A Little Perspective on Dubai

It has taken me a while to comment on Dubai's current economic crisis because I really wasn't surprised. The model and speed they were using with which build their city were unsustainable in so many ways. Dubai has been up to now a city built in part by incredible PR and marketing. After Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum made the momentous decision in 2002 to allow foreigners to buy property in Dubai, a lack of proper regulation created a wild wild west environment, where anything goes. Small, unscrupulous operators were able to sell apartments before the ground was even broken; oftentimes before even owning the land the apartment building was supposed to be built on. Dubai's government utilized the same strategy to build the Palm Jumeirah when they could not get bank financing. A lack of building codes and laws encouraged shoddy work and cost cutting. In spite of that real estate values skyrocketed. Speculators flooded the city. Poor destitute laborers worked around the clock in 40 C temperatures, under slave like conditions to ensure that these buildings were constructed fast enough. Obviously, this method of developing a city needed to be re-examined and revamped.

Buildings under construction in Dubai's Marina (Picture from Reuters)

But the media in its usual hyperbolic form, exalted Dubai when construction and financial deals were moving ahead at the speed of sound and then when Dubai inevitably hit a bump (ok a pretty large $26 billion to $80 billion debt bump), the media immediately reported the demise of the Gulf city. To make such bold and extreme statements however, is to not know Dubai's history or the full extent of its entrepreneurial spirit.

While most people in world started to take note of Dubai this past decade, Dubai has been building itself as an entrepreneurial hot spot since the late 1800s. In 1894 Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher took over as ruler of Dubai and launched the plan to make Dubai the most business friendly port of the lower Gulf. He lured disgruntled merchants from Iran by abolishing the 5% customs duty and slashed fees turning Dubai essentially into a free port. Sheikh Maktoum also sent out his agents to recruit the biggest merchants in surrounding countries to Dubai with promises of free land, the ability to bend the leader's ear and a hands off government policy. This strategy is not so different from what Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the current ruler of Dubai has done with Internet City, Media City and in Dubai's International Financial Center, earlier this decade - where he attracted huge global tech, media and financial companies like Microsoft, Oracle CNN, Reuters, and every giant investment bank to open up operations in Dubai with promises of free rent, no import duties, no tax and an eradication of companies law which forbade majority foreign ownership.

When Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, the grandfather of modern Dubai, proposed the idea of building the world's largest man-made port in the 1970's in Jebel Ali 35 km southwest of Dubai people thought he was crazy and wasteful but today it is one of Dubai's greatest financial assets. Now I'm not equating the building of the port with the construction of giant palm island after island (although it did put Dubai on the world stage), but Dubai is no flash in the pan.

I agree with BusinessWeek's recent article "Why Dubai Matters" by Stanley Reed, when he writes that Dubai is an important economic experiment in a strategically vital region. "The humiliating debt implosion aside, the emirate remains the most dynamic business hub in the Gulf" and remains a model for surrounding countries. According to Reed, Dubai stands out for creating an open economy that is diversified well beyond oil. It is also the Middle East's most nimble competitor and a "tolerant and comfortable base for anyone seeking a foothold in the Arab world...." And beneath all the flashy over-the-top construction projects, Dubai is also a place "where serious business gets done."

Emirates Airlines, Dubai's national airline which began in 1985 got its start with the assistance of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) which leased them two airplanes. Twenty years later, Emirates Airlines, now one of the world's fastest growing and leading airlines, is winning award after award, leaving their original mentor PIA in the dust. Many of Dubai's home grown companies, despite the current economic problems remain significant players in world markets. Dubai is also the major location for the emerging market of Islamic financial services, which according to BusinessWeek is a $1 trillion business globally.

And despite many competitors in the region, who would love to take over Dubai's role as the Middle East business hub, like Doha in Qatar, Abu Dhabi, or even Riyadh in Saudi Arabia (all of which are closely studying and following Dubai's model for finance and building infrastructure) that doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon. For the most part these cities still have relatively closed societies, steeped in very traditional values. Expatriates will not be rushing to settle in those cities any time soon.

So inevitably, this crisis has forced the leaders of Dubai to re-examine their way of doing things. Instead of building up their brand through outlandish developments, the leaders of Dubai are now going to London and Washington to reassure the U.S. and British governments and businesses that the second $10 billion bailout they received from Abu Dhabi earlier this week will not be a recurrent pattern. Today, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed also issued several laws to promote government transparency and rein in public spending. Dubai also implemented earlier this week, an insolvency law modeled on U.S. and British practices and created a tribunal headed by three international judges to mediate any disputes between Dubai World and its creditors. There is tremendous pressure on the leaders of Dubai to change their past operating model which they are doing by creating greater transparency and a sounder, less ambiguous regulatory framework. All of which are imperative and a good start. The leaders of Dubai also need to control and rein in some of its excesses. Curtailing the endless supply of 'world's tallest buildings' and 'world's largest development' can only help the urban and economic environment of Dubai. According to financial analysts, while Dubai's current economic problems are undoubtedly severe, the viability of their economic model remains sound. The entire global economy is depressed right now - but demand for business services will rebound in Dubai as it will globally with the easing of the credit crunch.

On a separate more personal note, as a long time researcher on Dubai, I find this current financial predicament an incredibly fascinating comment on the rise of Dubai as a premier global city. Twelve years ago when I first started studying the city-state, I struggled to find even a handful of articles published on Dubai. It was barely a blip on any one's radar. However, in a mere twelve years, this present financial crisis in Dubai has put the entire world on alert and dramatically affected the global economy. Anyone who discounts this desert city-state does not know it at all.


The Question of Healing**

The decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the September 11 attacks, in New York City – just blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center – has sparked a tremendous debate in the city and nationally. This debate has focused upon issues of rule of law and security, in particular whether civilian courts can prosecute complex terrorism cases and handle confidential information without compromising security. Those in support of civilian trials in New York City argue that the city has handled high-profile terrorism cases in the past and that the justice system is capable of fulfilling the task. Those opposed to civilian trials believe that military commissions are still the best medium to try terrorist suspects. An absent, yet equally important aspect of the debate is: what is the more appropriate medium to help American society grapple with the mass atrocity that was 9/11?

David Filipov looks for a picture of his father, Al Filipov, at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center in New York City. (Image by Scott Lewis)

Such questions have been explored in many other countries in their attempt to deal with mass violence and human rights violations, referred to often as transitional justice. Trials are a prominent component of transitional justice, and decisions on where to hold trials are usually based on two key considerations: where the capacities lie and where the trials are likely to have the most impact. International tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, for example, were set up in the Netherlands and Tanzania to prosecute crimes committed during the violent conflicts in the Former-Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. These tribunals were situated in a different place from where the crimes were committed in large part because domestic judicial systems at the time were weak. In addition, it was feared that the domestic climate at the time would not allow for safe and fair trials. The international tribunals, while rich in judicial capacity, have however been criticised for failing to resonate with local populations. Their distance rendered the trials physically and financially inaccessible to the vast majority who suffered from the violence. Rather then participating in these acts of justice and in so doing, possibly experiencing some form of healing, international trials were often seen as a foreign abstraction. In both the Former-Yugoslavia and Rwanda, some trials have subsequently taken place through domestic justice systems. In Rwanda, accused have also been held accountable through traditional justice systems. Many would argue that localising justice has been an important factor in the process of survivors coming to terms with atrocities.

In discussions about 9/11 trials, this important issue of impact and resonance has been missing. The question of whether justice conducted locally may play a role in healing survivors has not been asked. The prime focus has been on rule of law and capacities – whether a military commission or a civilian commission is most capable of handling the cases. Guantanamo Bay, where Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (and four accused co-conspirators also designated for trial in New York City) have been held is critiqued primarily for digressions from due process and rule of law. Concerns over the applicability of Guantanamo have rarely centred upon whether the system there resonates with Americans or is perceived as distant and abstract. Although family members of those who died on 9/11 could apply to win a lottery to attend proceedings at Guantanamo, these were rare to come by and disempowering for the many who were not selected. By and large, the processes and occurrences there have been shrouded in secrecy. Civilian trials in New York City would open the process. New Yorkers and all Americans affected by 9/11 would have greater ability to sit in the courtroom and witness proceedings. Trials could also be broadcast, at least in part, by local and mass media – reaching countless more people than the military proceedings in Guantanamo.

Most commentators that touch on the potential impact of local trials on New Yorkers stress, however, only the potential negative effects of Americans reliving the trauma and the risk of a media circus. These experiences will undoubtedly be difficult and painful, as they have been in other countries overcoming mass violence. Some New Yorkers may feel that it is too soon to have the trials so close to home, while others may think that it is time to confront this past. Whichever the view, it is indeed time to ask these questions and to extend the debate on civilian versus military trials, New York City versus Guantanamo beyond the lens of rule of law and security to issues of healing.

**This article was written by Huma Haider, a New York State attorney who worked in the Prosecution Support Section of the War Crimes Chamber, State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2007.


