Where Trump Was Right

Donald Trump was right about one thing: The U.S. electoral system IS rigged. If it were not, then Hillary Clinton would be president-elect this morning and Trump would be declaiming to the heavens about how unfair it all is . . . might even be encouraging his supporters to take it to the streets and might even be leading the assault.

Some of Clinton’s supporters indeed did take it to the streets, though surely not on the scale that would have been the case if Trump had lost.

Demonstrators protested in several U.S. cities from sea to shining sea (Los Angeles on the Pacific to New York and Washington on the Atlantic). “Not our president,” they chanted peacefully.

Sorry, but they’re wrong–under the rigged rules that led to Trump’s election.

The Electoral College, enshrined in Article II of the Constitution, determines who should be president. Its makeup penalizes the states where most of the people live (California, New York) to the benefit of places where most of the people don’t live (Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming). True, Trump carried Texas and Florida–our second and third most populous states. But he lost California and New York by large margins–in California, in fact, by a landslide. And Trump achieved landslide victories in those states where most of the people don’t live.

If all the votes had been counted equally, then the election would have turned out differently. The people spoke and, by a narrow margin, they chose Clinton. Yet Trump will become the president in January.

This is the second time in 16 years that we have witnessed this travesty of democracy.

Remember 2000? Vice President Al Gore received more than a half-million votes than Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Yet Bush became president because he (perhaps) carried the state of Florida by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Another election determined according to the rules of a rigged system–another election that cheated the progressive candidate.

Back in 2000, the fate of the Electoral College seemed very much up in the air. People did talk about the unfairness of it all–about the inequity of losers becoming winners. Nothing happened, though.

Maybe it was because the process of amending the Constitution is so complicated–because the amendment process has never been used to tamper with the text of the Constitution itself, except perhaps in the case of the 13th and 14th amendments which ended slavery (not directly mentioned in the Constitution) and extended Constitutional protection to ex-slaves. Or perhaps it was because no one thought anything like this could happen again anytime soon.

Now it has.

It looks as if Clinton’s popular-vote victory will be a bit smaller than Gore’s in 2000. With 99 percent of all the votes counted, she had a lead of about  230,000 over Trump. This may be small, but it’s significant enough to give her a one percentage point lead (48 percent Clinton, 47 percent Trump).

Know who has opposed the Electoral College as the arbiter of election victory? Trump himself. In 2012, when it looked early on as if Republican Mitt Romney might win the popular vote over President Obama yet lose the Electoral College, Trump had this to say: “The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.” In the end, of course, the president won both the electoral and popular votes–and Trump went silent on the topic.

You’ll surely not hear him attacking this democratic disaster now that he has used it to win the game. To Trump, winning has never been the most important thing; it has been the only thing.

If the rules seem to favor the other guy, attack the rules. If the rules help you to win then it’s, “Hey, everybody knows the rules.” If you lose under the rules, tell your people to take it to the streets because the whole damned thing is rigged. If you win under the rules, then forget all of that. Principles have never mattered very much to Trump. The goal is just to win. This time, he did. . .and he did it by the rules.

Yes, Trump stole this election–stole it fair and square because he did it under the rules of the game. And the system is, like Trump said all along, rigged. Rigged in his favor.

 

 

 

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Rep. John Lewis absolutely rocks

Rep. John Lewis absolutely rocks

I read today that Rep. John Lewis of Georgia has organized in the House of Representatives a sort of sit-in among Democrats on the issue of gun control.

What a great idea.

Chris Murphy, one of the senators from Connecticut (where I live), filibustered in the Senate for 14 hours this week until he actually got the Republican majority to agree to a vote on a series of gun-control votes that had no chance of passing.

At least he got them to do something–even if it led to nothing.

Weirdly, actions that seem to do nothing can achieve something.

We can have an impact just by starting a conversation. Murphy’s filibuster, coupled with the protest organized by Lewis, can force discussion on the vital issue of gun control.

