Notes of a Reporter at Large • 11-21-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 21 November 2013 15:11

Remembering Gettysburg

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

I was born in Boston on November 19, the same day that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, though, let me assure you, not in the same year. Lincoln spoke on a Thursday afternoon in 1863 at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. It was the site of one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War,  July 1-3, 1863, 150 years  ago.

The 272-word tribute to the soldiers who died on both sides, can be said in two minutes. Yet it is one of the most famous pieces in American oratory. In my day many a schoolchild knew it by heart.

The big speech at the dedication ceremony went on for two hours. It was delivered by Edward Everett, perhaps the  best-known orator of the day. The day after the ceremony Everett wrote Lincoln, “I wish that I  could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

“The genius of the address,” as Allen C. Guelzo, a professor  of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, wrote in the New York Times on Monday, “lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.”

In “The Oxford History of the American People,” Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln “made the average American feel that his dignity as citizen of the republic was bound up with the fate of the Union, whose destruction would be a victory for the enemies of freedom everywhere.”

*   *   *

It may have been my mother’s doing, since she was the outspoken Republican in the family. But as a kid of six or seven, I was led into the parlor and made to entertain  guests with a recitation of the Gettysburg Address, stumbling over grownups’ words like “continent,” “dedicated,” “proposition,” “consecrate.” The howls and laughter ring in memory.

In 1976, I was working for the “Today Show” on pieces celebrating the country’s bicentennial. When we were at the Lincoln memorial, the correspondent insisted on his doing an on-camera commentary of three or four minutes. We argued. I said that at such length it would kill the piece. Then I remembered from childhood that the immortal Gettysburg Address was delivered in two minutes. I challenged the reporter to match the Great Emancipator. Lincoln saved the show.

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 • 11-14-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 14 November 2013 16:17

An American Hero

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

Penn Kimball was my advisor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 1963-4. He could never have been taken for a sentimental school master; no  Mr. Chips, this journalist and teacher, who died Nov. 8 at a retirement facility in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He was 98.

Penn didn’t mince words. He spoke his mind. He was a popular professor and I had reason to value his friendship. When I was writing my major paper (a lengthy article based on interviews with authoritative figures) he suggested James A. Farley, Franklin Roosevelt’s postmaster general and campaign manager in the elections of 1932 and 1936.

At 76, Farley was still hale. With the depression years in mind, Farley said people voted their fears. He claimed the principle held true in the age of television. I bet he would say the same if he were still with us in the digital age.

My piece was a carbon of Farley’s views and prejudices. “You need to read more about politics. You’re too easily impressed,’ was Penn Kimball’s verdict.

My hero-worshipping cost me a C.

When the school year was ending, Penn urged me to visit NBC and offer the network first-refusal. He assured me it was the right thing to do. “As a courtesy” he said, “you’re giving your benefactors the first opportunity to hire you or not, since you’ve been here on an RCA/NBC fellowship.”

“You’ve come at a good time,” the head of news  for WNBC-TV said. With political conventions, the presidential campaign, the fall elections, the war in Vietnam, the unrest in cities, he was short-handed. I worked at NBC fifteen years.

Some time after I’d graduated from the journalism school, I learned from Penn that he was one of a two-person team to pick me as the RCA/NBC Fellow for that academic year.“We liked it that you were from Eureka,” he said. It was a time when small town America was in fashion.

People who did not know Penn Kimball still have reason to remember him. After learning that he was secretly declared a security risk under the Freedom of Information Act, he sued the federal government in the 1980s. According to the Washington Post, the State Department, the CIA and the FBI had compiled secret documents  in which he was called a “definite security risk.”

In his 1983 book, “the File,” he wrote, “I was stunned. I simply had no idea that for more than half of my life my name had been on file in Washington as a dangerous radical, disloyal American, a national security risk, a subversive ‘too clever’ to be caught holding membership in the Communist Party. ”

I remember his telling me he’d discovered comments from people he knew, distinguished names, hinting in the censored documents that he’d been friendly with communists.  A CIA packet indicated his late first wife – a real estate agent – was also labeled a security risk. The documents arrived on the same day as her funeral, the Post said.

