Friday, March 30, 2012

Following the tuna fishermen of Gloucester

Tuna. What I ate for lunch every day in high school. What I ask for these days in sushi. And now there’s Wicked Tuna, a National Geographic series about the lives of Gloucester fishermen who pursue their livelihood in pursuit of these magnificent silvery fish. (Seeing them hooked, harpooned and decapitated might make a vegetarian out of me.) The series starts Sunday night on the National Geographic Channel and was previewed this week at the Wilbur Theatre, with many of the fishermen, friends and relatives in attendance.

The iconic images belie a troubled reality, with pressures coming for them on land and at sea. For the families involved in the pursuit, bluefin tuna are the defining element of their existence and the key to their economic survival. The series follows the struggles of five fishing boats, their captains and crews, revealing the stunning difficulty of their grueling work lives. There’s nothing high tech about the way they fish; it’s rod and reel, strength and determination. It costs about $3000 to provision a boat for a three-day outing on Georges Bank. They need to catch at least one fish just to break even, more than one if they’re small. Their language is salty, to say the least, and their anger at the elements or at each other is unconcealed. But underneath the “man talk” are a grittiness and entrepreneurial commitment to survive and succeed that is impressive.

Such stories are also the subject of a Regis College musical in April based on oral histories of the Gloucester fishermen’s wives. It will be at the college in Weston from the 11th to 14th and at the Cape Ann Theatre in Gloucester the 20th and 21st.

National Geographic’s stated goals are to tell the human stories behind the macro descriptions of the fishing industry and to educate people about the increasing scarcity of bluefin tuna. (According to its press material, the adult bluefin population has declined by as much as 83 percent in the Atlantic since 1950.) Marine biologists say it is a victim of overfishing. Governments have tried to set quotas for fish and regulate fishing methods, creating other problems for the fishermen.

But overfishing isn’t the only threat to Gloucester. Increasingly there are concerns about community gentrification and historic neighborhoods giving way to luxury development. Gloucester seems on the verge of solidifying the home of its 400-year-old fishing industry by marrying it to 21st century activities around marine innovation. It’s still a working class community, and one hopes it won’t become too precious as travelers and high rollers move in. Sadly, if gentrification goes too far, the real endangered species might turn out to be the Gloucester fishermen and families themselves.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, March 23, 2012

In gaffe lies truth: the Etch-a-Sketch blunder

As a former journalist turned communications strategist, I look at Mitt Romney’s right hand man Eric Fehrnstrom and think there but for the grace of God go I. It’s the same feeling one gets in hearing of someone deeply embarrassed by hitting the send button before realizing his or her damaging email is misdirected. Whether it’s electronic error or foot-in-mouth disease, we’ve all been there, unless we’re robots. As columnist Michael Kinsley once observed, a gaffe is someone telling the truth by accident. Or something like that.

Asked to comment on whether his candidate’s primary strategy makes running in the general election more difficult, Fehrnstrom said no, it was just a question of shaking the Etch-a-Sketch screen and resetting things. He later said he was talking about campaign tactical strategy, not message, but it was too late. The other candidates were passing out samples of the children’s staple, and noting that the statement proves the Etch-a-Sketch candidate isn’t a tried and true conservative.

These days, there’s a particular challenge for any candidate in a contested primary, having to play to the party’s activist ideological base and then pivot to appeal to the independents and moderates who vote in – and can swing - a general election. This has been especially true for Romney, who has been tarred nationally for his support of Romney-Care, arguably his single greatest accomplishment as Massachusetts governor. But he has had numerous other reversals as well, all of which President Obama will be sure to elucidate in the fall. Obama has some of his own. Think Guantanamo, unemployment and deficit targets. Are these really flip-flops, or a genuine rightward evolution of political philosophy over time?

Certainly Democrats and Independents who voted for Romney for governor hardly recognize the candidate they supported.

But the underlying truth to Fehrnstrom echoes a message my husband heard from a Romney fundraiser. The fellow was trying to persuade my husband to donate to the campaign. My husband asked “Why should I support Romney?” The answer: “Romney doesn’t really believe the things he’s saying.”

Individuals, corporations and politicians all shape their messages to optimize impact. Communications strategists help them do it. What you say and don’t say has consequences. Sometimes the consequences are unintended. Ironically, given the lopsided delegate count, Fehrnstrom’s comments may help Romney position himself in the general election, and then Fehrnstrom will be celebrated as the wizard. If not, the Etch-a-Sketch comment may go down in the annals of campaign lore along with the images of Michael Dukakis in the tank and John Kerry wind-surfing.

photo Politico
I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Responding to the Darryl Williams Aftermath

Some stories never end, and too often the media let them drift from public consciousness. Not so, Brian McGrory. His moving column Wednesday  on the aftermath of the Darryl Williams shooting is a powerful reminder that some people just can’t catch a break.

