Remembering Dr. King – “Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

One of the greatest honors of my life was being invited to speak at the Martin Luther King, Jr. candlelight vigil three years ago at the UNK student union, along with Kevin Chaney, who was then UNK’s women’s basketball coach. 

This year’s vigil is Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Nebraskan Student Union.  Dr. Elwood Watson, Professor of History at East Tennessee State, will be the speaker. If you are in the area, I urge you to attend as we honor Dr. King.

Here’s what I had to say about Dr. King when I spoke:

Visalli-11-10-13When we think of public relations, we think of a professional in a suit trying to persuade us about something related to a large corporation. But not all PR is practiced by big business.

Civil rights leader The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a brilliant understanding of public relations during the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

The goal of the campaign was to have non-violent demonstrations and resistance to force segregated businesses to open up to African Americans. What King, and the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wanted to do was stage a highly visible demonstration that would not only force change in Birmingham, but also grab the attention of the entire American public.

King and his colleagues picked Birmingham because it was one of he most segregated cities in America and because it had Eugene “Bull” Conner as police commissioner.

Conner was a racist who could be counted on to attack the peaceful marchers. Birmingham was a city where black protestors were thrown in jail, and the racists were bombing homes and churches. There was a black neighborhood that had so many bombings it came to be known as Dynamite Hill.

Dr. King and his colleagues had planned demonstrations and boycotts in Birmingham, but held off with them in order to let the political system and negotiations work. But time passed, and nothing changed. Signs were still up at the lunch counters and water fountains, and protestors were still headed to jail.

King and the rest of the SCLC needed to get attention for the plight of African Americans in cities like Birmingham.

They needed to do more than fight back against the racism of segregation. They needed to get Americans of good will in all the churches and synagogues to hear their voices.

Starting in April of 1963, predominantly African American volunteers would march in the streets, hold sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and boycott local businesses in Birmingham. As the protests started, so did the arrests.

On Good Friday, King and Abernathy joined in the marching so that they would be arrested. While King was in jail, he was given a copy of the Birmingham News, in which there was an article where white Alabama clergy urged the SCLC to stop the demonstrations and boycotts and allow the courts to solve the problem of segregation.

But King was tired of waiting, and so he wrote what would become one of the great statements of the civil rights cause. One that spoke to people who were fundamentally their friends, not their enemies. This came to be known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Writing the letter was not easy. Dr. King wrote it in the margins of the newspaper. He wrote it on scraps of note paper. He wrote it on panels of toilet paper. (Think about what the toilet paper was like if Dr. King was able to write on it!)

The letter spoke to the moderates who were urging restraint. To them, he wrote:

“My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas…. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”

He went on the acknowledge that perhaps he was an extremist, but that he was an extremist for love, not for hate:

“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” …

Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” …

And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”

And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .”

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

King’s jailhouse writings were smuggled out and published as a brochure. His eloquent words were given added force for being written in jail. As he says toward the end of his letter, it is very different to send a message from jail than from a hotel room:

“Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”

Once King was released from jail eight days later, he and his followers raised the stakes. No longer would adults be marching and being arrested, children would become the vanguard. And as the children marched, photographers and reporters from around the world would document these young people being attacked by dogs, battered by water from fire hoses, and filling up the Birmingham jails.

King faced criticism for allowing the young people to face the dangers of marching in Birmingham. But he responded by criticizing the white press, asking the reporters where they had been “during the centuries when our segregated social system had been misusing and abusing Negro children.”

Although there was rioting in Birmingham, and King’s brother’s house was bombed, the campaign was ultimately successful. Business owners took down the signs that said “WHITE” and “COLORED” from the drinking fountains and bathrooms, and anyone was allowed to eat at the lunch counters. The successful protest in Birmingham set the stage for the March on Washington that would take place in August of 1963, where King would give his famous “I have a dream” speech.

We are now more than fifty years from King’s letter from Birmingham Jail. This letter was not one of his “feel good” speeches. It doesn’t raise the spirit the way his “I have a dream” speech did.

