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May 29, 2009

Two Administrations, Torture, and National Security

This week, the JOURNAL presented portions of TORTURING DEMOCRACY, a documentary film tracing the decisions of the Bush Administration leading to the ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques that many have called torture.

Last week, President Obama and former Vice President Cheney delivered speeches about ‘enhanced interrogation’ and national security that were widely seen as an indirect debate between the two men.

Obama said that he ended ‘enhanced interrogation’ methods because they undermine America’s national security objectives and standing in the world:

“Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset – in war and peace, in times of ease and in eras of upheaval... Where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and our institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology... I banned the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques by the United States of America. I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep this country safe. And I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts – they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all.”

Cheney said that the events of 9/11 necessitated extreme actions to keep America safe and that interrogation methods were legal and effective:

“In the years after 9/11, our government also understood that the safety of the country required collecting information known only to the worst of the terrorists. And in a few cases, that information could be gained only through tough interrogations... The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do... Personnel were carefully chosen from within the CIA and were especially prepared to apply techniques within the boundaries of their training and the limits of the law. Torture was never permitted. And the methods were given careful legal review before they were approved. Interrogators had authoritative guidance on the line between toughness and torture... To call this a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims. What’s more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness and would make the American people less safe.”

What do you think?

  • Is torture -- what some prefer to call ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques -- ever morally justified? Explain.

  • Do you think torture has helped keep America safe? Why or why not?

  • In the event of another terrorist attack, do you think Obama would suffer politically for his decision to end ‘enhanced interrogation?’

  • Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Everyone Should See TORTURING DEMOCRACY

    In all the recent debate over torture, many of our Beltway pundits and politicians have twisted themselves into verbal contortions to avoid using the word at all.

    During his speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute last week – immediately on the heels of President Obama’s address at the National Archives – former Vice President Dick Cheney used the euphemism "enhanced interrogation" a full dozen times.

    Smothering the reality of torture in euphemism of course has a political value, enabling its defenders to diminish the horror and possible illegality. It also gives partisans the opening they need to divert our attention by turning the future of the prison at Guantanamo Bay into a “wedge issue,” as noted on the front page of Sunday’s NEW YORK TIMES.

    According to the TIMES, “Armed with polling data that show a narrow majority of support for keeping the prison open and deep fear about the detainees, Republicans in Congress started laying plans even before the inauguration to make the debate over Guantanamo Bay a question of local community safety instead of one about national character and principles.“

    No political party would dare make torture a cornerstone of its rejuvenation if people really understood what it is. And lest we forget, we’re not just talking about waterboarding, itself a trivializing euphemism for drowning.

    If we want to know what torture is, and what it does to human beings, we have to look at it squarely, without flinching. That’s just what a powerful and important film, seen by far too few Americans, does. TORTURING DEMOCRACY was written and produced by one of America’s outstanding documentary reporters, Sherry Jones.

    A longtime colleague, Sherry Jones and the film were honored this week with the prestigious RFK Journalism Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. TORTURING DEMOCRACY was cited for its “meticulous reporting,” and described as “the definitive broadcast account of a deeply troubling chapter in recent American history.”

    Unfortunately, as events demonstrate, the story is not yet history; the early chapters aren’t even closed. Torture still is being defended as a matter of national security, although by law it is a war crime, with those who authorized and executed it liable for prosecution as war criminals. The war on terror sparked impatience with the rule of law – and fostered the belief within our government that the commander-in-chief had the right to ignore it.

    TORTURING DEMOCRACY begins at 9/11 and recounts how the Bush White House and the Pentagon decided to make coercive detention and abusive interrogation the official U.S. policy on the war on terror. In sometimes graphic detail, the documentary describes the experiences of several of the men who held in custody, including Shafiq Rasul, Moazzam Begg and Bisher al-Rawi, all of whom eventually were released. Charges never were filed against them and no reason was ever given for their years in custody.

    The documentary traces how tactics meant to train American troops to survive enemy interrogations – the famous SERE program (“Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape”) – became the basis for many of the methods employed by the CIA and by interrogators at Guantanamo and in Iraq, including waterboarding (which inflicts on its victims the terror of imminent death), sleep and sensory deprivation, shackling, caging, painful stress positions and sexual humiliation.

    “We have re-created our enemy's methodologies in Guantanamo,” Malcolm Nance, former head of the Navy’s SERE training program, says in TORTURING DEMOCRACY. “It will hurt us for decades to come. Decades. Our people will all be subjected to these tactics, because we have authorized them for the world now. How it got to Guantanamo is a crime and somebody needs to figure out who did it, how they did it, who authorized them to do it… Because our servicemen will suffer for years.”

    In addition to its depiction of brutality, TORTURING DEMOCRACY also credits the brave few who stood up to those in power and said, “No.” In Washington, there were officials of conviction horrified by unfolding events, including Alberto Mora, the Navy's top civilian lawyer, Major General Thomas Romig, who served as Judge Advocate General of the US Army from 2001 to 2005 and Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch, a former senior prosecutor with the Office of Military Commissions.

    Much has happened since the film’s initial telecast on some public television stations last fall. Once classified memos from the Bush administration have been released that reveal more details of the harsh techniques used against detainees whose guilt or innocence is still to be decided.

    President Obama has announced he will close Guantanamo by next January, with the specifics to come later in the summer. That was enough to set off hysteria among Democrats and Republicans alike who don’t want the remaining 240 detainees on American soil – even in a super maximum security prison, the kind already holding hundreds of terrorist suspects. The president also triggered criticism from constitutional and civil liberties lawyers when he suggested that some detainees may be held indefinitely, without due process.

