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March 18, 2011

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship: Just a Couple of More Things about NPR

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Like Jake LaMotta and his brother Joey in the bloody boxing classic Raging Bull, we are gluttons for punishment. So here we are again, third week in a row, defending NPR against the bare-knuckled assault of its critics.

Our earlier pieces on the funding threat to NPR have generated plenty of punches, both pro and con. And although most of the comments were welcome, and encouraged further thinking about the value of public media in a democratic society, a few reminded us of the words of the poet and scholar James Merrick: "So high at last the contest rose/From words they almost came to blows!"

Nonetheless, reading those comments and criticisms made us realize there are a couple of points that these two wizened veterans of public broadcasting -- with the multiple tote bags and coffee mugs to prove it -- would like to clarify.

For one, when we described the right wing media machine as NPR's "long-time nemesis," it was not to suggest that somehow public radio is its left wing opposite. When it comes to covering and analyzing the news, the reverse of right isn't left; it's independent reporting that toes neither party nor ideological line. We've heard no NPR reporter -- not a one -- advocating on the air for more government spending (or less), for the right of abortion (or against it), for or against gay marriage, or for or against either political party, especially compared to what we hear from Fox News and talk radio on all of these issues and more.

Take, for example, talk jocks John and Ken on KFI-AM Radio in Los Angeles. They beat on California's state legislature like a cheap pinata. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Within a matter of moments, they refer to various lawmakers as 'traitorous pigs,' 'con artist' and 'Republican dirt bag.' They use gruesome sound effects to suggest the mounting of one legislator's head on a stake -- his entry into the duo's hall of shame."

The personalities, "whose frequent targets are taxes, labor unions and illegal immigrants, not only reach more listeners than any other non-syndicated talk show in California but also have the ear -- and fear -- of Sacramento's minority party.

"'There is nary a conversation about the budget that does not involve the names John and Ken,' said Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the state Senate leader." And that's true whether what they say is grounded in fact or simply made up wholesale out of flimsy, opinionated cloth.

So what do conservatives really mean when they accuse NPR of being "liberal?" They mean it's not accountable to their worldview as conservatives and partisans. They mean it reflects too great a regard for evidence and is too open to reporting different points of views of the same event or idea or issue. Reporting that by its very fact-driven nature often fails to confirm their ideological underpinnings, their way of seeing things (which is why some liberals and Democrats also become irate with NPR).

That's why our favorite new word is "agnotology." According to the website WordSpy, it means "the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt," a concept developed in recent years by two historians of science at Stanford University, Robert Proctor and his wife, Londa Schiebinger.

Believing that global climate change is a myth is one example of the kind of ignorance agnotologists investigate. Or the insistence by the tobacco industry that the harm caused by smoking is still in dispute. Or the conviction that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim, and a radical one at that, who may not even be from America.

Those first two illusions have been induced by big business in a cynical attempt to keep pumping profits from deadly pollutants, whether fossil fuels or nicotine. The third, dreamed up by fantasists of the right wing fringe, is in its own way just as toxic and has been tacitly, sometimes audibly, encouraged by certain opponents of President Obama who would perpetuate any prevarication to further blockade his agenda and deny him and fellow Democrats reelection.

None of them is true; rather, they fly in the face of those of us who belong to what an aide to George W. Bush famously called "the reality-based community [who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'" He told journalist Ron Suskind, ''That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

To the accusers of NPR, the created reality of however they define "liberal" is not the same as what they mean when they call themselves "conservative." If it were, the two would be exact reverse images of each other. Where media are concerned, all you have to do to know this is not the case is to hold them up, side-by-side. If "liberal" were the counterpoint to "conservative," NPR would be the mirror of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and James O'Keefe, including the use of their techniques as well as content. Clearly it isn't.

To charge otherwise is a phony gambit aimed at nothing less than quashing the public's access to non-ideological journalism, narrowing viewpoints to all but one. We know from first-hand experience that any journalist whose reporting threatens the conservative belief system gets sliced and diced by its apologists and polemicists at Fox and on talk radio.

