Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Royal Wedding: Too Much News Coverage?

OK. I’ll admit it. I watched parts of Kate and William’s nuptials — and all the surrounding fanfare — and I enjoyed it. Hey. They’re an engaging couple who bring a modern twist to the traditions and monarchy in England and maybe around the world for all I know.

But — and for pajama-clad citizen journalists there is always a but — did the media — lamestream, new and in between — go a tad overboard in the coverage? There was after all at least one major story playing out in the USA yesterday: The destruction and deaths in Alabama from the tornadoes that roared through Tuscaloosa.

Anyway, here’s from Mediaite, “Royal Scam: Why Media’s Excessive Royal Wedding Coverage Is Appalling and Wrong“:

Watching the wall-to-wall royal wedding coverage on the network morning shows and cable news networks this morning, it is easy to forget that every one of them is supposedly run by a “news” division. Wall-to-wall is not figurative term but a literal one. Give the people what they want right?

But wait, a recent poll by the New York Times and CBS found that about 28% of Americans were following the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton “very closely” or “somewhat closely,” a number that eclipses even the rosiest estimates of NASCAR fandom. Now, imagine if every NASCAR race of the past 20 years happened on the same day.

Yes, it has become fashionable to bash the saturation coverage of the royal wedding, but the the problem isn’t with the amount of coverage, or even the expense, but with what it costs us. This spectacle illustrates the degree to which profit-driven “giving the people what they want” has undercut journalism’s true purpose.

There have been a great number of people who have openly admonished the news media for royal wedding “circus act.” In fact, the only subject more hackneyed than royal wedding commentary on Twitter of late, is people complaining about the royal wedding commentary. These hipper-than-thou critiques ignore the fact that the royal wedding is a rare “real-life” vestige of a myth that runs deep in our culture. Quick, name a Disney movie that didn’t have a princess or a prince in it.

There was a time, though, when you could have a gloriously decadent royal wedding cake, and eat it, too, by having a news media that devoted adequate resources to fulfilling its public service obligation. But times have changed, and so too have the apparent strategy of network news. Former Observer EIC Kyle Pope summed it up best on a recent tweet, writing “The big TV networks show their true stripes, investing hugely in royal wedding coverage while letting their foreign bureaus die.”

Yes, by any measure, the decision makers at both network and cable news divisions went long on the royal wedding, spending millions of dollars of the very budget that they constantly carp about being so diminished. And remember lay-offs of the last year? Think of the poor news producer who was recently let go due to a lack of funds, who must be thinking “I was fired for this?!”

And Dan Rather must not have received his wedding invite either, as he opines on The Huffington Post, “And In Other News“:

The next time you hear about another round of layoffs at a TV news division, the closing of a bureau, the decision not to cover a foreign story with full force, remember this week of silliness in April.

Remember the millions of dollars, hundreds of staff and hours of coverage spent on a wedding in London when crises around the globe and here at home festered. Remember the unseemly pas de deux between the press and a reality TV show huckster peddling racially-fraught falsehoods, as both interviewers and the interviewee seek a bump in ratings.

And then please take a moment to remember the eight American soldiers and one contractor killed by an Afghan soldier at the Kabul airport in a war too easily forgotten. Remember the hundreds likely being killed in Syria and Libya, not to mention the death and unrest plaguing countries like the Ivory Coast, which almost never earn more than a mention on our most-watched newscasts.

Remember those who have the least amongst us, struggling after more than a year of unemployment, a long commute they can no longer afford, or the diagnosis of a medical condition that could kill them and bankrupt their family.

The networks couldn’t ignore the devastating storms that killed hundreds in the South, but you had the odd juxtaposition of that news being delivered by anchors sitting in front of Buckingham Palace.

There’s always the question, is the audience chasing the news or the news chasing an audience? I have nothing against the royals or their wedding. It is a legitimate news story, a big event for one of America’s most stalwart allies. We have had a lot of bad news lately, and if you are someone who finds this diversion interesting and exciting, then I think that’s great.

