Friday, April 29, 2011


In today’s world, there are many types of journalists. Some, like me, are amateurs. Often referred to as “citizen-journalists”, we write because we love doing it. We don’t get paid, we typically have no formal journalism training, and we make rookie mistakes. In another category, despite the demise of the traditional news industry, there are professional journalists. They ply their craft to make a living, usually are graduates of respected journalism schools, and being human, they too often make mistakes. All journalists should be held to a high standard of ethics and integrity, and many citizen-journalists and most professional journalists write with those standards in mind.

Journalists for major news outlets can take advantage of a slew of resources - professional researchers, copy editors, established style guides, and thousands of contacts to make their products as polished and error-free as humanly possible. They can easily do fact-checking and most of the time their work is reviewed by several pairs of eyes before it is published.

As an amateur journalist, I don’t have the same resources at my disposal as does, for example, Paul Mulshine, who works for one of the largest and most comprehensive news outlets in the state of New Jersey. Mulshine must have a fantastic research staff. He recently commented on a blog post of mine, and immediately concluded that I had gone to public school. I commend his research staff in their ability to ferret out this fact, especially given that I write my blog under a pseudonym and it’s been a half century since I attended public school.

Mulshine intimated that because I went to public school, I must have had an inferior education. After all, in the blog post that he refers to, I misspelled the name of New Jersey Assemblyman Jack Conners, using an “o” instead of an “e” in the legislator’s name. Neither I nor my “copy editor” caught this error, but the blame for the mistake falls on my shoulders.

I’m impressed that Mulshine’s research team got it right. I did go to public school. But I think I received a damn good education. I graduated from high school at age 17 and went on to earn an engineering degree from a public university - a wonderful institution in the Garden State called Rutgers. That education served me in good stead, and prepared me for a 40+ year career with a major defense contractor as well as enabling me to successfully complete the requirements for a post-graduate engineering degree (alas, at a private school in New York State.)

For those not familiar with Paul Mulshine, he is a conservative commentator. I’m happy that he reads the liberal blogs that I write for. But I’m disappointed that he chose to publicly berate my education on what is a real, but trivial, error on my part.

Last night, I had the occasion to meet the subject of my faux pas, Assemblyman Jack Conners. I related the story to the assemblyman about my spelling error and Mulshine’s comments. Ever gracious, Conners told me that his name has been the subject of misspellings for generations. He even mentioned that because their names are similar, he has often been confused with the other legislator from his district, Herb Conaway. I was glad to have had the chance to meet Conners, shook his hand, and wished him well in his planned retirement after the current Assembly session adjourns.

Since I write from the left, and Mulshine writes from the right, we often have different views on the topic of the day. That’s great. I never expected my blog postings to be the subject of comments from a legitimate journalist, and I wish Mulshine would have chosen to comment on substance rather than typos.

I have a very conservative friend who often comments on my blog under the name “Glen H.” Glen and I rarely agree on anything, but I enjoy the back-and-forth discussions we have, both on line and at a monthly current events forum that we both attend. The difference between Glen (who is not a professional journalist, either) and Paul, is that Glen’s comments have substance. They are often fact-based, and raise legitimate challenges to my opinions. This type of push-back from Glen is valuable. It makes me a better writer, causes me to re-think my position - sometimes requiring me to add nuance or modify my thinking - and less often than I would like, helps me and Glen find some common ground.

The amateur, Glen, makes me a better writer. The professional, Paul, in his comments, epitomizes what’s wrong with mainstream journalism today.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Setting a Bad Example

The old maxim goes, “Nothing is ever a total loss. It can always be used as a bad example.” And nothing fits that saying better than the recent absurd utterance of Governor Chris Christie.

When questioned by a radio host on a right-wing outlet as to whether the governor had considered disobeying a potential ruling by the state’s Supreme Court, Christie responded, “Have I thought of that? Of course I have.”

We know that Governor Christie does not respect the American concept of separation of powers, especially when it comes to the court. His unprecedented politically-motivated firing of Supreme Court Justice John Wallace last year demonstrated that fact. But now, the governor has gone too far - sending a message to all New Jerseyans, and especially our children, that following the law is optional.

Christie’s beef is that the Supreme Court justices are “activists.” Let me remind the governor of some basic Civics 101 facts. “Activist” judges are ones who go beyond the laws that are enacted by the legislature. An example might be federal judges who interfere with a state’s electoral system, as happened in 2000, or judges who actually enact laws like the US Supreme Court did in the Citizen’s United decision.

