Sunday, August 28, 2011

Goodnight Irene

Hurricane Irene pummeled New York City Saturday night and Sunday with nearly twenty-four hours of torrential rains and high winds. The storm left behind severe local flooding, falling trees, and some power outages as surging seas overran beaches, sea walls and piers throughout the region. But the "city that never sleeps" dodged a bullet.

The heavy rain began in the Big Apple at about 8pm Saturday evening. Sheets of water pounded skyscrapers, townhouses and city streets. Rivers of water rushed down avenues to lower ground where it accumulated into ponds, puddles and many basements. The intense downpour obscured the "neon lights on Broadway;" its usually bustling sidewalks were virtually empty. Below the surface New York's famous subway system sat idle, having already been shut down midday Saturday.

Every local television news organization went into "wall-to-wall coverage" as did the cable news channels. Intrepid reporters chanced hurricane force winds, rain and high water to do "live shots" everywhere from Battery Park to the southern tip of New Jersey. Seeing a correspondent leaning into the wind and driving rain while reporting on the local effects of the hurricane has now become a cliché. Perhaps journalism schools should add a course, "Hurricane 101"! Many reporters filed live reports while driving through flooded streets in extra heavy "mobile units" laden with the latest in broadcast technology.

By mid afternoon Sunday the rain had pretty much ended in New York City, but winds at 45 to 50 miles per hour persisted as the backside of the hurricane passed through. City officials tried to close Central Park, but joggers, bikers and hikers ignored warning signs posted at each entrance. Debris filled the walkways, paths and roads, but it did nothing to discourage activities. Neither did Park Rangers who had little luck in diverting traffic out of the park.

The fact is that Hurricane Irene is responsible for at least 18 deaths and billions of dollars in damage throughout the East Coast. Even with all of the scientific tools available to weathermen, hurricanes are difficult to predict with precision. For instance, in 2004 it took just three hours for Hurricane Charley to strengthened from winds of 110 mph to winds of 145 mph. Had Irene had winds of 150 mph, New York City would have been devastated and perhaps hundreds of its citizens would have been killed. So Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Chris Christie did the right thing ordering evacuations from low-lying areas and shutting down mass transit. In short, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Nonetheless, some critics now say predictions were overblown, that the populace was unnecessarily threatened, that media and government officials hyped the storm. The Drudge Report carried a headline that read: "IRENE: A PERFECT STORM OF HYPE..." But many of the same people who now complain would have been the first to scream and howl if the storm had been a monster and the preparations weak. Somehow it seems that politics must enter into everything nowadays.

The full affects of Hurricane Irene have not been yet been felt in some low-lying areas prone to flooding in the Northeast, especially Vermont and Upstate New York. Nonetheless, Hurricane Irene is an important reminder just how powerful and unpredictable Mother Nature can be.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

All Hair, No Cattle?

Now that Texas Governor Rick Perry has thrown his hat into the ring for the GOP presidential nomination he is beginning to get more national scrutiny. While conservatives may like what they hear, he will likely have to temper his views if he wants to do well with independent voters who are essential to winning the White House.

On paper, Rick Perry has a compelling life story. He was born Paint Creek, Texas, about 60 miles north of Abilene. As a child he worked hard on his family's ranch, he joined the Boy Scouts and later became an Eagle Scout. He graduated from Texas A&M University and served in the United States Air Force flying C-130's.

Governor Perry began his political career in 1984 when he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives as a Democrat from his home county of Haskell. He supported Al Gore in the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries as chairman of the Gore campaign in Texas. Then in 1989 Perry announced that he was joining the Republican Party.

Governor Perry then ran and was elected Agriculture Commissioner twice. In 1998 he decided to run for Lieutenant Governor and narrowly won, becoming the first Republican to hold that office since Reconstruction. In December 2000 he assumed the state's governorship when then Governor George W. Bush resigned. Governor Perry was subsequently reelected twice as governor.

Texas has had a rapidly growing population throughout Governor Perry's three terms. It has also enjoyed strong economic growth, which the governor calls the "Texas Miracle." And the Texas governor says his state is responsible for "more than 40% of all new jobs created in America" since June 2009. However, critics say that a large number of those jobs came in the state's booming gas and oil industry, fueled by higher prices. And a substantial percentage of the new jobs were in government.

His opponents also say that much of Texas's job growth has been in low-paying jobs. And there are now strong signs that the growth is slowing. Last month, the Texas jobless rate increased to 8.4%, not far below the national average of 9.1%, and higher than any of Texas's bordering states.

