Thursday, November 9, 2023

Brain Hacking / the New Dark Age

             The off-year election results make it clear what matters to inspired voters is not the same stuff the media obsesses about. Reproductive rights issues have now influenced another election though the topic is generally shoved out of news agendas by the obsession with candidate polls, a kind of idiot trail to irrelevance.

         James Fallows, an emeritus wisdom, American journalist, academic, and speech writer said last week it seems the media is more interested in predicting next year’s election than paying attention to the news. Amen!

         I’ve written here of my distress that editors and producers are being reckless in their obsession with dubious polls and the attendant horse race of presidential politics. I blame a generational irrationality. News content managers have come up in an age of click bait, social media streams and distraction. 

        There was a time when political journalism sought to examine record, policy ideas, penetrate campaign organizations and test suitability for office. It appears they now wait for the latest poll and then explain seven ways to Sunday who will win 12 months from now. There is no shortage of "experts" from the political industrial complex to help with the spin.

         Tuesday’s election results benefited those who understand most US voters are still livid about the Supreme Court’s extremist decisions, restrictive state legislatures and the rightwing loud mouth lunacy on school boards. Mom’s for Liberty got pummeled by moms with common sense and civility. 

        People are smarter than social media streams and media simplemindedness that is attracted to the loudest shouting match.

        Most of the preliminary coverage missed what was coming, because the media was too busy trying to predict winners, as Fallows observed on Washington Week

        He knows a thing or two having been a national correspondent for the Atlantic, written for the New York Times, New Yorker, was an editor of US News and World Report, authored several books including a National Book Award winner, has been an academic and a presidential speechwriter. 

         Good journalism, the kind that Fallows generation produced still exists, but you have to get past gaffes, a lack of proportionality, and the current propensity for gotcha. 

        The news media, like politics is more performative today. Less journalism occurs at a time when Americans are less well read and educated, know very little if any history, and they were not taught and so do not understand civics. 

        Many, many Americans have plenty of emotion, and a more than an ample supply of demagogues and simpletons both in politics and media. It is also an age of news and information deserts which only permits a further dumbing down. People let social media algorithms, disinformation and radicalization efforts create their reality and manipulate their behavior. It is an age of brainwashing and group think.

        Coverage of the Hamas barbarism and Israel's response and self defense is demonstrative of how far we have descended, how little critical reason is applied and how intellectually bankrupt we have become.

        Here is one tier of a deep and complicated conflict that samples public and media response:


        Criticizing Hamas is not anti Palestinian. 

        Criticizing Netanyahu and his war policy is not anti semitic and not even anti-Israeli. 

        Praising Hamas is anti semitic and is not automatically pro Palestinian.

        Being pro Palestinian is not automatically pro Hamas.

        Being broken hearted by the scenes of death and destruction is not a political position.

        Maybe that is self evident to you and maybe not. But such relatively simple analysis seems lost in most media coverage and certainly on campuses, in cities and social media.Those simple declarative statements above have become fighting words. We are divided, tribal, rancorous, ready to rage and not at all ready to reason.  And that's only the top of it.

        There is complexity, nuance, and detail in ancient adversarial relationships. The involvement of terrorism makes it even more complicated. 

        Yet American screens are filled with hatred and irrationality and very few seem to be interested in anything but expressing angry views, even if they are illegitimate. When they are thrown into the media mix reason has no chance. No one listens.

        War is an ultimate human failing. Warfare is anti human, anti life and irrational.

        I heard an interview today where a Palestinian woman described the ordeal of evacuating a hospital under orders. At no time did the interviewer ask her about the Hamas military operation that was being conducted out of the hospital, nor were there questions about the tunnels below the hospital. A listener who has not read further, heard other sources, or knew of the Hamas tactic of hiding behind civilians would have a takeaway impression that was born out of incomplete knowledge or ignorance, by another name. The interviewer, the media source was at fault for not applying scrutiny, the challenge of a neutral examination, an attempt at objective understanding. Confirm, verify, question.

        I've been to Gaza, the West Bank, into what was Palestinian "territory" and understand the historic anger and the depressed conditions.

        I sat in Jericho with former combatants, Arabs and Jews.

        I've been to a Kibbutz and spent time with man named Uzi, whose parents were original settlers of Israel. He remembers being a boy and having to lay flat on the floor as his home was shelled by enemies in the evening. 

        I met with diplomats from the Palestinian Authority and their counterparts from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. These men had spent years working on sharing roads, moving produce from one zone to another, easing border crossings, protecting water supplies, trying to manage the daily tasks of commerce and agriculture. They thought that by making business together they would not make war.

        I spent days with a Nobel Peace nominee, a Palestinian Christian who was an Israeli citizen. He build schools and a peace institute where Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Jew, Druze and Christian children lived and studied together.


        Leaders with agendas can wreck and stifle constructive progress. Zealots are dangerous leaders no matter how they pray.

        All of this is to say, what we seen on our screens is horrible, human failure, violence that is evil. War is hell. It has human allies. 

       What we see on screens from America is so often imprecise, without context, so brutally mis-understood and unquestioned. And too we see the way people far away from the hellish reality of Gaza and Israel shout slogans, carry banners, injure and harm other humans, invoke deep hatred and because of what?

