Social activism and the black athlete (5×8 – 3/28/12)


Name the last African American athlete who took a stand on social issues. Not since the days of Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell have black athletes taken to social activism, Jason Reid of the Washington Post writes today. That changed with the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, he says, when Miami Heat stars LeBron James and Dwayne Wade spoke out:

They made their feelings known despite the blowback they could face from some of the fans who pay their multimillion salaries. Following the initial splash of the tweeted team photo, Wade and James commented about the case in interviews and offered support for the deceased boy’s family.

Although that may not seem like controversial stuff to some, don’t kid yourself: The subject of race remains polarizing. There’s potentially plenty of blowback out there whenever the issue is addressed in a public forum.

Even if fans don’t react negatively, skittish corporate execs might. Wade and James make millions from their product endorsements. The companies who pay them no doubt are concerned they’re risking alienating some consumers.

Reid says there’s too much to lose economically for African American athletes to get involved in social issues.

What did Wade and James do? They were photographed wearing hoodies.

That’s too much for people who remember that Ali went to prison.

“I like your stuff, but that’s like a paintball team comparing themselves to the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy,” one commenter said.

Meanwhile, another privileged group — sports broadcasters — is being roasted today for its expression of “slactivism,” donning hoodies in their avatars, Poynter reports.

As a journalism organization, ESPN should do more work like Hill’s and less like the self-expression of several others — including ESPN anchors Trey Wingo and Mike Hill, NFL reporter Michael Smith and Grantland writer Jonathan Abrams — who donned hoodies in their Twitter avatars.

If you want to make a difference, explain the story, don’t become part of it.


What would it take for people to change their behavior because of high gas prices? Something more than $3.79 a gallon (in the upper Midwest), the New York Times says today. Sixty-three percent of Americans say the high prices are causing financial turmoil of some sort, just not enough to do anything about it.

Analyzing census data, the writer determined gasoline accounts for less than half of what a typical driver spends on entertainment and restaurants, and found that during periods of high gasoline prices, there is no corresponding reduction in our spending on entertainment.

In other words, Americans may protest loudly, but their economic behavior indicates a remarkable indifference to the price of oil. In Europe, where taxes keep gas prices well above $5 a gallon, citizens are more likely to take public transportation and live near the center of town. The streets are filled with mopeds and tiny cars. The United States, on the other hand, barely exerts the minimum effort expected of a gas-phobic society: its enthusiasm for car pooling, enhanced public transportation and fuel-efficient vehicles remains relatively low. The average American even spends more gas money on social and recreational trips (about $13 a week, on average) than on their commutes to and from work (around $8). If gas prices truly damage the quality of our lives, we have done a remarkable job of hiding it.

Yet they attract so much attention for other very rational reasons. First, we’re still adjusting to a world of volatile gas prices. From World War II to the mid-1970s, the overall U.S. economy was largely insulated from the rest of the world. Our exports and imports were a small part of most businesses, and gas prices, which were carefully managed by complex government controls, barely budged. (In inflation-adjusted terms, they actually fell.) As the massive cars of the time attest, Americans didn’t need to think about the global supply or demand of oil. Even after the oil shocks in the 1970s, prices went up by what now seems like a trivial amount.


Should journalists have signed petitions for the recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker?

The revelation that reporters at Gannett newspapers in the state signed the petitions has renewed the question of whether journalism ethics has evolved to allow journos to reveal their political biases.

Ryan Rainey, a journalism student, writes in the Badger Herald that there are credible reasons why reporters should be allowed to go on the record with a political statement:

None of the news employees said to have signed the petitions were covering the recall, nor were they involved in any statewide political coverage, the newspapers said. Instead of acknowledging the ethical complexity of their employees’ individual and unique decisions to sign petitions, they made a rigid judgement about a difficult issue.

That means the armchair media critics who couldn’t even tell you who Bob Woodward is have won.

Journalists are, just like everyone else, complex Americans who make difficult decisions on a regular basis. We’re not robots — especially not the liberal or conservative models some think are programmed by George Soros and the Koch brothers.

