Monday, July 27, 2015

A Few Thoughts on the Passing of Bobbi Kristina Brown

I was saddened, but not surprised, when I heard back in January that Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late Whitney Houston and rapper Bobby Brown, was in a coma.  Krissy, as she was known to her friends, had been found unconscious in a bathtub, much like how her mother was found back in February 2012; her mother died that way, at age 48, a death the coroner said had in large part been caused by prolonged drug and alcohol abuse.  Bobbi Kristina remained in a coma till yesterday, when she finally died in hospice care, at age 22. 

By all accounts, Krissy had been raised in a totally dysfunctional home, surrounded by people who may have been rich and famous but had no idea how to be parents, and who allowed their own personal demons to dominate their lives. On a number of occasions, when I read reports of Bobbi Kristina using drugs or spending time with people that most parents would never want their kids to hang with, I wondered why none of her relatives had ever taken custody of her as a child and raised her somewhere far from the party scene, where she could be a normal kid and not have to worry about her parents' substance abuse.  But whether Whitney Houston was Mother of the Year or not, I know how much Krissy loved her; and when Whitney died, Krissy never entirely recovered from it. 

I am not going to get into finger-pointing, the way the tabloids do ("It was Bobby Brown's fault!" versus "It was Whitney Houston's fault" seems a useless discussion to have); nor am I going to blame the excesses of the mythic "celebrity lifestyle," since the truth is that not every celebrity is addicted and many celebrities make sure they give their kids a good upbringing.  But the life and death of Bobbi Kristina is certainly a cautionary tale:  she seemed to have it all-- popularity, material possessions, and millions of dollars to spend... and yet she was miserably unhappy.  It's an old cliché but there's some truth to it:  money can't buy happiness.  According to some figures I've seen, Whitney Houston's estate was in the vicinity of $21 million.  And Bobbi Kristina will never benefit from it.

I think the popular culture perpetuates a dangerous myth by giving the impression that being wealthy is the answer to everything.  Yes, of course, I'd love to have $21 million-- I can think of all sorts of philanthropic ventures I could get involved in, plus I could buy the radio station I've always wanted.  But would being rich provide the solution to every problem?  I doubt it.  Plus when you are that wealthy, you never know if your friends are there because they like you for yourself, or because they figure you'll be able to do them favors.  (I remember discussing this with a business executive friend of mine-- he had a lot of money, but when he lost much of it during the financial crisis in 2007-2008, he found out who his friends really were... and a lot of the folks he thought would be there for him suddenly weren't there at all.)

Call me foolish, but I would rather have peace of mind and a good reputation, instead of having a ton of bucks.  I've seen so often how money comes and goes, and so does popularity.  Even when life isn't perfect, there's something to be said for feeling comfortable with who you are, and not having to worry about buying anyone's loyalty.  Shakespeare remarked on that many centuries ago, in the play Othello

"Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed."

When I mentioned on Facebook last night that I felt sorry about Bobbi Kristina, someone remarked that there are people who have things much worse, so why focus on her?  I agree that we often focus too much on celebrities, and it's true that every day, there are people dying who are not famous and who did not have her opportunities, people who won't be mourned on social media.  And yet... I still feel sorry about what she might have been, and what she might have accomplished. Krissy's life was too short, and even with all that money and fame, she never found any peace of mind.  I wish it had been different for her. And I wish those who claimed to care about her had tried harder to protect her. Perhaps she would still be alive if they had.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Making Heroism Political

I am not a big fan of Arizona senator John McCain:  contrary to his stated image as a "maverick," he votes like a typical conservative Republican-- not that there's anything wrong with that, but his views and mine rarely agree.  Still, I would never deny that he served bravely in the military during the Vietnam era: the fact that he endured torture at the hands of his captors has been well documented, and his valor earned him seventeen awards, including the Silver Star medal.

