IPS Blog

What Not to Do on Camera

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

Off-Topic: The Presidential Debate — Does Aggressiveness Play With Swing Voters?

(Two notes: 1. Though the debate isn’t about foreign policy, Focal Points couldn’t help but weigh in. 2. The author is not a supporter of President Obama.)

Acquiescing to the conventional wisdom that Mitt Romney won the debate last night is surrendering to the notion that appearances are all that matters while content counts for nothing.

Romney labors under the handicap of trying to make policies that are unpalatable to the public palatable, which requires him to contort himself or outright lie. Also, his organization seems to have viewed the debate as an opportunity to solidify his drift from the far right in hopes of winning swing voters. But, assuming they were listening and not just watching, that segment of the population, as well as his supporters — not to mention his opponents — can’t help but be confused by the state of flux in which they found the candidate’s message last night.

Let’s, though, reduce ourselves to reducing the debate to appearances — to wit, Romney’s aggressiveness. First, seldom remarked upon is how, even in his most buoyant moments, tightly wound Romney seems. His presentation last night only made him look that much more excitable, a character trait that obviously doesn’t befit a presidential candidate.

Second, both conservatives and progressives urge their candidates to go on the offensive and puncture what they perceive as the other’s lies. But, arguably, much of the American public prefers that conflict and aggression be confined to reality TV shows.

One of my key electoral handbooks is Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002) by political scientists Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and John Hibbing. Using focus groups and polls, the authors, as you may know, determined that more of the American public doesn’t participate in democracy because of an aversion to conflict in, say, town meetings and between candidates. The message that Americans are too soft for democracy aside, incivility in politics seems to make them as uneasy as corruption.

Like a spurned lover who doesn’t get the message, President Obama may have clung to his dream of bipartisanship with Republicans too long. But, outside of Washington, civility and cooperation in politics are alive and well. Most Americans believe those are principles to which politicians should adhere. Viewed through that prospective, Romney may have seemed less like an attack dog than a mad dog.

The Inequality Report Card Action Map

I’ve long thought that it would be handy to have a tool that makes it easy to contact our members of Congress though social media networks, rather than email or phone calls.

We’ve seen the Stop Beck Twitter campaign successfully make advertising on Glenn Beck’s TV show toxic to corporate brands. But what about harnessing that kind of power to highlight what’s wrong with so many members of Congress?

When I heard that my colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies were putting together an Inequality Report Card, grading congress members on how well they do on the issue of economic inequality, I jumped at the chance to turn such a tool into reality.

Inequality Report Card Action Map

The action map I created lets you not only see your own lawmaker’s grade, it invites you to take action. Clicking on a congressional district will pop up a bubble that includes the member’s Twitter account, Facebook account, online feedback from, and phone number. It has never been easier contact your representative online and make your voice heard.

Let me know what you think. And, of course, take action.

Brian Cruikshank is the Institute for Policy Studies‘ web developer.

The Biggest Losers: Big Bird and the American People

Who won the first 2012 presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama? If you ask the Twitterverse, Big Bird nailed an easy victory.

Debate memeHuh? In case you missed it, the sole quasi-joke either candidate cracked came when Mitt Romney vowed to choke off the government funding that pays some of Sesame Street’s bills. But really, there were no winners tonight.

Moderator Jim Lehrer blew it too, although he seemed to be off to a decent start when he opened the debate with the night’s most pressing question of the night: What are you gonna do about jobs?

Obama answered that he loved his sweetie. Romney tried to sound populist but just sounded weird. Things just got worse from there. More lies and insincere etch-a-sketch moments from Romney. More strangely absent and disconnected reactions from Obama.

Lehrer proceeded to let the candidates run roughshod over him, then lost us all when he said “we’ve lost a pod” as he reprimanded the candidates for taking too long. In an evening devoted to domestic issues, none of the three men ever mentioned women’s rights, civil rights, immigration, poverty, climate change, or any other environmental issue.

Most importantly, nobody dared to breathe the truth, lest it actually get out — America Is Not Broke.

That’s right, the debate was an exercise in ridiculousness that produced no insight, no plan, no inspiration, no leadership, no truth. We are rich. We have enough money to put nutritious food on the tables of the one in five U.S. kids who are hungry and undernourished. We have enough money to help the laid-off moms and dads make ends meet until they get another job.

