The college hunt gets personal — open letter to a niece

BelushiDear Sam,

So, senior year is hard upon you. That means prom, a top spot in the cheering squad, maybe a full-court press in calc to buff up that transcript. And, of course, it’s time for you and colleges to get serious about one another.

You’ve checked out a few places already. A couple big state universities, a few state colleges – most of the places touchingly within 50 miles or so of home. You’ve probably pored over their websites, talked to folks there and maybe chatted with a teacher, coach or guidance counselor about your options. You and your parents may have checked out finances to figure out what you can afford, perhaps gotten some info about aid and scholarships.

It’s a good start, Sam, but – with any luck – not the end of the game. Let me lob a few thoughts your way. Take these from a grizzled uncle who has been around the academic block a bit, between attending a few schools, teaching at three universities and, most important, seeing three of your cousins go through the same sleuthing sessions you now are involved in.

 First, talk to more people. Start with your extended family. At least nine of your cousins have been through the mill already, in undergrad and grad schools. Some went to big, private, urban or suburban schools (Boston University, Columbia, Stanford). Some opted for smaller private schools (Bucknell, Stevens, Pomona). And some chose big public schools (West Virginia, Rutgers, Michigan State, University of Oklahoma). Some went to community colleges for a while. Find out what they liked, what they hated. They’ll tell you, in spades.

 Think about your aunts and uncles. Shockingly, they can be helpful and they’d probably talk with you. Their alma maters include Rutgers, Columbia, Colorado State and the University of Toronto, among other places. One is now pursuing a Ph.D. Even if they natter on about goldfish-swallowing, panty raids and ukulele-playing, they might have a few useful pointers to share.

College101 Visit more places. You must pick up the vibe on a campus to figure out whether you’d like to spend four years and lots of Mom and Dad’s money there. One cousin visited Georgetown and was turned off. Why? The girls dressed like they were at a fashion show or were stalking husbands, not like they were there to learn. Blue jeans, please, and forget the makeup. For her, Harvard’s holier-than-thou attitude was fatal for it. Another thought Berkeley’s refusal to let her stow her luggage in the visitor center for the tour was a killer sign that it wasn’t all that user-friendly. A much smaller, more indulgent school outside LA couldn’t have been more obliging, by contrast.

 Think broadly. Why limit yourself to a tiny corner of the country you’ve known all your life? The U.S. is a big place and on- and off-campus life, socially and intellectually, in the South, West and East differ. Want to climb mountains and ski on your weekends? Think about Denver or Fort Collins. Want to learn really good manners? Think about Atlanta. Want to hear people talk funny? Think Boston. Why just New Jersey, Delaware or even Pennsylvania? Sidenote to Mom and Dad: It took us a while to accept the idea of our youngest in far-off California, until we realized it was just a plane ride away, just as Massachusetts and New York were for the other two.

 Look at the US News and World Report rankings, but look deeper. Some schools rank high overall but may not be so strong in the discipline that interests you. If you really want to dig into schools, check out the websites for particular departments. Are the faculty distinguished? Indeed, will you ever see the senior faculty or, as often happens, will you be taught by grad students?

Collegemaze Figure out what you want. Visits are crucial. Big urban schools are great for some folks (one cousin went to a small high school, so wanted thousands of classmates.) Smaller, more intimate colleges are better for others (after a big public high school, another cousin craved a small liberal-arts spot). Want Division One athletics? Could be exciting, but how much time do you really want to spend on the field? Unless you are quarterbacking the football team, it won’t be all there is to life in school (one cousin quit the D1 track team she’d pined for when she learned it meant no other after-school activities and not all that much time for schoolwork). Small fish in big pond or vice-versa – what works for you?

 Think about life after class. If you pick a big school, a sorority can make a cold and daunting place more intimate. It can also give you lifelong friends, the chance to learn leadership and offer great academic and social support, not to mention a nice place to live. At a smaller school, the dorms may be just fine.

 If you like the idea of a big place, find one that offers “learning communities.” These groups, which bring together like-minded students to study and sometimes live together, make a sprawling campus smaller. You might find lifelong friends there, too.

Sam, there’s a lot more to picking a place where you’ll spend some important years than just popping in on a few nearby campuses. Would you buy the first blouse you see on a rack? Would you limit yourself to just a few stores in the mall? How about the first CD in the bin? (Oh, I forgot. Nobody does that anymore).

Times do change, of course, Sam. But find out what wrong turns (and right ones) others who’ve been down the road have taken. And, whatever you do, shop around. One last thing — don’t sell yourself short. Pick a range of schools, but make sure to aim high. To mix metaphors (something a good English teacher will mark your down for), cast your net wide. Once you’ve applied to a lot of places, you can still go to the school down the block. It won’t move, but in coming months your hopes may.

Love,
Your uncle.

Time to be smart, not a smartass

HedgeFundFlouting convention has its uses. An outrageous image can provoke debate, prompt action or, at a minimum, win attention. And all those things are vital to any media organization in our infoglutted age. When so many magazines vie for notice, after all, it takes a lot to grab a reader’s eye on a crowded newsstand, stand out in a towering mail pile or merit a crucial split-second’s notice on a computer screen.

But does that mean sacrificing taste? Sure, Penthouse gets a second glance every time. But will that translate into lasting buzz or just a dismissive, “ah, there they go again?” Does a magazine want to be known as smart and sassy or as juvenile and sassy? What happens to the “smart” when a puerile cover image sullies the book’s impact?

