ISIS targets lottery winners and other notices

I had a piece in the Toronto Sun last week. My former paper is the first to ask for a column since I started writing again six months ago.

I get paid, too. And it’s nice to see my byline on newsprint again.

***

Last summer, I sent the following message to the public editor of the New York Times:

It seems to me that every time I see The Times — and others — quoting something someone said via Twitter it is an ad for a large, profit-making company. (A search shows Twitter shows up in the body of many stories in The Times.)

But when reporters use a quote from an email, they don’t write: He said in an email on his Microsoft Hotmail account, or she said in an email delivered by Yahoo.

Press releases are properly described as a statement.

Why is Twitter not handled in the same way?

I never received a reply.

***

I’ve tweeted compliments to people for their work. None replied with a message of thanks. Instead, they responded with a “like,” telling the world someone likes them.

***

I complimented New York Times writer Joe Nocera in an email – the Times makes it easy to contact its people – on a piece he did on Sinatra, New York, New York, and the Yankees.

He replied within five minutes, at 10:26 p.m. “Thank you. My favorite column ever.”

Nocera is 63 and has been a journalist for 40 years.

***

WASHINGTON (BNS) – ISIS is asking its sympathizers in the United States to buy lottery tickets and targeting winners in hopes of replenishing the coffers of the terrorist organization, Obama administration sources say.

A message posted on a jihadist website linked to ISIS called on Muslims across the U.S. to “play Powerball, have faith, and Allah will give you the winning numbers.”

It continued: “To all the brothers who want to do something righteous with wealth gained from these games of chance, invest it on the cause of jihad.”

Administration sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss state-run gambling, warned that lucky terrorists posed a new threat to national security.

“The odds of hitting the jackpot may be a million to one, but we just can’t take that chance,” said one official.

Said another: “Our national security agencies are right now working on methods of identifying impressionable people who win these lotteries and might be lured to the ISIL cause. You can be sure that we will be taking a hard look at any who attempt to transfer large sums of money overseas.”

That wasn’t enough assurance for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“I think we should be profiling everyone who buys a lottery ticket and not selling them to any men who look Middle Eastern or women who hide their faces,” Trump said during a rally in Ames, Iowa.

Asked by reporters later if he meant women wearing hijabs or niqabs, Trump said: “Look, any woman who covers her face is probably ugly – and ugly people don’t deserve to get rich.”

His primary challenger, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, suggested evangelical Christians might want to buy more lottery tickets to lessen the odds of a terrorist sympathizer winning.

“Gambling may be a sin,” he said, “but good Christian Americans can be counted on to do whatever needs to be done to combat radical Islamic terrorism.”

Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said he was not concerned with ISIS supporters winning lotteries.

“I’m more concerned,” he said, “that lotteries are a tax on the poor, a con game selling the new reality that the only path out of poverty is a Powerball ticket.”

***

Would the media please stop giving cartoon names to killers – Jihadi John, the Affluenza Teen.

***

Why don’t people listen?

Not just reporters who are fiddling with their phones when out on story, tweeting and texting, or radio hosts who are fondling their devices when interviewing someone on the phone, but everybody.

Have you noticed that when you’re talking to someone he or she doesn’t appear to be paying attention once the gist of your statement is revealed?

It’s because they’re concentrating on what to say next, often eager to top whatever you have to say:

“Did I tell you I went skydiving yesterday and …”

“Well, the last time I went skydiving my chute didn’t open and I was snagged by a California condor who gently deposited me on a mountaintop in the Sierras where I was chased by a grizzly …”

***

Am I the only one who thinks Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp both look like children playing adult roles? Mickey Rooney redux.

***

Watched the movie Reds the other day. Not as good as I remembered it. But Nicholson was sensational as Eugene O’Neill. And I think I need to read up on John Reed.

***

Why have I not liked a single sitcom character since Cheers?

***

Who teaches women in TV news and sports to talk and smile at the same time?

***

I dedicate this post to Sean Penn, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Sally Field and all the other courageous actors who have portrayed reporters.

Hope and change, snow and vodka

Seven years ago today, five of my Humber College journalism students were in Washington for Obama’s inauguration.

When they got back, they gathered in my home office for me to edit their copy.

