Notes of a Reporter at Large • 09-26-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 26 September 2013 15:45

Channeling the Nation’s Bile

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

Robert Reich, the former labor secretary under Bill Clinton and a UC professor and prolific liberal commentator is, at 67, a little fellow who can handle himself. In an op/ed piece in Sunday’s New York Times he told of a man who approached him as he was walking toward an airport departure gate.

“`Are you Robert Reich?’” the man asked.

“Yes,” Reich said.

“You’re a Commie dirtbag.” The fellow actually called him something unprintable.

Reich misunderstood. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“You’re a Commie dirtbag.’”

Reich wondered if he was in danger, but the man was well-dressed and carrying a briefcase. He couldn’t have made it through the checkpoint with a concealed weapon. Should Reich shrug and walk away, but what if the man followed him? Reich responded:

“You’re wrong, Where did you get your information?”

“Fox News. Bill O’Reilly says you’re a Communist.”

In his op/ed Reich writes, “A year or so ago, Bill O’Reilly did say on his Fox News show that I was a Communist. I couldn’t imagine what I’d done to provoke his ire except to appear on several TV shows arguing for higher taxes on the wealthy, which hardly qualified me as a Communist. Nor am I exactly a revolutionary. I served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet. My first full-time job in Washington was in the Ford administration, working for Richard H. Bork at the Justice Department.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear on Fox News,” Reich said to the heckler who “walked away, still irritated.”   

The Reich piece hits home, reminding me of other angry times: the witch hunts in the 1950s; the Vietnam protests and the struggle for civil rights in the ’60s. Not to mention Watergate in the ’70s. The only time I remember when the country seemed to be as one was during World War II. I was boy then but I have read enough history since that time to know that there were miles to go on the home front before we would ever become one people.      

As for the professor’s  airport encounter with a fan of the Fox News pundit, Reich says he doesn’t “think Bill O’Reilly really believes I’m a communist. He’s just channeling the nation’s bile.”

(Note: Richard Bork, mentioned above, was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Reagan, but the Senate rejected the nomination.)

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

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 09-19-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 September 2013 13:41

Obama’s Gamble

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

When I first heard President Obama was going along with a Russian proposal backing a plan for international monitors to oversee President Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons, I thought Obama would be better off taking his chances with Congress, even though  the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll found scant support in the country for a strike against Syria.

I thought the greater peril for the president was in accepting a proposal from his Russian counterpart, Vladmir Putin. The Russian president, lest we forget, was an officer for 16 years in the diabolic KGB, the security agency of the Soviet era.  Obama should tread warily on the Russian leader’s bid to pull his chestnuts from the fire.

That’s what I said to a friend. But I may have erred, or at least behaved like a man lost in a time warp, as I imagined outrage, exclamations, violent rhetoric from the president’s enemies for trusting the Russians. My friend replied that my attitudes towards Russia were dated and glib, and after a generation or two since the end of World War II many – probably most – Americans no longer viewed Russia as an evil empire, as once so characterized by Ronald Reagan. The Cold War was over, and had been for many years. And that’s a fact, my friend asserted.

My attitude was framed in an earlier era, in the crises following World War II, from the Berlin airlift in 1947 to 1991 when the rickety and corrupt Soviet Union heaved a mighty sigh, and collapsed. The Berlin Wall came down, and communist states in eastern Europe had a great fall. Where there had been two superpowers, there was only one, the U.S.

It’s hard to forget those headlines: the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 when the world   teetered on the edge of a nuclear wipeout. The bloody Soviet invasion of  Hungary. The  collapse of democracy and the rise of the police state in eastern Europe. The illusion of the Prague spring. I had to get all that out of my head, catch up with modern times.

The Russia of the Soviet Union was gone with the wind. It put me in mind of  my father’s stories about World War I – that holocaust was already some twenty years in the past – but it seemed like ancient history, as old as Caesar’s history on the Gallic War. So, yes, I had to catch up with modern times.

On Monday I took note of winners and losers as mentioned in the New York

Times in the Syrian deal brokered by Russia: Obama, for avoiding an embarrassing defeat in Congress over the use of force; and Russia and Syria for buying time for Assad. (I would have added Putin for re-inventing himself as the angel of peace.)

As for the losers, the Times cited the rebels but also “in large part, Syrian civilians, who human rights groups say have been systematically attacked by the government, and who have suffered abuses from both sides.”

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

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 09-12-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 12 September 2013 14:40

Frost / Nixon

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

In the fine-tuned obituaries of the New York Times, the deed or misdeed of a notable name is almost always enshrined in the first sentence. In the case this week of the 74-year-old David Frost, the British interviewer is remembered for getting Nixon to apologize for Watergate.

The actual sentence in the Times mentions interviews with “historic names like Henry Kissinger and John Lennon” but the obit makes clear the interview with Nixon was the most important in Frost’s long career.

Frost, who died of a heart attack on Saturday aboard the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth where he was due to give a lecture, had a varied career in television that  reflected changes in the medium from the era of black-and-white in the 1960s to the cable news of today.

Frost was not a professional journalist in the strict sense of the word. He was a showman (in the early 1960s he was the host of the satirical “That Was the Week That Was” for a time on the BBC and briefly on NBC) and hosted  entertainment specials as well as more intellectual fare. He filled in for Johnny Carson a couple of times in 1968.

Frost’s affable manner and an impression that he might be a lightweight on matters of state may have had an appeal for Nixon in 1977 when Frost reached out to him. It had been three years since Nixon had been driven from office in the face of almost certain impeachment in the Watergate scandals.

Money may have figured in his decision to do the interviews. Nixon reportedly got $600,000 for the broadcasts, 28 hours, 45 minutes in five episodes, recorded over four weeks. He also came in for a share of the profits for the broadcasts.

After the two had spoken on camera several times, and well-acquainted, Frost raised questions about Nixon’s abuses of presidential power. Nixon famously replied, ”when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal. “

“Upon hearing that sentence, I could scarcely believe my ears,” Frost would write in a 2007 book promoting the “Frost/Nixon” movie. On the last day of their many taped interviews for the series, Frost pressed Nixon to acknowledge blunders in Watergate. “Unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life coaxed Frost.”

Nixon yielded (or maybe it was the out he was looking for). As it happened he offered an apology for putting “the American people  through two years of needless agony.” And added, “I let the American people down and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.” Nixon died in 1994. He was 81.

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

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 .

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