Darryl was a football player from Roxbury playing for J.P. High when he was gunned down at a game in Charlestown. The year was 1979, and racial tensions in some neighborhoods were still raging in the wake of the busing uproar that started five years before. He was a good kid and a responsible student, and the shooting left him a quadriplegic. Two white teenagers were convicted, but many people wanted more in the way of revenge. Darryl’s mother, Shirley Simmons, called for prayer and peace. She gave up her job and cared for Darryl for more than 30 years, until his death at the age of 46, two years ago.

Darryl had worked as a motivational speaker, trying to replace hostility with love and compassion, but Shirley Simmons’ troubles endure. She is three months behind in her mortgage payments, and, McGrory says, the Stoneham Bank is beginning foreclosure proceedings. Are the bank’s policies so cut and dried that there’s no alternative for Simmons but homelessness? Over the years many people said they’d help, but never followed through. This woman has spent her life cleaning up after the community’s dysfunction, and lost her son to its violence. Must she give up hearth and home as well?

A fund established in Southie after the original tragedy occurred has been closed out, but there is another option. There is a Darryl Williams Fund, at The National Consortium for Academics and Sport University of Central Florida, College of Business Administration 4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando, FL 32816. Checks can be made payable to The National Consortium for Academics and Sport, and write The Darryl Williams Fund in the memo space. Why Florida? You may remember Richard Lapchick, who used to run Northeastern University's Sport in Society program. He stayed close to Darryl and is working in Florida now. Lapchick told me that 100 percent of money donated will go to Shirley Simmons.

Private contributions will only go so far. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Stoneham Bank, whether for goodness or just good brand marketing, worked things out with Darryl’s mom so she could stay in her home?
Photo ESPN

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Now let’s chuck the horse race and get to the substance

Hurray for the Globe. On Monday, it analyzed the assumptions of Mitt Romney’s proposals to beef up the military till expenditures hit four percent of GDP, challenged the relevancy of his data on the number of ships and planes we have and questioned the implications of his proposed goals. On Tuesday, the paper took a sobering look at the Mittster’s proposal to raise the eligibility age for Medicare and even to eliminate coverage for preexisting conditions for 66 and 67-year-olds.
It is indeed time to downplay the horse race and look long and hard at the truths behind the policy posturing during this primary season.

Mitt may not be breaking out the champagne bottles after each primary result, but it’s pretty clear he’s on the path to the nomination. Because of the new process, with states dividing the primary votes proportionately among congressional districts, his opponents are increasingly unlikely to put together the 1144 needed to secure the nomination. Mitt’s more than halfway there, with twice as many delegates as Santorum. And, even if he loses bragging rights in one state or another, he still picks up delegates here and there so that by Memorial Day he should be pretty close to securing the nomination. So, my former colleagues across the media, how about let’s drop the incessant horse race analysis and tackle the substance of his candidacy. I know it’s easier to treat politics as entertainment, but it’s time to eat our spinach.

Early on, Romney put out a 50-some-odd-page economic plan. It got little attention. Then he proposed to cut federal income tax rates by 20 percent more for all earners, and, according to Josh Barro of Forbes, that would decimate U.S. revenue by more than $5 trillion over the next decade decade. 

The Romney campaign asserts that the red ink would be stanched by closing tax loopholes and growing the economy. Perhaps he’s got a bridge for us in Brooklyn, too. Some budget analysts warn that Romney’s plan overall would add nearly three trillion in debt over the next decade. Plus, remember his expansive view of the military. No savings there. Saying that Romney’s budget is realistic, as his campaign contends, does not make it so. It’s time for the media to press him harder on the details. While they’re at it, how about pushing him harder on how his approach will generate the jobs and growth he is promising. Closing tax loopholes and growing the economy is part of everyone’s plan, including Obama’s. But where are the details?

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mr. Smith leaves Wall Street: all hail the non-Gordon Gekko

Memo to Elizabeth Warren: wrap your arms around Greg Smith and get him to endorse your candidacy. The just departed Goldman Sachs vice president slammed the door loudly when he walked out, faulting the culture of overbearing greed at the Wall Street giant. According to Smith, everything at Goldman Sachs was about profit and nothing was about the well-being of the clients, who were referred to in a variety of disparaging ways, obviously behind their backs.

A key question is whether and to what extent Smith, a South African native (of Lithuanian Jewish heritage) and Stanford grad, had raised questions inside the firm about its contempt for its clients. If he had, his concerns still might have fallen on deaf ears. But that would make all the more understandable his dramatic op ed declaration in yesterday’s New York Times about why he was voluntarily leaving his $500,000 job. Perhaps not surprisingly, today’s Wall St. Journal dealt with the story only in a single article on how Goldman Sachs is doing damage control. Columnist David Weidner mocks Smith's apparently recent discovery about Goldman's longstanding business practices, noting "such idealism is only a priority after the profits have been booked."

