Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who's picking on Faux News?

  Ever since it became a boil on the face of news gathering, I've been waiting for someone, anyone, to truly and convincingly defend Fox News — Faux News to those of us who defend news gathering as a craft verging on a profession.

   I keep waiting and waiting. But at every opportunity the apologists for this sorry operation confirm exactly the point of its detractors: Fox is not driven by the pursuit of truth in the pure sense, that of William Allen White, James Reston and David Halberstam. Fox is interested in the numbers it can harvest by appealing to a culinary crowd that wants its news baked just so.

   From a business standpoint, you can't fault it. Indeed, at a time when the news business isn't such good business, you'd be inclined to exalt it. But let's not.

   Just as Rush Limbaugh's Arbitrons are used to justify his version of truth telling — you know, let the market decide if a man is a visionary or a circus buffoon — so, too, with Fox News. The ratings don't lie. And neither would Fox. It's all about news. The spin is over there. You know, elsewhere.

    It's a fascinating proposition. Only Fox is committed to truth, say its fans, while the networks and the "mainstream media" are a liberal cabal. That kind of statement should cause any rational person to cock an eyebrow.

     When I hear that only Fox can be trusted, the needle on my mental polygraph starts to scrawl the name of Edward R. Murrow in my frontal lobe. What a crock. The "only" part is what betrays the crockery. You can object to what ABC does from time to time. You can deride CBS on this or that. You might think the New York Times blew it here or there. But nobody gets it right every time, except apparently Fox News. It's the only news source we can trust, or so I'm told.

     Actually, all we can trust it to be is of the slant Rupert Murdoch said it would provide at its inception — an alternative to the liberal media. Slanted, and proud of it, and ringing up the profits because of it.

     Barack Obama and his team are calling Fox's hand on this matter. And what is wrong with that? If Fox can call itself a news organization, the White House can call it a partisan propaganda machine. Free speech. Yes? Free association, too. The White House says it will be less inclined to play into Fox's numbers game than it might be in dealing with actual news organizations that didn't get into the news business to play semantics games.

      We report; you decide? It depends.

      Charles Krauthammer, slamming Obama for what his spokespeople have said about Fox, says that what's at issue is that Fox is one media outlet that's not cowed by him. It's being punished, he says, for holding the president accountable. This argument might hold water if it applied in any sense to the previous administration and the flag lapel-pin legions stirring the pot over at Fox for a war that never would have been waged had the truth been known about its pretexts.

       For sure, Fox was not the only entity in parade regalia. The New York Times was used by the Bush administration like few others in history. For too long ABC, NBC and CBS were mute about pre-war claims that turned out to be flotsam. But nobody beat the drum for war like Faux News. So, Mr. Krauthammer. When you say this news organization is the one ("the only one") to challenge the president, you'd better be specific about which president.

       I said I keep waiting for defenders to actually offer a defense for Fox News, but they always end up agreeing with the point made by those of us who see it with disdain. At some point, after prosecuting the idea that it really is a news organization and a good one, they invariably end up saying, in effect, " We need Fox, because it gives us what the liberal media won't."

   My point. Obama's point. Folks, we know you're watching and listening. Are you listening to yourselves?

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Not my idea of 'Texan'

