Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Winds of Change

An amazing week in politics has come to a close but it is already overshadowed by Hurricane Gustav, which will hit the coast near New Orleans on Labor Day. Nonetheless, this November's presidential election will be historic. America will have either its first African American president or its first woman vice president.

Senator Barack Obama displayed great leadership as he successfully navigated through the turmoil and roiling emotions within the Democratic party to present a unified front on Thursday night. A record 40 million television viewers watched Obama's acceptance speech in which he firmly and articulately laid out his case. It is said that one in five voters typically makes up their mind during the conventions. Democrats and many independents found his performance to be electric and the candidate to be presidential. The Democratic ticket has appealing balance: Obama the "change agent" and Biden the experienced Washington legislator.

On Friday, Senator John McCain showed off his leadership skills as he stole the spotlight with the bold but risky announcement that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin would be his running mate. McCain deployed the tactics of a general on the defensive. He launched an offensive. And with this surge he successfully refocused national attention back on his campaign, froze disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters and forged a bond with the Republican party's right flank while being a maverick.

Today, the contrasts between the candidates are clearer for many potential voters, especially on social issues. And we now have Sarah "the barracuda" going head to head with Joe "the attack dog." But this election remains close. Apart from the issues, it will be interesting to see how the next few weeks play out. Will Hillary supporters line up behind Palin because she is a women, or will they find her political views unacceptable? Has Obama really demonstrated that there is substance and steel behind his eloquence? What impact will McCain's age and health have on voters given the inexperience of his running mate? How will Obama convince voters he can bring about change if he surrounds himself with Washington insiders?

In this match McCain is the experienced jabber. He punches where his opponent may be vulnerable. He wears his battle scars openly; he has survived prison camps and failed presidential runs. He is tough, wily and determined. On the other hand, Obama is strategic, intelligent and unflappable. He has grown enormously during the Democratic primary. Obama bobs and weaves gracefully, but he can sting like a bee. McCain speaks from the gut, Obama is thoughful. McCain is a decorated soldier, Obama is an superb organizer. They are each examples of America's greatness.

But now a devastating hurricane will again test this nation and push presidential politics to the back pages for a few days. Let us pray for those victims who lie in the path of Gustav.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

For the People

"You've got to be an optimist to be a Democrat, but a humorist to stay one." These words from Mark Twain somehow seem appropriate after day two of their convention in Denver.

No mater your political views, Senator Ted Kennedy's appearance was a powerful and dramatic moment. And yes, Senator Hillary Clinton did deliver a powerful and very presidential address last night. But all the back room maneuvering, theatrics and endless media analysis, filling every available second of airtime, has stolen the show. For me, this all raises several questions. Here are a few:

What does this say about the Democratic Party?

What does this say about the leadership skills of Obama?

Are the Clintons the center of the universe?

Why were the opinions of Hillary Clinton's speech expressed on Fox News so vastly different from those expressed on MSNBC?

Why don't commentators focus on the issues?

Based on what I have seen so far from the McCain campaign, I expect the Republican gathering next week in Minnesota will be more of the same.

Is there any question about why so many Americans are disengaged from politics? Democracy may the the least imperfect political system, but there sure is room for improvement.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Biden My Time

I have had a lifelong obsession to be the first to know new information. It is why I became a broadcast journalist. I am constantly on guard, with antennas fully deployed, scanning the Internet, radio and television for the latest news development. It doesn't matter if it's from Atlanta, Georgia, or Tbilisi, Georgia.

This seems to be the best explanation for what happened to me these past couple days. I actually went to the Obama web site and registered to receive his vice presidential announcement. I have always avoided anything that would give even the slightest appearance of a conflict of interest. Nonetheless, I was motivated by my interest in how an Internet mass mailing would look, whether the campaign would be scooped by the media and by my overwhelming desire to be among the first to know.

The anticipation was high on Friday. Cable news channels were filling their airwaves with newzak, repeating predictions and exhaustive analysis of all the alternatives. It had turned into a high stakes game of competitive repetition. The challenge for producers and commentators was how to remain fresh, interesting and edgy while making the same points over and over again.

