Thursday, August 30, 2018

Getting the News Right

Cartoon from the County Capital during the Populist Era
More than a decade ago, when I was doing research for a book, I was speaking to a man whose family was dealing with one of the issues covered in my manuscript.  During the interview I commented something like this: 'With such an important health issue, I just can't understand how so few people are aware of it.'  He replied:  'Every morning it is as if a big truck backed up to your front door and dumped its entire load of important news on your front step.  You just can't be informed about everything.'  I may not remember the words exactly, but the imagery of his answer has stayed with me since then.  That was before so much of our news was spread by the internet and smart phones.  Most of us still subscribed to daily newspapers.  We watched the evening news on one of the main channels, delivered by news anchors we trusted, on programs that lasted 30 minutes.

How different it is today.  Those imaginary trucks are backing up to our door step all day and night, dumping information from sources about which we know very little.  Cookies and algorithms track and modify what we see and hear, and we have no idea about the education, experience, bias, and motives of those who spread information.

I have had friends tell me that all of this bombardment of news is so overwhelming that they have just tuned everything out.  But, how can we be informed if we do not acquire information from somewhere.

On March 23, 2017 I posted a blog titled Freedom of Speech and Accurate News that provided some history about past efforts to insure that Americans received fair and balanced news on radio and television through what was called The Fairness Doctrine.  The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) abolished that doctrine in 1987.  You might want to read that blog post again to refresh your memory concerning that history.

In No. 84 of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, in arguing against a Bill of Rights, asked,  "Why, for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed."  Ultimately, the nation chose to have a Bill of Rights, in which freedom of the press is a specific protection.  Yet, scholars still argue exactly what it means.

If you are curious to find the answer in Supreme Court cases, there are two cases you might want to read.  Near v. Minnesota, decided in 1931, held that "A Minnesota law that imposed permanent injunctions against the publication of newspapers with 'malicious, scandalous, and defamatory' content violated the 1st Amendment."  In 1964, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan held that "A newspaper can be held liable for making false defamatory statements about the official conduct of a public official only if the statements were made with knowing or reckless disregard for the truth."  While those cases are important, newspapers are no longer our primary source of news.

Across America major newspapers have ceased operation, turned to  online publication only, reduced publication to three days a week, sold far below past value, or announced approaching closing dates.  Even the storied New York Times and the Washington Post have been forced to make drastic economic choices.

In 1774, the First Continental Congress recognized the importance of a free press as essential to:  "...the  advancement of truth, science, morality and arts in general..."  As for its importance to the manner in which a government conducts itself, they advocated the importance of:  "...its ready communication of thoughts between subjects [citizens], and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honorable and just modes of conducting affairs."  Yet today the press seems more capable of agitating citizens than assisting in bringing citizens together to promote just and honorable conduct by those elected to do the people's business.

Is that the fault of the press or is it the fault of those consumers of the news they produce?  Are we seeking news sources that inform us or do we prefer that our preexisting opinions be affirmed?  In October of 1922 the American Society of Newspaper Editors was formed to demand of their fellow practitioners "...not only industry and knowledge but also the pursuit of a standard of integrity proportionate to the journalist's singular obligation."  In order to "preserve, protect and strengthen the bond of trust and respect between American journalists and the American people," the ANSE stated six ethical and professional obligations of their profession, quoted in part below.
1.  " serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time..."
2.  "Freedom of the press belongs to the people.  It must be defended against encroachment or assault from any quarter, public or private."
3.  "Journalists must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict."
4.  "Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly.  Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy..."
5. Sound practice "...demands  clear distinction for the reader between news reports and opinion...clearly identified."
6.  "Journalists should respect the rights of people involved in the news, observe the common standards of decency and stand accountable to the public for the fairness and accuracy of their news reports.  ...Pledges of confidentiality...must be honored at all costs, and therefore should not be given lightly."  The full statement of principles can be found at the ASNE website.

Distrust of the news is nothing new, as the political cartoon from the County Capital published in St. John, Kansas during the populist movement  clearly indicates.  None of us likes to hear news with which we disagree, but we are not well served to ignore the news or to discount everything that fails to align with our opinions.  Applying the ANSE standards to the sources of news we follow is a good test of how well they are serving the public's need to be accurately informed.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Fairy Rings

Recently, a friend posted pictures of fairy rings on her face book page.  No, not that kind.  The kind that show up as a ring of toadstools in your lawn when there has been adequate moisture.

Actually, they are a fungal lawn disease, but doesn't it sound nicer to call them fairy rings?  They may appear as a ring of toadstools, but they may also appear as rings of deep green, lush grass with areas of dead or yellowed grass between the rings.  Eventually the dead or yellowed grass will result in circular rings of bare soil.

Marsha's mushrooms

Fairy rings are caused by certain types of fungi which form threads that become so densely packed that the lawn is starved for both water and nutrients.  Because I love fairy tales and the many wonderful illustrations of fairies hiding beneath mushrooms or toadstools, or sitting atop them, I confess that I enjoy seeing the fairy rings--just not in our lawn.

They are actually a serious problem and difficult to eradicate if they get started in a lawn.  It is even recommended to mow any fungal infected area separately from the rest of the lawn and to collect the clippings and burn them, as they may contain fungal spores that can spread to other parts of your yard.

Our fairy ring last summer
 Last summer we discovered a large fairy ring, but there were no mushrooms or toadstools.  It simply looked as if fairies had danced all night, enough to wear away all the grass and leave only their dancing circle.  At any rate, that seems to me a much more pleasant way to observe this unusual phenomenon than recognizing it as a fungus.  Because it was far from the house and not in our lawn, we did not treat the area with a fungicide, and it did return this summer, in a less distinct way.

  As long as the fungus does not spread to our lawn, I actually enjoy seeing it.  I guess some people never grow old enough to stop enjoying a belief in fairies.

Thank you for sharing your photograph, Marsha!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Playing Dress-up

Isaac Werner wrote in his journal about dressing up for a special Farmers' Alliance Meeting, and that made me think of the changes from decade to decade in fashion rules.  As I often do in preparing these blogs, I went to the internet in search of fashion rules for both men and women.  Since this blog was inspired by Isaac's fashion sense, I'll start with my visit to RMRS/Real Men Real Style.  (I've put an asterisk beside Isaac's fashion judgement dressing up for a farmers' meeting.)
1.  Care about your appearance.*  (He occasionally shaved...)
2.  Be aware of the menswear that came before yours.
3.  Know that sometimes you'll be the best-dressed man in the room.*  (He must have known that, since he went to all of the meetings.)
4.  Realize that "rules" are there for a reason, even if they can sometimes be broken.*  
5.  A good fit should always be your first priority when purchasing new clothing.
6.  Avoid temporary trends and fluctuations of fashion.*  (It was the first time he had dressed up since arriving in Kansas ten years earlier!)
7.  Treat your clothing like an investment, and shop slowly but smart.*  (He did buy a rain slicker for making long potato-selling trips, but he didn't mention any other clothing shopping.)
8.  Make excuses to wear the good stuff, instead of letting it get dusty in the closet.*  (Or, in his case, a trunk.)
9.  Dress appropriately, whether that means dressing up or dressing down.  (Well, it was a special meeting, and he was a speaker.)
10. Expand your wardrobe with clothes that work together, not standalone pieces.

The photo at the top of the page was taken about 1950 of three cousins playing dress-up one Sunday after church, wearing their mothers' hats, purses, and shoes.  All three of us felt very grownup, assuming that when we were grown ladies we would also wear dresses, gloves and heels with a hat when we went to church.  Here is the advice I found for ladies at one website regarding current church wear.  "Women are suggested to wear a skirt that is below the knee, cardigans or nice khakis with no shoulder or back visible.  Stay away from low-cut or clingy outfits as they can be offending in such places."  No mention of gloves or hats!

Fancy Nancy series, Glasser ill., O'Connor author
I was inspired to write this blog after reading an essay by Jane O'Connor in the New York Times, announcing her retirement of the Fancy Nancy series.  The character of Nancy loves uncommon words, and she likes to dress everything up, especially with her signature accessory of a boa.  Imagine!--A book series that inspires young girls to write letters to the author like this one:  "I like Fancy Nancy and the fancy words because I'm unconventional too (that's fancy for different)."  Or, this one:  "Some days when I feel gloomy (that's fancy for sad), I read one of your books and automatically it cheers me up."  Obviously, I'm all for books that make girls want to expand their vocabularies and appreciate the significance of what they choose to wear.  Bravo to O'Connor and to illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser who won the 6th annual Children's Choice Book Awards 2013 Illustrator of the Year when more than a million kids voted for her.  Helping children to love reading and to learn to use words appropriately is worth cheering.

Am I the only one who has noticed how often I see little girls dressed adorably and appropriately when their mother has chosen jeans for the occasion?  According to many of the fashion websites I consulted, women can choose jeans for many occasions.  Apparently young daughters see those events as requiring a dress, even when their mothers prefer trendy jeans.

Women do care about fashion, based on the number of websites offering fashion advice for women and the apparent interest in what Meghan Markle is wearing!  One bit of fashion advice for women seems to make good sense to me--"Dress for the occasion"--but I struggle to decipher exactly what fashion experts regard as too elaborate or too casual.  

Worn-out or Fashionable
A couple of years ago, my husband threw a pair of my favorite jeans in with a load of wash he was doing for his jeans, and mine somehow got tangled around the ringer and were torn in several places in the process of freeing them.  Last week I found them folded on the back of a shelf, and when I unfolded them they looked fashion ready!  I had saved them to wear when I was painting and needed something I wouldn't mind ruining if they got paint on them.  Obviously, I'm out of touch with fashion trends.

Does anyone else remember coming home from school and immediately changing into 'play clothes,' which were actually former school clothes that were too faded or worn to continue wearing to school?  Recycling is not a new concept for those of us familiar with hand-me-downs and play clothes.

As a bachelor, Isaac had to mend his own clothing, and he mentioned borrowing a sewing machine from a neighbor.  He didn't indicate what he was planning to sew.  Although he never mentions darning his socks, I suspect that he did quite a bit of mending in those thrifty times.

I'm not sure how the conversation came up during an office visit with our investment advisor, but my husband mentioned that I darn his socks.  The man is considerably younger than we are, and he looked at us with a blank expression.  "Darn?" he said.  "You know, when you get a hole in the toe or heel of your sock and you need to darn it," my husband explained.  The younger man's expression didn't change.  "She mends it," my husband said, adding,  "Sometimes I've done it myself."  "Why don't you just throw those socks away and buy new ones?" he asked.  "Well, I really like those socks," was my husband's reply.

I learned to darn in my 4-H sewing class.  I was taught to use a light bulb to spread the area of the sock and then carefully weave through the worn area of the sock to build up a web of stitches to reinforce the area without making an uncomfortable lump in the sock.  Among my mother-in-law's sewing notions that I inherited was an egg-shaped stone form which I believe is a darning egg.  Notice the indentations at the larger end of the egg, presumably created by needles repeatedly being poked into the egg.  Also in the picture is a burned-out light bulb which I use for darning.  I keep both of them in the labeled tin shown in the photograph.  It's a good thing I saved that light blub, since the newer blubs lack that shape.

Times change.  Styles change.  What is considered thrifty and what is deemed wasteful change.

Certain standards should never change.  Honesty.  Integrity.  Respect.  And, books that teach children the delight of language.  And just maybe, learning how to darn a sock! 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Importance of Weather

Every day, Isaac B. Werner recorded the weather in his journal--the temperature, the rainfall, the condition of his crops.  As a farmer, he followed the markets, relying on trips to town or reports from neighbors, having no radio, television, or internet to check for the latest reports.  Neither did he have a local weather man or woman to advise him of projected changes in the weather nor NOAA to warn him of approaching severe weather.

What he did have, however, were folk sayings and a keen sense of observation with which to make his own weather predictions.  "Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning."  He learned the signs of his region and was constantly alert.  After seeing his first tornado, like a sock hanging down from the clouds, he became more watchful of cloud formations like the ones from which the sock-shape had developed, better understanding what had preceded the tornado that touched down and darkened with the dirt it carried upward as he watched. He consulted his journal entries to observe weather patterns from year to year, and bought the pamphlets containing not only weather predictions but also solar and lunar events.  He also corresponded with Professor Shelton at Kansas State College, Director of the first Experimental Station, and he subscribed to farming journals.

Today we have so many sources of information, and most important is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, founded October 3, 1970 by President Richard Nixon within the Department of Commerce.  In the words of President Nixon, by bringing earlier scientific agencies within the government together, it would provide "better protection of life and property from natural hazards  ...for a better understanding of the total environment...[and] for exploration and development leading to the intelligent use of our marine resources."  The need for such information and intelligent use of resources was recognized early, and agencies to achieve those goals were among some of the oldest in our federal government, for example:  United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1807; Weather Bureau of the United States, 1870; Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (research fleet) 1871; Coast and Geodetic Survey Corps, 1917.   

The breadth of essential responsibilities under the umbrella of NOAA is remarkable and, I suspect, largely under appreciated by most of us.  At a cost of about $3 per person, the following services exist:  Weather Service; Ocean Service; Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service; Marine Fisheries Service; Oceanic and Atmospheric Research; Marine and Aviation Operations; Geodetic Survey; Integrated Drought Information System; NOAA Commissioned Corps; and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman (1819-1892), who was living throughout Isaac Werner's entire life, wrote in his book Specimen Days under the heading 'Nature And Democracy--Mortality', "American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices--through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life--must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale.  We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms."  

During a very dry season, when farmers desperately needed rain, I was in the local Wal-Mart when a woman came running into the store, proclaiming loudly in disgust to everyone close enough to hear, "I just got my hair done and this rain is spoiling it."  The economy of our community is based almost entirely on agriculture and ranching, and whether this woman lived in town or not, her family's livelihood was probably dependent on farms and ranches surrounding the town.  Yet, she seemed unaware of the need for the rain she found so unwanted because it spoiled her freshly styled hair.

Whitman was right.  Isaac Werner and those early settlers knew the importance of those things under the umbrella of NOAA today, but those who have lived their lives in cities may forget how essential all of that is.  Perhaps even some of us who live in the country may fail to reflect on the importance of all the interconnected responsibilities "for a better understanding of the total environment" as described by President Nixon.  The flooding and wildfires may be making more Americans aware of that.

Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

History and the Economy

As this blog has always made clear, the things that fascinate me about history are the lessons history has for the present.  I believe that sharing the story of Isaac Werner, his community, and their connection with the Populist Movement of their time has lessons for our own time.  The trick is, of course, understanding how to apply those lessons.

This blog post contains cartoons published in the County Capital in St. John, the newspaper to which Isaac subscribed.  Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.  

King Grover with Boodle and Wall Street
Then, as now, sometimes politics causes all of us to avoid conversations with each other, and I hope you don't stop reading because you think I am about to express political opinions.  I'm not.  The three men I quote in this post are not politicians, and what they are urging is the importance of getting politics out of the way to solve issues important to all of us--issues that were important to Isaac's generation and which never seem to go away.

An article published July 18, 2018 in USA Today reported on a meeting at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. at which Former Fed Chairman Ben Bernake and former Treasury Secretaries Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner spoke to reporters.  They focused on the reforms enacted in the wake of the banking and housing meltdown in 2008, a financial situation inherited by the new, incoming administration, which came dangerously close to collapsing the global economic system and bringing America down with everyone else.

That history is only a decade ago, but as I grow older I realize that what seems recent to me is ancient history to a significant part of the population, and how short some of our memories are!  One of the concerns expressed by these three men was whether today's political climate would allow the bipartisan action that confronted the economic crisis in 2008.

Politics and the economy were a divisive combination in Isaac Werner's time as well, as the political cartoons from the 1890s show.  The issues printed on the steps leading up to the "Throne of Plutocracy" in the cartoon above describe some of the same issues of today.

The point the three men sought to make in their press conference was that the current drop in unemployment and other positive economic trends should not create such a sense of economic security that we ignore long term issues. 

"Today, when we are growing, this is the time when we need to deal with some of the persistent structural issues that are going to determine our long-term economic competitiveness," Paulson said.  "We have the fiscal deficit, dealing with immigration, the income disparity and what automation and globalization are doing to wages.  They need to deal with all those."

Reading the USA Today article I could not help but compare the issues portrayed in the old cartoons with the issues concerning Bernanke, Paulson, and Geithner, men who are not politicians and who served under Republicans and Democrats.

In the above cartoon, notice what is in threat of being submerged by the Wave of Prosperity, as Uncle Sam waves a sign reading "Wanted:  Competent sailors to run this craft."  The weight of "Public Debt" overloads the "Ship of State," and foundering in the water are "Labor," "Farms," and "Factories."

As this blog has often said, we can avoid mistakes if we learn from history.  The challenge always remains, however, just how to interpret those lessons.