Friday, December 19, 2008

Message to Obama: Explain Ethics of Choosing Rick Warren

I've been worrying to myself about Obama's choice of people he will rely on try to stitch our economy back together. I've been perplexed about his retention of Gates at the Pentagon. But I, like a lot of other people have been taking seriously Obama's statement that he will be the one setting policy and that he has good political and managerial reasons for his picks.

But selecting Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his Inauguration causes me to wonder if I, and others like me, have mistaken Barack Obama. I voted for this man because he seemed to be the moral antidote to George W. Bush, an individual of ethics and integrity with a vision of an all-inclusive America.

Instead we will have the sad spectacle of someone who fought against the civil rights of gay people filling a role of great honor when Obama swears his loyalty to the Constitution of the United States.

I can't but help feel that I, we, deserve an explanation of the ethical thinking that went into this choice. I don't mean a superficial answer, I mean one worthy of Obama's education, which is so broad that I have no doubt that it included reading the wisdom of philosophers from Plato on who have probed what it means to be ethical. 

With ethical questions, there is not necessarily a single right or wrong answer as there is, for example, with the decision not to kill another human being. (War situations excepted, for most people.) Making an ethical decision most often involves assessing the harmful consequences a choice might cause. It involves imagining the reaction of those with a stake in your decision, and then weighing all these negatives against the positives of those choices.

Mike Madden in Salon writes that "cozying up to Warren has been one of Obama's favorite ways of showing evangelicals that he might not be so scary." Obama himself has offered the explanation that  choosing Warren as his Inaugural Day preacher is about making the point "that we're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable."

This comment implies that Obama does not understand or perhaps empathize with the deep hurt that California's vote to ban gay marriage has caused. Because preacher Warren supported that effort, choosing him is like further opening the wound, an action far beyond a loss of civility. This offense to the gay community is ethical consequence that Obama should have weighed. Did he?

Did he consider his duty to those who supported him? Not just gays themselves, but all those others, like me, who consider expanding gay rights part of the change we expect from Obama. Don't all who have been oppressed rise and fall together?

A spokesperson for Obama claimed the decision was not political. Well, if that's true, then what did justify it? Are there not a sufficient number of clergy members who could appropriately, passionately, deliver words of spiritual transcendence in honor of his Inauguration?

Obama prides himself on being a straight talker; indeed, one of his favorite phrases is, "I want to be perfectly clear." Well, now's the time for a perfectly clear explanation of the ethical calculation that will put Rick Warren in the face of gay people on a day when they thought they would be celebrating.

Friday, December 12, 2008

$18 for a Bag Full of Prescription Meds--in Italy

We visited an old friend of ours last year who has retired to Venice, Italy. Richard had a heart attack not long after he moved there, and had to be taken by boat-ambulance to the hospital in this magical city of canals.

He was most pleased by the care he received, and recovered very well. So well, in fact, that we had a hard time keeping up with him as he trotted us through the maze of alleys and up and over all the bridges as he showed us the city's fabulous sites. Then 79, Richard has just turned 80. 

One morning he told us we were on our own because he had to see his doctor to get renewals of his prescriptions. A few hours later, when we were all back at his apartment, he showed us a plastic bag full of his medications. Laughing gleefully, he asked us how much we thought he had paid for them.

Not knowing how he paid for health care in his adopted country, I guessed $1,000.

Oh no, he said. $18.

$18! Which prompted me to ask what he had paid for his stay in the hospital, all his follow-up care, and his regular visits to the doctor since then? A big fat zero. Zilch. 

To our amazement, as a permanent non-citizen resident who does not work, Richard pays only a few hundred dollars a year to be covered by Italy's system of universal health care. Wow.

I told this story the other night to a couple of acquaintances, and they both immediately raised the stereotypical objections to the U.S. switching to a similar system: So why do the Canadians all come here to the U.S. for surgery? Those systems make people wait for care. etc. etc. The government can't be trusted to run anything, and so on.

Now that Obama has appointed Tom Daschle to be his new Secretary of Health & Human Services, it's urgent that we re-open this discussion of how best to reform our unconscionably expensive and income-based health care system. Solving the inequities of our system and lowering its cost is fundamental to solving many of the persistent social problems we face as well as making our businesses more competitive.

While some doctors continue to see their self-interest in continuing our present system, the 60,000 members of Physicians for a National Health Program disagree. In a section on their website , they point out, for example, that "the government" wouldn't be running a single-payer system--doctors and patients would be.

As far as people having to wait for operations--a form of health care rationing--they point out that rationing of health care also occurs in the U.S. It's just done differently here. Instead of being based on the urgency of a person's need as in Canada and elsewhere, here we base it on ability to pay. Here, an estimated 18,000 Americans die every year because they can't afford care. 

Besides providing coverage for everyone regardless of means, moving to a universal, single-payer health care system, would eliminate a big source of corruption in our society. The Boston Globe recently reported that AARP earned nearly $500 billionin  2007 alone by selling seniors 17 varieties of insurance policies, including Medicare supplemental insurance for drugs. Despite the opposition of consumer organizations, AARP worked against the interest of its own members in 2003 by backing a form of coverage of prescription drug costs that raised costs for seniors with low income. For all seniors, the new plan also increased the complexity of Medicare, which is now so complicated that even a careful reading of explanatory booklets leaves you scratching your head. 

