Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The End of An Affair

By Joe Bruns   

     It is hard to put a precise time on when I fell out of love. There was no big argument or momentous event that caused a sudden rift in our relationship. Instead it happened gradually, imperceptibly. But I have now come to terms with the fact that she is no longer a central part of my life. We stay together, mostly out of habit. But I no longer cherish waking up with her every morning and finding her fresh, entertaining, and endlessly interesting.
     I do remember falling in love with her, though. It was the mid-seventies. It was love at first sight. This was the Watergate era, and she had an uncanny inside access to all the sordid details as the scandal unfolded. Every day I looked forward to hearing what new facts had been uncovered, and how the mighty were falling. My, she did know how to tell a story. She also had wide-ranging interests. In addition to politics and world events, she could spellbind with the depth of her knowledge in culture, the arts and sports. Yes, she was a great sports fan and seemed to enjoy them all, going beyond just knowing the scores and statistics with colorful commentary about anything from the Redskins to high school rivalries.
     She seemed to know everything that was going on in Washington. She may not have cared very much for the suburbs, but she knew the city, its movers, its shakers, its flaws and its characters. Everyone who knew her had a favorite topic and was eager to learn what she knew. She was regularly quoted at power lunches and solons throughout the day.
     While she was older than I, she had youthfulness and an enthusiasm that was infections. At times her opinion seemed to color her judgment, but for most of us that was part of her charm. We matured together over the years. She had her rivals, of course, but was never threatened by them, especially on her home turf. She knew she occupied center stage and could therefore just ignore them as they came and went from the scene.
     She was generous and compassionate, she noted births and attended funerals. When tragedy struck she could be counted on to offer assistance, and always knew the right thing to say to bring understanding and comfort. But she could also deliver criticism when needed, a wake-up call where she saw injustice.
     The eighties were her “Hollywood” phase. She made new friends, many from California and the West, who exuded glamor and style more than intellect. But the men were handsome and the women beautiful.  In the nineties, she had a fling with a younger man, a “bad-boy” who was able to charm her in ways that allowed her to overlook his flaws.  When his past caught up with him and his star faded, she stuck with him and defended him against his detractors, though I could see she was hurt.

Old love dies hard...

     But then things began to change. Without noticing it at first, but seeing it now in retrospect, her freshness wilted. Her stories, which once rivaled those of Scheherazade, began to seem repetitious and stale. Her eloquence began to fade; she made grammatical errors that broke the spell. Worse, I began to realize that I had already heard the stories she was now telling. Sometimes, I even heard them from her the day before. She was less engaged in the world and began simply to repeat what others were saying. She said there was a web conspiring to bring her down.  She began to go to bed early, and seemed to be indifferent as to whether she had anything new to say or not. Her opinions, once fresh and insightful, now were entirely predictable, cranky, even boring. Those she brought into her circle to share opinion consisted of the same people who had been around for years, seldom anything or anybody new. And when someone new was added to her circle, it seemed more for the label than for the wine. 

     It was clear that her world was changing far more quickly than she either desired to or could. Some say she suffers from poor circulation, and others have suggested an extended trip to renew her energy, perhaps an adventure to the Amazon to revitalize her.  I don’t know, but for me the old magic is gone.

      Old love dies hard. She is still part of my life, just not as important to me. I no longer consider her my window to the world, and sometimes find myself ignoring her entirely. But we had some great times together over the years. There is always that.      

     I miss the better days with The Washington Post.

This article first appeared on Trail Mix

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ebola, International Broadcasting and Social Media

'International media organizations need to take up a role beyond journalism. In addition to reporting about the disease, they need to push vital information to a needy public'

By Joseph Bruns

These are busy times for those engaged in international politics on social media. Russia’s propaganda machine is at full throttle twisting facts on the ground in Ukraine inside out. ISIL has developed slick and sickening videos and has turned social media into a recruiting office. Meanwhile, the US State Department has created in 2010 a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication to play catch-up in a medium that they have previously treated with suspicion. Not surprisingly, our efforts seem more reactive than proactive, and it is clear that, while public diplomacy is important, it will not be the decisive factor in these theaters of conflict.

