Notes of a Reporter at Large • 08-29-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 29 August 2013 15:54

Journalists v. Journalists

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

The controversy over leaks has turned jounalist against journalist. As David Carr pointed out in his column on the media in Monday’s New York Times, it’s not surprising that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who brokered the publishing of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s documents  (Manning now wants to be known as Chelsea, a woman) and Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian, who has taken the lead in spreading the revelations of Edward Snowden, have also become targets of fervent criticism. “What is unusual is that many pointing the finger are journalists.”

Greenwald, The Guardian columnist, was on Meet the Press when David Gregory, the host, “seemingly switched the show to Meet the Prosecutor, asking, ‘To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?’”

Carr also cites Jeffrey Toobin, who works for The New Yorker and CNN. Toobin called Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who belongs in prison;” and Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, “who was detained by British authorities for nine hours under anti-terror laws, the equivalent of a ‘drug mule’”

Carr’s employer, the New York Times, is also among those who have been “withering” in their criticism of Wikileaks’ Assange, according to Carr, although the paper was also “cooperating” with Wikileaks “in publishing reams of articles in July 2010 based on the revelations of Private Manning.”

More recently, Carr mentions a senior correspondent at Time who said on Twitter “I can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange.” He later apologized.

Carr wonders what Assange and Greenwald have done to arouse such spleen from other journalists? It wasn’t enemy propaganda or a foreign ideology they were promoting.  Because of the stories they unearthed, we have learned important things we should  know.  For example, “in the name of tracking terrorists, the N. S.A has been logging phone calls and e-mails for years, recorded the metadata of correspondence between Americans...” and from WikiLeaks documents that “the U.S. turned a blind eye on the use of torture by our Iraqi allies...”

Toobin, the New Yorker and CNN pundit, says he likes it that a debate is underway, but believes no story, however big, excuses journalists from aiding unlawful acts. “Journalists are not above the law,” he said.

The larger sense Carr gets from the criticism aimed at Assange and Greenwald “is one of distaste – that they aren’t what we think of as real journalists. Instead they represent an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media. They are, as one says, not like us.”

Carr adds: “If the revelations about the N.S.A. surveillance were broken by Time, CNN or The New York Times, executives there would already be building new shelves to hold all the Pultizer Prizes and Peabodies they expected...Instead the journalists who did that work find themselves under attack, not just from a government...but from friendly fire by fellow journalists...”

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 • 08-22-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 22 August 2013 13:44

The Making of a President

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

We don’t know what the Clintons are going to use for a slogan in 2016. But it’s an open secret they are running. Of course, Bill will not be on the ballot. Since 1951 election to the presidency has been limited to two terms by the 22nd Amendment. (Unable to beat Roosevelt when he was alive, the Republicans made doubly sure he could not run again by making a change to the Constitution.). The Clintons don’t have such a problem. When it comes to politics, they are in lockstep. Nobody wants Hillary to be president more than Bill.

A week ago we learned of some tantalizing news. Fox television studios – which  belong to the same company that produces Fox News, a favorite of conservatives – may wind up producing a proposed mini-series on the life of Hillary Clinton.

NBC agreed to broadcast the series; not surprisingly the project has been assailed by Republicans critics. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, threatened to keep Republican contenders for president off both NBC and its news channel MSNBC if it went ahead with the Hillary biopic. If the GOP does no better next time around than what passed for presidential timber in 2008, that would be a blessing.

Criticism of the NBC move was heard from inside its news division. Two correspondents, Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell, suggested NBC’s move to buy the movie  was a terrible idea, damaging to the good name of NBC News.

Todd, the network’s chief White House correspondent, called the mini-series “a total nightmare for NBC News.” “A really bad idea, given the timing,” said Ms. Mitchell, the chief foreign affairs correspondent.

All this Sturm und Drang when the proposed series hasn’t even been written. A spokesman for the Fox studios told the New York Times that discussions are in “the early stages” to bring the Fox unit in to produce the segments. The actress in the starring role has already been named. Diane Lane, who was nominated for an academy award for the 2002 film, “Unfaithful,” is to play Mrs. Clinton.

