dated October 2005.

NPR’s new Ethics Handbook, unveiled in February, includes a special social media section. It warns reporters to “Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist. … Verify information before passing it on. ”

That seems like good advice. But then NPR seems to suggest it won’t always happen:

One key is to be transparent about what we’re doing. We tell readers what has and hasn’t been confirmed. We challenge those putting information out on social media to provide evidence. We raise doubts and ask questions when we have concerns … And we always ask an important question: am I about to spread a thinly-sourced rumor or am I passing on valuable and credible (even if unverified) information in a transparent manner with appropriate caveats.

I, for one, like the emphasis on verification rather than on passing on rumor and saying it may or may not be true. But in an age in which polls suggest millions of Americans still believe our president is a Muslim born in Kenya — and no, he’s neither — even the most upstanding news sites can’t always ignore what’s whirling around on the Internet.

That does not mean, however, that journalists need to contribute to the confusion. Their news organizations need policies that emphasize the importance of being right, no just first. They need to remember that a reporter’s first responsibility is to check things out — before passing things along. They need guidelines on how to check the veracity of tweets.

So. Maybe my name is Ernie and I’m a dentist. Don’t believe what you read just because it’s in print.

This appeared first in the Huffington Post.

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Can the Red scares of the ’50s mount a comeback?

Nothing in politics should surprise me anymore.  This, after all, is a country in which, polls suggest, millions of Americans still believe our president was born in another country and practices the Muslim faith.

That said, I was nonetheless surprised today to see this headline on “West says nearly half of House Democrats are Communists.”

This particular West would be Rep. Allen West, who represent Florida’s 22nd Congressional District. His charge was printed in the Palm Beach Post, apparently with no effort on the part of the Post to see whether there is one iota of truth to it (I’ll take odds there is not).

What’s alarming for those unfamiliar with the 1950s is that West appears to be pulling a page from book Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy used to wreck the lives and careers of thousands of Americans whom he labeled as Communists or communist sympathizers.

It all began on Feb. 9, 1950 when McCarthy announced in Wheeling, W. Va., “I have in my hand 57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party, but who nevertheless are still helping to shape our foreign policy.”

The speech catapulted him to prominence though he never produced a single name.  And as McCarthy moved forward, trashing the reputations of Americans in the arts, in journalism and in government, the news media made a practice of printing his charges without demanding evidence or proof.

Given that communism is hardly the specter it was back then, West is probably picking the wrong enemy at the wrong time.  But the news media should either ignore the man or force him immediately to provide detailed evidence of this preposterous charge.

The era of Joseph McCarthy was one of the ugliest in American history.  We don’t need so much as an echo of this past.

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