Activism is not the case when justices simply interpret the laws that are constitutionally mandated or enacted by the legislature. That’s the case that Governor Christie is all up in arms about. The New Jersey Constitution mandates a “thorough and efficient” education for all students. The Supreme Court is about to rule on whether or not this clause is being implemented by the executive branch, given that the governor took one billion dollars away from education, while at the same time giving millionaires a tax break almost as large.

When pressed by the radio host, the governor said that if the court decides in favor of public school students, he will still not raise taxes to account for the funding shortfall, but would rather take that money from other vital services. He knows that such a decision would wreak havoc upon the citizens of New Jersey and is skillfully placing the blame on the court.  But he also leaves the option of disobeying the court decision on the table.

Regardless of the politics here, the governor is potentially establishing a dangerous precedent by spitting in the face of one of the linchpins of American democracy - the separation of powers. Instead of his flippant answer to the radio host, the governor should have made this a teaching moment for our kids. He should have responded that as governor, his job is to carry out the laws as established by the legislature and interpreted by the courts. He could have vehemently disagreed with the decision and vowed to work with the legislature to make the changes that he feels are necessary. But disobeying a court order is not an option - not for an ordinary citizen, and not for a governor. If he chooses to bully the legislature, the press, and public servants, that’s his prerogative. But as chief executive, and as example-setter-in-chief, Christie has only two options for ignoring a court order: resignation or impeachment.

Cross-posted from

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bumper Sticker Dilemma

What should I do?

I’ve never been a bumper sticker kind of guy, but when I started my blog, I had a sticker made that advertised the site. Once I put that on my car, that opened the floodgates, and now I have affixed several more bumper stickers, all of which have been either picked up at various meetings or mailed to me by advocacy groups.

Well, I just got another one in the mail. But I’m of mixed mind as to whether or not to put it on my car. As you can see, there’s still plenty of real estate on my bumper for more stickers.

Barack Obama sent me a bumper sticker promoting his 2012 campaign. Given the field of Republican miscreants and the GOP’s anti-people platform, I’m sure I will vote for Obama next year. But I’m very upset with his performance - his handling of the detention and trials of the 9/11 suspects, his throwing single-payer under the bus before negotiations on health care even started, his eagerness to engage in a third war of choice, the snail’s pace of reversing the Bush attack on gay rights, his acquiescence to continuing the tax cuts for the wealthy to name a few.

Does affixing an Obama 2012 sign to my car indicate that I am happy with the president’s agenda? Or does it just say, “vote for the lesser of two evils?”

What do you think I should do?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rachel at Rutgers

Cross-posted from

When asked to compare the state of broadcast journalism today with that of decades ago, television commentator Rachel Maddow remarked that there are no Walter Cronkites today, and she did not expect one to arise in the foreseeable future.

Cronkite established his reputation as "the most trusted man in America." He was a conventional hard news reporter and Maddow is an opinionated commentator. Yet despite these differences, one could legitimately argue that Maddow is filling Cronkite's shoes. When fact-based broadcast news is a rare commodity, Maddow's nightly program on MSNBC is one of the few that I trust.

Under the sponsorship of Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics, Maddow appeared this morning on the Cook Campus at an event hosted by Eagleton and moderated by its Director, Ruth Mandel.
Maddow started off with remarks about the production of the nightly show. The Oxford PhD clearly enjoys what she is doing, and said she considers her job more as one of explaining the complexity of the news rather than  simply reporting it. The most difficult part of her job, she explained, is deciding which stories to include for in-depth analysis. Programming decisions are made up to the last minute, and often guests are sent home while the show is on the air, having been pre-empted by other news. Maddow established her nerd credentials when she revealed that for relaxation she listens to CDs of lectures by Richard Feynman explaining the basis of his Nobel Prize in physics. She also said that she does not watch television news, preferring British comedy for her TV fare. She stressed the independence of the program's editorial decisions from the corporate sponsorship pointing out several stories that were critical of General Electric, up until recently the majority owner of MSNBC (and even today, GE owns 49% of that network.) While ratings are important in their ability to attract guests (she called ratings her "political capital"), there is a 100% wall of separation between the host and the show's sponsors.

