The new decade

The Torrents of Gannett

When you’re someone who observes politics for a living, one of the things that you get really good at is recognizing the irony in just about every situation you come across.

So when I tell you what happened in the world of journalism today, and specifically where it happened, you’ll see why I’ve brought up the word “irony” and what it has to do with the logo pictured above.

Gannett Newspapers Inc. laid off 700 people from its Community Newspapers division. According to the folks at, which is where folks like me go when they want to get the latest information about the stuff that’s going on in the corporate offices of media corporations, that’s 2 percent of the workforce in that division.

Considering that many of these folks work in small community newspapers where the staffs weren’t all that big in the first place, there’s about to be a whole lot of speed-up going on in a whole lot of places. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute.

If that wasn’t enough, some of the folks who did remain, folks who work in places like the Star-Gazette, Gannett’s first newspaper based in Elmira, N.Y., have been asked to take a pay cut of 5 percent. The same ask has been made of the folks in Binghamton and Ithaca, which are the two towns that you have to pass through in order to get to Elmira. Considering that these folks weren’t making much money in the first place, I can only imagine what a 5 percent pay cut is going to make their checks look like.

Now how do I know that they weren’t making a whole lot of money?

Because I was once one of them.

One of my first gigs in the business was working for the Star-Gazette. I didn’t even know where Elmira was until I had to go there for my job interview. I connected with them through the Unity 1994 Convention in Atlanta, the first convention I went to as a member of the National Association of Black Journalists. After the convention, I got a call from Charlie Nutt, the publisher of the newspaper, asking me to come in for an interview.

I got the job. And got very little money. But since the cost of living there was relatively low, it didn’t hurt…much. Let’s just say that this was the period in which I really began to appreciate my ability to make homemade vegetarian spaghetti sauce.

Layoffs are becoming the only thing that you can count on in the newspaper business anymore. There’s a website called Paper Cuts that tracks them and according to that site 2,828 people were laid off in 2010 alone. Including the 700 from the Gannett bloodletting today, 928 folks have already lost their jobs in 2011, and it’s only June.

Heck, one of NABJ’s founders, Sandra Long, was laid off two weeks ago after spending 27 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer! They apparently cut her entire division. She barely got to say goodbye to her colleagues because, as it always seems to be when layoffs come these days, she was ushered out of the building.

Now don’t get me wrong. I get it. Businesses are in business to make money. That’s what they do. Them’s the rules. If a business doesn’t make money, to bankruptcy court it goes.

But there are some dynamics of business that I just don’t get. For example, here’s the truly ironic part of this whole mess, which was found at the top of the Poynter story….

“In March it was disclosed that Gannett CEO Craig Dubow received a $1.25 million cash bonus and had his salary doubled.”

You see, the 700 layoffs came after all of Gannett’s employees took furlough days (meaning days that they stayed at home and didn’t get paid for) to try and save the company money and thus their jobs.

They were rewarded with pink slips.

Dubow was rewarded with $9.4 million. (That’s double his $4.7 million salary.) Add the $1.25 million bonus, you get a dude who made over $10 million putting workers out on the street in boxes.

If you want to do the math and see how many jobs that translates into, go ahead. I’m far too angry to even try.

That’s because while I understand profit and loss, greed as a concept eludes me.

The reporters at these newspapers are still going to be expected to cover their communities, although there will be fewer of them. They’ll be expected to have things in on deadline despite having to make due with substandard equipment. They’ll be working harder and doing not only their work, but the work of the three or four colleagues they just lost. Meanwhile, the company will continue to make the kind of money that will allow them to pay one dude more than $10 million.

