Saturday, July 27, 2013

Editorial: Big Business Drives ‘Stand Your Ground’

Racial divisions exposed by the trial of George Zimmerman for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida plays into the interests of the corporate sponsors of the Stand Your Ground laws. Paranoia over gun rights and the threat of hoodie-clad black youths running wild have helped the corporate fearmongers carve off a generation of former Democrats, particularly in the South, and lure them to a new home in the Republican Party, regardless of the corporations’ sociopathic positions on their economic well-being.

Texas may have been the proving ground for the potency of gun rights when George W. Bush and Karl Rove seized Gov. Ann Richard’s opposition to a bill allowing concealed weapons licenses on demand and turned it into a wedge issue in 1994. With the assault weapons ban enacted by the Democratic Congress that year, Republicans, with help from the National Rifle Association, depicted the Democrats as gun grabbers, which proved a potent slur in rural Texas. The GOP toppled Richards and longtime Congressman Jack Brooks of Beaumont, Texas, a 42-year veteran who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, as well as House Speaker Tom Foley in Washington and 52 other House Democrats and nine Democratic senators to win control of both houses of Congress. Republicans also closed the gap with Democrats in the Texas Legislature.

In 1995, the Texas Legislature, with Democrats still in a narrow majority in both chambers, passed the concealed handgun license bill and changed the state’s “castle doctrine” law to allow deadly force against a person who unlawfully entered a house, “regardless of whether a reasonable person would have retreated.” It also provided an “affirmative defense” to civil suit, making it more difficult to sue the defender for damages in cases where the intruder actually posed no threat.

The Democrats’ retreat on gun bills didn’t stop the Republican tide, as the GOP finally gained control of the state Senate in 1996, though Democrats held the House until 2002. But Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994 and a savage gerrymandering once Republicans got control in 2003 under the direction of US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay banished many of the remaining white Democratic incumbents into unelectable districts. Since then, it’s all Texas Democrats can do to muster more than one-third of the members of each legislative chamber to stop a constitutional amendment or break a quorum.

The gun rights movement escalated in 2005 with the “Stand Your Ground” bill in Florida. The NRA promoted the right to use deadly force outside the home without any requirement to retreat from a dangerous situation, arguing that it was needed to provide immunity to gunmen who confronted threatening individuals.

The Stand Your Ground legislation was sponsored by Florida state Rep. Dennis Baxley and state Sen. Durell Peadon, both Republican allies of Gov. Jeb Bush. It was enacted with bipartisan support by the Republican-controlled Legislature and quickly signed by Bush, who called it a “commonsense” approach to making the citizenry safer. But it’s not as if nobody predicted that the law could have unintended consequences. Miami police chief John F. Timoney called the law unnecessary and dangerous. “Whether it’s trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn’t want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you’re encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn’t be used,” Timoney told the New York Times at the time. There also were explicit and repeated warnings that people of color and young people would be unreasonably and disproportionately harmed by the law.

Florida state Sen. Steve Geller (D) warned that the Stand Your Ground law ran the risk of encouraging Floridians to think that “you ought to be able to kill people that are walking toward you on the street because of this subjective belief that you’re worried that they may get in a fight with you.”

As soon as the bill was signed into law in Florida, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said the pro-gun organization would use the victory to promote the law everywhere.

Within weeks, a proposed statute with almost the exact working of the Florida law was adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). That’s a conservative network funded by the Koch Brothers and major corporations such as Altria (formerly Philip Morris), AT&T, Bayer, ExxxonMobil, GlaxoSmithKline, Peabody Energy, Pfizer, PhRMA (the drug lobby), Reynolds American, State Farm Insurance and UPS, among others, that brings together right-wing legislators with corporate interests and pressure groups to craft so-called “model legislation”

For the most part, John Nichols noted at The Nation, ALEC’s model legislation is designed to ease taxes and regulations for corporations, while weakening unions and undermining tort laws. But the council also dabbles in electoral and public safety issues.

Only a few months after Bush signed the Florida law, NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer worked with NRA operatives and friendly legislators on ALEC’s “Criminal Justice Task Force” to develop a new piece of Stand Your Ground model legislation for passage in states across the country. (For more on ALEC see

According to Mother Jones, 25 states have passed Stand Your Ground laws, which critics also call “shoot first” laws. In Florida, we all now know that a defendant doesn’t have to prove he acted in self-defense — the prosecution has to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the killer didn’t fear for his life, which is a very high bar to clear — particularly when the only other witness is dead.

