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May 21, 2010

Congress Gets a Kick in the... Pants

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article senior writer for Public Affairs Television Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

"Congress Gets a Kick in the... Pants"
By Michael Winship

There's a story about a member of the British House of Commons who was stopped in the halls of Parliament by a constituent, an elderly pensioner. The little old man had a specific concern about his fellow senior citizens that he hoped the politician could solve.

He made his case clearly and intelligently and when he was finished, the Member of Parliament promised to see what might be done. As the MP turned to leave, the old man hauled off and kicked him in the backside as hard as he could.

The astonished politician turned; the old man waggled a finger and cheerily said, "Now don't forget!"

Few American politicians will forget that a lot of incumbent backsides were kicked by frustrated voters in Tuesday's primaries: longtime Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, a converted Democrat more from expedience than allegiance, lost renomination to Rep. Joe Sestak; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saw his handpicked Senate candidate go down in Kentucky, defeated by Tea Partier Rand Paul; and Arkansas Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff by progressive Democrat Bill Halter.

Yet for all the talk of an anti-incumbent fever sweeping the land, the image of angry voters manning the tumbrels and throwing the rascals out, consider the special congressional election for the late Democratic Congressman John Murtha's seat in southwestern Pennsylvania. Democrat Mark Critz handily defeated Republican Tea Partier Tim Burns and pundits declared it a big loss for the GOP, which had tried to play on anti-Obama and anti-Nancy Pelosi sentiment to defeat Critz.

Maybe the analysts are right, but it sure as hell wasn't a kick in the pants of incumbency. Mark Critz was an aide to Murtha for more than a decade and doubtless learned well at the trough of the master. Murtha, who famously declared, "If I'm corrupt it's because I take care of my district," used his many years as a member of the House Appropriations Committee to shower government munificence on the good people of the Pennsylvania 12th - more than $2 billion worth, according to the group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"While nobody can fill his shoes," Critz said of his mentor, "I have the honor of following in his footsteps." Be careful not to slip on all that pork grease, Congressman.

What does it all mean? The fact of the matter is that in Washington, as in Hollywood, nobody knows anything (to quote screenwriter William Goldman) about why things happen, although a great many people earn a decent living to huff and puff as if they do. But this seems clear: beyond the inchoate and diffuse anger of the Tea Party faction there is a real and reasoned discontent in the land and it's not so much against incumbents themselves as it is anti-establishment, protesting the games played and the resulting inertia suffocating what's left of our democracy and our economy. If elected officials would just do what they're supposed to - or even just create the illusion of forward motion -- hearts would be a little lighter.

Instead, they produce tepid versions of reform - weak tea when strong doses of antibiotics are called for -- and engage in games of parliamentary gotcha, creating nothing and reducing what was once the loyal opposition to a bunch of sniggering schoolkids.

Take, for example, recent attempts to pass the House version of the America COMPETES Act. It is, as the Associated Press describes, legislation "that would have committed more than $40 billion... to boost funding for the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies involved in basic and applied science, provided loan guarantees to small businesses developing new technologies, and promoted science and math education.

"Congress enacted a first version of the legislation in 2007 with a large majority in the House and a unanimous vote in the Senate. But in this election year, with Republicans out to show their antispending credentials, things are different."

Last week, the legislation was pulled when Republicans stuck onto it an amendment not only cutting certain programs in the bill but cracking down on federal workers watching porn on their office computers - a move simply intended to embarrass Democrats. How could many of them vote against the cuts without fearing GOP campaign ads declaring, "Congressman XX supports smut?"

The bill's supporters tried again this week, restoring the cuts but reducing the measure's timeframe from five years to three - and including the anti-pornography provision. "But Democrats made a losing gamble by bringing the bill up under a procedure that prevented Republicans from offering more amendments but requiring a two-thirds majority for passage," AP reported. "The vote was 261 to 148 for passage, short of the two-thirds needed. Every Democrat supported it, but only 15 of 163 voting Republicans backed it."

Here is what's essentially a jobs bill, shot down by gameplaying and fiddling at a time when, as former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich notes, "Unemployment continues to haunt the middle class - the anxious class of America...

