Body-slammed at Harry Truman’s

One of the things I like about Facebook is the almost magical ability to re-connect with old friends and make new acquaintances online. This happened the other day when I saw a post on a group site by a lady named Maryann. Turns out, she and I went to the same elementary school, Bristol, and the same high school, Van Horn, in Independence, Mo. Maryann and I were six years apart in school.

Maryann asked on Facebook if anyone had met Harry Truman.  He returned home to live in Independence after the end of his presidency. Every morning Harry roamed the city’s old town area by taking a 2-mile walk at the rapid military pace of 128 steps. Try that pace sometime—I did and was wheezing within minutes. On his daily walks, Harry enjoyed greeting children and their parents. It was an event that most kids remembered throughout life.

Harry and Bess Truman on the sidewalk in front of their home in Independence, Mo. 

I never had the experience. But Harry Truman—or, rather his wife Bess—did play a role in an incident where I was body-slammed by the nation’s top reporter. And, as serendipity would have it, I was relating my memory of the experience in a letter to another friend at about the same time that Maryann asked her Facebook question.

After I graduated from college more than four decades ago, I became a reporter for the Kansas City Star, one of the nation’s better newspapers. This was my first news job and I was eager and thrilled, with all the naiveté of a cub reporter. Because I grew up in Independence and knew the territory and many local folks, I was stationed in the Star’s Independence bureau.

By then, Harry had passed away. Bess was still living in the family home, which was built during the period from 1867 to 1885 and is now a national historic site. I rented a tiny apartment on the second floor of an older house directly across the street that not surprisingly was named Truman Road.

Since I had an excellent view of the Truman home, I became the Star’s unofficial “Bess Watcher”—that is, I was supposed to keep an eye on the place when I was at home to make sure an ambulance didn’t show up in the middle of the night or some other untoward event happened. The fear was that Bess would die without the Star’s knowledge and the newspaper would be scooped by other media. Back then, there was no worry about terrorist attacks; nonetheless, the Security Service kept agents on watch from a house on the street corner. I had a good view of their house, too.

This was in the early days of computers and Star reporters still used typewriters. Mine was an ancient Royal with part of the “e” missing and an “s” that often got stuck as I typed. The obituary for Bess was already written—typed out on paper—and safely tucked into the bottom right-hand drawer of the bureau chief’s desk. That was the first thing I learned on my first day on the job. Every “e” in the obit was a partial letter and now and then an “S” was missing, so I figured whoever had written the obit had probably used the Royal now assigned to me.

Sometimes dignitaries visited Bess. This rarely happened, however, when I was the Bess Watcher. She was in her 90s and suffering from the early stages of the congestive heart failure from which she died in 1982 at the age of 97.

But along came President Gerald Ford, recently named to replace Richard Nixon. Ford wanted all of the publicity he could gain since he was running for election in 1976. He figured a trip to see Bess would make him look good. His golden opportunity came May 10, 1976, when he was the keynote speaker at a public event to dedicate a statue of Truman in Independence.

Ford was accompanied by the national press corps, a pack of elite reporters who followed presidents around. Among them was Helen Thomas, a veteran White House United Press International reporter.

Helen Thomas

Thomas was considered “the” reporter of the American print news media, the brightest star among the stars of the national press corp. She began covering presidential news in 1960 by following around John F. Kennedy. She was the only female journalist to accompany Nixon on his 1972 landmark journey to China. She was the only reporter to have the honor of her own front-row seat in the White House Press Briefing Room.

Presidents all the way through Barack Obama started press conferences by calling on her so she could ask the first question. Her career spanned almost seven decades before 2013 when she reached life’s final “—30—“, the symbol once used by reporters to alert copy editors and typesetters that a story had reached its end.

Helen Thomas in her designated front-row seat in the White House Press Briefing Room, with President Obama and celebratory cupcakes on her 89th birthday in 2009.

Thomas was an icon, my hero. I learned about her in journalism school. I read her articles. I studied her. I imagined how she developed the questions she asked. I visualized how she took notes. I analyzed the way she wrote sentences and how she arranged facts and structured the flow of her articles. Yes, starry-eyed was I.

In the era of Gerald Ford, reporters were not looked upon by the Secret Service as potential assassins. They often could get close to the president—so close that a bold reporter could actually reach out and tweak the nose of the commander in chief. Most reporters restrained themselves, though, and asked questions from a respectful distance. Helen Thomas had a reputation for charging in as close as possible.

When Ford visited Bess, I was a healthy young guy, age 26, almost 6 foot tall, 200 pounds, solid, well-balanced, fairly nimble on my feet, a no-guffaw type of fellow when it came to my job.

While waiting for Ford’s arrival, dozens of local and national reporters were gaggled on the side street and along the sidewalk in front of the Truman home. It was a narrow street crowded with 700 to 800 people who had come to catch a glimpse of Ford and maybe Bess, too.

I had arrived early and managed to locate myself at a good spot near the sidewalk that Ford would walk along after exiting his limo. Nearby was Charlie Burke, a reporter for the competing local newspaper, the Independence Examiner.

I looked around at all of the reporters jammed together behind us. That’s when I saw her in the back of the crowd. Helen Thomas. There she was herself. She was tinier in stature than I expected. Her face was craggy and wrinkled almost like a peach pit. She looked like a granny who should be home knitting. Yet, it was her. It was Helen Thomas! … Please excuse my use of the exclamation point—I still recall my excitement of seeing her live.

Harry Truman in the most famous news photograph in the history of presidential politics.

After a long wait, as I jostled hard with other reporters to maintain my magnificent position, Ford finally arrived in his limo.

The president was approaching me—my questions were ready, my enthusiasm was great—when I was suddenly tossed aside like a bag of feathers. So was Charlie Burke.

Right over the top of us came the assailant—Helen Thomas. She wasn’t going to let anybody get between her and her prey, the President of the United States. The rest of the national reporters bulled along with her.

