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.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

‘NCIS’ Again Skunked—Except by the People

by Walter Brasch

      Once again, as expected, the people who give out Emmy nominations skunked NCIS.
      No nominations for acting. None for writing. Not one for directing or producing. Not even a nomination in what the industry calls the minor awards—sound editing, stunt coordination, and dozens of others.
      The one-hour drama, with light overtones, is the most-watched drama in television, but the Industry doesn’t think it’s worth any awards. And yet, every one of its primary actors, led by Mark Harmon, could give acting lessons to those who were nominated.
      It took years for TV Guide’s haughty editors to give major stories to NCIS or even highlight individual episodes. Perhaps it’s because NCIS appeals more to the people who don’t live in L.A. or New York.
      Also skunked were USA’s Royal Pains and TNT’s Major Crimes, both excellent light dramas that, like NCIS, are well-acted, well-written, and well-directed.
      Also overlooked by the Industry when they were in production were several outstanding light dramas, among them USA’s White Collar, Burn Notice, and Psych and TNT’s Leverage and The Closer.
      There may be several reasons why these shows, and others, aren’t nominated.
      First, the actors work on their craft, show up on time, rehearse, deliver excellent performances, and then go home to their families and friends. They don’t do a lot of TV guest appearances on the morning and late night shows. Most don’t go to the Hollywood parties, where they can schmooze and cuddle up with fellow performers who can cast just the right kind of votes. And, most important, the actors of NCIS, NCIS: New Orleans, and the USA and TNT shows generally don’t appear regularly in the tabloids.
      Writers and directors tend to stay in the background, melting into the scenery. None are asked to appear on talk shows; very few are even asked to appear in court. Nevertheless, the writing and directing of the overlooked shows is easily among the best that Hollywood has to offer.
      Another reason is that the studios and networks that these shows appear on don’t do much to promote them. CBS, which could have spent a few hundred thousand of its millions of profit promoting NCIS, CSI, and Criminal Minds, seems to think the money is better spent promoting Two Broke Girls and the last remains of Two and a Half Men. USA is owned by NBC/Universal, which pushes its NBC shows, paying premium rental prices for Sunset Blvd. billboards and for ads in major show-biz publications. And, of course, NBC shoves the actors onto the talk shows, especially the ones broadcast by NBC.
      Royal Pains is a drama of concierge medicine in the Hamptons. But, USA snuck the seventh season of the popular show onto the air with almost no promotion, and stuck it into a 10 p.m. slot, possibly hoping it would flatline and leave a vacancy for another one-hour drama.
      For some reason, the Industry doesn’t like light drama, a perception also emphasized in the Oscars. And, it doesn’t seem to like actors who don’t overact, but subject themselves to the quality of writing.
      Last week, when NCIS, about to begin its 13th season in September, was overlooked, it was 4th in the Nielsen ratings. And that was for a re-run.

      [Dr. Brasch is a journalist and multi-media writer/producer. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the process and effects of high-volume horizontal fracturing.]