    But in an interview with Radio Free Europe this week, General David Petraeus, the man in charge of the military’s Central Command, praised the Guantanamo closing, saying it "sends an important message to the world" and will help advance America’s strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    In another revealing and disturbing development, the former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson, has suggested what is possibly as scandalous a deception as the false case Bush and Cheney made for invading Iraq. Colonel Wilkerson writes that in their zeal to prove a link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein during the months leading up to the Iraq war, one suspect held in Egypt, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, was water tortured until he falsely told the interrogators what they wanted to hear.

    That phony confession that Wilkerson says was wrung from a broken man who simply wanted the torture to stop was then used as evidence in Colin Powell’s infamous address to the United Nations shortly before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Colin Powell says everything in his speech was vetted by the CIA and that Wilkerson’s allegation is only speculation. We’ll never know the full story – al-Libi died three weeks ago in a Libyan prison. A suicide.

    Or so they say.

    No wonder so many Americans clamor for a truth commission that will get the facts and put them on the record, just as TORTURING DEMOCRACY has done. Then we can judge for ourselves.

    As the editors of the magazine THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY wrote this week, “Convening a truth commission on torture would be embarrassing to the U.S. in the short term, but in the long run it would demonstrate the strength of American democracy and confirm the nation's adherence to the rule of law….Understandably, [the President] wants to turn the page on torture. But Americans should not turn the page until they know what is written on it.”

    May 21, 2009

    Single-Payer: Is Nationalized Health Coverage the Way to Go?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week, the JOURNAL examined the political and logistical feasibility of single-payer universal health insurance, which has broad public support but has been conspicuously absent from the health care debate in Washington and the mainstream media.

    Bill Moyers asked Dr. David Himmelstein, co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, to explain what single-payer means. He said:

    “It’s what we used to call national health insurance, so government collects the money for health care from taxes. You don’t pay premiums – instead, you pay taxes, [which] pays all the bills. Hospitals remain privately owned and operated. Doctors remain mostly in private practice. But their bills go to the government insurance program, just as they do today with Medicare, but we’d be able to streamline the payment system if we had only one payer instead of Medicare being one among many. So a hospital would get paid like a fire department does today: you have one check a month that pays for the entire operation, and that means you can eliminate the huge billing apparatus of the hospitals and the doctors’ offices where we’re employing many people to do our billing.”

    Advocate Donna Smith told Moyers why she supports single-payer universal health insurance over the present system or the public-private hybrid model proposed by the Obama administration:

    “It’s a great idea from the left, which is public financing, combined with a great idea from the right, which is private delivery. And you put it together in one system that takes out the waste and the abuse that’s really happening, which is where all the money really goes in health insurance. Up to 30 percent of the costs have nothing to do with healthcare at all and everything to do with fueling the health insurance needs... We've got to have a national health program, we just have to do it. It's the only way we fix this mess. It's spun out of control, it's gonna bury us financially, it's gonna mortgage our children, and it kills people.”

    Some are skeptical that the federal government is capable of responsibly running a national health insurance program. In the WALL STREET JOURNAL, columnist John Steele Gordon wrote:

    “It might be a good idea to look at the government’s track record in running economic enterprises. It is terrible... Other than the source of its premiums, Medicare is no different, economically, than a regular health insurance company. But unlike, say, UnitedHealthcare, it is a bureaucracy-beclotted nightmare, riven with waste and fraud... Because of the need to be re-elected, politicians are always likely to have a short-term bias. What looks good now is more important to politicians than long-term consequences even when those consequences can be easily foreseen... And politicians tend to favor parochial interests over sound economic sense... The inescapable fact is that only the profit motive and competition keep enterprises lean, efficient, innovative and customer-oriented.”

    What do you think?

  • Should the U.S. pursue single-payer universal health coverage? Why or why not?

  • Is single-payer universal health insurance politically feasible? Explain.

  • Are there any alternative models for health care that are being left out of the discussion or that you support?

  • POLL: Do You Support the Obama Administration’s Health Coverage Proposal?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In the JOURNAL’s exploration of health care this week, Bill Moyers’ guests were critical of the Obama administration’s health care strategy, which Reuters summarized as follows:

    “Obama urged Congress to make sure any healthcare reform bill lowered costs, let Americans choose their own doctor and health plan and ensured quality, affordable care for everyone... Obama's proposal would establish a new government health insurance plan to compete with private insurers and cover the uninsured, but many Republicans and insurers argue that would undermine the private healthcare market.”

    Single-payer advocate Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the nonpartisan public interest group PUBLIC CITIZEN told Bill Moyers that plans similar to what Obama is proposing have failed on the state level:

    “In seven states, ranging from Washington to Minnesota to Maine, they have tried what amounts to a mixture of a private and a public plan. And in none of the states has there been any sustained reduction in the number of uninsured. It's way too expensive. As long as you have private plans in there, everybody still has to do all the bookkeeping and everything. So, it has failed. As Einstein said, ‘The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again, and expecting to have a different result.’ We've seen the same unsatisfactory, unacceptable result, in state after state after state after state after state, why mess up the whole country with it?”

    We invite you to take our poll and share your thoughts in the space below.

    Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Rx and the Single Payer

    In 2003, a young Illinois state senator named Barack Obama told an AFL-CIO meeting, “I am a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program.”

