Sunday, February 27, 2005

A nasty twist on personal banking


A trace of the old company store is making a comeback in the United States. It’s called your neighborhood bank.

Company stores kept many Americans in a perpetual state of debt by letting employees run a tab when they bought anything from food to farm equipment. By the time payday rolled around, most employees had next to nothing left and their debt mounted.

Banks, you might be thinking, are places people go to save money. But let me tell you a story.

Our daughter Meghan has her first bank account at the Lexington branch of Citizens Bank, an institution that prides itself for its access (branches in supermarkets) and its friendly service. Like many other banks today, however, Citizens Bank has at least one service that’s anything but friendly. Its cash machines will let you draw money even if it puts your account in the red -- and then slap you with a substantial fine for overdrawing. A manager there told me that this is so customers don’t get caught on the road without a dime or a way to get home. It’s also, he conceded, a way to make money.

Specifically, for each $20 a customer overdraws an account – that’s the maximum amount an ATM spits out if the account goes in the red – customers are charged for an overdraft. They aren’t told this in advance. It just happens.

So in the last month, Meghan has been charged about $70; that’s 8 percent of her take-home pay. It also is at interest rates that can only be called usurious. Last week, for example, Meghan was charged $29 for overdrawing her account by $56. We haven’t figured out yet how she overdrew that much. We can figure out, however, that though her account was in the red for less than a week the interest on the error was more than 50 percent of the overdraft. Since this was the third such charge to her account this month – again, each overdraft draws its own penalty – we talked to the bank. Only then did we discover (a) that the bank makes it plenty easy to overdraw your account from a cash machine and (b) that it charges exorbitant penalties each time you do it (earlier charges were $25 so it may just have gone up).

I know that this policy has become commonplace at least in New England because my local paper, The Boston Globe, wrote about it on the front page. So Meg isn’t changing banks; as I said, it’s a friendly place. Instead, she discovered a safeguard no one was advertising. All customers has to do is request that they not to be allowed to overdraw their account without warning – to turn down the dubious privilege of rapidly putting themselves into debt at the corner ATM.

The bank officer first offered Meghan an alternate. For $20 a year she could instead pay for overdraft protection – with any outstanding balance paid back at an interest rate of 18 percent a year. That’s a much lower interest rate, mind you, than the instantaneous fines slapped on for overdrawing an account. But compared to the bank's standard interest rates paid to customers for savings –less than one and a half percent – it’s still an awful lot to pay the company for a cup of sugar.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The man of another lifetime


I never met Hunter Thompson. Read just two or three of his books. But his death, by suicide, hits closer to home than any of the others this year that measure the quickening pace of salt draining through my own life's hour glass -- Johnny Carson, Ray Charles, John Raitt, Sandra Dee.

Thompson could split your sides by spitting in the eye of The Man, whomever that might be on a given day. He was the gonzo journalist who'd outrace a phalanx of cop cars in Las Vegas and then be waiting for them at the side of the road, beer in hand. The Gonzo man -- tuned in, pushed the pedal to the floor, and turned his readers on. He could write as fast and rhythmically as the speed and alcohol coarsing through his body. He was a thumb in the eye of corporate journalism, corporate politics (is there any other kind?), anyone who took themselves too seriously. He was Ken Kesey's McMurphy roving free outside the wards of the "Cuckoo's Nest," making life miserable for all the world's Nurse Ratcheds.

I don't know if I would have liked Hunter Thompson. But I loved his medium and, more often than not, his message. So if you're not familiar with his stuff, check out "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Fasten your seat belt. Get ready for a wild ride.

Friday, February 18, 2005

So much fishwrap


I miss Howell Raines. Even if he deserves his less than flattering reputation as an egomaniacal
SOB, when he was the editor of The New York Times the paper had more edge, more verve
and more news. Today is just one more example of how the truly grotesque story of
sanctioned -- or at the least winked at -- torture by US troops no longer qualifies as big news
in the big elite media.

