Notes of a Reporter at Large • 06-06-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 06 June 2013 14:50

Speaking of Operations

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I wasn’t feeling right, and started seeing doctors. The first step was a sonogram. What turned up was a possible problem with the gallbladder. That didn’t satisfy us, and we consulted a gastroenterologist, someone familiar, as my Webster’s puts it, “with the structure, functions, and diseases of digestive organs.” He did an upper-GI and sent the findings to a specialist at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

This doctor-specialist (I don’t know how else to describe him) was skilled in a new technique removing growths inside the stomach without surgery. Following an upper endoscopy (an examination by means of  an optical instrument like a camera) he found a tumor in the upper part of my stomach. He could not identify it as being cancer or benign, but he believed it would become cancer if we did nothing.

A traditional procedure to remove a tumor in this area would have required surgery. He gave us a choice: do away with the tumor with surgery or opt for an endoscopy, the one he recommended, and the choice we took.

The doctor, working with the scope, pushed it down my throat into the stomach area. The tumor was pulled away from the stomach lining and tied up in order to cut off the blood supply. It died, passing through the stomach. The only aftereffect was when I awoke with a slight sore throat,  long since gone. It had been a long day preparing and waiting but the actual time spent in the procedure itself was 32 minutes, and a success.

A few weeks later when we came back for a checkup, the doctor told the Lady Friend and me that in five years - if we had not had the tumor taken out – it probably would have become cancerous.

The whole experience was uncanny –  bloodless surgery that removed a tumor growing in my body without scalpels and other surgical instruments. I was told I might bleed some and to watch for it. I never saw blood. The doctor told us that life could become difficult for people over 70 when they have to part with a piece of their stomach because nerve and blood systems are central to its functions. For an old timer like myself, endoscopy was the way to go.

I must confess I didn’t want to write this piece. Too personal. But the Lady Friend talked me into it. She says it’s something people should know about.

One thing more. For all my grumpiness about the technological age we live in, my tongue is now silent. Except now and then when it’s my frustrations with the computer, cell phones, iPads, you name it.

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 • 05-23-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 23 May 2013 11:48

The Everlasting Pursuit for Gun Control

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Organized crime was an issue almost as large as the economy during the Great Depression. Since 1932, when Charles Lindbergh’s two-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered, the public clamored for federal action against the underworld. The states and local police were no match for its arsenals of machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and professional killers. Mobsters like Al Capone ruled cities the size of Chicago.

Six months after Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president, Louis Howe, Roosevelt’s close friend and adviser for many years, wrote an article, “Uncle Sam Starts After Crime,” in the Saturday Evening Post. The focus was the machine gun, the weapon of choice in the underworld, which, as Howe said, had “made gang killing so successful.”

What Howe said about the machine gun could be said of the powerful weaponry on sale in our own time.: “the machine gun cannot by any means be construed as a weapon needed by the peaceful citizen to protect his home. One cannot keep a machine gun under the pillow at night...Nor does one go duck hunting or squirrel hunting with a machine gun tucked under his arm. Its sale to any private citizen is obviously for the purpose of committing crime and whole murder. Its manufacture, except for the use of the Army and police and state military forces, is a menace to the nation.”

He urged the Justice Department to move ahead on plans to give the federal government authority over crimes in interstate commerce and he urged Roosevelt to put “the whole weight of the White House” behind the effort.

As Alfred Rollins, Jr., an early Howe biographer, tells us, Louis called for a federal institution for training police officers. It ran into fears and accusations against Roosevelt and Howe for plotting to create a secret police. Howe, however, kept at it, stepping up the crusade on the radio.

As part of the effort to reform the criminal justice system, he advocated a national criminological laboratory, and a probationary system for lawyers before they would be allowed to practice criminal law, replacing hung juries with a system of ten-or eleven-person majorities, and competent people running the prisons, declaring, “Ninety percent of prison riots start from stupid wardens.”

As was the case then and is the case today, enacting gun control legislation has had to contend with a constitutional mandate giving the right to every citizen to keep and bear arms. The Second Amendment, Howe said, was inspired by the fear of an all-mighty king or dictator rising up in the new republic.

“No power has been more jealously or watchfully guarded by the states themselves  than this general police power,” he wrote.  In his day a criminal could escape arrest by crossing the border of a neighboring state.

Louis Howe, a  handicapper who loved to make predictions on the outcomes of horse races, did not live long enough to see any of the schemes in his anti-crime crusade pay off. In poor health all his life, he died in 1936 at 65. Yet, as his biographer reminds us, “much of what he had failed to gain was eventually achieved in the elaborate expansion of the FBI.” This may not have been the desired outcome for some but it is what happened, and in looking back, it represented progress. If there is a message for President Obama it might be to furlough the consultants, pollsters and media wizards and find himself a Louis Howe.

