Notes of a Reporter at Large • 04-18-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 18 April 2013 15:37

Travels With Charley

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

John Steinbeck, the great American writer, died in 1968 at 66. You know his books – “The Grapes of Wrath,” “East of Eden,” “The Red Pony,” “The Wayward Bus,” “Tortilla Flat,” “Cannery Row,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “Travels with Charley,” among others.

“Travels with Charley” was published in the early 1960s and is still read today. Steinbeck was closing in on 60 (old age for many back then) when he set out “In Search of America” as the subtitle has it, accompanied only by a French poodle named Charley. Together they traveled through some 40 states – had many adventures – some scary like a hurricane in New York; some fraternal like sharing cognac with a family of potato pickers in Maine; some humorous, some stirring, some angry about what he found in the America of the time, and some prideful.

So I was shocked when I read an editorial in the New York Times that said a reporter retracing Steinbeck’s steps discovered that the author’s account of three months of solitary travels was fiction in many instances. The book, said the Times, was “full of improbably colorful characters” and improbable dialogue. All I could think was: another giant of my youth brought down to earth!

The reporter, Bill Seigerwald, (not a Times employee) retraced Steinbeck’s 1960 coast to coast trip. He said in a blog and in an article this month in Reason, a magazine, that Steinbeck fudged the facts, dates and places. He had not been gone for months with only the poodle for companionship, as he claimed. The author’s wife was with him most of the time; he hardly ever camped; often stayed in fancy hotels.

Why then do I not feel short-changed? Why am I not moved to cast old John aside as another charlatans in the trade?

Maybe because “Travels With Charley” is an historical document of a Twentieth Century odyssey, if made up in parts. Maybe it’s because when he was preparing his Great Depression novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” (a primer for our own Great Recession), Steinbeck was inspired to put, in his words, “a tag of shame” on the greedy, despicable people who brought the country to its knees. Maybe, too, it’s for lines in “Cannery Row” like, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Maybe, too, it’s for dialogue like, “Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re  scum. Don’t mean nothing itself; it’ the way they say it.” Or, “Owning freezes you forever into ‘I,’ and cuts yourself off forever from the ‘we.’”

The Times is right when it asserts, “Books labeled ‘nonfiction’ should not break faith with readers. Not now, and not in 1962, the year ‘Travels With Charley,’ came out and Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

And yet I bear Steinbeck no blame. “Travels With Charley” paints a true  picture of what our country was like half a century ago. No dearth of reality about that.

I am in agreement with the man who wrote the Times, “Your April 10 editorial. “The Truth About Charley” frets that John Steinbeck lied in portions of his book, “Travels With Charley in Search of America...

“What if he did? As Picasso said, ‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.’”

This column originally ran on April 21, 2011.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 04-11-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 11 April 2013 15:44

Lilly, the Cat from Katrina

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

A week or so before Eyjafjallajokull, the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland blew its top and disrupted air travel the world over, our next-door neighbor flew to Berlin for a family reunion. The Lady Friend, kind-hearted to a fault, agreed to feed the young woman’s cat for the week she would be gone. When the volcano erupted stranding the neighbor and countless others, the Lady Friend stayed the course until the traveler returned.

In all this time the Lady Friend never laid eyes on the cat whose name is Lilly and is said to be a fluffy Persian or mostly Persian. The neighbor brought her home some months ago from a party who said Lilly was a Katrina cat, a survivor of the 2005 flood.

We can’t swear to it, but that’s what we heard. Anyway, this may explain her wariness of strangers.

One day, after setting out Lilly’s dinner, the Lady Friend, feeling sorry for her grounded neighbor thousands of mile away, poured the cat’s litter into a plastic bag, carried the refuse out to the back porch and then down the steps to the garbage bin.

In the middle of the night the Lady Friend woke up.

“Did you hear something?” she asked.

“No,” I said,” but I was more asleep than  awake.

“I wonder if it’s the cat.”

“The cat?”

“The cat next door. I thought I heard her.”

“I heard no cat,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”

In the morning the Lady Friend didn’t touch her breakfast. Instead, she went over to the neighbor’s place. Some minutes later, she returned looking distraught. She’d found the back door ajar. She thought she’d locked it, but maybe she hadn’t.

