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America Betrayed

March 20th, 2009 1 comment

Hurricane Katrina was a bit player in the disaster that befell New Orleans; a Category 1 hurricane (there, although stronger elsewhere), it was able to swamp the city only because of an egregious, decades-long failure on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that the levee system protecting New Orleans was sound.

This failure, which received considerably less attention than the horrific failure of government at all levels to respond to the disaster, is the subject of Leslie Carde’s searing documentary, “America Betrayed.”  The film, about to come out in limited release (so far, only to Portland, Oregon and New Orleans), features prominent scientists, award-winning journalists, and some of the many residents whose lives were tragically and needlessly upended by a combination of neglect and corruption.

I’m in it. Leslie Carde contacted me  because of this article I had written on the generous compensation that had been awarded the families of 9/11 victims.  The compensation, running to millions of dollars of taxpayer money in some cases, represented a dramatic and unprecedented departure from our usual response to disasters, which is to provide just enough government funding for people to struggle back to their feet. Leaning into a strong headwind, I argued that the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund had to be justified by principles of distributional fairness on a society-wide level, and that it could not be so justified.

Based on this article, Carde thought that I might have something to say about the comparatively poor treatment that the victims of Katrina had received from the government. She was on the beam. I had just written another article expressly comparing these two cases. (You can find and download it here, under the title: “What Does Justice Owe the Victims of Katrina and September 11?”)  In polite academic terms that I can cast aside here, I strongly criticized what I saw as disparate treatment in the government’s financial response to the two disasters. While the horrors of 9/11 engendered the Victim Compensation Fund, New Orleans residents received meager FEMA relief, including those now-infamous, formaldehyde-riddled trailers. This appalling disparity was heightened by the fact that the government was in large part to blame in the case of Katrina, but not so much with regard to the events  of September 11.

So in my brief — yet career-making — appearance in “America Betrayed” I call into question this disparity, and invite us to wonder at the reason for it. This comes towards the end of the film, when Carde expands her lens beyond Katrina to talk about deeper problems of infrastructure, readiness, and — ta da! — justice. For most of the film, prepare to be awed (not in a good way) by the horrific failures of your federal government to protect its citizenry. Can we please devote some of the stimulus money to infrastructural improvements that might reduce the chances of another needless catastrophe?

Oh, wait: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal — more concerned about his own future star within the out-of-touch Republican Party than with (for example) the citizens of his state, has turned down some of the stimulus the money. In his career-destroying response to Obama’s speech to a Joint Session of Congress, he also criticized money in the stimulus package for monitoring volcanoes for possible eruptions — you know, eruptions that could spell disaster for those in the path of the lava.

Quick study, that Gov. Jindal.

The End of Journalism

March 19th, 2009 No comments

Driving home last night, I heard the antepenultimate (there’s a word best avoided!) installment of the NPR show “News and Notes.” The show, which alone among the network’s shows features an African-American point of view, is a casualty of the economic crisis. And I don’t understand the decision to cancel the show, given that many of the network’s other shows have a remarkable sameness to them.

Not surprisingly, the guests — a roundtable of bloggers — were discussing future outlets for their work. This conversation reminded me that we in the blogosphere will do fine (for awhile) in the rapidly changing world of information. But we are essentially bottom feeders, remora fish (“aggregators” is apparently the approved euphemism) scrounging for tidbits that the mainstream news has introduced, relying for our nuggets on reporting from other sources. Even the best and most well-known blogs, such as the Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, largely rely on primary sources turned up by front-line journalists, usually of the print variety. But what will become of us when these sources disappear?

The question is hardly academic. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer just printed its final issue; the “paper” is now available only on-line. I recently received an e-mail from The Nation asking for a contribution so that the magazine can stay afloat,  and continue to do the kind of investigative reporting for which it’s become famous (or  infamous, depending on your politics). Even the venerable New York Times is in danger, as detailed in a perceptive article by Michael Hirschorn in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. (Since  that story, the Times has entered into a complex real estate transaction involving its building that provided a cash infusion and a temporary reprieve.)

It’s not as though these problems can be “solved” simply by moving these publications on-line. Advertising can’t be sold at high prices in cyberspace, meaning that the on-line versions of papers will be much thinner, economically. By way of dramatic example, the Seattle P-I is reducing its news staff dramatically, from about 150 to about 20. Under this  model, the kind of investigative reporting that the public has historically relied on newspapers to perform will not be possible.

The Philadelphia  Inquirer, Philly’s flagship paper, is also in very deep trouble.  The owner of the city’s two papers (the other is the Daily News)  recently filed for bankruptcy, culminating a downward spiral in circulation that has changed the paper in recent years from a significant national news source to an almost exclusively regional one, with news from other places (as exotic and far away as D.C.)  now furnished by the AP, the NY Times News Service, and others. Even with these compromises and concessions, though, the Inquirer has still been able to do good local, investigative reporting, such as its multi-part expose of the city’s dreadful Department of Human Services. (The series catalyzed change and brought accountability to an agency that had too long evaded it.) Such stories won’t be possible, or at least not  in any way that I can see, once papers stop rolling.

The Hirschorn article suggests that the Times and other “brands” can survive by combining the aggregation model of  blogs with “endorsed” reporting from other places, along with some (but  how  much?)  original reporting. Maybe. I’m not  concerned about coverage of events-as-they-happen, because here’s where citizen journalists and locals can continue to expand, excite, and define the “iPhone generation” of reporting. He cites examples of first-rate citizen reporting ranging from the terrorist attacks in Mumbai to Hurricane Katrina.