In contrast, there is a critical and life-saving role that public diplomacy and particularly the Voice of America can play in supporting US and international efforts to curb the spread and ultimately control the Ebola virus outbreak.

…the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is “a threat to global security.”  President Obama

To date, about 3000 people have died of Ebola in West Africa. The Centers for Disease Control projects as many as 1.4 million cases within just a few months. While most public health officials think pandemic Ebola is unlikely, the potential is there, especially if the virus undergoes mutation. But even if the spread is confined to the countries of West Africa, the region is facing extraordinary suffering and social chaos.

The West African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are at risk of social collapse because of the disease itself and the drastic measures taken to control its spread. Closed shops, empty marketplaces, and grounded air flights are the norm. NPR has reported that construction projects have been halted and farmers have stopped planting out of fear for the future.  Why plant now when the future is so uncertain and markets are closed? This has already had a major impact on GDP. And too often, economic stress, coupled with fear and lack of authoritative information lead to unrest and the real possibility of failed states, with all that implies. It has been reported in the past weeks that villagers driven by fear and disinformation have killed at least eight health aid workers in Guinea.

While NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders, have done heroic work, the official international community has been slow to respond to the outbreak. Now President Obama has announced a Pentagon led effort to help build infrastructure needed to treat the disease and support the USAID mission. The World Health Organization and other international bodies have also begun to provide resources and mobilize at a scale that can make a difference.

In disasters such as this one, it is important that direct aid and assistance be provided to the people in need. But also of vital importance is that trusted sources provide reliable and accurate information to care providers, local officials and the general population of affected areas. We tend to think an international story as well-covered by media when it regularly appears on the evening news, and CNN has dispatched a covey of reporters. While this news about a crisis is valuable in focusing attention and spurring action, it does little to directly alleviate the suffering. What is often needed is important information directed towards those immediately affected. A villager in Liberia doesn’t need to know that NIH is working on a new vaccine, she needs to know where to take her sick child.

A Role for Media, New and Old
In crises such as this one, international media organizations need to take up a role beyond journalism. In addition to reporting about the disease, they need to push vital information directly to those with the greatest need for the information on how to prevent, treat and cope with the disease. The audience in this case is health care providers, government officials and the general citizenry within the affected area.

International broadcasters, including BBC and the Voice of America, are stepping up this effort. In addition to reporting the news about the outbreak to the region and the world, they are using their multi-language and multi-media capabilities to provide timely and life-saving information to people in the affected areas on specific actions they can take in the face of the disease. They are providing practical information such as how to treat symptomatic relatives, how safely prepare and bury the dead, how to protect oneself, how to obtain local assistance and information in basic pictures and language that helps debunk myth and disinformation surrounding the disease.

Much more must be done. These broadcasters, already spread thin covering other world events, need more resources directed to this effort.  More needs to be done using social media, cell phone messaging and low-bandwidth Internet sites to reach as much of the general population as possible with accurate information. By doing so, the international broadcasters can help bend the curve of the Ebola crisis.

Joseph Bruns is a former Director of International Broadcasting, USIA and a retired public broadcasting executive. September 25, 2014

This article first appeared on the University of Southern California Center for Public Diplomacy Blog

