Friday, March 30, 2012

"Let's Stop Big Media's (B) AD Behavior

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Over the years we’ve been reporting on how power is monopolized by the powerful. How corporate lobbyists, for example, far outnumber members of Congress. And how the politicians are so eager to do the bidding of donors that they allow those lobbyists to dictate the law of the land and make a farce of democracy. What we have is much closer to plutocracy, where the massive concentration of wealth at the top is protects and perpetuates itself by controlling the ends and means of politics. This is why so many of us despair over fixing what’s wrong: we elect representatives to change things, and once in office they wind up serving the deep-pocketed donors who put up the money to keep change from happening at all.

Here’s the latest case in point. The airwaves belong to all of us, right? They’re part of “the commons” that in theory no private interest should be able to buy or control. Nonetheless, government long ago allowed television and radio stations to use the airwaves for commercial purposes, and the advertising revenues have made those companies fabulously rich. But part of the deal was that in return for the privilege of reaping a fortune they would respect the public interest in a variety of ways, including covering the local news important to our communities. If they didn’t, they would be denied their license to use the airwaves at all.

Alas, over the years, through one ruse or another, the public has been shafted. We heard the other day of a candidate for office in a Midwest state who complained to the general manager of a TV station that his campaign was not getting any news coverage. “You want coverage?” the broadcaster replied. “Buy some ads and then we’ll talk!”

That pretty well sums up the game. But hold your nose: it gets worse. The media companies and their local stations – including goliaths like CBS and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – stand to pull in as much as $3 billion this year from political ads. Three billion dollars! And most of that money will pay for airing ugly, toxic negative ads that use special effects, snide jokes and flat out deception to take us to the lowest common denominator of politics.

The FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, which is supposed to make sure the broadcasters don’t completely get away with highway or, rather, airwave robbery has proposed to the broadcasting cartel that stations post on the Web the names of the billionaires, and front organizations – many of them super PACs -- paying for campaign ads. It’s simplicity itself: give citizens access on line to find out quickly and directly who’s buying our elections. Hardly an unreasonable request, given how much cash the broadcasters make from their free use of the airwaves.

But the broadcasting industry’s response has been a simple, declarative “Not on your life!” It would cost too much money, they claim. Speaking on their behalf, Robert McDowell, currently the only Republican commissioner on the FCC – the other one left to take a job with media monolith Comcast -- said the proposal is likely “to be a jobs destroyer” by distracting station employees from doing their regular work. The party line also has been sounded by Jerald Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, who told the FCC – that making the information available on the Internet “would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government.” We’re not making this up.

Steven Waldman, who was lead author of the report that led to the FCC’s online proposal, quotes a letter from the deans of twelve of our best journalism schools: “Broadcast news organizations depend on, and consistently call for, robust open-record regimes for the institutions they cover; it seems hypocritical for broadcasters to oppose applying the same principles to themselves.”

Hypocritical, but consistent with a business that values the almighty dollar over public service. The industry leaves nothing to chance. Through its control of the House of Representatives, it got a piece of legislation passed this past week euphemistically titled the FCC Process Reform Act. George Orwell must be spinning in his grave – this isn’t reform, it’s evisceration.

Not only does the bill remove roadblocks to more media mergers – further reducing competition – it would subject every new rule and every FCC analysis of that rule to years of paperwork and judicial review, enabling the industry’s horde of lawyers and lobbyists, “to throw sand in the works at every opportunity” as one expert puts it. There was a noble attempt by California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo to include in this bill an amendment that, like the FCC proposal, called for stations to post on-line who’s putting up the big bucks for political ads. Shocker -- it was rejected. Score another one for the plutocrats.

There is some good news. The White House opposes this latest bid by the broadcasting oligarchy to further eviscerate the public interest. And the fate of the House bill in the Senate is uncertain at best. In the meantime, as far as those political ads go, we’re not totally helpless. Here’s what you can do: Under current law, local television stations still have to keep paper files of who’s paying for these political ads, and they have to make those files available to the public if requested. You can even make copies to take away with you. So just go down to your nearest station, politely ask for the records, and then send the data online to the New America Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative or to the organization of investigative journalists called Pro Publica. Both have mounted campaigns to get the information online.

We’ll link you to Pro Publica and the New American Foundation at the “Take Action!” page on our own website, Each is pulling together all the information on political ads they get from you and others -- crowdsourcing -- and making it available to the entire country via the Internet. If you’re a high school teacher or college professor of journalism, have your students do it and maybe give them classroom credit for collecting the data democracy needs to work.

In other words, here’s a way citizens can take action even against the plutocrats who run Big Media and Congress.


Addendum: Free Press, the media reform group, also is conducting station file inspections, and has just published this easy-to-follow guide to how it’s done:


Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Congress Takes a Step or Two Forward, Two Steps Back"

by Michael Winship

Watching some of the news coming from Capitol Hill last week, two old music videos started buzzing around in our heads. One was the classic “I’m Just a Bill,” from Schoolhouse Rock, in which a beleaguered piece of legislation sits outside on the marble steps hoping to someday become a law. The other was that Paula Abdul “Opposites Attract” number from 1989 with the sleazy cartoon cat and the chorus that starts, “I take two steps forward, I take two steps back.”

Six long, weary years after New York Rep. Louise Slaughter first proposed a law to ban insider trading by members of Congress and their staffs, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the House version of the STOCK (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) Act and sent it down Pennsylvania Avenue for President Obama’s signature (the legislation covers the executive branch as well). The vote was 96-3.

All it ultimately took for passage were the magic words, “60 Minutes is here to see you.” You’ll remember the blistering report by the CBS News magazine show last November implicating several members in questionable financial transactions based on private information. That’s what finally lit a fire under an already deeply unpopular Congress.

“This has been a long and turbulent debate, but one we needed to have to serve our constituents.” Rep. Slaughter said. “It is a fight I’m proud to have waged.” President Obama noted, “It’s a good first step. And in the months ahead, Congress should do even more to help fight the destructive influence of money in politics and rebuild the trust between Washington and the American people.”

