"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Saturday, December 23, 2006,11:10 PM
Attacks Against Journalism?
Journalists Amy Goodman and David Goodman unpack the politics of public broadcasting.
By Amy Goodman and David Goodman

In public broadcasting we need to get back to the revolutionary spirit of dissent and courage that brought us into existence in the first place, and this country does, too.
—Bill Moyers

There is a war on, but it’s not just in Iraq. The Bush administration has launched a full-scale assault on independent journalism. This regime has bribed journalists, manufactured news, blocked reporters’ access to battlefronts and disasters, punished reporters who ask uncomfortable questions, helped ever bigger corporations consolidate control over the airwaves, and been complicit in the killings of more reporters in Iraq than have died in any other U.S. conflict.

In this global attack, one area has come under especially heavy fire: public broadcasting. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which disburses about $400 million per year for public television and public radio networks such as National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), was established in 1967. “In authorizing CPB, Congress clearly intended that non-commercial television and radio in America, even though supported by federal funds, must be absolutely free from any federal government interference beyond mandates in the legislation,” according to the CPB inspector general.

CPB is often described as the “heat shield” designed to insulate public broadcasting from political interference. This posed a problem for the Bush administration, which wanted to turn up the heat on public broadcasting. Instead of a shield, they installed a right-wing blowtorch to run the CPB: Kenneth Tomlinson. His mission as CPB chairman, until he was forced to resign in scandal in November 2005, was to transform public broadcasting into an extension of the White House propaganda machine. What Fox News is to TV and the Washington Times is to newspapers, the Bush regime has hoped to make of public broadcasting: just another outlet for government spin.

The Crusades

President Bush famously warned the world in September 2001, “Either you are with us, or with the terrorists.” In this simple frame, journalists, whose job it is to be skeptical (well, at least that’s the theory), are a natural enemy. And in Kenneth Tomlinson’s eye public enemy number one at PBS was Bill Moyers, who hosted the popular PBS show “NOW with Bill Moyers,” a weekly public affairs and investigative news hour.

Tomlinson secretly paid more than $14,000 to an outside consultant to monitor and rate the political leanings of the guests on 38 episodes of “NOW.” The consultant, one Fred Mann, also monitored National Public Radio’s “The Diane Rehm Show” 15 times, and the PBS talk shows “Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered” (twice) and “Tavis Smiley” (23 times).

Mann wrote a secret report for Tomlinson in which he classified the political views of the guests. Any guest who questioned the Bush presidency was labeled “anti-administration,” and others were rated L for liberal or C for conservative. There were subcategories too, such as “anti-DeLay.” It didn’t take much to get pigeonholed: Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel was branded with a scarlet L for expressing doubts about the Iraq policy. Hagel is so Liberal that the Conservative Christian Coalition and the Eagle Forum both gave him a 100 percent rating in 2004. Former Republican congressman Bob Barr, who helped lead the effort to impeach President Clinton, was labeled “anti-administration.”

“[Mann’s report] appears to have been cobbled together by an armchair analyst with little or no professional preparation for the task,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N. Dak.). “The report is itself steeped in deep political bias.” The report was also widely ridiculed because it was filled with typos and faxed from a Hallmark card store in Indianapolis.

It turns out that before Fred Mann was tapped to be an arbiter of objective journalism, he worked for the American Conservative Union and for a right-wing group called the National Journalism Center. At the Center, Mann didn’t work as a journalist—he helped students find employment (including placing interns at Reader’s Digest) and set up networking social events. The Center’s director, M. Stanton Evans, wrote a book, Blacklisted by History: The Real Story of Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies, to burnish the reputation of that unfairly pilloried former senator from Wisconsin.

The parallels to McCarthy’s witch-hunts are eerily appropriate. Eric Boehlert revealed in Salon.com that Tomlinson and William Schulz, an ex–Reader’s Digest editor, both once worked for Fulton Lewis Jr., a well-known radio personality who was an infamous ally of McCarthy. Lewis’s son, who took over his father’s radio broadcast, recalls Tomlinson as “a very good journalist, a hard worker, and as someone who was very responsibly Conservative.”

As Tomlinson marshaled his witch-hunters and assembled his blacklists, he consulted with the White House about who to hire to fill key positions at CPB. Turns out it was illegal for him to do this, but he had a mission to rout out Liberals, and laws were not going to get in his way.

By mid-2005, with Tomlinson sniffing for Liberal bias in the back alleys of Sesame Street, CPB was in turmoil. At a Senate hearing in July 2005, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) confronted Tomlinson about his “crusade”:

Sen. Richard Durbin: It strikes me as odd, Mr. Tomlinson, that we’re on this crusade of a sort here, this mission to change what’s going on. I don’t quite get it, understand what your agenda is here and what you’re trying to achieve.
... I think Bill Moyers’ program “NOW” was a balanced program. And I think most people would agree with it. Now, Mr. Mann that you hired, or someone hired, to monitor this program came up with some rather strange conclusions about who’s a liberal and who’s a Conservative and who’s a friend of the president and who isn’t.

... It’s been reported that you have championed the addition of “Wall Street Journal Editorial Report” to the PBS lineup and that you’ve raised money for that purpose. . . . What was your purpose in bringing in the Wall Street Journal, which has been noted is a publication owned by a company that’s been very profitable and would not appear to need a subsidy to put on a show?

Kenneth Tomlinson: I think Sen. Stevens hit the nail on the head. No bias—no bias from the left, no bias from the right. If we have programs like the Moyers program that tilt clearly to the left, then I think it’s to—according to the law, we need to have a program that goes along with it that tilts to the right and lets the people decide.

Durbin: Let me ask you about this “clearly to the left” bias on the Moyers show. How did you reach that conclusion? Did you watch a lot of those shows?

Tomlinson: I watched a lot of those shows, and I think Mr. Mann’s research demonstrates that the program was clearly Liberal advocacy journalism. ...

Durbin: You have perceived a problem here which the American people obviously don’t perceive.
... Can we expect you to do the same for The Nation magazine? Are you going to raise $5 million to make sure they have a show?

In November 2005, a damning report from the CPB inspector general charged Tomlinson with breaking federal laws and violating ethics rules. The White House’s hatchet man at CPB resigned under a cloud of scandal. But the apparatchiks he left behind in the top positions at CPB ensure that loyal Republican soldiers will continue to wage war on independent journalism, while hiding behind the smokescreen of “balance.”

“We Are in Danger of Losing Our Democracy”
It’s a pretty good bet that a journalist loathed by the Bush White House must be doing his job well. Bill Moyers has been an icon of American journalism for the last three decades. He was one of the organizers of the Peace Corps, was special assistant to Lyndon Johnson, a publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News, produced numerous groundbreaking shows on public television, has won more than 30 Emmys, nine Peabodys, three George Polk Awards, and is the author of three best-selling books. Since retiring from “NOW” with Bill Moyers in 2005, Moyers has been speaking out forcefully in defense of journalism in general and public broadcasting in particular. He challenged Kenneth Tomlinson to debate him on PBS; the former CPB head declined. In June 2005, in the thick of the right-wing attacks against him, Bill Moyers spoke on “Democracy Now!”

Moyers observed that packing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with partisans is both mistaken and unprecedented. “All the attacks on public broadcasting in the past have come from outside,” he said. “They’ve come from the Nixon White House, from Newt Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House, and they’ve been rebuffed because the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was led by principled Democrats and Republicans who took seriously their job of resisting pressure from Congress and the White House to influence public broadcasting.

“Now this is an inside job. Kenneth Tomlinson is there as an ally of Karl Rove to help make sure that public broadcasting doesn’t report the news that they don’t want reported.”

Moyers noted that CPB president Patricia Harrison and Kenneth Tomlinson “both would like to see public broadcasting be an arm of government propaganda—in particular, the administration’s propaganda.” The veteran newsman accused Republican operatives of having “intimidated the mainstream media so that you don’t get much reporting of what is contrary to the official view of reality.” Their dream is to have “state-manipulated media: media that may not be owned by the state, but is responsive to the state.” He says that Tomlinson, as overseer of the U.S. government–backed Voice of America, “thinks like a propagandist.” Moyers was appalled at the revelation that Tomlinson had secretly hired a Conservative “consultant” to monitor his show. Tomlinson “could have just watched the broadcast. He could have called me and asked me who was on. He did not tell his board he was doing this. He did not tell his staff he was doing this. He did it arbitrarily on his own.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Tomlinson said that the turning point for him came while watching a show that “NOW” did about a town in Pennsylvania:

It was November 2003, and [Tomlinson] was watching Bill Moyers, host of the Public Broadcasting Service show “NOW,” talk about how free-trade policies had harmed small-town America. Tomlinson knows small-town America—he grew up outside tiny Galax, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains—and Moyers’ presentation of the issues struck him as superficial and one-sided. Indeed, it struck him as “liberal advocacy journalism.” Right then, Tomlinson said, he decided it was time to bring some “balance” to the public TV and radio airwaves.

Moyers explained that the show Tomlinson watched was done by journalist Peter Bull. He traveled to Tamaqua, Penn., “looking at what was happening economically in this town as a result of downsizing, outsourcing, loss of jobs, people losing $20-an-hour jobs for $9- or $6-an-hour jobs. It was really good reporting about the losers in the class war.

“And Kenneth Tomlinson, a right-wing Republican, couldn’t take that because it was contrary to the party line. The party line is: Globalization, NAFTA, CAFTA—all of this is really good for people, and if we just have the patience, we’ll see that. Well, we were reporting from the front lines of what’s happening on globalization to American workers, and he became furious ...Why? Because we were reporting what was contrary to the official view of reality.”

Moyers mused, “It’s not my opinions he opposes. It’s journalism that is beholden to nothing but getting as close as possible to the verifiable truth.” One problem for Tomlinson as he tried to recast PBS into a house organ for the Bush administration was that Moyers was one of the founding fathers of public broadcasting. Moyers has pushed back against partisan operatives by invoking the original mission of public media.