Charlie recounted the experience in the Examiner’s next issue: “They came charging like troops with fixed bayonets. Have you ever been hit with a camera? One of the veteran national press photographers swung his camera at me (or so it seemed) and missed —just grazed my shoulder. Another one jostled the tripod of a local press member and got warned to stay away. Then came gum-chewing, well-built Helen Thomas like a juggernaut, and whammo, into my ribs went the elbow.”

Charlie and I were both twirling this way and that way, and neither of us heard the question that Helen Thomas shot out to the president. But ask her question she did. She must have gotten a good answer because she looked slyly pleased, a hunter who just bagged the big one.

Ford was in and out of the Truman home in less than 30 minutes, and then back into his limo and gone. Helen Thomas disappeared, too, like a cartoon witch vanishing in a big, black poof!, back into the elusive fame of journalism, leaving behind a bruised and battered one-time hero worshipper.

So that’s my Harry Truman story…at least one of them. No walk was taken with him. But plenty of body-slamming happened because of him.

—30—

 

The Passing of Life and Friends

As much as I hate to admit this to myself, I’ve reached the point in my life where there are far fewer summers ahead than behind.

Death is—realistically and metaphorically speaking—the last frontier. We know what’s on the other side of the mountain in every part of our world. Ocean depths are no longer beyond us. We’ve telescoped and rocketed our way out into the stars. The minuscule inner workings of DNA are labeled.

Yet, what happens after we depart this life? Why do some people die early while others continue on? Every human has likely pondered such questions at one time or another as they age, become gravely ill or witnessed a family member or friend pass away. Science and medicine strive to find the answers, but they have yet to reach the mountaintop to view what’s on the other side. Theologians think they have the answers, but their solutions come down to matters of well-founded faith.

Scotty Bell. From the 1968 Van Horn High School yearbook.

Such thoughts crept up on me after I heard the news of the passing of a friend in the Kansas City area. Scotty Bell was my age, 67. He lived in rural Pleasant Hill, Mo., with his congenial wife Pam. They have two grown daughters. In April, he suffered medical problems and entered the hospital. On May 22, he was gone.

I met Scotty in the eighth grade, in 1963, when we were on competing teams in a community football league for youngsters in Independence, Mo. We were 13 years old. Compared to every other player in the league, Scotty was mammoth. He was hard muscle, coordinated, fast, a possessor of natural talent, with the smarts of a star player. His prowess on the field preceded him. Most of the 12- and 13-year-old kids of our league probably had nightmares about colliding with him. He would bulldoze them down.

After that eighth-grade season was over, Scotty and I went on to play together on a team for a local junior high school and then three years for Van Horn High School, which was then in the Kansas City league. The teams in the league were tough and strong. Several of them, I have no doubt, were among the nation’s best.

Our Van Horn team was right up there, perennially in the top tier. Scotty was the anchor. His position was tackle; mine, end. Our starting line-up was agile, quick, rugged, stout, and determined. Back then, team members often played on both offensive and defense. When Scotty blocked an opposing player, the poor victim went down and stayed down. When Scotty tackled a runner, the hapless recipient felt his own bones rattle.

Near the end of the season in our senior year, our coaches got a brilliant idea: Maybe we should play Scotty at fullback now and then just to surprise the other team? And so the tackle sometimes became the fullback. He carried the ball a total of six times. He averaged a respectable six yards a carry. It’s odd how that fact still sticks in my mind after all these decades.

Scotty was the proverbial dichotomy. On the football field, he was a fearless tiger. Off the field, he was an affable, good-natured fellow with a charming smile. Classmates liked him and enjoyed being around him.

Pam Mayer, 1968.

He was extremely shy in many matters. When it became rumored among our classmates that a pretty cheerleader named Pam Mayer wanted to go out with Scotty, I had to talk him into asking her on a date. He didn’t have to be convinced about her; she was a cheerful, intelligent young lady with a good sense of humor and pleasant laugh.

Rather, he had to be convinced of himself. He was horribly terrified she’d say no—ah, high school angst! He was learning a lesson most males of our species face in their teenage years: fear of rejection by the female of the species. It’s a widespread challenge and for many of us the fear doesn’t disappear as we age.

Scotty, though, finally built up the courage. He asked. She accepted. Then, as the twist of fate and human magnetism sometimes operate, there was more to be found there than a simple date. She became his endearing partner in life.

Pam and Scotty at a high school dance where she was named the Track Queen, one of the school’s most prestigious honors.

After high school, Scotty’s football days continued; he played as a lineman on the University of Missouri. He was on the Tigers’ team during its 1969 Orange Bowl appearance.

He and I went our separate ways after high school. Such a parting often happens to people. You’re good friends with someone and then life takes its twists and turns and bundles you up in other matters—and those friends of the past are seldom seen. But memories remain.

Scotty has always lingered around the edges of my memory. When I played football, I got knocked to the ground a zillion times, many times by Scotty on the practice field. There were victories and defeats. After all these years, though, there are no specific plays on the field that I remember, save for one episode involving Scotty.

When we started out in football in eighth grade, it became well-known among players throughout the community league that Scotty Bell was a guy you couldn’t knock down. He was invincible, a steamroller, indeed, a fury.

Scotty, 1968, named the high school’s outstanding athlete.

The one play that has stuck in my mind occurred when my team played Scotty’s in that eighth-grade league. One of my teammates was on a long sprint toward a touchdown. I just happened to be running near Scotty, who was determined to bring down the runner short of the goal line. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m gonna get him…” Him, of course, meaning Scotty.

I had just enough angle to block him at the ankles. He tumbled down, hard, sprawling every which way. I don’t recall if the runner scored, but I do fondly recall that block. I always smile to myself when it pops into my memory. Perhaps I remember it so well because in some way it launched me on a path toward learning an important life lesson: It is possible to best a force that people claim cannot be bested.

Including Scotty, four members of our starting high school offensive line have passed away over the last five decades, either from accidents or illnesses, all too early in their lives. Why them? Why at the times that they did? What happened after their final breath?

I don’t have the answers.

Scotty Bell’s obituary.

How Lewis and Clark almost got me murdered

My new year started with a volley of gunshots, a night sky ablaze with fireworks, a cacophony of honking geese, and a memory of a forgotten time.

