WELCOME to the debut of “The Truth Is!”, a blog of reporting and commentary that aims to be informative, thoughtful and provocative. At least initially, the blog will have a strong heartland flavor by virtue of the connection of a number of us to Cowles family journalism. I am former editor of the Des Moines Register’s opinion pages. Another contributor, Michael Gartner, is former editor of the paper; he later served as president of NBC News. Another former Register editor who has agreed to contribute, Geneva Overholser, is director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school of journalism. Followers of the blog will have access also to the work of Herbert Strentz of Des Moines, a close Register and other newspaper watcher who once headed Drake University’s journalism school. Bill Leonard, a longtime Register editorial writer, will add insights.

“The Truth Is!” will be supervised by my daughter, Marcia Wolff, a communications lawyer for 20 years with Arnold and Porter (Washington, D.C.). Invaluable technical assistance in assembling and maintaining the blog is provided by my grandsons Julian Cranberg, a college first-year, and Daniel Wolff, a high school senior.

If you detect a whiff of nepotism in this operation, so be it. All of it is strictly a labor of love. —Gil Cranberg

Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Time magazine plans to change its chain-of-command so that the editorial side of the publication will report to the business side. What an atrocious idea! Even if the business side applies its power to influence news decisions with the lightest of hands, the perception that commercial considerations determine content does the publication immense harm.

And even if non-editorial people won’t actually edit stories, putting the business side in charge is bound to be stultifying. How many story ideas won’t even be suggested because of concern that it won’t be judged on its editorial merits?

I once visited Time’s editorial offices and was startled to be offered a drink from the open bar operating there. Drinking on the job was not just tolerated, it appeared to be encouraged, judging from the flow of free liquor I witnessed. I wonder now if the flawed judgment that made it seem OK to drink while working is still part of Time’s culture and explains why the powers-that-be believe it to be a good idea to put the business side in charge of editorial operations.

But then, I worked for many years at a newspaper where the advertising manager had a self-imposed policy of never visiting the newsroom because he worried that his presence would be seen as an attempt to influence news coverage on behalf of an advertiser.

That ad manager carried the wall of separation between news and business too far, just as Time now doesn’t carry it far enough. The ad manager’s name was Lyle Linn. Time needs a few Lyle Linns in its upper ranks.

Monday, December 30, 2013


Medical lobbyists are said to spend half a billion dollars a year, and every actor in the system--hospitals, doctors, nurses, nursing homes, pharmaceutical companies, and so on--has its advocates, except the one group for which the system exists to serve: the consumer of health-care services, the patient.

Call it the missing link in health care policy, an omission the press does little if anything to address. Yes, AARP draws some attention, but the many millions it pockets from providers (AARP terms the payments “royalties”) compromises its ability to be a true consumer advocate; in truth, it is more provider than spokesman for patient interests.

I became aware of the “missing link” years ago when I was appointed by Iowa’s governor to be a consumer representative on the state’s health planning council. Consumers were well-represented on the council; in fact, we were the largest single group, but we were impotent, since we had no organized constituency. Lacking that, we had no agenda. The providers, representing organized groups, knew exactly what they wanted.

The lesson that I learned years ago--that patients must be organized to have an effective voice in health-care policy--is still valid today because the “missing link” is still missing. For all of the attention lavished on health care, it’s startling that no single organization of patients exists to lobby in behalf of their interests.

So, patients, get off your bedpans and get organized.

Saturday, December 28, 2013


You don’t need to have experienced Japanese machine gun fire whizzing inches above your head to believe that the current talk about reviving the Japanese military is a terrible idea. The obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II ought to be enough to squelch forever any war-like moves in Japan. But apparently there’s still an unquenched thirst for war, or at least for a bigger military.

Article 9 of Japan’s constitution supposedly commits the country to pacifism. The article says, “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

But Japan has a Self-Defense Force, which gives a pretty good imitation of being an army. It also has tanks, though they are called “special vehicles.” Plans are afoot to acquire drones and amphibious assault vehicles. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly has a “life goal” of revising Article 9. The New York Times reports his aim is “a more powerful, assertive Japan, complete with a full-fledged military, as well as pride in its World War II-era past.”

“Pride in its World War II-era past?" What can he be thinking? Japan made lasting enemies through its conduct during the war. It's worrisome that belligerence still seems part of the culture. Why else would hotheads in Japan be bent all out of shape over a dispute with China over worthless piles of rock?

Abe has increased military spending and recently paid a visit to a shrine that honors the nation’s war dead, including several executed war criminals.

The United States should refuse to aid and abet the remilitarization of Japan by selling it arms. Americans should protest forcefully any effort to tinker with Article 9 or to undermine it. War veterans who fought in the Pacific should especially have their voices heard in protest against a rearmed and militaristic Japan.