“I was a young policy assistant in the White House of Lyndon Johnson. I attended my first meeting to discuss the future of educational television in 1964 when I was 30 years old. I was present at the creation,” Moyers recounted.

“We established public broadcasting back in the 1960s because we believed there should be an alternative to commercial television and to commercials on television. We thought commercial television was doing pretty well at what it was doing, but it was even then beginning to dumb down its programming to satisfy the largest common denominator. It had made its peace with the little lies and fantasies of merchandising. It treated Americans as consumers, not as citizens. Congress approved public broadcasting as an alternative to corporate and commercial broadcasting.” Moyers concedes now, “Public broadcasting has failed in many respects. We’ve not been enough of an alternative. We need a greater variety of voices on public broadcasting: Conservative, Liberal, and beyond Conservative and Liberal. But it’s still the best alternative we have for providing the American people with something other than what is driven by commercials, corporations and the desire constantly to sell, sell, sell.”
posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤ 1 comments
Friday, December 22, 2006,2:10 AM
Blacks in Journalism
Blacks in the Newsroom
Progress? Yes, but...

by David K. Shipler
Shipler, a former New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner, is the author of A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America.
The good news first: the executive editors of the Detroit Free Press and The Courier-Journal in Louisville are black. So are the managing editors of Newsweek, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, The News Journal in Wilmington, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Black publishers include those of the Akron Beacon Journal, the San Jose Mercury News, The Modesto Bee, and the Asheville Citizen-Times.

African-Americans are also gaining influence as columnists, editorial page editors, assistant managing editors, and reporters on key beats. Along with Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans, they are aggressively recruited through job fairs, minority internships, and bonus-driven hiring programs. Their publications have grown more sensitive to the nuances of racial slights and ethnic stereotypes, and some papers even do annual "content audits" to assess how minorities and women are portrayed in pictures and print.

Is this a creeping revolution?

Yes, but . . . While the complexion of major newsrooms has shifted from the virtually all-white of thirty years ago, the rate of change has now slowed; the representation of blacks on news staffs has stagnated at a low plateau of under 6 percent, reports the American Society of Newspaper Editors. And blacks moving into managerial ranks remain too scarce to be counted as a reform completed. "Minority reporters call our news meetings the 'Pale Male Club,'" says a white reporter at The Sun in Baltimore.

This bad news gets more tangled when coverage is assessed for its sophistication and focus. Papers and magazines are writing more respectfully about rap, hip-hop, and other cultural features of African-American life. Black executives have made the cover of Fortune. And you can bet that Time will never again darken a photograph of O.J. Simpson. But reporting on race often features the simplistic stridency of ideologues and extremists; the clash of polemics crowds out the subtler biases that need examination. Blacks are hurt disproportionately by inadequate coverage of the nation's urban problems.

The revolution holds promise but has not kept all its promises. Among white journalists surveyed in 1996 by the Associated Press Managing Editors Association, 77 percent agreed that "a news staff should reflect society in terms of racial/ethnic makeup," and 86 percent thought that "a diverse newsroom staff strengthens news coverage and credibility." But there is no chance of realizing the ambitious goal for the year 2000, set twenty years ago by the editors' association, ASNE, that would have brought minorities as a whole -- African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans -- to the same proportion as in the country at large. Newsrooms are now 11.5 percent minority and 5.4 percent black; the country is 26 percent minority and 13 percent black.

Facing the inevitable failure, ASNE's officials have proposed a reduced objective for a more distant date -- 20 percent by 2010. The suggestion, scheduled for a vote by the board in the fall, ignited a divisive debate at the association's April meeting in Washington, where some editors urged higher targets and minority journalists' organizations worried that lower goals would allow the industry to rationalize a broad retreat.

The industry, though, is not especially happy with itself. "Any white journalist in a town that's predominantly black begins to feel like it's more and more of a problem," says a white reporter for the Baltimore Sun, whose news and editorial staff is 12.3 percent African-American. "It's a practical problem in the sense that you literally don't find out about stories, because it's a very segregated town." It's also a public relations problem; some of the city's black activists denounce the paper for racism when it reports critically on local black politicians.

The editors of The Sun's editorial and op-ed pages are black women. The deputy sports editor and the editor of Perspective, a Sunday section of opinion and analysis, are black. But not until recently were moves made to bring blacks into positions where they could govern daily news coverage.

Last November, a committee organized by management spent two days in a hotel drawing up a wish list for the newsroom that ran from the mundane to the expensive, from more coathangers to updated computer terminals. Then the committee met with top editors to present their ideas. Under the ground rules, the editors were to say yes or no on the spot or, if they needed more time, set an early deadline for a response. As it happened, all ten committee members were white.

"To the amazement of upper management, the number one proposal that came out of TheSun's own newsroom was a call for greater diversity on our staff," says Jean Thompson, who has just become the first black assistant managing editor for staff development.

The all-white committee expressed "almost universal support" for increased minority hiring, says a participant. "We were particularly aware that there were no black assignment editors in a position to influence the daily news in a grass roots sort of way." Over the next five years, the committee urged, two out of every five new reporters and one out of every three new managers should be members of minority groups.

The senior editors "expressed discomfort with the idea of quotas," the participant reports. "They said they 'certainly feel very strongly about this, work very hard at this,'" he recalls, yet "they had filled a bunch of editing jobs with almost exclusively white males they knew from before.

"I was sitting there with this dual perspective, being a white guy myself and looking at these guys somewhat from the outside, with a reporter's skepticism. If merit is driving this whole thing, then by some miracle, like winning the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes, the best people in the whole world after this extensive search turned out to be these white guys I used to work with." He quotes another committee member as saying later, "We would have never accepted that kind of bullshit from anyone we were covering."

Shortly thereafter, during a search for two assistant city editors, Robert Guy Matthews, a black reporter, declared that the day the paper hired two blacks for those jobs he would put salt on his shoe and eat it. He thought he had a sure bet. But on March 26, after the announcement that two blacks had indeed been hired for the two assistant city editor slots, Matthews had a friend bake a cake, with chocolate icing, in the shape of a giant shoe. In the newsroom at the end of the day, with the top editors and a raucous assortment of colleagues present, the cake was devoured. Matthews ate his piece with salt.

Following the committee's appeal, management also promoted Jean Griffith-Thompson to do recruiting, hiring, and training, and to play a news role by sitting in on "daily news meetings, page-one meetings," she explains, "and contributing my perspective on what should be on page one, how stories should be developed, what is news and what is not."

Skeptical colleagues are watching how Thompson's news role evolves and how much authority she gets, for true integration requires more than mixing races in a room; it demands the sharing of power. That has not happened in years past, observes Mark Whitaker, the black managing editor of Newsweek. "There was too much of an emphasis on numbers per se without regard to what kind of impact minorities were having on the publication," he says. "The magazine was going out and recruiting black journalists; they'd end up being the number three or four general assignment reporter in a domestic bureau, or they'd end up being the junior writer in one of the sections here in New York. The numbers would look fine, but my view was that you didn't have a lot of blacks in positions where they could have an impact on the magazine. What I've tried to do is attract people to the magazine who will really have an impact."

Part of that impact lies in creating new networks for blacks equivalent to those that have been so beneficial to whites. The black journalist John Dotson, Jr., now publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal, brought Whitaker into a Newsweek internship in 1977. In turn, Whitaker has been decisive in hiring blacks such as Ellis Cose ("someone I've known for a long time") and the young writer Veronica Chambers ("whom I knew because I served on a board with her").

"People will always hire people that they're comfortable with," says Roy S. Johnson, a black who's an editor-at-large at Fortune. "To do otherwise requires an effort, and not many people are willing to make that effort. Not many people are willing to expand their Rolodexes when they have an opening." Black editors help expand the Rolodexes.

Newsrooms are not hermetically sealed against the prejudices that play perniciously just beneath the surface of American life. "Time Inc. operated out of a culture that presumed that good writing was a genetic trait primarily held by Caucasians," says Joel Dreyfuss, a black senior editor at Fortune. "There was the idea that you had to find extraordinary black people who would meet those standards, while you could find a lot of ordinary white people who would meet the standards."

Evaluations tainted by what he calls "the subtlety of racism today" can seem deceptively reasonable: "This guy doesn't quite measure up, doesn't quite fit in," are standard put-downs often reserved for blacks, Dreyfuss observes. A white is an aggressive reporter; a black is militant. "We bring our own racial attitudes in the society into the newsroom, but we don't acknowledge it. Journalism's holier-than-thou attitude also carries over to racial matters. 'We couldn't be racists. We're the good guys. We write about racism.'"

One result is that blacks' flaws are often remembered more vividly than whites'. The head researcher at a women's magazine complained about a black who had been "a terrible speller" and eventually left the job. "Within the same conversation ten minutes later," Dreyfuss recalls, "she talked about a young white woman who had been very successful at the magazine, and she said, 'You know, she couldn't spell, but . . .' It was exactly the same problem for both, but the other one was seen as brilliant and terrific."

Hiring mistakes are made more rarely when minorities are recruited to improve coverage rather than merely to defend against criticism or lawsuits, according to Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "When you're motivated by a desire to avoid trouble, who you bring in doesn't matter a whole lot to you," he notes, "and how they thrive or survive in the organization doesn't matter a whole lot to you. There are consequences of that: you do bone-headed work, which angers your readership. People you've brought in can't do the work they have to do, and motivation wanes."

In the 1980s, Whitaker saw a few examples at Newsweek. "In any institution there are whites who get ahead who aren't exactly fabulous," he says. "If a mediocre white journalist gets ahead, no one ever says it reflects on the overall quality of white reporters. If a mediocre black reporter is hired or promoted, then everybody's going to say, 'Oh, they lowered the standards.' There are only a handful of those cases, but those handful were very regrettable. It didn't serve Newsweek well, and it didn't serve the reporters well."

