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Friday, April 29, 2011

"The" media

I never went to journalism school, and I do understand that ethics are different in different countries


I am getting a little tired of people bitching out journalists while buying into all the shite available on the Internet

Case 1: I was sent a link this morning to a song "In God We Still Trust" that my correspondent AND friend believed had been banned by the current U.S. government. I looked it up, and found it was (yet another) Internet boondoggle, and sent the Snopes link back. AFTER reading all the abuse against journalists who didn't report this.

Case 2: The Huffington Post (in this case PFC Manning, but . . . ): Even without the school, anyone with even half a wit should know to "consider your sources."

Ask yourself:
What does this person/writer/interlocutor have to gain from me believing this?
What proof are they showing me?
Have they proven themselves to be truthful in the past?
Do they have an agenda? (I almost typed "hidden agenda" but this is huffpo - it's not hidden.)

Case 3: Westboro Baptist Church
OK, I agree that these people are douchebags, and many of us would like nothing more than to beat on their sorry asses.

BUT (yes, that word again), are you really sure that the tales you're hearing about them being run out of ***** (I've had it sent to me with numerous towns and numerous soldiers/sailors/airmen) are true?

Are you sure you are not actually doing their recruiting for them by spreading this? (That danged First Amendment again - I hate these guys, but I cannot support a beat-down for what they say. I would rather, IF I were an American and such things applied, stand arm-in-arm with the Patriot Guard and be louder in our silence.)

I work, sometimes, as a journalist. I'm probably a little slap-happy about it because it isn't a calling for me. I apologize for that, but I try to only do "fluffy bunny" stuff. I have worked with and follow "real" journalists, and get incensed when the same people that send me this Web-based shite talk down the profession.

What did you do to uncover the truth today?

Monday, April 25, 2011

"Suicide is Painless"

Sorry family, I know you don't want me to write about this, but I loved her also

"Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see... "

I remember coming home from school at age 8 to see an ambulance outside and watch my mother be wheeled into it on a stretcher. I went to the bathroom and saw blood everywhere. My aunts and uncles gathered us up and took us away, and told us our mother went to hospital with the flu.

I believed that, for many years.

"I try to find a way to make
all our little joys relate
without that ever-present hate
but now I know that it's too late, and...

The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
so this is all I have to say"

I loved my mother. I fought with her constantly, mainly because I blamed her for my father leaving, but I loved her. I still do. And wherever I go in this wonderful wide world, I wish she were there to share it. She's not.

"The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn't hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows it grin"

It's ANZAC Day here, where we revere our veterans. My mother fought her own war. I wish I appreciated that while she was here.

I've spent the day watching video of friends I've lost, and thinking of those I never really knew. Steve Thorpe, Ritchie Pickett, Mona Olive Lowe.

I'm sorry I wasn't there for you. I'm sorry the world wasn't there for you.

But suicide isn't painless, that's just a song

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sloppy Writing, Sloppy Fact-Checking, Sloppy Editing

I understand better than most media consumers the difficulties editors face in terms of fact-checking. I've worked as an editor in multiple countries, including on several publications in non-English-speaking countries where the writing style is very different from the Western stated ideal of accuracy and the writers may have little training. I've also worked with untrained Western writers in Korea who felt it was acceptable to plagiarize vast amounts of text (often from Wikipedia, to make it worse) or who didn't check facts even after I pointed out errors to them, just changed the wording around while still being incorrect.

I've worked as a writer within a chain of command that valued sensationalism and shock tactics over accuracy and I decided many years ago that I would rather be on Page 4 with the truth than on Page 1 with a beat-up. I'm comforted that there are many in the media who still have a strong sense of journalistic ethics and a desire for truthful reporting but am saddened by the number of individuals and institutions that do not. There seems to all too often be a desire to get the scoop and damn the accuracy - and any correction that has to be printed is usually so small as to be overlooked.

There's been a lot of this going around of late.

On a very minor but personal level, an online publication here in Korea wrote a piece recently about a bar in Seoul I used to frequent and the original owner's "public shoving contests" with his "stormy blond wife." The owner's wife was Korean and dark-haired for a start and, as a regular patron, I never witnessed such behavior. This publication is written by volunteer writers so mistakes are more likely than on a professional outlet but when I pointed out the error, the response from the editor was initially rudely dismissive then changed to an e-mail that included the following quote:
I was given the description by someone who knew the the couple that new [sic] the couple... It is mildly sloppy reporting . . .
 He then went on to invite me to write for his publication, on an unpaid basis. Ermm, thanks, but no, thanks.

