Iftar

June 28, 2016

This is Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. We were invited to Albany’s City Hall for an Iftar, the evening feast after the sun-up to sun-down fast. Meetings aren’t polls and people put their best feet forward at public events. But I also know these folks. We greeted friends: a physicist, President of a Mosque on Central Avenue; an engineer who escaped repression in Iran, and ran a radio program to celebrate and protect American freedoms. We greeted a doctor whose daughter was my student and valedictorian at Albany Law, now working for the NY Attorney General. There were scientists, programmers, medical professionals, Sunni and Shi’a, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic clerics and public officials.

One woman described her six year old daughter lying awake at night, terrified, crying and asking where they’ll go if they are kicked out of this country – mother and daughter were born in the U.S., raised in this area, and have no other homeland. Her mother spoke with the girl’s first grade teacher, and the two women shared their tears – this wasn’t schoolyard bullying; the girl had been terrified by what she was hearing over the air.

Speaker after speaker rose to describe how lucky they were to reach America, how grateful they felt for the welcome they received and the chance to rebuild their lives. They celebrated America’s protection for people of all faiths, from all parts of the world, and their own determination to protect that freedom for everyone. Muslim clerics speaking to fellow Muslims, rejoiced in what America offered and encouraged them to do what they could to protect those values for all. Others spoke about the need to remember the blessings of America in times which are quite worrisome for Muslim men, women and children, and to do their best to protect America and its liberties.

Some had made the greatest sacrifice. The Muslim woman I described a moment ago explained that an older brother, also Muslim, had enlisted in the U.S. Army right after 9/11 to defend this country – serving our country which was also his, her brother was killed in action in Afghanistan. To her and to all of us he was one of the heroes of this conflict. Stereotypes must not obscure the contributions of real and good people. It was important to her, and should be important to us, to recognize the sacrifice that her brother and other Muslims have made to protect American freedoms.

Sitting there I realized I was watching the way the best of American values are renewed, revived and passed on as they have been for centuries. Sometimes we Americans show surprisingly little confidence in the strength of our ideals to flower in the hearts of immigrants. That, after all, is why they came.

Mayor Sheehan delivered a warm welcome and later pointed out to some of us that Muslims had been part of Albany since the city’s Dutch beginnings. In fact many of America’s founders made it clear that Muslims, along with Jews, deists, Protestants and Catholics were all included in the Constitution’s protections, and some took steps to make sure that Muslims and immigrants from all continents would feel welcome to come to America.

Every community has bad apples. But the bad apples in non-Muslim communities have been responsible for the vast majority of murder, arson and domestic terrorism in America. Stereotyping hasn’t protected us. Reaching out and welcoming these new Americans is much healthier.

Like many of us, immigrants and their children try to preserve the good parts of their heritage. But they came from war zones. Many risked their lives to escape. They have the strongest reasons to love and celebrate America, because they know what was in store for them or their parents in the lands of their ancestors. They’re trying hard to be helpful and constructive. It’s important that the rest of us recognize that.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 28, 2016.


Convicting the Innocent

June 21, 2016

I care about what happened in Orlando because the victims and their families are all members of the human family. And I cringe at the self-styled protestors who use God’s name in vain as an excuse for their own inhumanity toward the grieving families, who deserve to know that we care and share their grief.

Another story is also on my mind. On June 5, the Times Union headline read “Murder verdicts in doubt.” Two men were convicted in 1999 for the murder of a University at Albany student, and have already served 17 years in prison. The two men were grilled aggressively, until they broke down, trying to end the interrogation, and signed a confession. But an Ohio prisoner has now told officials he was the killer and expressed incredulity that Albany Police took a confession from prisoners who hadn’t been able to supply a single fact about the crime because neither had committed it. More than a fifth of exonerated prisoners had signed confessions.

