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18 June 2018

Astronaut Sally K. Ride's Legacy – Encouraging Young Women To Embrace Science And Engineering


Mission specialist Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space.
Mission specialist Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
On June 18, 1983, 35 years ago, Sally Ride became the first American woman to launch into space, riding the Space Shuttle STS-7 flight with four other crew members. Only five years earlier, in 1978, she had been selected to the first class of 35 astronauts – including six women – who would fly on the Space Shuttle.

Sally’s first ride, with her STS-7 crewmates. In addition to launching America’s first female astronaut, it was also the first mission with a five-member crew.
Sally’s first ride, with her STS-7 crewmates. In addition to launching America’s first female astronaut, it was also the first mission with a five-member crew. Front row, left to right: Ride, commander Bob Crippen, pilot Frederick Hauck. Back row, left to right: John Fabian, Norm Thagard. (NASA)
Much has happened in the intervening years. During the span of three decades, the shuttles flew 135 times carrying hundreds of American and international astronauts into space before they were retired in 2011. The International Space Station began to fly in 1998 and has been continuously occupied since 2001, orbiting the Earth once every 90 minutes. More than 50 women have now flown into space, most of them Americans. One of these women, Dr. Peggy Whitson, became chief of the Astronaut Office and holds the American record for number of hours in space.

The Space Shuttle democratized spaceflight

The Space Shuttle was an amazing flight vehicle: It launched like a rocket into Low Earth Orbit in only eight minutes, and landed softly like a glider after its mission. What is not well known is that the Space Shuttle was an equalizer and enabler, opening up space exploration to a wider population of people from planet Earth.

STS-50 Crew photo with commander Richard N. Richards and pilot Kenneth D. Bowersox, mission specialists Bonnie J. Dunbar, Ellen S. Baker and Carl J. Meade, and payload specialists Lawrence J. DeLucas and Eugene H. Trinh
STS-50 Crew photo with commander Richard N. Richards and pilot Kenneth D. Bowersox, mission specialists Bonnie J. Dunbar, Ellen S. Baker and Carl J. Meade, and payload specialists Lawrence J. DeLucas and Eugene H. Trinh. The photo was taken in front of the Columbia Shuttle, which Dunbar helped to build.(NASA)
This inclusive approach began in 1972 when Congress and the president approved the Space Shuttle budget and contract. Spacesuits, seats and all crew equipment were initially designed for a larger range of sizes to fit all body types, and the waste management system was modified for females. Unlike earlier vehicles, the Space Shuttle could carry up to eight astronauts at a time. It had a design more similar to an airplane than a small capsule, with two decks, sleeping berths, large laboratories and a galley. It also provided privacy.

I graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Washington in 1971 and, by 1976, I was a young engineer working on the first Space Shuttle, Columbia, with Rockwell International at Edwards Air Force Base, in California. I helped to design and produce the thermal protection system – those heat resistant ceramic tiles – which allowed the shuttle to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere for up to 100 flights.

Mike Anderson and Bonnie Dunbar flew together on STS-89 in 1998. They both graduated from University of Washington. Anderson was killed in the Columbia accident, in 2003.
Mike Anderson and Bonnie Dunbar flew together on STS-89 in 1998. They both graduated from University of Washington. Anderson was killed in the Columbia accident, in 2003. (NASA)
It was a heady time; a new space vehicle could carry large crews and “cargo,” including space laboratories and the Hubble Space Telescope. The Shuttle also had a robotic arm, which was critical for the assembly of the International Space Station, and an “airlock” for space walks, and enabled us to build the International Space Station.

I knew from my first day at Rockwell that this vehicle had been designed for both men and women. A NASA engineer at the Langley Research Center gave me a very early “heads up” in 1973 that they would eventually select women astronauts for the Space Shuttle. In the 1970s there were visionary men and women in NASA, government and in the general public, who saw a future for more women in science and engineering, and for flying into space. Women were not beating down the door to be included in the Space Shuttle program, we were being invited to be an integral part of a larger grand design for exploring space.

1978: Becoming an astronaut

The selection process for the first class of Space Shuttle astronauts, to include women, opened in 1977. NASA approached the recruitment process with a large and innovative publicity campaign encouraging men and women of all ethnic backgrounds to apply. One of NASA’s recruiters was actress Nichelle Nichols who played Lt. Ohura on the “Star Trek” series, which was popular at the time. Sally learned about NASA’s astronaut recruitment drive through an announcement, possibly on a job bulletin board, somewhere at Stanford University. Sally had been a talented nationally ranked tennis player, but her passion was physics. The opportunity to fly into space intrigued her and looked like a challenge and rewarding career she could embrace.