Up to now, Mrs. Clinton and a staff have been working in a cramped Washington office. However, this fall, they will move into the new headquarters of the Clinton Foundation, named for her husband, in Midtown Manhattan. The foundation will be occupying two floors of the Time-Life building in Midtown Manhattan. I don’t know what the rent is but the location says MONEY!

In 2012 the making of a president cost some $2 billion. What will it cost in 2016? Don’t even think about it!

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 • 08-15-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 15 August 2013 14:59

A New Anchor is Born

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

Some 25 years ago, when I was producing pieces for the CBS News “Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt,” I was assigned to do a major story on drug smuggling in El Paso. My reporter would be a young man from a CBS bureau in Texas. He had never worked for the show before so, as I was told, I would have to be patient, guide him the best I could, and hope for the best.

“Sunday Morning” was not always able to pry top reporters loose for field work from the Evening News. We sometimes had to settle for something less.

As it happened, this young man needed little help from me. He hit the ground running, and possessed the “stick-to-it –ness” that  I once heard Carl Sandburg say was the key to success. After long days of chasing leads and angles and fending against authorities required to mask the truth, I’d find my reporter still on his feet, pursuing angles, digging for facts.

I don’t remember how good or poor a story we produced. Probably good, or good enough. There were no complaints. I would remember complaints.

Over time I’ve watched the reporter from Dallas climb. In more recent years he’s been one of the star correspondents on “60 Minutes.” His interviews, including some with presidents, are typically respectful but also probing and focused. I can’t think of anyone who  does big interviews better. Not Dan Rather,  Tom Brokaw, Mike Wallace, Barbara Walters. You have to go back to Walter Cronkite, a great reporter and anchor, but, frankly, the interview was not Walter’s strong point.

When the reporter from Dallas was still new to the network,  the backbiting about him around the shop would have it that he didn’t quite fit the CBS mold, whatever that was supposed to mean. I remember one senior producer saying the young man was too nice and too self-effacing to make it big.

I wonder what she is saying this week when the young man from Dallas, whose name – soon to be a household word – is Scott Pelley, age 51. In case you missed it, Scott is the new anchor of the CBS Evening News, succeeding Katie Couric who’s left for other venues.

I know what I am remembering this week. “Hey, I think we can call it a night,” I sounded off back in El Paso on more than one occasion when Scott and I were working late on that drug story. The youngster paid no heed to me. He kept on digging.

This column originally appeared on June 9, 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 • 08-08-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 08 August 2013 15:33

Freedom of the Press

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I don’t have much in common with billionaires, but I do find common ground with Warren Buffett. He likes small, community newspapers like his hometown Omaha World-Herald and not just because he owns it. He likes smaller papers in smaller places because there’s a ready audience that can’t get  the local news elsewhere.

I got my start on small papers, a weekly in Maine and a morning daily up in Eureka, and always thought it a little sad that the journalists I knew in New York ever or hardly ever met or exchanged a word with the people who owned the place. The managers were in charge. I know that sounds nuts and probably is. What difference should it make so long as the pay is O.K., the job important, and sometimes exciting?

In Eureka, the man who owned the paper, Don O’Kane, liked to say that he hit Eureka as a young man with fifty cents in his pocket, but if he’d had another fifty cents he would have kept on going. He sat in a glass-enclosed office on the street floor from where he could keep an eye on the girls in classified. He tried to make a Republican of me; the effort failed, but we remained cordial.

*   *   *

I’m not sure what the new owners of the Boston Globe and the Washington Post have in mind. Up to now these papers have  been bleeding money. The good news, according to a deep thinker I heard on the News Hour, is that the stockholders no longer run the show. The men who bought two of the best newspapers in the country, will be calling the shots.

Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and worth billions, paid pocket change – $250 million – for the Post, a paper once worth several billions.

John Henry, the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, and also a man of great wealth, paid $70 million for the Boston Globe. The paper was acquired by the New York Times for $1.1 billion in 1993.

I don’t have the mind to fathom the financial depths of these sales though it is hardly news that the digital age has wreaked havoc on the printed word maybe for good. In the case of the Boston Globe, the new owner worries the folks in the sports department. “Please, let it be anyone but John Henry,” an old-timer was quoted as saying before the sale was announced.

Dan Shaughnessy, the Globe’s long-time sports columnist, has written critically about Henry since Henry took over as the principal owner of the Red Sox in 2002. “All we can hope for is that everyone is allowed to do his job professionally and that we are able to keep our independence,” Shaughnessy said.