But it did give us a message that still matters more than ever today:

 “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

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Reporting Offensive Language from the White House – Part I

As you can’t help but have noticed, on Thursday President Trump made some highly offensive remarks about the country of Haiti, the continent of Africa, and presumably about a couple of countries in central America.  He was quoted in the Washington Post as follows:

President Trump grew frustrated with lawmakers Thursday in the Oval Office when they discussed protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, according to several people briefed on the meeting.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to these people, referring to countries mentioned by the lawmakers.

Trump then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries such as Norway, whose prime minister he met with Wednesday. The president, according to a White House official, also suggested he would be open to more immigrants from Asian countries because he felt that they help the United States economically.

In addition, the president singled out Haiti, telling lawmakers that immigrants from that country must be left out of any deal, these people said.

“Why do we need more Haitians?” Trump said, according to people familiar with the meeting. “Take them out.” 

Let me just start by saying that this blog post (and its follow-up) is an attempt to analyze how the press covers statements like this, not to analyze the character of the president. (If you want to know how I feel – Father James Martin, journalist and Jesuit priest, sums up my feelings quite well.)

There has been considerable debate over what is appropriate and inappropriate for the press to do when the president or a member of his cabinet uses offensive language – especially to express an offensive idea or point of view. Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, told The Washingtonian: 

“When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim…. That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”

CNN used the full vulgarity on their chyron Thursday, in a way the network has not generally done:

On Thursday as the news was breaking, Fox News did not use the vulgarity itself on their homepage, but on the actual story used “s—hole” in the headline.  For the record, Fox News also reported at the time that they had independently confirmed the president’s statements.

The New York Times declined to use the word in the headline, but did in their story:

Trump Alarms Lawmakers With Disparaging Words for Haiti and AfricaNPR initially did not use the word, referring instead to it as a “vulgarity,” but as the story progressed, the public radio network decided to use the word sparingly — approximately once an hour.  MSNBC’s use of the term varied depending on the host.  Some used it repeatedly, while Rachel Maddow used the actual word quite sparingly (as his her usual practice with offensive language on the show).

Journalism think tank The Poynter Institute has a good article giving a more complete look at how various outlets reported the story, as did the New York Times.

The vehemently anti-Trump New York Daily News had perhaps the most creative approach, using an emoji-based cartoon to get their message across.

Twitter, of course, has been exploding over this topic the last few days, but to me, the most significant post I saw was from the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah global opinion editor:

Coming soon: A brief history of offensive language from the White House.

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Meet my blogging students

This spring I’m teaching JMC 406 – Commentary and Blogging, a course I first taught 30 years ago this winter. (Of course, when I first taught it, there was not a blogging component, given that blogging didn’t exist yet…)

Here are the blogs and twitter feeds from this year’s crop of writers.  I encourage you to take a look, and comment as you wish.

Rachel Arehart

Katie Coker

Thomas Gillen

Ashlee Glaser

Edwin Hooper

Shelby Larsen

Jessica D Moser

Sydney Norris

Haley Pierce

James Rader

Rachel Smith

Angel Yuman

Stuart Wilke

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Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death is as relevant now as it was more than 30 years ago

Back in 1985, NYU communication professor Neil Postman published his book Amusing Ourselves To Death. This book has had an influence on me my entire academic career.  Among the reasons it had such an impact on me was this interview C-SPAN founder did with Dr. Postman in the early days of the public affairs network:

Neil Postman on C-SPAN

Neil Postman on C-SPAN

In  Amusing Ourselves to Death, Dr. Postman argues that the primary effect of television is that it changes how people see the world; that is, with television, people start viewing everything as entertainment. Young people get their news in a comedy format, watching The Daily Show the same way they watch MTV. They learn about politics on the same channel that shows a professional football game.

In an interview with Robert Nelson for the Civic Arts Review, Postman described the major point of Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“Television always recreates the world to some extent in its own image by selecting parts of that world and editing those parts. So a television news show is a kind of symbolic creation and construction made by news directors and camera crews. . . .