The governor cites several reasons for the Texas Miracle: low taxes, less regulation and tightly-managed state spending. Nonetheless, Texas has had to deal with huge deficits. In 2010-11 Governor Perry used $6.4 billion in Recovery Act money (President Barack Obama's stimulus funding) to plug a $6.6 billion state deficit. And in 2011 he pushed through budget reductions of $15 billion, mostly from schools and health care, refusing to instead raise taxes or use some of the state's $9 billion "rainy day" funds. Texas is already ranked 37th among all states in "per-pupil" education spending, and 5.8 million Texans do not have health insurance, a quarter of its population. So is it a miracle or myth?

Governor Perry is known for his swagger and straight talk. For instance, when recently speaking of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke he said, "If this guy prints more money, I don't know what you all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas." He concluded, "Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous or treasonous in my opinion." Republican strategist Karl Rove responded on Fox News, "You don't want to accuse the Federal Reserve chairman of being guilty of a crime punishable by death, which is what treason is."

In April 2009 Governor Perry raised the possibility that Texas could secede from the United States. "When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation. And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we're kind of thinking about that again." A spokesman later denied that the governor advocates secession.

Last week the governor spoke to a young boy about creationism at a campaign stop. "In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools, because I figured you're smart enough to figure out which one is right," he said. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teaching creationism in public schools is unconstitutional because it amounts to the endorsement of religion. Later Governor Perry addressed the issue again, "God may have done it in the blink of the eye or he may have done it over this long period of time, I don't know. But I know how it got started."

The governor immediately turned to God when commenting shortly after last year's devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He said, "I hope we don't see a knee-jerk reaction across this country that says we're going to shut down drilling in the Gulf of Mexico...From time to time there are going to be things that occur that are acts of God that cannot be prevented."

Last week, Governor Perry's spoke about climate change while in New Hampshire, "I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects." He continued, "I think we're seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change." But, in fact, several surveys of climate researchers show that as many as 98% of them believe in the concept of man-made climate change.

In a book he wrote last year, "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington," the Texas governor is blunt about Social Security, calling it an "illegal Ponzi scheme." His spokesman recently said that the governor will do nothing to cut Social Security. In Fed Up! Governor Perry also writes about states' rights, "If you don't support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don't come to Texas." During his 11 years as governor there have been 234 executions in Texas, far more than any other state.

Over the next few months, Republican presidential candidates will vigorously compete for their party's nomination. So far, according to polls, Governor Perry is among the front-runners. Now a spotlight has been intensely focused on his record and his statements. He is also being attacked by his Republican opponents.

Should Perry get his party's nomination he will have to appeal more to voters in the center to prevail in November 2012. And he may be haunted by the memory of a recent president from Texas who walked with swagger and ushered in a great recession.

The country's rapid economic recovery is certain to be the key issue in 2012. And that may actually call for a real miracle.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Remembering Lane Venardos: 1944-2011

Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, Lesley Stahl and Charles Kuralt are among the giants who have been the public faces of broadcast news over the past four decades. But just out of the public spotlight, whether in glittering world capitols or war-torn hellholes, there worked behind the scenes some legendary figures that were held in the highest esteem by their peers. On Friday Lane Venardos, one of the news industry's greatest producers and executives, died at his home in Hawaii.

Lane was a very special person who combined a fiercely competitive spirit, a strong commitment to professionalism and integrity with a wonderful effervescent personality. For nearly thirty years he personified what was great about CBS News.

Lane was an exceptional executive producer because he had a clear vision, he communicated effectively and he was always incredibly organized. "No detail too small" he would often say. His approach would earn him more than a dozen Emmy awards. As an executive producer and then vice president of CBS News his energetic leadership style won respect from all those who worked with him.

Lane was born in post-war Alton, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He was a product of America's heartland. He started in radio news and had a booming radio voice. "Tall tower full power!" he would frequently blurt out even years after jumping to television. That transition would take place in Chicago in the early seventies where he served as assistant news director at WBBM-TV News. It wasn't long before CBS News recruited him.

In the late seventies, as a producer for The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in Washington, he helped modernize television coverage of the White House. He applied organization and the latest technologies to presidential trip coverage around the world. He soon was promoted to senior producer. Sir Howard Stringer, now CEO of Sony and then the newly appointed CBS Evening News executive producer, brought him to New York to work with Dan Rather. When Howard was promoted to the CBS News front office two years later Lane took over as executive producer of the broadcast.

For four years in the mid-eighties he served as the executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, and he was proud to point out the broadcast was number one in the ratings during his entire tenure. "The CBS Evening News brings people together every day even for only a brief period of time." he once said. "That carries a special responsibility."