Since then, print journalism has grown more sophisticated. Guidebooks and Web sites are full of advice on recruiting and managing a diverse workforce. Editors scour job fairs held by ASNE, the National Association of Black Journalists, and professional organizations representing Hispanic, Asian-American, and Native American journalists. ASNE, the Newspaper Association of America, and the major newspaper chains have full-time executives in charge of promoting diversity. Big dailies have internships for budding minority journalists, both to look them over and to induce the best of them to join the profession.

In a program named after the late columnist James Reston, for example, The New York Times takes on eight minority interns each summer to work in reporting, copy editing, photography, graphics, and design. The Times Company runs similar minority internships at its smaller papers. The Times Mirror chain hires recent college or journalism school graduates for two-year stints. During the first year, ten minority trainees work as reporters at the Los Angeles Times, and eight as copy editors at Newsday; for the second year, they are assigned among the company's seven papers, including the Baltimore Sun. Of the 170 trained so far, 95 percent have been offered full-time jobs, and 87 percent are still in journalism.

Nothing significant happens without pressure from the top. "Many managers feel they are open to diversity, but in practice they may not do very much," says Jose Ferrer, Time Inc.'s executive editor in charge of recruitment. "If you're not pushing at this, then you're probably not fixing it, and we're asking our managers to fix it. Just being polite to people of color is not enough."

The message is reinforced with bonuses and evaluations. When Norman Pearlstine became editor-in-chief of Time Inc. in January 1995, he says, "I found a situation not unlike what I'd found at The Wall Street Journal," where he had been executive editor. "A lot of people had done a lot of hard work and had tried a lot of things, and yet the results were, to be charitable, unsatisfactory. I would say we didn't have a credible number of black senior editors and writers, and hiring and training programs weren't delivering for us."

So he made diversity a significant factor in calculating bonuses for the managing editors of Time Inc.'s magazines, who may do the same with their subordinates if they choose. "Bonuses can be equal to base salary in a good year," Pearlstine explains. "Fifty percent of the bonus is based on the financial performance of the magazine and 50 percent on a subjective evaluation of performance." Twenty percent of that subjective part, or 10 percent of the entire bonus, is now linked, he says, to "how successful the managing editor of each magazine is in hiring and promoting minorities."

Has it worked? "I can see some examples where it's worked; I can see some examples where it's too soon to tell. Some people who are here now tell me it's a step." Success will have been achieved, he says, when he can no longer count the changes on only two hands.

In the Knight-Ridder chain each publisher gets 5 to 15 points, out of 100, for fulfilling his newspaper's goal to increase minorities and women. According to Jacqui Love Marshall, assistant vice president for corporate learning and diversity, other points are awarded for profit, circulation, advertising revenue, meeting the budget, installing new technology, and the like. Since bonuses range from 20 percent to 60 percent of salary, failure to hire sufficient numbers of minorities and women can cut as much as 15 percent off a fairly lucrative payment. As a result, she says, even as the company has sold papers with substantial diversity and bought others with less, blacks have held steady at 9-10 percent of newsroom professionals.

Gannett includes coverage of minorities in considering publishers and editors for bonuses and promotions, say former employees. The policy has had a visible impact, but not one the chain seems comfortable discussing. During an entire month, repeated calls to ranking Gannett executives in charge of news and diversity, plus the senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, Mimi Feller, went unanswered. For weeks, Donna Faulk White, a public affairs specialist, said she was waiting for information from her bosses. Finally she conveyed the decision that Gannett would not comment because "we don't feel the company can get fair treatment in the Columbia Journalism Review." Asked what the magazine had done, she was unable or unwilling to say.

Some advocates of affirmative action worry that the climate of aversion to the policy is being felt in newsrooms. "People are just not serious about it," says Vanessa Williams, a Washington Post reporter who is president of the National Association of Black Journalists. She complains that some publications are cutting back on internships, which "suggests to me that there is not a level of commitment." The 1996 APME study found some backlash: 40 percent of white journalists thought that lower standards for promotion were applied to minorities, while 66 percent of blacks thought minorities were held to higher standards.

Other than Gannett, however, every news organization contacted spoke openly and enthusiastically about its drive to increase black staffers. Pearlstine quotes one of his managing editors as saying, "Every time I have a vacancy I'm going to make sure I've found the best minority I can find and make sure he or she gets interviewed." Pearlstine declares: "If that's affirmative action, I think that's great. We ought to do more of it. The more diverse our work force is, the better we're going to cover our diverse society. I haven't felt that affirmative action backlash."

But there are built-in obstacles to finding black journalists. Many upwardly mobile African-Americans, not unlike children of immigrant families, are pushed by parents toward the prosperity brought by the professions of law, medicine, and business. Black communications majors frequently head for corporate public relations, not newspapers. If their ambitions include journalism it often means on-camera television with its higher pay.

The whiter a publication, the less attractive to a black journalist seeking a prospect of promotion. When blacks look at Time Inc., Jose Ferrer concedes, they see that "the power structure is still very white and very male. Half the magazines are run by women, but they are white women."

Even with blacks at 12.3 percent, the Baltimore Sun seems very white to African-Americans considering it as a place to work, Jean Thompson says -- a feeling that may change with her and the two black assistant city editors in place. "When the candidate walks through the newsroom or sits in the page-one meeting and sees practically no one of color in a city that's 60 percent nonwhite, those impressions are stark," she observes. "One of the first questions they would ask is, 'What's going on here? Is everybody absent today? Tell me they're all out sick.' And we'd say, 'We're it, and we hope you'll keep us company!'"

A 1996 survey of journalists by ASNE, however, revealed blacks as more ambitious and optimistic than whites. Fifty-one percent of the whites and 64 percent of the blacks thought their chances for advancement were good or excellent. Fifty-four percent of the blacks aspired to be the top editor or publisher. Yet 54 percent of the blacks (and only 12 percent of the whites) said that people of color were treated unfairly in their newsrooms. And editors, both white and black, complain that many black reporters get frustrated and don't remain long enough to position themselves for promotion. "Few people of color stay in the same place for a long time, because we're taught to be nimble," says Roy Johnson. "You have to move out to move up."

Those who advance often do so by blending in and playing down their blackness, according to some African-American journalists; institutional norms tend to sift out iconoclasts. By and large, "the screening process that brings blacks to top jobs really excludes the innovators," says Dreyfuss, "They're very conventional thinkers, like the guys who hire them. It's true for blacks and whites. . . . There's not a great diversity of coverage and thinking."

Homogenization is lamented by Jim Fisher, a crusty white reporter who has worked for TheKansas City Star since 1960. "I think there was more diversity when I started," he says of the white male staff in those days. "We had people who didn't have a high school education but were good with words and had a way of talking with people and empathizing with the guy in the bar and the steelworker." Empathizing with other whites, that is. "We didn't have black guys going out [as reporters], and that was a real minus," he says. But variety took other forms. "We had a guy who spoke perfect Russian; he was a Russian refugee. We had a guy who went on to become a big official in the Church of the Nazarene." Now, despite the racial diversity, there seems less diversity of experience. "There are almost no [military] veterans," he observes. "They all come out of the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas journalism schools."

If editors, in hiring a black, are looking for insight into Kansas City's black community, another white reporter observes, they'd better pick someone who grew up there and knows the neighborhoods. Being black from Denver won't do it.

But other white editors don't always recognize as newsworthy the attitudes and trends in black communities that they would report in white communities. Papers rarely write about blacks' religious faith, for example, or black women's hair styles.

For a story on fans' reaction to a local team's victory, a black reporter might suggest going to a black sports bar, explains Keith Woods, former city editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The editor might respond with a blank look or with "the assumption that the story just became one about race, while it wasn't a minute ago," Woods says. "Black journalists struggle with offering those kinds of suggestions because of the fear of that phenomenon. They're recruited at black journalism associations, they're recruited at black universities. Their blackness is an issue, and they're asked to do everything black. But then that blackness is not mined. In fact, there is often an antagonism to it in the newsroom. 'Those people play the race card, those people are the militants.' You cannot survive in a business that you got into because of your passion, when they take your passion away."

A sense of incompleteness and marginalization can result. Black reporters sometimes feel that their objectivity is questioned by white editors, that their news judgment is considered suspect. Sometimes in a news meeting when a black journalist proposes a story drawn from his own experience, he has to "watch people respond with violent silence," Woods remarks. That happened when he criticized his paper for running only a short on Spike Lee's appearance at a local black college, with his film on Malcolm X -- a big event for blacks in the community. If the piece gets written, "the editing of the story takes the perspective out of it," he insists, not to eliminate bias, but to remove the reporter's voice as an African-American who brings his cultural insight to the subject.

Who a black journalist wants to be professionally varies with his individual character. Some African-Americans want to cover racial issues; others resent being ghettoized. Jack White, a black who is a veteran reporter in Time's Washington bureau, offered to help report on the Clinton sex scandal. He was annoyed when, he recalls, a white editor in New York told him, "There do seem to be a lot of blacks involved, like Vernon Jordan -- why don't you look into that?" Says White: "I used to be editor of the Nation section of Time, Chicago bureau chief. I've covered two presidential campaigns. I'm not just a race reporter."

ASNE urges editors to mentor minority reporters, not a bad management practice with whites as well. An employee told Ferrer of watching as young whites, but no blacks, went in and out of the office of a white editor who was reaching out to young people. "We're not talking about a bigot," Ferrer says. "We're talking about a liberal, but a liberal who didn't understand that it might not be so easy for an African-American on his staff to come into his office, and he had to take that initiative."