"The real lesson from the economy's first quarter is the recovery is so weak that the anxious class is likely to remain anxious through November."

So perhaps the most telling punchline of this week's primaries was the one used to devastating effect by Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania: "Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job. His own."
Contrary to conventional wisdom, once financial reform is done, if members of Congress think they can save their jobs by sitting out the rest of the session, doing nothing to make waves - or create jobs - they will find themselves kicked in the backside, and onto the pavement.

Michael Winship is senior writer for Public Affairs Television.


May 14, 2010

Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Chevron's "Crude" Attempt to Suppress Free Speech

Even as headlines and broadcast news are dominated by BP's fire-ravaged, sunken offshore rig and the ruptured well gushing a reported 210,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, there's another important story involving Big Oil and pollution - one that shatters not only the environment but the essential First Amendment right of journalists to tell truth and shame the devil.

(Have you read, by the way, that after the surviving, dazed and frightened workers were evacuated from that burning platform, they were met by lawyers from the drilling giant Transocean with forms to sign stating they had not been injured and had no first-hand knowledge of what had happened?! So much for the corporate soul.)

But our story is about another petrochemical giant - Chevron - and a major threat to independent journalism. In New York last Thursday, Federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered documentary producer and director Joe Berlinger to turn over to Chevron more than 600 hours of raw footage used to create a film titled CRUDE: THE REAL PRICE OF OIL.

Released last year, it's the story of how 30,000 Ecuadorians rose up to challenge the pollution of their bodies, livestock, rivers and wells from Texaco's drilling for oil there, a rainforest disaster that has been described as the Amazon's Chernobyl. When Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001 and attempted to dismiss claims that it was now responsible, the indigenous people and their lawyers fought back in court.

Some of the issues and nuances of Berlinger's case are admittedly complex, but they all boil down to this: Chevron is trying to avoid responsibility and hopes to find in the unused footage - material the filmmaker did not utilize in the final version of his documentary - evidence helpful to the company in fending off potential damages of $27.3 billion.

This is a serious matter for reporters, filmmakers and frankly, everyone else. Tough, investigative reporting without fear or favor - already under siege by severe cutbacks and the shutdown of newspapers and other media outlets - is vital to the public awareness and understanding essential to a democracy. As Michael Moore put it, "The chilling effect of this is, [to] someone like me, if something like this is upheld, the next whistleblower at the next corporation is going to think twice about showing me some documents if that information has to be turned over to the corporation that they're working for."

In an open letter on Joe Berlinger's behalf, signed by many in the non-fiction film business (including the two of us), the Independent Documentary Association described Chevron's case as a "fishing expedition" and wrote that, "At the heart of journalism lies the trust between the interviewer and his or her subject. Individuals who agree to be interviewed by the news media are often putting themselves at great risk, especially in the case of television news and documentary film where the subject's identity and voice are presented in the final report.

"If witnesses sense that their entire interviews will be scrutinized by attorneys and examined in courtrooms they will undoubtedly speak less freely. This ruling surely will have a crippling effect on the work of investigative journalists everywhere, should it stand."

Just so. With certain exceptions, the courts have considered outtakes of a film to be the equivalent of a reporter's notebook, to be shielded from the scrutiny of others. If we - reporters, journalists, filmmakers - are required to turn research, transcripts and outtakes over to a government or a corporation - or to one party in a lawsuit - the whole integrity of the process of journalism is in jeopardy; no one will talk to us.

In his decision, Judge Kaplan wrote that, "Review of Berlinger's outtakes will contribute to the goal of seeing not only that justice is done, but that it appears to be done." He also quoted former Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis' famous maxim that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."

There is an irony to this, noted by Frank Smyth of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Brandeis "made his famous sunlight statement about the need to expose bankers and investors who controlled 'money trusts' to stifle competition, and he later railed against not only powerful corporations but the lawyers and other members of the bar who worked to perpetuate their power."