In the late eighties Lane took on the role of vice president of special events coverage. He was the executive producer of 48 Hours on Crack Street, the premier broadcast of that series. Lane led CBS News' presidential election specials, campaign coverage and dozens of specials on major news stories. He led the CBS News operations in Beijing, China, for its highly acclaimed coverage of the student uprising at Tiananmen Square. He was also executive producer of such CBS News specials as Remember Pearl Harbor, Eye on the Earth, and William S. Paley: Tribute to a Broadcasting Giant.

In the early nineties he was promoted to vice president of hard news. There he ran all of CBS News day-to-day news coverage and worldwide bureaus. He was as outstanding an executive as he had been an executive producer.

He retired from CBS News in the late nineties but did not retire from television. His subsequent television credits included several Survivor series, The Apprentice, The Contender and The Biggest Loser.

Yet, for all these considerable accomplishments, friends and colleagues will best remember Lane’s extraordinary sense of humor and personality. "Let's get out there and scratch that surface!" he would often quip. Working with him, no matter how difficult the task, was always fun. His energy, his passion and his down to earth character were incredibly endearing. And he was deeply admired for his strong family commitment.

Lane Venardos was a great friend to thousands of broadcasters throughout the world. For them, Lane Venardos is a legend in television news.


A few LANE-isms

A greeting: "Good luck in your own personal career!"
Booming radio voice: "Tall tower, full power!...50 thousand watts, clear channel...broadcasting from the heart of the capital...the capital city's number ONE source for the golden tones of (insert your name)."
Answering the phone: "Good morning. miracle productions."
Comment during a failed video feed: "It looked good leaving here, New York."
Inspring the troops: "Let's get out there and scratch that surface."
Killing a package: "Boom, boom, boom, boom, you're piece is dead."
Or: "On any other day your story would have been the lede!"
Setting expectations: "Never make the same mistake once."
On being human: "No good deed goes unpunished."
Hard work: "If it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing."
Organization: "No detail too small."
On television investigative reporting. "Your report should be like a rock skipping across the top of the water, never too deep as to slow down the story."
On praise: "You're only as good as your next piece."
Avoiding controvery: "Life is lonely in the middle."
The producer's apology when caught being sneaky: "I don't know how it happened, I am sorry, it will never happen again."
The producer's pledge: "You have my word as a producer!"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bold Leadership

As Republican presidential candidates intensely jockey for position the White House is having internal debates over what approach President Barack Obama should take on the struggling U.S. economy. With fifteen months to go until the 2012 presidential election, President Obama must begin to turn things around if he is to be reelected to a second term.

The Iowa straw poll and the Republican debate last Thursday, while showing deep divisions within that party, manifested great unity among the candidates in a common purpose to defeat President Obama. Contenders bashed the president's failure to right the economy and lead the nation toward recovery. They attacked the burgeoning annual deficits the Obama administration has incurred and they slammed the lack of progress on the nation's painfully high unemployment rate, which is still more than 9%.

Of course, Republican candidates blamed President Obama for Standard and Poor's downgrade of the U.S. credit rating. Never mind that S&P did not single out the president in its report, "The prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process."

President Obama did inherit from President George W. Bush the worst recession since the Great Depression. And recent revisions in economic data show that the U.S. economy was declining at a faster rate than previously thought. The unemployment rate was at 7.1% when President Bush stepped down but it was in a nosedive. The former president handed off huge annual deficits, in large part due to the Bush tax cuts, two wars and the Medicare Prescription Drug and Modernization Act, all unfunded. Further, the financial markets had collapsed and the U.S. housing market, heavily over leveraged due to weak oversight, was in shambles.

From the moment President Barack Obama took office Republicans in Congress have fiercely fought the president on every one of his initiatives. They pushed back hard on a stimulus plan that helped avoid another depression, emergency measures that saved the U.S. auto industry, as well as financial and health care reform. In each case the resulting legislation was demagogued and ultimately watered down. Of course, the very Republicans who criticized the stimulus bill most harshly, including Governor Rick Perry of Texas and Representative
Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, used the funds to their political advantage.

Since the 2010 mid term elections the conservative Tea Party faction that is passionately committed to spending cuts and no new taxes has kept the Republican Congressional leadership in line. Most Republicans legislators have signed Grover Norquist's pledge not to raise taxes. So powerful is that pledge that every GOP candidate in Thursday's debate said they would not approve a compromise consisting of $10 in cuts for $1 dollar in new taxes.

Compromise is a dirty word for Republicans. Cutting government spending and lowering taxes, they say, is the best way to grow the economy. Yet the Bush tax cuts resulted in little job growth during his presidency, and recent government spending cuts, especially at the state level, has resulted in a half million layoffs nationwide.