But here’s the first step back. The STOCK Act lacks two key amendments that were in an earlier, tougher Senate version. One, proposed by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, would have attempted to rein in the burgeoning “political intelligence” industry in D.C. As described by the congressional newspaper The Hill:

“Grassley’s language would have dramatically expanded the disclosure of lobbying activities by requiring specialists who glean valuable information from Capitol Hill to register and report their activities after making even one contact to gather political intelligence. Hedge funds and other money managers pay top dollar for the information, which can be used to make lucrative trades.”

The other amendment, from Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and John Cornyn of Texas, would, The New York Times reported, “have given prosecutors powerful new tools to propose public corruption cases.”

The non-partisan congressional watchdog group CREW took exception to the omissions, describing the passed bill as “feckless… bad politics as well as policy.” Loss of the Leahy-Cornyn amendment is especially egregious, CREW’s Jeremy Miller wrote just before final passage, as it “also amends the illegal gratuities statute to prevent public officials from accepting gifts given because of their governmental position, and makes clear public officials who accept private compensation may be subject to prosecution.”

As for the second step back, CREW published a report this week titled “Family Affair” revealing that more than half the members of the House, as reported by The Boston Globe, “paid nearly $5.6 million in salaries or fees directly to family members… In addition, House members paid $3.1 million to family businesses, employers, or associated nonprofits. More staggering is the $150 million in legislative earmarks to organizations affiliated to the congressmen and their family members.”

The report, nearly 350 pages long, was wonderingly described by the Times as “an extraordinary compendium of creative accounting, self-interested budgeting and generous expense reimbursements. It highlights common practices that translate into tens of millions of dollars in payments to relatives or the lawmakers themselves.”

Just for starters, according to the report’s executive summary:
“Among those who paid relatives well into the six figures: Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) paid his wife and campaign treasurer $238,438 in salary, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) paid his sister’s law office $292,557 in fees, and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) paid his wife $512,293 to work in his congressional office.”

“Three representatives — Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Tim Walz (D-MN) — reimbursed themselves and their wives for babysitting costs, an expense those without access to campaign funds typically pay out of their own pockets.1 Reps. James Lankford (R-OK) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) paid themselves salaries from their campaign funds while running for office, a practice legal but uncommon. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) loaned her campaign $150,000 in 1998 and collected more than $94,000 in interest during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles alone. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) loaned her campaign $125,000 and collected more than $31,000 in interest. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) loaned his campaign $309,000 and has so far collected nearly $29,000 in interest – despite telling the Federal Election Commission (FEC) he wouldn’t charge any interest on the loan at all.”

You’ve got to read this report to believe it — there’s everything but Paula Abdul and her sleazy cartoon cat.


Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public television series, Moyers & Company. Comment at

Saturday, March 24, 2012

poem for The Kid

Ed. Note: This poem was written in the early 1970's on a cold winter night in Buffalo, New York, right before my one, and only, abortion. It is being posted here now, for the first time, 40 years after the procedure, in light of the current debate about legalized abortion...

poem for The Kid

everything comes of like burlesque
these days and I feel like a
gypsy who can’t tell fortunes
I have not found a name.

it is time that scares me
when I wake up in the middle
of the night
imagining you at twenty
or postcards I might send from los

Me & The Kid on sunset strip
Me & The Kid in berlin
Me & The Kid on red square
goosing gendarmes along the left bank
The Kid tailgating his way to heaven
The Kid playing chess with revolutions
The Kid on the moon rewriting the alphabet
The Kid on the FBI “Most Wanted” list
robbing banks playing poker with pentagon people
dropping acid in their whiskey sours.
The Kid selling oracles during station identification
The Kid a Galileo counting bald spots on the sun
broadcasting from Jupiter.
one continuous awakening
hands in his pocket going out into the forest
talking like a tree eyes like sunsets over
a mountain hair braided & black a dance
down his spine. a daredevil James Dean
a Rimbaud that never quits.

you’ll probably be a businessman just to spite me
drinking martinis blue chip stock stiff collars and
thin stares a little woman to take care of the laundry
and cook the food.

now you are the size of my toenail
you don’t even have a spleen
I wish I could throw you up to a new planet.

you are knocking on the wrong door
you are unborn and insatiable
you are the light in my eyes
when I look through my flesh
I wish I could see you
strapping exuberant bearded
and bent over the sky.
you are seven months short of the journey—
you will have to start
from somewhere else.

(c) jayne lyn stahl

This poem will be published in an upcoming "Outriders Poetry Anthology," edited by Max Wickert, along with poems by Allen Ginsberg, and other notable poets who passed through Buffalo, New York, and left their impressions not merely in the snow, but in the consciousness of those who followed

Friday, March 23, 2012

"To PBS, with (Tough) Love"

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Neither of us is old enough to have been fooled by the Trojan Horse (see Wikipedia). But we each have been working in public television decades enough to remember the days when distribution was handled by physically transporting bulky 2-inch videotapes from station to station -- “bicycled” was the word -- and much of the broadcast day and night was devoted to blackboard lectures, string quartets and lessons in Japanese brush painting: The old educational television versions of reality TV.

Yet it also was a time of innovation and creativity. As the system evolved we saw bold experiments like PBL -- the Public Broadcasting Laboratory and Al Perlmutter’s The Great American Dream Machine, each a predecessor to the commercial TV magazine shows 60 Minutes and 20/20. The TV Lab, jointly run by David Loxton at WNET in New York and Fred Barzyk at WGBH in Boston, nurtured and encouraged the first generation of video artists — Nam June Paik, Bill Viola and William Wegman among others -- and the early documentary work of such video pioneers as Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno of the Downtown Community Television Center, Alan and Susan Raymond, and the wild and woolly, guerrilla camera crews of TVTV.

The descendants of those pathfinders are the independent filmmakers whose works have not only re-energized the motion picture industry but also have vastly expanded the realm of the documentary -- in both the scope of its storytelling and the size and diversity of its audience. Public television has faithfully provided an enormous national stage where nonfiction films can be seen by far more people than could ever buy tickets at the handful of movie houses willing to put documentaries up on their theater screens.