It's obscene -- you know, the torture and the lack of coverage.

My Boston Globe did offer the story an itty-bitty toehold of Page 1. It went like this:

WASHINGTON -- A former Iraqi detainee told Army investigators that a US soldier forced him to sign a statement that he had not been abused even though American interrogators in September 2004 had dislocated his arms, beaten his leg with a bat, crushed his nose, and put an unloaded gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, according to newly released internal military documents.

In addition, a sergeant at a military camp in southern Afghanistan told an Army investigator in July 2004 that his unit erased a series of digital photographs showing guards beating detainees and aiming guns at hooded prisoners. The sergeant said the pictures were deleted after photos from the Abu Ghraib prison appeared in the media, out of the unit's fear that the pictures could spark a second wave of the scandal.

The disclosures provide the first evidence that both in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of war, soldiers involved in alleged abuse incidents may have sought to suppress evidence of their actions ....

And where did The New York Times play this story, released to the news media by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is pulling these documents from the government piece by piece through Freedom of Information Act requests? In the lower right hand corner of Page A8, where people always look for major news. (see my blog, "The headlines you probably missed," on Feb. 6).

Howell, where are you?


When Eason Jordan resigned last week as head of CNN's news, the debate centered exclusively on whether the right wing blogs had done him in for a mistake from which he quickly backpeddled. It seems that Jordan, fresh from a visit to Iraq, told those an off-the-record World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that journalists in Iraq were being hunted.

David Gergen, who has served presidents on both sides of the aisle, had this to say on PBS:
"He left a very clear impression that journalists on both sides were being targeted, that Iraqi insurgents were targeting American journalists and in a limited number of cases he thought ... he left the impression there had been targeting by American troops of journalists, perhaps al-Jazeera or others."

Now Jordan is gone. He ostensibly resigned not to embarrass CNN, which says it applied no pressure. But in all that's been written about whether his words warranted his resignation, no one has touched on a much more fundamental point: Are American troops targeting foreign
news reporters or aren't they? I'm not rumor-mongering here. I'd just like to know. It is well
known that an American tank blew away part of a Baghdad hotel in the final days of the war,
killing at least one journalist who worked there. It was a hotel, writes Anne Garrels of NPR in her book "Naked in Baghdad," that was well-known for housing journalists. And over all, according to a recent PBS "Frontline" magazine segment, nearly three dozen Iraqi journalists have died during the fighting, many from American bullets.

One would think the top news executive of a major news organization wouldn't float the idea of Americans targeting journalists with no evidence. If he did, he deserved to resign (or be fired). But if there's evidence, let's hear it. The implications would be horrific. Some retired military brass have decried the torture at Abu Ghraib for pragmatic reasons: If we torture people than people will torture our troops. The same goes for targeting journalists. If we shoot at journalists our enemies will start picking off our reporters. And only the craziest journalists will attempt to cover wars. Or is that what this administration wants?


My favorite paragraph from a journalism column this week comes from Mike Carlton in an article titled "The Empire of Vulgarity" published in the Sydney Morning Herald

"George Bush's second inaugural extravaganza was every bit as repugnant as I had expected, a vulgar orgy of teiumphalism unmatched since Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804. The little Corsican corporal had a few decent victories to his escutcheon ... Not so this strutting Texan mountebank, with his chimpanzee smirk and his born-again banalities delivered in that constipated syntax that sounds the way cold cheeseburgers look, and his grinning plastic wife, and his scheming junta of neo-con spivs, shamans, flatterers and armchair warmongers, and his sinuous evasions and his brazen lies, and his sleight of hand theft from the American poor, and his rape of the environment, and his lethal conviction that the world must submit to his Pax Americana or be bombed into charcoal."

What say? I don't think he likes our president.


Not to be smug and say, "I told you so." But I did.

