Monthly Archives: January 2009

‘Obstinately Persisting…”

Interesting word:

perverse

SYLLABICATION: per·verse

PRONUNCIATION:   pr-vûrs, pûrvûrs

ADJECTIVE: 1. Directed away from what is right or good; perverted. 2. Obstinately persisting in an error or fault; wrongly self-willed or stubborn. 3a. Marked by a disposition to oppose and contradict. b. Arising from such a disposition. 4. Cranky; peevish.

(From “The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.”)

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‘They Did Not Care’

One of the things that has preoccupied me this month, as I look back from its tail end:

Early the morning of New Year’s Day, a police officer with BART, the local rapid transit agency, shot and killed an unarmed man who was lying face down on a station platform. Even if you live clear across the country, you might have heard about the case. One element made it sensational: dozens of train passengers and other bystanders witnessed the shooting, and several, at least, were recording the scene on cellphones or other video devices. And one more factor added to outrage over what looks like an unprovoked shooting: the cop was white and the victim was black.

So, the past month has been marked by a slow and possibly botched investigation, the refusal of the police officer to answer any questions about what he did or why, multiple street protests that on one occasion turned into a riot in downtown Oakland, a murder charge, and today, finally, the first hint of an explanation for what the cop did.

The police officer, named Johannes Mehserle, was in court for a bail hearing yesterday. Beforehand, his lawyer filed a motion that described some of the events on the BART platform when the shooting took place. The story is simple: Mehserle and a fellow officer were having trouble subduing Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old they were trying to arrest for resisting arrest (one of my favorite circular-logic law-enforcement scenarios). Mehserle decided to use his recently issued Taser on Grant. He mistakenly pulled his semi-automatic pistol and fired a shot that killed Grant. Or maybe the story isn’t so simple: Mehserle reportedly told another officer that he shot Grant because he thought Grant was reaching for a gun.

The judge at the hearing granted bail of $3 million after noting that Mehserle’s story contained some serious inconsistencies. He’s not out of jail yet, and he has a prelminary hearing set in March. Sooner or later, he’ll be tried for some manner of homicide — either murder, as now alleged, or manslaughter.

The defense bail motion consists of nuggets picked out of about 700 pages of “discovery” — mostly interviews with witnesses and other police officers. It’s a document meant to show Mehserle in the most positive possible light so that the judge might see that justice might only be served by turning him loose on bail. My favorite tidbit in the motion’s Mehserle biography is this: “Mr. Mehserle enjoys music and has played the electric and acoustic guitars since age 14. He plays blues, jazz and rock and roll.”

The motion also tries to set the scene on the BART platform before the shooting. Other BART officers describe people screaming and swearing and advancing menacingly. Grant was cursing the cops and defying an order to sit until a BART officer struck him twice in the face. Here’s the situation as one officer recounted it:

Domenici stated she has been in other situations like Raiders games and has handled large amount of crowds. But the crowd on New Year’s Eve night was not a typical crowd. She stated everybody on the train was “out of control” and that it was “just too much.” Domenici stated the crowd did not care and was not concerned with authority figures. “They did not care what we represented as law enforcement figures. The people did not care that we were police officers.”

Domenici said, “You do what you’re trained to do and try to control the situation. But when people are not listening to you, knowing you are in full uniform and you are in authority, and they keep coming at you … I was afraid. I was afraid for my life and the officers’ lives. I kept thinking ‘I need to protect us.’ ‘I need to protect us.’ There’s all these people coming at us, not listening to us. I was afraid for my life and the other officers there. It just seemed like an eternity. We could not control the scene at all.”

I’m happy to say that except for the once of twice I’ve had an officer pull a gun and point it at me, I’ve had a mostly friendly, cooperative relationship with the police. I’ve talked to them as part of my work, I’ve been more than willing to do my part as a citizen and call them when I’ve seen a possible crime in progress, and I’ve never hesitated to call them when I need their help.

