DeflateGate and the Patriots

I just can’t resist piling on, simply because I view the New England Patriots with such complete disgust.  I don’t like Bill Belichick, as much as I respect his ability to coach up athletes and make them better.  I don’t like Tom Brady, despite the fact that he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and deserves to be.  I admit it.  I’m a fan of the Dallas Cowboys.  And also the Houston Texans, having lived in Houston for 29 years.   There is no question that 11 of the 12 footballs provided by the Patriots were under-inflated at halftime of last Sunday’s AFC Championship game.  What advantage does an under-inflated ball give?  For a quarterback in cold and wet weather it helps provide a firmer grip.  And likely makes the ball easier to catch for receivers.  Dan Shaughnessy, the excellent sports columnist for The Boston Globe, has correctly analyzed the situation in today’s column.  Coupled with SpyGate, DeflateGate now means that one of the most successful teams in the history of the NFL will have a tarnished image.    SpyGate, you may recall, was the signal-stealing caper several years ago that cost Belichick a $500,000 fine and the Patriots a first-round draft choice.  In today’s news conference, Belichick said he had absolutely no knowledge of the incident, but he did make a reference to Brady that conspiracy buffs will interpret as the quarterback perhaps having some relevant knowledge.  Shaughnessy is correct in that it likely doesn’t matter what the NFL investigation turns up.  The stench on this franchise is there.

Intrigue in Argentina

The news from Argentina has been mostly bad in the last 10 years or so.  The administrations of two Kirchners (Néstor and, since 2007, Christina) have sent the country in a decidedly leftist direction.  The economy has continued to decline. This week, the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, only hours before he was to testify before Congress, has created even more doubts about the credibility of the government.  Nisman had accused Christina Kirchner of covering up details of the 1994 attack on a Jewish Community Center that left 85 dead.  The accusation was that Kirchner had negotiated a deal with Iran that involved ongoing commercial benefits to Argentina, including oil.  Two years before the 1994 attack, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires had been bombed, killing 29.  The government’s version is that Nisman’s death was a suicide, but many aren’t buying it, based on the thousands who have taken to the streets to protest.  The newspaper Clarín is today reporting details that contradict the government version.  Both Kirchners, by the way, have warred with the press, and threats to a free and vibrant press have increased dramatically in recent years.  No country in Latin America has had a more tortured history, beginning with the rise to power of Juan Perón in the 1940s.  Specific to Argentina, also, is a  history of anti-Semitism.  The country seemed to be making progress after the end of the Dirty War and the short-lived Falklands War with England in the early 1980s.  What is happening now is quite sad.  I have very dear friends in Argentina, and I’ve been there perhaps a dozen times over the year.  Buenos Aires itself is a lovely city, sophisticated and cosmopolitan.  The Argentines deserve better.

My daughter and the Stones

StonesI was cleaning out a drawer last week and came across this ticket to the Rolling Stones concert at American Airlines Center on Nov. 29, 2005.  It’s significant because I took my daughter to the concert.  She was 15.  She had just a few weeks before seen Green Day, which was her first really big concert.  She had been pooh-poohing the Stones to some extent, thinking that she had seen rock ‘n’ roll defined forever with the Green Day show.  About a third of the way through the Stones’ concert, she looked at me and said, “This is a really big deal, isn’t it?”  I had her, and she knew it.  And to this day she loves the Rolling Stones and much of the music of the era.  I saw the Rolling Stones again two nights later in Houston at the Toyota Center.

So what is a Buckeye?

Well, if you don’t know then you shouldn’t ask.  I’ve actually been asked this several times this week in light of the championship football game played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.   I’m a proud Buckeye.  I went to graduate school at The Ohio State University 1975-1976.  I earned a master’s degree in journalism that has helped me greatly in my career.  I noted on my Twitter feed right after the game that I was pleased that a team that had a gimmicky offense and goofy uniforms (that would be Oregon) went down to defeat.  And a team with great athleticism, speed and discipline (and traditional uniforms and a great marching band) won.  Congratulations, Buckeyes.  Well done.

Obama and the French march

The White House very seldom admits mistakes. As yesterday began I thought all the criticism about the failure to have someone of high rank in the U.S. government attend the rally in Paris might have been a bit overblown. But the acknowledgement from the White House of the mistake confirms that it’s not just a matter of the president’s usual critics being on his case. The massive rally was to symbolize France’s resolve to support freedom of expression and to resist terrorism. The rally was in response to Islamic terrorists last week attacking the offices of Charlie Hebno, a French satirical magazine, and murdering the editor and several staff members. The rally was led by French President Francois Hollande and included a number of other world heads of state. What’s especially puzzling about the White House inaction is that Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris. Perhaps he was too busy cooking up subpoenas against journalists in his own country or thinking of some other insult against the First Amendment, activities for which his Justice Department is now well known.