    Single payer. Universal. That’s health coverage, like Medicare, but for everyone who wants it. Single payer eliminates insurance companies as pricey middlemen. The government pays care providers directly. It’s a system that polls consistently have shown the American people favoring by as much as two-to-one.

    There was only one thing standing in the way, Obama said six years ago: “All of you know we might not get there immediately because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate and we have to take back the House.”

    Fast forward six years. President Obama has everything he said was needed – Democrats in control of the executive branch and both chambers of Congress. So what’s happened to single payer?

    A woman at his town hall meeting in New Mexico last week asked him exactly that. “If I were starting a system from scratch, then I think that the idea of moving towards a single-payer system could very well make sense,” the President replied. “That's the kind of system that you have in most industrialized countries around the world.

    “The only problem is that we're not starting from scratch. We have historically a tradition of employer-based health care. And although there are a lot of people who are not satisfied with their health care, the truth is, is that the vast majority of people currently get health care from their employers and you've got this system that's already in place. We don't want a huge disruption as we go into health care reform where suddenly we're trying to completely reinvent one-sixth of the economy.”

    So the banks were too big to fail and now, apparently, health care is too big to fix, at least the way a majority of people indicate they would like it to be fixed, with a single payer option. President Obama favors a public health plan competing with the medical cartel that he hopes will create a real market that would bring down costs. But single payer has vanished from his radar.

    Nor is single payer getting much coverage in the mainstream media. Barely a mention was given to the hundreds of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals who came to Washington last week to protest the absence of official debate over single payer.

    Is it the proverbial tree falling in the forest, making a noise that journalists can’t or won’t hear? Could the indifference of the press be because both the President of the United States and Congress have been avoiding single payer like, well, like the plague? As we see so often, government officials set the agenda by what they do and don’t talk about.

    Instead, President Obama is looking for consensus, seeking peace among all the parties involved. Except for single payer advocates. At that big White House powwow in Washington last week, the President asked representatives of the health care business to reason together with him. “What's brought us all together today is a recognition that we can't continue down the same dangerous road we've been traveling for so many years,” he said, “ that costs are out of control; and that reform is not a luxury that can be postponed, but a necessity that cannot wait.”

    They came, listened, made nice for the photo op. and while they failed to participate in a hearty chorus of “Kumbaya,” they did promise to cut health care costs voluntarily over the next ten years. The press ate it up – and Mr. Obama was a happy man.

    Meanwhile, some of us looking on – those of us who’ve been around a long time – were scratching our heads. Hadn’t we heard this before?

    Way, way back in the 1970’s Americans were riled up over the rising costs of health care. As a presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter started talking about the government clamping down. When he got to the White House, drug makers, insurance companies, hospitals and doctors – the very people who only a decade earlier had done everything they could to strangle Medicare in the cradle – seemed uncharacteristically humble and cooperative. “You don’t have to make us cut costs,” they promised. “We’ll do it voluntarily.”

    So Uncle Sam backed down, and you guessed it. Pretty soon medical costs were soaring higher than ever.

    By the early ‘90s, the public was once again hurting in the pocketbook. Feeling our pain, Bill and Hillary Clinton tried again, coming up with a plan only slightly more complicated than the schematics for an F-18 fighter jet.

    This time the health industry acted more like Tony Soprano than Mother Teresa. It bludgeoned the Clinton reforms with one of the most expensive and deceitful public relations and advertising campaigns ever conceived – paid for, of course, from the industry’s swollen profits.

    As the drug and insurance companies, hospitals and doctors dumped the mangled carcass of reform into the Potomac, securely encased in concrete, once again they said don’t worry; they would cut costs voluntarily.

    If you believed that, we’ve got a toll-free bridge to the Mayo Clinic we’d like to sell you.

    So anyone with any memory left could be excused for raising their eyebrows at the health care industry’s latest promises. As if on cue, hardly had their pledge of volunteerism rung out across the land than Jay Gellert, chief executive of Health Net Inc. and chair of the lobbying group America’s Health Insurance Plans, assured his pals not to worry abut the voluntary reductions. “We believe that we can do it without undermining the viability of companies,” he said, “and in effect enhancing the payment to physicians and hospitals.” In other words, their so-called voluntary “reforms” will in no way interfere with maximizing profits.

    Also last week, John Lechleiter, the chief executive of drug giant Eli Lilly, blasted universal health care in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “I do not believe that policymakers have yet arrived at a full and complete diagnosis of what’s wrong and what’s right with U.S. health care,” he declared. “And I am very concerned that some of the proposed policies—the treatments, to continue my metaphor—will have unintended side-effects that make our situation worse.”

    So why bother with the charm offensive on Pennsylvania Avenue? Could it be, as some critics suggest, a Trojan horse, getting the health industry a place at the table so they can leap up at the right moment and again knife to death any real reform?

    Wheelers and dealers from the health sector aren’t waiting for that moment. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, they’ve spent more than $134 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2009 alone. And some already are shelling out big bucks for a publicity blitz and ads attacking any health care reform that threatens to reduce the profits from sickness and disease.

    THE WASHINGTON POST’s health care reform blog reported Monday that Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina has hired an outside PR firm to put together a video campaign assaulting Obama’s public plan. And this month alone, the group Conservatives for Patients’ Rights is spending more than a million dollars for attack ads. They’ve hired a public relations firm called CRC – Creative Response Concepts. You remember them – the same high-minded folks who brought you the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the gang who savaged John Kerry’s service record in Vietnam.