In Florida, the number of so-called “justifiable homicides” tripled in the five years after Jeb Bush signed the Stand Your Ground Law, the Tampa Bay Times reported Oct. 10, 2010. For the first half of the decade, the state counted an average of 34 justifiable homicides a year. In 2007, it logged 102. In 2008, 93. In 2009, 105. And the first six months of 2010, 44.

Backers of Stand Your Ground laws claim they result in lower crime rates, but a Texas A&M University study in June 2012 found that Stand Your Ground laws have the opposite effect.

“In contrast, we find significant evidence that the laws increase homicides,” wrote Mark Hoekstra, associate professor of economics, and Cheng Cheng, a doctoral student. They found evidence that castle doctrine laws increase “justifiable homicides” by private citizens by 17 to 50 percent, which translates into as many as 50 additional justifiable homicides per year nationally due to castle doctrine. “More significantly, we find the laws increase murder and manslaughter by a statistically significant 7 to 9 percent, which translates into an additional 500 to 700 homicides per year nationally across the states that adopted castle doctrine.

“Thus, by lowering the expected costs associated with using lethal force, castle doctrine laws induce more of it. This increase in homicides could be due either to the increased use of lethal force in self-defense situations, or to the escalation of violence in otherwise non-lethal conflicts. We suspect that self-defense situations are unlikely to explain all of the increase, as we also find that murder alone is increased by a statistically significant 6 to 11 percent.”

Of course, corporations aren’t really interested in increasing the number of homicides or fomenting a race war. What they want are legislatures they can bend to their will, and Stand Your Ground laws are one of many means to that end. As long as pandering gun laws not only sell more guns but also help elect Republican legislators and governors who appoint regulators who keep their hands off businesses, ALEC and the NRA will keep promoting them.

The best revenge for Trayvon Martin’s death would be to make sure every 18-year-old black and Latino youth is registered to vote and has a photo ID to make it past the GOP vote-suppression teams next year. (Make sure your white friends are registered, too, but clue them in about who their real enemies are. And it’s not 17-year-old kids with tea and Skittles.) — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2013
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Selections from the August 15, 2013 issue

Friday, July 26, 2013

Smarmy eHarmony commercial brings Big Brother into the bedroom

By Marc Jampole

Do Americans want a “Big Brother” figure involved in their intimate relationships?

That’s what, one of the largest dating sites in the world, seems to be saying in a commercial that has been airing for many months now.

The imagery is a bit smarmy, because it suggests a wholesome threesome involving a man and a woman and a sage-looking elderly gentleman, who happens to be founder, Neil Clark Warren.

Here are the three vignettes that visually dominate this 30-second ad:
  1. A man gives a woman an engagement ring and the woman shows it to Warren who says, “We took the platinum setting.”
  2. A man and woman are getting cozy on a couch, about ready to watch TV when Warren sits down between and the woman offers him a large bowl of popcorn and starts munching.
  3. At the beach, a woman gives a man a drink with a little hat or umbrella in it and turns to her other side and gives a drink to Warren.
In all three, Warren has intruded on a romantic moment, making it a kind of ménage a trois.

Meanwhile, the voice over makes a completely grandiose and mendacious claim: “Chances are behind every great relationship is”  Let’s take a moment for the meaning of this statement to sink in: “Chances are” means probably or almost definitely. The explicit statement here is that is responsible for all great relationships (at least between men and women). Even if we believe the website when it says that a recent Harris Interactive survey found that an eHarmony match led to almost 4% of all U.S. marriages in 2012, that’s a long way from “every great relationship.” It’s also worth pointing out that not every great marriage involves a great relationship. The claim in the TV ad goes far beyond exaggeration. It’s an outright lie.

More disturbing than this false claim, which most will easily see as self-serving puffery, is the hidden message that eHarmony makes by injecting its founder—a white male dressed in a traditional formal suit—into the happy relationships it shows in the ad.  It’s an authoritarian symbol. It’s one thing to use eHarmony and its questionnaire as a tool to sort potential mates.  As a sort mechanism, it probably works as well as bar-hopping, joining singles clubs, asking friends for fix-ups, taking cruises, using personal ads or going to adult activities such as Scrabble clubs and singles nights at the symphony.  But the ad is not just saying, use us as a tool. It’s saying: interject us—as represented by our founder—into your life and your relationship. Let our “29 dimensions of compatibility” be your guide, your guru, your teacher, an integral part of the relationship with your significant other.