Sally and I arrived at NASA at the same time in 1978 – she as part of the “TFNG” (“Thirty-Five New Guys”) astronaut class and I as a newly minted mission controller, training to support the Space Shuttle. I had already been in the aerospace industry for several years and had made my choice for “space” at the age of 9 on a cattle ranch in Washington state. I also applied for the 1978 astronaut class, but was not selected until 1980.

Sally and I connected on the Flight Crew Operations co-ed softball team. We both played softball from an early age and were both private pilots, flying our small planes together around southeast Texas. We also often discussed our perspectives on career selection, and how fortunate we were to have teachers and parents and other mentors who encouraged us to study math and science in school – the enabling subjects for becoming an astronaut.

STS-7: June 18 1983

In January 1978, NASA selected six women into the class of 35 new astronauts to fly on the Space Shuttle.
In January 1978, NASA selected six women into the class of 35 new astronauts to fly on the Space Shuttle. From left to right are Shannon W. Lucid, Ph.D., Margaret Rhea Seddon, M.D., Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D., Judith A. Resnik, Ph.D., Anna L. Fisher, M.D., and Sally K. Ride, Ph.D. (NASA)
Although Sally was one of six women in the 1978 class, she preferred to be considered one of 35 new astronauts – and to be judged by merit, not gender. It was important to all the women that the bar be as high as it was for the men. From an operational and safety point of view, that was also equally important. In an emergency, there are no special allowances for gender or ethnicity: Everyone had to pull their own weight. In fact, it has been said that those first six women were not just qualified, they were more than qualified.

While Sally was honored to be picked as the first woman from her class to fly, she shied away from the limelight. She believed that she flew for all Americans, regardless of gender, but she also understood the expectations on her for being selected “first.” As she flew on STS-7, she paid tribute to those who made it possible for her to be there: to her family and teachers, to those who made and operated the Space Shuttle, to her crewmates, and to all of her astronaut classmates including Dr. Kathy Sullivan, Dr. Rhea Seddon, Dr. Anna Fisher, Dr. Shannon Lucid, and Dr. Judy Resnick (who lost her life on Challenger). With all of the attention, Sally was a gracious “first.” And the launch of STS-7 had a unique celebratory flair. Signs around Kennedy Space Center said “Fly Sally Fly,” and John Denver gave a special concert the night before the launch, not far from the launch pad.

Continuing the momentum

One of the topics that Sally and I discussed frequently was why so few young girls were entering into math, technology, science and engineering – which became known as STEM careers in the late 1990s. Both of us had been encouraged and pushed by male and female mentors and “cheerleaders.” By 1972, companies with federal contracts were actively recruiting women engineers. NASA had opened up spaceflight to women in 1978, and was proud of the fact that they were recruiting and training women as astronauts and employing them in engineering and the sciences.

National needs for STEM talent and supportive employment laws were creating an environment such that if a young woman wished to become an aerospace engineer, a physicist, a chemist, a medical doctor, an astronomer or an astrophysicist, they could. One might have thought that Sally’s legendary flight, and those of other women astronauts over the last 35 years might have inspired a wave of young women (and men) into STEM careers. For example, when Sally flew into space in 1983, a 12-year-old middle school girl back then would now be 47. If she had a daughter, that daughter might be 25. After two generations, we might have expected that there would be large bow wave of young energized women entering into the STEM careers. But this hasn’t happened.

Rather, we have a growing national shortage of engineers and research scientists in this nation, which threatens our prosperity and national security. The numbers of women graduating in engineering grew from 1 percent in 1971 to about 20 percent in 35 years. But women make up 50 percent of the population, so there is room for growth. So what are the “root causes” for this lack of growth?

K-12 STEM education

Many reports have cited deficient K-12 math and science education as contributing to the relatively stagnant graduation rates in STEM careers.

Completing four years of math in high school, as well as physics, chemistry and biology is correlated with later success in science, mathematics and engineering in college. Without this preparation, career options are reduced significantly. Even though I graduated from a small school in rural Washington state, I was able to study algebra, geometry, trigonometry, math analysis, biology, chemistry and physics by the time I graduated. Those were all prerequisites for entry into the University of Washington College of Engineering. Sally had the same preparation before she entered into physics.

