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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

'Unbroken' is an Unwelcome Film for Some Japanese

'Unbroken,' Angelina Jolie's film about the inhuman treatment of Allied captives in Japanese prisoner of war camps during World War II, is angering some Japanese who are calling for a boycott of the film in Japan.

The film, which opens Christmas day in the U.S., focuses mainly on the story of Louis Zamperini, who survived more than two years of horrendous treatment at the hands of his Japanese captors.

It is based on Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling book, "Unbroken," which detailed Zamperini's life as an Olympic athlete, his wartime role as a bombardier on a B-24 and his eventual capture by the Japanese after his plane was shot down.

Jolie and Zamperini
Zamperini, who died this past July at the age of 97, forgave his captors for their merciless treatment of him and other POWS, but many Japanese are still unwilling to admit the atrocities their troops committed throughout Asia during World War II.

This is not the first time a film about Japanese atrocities has sparked outrage in Japan.

In 1990, when I was the Chicago Tribune's Chief Asia Correspondent, I wrote about a graphic Australian film entitled 'Blood Oath.' 

That film enraged Japanese Nationalists who still deny that the Imperial Japanese Army committed any wartime crimes--including the slaughter of some 200,000-300,000 Chinese civilians and unarmed POWs in the former Chinese capital of Nanjing in 1937.

'Blood Oath,' which was released in the U.S. under the title 'Prisoners of the Sun,' depicts the plight of Allied POWs from 1942 to 1945 on the Indonesian island of Ambon. Ambon was the site of one of Japan's most infamous prisoner of war camps. Of the 1,150 Australian, Dutch and American POWs interned on the island, fewer than 300 were still alive when British and Australian troops retook Ambon in 1945.

When they did, they made the grisly discovery of 314 decapitated POWs in one mass grave--beheaded by Japanese soldiers wielding razor-sharp samurai swords.

At the Australian War Crimes Tribunal held on Ambon in 1946 about half of the 91 Japanese officers and enlisted men accused as war criminals were convicted and given death sentences or long prison terms.
Beheading of a Chinese POW
"Most young Japanese today don't even know that Japan fought a war against the United States, let alone about what happened in Ambon," says Toshi Shioya, the Japanese actor who portrayed a soldier convicted and executed for war crimes committed on the Indonesian island of Ambon.

Shioya not only acted in the film, but worked tirelessly to get it released in Japan.

"This was the first film ever shown in Japan that actually portrays ordinary Japanese soldiers as accomplices in war crimes," Shioya said. "We were lucky to find a distributor willing to show the film because for many Japanese, this was a shocking motion picture."

Unlike 'Prisoners of the Sun,' Jolie's 'Unbroken' is yet to be released in Japan. And while some Japanese may decry the film's portrayal of Japanese cruel treatment of Allied POW's, it is impossible to argue with the facts.

U.S. Department of Defense figures show that almost 40 per cent of all Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese died in captivity while just 1 per cent of American POWs died in Germany prisoner of war camps.

But unlike Germany, Japan's wartime iniquities have gone largely unpunished. There have been no Simon Wiesenthals to hunt down Japanese war criminals, and only a relative handful of Japanese military leaders were put on trial for atrocities.

As a result, generations of Japanese have grown up with only the sketchiest knowledge that Japan may have done something wrong in the 1930s and 1940s and that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were considered by many to be justifiable retribution.

Anti-Japanese feeling still exists in places like China and Korea where the heavy boot of Imperial Japan was most in evidence. In 1990, during a visit to Japan, then South Korean President Roh Tae Woo received an apology for Japan's 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula from Emperor Akihito, the prime minister and parliament. But for many Koreans, none of the apologies went far enough.

"Human beings tend to be sensitive to and vividly remember their own sufferings," said Takashi Koshida, author of a two-volume work about the Japanese army's activities in 16 Asian nations during the war.

Zamperini when liberated from Japanese POW camp
"In the case of the Japanese, the sufferings were the atomic bombings, the air raids and the military conscription. I would say it has taken almost 60 years for the Japanese to realize that they were aggressors . . . and that they caused other people to suffer."

One group of Japanese for whom 'Prisoners of the Sun' has particular significance is the Ambon Remembrance Society, an organization of 100 Navy veterans who served as guards in the POW camp.

"After I watched this film the first time I felt as though I had swallowed lead. . . . I felt very heavy and dark inside," said Yoshiro Ninomiya, a former Navy sub-lieutenant assigned to the camp.
Ninomiya, who is the society's secretary-general, has seen "Blood Oath" five times, and he said, "It has made me think about a lot of things (that happened on Ambon)."

Shioya has spent long hours talking with former Japanese soldiers who served at the camp.

"One man still has nightmares about what he did on the island," Shioya said. "This man, who served a 15-year prison sentence after the war, told me of how one day in 1943 he was ordered to decapitate three captured American pilots with his sword.

"As his sword passed through the neck of one pilot, photographs of the man's mother, his wife and a baby fell out of his shirt pocket and lay on the ground staring up at him.  "He is still haunted by that scene today."

Check out these links for a trailer on Prisoners of the Sun and a synopsis by imdb.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Little Advice for New Authors

Fellow author Amy Neftzger recently wrote a column for a writer's group that I belong to called BookDaily in which she provided some good advice for novice writers.

Amy is an author of fiction for both adults and children and you can find out more about her and her work at her website:

I thought I would share her prescient thoughts with you so I am turning my blog over to her for today.
Amy Neftzger

Starting Out As a Writer: 5 Things You Should Know
By Amy Neftzger

Becoming an author is a long road to walk, and most people have no idea how long it takes to become successful or what they need to do when traveling this road. There are a lot of different ways to get to the end of it, but here are a few suggestions I have to help you along on this journey.