Reportedly Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said a couple of years ago that the company “is doing God’s work.” He may be alone in his theology. It played a key role in the financial meltdown, partly by repackaging securities, slicing them and dicing them, selling the garbage to unsuspecting clients and then betting against them in the marketplace. Goldman Sachs has denied any wrongdoing even when a judge thought differently.

In corporate culture, Smith’s public criticism is a no-no, a sign of extreme disloyalty, which could make it difficult for him to find other employment on Wall Street. That’s the buzz in the financial media. But, if I were a Wall St. CEO and had confidence that my company performed according to high ethical standards, I might want to hire him immediately as a marketing distinction. That would send a message that a firm can have its client’s interests in the forefront and that we can, indeed, do well by doing good. Alas, that may be too much to ask.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Boston Herald struts its stuff - to good effect

It used to be a little awkward when people I know would question why I read the Boston Herald, (along with the Globe, the New York Times, the Wall St. Journal and more.) The quality was often a real question mark. There were the outrageous tabloid headlines, the Rush Limbaugh-like columnist (you know who he is) and a total bias against anyone who believed in public service. It’s always had some good columnists and was aggressive following agency stories other news media would miss. But of late the Herald has upped its game.

The lively format enhances some solid journalism of the watchdog variety. It was the Herald that blew the whistle on lavish spending and closed-door decision making at the Greenway Conservancy. The paper has unearthed reams of abuses among state workers’ double and triple dipping, collecting pensions and unemployment and, in the case of some supposedly retired police officers, pay for private details. The state Labor Secretary claimed she was unaware that municipalities were upset that the review board she oversees was overturning unemployment denials by local officials. As Margery Eagan said, such lax supervision of how taxpayer money gets spent is why the rest of us can never ever retire! Or so it seems.

Reporter David Wedge has recently turned in stunning coverage of the frequency with which several dozen state workers have wrecked their taxpayer-funded state vehicles, some of them repeatedly. Happily, this prompted the Governor to promise to take the keys away from the worst offenders.

This gritty kind of journalism serves an important purpose. Optimally, it won’t so sour the public on government that it reduces support for much needed public functions. You know, the point about not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I must insert here that I appreciated when the Herald named the Winthrop hockey dad charged with pointing a laser into the mask of the goalie of the team opposing his daughter’s team. Why mince words with such a despicable act?

On the larger issues, the Herald’s effort are being noticed, not just with repeated recognition by the Newseum in D.C. for the quality of its front pages but, more significantly, by being named by Editor & Publisher magazine one of the Top 10 newspapers that “do it right” when it comes to innovation.

Of late, Boston has two very different but distinctive daily news products. We benefit from the competition. We are lucky to live in a two daily newspaper-town.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Challenging sports cheating

Bad sportsmanship by parents of high school players echoes in pro athletes’ wrongdoing. Yesterday’s Boston Globe story of a hockey dad in Winthrop ejected from a girls’ playoff game for shining a laser pointer on the ice and in the opposing goalie’s face to distract players shows how twisted parental involvement in their children’s sports activities can become. Appropriately, he was banned from future school events. What is wrong with this parent, and why did the newspaper and other news media protect his identity? Shouldn’t he be made to feel shame over trying to influence a kids’ game and jeopardizing the players?

Interscholastic sports rules prevent forfeiture or a rematch. But aren’t criminal charges of child endangerment against the miscreant a step toward justice? Sadly, the unnamed father may even now be chortling about the incident over a beer with his buddies, amused by his gambit, especially since it may have played a decisive role in helping his daughter’s team win.

While I can’t pretend to know what he was thinking, I can see a connection to another Saturday story, that of the revelation that for three years the New Orleans Saints were rewarding players with bounties when they injured opponents. According to the New York Times, players could be rewarded with $1500 for knocking a player out of a game and $1000 if the opposing player were carted off the field. Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre was one victim of the injury strategy, in a January playoff game last year.

Bounties are a violation of the rules, but supposedly Saints officials knew about the player-run bounty system and did nothing. To me, it’s the same do-whatever-it-takes-to-win mentality displayed locally by the Winthrop hockey father, and I hope the NFL throws the book at the Saints, not only imposing stiff fines, taking away top draft picks, but also suspending the entire team for a period of time. This behavior is much more dangerous than “Spygate.”