So this brings us to Bloomberg Businessweek. There’s no question the magazine has done impressive work since 2009, when McGraw-Hill sold BusinessWeek after thinning its journalism ranks over several financially troubled years. One would expect no less than excellence from Bloomberg, the preeminent business-news operation of the day. A friend who toils abroad for the news service points out that BB won the 2012 National Magazine Award for General Excellence – the magazine world’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize — something the magazine hadn’t done since 1996, an earlier time of superb journalism at BW.

InfidelityBut one must wonder whether BB has won despite some of its new approaches, rather than because of them. Much of the reporting and writing remains superb – its economic coverage, for instance, has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and I know from serving as a judge that the work was best in class. Some of BB’s contrarian ideas, fleshed out well in text that intelligently challenges conventional wisdom, are compelling. At its best, its work is as good as the best material BW was known for over decades, work that won 10 National Magazine Awards in various categories from 1973-2008, all before the latest general excellence prize. BW and its staffers won a slew of other prizes for foreign and domestic work over those years, too.

MatingJetsThe risk for BB is that its drive to be edgy, particularly in its cover imagery, could easily thrust it over a cliff’s edge. It could all too easily slip from provocative to prurient, as it has at times already. Disturbingly, the distance from smart to smartass is not all that great.

Already, the editors have had to apologize for the art in a cover piece. They ran a smart housing story, only to have its impact undercut by racial insensitivity in the cover art. At best, the drawing seemed goofy anyway.Housing

BB today, like BW before it, does have to distinguish itself both in its journalism and in the artwork it uses to make its points. And, as my friend from Bloomberg points out, the magazine has been recognized for its design successes by such outfits as Britain’s Design and Art Direction. Apparently, though, what caught the eye of folks at D&AD was one of the more elegant covers, which used a stark and simple photo of Steve Jobs. This seems a case of BB earning recognition for being classy rather than déclassé. That’s something any editor should feel proud of.

JobsBB has had some impressive successes. It has held onto 4.7 million readers worldwide when so many others have lost the readership battle. It can draw on the work of 2,300 journalists in 72 countries, a couple thousand more journalists and support staffers than BW ever had. If it is to keep up its record of success in readership and influence, the book should work to be known for top-flight economic and business coverage and high-quality artwork that makes the coverage come alive. This is its inheritance, its bloodline. The editors shouldn’t be weighed down by the magazine’s stellar list of alumni and their work as they sort out what to put in the book each week, what imagery to adorn its cover with. But, if they do pause for a second to consider the book’s distinguished history, they might feel a useful nudge in the right direction.

What do the editors, staffers and art folks want the book to be known for anyway? What do they want their legacy to be? Flout convention, sure. Be provocative. Kick up dust. But do it with style and intelligence. A little grace can carry you a lot farther than an adolescent smirk or an unwelcome dollop of snark.

How much are your ethics worth?

Hookerscartoon“Would you sleep with me for $25?,” the man asked the woman he had just met. “No!,” she said indignantly. “Well, how about $500?,” he responded. “Mmm,” she said. “Well, let me think about that.” Then he said, “how about $250?” Her furious answer: “What do you think I am?”

“My dear, we know what you are at this point,” he countered. “Now, we’re just negotiating price.”

This old story came to mind as I thought about the $38 undercharging episode I went through last night. My daughter, son-in-law and I bought several items at Target and the clerk told us the sum, which seemed low. My daughter questioned the figure, but he insisted all was right. So we went on our way.

Later, we looked at the receipt and, sure enough, he undercharged us by $38, apparently failing to scan a board game we bought.

So, what do we do? Return to the store and, possibly, get the clerk in trouble? Rationalize our windfall by grousing about how much Target has made on us over the last few months (the equivalent of a small country’s GDP)? Do we say to ourselves, “well, the game was absurdly overpriced anyway?”

Or, do we just take malicious joy, savoring the illicit thrill of getting away with something?

theftI was reminded of a couple incidents that, for decades, have stuck with me. First, when I was a kid, my aunt and I passed the candy bin in a grocery store and she filched a few chocolate malt balls or some such treat. When I asked whether that was stealing, she came up with some cockamamie rationalization for why it was okay. It didn’t seem right to me then and doesn’t now.

I shared this story with my daughter and son-in-law. I also thought, “what kind of example do I want to set for them? How do I want them to see me?” Since they are both lawyers whose job requires a high-minded sense of ethics – a sense they have anyway — the questions were especially sharp for me.

On the flip side, I once went into a shop with a friend and, when I told the counterman he had undercharged me, my friend asked me: “So, are you new to this country?” Only someone hopelessly naïve would not try, at every turn, to get away with whatever he could. Property is theft, right? And isn’t that the American way?

After we got home and played our board game last night, it was past closing time and too late to return to the clerk. But, as I awoke this morning, the undercharge was eating at me. It just wasn’t right. Those malted milk balls weren’t free. And I didn’t want my kids to look on me in an ugly light, whether the sum was for $38 or $3,800. I didn’t like feeling guilty. Right direction

So, this morning, I popped in on the Target. The clerk, a different fellow than our cashier of last night, said most people wouldn’t bring up such an undercharge. Sadly, that may be right. Indeed, I did have to suppress a twinge of feeling foolish, a sense that I was the altar boy who never grew up, the Boy Scout whom others scoff at for being oh so righteous. I even thought, “well, I’m just a middle-class guy who, thankfully, can afford to do the right thing. How different things would be if I were just scraping by, like so many others do.”

Still, I know who I am. My kids do, too. That’s well worth $38, wouldn’t you say? It would be worth $3,800 or $38,000.

Prosecute Snowden, not the press

article-0-1A78A5A4000005DC-767_634x362As Edward Snowden wings his way toward whoever he thinks will shield him from American prosecutors, his bizarre story keeps metastasizing. This noxious growth is now tainting the press. The latest turn: the suggestion that not only should the former NSA contractor be prosecuted but so should a recipient of his leaks, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald.

