Friday, February 27, 2015

The Dress

Late Thursday night, after returning home from a long day at the office, my daughter called me into the kitchen.  "Look at this dad," she said as she shoved a smartphone in front of me.  What's the big deal, I thought, as I looked a picture of a dress.

"What color is it?" my daughter asked.  My wife, who was standing next to my daughter, leaned in to hear my answer.  I responded, "gold and white."  My daughter said emphatically, "See mom!"

"No, no," my wife said insistently, "it's black and blue."

I thought nothing more about the disagreement as I left the kitchen to put the dogs out.  But the next morning I was startled to see that "the dress" was dominating social media.  What had started as a question on Tumblr was now a national obsession.  How could some people see black and blue where I saw gold and white?

I was so skeptical that I decided to do an experiment in my college class.  The students were all up to speed on the dress dispute, and all of them had seen it.  I projected the image on a screen in the classroom and asked the students what they saw.  Of the 20 students sampled, 40% saw black and blue.  I was amazed. 

Our class then talked about how this may be a metaphor for our politically divided country -- and, no matter what you say, people see what they see; nothing will change their mind. 

Of course, the controversy generated tremendous worldwide social media use overnight.  It seemed like everyone was weighing in on Twitter.  The dress had gone viral!  This, it was no surprise to see, meant that news organizations, publications and websites had to ride the trending tide of interest to draw viewers.  For instance, the network and cable morning programs devoted segments to the controversy where anchors disagreed and haggled on air over what the actual colors were. 

The New York Times reports that the dress was worn by a bride at a wedding in Scotland and posted online by a band member.  When no one could agree on the colors, she posted the picture on Tumblr.  It was off to the races!

Scientists and scientific magazines have been weighing in with explanations of what is hard for me to really understand.  Wired magazine quoted one doctor's explanation, "'What's happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you're trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis,' says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College. 'So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.'"

USA Today reports that the dress is actually black and blue, and it is for sale in the United Kingdom.

So why did the dress become such an obsession?  Maybe it was a welcome diversion from reports of terrorism, government gridlock, or the foul weather.

I guess it all depends on how you see it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Homeland Security Impasse

 Minnesota's Mall of America was named this past weekend as a possible target of a terrorist attack in a one-hour video released by the militant Somali group al-Shabaab.   Concern about such an attack could not be higher, especially following on the heels of terrorist attacks in France and Denmark.  But that has not deterred congressional Republicans from playing games with America's security.

Republicans promised things would get better if they were put in charge of Congress.  Yet, due to a lack of leadership and seemingly irresolvable differences among their members, they are holding up funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which is set to run out this Friday. 

What kind of game is this?  Well, House Republicans, unhappy with President Barack Obama's executive order on immigration, have attached an amendment to the DHS funding bill that would stop the president's immigration action, which they consider illegal.  The strategy was to have the DHS funding bill pass with the immigration amendment attached.  If the president subsequently vetoed the measure he would be attacked for failing to protect the nation. 

But the Republican measure has not been able to clear the Senate because Republicans do not have enough votes to avoid a filibuster.   Democrats in Congress want a "clean bill" to fund DHS, one without any amendments.  Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.  If DHS funding runs out thousands of its employees will be furloughed, while 170,000 essential personal will have to work without pay.  "We need to fund the Department of Homeland Security," Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said Monday evening, "We cannot shut down the Department of Homeland Security." 

With Republicans facing increased criticism and blame for the impasse, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) proposed an alternative strategy.  He would allow a clean vote on the DHS funding bill, which is for one year, and then have a separate vote on a bill that would stop President Obama's executive actions on immigration.  His goal would be to make Democrats, who did not favor the president's executive action, have to vote on the record.

But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was more concerned that House Republicans would not go along with the proposal.  This is because House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) cannot control his own caucus.  And, sure enough, with McConnell's proposal only hours old, conservative House members spoke out against the gambit.   Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) issued a statement saying, "The Senate Majority Leader’s plan to divorce the funding bill from the unlawful actions it is restricting is tantamount to surrender, and won’t meet with support in the People’s House."

Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the man responsible for the 2013 government shutdown, issued a statement of his own.   "Leadership's current plan -- to pass clean DHS funding and separate legislation barring executive amnesty -- is a mistake," Cruz said. "Congress is obliged to use every constitutional check and balance we have to rein in President Obama's lawlessness, and that includes both our confirmation authority over nominees and the power of the purse."