1. Success is not immediate

Many people think that publishing a book is like winning the lottery: you just put the book up for sale and then watch the royalties roll in. The truth is that simply putting your work out there will not make it sell. Readers have too many choices, and when they want a new book they tend to stick with what they know: authors they’ve already read. It takes quite a bit of time to build a following, so patience is the name of the game here. This is true whether you’re self or traditionally published.

2. In order to do it well, you will need help.

Don’t assume that you can write, edit, design layout, format, create cover artwork, and market your book all on your own. If you’re with a traditional publisher they will help with most of these things. If you’re self-published, you’ll need to find a way to get all these things done. You may be multi-talented but you’re still only one person and you may even have another job that currently pays your bills. So there’s the time factor to consider: If you do everything yourself then you’re spending a lot of time doing things other than writing. Aside from the time, when you do everything yourself your work tends to lack the balance that other people can add. Your finances may be limited, so figure out what you’re better at and where you’re weaker and seek affordable help for your weaker areas.

3. The market is currently flooded.

There are a lot of books out there and the number is growing, so readers have a lot of choices. What this means is that your book needs to be the best it can possibly be, because a less polished work simply won’t get any traction in a flooded market. This means that you may want to consider using beta readers to get feedback, and if you’re self-published you should definitely hire an editor and maybe even a proofreader.

4. Reader experience is everything.

People read books for the experience it provides. Your book should be designed to provide it and avoid anything that detracts from it.Things that pull away from the experience are glitches in plot development, spelling or layout errors, and errors in logic. maintaining a logical and believable flow to the plot will enhance reader experience, so use a good outline and be sure that the characters and situations are believable (even in fantasy).

5. It’s worth the effort

If you love to write and it’s in your blood, then you’ll find that all the work you put into producing your book is worth your time. The key is to keep working and improving your craft and to grow as a writer.

About the Author:

Amy Neftzger is the author of fiction books for both adults and children. She has also been published in business and academic journals, as well as literary publications. A few of her favorite things include traveling, books, movies, art, the Oxford comma, and gargoyles.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What is Happening to the News Media?

I hear that question all the time. I hear it mainly because my friends and relatives  know I spent almost 30 years of my life in the news business--first as a general assignment reporter, then as a foreign correspondent, then as an editor.

Later I became a professor of journalism and dean of a journalism program at a major university where I spent a lot of time researching the media.

So I know the news business inside and out. I have worked in it, I have studied it and now, like a lot of other people, I wonder about its usefulness and value.

Several factors have combined to alter the media landscape from the one I entered right out of college in 1970 or so.

Some argue that new technologies have had a deleterious impact on the media. There is no doubt that the old business models that once worked for newspapers, television and radio have changed. Advertising revenues have plummeted and news organizations find themselves scrambling to stay financially afloat.

Add to that the fact that the Internet, the blogosphere, and social media have all united to create a new world of pseudo-journalists who are not held to the same standards of excellence that we "professionals" once were and the picture looks bleak.

Sadly, today's "professionals" often are not being held to that higher standard either. Witness the recent fallout over the Rolling Stone story on the bogus gang rape at the University of Virginia that is being walked back because not a single detail could be corroborated.

Or the kind of "personal" and "participatory" journalism that would have gotten me run out of the Chicago Tribune's newsroom back in the early 1970s. I can almost hear my old city editor yelling:

"You can't write this kind of opinionated crap here!"

Yet, "opinionated crap" is often what we read in newspapers today or see on TV news programs.
I can recall discussions we used to have in news meetings about how to involve our readers more in the news gathering process--a noble idea, up to a point.

Today, those discussions have become reality because of The Internet, bloggers, social media, etc. The media are more interactive than ever.  That's not always a bad thing, but it becomes toxic when news organizations confuse "crowdsourcing" with old fashioned news gathering.

Now we are bombarded with stupid, unscientific "polls" and inane commentary from readers and viewers. No wonder glib MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber says the American electorate is "stupid." It is difficult not to come to that conclusion when you read or listen to some of these comments.

News organizations need to be more than simple aggregators of information. They need to provide knowledgeable, unbiased context for an informed citizenry. Unfortunately, there is little impartial context and even fewer citizens who are adequately informed.

News is often nothing more than "infotainment." It is a prejudicial mix of imprecise information and imprudent stories geared to titillate, rather than inform.

I used to tell my students we needed more of what I call "spinach journalism?" What is spinach journalism? you ask.

It is journalism intended to inform and educate. In essence we are telling news consumers: "Here, read this, watch this, listen to this, it's GOOD FOR YOU!"

Newspapers especially were once the mirrors for the communities they served. They reflected the people and events, the good and the bad of their communities. Granted, the mirrors were not always free of distortion, but at least there were tough professional editors and producers who cracked the whip and kept reporters focused on facts rather than the fiction and opinion we too often see today.

Sadly, I fear there are far too few of those tough and demanding newsroom mentors around today and too many reporters who think the news is theirs to manipulate and mold to fit their worldview or political ideologies.

Along those lines, I am amazed at how far many journalists seem willing to go to protect a Washington administration that has been the most opaque, intrusive and hostile to press freedom than any in recent history.  

It makes me wonder what happened to the traditional role of the press? That role is to act as the de-facto "fourth estate" of government. Journalists, I was always told, were to be the watchdogs of government, not its lapdogs.

As someone once said, journalists should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

That is happening less and less today. It is much easier to write stories that reflect one's own values than to get out of one's comfort zone and enter unfamiliar and even disagreeable territory in the search for truth.