NBC “Meet the Press” host David Gregory today asked Greenwald: “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” So, was Gregory siding with some politicians who have called for a journalist to be prosecuted for doing his job? Certainly seemed so, though the TV host did later say he was merely asking a question, however pointedly.

Have we come to that in journalism? Are we now dining on our own? Would Gregory have raised the same question to the late Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, and his editors when in mid-1971 they decided to publish the Pentagon Papers? Then, as now, national security concerns were at issue in the publication of explosive secret material — in that case classified material dealing with the ongoing Vietnam War.

Sulzberger
Sulzberger
The Snowden case is a knotty one. There’s no question for me that the former trusted intelligence analyst should be prosecuted for his crime. He betrayed his employers and violated his oaths. His acts could be considered treasonous in a time of war, albeit an undeclared war with terrorists. He should be brought to account for them.

But it’s also clear that he brought to light a practice that deserves national scrutiny. Indeed, the shame of it is that the debate hasn’t happened until now. Do we want the government reading our email or, however much buried in massive data-collection practices, scanning our phone calls? Certainly, we want it rooting out terrorist plots, using wiretapping or whatever technology works. But should it cast its net so wide that it ropes in everyone? These are important questions and, sadly, it took Snowden’s actions to bring them forward.

Snowden, however, didn’t have to blow his whistle quite the way he did. He had alternatives for bringing his case forward. He could have found a friendly congressman or senator, perhaps a libertarian who might have found the NSA practices just as dubious as he did. Questions then could have been asked and debated, perhaps behind closed doors in deference to national security. Policy could have been changed quietly. Is it naïve to think so? Perhaps. But Snowden didn’t even try this route.

Would he have broken laws in talking with an elected government official about a government program? That’s one for the lawyers to decide. Certainly, he would have spared the government the international black eye it has suffered from his leaks. To much of the world now, the U.S. respects its citizens’ rights to privacy no more than China does. But, if Snowden found a courageous legislator to work with, he might have forced changes to happen without making the U.S. look like a global snoop, hardly a beacon of freedom.

TimeIf Snowden got nowhere with the legislators, he could then have turned to the press, it seems. That was the route former military analyst and ex-Pentagon staffer Daniel Ellsberg took. He shared copies of the Pentagon Papers first with legislators and moved beyond them only when none would make them public in the halls of the Capitol. He felt they had to be exposed. Ultimately – two weeks after the Times began printing the Papers and was enjoined temporarily from doing so – a senator, Mike Gravel, did publish the documents in the official record of the Senate.

But Snowden chose otherwise, rushing outside government to make his case. He broke the laws and violated the trust of his colleagues. Whether he is prosecuted or not, history will judge whether his acts were heroic or merely treasonous. Ellsberg has largely been judged a hero. But Ellsberg had the guts to face the consequences of his actions. Unlike Snowden, he stayed in the U.S. and was tried for espionage in court. The charges were dismissed, as it turned out, because of governmental misconduct that, ironically, included illegal wiretaps on the former analyst. But the risk for Ellsberg’s act of conscience was very real.

Now Snowden will live as a fugitive, likely to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Is that heroic? Ellsberg also tried at first to stay out of the limelight, leaking his documents anonymously until he was outed. By contrast, Snowden seems to crave the attention, lionizing himself for his actions. Again, heroic? The more apt word might be narcissistic.

As for the press, the Times was right to print the Pentagon Papers. They proved invaluable to understanding how dishonest the politicians were in pursuing a war that was foul and doomed from the start. Similarly, the Guardian and the Washington Post were right in publishing Snowden’s leaked documents, even though the war we are currently fighting – the battle against terrorists – is just, is impossible to avoid and is one we must win.

The argument this time is over whether the government’s intrusions are massive overkill. Are the security services deploying a nuclear bomb when well-aimed rifles might work better? Certainly, we all want them stopping terrorist plots. But can they not just ID the bad guys and go and get ‘em without ensnaring all Americans and plenty of foreigners in their net? Do the terrorists win when we give up something as precious as privacy, the cherished right of all Americans to be left alone?

Snowden went about this all wrong. But the debate he triggered is necessary and vital and so, too, are the journalists who have brought his story to light. Gregory’s pointed question to Greenwald deserves a loud answer: no, the journalist should not be prosecuted for doing his job. Instead, the policymakers need to be held to account for falling down on theirs.

Academic journals: not The New York Times, but sometimes better

UtS_covSI.inddFor journalism profs who hail from the mainstream media – or the public prints, as they were once known – academic journals seem foreign, a bit intimidating and, maybe, a touch esoteric. If one has written for, say, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Time magazine, small, densely written and heavily footnoted quarterly, biannual or annual pubs with modest audiences seem a world apart.

But I am learning that such journals, like good poetry magazines, can be more fascinating and engaging than pubs that cater to the mass market. Rather like Indie music compared with the mainstream stuff, the world of the academic specialist can be a rich and intriguing place. It’s a welcome alternative to the fluff, panic and tawdry gabble that dominates Big Media.

Consider Utopian Studies, a biannual edited by Nicole Pohl of Oxford Brookes University and produced by folks at the Penn State University Press. Its latest issue includes a piece by Alireza Omid Bakhsh, an assistant professor at the University of Tehran, called “The Virtuous City: The Iranian and Islamic Heritage of Utopianism.” Bakhsh discusses the Shiite Utopian vision of Abu Nasr, who lived approximately from 870-950 and wrote about cosmology, man’s physical and spiritual nature and the structure of society. Who knew? And, if not for Utopian Studies, who outside of Iran would?

