Archive for August, 2012

Fareeding between the lines in Zakaria flap

August 23, 2012

CNN host and Time columnist Fareed Zakaria’s admitted plagiarism is sadly unsurprising. Zakaria’s apology and wrist slaps notwithstanding, the incident is unlikely to spur the formerly interesting celebrity journalist to change his ways.

Initially, I was a big fan of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, but this incident is not the first time the host has disappointed nor even the second time Zakaria fell short in his work on the show.

Underlying those failures are some key facts about Zakaria and the league where he plays that make further disappointments likely. The cult of the celebrity journalist/public intellectual makes shortcuts inevitable and militates against serious work. Hence, writing about guns in the US – that week’s hot topic and thus required for the hot columnist – even though it ranged far from Zakaria’s foreign affairs expertise.

The shoddy Newsweek cover story Hit the Road, Barrack by Zakaria cohort and frequent guest Niall Ferguson making waves this week illustrates the level of pap players at this level deliver that serve as advertising for their speaking gigs that pay huge multiples of what they make for writing. Editors are complicit in this game, suspending standards to suit celebrities and cut jobs for the likes of fact checkers.

Zakaria’s other sin is that he’s become a shill for the establishment. His CNN show is a safe haven for Robert Rubin and his ilk, the way Fox News is for John Bolton. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the GPS wet kiss for Singapore that was my first disappointment came while Yale University, where Zakaria earned his BA and served until this week on its governing board, was laying groundwork for its Singapore branch campus, offering liberal arts in an illiberal place.

Zakaria is an inspired choice to promote, defend and extend the establishment. He’s earned his bones in the group, but given his outsider origins, he at once broadens the tent and is a reliable bet to slavishly toe the line. Zakaria has been lightly tapped for his plagiarism; he wouldn’t have gotten off so lightly if he’d asked Rubin during their interview, “Why was it okay for you to leave the government for a $15 million a year job at a bank that directly benefited from decisions you made as Treasury Secretary and policies you advocated in that position?”

Zakaria’s CNN show is also a platform for establishment celebrity journalists/public intellectuals to promote themselves and reinforce their perceived importance. Without such vehicles for mutual back scratching, people like Ferguson or Thomas Friedman might be forced to continue the more rigorous work that earned them their places at the table instead of drafting on each others’ Sunday morning hot air.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

GOP inside scoop: still chilly on Romney

August 18, 2012

“On behalf of Fox News, let me call this session of America’s Vast Right Wing Conspiracy to order. Vice President Cheney, you have the floor.”

“Thank you, Roger. When we all met about a year ago, there was broad agreement that to defeat Barack Obama we want this presidential election to be about Obama and not about our candidate. To achieve that, it was essential to find the most anodyne, inoffensive, bland candidate possible. And given the field of contenders that emerged, it became clear that our best choice was Mitt Romney. Karl, please continue.”

“Thank you, Master. We believed we had the perfect Stepford candidate in Mitt Romney. A man with no principles, no convictions he’s not willing to change to get ahead, a truly empty vessel of ambition with a recognized Republican pedigree, ready to do precisely as told on the campaign trail and in office. It was like W all over again, but not quite as stupid.”

“Stupid is underrated.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more, Secretary Baker. As I was saying, Romney’s spinelessness and overall lack of character and personality seem like a winning formula. So it came as a shock to discover – credit where credit is due to our opponents – that even a cardboard cut-out of a man like Romney could leave any footprints. Who knew he had a dog, that he had a car, that he had rope? Who imagined that he had a dancing horse? Did any of you ever hear of Palestinian culture or a known Polish soldier? Who would have dreamed there was anything wrong with being your average billionaire next door?”

“Another sign of how that Kenyan Muslim socialist is polarizing the country with his lies.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Ambassador Bolton. But to focus on the future, we need to find a candidate that will seem as innocuous as possible to the American public, someone with no history, no achievements whatsoever, that will give our opponents absolutely nothing to use against him and provide no distraction from Obama.”

“Is there anyone out there who is more white bread than Mitt Romney?”

“Ahem…”

“Of course, black people can be white bread, too, Condi…”

“Thank you, Karl.”

