Sunday, June 26, 2005

The right's push to rein in the press


I doubt many informed Americans -- independents and moderate Republicans as well as Democrats -- would mistake Chuck Hagel for a liberal. The Nebraska Republican, a possible presidential candidate, has backed the United Nations nomination of John Bolton and steered clear of the dozen so-called Democratic and Republican moderates in the Senate who forged a compromise to duck the "nuclear option" threatened by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to keep Democrats from filibustering judicial nominees.

If you asked Sen. Hagel, I'll bet he'd label himself a conservative. But Hagel, a veteran, doesn't march in lockstep with his party or its president. He's more than once criticized presidential policies that have turned Iraq into a sinkhole of savagery for American troops and a fiscal and morale drain with no exit strategy. For that criticism, The New York Times reported, Fred Mann awarded Chuck Hagel an "L" for liberal. That's right. Not "M" for moderate or "I" for independent. "L" for liberal.

Now you may well wonder who Fred Mann is. He's not a household name. He is a government "consultant" paid $14,170 by the Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to spy on the guests of Bill Moyers' "Now" and classify them as liberal or conservative. Tomlinson would tell you this is part of his plan to make public television more "fair" and "balanced." You may be familiar with that term. Rupert Murdoch has made many millions using it as the logo for his right-wing propaganda machine pawned off as news: the Fox Network.

Then again, you may not care. Certainly Mann's second-rate spying seems a harmless and rather piddling practice at first disclosure. His check was hardly enough to pay for a modest congressional junket to South Korea or Northern Ireland. But keep in mind that Mr. Tomlinson is the man who this week appointed a former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee as president of the corporation, whose umbrella covers PBS and National Public Radio. Keep in mind the rash of revelations earlier this year of so-called reporters on the payroll of various public agencies of the government. Keep in mind the power of so-called independent bloggers who with remarkable coordination pushed Eason Jordan to resign as top news executive of CNN and Dan Rather to hasten his resignation as anchor for CBS News. Yes, keep those things in mind and the outline of something more insidious begins to emerge.

Where one news spy made news, others could well be in the shadows. Where a handful of paid journalists for traditional media outlets caused a stir, others could well be operating in the relative obscurity of the blogosphere, ready to wave their flag as citizen-journalists rather than propagandists for the White House or one of its political arms.

Having taken control of Congress and the White House, America's right wing knows it need only control the courts and the media to win the quadrafecta: Control of the US government's decision-making apparatus and much of what is said about it. Though that's an ominous thought, I'll grant that even avid conspiracy-theorists on the left probably would concede it won't be easy to pull off in this country. But then, I never thought I'd be reading popular opinion polls that suggest a majority of Americans aren't terribly troubled by American troops and interrogators torturing suspected -- note the operative word is "suspected" -- terrorists.
A public's rights, I'm suggesting, are only as good as public's concern that they being upheld.

There are some small signs of late that the public -- that indefinable mass -- is getting a bit more restless and the press a tad more courageous. Dick Cheney has been roasted for saying the Iraq war is in its "final throes." It looks like John Bolton will need to sneak in the back door to take over the post of United Nations ambassador. The president's popularity is near its nadir and support for his social security plan is lower. And the forever polite and apologetic Democrats even showed the nerve to call for Karl Rove's resignation. (Which, of course, they didn't get.) These are but a few of the signs that America's drift toward autocracy may be stalling.

But push back by press and public could prompt the president's men to push their agenda that much harder. In the arena of news, that would mean efforts to slow independent public broadcasting by trying to control it from within and to intimidate traditional media by what I suspect are paid plants on talk radio and in the blogosphere. The question is, will the news media continue to cover these pressure on themselves as they build? Or will they duck?

Writing about the situation in public broadcasting, New York Times Sunday columnist Frank Rich writes: "The intent is not to kill off PBS and NPR but to castrate them by quietly annexing their news and public affairs operations to the larger state propaganda machine that the Bush White House has been steadily constructing at taxpayers' expense."

I hope people outside and inside government are watching -- and as Rich suggests, singing.
"What's most likely to save the independent voice of public broadcasting from these thugs," he writes, "is a rising chorus of Deep Throats."

And what's likely to counter the growing and well-orchestrated chorus of right-wing talk show hosts and bloggers is investigative reporting that checks out who they are, where they're getting their talking points, and whether and by whom they are being paid.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Memories of my father


Memories of my father have grown hazy with the passage of time.

On Memorial Day 1980 Kathy and I came home from a picnic with my brother and his wife to hear on the answering machine that my father had been rushed 50 miles to the hospital in Hanover, N.H., victim of a massive aneurysm. Two weeks later, on Father's Day, he died in the intensive care unit. He was 70 years old.

