Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:
The Sacramento Bee on Sean Penn and journalism:
Whatever actor Sean Penn's cloak-and-dagger interview with Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is — vanity project, movie treatment, friendly chat between celebrity and sociopath — treating it as real journalism would be a mistake.
Real journalism about the Mexican drug cartels can get you killed. Just ask the families and colleagues of the 32 reporters and photographers murdered and another 30 who have disappeared since 1992 in Mexico, the vast majority while covering crime and corruption.
Those reporters didn't settle for drinks with Guzman, pose for photos, then jet home to plan their next bit of global activism. And the price they paid in pursuit of the whole truth is worth noting, if only to put Penn's "scoop" into context.
In his 10,000-word piece in Rolling Stone magazine — published online Saturday after Guzman was recaptured in a shootout Friday — the actor navel-gazed about interviewing the leader of a bloody criminal gang, bragged about fearing for his own safety while traveling to the secret rendezvous and pontificated about the failed war on drugs and Americans' complicity.
He also listened to Guzman's story, and shared it; that was interesting and useful. But real reportage would have challenged Guzman's excuses for his barbaric behavior and included rebuttal from law enforcement. (Indeed, Guzman was allowed to review the article before publication, which, among journalists, makes it more of a press release.)
"Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more," the man who claimed to be the world's No. 1 drug trafficker told his credulous interviewer. "But do I start trouble? Never."
Tell that to the relatives of his dozens, if not hundreds, of victims. Somehow, in all his words, Penn managed not to include their voices, or of those who live in the drug war zone where he wrote that Guzman is a "Robin Hood-like figure."
Guzman is probably used to such gentle treatment with corruption rampant in Mexico's justice system. He has twice escaped a "top security" prison, in 2014 and again last July. This time, Mexican authorities may extradite him to the U.S., where he faces drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder charges. Unfortunately, that process could take a year or more.
If and when that happens, readers should seek out the reports from the courtroom, where they'll learn the rest of the story, and perhaps learn why, for reporters who aren't famous actors, the job is so dangerous.
The New York Times on gun safety:
For a mayor happy to boast about his city's record low crime rates, Bill de Blasio has spent a lot of time lately talking about gun violence. As he should, because New York remains a dangerous and frightening city if you live in certain neighborhoods — in Brooklyn and the Bronx — still afflicted by gangs, drugs and shootings.
Horrifying reports of a gang rape in Brownsville this month are just one reminder that New York's public-safety successes are incomplete, and that there is never time for complacency in deterring and prosecuting crime.
Mr. de Blasio announced on Tuesday two encouraging new approaches in pursuit of a safer city: the creation of a specialized court in Brooklyn to handle gun-possession cases, and a "Gun Violence Suppression Division," of 200 police officers, mostly detectives, to handle illegal-gun cases and nothing else.
One thing to know about gun court is that it isn't drug court. Drug courts and other specialized courts try to keep defendants out of prison, to shield them from the worst of the justice system and put them on a better path in life. Gun court starts from a different premise, explained recently by Police Commissioner William Bratton: "They need to be treated with every ounce of justice system that we can apply to them, to basically get them off the streets and keep them away from us."
"They" being repeat offenders, often young men in street gangs, who are relatively few in number but blamed by the police for most gun violence. When New York first experimented with gun court — in Brooklyn, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2003 to 2009 — it was trying to solve a dilemma: Shootings plagued some neighborhoods, but gun cases frequently dragged on and conviction rates were low. Justice was seen as slow, inefficient and inconsistent.
Mr. de Blasio's revived plan, an aide said, has the same motives: "to identify the strongest cases out of the gate" and to send them to two judges in two courtrooms in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. The plan is to dispose of cases more quickly, to get high-risk repeat offenders off the street, with sentences appropriate to the seriousness of the crime, and not let low-priority offenders and bad cases languish in Rikers.
The long bottoming out of the crime rate in New York City has been something to marvel at, but the challenge is to keep the gains from eroding while restoring law and order to the pockets of the city plagued by stubborn violence. There are many wrong ways to tackle that problem, including the ridiculously wide "stop-and-frisk" dragnet set by Mr. Bratton's predecessor Raymond Kelly, which harmed hundreds of thousands of innocent young men in the pursuit of a fractional subset of violent criminals.
Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Bratton say they are now doing the opposite, with a tack that is not necessarily harsher but smarter. Its success will rely not just on greater efficiency in the courtroom, but also on good policing on the front end, with well-trained officers respecting the Constitution and the residents of the crime-plagued neighborhoods they are pledged to protect.
The answer as always is the swift, sure and consistent application of justice, with stiff sentences where they are justified, and no neighborhoods left to fall through the cracks.
The Los Angeles Times on dietary guidelines from the government:
Every five years the federal departments of Agriculture and the Health and Human Services jointly release a set of recommendations for a healthy diet, similar to what any reasonable parent might suggest: Limit salt and sugar. Eat more veggies, and, for heaven's sake, don't supersize the burger and fries.
Yet Americans routinely ignore the recommendations, snarf up too much and too many of the wrong foods, and get fatter. So why is the arrival of yet another set of dietary guidelines worth noting?
First, the guidelines suggest a 10% cap on the calories that come from sugar added to foods (as in sweetened sodas, not juice), a much stricter limit than in previous versions, and recommend that males consume less protein derived from animals — not just red meat. These recommendations are meaningful because, despite the title, the dietary guidelines help determine what's served in federal food assistance and school meal programs that serve millions of Americans.
Second, and perhaps more important, is that for the first time since the recommendations began in 1980, the feds have gone farther than just making a list of the elements of a healthy diet. This round, the nutrition panel took a broader look at the patterns of food consumption globally and said that Mediterranean and vegetarian diets were good options.
An earlier version of the guidelines released in February went further, calling for new taxes on sodas to reduce sugar consumption. It also broke a political taboo by advocating a diet with less red meat. Most unforgivable, at least to some members of Congress, was that the panel based its recommendations in part on how the production of various types of food affected the environment.
In California, where vegan cuisine is more or less mainstream, such suggestions may seem mild. In the U.S. Capitol, they were akin to declaring war on agribusinesses and their powerful lobbies. The beef industry took particular issue with the draft guidelines, saying that there was no scientific basis for suggesting that eating more plants and less meat would improve health.
The heads of the two agencies, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, agreed that the dietary guidelines were not the appropriate place to discuss the larger questions about sustainability, and the new recommendations reflect that. While it might have been the wrong venue, however, the long-term impact of food production on the environment is an important topic that Congress must find a way to address.
One thing lawmakers did was fund a peer-reviewed study by the National Academy of Medicine of the science behind the dietary guidelines. The added research can only improve the next recommendations, but it's likely to leave unanswered what may be the most important question about the guidelines: Why don't more people follow them?
The Boston Herald on Obama's State of the Union address:
The "hope and change" president was back. Except that seven years later, seven years after Barack Obama led Americans to believe that bigger government would be the answer to their prayers — that it would give them a better life and most of all make them safer — most no longer believe.
Some 70 percent of the American people believe this nation is headed in the wrong direction. The only hope they cling to is that we will survive the next year without a major economic calamity or another terrorist attack.
The only change they want is a new leader in the Oval Office.
In his final State of the Union address, Obama insisted that "the future we want — opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids... will only happen if we fix our politics."
What utter arrogance — from the man who never failed to politicize every issue and, yes, every tragedy this nation suffered.
"Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens," he added.
We couldn't agree more. But never has this nation been more divided because of a man who knows nothing about compromise — who runs roughshod over the Congress and the Constitution with one executive order after another.
But it is on foreign policy and national security issues where this president has failed so miserably that he has both soured the national mood and made this once-great nation a target for every dictator with a missile, a bomb or a halfway decent navy. (No small irony that Iran held 10 U.S. sailors even as the president was patting himself on the back for a deal under which "Iran has rolled back its nuclear program" and "the world has avoided another war.")
"The United States is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close," he insisted.
And yet North Korea tests another nuclear bomb (its third such test under this president), Russia's Vladimir Putin sends his jets to Syria to support Assad (and continues to eye portions of the Ukraine) and the Islamic State, having terrorized Paris, yesterday added the heart of Istanbul to its target list.
"As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War II just play into their hands ... They do not threaten our national existence," the president said in a bit of rhetoric that brought back his earlier references to ISIL as the "JV team."
Obama's world is a mythical place. And he wonders why people are angry — and cynical.
The Orange County Register on mandatory union dues:
At the crux of a case taken up Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, is freedom. The lead plaintiff is Rebecca Friedrichs, who has taught for 27 years in the Savanna School District in northwest Orange County.
A decision is expected by the end of the court's term in late June.