As part of NASA’s commitment to the next generation of explorers, NASA Ames collaborated with Sally Ride Science to sponsor and host the Sally Ride Science Festival at the NASA Research Park
As part of NASA’s commitment to the next generation of explorers, NASA Ames collaborated with Sally Ride Science to sponsor and host the Sally Ride Science Festival at the NASA Research Park. Hundreds of San Francisco Bay Area girls, their teachers and parents enjoy a fun-filled interactive exploration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics on Sept. 27, 2008. (NASA Ames Research Center / Dominic Hart)
Although we have many great K-12 schools in the nation, too many schools now struggle to find qualified mathematics and physics teachers. Inspiring an interest in these topics is also key to retention and success. Being excited about a particular subject matter can keep a student engaged even through the tough times. Participation in “informal science education” at museums and camps is becoming instrumental for recruiting students into STEM careers, especially as teachers struggle to find the time in a cramped curriculum to teach math and science.

Research has shown that middle school is a critical period for young boys and girls to establish their attitudes toward math and science, to acquire fundamental skills that form the basis for progression into algebra, geometry and trigonometry, and to develop positive attitudes toward the pursuit of STEM careers. When Dr. Sally Ride retired from NASA, she understood this, and founded Imaginary Lines and, later, Sally Ride Science, to influence career aspirations for middle school girls. She hosted science camps throughout the nation, exposing young women and their parents to a variety of STEM career options. Sally Ride Science continues its outreach through the University of California at San Diego.

Challenging old stereotypes and honoring Sally’s legacy

Sally Ride and Bonnie Dunbar are fighting outdated stereotypes that women are not good at STEM subjects
Sally Ride and Bonnie Dunbar are fighting outdated stereotypes that women are not good at STEM subjects. (Creativa Images/
However, there are still challenges, especially in this social media-steeped society. I and other practicing women engineers have observed that young girls are often influenced by what they perceive “society thinks” of them.

In a recent discussion with an all-girl robotics team competing at NASA, I asked the high school girls if they had support from teachers and parents, and they all said “yes.” But then, they asked, “Why doesn’t society support us?” I was puzzled and asked them what they meant. They then directed me to the internet where searches on engineering careers returned a story after story of describing “hostile work environments.

Sadly, most of these stories are very old and are often from studies with very small populations. The positive news, from companies, government, universities and such organizations as the National Academy of Engineers, Physics Girl and Society of Women Engineers, rarely rises to the top of the search results. Currently, companies and laboratories in the U.S. are desperate to employ STEM qualified and inspired women. But many of our young women continue to “opt out.”

Young women are influenced by the media images they see every day. We continue to see decades-old negative stereotypes and poor images of engineers and scientists on television programs and in the movies.

Popular TV celebrities continue to boast on air that they either didn’t like math or struggled with it. Sally Ride Science helps to combat misconceptions and dispel myths by bringing practicing scientists and engineers directly to the students. However, in order to make a more substantial difference, this program and others like it require help from the media organizations. The nation depends upon the technology and science produced by our scientists and engineers, but social media, TV hosts, writers and movie script developers rarely reflect this reality. So it may be, that in addition to K-12 challenges in our educational system, the “outdated stererotypes” portrayed in the media are also discouraging our young women from entering science and engineering careers.

Unlimited opportunities in science and engineering

The reality? More companies than ever are creating family-friendly work environments and competing for female talent. In fact, there is a higher demand from business, government and graduate schools in the U.S. for women engineers and scientists than can be met by the universities.

Both Sally and I had wonderful careers supported by both men and women. NASA was a great work environment and continues to be – the last two astronaut classes have been about 50 percent female.

The ConversationI think that Sally would be proud of how far the nation has come with respect to women in space, but would also want us to focus on the future challenges for recruiting more women into science and engineering, and to reignite the passion for exploring space.

About Today's Contributor:

Bonnie J. Dunbar, NASA astronaut (Ret) and TEES Distinguished Research Professor, Aerospace Engineering, Texas A&M University