What bothers me is the hypocrisy. The idea that we can’t afford to throw resources at an important foreign story, but can afford to spend this kind of money on a story like the royal wedding is just plain wrong. The idea that we can’t break into regularly-scheduled programming for an address by the president is wrong as well. When the topic was the “Birther Story” (better referred from here on out by the first letters of those two words), the networks jumped right in.

As a journalist, you like to be the one asking the questions. But it’s time that some of our news executives gave some answers of their own.

By the way, the other big story Friday — the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour — still has legs — since the mission has been delayed because of technical problems until Monday at the earliest.

And I wrote yesterday that this was the final space shuttle flight. Actually, it’s the second to last with the finale scheduled for June.

Sorry about that. It’s the last time I’ll give my editorial assistant and fact checker the morning off to watch a royal wedding.

Royal Weddings and American Heroes

OK. As we head into the weekend, I’m going to acknowledge that most people today will be fixated on the spectacle in London and not the musings of a pajama-clad citizen journalist. In fact, I’m writing this post at 4 a.m. And for the first time ever, I have company. My wife just strolled into the living room to turn on the TV coverage of the royal wedding.

Go figure.

Thank God my computer wasn’t frozen on one of those Internet porn sites. Oops. I digress.

Anyway, good luck and best wishes to Kate and William. They seem like a pleasant enough young couple, and let’s keep our fingers crossed that things turn out better for Kate than they did for Diana under similar circumstances decades ago. That fairy tale sure took a bad turn — caused in no small part because Prince Charles was and is kind of a royal doofus. Just sayin’.

And I understand the media and public frenzy over the royal wedding. But there is another event later today that merits equal, if not more, attention, especially here in the USA.

The space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral this afternoon on its last mission. And this is an opportunity to salute the heroism and brillance of everyone who through the years has contributed so much to the success of this program — and demonstrated what this country is capable of doing if we harness our energy, talents and resources for common purposes.

The backstory of the launch today is the fact that the shuttle is commanded by Mark Kelly, the husband of Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords took a bullet to the head a few months ago doing what we expect our elected officials to do in this country: get out and be available to those who they represent. The fact that she will be in Florida this afternoon is a miracle. Both represent the best in this country.

And at least near the Kennedy Space Center, interest in the shuttle launch matches that in London for the royal wedding.

Here’s from the NYT, “In Shuttle’s Waning Days, One of the Last Reasons to Cheer“:

TITUSVILLE, Fla. — As it has many times before, sometime Friday afternoon the stretch of Route 1 in front of Chris Galorneau’s restaurant will turn into a parking lot.

Drivers will abandon their cars, and customers will pour out of the Village Inn, where Mr. Galorneau is the general manager, as they will at businesses up and down Route 1, which serves as a main street for this city of 45,000.

Shortly before 4 p.m., all eyes will turn toward the Kennedy Space Center, 12 miles east across the wide expanse of the Indian River Lagoon. There, at Launch Pad 39A, if the weather allows, the shuttle Endeavour will thunder into the sky on a pedestal of flame, carrying six astronauts on a two-week mission to the International Space Station.

“The place will clear out,” Mr. Galorneau said Wednesday while waitresses bustled around him, and every diner got a free piece of pie for Pie Rush Wednesday. “Everybody crowds down to the river. And then, as soon it goes up, 10 minutes later I have a packed restaurant and I have a waiting list for hours.”

The brief but jaw-dropping spectacle that is a shuttle launching has occurred 133 times before, and Mr. Galorneau has seen his share (except for the time he was stuck inside making pancake batter — “You can’t run a pancake house without pancake batter,” he said — and got to feel the building shake). This launching is expected to be one of the biggest ever, with perhaps three-quarters of a million people jamming Titusville, Cape Canaveral and other nearby towns.

Some of the interest in the Endeavour mission is no doubt because of the drama involving its commander, Capt. Mark E. Kelly, whose wife, Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, was gravely wounded in a shooting in January. She is here to watch the launching. And some of it is no doubt because of an anticipated visit by President Obama.

OK. I have to get ready to go to the gym wellness center.

My wife won’t let me watch Fox News at home.