    The ads feature the chairman of Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, Rick Scott. Who’s he? As a former deputy inspector general from the Department of Health and Human Services told THE NEW YORK TIMES, “He hopes people don’t Google his name.”

    Scott’s not a doctor; he just acts like one on TV. He’s an entrepreneur who took two hospitals in Texas and built them into the largest health care chain in the world, Columbia/HCA. In 1997, he was fired by the board of directors after Columbia/HCA was caught in a scheme that ripped off the Feds and state governments for hundreds of millions of dollars in bogus Medicare and Medicaid payments, the largest such fraud in history. The company had to cough up $1.7 billion dollars to get out of the mess.

    Rick Scott got off, you should excuse the expression, scot-free. Better than, in fact. According to published reports, he waltzed away with a $10 million severance deal and $300 million worth of stock. So much for voluntarily lowering overhead.

    With medical costs rising six percent per year, that’s who’s offering himself as a spokesman for the health care industry. Speaking up for single payer is Geri Jenkins, a president of the California Nurses Association and National Nurses Organizing Committee – a registered nurse with literal hands-on experience.

    “We're there around the clock,” she told our colleague Jessica Wang. “So we feel a real sense of obligation to advocate for the best interests of our patients and the public. Now, you can talk about policy but when you're staring at a human face it's a whole different story.”

    May 15, 2009

    A Prescription for Pakistan?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with historian Juan Cole and journalist Shahan Mufti about what’s next for Pakistan as violence between Taliban rebels and the Pakistani army continues to roil the country’s northwest and displace hundreds of thousands of civilians.

    Cole, who blogs at Informed Comment, suggested that government and media reports portraying the Pakistani Taliban as a major threat are exaggerated:

    "To take this threat – which is a threat locally to the federally administered tribal areas [and] to parts of the northwest frontier province – and to magnify it and say, 'Whoa, the Pakistani army is six months from falling, the Taliban is going to get their hands on nuclear weapons,' the kinds of things that are being said in Washington are just fantastical, [like] some sort of science fiction film... I think it’s cynical, and I think it’s a way for Washington to put pressure on the Pakistani civilian and military elites to do what Washington wants them to do... Saying that Pakistan is unstable, or it’s about to fall, or the nukes are in danger – all of this sort of thing – is a signal to Islamabad that you had better get serious about this because it matters to us, so this is Washington strong-arming Pakistan."

    Mufti, who reports on Pakistan for GlobalPost, agreed and said that the Pakistan’s military offensive against the Taliban rebels is likely at least partially due to American pressure:

    "The Pakistani army feels strong pressure to show that they are performing. So whether they’re being heavy handed [or] they’re using a lot of fireworks, it’s to prove a point to the United States. The government as well as the army, who are recipients of large American aid but also clients of the American military, feel an obligation to perform [or] at least to put up a show that they are performing, and that they’re performing well... People are obviously concerned with how their lives are changing, but this threat of the state failing – nobody in that country takes that too seriously."

    What do you think?

  • Are Washington and the media exaggerating the threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban? Why or why not?

  • What strategy, if any, should the U.S. pursue in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

  • How Green is 'Green?'

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with Daniel Goleman, author of ECOLOGICAL INTELLIGENCE, about how to find truly eco-friendly goods amongst the sea of products now marketed as ‘green.’

    Moyers said:

    “You write in [your book] that ‘green’ is ‘a mirage,’ that much of what’s touted as ‘green,’ in reality, represents fantasy or simple hype. And here I had been working so hard to develop what THE NEW YORK TIMES calls “the green mind” and support a ‘green economy,’ and you tell me I’ve entered the land of fantasy.”

    Goleman replied:

    “Let me reassure you. Everything that we’ve done that’s ‘green’ is to the good. I recycle my papers and plastics, and I try to get the ‘green’ product. But once you realize, through the lens of the life cycle assessment, that every product has a thousand environmental, health, [and] social impacts, and you see that what we call ‘green’ has taken one slice and improved it, there’s still the 999 other things that we need to get better.”

    What do you think?

  • How much positive impact do you think ‘green’ products have?

  • Are calls for a “green economy” based on “fantasy or simple hype,” or are they realistic? Explain.

    Click here to access goodguide.com, the site Goleman mentioned with more information about products.

    Click here to access Skin Deep, the site Goleman mentioned with more information on harmful chemicals in cosmetics.

  • Michael Winship: What's So Funny About Washington?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

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

    ''What's So Funny About Washington?''
    By Michael Winship

    A joke is a sometime thing, as wide as a church door or as delicate as a rose. The right or wrong word, too many or too few, their placement or emphasis can determine whether it’s a total dud or fall down funny; the difference, as Mark Twain said, between the lightning bug and lightning.

    Too much explanation or thought can whip a joke to death, so it was with trepidation that I went down to Washington last week with some fellow members of the Writers Guild of America, East, the union of which I’m president. I moderated a panel discussion of writers from THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART, THE COLBERT REPORT and LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, among others, to discuss news and late night comedy.

    The driving impulse for all of this was the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last weekend, “The Nerd Prom,” as it’s become known, when inside-the-Beltway journalists and their chummy government sources cement their unholy alliance over rillettes and risotto. Over the last few years it has become an Oscar-like event, with Hollywood migrating east to hobnob with the stars of politics and commentary, distracting each other into a trivial frenzy. And you wonder why we can’t get universal health care passed.

    Toward the end of our strike last year, the Guild presented a successful event on Capitol Hill, a mock debate in which a team of Daily Show writers representing the Guild went up against a Colbert team posing as the studios and networks. Former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers moderated. Hilarity and mirth ensued.

