Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Broadcasters Prevail

In a major win for broadcasters the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Aereo, a streaming service that provides access to programs at about the same time as they are broadcast, violates the Copyright Act of 1976.  The decision is a huge blow for Aereo, which may go out of business.  

Aereo offers subscribers broadcast television programming over the Internet for a monthly fee of $8 to $12 a month.  Its system is made up of servers and thousands of dime-sized antennas stored in a central warehouse.  Aereo's technology makes a copy of a program into a subscriber's file, then makes it possible for only that subscriber to view the program on their computer, tablet or smartphone, seconds after the broadcast begins airing.  

Aereo neither owns the copyright to the program, nor a license to rebroadcast the program.  But it argued that it is not transmitting the program, rather the subscriber is transmitting the program.  The Court's opinion, written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, said, "We do not see how the fact that Aereo transmits via personal copies of programs could make a difference.  The Act applies to transmissions by means of any device or process."  Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were in the minority.

Aereo launched in 2012 in its first market, New York.  Broadcasters, acting on behalf of their local New York City television stations, filed suit two weeks after the service was announced.  A federal judge ruled in Aereo's favor four months later.  Then in early 2013, a federal appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling.  Subsequently, the broadcasters petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case. In oral arguments last April the Deputy Solicitor General argued against Aereo on behalf of the government. 

Broadcast networks retransmit their programs over stations throughout the country.  They derive part of their revenue from commercials.  But cable companies pay broadcasters about $3 billion for the right to carry broadcast programming over their systems.  Aereo argued that it is not like a cable company because it is renting out antennas and cloud storage to subscribers.  Had Aereo's argument been upheld it could have undermined the current broadcast economic model.  Then the broadcasters would likely have turned to Congress for help.

Both Aereo's CEO Chet Kanjojia and investor Barry Diller, a prominent media figure, have said in the past that the service would be shut down if they lost in the Supreme Court.  A CBS Spokesperson reacted to the ruling with a statement, saying, “We are pleased with today’s decision, which is great news for content creators and their audiences.”  Nonetheless, the Court's deliberations underscore the continuing challenges broadcasters face with advances in technology and changes in viewing habits.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

OJ Chase Day

OJ Simpson's police chase captivated millions of viewers around the world twenty years ago today.  I know because I was watching the live coverage from Beijing, China.

At the time, I was vice president and assistant to the president for CBS News, the division's number two executive.  I was overseeing its news coverage and prime time news programs.  60 Minutes had aired a story called the "Dying Rooms" about China's one child policy imposed under the country's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, to control population.

A man and his wife were only allowed to have one child, and since boys would be obligated to take care of their aging parents,  girls were often abandoned.  Orphanages became overcrowded with baby girls.  When a girl became sick, the child would be put in a closet or room and left to die.  This was an outrageous consequence of a terrible policy.  The BBC did the original report, including hidden camera video, and 60 Minutes aired its own version.

The Chinese government protested and threatened to shut the CBS News bureau.  I went to Beijing to meet with members of the information ministry to discuss their complaints.  On the morning of the scheduled meeting I went to the hotel gym and got on the treadmill next to my friend, CNN's executive vice president Ed Turner, who was there for meetings with his bureau.

As we jogged in place, we watched CNN live on a television monitor (it was still yesterday in America).  But CNN was locked on a police chase up California's Interstate 405.  Former football superstar and hollywood actor OJ Simpson was leading cops on a police chase while holding a gun to his head.  The police wanted to question him in the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.  For the next half-hour Turner and I both ran in place, helplessly out of position 7,000 miles away.  As the chase continued, we each became more anxious.

I left the gym and checked in with CBS News headquarters and found out we were on the air.  I then called home, where my wife, Susan Zirinsky, was hosting a year-end party for her show's staff, she was an executive producer.  Susan took the call in our bedroom, where a two dozen employees had gathered to watch the news coverage.  In fact, staff were massed around televisions throughout our house.  Susan had called headquarters to volunteer her help, but they put her on standby and told her they would call when they needed assistance.