Prisoners break down for many reasons. After hours or days of questioning by people who claim to know you’re guilty, appear ready to keep going until you surrender and sign, and tell you they’ll stop if you sign, that you’ll get off easier, or they won’t recommend the death penalty, it takes a lot of strength to continue to protest innocence. Some don’t have that strength because they are young and inexperienced. Some don’t muster that strength because they have confidence that the system will acquit them since they really didn’t do it. Some plead for lawyers but are broken before any come. It isn’t that hard to break people down and force them to say or sign false statements with enough pressure. It is the sophisticated, educated, trained individual who has some chance of

The two men convicted in this case had an alibi that police could have checked if they were seriously interested in convicting the right people. Police could have had the prisoners write what they remembered instead of dictating what they wanted in the confessions. The police actually tore up what they wrote as not good enough. People break. Breaking doesn’t mean confessing the truth. And being too [quotes] “weak” to withstand that kind of interrogation doesn’t mean people aren’t decent and couldn’t be valuable to their parents, spouses, children and society. We’re not all tough just like we’re not all Einsteins. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

Sending the wrong people to prison does double damage – it lets the guilty go free while the innocent suffer. Unfortunately it’s not rare. Sometimes it’s the result of sloppiness. Eye-witness identification of strangers, for example, is notoriously unreliable. Experiments have shown witnesses doing no better than chance. Suggestive lineups can be much worse than that. Failure to follow leads often results in convicting the innocent. It’s not just overly “aggressive” police work; sometimes police or prosecutors are so anxious to look good for “solving” a crime that they lose sight of who’s guilty. Sometimes they’ve framed people to cover their own misdeeds.  All of those things happen. The individual and collective results are tragic.

I keep hoping that cases like these will at least help people understand that what many call “prisoners’ rights” are actually the rights of all of us designed to make sure that innocent people, any of us, are not convicted and sent to prison for crimes we did not commit.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 21, 2016.

 


Foreign Roots of the Tragedy in Florida

June 14, 2016

The tragedy in Florida is linked to issues abroad. One candidate sometimes suggests we could solve our problems by isolationism, keeping our troops home, and sometimes by wiping out our adversaries with overwhelming force. His adversary has won over American military leadership with a fairly hard-nosed approach to international politics meshed with the belief that part of America’s international strength comes from our ideological appeal and social justice. What’s going to work?

The Middle East has been getting more violent. And the U.S. has been struggling to figure out how to handle it. George H.W. Bush was careful not to unravel power relations there when he rolled Iraq back from Kuwait. George W. Bush was less cautious, eliminating the Iraqi power structure without a plan to replace it. Since then we’ve been fighting multiple wars in multiple countries. Wars with guerilla tactics like these are costly. Al Qaeda and ISIL or DAESH have learned to motivate individuals or small groups outside of traceable networks. Military forces work poorly against that kind of enemy. We may be a superpower against some obstacles, but not all. The history of warfare has been a multi-millennium cycle of upstarts defeating the super powers of prior ages with new tactics.

What if we disengaged from the Middle East? I doubt Americans have the stomach for it. Israel, our so-called “ally,” continually breaks its promises to America, so the Israeli mouse drives both American Middle Eastern policy and its consequences. America cannot be an honest broker in the Middle East while backing a government of heedless buckaroos who learn nothing from the failures and constant irritation of seven decades of war, eviction of Palestinians and indiscriminate retaliation. Still less can we be an honest broker by engaging in the same tactics that make refugees of millions and radicalize too many. Who are we to criticize the Israelis when our policies have been more and more like theirs? We too pay the price. Our removal of Premier Mossadegh and replacement with the former Shah of Iran contributed to the Revolution of 1979 and subsequent demonization of America. U.S. military moves created chaos in the Sunni world, pushed Turkey toward autocracy, and helped destabilize Europe with a flow of refugees not seen since the World Wars.