This article was originally published on The Conversation

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17 June 2018

What Led Up to the War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes - Poster
War for the Planet of the Apes - Poster
War for the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matthew Reeves, is the third film in the Planet of the Apes reboot, preceded by Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
The film (which is available on FOX+) focuses on the Caesar (played by Andy Serkis) and the apes versus the humans (whose cast includes Amiah MillerWoody Harrelson, and Gabriel chavarria) battling for control of planet Earth. 
The entire plot occurs two years after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
The film was heavily praised for the strong performance by the cast, the direction, the writing, and the visual effects. It received positive feedback from both critics and fans everywhere, with high-scoring reviews across the board. It was a lot to live up to, especially considering the set-up done by the two films that preceded it.
War for the Planet of the Apes.
War for the Planet of the Apes. (© 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.)
For fans just about to catch up on this third film, here's a review on the events that led up to the War for the Planet of the Apes:
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The beginning of the trilogy focuses on Will Rodman, a scientist who has been testing a cure for Alzheimer's on Chimpanzees. The cure inevitably grants the chimps vast intelligence and Will eventually ends up raising an intelligent chimp named Caesar.
As Caesar reached adolescence and learned of his origin, he began to question his identity. After an incident with their neighbor which lands Caesar in primate shelter with Rocket the chimp, Maurice the orangutan, and Dodge Langon who is their guard. In the shelter, Caesar escapes with the other chimps. Meanwhile, Will's father dies after declining an advanced treatment for his dementia.
After Rodman's assistant Franklin tests the advanced drug on a Bonobo named  Koba, he becomes exposed and falls ill and dies. This marks the beginning of the Simian Flu pandemic. Meanwhile, Will tries to take back Caesar, who refuses to return and instead wants to lead his team of apes. Caesar eventually escapes the facility and manages to release the drug in order to grant other apes from zoos and labs intelligence. In the shuffle, Dodge dies.
A battle takes places as the apes fight their way through the Golden Gate Bridge in order to reach the forest. In one last attempt to have him return, Caesar and Will end up saying goodbye as they part ways. The apes head into the forest.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The second installment in the trilogy starts ten years after a pandemic called the Simian Flu has killed a majority of the human population. The flu was then discovered to be manufactured by the lab of Will Rodman. Meanwhile, the apes under Caesar has settled and created a colony in the forests of San Francisco.
A group of humans led by a man named Malcolm encounters the apes while searching for power supply for their settlement. The apes don't trust the humans but the two parties agree on a compromise, which allows the humans to work on the power supply. Koba, the Bonobo who distrusts humans, discovers the armory of the humans and confronts Caesar. Caesar defends the humans and this led to the revolt of Koba and a faction of the apes to battle the humans.
Koba wounds Caesar and frames the humans for his 'death', and uses this reason to wage an all-out war against the humans. Koba leads the apes into San Francisco and imprisons those who follow Caesar's teachings of sparing unarmed humans.
Malcolm finds Caesar and nurses him back to health and devises a plan to defeat Koba. The events lead up to Caesar confronting Koba and eventually overcoming him. However, before the defeat of Koba, the humans had already sent a radio message to the military, alerting them of the apes' attack. 
The film culminates with the military approaching the settlement and the apes preparing for a new war.
War for the Planet of the Apes - Trailer:

16 June 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Where New Dinosaurs Emerge But Who Are The Real Monsters?


There’s a new kid in town in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. There’s a new kid in town in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. (Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.)
In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom the lines between human and monster are not clear-cut. Much of the film, the fifth instalment of the Universal franchise, is driven by both human and dinosaur capacity for empathy, extinction and reinvention.

Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) return in another swinging tale of unpredictable and unreasoning monsters, brought back from extinction and on the rampage, leaving a trail of mindless destruction across an island on the brink of natural disaster.

But this is a more thoughtful ride through the well-crafted Spielbergian universe, founded on a solid (and enjoyably false) premise, populated with spectacular creatures and flawed humans battling it out for survival, with the predictably plucky clever kid thrown in to make sense of it all.

Claire Dearing has seen the error of her cold corporate ways from the previous Jurassic World (2015). She has invested in a pair of sensible outdoor shoes and relaunched herself as a dinosaur conservationist, living and breathing the ethical conundrum of attempting to preserve a genetically resurrected species.

"Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" - Owen (Chris Pratt, left) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, right) are back.
Owen (Chris Pratt, left) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, right) are back.(Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.)
Owen Grady has retreated to the woods to build a log cabin, and is still determined to win Claire over. He remains the simple but handy muscle to balance Claire’s passionate intellect, though his research into the creatures proves to be of value to commercial interests.

Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm makes all too brief an appearance, providing an authoritative philosophical take on the role these creatures play in our world, against the backdrop of commercialisation, senate enquiries, and unbridled consumerism.
These creatures were here before us. And if we’re not careful, they’re gonna be here after us,” Malcolm says.

Jeff Goldblum reprises his role as Ian Malcolm, with a stark warning
Jeff Goldblum reprises his role as Ian Malcolm, with a stark warning. (Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.)
And come after us they do, as Claire and Owen are enlisted to save the species from “re-extinction”.

