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September 29, 2010

Michael Winship: The Celtic Tiger, Declawed and Defanged

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

The Celtic Tiger, Declawed and Defanged
By Michael Winship

DUBLIN -- The last time I was here in Ireland, eight years ago, the Celtic Tiger was still roaring. The country had zoomed from poverty to wealth, enjoying an unprecedented economic boom, with unemployment down to 4.5 percent and consumer spending and average wages at all-time highs.

But now? I stood on board a restaurant ship docked along a bank of the River Liffey with my friend and colleague David Kavanagh, executive director of the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild. His hand swept along the shore as he used the panorama of the city skyline to describe what has happened to the country's economy in just two short years.

To the left, he pointed out the beautiful new Samuel Beckett Bridge, opened in December, shaped like an Irish harp placed on its side, and designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. (In this city that reveres writers there are bridges named after Beckett, Sean O'Casey and James Joyce - a Calatrava design as well. He's also the imagination behind the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub, under construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan.)

The Beckett Bridge cost 60 million euros to erect - about $80 million US (and no Waiting for Godot -like jokes about a bridge to nowhere, please). Near it stands Dublin's brand new national convention center, built for 380 million euros - that's almost half a billion dollars. Both structures epitomize the spending spree that once characterized Ireland's booming prosperity.

Torn down to make way for the convention center were red brick Victorian warehouses where trains delivered goods for transfer to the cargo ships that once docked here. A handful of them still stand. But next door, rising jagged like a broken tooth, is the unfinished building that was meant to be the new headquarters of the Anglo Irish Bank.

When all seemed flush, and foreign capital was rolling in, the Anglo Irish Bank lent billions of euros to property developers, including the builders of the convention center. The building boom went bust, exacerbated by the burst of the global housing bubble, and the bank has gone belly up, nationalized by the Irish government, a bailout that according to an analyst at Standard and Poor's may wind up costing Irish taxpayers more than $47 billion American.

In January 2009, The Irish Times editorialized. "We have gone from the Celtic Tiger to an era of financial fear with the suddenness of a Titanic-style shipwreck, thrown from comfort, even luxury, into a cold sea of uncertainty... the future now is not just uncertain but has suddenly become a threatening place."

Last year, when I spoke with David Kavanagh, the running joke was that the difference between Ireland and Iceland was one letter and six weeks.

In 2009, the economy sank 7.1 percent. Emigration levels are at their highest in more than twenty years, with a 50 percent increase in Irish nationals leaving the country.
Ireland now has close to 14 percent unemployment and the biggest deficit in Europe -- proportionately higher than that of Greece. It could reach around 20-25 percent of its gross domestic product, but the country has not yet gone to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for a financial rescue, as the Greeks have.

But despite government denials, that may be unavoidable. And Wall Street hedge funds aren't helping. According to Ireland's Sunday Independent newspaper, "The International Monetary Fund estimated that up to [about $4 billion US] of Ireland's debt was being targeted by speculators through the use of derivatives. This practice is likely to have increased in recent weeks over growing fears that Ireland may default on some of [the Anglo Irish Bank] debt." As one newspaper columnist wrote, "It's contempt for how badly we do things allied to a gleeful determination to make easy money out of it."

As in the United States, citizen anger has been vehement and vocal, with Anglo Irish and other financial institutions the regular target of raucous demonstrations, hurled tomatoes and rotten eggs. Rage, too, has been directed at the country's politicians, the papers filled with constant reports of oversized salaries and expensive perks ( nearly $30,000 spent by a government delegation for one night's stay at an expensive Italian hotel during Pope John Paul II's funeral; trips to the Cannes Film Festival and a St. Patrick's Day celebration in Los Angeles; more than a million dollars of termination fees and pension payments to four members of the legislature who have decided not to stand for reelection).

The days of Brian Cowen, Ireland's beleaguered prime minister - or Taoiseach, as they say here - are probably numbered, too, although he appears to have survived a mini-scandal after a somewhat befuddled and slurred interview on Irish radio that seemed hangover-induced. His already waning popularity nosedived even further but seemed to boomerang back after an apology and his appearance at that most Irish of events, the National Ploughing Championships.

But curiously, despite the financial calamity and public indignation, there has been less here of the unfocused and often ill-informed fury typified by the Tea Party movement in America; in fact, most Irish with whom I spoke were perplexed by what's happening in the United States. "America is going through an age of misinformation," Irish journalist Una Mullally theorized in her column this past Sunday. "Fox News is sublime at creating an Orwellian arena of doublethink, but false information is being spread everywhere... The US is becoming increasingly polarized: politics, religion, money... But the biggest polarization is that of the truth."

