Everybody’s already made up their mind

Illustration by Jeff Crosby for Salon.com

Illustration by Jeff Crosby for Salon.com

The sound of vomiting awakened me. The smell of it assured no return to sleep.

My roommate was coming out of his coma.

“That’s OK, that’s OK,” a woman told the gently groaning man who had just emptied his stomach and, I noticed a moment later, his bowels. “We’ll take care of that. You don’t worry.”

I heard but did not see any of this. A gauzy, cornflower blue curtain on a metal rod trembled from the activity behind it. Between gulps, the man apologized, his words wavering in the air.

“No problem, no problem at all,” said another woman. The pair sounded much younger than the man they were addressing. “Here, just roll over a little this way so we can get – there, that’s it.”

The whisper of changing bedsheets filled the room. The thud of something wet and heavy landed in a plastic bucket, followed by another thud.

My attention span rippled like water in a breeze. The drugs administered to arouse me from surgery were prying me out of a deathly slumber, but a mild grip continued. The analog wall clock said 3 a.m.

As I noticed this, the women emerged from behind the curtain wearing purple smocks, latex gloves, and their frosted hair bound up in small buns. Each clutched a bulging plastic trash bag and a facial expression wrought from a hard night. The air improved when they left.

My roommate coughed and cleared his throat a few minutes, then was silent. When next I heard him, the hands on the wall clock had spun around three times and sunlight dribbled through the window blinds.

I needed to pee – I could not remember the last time that happened – and so began focusing on how to do it. I had come out of surgery without a catheter and without the use of my shoulders. Long, raw, S-shaped scars curved beneath my arms. A tube jutted from the bottom of each scar. Beneath each tube, a plastic bulb collected orange fluid. Concentrating on how to squirm out of bed unaided softened the edge on my urge.

But in fumbling to stand, I brushed the room dividing curtain, causing one side to slide back on the rod. And that is when I met Clarence from Anna, Illinois. His drooping, swollen eyes stared at a muted TV on his side of the room. He had long white and red tubes running the length of his black arms.

“Hey, hi. Sorry about that,” I said as I grabbed at my loose gown with one hand and my rolling intravenous fluid pump with the other. Pain coursed from my shoulders to my ribs. The half-filled bulbs pulled on my scars.

“No, that’s fine,” he replied and waved to me with thick fingers. “Hope I’m not disturbing you. I guess I got a little noisy last night.”

“Nah. I wasn’t really asleep anyway. They kept waking me every hour to ask a question or poke me with something. How are you doing?”

“Better, I think. They tell me I was out awhile, so I’m not sure,” he said, groggily.

“You mind if I asked what happened?”

“Car crash. I was making a delivery and a woman plowed into my side at a stoplight.”

“You remember that?”

“I remember that much, then I woke up here.”

“So, you feeling better?”

“Yeah. I think one of these tubes is morphine.”

As the last syllable dribbled from his mouth, two other women slid past me, nodded acknowledgment, then positioned themselves on either side of Clarence’s bed. He greeted one as Mom.

“Ohh, baby, how’re you feeling?” She knitted the words together in a long, soft musical note.

“Mmm. ‘K,” he mumbled.

At that, I regathered my gown and rolling IV stand to address the business that forced me upright. When I finished and returned to bed in a way as innovative and as painful as I had left it, the conversation behind the re-extended curtain had changed from a lovely tune to legal matters.

“Police say she’s already got a lawyer …” the woman called Mom said.

“… and he’s already talked to them,” the other woman added. Clarence called her a word like “Sulee.”

“She was the one who didn’t stop,” he told her. “I was stopped and moved out a little to see past the car and then she was slamming into the side of me.”

“I know, honey,” Mom said. “And they know it. But she’s got this lawyer now.”

Piece by piece, the puzzle came together before me. Clarence was working his second job, floral delivery, and had pulled up to a flashing stoplight two blocks from his destination. Cars parked close to the intersection interfered with his view, so he stopped then inched and stopped then inched forward to see better.

He remembered flashing lights, a siren, and someone shouting questions at him. That was four days ago.

“Mmm, yes,” Mom hummed.

“But now you gotta get a lawyer, too,” Sulee said. “You gotta talk to somebody at the college. Got a lot of friends there, right? You’ve worked there a long time. Somebody there knows someone who can help, right?”