Once created, then, racial diversity has to be managed so that people's talents are harvested fully and the coverage is enriched. For the last six years, The Kansas City Star has undertaken such an effort. It has meant shedding a heavy legacy. In the nineteen-sixties, "we would not run pictures of black girls who were going to get married," Jim Fisher remembers. "There was a term on The Kansas City Star -- a 'nigger killing.' One black guy killed another and it made two, three paragraphs. If there was a killing in the silk stocking district, we went balls out on that one -- column after column."

The paper had made only shallow, grudging concessions to blackness by 1977, when it hired a black reporter, Lewis W. Diuguid. He says, "I was pretty much told, 'Be all that you can be as a white reporter and leave that black stuff at the door.' A large part of me wasn't making it into the job. A large part of me was being discounted. It made me feel uncomfortable, and it meant I wasn't giving all of myself to the work. Some [black] people said screw this, you want only a tenth of me in here? That's all I'm going to give. I'll give my eight hours and I'm out of here." Diuguid persisted, though, and is now a columnist and associate editor.

One morning in 1993, with the Star spread out on the breakfast table, "My youngest daughter, eight, ran by, stopped, and put her finger on the paper and said, 'That girl looks like me.' My oldest daughter could not say that when she was eight. I could not have said that growing up in St. Louis. This was just a nice picture of a bunch of kids in a feature story. The photographer, more aware now, had gone out and gotten an image of a person from another community."

How did that happen? In 1992, the white editor, Mark Zieman, organized a diversity committee, started content audits, and contracted with the Newspaper Association of America to train several staffers in leading diversity workshops. The audits reviewed random weeks of stories and pictures and counted positive and negative portrayals of minorities and women. In the world as typically portrayed, cute white children shopped with parents before school started, prosperous white men moved up through the ranks of business, and young black men wore handcuffs.

In Baltimore, Sun reporters and editors began auditing their coverage by analyzing the week of December 1, 1996. They noted that blacks and other minorities were usually portrayed as needy or in conflict. Stories focused "on our differences as people of different cultures," the report found, and features and business sections practically ignored non-whites. "On first glance," an auditor wrote, "it would appear that minorities rarely travel, eat, or get married."

"We suggest that editors and reporters consciously look for ways to include women and the non-white citizenry in our coverage of universal topics," the first report said. "These are the stories that provide balance to the litany of crime and tension and poverty and government stories."

By the second report a year later, auditors found improvement but saw it as "slow and incremental, rather than sweeping and dynamic." The second report called for "the raising of the consciousness of the current staff" of the Sun.

That is what the Star has tried to do with diversity training. For $5,000 plus hotel and transportation costs, a paper can send a team of three (carefully chosen, supposedly) to a week-long course in presiding over dialogues. It is run by Toni Laws, senior vice president for diversity at the NAA, who then returns with the new workshop leaders and monitors their first couple of sessions in their own newsroom. In-house staffers are cheaper than outside consultants -- and more credible, since the news business, Laws has discovered, is parochial enough to think of itself as unique and incomprehensible to outsiders. The danger is that leaders with only a week of training can get into trouble amid the emotions surrounding race and gender.

There may be no tougher audience than a bunch of skeptical reporters. "It was the most insane thing I've been through," says the Star's Fisher. "They asked what we were afraid of, and I thought, what was the stupidest thing I could think of? I said I was afraid of chickens, and I didn't smile. And you would have thought that I said something very profound. Nobody laughed. They wrote it on the board. I left after six hours."

But Jeanne Meyer, managing editor for business and features, who is white, found that "people were quite open, and they took risks in exposing their feelings and exposing their hurts and exposing their anger. People treated [the discussion] thoughtfully. It made people feel quite good about colleagues." In small groups, everyone in the newsroom attended for a day and a half, and another round is being planned.

Diuguid feels the difference. "In those early days when I started, we were bringing [black] people in totally unprepared for the hostile culture they confronted," he says. "They were getting shot up, and they were leaving. So in changing the culture here, we've made this a better place to work."

A key question is how racial sensitivity and diversity affect what a reader sees in print. The Poynter Institute and ASNE have developed tips for "improving minority coverage," which are included in a booklet. It advises: "Tour your city regularly with a 'guide' or 'shepherd' from the neighborhoods with which you are unfamiliar. Write about human characters, real people, not just bureaucratic processes. . . . Make it easy for people in the neighborhoods to reach you . . . . Don't let place names become code words for crime."

The Star has taken steps in that direction. A computer file gives names of blacks and other minorities whom reporters can call as specialists in various subjects. It begins: "Accounting, Aging . . . " The business section's regular profile of people moving up the career ladder used to feature "just a bunch of white men," notes editor Zieman. "So we made a rule saying one out of three had to be a minority or a woman." The paper still gets complaints from some black leaders. But the usual reactions to the heightened visibility of blacks in the news columns divides a different way, Zieman says. "We get compliments from readers who appreciate what we're doing and criticisms from racists who don't. Some call us the Black Star. Those are calls I'm happy to get."

Counting people of color "can get nutty" when it happens in a virtually all-white town, says a white reporter who worked for the Lafayette, Indiana, Journal and Courier, a Gannett paper. "It got to be a joke around the newsroom" as photographers desperately searched the community for nonwhites, he says, often settling for Asian students at nearby Purdue.

There is no doubt that the presence of African-Americans in positions of influence can produce good story ideas that whites may overlook. When a white Washington Post editor assumed that Mayor Marion Barry was supporting the death penalty to pander to white voters, reporter Vanessa Williams suspected otherwise, and her interviews confirmed the growing endorsement of capital punishment among blacks. Mark Whitaker credits Allison Samuels, a black reporter in Los Angeles, with the idea for Newsweek's cover piece last year on the generation gap between blacks from the civil rights movement and the hip-hop generation. Roy Johnson pushed for Fortune's cover last August on the new, wealthy black entrepreneurs. "The big surprise to us," says Norman Pearlstine, "was that it was one of the highest selling Fortunes in years. It went right off the newsstands."

Many publications also use black staffers like litmus paper to test the acceptability of a questionable story or picture. A few Baltimore Sun reporters, including Ivan Penn, who is black, were approached one day and shown a photograph on the training of police dogs. A white policeman held the leash of a dog that was biting a black man on the arm. "My first reaction was, 'Whoa,'" Penn says. "Then I realized that he [the black man] was the trainer." The photograph was killed. "The sad thing is that in the ideal world that picture should have run. It was a nice action shot, and, in fact, the man was the trainer, so if anything he's in a very positive role."

To illustrate the role of jury consultants, Time prepared three panels in a drawing. The first showed "neutral" jurors whose featureless faces had the color that Crayola would call "flesh" in its crayons, recalls Janice C. Simpson, a black senior editor. The second showed sketchy features emerging, and the third -- the jury resulting from consultants' advice -- pictured "an almost riotous group leaping out of the box, diverse racially, ethnically, genderwise," Simpson says. She objected that the "neutral" jurors were colored to look like white people, implying that only whites could be unbiased. "The artists said, 'What are you talking about? That is a neutral color.' To me it looked like the color of white skin." Her protest got other people in the room thinking and provoked "a spirited debate" that resulted in the color being changed to gray.

No blacks were around to object when free-lance artist Matt Mahurin sent Time his darkened mug shot of O.J. Simpson. The magazine was closing on a Saturday, Simpson had been arrested the day before, and a skeleton crew was doing the cover on deadline. Mahurin declined to be interviewed, but Time's art director, Arthur Hochstein remembers the goal as "a dramatic image -- any kind of racial notion in it was just nonexistent." He pleads ignorance. "We stumbled on an aspect of racial coding that we weren't sensitive to," and he adds: "If we had a more diverse staff, and if they were here at the time, I think somebody would have said something like, 'Whoa!' And had they done it, we would have changed it -- no doubt."

"That notion bothers me a lot," says Newsweek's Mark Whitaker. "We're going to keep a few blacks around so they can save us from embarrassing ourselves. You should be hip enough and clued in enough to see this yourself."

The incident was not used by Time as an occasion for formal discussion or exploration of attitudes and dynamics at the magazine. "Did they really learn a lesson from it?" asks Jack White of Time's Washington bureau. "Hell, no. No, they didn't do the kind of review I would have liked to have seen. It was the same pattern all the years I've worked there. You have a confrontation, you deal with the confrontation. The learning curve is zero."

Well, not quite zero, given Pearlstine's emphasis on increasing diversity. But one of the fundamental problems of race in America was illustrated by Hochstein's lack of attention to the power of darkness in the color of skin -- so basic an element in a society long divided by just that power. As long as such influential whites are so oblivious, there will be a lot of educating to do. In many newsrooms, blacks are given that burden of educating. When many more whites become knowledgeable enough and no longer need to ask blacks for a reality check, that will be real
posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤ 0 comments
Tuesday, December 19, 2006,11:25 PM
Behind The Wire interview with David Simon
By Meghan O'Rourke

The fourth season of HBO's The Wire comes to an end next Sunday. A show of remarkable complexity, co-written by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and former police detective Ed Burns, it is perhaps the most critically acclaimed TV program of the season. What critics and fans alike have noted is The Wire's remarkable narrative compression; as in the best novels, there is a sense that every detail has a purpose. Early on, The Wire may have impressed viewers with its cop-show chops—the first season focused on the Barksdale drug crew and the investigative police force trying to bring them down—but the show was always about something bigger—namely, the life of the city itself. In the fourth season, which concludes on Dec. 10, the show has expanded its focus from local politics and the drug trade to the public school system; with only one remaining season scheduled, we pressed David Simon on what The Wire adds up to, how the writers' room operates, and what might be in store in Season 5. Simon spoke with me by phone from his office in Baltimore.

Slate: What did you think made The Wire different from The Corner, the HBO miniseries that preceded it?

Simon: The Wire concerned those parts of the book [Simon's original nonfiction account] about why the drug war doesn't work. But we realized that explaining that why the drug war doesn't work would get us only through the first season. So, we started looking at the rest of what was going on in the city of Baltimore. Ed [Burns] and I knew we wanted to touch on education. I had grown up as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, and I had seen many aspects of local and city administration. Once we began to come up with these different ways of addressing the city as a whole, we had a blueprint for the show.

