Monday, November 30, 2009

Bernie Birnbaum

News anchors often speak about the people who work behind the scenes and make it all possible. Well, for most of his life, CBS News producer Bernie Birnbaum made it all possible for hundreds of people at CBS News. In a business filled with legends, Bernie was a legend.

Everyone loved and respected Bernie. He worked with all the greats, especially when CBS News was the most powerful broadcast news organization in the 60's and 70's. A former Fulbright scholar, he produced for Walter Cronkite, Charles Kuralt, Roger Mudd and worked with Fred Friendly, Howard Stringer and Don Hewitt.

While not great in stature, barely five-feet tall, he was a great person. He said hello to everyone, often with a smile and a quip,; he frequently had a devilish look on his face. He knew just about everything about everyone. He certainly knew where to find every piece of video ever shot by CBS News.

Yet he was a whirlwind of ideas and enthusiasm. He understood the fundamental principles of journalism, in fact he probably helped write them. Yet while he was a traditional journalist, he quickly and easily embraced change in technology and program requirements. He was honest, decent, a man of enormous integrity and a gigantic heart.

Bernie died at the age of 89 on this past Thanksgiving Day. He certainly had a wonderful lifetime to be thankful for. But those of us who worked with him are equally thankful for his friendship and support. He was a true legend.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Some Final Thoughts on Thanksgiving 2009

Happy Thanksgiving. On this day I am truly grateful for all of my many blessings. I am thankful for my wonderful family. I am grateful for a lifetime of terrific friends. I am thankful to our military for their courageous service. And I am thankful to be an American, the greatest country on earth.

I am grateful that I chose to be a journalist, and for my former colleagues at CBS News, Fox News and Telemundo/NBC News. I am grateful to have an opportunity to teach journalism at New York University, the students are all great. I am grateful to have worked with and known Walter Cronkite, Don Hewitt, Ron Silver, among those friends who died this past year.

Yet while I am so grateful I can't help but be reminded of those who are not so lucky, especially this year.

About one in five Americans were hungry at some point this year. On the Upper East Side of New York City homeless people sleep every night in the entryway of a famous church surrounded by multi-million dollar condominiums, coops and townhouses. Wealthy people frequently pass by while walking their dogs after dinner.

About 40 million Americans do not have health insurance. I know of someone who contracted cancer and now is having difficulty getting health insurance because she has a preexisting condition. I know of someone who left a job and started his own business that is struggling to get health insurance. I know a young boy who has brain cancer. His family's efforts to find a cure for him have been slowed by insurance companies.

It is estimated that more than 10% of eligible Americans cannot get full time work. I know some people who have been out of work for a long time. They are smart and skilled at their profession yet they were laid off because of the economic downturn and changes in business models and technology. The unemployment rate is still increasing at an alarming rate throughout the country.

Millions of Americans have either defaulted on their home mortgage or are on the verge of doing so in the next few months. Many more are "under water" as the value of their home is well below the amount of their mortgage. Little is being done to slow this serious problem. Of course, credit card companies with high interest rates and penalties are hosing many of these same Americans.

While a few powerful investment banks are setting record profits and paying huge bonuses, dozens more are near bankruptcy. Banking regulations have not been improved, and the fat cats are not loaning money to average Americans. Rather they are making money off financial investments, many of which are financed with government loans at zero interest. Wall Street and Main Street are worlds apart.

Our country is involved in two wars, where thousands of American soldiers have died or been injured. While there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent for uncertain long-term gain. Meanwhile, the threat of terrorism is ever present.

The country remains polarized, and the shouting is louder than at any time in recent memory. Short-term political gain and local agendas have paralyzed our government.

So while I have plenty to be thankful for, on this great American holiday I can't help but wonder about the future for my daughter and my country. Yet I remain optimistic that the very characteristics that have made our country great for more than two centuries will lead us to even brighter days ahead.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Rogue Review

I couldn't resist reading former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's book, especially after viewing excerpts of her television blitz on Oprah and Barbara Walters. The book is Palin's effort to reintroduce herself to America, as well as to cash-in on her popularity.