On a more global level, there have been a number of articles and the occasional book written lately that appear to owe more to fiction than to fact, and where just a little fact-checking should have set off alarms in the editing process. Here are a few high-profile cases, with some links to different sites providing some balance, if only in terms of different extremes of opinion.

First, Greg Mortenson and charges by 60 Minutes that he fabricated passages of his best-selling memoir, "Three Cups of Tea," and of financial irregularities in his non-profit organization, Central Asia Institute.

This is a hard one to judge, and one can only read the different sides and come to their own conclusion. For the record, Mortenson admits to "omissions and compressions" and literary license in this interview. Here and elsewhere, he alludes to this literary license being at the publisher's behest and in this, I'm apt to believe him. It definitely makes a better story that way but, in the end, it's Mortenson's name on the book, along with a co-writer he seems to be laying much of the blame upon. Insisting on accuracy may have lost him the publishing contract, it may not have, but he signed off on the changes.

As to the financial mismanagement allegations, Mortenson's main defenses seem to be "I'm not a good manager" and that he was scammed by a local who he trusted. Should a self-proclaimed poor manager really be director of an NPO to which donors have given tens of millions of dollars?

On an associated note, anyone who has worked in much of Asia, Africa or similar theaters realizes that accurate accounting that auditors and donors will approve of is almost impossible because corruption is just part of doing business there. That's probably not something that well-meaning donors in the US want to know but that's a fact of life in such places, whether you're there for a private business, an NPO, an NGO or a military unit. And yes, money does change hands under an expectation that it will be used for certain things, only to have it disappear elsewhere. I would be incredulous if this has never happened to CAI in building its schools but I would be equally incredulous if it has never happened to 60 Minutes while reporting in the same regions.

For a harsher view than mine on Mortenson, read Carl Prine.

Next up, Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings. He's the young journalist whose story "The Runaway General"  resulted in Gen. Stanley McChrystal being asked for his resignation by his Commander in Chief. A DoD investigation has found "insufficient" evidence of  wrongdoing on the part of McChrystal, his aides and advisers but I believe that, at best, said aides and advisers were foolish enough to think that the embedded reporter drinking with them and no doubt laughing at their snide comments would not then report them. (I also believe McChrystal is too smart not to have suspected this might happen and wonder if this was the general's way of falling on his own sword rather than work for superiors he had lost faith in. Since then, he has been teaching at Yale, busy on the highly paid speaking circuit and, most recently, has been brought back into the White House fold to lead an initiative to help military families.)

Hastings was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, embedded with a group of aides buzzed on ego and alcohol and took full advantage of it to make his name.

Hastings' success seemed to have gone to his head with his subsequent story targeting "another runaway general."  In it, he uses one source only, a disgruntled Information Operations officer who claims he was ordered to use his "psy-ops" training to manipulate visiting senators. From the article:
"My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave," says Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit . . .
What Hastings failed to research, or didn't care about, was that IO and PSYOP (not psy-ops) are different things. And, although Hastings did note that Holmes was disciplined for "improperly using his position to start a private business" with a female subordinate he was also accused of having an "inappropriate" relationship with, it doesn't occur to the reporter that he might be being used to, in effect, advertise that fledgling business. (Holmes denied the relationship and said the two were waiting until after they left Afghanistan to start the business.)

I looked at Holmes's Facebook page at the time of the article and noted his description of himself as a "would-be adventurer." (That fits with his misrepresentation of himself as a psy-ops Jedi knight, capable of getting the enemy to behave the way he wanted and, presumably, of manipulating goats by staring at them also.) In my mind, any reporter that relies on only one uncollaborated source, with an obvious agenda of his or her own, for an article, should consider putting "would-be" in front of their job title also. If you doubt that Holmes did have an agenda of his own, compare his RS quote to this, from his current Facebook description of the strategic communications firm he heads:
SyzygyLogos... Changing the way people act by changing the way they think!

And then there's the embarrassing case of Associated Press being hoaxed by a fake press release about General Electric offering to repay a $3.2 billion tax refund. Despite an initial call to the "communications representative" listed in the release reaching the answerphone of someone with a different name,it didn't seem to occur to anyone to phone GE and check that said representative was on their books. That's shoddy, lazy and reprehensible, in my mind, and I expect much better of AP.

Unfortunately, those reporters who never let the truth get in the way of a good story seem more likely to become successes in the modern media world than those who prefer truth over sensationalism. I have worked with such fabulists also, most noticeably one who is a brilliant and emotive writer, but not so hot on facts. Despite an apology for libel in his past and several well-documented allegations of fabricating both stories and sources, his star continues to rise in the Asian media market.

And I sometimes wonder why people disrespect those in journalism!