    I remember being at many enjoyable places with my grandfather, M.K. Young. But I knew his favorite place, regardless of locale: the fence line.
   Wherever he was, he went to the stranger next door. Whatever the circumstance, he struck up a conversation. In the campground. In a son's neighborhood. At a roadside stop. It was his way. I came to think of it as the Texan way.
   "Friendship" is Texas' motto. I long considered that to mean welcoming, quick to shake a hand, slow to cast aspersions or to harp on divisive distinctions.
   In most ways the state has held up to that in my estimation. Yet some ways . . .
    Texas has begun a governor's race that, before it officially was a race, was already as mean as they come. The incumbent, banking on the grumpiness of 39 percent of the general election voters last go-around, seeks to lock in the same bloc in the Republican primary. Rick Perry says Kay Hutchison isn't conservative enough. Look, he says: Back in the '70s she didn't support Ronald Reagan for president. She supported the incumbent president, Gerald Ford. Egads. Her camp points out that Perry, at the time a Democrat, was Al Gore's Texas chairman in 1988.
    Sad to say, Texas has modeled a lot of mean. In 1994, Republicans promoting George W. Bush for governor sparked a whisper campaign questioning Ann Richards' allegiance to the heterosexual world. About the same time, agents of the religious right took over the state school board with gay-baiting smears and assertions that their foes would order schools to hand out condoms.
      In Waco, a bitter battle raged for years at Baylor University over the direction of President Robert Sloan. His idea of "intentional Christianity" in the classroom alarmed and alienated many God-fearing educators, and chased some away, while drawing others so inclined. Sloan is gone. Efforts to produce regimentation and to enforce group think are not.
     The Baylor regents are trying to force the Baylor Alumni Association to give up its independence and meld with the university. What is portrayed as a gesture of reconciliation amid a lingering philosophical conflict, many in the association see as a hostile takeover.
     This may sound like one of those arcane "Baptist things." It's not. Indeed, the issue is as fundamental as free speech. The association, which oozes love for the university and its traditions, also has a publication, the Baylor Line, which is not afraid to air the controversies surrounding the institution. Shutting up the Line and making the association a regent mouthpiece is what this is about. Though they could jeopardize future relations with Baylor, the alumni aren't caving.
     In recent years the association and the university reached an understanding to allow them to coexist as separate but supporting players, and to agree to disagree from time to time. The regents appear to have decided that so much as a speck of disagreement is a speck too much.
     In a commentary in Baylor's student paper, The Lariat, immediate past student body president Bryan Fonville noted the role an independent alumni association played in Baylor's audacious move in the 1990s to proclaim autonomy from the Texas Baptist General Convention. Those were the days when independence and intellectual integrity were paramount for Baylor.
     At some point in subsequent years, what became paramount was a test of fealty to a ruling clique. Either you were with "them" or you didn't support Baylor. (Sounding a lot like a certain Texas-spawned presidential administration and its divisive rhetoric.)
     I see in a university, or a state, what my grandfather saw in a neighborhood: a community of shared interests and collegial differences. To discuss isn't to tear down. To differ isn't to denounce. To agree that we can disagree is the definition of neighborliness, as is ending a conversation with an outstretched hand.
     That's what Texan means to me. You?
      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

‘Didn’t go there to fight a war’

   This nation still can't decide if war is a joint responsibility we all share, or if it's something we hire out, like catering.

    Eight years in Afghanistan, six in Iraq, and we still treat warfare as just one of many service industries.

    The Bush administration ban on photographing coffins returning home from war, since lifted by this administration, was explained as being a nod to grieving families. But if war is a communal experience, as it once was, we are all the grieving family. The photo ban was a not-so-subtle gesture that war as waged today is a business in the proprietary sense, and only remotely our business.

     With the invasion of Iraq, having an all-volunteer fighting force made it possible to make warfare a speculative exercise rather than an act of necessity.

      Then the massive role of contractors further distanced the average American from the notion of war as something we do, rather than something for which we simply get billed. And, on that note, all we did was borrow to pay for it, and pass the note to future generations.

     Now a gripping account in the Los Angeles Times brings to mind how detached we have become to the military actions we have waged. T. Christian Miller reports on the plight of a contract worker, maimed by a roadside bomb in Iraq while driving a truck for KBR. He came home to marginal medical support and virtual anonymity, though his sacrifices and risks were equal to any in uniform.      

     More than 1,600 civilian workers, U.S. employees though not all Americans, have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

     "Many of the civilians have come home as military veterans in all but name, sometimes  with lifelong disabilities but without the support network available to returning troops," writes Miller.

      The contractor force represents tens of thousands of people, mostly Americans, hired to do any number of things in these war zones.

      In this endeavor, they are much like the temps who have helped corporate America get the job done without the benefits of full-time workers.

      Sure, the pay doesn't fit into that comparison. In most cases contractors' salaries are scandalously high compared to what we pay military personnel.

        However, the point: These are people we send to prosecute a war, to secure and occupy nations, and — who are they? Are they accountable to us? Are we accountable to them?

       The example of Blackwater Security, which so and so outraged the world that it legally changed its name — say hello to Xe — should have told us what is wrong with our propensity to hand over military functions to nonmilitary entities.