The end of the OJ story is well known to a whole generation around the world.  It made television history because it was the first time a police car chase had gone global.  Meanwhile, I talked the Chinese government into keeping our Beijing bureau open.  Sadly, Ed Turner, one of the architects of CNN's 24-hour news, died in 2002.  

I remember where I was when President John F. Kennedy was shot.  I remember where I was when I watched man first walk on the moon.  And I absolutely will always remember where I was when I watched OJ Simpson lead police on a wild chase up the 405--a Beijing hotel gymnasium.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Hillary's Hard Choices

Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices is the opening salvo in her likely run for the White House in 2016. It is a deftly written memoir designed to reintroduce her to the American public, and to highlight her accomplishments and to define any controversies on her own terms. It is not a campaign manifesto; rather it is a largely self-serving personal account of her time at the State Department.
The book, for which she received an $8 million advance, was launched with a huge media campaign. In her first television interview, which aired Monday, Clinton told ABC News' Diane Sawyer that she will not make a decision on whether to run for president until the end of the year. "I just want to kind of get through this year, travel around the country, sign books, help in the midterm elections in the fall, and then take a deep breath and kind of go through my pluses and minuses about what I will -- and will not -- be thinking about as I make the decision," she said in the interview.
Even though she has not announced her candidacy for president, she is the Democratic Party's overwhelming frontrunner. But she is haunted by the bitter 2008 presidential campaign. "Having run for president before, I understand exactly how challenging it is on every front -- not only on candidates but on their families as well," she writes in the book. "After having lost in 2008, I know that nothing is guaranteed, nothing can be taken for granted."
Clinton has been a polarizing figure in the past, and a favorite political target of Republicans. Already, some have raised questions about her health, her age, and her term as Secretary of State.
For instance, Clinton may be called to testify before a select committee of Congress to answer questions about her role in Benghazi. Four Americans died in a terrorist attack at the U.S. diplomatic compound there on Sept. 11, 2012, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time, has repeatedly said she takes full responsibility. Even so, several congressional committees from both houses have already investigated the tragedy. Further, the State Department's Accountability Review Board found, "Systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department... resulted in a special mission security posture that was inadequate."
Republicans want to keep the so-called Benghazi scandal alive because they think it is the gift that keeps on giving. And a newly released ABC News poll shows that only 37 percent of Americans approve of Clinton's handling of Benghazi. Nonetheless, Clinton is defiant in her book, "It's just plain wrong, and it's unworthy of our great country. Those who insist on politicizing the tragedy will have to do so without me."
Republicans will not only continuously attack Clinton on Benghazi, they will also claim that a Clinton presidency would be a continuation of President Barack Obama's eight years in office. Clinton uses the book to make it clear that she and the president had their differences. Clinton favored arming the Syrian rebels in 2012, calling it "the least bad option available." The president disagreed. She wrote, "No one likes to lose a debate, including me. But this was the president's call and I respected it."
Clinton admitted she made a mistake voting for the war in Iraq in 2002, a vote that may have cost her victory in the 2008 primary against Obama. "I thought I had acted in good faith," she writes, referring to the bad intelligence the Bush administration provided about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities. "And I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong." She goes on to say, "I should have stated my regret sooner and in the plainest, most direct language possible."
Throughout the book Clinton discusses how she dealt with foreign policy dilemmas during her tenure at State. She writes about China, Iran, North Korea and the Middle East. As Secretary of State, she visited 112 countries, and travelled one million miles. The book will appeal to Clinton supporters, and her many critics will harshly trash it.
As if she had to be reminded how vulnerable to attack she is, she started a controversy when she told Sawyer that she and President Bill Clinton were broke when he left office. "We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt," she said. "We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea's education. You know, it was not easy." Republicans called these comments a major gaff, some even accusing her of being as tone deaf as Mitt Romney.
But Republicans should be careful how they handle a Clinton candidacy. She enjoys strong support among women, typically the largest voting block. Clinton will also appeal to middle-class white voters, Hispanics, African Americans and other minorities.
While she did not declare her candidacy in Hard Choices, she gave plenty of hints. "Ultimately, what happens in 2016 should be about what kind of future Americans want for themselves and their children," she writes. "I hope we choose inclusive politics and a common purpose to unleash the creativity, potential, and opportunity that makes America exceptional. That's what all Americans deserve."
Sounds like Hillary Clinton has already made the hard choice.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Tiananmen Square Live