Lisbeth Salander: The Girl Who Kicked the U.S. Economy?

Do you believe that as a nation we spend too much time on trivial matters and people? You know. Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan and such. I do. And I guess that’s why I got such a yuck out of the media frenzy yesterday over Obama’s birth certificate.

Here’s from today’s NYT editorial, “A Certificate of Embarrassment“:

With sardonic resignation, President Obama, an eminently rational man, stared directly into political irrationality on Wednesday and released his birth certificate to history. More than halfway through his term, the president felt obliged to prove that he was a legitimate occupant of the Oval Office. It was a profoundly low and debasing moment in American political life.

The disbelief fairly dripped from Mr. Obama as he stood at the West Wing lectern. People are out of work, American soldiers are dying overseas and here were cameras to record him stating that he was born in a Hawaii hospital. It was particularly galling to us that it was in answer to a baseless attack with heavy racial undertones.

Mr. Obama practically begged the public to set aside these distractions, expressing hope that his gesture would end the “silliness” and allow a national debate about budget priorities. It won’t, of course.

No. It won’t, of course. And I understand that for many this is not a trivial matter. But folks. C’mon. Couldn’t we now move on instead of debating the authenticity of the birth certificate. There really are bigger fish to fry.

Here’s one. And I know this may sound trivial. It’s the ability of computer hackers to get almost any information they want — from any organization, including government, business, education and so on. Have you checked your online bank account yet today?

Does that scare you? It does me — because beyond the personal issues involved, this strikes me as a potential form of terrorism that could cripple the U.S. — if not the world — economy.

Here’s the latest adventure involving Sony and its PlayStation as reported in the NYT, “Sony Says PlayStation Hacker Got Personal Data“:

Last week, Sony’s online network for the PlayStation suffered a catastrophic failure through a hacking attack. And since then, the roughly 77 million gamers worldwide like Mr. Miller who have accounts for the service have been unable to play games with friends through the Internet or to download demos of new games.

Then, on Tuesday, after several days of near silence, Sony said that as a result of the attack, an “unauthorized person” had obtained personal information about account holders, including their names, addresses, e-mail addresses, and PlayStation user names and passwords. Sony warned that other confidential information, including credit card numbers, could have been compromised, warning customers through a statement to “remain vigilant” by monitoring identity theft or other financial loss.

Law-enforcement officials said Tuesday that Sony had reported the breach to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in San Diego, which specializes in computer crime.

The breach comes after an incident earlier this month, when Epsilon, a marketing firm that handles e-mail lists, suffered a security breach that put millions of people’s e-mail addresses at risk. In some instances, customers’ names were also stolen. Last year, an AT&T breach exposed the e-mail addresses of at least 100,000 owners of the Apple iPad.

And here’s from USA Today:

The external hack of Sony’s PlayStation Network represents one of the largest data breaches ever, security experts suggest.

Dr. Paul Judge, chief research officer and vice president of Barracuda Networks, says the PSN intrusion is “arguably the second largest data breach ever,” trailing only 2009′s Heartland Payment data breach, which impacted 175,000 merchants and millions of payment card transactions per month.

“The most troubling thing about this breach is the breadth of data that was leaked: name, address, passwords, purchase history and possibly credit card numbers,” says Judge. “This provides potential ammunition for almost any type of attack.”

That gets me to Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth is one of the main characters in the popular trilogy by Stieg Larsson. She’s “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”

And she is a computer hacker — who along with her friends and associates can find out just about anything about anyone in any place.

I wonder how many real-life Lisbeth Salanders there are out there — sitting much like this pajama-clad citizen journalist pecking away at the computer in the dark of the early a.m.

And I wonder if some day we won’t be reading in the NYT or elsewhere about a real-life Lisbeth Salander: The Girl Who Kicked the U.S. Economy?

Gas Prices and Inside the Beltway Task Forces

Well, as Dutch Reagan would say: “There you go again.” Let’s see. Gasoline prices are fast approaching — and in some places surpassing — $4 a gallon. The oil barons are set today to report record profits. And by many accounts we are only one hurricane in the Gulf away from prices at the pump at $6 — or higher.