The last in the string of those events is the most important to me. How often does it happen when an incident of the present ignites a time of the past? Often, of course. But when the memory is a gem, it’s worth recounting as the opportunity arises.

I was fortunate in 1973 to spend a half-year with four other guys retracing the trail of Lewis and Clark by canoe and foot. One of the guys, Mike Cochran, was a cartoonist. He drew cartoons to record our journey. These scared geese? Ride this blog to find out the story. Time to Read: less than 3 minutes.

I was fortunate in 1973 to spend a half-year with four other guys retracing the trail of Lewis and Clark by canoe and foot. One member of our journey, Mike Cochran, drew cartoons to record our journey. These scared geese? Read this blog to find out the story. Time to read: less than 3 minutes.

My bride of two months, Patty, and I are spending the winter at her home in Independence, Mo. Her home is in a nice neighborhood interspersed with lakes. The lakes are homes to geese that were too lazy to have flown farther south for the winter.

A couple of minutes after midnight I stepped outside. Firecrackers and gunshots could be heard everywhere as revelers brought in the 2017 New Year. Explosions of fireworks burst here and there over the neighborhood, lighting the sky with sparkling blues, reds and whites.

The geese wanted none of this. They took to the air, honking hard and loud, and flew by overhead. They blocked out the stars.

It was then, thanks to their loud protests, that I remembered the time so long ago when geese and Lewis and Clark about got me done in.

Five of us, all young guys, spent a half-year retracing the 1804-06 journey of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their companions, including a dog, into the unexplored lands of the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest. Our quest was to follow their return route from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon to St. Louis, which was the farthest western outpost of civilization in the early 1800s. We did this by using two canoes and a kayak to paddle the Columbia, Snake and Missouri rivers. We hiked across the Rockies in Idaho and Montana.

All in all, 4,200 miles of sweat, weary bodies, blistered feet, meals over campfires, cold rain, big winds and, best of all, adventure. We experienced America like few others have in modern times, paddle stroke by paddle stroke, stride by stride. This was in 1973 and I was 43 years younger than I am now.

In the Dakotas, we journeyed down the Missouri River as a million geese made their fall migration south along the river. One day our immediate destination was Pierre, South Dakota’s state capital. We were scheduled the next day to meet the governor to conduct a ceremony about Lewis and Clark. This we had done with governors of other states along the trail.

A million geese and ducks migrate south along the Missouri River in the fall. We journeyed down the river at the same time, often seeing huge flocks like this one. Photo by the Omaha World Herald.

A million geese and ducks migrate south along the Missouri River in the fall. We journeyed down the river at the same time, often seeing huge flocks like this one. Photo by the Omaha World Herald.

Smelled of soured sweat: The afternoon became late, and we knew we couldn’t reach Pierre by nightfall. We secured our boats and equipment on shore and headed for a road that our map showed was nearby. We intended to hitchhike into Pierre and camp the night there.

With sleeping bags in hand, we climbed up a steep river bank. Our sun-faded clothes were ragged from five months on the trail; our long beards, scraggly. We smelled of soured sweat and smoky campfires.

On top of the bank, we stepped into a huge field covered with dried stalks of corn. Suddenly, thousands of geese sprang skyward from feasting on the corn, their honking deafening, wings swirling the air around us.

Clay and the two Mikes scurried off in a failed attempt to catch stragglers waddling through the corn. Their intention was dinner, much as we had eaten rattlesnake back on the Columbia. Fresh meat would be a good change to change our steady diet of freeze-dried and dehydrated food.

Bob, eyes studying the miracle of the geese flying above, wandered farther into the field. I remained behind, still, awed. I’d never seen anything like this mass of geese and likely never would again. Most geese merged into V formations and flew away. Hundreds, though, re-landed on the field.

A pickup sped away from a nearby farm house and came barreling straight at me. It fishtailed through the corn. Geese took flight again. The truck almost hit me before skidding to a stop. The driver, burly, red-faced, flew out. He bulled his way right up to my face. His neck veins bulged with rage.

“Just what the hell of damnation are you doing here, you lop-eared sumabitch?” Bulging Veins screamed. He was an old guy. His breath smelled like the inside of a cow barn.

“…you lop-eared sumabitch”

He turned to reach for a shotgun hanging on a rack across the back window.

Murder was on his mind. Of that, I was sure. Suddenly I realized our Lewis and Clark excursion might be my fatal Waterloo. Just my luck, done in by trying to reach across the past to guys 200 years ago. Who would’ve guessed?

The passenger, a younger man, stopped him by reaching up and firmly holding down the weapon in its place on the rack, thankfully.

“But this idiot just cost me ten thousand dollars!” Bulging Veins violently snapped.

He rounded us up, yelling in rage as we tried to explain to our sudden appearance in the cornfield. No go. At least, we offered, let us get our boats and paddle away…

He aimed a dirty forefinger toward the road. “If you ain’t off my land in five minutes, I’m gonna blow your heads off,” he swore harshly. “You got my word on that.”

He added with spittle blowing out of his mouth, “Don’t never come back here again, not even for your gawdamned boats. You got three minutes.”

Two minutes later, we were on the road, thumbs out. In Pierre, we found a public park to lay out our sleeping bags. We also sought out a conversation with the law. The state patrol entered into a pithy phone negotiation with Bulging Veins.

Lewis & Clark’s confrontations: Later, as the darkness of night spread over us, I recalled entries in Lewis and Clark’s journals where they faced off against local natives. A reluctant gift of tobacco to the Sioux ended one Missouri River standoff. A Montana brawl left one member (possibly two) of the Blackfoot nation dead when they attempted to steal guns and horses—a tragedy that would mar U.S. relationships with the Blackfoot nation for decades.

Lewis’ dog for dinner: In search of dog for dinner, Columbia River natives snatched Seaman, Lewis’ beloved Newfoundland. Captain Lewis dispatched three armed men to bring back Seaman or kill the kidnappers. Seaman came back without loss of life.