As Gordon Quinn of the independent documentary company Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams) told Anthony Kaufman of the website IndieWire, “In terms of having an audience in a democratic society, in terms of getting people talking about things, there’s nothing like a PBS broadcast. PBS is free, and it’s huge in getting into rural areas. That reach, all over the country, it’s a critically important audience that’s vastly underserved.”

Two PBS series have provided outstanding showcases for the work of new and established documentarians and between them have 13 Oscar nominations and 54 Emmys to prove it. For years, Independent Lens and POV held a nationwide time slot as part of the PBS core schedule on Tuesday nights, with public TV stalwart Frontline as a worthy lead-in, funneling to the independent films just the kind of audience that enjoys and appreciates documentaries.

But this season, PBS chose to move Independent Lens and POV to a new time slot -- 10 PM ET, on Thursday nights. This may not seem like such a big deal at first, until you know that on Thursday nights stations can broadcast any program they like in prime time, whether it’s part of the PBS schedule or not. Many take the opportunity to offers viewers locally produced programs, British sitcoms or reruns of Antiques Roadshow. As a result, episodes of the independent documentary series can now be run anywhere local stations choose to fit them in (here in New York, WNET airs the films at 11 pm on Sundays) or maybe not at all.

POV does not begin the new season -- its 25th -- until June, but as Dru Sefton first reported in the public broadcasting trade publication Current, in the first few months since Independent Lens was shuffled into its new Thursday time slot last October, ratings plummeted 42 percent from the same period last season. With programs scattered throughout the schedule in different cities, not only is it now more difficult for viewers to find them but coordinated national advertising and promotion campaigns are, at best, extremely difficult.

The team at PBS consists of dedicated people; all are our colleagues and many are our friends. They are constantly looking for ways to increase the audience that watches public television. But there is always a danger, in any organization, of only seeing the world from the top down, and then counting heads to measure whether something is good or not. An open letter to PBS from Kartemquin Films says it well:

“Public television is not just a popularity contest, or a ratings game. Taxpayers support public broadcasting because democracy needs more than commercial media’s business models can provide. PBS’ programming decision makes a statement about PBS’ commitment to the mission of public broadcasting.”

It goes on to note the mandate cited in the recently revised and reissued Code of Editorial Integrity for Local Public Media Organizations: “Our purposes are to support a strong civil society, increase cultural access and knowledge, extend public education, and strengthen community life through electronic media and related community activities.”

Most of both our careers have been in public television. Our affection and gratitude for it abideth, but we are not blind to the problems. Public broadcasting’s ever-tenuous funding places it in a perpetual dilemma and forces it into a delicate balancing act. PBS provides programming like Independent Lens and POV that may not garner the most viewers but helps fulfill its essential mission of public service — and, candidly, attracts grants from kindred spirits who believe in a robust mix of ideas and visions. But to lure a wider audience, it also airs what our neighborhood diner calls “lighter fare” — whether entertaining, upscale imports like Downton Abbey, home-grown, how-to programs like This Old House or (during pledge drives) nostalgic reruns of folk musicians, pop crooners, and financial and spiritual gurus – aimed at older viewers with, presumably, more disposable income.

Add to this the constant political pressures, especially from conservative politicians ever eager to cut off its funding (Mitt Romney says he wants to see commercials on “Sesame Street”), plus the self-censorship that all too often results, and you get a tendency toward orthodoxy and an aversion to controversy.

A PBS spokesperson told The New York Times that the service “is fully committed to independent films and the diversity of content they provide.” That can quickly be demonstrated by reversing a bad decision and returning to a national core time slot the independent documentaries created -- often at real financial sacrifice -- by the producers and filmmakers whose own passion is to reveal life honestly and to make plain, for all to see, the realities of inequality and injustice in America.

Along with its open letter to PBS, Kartemquin Films published a petition and asked for signatures from independent filmmakers and their supporters. We two are among the more than 300 who have signed it as of this writing. If you think the creativity and unique visions of life captured by independent producers, journalists and filmmakers deserve the best possible platform on public television, you can read and sign it yourself.

The effort has made a difference. Talks are ongoing and the Times reports that PBS now has “agreed to find a new home next season” for the two series. An announcement is expected to be made at the PBS annual meeting in May. That’s good news, but until the decision is made, it’s important to keep letting them know how you feel — write PBS or sign that petition.


Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at

Monday, March 19, 2012

Women are the New Illegals

Those in the Republican Party who are intent on exercising a fervent grip on women's reproductive rights by cutting off oxygen to Planned Parenthood, yes, those like leading contender, Mitt Romney, who want to "get rid of it," aren't referring only to Planned Parenthood when they say "it," but to half a century of gains women have made in the working place.

From the ultrasound requirement that crept from Kansas to Pennsylvania to muted chatter about rolling back affirmative action rulings, this assault on choice isn't about morality, or the dubious rights of a one inch fetus, but instead garden variety economics plain and simple.

Rich white men of the mostly Republican persuasion are increasingly threatened by the emergence of women as a force to be reckoned with in the marketplace. Mostly rich white men of the conservative persuasion are likewise threatened by the growing number of women in Congress whose constituency includes not merely their wives and sisters, daughters, and mothers-in-law, but their bosses, too.

Nowadays, men often find themselves subordinate to women, and having to deal with the growing probability that there may soon be almost as many women in America's boardrooms as in America's bedrooms. The solution for Santorum, Romney, Gingrich et. al is to return to the days when women were toiling over a hot stove, mostly barefoot, and pregnant.

The growing phenomenon of women in the workforce and so-called "illegal" immigrants both pose a threat not merely to the financial elite, but to fire fighters, law enforcement officers, service members, those in the service industry, as well as in any industry that is often called blue collar. Arguably, men who see women as competition for a job, regardless of their income bracket, are more likely to vote for Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, et. al. .

What's more, now that more women are graduating from colleges than men, pretty soon women will have better documents than men to get those high octane, six figure jobs.

So it is then, in a thumbnail, when listening to Romney talk about pulling the plug on Planned Parenthood, remember that this has nothing to do with abortion, or contraception either. Romney has said he's not trying to dissolve Planned Parenthood, but merely to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Remember that the candidate who wants to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, if elected, will be the president who appoints the next justice to the Supreme Court who will doubtless roll back whatever protections are in place for minorities in affirmative action rulings.