Veracity is seldom found within the confines of our own narrow opinions. All we will find there is further reinforcement for what we already hold to be true.

So when people ask me what is happening to America's news media--once the strongest and freest in the world--I have only one answer: 

"Where's the spinach?"

Monday, December 8, 2014

Do America's Enemies Deserve Our Respect and Empathy?

In a recent speech at Georgetown University Hillary Clinton urged Americans to empathize with and respect our enemies--namely Islamic fanatics who want to kill us and obliterate our way of life.

After those words were uttered by a woman who apparently wants to be America's next president, I think I heard Gen. George S. Patton bellowing epithets from the grave. Patton was notorious for his epithets.

Patton, the no nonsense American general known as "blood and guts" who helped push the Germans out of North Africa and Sicily during WW II and who drove the U.S. Third Army deep into the heart of Germany, said this about America's enemies:

“May God have mercy on my enemies because I won't.” 

That's poles apart from what Hillary Clinton had to say last week about America's enemies and how we should deal with them:
"Show Respect for America's Enemies"

"This is what we call smart power...showing respect, even for one’s enemies, trying to understand and insofar as psychologically possible empathize with their perspective and point of view."

I can just imagine what Patton would say about "smart power" and the preposterous notion that we should have respect for and empathize with our enemy's point of view.

He no doubt would have used one of his favorite words: Bullshit!

I wonder how Hillary's statement might have resonated if she had made it during WW II after the world learned what the Nazi's did in death camps like Auschwitz and what the Japanese did in places like Nanking, China?

Oh, but the war against radical Islam is different, some might argue. Really? You mean beheading journalists, slaughtering innocent aide workers and educators, murdering Christians and Jews, and even butchering Muslims who don't adhere to radical Islam is not the same? Really?

Murder is murder no matter who commits it, how it's committed, or in what decade it is committed. Empathy and respect be damned.

And what if President Roosevelt had gone to Congress seeking a declaration of war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and said:

"We must have empathy for the Japanese who did this to us," instead of what he actually said, which was: "Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

Enemies are enemies. Empathizing and respecting their perspective is a ludicrous thing to say. It is especially preposterous for someone who wants to occupy the White House and become our military's Commander-in-Chief.  

Patton understood that the way to win a war was to fight it, not chatter about it while giving a $200,000 speech. The last thing he would have counseled is for American leaders to engage in fearful hand wringing and hope those who want to destroy us will somehow come to love us if only we are benign, compassionate and work harder to understand their perspective.

General "Blood & Guts" Patton

In a 1944 speech to the Third Army Patton told his men this:
"We want this war over with. The quickest way to get it over with is to go get the bastards who started it. The quicker they are whipped, the quicker we can go home."

Is there any doubt who started the war on terror? On September 11, 2001 when those hijacked planes flew into the twin towers, into the Pentagon, and into that Pennsylvania farm field, we were at war--even if the current feckless occupant of the White House refuses to call it that.

When you are attacked, no matter what your political affiliation may be or on which side of the political aisle you may sit, you basically have two options: you either capitulate because you are afraid to fight, or you respond with "extreme prejudice," as we used to say in the Army.

Regrettably, the current administration seems to have resurrected a third option--one that was proven woefully ineffective back in 1938. It was called appeasement. And Adolph Hitler laughed all the way to the Eagle's Nest.

After Hillary Clinton's ill-advised and placatory remarks you can almost hear the terrorists hooting and whooping in their desert bunkers and strongholds.

I wonder how Patton might have dealt with the brutal Islamic State currently slaughtering its way through Syria and Iraq.

I can't imagine him telling the men of the Third Army to respect and empathize with that vicious rabble; to try to understand why they hate America or why these cowards are beheading American and other Western captives.

After Patton read the Koran and observed North African Muslims during WW II, we have an idea what he thought of Islam. In his book, War as I Knew it, published posthumously in 1947, he wrote:

"What if the Arabs had been Christians? To me it seems certain that the fatalistic teachings of Mohammed and the utter degradation of women is the outstanding cause for the arrested development of the Arab. He is exactly as he was around the year 700, while we have kept on developing."

Not a sentiment that would make the apologists for Islamic radicals and terrorists happy.

Nor would Islamic suicide bombers have embraced one of Patton's most famous statements:

"No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other dumb bastard die for his country."

Amen, General.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

10 surprising social media facts

Authors today need to be savvy about using social media to get the word out about their books. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIn, book blogs, WAYN--these are all critical social media for marketing books.

And as any author knows (especially those who don't get books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review section) getting the word out is critical for a book to attract readers. 

Today, I am turning my blog over to Monica Wells, content marketing specialist, at BizDb in the United Kingdom. She has gathered some interesting facts about using social media that you might find helpful. 

For example, did you know five Facebook profiles are created every second, or that what's popular on Pinterest on Monday is different from what's popular on Wednesday? Read on for more.

By Monica Wells 

If you consider yourself a social media guru, you're in for a surprise.

Due to social media analytics tools' rapid evolution, industry experts have uncovered a lot of new, increasingly detailed information to help marketers create more effective social media strategies. There are dozens of social media research studies out there.

Here are 10 interesting social media facts you probably don't know:

1. Facebook is growing.

Even though Facebook is becoming obsolete in some markets, the global scale shows something completely different: Five Facebook profiles are created every second. That's more than the number of global births.

2. Twitter has six conversation networks.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center and Social Media Research Foundation analyzed thousands of Twitter conversations and spotted a pattern: There are as many as six types of conversations that take place on Twitter. And we thought tweeting was simple.