In a Dublin museum, I saw on one wall the words of a great truthteller, the sublime Dr. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, and long ago dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral here. When he died in 1745, he left the bulk of his estate for the founding of a psychiatric hospital. He wrote these lines for his native Ireland, but I couldn't help thinking they apply to us, too:

He gave the little wealth he had,
to build a house for fools and mad:
And showed by one satiric touch,
No Nation wanted it so much.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.


September 22, 2010

The JOURNAL's Emmy Nominees

Update: THE GOOD SOLDIER WON the Emmy Award! Three JOURNAL programs have been nominated for Emmy Awards: "LBJ's Path to War: A Tale of Two Quagmires," Bill Moyers' interview with writer and producer David Simon and the JOURNAL's presentation of the documentary THE GOOD SOLDIER. You can watch ""LBJ's Path to War" and the David Simon interview in their entirety online below. You can watch an excerpt from THE GOOD SOLDIER too.

And, if you're in New York City you can view THE GOOD SOLIDER at the Quad Cinema, from September 24 through September 30, (34 W. 13th St. (5th & 6th Aves.), 212-255-8800, Showtimes: 1:00, 2:40, 4:20, 6:00, 7:40*, 9:40*)

Don't forget to check out all the special online features that accompany the nominated shows!
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September 21, 2010

Michael Winship: Where's Ed Newman When You Need Him?

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

Where's Ed Newman When You Need Him?
By Michael Winship

I was in London last week when news came of the death of the great NBC newsman Edwin Newman, 91 years old. Turns out he and his wife had been living in England since 2007 to be close to their daughter, but I suspect part of him chose to be there for the same reason the late American humorist S.J. Perelman migrated to the UK back in the 1970s. The courtesy may be only skin deep, he said, but that's deep enough for me.

Disillusioned, Perelman wound up coming back to the States; Newman did not, which is a shame for the rest of us, as our bickering, divided, slaphappy nation could have used more of his perceptive objectivity, dry wit and profound sense of fair play. We certainly need all of those qualities now.

He was that rare thing, a gentleman, although "genteelly rumpled" and "genially grumpy" as his New York Times obituary described him. He also held an unusual record -- the only person in the world who had hosted two presidential debates and two editions of Saturday Night Live.

Ed and I got to know each other in the late eighties when he hosted a PBS documentary series I wrote and co-produced on the history of television. He also wrote the introduction to my book on the same subject. We spent a lot of time together, both in a post-production studio as he recorded narration and later on the road as we jointly traveled around the country promoting the TV series.

A strict grammarian and authority on the English language -- he wrote two best selling books on its use and abuse -- the only argument he and I ever had was on the difference between the words "perimeter" and "parameter." Ed, of course, won.

To him, precise language and journalistic accuracy were essential; part of what made him such a good reporter. In his life after retiring from NBC News in 1984, he enjoyed playing himself as a newscaster in movies and sitcoms. But he told me how incensed he was when the producers of The Golden Girls handed him a script in which he referred to Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev by the wrong title. He kept correcting it, yet the producers insisted on keeping it the way it was, because, they argued, it was a dream sequence and the character having the dream wouldn't know the difference. I thought Ed's head would come to a point.

Newman's first full-time job in journalism was as a dictation boy in the Washington bureau of the old International News Service, transcribing stories reporters phoned in from the field.

The wire service was owned by William Randolph Hearst and Ed loved to tell the story of the day one of Hearst's deputies showed up at the bureau while the movie Citizen Kane -- Orson Welles' devastating, satiric portrait of a Hearst-like publisher -- was playing at the RKO Keith's movie theater just around the corner.

"Any of you boys seen Citizen Kane yet?" the man demanded. Ed and the other newsmen fell over themselves proclaiming total ignorance of the film.

Hearst's deputy looked around the room and said, "Too bad. Damned fine portrait of the old man."

I suspect that even the legendary Hearst, who was no stranger to exploiting xenophobia and fear to peddle papers, would have been flabbergasted by our current toxic diet of hate radio, Fox News and Internet hyperbole. And I know Ed Newman would have been appalled, as illustrated by a story told in his Washington Post obituary.

On the Today show in 1971, Newman interviewed the 73-year-old comedian Georgie Jessel, one of those older entertainers like Bob Hope, Martha Raye and Kate Smith who were staunch supporters of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. During the interview, Jessel compared the Post and The New York Times to the Soviet government newspaper Pravda.

"You are a guest here," Newman told him. "It is not the kind of thing one tosses off. One does not accuse newspapers of being Communist, which you have just done."

Jessel responded, "I didn't mean it quite that way... I won't say it again."