Instead, we’re equal actors in society who want to participate in the democratic process just like any other Wisconsinite. Does that mean journalists can participate in activism? No.

But it does mean that if we want to see an election happen, or if we want to have a small, non-activist say in an issue that affects our friends and families, we’ll relish the opportunity to do so. Any true journalist, regardless of personal political beliefs over which they have little control, will swear an personal oath to fairness and equal-opportunity sourcing.

Media outlets that cater to a point of view are having a field day.

Writing in HuffPo, journalist Dave Seldana favors the journalists who are involved.

Granted, taking a position on an issue as contentious as recalling Walker is a political act. Signing a petition is clearly taking sides. But then, so too is choosing not to sign a petition. Are those staffers who did not sign because they support Walker and oppose the recall effort also facing disciplinary action? And if not, how does Gannett rationalize that choice? Because clearly any staffer who did not sign is presumptively a Walker supporter and can’t be trusted to report fairly on the issues, right?

Given the choice, I’ll take a reporter who owns up to her opinions over one who hides behind a fake veil of “objectivity.”

The test comes when people in the media get involved on he side of controversy not considered popular in media circles, however.

Former WCCO meteorologist Mike Fairbourne signed a petition years ago contending the role of humans in climate change is overblown. He was roasted by the local media. It’s one reason why most local meteorologists steer clear of the issue. It’s not worth the blowback.


Settle down, people. The mystery has been solved. Why was there a squid on the public access area of South Union Lake in Alexandria? Squids, you may know, aren’t freshwater creatures. The latest invasive species? It occupied the wags in town for a day or so,until a nearby resident said he buys squid to feed to his turtles.


Saying again: When I am king of universe, dogs will live much longer than they do now.

(h/t: Michael Wells)

Bonus I: Women in Afghanistan are still being jailed for “moral crimes” that aren’t in the penal code.

Bonus II: Video of James Cameron’s trip to the deepest part of the oceans this week.


Chief Justice John Roberts has said he has complete confidence in the Supreme Court to decide cases fairly and impartially. Court watchers point out, however, that the nine current justices tend to vote along a partisan divide, aligned with the presidents who appointed them. Today’s Question: How confident are you that the Supreme Court decides cases impartially?


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: When was the last time you had an extensive, hands-on, physical exam in the doctor’s office? With a push for technology and hyper-specialization in the medical world, many fear that the art of general diagnosis and the teaching of good diagnostic practices, may be fading. We discuss how to revive the lost art of the diagnosis and why getting back to basics at the doctor’s office could lead to more affordable healthcare.

Second hour: Jonah Lehrer, author of “How We Decide.” Lehrer edits the “Mind Matters” blog for Scientific American and writes his own blog, “The Frontal Cortex.” His latest book is “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”

Third hour: A bad boss can make your work life miserable. But new research shows that he or she can also affect your family life, your health and your personal morale. How should one cope? And when should one just jump ship and try to find a new job?

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): An America Abroad documentary: “The Rise of the Islamists.”

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: The Political Junkie.

Second hour: A.N. Wilson, author of “Hitler.”

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – The military wants to improve treatment of post traumatic stress disorder. Many vets say they’re still under pressure to deny their problems. While there’s more treatment, more deployments have made the problem worse. NPR looks at the stigma and misunderstandings of PTSD.

Legacy funds have helped Minnesota become among the small number of states looking at contaminants of emerging concern in drinking water. Some of these contaminants are little known or little researched, but health officials say it’s important to develop guidelines for them. Consumers have started paying more attention to some of these emerging contaminants, but even the most vigilant consumers say they’re relying heavily on government regulators to tell them if their tap water is safe. MPR’s Elizabeth Dunbar will have the story.

  • Robert Moffitt

    Loved the joyful way “Ann” greeted the returning soldier. Warmed the heart.

  • Ken Paulman

    While I understand the point, it’s a false equivalence to suggest that publicly waving off decades of established science is a political act on par with signing a petition to advance a state recall election.