Remember, for one, when Limbaugh, took journalists to task for their reporting on torture at Abu Ghraib? He attempted to dismiss the cruelty inflicted by American soldiers on their captives as a little necessary "sport" for soldiers under stress, saying: "This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation... you [ever] heard of the need to blow some steam off?"

The Limbaugh line became a drumbeat in the nether reaches of the right-wing echo chamber. So it was not surprising that in a nationwide survey conducted by the Chicago Tribune on First Amendment issues, half of the respondents said there should be some kind of press restraint on reporting prison abuse. Half or more said they "would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, particularly when it has sexual content or is heard as unpatriotic." Many of those people came after NPR for reporting what actually happened at Abu Ghraib.

But to clear up one other thing: what NPR also isn't, is what it could be. In our support for its much-needed survival, admittedly we may have been a bit fulsome in our praise. Like many commentators who posted after our previous two pieces, as regular listeners we know there is room for improvement, the need for more diverse voices and for more courageous journalism that reports not merely what the powerful say but what they actually do for their paymasters.

Americans need more and sustained reporting on what the journalist William Greider calls "the hard questions of governance" -- those questions of how and why some interests are allowed to dominate the government's decision making while others are excluded. Who gets the money and who has to pay? Who must be heard on this question and who can be safely ignored? None execute this kind of reporting better than Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez's on Democracy Now, which, while carried by some public radio and television stations, is not distributed nationally by either NPR or PBS. Public media - radio and television - too rarely challenge the dictum: "News is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity."

Yet in the words of Confucius, better a diamond with a flaw -- a big flaw -- than a pebble without. For all that it provides -- but mainly because it is a true journalistic, rather than ideological, alternative to commercial and partisan broadcasting -- we continue to support government funding of public media until such time as a sizable trust or some other solid, independent source of funding, unfettered by political interference, can be established that will free us to tell the stories America most needs to hear. Short of that we'll need the courage, as one of our journalistic heroes, the late George Seldes, wrote, "to tell the truth and run."


Bill Moyers is a veteran broadcast journalist and managing editor of Public Affairs Television. Michael Winship, former senior writer of Public Affairs Television, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.


Bill Moyers and Michael Winship: NPR: The Saga Continues

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

There's no more scrupulous or versatile broadcast journalist than NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. He is one of those reporters who keeps his eye on the sparrow - that is, on small details from individual lives that add up to significant issues of public policy. As he described in a special report this week how the United States Army is clarifying guidelines "that should make it easier for soldiers with traumatic brain injuries from explosions to receive the Purple Heart," it was mind-boggling to think that right wingers in Congress were at that very moment voting to eliminate the modest federal funds that make such essential and authoritative reporting available to anyone in America who cares to tune in.

Zwerdling's collaborator on this report was ProPublica (the non-profit and equally independent newsroom that won the Pulitzer Prize last year for a harrowing account of deadly choices made by a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina). As a result of their reporting, the Army now intends to give special priority to reexamining the cases of soldiers who suffered battlefield concussions but who mistakenly may have been turned down for the Purple Heart, which historically has been awarded to soldiers injured by enemy action.

You may not think this such a big deal, but the symbolism of the announcement is potent. And it's part of a larger, ongoing investigation conducted by Zwerdling and ProPublica's T. Christian Miller into the military's widespread failure to diagnose and treat traumatic brain injuries, the "signature injury" among troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as they fall to roadside bombs and other explosives.

"NPR: The Saga Continues," Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, March 18


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NPR: The Saga Continues

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

There's no more scrupulous or versatile broadcast journalist than NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. He is one of those reporters who keeps his eye on the sparrow - that is, on small details from individual lives that add up to significant issues of public policy. As he described in a special report this week how the United States Army is clarifying guidelines "that should make it easier for soldiers with traumatic brain injuries from explosions to receive the Purple Heart," it was mind-boggling to think that right wingers in Congress were at that very moment voting to eliminate the modest federal funds that make such essential and authoritative reporting available to anyone in America who cares to tune in.

