About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.



Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Life That Mattered



by Walter Brasch

       Michael Blake died last week.
      You probably don’t know the name.
      You probably don’t know about his life.
      You probably don’t know most of what he wrote. That’s probably because he didn’t write diet and exercise books. Or cookbooks. Or “feel good” books. Or books about celebrities. Or books that advanced junk science or conspiracy theories.
      Michael Blake fused history and social issues, writing about social justice. Writing books that mattered. Writing screenplays that were never produced and then discarded.
      He was born in Fort Bragg, N.C.; his father was in the Army, and later became a telephone executive. But it was his mother, Sally, who dominated his life. It was her last name, “Blake,” that he adopted as his own, pushing aside his father’s name, “Webb.”
      Michael Blake studied journalism at the University of New Mexico, dropping out in his senior year; he would later study film at the Berkeley Film Institute.
      His semi-autobiographical novel, Airman Mortensen, talked about life in the Air Force. His autobiography, Like a Running Dog, revealed his life in the 1970s, sometimes homeless and hungry, living in cars, living on friends’ and acquaintances’ sofas, hanging out with musicians, writers, actors, and others in the creative arts, working at odd jobs, sometimes selling features and investigative stories to the alternative press, which were publishing stories of importance in the 1960s, stories the mainstream media would never touch. Eventually, he would be hired full-time at the L.A. Free Press, one of the most important alternative newspapers of the era. Even with a steady paycheck, albeit it not a large one, he usually ate only one meal a day, often a sandwich from a Jewish deli near the newspaper’s office.
      His screenplay, Stacy’s Knights, written while he was in his late ’30s, starred his friend, a little-known actor, Kevin Costner. It gave both of them temporary financial security.
      Blake would continue to write about social issues, many of the stories and books not bringing in significant income. But he wrote and spoke out about issues that mattered—the slaughter of wild horses and burros, the problems that developed from racial conflict, the lack of social justice. He was honored with the Environmental Media award, the Animal Protection Institute’s humanitarian of the year honor, the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for work with minorities and the ministry.
      On the day he died, two men shared $300 million by appearing at a Las Vegas casino and tried to beat the life out of each other. Michael Blake, in his lifetime, never earned what the loser earned in that fight. The royalties from all of his writings never even equaled the salary for one year for a major league pitcher or a celebrity with a paid entourage.
      With one exception, his writing brought him a modest lifestyle.
      That one exception began as a screenplay, but Kevin Costner wanted him to rewrite it as a novel, believing that a book would have more impact. About three dozen publishers rejected it, most of them concerned more about marketability and profits than editorial quality and social issues, before Fawcett published it but gave it little promotion. The novel, published only in paperback, sold a few thousand copies.
      And so, Blake took the basis of the novel, and rewrote the original screenplay—but studios didn’t want to take a chance on the project. Costner, fresh from a starring roles in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, along with his friends Blake and producer Jim Wilson, produced the film themselves, staying true to the writer’s intent, something rare in the film industry.
      Dances With Wolves, starring Kevin Costner, is the story of race hatred and the attempts to destroy a culture that had existed thousands of years before the pilgrims came to the place that became known as the United States of America. The film earned seven Oscars, including Best Film; one of those Oscars went to Michael Blake for best screen adaptation.
      It was only after the film became a mega-hit, eventually earning more than $400 million, more than 20 times the production costs, did the book become popular. That book, now published in two dozen languages and in hardcover, has sold about 3.5 million copies since 1988. It helped give Michael Blake financial stability; it helped assure that he could write what he wanted, now from Tucson where he bought a ranch and devoted much of the last quarter-century of his life to the environment, to protecting animals, to fighting for social justice.
      It was in Tucson where he and his wife, Marianne Mortensen, an artist who, like her husband, became an advocate for the preservation of wild horses and burros, settled. It was in Tucson where they raised three children—each with a Native American first name and a middle name in honor of Marianne’s Danish heritage.
      In those last decades of his life, his health deteriorated. He had multiple sclerosis. He needed a heart bypass. Cancer spread through his body. Once robust, he was now gaunt. But, he would summon what strength he had left to write and to travel the country, speaking out about issues that mattered. He died as he had lived much of his life—without much money and with a conscience to bring truth and justice to the people and animals whose own voices weren’t heard by those who should have been there to help them.
      Michael Blake and I were born in the same year and shared some of the same experiences in the ’60s and ’70s in southern California. He was my friend and an inspiration of what it means to be a writer, to use words and imagery to try to help people better understand their lives and their cultures.
      You may know only his one now-famous work. You need to read the rest.
      [Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]

