Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

In addition to comments, I'd love to have guest posts. Please send ideas or full-blown posts to me at

Thursday, October 27, 2011

For More on the 4th District Race for Syracuse Common Council

A good, short piece on this race by Tim Knauss today in the Post-Standard.  If you'd like to hear more from the candidates directly in a substantive and lively half-hour conversation, see their recent appearance on the Campbell Conversations, which you can find here.  This is probably the most interesting and competitive race at the Common Council district level.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Three Syracuse Common Council Surprises

I had the pleasure of moderating the Syracuse Common Council candidate forum last night (Tuesday 10/25) at Nottingham High School, sponsored by Parents for Public Schools, the League of Women Voters, La Liga, and Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS).  Many of the Council candidates participated--11 in all. 

I was surprised at least three times during the evening.

First, I was surprised by something several of the candidates told me after the event--that there have not been any similar all-candidate, city-wide forums.  Some individual district candidates have done their own events, but generally, the public has had very little opportunity to hear from the candidates directly.

Second, and made more surprising by the first surprise, it appears that this forum will not get coverage in the Post-Standard.  The photographer was there, but I did not see a reporter, and an email today to one reporter suggests that it will not get covered.  Hopefully I'm wrong about that.

Third, and perhaps most surprising of all, was the response I got to an extemporaneous question I posed to those candidates who had opponents. 

Noting that elections were about choices for the voters, I asked them, when it comes to education policy, what the most important difference was between them and their opponents. 

Most of them really struggled to answer this, and in four cases, the response was that they didn't know enough about their opponent's positions to draw a contrast.  They wanted to talk about their own general qualifications instead.  I have to admit, I've been in this business for 30 years and I was stunned.  If you  don't know enough about what you and your opponent stand for to make a distinction, how do you run?  Do you leave this essential contrast to the voter to figure out without any information?  On election day you can only pull one lever (or in the at-large race, two out of four).

As it turned out, the one candidate who was most eager to answer the question had no opponent and volunteered something about his recent visits with education groups.  Another incumbent highlighted that she had prior experience on the council.  Ok, but that's still not the contrasting information I need as a voter trying to sort this out.

The two candidates who were willing and able to talk about their differences, civilly I would add, were Howie Hawkins and Khalid Bey, the candidates for the fourth district seat.  On that note, I'd encourage readers interested in city elections to check out their Campbell Conversations "debate" on WRVO, which you can find here, and where they develop these differences at greater length.

Of course, when it comes to incomplete information things can get worse, and they did not too long ago in my own voting district East of Syracuse, when, in a school board election, there were only as many candidates as spots to fill and there was ABSOLUTELY NO policy-relevant information provided about the candidates.  And according to the school district, there were no public forums. 

(Voters sigh here.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Strange and Intriguing Political Death Spiral of Ann Marie Buerkle and Dan Maffei

Despite getting increasingly disgusted with some of the political rhetoric I've been hearing and reading (see earlier posts on this), I still love the way that politics creates strange ironies and paradoxes.

Here's one I've been pondering a bit recently:  Given likely redistricting outcomes, Dan Maffei and Ann Marie Buerkle desperately need each other. 

Why is this a paradox?  Because, based on watching the two of them debate and listening to what they have said publicly about each other--and not said--I'm going to go out on a limb and assert that they are not the best of pals.

But in considering possible redistricting schemes here in this area, their best--and perhaps only--chance of winning back or keeping a congressional seat in 2012 is if they can run against each other.

New York must give up two congressional districts, and pundits have identified the Syracuse area as ripe for getting carved up and merged into other existing districts, at the same time that those other districts are re-shaped.  There are several political reasons that this is the likely outcome--the subject for another blog perhaps.

But if this carving up were to happen, Ann Marie Buerkle would most likely be pitted against incumbent Richard Hanna in a Republican primary.  Hard to see her winning that match-up.  Hanna is a well-liked, bona fide moderate Republican.  Moderate Republican still fits this regional area well--just ask Joanie Mahoney for instance. 

The other scenarios have her running against a series of incumbent western Democrats, and given the politics of geography, those would be tough races for her (assuming she got the nomination).  The final more remote possibility is that she would take on Democrat Bill Owens, and in that race she'd have both geography and ideological positioning working against her.  Owens has established himself as a more moderate Democrat.

Dan Maffei has a similar problem, perhaps an even more severe version of it.  It's very hard to imagine him beating any of the aforementioned Democrats in a primary--and in some cases I doubt he'd even be likely to challenge them.  He'd be facing the same tough geographic politics, for one thing. 

In addition, despite the fact that he has run as a self-styled moderate, and also that he has some votes and positions to bolster that claim, I do not think he is solidly perceived to be particularly moderate, and perception is what counts in an election.  That would hurt him in a primary race against Bill Owens, for example.

But where that problem would really hurt him is in a general election against Richard Hanna.  Just like Buerkle, he'd be running against a well-liked bona fide moderate, and again, it's hard to imagine him winning that match-up if he's carrying any liberal baggage.

Of course, things can rapidly change in politics.  But the way it seems to be shaping up, the best hope either of them has is a re-match with the other.

Finally, A Political "Debate" That Worked

If you have any interest in the city of Syracuse, you might want to check out my recent Campbell Conversation program with Howie Hawkins and Khalid Bey, available on WRVO's website or through the Campbell Institute's website.

Perhaps the most intriguing local race this November is the match-up in the fourth City Council district between Democrat and Working Families Party candidate Bey and Green Party candidate Hawkins.  Hawkins has run for many seats in the past, including governor and U.S. Senator, and not come close to winning, but the last time he ran for city council he garnered about 40 percent of the vote.  This race may be his best shot.  The seat is typically held by a Democrat.  In this lively conversation, the two candidates describe the specific new initiatives they would propose to the Council, the most important differences between them, and the biggest challenges facing the city.  In individual questions, Hawkins addresses how he’d try to be effective as a third party member on a Council dominated by Democrats, and Bey explains what phrases on his personal website like “Egyptian and Taoist alchemy” mean for his own personal development, and how he’d try to work in a bi-partisan manner if elected. 

[update:  The personal website providing that information appears to have been taken down since the interview.]

It's tough to get at meaningful substance in a short debate with political candidates, but in this conversation, I think the listener can walk away with a pretty good read on what each of them would emphasize in office, and what the most important differences are between them.  You can also begin to get a more general sense of how they think and who they are. 

One thing that helped the effort is that it seemed clear to me that these two candidates had some measure of respect for each other, and may even like each other.  This seemed to contribute to their general lack of defensiveness and caution and the absence of silly caricatures of what their opponent stood for.

Give it a listen and see what you think.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Getting Real on Global Warming

This week on The Campbell Conversations I’m talking with Dan Grossman, a freelance environmental journalist who has frequently appeared on NPR and the BBC, and has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Scientific American.  He’s won a host of prestigious awards and been funded by many highly respected organizations—among them the Peabody award, the National Science Foundation, and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.  In our conversation he puzzles over the enduring controversy surrounding global warming, despite the clear scientific consensus on it, and he describes some of the problems that scientists have in communicating their findings to the public.  Along the way he relates some of the more interesting people he’s encountered in his adventures—I found the story about using sawdust to try to save glacier ice particularly interesting.

What I was most struck by, however, was Dan’s forcefulness in putting on the table the extent of change—and even sacrifice—that, according to him, is required to really address global warming.  He notes that even among his friends and colleagues, who are tuned in to global warming as a problem, there is a false sense of consciousness about what it will take to change it.  This is a politically tough position to adopt, and you do not hear it frequently expressed by candidates.  So his puzzling left me puzzling—over how to introduce those difficult conversations into meaningful political discussions.  I don’t have a ready answer for that.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?

(Note:  I am on distribution lists for a variety of political organizations and no one's hands are clean.)

I just received a mass email from Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the two independents in Congress.  It starts like this:

"Republicans hate Social Security because it has been an extraordinary success and has done exactly what it was designed to do. It is the most successful government program in our nation's history and is enormously popular."

Personally, I am not a big fan of the attacks on Social Security, and I have found some of them to be completely off-base, but this just doesn't help things.  Until we stop talking this nonsense about those with whom we disagree, we are going nowhere politically. 

This has got to change, all around.  In this game of chicken, will someone grab the steering wheel please?

Hollow Judicial Elections?

This November we'll reprise the curious American tradition of electing judges.  Most other western nations, such as Britain, use nonpartisan or bipartisan panels of legal experts to recommend or fill these posts.  On balance, I think this is probably the better way to go, despite its apparent non-democratic character.

The reason?  The information that a citizen can gather about the candidates is horribly thin, and thus these races usually turn into name-recognition contests or party-affiliation affairs--funded by private donations--in which voters have no real clue what they're doing.

The judicial candidates don't help matters.  They are loath to associate any kind of pattern of decision-making with their party affiliation, and they all tend to run on the following platform:  I'm honest, I'm tough on criminals, and I'm caring toward families.  As if their opponents are running on a platform of lying, promoting crime, and beating up children. 

The candidates will also share photos of themselves with their spouse, two children, and a dog.  (Why never a cat?  I guess because, at the end of the day, you can't trust a cat.  Actually, I have a cat you can trust, but to be honest he's pretty dumb.  I digress.)

Even with the advent of the Internet, it's tough to find out anything substantive about the candidates.  Tom Buckel, a local candidate for State Supreme Court Judge, comes close, however.  He's got some information on his website about how he intends to limit the influence of campaign contributions, by pledging to recuse himself from cases where contributors are involved.  He's also posted his "judicial philosophy," but this is in essence a commitment to be fair, reasonable and competent.  It's not a set of issue positions.

To gather the information that one would need in order to made a good decision among the candidates, a voter would have to know the candidates personally, or spend time with them as they reason through legal conflicts and react to legal challenges, or read the things that they've written before they announced their candidacies.  That's just not realistic on a mass scale. 

But none of this is meant to suggest that it doesn't matter who occupies these positions.  They are crucial for a healthy society and a functioning democracy.  And the races are not tweedle-dee versus tweedle-dum.  It's just that our method of making the choice does not promote democratic aims.

I think I'll try to get at least one set of judicial candidates on The Campbell Conversations this fall, to see if it's possible to have a substantive discussion in which the candidates will meaningfully disagree with each other.  It will be an interesting experiment, if nothing else. 

Until then, look for the Labrador Retriever.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Changes to The Campbell Conversations Airing Schedule

The Campbell Conversations on WRVO will now be a stand-alone program airing at 6:30 p.m. on Fridays and 4 p.m. on Saturdays.  As before, it will also be available as a podcast through WRVO's website.  WRVO is going through some staff reallocations and for now it has discontinued its "Weekly Edition" program, in which The Campbell Conversations had been embedded.  I'm excited that the program will now occupy an evening "prime-time" slot.

Please also note that for the upcoming program this week--my interview with Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle--the full interview will air at 4 p.m. on Saturday, and a somewhat shorter version of the interview will be broadcast on Friday morning during NPR's "Morning Edition," at 6:35 and 8:35.  The interview will not air Friday evening--that change becomes effective the following week.

If you are a listener to the program, I thank you for your support!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Remembering the Personal Loss of 9-11

On this week's Campbell Conversation interview--moved from its normal spot to the Morning Edition broadcast for Friday, September 9--I'm speaking with Mark Morabito.  Mark lost his wife, Laura Lee Defazio Morabito, in the September 11th attacks--she was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11, one of the two planes flown into the World Trade Center.  In this interview he remembers the day and looks back at the 10 years that have passed--and how that event, and that loss, have affected his own life.  What is a vivid historical event for most Americans is a wrenching personal loss for him.  He talks about how some of his political views, as well as his views about life and death, have changed, and he also describes how he plans to mark 9-11 this year.

I left the interview thinking about this combination of an immediate personal loss and a historical event that remains vivid for those old enough to remember it, but which is also receding in time.  And I was reminded of a moment several years ago when Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. visited our Syracuse campus to give a speech about the environment.  Along the way he referenced John F. Kennedy’s presidency and his memories of that era.  He then began a sentence with “When my uncle was murdered…,” which stopped me cold, and in that second reframed my sense of the Kennedy assassination—what had been a historical event captured on amateur film became a crime victim’s personal story. 

I imagine that dealing with that paradox will follow the families of the victims of 9-11 throughout their entire lives.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Inequality's Mountains

This week on the Campbell Conversations I'm talking with Pat Driscoll, the operations director for Syracuse’s Say Yes to Education Program.  Three years ago, Say Yes was rolled out with great expectations--words like “transformative” were used to describe the hoped-for impact of this program that blends an extensive in-class and extra-curricular support network with the ultimate promise of free college tuition.  Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, for example, appears to have hung her hat--and perhaps her re-election--on this program.

The program has had past success elsewhere in targeting smaller numbers of children within a school, but it’s never been applied to an entire school district.  I was curious to know whether it's realizing its promise, three years on.  The question is particularly timely, as the program is slated to be financed solely by the city  in 2013, and it would then account for ten percent of the entire school budget.  Given the layoffs we've already seen in the school district, it's likely that continuing this program will mean fewer traditional teacher lines.  I explore that question with Pat, and we also discuss just what makes the program so different from previous efforts to overcome the educational challenges that disadvantaged students face.

This interview left me thinking about those challenges--and just how steep they are for the children growing up in poor neighborhoods.  Study after study has documented the rise in inequality over the past 30 years, and the backpedaling in real terms for those living in the bottom half of the income distribution.  Housing patterns have also become more segregated during the same time period.  All of this further concentrates educational problems in certain school districts and certain schools.  I wonder whether any program rooted in the educational system, however broadly framed, can effectively address the challenges.  If the program ultimately fails to demonstrate significant measurable improvement, it may be more a testament to the difficulty of the task than a breakdown in design and implementation.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What's Good for the Goose....?

This week I'm talking with Syracuse's newly appointed Aviation Commissioner, Christina Reale (she had previously been serving in this post in an interim capacity).  Her position entails the overall management of, and planning for, the Syracuse airport--and there have been a lot of recent press stories related to the airport.  We discuss the plans for the airport's renovation--and the financing for that renovation--as well as the decision to change its governance structure from being city controlled to operating under an independent regional authority.  We also discuss the airport’s long-term fiscal health, the pricing at the airport (for both concessions and flights), the growing role of women in aviation management, and the large-scale changes in passengers’ airport experiences, post 9-11. 

I left this conversation thinking about the twists, turns, and ironies in political arguments.  The argument in favor of an independent regional authority, which the Syracuse mayor strongly supports, is almost precisely the same argument that the Syracuse School Board has made to remain independent of the mayor's office--that having an independent body with one focus (either the airport or the school system) will lead to better decision-making and better management than a structure in which there are many competing objects of attention.  But also note that the new regional airport authority will have a majority of seats appointed by the mayor, so perhaps this is a middle ground of sorts that might ultimately be followed for the school board.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Silver Lining in the British Newspaper Hacking Scandal

...That is, beyond the obvious silver lining if you're a supporter of the Labour Party, as the association between David Cameron (and Andy Coulson) and Murdoch can only help Labour (note that Blair and Brown courted him as well, but it's the timing that matters in this case). 

What I have in mind here, however, is something less obvious and admittedly, much smaller beer (to use a British phrase). 

Had the plans for the full acquisition of B-Sky-B gone through, News Corp would have had to shed its Sky News channel, in order not to run afoul of the British rules and expectations about impartiality in broadcast news.  Indeed, this move was part of the plan for the acquisition. 

Sky News provides essentially the only real alternative to the BBC's main streaming news channel (aside from CNN), and is a quality product.  But it doesn't make money--it's run instead as a "loss leader" by Murdoch, and is cross-subsidized by other lucrative satellite channels, in particular sports (and even more specifically football).

Having it taken over by another independent entity would have certainly gutted the operation.  So if Sky News is spared, the Brits get to keep one additional quality news channel.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Dual Masters of a Newspaper

Tomorrow on the Campbell Conversations I’m talking with Tim Atseff from The Syracuse Post-Standard.  Prior to his recent retirement, Tim had worked 46 years for the paper (yes, 46), starting off as a copy boy and working his way up through the art department to become a managing editor, before creating and editing three regional magazines published by the paper’s parent company—Central New York Magazine (sometimes called The Good Life), CNY Business Exchange, and Central New York Sports.  In this interview, he looks back at his time with the paper, and reflects on the new economic challenges the industry is facing.  He also discusses the highpoints and lowpoints of the paper’s performance, its coverage of the Destiny project and its political endorsements, and the business models for the new magazines he created. 

The interview left me thinking about the dual roles of a newspaper—on the one hand a profit-driven business that happens to supply information as its product, and on the other a public-service institution that’s uniquely responsible for providing its community the civic information it requires in order to function democratically.  Both roles were evident in the way that Tim talked about his experiences over the years.  Clearly there are inherent tensions between the two—had there been more time, I would have liked to explore the paper’s coverage of Destiny in more detail, for example.  A former colleague of mine now teaching at Harvard, Tom Patterson, has argued that the profit-driven role leaves the American media poorly suited to fill its public service role (see his book Out of Order, among others).  I don’t have a ready substitute in mind, though in the broadcast world I am a big fan of the BBC (and of course NPR!).  The “Beeb” or “Auntie,” as the BBC is often called, provides several TV channels and a variety of quality radio stations, along with a really fine website.  I think the British citizens get pretty good value for their license fee.  But I continue to ponder the American conundrum.

Yes, there are Internet-based outlets and there are other news publications in Syracuse, and there are of course broadcast outlets, but there really is no competitive alternative to The Post-Standard for the kind of product it supplies--as Tim points out in the interview.  So given its civic role, in some important respects the paper, despite being privately owned, is a unique public institution, and we need it to act like one if it is going to fill its role properly.  It's not clear how well that fits with a business model.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Like Blue Ribbon Commissions? Then Why Not Consider the Real Thing -- The House of Lords

Check out this week's Campbell Conversation from London (my work there has been the reason for the posting hiatus), in which I talk with one of Britain's leading experts on the structure of its political system--its "constitution" (the country has no codified constitution in the American sense).  He's Philip Norton, a Member of the House of Lords.  You can find the interview here.

Lord Norton offers many interesting observations about the myriad of political changes and reforms the country has either made or seriously considered over the past 15 years.  In some ways, the changes bring certain aspects of Britain's system closer to ours.

One such proposed change is to make the House of Lords into an elected chamber, versus the appointed body it is now.  Norton persuasively argues that from the perspective of high-quality policy-making and clear democratic accountability, the Lords fill an essential role that would be ruined by elections, and that an elected Lords would introduce new problems for democracy.

It's a provocative and thought-provoking interview, and given the American penchant for enlisting blue ribbon commissions when the political challenges get toughest, it contains some counter-intuitive suggestions for improving our own democracy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Somehow, Even More on J-E

In the opening of his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte--a work about the 1851 French coup d'etat by Napoleon's nephew--Karl Marx, remarking on Hegel's observation that history tends to repeat itself, quipped that "He forgot to add:  the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." 

What about the third time? 

Now the new superintendent of J-E is embroiled in a scandal regarding a contract and an apparent relationship with the director of operations.  This was the superintendent who took what I thought to be a too aggressive and overly closed-off approach toward public comment in the wake of the strong reactions against the board's dismissal of several administrators.

In a separate set of recent Post-Standard stories, it was also reported that there are state-level investigations into actions that occurred while these administrators were in place--the subject of my recent and now missing blog post (see below).  The most significant inquiry seems to be the state AG examining the treatment of student records.  It looks like the outcome of these investigations may suggest that the original decisions of the board were justified, but we'll have to see.  I had wondered about something like this months ago, and wrote as much--things just didn't make any sense otherwise.

But back to this latest development.  Everything has been under microscopes for months.  What was the thinking in drawing up and approving that contract, especially given the other matters suggested by the paper?

The other day I had written--in the now-missing post--that it will likely take a very long time, and some expert outside help from people J-E residents trust, in order for the community to recover from the past year.  Double that now.

Lost Post

I posted something on the Jordan-Elbridge saga the other day, and mysteriously, it is now not here.  Did anyone see it, or did it never appear?  There have been other smaller-scale strange happenings using this basic blog tool.  I will investigate.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Radical Proposal to Unchallenged Republican County Candidates -- A Real Debate Versus a Campaign

Yesterday's Post-Standard reported that the three top county-wide incumbent elected officials are not likely to face any Democratic Party opposition next fall, and may not even have minor party opposition.

In each individual case there are good reasons why a serious potential Democratic candidate might decide to sit this cycle out, and there are some good overall reasons for this as well.  Some of them are related in the story, which you can find here.  Serious, quality challengers tend to pick their runs very carefully.

My purpose in writing about this is something different, however, and it relates to the small-d democratic concern that the story points to--is it good for our system to have people running unopposed?  The short answer of course is no.  But if it proves to be true this fall, this feature could offer a silver lining--which I propose here as a challenge to the incumbents as well as thoughtful critics in the community.

Official campaigns have become overly guarded, packaged affairs, with the adversaries more worried about not screwing something up than with convincing people to sign on to a coherent and bold set of policy ideas.  The candidates rarely engage each other intellectually.  In other words, we've come a long way from Lincoln-Douglas.

Since this time around the incumbents literally can't lose, why not take this opportunity to have some real conversations in the public interest on the issues that relate to each position?  What I have in mind are a series of debates, or rather let's just call them spirited, authentic discussions, in which the incumbent would pair off with someone in the community who has a view different from the decisions the incumbent has made and the path he or she has followed.  They don't necessarily have to be directly opposed, just different.  This discussion could then lead to a broader discussion of the macro-level ideas and values that guide their more specific policy positions--what H.W. Bush used to call "the vision thing."

So, for example, a retired judge might debate District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick about evidence and disclosure rules, which could in turn lead to a discussion about philosophies of criminal justice and the best ways to reduce crime.  Or County Executive Joanie Mahoney might debate someone from the suburbs about the proper relationship between the city and the towns, which could lead to a broader discussion about consolidation and the meaning of political boundaries.  Personally, I'd love to see a debate on the role of party, party discipline, and the nature of executive leadership.

Would this still seem risky to an incumbent?  You bet--what if they "lose" the debate?  But if it were set up in the right way, and the participants approached it in the right spirit, I think it's possible to avoid this trap.  The media would have to help out with this part, and it may require an act of great restraint by the paper and other outlets not to report the events as zero-sum games.  But we remember the Lincoln-Douglas debates not because of who "won" them, but because of the importance of the questions, the process used, and the substantive quality of the entire argument.

Incumbents:  What do you think--are you game?  And are there people out there who are up to the challenge?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Can't Anybody Here Play This Change?

I get a lot of partisan communications and solicitations for donations, from all sides and through all mediums.  It comes with the territory.  The messages almost all of them contain are absurd caricatures of their adversaries, and it will come as no surprise to anyone that I've seen no evidence of a tone-down or a fact-up since the "change I could believe in" election of 2008.  Policy has moved, but not politics. 

But I received one such piece the other day that's particularly notable for the irony--hence this post.  It happens to be from the Democrats.  Senator Charles Schumer and Democratic Party Headquarters, on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, sent to a misspelled version of me an alarmist warning about the "Radical Right's" imminent takeover of the U.S. Senate.  The Cracker Jack prize inside the envelope was a notepad with the following line printed at the top of every sheet:  "Stand with President Obama for Lasting Change:  Silence GOP Lies." 

Really?  That's the change we can believe in?  Like I'm going to jot down a note on that and leave it for a work colleague or the UPS guy.  I wonder what the actual President Obama would do with this.  My last thread of civic faith says he tears it up--that's what I did.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Wisdom of Crowds?

Following the killing of Osama bin Laden, there's been much discussion about the morality of the spontaneous celebrations that broke out in several American cities, most notably New York and Washington, DC, the two cities most closely associated with the 9/11 attacks.  I too had an immediate reaction when I saw the crowds cheering, but my thoughts went not so much to whether it was wrong--or just bad form--but rather to whether it was wise.  Others have since made this point, but I'm sure this footage is being viewed, re-viewed, shared, and stored by some we'd rather not have seen it.  While I understand, empathize with, and even share the impulse that led these folks into the street, a second chance to think on it beforehand would have served us well down the road.

The footage also led me to wonder what the British were doing.  They too have much reason to celebrate bin Laden's death, but they also have much more experience living with terrorism.  I wrote several London friends and colleagues, and none reported hearing of or seeing any kind of public celebrations.

Looking at the pictures of the crowds and observing their youth, I'm left wondering how much of this was a social media celebration--a strange and more trivial bookend of sorts to what we've seen in the Arab Spring.

And circling back to the title of this post, it also bears noting that most of us didn't take to the streets.  In the new media age, however, that basic fact is just context.

Honoring All Our Heroes

My colleague and friend Terry Newell let me join a worthy effort he is helping to organize to make sure, as a nation, we properly honor federal civil servants who die in service to our country.  Shockingly--at least to me--we currently have no policy regarding this.

Please see our Post-Standard opinion piece on the issue, which you can find here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Really Neat Conversation

Please check out my recent Campbell Conversation interview with Jan Carnogursky, which you can find here.  It's probably my favorite interview so far in the series.  Jan was a dissident leader in Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, who was jailed prior to the “Velvet Revolution,” which freed him.  He went on to serve as the Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic, and then later its Justice Minister.  In this interview he relates growing up in the Soviet-controlled system and becoming a dissident, his experiences in prison, and the exciting and challenging times as a leader of an emerging democracy and a politician who had to learn the political skills required in democratic politics.  He then connects some of these experiences to current revolutions and current politics more generally.  The stories were amazing and he was just a really neat person to talk with.

Say Not?

Our local school district, Fayetteville-Manlius, has a school board election coming up on May 17, along with the annual budget votes.  I recently phoned the superintendent's office to ask if the candidates had held any public forums so that citizens could ask questions, and whether they'd be having any additional forums prior to the election.  The answers, which stunned me, were no and no (there is a budget public hearing on May 9).  I guess it may not matter as there are three seats to be filled, and three candidates.

(p.s.  I've been consumed with work lately and have not been posting--I'm hoping that's about to change.)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

U.S. Public Support for the Free Market Has Fallen -- Strange?

I came across this curious factoid today, which I plan to write about more fully in an upcoming newspaper editorial.  Since 2002, American support for the free market as "the best economic system for the future" has fallen, and dramatically so since 2009--at the same time as the Tea Party movement has been picking up steam.  At 59%, our support for the free market is now lower than that found in China or Brazil.  These survey results are from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, and you can find them here

Recall that the financial crisis hit in 2007, so the recent steep drop is harder to explain through that lens.  Explanations anyone?

Monday, April 4, 2011

SSO -- What I Want to Know

I had lunch with a friend the other day, and after talking politics and basketball, we got to talking about the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra.  It turns out we were both season ticket holders--one of us had made a contribution during the "keep the music playing" appeal.  And we were now both in the same situation--more than a little miffed, and doubting that we'd buy season tickets again next year, if the opportunity presented itself.  We had similar questions, which have yet to be answered. 

I want to be cautious in any criticism of the board of directors, as they are volunteers who give a lot of their time--and a lot of their own money--to the orchestra.  But if one of the arguments to support the orchestra is that it is a cherished public resource for the community, then the ultimate line of management for that resource needs to be held publicly accountable for its actions.  Here's what I want to know:

--The board keeps talking about cutting back the size of the orchestra, but is an orchestra with an administrative staff that is almost a third as large as the group of core musicians more "administratively heavy" than is typically the case?

--Why have key administrative people been leaving? 

--Why weren't there direct and honest communications earlier on with the season ticket holders, so that we didn't have to become informed about our investment through newspaper accounts?

--What was the thinking, and what were the expectations, behind the decisions of the past few years?

--What's the path forward that is currently envisioned by the board--how and why does it expect that the orchestra will survive?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Feature Guest Post -- U.S. Military Aid in Tsunami-Stricken Japan: A Temporary Relief

The following is a guest post from Alexis Bonari.  She's a resident blogger at College Scholarships, where recently she's been researching Girl Scouts scholarships as well as grants for Asian students. Alexis writes that whenever this WAHM [I confess I had to look this up; now I know] gets some free time she enjoys doing yoga, cooking with the freshest organic in-season fare, and practicing the art of coupon clipping.  One quick editorial comment:  I think this post gets at an interesting and less considered wrinkle regarding the U.S. assistance to Japan.  As always, the views shared here are solely those of the author.

The U.S. military presence has never been more welcome in Japan than it is today, weeks since the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing—and more devastating—tsunami on March 11.  Many Japanese are grateful for international aid, but it is unlikely to do more than temporarily ease the tensions that escalated over the Futenma base in Okinawa last year.  The grudge there is deeper and heals with no band-aid.
Operation Tomodachi
About 20,000 U.S. troops have mobilized for Operation Tomodachi (“friend”) in an enormous bilateral humanitarian mission.  To aid the operation, the Navy has sent 19 ships, 140 aircraft, and 18,282 personnel along with barges of freshwater to cool the volatile reactor.  The Air Force has meanwhile opened its bases for relief flights and sent dozens of planes to help the Japanese observe Fukushima as well as search for survivors.  Although the Army is the branch with the smallest presence in Japan, it’s delivered blankets and supplies. 
The Marine Corps plays one of the most notable roles in the operation, exemplified by the most widely covered and successful operations thus far: cleaning up Sendai Airport.  According to Capt. Robert Gerbract as interviewed by NPR, the airport looked “like if you had left an airport alone for 1,000 years.  It was like an archaeological site.  It was hard to figure out where to begin.” 
The assignment appears to satisfy most of the troops.  “I’d much rather be carrying relief food packages than a rifle, to be honest,” Gerbract added.
Temporary Friendship
Having been educated on a U.S. Marine Corps base in mainland Japan but lived off-base among Japanese civilians, I daresay that I have a unique perspective on the issue of whether this humanitarian effort will change anything in Japanese-American relations in the long run.  Most of the Japanese public appreciated the U.S. military presence in Japan even before March 11.  Tokyo points to lower defense costs and greater security from growing powers such as China and North Korea as notable perks.  While many pacifists and WWII survivors remember only too well the devastation both the U.S. military and then Imperial Japanese government wreaked on the beloved island nation, most of the animosity has faded to a shrug of the shoulders and the occasional fuss over a traffic accident or a bar fight.
It is not, however, mainland Japan that hosts most of the tension between U.S. armed forces and Japanese civilians.  Over 50,000 U.S. troops, mostly Marines, work on the island of Okinawa.  Over 20% of the island is taken up by the military bases that, contrary to agreements made in the 1990s, show no sign of diminishing.  In fact, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was forced to resign after making no progress in relocating some 8,500 Marines off Okinawa to Guam as was promised by 2014 by Washington; the latter has instead suggested replacing Futenma with another facility before the relocation, which the public opposed.  The sentiment on most Okinawans’ minds seems to be, “Sure, you’re welcome to stay, but why on Okinawa?”
Okinawa was the last place the Marines and other U.S. forces pitched camp before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ensuing surrender.  It may also serve as a more strategic location geopolitically when keeping an eye on Greater Asia.  Most likely, however, Okinawans have historically faced a prejudice by the Japanese government, and having the U.S. presence there is simply more convenient for Tokyo than having rough-housing Marines spread about the mainland.
Lasting Tensions
The Japanese across all islands are grateful for the U.S. military’s aid, but much of the warmth stoked by Operation Tomodachi will likely change few minds in Okinawa and even the on the mainland.
The question then: Should it?  Had Japan won the war, the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden would have been tried as war crimes, even if aerial warfare was not at the time covered under international humanitarian law (air power was only just developing and diplomatic efforts proved too little, too late). 
Should it be any wonder that in a nation where, within living memory, 500,000 civilians died from the tactical bombings of 67 cities, the presence of foreign military personnel is undesired?  I’ve heard the argument of “revenge for Pearl Harbor” countless times, but the truth is that under 3,000 Americans, most of them military, died on that day, as opposed to the (conservative estimate) of 140,000 Japanese civilians in Hiroshima.  Then again, most people don’t like hearing that President Roosevelt had the power to evacuate Pearl Harbor well in advance of the attack, and that far too much money had been spent on the Manhattan Project to go untested, even if the mainland invasion hadn’t been scheduled for months later.  For people who have studied beyond the conventional WWII history, the ongoing presence of Marines in Japan as well as the lack of an official apology from the Japanese government is salt in a wound that’s too deep to heal.
“I feel thankful that they are helping us, but I still have reservations about having U.S. troops in Japan,” says Yoko Hiraoka in Higashi Matsushima, near Sendai.  “It doesn’t fundamentally change the way I feel.”

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dan Maffei on the Campbell Conversations -- A Look Forward, and a Look Back

If you're a political junkie or someone who followed the 25th district congressional race with any interest, you won't want to miss this week's Campbell Conversation with Dan Maffei (available on-demand and as a podcast from WRVO).  In his first broadcast interview since conceding to Ann Marie Buerkle, he sorts out the factors that he’s considering in deciding whether or not to run again.  In that process he reflects back on the past campaign and how hard the loss was for him, and assesses his own strengths and weaknesses as a candidate.  He also responds to the recent criticisms surrounding the bonuses his congressional staff received on their way out.  The topic then shifts to potential Republican presidential contenders, and the many ways—according to Maffei—that moderates and moderate political conversations are disadvantaged in the current political system.  Finally, there’s a discussion of our current involvement in Libya.  Much more revealing than most politician interviews, this conversation provides a better insight into the person who was our congressman.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Getting What You Pay For? Reflections on the Budget, Part 2

Here's the second post on Governor Andrew Cuomo's budget speech that I promised the other day.

One of Cuomo's main arguments was that we do not get good value for our tax dollars.  To illustrate, he juxtaposed where we rank in terms of spending in various areas with where we rank in terms of performance in those areas.  One of the canards about New York he was keen to rebut was the notion that yes, our taxes are high, but we get great services and great public resources in exchange.  The numbers he cited were dramatic and disturbing, and can be found here in this video of a similar speech.

It actually turns out that things may be even worse than he says.  I've written about this in past posts and newspaper columns, but the figures are so surprising (at least to me) that they bear repeating. 

First the context:  Although across the Western World, our economies are different versions of the same thing—a system that relies on regulated markets, mixes private and public ownership, and provides social insurance through tax revenues—here in the U.S. we stand at a noticeable distance from the European pack, particularly in terms of our weaker public sector appetite.  Relative to our economy (and therefore our collective income) our government (taking into account all levels) is leaner, and overall, our taxes are lower.  This may be hard for some readers to believe, but it's true.  We look a lot different from countries like Italy, Norway, and France, and in these terms we keep company with Japan, Turkey, and South Korea.

But here's the rub for New Yorkers:  Those statistics are for the U.S. as a whole--in other words, they average across all the states.  But the state-to-state variation is significant.  When you break things down by state, and you look at how much resources, relative to the size of a particular state's economy (and therefore its collective income), government at the state and local level takes up, in 2009 New York surpassed all other states except Maine, and its government was considerably hungrier than other large states like Pennsylvania and California.  (I got these figures by request from Ian Pulsipher of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a distinctly non-partisan and well-respected group.)

Accounting for the state-to-state variations, New York begins to appear more like Britain than it does, say, Texas.  In fact, according to's 2008 international "Tax Misery" Index, a top-earning worker in New York City had the same overall tax burden as a similar worker in Berlin.  However, a top-earner in Texas sat comfortably alongside workers in Uzbekistan and Ireland--8 spots below Illinois, 15 spots below Britain, 20 spots below New York City, and 37 spots below Sweden.

And now here's the final and real rub for comparing New York to those other countries:  Where's the universal health insurance?  Where's the public transportation infrastructure?  The public day care?  The list goes on.

The governor has a point.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Four Thoughts on Andrew Cuomo's Budget Speech

I've just attended Governor Cuomo's road-show budget speech at Syracuse University, and I have four quick reactions, in no particular order.

First Reaction:  2016.  I've seen a lot of pols speak in person, from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Bill Bradley to Mario Cuomo to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to Newt Gingrich to Elizabeth Dole.  This guy is really good, and every time I see him in person he gets better.  Complete command of substance, style, context, and audience.  Better extemporaneously than Obama, I think.  And he's one of the few speakers I've seen--of any kind--who understands how to effectively use PowerPoint.  Ross Perot meets Bill Clinton?

If he maintains a solid record in New York and avoids any scandals--and ultimately gets married--his timing would be perfect in 2016.  He can appeal to the Democratic core as well as craft a more moderate overall message for a general election.  A Democrat making his early reputation as governor as a budget cutter could go far.  Of course, for the resume he'll also need to accomplish something beyond getting the state's finances in order--a set of significant and lasting political reforms could be part of that--but this task is obviously job number one.

Second Reaction:  Although he ran a reform-focused campaign, some of his harsh rhetoric about the Legislature currently in place could come back to bite him.  It makes for some good one-liners, but an advisor might suggest he tone it down a tad.  It's one thing to make a strong argument for budget cutting and reforming the overall approach to state spending (and some of the biggest state programs), and to hold up the long-standing political structure in Albany as a source of the problem; it's another to go after the sitting legislative leaders in the way that he did.  Comparing their approach toward spending to that of his three teenage girls is likely to rankle.  Some might say for heaven's sake, rankle away, but governance must in the end be cooperative in order to be functional--an observation which was in fact another theme of his speech.

Third Reaction:  There's an apparent contradiction in his case that needs to be explained better.  On the one hand, Cuomo repeatedly located much of the blame for our high taxes and spending in the over-influence of "corporations and special interests" over the years, and at one point cited a "permanent government," not of Democrats or Republicans, but of those same corporations and special interests.  Yet on the other hand he sketched out a cycle of state government policies in which taxes are too high, businesses and individual citizens (presumably of higher incomes) leave, prompting the need to further raise taxes, and in turn causing more businesses and citizens to leave, and so on.  We need to make New York more business friendly, the governor tells us.  Both arguments are plausible, but if corporate interests have been driving state government, then have they also been committing slow suicide?  Or is it just some "special interests" that have been the real problem?

Fourth Reaction:  Related in some way to Reaction #3, there was no mention whatsoever of the "millionaire tax," despite the fact that he directly took on the arguments about cutting Medicaid and education.  I was surprised that since he didn't soft-pedal the latter issue he wouldn't also address the former.  Returning to Reaction #1, he might have been gauging the audience.

In a later post I will return to a point I've made in the past about the level of government spending in New York, which fits with the governor's argument about spending levels versus performance.

Monday, March 21, 2011

More on the PBS/NPR/CPB Funding Question -- A Missing Comment

Note:  What follows is a comment from "TW," for which I received an email notice, but which does not appear--at least it does not appear for me--in the post it is supposed to be attached to.  I am looking into this problem.  But it's a thoughtful comment and I am reproducing it here as a guest post.  I'm not personally convinced by TW's argument against funding PBS and NPR, but I also think TW makes many good points.

Disclosures first…I am a registered voter, but not registered with any political party. I trend fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

1. Is the programming on PBS / NPR worthwhile and valuable? Absolutely.

2. Does story selection and commentary lean to the Left? Probably a bit.

3. Does the public ‘trust’ the content coming from PBS / NPR more so than other sources? Maybe.

Yet none of the above elicits my support for continued government / public funding for PBS / NPR.

1. Worthwhile and valuable programming is available from a multitude of commercially successful media outlets (The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, The Food Network, The Learning Channel, etc), and via the Internet. All of these venues have proven that the American public will support quality programming – as evidenced by their continued operation in spite of the fact that part of their ‘competition’ (PBS) is federally subsidized. Given the quality of the content produced by PBS / NPR, why wouldn’t they continue to be successful with a model that uses commercial (i.e. advertising) support alone?

2. It seems to me that the percentage of programming on PBS that is ‘political’ is relatively small, with the majority being educational, arts, culture, etc. NPR, by its nature spends more of its broadcasting day discussing political issues and news topics of the day. Of course this breakdown is purely my perception, and my exposure to any ‘radio’ is limited to time spent driving. Still, PBS and NPR have existed for several decades, through both Republican and Democrat administrations. All media probably leans in one direction or the other, some of course more obviously then others. That is why it is important to watch / listen to multiple sources to best gain an understanding of the ‘real’ picture.

3. A poll on the PBS website under the ‘About Us’ link lists PBS as “#1 in public trust”. I had gone to this section to look for the Mission and Vision statements. Quite frankly, the fact that someone stands up and points outs how trustworthy they are usually sends up a huge red flag and immediately invites suspicion. How ‘trust’ is measured can be a subject for another debate entirely. Again, for me the best bet is to get information from multiple sources - the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

I believe that when lawmakers created the CPB / PBS / NPR, their intent was to ensure that quality programming was available to the people in a time when television was only in its infancy (or perhaps toddlerhood). Perhaps the fear was that commercial television of the day would neglect the areas of art and education because they wouldn’t be profitable. We know now, that is not the case. Should all government entities remain in perpetuity because their original premise was good, or shouldn’t we revisit things from time to time and ask questions such as; is the mission still valid, has it been achieved, is it still necessary?


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Feature Guest Post -- Faked Calls on the Rush Limbaugh Show?

The following is a guest post from Tim Ambler.  He's the founder of MightyPromos, a marketing firm that offers promotional footballs that can be be printed with a custom logo or message.  The views expressed here are solely the author's, and not those of Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO stations.  One quick thought:  If the accusations are true, it all makes perfect sense and seems non-controversial--IF the show's value is seen purely as entertainment.  It gets murkier for a show that purports to provide publicly useful political information. 

Recently, reports have circulated through the Internet and other media sources that say popular talk show host Rush Limbaugh, among others, has been using paid actors on his radio show. According to the reports, which claim an "inside executive" as their source, an actor or actress would be hired by the show to call in during regular show hours, and to work from a script. The production agency behind Limbaugh's show, Premiere Radio Networks, has denied the allegations. Premiere Radio Networks also produces the shows of well-known television and radio personality Glenn Beck, who has also been alleged to have used the "fake caller" service provided by Premiere known as "Premiere on Call."

The Premiere On Call service is a talent agency for actors and actresses. Jobs range from movies, to television as well as the occasional voice over, or voice recorded spot. These spots are usually recorded working with a script. The accusation states that Premiere Radio Networks hired talent from On Call and had them call in to the various radio shows while they were playing on the air.

The agency's website stated that Premiere On Call Service provides voice talent to take or make on-air calls, improvise on a scene or conversation that was going on, as well as read from prepared scripts when asked to do so. The site guaranteed to have the voice you needed only a quick online form away. The site also guaranteed that no repeat actors or actresses would be used, so callers aren't hearing the same voices over and over again for a six month period. Then the actor or actress would pretend to be a caller, reading from a prepared script. While this may seem dishonest or illegal, actually it is neither. This is a practice that has been going on in radio and television since the earliest days of broadcast media.

The radio network claims that the On Call Service was basically used to connect voice talent with prospective employers in the business. Since then someone has removed virtually all reference to the On Call service from the Premiere Radio Network's website.

Limbaugh steadfastly denies any involvement in the matter, and for what it is worth it almost sounds believable. It is easy to picture station management going over Limbaugh's head to make a decision like this. In times past the sometimes volatile Limbaugh has been less than receptive to new ideas. Though it is interesting to point out that later in the same show Limbaugh claimed the restrictive rules and regulations of the FCC made it necessary for companies such as Premiere to hire voice talent.

Premiere continues to deny that any voice overs were used on any shows. There was no comment from Glenn Beck regarding the accusations.

A spokesperson for Premiere Radio states that while the hiring of On Call was done by executives, how the talent is utilized is up to the managers, staff and hosts of the individual shows. The company went on to say that this service is basically used for managers, staff and companies who are looking for on-air talent to supplement their programming. Some of the usage examples put forth were radio commercials and public service announcements.

That's all very well and good, but to me there doesn't seem to be much difference in what the accusations say they are doing, and what the company says they are doing. It's not a big step from commercial to call in, and amongst the various reports that have begun to trickle in on this subject was one from one such actor. This actor states that for his audition, he was given the scene of being a caller on a popular radio show. And when he was hired he was told that he would be part of a rotating available staff, and that his job would be to call into popular radio shows. And he is not the only one.

There have been actors and actresses doing voice overs since the invention of sound in picture. Do you really think that person always sounds that great?  Just like movie and television actors have stunt doubles and stand-ins, the same thing goes for radio and voice talent. Some days your voice isn't with you. Radio stations typically hire talented voice actors for commercial spots. These people don't work for the radio station either. So why doesn't someone care about that? If a company hires people to call into a radio show, that should not be a problem. If this practice is used however, it should be done in a clear and equitable manner, so as to not falsify ratings or audience opinions.

This practice is not illegal. It's not even clear which radio shows may or may not have used paid actors. Rush Limbaugh is probably right in this case--he was probably singled out because of his notoriety. But while Limbaugh may try to badger and bully around to his point of view, he doesn't really seem like the type to stoop to cheating to gain a leg up.

If anything at all was done, it was probably done at the behest of the radio station executives. The actual people working on the actual shows probably had little to do with it. While Hannity may seem a likely culprit based on his actions in the past, there is no proof of this whatsoever. This story gained most of its momentum thanks to the ability of the Internet to spread news faster and farther. Not because it was true or even newsworthy, but because people just like to spread bad news.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

More on the "Is PBS Liberal?" Question

A short, anonymous comment to an earlier post--"CPB versus BBC, and What It May Mean for Politics"--raises two important issues I wanted to reflect on, in two separate posts.

Here's the comment:  IMO [in my opinion] government media is going to be suspect and antithetical to conservatives whether in the US or UK.

More later on whether government-funded media is the same as "government media," but first, is this claim about the treatment of conservatives valid? 

I think this is more an article of faith than fact. 

Certainly in the UK, Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would disagree with the assertion.  See for instance Tony Blair's farewell attack on the media, in which he said, "today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out."  Clearly the BBC was square in his sights--and David Kelly in his memory--when he made this speech. 

Gordon Brown got an even rougher ride.  He--as well as his Government--was often put in the box of "worthy of ridicule" once his honeymoon ended and he was perceived to dither away the calling of a "snap election."  During the same period, the Conservative David Cameron, increasingly portrayed as the Prime Minister-in-waiting, was given much lighter scrutiny, at least prior to the final campaign month (yes, it's just a month long there, and no TV ads allowed).

What about over here?  I haven't seen an analysis that breaks down recent media coverage by cable versus networks versus PBS, but media analysis does suggest that at least in Bush's first term, foreign policies received fairly little critical treatment from the mainstream media.  It was only in the second term that the critical lenses got focused. 

And though it's just an impression, it seems more recently like there are weeks when NPR can't seem to get enough of Sarah Palin.

What the view may boil down to is this--and I have some very limited first-hand experience of the following hunch from hosting "The Campbell Conversations"--the overall audience for PBS and NPR is, relatively speaking, more liberal and less friendly toward conservatives.  People are aware of this fact and many take their bearings about the stations' content from it.  I can say, for example, that I tend to get more critical comments about my program when I have conservative people on the show. 

So some of the motivation for cutting off the CPB's funding is probably being driven by a perception of what the "constituency" for the programming is.  And that takes us back to Christopher Cook's observation about the BBC in my earlier post, that part of its funding security rests on its deep--and broad--appeal.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feature Guest Post -- Abby Gardner on The Vise of Political Information

(And yes, I could have titled it vice too.)  The following is a guest post by Abigail Gardner.  Abby served as then-Congressman Dan Maffei’s press secretary from 2008 to 2010. Two quick comments on her post.  First, as with all posts, the views expressed here are solely the author's, and not those of Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO stations.  Second, I think her observation about useful political information getting squeezed between political ads on the one hand and less substantive coverage by the local networks on the other is critically important, and as she notes, food for thought in light of the debate regarding PBS funding.  You can read her blog at

Record Breaking Profits

This recent story, Cash Clowns, from a Seattle alt-weekly paper describes a disappointing trend of record breaking political ad revenue for local television and the simultaneous decline of local news coverage of political campaigns- a trend I think we’re experiencing in Upstate New York as well.

Cash Clowns uncovered that the four Seattle local network affiliate stations made more money from political ads in the 2010 cycle, $47 million, than any previous election season. Considering this was a midterm election and not a presidential election year, it was an impressive but not shocking haul. The Supreme Court’s Citizen United vs. Federal Election Committee ruling allows for corporations to spend an infinite amount on advertising for or against an issue or candidate. Conservatives said this was a victory for free speech, but it seems it is actually a victory for local television sales departments.

While I don’t know the numbers for Upstate New York stations, I have to imagine they, like Seattle, had a very profitable 2010. U.S. Senators and Representatives, the New York Governor, Attorney General, State Senators and Assemblymen were all on the ballot. Additionally, outside groups with names you can’t argue with, like “Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity” formed overnight. They exist for the sole purpose of raising money to spend on political ads. Hundreds of thousands of those dollars flooded the Syracuse and Rochester markets to attack just one candidate- my former boss, Congressman Dan Maffei.  

Less Coverage

The story also focused on the hypocrisy of record breaking political ad sales while local coverage of political races is declining. I don’t begrudge media outlets for making money. They are a business that sells a lucrative product to clients trying to reach an audience of likely voters. While they’re raking in the ad revenue, however, stations are simultaneously doing less reporting on the actual campaigns. My first-hand experience varied greatly with Rochester and Syracuse stations. Some were very dedicated to political coverage, some did the best they could with limited resources and some chose to almost entirely ignore the campaigns in the area.

During the campaign for New York’s 25th Congressional seat between Dan Maffei and Ann Marie Buerkle, most stations hosted or aired a debate. At a minimum, every one covered President Clinton’s visit to Syracuse. However, depending on your station of choice for local news, you might not have seen a single other story about the race for Congress. Not that there wasn’t news to cover. The candidates disagreed on nearly every issue: the economy, health care, choice, education, energy, the environment, and on and on. Any station that wanted to produce a story focused on the issues had a myriad to choose from. Instead, some made the editorial decision to focus on Dancing With The Stars, crime, sports, and not on difference between two Congressional candidates on Afghanistan or climate change. Perhaps the lack of attention on the issues is why many people in Syracuse are surprised by the views of their new Representative in Congress.

Ads Cannot Supplant Stories

After the election, I asked a manager at one local TV station why I didn’t see them more often on the campaign trail. The answer was: "Well, our viewers saw so many political campaign ads, we don't want to inundate them with political stories too." I was shocked that a news organization thinks ads supplant stories. Ads are to persuade viewers, news is to present the facts. Ads obviously aren’t going to supply all the information voters need to make an educated decision. With newspapers shrinking in size and staff and the new Republican congress threatening to cut off funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it is more critical now that other media outlets step up, not back, their coverage. If local television news is going to accept record breaking amounts in ad revenue, they also need to accept their responsibility to inform viewers.

Feature Guest Post -- Mike Sutton's Interview with Howie Hawkins

The following is a guest post by Mike Sutton.  Mike has been a candidate for the Onondaga County Legislature's 9th district seat, and also recently contested for the City of Syracuse Republican Party Chair.  He's very active in civic affairs in his Eastwood community, and also finds time to write on a wide variety of topics.  This is a piece based on an interview he conducted with Howie Hawkins.

I recently was granted a interview with the one and only Central New York "Green Warrior", Howie Hawkins. I asked the L.A. native about everything from his 6 years of service in the U.S.M.C., to his run for Governor, to his future campaign plans,and just about everything in between. 

Though most of family are Republicans (especially his Grandmother who is staunchly so), Howie leans to the Left on most issues. He also tries to bring a common sense and practical approach with him, where ever he goes. What impresses me about Howie is not only that he genuinely cares about his fellow citizens, but that he always modifies his message to match the position he is running for. Though many local third party candidates like David Gay seem to struggle with pounding federal issues when they run for city, county, or state office, Howie does not. He easily made the transition from running for U.S. Congress, to City Common Council, to New York State Governor in consecutive years. Each time, his message match the level of government he was running for.

Another thing that attracts people to Mr. Hawkins is the fact that he will not compromise his values or message or "sell out" to get votes. He always seems to stay true to himself as he addresses the issues and presents his solutions. Though Howie does not seem to be a vote thief or a politician, he is very involved in the local political process and pounds his message, while standing up for the rights of the less fortunate.

Being that he is a rank and file member of the Teamsters Labor Union and works the third shift, Hawkins has plenty of time to campaign during the day and has turned politics into his social life, as well as his life's mission. He genuine enjoys meeting people and addressing their concerns.

Before I reveal his opinion on a few celebrities that Howie met along the campaign trail, I will summarize my views on his political past and future.

It is clear to see that he is an anti war protester and activist, even though he was a faithful U.S. Marine for six years. Howie favors a non-military approach to social justice around the world. He believes that protesting, demonstrating and changing legislation is the more effective approach. I do feel that he has had an impact on New York State as a whole and will continue to do so for many years to come!

Here are his answers to a few of my questions. 

Me: What is your opinion of the following people and what comes to mind when you hear their names?
Jimmy"The Rent is too Damn High"McMillan Howie: " Jimmy was quiet,and polite when I met him. I think his passion is real and he feels for the poor in our state. However; he doesn't seem to understand the political process and did not have a viable solution to the problems that face New York. His speech was a distraction from the real issues that Warren Redlich and I actually addressed and proposed solutions for." Al "Grandpa Munster" Lewis. Howie: "I knew Al well and spent a lot of time with him when he ran for Governor on theGreen Party Line. He was a great man and cared more about his politics and social justice than he did his acting career. His only drawbacks were that he was very loud and scared the media at times, and went a little overboard once in a while. One time when he was talking about a toxic plant in New York State, he said" I want to take the chemicals in that plant, pour them into a glass and make George Pataki drink them". Our party didn't need that. But overall Al was great! He was a terrific "street speaker" and drew big crowds at his appearances.He was more of a character in real life than he was as Grandpa on The Munsters. Al was passionate and genuine" Carl Paladino - Howie: "Carl was friendly, but didn't remember people. Even though I was running for the same position, Carl introduced himself to me twice at the same event. I do think his anger was real and though he told Fred Dicker what many politicians want to say to Fred, Carl went too far. He didn't have the right temperament to be Governor. I think the loss of his son has had a lasting effect on Carl"

Me: What did you want to accomplish in your campaign for Governor of New York?
Howie: I had three goals: 1. Get the line back for the Green Party in our state, so it will be easier for other "Greens" to run for local offices. 2. Strengthen the Green Party by raising enrollment and awareness. 3. "Expose Andrew Cuomo's real position or lack there of, on important issues like tax reform, hydro-fracking, and the unethical practices on Wall Street." Howie expressed a common sentiment that "Andrew would gloss over many issues, was very vague and would not tell us his true intentions with regards to hydro-fracking in our state."

Howie had stated that Andrew said that he was against unsafe measures to extract natural gas. The problem is, you can make something sound safe before you do it without seeing to it that it does not harm out water and the valuable resources that we have to offer new businesses in New York State. Howie told me that he believes that hydro-fracking should not be allowed in our state because it will provide a temporary "boom" to our economy and leave us with long term problems. "The companies that come here to drill will bring their own crew of workers, rather than hire locals. Therefore when they leave the area again to drill in another state, the benefits will leave too. The problem is that we have great natural resources here that will draw lasting corporations to our area. Why would we jeopardize out resources for a short term fix?"  Mr. Hawkins also told me that he believes that within a year, Andrew Cuomo will be pushing to legalize and will welcome hydro-fracking in New York State.

I also asked Howie what the 2 most frustrating things about running for our Governor were. He told me that the worst part was the fact that the media ignored him and followed Jimmy McMillan everywhere, and often would not take statements from Howie at all. In fact, when most media outlets quoted him they would say "the Green Party Candidate" said... without mentioning his name. He stated that in a forum in harlem the media followed Jimmy everywhere and even a German news outlet would not talk to Howie. "I asked the reporter if he wanted a statement from me since Germany has a Green Party too. The answer was no."  He also said that is was frustrating trying to generate support when the Green party only has a strong core of members in 5 cities in N.Y. "There are too many area's that we are weak in. Now that we have our line back, that should change."

Howie also stated that though he is not a native to Syracuse, he enjoys our University's sports programs especially basketball. "Our kids are fun to watch because now, they play together as a team.