Monday, April 29, 2013

Syrian Diplomacy and Chemical Weapons

Here we go again.  Syria's apparent use of a small amount of chemical weapons against its own people has many Republicans and conservatives calling for President Barack Obama to intervene.  Yeah, easy, right?  Just like Iraq.

President Obama has said that use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a "red line."  Last week, the administration said it believes that Syrian government forces have used a small amount of sarin gas against its own people.  The president, speaking at a photo-op in the White House with the Jordanian King, said the use was a "game changer."

According to various reports the evidence of sarin gas comes from human tissue samples.  Perhaps a few dozen Syrians were killed.  But questions abound, like did Assad loyalists use the chemical weapons?  Why did they use this weapon of mass destruction, especially such a small amount?  Was it a test?  What action should the U.S. take in response? 

More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed since the civil war broke out, and hundreds of thousands of citizens have fled the country.  This is a terrible humanitarian crisis, and, failing President Bashar-al-Assad's resignation, there is no end in sight.  Up to now, the Obama administration has been reluctant to arm rebels with sophisticated weapons because of fear the weapons would fall in the hands of terrorists organizations, and Al Qaeda has an increasing presence among the opposition fighters. 

But leading Republicans call the president's handling of the Syrian crisis "shameful."  Senator John McCain, Republican from Arizona, said on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday, “Unless we change the balance of power, there is a danger that this stalemate could go on for months and months.”  South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said on CBS's Face the Nation, "There's nothing you can do in Syria without risk, but the greatest risk is a failed state with chemical weapons falling in the hands of radical Islamists, and they are pouring into Syria."

Some Republicans are worried about the larger message inaction will send to Iran and North Korea.  Republican Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan said on ABC's This Week", "It cannot be a dotted line.  It can't be anything but a red line." he said.  "Iran is paying attention to this.  North Korea is paying attention to this." But neo-conservative Bill Kristol told Fox News that the president's inaction is irresponsible.  “This is not a president who wants to start another war,” he said.  “No one wants to start wars, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Kristol was one of the most passionate supporters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.  About 4,500 American military members died in that war, as well as well over 100,000 Iraqis.  The war cost taxpayers at least $2 trillion, and counting.  While Iraq's murderous dictator, Saddam Hussein, was captured and executed, no weapons of mass destruction were found and the country is struggling with its future.  The U.S. invasion became a recruiting tool for militants.

While no one is calling for a U.S. invasion of Syria, the actions being proposed would involve American military.   For instance, given Assad's sophisticated air force and air defenses, a "no-fly" zone would be difficult to enforce. 

The president has been quietly using diplomacy to deal with Syria.  Now stepped up pressure is necessary from the world community on Russia, which has a close relationship with the Syrian leader, to get the Assad to step down.  Iran and North Korea are watching Russia's actions to.  If it fails to act, they will get the message that having weapons of mass destruction is acceptable.  Also, the United Nations must act forcefully, as should the Arab states, because chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists threaten the lives of all Arabs. 

Before America enters into another war, it must energetically exercise all forms of diplomacy.  The whole world is watching.  

Friday, April 19, 2013

Broadcast News Screening 4/17/2013

The 1987 movie Broadcast News was featured by IFC on Wednesday night. Steely Dan's Donald Fagen had been asked by IFC's Robert Milazzo to select a film for a screening and discussion. Donald said he selected about Broadcast News because of its writing and detail in representing the television news industry. IFC reached out to Holly Hunter, who starred in the movie as producer Jane Craig. Holly agreed to appear at the screening. But then she contacted me to see if Susan Zirinsky, my wife and Jane Craig role model, and I would attend. We happily agreed. 

A near full house attended the screening in a theater in New York's West Village. The crowd was largely older and all clearly fans of the movie. I had not seen the movie in its entirely for twenty years, and Susan had not seen it in a decade. It was truly wonderful. The premise is still relevant today, James L. Brook's writing and directing was brilliant. The movie received eight Oscar nominations, but failed to win any as Moonstruck swept the awards that year. Following the screening, our group answered a broad range of questions from the audience.
Joe Peyronnin, Susan Zirinsky, Donald Fagen, Holly Hunter, Robert Milazzo of IFC

Susan and I first met Jim in 1984, the day we eloped in San Francisco. He exposed us to the magical world of Hollywood, and introduced us to many new friends who we remain close to. Here's a piece I wrote about the movie's twentieth anniversary: BROADCAST NEWS.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Background Checks for Guns

The U.S. Senate will begin debating gun control legislation this week.  But, sadly, the likelihood that any measure will pass Congress remains a long shot.   