What to do? What to do?

Well, Prez O has done the inevitable when it comes to looking at problems Inside the Beltway. He’s forming  a task force — the Oil and Gas Fraud Working Group — to investigate “fraud or manipulation in oil markets that could affect gas prices.” Here’s from Politico:

President Barack Obama reiterated his plan to stabilize soaring gas prices, telling Americans in his weekly address Saturday that “instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy sources, we need to invest in tomorrow’s.”

At a time when the economy is struggling to rebound and many people are still searching for jobs, a $4 per gallon price tag is “just another burden when things already are pretty tough,” Obama said.

Echoing a criticism he has frequently made in the past, the president condemned politicians who “score a few points” by offering quick-fix solutions whenever there is a spike in gas prices. “The truth is, there’s no silver bullet that can bring down gas prices right away,” Obama said.

On Thursday, the White House unveiled a task force called the Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group, which would investigate “fraud or manipulation” in oil markets that could affect gas prices.

“We will be vigilant in monitoring the oil and gas markets for any wrongdoing so that consumers can be confident they are not paying higher prices as a result of illegal activity,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement after Obama announced the news at a town hall in Nevada. Holder vowed to take “swift action” against those who illegally contribute to gas-price gouging and manipulation.

And more from the article:

Finally, the president said the country must continue to make long-term investments in clean and renewable energy sources, citing the fuel economy of cars and trucks, and hybrid technology. Obama maintained that his budget proposal takes a far more “balanced approach” to spending cuts proposed by House Republicans that include a cut in clean-energy investments of 70 percent.

“Yes, we have to get rid of wasteful spending … But we can do that without sacrificing our future,” Obama said. “We can do that while still investing in the technologies that will create jobs and allow the United States to lead the world in new industries. That’s how we’ll not only reduce the deficit, but also lower our dependence on foreign oil, grow the economy and leave for our children a safer planet.”

Duh.
Of course there is fraud, manipulation and price gouging. Hey, we’re talking about multinational corporations and oil barons here — not pure-as-the-new-fallen snow NFL owners. Oops. Bad comparison.
And double duh.
I expect that someday we’ll be able to strap a windmill on the top of our cars that will motor us long distances to work, or someone will market a 50-mile-long extension cord for the government’s fleet of electric cars. But that day ain’t today. So it looks to me like in the interim we have a classic supply and demand problem — fueled (pun intended) by financial speculation in commodity markets.
And I understand supply and demand. When I’m Inside the Beltway these days on business I’ll pay almost anything for a strong cup of coffee at 3 a.m. Talk about an addiction to a commodity. I digress.

MSNBC’s token conservative Pat Buchanan has really been having a lot of fun lately taking on the liberals at the so-called news network he contributes to.

On Monday’s “MSNBC Live,” Buchanan in the middle of a discussion about oil prices and subsidies told the host, “You’ve got to learn a little bit about supply and demand as Barack Obama never did when he was out there in that Saul Alinsky outfit in Chicago” (video follows with transcript and commentary):

PAT BUCHANAN: The problem Cenk is the American dollar is sinking like a stone. It’s almost at an all-time level. It keeps going down to the point where Standard & Poor’s thinks we’re going to have to default. This is the responsibility of Barack Obama and no one else. It’s in terms of dollars that the gasoline prices are soaring.

CENK UYGUR, HOST: Pat, if you’re going to try to make a case to the American people that gas prices are going down relatively and that we should be giving the oil companies more subsidies, I’m going to wish you a lot of luck.

BUCHANAN: Well, maybe you can’t make the case, but you know, you got, you know, Cenk, you’ve got to learn a little bit about supply and demand as Barack Obama never did when he was out there in that Saul Alinsky outfit in Chicago.

For those that are unfamiliar with Buchanan’s point, part of the reason for the spike in oil and gas prices is the declining dollar. Historically, there hasn’t necessarily been an inverse relationship between the two, but there most certainly has been in recent years largely due to what’s called the carry trade.

Put simply, large investors can short the dollar borrowing the proceeds at a virtually zero percent interest rate and investing same in oil, gas, gold, or whatever they want. This has been a very profitable arbitrage in recent years as traders have made money on the downside in the dollar and the upside in commodities.

Of particular concern to average Americans not involved in such transactions, the lower the dollar goes as a result of this nation’s profligate spending and runaway budget deficits, the higher oil and gas prices go.

One of the other reasons normally attributed to an inverse relationship between oil and the dollar is the fact that oil is traded around the world in dollars. So, as the dollar declines in value, it must therefore be able to purchase less volume of oil. This latter explanation has not always been the case historically, as there have been many times in the last century when oil and the dollar rose and declined coincidentally.

As for Uygur, clearly such economic and financial matters were way over his head leading Buchanan to have some fun at his host’s expense. Doubly delicious was that this happened shortly after MSNBC’s Chris Matthews demonstrated a similar ignorance of the law of supply and demand on “Hardball.”

Makes you wonder if one of the requirements to be a host at this sad excuse for a news network is to have absolutely no rudimentary knowledge of business.

And Paul Krugman wonders why voters are so ill-informed.

Oh well. Maybe the administration’s Oil and Gas Fraud Working Group can sort all of this out.
In the meantime, I expect that most Americans agree with the philosopher and poet Whoopi Goldberg who summed up the mood about the daily bumps in gasoline prices quite eloquently on The View: “It’s pissing me off.”
Well played, Whoopi. Well played.

Public Employees, Pensions and Promises

As Congress and the Obama administration continue to duel over big issues like the budget, federal deficit, health care, Social Security and so on, consider this: Will the promises officials — elected or not — make today really mean anything in the years ahead?

If you work — or have worked — in the private sector you know that most promises about pay, benefits, pensions and even future employment made by management today (or yesterday) can, and most likely will, change at some point, generally not in your favor. It happens all the time. And it happens even to those represented by unions. If you doubt this, consider what has happened to retiree medical plans during the past decade.

Next up: public employees.

And here comes another big fish to be tossed into the skillet. States — set aside for the purpose of this rant the federal government and programs like Medicare and Social Security — have over-promised in terms of pensions and benefits — and now that the bills are coming due, there is plenty of pressure on elected officials to renege. For public employees — teachers, firefighters, police officers and such — welcome to the world of big business.

Here’s from WaPo, “States face $1.26 trillion shortfall in funds to pay retiree benefits“:

The state funds that pay pension and health-care benefits to retired teachers, corrections officers and millions of other public workers faced a cumulative shortfall of at least $1.26 trillion at the end of fiscal 2009, according to a new report.

The study, to be released Tuesday by the Pew Center on the States, found that the pension and health-care funding gap increased by 26 percent over the previous year. Pew officials said the growing shortfall was driven by inadequate state contributions, an aging population and market losses that accompanied the recession.

Although investment markets have recovered substantially since the period covered by the report, its authors warn that states still face an increasing burden from retiree costs that are beginning to crowd out critical services.

“In many states, the bill for public-sector retirement benefits already threatens strained budgets and is competing for resources with other critical needs, including education, infrastructure and health care,” said Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States.

Oh, mama.

Gee. I guess something is going to have to be done. Let’s see what the NYT has to say, “Public Pensions, Once Off Limits, Face Budget Cuts“:

When an arbitrator ruled this month that Detroit could reduce the pensions being earned by its police sergeants and lieutenants, it put the struggling city at the forefront of a growing national debate over whether the pensions of current public workers can or should be reduced.

Conventional wisdom and the laws and constitutions of many states have long held that the pensions being earned by current government workers are untouchable. But as the fiscal crisis has lingered, officials in strapped states from California to Illinois have begun to take a second look, to see whether there might be loopholes allowing them to cut the pension benefits of current employees. Now the move in Detroit — made possible, lawyers said, because Michigan’s constitutional protections are weaker — could spur other places to try to follow suit.

“These things do tend to be herd-oriented,” said Sylvester J. Schieber, an economist and consultant who studies pensions.