In a 1905 speech before the Harvard Ethical Society, Brandeis said, "Instead of holding a position of independence, between the wealthy and the people, prepared to curb the excesses of either, able lawyers have, to a large extent, allowed themselves to become adjuncts of great corporations and have neglected the obligation to use their powers for the protection of the people."

Now, more than a century later, Chevron, the third largest corporation in America, according to FORBES magazine, has hauled out their lawyers in a case that would undermine the right of journalists to protect the people by telling them the truth. Joe Berlinger and his legal team have asked Judge Kaplan to suspend his order pending an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

As the Independent Documentary Association asserts, "This case offers a clear and compelling argument for more vigorous federal shield laws to protect journalists and their work, better federal laws to protect confidential sources, and stronger standards to prevent entities from piercing the journalists' privilege. We urge the higher courts to overturn this ruling to help ensure the safety and protection of journalists and their subjects, and to promote a free and vital press in our nation and around the world."


Bill Moyers is president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.
Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.
Rebecca Wharton conducted original research for this article.

More information:

  • "Oscar Winners Back Filmmaker in Dispute With Chevron," Dave Itzkoff, THE NEW YORK TIMES, May 12, 2010.

  • Joe Berlinger and Third Eye Motion Picture Company in In re Application of Chevron Corporation (lawyers for Mr. Berlinger)

  • Chevron: Ecuador lawsuit

  • Judge Kaplan's ruling (PDF)


  • May 7, 2010

    Moyers on America: Capitol Crimes

    With disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff back in the news and on the big screen in Alex Gibney's new film, CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY, we re-present Bill Moyers 2006 exploration of Abramoff and his Washington world. CAPITOL CRIMES delved deep into the dark side of American politics — bringing to light a web of relationships, secret deals and political manipulation. The DALLAS MORNING NEWS said: "If anyone can untangle a complicated new story and make it understandable, it's Bill Moyers. So if you're trying to figure out the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, he explains it all in CAPITOL CRIMES."



    Find out more Former Congressman Bob Ney is on the talk show circuit with Alex Gibney, promoting the documentary that chronicles his downfall. Jack Abramoff is due to be released from federal prison in December 2010. But has the system changed? For years Bill Moyers has been reporting on the corrupting influence of money on our political system. Visit our special collection, Moyers on Money and Politics. And, don't forget to use our campaign finance tools to continue to keep track of the money flow in Washington.


    Michael Winship: Kent State and the Frisbee Revolution

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    "Kent State and the Frisbee Revolution"
    By Michael Winship

    I was a freshman at Georgetown University when it happened, 40 years ago on May 4. Most of us didn't know what had taken place until late in the day. We were in class or studying for finals, so hours went by until my friends and I heard the news. On that warm spring Monday, the Ohio National Guard had opened fire on an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University and four students lay dead. Nine others were wounded.

    It took a while to sink in. This was the sort of thing that happened in South American dictatorships - student protestors gunned down for speaking out against the government. Not here.

    Then I remembered that some of my high school classmates were at Kent State, a campus fewer than 250 miles from my western New York hometown. But I had no phone numbers for them; there was no immediate way to find out if they were safe (they were).

    In those faraway days before 24-hour cable news, the details were hazy and slow in coming. That night, friends huddled around the tiny TV I had in my room - one of those early Sony tummy tubes with a fuzzy, black and white picture the size of your palm. With each sketchy report, anger and frustration grew in the room but didn't start to go over the top until, believe it or not, THE TONIGHT SHOW came on after the 11 o'clock news.

    Johnny Carson's guest was Bob Hope, and when the sexagenarian comedian launched into what was his standard routine those days - lots of jokes about long-haired hippies and smelly anti-war protesters - the kids crowded into my tiny dorm room were furious. On this of all nights how could he be so crass as to trot out those tired one-liners about, well, us?

    By the next morning, groups of students gathered around the campus taking about Kent State and the events leading up to the killings. A few days before, President Nixon had announced the invasion of Cambodia, justifying the so-called "incursion" as necessary to protect our troops in Vietnam. Protests had broken out at schools all over America. With the Kent State deaths, we wondered what to do - and what would happen - next.