As many OpEdge readers probably know already, Warren is a Christian theologian who first marketed the eHarmony dating site on Christian websites and in other Christian media, touting eHarmony as “based on the Christian principles of Focus on the Family author Dr. Neil Clark Warren.”  EHarmony claims to be secular and now advertises everywhere, but think about it: Isn’t one of the main principles of many right-wing Christian denominations and Catholicism that god is part of the marriage, almost a third person in the relationship. Whether taken on a literal or figurative level, “god in the marriage” represents both the person of god and the principles of action that supposedly lead us to god. One traditional image of god is as a wise old man. Moreover, a genial grandfatherly man has served as an image for pastors, rectors, priests and other figures of religious authority figures for centuries.

The hidden message of the ad then is that eHarmony will bring god (or the religious and ethical values god represents) into the relationship.  The assumption, of course, is that the god in question is Christian.

It’s all done so fast—three story lines, a voice over and all that feel-good gospel pop music in the background. Like all TV commercials, it goes by so quickly that we are unaware or only vaguely aware of the subliminal messages. But make no mistake about it—the ad is meant to appeal to those who want someone to tell them what to do, who to love, how to get it right. Warren and his 29 dimensions of compatibility are a stand-in for an authoritarian, right-wing church.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Anthony Weiner’s lack of judgment makes him unqualified to serve as Mayor of New York

By Marc Jampole

At the end of the day, what any politician does in his or her private life should not matter in considering his or her qualifications. None of us are without sin, and one would want one trait of any leader to be continued intellectual and spiritual growth from youth through old age. When the news media ignores past peccadilloes, it does the country a great service.

The only time the past matters is when the candidate or elected official was a hypocrite, broke an important law or showed a character trait that makes him or her unqualified to serve. Hypocrisy covers such diverse figures as Senator Larry Craig, a vocal homophobe caught soliciting men in a men’s room, and Elliot Spitzer, who prosecuted others for hiring prostitutes and then indulged in a high-priced hooker. Breaking the law covers Watergate, and should have covered the Iran-Contra arms deal and creating a torture gulag across the globe.

But in the case of Anthony Weiner, the issue is his character.

Hearing and seeing his apologies to his wife and the world on every media outlet over a 12-hour period made me think of my deceased father. He had so many ways of telling my brother and me to learn from our experiences.  He had his three mythic men—the wise one learned from the mistakes of others, the average one learned from his own mistakes and the dummy never learned.

Then there was his old saw, “Fool me once, your fault. Fool me twice, my fault.”

Even his favorite joke about the old and young bulls standing on a hillside overlooking a pasture full of cows was about experience, for when the old bull suggested they walk down the hill, it always sounded as if he had tried running in the past.

Weiner did not learn from his mistake.  After being publicly chastised and publicly chastising himself for behaving like a high school freshman while humiliating his wife, he did it again.

I’m not saying Weiner is stupid. I’m sure he’s a very bright guy. But the fact that he committed the same social folly (which, by the way, was likely not criminal and really a private matter) after saying it was wrong suggests a compulsive personality under the sway of his emotions. If he had not resigned, if he had said, “It’s my business and I did nothing illegal,” then doing it again would not be as problematic. It would merely be the sign of a juvenile mind and perhaps a partially open marriage—permission to do 21st -century flirting. But he said it was wrong and he took his own job away—and then he engaged in the same behavior again. That’s an obsession and that’s an obsessive personality. That’s someone who can become out of control.

Weiner expects us to take his word for it that he’s over that kind of behavior, that he’s grown up or been therapized. But the events in question are only a few years ago.  It’s too soon to tell if he’s over his compulsive online sexual flirting or if he’s merely taking a break.  Or maybe he has replaced his sexting with other actions that he or many people find reprehensible. Worst of all—and also perhaps most likely—the obsessive part of his latest scandal may carry over into other parts of his life and negatively affect his judgment and actions as Mayor of New York City.

Weiner should leave the race for Mayor of New York.  He has demonstrated that he has a character flaw that leaves him unfit for leading and managing our nation’s largest city.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Concentration of news origination can lead to repeated errors in media

By Marc Jampole
At first glance it looks as if Americans have an abundance of news sources at their fingertips—at least the majority of us with easy access to the Internet. But as other public relations professionals may have noticed, sources of real news have shrunk substantially.  Most of the news we see is repackaged from other sources, sometimes as a news story and sometimes with the spin of opinion attached.

