The Whispers Blog
Arkansas' breaking business news blog, with news and commentary from the Arkansas Business staff.
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“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” That old adage, variously worded and variously attributed, has never rung truer. I’m not talking about the cost of formal education, although I’m certainly concerned about that. I’m talking about the soul-crushing ignorance for which our nation is paying a massive price.
The Constitution of the United States is about 4,500 words, the amendments another 3,600. A slower-than-average reader could read all of it in an hour and begin to understand why we still need the Supreme Court to settle disputes over what it means. But how many of us have invested that hour in the past year? Past decade? Ever?
The only parts of the Constitution that Americans of all political stripes and education levels truly seem to grasp are that they don’t have to answer police questions and have the right to a lawyer in criminal cases. Why? Because the price of ignorance on those rights can be incarceration, so the Supreme Court requires law enforcement to educate all suspects that they can remain silent and ask for a lawyer, thereby creating boilerplate dialogue for a thousand crime shows. (In an episode of my favorite TV series, “The Closer,” the FBI agent character smiles at his suspect and says, “I never get tired of saying this: You have the right to remain silent …”)
Spoiler alert: An awful lot of people still don’t exercise those “Miranda rights.”
I am no constitutional scholar, but the deadly insurrection against Congress for doing its constitutional duty and subsequent fallout proves that even the president of the United States didn’t understand the constitutional process by which he was elected (and then sent packing). And ignorance about the First Amendment is so pervasive that even people who absolutely know better have cynically exploited that ignorance.
Josh Hawley, the Springdale native who was elected to the U.S. Senate by Missouri voters two years ago, had lined up a big-time publisher, Simon & Schuster, to publish his book, “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” His thesis, Simon & Schuster promised the book-buying public, was that Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple pose the “gravest threat to American liberty since the monopolies of the Gilded Age.”
Then Hawley decided to take a leading role in disenfranchising tens of millions of voters in swing states that preferred Joe Biden to Donald Trump, and a mob that shared his goal of rejecting the will of the voters stormed the Capitol. Five people died, including a police officer who was beaten to death.
Overnight — literally — Simon & Schuster decided that it didn’t want to do business with Hawley, sedition and violent insurrection generally being bad for branding. His contract was canceled. Hawley, stunned that his personal action had personal consequences, immediately squawked that his First Amendment right to free speech was being violated and declaring the private company’s decision to be “Orwellian.”
Hawley is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School; it’s impossible to believe that he doesn’t understand Orwell or the First Amendment. But he trusts that Americans who share his desire to negate Biden’s election don’t — or don’t care.
When Twitter and Facebook, villains in Hawley’s unpublished opus, decided that President Trump had finally violated their terms of service one time too many, more whining ensued about his First Amendment right. But Simon & Schuster canceling its contract with Hawley the Seditionist was no different, constitutionally, than Subway cutting ties with Jared the Pedophile. And Twitter and Facebook acted no differently toward Trump than a restaurant that declined to serve a patron who showed up barefoot and shirtless after many previous warnings.
The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” and some other things. It doesn’t require any private entity to amplify someone else’s speech. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, not freedom of reach. (I didn’t make that up. I wish I knew who did.)
Perhaps we need to start issuing a Hawley warning: “You have the right to free speech. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.”
The same goes for Apple and Google deciding not to do business with Parler, the “conservative” — whatever that means these days — alternative to Twitter. That’s what happens when your revolution depends on flip-flop wearing, nonfat-latte-drinking coastal elites. Northern foundries stopped doing business with the Confederate States, but some folks still seem to forget how that turned out.
Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.
I had in mind to start the year with a light column about one of my favorite thought experiments, the paradox of thrift. I had been thinking about it quite a lot during the holidays, when Christmas consumerism inevitably crashes against resolutions like smarter budgeting.
I wasn’t planning to write about the runoff elections in Georgia because I fully expected the Republican incumbents to retain their seats and for their party to continue to control the Senate, and the status quo is hardly newsworthy six days later.
See, I had assumed that Republican-leaning voters, having been surprised by President Trump’s narrow defeat there in November, would turn out in a big way to make sure their party didn’t lose control of the Senate as well as the White House. A make-or-break election in a single state doesn’t come along every day — or ever, that I can recall.
