Saturday, April 07, 2007

Alert: Naming proposal goes before City Council Wednesday

A while back I alerted readers to Portland Parks and Recreation’s plans to sell or grant naming rights to our public facilities to corporate sponsors or donors.

The “Nike Exercise Room” or the “Victoria’s Secret Swimming Pool” at the Southwest Community Center are two conceivable results.

Of course the same sell-off-the-Commons thinking has left us with “PGE Park.”

So here’s an action alert: This Wednesday, April 11, at 10:30 a.m., the parks bureau’s sponsorship and naming proposals go before the City Council in City Hall.

I’ll be there to testify. I hope you will too.

Here is what I intend to say—more or, as is likely, less…

Mr. Mayor and commissioners:

These proposals should be rejected because they are bad policy and bad precedent. If for some unimaginable reason you don’t find them so, you should reject them because they are couched in fuzzy language and establish inconsistent naming processes devoid of direct public representation.

Bad Policy

The policy underlying these proposals violates the public trust vested in government to safeguard the Commons. The Commons, lest we need to be reminded, consists of those places owned in common—hence the name. The Commons is such places such as public schools, rivers, streets, libraries, and—in the case before the Council—public parks, recreational facilities and community centers.

This nation was birthed in battle waged in and on the Commons—most notably the Lexington Green in 1775.

The Commons, as even these proposals demonstrate in their twisted way, has great value—monetary, historic and symbolic. In fact, the word “commonwealth” reflects that value.

We bestow on the commons names that we likewise value. Once, for instance, we had “a Civic Stadium” and a “Civic Auditorium.” They called us to a valued civic life, to civility, to civilization.

And what, may we ask, does a “PGE Park” connote? It shows that we are so devoid of financial creativity and fiscal resolve that we are willing to sell off the good names of The Commons.

And that is exactly what these proposals before you aim to do as well.

When we citizens vote for bond measures to improve the parks and construct community centers, we have no intention of providing, in the jargon of the “naming rights industry,” “opportunities” for corporations to impose their names on our common, civic treasure. Instead, we expect our elected leaders to anticipate and institute legitimate, uncompromising and engaging ways of maintaining public facilities. That is the job we elect you to do.

Bad Precedent

I fear that unless you act against these proposals today, the PGE Park naming and parks corporate namings and renamings will be established as precedents for more of the same.

If you don’t stop this practice once and for wall, what next?

Would the City Council allow Pioneer Courthouse Square to be named after a certain Seattle-based coffee giant? Would you permit a park glade to be named after a grass seed or fertilizer purveyor? Could the name of these very council chambers go on the block to a sneaker company or an undergarment manufacturer—all so that the floors are swept and the walls painted?

Bad process

Those presenting these proposals maintain that they have built in protections to prevent “inappropriate” naming and renaming.

But the guidelines before you are fuzzy and subjective, and the processes are inconsistent and exclude the most important stakeholders of all—Commons users and owners.

A few examples:

There is no consistency between the way sponsorship names are vetted and the way donors’ names are reviewed.

Large “sponsorship opportunities” (note the uncritical acceptance of the language of the trade) are approved by an unspecified “Senior Management Team.” After that, based on recommendations by the “Sponsorship Coordinator,” the “Marketing and Business Development Manager” decides what companies get to sponsor which “opportunities.” There is no provision what-so-ever for representation, or even say, in the process from the public.

Names for donors—corporate or otherwise—go through a committee. But that five-member committee has no member from outside the city bureaus and commissions, save a member of the Oregon Historical Society. Oh, “relevant” neighborhood associations (whatever “relevant” means in this context) can comment. An obvious question is: Why aren’t representatives of parks users on the committee? Indeed why shouldn’t they represent a majority of its membership?

The proposals are full of “in-the-eye-of-the-beholder” statements and general fuzziness:

The donation proposal says that “on occasion” the significance of a donation may “warrant acknowledging a gift by naming.” On WHAT occasion? The proposal doesn’t say.

The same proposal says, “Historical or commonly used place names will be preserved WHENEVER POSSIBLE.” What does that mean? Why doesn’t it simply say the names will be preserved PERIOD? When might it not be possible to preserve these honored names? Presumably when enough money is put on the table.

The same proposal says that the naming of a new park or facility will “engender a strong positive image.” Positive image to whom? Who is to decide? What if it engenders no image at all? What about the difference between “image” and reality? They often are not the same.

The proposal says that the new name “shall not result in UNDUE commercialization….” Many argue, as I am, that all commercialization is “undue” when it comes to the Public Commons.

On and on it goes.

For all these reasons, these proposals should clearly be rejected out of hand.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

TV-B-Gones have landed!

The 20 discounted TV-B-Gones from inventor Mitch Altman have arrived!

