Friday, September 23, 2011

Flawed Death Penalty Gets A Minor Reprieve (January 16, 2003)

   With one stroke of his pen Republican Governor George Ryan last weekend overturned the sentences of 167 Illinois death row inmates, reducing most sentences to life. With his bold action he may have set the stage for a bona fide agenda for amending disparate capital punishment laws in this country.
With his term coming to an end in 48 hours, the pharmacist-turned-politician showed the courage of his conviction that the application of capital punishment in his state — and the nation — is “arbitrary and capricious and, therefore, immoral.” Since he didn’t have the authority to abolish capital punishment in Illinois, he did the next best thing his authority allowed — he emptied every cell on the state’s death row.
In a speech broadcast nationwide last Saturday, he said he made his decision after realizing early in his one term in office that capital punishment had been unjustly applied in many cases, calling it “flawed and unfair.”
During his gubernatorial tenure it was discovered, through incontrovertible, new DNA technology, that 13 men on death row were vindicated. Regrettably, 12 of them had already been executed, which is presumably what led him to his ultimate decision.
Ryan, who was elected as a proponent of the death penalty, admitted he never intended to get embroiled in the issue. However, he felt compelled soon after he took office when an Illinois death row inmate was exonerated and freed just 48 hours be-fore his scheduled execution. Three years ago Ryan declared a moratorium on carrying out death sentences. He subsequently urged the state legislature to reexamine the state’s death penalty law, but the politicians ignored him.
As expected, the inmates and their families joyously received Ryan’s action, especially the four convicted murderers he pardoned last Friday. Ryan said they were “tortured into confessing” at a Chicago stationhouse with a notorious reputation for mistreating suspects that was disclosed following an internal inquiry.
Equally anticipated was the outrage from families’ of the victims, prosecutors, the incoming governor and proponents of the death penalty.
Three of those freed from death row had their sentences reduced to 40 years to match the terms doled out to their partners in crime. The others were all commuted to life sentences without parole.
The lame duck governor noted his action was also influenced after a recent conversation with South African president Nelson Mandela who reminded him that the U.S., which claims to set an example for fairness and justice for the rest of the world, “was not in league with Europe, Canada, Mexico, most of South and Central America,” where the death penalty has been rejected. Ryan added that “even Russia has called a moratorium” for capital punishment.
Ryan’s controversial action was in line with most U.S. governors’ extensive, unchecked powers, and draws attention to and questions how capital punishment has been applied in the U.S. since the Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.
Capital punishment cases are often affected by the quality of one’s defense. It is widely held that many criminals who have been sentenced to death receive incompetent counsel. Indeed, many lawyers in capital cases were subsequently disbarred or had their licenses suspended for inadequate representation in capital cases.
It is now up to prosecutors and others in the 38 states where the death penalty exists to painstakingly examine the cases of the 3,700 men and women currently on death row to insure that the evidence used is unquestionably reliable and they were justly convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.
In conjunction with a drop in the nationwide murder rate, the number of executions in the country is at its lowest since 1973. But in the last few years, innovative scientific techniques have been developed that practically guarantee a suspect’s involvement in a crime. DNA evidence is purported to be more reliable than fingerprints.
In fact, dozens of U.S. congressmen support a proposal that would insure inmates’ access to DNA testing and also establish higher standards for attorneys handling their cases.
Capital punishment is still favored by about 70 percent of Americans. Those who back the death penalty should demand the system that sanctions killing to meticulously reexamine itself before another innocent person is executed.
In the conclusion of his speech Governor Ryan said he was going to sleep well that night knowing he made the appropriate decision. The minority opposed to capital punishment no doubt also sleeps well, feeling secure in their belief that America’s system of capital punishment is outrageous, unfair and unconscionable for a civilized society.