As I recall, it was mostly self-indulgent crap, focusing on their drive from Toronto in a snowstorm, and getting lost on back roads in Pennsylvania.

No real reporting. Little on the inauguration and surrounding scene.

These were first-year post-grad students with only one semester of journalism under their belts. They’d been overwhelmed by the story.

I had to squeeze every scrap out of their memories and paltry notes. I began constructing a timeline, a diary, to highlight their recollections and reporting.

After hours of humiliation – theirs – beer, wine and vodka – mine – we managed to assemble a story for the next edition of their student newspaper.

***

Editor’s note: Et Cetera reporters Pattie Phillips, Stephanie Skenderis, Josh Kerr, Graeme Steel and Michael Sutherland-Shaw travelled to Washington for the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States. Here is their journal:

Sunday, Jan. 18

2:30 a.m. – We pile into Michael’s SUV. Before leaving, Pattie traces “Obama or bust” on the snow-covered back window.

5:10 a.m. – At Buffalo, we declare: “We’re on our way to the Obama inauguration.” The U.S. border guard waves us through with a smile.

2:30 p.m. – After nearly 12 hours of non-stop snow, the sun comes out in Maryland. We pass a convoy of U.S. army vehicles. With all the security promised, guess they’re going to the same place we are.

3:30 p.m. – Drive into Washington, pick up our press credentials for the inauguration and get our bearings before the big day.

7:30 p.m. – Check into the Super 8 in Indian Head, Md. (Pop. 3,422), about 50 kilometres from D.C. – $200 a night for a $75 room, including a view of two discarded crack pipes at a side entrance.

Monday, Jan. 19

11 a.m. – Meet Joel Westbrook, from Richmond, Va., who’s charging a buck apiece for people to pose for pictures with a life-sized, cardboard cutout of Obama. “Barack is putting a lot of people to work,” says Westbrook. “He’s putting me to work.” The ersatz president-elect is wearing a blue suit and smiling. “Why is he taller than me?” Michael grumbles.

1 p.m. – Arrive at the National Mall where we’ll join up to two million people tomorrow. It’s the holiday for Martin Luther King’s birthday and we’re facing the Lincoln Memorial, where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963. Roderick Beechum, a black man from Baltimore, is euphoric. “They brought us here in chains,” he says. “But look at us now. We rise. We rise.”

Tuesday, Jan. 20: Inauguration Day

7:30 a.m. – Leave the motel, giving us four and a half hours until Obama takes the oath. A 20-minute drive – listening to a radio station calling itself Obama FM – is followed by 20 minutes in a packed subway car and 45 minutes flowing with the crowd to the mall.

9 a.m. – Find a spot beneath the Washington Monument. Meet Obama enthusiasts from all over the world: Miles and Giles from London, Alex from West Virginia, Ida Boto, 72, originally from Italy, now living in Virginia. “A little cold, but great,” she says. “Warm inside.”

Noon – Obama is somewhere in the distance at the Capitol. We’re watching the Jumbotrons waiting for the swearing-in ceremony. It’s accompanied by the sound of a champagne cork popping, the scent of marijuana, tears of joy.

12:30 p.m. – Words of hope and change hang in the cold air as the new president concludes his inaugural address. A Canadian nearby provides a hockey analogy. “Imagine the U.S. being an NHL team – now they’ve got their Gretzky and they’re going to kick some ass,” says Lubomir Dzamba, an architect from Mississauga.

12:45 p.m. – As the now-former president’s helicopter flies above, leaving the city, Jeremy Taylor, a college-aged student in Washington, is holding a sign that reads: Arrest Bush. “Arrest his policies and his issues, put them all in a bag and throw them in a river that flows to nowhere,” he says.

3 p.m. – Near the Obamas’ parade route, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Bergman is helping direct traffic. “No problems today at all,” he says. He’s backed up by news that the 40,000-plus security forces report no arrests or serious incidents.

8:30 p.m. – After four hours of research at The Sign of the Whale pub, we get our only glimpse of the evening’s formal festivities, when an SUV with two partygoers aboard crashes into a shuttle-bus carrying about a dozen women in gowns and men in tuxedos. They have to walk to the inaugural balls.

Wednesday, Jan. 21

9 p.m. – Cross the border – home – leaving the land of hope and change.