The mayors of some hard-hit cities have said that the high costs of pensions have forced them to lay off workers: Oakland, Calif., laid off one-tenth of its police force last year after failing to win concessions on pension costs.

Elsewhere there is pension envy: some private sector workers, who have learned the hard way that their companies can freeze or reduce their pensions, resent that the pensions of public workers enjoy stronger legal protections. But government workers, many of whom were recruited with the promise of good benefits and pensions, say that it would be unfair — and in many cases, very likely illegal — to change the rules in the middle of the game.

OK. I understand that something has to be done — and soon. We can’t continue to borrow to pay for obligations today and far in the future. And we can’t continue to promise what we can’t deliver. That’s what happened to many of the countries in Western Europe — and now they are sucking the economic tailpipe.

And it also points to the fact that our nation no longer has enough good-paying and secure jobs that enable people to live comfortably today let alone plan for the future.

Here’s Eugene Robinson opining in WaPo, “The word most politicians ignore: Jobs“:

What is it about the word “jobs” that our nation’s leaders fail to understand? How has the most painful economic crisis in decades somehow escaped their notice? Why do they ignore the issues that Americans care most desperately about?

Listening to the debate in Washington, you’d think the nation was absorbed by the compelling saga of deficit reduction. You’d get the impression that in households across America, parents put their children to bed and then stay up half the night sifting through piles of think-tank reports on the kitchen table, trying to calculate whether there will be enough in the Social Security trust fund to pay benefits beyond 2037.

And you’d be wrong. Those parents are looking at a pile of bills on the kitchen table, trying to decide which ones have to be paid now and which can slide. The question isn’t how to manage health care or retirement costs two decades from now. It’s how the family can make it to the end of the month.

And part of the problem involves trust and the credibility, or not, of elected officials and managers in business, education and so on.

We all know it’s easy to promise something today. But what we are discovering  is that it is much harder to keep the promises when the bills come due somewhere down the road.

Nation Building and Royal Weddings

Is it just me, or does Mad Dog Gadhafi suffer from a major league PR problem? I can’t fully understand why we have joined forces with a group of rebels — most likely al Qaeda in training — in Libya to overthrow Mad Dog while Bashar al-Assad is getting a free pass to shock and awe the citizens of Syria.

And do we care more about these exercises in nation building — or the royal wedding?

Maybe the different takes on Libya and Syria have everything to do with image. Here’s from the NYT:

For years, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has nourished a reputation as a youthful and forward-looking leader in a region full of aging autocrats, a man who might yet reform the repressive police state he inherited from his father, given time and opportunity.

His country’s worsening crisis — a bloody battle between the police and protesters that is being closely watched around the world — would seem to be a chance to stave off the violence with restraint or even bold reforms, a path his father never took. But as the death toll mounts, and the ominous disappearances of dissident figures increase, his time appears to be running out. International pressure is growing, and so is the outrage his violent crackdown has inspired.

Mr. Assad could still succeed in quelling the unrest, diplomats and analysts say. But to do so he would have to realize the hopes once placed in him when he inherited power from his father 11 years ago and confront his own family, which controls Syria’s thuggish security apparatus and appears to be pushing hard for a continued crackdown. At least 120 people have been killed since Friday, the bloodiest day of the five-week-old uprising.

In the past day or two, mixed signals have emerged about which path he will take. On the one hand, Mr. Assad has hinted at a willingness to enact greater reforms than those announced last week, when he officially lifted Syria’s draconian emergency powers law. But there have been dark warnings of harsher repression as well. In Syria’s notoriously opaque political environment, it is impossible to tell which way the president is leaning.

“This is the moment of truth for Bashar al-Assad,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a visiting professor at Columbia University who has written extensively on Syria. “He has potentially the ability to impose reforms on his own Baath Party, but has he the will to do so?”

The consequences of his decision could be momentous, perhaps more so than in any of the other revolts yet seen in the Middle East. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Syria is home to a checkerboard of defensive religious and ethnic minorities, and many fear that the end of the Assad family’s 40-year dynasty could unleash brutal revenge killings and struggles for power. The chaos could easily spill over Syria’s borders, to neighboring Lebanon and beyond.