Remember Malcolm’s sage pronouncements from the original Jurassic Park (1993): “Life cannot be contained”, “Life breaks free”, and the now totemic “Life finds a way”.

These three environmentally sensitive catchphrases provide hope for survival, but for whom or what? If the Jurassic films show us anything, it is that life ultimately just wants to be left alone and not turned into an elite tourist commodity or set of biopharmaceutical experiments.

Claire and Owen are brought back together by an imminent volcanic eruption on Isla Nublar. As a born-again conservationist, Claire needs Owen to help rescue a Velociraptor he trained and named Blue.

Claire believes she is doing the right thing as a (presumably left-leaning) conservator of rare and endangered species. She can save a select few, but not all. This has caused at least one reviewer to tear up over the fate of a particularly vulnerable herbivore.

The right kind of life finds a way
If only a few could be saved, surely a Brontosaurus would be high on the list? But then, this manifest for a new-age ark has been strategically compiled.

We preserve and save what we value, whether it is species, money or collections. In this instance though, value is determined by strictly capitalist motivations: the black market for endangered species, part of which wishes to monetise the monsters as frontline soldiers in a (vestigial) arms race.

Wheeler-dealers (one with a rather Trumpian coiffure) are gleefully hatching plans to further modify and weaponise the creatures. Meat-eating theropods as natural born killers are their favourites, with herbivores like Ankylosaurus promoted for sale as nature’s “tanks”.

This is no longer humans versus nature. This is nature versus human consumer culture, and we already know who is probably going to win that fight. And the real monsters are much closer to home. They are us, the humans.

"Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" - Let’s build a new dinosaur. Let’s build a new dinosaur. (Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.)
But are the dinosaurs well-depicted?
Dinosaurs have always been the stars of these movies. They are the reason we all go to see these films, and old favourites steal the limelight – the Tyrannosaurus and so-called Velociraptors.

As in the previous outings, the movie variety are much bigger than real Velociraptor (c. 1.5m) and lack feathers that are a feature of most well-preserved members of their family (the dromaeosaurids).

We also get to relish once again the sight of living Ankylosaurus, Gallimimus, Compsognathus, Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Apatosaurus and Triceratops.
Making their first appearance in this movie are Sinoceratops, Carnotaurus, Baryonyx, Allosaurus, Stygimoloch and the manmade hybrid “Indoraptor”.

In the water we see a much overblown, chunky mosasaur with a forked tail, as recently reported in the scientific literature (if you watch very closely).

In the air we again find beefed-up pterosaurs such as Pteranodon, capable of lifting humans off the ground - pretty amazing for a beast that in life weighed up to 20kg. The real Pteranodon also did not have teeth.

The horned theropod Carnotaurus, has well-preserved skin impressions associated with the almost complete fossil skeleton, so we note that the skin texture of the movie beast is accurately depicted according to the scientific evidence.

Sinoceratops, a run-of-the-mill horned herbivore (ceratopsian), is seen briefly, as is Baryonyx, a close relative of the terrifying Spinosaurus that starred in Jurassic Park III.

A feisty little Stygimoloch, a dome-headed pachycephalosaur that loves to headbutt things (as fossil evidence supports), really steals the show in one hilarious scene.

"Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" - Say hello to Blue. Say hello to Blue. (Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC)
Allosaurus is a very well-known late Jurassic dinosaur from North America, whose complete skeletons are seen in many fine museum displays around that country.

It had its moment in Australian scientific history when an anklebone thought to belong to Allosaurus was found at a site on the eastern Victorian coastline near Inverloch in 1981.

This caused great controversy as the beast was thought to be restricted to North America. Later it was shown that the anklebone likely belonged to a newly discovered Queensland Cretaceous theropod dinosaur called Australovenator.

Reconstruction of the small Madagascan theropod Masiakasaurus, whose bizarre teeth were possibly an influence on the creation of the new hybrid dinosaur ‘Indoraptor’
Reconstruction of the small Madagascan theropod Masiakasaurus, whose bizarre teeth were possibly an influence on the creation of the new hybrid dinosaur ‘Indoraptor’. (Artwork by Lukas Panzarin. Dr Matthew Carrano, Smithsonian Museum)
While “Indoraptor” is supposed to be a genetic concoction, it is actually reminiscent of a small Madagascan theropod called Masiakiasurus. This also had a very peculiar set of teeth protruding from its lower jaws, but was much smaller in life (about 2m).

We do see some straight, hairlike feathers on the head of “Indoraptor”, bringing it more into line with what we actually know of the skin covering of these kind of dinosaurs. The film-makers have done their homework.