     

      

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Citizen-Journalist Fined for Telling the Truth





by Walter Brasch

      Vera Scroggins of Susquehanna County, Pa., was found to be in contempt of court, Thursday, and fined $1,000.
      Her offense? She tells the truth.
      Truth is something that apparently has bypassed the court of Judge Kenneth W. Seamans, who retired at the end of 2014, but came out of retirement to handle this case.
      The case began in October 2013.
      Scroggins, a retired real estate agent and nurse’s aide, was in Common Pleas Court to explain why a temporary injunction should not be issued against her. That injunction would require her to stay at least 150 feet from all properties where Cabot Oil and Gas had leased mineral rights, even if that distance was on public property. Because Cabot had leased mineral rights to 40 percent of Susquehanna County, about 300 square miles, almost any place Scroggins wanted to be was a place she was not allowed to be, even if the owner of the surface rights granted her permission.
      Before Judge Seamans were three corporate lawyers, a lawyer from the county, and several Cabot employees who accused Scroggins of trespassing and causing irreparable harm to the company that had almost $1 billion in revenue the previous year.
      Since 2009, Scroggins has led Pennsylvania and New York residents, celebrities, government officials, and journalists on tours of the gas fields. She often had friendly discussions with the workers—and when management asked her to leave, she did. She has posted more than 500 YouTube videos of fracking operations, documenting what fracking is, what it does, and how there may be unsafe practices. The state DEP has even used her documentation as part of the evidence necessary to cite and then fine gas drillers.
      Scroggins asked the judge for a continuance because she had only received the summons three days earlier, on a Friday, and couldn’t get legal representation by Monday.
      Seamans told her he wouldn’t grant a continuance because she didn’t give the court 24 hours notice. “He said that to grant a continuance would inconvenience three of the lawyers who had come from Pittsburgh [about 250 miles to the southwest], and I might have to pay their fees if the hearing was delayed,” says Scroggins.
    That afternoon, Seamans granted Cabot its preliminary injunction.
      By March 2014, Cabot and Scroggins were back in court for a hearing to modify Seamans’ original temporary injunction. This time, Cabot wanted the buffer zone extended to 500 feet, but couldn’t show any reason why 500 feet was necessary. Unlike her first appearance when she didn’t have legal representation, she now had Public Citizen, the Pennsylvania ACLU, and local attorney Gerald Kinchy, represent her when she sought to vacate the order.
      The revised order prohibited Scroggins from going within 100 feet of any active well pad or access roads of properties Cabot owns or has leased mineral rights, even if on public property.
      Although the judge agreed that his preliminary order may have been broad and violated Scroggins’ First Amendment rights, he continued the injunction, which still violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
      What Seamans didn’t agree about was his conflict-of-interest. He refused to remove himself from the case. On Nov. 9, 2007, he and Elexco Energy signed a mineral lease agreement for 79 acres in New Milford Twp., in the northern part of the county. On April 29, 2008, that lease was transferred to Southwestern Energy. Whether or not that lease proved to be financially lucrative is not in dispute—what is in dispute is that the judge, by signing with an energy company working separate fields in the same area as the plaintiff, even if not Cabot, could benefit, thus compromising his objectivity.
      In February, Scroggins and her attorneys were again in court, trying to rebut claims she violated the injunction. This time, Cabot claimed that on Jan. 16, Scroggins, while leading another tour of the gas fields, walked on an access road to one of its operations. It never claimed she was on Cabot property—only that she was on a public access road. “There was no guard on this site,” says Scroggins, noting, “it’s an inactive site; no personnel; no trucks.”
      Scroggins argued she had parked in the private driveway of a friend 672 feet from Cabot property, and that the three persons she was hosting, including a French photojournalist, walked to the gate of a Cabot operation, took pictures, and then walked back to the driveway where she waited for them. Scroggins had witnesses who testified under oath she did not leave the driveway or go onto Cabot property.
      Cabot produced a worker who backed up the company’s claim, and provided a photo of Scroggins. However, that photo didn’t show Scroggins on access roads or on Cabot property but, as she had truthfully claimed, on a private driveway 672 feet from Cabot property. The judge believed the one paid-for worker, not the other witnesses.
      According to a brief filed by Scroggins’ attorneys, “The injunction sends a chilling message to those who oppose fracking and wish to make their voices heard or to document practices that they fear will harm them and their neighbors. That message is loud and clear: criticize a gas company, and you’ll pay for it.”    
      And that’s why the Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. wanted an injunction against Scroggins. It had little to do with keeping a peaceful protestor away or protecting worker safety; it had everything to do not only with shutting down her ability to tell the truth but also to put fear into others who might also wish to tell the truth about fracking and Cabot’s operations.
      Just as important, a judge willingly became a co-conspirator to corporate interests. Seamans had said the fine will go to Cabot to defer some of its legal costs.