Uh. Enlightened despot on the one hand. Mad Dog on the other. Hmm. And looks like we could be stepping into some deep doo-doo in Syria. Better to try to slip Mad Dog a poison turbin.

Maybe the editorial writers at the Washington Post can add some perspective in “Shameful U.S. inaction on Syria’s massacres“:

FOR THE PAST five weeks, growing numbers of Syrians have been gathering in cities and towns across the country to demand political freedom — and the security forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad have been responding by opening fire on them. According to Syrian human rights groups, more than 220 people had been killed by Friday. And Friday may have been the worst day yet: According to Western news organizations, which mostly have had to gather information from outside the country, at least 75 people were gunned down in places that included the suburbs of Damascus, the city of Homs and a village near the southern town of Daraa, where the protests began.

Massacres on this scale usually prompt a strong response from Western democracies, as they should. Ambassadors are withdrawn; resolutions are introduced at the U.N. Security Council; international investigations are mounted and sanctions applied. In Syria’s case, none of this has happened. The Obama administration has denounced the violence — a presidential statement called Friday’s acts of repression “outrageous” — but otherwise remained passive. Even the ambassador it dispatched to Damascus during a congressional recess last year remains on post.

The administration has sat on its hands despite the fact that the Assad regime is one of the most implacable U.S. adversaries in the Middle East. It is Iran’s closest ally; it supplies Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip for use against Israel. Since 2003 it has helped thousands of jihadists from across the Arab world travel to Iraq to attack American soldiers. It sought to build a secret nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea and destabilized the pro-Western government of neighboring Lebanon by sponsoring a series of assassinations.

Like people across the Middle East, the protesters in Syria say that they are seeking the establishment of a democratic system. A statement issued by organizers of the protests Friday called for an end to torture and killings by security forces; the release of all political prisoners; an investigation into the deaths of those killed so far; and reform of the constitution, including a limit on presidential terms. The mass demonstrations on Good Friday were called to show that the cause is neither Islamic nor sectarian.

Yet the Obama administration has effectively sided with the regime against the protesters. Rather than repudiate Mr. Assad and take tangible steps to weaken his regime, it has proposed, with increasing implausibility, that his government “implement meaningful reforms,” as the president’s latest statement put it. As The Post’s Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson reported Friday, the administration, which made the “engagement” of Syria a key part of its Middle East policy, still clings to the belief that Mr. Assad could be part of a Middle East peace process; and it would rather not trade “a known quantity in Assad for an unknown future.”

I don’t know. It seems to this pajama-clad citizen journalist that we are either for supporting freedom — or at least the hope of freedom — in the Middle East, or we ain’t. And if we are, then Prez O is going to have to step up and provide some leadership. Otherwise, our foreign policy is like a tennis ball heading back and forth over the net with no point ever being gained.

Anyway, I did my own public opinion and interest poll on all of this early this a.m. when I was chasing the belt on the treadmill and watching the bank of TVs that display seven or eight stations.

Every time something came on about our nation building debacles — yes, even including Afghanistan where the Taliban apparently dug a tunnel under the check points of NATO guards who were as watchful as a gaggle of air traffic controllers and sprung 450 some prisoners — I switched the channel to catch news of the really important story: the wedding this Friday of Kate and William.

Hey, let’s face it. Kate and William appear to be a charming young couple who have a shot at saving the  crown jewels and everything else of the British monocracy. Image matters. And something tells me that Gadhafi, Assad and Hamid Karzai could get together to play Texas hold ‘em on Friday in broad daylight on a street in Jerusalem and nobody would pay any attention.

So much for nation building — at least for this week.

By the way, Kiran Chetry, the host of American Morning on CNN, is in London all week for the nuptals. She is hot — and not a bad reader of the news, either. I guess she didn’t succeed on Fox News because she isn’t blond. Go figure.

And late breaking: It appears that Jimmy Carter is heading to North Korea for a three-day visit this week.

Let’s hope we’re not at war there until after the royal wedding.

