Archive for November, 2012

Resuming the War on Poverty in Columbus

November 30, 2012
Betsy Covington

Betsy Covington, Executive  Director, Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley

Betsy Covington  really grabbed my attention when she told Columbus Rotarians that the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley now has assets of $95 million.  The Foundation can distribute the interest that is generated by that endowment to non-profit organizations that need it. The 200 funds that contributed that money can designate who gets it, but, as Betsy told me after her Rotary talk, the Foundation itself is given authority to decide who gets some of it.

Columbus’ greatest problem is poverty. That was determined by a study a few years ago by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute.  Former Muscogee County Schools Superintendent Guy Sims tells me that the problem has gotten worse, not better. Guy,  the original and unpaid Director of the Building Prosperity Initiative, which was organized to coordinate efforts to lessen the poverty problem in Columbus, says that program was put on hold three years ago after the 2008 Great Recession hit because charitable giving dried up. It appears  that now givers are feeling confident enough to start giving again.

The Building Prosperity Initiative, which has been on hold for three years, may crank back up and coordinate the effort to solve Columbus’ biggest problem, poverty. The program, headed up by former Muscogee County School Superintendent Guy Sims, with the help of Columbus business leader  James Blanchard,  did accomplish one of its goals before it became dormant, determining how to get people out of poverty. That was accomplished by a study  that was financed by a grant  from the  Community Foundation of the  Chattahoochee Valley.  Betsy says the study shows that “…there are three things a person can do that greatly lessens their statistical chance of living in poverty: graduate from high school, get some kind of a job, and wait until they are 21 and/or married before having children.” 

Guy Sims said the Building Prosperity Initiative now has an office in the state’s Enrichment Services building. To get things going again, he says, money has to be raised to hire an executive director. He donated his services to get the program started, but a salary will be necessary for a permanent director. No, he tells me, he is not a candidate for the job, but he is still supporting the program.

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We Are Definitely Going Over the Fiscal Cliff

November 29, 2012

Mark Vitner, Wells Fargo Chief Economist (Photo by Jim Cawthorne, Camera1)

 

That’s what Mark Vitner told members of the Rotary Club of Columbus. He is the Chief Economist for Wells Fargo.  He says if we define going over the fiscal cliff as an increase in taxes and less government spending, it’s definitely going to happen. 

He doesn’t think, however, that it will throw us  into a depression, and, after the speech, he told me that the bottom line is that things will get better next year economically, but not by much.  The big problem,he says, is uncertainty. Businesses don’t expand and hire more people when there is uncertainty.

From what I have been reading and hearing on television, that uncertainty will only come close to ending when the president and Congress reach a compromise over how to raise revenues and cut spending. The president wants Congress to go ahead and vote to let the Bush tax cuts stay in force for those making less than $250 thousand a year.  The rest of the details, such as what to do about increasing taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent, can be worked out later.

A lot, certainly not all, of wealthy Americans are agreeable about paying more taxes.  A prime example is billionaire Warren Buffet. He thinks they should be raised on Americans making between  $500 thousand and $1 million a year. 

Republican leadership is sticking by its demand that the tax cuts remain in force for everyone, including the top two percent, but there are now some legislators saying their of oath of office trumps their oath to Grover Norquist , who has turned out to be a very powerful lobbyist indeed.  95 percent of Republicans in Congress signed his no-tax-increases pledge.   

Vitner says that conservatives, even those who would be willing to compromise, fear what would happen to them in their reelection bids if they voted to increase anyone’s taxes.  Going over the cliff maybe what will allow them to compromise. If the tax cuts end, they can then vote for another tax cut, then say they didn’t vote for a tax hike, but a tax cut.     

A lot is at stake in this mess. As you know, programs like Medicare, Social Security, and the military  are involved.   

Who knows what will happen. It’s really hard to get some politicians to put country ahead of party, especially when they are afraid their actions will hurt them at reelection time. . 

The Case Against Audience Research for TV News Departments

November 26, 2012

It is good to know that at least one important news executive believes that broadcast news is still a public service.  That’s what  Jeff Fager, CBS News Chairman and 60 Minutes Executive Producer, told Arizona State Walter Cronkite Journalism School students recently, and I was fortunate enough  to hear the lecture on C-span.

“We are approaching a story in a smart way, a focused way that helps people better understand what is happening in the world,” he told  them.  “It’s about telling a story and it’s about reporting, how good a reporter are you? How well can you dig things up? How well do you  find things out?”

He explained how retired 60 Minutes Executive Producer Don Hewitt influenced him, saying  that what Hewitt believed goes against all the conventional wisdom you hear about in news today.  “We never did audience research. We still don’t believe in it. I don’t believe in it.” However, it drives many news decision-makers now.  It may tell you not to do a story because it’s not visual and the audience doesn’t care about it.  He said he knew serious journalists who  run news organizations who would not cover the war in Afghanistan because research told them it was a turn off.  He says they are wrong.  A hundred thousand Americans are risking their lives in a war zone.  What  he didn’t say, but what I do say is that such behavior is irresponsible for anyone who calls himself a member of the Fourth Estate.  News media have a civic responsibility in a democracy such as ours. 

The truly important point he made, in my view, because it is one I tried to make repeatedly when I was still in the business, is that you cover a story because you think it is important  and you make it interesting.  It is up to you, the reporter, to do that, to make it interesting. 

For those who don’t buy the no-audience-research news philosophy, you need to take a look at the most successful news program in the  history of television.  60 Minutes has been on the air for 45 years  and has been and still is phenomenally successful. It is a ratings champion, still  often in the top ten. It is a combination of hard-noised investigative reporting and some stories about celebrities.   Fager says he plans to cut back on the celebrity stories and make the program even more relevant. The stories are not selected because of audience  research, but because the people who manage 60 Minutes believe they are important, important enough to do well.