Greed Rises from Rubble At Ground Zero (January 3, 2002)

Within days and weeks after the World Trade Center disaster, the surge of compassion and sympathy for the victims and their families resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of financial contributions from benevolent Americans from all walks of life. Money poured in from coast to coast with the venerable Red Cross receiving the bulk of gifts.
That selfless display was so awesome - now estimated at $1.3 billion - that it overwhelmed the handful of private organizations collecting the contributions, resulting in chaotic and controversial coordination of how to process the distribution of the pledges. Never before had there ever been such an immense influx of financial bounty.
Millions of Americans, including yours truly, made contributions assuming the mission for the monies would be for victims and their families and all those affected by the tragedy. The key word is ALL - from million-dollar-a-year financial analysts to maintenance workers who kept the World Trade Center spotless.
In fact, in the weeks after the money was promised there was a growing concern whether the flood of donations could be suitably managed and redirected. Once the Red Cross, the United Way’s September 11th Fund and others issued practical redistribution formulas everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly.
However, in the wake of that substantial altruism, pockets of greed - one of the Seven Deadly Sins - have begun to emerge.
Some projected beneficiaries are complaining that the $6 billion compensation plan, which is an element of the bailout agenda for the nation’s airlines as an incentive intended to thwart lawsuits against the troubled industry, proposed by the government - and wholly separate from the private charities - is unfair and plan to challenge it in court.
The private charities have announced an equitable distribution of funds to those in need. However, the government’s proposal will tender payouts based on family income, size and age, which essentially seems reasonable. It would not - and should not - provide benefits to those who receive sizeable life insurance and pension benefits. Nor should everyone be compensated based on the full earning potential of victims. No one can predict someone’s earning potential ten years from now.
Life has a way of taking ill-fated detours, as it did on September 11th.
Government compensation should reduce any economic discrepancies between the recipients. Funds should be doled out to only the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks, not the secondary sufferers who lost jobs or homes. Those disaster victims, numbering in the tens of thousands, can apply for federal assistance through specific government agencies.
More than half a nation away from Ground Zero, collateral complaints about the financial assistance plan for the World Trade Center tragedy have surfaced. Some families of the victims of the dreadful April 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City have expressed anger and frustration - and no doubt a little envy, another deadly sin - over the estimated $1.65 million the government is allotting to WTC victims.
The Midwesterners were never offered any type of government compensation, which they feel - and rightly so - minimizes their losses. The government only paid out death or disability benefits to federal employees.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sundays Wouldn’t Be the Same Without “Sunday Morning” (first published Sept. 9, 2004)

