February 8, 2011
There’s a hilarious string of comments on the MSNBC web site stemming from a story about Lou Gehrig’s medical records. It’s entertaining to read these strings, because the readers who engage in them get upset and abusive – in this case, two of them sunk to assailing each other’s grammar – and then they get off on tangents and eventually go spinning off into space.
In this case, the brief story that started the row was about Phyllis Kahn, a member of the Minnesota State Legislature, who has introduced a bill that would open medical records after a person has been dead for 50 years, unless a will or a legal action by a descendant precludes it.
Kahn was inspired by a story that broke several months ago about a scientific study that speculated that the root cause of Gehrig’s death was concussions he suffered while playing baseball. Gehrig’s ailment, of course, was diagnosed as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
A study published last summer in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology made a connection between brain trauma and a form of ALS. Gehrig played first base, a position not usually associated with concussions, but he was hit in the head by pitches during his career, and he might have suffered head traumas in when he was the runner in a close play. He famously played for 14 years without missing a game, which means he played hurt many many times. In fact, although he is lionized for setting a record for consecutive games that stood until Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it, Gehrig was criticized in some quarters in his own time by folks who regarded his streak as a foolish stunt and worried that he would damage his health.
Researchers want to look at Gehrig’s medical records, which are housed at the Mayo Clinic, and Kahn thinks they should be allowed to do so – and that, in the absence of instructions to the contrary, the records of any person dead for 50 years should be accessible. Gehrig has no descendants
As a Lou Gehrig fan, my emotions are screaming, “Leave the big guy alone!” As a former journalist, my interest in free flow of information is muttering that such records should become available at some point — though I don’t know what that point should be. Considering the level of concern about concussion injuries in football, research in this area could be valuable, and Gehrig might have provided an almost unparalleled opportunity to examine the impact of repeated injuries. His doctors might even have considered a link between his grueling career and the illness that killed him. The Mayo Clinic and a bioethics professor at the University of Minnesota are opposing this bill, probably concerned more about the opening of a flood gate than about Gehrig’s privacy in particular.
Incidentally, Phyllis Kahn, a Democrat-Farm-Labor legislator, once pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for stealing campaign brochures distributed on behalf of a Republican candidate and replacing them with material for one of Kahn’s DFL compatriots. But that’s a story for another post.
September 3, 2010
I just read the Vanity Fair stories about Sarah Palin. I didn’t read them for the content, because that has been pretty much laid out in media reports; I was interested as a journalist in the issue of unnamed sources.
Some of what Michael Gross reports in those stories is based on documentation, most notably the accounts of the large amounts of money spent on clothing for Gov. Palin and her family during the 2008 election campaign. Much of this has been reported before — even during the campaign — and Gross reinforces the idea that the spending was excessive. Some might argue that political candidates should present themselves as they normally appear, but that’s not the kind of culture we live in. I imagine the campaigns also spent money on clothing for the McCains and the Obamas and the Bidens, but Gross doesn’t present that kind of information or any other point of comparison.
What troubles me, however, is that Gross’s story makes the case that Gov. Palin has become a ruthless, nasty, self-absorbed person; that she has a violent temper which she has directed at, among other people, her husband, Todd; and that the images of her as a hunter and as a pious person have been fabricated. In order to support his portrait of Palin as a kind of angel of darkness, Gross explains that he could not name most of the primary sources for his stories because they were afraid of reprisals. The reader, of course, has no idea what might motivate the unnamed staff member or bartender to pillory Gov. Palin.
And, in fact, in Gross’s long article there is only one named source to support the image of Gov. Palin the writer creates. That source is Colleen Cottle, who was a member of the City Council when Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. Cottle, who told Gross she and her husband “will pay a price” for speaking openly about Gov. Palin, said it was difficult to work with a mayor who had a short attention span, didn’t understand mathematics or accounting well enough to discuss city budgets, and spent only four hours a day at the job — mild comments compared to some of the other characterizations in Gross’s article.
I am not an apologist for Sarah Palin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the stories Gross reports are true. In any case, Gov. Palin has made herself a public figure, and she has to take her lumps. What concerns me is that the use of unnamed sources — and only one named source — to paint a very ugly picture of this woman is out of whack, if we are supposed to accept Gross’s story as journalism. When I worked for the Gannett Co., the policy was that unnamed sources could be used only when necessary, and the necessity had to do with the importance of the information. Naturally, the policy also required that the source have first-hand knowledge of the subject matter, and that the top editor of the publication knew the identity of the source. The policy also required that the source be identified in the story as fully as possible and that the reason for withholding the name of the source was explained to readers. We might have applied that policy, for example, to report the kind of weapon used in a homicide when the source of the information was a police chief who did not want to run afoul of an overbearing county prosecutor.
Gross points out, of course, that neither Gov. Palin nor anyone on her behalf would agree to be interviewed for his story, and Gov. Palin has since clubbed the article as “yellow journalism,” using the bat that Gross put in her hands — unattributed claims. There is a great deal written about this subject, including the fact that the unnamed source has become the sine qua non of reporting in Washington. “Nobody has a name in Washington,” leading journalist Joann Byrd told the American Journalism Review in 1994.
Research has repeatedly shown, however, that consumers of news are skeptical of unnamed sources and are likely to assume that an unnamed source does not exist. Allen Neuharth, founder of USA Today and former chairman of the Freedom Forum free-press foundation had this to say on the topic in the same article in the American Journalism Review:
“There’s not a place for anonymous sources. I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism – the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate – where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can’t overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them.”