The "full" story by Jon Krakaeur, the 60 Minutes reporter. Hell hath no fury like a journalist scammed. The full PDF is only available for a short time.

A reasoned analysis by Marianne Elliott.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Kindness of a Stranger

Every so often, something totally unexpected happens in your life that restores your faith in humanity. I had such a diamond moment yesterday.

The situation was that I turned up at Christchurch Airport too late for my flight, having written down an earlier itinerary that was then changed and not having looked at the time on my ticket. Totally my fault. The problem was that it was going to cost me $400 to buy a replacement fare from Christchurch to Auckland and I didn't have that on tap. The vagaries of being a freelance writer are that you get paid when the publication feels like paying you. I have money going into my account on Wednesday and am picking up more funds next week so used most of my ready cash to purchase gifts for friends I will be visiting with. I also needed to be in Auckland today to make my flight to Korea, and from there to the US in two weeks time.

So, I Skyped a good friend on Jeju Island who is helping me finance this next project to see if he had a credit card I could put the flight on. Unfortunately, his credit card had been having issues and wasn't working, and the earliest he could get me any money would be Monday, when I'm due to touch down in Korea. I told him not to worry, I'd work something out, and said I would see him Monday or Tuesday, as already planned.

Just prior to my Skype call for help, we'd had another aftershock, a 4.1 this time. I looked at the airport roof and wondered if it would stay up, and the only person nearby and I looked at each other after it stopped with wry smiles. "Survived that one," we nodded at each other.

After my Skype call, the same gentleman asked if I had checked out prices at Jetstar, as he was on a flight with them that was due to be called for boarding. I hadn't, hoping that my Air New Zealand missed ticket could be factored into the cost (it was, and it was still going to take another $400 with them). So we wandered along to Jetstar, where I was told a ticket with them would still be $319. The gentleman, an aerospace engineer from Quebec, pulled out his card and paid my ticket. With no idea who I was or if the money would ever be repaid (it will, with interest and many thanks).

We sat together on the flight and discussed life, the universe and everything, and my upcoming US trip. He asked if I'd read the book he was reading - Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." (I haven't, yet.) He'd been reading a passage where Kerouac was stuck somewhere without any money and listening to my call for help and decided he could do so.

I thank you Yves, and found a new friend yesterday.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dear Mr President

Dear Mr. President,

This song was written for your predecessor, but it's applicable to you also. That saddens me.

"Come take a walk with me
Let's pretend we're just two people and you're not better than me
I'd like to ask you some questions if we can speak honestly" - Pink

Facebook is hosting a Town Hall Meeting with the Commander in Chief on Wednesday, April 20. People are invited to ask questions, some of which will be selected to ask Mr. President. My more cynical friends believe that only softball will be played. The forum is asking mainly about marijuana and legalization, with a lot of reposts for Feeding America also. Not a bad idea, methinks.

My questions, Dear Mr. President, and I am not an American but am affected by everything your Empire does:

Who is paying for Libya? (Insert Iraq or Afghanistan at will.) Who do you propose will lead the country when you are done? Do you have a "friendly" in mind? Will he stay friendly?

Why are you/Congress/the Houses still playing World Sheriff when there is so much to fix in your own backyard? Why are you championing free speech elsewhere and smothering it at home?
How can you be so overtly against your own military, but still send them to die in unwarranted situations?

"How do you sleep when the rest of us cry
How do you dream when a mother has no chance to say goodbye
How do you walk with your head held high
Can you even look me in the eye"

I, and many others in the world, hoped that the change you promised would happen. We're disappointed, Barry, though you're still worshiped in Jakarta.

"Let me tell you 'bout hard work
Minimum wage with a baby on the way
Let me tell you 'bout hard work
Rebuilding your house after the bombs took them away
Let me tell you 'bout hard work
Building a bed out of a cardboard box"

Dear Mr. President

"How do you walk with your head held high"

Three Lies in One

Delving into the archives after reading Doctrine Man's latest zoomie offering!/photo.php?fbid=202763519756807&set=a.169913026375190.35223.110598432306650&type=1&theater

Many years ago, when the fictional character was a younger gal, she wrote a column for a Korean publication on the military, both ROK and US. Short of ideas and coming up to deadline, she decided to write about MREs. She mailed her military friends for personal experiences and treasures fondly a response from a zoomie Colonel: "MREs? The Air Force eats at the Officers' Club each night."

Anyway, here's the original, many years later (and thanks to the SEAL for the title):

Three Lies in One

They’re not meals, they’re not ready and they’re definitely not edible!

At least, that’s one school of thought regarding MREs –Meals, Ready-to-Eat.