By way of contrast, as his first act as president of the United States in 2008, Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Some may argue this was mostly a symbolic act, and that the egregious inequality in pay for men and women still exists. This is true. Rest assured that none of the candidates from Romney's party will lift a finger to address this economic injustice, but instead work to reassure those who feel most imperiled by the economic empowerment of women.

Indeed, it is doubtful that women would win the write to vote in the current neo-conservative climate that has captured the House, and much of the Senate.

Not only are the Republican candidates not addressing the gross inequality between the sexes that manifests not only when it comes to payday, but in the fact that women pay more for everything from dry cleaning to health benefits, but if given their way, they will work sedulously to roll back those inroads and safeguards that have taken half a century, and a Democratic administration, to achieve.

Once the Republicans pick their nominee, in the coming months, expect to hear more banter from that party about the issue of "illegal immigration," and how to secure the border to keep more "illegals" out.

Republicans are right to focus on the issue of illegal immigration. They just have it a little backwards. They should instead be highlighting the egregious, ongoing exploitation of undocumented workers both in this country's farms, as well as in sweatshops.

Similarly, those who are most emphatic about the right to life of an unborn fetus are really more concerned about the "right to wife" of men who are fed up with having to salute their women in the boardrooms, and on the front lines, and who want to return to the days of saluting only in the boudoir.

So it is then that the struggles of undocumented workers and women in 2012 are a push back against exploitation, and for equal opportunity, a push back against reserving a college education for the privileged few, and for keeping higher education, and social mobility unobstructed.

Those who want to highlight of the so-called right to life are accomplishing what they never set out to. They are making the differences between the two parties sharper than they have been for generations.

Voters will have to choose, in November, whether to allow those who want to take from the rights of the living to enhance the rights of the unborn are to prevail. They have lost that battle fifty years ago, and they must not be allowed to win it now.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sylvia's Bank Robber Story

Legend has it that my ninety-something year old aunt, Sylvia, my dad's only sister, was working in a bank once when a robber came in and handed her a note. He demanded that she turn over all the money in her drawer.

As the story goes, while Sylvia, tiny as a leprechaun and just as fiesty, filled a bag with money, a security guard fired at the bank robber, missed, and the bullet grazed Sylvia's ear. As her granddaughter, Bonnie, tells it, Sylvia said she could "feel the breeze of the bullet."

Never being one to let a bullet, or the breeze of one, stop her, when the bandit returned in two weeks to pull off what he thought would be another successful heist, he was greeted by a fainting teller and Sylvia who handed him another bag of money admonishing him never to return again which, by the way, he never did.

And, as Sylvia's bank story shows, leprechauns can sometimes be of the female persuasionm and courage come in small packages.

This is but one of many stories from Sylvia who, at 96, is said to be writing her memoirs. At the link is a photo of Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Ellie celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary last March, being guided by their granddaughter, Bonnie Reunis. )

Friday, March 16, 2012

"Giving Up Your Bank for Lent"

By Michael Winship

Growing up Protestant in a small town in upstate New York, the commemoration of Lent was not as major an event as it would be in, say, a Catholic household. We didn’t give up chocolate or gum or anything else for those forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, nor did most of the grown-ups we knew forsake any of their particular pleasures or bad habits.

When I was twelve, one night a week during Lent was spent in religious training before becoming a member of our church at a service on Maundy Thursday (what Catholics and many others call Holy Thursday, the day of The Last Supper). But baptism was a prerequisite for membership and I had not yet been christened in the Congregational Church we attended; neither had my parents or my younger brother and sister. So all five heathens were lined up in the living room one Monday evening, and our minister quickly did the deed with a bowl of tap water. Then we had cake.

My other powerful memory of the Lenten season is weekly religious breakfasts on cold Wednesday mornings. I was in high school and it meant waking up even earlier than usual on frigid winter days and getting a ride to the parsonage.

Yawning protests to the contrary, those meals were worth it. In that big, white-framed house, we were greeted with the sweet maternal warmth of the minister’s wife, enormous platters of food, and a brief talk by the minister on the Eastertime meaning of it all, preaching repentance and redemption but suffused more with brightness than brimstone. Afterward, each of us walked the few remaining blocks to school, our breath in frosty flumes, full of bacon, scrambled eggs and a certain pious self-satisfaction. No fasting for us.

All of which came to mind while learning that today, some churches are taking matters into their own hands and delivering one of the most powerful Lenten messages ever. According to the progressive website ThinkProgress, “As congregations across the country observe the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter by sacrificing and repenting, religious leaders are asking big banks that have wrongfully foreclosed on homeowners and exacerbated the pain of the housing crisis to do the same.”

On Ash Wednesday, churches in San Francisco announced they were removing $10 million from Wells Fargo and called on the bank, as per the advocacy group Faith in Public Life, “to put an immediate freeze on its foreclosures and repent for their misconduct.” The March 9 New York Times reported that, “The Rev. Richard Smith of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal church in San Francisco, likened the divestment campaign and public protests to early Christianity’s ritual of ‘reconciliation of the penitents.’ Far from taking place in the private sanctity of the confessional, that rite occurred in public, with the penitent overseen by a priest and required to present himself before a bishop.

“’It seemed like a parallel to us,’ said Mr. Smith, 62. ‘Our banks have done a great deal of damage in a very public way. So it seems appropriate as we enter into a season of penitence that we invite those who separated themselves from the community to repent with us. It’s basically ‘Ethics 101.’”

The effort is part of several national campaigns to get consumers and community groups to remove their money from the big banks and transfer accounts to credit unions and smaller financial institutions. Travis Waldron at ThinkProgress wrote, “Religious organizations have been at the forefront of movements to get consumers to move their money. The New Bottom Line, a coalition of faith groups, pledged to move $1 billion this year, and before Thanksgiving, churches moved $55 million away from Wall Street banks with pledges to remove as much as $100 million more.”