3. People love videos.

Even though marketers agree original videos aren't an important part of their social media strategies, the facts speak for themselves. Every day Facebook users watch more than 500 years' worth of videos, and visitors spend, on average, at least 15 minutes on YouTube. 

4. Twitter users want fast responses.

A study by Lithium Technologies shows Twitter's real-time nature raises users' expectations for brand responses. Fifty-three percent of users who tweet to a brand expect an answer within an hour. For those who are angry and tweeting to complain, that number rises to 72 percent.
Use tools to track response time, and answer tweets as fast as possible—especially the angry ones.

5. Most Facebook engagement occurs on Friday.

In its recent Social Intelligence Report, Adobe analyzed more than 225 billion Facebook posts. It found that posts receive more comments, shares and "likes" on Fridays. (Perhaps because Fridays are conducive to slacking off.) Consider this when you review your posting schedule.

6. Late evening is the best time to tweet.

After analyzing more than 1.7 million tweets, TrackMaven determined the best time to tweet is from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET, particularly on Sundays. Share volume is lower late at night, and content has a greater chance of being shared. Tweet during this hour for more engagement.

7. Popular topics on Pinterest change by the day.

Pinterest is one of the social media platforms that drive the most Web traffic, and thankfully it shared some of its immense amount of data. On its blog, Pinterest revealed the categories that get the most engagement each day. Whereas fitness posts score high on Monday, inspirational quotes are most popular on Wednesday. (Workers must want some comfort halfway through the workweek.)

8. Visuals have power on Facebook.

We know the value of images in social media marketing, but this figure is mind-blowing: Social Bakers revealed 87 percent of a Facebook page's interactions happen on photo posts. By comparison, posts with links receive just 4 percent of interactions. Choosing photos that fit your brand narrative or tell a story should be your priority.

9. Written content is essential.

Content marketing's expected rise means more marketers will seek high-quality content to raise brand awareness on social media. Writers can feel secure: Marketers appreciate written content most. An annual survey from Social Media Examiner revealed 58 percent of marketers consider blog posts and articles the most important kind of social media content. That's impressive, especially considering that 19 percent of marketers voted for visual content.

10. The 55-64 age bracket is growing on Twitter.

It is the fastest-growing demographic on Twitter. This will bring joy to those who market to mature consumers.

Given the practical insights from all these studies, one thing is clear: To stay on top of your game, you need a firm grasp on social media analytics and statistics.

Monica Wells is a content marketing specialist at A version of this article originally appeared on Social Media Today.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How to Become an American Ambassador: $$$$$

When I was roaming the world as a foreign correspondent, I spent hours and hours talking to American ambassadors in places like Tokyo, El Salvador, Vietnam, Cambodia, Peru, Mexico, etc. The list goes on and on.

Most of them had extensive knowledge of the countries in which they represented the United States.
Mike Mansfield, for example, was the longest serving U.S. Ambassador to Japan in history (1977-1988). He had a significant knowledge of Japan and Asia and was fond of saying that the United States-Japan relationship is the 'most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.'

His successor, Michael H. Armacost (1989-1993), was the former ambassador to The Philippines; a member of the National Security Council to handle East Asian and Chinese affairs, and was acting Secretary of State.

When you had a conversation with either of these men about Japanese-U.S. relations, it was substantive.

That same cannot be said for the two most recent ambassadors confirmed by the Senate:

·       New Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bradley Bell, 47, a soap opera producer (The Bold and the Beautiful), Obama donor ($800,000) and bundler ($2.1 million) for his campaigns.

·       New Ambassador to Argentina Noah Bryson Mamet, 44, a political consultant and bundler who raised $500,000 for Obama's presidential campaign.

Neither of America's newest ambassadors have any significant knowledge of the countries they will be working in and neither distinguished themselves during Senate confirmation hearings.
Colleen Bradley Bell

Take this exchange between Bell and Sen. McCain at this week's hearing:

 MCCAIN: So what would you be doing differently from your predecessor, who obviously had very rocky relations with the present government?

BELL: If confirmed, I look forward to working with the broad range of society —

MCCAIN: My question was, what would you do differently?

BELL: Senator, in terms of what I would do differently from my predecessor, Kounalakis

MCCAIN: That’s the question.

BELL: Well, what I would like to do when — if confirmed — I would like to work towards engaging civil society in a deeper — in a deeper —

MCCAIN: Obviously, you don’t want to answer my question.

Then there was this exchange between Mamet and Sen. Marco Rubio:

 RUBIO:  "Mr. Mamet, have you been to Argentina?"

MAMET: "Senator, I haven't had the opportunity yet to be there. I've traveled pretty extensively around the world. But I haven't yet had a chance."

Mamet also conceded that he speaks no Spanish and has little or no knowledge of Argentine history or politics.

Noah Mamet

And so it goes. The truth is that both Bell’s and Mamet's appointments are just another example of the Washington game which rewards campaign donors and friends of the president   with ambassadorial positions.

By recent historic standards, Obama is already pushing the ceiling when it comes to putting friends and campaign supporters in U.S. diplomatic posts.

According to research by the American Foreign Service Association, 35 percent of Obama’s assignments have been political appointments. But in his second term, the number has grown to 41 percent according. The AFSA union represents career diplomats and wants more strict enforcement of a 1980 law that says campaign donations may not be considered a qualification for any foreign posting.

Good luck with that.

 Among other things that law says:  "An individual appointed or assigned to be a chief of mission should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including, to the maximum extent practicable, a useful knowledge of the principal language or dialect of the country in which the individual is to serve, and knowledge and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people."

Whoops! Somebody in the White House must have forgotten that. Ditto the Senate. But wait, the confirmation votes for Bell and Mamet were along strict party lines. So forgetfulness was not a factor.

