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I'm a business journalist and a fiction author. My novel Mute is available now from Silver Leaf Books.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

North Korea had a partner in success of Sony hack: the media

As stunning as North Korea’s brazen hack of Sony Pictures was, the communist dictatorship wouldn’t have been so successful if it wasn’t for the media playing along.
It’s an unlikely alliance, a country with no free expression with only state-run media and the unabashedly unrestrained media of democracy. The hackers fed the information they stole from Sony to the media and then made vague threats to theatergoers. That resulted in most movie theaters refusing to show The Interview, a Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy satire about assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

Sony is now putting The Interview out in limited release – for the small independent theaters that aren’t chicken.
Analysts believe the hack could cost Sony Pictures more than $100 million. It might also cost some people their jobs after unflattering emails were leaked, and published, by the media. Sensitive financial information, including performer salaries, became media fodder. Trade secrets about the movie studio’s strategy for future films were exposed for public banter. Clearly, the hack attack was more effective because the media served as an eager mouthpiece for the oppressive regime as it bullied a business.
That leads me to the ethical dilemma for journalists. 
When stolen information lands in our laps, should we ignore it or go with it? For me, it depends on the importance of the information and the purpose that releasing it would serve. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, a New York Times feature in 1971, the paper published a leaked government report about the conflict in Vietnam. That’s the ultimate example of a worthy public purpose. One could argue that some of the WikiLeaks documents were of public importance, although a journalist should always consider whether releasing stolen or leaked information would put people in danger.
In my job, there have been many times when off the record sources told me negative things about companies and I withheld them because they couldn’t be confirmed, or the information wasn’t relevant for business readers. When I have referred to leaked information, it’s because it was crucial and its accuracy was verified.
In the case of the Sony hack, I don’t think that it serves any public purpose to release private emails about the movie business, the skills of certain high-level performers, and salaries. The only purpose it serves is to help North Korea damage Sony Pictures and its employees.
I know it would be too much to ask all of the world’s media to refrain from releasing the hacked goods. After all, even actresses who are victims of nude photo hacking get exploited by the worst of the worst in the industry.
Still, to all those media outlets that aired Sony Pictures’ dirty laundry, Kim Jong-Un sends his warm thanks.
In case you were wondering, I've never tried to assassinate any of my interview subjects. Then again, I've never been asked.

Monday, November 3, 2014

After many years covering banking, it’s time for a change in my beat

This is my last couple weeks on the banking beat. I’m going to make official what I’ve been doing for a while, covering real estate for the South Florida Business Journal. Only this time, it’ll be my main focus and I’ll hand off banking and insurance to a talented reporter.

It was a tough decision for me. Everyone who works with me knows how passionate I am about banking. The dozens of South Florida banks are like my chicks. I’ve followed them starting in 2008 as the recession began, watching some grow, some fall on the dreaded FDIC Friday after 5 p.m. There’s nothing like sitting on “bank death watch” with my obit for the ailing institution all ready to rip.

There’s not nearly as much of that now. Only one Florida bank has failed in 2014. Action hasn’t been lacking, with M&A activity and investigations, plus some heartwarming stories of loan growth. 

As much as I enjoyed this beat, I realized that I can’t advance unless I let it go. If I want to elevate my career, I can’t be married to any beat. I have to embrace new challenges.

That’s where real estate comes in. It’s the headline beat at SFBJ. For the better part of a year it hasn’t been fully staffed. While I’ve filled in with regular real estate stories, I haven’t given it my full attention. That’s about to change.

I’m going to explore this new condo craze and what it means for the local population. I’ll study housing affordability, the rapidly changing neighborhoods and go behind the deals.

Oh, and don’t forget Foreclosure Roundup. I’m not letting that go.

I’m hoping this change will make things better for me all around. Covering all these beats has been way too much work and it’s bled into my evenings. It’s taken away from family. It’s limited the time I can spend working on my next novel, and promoting my recent work Mute.

There’s just one matter to settle before I move on from banking. I’m heading to Miami federal court to cover the SEC vs. Alan Levan.

How’s that for a final salvo?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Six questions for Florida’s November elections

Florida's Aug. 26 primary (as pathetic as the turnout was) set the stage for some high stakes races in the Nov. 4 election. Here are six questions I have about those contests.

Who is the worst, dirty, baby stealing scoundrel, Charlie Crist or Rick Scott?

The campaign ads have been 99 percent negative and we’ve only begun to see the tens of millions of political dollars hit the airwaves. Medicare fraudster! Job killer! Climate change denier! Flip flopper! It would be nice to hear more about their stances on the issues and their plans to address the state’s biggest problems. But hey, that wouldn’t be any fun.

What will happen first, the Miami Dolphins make the playoffs or Rick Scott directly answers a question from a reporter?

Google “Rick Scott evades questions” or “Rick Scott dodges questions” and you’ll get hundreds of thousands of hits, including this video on MSNBC. To use an X-Men analogy, he’s the Nightcrawler of answering questions. Poof, he’s gone. When he does reply, it’s often like he’s reciting a script and he’s ignoring the question. 

Could Crist be hauled in for an embarrassing deposition during campaign season?

Florida’s lawsuit against Digital Domain and the executives of the failed company aims to recover $20 million in taxpayer dollars, but Scott wouldn’t mind if it puts Crist in hot water as well. It was Crist’s bright idea when he was governor to award this unproven company taxpayer dollars up front when its finances were a mess. It’s likely Crist will be called for a deposition, and it would sure be a shame if that got picked up by the press.

Will stoners light up the ballot boxes?

The medical marijuana amendment has strong support in opinion polling, but the 60 percent vote it needs for passage is a high bar, pardon my pun. This measure might increase youth and liberal turnout, which is exactly what Crist and the Democrats are hoping for. Forget oranges, Florida is about to have a new cash crop.

Are gay marriage opponents in for a rude awakening?

Few issues have seen a rapid swing in public opinion like gay marriage, with polls showing that a majority of Floridians now support it. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi  has aggressively battled every lawsuit seeking to legalize same-sex unions and she’s proud of it, issuing all kinds of press releases touting her stance. Democratic opponent George Sheldon would have the state drop its fight and support these unions. If supporters of same-sex marriage take out their frustrations on Bondi at the ballot box, she could be in trouble. Still, she has a huge fundraising advantage. 

Will incumbent members of Congress be punished for their slacker ways?

If you had any employee as unproductive as this Congress has been, I bet you’d fire their asses. In a world full of crises in need of urgent action, Congress bickers and stalls and bickers some more. Often times, people blame representatives in other districts, not their hometown hero. Yet, if this is a job evaluation based on “what have you done for me lately”, I see a lot of zeros on the board.

I’d ask a question about the races in the Florida Legislature, but those districts are gerrymandered so bad that most "contests" aren’t competitive. That last sentence could have been written 100 years ago.

Friday, July 11, 2014

What LeBron’s departure says about Miami

Beyond the sports and the economic impact of LeBron James leaving the Miami Heat, it says something significant about the way people view Miami.

In his Sports Illustrated article, LeBron said Miami was like a “college for other kids” and he’ll always think of Miami as a “second home.” His heart is in Northeast Ohio. That’s home.

No matter how much he won in Miami, no matter how much money he made here, no matter how much the Heat fans cheered him, no matter how much he enjoyed riding his bike outside in January (not as much fun in Cleveland), Miami was never LeBron’s home. It’s a place to party, to work, and to make money.

That would describe how  many people see Miami and, perhaps, the rest of South Florida. People can live here for decades and still feel allegiance to their home cities, or countries.

I’m not talking just about sports, which is obvious by all the New York Jets jerseys at Dolphins games. Whether it’s foreign politics, TV shows beamed in from other countries, or donating to far away causes, it seems that everyone in South Florida has their mind someplace else. They’re worried about Venezuela, Israel, Cuba, New York, but not what’s going on down the block.

So what if the streets flood with every afternoon shower, they're laying off cops and closing libraries? This isn't my town!

Part of Miami’s appeal is what’s fueling the condo boom. People love to have second homes here, like LeBron. They want to experience Miami, perhaps send their kids here for a few months or years. Win a few rings, buy and flip a few condos. Then it’s back home.

South Florida benefits financially from all of that for sure. But it’s not the same as having people who truly care about this place, who will spend time and money making it better and helping the people who really do call it home.

I have great (and not so great) memories of growing up on the Space Coast but Broward County is my home now. Besides, it’s not easy to root for the Orlando Magic these days, right?

Want to check out some of my sports fiction writing? Try my new short story Medical Martial Arts.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

An action-packed short story will be my next release

I’ve been thrown a curveball in my writing career this year. I hoped to show everybody my second novel Famous After Death but, due to circumstances beyond my control, its release with Silver Leaf Books has been delayed a year.

The bright side of that, for readers especially, is that I’m about to share an action-packed piece of fiction that I wouldn’t have otherwise had an outlet for. Silver Leaf Books has decided to release a handful of short stories on Amazon, among them my roughhousing work – Medical Martial Arts.

The cover art (before title added):

The story was inspired by athletes who continue competing past their prime despite the harm to their bodies because they need that one last run at greatness. Normally, the body has its limits. I use a science fiction theme, yet one not too far from reality, to remove all boundaries. 

Putt up your mitts, here’s the summary:

Cliff "Bones' Bonner lost everything last time he stepped into the cage, his title, his health and his pride. His wife begs him to retire and relish in a successful career, but this mix martial arts fighter won't take off his gloves until he silences his critics. Bones get his chance in the Hardcore Combat League, a bloody spectacle in the Bahamas where stem cell implants and sculpting bones into deadly weapons are as legal as a pair of shorts. Victory in this sport pays well, but it comes with a price.

His first opponent is a four-armed man. One of the more climactic scenes makes use of South Florida’s most overlooked Cold War landmarks. 

As some of you know, I’m a former high school wrestler and a fan of both mixed martial arts and the WWE so I take great pleasure in writing a combat story like this. Individual sports can bring out the best or the worst in you. Losing is such an empty feeling because you can only blame yourself. Winning, knowing that you just physically defeated someone, is such an unbelievable high.

The key to making people care about a fight, whether real or fiction, is selling the characters involved. It’s the difference between seeing two strangers battle in a parking lot and watching your brother fight a bully.

Medical Martial Arts will be available in the coming months. Stay tuned and have your favorite e-reader ready. 

As for my novels, I’m eager to share the breakneck thriller Famous After Death with everybody soon but next year’s the more likely target for it. The sequel to Mute is pretty far along. I’m keeping the plot quiet (he he) to avoid spoilers.

I honestly wish I had more time to write fiction because that’s what I love. I know that sounds funny when I’m talking about all these projects, yet I have so many ideas that I can’t wait to get to next.

And so the fight continues…

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Unionizing college athletes the right step for this multi-billion-dollar business

The recent ruling that Northwestern University football players can form a union has pierced the farce that this multi-billion-dollar industry is all about amateur student athletes.

While there is great value in the scholarships the student athletes receive, that’s nothing compared to the $18 billion in TV rights for football bowl games and the basketball tournament, not to mention all the merchandise, sponsorships and ticket sales. The players make people want to attend the games and buy the jerseys, yet they don’t benefit from the business side of their success, their long days practicing and putting their bodies at risk of crippling injuries and concussions. The people in suits, the coaches and the athletic directors, reap the rewards.

Don’t forget the TV networks and other media that sell advertising off the blood and sweat of these supposedly amateur competitors. 

How is it that coaches and athletic directors are allowed to receive bonuses for reaching bowl games, winning conferences or athletes winning individual national titles but the athletes aren’t? How come their contracts can include a car and phone allowance, expenses the athletes often cover out of pocket? 

These players face considerable dangers by competing. Concussions, nerve damage, joint injuries that can linger for years – these aren’t just issues for professional leagues like the NFL. The same brain injuries that debilitated former NFL greats happened to former college players, even if they don’t attract as much attention because they aren’t as famous. At least the NFL has agreed to compensate retired players for their health problems – thanks in great part to unions. 

The Northwestern players want the university to guarantee medical coverage for them once their playing days are done, and to put them on four-year scholarships so they can’t be released any year on the basis of injury. The players also proposed receiving aid for graduate degrees.

They aren’t asking for cash. I don’t think paying them should be off the table, but it shouldn’t be a huge windfall. They deserve an allowance to cover their expenses, something that would be equal at every university based on cost-of-living adjustments for the region and equal across sports as well. Plus, players should share bonuses for reaching milestones like bowl games and championships.

Perhaps if the players got some gas and jeans money they wouldn’t be so vulnerable to accepting handouts from boosters. 

The counter argument to paying players is that the small school won’t be able to compete with the big schools. That’s correct, but there’s a way around it. Handle it like a tax, with all universities paying in and a central authority, perhaps a vastly reformed NCAA, doling out the money equally, reviewing the milestone bonuses and overseeing retired player benefits. 

Let’s make sure our college athletes get taken care of long after the spotlights fade.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

My 2014 plans: Book signing, new novel release, big sequel brewing

After reaching so many milestones last year both professionally and personally, I have more groundbreaking writing planned for 2014.

First up, I’m doing a book signing at the renowned Books & Books in Coral Gables on Jan. 28 at 8 p.m. I’ll read a chapter from Mute – I have one in mind but I’m open to suggestions – and then talk about how the story of my novel is a metaphor for my life. The discussion really moved the people who heard it at the Miami Book Fair so I suggest you hear it live.

If you can’t be there in person, Books & Books will stream it online. Go here for more information about the free event.

This fall Silver Leaf Books will release my second novel, Famous After Death, in print and e-book. My publisher already posted a landing page for my novel. How do you like the cover photo? It’s by the same photographer from Mute, El Cesana in Australia. The font for the title will probably change, but I feel the photo captures the shocking nature of the story.

I’m glad there weren't camera phones and YouTube when I was a teenager because a lot of the stupid things I did probably would have been shared, to maximum embarrassment. I’m lucky some of those stunts didn’t go so bad that people got hurt. But what if…

In Famous After Death, three Miami teenagers figure: Everything else has gone viral so why not murder?

This is fast-paced thriller set in South Florida (mostly Miami). The teenagers do terrible things for attention as the trials of their childhoods drove them to dehumanize their victims, and make them famous by posting their deaths online.

Most teenagers who glamorize their violence online are too stupid to hide their identities, but this trio is clever, and they have help from a mysterious hacker with an ax to grind against the police officer tracking them down.

Besides all this, what else could I possibly have cooking? Well, another novel of course. Mute is just itching for a sequel and I’m hard at work on the first draft. I can’t say how long it will take to finish and, especially, to edit. That’s the hard part.

I’ll say this, though. It’ll have more science fiction than the first novel, and more romance. Yet, other parts are pure horror. 

I call it…