“Americans turn to television not only for their light entertainment but for their news, their weather, their politics, their religion, their history, all of which may be said to be their furious entertainment. What I’m talking about is television’s preemption of our culture’s most serious business. It is one thing to say that TV presents us with entertaining subject matter. It is quite another to say that on TV all subject matter is presented as entertaining and it is in that sense that TV can bring ruin to any intelligent understanding of public affairs. . . .

Unfortunately, the link to Dr. Nelson‘s interview is no longer active (Hey, the article is from 28 years ago!), but you can read a lot more of material about Dr. Postman on the Neil Postman Online Archive page.

I was reminded about Amusing Ourselves To Death today when The Weekly Standard editor Stephen Hayes tweeted this out:

Do yourself a favor and watch the C-SPAN interview and pick up a copy of this classic book.


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Questions Worth Asking (Maybe) – Fire and Fury Edition

Fire and Fury: Inside The Trump White HouseWriter/journalist Michael Wolff has a the new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House being published imminently, and it’s attracting lots of Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)!

  • So how has the publisher reacted to this?
    The publisher has reportedly moved up the publication from next week to Friday of this week. Henry Holt & Co. says that it’s “due to unprecedented demand,” but there’s also been suggestions on Twitter that getting the book published and in the hands of readers would preempt any temporary restraining order a judge might put out.
  • Is the book any good?
    Depends, to a degree, on who you ask. Author Michael Wolff has taken  material ranging from taped, on-the-record interviews to widely discussed gossip and presented them together as part of a narrative. When you consider that President Trump and Mr. Bannon are both fans of “alternative facts” and that Mr. Wolff seems willing to recreate dialog, it’s not surprising some critics view the book with some doubt. The New Yorker  (not New York magazine) presented a thoughtful analysis of the book online today.

    Check back later – there may be more tweets added in.



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Disney To Acquire Large Portions of 21st Century Fox

Yes, I know this was news a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been busy, and this will be around for a long time, assuming it gets approved…

There’s been a lot of talk lately about one of media conglomerates acquiring a large portion of 21st Century Fox’s media properties, excluding primarily Fox News family, Fox Broadcasting, and Fox’s national sports channels.

Then on Dec. 14th, Disney announced that it would be bringing together Fox’s X-Men with Disney’s Avengers. And that blockbuster Avatar will join the Mouse House – along with the presumed series of sequels.  And, of course, it will bring the Alien franchise into the world of Disney.  (As one wit on Twitter asked, “Does that make the xeonmorphs Disney Princesses, given that their mommy is the Alien Queen? I might add that I’ve begged the brilliant Lar DeSouza to draw a cartoon of this.)

This also raises the question of what in pop culture doesn’t Disney control?

The deal is reportedly valued at $52.4 billion, and Disney chairman Bob Iger will stay on with the merged company until at least 2021. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Disney will buy Fox’s movie and TV studio, the National Geographic and FX cable channels, regional sports networks, and international broadcast networks. It will also give Disney nearly 40 percent of the European satellite service Sky, and the 30 percent of Hulu currently owned by Fox.  That will give Disney approximately 60 percent of the streaming service.

Comcast had announced earlier in the week that it was dropping out of fight for 21st Century Fox’s assets.

Who will be hurt or helped by this merger?

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More Bridges of Buffalo County

Earlier this fall, thanks to a post on an ADVRIDER discussion board (for people who go on motorcycle adventures…), I discovered the website  Bridge Hunter is a database of historic and notable bridges around the United States and is a great source of interesting places to go motorcycling when you’re looking to head out to no place in particular. You can find all of my Bridgehunter posts following this link.