Many economists believe a balanced approach, that is some increased revenues as well as spending cuts, is the best path to recovery in the short term. Polls show a majority of Americans favor ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Yet Republicans successfully linked increasing the debt ceiling to more spending cuts. No spending cuts would have meant not raising the debt ceiling. That is like a family going to the bank and saying they are not going to pay all their loans until they are able to cut their household expenses.

This brinksmanship in Congress, the lack of a sustained recovery in the U.S. and the near collapse of the world economy are together creating chaos on the financial markets. That leaves the road ahead uncertain and millions of unemployed Americans with little hope.

The Republicans have President Obama cornered between a rock and a hard place. While some in the White House recommend a middle course, which may appeal to independent voters, it seems most unlikely that such an approach will be enough to assure him reelection. This is especially true when contrasted to GOP political attacks, such as "a failed economic policy”, "the first president in history to be downgraded", and “record deficit spending.”

While the president remains personally popular among Americans, his job approval ratings are declining. This is the time for bold action on the part of the president. He must go on the offensive with a strong jobs plan, and show he is willing to take the lead in restoring hope for all Americans. That would be change one can believe in.

Monday, August 1, 2011

One-Term President?

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said that making President Barack Obama a one-term president is his top priority. Now that the president has signed the debt-ceiling bill that was shaped in part by Senator McConnell it appears that the senator has outmaneuvered the president and left him badly damaged.

Few members of Congress are happy with the final measure. Moreover, there were no winners following weeks of acrimonious and frustrating debate. According to polls the president's job approval has taken a beating. But Republicans have taken a bigger hit. Meanwhile, the global perception of America has been further diminished.

President Obama found himself in a difficult position following the 2010 midterm election. Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives. They also gained enough seats in the Senate to head off a cloture vote that would end a GOP filibuster. Even more problematic for the president was the election of the fiscally conservative Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, whose sole focus is to "get government spending under control."

The president decided late last year to continue the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in exchange for extension of much needed unemployment benefits. He also decided not to take on the debt ceiling at that time because of Republican resistance, even though Democrats still controlled Congress. That decision ended up giving Republicans enormous leverage and they would come to use it to their advantage.

Earlier this year President Obama said he wanted a clean debt-ceiling bill but the Republicans instead demanded linking budget cuts to its passage. The president then took the position that budget reform would have to be balanced between spending cuts and a smaller amount of increased revenues from the richest Americans and businesses by closing tax loopholes. He even said he would consider finding future savings in cherished social programs, a decision which drew ire from progressive Democrats.

As the August 2 deadline neared the partisan rhetoric heated up. Many experts predicted that failure to pass a debt-ceiling bill would have disastrous consequences on the U.S. and global economies. And while Americans would blame everyone in Washington for the fallout, most of the blame would be directed at President Obama. For the good of the country and his political standing the president had to have a deal. In the end he had to forego his revenue demands and accept a "cuts only" budget bill.

The good news for the president is that he got the debt ceiling extended until 2013 and he avoided cuts in entitlement programs. However, the budget bill calls for $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years, and another $1.5 trillion more to be identified by a special committee of Congress, equally staffed by Democrats and Republicans, later this year. And Senator McConnell has said none of his appointees will vote to raise taxes. If the committee fails to come to an acceptable proposal automatic cuts in domestic and defense programs are triggered. Of course they won't come to an agreement!

With the U.S. economy struggling and unemployment stuck at an unacceptable level, Republicans shifted the debate to government spending. They blamed President Obama for increasing the national debt by 47% since he has been in office. They do not mention that the nation's debt increased by 200% during President Ronald Reagan's two terms, and more than 100% in President George W. Bush's two terms. And much of today's deficit is due to President Bush; the Bush recession, two wars, an unfunded prescription drug bill and the Bush tax cuts.

Republicans fiercely protect the Bush tax cuts and fight to radically cut the size of government and eliminate many corporate regulations. This is their jobs plan, even though the Bush tax cuts have not added jobs. And GOP leaders have effectively used every bit of their leverage to get their way.

Speaking at the White House following the Senate vote, President Obama pivoted from debt to jobs saying he would take steps to get the U.S. economy back on track. He then called on Congress to extend middle class tax cuts and unemployment benefits, to pass pending trade deals and he again called for rebuilding the nation's crumbling infrastructure. "There is no reason for Congress not to send me these bills right a way," the president said. But by putting the onus to act on Congress the president may again be playing into Senator McConnell's hands.

Mr. President, why would you think that Republicans, who control the House and can prevent cloture in the Senate, will ever do anything that may help get you re-elected? Job number one for you is job creation--please take the lead.