      [Assisting on this column was Staci Wilson, editor of the Susquehanna Independent. Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, is author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sick and Tired Workers: An Epidemic of Corporate Greed



by Walter Brasch

      Snaking its way through the Pennsylvania legislature is a bill that will block local governments from requiring companies to provide sick leave, even if unpaid, that is more than required by state or federal regulations.
      There are no Pennsylvania or federal regulations requiring companies to provide sick leave. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 39 percent of all employees, and 79 percent of all employees in food service and hotel industries, have no sick leave. Unlike the United States, about 130 countries require employers to provide at least one week of sick leave per employee.
      The Republican-controlled state Senate passed the bill, 37–12; the Republican-controlled House will now discuss it—and probably follow the Senate’s wishes.
      Gov. Tom Wolf opposes this legislation, will probably veto it, and then have to deal with a Senate that has enough votes to override that veto.
      The proposed legislation is in response to Philadelphia’s recent directive that requires companies with at least 10 employees to provide mandatory sick leave for its workers. Several metropolitan U.S. cities, as well as California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, already require companies to provide sick leave to employees.
      Republicans are hypocritically philosophically conflicted on the legislation. Their party believes in limited government regulation, and this bill would keep government out of private enterprise’s believed-right to treat workers as serfs. However, Republicans also believe that, if necessary, government should be at the lowest political level, and municipal government is about as low as it can get. Thus, cities should be able to impose rules and requirements in the absence of state and federal law.
      Most legislators don’t understand political philosophy. What they understand is political donations. In this case, the business community opposes sick leave policies, believing corporate executives know better than workers or governments what’s best for the workers. As is the case for their opposition to raising minimum wage, it is because sick leave, somehow in their warped minds, reduces profits, shareholder dividends, and executive bonuses, benefits, and compensations.
      The pretend-savings to preserve corporate greed, however, is a false economy. By not providing a decent sick leave policy, companies risk employees coming to work sick in order not to lose a day’s pay—or be fired.
      This can lead to increased accidents because workers may be too ill to perform their jobs adequately.
     The absence of a sick leave program can also lead a worker with a communicable disease to spread it to other workers and to the public. About 68 percent of all employees report they came to work with a stomach virus and other communicable diseases, according to a poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
     About 30 percent of all workers said they became ill because of communicable diseases spread by fellow workers, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
      Not having adequate sick leave also can result in workers not staying home to care for sick children who, without anyone to care for them, go to school sick, and cause illnesses in other students, staff, and teachers.
      The absence of adequate sick leave can also contribute to low worker morale, less productivity, and higher turnover—all of which affect a corporation’s profit margin.
      There is, of course, sick leave abuse—a worker who calls in sick and then spends the day golfing, or shopping, or is just plain hung over from last night’s party. Just as companies don’t have sick leave, they also don’t have personal days, which can be used for those days when an employee has an important family issue or just doesn’t feel like coming to work. The lack of personal days can significantly decrease worker productivity on the days they would rather be somewhere else than the office or factory line.
      In contrast to the lack of sick leave and personal days, many corporations give upper management unlimited sick days and allow personal days for when a compelling social engagement, such as that golf outing with fellow business executives, seems to be “appropriate.”
      None of this matters to Pennsylvania’s Republicans. Their issue is to give bosses full control over workers; they want to give bosses the right to issue benefits, sick leave, and personal days if they want to do so, or to exclude those benefits if they also want to do so. That’s what they believe is right.
      And they are wrong.
     [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, and author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania.]