Thursday, October 2, 2014

You don’t have to roam for more dinosaurs

 April 19

To the dismay of parents across the Washington area, on April 28 the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum will close the dinosaur hall for a major renovation. When it reopens in 2019, the new exhibit will include the Wankel Tyrannosaurus rex, one of the most complete T. rex skeletons discovered.
But in the meantime, what do you do with your budding paleontologist? By the time the new exhibit opens, that magical period of fascination with all things prehistoric may have passed. While the Smithsonian will continue to display other dinosaur fossils, sometimes your imaginative child just needs to experience big and bad.
Fortunately, there are a number of good options to choose from. Some can be visited during a day trip; for others, you’ll want to spend a night or a weekend. You also might want to take advantage of your child’s interest to introduce him or her to the broader world of scienc.
But let’s start with dinosaurs. Many children develop an interest in dinosaurs between the ages of 5 and 7. They’re becoming aware of, and interested in, the natural world around them, and the idea of big, lumbering beasts roaming the world and creating havoc — well, what’s not to like? Even better, they really existed, unlike the monsters from the fairy tales. And, even though they no longer roam around, a child can easily engage with the tangible evidence of massive skeletons and models presented in a simulated environment.
So while the Smithsonian exhibit is under construction, explore beyond the Capital Beltway. Just up the road in Baltimore, the Maryland Science Center offers a small but interesting collection of about a dozen full dinosaur specimens, including a forty-foot T. rex. You can also see the Maryland’s state dinosaur (yes, there is one). It’s called Astrodon johnstoni, and its display at the science center shows it being attacked by an acrocanthosaurus. The center makes the most of its collection and includes a working field lab demonstrating the effort involved in unearthing these fossils. Like a lot of smaller exhibits, what the center lacks in size, it makes up for in intimacy.
A little farther up I-95 is the Delaware Museum of Natural History in Wilmington. This collection, too, is modest, but it does have nice examples. And beginning Sept. 27, the museum will have on exhibit the prehistoric snake fossil Titanoboa, measuring in at a whopping 48 feet — longer than a school bus. This creature from the Paleocene epoch will definitely impress even the most dinosaur-savvy kid.
Still farther up I-95 is Drexel University’sAcademy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. On display there is an impressive 42-foot skeletal display of a T. rex along with more than 30 other dinosaur species, including many full skeletons. Of particular interest is the life-size model of a Stegosaurusshowing its internal anatomy. The academy also has a green-screen display that allows children to walk among the dinosaurs, a trick sure to amaze. The Academy of Natural Sciences, known locally as the Dinosaur Museum, is the oldest natural history museum in the country and displayed the world’s first mounted dinosaur.
If you are taking older children, or if you can interest your younger ones in science beyond dinosaurs, be sure to take advantage of your trip to Philadelphia to visit the Franklin Institute — one of the best all-around science museums anywhere. Emphasizing a hands-on experience, the Franklin Institute has something for every age group, from “KidScience: The Island of the Elements” for children as young as 5 to a “Blue Angels Adventure Flight Simulator” for older kids (there is a minimum height requirement). In Washington, we often overlook the fact that Philadelphia is a great city for museums and is within a reasonable distance.
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, after a two-year renovation of its dinosaur hall, now features “Dinosaurs in Their Time,” an exhibit that has been carefully created to portray dinosaurs in their contemporary environment. Complete skeletons and a chronological progression should fascinate and educate children across a wide age spectrum. The museum also features a paleo lab and interactive features. As with the other museums, the Carnegie provides plenty of opportunities to explore natural history beyond dinosaurs.
And then there is the marvelous American Museum of Natural History in New York, where you’ll find two large halls — one dedicated to Saurischian Dinosaurs, or those with grasping hands (think T. Rex), and the other for Ornithischian dinosaurs. It also has a very cool exhibit of primitive mammals.
Combined, there are more than 100 dinosaurs and related beasts on display. And, if your time and budget allow, you can arrange for your child to have “A Night at the Museum.”
Speaking of budgets, some Washingtonians are surprised to learn just how pricey admission to museums can be. A family of four can drop more than $60 just for basic admission. Add parking and some attractions, like IMAX tickets, and the price goes up. In the District, we’re fortunate to have world-class museums that survive on a combination of private and public support and offer free or low-cost admissions.
Look for bargains. Some of the museums listed here have reciprocal arrangements for those who are members of other museums. Others offer discounts on certain days or reduced admission for organized groups. If your budget is tight, consider packing your lunch. And before you go, check online to avoid any nasty surprises, like additional fees, exhibit closings or days the museums are closed.
Finally, use this window of opportunity when a child’s imagination and curiosity about nature combine to broaden the learning experience. Visit the National Aquarium in Baltimore (did I mention pricey?), nearby science museums or Calvert Cliffs State Park in Maryland, where you and your kids can dig up fossils. You will be rewarded as your child experiences both engaging displays of nature and a wide assortment of hands-on activities.
And, of course, life will go on without dinosaurs on the Mall, opening up possibilities to explore whole new species and epochs.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post