Last week a Texas federal judge halted implementation of the president's executive order on immigration.  The case is likely to take some time to work its way through the courts.  This has led many observers to wonder why Republicans just don't go ahead with a clean DHS funding bill and let the courts deal with the legality of the president's action on immigration.  

That would seem like common sense, especially considering the increased terrorist threats.  But common sense does not apply in Washington, least of all for congressional Republicans. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Bob Simon Remembered

There have been few television correspondents who could tell a story the way Bob Simon did.   His curiosity, intelligence and sense of adventure would take him from his native Bronx, New York, to Brandeis University, and on to the front lines of history. 

CBS News hired young Bob Simon, a Fulbright Scholar, for its assignment desk in 1967.  He would soon be assigned to cover stories the more veteran reporters did not want to cover.  Four decades later he would recall, in a 2013 interview for the Archive of American Television, "Knowing what to do was simple--tell a story."

CBS News moved him to its London bureau, and from there he was assigned to cover the Vietnam War.  Working with legendary cameramen like Norman Lloyd and David Green, he excelled as a war correspondent.  "It is the biggest adrenalin rush there is," he reflected, "there is no other experience that matches it."   

Simon had an amazing ability to let the pictures carry the story while complementing the scenes with just the right words.  He remembered being there when a young Vietnamese girl was running naked down a road away from a burning village.  "What do you say?  Where it is, her name, and that there are American fighter jets."

Simon had several tours of duty in Vietnam.  He was there at the end.  He recalled that the U.S. had alerted Americans that, "When the military radio played I'm dreaming of White Christmas it would be the cue to get your asses to the embassy."  Simon said when the order came it was chaos, and climbing over the embassy wall was a problem because U.S.  Marines were driving people back.  "You had to have round eyes that day," he recalled. 

Simon became the most acclaimed network Middle East correspondent while assigned to the CBS News Tel Aviv bureau.   He would always push the borders of coverage, and he could beautifully capture its complexity.  "Rivers make the best borders," he wrote.  "Even though Jordan is little more than a lively brook at the level of the Allenby bridge, even though the two banks -- lush vegetation trailing up to mad lunarscapes -- are mirror images of each other, crossing over from Israeli territory to Jordan, always carries a sense of transition of the forbidden, of moving between enemy camps."

Simon would test those borders during the first Gulf War when he and his crew walked to the top of a sand dune near Al-Ruqi, an inland border post between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.   They were captured by the Iraqi military and held, beaten, starved and interrogated for forty days.  The Iraqis accused them of being spies.

 "'Name? Rank?' a voice shouted," Simon wrote in his riveting account of captivity in his 1992 book Forty Days.  "I'm not military, " Simon responded.  "Our sources tell us you have good relations with the government of Israel," the interrogator said.  "That's it, I thought," Simon wrote.  "The game is up.  I found this realization calming in a way...It was all over, but I would go on playing for a while." Simon and his crew would be freed after 40 days, but they were all deeply affected by the ordeal.

Simon would return to work.   He had visited 67 different countries as a foreign correspondent.  He was known among his producer colleagues for screening every inch of footage before writing his story, and then memorably capturing a scene in a few words.  For instance, Simon covered Hong Kong's transition from British rule to China in 1997.  He spotted footage of an old Chinese man doing his Tai Chi exercise in the early morning.  It would be his opening scene.  "The debts of history are coming due," he would write.

He became a full-time correspondent on 60 Minutes in 2005, but he had already filed several important pieces for the broadcast.  Before the U.S. went to war with Iraq in 2003, Simon would remember, "I knew from my sources, and from the Israelis...and whatever you think of the Israeli's, they have great intelligence, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."   He continued, "We couldn't say that...so we did a story, called 'The Selling of a War,' and the piece got a lot of attention...but (President) Bush invaded Iraq anyway."

Simon collected 27 Emmy Awards and four Peabody Awards over nearly 50 years of brilliant journalism.  It is shocking that, after covering war zones from Vietnam to the Middle East, and violent uprisings from Northern Ireland to Tiananmen Square, his life ended in the back seat of a town car on New York City's West Side Highway.  

Bob Simon is survived by his daughter, Tanya, who is a 60 Minutes producer, and wife, Franciose.  He will be greatly missed by thousands of current and former admiring colleagues and friends.  And millions of viewers will miss his distinctive voice and unique writing style.  He truly was one of a kind.    