On Jan. 8, when I wrote about Armstrong Williams' fattened bank account for writing government propaganda in the guise of journalism, I warned that there would be more.
Now Frank Rich of The New York Times once again has come to the rescue. He writes that Jeff Gannon, the presidential press conference interloper whose real name is James D. Guckert, whose employer is a Republican mouthpiece web site, and whose real income reportedly is as an "X-rated, $200-per-hour escort," is actually the sixth fraudulent propagandist-posing-as-journalist to show up "on the payroll of either the Bush administration or a barely arms-length ally."

Pleeeaase. Will some major new organization with the funds to sustain this file a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to sort out what journalistic "consultants" remain on the Bush Administration payrolls. Just how riddled is American journalism with these fraudulent propagandists? And where is Bill O'Reilly when you need a good even-handed expose?

Blogging in the cyber-wilderness

NOTE: I wrote this column on blogging for the Christian Science Monitor. It appeared today, Feb. 18.

from the February 18, 2005 edition -

Our waste howling 'cyberness'
By Jerry Lanson
LEXINGTON, MASS. - Blogging, I've discovered, is about as stimulating as singing to my refrigerator. The echo of my words dissolves quickly into silence.

It may be that these words simply bore anyone dropping by. But I suspect the lack of traffic to my new blog has more to do with the fact that there are now millions of bloggers out there, pouring their hearts out ... for the most part to themselves. And as they - no, we - spend more hours in front of computers, we take one more step in estranging ourselves from what's left of local community.

Often I long for an earlier America, one I've seen more of in historical photos than experienced in real life. It's an America of concrete stoops and front porches, of town and city life where people not only know neighbors by name, but take the time to talk with them.
My own family moved to the suburbs when I was 5. In the mid-'50s on Long Island, we kids were allowed to roam and more often than not, a game of tag or stickball went on in the middle of the street. Fights occasionally broke out, and sometimes nasty ethnic slurs got thrown around. Life was far from perfect. But it had a pulse. Today, in my tony suburb of Lexington, Mass., few kids play in the street. Many more are programmed for organized sports, organized music lessons, organized study. If life is one long climb toward success, it's also more isolated and fragmented.

And that's true for their parents too. Today's houses are a lot bigger. But I suspect plenty of people get lost in all that extra elbow room, rushing to their computer in the hope of connecting with anyone.

I, for one, am not convinced that the computer will ever be a terribly useful tool for real, personal connections. When an MIT professor created something called e-neighbors in my community a couple of years ago, it was an experiment to see how a neighborhood, joined by computer, would interact. I excitedly wrote to those signed on that I love to play poker, bridge, and just about any other card game. No one responded. Perhaps others in the neighborhood have become fast friends. But from what I can tell, the whole network has provided just one contribution - a place to get tips on how to find a plumber, a carpenter, a lawn mower, a tree surgeon. Fill in the blank.

Meanwhile, I still long for a regular card game, a lively cafe, a place where individual expression is heard and seen in the flesh, not tapped onto a screen and sent into cyberspace where it awaits someone else wandering around in the wilderness. I don't believe the Internet - though it can introduce people - ever offers true camaraderie. But I doubt that contemporary neighborhoods do, either. People don't give each other a chance.

After a recent snow, I walked my golden retriever, Casey, and passed between two neighbors shoveling. On my right was an elderly man, approaching 80. He clearly labored as he shoveled his walk. Across the street, a young father, in his 30s, was putting the finishing touches on his perfect snow-blower cleared walkway, which arced around the front and side of his property. If he noticed the old fellow 25 feet away, he never acknowledged him. He clearly hadn't offered to lend a hand.

As I came back around the block, I exchanged greetings with the older man.
"Take your time," I advised him. "Don't overdo it."

"You're right about that," he responded.

The other man had left his snowblower standing by his front path and gone inside.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

A wrestler gets back off the mat


When National Public Radio's ombudsman visited my class at Emerson College this week to talk about his work, I asked him why the news media have so often been so timid in questioning this White House and its policies.