Time for a little Maturity

The United Nations has recently released their hefty 574 page report on their investigation on Israel's military campaign in Gaza this past December/January. The full report which includes 188 interviews, more than 10,000 pages of documentation and 1,200 photographs will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council at the end of this month. While the report cites that war crimes were committed on both sides - Palestinian rockets fired into southern Israel purposely targeted Israel civilians and civilian structures - the bulk of the report however, is on the war crimes and possible crimes against humanity committed by Israel. This is not surprising given the military might of Israel and the death toll of the Gaza population. It is estimated that over 1,400 Gazans were killed, in comparison to the 3 Israeli civilians who were killed.

The report cites thirty-six incidents where war crimes and possible crimes against humanity were committed by the Israeli army. It is important to note that these incidents do not address decisions that were made in the heat of battle but are on the non-urgent broader policies that were adopted during the war by the Israeli military that were purposefully reckless. The report states that the Israeli operations "were carefully planned in all their phases as a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population."

The UN Human Rights team that researched and wrote the report consisted of four people and was led by highly respected South African Judge Richard Gladstone. Rich with professional accolades, Gladstone is the former chief prosecutor with the international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Fully aware that such charges have been brought against Israel in the past and have amounted to nothing, politically astute Gladstone has recommended that the UN Security council require Israel and the Gaza authorities to report in six months about their own investigations into these alleged crimes. If this request is ignored or completed superficially, then he suggests that the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague should become involved.

As it usually goes, it is not a big surprise that Israel has condemned this report, claiming it to be flawed and biased. At the Israeli Foreign Ministry, a diplomatic offensive is already being planned to block the referral of any Israeli commanders or officials to the ICC. Israel's blanket rejection of the report and their complete lack of cooperation in the initial research stages blatantly ignores that fact that human rights organizations around the world have condemned Israel of the same. Human Rights Watch claims that "Israel's repeated firing of white phosphorous shells over densely populated areas of Gaza during its recent military campaign was indiscriminate and is evidence of war crimes." Israeli human rights groups have also criticized their own military. Israeli troops themselves have admitted to abhorrent behavior. The testimony of soldiers, graduates of the Yitzhak pre-military preparatory course at Oranim College on February 13, 2009 is completely contrary to the Israeli Defense Forces'official statements. These soldiers admit that they were entitled to use unrestricted force against the Palestinians - killing, destroying, vandalizing. Shoot first they were told and worry about the consequences later.

Nevertheless, the Israeli government and its military will in perpetuity deny any wrong doing. And the infinitely strong Jewish lobby within the United States will ensure that the American government will come to Israel's defence at America's own detriment. And if there is a repeat of any global condemnation of Israel's actions in Gaza and call for those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity to be held accountable, I have no doubt Israel will claim a global bias against the Jewish state, and cling to their belief of their perpetual state of victimhood. No, Israel apparently never seems to have any responsibility to examine their own actions and behaviors in arousing such frustrated reactions or global condemnations.

Israel in fact reminds me a few people I know. I am sure most people know someone like this. These are the people who constantly deplore their state in life, but blame everyone and everything for their plight. Nothing is ever their fault. They are merely a victim to the cruel ways of the world. These people may have alienated friends, family, collegues but they never look at their own actions to find the source of the problem. The problem is always with the other. The sad thing is, a little honest self introspection would go a long way in improving this person's plight in the world.... Just a thought.


The Silent Scream

My usual upbeat weekend demeanor has been replaced by a deep melancholy today. My morning started with me reading on the BBC news website that Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan quietly passed into law a husband's right to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex with him. That is apparently an improvement from the previous bill that condoned rape within a marriage. The Afghan elections for president are around the corner and a largely unpopular Karzai desperately needs the support of these deranged fundamentalists to win. So I guess for him politics trumps morality and human rights. After that in the New York Times I read about two young Kashmiri women, 17 year old Asiya and 22 year old Nilofa, who on their way to tend to their family's apple orchard were gang raped and beaten to death by apparently the local police who desperately and unsuccessfully tried to cover it up.
What kind of human being does this to another?

What I didn't read in the newspaper today with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having wrapped up her trip to Africa, but remains in the forefront of my mind is the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Far from democratic, over 200,000 women and girls have been raped and mutilated in the Eastern Congo since 1996, according to the United Nations, as a by-product of the war. Some have named this area the rape capital of the world. Rape is so rampant and pervasive, that according to Dr. Michael Van Rooyen, director of Harvard's Humanitarian Initiative, it is becoming part of the culture. There are endless reports of women who are even nine months pregnant and pre-pubescent girls who are abducted and gang raped repeatedly. When Hillary Clinton stopped in Goma early last week, she pressured the government to address this crisis and to punish the perpetrators. These are after all crimes against humanity. But when the rapists include military generals and other top officials a significant re-education and shift in how women are treated and valued within society is critical for any long term change.

Unfortunately, the extent of the violence in the DR Congo is not unique. 20,000 rapes were committed in the war in Bosnia and there were 500,000 rapes in Rwanda. I remember reading the stories about these women, what they had endured and their fight for survival and crying myself to sleep, horrified and dismayed. Thankfully, I was nowhere near these locations and was safe in my home but I felt so extremely hurt and violated as a women.

These gut wrenching stories of rape however, are not only a result of the madness of war.

In a recent survey by the Medical Research Council, 1 in 4 men in South Africa admitted to committing rape.

For the past 16 years, in the northern Mexican town of Cuidad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas thousands of young women aged 12-22 have gone missing. Hundreds and hundreds of them wind up dead, their lifeless bodies, showing signs of sexual abuse, torture and mutilation discarded with yesterday's trash. For sixteen years this has been going on, movies have been made about this, songs have been written, and yet the Mexican government has made no effort to solve these crimes. Apparently as young students and poor factory workers these women are not significant enough to warrant the manpower.

For those in the U.S., who think that these are the problems of distant under-developed countries, or war or religion or overly machismo societies - think again. One in six women in the United States, according the 2004 U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey have been a victim to sexual assault. In 2007, the updated results from the same survey estimated that every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in America.

Is this a world gone mad?
I often wonder when I read these articles in the newspaper or see it on the news why there isn't a deafening global outcry against this sexualized violence against women. These rapes are not the actions of a freakish few in insignificant countries far away. It touches every corner of this planet. This is violence that is being perpetrated against half of the human race.

Why are women who bare the children, nuture and support their families, who make significant advances in science, business, art, society, culture and politics so undervalued and easily dehumanized in our global society?

During her trip to Africa, Clinton pledged $17 million in a new U.S. fund for victims of sexual violence. That is indeed a good start. The perpetrators also have to be brought to justice. Their actions are profoundly evil and they rot the soul of humanity. Rapists not only dehumanize the victims, they dehumanize themselves by turning themselves into savages. This cycle must end. However, ultimately the most transformative force can only come from education. Girls need to be raised with the awareness of their own value and importance. Boys need to be raised with the knowledge and respect that they are one part of a greater whole. And both boys and girls have to be raised with a respect for each other. The human race has been on this planet for over 200,000 years now - one would have hoped that we would have evolved for the better by now.


When Globalization Goes Horribly Awry

Story Number 1: Asian Neverland
Chinese developers have decided to commemorate the late Michael Jackson by building a scaled down Neverland Ranch on Chongming Island off the coast of Shanghai. The Asian Neverland will be 1/17 of the 2,800 acres of the original property and will cost an estimated $15 million. Additionally, in deference to its alternate location, the Asian Neverland will have "Chinese characteristics" so that it blends in with the local environment. In the investors in the project are hoping that it will be completed in time for Shanghai's 2010 World Expo.
Hmm...Nevertheland on the left, and a Chinese temple on the right... yeah...I don't think so.


Lists and Rankings of Cities Galore but Who Really Cares?

Every week one million people move to new cities around the world - according to consulting firm A.T. Kearney and Foreign Policy magazine.

That is 1,000,000 people every week!
How do these people decide where to move? What influences their decision?

I am always amazed and fascinated with the number of studies done on cities - rankings that evaluate every city on a whole host of categories ranging from the more serious criteria like their population, their cultural industries and offerings, the environment or their economic vitality to the more frivolous. Many of these lists often serve as fodder for conversations at the next cocktail party - best cities to meet men, best cities to meet women, best cities to buy a house, cities with the worst traffic, cities with the worst air quality, and so on. Most of these studies are undertaken by management consulting firms, research based publications, or more entertainment driven magazines.

With all the time, financial investment and (wo)manpower that goes into developing and researching these lists - does it actually influence anyone's decisions? As a young professional, an expat kid and a life long nomad and a lover of cities, not just as a traveler but also as a scholar, I have my own criteria for selecting cities for which to relocate. And more often than not these lists while sometimes idealistic and hopeful are usually irrelevant to my decision-making.

Image from National Geographic
For example, two publications that I frequently read - Monocle and the Economist or in this case their research and advisory firm EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) evaluate cities around the world on their livability annually. They research important criteria like their political stability, culture, infrastructure, business environment. EIU also looks into healthcare and education; while Monocle headed by style-driven Tyler Brûlé includes architecture and tolerance as criteria in their rankings. Undoubtedly, these are all critical aspects for good quality of life. It provides mayors and city planners with positive examples and aspirations. For 2009, Monocle ranked Zurich their most livable city (overtaking last years winner - Copenhagen) and EIU gave the top prize to Vancouver.