I mentioned the phrase “speed-up” earlier in this post. The paragraph above defines it. The phenomenon is detailed in a story in this month’s Mother Jones. The link is here:

I wonder how many people this latest speedup will cause to burn out, leave the profession, and be replaced by, well, nobody…

Meanwhile, we as Americans are probably the least informed that we have ever been as a people. We don’t know what’s going on in our world. We barely know what’s going on in our country. And because we don’t have anyone providing us with the information, we have people clamoring to see President Obama’s birth certificate because they’ve been told he’s a “secret Muslim”, people who think teachers are devils who should live in a box down by the river and teach your kids for minimum wage, and most importantly, people who believe that Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann should be within two time zones of the “red button”.

And don’t get me started on what this lack of information has done to people of color. I recently listened to a radio broadcast from talk show host Neil Bortz that advocated shooting black men because they’re “thugs”. This is a direct consequence of the lack of coverage of neighborhoods of color brought on by layoffs of the magnitude of today’s Gannett bloodletting.

I don’t know the answer here. Sometimes it’s too depressing to even think about.

I do know, however, that the answer’s gotta be within my reach.

Too bad that doesn’t help the 700 jobless folks trying to figure things out right now.

America the Aspirational

For the last five months, I’ve been unemployed.

If you’re a journalist, being unemployed, especially lately, isn’t something that’s foreign to you. It’s kind of par for the course, especially as the business contracts. But it’s still not anyone’s idea of fun. You make a lot less money with unemployment compensation than you do from a job and most of the time you find yourself without health insurance, something that as a diabetic is pretty important to me.

But while I’m technically unemployed, I’m still working pretty hard. I’m in graduate school so I have papers to write, research to do, and I’m also freelance writing, trying to learn new things and looking for a job. I’m not just sitting around eating bon-bons and watching television.

However to hear former Congressman Tom Delay tell it, I’m a welfare queen.

According to the “Dancing with the Stars” alum, collecting unemployment encourages laziness and because of this, unemployment compensation should be shortened. No extensions should be granted because extensions just allow these lazy asses to continue to sit on their butts and collect a check.

Spoken like someone who has lived in subsidized housing for a chunk of their life and made a living off of my tax dollars.

(What, you didn’t know that the White House was public housing and that Congressmen get the equivalent of a Section 8 check to help them maintain a home? Where have you been?)

The thing that pisses me off regarding Delay’s sermonizing is that it doesn’t take one very important thing into consideration: people aren’t hiring. Congress can pass as many jobs bills with as many tax cuts for businesses that hire new workers as it wants, but unless the economy improves enough to make businesses want to take advantage of these tax breaks, they’re meaningless.

Delay also doesn’t take into consideration the fact that folks are trying to do anything they can to bring money home for their families. Hell, I took the damned Census exam and have even applied for a job at Wawa.

But his attitude doesn’t surprise me. I mean hey, when you were among the group that put us in the economic mess in which we find ourselves, you’re going to spend a little time in Denialville when your handiwork and it’s consequences rear their ugly heads.

However, the main reason why Delay’s attitude doesn’t surprise me is because he’s bought into the lie that is America.

As the title of this post suggests, America, I believe, is aspirational. That means that just about everyone in this country aspires to be something other than who they are at the moment.

Part of this belief in the aspirational properties of America is the belief that if you simply work hard, do what your told, and follow the rules, you too can be ____________ (rich, famous, respected, or all of the above). Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why magazines like “People” and television shows like TMZ are so popular.

While that’s a nice theory in which to believe, it would require a lot of changes in this country for it to be actually true.

For one thing, the playing field that is America would have to be truly level. Now before my white, male readers view this as an attack on them, let me explain. When I say the field would have to be level, I’m talking about class. If you’re a rich white dude, you’ve got resources that poor white dudes don’t. Those resources can put you on the right track, even if you’re as dumb as a box of rocks.

(Insert George W. Bush joke here.)

However, if you’re poor, a person of color or a woman, the playing field that is America has some landmines for your ass. Between having to negotiate a possibly substandard school system, not having the resources you need to accomplish what you want to pull off, and being held back by either your class, race or gender (let’s just put that out there), you’re faced with having to work twice as hard to get half as far.