Fager says CBS News will continue to follow the tradition established by people like Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, and Walter Cronkite. It will continue to challenge authority. It will take risks.  It will report from war zones. These are  things many news decision-makers don’t do because they are dangerous, expensive, and risky, but CBS News will.

Now, if we can just get the rest of the broadcast news world to follow their lead.  When is the last time you saw a truly important local investigative report on a controversial subject?  For many  years, even though we did not have the resources of CBS News, we use to do some digging, some investigative reporting, a lot more reporting on what legislators in Atlanta and Montgomery were up to. We didn’t rule them out because they might not be good TV picture stories. We made them interesting, and used creativity to come up with illustrative pictures, and, yes, we got good ratings.    

Also, corporate management stayed out of the newsroom. Stories were not killed because they might offend some powerful person or organization.  At  least, that was my experience. Management tried to hire capable broadcast journalists and let them do their jobs. More than once I had to be defended by station management, and I have to say that when I was a news director, they always backed me solidly.  Once, when a powerful businessman called my then boss the late Jim Woodruff, Jr. , he said to Woodruff, “You can tell them not to run that story, Jim.” Woodruff told him, “Yes, you are right. I could do that. I could tell them not to run it, and it would not run. And then I would not be able to hire a decent reporter.” Ah, the good old days.     

 

Columbus Audience Applauds Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln

November 18, 2012

   We are fortunate indeed to have someone like Steven Spielberg who will use his extraordinary talent and Hollywood clout to produce truly important movies, evergreens like Saving Private Ryan,  Schindler’s List, and, now, Lincoln. Lincoln is basically about our 16th president’s challenges in getting Congress to approve the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that ended slavery in the United States. It is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning  biography Team of Rivals.

It’s not often that an audience will applaud a movie.  After all, the actors and others responsible for the film can’t hear the applause. It happened when Lincoln ended at the showing I attended. I could understand why.  It was that good.  I was quite moved by it, and I won’t be surprised if Daniel Day-Lewis gets an Oscar nomination for his performance as the American president who is usually rated by most historians as the second most important United States president.  George Washington usually gets the nod for number one and Franklin D. Roosevelt for number three.

   It is hard to watch the movie and not reflect that only 147 years ago our country allowed the slavery of African-Americans, and now we have just reelected an African-American President.   

I definitely recommend both Lincoln and Team of Rivals.

Jazz and the Fiscal Cliff

November 12, 2012

They don’t really have anything to  do with one another, but it’s Monday and that means I need a new post since I said I would try to have a new one on Mondays.  Since I can’t seem to settle on one subject, I guess I’ll do a stream of consciousness thing.

The most recent thing that impressed me was the performance of the Atlanta 17 at the Columbus Jazz Society gathering at St. Thomas Episcopal Church yesterday. Wonderful big-band jazz played by Atlanta area businessmen and professionals.  The drummer is a retired chiropractor, for instance,  The crowd, including me, loved it.  The crowd, however should have been larger. I guess the Jazz Society needs better publicity.

The other thing rising to my cognitive surface is what Congress and the president are going to do  about cutting spending and raising taxes.  Like the  guy says, “I don’t want the federal government messing with my Medicare.” I understand somebody really said that.  While we’re at it, I don’t want it messing with my Social Security, either.

I don’t want my taxes going up, either; however, I do want a few things like improved roads, bridges, rapid transit, and schools, and a balanced budget!

The Impossible Political Dream?

November 7, 2012

 

Courtesy: U.S. Government

Senator Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader in the Senate, can now focus on something other than making sure that President Obama is a one-term president. That issue has been settled. He can start making reasonable compromises with the president and Democrats in the Senate to do what is best for all Americans.   He puts the burden on the president, telling the Louisville Courier- Journal, ” To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we’ll be there to meet him half way.” That offers some hope.

Speaking of hope, let’s hope that more senators, Republicans and Democrats, turn more toward statesmanship, and less toward vindictive partisan politics.

Let’s hope it is not futile to think that reasonable  compromise can also become  the new norm in the  House, too.  It’s time to put the nation first, not the  party.

This may be too much to hope for, but if it doesn’t happen,  this country faces even tougher times.  The fiscal crisis cannot be solved without both spending cuts and increased revenue. The trick is to make sure those spending cuts don’t put more of a burden on Americans who need help right now, and to increase revenues without putting more of a tax burden on the middle class.  Taking more money from the middle class means it has less to spend.  Our economy is consumer driven, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what will happen if middle-class consumers have fewer dollars to spend.

Sandy and Global Warming

November 5, 2012

The catastrophic hurricane that devastated the northeast coast of  the United States has revived the global warming debate. With all of the evidence that scientists have given us, it is incredible to me that at least 30 percent  of the population are still in denial about it.  A recent Yale study says 70 percent now accept that the planet is warming. A Gallup Poll taken in March of this year shows that 52 percent believe we are already feeling the effects. 29 percent think we will feel the effects in the future. 15 percent don’t think it will ever happen.

Why did so many people disbelieve it before?  One explanation is that a deliberate misinformation campaign was financed by industrial  polluters who value profits over human safety.

Hardly anyone agrees that one hurricane does global warming make. However, when all of the global warming factors are considered, the evidence is clear. There is global warming. 

Okay, some say, there is, but,  it’s natural and not caused by industrial pollution.  The vast majority of scientists don’t buy that. The do believe that industrial polluters play a significant role in exacerbating the problem.

The polluters also have to breath earth’s air, so we have to wonder why some are still in denial.