Bill Moyers's Blog

May 25, 2011

(Photo by Robin Holland)



Below is an article by Michael Winship.



Bill Moyers Has a New Book. I Helped. Please Read.

By Michael Winship



Bill Moyers has a new book out. In the interest of full disclosure, I edited the book with him and co-wrote its introduction. And in the interest of what may seem to be shameless self-promotion, I urge you to read it.



If you don't buy Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, borrow it from the nearest local library (Although please keep in mind, we are the sole support of a community of endangered pundits hiding in the swamplands of lower Manhattan. The choice is yours.).



Published by The New Press, the book is a collection of interviews augmented with new introductions and updates, a compilation of some of the best and most interesting conversations conducted during his PBS series from 2007-10, as put together by Bill and the production team. But more than that, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues functions as an informative and essential primer in contemporary American politics, society and literature, presented with a progressive point of view yet covering the waterfront of ideas and opinions.


The pages encompass a remarkable three years in American history: not just the final years of the Bush White House, but also the turbulent 2008 presidential campaign culminating in the election of our first African American president; the first 15 months of the Obama administration with its fierce debates over health care, financial reform, and escalating the Afghan war; and of course, the global economic breakdown.



We didn't realize it at the time, but as we looked back over what many of the people had to say, we discovered that their thoughtful analysis created a unique portrait of the state of America in those years. What's more, they were remarkably prescient about events that lay ahead.



The economists Simon Johnson and James K. Galbraith accurately predicted that no matter the financial meltdown of 2008, many of the same people who caused it would emerge more prosperous than ever. (Despite high unemployment and stagnant wages for the working class, the Wall Street Journal recently released a study reporting that CEOs at the country's 350 biggest companies saw their pay jump 11% last year to a median of $9.3 million.)



Months before the collapse and our national, ongoing debate on the budget and deficit, historian Andrew Bacevich told Moyers that our economy resembled a giant Ponzi scheme: "This continuing tendency to borrow and to assume that the bills are never going to come due," he said. "How are we going to pay the bills? How are we going to pay for the entitlements that are going to increase year by year for the next couple of decades, especially as baby boomers retire? Nobody has answers to these questions."



Conservatives Ross Douthat, Victor Gold and Mickey Edwards talked about what many see as the death of traditional conservatism, but foresaw emerging from it the inchoate rage that has resulted in the Tea Parties and a resurgence of the radical right, driving establishment Republicans to ulcerous distraction as we approach another pivotal national election.



A few other excerpts:



Biologist E.O. Wilson: "We're the ones that can destroy the world. No other single species ever had anything like that power. And we also have the knowledge to avoid doing it. It's sort of a race to the finish line that we will develop the intelligence and the policies and the decency to bring it to a halt not just for life itself but for future generations before the juggernaut takes us over."



Activist and analyst Holly Sklar: "The rising tide's not lifting all boats. Little crumbs aren't trickling off the table. What's really happened is that so much is being ripped off at the top. It's a level of extreme, almost pathological greed and it's not tolerated in any other of the democracies.'



Health care executive turned reformer Wendell Potter: "One day I was reading President Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage. In the foreword, his brother Bobby said that one of the President's favorite quotes was from Dante: 'The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great crisis, maintain their neutrality.' And when I read that, I said, 'Oh jeez, I'm headed for the hottest place in Hell, unless I say something.'"



Political theorist Benjamin Barber: "We can't buy the line that government is our enemy and the market is our friend... Government is us. Government is our institutions. Government is how we make social and public choices working together to forge common ground... We've got to retrieve our citizenship."



Civil rights advocate and litigator Michelle Alexander: "Much of the data indicates that African Americans today, as a group, are not much better off than they were back in 1968 when Martin Luther King delivered 'The Other America' speech, talking about how there are two Americas in the United States... These two Americas still exist today. The existence of Barack Obama and people of color scattered in position of power and high places creates an illusion of much more progress than has actually been made in recent years."



Poet W.S. Merwin: "The most valuable things in our lives come out of what we don't know. And that's a process that we never understand. I think poetry always comes out of what you don't know. Now, I tell students, knowledge is very important. Learn languages. Read history. Read, listen -- above all, listen to everybody. Listen to everything that you hear. Every sound in the street. Every dog and every bird and everything that you hear. But know that while all of your knowledge is important, there is something you will never know. It's who you are."



This is an eclectic and lively, even cacophonous, compendium of voices with a lot to say, much of it stimulating and provocative. Many of the contributors to Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues are alarmed at the state of the union and the powerful forces of wealth and venality that actively seek the destruction of what little is left of our representative democracy. But something the historian Howard Zinn says in the book also resonates throughout: "The idea of people involved in history, people actually making history, people agitating and demonstrating, pushing the leaders of the country into change in a way that leaders themselves are not likely to initiate... Don't depend on our leaders to do what needs to be done, because whenever the government has done anything to bring about change, it's done so only because it's been pushed and prodded by social movements, by ordinary people organizing."



But don't take my word for it. Read the book.



Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, was the senior writer for Bill Moyers Journal







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Published on May 25, 2011 12:30 • 118 views

(Photo by Robin Holland)



Below is an article by Michael Winship.



"Democracy Talks -- Listen Up

By Michael Winship



Bill Moyers has a new book out. In the interest of full disclosure, I edited the book with him and co-wrote its introduction. And in the interest of what may seem to be shameless self-promotion, I urge you to read it.



If you don't buy Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, borrow it from the nearest local library (Although please keep in mind, we are the sole support of a community of endangered pundits hiding in the swamplands of lower Manhattan. The choice is yours.).



Published by The New Press, the book is a collection of interviews augmented with new introductions and updates, a compilation of some of the best and most interesting conversations conducted during his PBS series from 2007-10, as put together by Bill and the production team. But more than that, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues functions as an informative and essential primer in contemporary American politics, society and literature, presented with a progressive point of view yet covering the waterfront of ideas and opinions.


The pages encompass a remarkable three years in American history: not just the final years of the Bush White House, but also the turbulent 2008 presidential campaign culminating in the election of our first African American president; the first 15 months of the Obama administration with its fierce debates over health care, financial reform, and escalating the Afghan war; and of course, the global economic breakdown.



We didn't realize it at the time, but as we looked back over what many of the people had to say, we discovered that their thoughtful analysis created a unique portrait of the state of America in those years. What's more, they were remarkably prescient about events that lay ahead.



The economists Simon Johnson and James K. Galbraith accurately predicted that no matter the financial meltdown of 2008, many of the same people who caused it would emerge more prosperous than ever. (Despite high unemployment and stagnant wages for the working class, the Wall Street Journal recently released a study reporting that CEOs at the country's 350 biggest companies saw their pay jump 11% last year to a median of $9.3 million.)