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 • 05-16-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 16 May 2013 11:58

Barbara Says She’s Ready for Retirement

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Barbara Walters announced on Monday on the “The View” that she is retiring next year. Or as The New York Times put it on the front page on Tuesday: “Pope Benedict XVI retired. And so, soon, shall Barbara Walters.”

That  may be. But as one who once worked with Barbara on the Today Show and liked and admired her, all the hoopla may be, as they say in show biz, a false exit. But she is 83, had surgery in 2011 to replace a heart valve and more recently suffered a concussion in January after fainting at a pre-Inauguration  party at the British embassy in Washington. Several days later, we learned,  “Ms. Walters had contracted chickenpox, which gave her an infection that led to the fainting spell.”

But as she told the Times, “I am not leaving because I am in ill health. I am now fine.”

When I wrote a memoir of my life in the news in 2007 (“A Strange Breed of Folks: Tales from the World’s Oldest Profession”), I recalled that Barbara was driven as so many successful people are. “And she was an indefatigable worker, staying with a story through the long hours of a news emergency.

“‘What can I do?’ she called one late October night in 1973. I was busy making over the show for the morning. The Yom Kippur War had just broken out. Egypt and Syria had launched an attack against Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

“She pitched right in, running off with camera crews to interview this newsmaker and that and rounding up major figures for live morning interviews in the studio.”

On her show Monday she said that although she plans to retire, “There will be special occasions, and I will come back – I’m not walking into the sunset – but I don’t want to appear on another program or climb another mountain.” Take it from me, putting a show on the air is climbing a mountain.

I read the piece to the Lady Friend. She remarked, “It’s going to be hard on her giving up the spotlight. But she does have a year to make the change.”

Stay tuned.

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 • 05-09-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 09 May 2013 15:37

Another Wave of the Digital Future

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Years ago, when I was living for a short time in Salem, Oregon, I delivered the phone books in an upscale neighborhood. After I knocked  and the lady of the house came to the door I  remarked  about the painting on the wall. I still don’t know much about art but even then I knew enough to recognize a Picasso. The lady was stunned.

“You, the telephone man,“ she said. “You recognized the Picasso. But my neighbors, even friends, they had no idea who painted that picture.” In her humiliation she took the hefty delivery and banged the door shut.

The anecdote comes to mind because The White Pages in the phone book may go the way of the rotary-dialed phone, or so the New York Times reported this week.

The major local phone company in New York State and New Jersey, Verizon, is seeking  permission from regulators to terminate the annual delivery of White Pages to all of its millions of customers in the two states.

In Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma and Georgia  AT&T has already received approval to stop delivering the White Pages to all residents.

When I reported the news at breakfast, the Lady Friend thought the loss was yet another wave of the digital future. She would miss the residential phone numbers but her lament mainly would be for the loss of the yellow pages, so handy in hunting for a plumber, a painter, a spare part.

“But they’ll still be delivering the yellow pages,” I pointed out. “The ads make it profitable. Besides, the article is about New York State. Why borrow trouble? It says nothing about California.”

Skepticism is not the word for the Lady Friend’s response.

According to surveys cited in the newspaper, only about one in every nine households in the U.S. uses the hard-copy listings any more.  Most go online for numbers or else phone for directory assistance.

In New York and New Jersey Verizon is touting the move as a boon to the environment. Nearly 5,000 tons of paper would be saved by ending the distribution of the White Pages, it estimates, all of which triggered  more of the unquotable from the Lady Friend.

But, hold on, a benevolent AT&T in North Carolina  decided to drop a plan to cut delivery of the White Pages in the Tar Heel State. The change of heart is attributed  to a plea from advocates for the elderly. They said the old folks feared losing contact with friends and neighbors.

So there may still be room for human warmth in the digital age but the Lady Friend needs more convincing.

This column originlly appeared on May 13. 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 • 05-02-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 02 May 2013 12:41

The New Depression

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In a  New Yorker article (April 29), George Packer looks back to the early 1930s when some of the leading writers began writing on the affects of the Depression. American society seemed to be on the verge of collapsing; the days of industrial capitalism seemed to be over. Ditto representative democracy.

Yet, at the same time the country seemed to be at “the start of something radically new...(and) close to the heart of history.”

Writers like Edmund Wilson, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, and Theodore Dreiser visited places like the Virginia coal country and Harlan, Kentucky, delivering food and clothing to striking miners, “braving heavily armed sheriff’s deputies, before being driven across the state line amid death threats.”

A classic of the era was “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” by James Agee, a story on impoverished Alabama tenant farmers with photographs by Walker Evans. (The book sold little more than 600 copies, but the text and the pictures were “two of the most important works of the era.”)