We have enough money to keep grandma, sister, and even every child (“future people,” as I believe Romney put it) taken care of through their hard-earned benefits of Social Security and Medicare. We have enough money to help the down-and-out in times of sickness and emergency through Medicaid and help low-income families through refundable tax credits and the last shreds of welfare available to some.

We do. We’re a rich country. We’re not broke. Not only are we not in an economic position, recovering from the Wall Street-induced Great Recession to be able to tolerate the austerity trumpeted by Romney and half-conceded to by Obama, but we don’t need to resort to it.

Here’s what someone should have said tonight. Here is the truth denied to the American People…and to Big Bird:

1. We can bring in over $325 billion per year if we simply put a tiny tax on risky stock and derivative transactions; tax corporations and stop tax have abuse; and, tax the wealthy fairly, such as Warren Buffet suggested by taxing CEOs at the same rate as their secretaries

2. We can bring in almost $90 billion per year by actually making our environment more green and sustainable through: taxing the polluting carbon content of fossil fuels; and, ending fossil fuel subsidies.

3. We can save about $130 billion by making our country and globe safer through: closing out our war operations completely in Iraq, closing a third of our global military bases and ending drone attacks; and by ending military waste

AH Neill/Flickr

AH Neill/Flickr

These commonsense approaches would garner savings of over half a trillion a year — far more than either candidate or any Bowles-Simpson scheme would save and would allow us to preserve our earned benefits, safeguard our safety net, keep our nation secure and create millions of good-paying green jobs.

America Is Not Broke. That is the missing story. Until we admit this, we all lose…and, you can definitely kiss Jim Lehrer and that big ol’ yellow bird goodbye.

Karen Dolan is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. For more details, please see the IPS report, America Is Not Broke.

Belgrade: Gritty City

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and surveying its transformations since 1989.

The Turkish bath of Milos Obrenovic, now a bathroom and storage space for the Monument restaurant.

The Turkish bath of Milos Obrenovic, now a bathroom and storage space for the Monument restaurant.

Sometimes that person you immediate dislike becomes, over time, a close friend. In fact, the very things you disliked about that person can end up becoming his or her chief virtues in your eyes.

That’s been my experience with Serbia. The first encounter was certainly not auspicious. I first visited Belgrade in 1989, on my way south from Poland to the beaches of the Croatian coast. Or, at least, that’s where I thought I was heading. I arrived in Belgrade that July only to discover that all the bus and train tickets to Dubrovnik were sold out. During that summer, even with the Yugoslav economy in difficult straits, Dubrovnik remained a popular destination. Air tickets were available, but I didn’t have that kind of money. So, I ended up staying in Belgrade, disgruntled.

Belgrade seemed to me quite ugly, and I couldn’t wait to leave. I rescheduled my flight but still had to pass three days there. I could never get the hang of the city’s geography. Even with a map I was always getting lost. And everywhere I went I ran into the same two guys. Next to all the pictures of Tito hanging on the walls of restaurants and newsstands was this other fellow, Slobodan Milosevic, who looked like an apparatchik from central casting. I couldn’t wrap my head around all the signs that proclaimed “I [heart] Serbia.” I naively thought the creation of Yugoslavia had meant the death of nationalism. I obviously hadn’t been following recent events in the country.

My next visit to Belgrade was a 1990 flight with Yugoslav Air that passed through the country on the way to Poland. In those days, JAT was the cheapest way to get to Eastern Europe, but many of the flights with connections to points north required an overnight stay in Belgrade. On that particular night, we arrived late at night, near 10 pm, and were driven from the airport into the city to a reasonably nice three-star hotel. Sixty or seventy very hungry people crowded into the hotel lobby, waiting for the distribution of room keys. We waited. And waited. After an hour, it turned out that the hotel didn’t have rooms for us.

“Not to worry,” said our JAL representative. He packed us back into our bus, and we drove in the direction of the airport again. Near midnight, the bus stopped at a no-star hotel. Again we waited for an hour for our room keys to be distributed. The hotel had rooms for us, just not enough. I spent a restless night in a small room in a double bed with another guy, sleeping head to foot. Dinner that night was a huge platter of grilled meat that, because we were all ravenous, we tore into with abandon. There was plenty of alcohol to make us forget our ordeal and then, the next morning, to remember it in painful detail.

