Wednesday, March 15, 2023

I'd Wager You've Heard About This

According to all the local newspapers, as well as local TV & radio, this past Friday was a BIG day. It was the day when online sports betting finally arrived in Massachusetts-- or as Associated Press reporter Steve LeBlanc referred to us, "sports-crazed Massachusetts." And evidently, the timing could not have been more perfect. "Massachusetts sports fans raced to their cellphones to begin placing bets, as the state allowed online sports wagering just days ahead of next week’s start of the NCAA basketball tournaments."

He wasn't exaggerating. According to Channel 4 in Boston, more than 400,000 fans in Massachusetts signed up for mobile sports betting accounts after the launch. And the Boston Globe reported that "over the first weekend of mobile wagering, Massachusetts bettors invested far more time placing bets than did those in similarly sized states." And the Worcester Telegram reported that "In-person betting began at the end of January, but mobile betting is expected to quickly become the dominant method of sports wagering here."

And then came the barrage of ads. Endless radio, TV, and online ads. Ads that showed excited, happy people (including many people of color), all betting on their favorite sport from the comfort of their couch. And not just betting on which team will win. Betting on outcomes within the game, like choosing a certain NFL football player and betting that he will score a touchdown, or betting that a certain NBA basketball player will score more three-pointers than he did previously. The possibilities are endless, and all the ads make it seem like so much fun. 

But the hard-sell is making me nervous. I understand the state of Massachusetts, along with the casinos, and the sports betting companies like FanDuel & DraftKings, will make lots of money from in person and online betting. And some of the fans may make a few bucks too. But let's be honest: most will not. And rather than being fun and exciting, gambling can quickly become addictive. I'm always amused when I see companies that advertise booze saying in their ad to "drink responsibly"-- okay fine, if you're a casual drinker, you probably will; but it's an addictive product, and some folks will be doing the opposite from drinking responsibly. And the more they use the product, the more the companies that provide it make a profit. Ditto for gambling-- I see the disclaimer about "if you think you have a problem, you can call this hotline for help." But few addicts will admit they have a problem. They'll just keep gambling, hoping to win back what they lost.      

I'm not trying to be a curmudgeon. But I admit I'm one of those folks who fails to see the benefit of gambling. Yes, I've bought a scratch ticket now and then, and I won $40 bucks in a slot machine in Vegas once-- but I've also seen folks who spend their entire paycheck buying scratch tickets, or who get to the slot machines and lose every cent they have. Yet, we're encouraging folks to bet online, and telling them it's safe and easy. And as much as various government officials insist that teens won't be allowed to bet, and that protections are in place to keep online betting from being abused, why do I think it won't take long before some folks (including teens) will find ways around the guardrails?

Like I said, the hard sell is making me nervous. It's also taking away from the joy and the beauty of sports. If everything is reduced to a transaction (bet on this play, bet on this outcome), how do you just relax and enjoy the game? I truly don't understand why folks can't spend some time cheering for their favorite team without turning it into a bunch of opportunities to place another bet. I'm sure there are folks who are reading this and think I'm totally wrong, so please explain to me what the benefit of online sports betting is. To me, the downside is more worrisome than any upside. But I'm willing to bet that some of you will disagree...

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Why Governor DeSantis is Wrong About Women's Studies

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I didn't learn much in my history classes about women. In fact, about the only women whose names were mentioned were either the wives of famous men (like Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, or Dolly Madison), or the occasional woman who did something noteworthy in a traditional role, like Betsy Ross, who sewed the first American flag (today, most scholars believe that's a myth, but again, it was one of the few times we learned about a woman who did anything). I didn't know that even in the 1800s, there were women journalists or women doctors or women in business or women who kept their name when they married. 

And because Black History Month was not a thing yet, I never learned about Rosa Parks or Linda Brown (one of the plaintiffs in Brown vs. the Board of Education), nor the many Black women who were instrumental in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. And I had no idea there were several important Black female journalists who covered politics-- nobody taught about Alice Dunnigan or Ethel Payne back then. Similarly, it wouldn't be till much later in the 1960s when second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan got mentioned, although usually not in a favorable way (the overwhelmingly male press corps was quite scornful of the Women's Movement). And I was warned by numerous folks that I'd never get a husband if I seemed to be one of those "women's libbers" (as feminists were called back then).

These days, there are many schools and colleges that provide a more expansive view of history, teaching about the many women who contributed to our country's progress. It is no longer unusual for students to learn about women scientists or astronauts or politicians or athletes-- and yes, women in media too. There's even Women's History Month, which made its debut in 1987. And just because we spend some time paying tribute to important women does not mean that important men are forgotten-- it's not an "either-or," and it shouldn't be.