But that’s just more proof that I am possibly the world’s worst political prognosticator, which is why I try to avoid making public predictions. Instead of an upset loss energizing Republicans, a narrow victory energized Georgia’s Democrats, who — unlike Republicans — seemed more eager to vote on a ballot that didn’t have Trump’s name on it.
There is a distinct downside to having one marquee name that drives partisan turnout, as the Democrats learned in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, when Barack Obama was not on the ballot.
I definitely wasn’t planning to write about congressional housekeeping duties, the little ceremonial tallying of the Electoral College results that have been counted and recounted, challenged, litigated and upheld in court after court. Even knowing that some congressional Republicans planned some grandstanding to burnish their bona fides as successors to Trump’s voters didn’t make me want to write about it. I shall never understand why a TV huckster who ran a scam university and belittled POWs is a better representative of Republican values than any other pro-life conservative in the land, but I’ll also never understand football. And Trump’s winning streak ended and his season is obviously dunzo.
Then Wednesday turned into a day of utter chaos. I was tired from having stayed up too late marveling at the surprise results in Georgia, and the assault by Americans against their own constitutional government was simply soul-crushing. I had that shaky feeling that I remember from 9/11, when I wasn’t sure what was going on but I knew it was very bad and that I needed to keep my wits about me. Some random Twitter person said it felt like 9/11 but with Americans flying the planes, which felt too true for comfort.
It’s no secret that I have never believed Donald Trump to be even minimally fit for the presidency — not by intellect, experience, character or temperament. This makes me part of the majority of Pulaski County voters and Americans in general, but a minority among Arkansans.
Still, I accepted that he was president and that he had all the rightful powers of the office, even as I abhor his use of pardons to reward criminals who committed crimes for his benefit and his directing of public funds to his for-profit businesses. I accepted long ago that there really is no bottom to what he will do or say for his own gratification, and I accepted that Republicans were willing to keep sinking with him. (Whether because they agree with him or are cowards scared of a mean tweet is unclear — but we saw what happened to unfailingly loyal Vice President Pence when it turned out he didn’t have the authority to overturn the election.)
I accepted that Trump would continue his verbal assault on democracy — and his emails asking true believers to send money to a self-declared billionaire — for as long as it was lucrative. But I was not prepared for a physical assault on the center of our democracy by people the president described as “very special” with a declaration of his love. If this is the very best the Republican Party has to offer, it’s time for a new conservative party.
I figure she’ll stay in government and politics, but Stacey Abrams could earn millions doing for a corporation what she did for Democrats in Georgia. Mission, vision, organization and management equal market share, right? And, as a friend reminded me, Abrams was motivated primarily by her conviction that voter suppression kept her from winning Georgia’s governorship in 2018. Had she won that, she would have been preoccupied with governing, including managing a pandemic that has killed 11,000 Georgians in less than a year, and she would not have been able to dedicate two years to voter registration.
Winning Georgia would not have made the difference for President Trump, but it would have made the difference for control of the Senate.
Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.
This is the 22nd year-end issue of Arkansas Business that I have overseen as editor. The first was in 1999, just months after I returned to my hometown after a decade of exile in Tennessee, and I took the staff’s word for it that the revitalization of Little Rock’s River Market District was the top business story of the year. It certainly was an improvement over the warehouse district I had tried to avoid, years earlier, as a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette.
Closing out the year with a roundup of its top 10 business stories was a tradition I inherited, and we kept it up. The top story in 2000 — the rabid intrastate dispute over University of Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles’ proposal to reduce the number of football games played in Little Rock — seemed embarrassingly petty a year later, when the dust was still settling months after 9/11.
But even in 2001, we ranked 10 stories: the terrorist attacks, the economic recession that had actually begun months earlier, Tyson Foods’ acquisition of South Dakota beef and pork giant IBP Inc. (accompanied by a case of buyers’ remorse), etc. Year after year the staff wrangled over that top-10 list, settling on the biggest stories and ranking them.
I never imagined that I would experience a bigger news story than 9/11, which killed 2,977 Americans in a single day. But COVID-19, a disease few of us had heard of at this time last year, has killed 100 times as many in less than a year, and sometimes more on a single day. Absolutely every major story of the year — even massive civil protests, even the presidential election that the loser contested (maybe just to elicit donations) — has been shaped by the COVID context.