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Fired for Telling the Truth

by Walter Brasch

     Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, a hydrogeologist, didn’t plan to be an expert witness for law firms. But, that’s the way it turned out shortly before he planned to retire.
     He had spent most of his career working in the oil/gas industry and then in academics. He didn’t have problems when he worked for ARCO for seven years after getting an M.S. in oceanography from the University of South Florida. However, he did have problems in academics when he tried to tell the truth.
     After five years as an assistant professor at California State University at Bakersfield, in the heart of the state’s rich oil industry, he left to become associate professor/researcher at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM), a public university with a strong reputation in engineering and applied sciences. For 10 years, he taught and did research. But in 2006, as horizontal fracking began to be the way the industry was headed, he learned that research is compromised by politics.
     That’s the year he was asked by the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) to evaluate an EPA study about horizontal fracking. The EPA study, conducted during the Bush–Cheney administration, had claimed there were no problems with horizontal fracking, one that used millions of gallons of water, dozens of toxic chemicals, and a new procedure to extract trapped gas in narrow shales.
     “I wasn’t aware of the study, or much about fracking,” says Dr. Thyne, “but I looked at the document and said it appeared to be political.” He did say there was no data to lead to the EPA conclusions, which would eventually be used to help justify the Halliburton Loophole, which exempted the industry from numerous environmental laws. But, it was Dr. Thyne’s observation about the validity of the EPA report that upset the university’s administration.
     Research about fracking apparently upset some in the administration, one of whom was Dr. Myles W. Scoggins who had worked for Mobil and ExxonMobil for more than three decades, eventually becoming president of the International Exploration & Production and Global Exploration division and then executive vice president of ExxonMobil Production Co. before becoming CSM president in 2006. In 2014, the last year of his presidency, Dr. Scoggins received $380,000 in salary and, according to the Public Affairs Institute, about $800,000 from being on the boards of three oil and energy companies.
     A meeting with a low-level administrator resulted in an agreement that Dr. Thyne should not say that there was insufficient data in the EPA study and that he could not identify himself as from CSM in public and written statements.
     But, there was more. Dr. Thyne soon began advocating for more university research about fracking and its effects.
     This time, instead of a department head telling him never to use his university affiliation in his research and public statements, it was a university vice-president. Dr. Nigel T. Middleton, vice-president of academic affairs, told Dr. Thyne the university was dropping him to half-time employment and ordered him not to discuss fracking. Dr. Middleton also has a long history of work with the oil and gas industry.
     Dr. Thyne believes the initial protest this time came from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA). The university president for four years (2007–2011) was  on the board of directors of COGA.
     In an official public relations statement, CSM denied terminating Dr. Thyne’s employment. The university claimed Dr. Thyne left CSM solely because he had another job. However, that was a carefully-couched distortion of truth. CSM did not renew his contract after he did an interview with National Public Radio, and reiterated his position that there was insufficient data to justify EPA conclusions.
     The American Association of University Professors had wanted to take up Dr. Thyne’s case as a violation of academic freedom—“but I declined because by that time, it really seemed to be a no-win situation.”
     The next year, he became a researcher at the University of Wyoming, from where he received a Ph.D. in geology in 1991. This time, six years after he began working at the university, a comment made to a local newspaper led to his termination. The Cheyenne Tribune–Eagle had published a five-part series about fracking and water usage. He says he had told the reporter each well could use two to ten million gallons of water, but for certain wells the water used could be 350,000 to one million gallons per stage, and that there could be as many as 40 stages of drilling. The reporter took the maximum per stage, and the maximum number of stages, and noted there could be more than 40 million gallons of water used. The source of the highest possible number of gallons was unattributed. However, representatives of the industry demanded to know the source, which the newspaper’s editor revealed.
     That eventually led to Dr. Thyne being called before the university’s vice-president of government affairs and a representative from Noble Energy, who demanded he retract the highest number, a number Dr. Thyne had never given the newspaper. Like CSM, the University of Wyoming also demanded that Dr. Thyne deny that any of his comments represented the views of the University of Wyoming. Shortly after that meeting, Dr. Thyne was told, “Your services are no longer needed.” He was never told why his employment was terminated. Because Wyoming is a “right-to-work” state, there was no grievance procedure. The university could easily claim, without having to prove the truth, that there were no more research funds to justify Dr Thyne’s continued employment. David Mohrbacher, director of the university’s Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute, told the Boulder (Colo.) Weekly
the reason for not renewing Dr. Thyne’s was because, “We chose a different way to go, and really that’s all I can say.”
     Dr. Thyne’s last academic employment was in 2012. “With fracking booming, I thought there would be a lot of jobs,” he says but no one in academia had wanted him. A couple of years later, he found out why. “A friend told me to check out YouTube.” On that social network, he found a one-minute video, which he recorded in 2011, that stated human error in the fracking process can cause water pollution.
     “I’m not naive, I understand politics,” says Dr. Thyne, who acknowledges, “It’s been a difficult transition,” but one he accepts because he will not sacrifice his academic integrity for political convenience.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Grin of a Fool: Gun Control and the NRA