Last Thursday sixty-eight Senators voted to allow debate to begin on the legislation, heading off threats of a filibuster.   They had responded to increased pressure from families of victims and strong public support, according to polls.  But a vote to allow debate is not a vote for gun control.  And many Republicans, and some Democrats, remain opposed to any such legislation, including background checks.

Senators Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, have lobbied their colleagues to support their bipartisan bill that would expand background checks to gun purchases online and at gun shows.  Appearing on CNN Sunday, Senator Manchin said, "Law-abiding gun owners will like this bill."  Even though they have picked up some support, they still face an uphill battle.

Opposition to extending background checks, which are currently only required on purchases from licensed gun dealers, is driven by several key issues.   Opponents say that not enough is being done to enforce the gun control measures that are already in place.  They also say that criminals will be able to obtain guns illegally regardless of any background checks.  And they are spreading fear among gun owners that background checks will make it easier for the government to take guns away from "law-abiding" citizens.     

While background checks are supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans, those who oppose them are passionate and are likely to turn out on Election Day.  And organizations opposed to gun control, like the NRA, are likely to support candidates in primaries to run against incumbents seeking reelection who support the measure.  Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, is already fighting a defensive battle in her reelection bid because she has said she will vote for background checks.  

Each year there are about 30,000 deaths by guns in America, and more than 11,000 are homicides.  Since the tragic mass murder last December in Newtown, Connecticut, more than 3,000 gun related homicides have occurred.  Many of the victims are young.  It is estimated that there are 310 million guns in America, not counting the military.  That is one gun for every American.  

Forty per cent of the guns sold in this country each year are not subject to background checks.  This nation's city streets are awash in illegal guns.  Gun violence is this nation's greatest plague, just ask the citizens of Aurora, Tucson, Blacksburg and Newton.  Congress must have the courage to pass the Toomey/Manchin measure on background checks.  To defeat the bill would be to ignore the wishes of the overwhelming majority of American people.   

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Susan Zirinsky: A Lifetime of Achievement

Tonight in Las Vegas, Susan Zirinsky will be honored with the "2013 TV & Film Lifetime Achievement Award" by the New York Festivals.  In her 40 years at CBS News, Susan is a legend in the industry.  She is currently the Senior Executive Producer of 48 Hours, she produces prime time news specials, see oversees the website Crimesider, and she has developed a new prime time series, Brooklyn DA, which will premier in May.

Susan has covered wars, presidents, world leaders, summits, elections, uprisings and scandals.  She has produced news packages, newsmagazines and documentaries.  She also served as a role model for Academy Award winning actress Holly Hunter, who played news producer Jane Craig in the 1987 movie, Broadcast News.  Susan's shelf is stuffed with industry awards.  But what is most noteworthy is what those who have worked with Susan say about her. 

CBS CEO Les Moonves: “There is simply no one better in any business than Susan. She’s the consummate pro whose instincts and artistry are unerring and completely unique, and there’s just nobody who is more competitive than she is. For decades, she has simply been the go-to storyteller than we have turned to, over and over again, when there was an important project, something that had to be told. When we needed to capture the truth about 9/11, it was Susan who got us there with her award-winning and deeply moving account of that day. Every week, she gives us the top show on Saturday night, keeping the flame burning bright on one of our most highly regarded franchises – 48 Hours. She’s been doing it for a long time. And she just keeps on getting better and better. Today, she’s at the top of a really tough and crucial game, one of the people leading the regeneration of CBS News. Congratulations, Z, on this honor. We love you too.”

CBS News Correspondent Bob Schieffer: "I have known Susan since when she was a student at American University who was working part time for the weekend news in the CBS Washington bureau. She was one of those kids that you knew was going to rise to the top. The best part of watching her grow up is seeing how she still attacks her job and attack is the right word with the same enthusiasm and determination and grit that she showed back then. She always got to the office first and is still the last to leave. I love everything about her and have for a long, long time."

60 Minutes Correspondent Lesley Stahl: "Congrats to Susan Zirinsky, the maven of Meeting a Deadline.. The Queen of the Crash! In Zee's lifetime in journalism she's been at the top of her game from the beginning - which was in the '70s during Watergate.  Whether she was producing pieces or broadcasts, covering the White House, elections or crime stories, she managed to be a master.  And she's done it all with heart and good cheer.  And against all odds, she always made the deadline, whether that meant ordering up her own Air force of helicopters or just making her reporters better and faster than they thought they could be. How lucky I am, and CBS is, that Susan's been our colleague and friend."

Vogue Editor Anna Wintour: "When I worked with Susan, we were staging a global project with so many moving parts that to us it felt like a military operation.  Now, throughout her career Susan has produced segments on actual military operations.  But she brought the same remarkable focus, levelheadedness and sense of humor to what we were doing as I imagine she brings to everything she does."

