Monday, February 28, 2011

Newseum : A Pean to Journalism and News

This past weekend I visited “Newseum” in Washington D.C. Newseum, aptly named, is a museum about news and its related topics. I heard about from a cousin of mine and his wife for several years. They used to repeat that I’d love this place. Yes I did fall in love with that museum so much that I plan to return another day to spend more time. Please check out for information.
The Newseum building itself is modern architecture both outside and within. The glass façade with geometrical angles makes it a sunlit building. The glass encased hydraulic elevators, one of the largest in the world, is simply breathtaking. A piston that rises to 6 stories high and plumbs to 6 stories depth is indeed awesome. The entrance has a display of front pages of newspapers from all 50 states.
I saw a notice that said Dan Rather, who exited CBS disgracefully, would participate in a discussion on the movie “The Insider” (a movie about a whistle blower in Tobacco industry). I was tad disappointed. Dan Rather rushed to discredit George Bush’s service in National Guard based on forged documents during the heated presidential election cycle in 2004. His visceral hatred for Bush blinded his journalistic responsibilities. Dan Rather is perfectly within his rights to criticize, however harshly he wants to, any president. It’s his failure to uphold journalistic ethos that concerns me and that a museum dedicated to news is inviting him. I say that with all due respect to Rather’s very long impressive career in journalism. In fact the memo episode only highlights how journalists need to hold their emotions in check and constantly check themselves in a sort of “physician! Heal thyself!”.
We went to an orientation movie that gives a brief overview of the museum and suggests an itinerary to follow. A neat maps detailing the exhibits and a movie that tells us how to go around, what is not to love in all of this? I thought about my visit to Lal Bagh, Tipu’s Palace, Brindavan gardens in 2003, let’s just say that they are stuck in the stone ages.
We started from the 6th floor. The 6th floor has an impressive balcony overlooking “Pennsylvania Avenue” which has the Capitol Hill. Situated in between White house and Capitol Hill the ‘newseum’ is metaphorically aptly located. Currently the museum hosts an exhibition on Hurricane Katrina, America’s moment of shame. It was an unflinching look at one of the worst failures of America and the Bush presidency. What impressed me was the anger that grew out of an innate sense of “this is not who we are”. I’ve read that live TV telecast, of how peaceful marchers in Civil Rights era were attacked by mounted police, dogs and water cannons, shook the conscience of a nation that was forced to come face to face with a very ugly original sin. Then and now the gut level reactions of Americans, who take pride in their country being the “sweet land of liberty”, is “we can do better because we are America”. It’s that sense that makes America to time and again reach within its soul and overcome its ills. More than press reporting it was the 7X24 coverage on TV that really brought home the disaster. CNN’s Anderson Cooper became the darling of the viewers when he skewered Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco (Democrat). Many anchors vented freely on the deplorable conditions. The displays, the exhibits, the video archives featured were drawn from as diverse sources as possible. The exhibits also show cased how journalists did their duty amidst very hazardous conditions sometimes even facing possible death.
Then we went to “News history gallery” sponsored by News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch’s conglomerate that own the much reviled and much loved Fox News). This is a floor in which a history aficionado and news hound can spend hours together. The gallery traces the development of journalism through the ages. One exhibit featuring a photo of Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken noted how partisan reporting happens from both the Right and Left in equal measure. Another exhibit drew attention to how women had to fight to gain respect in a male bastion. The “National Press Club” did not at first allow women until 1971 (Indira Gandhi had been elected as Prime Minister by then), then they allowed women but restricted them to a barricaded area. Just recently a woman sports journalist was harassed in the men’s locker room of the NY Jets team. Women anchors were allowed, just like their male compatriots, to conduct interviews in the locker rooms. Gender and racial equality is a hot button topic even today amongst critics of media. By hindsight I am a little disappointed that there was no section devoted to analyzing that in greater detail than the cursory single exhibit. The hall interestingly had a plaque with a quote from Philip Graham (“Journalism is the first rough draft of history) but no celebration of his wife Kenneth Graham the first woman publisher of a major news print organization (Washington Post) who steered the paper through the Vietnam war era, faced crippling labor unrest, protected her journalists (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) during Watergate and a Pulitzer winning author.