The day after our encounter with Bulging Veins we strolled into the capitol building. To our surprise, the hallways were empty and we couldn’t find a sign directing us to the governor’s officer. Finally, a stoop-shouldered gentleman came along. We gathered around him and asked if he knew where we could find the governor.

Were we there to assassinate the governor?

He took in the sight of our mangy beards and mud-splattered clothes. His nose wrinkled from the onslaught of our odor. His eyes tightened. I could read his concern: Were these bums here to assassinate the governor?

Blinking, he stuttered, “Why, uh, why, I am the governor.”

It was then that Richard Kneip remembered our appointment. We followed him to his office. A stuffed goose hung on the wall. He was a hunter.

The Lewis and Clark ceremony proceeded as expected. His aide informed him about our previous day’s encounter. The governor knew the quick-tempered farmer. He said the farmer purposely left corn in his field to attract migrating geese. He charged hunters $15 a day to shoot the birds.

I made a quick calculation. Bulging Veins claimed we cost him $10,000. That amount divided by 15: more than 600 hunters. No wonder he wanted to keep the geese on his land. It was a small fortune back in those days.

“Every goose hunters in our state wants to stomp through his fields and chase those geese away, but everybody’s afraid to, including me,” Gov. Kneip admitted. With a laugh, he added, “And you fellows did it without knowing any better.”

By the end of the afternoon, the state patrol had delivered us back to our boats and equipment. We were on our way again, following Lewis & Clark. And, unbeknownst to me back then, I had a memory to help bring in the New Year of 2017.

Find out more about our journey and what happened to the five of us in the ensuing decades And see more Mike Cochran cartoons.

Creaking and waddling at the family Christmas party

Creaking and waddling at the family Christmas party

While attending a Christmas Eve party with my sister’s family, I decided there’s more to such celebrations than cheer, sugary treats, gifts and eggnog.

It’s a good time to take stock of what age is all about.snowmen

My great-grandniece, 6 years old, bounced around the living room as she passed out presents from under the tree. She giggled and danced like a merry elf.

When I was six years old, my great-granduncle was only a couple of years older than I am now. Like Marley’s ghost, he’s long dead. But I remember him well from back then. 

He was a really, really, really old guy. Moaned as he got out of chairs. Plodded. Sluggish. An ancient raisin on two wobbly legs.

He lived all his life on the farm. I’m a city guy.

He traveled by foot or horseback when he was young. I drive cars. 

He was a doughboy in WWI, the great war to end all wars. Supposedly. I saw Vietnam and now the endless Mideast conflicts.

On a sub-zero wintry day when he was a kid, he watched as his sister (my grandmother) stuck her tongue against the metal handle of the outside pump where they got drinking water. She did it just to see what would happen. Her tongue stuck tight on the frigid metal.

My drinking water comes from the faucet inside my warm house. I could spend all day slapping my tongue against the faucet, but it’d never stick.

For him, cell phones would be magic; computers, a miracle.

Today, most Americans have the gift of luxury. Nonetheless, we seldom pause and ponder those who came before. If we did so, we’d appreciate our lives and country even more.

My great-grandniece used a cell phone to take a photograph of me. I’m sure—when she’s my age—she’ll remember me as a spry guy with a devil-may-care attitude, smooth skin, brisk walk…uh, right?

And so I thought as my body creaked as I got up from my chair. I waddled over to pour myself another glass of eggnog. 

Why Ebenezer Scrooge is my BFF

Why Ebenezer Scrooge is my BFF

One of my yuletide enjoyments is to reread A Christmas Carol. I do it in the years when the world seems grim at Christmastime. I always find that Ebenezer Scrooge is still my Best Friend Forever.

Most Americans know Charles Dickens’ story about the greedy, cranky, crusty curmudgeon who is transformed by the visits of his late business partner, Marley, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come.

What you’ll learn in this blog: Each and everyone of us is Ebenezer Scrooge. But do you recognize when you’re the Bad Scrooge before the ghosts visit, or the Good Scrooge after the visits? Time to read: less than two minutes.

I suspect few Americans have read the novella. It’s tough to read. The little book is full of references to things English from the Victorian Era. To modern readers, the writing style seems formal and convoluted, but it was the norm when the novella appeared in print the week before Christmas of 1843.

Ebenezer meets the Ghost of Christmas Present. Artwork in the original novella published in 1843.

Ebenezer meets the Ghost of Christmas Present. This artwork was in the original novella published in 1843.

Most Americans know of the tale through films. Dozens have been produced since the first in 1901. My favorite is the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim; it has the eerie feel of a ghostly story. The 1992 Muppets Christmas Carol is a close second. How can you not love Robin the Frog as Tiny Tim?

{Don’t forget to take the short survey at the end of this blog.}

Dickens penned the Christmas Carol over a six-week period when his writing career needed a boost in popularity and finances. His themes reflected upon issues of the day.  One was the British re-emergence of Christmas tradition from the past and such new customs as Christmas trees and cards. A Christmas Carol played a significant role in boosting the holiday’s popularity.

More importantly, the novella represented Dickens’ sympathy for the poor and their children during the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. He drew upon his own experiences. His father was tossed into debtor’s prison when Dickens was 12 years old. To survive, the youngster worked in a factory pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. His work and living conditions were beyond harsh.

How did Dickens come up with the name “Ebenezer Scrooge”? One theory is that he misread the gravestone of an Edinburgh corn merchant named Ebenezer Scroggie. The gravestone described Scroggie as a “meal man,” but Dickens misread it as a “mean man.”

At its every heart, A Christmas Carol is the story of redemption. A bitter miser transforms into a friendlier, caring fellow, a good guy. Prior to the ghostly visits, he was a symbol of winter with its coldness, darkness and death; then, his renewal to goodwill is like the warm freshness of spring.

Alastair Sim as Ebenezer in the 1951 film.

Alastair Sim as Ebenezer in the 1951 film.

That is why I like Scrooge. He reminds us that we all can change for the better.

We are Ebenezer Scrooge, each and everyone of us. Which brings up a simple question. Do I want to be the Bad Scrooge before the visitations of Marley and the three ghosts, or the Good Scrooge when he became a renewed soul?