For a few years, says Packer, “the most compelling form of American writing was a genre that didn’t even have a name – portraits of America at the start of the Depression, scenes “of endless devastation and wasted human life.” It was a cry “to join the cause of the dispossessed.” The mood was to sweep away the rotting system and start anew. Or as Wilson said in that idealistic day, “take Communism from the Communists.”

Writing these days is different. Most popular books are drawn to the big names – traders and hedge-fund managers, bankers and mortgage lenders and  business executives, the more glamorous the name the better.

The corners of our country where people hunt for food in garbage cans don’t get much notice. But they are a part of the portrait of an America floundering in what some are calling a “new depression.” Without the dispossessed there is no easy way to drive home the kind of times we are passing through.

Blame F.D.R., the Harvard-educated patrician. He rescued the country  (including capitalists and bankers) in the thirties, in new social and economic programs he called the New Deal. His efforts can be summarized in a single word: security. Security for capitalists and consumers, factory workers and farm workers, for the unemployed and employers.

Blame LBJ as well. He gave us “Great Society” legislation from civil rights to Medicare and Medicaid. Ironically, the reforms since the Great Depression – like unemployment insurance – have made it difficult to dramatize the present crisis. People are hurting, losing their jobs, and their self-respect, but most are still eating, have a home, television, phones, a car. They hurt nonetheless, though slipping noiselessly from the middle class. Their suffering does not lend itself to graphic drama. As Parker writes, a picture of “a jobs fair with people in business attire doesn’t have the immediate power of a breadline.”

I happened to catch the  Flatlanders on Garrison Keiller’s “Priarie Home Companion” the other day from Lubboc, Texas. The Flatlanders tell stories in their music. This one was about a family forced to leave California for the Dust Bowel after their home is foreclosed. “The banks,” they sang, “took it all – there is no other place to go...”

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 • 04-25-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 25 April 2013 14:16

The Today Show is Still Making News

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

For old Today Show hands like me it’s deja vu.Today’s most recent co-host, Ann Curry, has been given a job on a less lucrative NBC broadcast. In sum, she’s been fired from the big show.

Curry’s partner, Matt Lauer, had predicted that he would be hurt by his bosses’ plan to remove Curry. That outcome, however, remains to be seen. There have been big shakeups on Today in the past. But, with the exception of Deborah Norville’s “disastrously brief succession” of Jane Pauley in 1990, “the show’s producers have prided themselves (since then) on executing smooth handoffs,” according to Sundays New York Times Magazine. And that’s as far as the story goes for now. But I’m primed to tell you about a fracas in my time on the Today Show when the stars battled so furiously that the earth trembled under your feet.

In the spring of 1973 after many years in local news, I landed a staff job on the Today Show. On my first morning in the studio, I was taken aside by a senior staffer. He pointed out a spot at some distance from the set where Frank McGee and Barbara Walters hosted the broadcast.

“This is where the writer stands,” he pointed out.

“Seen and not heard?”

He nodded. “Above all, you don’t speak to the cast unless they speak to you.” By “cast” he meant the people who performed on the air. But he might just as well have meant “caste” in terms of social status. He was advising me that the divide between high-priced on-air performers on the one hand and mere researchers, writers, and producers on the other was indeed wide. My hunch is that the gap is still wide, probably wider.

From the moment I’d gone to work there until the day Frank McGee died of cancer  at 52, the pair fought. McGee, one of the brightest stars in broadcast journalism, fought to maintain his role as principal co-host. Walters, who probably worked as hard if not harder than any of us, fought to be treated as an equal in a day when few women held top jobs in TV news. Staffers were torn in their sympathies.

Frank claimed to be appreciative of Barbara’s enterprise, but he didn’t think her a serious journalist. She hadn’t earned the credentials to be on a program like Today. Off-camera the two rarely spoke. One day Frank came to Stuart Schulberg, Today’s executive producer, with a demand: Barbara must no longer do Washington interviews. She was inept. Henceforth she should be restricted to figures in the entertainment world and show biz gossip. Schulberg  found himself in the middle, “a lion tamer in a cage with these two monsters,” as a former colleague put it.

Stuart agonized but he was going to leave Barbara alone. He admired her “spunk,” and maybe he was afraid of her, too. After Frank died on April  17, 1974, Barbara was  the face of the Today Show. Two years later ABC hired her away as the first female co-anchor of any network evening news, working with Harry Reasoner on the ABC Evening News. Her life is still an astonishing work in progress. She says she’s going to retire in 2014.

Full disclosure: a good deal of this material was taken from my 2007 memoir, “A Strange Breed of Folks – Tales from the World’s Second Oldest Profession.”

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 • 04-18-13 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 .

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