These lists however, always leave me puzzled. If Zurich is the world's most livable city, why does it only have a tiny population of approximately 375,000? Don't get me wrong, I love Zurich. It is an incredibly beautiful city but not a very diverse or inclusive city. Even Tyler Brûlé who is constantly touting all the fine qualities of Zurich survived there on his own admission only a year. Meanwhile he continues to make his home in London. Likewise, metro Vancouver has a mere approximate population of 615,473. For the past year, I have been desperately campaigning for my sister to move to Vancouver - and she is all for it - if she can find the right opportunity.

Unfortunately, livability has nothing to do with opportunities. In 2008, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and A.T. Kearney did a ranking of the top global cities. They ranked cities based on business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience and political engagement. Only five of the cities (Paris, Tokyo, Toronto, Sydney and Vienna) that made the top 20 of the global cities' list were on either Monocle's or EUI's livability list.
Mumbai *
Nevertheless, millions of people from around the world continue to converge on mega cities like New York, London, Shanghai, Tokyo and Mumbai because they are dynamic and flush with opportunities and possibilities and influence the direction of the global agenda and economy. Successful businesses congregate and influential and creative people tend to cluster where there are others of like-mind and vision. Daily living in New York City for example is tough work. Traffic is horrid, subways are congested, hot and sticky, shoe boxes are larger than most apartments but there are very few cities in the world, where you have as much access to diverse populations, businesses, institutions, culture, food and ideas. As exhausting as it sometimes gets, the electricity and buzz in the air is addictive.

And so a list I would like to see is a ranking of the livability of global cities that are rife with opportunities, diversity, culture attractions, and intellectual vigor. I would like to see mega cities which are often not the most comfortable cities to reside in trade best practices on improving the quality of life; especially since so many up and coming global cities around the world look to New York and London as their guidepost - often following their examples blindly and that means their successes and mistakes. Does livability and opportunity have to be on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to city planning? What a novel idea to have a city that does not always have to sacrifice one for the other.

*Bottom two photographs are from the 2007 Global Cities exhibition at the Tate Modern in London.


a New Art Exhibition with Much to Say about Life, Politics, Culture, Migration and the Middle East

Contemporary Arab art!? Who knew such a thing existed?
After all there is such a dearth of information on contemporary art from the Arab world. Judging from textbooks, journals and the collections in museums around the world, I would have concluded, if I did not know any better, that artistic creation in the Middle East and South Asia ceased after the construction of the Taj Mahal in the mid-16oo's - which is not the case.

Long Words- Vahé Berberian (2005)

Up until recently, very few museums had a comprehensive collection of traditional Islamic art. Even fewer have a collection of contemporary Arab art. (I have only seen a few pieces in the British Museum in London and at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles). The Louvre in Paris Museum in Paris is building an entire new department to house their collection of Islamic art and perhaps there will be some new contemporary pieces when the building opens in 2010 - but for now their collection of art from the Arab world (seen online) ends with Ottoman period. And yet in spite of this, interest in contemporary Arab art is increasing.
Works on Paper - Adnan Charara (2008)
With recent successes of art fairs in the wealthier countries in the Gulf like Dubai and wealthy patrons who are not only building up their own personal collections but looking to build museums - prominent western auction houses have taken note and are making huge profits auctioning contemporary Arab art. London based Christie's auction house opened up its Dubai office in 2005. In October 2007, Christie's held their 3rd auction for Arab and Iranian art. During the course of that one evening they sold US$12.6 million of art. In April 2008, they sold US$18 million.

Despite this new found interest and artistic exchange between Europe and the Gulf - museums and galleries in the United States however, have been painfully slow to broaden their scope of their collections. So with the hope of building peace and understanding through cultural diplomacy - the Levantine Cultural Center (LCC) in LA decided to take matters into their own hands. "If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed will go to the mountain." Opening on June 20th, 2009 in Los Angeles, at the LCC is the first gallery to focus solely on contemporary Arab art. The first show curated by me, titled "inside/outside and other oxymorons," features the work of three incredible artists - Sama Alshaibi, Vahé Berberian, Adnan Charara whose life stories alone are legendary. Each of their lives have been marred by political conflict and strife which forced them into a more nomadic, migrant existence. The art they create in a variety of mediums are not only a political commentary, but also symbol of hybridity, multi-culturalism, the human condition, their own respective journeys and our collective experience in globalized world.

During the time I spent curating this show, I not only developed tremendous respect and admiration for their creativity and their art but I was also in awe of these people. Having endured some of the worst of humanity with wars and genocide, these three artists represent the best of humanity with their kindness, their joie de vivre, their generosity and openness.
Mahmood - Sama Alshaibi (2007)
Sama Alshaibi (1973) is a photography and mixed media artist who draws from her own cultural experiences from Iraq, Palestine and the United States. Born into a family affected by war, displacement and exile from two homelands, Palestine and Iraq - much of her work focuses on the themes of restlessness, hybrid identity, exile and displacement and the subtle negotiations and shifts between personal and family history and expectations. Her images are full of longing and nostalgia. What I find most appealing with her work is the emotional vulnerability and honesty. Her art is a peak into her own internal dialogue and her and her family's struggles as they come to terms with the culture and homes they lost and the new life they gained.

The Call - Sama Alshaibi (2002)
Vahé Berberian (1955) a painter, novelist, playwright, actor and director lost 74 members of his family during the Armenian genocide. It all happened before he was born but he has carried the heavy weight of this legacy all his life. The deportation of his parents from Turkey, the war in Beirut, the European counter-culture (which he became a part of in his teens), the city of Los Angeles (where he has been a resident since 1976) and his own hybrid identity (which includes a mix of Armenian, Lebanese, European and American cultures) have provided him rich fodder for his work. Tremendously affected by his family history and yet a student of all cultures and people, his art is a study of aesthetics and of the human condition. His paintings while seemingly simple are full of raw emotion. His goal is to create beauty out of imperfection. His paintings are reminiscent of a human being - beauty is found in the vulnerability and the flaws.

Vahé Berberian in his studio
Adnan Charara (1962) known to most as a painter, sculptor and print-maker prefers to be known as a visual poet or philosopher. While his colorful, animated and whimsical creations seem rather light-hearted, they are deceptively full of commentary and emotion. Having spent most of his childhood shuttled between Lebanon and Sierra Leone (depending on the political situation at the time) and then eventually moving to the United States, much of his work focuses on physical and emotional migration, the merging of cultures and accumulation of knowledge through life's journeys and the formation of new identity. Through his art, he explores what is gained and lost through migration. While Charara's style is uniquely his own, his exposure to multiple cultures is clearly reflected in his art. He draws from African tribal art, Islamic calligraphy and European cubist art.
From the Osmosis series - Adnan Charara (2008)
From the Osmosis series - Adnan Charara (2008)
Found Objects - Adnan Charara

The inside/outside and other oxymorons art exhibition opens on Saturday June 20th, 2009 from 6PM to 10PM at the new inside/outside gallery at the Levantine Cultural Center on 5998 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90035. The exhibition will run until the end of July. Stop by and take a look - let me know what you think. I can't wait introduce you to these are artists and for you to see their work. It might just give you a different perspective on what is coming out of the Middle East.

For more information click here.

"The art of the global diaspora is often hopefully described as the art of the future - a projected future of multi-cultural societies, well traversed territories and translated traditions."
- Homi Bhabha

"Culture is not static.... We are fluid; we are human; we are experience. And within that experience we are transformed by our contact with each other."
- Richard Rodriguez

"The global village is increasingly internalized within us."
- Pico Iyer


Something Smells Very Fishy in Japan & It Smells like Corporate Greed

The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna with its torpedo shaped metallic blue body is one of the largest and fastest fish in the ocean. It migrates across entire oceans and can swim at speeds up to 45 miles per hour. While in the ocean, the bluefin tuna is a top level predator, this extraordinary fish now teeters on the point of extinction because a much larger more powerful predator, the human consumer and big business have an even larger, seemingly uncontrollable appetite.

Bluefin Tuna - Getty Images

The bluefin tuna has the unfortunate distinction of having extremely succulent and sweet flesh, best eaten raw in sushi or sashimi and thus is a staple in Japan and around the world. Four decades of over-fishing and greed have now eradicated 97% of the Atlantic bluefin tuna stock. While the legal bluefin tuna catch is set at 22,000 tonnes, conservationists suspect that the actual catch is probably closer to 60,000 tonnes. Experts also believe that up to 50% of the bluefin tuna that is caught in the Mediterranean (where the fish go to spawn) is caught illegally - 90% of which ends up in Japan.

Although, many scientists warn that we have perhaps already passed the point of no return with this fish, various global organizations and environmental groups are trying to halt the fishing of the Atlantic bluefin tuna with the hope that like the Western bluefin tuna it will slowly retreat from the brink of extinction after this species of fish fell under the protection of the United States and Canada. Retailers and chefs in Monaco and Britain now refuse to stock bluefin.

However, on the flipside, Japan's giant Mitsubishi conglomerate has now cornered a 40% share of the world's market of bluefin tuna, hedging its bets that the fish will eventually become commercially extinct and they will literally make a killing in profits. The Mitsubishi empire has been importing thousands of tonnes of fish from Europe despite plummeting stocks and freezing the tuna at -60C so that they can sell the fish in several year's time when they become extinct. Research done for the documentary "The End of the Line," claims that Mitsubishi continues to aggressively buy and sell this dwindling reserve and has expanded their freezer capacity to hold extra bluefin. While most people, including myself, only knew Mitsubishi for their cars and electronic goods, I find it extremely distasteful that this corporation is willfully gambling on the complete and utter extinction of this magnificent creature.

In the early morning chaos in Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market, the price for fish globally is set at this market. At auction, it has not been uncommon for the price of one bluefin tuna to range from US$100,000 to US$150,000 or even higher. If human greed for this fish continues unchecked, Mitsubishi with their frozen reserves, will undoubtedly hit the jackpot in profits when the oceans are empty and they possess the world's last few vestiges of Atlantic bluefin tuna - but humanity as a whole will pay a even higher price when future generations can only know of this fish in the pictures of the past.


What are the Motives for Aid and Justice?

Another book on Africa recently caught my attention much in the same way Dambisa Moyo's book "Dead Aid" did. Written by Uganda-born Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, this book titled "Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror," is extremely critical of humanitarian and human rights organizations and their current role in Darfur. What fascinated me about Mamdani's argument was that it challenged my blind assumptions about the roles and motives of humanitarian and human rights organizations located predominantly in the West.

Since violence broke out in Darfur 6 years ago an approximate 300,000 people have died and more than 2.5 million have been forced out of their homes. While there are obviously many parties who are responsible for the violence and chaos, humanitarian organizations and human rights institutions have not been lumped into the group of perpetrators - until now. Mamdani presents that recent shifts in international affairs have eroded a state's sovereign rights (and a citizen's rights) in favor of humanitarian norms. Since the Cold War ended, there is growing consensus that a government cannot use its sovereignty to commit atrocities against its own people. International war crimes tribunals were set up for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Then in 2002, the International Criminal Courts (ICC) was established prosecute individuals for war crimes. In 2006, 150 head of states at the United Nations endorsed the belief that the international community is responsible for the protection of vulnerable populations. While undoubtedly these efforts seem noble and just, Mamdani warns that this new world humanitarian order has its own pitfalls and dangers. Instead of being seen as citizens with rights, local populations are reduced to wards of the international community with the potential of losing their own voice in directing the course in their own lives. Mamdani also views these new humanitarian/human rights efforts and organizations as the powerful meddling in the lives and affairs of the less powerful. At an extreme, he sees them as a new kind of colonizer - where the respective interests of these organizations and institutions primarily based in the west determine the fate of a country's people.

Map of Sudan

In interviews he has done for the book, he cites as an example, Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir's recent indictment by the ICC. Bashir, no doubt is a man who deserves to be charged with war crimes, however, this controversial decision to indict a sitting president still heavily embroiled in instigating the violence against its own people raises questions as to motives behind levelling these charges now. Following the indictment, the Sudanese government promptly expelled the 13 international aid organizations which were providing critical food and medical aid to the 2.5 million Darfurian refugees leaving them even more vulnerable. This indictment also leaves Bashir with a nothing to lose mentality, making it harder to negotiate peace. Instead violence has escalated. The hope that this indictment would act as a deterrent for any future acts to violence has yet to be proven. ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo (whom I have tremendous respect for), went ahead with this indictment with full knowledge this. Mamdani questions the purpose of an indictment at this time. This brings into conflict - national sovereignty and perhaps the rights and perhaps safety of the citizen with international law.

While he agrees that those who perpetrated this violence must be held accountable, when and how he says, cannot be decided solely by the ICC prosecutor. He cites South Africa as an example of a country who chose a different path to achieve justice with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. If Mandela chose to prosecute those responsible for upholding the apartheid regime in the 1990's, there may not have been such a peaceful settlement and smooth transition of government.

Mamdani has a valid argument here. Local methods of dealing with transitional justice that are not always understood by the West are often ignored. Decisions are then made and 'justice' is meted out without the consultation of the local population. But then whose justice is it? Mamdani claims that many of these western organizations focus too much on the perpetrators and a rhetoric of demonization and not on the issues that caused the violence. In so many of these conflicts, the perpetrators, he argues are constantly shifting. Additionally, without building up local mechanisms and institutions, local populations will always be unable to fight for justice and defend themselves.

Another significant issue raised by Mamdani is the west's laser focus on the crisis on Darfur, while turning a blind eye to what maybe considered much larger human catastrophes. Since violence broke out in Darfur, 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed, (which is no small number and should not be dismissed) however, during this time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo 4.5 million people have been killed. According to Mamdani, Uganda and Rwanda both have army proxies in the Congo and since both these countries are U.S. allies, the world stays silent. Uganda, a militarized security state, whose government has carried out a campaign of anti-civilian violence in the north receives only mild admonishment. The ICC that purports to represent universal justice acknowledges that for "nineteen years the people of northern Uganda have been killed, abducted, enslaved and raped," but the blame only falls on the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Meanwhile the Ugandan government continues their war on their own citizens spilling into surrounding countries unscathed.

Mamdani argues that western governments and institutions self-servingly divide Africa into states that are favored by the west and those countries tend to be labelled human rights protectors, allies in the War on Terror while others are labelled human rights violators, terrorist sponsors, deserving the full force of international coercion.

Mamdani has raised valid concerns as to the global power structure and how that can seep and stain seemingly honorable efforts like the promotion of human rights and justice, however, according to the Financial Times, to prove his point, Mamdani is at times prone to hyperbole and occasional errors and half truths. While his analysis of the omnipotence of the "Save Darfur" organization may perhaps be somewhat exaggerated, he is justified in questioning why not one penny of the millions of dollars raised by this organization ever goes to sustaining the life of a Darfurian refugee. Ultimately, in a world of power struggles, back room politicking, no global organization can be free from influence unfortunately. Western organizations would benefit from a closer reciprocal relationship with local populations when defining their own goals and aims and the context surrounding their intervention. And while he criticizes western governments and organizations for failing to appreciate the nuances in Sudan's history and development, he too falls prey to that which he criticizes. He lumps all western governments and institutions together as huge power hungry monolith working together in chorus without dissent. Many of these institutions like the ICC are new global structures that are constantly being studied to be made more effective. And undoubtedly, like the United Nations, in an imperfect world, any international organization will be often forced to delicately balance the whims and input of numerous countries - often the more powerful. When countries in the West are so often in limbo between apathy and action in an humanitarian crisis - I think Mamdani's efforts to raise greater awareness behind motivations for intervention or not is an important one.


Dambisa Moyo's Extreme Tough Love

When the media blitz started a couple months ago for Dambisa Moyo's book "Dead Aid," I admit it caught my attention however not being an economist, or in development or comfortable with the thought of the world's poorest suddenly flailing without any aid, my interest in Moyo's book waned. Until yesterday.
Yesterday, I went to see Dr. Josh Ruxin speak on his efforts and experiences in Rwanda. Ruxin is an Assistant Clinical Professor at Columbia University, Founder and Director of the Access Project which focuses on increasing access and affordability to health care for the poor; he is the founder of Rwanda Works which invests in improving health and fostering wealth creation; and he runs Millennium Villages which promotes community led development to lift communities out of extreme poverty with the hopes of achieving the UN's Millennium development goals. Dr. Ruxin is also a very effective one man PR machine for Rwanda, which is presently his country of residence.

In his presentation, he touted that Rwanda had made mind boggling advances in public health care over the past 15 years. Infrastructure has been built up. Wireless technology is available. Roads have been paved connecting Kigali to more rural areas. And while Paul Collier's book "The Bottom Billion" suggests that it takes several decades for a country once mired in conflict to rise out of it - Rwanda is defying expectations. In his talk, Ruxin indicated that what was ultimately needed to once and for all to defeat poverty in Rwanda and to counter the handicap of being a landlocked country was investment in the private sector. Being a tourist, he said, would do more for the country then development aid, he argued. And when I went up to him to talk after his presentation, he added that Moyo has a valid arguement. Aid to support immunization, mosquito nets, HIV antiretroviral drugs are obviously critical on a human level but they are not enough to help a country build wealth long term.

Dr. Josh Ruxin

Since I am a complete and utter novice in the world of aid and assistance, (my interest in this is more as concerned global citizen), I spent the better part of today researching Moyo's thesis and the counter-arguments of some of her very vocal critics to get a better understanding. Moyo argues that foreign direct assistance to African governments, primarily coming from the west, have propped up corrupt leaders, making these politicians more beholden to their foreign donors than their own constituents. She contends that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer and more dependent. Over the past 60 years, Moyo writes that at least $1 trillion of development related aid has been sent from rich countries to Africa and yet the per capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s. (Ruxin also added that life spans were also longer in 1970's - as health and wealth are in direct correlation). Today in Africa, more than 350 million people live in complete destitution on less than $1 a day.

