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Archive for November, 2009

Saira Liaqat, 26, holds a portrait of herself from before her attack at her home in Lahore, Pakistan on July 9, 2008. When she was 15, Saira was married to a relative who would later attack her with acid after she refused to move in with him, although their families had agreed she wouldn't join him until she finished school. Saira has undergone plastic surgery nine times.

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Gender trouble in Japan

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Yesterday was the final meeting of Politics and the Press, which is one of the most enjoyable courses that I’ve taken, without a doubt. This is mainly because of the impressive lineup of guest speakers that we’ve had: Reporters, pollsters, politicians and PR people from some very high places indeed. Capping things off for us was a visit with Karen Hughes, a former campaign adviser and communications officer in the George H.W. Bush and Reagan presidential runs in 1980 and ’84, a former executive director of the Texas Republican Party and a communications director and deputy undersecretary of state under George W. Bush.

She went through the usual routine: A summary of her career with a few colorful anecdotes thrown in, her story about writing her book, the things she has enjoyed/not enjoyed in her various jobs so far, what she is up to these days. Her most serious complaint about working in the Bush White House, she said, was that the national media instantly solidifies a first impression of someone, and never coveys a comprehensive understanding of the person. For an example, she offered that the national media had never bothered to challenge the perception of Bush as unintelligent, and noted that, in personal encounters with Bush, or encounters with him in small group settings, reporters were consistently surprised to see an articulate, probing Bush asking tough, incisive questions and displaying a capacity for empathy that did not match the emotional immaturity that Hughes alleged the media had unfairly pinned on him.

“After all,” she insisted, “he’s just a really good, good, kind person.”

It bothered me that she seemed to so readily conflate the two — “kind” and “intelligent.” It seemed just a tad too reminiscent of the which-guy-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with school of campaigning, the combination of a commonsense anti-intellectualism with a phony folksy charm that has lured us to disaster time and time again. It brought two items to my mind: The first by po-mo essayist, author and all-around contrarian Cutris White, who argues that the ascendancy of politicians like Bush indicates that “the most meaningful political alliance in this country is between the rich and the chronically stupid.”

Most importanly, though, White reminds us that nice and kind do not always equal good, or rather that being nice in the abstract does not preclude one from surrendering to self-interest that can manifest itself as obscene cruelty. White writes about an exiled member of the Chilean government of Salvador Allende, which was ousted in the CIA-backed overthrow in the mid-1970s that led to the kidnapping and murder of thousands. “You know, traveling in your country, a person cannot help but be impressed by your kindness,” he says. “But you do not understand how cruel your government is. You do not understand what you do to the rest of the world …”

It is ever-tempting to think of Bush’s kindness, or generosity, or folksy “authenticity” (also, we can’t forget his boastful humility) as a factor that can redeem the missteps of his presidency. Washington Post writer Marjorie Williams recalls a scene from the 2000 presidential debates between Bush and Al Gore, after Gore unleashed an attack on Bush’s record as governor of providing health care for women and children. Bush’s response, Williams notes, was calibrated to deflect a substantive criticism of a failed policy, and its human cost, with “an invitation to admire his heart in lieu of examining his head.”

“You can quote all the numbers you want,” Bush said, “but I’m telling you, we care about our people in Texas  . . . If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hardhearted person and I don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong.”

Williams writes:

Conservatives love to decry the mushy, “values-oriented,” standards-free educational habits that the ’60s supposedly loosed upon the land. So it is a delicious irony that they have elected a president who is so inclined to fall back on the marshy counsels of emotion. In so many other ways — his scorn for the protesters who surrounded him at Yale, his coat-and-tie-in-the-Oval-Office ethos of respect — Bush is a man consciously at odds with his own generation.

But in this one way, in his easy claims for the primacy of the heart, he is the genial boomer personified, ever ready to flash a feeling in place of a fact.

Bush is probably every bit as kind, and generous, and thoughtful and intelligent as Hughes says he is. But a much harsher calculus inevitably must come into play, one which Bush’s personal appeal is designed to deflect: judgement by results rather than by intentions. It isn’t the responsibility of the media to tell us how likeable, or charming, or sincere our leaders are: It is their job to give us a critical account of the sort of job they are doing, Hughes’ pouty, Palinesque complaints notwithstanding.

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There is one bit of advice that gets handed to us journalism students at least once by literally every professor and guest speaker we ever have: Don’t stay in journalism unless you’re absolutely, 100 percent committed to it.

It is hard, they remind us, you have to work long hours for low pay, no one likes you and you usually don’t get recognition when you do something right. You do, however, get plenty of blame shoveled on you when you mess up. This advice is driven further home by the amazing shrinking journalism job market, which can make paying thousands of dollars for an education with next to zero corresponding employment prospects feel like a sort of financial kamikaze mission.