Occupy Wall Street has been in the lead, as has the Move Your Money project – its website even includes a handy locator that lists credit unions and community banks near your zip code ( On the November 5th “Bank Transfer Day,” some 40,000 moved their money out of the nation’s biggest banks, but according to the consulting firm Javelin Strategy and Research, the event actually had a much wider impact. In a January 26 report, Javelin estimated, “5.6 million U.S. adults with a banking relationship changed providers in the past 90 days. Of those switchers, 610,000 US adults (or 11% of the 5.6 million) cited Bank Transfer Day as their reason and actually moved their accounts from a large to a small institution.”

The March 2 Los Angeles Times noted, “Consumers fed up with the rising tide of bank fees helped the nation’s credit unions more than double their number of new customers last year… More than 1.3 million Americans opened new credit union accounts last year, up from less than 600,000 in 2010, the National Credit Union Administration reported. That brings the number of credit union members to a record 91.8 million.”

As a result of all this, CNN Money reported last November, “The nation's 10 biggest banks could stand to lose as much as $185 billion in deposits in the next year due to customer defections, according to cg42, a Wilton, Conn.-based management consulting firm that has conducted research for several of the nation's top banks.” Sounds like a lot, but keep in mind those same ten banks hold retail deposits of $2.04 trillion.

Nonetheless, public opinion and the post-meltdown, Dodd-Frank financial regulations have the banks and other financial institutions scrambling, while they continue to scream in protest and lobby on Capitol Hill against the ignominy of reform. On March 12, that $25 billion foreclosure abuse settlement was filed by the federal government and 49 states – Oklahoma was the holdout – with Ally Financial, Bank of America, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Twenty billion of it will be used to give a break to military and the unemployed, reduce principal for delinquent or near default loans and refinance mortgages already underwater. Another billion and half will provide some small restitution to people whose homes were sold or foreclosed upon. But as the Associated Press pointed out, “About 11 million American households are ‘underwater’ on their mortgages, meaning they owe more than their homes are worth,” but the settlement “is expected to reduce loans for only about 1 million.”

We’re told that the banks, desperate when thrown a lifeline by taxpayers in 2008, are now stronger and better able to weather a crisis than they were. Fifteen of the 19 largest financial firms passed the Federal Reserve’s latest stress test. Regardless of whether we as individuals could survive, the test asks, according to The New York Times, “whether banks would have enough capital to weather a peak unemployment rate of 13 percent, a 21 percent drop in housing prices and severe market shocks, as well as economic slowdowns in Europe and Asia.

“The Fed’s stress tests assumed that the 19 banks would be slammed with $534 billion of losses in just over two years. Even after such hits, most banks would emerge with adequate capital…” But one of those that failed was Citigroup, our third largest, the one that took the most government assistance during the meltdown – and this in the wake of last week’s announcement that in 2011 the bank paid CEO Vikram Pandit nearly $15 million in total compensation, including a cash bonus of more than $5 million, his first since the 2008 crash.

What’s more, the Times said the tests revealed to the Fed that, “In business loans -- called commercial and industrial loans by bankers -- Citi and U.S. Bancorp had the worst portfolios, while Wells Fargo and Fifth Third had the shakiest credit card portfolios. In commercial real estate, regional banks appear to be the most vulnerable.” Swell.

There’s still a lot to be angry about, still good reason to contemplate transferring your money or at least filing with the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau if you have a complaint about your mortgage, deposit accounts or credit cards ( As former Goldman Sachs executive director Greg Smith said in this week’s bombshell Times op-ed announcing his resignation, “It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.”

Jeff Horwitz at the financial daily American Banker this week exposed J.P. Morgan Chase’s credit card services division, reporting that it “took procedural shortcuts and used faulty account records in suing tens of thousands of delinquent credit card borrowers for at least two years,” sparking an investigation by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. “The bank's errors could call into question the legitimacy of billions of dollars in outstanding claims against debtors and of legal judgments Chase has already won, current and former Chase employees say.” As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi observed, “Countless credit card borrowers would now have collection agents chasing them for money they did not owe,” and in some cases, according to a key witness, Chase actually owed the customer money.

Allegedly one of Chase’s more pernicious practices was “robosigning,” the mass production and signing of credit-related affidavits without any semblance of verification, an illegal shortcut similar to the one that plagued the mortgage market and one of the targets of a new report from the inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Managers at major banks ignored widespread errors in the foreclosure process,” the Times reports, “in some cases instructing employees to adopt make-believe titles and speed documents through the system despite internal objections… the report concludes that managers were aware of the problems and did nothing to correct them. The shortcuts were directed by managers in some cases…” In one of the more blatant falsifications, a Wells Fargo employee whose prior work experience was at a pizza parlor was named a bank vice president.

Inspector General David Montoya said, “I believe the reports we just released will leave the reader asking one question -- how could so many people have participated in this misconduct? The answer -- simple greed.”

Simple greed – hey banks, how about giving that up for Lent?


Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is senior writer of the weekly public television series, Moyers & Company. Comment at

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Sabbatical is one of those words I'm never sure I spelled right. That may be because I've never actually taken a sabbatical.

Am reminded of Andy Rooney, legendary commentator for the CBS series, 60 Minutes, who said that writing is one field from which one can never retire. This is true.

Memories of one of my favorite playwrights, Samuel Beckett, struggling with his health, yet doggedly working on and indeed writing while there was even an ounce of breath left in his body come to mind. And, no, that has nothing to do with the fact that Saturday is St. Patrick's Day.

Privacy is almost as important to me as air, but when one enters the public domain as I do here, one can no longer take refuge in privacy, so it is that I share with you that my silence of late is not because I can't think of anything to say about what's going on these days in the political arena, but because I'm struggling with something that is, alas, way beyond politics; life and death.

If my presence here is erratic, please think of this as a sabbatical, a brief hiatus prompted by the wrenching need to keep myself alive.

Indeed, isn't it the wrenching need to stay alive that is behind why we open our eyes in the morning. Are we not all thick with the same struggle, the one that faced Jacob when he wrestled with the angel, the one that faces each of us every day, the decision to choose life over death?