Science is the big loser
Once again scientists are no longer seen as heroes or even used as major players in the narrative. They too succumb to the dominant market forces.

The loss of real palaeontologists – Sam Neil’s Alan Grant and Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler, who had leading roles in the early movies – is a real shame, especially for kids looking for intelligent role models and exciting careers in science.

There is no clear resolution to this story, not with so much invested in the gaming spin-offs, high box office expectations, and a pending final instalment.

The show, and the cute merchandising, will go on.

It helps us to switch off from the somewhat pressing problem of extinction facing not just our own kind, but the thousands of other life forms on the brink of catastrophe caused by unbridled human consumption.

We are after all in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction event. This is a mess that humans have created, and where science provides clear solutions to how we can in future act to avoid catastrophe, yet politicians with their eyes fixed only on immediate economic benefit routinely ignore such advice.

The ConversationIn the end, it’s left up to us to “find a way”.

"Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom": Who will get Owen first - the volcano or the T-Rex?
Who will get Owen first - the volcano or the T-Rex? (Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC)
About Today's Contributors:
John Long, Strategic Professor in Palaeontology, Flinders University and Heather L. Robinson, Research Associate & PhD Candidate, College of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation

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15 June 2018

US Press And Free Speech Groups Question Raid On Reporter's Records

Ali Watkins
Ali Watkins (image via The Cut)
Following the Justice Department's seizure of a reporter's phone and email communications without prior notice,The National Press Club, PEN America and more than a dozen other leading organizations representing professional journalists and free speech advocates are demanding an explanation from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"This intrusion is particularly troubling because it relates to reporting concerning alleged misdeeds by the president's campaign, raising questions about whether the content of the reporting is what occasioned this unusual level of scrutiny," the groups write in a letter sent Friday to Sessions. "Moreover, we share a concern that this will have a chilling effect on other journalists who now know that records of their calls, emails and texts may be reviewed without their knowledge, perhaps months and years after the fact.
The press and free speech advocates are asking the Justice Department to provide an explanation as to how this action strikes "the proper balance between law enforcement and free press interests," in the words of the Department's own formal guidance for handling investigations involving the news media.
"We must view this troubling incident in the context of the Trump administration's daily attacks on the role of the press in preserving our fundamental freedoms and values, said PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel. "That there has been no clarity from the Justice Department on other avenues of investigation pursued before Watkins' records were seized, a move their own guidelines describe as a last resort, will inevitably have a chilling effect on journalists covering the Administration. An explanation for this course of action is crucial to the exercise of press freedom."
Last week, the New York Times reported that, as part of an investigation of alleged improper leaks of information by a congressional staffer, the Justice Department swept up years' worth of communications to and from Times reporter Ali Watkins without giving her prior notice. The seizure covered years during which Watkins worked for other news publications, the Times reported, and dated back to her years in college. Watkins has not been accused of any violations of law.
"People in power have always tried to control information," said National Press Club President Andrea Edney. "What's new is the technological reach they now have."
Noting that the Justice Department met recently with a "News Media Dialogue Group" of editors and executives of major news organizations created in response to an earlier seizure of a reporter's communications, the letter asks Sessions to uphold commitments made in the Justice Department's 2015 guidance that resulted from those conversations. 
The department is two years behind in publishing promised annual reports describing instances in which it applied the media guidelines to obtain records from, or records of members of the news media, the letter-writers remind Sessions.
The letter urges the attorney general to release those reports and invites him to join media representatives and free speech advocates in an effort to balance the needs of law enforcement with the public's right to know. 
⏩ "The National Press Club will make its podium available to you should you want to explain the Department's actions in public and answer questions from the press," the letter says.
"As a society that depends on the free flow of information — including information from whistleblowers — we need mechanisms in place to ensure that technology is used to enhance democracy not sabotage it," said Barbara Cochran, president of the National Press Club's Journalism Institute.

Read the letter below:
Dear Mr. Attorney General,

As fellow citizens of a democracy whose vibrancy depends upon a free and independent press, and on behalf of organizations concerned professionally with press freedom and civil liberties, we respectfully invite you to join us in considering how the Justice Department can, in the words of your department's own guidance for handling investigations of the news media, "strike the proper balance between law enforcement and free press interests."

In recent days, many of us have publicly expressed our concern about your department's decision to seize the phone and email records of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins. We would appreciate an opportunity to hear more about your thinking in this particular matter and to discuss the possible implications for our country.