    This time we thought we’d hitch a ride on the hoopla around the Correspondents’ Dinner and succeeded. A crowd of several hundred showed up at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Huffington Post streamed live video and C-SPAN, which hadn’t covered anything as funny since the last hearings on horticulture and organic food safety standards, videotaped the whole thing.

    Not that you saw all of it. Parts of an hour of stand-up comedy by Guild writers apparently were deemed a little too raunchy for the followers of Brian Lamb and so when telecast, C-SPAN cut right to the chase – our panel discussion.

    People have been making jokes about the news and having an impact on it since the Greek playwright Aristophanes cracked wise about Socrates. Now, the late night shows are affecting traditional journalism and mainstream coverage of events, and influencing public opinion, more than ever, whether it’s John McCain dissing Letterman and appearing on Katie Couric’s newscast instead, President Obama on Jay Leno, or Tina Fey imitating Sarah Palin to devastating effect on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

    In March, a Rasmussen poll reported that nearly one third of Americans under 40 say they get more of their news from Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and other late night comedy shows than they do from traditional sources of news. The poll also found that 39% of the public says the late night shows are making Americans more informed; 21% said they’re having the opposite effect.

    Recently, in THE NATION magazine, media critic Eric Alterman noted that the late night programs had been responsible for three of the most important and cathartic media moments of the last decade: Jon Stewart’s evisceration of confrontational talk shows posing as political dialogue when he appeared on the CNN show CROSSFIRE in October 2004 (which many believe hastened the program’s demise); Stephen Colbert’s controversial speech at the Correspondents' Dinner three years ago (in which he attacked the White House press corps’ cuddly relationship with President Bush); and Jon Stewart’s recent assault on CNBC’s Jim Cramer and the misleading, uncritical coverage presented by financial television news in the months leading up to the crash.

    Alterman wrote, “It’s a sad – almost terrifying – comment on the state of the American media that we have come to rely on these two funnymen to tell us the truth about our country in the same way we relied on Murrow in the ‘50s and Walter Cronkite in the ‘60s.”

    But as we began the panel, buzzing in my head were the sage and terrible words of the late, great NEW YORKER magazine essayist, E. B. White: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog,” he wrote. “Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

    Nonetheless, we plunged ahead. So, I asked, is late night comedy telling us a truth that news can’t? Are audiences turning to you for news because you ask questions and make points the mainstream media can’t or won’t?

    “No,” said my friend Tim Carvell from THE DAILY SHOW. “On some level, I’d like to think so, but I don’t think that’s the case. We’re dessert at the end of the news menu. I actually think people who say they’re getting their news from us say that as a way of protesting what they see in the news. But I feel the media isn’t a monolith; there’s good media and bad. We’re just off to the side of it, sitting at the back of the class making comments.”

    Opus Moreschi, who writes for THE COLBERT REPORT, agreed. “I think if anyone’s getting the news from either of our shows then that’s unfortunate. Because we’re not there to provide news, we’re there to provide entertainment, obviously. But it may be that people who see something on our show and want to learn more find their own news sources and make up their minds. That to me is a pleasant side effect of having comedy that informs. But if all they’ve got is our punchline, they may walk away thinking Denny Hastert is apparently a crossdresser and that’s not accurate information… Wait, sorry, I’m being told that he is.”

    J.R. Havlan, a comic who writes for THE DAILY SHOW, added, “I feel like comedy shows and satire, what they do is not inform so much as help people learn how to watch and decipher the news. It’s not about watching us to learn what’s going on but learning to see what’s going on and take it with a grain of salt – that not everything they see is the truth.”

    And so it went. There’s lots more – war stories, background on how the shows are put together, interesting questions from the audience. You can go to the C-SPAN Web site to view the whole thing.

    But in the end, for all the analysis and commentary that have been written about the late night shows, the bottom line remains: it’s all about the funny.

    By the way, we didn’t actually attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner the next night, but did go to one of the after-parties at the Corcoran Galley of Art, mobbed with more than 600 guests and roaring with music at an ear-splitting pitch. We met a berobed Arabian prince who had two of the most formidable body guards I’d ever seen, big and impassive, like the statues on Easter Island.

    Then we were straight-armed aside by an even larger phalanx of black-suited security men. Who’s coming through, we wondered – a cabinet member, Joe Biden, the President?

    No, it was Eva Longoria, the diminutive but self-important star of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.

    Now that’s funny.

    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.

    May 12, 2009

    Michael Winship - Murtha: If I'm Corrupt, It's Because I Care

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

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

    ''Murtha: If I'm Corrupt, It's Because I Care''
    By Michael Winship

    Headline in the May 2 NEW YORK TIMES: “Murtha’s Nephew Named a Lobbyist for Marines.” Headline just three days later in the May 5 WASHINGTON POST: “Murtha’s Nephew Got Defense Contracts.”

    Guess what? Two different nephews. They’re brothers, though, each blessed with the same, beneficent and no doubt beloved uncle – Pennsylvania Congressman John P. Murtha, Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee – friend of the military-industrial complex; a man who’s generous to family and constituents, always ready to lend an ear – or, rather, earmark.

    His nephew Colonel Brian Murtha, a Marine helicopter pilot, has been transferred to the Marines’ legislative liaison office – which deals with Congress and Murtha’s subcommittee -- and has even moved into the same Virginia condo building as his Uncle Jack. “It does not appear to violate any rules or ethics guidelines,” the TIMES reported, “though it may well raise some eyebrows among legislative liaisons competing for resources on behalf of the other military services.”

