What Two Presidents, A Cigarette, A Wheelchair, and the Media Have in Common

It has been fashionable to compare President Barack Obama to many of his predecessors. Liberals, facing the toughest midterms since 1994, have taken to recalling the presidencies Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan – two men who faced similar challenges during the same parts of their terms, yet ended their terms with high approval ratings and respected legacies. Conservatives prefer the example of former president Jimmy Carter.

In the early days of the Obama presidency, it was also rather fashionable to measure Mr. Obama against another president: the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Nowadays this comparison is less used. Mr. Obama and Mr. Roosevelt, however, do have at least one interesting similarity – and it is a similarity few talk about.

It begins with Mr. Obama. The current president is a consistent consumer of the tobacco industry’s products. In other words, the president smokes, and he does so regularly. If rumors are to be believed, after a long period of attempting to quit, the pressures of the highest office have caused the president to smoke more frequently than ever.

Not many people know this fact. Indeed, there is not a single known picture of Mr. Obama smoking while president; most of the pictures that do show him smoking are actually photoshopped images.

One might wonder what this has to do with Mr. Roosevelt. The answer is that Mr. Roosevelt, like Mr. Obama, had a personal weakness which in no way affected his capacity to be president, but which at the same time was viewed unfavorably by many Americans.

Mr. Roosevelt’s story is more well known. In 1921, at the age of 39, the future president contracted polio while vacationing in Canada. The disease left the president paralyzed from waist down and unable to walk.

As president, however, Mr. Roosevelt took pains to hide his disability from the public. In public appearances, the president never appeared in a wheelchair; to this day there exist only a few pictures of a wheelchair-bound Roosevelt. The media cooperated willingly, just as it does with Mr. Obama today. Whether Mr. Roosevelt was paralyzed or not didn’t really matter; he was still a fine president.

It is commonly held that the modern media no longer accords presidents the trust and privacy which they held in Roosevelt’s time, especially after the Watergate scandal. While the media hid JFK’s affairs from the public, it did not do the same for Mr. Clinton.

Yet, as the example of Mr. Obama’s smoking indicates, this is not entirely true. Just as the media played a willingly accomplice to FDR in hiding his paralysis from the public, it does the same today with the smoking habits of Mr. Obama. Even Fox News doesn’t run many stories about the president’s vice.

All in all, this constitutes a net positive. When Mr. Roosevelt was president, his physical condition had no bearing upon his abilities as commander-in-chief. The same holds true for Mr. Obama.

--Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

 

 

What the Russian Spy Scandal Really Tells Us

Much has been made of the recent Russian spy swap, in which ten Russian infiltrators were exchanged for four American infiltrators. The overall reaction has been one of amusement. Russian spies combined with Desperate Housewives? Straight out of a Cold War movie thriller!

In fact, the reaction to the spy scandal reveals far more about American attitudes towards Russia than most classified information would. Simply put, the United States no longer regards Russia as its number-one nemesis and rival. In the days of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had ten thousand nuclear missiles pointed at America, the reaction would have been far different – far more hostile, and far less amused.

In the United States today, the role of number-one rival has shifted from the USSR to mainland China. Think about what would have happened if the story had been about ten Chinese spies, not ten Russian spies. The media would have had a heart attack warning about the Chinese threat. The New York Times and the Economist – America’s newspapers for the elite – would be filled with dire articles analyzing so-called American decline and Chinese military strength. Fox News would probably warn earnestly about more Chinese spies in the midst of America. (Though those looking for Chinese spies would do well to consider the substantial community of Americans hailing from Taiwan instead of the mainland; telling the difference between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese is about as easy as was telling East Germans apart from West Germans during the Cold War.)

The Russian spy scandal also reveals much about the way American media operates. For the past few months, very little of note has occurred in either the domestic or international front. Perhaps the most notable events have been financial reform’s passage, the Gulf of Mexico spill, and – most importantly – the World Cup. None of these stories is enough to sustain a month’s news coverage (although the World Cup certainly comes close). This is why papers like the Times turn to things like Russian spies.

The spy affair, then doesn’t actually reveal much about Russia that isn’t already known – that it is spying on the United States. What it really does is tell a story about America itself – about Russia’s threat level in American eyes, and about what the media latches onto when there is nothing else to report.

--Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

 

 

What the Russian Spy Scandal Really Tells Us

Much has been made of the recent Russian spy swap, in which ten Russian infiltrators were exchanged for four American infiltrators. The overall reaction has been one of amusement. Russian spies combined with Desperate Housewives? Straight out of a Cold War movie thriller!