In the present case, we would like to know what justified such a broad seizure of records and whether the other avenues specified in Justice Department guidelines were in fact exhausted as existing regulations require. 

This intrusion is particularly troubling because it relates to reporting concerning alleged misdeeds by the president's campaign, raising questions about whether the content of the reporting is what occasioned this unusual level of scrutiny. Moreover, we share a concern that this will have a chilling effect on other journalists who now know that records of their calls, emails and texts may be reviewed without their knowledge, perhaps months and years after the fact.

For the past several years, civil society groups and media organizations have fruitfully engaged in discussion with the Department of Justice about these matters. After controversy arose when the Justice Department seized records of the Associated Press in 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder met with a News Media Dialogue Group. Based on those conversations and the recommendations of federal prosecutors, new regulations were developed in 2015 designed, as Mr. Holder wrote at the time, to "ensure the highest level of oversight when members of the Department seek to obtain information from, or records of, a member of the news media."

We are heartened that your department has continued conversations with the News Media Dialogue group. We echo some of that group's concerns. As you know, one of the important precepts contained in the 2015 guidelines states that "(t)he use of a subpoena or court order to obtain from a third party communications or business records of a member of the news media should be pursued only after the government has made all reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternative sources." Was that the case with regard to the seizure of the Times reporter's data? Is your department still operating under the protocols enshrined in the Code of Federal Regulations at 28CFR 50.10?

The Department of Justice also committed to publishing annual reports showing the instances in which it applied the News Media Guidelines in obtaining information from, or records of, members of the news media, and questioning, arresting, or charging members of the news media. The first annual report was released in summer 2015 and encompassed calendar year 2014. The second annual report was released in summer 2016 and encompassed calendar year 2015. 

We respectfully urge you to publish the 2016 and 2017 reports which serve to provide the public with information about how often the guidelines are used and for what purpose.

We hope you will agree that protecting the public's right to know is something that transcends political differences. Our democracy works because there are checks and balances on power. The Fourth Estate is one of them. "The only security of all is in a free press," Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette.

We look forward to your response and are prepared to meet with you at any time to address these questions directly. Moreover, the National Press Club will make its podium available to you should you want to explain the Department's actions in public and answer questions from the press.


Andrea Edney, President National Press Club

Suzanne Nossel, CEO PEN America

Barbara Cochran, President National Press Club Journalism Institute

John Donnelly, President Military Reporters & Editors

Brandon Benavides, President National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ)

Michael P. King, President National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)

Ricardo Trotti, Executive Director Inter American Press Association

Chuck Raasch, President Regional Reporters Association

Margaux Ewen, North America Director Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Sandy Johnson, President & COO National Press Foundation

Bernie Lunzer, President NewsGuild-CWA

Sue Cross, Executive Director and CEO Institute for Nonprofit News

George Freeman, Executive Director Media Law Resource Center

Alfredo Carbajal, President American Society of News Editors

Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma

Molly Willmott, President Association of Alternative Newsmedia

Dan Shelley, Executive Director Radio Television Digital News Association

Jim Simon, President Associated Press Media Editors

Margaret Engel, Executive Director The Alicia Patterson Foundation

Craig Aaron, President Free Press/Free Press Action Fund

Evangelicals And Trump – Lessons From The Nixon Era

“Baby Christian” Donald Trump addresses the faithful. (EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo)
More than 81% of the US’s protestant evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. A year and a half into his presidency, they seem as dedicated to him as ever – and just as ready to make excuses for his decidedly un-Christian misdeeds.

Many Christian rightists, among them “family values” foghorn James Dobson, consider Trump a “baby Christian”. His lewd and predatory comments about women are simply the mark of a very imperfect man. Any of his actions, no matter how debased or inhumane, are dismissed or approved by the faithful.

On June 14 the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, used scripture to back up Trump’s cruel policies on refugees, which are currently tearing families apart along the southern border. Now, through the alchemy of political tribalism, the former casino owner, who once starred in a softcore porn film and who confessed on the radio to multiple affairs, is a Man of God who speaks his mind with confidence, however deep his ignorance.

But today’s evangelical leaders should be wary of hitching their wagon to an amoral, corrupt president. They could learn a thing or two from their predecessors, who aligned themselves closely with another troublesome president: Richard Nixon, whose malfeasance eventually became too much for the Christian right to tolerate. When the depth of Trump’s misconduct is established, will his prayer warrior enthusiasts have to rethink their allegiance?

