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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Eclipse of American Power

When I think of America's failed financial policies, its weak political leadership and its feeble foreign policy I am reminded of an interesting Thai phrase: "Maa du khreuang bin tok." Translated it means “A dog watching an airplane crash.” The phrase describes an event that is totally beyond the spectator's comprehension.

I believe we are witnessing an historic eclipse of American power in the world. It has been ongoing for at least three decades, but it has accelerated dramatically in just the past couple of years. One might argue that the decline of U.S. power began with the nation's ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam back in 1975--an event that I personally witnessed and experienced.

For all of our military might--and it is considerable--America often seems like some helpless leviathan. Now, with the country teetering on the brink of economic collapse, we are at the mercy of those who would love to see the U.S. crash and burn.

Think about it. Do you seriously believe that China cares a whit about the U.S. economy? Or than Muslim nations such as Pakistan feel any allegiance to Washington's political will?

No amount of American pressure or veiled threats could persuade the Chinese government to revalue its currency, nor induce the Pakistani government to cut links between its intelligence services and the Taliban.

The same goes for many other nations--all of which have eagerly accepted billions and billions of dollars in American aid, loans, and other economic entitlements. Do these nations need to be forever grateful for American (read U.S. taxpayer) largess? No, but given the kind of assistance they have received it is less than gracious for them to thumb their noses at Washington.

The sarcastic words of Prince Schwarzenberg of Austria come to mind. After the Russians had helped Austria suppress the Hungarian uprising in 1849 he said: “They will be astonished by our ingratitude.”

But wait. Why not thumb their noses at Washington? After all, what can the mice that are currently in charge of the American machinery of government do?

We are becoming a nation of political wimps who are guided more by political correctness than correct political foreign policy. The idea that we can be everybody's friend is a joke in a world where alliances are only important when they serve a nation's economic and political self-interest. Does anybody really think that the imams and sheiks of the Middle East have any real affection for America? The same goes for nations like China, India and our closest neighbors--Canada and Mexico.

From one side of the world to the other, countries are doing what they think best for themselves, rather than what the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon think they should do.

I have traveled and worked in some 65 countries during my career as a foreign correspondent and I can tell you that many of our so-called "friends" around the world would just as soon see us fail as succeed. Some would like to see the U.S. on its knees--the once all-powerful giant humbled by a world of jealous Davids.

Americans in general and our leaders in Washington in particular are seen as arrogant, uninformed, greedy bullies who deserve a comeuppance. And now we are getting it.

In his book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” Aaron David Mille tells of his years as a State Department official engaged in what is forlornly called the peace process. In his book he writes that in the Middle East today the United States finds itself “trapped in a region which it cannot fix and it cannot abandon,” where America is “not liked, not feared, and not respected.”

Meanwhile, America's largely uninformed populace continues blithely on, concerned more about who becomes the next American Idol or what overpaid egomaniac wins the Oscar, than how their lives are inextricably tied to nations like China that are propping up our ever- deteriorating economy.

These same nations are also witnessing the deterioration of America's once-envied culture and values. Is it any wonder that Muslims the world over despise a nation that has become narcissistic and hedonistic while growing more and more obsessed with sex, fame, wealth what passes these days as music.

Once, while traveling in Pakistan I was asked by a Muslim cleric why America allows women to be degraded, why it no longer esteems marriage and family and why it lavishes praise and wealth on entertainers, athletes and others who contribute little or nothing to society while showing nominal appreciation for teachers who are charged with providing an education for the nation's young.

I replied that I thought that characterization was a bit harsh. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the cleric didn't have a point.

We seem to value the wrong things in America. Ask any teenager to identify 10 of the nation's top rap artists or pop singers and they will do it in a flash. Ask them to identify 10 world leaders and they will stop at one or two--if that many. Some don't even know who their vice president is and perhaps 1 in 1000 will know the names of one of the two senators representing their state in Congress.

But it is not just American teenagers who would fail that test. Foreign policy is a non-starter for most Americans, who appear to be more parochial and inward-looking than ever before. This at a time when the global real-politick is as critical to understand as it has ever been.

And who is at fault? The media? Yes, most certainly. But not entirely. True, today's media is more focused on knee-jerk reporting of events such as what just happened in Egypt than being in a position to explain them with depth and intelligence. It is expensive to cover the world and in an era when traditional media are retrenching financially gone are the days when the Chicago Tribune, my old newspaper, will have 15-20 reporters living around the world. Instead, as with many news organizations, they will parachute journalists in for a few hours or days and it's on to the next crisis.

Much of the fault lies in Washington where it behooves the nabobs to keep global politics arcane and nearly incomprehensible to the great unwashed.

At the outset of World War II a senator was asked how the public should be informed of the progress of the war.

"We shouldn't provide any information at all except to say who won when the war is over," he said.