Zwerdling's collaborator on this report was ProPublica (the non-profit and equally independent newsroom that won the Pulitzer Prize last year for a harrowing account of deadly choices made by a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina). As a result of their reporting, the Army now intends to give special priority to reexamining the cases of soldiers who suffered battlefield concussions but who mistakenly may have been turned down for the Purple Heart, which historically has been awarded to soldiers injured by enemy action.

You may not think this such a big deal, but the symbolism of the announcement is potent. And it's part of a larger, ongoing investigation conducted by Zwerdling and ProPublica's T. Christian Miller into the military's widespread failure to diagnose and treat traumatic brain injuries, the "signature injury" among troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as they fall to roadside bombs and other explosives.

It's also typical of the comprehensive and essential journalism that has been a hallmark of NPR since its creation in 1970. Once upon a time, in the early glory days of radio, corporate media took on the challenge of providing Americans with the kind of information critical to citizenship. No longer. Conglomerates long ago bought up the country's commercial radio stations, closed down the news departments, and auctioned off the airtime to partisan polemicists or pre-packaged content devoid of journalism. Serious news on radio -- "the news we need to keep our freedoms," as the historian and journalist Richard Reeves once put it - has become the province of NPR (Full disclosure: We two have spent most of the last forty years toiling in the vineyards of public broadcasting, although never for NPR.)

Take Zwerdling's investigations as just one example: Over the years, he has sorted out the complexities and secrets of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster and the warnings that preceded it, dangers posed to humans by the plant pesticide Chlordane (it eventually was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency) and the failures of the Corps of Engineers to maintain safely the dikes and dams around New Orleans -- among many other stories. Multiply his efforts by those of all the modestly-paid but dedicated journalists at NPR and you have a forty year history that has given listeners a deeper and richer portrait of America and the world than any other broadcast news organization in the country -- with or without offense, as Byron said, to friend or foe.

In just the last few weeks, NPR has provided unique coverage of the job crisis in the United States, upheavals in the Middle East, and anxiety over the safety of nuclear power in the wake of the Japanese earthquake - as a matter of fact, many of the issues the House of Representatives should have been debating instead of posturing and pandering to its rightward political base.

Hear Steve Benen of Washington Monthly on the House Judiciary Committee's vote the other day reaffirming "In God We Trust" as our national motto: "For months the new House Republican majority has wasted time on health care bills they know they can't pass, abortion bills they know they can't pass, climate bills they know they can't pass, and budget bills they know they can't pass. They've invested considerable time and energy on defending the Defense of Marriage Act, recklessly accusing Muslim Americans of disloyalty, going after NPR, and pushing culture-war bills related to vouchers, English as the 'official' language, and now 'In God We Trust.'"

And yes, on Thursday, following a number of missteps by NPR executives, including what has now been indisputably exposed as a disingenuous and dishonestly-edited video by a disreputable right-wing smear artist of the network's chief fundraiser expressing some personal opinions, the House passed a bill cutting off government funding for NPR - all of this part of the "vanity project," as Benen calls it, that House Republicans have been running in order to feed red meat to Fox News and the partisan talk radio hosts who have turned the public airwaves -- remember, the airwaves above our fair and bountiful land belong to you, Mr. and Mrs. and Ms. America - into a right-wing romper room.

Opposing the bill to strip public radio of funding, Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas said, "My constituents turn to [public radio] because they want fact-based, not Fox-based coverage." The attacks, he continued, are "an ideological crusade against balanced news and educational programs."

And even Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss told an interviewer, "You know, an awful lot of conservatives listen to NPR. It provides a very valuable service. Should we maybe think about a reduction in that? Again, I think the sacrifice is going to have to be shared by NPR as well as others. But I think total elimination of funding is probably not the wisest thing to do."

Good for you, Senator. Because without public radio, the reactionaries among us will hold a monopoly on the airwaves.