And then there's the former senator from Massachusetts, the current U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry. While I thought he ran a surprisingly inept presidential campaign in 2004,  I have always liked him, and our stands on issues frequently aligned.  But before he became a senator, he was a member of the military.  When many people from his social class found clever ways to avoid military service, Kerry willingly enlisted, and he too served bravely in Vietnam.  He also received the Silver Star, as well as several other medals.  Ultimately, Kerry came home and turned against the war, but there is still no denying his courage in serving.  

As most of you know, the other day, business mogul and Republican candidate for president Donald Trump asserted that in his view, John McCain was no hero, because he got captured.  The implication seemed to be that just like in the movies, the winners single-handedly defeat the enemy, and it's only the losers who are taken as captives.  I disagree.  And while over the years, McCain's detractors have called into question his skills as a fighter pilot, that too seems beside the point.  He was in fact a Prisoner of War, and he was in fact held captive for six years.  Whether or not his own actions contributed to his being shot down (as his detractors claim), the fact remains that John McCain endured extreme brutality at the hands of his captors. And Donald Trump, who never served a day in the military, and is probably not qualified to pass judgment on McCain's service. 

Then again, perhaps Trump is one of those "McCain Truthers," who believes McCain lied, or at least exaggerated, about his service, and was in some way responsible for his captivity.  We saw a similar phenomenon during the 2004 presidential campaign, when a group of military men who labeled themselves "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" said that John Kerry had lied about his military record and did not deserve the medals he received.  As it turned out, nearly all of the veterans who claimed to have served with him had never done so, and the group itself was mainly funded (and may have also been founded) by the Republican Party, as well as a handful of wealthy supporters of President George W. Bush.  And the more that reporters investigated, the more they found what really made the Swift Boat veterans so opposed to Kerry:  not his military service, but rather, his later anti-war activism.  Still, the series of TV ads the Swift Boat Vets ran against him were devastatingly effective.  They were also shamefully misleading:  John Kerry did in fact serve, he was in fact awarded those medals, and his later political views should not have invalidated his courage during combat in Vietnam.        

Despite the fact that Trump is a provocateur who loves to say outrageous things, it made me think about what a "hero" is.  In today's celebrity culture, the word is thrown around way too much, and is often applied to people who are talented or popular, rather than what the dictionary would define as a hero.  If you look it up, you find one definition is "a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities."  Another definition is "a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal."  And then, there is the definition used in literature, where the hero is the "good guy," the protagonist in a story, a play or a movie. (And of course, from Greek mythology, we get the classic definition, in which the hero is "a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity.)

Whether or not you agreed with the Vietnam War (or any other war, for that matter), a person who performed his or her military service and did not try to avoid it is certainly to be commended, and some of the veterans definitely acted heroically.  Of course, I understand that it's not just during a war that heroism can be seen-- journalists reporting from dangerous countries, human rights workers (the International Rescue Committee and Doctors Without Borders come to mind), first responders, emergency room doctors and nurses, these are just a few examples of the people who rise to the occasion and act heroically.  Performing extraordinary actions in difficult times is never easy, whether putting yourself in danger by bringing food and medicine to a refugee camp, or running into a burning building to save a family, or teaching girls to read in a country where terrorists have threatened your school.  Not every hero is recognized-- too often, acts of courage and bravery go unnoticed because the person who performed them didn't seek out any praise or wasn't a celebrity.  But those of us affected by those courageous acts know a hero when we see one.  

Meanwhile, back to politics, where battles of a different kind are fought.  I agree that Donald Trump should apologize to John McCain, but I also think that everyone who denigrated John Kerry's service (including Jeb Bush) should also apologize to him.  Both McCain and Kerry performed heroically, under circumstances most of us could never have survived.  Calling someone's courage or bravery or patriotism into question just to get elected does not speak well of the person doing it; but it also does not speak well of the many people who remain silent just because they don't like the person being criticized. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Fooling Too Many of the People Too Much of the Time