Live camera crews that were staking out the homes of the three frontrunners provided visuals. Every movement came under intense scrutiny; a normally routine trip to the store, a flower truck delivery, a family gathering. And every word said by a prospective nominee was dissected and bisected by commentators and political consultants for even the most trifling nuanced news nugget. Was it a calculated hint or pettifoggery?

I had been hooked for two days. I carried my Blackberry with me wherever I went. I even set it down next to me on my bedstand at night. I am embarrassed to say I found myself quickly checking the Blackberry every time it vibrated. Perhaps bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase, "what's the buzz?"

Not to my surprise, I did receive several solicitations from Obama supporters in the New York area and policy statements from national officials. All of them provided a link to the Obama site and a request for donations. Using the imminent vice presidential announcement, the Obama camp had cleverly enriched its email list with potential donors and supporters. It had also dominated the political news coverage for several news cycles.

The notion of a mass emailing to "millions" of supporters made me think of how things used to be. For many years I lived in Washington D.C., just around the corner from what had been Senator John F. Kennedy's residence. The three story federal row house, at 3307 N Street NW, straddled a ten foot wide red brick sidewalk. Fifty years ago presidential nominee Kennedy would make important personnel and policy announcements to a gaggle of reporters gathered on this very sidewalk in front of his home. The reporters would then race across the street and take turns filing their reports on the neighbor's one rotary dial phone. A plaque from reporters still hangs on the outside wall of this house today expressing gratitude for use of the phone.

Friday night I could not sleep, even though a cable network commentator reported that campaign officials said the announcement would come on Saturday morning. I was convinced the Obama campaign would try to make the Saturday morning papers.

"Buzz, buzz." An announcement that the USA had won a gold medal. (Oh, I forgot, Olympics.)

"Buzz, buzz." A question from a friend.

"Buzz, buzz." Something from work.

Finally, at one in the morning, it seemed safe for me to fall asleep. And, as I closed my eyes, sure enough, my Blackberry buzzed. "Obama picks Biden," reported the New York Times in an email bulletin. The Obama campaign had been scooped! When I awakened five hours later I found an email from Obama, sent two hours earlier, announcing his selection of Biden.

The cable news channels had veered seamlessly into a frenzy of exhaustive coverage of Biden, his Senatorial record, his compelling personal background and his gaffs. It was all hands on deck, the big guns of political commentary were cued up to provide pithy insights (and spin). One cable news network was particularly focused on Biden's verbal gaffs, while the others focused extensively on his record and personal story.

While competitive repetition filled the airwaves leading up to the afternoon "joint appearance" in Springfield, Illinois, McCain was on the attack. His campaign began airing a political ad using Biden's own words to undermine Obama. Later, Biden would show he too can throw a punch. In his acceptance speech, he would mention that McCain's big worry was "which one of his seven kitchen tables to sit at."

As I unsubscribed from the Obama website, I found myself reflecting on our political process. It is truly sad that spin and perception dominate political campaigns and the comments of pundits. There are so many important issues, and this election is far too critical.

But it has come to this because this is all that Americans demand of their political process.

Friday, August 22, 2008

I am Sugar and Snow

Ah, August in New York City. The pulse has slowed, crowds have thinned and there are plenty of parking spaces! Mother nature seems to be hastening the end of summer with below normal temperatures, generally clear skies and even a full moon.

Not only is summer racing by, but our little girl is growing up much too fast. Zoë will be entering the seventh grade. She is quickly transitioning from a child to a young lady. These past two years she has written poems about her coming of age. And her evolution has truly been remarkable to watch and share. It is amazing what parents can learn from their children.


I am a cupful of trouble and a bowl of sugar
I wonder if I will ever have a best friend
I hear my friend talking to someone I am not crazy about
I feel jealous
I see myself as a gymnast
I want more people to trust
I am a cupful of trouble and a bowl of sugar

I pretend to know more than I do
I feel like an advanced dog when I do something dumb
I touch the clouds
I worry about my death
I cry when I am really jealous
I am a cupful of trouble and a bowl of sugar

I understand that my friend can have a friend other than me
I say things I sometimes shouldn't
I dream about being perfect
I hope everyone likes me
I am a cupful of trouble and a bowl of sugar


All I do
I fall
Falling to where I reach my fate
I land hard on the surface
I know there is some sort of purpose
Even if I don't find out why
I will not just sit on the ground and cry
I have strength
Confidence and more
I know I won't fall on the floor!
About forever I have been falling
Soon I know I will end up crawling
25 more minutes to go
Till I am considered snow!