The rest of the day was spent vainly looking for Lilly, inside and outside the house. Neighbors were enlisted in the search. Overcome with guilt, the Lady Friend called the neighbor’s boy friend leaving a message on his recorder. Sobbing, she took full responsibility for the tragedy. I begged her to let up on herself,  but she remained inconsolable.

That evening the neighbor’s boy friend came straight from work to the young woman’s house, went up to the bedroom, and got on the Internet. As he typed, he heard  rustling from inside the closet but thought he was imagining things. His  concern was spreading the alarm. But the sound persisted. He got up, opened the closet door, and guess who he found?

A few minutes later, over a cheerful glass of wine, the boy friend told us that he and Lilly, the cat from Katrina, had bonded very early in their relationship.

“She loves me,” he smiled. “And I love her, too.”

This column originally appeared on April 29, 2010.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 04-04-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 04 April 2013 13:46

The Stats and Baseball

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The Lady Friend remarked I didn’t seem as depressed as I sometimes do these days. She ascribed the change to the  return to life of baseball and my  Boston Red Sox. The world was young again.

A short time later I came across a front page story in the New York Times that cast a shadow over my upbeat mood. Statistical analysis, I learned, has so captivated players, managers and front office executives and an increasing  number of fans, that “teams want their radio announcers fluent in the language of WAR, VORP and B.A.B.I. P.”  Those letters, the paper said,  stand for “wins above replacement, value over replacement player, and battling average on balls in play.”

The Times quotes broadcaster Robert Ford, 33, a new hire by the Houston Astros, as saying the emergence of statistical analysis has “changed the way we think about baseball.” The teams want broadcasters to be at ease with the latest stats so they can tell listeners what they mean.

By contrast, Tom Hamilton, 58, who is in his 24th year as the radio voice of the Cleveland Indians, said, “Nobody after a game is going to remember numbers you throw at them, but they might remember a story about a player.”

I can only speak for myself but I think it’ll be a sad day when radio broadcasts devote less time to baseball stories and its great characters and more to statistics gathered from broadsheets and graphs. The stats may work on television. But on radio they steal attention from what’s going on in the game.

How do I know we don’t need more baseball stats on radio? I don’t. It’s a feeling. To my mind, radio is more like a conversation between broadcaster and listener although the person behind the microphone is doing the talking. Radio seems more personal, TV a spectacle.

I grew up listening to the Red Sox on the radio. The stats were pretty simple: hits, runs and errors, games won and lost, not much more. Other factors mattered, too. Like the weather. Like luck.

But despite the news that announcers on radio may have to take on an excessive statistical burden, I  am no less upbeat than when the Lady Friend took note of my change of heart. Baseball is back.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 03-28-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 28 March 2013 13:37

Reflecting on Iraq

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The letters to the editor sometimes warrant more attention than the front page. As an example, letters to the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle last Thursday were reflections about Iraq, a decade after the war. The sentiments they expressed should not be buried in time. It’s history. We don’t want to forget..

In taking note of the Chronicle’s recent “sober” assessment of “the disaster of the Bush administration’s Iraq debacle,” Mark Knego of San Francisco points out, “This is not a statistical failure. This is a bloodbath. A massive bloodbath.”

He reminds us that Condoleeza Rice, who served George W. Bush as  national security adviser and secretary of state, said “nobody could have seen this coming. Nobody could have anticipated this.” But Knego anticipated this. “I knew it would happen,” he said. “But for some reason, nobody asked me.”

Nobody asked me, either. Or the Lady Friend, but we both  knew it was folly. In the days leading to the invasion we marched in protest as did the Lady Friend’s daughter and granddaughter, two-year-old Mary, who came along in her carriage.

Presumably nobody asked Henrik E. Sadi who wrote to the New York Times: “After10 years it still angers and frustrates me why the people responsible for the Iraq war have not been held accountable. This was not a failure of intelligence. It was a deliberate misrepresentation.”

And a failure on the part of much of the media. In the run-up to the war, news-gathering organizations, including the New York Times, were criticized for not being more skeptical of news the administration was spreading before and during the conflict.

Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman exercised precious little skepticism of the administration’s moves towards war; and helped lead the parade to the fiasco, along with, it must be said, many others in the media.

In looking back, Richard Kiiski, of Mill Valley, in his letter to the Chronicle, finds it “ironic that on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq, Pvt. Bradley Manning, who is responsible for the death of no one, is sitting in prison, facing a life sentence...”