Newman replied, "I agree that you won't say it again. Thank you very much, Mr. Jessel."

Jessel said, "I just want to say one thing before I leave." Newman said, "Please don't," and cut to a commercial.

As the Post reported, "When he came back on the air, Mr. Newman said television had a responsibility to uphold 'certain standards of conduct.'

"'It didn't seem to me we have any obligation to allow people to come on to traduce the reputations of anyone they want,' he said, 'to abuse people they don't like.'"

Alas, since then, as the progressive historian and journalist Rick Perlstein has written, "Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers, getting inside the heads of editors and reporters, haunting them with the thought that maybe they are out-of-touch cosmopolitans..."

There was a time, he continued, when "the media didn't adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of 'conservative claims' to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as 'extremist' -- out of bounds."

Such was Ed Newman's time -- and that of many other print and broadcast journalists with the knowledge, experience and bravery to speak the truth. Their erudition, skill and dedication to separating fact from fiction, right from rant and legitimate grievance from bellicosity are woefully absent from all too much of today's misshapen, mainstream media.

Years ago, when we were promoting that PBS series and my book, he and I often would autograph copies together. One night in Seattle, a woman who had just gotten Newman's signature was trying to make up her mind whether mine was worth having as well.

"Are you Ed's sidekick?" she asked. Sidekick? I thought for a moment and answered, proudly, "Yes."

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New
York City.


September 14, 2010

Michael Winship: Escaping Tolerance

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

Escaping Tolerance
By Michael Winship

Gentlemen, start your defibrillators. To baby boomers like me it's gives the heart a bit of jolt to realize that 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the presidential campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum out on Columbia Point in Boston late last week for the first time since shortly after the permanent collection opened in 1980. Right now, they're paying special attention to the 1960 election anniversary. Memories flooded back.

I was nine years old when JFK was elected, living in a house divided. My mother and I supported Kennedy; my father and older brother professed allegiance to Nixon -- I still have their Republican Party tie clip featuring a cheap gold caricature of Tricky Dick, an exaggerated ski nose making him look more like Bob Hope than the twitchy misanthrope we all knew and loved.

For a kid, that brief thousand days of the Kennedy presidency were a heady mix of exhilaration and despair: I was alternately captivated by the family's youth, energy and charisma; terrified at the prospect of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis; thrilled by the early flights of the space program; devastated by the assassination in 1963.

The Kennedy Library and Museum's reflect all of that and more; displays filled with campaign paraphernalia, newspaper front pages, video clips, documents and other assorted, historic ephemera -- even the coconut on which Kennedy scratched a message to rescuers in the South Pacific after his PT 109 was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. It sat on his desk in the Oval Office.

In one of the clear plastic display cases were two typewritten pages from one of the most important speeches John F. Kennedy ever delivered: his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, exactly fifty years ago this week, with words as relevant, in the face of today's Islamophobia and other fears, as they were then.

Dogged by misperceptions about his Catholic faith and scurrilous allegations that his dedication to country would be superseded by allegiance to the Pope, Kennedy tackled the separation of church and state head on, with words as relevant, in the face of today's Islamophobia and other unreasoned fears, as they were then.

"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish," he said, "where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

"For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been -- and may someday be again -- a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril."

Fifty years later, as political journalist Steve Benen noted on his Washington Monthly blog, "Political Animal," little attention was paid to the speech former Republican Senator Rick Santorum delivered last week to mark the anniversary of Kennedy's landmark address. It turned what JFK believed on its head. "Kennedy chose not just to dispel fear, he chose to expel faith," Santorum declared.

"... Kennedy's speech was historic because it did offer a teachable moment. In the short term it accomplished a great good by helping to put an end to Catholic bigotry. Unfortunately, its lasting impact not only undermined the essential role that faith has successfully played in America, but it reduced religion to mere personal 'belief' and helped launch a cultural revolution, proclaiming loudly that on matters of moral consequence, reason has no truths it can discern, nothing of moral significance it can claim to know, much less contribute to the public debate."

A wildly untrue exaggeration. As Benen wrote, "The right-wing politician who'd like to be the second Roman Catholic president made his case that Kennedy's commitment to First Amendment principles was a big mistake."

Santorum proclaimed Kennedy's principles rooted not in good old American belief but on "a model used in countries like France and until recently Turkey." This, of course, is a popular form of right wing attack -- associating the opposition with, gasp, some foreign country. Witness Newt Gingrich's embrace of a recent Forbes.com article, "How Obama Thinks," by Dinesh D'Souza, in which the right wing commentator links the president's political philosophy to his Kenyan father in ludicrous, derogatory fashion.

D'Souza writes, "Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son makes it happen, but he candidly admits he is only living out his father's dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is governed by a ghost."