Pulling out would leave a power vacuum that those we despise and sometimes fear would fill. If Russia or China were fool enough to move in, the throw weight of Islamic extremism would refocus on them. The short-run consequences, however, could be

Our policies toward the Middle East need to be rethought in light of new realities. Power relations in the Middle East have been drastically reshaped in the last fifteen years. And Saudi Arabia has been playing a double game, supporting radical Islam in return for denying the clerics the keys to governmental power, creating a Hobson’s choice for us. Obama has tried to avoid both disengagement and warfare, but his efforts to reshape thinking about the Middle East have, not surprisingly, run into a barrier of incomprehension. The U.S. should not be driven by the unreliable machinations of paranoid premiers, two-bit dictators and fractured armies in a region of declining importance to the U.S.

America accomplished a great deal in the past as a model of a fair and decent state. Foreign policy isn’t merely a contest of muscle and fire power. Its complexity requires a lot of patience. It took half of century to wait out the Soviet Union. Much as some Republicans want to credit Reagan’s grand gestures, that victory was hatched under Truman and pursued by eight presidents of both parties, without any know-it-all buckaroos upending decades of careful policy. Can we do it again? We’re going to find out.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 14, 2016.

 


Media Coverage of the Presidential Campaign

June 7, 2016

During this pledge drive, amid disputes about media coverage of the presidential campaign, it’s a good time to review how we got here.

The 19th century press was partisan; every party had their papers. Around the dawn of the 20th century, publishers and advertisers who wanted to reach people on all sides, shaped the era of the penny press and just-the-facts news, with opinion segregated onto separate editorial pages. News was supposed to be nonpartisan. It worked very well when the media put the cruel responses to the Civil Rights Movement into every home in America.

Nevertheless, even while Civil Rights and Vietnam glued Americans to the media, the press was still reeling from self-criticism about how it had allowed the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy to make unsubstantiated charges of treason and communist sympathies without appropriate debunking. And so was born the era of checking with targets for their response.

In broadcasting the FCC enforced the fairness doctrine, requiring balanced presentation of controversial issues of public importance. That sounds better than it was. I learned first-hand when the now defunct St. Louis morning paper blasted the Legal Aid Society there and we met with the editorial board of the afternoon Post-Dispatch. They told us that denials wouldn’t help, and would actually remind the public of the charges. Instead they would – and did – run stories about the good things we were doing.

He said-she said journalism or the more oblique but effective good-story-bad-story journalism could help to inform people on issues they follow closely with open minds. Otherwise it could be more confusing than helpful.

In this era, I believe Irving Kristol, himself a conservative, wrote an article saying the New York Times was both America’s best newspaper and not very good. His point was that reporters weren’t experts in the areas they were covering. Taking a man-in-the-street approach to stories helped reporters write for and speak to ordinary Americans but often at the cost of misunderstanding issues that experts could have untangled.

Sociologist Herb Gans wrote a book explaining that media bias rarely resulted from partisanship but from the ease of newsgathering from a few sources, like the White House, which gave those sources disproportionate access to the press.

By the time their work came out, Woodward and Bernstein had blown Watergate open and everyone tried to copy what we now call investigative reporting. That goes much deeper but involves the reporter or news outlet in examining controversial issues, laying themselves open to charges of bias by anyone who disagrees.

But legal rules changed and cable soon splintered the marketplace for news, now further splintered by digital media. As in the 19th century, Americans can choose what they’d like to hear, see or read and ignore the rest. Everyone can speak to their own choir with thunderous applause. More discerning and complex stories are often ignored or reduced to sound bites.

Donald Trump takes advantage of that by simply announcing his views in outrageous ways sure to catch everyone’s attention. While Joe McCarthy could make unsubstantiated charges without fear of press criticism, Donald Trump uses inflammatory rhetoric to get everyone’s attention above the din of press criticism.

I’m not convinced there is a perfect answer. Every campaign reflects the efforts of a new crop of politicians to game the media approach of their era. And in an effort to be fair, the press tries not to make candidate-specific judgments about how to cover campaigns – including Trump’s – but tries to cover them in standard ways.

If you listen closely on this station you will hear the residue of every method of journalism practiced in America for the last century. There are straight facts, he-said-she-said journalism, commentary, investigative reporting and a plethora of polling and analysis from every direction. This certainly is the thinking person’s station. Thank you WAMC.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 7, 2016.


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