 Sunday mornings just wouldn’t be the same without "Sunday Morning."
The entertaining and informative 90-minute CBS-TV news magazine recently encored its 25th anniversary show. I missed it when it was broadcast in January, which is atypical, because in 20 years I’ve rarely failed to tune in at nine every Sunday morning. It’s one of handful of TV shows on my must-see list.
As I drink my first cup of coffee I’m almost mesmerized as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ lively theme plays while days-of-the-week graphics roll across the screen until “Sunday” and a grinning sun illustration fill the screen.
In its early years I didn’t know the show existed. I avoided it due to a misguided preconception that it was just another humdrum talk show confined to Sunday morning. But while working in entertainment public relations and recognizing it as an outlet to pursue, I watched it for a few weeks and became hooked — for business as well as personal reasons.
  “Sunday Morning” is a mélange of timely topics, combined with subjects that stray from the routine and mundane news beaten track. While rarely hard-hitting or controversial, it is never boring with portions that are soothing and never disturbing. Most segments run almost ten minutes, which allows a subject to extend beyond the traditional newscast span with more details from experienced correspondents and images from skilled camera operators. In its formative years, except for “60 Minutes,” that sort of presentation was rare, but has since become imitated by similar prime-time shows that followed.
  “Sunday Morning” respects its audience by not resorting to insincere, viewer-friendly devices to lure and maintain its audience. What you see is what you get, which is always clear, concise, informative or humorous segments on newsworthy issues. And what you get goes down easy and as refreshing as iced tea on a scorching, summer day.
   Yet, the program never overlooks significant current events. In fact, because of its ability to present lengthier stories than the average newscast, it includes aspects of a news story you won’t see anywhere else. And “Sunday Morning” does so with intelligence, poignancy and an evenhanded point of view. Its stories stir the heart and educate the mind. 
  It may occasionally contain a segment for which I would otherwise ignore, but regardless of the topic “Sunday Morning’s” style is always engaging with an eclectic mix of stories and subjects about small towns and a person or group therein, art, music and nature. Original host Charles Kuralt referred to these as “gentler subjects” that TV journalism doesn’t get around to covering very often. 
  “Sunday Morning’s” extended nature segments are as well, if not better, produced than one-hour PBS or Discovery Channel programs. Flora and fauna from coast to coast and continent to continent are showcased and uniquely examined. Even the most hesitant environmental lovers can’t help being awed by Mother Nature’s wonder after seeing a few shows.
  “Sunday Morning” can be best compared to Life magazine — for those old enough to remember the once-popular periodical — during its heyday from the late 1930s through the late 60s. Like the glossy weekly, the television program is interesting, informative, entertaining, sophisticated, and yet accessible enough for everyone. It presents distinctive slices of Americana you rarely — or never — see on newscasts or other news magazine programs.
   When “Sunday Morning” premiered on January 25, 1979, Charles Kuralt declared: “Here begins something new.” That guarantee has been more than adequately satisfied. When Kuralt died, Charles Osgood was named his successor and has more than ably filled the role.  
   A few correspondents have come and gone and the program’s graphics have been tinkered with over the years, but the show’s distinctive style has essentially remained intact. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense to renovate what doesn’t need fixing
   “Sunday Morning” remains as tempting as just brewed coffee and fresh bagels with Sunday morning breakfast. If you have yet to give it a taste, try it next Sunday morning. It should gratify even the most discriminating emotional and intellectual palettes.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Scandal Probe Strikes Back At Murdoch’s Media Empire (July 21, 2011)

The current allegations about rampant phone hacking and police bribery involving Rupert Murdoch’s media empire that spans four continents are disgraceful and a black eye for journalism. Nevertheless, this scandal must not spur widespread condemnation of the Fourth Estate, especially since a rival London newspaper uncovered the unethical and probably unlawful acts.
The scandal erupted when it was learned that the popular British tabloid, The News of the World, reportedly hacked and deleted voice mails after the murder of a 13-year-old girl in 2002 that stalled a police investigation and gave her family false hope that she was still alive.
In an effort to get other sensational stories, it was discovered that the tabloid’s reporters also hacked the mobile phones of celebrities, soldiers slain in Iraq and Afghanistan, politicians, journalists and others.
As a result of the growing scandal, major companies pulled their advertising, so Murdoch’s son James, who ran the newspaper, closed the 168-year old tabloid last week.
In addition to closing the newspaper, Murdoch’s U.S.-based company has lost two senior executives because of the scandal, while several Murdoch employees — mostly former editors and reporters at The News of the World and Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive for News International, Murdoch’s British newspaper subsidiary — have been arrested. By Monday, two high-profile law enforcement officials — Scotland Yard’s top cop and the assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police — had resigned.
As the scandal escalated, Murdoch and his son appeared before Parliament on Tuesday to presumably answer lots of questions that may affect the future of the media empire.
Over the weekend, Murdoch published an apology in several of his newspapers, in which he wrote that it is “the company’s obligation to provide full cooperation with the police and compensation for those affected.” He also said that he was committed to change and that “the apology for our mistakes and fixing them are only the first steps.”
Before his public contrition, the crisis spread to this side of the Atlantic when allegations surfaced that News Corp reporters wanted to hack cell phones of victims of 9/11 and their families. They supposedly contacted a retired New York City police officer, who refused to cooperate. A few members of Congress immediately called for an F.B.I. investigation into Murdoch’s American media outlets, which include Fox News, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Fox Network of television stations that includes channels 5 and 9 in New York City.
Over the years, Murdoch’s newspapers have sometimes been an embarrassment to the profession. But, now, after decades of drawing attention to dishonorable subjects, the tables have been turned and this could turn out to be bigger and sleazier than anything he’s ever exposed. Call me a snob, but sometimes what passes for reporting in Murdoch’s world lacks comparison with most newspapers, whether in tabloid (like the New York Post) or broadsheet (like The Wall Street Journal) formats. His newspapers have thrived for decades in Britain and Australia with readerships that apparently crave sensational stories about political and royal scandals, celebrity drug use and lurid crimes that aren’t worthy of affiliation with earnest journalism.
Hacking, which is unlawful here and in Britain, by the press cannot be condoned. A certain relationship exists between reporters and government sources, but it is improperly gather facts for a story illegally.
Investigative journalism is a necessary ingredient in a democracy, until it crosses the lines of decency and violates individual privacy.
As much as modern technology has been a boon to our culture, it has also created many opportunities for misconduct, identity theft and hacking being the most common.
While this scandal spotlights the consequences when the boundaries that separate the close relationship between the British government and the press are crossed, new rules should not be instituted that would curtail the freedom of press.
Regardless of the quality of the news reported, Murdoch’s media deserve the same independence to gather information — within the limits of the law — whether in Britain or the U.S. To encumber journalists’ freedom with needless restrictions would not only be a disservice to the value of the reporting, but also to democracy and a free society.