In fact, the reaction to the spy scandal reveals far more about American attitudes towards Russia than most classified information would. Simply put, the United States no longer regards Russia as its number-one nemesis and rival. In the days of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had ten thousand nuclear missiles pointed at America, the reaction would have been far different – far more hostile, and far less amused.

In the United States today, the role of number-one rival has shifted from the USSR to mainland China. Think about what would have happened if the story had been about ten Chinese spies, not ten Russian spies. The media would have had a heart attack warning about the Chinese threat. The New York Times and the Economist – America’s newspapers for the elite – would be filled with dire articles analyzing so-called American decline and Chinese military strength. Fox News would probably warn earnestly about more Chinese spies in the midst of America. (Though those looking for Chinese spies would do well to consider the substantial community of Americans hailing from Taiwan instead of the mainland; telling the difference between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese is about as easy as was telling East Germans apart from West Germans during the Cold War.)

The Russian spy scandal also reveals much about the way American media operates. For the past few months, very little of note has occurred in either the domestic or international front. Perhaps the most notable events have been financial reform’s passage, the Gulf of Mexico spill, and – most importantly – the World Cup. None of these stories is enough to sustain a month’s news coverage (although the World Cup certainly comes close). This is why papers like the Times turn to things like Russian spies.

The spy affair, then doesn’t actually reveal much about Russia that isn’t already known – that it is spying on the United States. What it really does is tell a story about America itself – about Russia’s threat level in American eyes, and about what the media latches onto when there is nothing else to report.

--Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

 

 

Makutano Junction Soap Opera

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

The last place most of us look to for useful information is television soap operas. But Makutano Junction, a Kenyan-produced soap opera set in the fictional town of the same name is not your average TV drama. Broadcast in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and throughout English-speaking Africa on Digital Satellite Television (DSTV), Makutano Junction doesn't deal with the evil twins, amnesia, and dark family secrets typical of U.S. daytime dramas. Instead, the show's plot lines revolve around more grounded (although not necessarily less dramatic) subjects like access to health care and education, sustainable income-generation, and citizens' rights.

Funded by the U.K. Department for International Development, produced by the Mediae Trust, and broadcast by the Kenya Broadcast Corporation, the show was originally designed as a 13-part drama in 2004. But Makutano Junction was since developed into a six-season TV phenomenon, with over 7 million viewers in Kenya alone. Its website provides all the information one might expect from a television show site, including episode summaries and character profiles. It also features "extras" on themes from specific episodes and encourages viewers to text the producers for more information.

In Episode 8 of Season 6, which aired in 2008, the character Maspeedy gets into trouble for soaking seeds. Seed soaking works by essentially tricking the seed into thinking it has been planted, allowing it to soak up in one day as much water as it would in a week in the soil. This speeds up germination and significantly shortens the time between planting and growth, leading to a vegetable harvest in a quick amount of time.

But the other characters in the show are unfamiliar with this practice and, when they discover Maspeedy's project, have him thrown in jail because they are convinced that he is brewing alcohol illegally. After some plot twists and a little slapstick humor involving two trouble-making characters who attempt to drink the water in order to get drunk, the truth comes to light and Maspeedy is released from jail. He then teaches the rest of the town the simple technique of soaking seeds to speed plant-growth time.

After the episode aired in May 2008, thousands of viewers sent texts to Mediae  requesting more information about seed-soaking techniques. These viewers were sent a pamphlet with detailed instructions on how to soak their own seeds. Follow-up calls- which were part of a study to test the effectiveness of the show's messaging- revealed that 95 percent of those who had texted for more information had found the pamphlets helpful. And 57 percent had tried out seed soaking even before the pamphlet arrived, just based on the information provided on the show. Ninety-four percent said that they had shared the information with up to five other people.

By peppering the drama-infused lives of its characters with demonstrations of agricultural practices, trips to the doctor for tuberculosis tests, and Kenyan history, Makutano Junction serves to both entertain and provide reliable information for families throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This is soap opera drama that people can actually relate to-and learn from.

To read more about innovations that use entertainment and media to alleviate poverty and hunger see: Using Digital Technology to Empower and Connect Young Farmers, Acting it out for Advocacy and Messages from One Rice Farmer to Another.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty.  She has already traveled to over 19 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Benin next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.  

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on  Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates.  Please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Heat Wave Washes Away American Ideals: LeBron James, the Media, and the American Soul

 

by Walter Brasch

 

            Millions of Americans had pleaded with basketball superstar LeBron James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and come to their city when he became a free agent. Bloggers, media pundits, and reporters of every kind seemed to devote much of their lives to figuring out what team James would be a part of for the 2011 season. 