Months before the collapse and our national, ongoing debate on the budget and deficit, historian Andrew Bacevich told Moyers that our economy resembled a giant Ponzi scheme: "This continuing tendency to borrow and to assume that the bills are never going to come due," he said. "How are we going to pay the bills? How are we going to pay for the entitlements that are going to increase year by year for the next couple of decades, especially as baby boomers retire? Nobody has answers to these questions."



Conservatives Ross Douthat, Victor Gold and Mickey Edwards talked about what many see as the death of traditional conservatism, but foresaw emerging from it the inchoate rage that has resulted in the Tea Parties and a resurgence of the radical right, driving establishment Republicans to ulcerous distraction as we approach another pivotal national election.



A few other excerpts:



Biologist E.O. Wilson: "We're the ones that can destroy the world. No other single species ever had anything like that power. And we also have the knowledge to avoid doing it. It's sort of a race to the finish line that we will develop the intelligence and the policies and the decency to bring it to a halt not just for life itself but for future generations before the juggernaut takes us over."



Activist and analyst Holly Sklar: "The rising tide's not lifting all boats. Little crumbs aren't trickling off the table. What's really happened is that so much is being ripped off at the top. It's a level of extreme, almost pathological greed and it's not tolerated in any other of the democracies.'



Health care executive turned reformer Wendell Potter: "One day I was reading President Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage. In the foreword, his brother Bobby said that one of the President's favorite quotes was from Dante: 'The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great crisis, maintain their neutrality.' And when I read that, I said, 'Oh jeez, I'm headed for the hottest place in Hell, unless I say something.'"



Political theorist Benjamin Barber: "We can't buy the line that government is our enemy and the market is our friend... Government is us. Government is our institutions. Government is how we make social and public choices working together to forge common ground... We've got to retrieve our citizenship."



Civil rights advocate and litigator Michelle Alexander: "Much of the data indicates that African Americans today, as a group, are not much better off than they were back in 1968 when Martin Luther King delivered 'The Other America' speech, talking about how there are two Americas in the United States... These two Americas still exist today. The existence of Barack Obama and people of color scattered in position of power and high places creates an illusion of much more progress than has actually been made in recent years."



Poet W.S. Merwin: "The most valuable things in our lives come out of what we don't know. And that's a process that we never understand. I think poetry always comes out of what you don't know. Now, I tell students, knowledge is very important. Learn languages. Read history. Read, listen -- above all, listen to everybody. Listen to everything that you hear. Every sound in the street. Every dog and every bird and everything that you hear. But know that while all of your knowledge is important, there is something you will never know. It's who you are."



This is an eclectic and lively, even cacophonous, compendium of voices with a lot to say, much of it stimulating and provocative. Many of the contributors to Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues are alarmed at the state of the union and the powerful forces of wealth and venality that actively seek the destruction of what little is left of our representative democracy. But something the historian Howard Zinn says in the book also resonates throughout: "The idea of people involved in history, people actually making history, people agitating and demonstrating, pushing the leaders of the country into change in a way that leaders themselves are not likely to initiate... Don't depend on our leaders to do what needs to be done, because whenever the government has done anything to bring about change, it's done so only because it's been pushed and prodded by social movements, by ordinary people organizing."



But don't take my word for it. Read the book.



Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, was the senior writer for Bill Moyers Journal







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Published on May 25, 2011 05:30 • 17 views

May 19, 2011

(Photo by Robin Holland)



Below is an article by Michael Winship.



The Importance of Being Tony Kushner

By Michael Winship



Coincidence combined with foresight on the part of my girlfriend Pat -- she bought the tickets months ago -- landed us at a performance of Tony Kushner's new play just days after the executive committee of the City University of New York's (CUNY) board of trustees held an emergency meeting and scrambled to reverse an earlier board decision to table an honorary degree for Kushner.



The resulting serendipity was an affirmation of free speech and of the rightful place of outspoken, often radical thought in an open society, whether you agree with it or not. Tell me that's not worth the price of admission.



Kushner, author of the epic Angels in America and other extraordinary work, initially was denied the degree after objections from CUNY trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, who attacked Kushner as unfairly critical of Israel. He pointed in particular to a statement the playwright reportedly made to an Israeli journalist, one which Wiesenfeld pulled secondhand off the website of controversial political scientist Norman Finkelstein: "Israel was founded in a program that if you really want to be blunt about it was ethnic cleansing and that today is behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people. I have never been a Zionist," Kushner was said to have continued. "I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state, it would be better if it never had happened."



This is not the first time Mr. Wiesenfeld has made waves at CUNY. As the May 11 New York Times reported, "In 2001, he called participation in an October 'teach-in' sponsored by the union [CUNY's Professional Staff Congress] about the 9/11 attacks 'seditious.' In 2006, he blasted a book that Baruch College had chosen for its freshman reading, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, calling it 'deeply offensive' and 'anti-Semitic.'" In an interview with the Times' Jim Dwyer following CUNY's initial rejection of Kushner's degree, Wiesenfeld characterized Palestinians as "people who worship death for their children... not human."


Tony Kushner pushed back hard. In an open letter to the CUNY trustees, he described Wiesenfeld's charges as "a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I've given, the mention of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever, and the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr. Wiesenfeld strongly disagrees."



He continued, "My opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel's right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr. Wiesenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks."



But, Kushner added, "I believe that the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the state of Israel was ethnic cleansing, a conclusion I reached mainly by reading the work of Benny Morris, an acclaimed and conservative Israeli historian whose political opinions are much more in accord with Mr. Wiesenfeld's than with mine; Mr. Morris differs from Mr. Wiesenfeld in bringing to his examination of history a scholar's rigor, integrity, seriousness of purpose and commitment to telling the truth."



(Kushner's entire letter is worth reading. You can see it at: http://www.thenation.com/sites/default/files/user/20/54643560-Letter-to-CUNY-Trustees-05-04-11.pdf. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld's statement to the CUNY trustees can be found at: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/transcript-of-cuny-trustees-speech-on-kushner-award.)



To put it mildly, Tony Kushner has a lot on his mind and he expresses it at length in his work, often brilliantly. His new play at New York's Public Theater is a rowdy, rambling, funny and heartbreaking tale that tackles nothing less than a dissection of the intellectual history of the last century; a deft analysis of the left, organized labor and sexual politics -- told through the story of a dysfunctional family in a Brooklyn brownstone whose patriarch is contemplating suicide. Whew.