Meanwhile, in Florida, as part of his ongoing assault on public education, Governor Ron DeSantis (a graduate of both Yale and Harvard) now wants to ban Women's Studies at all state colleges and universities. He says that studying gender (as well as studying race) is too "woke," too liberal, and too ideological. And he believes that students who major or minor in Women's Studies aren't getting a real degree, so he intends to remove this area of study entirely. Of course, considering that he claims to be taking this stand on behalf of "freedom," one might ask how banning courses and eliminating majors and insisting that certain topics must not be studied is "freedom." It certainly sounds tyrannical to me: it's using the power of the government to thwart any subjects you disagree with. But then, I guess he knows better. After all, he's very popular and the voters who chose him seem to like what he's doing.

But I think he's missing the point. I grew up at a time when education was very conservative, when so many issues were never discussed at all, and when the accomplishments of women and minorities were either marginalized or erased. I don't think my education was any better because of what I wasn't allowed to learn. And I'm not persuaded that going back to those days (and those attitudes) will make the next generation of students any better off. As a professor, and as a former adult learner, I can honestly say there's a genuine benefit to studying gender, or race, or ethnicity, or political philosophy. And there's nothing wrong with being exposed to a wide range of views, some of which you might agree with, and others you might not. Students need to learn to think for themselves-- they shouldn't have politicians thinking for them. 

As I write this, it's the start of Women's History Month. I see this month as an opportunity, just like Black History Month was: a chance to say thank you to some folks who have been written out of history, and to help write them back in. Today's students need to know about how we got here, and part of that process is knowing the women who stood against the dominant views of their era and made a difference. They are not all from one ideology or one race or one religion. They are many and they are varied, and we really should study what they did because some of them are quite inspiring. In other words, there's still a lot we can learn from Women's Studies. And while Gov. DeSantis may think it's a waste of time, I think it's quite the opposite. In fact, I invite you to join me as I do my little part, paying tribute every day on social media to a woman I believe is worth remembering.


Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The Photo I Forgot About

I'm often asked to do free-lance writing, and I was working on an article about Boston radio in the 1960s. That led me to various newspaper databases, and eventually, I ended up on a database I'd never used before. I found some interesting stuff (although not what I was seeking), but before I went on to something else, I typed in my name, curious to see if my college radio experience got written about anywhere. No, I didn't think I was especially important in the greater scheme of things, but given that I was the first female deejay at Northeastern University, I thought that maybe someone (other than a reporter at my college newspaper) might have written something. 

I didn't find any articles that I hadn't already seen, but I did find this: a photo taken in October or November of 1968, evidently intended to go with an article written about my debut at WNEU Radio.

I had no idea this image even existed. I had seen a photo of me in the WNEU studio, sitting at the console, next to a turntable, surrounded by 45s (remember those?); but I did not recall this photo-- which was taken in the station's record library. It brought back memories I hadn't thought about in more than five decades.

I was 21 years old, and a senior at Northeastern. I had fallen in love with radio as a kid, found (to my disappointment) that women were not welcome on the air, and then, fought to get a chance to prove the doubters wrong. I didn't have many friends at Northeastern, but once I got on the air, I started getting fan mail. And when I was in the record library, surrounded by so many amazing albums, I felt at home. I was not only a deejay at WNEU but also the station's music director, and I loved it.

In some ways, those were the happiest days of my life. I felt that I had found my calling. I wasn't that fond of school, where the expectation was that I'd be a teacher; back then, girls were supposed to become teachers, nurses, or secretaries, but while those were good choices for some folks, I knew in my heart that I was supposed to be a deejay. And when I went to the WNEU studio to do my show, or hung out in the record library, I knew I was where I belonged.

Not everyone shared my view. Much to my frustration, the radio industry still wasn't hiring many women. It would take me nearly 5 years to find a full-time radio gig, at a small suburban AM station called WCAS in Cambridge, Mass. But by the end of 1973, I was on my way to WMMS in Cleveland, much to the shock of my parents. I had never really left Boston before, but this was my chance and I intended to take it. Many of you know what happened in Cleveland (and in my radio career). But that's a story for another day.

In this long-forgotten photo, I look confident and at peace. I generally didn't feel that way; but when I was on the air, or when I was listening to new music, I knew this was where I belonged. It gave me hope that maybe my life was finally going to get better. After so many years of being mocked because I was different, I was finally getting some acceptance, and even some love. I remember it well. And while the story would have its share of ups and downs, on this day, the future looked bright. I knew that radio was where I wanted to be, and finally, I would get my chance to be there.    