Another interesting exhibit was about Judith Miller and New York Times. Judith Miller famously went to jail in the outing of a CIA officer to protect her unnamed source who turned out to be Dick Cheneys chief of Staff Scooter Libby. Libby was later convicted for obstruction of justice in a lawsuit out of that investigation. Miller was later released once Libby wrote to her to release his name as the source (The person who really outed the CIA agent was Colin Powells deputy Richard ArmitageLibby) . Miller’s tenure with NYT ended in a scandal over legitimacy of her sources and how she promoted the Iraq war. NYT apologized to its readers for its lack of due diligence. In another shameful episode that stained the reputation of the Gray Lady (NYT) a reporter, Jayson Blair, had published fabricated and plagiarized articles. The Sulzberger family, publishers of NYT, has donated to the museum.The section on war time coverage was brief. CNNs rise as a cable TV during Gulf War in 1991 was well documented (Incidentally Time Warner, parent of CNN is a contributor to the museum). The phone used by Rupert Murdoch to conclude mega mergers worth 2 billion dollars was an exhibit (News Corp is a major contributor to the museum).
A video show on Presidential photographers was engaging. Every president nominates a presidential photographer who then follows the president like a shadow. The intimate portraits provide a glimpse into the life of the leader of the free world. There was another exhibit called "First Dogs" show casing all the pet dogs that have inhabited the White House. The picture of "Buddy" Bill Clinton's dog had a note that he acquired it just before the sex scandal broke out. I wondered whether the note was relevant or whether the curator was Clinton hater. I am not averse to mentioning Presidential peccadilloes but I found this one to be out of place. Sometimes I think Americans tend to treat their Presidents like monarchs bordering on the reverential. Even when out of office they are surrounded by the Presidential seal. Clinton's office in Harlem NY has couch pillows emblazoned with the Presidential seal.
A major section devoted to 9/11 is unavoidable. The mangled remains of the radio tower that used be atop one of the buildings is preserved there. An entire wall, almost two stories high, has selections of front pages from papers across the country with a sprinkling of samples from international papers. An Israeli newspaper and an Arabic newspaper front page were displayed but disappointingly without translations. The video was a run of the mill documentary.
We wound our way towards the first floor and came to a section featuring remnants from Berlin Wall. It’s really a section of the Wall giving a chilling reminder of a totalitarian murderous philosophy that held its citizenry like prisoners. Maybe I missed or if it was really not there then I am disappointed about the omission of any  pictures or videos of two iconic moments in front of the Berlin Wall;  JFK declaring Eich Bin il Berliner” ( I am a Berliner too) and Reagan challenging Gorbachev Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Though we have read and seen photographs of the Berlin seeing it in concrete gives a chill contemplating the life of a citizenry had to be kept in check like animals with concrete walls, electrified barbed wires and security towers. Khrushchev, the man who erected the wall and banged his shoe on the table during a UN session, vowed to bury the capitalist west. The west still stands and his son lives in America.
Amongst all the floors that captivated me most was the section devoted to Pulitzer Prize winning photos. The power of visual imagery in touching our sensibilities is unparalleled. Some iconic photos include a sailor kissing a nurse in the streets of NYC when World War II ended, Killing of a prisoner by shooting him point blank range in his head by Viet Cong, a Buddhist monk who sets himself ablaze, hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima etc.
One photo which I found interesting was the picture of a white man lunging at an Afro-American with a flagpole aimed at the latters stomach. The flagpole had an American flag flying. This was during a protest in Boston in 1976, nearly 12 years after the signing of Civil Rights bill. That too this is Boston not a typical Southern state. A sad reminder of how racism rears its ugly head everyday in every corner of the world. Whetherit’s a black man asking for his rights or a Dalit negotiating a wall in Uthapuram the story is the same.  ( ). Since February is Black History Month the Newseum had an exhibit highlighting civil rights struggle. The exhibit was a typical segregated lunch counter. In a country that declared all men are created equal blacks had to sit in designated areas in cafes. The lunch counter protests in Greensboro, North Carolina finally ended that vicious practice. Again it’s stunning how racial discrimination is enforced in similar ways across cultures and across civilizations. If White Americans thought blacks cannot sit next to them and sip coffee so did upper caste Indians in India think of the rest.
My cousin who most graciously took me to the museum is a big supporter of Barack Obama. He said that the photo section featured a large size photo of Barack Obama campaigning in the rain (Pulitzer Prize 2009) it was no longer there but a smaller sized one was included in the collection along a timeline. The photo was an unremarkable one of Barack Obama speaking while a rain drenched him. I wondered did the Pulitzercommittee too, like the Nobel committee, become smitten by Obama-mania. I googled the details and found that the Pulitzer was not for just that photo but for a collection of photos that portrayed a historic candidacy.  . The photos capture the mood of the country.
I missed out on some fine auditoriums like the "First Amendment" and "Annenberg Theater". I was touched to note that Newseum has a section devoted to veteran NBC Sunday show (Meet the Press) interviewer Tim Russert. Tim's famous whiteboard on which he wrote "Florida, Florida, Florida" to denote  that the 2000 Presidential race is coming down to just one state, Florida, is in the archive exhibit. By the way that exciting episode does find mention at some length in another exhibit, including the ballot machines and chads. Yet another visit is pending.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Manmohan Singh: Disgracefully shameless