During the question and answer session, Maddow was asked to discuss the most important under-reported story. Without hesitation, she replied Pakistan and the secret wars that are ongoing there. We have given their military billions of dollars, she pointed out, and that money has been used to create facilities for Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. Maddow asserted that Americans are saturated with war news, and that's why we don't see much reporting on Pakistan, although she hopes to be able to report from there some day. Another area that she feels is being given too little attention in the mainstream media is the resumption of permits for oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico without any significant safety improvements - a topic that has been on some recent shows of hers.

She lamented the demise of the Republican party pointing out to the unholy alliance of social conservatives (whose agenda she categorized as "deep but not wide") and the business world that is driven by a financial agenda.

When asked what it was like to be a gay journalist on the national scene, Maddow said she didn't know - "I've never done my job as a straight person."

In response to a question from an Eagleton student, Maddow pointed out that the traditional liberal/conservative blocs are changing. For example, the pressure to cut defense spending is coming from different areas of the ideological spectrum. As the nature of war shifts from large and expensive weapons systems like the now-cancelled F-22 program to counterinsurgency efforts, the nation needs to and is taking a critical look at this area.

Maddow claims she has an opinion but not an agenda, and I believe this is an accurate description of her style. On her show, she spends a lot of time explaining complex issues, and she admits that sometimes she gets a bit too cute in using analogies and props, but that's what helps her with her message. Although at the end of today's presentation she was whisked off the stage to get back to New York to produce tonight's show, I feel I was in the presence of a person who will go down as one of the icons of broadcast news during the time that the whole paradigm of news delivery is changing right before our eyes. I only wish that she could have commented on President Obama's budget message which was delivered four hours after the Eagleton event. I guess I'll have to tune in at 9 o'clock tonight.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Courage Deficit

About fifty years ago, I read John F Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage - the stories of politicians who stepped out and bucked their party’s line to do what they felt was the right thing. Fifty years ago today, the first human being was rocketed into outer space. How are these related?

Certainly Yuri Gagarin, the 27 year old air force officer was courageous - to venture into the weightless void of space where no other human being had been. But that’s not the connection with JFK’s book that I’m referring to.

Over the past 50 years, the space program has inspired and challenged people all over the world with its accomplishments and ancillary benefits. It also has saddened us when astronauts and cosmonauts have given their lives in these mechanical contraptions. Complex technological accomplishments have become routine to the general public, including a somewhat blasé attitude toward the last several of the six manned moon landings, arguably the most important events of the twentieth century.

Now that the Shuttle program is coming to an end, the International Space Station construction is essentially complete, and NASA is ramping down its involvement by commercializing the booster industry, we are opting to cede leadership in manned space exploration to the Chinese and Russians.

The arc of the American manned space program parallels the arc of American politics over the past fifty years.

President Kennedy exhibited courage when he challenged himself and the country in 1961 to land a man on the moon and return safely before the end of the decade. It was an enormous challenge. We were behind the Russians in booster technology, a key component for a moon landing. We were mired in a Cold War and were about to get involved in a shooting war in Viet Nam. But things were different then. The nation valued science, and the nation prioritized the education of our citizens to prepare for the technological revolution that was facilitated by the emergence of the semiconductor industry. The space program was a wonderful stimulus program that paid off in advances in computers, medicine, aviation, information technology, and a host of other industries. And the wealthy paid their fair share in taxes.

Could a JFK moon landing challenge happen today? Doubtful. Every president over the last 50 years has given lip service to energy independence for example, but little substantive action has been taken. Politicians exhibit cowardice by providing tax breaks and subsidies for their wealthy benefactors while placing the burden of deficits upon those who can least afford it. We tinker around the edges of our fiscal problems, but very few politicians have the courage to do what’s right. Politicians are loathe to increase taxes on the wealthy - not to the high marginal levels we had 50 years ago - not even to the modestly higher levels we had under President Clinton. Instead, extremists like Congressman Paul Ryan have become the mainstream by cowardly proposing transferring Medicare to for-profit companies, severely reducing seniors’ accessibility to health care while enriching the corporatists.

America’s security is more than guns and fighter planes. Without a strong middle class, we become weaker both economically and militarily. Without the support for a superior educational system, the innovations that drive the economy will happen overseas. Without universal single-payer health care, our health care costs will continue to soar.

Our nation’s deficit is not just monetary, it is a deficit of courage. If we are fortunate, a leader like JFK will emerge and provide the challenge and inspiration to rebuild America from the Reagan/Bush disasters. If we’re not as lucky, the demise of America’s manned space program will be an omen of what’s ahead for the nation at large.