Not unexpectedly, the latter—the Good Scrooge—is everyone’s preference. It’s how all of us view ourselves, isn’t it? However, the reality is that most of us slip in and out of the roles of Bad Scrooge and Good Scrooge all of the time.

The 1992 Muppets Christmas Carol movie.

The 1992 Muppets Christmas Carol movie.

Regardless of how steadfast we are in our belief  that we are always a Good Scrooge, our actions speak louder than words. Of course, I always think of myself as the Good Scrooge. But the other day an incident starkly revealed the Bad Scrooge. I was putting sacks of groceries into my car as a bearded, bedraggled vagabond came wearily across the parking lot and asked for money.  My temper flared out of nowhere and I snapped at him, telling him to not even waste his time panhandling me.

My Bad Scrooge, right?

The Good Scrooge is not an easy lifestyle to maintain. It requires a conscious effort to remain friendly, compassionate and gentler even in the most trying of challenges. And challenging is our times. A controversial incoming president. Millions of refugees on the move. An embattled environment. Global politics that may threaten democracy. And a zillion other complicated events are shaping and reshaping our world, giving the Bad Scrooge the potential to rise.

The role of Good Scrooge also necessitates eliminating two of Scrooge’s favorite words from our our vocabulary and way of thinking. May “Bah! Humbug!” be boiled in their own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through their heart.

Don’t understand the reference? Watch the movie.

Better yet, read the book. And remember, even the smallest of actions can slip you into the role of Bad Scrooge.

Why my grandkids will think I’m a snarky, smarmy, big, fat liar

I wrote a letter to my young grandkids after the presidential election. I intend to write more over the next year to let them know what times were like when they were toddlers. I’ll give them the letters when they become adults.

What happens then, when they read the letters? Will they think grandpa was a snarky, smarmy trickster whose pants were on fire?

What you’ll learn in this blog: The good and the bad of what our grandchildren will discover about our times of 2016 when they grow up. Reading time: 3 minutes.

I’m not naïve enough to think they will believe all things in my letters. Let’s face it, they may giggle over how crazy the old man was.

The things he wrote were outlandishly senile crazy! They can’t be true!

Could they?

This can’t be true, Grandpa. In a tweet, the president-elect claimed millions of Americans committed voter fraud. He also claimed he actually won the popular vote. He said this even though no evidence exists. Unfortunately, some Americans believe him, again even without facts. He tweeted this because Hillary Clinton bested him on the popular vote by 2.5 million votes. The president-elect has a history of using outlandish Twitter messages to change the focus when news goes against him. Alas, some Americans believe him.

Art by M. Moeller (Cartoonstock)

Art by M. Moeller (Cartoonstock)

(Note to self: Don’t mention his misogyny, racist statements, philandering, belittlement of Muslims and fear of Mexicans. Such stories, true as they are, may only fertilize thoughts that grandpa was downright wacky.)

Is this another of your whoppers, Grandpa? Meanwhile, Sioux and others took a bold stand in the freezing, snowy wilds of North Dakota. Their goal was to stop an oil pipeline from crossing sacred land. They called the pipeline “The Black Snake.” The name refers to a prophecy where a black snake brings destruction to the people and the earth. The government’s response to the protesters before deciding to halt the pipeline: tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.

China, are you kidding? Next, almost every scientist in the world views global warming as an imminent threat. Yet, the president-elect claims it’s a hoax made up by China. He promises to dismantle efforts that could head-off a global disaster.

Now you’re just outright fibbing, Grandpa. Wars in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere have displaced 65 million people, the highest number of refugees ever, even the refugee crisis after World War II. The number now is equal to the combined populations of California, New York and Colorado. Many Americans are adamant about keeping all refugees out of our country. This speaks a lot to what our society has become. Many of us turn our backs on those in need.

Well, you really are a big, fat liar, Grandpa. More than a third of all Americans, including grandpa, are obese. This is thanks to fast-food, fructose and sofas too soft to get out of. Nonetheless, Ronald McDonald looks trim.

Oh, shut up! And speaking of clowns…clowns are sneaking around suburbia, terrifying young and old alike. The phenomenon is now called The Great Clown Scare of 2016.

You really are crazy, Grandpa. The big news of today is online fake news. Fake news may have swayed the presidential election. It is still bullying into important national issues. The source: Russians with a devious political agenda and black-hearted computer geeks seeking advertising revenue. Fake news is everywhere; truth seems nowhere. It’s come to this: If Facebook or Twitter claim I’m alive, I check my pulse to make sure.

Oh, come on now, bees? A disastrous die-off of bee colonies is a huge problem. It means fewer bees to pollinate vital crops. Food varieties may be in danger. Agriculture will lose billions of dollars with bees gone.

Well, now, this I can believe, Grandpa. Finally, Hillary Clinton caused the bee die-off, according an online news site. Hmm, perhaps that was a fake news site…?

The good stuff

Lest I seem too negative about today’s world, I included positive news in my letter. A few examples:

Good news for our economy. A December federal report showed the U.S. jobless rate fell to a nine-year low. Another report said the economy expanded by 3.2 percent in the third quarter, the fastest pace in two years.

Good news for our environment. With the goal of boosting mainstream acceptance of electric vehicles, four of the world’s top automakers agreed in late November to invest in fast-charging sites in Europe. The car-makers—Ford, Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler’s Mercedes—decided to do so after seeing the success of the U.S. Tesla, which has major pre-orders for its Model 3 car. Electric cars are far more environmentally friendly than our current gas-guzzlers.

Good news for people. Christie and Alva Jameson already had two children, but they decided room enough existed in their hearts and home for more. So over the last three decades they adopted 35 children, 26 of whom have special needs. Alva died from cancer in 2009. So now Christie is a single mother caring for 11 children who remain at home, all with special needs. “All kids deserve a real home of their own,” Christie said. “In my heart, I knew there was always room for one more.”