In 1984, PBS broadcast a documentary about Penn. The same year he filed a $10 million lawsuit against the government to clear his name. In 1987, the State Department, the CIA and the FBI agreed to purge their files if Kimball would drop his lawsuit. A federal judge wrote that there was no evidence that either Kimball or his wife had committed a crime or had been “disloyal to the United  States.”

“There’s  nothing more precious to a man than his character and reputation,” Penn told the newspaper. “And what the United States government did is take that away from me.”

He was an unlikely disloyal American. As the Post noted, “an Eagle Scout, a bow-tie-wearing New Englander, a football player at Princeton, a Rhodes scholar, a Marine Corps pilot in World War Two, an Ivy League professor.” And, I may add, a Red Sox fan.

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 • 11-07-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 07 November 2013 15:30

In the Shadows of Jefferson’s Words

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

President Kennedy once addressed a gathering of Nobel laureates by saying that theirs was the most illustrious company ever to attend a White House ceremony since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

Jefferson was the chief writer of the Declaration of Independence. He was also the president who purchased the Louisiana Territory for $15 million, or 3 cents an acre, from Napoleon in 1803. It added a vast region between the Mississippi and the Rockies comprising all or part of 15 states to what is today the U.S. But, what Kennedy had in mind was that our third president was a world-class political philosopher, on a par with the thinkers of any age.

In our own open, anything-goes time, speculation about Jefferson’s sex life has become a diverting subject for many. As one blogger asked as the holiday was approaching, “Did Thomas Jefferson father children by a slave mistress?”  He mentioned Jefferson’s alleged liaison with the mulatto slave Sally Hemings, and children looking something like Jefferson, and  Fawn Brodie’s “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography” (1974). In the end, however, the blogger points out that historians are not convinced. The evidence linking Jefferson to Hemings is of doubtful quality.

As a statesman, Jefferson was more of a writer than an orator. The pen, as has been said, “was his natural means of expression, and he was a virtuoso in its use.”

In a Modern Library book of his writings, I read where Jefferson, who knew Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian and Anglo-Saxon, advised a favorite nephew “to begin a course of ancient history, reading everything in the original and not in translation.” As much as he stressed study, he advocated a couple of hours a day to exercise.

As he told the younger man, “health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong.”

Jefferson advocated hunting. “While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind… Walking is the best possible exercise.”

As one of the founding fathers, he was frequently asked for information about contemporaries. Of George Washington, whom he served as secretary of state, he said, “Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration was maturely weighed… His integrity was most pure…”

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 at his beloved Monticello in Virginia at 83. On the same day his rival and old friend, John Adams, the second president, died in Massachusetts at 90. They were the only two signers of the Declaration of Independence to become president and die on the same day — the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of that document.

Jefferson chose the words for his tombstone. Note, in their moving simplicity, they say nothing about his two terms as president:

“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.

This column originally appeared on October 23, 2009.

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 .

Domestic Violence Awareness Month PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 31 October 2013 15:49

103113n7By Senator Ellen M. Corbett  • Special to the Times

At a recent Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments’ (SAVE) Breakfast Eye Opener event, I heard the harrowing story of one young mother’s experience with domestic violence.

The abuse she suffered by her partner, then husband and father of her child, was ignored by family.

This remarkable woman somehow found the inner strength to remove both her child and herself from this dangerous environment, contacted SAVE and, with legal assistance, left her husband and gained sole custody of her child.

This strong woman is now self-empowered, going to school and restoring balance to her life. Stories like this make it clear that more must be done to combat domestic violence and that it is clearly possible to survive and thrive after horrific events and experiences.

It was only 27 years ago — in October 1987 — that our nation observed its first Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Since that time, it has become an annual time of remembrance and action for victims of domestic violence, survivors and advocates across the country.

It is with sadness and a great deal of unending hope that I once again observe Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I am sad because domestic violence and its toxic effects remain in our local communities. I am hopeful because every year we create more awareness, more desire for and cause for action, more compassion, as well as more services for survivors and victims of this abuse.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), upwards of 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been the victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by their partner during their lifetime.

However, we must also remember that “domestic violence” also covers victims of elder abuse and teen dating violence; incidences of both are on the rise.