    Fairbourne wasn’t criticized for having a political viewpoint. He was criticized for rejecting reality. I would hope a meteorologist who declares evolution a fraud or the moon landing a hoax would face similar scrutiny.

  • I have started to change my habits, reducing casual car use to a degree. Filling up the tank is getting painful.

  • Bob Collins

    Check back with me when a local journalist signs a petition supporting the same-sex marriage ban or voter ID. The last thing you’ll hear from the usual suspects in this town is what a breath of fresh air their action is from the stodgy days of mainstream journalism ethics.

    BTW, MPR policy prohibits us from stating an opinion even if we’re at a neighborhood BBQ.

    I violate it regularly, of course.

  • Mark Gisleson

    To the degree that American journalism has subordinated itself to Wall Street, equivocated on hate speech through the use of the fraudulent he said/she said approach to every issue, and failed to ask obvious questions of those in power . . . yes, it does make a huge difference to me what journalists publicly profess.

    If their views are congruous with the world as I see it, I give them a pass and assume they’re just another wage slave trying to put food on the table while working in a crooked system. But when their views are supportive of our corrupt system, I avoid their bylines or, if I do continue to read their reporting, I read it very critically to see if it holds up. (Under no circumstances do I ever take my news from broadcast sources, all of which “simplify” the news until the truth gets squeezed out and all that’s left is the shouting, and yes, I include NPR on that list).

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe we’re down to five multinational corporations owning the vast majority of all news media. To the degree that public radio and public TV rely on corporate sponsors to air their programming (much more so than they do listener/viewer contributions), public radio and public TV have been safely reined in, and do not rock the boat lest they upset their funders.

    The truth is the truth is the truth, and facts are facts. It should be very easy to promote fact-based journalism that’s ideology-free, but that just doesn’t happen in a world owned and controlled by soulless corporate interests.

    Hey — you asked! And, for what it’s worth, I would not trust any reporter who viewed Gov. Walker as anything but a hypocritical fraud because that is the only rational conclusion a student of his administration could come to. Just as it embarrasses me when journalists give corrupt Democrats a pass. I would rather deal with the occasional erroneous “j’accuse!” than to continue to endure “news” media that is always eager to present both sides of every issue, regardless of whether that issue has only one side, or perhaps four or five or more lucid solutions.

  • John P.

    // What would it take for people to change their behavior because of high gas prices?

    For me, it would take a viable alternative. If you live and work in the ‘burbs like I do, there is no other choice unless you work downtown. My car is already small and fuel efficient and has been since my ’67 VW beetle.

  • MikeB

    The idea that those in the trenches of news gathering and dissemination do not have opinions because that would alter their product is outdated and naïve. Of course they have views. They are citizens too. I expect writers/reporters etc to have an informed opinion on such issues of Voter ID, same sex marriage. When they cannot express these views in an articulate manner, THAT’s what impacts their credibility (Fairbourne and Dave Dahl come to mind).

    The business of journalism requires that you put out an interesting product. Page views and clicked links matter. Being dry, neutral, and gray is not a good product not, I would argue, good journalism. You can have opinions and be balanced. Just don’t get into proselytizing (Fox).

  • Bob Collins

    I think the survey results — so far — show that it’s not an outmoded notion. Clearly half the people don’t have a problem with the idea. But half do.

    You’re committing professional suicide using the one weapon a journalist has.

  • Jeff

    The person’s REPORTING is most important to me, not their personal beliefs. If someone doesn’t believe that climate change is caused by human activity but they report fairly about it, I’ll have a good perception of their work. If the do believe, as I do, that it *is* caused by human activity, but they report that it doesn’t, I’ll have a bad perception of their work.

    This makes me think of a common complaint I hear about MPR. If 9 of 10 scientists believe in something (such as that climate change is caused by human activity) and 1 out of 10 doesn’t, MPR will have one scientist who does and one who doesn’t, giving an inflated value to the non-believer. Listeners hear one pro- voice and one con- voice but don’t hear that there are 9 other pro- voices agreeing with the one pro- voice that is on the air. Any comment, Bob, on how the media should represent the two sides of an argument when one side has an overwhelming majority of the experts agreeing with it?