President Obama was born in Hawaii. The bombing of Pearl Harbor should have special resonance with him. He and Secretary of State John Kerry, who fought in the Pacific, should be warning Japan’s prime minister in no uncertain terms that he is headed in the wrong direction.

Article 9 was enacted in full knowledge of the country's past. It should be reinforced instead of being pockmarked with loopholes. Caroline Kennedy, the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, has her work cut out for her.

Michael Gartner: JUDGE KOPF

Judge Richard Kopf
Senior judge Richard Kopf of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska the other day ruled in favor of Stephanie Rose and the government in the case that fired assistant U.S. attorney Martha Fagg brought against the Justice Department. Fagg had alleged harassment and discrimination while the U.S. attorney’s office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa was run by Rose, who now is a federal judge in Des Moines.

It was kind of a nasty case, and it was particularly interesting because it involved a federal judge relying in part on the testimony of two other federal judges as he wrote about a fight between a fourth federal judge and the daughter of a fifth federal judge. It involved “the careers and reputations of several lawyers and a judge,” Kopf noted, and he called the three principals -- Rose, Fagg and assistant U.S. Attorney Teresa Baumann, “fine people and very good lawyers.”

He went on to say that “nothing worthwhile would be served by reciting a litany of facts, with ‘blow-by-blow’ details, except to needlessly sully reputations or feed the voracious appetites of voyeurs.”

Then he sullied reputations and fed the voracious appetites of voyeurs.

“In my opinion, there is absolutely no question that Fagg was openly disrespectful of Rose and Baumann,” he wrote, without citing any facts to back that up.

“At times, and in my opinion, [the efforts of Rose and Baumann] to bring oversight and discipline to the Civil Division, and Fagg in particular, were overly zealous and harsh,” he wrote, without citing any facts to back that up.

“Rose and Fagg are unrepentant ‘hard heads,’” he wrote, without citing any facts to back that up.

“Were it not for the lawyers representing the parties, I would be utterly depressed,” he wrote, without citing any facts to back that up.

Parties in a lawsuit deserve to know why they won or lost. What the judge thinks of them -- be they hard-heads or zealous or disrespectful -- is irrelevant. How he came to his ruling -- how those blow-by-blow details figured in -- is relevant.

As for those voyeurs with voracious appetites -- well, one judge’s voyeur is another’s citizen trying to explore, or perhaps explain, democracy in action


Charles and David Koch
Remember the term “Communist Front Organization”? It was so common in the 1950s that Congress ordered any group deemed to be one to register and disclose its membership. The idea behind the fronts was that the Communist Party could do its work more effectively by taking over existing organizations or creating new ones while disguising their Communist connections.

Guess who is practicing this Communist tactic nowadays? None other than the brothers Koch, Charles and David, who are spreading their money around to a web of organizations, none of which is named Koch, but all of which are dedicated to furthering the conservative agenda of the brothers.

The Koch fronts use names such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, Freedom Works, Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for the Environment, Patients United Now, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the like.

It’s almost hilarious that the exemplars of right-wing capitalism should be so closely following the playbook of the U.S. Communist Party in their reliance on front groups.

The Communist Party and their fronts were widely regarded as mouthpieces for the Soviet Union and seen as undermining the U.S. in its ongoing cold war against the Russians. For that, membership in a front organization was risky, if not dangerous. People were persecuted and lost their livelihoods because of it, and some were driven to suicide.

Communist fronts were reviled chiefly, but not solely, because they were seen as in the service of a foreign power. The fronts were in the doghouse, also, because of the fundamental dishonesty of hiding their true identity.

Thus far, there is very little in the way of negative feeling towards the sneaky way in which the Kochs operate. Perhaps that’s because the press has not done a good job of exposing it. The brothers have every right to influence public policy and public opinion, but they ought to be upfront about it. The press should do more to acquaint Americans with the Kochs’ Communist-inspired tactics.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


My tipping skills are rusty inasmuch as I live in a retirement community that does not allow tips for individual services. Instead, we make lump-sum contributions to a fund that management allocates to employees. It seems to work.

The other evening, after dining at a restaurant, I was puzzling over the tip when I impulsively asked the waitress what I should leave her. She mentioned a sum that seemed reasonable and in line with what I was considering. I added it to the bill. The collaboration on the tip left me with a warm feeling.

Now, I wonder, why not make what I did standard practice? Among their other skills, servers are experts on tipping, and likely know more about it than most people. Certainly, they know better than anyone the customary tip where they work. All of this knowledge goes to waste because seldom does a customer venture to ask, as I did, “Miss, excuse me, but what do you suggest that I leave for a tip?”