“Dunno,” Clarence said. “Maybe.”

“Oh, we gotta try,” Sulee said.

“Dunno,” Clarence repeated. “I mean, look at me, look at that town. Everybody’s already made up their mind.”

Colin Powell: Digital transformation success requires leadership

2008 photo of Colin Powell

Colin Powell in 2008. (Photo by Rob Reed / Creative Commons)

Digital transformations rely on much more than technology and investment to succeed; they require buy-in from everyone involved, from the board room on down. Ensuring that buy-in requires strong leadership.

No less an authority on leadership than Colin Powell insists as much. The former U.S. Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs is on the record as a firm believer in digital transformation.

In today’s digital society, “if you do not get at the front of change, change will override you,” he said recently. “(The world) has gone from analog to digital, and we are in up to our ears.”

Powell’s acknowledges his motives in this regard are more personal now; he says he stays abreast of the latest tech to keep up with his grandchildren. For a large portion of his career, however, Powell lived at the nexus of both war and peace, first as an Army four-star general, then as the nation’s top diplomat.

In both roles, he led large numbers of people through times of significant transition. The Cold War ended on his watch, supplanted by a globalized economy driven by economics and the information revolution. Two monolithic institutions, the U.S military and the State Department, suddenly needed to change course, and Powell was in the driver’s seat.

He admits being intimidated at first by the size and scope of the disruption. Yet Powell believes that his years of Army training prepared him for the challenge of quelling it.

“When I became … a general, and I was running wars and large military operations, I was surrounded by hundreds of people who were experts in their fields: communicators, artillery men, you name it, and I drew on their expertise,” Powell said in 2009. “It was important to know what they think.

“After listening to all the experts, I was supposed to use that expertise to inform my instinct. … It is an educated, informed instinct that is daily shaped by my experts, but at the same time you’ve got to apply judgement to it. That’s where the human dimension comes in.”

The same strategy applies to digital transformation in the business world. Transformations are large engagements requiring risk and resources. A well-informed CEO will understand how to balance the two.

“You’ve got to have CEOs who not only apply their experience but are willing to take the risks that your data people and subordinates aren’t willing to take, because that’s not their job,” Powell said.

Good CEOs also train their staffs properly, recognize good performance, correct poor performance, allow staff autonomy, and remembers to treat everyone with respect and compassion, Powell says. Each of these elements factors into effective digital transformations along with the technology. Remaining mindful of all of them allows business leaders to stay ahead of the digital curve.

“You can’t just match change,” Powell said. “(Competitors) will be somewhere else by the time you match them, and you will still get left behind.”

John Oliver: Journalist of the year

John Oliver (Photo courtesy HBO)

John Oliver (Photo courtesy HBO)

The best journalist in America in 2014 isn’t American and isn’t a journalist.

He intends to change only one of those things.

“I would like to get into a situation where I’m not suffering taxation without representation, which I’m suffering right now,” British comedian John Oliver told ABC’s “This Week.”

As for the journalist part, Oliver insisted on PBS’s “News Hour” that the title is misapplied.

“I have no moral authority. I’m a comedian.”

Given his latest performances on television though, one is left to wonder otherwise.

The British expatriate and Cambridge University graduate settled in this country upon joining the staff of Comedy Central’s popular “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in 2006. Between assignments, Oliver continued to do stand-up routines and podcasts on both sides of the Atlantic, each refining a style of wit reminiscent of Monty Python. He obtained a Green Card in 2009 and considers himself a permanent U.S. resident.

Then in the summer of 2013, Oliver sat in the “Daily Show” host’s chair for eight weeks while Stewart was off directing the movie “Rosewater” and in that time Oliver displayed a formidable enough stage command to establish himself as Stewart’s likely successor. But before the notion could percolate longer, HBO plucked him out of Stewart’s stable to host the premium channel’s brand new Daily Show-esque enterprise.