I suspect too many in our State Department and Department of Defense feel the same way, not to mention the White House and Congress.

Strong leadership is needed as the U.S. deals with a strange new world--one where Washington is finding it harder than ever to impose its will on anyone anywhere and where the eclipse of American power is manifest.

Perhaps that is not a bad thing. Heaven knows that when we have tried to impose our will on other nations the results have been mixed.

However, without a strong president in 2012 I fear that all of us will be helplessly and incomprehensively watching the political, economic and moral collapse of a once great country.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

i-Pads, "The Daily" and Journalism

I am no Luddite, so when Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. launched its long-awaited i-Pad-based newspaper, "The Daily" Wednesday I was intrigued.

By the way, a Luddite, according to Wikipedia, comes from a social movement of British textile artisans in the 19th Century who were opposed to and often destroyed mechanized looms. They were led by a man named Ned Ludd. So there you have a little trivia for today.

Far be it for me to oppose mechanized looms or new ways of delivering the news. Any time the public reads--be it a real paper newspaper or an electronic version I am a happy camper. For one thing it has been proven over and over again that when you read something as opposed to viewing it on a TV screen or listening to it on the radio, you retain more of the content correctly and longer.

So as a journalist I am happy to see journalism embrace new technologies for gathering and delivering the news.
My only concern has to do with the quality of that journalism.

Will News Corp., for example, expend the resources necessary to practice superior journalism and thus produce accurate and trustworthy news via The Daily? Or will it simply harvest information from other sources (what we used to call wire service "rip and read" in the days of the telex machine) and pass it along to unsuspecting "news consumers?"

Let's not forget that those who buy news products are consumers, after all. And the Daily will cost subscribers who download it to their i-Pads 99 cents a week or $39.99 a year--which they can charge to the their iTunes accounts. That is actually not a bad deal. Right now I pay $212 a year for my subscription to USA Today--which does include an e-version of the paper that I can read on my computer.

In that respect, I guess I am a bit of a Luddite. I simply hate reading news on a computer screen. I grew up reading a newspaper. My parents took two of them and we used to spread them out all over the living room floor on Sundays. It was the way life was back in the pre-App Stone Age.

The Daily will apparently provide news from bureaus in New York and Los Angeles as well as via a network of freelance stringers (that's journalese for "contributors"). It's that latter part that I worry about.

Freelancers are fine when they supplement a paid staff of professionals. But when they provide 80 or 90 percent of the news along with wire services, etc. then what you essentially have is a neat low-overhead money-making scheme.

As a former foreign correspondent, national correspondent and editor for the Chicago Tribune I can tell you it costs a lot of money to cover a community, a state and the world. We are talking millions of dollars to pay the salaries of skilled and experienced reporters, editors, producers, writers, etc. And the operative words here are "skilled" and "experienced."

There is no substitute for skillful reporting by journalists who have accumulated the kind of professional savvy necessary to produce an accurate and reliable news product day after day. Even then, errors are made--often because the crush of time in a 24-hour news cycle makes in depth investigation difficult if not impossible.

As The Daily was being launched Editor-in-Chief Jesse Angelo declined to say how much of a commitment the publication will make to investigative journalism.

“Read the product every day, and you’ll find out,” he said at a press conference in New York.

That is hardly reassuring.

More revealing is what Rupert Murdoch had to say. Ever the consummate news tycoon, he said that the costs associated with The Daily are "very low," which will allow it to become profitable very quickly.

Somehow those statements don't augur for the kind of in-depth, expensive journalism often provided by traditional news organizations. But then perhaps that is not the kind of journalism the 15 million people who currently tote i-Pads care about.

At Wednesday's launch it was explained that The Daily will publish up to 100 pages of news, gossip, sports, and celebrity opinion (whatever that is). Just what I need: another Hollywood starlet or star spouting off about the conflict in the Middle East or the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

If that is what The Daily considers good journalism, then leave me out. If it plans to produce a portable version of television's "The View" with its insufferable ensemble of ill-informed magpies pontificating about the day's events then I will opt out, thank you.

If, however, The Daily actually decides to produce original content provided by knowledgeable, professional reporters then I will be the first to spring for an i-Pad and a subscription.

"The i-Pad demands that we completely re-imagine our craft," Murdoch said at Wednesday's launch.

Re-imagining is fine--as long as the content is truthful, accurate and reliable and doesn't come from someone's imagination. Frankly, I hope it succeeds. Journalism is changing, adopting and adapting new delivery platforms almost constantly. In that respect, change is good.

What must remain constant and consistent, however, are the classic fundamentals of good journalism. No matter what technology is employed in delivering the news, there is no substitute for responsible, accurate, fair and unbiased information.

So for now, I am in a holding pattern regarding The Daily. And I am not holding my breath.