I found the first half of the book to be an interesting account of her childhood in Alaska. I could hear her voice as I read about hunting trips, like one where her father bagged a moose and offered his young daughter the animal’s still warm eyeballs. Outdoors is a vital source of food and entertainment in the largely rural Alaska. National network television programs were not aired live in Alaska back then, rather they were delayed as much as a week. Palin's father didn't want to know the final football scores until he had seen the tape-delayed game. Palin says she developed a love for books because of her mother, reading Jack London's "The Call of The Wild" and "The Wizard of Oz."

When Todd Palin and his family moved to town during high school, she was immediately attracted to him. At one point he tried to kiss her and she ran away. She was embarrassed when Todd told all his friends about the incident. They talked to each other each night via hand held two-way radios until truckers began interrupting their conversations. Todd worked hard to earn money and landed a position in the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, several hundred miles from Wassila.

On August 29, 1988, they decided to elope, recruiting two residents from an old people's home to witness the ceremony. Palin writes that she and Todd could not stand being away from each other anymore. They celebrated at a nearby Wendy's, and later informed their parents. On April 20, 1989, 7 months and 21 days after they suddenly were married, baby Track was born. Track was named after track, as in Palin was on the track team.

The book begins to shift to her life in politics, starting with council member and later mayor of Wasilla. This is when she says she began knocking heads to hold down costs, wipe out corruption and help small businesses. She began developing enemies who would later come back to haunt her in 2008. She failed in a run at lieutenant governor and then later she was elected governor in a surprise result. As governor she says she continued her focus on costs, reform and investing in energy.

Governor Palin devotes much of the rest of the book to telling her side of the 2008 election; it is payback time. She blames McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt, advisor Nicole Wallace and her husband, Mark (she says he has a terrible temper), and other staffers for most of her problems. She says Nicolle Wallace pushed the Katie Couric interview because the CBS News anchor suffered from low self-esteem. She blames Couric for "gotcha" questions, asking her views of abortion again and again, and leaving her substantive answers on the cutting room floor. "Couric wasn't interested in substance," she wrote. She accuses Couric and the mainstream media of bias.

Palin blames the controversy over her wardrobe on McCain campaign staffers. She insists they wanted her to dispose of her usual outfits and wear expensive designer label clothes. The campaign supplied hair and makeup that she was ordered to undergo, "I always did my own makeup." Her new makeup and wardrobe team had worked with Katie Couric. Press releases went out in her name that she did not write and did not agree with. For instance, the first press release issued after their daughter Bristol's pregnancy became public. Further, she didn't like the responses the McCain campaign prepared for her to rehearse in advance of her debate appearance.

Palin did not agree with McCain's strategy to suspend his campaign for the crashing economy, "that's a strategy the vice president's team didn't agree with." She attacks the campaign team for micromanaging her campaign and making too many mistakes. It should be noted that Schmidt and Wallace deny Palin's charges and Senator John McCain has come out in support of his former staffers.

What is missing in this book are serious in-depth proposals for dealing with foreign policy, or the complicated economic mess the previous administration got this country in to, or how she will significantly reduce unemployment, or cut trillions from the nation's deficit, or reform health care or reduce hunger in America. Instead, what passes for policy with Palin are the standard conservative talking points--lower taxes, lower deficits, less government and a strong defense.

Her bitter sniping throughout the book makes her seem more like a diva than a humble everyday small town girl. She comes off as ambitious and self-consumed, more like Paris Hilton than Clara Barton or Pearl S. Buck, both of whom she admired. Yet there is a populist streak in Sarah Palin that many conservatives embrace. After all, going rogue does have its appeal. And, while Palin is very polarizing, this book does give conservatives hope that she will be a powerful voice on their behalf for years to come.

Yet it will take more than whining for Sarah Palin to begin winning over the rest of America.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Betcha Gotcha

Never underestimate how much shear chutzpah, ambition and attractiveness can get a person in this day and age. Try at least $1.2 million.

Take former Republican vice presidential candidate and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who stands to make a fortune from her personal memoir, "Going Rogue." Meanwhile, a lot of media personalities are capitalizing on her box office drawing power for their own benefit. Only in America!