  • Jim Shapiro

    The level of discourse today is so high that I’m embarrassed to find myself in the smarmy role of fact-checker.

    That said, regarding Ali, Russell and Lebron: “That’s too much for people who remember that Ali went to prison.” – Although The Greatest was convicted and sentenced to five years, he never spent any time behind bars.

    Which in my not so humble opinion, takes nothing away from the courage of his resistance.

    ( Nor does the simple factual error take anything away from the consistent high quality writing of this blog 🙂

  • Bob Collins

    //Any comment, Bob, on how the media should represent the two sides of an argument when one side has an overwhelming majority of the experts agreeing with it?

    In phrasing the question this way, you are acknowledging there ARE two sides and one side has a minority of opinion.

    That being the case, I would say the media is not empowered to ignore the minority although I also acknowledge that people have canceled their MPR memberships because of that.

    I also think back to the runup to the war in Iraq, when it’s pretty well acknowledged that the media failed — and failed terribly — in not paying more attention to a minority opinion.

  • Ken Paulman

    Some might say that in both cases, journalists allowed ideological hackery to supersede actual facts, in a misguided effort to create a veneer of objectivity.

  • Bob Collins

    //to create a veneer of objectivity.

    Some might, although most now admit they were to afraid to NOT be patriotic, an admission that has little to do with the concept of “objectivity.”

  • Ken Paulman

    Well, OK, but either way it’s still a matter of putting perception management ahead of informing the public. That’s really what’s at the core of what we’re talking about here.

    Reporters can put their fingers on the scale to advance their own worldview, but they can just as easily sway their coverage in other ways in an effort to demonstrate that they and their publication have no worldview whatsoever.

    Neither is acceptable, but in the former case, at least it’s easier for the reader to spot the deception.

  • Jim Shapiro

    The eternal challenge of the good journalist is to offer his or her opinion through an unimpeachable presentation of the facts.

  • Bob Collins

    The journalist offers an opinion the minute he/she decides a fact/story is worth presenting.

    But the problem in doing so isn’t the journalist, it’s the audience. The audience — as a whole — is generally incapable of isolating the journalist as a person from the journalist as a journalist.

    We can — and will — continue to blame journalists for this situation, but it really falls on the audience.

  • Kirk W

    “The eternal challenge of the good journalist is to offer his or her opinion through an unimpeachable presentation of the facts.”

    This sounds like it could have been penned by Oscar Wilde. Well said, Jim.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Bob – “The audience — as a whole — is generally incapable of isolating the journalist as a person from the journalist as a journalist.”

    Perhaps the reason that the BBC is so universally respected is because it minimizes the personality component of it’s journalists,

    whereas on this side of the Atlantic, the successful journalist often becomes a subject of interest in and of themselves.

  • MikeB

    ///But the problem in doing so isn’t the journalist, it’s the audience. The audience — as a whole — is generally incapable of isolating the journalist as a person from the journalist as a journalist.///

    But this will never change under the current view of journos not stating an opinion from now and then. The MPR audience, a fickle beast, no doubt, can hopefully adapt.

    But retailers and restaurant owners would tell you otherwise

  • Jim Shapiro

    Kirk W – Wow. Thank you.

    While it would be disingenuous to claim that I’m at a complete loss for words, it’s difficult to find adequate ones to describe how much I appreciate your kind comment.

    From time to time I’m accused of being full of Oscar Meyer baloney, but to have a comment compared to one made by one of my literary heroes made my day.


  • kennedy

    Re#2 – Something seems wrong in the data for work commuting. Spending $8 per week today would buy just over 2 gallons of gas, or 0.4 gallons per day. Average fuel efficiency in the US is 22 mpg, so that amount of gas is enough for a 9 mile round trip on average. Very few people that I know live within 4.5 miles of work.

    The point about behavior change is still valid, though. People continue to drive alone in big vehicles at high speed. They clamor for someone else to do something so that they don’t have to spend so much on gas, while doing little (if anything) to reduce the amount they spend on gas.