Slate: If you had to sum up what The Wire is about, what would it be?

Simon: Thematically, it's about the very simple idea that, in this Postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We're worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It's the triumph of capitalism.

Slate: How so?

Simon: Whether you're a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It's the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It's viable for the few. But I don't live in Westwood, L.A., or on the Upper West Side of New York. I live in Baltimore.

Slate: What are your models?

Simon: There were no models for us in TV. I admire the storytelling of The Sopranos, though I don't watch it consistently. And Deadwood; I don't watch it, but I admire their storytelling. We certainly weren't paying attention to network TV.

Instead, the impulse on my part is rooted in what I was supposed to be in life, which was a journalist. I'm not interested in conducting morality plays using TV drama—in stories of good versus evil. I'm not interested in exalting character as a means of maintaining TV franchise. Most of TV works this way: You try to get something up and running, and once you do, you just try to keep it going, because there's a lot of money involved. That's not in my head. What's in my head is what I covered, what I saw as true or fraudulent, what made me smile, as a reporter. I've been mining that ever since. To be honest, at the end of The Wire, I'll have said all I have to say about Baltimore. I don't have another cop show in me. I don't have another season about Baltimore. What I'm saying is that I have to go back to the well.

Slate: Do you feel the well is starting to go dry?

Simon: We're catching up. We started with a case Ed did in the late '80s, then a case in the '90s. And all along we've been pulling things that are going on in Baltimore contemporaneously. We still now consult active detectives, journalists. The processes we're describing are not timeless, but they are time-tested. In Season 2, we said if someone didn't fix the grain pier [a shipping facility on the Baltimore harbor], someone would come along and turn it into condos. At the time it was sitting idle. By the time we were working on Season 3, they had sold it, and now there are condos over there. The bar where we had the stevedores hang out is being remodeled for a yuppie fern joint. We discussed how police officers can juke stats to make it look like crime disappears, and that was a huge issue in the recent election. The same games are always being played.

Slate: The show is a bleak yet accurate portrait of social realities in Baltimore's inner city, and you have said in interviews that the show is designed to be "a political provocation." Would you consider yourself a social crusader? What, if any, changes would you like to see the show catalyze?

Simon: I don't consider myself to be a crusader of any sort. I was bystander to a certain number of newspaper crusades. They end badly, in terms of being either fraudulent or by inspiring legislations that makes things worse. So, I regard myself as someone coming to the campfire with the truest possible narrative he can acquire. That's it. What people do with that narrative afterward is up to them. I am someone who's very angry with the political structure. The show is written in a 21st-century city-state that is incredibly bureaucratic, and in which a legal pursuit of an unenforceable prohibition has created great absurdity.

Slate: You have been pessimistic in public comments you've made about the possibility of political and social change. Do you think change is possible?

Simon: No, I don't. Not within the current political structure. I haven't met any politicians with that kind of courage. I wasn't fond of his performance as mayor, but Kurt Schmoke's merest suggestion that we discuss drug decriminalization was very brave. The idea that we would address this issue as a matter of effective social policy! He was pilloried. It destroyed what remained of his political career. He was a prophet without honor in his own city. People, especially people from outside the city, want to say that Schmoke was soft on drugs. But the police department had locked up more people than any previous administration. To no avail! He had the temerity to say so, and look where he is now. He is dean of Howard Law School. Martin O'Malley has arrested so many Baltimoreans that the ACLU and other civil rights leaders have rightly, to my mind, questioned the constitutionality of the city police department's arrest policy. When we finish filming at 1 in the morning, it's even odds that one of the African-African members of the cast and crew will be detained. My first assistant director was arrested, dumped unceremoniously at central booking, and ultimately released after seeing a court commissioner. The charge against him was never brought into court. This is common in Baltimore under the current administration. Other members of my crew have suffered similar indignities. And it hasn't reduced crime significantly. That's not how you reduce crime.

Slate: Let's talk a little about process. In contrast to other shows on TV, The Wire seems to me to have a remarkable degree of narrative compression; there's a sense that every detail is planned and relates to another detail. I don't normally feel this on TV, where there's a sense that shows exist to fill up the hour.

Simon: I keep using this metaphor whenever I'm on set and we have problems with the actors—and we don't have many problems—losing sight of the whole. I say, "We're building a house here. Every single one of us, all the writers, all the actors, all the crew, all the directors; everything in our bag of tricks, it's all tools in the toolbox. It's not about how often the hammer comes out; it's about the house we're building. So, all the details are essential. The only thing I care about in the end is the house. In the writers' room at least, that's a given.

The big thematic heavy lifting was done in Seasons 1 and 2, when Ed and I were figuring out what we wanted to do: how many seasons, etc. We came up with five. We talked about many things; nothing seems substantial enough for a Season 6. When other writers came onto the show, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, we would throw it at them: This is what we came up with, five things. If there's anything else you have, any ideas for extending the series, say so. There was no general agreement on anything but the five. When I've done my begging with HBO—and begging it is—it has been on behalf of those five seasons. To be honest, one writer came up with another idea, and a really good one, but we realized that it would require so much research on our part that we couldn't do the work quickly enough to keep it in this dramatic world.

Slate: It wasn't this idea of examining the influx of Hispanics in Baltimore, was it?

Simon: Yes! It was.

Slate: David Mills mentioned it in the Slate "TV Club" on The Wire. I thought it was a fabulous idea.

Simon: Until now, Baltimore had no Hispanic population. And all of a sudden now we do—a large Central American population. Here's this remarkable new trend and it's also relevant to the life of the city. Two things preclude me to keep me from jumping up and down with HBO: One, I just did everything I could for Season 5; two, none of us is fluent in Spanish; none of us is intimately connected to the lives of Hispanics in Baltimore. None of us could do it with the degree of verisimilitude we demand of ourselves. We don't have that world in our pocket. By time we did the research, The Wire would have been off for two years. It's one thing when we take six months off to learn how the port works; we're still in the world we know. But I did no decent journalism about East Baltimore, where most Central Americans are living. It would be great if we could. When I saw the idea in print, I think I reacted as you did: Oh shit! Someone came up with Season 6! For all I know, David Mills mentioned it to me a few years ago, but it didn't have the import then that it does today. Someone should get to that story. It's very typical of Baltimore in that we would be late on that. Until now, Baltimore had never had this kind of population—it was only 2, 3 percent Hispanic.

Slate: How far in advance have you scripted out a given season? In mapping it out, do you know what the end will be? Or do you go from the beginning forward?

Simon: There are discussions during Season 3 that happen on the fly, in which you need to remember which characters need to be where for Season 4. For example, Prez. We knew we needed to have Prez in the schools at the beginning of Season 4. So, you know that Prez will be a teacher and that you'll be hiring kids. But what themes? What do you want to say about the education system? The first step is sitting down and figuring that out. We kicked that around a lot in the writers' room. This year Ed was predominant in the writers' room, because he had actual teaching experience. David Mills came and helped. He did this because George Pelecanos couldn't be available; he was working on The Night Gardener. (Though he did do one episode.) And myself and Bill Zorzi and Ed and Chris Collins and Eric Overmyer, who was on this year as a producer.

And then at some point, when we feel we've got the themes ready, we start to look at the characters and where we need to send them by the end of the run. We know what we want to say. We know what we think is fair and just to say about economic opportunities for these kids. But we don't know which kid is going to say what about those opportunities; that's all argued out, and this season we went through various scenarios. There was a lot of debate about what should happen to Dukie, for example.

There's always someone in the room saying, "I've seen that before." (George's favorite line.) Or another line is, "But what are we saying?" You get to the end, and someone comes up with a great ending, but you ask, "But what does it mean? What are we saying?" Which is not to say that you want the characters to be devices for your didacticism. But you want to be true about what you say about equality of opportunity.

Slate: The show brings in a lot of different high-profile writers and directors, including Richard Price, for example. How does that work?

Simon: There is a lot of arguing. There's a lot of ego in the room. There are a lot of authors in the room with a lot of success in different media. George Pelecanos knows how to write a book with a beginning, middle, and an end. So does Richard Price. Ed Burns co-wrote a nonfiction book [The Corner]. Not to mention that I can be a pretty big shithead myself. All of us together, it can be miserable for a while. But what attracts everyone to it, even though they've got their own gigs, is a fealty to the entire story, to the whole. You don't have people being protective of the single episode or idea; you have people being protective of the whole story.

We let all the writers know what's happening, the larger arc. Not the actors, of course—then they'd telescope. We want their characters to be living in the present tense.

Slate: What role, if any, do actors themselves play in the dialogue they speak? Is a finished episode relatively faithful to the original script?

Simon: Pretty faithful. Ninety-five percent or so. One of the writers is always on set. If someone comes up with an ad-lib or a different intonation and it doesn't work, or it's not our intention, we bring them back to the book. If someone comes up with something, and it's good, it serves the story, or it's just generally funny, we let it ride. But because the story is so ornate and because we're looking at this thing as a 66-hour movie, when we're done, it's the writer, the people with the constant awareness of the story as whole, who need to make decisions as to whether or not an ad-lib would work.

Slate: I'm interested that you said you see this as a 66-hour movie. One thing that has attracted me, like many viewers of the show, is that its sheer length allows you to show in detail many things you just never see in cop films.

Simon: On The Wire, we were trying to explore this stuff you don't see—the dope on the table, all that has been done to death. Sometimes the real poetry of police work is a couple of detectives with their feet on a desk in the backroom looking at ballistics. And that sounds like anti-drama. But that's the trick to making good drama; the drama has to be earned. There have to be moments of anti-drama. You can't make a good show based on pure verisimilitude, pure anti-drama. But you have to acknowledge a lot of ordinary life. Most TV doesn't do that.