A little about Lewis:

He speaks with considerable authority. During the early 1960s, when he was in his late teens and early 20s, he was also a college student and would go on to become president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee–a civil rights organization.

Lewis was one of the group called the Freedom Riders, an integrated group of students who had a vision. These people wanted to demonstrate the absolute inability of our nation to deal with the fundamental problem of racial, discriminatory segregation in the U.S. South.

Their tactic was to rent buses that would travel through the South into local bus stations.

Once they entered a bus station, the Freedom Riders would act out their defiance: White Freedom Riders would enter the restroom reserved for Blacks, and Black Freedom Riders would enter the restroom reserved for Whites.

The Interstate Commerce Commission had ordered the desegregation of interstate facilities, such as bus stations that served buses that cross state lines. The Supreme Court found the ruling to be constitutional. It was the law of the land. But in the South, bus facilities remained largely segregated.

The Freedom Riders challenged the system by showing the reality rather than the fiction.

In Montgomery, Ala., Lewis was beaten to within an inch of his life by violent, racist whites. He barely survived the beating in large part through the intervention of a white law-enforcement official.

Lewis recovered from his beating and went on to lead a distinguished life of public service.

He is regarded today as the conscience of Democrats in the House of Representatives. He is also one of my personal heroes. It doesn’t surprise me that he is leading this sit-in, but it never occurred to me that he would do this.

Go for it, Rep. Lewis. You have always had my respect. Now, maybe we can get a vote that actually leads to some place. Maybe we can save the lives of gays in some city other than Orlando and children who do not attend a school called Sandy Hook in a town called Newton located in Connecticut, where I live.

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Ali

After the weekend of praises, epistles, and hosannas to Muhammad Ali, I have nothing truly original to offer. I do have a few reflections, all of them personal.

  1. Ali messed up my mind at a time (to borrow Winston Churchill’s terminology) “up with which my mind most needed to be messed.” I was 12, living with my grandparents in mountain Virginia, on the night of the first Clay-Liston fight. Liston, the ex-con, had somehow become the favorite of white America–mostly because Clay was so loud-mouthed, sure of himself, arrogant, and profoundly stupid in his insistence that he could beat the brooding, imponderable force of nature that supposedly was Liston. Then, Clay did it. He did it even though Liston’s handlers put rubbing alcohol on Liston’s gloves and told him to rub the gloves in Clay’s eyes. Lesson one: You are as good as you want to be, good enough to beat people who cheat.
  2. The next day, he announced that he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. My little slice of white America couldn’t quite deal with it. What, in fact, was the Nation of Islam? Whites who lived in the urban Northeast understood, as nearly as I can tell, but whites in the rural South couldn’t get the frame of reference. It confused me then, but one day I understood. Lesson two: You really do get to define yourself.
  3. He was stripped of his title because he refused induction into the military during the Vietnam War. It took him nearly four years to beat the draft-dodging rap and get back to the boxing ring. It took him longer to regain his title, but he did it, and then he did it again. Lesson three: Life requires endurance.
  4. Before they stripped him of his title, nobody could hit him because he was so quick; after he got back the title, everyone could hit him because he had slowed down during the hiatus. Still, only Joe Frazier could actually knock him down (once). Lesson four: Ali could take a punch. We can all take a punch.
  5. Eventually, all the punch-taking took its toll. We’re told he died of Parkinson’s Disease. More accurately, he died of Parkinson’s produced by acute and repeated blows to the head as a result of his boxing career. The toll of taking a punch shortened his life. Lesson five: Sometimes, we have to take a punch–and shorten our lives–because that’s what we have to do in order to live an honorable life.

From a practicing and devout Christian: Muhammad Ali lived a most honorable life.

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Election 2016

My good friend, Andre Blaszczynski, has an apocalyptic theory about this election season: Trump can’t win, which means Clinton will win. But Clinton will be indicted before the election–despite the best efforts of the Obama Justice Department to prevent the indictment. So Clinton will have to withdraw, leaving the Democrats with a gaping chasm to be filled by (wait for it) Joe Biden as candidate for president and (wait for it again) Elizabeth Warren as candidate for vice president.