    The other nephew – Robert C. Murtha, Jr. – a former Marine, runs a company in Glen Burnie, Maryland, called Murtech Inc. According to The WASHINGTON POST, “Last year, Murtech received $4 million in Pentagon work, all of it without competition, for a variety of warehousing and engineering services.”

    Murtha, Jr., denied that his uncle had anything to do with his business success, but on Monday, the POST revealed documents that “show Robert Murtha mentioning his influential family connection as leverage in his business dealings and holding unusual power in his dealings with the military.” In the e-mail’s obtained by the POST, Murtha tells associates that part of the federal money must be spent in Uncle Jack’s hometown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

    POST reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Alice Crites described Murtech’s HQ as a “bland building… blinds drawn tight and few signs of life. On several days of visits, a handful of cars sit in the parking lot, and no trucks arrive at the 10 loading bays at the back of the building.” And a former employee of the company told the POST, “I was always thinking, ‘Why is the government paying this company?’ If it’s fair to have this kind of no-bid work, I’ll start a company and do it for half as much. Because this company didn’t do anything.”

    Robert, Jr., and Brian are the sons of Jack Murtha’s brother Robert Murtha, Sr., known as “Kit,” who, as the POST notes, “built a longtime lobbying practice around clients seeking defense funds through the Appropriations Committee and became one of the top members of KSA, a lobbying firm whose contract clients often received multimillion-dollar earmarks directed through the committee chairman.” Kit Murtha retired three years ago.

    So, just as the Quakers came to the Keystone State to do good and then did well, many amongst the Murthas of Pennsylvania have prospered. But thanks to Congressman Murtha, the defense industry and his home district in western Pa. have fared even better.

    Rep. Jack Murtha is himself a former Marine and Eagle Scout, a decorated veteran (the first Vietnam vet to serve in Congress, elected in 1974). He has long been a champion of the military, especially the enlisted men and women, and has spoken angrily about the lack of proper treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder among those who have fought in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It was Murtha who in November 2005 announced, “The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring them home.”

    But it’s also Murtha who was named one of the 20 most corrupt members of Congress by the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Last year, ESQUIRE magazine named him one of the ten worst members of Congress because of his opposition to ethics reform limiting the use of earmarks, funds for those favorite slices of pork slipped into appropriations bills. (Murtha called the ethics reform bill “total crap.”)

    Since Murtha joined the appropriations committee, the group Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates that he has sent more than $2 billion worth of pork back home, more than any other congressman ($192.5 million in the 2008 budget alone).

    “If I’m corrupt, it’s because I take care of my district,” he told the PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, a sentiment that may go down in political history with that familiar saying from the 19th century, “An honest politician is one who when he’s bought, stays bought.”

    Murtha’s largesse has funded, among other projects, the National Drug Intelligence Center, in beautiful downtown Johnstown, which critics say duplicates intelligence gathering in Washington and along the Texas-Mexico border; and Pennsylvania State University’s Electro-Optics Center, a defense research facility, which has received $250 million in federal funding, “a significant portion” of which, according to an earlier WASHINGTON POST investigation, is channeled “to companies that were among Murtha’s campaign supporters.”

    But my personal favorite is the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, affectionately known around his district as “Fort Murtha.” Over the last ten years, the 650-acre mountaintop airport has received $200 million in federal cash and yet, on weekdays, only six commercial flights take off from or land there, all of them headed to or from, surprise, Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, DC. Just recently, this “airport for nobody” became one of the first to receive stimulus money -- $800,000 to widen runways.

    About thirty million dollars of the taxpayers’ money have been spent to beef the place up so it also can handle jumbo military aircraft and serve as a warehouse for military supplies in case a national emergency cuts off Pittsburgh International Airport, two hours away. There’s a Marine helicopter base there, a National Guard training center, even an $8.6 million, high tech radar system, but it’s never been used because the Pennsylvania National Guard is in charge and they haven’t got the manpower to operate it.

    Supporters defend the airport not only as useful for the military but as a lure for businesses considering relocation in the area. In fact, without the money he’s brought in, Murtha said, the city of Johnstown – its once busy steel industry long dead – “would have been like Detroit is today. We would have been a ghost town.”

    But as a recent editorial in the PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE opined, “Sure, plenty of people in Johnstown are grateful. But Mr. Murtha’s insistence that this is how the process must work misses the reality that his constituents deserve to have their tax dollars spent on projects that have proven their value through competitive bidding and impartial evaluation. A view that the ends justify the means leaves too many questions: Are the projects necessary? Is the method of selection fair? Are political contributors the real winners?”

    Which brings us to the other shoe scheduled to drop in the coming weeks and months. In November, the FBI raided the offices of the PMA Group, a lobbying firm founded twenty years ago by former Murtha aide Paul Magliocchetti that brought in earmarked defense contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. They searched Magliocchetti’s home, too, and last month, PMA went out of business.

    Reportedly, the investigation is focusing initially on whether PMA used various individuals as straw men -- conduits for illegal campaign contributions -- and if free meals and other gifts from the high-rolling Magliocchetti were bribes linked to votes from members of Murtha’s subcommittee.

    From 1998, PMA clients gave more than $7.8 million in campaign contributions to subcommittee members, including $2.4 million to Jack Murtha. Oddly enough, the WALL STREET JOURNAL’s John Fund has pointed out, those contributions often were made in March, around the time earmark requests are made.