He concluded the final chapter of Forty Days with what might have been broadcast then had things turned out differently for him.  "That obituary for Simon showed clips of him in his various disguises: safari jackets, blazers, tuxedos, covering wars, uprisings, galas.  It was well produced, well edited, and well written...It was first-rate television piece.  Clearly, it deserved to make air."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Brian Williams and NBC News

NBC Newsman Brian Williams announced in a note to news staffers Saturday that he is taking time off from the program.  "In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions. As Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days,"  Williams wrote.   He concluded, "Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us."

Williams' announcement came one day after NBC News executives confirmed they are conducting an internal investigation into false claims made by Williams that he has since corrected.   Williams admitted on his broadcast Wednesday night that, “I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago...I want to apologize.” 

For more than a decade, Williams has repeatedly said, that while on assignment in Iraq in 2003, he was aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and forced down.  In March 2013, he told David Letterman,  “We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates so the third infantry could cross on them. Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire including the one I was in. RPG and AK-47's."

Stars and Stripes, which broke the story, reported that Williams and his crew were actually aboard a helicopter "that was about an hour behind the three helicopters that came under fire."  It quoted the helicopter's flight engineer, "No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft."

But now NBC News and Williams are coming under direct fire.  Meanwhile, new allegations of fabrications by Williams have surfaced, which NBC News is now investigating.  This crisis presents management with a nightmare dilemma.

NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams is currently the number one rated network evening newscast in households, and in the key 25-54 demographic, according to Nielsen.  But ABC's World News Tonight is close behind and positioned to move ahead should NBC falter. The New York Post quotes figures from Kantar Media that show Nightly News made about $200 million in annual ad revenue in 2013, $30 million more than ABC's World News.  NBC News executives are carefully watching the ratings to see how the audience responds to the controversy.  A ratings reduction could cost the division millions of dollars and lead to layoffs. 

While working as a reporter for the CBS local New York affiliate earlier in his career, Williams aspired to be Walter Cronkite, once America's "most trusted" newsman.  In 1993, Williams joined NBC News, and he became anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News in December 2004.  He replaced the legendary and beloved Tom Brokaw as the face of NBC News.  Since his ascendancy, he has been a popular broadcaster and an award winning journalist.  NBC News has vigorously promoted Williams as the leading news personality.  So replacing him would be difficult.

Brokaw, in an email to the Huffington Post, denied a New York Post report he wanted Williams fired.  "I have neither demanded nor suggested Brian be fired," Brokaw wrote. "His future is up to Brian and NBC News executives."  In a memo to staffers Friday, NBC News president Deborah Turness said, "We're working on what the next best steps are--and when we have something to communicate we will of course share it with you."  Neither statement expressed support for Williams.

The mistakes Williams has admitted to, and apologized for, have cast a dark cloud over everyone at NBC News.  The news organization is filled with dedicated, hardworking and accomplished producers, reporters and technicians.  This controversy has been devastating, disruptive and discouraging for everyone at NBC News, which has already had its share of struggles over the past few years.

While some critics have called for Williams to be fired, he still has many supporters, including within the organization.  NBC News won't make a decision on his future until it has completed its investigation.  If Williams continues to anchor Nightly News, he owes his viewers and his colleagues a better explanation than he has offered thus far. 

Nonetheless, NBC News should be transparent with the findings of its internal investigation, and publicly release all of the facts it uncovers.  Not to do so would severely undermine its credibility and cast doubts on its commitment to the highest standards of journalism.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sandy Socolow 1928-2015


The legendary CBS News producer Sanford "Sandy" Socolow has diedHe worked at CBS News for 32 years, during its truly golden years, four of them as Walter Cronkite's executive producer.  He was a rare combination of outstanding journalist and wonderful person, beloved by all those who knew him.

Socolow participated in some of the most historic events in network news.  He was there when Cronkite took over as anchor of the CBS Evening News in April 1962, replacing Douglas Edwards.  Then the evening newscast aired for 15 minutes.  In an interview with CNN, Socolow recounted, "The first night up, he ended the show by saying, I'm paraphrasing, 'That's the news. Be sure to check your local newspapers tomorrow to get all the details on the headlines we are delivering to you.'"