I wish.

This is as close to my dream ticket as I hope to see in my lifetime.

My first presidential vote was for George McGovern. I’m still proud of it, though McGovern went on to become, as nearly as I can tell, the second largest presidential loser in the nation’s history.

Biden is no McGovern, but he’s a solid guy–working class to his roots. He stands on the right side of the major issues, from guns to income inequality, and he would certainly be the poorest president, in terms of wealth, in the last 60 years (Eisenhower). That counts for a lot these days.

And Warren? She’s a progressive male’s political pinup girl. Yes, the ticket should be reversed: Warren on top, Biden below. But who would quarrel a lot with either result?

Bring it on.

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A Hero of My Youth

The Nation magazine asked its readers to write brief essays of 200 words about the sports hero of their youth. Here’s what I wrote about a great football player named Ernie Davis.

I was 11 the day Ernie Davis died, and I cried.

My friends thought I was weird. Who, in the white, jock South of the early 1960s, could possibly care about a black running back from Syracuse University in a faraway land called upstate New York?

Ernie broke down my own, personal racial barrier. How could he not? He outran almost everyone, and he would shake-and-bake those who kept up with him. He played both offense and defense. Watching the Saturday highlight shows, seeing Ernie break another big run or make a key interception, I realized that greatness comes in all colors.

Ernie demolished the University of Texas in the 1960 Cotton Bowl. He was everywhere he needed to be at the moment he needed to be there. Without him, Syracuse was pretty much an average team; with him, Syracuse went undefeated and won the national championship. They beat all-white Texas in segregated Dallas. It took a strong man to do that.

Ernie received the Heisman Trophy in 1963. He signed a pro contract with the Cleveland Browns. Then he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died without ever playing a regular-season game. The Browns retired his number.

I cried–cried at the unfairness, cried because my hero was dead.

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Our Students and Their Destiny

On Thursday, May 26, I read an essay by former state Rep. Jonathan Pelto that appeared in the online publication, ctmirror. It dealt with the emerging approach of the Malloy administration to community-college education during a time of budget crisis. Here’s my response, which I submitted to ctmirror.

As a community-college teacher, I had multiple reactions after reading Jonathan Pelto’s excellent and depressing column, “A Giant Step in Connecticut’s Race to the Bottom.”

The first was simply that those of us who work in the community-college system know, perhaps even better than Gov. Malloy and Commissioner Michael Meotti, the dimensions of the problem that they presume to address. We see it at the start of every academic year—students who come to college unprepared to do college work. And we’ve come, reluctantly in my case, to accept that community colleges can’t quickly solve the problems that accumulated during the first 13 years (kindergarten through Grade 12) of our students’ education.

The second reaction was that someone has to try, that “someone” historically has been us, and that no effort in higher education is more important.

After reading Commissioner Meotti’s comment that the state should “reconsider” offering a college education to those who are “likely to fail,” though, I came up with a few other ideas that could deal with the problem that he perceives and save a ton of money to boot.

We know, for instance, that 75 percent of our students are going to come here unable to do college-level work in math, English, or both. Since the deficiency rates are higher in the state’s cities than in the suburbs, why not post a sign over the entrance to every urban high school in the state—a sign that says, “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.” I’m assuming that, since Dante Alighieri has been dead for more than six centuries now, his inscription over the Gates to Hell is part of the public domain. And it captures perfectly the spirit of Commissioner Meotti’s analysis. After all, most of these students will graduate from high school “likely to fail” anyway. Why permit them to build up hope for four years, receive a high-school diploma, and then have the doors shut in their faces? ‘Tis kinder, surely, to discourage them from wasting time on an effort that was doomed from the start. Plus, we would drive down high-school enrollment, which would save money on teacher salaries and building maintenance.

There is a way to save even more money: Simply close the state’s urban high schools. No schools would mean no teachers, no maintenance, and even more savings. Why, especially in a time of mandatory austerity, spend anything at all on those who probably will fail anyway?