Still, even now, 25 years later, a few vivid images remain, either real or reinforced by the telling. The weekend before dad's aorta burst, my parents had taken us to a Jacques Brel retrospective in Brattleboro, Vt. Gunther Lanson rarely enjoyed life in silence, and as the performers sang and danced to some of the favorite tunes of his past, he twisted in his chair to look at me, his green eyes sparkling, his face alive in a boyish smile that belied his years. He said something like, "isn't it terrific," a little bit too loud, to which I responded, "yeah, shhh." At 31, I hadn't fully outgrown dad's propensity to embarrass me. His sheer enthusiasm for life could overwhelm.

Dad was a short, round man, Santa without a beard, a red face younger than his years and a fringe of snow white hair around a bald dome of a head. But his size said nothing about his stature. In ways he was larger than life. He wouldn't so much shake hands when we'd drive to his "hill," the 14 acres of Vermont meadow he and my mom had bought in retirement, as he'd throw out his right arm and lunge at you in a shake that was more of a shout of welcome.

He was funny, ferocious (when he "blew," as he'd put it), outrageous, energetic and all-embracing. Long before his abrupt death, "Gunther stories" were legend in our small extended family and among our friends. There was the time on suburban Long Island when he ran out the front door with nothing on because he'd forgotten to tell my mother something before she drove to school.The wall in Mexico City, where he relieved himself as thousands streamed out of a bullfight we'd just witnessed. The Vermont snowbank into which he'd skid time and time again at the bottom of his hill, usually passing on the blame to his neurotic mutt "Mini," his roar-- "Mini, you stupid bitch" -- echoing up to the house, where inside we'd howl in laughter.

Gunther lived in perpetual motion. In retirement, he'd race around northern New England selling paddle tennis courts, drive here to deliver furniture and there to pick someone up at an airport. In earlier years, we'd pile into the car on weekends and drive to friends and relatives or to his mother and her generation of fellow refugees from Nazi Germany. At the old people's houses, we’d sit in powder-scented rooms with heavy-set women who wore glittering broaches and hats and, inevitably, served us cookies and cake.

When he wasn't moving, Gunther made lists, endless lists on yellow legal pads, though I'm not sure he ever read them. His work and career fell short of his dreams: A U.S. vet and refugee in his mid-30s by the end of World War II, he never made it past middle management in his uncle's lighting company. But when people needed him, he delivered, even if it meant taking risks and bending rules.

There was my brother's friend, David, the valedictorian of Carle Place, L.I., High School. Apolitical, he did nothing to avoid the draft while finishing a Fulbright after college. The Army shipped him to Texas and trained him, a linguist, to be an interrogator of the Viet Cong. The nightmares and sleep walking began when he heard tales of VC being dropped from helicopters if they didn't talk. When his shipping orders to Vietnam arrived, he deserted. My father arranged his passage to Sweden.

There was another friend of my brother Dennis from the Peace Corps. The daughter of a devout Catholic family, she got pregnant out of wedlock and before Roe v. Wade. My father helped her arrange a trip to Puerto Rico for an abortion.

And there was the week, that legendary week he called the most important of his life, when Gunther, a Berlin-born enlisted man and staff sergeant in a U.S. Army propaganda unit, joined in the liberation of Bavaria at the end of World War II and helped reunite his first cousins -- Jews by Hitler's definition -- by hiding two of the daughters in the trunk of an Army vehicle and driving them through U.S. checkpoints to their stately home on the banks of Lake Starnberg. Through miracle and mystery -- Dennis and I have long tried to decipher how -- father, mother and three sisters, their home commandeered by the Nazi mayor of the village, had survived the entire war in Germany, escaping the cattle cars that shipped Jews to near certain death in the extermination camps.

I thought of this and more today, Father's Day, as I sat through a special service at my cousin's Unitarian-Universalist Church. Some parishioners talked about their father's. I thought about mine. About one of my earliest memories, a train trip from New York to Philadelphia to watch the beloved Dodgers, who the previous year had deserted Brooklyn to move to LA. About the night, when I was 17 or so, that dad, in a fury, took an open-handed swing at me -- and I caught him as his knee buckled and asked, "Are you OK?" About his and my trips each Christmas to Yorkville, the now-vanished German section of New York City, where we'd buy chocolate and sausage and stinky cheese and eat wienershnitzel in a restaurant where the waiters wore white gloves and a violinist in tails played waltzes.