Gingrich called this the "most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama," to which former Bush speechwriter David Frum replied, "With the Forbes story and now the Gingrich endorsement, the argument that Obama is an infiltrating alien, a deceiving foreigner -- and not just any kind of alien, but specifically a Third World alien -- has been absorbed almost to the very core of the Republican platform for November 2010... When last was there such a brazen outburst of race-baiting in the service of partisan politics at the national level? George Wallace took more care to sound race-neutral."

Years ago, I interviewed the great American comic writer and satirist Larry Gelbart. I asked him why, during a large art of the 1960s, he had chosen to live in Britain rather than the United States. He joked, "To escape religious tolerance."

As time goes by, the joke wears thin, its premise false. Increasingly, what we tolerate instead is prejudice, ignorance and just plain damned foolishness.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.


September 9, 2010

Michael Winship: 9/11: The Rest Should Be Silence

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

9/11: The Rest Should Be Silence
By Michael Winship

This past Sunday was beautiful, bright and warm, not unlike the sky blue day when those two airliners hit the World Trade Center in 2001, just a mile or so from where I live. That day, a Tuesday, was a bit hotter, a bit more humid, yet just as sunny and promising.

But this Sunday morning's silence was broken by the sound of a bell and a small, organized crowd of friendly people chatting quietly among themselves, walking south down Seventh Avenue, the street that runs beneath my apartment windows, escorted by police and fire vehicles. With a prompt from the news on my radio, I remembered that this was an event that now takes place every year on the Sunday before the anniversary of 9/11.

The people walk in memory of Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan priest who died at the World Trade Center, the attack's first officially recorded death, designated Victim 0001. Chaplain for the New York City Fire Department, Father Judge had rushed to the disaster scene, delivered last rites to the dying, then gone inside the lobby of the north tower, praying for all those at Ground Zero but especially for his friends, the firefighters.

"Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!" he was heard to exclaim. And then the south tower collapsed. Debris came crashing through the north lobby. Father was struck and fell, dead - "blunt force trauma to the head," the coroner's report read.

It would be foolish to pretend to know what Father Judge would make of the controversy over Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic center downtown a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, but there may be a clue in the words of the homily he delivered just the day before 9/11. "No matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea what God is calling you to do," he said. "But God needs you, He needs me, He needs all of us."

All of us. Not just Christians or Jews, but Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, the right, the left, everyone. Father Judge himself was both gay and a recovering alcoholic, struggles that gave him particular insight into the plight of all too many misunderstood souls working to make their capacity for love, compassion and courage known and accepted as equal to anyone else's.

So all of us have a role to play and none of them should involve inflaming hatred and prejudice among us, none of them should involve violating the rights of others or considering oneself superior to another or burning the scripture of those the ignorant and opportunistic want us to believe are evil or unholy.

Writing in Wednesday's New York Times, Feisal Abdul Rauf, chair of the effort to build Cordoba House and imam of the Farah mosque already in lower Manhattan, said, "These efforts by radicals at distortion endanger our national security and the personal security of Americans worldwide. This is why Americans must not back away from completion of this project. If we do, we cede the discourse and, essentially, our future to radicals on both sides. The paradigm of a clash between the West and the Muslim world will continue, as it has in recent decades at terrible cost. It is a paradigm we must shift."

Just returned from two months in the Middle East on behalf of the State Department, seeking conciliation between Muslims and other religions, Rauf continued, "Let us commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 by pausing to reflect and meditate and tone down the vitriol and rhetoric that serves only to strengthen the radicals and weaken our friends' belief in our values."

Reflect and meditate in silence, please. Many have urged that September 11 this year not be a time of demonstrations for or against Cordoba House or any other issue; rather, let it be a quiet day of commemoration and mourning.

The last time I attended the September 11 ceremonies at Ground Zero, on the fifth anniversary in 2006, as the names of the dead were read, solemn tranquility was disrupted and disrespected by those who tried to use the occasion to draw attention to themselves, crassly intruding with their conspiracy theories and raucous agendas.

And quiet, please, not only because it is a mark of respect for the deceased and their friends and families, but also because it is the sound of silence that many New Yorkers find so evocative of those days just after the attacks. Our streets closed to regular traffic, patrolled by police and the National Guard, we wandered in mute disbelief at what had happened, at the enormity of our loss. Even the emergency vehicles that raced along the empty streets did so without their sirens. We murmured softly amongst ourselves, looking for answers as many of our fellow citizens still searched for news of their missing loved ones.

Let our loss be what we remember on Saturday. That, and the words of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the order of friars to which Father Mychal Judge devoted himself: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy."

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.


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