For Moyo, the most obvious argument against aid is the strong links to rampant corruption in Africa. Moyo states that in 2002, the African Union estimated that corruption was costing the continent close to $150 billion a year. This form of free money, she argues provides corrupt leaders with no incentive to be otherwise. It does not promote accountability or transparency, both critical to a nascent or burgeoning economy. And no country in the world ever developed their economy with a complete reliance on hand-outs.

While she insists that she is only critical of government to government aid and not emergency and charity based aid, she is also harshly critical of celebrities like Bono who have made Africa their mission. These celebrities she claims perpetuate a negative stereotype of Africa - one of pity, poverty, war and famine. Once implanted in the psyche of an African child, it makes it that much harder from the child to rise above his/her plight or imagine that they are destined for anything more.

As an alternate strategy, Moyo promotes bond issues, trade and foreign investment as a means to financial freedom and better government. She claims that her work at Goldman Sachs demonstrated to her that this was a viable and smarter alternative. Her most controversial proposal however, which is getting the most criticism, is to cease all aid to Africa within the next 5 years. This coming at a time when Jeffrey Sachs is calling for more aid for sub-Saharan Africa.

The release of Moyo's book has perhaps come at a somewhat inopportune time for her and her argument. The current global economic crisis has provided a rare glimpse into what could happen if aid to Africa would suddenly cease. With a decline in the prices of commodity exports, a decline in the demand for services, a decline in foreign direct investments and a decline in overseas development assistance, African countries with poor governance and weak state institutions are being hit extra hard. And as a result, there are numerous humanitarian and development concerns that are arising from this crisis. For countries with low reserves, they may soon be unable to import basic necessities like food, fuel and medicine. Rising unemployment and decelerating remittances are putting tremendous strain on poor households. And with inadequate income for food and other life necessities, rising malnutrition will increase susceptibility to disease and illness. Not only would infant deaths increase, many children would drop out of school too weak to attend or unable to pay fees. This in turn could potentially increase social and political instability.

It therefore, seems apparent to me that the answer obviously is not a cessation of aid but smarter aid and a demand for greater transparency and accountability. Aid should not only include foreign direct investment, as Moyo has suggested but also guidance and support in building institutions, promoting education and entrepreneurships and educational and cultural exchanges. Coming out of conflict and genocide, many of these countries lack the proper institutions to support and promote equal opportunities and wealth creation. In the case of Rwanda, improvements in healthcare have allowed people to focus less on survival and more on income generation. However, despite the best of intentions there are barriers. What Ruxin struggles with in Rwanda in trying to help build a more successful and prosperous society is the lack of education, management knowledge, a sense of entrepreneurship - to build something from scratch to generate that bigger income. Rwandan society is also used to a very top down structure and that is going to take time to change. And undoubtedly the genocide wiped out thousands of extremely capable possibly entrepreneurial people. While he supports Moyo's proposal for more microfinance investments, he insists that is not enough for a place like Rwanda. Such a system may have worked for countries in Asia, however differences in culture, and a lack of trust and cooperation resulting from extreme poverty and conflict prevent this from taking hold in some countries like Rwanda. Additionally Ruxin adds, how many multi-million dollar companies grew out of microfinance projects with a 30% to 40% interest rate? If someone through microfinance increases their income from $1 a day to $2 a day is that enough?

Ruxin supports Paul Kagame's efforts to bring in industry giants like Google and entrepreneurs, industry experts and management gurus like Michael Porter to Rwanda. He also promotes internships and exchanges for Rwandan students to foreign companies and universities. He is also on the board of Orphans of Rwanda which offers financing for university education for young Rwandans who have been orphaned either through war or HIV or other unfortunate circumstances so that they can in turn become leaders in driving economic development. Investment in education is key. Banks in Rwanda he says have capital, just not enough ideas and entrepreneurs to offer loans. So his hope through all his various efforts and organizations is to create an environment that educates, nurtures and supports entrepreneurship alongside building a sound healthcare system.

The country of Rwanda is using Singapore as their model. Singapore once no more than a rocky outpost with very little if any natural resources built itself up into a global powerhouse. Singapore has good universities and a very educated population; Singapore enjoys good governance, no corruption and an enviable business environment. Singapore is also the model for many countries in the Gulf. If Rwanda is able to continue on its present trajectory, it might just become the Singapore of Sub-Saharan Africa. And then Rwanda could become the model and inspiration for its own continent to finally turn around.

Map of Sub-Saharan Africa


Does Stupidity Hurt?

The genius in question - Dayana Mendoza, Miss Universe 2008

It hurts me. Other people's stupidity really pains me. In this instance it also shocks me. In case the Q&A portion of the Miss Universe pageant did not already clearly illustrate the lacking intelligence of most contestants, Miss Universe 2008, Dayana Mendoza has firmly put any last vestiges of doubt to rest. In describing her recent United Service Organizations (USO) trip to the prison in Guantanomo, Cuba, she said that she had a "loooot of fun" and that she "didn't want to leave, it was such a relaxing place, so calm and beautiful." Really?!

Image from Michael Winterbottom's "The Road to Guantanomo"

According to reports, she was met by US military personnel and was taken on a tour of the prison, the jails, the showers, the barbed wire fence... and the bar and beaches!? It was all so "interesting" and the beaches were "unbelievable," she wrote in her blog. I wonder when the prisoners were being waterboarded, did they enjoy the unbelievable beaches? Did they feel like they were partaking in games and rides at a water park? Does she think she is visiting Club Med Guantanomo?

Comm'on! With the global outcry against Guantanomo, how sheltered or ignorant do you have to be to say that you did not want to leave Guantanomo? Well guess what? There is a long list of very innocent people who did not have that choice. There is a reason the Obama administration is committed to closing down this prison in a year; that guards at Guantanomo are reported to suffer from suicidal depression and alcoholism; and that Britain is investigating whether members of their own secret service were complicit in the torture of a British resident while at Guantanomo; or that Spanish prosecutors are considering what the Obama administration will not do but should do - start a criminal investigation on 6 former George W. Bush officials in their connection to creating a framework where torture was allowed.

It is interesting however, how her post on Guantanamo that has the world scratching their heads in puzzlement and horror is suddenly no longer on her blog. I guess that might hamper Ms. Mendoza and Dick Cheney's public relations effort to promote Guantanamo as a beach resort where only the occasional war crime and human rights violations were committed. Oops. Minor inconvenience. Did I tell you the beaches are incredible?

Huh, where's my extra extra strength Tylenol?


Failure of the American Mainstream Media

I rarely, if ever, do a posting the sole purpose of which is to refer readers to another article but here it is.

For people whose news sources include a wide range of mediums or international outlets, they will most likely immediately acknowledge the dearth of news that is actually reported in the mainstream American media. Most of the reports that we see on television under the guise of journalistic reporting is really celebrity gossip or inane but shocking stories to get attention and ultimately ratings. For years, scholars have been writing about the "dumbing down" of Americans, questioning how one of the most powerful countries in the world could have such an ignorant population. Any segment of Jay Leno's "Jaywalk" will prove this point.

Not only are Americans failing geography, world history and current events, only 22% of Americans have passports, which means they are also not traveling. In this following article titled "You Don't Understand Our Audience," John Hockenberry, a journalist and winner of four Emmy awards and three Peabody awards, now a senior fellow at MIT, writes about his experiences with network television while working with Dateline NBC. As a journalist desperately trying to report the news, he found his efforts repeatedly thwarted by corporate greed, power and small mindedness. Flash was almost always favored over substance. Reports that offered insight and empathy were dismissed as an unnecessary. Ultimately one wonders, is American society's ignorance perpetuated by the failure of the media to report the news in a serious and comprehensive manner or is the media merely providing the entertainment and degree of information that is desired and can comprehended by the viewer?