    A crowded meeting in the school's main assembly hall lasted late into the night, filled with the earnest bombast of callow youth and plans of action that ranged from Do Nothing 101 to Advanced Anarchy. The bookstore's stock of Georgetown t-shirts sold out as kids scooped them up and stenciled defiant red fists on the backs. My friend Romolo Martemucci trimmed his red fist in green, a gesture of Italian-American solidarity.

    By mid-week, two parallel strategies emerged: a national strike that would shut down the country's colleges and universities - both as a protest and to give students the freedom to devote all their time to mobilizing against the war - and a massive rally in Washington, DC on Saturday, May 9.

    As did approximately 450 American schools, the Georgetown administration yielded to the strike. We were given the option to finish finals or take the grades we already had for the semester. We went to Capitol Hill and tried to see our hometown members of Congress to let our opposition to the war be known, then turned our attention to the big Saturday rally. Because we were already in DC, much of the logistics fell to us and the other colleges in town.

    I volunteered to be a rally marshal, directing crowds and hoping to prevent violence. On the main campus lawn, we were given a crash medical course in how to cope with dehydration, tear gas attacks and gunshot wounds.

    At breakfast Saturday morning, with macho-laced concern, we told our girlfriends to stay away from the rally; there might be trouble. Instead, we suggested they go to the protest headquarters to help out. As it turned out, they wound up more in danger than we were - a small group of neo-Nazis attacked the rally offices. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt.

    As for me, I was given a powder blue armband and stood with other marshals on the periphery of the 100,000 person rally, enjoying a lovely sunny day. For its protection, the White House had been ringed with DC Transit buses parked nose to tail.

    Nothing happened until late in the day, when an army water truck came barreling toward us and we linked hands, as if that somehow would ward it off. In fact, the truck veered away just before it reached our paltry line of defense. In the next day's paper, I read that the vehicle had been hijacked by Yippies and was last seen barreling across a Potomac River bridge into the wilds of Virginia.

    And then it was over. That night, rumors spread that police were going to clear out groups of out-of-town demonstrators who were camped out in Potomac Park near the monuments and that they would flee to the college campuses. We stayed up all night waiting to take them in but it never happened.

    On May 15, two more students were killed and 12 wounded at Jackson State University in Mississippi, with nowhere near the attention Kent State received. The Jackson State students were African-American.

    The mobilization that was supposed to continue with the close of school fizzled out. Most Georgetown students took advantage of the early end of the semester to bask in the sun and play on the lawn or simply go home. A friend wrote an editorial in one of the campus newspapers headlined, "The Frisbee Revolution." Those of us who were trying to keep the protests alive were annoyed at the time, but he was right. Once the impetus of the big rally was over, motivation vanished and kids went back to being kids. The war retreated, out of sight, out of mind. But it went on for another five, bloody, futile years.

    Despite all the anger and worry today: an economy in shambles; the loss of jobs and security; wars continuing in Afghanistan and Iraq; and a dysfunctional government hobbled by the stranglehold of campaign cash and political hackery, there's a similar lack of interest afflicting many of those of those who rallied to the cause of Barack Obama in 2008, knocking on doors, contributing money - voting.

    With that exciting and historic election over and done, the attention of many of them wandered elsewhere, consumed by self-interest or distracted by media's oxymoron, reality TV, where ex-astronauts dance with chorus girls and parents juggle eight children under the omniscient gaze of the camera.

    Friday's edition of the FINANCIAL TIMES was headlined, "US shares tumble amid fears over debt," but also featured a glossy magazine insert titled, "How to spend it." Options include a Kevlar racing kayak, a game darting safari in Kenya and a white gold lace bracelet with diamonds and rubies, a steal at $220,000. On the same day came word that US unemployment for April hit 9.9 percent, despite a reported 290,000 new jobs.

    Last week, thousands marched on Wall Street to protest the cynical abuse for profit perpetrated by banks and corporate America. On May 17, others will march on Washington's K Street, where lobbyists roam, not free, but in pursuit of princely paychecks from those who seek influence and clout.

    All well and good. But in the great American elsewhere, the Frisbees are flying.


    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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