The freedom to insult religion

Today the world is repulsed by the murderous attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.  The magazine had published satirical writings and drawings about Islam.  There has been tremendous worldwide support for free speech, including many in France saying they will not be intimidated by the violence.  I thought this morning in reading many of the accounts the different approach that so many Western religions have taken toward comedy and even insults about belief.  Especially, I was thinking of The Book of Mormon, a musical that is funny, totally irreverent and even sacrilegious in places.  My wife and I saw it in London last summer.  She was in fact a bit offended at some of the lyrics.  Yet, as many have affirmed today, satire is an important part of our modern free-speech dialogue.  When the musical came out, the Mormon Church didn’t plan protests or boycotts.  It made a statement reaffirming the faith in the actual Book of Mormon.  The church also took out ads in the programs of theaters where the musical was staged.  To me, it’s not accidental that the several friends I have who are Mormon are some of the most decent, loving and rational people I know.  And also smart.  Satire has a long and mostly distinguished history.  There are a couple of very nice essays that I have seen today.  The first, by Simon Schama, was published in the Financial Times and discussed some of the history of satire in Europe, including the groundbreaking artist James Gillray.  The second is this piece by Jonathan Tobin in Commentary that does specifically mention the Mormon response to The Book of Mormon.  In any case, it is clear that jihadists are targeting free speech as some type of perceived affront to whatever their religion really is.  And it’s also clear to me that no rational teaching of Islam can countenance such an attack as we have seen on the magazine in Paris.  The remaining staff members of the magazine have announced that next week’s edition will be published on schedule.  Rather than the usual press run of 60,000, one million copies will be printed.  Vivre longtemps une presse libre.  Free speech is not just the freedom but the right to criticize government, religion and institutions.  It will survive.

A eulogy for Jack Loftis

Loftis

About 10 years ago, Jack called me one morning on my cell phone. I was in Los Angeles at an SMU event, and when he called it was about 6:30 local time and I was a bit startled. Jack would always say, “Tony, this is Jack,” to start our conversations. This time, literally the first words out of his mouth were, “Better get your blue suit pressed.” I knew that was Hillsboro-speak at its best. In Hillsboro, if you had a suit, it was dark blue. And getting your dark blue suit pressed meant getting ready for a funeral. It turned out that Jack was facing some difficult surgery dealing with a faulty heart valve, and he was getting himself and his friends prepared. He openly joked about his death, and as we all know he faced several life-threatening medical issues over the last 20 years. And I think it was his wonderful sense of humor that helped him cope with them and come through them the way he did.

***

In fact Jack had some interesting experiences with his medical issues. He loved to talk about what had happened to him and give details about his ailments and treatments. He seemed to have strange reactions to medications, especially the pain medications after surgery. After one of his difficult procedures at St. Luke’s, one night he had a dream, or perhaps more accurately a vision, about an argument that took place in the next room. Jack heard what was a loud disagreement, and he could relate specific dialogue between two people, right up until the time that a woman was killed, including a description of her scream. Chronicle managing editor Tommy Miller happened to be the next visitor to Jack, as Tommy stopped off at the hospital early the next morning on his way to work. Jack related in detail what he had heard, and he made Tommy open the door to what Jack thought was the room next door. The opened door only revealed an empty storage closet, and Jack became even more agitated. He was convinced that hospital staff had come in, cleaned up the crime scene and in fact had rearranged the structure of the room just to trick him. He told that story for years afterward.

 ***

I met Jack in 1974. Our friendship developed immediately. We had similar roots in terms of the families we came from, the geography of Central Texas and of course Baylor. On one of the first times we had lunch, Jack shared with me his favorite story. And it’s one we’ve all heard, and I’ll never forget his telling it to me. It’s the story of a man sitting on a park bench. There’s a dog sitting on the ground beside him. Another man approaches, and asks if the man’s dog bites. The man on the park bench replies no. The second man sits down on the end of the bench, whereupon the dog nails the man with a sharp bite on the hand. The startled man says, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.” The man on the bench replies, “That’s not my dog.” I’ve thought about that lunch, and that story many times over the years. Of course it involved Jack’s love of dogs, but it also spoke of a man with a simple and straightforward approach to life, work and relationships. Jack had respect for everyone. I think I knew him about as well as anyone ever did. I saw him in good times and bad. I saw him make difficult decisions.   He was approachable, likeable and by any measure he was a product of his upbringing in Central Texas. He treated everyone the same, whether that person was the president of the United States, the governor of the state of Texas, a nervous intern covering City Hall, or a street person who crept into a downtown hamburger joint and wanted the French fries Jack had left on his plate. True story, by the way. He was the most decent man I’ve ever known in my life.