A few years back, the Pew Research Center conducted an in-depth analysis of news reporting in one city, Baltimore, which found that daily newspapers are responsible for 50% of all original news reporting. Most of the local media would pick up stories from the local newspaper or from wire services. Today there are fewer wire services, but most significantly, there are many fewer daily newspapers and those still around have fewer reporters in search of original news.

As consumers of news, we easily and naturally overlook how concentrated the sources of news generation have become in recent years. As a public relations professional, though, I frequently see the results of news concentration. The other day it led to many news stories that were completely inaccurate and had the potential of harming the reputation of a very effective and responsible social service organization. The funny part, though, is that at the heart of the misinformation was a reporter misinterpreting a sentence written in the passive construction. It therefore took an act of bad writing to set off a chain of misjudgments and standard practices that led to erroneous information on several TV stations and in several newspapers.

Here’s how it happened:  A child nearly drowned during swimming at a summer day camp operated by a social service agency. The child was fine and didn’t have to go to the hospital, but as is normal protocol, the social service agency reported the incident to the appropriate regulatory body. After an inspection, the regulator decided to revoke the license of the summer camp because not all the camp staff was following every safety protocol. The social service agency then decided on its own to close down the swimming programs of the other 20 some-odd summer camps it operates for a few days to do a thorough inspection of each, retrain all the staff and make sure that all the staff knew and were following all the safety protocols. Of course, a parent or two called the daily newspaper, which published an accurate report.

Unfortunately, that accurate report contained the sentence,Each camp site must be inspected and approved before it can reopen for aquatics.” Note the passive construction, which does not require the writer to tell us who is doing the inspecting and approving. In point of fact, it was the social service organization, acting on its own behalf and through no request of any regulatory agency or pressure by any other organization, which decided to close the programs and inspect. No one had been hurt, but the organization was bending over backwards to protect the children in its charge.

Unfortunately, the rewrite professional at the Associated Press (AP) did not do any research or fact-checking when he or she abridged the story into one paragraph. That one paragraph claimed that the regulatory body had closed all the camps and had to approve them before they could reopen again. To avoid the passive, the re-writer had to attribute the actions to someone, and so he or she made an assumption that it was the regulator. Wrong information, and liable to give the public a false impression of the social service agency.  

Several TV stations and many regional newspapers reprinted or read the Associated Press story during the few hours that it was posted.  The social service organization—a client of my company—called me at 10:00 at night and I had to call several local TV stations and the AP to get the story corrected. It was no problem, at all: everyone was very professional. They made the change once I had properly identified myself.  The TV stations dropped the story, because it was no longer newsworthy for TV. A regulatory body asking an organization to close down more than 20 camps is definitely newsworthy. But an organization volunteering to double-check or police itself may or may not be newsworthy; a newspaper may have room for the story, but local TV news likely won’t.

It took two and maybe three mistakes by two (or three) very reliable and professional organizations for incorrect news to get out:
  1. The social service organization and its PR counselor (my company!) may or may not have made a mistake by deciding not to distribute a news release that would have specified that it was the organization and not some regulatory body that acted. If and when to release information is the most difficult question for public relations practitioners. On the one hand, subsequent events revealed that it wasn’t much of a news story. On the other hand, if the organization had distributed a news release, it is less likely that a media outlet would have misreported he story.
  2. The writer of the original story made a mistake in style against which I often rage in print and with my staff: a passive construction that created a misleading sentence.
  3. The AP made an assumption from the passively-constructed sentence that was just inaccurate. The mistake was not taking the time to check the facts.
But let’s be clear, the harm to the organization came in not one story, but in many stories misreporting the facts. And the reason so many got it wrong is that so little original reporting is being done. Any of the TV stations or newspapers that ran the AP could have made a phone call to double-check the information (one TV station actually did call and got the story right). Yet it was not a mistake that these re-users of the AP story were making—it was business as usual.
One more proof that to a great degree, the news has become like casual dining restaurants: whichever restaurant you go to, you’ll have your choice of essentially the same menu.  The name and brand are different, and maybe one has a spicy sauce and another offers something sweet, but the contents are the same.

The same is true of hard news today. We see it everywhere, but most of the people reporting or commenting on it got the information from somewhere else. Thus whatever the brand, you’re essentially getting the same news. Try reading daily newspapers from two different cities. You’d be surprised at how many have the same stories and even the same columnists. Or consider how all the media in one region cover the same story. Yes, sometimes the liberal newspaper will spin the story one way, while the right-wing radio station will spin it another, but the facts and quotes will mostly be the same. One media outlet does the story and everyone else just accepts its version and goes from there.