When Donald Trump told an interviewer a few days ago that he doesn't know where President Obama was born, I had to shake my head.  Okay fine, Trump is a provocateur, who enjoys saying outrageous things and then watching the mainstream media obsess over what he just said.  He's also a shrewd politician, and he knows that by some estimates, as many as 20% of Republicans still believe the "birther" myth that Mr. Obama is secretly from Kenya.  But Donald Trump is not a stupid person, and surely he knows that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, a fact that has been thoroughly documented, and even a number of his political enemies (and the folks on Fox News) acknowledge it.  And yet... there are still thousands of people who applaud whenever Trump casts those same old doubts about whether the president is a "real" American.  It totally mystifies me -- whether you like the president or not, it's just plain bizarre to still be insisting in 2015 that he wasn't born in the United States.

And it's not just Donald Trump who disseminates this kind of nonsense.  We seem to be living in an age when any fact-free conspiracy theory can gain an wide audience, thanks in large part to the internet and social media, which spread rumors and myths as quickly as they spread actual (and provable) facts.  For example, celebrities, who have no medical degree (talking to you, Jenny McCarthy) can get on television and then use their blog or YouTube to insist that vaccines cause autism (they do not, and study after study shows NO link between getting vaccinated and developing autism); and thousands of their fans assume these celebrities must know what they are talking about. Sorry, but Jenny McCarthy is not a medical expert, and while I am sympathetic about her son's condition, anecdotal evidence is not the same as serious studies with data.  Yet no matter how many serious studies come out debunking any relationship between vaccines and autism, some folks prefer getting their medical advice from a model and talk show host.

Or how about the good folks in Texas who are firmly convinced that a large military training exercise called Jade Helm 15, is a secret government plot to impose martial law-- did you hear about those closed-up Walmarts that are being converted into prisons, so that all those who oppose the government can be locked away?  These and other conspiracy theories are being spread by talk show host Alex Jones and various anti-government bloggers.  No matter how many times the military denies that there's anything unusual going on, or explains the purpose of this particular training exercise (the goal is to give the participating troops practice, by using role-playing to simulate situations they might encounter during a war), some folks remain totally unconvinced, and totally ready to resist when the military marches in to take over Texas.

Every week, fact-checking websites like and debunk assorted myths and rumors, and yet they persist. You'd think that with all the information available to us with a simple search, we'd have no trouble separating fact from fiction.  But you'd be wrong to think that.  Studies show that people tend to prefer information that reinforces what they already believe-- it's called "confirmation bias."  So, those who are convinced that Obama is a Kenyan, or vaccines cause autism, or the government is about to impose martial law will seek out websites and other media sources that agree with them.  And those kinds of resources are easy to find. No wonder so much internet discourse consists of people who are convinced they are right throwing their beliefs at each other like weapons, often followed by name-calling and frustration that others can't see "the truth."

In fairness, believing in myth or pseudo-science isn't new.  Way back in 1922, a French pharmacist named Emile Coué (some newspapers claimed he was a doctor, but he was not) gained international fame with his theory of "auto-suggestion."  He asserted that  any disease could be cured simply by chanting "every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better."  This theory of positive thinking was supposed to cure everything from loneliness to cancer, and Mr. Coué's trip to America featured him "curing" all sorts of people.  It was not a skeptical age, and the press breathlessly reported about the miracle man and his amazing cures, accepting the performance without checking to see if the people really were cured (or if they'd ever been sick at all).  But by 1926, Coué was dead from pneumonia, an illness that evidently could not be cured by positive thinking.

That said, there is no denying that a positive attitude can be useful in battling most diseases; but to claim that diseases will vanish with the proper attitude (or by chanting the proper words) is something I cannot logically accept, nor can medical science.  But in his day, Coué had millions of fans, who desperately wanted to believe every word he said.  Today, he'd be like Oprah Winfrey, a celebrity with his own talk show and blog and legions of supporters.  There's nothing new under the sun, it seems.