And while we're on the subject of wise things, let's not forget public radio's other programming: the arts and entertainment coverage that plays its own distinctive role trying to keep our democracy spirited, diverse and imaginative. Think Garrison Keillor. Krista Tippett. Ira Glass. Think "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" "Car Talk" (yes, many of us are would-be grease monkeys). "On the Media" (the single best analysis and critique of media anywhere). And -- well, consult your local listings.

We're talking here about something essential to American life. President Kennedy touched on it in a speech at Amherst College less than a month before his assassination in 1963. Speaking in honor of the poet Robert Frost, who had recently died, the President's words were directed to the role of artists but can also embrace the importance of a public media whose obligation is not to a political or corporate paymaster but to the integrity of the work and the trust of the listener:

"The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state," Kennedy said. "... In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having 'nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.'"


Bill Moyers is a veteran broadcast journalist and managing editor of Public Affairs Television. Michael Winship, former senior writer of Public Affairs Television, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.




March 11, 2011

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship: In Defense of NPR

Come on now: Let's take a breath and put this NPR fracas into perspective.

Just as public radio struggles against yet another assault from the its long-time nemesis -- the right-wing machine that would thrill if our sole sources of information were Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and ads paid for by the Koch Brothers -- it walks into a trap perpetrated by one of the sleaziest operatives ever to climb out of a sewer.

First, in the interest of full disclosure: While not presently committing journalism on public television, the two of us have been colleagues on PBS for almost 40 years (although never for NPR). We've lived through every one of the fierce and often unscrupulous efforts by the right to shut down both public television and radio. Our work has sometimes been the explicit bull's eye on the dartboard, as conservative ideologues sought to extinguish the independent reporting and analysis they find so threatening to their phobic worldview.

We have come to believe, as so many others have, that only the creation of a substantial trust fund for public media will free it from the whims and biases of the politicians, including Democratic politicians (yes, after one of our documentaries tracking President Clinton's scandalous fund-raising in the mid-90s, the knives were sharpened on the other side of the aisle.)

Richard Nixon was the first who tried to shut down public broadcasting, strangling and diverting funding, attacking alleged bias and even placing public broadcasters Sander Vanocur and Robert MacNeil on his legendary enemies list.Nixon didn't succeed, and ironically his downfall was brought about, in part, by public television's nighttime rebroadcasts of the Senate Watergate hearings, exposing his crimes and misdemeanors to a wider, primetime audience.

Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich tried to gut public broadcasting, too, and the George W. Bush White House planted partisan operatives at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in an attempt to challenge journalists who didn't hew to the party line.

But what's happening now is the worst yet. Just as Republicans again clamor for the elimination of government funding and public broadcasting once more fights for life, it steps on its own oxygen line. The details are well-known: how NPR's development chief Ron Schiller stupidly fell into a sting perpetrated by an organization run by the young conservative hit man James O'Keefe, a product of that grimy underworld of ideologically-based harassment which feeds the right's slime machine. Posing as members of a phony Muslim group, O'Keefe's agents provocateurs offered NPR a check for $5 million -- an offer that was rejected.

But Ron Schiller couldn't leave it there. Unaware that he was speaking into a hidden camera and microphone, and violating everything we're told from childhood about not talking to strangers, he allowed the two co-conspirators to goad him into a loquacious display of personal opinions, including his belief that Tea Partiers are racist and cult-like. As the record shows, more than once he said he had taken off his "NPR hat" and was representing himself as no one other than who he is. His convictions, their expression so grossly ill advised in this instance, are his own.

Ron Schiller's a fundraiser, not a news director. NPR keeps a high, thick firewall between its successful development office and its superb news division. The "separation of church and state" -- the classic division of editorial and finance -- has been one of the glories of public radio as it has won a large and respectful audience as the place on the radio spectrum that is free of commercials and commercial values.

If you would see how this integrity is upheld, go to the NPR website and pull up any of its reporting since 2009 on the Tea Party movement. Read the transcripts or listen to its coverage -- you will find it impartial and professional, a full representation of various points of view, pro and con, Further, examine how over the past few days NPR has covered the O'Keefe/Schiller contretemps and made no attempt to cover up or ignore its own failings and responsibilities.