Good news for giving thanks. Iconic singer James Taylor sent out a Thanksgiving email that said the key to overcoming setbacks and reversals of fortune is to give thanks. “To whom we give it is a big question but just go ahead on and do it,” Taylor stated. “Gratitude is the way to an improved attitude . . .To have been born in human form and consciousness aboard this unbelievably beneficent planet is an incredible stroke of luck.”

Good news for how to use your wealth. Recent wildfires in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee left people homeless and hopeless. Dolly Parton, who grew up in the Smokey Mountains, decided enough of that. She announced she and her Dollywood companies and foundation will donate $1,000 a month for six months to each family who lost a home in the fire that blazed Gatlinburg. This, she explained, will be “a hand up to those families who have lost everything in the fires.”

Believe in miracles

So, to my grandkids I write such things.

I pray we will all have decided to work together to make the world better by the time they read my letters. In my grandkids’ adult world, the president is trustworthy. Peace exists. No one is a refugee. Global warming is gone. Bees swarm wide and far. And there are more people like Christie and Alva Jameson, James Taylor and Dolly Parton, bless them.

I believe in miracles.

As for what my grandkids will believe about me? Will I be a teller of truth? Or a caterwauler of fantastic fiction?

 

Hey, mom, you never said I’d have to fight fake news and fiery dragons to find truth

Americans have become seriously challenged by a new cottage industry that produces weapons made in the U.S. and overseas: Online sites that specialize in fake news.

The sites are thriving. The recent election may or may not have been swayed by fake news. Regardless, we discovered Americans have difficulty in telling real news from fake news.

The dilemma knows no age boundary. An 18-month study by Stanford determined young people—middle school, high school and college students from across varying societal and educational levels—are easily “duped” by information on the internet. The study results, released Nov. 22, gave a grim conclusion: “…we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.” {Read the Stanford study.}

What you’ll learn in this blog: How fake news threatens America…How failures of the mainstream news media fostered the creation of fake news sites…Ways to spot fake news…Examples of fake news sites…five tips to help you. (Time it should take you to read this blog: five minutes or less.)

Even President Obama has jumped feet-first into the fray about fake media, this during his recent trip to Europe. While some Americans may have the short-sighted view that fake news sites are merely day-to-day hassles, the president offered a broad perspective of why Americans should be deeply concerned about fake news. “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems…We won’t know what to fight for. And we can lose so much of what we’ve gained in terms of the kind of democratic freedoms and market-based economies and prosperities that we’ve come to take for granted.”

Where is the truth? With all the fiery dragons of fake news soaring about, I’m often unsure. All I can tell you is wha

So, then, adults can be duped. And so can the next generation. It doesn’t bode well for America, does it?

Blame it on fast-paced, easy access to information. Blame it on an America too busy to go beyond headlines. Blame it on the education system that produced Americans who fail to take a critical look at things. Blame it on just ol’ fashioned bias, people eagerly willing to believe news that reinforces their personal opinions. Blame it on Facebook. On Twitter. The Internet. You name it. Who can we believe? The New York Times? Breitbart? The president? The president-elect? Mom?

The issue of truth vs. lies has always been a tough nut to crack. You know, the eye of the beholder and all that.

But now, more than any period in our recent history, Americans are bombarded by many shades of truth, innuendos, partial truths, mind games, hyperpartisan (extreme bias in favor of a political party), attempts at satire, and outright lies. At times, it seems as if we’re seeing an evil fire-breathing dragon blowing flames against a castle made of ancient, crinkly, yellowed newspapers. (Yes, do a fact check on my hyperbole. When was the last time any of us saw a fire-breathing dragon? Would you believe in the dragon if you were told by a fake news site that one such beastie exists?)

BuzzFeed News, a reputable Internet company that reports on social news and entertainment, with a focus on digital media, announced Nov. 16 that an analysis it conducted showed that fake election news on Facebook created more engagement among readers than news reported by well-known mainstream media outlets. During the last three critical months of the election, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook,” Buzzfeed reported. In comparison,  the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated only 7.3 million on Facebook.

In other words, readers looked more often at fake news than news reported by such mainstream media as the Washington Post, New York Times, NBC News, and others. Did those who went to the fake news sites believe what they saw? We don’t know, yet. Did it influence the way they voted? Again, don’t know. And, most importantly, how do we explain all the lying when our young children ask about it? Do we just respond, well, there are fire-breathing dragons that you have to watch out for.

{Click here to read the BuzzFeed analysis.)

According to some online sources, the number of sites that offer fake or partly true news, satire on news, and news reworked into hyperpartisan slants could be in the hundreds. Buzzfeed has reported that more than 100 U.S. politics websites have been created and are run by teenagers in  the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The driving force: Money, the advertising revenue that can be generated by these sites.

{Read the BuzzFeed article about the Macedonia websites.}

A hundred (or even a few hundred sites) may not seem like much in comparison to the billions of pieces of information that make their way every year onto the internet. The use of Facebook is staggering. More than 750 million people are active Facebook users; 50 percent log in on any given day. They spend 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook. The average user has 130 Facebook friends. For Twitter: 695 million peopled are registered account holders; 342 million are active users; 135,000 people sign up every day; and the average number of tweets each day is 58 million.

Mark Twain’s shoes: The lies created by fake news can go a long way in a short time. If you don’t believe me, turn to Mark Twain, who said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

What happens is this: A fake news site posts an article on Facebook, with a screaming headline and a story containing false or partly true information. Users who are partial to believing such things share it through Facebook and often Twitter, and, in turn, some of those recipients share it with their own online groups.

{NPR reporter Laura Sydell  aired a Nov. 23 story about a man in a Los Angeles suburb who may earn $10,000 to $30,000 a month running fake news sites. One of his sites was responsible for a fake pre-election story that said a FBI Agent suspected in Hillary Clinton email leaks was found dead in Denver in an apparent murder-suicide. Within 10 days, the story received 1.6 million views. Read Laura Sydell’s story…}

Eventually, other fake sites pick up on the fake news story and may or may not rewrite it into their own twisted views before electronically distributing it. And thus the cycle begins again. Within only a day, or even just a few hours, the fake news is suddenly taking up residency on the electronic real estate of the monitors of possibly millions of readers. And now it has become “real, truthful” news.

