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Entries tagged "media"

My Socrates Wore a Guayabera

September 13, 2013 ·

Cross-posted from CounterPunch with permission.
Read the Institute's tribute to Saul Landau.
IPS will celebrate the life of Saul Landau in Washington, DC on October 12. If you can join us, please RSVP

Saul LandauBy Divine Intervention, Saul Landau entered my life 12 years ago and taught me how to write, film, and live with dignity.

We instantly bonded over having fathers from the “old country” — his father, from Ukraine, mine, from Syria — and being Semites with prominent noses. We communicated by exchanging stories and news articles, watching and dissecting films, exploring puns, and testing one another’s tolerance for salacious humor (his was particularly impressive).

Regardless of the time of day, or time zone, he delivered his pearls of wisdom in pairs: “Don’t be a victim,” followed by, “Unless you believe in reincarnation, you only have one shot at life.” Unrelenting wit, even at bleak moments, encapsulated his pearls: “If you ask the Rabbi, nothing’s kosher.”

And sadly, in more recent months, “Cancer schmancer, as long as you have your health!”

I met Saul just after finishing my freshman year at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught courses on Latin America, history, and digital media. A wide-eyed 19-year-old at the time, the formation of my political consciousness had coincided with the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000. From what I could comprehend, the continued occupation of Palestinian territory seemed “wrong” and contrary to international law, but I lacked the language, tools, and platform to thoughtfully explain why.

In August 2001, I walked into Saul’s office. For the next three years, it became my intellectual equivalent of Warhol’s Factory, without the Velvet Underground, drugs, hangers-on, and troubled pseudo-starlets, but where film scripts, detective novels, and muckraking commentaries percolated at a fiendish pace. His friends would often stop by, including Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, and Arianna Huffington, before giving campus-wide talks organized by Saul.

“So, are you interested in making movies and learning how to play a part in your history?” he asked me nonchalantly, during my research assistant job interview.

“Sure!” I replied, captivated by both his lofty proposition and his eyes that narrated more riveting stories than Scheherazade, radiating whimsy, strength, and unabashed soul.

“Watch these films that I made with Castro [“Fidel,” 1968; “Cuba and Fidel,” 1974; “The Uncompromising Revolution,” 1988] and Allende [“Que Hacer?” and “Conversation with Allende,” 1971] and read some of my books [The Dangerous Doctrine;Guerrilla Wars of Central AmericaRed Hot Radio]. If you’re interested in working with me after that, let me know next week.”

And that began my real political education, outside the stifling halls of academia, thanks to the ever generous, ever humble, Saul. On my first day at work, I prepared to bombard him with questions about Cuba, given his history of making six films there. Why did the 1959 Cuban Revolution succeed? Is revolution in the 21st Century still possible? What crossed your mind as you were sitting next to Fidel, filming him in his Jeep? And, what compelled you to show footage of him striking out while playing baseball, alongside the extreme close-up shots of dirt in his fingernails?

He answered these questions throughout our relationship. But on this particular day, September 11, 2001, Cuba took a back seat to the acts of terrorism against the United States. No sooner had Saul arrived to the office that we had to depart for the day, as the state-university closed early in the aftermath of the events. Nonetheless, he still managed to instill the most valuable lesson of my life—in a parking lot, no less.

As the hours passed and it became clear that Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and those who looked “suspicious” would face backlash, for no other reason than their identity, Saul uttered these immortal words as I entered my car: “Do not be afraid. You have a duty to speak out.” He knew I was an Arab. And a Muslim. But for him, righting wrongs, regardless of where they occurred, always trumped narrow identity politics. How else would a boy from the Bronx go on to make documentaries exposing hypocrisy, torture, militarism, and the consequences of neoliberalism in Cuba, Brazil, Iraq, and Mexico, respectively?