Two matters are at issue. First is the law in California and 24 other states, forcing public employees to pay union dues even if they're not union members. In the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court allowed public employees to opt out of paying for union political activities they objected to, such as supporting a candidate or initiative. But the court allowed public-employee unions to continue charging dues for collective bargaining because the nonunion employees supposedly enjoy the same higher pay and improved benefits.
The unions and their defenders argue that allowing employees to opt out of the dues would make nonunion workers "free riders." But what if an employee doesn't like what the union is negotiating? For example, the CTA opposes pay for performance and insists on priority of seniority during layoffs. So a high-performing young teacher cannot be paid more than a less-talented teacher with seniority, and the young teacher is laid off first. What benefit does the young teacher receive from being forced to pay union dues?
Second, although the Abood case allowed opting out of dues earmarked for political activism, opting out typically is difficult to do. According to Deborah LaFetra of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has filed a "friend of the court" brief supporting the Friedrichs plaintiffs, "If a teacher doesn't want to support the union's politicking but fails to file her objection within the six-week window, she must pay the entire amount."
The plaintiffs argue that the labyrinthine opt-out procedures violate First Amendment free-speech rights. Instead, an opt-in policy would be fairer, with dues imposed on employees only if they explicity agree to it.
Employees' right to free speech and to bargain on their own are fundamental rights the court ought to uphold.
The Telegraph on migrants and rules:
The assaults on women that occurred in Cologne on New Year's Eve test German liberalism. For years, the country has tried to atone for the sins of the past by opening its doors to outsiders. Now its leaders are slowly coming to terms with the fact that some migrants, or even refugees, can be criminal — and that some cultures do not relocate easily to Western soil. The Left ties itself up in knots over this dilemma. It is too politically correct to identify the problem or name the solution, which is that Western societies have to insist upon integration.
What happened in Cologne was horrific. Women were robbed and groped, possibly even raped, by men described as being Arab or North African in appearance. Some Left-wing commentators urged Germans not to jump to conclusions about national origins for fear of stirring up the continent's far-Right. Their reaction betrayed a liberal sensitivity towards protecting the reputation of ethnic minorities over the safety of the public. Ralf Jaeger, interior minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, said of online chatter: "What happens on the Right-wing platforms and in chat rooms is at least as awful as the acts of those assaulting the women." That is plainly untrue.
Equally galling was Henriette Reker, the Mayor of Cologne, advising German woman on how to behave so as to avoid being attacked — as though they were tourists visiting their own country. And in the UK, a Left-wing columnist encouraged her readers to think of male migrants who had escaped a life of tyranny "where they may at least have enjoyed superiority over women" suddenly finding themselves in a country where their values system was tipped upside down.
After decades of promoting cultural relativism and asserting that people from undeveloped countries can do no wrong, some Westerners have lost an appropriate sense of moral discrimination. It is tempting to relate this to arguments that the West invites terrorist outrages with its foreign policy, and with the general view that Europeans can do nothing right.
As such, the Left offers an approach to immigration that really just amounts to seeing what emerges after the dust has settled. It is true that dictating social mores to arrivals can be difficult, partly because they are often the result of cultural heritage rather than law. Nevertheless, the law of the land is quite clear: theft and sexual assault are wrong. As such, integration surely begins by arresting those who commit crimes and sending a message that encourages more civilised behaviour. The West has to become a host that lays down the house rules.
Here in Britain, the Government has asserted that "passive tolerance" has to give way in the long-term to the promotion of integration. That means laws designed to reduce the media influence of fanatics, universities compelled to show active attempts to tackle extremism, a crackdown on forced marriages and other misogynist cultural practices, and the purging of extremist material from the internet. Many of these policies have been challenged as threats to civil liberties. Given that the character of British society is marked by a small state and strong individualism, these liberties certainly need to be protected if we are to be true to ourselves. But experience shows that simply waiting for new arrivals to integrate is useless. In Rotherham, the reluctance of public officials to speak out against child abuse perpetrated by members of the Pakistani community showed just how dangerous political correctness can be.
Ultimately, if someone does not wish to be part of Western society, if they choose to break its rules, then they are more than welcome to leave. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that deportation ought to immediately follow infringement of German law by refugees — a good idea, but one that has, in the past, been undermined by human rights laws. If the choice the West faces is between signalling its virtue and protecting its citizens, it really ought to choose the latter.