Sunday, August 17, 2008


It's no surprise that the candidate forum with Pastor Rick Warren provided viewers a meaningful understanding of the candidates and their positions on important issues. Warren's approach to the candidates was a much-needed antidote to the 10-second sound bite, well prepared talking points and the "gotcha" questions.

All too often political campaigns are a battle of the sound bite. Candidates can be blemished by a few words they have misstated or small snippets of comments they make taken out of context. A candidate can be defined by negative advertisements that pound home a clumsy phrase or awkward moment of the campaign. And, in the give and go of our fast paced media world, there is seldom an opportunity or a forum to thoughtfully address issues.

Yes, Warren's forum dealt with issues through faith. And his audience was largely made up of conservative evangelical Christians. Nonetheless, it covered a lot of important ground. And, most importantly, it gave the candidates the opportunity to address important questions in a thoughtful manner. As a result, the contrasts between Senators McCain and Obama were apparent. And their answers revealed much about their character and personalities.

My hope is that there will many such conversations prior to November's general election. Perhaps a leading secular leader from academia or business can step forward to host such a forum. Further, the presidential commission on debates should take a close look to Warren's forum as guidance for structuring their debates.

This is one of the most critical presidential elections in the history of America, too much is at stake to reduce critical issues to dueling sound bites. Pastor Warren, we "gotcha." American does deserve more.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Beijing Olympics

The $300 million Beijing Olympics opening ceremony spectacular combined ingenious uses of technology, five thousand years of Chinese history and 15,000 performers to overpower its more than one billion viewers worldwide. But in China not everything is exactly as it appears. For example, a little girl with a beautiful voice and crooked teeth was replaced during the playing of "Ode to the Motherland" by a lip-sinking mime with a pretty face and perfect teeth.

Nonetheless, the Beijing Olympics is a great source of pride, nationalism and identity for most of the 1.3 billion Chinese. For many the games can briefly divert attention from poverty and offer a sense of hope, the kind of hope that is controlled by the state. To the world China is saying, "we are a major superpower that must be respected."

In the weeks leading up to the Beijing Olympics, much attention was focused on the heavy smog that saturated the environment, threatened athletes and obscured the view. Now winds seem to have cleared the air somewhat and the sun is shinning through more brightly on the thirty-one event venues where superb athletes are smashing records free of political interference.

I first visited China as part of an advance team in February 1984 planning President Reagan's visit. The team was made up of government officials and members of the press. This would be President Reagan's first visit to a communist country, and he would be the first sitting U.S. President to visit China after the two countries established diplomatic relations. Our team visited potential event sites in Beijing, The Great Wall, Xian and Shanghai. We each took careful notes and voluminous amounts of pictures from every angle. The U.S. government team would return to the White House, review their material and propose a schedule to the Chinese government.

China was shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty in 1984. Deng Xiaoping had implemented a "socialist market economy" and the "one-child policy" to stimulate economic growth and limit the country's population. It was "socialism with a Chinese characteristic," and came in the wake of Mao's disastrous Cultural Revolution. The Chinese were struggling with their identity. Communist or capitalist? Closed or open? Soviet or Western?

In 1984, Beijing was in the early stages of modernization. Large modern skyscrapers were being built next to clay and wooden hovels, down the street from intimidating Soviet designed buildings, and not too far from the glorious Forbidden City. Our party stayed in the exclusive Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, and every meal was a multi-course feast.

In Xian, an immense crowd surrounded the entire runway as our military plane landed and taxied; apparently it was the first time a U.S. aircraft had landed at this military airport. Peasants lined the road to the city and gathered outside our hotel. Xian was home to several Chinese dynasties, and it was where thousands of amazing terracotta warriors and horses were buried underground for more than 2,000 years only to be discovered less than ten years prior to our visit. Shanghai was stunning, vibrant and breathtaking, then with a population approaching 15 million people. I jogged in the glorious Bund and shopped for jade at street markets.

That April, I returned to China with President Reagan, via Honolulu and Guam, for his official visit that was generally described as "long on symbolism and short on diplomacy." Following the trip, Reagan is said to have opined that the Chinese "weren't really communists."