Actress Holly Hunter: "It was an extraordinary advantage for me to get to tail Susan Zirinsky around the CBS newsroom in Washington to prepare for the role of "Jane Craig" in BROADCAST NEWS.  I was given carte blanche to steal all behavior, professional and otherwise, from her. I ripped off the unselfconscious intimacy she gave to co-workers---putting her hand on the shoulder of a guy as she was making a suggestion to him---or giving someone's arm a squeeze as she breezed by.  I just loved that.  And I thought it was a beautiful gesture to bring to an environment filled with nothing but deadlines.  I stole her hairdo---scaled her height and took that, too.   I mimicked her feist, but that was easy since I have some of my own.  I tried like crazy to capture her imaginative ability to take divergent parts of a story and intuitively contain them with an image that was previously unrelated but that  made manifest the heart of the story. The one thing I could not steal from her, though, was her calm.  Susan was a still point in a turning world at CBS, as far as I was concerned.  She never raised her voice.  She never ran. She made her producorial rounds with her wit and intellect blazing, but also while brandishing a good deal of laissez faire.  She had faith in her fellow man.  And woman.  Even under pressure, she always looked like she was definitely Not Sweating, which made her more attractive to all the people who were.  Because they knew, under the calm and encouragement, she was obsessed.  That's leadership."

Former CBS News colleague and Sony Chairman Sir Howard Stringer:  "Even actress Holly Hunter in the seminal movie “Broadcast News” could not match the intensity, the skills or the breadth of commitment of the extraordinary Susan Zirinsky.  As a producer she is fearless; as a colleague she is peerless; as a leader she is matchless, but as a friend she is irreplaceable.  When she clambered over a moving freight train to get her tapes to a ground station before the competition, she became a news icon who really did capture hearts and minds. She captured mine long ago!"

Well she captured my heart and mind long ago as well, because she is simply the most amazing woman I have ever known.  

Monday, April 1, 2013

Immigration Deal

"I think we've got a deal."  Those encouraging words about immigration reform legislation came from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham who appeared on CNN Sunday.  "We've got to write the legislation," he said, "but 2013, I hope, will be the year that we pass bipartisan immigration reform." 

Senator Graham is a member of the bipartisan "gang of eight" that has been working to reach a deal on immigration reform.  Last week four members of that group, including John McCain of Arizona, traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to get a closer look at the problem of illegal crossings.  While there, Senator McCain tweeted, "Just witnessed a woman successfully climb and 18-ft bollard fence a few yards from us in #Nogales...Border Patrol successfully apprehended her, but incident is another reminder that threats to our border security are real." 

In his televised appearances Sunday, Senator Graham emphasized border security while outlining the goals of the immigration agreement.  The goals include preventing a "third wave" of undocumented immigrants moving to the U.S., allowing employers to hire guest workers when they can't find American workers, and judging immigration decisions more on merit rather than family.

But later Sunday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, an aspiring Tea Party presidential candidate, tried to lower expectations about a deal.  In a written statement he said, “Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature."  Senator Rubio has the most to lose if conservatives don't like the immigration deal, so he appears to be playing it safe.  Gang of eight member Senator Charles Schumer put it this way Sunday, "Now everyone, we've all agreed that we're not going to come to a final agreement until we see draft legislative language and we all agree on that. We've drafted some of it already; the rest will be drafted this week. So I'm very optimistic that we will have an agreement among the eight of us next week."

There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants illegally in the U.S.  Immigration was a major issue during the last presidential election, and all of the Republican candidates took a tough stand on illegals.  The party's presidential nominee, former Governor Mitt Romney, coined the term "self deportation" when defining how he would solve the problem.   More than 70% of Latinos who voted in last November's election voted for President Barack Obama.

An "autopsy" report released last month by GOP Chairman Reince Priebus called for more positive out reach to Latinos and other minorities.   The report urged the party to, "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”  But it will be hard for the party to overcome Congressional opposition to reform within its own party.  And it doesn't help when one of its members, Alaska Representative Don Young, says,  “My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes.”   "Wetbacks" is an insulting racial slur against Latinos for which he apologized after some prodding from his leadership.

Immigration is just one of many issues for Latinos, who now number about 50 million in the U.S.  The economy, jobs, education, family and health care are all important.  Likely Republican presidential candidates, such as Kentucky's Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, are now actively courting them.   But their message, for instance on social issues, is not in sync with a majority of Latinos.   

In a speech last month to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Senator Paul said, "Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society."   So all of the stars are aligned for some form of meaningful immigration reform this year.  

In his speech, Senator Paul also quoted Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "In Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez gives some advice that Republicans might consider,  “. . . human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, . . . life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

These are words to think about, especially coming from a Nobel Prize winner who was denied a U.S. immigration visa for years because of his outspoken views on U.S. imperialism.