By Rosemary and Walter Brasch

      A white racist with strong sympathies for the Confederacy and segregation walks into a black church in Charleston, S.C., talks with a welcoming congregation for about an hour, and then murders nine of them. The response by the nation is to discuss the Confederate battle flag, and why it should be removed from society.
      An undocumented citizen who was deported five times gets a stolen handgun from a federal officer and murders a 32-year-old woman, whom he did not know, in San Francisco. The response is to discuss immigration laws and practices.
      In Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend, seven people were murdered, and 41 injured in 34 shooting incidents. In Baltimore, two unidentified men killed three people in a residential area near the University of Maryland; a fourth gunshot victim survived. In the first half of the year, there were 154 murders in Baltimore. In Allentown and Easton, Pa., three people were murdered; police believe the suspect, now in custody, may also have attempted to kill someone in New Jersey the week before. The response by the public is to escalate the discussion about gang violence.
      Racism. Immigration. Gang violence.
      What’s missing in the discussion—the most obvious issue, the common thread— is the use of guns.
      Hate and fear supply the ammunition; people with guns carry out the execution of peace.
      President Obama, in addressing the nation shortly after the murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, alluded to the issue of guns. In a subsequent interview with radio host/comedian Marc Maron, he was more specific—“The grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong. I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress.” The president also explained why there is almost no movement on responsible gun control legislation is because manufacturers—who donate millions to the NRA—“make out like bandits, partly because of this fear that's churned up that the federal government and the black helicopters are all coming to get your guns.”
      Conservatives attacked the President’s comments; liberals proved the president’s points by their cowardly silence.
      The Democratic leadership and members of Congress could have said there is a high correlation between the amount of money the NRA pays to legislators and the stranglehold on allowing responsible gun ownership laws to emerge. But they didn’t.
      They could have said the NRA leadership and a minority of its members, paranoid and waving conspiracy theories as if they were confederate battle flags, have their hands firmly around the testicles of the law makers. But they didn’t.
      They could have said that in Mr. Obama’s six years as president, not once did he or the government ever say the government should confiscate guns, but wanted sensible regulation at a level even less than required to get a driver’s license. But they didn’t say that, either.
      If the Democratic leadership and elected legislators didn’t wish to attack the stranglehold of the NRA, they could just have cited facts.
      They could have said that 91 percent of all Americans believe there should be at least some restrictions, including mandatory gun locks to help prevent at least 1,500 injuries to children each year. But they didn’t.
      They could have spoken out about the necessity for background checks for all gun sales, including private sales at gun shows. But they didn’t.
      They could have said that the United States, with civilians owning about 30 percent of all handguns in the world, has the world’s highest civilian rate of ownership of guns. But they didn’t.
      They could have said that only two countries in the world—the United States and Yemen, home to a major branch of al-Qaeda—see gun ownership as a basic right, and almost every other country sees ownership as a privilege. They could have said that, but they didn’t.
      They could have said that over 100,000 people are shot every year in the United States; the rate is higher than almost every other country in the world, including several countries where there is active terrorism.
      They could have stated there are numerous research studies that show a high correlation between gun ownership and both suicides and homicides. But they didn’t.
      They could have flooded the media with outrage after the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee, days after the Charleston murders, continued the ban against the Centers for Disease Control to conduct scientific research about gun violence. But they didn’t.
      They could have talked about the ease in acquiring guns, the kind that killed 12 people and wounded 58 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and killed 26 at a school in Newtown, Conn. But they didn’t.
They could have directly attacked the argument that the Second Amendment gives everyone the right to own guns, without restriction. They could have cited U.S. v. Miller that permits states and the federal government to ban certain guns. But they didn’t.
      They could have cited court decisions that every one of the Bill of Rights has exceptions, but the NRA erroneously claims the Second Amendment is absolute.
      They could have cited other Supreme Court cases that gives Congress the authority to place restrictions on gun ownership. But they didn’t.
      They could have discussed the principle of use of deadly force in “stand your ground” laws against the “obligation to retreat” when possible. But they didn’t.
      They could have discussed recent legislation in Maine, happily signed by the governor, which permits anyone to carry a hidden handgun without having to get a permit or take any training in the use of firearms. The NRA leadership and lobbyists are ecstatic about that law. Perhaps, as Maine’s murder and accidental shooting rate rises, they will lose the grin of a fool.
      [Rosemary Brasch is a retired secretary, labor grievance officer, and college instructor of labor studies. Walter Brasch is a journalist. The latest of his 20 books is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overview of the economics, politics, and health and environmental effects of horizontal fracturing.]