Then reverse the situation and contemplate how, say, Fox News would handle a similar incident if they were the target of a sting. Would their coverage be as "fair and balanced" as NPR's? Would they apologize or punish their outspoken employee if he or she demeaned liberals? Don't kid yourself. A raise and promotion would be more likely. Think of the fortune Glenn Beck has made on Fox, spewing bile and lies about progressives and their "conspiracies."

And oh, yes, something else: Remember what Fox News chief Roger Ailes said about NPR executives after they fired Fox contributor Juan Williams? "They are, of course, Nazis," Ailes told an interviewer. "They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don't want any other point of view." When the Anti-Defamation League objected to the characterization, Ailes apologized but then described NPR as "nasty, inflexible" bigots.

Double standard? You bet. A fundraiser for NPR is axed for his own personal bias and unprofessionalism but Ailes gets away scot free, still running a news division that is constantly pumping arsenic into democracy's drinking water while he slanders public radio as equal to the monsters and murderers of the Third Reich.

Sure, public broadcasting has made its share of mistakes, and there have been times when we who practice our craft under its aegis have been less than stalwart in taking a stand and speaking truth to power. We haven't always served well our original mandate to be "a forum for debate and controversy," or to provide "a voice for groups in the community that may be otherwise unheard," or helped our viewers and listeners "see America whole, in all its diversity." But for all its flaws, consider an America without public media. Consider a society where the distortions and dissembling would go unchallenged, where fact-based reporting is eliminated, and where the field is abandoned to the likes of James O'Keefe, whose "journalism" relies on lying and deceit.

We agree with Joel Meares who, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, expressed the wish that NPR had stood up for themselves and released a statement close to the following: "Ron Schiller was a fundraiser who no longer works for us. He had nothing to do with our editorial decision making process. And frankly, our editorial integrity speaks for itself. We've got reporters stationed all over the world, we've won all sorts of prizes, we've got an ombudsman who is committed to examining our editorial operations. If you think our reporting is tainted, or unreliable, that's your opinion, and you're free to express it. And to look for the evidence. But we will not be intimidated by the elaborate undercover hackwork of vindictive political point-scorers who are determined to see NPR fail."

That's our cue. Come on, people: Speak up!

Bill Moyers is a veteran broadcast journalist and managing editor of Public Affairs Television. Michael Winship, former senior writer of Public Affairs Television, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.



March 4, 2011

Michael Winship: Wackos of the World, Unite!

(Photo by Robin Holland)

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

Wackos of the World, Unite!
By Michael Winship

"Sell crazy someplace else, we're all stocked up here."

Given the level of wackiness that seems to have afflicted this third planet from the sun, Jack Nicholson's immortal line in the movie "As Good as It Gets"" (written by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks), should become our worldwide slogan. Sure, it's always a cuckoo fest here on Earth, but this week it seems the out-of-control dial has been cranked up way beyond 11.

There's Muammar "Gunshots? What Gunshots?" Qadaffi, who blames rebellion in Libya on a bunch of crazy, mixed up, drug-addled kids, al Qaeda and for all we know, fluoridated water. Then there's Charlie Sheen who, in the vocabulary of recovery, epitomizes the so-called "arrogant doormat," bragging of his Adonis DNA (oh, brother) while whining about the ill treatment that has given him an estimated net worth of $85 million -- a hubris reminiscent of the Emperor Caligula, if Caligula had a Golden Globe and unlimited access to cocaine.

Presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee earned a place on the round the bend roster this week with his claim that President Obama had grown up in Kenya and his subsequent "what I meant to say" contortions, although he may have been outdone by cockamamie radio host Bryan Fischer, who told Huckabee, "What got lost in all the shuffle was the legitimate point that you were making is that we may have a president who has some fundamentally anti-American ideas, that may be rooted in a childhood where he had a father who was virulently anti-colonial, hated the British."

Wait -- anti-colonial, hated the British -- does that mean Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Franklin were un-American? I'm so confused.