        Comments by the wife of the severely wounded KBR contract worker profiled in the Times are telling. Indeed, they speak for a nation which thought that in invading Iraq it was simply doing some international fumigating. We would take out a tyrant and then excuse ourselves along a trail of rose petals.

        "He didn't go over there to fight a war," said Linda Lane, whose husband Reggie came back with one less arm and permanent brain injuries. "He went over there because [KBR] said, 'You'll have armed guards. They promised big money. 'You'll be protected. No problem."

        Yes, and Iraqi oil would pay for the whole thing.

        Of all the things-not-to-do as modeled in Iraq — failure to acknowledge age-old blood feuds, failure to prevent looting after the fall of Baghdad, failure to scope out the magnitude of securing a country the size of California in a power void — none approached the failure to treat this as an actual war, rather than something possibly on a video screen.

      As they rolled off to war, I wonder how many of the 18- to 20-somethings in the tanks and personnel carriers harbored recollections of  "Adventures of GI Joe," the popular TV cartoon series of their youth. In it, gunfire was ceaseless, and harmless, kicking up sand and melting into the backdrop. It was the kind of war anyone would sign up to fight.

    Likely most of them knew they weren't embarking on that, a cartoon show. What were we thinking?    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.







Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The high cost of decomposing

  I still prefer to be barbecued. Or broiled —  however it is that my remains can be reduced to the kind of dusty nutrient that makes fields and ravines grow greener.

  If it can't be the Viking way — by floating pyre — let my bones retire the cremation way.

  That doesn't mean that folks promoting a new, back-to-nature form of burial haven't got my attention and admiration. The same goes for local governments that are making it possible. For some unfathomable reason, their numbers are few.

   Fort Collins, Colo., the new city of my residence, is one of the nation's first to facilitate so-called green funerals — burials in which the body truly is committed to the soil with or without preservatives, and in a container that will decompose along with it. Hear, hear. Let a thousand flowers bloom with this approach to dying and decomposition.

    Fort Collins has set aside a one-acre section of a city cemetery for people to be buried without a vault or embalming. Burial could take place in a shroud or a cardboard container. The city director of cemeteries told the Denver Post, "We're basically going back to the 1860s." It's about time.

   The section in the Roselawn Cemetery won't be treated like the rest. It will be seeded with wildflowers and left to act like fertile ground, as opposed to compartments with sod roofs. Plots will have unobtrusively small granite markers.

   Burial will be allowed in nothing more than, say, a favorite robe or a Broncos stadium blanket, if a grieving clan can bear to part with it.

   People who promote green funerals do so not only because it suits their eco-sense. They also do it because the approach is dramatically less expensive than standard practice. And let's face it. Per benefit to all concerned, living or dead, few services are less cost-effective than the prototypical American funeral. I mean, compare your average mortal sendoff to your average tailgate party. On which would you want to plunk down good inheritance?

    However, imagine: a funeral that doesn't require a coffin, average price: $2,000 (with copper and brass caskets,  $10,000 and beyond.) Imagine not needing a crypt and traditional cemetery plot. Embalming? Optional, of course. (Fort Collins didn't require it anyway.)      

    The city has yet to arrive at a price for the plots to be used.

    Admittedly, a "green" cemetery would take a little more ongoing maintenance than the traditional cemetery, where all the work is done at the front end. A cemetery without vaults naturally has settling at each plot, so staff will have to bolster each of them.

     As for other concerns about being buried the way our forefathers were laid to rest, much of it is bunk.

     The reason for burying people the way we do it is to maintain a nice, tidy surface at the cemetery near you.

     Creeping water tables? A grave would have to be quite deep to have such a thing come into play. Fort Collins' new section will have the bodies under two feet of soil.

     Microbial concerns? Ashes to ashes, nutrients to nutrients. Ultimately, we're all compost. Let Mother Earth welcome us back.

     No, I haven't convinced myself to forgo the furnace. I like the idea of what's left of me wafting in an alpine breeze from a precipitous rock formation.

   But in the contingency that I live so long that mankind runs out of kindling or fossil fuels to light 'er up: Make it cardboard and a green burial for me, dear inheritors.

   John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.