Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Frustrated Obama at United Nations?

I'm going to do something I've never done before on my humble, embarrassingly casual blog, and introduce an unintentional-guest writer.
As you may know, I am covering the United Nations General Assembly currently, and my friend, formerly a fellow television news producer in our D.C. bureau, shared his thoughts after hearing President Obama's speech this morning. The content was insightful, not to mention well-written, I just had to share it with you.

And so, as editor and photographer only, I give you:

Not the best photo thanks to the odd lighting above them, but I took this just before the President's speech. - 9/24/2014

A Frustrated Obama at United Nations?

Graham Nelson  
Freelance Writer/Producer
804-335-5709 | @jetgrahamradio|

Obama started speaking at 10:13 AM and finished at 10:52 AM, making his speech 39 minutes long. I may have been the only one able to watch it all, so I give my impressions. 

It was not a speech full of concrete details and proposals. As expected, Obama addressed three topics: Russia, Ebola, and the terrorist threat in Syria and Iraq. His message on these topics was not so surprising. I would sum them up as: we must stop all of them.  

What did surprise me was a pessimistic tone throughout his speech. He spoke about the "failure of the international system." He used the words "undertow of instability." "Swamp." "Outbreak." At multiple points, he seemed frustrated -- scolding and lecturing other countries, particularly in the Middle East, and attempting to speak directly to youth populations.

To me, this was not "hope and change" Obama. This was "we hope YOU change" Obama.  

Obama was subdued on the Asia/Pacific. He did not mention China by name when "insisting" that all nations resolve territorial disputes peacefully, consistent with international law. I suspect America feels too stretched at the moment to move much in the Asia/Pacific. 

The same is true of Iran, which Obama treated fairly kindly. He called it, merely, the "Iranian nuclear issue." Not crisis. Not pursuit of nuclear weapons. Clearly, he feels he needs their help on ISIS. 

On ISIS, he pledged to degrade and dismantle their network and called them a lot of bad names -- "network of death" was the best one. But he also called on governments in the region, and Islamic religious leaders, to disavow violent interpretations of Islam and using armed proxies to solve conflicts.

On a side note, he went off script on Israel briefly. He noted that "it's something for Israelis to consider" that many Israelis have given up the pursuit of peace. 

In very direct language, Obama accused Russia of eroding world and UN values. 
I would have to ask Elliot whether this is his normal language now. I was very surprised by it!! Things have changed so much in two years between the US and Russia: Obama and Medvedev used to eat hamburgers together in DC! 

Lastly, it was interesting that Obama felt the need to mention events in Ferguson, MO. Perhaps this has undermined US standing more than I thought. 

Editor's note!!
This last comment on Ferguson really is how Graham's email ended, and is particularly timely. Not only did I just (finally) post about my experience and impressions from going to Ferguson, Missouri, last night, there was a return to violent protesting there, which may in fact be the reason the presdient chose to touch on it.

Next, I'd like to share with you my colleague and current D.C. news producer's reaction for further insight and context. Without any further delay, please read on!:

Elliot Waldman
Japanese Television News Producer, Washington D.C.

Good thoughts Graham, thanks! I interpreted Obama’s strongly negative language as reflective of the administration’s desire to project a clear-eyed understanding of danger. One of the most persistent criticisms that has dogged Obama’s foreign policy pretty much since day one has been the perception of inaction. No doubt, part of this is due to the fact that his predecessor was so active in combating real and perceived/inflated threats with big flashy military interventions. Obama can’t help but seem timid in comparison, and his opponents take full advantage of this by incessantly beating their war drums to the delight of the media. Plus, his manner and style are that of a calm and collected professor, which lends credence to the criticism that he doesn’t take seriously Putin’s neo-imperial machinations or the full extent of Islamic extremism.

Now, at a critical time when Obama is seeking a mandate from the international community as well as his domestic constituents for another multi-year military effort in the Middle East, the last thing he wants to do is project an air of sanguinity (sic). Last year, dogged by the NSA scandal, Obama was on defense, trying to play the role of conciliator while trying to make the case that the US still has a strong and constructive role to play in the world. (Remember how much play Rousseff got for her blistering attack on mass surveillance? Compare that with this year.) Now he’s in full offense mode, essentially telling the world that it’s put up or shut up time.

On a different note, I was also surprised by the relatively long section on Ferguson. Perhaps other countries’ accusations of hypocrisy over that incident stung more than we imagined?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Even Japan Went to Ferguson

I want to talk to you about two aspects of the news in Ferguson, Missouri.

The first part deals with the nuts-and-bolts of foreign news coverage of the event and the challenges therein:

People have a very a-la-carte opinion of "the media".
While covering the rally marking one-month-in to the Occupy Wall Street Movement at Foley Square, live no less, an angry protester shot a dirty glance at my team, shouting "Where were you a month ago?" I started covering the Occupy Wall Street movement from Week Two, keep in mind my target audience is Japan, and I feel my network, TBS, was one of - if not the first in Japan to report it as international news. I can't remember now whether I bothered to set the person straight, but in the grand scale of things, I doubt it would have mattered.
Fast forward 3 years.

From the moment it became national news, I kept a close watch on the reaction to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri . My office debated daily whether it was "time to go".
Similar to OWS, after about one week, the first night of a city-imposed curfew in Ferguson turned violent, and I was on a plane the next morning.
Seated behind me on the plane were two colleagues from another Japanese television network, Fuji. This confirmed our own sense of timing, and we found out later, our two networks were the first to deem the situation as needing the on-scene presence of a reporter to accurately report the situation to the Japanese viewing public.

In the days that followed, the other networks hurried out, playing catch-up, and covering oddly minute aspects of he movement, so as not to appear lacking in their coverage. I have learned this is part of the nature of "being second", in television news.

