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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
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 .


 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 01-24-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 24 January 2013 14:30

‘The Only Thing We Have To Fear...’

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address won rave reviews. Even the conservative columnist, David Brooks, said it “was bold and beautiful and something to hear. ” (And that is something to write home about.)

Time will tell whether or not a phrase or line in Monday’s 18-1/2 minute speech will live on in history. As the New York Times put it, “With this speech, he has made a forceful argument for a progressive agenda that meets the nation’s needs. We hope he has the political will and tactical instincts to carry it out.”

And this puts me in mind of a story behind one of the most memorable lines ever spoken in an Inaugural Address: “...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...” It was delivered by Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression on March 4, 1933, and helped rally the sprit of the country. ”

A couple of weeks before, on the night of February 15,  five shots were fired at Roosevelt after he’d addressed a crowd in a Miami park. None of the bullets hit their target. But Mayor Anton “Tony” Cermak, of Chicago, who had come to Miami to mend fences with the President-elect, was hit in the lower right abdomen. He was chatting with Roosevelt who was sitting atop the back of an open car when the gunman fired from a .32 on a wobbly bench which made his aim unsteady.

Fearful for Roosevelt’s safety, the chief secret service agent ordered Roosevelt’s driver to get moving. “Get him the hell out of here!“ he said. Roosevelt countermanded the order. He wanted Cermak with him in the lead car  in the caravan. It would be the first

to reach the hospital. Cermak was lifted into the backseat. Roosevelt felt his pulse and tried to comfort him as they sped to the hospital. “Tony, keep quiet – don’t move” Roosevelt said. “It won’t hurt if you keep quiet.”

Cermak died of his wounds in early March. The killer was an unemployed bricklayer, Joseph Zangara. He pleaded guilty to murder and died in the electric chair.

On the eve of Inauguration Day and with the shock of what occurred in Miami still ringing in the nation’s psyche and with multitudes of Americans struggling I hard times   Louis Howe, FDR’s longtime friend and adviser, is believed to have contributed those few words to Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address. Howe could have borrowed from thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, the American naturalist and author,  who wrote. “Nothing is so much to be feared than fear.” Or from the Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle: “Nothing is so much to be feared than fear.” Howe said he saw the line in a newspaper ad for furniture but no ad was ever found.

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 • 01-17-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 17 January 2013 15:04

The Fog of Corporate Welfare

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Last week I noted that banks accepted responsibility in billions for foreclosure abuses. But, as Gretchen Morgenson, a financial writer for the New York Times, cautioned,  “If you were hoping that things might be different in 2013 – you know, that bankers would be held responsible for bad behavior or that the government might actually assist troubled homeowners – you can forget it.”

The settlement, she said, does not end foreclosure abuses but “more of the same: no accountability for financial institutions and little help for borrowers.”

This past Sunday we learn from the same indispensable columnist that the rules are so written that banks may be able to deduct the fines from their income taxes. On paper the penalties seem huge:  billions for “supposed mortgage abuses,” and billions for “questionable foreclosures.” But, in fact, it’s a mirage.

“The dollar signs are big, but they aren’t as big as they look, at least for the banks. That’s because some or all of these payments will probably be tax-deductible. The banks can claim them as business expenses. Taxpayers, therefore, will likely lighten the banks’ load.”

Morgenson is one writer who helps us see more clearly through the fog of corporate welfare. Because of her reporting and that of others, the public recognizes wrongdoing when business gains tax benefits from spending to fix unlawful deeds. She cites the $10 billion tax break BP got by writing off $37.2 billion in expenses in cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

With news of multi-billion dollar mortgage settlements this year and last, she asks, “Why should taxpayers subsidize corporations that are paying to right sometimes egregious wrongs? This is a particularly weighty question, given the urgent need for tax revenue to offset  the ballooning federal budget deficit.”