Jeffrey Dvorkin is a thoughtful journalist and former news executive. And after receiving 80,000 emails from listeners in the last year, he clearly has a good sense of the mood of America. Still, I found his answer disconcerting: that since Sept. 11 the "loyal opposition" in this country -- that would be the Democratic Party -- had largely been missing in action.

It's not good form to pick fights with a class guest, so I bit my tongue instead of blurting out, "Why the heck does a free press need someone else to make noise before it has the courage to do so itself?" I don't much care for a journalistic climate in which objectivity is defined as "balanced" coverage rather than fact-based, truthful coverage -- wherever those facts may lead.

But that's not Jeffrey's fault; his analysis is on the mark. At a time when tough reportorial stances are met with cries of bias or worse, neither reporters nor the news organizations that pay them are sticking their necks out very far. More often than not, they're waiting for someone in politics to do so first.

I believe, at last, that the time has come. There already have been stirrings, Jeffrey said.
He pointed to the outspoken opposition of Sen. Barbara Boxer to Condoleezza Rice's nomination as Secretary of State.

Now those stirrings may become a full-throated scream -- as in the Dean Scream. I rather hope so. Howard Dean, newly elected as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, bears no resemblance to the radical politician he's been painted by Republicans. He's not really particularly liberal. A fiscal conservative and budget balancer as governor of Vermont, he supports, among other things, capital punishment.

But he also knows how to speak in straight sentences, how to provoke, how to inspire and how to take a stand. I like those qualities, and I think plenty of other Americans like them, too, in Red States as well as Blue. In some ways, I see Dean as the John McCain of the Democratic Party, a guy who excites people regardless of whether they always agree with him because he seems to have real convictions, and he speaks plain English.

So in the midst of a campaign of lies and scare tactics about the bankrupt Social Security system and George Bush's plan to fix it, in the midst of the fictional dawning of Democracy in Iraq, in the midst of yet more news about torture -- this time torture outsourced, along with suspected terrorists, to dungeons of horror overseas, I grasp at Dean's election as one headline that gives me hope.

It's needed. If Democrats don't stop mumbling into their soup pretty soon, the party won't win an election for dog catcher. But Howard Dean just may bring the party back to life and, for a change, make Republicans watch their backs.

You see, Howard Dean grew up a wrestler. It's a gritty, sweaty sport in which one minute your face is scrunched into a mat and one move later you're on top. It takes guts and endurance -- the same guts and endurance Dean has shown in the last year, outliving his own obituary, penned by the press on the morning after the Iowa cacuses.

That's why I'm betting that loyal opposition my friend Jeffrey talked about is about to get a lot louder.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The headlines you probably missed


Republicans capitalized on one of those priceless made-for-television moments this week when they raised purple ink-stained fingers at the President's State-of-the-Union address to show solidarity with the voters in Iraq. Yes, it was a feel-good week in the U-S-A. Unless, that is, you followed the news closely.

I say closely because Iraq has quickly dropped off most front pages and the top of most newscasts. Curious. Because little, if anything, has changed. Deep inside my Boston Globe this morning (lower Page 11) I found this Associated Press story.

"A string of insurgent attacks across Iraq yesterday killed at least 33 Iraqis and three members of the US military, in one of the bloodiest days since the country's election a week ago." Interesting language ... "one of the bloodiest days." There have, after all, been just seven.

Above this story, also on Page 11, ran the headline, "Many votes cast along ethnic, religious lines ... Polarization of Iraqis feared." Translation: Civil war may not be far away as voters turn toward parties representing reliigious/nationalistic interests. Or, to add a bit of interpretation, we are celebrating an election in Iraq that will bring to power parties aligned with the very government in Iran about which rumblings of "pre-emptive strike" -- the next war -- are beginning to emerge. My Globe packages such stories under the boldfaced headline, "Iraq in Transition." And here I thought it was a war!