President Barack Obama’s foray into New Jersey and New York yesterday certainly was inspired at least in part by the Congressional elections coming up in November. The president obviously was trying to bolster his own party — which clearly is in political trouble along with Obama himself — and he was trying to undermine the Republican Party by accusing it of obstructionism with respect to such things as unemployment benefits. This kind of politicking is routine for modern presidents, although one has to wonder what effect it has in the 21st century, when the public is supersaturated with political messages.
Obama probably wasn’t conscious of it, but when he set off from Washington yesterday, he was emulating what, for him, was an unlikely model — namely, Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of these United States.
Johnson, who was Obama’s philosophical opposite in many ways, was the first president to conduct a campaign trip of that kind, but he did it to a fare-thee-well and with disastrous results that affected governance in the United States for decades. The short version of the story is that Johnson — a Democrat who had been elected vice president on a fusion ticket with the Republican Abraham Lincoln — abruptly succeeded to the presidency just as the Civil War was ending. He and the Republican majority in Congress were at odds over management of the defeated Confederate states and the former slaves and their disagreements degraded into an ugly struggle. There is no telling how Lincoln, with all of his political acumen, would have fared if he had survived to work things out with Congress on his own, but his death elevated the blunt and stubborn Johnson to the presidency under circumstances that he did not have the temperament to handle.
In an effort to uphold Democratic candidates for Congress and attract support from moderate Republicans, Johnson embarked in the summer of 1866 on an unprecedented 18-day grand tour — a “swing around the circle,” as he called it — that took him to 22 cities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky, with brief stops in other spots. He traveled with a large and glittering entourage that included such Cabinet members as Secretary of State William Seward, and military officers including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and Admiral David Farragut.
The trip went well as long as Johnson was in the friendly East, but things deteriorated when he reached Cleveland and started to encounter hostile audiences and exchanged insults with them as though he were still stumping for a legislative seat back in Tennessee. He opened himself to criticism and ridicule and did more damage than good for his objectives. The Republicans swept the Congressional elections, gaining a majority large enough to take control of the process of Reconstruction with no fear of presidential interference. In addition, as relations between Johnson and Congress became even worse, the House of Representatives impeached the president and included in the charges against him the intemperate speeches he made during the campaign tour. The legislative momentum was so great that the presidency was reduced in power and importance until the end of the 19th century.
Johnson was an admirable American in many respects, but at the end of the Civil War he was the Wrong Man at the Wrong Time, if ever there was one. He was acquitted of the impeachment charges, which were absurd on the face of it, and he eventually was reelected to the Senate — the same one that had tried him — where he was greeted with flowers and applause. We Americans are nothing if not forgiving. And although his campaign trip was a failure, it is a testament to his grit and self-confidence that he attempted it at all.
May 16, 2009
You have to like the implications of President Barack Obama’s choice of Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah as ambassador to China. Obama ignored what to many is conventional thinking by giving such a plum job to the man who co-directed the McCain-Palin campaign. And while Huntsman described his own high ground by saying he could not refuse the call to service, the fact is that he could have turned down a position that will disrupt his family and preempt what would have been a certain new term as governor. As to the idea that giving Huntsman this appointment was Obama’s way of getting the governor out of the running for the White House in 2012, Huntsman will be only 57 years old in 2016 by which time the Democratic juggernaut, such as it is, should have run out of steam anyway.
More important, Huntsman is by reputation a straightforward, intelligent, sensible man who is well equipped to help further a foreign policy that promises to forsake the bullheaded and arrogant policies of the Cheney-Bush administration — transposition deliberate. Huntsman, from what I have read so far, can strike the balance necessary to deal with a country like China: respecting its history and the culture of its people, exploring the interests it shares with the United States, and keeping up the discussion of American concerns about human rights issues in China.
It will be interesting to see what effect this appointment has on Huntsman’s standing in his party, both because the appointment makes him a part of an administration that the most vocal Republicans profess to loathe and because he is likely to help advance a policy of engagement – in China and elsewhere – that was rejected by the last administration and by the Republican candidates in the last national election.
April 30, 2009
The defection of Arlen Specter, the impending confirmation of Al Franken, and the general disarray of the Republican Party all make for absorbing political drama. But for humor, the bunch in Washington have nothing on the Italians. The latest Over There is that Veronica Lario, the wife of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has publicly repudiated what she construes as her husband’s plan to trot out a team of female TV stars and a former beauty queen as candidates in the June elections in the European Union.
Lario, a former actress who knows about such things, said her sposo was exhibiting a “lack of discretion in his exercise of power which offends the credibility of all women.”
And she’s not being selfish about this. “I want it to be quite clear that my children and I are victims and not accomplices in this situation,” she said. “We have to endure it, and it makes us suffer.” (Note to the stimatissima signora, keep a close eye on those kiddies when they’re surfing the web. Some of those photos of you senza vestiti could be counterproductive while you’re protecting their moral character.)
Berlusconi’s version of this is that his party wants “to renew our political class with people who are cultivated and well prepared” — unlike the “malodorous and badly dressed people who represent certain parties in Parliament.” Not that it’s all about appearances – capisce?
According to The Times of London, this isn’t the first time the two have had – come si chiama? – “political” disagreements in public. Two years ago, it seems, la Prima Donna wrote an open letter to Berlusconi demanding an apology “after he was overheard telling Mara Carfagna, a former topless model and variety show presenter, that if he were single he would marry her straight away,” the Times reported today. Berlusconi did apologize, but he then included Carfagna as a candidate in last year’s national elections, and, when the party had won, appointed her – no doubt to demonstrate his committment to gender equality – minister for equal opportunities.