"You Don't Understand Our Audience"
What I learned about network television at Dateline NBC
by John Hockenberry

Image by Sean McCabe
The most memorable reporting I've encountered on the conflict in Iraq was delivered in the form of confetti exploding out of a cardboard tube. I had just begun working at the MIT Media Lab in March 2006 when Alyssa Wright, a lab student, got me to participate in a project called "Cherry Blossoms." I strapped on a backpack with a pair of vertical tubes sticking out of the top; they were connected to a detonation device linked to a Global Positioning System receiver. A microprocessor in the backpack contained a program that mapped the coördinates of the city of Baghdad onto those for the city of Cambridge; it also held a database of the locations of all the civilian deaths of 2005. If I went into a part of Cambridge that corresponded to a place in Iraq where civilians had died in a bombing, the detonator was triggered.
When the backpack exploded on a clear, crisp afternoon at the Media Lab, handfuls of confetti shot out of the cardboard tubes into the air, then fell slowly to earth. On each streamer of paper was written the name of an Iraqi civilian casualty. I had reported on the war (although not from Baghdad) since 2003 and was aware of persistent controversy over the numbers of Iraqi civilian dead as reported by the U.S. government and by other sources. But it wasn't until the moment of this fake explosion that the scale and horrible suddenness of the slaughter in Baghdad became vivid and tangible to me. Alyssa described her project as an upgrade to traditional journalism. "The upgrade is empathy," she said, with the severe humility that comes when you suspect you are on to something but are still uncertain you aren't being ridiculous in some way.
The falling confetti transported me back three years to the early days of the war in Iraq, when the bombs intended to evoke "shock and awe" were descending on Baghdad. Most of the Western press had evacuated, but a small contingent remained to report on the crumbling Iraqi regime. In the New York offices of NBC News, one of my video stories was being screened. If it made it through the screening, it would be available for broadcast later that evening. Producer Geoff Stephens and I had done a phone interview with a reporter in Baghdad who was experiencing the bombing firsthand. We also had a series of still photos of life in the city. The only communication with Baghdad in those early days was by satellite phone. Still pictures were sent back over the few operating data links.
Our story arranged pictures of people coping with the bombing into a slide show, accompanied by the voice of Melinda Liu, a Newsweek reporter describing, over the phone, the harrowing experience of remaining in Baghdad. The outcome of the invasion was still in doubt. There was fear in the reporter's voice and on the faces of the people in the pictures. The four-minute piece was meant to be the kind of package that would run at the end of an hour of war coverage. Such montages were often used as "enders," to break up the segments of anchors talking live to field reporters at the White House or the Pentagon, or retired generals who were paid to stand on in-studio maps and provide analysis of what was happening. It was also understood that without commercials there would need to be taped pieces on standby in case an anchor needed to use the bathroom. Four minutes was just about right.
At the conclusion of the screening, there were a few suggestions for tightening here and clarification there. Finally, an NBC/GE executive responsible for "standards" shook his head and wondered about the tone in the reporter's voice. "Doesn't it seem like she has a point of view here?" he asked.
There was silence in the screening room. It made me want to twitch, until I spoke up. I was on to something but uncertain I wasn't about to be handed my own head. "Point of view? What exactly do you mean by point of view?" I asked. "That war is bad? Is that the point of view that you are detecting here?"
The story never aired. Maybe it was overtaken by breaking news, or maybe some pundit-general went long, or maybe an anchor was able to control his or her bladder. On the other hand, perhaps it was never aired because it contradicted the story NBC was telling. At NBC that night, war was, in fact, not bad. My remark actually seemed to have made the point for the "standards" person. Empathy for the civilians did not fit into the narrative of shock and awe. The lesson stayed with me, exploding in memory along with the confetti of Alyssa Wright's "Cherry Blossoms." Alyssa was right. Empathy was the upgrade. But in the early days of the war, NBC wasn't looking for any upgrades.
"This is London"When Edward R. Murrow calmly said those words into a broadcast microphone during the London Blitz at the beginning of World War II, he generated an analog signal that was amplified, sent through a transatlantic cable, and relayed to transmitters that delivered his voice into millions of homes. Broadcast technology itself delivered a world-changing cultural message to a nation well convinced by George Washington's injunction to resist foreign "entanglements." Hearing Murrow's voice made Americans understand that Europe was close by, and so were its wars. Two years later, the United States entered World War II, and for a generation, broadcast technology would take Americans ever deeper into the battlefield, and even onto the surface of the moon. Communication technologies transformed America's view of itself, its politics, and its culture.
One might have thought that the television industry, with its history of rapid adaptation to technological change, would have become a center of innovation for the next radical transformation in communication. It did not. Nor did the ability to transmit pictures, voices, and stories from around the world to living rooms in the U.S. heartland produce a nation that is more sophisticated about global affairs. Instead, the United States is arguably more isolated and less educated about the world than it was a half-century ago. In a time of such broad technological change, how can this possibly be the case?
In the spring of 2005, after working in television news for 12 years, I was jettisoned from NBC News in one of the company's downsizings. The work that I and others at Dateline NBC had done--to explore how the Internet might create new opportunities for storytelling, new audiences, and exciting new mechanisms for the creation of journalism--had come to naught. After years of timid experiments, NBC News tacitly declared that it wasn't interested. The culmination of Dateline's Internet journalism strategy was the highly rated pile of programming debris called To Catch a Predator. The TCAP formula is to post offers of sex with minors on the Internet and see whether anybody responds. Dateline's notion of New Media was the technological equivalent of etching "For a good time call Sally" on a men's room stall and waiting with cameras to see if anybody copied down the number.
Networks are built on the assumption that audience size is what matters most. Content is secondary; it exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements. For a while, that assumption served the industry well. But the TV news business has been blind to the revolution that made the viewer blink: the digital organization of communities that are anything but passive. Traditional market-driven media always attempt to treat devices, audiences, and content as bulk commodities, while users instead view all three as ways of creating and maintaining smaller-scale communities. As users acquire the means of producing and distributing content, the authority and profit potential of large traditional networks are directly challenged.
In the years since my departure from network television, I have acquired a certain detachment about how an institution so central to American culture could shift so quickly to the margins. Going from being a correspondent at Dateline--a rich source of material for The Daily Show--to working at the MIT Media Lab, where most students have no interest in or even knowledge of traditional networks, was a shock. It has given me some hard-won wisdom about the future of journalism, but it is still a mystery to me why television news remains so dissatisfying, so superficial, and so irrelevant. Disappointed veterans like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather blame the moral failure of ratings-obsessed executives, but it's not that simple. I can say with confidence that Murrow would be outraged not so much by the networks' greed (Murrow was one of the first news personalities to hire a talent agent) as by the missed opportunity to use technology to help create a nation of engaged citizens bent on preserving their freedom and their connections to the broader world.
I knew it was pretty much over for television news when I discovered in 2003 that the heads of NBC's news division and entertainment division, the president of the network, and the chairman all owned TiVos, which enabled them to zap past the commercials that paid their salaries. "It's such a great gadget. It changed my life," one of them said at a corporate affair in the Saturday Night Live studio. It was neither the first nor the last time that a television executive mistook a fundamental technological change for a new gadget.
Setting the Table for Law and OrderOn the first Sunday after the attacks of September 11, pictures of the eventual head of NBC littered the streets and stuffed the garbage cans of New York City; Jeff Zucker was profiled that week in the New York Times Magazine. The piles of newspapers from the weekend were everywhere at 30 Rockefeller Center. Normally, employee talk would have been about how well or badly Zucker had made out in the Times. But the breezy profile was plainly irrelevant that week.
The next morning I was in the office of David Corvo, the newly installed executive producer of Dateline, when Zucker entered to announce that the network was going to resume the prime-time schedule for the first time since the attacks. The long stretch of commercial-free programming was expensive, and Zucker was certain about one thing: "We can't sell ads around pictures of Ground Zero." At the same time, he proceeded to explain that the restoration of the prime-time shows Friends, Will and Grace, and Frasier was a part of America's return to normalcy, not a cash-flow decision. He instructed Corvo that a series of news specials would be scattered through the next few days, but as it was impossible to sell ads for them, scheduling would be a "day to day" proposition.
Normally I spent little time near NBC executives, but here I was at the center of power, and I felt slightly flushed at how much I coveted the sudden proximity. Something about Zucker's physical presence and bluster made him seem like a toy action figure from The Simpsons or The Sopranos. I imagined that he could go back to his office and pull mysterious levers that opened the floodgates to pent-up advertisements and beam them to millions of households. Realistically, though, here was a man who had benefited from the timing of September 11 and also had the power to make it go away. In a cheap sort of way it was delirious to be in his presence.
At the moment Zucker blew in and interrupted, I had been in Corvo's office to propose a series of stories about al-Qaeda, which was just emerging as a suspect in the attacks. While well known in security circles and among journalists who tried to cover international Islamist movements, al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization and a story line was still obscure in the early days after September 11. It had occurred to me and a number of other journalists that a core mission of NBC News would now be to explain, even belatedly, the origins and significance of these organizations. But Zucker insisted that Dateline stay focused on the firefighters. The story of firefighters trapped in the crumbling towers, Zucker said, was the emotional center of this whole event. Corvo enthusiastically agreed. "Maybe," said Zucker, "we ought to do a series of specials on firehouses where we just ride along with our cameras. Like the show Cops, only with firefighters." He told Corvo he could make room in the prime-time lineup for firefighters, but then smiled at me and said, in effect, that he had no time for any subtitled interviews with jihadists raging about Palestine.