Ten years ago this month, a friend pressed on me a line of poetry that Rudyard Kipling, the old imperialist, wrote in 1892. It’s worth recycling on this anniversary.

“The end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased,/ And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 03-21-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 21 March 2013 14:23

A Disturbing Film on Israel-Palestine Conflict

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

“The Gatekeepers” is an extraordinary film documentary about the post-1967 Israeli occupation. It tells the story from the point of view of six ex-chiefs  of Israel’s General Security Service, or Shin Bet.

Imagine six former CIA directors as talking heads speaking openly about some of this country’s most secretive (and controversial) activities during their years of service. It’s almost impossible to imagine. The closest  in my recollection is the 2003 American documentary, ”Fog of War,” about the life and times of Robert S. McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense. It focused on the missile crisis under Kennedy and the Vietnam war under Johnson.

The director, Errol Morris, won the Academy Award for best documentary that year. This year “The Gatekeepers” was one of five documentaries nominated for an Academy Award. Its director, Dror Moreh, says he drew his inspiration for “The Gatekeepers” from Morris’s profile of McNamara.

When they were in power the former directors of Israel’s internal security agency were strong-willed, unsentimental men, not easily swayed. Yet in retirement, speaking as it were for the ages, they come across as introspective and self-critical.

As Roane Carey points out in the Nation, “It was precisely that post-retirement soul-searching that inspired Moreh (the director) to make this film.”

Moreh was working on a documentary about Ariel Sharon, a former Israeli prime minister and general, now in a permanent vegetative state since suffering a stroke in January 2006.

In the days when Moreh was preoccupied with Sharon, we learn from the Carey piece that the director discovered  that one of the reasons Sharon decided to withdraw settlers from Gaza was ”the unprecedented 2003 public protest” by four of the ex-heads of Shin Bet against  the government’s “single-minded focus on repression during the second intifada.” (Intifada in my Webster’s is defined as a revolt begun in 1987 by Palestinian Arabs to protest Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.)

One of the former Shin Bet leaders to speak out at the time was Ami Ayalon (1996-2000) who said: “We are taking very sure and measured steps to a point where the State of Israel will not be a democracy or a home for the Jewish people.”

A theme in the film is that Israel’s politicians, by and large, ducked the hard decisions and have much to answer for. As Avraham Shalom, Shin Bet director from 1980 to 1986, sees it, any plan to aim for a political solution to the occupation was shelved in favor of a strategy to combat terror.

“No Israeli prime Minister,” Shalom asserts, “took the Palestinians into consideration.”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 03-14-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 14 March 2013 13:44

Print Journalism is Still in The News Biz

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I kept myself busy reading a newspaper I’d brought along while waiting to see the doctor. The young receptionist found this amusing. She said most people brought e-books or iPads or smart phones while waiting for their appointment. What she said underscored what many people have been saying for some time: the days of print journalism are numbered.


And yet, every now and then, there are hints of life.

In his annual letter to shareholders, Warren Buffet said his company, BerkshireA Hathaway, has bought 28 dailies in the last 15 months. Buffett made his reputation as “a contrarian investor, betting against the crowd to amass a fortune estimated at $54 billion,” according to the New York Times.

He paid $344 million for the newspapers, a minor deal for his company, the paper said, “and just a small part of the giant conglomerate,” but in the world of print it’s  news when newspapers survive in a digital age.

Buffet already is an owner of the Buffalo News and a stakeholder in the Washington Post.  But four years ago “he wouldn’t buy a newspaper at any price,” the Times said. This year he wrote shareholders, “There is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.”


The Boston  Globe is a fine newspaper that does its job, but the New York Times Company, which acquired it in a $1.1 billion deal in 1993, has decided to sell the paper and focus its energy and resources on the core New York paper. Another Times-owned and venerable Massachusetts property, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, is also being sold.

The mood in the Globe’s newsroom was described as “filled with nervous anticipation.” The outlook depends on how much or how little the Times company would get for the Globe. An analyst estimated the paper was worth a great deal less than the $1.1 billion the Times paid 20 years ago.


His News Corporation was involved in the scandal over phone hacking which led to the c1osing of its tabloid, the British News of the World . These days Rupert Murdoch, who controls the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, as well as other media properties, is reportedly looking to buy the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. There’s no sign that Murdoch has any interest in the Globe. My guess is that Boston may not be big enough to be on his radar.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 03-07-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 07 March 2013 15:12

Are Republicans in Near Collapse?