Not as confused as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his Republican state legislators, who continue to stomp their feet and threaten to hold their collective breaths until they turn a very un-GOP-like blue if Democratic senators don't return to the capitol and create a quorum. That quorum would allow Republicans to destroy the collective bargaining rights of the state's public employee union members, despite major opposition from Wisconsin voters.

Violating the first rule of what to do when you find yourself in a hole -- stop digging -- Walker and his legislative pals have levied fines against the Democrats, attempted to withhold their wages and on Thursday placed them in contempt and ordered the Senate sergeant-at-arms to "take any and all necessary steps, with or without force" to haul the runaways in. They even tried to make illegal the kind of prank call that fooled Governor Walker into thinking he was discussing strategy with right-wing bankroller David Koch, and attempted to limit public access to the capitol building, despite a court order to the contrary.

In protest, like Peanuts' Lucy van Pelt and her psychiatrist stand, Democratic members of the state's lower chamber moved their desks outside to the capitol grounds. It's cold, but they're used to it -- as the old joke goes, when it's fifty below zero, Hell freezes over and Wisconsin schools start two hours late.

So who's the worst of all these foolish masters of denial? In some respects it's pretty much a dead heat on a merry-go-round, although Qadaffi has the definite lead when it comes to lunacy with hideous consequences. But challenging them all for the slippery grasp of reality prize is that maelstrom of madness, the US House of Representatives.

Two weeks ago, the House voted 244-179 to end American funding for the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), just their latest refusal to accept the legitimacy of manmade global warming. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said, the great thing about science is that it's true whether you believe it or not, but this crowd clings to the mantra that if they keep insisting that climate change isn't happening the industrial pollution of the planet's air supply can go on unabated.

They once again invoked the specter of "Climategate," the continuing canard that the contents of stolen e-mails from a British university invalidate a 2007 IPCC report reconfirming that human activity has "very likely" caused "most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century." But there now have been five investigations of this alleged scandal, including a February 18 report from the inspector general of the Department of Commerce, and none of them has found any evidence of "inappropriately manipulated data."

Not that it matters. Providing fact-based reporting and analyses for this House majority is tilting at hot air-driven windmills. Just look at their budget. The Financial Times quotes a report from a Goldman Sachs forecaster: "The Republican plan to slash government spending by $61bn in 2011 could reduce US economic growth by 1.5 to 2 percentage points in the second and third quarters of the year." Dana Milbank of The Washington Post interviewed an expert at the progressive Center for American Progress who calculated that the cuts "would lead to the loss of 650,000 government jobs, and the indirect loss of 325,000 more jobs as fewer government workers travel and buy things. That's nearly 1 million jobs -- possibly enough to tip the economy back into recession."

The Post also quoted a similar report from Moody's Analytics that "the GOP package would reduce economic growth by 0.5 percentage points this year, and by 0.2 percentage points in 2012, resulting in 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of next year." According to Moody's Mark Zandi, "Significant government spending restraint is vital, but given the still halting economic recovery, it would be counterproductive for that restraint to begin until the economy is creating enough jobs to bring down the still very high unemployment rate." And while Fed chair Ben Bernanke said he thought the Moody and Goldman estimates were high, even he admitted the cuts would lead to a "not trivial" loss of jobs.

With the Tea Party irregulars snapping at his rear end, Speaker John Boehner responded to reports with a dry-eyed, "So be it." That's downright wacky for sure, and ignores the truth. But apparently, to paraphrase good old Jack Nicholson (as written by Aaron Sorkin), Boehner and his gang can't handle the truth.

Michael Winship, former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.


March 2, 2011

Michael Winship: Attacks on Unions Barking Up the Wrong Money Tree

(Photo by Robin Holland)

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

Attacks on Unions Barking Up the Wrong Money Tree
By Michael Winship

"More cheese, less sleaze!"

That was the funniest group chant at Tuesday's rally of several hundred union and other progressive activists outside the Manhattan headquarters of Fox News.

