Sunday, August 30, 2009

Another lie, another black eye

This week "Stars & Stripes" ran a story about media ratings prepared by public relations firm The Rendon Group and used by the military to vet reporters embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. "Files prove Pentagon is profiling reporters"

My initial reaction to hearing about the story was 'what's the big deal'? You'd be hard pressed to find a public relations firm that hasn't profiled media for a client. And then recommended strategies for working with each reporter based on those profiles. It makes sense to understand as much as you can about a reporter before you meet, just as you would do your research before meeting with a prospective client or a job applicant or a new boss.

But the devil is in the details. Reading the story, I found two larger issues. One is the unfortunately perennial problem of people lying, apparently believing no one will ever find out. In this case, both the Pentagon and Rendon claimed such a profiling system did not exist when they knew it did. Here's one quote: “They are not doing that [rating reporters], that’s not been a practice for some time — actually since the creation of U.S. Forces–Afghanistan” in October 2008, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters Monday. And then, of course, numerous sources stepped up to prove the contrary.

The second, and potentially larger, problem is what the Pentagon is doing with the profiling system. They were reported to be choosing - based on the profile - whether to approve reporters for embedded assignments with the troops. This is bothersome because the implication is that only reporters who will report positively on U.S. military actions would be approved. Appalling. We all need - and should be able to get - the most accurate information possible.

In a story datelined tomorrow morning, we learn that The Rendon Group has lost the Pentagon contract. On the one hand, I applaud the Pentagon for acting quickly and decisively. On the other hand, I believe they could have avoided the entire situation if they'd acted appropriately and told the truth in the first place.

I hate it when the public relations industry gets an undeserved black eye. I hate it more that the black eye comes because people who should know better think they can get away with acting inappropriately and then compound the problem by lying. I love it that we live in a country where media can and do keep digging for the truth.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sunflower playhouse

I tried an experiment this spring, planting sunflowers in a circle large enough to be a playhouse for my new granddaughter. Since Hannah was just born on Christmas Day, she is too young to appreciate my efforts, but that's just as well. The playhouse did not turn out exactly as I had hoped.

For one thing, my desire was for sunflowers eight feet tall with blooms as big as dinner plates. What I actually brought home was a mixed package of seed that resulted in plants anywhere from four to seven feet high bearing flowers not much bigger than my outstretched hand.

To give the playhouse even more color, I interspersed sweet peas and morning glories amongst the sunflowers. The morning glories are coming along, climbing the sunflower stalks just as I'd intended. But, not a sweet pea to be seen.

As I waited for the flowers to germinate and grow, I came upon a piece of yard art - a sculpture of a large bird we came to call "The Roadrunner" - that found its home inside the playhouse. Though the flowers were slow in coming in our cold, wet summer, The Roadrunner was impressive, bobbing in the wind and serving as a landing spot for robins.

Now the five-foot Roadrunner is mostly hidden. The sunflowers are beginning to come on - and they are beautiful as sunflowers will be on a sunny, blue sky day - and I am not at all disappointed in my experiment. It was, after all, an experiment.

Next year, I'll choose different sunflowers and be ready to invite Hannah for tea in a playhouse she'll be old enough to enjoy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fair, Food & a new Friend

The Iowa State Fair is full of the familiar. But it's the surprises I look forward to. My husband and I made our annual Fair trip yesterday, taking in the usual: new farm equipment, the quilt exhibit (that's my sister-in-law Anita's quilt in the picture), giant pumpkins, and the butter cow. We never miss them.

But the most memorable moment came when we joined a young black man on a bench next to a group of Marines challenging passersby to do pull ups. I settled down to eat my personal Fair Food Favorite - a gyro. I expected to enjoy the gyro; I didn't know I'd meet such an interesting person at the same time.

Turns out our bench companion was from Uganda. He had arrived in Iowa just four days before, (via Addis Ababa, Brussels and Atlanta). A graduate student who will study horticulture at Iowa State Univ., Denis was having great fun at our Fair.

I learned a lot about Uganda during our visit. Crops his father grew on their farm - food crops such as bananas and mangos; that their tourist season is May - August with weather similar to our summers; that they have several significant mountains, including volcanoes, but they also have beaches. He was quite an ambassador for Uganda and Africa. And he spoke English - something else I couldn't have said for sure I knew about Uganda.

We joked about meeting next year at noon on the same bench. We forgot to pick a day. But if he shows up, I expect he'll make another friend. And next year, I'll be back at the Fair, looking for the familiar and another surprise.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Writer's Block

A writing buddy and I just spent four days sequestered at LaCorsette Maison Inn, a wonderful bed and breakfast in Newton, Iowa. Our intent was to write, and write we did.

After an early morning walk and breakfast provided by our hosts, we applied 'butt glue' (one of my favorite terms picked up at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and also known as dedicated effort) and consigned ourselves to our computers for the rest of the morning.

Endless cups of coffee later - long about noon - we printed out the fruits of our labor, read each others' work, and provided feedback. Then we went back to the computers to continue writing through the afternoon, until 'the sun was over the yardarm,' as my friend who spent years sailing said, and it was time for cocktails. Which we usually drank as we continued to write, throw out plot challenges, and work through possible solutions.

The outcome of this concentrated block of time was that we each brought home greater understanding of our characters and the stories we are creating, in addition to several chapters of new writing.

Our hosts joked that they could market retreats like ours as 'Writer's Blocks.' I like it! Instead of viewing writer's block as a problem, now I will think about writer's block as the solution. It's all in the perspective.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Happy Birthday, Alaska!

Alaska became our 49th State 50 years ago in January this year. I'm a little late sending them greetings, but I was reminded of the event when my brother-in-law in Anchorage sent me this picture.

This garden is planted with a new design each year and this year celebrates this milestone birthday. In addition to 'Alaska' and '50' clearly visible in white on red, Ken tells me the center of the garden is the Alaskan flag: the Big Dipper and North Star on a blue background.

It is such a coincidence that he sent this picture yesterday since I was just doing research into flower gardens. The planting style this garden uses originated in the 19th Century - the Victorian Era. Using annuals of similar heights, the Victorian gardeners used a planting technique called carpet bedding to create their floral designs.

This post could also fall into the category 'you know you're getting old when ...' I remember when Alaska came into the Union. I was 10 years old and adding a state and another star to the flag was so exciting.

Then, of course, we got to do it all again 50 years ago this month. Happy Birthday, Hawaii!