Money was.

I was thinking that I were still roaming the world as a foreign correspondent, what could I talk to Ms. Bell about if I were writing about Hungary?

It's oppressive form of government? Nah. It's sick economy? Nah Corruption in the government of PM Viktor Orban? Nah.

But we could spend a good hour discussing the Bold and the Beautiful and its most recent episode: 

"Liam badgers Quinn to admit she went to the shower and took the cake as a momento. Quinn hollers at him to let it go. He accuses her of stalking Hope. Quinn says being treated like a pariah instead of a loving grandmother-to-be is ripping her apart. She insists the baby changes everything. Hope and Wyatt's marriage is secure and she'll never be a threat again. Liam promises as long as she's a threat to Hope's happiness..." 

And I could walk away with a reporter's notebook bulging with news. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


When MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, one of the chief architects of Obamacare referred, in a year-old video last week, to the "stupidity of the American voter" and a "lack of transparency" as critical to the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, it ignited a fire storm of outrage.

But was Gruber wrong when he made those off-the-cuff remarks about the American electorate at an academic conference in 2013?

Sadly, it appears that he may have been right in his assessment. According to at least two recent surveys, Americans are woefully ignorant when it comes to their country and its governance.

Ask them to name just one Supreme Court Justice and 65 percent can’t, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

It gets better. Ask Americans to name the three branches of their government and 36 percent of Americans can’t. Ask them to name just a single branch of government and 35 percent can’t even do that.

But in a nation consumed like no other with celebrity, ask Americans to reel off the names of the top rock stars, gansta rappers, Oscar favorites, superstars in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, and any number of mindless reality TV shows and their minions and guess what? You will have no problem getting an answer.

So while Gruber is being pilloried for his remarks, the sad truth is that he is right. American voters are stupid--or perhaps apathetic or indifferent are better descriptions.

Lying to them, as the Obama administration did when it was ramming Obamacare through Congress and down our throats, was viewed as an acceptable tactic. After all, they reasoned, Americans are too stupid to know what's good for them.

While such a conclusion may smack of just somebody's opinion, it was backed up last month in a groundbreaking survey by the U.K. research firm Ipsos MORI. That survey highlighted the political “ignorance” of 11,527 people across 14 countries

It found that Americans are second only to Italians in how little we understand our nations and the issues facing it. (See Graphic)

Here are a few of the questions asked and the results:

·       What percentage of the U.S. population identifies as Muslim?
Americans guessed: 15%.  Reality: 1%

·       What percentage of the population do you think are immigrants to America?
Americans guessed: 32%. Reality: 13%

·       Do you think this statement is true or false: The murder rate is rising in America
70 percent of Americans guessed: True . Reality: False

·       What percentage of American girls aged between 15 and 19 years give birth each year? Americans guessed: 23.9%. Reality: 3.1%

 Back in 2008, Rick Shenkman, the editor-in-chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled: Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter.

Shenkman found that most Americans were, among other things:

·       Ignorant about major international events

·       Knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it

·       Were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country

·       Were easily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears and public relations babble.

Shenkman found that Americans, when they do pay attention, do so when they perceive that an issue may impact them, their families or friends personally. That is not earth shattering, but it does say something about the fact that Americans, like it or not, are part of the global family.

I spent some two decades as a foreign correspondent, covering stories throughout Asia and Latin America. During that time I discovered that relatively few Americans had any understanding at all of the impact events and policies in places like China or Japan can have on their lives.

For example, when products are manufactured more inexpensively in China or India or Vietnam that often means higher paid Americans lose their jobs.

When rapacious government policies allow a Chinese steel company to export its products at a price that is lower in the American market than the price charged in the domestic Chinese market, and thereby unfairly undercut American steel makers, that is called "dumping."

What most Americans may not know is that dumping is legal under World Trade Organization rules unless the aggrieved foreign country can demonstrate the negative impact of the exporting company on domestic producers. In order to counter dumping, most nations use tariffs and quotas to protect their domestic industry from the negative effects of predatory pricing.

But let's get back to that Ipsos MORI survey and Gruber's unflattering characterization of the American voter.

We often decry the quality of elected officials today. But what about the quality of voters?

How can we make informed decisions about places like Iraq and Iran, organizations like ISIS, government spending, and societal issues if we have no understanding of the essential specifics involved?

American educator and philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins may have said it best:

"The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Students Support First Amendment Freedoms More Than Adults

There is a reason the very first amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1791 dealt with issues such as freedom of speech, the press, religion, the right of peaceful assembly and the right to redress grievances via government petition.

The founding fathers viewed those freedoms and rights as critical to a functioning democracy. Without them a government could exercise almost total control over its people.

Americans often talk about the First Amendment without really knowing what it says. Here is a refresher for those who may have forgotten the wording:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

It was heartening to me a few weeks ago when a national study of 10,463 high school students and 588 teachers funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that students are more supportive of the First Amendment than adults and that increased digital news consumption and classroom teaching are driving the change.

It makes me wonder if adults have become blasé about the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment--or worse.

When I hear people suggest that government should "reign in the media" or curb speech they don't like or agree with, it's like suggesting that government chip away at the foundation of the Capitol Building. Eventually, with enough chipping the building will collapse and with enough "reigning in" of the First Amendment we will find ourselves unable to speak or publish freely.

So it was encouraging that these students apparently understand the value of freedom of the press and speech when it comes to opinions they don't agree with.

"Student use of social, mobile and digital media to consume news is at all-time highs, and so is student support of the First Amendment," said Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of Knight Foundation. "The most supportive students of all are heavy digital media users who also have had a class explaining the First Amendment."