But while we recognize the unfairness of it all, we bust our behinds nonetheless because like all Americans, we too are aspirants. We read the same magazines and watch the same television shows. We want the Glamorous Life. Who wouldn’t?

However, some of us need a little help as we make our way up the aspirational ladder and that’s what things like unemployment and welfare represent.

It’s too bad that folks like Tom Delay would rather see folks starve while trying to reach their higher ground.

School Daze

In our capitalist society, money talks, and a lot of money practically screams.

Thanks to a pot of money that’s been put on the table by the Obama Administration, a lot of teachers in a lot of school districts are about to find out just how loud money can be, and it’ll be at the cost of their jobs.

On Monday, the school board in Central Falls, Rhode Island voted to fire all 93 of the teachers, principals, school psychologists, and other staff from the town’s lone high school because the school hasn’t met the standards set by the No Child Left Behind law.

The district decided to make this move so that they could have a shot at some of the $900 million in federal School Turnaround Grant money that the Obama Administration hopes to make available if the proposal gets through Congress.

To get this money, school districts have to agree to do one of the following things: fire the principal and at least half of the staff of a failing school; reopen the school as a charter school; or close the offending school and send the students in that school to one of the district’s better performing schools.

Guess we know which avenue the folks in Central Falls chose to take.

Now President Obama has managed to get himself in trouble with the American Federation of Teachers because he, and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have applauded the move. The AFT says that while it’s convenient to blame the teachers, moves like this are an easy fix, not a long term solution.

When I heard this story on NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, it woke me up because I kinda saw it coming.

You see, before I became your Mad Political Scientist, I was an education reporter and a teacher. It was the latter experience that kinda led to the former.

Educational policy has always interested me for two reasons: Without an education, you can’t really do anything. It’s the cornerstone for anything you might want to try be it journalism, cooking or even digging ditches.

But the second reason that I became interested in educational policy was because of how high the stakes have become. Real Estate agents market listings based on school districts and just about every politician I’ve ever met has given me the first line from the song “The Greatest Love of All”, which is “I believe the children are our future.”

(Unless the subject is paying for education. then the tune quickly changes to Public Enemy’s “I Can’t Do Nothin’ For Ya, Man.” We’ll get to that later in this post.)

In the middle of my time as an education reporter, folks started talking about serious education reform. I started having to cover things like Charter School hearings, educational standard announcements, and other things that spelled “reform” in some way or another.

But the busiest time in any education reporter’s life is when the state test scores come out. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, every state had to come up with a set of educational standards and a corresponding test to measure whether or not students were meeting them.

If your students pass the tests, you’re fine. Your school and in most cases your district get some nice bonus money. If not, you get hit with all kinds of sanctions including some of the ones mentioned earlier in this post.

While I can appreciate the trend toward making school districts and the folks contained within them accountable for what students learn, blaming the educators and the educators alone is the equivalent of putting a band aid on a gaping wound: you haven’t solved the problem and someone’s probably going to bleed to death.

I say this for two reasons: One, while politicians have no problem paying for flashy fixes like the School Turnaround Grants, they seem to have a problem giving school districts the money they need to keep things from getting to this point in the first place.

When it comes to funding, school districts are always treated like poor relations. They’re made to beg for the money they need to make sure that our kids are educated, even if these kids are dealing with stuff like poverty, homelessness, trying to figure out a new language and a life in a new country, or a developmental disability while trying to get this education. Yet, if they don’t do the job up to the standard that these tests say they should, it’s penalty time. And don’t even get me started on the whole unfunded mandate thing.

And two, the one group that seems to escape accountability in this equation is the one group that should perhaps be the most accountable of all: the parents. When I was teaching, I had kids who were in really bad shape academically and I wanted to talk with their parents about ways to solve the problem.

If I were to trip over these parents, I still wouldn’t know who the hell they were. But hey, if their kid fails English, it’s because I didn’t know how to teach, not because they weren’t helping me make sure their kid learned.