In 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made a state visit to China. The Western press had been invited in to cover the visit, so I dispatched CBS News anchor Dan Rather and a team to Beijing, which included my wife, Susan Zirinsky. We were prepared to originate the CBS Evening News live from Tiananmen Square. Simultaneously, a group of Chinese students, who were protesting the lack of political reforms in China, began to gather in Tiananmen Square. Gorbachev departed, and the student protests and hunger strike appeared to be in a lengthy standoff. Some of the CBS News team returned to the U.S. As I arrived in Los Angeles for an affiliates conference, where I would meet the returning Susan, the Chinese government began moving against the students under cover of darkness using unsympathetic troops from rural China. Needless to say, Susan, who had a valid Chinese visa, only spent a few hours in L.A. before she raced back to Beijing to join Dan Rather.

Rather and our local CBS News team dominated the Tiananmen Square uprising. Our satellite uplink, parked at a nearby hotel, made it possible for CBS to provide live coverage. Correspondent Richard Roth was arrested in Tiananmen Square for several hours, details were scarce, and panic ensued, police cracked down. John Sheehan and Bob Simon were among those filing reports and updates for CBS News. (Then English teachers in Beijing, Bob Woodruff and his wife Lee, now with ABC News, worked for CBS News as translators.)

I ran the CBS News coverage from our main New York control room, and I broke into network prime time programming with a live report whenever there was a major development. But the Chinese government finally got around to shutting us down. I received word from CBS News producer Lane Venardos that he was with a government representative who was ordering us to immediately stop using our uplink. There was no negotiating room, shut it down or the Chinese government would shut it down. Instead, I requested that we be allowed to broadcast a little while longer, which would give me time to coordinate a live broadcast across the country where Dan could dramatically "pull the plug." The Chinese representative agreed to wait. So at approximately 11:15pm Eastern Time Dan Rather signed off live for the final time and signaled to our technician to shut the dish down.

No one knows exactly how many people died at Tiananmen Square, estimates run from a few hundred to several thousand. But this would be the first revolution to take place live on television.

In 1994 China had threatened to close down the CBS News Beijing bureau. We had aired controversial reports on China's one-child policy. I went to Beijing to argue the CBS News case with the Chinese Information Ministry. The Chinese capital looked much more modern and built up than in my previous visit 10 years earlier. While I waited for my meeting, I went to the hotel gym. There I worked out on a treadmill next to my CNN counterpart, senior vice president Ed Turner, who was also on a treadmill. Both of us were riveted to the live pictures of OJ Simpson eluding authorities in a white Bronco on a California Highway, courtesy CNN. This would be the first police chase broadcast live around the world.

I had to break off my exercise session to get ready for my meeting. I met the Information Ministry representatives at a restaurant where we enjoyed several courses of Chinese food, including sea slugs. At some point my hosts spent five minutes gently but firmly chastising me for our "misleading" coverage while explaining the necessity of the one-child policy. I made no concessions and no apologies, but they got to issue their warning in person. I recently read that without the one-child policy China's population today would be 300 million larger. That is the size of the U.S. population.

I again returned to China in 1997 with Susan to adopt our daughter, Zoë. This time we traveled from Beijing to Hefei, a city of nearly 5 million inhabitants, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. There were no crowds lining the roads. Zoë was 10 months old when we first met her in a hotel lobby. Later, as we walked through the street markets carrying our precious little child, Chinese women frequently lectured us on how to properly care for our baby. Americans have adopted several thousand Chinese babies, overwhelmingly girls, over the past decade. However, China has recently slowed the process down, perhaps concerned that they will be viewed as the largest exporter of babies. For sure, this problem has nothing to do with crooked teeth.

The Beijing Olympics are certain to be long remembered as a bright shining moment in China's already formidable history. I hope that freedom's winds blow across this great country replacing the dark shroud of a controlled state with the bright optimism of a more open and free society. I believe the Beijing Olympics may be an important step in that direction.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Journalism is not Dead!

In his recent column, Steve Rosenbaum, of The Huffington Post, cynically declared, "Google didn't kill journalism, Don Hewitt did."