A subversive act and a plea for help

Aaron Sorkin’s final Twitter message, on the Fourth of July 2012, read: “Fuck it, I give up.”

That’s the way I feel after writing more than 50 pieces in this space since the Fourth of July 2015.

The problem is I stuck to my area of expertise – the media – instead of pretending to know the magic formula for making money, losing weight, bringing up kids, keeping fit, having hot sex, cooking kale.

If you read on, there will be a plea for help. But first, how I got to this juncture.

Affirmed: Journalism as practiced today is so uniformly and predictably awful that any critical appraisal seems pointless.

My head hurts from all the time I’ve spent reading, watching and listening – and crafting story ideas that fit comfortably into an 800-word column.

After six months, my only conclusions about the news/sports entertainment complex are that those in the business:

  • Believe they are doing a fine job.
  • Don’t know what good work is.
  • Don’t give a shit – until they’re laid off.

People who consume media:

  • Don’t expect much.
  • Don’t care.
  • Are only interested in something that supports their preconceived notions and those of their make-believe friends.

My set-in-stone preconceived notions are that:

  • The Internet has made people dumber.
  • Social media is pablum for like-minded people.

***

I attempted to alter course in the past month or so, with pieces on two great reporters and former colleagues: Kate Webb of UPI and Steve Thorne of Canadian Press.

The Webb story was widely read, thanks to an assist from a UPI alumni-group site where I posted a query.

None of the replies answered my question. Most began: “I didn’t really know Kate but …”

The piece on Thorne was a chartbuster for me: nearly 1,000 hits, mainly in Canada, but also all over the world.

As far as I can tell, the reason the story received so much play was because Thorne posted it on his Facebook page, all his “friends” read it and passed it on to their “friends.”

And since all of these “friends” already knew of Thorne’s situation, folks just shook their heads in despair.

As far as I know, no one in a position to give Thorne a reporting job responded positively to the story, much less contacted him to discuss an offer.

***

Writing the Thorne piece got me thinking about my own downfall as an influential editor at CP and my most subversive act during a lifetime in the news biz.

In my final years at the wire service, I had climbed down the ladder of success to working night-rewrite.

It was about this time that the president of Canadian Press, Keith Kincaid, announced he was creating an annual prize for excellence.

The President’s Awards would be in two categories: one for journalism, the other on the administrative side.

Late one night, during a break from my rewrite duties, I banged out a long letter nominating myself for a President’s Award, lauding all my extraordinary contributions to CP.

Leaving no fingerprints, I gave it to one of my most trusted colleagues, asked her to sign it and to collect signatures from other CP writers and editors.

The petition went across the country and back. I pretended to know nothing about it.

In March 1993, the first president’s awards were announced, the winners each receiving $1,000 and a plaque.

I didn’t win, but I was told the number of nomination signatures was so high that Kincaid could not ignore it. In a circular distributed to staff, he wrote:

“Ken Becker … receives an honorable mention for his ongoing contribution to CP’s editorial report. His work helps CP shine. It is multi-dimensional in that he guides others, edits, rewrites, and writes features and spot news equally well. Younger staff who nominated Becker cited the high journalistic standards he sets for them.”

After making the announcement, I was told Kincaid dressed down his senior managers: What the hell is Becker doing working nights on the rim of the Ontario Desk? Can’t we find him something better to do?

They didn’t move me back into a supervising editor’s spot, where I could best serve the wire, but soon transferred me to the features department as a fulltime writer.

***

When newspapers and magazines were the only place to find printed journalism, I kept up with my favorites: Breslin, Hamill, Russell Baker, Red Smith, Jim Murray, Dan Jenkins, Hunter Thompson.

Now? I look for Timothy Egan’s column in the New York Times. Pretty good.

Anyone who says journalism is now better than ever has a cushy job in the business.

***

My plea for help: If you know of anyone in the media who is doing exceptional work, or has been fucked around and prevented from doing exceptional work, please let me know by email: kenbecker@rogers.com

In the meantime, I’m not sure I have anything to write on this site.

Maybe I’ll discover a recipe to make kale edible.

Acclaimed journalist looking for action

One of the best reporters in Canada, or anywhere else, can’t get a job.

Why? Beats the hell out of me. I’m not about to play shrink to the managers of human resources in the news biz.