With that, Zucker rushed back to his own office, many floors above Dateline's humble altitude. My meeting with Corvo was basically over. He did ask me what I thought about Zucker's idea for a reality show about firefighters. I told him that we would have to figure a way around the fact that most of the time very little actually happens in firehouses. He nodded and muttered something about seeking a lot of "back stories" to maintain an emotional narrative. A few weeks later, a half-dozen producers were assigned to find firehouses and produce long-form documentaries about America's rediscovered heroes. Perhaps two of these programs ever aired; the whole project was shelved very soon after it started. Producers discovered that unlike September 11, most days featured no massive terrorist attacks that sent thousands of firefighters to their trucks and hundreds to tragic, heroic deaths. On most days nothing happened in firehouses whatsoever.
This was one in a series of lessons I learned about how television news had lost its most basic journalistic instincts in its search for the audience-driven sweet spot, the "emotional center" of the American people. Gone was the mission of using technology to veer out onto the edge of American understanding in order to introduce something fundamentally new into the national debate. The informational edge was perilous, it was unpredictable, and it required the news audience to be willing to learn something it did not already know. Stories from the edge were not typically reassuring about the future. In this sense they were like actual news, unpredictable flashes from the unknown. On the other hand, the coveted emotional center was reliable, it was predictable, and its story lines could be duplicated over and over. It reassured the audience by telling it what it already knew rather than challenging it to learn. This explains why TV news voices all use similar cadences, why all anchors seem to sound alike, why reporters in the field all use the identical tone of urgency no matter whether the story is about the devastating aftermath of an earthquake or someone's lost kitty.
It also explains why TV news seems so archaic next to the advertising and entertainment content on the same networks. Among the greatest frustrations of working in TV news over the past decade was to see that while advertisers and entertainment producers were permitted to do wildly risky things in pursuit of audiences, news producers rarely ventured out of a safety zone of crime, celebrity, and character-driven tragedy yarns.
Advertisers were aggressive in their use of new technologies long before network news divisions went anywhere near them. This is exactly the opposite of the trend in the 1960s and '70s, when the news divisions were first adopters of breakthroughs in live satellite and video technology. But in the 1990s, advertisers were quick to use the Internet to seek information about consumers, exploiting the potential of communities that formed around products and brands. Throughout the time I was at the network, GE ads were all over NBC programs like Meet the Press and CNBC's business shows, but they seemed never to appear on Dateline. (They also had far higher production values than the news programs and even some entertainment shows.) Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and N.W.A were already major cultural icons; grunge and hip-hop were the soundtrack for commercials at the moment networks were passing on stories about Kurt Cobain's suicide and Tupac Shakur's murder.
Meanwhile, on 60 Minutes, Andy Rooney famously declared his own irrelevance by being disgusted that a spoiled Cobain could find so little to love about being a rock star that he would kill himself. Humor in commercials was hip--subtle, even, in its use of obscure pop-cultural references--but if there were any jokes at all in news stories, they were telegraphed, blunt visual gags, usually involving weathermen. That disjunction remains: at the precise moment that Apple cast John Hodgman and Justin Long as dead-on avatars of the PC and the Mac, news anchors on networks that ran those ads were introducing people to multibillion-dollar phenomena like MySpace and Facebook with the cringingly naïve attitude of "What will those nerds think of next?"
Entertainment programs often took on issues that would never fly on Dateline. On a Thursday night, ER could do a story line on the medically uninsured, but a night later, such a "downer policy story" was a much harder sell. In the time I was at NBC, you were more likely to hear federal agriculture policy discussed on The West Wing, or even on Jon Stewart, than you were to see it reported in any depth on Dateline.
Sometimes entertainment actually drove selection of news stories. Since Dateline was the lead-in to the hit series Law & Order on Friday nights, it was understood that on Fridays we did crime. Sunday was a little looser but still a hard sell for news that wasn't obvious or close to the all-important emotional center. In 2003, I was told that a story on the emergence from prison of a former member of the Weather Underground, whose son had graduated from Yale University and won a Rhodes Scholarship, would not fly unless it dovetailed with a story line on a then-struggling, soon-to-be-cancelled, and now-forgotten Sunday-night drama called American Dreams, which was set in the 1960s. I was told that the Weather Underground story might be viable if American Dreams did an episode on "protesters or something." At the time, Dateline's priority was another series of specials about the late Princess Diana. This blockbuster was going to blow the lid off the Diana affair and deliver the shocking revelation that the poor princess was in fact even more miserable being married to Prince Charles than we all suspected. Diana's emotional center was coveted in prime time even though its relevance to anything going on in 2003 was surely out on some voyeuristic fringe.
To get airtime, not only did serious news have to audition against the travails of Diana or a new book by Dr. Phil, but it also had to satisfy bizarre conditions. In 2003, one of our producers obtained from a trial lawyer in Connecticut video footage of guards subduing a mentally ill prisoner. Guards themselves took the footage as part of a safety program to ensure that deadly force was avoided and abuses were documented for official review. We saw guards haul the prisoner down a greenish corridor, then heard hysterical screaming as the guard shooting the video dispassionately announced, "The prisoner is resisting." For 90 seconds several guards pressed the inmate into a bunk. All that could be seen of him was his feet. By the end of the video the inmate was motionless. Asphyxiation would be the official cause of death.
This kind of gruesome video was rare. We also had footage of raw and moving interviews with this and another victim's relatives. The story had the added relevance that one of the state prison officials had been hired as a consultant to the prison authority in Iraq as the Abu Ghraib debacle was unfolding. There didn't seem to be much doubt about either the newsworthiness or the topicality of the story. Yet at the conclusion of the screening, the senior producer shook his head as though the story had missed the mark widely. "These inmates aren't necessarily sympathetic to our audience," he said. The fact that they had been diagnosed with schizophrenia was unimportant. Worse, he said that as he watched the video of the dying inmate, it didn't seem as if anything was wrong.
"Except that the inmate died," I offered.
"But that's not what it looks like. All you can see is his feet."
"With all those guards on top of him."
"Sure, but he just looks like he's being restrained."
"But," I pleaded, "the man died. That's just a fact. The prison guards shot this footage, and I don't think their idea was to get it on Dateline."
"Look," the producer said sharply, "in an era when most of our audience has seen the Rodney King video, where you can clearly see someone being beaten, this just doesn't hold up."
"Rodney King wasn't a prisoner," I appealed. "He didn't die, and this mentally ill inmate is not auditioning to be the next Rodney King. These are the actual pictures of his death."
"You don't understand our audience."
"I'm not trying to understand our audience," I said. I was getting pretty heated at this point--always a bad idea. "I'm doing a story on the abuse of mentally ill inmates in Connecticut."
"You don't get it," he said, shaking his head.
The story aired many months later, at less than its original length, between stories that apparently reflected a better understanding of the audience. During my time at Dateline, I did plenty of stories that led the broadcast and many full hours that were heavily promoted on the network. But few if any of my stories were more tragic, or more significant in news value, than this investigation into the Connecticut prison system.
Networks have so completely abandoned the mission of reporting the news that someone like entrepreneur Charles Ferguson, who sold an Internet software company to Microsoft in 1996 [and whose writing has appeared in this magazine; see "What's Next for Google," January 2005 --Ed.], can spend $2 million of his own money to make an utterly unadorned documentary about Iraq and see it become an indie hit. ­Ferguson's No End in Sight simply lays out, without any emotional digressions or narrative froth, how the U.S. military missed the growing insurgency. The straightforward questions and answers posed by this film are so rare in network news today that they seem like an exotic, innovative form of cinema, although they're techniques that belong to the Murrow era. In its way, Ferguson's film is as devastating an indictment of network television as it is of the Bush administration.
MisfiresEven when the networks do attempt to adopt new technology, they're almost as misguided as when they don't. As the nation geared up for the invasion of Iraq back in 2002 and 2003, NBC seemed little concerned with straightforward questions about policy, preparedness, and consequences. It was always, on some level, driven by the unstated theme of 9/11 payback, and by the search for the emotional center of the coming conflict. From the inside, NBC's priority seemed to be finding--and making sure the cameras were aimed directly at--the September 11 firefighters of the coming Iraq invasion: the soldiers. To be certain, the story of the troops was newsworthy, but as subsequent events would reveal, focusing on it so single-­mindedly obscured other important stories.
In 2002 and 2003, NBC news spent enormous amounts of time and money converting an army M88 tank recovery vehicle into an armored, mobile, motion-stabilized battlefield production studio. The so-called Bloom-mobile, named for NBC correspondent David Bloom, brought a local, Live-at-5, "This is London" quality to armed conflict. Using a microwave signal, the new vehicle beamed pictures of Bloom, who was embedded with the Third Infantry Division, from the Iraqi battlefield to an NBC crew a few miles behind, which in turn retransmitted to feed via satellite to New York, all in real time. While other embeds had to report battlefield activities, assemble a dispatch, and then transport it to a feed point at the rear of the troop formation, Bloom could file stories that were completely live and mostly clear. He became a compelling TV surrogate for all the soldiers, and demand for his "live shots" was constant.
But Bloom's success in conveying to the viewing audience the visual (and emotional) experiences of the advancing troops also meant that he was tethered to his microwave transmitter and limited in his ability to get a bigger picture of the early fight. Tragically, Bloom died of a deep-vein blood clot. The expensive Bloom-mobile remote transmitter eventually came home and spent time ghoulishly on display outside 30 Rockefeller Center. It was used once or twice to cover hurricanes in the fall of 2004, to little success, and was eventually mothballed. The loss of one of NBC's most talented journalists was folded into the larger emotional narrative of the war and became a way of conveying, by implication, NBC's own casualty count in the war effort.
The focus on gadgetry meant once again that the deeper story about technology and the war was missed. Technology was revolutionizing war reporting by enabling combat soldiers to deliver their own dispatches from the field in real time. In 2004, I pitched Dateline on the story of how soldiers were creating their own digital networks and blogging their firsthand experiences of the war. The show passed. My story appeared in Wired a year later.
Six Sigma in the NewsroomPerhaps the biggest change to the practice of journalism in the time I was at NBC was the absorption of the news division into the pervasive and all-consuming corporate culture of GE. GE had acquired NBC back in 1986, when it bought RCA. By 2003, GE's managers and strategists were getting around to seeing whether the same tactics that made the production of turbine generators more efficient could improve the production of television news. This had some truly bizarre consequences. To say that this Dateline correspondent with the messy corner office greeted these internal corporate changes with self-destructive skepticism is probably an understatement.
Six Sigma--the methodology for the improvement of business processes that strives for 3.4 defects or fewer per million opportunities--was a somewhat mysterious symbol of management authority at every GE division. Six Sigma messages popped up on the screens of computers or in e-mail in-boxes every day. Six Sigma was out there, coming, unstoppable, like a comet or rural electrification. It was going to make everything better, and slowly it would claim employees in glazed-eyed conversions. Suddenly in the office down the hall a coworker would no longer laugh at the same old jokes. A grim smile suggested that he was on the lookout for snarky critics of the company. It was better to talk about the weather.
While Six Sigma's goal-oriented blather and obsession with measuring everything was jarring, it was also weirdly familiar, inasmuch as it was strikingly reminiscent of my college Maoism I class. Mao seemed to be a good model for Jack Welch and his Six Sigma foot soldiers; Six Sigma's "Champions" and "Black Belts" were Mao's "Cadres" and "Squad Leaders."
Finding such comparisons was how I kept from slipping into a coma during dozens of NBC employee training sessions where we were told not to march in political demonstrations of any kind, not to take gifts from anyone, and not to give gifts to anyone. At mandatory, hours-long "ethics training" meetings we would watch in-house videos that brought all the drama and depth of a driver's-education film to stories of smiling, swaggering employees (bad) who bought cases of wine for business associates on their expense accounts, while the thoughtful, cautious employees (good) never picked up a check, but volunteered to stay at the Red Roof Inn in pursuit of "shareholder value."
To me, the term "shareholder value" sounded like Mao's "right path," although this was not something I shared at the employee reëducation meetings. As funny as it seemed to me, the idea that GE was a multinational corporate front for Maoism was not a very widespread or popular view around NBC. It was best if any theory that didn't come straight from the NBC employee manual (a Talmudic tome that largely contained rules for using the GE credit card, most of which boiled down to "Don't") remained private.
I did, however, point out to the corporate-integrity people unhelpful details about how NBC News was covering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that our GE parent company stood to benefit from as a major defense contractor. I wondered aloud, in the presence of an integrity "team leader," how we were to reconcile this larger-scale conflict with the admonitions about free dinners. "You make an interesting point I had not thought of before," he told me. "But I don't know how GE being a defense contractor is really relevant to the way we do our jobs here at NBC news." Integrity, I guess, doesn't scale.
Other members of the "GE family" had similar doubts about their relevance to the news division. In early 2002, our team was in Saudi Arabia covering regional reaction to September 11. We spent time on the streets and found considerable sympathy for Osama bin Laden among common citizens at the same time that the Saudi government expressed frustration that Americans seemed not to consider it an ally in the war on terror. We tracked down relatives of the September 11 hijackers, some of whom were deeply shocked and upset to learn what their family members had done. We wanted to speak with members of Osama bin Laden's family about their errant son's mission to bring down the Saudi government and attack the infidel West. We couldn't reach the bin Ladens using ordinary means, and the royal family claimed that it had no real clout with the multibillion­-dollar bin Laden construction giant that built mosques, roads, and other infrastructure all over the world.
But GE had long done business with the bin Ladens. In a misguided attempt at corporate synergy, I called GE headquarters in Fairfield, CT, from my hotel room in Riyadh. I inquired at the highest level to see whether, in the interest of bringing out all aspects of an important story for the American people, GE corporate officers might try to persuade the bin Ladens to speak with Dateline while we were in the kingdom. I didn't really know what to expect, but within a few hours I received a call in my hotel room from a senior corporate communications officer who would only read a statement over the phone. It said something to the effect that GE had an important, long-standing, and valuable business relationship with the Bin Laden Group and saw no connection between that relationship and what Dateline was trying to do in Saudi Arabia. He wished us well. We spoke with no bin Laden family member on that trip.
In the end, perhaps the work that I was most proud of at NBC marginalized me within the organization and was my undoing. I had done some of the first live Internet audio and video webcasts on MSNBC. I anchored live Web broadcasts from the political conventions in 2000 when such coverage was just beginning. I helped produce live interactive stories for Dateline where the audience could vote during commercial breaks on how a crime mystery or a hostage situation would turn out. I loved what we could do through the fusion of TV and the Internet. During one interactive broadcast, I reported the instant returns from audience surveys live in the studio, with different results for each time zone as Dateline was broadcast across the country. Sitting next to me, Stone Phillips (not a big fan of live TV) would interact with me in that chatty way anchors do. Stone decided that rather than react naturally to the returns from the different time zones, he would make a comment about how one hostage-negotiator cop character in the TV story reminded him of Dr. Phil. He honed the line to the point that he used the exact same words for each time zone. "I think the Dr. Phil line is working, don't you?" he asked, as though this was his reporting-from-the-rooftops-of-London moment. "Sure, Stone." I said. "It's working great."
Phillips was hardly alone in his reaction to the new technology that was changing television, and in the end we were both dumped by NBC anyway. When I got the word that I'd been axed, I was in the middle of two projects that employed new media technology. In the first, we went virtually undercover to investigate the so-called Nigerian scammers who troll for the gullible with (often grammatically questionable) hard-luck stories and bogus promises of hidden millions. We descended into the scammers' world as a way of chasing them down and also illustrating how the Internet economy works. With search techniques and tracing strategies that reveal how Internet traffic is numerically coded, we chased a team of con artists to a hotel in Montreal, where we nailed them on hidden camera. With me playing the patsy, the story showed, in a very entertaining and interesting way, how the mechanics of the Internet worked to assist criminals. The second story unearthed someone who spammed people with porn e-mails. It was a form of direct-mail advertising that paid decent money if you had the right e-mail lists. The spammers didn't get involved with the porn itself; they just traded in e-mail lists and hid behind their digital anonymity. We exposed one of these spammers and had him apologize on camera, without spectacle, to a Dallas housewife to whom he had sent hard-core e-mails. The story wasn't merely about porn and spammers; it showed how electronic media gave rise to offshore shadow companies that traded e-mail lists on a small but very effective scale. The drama in the story was in seeing how we could penetrate spammers' anonymity with savvy and tenacity while educating people about technology at the same time. It was admittedly a timid effort that suggested the barest glimpse of new media's potential, but it was something.
Dateline started out interested but in the end concluded that "it looks like you are having too much fun here." David Corvo asked us to go shoot interviews of random people morally outraged by pornographic e-mails to "make it clear who the bad guys are." As might have been predicted, he was sending us back to find the emotional center after journalistic reality, once again, had botched the audition. I had long since cleaned out my office when the stories finally aired. Dateline eventually found the emotional center with To Catch a Predator, which had very little to do with Internet technology beyond 1990s-era chat rooms. What it did have was a supercharged sense of who the bad guys were (the upgrade for my spammer's simple apology was having the exposed predators hauled off to jail on camera) and a superhero in the form of grim reaper Chris ­Hansen, who was now a star.
I moved on. My story for Wired on bloggers from the Iraq War landed me an appearance on The Daily Show. Jon Stewart bluntly asked me what it's like to be at Dateline for nine years: "Does it begin to rot you from the inside?" The audience seemed not entirely convinced that this was a joke. They were actually interested in my answer, as though I were announcing the results of a medical study with wide implications for human health. I had to think about this rotting-from-the-inside business. I dodged the question, possibly because it was the one I had been asking myself for most of those nine years. But the answer is that I managed not to rot.
Life at the Media Lab has reminded me once again that technology is most exciting when it upsets the status quo. Big-screen TVs and downloadable episodes of Late Night with Conan O'Brien are merely more attempts to control the means of distribution, something GE has been doing since the invention of the light bulb. But exploding GPS backpacks represent an alien mind-set; they are part of the growing media insurgency that is redefining news, journalism, and civic life. This technological insurgency shouldn't surprise us: after all, it's wrapped up in language itself, which has long defied any attempt to commodify it. Technology, as it has done through the ages, is freeing communication, and this is good news for the news. A little empathy couldn't hurt.
This article is from January 2009 issue of Technology Review.