It did not matter that I had never before penned an article, op-ed, or letter-to-the-editor. Or, that I feared public speaking. At a moment when the Bush administration launched its wide-reaching assault on civil liberties in the U.S. and its war on Afghanistan, my guayabera-wearing Socrates, whose probing questions always revealed higher truths about power and injustice, empowered me to play a role (however modest) in my history.

Saul gave me my radio debut on Pacifica Network News a few days after 9/11, challenging me to write a commentary from my community’s perspective. With his literary scalpel, he rearranged my sentences, deleted extraneous words, and converted the passive into the active voice. By the end of it, my first draft hemorrhaged from his edits. He winked, delivering another Saulism that still haunts me: “Never fall in love with your own work.”

As a student of history, who studied with William Appleman Williams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Saul implored me to look beyond the accepted version of news events, especially when broadcast by the corporate media. He reminded me of that other 9/11 in Chile, when General Augusto Pinochet, backed by the U.S., overthrew the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. That “altered the destiny of the Chilean people,” he would say, pointing to the ensuing reign of terror targeting his own friends, like Orlando Letelier, the Defense Minister under Allende who was arrested and imprisoned on Dawson Island following the coup, and later assassinated by agents of the Chilean secret police in Washington D.C. on September 21, 1976.

Three months after 9/11, Saul wrote a ZNet commentary called “The Logic of Our Time,” where he questioned the new axioms offered by the Bush administration justifying a military response to terrorism. His still relevant conclusion merits repeating:

I plan to persuade my university colleagues to begin offering courses in the new logic so that students can compare the words officials use against what they see, hear and read. If anyone doubts the veracity of our leaders, recall Richard Pryor’s wife when she discovers him in bed naked with a naked woman.

“Hey, sugar, it’s not what you think,” says Pryor.

“What do you mean? Are you nuts? I’m seeing this scene with my own eyes,” she says.

“Hey, honey,” says Pryor, “who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, and in the midst of President Barack Obama’s momentary pushback on bombing Syria, I miss my mentor and friend’s shrewd analysis and penetrating wit more than ever. As I walked around the humid streets of D.C. last night, where he called home for over 20 years before moving to California, I felt limbless without my guayabera-wearing Socrates. How would he respond to Obama’s Syria’s remarks? What will he write his next commentary on? And, when will he release his next film?

I could barely make out the stars the night after Saul died, so instead I turned to the streetlights. In them, I saw the perpetual gleam in his eyes, illuminating the far corners of the Earth, however imperfect, disheveled, disillusioned. In the morning, the birds on my windowsill chirped in my ears, reminding me just how privileged I was to work with and learn from the best. I treasure every article we wrote together, including our film reviews and Syria pieces for CounterPunch. I traveled to Syria for the first time with my mentor just after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, allowing me to simultaneously discover my roots and the art of filmmaking. All roads lead to Damascus — and Saul.

“In times of need the living need a poem,” he once wrote.

I call mine Saul Landau.

Farrah Hassen, a Syrian-American writer and filmmaker, was the associate producer of the 2004 film, “Syria: Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” directed by Saul Landau. She is currently a first-year law student at Howard University in Washington DC. For two years, she served as the Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and she made several short films featuring Landau that the Institute will screen at its upcoming 50th anniversary celebration.


What Not to Do on Camera

October 4, 2012 ·

I think the Republicans set themselves up for a tough challenge when they cast Barack Obama as the outsider, Kenyan usurper while Mitt Romney was supposed to represent the traditional white establishment. Henry Kissinger even recognized it during the Vietnam War: "The guerrilla army wins by not losing; the conventional army loses by not winning." I'm pretty sure he stole that from Mao, who was a horrible ruler, but a smart guerrilla strategist.

Romney and Obama debateRomney needed to decisively rout Obama, while Obama simply needed to not fall flat on his face. In the end, I don't think many minds were changed. If Big Bird stood out as the most memorable phrase of the first presidential debate of 2012, then Romney's much-lauded performance failed to land an attack that will stick in voters' minds. It was a soft victory, elevated by low expectations going into the debate. Obama should have pushed back on those outrageous lies, but his weakness is that he always tries to stay "above it all," which comes across as aloof.

I watched it on CBS, which used a split screen for almost the entire debate. Romney's privileged smirk and mannerisms probably hurt him more than his own words. I'm curious to see if CBS viewers thought less of Romney because of his "off-camera" behavior compared to other network viewers.

Obama learned in 2008 that what you do when not speaking is matters. It's a lesson I've learned the hard way. I've probably done a hundred on-camera interviews over the years and it took me a long time to learn that I should never look around the room or move my head when I'm not speaking.

The camera can cut to you at any moment. If I'm distracted by the activity in the studio or other shiny things, my eyes dart back and forth. If the camera catches me in that moment, I look as shifty as a cartoon villain. Always look forward at the camera, at the person speaking, or downward while appearing to take thoughtful notes. Otherwise, the viewer doesn't see the distractions you're looking at and — at best — it makes you look disinterested.

Looking at anything the home viewer can't see is dangerous. Perception matters on TV. On the other hand, it's possible to take too many notes and come across as disengaged — as Obama learned last night.

Sanho Tree is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. IPS-dc.org

The Great White Mancave

April 13, 2012 ·

For years, researchers have parsed the nation's top op-ed sections and deemed them to be too male and too white. With this problem so openly acknowledged, you'd think that there'd be some improvement. Well, you'd be wrong.

The media reform organization FAIR, an OtherWords partner, reviewed the commentaries featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal between September and October 2011. It summarized the results in the latest edition of Extra!, the organization's monthly magazine.Newspaper Grape Purple by NS Newsflash

FAIR's report is packed with interesting data and observations. A few examples:

  • Latinos, who now make up 16 percent of the U.S. population, wrote less than 0.5 percent of the commentaries published in these three top newspapers over the two-month period.
  • African American bylines comprise 1 percent of the commentaries the Wall Street Journal published over this two-month period.
  • Women remain underrepresented in these three op-ed sections. They penned only 6 percent of the Journal's guest columns, for example.

Having tried to improve the diversity of voices that OtherWords features for the past two and a half years, I've learned that this challenge is harder than it sounds. FAIR's study serves as a great reminder of why it's so important for this editorial service to meet that challenge.

After some improvement under IPS stewardship, OtherWords is doing a better job at amplifying the voices of women and people of color than these three op-ed sections. But that's not saying much. In September and October 2011, the period FAIR reviewed, 25 percent of OtherWords commentaries were by women and 5 percent were by people of color. We can and will improve this track record.

FAIR's report also notes that these three prominent opinion sections range from right-of-center to conservative. I've noticed the same thing. The Washington Post touts centrists Dana Milbank and Richard Cohen as being part of its "left-leaning" lineup. The Post's right-leaning squad, however, is packed with "severe conservatives" like George Will and Charles Krauthammer.

FAIR also found that the Occupy movement's arrival during the period studied didn't make a dent on the overall conservative tenor of the commentaries these newspapers published. "While coverage in papers’ news sections increased dramatically from September to October (2011), the opinion pages at the Times, Post and Journal remained entirely free of the voices of those involved," wrote researcher Nick Porter.

Because the Post, Times, and Journal are widely syndicated, the imbalance in their lineups is magnified throughout the media. Their columns run in hundreds of newspapers and new media outlets. Here are some examples.

In 2007, Media Matters released an in-depth study on the rightward tilt of op-ed sections. It found that the top three, measured in terms of the number of newspapers in which they are featured, were George Will, Cal Thomas, and Kathleen Parker. Will, Thomas and Parker all appear on Townhall.com, which bills itself as "the leading source for conservative news and political commentary and analysis." Today, Thomas and Will are in about 500 newspapers and Parker's in more than 350.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies.