Friday, April 10, 2015

A Call for Fair Pay for College Athletes




by Walter Brasch

     Some people foolishly believe the purpose of a college education is to further one’s education. To explore new cultures and views. Perhaps to help make a difference in the world.
     They, of course, are wrong.
     The purpose of going to college is to party, make contacts, and get a job.
     Sometimes the job is as a shift manager at a fast food restaurant.
     Sometimes it’s as a professional athlete.
     March Madness, the nation’s annual tribute to tall teenagers who can dunk a basketball, is now over.
     A few of the starters will become professional basketball players this year; some in the next year or the year after that.
     The University of Kentucky and Duke University, among a few other Division I powers, in the spirit of getting students jobs, have changed their mottos to “One and Done.”
     That means they recruit the best high school basketball players. They train them. They give them national exposure. And they get them ready to get a job after only one year in college.
     That job pays an average of $4 million a year.
     That’s 10 times what the president of the United States earns, and about 100 times what a social worker or firefighter earn.
     Obviously, reverse layups and 30-foot three-pointers are more valuable to society than helping the poor or rescuing people.
     Division I basketball powers may claim they exist to provide new experiences for all their students. This is just a PR whitewash.
Colleges have been mostly unfair to their future professional athletes. You know, the ones who are exploited and then expected to make a few million dollars a year and shovel over a chunk of that to the Alumni Fund.
     We need to get rid of restrictive NCAA rules and pay these athletes. Not just scholarships and room-and-board, but, an actual salary. With benefits. Maybe disability insurance and a retirement plan.
     We need to eliminate the philosophy that elitists like Joe Paterno had. You know, that having one of the nation’s highest graduation rates for football players was even more important than winning games.
     So, let’s dump those stifling NCAA rules and make college what it should be. A place to fill stadiums and get jobs for athletes.
    [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, and author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania.]





Saturday, April 4, 2015

Pennsylvania School is Flushed by a Problem




by Walter Brasch

      Ten-year-old Kaitlyn Montgomery, a fourth grade student at Park Elementary School in Munhall, Pa., now has access to that school’s restrooms.
      Like most schools, Park Elementary has separate restrooms for male and female staff and faculty, and separate restrooms for boys and girls.  
      The staff and faculty restrooms are on the first floor. The restrooms for boys and girls are on the second floor.
      But Kaitlyn is a special needs student who has a severe pulmonary hypertension and chronic lung disease. It prevents her from being able to climb stairs easily.
      Enter the Steel Valley Education Association and the school administration. They have a contract that requires “lavatory facilities exclusively for employees.”
      Somewhere are rules, regulations, and reasons why schools are the only place where children and adults of the same sex have separate restrooms.
      Nevertheless, the Administration decided to allow Kaitlyn to use the first floor women’s restroom.
      And so, the union filed a grievance against the school management to keep the girl out of staff restrooms. This grievance included a petition from 18 female teachers who complained about the arrangement.
      Can’t have exceptions. You let one child with mobility problems enter your restroom, and pretty soon there might be another one with mobility problems who wants the same privilege. Gotta enforce that contract. Can’t go down that slippery slope of full integration. Next thing you know, students might want to color outside the lines. Or ask tough questions. Or challenge authority. And then you’d have chaos and anarchism in education.
      For its part, when the School Board was planning the school, it could have demanded an elevator that connected both floors. It could have demanded the architect to include boys and girls restrooms on both floors. But, it didn’t.
      Apparently, all elementary school children—and  and staff and faculty—should be able to climb stairs. The heck with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)!
      The union, for its part, said that it filed the grievance because it was “seeking a solution to an issue that will provide a better outcome for all parties involved,” and challenged the schools in the district to meet the ADA requirements.
      The administration said it was trying to find a solution. The school had a small restroom in the first floor Special Education area, but eliminated it because it needed the space to put in a ventilation unit.
      Apparently, until the union raised the issue, albeit a self-serving one, the ADA was considered just to be a set of “suggestions” and not federal requirements.
      The School Board, without comment, unanimously rejected the union’s grievance.
      The union could have appealed. This would have brought in a mediator or arbitrator. It could have led to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board looking at the contract and determining if there was a violation. It could have led to expensive court action. But it didn’t.
      The union withdrew its grievance, having made its point that the administration was in violation of the ADA and, thus, reaffirmed its right to have separate but equal restrooms.
      Sometimes, it’s logical for all parties to agree to make an exception to a contract, and for both parties to work together to seek a reasonable solution, one that protects the rights of all with disabilities—students, staff, and faculty.
      This is one of those times.
      [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and the author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]


Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Morality Police



By Walter Brasch

     In Saudi Arabia, the Mutaween are 3,500 public officials and thousands of volunteers who work for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. They are responsible for enforcing strict religious laws. Among the many laws are those that require all women to wear head scarves and black gowns when in public.
     The “Morality Police” also exist in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and several fundamentalist Arab countries.
It isn’t only in Arab countries that morals are regimented and institutionalized.
     In France, the minister of health, a physician, believes there should be laws to prohibit companies and advertisers from using anorexic fashion models. He believes overly thin models—the ones who can make six-figure incomes by being at least five-foot-eight, have high cheek bones and Size Zero bodies—gives the wrong impression to the youth who  starve themselves into emaciation to be seen as beautiful.
     He is right about that. But he is wrong to want laws to require the fashion industry to adhere to a set of minimum standards for appearance.
If there can be laws to regulate the portrayal of “healthy” models, what will prevent the system from prohibiting the depiction of plump or even fat models? Of course, in the fashion industry, a Plus-Size Model is anyone who is a Size 8, even though the average size in the United States is a Size 14.
     Should government regulate what people look like, even if they appear to be unhealthy. Or different?
     What about having black hair or dreadlocks? Should government determine that should also be banned?
     In the United States, the Morality Police regulate everything from the color of hair to what people do in their bedrooms.
     A high school in Missouri recently suspended a student for having “unnatural” hair color.  The student, a junior, is a natural redhead, but she decided to dye her hair auburn. Unfortunately, the commercial hair dye gave her what the school administrators thought was an unnatural color of red.
     That high school isn’t the only one with Puritanical rules. School administrators and their elected school boards throughout the country have somehow given themselves the right to create and enforce rules that prohibit students from wearing clothes that could impede the learning of other students. It might be logical to ban girls from wearing short-shorts and halter tops to class. Or, maybe guys who, on a hot day, decide to embarrass themselves and others by wearing nothing but Speedos to Biology class.
     But does it really matter what color someone chooses to dye her hair? Is an honors student with streaks of green in her blonde hair more of a threat to society than a mousy-brown haired sophomore who carries a D-plus average?
     What about a guy who decides to shave his head? Or wear his hair in a Mohawk style. Or a shag? What if he decides that a pale goatee improves his looks?
     Does hair style and color or even wearing homemade ear rings really impede the learning process enough to lead to suspension? Students try out different looks for any of a couple of dozen different reasons, and then often revert to what society believes is within the range of “normal.”
     But, even if the students decide they like pink hair or wearing a headband, why should school administrators decide to reign in creativity and enforce conformity? Aren’t there more important things to do in schools than to be the Morality Police?
Now, let’s look at the enforcement of laws outside of schools.
     In several states, it is still illegal for consenting adult partners to have oral sex. In several states, same-sex marriage is illegal. Should the nation be creating and enforcing laws that encourage voyeuristic Morality Police to look inside bedrooms and decree what is and is not acceptable?
     Should this nation—or any nation—arrest and convict a gay couple who have “unnatural” hair color? And should this nation be building more prisons and paying more for incarceration for pretend-crimes that have no impact to the rest of society than for education?
     In Georgia, Republican legislators have decided to allow freedom of religion. This seems like a good thing—especially since the First Amendment protects and advocates freedom of religion. But in this case, the law, which will probably be passed, bastardizes the intent of the First Amendment. That proposed law would allow businesses to discriminate against gays—as customers or employees—solely upon what a business owner claims is his or her religious right.
     The law, as written, would also allow those who beat their children or spouses a “get out of jail free” card if they can prove that violence is acceptable in their religion, even if there are no churches or preachers.
     Thus, in Georgia, it might be possible for a child molester to not be arrested, while a 16-year-old with blue-streaked hair be suspended or expelled from school.
     And we—loyal and patriotic Americans—complain about the Morality Police in certain Arab countries?! 
    [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist, columnist, radio commentator, and the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the heath, environmental, political, and economic effects of fracking throughout the country.]

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sitcoms are No Laughing Matter

     