As domestic abuse is one of the most underreported crimes in America and 33 percent of female and 4 percent of male murder victims were killed by their intimate partners, it is clear that we must reflect on these disheartening statistics this month.

We must reflect on what more we can do to alleviate the pain and suffering of victims and move our society in a direction where we no longer tolerate domestic violence.

Since I was first elected to the State Legislature in the late 1990s, I have worked to expand protections for victims of domestic violence. I have authored legislation to:

• Standardize the definition of “dating relationship” under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act allowing more victims to be able to obtain restraining orders;

• Authorize victims of domestic violence to be able to receive relocation expenses;

• Extend protections from adverse employment actions to victims of domestic violence;

• Extend state services to male victims of domestic violence;

• Streamlined and clarified the Safe-at-Home program that has helped protect the identities of nearly 6,260 survivors of domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault since its inception in 1999.

This year, I authored and Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 107 — sponsored by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) — that provided for continued funding for the administration of rape kits, funding that I successfully advocated for a couple of years previously.

In the months and years ahead, I will certainly continue to work to help provide victims, survivors and advocates with the tools they need to combat domestic violence.

If you are suffering from domestic violence, I encourage you to reach out to one of the many local organizations that help victims and survivors.

Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments, located in Fremont, can be reached 24 hours a day at (510) 794-6055; Tri-Valley Haven, located in Livermore, can be contacted on their crisis line at (800) 884-8119; Building Futures with Women and Children, located in San Leandro, can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-866-A-WAY-OUT; the Alameda County Family Justice Center, located in Oakland, can be reached at (510) 267-8800; and the Family Violence Law Center in Oakland can be contacted at (800) 947-8301.

Ellen M. Corbett is the former mayor of San Leandro and is currently the State Senator Majority Leader.

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 10-31-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 31 October 2013 15:46

In Search of a President

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the New York Times, says in Sunday’s paper that an estimated 40,000 books or more have been published about John F. Kennedy since his death fifty years ago on November 22, 1963.

To give the matter some perspective, I looked up the number of books devoted to the martyred Lincoln, often cited by historians as the greatest of our presidents. The Lincoln total is said to be  between 15,000 and 16,000, an impressive figure but fewer than half the torrent of works devoted to Kennedy.

How to explain it? Abramson says that Kennedy’s assassination “remains all but impossible to pin down.” One reason is that for a generation of Americans Kennedy’s death remains “the most traumatic public event of their lives, 9/11 notwithstanding, obscuring much about the man and his accomplishments.”

Was Kennedy in a  class with  Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR and Truman, other 20th  century progressives – “or was he a reckless and charming lightweight or, worse still, the first of our celebrities-in-chief?” And she asks, were not domestic achievements like civil rights and the war on poverty “actually the doing of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson?”

Exploring the vast literature about JFK, Abramson says, “is to be struck not by what’s there but what’s missing. Readers can choose from many books but surprisingly few good ones, and not one really outstanding one.”

On the other hand, she points out sourly, there are the “what if” books – what if Kennedy had lived? With few exceptions she dismisses them out of hand. Not to mention the volumes retailing the Camelot fantasy.

One of the problems in coming to terms with Kennedy is that his presidency was cut short. He was president just under three years. He barely won the popular vote in 1960 with less than 113,000 popular votes or 0.17%  of ballots cast. But he beat Richard Nixon handily 303 to 219 in the electoral college.

Abramson reminds us that the Kennedy family – “especially Jackie and Bobby – were notoriously hard on authors whose books they didn’t like.” Arthur Schlesinger, the historian, and Theodore Sorenson, JFK’s speechwriter and friend, and others performed “as a kind of history police, not only withholding primary materials but also bullying writers.” In recent years, “the protective seal seems to have loosened.” Caroline Kennedy, for one, “has been even more  open to the claims of history.”

Many living today well remember what they were doing when they got news of the assassination. I remember Tom Wicker, who covered the Kennedy trip to Texas for  the Times, as saying he could not have written his Pulitzer Prize winning account without television. In the turmoil that followed the shots, Wicker had stepped into a bar in search of a phone. When he reached his editors in New York he found himself staring at three television sets, as the story  unfolded before his eyes. His editors were watching the same story from the Times newsroom on 43rd Street. The president’s murder marked the beginning of the decline and fall of print journalism and the rise of mass media 24/7.