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In the late 1940s, when I was in college, I remember a political scientist saying that America was no longer a country where the average man could be president. The Depression and the Second World War had made the office so powerful and so far-reaching that only a superman was up to it.

Barack Obama may not be superman but the Republicans have not fully recovered from the shock of last November. They’re angry. Their polling told them that the president not only couldn’t win re-election, but that the Senate would be back in GOP hands.

Poor data fueled unrealistic expectations of controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, enabling Republicans to derail many Obama policies. So they dreamed as late as election night until the other shoe dropped.

Today Republicans find themselves “floundering about in search of more popularity with American voters, reflecting a near collapse of a workable political system,” so writes Elizabeth Drew, the noted Washington reporter,  in the New York Review of Books. For five decades the GOP gambled on strategies to fill their ranks from the right. In the end, she says, “this series of deals (including the southern strategy which validated racism) ultimately cost the Republicans broad national appeal and flexibility.”

The Tea Party pushed the Republican party even further to the right.  “Many in the Tea Party – or allied figures who ran for office – introduced a new concept of governing,” Drew says. “They were against it. For the first time there was a sizable number of House members who had run on the explicit promise never to compromise.”

Drew cites Joe Scarborough, the onetime GOP congressman from Florida, now a morning commentator on MSNBC, as one Republican distressed by the narrowing of the party’s base  and outlook.

Time and again Scarborough has underscored the fact that “the Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, blown two opportunities to retake the Senate, and even lost the popular vote for the House in 2012, managing to hold on to a majority of seats only as a result of gerrymandering in Republican controlled states,” according to Drew quoting Scarborough.

Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to the New York Review and the former Washington correspondent of The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and the author of 14 books. So attention must be paid when she writes that “the changed nature of the Republican Party hasn’t made for a happy situation for House Speaker John Boehner, a deal-maker of the old school whose idea of being a legislator is to work out legislative solutions.” In other words, the Republicans are in a deep hole.

If so, Barack Obama doesn’t need to be superman.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



Notes of a Reporter at Large • 02-28-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 28 February 2013 15:42

Neighbors Need Each Other

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

It was one of those dog days. I wanted a holiday from politics. In fact I wanted a holiday from the news.

I fussed to the Lady Friend, “So what’ll I write about?”

“Tell them what happened while I was away in the Midwest visiting family.”

Simply told I was hit by plugged-up sinuses, swollen, watery eyes, and most alarmingly, vertigo, while the Lady Friend was gallivanting halfway across the nation, although, I concede, in furnace temperatures.

But I knew what to do.

I picked up the phone and called a next door neighbor. She had a key and was here in a moment.

Then she was off to the pharmacy, and found over-the-counter allergy tablets. They worked. After awhile the dizziness went away. Nonetheless, she insisted on driving me to the doctor who, after an examination, confirmed allergies to be the culprit.

When the same neighbor is traveling as she often is in her job, the Lady Friend and I look after her house, take in her mail and the newspapers, and feed the cat.

“Neighbors need each other,” said the Lady Friend.

She recalled a night a couple of years ago when the kitchen alarm in the house on the other side from us was ringing. She knew the couple were working late in their studio apartment separate from the house and unlikely to hear it.

The Lady Friend jumped out of bed, ran down the driveway in her bare feet, and rapped on the studio window. The  neighbors came outside, heard the alarm, and tore upstairs. They got the pot off the stove in the nick of time.

The same neighbors have offered us the use of their truck when we need to take a load to the dump or convey something big.

A young couple in a house on the corner are sometimes in need of a baby sitter. The Lady Friend steps in. Every so often a pie or loaf of bread or fruit is at our door from their oven or garden.

We all have keys to each others’ houses. And we even alert the bookkeeper in the  dentist’s office when it’s time for her to move her car and avoid a fine on the day the street sweepers come through.

Maybe not a headline but good neighbors help to make a good life.

This column first appeared on August 18, 2011.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



Notes of a Reporter at Large • 02-21-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 21 February 2013 14:22

To Catch the Conscience of a President

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Sally Jewell is President Obama’s nominee for secretary of the interior, to replace Ken Salazar. In her late 50s, she’s presently serving as the president and chief executive officer of REI, a Seattle-based retailer of outdoor gear.