If I had to write a police procedural right now, I'd put a gun to my head. And I really have to say this, even Homicide [on which Simon was a producer and writer] was prisoner of the form. On shows where the arrest matters, where it's about good and evil, punishing crime, the poor and the rich, the suspect exists to exalt the good guys, to make the Sipowiczs and the Pembletons and the Joe Fridays that much more moral, that much more righteous, that much more intellectualized. It's to validate their point of view and the point of view of society. So, you end up with same stilted picture of the underclass. Either they're the salt of earth looking for a break, and not at all responsible, or they're venal and evil and need to be punished. That's a good precedent for creating an alienated America.

Slate: One thing that struck me about the show, from the get-go—and this may sound like base flattery: It reminded me of Shakespearean drama for the way that even the villains are humanized. No one is just a bad guy. Even Avon, whom I loathed at the opening of Season 1, I came to like.

Simon: It's funny you should say that, because the portrayals in Deadwood are in the Shakespearean model. On The Sopranos, there's an awful lot of Hamlet and Macbeth in Tony. But the guys we were stealing from in The Wire are the Greeks. In our heads we're writing a Greek tragedy, but instead of the gods being petulant and jealous Olympians hurling lightning bolts down at our protagonists, it's the Postmodern institutions that are the gods. And they are gods. And no one is bigger.

By the way: If at any point any character on the show ever talks as I'm talking right now, it would suck. It's crucial that the characters can't lecture us.

Slate: The second season is focused largely on white dock workers in Baltimore, and less on the inner-city ghetto. What was behind that decision?

Simon: If we hadn't gone somewhere else in Baltimore, we couldn't have said to anyone we were trying to write about the city. Ed and myself and Bob Colesberry—who inspired the visual look of the show, and who sadly passed away—the three of us said, we want to build a city. If we get on a run, we want people to say, "That is an American city, those are its problems, and that's why they can't solve its problems." If we had just gone back to the ghetto and continued to plumb the Barksdale story, it would have been a much smaller show, and it would have claimed a much smaller canvas.

Originally, the show created a new target each season. By the time we ended Season 1, we realized we could extend the Barksdale story over Season 3, to Hamsterdam, and that we could extend that target over the City Hall story. One of our five themes was the death of work and the death of the union-era middle class. So, we thought, do we go to the port? Do we go to GM? Do we got to Beth[lehem] Steel? They probably weren't going to let us film at GM, and Beth Steel was bankrupt at that point. We put out a few feelers and GM wasn't really open. But the Port Authority was open to talking to us. So, that's where we were going and everything developed from there.

You know, sometimes people in West Baltimore say to me, about Season 2, "We know you tried to take our show white, but it didn't work—then you came back to us." And I have to say, "Dawg, no. The second season was the most watched season." A lack of audience is not why we left it behind.

Slate: Do you think it was the most watched season because more of the characters were white?

Simon: It certainly helped. There are limits to empathy in this country. By the way, viewership for The Wire is now up—it's up 15 percent on HBO on Demand, and on second airings.

Slate: You've killed more characters than any show I can think of. Who was the hardest character to kill off?

Simon: I miss all of them—I miss Wallace, I really miss D'Angelo. I miss Idris [the actor who played Stringer Bell]. I saw him at the HBO premiere after we killed him off. I was just beaming. All these theories that we kill off guys because they get contracts elsewhere, it's not true. The fact is, if you're not willing to kill your babies—isn't that a Faulkner line?—well, that's no good. You have to kill your babies if the story demands it. Stringer tried to reform the drug trade; it doesn't bear reform. Colvin tried to reform the drug war; it doesn't bear reform. But for me, the most painful death was Wallace. By the way, our own crew was really upset. Even they're not used to this kind of show. It came as a surprise to them. When the dailies came in, we were like, jeez, that's horrible. It was quiet when we saw this scene.

Slate: Marlo is the only character on the show thus far who seems to be out-and-out bad—almost a sociopath. Avon was cold-blooded, but his friendship with Stringer humanized him. Is this intentional on your part? Or do I just dislike Marlo (even though the actor is brilliant)?

Simon: Yeah, we have made him sociopathic. No, you know what—sociopathic to a lot of people really means something beyond Marlo. In our mind, Marlo is the logical extension of every single lesson that the drug war holds true. There is a lot of sociopathic impulse that is excused and justified by that. To say that he is sociopathic, no; he has real allegiance to a few others. There are a few select people, subordinates, to whom he has allegiance. Let me ask you this: Did you have any allegiance to the Greek in Season 2?

Slate: The Greek? No, I don't think I did.

Simon: That's because he represented capitalism in its purest form. There are certain people who represent the boundary to the form. At another moment, perhaps next season, the point of view might shift and the window into that character might shift and our allegiances with it, because we are only experiencing a character from a certain point of view. If we were to have followed the Greek too far, we would have wandered far afield from the main story, the stevedores.

You're right to feel that Marlo is enigmatic and distant now. And you're also right to feel he's doing an awful lot of bad stuff. But he's not any less complex than the other characters. He's just not showing other sides of himself. In other words, if anyone is feeling empathetic for him right now, it's not because of what the writers did.

Slate: Some of our readers have been offering up what amounts to a racialist critique of white, middle-class writers presuming to tell black ghetto stories. And in Slate's "TV Club" on The Wire, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz touch on a question that they have been asked (and asked themselves) over the years: Can a white person honestly and accurately capture black culture?

Simon: Well, I have a couple answers to that. On one level, I'm becoming impatient, because I feel the work has answered the question. But let me answer. The people in that room on The Wire miss certain things because we're white. I'm sure we do. We miss certain things about black life—or not entirely; we miss the subtlety that a black writer of a commensurate skill could achieve. But it is possible that there are things we catch because we are who we are—we are not necessarily of the place, and this may allow for whatever distance is necessary to see some things.

The other thing is that I didn't ask for this gig. I got hired out of University of Maryland by the Baltimore Sun to be a crime reporter in a city that was 65 percent African-Americans. If I didn't do my best to listen to those voices, to acquire some of those voices for my storytelling, I wouldn't have been doing my job. If I'd been a higher-education reporter, maybe I wouldn't have written The Wire. But I didn't ask for the job. They gave me that beat. I wasn't after these stories. (Likewise, Ed grew up in Baltimore and, after he came back from Vietnam, he became a patrolman, and they put him in the Western District.) If we tried to tell these stories, and they were not credible, and if the voices weren't sufficiently authentic, we'd have our heads handed to us—not only by social critics and literati, but by viewers, by regular folk.

I don't know how popular The Wire is on the Upper West Side of New York or Westwood or Des Moines. But I know that in West Baltimore, Omar can't get to the set, because we have people going nuts. Or Stringer Bell or Prop Joe. The show has an allegiance in that community. That's its own answer—not that it's popular, but that it's credible. I was just on 92Q, the hip-hop station. The call came in with someone who said, why did you kill Stringer Bell when the real Stringer Bell is still alive? And I said, oh, you mean Mr. Reed? I explained that Reed was not the real Stringer, but that we mix and match stories. But there we were, talking intimately about the history of West Baltimore drug trade as if we were talking about baseball. If it was as lamely white and unnuanced as some people claim, we'd have been found out a long time ago.

Having said all that, the show is very conscious of trying to bring in African-American writers. I tell agents in Hollywood, don't send me scripts unless they're by African-American writers. From the moment the show was conceived, I asked David Mills to produce it with me. I would have loved to have his voice in the show—not just because he's African-American but because he can write the hell out of it. A young writer named Joy Lusco did a few episodes. Kia Corthron, the African-American playwright (Breath, Boom), penned a fine episode for us this year. We've been trying to leaven the writers' room in that way. But it's a very hard show to write, as you can imagine. It's not as if all these scripts came in from agents, and we read them and think, "Based on this spec script from NYPD Blue, I'm confident I'll get what we need." You're looking for people who've worked on this level before, and when you find them, you beg them to help out.

We have done better in having an African-American hand in some of our crew departments and in directing. Nobody has directed more episodes than Ernest Dickerson—he's Spike Lee's former cinematographer. We've also broken someone: Anthony Hemingway, AD, directed our first episode last year. And now we may not be able to get him back, he's got so much work.

It's our hope—this is a little premature—to get Spike Lee for the first episode next year. He said he was interested last year, but we had some miscommunication. His agent said he wasn't available. We are very conscious of the race disparity. We look around the room and see, oh shit, we're a bunch of white guys! But you look at what Price and Pelecanos and Lehane and Burns have done. … We're not trying to exclude in any sense, and it's not a good-old-boy network, because some of these people never met before this show.

Slate: Can you tell us a little about Season 5?

Simon: Yes, the last season. The last theme is basically asking the question, why aren't we paying attention? If we got everything right in the last four seasons in depicting this city-state, how is it that these problems—which have been attendant problems regardless of who is in power—how is it that they endure? That brings into mind one last institution, which is the media. What are we paying attention to? What are we telling ourselves about ourselves? A lot of people think that we're going to impale journalists. No. It's not quite that. What stories do we want to hear? How closely do they relate to truth; how distant are they from the truth? We have a story idea about media and consumers of media. What stories get told and what don't and why it is that things stay the same.

What's happened to the Baltimore Sun locally is what has happened to that whole second tier of journalism—below the New York Times and the Washington Post: They're being eviscerated by price per share. There used to be 500 reporters; now there are 300. They keep telling us they can do the same job, they just need to be more effective. Bullshit. Five hundred reporters is 500; 300 is 300; you can't cover the city the same way with fewer people.

I don't want it to become onanistic. Obviously, I have a lot of memories of the Baltimore Sun. One thing I've always hated about TV portrayal of media is that it's always unfeeling assholes throwing microphones in the face of someone as he comes down City Hall steps.