Friday, July 3, 2015

Three Commandments for Every State Capitol

by Walter Brasch

      The Oklahoma Supreme Court this past week ordered the legislature and the executive branch to remove a six-foot tall Ten Commandments granite monument from the front of the state house.
      The monument was placed there in January and is a direct violation of the First Amendment.
      The response by dozens of legislators, most of whom may be illiterate about the Constitution, was to call for the impeachment of the justices. The state’s attorney general who, presumably, took Constitutional Law in college, said he would appeal the decision. He, and many legislators, are also thinking of repealing the part of the state constitution that prohibits the use of public funds for religious purposes. The only question here is—how much taxpayer money will the state waste in the appeals and an action to rewrite the state constitution before the Supreme Court of the United States officially declares Oklahoma to be in need of long-term mental health assistance.
      Over in Alabama, Ray Moore, the state’s chief justice, thinks the Ten Commandments should be in front of the court house. The other eight justices disagreed with him, and the Alabama Court of the Judiciary removed him in 2003 from office for violating both the Constitution and a federal court order to remove the 5,200 pound granite block he had commissioned.
      After several failed attempts to become the state’s governor, Moore again ran for the office of chief justice, and was elected in 2012, still pledging to violate state and federal law.
       I have no objections to the Ten Commandments being placed in public spaces, especially court houses and state capital lawns.
      But, there are a few requirements I have.
      First, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and entered into a covenant with the Jews more than 1,200 years before the seeds of Christianity were planted. God didn’t give the Ten Commandments to the Southern Baptists, Muslims, Hindis, or even the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So, if the legislatures and other politicians want a Ten Commandments monument in public places, they must first become Jews.
      It makes no difference if it’s Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. I don’t care if they become Chassidic, Reconstructionist, or even secular Jews. But, they must become Jews. This would be God’s will.
      Second, because Jews tend to be more liberal in social issues than the rest of the population, the politicians would be expected to embrace universal health care, civil rights for all people—including the right of same-sex marriage, improved working conditions and wages, a strong commitment to those who are of the underclass of society, a tolerance and understanding of others’ faiths, and activism for environmental and animal rights issues.
      Third, they must follow all of the commandments, especially the one about not committing adultery.
      They can choose which day of the week they could hold as holy. If they choose Saturday, the Jews’ day of Sabbath, they would be forbidden from playing golf or working on their broken-down pick-up trucks. If they choose Sunday as the day of Sabbath, they wouldn’t be allowed to watch NFL football.
      It’s not much to ask them to do. Become Jews. Embrace liberal social issues. And follow the commandments.
      When they agree to these terms, I might be able to support them wanting to place the Ten Commandments on the lawns of their state houses—but only after they write a new Constitution, and reform the United States as a Jewish state, not unlike the socialist Israeli state.

      [Dr. Brasch is a social issues journalist, retired university professor of mass communications, and author of 20 books. His latest is Fracking Pennsylvania, a definitive look at the economics, politics, and health, and environmental; effects surrounding fracking in the country.]