At 56, I am just a year shy of my father's age the day his knee buckled and I caught him on the way down. He always swore it was the day he realized I was becoming a man. My own daughters at 24 and 20, are older than I was. And I'm not in the business of taking swings. But I still sometimes vent at them, if somewhat less explosively than Gunther did that day. And I wonder and worry about my girls as I imagine he did about me well into my 20s. Do they appreciate at all the work and time Kathy and I devoted to their well-being and education? Do they remember, at all, the adventures we've taken together, to Europe, cross-country by train across America, through the Rockies and up and down the California coast? Will the day arrive when -- no matter where they live geographically -- they will again come home, when they'll share things with me besides their pique at my questions, when they'll trust that my interest and concern is in something other than controlling their lives? Do they love us?

With a few years to spare, dad lived long enough to know the answer in my case was a resounding, "Yes." And, other than in my darkest moments, I know it is for my daughters as well. But still I have much to learn. Perhaps on this Father's Day, a quarter century after my father and I hugged for the last time, I can draw a lesson from his imperfect parenting – the kind we all offer our children despite our best intentions.

Years after dad died, in a folder in a file cabinet in his oversized desk, we found a bunch of letters I had written to him from Colorado in my early 20s. Dad had circled all the misspellings and grammatical errors in red. So much for my high-priced education. But he never sent the letters back with his corrections. Either common sense or my mother prevailed on him to let me learn on my own.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

New York street scenes


I exit Pennsylvania Station and head north on
7th Avenue when a smiling Newt Gingrich, wearing a jacket and open necked shirt, walks past. At least it sure looks like Newt. I swear. A block north, a man stands silently on the corner, the middle-finger of each hand pointed upward at the approaching crowd. Newt's smile; a man flipping off the Big Apple. Could there be some cosmic convergence happening here?

Five days on New York's streets in a late spring heat wave assaults anyone's senses. I grew up in this city's burbs. And while I'm reminded why I don't live here anymore, I'm also reminded that it's still home, a place as exciting as it is overwhelming, a place a lot friendlier than most people give it credit for. A study in contradictions.

The next day, with an afternoon to kill, I walk the 30 or 40 blocks from Washington Square Park in the Village to Battery Park on Manhattan's southern tip. My mission: to make eye contact with some in the sea of people flowing past. Fahgettaboutit. Bodies bump and saunter past, cell phone stylin' (you can't be anybody in the Apple these days without letting the world hear your one-way saga over cell).

Oblivious as they seem, New Yorkers keep antennae extended. On Centre Street, near City Hall, a plastic bag of cheap pens I bought spills open. "It's all right," I start to say but two men approaching already are kneeling in sync to pick them up and return them. "Thanks," I say, but they're gone. No one has broken stride. I stand for five minutes on the sidewalk scribbling in a notebook. No one could care less. It's the beauty of New York -- invisibility in the midst of millions.

I listen as I look down. The words are Spanish and Portuguese, Haitian patois and Russian. Finally, a snatch of English ... "feels good, huh" ... reminds me what country I'm in. (New York City translates information into 170 languages, Mayor Bloomberg tells those gathered at a national ethnic media conference two days later. It has 200 ethnic newspapers. It's not just one city, he might have added. It's the world.)

And then there are those who are silent. I stop for an ice cream outside historic Trinity Church.
"A creamsickle," I say. The vendor points to the right picture on his cart. "How much," I ask. He holds up two fingers. Works for me. Cell phones, thank goodness, aren't allowed inside Trinity. So the tall gal in the one-piece, form-fitting, zebra-skin jump suit has stepped into the cemetery alongside to place her call. Talk about people turning over in their graves.

I reach a destination of sorts: the National Museum of the American Indian in the old Customs Building alongside Battery Park. The security guard wears wrap around shades and talks on his phone in Russian as he hands me a plastic holder to throw my wallet and cell phone into. Multitasking. One of the last Indian tribes to surrender was The Nez Perce. We could use its leader, Chief Joseph, today. Maybe in the White House. Or at least running Homeland Security. "Let me be a free man," he told Congress. "Free to travel. Free to stop ... Free to work. Free to choose my teachers. Free to follow the religion of my fathers. Free to think and talk and act for myself."

Step outside, Joseph. This is New York.

I walk back past the hole in the ground, stretching two square blocks across from the Darth Vader-like Millenium Hilton. A scattering of tourists, probably from places like Des Moines and Dubuque judging from the polyester, click shutters. I don't know what's stranger, the long metal fence where the World Trade Towers once stood or the matter of factness of it all nearly four years after that day when the planes flew in. A few pictures hang on the fence. So does a list of names, "The heroes of September 11, 2001." That's it.

On Canal and 6th Avenue, a guy on a delivery bike almost runs me over on the sidewalk.

"Go ahead," I tell him.

"No, no. It's you sir. It's you. I shouldn't even be over here."

Hear that Newt? A New Yorker. Get on your train and get out of town. And take the guy flipping the Apple with you. Deep down this is just one big global block party. A string of neighborhoods. The eye-contact thing? Dunno. Let's just chalk it up to shyness.