So this year, the reporting staff decided to acknowledge the obvious: There was only one big story this year. The pandemic is the biggest story in banking, health care, retail, manufacturing, transportation, hospitality, construction, real estate, education, law, government and more. It has pressured the private sector, the public sector and nonprofits. It has tested our emergency preparedness, our contingency plans and our analytical skills. It has revealed weaknesses in our supply chain, accelerated trends in e-commerce and underscored our state’s shameful “digital divide.”
It has also revealed the truth of that cynical old joke: “The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!”
There is light at the end of the tunnel with the rollout of vaccines last week, but it will take months for all willing Americans to roll up their sleeves. For the present, some 200,000 Americans are diagnosed every day and about 2,500 die of COVID every day. Tens of thousands more deaths are predicted, even in the most optimistic forecasts, before we get this thing under control.
And we will get it under control eventually. But it will take longer than it should, and more lives will be lost than necessary, because of the other thing that COVID has announced in neon: Our society is swimming in disinformation.
Even when President Trump leaves office — he who minimized the risks that he fully understood and mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask — the problem of disinformation will remain. There is no vaccination against this infection in our body politic.
Tom Nichols, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, published a book in 2017 called “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.” In it he warned, “These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything.”
If that seems prescient, consider this: Nichols’ book expanded on an article he wrote for conservative website The Federalist in 2014. Also called “The Death of Expertise,” that article included an even more prescient example: “To take but one horrifying example, we live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids after reading stuff written by people who know exactly zip about medicine.”
This is not the last publication subscribers will receive from Arkansas Business this year. Next week you’ll get the “2021 Book of Lists,” that indispensable compilation of business lists we’ve produced throughout 2020.
Will I take the vaccine when my turn rolls around? I pity the fool who tries to stop me.
Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.
At a time when political polarization is so intense that the president of the United States can raise hundreds of millions of dollars from the fact that he lost his reelection bid by 7 million votes, only one thing seems to have near-unanimous support regardless of political affiliation: regulating Facebook.
Only Republican attorneys general (and not all of those) support the mind-boggling idea of disenfranchising millions of voters in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin because those states preferred Joe Biden over Donald Trump. But more than 40 AGs, led by New York’s and including our own Leslie Rutledge, came together last week to bring a massive antitrust lawsuit against Facebook Inc., owner and operator of the Facebook and Instagram social media platforms and Whatsapp messaging system.
The Federal Trade Commission simultaneously filed its own antitrust case against Facebook. Both the federal and multistate actions make the same complaint: Facebook has quashed competition by using its vast market dominance to buy up promising startups.
The remedy sought: to break up Facebook.
Now, I know this is hard to believe, but I’m old enough to remember Ma Bell. For the significant number of readers who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, Ma Bell was AT&T, which until the early 1980s was the ubiquitous provider of both local and long-distance telephone service, which were two different products.
Ultimately, AT&T agreed to spin off the local operating companies that provided home and business phone service — the “Baby Bells” — into standalone companies that were small enough for other local providers to compete with. For a long time, the word divestiture meant only one thing to me: the breakup of AT&T.
I also remember the first time I saw a TV commercial for Sprint. I had only recently started paying my own bills, and an offer to lower the cost of long-distance calls — like calling my parents in North Little Rock from my apartment in Pine Bluff — was intriguing. But the idea that a company other than AT&T could sell me that service was mind-blowing — until suddenly long-distance providers were springing up everywhere.
Breaking up AT&T did foster competition. Allied Telephone Co., one of Arkansas’ small wireline providers, merged with Mid-Continent Telephone Corp. of Ohio in 1983 to create Alltel Corp. And while the Alltel name will gradually fade from memory like Ma Bell, it was a huge corporate player in Arkansas and nationally for the next two decades, getting in on the ground floor of the cellphone revolution that made long-distance calls a foreign concept to anyone under 40.
Facebook didn’t invent social media, but it did perfect the business plan just when the internet was about to become portable. Like most people, especially most journalists, I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook: I love how easy it has made keeping in touch with people I have known through the various phases of my life, but I hate what it has done to the news industry, vacuuming off advertising revenue even as much of its content comes from newspapers — linked by users like me. At the current rate of change, Facebook’s annual revenue will soon overtake that of all the newspapers left in the world.
Of course, newspapers can and do lock down their content, depriving Facebook and its users of some of that proprietary content. But that only elevates the role of “free” sources. And I hope I don’t need to remind Arkansas Business readers that social media memes are not, in fact, reliable sources of news, information or data. (Folks, you can’t even trust anonymous meme-makers to attribute quotes correctly.)