Oh, you say, it's not always our decision, and you're right. Mortality inevitably wins out. That said, I think we have more control over things than we think we have. I can only speak for myself when I say I'm not ready to go to that place where there is total, unstoppable silence.

There can be no denying that life is more fragile than language. Language hangs tough in the face of out of print anthologies, and myths that limp past us like so many strangers. Words are funny creatures. They often come to us in our sleep, yet artfully escape us when we most need them.

Often, we choose when to exit by choosing the hand we play. We will our path, and we pave our will. Nobody forced me to live the life I have. It was my choice, and I accept whatever consequences arise from that choice.

Growing old may be customary, but it is not mandatory. Still, it's the best option on the menu so far. It is sometimes said that one has failed at life. No one has ever accused anyone of failing at death.

So, as Samuel Beckett said, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better."

Friday, March 09, 2012

"Politicians Won't Return Ponzi Payoffs"

By Michael Winship

On Tuesday, Texas financier Robert Allen Stanford was convicted in a Houston federal court on 13 out of 14 criminal counts of fraud. As The New York Times reported:

The jury decision followed a six-week trial and came three years after Mr. Stanford was accused of defrauding nearly 30,000 investors in 113 countries in a Ponzi scheme involving $7 billion in fraudulent high-interest certificates of deposit at the Stanford International Bank, which was based on the Caribbean island of Antigua.

Media accounts of Stanford’s conviction were filled with stories of his excesses — mansions, private yachts and jets, and so much money invested in Antigua — including bribes — the small island awarded him a knighthood. Among his other indulgences, noted the Reuters news service: “He bought a castle in Florida for one of his girlfriends and his oldest daughter lived in a million-dollar condominium in Houston. He wore custom-made suits and bankrolled a $20 million prize for an international cricket tournament.”

But what most of this week’s stories failed to mention was the large amount of his clients’ cash that was spent on campaign contributions, greasing the corrupt nexus of money and politics for personal gain. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were given to candidates, including Barack Obama, John McCain, John Boehner and Harry Reid; as well as national fundraising committees for the Republican and Democratic parties. The court-appointed receiver charged with returning money to Stanford’s investors is trying to get the contributions back. And the committees are resisting.

We first reported on Stanford’s political wheeling-and-dealing three years ago on Bill Moyers Journal:

“He bankrolled junkets to [Antigua’s] balmy shores for several members of Congress including Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn and New York Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel, [then] chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Stanford partied with Nancy Pelosi and Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention last summer. And when Tom DeLay was still House Majority Leader, he flew the friendly skies in Stanford’s private jet 16 times in three years, including a trip to Houston for DeLay’s arraignment on money-laundering charges. I am not making this up!

Sir Allen also showered millions of dollars on political campaigns; much of it in the very year Congress was debating a bill to curb financial fraud. Two of the biggest recipients were Democratic Senator Bill Nelson and Republican John McCain, one of the original Keating Five. Three key Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee got checks from Stanford, too. Surprise, surprise --the reform bill never got out of the Senate.”

The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics elaborated on its Open Secrets blog:

Between its PAC and its employees, Stanford Financial Group has given $2.4 million to federal candidates (including both candidate committees and leadership PACs), parties and committees since 2000, with 65 percent of that going to Democrats. Stanford and his wife, Susan, have given $931,100 out of their own pockets, with 78 percent going to Democrats…

The company gave the most during the 2002 election cycle, when Congress was debating the Financial Services Antifraud Network Act, a bill that would have created a computer network linking the databases of state and federal banking, securities and insurance regulators to curb financial fraud. Lobbying reports indicate that Stanford Financial Group lobbied on the bill, which the House passed but the Senate did not.

On February 13, Murray Waas of Reuters reported, “The court-appointed receiver charged with returning money to Stanford investors obtained a federal court order last June against five Democratic and Republican campaigns. But they haven’t returned the money. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee received $950,500; the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), $238,500; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $200,000; the Republican National Committee $128,500, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) $83,345.”

House Speaker Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Reid, Senator McCain and some others already have returned their contributions, but Waas writes, “the roughly $154,000 recovered from elected officials is a fraction of the $1.8 million missing.” Others, including President Obama, turned money over to charity — $4,600 in Obama’s case, received directly from Allen Stanford in 2008. Nonetheless, the receivership has asked the Obama campaign to turn the same amount back to investors, and Waas adds, “The total may be as high [as] $31,000 when Stanford’s contributions to Obama’s other campaign committees are included, along with money from senior Stanford executives, and the Stanford Financial Group’s now-defunct PAC, according to campaign finance records and an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.”

Kevin Sadler, lead counsel for the receivership, told Reuters, “The money was never theirs to begin with,” and that taking Stanford’s campaign contributions was akin to someone being given cash by “a guy who goes into a Seven Eleven and robs the store.”

The national campaign committees are appealing to a higher court a federal judge’s order to return Stanford’s donations.

We spoke with Kevin Sadler, who said that in the meantime, a federal district judge has just ordered the committees to pay the receivership $370,000 in legal fees, with another $120,000 in fees to come if their appeal is unsuccessful, and yet another $275,000 if the committees take the case to the Supreme Court and lose.

“In light of this,” Sadler told us, “and the Stanford guilty verdict, it is a puzzling act of bi-partisanship that all the political committee defendants persist in their fight against the receiver.”


Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is senior writer of the weekly public television series, Moyers & Company. Comment at

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

"Banks and Congress Grapple with Stubborn, Stupid Facts"

By Michael Winship

Facts are stubborn things, said founding father John Adams, a basic truth Ronald Reagan famously mangled at the Republican National Convention in 1988, when he tried to quote Adams and declared, “Facts are stupid things,” before correcting himself.

Nonetheless, in practice, certain of our financial and political leaders seem to embrace Reagan’s verbal misstep as closer to reality than Adams’ original aphorism. Witness the resistance on the part of banking institutions and certain members of the congressional leadership, despite regulations demanding that they allow facts and figures to be reported, information that could keep us from the edge of yet another economic meltdown.