In reflecting on how to refine my new-found approach to tipping, I’ve decided that next time, midway through the meal, I will inform the waiter that I intend to consult him about the tip and that he should think about it. That way, I will get a more considered judgment. I can hardly wait.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: IOWA’S BETTER WAY

A Tampa attorney and adjunct law professor at Stetson University College of Law, Richard A. Harrison, has accused his fellow Florida lawyers of creating a cottage industry of lawsuits over the state’s open-government laws for their personal financial benefit. Harrison says “a handful of plaintiffs and complicit lawyers” have filed cases “that are all about attorneys’ fees” that have netted nearly $2 million statewide in fees for plaintiff lawyers since 2000.

Harrison made his “cottage industry” allegation in an op-ed-article in the Dec. 19 Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Attributing motive is always tricky, so it can’t be known with certainty that lawsuits are being filed solely to generate legal fees, but Harrison’s article inadvertently raises a legitimate question: Is there a better way to enforce the public’s important right of access to public records and meetings than by filing lawsuits?

There is. Iowa recently pioneered the establishment of an alternative by creating the Iowa Public Information Board to investigate complaints of violation of the state’s Sunshine laws and to resolve them.

The nine-member board is appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the Iowa Senate. No more than three members of the board can be members of the media and no more than three can be representatives of cities, counties or other political subdivisions. Aggrieved parties either can continue to look for redress in the courts or to seek it from the Public Information Board, which is authorized “to seek resolution of such complaints through informal assistance or through mediation and settlement.” If the board finds probable cause that open-government laws have been violated, it can prosecute “before the board in a contested case proceeding” and impose civil penalties.

Iowa’s approach to enforcement of its Open Government laws is the brainchild of Arthur Bonfield, a brilliant member of the faculty of the University of Iowa’s College of Law and an expert on administrative law.
Professor Arthur Bonfield

Richard Harrison says that to stop Florida lawyers from gaming the system, “people must empower their local government to fight” the lawsuits. But that would simply increase legal costs, including plaintiff lawyer fees. Arthur Bonfield has a better idea. He ought to be consulted about bringing the Iowa plan to Florida and other states with the same problem.


It’s a shame the name Thamsanqa Jantjie is difficult for most of us to pronounce, because he’s a parable for our age and could serve us so well.

You will quickly recall Mr. Jantjie if reminded of the imposter at the Soweto Stadium memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the fellow who pretended to be signing for President Barack Obama and other national or world leaders.

Here’s the thing: Jantjie's supposed “signing” was said to be gibberish — meaningless gestures timed to the words of the speakers praising Nelson Mandela.

But for those of us who are not hearing impaired was Jantjie’s gibberish so different from what we are routinely subjected to on television?

Let’s give a name to such nonsense and call it — working off Jantjie’s first name — “Thamming” or “being Thammed.”

How about at the next political debates, we turn off the audio and have an insert of Jaintjie “Thamming” the candidates’ promises for us? Or, from my perspective, have him as the resident signer for Fox News.

Would so much be lost?

On a more playful note, in watching baseball games you may be familiar with how the catcher and the pitcher have a conference on the mound with their gloved hands covering their mouths. What a wonderful spot for ESPN and other purveyors of MLB (major league baseball) to call upon Mr. Jaintjie and again have his insert on the screen, “Thamming” what the players are talking about.

Nice thing about it is the TV folks wouldn’t have to use Jantjie all the time, just replay the same video of him hard at work — regardless of the program being aired.

Sort of raises the question: Apart from security incompetence, what’s to be upset about Jantjie’s signing gibberish? He was just giving us the same stuff that many politicians and talking heads do so often without having an intermediary “Thamming” for them.

Indeed, and sadly, a parable for our age.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


A lengthy article in the Dec. 3 New York Times, headlined, “As Hospital Prices Soar, A Single Stitch Tops $500,” went into detail about runaway hospital charges in various parts of the country. Almost nothing was said, however, about what patients actually pay.

I recently experienced slight chest discomfort – very slight—during water aerobics. I mentioned it to the nurse in my retirement facility. She recommended calling an ambulance. The six-mile trip to the hospital took a few minutes, for which I was billed $668. I quit paying attention to the bill when I saw that insurance left me with a zero balance. Almost the same with the hospital charges. Those charges amounted to nearly $18,200 for a three-day stay, but when I noted that my portion of the bill was a mere $332, I barely scrutinized it.

My error. Patients should know in detail what’s being charged so they can understand and raise questions about it. While insurance companies review health bills, this is no substitute for patients doing their part.

My hunch is that my experience is more typical than not. When third parties pay much of the tab, there’s little incentive for patients to play what should be an essential role in the health-care system, as a check on provider charges.

If patients can’t or won’t do that, perhaps providers should be required to bear part of the cost for the services they prescribe. That’s a radical remedy for runaway charges that may not stand scrutiny. But there’s little in the health care system that can. When a bill for tens of thousands of dollars arrives in the mail and barely rates a glance, it may be time for radical remedies.