I'll tell you a story. We had a press conference the first season. We staged it as a press conference really would be: a small room, some empty chairs. TV reporters are looking at print reporters to see what they ask; there is a pile of dope on the table; there is no sense of urgency. That is the way it always was. This was one of the only [production] notes we got [from HBO] the first season: What's up with that press conference? It looked so fake. At the time, I didn't have enough credibility with HBO to argue with the note, but I said Carolyn [Strauss, president of entertainment at HBO], you're raised on too much TV press.

The low end of journalism is not what concerns me. It's not that sensational stuff I'm worried about. It's that there may be no high end anymore, that the kind of thing journalists once aspired to, especially in the Washington Post-Watergate era, may no longer exist.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture editor.
posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤ 0 comments
Tuesday, December 12, 2006,2:15 PM
Why no mention of race or class in TV's Katrina coverage?
By Jack Shafer

I can't say I saw everything that the TV newscasters pumped out about Katrina, but I viewed enough repeated segments to say with 90 percent confidence that broadcasters covering the New Orleans end of the disaster demurred from mentioning two topics that must have occurred to every sentient viewer: race and class.

Nearly every rescued person, temporary resident of the Superdome, looter, or loiterer on the high ground of the freeway I saw on TV was African-American. And from the look of it, they weren't wealthy residents of the Garden District. This storm appears to have hurt blacks more directly than whites, but the broadcasters scarcely mentioned that fact.

Now, don't get me wrong. Just because 67 percent of New Orleans residents are black, I don't expect CNN to rename the storm "Hurricane" Carter in honor of the black boxer. Just because Katrina's next stop after destroying coastal Mississippi was counties that are 25 percent to 86 percent African-American (according to this U.S. Census map), and 27.9 percent of New Orleans residents are below the poverty line, I don't expect the Rev. Jesse Jackson to call the news channels to give a comment. But in the their frenzy to beat freshness into the endless loops of disaster footage that have been running all day, broadcasters might have mentioned that nearly all the visible people left behind in New Orleans are of the black persuasion, and mostly poor.

To be sure, some reporters sidled up to the race and class issue. I heard them ask the storm's New Orleans victims why they hadn't left town when the evacuation call came. Many said they were broke—"I live from paycheck to paycheck," explained one woman. Others said they didn't own a car with which to escape and that they hadn't understood the importance of evacuation.

But I don't recall any reporter exploring the class issue directly by getting a paycheck-to-paycheck victim to explain that he couldn't risk leaving because if he lost his furniture and appliances, his pots and pans, his bedding and clothes, to Katrina or looters, he'd have no way to replace them. No insurance, no stable, large extended family that could lend him cash to get back on his feet, no middle-class job to return to after the storm.

What accounts for the broadcasters' timidity? I saw only a couple of black faces anchoring or co-anchoring but didn't see any black faces reporting from New Orleans. So, it's safe to assume that the reluctance to talk about race on the air was a mostly white thing. That would tend to imply that white people don't enjoy discussing the subject. But they do, as long as they get to call another white person racist.

My guess is that Caucasian broadcasters refrain from extemporizing about race on the air mostly because they fear having an Al Campanis moment. Campanis, you may recall, was the Los Angeles Dodgers vice president who brought his career to an end when he appeared on Nightline in 1987 and explained to Ted Koppel that blacks might not have "some of the necessities" it takes to manage a major league team or run it as a general manager for the same reason black people aren't "good swimmers." They lack "buoyancy," he said.

Not to excuse Campanis, but as racists go he was an underachiever. While playing in the minor leagues, he threw down his mitt and challenged another player who was bullying Jackie Robinson. As Dodger GM, he aggressively signed black and Latino players, treated them well, and earned their admiration. Although his Nightline statement was transparently racist, in the furor that followed, nobody could cite another racist remark he had ever made. His racism, which surely blocked blacks from potential front-office Dodger careers, was the racism of overwhelming ignorance—a trait he shared (shares?) with many other baseball executives.

This sort of latent racism (or something more potent) may lurk in the hearts of many white people who end up on TV, as it does in the hearts of many who watch. Or, even if they're completely clean of racism's taint, anchors and reporters fear that they'll suffer a career-stopping Campanis moment by blurting something poorly thought out or something that gets misconstrued. Better, most think, to avoid discussing race at all unless someone with impeccable race credentials appears to supervise—and indemnify—everybody from potentially damaging charges of racism.

Race remains largely untouchable for TV because broadcasters sense that they can't make an error without destroying careers. That's a true pity. If the subject were a little less taboo, one of last night's anchors could have asked a reporter, "Can you explain to our viewers, who by now have surely noticed, why 99 percent of the New Orleans evacuees we're seeing are African-American? I suppose our viewers have noticed, too, that the provocative looting footage we're airing and re-airing seems to depict mostly African-Americans."

If the reporter on the ground couldn't answer the questions, a researcher could have Nexised the New Orleans Times-Picayune five-parter from 2002, "Washing Away," which reported that the city's 100,000 residents without private transportation were likely to be stranded by a big storm. In other words, what's happening is what was expected to happen: The poor didn't get out in time.

To the question of looting, an informed reporter or anchor might have pointed out that anybody—even one of the 500 Nordic blondes working in broadcast news—would loot food from a shuttered shop if they found themselves trapped by a flood and had no idea when help would come. However sympathetic I might be to people liberating necessities during a disaster in order to survive, I can't muster the same tolerance for those caught on camera helping themselves in a leisurely fashion to dry goods at Wal-Mart. Those people weren't looting as much as they were shopping for good stuff to steal. MSNBC's anchor Rita Cosby, who blurted an outraged if inarticulate harrumph when she aired the Wal-Mart heist footage, deserves more respect than the broadcasters who gave the tape the sort of nonjudgmental commentary they might deliver if they were watching the perps vacuum the carpets at home.

When disaster strikes, Americans—especially journalists—like to pretend that no matter who gets hit, no matter what race, color, creed, or socioeconomic level they hail from, we're all in it together. This spirit informs the 1997 disaster flick Volcano, in which a "can't we all just get along" moment arrives at the film's end: Volcanic ash covers every face in the big crowd scene, and everybody realizes that we're all members of one united race.

But we aren't one united race, we aren't one united class, and Katrina didn't hit all folks equally. By failing to acknowledge upfront that black New Orleanians—and perhaps black Mississippians—suffered more from Katrina than whites, the TV talkers may escape potential accusations that they're racist. But by ignoring race and class, they boot the journalistic opportunity to bring attention to the disenfranchisement of a whole definable segment of the population. What I wouldn't pay to hear a Fox anchor ask, "Say, Bob, why are these African-Americans so poor to begin with?"
posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤ 1 comments
,1:36 PM
Richard Pryor messed up and funny
posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤ 0 comments
Wednesday, December 06, 2006,1:27 PM
How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal PT 2
By Robert Parry

On Oct. 5, a quiet Sunday morning, an aging C-123 cargo plane rumbled over the skies of Nicaragua preparing to drop AK-47 rifles and other equipment to Contra units in the jungle below. Since the Reagan administration had recently won congressional approval for renewed CIA military aid to the Contras, the flight was to be one of the last by Oliver North's ragtag air force.

The plane, however, attracted the attention of a teenage Sandinista soldier armed with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile. He aimed, pulled the trigger and watched as the Soviet-made missile made a direct hit on the aircraft. Inside, cargo handler Eugene Hasenfus, an American mercenary working with the Contras, was knocked to the floor, but managed to crawl to an open door, push himself through, and parachute to the ground, where he was captured by Sandinista forces. The pilot and other crew members died in the crash.

As word spread about the plane crash, Barger -- who had left the AP and was working for a CBS News show -- persuaded me to join him on a trip to Nicaragua with the goal of getting an interview with Hasenfus, who turned out to be an unemployed Wisconsin construction worker and onetime CIA cargo handler. Hasenfus told a press conference in Managua that the Contra supply operation was run by CIA officers working with the office of Vice President George Bush. Administration officials, including Bush, denied any involvement with the downed plane.

Our hopes for an interview with Hasenfus didn't work out, but Sandinista officials did let us examine the flight records and other documents they had recovered from the plane. As Barger talked with a senior Nicaraguan officer, I hastily copied down the entries from copilot Wallace "Buzz" Sawyer's flight logs. The logs listed hundreds of flights with the airports identified only by their four-letter international codes and the planes designated by tail numbers.

Upon returning to Washington, I began deciphering Wallace's travels and matching the tail numbers with their registered owners. Though Wallace's flights included trips to Africa and landings at U.S. military bases in the West, most of his entries were for flights in Central and South America.

Meanwhile, in Kerry's Senate office, witness Wanda Palacio was waiting for a meeting when she noticed Sawyer's photo flashing on a TV screen. Palacio began insisting that Sawyer was one of the pilots whom she had witnessed loading cocaine onto a Southern Air Transport plane in Barranquilla, Colombia, in early October 1985. Her identification of Sawyer struck some of Kerry's aides as a bit too convenient, causing them to have their own doubts about her credibility.

Though I was unaware of Palacio's claims at the time, I pressed ahead with the AP story on Sawyer's travels. In the last paragraph of the article, I noted that Sawyer's logs revealed that he had piloted a Southern Air Transport plane on three flights to Barranquilla on Oct. 2, 4, and 6, 1985. The story ran on Oct. 17, 1986.

Shortly after the article moved on the AP wires, I received a phone call from Rosenblith at Kerry's office. Sounding shocked, the Kerry investigator asked for more details about the last paragraph of the story, but he wouldn't say why he wanted to know. Only months later did I discover that the AP story on Sawyer's logs had provided unintentional corroboration for Palacio's Contra-drug allegations.

Palacio also passed a polygraph exam on her statements. But Weld and the Justice Department still refused to accept her testimony as credible. (Even a decade later, when I asked the then-Massachusetts governor about Palacio, Weld likened her credibility to "a wagon load of diseased blankets.")