It has become so bad, all of these fake news shenanigans, that, if Facebook tells me that I’m alive, I’ll check my pulse just to make sure it’s true.

If Facebook tells me that I’m alive, I’ll check my pulse just to make sure it’s true.

Same with Twitter. Even with its 140-character limitation, Twitter users can easily transmit inaccuracies and lies for personal, business or political gain.

Take, for instance, two Nov. 17 tweets from president-elect Trump. After a conversation with the chairman of Ford, Mr. Trump tweeted the “news” that the car manufacturer will keep its Lincoln manufacturing plant in Kentucky rather than move it to Mexico. Then, Mr. Trump sent the second tweet, and it was interpreted by some readers as the president-elect bragging that he was the person responsible for keeping the plant in Kentucky. As it turned out, though, Ford never had plans to move the plant to Mexico. Nonetheless, Mr. Trump gave himself credit where no credit was due. And he would have gotten away with it if a reporter hadn’t double-checked the president-elect’s supposed “facts.”

{Fact-check the information in Mr. Trump’s Ford tweets}

Mr. Trump isn’t the only politician, CEO or average American to take advantage of Twitter and Facebook for his or her own personal gain. There is plenty of blame to spread around among both political parties, corporate bigwigs and lowwigs, and Mr. and Mrs. and Ms. America.

Media war: During the last two weeks, a Media War of sorts has broken out against fake news sits. The mainstream media has published multiple articles about these fake sites that draw in readers with wild, made-up stories. The fake stories are often accompanied by the carrot of clickbaiting, a term for sensationalist headlines of the type we haven’t seen since the Yellow Journalism Days of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in the late 1890s.

{Don’t forget to take the short survey at the end of this blog.}

In the last few days, Facebook, Twitter and Google have started taking steps—merely baby steps so far, in my opinion—toward boxing out fake news sites, largely by preventing the sites from making money through advertising revenue. I suspect the problem won’t easily go away. Some fake sites make a lot money from advertisers, while others have political agendas to promote. Sites are run by tech-savvy people; they will continue to find a way to keep profiting from fake news.

Even more troubling, some sites are run specifically to undermine America’s reliance on the news media—the Fourth Estate—that historically has been a watchdog of government, injustice and social norms. Fake news sites are trying to unweave the fabric of America for their own greed, twisted political agendas and, in some disgusting and filthy cases, just plain ‘ol fun.

Fake news sites are trying to unweave the fabric of America for their own greed, twisted political agendas and, in some disgusting and filthy cases, just plain ‘ol fun. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the slithery rise of fake media largely resulted from failures of the mainstream media over the last decade. Here we can blame the internet that gave rise to an uncontrollable and vicious 24-hour news cycle, which has resulted in a pack mentality where reporters and editors often only take enough time to skim the surface of an issue just so they can beat rivals to the proverbial punch. Newspapers—once the beacons of truth, fairness and independent thinking in America—are going the way of the dodo bird as the media is unable to adjust to the loss of advertising revenue. Less advertising revenue = cutbacks in the editorial staff = less time available for developing thorough and accurate stories. The ailing mainstream media also faces the fact that every person who owns a cell phone and has internet access now has the power to become a news reporter who can easily send news to thousands of people, if not millions.

Meanwhile, an elitism has slipped into many corners of the news industry, causing news scribes to lose contact with us common folk in the Rust Belt, the McDonald’s and greasy spoons of the West, on the farms of the Bread Basket, and in the busy offices and slow-paced retirement homes of the East. Nonetheless, us common folk are doing just fine wielding our electronic communication power to become reporters of our own news events and personal opinions. And, as the heated and angry presidential campaign showed, many people no longer rely on the mainstream media for news or opinion leadership. Instead, they exert their own power in Facebook and Twitter.

Artwork by the New York Magazine to illustrate its article about questionable news sites.

Artwork by the New York Magazine to illustrate its article about questionable news sites.

Naively optimistic? Now, having vented these concerns (I’ve got others about the media but I needn’t dwell on them here), my observation is simple and maybe too naively optimistic. Regardless of all the current challenges, the mainstream media—the national newspapers and TV networks, the local daily newspapers and weekly journals—is still pretty accurate in the complicated task of reporting news, and light years years ahead of journalism in other countries. Right now, there is a lot of tough soul-searching going on at news desks and in editorial board meetings throughout our nation. I have faith that all will work out just fine, hopefully sooner than later.

But for now, fake news sites are reaching farther and farther out every day in an attempt to grasp the golden ring of public opinion. They have no intention of disappearing quietly into the night.

Intimidation: Fake news sites have struck back through the use of intimidation and more lies. Recent examples included online attacks against Merrimack College assistant professor of communications, Melissa Zimdars, who posted a list of questionable news sites on the internet. However, she removed the list Nov. 17 as a safety measure because she, her students and colleagues received threats and harrassments, the Los Angeles Times reported. For example, NaturalNews.com, one of the sites on her list, branded her as a “crybully” who has “a masters degree in Crybully Engineering and a Ph.d. in F###ktardery Studies.”

Hum, well now, name-calling always gets to the truth, right? Jesting aside, I perused sites on Professor Zimdars’ list before it was removed from the internet and I can say they’re ones I’ll steadfastly avoid in the future.

PolitiFact and the related PunditFact use a Truth-o-Meter to rank news information from true, mostly true, half true, and pants of fire (not true).

PolitiFact and the related PunditFact use a Truth-o-Meter to rank news information from true, mostly true, half true, and pants of fire (not true).

Where is the truth? With all the fiery dragons of fake news soaring about, I’m often unsure. All I can tell you is what I do. Yes, yes, I see the great irony. I claim in this blog that you can’t believe many things in the media, yet here I am asking you to believe me. With that thought in mind, feel free to take what I say in the tips below with the proverbial grain of salt. And do what Archie Bunker advised: Look it up! (Suggestion: Make sure you find a site that deals in truth.)