What followed was a masterful mix of humor and social commentary that major news media should watch carefully — and learn from.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” does indeed borrow from the “Daily Show” style of squeezing satire out of social and political events and blowing them up to absurd, sometimes mocku-mental proportions. But where the 30-minute “Last Week Tonight” truly distinguishes itself is in the show’s feature pieces, which can last half the program. Among the notable long-form bits in the show’s first 25-episode season were an analysis of Miss America scholarship claims, a look at chronic corruption by World Cup organizer FIFA, and a breakdown of the hypocrisy endemic in the American lottery system.

Oliver does not just parse words. His staff includes former magazine researchers as well as comedy writers who sift for truth as much for laughs. Oliver and his crew understand that a little bit of bizarre behavior floats on the surface of authority and that by shining a light on it we can peer down into, and be less intimidated by, the darkness beneath.

“Last Week Tonight” even displays key information over Oliver’s right shoulder on the screen, noting also the source and publication date. Not even network newscasts do that.

“It is reporting in no sense. But there is a lot of research,” Oliver says. “If a joke is built on sand, it just doesn’t work. … It’s very, very important to us that we are solid.”

This commitment has enabled Oliver to navigate stridently dense, solemn topics such as America’s wealth gap, civil forfeiture, and student debt — topics journalists have reported on many times but with a predilection for the somber seriousness of suffering by which most events are judged newsworthy.

“There is something about playing with toys that are that difficult which become more satisfying to break by the end of our week’s process,” Oliver says.

Not just break — shatter, really. “Last Week Tonight” garnered 1.1 million viewers on Sunday nights. Across all platforms including DVR and on-demand showings, overall weekly viewership topped 4 million. But on YouTube, where “Last Week Tonight” continues to show its vigor months after signing off until February, a feature broadcast in July on the wealth gap has been viewed since then nearly 6 million times. The piece on civil forfeiture has more than 4 million views. The piece on student debt has 3.6 million.

A feature on the typically arcane subject of national elections in India has garnered 2.5 million YouTube views. (HBO releases each segment separately onto YouTube after their initial broadcast).

“It didn’t make any sense to me that the largest exercise in democracy in the history of humanity was not interesting enough for (the major news media) to cover,” Oliver says of the India feature. India has 1.2 billion people; the United States, 320 million.

Even Oliver’s exposition on events in Ferguson, Mo., in a piece mixed with equal parts humor and outrage just one week after Michael Brown’s shooting now has more than 5.5 million views. That number has grown by about 10,000 weekly. Meanwhile, Oliver’s most talked-about feature, the one about net neutrality that was blamed for crashing the Federal Communications Commission’s website, is cruising toward 9 million viewers.

All these numbers constitute a larger audience share per feature than the major news networks can muster per night.

What Oliver and “Last Week Tonight” have managed to do is find a way to engage viewers and keep them engaged on complex, contemporary issues long after the initial broadcast while managing to be informative, a puzzle that network news and newspapers still struggle to accomplish two decades into the digital era.

Journalism in its most basic form is the gathering, processing, and dissemination of information related to a particular audience. By that simplistic definition, Oliver qualifies as a journalist.

“I think that becomes more of a sad commentary on news than it does on us” as comedians, Oliver says. “The only responsibility as a comedian is that I have to make people laugh. If I don’t do that — and I am sure that I often don’t — I have failed.”

But in making people laugh, Oliver goes to journalistically admirable lengths to do it. In the feature on Miss America scholarship funding, which the nonprofit Miss America Foundation claimed was $45 million annually, the “Last Week Tonight” staff spent days sifting through 990 tax forms on nonprofit spending from 33 states right up until broadcast to try verifying that number. The amount turned out to be unjustifiable, but “Last Week Tonight” nevertheless discovered that the Miss America Foundation is indeed the largest provider of scholarships that are just for women — which news media then reported.

“I just want it to be funny,” Oliver says, describing the course he and “Last Week Tonight” have charted. “That is the key responsibility that you have to hold yourself to as a comedian. If you’re not making people laugh, what exactly are you doing?”

This is not to say America’s daily news needs a thick layer of humor to help it glide along, or that professional journalists are less capable of engaging audiences than Oliver & Co. But if an expat Brit can reach more people on tough topics than the major news media and incorporate impressive feats of news gathering and accountability while doing it, then the “journalist” label will stick to Oliver no matter how hard he tries to shake it off, and major news media will be compelled to watch him try.