Our sports-crazed society (and I admit to being an enthusiastic fan) is altogether too dismissive of those who don’t play by the rules, or worse. But failure to remedy problems early in the process breeds far worse patterns. Conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson, who died Friday, developed a “Broken Windows” theory of community crime. He linked disorder, broken windows, and graffiti to the increased incidence of crime. Failure to do something at the early stages sends a message that no one cares. Failure to identify, shame and punish the Winthrop hockey dad sends a message that such outrageous behavior is okay. Failure to punish the New Orleans Saints team makes it easier for another team to bend and break the rules.

Whether it’s behavior in kids’ intramural sports or high stakes professional games, the fans deserve better behavior, as do the players who are out to win the game fair and square.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Snowe departure hollows out center

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe has announced she won’t run for reelection, and, as disappointing as that is, who can blame her? A thoughtful moderate, a person who can work across the aisle for the good of the country, she will not run for a fourth term. Congress is no longer working on issues, she said. The two parties are working in parallel universes.

The Senate used to be a place for moderating the ideological extremes of the House of Representatives, now made worse by redistricting patterns. Snowe's departure intensifies the hollowing out of the center.

Snowe will be turning 65 soon and apparently can no longer stomach the dysfunctionality of Washington. Certainly, it’s difficult to watch from the outside. One can only imagine what courage and determination it takes to work effectively inside that system. Snowe was a throwback to liberal/moderate Republicans of yore, like Brooke, Kuchel, Javits, Keating, Case, Percy, Goodell and Hatfield, fiscally cautious, but reformist on social issues.

Snowe, putting country ahead of party, crossed the aisle to support reproductive rights, the stimulus bill and Dodd-Frank She voted for the health care reform in the Senate Finance Committee in order to bring the bill to a vote, though she cast her vote on the floor against the final version.

The once “big tent” Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt has long made its liberals pariahs, Log Cabin Republicans embarrassments and Ripon Society members quaint relics. Increasingly even its moderates like Arlen Specter, James Jeffords and Lincoln Chafee,were told they weren’t welcome, disparaged as RINO’s (Republicans in name only).

Even upstanding conservatives like Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch have faced challenges because they weren’t true believer enough. Is there any wonder that Snowe would bow out? Sadly, she is but the latest to be beaten down and driven out by the poisonous atmosphere. It will be interesting to see how she follows through on her stated desire to advance a public agenda, working from the outside.

Even though Snowe’s safe Republican seat is now up for grabs, possibly by a Democrat or even Independent former governor Angus King, it’s almost a clich├ęd sad commentary that the atmosphere in Washington is now so toxic for the likes of Snowe. Her announcement makes me want to reach out to her compatriot Susan Collins, also a Republican from Maine, hug her and tell her to hang in there. But then , unlike Olympia Snowe, she just voted for the Blunt Amendment and is a paler version of departing colleague . But she too is under attack from purist zealots who’ve captured the heart (if not the head) of the GOP. Have we reached the point where, like the sea wall erosion on Nantucket, once- inland property, becomes desirable waterfront?
I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

GOP primaries, where a win is a loss and a loss is a win

Mitt Romney wins crucial victory. Mitt Romney regains his momentum. Mitt Romney regains foothold. Mitt Romney two for two. Santorum scares Romney in his home state. Santorum mourns what might have been in Michigan. Santorum campaign celebrates tie in Michigan. Given how well Romney did in Michigan in 2008, and how well he should have done this week, it’s faint cause for celebration that not losing it Tuesday is viewed as a win. No matter how you spin the Michigan outcome, (even with the preliminary “win” in Wednesday’s Wyoming caucuses) ,the glide path toward the nomination is not to be a smooth one for Mitt Romney.

For a brief moment, Arizona’s winner-take-all primary rules made life a little easier for the former Massachusetts governor, who walked away with the state’s 27 delegates. In Michigan, where delegates are awarded in each congressional district, Romney’s “victory” turned out to be a split with Santorum. Yesterday's caucus "win" in Wyoming isn't the final say on who the delegates will be.

So all eyes are now on next week’s Super Tuesday event, with ten states voting, and several of them far to the right of Romney, and 419 delegates up for grabs. The Washington Post has done a good job of sizing up the battlegrounds. Massachusetts is one of the ten states to go to the polls next week, but its significance pales in comparison to Ohio, which shares many similarities to Michigan in religious and economic concerns. One poll in Ohio puts Santorum 11 points ahead of Romney.
Romney has 165 delegates so far. Next is Santorum with 85; Newt has 32; Ron Paul 19. But a candidate needs 1144 to win the nomination. Seventy-six are up for grabs in Ohio next week. Sixty-six in Newt’s home state of Georgia. (Forty-one in Massachusetts). But with the slates to be divided proportionately to the congressional district votes, don’t look for a knock-out punch. This fight is going 15 rounds, and it’s not yet clear who is going to end up on the ropes….or when.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.