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 • 10-24-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 24 October 2013 11:31

Travails of a Red Sox Fan

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

On our recent trip to Manhattan, the Lady Friend and I discovered that life is not easy for a Red Sox fan in New York. We were on our way to the Museum of Modern Art when I couldn’t remember if the entrance was on 53rd or 54th Street.

As we deliberated we spotted a cop talking to a fellow officer in a patrol car. I stepped towards him. “Excuse me, officer, but could you tell me where ...” And that was as far as I got. The cop turned around, and taking note of my cap, said, “I don’t give directions to people wearing Red Sox hats.” Then he broke out into a broad smile. He put his hand over his heart and declared, “The Yankees are my soul.” Then he directed us to the museum entrance.

*   *   *

When I was living in New York I took in an occasional Red Sox – Yankee game. It was during one of those contests that a fellow in the next row tapped my back. He objected to my cheering for Boston. I was a guest in Yankee Stadium, he said, and should restrain myself. When I wheeled around I came face to face with a towering brute. For reasons I can’t explain, I replied, “It’d take a bigger man than you.” Nothing happened. And I’m still wondering why. When I told the Lady Friend the story, she asked, “Did you stop cheering?” I said I didn’t remember. But I think I did.

*   *   *

One night I occupied a box seat at Yankee stadium. The neighboring box was occupied by Norman Mailer. The famous writer, I recalled, went to Harvard. I forgot – or didn’t know – he was born in New Jersey and raised in New York City. So when the Red Sox scored in a crucial inning, I blundered when I said to Mailer, “We showed those Yankees, didn’t we?” To my dismay, the irrepressible author exploded in unprintable language. In sum, he was no Red Sox fan.

*   *   *

For many of our friends and family it’s been a bum baseball year, with the A’s losing in the fifth game to Detroit, and the Giants going nowhere. But in one little house in the Bay Area, hope is still alive.

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 • 10-17-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 17 October 2013 12:52

Postcard from New York

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

“New Seats Let Airlines Squeeze in More Passengers,” the Associated Press reported this week.

Hardly news to the Lady Friend and me. After a packed flight on Virgin America from San Francisco to New York and back in recent days, we still are looking for the rest of us.

“It’s part of a trend among the airlines to view seats as money-makers, not just pieces of furniture,” explained the AP. “Add a few inches of legroom and airlines can charge more for tickets. Take away a few inches and they can fit more seats on the plane.”

All this, we are reminded, is going on in coach when airlines are spending heavily on more comfort in first class.

Talk of two Americas!

*  *  *

We spent our eight nights in Manhattan at a small hotel on 23rd street. The tumult from traffic and crowds thundered outside our sixth-floor room 24/7. When we got home, we saw in the New York Times that a  new study said older people living near noisy airports may have increased their risk for cardiovascular disease. We wondered what the researchers  would say about 23rd Street.

It was plenty noisy but they would have to take into account that the place where we stayed was also a Catholic retreat,  run by an order of good-natured, good-humored and progressive nuns. We would stay there again but ask for a quieter side of the building. We didn’t raise the question when we moved in.

A bathroom went with our room. There were  lots of rooms with shared baths. As the Lady Friend said, “Leave well enough alone. We’re too old to share a bathroom.

*  *  *

The talk of the town is the High Line, about a mile-long linear park that follows an old railroad track on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. An aerial greenway, the High Line crosses historic landmarks like the old meatpacking district and the neighborhood of Chelsea

It was  inspired by a similar project in Paris – a nearly three-mile promenade  - completed in 1993. A dismaying sight to some, but heartening one to others, is the astonishing real estate development that the High Line has spurred in the neighborhood.

Speaking of sights to dismay, one comes across a work of sculpture on the High Line. It portrays Colin Powell holding a vial – one can assumes it’s filled with uranium –t o back up his claim to the U.N. Security Council that Saddam Hussein was building a nuclear arsenal. The infamous speech was delivered on February 5, 2003 to win international support for an invasion of Iraq.

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 • 10-10-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 10 October 2013 13:26

A New Anchor is Born

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

Some twenty-five 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 • 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 .

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