The student demonstrations at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 led to some of the most riveting television seen in the United States.  CBS News was the only broadcast network to provide live coverage, until the Chinese government forced us to shut down our satellite just hours before the military launched a full assault on the students.
Tiananmen Square
CBS Evening News anchorman Dan Rather and executive producer Tom Bettag had lobbied in April to anchor their broadcast from Beijing for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to China.   CBS News President David Burke approved the idea, I was his deputy at the time and I strongly urged that we commit.  The news division was under tremendous financial pressure from the company, so the decision to spend a couple million dollars was risky.

It took a large team of producers, reporters, cameramen, sound men, editors and fixers to provide coverage when the Evening News anchored overseas.  The logistics were complicated, and the set up was challenging.  But all was ready when Gorbachev arrived in May.
Student Demonstration
By the time he arrived thousands of students had gathered at Tiananmen Square to voice their demands for change, more freedom and democracy.  The student uprising, supported by many citizens, eclipsed the Gorbachev visit and created a real problem for China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping.  Deng mobilized the army, calling in units from around the country.
Deng Xiaoping
CBS News provided live coverage of the protests, which had grown to more than one million people, with Dan Rather anchoring live from Tiananmen Square.  Our competition, NBC News and ABC News, was not anchoring from China.  Viewers in the United States, and around the world, watched CBS News as a nation struggled for its future.  Rather was outstanding, and the CBS team worked tirelessly and courageously to provide round-the-clock coverage for Americans.   A special bond builds among a team of journalists when covering a dangerous and historic news event.  Everyone's work excels, despite lack of sleep and chaotic conditions.

I remained in the CBS New York control room most of the time, coordinating coverage and network break-ins.   On a Friday night  a Chinese official came to our office and demanded that we shut down our live satellite.  Dan Rather and Lane Venardos, the producer in charge in Beijing, negotiated with the official.  I ordered that network programming be interrupted during the 10pm ET hour so all of America could watch as Venardos and Rather negotiated with the official.
Dan Rather
The program I interrupted was Dallas, television's most popular show.  In was the season finale, so viewership was enormous.  But I felt that the events unfolding nearly 7,000 miles from New York were incredibly important and made amazing television.  

It became clear to me that to defy the Chinese government would put the CBS News team at risk.  Many could be arrested and even harmed.  I decided that CBS News would comply with the request to shut down the satellite.  ("Dan Rather Remembers" video.)

As11pm ET approached, I instructed Venardos to tell the official we would comply with the government's order.  But I asked that we be able to shut down the satellite at 11:25pm, during the late local newscasts, which were airing in most of the country.  The official agreed.  

I then had a programming alert sent out to all of our affiliates so that they would inform their viewers about our upcoming special report.   I also asked our press department to inform other news organizations.  As it turned out the delay allowed us to air graphic new footage of the carnage.

At the appointed time Dan Rather appeared live from Beijing, across our network, and explained to viewers that CBS News had been ordered to shut down its live Satellite.  With a handful of CBS News staff watching, he then signed off, "this is Dan Rather reporting live from Beijing," turned to the satellite operator and instructed him to kill the satellite.

In the days that followed, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Chinese students and supporters, were massacred by Chinese troops. (Video by Brian Robbins, CBS NEWS)  Tiananmen Square was emptied.  The full force of Marshall Law was being imposed on everyone.  Citizens lived in fear for their lives.  The elation and hope of the democracy movement had been crushed in a bloody siege by China's authoritarian regime.   
Iconic Image
The iconic image from the student uprising was of a man, holding plastic shopping bags, standing in front of a tank column blocking its forward movement.   Today, the fate of that man is unknown.  The Tiananmen Square uprising is also unknown to most young Chinese, it is not mentioned in school, nor on television.  Twenty-five years later the Chinese government censured the Internet and social media during the anniversary period.  

The Chinese government may try to erase the events at Tiananmen Square from history, but it will never be forgotten by those of us a CBS News who covered the tragedy.      