The MRE is a far cry from the field rations fed to the military during America’s Civil War, and a lot more advanced than the C- and K-rations employed during World War II and the Vietnam conflict.

Basically, it is a self-contained combat ration, available in 24 menu varieties and consisting of a main meal and other components supposedly chosen to complement each other. It delivers an average of 1,250 kilocalories per pack and supplies 1/3 of the Military Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamins and minerals.

Self-contained means from go to whoa – the pack contains its own flameless heating system, mints, beverages, seasonings (including a tiny bottle of Tabasco), a moist towelette and even toilet paper.

It’s both convenient and efficient, I’m told, and, as with home cooking, can be improved upon with a little ingenuity and some TLC.

The longest that one of my correspondents has had to survive on solely MREs was a 47-day period.

“I can’t say I would want to do it again,” he wrote, “but it didn’t kill me and real food tasted that much better when I returned.”

In the interests of research, I convened a tasting panel to sample some components from a variety of options. Here’s what they thought:

Pretzel Sticks: the comments ranged from “very stale” through “simply disastrous” to “vile”. The shelf life for MREs is three years and longer if cold-stored – these tasted older than that.

Wheat Snack Bread, which we ate with Apple Jelly: The bread didn’t impress, with one reviewer stating bread and water at Parkhurst Prison (UK) would be better. The apple jelly was “nice, but it didn’t have much to work with.”

Chicken Breast Fillet with Rib Meat, Chunked and Formed, Breaded in Tomato Sauce with Cavatelli: this main got a “big thumbs up” and reminded the panel of supermarket-bought microwaveable meals.

“If you were served it in economy class on an airplane, you wouldn’t be surprised.”

Fudge Brownie: “It’s up there with the main meal as the best thing in the pack” (although, unfortunately, the chicken comes accompanied by pound cake).

Cocoa: “not bad”, “better than your average instant”.

Coffee: this was a bad letdown with the general consensus being “Shite!”

As for the accessory components, the reviewers were impressed; particularly by the Tabasco that I understand is a commonly traded item among soldiers in the field. We also liked the directions on the towelette packet – “Tear open packet, unfold towelette and use”

They really do think of everything!

My thanks to panel members Alastair, Candice, Jamie and Tom.

You owe me dinner sometime.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Latrine Poetry

for my favorite superhero, Doctrine Man (it's a bird, it's a plane, aw shucks, it's just a sock puppet)

I'm back in the quake zone again and just wandered around the village with some young friends and their parents, and the portaloo is still at the Medical Centre (they spell in British here). Which reminded me . . .

One of many high points of the post-quake week was the arrival of the portaloo.

First there was the sound of a chopper, which in Aotearoa, and especially on a harbor, usually means a rescue mission. So we stepped outside to look. What we saw was so astounding I forgot to take a photograph. There, dangling beneath the copter and swinging in the wind was a portaloo. We watched it fly by, shook our heads and calculated how many portaloos could have been trucked in for the same cost as the avgas required and guessed you might have been able to afford to keep the truck as well. We also wondered how many more might arrive.

None. The rotored portaloo was for the medical center, and the doctor was a little embarrassed by how it arrived but the New Zealand Air Force (do we have an air force?) tasked it as a medical emergency and the NZ Armed Forces (similar question) saw it as a great PR opportunity. "Join the Air Force, Make Shit Fly!"

I was told that, as the chopper zoomies hovered before landing said latrine, all the non-urgent workers in the medical center and surrounding area stood outside with legs tightly crossed. I didn't see that myself.

Fast forward to a morning later where I am waving down cars and giving them updated information that Civil Defence wouldn't allow me to post to its Web site, and I realize I'm talking to the doctor and ask him about a minor wound I have. He insists I come to have it checked out so I end up in the Medical Centre before it's even open and eavesdropping on the doctor and nurse. It's still only days after the big quake and he lives in central Christchurch, and is very pleased with himself that he managed to find a Chinese and Chip shop open the previous night.

He announces to the nurse that he's going to visit the facilities.

He comes back, shocked. "Someone's had a horse in there!" he tells her. Ahhhh, he's a city boy.

His next comment: "Those bloody neighbors have been using it, haven't they?"

I couldn't help myself: "It's not like you snuck it in quietly," I said.

The doctor doesn't like me much either.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Moving On

I hate saying haere ra (goodbye).

I get really grumpy/shitty when I have to do so, and I probably should get over that, considering how I live my life. But there's something about the saying of goodbyes that reminds me of tangihanga and death, grief and burial, and I'm not good at any of those.