That's me and Dr. Segun Thomas standing in front of a giant environmental test chamber at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Does America have the courage to make the science and technology investments in this type of endeavor today?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

One Nation, Under Educated

Observing elected officials ignore the Constitution is not a new phenomenon. In recent years, we’ve seen the prolonging of the unpatriotic Patriot Act and the illegal support of parochial schools with taxpayer money. Fifty-seven years ago, we saw Congress blatantly ignore the First Amendment by inserting the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that is recited mechanically and without much understanding by little school kids every day.

The First Amendment reads, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” Yet, since the early days of our democracy, this fundamental tenet has been violated by religious zealots and politicians trying to score cheap points while disenfranchising non-Christians, agnostics, atheists, and others.

“One Nation, Under Educated” was the unofficial theme of the Second Church/State Issues Symposium of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, held this weekend - fittingly at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

The DVAU has branches in Philadelphia, Bucks County, and South Jersey. It brought together a series of speakers consisting of advocates, lawyers, historians, religious leaders and academicians. Being at this symposium surrounded by separation advocates was a breath of fresh air in contrast to the recent putrid outcomes in Washington where the Democrats are capitulating to the Republicans’ pro-corporate, anti-health, pro-pollution, anti-woman, anti-union, anti-jobs agenda.

As one speaker, Reverend Nate Walker, pointed out, although the United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, our politicians still don’t understand the First Amendment. He cited Alabama Governor Robert Bentley who, in his inaugural address, commented that non-Christians were not his brothers and sisters. This type of comment coming from an average citizen is protected speech, but coming from a state’s chief executive at an official function, it is inappropriate at best. Bentley later apologized, saying that he was sorry if he offended anyone, but never retracted his hurtful statement.

Greg Lipper, an AU attorney, walked through the history of the machinations that religious zealots use to introduce their agendas into the public schools. The Scopes Trial, which was the seminal event that eventually ruled against the creationists, only caused the anti-science groups to find more obtuse ways to promote their religious views on the taxpayer’s dime. Creationism morphed into “creation science”, and when the courts struck that down, the extremists then invented “intelligent design” to “compete” with Darwin. Just like the scientific evidence that children of gay couples are as well if not more adjusted than children of straight couples, when scientific evidence is unraveled (as in the case of evolution), right-wingers have to take more extreme positions to justify their philosophy. Lipper pointed out that effective use of science in similar cases is a good tool to counter the religious zealots.

In New Jersey’s Point Pleasant Beach municipality, for decades the council meetings have opened with the Lord’s Prayer until a lawsuit enjoined the council from promoting this religious rite at a public meeting. Frank Corrado, the ACLU attorney who litigated this case, described his experience and how after the saying of the prayer was struck down and replaced with a moment of silence, a group from a local church stood up and recited the prayer from the gallery. It’s difficult and generally unpopular to advocate against prayer, but as one bumper sticker philosopher has pointed out, “Separation of church and state is good for both.” The Point Pleasant litigation is still ongoing.

Other speakers talked about church and state issues from a historic perspective - from John Locke to the Baptists’ approach to slavery during the Civil War. The highlight of the day was the keynote address by Rev. Barry Lynn, the Executive Director of Americans United. His remarks touched on how John Boehner is doing an extreme makeover of the Constitution and how the defunding of Planned Parenthood is tantamount to punishment without trial (i.e blasphemy). Lynn mentioned President Obama’s insensitivity to church/state separation - how the President is perpetuating George W. Bush’s discriminatory hiring practices in federally-funded “faith-based” initiatives.

Overall, the discussions ranged from emotional to legalistic to academic. I only wish the group had recorded these presentations for more people to see. Separation of church and state is one of the fundamental principles of our democracy that is being eroded by the religious right and political extremists. In today’s climate, church/state separation may not be as newsworthy as Wall Street’s destruction of our economy or the appearance of Snooki at a college event. But just like the fact that our ill-advised wars are relegated to the back pages of the newspapers, defense of the First Amendment is not well understood by the general public, nor is serious discussion about that issue on peoples’ radar screens. Yet the erosion of the First Amendment has the potential to be as deleterious to our democracy as the tyranny of war or the demise of the middle class.

Rev. Barry Lynn

Disclosure: I am a proud card-carrying member of DVAU. Notification of upcoming events can be found on their web site: