Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Thanksgiving & Family

Happy Thanksgiving

     Happy Thanksgiving from our home!

The family farm to which my husband and I have retired has hosted many Thanksgiving Dinners!  We are the fourth generation to call this farm home, and as a child I sat in the dining room pictured at right many times with my parents and brother Clark and a crowd of aunts, uncles, and cousins, grandparents and friends.  This week's post honors all of them and the gatherings of family and friends of all of you who follow this blog.

Among my childhood memories are the days when the Saturday Evening Post came in the mail.  My family would await its arrival so that we could discuss Norman Rockwell's cover illustration--and like many families, we discussed every detail.  With hindsight, I believe my parents often used his paintings to teach my brother and me important life lessons.  Because so much of Thanksgiving is about family, I thought Rockwell's A Family Tree was the perfect cover to share.  

Among Rockwell's fans are astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who wrote "His insightful work--often filled with optimism and humor--accurately and affectionally shows America and Americans at their best."  Or, Arnold Palmer, "To so many of us, the paintings of Norman Rockwell told the story of everyday America as nobody else ever has."  And, Dick Clark: "...he immortalized the simple things in life that mean so much to all of us, as well as some of the major changes that are about to happen in our world."  Norman Rockwell said of himself, "I am a story teller."

The image below is part of one of Rockwell's "Four Freedoms."  I recently finished reading David McCullough's The American Spirit, Who We Are & What We Stand For.  It is a thin book of 15 addresses given by McCullough at graduations and other occasions.  On November 22, 2013, he spoke in Dallas, Texas at a ceremony honoring John F. Kennedy, in which he recited several passages from Kennedy's Inaugural Address.  One section he quoted seemed to go particularly well with the Rockwell painting, "A Family Tree," and the spirit of Thanksgiving illustrated as one of America's  "Four Freedoms".

Kennedy said:  "This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds.  It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened...The heart of the question is...whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!  My thanks to the many of you, those I know and those I have never met, who have followed my blog for so very many postings.  I am thankful for your support and the encouragement your comments have given me.

A part of one of Rockwell's 4 Freedoms

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, The Closing of the Series

From The Pratt Tribune
The same week I began this series about the role of muckrakers and the important role they have played in print news, our local newspaper announced that it was going to a single paper each week.  I identified with J.S. who wrote:  "Wow, quite a change...when I worked there... we printed Monday-Saturday…"  

I grew up with our family getting The Pratt Tribune, (and some of you may recall my blog about finding an old copy of that newspaper inside the wall when we did our recent remodeling at the farm).  Back then, when we walked out to the mailbox, the news was only a day old.

The same week that my Battling Abuses series began, the CBS Sunday Morning show broadcast a special interview of Pete Hamill that included respect for his fellow reporter, Jimmy Breslin.  Breslin died in 2017, and Hamill has slowed down considerably from the days when the two of them were, as filmmaker Spike Lee described:  "Back in the day, I mean, you would buy the paper to see what Jimmy Breslin's saying.  You know, what Pete Hamill [says]…[T]hose guys were like superstars."

I have written in past blogs about the essential role of journalists for our democracy, and we cannot forget their importance.  Our Founding Fathers recognized the importance of a Free Press, but too many of us fail to respect the absolute necessity of the role played by the press.

Ad from a local business in Isaac's time
On the CBS Sunday Morning show October 6, 2019, Hamill explained:  "The papers gave a sense of meaning.  It was a binding element.  You could see it on the subway.  You [reporters] were trying to help the new arrivals to understand the city, and the older people to understand the new arrivals."    Small town newspapers play that role as well, but not if most of the contents are canned stories written by strangers.

After my father died and my mother moved into town, she became a reporter.  She loved it.  Being a reporter gave her an excuse to attend community events and to get on the phone and call people for news about visitors or trips or achievements.  It may have been small town news, but it was consistent with the role Hamill played in a big city--binding the people who lived there to one another.

Times change.  The number of shops that lined Main Street in small towns and cities are no longer there, so far fewer local ads that supported local papers now exist.  Today people are warned to protect personal information, making them less willing to supply the stories that would once have appeared in the newspaper.  The internet has replaced chatty phone calls and handwritten letters, and now it is replacing small town newspapers.  Even large city newspapers are struggling.

Once there were both morning and evening editions for newspapers, but today we want our news as quickly as it happens.  "Hot off the press!" isn't fast enough, nor is Uncle Walter* on the evening news.  Now we have televisions and the internet with constant news reports, crawls across the bottom of the screen, and news fed to our phones.

Political Cartoon about a biased press
In earlier blogs I have emphasized the importance of professional standards for the news reporters we read and to whom we listen and watch.  For me, biased news is like reading fiction, or, at its worst, propaganda.  If we are to keep news reporters accurate, we need to take the time to find the original source at least occasionally to check it for ourselves.

We also need to stop watching/reading only those with whom we agree, especially if we catch them twisting the truth.  Like the old saying when computers were new, junk in--junk out.  I realize that it is easier for some of us to fact check than for those employed 8+ hours a day, those busy raising children and caring for elderly parents, or those otherwise involved in commitments that fill their days, but it is important that all of us to try to be accurately informed.  We need to be clear about the difference between those delivering Opinion Editorials, those intentionally slanting  or distorting information, and those abiding by professional standards for the delivery of news.

I will close with what I found most interesting in the interview of Pete Hamill.  He was asked, "Would you say you grew up poor?"

"Oh, we grew up poor, but not impoverished," Hamill said.

What's the difference, the interviewer asked.

"The library." 

Hamill continued, "I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for the lessons I learned in this place.  [the public library]"  Later, Hamill added an enlightening story about fellow reporter Jimmy Breslin.  "One day he needed to find something in his desk.  And he asked me to go to his desk, 'open the drawer and it'll be on the right-hand side.'  Lying in front of me is The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden."  Being literate was part of being an educated person in those times, even if you were a hard-nosed reporter like Breslin.
Recognize propaganda (from my old text book)

With our present day 'need for speed,' and consumer ratings, not only are newspapers dying, so is the habit of reading.  Authors and poets have time...time to reflect, to compose, to edit, to lay their work aside and look at it with fresh more critical eyes later, to seek the opinions of respected friends and others knowledgeable about the subject...time to perfect what they publish.  Even as newspaper reporters facing quick deadlines, Breslin and Hamill knew that it was important to make time for books and poetry.  It remains true today that to be informed and literate, our reading needs to be supplemented by more than the "breaking news" that scrolls across the bottom of our screen.  Magazines are struggling to find readers, and it is important to have access to their more reflective news that gets at least a few days or weeks of research and investigation before it is published.  Before print magazines go the way of newspapers, we need to subscribe to the ones we respect for more in depth news reporting.  

Recognize propaganda (from my old textbook)
The responsibility to be reflective rests with all of us-- to read history, to check the constitution, to read biographies and non-fiction related to the subject, to see what another channel on tv or commentator on the internet or newspaper reporter with more time to check facts has to say.  To be fooled requires two people--the one who seeks to fool and the one who falls for it!

The 'Abuses in the 1800s' that Isaac and his contemporaries faced were not entirely unlike our own examples.  Today's abuses may come at us faster and from more directions, but we also have more access to ways to check what is accurate.  We need muckrakers today as much or more than ever.

*For younger readers of the blog, Walter Cronkite delivered the evening news for CBS, and had a reputation for accurate reporting.

Remember, you can click on images to enlarge.     

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #7

There is an old saying:  "There are lies, and then there are damn lies."  Last week's post quoted Machiavelli, writing, "occasionally words must serve to veil the facts."  If presented with artful deception, charts and graphs can also veil the facts.  Recently I found an interesting paper on the ways statistics and other information can be presented in such a way as to mislead, while remaining arguably accurate.  "Five Ways Writers Use Misleading Graphs to Manipulate You," Ryan McCready, September 11, 2018.  .

The graphs I am using in this blog come from Mr. McCready's paper, and I strongly recommend that you go to his site to explore his full paper.  So much information is presented to us in charts and graphs, and we need to be able to recognize when it has been presented in a intentional way to mislead.

The two bar graphs above present the same statistics, but can you see what has been done to manipulate your reaction to the numbers?  Which one gives you the more accurate impression of the information?  Notice where the bottom of the graph begins.  The one on the left begins at 50, and using that manipulation of the numbers, it appears to exaggerate the differences between Group A and the other two groups.  As Machiavelli would have said, 'the facts have been veiled.'

Again, the same statistics are presented in these two graphs, but notice the numbers on the left side on the charts.  The chart on the left goes from 0 to 40, producing a flatter climb, while the chart on the right goes from 0 to 15, creating an abrupt climb between 2019 to 2020.

This time the trickery appears at the bottom of the charts shown above.  The chart on the left shows monthly changes, while the chart on the right shows yearly changes.  If the text or title make clear what the chart represents, there might be no trickery, but if the user has cherry picked data only from the period that reinforces his argument, the data can mislead.

 Author Ryan McCready has included this chart to show that to convey accurate or easily read information, one type of chart may be better than another.  He suggests that bar graphs are better for showing differences between groups.  In the graph on the right, Team B stands out, while Team C lags behind both other teams.  Yet, if you look at the round graph on the left, the differences are less apparent.

McCready also points out that sometimes using different colors can confuse, especially if one color is commonly used to represent particular information.  Thanks to Ryan McCready's paper, examples of how abuses through the presentation of information may be as deceptive as words can be, in other words, examples of ways to 'lie without lying'.  (See 11- 6 -2019 blog below.)

Battling Abuses by the manner in which graphs present information may be more difficult for muckrakers to expose, but I hope this week's blog has made you more wary about accepting information contained in charts and graphs.  Next week the Series concludes, and if you have not been reading the full series, you may wish to scroll through earlier posts.    

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

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #6

Muckraking is generally applied to searching out the truth about individuals and events, but can the importance of muckraking be applied to exposing the misuse of words?  In Isaac Werner's time people were hungry for education.  Farmers and businessmen spent evenings together reading Shakespeare.  Populist gatherings included study, and as scarce as cash was, they pooled resources to buy books.  Populists experimented with phonetic spelling to assist those who were illiterate or who did not speak English in being able to read.  School terms were short for farm children, but building a school in every community was a top priority, and the difficulty of student tests from the period show that despite the shortened school terms, children were expected to be scholars.  Knowledge and words mattered.

From my high school English text book
As a former high school English teacher and a writer, I have great interest in and respect for words.  I am not referring to grammar, although I also consider that very important.  Rather, I want to confine this post to the abuse of words, intentionally or negligently misused.

In my classroom I focused on words in several ways--developing vocabulary to enhance the ability to choose the right word to express a thought, choosing the right word grammatically, and understanding informal and formal word choices among others.  However, I also taught students how to recognize words being used to mislead.  In that sense, perhaps I was doing a bit of muckraking.

With my students, I often used television ads to illustrate how words can be manipulated to mislead, since my students were familiar with the ads they saw on tv.  A student once asked me whether I watched the programs or flipped channels to watch only ads, perplexed by my familiarity with so many  advertisements.  Even today I am guilty of correcting grammar, word choice, and pronunciation of people on the television, as if the speaker could hear me, when only my poor, suffering husband can.

Portrait of Niccoli Machiavelli
Sadly, perhaps no profession practices the art of using words to mislead and deflect more often than politicians.  An adviser to a former British Prime Minister claimed to have mastered the art of "lying without lying," confessing that he had a "talent for avoiding the truth without lying."  (BBC article by David Edmunds, 12-1-2015)  The article pointed out that politicians that want to get elected and re-elected are more likely to succeed by telling voters what they want to hear than by "confronting them with miserable realities."

Researcher Dan Ariely told CBS newsman Brian Montopoli that his research found that "Americans have a high tolerance for dishonesty when it comes from their own candidate."  In the August 3, 2012 interview, Ariely said, "Many voters have become so cynical that they really don't expect candidates to speak the verifiable truth, and they accept these exaggerations, these mild falsifications, as just part of the game."

You may have noticed that the articles I am citing are not current.  I do not intend this blog to be a comment on specific current politicians but rather an exploration of how words can be abused in marketing and politics to mislead us.  The practice isn't new.  Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, "occasionally words must serve to veil the facts."  Distant past, recent past, or current comments, misleading and outright lying exist.  The BBC article from 2015 concluded, "modern politicians mislead every day of their lives [which] is directly 'connected to the fact that trust in politicians has been corroded over the last 40 years.'"  I fear that corrosion has not improved since then.

Portrait of Edmund Burke
News men and women may attempt to draw attention to falsehoods, but too often readers, listeners, and viewers simply go in search of a source more sympathetic to their point of view, rather than appreciating having been alerted to the falsehoods of someone they like.

Probably the closest thing we have to word muckrakers are our modern day fact checkers.  One has even taken that name for their site: .  They are a nonprofit website that describes themselves as a "consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception in American politics."  Two other sources that might be considered muckrakers for words are Politifact and  Snopes does not confine themselves to political fact checking but checks all sorts of rumors and myths.

Unfortunately, with the internet assisting, lies and half- truths can outrun fact checkers before the absolute truth that Teddy Roosevelt demanded can be determined.  As a consequence, the words of Edmund Burke from 1796 that "Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever..." may no longer be a social norm.  However, what is certainly true is Burke's conclusion:  "But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth."

The muckraking series continues next week.