So, Oliver’s success and that of “Last Week Tonight” raises the question: If the major news media have a responsibility of informing and enlightening the public and still struggle at it, what exactly are they doing?

You won’t believe what this journalist did using clickbait

Clickbait IconSee? I knew you’d click on the headline. Clickbait heads are useful that way.

Sure, clickbait promises more than it delivers. But in an age when mouse clicks can bring profit, clickbait heads are effective hooks for websites to attract business.

Clickbait is deceptive, misleading, and irresistible. That’s why headlines such as “Tricks Car Insurance Agents Don’t Want You to Know,” and “How iPads Are Selling for Under $40,” attract readers who should know better. These headlines promise content that reveals secrets, validates rumors, solves mysteries — and who doesn’t love that?

Well, journalists, for one. They insist clickbait content devalues news sites and demeans the journalism profession. A Google search with just “clickbait” and “journalism” in the search field turns up pages and pages of claims that the former is ruining the latter.

To some degree, this is true. Mislead any audience and you risk losing it.

What many journalists fail to remember however is that clickbait has been around much longer than the Internet — and they were the ones writing it.

Visit any library or newspaper database and scan the print headlines from 10, 20, 30 years ago. Headline writing was an art, a craft. News editors had limited space and time to explain a story no matter how complex, and it was a struggle almost every time. (Go ahead: Try explaining tax increment financing in six words or fewer, without using “tax,” or “increment,” or “financing.)

The goal was to make a big impression with small words.

That goal remains much the same online, but the audience is larger and there are many more news providers fighting for attention and survival. That’s why such sites as CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and my former employer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — which is where I found the car insurance and iPad headlines mentioned above — resort to clickbait despite the criticism it brings.

Yes, clickbait is a necessary evil of doing business online. But if journalists believe clickbait is ruining their reputations, then journalists must take greater responsibility for solving a problem they helped create.

(A version of this post appears at KolbeCo.net.)

My mother’s luck

Friday the 13th icon

My mother’s birthday fell on a Friday the 13th eleven times in her life. Other people cringed at that; she shrugged it off.

Luck, whether bad or good, she insisted, was a byproduct of preparation. So, she crossed paths with black cats, walked under ladders when convenient, swept broken mirrors into the trash without concern, and never hunted for oddities in a patch of clover.

Her dismissiveness regarding superstition impressed me, emboldened me. I, too, count to thirteen without pausing at twelve.

But I think luck found her anyway, and maybe sought her out. Little else would explain how Japanese fighter planes missed strafing her childhood home near Pearl Harbor, or how she thwarted a black colleague’s likely lynching in Alabama by recognizing the voices from under the white hoods of their assailants and shouting their names, or how a tornado late one night in St. Louis missed her house but flattened the one next door.

Or how my mother managed to carry one child to term after three miscarriages and two warnings from her doctor to not continue trying.

Most of us tend to measure our lives against the final tally of blessings bestowed upon us, whether they are considered gifts or rights. We rely on the certainty of an unsubstantiated, ulterior force at our spiritual helm steering us toward a future greater and richer than we may deserve.

My mother was not so sanguine on these accounts. She possessed faith and a spiritual awareness, yet her favorite phrases were, “God helps those who help themselves,” and, “God is a busy man, and there are people way worse off than you. Work hard to make your own miracles.”

With her, not even blessings were left to chance.

Indeed, she suffered disappointment. Her marriage and health began failing around the same time and for the same reasons: too much alcohol and too little commitment. The frames she bought to hold pictures of grandchildren eventually held other memories. The golden years she aspired to spend in travel went instead toward caring for her own parents, one of whom lived past 100 and the other nearly so.

“Good god, I hope I don’t live that long,” she told me after her own mother’s memorial service.

Soon after, her turn toward mortality began. A long Pacific cruise tested her frailty and put her in the hospital for months. After returning home from that, a few months later, she suffered a heart attack and several small strokes.

At hospice, during one of her few lucid moments, she turned to my uncle who was visiting on her final birthday and asked, “I’m not going to get better, am I?”

He said no.

She sighed and after a long pause said, “That’s fine, that’s fine.”

My mother’s birthday fell on Friday the 13th eleven times in her life. Today would have been the twelfth.

I imagine she’s somewhere shrugging it off.