Don Hewitt is the legendary creator of the CBS News program 60 Minutes. Rosenbaum writes, "Up to 60 Minutes, journalism wasn't a business - it was a calling." He then continues, "there was no P&L for journalism, it was what the TV networks did to 'give back' to their communities."

First of all, everyone currently working at 60 Minutes believes journalism is very much alive. So do most journalists working in the profession, whether in television, radio, newspapers, magazines or the Internet. However, there is no denying that journalism is undergoing a rapid transformation that is posing great challenges to news standards and its traditional business models.

Similar challenges have been present throughout the history of journalism. After World War II, the advent of television threatened the powerful radio industry. CBS founder William Paley regularly pressured news executives in the forties, fifties and sixties on budget matters. Back then news was not as costly to produce, salaries were relatively modest, and news organizations were small. Radio and television programs would not be green-lighted unless they had a sponsor, and poorly performing shows would be canceled.

Don Hewitt is a television pioneer who helped define broadcast journalism and he is responsible for many of the production techniques you see today. He created 60 Minutes in the late sixties, and it has been the most successful program in television history. Still today it regularly ranks in the top ten of all television programs. During its lifetime it has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for CBS.

However, here again Rosenbaum is wrong when he asserts, "there was a moment when Hewitt could have insisted that 60 Minutes revenues (profits) went to the news division to fund other worthwhile and less profitable journalism." The fact is that 60 Minutes profits did always go to help cover other news division costs. Regretfully, due to higher production costs and lower revenues, the program's profit margin has declined to a fraction of what it was two decades ago.

Because 60 Minutes was so wildly successful, other newsmagazines began to appear (imitation is the highest form of television). 20/20 and Primetime on ABC, Dateline on NBC, and CBS News created West 57th, Street Stories, Eye to Eye with Connie Chung and 48 Hours. Corporate finance executives supported these programs because they are cheaper to produce than sitcoms or dramas. But entertainment executives resisted expanding the role of newsmagazines because their viewership skews very old, they earn lower rates from advertisers and they take valuable real estate away from traditional entertainment producers.

Rosenbaum recalls "being in the office of the executive producer of 48 Hours when the head of the entertainment division called - screaming...the ratings for the night before...were and entertainment where supposed to be separated by a wall." This happened occasionally at 48 Hours because the entertainment division wanted to kill the program, and the show's executive producer frequently lobbied the west coast to keep the program on the schedule. The conflict existed because a news program slotted in an entertainment time period was judged by the same standards as an entertainment program. Yet more news programming meant more revenues and influence for the news division.

Today, driven by technological advancements and increased competition on multiple platforms, journalism is rapidly evolving. Old business models are dying as advertising revenue is shifting away from traditional media, such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television to the Internet and mobile.

The good news is that journalism is more readily accessible today than it was forty years ago. One challenge has been to produce high quality content more quickly while maintaining accuracy in an era of instant communications. Another is journalists find they need to offer more perspective and analysis to help people sort out the flood of information being unleashed every day. But the key to being successful in journalism still is, in Don Hewitt's own words, "great stories, well-told."

No, journalism is not dying. And Don Hewitt is my hero!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Another Year

It's official, another year has flown by. Today is my birthday. The older I get, the faster it goes. And where it stops, well, that we all know.

I don't think of myself as old. I greet each day with energy, enthusiasm and optimism. I recognize I have a great life and a wonderful family. Yet, while I feel much the same as I did thirty years ago, I have come to recognize that I have increasing physical limitations. My best days in golf, basketball and baseball are long behind me. Nonetheless, I am a very happy man.

So, now that I am one year older and a little bit wiser, let me share some wisdom with you.

Top Ten signs you are getting old:

10. You finally get around to reading those books that were assigned
to you in high school

9. You notice everyone calls you "sir"

8. You complain about today's music
(Just like your parents did when you were young)

7. After thinking Mick Jagger looks way too old to be strutting around on stage, you suddenly remember he's about your age

6. A twelve year old beats you in a fifty-yard dash

5. You really like watching the evening newscasts

4. Your wife starts being nice to you (most of the time)

3. Movie theaters give you their senior citizens rate

2. Little old ladies offer you their seat on the subway

1. You have more hair in your ears than on top of your head

Getting old is not so bad.