Last Sunday was a nice afternoon in December, so I took advantage of the weather and collected two more bridges:

Great Platte River Road Archway Monument

Great Platte River Road Archway Monument
Approximate Lattitude/Longitude:
N 40.66988, W 99.03847

This was taken on a gravel road on the south side of the interstate.  The Archway Monument is a museum built on essentially a bridge that crosses over Interstate 80.  It’s a defining feature on the interstate as you head west across Nebraska.  Well worth a stop.  But you can skip the chain restaurant BBQ there.  Instead, go into town to Luke & Jakes for some great local pork, beef, chicken, or sausage.

Head on west from the Archway and you can find the Kilgore Bridge located on the edge of the Bassway Strip State Wildlife Management area.

Kilgore Bridge in the Bassway Strip State Wildlife Management Area

Kilgore Bridge in the Bassway Strip State Wildlife Management Area
Approximate Latitude/Longitude:
N 40.68382, W 98.95130

The main highway headed south here crosses the Platte River on a modern bridge, but the old truss bridge connects the gravel road into the wildlife management area.

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Is a Wedding Cake Free Speech? Or Is That Even The Question?

On Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

In 2012, back when marriage equality was yet to be the law of the land in the U.S., same-sex couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins traveled from Colorado to Massachusetts where they could legally be wed.  They then returned to Denver where they planned on having a reception.

The couple went to Masterpiece Cakeshop to order a fancy cake.  But as soon as baker Jack C. Phillips realized he was being asked to make a cake for a gay couple, he told them his Christian faith would not allow him to do so.  He would happily sell them a birthday or graduation cake, but not a wedding cake.

Although Colorado did not yet have same-sex marriage, the state did have a public accommodations law that prohibited discriminating based on race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

Phillips made a First Amendment argument that he was not discriminating against Craig and Mullins based on sexual orientation; instead, he was refusing to engage in speech by making a decorated cake that went against his religious values.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission argued that making a cake for a customer was not an endorsement of the event the cake would be used at.

This case has generated an enormous number of opinion pieces making many arguments from many points of view.  Here are several that take on the case with a  range of approaches.  Do not take my listing of these as an endorsement of any of them.  I’m just trying to show how different people can address the same issue.

The basic news story:

And now the opinion pieces:

  • A cake is food, not speech. But why bully the baker?
    By George F. Will, Washington Post opinion writer
    “Denver has many bakers who, not having Phillips’s scruples, would have unhesitatingly supplied the cake they desired. So, it was not necessary for Craig’s and Mullins’s satisfaction as consumers to submit Phillips to government coercion. Evidently, however, it was necessary for their satisfaction as asserters of their rights as a same-sex couple.”
  • The Supreme Court cake case has an easy answer
    By Dana Milbank, Washington Post opinion writer
    “Piece of cake: If you can’t do it to racial and religious minorities, women and the disabled, you shouldn’t be able to do it to gay people.”
  • There will be no winners in the Supreme Court’s wedding cake case
    By Greg Weiner, associate professor of political science at Assumption College
    “In Masterpiece Cakeshop , LGBT advocates can hope for a pyrrhic victory at best. Conscientious objectors to same-sex weddings may be pressed into service, but only at the long-range cost of intensifying their opposition. A vindication of religious liberty, meanwhile, would tarnish that value, however unfairly, with the taint of discrimination.
  • The Supreme Court wedding cake case isn’t about cake at all
    By Nathaniel Frank, director of the public policy research portal What We Know
    “The reason is that the Constitution guarantees a right to equal dignity, and turning people away from public accommodations — or slicing up the public by granting individuals a license to “opt out” of the public weal — denies people that dignity. No constitutional right is entirely unrestricted, but in deciding the balance between First Amendment and equal protection claims, the courts have already distinguished between the right to hold or espouse a belief — considered “absolute” — and the right to act on it with impunity. The ‘free exercise of one’s belief,’ the courts have said, is ‘subject to regulation when religious acts require accommodation to a society.'”
  • The Supreme Court must protect a baker’s unpopular speech
    Marc A. Thiessen, Washington Post opinion writer
    Even if you disagree with Phillips, you have an interest in seeing him prevail. The First Amendment protects unpopular speech. Speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage was once unpopular. And views that are popular today may be unpopular in the future. To maintain a free society, we must have the freedom to disagree — and tolerance for those who disagree with us.