Parents Must Encourage Healthier Fast Food Menu Choices (July 28, 2011)

   Fast-food chains across the nation recently announced a few changes that most children will probably not eagerly welcome. Those compact meals — typically consisting of a junior cheeseburger, French fries and a small, but calorie-laden soda — kids have grown to crave in their brief lives, might soon have healthier competition on the menu.
Nevertheless, it’s a shrewd marketing strategy since the Center for Disease Control reports that almost one out of five children, ages six through 11, are obese.
When more nutritional choices, such as veggies and fruits and other wholesome foods, replace high-calorie, salt-laden and excess sugar ingredients, healthy fast food may soon be referred to as an Unhappy Meal by children who aren’t pleased about the new options.
In a business where nutrition is almost non-existent, doesn’t healthy fast food qualify as an oxymoron?
As part of a Kids Live Well campaign developed by the National Restaurant Association, thousands of participating members, including 19 fast food outlets, have pledged to be part of the solution to reduce the problem of childhood obesity. (McDonald’s is notably not part of the campaign since a spokesperson told the media they “already offer” balanced menu options.) Those eateries will offer at least one children’s meal under 600 calories with such choices as fruits, vegetables, lean protein or whole grains, instead of fries and sweet soft drinks. Some experts are skeptical and consider the campaign a public relations gimmick in an effort to instigate changes before the government forces them to. Regardless, it is a sensible decision. Although, it remains to be seen whether or not the fast food alternatives can break the unshakable bad eating habits that have long been part of the standard American diet.
It’s no secret that too many Americans are overweight. Walk down any street and it’s evident. Take a shower or bath and look in the mirror when you step out of the tub and you, too, maybe realize you’re in that category.
Of course, fast food is not entirely to blame, but with healthier choices in restaurants, maybe consumers will learn to serve healthier foods at home.
For years, nutritionists and sensible parents have tried to wean the nation’s youngest citizens off fast foods. But, price, rather than health, seems to have trumped the list for economically-strapped families who turn to convenient fast food eateries. Even at home, they serve less nutritious foods that tend to be more economical by the bulk than fresh fruits and vegetables. Healthier foods usually cost more since they are not as widely produced, but, over a lifetime, the difference is irrelevant compared to the various medical problems that stem from obesity — cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, to name a few.
Some advocates for healthier diets have even suggested levying taxes on foods that are not nutritionally beneficial since higher prices could reduce their consumption and generate billions of dollars.
In turn, that revenue could subsidize the purchase of staple foods like vegetables, whole grains, and fruit.
However, no matter what the government, food manufacturers and restaurants do to offer healthier choices, it remains the responsibility of parents and consumers to incorporate more nutritional diets for themselves and their children.
In addition to dietary changes, health experts regularly remind the public that exercise is also paramount to combating obesity. That means that besides children and teenagers exercising thumbs and fingers by tweeting, text messaging and Internet surfing, physical activities are essential to prevent weight problems before they reach adulthood.
Even though fries and sugary soft drinks will likely continue to dominate fast food menus, parents must face that challenge that’s so tempting to youngsters and convince them to improve their quality of life by choosing healthier items.
There are millions of stories about overweight Americans and our bad eating habits — this has been one of them.