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Megyn Kelly and the Disappearance of Courtesy

I've never met Megyn Kelly. But based on what she said a couple of days ago, she seems to believe I'm a fraud. Agreed, she didn't say this about me. She said it about Jill Biden. But I certainly felt Ms. Kelly's disrespect, and I was not amused.

What caused Ms. Kelly to take to Twitter and express her outrage about the First Lady was this: during the Eagles-49ers playoff game, the play-by-play announcers, noticing that she was in the crowd, referred to her as "Dr. Jill Biden." This offended Ms. Kelly, and she said so, accusing the First Lady of being nothing more than a "wannabe" with a "fake title." She concluded her tweet by suggesting to the First Lady, "Get a real MD or just work on your self-esteem."

Okay, I understand. Ms. Kelly is a partisan, a former Fox News commentator, and she dislikes the fact that Joe Biden is president. I'm fine about that-- she has every right to her opinion. I can also understand that she might be criticizing Joe Biden by proxy whenever she criticizes his wife.  But the scornful dismissal of Jill Biden's degree, and Ms. Kelly's annoyance that the announcers used the First Lady's preferred title, was uncalled for. 

Like Jill Biden, I got my doctorate later in life: she was 55, and I was 64.  Hers was a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Delaware; mine was a PhD in Communication from the University of Massachusetts.  Like Jill Biden, I studied nights (and worked days) in my quest for the advanced degree. I promise you, it wasn't easy doing it that way. If you have an adult learner in your family, or if you are an adult learner yourself, you know that when you've been out of school for a while, it can be challenging to go back. I've read some online critics who claim the Doctor of Education isn't a "real" degree; but I know some folks who have one, and they worked hard to get it. They don't deserve to be mocked, by Megyn Kelly or anyone else.

To me, it's about good manners. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and perhaps I'm hopelessly outdated, but I was always taught to be polite when speaking to others. For example, I was taught that you called professors "Professor." You didn't call them by their first name. Nor did you call priests or rabbis or ministers by their first name: you used their title. Ditto for a wide range of other folks, including your boss. Now, agreed, once you got to know them, if they gave you permission to use their first name, it might be okay. But it was their decision, not yours.

Thus, I'm not bothered if Jill Biden wants to be called Dr. Biden; it's her decision, and it reflects the degree she worked hard for. When my students are addressing me for the first time, I'd expect "Professor Halper" or "Doctor Halper." To me, it's just courtesy. I understand that we're in a more casual era now, and first names are more common: in fact, I often let my students call me Donna, if they ask. But if I were at an academic conference, I would want to use my professional title. And why not? Nothing pretentious about it. Nothing fraudulent or fake. Like Jill Biden, I worked hard for that degree (took me nine years before I finished), and I'm proud of what I accomplished. Lots of folks told me I was "too old." But I proved them wrong. And I see no harm in using the title that reflects all the research I did, and all the effort I put into it writing my dissertation (which was 365 pages long). 

So, my advice to Megyn Kelly is learn some manners. Jill Biden is not asking for anything unreasonable. She's simply asking to be called by her academic title. If that makes her happy, why should anyone be upset about it? She has a real degree from a real university. So do I. So do many folks with Ed.D and PhD degrees. We aren't claiming to be medical doctors. We're just saying that our accomplishments are valid, and deserving of respect. And Megyn, if you can't be proud of us, could you at least try to be courteous? We earned our degrees, so please call us by our title if that's what we want.


Sunday, January 15, 2023

Omissions and Corrections, or Why History Matters

When I was in high school, I don't recall learning anything about the Civil Rights Movement. Our American history books in the late 1950s/early 1960s focused mainly on U.S. presidents, famous military leaders, and some men whose inventions changed society (like Thomas Edison, or Alexander Graham Bell). We studied one or two women (Clara Barton and Betsy Ross come to mind) and while slavery was mentioned, not very much time was spent on it; the same was true about the "Indians"-- they were presented in the Thanksgiving story, and never appeared again. 

I came from a family of readers, and being Jewish, I knew about the Holocaust; but that wasn't taught in school either. The emphasis, as I recall, was on all the good things the U.S. had done. The fact that there were influential members of the government who insisted on restricting the number of Jews (and other immigrants) who could come here was never discussed. Truth be told, a lot of things were never discussed-- and besides, it was not an era when discussion was encouraged. Teachers taught, students took notes, and that was how it was done. Perhaps the goal was to avoid controversy, or perhaps the goal was to make sure we all turned out sufficiently patriotic. In either case, I only found out later how much was omitted from the typical history course.