India is seeking a permanent seat at the United Nations and constantly boasts about its readiness to join the 'big boys' club yet here is its Prime Minister talking like a besieged potentate of a banana republic. Shame. Utter disgrace. When I read the excerpts I simply could not believe myself that this was a man loved by many and looked upon by many as a man of integrity. Manmohan Singh has no integrity.

When we hear outlandish stories of corruption by Laloo, Mulayam, Jaya, MK we do get outraged but in the same breath we just roll our eyes and sigh "what do you expect". To hear Manmohan feebly protest how his cabinet was practically foisted on him by allies, while an open secret, is plain unconstitutional. Here is the PM saying on live telecast that his cabinet was not formed by him. A sheer mockery of the constitution. Maybe we should thank him for saying on camera what is an open secret. The worse part is when he claimed that he did not know what Raja did. Utterly irresponsible statement that reflects badly on his lack of control as the head of the government. Again, should we rather thank him for his guts to say that his ministers do not in fact report him but to their own party bosses and special interests.

What was he thinking when he had to say "I am not such a big culprit"? Did he think he was delivering some sort of Nixonian "checkers speech" or a Nixonian denial "there shall be no whitewash in the white house". What do we do with a statement like this "I had no reason to feel that anything seriously wrong had been done or that I had the authority to object to Raja's induction. Complaints were coming from all sides -- from companies, which had not benefited. I was not in a position to make up my mind if anything was seriously wrong". The PM of a country that is boasting of becoming an economic powerhouse on par with the most developed countries, is stating that he had no "authority to object to Raja's induction". There are complaints from all and sundry and the Oxford economist says "I was not in a position to make up my mind if anything was seriously wrong". What more should have gone wrong for him to think 'anything was seriously wrong'.

Not satisfied with expressing his utter helplessness and figure head nature he rubs salt with a Marie Antoinette like remark equating food and fuel subsidies with notional loss in 2G scam. Did this guy really come out of Oxford or did he just saunter around Oxford? Do we call this chutzpah or brazenness or chicanery or plain pig headed logic.

When Manmohan Singh (defeated in 2004 Lok Sabha election) was foisted on India by Sonia Gandhi through a backdoor Rajya Sabha seat (Assam, where he had not resided) the intelligentsia actually rejoiced despite the chicanery involved. It was seen as necessary evil in a country where a man like Singh can never get elected in the rumble tumble of politics. The re-election of Congress in 2009 was in large part due to Manmohan's clean image and of course the alliances. The second time Manmohan became PM on his own right. After a brief moment in the sun his image took beating thanks to a dour corrupt politician from South,  M.Karunanidhi, who wanted cabinet ministries for his children (from two wives) and patently corrupt figure heads. 