Because, of course, one of the foundational beliefs of this country is that few among us are destined to fail.

We who work at the community colleges have seen students who should have failed by every available measure, and yet who have succeeded—whether the measure of success is graduation, a transfer to a four-year institution, a promotion made possible by success in a specific course or attainment of an academic credential, or simply the satisfaction that comes with learning something new. We have seen, by the hundreds, students have succeeded in ways that crude budget analysis can’t capture. I refer specifically to the students who needed six or seven years to get their associate’s degrees because they had to complete multiple levels of developmental English and math in order to get to college-level work, because they also had to work full-time, and because they therefore had neither the time nor the money to take more than six credits in a semester.

Like every unit in public education, the community colleges face tough choices. “Ability to benefit” is no longer an abstract and obscure phrase that we can kick around in our idle time. Enrollment at my college must remain substantially flat until we can afford to hire more full-time faculty, which seems unlikely at least into the mid-range future. So we need to craft plans that allow us to achieve our mission within available resources. As we make the decisions, however, we must interpret our mission as generously and broadly as possible.

We do have a lot of thinking to do. As we deliberate, however, we need to focus on maintaining a success rate that, if properly defined, is quite admirable.

Let’s leave the talk of destiny and failure to the politicians.

If we handle ourselves well enough, we might even get them to stop talking about failure altogether. Then we can all turn our attention to keeping hope alive, which is an effort that enriches everyone who undertakes it.

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Journalism forum

Here are the comments I made at the beginning of Tunxis Community College’s third Forum on the News Media. They both introduce the guest speakers and offer some reflections of my own about the topic, “Rescuing Newspapers in Troubled Times.” I hope they’re useful to anyone who happens to read them.

Good afternoon.

This is third year of Tunxis Community College’s annual Forum on the News Media. The forum had its inception in a grant provided through the college’s Strategic Initiatives Fund and, for the past two years, has been funded as part of the Humanities Department budget. The purpose of the forum, briefly, is to bring Tunxis faculty and staff together with persons who work in newsgathering to discuss issues of importance to the news media—and thus, ultimately, to society in general.

Past forums have dealt, in Year 1, with the potential of the ongoing revolution in technology to change the ways we think about news and, in Year 2, the continuing trend toward consolidation of traditional newsgathering organizations into fewer and fewer corporate hands.

Previous participants have included Keith Burris and Lee Giguere of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Ct., Shawn Beals of UConn’s distinguished student newspaper, The Connecticut Daily Campus, Robert Weisman of The Boston Globe and Joseph H. Zerbey of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio. They’ve been joined by several of our Tunxis colleagues—Steve Ersinghaus, Rachel Hyland, Patrice Hamilton, and John Timmons.

This year’s topic for discussion is local and specific in its focus: “Rescuing Newspapers in Troubled Times.” Our guests are two distinguished journalists—Michael Schroeder, who is publisher of The Bristol Press and New Britain Herald and James Smith, who is executive editor of the same two publications. As for the Tunxis staffers this year, well, you’re stuck with just me…for reasons that I hope to make clear in the next few minutes.

Both Mike Schroeder and Jim Smith seem to have been born, as Jim once said of himself, with printer’s ink in their veins.

MICHAEL SCHROEDER

Mike Schroeder reports that he’s been in the newspaper and publishing business since 6th grade when he began producing a two-cent-per-copy, carbon-paper newsletter. He was editor of his high school newspaper, and later of his college newspaper, The Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California. He spent 15 years at Newsday, the great daily newspaper of Long Island. Since then, he has worked on startup publications in New York, Boston, and Israel—the latter of which was published in Hebrew, which I’m pretty sure is not his first language.

Today, as I said, he’s publisher of The Herald and The Press. He says that, as publisher, he focuses primarily on the business side of the publications, but he’s always willing to write an editorial or story when he’s really fired up or (this is his own quotation) “when we’re short on staff and have a hole to fill”—an assessment that shows that he really does understand the complexities of producing a local newspapers with limited resources.