Now who wanted these "Red Electric Specials" at $12 a crack?

The little stealth TV remotes WERE normally $20 on-line, although I see that Mitch is having a TV-B-Gone fire sale on this old model.

Never mind. I've road tested this now "vintage" model and it works just fine. Consider it a classic edition or something....

I find that even if you rarely use the TV-B-Gone to zap the local gym's (or airport's or neighbors') TV monitors, it is a great conversation piece.

Example: After showing off my "Goner," I'm often asked what constitutes the responsible turning off of someone else's TV?

That's a worthy question, but try this counter query: What constitutes the responsible turning ON of the TV, any TV?

We rarely ask.

We should.

So the TV-B-Gone puts the question—a question worth thousands of hours of a life. Cheap at the price.

Final plug (I promise): What a great gift for TV Turnoff Week, which is April 23-29!

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Business gets the best of the news

Last Thursday, both The New York Times and The Oregonian ran a story about a Kaiser Family Foundation study showing how TV targets kids with junk food ads that contribute to the alarming rise in childhood obesity.

Gosh, parents might want to know about the study. It serves as further incentive to get a handle on kids' TV and junk food consumption. (Hint: TV Turnoff Week is coming up April 23-29)

So where might they expect to find the story in the newspaper? In the Times' health section? In The Oregonian's "Living" section?

Fat chance.

Both papers put it in the business section. The Oregonian simply ran an AP story devoid of local reporting, although childhood nutrition is a hot issue in the state legislature and plenty of health experts here would happily comment on the Kaiser study.

The Times business-section story's headline fell under the "advertising" label. The story consisted of a back and forth between a Kaiser Family Foundation official and food and advertising industry "spokespeople." The industry mouthpieces dismissed the 2005 study as being "dated" and insisted that the food industry has been cleaning up its act. Kaiser countered that the study would serve as a "base-line" to measure any alleged industry reform.

If you want to see how "dated" the study is and whether there has been a change, check out the ads on the Saturday morning cartoon fare. (By the way, in Scandinavian countries, ALL TV advertising to children is prohibited. My own view is that ads aimed at kids are nothing less than predatory.)

At the very least, newspapers should put stories about TV stuffing harmful ads down the throats of our kids where the stories belong—in front of parents.

I learned a long time ago that much of the best "intelligence" on what is going on in this country is the exclusive domain of the business press. Pick up The Wall Street Journal or read trade publications and you'll see what I mean.

So Calvin Coolidge's adage, "The business of America is business," has a corollary: the real news of America is business news.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Danger stalks the urban wilderness

Late last night—it must have been 11:30—I was driving home after a trip to Longview. Bleary-eyed, I came up Sunset Boulevard, made the up-hill turn onto 18th, climbed to 19th, crested the rise and there—square in my headlight beams—was a young coyote trotting across the road, before vanishing in a blink behind a neighbor's laurel hedge.

They're back! I thought.

I hadn't heard of a Hillsdale coyote sighting in six or seven years. My concern immediately went to our cat, Izzy, who balances a nighttime indoor sedentary lifestyle with his day job of outdoor neighborhood surveillance. All of which is good, nocturnal coyote-wise, though the dawn and dusk hours can be iffy.

When I got up this morning still troubled by my coyote sighting, Iz was nowhere in the house. I thought he might have gone out on dawn patrol when my daughter-in-law, who is living with us this month, set off for work. I had to leave myself, but wrote a note to my wife, Diane, about my concern that our Iz might have become a sacrificial link in some neighborhood feral food chain.

The "food chain" reference was my way of reframing and emotionally preparing myself for Iz's demise.

Loving cats came late to me, but these super-self-possessed creatures do have their ways with you. George W. Bush's 2004 re-election, or his election, or his managing to get the voting machines to work in his favor — whatever — sealed my admiration for Iz.

Our Iz, who slept through the network returns, was a like a rock the next day—utterly unflappable, even stoic about another four years of Bush.

I saw in his exemplary attitude an above-it-all nonchalance. I even tried to model my own reaction after his—until I remembered Cheney.

Still, in those terrible days, Iz demonstrated an admirable calm and insight into humanity in general, and Bush in particular.

So here it was dawn, hungry coyotes prowled the neighborhood and "the Iz" was nowhere in sight. I carried gnawing uncertainty with me through my day.

Much later, when I got back, there, of course, was the Iz, perched on the porch with that "where-have YOU-been" look on his white whiskered face. Indeed, he looked as though HE might have subdued a coyote.

Inside, Diane had left a note on the dining room table explaining that while I had been imagining the ghastly slaughter of our Iz, his catship, Sir Aloofness, had been sleeping on a folded blanket in our coyote-proof basement.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What's it all about?