And of course, there’s the question of remaining neutral. It becomes obvious by the end of any proto-journalist’s first interview that people LOVE to talk about their opinions (see: most of this blog). But alas, the ideals of journalism would require one to keep one’s own opinions to oneself. I have had journalism professors talk of being forced to abstain from any public political activity while in the employ of a news outlet, and professors who boast of refraining from voting while working as a reporter, lest their biased perspective on an election slip into their reporting in some secret, subconscious way. And a certain New York Times foreign correspondent who spoke to one of my classes last week (and who, predictably enough, echoed that same, tired advice about being ‘committed to journalism’) made the class promise that word of his very strong opinions about certain world events and public figures wouldn’t end up in our twitter feeds and blogs. The lesson is clear: Staying objective can be difficult, and frustrating.

On that count, at least, I was apprently mistaken. It seems that CNN personality Alex Castellanos, who was chosen today to replace outgoing Republic National Committee Communications Director Trevor Francis, will be allowed to remain on CNN because he won’t be paid by the RNC, and so is technically not an RNC employee.

This isn’t really new ground for CNN, which already hosts commentary from such partisan figures as Paul Begala and Donna Brazile. But some have pointed out that this will place CNN, which has spent the past few years trying to position itself as the middle-of-the-road alternative to right-wing FOX and left-wing MSNBC, in the interesting position of soliciting “independent analysis” from the head spokesman for the RNC, a former PR guy for the Chamber of Commerce and private health care industry.

This is just further evidence of what has long been obvious: that there is no problem with opinions clanging against each masquerading as news, as long as it is profitable for the outlets involved. Maybe the journalism stuff isn’t as hard as everyone says!

Castellanos, by the way, is pretty interesting in his own right: He is the man behind Jesse Helms’ “White Hands” ad in 1980 and the RNC’s 2000 “Rats” ad. Check it out!

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Ouch

Getting rejected by Teach For America was one thing. I rebounded pretty quickly, and applied to a spin-off program that is almost identical to TFA, and in fact was established by a prominent TFA alum, Michelle Rhee, who has gone on to serve as the chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system. Within a week, I was invited in for an interview, and started feeling pretty good about myself again.

I applied to two internships at an Austin-based social justice think tank, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, and was able to shake down a recommendation from a professor who is friendly with some of the higher-ups there. And when my old tour guide position opened up, I put in an application there the same day. It was a job that I had really enjoyed: I got paid pretty well, by my standards, to talk to tourists about history and politics, got to meet interesting people, take charge of big groups of kids and got to work in an environment that was comfortable and important-feeling. I had done really well at it — in fact, I was voted tour guide of the year for 2009 — and was reluctant to leave when it came time to move on to my summer internship. While I was away, as I suspected, the agency went on a hiring freeze as the busy spring/summer season wound down — in fact, the position that I applied for a few weeks ago was the first tour guide job opening the agency had seen in more than six months. They called me up for an interview a few weeks after I had filed the application — lightning speed by state HR standards (their decision to hire me the first time, in early 2007, took a full four months).

Given that I was, as near as I can tell, universally beloved by my co-workers, had been recommended for promotion by my supervisor weeks before I left, and had done the job for 2 1/2 years without any negative feedback that I knew of, I can perhaps be forgiven for taking this one for granted.

The tour guide office director, my former supervisor, who I interviewed with, seemed to be trying to warn me. At one point in the interview, he outright stopped me, reminding me that I shouldn’t assume that he was familiar with my previous work with the tour guides, becuase, unlike in years past, the hiring decision would not be made by him. Applicants would be scored in a point system, and I soon came to understand that this system wouldn’t take into account the very things I had assumed would give me an edge.

As the interview wound up, the interviewers explained to me that they still had about a third of the applicants to work through and that, with the upcoming holidays, I probably shouldn’t expect to hear back from them until after Christmas. So I wasn’t expecting an e-mail just two business days after the interview, and I certainly wasn’t expecting a “We appreciate your interest in the Tour Guide position, job posting #29-029, and the State Preservation Board. However, you have not been selected for the position.”

Ouch.

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Al Gore’s cameo in this week’s 30 Rock was one of the funniest things I’ve seen this week. Here’s the setup: Kenneth, the lovable but simpleminded NBC page, has been put in charge of reducing the network’s carbon footprint for NBC’s annual green campaign, which is more of a PR effort than anything. Kenneth spends the entire episode pestering the other characters to unplug their chargers and mini-fridges, and finally is vindicated to find someone installing an energy-efficient fluorescent light bulb in the studio. He strikes up a conversation, and when the stranger climbs down, Kenneth finds himself face-to-face with Al Gore.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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