            The speculation ended, Thursday, July 8, when ESPN opened a full hour of prime time for some pretend-journalism and an interview with James, who 28 minutes into the infomercial announced he was leaving Cleveland and going to the Miami Heat.  Floridians were ecstatic. With multimillionaire James joining multimillionaires Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, they were sure the Heat would once again win an NBA championship, something that had eluded James in Cleveland. The day after the ESPN show, the man known in Cleveland as "King James" held court with Wade and Bosh in Miami's American Airlines arena, surrounded by 13,000 screaming fans, all of whom watched South Beach and Miami city officials give the three superstars keys to their cities. Two days after the announcement, Miami Heat fans began buying replicas of James jerseys, with his new number, 6, stitched across the back. Most NBA jerseys sell for about $50; these were priced up to $150.

            In other basketball franchise cities, millions of fans who thought their team would have a chance to sign the man who wears a tattoo, "Chosen 1" across his back, wailed incessantly, as if their high school's Prom Queen had just rejected their mournful bid to go steady. On the day of the "decision," ABC-TV, a sister company to ESPN, devoted two segments on its nightly news to the forthcoming spectacular. The other networks settled for one segment. Following the "decision," the TV networks and local stations ran "breaking news" crawls beneath scheduled shows. The next morning, newspapers gave the announcement front page coverage, with extensive commentary inside. The New York Daily News devoted almost its entire front page to a picture of a scowling James, and the whining headline, "Hey, New York, we're the greatest city in the world, so . .  .WHO CARES!" The New York Post front page headline was a bold "LeBum."

            But, it was Cleveland where hatred unified a city of about 450,000, part of a metropolitan area of about 2.2 million. Within minutes after James announced his decision, the Cleveland fans threw his cardboard images into trash cans and burned jersey replicas, the same ones they had proudly worn for seven years. Within two days, they began tearing down a Nike-sponsored 10-story mural that featured LeBron James, his head thrown back, his oversized arms spread out, saviour-like. This city would not have any graven image of the traitor they once worshipped as a "hometown hero." Thousands even proclaimed they would boycott all companies—including Allstate, Nike, and McDonald's—that have endorsement contracts with James. Between tears and rage, Cleveland fans, aided by numerous sports commentators, claimed that the James defection would cause the city to lose at least $20 million in revenue and, for all we know, doom it to be a third world country. A bitter Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who had not received the courtesy of even a pre-announcement phone call from James, lashed out in a letter to his fans, calling the decision, a "shameful display of selfishness and betrayal," and that the hometown Cavaliers, unlike James, "have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you." But, Gilbert's most important statement might have been his observation of the entire process. Although Gilbert would have praised James and the TV coverage had he remained in Cleveland, the Cavaliers' owner pointed to an underlying truth. The decision, said Gilbert, "was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his 'decision' unlike anything ever 'witnessed' in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment."

            Even when the hyperbole is stripped away, a truth remains. For at least a week, it didn't seem there was any other news. But there was.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," another heat wave washed over America. In this one, three people died from the heat wave that gripped the northeast; hundreds more, mostly senior citizens and the homeless, had to be treated for heat stroke or heat exhaustion.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," about 15 million Americans were unemployed, and 46 million Americans had no health insurance.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," the BP oil spill in the Gulf was in its 79th day. On that day, 2.5 million gallons of oil polluted the Gulf. As much as 160 million gallons have now leaked into the Gulf, destroying wildlife, plants, and the livelihoods of several hundred thousands residents.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," three British and two American soldiers and two UN workers were killed. American deaths in Afghanistan since the war began now total 1,171; about 6,700 have been wounded.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," at least 60 civilians died from bombs in Iraq; about 360 were wounded. Since the beginning of the American-led invasion of Iraq, 4,412 American soldiers have died; almost 32,000 have been wounded, according to Defense Department records. Civilian casualties are estimated at 110,000, according to the Associated Press. Other reliable sources place the totals well over a half-million civilian deaths from hostile action.

            On the day of the "Decision," if you added up the yearly salaries of only the American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began, they would not equal the money that LeBron James makes in just one year. And, that, more than anything else, says a lot about America.

 

[Walter Brasch's latest books are the witty and probing Sex and the Single Beer Can, a look at American culture and the mass media; and Sinking the Ship of State, an overview of the Bush–Cheney presidency. Both are available at amazon.com, and other stores. You may contact Brasch at Brasch@bloomu.edu]

 

 

 

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