Saturday, April 19, 2008

Getting a parental grip on media

The Internet played a frightening role in the recent attack by six teenage girls and two boys that took place in Lakeland, Florida. The assailants of 16-year-old Victoria Lindsay, a cheerleader, seemed to be inspired by the prospects of posting a video of the beating on the Internet.

The New York Times story about the assault referred to several media connections to the beating. Joan Rutkowski, my friend and colleague at Media Think, the Northwest media literacy center, has highlighted the following references made in The Times article.

- Authorities say the young assailants intended to use the attack to become Internet celebrities.
- The case should raise awareness about the Internet’s power to desensitize young people to violence, said one expert.
- The victim’s mother commented: “For whatever reason, this MySpace, my-you, this YouTube has gone too far. It’s just too much.”
- Her husband went even further, declaring that Internet companies were to blame for what happened. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “MySpace is the Antichrist for children.”

There's no doubt that parents — of potential perpetrators and potential victims — have a problem. Of course, the perpetrators are also victims — often of parental neglect.

Simply put, parents can not allow impressionable, unsupervised children to spend hours in an “alternate Internet universe” with norms that often encourage abusive, bullying or violent behavior. In one form or another, the video experience gets played out in the real world. Manifestations range from being inured or insensitive to violence to behaving violently.

The Florida attack seemed like an episode from a video "Lord of the Flies" desert island.

In our work with Media Think, Joan and I have heard parents vent their frustration at their inability to retrieve their kids from cyberspace. In response, Joan and I are preparing a discussion course to be offered through the community education program of Portland Community College this fall. If possible, we would like parents from the same elementary or middle school school to enroll the course. As was discovered too late in Lakeland, entire school communities must address this issue head-on. (By the way, next week is TV-Turnoff Week, an excellent time to begin.)

Here is how the course will be listed in the catalog:

The Media-Mindful Family:
Creating Alternatives to a Screen-Filled Childhood

Concerned about how media harms your child’s health, self-image, social life and school performance? Learn how to address media issues in your family and peer group through this practical, group-centered discussion course.

And here are some of the topics we hope to cover over the eight weekly sessions:

- Media: The Competing Parent and the Importance of Story
- Framing the Conversation with your Child: Principles of Media Literacy
- Social and Cultural Effects of Uncritical Media consumption
- Health Consequences
- Identity, Social Needs and Values in Cyberspace
- Cultivating Media Mindfulness at Home and in the Peer Community
- What’s Next: Networking and Staying Ahead of Media Change

If you know of any parents who might be interested, let me know. You can write me at

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Options for a Hedge Hog

Ever since writing about John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who made $3.7 billion (with a “b”) last year, I’ve been noticing how $3 billion or $4 billion gets mentioned in the news.

Every time I see the number, I think, “Hey, that’s about what Paulson made last year!”

So today the $3 billion number cropped up not once but twice in the front section of The Oregonian. No, it wasn’t in the front page stories headlined “Confessed killer’s words set him free,” “DA says DNA links suspect to Wilberger,” or “Hey, Kids! It’s good to jump off the bed.” (And they call this a NEWSpaper?)

No, the first mention of $3 billion was on page A5. Headline: “Older people’s memory problems tied to incontinence drugs.” Now there’s news a few million of us can use. It's good news for me, I guess. At least I know my memory problems — I have a few — don’t result from incontinence drugs — yet.

So here’s the $3 billion reference: “U.S. sales of prescription drugs to treat urinary problems topped $3 billion in 2007, according to IMS Health, which tracks drug sales.” The story goes on to say that bladder control is a problem for about one in 10 people age 65 or older.

There you have it — Paulson could keep an entire generation out of diapers and still have $700 million left over for his own modest needs (more on those later).

Second reference, page A7 (If I ran the Oregonian’s, this one would easily bump anything the editors put on today’s front page). Headline, “Study: 300,000 veterans suffer war-related mental problems.” Here’s where Paulson’s $3.7 billion annual take might help. Third paragraph: “Beyond the personal trauma experienced by these (300,000 returning) troops, the problems are costing the country $3.1 billion a year in medical care, lost productivity and suicide, (the) RAND (corp.) estimates.

Paulson, who contributes regularly to hawkish Republican candidates, could pick up those costs and still have $600 million left over.

How about it John? How about helping the traumatized casualties from W's oil war?

Or perhaps you have something better to do with $3.1 billion.

Nosing around on the web last night, I got a sense of what that might be.