The study, the fifth in a series of national surveys of high school students and teachers commissioned by the Knight Foundation during the past 10 years, holds important implications for the future of the First Amendment. Courts interpret the meaning of the first amendment within the context of public opinion.

Here are a few key findings of the Knight Study:

●      High school students are showing more appreciation for the First Amendment than adults. Only 24 percent of students said that the First Amendment goes too far in guaranteeing the rights of religion, speech, press assembly and petition. In comparison, a Newseum Institute survey that tracks adult opinions on the first amendment showed that 38 percent of adults feel this way. This marks a shift: 10 years ago students (35 percent) were more likely than adults (30 percent) to say that the First Amendment goes too far.

●      More students than ever before are showing support for the First Amendment: Nine in 10 students surveyed said that “people should be able to express unpopular opinions,” and 60 percent oppose government surveillance of online information and phone calls even to identify terrorists.

●      Both digital news consumption and First Amendment appreciation are growing among high school students. Seventy-one percent of students said they read news online daily; in 2006 only 31 percent said they got news and information from the Internet several times per week. And while only eight percent of students reported consuming news and information daily through mobile devices in 2007, the latest report shows 62 percent of students now use mobile for this purpose—the highest level measured by the survey.

●      Digital media works hand-in-hand with the classroom. First Amendment support is highest among students who had a class that dealt with the First Amendment and used digital media on a regular basis. For example, 65 percent of the students who use digital news daily agreed strongly that people should be able to express unpopular opinions, but if they had a First Amendment-related class, the strong support for free speech rose to 69 percent.

●      Most teachers do not support free expression for students creating content about their schools. In a generational divide, the majority of teachers disagree that First Amendment rights should apply to school activities. For example, 57 percent of teachers feel that students should not be allowed to report on controversial issues in student newspapers and 67 percent say that students should not be allowed to express their opinions about teachers and school administrators on Facebook without penalty.

Obviously, there is a parting of the ways when it comes to press and speech freedom for students.

When I was the Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois I also happened to be a member of the board of the non-profit Illini Media Company--the student run newspaper that serves the university community.

Thankfully, the Illini Media Company was not a constituent of the University--though its student editors and reporters were.

Did the Daily Illini occasionally make some errors in judgment? Did it sometimes print a story that was not entirely accurate? Did it criticize the University of Illinois administration on occasion?

Yes, yes and yes. It did all of those things. But it corrected its errors and it responsibly recognized, clarified and apologized for its inaccuracies.

But one thing it never did, was kowtow to the University administration when that august body was angry about a Daily Illini story that it didn't approve of.

And that is exactly what "reigning in the media" would mean for press freedom in this country.
As Finley Peter Dunne once said about the media: they should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

But beyond that, they should use the power of the First Amendment to be an unbiased and responsible watchdog of government and in so doing, speak and act on behalf of the people.

Because if the media do not, who will?

Here is a link to the survey:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Typhoid Mary & Kaci Hickox: "Don't Quarantine Me Bro"

When Doctors Without Borders Ebola nurse Kaci Hickox vowed to fight a state-imposed quarantine in Maine, I was reminded of a case of another woman who also fought against being quarantined and who became infamous for doing so.

Her name was Mary Mallon, but she was better known as Typhoid Mary--the first person in the United States recognized as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever.
"Typhoid Mary in Quarantine"

Unlike nurse Hickox, who is possibly facing a 21-day quarantine (the incubation period for Ebola) in her home, Typhoid Mary spent nearly 30 years forcibly isolated on New York's North Brother Island. 
So just who was Typhoid Mary?

Mary Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869 and came to the United States as teenager where she lived in New York with an aunt and uncle until their death.

Alone in the nation's largest city, the resourceful Mary first worked as a housekeeper in several homes. Then, in 1906 she was hired as a cook for a wealthy family in the fashionable Oyster Bay community.

Within two weeks 10 of the 11 family members were sick with typhoid. Mary moved on to three more households. In each case wherever Mary Mallon worked typhoid outbreaks occurred and each time that happened, she moved on.

One family stricken by the disease hired Dr. George A. Soper, an epidemiologist and sanitation engineer to investigate. Dr. Soper was a typhoid fever expert and was aware that the disease was often passed on by immune carriers, though he had yet to identify such a person.

By contrast, Ebola survivors who have developed immunity to the virus apparently do not carry the disease nor pass it on. In fact, some survivors are being trained to care for children in Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to the UN's UNICEF agency.

That was not the case with the typhoid outbreak of 1906, however.

As Dr. Soper began his investigation he looked into the Oyster Bay family's eating habits. He investigated the possibilities that the illness was transferred through oysters or that sewage pipes could have tainted the family's drinking water.

 Finally, he focused on the kitchen staff. He soon identified Mary as the likely cause. Dr. Soper checked into her work history and discovered that most of the families she worked for in the past had suffered from typhoid outbreaks as well.

Soper ascertained that most of the food Mary served her employers was cooked (and therefore most likely safe from typhoid). However, Soper concluded that Mary's trademark ice cream and peaches dessert very likely infected the family.

By now, Mary was no longer working for the family that hired Soper and because she never left forwarding addresses when she left a household, it took considerable effort to track her down.

When he finally did locate her, Mary was unwilling to cooperate. Dr. Soper explained that Mary was infecting families with her cooking and asked her to provide urine and feces samples. As the story goes, Mary became so upset with the request that she chased the doctor from her kitchen with a large carving fork.

That was only a temporary reprieve for Mary, however. Dr. Soper reported Mary to New York City's Department of Health and convinced them to send a female health inspector, some policemen and an ambulance to bring her in for testing. When they arrived at the house, Mary ran and hid. They finally found her some three hours later and dragged her away, kicking and screaming.  