What happens after that on-the-ground reporting of events is done, though? Who will have the expertise, connections, resources and inclination to do the kind of in-depth reporting that makes sense of these events? Where will we bloggers get our grist? Less self-indulgently put, how can the probing analysis that has been journalism’s obligation to democracy — its “end” — thrive in the post-print world that is surely soon to come?

Categories: blogs, journalism Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Limits of Marriage Equality

January 7th, 2009 No comments

What is marriage equality for, anyway?

Is it for gays and lesbians to gain access to the many benefits of marriage?

Is it for us to be recognized as full and equal citizens, with the benefits best seen as a welcome “side effect”?

Maybe it can stand for something much broader – equality not as an excuse for the complacency that assimilation too-often creates, but as the impetus for broader engagement on the most fundamental issues of social and political justice.

Huh? Let me be less abstract.

Begin by imagining a time, likely in the not-too-terribly-distant future, when full marriage equality is achieved. This achievement will be vital and inspiring, because it will represent a crucial step in the recognition of our citizenship and – equally – our common humanity. Nothing that I’m about to add should be read as detracting from the importance of that step. Unless and until our relationships are accorded the full respect that only legal recognition can create, we’ll remain outlaws in many senses of that freighted word.

Was marriage (of all things!) the right place to stand? I think so, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. This is where we are standing, so we have to win. It’s that simple. We can’t allow our fellow citizens, often by simple majority vote, to deprive us of rights that under any reasonable legal analysis are fundamental. I won’t even bother discussing civil unions here, because their inability to deliver equality is too apparent for further discussion. (But in case you want such discussion, here’s what the New Jersey and Vermont commissions studying civil unions had to say; here, too, are the views of the California and Connecticut Supreme Courts.)

But marriage equality should do more than legally empower us: It should inspire us to look more broadly at issues of basic fairness, justice, and consistency. As Nancy Polikoff, a law professor at American University has pointed out in her excellent book “Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage,” sometimes marriage-lite alternatives such as domestic partnership have not only enabled the forging of broader coalitions, but have also created greater access to simple fairness in the process. For example, why shouldn’t any two adult household members be able to gain health benefits from the employer of one of them, if such benefits are afforded to married couples? Domestic partnerships can permit same- or opposite-sex couples who can’t or won’t marry (and why should they have to?) to achieve parity with married couples in specific areas where tying benefits to marriage is questionable, at best.

This recognition, in turn, invites broader questions, not only about the connection between marriage and benefits, but about the broader distributional choices involved in shoveling cash and prizes towards married couples while we ignore many deep social inequalities. To be pointed: Is it obviously more important to provide spousal social security death benefits that are not at all means-tested than it is to make a greater national commitment to the still-invisible victims of Hurricane Katrina? Are the tax benefits to joint filers of greater importance than a national commitment to health care? If so, make the case – let’s not just continue to assume that marriage should be as thoroughly subsidized as it is.

I hope that, once the marriage battle has been won, we can use our new confidence and freshly minted, full-class citizenship, to take up the battle for equality – not “just” marriage equality.

First Post

January 6th, 2009 No comments

Here’s the problem with starting a blog: Since most of us who consider doing so are blog readers ourselves, we’re acutely aware that the challenge is daunting. There are more blogs out there than you can shake a cyber-stick at, and reading too many in any sufficiently short period of time leaves the indelible impression that the blogosphere is graphically best represented as a series of (possibly rabid) dogs chasing each other in a dusty, never-ending vortex. (I couldn’t find such an image on the internet, although I admit that I gave up after a few minutes. Will this inexplicable coffee table do?)

doggie coffee  table

Possibly because of the intimidating nature of the challenge, I’ve been generating posts for about a month now but haven’t yet committed any of them to public scrutiny. Well, today’s my birthday so I just decided: Sheesh, just start it, already.

One reason for you to read it is that it will shortly become the most read, most interesting and insightful, and most painfully funny of all known blogs. OK, probably not, but that’s really my goal – and, one would hope, the goal of every blogger. And why not? If I’m going to do this, I need to keep in mind that there are many excellent writers out there. I want to be able to say something in a different, or (from my perspective) a better way.

You’re wondering: Around what topics and themes will this blog cohere? I’m a law professor, so some of the posts will analyze legal topics in ways that I hope are accessible, interesting, and more than occasionally amusing, to everyone. (Some legal blogs do this very well. In this vein, consider my colleague Bobby Lipkin’s excellent work. His love of the format has inspired me.) Within the legal arena, I’m very interested in issues of rights (especially gay rights) and social justice, and the connection between law and public health and policy. (See my linked publications list for examples of my articles on these topics.) A bit further afield, politics, literature, (certain) sports, and investigative journalism are other interests that will either inform or be the subject of some posts.

A few words about the blogger: In addition to being a law professor (at the Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, DE), I teach at the Yale School of Public Health (lecturing on public health law). I’ve published a couple of dozen law review articles and a smaller number of general interest (i.e., magazine and newspaper) pieces, appeared and presented at a number of conferences and symposia, have been on radio (discussing California’s Prop 8 in an NPR show on Dec. 2, 2008) and television, and am one of the featured speakers in a new film about Hurricane Katrina and broader issues of infrastructure and compensating and caring for injured or unhealthy victims of tragedy. (Now available to educational institutions and soon to be scheduled for theatrical release.)

As for my personal life: To the extent it becomes relevant in future posts (and it will, because I’ve already written some of them), I will make due disclosure. I hope you enjoy the blog, and I welcome all serious – not necessarily somber – and civil criticism.

Tomorrow: What is marriage equality for, anyway?