And while No Child Left Behind has created a nation of kids that can jam on a standardized test, these kids aren’t real big on independent thinking. I remember giving a test in one of my journalism classes and expecting the students to give a certain answer to a question. Because I expected them to come up with the answer themselves and not rely on a prompt for it, I had kids complain to me when I took points off.

(This is one of the dirty little secrets of some of these reforms: they scare all of the creativity out of teachers and encourage them to teach to the test, not to what these kids are going to need later.)

See this kind of stuff enough, you become as cynical as I was when I left education reporting.

So while another round of educational consultants, private educational management companies, universities, and others stand to make a killing on this latest round of “reforms”, a lot of teachers, and most importantly kids, stand to lose.

It’ll be interesting how the whole Central Falls situation shakes out. My guess is that the words “breach of contract” are going to come up. I’ll keep you posted.

Black Tea

When the subject of racism comes up, how it manifests itself depends on who is having the discussion.

If you’re in a room filled with people of color, the conversation begins with the assumption that racism exists, it has an impact on our everyday lives, and we have to negotiate it in order to do such things as work, go to school, or otherwise live our lives.

But if that room is filled with white people, the conversation changes. In White World, the assumption that racism exists isn’t a given. If it is indeed acknowledged, it is usually only in the context that it isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be because (a)People of color are doing better than they were in the bad old days of Jim Crow and (b)Well, the PRESIDENT is black now, so racism is gone.

(By the way, it amazes me how the only context in which Barack Obama is totally black is during the “racism doesn’t exist anymore” discussion.)

From the moment that Barack Obama became the first black man that we could discuss during President’s Day, folks much smarter than me knew that he was going to cause a lot of folks some mental anguish.

One of those folks was Dr. Sonya Peterson-Lewis. Peterson-Lewis is a professor of African American Studies at Temple University, and she told me that because white men would no longer be able to think of the presidency as their own exclusive club now that Obama has joined it, they’d have to make some adjustments, adjustments that they may not be able to make without manifestations of fear rearing their ugly heads.

Enter the Tea Parties.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with tax protesters doing their thing. They’re entitled to it. To say that I have serious problems with my tax dollars going to defense contractors, wars, Dick Cheney’s pension, etc. is an understatement.

But I’d never allow my protest to manifest itself by carrying a sign like this around:

If you’re a fan of President Obama, or are just afraid to see the anger that creates signs like that go to its illogical conclusion, the urge to say “Hey! This is nuts!” tends to rise up inside of you.

When it comes from people of color, the urge is easily ignored. He’s one of us. We’re supposed to say “Hey! This is nuts!”

But when it comes from a white person, especially a white man, that urge gets noticed. I had a friend who was run out of town by the Klan for acting on her urge to say “Hey! This is nuts!”, but it didn’t make as much of a noise.

Making a noise is something that Keith Olbermann has become kind of good at.

During a Special Comment on Monday night’s edition of “Countdown”, Olbermann did something that white men aren’t really big on: he talked about racism using the paradigm used by people of color. He not only assumed it existed, he called people on it.

If you missed it, here it is.

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On the one hand, I have to give Olbermann his props for understanding that we can’t get past racism if we don’t talk about it honestly. But on the other hand, watching my friend go through what she’s been through for speaking out has been an education. She’s had to move several times, has found things like dead rabbits at her door, and has yet to find a place in which she feels safe.

Hopefully, MSNBC will do a better job at protecting him than everyone from the FBI to the local police department has done with protecting my friend.

But if not, Olbermann might consider going to his next New York Yankees game strapped. I’m just sayin’…

Don’t ask, Don’t tell, Don’t make sense…

This week, thanks to a not-so-subtle request from President Barack Obama during the State of the Union address, the folks in Congress decided to have hearings related to the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

As part of those hearings, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, called for a repeal of the policy that mandates that gays and lesbians be kicked out of the military the minute they decide to come out. Shortly after the hearings, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and former Secretary of State), Colin Powell issued a statement in support.