But the journal is also modern. Another piece, “The Business of Utopia: Estidama and the Road to the Sustainable City,” by London-based King’s College geography researcher Federico Cugurullo, argues that eco-cities can be bad socially and ecologically. Cugurullo probes current development strategies in Abu Dhabi to make his case.

Still another contribution looks to the past to shed light on the present. “’New Year’s Dream’: A Chinese Anarcho-cosmopolitan Utopia” examines a 1904 story by intellectual Cai Yuanpei that designs a better world. The piece, by UCLA Ph.D. candidate Guangyi Li, analyzes the theme of national and world revolution in the tale to broaden our understanding of utopianism and anarchism. Hear echoes of Mao and the less starry-eyed visions of modern Chinese leaders?

hjmr20.v012.i01.coverUniversity presses and houses such as Routledge produce a bevy of such journals. Academic groups such as the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication produce still others, ranging in their focus from advertising education and electronic news to international communication and magazines and new media research. Such journals can look at their topics with a wide lens or a narrow one, and both can be intriguing.

Consider the Journal of Media and Religion, co-edited by Daniel A. Stout of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and published four times a year by Routledge. A piece in its latest issue is titled “Mapping the Landscape of Digital Petitionary Prayer as Spiritual/Social Support in Mobile, Facebook, and E-mail.” Authors E. James Baesler and Yi-Fan Chen, both of Old Dominion University, examine how people pray, surprisingly, in the three media. Another piece, “Seeing the Light: Mormon Conversion and Deconversion Narratives in Off- and Online Worlds,” probes the online discussions of “questioning and former Mormons,” comparing them with testimonies of the faithful. Author Rosemary Avance is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania who also hangs her hat at the University of Utah as a Mormon studies fellow.

Fascinating stuff.

specializationUnless one is focused on certain specializations, of course, one is unlikely to ever hear of such journals. I learned of the two I’ve mentioned, along with many others, from Signe Boudreau, a delightful reference librarian and associate professor at the University of Nebraska. Signe is helping me plumb the journal world to see where my academic interests might find outlets.

Thanks to Signe, I now have pieces under consideration in both these journals. They spring from my research on a Utopian community of meditators in Fairfield, Iowa. My book on the group, titled “Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa,” is slated for publication next year by the University of Iowa Press.

The work published in such journals sometimes goes mainstream, of course. Making economics journal articles accessible to a mass audience, in fact, was a favorite assignment for me in grad school, thanks to my journalist-turned-economist professor, Ron Krieger. That exercise helped me in writing both at newspapers and magazines. More typically, of course, journal authors wind up quoted as experts on some topic timely enough to make headlines. Savvy journalists, it’s clear, do well to pay attention to this corner of publishing – and they are likely to find it pretty darn intriguing.

Free speech in China — an impossible dream?

tienanmentank-395No one really knows how many people died, were permanently hurt or lost their livelihoods 24 years ago today in Tiananmen Square. The government may have records on the casualties, believed to total more than 155 killed and 65 wounded, but it hasn’t made them public. Indeed, Chinese history books barely acknowledge the event, known in China simply as June Fourth. Sadly, few Chinese have seen the iconic AP photo of the lone man standing up to tanks in Beijing.

This extraordinary moment in recent Chinese history, though, echoes among those aware of the events at the time, both in the West and in China. Rising expectations for democracy and such freedoms as the right to free expression thrust hundreds of students into the streets on June 3 and 4. The country had thrown off the stultifying yoke of Maoism, had embraced the liberating force of capitalism and seemed to be on a road toward wider choice in everything from consumer goods to politics.

And then, of course, the road came to a dead end with tanks, bullets and tears in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The sprawling area of monuments, museums and government offices, which today draws thousands of Chinese and Western tourists, became synonymous with oppression.

It’s hard for us in the West to grasp how disillusioning this massacre must have been for the Chinese. First, many of the pro-democracy demonstrators killed were students at the nation’s top universities; these were the best and brightest in a Confucian system that ranks intellectuals high in the pecking order. I’m sure they were students much like the bright and eager young people I taught at Tsinghua University in the fall of 2011, innocent idealists who love their country and want only to make it better. Thus, their interest in journalism.

More important, the June Fourth protesters couldn’t have been more precious to their families. Because of China’s one-child policy, these students – some still in their teens – each carried the weighty hopes and aspirations of parents and grandparents on their shoulders. Little could be more alienating or tragic for those families, who today still bear the burden of grief and fury.

Ding Zilin, 2010
Ding Zilin, 2010
”Since my son died in 1989, there’s nothing more that can scare me,” Ding Zilin, a retired professor whose 17-year-old, Jiang Jielian, was killed on the night of June 3, told the New York Times in 1999. ”I do what I choose to do according to my own conscience.”

Ding, a retired professor of philosophy at People’s University who had once been a loyal Communist Party member, led a drive then to open a criminal investigation into the events of June Fourth. It went nowhere. Ding, who had attempted suicide repeatedly after the death of her son, wound up leading bereaved parents who have continued to demand the right to mourn their children in public and to end persecution of June Fourth victims. In response, she and her husband, former People’s University Aesthetics Institute head Jiang Peikun, have been constantly harassed. Ding’s nomination for the Nobel Prize in 2003 must have been a major embarrassment for Party leaders.

Since the massacre, some at the demonstrations or — like Ding — related to demonstrators have endured house arrests, loss of work and ongoing medical problems. Qi Zhiyong, a construction worker who went to the demonstrations out of curiosity, not activism, lost a leg, his occupation and any good feelings he had toward the Party, as the Washington Post reported. The paper reported that Zhang Lin, who organized protests in 1989 in Anhui Province, has spent much of the last 20 years under house arrest or in jail, as an advocate for labor rights and democracy. Some protesters who went on to have good careers now stay quiet about their youthful activism, fearing retribution.