Palin's 413 page memoir was written at break neck speed with ghostwriter Lynn Vincent, who also helped write “Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party.” HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch, will publish a first run of 1.5 million copies.

The Associated Press bought a copy of the book and has printed some of the book's most controversial content. This led Palin to criticize AP for "erroneously reporting the contents of the book" in a Facebook sales pitch Friday, and to ask her fans to "keep your powder dry, read the book."

In “Going Rogue” Palin writes about her childhood, her family, Alaska and the 2008 presidential campaign. Palin says she did the interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric as a favor to her because she felt sorry for Couric’s low ratings. She was asked to do so by Nicole Wallace, a senior John McCain presidential campaign adviser and former CBS News consultant.

The Couric interview took place over several days and covered a wide range of topics. In her book, Palin now describes Couric as condescending, biased and "badgering." And she says CBS News left the most substantive content from the interview on the cutting room floor. Palin says she was taken aback by what she calls Couric's "gothca" questions. For instance, this exchange:

"COURIC: And when it comes to establishing your world view, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this — to stay informed and to understand the world?

PALIN: I’ve read most of them again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media —

COURIC: But what ones specifically? I’m curious.

PALIN: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years.

COURIC: Can you name any of them?

PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news."

This interview was widely viewed, including by members of the McCain/Palin campaign, as devastating for Palin. Since her selection at the Republican convention her popularity had been soaring. The Couric interview was a turning point in the 2008 presidential election.

Friday, CBS News President Sean McManus reacted to Palin’s charges, "In this case, I really do think that the quality of the interview and the quality of the questions speak for themselves." He went on, "It's really difficult for me to think that any of the questions were unfair or any of them were questions that a vice presidential candidate shouldn't be expected to receive."

Palin also criticizes ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson for his arrogance and line of questioning. For instance:

"GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?

PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?

GIBSON: The Bush -- well, what do you -- what do you interpret it to be?

PALIN: His world view.

GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war.

PALIN: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made. And with new leadership, and that's the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better.

GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?

PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend."

Of course, the "Bush doctrine" was well covered by all the newspapers and news magazines for weeks before and after the Iraq war. This wasn't a trick question, nor was the question he asked that led her to observe you can see Russia from Alaska. Nor was the question two weeks later by Couric asking what newspaper's Palin read "to understand the world."

In "Going Rogue" Palin also criticizes the McCain campaign for keeping her bottled up, for making her pay $50,000 in "vetting" expenses, making her wear fancy clothes and mishandling her teen daughter's pregnancy announcement. Particularly noteworthy is that her almost son-in-law, Levi Johnson, is not mentioned in the book.

Now Governor Palin takes her book campaign on the road. Beginning with Grand Rapids, Michigan, she will visit states that any aspiring Republican presidential candidate would target. She has television interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters and Rush Limbaugh. And then she runs the gauntlet on Fox News (owned by Rupert Murdoch), Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren.

Remember, no gotcha questions, please!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day

Today our nation pays tribute to those brave American soldiers who have defended and are defending our freedoms and rights. America is an idea and it is also an ideal.

Americans fought in Lexington and Concorde, west of the Mississippi and in Mexico, at Bull Run and Gettysburg, at Cantigny and the Marne, at Iwo Jima and Northern Africa, at the 37th parallel, at Saigon and Vientiane, in Beirut and Panama, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. They fought on the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, they fought in the air. They came from different social and cultural backgrounds, the consisted of many different religions and races, and their ancestors came from every corner of the world. Each war was fought against those who wished to destroy this country and for the preservation of American ideals. Because of their heroic sacrifice and courage America has prevailed for more than 200 years.

These soldiers, sailors and airmen, as well as their families, make huge personal sacrifices in order to defend our ideal. Deployment weighs heavily on these families, whether its Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe or the Far East, especially when tours of duty are extended. The military is a very special community that pulls together and endures in a time of crisis. Still the heinous and callous acts of murder committed by a gunman last Thursday at Ft. Hood were shocking and nearly too much to take.