Bezos, the new owner of the Washington Post, is a technologist whose fortunes have multiplied at the same time as newspapers have been giving ground in an uphill battle for survival. But no one can say that Bezos is not a retailing giant in changing the way people read books and consume all manner of things.

As for what all this may be about, please note the words of the late A. J. Liebling, who wrote about the press many years ago in the New Yorker: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

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 • 08-01-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 01 August 2013 14:34

Snowden Today

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

A few weeks ago I wrote, “What to make of Edward Snowden, the national security contractor, who revealed U.S. surveillance programs? Is the 30-year-old former  contractor for the National Security Agency (N. S. A.) and C.I.A., a saint or sinner. A man of moral valor or a traitor?”  Unless I need to have my ears and eyes re-examined it is beginning to look like Snowden is in the running to becoming a more sympathetic figure.

On June 27, the President himself sought to play down Snowden’s importance, calling him a “29-year-old hacker.” Obama also suggested  that China and Russia’s apparent help to Snowden to evade extradition was not worth making relations with those countries any cooler than they may be. In the meantime, Snowden and his supporters have called him a whistle-blower. Prosecutors want him for violating espionage laws.

But as recently as July 17, a backlash from both parties against domestic surveillance was gathering strength on Capitol Hill. The White House was told – by both Republicans and Democrats – at a spirited hearing of the House Judiciary Committee – that the government had gone further than Congress intended since 9/11 security laws were enacted. They were not meant to authorize the collection of virtually everyone’s phone records. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, interrupted a deputy attorney general to say, ”Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed.” A Democrat, Ted Deutch of Florida, said the “The government is stockpiling sensitive personal data on a grand scale.” The skepticism expressed  at the hearing was further evidence of the impact Snowden’s revelations  have had on the political class in Washington, no doubt, influenced by polls showing a divided country over Snowden.

On July 25, lawmakers delivered an unusual  bipartisan warning to the White House. Unusual because the Republican-dominated House barely mustered enough votes to defeat an amendment to curtail the National Security Agency’s collection of every phone record, limiting it to records of people targeted in investigations. The tally was 205 to 217 – bipartisan because 94 Republicans supported the limits, along with 111 Democrats who resisted pressure from the White House.

“No administration should be permitted to operate above or beyond the law as they have done in this respect,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, of New York, one of the defecting Democrats.

“The closeness of the vote suggested that a growing number of lawmakers no longer respond reflexively to the waving of the 9/11 flag, or the patronizing insistence of government officials that they should be trusted implicitly,” said the New York Times in an editorial.

For now, Edward Snowden is not the villain the government has wanted to portray.

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 • 07-25-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Wednesday, 24 July 2013 14:47

Consequences of Age Discrimination

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

It’s usually easier to identify race and sex discrimination in the work place than age discrimination. This is the gist of a new study by Princeton researchers in measuring age discrimination on the job. In sum, a professor and co-author of the study told a  New York Times reporter, “If you want to be an aging panther, and speak your mind to your manager, that’s fine. But expect consequences.”

It isn’t just in the work place. And you don’t have to speak uppity to feel discriminated against.  Most of the time you don’t have to open your mouth. Ask the Lady Friend.

At the checkout counter, she’s asked how many bags she wants for her groceries. If she wants everything in one bag, they’ll say, “Oh, you’re so strong,” as if she were a five-year-old.”

But at 80 she knows she has to slow down. Last week she hiked for eight miles on a narrow, hilly, rocky trail in the Trinity Alps with three women friends – ten to 15 years her junior. The pace had to be slower because of her. It made her feel guilty. She used to be able to keep up, if not lead the pack, and that was not so long ago.

The results of the Princeton survey don’t surprise either of us (I’m the senior by five years). It found that young and middle-aged workers can speak their minds more freely to their employers than 75-year-olds.

“Old people,” says the Lady Friend, “have always been a joke in this country. It’s just that we’re old and there’s nothing to be done about it. Younger people would like us to be cute and pliable and not assertive. At least that’s what I get from the story about the study, and from my own experience. If you’re assertive you are going to pay the consequences if you’re an older person, and those are the ones who generally speak up on the job.”