by Walter Brasch

      Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” didn’t need a laugh track when it debuted on Broadway in 1965. It didn’t need a laugh track when it became a movie three years later.
      In the first of five seasons as a TV series (1970–1975), it had a laugh track, primarily because the show was taped without a live audience. However, stars Jack Klugman and Tony Randall insisted upon a live audience. Beginning the second season, the show was taped before a live audience, with mild post-production sweetening from what became known as the “Laff Box.”
      “The New Odd Couple,” with black actors and an enhanced laugh track, lasted 18 episodes in the 1982–1983 season.
      The latest version debuted two weeks ago on CBS. It has a laugh track. A loud, annoying, intrusive laugh track. A laugh track that has little variation and makes it obvious the live-audience reaction at the tapings were muted in deference to forced canned laughter.
     The laugh track is so intrusive that the few quality writing lines and the acting are obliterated by what producers think is funny. And, funny comes at least every other line. By decree.
      This “Odd Couple” is not much different from many current 30-minute TV situation comedies.
      For some reason, writers and producers think sitcoms are a series of one-liners, with minimal plot that need artificial and intrusive laugh tracks. Even the Oscars and Emmy awards shows, broadcast live but with a seven-second delay in case anyone violates network standards and practices, use enhanced laughter to try to make the TV audience believe that lame jokes are really comedy.
      Producers of the better classic comedies either didn’t use laugh tracks or made sure the “sweetening” wasn’t intrusive. There was no laugh track for “I Love Lucy.” There was canned laughter and no audiences for the first two seasons of “Happy Days”; by the third season, production switched from single-camera to multi-camera, and audience reaction dominated analogue audio enhancements.
Several now-classic sitcoms—think of the “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Newhart,” “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “All in the Family,” “Friends” and dozens of others—were defined by brilliant writing, strong direction, and excellent acting. Even “M*A*S*H,” one of the best comedies on TV, toned down its laugh track and used it sparingly after the first season. “Sex and the City” didn’t use a laugh track; “Welcome Back, Kotter” used it sparingly. Artificial laughter also wasn’t necessary for “The Simpsons,” “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” and “The Muppets.”
      No experienced TV Suit has yet demanded a laugh track for the better one-hour TV dramas—among them “NCIS” and “Castle”—that have an undercurrent of well-written humor, slipped seemingly effortless into the show. Further, the well-written, acted, and directed one-hour light dramas on the USA network—“Monk,” “Psych,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Royal Pains,” “White Collar,” and many other original series—have proven that laugh tracks are useless when quality supersedes contrived mechanical laughs. TV audiences know what’s funny and when to laugh, snicker, chuckle, or even guffaw.
      It’s harder to write quality comedy than tragedy and drama. So, maybe, that’s why the forced laugh tracks are necessary—especially for lines that are dry and uninspired.
      If the current “Odd Couple” plans to be around next season, it needs to strengthen its writing—and allow genuine audience reaction be its primary laugh track.
      Perhaps, TV audiences have become so accustomed to mediocrity they now believe that average productions are models of excellence. What else would explain the existence of the one-joke salacious “Two Broke Girls” and “Two and a Half Men”?
      If you want to hear non-intrusive laughter and clapping on a show with excellent writing and delivery, just tune into “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” It doesn’t need artificial laughter.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

’Rithmatic Doesn’t Add Up in One School District

      


By Walter Brasch

      The Danville Education Association (Pa.) has been operating without a contract for three years.
      Two years ago, the teachers approved recommendations of an independent fact-finder; the board rejected it. This eventually led to a protest strike of five days in  April 2014. Recently, the teachers and the board agreed to submit their proposals to an independent arbitrator.
      Working under regulations of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, the arbitrator analyzed the district finances, tax base, and other data before making his recommendations. The arbitrator concluded the district had the money to pay the teachers more—not what the teachers asked, but more than the board was offering. He also recommended increased contributions by the teachers for their health benefits.
      The teachers voted to accept the recommendations. The board unanimously voted to reject the arbitrator’s recommendations, even though the arbitrator agreed with most of the board’s demands.
      The board claims it can’t afford the teacher raises. The overall budget for the 2014–2015 academic year is about $34 million. In addition, the district also has about $12.2 million in reserve, most of which the district says is for anticipated increases in health care premiums and unfunded mandates to improve the state retirement system; included is an unassigned reserve of about $2.1 million. In 2011, when the Board only had a $6.2 million surplus, the fact finder had recommended a 5.7 percent increase for teacher salaries for the 2015-2016 academic year. The arbitrator two years later recommended raises of 3.5 percent for each of the four years of the new contract.
      Of the 17 districts in the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU), Danville teachers are ninth in average salary (about $52,000 a year). The district has the second highest average income of all districts in the CSIU. Teacher salaries and benefits are about 48 percent of the total budget, down from 51.1 percent in the 2009–2010 academic year.
     Every teacher pays 7.5 percent of his or her salary into a retirement account, in addition to 6.2 percent for social security contributions. The district, under federal law, also pays 6.2 percent social security contribution, but pays only 3.09 percent into the state pension fund, a slow increase from 1.18 percent in 2008–2009. (The state also pays 3.09 percent.) 
      Each teacher currently pays $1,453–$1,684 per year, depending on the plan, for health care. The arbitrator recommended the teachers increase their share of the total cost to 12 percent of the health care cost.
      Perhaps the board needed the money for its “Community Room.” That room, which will be the place for board meetings, includes a new sound system ($31,159), new carpet ($13,242), and new furniture ($8,551.06).
      Perhaps the board needed the money for an additional administrator ($69,209), or for the 3 percent increases for its administrative staff, which includes a salary of $133,900 for its superintendent, more than $60,000 higher than the highest pay earned by any teacher.
      Because of the teachers, the students have the highest academic scores on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile; the high school is the only one in the state, one of only 340 in the nation, to have earned Blue Ribbon designation by the U.S. Department of Education. That honor is based upon academic excellence and/or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. 
      The board’s performance leaves some serious questions. The major question is why even go to arbitration if you don’t plan to listen to what is a fair settlement? Apparently, the board believes that only if the arbitrator agrees with all of its proposals should it accept the recommendations. This is not what arbitration is.
      However, there are two deeper issues. Some residents ignorantly claim that teachers work limited hours a day and only 180 days a year, not realizing that outside of class teachers also have preparation, grading, student and parent conferences, extracurricular advising, required training sessions, and meetings; the average worker, if taking into account weekends, sick days, vacation time, and holidays, works fewer hours a year than does the average teacher. The arbitrator said many of the letters he received from the public argued that the teachers are paid more than the general public in the district, and receive better benefits. These arguments are not uncommon in Pennsylvania.
      This is not the 19th century when teachers didn’t need a college degree, were primarily female—they were often called “school marms”—and worked for low wages and near-nothing benefits.
      Today, every public school teacher has a college degree and state certification. Every teacher is required to take additional classes. Most teachers are pursuing or have already earned master’s degrees. They are a part of the professional class. But, they are still behind their other colleagues who have similar education and years of experience.
      But, this doesn’t matter to those who may be envious that others make more than they do, a problem not just in Danville but throughout the state and nation.
      Here are two realities. First, high quality teachers—the ones who teach our children who will become our tradespeople, secretaries, physicians, social workers, firefighters, and scientists—are critical to any society, and should be paid well.
      Second, if the public is upset the teachers are paid more than they are, then they should do what the teachers have done successfully—Unionize and raise their own wages and benefits, rather than complain about others and try to drag their compensation down.