When my much-loved Mother died, I didn't come home for the tangi. I have since been told that my not coming back was inappropriate, but we all grieve in our own ways. For me, that way was to go to a dear friend's home and not talk for three months. When I don't talk, my friends worry.

I am hating saying haere ra this time also. I have made friends, renewed friendships, helped raise pups and save one from a bullet. And I do know I will be missed (by the pup, at least.) I STILL hate saying goodbye!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Coming to America, Part 2

I love America. Or perhaps it's the idea of America that I love. I still believe in the America that welcomes strangers with open arms and where anyone can make it with sheer grit and determination. I'm not sure whether the America I believe in and love still exists, but I'm very sure that's not the America much of the outside world sees.

I'm also aware that much of my contact with America and Americans is viewed from a military perspective, and that is not the America that many Americans know. The America of military bases is almost a return to an earlier era, where neighbors gather together for grills and games and teenagers know that any misbehavior will get back to their parents. Again, it's only one side of America, but one I know well and, for the most part, peopled by caring, well-meaning individuals. But how typical is that of the country as a whole?

I've joked with American friends that I often get mistaken for a "loud American" and often that assumption comes with animosity toward "us" all. One friend asked why Americans are so disliked and I think it's because all that much of the world knows about the country is its politics and big oil/big tobacco/big business concerns. Which many of the Americans I know are just as concerned about as those of us outside of the country.

There's also a shocking ignorance on the part of many Americans about the world outside their personal borders, whether that be their ranch, their town, their state or the continental USA. I've noticed that same mindset most places I've traveled in the world, however. What makes it more shocking is that America keeps playing world sheriff, interfering in other countries' politics with little forethought or end game in sight. Interestingly, some of the freer thinkers I have met have been part of the military forces - putting your life on the line for somebody else's decisions tends to clarify a person's priorities and opinions.

All of which is probably a very long way of saying I'm not sure what the "real" America is, or if such a thing even exists. But I'm very interested to know and aim to spend three months trying to find out. The plan is to travel the country having conversations with real Americans about their hopes and dreams, their aspirations and disappointments. To ask each one what America means to them. Obviously there will be a number of military personnel I speak with, but there will also be ranchers, Hell's Angel bikers, storekeepers and students. I'll be flying into Norfolk, VA, on May Day and will base myself with my US whanau there, working out a schedule to ride the highways and byways of the country and trying to take the pulse of America, as felt by those who live there.

I'll blog about the journey here as I travel, but also record the conversations to possibly publish in longer form at a later stage. People I speak to are welcome to anonymity if they desire.

So, coming soon to a town near you, "Korero Amerika" ("American Conversation"). If you want to take part, drop me a line, either here or on my Facebook page.

Let's talk . . .

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Being De-Friended

There have been multiple studies and stories done on the effects of social networking and how the phenomena is making needy narcissists of its users. As someone using social networks in a semi-professional fashion, I'm well aware of the conflicting desires to tell people to "Like" me, please, but to think "I'd rather you liked me for what I write than because I know a little about manipulating the medium."

And when I notice that I'm not only NOT being liked but I've been DE-friended, the response is quite enlightening. As always, it was because of something I said, that I (probably) should not have said. Warning to potential friends: I will say whatever I think needs to be said to get what I think needs doing done, as quickly as possible. Especially when it's an urgent matter. Sometimes my word choices are unwise.

Interestingly, if this had happened even a few months ago I would have been devastated. To have somebody I respect and value choose to de-friend me would have pushed all my low self-esteem buttons. I would have reacted with sadness, self-doubt and possibly anger (Maori have a concept called Utu that has often gotten us in trouble when we respond in the heat of the moment).

But, since I've been home, I've started to learn a little about my whakapapa, or genealogy, and the most interesting part of that has been to learn that much of what I thought was true is not. There have been some fascinating revelations, many of which would be disturbing if I hadn't finally come to terms with who I am now, and that all who went before me are part of that.

So, when I was de-friended by this particular friend (who remains a friend, in my mind, I would never choose to de-friend her, even when we disagree), I was sad, but also amused. I've de-friended someone myself in a fit of pique after an e-mail attacking me (have you looked up "inevitable" in a dictionary yet, btw?) and it comes with its own modern-day etiquette issues. You can't take it back without having to send a new friend request, in which case the ex-friend realizes they are an ex, if they hadn't already noticed. And most of us whose Facebook friends are, for the most part, real friends, have mutual friends so still get to see each other's goings-on on other's Walls. Then realize we can't comment, so have been banished to ether exile.

And yes, what I said was meant as a joke, but also to get you to realize the urgency of the matter, and I realize this post is unlikely to resolve the matter. How do I say "whatever" in Te Reo Maori?