For now, the love affair continues. In May 2018, First Baptist Dallas pastor, Robert Jeffress,, proclaimed on Fox News that the vast majority of his fellow believers hoped their candidate would win again in 2020. Trump has reciprocated by waxing pious at prayer breakfasts about the glories and mercies of God. His staunchly evangelical vice president, Mike Pence, assures Americans thatthere’s prayer going on on a regular basis in this White House”. Pence recently delivered a Trumpian, campaign-style address at a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination.

Trump hagiographies are rolling off the presses: The Faith of Donald J. Trump, God and Donald Trump, The Trump Prophecies. The latter is being adapted into a film with the help of fundamentalist bastion Liberty University.

Trump iconographer and right-wing Mormon Jon McNaughton, who once depicted a resolute Barack Obama with the Constitution under his foot, has created a series of kitsch classics rendering Trump as a cross between prophet, priest and king. Perhaps one day in the not-so-distant future the artist will paint The Apotheosis of The Donald for the capitol rotunda.

What about the president’s habitual lying? His sordid past? His bragging and bullying? His demonising of refugees? His lawer’s payment of US$130,000 in alleged hush money to a porn star? Influential evangelist Franklin Graham recently said that Trump’s alleged affair with Stormy Daniels happened many years ago. It didn’t matter now.

In March 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that white evangelical support for Trump stood at 78%, a figure that had actually grown since news about Daniels broke. Democrats, progressive Christians, and the media hated Trump. That was reason enough for many others to support him.

Anyhow, said Graham: “I don’t think that he came to be president by mistake or by happenstance. I think somehow God put him in this position.” And Graham was even more assured when Trump told him that his father, Fred Trump, had taken him to an evangelistic crusade held by Graham’s own father, Billy.

Common cause
Perhaps the most famous and influential revivalist of the 20th century, Billy Graham preached a simple message of repentance and salvation. Though he claimed to stay away from politics, he was in fact deeply political, and a close confidant of presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Graham and his fellow travellers were faced with the possibility that John F. Kennedy, a Catholic and a Democrat, would be the next president. They rallied behind Richard Nixon – and stayed behind him for years.

Like Graham, many white evangelicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s found in Nixon a strong, powerful man who boldly stood up to liberal politicians, civil rights agitators and amoral student activists. When the president championed the “silent majority” on national television, they were heartened that such a Christian leader would speak for them. Nixon signalled that they were the true victims in the heated political and cultural battles of the age.

Richard Nixon with Billy Graham
Richard Nixon with Billy Graham. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nixon won 69% of the evangelical vote in his successful 1968 bid, and he instituted regular White House religious services at the start of his presidency. The president’s call for “law and order” also inspired the faithful. The head of the National Association of Evangelicals endorsed the Republican president in 1972, praising Nixon’s Cold War policies. 84% of evangelicals cast their votes for Nixon that year.

Their affinity lasted for most of Nixon’s doomed presidency. Graham’s private conversations with Nixon, recorded by a secret White House taping system, revealed the extent of the preacher’s partisanship and his willingness to encourage the president’s many prejudices and burning grudges. On February 10, 1972, Graham listened intently as the commander-in-chief railed against Jews and their overpowering influence. America’s pastor replied that “this stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain”. Nixon sympathised: “I can’t ever say that, but I believe it.

Keeping the faith
But the following year, the scandal over the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up dominated headlines and nightly TV news. Like other right-wing partisans, conservative Christians tried to brush it aside, but they could only ignore the obvious for so long – when it came down to it, their political hero was a squalid criminal. When Graham finally heard the profanity-laced Watergate tapes, he reportedly vomited.

Quite a few evangelicals, though disillusioned, didn’t really come to grips with the deeper meaning of it all, responding with a kind of born-again dodge.

Graham reckoned that Watergate was a symptom of a deeper, national moral problem. He wondered if Americans should have prayed more for their president. “There’s a little bit of Watergate in all of us,” Graham cautioned. Some – like the fundamentalist minister and Christian right political broker Jerry Falwell – continued to revere the disgraced former president. In the years after Nixon’s 1974 resignation, evangelicals voted Republican in growing numbers.

The ConversationWill Trump’s solid, evangelical base ever come to terms with the kind of person they voted into office? Will there be a reckoning in the coming months and years that will open their eyes to his cynical manipulations, his divisive, culture-war grandstanding, his philandering, or repeated lying? It’s difficult to say. But if the past is any guide, the answer is a resounding no.

About Today's Contributor:
Randall J. Stephens, Associate Professor and Reader in History and American Studies, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation

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