      [Among those contributing facts to this column were Dave Fortunato, president of the Danville Teachers Association; and Allan Schappert, president of the board of the Danville Area School District. Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist, a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth look at the economic, political, health, and environmental effects of fracking throughout the country. Full disclosure: Dr. Brasch is a former teacher.]

America’s Real Traitors


by Walter Brasch


      The Tea Party wing of the Republican party thinks House speaker John Boehner is a rhino.
      Not the thick-skinned horned mammal that lives in Africa. This rhino is an R-I-N-O . . . Republican in Name Only.
      The Tea Party thinks Boehner, by sometimes listening to both sides and occasionally, but rarely, agreeing with some Democratic ideas, is a traitor. They believe anyone who disagrees with them is evil. A traitor. A RINO.
      The extreme right-wing is also delusional.
      John Boehner is as much a RINO as the one-ton plant eaters are Chihuahuas.
      The latest dust-up between the Speaker and the right-wing came when they wanted to block funding for the Department of Homeland Security. The Tea Party congressmen wanted to attach a condition to the funding. That condition would be to get rid of President Obama’s immigration policies. Vote to do that, and there would be consent among the right-wing to pass the Homeland Security budget. Disagree with them, and 30,000 federal workers would be laid off; the rest would be required to work without pay.
      That would include the Coast Guard. The Secret Service . The security guards at all airports. FEMA. And, ironically, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. You know, the agents who are the ones who enforce border protection and send undocumented workers back to their home countries.
      The Tea Party politicians are the ones who don’t want to help individuals – especially if it involves money. Let disabled veterans suffer–their mantra is they don’t want any new taxes.
      But, they have yet to oppose mass funding for defense, even if some of the funding went to projects the Pentagon decided wasn’t fiscally sustainable or necessary.
      And so, the Tea Party extremists threw their temper tantrum, threatening to block all funding for Homeland Security if they didn’t get their way.
      The President called for a clean bill. Authorize funding for Homeland Security. Deal with the immigration issues later. It made sense.
      Except to the right-wing.
      John Boehner, aided by moderate Republicans and Democrats, brought a clean bill to a vote. The House–with 52 Republicans opposed–passed the bill. The President signed it 10 minutes before the deadline.
      And for protecting the people of America, the Tea Party Republicans call the House speaker a RINO.
      Over in the Senate, 47 right-wingers, in violation of the federal Logan Act that bars interference in foreign affairs during negotiations, sent a vicious letter to Iran, trying to undermine the President’s legal and constitutional authority. Even the conservative New York Daily News condemned these senators, four of whom may become presidential candidates, none of whom believe in the Constitution and in the country.
      It’s not hard to see just who the real traitors are to America.
      Maybe it’s time to call those right-wingers who don’t believe in the country to call them what they are likely to become if they keep up their obstruction–extinct.
      [Dr. Brasch is a social issues journalist, and the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth look at the health, environmental, political, and economic effects of fracking throughout the country.]