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Obama: No Apologies

"We do not leave anybody wearing an American uniform behind," President Barack Obama said at a news conference in Brussels Thursday.  He was addressing the controversy that has swirled around the exchange of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five high ranking Taliban prisoners that had been held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, Cuba.  The president offered this justification, "We had a prisoner of war, whose health had deteriorated, and we were deeply concerned about, and we saw an opportunity, and we seized it.  And I make no apologies for that."

Five years ago Bergdahl apparently walked away from his military post in Afghanistan, leaving behind his weapon and helmet.  He was soon captured by the Taliban.   Last Saturday the president was joined on the White House South Lawn by Bergdahl's family as he announced their son had been released.  But the good news, even many Republican members of Congress quickly tweeted their support, suddenly turned into a political firestorm of controversy.

Congressional critics include Senator John McCain, who described the exchanged Taliban prisoners as "the hardest of hard-core…possibly responsible for thousands of deaths."  The Joint Task Force Guantanamo earlier had classified them as high risk, and two are wanted by the United Nations for war crimes.  But the five Taliban terrorists, also known as the Gitmo Five, have been in custody at Guantanamo for more than a decade and have never been charged.  Further, once America's war in Afghanistan is over sometime next year, the U.S. would have had to release them.  

Many in congress, from both parties, claim that the president had failed to comply with his legal obligation to inform its members 30 days in advance of any prisoner release from Guantanamo.  On Thursday, President Obama said, "We had discussed with Congress the possibility that something like this might occur, but because of the nature of the folks that we are dealing with and the fragile nature of these negotiations, we felt it was important to go ahead and do what he did."

Discussions about swapping the Gitmo Five for Bergdahl have taken place in the past, including in 2011.  Then members of congress, and key administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, opposed such a deal.  But the conditions changed when Qatar agreed to keep the Taliban terrorists for one year, and the president announced the war will end next year.   Nonetheless, Congress will hold hearings on whether the president broke the law.

Most members of the military agree that Bergdahl had to be rescued.  On Sunday's edition of ABC's This Week National Security Advisor Susan Rice said, "He served the United States with honor and distinction…and we'll have an opportunity to learn what transpired in the past." Her comment was not received well by members of his platoon, many of whom have criticized Bergdahl.  "I believe that he totally deserted--not only his fellow soldiers--but his leadership that wanted the best for him and his country," Justine Gerieve, Bergdahl's former squad leader, told CNN.  

CNN also reported that Bergdahl had walked away from his post at least once before.  General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posted a comment about Bergdahl on Facebook Monday night,  "As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we'll learn the facts," he wrote.  "Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty.  Our Army's leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred." 

Meanwhile, some of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers have charged that as many as eight U.S. servicemen died on patrols looking for him.  The New York Times reported Wednesday, "But a review of casualty reports and contemporaneous military logs from the Afghanistan war shows that the facts surrounding the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive."   The article points out that the soldiers normally did patrols in the high-risk area.  

With regard to the Gitmo Five, they will remain in Qatar for one year before they are able to leave the country.  Twelve years have passed since they were involved in fighting.  It is unclear what role they will play for the Taliban in the future.

The Afghanistan conflict is America's longest war.  About 2,300 members of the military have died there, and $700 billion has been spent by the U.S. waging the war there over the past dozen years.  There is reason to hope, as a second round of presidential elections will be held in Afghanistan next week.  The country will soon have a democratic transfer power for the first time in its history, and the enigmatic incumbent, Hamid Karzai, will be replaced by anew leader. 

Whatever the outcome, the new government will be fragile.  The Taliban will seek a role in the country's future.  U.S. and Afghan officials have been in secret talks with the Taliban about the post-war future.  While administration officials don't link the Bergdahl exchange to a bigger peace deal, it may have been an important first step toward a larger agreement between the parties.

For sure, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl will have a lot to answer for when he is well enough to be questioned by the military.  And the White House is busy defending its unnecessarily messy communications with congress prior to the exchange.  The administration has opened itself up to Republican indignation and righteous platitudes.  Of course, the midterm elections are just around the corner.

Just imagine what the Republicans would have done to the president had Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl died in the hands of the Taliban.