Chinese leaders crushed the Tiananmen demonstrations nearly a quarter-century ago out of fear that they could trigger nationwide uprisings. Since then, however, riots, protests and mass incidents have only grown, with some 180,000 in 2010 alone, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Instability, driven by economic grievances or dissatisfaction with corruption, has worsened and is a major source of worry for the government. Chinese leaders today are desperate to manage societal transformation – which includes everything from urbanization to economic growth — while keeping a lid on the discontent and maintaining Party control.

Xi Jinping and other new leaders of China are walking a narrow and treacherous path. As economic expansion slows, disparities in wealth grow and upheaval from the migrations of millions to crowded cities worsens, they will surely find it increasingly difficult to keep order. That challenge to preserve order may underlay recent directives barring discussion of such topics as freedom of the press in universities and concerns in some Party quarters about too much Westernization.

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
Peter Arnett
Peter Arnett

The Party’s worries have hit home for some distinguished Western journalists recently. Peter Herford and Peter Arnett, longtime Asia hands who have taught for years at Shantou University’s journalism school, were just pink-slipped. Ostensibly, this is because they passed a mandatory retirement age of 70 for foreigners teaching in China. Herford, however, finds this puzzling because each of them passed that milestone about eight years ago.

Far less momentously, the government’s worries also hit home for me. In the last few weeks, I wanted to survey Chinese journalism students about freedom of expression and censorship, as well as the biases they see in both Western and Chinese media. I scuttled the project, however, after colleagues in China warned that the students’ answers, even in an anonymous Web-based study, might be tracked by state monitors. The survey wasn’t worth putting the students at risk.

tiananmen_square_original_t_shirts-ra2e852c4ad79491598dbbf9530e70006_va6lr_512Chinese leaders seem to have learned the wrong lessons from June Fourth. Suppressing speech is like clamping a lid on a pot of boiling water. As the heat grows, the chances of an explosion just grow with it. No doubt, the leaders worry that the more apt comparison is to the Arab Spring, and they are determined to avoid similar tumult. Not heeding – or even hearing — the demands and discontents of the people, however, seems like a losing strategy for a government. Certainly, plenty of Chinese dynastic leaders up to Empress Dowager Longyu, ousted in 1912, learned that the hard way.

Suppressing the history of June Fourth, barring free speech and banning even discussion of a free press, won’t keep Chinese people from learning about these things. Even keeping June Fourth off the Internet in China won’t do the trick. Do leaders really not think the 190,000 Chinese now studying in the U.S. won’t hear about it? What of those studying elsewhere, including in Hong Kong or other parts of Asia? Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the tragic event. An even brighter spotlight will be shone on the massacre then. Facing up to that dark history in the coming year might be a far better approach than tightening the lid on that bubbling pot even more.

My kind of town, Chicago is …

ChiBluesNearly 13 years ago, my editor at BusinessWeek warned me to put on my combat helmet when a cover story by a group of us in the Chicago bureau hit the streets. The piece, “Chicago Blues,” reported that the city was slipping as a business capital. We discussed how its financial markets were shrinking, it was losing corporate headquarters, high-tech entrepreneurs were making tracks for the Coast and the toddlin’ town wasn’t even really The Second City anymore — LA stole that ranking as it became a magnet for Midwesterners and others looking to live in a place on the rise.

All of it was true. And reading about all of it, editor Steve Shepard knew, would really tick off people in Chicago.

Now, it’s Rachel Shteir and the editors at the New York Times Book Review who have found — probably to their dismay — that it’s their turn to get out the flak jackets. Shteir, a New Jersey-born professor at Chicago’s DePaul University, lit into the Windy City in a front-page essay for a long list of all-too-unsettling truths. Fifteen-year-olds shot near President Obama’s home, racial segregation, financial strain, corrupt politicians — all of it masked by a boastful swagger about how NYC and other spots can’t hold a candle to the city by the lake.

As we did in 2000, Shteir is finding that Chicagoans don’t take kindly to national publications — especially New York-based ones — saying nasty things about their city. The outpouring of venom directed at her is stunning — “clueless,” “a vampire,” “elitist,” “mean-spirited,” “a poor, sad woman,” “maladapted,” “a disingenous shithead” and worse. And these were among the more civil comments posted in response to a Chicagomag.com piece, “Rachel Shteir Defends Her Anti-Chicago Essay in a Rare Q&A” by Carol Felsenthal.

The vileness of the responses is far worse than what we encountered, probably because people now feel untethered by any sense of civility when they’re sounding off on the Net. Coarseness and abuse are the order of the day, it seems. But the passion, defensiveness and unwillingness to brook any criticism is all too familiar. It’s a replay of what we ran into — honest, open and full discussion? Fuggedaboutit! Critical self-examination? Don’t bug me, a—-le!

ShteirIn fairness, we had some good thrust-and-parry discussions involving smart people. WTTW invited a colleague and coauthor of the piece, Roger Crockett, and me, onto “Chicago Tonight” to face off against Paul O’Connor of World Business Chicago and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s Jerry Roeper. Sure, we argued, but we all behaved like gentlemen, mostly. Indeed, Shteir appeared on the station with Phil Ponce to explain her criticisms, proving that the folks at WTTW have a lot of class. At a couple commercial stations, I’ve read, the hosts vented their outrage, but didn’t share the stage with Shteir (I don’t know if they invited her on or not).