But, although “money paid to settle a company’s actual potential for a civil or criminal penalty is not deductible, this being taxes, the issue is  complicated.” She quotes Robert W. Wood, a well-known  tax lawyer, who said in a 2009 article, “The tax deduction for business expenses is broad enough to include most settlements and judgments.”

Wood, the author of “Taxation of Damage awards and Settlement Payments,” acknowledged in an interview last week, that  he didn’t know the details on the mortgage settlements “but if any of the of the lenders are putting a bunch of money into a pot that goes to help people, yes, I would assume that everybody will deduct that.”

Joe Nocera, a Times columnist who also helps readers find their way through the financial fog, writes this week that the government “fumbled” in the way it has handled the crisis. He says, “The government insisted that the banks hire expensive consultants to do a review of every foreclosure that took place in 2009 and 2010. The consultants racked up more than a $1 billion in fees, while proceeding at such a molasses like pace that the feds and the banks finally threw up their hands. The settlement made the whole thing go away.” In fact, the $8.5 billion settlement between regulators and 10 banks “over their foreclosure misdeeds is more about public relationships than problem solving” to help troubled homeowners.

No one is held accountable. “The settlement covers 3.8 million foreclosures or about $3.3 billion, or about $1,150 per lost home...The money is being distributed with no regard to whether a borrower suffered harm...those who really were truly harmed by bank behavior will be shortchanged.”

Nocera cites Karen Petrou, a prominent banking consultant, as saying the government has “come up with something that gives every borrower – maybe – a pittance and leaves the truly hurt – and there were many – as much in the lurch as before.”

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 • 01-10-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 10 January 2013 16:32

“Another Gift to the Banks”

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Several years ago during the financial meltdown I happened to get into a conversation with a lawyer who worked for a bank in a town I was visiting. He excused the banks from blame in the crisis, saying it was the fault of people who lied and cheated, claiming an income and net worth they didn’t have.

I wonder what he would say today with the banks accepting responsibility in billions for foreclosure abuses including flawed paperwork and botched loan modifications.

But as Gretchen Morgenson, a financial columnist, for the New York Times, said Sunday, “If you were hoping that things might be different in 2013 – you know, that bankers would be held responsible for bad behavior or that the government might actually assist troubled homeowners – you can forget it.” A settlement announced Monday does not end foreclosure abuses but “more of the same: no accountability for financial institutions and little help for borrowers.”

In 201l regulators began moving against 14 banks including JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup, after the foreclosure process was found to be “rampant” with “misdeeds.” People who borrowed believed they had been ripped off  by the way their banks did business. Borrowers suspected that they had been swindled by bank practices: “levying excessive and improper fees, or foreclosing when a borrower was undergoing a loan modification.”

About 4.4 million borrowers were caught up in the foreclosure net during that time.

In the settlement people who had lost their homes “because of improprieties” would get a total of $3.75 billion in cash. An additional $6.25 billion “would be put toward principal reduction for homeowners in distress.”

Morgenson says the deal is “your first clue that it is another gift to the banks.” She writes, “It’s not clear which borrowers will receive what money, but divvying up $3.75 billion among millions of people doesn’t amount to much per person. If, say, half of the 4.4 million borrowers were subject to foreclosure abuses, they would each receive less than $2,000, on average. If 10 percent of the 4.4 million were harmed, each would get roughly $8,500.”

She pointed out that last year federal regulators outlined possible penalties: “if a bank had foreclosed while a borrower was making payments under a loan modification, it might have to pay $15,000 and rescind the foreclosure. And if it couldn’t be rescinded because the house had been sold, the bank could have had to pay the borrower $125,000 and any accrued equity.” But, as she says, that was last year.

Alys Cohen, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, remarked: “We think if the reviews were done right, the payouts would have been significantly higher than they appear to be under this settlement. The regulators will have abandoned their responsibility if the banks end up getting off the hook easily and cheaply.”

In other words the banks would be paying pennies for every dollar they’ve ripped off from the working and middle classes.

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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