As I watched portions of those hearings, I thought of my high school American History classes.

In 11th grade, my American History teacher at Pemberton Township High School was a dude named Mr. Cantalupo. Now, there are two things that I remember about him: one, no matter what we were actually studying in history, he found a way somehow to connect it to the Vietnam War. I don’t know what his issue was with that war, but I guess it made sense to him.

And two, an assignment he gave us that taught me something about my parents. We had to interview someone for our history class that had been through a war. World War II was preferred because it happened to be the unit we were studying at the time.

Fortunately, I knew someone who had been through World War II: my dad.

Dad and I sat down and he told me the story of how he snuck into the Army at 16, was discovered shortly after boot camp, and was taken back to his mother in Kentucky to await his 17th birthday and the chance to legally enlist.

But before the Army discovered that they had basically began training a kid to use an M-16, My dad got the chance to see up close the reception a Black man got when he said he wanted to fight for his country. He told me a story that included harassment, threats, and in some cases lynching, especially on the Southern bases.

Before former President Harry S. Truman integrated the Armed Forces, Black soldiers were segregated, given menial jobs, not allowed to advance, and were basically denied the opportunity to serve their country in the best way possible.

But hey, unlike the gays and lesbians currently serving in the military, at least they weren’t kicked out for being Black.

Now I’ve heard all of the arguments against allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. It’ll mess up unit cohesion. It’ll lead to harassment. It’s just not a good idea.

But just like the arguments that I hear when the subject of allowing gays and lesbians to get married, these arguments don’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

Let’s just deal with the unit cohesion argument because it’s the one that is most easily refutable.

When you’re in a battlefield, you tend to think of just one thing: getting off of that battlefield in one piece. My guess is that anyone you’re with on that battlefield is thinking pretty much the same thing.

Because of this reality, it makes more sense (at least to me) that if someone was harboring a secret crush on you, they’ll put it on the back burner long enough to make sure that you both make it home. If that’s not unit cohesion, I don’t know what is.

Also, most of the folks that we’re kicking out of the military due to their sexual orientation are just the folks we need right now: folks that can translate Arabic. You remember Arabic, don’t you? The language that the folks who are coming after us in the War on Terror speak? The one that we don’t understand?

Yeah, Arabic.

At a time when we need folks who are actually willing to fight for their country, we really can’t afford to continue letting folks who want to serve not do so because we don’t like who they sleep with.

Eventually, my dad spent 32 years in the Army, was given all kinds of awards and commendations, and rose through the ranks to become a Command Sgt. Major, the highest rank that an enlisted man can achieve in the Army.

Maybe by repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, gay and lesbian soldiers might finally get the chance to Be All They Can Be.

Starting Fresh

To say that 2009 absolutely sucked for me would be the understatement of the year.

My mom spent most of the year in the hospital. My Significant Other lost his job. I lost my job, my car died, and a whole host of other really uncool stuff happened. To make things even worse, I didn’t have time to keep up with this blog because of all of the nonsense I had to deal with.

But since we’re about to have one heck of a political year in 2010, I did a couple of things:

One, I signed up for a Political Science course as part of my grad studies at Temple University here in Philadelphia. I’m taking a course called Government and Society that’s being taught by a woman who says that most reporters get politics wrong. I’m really interested in learning what I’ve missed.

And two, I decided that some changes had to be made to the one venue that I totally control the political expression on, this blog.

Because of the way last year went for me, I’m in a real starting anew mode. I loved the former design of the M(p)S, but it stood as a reminder to me of the past. While I don’t guarantee that I won’t switch it back at some point, I needed a new look.

But my style of commentary isn’t going to change. I’m still me. I just needed the chance to remember that.

Let me know what you think of the new design. If you like it, say so. If you don’t, that’s okay, too. Either way, I really want to know what you think.