But back in the BW storm, we also got blindsided. Some economic heavyweights staged a panel discussion at the Chicago Fed, as I recall, to explore Chicago’s economic health. But it was anything but a full and balanced discussion. It was more a highbrow ambush with nary a negative word to be heard. One would have thought Chicago was Edenic. The folks there didn’t bother asking me or anyone from BW to join them on the dais to make our case, but rather were happy to hold forth as if our arguments weren’t worth the trouble. Instead, they just ignored the data we had mustered and focused on things such as how bad traffic was, a sure sign of health, as I recall economist Diane Swonk arguing. Swonk in fact had a point about traffic, but what did that have to do with the losses of corporate headquarters, the inability of Sears to innovate and the fiery arguments at the Chicago futures exchanges about whether to modernize to try to catch up to European rivals?

As Shteir is finding, boosters will just change the grounds of the argument when uncomfortable truths don’t suit them. Can’t win the fight on your opponent’s terms? Just change the terms. Sadly, the ugly truths don’t go away. And the social problems Shteir is talking about — the crime, corruption and growing number of murders — seem to be moving even into better neighborhoods now. Check out the problems in Old Town with gangs on DNAinfo.comChicago, if you doubt that.

Screen shot 2013-04-25 at 10.06.04 PMShteir got under the skin of Mayor Rahm Emanuel with her polemic. His response: “Meet the people. Meet our neighborhoods. We have a lot to offer, which is why we’re a world-class city,” according to Felsenthal. That kind of shallow boosterism echoed what we heard from Mayor Daley. Not satisfied with a Q&A with him that we ran with the BW piece, Daley responded with a long letter that ended with “Life is good in Chicago, and it’s only going to get better.” Tragically, the gang violence and the continuing tragedy that is the Chicago school system both suggest otherwise.

Felsenthal goes over much of this ground in a couple posts in her blog in Chicagomag.com. Both the posts and the comments are worth a glance.

For my money, Shteir’s broadside doesn’t say enough about the many wondrous things about Chicago. The lakefront is unmatched. Michigan Avenue is a treasure. Neighborhoods, especially on the north side, are charming and liveable. New York, by contrast, is too crowded and just too much. The Cubs are great fun, though it would be nice if they won more often. The city has great art, great music, great culture, delightful restaurants. And, despite the invective hurled at Shteir, it has some great people.

But all that is at risk if Chicago can’t solve its corrosive problems, and the first step is facing up to them, not facing down the messenger. We wrote a lot in the BW piece about the shortcomings of the futures exchanges but, since then, those folks got their act together (we cannot take credit for that. I’m sure it was more a matter of dollars and common sense). They merged the Board of Trade and the Merc to form a global titan, CME Group. Bravo! Sadly, the city’s banking community is now mostly a ward of distant banking giants. Outfits that were once the pride of Chicago, such as Sears, are now pathetic shells. I wonder what we would find if we looked anew at the city’s business health (Note to the Bloomberg Businessweek bureau: take a look).

Chicago, to be sure, is not soon to become another Detroit, as Shteir suggests. It doesn’t depend on a sole industry that can suffer a near-death experience and take a city down with it. But will it look more like Detroit in, say, 25 years than it does today? That turns in part on whether the city can solve the problems people like Shteir have the guts to bring up, no matter what abuse they suffer for doing that.

Mrs. Thatcher, Simon Warner and me

ThePrimeMinisterThanks to the Prime Minister of England, Simon Warner and I met 33 years ago. Now, because of that PM’s death and the marvels of the Net, we’ve met again – electronically at least. And in that lay an intriguing tale of media, globalization and winding career paths.

Credit Margaret Thatcher first of all. The feisty Conservative lioness, derided or admired as “the Iron Lady,” was running the U.K. when I was lucky enough in 1980 to be chosen for a journalism exchange program created by the English-Speaking Union. Chartered by the Queen, the E-SU promotes friendship among English-speaking peoples and had enough clout to get me into 10 Downing St. to sit with the PM for a while.

Imagine what a thrill this was for a 25-year-old reporter for a little New Jersey paper, The Home News. Mostly, I wrote about small-town mayors and the occasional county official. Now, I would get to interview a sitting PM, one who cut a swath culturally and politically almost as big as that of her buddy, Ronald Reagan. Some loved her, many hated her and I’d get to write about her.

The ways of politicians can be mysterious, of course, so things didn’t turn out quite as I expected.

Simon, right in the photo above, was the first surprise. Someone decided a young American reporter should be paired with a young British reporter for a sit-down with Mrs. Thatcher. That was no problem, of course. We met at 10 Downing St. on the big day, July 14, equally excited about our big interview. Back then, exclusivity wouldn’t matter much, since we worked on different continents.

But then, as we waited in an anteroom, the PM’s PR man delivered the bad news. The London media were in high dudgeon about a couple young journos – one an American! – getting access to Thatcher when she had no time for them. Some reporter even wrote a snarky piece about it (long before anyone heard the word snarky). So, the conversation would have to be off the record. No notebooks, no tape recorders, no interview story.

simon_warner09Weeks of boning up went out the window, but, okay, we’d meet anyway. And we did. We had a fine time, talking mostly about innocuous things, such as her son’s adventures around the world. Mostly, Simon and I listened, unable to get a word in edgewise with the imposing Mrs. Thatcher (not that she needed us to, of course). Simon’s editors, with the help of a local Member of Parliament, later negotiated the chance for him to write about the conversation a bit for his paper, The Chester Observer. I got a piece for my paper out of the visit, but just shared my impressions of the PM and spelled out her successes, failures and fights in office. Happily, we could run the photo of the meeting.