Testing concluded that Mary did carry the typhoid parasite. But why didn't she fall ill with the disease? A 2013 study by the Stanford University School of Medicine found that the salmonella bacteria that causes typhoid fever hides in immune cells known as macrophages, a type of immune cell. The study said that if the germs are successful in pulling that off, then an infected person like Typhoid Mary can unknowingly spread the pathogen without falling ill herself.

According to the study: "Individuals can develop typhoid fever after ingesting food or water contaminated during handling by a human carrier. The human carrier may be a healthy person who has survived a previous episode of typhoid fever yet who continues to shed the associated bacteria, Salmonella typhi in feces and urine. Washing hands with soap before touching or preparing food, washing dishes and utensils with soap and water, and only eating cooked food are all ways to reduce the risk of typhoid infection,"

The Department of Health offered Mary Mallon a deal: give up cooking and she could go free. But Mary refused to promise anything and in 1907 she was quarantined on North Brother Island.
It didn't take long for New York's sensational newspapers to discover the story. They immediately christened her "Typhoid Mary." One newspaper illustration depicted Mary breaking egg-sized skulls into a skillet.

Just as nurse Kaci Hickox's situation has resulted in opposing opinions, so it was with Mary Mallon. Many Americans were convinced that Mary's civil liberties were being violated, while others viewed her as a public health menace.

Sound familiar?

Mary's quarantine on North Brother's Island ended in 1910 when a new and sympathetic health commissioner released her on condition that she never work as a cook again.  

But five years later health officials traced an outbreak of typhoid fever at Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan to a "Mrs. Brown," the facility's cook. "Mrs. Brown" turned out to be Mary Mallon. She was immediately sent back to North Brother Island, where she was forced to remain for the rest of her life. She died there on November 11, 1938, having lived a total of 26 years on the island.

Ebola Nurse Kaci Hickox
Among the 47 typhoid infections Mary Mallon caused, at least three deaths were definitely attributed to her. However, because she used so many aliases and refused to cooperate with health authorities, the exact number is not known. Some officials estimated that she may have caused 50 fatalities.

The world has changed since 1915 when Typhoid Mary was quarantined for the final time. Nurse Hickox will never have to worry about being sent to a place like North Brother Island--even if she were to be found to have ebola.

But just as Mary Mallon insisted in 1915 that her civil rights were being violated by the authorities, so too has Kaci Hickox, who asserts she is not infected with the ebola virus.

Which leaves us with the same questions that were being asked almost 100 years ago when Typhoid Mary was quarantined: namely, when and under what circumstances can an individual's civil rights be trumped by the broader public's right to safety?

It's a dilemma in need of a resolution.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Islamic State Targeting Journalists

Last week the FBI officially warned news organizations that it has received "credible information" that a splinter group of the Islamic State has been ordered to kidnap journalists in the Mideast and take them to Syria.

I am not surprised by this news. It is, after all, a well-known tactic of Islamist terrorists to kidnap and murder journalists.

Beyond the obvious political reasons for kidnapping and murdering journalists is another less apparent motive.

Journalists, especially those from nations with a free press, disseminate information and there is nothing Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists hate more than free-flowing information. With information comes knowledge and the last thing religious fanatics like the Islamic State want is an informed and educated people who can actually think for themselves.

In its rare intelligence bulletin to news organizations the FBI warned that the group will attempt to hide its affiliation with the Islamic State in order to gain access to unsuspecting correspondents, cameramen and photographers.

The bulletin also cited an online post by an Islamic State supporter who wrote that media personnel such as "anchormen, field reporters and talk show hosts" were "prioritized targets."

The Islamic State has already beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and two British aid workers. The group is believed to be holding a several other Western hostages.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that more than 70 journalists already have been killed covering the Syrian conflict since it began in March 2011.

The U.S.-based organization estimates 30 local and international journalists are missing in Syria. One of them is Austin Tice, 33, a former U.S. Marine working as a freelance reporter for The Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers who was kidnapped August 2012 while working in Syria. (You can watch a video about Tice by clicking on the link at the end of this post.)

Kidnapped Journalist Austin Tice
 In light of the recent beheadings and the obvious danger of covering the civil war in Syria and brutal behavior of the Islamic State in Iraq, several American news organizations have stopped sending journalists to the region.

Instead their reporters file reports from Turkey and Lebanon and rely on secondary sources inside Syria. They also interview refugees and aid workers and monitor social media in the region.

As someone who once covered wars and revolutions from Asia to Latin America I can't imagine trying to cover a conflict without actually being on the ground where the fighting is taking place.

The closest I ever came to such a situation was the brief Falklands/Malvinas war between Great Britain and Argentina in 1982. Several hundred journalists (me included) were not allowed by Argentina to travel to the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. Instead, we had to cover the war from Buenos Aires and the Sheraton Hotel, where the Argentine authorities had set up a press room (AKA "Rubber Room") on the third floor.

There, we received government handouts that provided highly sanitized military reports on how the war was going. While it was the safest I had ever been while covering a war, it was also the most frustrating experience of my career as a war correspondent.

After an evening of consuming too much Argentine beer and wine eight of us correspondents decided to charter a fishing boat to take us to the islands. We actually found someone willing to do it for $5,000, but at the last minute the boat's captain refused to go, saying he had been warned that if he tried the Argentine Navy would sink his boat with all hands.

Looking back on it, I think I would rather have taken my chances of surviving an attack by the Argentine Navy than reporting the story from Syria today.