Management did not like that. "In the absence of anything else, he came up with 'That's the way it is.'" But Socolow remembered CBS News President Richard Salant's reaction, "We're not telling them that's the way it is. We can't do that in 15 minutes,' which was the length of the show in those days. 'That's not the way it is.'"  But Cronkite prevailed.

Socolow was there in September 1962 when the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite became the first network newscast to expand to a half-hour.  The broadcast featured a lengthy interview with President John Kennedy filmed at his family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.  The president would be assassinated just 81 days later in Dallas, Texas.  An emotional Cronkite announced to the nation,  "From Dallas, Texas, the (AP) flash, apparently official:  'President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.' (glancing up at clock) 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago."

Socolow worked with Cronkite during the tumultuous 60's, covering the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the Vietnam War.  When Cronkite returned from Vietnam in February 1968, where he went to get a reporter's view of the war, Socolow recalled that Salant urged him to share his opinion on the evening news.  But Cronkite was reluctant to do so, "He was a purist," Socolow said. "And, a lot of people would say, to a fault, if there can be a fault in such a definition."

Cronkite agreed to share his opinion in a prime time news special, not on the evening newscast.  After observing that the U.S. military was mired in a stalemate, Cronkite said, "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out (of the Vietnam War) then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could." 

The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite dominated the ratings throughout the 70's, including during the Watergate crisis and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  Socolow served as CBS News' Washington Bureau Chief from Watergate to President Jimmy Carter's term in office, where he endured the contentious relationship between the Nixon White House and CBS News.

He then served as the final executive producer of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  Socolow noted that Cronkite wanted "To retire as undefeated champ, and he made his views known." On Friday, March 6, 1981, nearly 30 million people watched as Cronkite signed off for a final time,  "And that's the way it is, Friday, March 6, 1981. I'll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night."  Socolow continued as executive producer during the Rather transition before taking over as CBS News London Bureau Chief.

Socolow was born in the Bronx on November 11, 1928.  He worked on the school newspaper while attending Stuyvesant High School.  Socolow remembered being at New York's Polo Grounds watching the New York Giants when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  "The public address announcer was heard to say, ‘All active military personnel report to their stations,'" he remembered, "and the game continued."

His parents, who were both immigrants, wanted him to be an accountant because "they will always be needed."  So he attended City College, "because it was free," but dropped accounting after one semester for liberal arts.  He worked at the campus newspaper and became a stringer at the school for the New York Times.   North Korea invaded South Korea on the day Socolow graduated from college.  He was drafted and sent to Japan where, because of his New York Times experience, he was assigned to a radio group in Tokyo.

Following the Korean War he landed a job at the International News Agency (INS), which was a news service run by Hearst.  Because of his junior status at INS, he was assigned to cover Marilyn Monroe's weeklong visit to the U.S. troops in Korea.

He had made many reporter friends at CBS News during the Korean War, and they would lobby their management to hire Socolow.  He was hired by CBS News in 1956 to work in the Edward R. Murrow operation for $125 a week, "before taxes."  Soon Socolow would begin writing and producing for Cronkite, and their personal and professional relationship would continue until Cronkite's death in 2009, decades after they each left CBS.

Sandy Socolow is survived by his sons Jonathan and Michael, and daughter Elisabeth.  As word of his death spread throughout the industry, many of his former colleagues shared their thoughts on Facebook.  Long-time CBS News London correspondent Tom Fenton wrote, "Sandy was one of the best and brightest newsmen of the golden age of CBS News. He was also a warm and generous person, a great boss and a delightful friend. He will be greatly missed by all of us who knew him." 

And that is the way it is.  

(Sandy Socolow was a mentor to me, a wise and loving man who had a huge impact on my life. God bless him, and my deepest condolences and prayers for his family.   They will have a private burial for their father, and a memorial service is in the works for March or April.)
Sandy Socolow and Joe Peyronnin 9/14
 View and extended interview with Socolow by the Archive of American Television 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The State of the Union

For the first time in his presidency, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address to a Republican controlled Congress.  Yet he spoke with confidence and ease as he laid out a progressive agenda for the final two years of his presidency.

Noting that the U.S. economy had rebounded from the 2007-2009 recession, the president said, "the shadow of crisis has passed," as he challenged Congress to take up a series of domestic programs targeted at the middle class.  "Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?" the president asked.  "Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort."