Indira Gandhi haughtily declared "corruption is a global phenomenon". Asked whether he should have called out the army earlier to stem the anti-sikh pogrom, Rajiv Gandhi imperiously declared "when a large tree falls the earth is bound to shake". Karunanidhi's bedrock principle of public service is his motto, "he who take honey from the honey comb is sure to lick his hand". Laloo, Mayawati and Jaya set new standards in looting the state. By all that standard Manmohan is indeed a incorruptible saint. It is very probable that Manmohan did not make a penny out of all these scams. If that is the standard to judge leaders then he is surely exemplary. The only reason that he was loved by the intelligentsia was his incorruptible nature and India sure invested high hopes in him. 

Integrity is not only being personally honest its much beyond that. Manmohan is now seen not as somebody who is trying to do good within the conflicting demands of a fractious democracy rather he is seen as somebody who has sold his soul to cling to power. He is now Dr.Faust pure and simple. I don't buy the trope that he is helpless. If he had fired Raja much earlier and read the riot act to DMK he would have called out their bluff. Today CBI is contemplating questioning Kanimozhi and there is no whimper of protest from DMK. Manmohan could have called the shots at several stages, pleading compulsions of alliance is whining. I guess he is fit only to be a beaurocrat not a leader. He is an insult to any concept of 'leadership'. 

To quote Oliver Cromwell, "you have stayed far too long for any good you might have done, in the name of God, GO".

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Barack Obama: Steel Tempered in Chicago.