        Ignorance, lack of knowledge, stupidity led actions are on a holiday feast in America. Intolerance, hatred, narrow-mindedness, zealotry are on the rampage. They are fed by politicians, media failures, and by people who do not think or do not reason. 

        There is a reason they are called ancient hatreds, but there was a time when journalists and analysts tried to lance the ignorance, or at least lend understanding. Now media exacerbates at worse, or wastes opportunity to bring light.

        I've used the example of the Gaza incursion response to terrorism. But modern political media shows itself to be frequently incompetent on a far less grievous though important matter, American presidential politics, where in their mind the campaign is never over.

        Rather than obsession with irrelevant political polls, that change weekly, and inside the beltway gossip, more time could be devoted to examination of policy options, deep dives into the complexity of the conflicts, the culture war, the threat of a government that cannot compromise, what to do about two set's of "truth", why has a political industrial complex turned our electoral system into a business? 

        Too often media, and it is particularly so these days and with a younger media cadre, is complicit because they are being "played" by a political industry that has learned how to manipulate and spin. Sometimes the old dogs in a news organization had the best sense of things. They'd been around.

        After nearly a half century of chasing deadlines and news I think a dose of old fashioned ethic, skepticism and standards are much needed. Cheers to the old boys and old girls who straddled the world's news from the end of a world war, through a cold war, got beaten and hosed and had dogs turned on them as they covered the struggle for civil rights, who's coverage of Asian wars shook the moorings and exposed the deceit, who investigated a corrupt presidency, challenged government foibles, tested candidates, exposed scandal, and took seriously the idea of being a watchdog of the public's right to know. 

        Edward R. Murrow, father of modern broadcast journalism said something about television that can be applied to all screens, phones and pads included and to the content we consume.


            "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference."

        See you down the trail.  


Thursday, November 2, 2023

Good Night Bob Knight

         It was Christmas night 1980 and the Indiana University Hoosiers were in the early season, preparing for the beginning of the Big 10 Season. I was working on a profile of Knight for PM magazine a syndicated television program and we knew Dan Rather of CBS was working on a piece for 60 minutes. Our competitive juices flowed and we wanted to get on the air first. I'd asked Knight to let us video tape a practice session and I wanted him to wear a wireless microphone. He was reluctant to do so, but said if we'd come down to Bloomington's Assembly Hall on Christmas night, it was a deal. I'm sure he didn't think a TV crew would agree.

    We showed up on the cold night, and being the holiday our photographer Randy  brought his steady, our producer brought her son and Lana and I brought Kristin, aged 6. We planned to have a staff gathering after the practice.

   Knight was true to his word, welcomed us, wore the wireless and continued the session. At one point, one of his stars did something wrong on a play and Knight began charging down the floor all the while shouting and cursing with such volume his purple language echoed to the roof of the cavernous Assembly Hall. I was court side with Randy and turned to look at Lana, but she didn't need a cue as she was already moving our daughter toward the tunnel and away from shouting.

    Later when we were in the car I told Kristin I was sorry she heard some bad language and said those were not words your mom or dad would ever use, nor should she. I explained he was a coach and the team were young men and they were all working hard to get better and that some coaches yelled. She looked at me and said "Daddy, would he hurt anyone?"

    Bob's temper was his toughest opponent and it got plenty of attention. So did his brilliance as a basketball strategist and the 3 national championships, including that 1980 season. 

    I covered Knight and frequently interviewed him on non sports related topics including education, discipline, military history and literacy. At IU he was a proponent and activist for the Library. We had both read Sun Tzu and would discuss the book The Art of War. He had opinions about foreign policy and politics, most of which I did not agree with.

    Bob became the nation's youngest major coach when he began at Army when he was 25. Duke's vaunted Coach K, played for Knight and spent time as his assistant. 

     He helped a lot of people in many ways, charitably. I learned of a family that he had come to the assistance of in a major and costly way and asked him about it. He asked me why I wanted to know. I told him I thought there might be a story in what he had done. He shot a steely gaze and said "If you ever publish or broadcast anything about that you'll never get in assembly hall again."

    There were many things Knight did that I thought was excessive, hot headed, ill tempered, rude and wrong. I thought he was frequently a bully. He was however a master of basketball. He had a court sense, a knowledge of where the ball and play should be that was among the all time greats. 

    He loved a good story. When I was running my production company I pitched an idea to Knight that he liked, but for reasons including 9/11 we never got it green lighted. It was to be a "dinner of champions" that featured sports heroes and major stars at a black tie and formal dinner where as the evening progressed the diners would converse, tell stories, talk about sports and regulatory bodies, team owners, great moments, jokes and old history. I suggested that he and his friend Johnny Bench could serve as the hosts and keep the conversation flowing, all the while cameras captured the evening. Later it would be edited and presented over a couple of viewings as these legends enjoyed each others company and told stories.  During the course of our development work and as my company pitched it I got a note from Knight saying about the wearing of tuxedos, "I'm not particularly knocked in the ass about that."

    He was a complex man. There was more to him than the angry, chair tossing championship coach. I count it one of the highlights of my professional life to have crossed paths with him. There were many years I loved to watch his IU team play. It was some of the most exciting and best basketball ever. 

    As I learned of his declining health, I was glad to see him return to Bloomington and to again embrace that special fandom and culture. Those who know him well said he was happiest in Bloomington, the town where he became a legend. 

    See you down the trail.