They woke us early enough to get to the airport three hours before our flights left. The airport wasn’t even open. I sat on a hard plastic seat and tried to sleep. Finally, it was time to check in.

“Ah,” said the young woman behind the counter, “you have to pay the airport tax.”

“Airport tax? No one had said anything about an airport tax.” I didn’t have any Yugoslav dinars, so I offered dollars.

“Oh no,” she said, “it has to be in dinars.”

“But the exchange booths aren’t open,” I pointed out.

She shrugged.

It turned out that I had a 15-minute window to exchange money, pay the tax, and, running with several other unhappy travelers, get onto the plane before it left. Goodbye and good riddance, I thought as Belgrade retreated into the distance.

An acquaintance later told me that she’d been in a similar situation at the Belgrade airport with one important difference: her early-morning flight left before the exchange booths opened. She waited until the last moment, walked up to the ticket-taking official, and threw a crumpled bill in his direction in lieu of the airport tax receipt. Then she ran through the turn style, down the ramp, and onto her plane just before they closed the doors. She became breathless all over again in the retelling, which made the improbable story believable.

Later that same year, I finally made it to Belgrade as part of my multi-country tour of the region. As soon as I arrived in the city, all of these bad memories flooded back. I had only one contact in the city. I called her up, interviewed her, and left for Zagreb the next day. There were even more pictures of Milosevic around, and the news of confrontations between Serbs and Croats in the Krajina region of Croatia were filtering in. Foreboding was thick in the air. The woman who owned the private flat where I was staying told me in a mix of Serbian and Russian that the Croatians were all fascists and the Albanians produced too many children. Civil society activist Sonja Licht, my one interviewee, provided me with an incisive critique of Milosevic and suggested that civil war had become increasingly likely. I couldn’t wait to leave.

Now, on my return to the region to retrace my steps, I’ve decided to start with Serbia. This might seem strange, since it’s the place where I talked to the fewest people. But I felt that I had been unfair to Belgrade. On a trip to the city a few years ago, I discovered that it wasn’t such a bad place after all. In fact, the pedestrian area in the downtown was charming and festive. I talked with artists and activists who were doing difficult and important work. But this visit in 2008 had also been brief, and I still felt that I hadn’t really seen Belgrade or Serbia.

I’ve already had several interesting encounters on this latest trip. I interviewed Sonja Beserko, once a member of the Yugoslav foreign ministry and long a sharp critic of authoritarian and nationalist politics. I ventured by bus to Pancevo, a suburb of Belgrade that NATO bombed repeatedly in 1999, to meet Sasa Rakevic, who writes comic strips under the name Alexander Zograf and published the wonderful book, Regards from Serbia. Later I’ll write more about these fascinating conversations along with a return visit with Sonja Licht.

But this Sunday I had a chance to wander around Belgrade and appreciate its intriguing tangle of streets. The city has been repeatedly destroyed over the years, by the Ottomans, the Austrians, and most devastatingly during World War II. Some buildings damaged during the 1999 bombing have been left standing as a reminder. Despite all this destruction, you can still find some lovely architecture – an art nouveau building, an old palace, an stately Orthodox church.

I had dinner at a restaurant called Monument, located in an addition to an old haram, or Turkish bath, that once was part of the extensive quarters of Milos Obrenovic. The placards hanging near the restaurant describe Obrenovic’s key role in Serbian history as a participant in the first uprising against Ottoman rule, a leader of the second uprising, and then a ruler who established the country as an autonomous dukedom.

Coincidentally, I was reading over dinner Helen Leah Reed’s 1916 book, Serbia: A Sketch. Just as I started in on my trout, I came upon the passage about Obrenovic. Reed adds something that the placards leave out: that Obrenovic had likely betrayed Serbian resistance leader Karadgordge to the Ottomans. So, it is fitting perhaps that all that remains of Obrenovic’s once vast estate – he was reputed to be one of the richest men of the Balkans – is this modest stone bathhouse, which now serves as a bathroom and storage facility for the restaurant.

Belgrade is not Prague. It’s not a beautiful city set up to accommodate tens of thousands of tourists. You have to work a little harder to appreciate the charms of the city. You have to dig a little to uncover its quirky history. But in the end, this struggle becomes perhaps this gritty city’s chief selling point.

This Week in OtherWords: October 3-9, 2012

This week, Sam Pizzigati’s latest OtherWords column sums up the findings of a new Inequality Report Card that “grades” lawmakers. He’s part of an Institute for Policy Studies team that assessed the performance of Congress on this important issue. Check it out to see how your lawmakers stack up.

Please note that OtherWords is now distributing commentaries and cartoons on Wednesdays. As always, I encourage you to subscribe to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. The Roots of Voter Suppression / Ron Carver
    Opponents of black voter registration have always claimed they were protecting democracy.
  2. A New American Dream / James Gustave Speth
    America is often No. 1 in ways we can’t celebrate — but the fight for real democracy, human solidarity, and devotion to the public good can change that.
  3. America’s Rocky Road Away from Homophobia / Hillary Gibson
    The DADT repeal marked a significant step toward equal rights for the LGBT community, but the problems don’t stop — or start — there.
  4. Promoting Unemployment / Mitchell Zimmerman
    The Republican obstruction of job-boosting policies helps the GOP run against a bad economy.
  5. A Congressional Report Card for the 99 Percent / Sam Pizzigati
    The grades are in, and you can see how lawmakers fare on the most important issue of our time: the grand divide between America’s rich and everybody else.
  6. Romney Passes the Torch to Taxpayers / Jim Hightower
    Mitt won $1.5 billion of taxpayer gold for the Salt Lake City Olympics.
  7. Why John Roberts Upheld the Affordable Care Act / William A. Collins
    While John Roberts may be a remarkably malevolent force in American jurisprudence, he’s no dope.
  8. The Politics of Inequality / Khalil Bendib (Cartoon)
http://www.otherwords.org/files/5271/broken-ladder-economic-immobility-cartoon.JPG?width=800

http://www.otherwords.org/files/5271/broken-ladder-economic-immobility-cartoon.JPG?width=800

Creating an Equal Opportunity Page

Letter to the Editor

I spotted letters from 14 men and three women on the Sept. 22 Free for All page. It caused me to wonder if women’s letters aren’t being published or whether we’re just not writing many letters to the editor. But then I remembered that I’m a woman. And, hey, I wrote a letter to the editor about the extraordinary inaugural reading by our new poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, that wasn’t published. Trethewey is not only a woman but also the first person of color to hold the laureateship in 17 years.

What gives? Is another grammatical error in The Post (the subject of several of the Free for All letters) really more important than one of the most significant cultural events of the season? Or is this some guy thing I just don’t understand?

Sarah Browning
Washingston, D.C.

This letter was originally published in the September 21st edition of The Washington Post.

Romney Versus Realonomy: A Peek Inside the Bubble

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been roundly criticized for being a wooden, out-of-touch plutocrat who pays a lower effective tax rate than the vast majority of Americans yet believes that 47 percent of Americans merely mooch off the government.

It’s no secret that Romney favors tax cuts that will mainly benefit the very rich. And why shouldn’t he? He has a long record of seeking to minimize his own taxes.

But what about the rest of his economic program? Mitt Romney is no one-dimensional “tax cuts are always the answer” Republican. He has a 160-page, seven-part “plan for jobs and economic growth” that includes sections on taxes, regulation, trade, labor, human capital, government spending and energy.

Read the rest of Salvatore Babones’ Truth-Out breakdown of the Romney Plan by clicking here.

If Drone Strikes Are “Surgical,” the U.S. Is Guilty of Military Malpractice

In his latest salvo at the U.S. drone campaign, Conor Friedersdorf, the Atlantic’s resident anti-militarist, writes about his exasperation with the terminology “surgical” when applied to drone strikes. The Obama administration, he writes, has “successfully transplanted the term into public discourse about drones.”

I’ve been told American drone strikes are “surgical” while attending Aspen Ideas Festival panels, interviewing delegates at the Democratic National Convention, and perusing reader emails after every time I write about the innocents killed and maimed in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

It is a triumph of propaganda.

But, Friedersdorf points out:

Using data that undercounts innocents killed, The New America Foundation reports that 85 percent of Pakistanis killed in drone strikes are “militants,” while 15 percent are civilians or unknown. What do you think would happen to a surgeon that accidentally killed 15 in 100 patients? Would colleagues would call him “surgical” in his precision?