According to the Times article, when an older man or woman is laid off, it typically took two to six months longer to find a new job than it took younger workers. And the new job is likely to pay less.

A similar story was told by many unemployed older people during the recent recession. “They sent in their resume and got called for an interview, but when they walked in, potential employers saw their white hair and that was it,” the paper said.

As the Lady Friend put it, “The employers didn’t see the experience they saw on the application.”

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 • 07-18-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 18 July 2013 15:12

Reflections on the News

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Many of us had hoped that with the election and re-election of the first black president, the U.S. had consigned racism to the dustbin of history. The reality, however,  is that we still have a long way to go, as witness the stormy debate on the heels of the acquittal  of George Zimmerman, 29, on state charges in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, a city of 50,000  in the central region of Florida.

Zimmerman was serving as a neighborhood watch volunteer last year for a gated community when he shot the unarmed 17-year-old Martin who was black. The defense argued self-defense.

“From the start,” the New York Times reported, “prosecutors faced a difficult case – weak on evidence and long on outrage. Mr. Zimmerman had the power of self-defense laws on his side and was helped by a spotty police investigation and prosecutorial missteps.”

President Obama urged the country to accept the verdict and stay calm. Earlier, after the jury of six women found  Zimmerman not guilty, he denounced  “the tide of gun violence” defiling the country. Obama’s Attorney General  Eric Holder, who called the death of the black youth “tragic” and “unnecessary,” is considering whether to pursue criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman.

*   *   *

The president’s second term has been marked by restraint, at least in public, in contrast to his first four years when  he was more vocal on the issues. It is two weeks since  the military coup in Egypt, but we have yet to hear a public word from the president. Peter Baker, who covers the White House for the New York Times, writes that since Egypt’s military seized power, the president has talked about improving the efficiency of the federal bureaucracy, awarded a medal to George Lucas, the filmmaker of “Star Wars,” and had former president George Bush and his wife Barbara to lunch at the White House. “What he has not done up to now is  talk to the country about the coup in Cairo,” Washington’s most important ally in the Arab world.

“This is not to say Mr Obama is uninvolved,” Baker points out. “In the privacy of the West Wing, away from the cameras, he has made calls to leading figures in the Arab world and has met with advisers trying to influence the crisis. But his public profile on issues like immigration, Syria and health care underscores a calculated presidential approach that admirers consider nuanced and detractors call passive.”

*   *   *

It remains unclear whether the 30-year-old  Edward Snowden, who at last report was at liberty in a Moscow airport, will escape punishment. Judged by a recent poll of voters from Quinnipiac University in New York, by 55 percent to 34 percent,  Snowden is a whistle-blower not a  traitor.  However, the same poll, according to a director of the survey, “shows that Americans’ views on anti-terrorism efforts are complicated.

They see the threat from terrorism as real and worth defending against, but they have a sense that their privacy is being invaded and they are not happy about at all.”

*   *   *

As for a color-blind America, let me paraphrase  Robert Frost: We still  have promises to keep...

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 • 07-11-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 11 July 2013 13:25

Privacy v. Security

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

History seems to tell us that when it comes to making a choice between privacy and security most people choose security. A  bartender I knew up in Eureka contended people would rather fight a war than live through a depression. I thought that was pretty dumb at the time but now I know he was right. I’ve also learned that national security has been a government’s trump  card, be it right or wrong, or simply right, left or center in philosophy and led by a president as revered as Lincoln.

This is a long-winded way of telling you that a friend called my attention the other day to a letter in a recent New Yorker (dated July 8 & 15). It is one of those letters to the editor worthy of the front  page above the fold.

The writer, Thomas C. Jepsen, is identified as the author of numerous articles  on the history of telecommunications technology, and a telecommunications system architect, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Jepsen wrote the magazine in response to an article, “The Prism,” by Jill Lepore, published on June 24. The piece is about the history of surveillance. Lepore asserts that the development of new surveillance technology  leads to renewed concern  about privacy.