The March 5 Wall Street Journal reported that as the Federal Reserve prepares to release the results of the latest round of stress tests, evaluating how banks would respond in the event of another severe financial crisis, “Bankers are pressing the Fed to limit its release of information -- expected as early as next week -- to what was published after the first test of big banks in 2009.

“Three years ago, as the financial crisis was abating, the Fed published potential loan losses and how much capital each institution would need to raise to absorb them. This time around, the Fed has pledged to release a wider array of information, including annual revenue and net income under a so-called stress scenario in which the economy would contract and unemployment would rise sharply.”

The banks cite competitive concerns but regulators “view full disclosure as critical to assuaging investor concerns about banks' capacity to withstand a market shock or economic setback.” Add to the mix the banks’ fear of further government interference – when it’s of the non-bailout variety, that is – and continued resistance to the new rules imposed by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. In any case, they’re being assured by the Fed that it won’t release data “that rivals could mine for future acquisitions or other moves,” such as quarterly breakouts of projected losses.

Banks also are dragging their heels over a requirement that arose from last November’s G-20 meeting. Representatives of 19 of the biggest industrial and emerging nations, plus the European Union, decreed that the world’s largest banks – including eight from the United States -- must create “living wills,” plans that lay out what they would do in the event of another crisis, including how banks could be stabilized or even shut down.

The wills are an idea that makes perfect sense. Think of them as a business model for the apocalypse. But drafts of the banks’ projected scenarios are due by June and must be completed by the end of the year, and the Financial Times reports, “Independent research showed only one bank out of 29 globally considered itself to have finished a draft recovery and resolution plan, according to a survey by Ernst & Young…”

“Living wills form a critical part of global efforts to avoid a recurrence of the 2008 financial crisis, when governments in the US, UK and elsewhere were forced to shell out billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to rescue troubled financial institutions. Some bankers also hope that regulators will reward institutions that write credible plans that allow an easier wind up with lower capital requirements.”

Off the record, bankers in the United States and the UK told the Financial Times that “cross-border disagreements among regulators were proving to be the biggest hurdle to writing comprehensive plans.”

Meanwhile, Simon Johnson, the savvy MIT and former International Monetary Fund economist, warns that if the Republican Party takes over both the House and Senate, they may attempt to force the heretofore non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which evaluates the impact of the Federal legislature’s fiscal proposals, to switch to a scoring system “that would attach magical growth implications to tax cutting.”

At The Baseline Scenario website, Johnson writes, “If you cut taxes, revenues will fall and deficits will increase. If you change the CBO’s scoring process to hide this fact -- as is under consideration by leading Republicans on the House Budget Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee -- you are engaging in exactly the same sort of deception that brought down Greece.”

So whether bankers or politicians, it’s those at the top and not the facts that are being stubborn. And maybe they’re being that other thing Ronald Reagan said facts were, too.


Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is senior writer of the weekly public television series, Moyers & Company. Comment at

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Apps for Apes? Why not for Republicans?

Amazingly, Orangutans now use iPads to paint and video conference. And, if the old maxim neanderthals have more fun is true, then we should be having more fun, too. After all, orangutans may be our closest relatives.

Judging by the seemingly interminable Republican debates, arguably the only ones having any fun at all are the angels footing the bill.

While Apple Computers has nothing to do with this new iPad program, known simply as "Orangutan Outreach," Steve Jobs might be thrilled to learn part of his legacy includes empowering our next of kin with the capacity to paint, surf the Web, and reach out to family members thousands of miles away.

So, keeping it all in the family, if there is an Orangutan Outreach program, why not a Republican Outreach program? Judging by the number of people who show up when leading contender Mitt Romney speaks, there is a definite need for one.

As NPR notes, there have already been 26, yes, 26 Republican debates so far. The main objective of these debates is, of course, so voters can become better acquainted with those who aspire to occupy the White House. But, who knows? Maybe the idea of a debate will be archaic in another century, if not sooner, when candidates may instead face off in cyberspace.

While the televised debates seem to benefit more from redundancy than from face-time, the technology is in place to fast forward, pause, and fast rewind talking points ad infinitum.

Republican leadership is so far out of touch with their base that they've effectively lost the votes of 99% of American women in one fell swoop. Republican candidates might as well be running from the moon for all the relevance they have to the issues impacting the vast majority of us today

Since human technology is being used to enable apes to communicate with each other remotely using iPads, why not come out with an application to bolster how Republicans communicate with their base remotely? Either that, or someone should write a sequel to "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus," and call it instead: "Republicans are from Mars, the rest of us are from Planet Earth."

And, right in time for Tuesday, it's worth noting that orangutans at the Florida Zoo already have iPads, so it might behoove Republican Party chair, and some of the candidates, to take a little trip to get a sense of how well this interactive technology is working with other primates.

In the spirit of the season now that there's an app. for other primates, why not an app. for presidential primaries?

As The Sideshow reports, iPads for orangutans were developed for those cold winter months when orangutans tend to stay indoors, and have real time exposure to family.

If there is an iPad for primates, why not one for primary season when during those long, cold winter months candidates are cut off from constituents.

Seeing how out of touch most of the cash crop of Republican contenders are with their electoral base, a special program that might better enable them not only to reach out to potential voters, but also to understand how voters think might be in order. Keep in mind, though, that there isn't an extension cord long enough to enable them to reach out and touch voters now.

Rick Santorum's denunciation of government funding for contraception, and Mitt Romney's absurdist references to how many Cadillacs his wife has in her respective driveways, surely could be enhanced by a program that gives them a real-time view of how 99% of America lives.

Thinking about some Web sites or movies that the 2012 opposition partiers, which is really what they are after all and not tea partiers, these comes to mind. Romney might find a primary app. helpful for a virtual tour of a General Motors plant, so he could tell workers there what a bad idea it was for President Obama to bail out the auto industry, and not lay them off.

Rick Santorum might want to check out the Web site of an AIDS hospice since he thinks that cutting government funding for contraception will only affect women of child-bearing age. When he's done with that, Santorum should also order an ultrasound of the Bible to show which parts of the New Testament are still alive and kicking.

Both Santorum and Ron Paul, who both endorse the idea that life begins at conception, should make their own You Tube video showing body bag being loaded onto military aircraft from Afghanistan, and then say they support the "right to life" as long as it doesn't include men and women who serve their country.

