Do Issues Matter?

Last week, I wrote a blog post about the drafting of the Connecticut Democrat State Platform, asking Do Platforms Matter?. Since then, there have been several interesting political developments here in Connecticut which have led me to rephrase the question to, “Do Issues Matter?”

As a side note to people reading my blog who are more interested in technology, marketing, blog networking, or personal issues, I promise, I’ll get back to some of this shortly. However, the Connecticut State Democratic Convention opens tomorrow and there is a lot of political news right now that I need to comment on.

From what I’m seeing in the news right now, issues do not seem to matter. If we really delve into some of the news stories, we might be able to step away from the sensationalistic gotcha journalism and talk about something of importance, but it takes an effort.

The news about Susan Bysiewicz being barred from running for Attorney General, which has some interesting underlying issues has been eclipsed by a sound bite from a speech by Richard Blumenthal two years ago. Both of these point to some interesting issues that should be explored.

Underlying the Bysiewicz case are issues of ballot access and advocates of a nanny state seeking to protect voters from voting for someone that might not be as qualified as someone else. Is it in the best interest of the people of Connecticut to require that a person must have ten years of active law practice to be able to run for Attorney General? Personally, I do not believe so. I believe that voters, and not the courts or legislators, should have the right to determine who the best person to run for Attorney General should be. If we believe in democracy, we should encourage people to run, and encourage people to learn about the candidates and make good decisions about who is best qualified to serve. A person with two years of active law practice might be much better than a person with one year of active law practice repeated twenty times.

This is just one part of the issue of ballot access. Others may be more concerned about the access that minor party candidates or petition candidates have to the ballot. These are issues that should be explored.

Likewise, there are some very important issues underlying the Blumenthal story. One is around the future of journalism. Did the New York Times act in an ethical manner in its reporting of the story? I do not believe it did. It did not provide the full story or context. It did not reveal sources. It did not seek balance. In doing so, it has further tarnished the already damaged profession of journalism. This is part of a much bigger issue. Democracy depends on a well informed electorate. Media consolidation, the contraction of the newspaper industry, issues around freedoms on the Internet and Net Neutrality are all wrapped up in this. We need to explore how to make sure that voters get real information and can make informed decisions instead of reacting to the latest parsing of a two year old speech.

Another important issue underlying the Blumenthal story is about veterans. All of the candidates make comments about fighting to make sure “veterans receive all the benefits they have earned”. Yet that can mean a lot of different things. Have veterans earned only those benefits that are currently available? Or are their benefits that they have earned, that our country is not currently offering them? How do we deal with issues like post traumatic stress syndrome? Is this, and other conditions ones where they have earned the right to treatment, or do we dismiss these claims as spurious? What sort of training and education have veterans earned? Are the current opportunities sufficient? And what about respect?

Do we respect men and women who were looked down upon by some during the Vietnam era, even if they did not serve overseas? How do we understand those who have exaggerated their service? Do we make a political football out of one’s service, lack of service, or exaggerated claims? Do we do this at the expense of addressing real issues?

Personally, I would like to think that issues matter. I would like to see voters given real choices and real information. I would like to see democracy work. Unfortunately, it seems as if for many, issues, and perhaps democracy itself does not really matter.

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Selling Glorified Exaggerations of Violence

Exaggerations make me sick. Seriously, they make me physically sick. Okay, not really. That was a little bit of an exaggeration, just like the exaggerations I hear about the fish my friends catch, their romantic encounters, or perhaps even their physical abilities. The fact is, there is nothing new about exaggerations. They are too often used to make something insignificant seem significant. They are used to sell entertainment or other products.

This came to mind as I read the latest news that Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s Words on Vietnam Service Differ From History. His website states that “He served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, honorably discharged as sergeant.” In the section on Veterans issue, he is described as “a veteran of the United States Marine Corps Reserves, and father of a Marine”. There, he pledges “to continue standing with the courageous men and women who have served and sacrificed for our country and their families. They have earned our respect, and we must always fight for them as they have for us.”

In fact, he has often spoken at events honoring veterans, and in some of those speeches he has spoken about how we, as a country, have a habit of sending young men and women to war, and then forgetting them when they come home. He says that is unforgivable. He praises people, including Republican Congressman who are working so hard to change that. Then, he says, “We have learned something very different since the days I served in Vietnam…”. The problem is that during the Vietnam conflict, he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and ended up in a unit that did not see action in Vietnam.

The New York Times goes on to cite various examples from four newspaper articles over the past decade that gave false impressions about his military service and berates him for not correcting these errors. Given the error rates of so much of the news, it is not surprising that researchers could find four articles over the past decade that gave false impressions, nor is it surprising that Attorney General Blumenthal focused on other issues.

What is the real story behind this article? Some interesting insights can be gained from an article in the New Haven Independent, Simmons Stands To Gain Most From Blumenthal Expose. It says that the Linda McMahon campaign

subsequently followed up with a release quoting a blog item crediting the McMahon campaign for digging up the video and providing it to the Times—portraying McMahon not as a soldier (in comparison to Blumenthal) but rather a candidate with “$16 million” to fund “a crack opposition research operation.” McMahon’s team portrayed this as a characterization to be proud of.

Where did this $16 million fund come from? Ms. McMahon’s fortune comes from selling glorified exaggerations of violence as entertainment. Personally, I prefer an exaggeration caused by a person showing empathy for our veterans that an exaggeration that desensitizes people to violence.