In fall 1986, Weld's criminal division continued to withhold Contra-drug information requested by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to Justice Department records, Lugar and Pell -- two of the Senate's most gentlemanly members -- wrote on Oct. 14 that they had been waiting more than two months for information that the Justice Department had promised "in an expeditious manner."

"To date, no information has been received and the investigation of allegations by the committee, therefore, has not moved very far," Lugar and Pell wrote in a joint letter. "We're disappointed that the Department has not responded in a timely fashion and indeed has not provided any materials."

On Nov. 25, 1986, the Iran-Contra scandal was officially born when Attorney General Edwin Meese announced that profits from secret U.S. arms sales to Iran had been diverted to help fund the Nicaraguan Contras.

The Washington press corps scrambled to get a handle on the dramatic story of clandestine operations, but still resisted the allegations that the administration's zeal had spilled over into sanctioning or tolerating Contra-connected drug trafficking.

Though John Kerry's early warnings about White House-aided Contra gunrunning had proved out, his accusations about Contra drug smuggling would continue to be rejected by much of the press corps as going too far.

On Jan. 21, 1987, the conservative Washington Times attacked Kerry's Contra-drug investigation again; his alleged offense this time was obstructing justice because his probe was supposedly interfering with the Reagan administration's determination to get at the truth. "Kerry's staffers damaged FBI probe," the Times headline read.

"Congressional investigators for Sen. John Kerry severely damaged a federal drug investigation last summer by interfering with a witness while pursuing allegations of drug smuggling by the Nicaraguan resistance, federal law enforcement officials said," according to the Times article.

The mainstream press continued to publish stories that denigrated Kerry's investigation. On Feb. 24, 1987, a New York Times article by reporter Keith Schneider quoted "law enforcement officials" saying that the Contra allegations "have come from a small group of convicted drug traffickers in South Florida who never mentioned Contras or the White House until the Iran-Contra affair broke in November."

The drift of the article made Kerry out to be something of a dupe. His Contra-cocaine witnesses were depicted as simply convicts trying to get lighter prison sentences by embroidering false allegations onto the Iran-Contra scandal. But the information in the Times story was patently untrue. The AP Contra-cocaine story had run in December 1985, almost a year before the Iran-Contra story broke.

When New York Times reporters conducted their own interview with Palacio, she immediately sensed their hostility. In her Senate deposition, Palacio described her experience at the Times office in Miami. She said Schneider and a "Cuban man" rudely questioned her story and bullied her about specific evidence for each of her statements. The Cuban man "was talking to me kind of nasty," Palacio recalled. "I got up and left, and this man got all pissed off, Keith Schneider."

The parameters for a "responsible" Iran-Contra investigation were being set. On July 16, 1987, the New York Times published another story that seemed to discredit the Contra-drug charges. It reported that except for a few convicted drug smugglers from Miami, the Contra-cocaine "charges have not been verified by any other people and have been vigorously denied by several government agencies."

Four days later, the Times added that "investigators, including reporters from major news outlets, have tried without success to find proof of ... allegations that military supplies may have been paid for with profits from drug smuggling." (The Times was inaccurate again. The original AP story had cited a CIA report describing the Contras buying a helicopter with drug money.)

The joint Senate-House Iran-Contra committee averted its eyes from the Contra-cocaine allegations. The only time the issue was raised publicly was when a demonstrator interrupted one hearing by shouting, "Ask about the cocaine." Kerry was excluded from the investigation.

On July 27, 1987, behind the scenes, committee staff investigator Robert A. Bermingham echoed the New York Times. "Hundreds of persons" had been questioned, he said, and vast numbers of government files reviewed, but no "corroboration of media-exploited allegations of U.S. government-condoned drug trafficking by Contra leaders or Contra organizations" was found. The report, however, listed no names of any interview subjects nor any details about the files examined.

Bermingham's conclusions conflicted with closed-door Iran-Contra testimony from administration insiders. In a classified deposition to the congressional Iran-Contra committees, senior CIA officer Alan Fiers said, "with respect to [drug trafficking by] the Resistance Forces [the Contras] it is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people."

Despite official denials and press hostility, Kerry and his investigators pressed ahead. In 1987, with the arrival of a Democratic majority in the Senate, Kerry also became chairman of the Senate subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations. He used that position to pry loose the facts proving that the official denials were wrong and that Contra units were involved in the drug trade.

Kerry's report was issued two years later, on April 13, 1989. Its stunning conclusion: "On the basis of the evidence, it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter."

The report discovered that drug traffickers gave the Contras "cash, weapons, planes, pilots, air supply services and other materials." Moreover, the U.S. State Department had paid some drug traffickers as part of a program to fly non-lethal assistance to the Contras. Some payments occurred "after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies."

Although Kerry's findings represented the first time a congressional report explicitly accused federal agencies of willful collaboration with drug traffickers, the major news organizations chose to bury the startling findings. Instead of front-page treatment, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all wrote brief accounts and stuck them deep inside their papers. The New York Times article, only 850 words long, landed on Page 8. The Post placed its story on A20. The Los Angeles Times found space on Page 11.

One of the best-read political reference books, the Almanac of American Politics, gave this account of Kerry's investigation in its 1992 edition: "In search of right-wing villains and complicit Americans, [Kerry] tried to link Nicaraguan Contras to the drug trade, without turning up much credible evidence."

Thus, Kerry's reward for his strenuous and successful efforts to get to the bottom of a difficult case of high-level government corruption was to be largely ignored by the mainstream press and even have his reputation besmirched.

But the Contra-cocaine story didn't entirely go away. In 1991, in the trial of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega for drug trafficking, federal prosecutors called as a witness Medellin cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder, who testified that the Medellin cartel had given $10 million to the Contras, a claim that one of Kerry's witnesses had made years earlier. "The Kerry hearings didn't get the attention they deserved at the time," a Washington Post editorial on Nov. 27, 1991 acknowledged. "The Noriega trial brings this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan engagement to fresh public attention."

Kerry's vindication in the Contra drug case did not come until 1998, when inspectors general at the CIA and Justice Department reviewed their files in connection with allegations published by the San Jose Mercury News that the Contra-cocaine pipeline had contributed to the crack epidemic that ravaged inner-city neighborhoods in the 1980s. (Ironically, the major national newspapers only saw fit to put the Contra-cocaine story on their front pages in criticizing the Mercury News and its reporter Gary Webb for taking the allegations too far.)

On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page story, with two more pages inside, that was critical of the Mercury News. But while accusing the Mercury News of exaggerating, the Post noted that Contra-connected drug smugglers had brought tons of cocaine into the United States. "Even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers," the Post reported.

A Post editorial on Oct. 9, 1996, reprised the newspaper's assessment that the Mercury News had overreached, but added that for "CIA-connected characters to have played even a trivial role in introducing Americans to crack would indicate an unconscionable breach by the CIA."

In the months that followed, the major newspapers -- including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times -- joined the Post in criticizing the Mercury News while downplaying their own inattention to the crimes that Kerry had illuminated a decade earlier. The Los Angeles Times actually used Kerry's report to dismiss the Mercury News series as old news because the Contra cocaine trafficking "has been well documented for years."

While the major newspapers gloated when reporter Gary Webb was forced to resign from the Mercury News, the internal government investigations, which Webb's series had sparked, moved forward. The government's decade-long Contra cocaine cover-up began to crumble when CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz published the first of two volumes of his Contra cocaine investigation on Jan. 29, 1998, followed by a Justice Department report and Hitz's second volume in October 1998.

The CIA inspector general and Justice Department reports confirmed that the Reagan administration knew from almost the outset of the Contra war that cocaine traffickers permeated the CIA-backed army but the administration did next to nothing to expose or stop these criminals. The reports revealed example after example of leads not followed, witnesses disparaged and official law-enforcement investigations sabotaged. The evidence indicated that Contra-connected smugglers included the Medellin cartel, the Panamanian government of Manuel Noriega, the Honduran military, the Honduran-Mexican smuggling ring of Ramon Matta Ballesteros, and Miami-based anti-Castro Cubans.

Reviewing evidence that existed in the 1980s, CIA inspector general Hitz found that some Contra-connected drug traffickers worked directly for Reagan's National Security Council staff and the CIA. In 1987, Cuban-American Bay of Pigs veteran Moises Nunez told CIA investigators that "it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction of the NSC."

CIA task force chief Fiers said the Nunez-NSC drug lead was not pursued then "because of the NSC connection and the possibility that this could be somehow connected to the Private Benefactor program [Oliver North's fundraising]. A decision was made not to pursue this matter."

Another Cuban-American who had attracted Kerry's interest was Felipe Vidal, who had a criminal record as a narcotics trafficker in the 1970s. But the CIA still hired him to serve as a logistics officer for the Contras and covered up for him when the agency learned that he was collaborating with known traffickers to raise money for the Contras, the Hitz report showed. Fiers had briefed Kerry about Vidal on Oct. 15, 1986, without mentioning Vidal's drug arrests and conviction in the 1970s.

Hitz found that a chief reason for the CIA's protective handling of Contra-drug evidence was Langley's "one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government ... [CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the Contra program."

According to Hitz's report, one CIA field officer explained, "The focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war."

This pattern of obstruction occurred while Vice President Bush was in charge of stanching the flow of drugs to the United States. Kerry made himself a pest by demanding answers to troubling questions.

"He wanted to get to the bottom of something so dark," former public defender Mattes told me. "Nobody could imagine it was so dark."

In the end, investigations by government inspectors general corroborated Kerry's 1989 findings and vindicated his effort. But the muted conclusion of the Contra-cocaine controversy 12 years after Kerry began his investigation explains why this chapter is an overlooked -- though important -- episode in Kerry's Senate career. It's a classic case of why, in Washington, there's little honor in being right too soon. Yet it's also a story about a senator who had the personal honor to do the right thing.
posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤ 0 comments
Oriental Trading Company