***

There’s a story my uncle used to tell. He was the storyteller in my family in Waco, and he loved to tell stories that would make my very proper Methodist mother cringe. I told Jack this story once, and he appreciated it. He liked stories about church, and I can’t tell you how many times he reminded me that he was an old Church of Christ boy from Hillsboro. This story is about the old man, bent over and rail thin and with a full mop of gray hair, and he sat on the front row of the Baptist church every Sunday. One Sunday morning the preacher was getting started on a stem-winder of a sermon, and he told the congregation he wanted to talk about the forgiveness of enemies.   Whereupon the old man got up and walked briskly down the isle toward the back door. The preacher was stunned, and he said, “Excuse me, sir, are you leaving?” The old man replied, “Yes, preacher, I’m leaving.” The preacher was even more perplexed, and he said, “Do you mean, sir, that you don’t need to hear about how we should treat our enemies?” “No, preacher,” the old man said. The preacher was now a bit incredulous, and said, “Sir, do you mean to tell me that you don’t have any enemies?” “No preacher,” the old man replied, continuing toward the door. “I’ve outlived every one of those sons of bitches.”

If Jack had enemies, he indeed outlived them. But the truth is, he simply didn’t have any. That really is the measure of the man whose life we remember today.

 ***

Jack and I never really talked much about newspapers or even the Chronicle after I left and moved to Dallas to teach at SMU. He did that with others who were here in Houston, but not really with me. He tried to engage me a bit in the first couple of years I lived in Dallas, but I usually changed the subject. One day he finally said to me, “You’ve really left Houston and the newspaper business, haven’t you?” And I said, “Of course I have. I face a bunch of 20-year-old students every day who are a lot smarter than I am. They don’t care about the past, certainly not mine. They only care about the future, and it’s a good lesson.” The last time I saw him was about three weeks ago, and he was in the nursing home. And we did for some reason get into newspapers and the economic struggles that newspapers have had. And he talked about what we had done here in Houston, and I think it fair to say that working together we had some degree of success.  As most of you know, it was my honor to be with Jack as his managing editor and then executive editor until I left the paper in 2003. On this occasion, Jack looked at me and said, “I think what worked for us was that you and I had a pretty good good-cop-bad-cop routine. You were the bad cop and I was the good cop.” And it was true. Jack was always reluctant to fire anyone. He was the good cop in every sense. It’s because he saw the best in everyone, and the potential in each individual, pretty much regardless of what had happened.

***

Sometimes after events like this, people get together and there’s a toast or a celebration of some kind in remembrance. You might be tempted, tonight or in the next few days, to have some nice Champagne, or even some Scotch, which Jack used to drink. Which is actually another interesting story. Jack consumed more than his share of Scotch in the first two-thirds of his life. He realized it was a problem. And he stopped when he became editor of the Chronicle in 1987. He simply never wanted to do anything that might embarrass the paper. From then on, when we were at social events, he’d have perhaps half a glass of wine poured at dinner. He might take a sip. Some might think he was just being social. I think he didn’t want people to speculate that he had perhaps fallen back into his Church of Christ upbringing, or, even worse, converted to become a tee-totaling Baptist. As much as he loved Baylor, Jack didn’t really appreciate some of the Baptist beliefs, especially those of the fundamentalists. And if I may digress just a bit further, the other major change in Jack’s life about that time was to marry Beverly Blake. I was with Jack just about every day for 30 years, and hardly a day would go by that he wouldn’t mention Beverly. Beverly, he loved you dearly, and to you and the family I offer my deepest and most heartfelt sympathies.

But let me conclude by returning to the toast. I say skip the Champagne or fancy Scotch or anything else that might be a bit pretentious. Here’s what I’m going to do. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I’ll get takeout pizza. Pepperoni, of course. I’ll save a piece and put it in the fridge, without wrapping. The next morning, I’ll take the cold and crusted piece of pizza out of the fridge, and I won’t dare put it in the microwave. And I’ll have Diet Dr Pepper on hand. It was one of Jack’s favorite breakfasts. I’ll eat the cold pizza and drink the Diet Dr Pepper and remember that the man who was editor of a powerful newspaper was really a pretty simple man from Central Texas, and he enjoyed the simple things in life. And today, for all the great things Jack did, more than anything he would want us to remember that he was just one of the guys from Hillsboro.

I’ve got my dark blue suit on today, Jack. And I had it pressed, just for you my dear friend.

This eulogy was presented at Jack’s memorial service in Houston on January 7, 2015.  The accompanying art was drawn by Jack’s longtime friend and artist Bill Hinds.  A copy of the drawing was given to each attendee of the service.