In his address, the president called on Congress to enhance tax credits for education and childcare, to make community college free for most students, and to impose new taxes and fees on the very high-income earners and financial institutions.  The president also called for more investment in America's infrastructure.  At one he chided the Republican's push to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.  "Let's set our sites higher than a single oil pipeline," the president said.  Republicans have repeatedly criticized the president for dragging his feet on Keystone, which they claim will lower gas prices and add thousands of jobs.

The president asked for Republicans to "turn the page," citing recent improvements in the economy, including job growth, falling deficits, and a dramatic slowing of the growth of health care costs.  He also defended the Affordable Health Care Act, his recent executive action on immigration, and his move to normalize relations with Cuba for the first time in 50 years.  According to several new polls, the president has enjoyed a boost in his approval ratings since his party's defeat in November's midterm elections.   "The verdict is clear," the president said, "Middle-class economics works.  Expanding opportunities works.  And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics does not get in the way."

On foreign policy, the president called on Congress to pass a resolution that would authorize him to use military power against the Islamic State, or ISIL.  Many have called on Congress to debate America's role in the fight on terror, but to date it has not done so.  The president warned that, "The effort will take time...It will require focus.  But we will succeed."  The president also urged Congress not to pass additional sanctions on Iran before negotiations on its nuclear program are finished.

Throughout his address, President Obama was comfortable and at times cocky.  When he noted he has no more campaigns to run, a cheer came from the Republican side of the chamber.  The president responded, "I know because I won both of them."  This ad-libbed retort angered many Republicans.  One noted later, "You can't take politics out of a politician even if he doesn't have any more elections in front of him."

While the president's address was ambitious and progressive, many of his proposals are not likely to go anywhere in a Republican controlled Congress that is focused on undoing or rolling back the president's Affordable Health Care Act, immigration executive actions, and investigating Benghazi and the IRS "scandals."  Republicans have the numbers and they are determined to keep President Obama, Democrats and likely presidential frontrunner Secretary Hillary Clinton on the defensive all the way to the 2016 national elections.

After all, you can't take the politics out of a politician.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Interview

Seeing a movie is always a wonderful way for many families to spend Christmas Eve.  And this year many gathered in front of a television set to watch The Interview streamed on the web.

The Interview has been the source of enormous controversy in recent weeks.  The plot of this silly comedy is centered on an attempt to assassinate North Korea's dictatorial and maniacal leader, Kim Jong Un.  Its stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco, who play show producer Aaron Rapoport and talk show host Dave Skylark, land an interview with Un because the leader is a big fan of their show. 

The morning after host Skylark announced he had secured a worldwide exclusive interview with Un, the CIA came knocking at his door.  "We want you to take him out," the beautiful woman agent tells Skylark and producer Rapoport, who were recovering from an all-night orgy.  This may have been the sanest and funniest moment of this otherwise idiotic movie. 

To describe The Interview as sophomoric would be a compliment for this film that is replete with sex, references to masturbation, penises, and offensive language.  In fact, the foul language is so overused that George Carlin must be rolling over in his grave. 

Yet the movie has been caught up in an unprecedented global controversy involving hacking, censorship and threats against theaters slated to show the film.

At first, embarrassing emails were released by a group claiming to be the "Guardians of Peace" involving Sony executives and several key Hollywood figures.  Several news publications and television programs published the painfully candid and snarky emails, which then became front page fodder for tabloids around the world.   The media was then attacked for releasing confidential communications, all to no avail.

As The Interview's release date approached, theaters received retaliatory threats.  In response, major theater chains cancelled their showings and Sony dropped its plans for a Christmas Day release.   This decision brought on cries of censorship.

President Barack Obama said Sony's move was a mistake.  American intelligence concluded that the North Koreans had been centrally involved in the Sony hacking and threats.  Under enormous pressure, Sony reversed itself and arranged to release the movie on Christmas Eve in 331 independently owned theaters and online. 

Viewership for The Interview has been strong, giving Sony an unexpected Christmas present.  But the studio will likely lose $20 million in revenue this holiday weekend according to some estimates.

This all seems like a bizarrely outlandish Hollywood movie plot, but it is not.  It is most unfortunate that the principle of artistic freedom is being debated over such a bad movie.   Because of its alleged actions, North Korea has created enormous interest in a film that, otherwise, may have quickly turned into a DVD/Blue Ray release. 

Thank you North Korea, and bah humbug Kim Jong Un.