This from a 2005 New York Times story about the super-rich snapping up mansions on Manhattan:

“Another mansion with a new owner and a renovation plan is the 20,000-square-foot former Town Club on East 86th Street, which was sold last February for $14.7 million to John Paulson, a money manager. The property has a swimming pool in the basement and portraits of the 12 Caesars overlooking the stairway in the main hall, according to Mr. Pennoyer, who was consulted on the renovation.

“Paula Del Nunzio, the broker at Brown Harris Stevens who sold the mansion, said the family plans to keep the swimming pool. She wasn't sure about the Caesars, which have frames decorated with swags and oxen heads.”

I could find no follow-up story about how Paulson, no doubt soaking in his basement swimming pool, made the tough decision about whether to get rid of the Caesars, swags and oxen heads, but I’m sure he did the right thing — Caesar-wise.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

TV debate moderators scrape the bottom

I'm sure many of you have received the Move-On petition protesting the inane "gotcha" questions on last night's ABC Network debate.

If not, here is where you can go to sign the petition, which will be sent to ABC News.

You are also invited to add your own comments. Here's what I wrote:

I am a journalist and a former student of Fred Friendly, who was the conscience of television journalism for many, including those of us who studied under him at Columbia University.

The "performance" of your moderators during Wednesday's debate was a disgrace to broadcast journalism. I am only grateful that Fred isn't around to see what so often passes for television "journalism" today.

Last night you actually managed to lower a bar that many of us previously had thought could go no lower.

Note that the problem is not limited to ABC News. Television journalism started to unravel 35 years ago when "personalities" and "happy talk" drove up ratings. From there, TV journalism descended into polemic and sarcasm. No need to name names; we know them all too well. The line between news and opinion disappeared. Lurid video of crime, candid shots of celebrities and depictions of mayhem pushed aside serious reporting. News was no longer a public service but spectacle and entertainment chasing audience and advertising dollars.

And so in this election year, perhaps the most important in decades, we are left with smirking, cynical TV coverage of the inane and irrelevant. It's just this kind of "reporting" that framed the public debate in the past two presidential elections. Look at what that got us.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Annals of Inequity: The $3.7 billion man

Since Senators McCain and Clinton seem so concerned about elitism these days, they might direct their attentions to a front page story in Wednesday's New York Times about hedge fund manager John Paulson, who last year took home $3.7 billion.

In other words, Mr. Paulson made as much as 3,700 people earning $1,000,000 last year.

Let’s write Mr. Paulson’s wages out in long form — $3,700,000,000.

The senators might want to know how Mr. Paulson’s pay compares with that of ordinary, non-elitist Americans. Later in the Times story we learn that the median American family earned $60,500 last year.

Do the math.

In this economy, in the America of today, Mr. Paulson was “worth” 61,500 times what the median family was worth. Simply put, one man made as much as 61,500 families did last year.

Here’s another comparison. Last year it cost about $600 million to run the entire Portland Public School district. With Mr. Paulson’s salary for one year, we could run the school district here for six years.

What is wrong with this picture?

If you look at poverty in this country, to say nothing of poverty around the world, Mr. Paulson’s greed — let’s call it what it is — is shameful.

Of course he isn’t alone. The same story notes that to make the list of the top 25 in hedge fund pay, a manager had to make at least $360 million last year. Just so we don’t lose sight of what that number means relative to median family income, $360 million is roughly 6,000 times what the median American family made.

We see so many stories about grotesque inequity in America that we are in danger of becoming jaded. We shrug it all off. Some even try to justify it: Isn’t this the American way, this drive to “success”? Why not celebrate this man’s riches?

For whatever reason, we seem to have given up on a just and fair society.

We do so at our peril.

If we embrace the value of greed and celebrate the greedy, we will become a greedy people.

Moreover, such vast sums undermine our system of government. Money like this corrupts. One reason we are unable to right the wrong of gross inequity is that elected officials who could do something about it rely on the self-aggrandizing super-rich to stay in office.

That our economy is controlled by the John Paulsons, by executives driven isolated from the needs of others explains much about our present predicament of falling wages. Of crumbling infrastructure, failing schools and a sick health care system.

Instead of serving the greater good, the hyper-wealthy seem to be in business for yachts, jewels, mansions, lavish parties and Park Avenue apartments.

If they continue to damn the rest of the world, one day they may find that they are part of the world they have damned, that for all their riches, they have damned themselves.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Write in a neighborhood mayor

So far I’ve been under whelmed by our choices for mayor, so here’s a community-building alternative — just to make things a little more interesting.

What say Hillsdale gets behind a local neighborhood write-in candidate for mayor. Other strong neighborhoods like St. Johns or Hollywood or Multnomah Village might do the same with its own candidate for mayor.

The candidate would campaign only in the local community, but the vote would clearly register when the community’s precinct results are tallied. The results would measure the desire for community autonomy, not from Portland, but from the city's centralized, rigid, unresponsive government.