The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures
(or iHo, as Kushner has dubbed it) is a nod to George Bernard Shaw's "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism" and the writings of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Both are referenced in the almost four-hour piece, as are Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Garibaldi, Chekhov, Angela Davis, Pete Seeger, New York's nearly forgotten, socialist Congressman Vito Marcantonio... and Yoda.



This is a play filled with ideas and insights, fiercely entertaining and beautifully acted, its dialogue sometimes so fast-paced and overlapping, a Robert Altman movie seems dozy by comparison. As John Lahr wrote in his New Yorker review, "Out of this bubbling mélange comes an unexpectedly powerful and bittersweet taste of our post-imperial moment; the fractious household can be read as a metaphor for America, its characters perilously poised between remembering and forgetting, between community and atomization."



Kushner's is an important, moral and empathetic voice in a time when such powers of perception and eloquence are rare. And while you may differ with him, there's not a thing he has argued that isn't debated in the Israeli media virtually every day; far more openly, in fact, than here at home.



Anyone who would attack the depth of commitment to his Jewish faith must be unaware of the entire body of his work, including not only Angels in America but also his adaptation of A Dybbuk, his children's book Brundibar, even his script for the Steven Spielberg motion picture Munich, co-written with Eric Roth, a brooding reflection on violence and the ambiguity of evil that tells the story of the assassination team sent to kill those believed responsible for planning the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.



"I decided long ago that my job as a playwright is to try to speak and write honestly about what I believe to be true," Kushner wrote the CUNY trustees. "I am interested in history and politics, and long ago I realized that people uninterested in a meaningful exchange of opinion and ideas would selectively appropriate my words to suit their purposes. It's been my experience that truth eventually triumphs over soundbites, spin and defamation, and that reason, honest inquiry, and courage, which are more appealing and more persuasive than demagoguery, will carry the day."



The death of faith and the corruption of ideals are major themes in Kushner's new play. In their initial rush to judgment, the CUNY board abandoned faith in the fundamental principle of free speech and at first allowed themselves to be corrupted by a cowardly expedience. It was, as CUNY chair Benno Schmidt said, "a mistake of principle and not merely of policy."



Now, on June 3, Tony Kushner will receive his degree. Briefly, the day has indeed been carried and the bullies held at bay. Until the next time. Stay tuned.





Michael Winship is a senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

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Published on May 19, 2011 12:37 • 36 views

May 10, 2011

(Photo by Robin Holland)



Below is an article by Michael Winship.



Forget the Rich: Tax the Poor and Middle Class!

By Michael Winship





Nothing is certain but death and taxes, it used to be said, but in the madcap times we live in, even they're up for grabs.



No matter what proof the White House provides that Osama bin Laden indeed has had his bucket kicked -- and at this point even al Qaeda admits he's dead -- there still will be uncertainty. Whether they ever release those damned photos or not, a lunatic few will continue to insist that Osama's alive and well and running a Papa John's Pizza in Marrakesh.



As for taxes, having to pay them is no longer a sure thing either, especially if you're a corporate giant like General Electric, with a thousand employees in its tax department, skilled in creative accounting. You'll recall recent reports that although GE made profits last year of $5.1 billion in the United States and $14.2 billion worldwide they would pay not a penny of federal income tax. Chalk it up to billions of dollar of losses at GE Capital during the financial meltdown and a government tax break that allows companies to avoid paying US taxes on profits made overseas while "actively financing" different kinds of deals.



It gets worse. In 2009, Exxon-Mobil didn't pay any taxes either, and last year, they had worldwide profits of $30.46 billion. Neither did Bank of America or Chevron or Boeing. According to a report last week from the office of the New York City Public Advocate, in 2009, the five companies, including GE, received a total of $3.7 billion in federal tax benefits.


As The New York Times' David Kocieniewski reported in March, "Although the top corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, one of the highest in the world, companies have been increasingly using a maze of shelters, tax credits and subsidies to pay far less... Such strategies, as well as changes in tax laws that encouraged some businesses and professionals to file as individuals, have pushed down the corporate share of the nation's tax receipts -- from 30 percent of all federal revenue in the mid-1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009."



What's greasing the wheels for these advantages is, hold on to your hats, cash. Over the last decade, according to the NYC public advocate's report, those same five companies -- GE, Exxon-Mobil, Bank of America, Chevron and Boeing -- gave more than $43.1 million to political campaigns. During the 2009-2010 election cycle, the five spent a combined $7.86 million in campaign contributions, a 7 percent jump over their 2007-2008 political spending.



"These tax breaks were put in place to promote growth and create jobs, not bankroll the political causes of corporate executives," Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said. "... No company that can afford to spend millions of dollars to influence our elections should be pleading poverty come tax time."



And by the way, those campaign cash figures don't even include all the money those companies funneled into the 2010 campaigns via trade associations and tax-exempt non-profits. Thanks to the Supreme Court Citizens United decision, we don't know the numbers because, as per the court, the corporate biggies don't have to tell us. Imagine them sticking out their tongues and wiggling their fingers in their ears and you have a pretty good idea of their official position on this.



Meanwhile, last week Republicans like Utah's Orrin Hatch, ranking member of the US Senate Finance Committee, grabbed hold of an analysis by Congress' nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation and wrestled it to the ground. The brief memorandum reported that in the 2009 tax year 51 percent of all American taxpayers had zero tax liability or received a refund. So why, the Republicans asked, are Democrats and others so mean, asking corporations and the rich to pay higher taxes when lots of other people -- especially the poor and middle class -- don't pay taxes either?



Hatch told MSNBC, "Bastiat, the great economist of the past, said the place where you've got to get revenues has to come from the middle class. That's the huge number of people that are there. So the system does need to be revamped... We have an unbalanced tax code that we've got to change."



All of which flies in the face of reality. As Travis Waldron of the progressive ThinkProgress website explained, "The majority of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes don't make enough money to qualify for even the lowest tax bracket, a problem made worse by the economic recession. That includes retired Americans, who don't pay income taxes because they earn very little income, if they earn any at all.



"And while many low-income Americans don't pay income taxes, they do pay taxes. Because of payroll and sales taxes -- a large proportion of which are paid by low- and middle-income Americans -- less than a quarter of the nation's households don't contribute to federal tax receipts -- and the majority of the non-contributors are students, the elderly, or the unemployed."



What's more, ThinkProgress notes, "The top 400 taxpayers -- who have more wealth than half of all Americans combined -- are paying lower taxes than they have in a generation, as their tax responsibilities have slowly collapsed since the New Deal era." In the meantime, "working families have been asked to pay more and more."



So maybe death and taxes are no longer certain, but one thing remains as immutable as the hills. In the words of another golden oldie, there's nothing surer -- the rich get rich and the poor get poorer.



Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is the former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

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Published on May 10, 2011 20:41 • 26 views

May 4, 2011

(Photo by Robin Holland)



Below is an article by Michael Winship.



Obama/Osama Trump William, Kate -- and Trump

By Michael Winship





This has been the kind of week that makes news junkies wig out in a frenzy of adrenalin and information overload while driving to distraction people who try to write weekly pieces like this one.



Just when you think you've got a topic nailed down and sit down at the keyboard to sweat it out -- bam! -- along comes another headline that diverts your attention and dropkicks all your plans out the window.



One thought had been to go the semi-frivolous route and write something about the Royal Wedding -- all that costly pomp and circumstance signifying nothing, the anachronistic irrelevance of monarchy in a 21st century democracy -- or maybe my search for the hollow tree where elves make those Whoville hats worn by some of the guests.



I might even have confessed that my former wife and I, married the same summer as Prince Charles and Princess Diana, spent part of our London honeymoon standing in line to see their wedding gifts on display at St. James Palace, an array of conspicuous consumption that ranged from priceless china, crystal and silver to a Megamix food processor, two hand-knit ski caps and an assortment of tea cozies.


But then there was the president's release of his "long-form" birth certificate, confronting those who insist he was born in Africa and confirming what most of us have suspected all along. Dear God, he's an American!



While to some a Honolulu hospital may seem as foreign and faraway as the moons of Jupiter -- remember, this remains a country where less than a third of the population has a passport -- Hawaii is indeed one of these United States, even if they do sell exotic delicacies like Spam with rice and eggs at the local McDonald's.



In fact, as reported by The New York Times, Hawaiians consume more Spam than any other Americans, a habit that dates back to World War II. If I were to write a whole piece about this I'd note that there are more varieties of Spam sold in Hawaii than anywhere else, including Spam Garlic, Spam Bacon, Spam with Cheese, Spam with Tabasco, Spam Turkey and Spam Lite (Monty Python fans: insert gratuitous Spam joke here).



But I digress. You have to observe with some bemusement that not so long ago, there were Republicans campaigning for a change in the Constitution that instead of denying access would have allowed foreign-born citizens -- Henry Kissinger or Arnold Schwarzenegger, to be precise -- to become president. But of course, those two are white Europeans (and it's a little known fact that Kissinger, like Arnold, has won the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding title an incredible seven times).



I'm guessing that none of those same Republicans would have challenged whether Henry K. had grades good enough to get into Harvard, where he received his BA, MA and Ph.D. Which brings us to Donald Trump, who not only embraced the racism of the birther movement but also sought to rouse the prejudices of affirmative action haters by demanding to see Obama's academic records, implying that the president did not have the grades for Columbia and Harvard Law School but was admitted solely because of his skin color. ("I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard? ...I have friends who have smart sons with great marks, great boards, great everything and they can't get into Harvard.")



All of this was ample fodder for a column, too, but President Obama and Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers so deftly and surgically skewered Trump at Saturday night's White House Correspondents' Dinner that a piece devoted to the Trumpster suddenly seemed superfluous. Meyers especially lobbed zinger after zinger while The Donald silently sat there at The Washington Post's table as grumpy-looking as Sam the Eagle on the old Muppets show. (Ever the class act, Trump told Fox News afterwards that Meyer's delivery "frankly was not good. He's a stutterer...")



By Monday, though, Trump was suggesting a moratorium of several days on "debating party politics," using a call for patriotism as a diversion, diving for cover behind the successful killing of Osama bin Laden, memories of 9/11 and the women and men of the military -- trying to avoid for a while at least the media attention he usually covets. Suddenly, comparisons are odious, especially to one whose vitriol and bullying, "You're fired!" management style stack up so unfavorably when held up against what White House counterterrorism advisor Jack Brennan described as "one of the most gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory."



For in the end, the story of the week was those Navy SEALS on the ground in Pakistan whose forty-minute firefight eliminated the man who epitomized the horror of worldwide terrorism. In the weeks and months to come, whether his death changes anything, whether it shortens war or makes America safer or eases the anti-Islam xenophobia that so diminishes us - that will be something to write about.





Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is the former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

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Published on May 04, 2011 15:47 • 45 views

April 24, 2011

(Photo by Robin Holland)



Below is an article by Michael Winship.



Congress: Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks

By Michael Winship



Remember that scene in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" when Jimmy Stewart arrives in the capital for the first time? The freshman senator shakes off his handlers in Union Station and jumps onto a sightseeing bus, eager to see all the statues and monuments honoring the greats of American history.



"I don't think I've ever been so thrilled in my life," he says afterwards. "And that Lincoln Memorial -- gee whiz! Mr. Lincoln, there he is. Just looking straight at you as you come up those steps. Just sitting there like he was waiting for somebody to come along."



For all their talk of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and core principles, you'd have thought that the current freshman class of Congress, the sprouted seed of Tea Partiers and the 2010 midterms, would have made a similar tour their first priority on arrival. And for all I know, many of them did just that. But for some, the siren song of cash and influence has proven stronger, already luring them onto the rocks of privilege and corruption that lurk just inside the Beltway. They've made a beeline not for the hallowed shrines of patriots' pride but the elegant suites of K Street lobbyists, where the closest its residents have been to Lincoln is the bearded face peering from the five-dollar bill -- chump change.


So much for fiercely resisting the wicked, wicked ways of Washington. These new members were seduced faster than Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate."



In an April 2 editorial, The New York Times reported, "Since last year's Republican victories, nearly 100 lawmakers have hired former lobbyists as their chiefs of staff or legislative directors, according to data compiled by two watchdog groups, the Center for Responsive Politics and Remapping Debate. That is more than twice as many as in the previous two years.



"In that same period, 40 lobbyists have been hired as staff members of Congressional committees and subcommittees, the boiler rooms where legislation is drafted. That again dwarfs the number from the previous two years. While some of those lobbyist-staffers were hired by Democrats, the vast majority are working for Republicans... In many cases, those hiring lobbyists were Tea Party candidates who vowed to end business as usual in Washington."



The revolving door between government and lobbyists has never spun faster. Then there's this, from Wednesday's Washington Post: "Many of the Republican freshmen in the House won election vowing to shake up Washington, so it's a little surprising that many of them seem to be playing an old Washington game: raising much of their campaign money from corporate political action committees.



"More than 50 members of the class of 87 GOP freshmen took in more than $50,000 from PACs during the first quarter of 2011, according to new campaign disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Eighteen of the lawmakers took in more than $100,000."



For example, freshman star Kristi Noem of South Dakota - one of the two newbies anointed as liaison to the Republican House leadership - raised $169,000 in PAC money, including cash from General Electric, Boeing, Raytheon, Wells Fargo, Fedex, AFLAC, Altria (the parent company of Philip Morris and Kraft Foods) and pharmaceutical giants Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline.



According to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, Rep. Noem, who pledged to voters not to make Washington her home, held at least 10 fundraisers in DC during that first quarter, her first months as a member of Congress. They included two dinners at the Capital Grille, at which attendees donated between $1500 and $2000 apiece, and lunch at We, the Pizza on Pennsylvania Avenue.



A CQ MoneyLine study reports that during the first three months of the year the 87 Republican freshmen pulled in a total of $14.7 million from individuals as well as PACs. Leading the crowd was Diane Black of Tennessee with $926,000, but more than two-thirds of it was her own money. In second place was West Virginia's David B. McKinley, with $540,000.



Rep. McKinley was one of nine new GOP members spotlighted this week by the website Politico as members who have done things "the Washington way, using a legislative process they once railed against to try to assist donors, protect favored industries or settle scores with their political enemies."



Three weeks after his swearing in, McKinley introduced a bill to overturn an Environmental Protection Agency ruling that vetoed an Army Corps of Engineers water permit for mountaintop mining, the practice that blasts the tops off mountains and sends debris raining down on communities, streams and rivers. The bill has ramifications for the entire mining industry, but the specific mine in question is owned by Arch Coal. Its PAC contributed $2500 to McKinley's 2010 election campaign and another thousand so far this year.



The mining industry was McKinley's largest corporate campaign contributor -- $51,751. And a month after he took office, Politico reported, he introduced another bill "that would block a proposed EPA regulation against coal-ash bricks and drywall, materials architectural and engineering firms -- such as one founded by McKinley -- routinely recommend in construction project bids."



Others cited by the Politico investigation include freshmen Bill Johnson of Ohio and Morgan Griffith of Virginia. They, too, have been going to bat for mine executives. The mining sector was Johnson's biggest corporate donor at $25,146; same with Griffith, who received $40,450.



Texas freshman Bill Flores has been going after the Interior Department's procedures for offshore oil drilling permits, trying get the department to impose tighter deadlines and pay back billions in leasing rights to oil companies whose permits are denied. He's the former president and CEO of an exploratory oil firm. Its employees were his second largest campaign contributor and the oil and gas industry threw in more than $200,000.



In rebuttal, the office of each congressman has generated the appropriate, high-minded spin. "West Virginia is coal, and coal is West Virginia," said McKinley's spokeswoman. "He's doing what he said he would -- fighting tooth and nail to stop the EPA's war on coal..." Rep. Flores told Politico, "This is an issue that is very important to me as I have been involved in finding solutions to America's long-term energy independence for the last thirty years."



And so it goes. At this rate, if the Abraham Lincoln so venerated by the idealistic Mr. Smith is still at his memorial hoping for someone to come along, someone with integrity and dedication to the people and not the almighty dollar, he's going to have a long wait.



The new dogs have learned the old tricks of Capitol Hill with remarkable speed, and their big business masters, armed with their Supreme Court-sanctioned ability to throw bottomless bags of money around, have more control of the leash than ever.



Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

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Published on April 24, 2011 19:16 • 44 views

April 17, 2011

(Photo by Robin Holland)



Below is an article by Michael Winship.



Harry Potter and the Network of Neutrality

By Michael Winship



Who knew Harry Potter's magic powers were for real? Okay, excuse my Muggle-like ignorance, but I didn't believe it until I attended a session at the recent National Conference on Media Reform in Boston, organized by the non-profit organization Free Press. This particular panel was headlined "Pop Culture Warriors: How Online Fan Communities Are Organizing to Save the World."



The Harry Potter Alliance is a group of devotees worldwide who have hocus-pocused their shared love of the Potter books and movies into genuine social activism. As their website declares, they use the power of the Internet to "work with partner NGOs [non-profit, non-governmental organizations] in alerting the world to the dangers of global warming, poverty, and genocide. Work with our partners for equal rights regardless of race, gender, and sexuality. Encourage our members to hone the magic of their creativity in endeavoring to make the world a better place."


The Alliance mobilized its fanbase to win a $250,000 grant from Chase Community Giving, beating out more than 10,000 other charities in a Facebook competition. They've donated more than 55,000 books to school libraries around the world, including the Mississippi Delta and Rwanda, and are helping to build a school library in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Five planeloads of supplies were sent to Haiti after last year's earthquake. They've registered first-time voters and even petitioned Time Warner to make Harry Potter chocolates Fair Trade: that is, chocolate not made -- or cocoa beans harvested -- under inhumane conditions, such as starvation wages or child slavery.



All of these efforts have been endorsed by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling herself, who once upon a time worked in the London offices of Amnesty International and told Time magazine, "It's incredible, it's humbling, and it's uplifting to see people going out there and doing that in the name of your character... What did my books preach against throughout? Bigotry, violence, struggles for power, no matter what... So they really couldn't have chosen a better cause."



The Harry Potter Alliance was represented on the Media Reform panel by its creator and co-founder Andrew Slack (it was moderated by my colleague Elana Levin, communications director of the Writers Guild, East). Others discussed how online communities have affected off-line change through petitions, contests, fundraising drives, even video games that entertain while informing players on matters of public policy. Sounds deadly but it doesn't have to be, as demonstrated by the human rights media organization Breakthrough's new Facebook game, "America 2049," in which participants become agents for a fictional Council on American Heritage, hunting down alleged terrorists.



Erik Martin, of the wildly popular, social-voting news website Reddit, told the now infamous and hilarious story of how a Greenpeace campaign to name a humpback whale in the South Pacific was hijacked by an IP address in Arizona that found its way around the contest's rule of one vote per person and began generating thousands of tallies for the name "Mr. Splashypants."



Horrified, Greenpeace at first tried to remove the extra votes, hoping the winner would be something more politically correct and delicate, like "Aiko," the Japanese word for "Love" or ""Shanti," Sanskrit for "Peace." But when Reddit and other websites embraced the rogue candidate, the environmental organization gave in. "Mr. Splashypants" won with more than 78 percent of the vote and all the publicity generated unexpectedly gave Greenpeace sufficient leverage to help convince the Japanese Fisheries Agency to suspend -- temporarily, at least -- that nation' slaughter of humpbacks.



None of these efforts would have been possible without a thriving networked culture and a free and open Internet. But it's not for nothing that while the National Conference on Media Reform was just getting underway in Boston, the Republican House of Representatives, in the midst of all the government shutdown melodrama, voted 240-179 (six Democrats voted with the GOP) to nullify the FCC's net neutrality rules protecting access to the Internet. As USA Today columnist Rhonda Abrams wrote on Friday, "It was a pure 'David versus Goliath' bill, and the House voted to protect Goliath."



Granted, the FCC rules as currently written are nowhere near as protective of the public's right to free speech and Internet access as they should be. In many ways they're a second-rate compromise, especially in their exemptions for mobile broadband carriers, but as Abrams notes, at least for now they require Internet companies - the telecom and cable companies - to treat all Internet traffic the same. "Of course, they can charge more for greater usage, but they can't prioritize some customers, creating fast lanes and slow lanes," she writes. "Because the Internet was -- and currently still is -- an open and equal playing field, scrappy startups like Google, Facebook, Twitter and tens of thousands more - could flourish...



"Without net neutrality, telecommunication and cable companies can tilt the playing field. And it won't be in small businesses and start-ups favor." Or yours as a private citizen, especially when companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are pouring millions and millions into lobbying and campaign contributions.



The House bill probably won't get past the Senate and President Obama has said he would veto it but all of us have to mobilize and stay on our toes if we're to continue to have the Internet as a potent pop culture force for social change. Otherwise it's going to be a lot harder to save the whales - including Mr. Splashypants.



Would that Harry Potter could thrust his wand and holler "Petrificus Totalus," immobilizing those who would see the Internet taken over by corporate greed and censorship. This time, the magic is going to have to come from us.



Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is the former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

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Published on April 17, 2011 14:16 • 41 views

March 18, 2011

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship



Like Jake LaMotta and his brother Joey in the bloody boxing classic Raging Bull, we are gluttons for punishment. So here we are again, third week in a row, defending NPR against the bare-knuckled assault of its critics.



Our earlier pieces on the funding threat to NPR have generated plenty of punches, both pro and con. And although most of the comments were welcome, and encouraged further thinking about the value of public media in a democratic society, a few reminded us of the words of the poet and scholar James Merrick: "So high at last the contest rose/From words they almost came to blows!"



Nonetheless, reading those comments and criticisms made us realize there are a couple of points that these two wizened veterans of public broadcasting -- with the multiple tote bags and coffee mugs to prove it -- would like to clarify.


For one, when we described the right wing media machine as NPR's "long-time nemesis," it was not to suggest that somehow public radio is its left wing opposite. When it comes to covering and analyzing the news, the reverse of right isn't left; it's independent reporting that toes neither party nor ideological line. We've heard no NPR reporter -- not a one -- advocating on the air for more government spending (or less), for the right of abortion (or against it), for or against gay marriage, or for or against either political party, especially compared to what we hear from Fox News and talk radio on all of these issues and more.



Take, for example, talk jocks John and Ken on KFI-AM Radio in Los Angeles. They beat on California's state legislature like a cheap pinata. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Within a matter of moments, they refer to various lawmakers as 'traitorous pigs,' 'con artist' and 'Republican dirt bag.' They use gruesome sound effects to suggest the mounting of one legislator's head on a stake -- his entry into the duo's hall of shame."



The personalities, "whose frequent targets are taxes, labor unions and illegal immigrants, not only reach more listeners than any other non-syndicated talk show in California but also have the ear -- and fear -- of Sacramento's minority party.



"'There is nary a conversation about the budget that does not involve the names John and Ken,' said Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the state Senate leader." And that's true whether what they say is grounded in fact or simply made up wholesale out of flimsy, opinionated cloth.



So what do conservatives really mean when they accuse NPR of being "liberal?" They mean it's not accountable to their worldview as conservatives and partisans. They mean it reflects too great a regard for evidence and is too open to reporting different points of views of the same event or idea or issue. Reporting that by its very fact-driven nature often fails to confirm their ideological underpinnings, their way of seeing things (which is why some liberals and Democrats also become irate with NPR).



That's why our favorite new word is "agnotology." According to the website WordSpy, it means "the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt," a concept developed in recent years by two historians of science at Stanford University, Robert Proctor and his wife, Londa Schiebinger.



Believing that global climate change is a myth is one example of the kind of ignorance agnotologists investigate. Or the insistence by the tobacco industry that the harm caused by smoking is still in dispute. Or the conviction that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim, and a radical one at that, who may not even be from America.



Those first two illusions have been induced by big business in a cynical attempt to keep pumping profits from deadly pollutants, whether fossil fuels or nicotine. The third, dreamed up by fantasists of the right wing fringe, is in its own way just as toxic and has been tacitly, sometimes audibly, encouraged by certain opponents of President Obama who would perpetuate any prevarication to further blockade his agenda and deny him and fellow Democrats reelection.



None of them is true; rather, they fly in the face of those of us who belong to what an aide to George W. Bush famously called "the reality-based community [who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'" He told journalist Ron Suskind, ''That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."



To the accusers of NPR, the created reality of however they define "liberal" is not the same as what they mean when they call themselves "conservative." If it were, the two would be exact reverse images of each other. Where media are concerned, all you have to do to know this is not the case is to hold them up, side-by-side. If "liberal" were the counterpoint to "conservative," NPR would be the mirror of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and James O'Keefe, including the use of their techniques as well as content. Clearly it isn't.



To charge otherwise is a phony gambit aimed at nothing less than quashing the public's access to non-ideological journalism, narrowing viewpoints to all but one. We know from first-hand experience that any journalist whose reporting threatens the conservative belief system gets sliced and diced by its apologists and polemicists at Fox and on talk radio.



Remember, for one, when Limbaugh, took journalists to task for their reporting on torture at Abu Ghraib? He attempted to dismiss the cruelty inflicted by American soldiers on their captives as a little necessary "sport" for soldiers under stress, saying: "This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation... you [ever] heard of the need to blow some steam off?"



The Limbaugh line became a drumbeat in the nether reaches of the right-wing echo chamber. So it was not surprising that in a nationwide survey conducted by the Chicago Tribune on First Amendment issues, half of the respondents said there should be some kind of press restraint on reporting prison abuse. Half or more said they "would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, particularly when it has sexual content or is heard as unpatriotic." Many of those people came after NPR for reporting what actually happened at Abu Ghraib.



But to clear up one other thing: what NPR also isn't, is what it could be. In our support for its much-needed survival, admittedly we may have been a bit fulsome in our praise. Like many commentators who posted after our previous two pieces, as regular listeners we know there is room for improvement, the need for more diverse voices and for more courageous journalism that reports not merely what the powerful say but what they actually do for their paymasters.



Americans need more and sustained reporting on what the journalist William Greider calls "the hard questions of governance" -- those questions of how and why some interests are allowed to dominate the government's decision making while others are excluded. Who gets the money and who has to pay? Who must be heard on this question and who can be safely ignored? None execute this kind of reporting better than Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez's on Democracy Now, which, while carried by some public radio and television stations, is not distributed nationally by either NPR or PBS. Public media - radio and television - too rarely challenge the dictum: "News is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity."



Yet in the words of Confucius, better a diamond with a flaw -- a big flaw -- than a pebble without. For all that it provides -- but mainly because it is a true journalistic, rather than ideological, alternative to commercial and partisan broadcasting -- we continue to support government funding of public media until such time as a sizable trust or some other solid, independent source of funding, unfettered by political interference, can be established that will free us to tell the stories America most needs to hear. Short of that we'll need the courage, as one of our journalistic heroes, the late George Seldes, wrote, "to tell the truth and run."





Bill Moyers is a veteran broadcast journalist and managing editor of Public Affairs Television. Michael Winship, former senior writer of Public Affairs Television, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.


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Published on March 18, 2011 23:33 • 35 views

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship



There's no more scrupulous or versatile broadcast journalist than NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. He is one of those reporters who keeps his eye on the sparrow - that is, on small details from individual lives that add up to significant issues of public policy. As he described in a special report this week how the United States Army is clarifying guidelines "that should make it easier for soldiers with traumatic brain injuries from explosions to receive the Purple Heart," it was mind-boggling to think that right wingers in Congress were at that very moment voting to eliminate the modest federal funds that make such essential and authoritative reporting available to anyone in America who cares to tune in.



Zwerdling's collaborator on this report was ProPublica (the non-profit and equally independent newsroom that won the Pulitzer Prize last year for a harrowing account of deadly choices made by a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina). As a result of their reporting, the Army now intends to give special priority to reexamining the cases of soldiers who suffered battlefield concussions but who mistakenly may have been turned down for the Purple Heart, which historically has been awarded to soldiers injured by enemy action.



You may not think this such a big deal, but the symbolism of the announcement is potent. And it's part of a larger, ongoing investigation conducted by Zwerdling and ProPublica's T. Christian Miller into the military's widespread failure to diagnose and treat traumatic brain injuries, the "signature injury" among troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as they fall to roadside bombs and other explosives.


"NPR: The Saga Continues," Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, March 18





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NPR: The Saga Continues



Bill Moyers and Michael Winship



There's no more scrupulous or versatile broadcast journalist than NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. He is one of those reporters who keeps his eye on the sparrow - that is, on small details from individual lives that add up to significant issues of public policy. As he described in a special report this week how the United States Army is clarifying guidelines "that should make it easier for soldiers with traumatic brain injuries from explosions to receive the Purple Heart," it was mind-boggling to think that right wingers in Congress were at that very moment voting to eliminate the modest federal funds that make such essential and authoritative reporting available to anyone in America who cares to tune in.



Zwerdling's collaborator on this report was ProPublica (the non-profit and equally independent newsroom that won the Pulitzer Prize last year for a harrowing account of deadly choices made by a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina). As a result of their reporting, the Army now intends to give special priority to reexamining the cases of soldiers who suffered battlefield concussions but who mistakenly may have been turned down for the Purple Heart, which historically has been awarded to soldiers injured by enemy action.



You may not think this such a big deal, but the symbolism of the announcement is potent. And it's part of a larger, ongoing investigation conducted by Zwerdling and ProPublica's T. Christian Miller into the military's widespread failure to diagnose and treat traumatic brain injuries, the "signature injury" among troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as they fall to roadside bombs and other explosives.



It's also typical of the comprehensive and essential journalism that has been a hallmark of NPR since its creation in 1970. Once upon a time, in the early glory days of radio, corporate media took on the challenge of providing Americans with the kind of information critical to citizenship. No longer. Conglomerates long ago bought up the country's commercial radio stations, closed down the news departments, and auctioned off the airtime to partisan polemicists or pre-packaged content devoid of journalism. Serious news on radio -- "the news we need to keep our freedoms," as the historian and journalist Richard Reeves once put it - has become the province of NPR (Full disclosure: We two have spent most of the last forty years toiling in the vineyards of public broadcasting, although never for NPR.)



Take Zwerdling's investigations as just one example: Over the years, he has sorted out the complexities and secrets of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster and the warnings that preceded it, dangers posed to humans by the plant pesticide Chlordane (it eventually was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency) and the failures of the Corps of Engineers to maintain safely the dikes and dams around New Orleans -- among many other stories. Multiply his efforts by those of all the modestly-paid but dedicated journalists at NPR and you have a forty year history that has given listeners a deeper and richer portrait of America and the world than any other broadcast news organization in the country -- with or without offense, as Byron said, to friend or foe.



In just the last few weeks, NPR has provided unique coverage of the job crisis in the United States, upheavals in the Middle East, and anxiety over the safety of nuclear power in the wake of the Japanese earthquake - as a matter of fact, many of the issues the House of Representatives should have been debating instead of posturing and pandering to its rightward political base.



Hear Steve Benen of Washington Monthly on the House Judiciary Committee's vote the other day reaffirming "In God We Trust" as our national motto: "For months the new House Republican majority has wasted time on health care bills they know they can't pass, abortion bills they know they can't pass, climate bills they know they can't pass, and budget bills they know they can't pass. They've invested considerable time and energy on defending the Defense of Marriage Act, recklessly accusing Muslim Americans of disloyalty, going after NPR, and pushing culture-war bills related to vouchers, English as the 'official' language, and now 'In God We Trust.'"



And yes, on Thursday, following a number of missteps by NPR executives, including what has now been indisputably exposed as a disingenuous and dishonestly-edited video by a disreputable right-wing smear artist of the network's chief fundraiser expressing some personal opinions, the House passed a bill cutting off government funding for NPR - all of this part of the "vanity project," as Benen calls it, that House Republicans have been running in order to feed red meat to Fox News and the partisan talk radio hosts who have turned the public airwaves -- remember, the airwaves above our fair and bountiful land belong to you, Mr. and Mrs. and Ms. America - into a right-wing romper room.



Opposing the bill to strip public radio of funding, Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas said, "My constituents turn to [public radio] because they want fact-based, not Fox-based coverage." The attacks, he continued, are "an ideological crusade against balanced news and educational programs."



And even Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss told an interviewer, "You know, an awful lot of conservatives listen to NPR. It provides a very valuable service. Should we maybe think about a reduction in that? Again, I think the sacrifice is going to have to be shared by NPR as well as others. But I think total elimination of funding is probably not the wisest thing to do."