I do know that during nearly 30 years with Canadian Press, Stephen Thorne earned three National Newspaper Awards and a passel of other prizes for his work, mainly stories of disaster and war.

He was with the first wave of Canadian Forces into Afghanistan in 2002 and chronicled their hunt for Osama bin Laden.

He covered the 1985 Arrow Air crash that killed 248 U.S. soldiers in Gander, Newfoundland; the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 that killed 229 off Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia; ships sinking, a deadly mine explosion.

That is his special talent – reporting from dangerous places, being on the scene when the stench of death is strongest, working his ass off, instinctively ingesting the key elements of the story, and writing it well.

But something happened. He stopped getting the prized assignments. He drove his bosses crazy.

That’s partly my fault. In the late ’80s, I was Ontario news editor for CP. Thorne was among the 20 or so reporter/editors working for me.

Traditionally, they all rotated through reporting and editing shifts. I changed that. Thorne became a fulltime reporter.

“I won’t run a newsroom like my kid’s T-ball team,” I told the bureau chief. “You get to the majors, not everybody gets to hit cleanup.”

Whatever the top story was that day, I sent Thorne to cover it.

When the Dubin inquiry – into Ben Johnson and the other dopes and dopers – convened in January 1989, Thorne covered all 10 months of the public hearings. His daily wrapups were consistently solid.

As it turned out, Thorne and I did not work together for very long.

Personal business precipitated his move to his hometown of Halifax, to the CP bureau there.

My time as news editor expired when the woman I was filling in for returned from pregnancy leave.

By then, I was in my mid-40s and CP was on a youth kick. (Thorne would later be in the same boat.)

I lasted another few years at the news agency before taking a buyout.

Thorne, meanwhile, was lighting up the CP wire from Halifax.

In 1995, he earned his first National Newspaper Award with the tale of all 30 people aboard a sinking cargo ship being rescued – one at a time – by a navy corporal lowered from a helicopter.

In 1998, his reports from the gruesome scene off Peggy’s Cove garnered his second NNA, with a story that sent chills through readers. It began:

The lives of the 229 passengers and crew who died aboard Swissair Flight 111 float by in 100,000 tiny pieces.

A running shoe. A baseball cap. An eyeglass case. An open book.

On the windswept sea 10 kilometres southwest of this postcard place, the acrid smell of jet fuel is almost overpowering; the blunt, visceral reality of death is all about, washed clean by the constantly rolling ocean.

And always there are the reminders.

Purses. Suitcases. A shaving kit. Documents with names and Swiss addresses.

Thorne moved to CP’s Ottawa bureau the next year and became the go-to guy when Canadians went to war.

He was with the troops that entered Kosovo in June 1999.

And he reported on Canada’s first combat mission since the Korean War, in Afghanistan, in early 2002.

In winning his third NNA, Thorne’s reporting conveyed the misery of the grunts digging up graves in Tora Bora, hoping one entombed the body of bin Laden:

“It sucked,” an exhausted Cpl. Shaun Seaton said after the last grave was excavated Monday. “I don’t ever want to do it again.

“I realize it’s part of the mission and it had to be done, but it’s not something I really signed up for. The smell, the shape of them and just actually having to dig up a grave … I’m glad it’s done and over with.”

Thorne would make two more trips to Afghanistan, spending about a year in-country.

But, in 2005, the reporter with the itch for action, then in his mid-40s, found himself deskbound in Ottawa. CP was playing T-ball.

Thorne stewed in the bureau for years, struggling with personal issues and skirmishing with his bosses, until he took a buyout in 2012.

Since then, he’s done some contract writing and honed his considerable skill as a photographer, with a particular passion for beautiful women and birds of prey.

The last time I spoke with him, he was going out to shoot bald eagles.

Now 56, he may be old for an NFL running back, but still in his prime as a reporter. Yet too many news organizations have cast off their most seasoned journalists.

What a waste.

Thorne belongs on the front lines of the biggest stories.

Just come to work every day – and bring your passport.

When I was a copyboy at the New York Times in the 1960s, I was told that Homer Bigart, a legendary war correspondent and lifelong reporter, was earning more money than the managing editor.

Why? Because he was better at his job than the boss was at his.

There should always be a place in journalism for the best of the best.