Fast forward to this past week. Touched by Mrs. Thatcher’s death, I tracked down Simon, with just a few clicks on Google (smiling in the head shot to the right here today). He rose through the ranks in journalism, becoming arts editor at a couple regional papers in the 1980s, did media relations in arts and education, and became a live rock reviewer for The Guardian during the 1990s. He earned a master’s in popular music studies, then a Ph.D., and now serves as a Lecturer at Leeds University. He’s a prolific writer, with at least five books about major cultural figures dear to Boomers. These include “Rockspeak: The Language of Rock and Pop,” “Howl for Now: A celebration of Allen Ginsberg’s epic protest poem,” “The Beatles and the Summer of Love,” “New York, New Wave: From Max’s and the Mercer to CBGBs and the Mudd Club,” and his latest, the just-issued “Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture.”

text-and-drugs-and-rock-n-rollThe similarities in our career paths intrigue me. We both wound up working for national pubs and both wound up leaving workaday journalism for the academy. Though I spent my career mostly in business news, we also both have written about popular culture and figures important to fellow Boomers (my book about the legacy of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles guru, and his followers’ community in Fairfield, Iowa, is due out early next year). We’re both fans of the Beats (though I mostly left them behind in high school, while Simon has dug deeply into those folks and the long shadow they’ve cast. Gotta love the photo on his latest book cover).

Nowadays, we both also wonder about the future of journalism. Simon emailed me about it: “The media business remains close to my heart but how can print survive? Transatlantically, the great newspaper empires are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Can paywalls work? Can Internet advertising eventually bridge the losses to income that traditional papers, with their shrinking readerships, are suffering? The Guardian, to which I contributed for several years, is attempting to raise its US profile but can that bring dividends? Meanwhile, the middle-market Daily Mail is proving a web hit, of course, overtaking the NYT in terms of visitors!”

Also like me, Simon blogs. He wrote about his media adventures in 2009 in his “Words of Warner.” Interesting read.

So, we’ve enjoyed somewhat parallel lives on different sides of the Atlantic. Their arcs don’t quite reflect that of Lady Thatcher, who lived on a far grander stage, of course. But, at a nice point for all of us, our paths crossed. And now, thanks to the same technology that is upending the media, Simon and I get to say hello again. I plan to buy his latest book, snapping it up as an ebook I can read on my iPad. Small and surprising world, isn’t it?

Raise a Glass for the Class of ’72

Astonishing as it is, my old friends and I just gathered at our 40th high school reunion. How can this be, when in so many ways we’re still 17? Wasn’t it just yesterday that we knocked around in tattered VW bugs and sung our heads off at rock concerts by the likes of Springsteen (who played a mixer at our school before he drew slightly bigger crowds)? Are we no longer the sharp-tongued guys who tweaked the Establishment at every turn? What happened to the shaggy studs who charmed girls and worried parents all across New Jersey?

Ah, blame the clock and calendar. As the reunion drove home – and my students in Nebraska these days demonstrate as they morph from high schoolers into college grads – we all change over time. Many of my old friends (though, infuriatingly, not all) have, ahem, somewhat higher foreheads now. Our scraggly beards and mustaches have silvered over. The last superstar I saw live was Dylan and he’s far grayer and now sings in an aging rasp. For most of us, Establishment-tweaking ended long ago, as we became the Man. And, as for charming the girls, well, they now are our wives and daughters and, for some of us, granddaughters.

Funny how that all happened. My father, of blessed memory, said just a few years ago that he looked up one day and, with the snap of his fingers, suddenly saw how the decades had rushed by. Lately, I feel much the same. I’ve now got three kids in their twenties (two of them already in the northern half of that stretch). They’ve got jobs and lives of their own, far from the home my wife and I have made in Nebraska. These days, it’s tough getting us all even on the same continent at the same time, an issue as the years fly by ever more quickly. So much has changed in such a dazzlingly short time.

Of course, the changes have been good – mostly. Education freed us of the illusions of youth. Hard experience stripped away the follies we cherished as kids. The loves we had as teens, fueled by hormones and naivete, gave way to the deeper passions of adulthood. We grew up, just as people always have. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s line about how dense his father was when he (Twain) was 14 but how much the man had learned by the time Twain turned 21.

And yet, it was remarkable to see how these changes played out in friends at the reunion. Many, like me, now honor ideals we once scoffed at. Where some of us marched against the Vietnam War and wanted no part of the military, we now honor the service of young men like my son, now serving in harm’s way as an Air Force officer. While some of us once thought capitalism was the seat of evil, we now see it as a world-changing force for good. Some of us who once spurned the laws that limited our fun – hey, it was all about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, after all — now hold to those laws as lawyers, judges and police officers.

Not all of us were quite so rebellious, of course. Our class valedictorian went to West Point and later became an Army Ranger. He was a great guy, a truly nice guy, in high school, even though we sat – literally – on opposite sides in an English class divided between Romantics and Classicists, anti-Establishment types and those solidly on the side of The System. He remains a great guy now. Another classmate worked his tail off, went on to Princeton and now shapes young minds at Notre Dame. Still another, a good soul with a warm heart, went on to serve his community as a police officer, someone who saves lives.

We were a mixed lot, the class of 1972. We entered high school as clean-cut young men wearing jackets and ties (ours was an all-boys school). We left it far scruffier and more skeptical, maybe even cynical. The world around us turned upside down in those years and we were forced to take sides, as one of my sharpest classmates put it. We sometimes couldn’t see one another for the warm-hearted kids, the decent people, we were. Now, I think, we can.

Sadly, for many of us, experience has been a brutal tutor. We stood in silence for a time at my reunion for the dozen of us now gone. Some fell to dread diseases of the era, including AIDS. One, a Port Authority policeman, died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center; he had rushed there to help rescue people and was caught inside when the buildings fell. He left behind dear friends who will never forget him. He was, indeed, a hero, as dear friends described him. How can so many of us be gone already? How many more will be by the time the 50th reunion rolls around?