In his communities, he is active in Rotary and is on the board of Long Island Youth Mentoring, the New Britain Symphony, the Museum of American Art, and the New Britain Chamber of Commerce. During the week, he lives in an apartment in Bristol and commutes weekends to Long Island where he lives with his wife, Janet.

JAMES SMITH

Jim Smith has been a part of Connecticut journalism for, as I count it, four decades. Jim was raised in New York in a newspaper family. He was at The Hartford Courant for 14 years. His first beat at The Courant was covering the city of Bristol. He worked there as city editor and sports editor. He’s been managing editor of the Register-Citizen in Torrington, The Day in New London, and The News-Times in Danbury, editor of The Connecticut Post in Bridgeport, executive editor of The Record Journal in Meriden, and currently executive editor of The Press and The Herald.

Jim has received the Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors for a series of columns on the free press that have been compiled and published as a book, A Passion for Journalism: A Newspaper Editor Writes to His Readers. A Passion for Journalism was published by Plaidswede Publishing of Concord, N.H., which last year published his first novel. He’s been a Pulitzer Prize juror and president of the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. Currently, he’s on the executive committee of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

Under his editorship, the New London, Danbury, Meriden, and Bridgeport publications all were named New England newspapers of the year in their various circulation categories.

Jim is also planning to retire effective December 31 of this year. This will let him pursue independent writing and editing projects and spend more time with the four daughters and two grandchildren that he shares with his wife, Jacky, who is managing editor of The News-Times in Danbury.

On a personal note, I have to say that I’m quite sure Jim has earned the right to retire. But I must also add that his retirement will be a loss to daily journalism in Connecticut.

AS FOR ME

As for me, I’m Bob Brown, professor of History and English here at Tunxis. I’m also, I have to confess, a recovering journalist. I spent a quarter-century in Connecticut journalism, working at The Courant, The Chronicle in Willimantic, the Journal Inquirer in Manchester and, most of those years, at The Bristol Press where I was reporter, columnist, editorial-page editor and, ultimately, editor.

I left The Press in 1996 and left journalism altogether in 1998 to come to Tunxis.

My decision to quit as editor of The Press was a wrenching and painful one, reached over more than a year. In the end, I left because I felt as if I had no choice. The newspaper had been acquired in the early 1990s by the Journal Register Company, a newspaper group based in Trenton, N.J. which also owned The New Haven Register and Register-Citizen in Torrington and would eventually acquire both The New Britain Herald and The Middletown Press.

It became clear to me quickly that the mission of the Journal Register Company was to squeeze out every penny of profit by cutting costs wherever possible even if it meant sacrificing the quality of the publications.

It was journalism, if you will, as practiced by bloodless beancounters.

A couple of examples cinched the point for me.

1—One of the fascinating elements in the production and distribution of a daily newspaper, at least before the age of the Internet, was this: Newspapers would buy the most advanced printing and production technology, requiring an increasingly skilled workforce, and then often rely for distribution on an 11-year-old kid with a bicycle.

The responsibility for getting the paper to those kids, and getting them to distribute it promptly, falls to the Circulation Department—and the key people in that operation really are the people called district managers, each of whom is responsible for distribution in a specific geographic area.

During the mid-1990s, The Press had five district managers. Over the course of several months in 1995, each of them left for another job. Because we were under a corporate hiring freeze, our circulation manager was told he could fill none of the positions, which meant there was no one in charge of dealing with the carriers or the complaints of readers who had not received their afternoon newspaper.

At that time, we were a newspaper essentially assembled at night and distributed early the next afternoon. Our circulation office closed at 6PM. All calls afterward were forwarded to our newsroom. For two weeks, I had one of our news clerks compile the names and numbers of people who had not gotten their newspaper. My memory is fading a bit now, but I’m pretty sure that we received well over 1,000 phone calls in a single week from more than 700 separate subscribers. And still, the hiring freeze continued.