Never a truer word spoken, says Jepsen, the telecommunications historian, in so many words. He cites the 1830s when the telegraph was invented. Christopher Pearse Cranch, a poet and writer, imagined its use as a secret weapon of government in an 1858 Atlantic  Monthly. Inspired by the telegraph, Cranch wrote of wires wrapped around Paris to ferret out the secrets of its citizens. Cranch’s vision anticipated a time like our own, of WikiLeaks and an Edward Snowden. He imagined a technology that would be turned against the government that deployed it. Or as  Christopher Pearse Cranch imagined “...instead of the tyrant hearing the secrets of the people, the people (were) hearing the secrets of the tyrant!”

Now fast forward to President Obama. He is “by no means a tyrant,” the letter-writer Jepsen says of the 44th president. “What’s more,” he continued, “he’s far from the first president to be accused of circumnavigating the Fourth Amendment in the name of security.” The first was the 16th president.

“On April 20, 1861, President Lincoln, “fearful that the telegraph was being used to organize Confederate sympathizers nationwide, ordered U.S. Marshals to every major telegraph office in the North and seize copies and originals of all telegrams sent and received during the past twelve months. It was the first time that American national security would be invoked to justify  government surveillance of electronic communications.”

Needless to say, this was just the beginning.

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 • 07-04-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 05 July 2013 15:01

What is an English Major Good For?

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In a recent article in the New York Times, this is the question raised by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writer and Ivy League  professor.  It was aroused by a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the state of the humanities. This is a word defined in my Webster’s, as the study of literature, philosophy, art,. etc., as distinguished from the sciences.

The gist of the academy’s study is that the teaching of the  humanities has fallen on hard times. According to Klinkenborg, that’s “the experience of nearly everyone” who teaches the liberal arts.

“Undergraduates,” he says, “will tell you that they’re under pressure  – from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large – to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.”

It got me to thinking:

History, foreign languages, literature, philosophy, music, painting, dance, the arts in general, have been diminishing branches of learning for some time. The emphasis in a college curriculum has been on learning something that will pay.

I like the way Klinkenborg  puts it: ‘Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.”

“What many undergraduates do not know,” he adds, “and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them is how valuable  the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.”

This reminds me of a long-ago conversation with a fellow classmate at the University of Maine. Ed was about 40, a four-year veteran of the war in the Pacific. I was much younger, still a kid, 21 or so. We got to talking about what we hoped to do with our lives after college. In the end, said Ed, “Whatever comes of our careers we’ve been to college. We know the value of a college education. We know what the great books are.  We can go on learning from them for the rest of  our lives.”

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 • 06-27-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 27 June 2013 14:27

The Fugitive Whistleblower

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

What to make of Edward J. Snowden, the national security contractor, who revealed U.S. surveillance programs? Is the 30-year-old  former technical contractor for the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) and C.I.A. a saint or sinner? A man of moral valor or a traitor?

Daniel Ellsberg, a former U.S. military analyst, was 40 when he  released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, a top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making on Vietnam. He gave the documents  to the New York Times and other newspapers. Ellsberg is 83 today and remains a hero to millions.

As of this writing on Tuesday – my deadline – Edward Snowden was somewhere on the planet but where?

On Monday the media scrambled to find seats on Aerflot Flight 150 flying from Moscow to Havana. Snowden, so they learned from the Russian media, was  booked on seat 17a.  But as the plane taxied from the gate, filled with journalists in hot pursuit, an AP reporter discovered the awful truth. Seat 17a was empty. It didn’t take the media long to figure they’d  been snookered. Snowden, no doubt with help in high places, had stiffed Uncle Sam.

As stars fell on Moscow on Monday night, Snowden was nowhere to be found. The journalists, who were in such a high fever to interview him, were halfway to Havana. Most cruel cut of all, Aerflot flight 150, was one of the rare Russian flights that does not serve alcohol.

Some in Russia relish the story, seeing it as payback time for all the years of American self-righteousness over Russia’s history of human rights abuses. President Putin was also upset when Congress passed a bill last year “which punishes Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses,” said the New York Times.

A Russian novelist, Victor Erofeyev, summed things up this way:

“When the president is a former spy, from time to time in this country they organize spy games, The Spy Olympic Games, and they have fun. We are people from outside, who don’t understand how fun it is to put all the journalists on a plane and send them to Havana. They are having the greatest dinner tonight.”

As for what to make of the fugitive whistleblower, who can say? That story, unlike David Ellsberg’s, is yet to be written.