    “Many on Capitol Hill,” the NEW YORK TIMES reported March 30th, “recalling the scandal that mushroomed around the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, are wondering who will be ensnared in the investigation as prosecutors pore over the financial records and computer files of one of K Street’s most influential lobbyists.”

    As accusations of bribery and fraud mount and the FBI probe continues, Jack Murtha and his colleagues better batten down the hatches and prepare for a whole new Johnstown Flood.

    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.

    May 8, 2009

    Washington, Banks, and Struggling Homeowners

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) about campaign finance reform and the prospects of Congress passing legislation to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.

    Against intense opposition from banks and credit unions, Durbin has been working to pass a bill that would empower bankruptcy judges to reduce homeowners’ mortgage debt and help them to stay in their homes. Last week, 12 Democrats joined Senate Republicans to defeat the legislation.

    Durbin said that banks caused the current recession and are now working against government policy that would help solve the economic crisis:

    “It was clear to me that even though the mortgage foreclosure crisis is getting progressively worse in this country and is, I think, at the heart of our economic weakness, that the banks were unwilling to step in and really participate in finding a solution... Here we are in a recession brought on by these financial institutions [with] some very bad decisions that they’d made causing great pain and suffering for a lot of workers and businesses and homeowners across America. And yet when you sit down and talk about some fundamental reform of these financial institutions, so that people have a fighting chance when it comes to their credit cards, so that folks facing mortgage foreclosure have a final chance to maybe save their homes, basically the banks are gonna have the last word. It’s counterintuitive – the people who brought this crisis to us are the ones that are dictating policy.”

    Some argue that well-intentioned but misguided government policies are partly to blame for the mortgage crisis and that further federal intervention in the housing market could make things worse. Steven Malanga of CITY JOURNAL wrote:

    “Nearly a century of Washington’s efforts to promote homeownership has produced one calamity after another... As Washington grapples with the current mortgage crisis, advocates from both parties are already warning the feds not to relax their commitment to expanding homeownership – even if that means reviving the very kinds of programs and institutions that got us into trouble... Our praiseworthy initial efforts – to eliminate housing discrimination and provide all Americans an equal opportunity to buy a home – were eventually turned on their heads by advocates and politicians, who instead tried to ensure equality of outcomes... Political meddling in this vast marketplace has wreaked havoc time and again, and will continue to do so – if we let it.”

    What do you think?

  • What do you think of Durbin’s bill that would allow bankruptcy judges to reduce struggling homeowners’ mortgage debt?

  • Can the federal government institute policies to help today’s struggling homeowners without contributing to further economic problems in the future? Why or why not?

  • May 1, 2009

    Web Exclusive: Democracy and Empire

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    In the MOYERS ONLINE web exclusive video above, legal scholar Bruce Fein and journalist Mark Danner continue their conversation from this week's JOURNAL. Fein and Danner suggested that America’s interventionist foreign policy has adversely affected its democracy at home.

    Fein said:

    “There can be a difference in the whole idea of what the United States is about, which then dictates what you do. My view is that the United States is about securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Insofar as that service is a model for others to emulate, fine… The process of trying to export our democracy abroad through military force is going to destroy our own democracy at home… Other people would think, no, the purpose of the United States is to go to every square inch of the planet and bring them what our conception of liberty is.”

    Danner said:

    “The Cold War made the United States an empire. And some people – I was one of them – thought that after the Cold War ended we would, to some degree, come home. The Clinton years, the 90s, were an interesting experiment in that. We had the Bosnian genocide, we had the Rwandan genocide… [Some said] ‘Gosh, America needs to stand for something more… It has to prevent this kind of thing.” And many of them were essentially convinced by President Bush’s arguments that we have to go in and remove the dictators. I thought they were profoundly wrong, and I agree that the United States, insofar as [it] becomes a power that intervenes around the world and fights wars of choice, becomes something wholly other than what the founders imagined it to be.”

    What do you think?

  • Can America maintain both its democracy and an interventionist foreign policy? If no, which is more important?

  • Does America have a national purpose beyond “securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity?”

  • How Should President Obama Deal with Torture?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with journalist Mark Danner and legal scholar Bruce Fein about revelations that the United States engaged in torture during the previous administration, and what President Obama and Congress should do now.

    Danner said that Obama might not want to focus on torture due to its political divisiveness:

    “This is an issue that, as he has put it, ‘divides the country.’ But because it divides the country, in my opinion, is one reason we have to confront it. The idea that this is about the past is simply wrong. It’s not about the past – it’s about our present politics… I support prosecutions, but I believe there needs to be a full investigation that will not only tell us in minute terms what was done – we already know a lot about this – but that will educate the country. Not only about what was done, but what was lost, and why this is important.”

    Fein said that Obama avoid setting a precedent of lawlessness:

    “We ratified the convention against torture in the Senate. We passed it and made it a crime – it’s not a Republican or Democratic issue… In 2004, we confronted the same problem we had with Nixon – he wasn’t going to investigate Watergate… But now the President and Vice President who authorized this are gone, so there’s no obstacle. If President Obama didn’t want to be President and faithfully enforce the laws, he shouldn’t be there… If Obama thinks that these people, as he’s said, have committed torture, and he doesn’t believe it should go forward for political reasons, he needs to pardon them… Then, at least, we do not have a situation where we have set a precedent that lies around like a weapon, that you can violate the law with impunity.”

    What do you think?