But I’m also acquainted with the fact not everyone has such a trusting feeling toward law enforcement. For lots of people–people who don’t live on a quiet little street in Berkeley, people who may be poor, who live in neighborhoods full of violent crime, who fit a certain suspect profile–law enforcement represents something else.

In fact, I can imagine there are those who see police officers, the representatives of law enforcement, as a class of people who believe their uniform confers authority and should command not only respect, but unquestioning obedience; whose default responses to resistance are threat and force; and who seem to believe that their own behavior ought to be tolerated as part of the price of keeping order.

[In case you’re curious: The Mehserle Bail Motion]

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Let’s Bake a Cake

Some of the many confectionary tributes arriving at the Blagojevich household in the last couple of days:

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chokeonit.jpg

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[By way of the Cake Writing Generator, with a nod to Marie.]

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A Dull Boy

So here are some of the things that make Jack a dull, or at least non-blogging, boy:

–All work and no play, as so persuasively documented elsewhere.

–A website-building project for a friend, which involves hours and hours of staring into this little laptop screen and plenty of tinkering with “code.” I’m in maybe the 2nd percentile of the code-literate world, but it can be both satisfying and numbing to embark on a day of web-browser trial and error.

–Paying bills. Amazing that that still brings a feeling of having done something.

–Two or three busy weeks at work, what with some new president in office and a local police force making news by killing an unarmed, unresisting man in front of a bunch of people with cellphone cameras running.

–And then there’s the matter of working at a place where layoffs are imminent. My own fate is unclear, but that’s almost — almost, I said — beside the point. Since I left the then-secure world of unionized newsroom employment in mid-90s, I’ve lost count of the number of layoffs I’ve seen firsthand. I’ve had a hand in laying off hundreds of people myself, and even had one of the laid-off people challenge me to a fight. I’ve been laid off myself. Having seen the process close up from different vantage points, I’m only sure that the process is never clean or humane and rarely competently handled. So yeah, that’s on my mind.

–Neglecting my various communication duties. And no, I’m not counting Facebook or Twitter as “communication.”

All for now. Even a dullard needs his sleep.

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Rooftop

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Finally got around to taking down the “Christmas” lights this afternoon. Late this afternoon. By the time I was done it was getting dark. This is the view to the southwest after a showery, drizzly day that seems to have given way tonight to some clear skies.  

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I Look This Stuff Up, So You Don’t Have To

I read a piece in The New York Times in the last couple of weeks that suggested a common sense way of doing — what would you call it? — historical lexicography, maybe. Or in plain English: investigating when certain words and terms came into common use.

Here’s the technique: Go to Google Books, then search on your term. Sift through the pile of results until you get a rough sense of the earliest references. It gives an approximation of when terms appeared — sort of a quick and easy way of what the Oxford English Dictionary’s researchers and informants have been doing for more than a century in tracking down words to their original uses and contexts.

As I said, you’ll have to sift through a lot of results to get an idea of when your word or phrase appeared, though Google helps with an advanced search that lets you look for publications by date. For me, anyway, the sifting is part of the fun.

I’m curious about when the idea of “ethics in journalism” or “journalism ethics” gained currency. I’m not surprised to find lots written about it, including works that deal with the invention of journalism ethics, published in the last ten, twenty, thirty years. Searching for stuff written before 1970, I find a 1922 essay in the International Journal of Ethics, “Journalism, Ethics, and Common Sense.” It starts:

“Several books and many articles have been published lately on the far from fresh subject of journalistic ethics–r rather the lack of ethical standards and principles in contemporary journalism. Some writers have not hesitated to indict the entire newspaper business or profession on such charges as deliberate suppression of certain kinds of news, distortion of news actually published, studied unfairness toward certain classes, political organizations, and social movements, systematic catering to powerful groups of advertisers, brazen and vicious faking and reckless disregard of decency, proportion, and taste for the sake of increased profits. Other writers have been more moderate and have recognized that there are three species of newspapers–good, intelligent, honest newspapers, morally pernicious and intellectually contemptible newspapers, and colorless, indifferent, innocuous newspapers.”