Thursday, February 12, 2015

They Brand Cattle, Don’t They?


by Walter Brasch

      “Branding! We have to make you a brand!”
      “I’m not cattle,” I told my sometimes faux foil assistant Marshbaum, who had just burst into my office. “And if you think I’m getting a tattoo,” I replied, “my body isn’t a canvas.”
      “It’s sure wide enough,” Marshbaum flippantly replied. Before I could throw sheets of wadded up paper at him, he explained what he meant. “It’s not a fire-iron brand,” he explained. “It’s strategic marketing.”
      “I’m a journalist,” I reminded Marshbaum, “I don’t do that kind of thing.”
      “You will if you want to stay in business.”
      “I’ve been in this business four decades, and I’ve never been branded.”
      “That’s why we need you to do TV commercials,” he said.
      “I’m a print journalist,” I reminded him.
      “Yeah, well, not all of us are pretty enough for TV, but you still have to do a commercial! Just like Jennifer Anniston.”
      “As if she needs more money,” I sneered. “She’s got a net worth of something between $100 million and $150 million, depending upon which magazine you believe.”
      “You can never have enough,” said Marshbaum.
      “Yeah, that and her eight-figure salary for commercials that tell 45-year-old women they can dab junk on their faces and look like ingĂ©nues. She’s hawking hair products, beer, and some fragrance Besides, she’s taking money from low-income hard-working actors who do need the bucks.”
      “You said that before. And before. And before.”
      “It’s the truth,” I said. “A-list actors have branched into TV commercials. Selling everything from eyelash liners to prescription drugs to—”
      “Yeah, yeah, like that sorrowful Blythe Danner who’s got some kind of problem that keeps her on stage to break a leg.”
      “Exactly!” I replied. “It’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. The rich actors don’t need more money.”
      “But they do need exposure. TV and film aren’t enough. The red carpet isn’t enough. Being mentioned in the National Enquirer isn’t enough. They want it all, and to get it all, they need to be a brand. Corporate America loves it!”
      “There’s a lot that corporate America loves that just doesn’t matter to the rest of us.”
      “But it does matter. When you see Larry the Cable Guy, you think of bad heartburn. When Brooke Shields appears on the screen, you still think of her wearing Calvin Klein jeans with no underwear. And then you run out to your nearest box store and buy whatever they’re selling. Think you’ll do that if you see a commercial with some no-name talent?”
      “Some people,” I said, “already think I may be a no-name talent.”
      “And that’s why we need to brand you. Tie you to some product. It’d raise your profile, make you a brand, and make money for all of us.”
      “All of us?”
      “You don’t think I’d be doing all this for free, do you?! I have expenses. Besides, we’d have to pay for makeup, better clothes, a publicist, marketing manager, and a business manager. Then there’s your entourage. TV commercial talent has to have an entourage. That doesn’t come cheap.”
      “It comes a lot cheaper if I don’t do it at all.”
      “What?! And be responsible for even more unemployment? A whole industry needs you to brand yourself. You get exposure and money. And that will lead to more commercials. And more commercials lead to better recognition. And the advertisers will be ecstatic!”
      “Will it get me more readers?”
      “Don’t be ridiculous. If you get branded, you won’t need readers. You’ll live off your residuals from commercials.”
      “But I’m a journalist,” I again reminded him. “I write stories that give people information they need. Stories that affect people’s lives.”
      “TV commercials affect people’s lives. Where would America be if Ellen DeGeneres didn’t promote JCPenny’s or Michael Jordan wasn’t shilling Jockey underwear? Think you’d buy a Lincoln if millionaire Matthew McConaughey wasn’t telling you to do it?”
      “If I do this—and I probably won’t—what would I be selling? Cars? Watches?”
      “Toilet paper. It goes with your brand. A whole gaggle of conservative readers already say your column is full of—”
      “—great insight and sparkling language.”
      “Yeah. Sure. Something like that.”
      “Look, Marshbaum,” I said a bit testy, “I don’t need to be a brand. I do need to write my column for this week.”
      “I think you just did,” he said smugly.
      [Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth look at the economic, political, health, and environmental effects of high-volume horizontal fracturing. Rosemary R. Brasch, who never once did a TV commercial when she was an actress, assisted on this column.]