"No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor," President Barack Obama told the crowd gathered yesterday at Ft. Hood for a memorial service. "And for what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice -- in this world and the next." These reassuring words did provide some comfort for this special community has been though so much.

In President Obama's words, "I think all of us - every single American - must acknowledge that this generation has more than proved itself the equal of those who have come before. We need not look to the past for greatness, because it is before our very eyes."

Thank you

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Election Day 2009

The Republican Party enjoyed two key victories in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races thus halting the Democrat's momentum. While the results should concern the White House, Republicans have plenty to worry about as well.

It is a truism in politics that after a party wins the White House it loses ground in midterm elections. For example, take New Jersey. Democrats had hoped that President Barack Obama's continued popularity would lift Governor Jon Corzine across the finish line. But Gov. Corzine was a weak candidate who spent a personal fortune on a largely negative campaign. Exit Polls indicate that 60% of those interviewed said President Obama was not a factor in their decision. And those who said he was a factor split evenly on the question between negative and positive.

It was just one year ago that young as well as minority voters poured into voting booths in record numbers across the nation inspired by a very special candidate with a powerful message of change. Yesterday, according to exit polls, a majority of voters in both New Jersey and Virginia said President Obama had no impact on their vote. In fact, turnout was low in most of the elections yesterday. The young and minority voters were not motivated enough to come out and vote. Is this a symptom of a bigger problem for Democrats in 2010? Could the president have had a favorable impact had he delivered on his pledge to change Washington, even just a little?

Many Americans voted for President Obama because they wanted change. The economy had been nearly destroyed by financial institutions that were running up record profits on questionable and unregulated trading practices. Now some of these surviving financial institutions, backed taxpayer money, have returned to business as usual. There has been little or no new regulation for this system. Yet millions of Americans are still hurting. Foreclosures continue to increase and unemployment is stuck around an unacceptable 10%.

Many Americans were looking for change in Washington, an end of politics as usual. Yet the raucous debate over health care, the powerful role of special interests and the focus on short term political gains these past few months proves Washington is not ready for reform. Hope for change has been doused with a bucket of cold reality.

Deficits are climbing at record levels and will be passed on to our children. And Americans fear that tax increases and terrible inflation lurks right around the corner. This as they cope with the nightmare of two wars. US soldiers are dying in Iraq, an unnecessary war, and Afghanistan, where there is still no clear strategy for victory or a respectful withdrawal. Today most Afghans view Americans as occupiers, just as they did the Soviets and the English.

Meanwhile, the far left and the far right have become more intense and much louder. The differences have sharpened; the knives have been drawn. It is more than political; it has now become personal. The vast middle, teeming with independents who had sided with President Obama, are being tossed about the main deck as the ship of state is being buffeted by the bluster of partisanship. All of this is being intensified by cable news and bloggers.

The Republicans should be sitting in the catbird seat. Except they have become the party of no, and are now embroiled in their own civil war. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steel and some moderates are now up against the conservative wing led by Former Governor Sarah Palin, Governor Tim Pawlenty and Rush Limbaugh. Never mind that President Ronald Reagan's success was the result of a broad coalition of traditional Republicans and independents. The party came apart in New York's 23rd Congressional District, where conservatives threw their support to a conservative who doesn't even live in the district. The result was a nearly unprecedented win for the Democrats.

There are a few takeaways from yesterday's election. First, for the White House: focus on the economy. Where are the jobs? Where is the financial regulation? Where are the promised budget cuts to lower the country's deficit spending? If there is not some tangible progress with America's economy by 2010 President Obama will be a drag on many Democrats in tightly contested districts.

Second, Governor Corzine: you can't win an election with negative ads when you have nothing positive to say about your own record. In fact, negative ads never work in the long run, even when you do outspend your opponent three to one. It is possible that you will be best remembered as the Governor who attacked his opponent's waistline.

Third, Republicans: what were you thinking in New York's 23rd Congressional District. You managed to cause a backlash in a predominantly Republican district, called national attention to your inept management and brought light to your internal battles.

And finally, no wonder most eligible voters decided not to participate on election day.