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 • 06-20-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 20 June 2013 12:31

The Media Blink on Poverty

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I read a riveting piece in the New York Times earlier this month. Its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, took the paper to task for neglecting the poor. The Times, she says, does well reporting on art auctions but not so well on soup kitchens. There’s ample space to take note of the cost of a luxury loft in Soho but not for children in homeless shelters.

How well does the greatest newspaper in the world cover those who live in poverty and the news that affects them? The Times does not ignore poverty, but, she argues,  it could and should  do a good deal more.

America is a country of immense wealth where nearly 50 million people live in poverty in a population of 300 million, or one of every six. In the U.S. poverty is defined as income below $23,550 for a family of four. According to Sullivan it’s worse for children; one in five are destitute.

“In New York City,” she wrote, “it is commonplace to see men and woman sleeping on the street. Among the city’s 8 million residents, 1.5 million don’t have enough to eat; a third of those are children.”

Sullivan is the fifth public editor appointed by the newspaper in recent years. Although she is employed by the Times, she works independently of the newsroom and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public concerning coverage in the paper.

Indifference or worse, she finds, on the part of the media about the poor is widespread. Quoting the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Sullivan points out that “in 52 major mainstream news outlets, including the Times, combined coverage of poverty amounted to far less than 1 percent of all front-page articles.”

The Times may do better than some,” she writes, “but given New York City’s high poverty rate and the Times’ special responsibility as the nation’s dominant paper, with the most plentiful resources, there should be more.”

Diane Nilan, an advocate for homeless families in Illinois, wrote Sullivan that she was dismayed by the newspaper’s’ “spotty interest,” saying, “I ache for these people, but until the media make an issue of it, nothing will happen.”

Some others speaking for the poor, see another side to the problem. In an interview, Melissa Boteach of the Center for American Progress, told Sullivan, “It’s isolated, it’s in a silo, it’s a problem that other people have.” By contrast, the Times’ “thorough and sustained coverage of gay rights has a remarkable sense of inclusiveness and solidarity...movingly telling the stories of admirable individuals who are overcoming challenges.”

Boteach said the poor really cannot be dismissed as “the other.” She pointed out, “People cycle in and out of poverty.” Every  few years one in three Americans will

will know poverty at firsthand.

All of this reminds me that somewhere I read that a civilization can best be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable.

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 • 06-13-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 13 June 2013 14:16

National Security vs. Personal Privacy

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

We live in an age when, as Gail Collins  in the New York Times put it on Saturday, “you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.”

The other day the Times ran a piece about an 83-year-old man who told a telemarketer on the line that he would like to update his health insurance card. “What happened next is all too familiar,” the paper said. “Money was withdrawn from the man’s account for something he now says he never authorized.” He never received the health insurance card.

In the same article we learn a 59-year-old retiree was forced to take a part-time job after a telemarketer emptied his bank account

At the same time we read of the feds “scooping up our phone records” as a matter of routine regardless of whether they have any bearing on a counter-terrorism investigation,” according to a Times editorial.

Edward J. Snowden, the former employee of the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), who had leaked national security documents to the press, said his motive was to provoke a public debate about civil liberties. President Obama denounced the leak but liked the idea of a lively public discussion of the “trade-offs” between security and privacy,

“I  think it’s healthy for our democracy,” Obama said last week. But the White House has not given the country a clue as to how it would deal with the obstacles, legal and political, to holding such a discussion. In the meantime, (as of Tuesday) Edward Snowden was still a hunted man.

So far the only complaints  about the government’s surveillance operations have come from some Democratic liberals and Republican libertarians. Polls say most Americans give the government a pass on terrorism. And reluctant acceptance of a loss of privacy “at a time of targeted online advertising, location-tracking cellphones and intrusive government programs,” according to the Times.

No wonder the satirical novelist, George Orwell, is on my mind. In 1949 he published, “1984”, set at a time in the future when the world would be divided between hard right and hard left totalitarianism. In the world he depicted there was no place for the truth. Propaganda was information. There were signs everywhere reminding people in Orwell’s mythical Oceania that Big Brother was watching.

Last week’s column, “Speaking of Operations,” was incorrectly labeled as having originally appeared on April 29, 2010. It was, in fact, written last week.

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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