Interestingly, despite all of the Japanese media covering many different events and perspectives, I noticed, all networks avoided explaining the phrase "Hands up, Don't shoot" - a mantra and rallying call throughout the city of Ferguson. Although we and a few others mentioned "Don't Shoot", I believe no one wanted to attempt translating "Hands up". Surely putting your hands up is understood world-wide as a symbol of surrender, but the phrase in this context stumped everyone. Were the protesters using "Hands up!" as a command, or describing Michael Brown's reportedly final act? Do the words serve as a patronizing reminder to police, or some combination of the three? I find it fascinating, and an argument that most people never contemplate, simply because we assume collectively these four, simple words are mutually understood. Are they really?

Regardless, "the media" faces many challenges "the public" never bother to consider. Show up late, and "where was the media while..." becomes the new headline. Show up immediately, and face ridicule for "ambulance chasing" or not respecting the privacy of a people in mourning.
Meanwhile the rest of the nation, or world, screams for more info, and want to hear comments from victims and their friends and family. The ambulance-chasing, victim-interviewing ridicule is two-fold, by the way. Some members of the community my shout it, but the hardest part is hearing it from the voice in your own head. I have interviewed and spoke with parents of Sandy Hook children on the day of the shooting, and Boston Marathon amputees. I hate tracking them down, and asking for their time and comments, and I hate that I have to, but when they do agree to speak on camera, I hope it benefits the world and the story. I am not thinking about ratings or advertising.

Second is my whole take on what I experienced by being there:

My crew assembled that Sunday just in time to make it to the Greater Grace Church, where a rally was being held. The guests in attendance ranged from prominent local religious figures, to Jesse Jackson and Keke Palmer, Broadway's first, black actress to play Cinderella. The speakers included Martin Luther King III, the lawyer of Michael Brown's parents, who also attended, but were understandably silent, and the main speaker, Rev. Al Sharpton.

Sharpton explained that he was contacted by Michael Brown's grandfather and asked to give a voice to their family's injustice. He made no excuses about exploiting the tragedy to promote larger matters of concern, such as civil rights, and political neglect of black neighborhoods. He even went as far as saying "Where are Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton? If they want to go to the White House, first they've gotta come to our house!" asking why future presidential hopefuls weren't weighing in on the incident. Overall, I felt he was still respectful of the family and their loss, but it was a uncomfortable balancing act of respect-paying and stirring the crowd to rally, and he was clearly practiced and comfortable, which did not sit right with me.

For the rest of the day, we went to the site of the shooting, we had to park at a nearby drugstore that had one glass door boarded up after it was broken in the first riot, and walk down the main street, because the police had closed it to traffic. There was a steady parade of protesters coming and going passed boarded up businesses with "OPEN" spray-painted on particle board.

The closed road meant that people often walked in the street, although cars of those who live in the neighborhood were still allowed in and out.The atmosphere was that of a bloc party, but without any plan or events, people who wanted to show their support by showing up, ended up inventing ways to pass the time while they were there. People were barbecuing in the street and in the parking lot of the gas station that was burned down in the riot. We were offered hot dogs and bottled water by one man. The occasional car rolled by honking their horn, blasting hip hop, sometime people hung out of open car doors and windows, or stood in truck beds or through an open sun roof.people would spontaneously begin chanting "Hands up, Don't shoot", or "No justice, No peace" - I heard one man on CNN later saying the phrase is actually "know justice, know peace", but I did not get the sense that the people saying it that day knew that either. There was a line of state police, mostly white, present, but they stood and watched the circus silently.
The place where Michael was shot had two small memorials and the stream of people who came were mostly calm & quiet. 
Police having a bit of a stand-off with local residents as they searched the area.
After filming our report, we went back to our hotel to edit and file. We planned to return to the area an hour before the curfew started to film if any riots happened. I had just started eating my chicken salad and transcribing soundbites when we heard from AP that the rioting had already begun. It was only around 9:30pm, but we jumped in the van and tried to get back. By the time we got there the perimeter was sealed off by police who were very on edge. they held shotguns and barked orders, and even after getting permission to enter, they would not let us get an inch closer until they confirmed it themselves on their radio.  We went through this three times, so by the time we actually got in, most of the protesters were gone and the police were searching houses for someone who had fired a gun.
The streets did look like a war zone though. The police had cleared a path through a pile of bricks protesters had dumped on the street to try to block their military-style vehicles. Tear gas canisters and litter were strewn about as well. I was prepared to taste my first dose of tear-gas, but instead all I smelled were some drunk people peeing near where we parked.

We stayed in the parking lot of the nearby Target, until 1am - the only place press was allowed after the curfew, and finished sending our footage to Tokyo, before heading back to the hotel. 

The next morning we returned for one more look and shockingly, it was a very different scene. Perhaps it being Monday played the biggest role, but the street was no longer closed, and as a main road, the traffic seemed to clear out most of the protesters and unruly behavior. Garbage trucks inched up and down the streets, which even by 9am were completely free of bricks, trash, or other traces of the preceding night. CNN had moved into the same gas station which was now free of BBQ grills, low-riders, and most of the protesters who crowded it the day before. Jesse Jackson stood at the site of the shooting, talking to a small group of people.

While the issue continues, we had covered it to the extent we felt Japanese people needed to know. Our report was four minutes long, which I'll tell you is relatively long for a news piece, and I was very satisfied with our final piece, but more importantly, I'm glad we went, and even happier that I got to be there on the ground and form my own opinion. I don't have a link to share with you because it timed-out, but if you see this soon, you can watch our follow-up story on Body Cameras I just filmed in New Jersey below: