Archive for January, 2011

Egypt, Winter and the Super Bowl

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

(Clockwise) Hosni Mubarak, Tear Canisters made in the USA, Last week in Washington, Super Bowl stripper shortage

I guess these are three main news stories we’re all talking about this week but try as I might, there’s just no way to connect them all.


I saw the first commentary today stating that Barack Obama will be remembered as the American President who lost Egypt.   I never knew we owned them.  And if so, he’s had plenty of help from his predecessors.  U.S. foreign policy has always been only partly about the protection of human rights and democracy.  There’s that pesky thing known as “national security considerations.”  Hosni Mubarak is not the first “strongman” we’ve backed in the name of stability.  

And while democracy is always a worthwhile goal, the world is more complicated than that.  Sometimes nations (or entities) elect leaders who go directly against our national security interests (see Palestine and Lebanon).    But in the case of Egypt it does appear that there is a reasonable alternative to Mubarak in the form of  pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate, Mohamed ElBaradei.  He told ABC News over the weekend that the U.S. imploring Mubarak to suddenly implement democratic reforms after three decades of dictatorship did not exactly win the U.S. any friends last week. 

Nor have the tear-gas canisters marked “Made in the USA.” Who knew the only thing not made in China these days were tear-gas canisters?


I am apparently the only resident of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area last week that did not a) lose power or b) get stuck in a traffic jam.  But that’s only because I live a block from the Verizon Center and I think I’m on their electrical grid.  And I don’t own a car, which makes me happy each and every day. 

I kept track of the craziness though.  I clearly remember the tweet some poor woman sent to the Washington Post around 11:35pm the night of the snow/ice storm as she sat helpless on the GW Parkway: “Help.  Pregnant and STARVING.”  

I have numerous friends who just got their power back this past weekend, leading me to wonder if PEPCO might also be the main power company in Iraq because the parallels are eerie.   Except here there’s no active combat and no one’s bombed our infrastructure.

Super Bowl

Parking passes for the NFL title game in Dallas this weekend are selling on E-bay for $1,000.   They’re contemplating putting in 15,000 new seats to an already new stadium so the NFL can stuff as many humans as possible into the venue.  In some of those additional seats, you can’t see the giant scoreboard which is quite an accomplishment since that scoreboard is described as being half the size of North America.  From the other extra seats you can see the scoreboard but can’t see the field. 

And there’s reportedly a stripper shortage in Dallas right now—the city is short of the preferred 5-1 visitor-to-stripper ratio.   Super Bowl veterans point out that the out-of-state strippers don’t usually get into town until Thursday when the rest of the bigwigs arrive so there shouldn’t be any cause for concern.

Keith Olbermann: The Changing Face of Cable News?

January 25, 2011 1 comment

Keith Olbermann, who signed off abruptly last week

It was 7 am at CNN headquarters in Atlanta the week of July 15th, 1996. The weekly manager’s meeting had suddenly become daily, the gathering time moved up by some three hours. We all sat rather bleary-eyed around the room as, in somewhat of a controlled panic, we discussed the implications of the launch of MSNBC.

Fox News would launch its cable news network two months later and it had already been written about, but no one at CNN thought much of that effort; it was MSNBC everyone was worried about. While we all talked about MSNBC’s graphics and pacing and stylistics, we totally missed the real import of what was about to happen to American media.

As the head of CNN’s Radio division at the time, I was as clueless as everyone else. If I’d had one forward-thinking cell in my brain at the time, I would have foreseen that the secret to cable TV success was to emulate talk radio. Anger attracts listening and, as it turns out, TV talk programs focused on political anger, attract viewers. Plus they’re long shows which means audiences stay glued to their TV’s for extended periods- hence, better ratings.

Which brings us to Keith Olbermann. As it turned out, Fox News was the real competitive giant and it was soon beating CNN handily in the ratings. MSNBC eventually figured out that whole talk-radio thing and embraced itself, as Howard Kurtz puts it, as the “anti-Fox.” Keith Olbermann and angry liberal talk would soon overtake CNN as well and MSNBC had righted its ship and if not beating Fox, had at least become competitive and profitable.

As we fast forward to recent times, it turns out the old talk-radio formula is just possibly beginning to wear thin- on cable, anyway. The case is made here by John Avlon in an interesting piece in the Daily Beast. He makes the case that Keith Olbermann’s ratings, for all the success he helped bring to MSNBC, had been dropping. Avlon points out that Glenn Beck’s ratings are dropping at Fox too. He concludes it may be that the public is finally tiring of anger from both sides of the political spectrum.

Perhaps my own viewing habits have been representative of this trend. I watched all the cable news outlets like a madman in the months leading up to the 2008 Presidential election. By the week after the election, I had grown weary- exhausted, actually. The heated rhetoric just wore me down until I couldn’t take it anymore. Keith’s intensity and anger started grating on my basically moderate views. Sean Hannity had become so predictable.

And CNN seemed, as usual, obsessed with trying to be cool. I was amused when they introduced the super-duper high-tech maps that John King would manipulate with his touch-screen finger exercises. But they lost me when they introduced holographic representations of reporters, seemingly beaming up like Star Trek next to Wolf Blitzer in the Situation Room.

To this day, I’ll take a hockey or a baseball game over political talk on cable TV, any time.

And as for Keith, we won’t immediately know the full story about the behind-the-scenes drama as both sides seem to have a contractual agreement to avoid specifics over the next few months. Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz presents a good take on the likely happenings here

When I was head of news coverage at ABC News Radio, my office contained quite a few files on Keith Olbermann, who had worked for the network under my predecessor. It wouldn’t be prudent to reveal their contents. But I will say this.

The last year of the old Shea stadium, some colleagues and I went to see the Cubs take on the Mets. Our passes allowed on-field access prior to the contest and I was standing near 3rd base when I spotted Keith Olbermann hanging out near the Cubs dugout. He had taken the night off from Countdown to revel in the baseball.

I walked up to him and introduced myself. I told him where I worked and that I had seen some of his files and joked that he was “quite the troublemaker.” He smiled a Cheshire-cat grin and said, “Well, somebody’s got to be.”

Yup. He’s been a handful everywhere he’s worked.  But he’s an enormously talented man and I wish him well in his next incarnation. Good night and good luck, Keith.

My Two Sargent Shriver Moments

January 19, 2011 3 comments

(Associated Press Photo)

The legacy of the late Sargent Shriver has been well documented in recent days; 1st Director of the Peace Corps, founder of Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, Upward Bound and along with his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics. But I’ll always remember his kindness toward a 20-year-old budding journalist in the snows of New Hampshire.

Hard to believe it was 35 years ago, but in January of 1976, a photographer friend and I took off for New England to cover the New Hampshire Presidential Primary. I had managed to convince the Editor of my local hometown newspaper, the Reston Times, to pay me a whole 200 bucks for a feature piece and so we proceeded onto our low-budget American political adventure.

This would end up being the election that featured Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter but in January there was a spirited contest in each party with Ronald Reagan challenging Ford and a slew of Democratic hopefuls that included folks like Carter, Mo Udall, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Birch Bayh, Fred Harris and Sargent Shriver who four years earlier had been tapped as George McGovern’s Vice-Presidential candidate.

I got to meet just about all the candidates though I hung out mostly with the Fred Harris people. The former Oklahoma Senator was incredible on the stump and he was fun. He refused Secret Service protection so Harris and his Native-American wife, LaDonna, had a certain amount of freedom the other candidates didn’t.

I remember the time the entire caravan, a couple of Winnebago’s and three or four Suburban’s, suddenly pulled off to the side of the road. Turned out we had happened on an ancient Indian burial site and Fred gave reporters and staff an impromptu tour and lecture. Twenty minutes later we were back on the road and headed toward Manchester where Fred had a speaking engagement before a local pancake breakfast gathering.

It was there my photographer friend and I split off from the Harris people and I ran into elements of the Shriver campaign and asked if I could get a brief interview with the candidate. This was not an easy ask, mind you. We represented…not the Associated Press or CBS News or the New York Times…no…we were—the Reston Times. Anyway, the Shriver people were great and arranged for me to ride in the candidate’s car that night as he headed to a campaign rally.

I found myself squished in the back seat with Sarge on my left as I peppered him with policy questions. The truth of the matter though, is that I was attempting a version of guerilla journalism. That is, my article was less about policy and more about the textures and sights and sounds of the political circus that is the New Hampshire primary. He noticed I wasn’t exactly taking copious notes and if I had been they would have been something to the effect of- “Got ride in candidate’s car. Sarge- a very cool guy to give me the time of day.” And he really was so very gracious and kind to an obviously cub reporter.

We arrived at a local high school in Manchester. There were about six inches of snow on the ground and lo and behold the sedan door opens, I step out, then Sarge steps out and there’s a full marching band to greet us. As I ended up describing it- “dozens of musical, marching, kicking legs greeting us in what amounted to a driving snow storm.” To this day, it’s a memory of retail politics at its endearing best.

The next time I ran into Sarge, the New Hampshire primary election results had come in and his staff and supporters were gathered at the concession party at a fairly low budget Manchester hotel. He didn’t do real well, came in 4th, I believe. But the memorable moment came when Sarge took a microphone and with great pride, thanked his staff and then introduced a young lady who wanted to sing a song. The 19-year old brunette had a lovely voice and regaled us all with a stirring rendition of Barbara Streisand’s “People.”

Yeah, it was a little corny but it was also kind of sweet. The young lady had ambitions to be a singer someday. She chose journalism instead and would end up being the First Lady of the state of California- probably our collective first exposure that night to Maria Shriver.

So those are my two Shriver moments. America has lost a good, kind man who made it his mission in life to fight poverty and create government programs, like the Peace Corps- that actually work and that give Americans a taste of the world- and the world a taste of Americans at their best.

Rest in peace, sir. And thanks for the interview.

NFL Playoffs

January 18, 2011 2 comments

Grateful for the distraction of football after a tough, intense and sad week in America, apparently I was not alone. Initial ratings estimates find 42 million of us tuned in to watch the Jets’ shocking upset of the New England Patriots Sunday afternoon.

As one commentator noted on a local sports show, Jets coach, Rex Ryan has easily supplanted New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg as the King of Gotham. It’s one thing to be profane and full of bluster and another to back it up on the gridiron. And especially after the Pats had demolished the Jets 45-3 in their last meeting at Foxboro stadium.

That’s why the play the games.

Now the Jets come calling on the Steelers in Pittsburgh this weekend and I’m sure the ratings will be astronomical again. This will be a battle of brutal defenses. What the Jets did to Payton Manning and Tom Brady on the road in successive weeks is insanely impressive. I have no doubt they’ll be equally impressive against Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. But then again, the Jets are going up against an equally impressive Steelers defense. Will anybody score? That said, it’ll probably end up 41 to 38.

Meantime, over in the NFC, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers meet up with the Bears in Chicago. Coming off a career performance in which Rodgers sliced and diced the Falcons in Atlanta, it’ll be a hard performance to match. I’m betting he’ll get the job done.

Though the Steelers are on a roll too, it just seems the Jets and Packers have it all together just at the right time. I’m going for a Packers-Jets Super Bowl in Dallas and I confidently predict the ratings will approach a gazillion- give or take a billion or two.

NFL- thanks much for the distraction.

Can We All Just Take a Step Back?

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Christina Green, the 9-year old, 3rd grader killed in the Arizona shootings

It is deeply distressing that as a Congresswoman continues to fight for her life and we prepare to formally mourn the murders of six people including a grandmother, a Federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, that the political vitriol seems to be increasing instead of calming.

From one end of the political spectrum, connections are made to the acts of an obviously unstable individual, for whom no political motivation has surfaced. From the other end, attempts have been made to tie the suspect ideologically to their political arch-enemies; where even a national moment of silence earlier this week was condemned as an opportunistic attempt to capitalize on a national tragedy.

The National Review states in an editorial that “all of us have an obligation to speak with truth and charity in making our political arguments not because hateful talk will drive the mentally ill to criminal acts but because civility is a good in its own right.”

That is a wise approach at a time like this. What we need is statesmanship, reason, calm and a sober analysis of why our society is so polarized that not even the tragic deaths of six people and the unimaginable suffering of the victims who have survived, can put a momentary stop to our divisive and bitter political discourse.

Let’s do this for Christina Green, the beautiful 9-year old girl with budding political ambitions that put her sadly in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our current state of politics is not the world she would have wished to inhabit.

We need a truce.

A Violent History

January 11, 2011 Leave a comment

The events of Saturday in Tucson, Arizona shook us all. The violence and bloodshed were shocking. And though previous political assassination attempts in American history have been largely absent an attendant mass shooting, the sheer number of these incidents is stunning.

An educational web site called Digital History has a fascinating and detailed article called Political Assassination: The Violent Side of American Political Life.

Here’s the stunning part:

Nine American Presidents – Andrew Jackson in 1835, Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901 Harry S. Truman in 1950, John F. Kennedy in 1963, Richard Nixon in 1974, Gerald Ford twice in 1975, and Ronald Reagan in 1981 – have been the targets of assassination. Attempts have also been made on the lives of one President-elect (Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933) and three Presidential candidates (Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and George Wallace in 1972). In addition, eight governors, seven U.S. Senators, nine U.S. Congressmen, eleven mayors, 17 state legislators, and eleven judges have been violently attacked.

The most common unifying characteristics of those who have attempted Presidential assassinations in the United States: unemployed and single. Nine out of eleven had not worked in the year prior to the assassination attempt. Only one was married and had children.

Very few of these attempts have actually been purposely politically motivated. John Wilkes Booth, the Lincoln assassin was a clear cut case of an ideologically-based murderer. Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of Senator Robert Kennedy claimed his attack was due to RFK’s pro-Israeli political stance. Booth expected he would become a hero in the South but did not and would write sadly at the cold hand he’d been greeted with by residents of the former confederacy. Richard Nixon would win the Presidency in 1968 and he was, if anything, an even more ardent supporter of Israel than Robert Kennedy.

Almost all have been solitary acts of violence; only in two cases were the acts part of an organized conspiracy; Lincoln and an attempt on the life of President Harry Truman organized by Puerto Rican nationalists.

I do not know what is says or what it implies. But violence against our political representatives is a part of our lives and of the history of this nation and it is not, in any way, unusual or an aberration.

Reading the Constitution

January 5, 2011 4 comments

Representatives of the Tea Party movement will be reading the Constitution into the Congressional Record on the first day of the new legislative session and I heartily concur that more people need to know about this remarkable document.

For the record, I am not a member of any organized party or movement, and I too revere the American Constitution. We have our freedoms because of it. We have fought wars and spilled blood to protect it. I got a Kindle for Christmas, by the way, and one of the first things I downloaded were the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. I have actually read them. Recently.

Times were different then and some of it is a little anachronistic- especially the parts dealing with the tricky issue of slavery.

I am curious as to which version of the Constitution will be read into the record. For example, there is a sentence in Article 1, Section 2 about how to determine the make-up of the House of Representatives and apportionment of taxes.

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.

In other words, you count free white citizens plus indentured servants, no un-taxed Indians, and slaves count as three-fifths of a person. In retrospect- not one of our prouder moments.

You don’t have to actually read that sentence, though, because it was technically eliminated by the 14th amendment. We fought a really horrible and bloody war that settled all this and so it was that on July 9th, 1868, we took out the part about indentured servitude and “three-fifths of all other Persons” since, by then, slavery had ceased to exist (see the 13th amendment passed three years earlier).

So if you leave out the reading of the “three-fifths” sentence then you have to read the entire 14th amendment that replaced it and which enumerated the following right- in the very first sentence:

All persons born or naturalized in the Unites States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

This could be a little awkward as there is a burgeoning movement within some elements of the Tea Party to repeal the 14th amendment which would end automatic citizenship for, say, the children of immigrants just because they were born on American soil.

Now I understand the frustrations posed by illegal immigration and amending the Constitution is a totally constitutional act. But the reason the Constitution has been embraced as the guiding philosophy of the Tea Party movement is because of the belief that strict interpretation of the document should be adhered to and has been continually violated through the years.

If you believe in strict interpretation of the Constitution, then why would you want to amend it? Unless you want strict adherance to the Constitution, except for the parts you don’t like. In any event, I suspect some lawmakers will be reading the 1st sentence of the 14th amendment through gritted teeth, though it will go by quickly.

In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit I have a personal though indirect stake in this debate. As a 1st generation American born in New York City, if the 14th amendment had not existed, I would never have been granted automatic citizenship.

And there’s a good chance there would have been one less American carrying the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence in their Kindle.

New Year’s Conversation with an Alien

Wishing all humans a happy and cautious New Year

There are a lot of traditions associated with the advent of a New Year. A curious alien from another planet would likely pose questions like these about the things we do this time of year.

Alien: Why do you Earthlings “celebrate” a New Year? The odds are that any coming period of time will offer as many bad things as good things. Why is there so much laughter and gaiety when common sense tells you any given coming year may be just as filled with disaster as with happiness?

Human: Well, we choose to look at things optimistically. A new year is a new page, a new start and so we celebrate a new age of possibilities. And we also wish that people will have a good year which is why we say “Happy New Year” to one another.

Alien: Would it not be more appropriate to wish people a “Happy and Cautious New Year?”

Human: Well, I suppose so, but that’s kind of negative and rather wordy.

Alien: It is only two more words. Why do you humans make promises you can’t keep?

Human: You mean New Year’s Resolutions?

Alien: Yes. Why does your species always resolve to make dramatic new changes in your existence at this time in the Earth calendar?

Human: It’s part of that whole “new page” thing- a clean slate; a chance to start over.

Alien: But it is extremely futile. Everyone knows that by the start of the second Earth calendar month, these promises are forgotten. Why would humans think they can change years and years of patterns of behaviors just because there is a new ending number on one of your Earth years?

Human: It’s a retrospective thing. We pause for a moment to assess the things we do in life and think of ways to improve ourselves. That’s not so bad, is it?

Alien: It is not that it is bad. It is silly. Why do you not make new resolutions every three months instead of every twelve months? Why do you not make resolutions in July and September?

Human: You know what? Your questions are getting a little annoying.

Alien: I am sorry. I have more. Why do you humans ingest large amounts of fermented beverages at this time of year? Beverages that will make you act in ways you will later regret?

Human: You mean champagne? Well, that’s just tradition. People like to get a little trashed this time of year- it’s an innocent thing.

Alien: It is rather illogical. Fermented beverages make humans feel sick. Why would a human who is about to resolve to change their lives for the better in the year ahead, start out that same year by poisoning themselves?

Human: Hey, I was kidding about getting “trashed.” Not everyone drinks to excess.

Alien: I am not sure that is accurate. I saw many human beings vomiting last night. I see many more today on the first day of the New Year; taking pills to make the ill effects of the fermented beverages go away.

Human: It’s what we do, ok?

Alien: And why do mostly the males of your species spend the entire first day of the New Year watching gladiator games?

Human: You mean college football bowl games?

Alien: Yes. And why do they call them “bowl” games? Is it because of all the times humans spend on that first day running from their TV screens to the toilet bowl?

Human: You know… hangovers get better as the day progresses. It’s really only in the mornings that you feel like crap. Besides, the games are played in “bowls,” or “stadiums,” hence, the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl.

Alien: Why is there a Tostitos Bowl? Why is there an Outback Bowl? These are names for products not games.

Human: You know what? You think too much and ask too many questions. This little interview is about over, buddy.

Alien: Very well. I wish that you take advantage of the good things that will happen in the coming year, and that you will survive all the bad things.

Human: How sweet of you.

Alien: Why do you say that? There is no sugar or glucose in my DNA.

Human: I was being sarcastic.

Alien: Perhaps that is one of the things you should resolve to change in the year ahead.