And finally…

  • Let Us Buy Cake
    By R. Eric Thomas, playwright and staff writer at
    “I ventured up to the third floor and found a table with a surfeit of cake options, but no labels. “Do you think one of these is lemon?” a woman next to me asked. I turned to her: “There’s only one way to find out.”

    She replied, “Eat them all?” My soul mate.

    She asked me if I was enjoying myself. I shrugged. “Apparently, you’re invisible without a bride,” I said.

    She told me she understood. She wore scrubs, with her hair tied back, a marked difference from the party-casual dress of many other attendees. She explained that she was a vet and had accidentally left her engagement ring at work. Grabbing two more slices of cake, we wandered away from the table.”


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How MSNBC/NBC is Covering the Matt Lauer Abuse/Firing Story

Yesterday, I posted an inventory of about 15 major journalism and media figures who have been accused of sexual harassment or abuse over the last year or two.  I’ve spoken with a number of people about this list, and where it would fit in the ethics chapter of the next edition of Mass Communication: Living in a Media World. And to a degree, this is pretty simple.  There is no ethical debate to be had here – this behavior is wrong, indefensible, and (in my mind) not open to debate.

But that doesn’t mean that that there aren’t plenty of legitimate ethics issues raised by these cases.  For example – How do media organizations go about covering the scandals that affect their owners.

Last night Rachel Maddow had a fascinating interview with NBC News correspondent Stephanie Gosk on he she’s gone about covering the NBC Today Show host Matt Lauer story for NBC:

(Note: Having trouble getting this video to load, but link above should work.)

More on this topic as I have time.

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A Brief History of Accusations (and Consequences) of Sexual Misconduct by Media Figures

A brief history of recent accusations and consequences of sexual misconduct by media figures:

Consequences to Date: Fired by NBC

Consequences to Date: Rose dropped by CBS and show on PBS canceled.

Consequences to Date: Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media have severe all ties with Keillor. MPR canceled Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” show, ended rebroadcasts of Keillor’s decades of Prairie Home Companion radio show, and it will be renaming his old show (now hosted by musician Chris Thile) going forward.

Consequences to Date: Weinstein was fired from the company that bears his name. This also, in many ways, helped set off the recent “purge” of accused sexual harassers from news and media organizations across the United States this fall.

Consequences to Date: Fired from all positions associated with Warner Brothers Television, which produced the DC comics-inspired shows he was connected with.

Consequences to Date: Fired from Netflix series House of Cards; cut from Ridley Scott’s movie All the Money In the World with all of his scenes being reshot.

Consequences to Date:  Thrush has been suspended by the New York Times.

Consequences to Date: Franken is currently serving as a US senator from Minnesota.  He is facing investigation from the Senate Ethics Committee, which he has said he will cooperate with.

Consequences to Date: Halperin has been dropped as a contributor at MSNBC and NBC News, HBO has cancelled plans for a miniseries based on his book Game Change, and publisher Penguin Books has cancelled plans for an upcoming book.

Consequences to Date: Toback has denied the allegations against him, though his statements have been confusing.

Consequences to Date: Orestes resigned from NPR under pressure  .

Consequences to Date: fired by Vox after admitting to the misconductSteele was in the allegations against him.

Consequences to Date: O’Reilly had at least five settlements with women who charged he mistreated them. He also had a $32 million settlement with legal analyst Lis Wiehl.  After he was fired by Fox, conservative television station owner Sinclair Broadcast Group announced that it was not interested in hiring O’Reilly.

Consequences to Date: Ailes resigned from the network he founded, but remained in an advisory capacity with reportedly as much as $40 million in severance pay. Ailes died in May of 2017.

Consequences to Date:  denied all of the accusations against him, though he at one point acknowledgedTrump has that a tape obtained by the television show Access Hollywood on which he admitted to a range of crude behavior was real. He is currently serving as president of the United States.



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