Just sayin’.

A Nation of Pessimists?

One of the many great joys of not working in business — and not having an administrative job in education — is that you don’t have to sit through those long, tedious meetings with human resources managers and staff. You know. The ones where those institutional paper shufflers are always opining that the collective morale of the organization is at the lowest point ever — and moving south from there.

I wonder if we are becoming a nation of human resources managers. Or said another way: pessimists.

Here’s a NYT story about a new New York Times/CBS News poll, “Nation’s Mood at Lowest Level in Two Years“:

Americans are more pessimistic about the nation’s economic outlook and overall direction than they have been at any time since President Obama’s first two months in office, when the country was still officially ensnared in the Great Recession, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

Amid rising gas prices, stubborn unemployment and a cacophonous debate in Washington over the federal government’s ability to meet its future obligations, the poll presents stark evidence that the slow, if unsteady, gains in public confidence earlier this year that a recovery was under way are now all but gone.

Capturing what appears to be an abrupt change in attitude, the survey shows that the number of Americans who think the economy is getting worse has jumped 13 percentage points in just one month. Though there have been encouraging signs of renewed growth since last fall, many economists are having second thoughts, warning that the pace of expansion might not be fast enough to create significant numbers of new jobs.

The dour public mood is dragging down ratings for both parties in Congress and for President Obama, the poll found.

After the first 100 days of divided government, and a new Republican leadership controlling the House of Representatives, 75 percent of respondents disapproved of the way Congress is handling its job.

Part of this attitude stems from the lack of quality jobs — the kind that provide some security and the ability to provide for a family. Say what you want, but the administration’s economic stimulus efforts may have maintained some public service jobs, but it sure hasn’t stimulated much job creation.

Also, it’s hard to be optimistic — certainly enthusiastic — about things as gasoline prices creep toward $4 a gallon in most parts of the country, topping $5 a gallon in some. And the housing market remains a disaster — unless you live Inside the Beltway.

I also believe that the national debate on important issues — shaped in large part by elected officials and Washington insiders in the media and policy wonk think tanks — has turned increasingly pessimistic. In two years, we’ve gone from — yes, we can — to — let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best. Sheesh.

Charles Krauthammer has an interesting take on all of this as he handicaps the potential GOP candidates for the White House in his WaPo opinion article, “The racing form, 2012“:

Unified Field Theory of 2012, Axiom One: The more the Republicans can make the 2012 election like 2010, the better their chances of winning.

The 2010 Democratic shellacking had the distinction of being the most ideological election in 30 years. It was driven by one central argument in its several parts: the size and reach of government, spending and debt, and, most fundamentally, the nature of the American social contract. 2010 was a referendum on the Obama experiment in hyper-liberalism. It lost resoundingly.

Of course, presidential elections are not arguments in the abstract but arguments with a face. Hence, Axiom Two: The less attention the Republican candidate draws to him/herself, the better the chances of winning. To the extent that 2012 is about ideas, about the case for smaller government, Republicans have a decided edge. If it’s a referendum on the fitness and soundness of the Republican candidate — advantage Obama.

Which suggests Axiom Three: No baggage and no need for flash. Having tried charisma in 2008, the electorate is not looking for a thrill up the leg in 2012. It’s looking for solid, stable, sober and, above all, not scary.

OK. Look. Charles knows more about this than I do. But in large measure I believe that the next election goes to the candidate who can convince voters that America isn’t sliding down the rat hole — that there is reason for optimism, not pessimism about the future of this country, based on some realistic, doable and common sense approaches to policy.

And clearly we don’t need or want a Pollyanna. We have big issues and problems in this country that must be addressed — and soon. But I would rather follow someone with the optimism of a Ronald Reagan than the pessimism of a Jimmy Carter, who wrapped himself and his presidency in a blanket of malaise.

Here’s Reagan:

I know. Dutch was far from perfect. But at least he moved us for a time away from being a nation of human resources managers — and restored some optimism and pride in this country.

Let’s see in 2012 which candidate convinces us that yes, we can.

Rather than, no, we can’t.