2—For me the breaking point came in 1996. The hiring freeze had reduced the staff in the newsroom by 25 percent. Then came the order to begin publication of a Sunday newspaper—a 17 percent increase in workload with 25 percent fewer people.

It simply couldn’t be done either well or effectively. The end result would be a publication that reflected no credit on the people who put it together and offered nothing of value to the people who bought it.

I need to be clear on one point: There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with newspapers earning a healthy return on investment. A newspaper that loses money over a sustained period is a newspaper that eventually will cease to publish. Newspapers cannot FORCE citizens to subscribe. Government, blessedly, does not support newspapers through either taxation or subsidy.

It used to amuse me greatly when an outraged reader would call to object to a particular article or photograph and end by saying, “You just printed that so you could sell more papers.”

The fact is that everything that goes in a newspaper is designed to “sell papers.” The first job of a newspaper is to be read, and the way to do that is to convince people that they should buy the newspaper.

Beyond that, however, good journalists have always believed that the bottom line is not the only way to gauge a newspaper’s success. A good newspaper is a newspaper that informs, entertains, and comments on the news. It acts responsibly in gathering the news, adhering to generally accepted standards of fairness and social responsibility.

A good LOCAL newspaper, as Jim Smith has observed, performs another function: It is a mirror for the community. When the community looks at it on a daily basis, the community sees itself.

In the end, I concluded that the Journal Register Company, despite all kinds of lip service to the contrary, didn’t care about any of that other stuff—that its bottom-line only mentality had begun to affect the quality of the newspapers, that the damage would grow over time, that the communities would realize as much, and that eventually the communities would stop reading.

I didn’t want to participate in the gutting of a newspaper about which I cared a great deal, so I left and, though it gives no pleasure to say so, what I thought would happen is pretty much what happened.

In the summer of 1996, The Bristol Press had a circulation of approximately 22,000. By 2009, the number had fallen to well below 10,000. The Herald had faced an equally precipitous drop in readership. Not so coincidentally, the Journal Register Company found itself forced into bankruptcy. What happened in Connecticut had clearly been repeated in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Michigan where the company owned newspapers.

As part of its plan to reorganize, the company announced that it would close certain of its publications—including The Herald and The Press.

That event very nearly came to pass in January 2009.

The Press and The Herald were within days of closing their doors when a buyer emerged, Central Connecticut Communication, and the region met Mr. Schroeder for the first time.

As Mike Schroeder tells it, he had breakfast with a good friend who had read a New York Times article on the decline of local newspapers in New England, using The Bristol Press as its focus. His friend asked if he had ever thought about buying and publishing such newspapers. After first shrugging off the suggestion, he reconsidered. Less than a week later, he was in the area—meeting with the publisher of the two newspapers and with the mayors of the two cities. He came away satisfied that there was a chance that the two communities would give a fair trial to new ownership.

Negotiations began a week later and were concluded barely in time to keep the doors open.

Mike Schroeder himself describes the situation he faced: “A staff that didn’t know me and had taken a pounding over the past few years, working in decaying buildings that had more history than future in them, in an unforgiving economy and a rapidly declining industry.”

As he faced this reality, he also had a chance to take a good job out of journalism at a Fortune 500 company on Long Island.

He chose journalism and brought Jim Smith in as executive editor.

That was nearly two years ago. Anyone who reads the two newspapers can see a change: More professional publications, more local news, a clear focus on community journalism in all aspects from news to arts to sports.

The most obvious evidence of change is the most recent:

In October, The Herald was named best small newspaper in New England by the New England Newspaper and Press Association.

It seemed only natural to invite the publisher and executive editor to talk about how they did what they did, their vision for the newspapers and the communities they serve, and anything else that seems relevant about the process of rescuing newspapers during troubled times. I’ve suggested that Mike Schroeder speak first and provide an overview of what happened and what he hopes will happen in the future and that Jim Smith might talk specifically about the news operation. They’re free, of course, to do whatever they want.

First, Michael Schroder.

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