The neighborhood campaigns would be low-budget. No sound-bite TV or radio ads. No glossy mailed brochures. Just a lot of yard signs and high-touch, door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor canvassing within one walkable community.

These local candidates would send the message that our neighborhoods are tired of City Hall's dancing to the tune of downtown interests. We’re tired of lobbying City Hall with so little to show for our volunteer efforts. We’re tired of the city planting utility poles in our sidewalks; finding new, “creative” taxes to provide what should be essential services, stone-walling community initiatives, commercializing the "commons," and calling “community town halls” that are nothing more than window-dressing.

At the very least, local insurgent mayoral candidacies would attract more political attention to their communities. At best, they would lay the groundwork for neighborhood political action.

The greatest chance of a high protest vote is in places that already have strong community identities, want to control their destinies, and are tired of being played the fool.

I might add that each of the communities I mention above (Hillsdale, Hollywood, St. Johns, and Multnomah), happen to have newspapers or other effective means of communicating messages like this one.

Where there is communication, there are communities. Where there is strong communication, there are communities with the means to exercise their strength.

It’s time we started doing it.

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A Start on Solar

In the current issue of the Hillsdale News, I've written a story about the possibility of Rieke Elementary School having its own photo-voltaic panels by the end of this year. Yesterday Steve McGrath of Commercial Solar Ventures, and Catherine Diviney, the solar specialist for Portland Public Schools, scrambled up the slope above Bertha Court to assess the site for the 200-foot-long solar array. The panels would provide 60 percent of Rieke's electricity.

McGrath reported that the site would work although it isn't perfect. The exposure isn't perfectly oriented to the south. A slightly less steep grade would be better, he said. Still, he gave it a thumbs-up.

An open house to discuss the installation with the community members will likely be held in June. Topics of discussion include the appearance of the panels and whether they would reflect into the nearby Watershed.

The rendering (below) of what the $800,000 - $850,000 panel array might look like on the hillside was made by Brian Sheehan of the Portland Planning Bureau. The stop sign is at the corner of Bertha Court and Bertha Boulevard. The Healy Heights tower is in the distance.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

And the answer is "Blue Lake"

Not that there have been frustrated inquiries about this weekend’s “where is this?” question.

Still the question shouldn’t go unanswered. And the answer is: Blue Lake, in eastern Multnomah County, just south of the Columbia River.

As for the mechanical waterbug, barely visible in the center of the photo, it’s a solar-powered device that churns up the water beneath the surface to prevent the growth and spread of algae.

Now you know.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Moving forward while getting "it"

Right now, I haven’t decided between Sam Adams and Sho Dozono in the mayor’s race.

My negative experiences with Adams in Hillsdale dealings outweigh his much touted experience in City Hall.

But I’m keeping an open mind, especially after meeting Sho Dozono last week

He had come to Hillsdale for one of Don Baack’s walk-arounds. The candidate was wearing mismatched walking shoes — on purpose.

One was an Adidas sneaker; the other was a Nike, so as not to offend. Talk about politically correct.

I was reminded of Thoreau’s advice that you should never to take a job that requires you to change the way you dress.

To which we should add: never run for public office if it forces you to wear mismatched walking shoes.

Then there is that obscure Dozono campaign slogan:

“Sho gets it. Sho gets it done.”

Which leads directly to the Clintonesque question “What is the meaning of ‘it’?”

A visit to the Dozono web site doesn’t address “it.”

"It" is an indefinite pronoun. Very useful for an indefinite candidate.

Then again, perhaps this is straw pronoun? Could “it” really be “them”?

And if so, why not say so, except that it sounds funny: “Sho gets them. Sho gets them done.”

Face it, these campaign consultants are WAAAAY overpaid.

Meanwhile on the Adams front, Sam’s suggestion that neighbors tax themselves through “Halo” local improvement districts (LIDs) in order to build sidewalks in Southwest Portland is turning out to be a bust. It’s one of those city proposals that swells attendance at neighborhood association meetings— because the citizenry is outraged. When the homebodies flick off the tube long enough to personally shout down city officials, officialdom knows it has a problem.

Adams, alas, is in charge of the Portland Department of Transportation and floated the Halo LID idea here. Expect him to run out from under the Halos as fast as he can.

By the way, Adams’ lawn sign slogans are as jejune as Dozono’s are vague.

They implore us to vote for Adams “Because Portland belongs to ALL of us.” Is anyone suggesting otherwise?

The other tag line is “Let’s move Portland Forward!” Reverse anyone? Neutral? Park?

Where is WEIRD when we need it?

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