I was reading an article in an educational publication recently that noted the steep decline in college students majoring in history. In numerous colleges, history is no longer required, and many students avoid studying it-- after all, who cares about what happened a century ago? How can that help anyone get a good job? Historian and author Mike Maxwell explains the rationale for this attitude: "The present system of American education emphasizes “21st century skills,” especially skills associated with the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Learning about events from the past has limited currency in this results-oriented educational environment."

Add to this unfortunate belief a bunch of self-serving politicians who have been demanding that history be taught a certain way-- reminiscent of how it was in the 1950s: no discussions of current events, no discussions of racism or sexism or antisemitism, nothing that would make any students feel "discomfort." In fact, no mention of any mistakes America ever made (to do that, said one politician, would teach students to "hate America"). These politicians, many from conservative states, insist that teachers are "indoctrinating" students, and there are now laws in some of those states that tell teachers what they can teach and how they can teach it.  

As many of you know, I'm a media historian. My expertise is in the history of broadcasting, as well as baseball history, women's history, and the history of rock & roll. I understand that there are numerous perspectives and points of view (and debates) about a wide range of issues; but I don't think avoiding them is the answer. Nor do I think going back to how things were taught (or not taught) in the 1950s is helpful. There are so many stories that still need to be told, so many events that need to be re-evaluated, in light of new information that we now have. Enforcing one "correct" way to look at history means important lessons will not be taught, and important conversations will not occur.

Frankly, I'd like to see changes to how history is taught in many schools-- not to make it partisan, and not to "indoctrinate" (which rarely occurs, by the way, but sounds wonderful for politicians to use in speeches, since it generates outrage from potential voters). I'd like to see history taught in a way that energizes students, a way that makes them curious about what it was like to live in that time, and what we can learn from how our ancestors handled the problems they encountered. Knowledge of history alone may not help someone get a job, but ignorance about history can make one more easily manipulated by folks who want to mislead, and much less able to decide what is factual, or what lessons from the past we can benefit from knowing.

So, I hope those who continue to minimize the importance of history will think again. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, circa 1905, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I see a lot of history repeating itself, and I see a lot of efforts to pretend past mistakes never happened. History contains some wonderful and positive lessons, about people who overcame obstacles or created something that made everyone's life better. But it also contains some lessons about times when we could have done better. Let's bring history back to life. Let's tell the stories (all the stories), write the people who were erased back in, correct the myths... In other words, let's embrace the study of history... because where we've been matters... as we try to figure out where we're going.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Legacy of Barbara Walters (and some thoughts about 2022)

I've mentioned in a previous blog post that I enjoy playing word games; it's a way to keep my mind sharp. I've especially become fond of playing Wordle, which I do once a day (you can only play it once); and then, I compare my score with online friends of mine who are also playing it. I found it amusing that the final word of 2022 was "manly." Okay fine, the words are chosen randomly; but at around the same time, coincidentally, we learned that TV newswoman Barbara Walters had died. Like many women from the 50s and 60s, she spent her early career dealing with men who did not want her to move up, who tried to prevent her from speaking, who limited how many questions she could ask a guest and when she could ask them (one male anchor made a rule that she could ask a question only after he had asked the first three). I admit I was never a big fan of hers, but I admired her for persevering, and she opened the door for a lot of TV newswomen.

On the other hand, she also changed the definition of "news" in some ways. For many years, newsmen and newswomen were expected to do hard news only. It was serious. It was formal. It was grounded in facts. It was supposed to be objective. (Even interviews with news-makers were done in a serious and detached style. News-people back then rarely showed their feelings. When JFK was assassinated in 1963 and Walter Cronkite broke in to tell the audience what had just occurred, he briefly showed his sorrow. Briefly. And this was unusual for the times. Human, but unusual.) 

But even the most traditional newscasts, then and now, have often ended with a feature that's considered "soft news"-- human interest stories, segments intended to inspire you or tug at your heartstrings. These stories have always been designed to provide an emotional reaction-- like the kid who hasn't seen daddy in a year because daddy is serving overseas; and we see the kid get a big surprise when suddenly, daddy is back home again, and everyone is hugging and they've all got tears in their eyes-- you know the kinds of stories I'm talking about.  