  • Should President Obama and Congress push for an independent investigation of torture by the United States government?

  • If yes, should perpetrators be pardoned? Prosecuted?

  • How Effective is Community Organizing?

    This week, the JOURNAL profiled Massachusetts community organizer Steve Meacham, who recruits activists and works to stop evictions of people living in foreclosed homes.

    Meacham described the process of people becoming inspired to work for systemic change:

    “People come to their first meeting because they have a specific problem they want addressed, and they initially keep coming because their problem is addressed… People keep coming over time, and a lot of people come even after their problem is solved because they found something profound here… People go from feeling like victims to being activists on their own behalf, and then they take a step beyond that and they become activists on other people’s behalf, other people that were in the same situation they were in. Then they become activists on other issues besides housing, and pretty soon they’re trying to change the system.”

    During last year’s election campaign, John B. Judis of THE NEW REPUBLIC traced the history of President Obama’s experience as a community organizer. Judis suggests that Obama became disillusioned about the ability of community organizing to effect change:

    “[Obama said] that he feared community organizing would never allow him ‘to make major changes in poverty or discrimination.’ To do that, he said, ‘you either had to be an elected official or be influential with elected officials…’ If you examine carefully how Obama conducted himself as an organizer and how he has conducted himself as a politician, if you consider what he said about organizing to his fellow organizers, and if you look at the reasons he gave friends and colleagues for abandoning organizing… [you find] a disillusioned activist who fashioned his political identity not as an extension of community organizing but as a wholesale rejection of it.”

    What do you think?

  • How effective is community organizing at achieving major changes?

  • Are there more effective ways of pursuing systemic change?

    Due to technical difficulties, THE MOYERS BLOG is experiencing intermittent problems and may have trouble accepting new posts or comments at this time. Please check back, as we hope to have this problem resolved soon.

    In the meantime please send us your comments via email at moyersonpbs@thirteen.org.

  • Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Mortgaging the White House

    Finally, here we are at the end of this week of a hundred days. As everyone in the western world probably knows by now, this benchmark for assessing presidencies goes back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who arrived at the White House in the depths of the Great Depression.

    In his first hundred days, FDR came out swinging. He shut down the banks, threw the money lenders from the temple, cranked out so much legislation so fast he would shout to his secretary, Grace Tully, “Grace, take a law!” Will Rogers said Congress didn’t pass bills anymore; it just waved as they went by.

    President Obama’s been busy, but contrary to many of the pundits, he’s no FDR. Our new president got his political education in the world of Chicago ward politics, and seems to have adopted a strategy from the machine of that city’s longtime boss, the late Richard J. Daley, father of the current mayor there. “Don’t make no waves,” one of Daley’s henchmen advised, “don’t back no losers.”

    Your opinion of Obama’s first 100 days depends of course on your own vantage point. But we'd argue that as part of his bending over backwards to support the banks and avoid the losers, he has blundered mightily in his choice of economic advisers.

    Last week, at a hearing of the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) monitoring the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner tried to correct AFL-CIO General Counsel Damon Silvers. “I’ve practiced law and you’ve been a banker,” Silvers said. Never, Geithner replied, “I’ve only been in public service.”

    We beg to differ. Read Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson's front-page profile of Secretary Geithner in Monday's NEW YORK TIMES, and you’ll see how Robert Rubin protégé Geithner, during the five years he was running the New York Federal Reserve, fell under the spell of the big barons of banking to whom he would one day help shovel overly generous sums of money at taxpayer expense.

    During “an era of unbridled and ultimately disastrous risk-taking by the financial industry,” the Times reported. “… He forged unusually close relationships with executives of Wall Street’s giant financial institutions.

    “His actions, as a regulator and later a bailout king, often aligned with the industry's interests and desires, according to interviews with financiers, regulators and analysts and a review of Federal Reserve records.”

    Wined and dined at the Four Seasons, and in corporate dining rooms and fine homes by the very men whose greed and judgment helped bring on the Great Collapse, Geithner became so much a favorite of the Club that former Citigroup chairman Sandy Weill talked with him about becoming the bank’s CEO.

    According to Becker and Morgenson, “Even as banks complain that the government has attached too many intrusive strings to its financial assistance, a range of critics – lawmakers, economists and even former Federal Reserve colleagues – say that the bailout Mr. Geithner has played such a central role in fashioning is overly generous to the financial industry at taxpayer expense.”

    The two reporters write that Geithner “repeatedly missed or overlooked signs” that the financial system was self-destructing. “When he did spot trouble, analysts say, his responses were too measured, or too late.”

    In choosing a man to manage the bailout of the banks who’s so cozy with its players, and then installing as his White House economic adviser Larry Summers, who in the Clinton administration took a laissez-faire attitude toward the financial industry which would later enrich him, the president bought into the old fantasy that what's best for Wall Street is best for America.

    With these two as his financial gatekeepers, President Obama’s now in the position of Louis XVI being advised by Marie Antoinette to have another piece of cake until that rumble in the streets has passed on by.

    In fact, other Wall Street insiders – many of them big contributors to the Obama presidential campaign, and progressive in their concern for the public interest – privately are expressing serious concerns that Geithner, Summers and their associates are leading the President and America’s taxpayers down a path toward further economic disaster.

    This week, as Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois unsuccessfully fought for a congressional amendment he said would have helped 1.7 million Americans save their homes from foreclosure, the senator told a radio station back home that, “The banks – hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created – are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place."

    He could say the same of the White House.

    A Companion Blog to Bill Moyers Journal

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