Not fair, you say, Ron Paul, of course, wants to bring the troops home. Right you are, so how about a three dimensional window into some national guard troops lining the border between Arizona and Mexico cause this is where Dr. Paul wants to send troops after they finish their tour of Afghanistan. Using Ron Paul's logic, it still counts as bringing the troops home if we wage war with undocumented immigrants at home instead of the Taliban overseas.

For Newt, a primary app. would be simple. Gingrich's iPad will come in handy when updating new merchandise at Tiffany's Web site.

Oh, and by the way, somebody ought to tell Santorum that he's not going to get any more votes from women by changing the title of the movie to "Ben Her."

Given that only the candidates are having fun at the debates, an incentive for the voting public might be if they were encouraged to view the debates as "play dates" not unlike the ones orangutans have using iPads to touch base with far away friends and family. The notion of a play date might also be helpful not only in choosing the Republican presidential nominee, but also in picking his running mate.

Some orangutans reportedly recognize distant family members using iPads. Doubtless, if given access to the primate app., I can think of at least two Republican contenders off the top of my head who will recognize some of their ancestors using this app.

Putting Super Tuesday aside, 2012 may yet turn out to be a banner year for the Republican Party as this is the year when there isn't an extension cord long enough for any of the candidates to be able to reach out and touch many moderate members of their base. By appealing to the radical right wing fringe of their party, this election may be seen not merely as Gingrich's last stand, but as the last stand of his party.

Orangutans can now communicate with each other using iPads. Until Republicans can come up with a way to show that they're at least minimally in touch with their base, we can count on their defeat, and for 95% of us, that's a good thing, too.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Dancing Shoes

Tell the Devil to
put on his
dancing shoes.
I’m about to
give him a
run for

(c) jayne lyn stahl

Thursday, March 01, 2012

"The Vaccination Nation"

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

We haven’t even turned the page on the controversy over contraceptives, health care and religious freedom, when another thorny one arises involving personal conscience and public health. A flurry of stories over the past few days coincided with seeing a movie that inspires more than passing interest in their subject.

Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion came out a few months ago and was inexplicably and completely frozen out of the Oscar nominations. But it is the most plausible experience of a global pandemic plague you’re likely to see until the real thing strikes. With outstanding performances from an ensemble cast that includes Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Laurence Fishburne, Contagion is stark, beautiful in its own terrifying way, and all-too-believable. The story tracks the swift progress of a deadly airborne virus from Hong Kong to Minneapolis and Tokyo to London -- from a handful of peanuts to a credit card to the cough of a stranger on a subway. Rarely does a film issue such an inescapable invitation to think: it could happen; that could be us. What would we do?

With Contagion making such a powerful impression, for several days news articles seemed to keep popping up about contagious disease and the conflict between religious beliefs and immunization. There was nothing new about the basics: All fifty states require some specific vaccinations for kids, yet all of them grant exemptions for medical reasons – say, for a child with cancer. Almost all of them grant religious exemptions. And twenty states allow exemptions for personal, moral, or other beliefs.

According to the February 15 edition of The Wall Street Journal, a number of pediatricians are dropping families from their practices when the parents refuse immunization for their kids. “In a study of Connecticut pediatricians published last year,” the paper reported, “some 30% of 133 doctors said they had asked a family to leave their practice for vaccine refusal, and a recent survey of 909 Midwestern pediatricians found that 21% reported discharging families for the same reason.

“By comparison, in 2001 and 2006 about 6% of physicians said they ‘routinely’ stopped working with families due to parents' continued vaccine refusal and 16% ‘sometimes’ dismissed them, according to surveys conducted then by the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

But some parents still fear a link between vaccinations and autism, a possibility science has largely debunked. Some parents just want to be in charge of what’s put into their children’s bodies, as one West Virginia politician puts it. And some parents just don’t trust science, period -- a few have even been known to fake religion to avoid vaccinating their kids. So there are many loopholes. But now seven states are considering legislation to make it even easier for mothers and fathers to spare their children from vaccinations, especially on religious grounds.

In Oregon, according to a story by Jennifer Anderson in The Portland Tribune, the number of kindergartners with religious exemptions is up from 3.7 percent to 5.6 percent in just four years, and continuing to rise. This has public health officials clicking their calculators and keeping their eye on what’s called “herd immunity.” A certain number of any population group needs to have been vaccinated -- 80% for most diseases, 92 percent for whooping cough – to maintain the ability of the whole population – “the herd” – to resist the spread of a disease.

Ms. Anderson offers the example of what used to be called “the German measles” – rubella. All it takes are five unvaccinated kids in a class of 25 for the herd immunity to break down, creating an opportunity for the disease to spread to younger siblings and other medically vulnerable people who can’t be vaccinated. If you were traveling to Europe between 2009 and 2011, you may remember warnings about the huge outbreak of measles there, brought on by a failure “to vaccinate susceptible populations.”

Here in the United States, several recent outbreaks of measles have been traced to pockets of unvaccinated children in states that allow personal belief exemptions. The Reuters news service recently reported thirteen confirmed cases of measles in central Indiana. Two of them were people who showed up to party two days before the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Patriots and Giants fans back east were alerted. So far, no news is good news. .

But this is serious business, made more so by complacency. Older generations remember when measles killed up to 500 people a year before we started vaccinating against them in 1963. The great flu pandemic of 1918 killed ten times more Americans than died in the Great World War that ended that year and took the lives of as many as forty million globally. Our generation was also stalked by small pox, polio, and whooping cough before there were vaccinations.

In a country where few remember those diseases, it’s easy to think, “What’s to worry?” But as the movie Contagion so forcefully and hauntingly reminds us, the earth is now flat. Seven billion people live on it, and our human herd moves on a conveyer belt of perpetual mobility, so that a virus can travel as swiftly as a voice from one cell phone to another. When and if a contagion strikes, we can’t count on divine intervention to spare us. That’s when you want a darn good scientist in a research lab. We’ll need all the help we can get from knowledge and her offspring.


Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the new weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at