What Barbara Walters was good at was interviews with big news-makers; she was especially good at eliciting emotions from her guests (and from the audience). She often asked the questions reporters in the past would never have asked, but which everyone really wanted to know. She knew how to keep viewers glued to the TV, eager to see who she would talk to next and what that person would say. Oprah Winfrey developed a similar style, but Barbara did it first. In fact, Barbara normalized it for news-people. And by doing so, she helped to blur the lines between hard news and soft news. She also helped to change the audience's expectations. As Alex Weprin of the Hollywood Reporter noted, "Walters took the newsworthy interview and turned it into an event: must-see TV."   

In our internet world, where almost anything can be on YouTube or Instagram or TikTok within minutes, TV no longer has a monopoly on the celebrity interview. But no matter where we access it, we're still fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous. That's why even legendary newsmen like Edward R. Murrow did some interviews with movie stars or big names in the news. But it wasn't what he was known for. Barbara Walters turned it into a brand, and a very lucrative one at that. Whether talking about current issues with her colleagues on "The View," or sitting with powerful men and women and letting us be the proverbial fly on the wall, she expanded what a news reporter does--and is allowed to do. And she influenced an entire generation of newsmen and women.  

As I write this, 2022 is about to end, and I will leave it to others to do in-depth retrospectives. What I remember is that we finally got back to teaching in person after the pandemic gave us a year and a half on Zoom; I celebrated my 75th birthday and I also celebrated 8 years of being cancer free. My husband's health was better than a year ago this time, but it still wasn't where either of us wanted it to be. But it was wonderful to celebrate Hanukkah together at home, for which both of us were grateful.  

I watched with sadness as the nation had one mass shooting after another; and while families were devastated, the public seemed to become almost numb to it. And I watched with concern as antisemitism, homophobia, and white nationalism were on the rise in numerous places all over the country, and all over the world. I remember too many extreme weather events and too few solutions. The political rhetoric often seemed more heated; too many folks, especially online, seemed ready to argue over even the slightest thing.

But I also saw many people reject the extremes, reject the hate, and reach out to "the other" with kindness and compassion. I saw many people eager to just do the right thing. For those who have read my blog posts and articles, or watched the webcasts I was in, or reached out to me on social media to say hello, I cannot thank you enough.  2022 had a lot of ups and downs. But we're still here, and now it's a new year. Let's make the most of it. Let's work together to make the world a kinder and more courteous place. From my house to yours, much love, much health, and much happiness in 2023.      

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Best Things in Life Are Free (Believe It Or Not)

I was walking to class the other day and stopped to say hi to one of my students. She looked like she'd been shopping, so I asked her what she bought. She told me it was Christmas presents, and then she admitted she felt really pressured because she has so many people to buy gifts for. She was worried that she wouldn't be able to afford to buy something for everyone on her list. She said she planned to work extra hours at her part-time job, so that she wouldn't have to disappoint anyone (I suggested that focusing on her studies was important too, but I don't think I convinced her).

It made me a little sad that someone who is no more than 18 and working hard to help with her tuition is feeling guilty that she might let someone down who was expecting a present. In fact, it makes me sad every year to watch some of my Christian friends obsessing over what to buy for whom, and worrying about how they will come up with the money for that special gift that [insert name of person] really wants. 

As a culture, we didn't always celebrate Christmas in such a commercialized way, but we certainly do in modern times. I've seen folks competing over which house has the most lights, or whose tree is the biggest and best decorated. I've seen all the commercials that equate being a good parent with buying your kids the most expensive toys. In fact, I've seen so many people worrying about "doing it right" that it seems to create more stress than joy. (I also note that Hanukkah, which used to be a simple little children's holiday and not even a major part of the Jewish calendar, has also been getting more and more commercialized with every passing year. I'm not fond of that trend either.)

As someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas, I'm fine about whatever my Christian friends do. But frankly, I wish so much of the holiday season weren't about the money and the gifts; and I wish there were a way to go back to a more simple means of observance. Perhaps I'm naive, but it seems to me the best gift we can give each other is love: welcoming folks who have nowhere to go for the holidays, bringing food to first responders and others who have to work on Christmas, Zooming or calling folks who are too far away to visit and letting them know you care, sharing a pleasant meal and good conversation with friends and family...  

And if you find yourself feeling stressed or guilty because your budget is limited, you shouldn't. The important thing is being there and letting people know they matter. I know that everyone enjoys getting presents; but my point is that love has no price tag. There are many people out there who need a kind word, and sometimes making someone feel a little less lonely is the best gift of all. So, as you prepare for whatever holiday you celebrate, remember that the best things in life (good health, good friends, the beauty around us) are all free. Don't take them for granted, and don't minimize them. And in this holiday season, that's what I wish for you: health, peace of mind, and the knowledge that you are loved. Happy holidays.