The assessment of Barack Obama’s rise is still in the stages of what could only be called “journalism”, a proper scholarly history is yet to be written and it may very well take a decade for that to come. This blog is the outcome of watching a documentary about Obama by “PBS Frontline”.
The rapid ascendance of Barack Obama is yet to be understood in its entirety, he is still very much “history in the making”. Obama could not even get a ticket to attend Al Gore’s 2000 Democratic Convention. 4 years later he was a keynote speaker in John Kerry’s 2004 convention. In what is an unprecedented consequence of a singular speech that speech propelled him to the US Senate, the 3rd Afro-American senator (by popular election) since Reconstruction. The dynamics of his decision to run for the senate yields some clues regarding his run for the Presidency barely a year after getting elected as US Senator.
During the heated South Carolina primary in 2008, race became center stage. Until his historic win in Iowa caucus, where Hillary finished at a humiliating 3rd place, Afro-Americans did not warm up to his candidacy in large numbers. Afro-Americans were deeply skeptical of America electing a black candidate, especially a freshman senator. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, civil rights icons, had run earlier, ending as also-rans. To complicate matters a Clinton was on the ballot. Bill Clinton was famously called by Toni Morrison, black Nobel laureate novelist, the first black President. The Clintons had cultivated a deep pocket of very committed supporters amongst the black community. Iowa changed all that and the black community rallied behind Obama for a historic candidacy.
Some supporters of Hillary asked her to bow out of the South Carolina primary citing the fact that more than 50% voters are blacks. Hillary refused and ploughed head long. During a CNN moderated debate exchanges became white hot between Hillary and Barack. Bill Clintons name figured prominently as Obama complained tartly I don’t know who (which Clinton) I am running against. Rumor mills started grinding. Charges of racism flew thick and fast against the Clintons and especially Bill Clinton. When any Clinton or Clinton campaign member questioned Obamas experience the black community felt aggrieved. Some blacks openly voiced their anger that said those questions suggest that Obama should wait his turn and let Hillary win now. This trope of wait his turn and yield for a white American really rubbed hard. Bill Clinton was enraged. Hillary was given a drubbing in the primary. Barack Obama completely obliterated her. Standing on a tarmac staring into a microphone Bill Clinton, with an air of haughtiness, declared well Jesse Jackson had won South Carolina primary before (and lost the nomination thereafter with no other victories).  With that flippant comment Bill Clinton completely antagonized many blacks who were until then wavering at ditching a Clinton. Hillary lost a vital constituency in democratic primaries. The rest is history. However until recent times the black community felt aggrieved at what they perceived as racism by the Clintons. The community especially felt enraged at the experience question and felt it was code for let the black candidate wait for his turn which the whites shall decide when.
I watched a documentary of Obama recently and was struck by something very interesting. After completing at Harvard Law the fresh graduate came to Chicago to work at a law firm but keenly interested in electoral politics. Note that by now Obama had already garnered some attention as the first Afro-American President of Harvard Law Review. Alice Palmer a state senator herself decided to run for US congress. She tapped on Obama, her supporter, to run for her state-senate seat. Obama duly filed for nomination and announced his candidacy in 1996. However Palmers candidacy floundered and she decided to run for her own senate seat again. She and the black community establishment leaders asked Obama to stand down. Obama, the documentary said, was flummoxed and enraged. Obama refused to back down and decided to give Chicago pols a dose, a very good dose, of their own hard knuckle politics. Obama had his team question the veracity of signatures in Alice Palmer's candidacy petition. This being Chicago it does not take a genius to figure out that most were fake. Obama's team then questioned the petitions of all other candidates. Finally all except Obama were disqualified and Obama won uncontested. 
If the story had ended there there would be no Shakespearean side to this. Obama got re-elected for state-senate in 1998. In true Obama fashion he wanted to move on. In 2000 Obama decided to contest for US Congress against a well entrenched establishment candidate Bobby Rush. The black community establishment politicians were shocked by the chutzpah of somebody they considered an upstart. Obama's ivy league education and bi-racial background came handy for a snide campaign. A black politician not forged in the civil rights battle was considered a presumptuous upstart by the veterans. 
A NYT article quoted Rush, “He was blinded by his ambition, Obama has never suffered from a lack of believing that he can accomplish whatever it is he decides to try. Obama believes in Obama. And, frankly, that has its good side but it also has its negative side.”
Obama's Ivy league education became a stick to castigate him with, Rush portrayed Obama as outsider, "He went to Harvard and became an educated fool. We’re not impressed with these folks with these Eastern elite degrees.” Added to that was the really snide campaign against Obama that he was not "black enough". On election day Bill Clinton, breaking tradition that a sitting President does not wade into his party's primaries, endorsed Bobby Rush. Rush won over Obama 2:1.
Having been chastised Obama nursed his wounds and rebounded deciding to run for US Senate. Very audacious for a candidate with a very thin record and no great funds to run for a state wide office. The genius of Obama, in my opinion, is choosing to run for a state wide office. Unlike a congressional race that is defined by narrow sliver of interests and narrow demographics a state wide office run is on a wider canvas. As much as there are challenges for running a state wide campaign there are advantages too. In US politics congressmen usually cater (or pander) to a very narrow section of population hence more prone to be partisan or ideological. Senators need to address a wider cross section and hence 'tend' to be a little less ideological. This is Dennis Kucinich, multi-term congressman from Cincinnati will never be president. This is why Christine O'Donnel lost the senate race in Delaware.
During the presidential race, in the very early days old black leaders who consider themselves as arbiters of black politics felt slighted by Obama. Rev Jesse Jackson in a very embarassing moment, thinking the microphone was switched off, muttered "I want to cut off his ****". Obama's relationship with the black community deserves an analysis by itself.
The other point worth reflecting, in the headwinds that Obama ran into, is how political establishment always fights a new comer. While commentators and blacks were ready to see a racial coloring to Clinton campaign and later McCain campaign not many recognized that black political leadership practically treated Obama worse, in fact more overtly than white Hillary or McCain could. The lesson here is that fighting for entrenched interests cuts across color. Often times men act like men always do, race has nothing to do with it.
With lessons learned from one of the toughest backyards in politics Obama met the calling of his lifetime, running for President. Incidentally Alice Palmer endorsed Hillary in 2008.