Several "cheeseheads" were in attendance, their noggins topped by the now familiar wedge-shaped, orange hatwear made popular by Green Bay Packer fans. On Tuesday they were out in the twilight chill expressing their opposition not to lactose intolerance but Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's intolerance of organized labor. (Unadorned by cheddar, I briefly spoke at the gathering as president of an AFL-CIO affiliated union, the Writers Guild of America, East.)

Governor Walker continues his obdurate opposition to the state's public employee unions' right to collective bargaining, despite a willingness on their part to concede pension and health givebacks he claims would help close Wisconsin's alleged deficit. Meanwhile, there has been a decided increase on the sleaze end of the cheese vs. sleaze quotient, as evidenced in part by the prank phone call to the governor in which an online newspaper editor impersonating right wing billionaire David Koch elicited from Walker a proposed scheme to lure back, then double cross Democratic state senators who have prevented a quorum by retreating to Illinois. Further, when asked about planting troublemakers amongst the protesters, Walker told the trickster that he and his team had "thought about that" but decided not to. Apparently, all the really good disrupters are tied up in the Middle East.

But of course, this isn't really about saving taxpayers money but consolidating political power. Walker and such leading lights of the GOP leadership as Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Ohio Governor John Kasich, among others, have decided that public employee unions make great punching bags, effective scapegoats for an outraged electorate and a satisfactory diversion from the real culprits of this grim, economic melodrama -- the Simon Legrees of banking and finance who got us into this meltdown mess in the first place.

As Josh Dorner reported on the progressive ThinkProgress website this week, "Instead of making the tough choices necessary to help their states weather the current crisis with some semblance of the social safety net and basic government services intact, Republican governors are instead using it as an opportunity to advance several longtime GOP projects: union busting, draconian cuts to social programs, and massive corporate tax breaks. These misplaced priorities mean that the poor and middle class will shoulder the burden of fiscal austerity, even as the rich and corporations are asked to contribute even less."

Dorner cites examples: in Arizona, Republican Governor Jan Brewer proposes kicking some 280,000 off the state Medicaid rolls but two weeks ago signed into law $538 million in corporate tax cuts. Florida Governor Rick Scott's new budget calls for billions of dollars in cuts to essential programs and services to pay for corporate and property tax cuts of at least $4 billion. Rick Snyder, newly elected governor of Michigan, has asked for $180 million in concessions from public employees and more than a billion to be taken from schools, universities, local governments and others, most of which could be avoided if he wasn't so deeply dedicated to giving business $1.8 billion in tax breaks.

Writing in the February 23 Boston Globe, Mark Erlich, executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters asks, "While there are legitimate and critical public policy issues about education reform, spiraling health costs, and pension liabilities at a time of state and municipal budget deficits, why is the fault laid at the feet of teachers, police, and firefighters? Today's pension obligations are the product of massive investment losses, not excessively generous public pensions that, in fact, average about $19,000 a year. For that matter, a 2010 Economic Policy Institute study showed that, controlled for educational achievement, public sector workers actually earn less than their private sector counterparts."

So instead of screaming about the advances public employee and other unions have made to preserve health care, job security and economic justice, angry voters should be asking what or who have been keeping them from obtaining the same. Nor does Wall Street's pillaging of private 401 (k) retirement plans justify tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye acts of covetous revenge against union pensions. As Erlich writes, "A generation ago, non-union workers often welcomed news of improved wages and benefits for unionized employees, recognizing that a rising tide lifts all boats. But... at a time of sacrifice and insecurity, many would prefer to sink their neighbor's slightly bigger boat while wistfully hoping for a glance at a yacht in a gated marina."

The American middle class largely exists because of unions; it would be a tragedy of Greek proportions if, in frustration, resentment and fear, members of that class were to turn on labor and bring about their mutual destruction. Conservative Republican governors and their associates are barking up the wrong money tree. Don't reward corporate greed and malfeasance with yet more tax breaks and a blind eye to windfall bonuses. And don't punish unions for whatever success they've had protecting members and holding on to an ever-dwindling power base of American workers. That's just plain cheesy and sleazy.

Michael Winship is the former senor writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS and current president of the Writers Guild of America, East.


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