Atheists Will Just Have To Bear With WTC Cross (August 4, 2011)

Two intersecting steel beams that fused together — and became known as the World Trade Center cross — due to the intense heat that also caused the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, were recently moved to a permanent home at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum in the middle of ground zero.
Before it was moved, an invitation-only service, led by the Franciscan monk who ministered to workers clearing the area after the devastation, was held for the ceremonial blessing of the cross, which was discovered in the debris from the collapsed buildings. The cross remained in place for more than a year, as workers removed rubble from the area, before it was temporarily relocated to a lower Manhattan church.
Though it remains a distinctive symbol to some, the cross has become the focus of a dispute to others. No sooner was it back at the WTC site last week than the American Atheists, a group that advocates unequivocal separation of church and state, expressed its objections to placing “a religious symbol” at the site and promptly sued.
According to the complaint filed in state court, the presence of the cross “in a government-financed museum violates the country’s constitution by promoting Christianity, without mention of other religions” and imposes “a religious tradition…through the power of the state.” The nonbelievers apparently ignore the key detail that a non-profit, non-government-affiliated group operates the memorial and museum.
Memorial president Joe Daniels recently said the artifact is relevant because it helped “tell the history of 9/11…and became a symbol of spiritual comfort for the thousands of recovery workers, as well as for people around the world.”
I’m not particularly devout, and, more often than not, concur with atheist issues, but this time they’re misguided because the cross does not endorse any religion. The cross-shaped steel girders should be part of the permanent memorial, not because of what it means to the faithful, but because it is a unique component that survived one of the most dreadful events this nation has ever endured. And, unless one believes in divine intervention, it was probably just a fluke that the beams fused. Whether one is awed by the coincidence of its existence or by the fact that it was a symbol that helped some overcome their despair, the WTC cross is undeniably a piece of history to be exhibited.
A World Trade Center Memorial Foundation spokesman recently said that other religious objects would also be on display, including a Jewish prayer shawl donated by a victim’s family and a Star of David made from recovered ground zero steel.
For months after the attacks, Rev. Brian Jordan celebrated Sunday mass for workers and their families in front of the steel cross. When it had to be removed so work could continue, the Franciscan monk, in fact, lobbied to include the cross in the planned permanent memorial. To those who worked amid the rubble almost a decade ago and saw it every day, the cross has special meaning. But, to Rev. Jordan it carries an even greater weight because it was found not far from where his mentor, Rev. Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Department’s chaplain, died while helping others at the site.
Though I strongly disagree with the atheists on this matter, they certainly have the right to protest — as much as those who want the state’s law against gay marriage overturned and those who object to the lower Manhattan Muslim mosque — and sue. Let the courts decide if these atheists have a valid argument. Their record in previous complaints is decidedly mixed — they lost their opposition against the inclusion of the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, but, years earlier, won their suit to ban prayer in public schools. So, regardless of any lower court ruling about the cross, the case just might go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Nonetheless, whenever ceremonies are conducted at the 9/11 Memorial they should be secular or cross denominational, not Christian-oriented. To merely perform the latter would dishonor the scores of non- Christian victims who died that tragic day.
Whether or not the fused steel beams are viewed as a religious symbol and or as an icon of the incredible rescue and recovery efforts after the terrorist attacks, on the whole it represents the resilient spirit that helped many Americans cope with a sad chapter in our lives.
The cross is part of one of the most tragic events in this nation has ever suffered. Whether one is impressed by the coincidence of its endurance or the fact that it became of symbol of hope for so many, what is not debatable is that it has become a significant piece of our history.
That is an indisputable detail that no legal decision will ever change.