High school reunions are times to think fondly of those we’ve lost and think kindly toward those we’ve grown distant from. They give us the chance to tell friends we haven’t seen in a while just how important they were during those crazy teen years. Careers and families took many of us far from our roots in central New Jersey. We don’t see one another as we lead our lives in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and other far-flung places. That’s a pity.

It was good to catch up with folks once so important to me. I’d like to stay in touch. And I look forward to our next big reunion. For all of us, I’m sure, it will come round far sooner than we expect.

Free and foul speech: the Islamic uproar

As Muslims across the world protest the American-made movie trailer that ridicules Islam, the collision of values between the West and the Islamic world seems never to have been so stark. Free speech versus respect. Tolerance as opposed to ideological despotism. Openness to criticism and debate instead of muzzling.

What stance must we in journalism take on this fight? Anyone who espouses freedom of thought and expression, it would seem, cannot side with those who would suppress it. No matter how noxious or vulgar that expression is, the right of all to say what we think is fundamental for journalists. More than that, free expression is central to a democracy, a core value. The open exchange of ideas, we believe in the West, leads to progress as the best ideas win out and the weakest wither.

If Islam and the teachings of its prophet do offer the best ideas, are they not strong enough to withstand the amateurish rant of a fraudster and a few friends in California? Surely they are. Is Islam so fragile that its followers must murder Americans to defend it? Absolutely not. Are its ideas so weak that a 14-minute movie trailer can undermine it? No. And is the feeble little film really so powerful that the faithful cannot simply shrug it off?

But far more than a battle of ideas is involved here. Fouad Ajami, the Stanford academic and a Muslim himself, traces the fervor in the eruptions in the Muslim world to “a deep and enduring sense of humiliation.” In his insightful column in The Washington Post, “Why is the Arab world so easily offended?,” he traces the rise and fall of Islam as a cultural and economic force among the nations. Where adherents once dominated much of the civilized world, thriving and making huge contributions to art and science, millions now struggle in poverty, envying the West and blaming it for their sorry state. Many now crave nothing more than to move to Europe or the U.S., even as others set fire to the American flag or trample Western embassy signs.

Further, fundamentalist opportunists in places such as Egypt and Libya pounce on any opportunity to capitalize on these feelings of inadequacy and fragility. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and his friends gave them the perfect excuse to target even an American as friendly to the Muslim world as J. Christopher Stevens, the late ambassador to Libya who aided in the work of rebels there seeking to oust a despot. “Innocence of Muslims” was a gift to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their ilk as they seek to turn back the clock instead of embracing the possibilities for improvement of their societies in the 21st Century.

The ideas in the trailer – such as they are – certainly are obnoxious and offensive. Knowledgeable critics say they are flat wrong. But since that is so, would the piece not simply die of its own trivial weight? Is not the best response for the Islamic world simply to ignore the film, to brush it off as a piece of lint that floats momentarily onto the rich tapestry of Islamic history and belief? The Catholic Church, after all, survived intemperate artistic criticisms, such as “Piss Christ,” the 1987 photo by an American artist depicting a crucifix in urine. Judaism has survived such bogus attacks as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or vile marches by would-be Nazis in Skokie, Illinois.

There is nothing wrong with civil protest, even outside embassies – far removed as they may be from Hollywood. Indeed, advocates of free speech should welcome that. Bigotry needs to be countered whenever it arises and the bigotry of this film must be condemned. So, too, must the foulness of anti-Semites be opposed. And anti-American sentiments must be countered wherever they arise. But there’s no excuse, of course, for killing. And the answer to free speech should just be more free and better speech, eloquence instead of ignorance. Certainly, it should not be violence.

Still, the danger of the Muslim world erupting in such passion against the trailer is that it gives the filmmaker a far bigger stage than he deserves. The fervid reaction launches a film few would have heard of into superstardom. The same was true of the anti-Islamic Florida pastor, Terry Jones, who advocated burning copies of the Quran. Such men and their “work” don’t deserve the fame the protesters confer upon them. The best response, perhaps, is no response. Instead of burning flags and scaling embassy walls, why not educate the West on how the anti-Islamic ideas are baseless?

Ideas matter, of course. Plenty of wrongheaded ones have led societies astray – just look at the legacy of Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler and their like. But it’s only by letting ideas compete freely, by letting people shop in the intellectual marketplace, that the best ideas come to the fore and the weakest die.

This is, of course, a recent notion. Not so long ago, people in the West could lose their lives for blasphemy. Our current view of the value of free expression hasn’t taken root in the Islamic world yet – and it may never do so. But, as Ajami sagely writes, “Modernity requires the willingness to be offended.” Much to the regret of the West and to the disservice of the Arab world, he says the heartland of Islam lacks that willingness.

Last night, my wife and I saw “Ai Wewei: Never Sorry,” the astute documentary by Alison Klayman about a courageous artist’s struggle for freedom of expression in China. Ai does things the authorities cannot abide, such as producing a video in which a string of people, including himself, say “Fuck you, Motherland.” He embarrasses police who assault him by filming them. He is subjected to constant surveillance and winds up arrested and detained for 81 days. His art studio in Shanghai, which officials once encouraged, is destroyed. He’s a thumb in the eye to those who would suppress free expression.

Freedom of expression must be cherished and protected. Ai’s criticisms are powerful and important. The California fraudster’s are not. In each case, however, totalitarians cannot be allowed to throttle their voices. Let them speak. Counter them, if necessary, or heed them. Ignore them if that’s appropriate. In the end, a critic’s barbs will stick only if they deserve to.