Covering war is dangerous work. As a noncombatant you risk being shot, shredded by shrapnel, or blown up by a mine or improvised explosive device. But covering war AND shielding yourself from fanatics like those in the Islamic State is asking a lot of reporters and photographers.

Sadly, many of the journalists who are putting themselves in harm's way today in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are freelancers.

For freelancers covering war has always been the fast track to establish their journalistic chops and work their way into a professional news organization. Reputations are made this way.

It takes guts to go into a war zone with little more than the clothes on your back and the vague promise that if you file enough "good stuff" you might "get a shot at the big time."

My advice to those who feel they MUST race off to places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan:  Make haste slowly. Life is already short. And I have yet to find a story that was worth more than my life, insignificant as it may be.

As a colleague of mine at the Chicago Tribune always told me: "Take time to stop and smell the flowers."

Good advice that.

(The link below will take you to a video about Austin Tice)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

An Idea to Save Book Stores and Help New Authors

One of the saddest events of the past ten years or so has been the inexorable demise of the brick and mortar book store. Fully half of the bookstores in the United States have vanished in the past ten years.

Gone are places like Borders, Crown Books, B. Dalton, Kroch's and Brentano's, Oxford Bookstore, Atlantic Books and Davis-Kidd Booksellers.

A few are still hanging on. Barely. Barnes & Noble, for example, and Follett's, Book Off USA, Hudson News and places like the sprawling and immensely popular Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon.

But for the most part, physical books stores are being shoved aside by online booksellers like Amazon, Alibris,,, ValoreBooks, etc.

The exception to this trend were recent reports by CNBC and Wall Street Journal that Amazon is planning on putting up a physical retail book store across from New York City's Empire State Building.

So far there has been no confirmation from Amazon.

But even if that were to happen, most experts see the demise of brick and mortar book stores continuing as more and more readers chose to buy their physical and e-books online.

So what can be done?

I recently received an e-mail containing an intriguing idea.

It came from author Doug Preston, who along with co-author Lincoln Child, has written such bestselling books as Relic, Riptide, Mount Dragon, Gideon's Sword and The Lost Island.

Preston attached a note containing an idea for saving book stores and helping authors sell more books in them. The idea was from author Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, who has written books like The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and Why We Broke Up.

Rather than paraphrasing Handler's note and idea, I will include it here verbatim and add some final thoughts:

"Dear comrades-in-ink,

"Whether or not you are an author published by Hachette (as I am), you may lately feel as if you are engulfed in a rather unpleasant flood -- as if the fate of your books is whirling dreadfully out of your control, battered by the waters of some enormous South American river, the name of which I cannot remember at the moment. 

"While all this fierce sword fighting rages on without you, you may find yourself feeling even more hapless and hopeless than authors usually do, while your local independent bookstore struggles with a similar feeling that it's some sort of jungle out there.

There is Nothing Like a Book Store
"As a tonic, allow me to suggest a new program, cooked up by assorted interested parties and named, after some tipsy debate, Upstream.  The idea is to connect authors with their local independent booksellers to offer signed books as an alternative to, say, larger and more unnerving corporate machinations. Upstream was test-piloted this summer and is now spreading steadily, like optimism or syphilis.

"How does it work?  Easily, hopefully.  Here are some numbered steps.

"1. Choose and contact a bookseller close to your home.  If you cannot find one, the good folks at Indies First, coordinated by the American Booksellers Association, can be of service.  They are quite excited about the launching of this new and hopefully enormous campaign.

"2. The bookstore will order and sell your books; you will sign them.  Perhaps you'll stop by at regular intervals with your pen, or perhaps you can convince, with cake or gin, the bookseller to come to you.

"3. Both you and the bookseller will promote this arrangement as best you can, spreading the word not only about an exciting source of signed books to your readers anywhere in the country, but about a program anyone can join. 

"Feel free to tell your publicist you're participating.  Upstream should be in full swing in time for the holidays, when signed books are good gifts for loved ones and distance acquaintances alike.

"Will Upstream rescue us all from strife and worry?  Of course not.  But the hope is that it will remind both authors and booksellers of their local, less monolithic resources, and improve general esprit de corps at a disheartening time.

"With all due respect,

"Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket"

It sounds like a great idea. I have yet to approach any of my local bookstores about it, but I plan to. It seems like a win-win proposition. It's an opportunity to have authors in the store signing books and for readers to interact with authors.

E-book sales are fine. I have nothing against them. In fact, most of the sales of my own books have come as a result of Kindle, Nook and Kobo book sales.

But as convenient as e-books are they are also impersonal. You can't sign an e-book or talk to readers.
And let's not forget. What exactly are e-books? They are a collection of computer code that we essentially lease from companies like Amazon. Think about it. You can loan your physical books to as many people as many times as you wish.

But that is not the case with e-books. You may think you own an e-book, but you really don't. If you want to loan a Kindle e-book to a friend you must make sure the person you are loaning it to is using compatible e-book software. Then you can lend it only once for 14 days--and even then, you need to belong to Amazon's "Prime Program," which costs extra.

For an author like me, another frustration with e-books is this: if everybody on a train, or bus or plane is reading an e-book, I can't tell what they are reading. There are no covers, so I don't know if they are reading one of my books (highly unlikely) or one by J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, or Stephen King. 

Finally, (and for me this may be the most important point) I like bookshelves. And I like bookshelves with lots of books sitting in them. An office or den or family room without a bookshelf filled with books seems naked to me.

Maybe that's why I like brick and mortar bookstores and why I hope they never vanish completely.
They have LOTS of bookshelves filled with books that you can pick up, handle, thumb through, take home and put in your own bookshelves.  

It's one of life's simple pleasures.