She studied engineering at the University of Washington and worked in the oil and banking industries, and sat on boards of the National Parks Conservation Association, the University of Washington Board of Regents, and Premera Blue Cross. A notable career, but the president’s move to put her in charge of our public lands surprised some. It brought “unsolicited advice” from Robert B. Semple Jr., the associate editor of the New York Times editorial page.

Semple won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his editorials on environmental issues, including his editorials about a proposed mine that would have been built on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, according to Wikipedia. In a piece on Sunday he counseled Jewell to read Obama’s State of the Union Address with great care.

“What she will find there,” he said, “is the strong suggestion that the public lands she will be asked to manage wisely and for all Americans serve one purpose only: to produce energy, whether oil or gas or solar or wind. The idea that these lands are also valuable as national parkland, as habitat for thousands of animal and plant species, or as sources of clean water, is nowhere mentioned in that speech.”

What the president said and left out in the speech, Semple believes, gives an inkling of the reality people in that cabinet job have confronted over the years: conservation is not a priority, especially in a lackluster economy.

Semple cites the experience of Bruce Babbitt, Bill Clinton’s interior secretary. He rarely got Clinton’s attention until a pollster showed up with numbers revealing that Republicans were doing themselves harm playing anti-environment politics. “At which point,” Semple said, “Mr. Clinton became something of a born-again environmentalist.”

Without the solid support of the president, Jewell may find it very difficult, if not impossible, to deal with the obstacles facing the next interior secretary, Semple says. The last Congress  did not set aside “a single new acre of  wilderness,” and the president “made almost no use” of his authority to preserve new sites of historical significance or great natural beauty.

Jewell springs from the world of business, not politics, which is something new for occupants of the interior post. All the more reason, Semple argues, she will need “the help of a president who so far has not shown much passion for the issues she will confront.”

Early in the Obama presidency, Ken Salazar stirred to cancel “drill now, drill everywhere oil and gas policies” of the Bush administration. But by the time Obama’s re-election campaign was rolling last fall, the president and Salazar “had begun to sound for all the world like Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney in their eagerness to please the fossil-fuel crowd.”

I’m glad Semple spoke out as he did and hope the president was listening.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 02-14-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 14 February 2013 13:32

Saving the Post Office

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The other day we learned that the postal service plans to drop Saturday delivery of first-class mail beginning the first week in August. The move is to save the struggling agency 2 billion a year.

Ending Saturday delivery probably won’t plug the hemorrhaging and could make matters worse if people are angry enough at the loss of service to pursue a wholly digital life. Remains to be seen, but for now there will still be life in the 237-year-old institution. The P.O. will deliver packages and prescription drugs six days a week and will not change post office operating hours.

As postmaster General Patrick Donahoe put it, “The choice is either changes to some of the services or raise prices, and people don’t want prices raised.”

I first wrote about saving the post office in this column a while back, confessing, “I have a soft spot for the post office. Years ago when I was between jobs as a newspaperman, the post office was a place to come in from the cold.

“In the early 1950s I found work as a mail handler in San Francisco before a reporter’s job came through. Some years later, down and out and married and trying my hand at free-lance writing, I found work as a clerk and letter-carrier in Santa Cruz. I stayed on for a couple of years before I realized my place was in a newsroom.” The post office saved my life. Today people are asking: is the post office really necessary? I say yes.

In the earlier piece I said, “It is one of the few institutions – and the oldest of American major public services established by a decree of the Continental Congress and promoted by Benjamin Franklin – that retains a human face. Millions of American rely on the local post office. In neighborhoods and small towns it is the heart of the community.”

And I added: “The post office is a life line for half of the country’s rural population. It delivers the mail to every corner of America, and goes to great lengths so that no one is left out, even in wilderness areas where the mail, food and supplies are delivered by bush planes and by mule trains on the floor of the Grand Canyon for native Americans.” So far as I know this is still true.

What triggered that column was a cartoon a friend sent me. It showed a mother telling her kids that the newspaper is reporting the government may stop delivering letters on Saturday. One child, sitting at a laptop, asks, “What’s a letter?” The other, fiddling with an iPod, asked, “What’s a newspaper?”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 02-07-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 07 February 2013 16:52

Cigarettes and Politics

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I smoked my last cigarette in 1962. Kennedy was president. Back then everyone smoked, especially newspapermen. No newshound worthy of the name would be caught  without wearing a soft felt hat with a brim, the crown creased lengthwise – we called them fedoras. And smoking a cigarette. You couldn’t find the murderer without one. Back then journalists may have smoked more than almost anybody else, but almost everybody (it seemed) smoked.