I didn’t want to let days pass without commenting on “Fanboy’s” thoughts about my post regarding Intel CEO Paul Otellini’s 2006 compensation of $6.18 million.

I had estimated the amount made him “worth” 123.6 teachers.

Fanboy first justified Otellini’s pay by noting that he leads Intel’s 95,000 employees and guides the corporation’s worldwide influence. “Intel's products form the backbone of virtually every industry that has anything to do with technology - industries that you and I depend on daily for information, communication, entertainment, transportation, financial transactions, etc.”

By that standard, what should we be paying the CEO of the United States: George W. Bush, or more realistically, Dick Cheney?

For the record, and comparison, Bush makes $400,000; Cheney makes $208,100. Both get substantial expense accounts, health coverage and room and board for themselves and their spouses.

They manage. Are they "worth it"? Let's not go there....

Fanboy then says, “The average teacher has far less influence, far less experience, and far less responsibility than Intel's CEO.”

Note the word “average,” whatever that means. I consider myself an “average” teacher (to the extent that any teacher can be considered
average”), but I’m told I’ve had a share of influence on my students. And as experienced as I am, each day holds a new experience, as I’m sure Mr. Otellini would agree.

As I teacher, I see my responsibilities as preparing my students for life. In a sense, if they fail, I fail. No small responsibility.

And what about success? I asked in my original post: How much responsibility do teachers have for Mr. Otellini’s? What part of his pay does he (or any of us) derive from the efforts of our teachers, or for that matter, the teachers of Intel’s employees?

Of course there are several “above average” teachers who have had a much greater influence than Mr. Otellini or Intel or any of us will ever have.

Christ, Thoreau, Gandhi, Sister Theresa, the Buddha and St. Francis are just a few of the legendary ones. All of them, by the way, chose poverty over wealth in order to discover and share vast truths that eclipse Otellini’s and Intel processors.

Fanboy’s quantitative, bottom-line approach ignores, as I confess I did, a larger question: What’s it all about?

Money? Fame? A fourth house — on the Riviera or in Aspen? A yacht? A third Ferrari stashed in a multi-car garage?

Or is it about a walk in the woods, freedom, a well of potable water, a child’s life, or the Sermon on the Mount?

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Adventures in news values

Here we go again with the game I like to play with my journalism students. It asks them to assess the comparative "news values" of an assortment of stories.

The game involves deciding which story deserves front-page news display.

I usually take the stories from the pages of current newspapers, although, alas, my GenWeb students rarely read newspapers, despite my urgings.

Sunday's New York Times offered an interesting array of stories for "news value" consideration. Here are headlines that went with five stories:

"For Girls, It's Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too"

"In a New Web World, Bar Codes May Talk With Your Cellphone"

"Ex-Aide Details A Loss of Faith In the President"

"25 Years After War, Wealth Transforms Falklands"

"Inspector Lists Computers With Atomic Secrets as Missing"

I should first tell you a bit more than the headlines reveal.

The first story is about the pressures on girls to succeed.

The "Ex-Aide" story is about an aide, Matthew Dowd, who was not all that close to the president. I mean, this guy was a Democrat until 1999.

The Falklands, lest we forget, are a small group of British-ruled islands off the coast of Argentina. Useful information: their chief export is frozen squid.

Finally those atomic secrets gone missing are secrets about nuclear weapons.

Okay, so what do you, Mister or Madam Editor? Which story is most worthy of the front page?

All four at the top of the list made it to prominence.

The story about the missing computers containing secrets about nuclear weapons ended up at the bottom of page 20. Hey, not a problem, especially now that we have the terrorists on the run, fighting them "over there," not here.

Who can doubt that newspapers are now in some kind of death spiral when the premier newspaper in the country buries a story that begins, "The office in charge of protecting American technical secrets about nuclear weapons from foreign spies is missing 20 desktop computers, at least 14 or which have been used for classified information, the Energy Department inspector general reported Friday."

Not that the story says "Friday," yet this was in Sunday's paper. Inquiring minds wonder what was going on with the planning of Saturday's edition of The Times.

And while the headline mentions "Atomic," the story doesn't include the word, which went out when the hydrogen bomb came in. Who knows what form "nuclear weapons" take these days—but they certainly aren't atomic.

One thing's for sure—whoever has those missing computers knows the answer.

As for the rest of us, we're still on the front page reading ""For Girls, It's Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too" and "25 Years After War, Wealth Transforms Falklands."

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The Tenderness of Spring

"Well may the tender buds attract us at this season, no less than partridges, for they are the hope of the year, the spring rolled up. The summer is all packed in them."

Thoreau's journal entry
for Jan. 12, 1855.

Today in Hillsdale, on this first day of April 2007, the hope for the year blossoms everywhere.

Our spring and its tender buds gracefully "unroll" — revealing the promised bounty of summer to come.

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