Whatever you call it, I couldn't find a single article on Iraq on Sunday's front page. There, the only thing approaching war news was blowout coverage of the Super Bowl, which is one battle during which most of us can root unabashedly for both sides. We're all Americans, right?

As Frank Rich of The New York Times predicted the day of the Iraqi election, the administration has once again succeeded in declaring that it has seen "the light at the end of the tunnel" in Iraq, a light those of us who lived through the Vietnam era know perpetually recedes like a mirage in the desert. For now, at least, the war -- make that "Iraq in Transition" -- has largely vanished, pushed aside by the President's valiant efforts to save the dying Social Security system, protect American kids from an innocuous lesbian cartoon couple, and cut the budget on the back of public assistance appropriations that in reality won't buy a cup of coffee in the context of his $80 billion request to wage peace in Iraq.

I wonder if this charade of daily news judgment has anything to do with the decline in trust or audience in traditional news media.

Let me assure you that I'm not among the deserters. Rather than turning my back on the news, I've simply turned the page. I realize that this administration has bullied much news of interest off the cover -- you know, the page where the most important stories are supposed to be showcased. So I start my morning reading inside, looking for articles or tidbits in columns or reviews that can clue me in to what is really going on.

Last week my treasure hunt inside the paper unearthed a report, on page A-something of my New York Times of yet another round of systematic torture by U.S. troops in Iraq rooted out by an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Information request. (Ho-hum. How many days until the Super Bowl?)

And yesterday I stumbled across a piece of news I flat-out missed in Thursday's New York Times. (Apparently some Times reporters missed it too because I keep reading about a 60 percent turnout during the Iraqi elections). Columnist Greg Mitchell, whose work I found on the Poynter Institute website at, noted how quickly news organizations had embraced as truth the assertion that 8 million Iraqis had voted and pointed out that The Times, among others, had begun to question this assertion.

Writes Mitchell: "In a rare reference to an actual vote tabulation, The New York Times on Thursday reports that in the 'diverse' city of Mosul ... the overall turnout seems slightly above 10 percent, or 'somewhat more than 50,000 of Mosul's 500,000 estimated eligible voters.'

He noted, of course, that this is a Sunni city, where turnout was lowest, but also pointed out that the media had inflated voter turnout in early reports from war zones in other countries.

I don't mean to be elitist, but if you and I missed The Times skepticism, how many Americans do you think were watching by the time a few reporters began digging for the truth?

Occasionally, of course, personal experience intrudes on the judgments of those bringing us the news; sometimes it even arrives at our breakfast table before the gatekeepers interpretation of events. This week, my wife Kathy got a call from her mother, who, along with her father, is a lifelong Republican. They live in a small city in Texas, where my father-in-law has withered to a shell of his once-strapping self, a victim of Alzheimer's disease. He is a Navy veteran, World War II era, so when the time came for him to be institutionalized, he moved in October to the Alzheimer's unit of a nearby Veterans Administration hospital. Now, the psychiatrist told my mother in law, they are kicking him out. The family has two months to find a nursing home, and the money to pay for it.

The psychiatrist cautiously told Kathy why, too: The 10,000 injured U.S. soldiers in Iraq are overwhelming the Veterans' Administration, asked to operate its hospitals without additional resources (that $80 billion apparently doesn't have those injured defending our country in mind). The agency's solution has been to begin systematically moving out veterans from other eras whose injuries cannot be directly linked to their service. An acquaintance, a doctor of a Boston-area VA hospital confirms that the same is happening across the system. Patients who can't prove their injuries or disabilities are linked directly to service are getting pink slips, which doesn't look good for Alzheimer's patients, even in a country with collective amnesia when it comes to waging wars.

I'm hoping this story will make the news soon, too, that in a few days, I can open my Globe or Times to find a Veterans Administration expose -- somewhere next to the department store ads on Page 14.