Non-journalists have other complaints about Facebook. For instance, there’s a widespread belief that Facebook discriminates against conservative political opinions despite the fact that links to right-leaning voices like Fox News and Ben Shapiro are routinely among the most-shared posts.
That complaint and mine are not going to be addressed by the litigation filed last week, but I didn’t notice any uprising in defense of Facebook. Even the business community that generally takes a dim view of regulation understands that regulation helps create a level playing field and that monopolies are anti-business as much as anti-consumer.
Social media will continue to grow and evolve if Facebook is put on a leash. Would any of us prefer to go back to the days of Ma Bell?
I still don’t Instagram.
Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.
Last week in this space, I opined about what seemed to me to be Sherwin-Williams’ overly harsh decision to fire a college student working part time in an Ohio store for violations of company policy related to his wildly popular TikTok paint-mixing videos. Young employees often need counseling and guidance as they learn to navigate the workforce, but Sherwin-Williams threw a talented baby out with the bathwater.
Elsewhere in that issue was Senior Editor Mark Friedman’s report about a Fayetteville cardiologist who can’t seem to get fired no matter what he does.
Oh, Dr. Soliman Mohamed Ali Soliman was suspended for a week last year after a nurse at Washington Regional Medical Center accused him of sexual harassment. But that sanction by CEO J. Larry Shackelford was hardly the punishment that had been promised the first time Soliman was disciplined for “unwelcome or inappropriate” conduct toward a female co-worker at WRMC.
In 2015, the previous CEO, William Bradley, had warned Soliman that another complaint would result in his termination. Even that was not merely a second chance. Bradley knew by then that Soliman had been the subject of a no-contact order after allegedly stalking a female employee at the Illinois hospital where he worked before coming to WRMC in 2012.
So, what happened to him at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield when he was the subject of a court order that kept him from seeing patients when his alleged victim was on duty? Well, you can be assured that he wasn’t fired.
“No formal action was taken against Dr. Soliman’s privileges at MMC and his voluntary agreement to refrain from practicing is not a matter that was reportable to the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation or the National Practitioner Data Bank,” the president of the medical staff wrote.
In documenting the 2015 incident, Bradley indicated that WRMC had not been aware of the stalking complaint when Soliman was hired. Keeping such a pertinent fact from a new employer was another thing that Soliman was not fired for.
Now the WRMC nurse has sued Soliman for sexual harassment and WRMC for failing to warn her and other nurses of Soliman’s “long history of sexual harassment.” She told the Arkansas State Medical Board that she knows of three more victims at WRMC, although Soliman said he doesn’t know who they would be.
What action did the Medical Board take? Well, obviously, it didn’t prevent Soliman from practicing medicine. Instead, the overwhelmingly male board asked (but did not order) Soliman to continue voluntary monitoring by the Arkansas Medical Foundation, which treats physicians who have mental or emotional illnesses or engage in self-destructive behavior. And Soliman kindly agreed.
Yes, I understand that the market value of a cardiologist is vastly greater than that of a part-time paint store clerk. But the market risk of employing a man with a long pattern of sexual harassment and even stalking is vastly greater than the risk posed by a kid making a video of himself putting blueberries in a can of paint.
Soliman hasn’t exactly denied the allegations against him. Instead, his defense seems to be that his behavior has been unfairly mischaracterized. He didn’t stalk a co-worker for two years; he just had a “big issue” with a colleague that left him (not her) “traumatized.”
And the latest incident, the one that led to litigation against Soliman and WRMC, wasn’t 18 months of documented sexual harassment, including attempted kisses. Instead, as Soliman sees it, he had been “joking and trying to be nice to the people” and was surprised to learn — even after the earlier incidents, even years into the #MeToo era — that “actually a lot of people get offended by that.”
You don’t say.
I would note that “I was just joking” has become the go-to excuse for all manner of bad behavior. Last week, for instance, Joe diGenova, an attorney for President Trump’s failed re-election campaign, said in a radio interview that Christopher Krebs, who had been fired as the administration’s top cybersecurity official, “should be drawn and quartered, taken out at dawn and shot.”
(Noted: Krebs was fired after he affirmed the security of the General Election. Because that’s a firing offense in the Trump administration.)
When diGenova drew criticism for suggesting violence against someone whose mistake seems to have been contradicting misinformation from the White House, diGenova did what Soliman did: He claimed he was just joking.
Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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