“You’re just not one of them…”

“May I interrupt?”

“Go ahead, Ari.”

“We’re talking about finding someone who’s as close to white bread as possible. But everyone in public life has a history, has a past, has a record, no matter how much they try to cover it up and deny it…”

“What’s your point, Ari? I’m living on borrowed time.”

“Sorry, Mr. Vice President. My point is that if we want white bread, then why not just nominate white bread?”

“Pardon me, are you saying we should nominate a slice of white bread to be the president of the United States?”

“Of course not, Mr. Vice President, Don’t be ridiculous. I’m saying we should nominate a loaf of white bread.”

“That’s the most cynical thing I’ve ever heard, dripping with utter contempt for the American public and the political process.”

“I like it, too, Secretary Baker. How do you think it would poll, Karl?”

“You’ve got the white, which offers an extremely effective contrast with Obama. You’ve got the bread, slang for money in my generation, again a strong contrast…”

“I’ve been sitting here, listening quietly to all of this…”

“And no one told you to change that, Peggy…”

“I felt I had to, Grover, because it seems to me we’re missing a fundamental point. There are a lot of people in this country today that won’t accept white bread. There are Republicans – and Democrats – who don’t want to bring additional carbs in their already difficult lives. There are Republicans, Democrats and independents who won’t accept processed flour. There’s the entire issue of gluten. So I think that we need to think about all of these issues very carefully before we choose a nominee for this election that’s so terribly important.”

“Peggy has a point. Maybe we need to offer the electorate something less controversial than white bread. What about a burger?”

“Karl, have you forgotten my cholesterol?”

“Sorry, Mr Vice President…”

“Something everyone likes…”

“Orange juice. Gets us a lot of traction in Florida.”

“And it’s a morning drink… Morning in America. That’s always been a winner for our side.”

“But we’re going to face a lot of questions with orange juice. Fresh squeezed or frozen? A growing percentage of juice and even oranges come from overseas these days. It could make our candidate the issue again, not Obama.”

“Orange juice and questions both give me acid. We need something more solid, less controversial…”

“Popcorn.”

“No, that’s the movies, that liberal Hollywood crowd. Not the element we’re going for.”

“I’ve got it. A chocolate chip cookie. Who doesn’t love chocolate chip cookies?”

“I agree that people like sweets, but you still have to contend with chocolate allergies, processed flour…”

“Oatmeal raisin?”

“Too lefty.”

“Not to mention fruity.”

“And we’ve gotten awfully far from white bread.”

“Right. It’s got to be plain, inoffensive, likeable but not overpowering or particularly attractive.”

“Whoever invents that will make a fortune…”

“Wait, how about vanilla ice cream.”

“I like it.”

“Everyone does. Who doesn’t like ice cream?”

“And what’s plainer than vanilla?

“Now, with something so white, to broaden its appeal, something brown as a running mate…”

“As always, you make a compelling argument, Condi. But you can’t put two cold candidates on the same ticket.”

“So are we all agreed on vanilla ice cream?”

“Run down the assets for us, Karl.”

“Vanilla ice cream provides a clear color contrast with Obama. It’s very likeable, very desirable, but not the least bit memorable. It’s totally easy to swallow. It’s completely malleable, can be bent and shaped to any position we want. And there’s a huge bonus.”

“What’s that, Karl?”

“It melts away by inauguration day, and then we can run the country any way we want.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Put one ring on my middle finger

August 1, 2012

The Olympics purport to show the best of the human race. But the current version of the quadrennial five ring circus is a mammoth exercise in hypocrisy, showcasing two of the world’s most destructive forces, nationalism and greed, in an extraordinary waste of human and financial capital.

The scandal over security for the London games underscores how far the Olympics have strayed from the ideal of friendly competition in the spirit of peace and cooperation. Hidden in plain sight is the regrettable truth that this event now demands tens of thousands of security guards to ensure its safety. Overwhelming security has become de rigueur at every Olympic event since 1972, when athletes and coaches were kidnapped and killed, not because of who they were or what they did, but because they competed under the wrong flag.