Justice for a 9-Year-Old Girl's Killers in the Courts and in Print

February 2, 2011 ·

A chilling trial is underway in Tucson for the murder of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father. According to eyewitness testimony from her mother (the attackers thought she was dead), Brisenia pleaded with anti-immigration vigilantes who had invaded her own home, not to shoot her—shortly before they murdered her anyway.

Outraged over this incident or the fact that you've never heard about it? As the Village Voice argues, it deserves more national attention. The murders occurred in Arizona (which has seen its fair share of journalists reporting for prominent national media outlets lately) in May 2009. News of the trial has finally made it to CNN and ABC News, but not The Washington Post or The New York Times. That these papers of record haven't managed to print anything when British newspaper The Daily Mail ran this article on Jan. 26 is particularly baffling.

We at OtherWords ran an op-ed by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Heidi Beirich about the Minuteman vigilante movement in May 2010 that referenced this tragic incident. "We don't need armed vigilantes patrolling the border," Beirich wrote. "What we need instead is for Congress to act without further delay to bring our immigrant workers out of the shadows and into the American community as full-fledged citizens." Please read it for background on this case.

I also recommend the Seattle Weekly's account of the courtroom proceedings. It identified Shawna Forde, leader of Minuteman American Defense and a prime suspect in this murder case, as a former Seattle prostitute. It also mentions "Forde's sister Aranda (taking) the stand to recall family moments with her sibling, including Shawna's dreams of someday robbing drug cartels."

Renovating The New York Times Op-Ed Section

January 31, 2011 ·

The New York Times recently named Trish Hall its next op-ed editor.

She's going to call the shots regarding who gets a guest spot in the nation's premiere opinion pages, which typically feature brilliantly written, sharply argued, and perfectly edited commentaries on sometimes dry yet always inarguably important topics.

Despite the emergence of the blogosphere and new outlets such as HuffingtonPost, the Times' op-ed section remains a go-to place for the latest angle from prominent thinkers and policy-shapers on arms control, the Middle East peace process, climate change, and health care, along with other things that really matter. You can get your fix on those topics elsewhere, but you might end up having to ponder the personal lives of Angelina Jolie and Brett Favre in the process. Besides, it's home to Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, two of the columnists I most admire.

Hall is a mind-boggling choice. She has worked at the Times for most of the past 25 years, aside from a stint as Martha Stewart Living's executive editor. Her most recent job? She was the paper's assistant managing editor responsible for its Dining, Home, Thursday Styles, Travel, Real Estate, and Sunday Styles sections. As Dave Barry (another of my favorite columnists, but one who traditionally wouldn't be serious enough for the section Hall will soon run) would say, I'm not making this up.

I've had my own unusual career twists and turns. But as hard as I try, I just can't understand the logic here. How can the same person be capable of bringing readers the best home-decorating and dinner-party-throwing tips as well as the sharpest analysis on New START and the "birther" movement? If I were her, I'd be happy to focus on the tea party instead of tea parties, but where's the evidence that she harbored that desire? I scoured a Q&A with her from 2007 and found no sign of those aspirations. In response to a question about how the Times' Living section picks the right topics to pursue, however, she did assert that lifestyle journalism takes the same kind of inquisitiveness as all other forms of the trade:

"It's that great eureka moment we all love, when we hear a phenomenon mentioned that we have never before heard of. It's the thrill of the new, and we are all then consumed by the same drive: to find out what, and why and how, and to write a story. That's why we're journalists, and no matter what we cover, it's the same process."

One of the paper's most prominent writers in the six sections under her control will be making a similar move. Mark Bittman has ended his "Minimalist" column after 13-years and will write instead a column in the op-ed section in which he plans to "advocate, essentially, for eaters’ rights" as well as a column called "On Food" for The New York Times Magazine. That's a change that makes perfect sense to me, as it will to fans of OtherWords' food and farming section. Presumably, there will be more op-eds on these issues as well. I have to admit, those commentaries are much more fun to edit than all those dry yet important topics. Hey, if Hall doesn't pan out, maybe the New York Times can give me a call.