Mark Twain: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Mark Twain: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Tip 1: Rely on a variety of the mainstream media outlets. You might, of course, think these news outlets are biased and, as candidate Trump kept saying, “rigged,” but they are the best we have in our country: Time, The Atlantic, Forbes, Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, and Wall Street Journal, as well as NPR and the ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS nightly news. I also read some reputable sites that at appropriate times lean to the left (more in line with my political leanings): Huffington Post, Slate, The Guardian, The Daily Beast and theSkimm. I also dip into regional outlets like the Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Kansas City Star and Boston Globe.

All of this takes time, and I’m lucky because, in retirement, I have time. But if you’re short on time like most Americans, just follow one or two of the mainstream media outlets.

The following is a small sampling of fake news sites, along with a summary of one of the stories each published or my comments about the site. You may have seen the stories during the election campaign; some gained huge audiences on the internet, in newspapers and on TV.

  • AmericanPoliticNews.com. Relies on sensationalism, shocking headlines and stories with questionable accuracy.
  • BigAmericanNews.com. Here’s an example of a sensationalist headline for one of its articles: “Indiana restaurant charges ‘gay tax’ to gay customers, cites Religious Freedom Bill as explanation.”
  • Breitbart.com. This is an ult-right, pseudo-news site which is trying to snake its way into the ranks of mainstream media. Breitbart’s former executive chairman is Steve Bannon, Trump’s top campaign advisor and now the president-elect’s chief advisor on strategy. Political pundits have accused Bannon of giving voice to racists, white supremists, sexism, misogynists, and anti-semites.  
  • BurrardStreetJournal.com. Reported that President Obama said he will not leave office if Donald Trump is elected.
  • ConservativeState.com.  Created a false quotation for Hillary Clinton. The quote said, “I would like to see people like Donald Trump run for office; they’re honest and can’t be bought.”
  • EagleRising.com. Published an article that claimed Hillary Clinton used a body-double during the campaign.
  • EndingtheFed.com. Announced a lie that said Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump.
  • Denverguardian.com. This site reported the fake story about the FBI agent’s murder/suicide death in Denver. A Nov. 23 internet search for the site found that it described itself as “Denver’s oldest news source and one of the longest running daily newspapers published in the United States,” a lie. All of the site’s “news” content was removed by Nov. 23. {Read a Nov. 23 article about how the Denver Post debunked the Denver Guardian story.}
  • LiberalAmerica.org. Reported that Trump met with India business partners in violation of a ‘blind trust’ agreement. (Note: There is no law that says the president must put his business in a blind trust.)
  • LibertyWritersNews.com. Blatantly makes up news for shock value.
  • NationalReport.net.  Published an article about Rudy Giuliana blaming Hillary Clinton for the widespead destruction of bee colonies. This site was discussed in Laura Sydell’s NPR story mentioned above. The site was also responsible for a popular fake news story that said food stamps could be used to buy pot in Colorado.
  • ThePoliticalInsider.com. Reported a lie that said Wikileaks confirmed Clinton sold weapons to ISIS.

Tip 2: Double-check information. One of the gravest mistakes you can make is to look at only one source and believe its message is the truth. When I see online news that seems outlandish, I go to the mainstream sources mentioned early in Tip 1 to find out if they reported about the issue.

If they haven’t, chances are the original source is purposely presenting incorrect information. Use your common sense. Do the double-checking especially if the original news makes you angry. Anger is the best way to keep readers returning to a site—and this translates into success and dollars for the bearer of fake news.

In addition, check out information on reputable online fact-checking sites: Fact.Check.org, Snopes.com, PolitiFact and PunditFact.

Tip 3: Avoid news sites with sketchy names. Be careful of websites with odd names and sites that end in “lo” or  “com.co.” These types of sites tend to offer fake, nearly fake or hyperpartisan news. Some might deal in satire, but their information is still inaccurate. Satire has a strange way of suddenly becoming absolute truth for some people.

Tip 4: Be wary of bloggers

There’s catch phrase that I hear people say now and then: “If it’s in print or on the internet, it’s got to be true.” They relate this for the sake of humor, of course. But I’ve found that some people unwisely believe bloggers too readily, often because some bloggers are well-known or their blogs are posted on trusted mainstream media websites. Bloggers typically make the effort to convince you of their points of view—yes, we bloggers are peddlers of opinion. PunditFact is a good place for fact-checking bloggers.

Tip 5: Be very cautious about believing what you see on Facebook and Twitter.

Both have an enormous impact on truth and lies in America and, for that matter, around the world. And each is an easy place to publish false information with little punishment, if any.

Archie Bunker: "Look it up!"

Faced with the tough question of whether a news article is fake or real? Take advice from Archie Bunker: “Look it up!”

Always remember that stepping across the threshold from truth into a lie can have an enormous impact not only on your internal self-esteem but also on how others view your values and integrity.

Let me offer an example: On the Wednesday before the presidential election, Fox news anchor Bret Baier reported an exclusive: FBI sources claimed Hillary Clinton would be indicted over her emails and the Clinton Foundation. This “news” was damaging to the Clinton campaign. Then, two days, Baier publicly apologized for airing the story, which, he admitted, was not true.

Regardless of the widely spread news of Baier’s admission, the original story continued to circulate on Facebook. I saw it posted on the site of a friend. Even though this person and I disagreed on candidates, I always took the person to be a straight shooter.

I assumed the person hadn’t seen Baier’s correction, so I sent along a polite message, with a link to Baier’s apology for the error. I figured the person would want to know and delete the post. I was wrong.

This reply came back to me: “I don’t care if the false news is false. She deserves it.”

Finally, remember what Mark Twain said about a lie traveling so fast and far while truth is putting on its shoes. If you’re tempted to read or share something that you suspect or know is a lie, half-truth or blatant exaggeration, don’t.

Put on your shoes instead.

 

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This blog’s author, Gary Kimsey, is a former newspaper reporter (Kansas City Star) and former editor at Denver Monthly Magazine, HealthWord and Colorado State magazine. He also worked in public relations for Colorado State University and University of Colorado Health. He is now retired and writing his own works while living part of the year in the Colorado Rockies and the rest of the time in Independence, Mo.