Posted: August 11, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond jobs and careers.]

Three Local News Heroes

Everyone I know picks on the Chicago Sun-Times.  “It’s so thin.”  “It’s all ads.”  “All they cover is sports.”  The paper is not as thick as it used to be. Some features have gone away or – as the paper will eventually – gone online.  That said, The Chicago Sun-Times provides reporting and commentary that the people of Chicago desperately need.

Today’s paper is a case in point.  Editorials by Carol Marin, Andy Shaw, and Rich Miller explore three stories that citizens and taxpayers should care about more than the results of the Bears’ first exhibition game.  Marin delves into the case of a young prosecutor who was hounded out of her job for not pursuing a high profile, “heater,” case.  The evidence would not support a conviction.  Marin notes that 75% of juvenile cases were not prosecuted because a similar lack of evidence.  When we hear scary stories about street crime and “thugs,” we need to think about how such crimes happen and what could be done to prevent them.  If three-quarters of investigations lead to nothing, a lot of time, money, and law enforcement resources are being wasted.

Andy Shaw’s editorial focuses on shady dealings practiced by high-paid doctors employed by Cook County.  Shaw, a long-time reporter, now heads The Better Government Association, which conducted an investigation that found county doctors at their private practices when they were supposed to be working for the county.  Where other employees are required to swipe in/out of their work place as a way to track time, doctors do not follow that protocol.  Shaw notes that the county is investigating this matter and has taken some action, including the termination of one doctor.  He concludes by challenging Toni Preckwinkle, President of the Cook County Board, to institute better oversight of doctors.

My favorite piece of today’s editorial troika is Rich Miller’s.  Author of the Capital Fax blog, Miller know Illinois politics.  He unveils a hidden aspect of the recent lowering of the state’s bond rating.  Ty Fahner, a prominent member of the Commercial Club of Chicago, gave a speech at the Union League Club in which he challenged ratings agencies to lower the state’s rating rather than being an “enabler” of its financial problems.  Miller documents ties between Fahner’s law firm and management of the state’s bonds, which would give Fahner an incentive to call for big cuts to state pension programs.  This story is important because there have been similar rating cuts for Chicago and Chicago Public Schools.  As in Detroit, it would seem that the banking and investment community will not be happy until it sees every public sector worker getting pennies on the dollar for their retirement income.

In addition to these three editorials, the paper had several articles on issues that impact the city, county, and state.  Nothing online covers these issues as well (nor does the Sun-Times’ competitor, despite offering more “content”).  Good newspapers provide an important public service.  Our democracy will be poorer if they cannot survive.

Posted: April 6, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

Beware of sensational headlines.  For example, today’s Huffington Post features an article with the front page headline of “Poll: Huge Number of American Want Christianity as State Religion.”  However, when you follow the link, the headline and story change tone:  “Christianity as State Religion Supported by One-Third of Americans, Poll Finds.”  That same headline could be rewritten to say that two-thirds of Americans reject Christianity as a state religion.

I often see a similar problem in writing about careers and jobs.  Simple claims, often negative news, takes on significance because they are reposted from website to website.  For example, about a year ago there was a meme that said you would not be hired unless you are currently employed.  Some employers posted a help wanted ads that said only currently employed workers should apply.  Only a few companies did this.  The megaphone power of the Internet turned this minor problem into reality for many people who were unemployed.

What should we do?  Test all claims that seem too easy to believe.  When clients brought up the example of companies only hiring people who were employed, I’d ask them to put themselves in the employer’s position.  If two candidates are equally (or even similarly) qualified, would you hire someone who is employed or unemployed?  Most employers would go with the unemployed candidate because that person would be cheaper.  Some who is employed is able to negotiate and even say no. The widely posted claim made no sense.

Media loves simple, scary stories.  As the two examples above show, they often are not true.  Yes, a third of Americans might want a national religion, but a third is not even close to a majority.  Yes, a few employers may have wanted to hire people who are currently employed.  But, again, it’s not logical to assume most employers would do this.  Whenever you’re faced with the scary headline, test its claim.  Usually you’ll find the claim is overblown, if not totally false.

Posted: February 24, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explore topics outside of the job world.]

Politics and the Oscars

There are three films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture that fascinate me: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo.  All tell stories that the public knows: the 13th Amendment was passed, Bin Laden was killed, and the hostages were released.  Even so, these films spin narratives that keep the audience engaged.  We are taken into worlds that make us feel what the characters are feeling, which is one hallmark of great art.

I’ve met some people who found Lincoln too slow, too detailed.  For me, the film was rich in its context and narrative.  I’ve read several books about Lincoln, but none of them gave me the same feeling for the man and his struggles.  Spielberg depicts Lincoln as the folksy wise man that every school child knows.  However, he also shows the president as the pragmatic politician who will make deals to achieve his end.  We see a human Lincoln who has to navigate a mess democratic system during a civil war.  I believe that this film will be as influential as any biography of its subject.

Zero Dark Thirty holds the audience with its narrative, but, for me, its content and ethics are problematic.  This film centers on one character Maya who resembles Ahab in her pursuit of Osama Bin Laden.  She holds to her pursuit of Bin Laden even when her superiors tell her to move on.  As we all know, the mission was successful.  My problem with the movie, as it is for other viewers, is that torture is a “tool” used by agents to obtain information.  It’s not pro-torture, but the depiction of “advanced interrogation” is problematic.  Viewers are left to wonder if the ends don’t justify the means, a darker pragmatism than that practiced by Lincoln.  I do believe that the CIA and other law enforcement agencies mean to keep us safe.  In fulfilling this mission, their methods must never go beyond the law if we are truly to be better than those who threaten our country.

I just saw Argo last night, and, of the three films, it is the most suspenseful and best made, which is a high order.  For my money (all two cents of it), it is the best film I have seen this year.  Ben Affleck has taken a little known, forgotten story of the hostage crisis and brought it to life in a way that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats while challenging us to think.  We see how Americans came to be trapped in the American Embassy in Tehran.  Six escaped to the Canadian Embassy.  Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, devises a scheme to sneak them out by creating a fake film called Argo and having the six Americans be his team for site selection.  While the film shows the brutality and zealotry of revolutionary Iran, it also calls out the U.S. and the CIA for their role in installing the equally brutal Shah.  It also shows Mendez as a moral man who won’t follow an order to leave the six behind.  I found this film much more realistic and impressive in this regard than Zero Dark Thirty.

While these three films all have some relevance to our current political reality, they are also movies, stories that can be shaped by a writer and refined by great directors.  Real politics – as Lincoln’s story demonstrates – is much messier.  The press and members of Congress would frequently challenge Lincoln to state his policy.  He would respond: “My policy is to have no policy.”  He understood that simple answers don’t work in a complex world.  At the same time, he knew how and when to be strong and make bold decisions.  Would a great leader like Lincoln be able to manage today’s world of political divisions, sensational (and simplistic) media, and a disengaged citizenry?  I don’t think so.  Until things in Washington sort themselves out, we will need more good movies.

P.S.  Sam Husseini, a writer at Common Dreams, has a very different, very negative take on Lincoln.

Posted: November 8, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

I was listening to a sports talk show this weekend.  In just a few minutes, I heard different commentators compare Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to a malcontent player named Jeff George.  Why were they all saying the same thing?  I realized that I was once again trapped in the echo chamber of our multimedia age. 

A commentator hears or reads something, she repeats it.  Another commentator repeats that point.  True or not, that claim or narrative takes on the air of truth.  Why do journalists and pundits repeat each other?  First, it’s easy.  There is no need to think.  Second, it’s safe.  You can always escape responsibility by claiming to follow conventional wisdom.

How does this affect career management?  So much of the news we receive is based on headlines or taglines.  We are given no context or sense of complexity.  We are told unemployment is high, but we get very little sense of why this is the case or what could be potential solutions.  Our challenges are to go beyond the echo chamber and to question conventional wisdom. 

Here’s an easy starting point, if you hear a claim that’s too simple to be true.  Look behind the curtain.  Find a dissenting point of view – and test that view just as hard.  Unless we want to live in a world that is more and more dumbed down, we have to ask for more.  We have to demand it.