But the change was good for AARP: After its passage, AARP expanded its contract with the United Health Group to sell the new policies which, according to the Boston Globe article, are not the lowest cost choice available despite advertising to the contrary. 

Health care system lobbyists, of course, are one of the largest special interest groups that have a big hold members of Congress--from both parties--thanks to campaign contributions and other perks they offer.

It's time to put this whole bunch out of business.

Of course, a lot of Americans currently have jobs in the huge bureaucracy that wastes so much of our health care dollars. Moving to a single payer system can't be accomplished over night. 

But as the Obama Administration addresses this problem, it should be working to implement changes that in increments, over time, move us to a universal, single-payer system. Daschle understands the advantages of a single-payer system but, apparently, believes it is too radical an idea to promote since it's been smeared by opponents as socialized medicine..

But if not now, when change is in the air, when?  I fear we'll have to wait a very long time for another opportunity to move toward a universal system. 


Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Hate Radio" Talkers Get a Free Pass

When radio's Don Imus lost all sense of decency and called the Rutger's women's basketball team a name that revealed both his sexism and racism, we finally saw that there is a limit to public tolerance of radio's shock jocks.

But it's a preciously low limit, as a new report by Media Matters, a non-profit monitor of conservative misinformation, points out. 

The report shows that there really is no boundary as long as these purveyors of prejudice aim at adult public figures or at large swaths of the population, like women in general rather than under-age, identifiable individuals--and athletes besides. Unless of course, they use a four-letter word. That, or baring a breast even for a tenth of a second, are about the only offenses that incur the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission these days.

The report, "RadioActiveSmears," lists some of the worst offenders plying their ugly trade at local and regional stations around the country. The report gives details of utter falsehoods, such as two jocks' claims that 5 million illegal aliens got subprime mortgages, (despite repeated denials by HUD) or wildly inflammatory predictions, such as KOA's "Gunny" Bob Newman saying that after gay marriage is legalized will come "legal human-animal marriage."

The report singles out KTLK radio host Chris Baker for special censure, describing him as "one of the most prolific purveyors of inflammatory rhetoric." 

Baker apparently finds a big audience among men who hate women and respond well to comments like: "I'm not excited about women voting;" and, Sarah Palin "shoulda had a little cleavage going...I noticed a little panty line on her."

He added, "I'm a pig, and that's fine." At least he was right about the pig part.

The press secretary for Media Matters, J. Jioni Palmer, wonders why, if "we don't tolerate sexism on our local television station or local paper," why "should radio get a free pass?"

It's a good question. If the columnist for a local newspaper, or an anchor at a local television station made such comments, they would be censured by an outraged public and probably lose their jobs.

Is talk radio different?

Yes. First, newspaper columnists and TV anchors are journalists, and journalists are expected to adhere to a code of ethics. 

Radio shock jocks are not journalists, and have no code of ethics. Apparently, they have no personal ethics, either. 

Ethical theorists (I teach a course on media ethics at Hofstra University) speak of journalists' duty to the truth, to their audience and the community. To fulfill those duties requires an effort to find out the truth and to seek balance and fairness. 

Radio shock jocks obviously see their duty only as one of increasing their ratings and their pay.

So what's the answer? As Palmer of Media Matters says, should these obnoxious talkers just get a free pass because of both their First Amendment rights and the ability of people to simply turn them off?

No, they shouldn't.

Parthiv Parekh, the editor of an Indian-American magazine based in Atlanta, argues that the mainstream media have a duty to take on the excesses of radio purveyors of prejudice and hate. He contends that by highlighting their excesses on a regular basis, ethical journalists can enlist the public in making advertisers and station owners uncomfortable in letting offenders keep their jobs.

In his essay, "The Unfairness of Talk Radio,"  Parekh says, "Just as talking heads use their medium to routinely knock the mainstream press, they in turn must frequently call to attention the irrationality of talk radio." So, when right-wing talkers, in particular, take every opportunity to criticize the "liberal" mainstream media, why shouldn't mainstream journalists give it right back to them when these amoral individuals repeatedly ignore the facts and promote disgusting stereotypes?

The motivation to do this is not competition or revenge. What's at stake here is the ability of people in our democracy to acquire good information on which to act as citizens: to vote, first of all, and to decide which public policies are best for themselves and the country.

 Unfettered by any requirement or any personal sense of duty to be truthful or even-handed, right-wing talkers reinforce the worst stereotypes and fears of their audiences. This is why we had a significant percentage of the electorate believing before the election, and probably still believing, that President-elect Obama is a Muslim. Some shockers went as far as to label him "the Beast," meaning Satan. (Listen to a 1-minute recording of some of the worst comments compiled by Media Matters by clicking here.)

Newsweek's Joe Klein expressed the danger of media slicing and dicing audiences in 1992:

"The basic principle is centrifugal: market segmentation targets those qualities that distinguish people from each other rather than emphasizing those things we have in common. It is the developed world's equivalent of the retribalization  taking place in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia."

Klein was referring at the time to the rise of cable channels focused on particular ethnic and racial audiences, sports enthusiasts and other slices of the public.  Far worse is to parse your audience based on their hatreds and fears, but that is exactly what the shock talkers do.

So did Media Matters' report on the shock jocks get covered by the mainstream media?

No. Not a word in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, or even in newspapers or TV stations in the towns where these shock jocks ply their ugly trade.

Pity. Because that silence does give these hate talkers a free pass and the ability to avoid being tried where they should be,  in the court of public opinion.