I want to go further back. Here’s an entry for a 1918 publication, “Statistics of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities,” from the United States Office of Education. There’s a chapter that recounts the history of journalism instruction in colleges. The first mention of “ethics in journalism” comes in conjunction with the first formal journalism degree program, which opened at the University of Missouri in 1908.

But I flip back through the pages to the beginning of the chapter, for the story of how journalism education got started in the United States. I’m amazed who I find there.

Text not available

(Washington and Lee’s Department of Journalism says this about the program’s inception: “To help rebuild a shattered South, the college developed several new programs; among them were agricultural chemistry, business and journalism. It is not clear how many young men, if any, actually received the scholarships that Washington College widely advertised, but it is certain that the program lasted only a few years.” A permanent school was established in the 1920s.)
The Office of Education’s account includes the warm welcome Lee’s idea was accorded by the doyens of the profession. “Frederic Hudson, the managing director of the New York Herald, when asked, ‘Have you heard of the proposed training school for journalists?’ promptly replied, ‘Only casually in connection with Gen. Lee’s college and I can not see how it could be made very serviceable. Who are to be the teachers? The only place where one can learn to be a journalist is in a great newspaper office. “
That reaction puts me in mind of what I still hear from long-time journalists; except now they’re all for journalism education, and they’re decrying all this online stuff that’s breaking down their walls and their bottom lines.
(And as to the original question: the earliest instance I can find of “journalism ethics” — actually “ethics of journalism” — is 1846.)

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Quality Control

It all too often comes to the attention of the management here that typos, wrong words, random omissions and a variety of other gaffes make it into what passes for the finished product here. Don't hesitate to point them out to the proprietor. He makes no pretense to perfection but would still like to think he can get things right eventually. Your assistance in this matter is appreciated.

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Inaugural History

A joint project by a friend, Chicago artist MK Czerwiec, and me: “Great Moments in Inaugural Address History.” Let me explain about joint project: I suggested the idea and did some research; MK did all the heavy lifting of making the art happen. (Click for larger view.)

InaugurationFinal.jpg

Copyright 2009 MK Czerwiec. All rights reserved.

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Notebook

Some people who would have loved to see this day: Mom and her brothers, all of them. South Side Irish, acutely aware that there was something wrong in the racial situation around them and all determined to a greater or lesser extent to do something about it. Bill — Bill Hogan — gave his life to the cause, Mom found a purpose in the civil rights struggle at moments when her own life was nearly unbearably difficult, and the rest gave what they could. They would be thrilled today. And one other person I'm thinking about: my mentor and our old family friend Max McCrohon. He would have loved this, too.

Dueling ministers: Rick Warren, the Southern California evangelical who gave the inaugural invocation, cut right to the heart of what makes my skin crawl about conservative Christians. His first words: "Almighty God, our father, everything we see and everything we can’t see exists because of you alone." I guess if you're in the god business, that's the position you've got to take. And Warren himself, may the fairy sprites and trickster spirits of the world bless him, talks about the need to build bridges rather than walls with faith. But this particular brand of straight-laced "our way is The Way" preaching, this sort of Christian certainty, bespeaks an openness that's only open as long as you embrace it. Much more to my taste was the Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction, which began with lyrics from the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing" [not "Lift Every Voice and Thing," as I earlier wrote] and ended:

"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen. Say Amen. And Amen."

More later, maybe.

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January

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What the drought looks like: clear sky, a touch of green on the hills, and bone-dry trails. This was at the top of the Seaview Trail in Tilden Park, in the hills above Berkeley, this afternoon. That’s Mount Diablo in the slightly dirty distance. Met dozens of people out walking — more than I ever recall seeing on the trail at once (one reason: it climbs a good 600 or 800 feet from the nearest parking areas, which are more than a mile from the top). We’ve had less than half an inch of rain this month, the month that’s usually the heart of the wet season.

Winter’s happening somewhere. Here and here and here. But not here where I am.

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