These days smokers are treated like untouchables, banned from newsrooms and  public places. Spot a smoker lighting up and he looks like a deer caught in the headlights. The numbers of smokers, however, are large - an estimated 45.3 million or 19.3% of all adults (18 and older) in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most are men  (21.5 %) than women (17.3 %) and the leading cause of preventable disease, about 443,000 deaths, or one of every five deaths in this country each year.

20.1% in the 18-24 age group

22.0% in the 25-44 age group

21.1% in the 45-64 age group

9.5% in the 65 and older age group

Since 2009 the Food and Drug Administration was given the power by Congress to regulate cigarettes.

But CQ Weekly, published by Congressional Quarterly, reminds us that the Food and Drug Administration has done next to nothing about the purpose of the law, “which gave it authority to regulate ingredients in cigarettes, including nicotine.”  Instead the agency has focused on establishing a department to undertake more research on cigarettes.

Although a worthy cause, public health proponents are more focused on  calling for new graphic warnings on cigarette packaging. They want the government to “do much more to make cigarettes less addictive.”

If you think the tobacco lobby has been in retreat since 2009 think again. As CQ points out, the agency is barred by that same law “from eliminating nicotine, a chemical found in tobacco leaves that is addictive when smoked.” (A  survey by the American Journal of Public Health found “that almost half of U.S. adults say the FDA should limit the amount of nicotine in cigarettes...17 percent disagreed and 37 percent weren’t sure.“)

Public health advocates have another concern. In 2010 the FDA’s panel of advisors recommended banning menthol flavored cigarettes, but the FDA has yet to move. The 2009 law banned all other flavorings, but let the agency decide about menthol.  CQ says the brand is particularly popular in African-American communities.

As for the FDA’s hope to require powerful warning labels on cigarettes, don’t hold your breath. CQ reminds us that a federal appeals court took the side of the cigarette makers, declaring the labels “violated the companies’ First Amendment rights.” The Supreme Court is the next, last stop for the Obama administration if it decides to appeal the ruling.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 01-31-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 31 January 2013 15:44

‘The Silence of the Printed Word’

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In last week’s column I referred to FDR’s famous quote, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In looking for a source for the assertion I gave short shrift to the 19th century Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle. The way it came out in print Carlyle was repeating the words of Henry David Thoreau, his American contemporary.

Even in the brave new digital age things get screwed up. Thoreau said: “Nothing is so much to be feared than fear.” Ditto Carlyle, according to my rendering. Actually Carlyle had put it differently: “The first duty for a man is still that of subdoing fear. We cannot see till then.” So let the record be corrected.

It may seem like a small thing but words are important, maybe more important than we imagine in our rapidly-changing age.  And that brings me to a discovery I want to pass on.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg, tells us about a recent drive he took with a friend from his farm in New York to Southern California. They took along an e-book, “Moby-Dick,” read aloud by William Hootkins. As the tale moves on, Klinkenborg “began to feel as though we were carrying a garrulous hitchhiker, a transcendental encyclopedist, indeed a back-seat whaler of sorts.” This, of course, is Ishmael, the character who narrates the pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white whale, by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab and his crew aboard the Pequod. Ishmael is the lone survivor.

What struck me in Klinkenborg’s piece was how he contrasted hearing the words on the e-book from reading them on the printed page:

“I was always glad at day’s end...when we parked and turned off ‘Moby-Dick.’ Not that the book ended then. Usually, in the evening, I would begin reading the book where we had left off listening. I have never been so struck by the silence of the printed word. I have never grasped so clearly how inward words have to go in our minds before they come alive.”

Moby-Dick’s author, Herman Melville, was all but forgotten when he died in 1891. Since it was re-discovered in the last century, critics, have said ”Moby-Dick” is the Great American Novel.


New hope from Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle about climate change: “Not all scientists are so gloomy. Ashley Ballantyne, a bioclimatologist at the University of Montana who studies paleoclimate records, said the climate has always changed, with ice ages, warnings and mass extinctions.”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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