Neither Abraham Lincoln nor P.T. Barnum actually said "You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."  Still, whoever really said it may have underestimated the desire a lot of folks have to want to be fooled. Many people need to seek out a "magic answer" or find simple solutions for complicated questions.  It makes them feel better to know they were right and someone else was wrong.  Election year politics often amplifies that kind of conversation, as candidates try to make themselves stand out by making outrageous claims and pointing fingers.  Politicians, like talk show hosts and celebrity "medical experts," understand that people want to know who (or what) is to blame for every problem.  But this year, will we finally get a serious discussion about the problems we face, or will we just get more empty rhetoric?  If past history is any indicator, we'll get the rhetoric. And I can only hope that this time around, people won't be fooled by it.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Few Worlds About the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame

Normally, I use this blog to discuss current events, and believe me, there are plenty I want to discuss.  (And I will.)  But let me digress for a moment, and talk about something I dearly love:  radio; and an organization that means a lot to me:  the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.  I know not everyone who reads my blog is from Massachusetts, but I also know that wherever you are, many of you still listen to (and  still care about) radio.

Believe me, I understand that things have changed from when I was a kid.  Radio is no longer considered a "magical medium," like it was when I was growing up. I understand that most kids today don't dream of being a disc jockey, the way I did.  I understand that in our internet world, there are lots of ways to listen to music-- and they don't all require listening to a d.j. or sitting through commercials.  And yes, I understand that for many people, radio has become an afterthought, one more possibility when people are not streaming audio, streaming video, watching television, or downloading music.

And yet, as I have said before, there's still something special about radio.  It's a unique kind of communication, and when it's done right, it can make you feel as if the announcer is talking directly to you.  Even though media consolidation has created too many stations that all sound the same, there are still some great announcers, great news reporters, great sportscasters, and great stations.  If you're a Rush fan, you know the song "Spirit of Radio"-- the first verse explains it perfectly:

"Begin the day with a friendly voice
A companion unobtrusive
Plays that song that's so elusive
And the magic music makes your morning mood..."   

That is what radio is:  a companion.  And at its best, it touches so many lives.  It can cheer you up, change your mood for the better, play a song you love, provide some information you need about the weather or the traffic and help you move through your day.  It's no exaggeration when I say that radio helped me to get through my childhood.  When kids bullied me, when I felt alone, I could listen to my favorite d.j.; and hearing his voice, or hearing my favorite songs, somehow it made me feel better.  Maybe you too had a favorite radio station growing up.  Maybe you had a favorite personality you loved to listen to.  And maybe radio was an important part of your life, the way it was for mine.  I had the privilege of becoming a d.j., and maybe during the years that I was on the air, I too was that friendly voice, making someone else feel better.  I ended up spending nearly four decades in broadcasting, in cities all over the US, before coming back home to Boston, the place where my career had begun.

Given how much radio has always meant to me, I was really pleased when I found out about the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.  I joined the organization, and also became a board member; it has allowed me to work with some amazing people from all aspects of radio and television, past and present.  But more importantly, it has allowed me to honor some of the people I most admired during my youth.  In fact, that is one reason why our organization was formed:  to make sure that the broadcast personalities we all grew up with would not be forgotten.  As our mission statement explains: "The Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame is a non-profit, 501[c]3 organization which honors the industry’s most noteworthy members from Massachusetts; commemorates their achievements and contributions to broadcasting; and preserves their work for future generations."  Other cities too have created similar organizations-- they are much needed, because they preserve the great work of previous generations of broadcasters, so that current and future generations can benefit from their accomplishments.

Our annual charity auction is taking place, and if you can bid on an item, you will help us to keep doing our part to commemorate the work of the greatest broadcasters, and induct them into our Hall of Fame. And if you're not from Massachusetts, consider forming (or joining) a chapter of your own broadcasters' hall of fame-- it's so important to find a way to honor those who have entertained and informed us for so many years.  More information about the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame and our charity auction is here; thanks for reading this, and I hope you will be able to make a bid!