Face You Don’t Know, Name You Should: Fred Hiatt Dead at 66

This is truly sad news to learn.

The reason can be summed up with this quote from reporter Scott Pelley.

Democracies succeed or fail based on their journalism.

Fred Hiatt was doing his part, smartly and consistently, for his nation and profession.

Fred Hiatt, a onetime foreign correspondent who in 2000 became The Washington Post’s editorial page editor and greatly expanded the global reach of the newspaper’s opinion writers in the era of 9/11, the election of Barack Obama and the destabilizing presidency of Donald Trump, died Dec. 6 at a hospital in New York City. He was 66.

He had sudden cardiac arrest on Nov. 24 while visiting his daughter in Brooklyn, said his wife, Margaret “Pooh” Shapiro, and did not regain consciousness. He had been treated for heart ailments in the past.

Mr. Hiatt was one of Washington’s most authoritative and influential opinion-makers. For two decades, he either wrote or edited nearly every unsigned editorial published by The Post — more than 1,000 a year — and edited the opinion columns published on the paper’s op-ed page and website. He also wrote a column and was a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing.

There is clearly a hole in the heart of many Post reporters and staffers today. But if you have read the editorials from that famed newspaper you know the story is never finished, the next layer of our history not yet reported, analyzed, and opined over. There is another edition of the paper just hours away from publication.

The high and demanding standards that Hiatt brought to his job, are the ones that newspaper readers need and our democracy requires from journalists. The best way to honor Fred Hiatt is to carry on that quality of work and sense of duty to the nation.

In the words of Walter Cronkite, “Journalism is what we need to make democracy work.”

And so it goes.

Newspaper Headlines Might Need A Comma

I have read newspapers since my boyhood days in Hancock, Wisconsin where the first treasure to be found each day was the comic strip Buz Sawyer.

Over the years, I have noted the changes to papers regarding the size, font, and even the placement of color photos on the front page. Newspaper readers, I have found, take their papers seriously and comment on various aspects of the published pages.

As with, in my estimation, the need for commas in some headlines.

The headline above, from the September 26, 2021 edition of The Wisconsin State Journal, screams out for the use of commas.

While commas are not often used in newspaper headlines, they do at times appear. But then when they really do need to be placed in the headline, but are omitted, it makes for an awkward outcome. How much better the following headline looks, and reads with commas.

4th voter, out of 3 million, charged with fraud

I like newspapers that run a tighter editing shop than how the State Journal has, more recently, allowed for stories to be written or as in this case, headlines to be constructed. Economic downturns in the profession have hit everywhere, and so I am mindful of why staff reductions are reflected on the pages.

I also very much grasp the fact that almost no one cares anymore about such fussiness but such things do matter. Newspapers still should set a standard of grammar and punctuation that is instructive to the rest of us.

I would trust that idea never becomes ‘old-fashioned’.

And so it goes.

All Can Relate Going Home Again, Even To Kabul

Without doubt the best story to come from the Sunday newspapers was written by Mujib Mashal, who was but a child when Kabul was freed from the Taliban in 2001. He now works at the New Delhi bureau of the New York Times. Hours before Kabul fell to the dreaded Taliban he again took to the streets that he called home.

It is a story that resonates with all who know the feeling of walking again the streets from whence we came. It is simly a remarkable read.

I found a window seat in the back of a bus headed downtown, passengers in front of me and the uncertainty of the city around us. Some held documents, others scrolled on their phones. An eighth grader clung to his geography book — it was the last of his summer exams.

In the second to last row of seats, a middle-aged man fidgeted with his old Nokia phone and constantly made calls. Refugees from other provinces, fleeing the last stretch of intense fighting, were still streaming into Kabul, and he was calling friends and relatives offering to host them.

“The two rooms upstairs are still empty,” he told one person, insisting the family stay with him, as two other friends already had. “Of course, of course — for you a thousand times, anything you need.”

Everyone on the bus seemed tense, and it didn’t take much for things to boil over: It was one young man in the back row, briefly lowering his surgical mask (lest we forget that Covid was still stalking us) to put a pinch of tobacco into his cheek.

The man on the phone looked at him and couldn’t help himself. “Is that even good for your health?” he said, gesturing at the tobacco.

The young man stared at him, said nothing, and lifted his mask. But the man next to him, a lawyer named Zabihullah, stepped in.

“The Taliban haven’t even come to Kabul and you are policing people’s behavior?” he told the middle-aged man.

Then it was all argument, wild and loud, about everything: corruption, democracy, failure, change.The older man said the Taliban could at least end the kleptocracy and what he called the “vulgarity” of society and bring order. The young lawyer lost it.

“You think the only thing that came of the past 20 years was vulgarity?” he said. “I am also made in the past 20 years. You think I am vulgar?”

The older passenger tried to correct his statement, bring nuance, but the lawyer wouldn’t hold back.

“If you think the Taliban will practice true Islam, you are wrong. I can argue with you all night with proof to show you that what they practice is Talibanism and not true Islam,” he said.

The man with the phone turned back in his seat and muttered under his breath: “There is no point in arguing with you.”

When we hit traffic, the lawyer and I got off the bus and walked. He was trying to process documents for his final exam to become a judge. He was completing a two-year equivalent of a highly competitive master’s degree — something like 13,000 applicants had sought the 300 slots, he said. On the side, he was a masterful calligrapher, continuing a dying tradition of reed and ink calligraphy. He showed me samples of his work on his phone.

“Twenty years of effort, and all for nothing,” he said as we said goodbye.”

Why Most Americans Did Not Know Of Problems In Afghanistan

The assessment of what happened in Afghanistan over the past year, and how that translates into the chaos at the Kabul airport or the headlines being reported hourly is most worthy of our attention. There is no way to watch the bedlam and misery being unleashed following the Taliban takeover and not wonder what was missed leading up to the past weeks? Americans are asking how could the White House and Defense Department not have responded ‘more appropriately’?

The images from Afghanistan are gripping, the many questions have merit, and they absolutely require detailed responses. Some of those issues will start to be examined with Capitol Hill committee hearings this coming week.

But it also must be asked of the American public, “Where were you during the past 15 months when this removal process was being crafted by the Donald Trump Administration?” That is not a partisan jab, but rather a pointed reminder that the role of a citizen of this nation must include staying current with the affairs of the country.

While I understand the nation grew, rightly so, weary of a two-decade-long war it also needs stating the end of the American footprint in that war should have elicited more than a passing glance at how its conclusion was going to proceed.

The brunt of my question does not land solely on the average American sitting on their sofa, but in equal measure to the main television networks which did a most miserable job of reporting what the Trump White House was proposing for the military withdrawal. Additionally, the public needed to have been aware of the snail pacing of the application process so as to move certain Afghan citizens (and their families) out of that nation for their safety.

International publications such as The Economist were constant and probing with their reporting on Afghanistan, the BBC without doubt ‘on top’ of each development, and monthly offerings such as Foreign Policy examining in-depth the options and policy proposals in that nation. BUT the majority of the nation receives their news from network evening broadcasts.

The networks, however, proved to be simply embarrassing with their coverage of this international story.

Out of a combined 14,000-plus minutes of the national evening news broadcast on CBS, ABC, and NBC last year, a grand total of five minutes were devoted to Afghanistan, according to Andrew Tyndall, editor of the authoritative Tyndall Report, which has monitored and coded the networks’ nightly news each weekday since 1988. 

Those five minutes, which covered the February 2020 Doha agreement between the United States and the Taliban, marked a 19-year low for Afghanistan coverage on the three networks’ newscasts. They compared to a high of 940 minutes the networks devoted to Afghanistan in 2001, all of it following 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. intervention, as shown below.

While the pathetic amount of coverage of the conflict last year can be partially explained by the virtually total dominance of the news agenda by the COVID-19 pandemic, the three networks devoted a total of only 362 minutes to Afghanistan in the preceding five years, or just two hours of coverage per network, or an average of only 24 minutes per network per year.

My pointing out this lapse in reporting from the networks does not absolve the responsibility of a citizen to stay informed. PBS News Hour is a weeknight offering and is thoroughly substantive concerning events of the day. Not seeking such news reporting can only be placed upon the individual.

Many Americans now weighing into the ‘whys’ and ‘what-ifs’ regarding events in Afghanistan are doing so mostly blind. That will result in stilted hearings, with certain politicians playing to the under-informed base. That is not the way to make for a true and complete analysis of the events leading up to the headlines of the recent past.

This is just one more example as to why an informed citizenry is a must for a working, competent republic.

And so it goes.

Fallout From Taliban Power Grab

There are countless spokes of the story to follow concerning the fall of the government in Afghanistan. From military planning to intelligence gathering, to the political ramifications on nations surrounding the Taliban’s conquest, to the temper of the times in the United States. There is no way to be bored with the world headlines this week.

I found the resolve of local journalists during a news conference in Afghanistan to be uplifting, and seemingly determined to do the job their profession demands. Which is far more than can be said for the Afghan military.

The news conference was a show pony aimed at convincing world powers and a rightfully fearful Afghan population that the Taliban have changed. Right!! One must assume that the effort was also aimed at the broader international community who know these are the same barbarians that were last in power 20 years ago. The only new thing about the ones now in charge would be the new generations of Taliban body lice.

“Taliban spokesman ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID “promised the Taliban would honor women’s rights, but within the norms of Islamic law, though he gave few details,”……Then there was this…..After Mujahid says Taliban have announced all encompassing amnesty, Afghan reporter asks — do you think the people of Afghanistan will forgive you too for the explosions and suicide bombings? Mujahid’s response: ‘[collateral] damage’ happens.”

Meanwhile back in the world of modernity, the screws are starting to be tightened on the Taliban.

“The Biden administration on Sunday froze Afghan government reserves held in U.S. bank accounts, blocking the Taliban from accessing billions of dollars held in U.S. institutions, according to two people familiar with the matter. The decision was made by Treasury Secretary JANET YELLEN and officials in Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the people said.

Cutting off access to U.S.-based reserves represents among the first in what are expected to be several crucial decisions facing the Biden administration about the economic fate of that nation following the Taliban takeover. Afghanistan is already one of the poorest countries in the world and is highly dependent on American aid that is now in jeopardy. The Biden administration is also likely to face hard choices over how to manage existing sanctions on the Taliban, which may make it difficult to deliver international humanitarian assistance to a population facing ruin, experts say.

The United States did not need any new authority to freeze the reserves, because the Taliban is already sanctioned under an executive order approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Adam M. Smith, who served on the National Security Council and as senior adviser to the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control during the Obama administration.”

I did read this morning a most interesting tidbit from a National Public Radio reporter, via a tweet from @DomenicoNPR

“There are a lot of comparisons being made bw the fall of Saigon & chaos in Kabul. I’m not saying this will happen, but it’s a pt to note that we don’t know everything… After Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, Ford’s approval rating went up — from 37% in March to 51% by June.”

Yesterday morning I wrote on that same track.

“There is no way to predict the fallout from this weekend, or the days to come, but the chaos of actual events, along with the heated rhetoric from the usual crowd might not be aligned with the larger mood of the country. I suspect there is a “silent majority’ who endorse our removal from Afghanistan this month.”

I make my way through the newspapers and editorial cartoons each morning. Without doubt, one drawing summed up all that the world is pondering over the past hours.

And so it goes.

WI Newspaper Uncovered Deaths Of Migrant Workers, Chicago Tribune Faces Hedge Fund Owner

This is one of those days when the news, and news of the ones who provide that information make for a timely, but sad, post.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel undertook an investigation into the deaths of migrant workers in Northern Wisconsin from COVID. They discovered that 1 in 14 migrant workers at a green bean plant died of COVID. The investigation also shows that the deaths occurred after company officials along with government regulators failed to take critical measures to protect employees during a pandemic.

Before I go forward with the story about the migrants I want it noted that a newspaper did the investigation. It underscores another reason why that profession matters. Very much.

The Journal Sentinel investigation shows that neither Seneca Foods nor local health officials tested all workers—even those living in company barracks — or interviewed them to do contact tracing. That is simply appalling, given the ferocity of the virus and the science behind both testing and tracing. As if that all is not enough it was also reported that the company did not monitor for obvious symptoms or isolate all those who became ill.

To top off the indefensible actions of one of America’s largest packaged vegetable companies, which produces Green Valley and Libby’s brand green beans it was reported that many of the affected workers were in their 60s or 70s.

That newspaper investigation demonstrates why reporters and journalists in that profession matter so much to our society. Information and background that we otherwise would not be aware of, and insight into the workings of a large corporation during a pandemic.

But as that news was being published in Wisconsin there was another news story taking place across the Illinois border.

Tribune Publishing, owner of some of the biggest metropolitan newspapers in the United States, including the famed Chicago Tribune, is poised to be acquired by a hedge fund with a reputation for slashing costs and cutting jobs after the company’s shareholders voted to approve the deal.

That news is simply awful.

Hedge funds are akin to those who once sold cure-all elixirs door-to-door. They are best termed as “vulture capitalists”. It also should come as no shock Alden has done great harm to other papers around the nation. Chopped them up after purchasing for the all-consuming zeal to make money.

But there is also a more fundamental issue to consider with the amassing of properties in large media companies. When papers are owned in such a fashion opposing views are marginalized and Op-Ed pages are watered down.

The Tribune newsroom has already shrunk roughly 30% since November 2018, from about 165 journalists in the union to 118 presently. Those are not just jobs, but news reporters who head around neighborhoods to gather the stories which inform readers.

Today we can see why newspapers matter. And also why we need to be very concerned about their future health.

Welcome Yamiche Alcindor, Thanks To Gwen Ifill

Washington Week has been a Friday night staple (or now a Saturday morning DVR viewing) since I was a teenager. Over the decades Public Television consistently has provided this program with top reporters and journalists as they sift through the news of the week and provide analysis and perspective. This weekend a new chapter started for the show with Yamiche Alcindor taking the reins. I am very pleased with the choice for the anchor.

I really gravitated towards Paul Duke who anchored the show when I started watching in my high school years. He would continue for two decades. During those years I was fascinated by Duke for the reason he was substantive but always serene and laid back. People who commanded attention with such a calm demeanor have always appealed to me when it comes to news programming.

Then I simply loved the nearly 16 years that Gwen Ifill took on the role and dived into the issues each week. I just knew there was something smart and steady with her hand on the broadcasts. She became one of the first African American women to preside over a major national political show.  The announcement of her death came to me as I sat in a dentist chair with CNN broadcasting above my head.

She was not just another reporter or journalist I turned to for news.  She was more than a graceful and bright interviewer who added context to the headlines.  What made Ifill special was her presence on television, that even in bad times, made us aware there was a way to think it through and make sense out of what had happened.

America needs ‘stabilizers’ such as she proved to be for decades.  In times of confusion over complex Supreme Court cases, or after savage terrorism she had the ability to pry into the mix of facts and report so a deeper and more seasoned view could be had.  She had a keen sense for getting to the center of the story with her interviews.  And through it all, I just knew that she would be a pure delight off camera.

Now the leading chair at Washington Week features Yamiche Alcindor, a reporter that is fact-based, intelligent, and mindful of the journalism which needs to be done for the changing demographics and power structures in the nation. On her first broadcast, she paid tribute to the guiding hand of Ifill, and it was a most fitting hand in glove approach as the show moves forward.

Friday nights have obviously changed since my years as a teenager in Hancock, or the ones when as a young adult I watched the show in my first apartment. Now I have Saturday morning breakfast and view the broadcast recorded from the previous evening. No matter, however, where or when the show is watched the professional nature of Washington Week has never altered itself.

And so it goes.

May 3rd: World Press Freedom Day

At the center of our freedoms is the ability of journalists to report events and for the citizenry to learn about the workings of their government. The need for press freedom is so great, and the attempts by some governments to curtail the work of journalists so egregious, that May 3rd is designed as World Press Freedom Day.

It comes as no surprise that this day, and what it represents matters to us all since it is a foundational fact that journalists do the valued work of democracy. For those who work in places where rights are fewer this day is a reminder to those governments that they must be aware that the rest of the world is watching. This day is about recognizing the universal truth–whether or not it is applied in practice in each nation–that there must be a commitment to press freedom.

Also, this day is called to our attention so we can honor those who died in the line of duty when gathering and reporting the news. In addition, we need to be reminded about those reporters who are being held captive for simply doing their jobs.

One of those is an American, Austin Tice.

In May 2012, Austin Tice chose to go to Syria as a freelance journalist. Austin went to tell the story of the ongoing conflict there and its impact on the ordinary people of Syria. In August 2012, Austin made his way just south of Damascus to write his final pieces. He planned to depart for Lebanon on August 14, three days after his 31st birthday. He got into a car in the Damascus suburb of Darayya to make the trip, but shortly after leaving was detained at a check point and has been held in Syria since.

Among the list of detained is Egyptian Solafa Magdy.

Solafa Magdy, a freelancer multimedia journalist, reported on politics and human rights and contributed to the last-standing independent newspaper in Egypt, Mada Masr. She was detained and charged with membership of a banned group and spreading false news. She has been imprisoned for more than four months with reported health issues.

We need to care about these people who are held captive and think of them as individuals. Also on this day, we need to realize that too many leaders of dictatorial, authoritarian, or populist governments do all they can, day in and day out, to bend and break journalists. These autocrats do all in their power to suppress information.

Therefore, it is vital we stand up for independent journalism and the fine women and men who undertake that most noble of professions.