The row over the US Olympic team’s made in China apparel highlights how the Olympics divide people rather than bring them together. Wrap up any competition in national flags, identify participants by nation, and what you do expect? I can’t wait for India and Pakistan to meet in water polo, so I can bet the under-over on drownings.

National flags don’t make anyone swifter, higher or stronger. Nationalism boosts support and appeal for a bunch of sports no one would watch otherwise. Honestly, have you ever attended a track meet or wrestling match without a loved one competing? Dressing up athletes in flags and pumping up passions with medal counting by nation are a lousy formula for world peace but a convenient way to build interest and broadcast ratings to keep sponsors happy.

The Olympics are about more than national pride, though. The games are a monument to selfishness.

The story that best illustrates today’s Olympic spirit isn’t Pheidippides, the original Marathon runner, but ice skating rivals Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Harding went the extra mile to win her place at the Olympics; she arranged for a thug to take a tire iron to Kerrigan’s knee.

But it was Kerrigan who embodied the true meaning of the Olympics today. Immediately after the attack, crumpled on the ground, clutching her knee in agony, her Olympic dream seemingly shattered, a tearful Kerrigan wailed, “Why me?” After all, you can’t spell Olympic medal without M-E.

As you watch these elite athletes flaunt their skills, preening and posing every step of the way, think of the years, perhaps decades, of extraordinary toil they’ve endured and oceans of sweat they’ve expended to perfect their craft. Imagine a world where rather than youngsters, parents, coaches and sponsors committing their energies to twirling around a bar or running in circles, they dedicated their efforts to cure cancer, bring peace to the Middle East, or create an alternative to the internal combustion engine.

In the old days of so-called amateur athletes exclusively in the Olympics, there was a least a patina of athletic purity, competition for love of sport, not the desire for fame and fortune. There was inspiring example of Al Oerter, who worked full-time in data processing management then dropped his slide rule long enough to win four gold medals in discus. These days, with every athlete a professional, there’s nothing heroic about what they do. There are as many millionaires on the Olympic track these days as there are on your average pro ballfield.

Athletes don’t have a monopoly on Olympian greed. The International Olympic Committee is a US$$1 billion a year business run by a ragtag bunch of royalty and international bureaucrats from its tax-shielded Swiss bunker. The privileged pedigrees and positions of the IOC and its members make the committee’s high handed demands, strong-arm tactics and sticky fingered history no surprise.

As seen in Beijing four years ago, a key function of the IOC is to give an imprimatur of global approval to the host government, regardless of its legitimacy and rights policies. In turn, the IOC buys the host government’s protection to limit free speech at or near Olympic venues and to enforce its draconian trademark protection standards. Watch out for the brand police on the streets of London.

The IOC says its objectives for its sponsorship include: “To enlist the support of Olympic marketing partners in the promotion of the Olympic ideals.” Yet those treasured partners that the IOC coddles include global leviathans antithetical to those very Olympic ideals. Sponsors in the food and beverage categories include Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Cadbury and Heineken. These purveyors of low nutrition fats, carbs and calories pay tens of millions of dollars to be associated with an event that’s meant to epitomize youthful good health and vigor.

It’s not just food sponsors that violate Olympic ideals. Credit card sponsor Visa last month agreed to pay authorities US$4.4 billion, the lion’s share of the settlement cash in what lawyers call the largest anti-competition case ever. Visa, MasterCard and major banks allegedly queered the pitch, conspiring to fix the rates they charge to merchants. Korean conglomerate Samsung, Chinese computer maker Lenovo and Japanese electronics giant Panasonic are among Olympic global sponsors that have benefited from governments giving them an uneven playing field in their home market to thwart foreign challengers. It carried over the badminton court, where Chinese, South Korean and Indonesia teams played to lose, not win, to better their quarterfinal draws. So much for the Olympic ideal of fair play.

There’s something simple you can do to help stop the Olympic madness: tune out. Don’t watch, don’t care, and don’t buy from sponsors. If you happen to be a shareholder in an Olympic marketing partner, tell them you object to their contributions this corrupt and pointless enterprise. Then, after getting worked up, work out. The true Olympic spirit begins at home.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.


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