No, he’d likely be named a defendant in medical malpractice suits. Friedersdorf again:

… it is a downright dishonest metaphor when invoked by an administration that could make their strikes more like surgery but doesn’t. For example, the Obama Administration could make certain of the identity of the people it is “operating on.” Instead it sometimes uses “signature strikes,” wherein the CIA doesn’t even know the identity of the people it is killing. It could also attempt autopsies, literal or figurative, when things go wrong. Instead, it presumes sans evidence that all military-aged males killed in drone strikes are “militants.”

Friedersdorf’s criticism, of course, isn’t constructive; he isn’t seeking to assist in legitimizing our drone strikes. He’s just pointing out that the program is even worse than it has to be.

What President Obama’s UN Address on Free Speech and Extremism Means for the “Incitement” Debate

Innocence of MuslimsIn his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, September 25, President Obama denounced the now notorious film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad as “crude and disgusting.” He also declined to call the film a catalyst for the tragic deaths of four Americans on September 11 at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Instead, President Obama rightly reaffirmed America’s commitment to freedom of expression and shined a light on extremists.

At the heart of the discourse over the incident is the position that Islam forbids any depiction of its founder. This belief should be respected. In her initial speech condemning the deaths, Secretary Clinton noted that America has always stood for religious tolerance. And so we stand today.

Yet, rather than seizing an opportunity to explain the significance of depicting Muhammad and to explore various perspectives on the violence, some commentators and even world leaders, such as newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, suggest that the film constitutes incitement. The implication is that by providing a representation of Muhammad – just like burning a Quran – the creator is inciting Muslims to commit violence. This argument conveniently shifts the blame to the filmmaker.

As last week’s speech makes clear, however, the incitement debate doesn’t work. Along with our acceptance of people of all races and religions, America also honors a strong tradition of respect for freedom of expression, grounded in the U.S. Constitution. This tradition allows criticism of religion, including President Obama’s own Christian beliefs, as he stated in his address. But violence holds no place in this equation.

Societies do place limits on rights of expression, and these conditions vary based on community beliefs. There is no absolute right to free speech – even in the United States. To push the debate forward, we must understand these relative norms. The internationally recognized crime of incitement, however, generally prescribes that there must be direct incitement to commit a crime. To be direct, the alleged inciter must have intended to induce his audience into the commission of the crime, or at least have been aware of the likelihood of its commission due to his conduct.

To call these actions incitement begs the question – what crime did the filmmaker induce or know he was likely to induce his audience to commit by lobbing it out into the Internet? Murder? The film may have been distasteful, insensitive, and created to inflame certain viewers. Accordingly, in a free society, protests against it should be permissible and legal. A disturbing assumption, however, anchors the incitement argument with respect to events in Libya: Islam permits individuals to commit violence in response to representations of Muhammad. It follows that the filmmaker knew acts of murder might be a consequence of his actions.

The “depiction equals violence” scenario puts the filmmaker on the legal hook. It seems incredulous, however, that the second largest religion worldwide would condone the murder of innocent civilians – diplomats from the very same nation that supported them, along with France and the United Kingdom, through the revolution. The alternative is too ridiculous, and horrifying, to entertain. As President Obama noted Tuesday, “There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents.” Reactions in Libya to the violence, including the statements of their newly elected Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur, indicate that many Libyans agree.

The more likely scenario, promulgated by President Obama, is that these murders are the work of extremists. Recent acts of destruction throughout Libya and in its neighbor Mali – in which Salafists have used bulldozers and pickaxes to damage Sufi mosques considered idolatrous, including ones in UNSECO World Heritage Site Timbuktu – support this phenomenon. The splintering of Islam, just like the factionalized components of modern day Christianity, is on the rise. As with relative free speech norms, the current state of Islam must enter the dialogue.

Blaming the filmmaker is not the answer. This approach is futile not only for its dangerous precedent for free speech and condemning views on Islam, but also because it is impractical in a digital era. As President Obama told the UN General Assembly, “In 2012 … the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.” We must therefore drop the illusory incitement debate. The consequences of failure to do so are grave. Without an acknowledgement of the true causes of this violence, Libyans will continue to face the risk of being high jacked by extremists seeking to hinder the journey to democracy. In his speech, President Obama reminded us that when Ambassador Stevens died, Libyans said he was their friend; and so the United States should make the Libyans ours.

Annie Castellani is a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm, the Public International Law & Policy Group, where she focuses on transitional justice, constitution drafting, and civil society development in Libya and other post-conflict nations. Her views are independent.

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