Good for you, Senator. Because without public radio, the reactionaries among us will hold a monopoly on the airwaves.



And while we're on the subject of wise things, let's not forget public radio's other programming: the arts and entertainment coverage that plays its own distinctive role trying to keep our democracy spirited, diverse and imaginative. Think Garrison Keillor. Krista Tippett. Ira Glass. Think "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" "Car Talk" (yes, many of us are would-be grease monkeys). "On the Media" (the single best analysis and critique of media anywhere). And -- well, consult your local listings.



We're talking here about something essential to American life. President Kennedy touched on it in a speech at Amherst College less than a month before his assassination in 1963. Speaking in honor of the poet Robert Frost, who had recently died, the President's words were directed to the role of artists but can also embrace the importance of a public media whose obligation is not to a political or corporate paymaster but to the integrity of the work and the trust of the listener:



"The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state," Kennedy said. "... In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having 'nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.'"





Bill Moyers is a veteran broadcast journalist and managing editor of Public Affairs Television. Michael Winship, former senior writer of Public Affairs Television, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.







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Published on March 18, 2011 23:33 • 33 views

March 11, 2011

Come on now: Let's take a breath and put this NPR fracas into perspective.



Just as public radio struggles against yet another assault from the its long-time nemesis -- the right-wing machine that would thrill if our sole sources of information were Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and ads paid for by the Koch Brothers -- it walks into a trap perpetrated by one of the sleaziest operatives ever to climb out of a sewer.



First, in the interest of full disclosure: While not presently committing journalism on public television, the two of us have been colleagues on PBS for almost 40 years (although never for NPR). We've lived through every one of the fierce and often unscrupulous efforts by the right to shut down both public television and radio. Our work has sometimes been the explicit bull's eye on the dartboard, as conservative ideologues sought to extinguish the independent reporting and analysis they find so threatening to their phobic worldview.



We have come to believe, as so many others have, that only the creation of a substantial trust fund for public media will free it from the whims and biases of the politicians, including Democratic politicians (yes, after one of our documentaries tracking President Clinton's scandalous fund-raising in the mid-90s, the knives were sharpened on the other side of the aisle.)


Richard Nixon was the first who tried to shut down public broadcasting, strangling and diverting funding, attacking alleged bias and even placing public broadcasters Sander Vanocur and Robert MacNeil on his legendary enemies list.Nixon didn't succeed, and ironically his downfall was brought about, in part, by public television's nighttime rebroadcasts of the Senate Watergate hearings, exposing his crimes and misdemeanors to a wider, primetime audience.



Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich tried to gut public broadcasting, too, and the George W. Bush White House planted partisan operatives at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in an attempt to challenge journalists who didn't hew to the party line.



But what's happening now is the worst yet. Just as Republicans again clamor for the elimination of government funding and public broadcasting once more fights for life, it steps on its own oxygen line. The details are well-known: how NPR's development chief Ron Schiller stupidly fell into a sting perpetrated by an organization run by the young conservative hit man James O'Keefe, a product of that grimy underworld of ideologically-based harassment which feeds the right's slime machine. Posing as members of a phony Muslim group, O'Keefe's agents provocateurs offered NPR a check for $5 million -- an offer that was rejected.



But Ron Schiller couldn't leave it there. Unaware that he was speaking into a hidden camera and microphone, and violating everything we're told from childhood about not talking to strangers, he allowed the two co-conspirators to goad him into a loquacious display of personal opinions, including his belief that Tea Partiers are racist and cult-like. As the record shows, more than once he said he had taken off his "NPR hat" and was representing himself as no one other than who he is. His convictions, their expression so grossly ill advised in this instance, are his own.



Ron Schiller's a fundraiser, not a news director. NPR keeps a high, thick firewall between its successful development office and its superb news division. The "separation of church and state" -- the classic division of editorial and finance -- has been one of the glories of public radio as it has won a large and respectful audience as the place on the radio spectrum that is free of commercials and commercial values.



If you would see how this integrity is upheld, go to the NPR website and pull up any of its reporting since 2009 on the Tea Party movement. Read the transcripts or listen to its coverage -- you will find it impartial and professional, a full representation of various points of view, pro and con, Further, examine how over the past few days NPR has covered the O'Keefe/Schiller contretemps and made no attempt to cover up or ignore its own failings and responsibilities.



Then reverse the situation and contemplate how, say, Fox News would handle a similar incident if they were the target of a sting. Would their coverage be as "fair and balanced" as NPR's? Would they apologize or punish their outspoken employee if he or she demeaned liberals? Don't kid yourself. A raise and promotion would be more likely. Think of the fortune Glenn Beck has made on Fox, spewing bile and lies about progressives and their "conspiracies."



And oh, yes, something else: Remember what Fox News chief Roger Ailes said about NPR executives after they fired Fox contributor Juan Williams? "They are, of course, Nazis," Ailes told an interviewer. "They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don't want any other point of view." When the Anti-Defamation League objected to the characterization, Ailes apologized but then described NPR as "nasty, inflexible" bigots.



Double standard? You bet. A fundraiser for NPR is axed for his own personal bias and unprofessionalism but Ailes gets away scot free, still running a news division that is constantly pumping arsenic into democracy's drinking water while he slanders public radio as equal to the monsters and murderers of the Third Reich.



Sure, public broadcasting has made its share of mistakes, and there have been times when we who practice our craft under its aegis have been less than stalwart in taking a stand and speaking truth to power. We haven't always served well our original mandate to be "a forum for debate and controversy," or to provide "a voice for groups in the community that may be otherwise unheard," or helped our viewers and listeners "see America whole, in all its diversity." But for all its flaws, consider an America without public media. Consider a society where the distortions and dissembling would go unchallenged, where fact-based reporting is eliminated, and where the field is abandoned to the likes of James O'Keefe, whose "journalism" relies on lying and deceit.



We agree with Joel Meares who, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, expressed the wish that NPR had stood up for themselves and released a statement close to the following: "Ron Schiller was a fundraiser who no longer works for us. He had nothing to do with our editorial decision making process. And frankly, our editorial integrity speaks for itself. We've got reporters stationed all over the world, we've won all sorts of prizes, we've got an ombudsman who is committed to examining our editorial operations. If you think our reporting is tainted, or unreliable, that's your opinion, and you're free to express it. And to look for the evidence. But we will not be intimidated by the elaborate undercover hackwork of vindictive political point-scorers who are determined to see NPR fail."



That's our cue. Come on, people: Speak up!



Bill Moyers is a veteran broadcast journalist and managing editor of Public Affairs Television. Michael Winship, former senior writer of Public Affairs Television, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.





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Published on March 11, 2011 16:18 • 61 views

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