With a heavy heart

loftisI am deeply saddened by the news that Jack Loftis died last evening at the age of 80.  Jack was my dear friend, mentor and former editor of the Houston Chronicle.  I first met him in 1974 when I went to work for the paper on the sports staff covering the World Hockey Association Houston Aeros.  We both were from Central Texas, both Baylor graduates and had much in common.  We hit it off immediately.  It was a deep and abiding friendship, and it lasted 40 years.   He was very proud to be from Hillsboro, and there’s a website that gives details on people from the small town who have had accomplished careers.  Jack’s page is among them.   Jack’s personality and commitment to fairness helped make the transition of the Chronicle from the Houston Endowment ownership to the Hearst Corp., which purchased the paper in 1987.  He served the paper as editor from 1987 until 2002.  It was a good time in newspapers.  We were all making big profits and able to invest in the editorial product.  At the Chronicle, we established an excellent state desk with bureaus in South Texas and Dallas.  We expanded our existing bureau in Austin.  We opened bureaus in Mexico City and Bógota, Colombia.  We were twice a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize but, much to our frustration, never won.  Nonetheless, we were a better paper than we were given credit for.  Jack loved sports, animals and storytelling, and he had a wonderful, dry sense of humor.  He is survived by wife Beverly.  He loved her dearly.  Not a day went by when I was with him, and that was most days, but that he mentioned something about Beverly.  Perhaps it was one of her charitable activities with animal rescue, or something humorous about her family from Baytown, or one of her dealings with her many friends in West University.  I extend my deepest sympathies to her.  I am also grateful to Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman, who in his 20 years at the paper became dear friends with Jack and Beverly.  He has written a heartfelt piece about their relationship that not many people knew about.  I also know that Ken has been extremely helpful to both Jack and Beverly during Jack’s recent illness.  Thank you, Ken.  In the photo with this post are Jack and Beverly with longtime friend Emil Mesinger (left).  Jack will be missed.  We will not see his like again.

My favorite editorial from The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal republishes this editorial each Christmas.  The editorial is titled In Hoc Anno Domini (in this year of our Lord).  It was originally written by the late Vermont Royster and published in 1949.  It is one of my favorites.  Just a note to students.  It is not really about Christianity, though fine if you want to take it that way.  To me, the essay speaks more to individual liberty, which sadly seems in decline in the United States and even worldwide.

Al Jazeera and the news

In the SMU Journalism Complex recently we had a visit from a group with Al Jazeera America.  The group included John Seigenthaler, a news anchor for the network.  Also attending were Mary Caraccioli, a producer, and Dawn Bridges, executive vice president of communications for the group.  They were presented by Ambassador James Glassman, the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute on the SMU campus and now affiliated with a think tank in Washington, D.C.   Seigenthaler, former weekend anchor for NBC News, got the attention of our students and faculty when he said that the network wasn’t interested necessarily in ratings or audience.  The emphasis, he said, was on quality journalism.  Our students asked some excellent questions, including the background on the funding of Al Jazeera by the House of Thani, the ruling family of Qatar.  The network was launched in 1996.  It received notice by many in the United States after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when various videos were released by Al Qaeda.  In the minds of many, the network became associated with propaganda efforts by Al Qaeda.  Al Jazeera America began last year after the purchase of Current TV.  I knew Seigenthaler’s late father, also John Seigenthaler, who was a distinguished newspaper editor and publisher at The Tennessean in Nashville and also a staunch defender of the First Amendment.  Seigenthaler and Soledad O’Brien are among the high-profile journalists who have been hired by Al Jazeera America.  The network’s main newscasts are straightforward and solidly reported.  Seigenthaler noted in his remarks to students the absence of shouting and the histrionics that typically mark cable television news.  Al Jazeera America has a dozen news bureaus in the United States, and the worldwide network has more than 65 news bureaus.  Just in personnel and in the number of bureaus, it is already one of the most important news organizations in the world.  Al Jazeera is also known for having the most modern equipment and technology available.   Al Jazeera America’s newscasts have been favorably reviewed, with many noting that it is a sharp break from the typical cable newscasts.  It will be interesting to see if Al Jazeera America is able to make a dent in the ratings and audience of those who watch news in the United States.  In surveys, people say they want straightforward news that is unbiased.   But the reality is that people do tend to gravitate to newscasts and programming that seem to reinforce their own political beliefs.   It is a dangerous trend in news.  It raises the decades-old question of whether the media influence the people or the people in reality determine the kind of news the media produce.  It is likely, as it always has been, a bit of both.  But I believe that people ultimately get the type of news coverage they want, and perhaps even deserve.  I wish Al Jazeera America well in continuing to present balanced, professionally reported broadcast news.