Why didn’t the New York Times acknowledge that this story was fed to them by a person running against Attorney General Blumenthal a few days before the State Democratic Convention? It is hard to say, but one must question the ethical choices they made. More importantly, we must wonder why newspapers are choosing to focus on distractions as opposed to real issues affecting our country. Perhaps the New York Times believes their business model is more about selling glorified exaggerations of violence than about politics. On one blog post I added a snarky comment:

we should never support candidates that have exaggerated, whether it be Hillary dodging bullets in Bosnia or the guy running for board of education who claims to have caught a larger fish than he really did. These are the important issues that our country faces. We should not get distracted by meaningless issues about who is best able to address problems in our economy, environment or other similar trivialities.

This fascination with insignificant pre-written stories at the expense of explorations about the issues facing our country, really, really makes me physically ill.

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Internet Raconteur

It is hard to say which is more frightening to a writer, the blank page, or the empty wallet. There are times that both have been particularly frightening to me. Yet there are other concerns that the writer always struggles with. Is the writing any good? Is anyone reading it? Doesn’t make a difference?

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When American Kids Learn About Our Constitution

This morning as I was doing my regular rounds of assorted blogs, I found a blog post about an effort in Seymour by students to have school policies changed to allow the wearing of flip-flops at school. The author seemed outraged that the students would have the audacity to disapprove of school authorities’ rules. I have a very different perspective. Personally, I don’t have a strong opinion about whether or not students where flip-flops to school. However, I do think it is very important for high school students to learn the appropriate way to petition for a governmental redress of grievances; a right guaranteed us in the First Amendment.

I wrote a comment to the blog post, but the author appears to have not accepted my comment, so I am sharing it here. What do you think? What are the best ways for students to learn the proper method of challenging rules that they disagree with? Is petitioning the Board of Education appropriate? Is getting media coverage of the issue appropriate? Is civil disobedience appropriate? Should people mindlessly follow rules that others create? Are there other ideas?

Here’s my comment:

It sounds to me as if it was a very beneficial educational experience and I hope the teachers and educators are making the most of it. At least based on the article presented, I don’t see any example of students ‘bucking the law’ or administrators ‘hunching down, possibly bailing from fear of ejection’.

Instead, I see students following the law, and learning about fundamental American freedoms. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to petition for a governmental redress of grievances. This is what they are doing. The article describes how the petition is aimed at the appropriate governing board, the town Board of Education. The Board of Education appears to be making an appropriate consideration of the petition, balancing the desires of students with issues of safety.

While it might be more desirable if students were seeking to redress a grievance of national importance, it is good that they don’t feel that there is an issue of that importance to address. Tuition is not an issue in a public school, and while the issue of what students can wear on their feet seems minor, it may well seem to them to be about unfair treatment by the school administration. As noted in the article, students in neighboring schools have the right to wear flip-flops to school.

Yet what is important is that this is an opportunity for students to learn and experience the proper method of redressing a grievance, instead of bucking the law. How will the Board of Education respond? What other lessons can the students, as well as other citizens of our country learn? We will have to wait and see on this, but personally, independent of my view about footwear choices, I applaud the students, as well as any educators or parents that are assisting them, in exploring this fundamental American right of petition for a governmental redress of grievances.

The Unexpected Nomination

What makes something newsworthy? I pondered this when I learned that bloggers attended the Democratic Third Congressional District Convention last night, but was told that none of the major newspapers sent reporters to the Democratic Third Congressional Convention in Seymour last night.

Others joked with me that you could fairly safely and easily write your report about the convention ahead of time. It almost looks like that is what the New Haven Register did for their article, DeLauro gets nod to seek 11th term in Congress written by ‘Staff’. Eugene Driscoll of the Valley Independent Sentinel wrote a much better article, Dems Nominate Rosa For Eleventh Term, including video and information you could only get at the convention.

It seems as if what makes something newsworthy for larger newspapers is something unexpected; if there is conflict or blood, even better. Conventional wisdom is that it is what sells newspapers, and that is what their business is. Whether it is good for democracy is a different question. Indeed this focus on conflict seems to make debate in Washington less likely to find the best solutions to issues our country faces. People wanting to get their side of the story into the news need to focus on the conflict and not the resolution.

Congresswoman DeLauro does not seem to play those games. Instead, she toils day in and day out to seek real solutions to our nation’s problems. The first four nomination speeches focused on problems with healthcare in our country. Retired railroad employee Claire Phelan spoke about the problem with the donut hole for seniors. Yale student Michael Gocksch spoke about the concern students graduating from college have about being able to maintain health insurance. Small business owner Joseph Bango spoke about the difficulties the health care system has created for small businesses, and cancer survivor Melissa Marottoli spoke about how pre-existing conditions have limited the opportunities for cancer survivors and others. There was nothing new or unexpected in these comments. Anyone who has been paying attention has heard them before.

When Congresswoman DeLauro took the stage to accept the nomination, she said, “I am proud to serve in a Congress that made health care reform a reality.” She put it into the context of doing her job, “It is what it is all about…transforming the lives of people of our great nation”, and she spoke the “reminders of the fundamental decency of the people of our district”. “Fundamental decency” is something that, unfortunately, has come to be unexpected in media coverage of politics.

So, if the traditional formula for news coverage doesn’t work, perhaps we need to look at other formulas. One is the “human interest” story. Congresswoman DeLauro did a good job on this part as well. She recognized the accomplishments of her mother, who served as an Alderwoman in New Haven for 35 years and taught Rosa to expect more out of life. She recognized her husband who celebrated his birthday by attending her nominating convention. She recognized her children and her grandchildren, as well as Ian and Jaimeson Lamb and Anna Saccente who led the Pledge of Allegiance. These children are great reminders about what life is really all about.

The traditional news stories about conflict and the unexpected have led to Congress having a very low approval rating. Yet when we focus on the human interest side of the story, we find something else that is unexpected, a woman that loves her job, works hard for her constituents and is greatly respected. Perhaps these are the stories that we need to hear more of.

(Cross posted at MyLeftNutmeg.)

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