Gil (left) and Cal

Thank you for the world so sweet.
Thank you for the food we eat.
Thank you for each bird that sings.
Thank you, Lord, for all good things.

Thank you for the gift of life.
Thanks for strength to cope with strife.
Thanks for laws that bind, and free,
And that help us move and be.
Oh, yes. One more thing I find:
Thanks for times we’ve peace of mind.

Editor's Note: This past Thanksgiving a reunion took place between Gil Cranberg and his World War II infantry foxhole mate, Cal Claus. Both are 88. Reminiscences were shared. At one point, Cal, a retired school psychologist from Wisconsin, recited a poem, reprinted here. Cal explained: "The first part was a childhood prayer. The second part ... emerged from some musings on my WWII experiences of being the target of random artillery, mortar and rifle fire. There were many moments when I wasn't sure I would see my 20th birthday, let alone my 88th. Indeed, each day is a gift!!!!!!!!!!!! Each moment of life is something to savor. In the scheme of things, I did celebrate my 20th birthday (July 4, 1945) on Okinawa after the battle had ended.  Shalom, salaam, shanti, peace. Cal."

Gil (right) and Cal (middle) in Hawaii, 1944

Sunday, December 15, 2013


The service in South Africa to honor Nelson Mandela was marred by an off-kilter sign-language interpretation and by an almost equally unintelligible comment by Senator John McCain. The Arizona senator and former presidential nominee likened the handshake at the service between President Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro to the one between Adolph Hitler and Britain’s Neville Chamberlain.

McCain presumably meant to suggest that Castro was Hitler and Obama was Chamberlain. That is as absurd as it is offensive. Castro is a minor figure on the world stage. Hitler was a mass murderer, a likely psychopath. Whatever Castro’s misdeeds, they aren’t in any way in the same league as Hitler’s monstrous crimes. In his clumsy effort to make Obama look bad, McCain managed to minimize and trivialize the crimes of one of the worst mass killers in world history by making them appear to be no worse than the offenses of Cuba’s nobody.

The excuse for the botched signing is that the signer is a self-described schizophrenic. John McCain has no comparable excuse. He had no reason to say anything.

Now, having put his foot in his mouth, he has reason to apologize to the many of Hitler’s victims still living for a ludicrous comment.


(Author’s note: Mindful of how local television and newspapers routinely advise viewers and readers on how to cope with supposedly significant problems in today’s complex world, here are a few well-focused hints on how best to not only survive, but to triumph over the rigors of holiday shopping.)

Regardless of how well-intended or how well-financed it is, your holiday shopping may be a bummer if you cannot get your car out of the garage to begin your gift-buying adventure or you encounter other problems. Here are five hints to speed you on your way to the malls and stores of your choice.

1. Plan Ahead: The night before your shopping spree, make sure your automobile is positioned well for a worry-free exit from your garage. Clear away all debris and obstruction from the rear of the car — assuming you pulled in while in forward gear. (If you backed into the garage, clear away any debris from the front of the car.) In either case make sure the driveway also is free of obstacles. Make sure the trunk of the car has enough space to accommodate all the gifts you will buy. As a side note, remember that you can save on gasoline by 5 to 10 percent if you remove 500 to 1,000 pounds of scrap iron from your trunk — providing more space and money for your shopping.

2. Fill ‘er up? Speaking of mileage, how much gasoline should you be sure to have in the tank? Generally a quarter of a tank will suffice for in-town shopping. If you are uncertain as to how far you can drive when the tank is near empty, a good test — a few days before your shopping trip — is to let the tank drop to one-eighth full or even the dreaded E indicator. Then see how far you can drive on the nearest Interstate Highway before running out of fuel. Be sure to pack the backseat area with sufficient fuel containers to get you to a service station at the end of your test drive.

3. How many children should you take shopping? Follow the two-hour rule! If you take one child, plan on shopping for two hours. Subtract a half hour for each additional child who tags along. If you do the math, that means there’ll be no shopping with five children and only half an hour with four. If you have to take children with you on the recommended test mileage drive and put them in the back seat with the fuel containers, it’s a good idea to rehearse the “drop and roll” drill for dousing clothing that’s afire.

4. Anticipate (and avoid) problems: Be sure to take a spare ignition key with you. A savvy shopper does NOT keep the spare key on the same ring that holds the regular key. Also, be sure to have the car in reverse if backing out and make sure the garage door is open before you do so. On automatic transmissions, reverse usually is indicated by the R on the gearshift or dashboard. For standard transmissions, look for an indicator on the gearshift or consult your driver’s manual. (If you haven’t removed the fuel containers from the backseat, do so now. Do the same for any charred clothing.)

5. How many stops should I make? If you follow the two-hour rule in Step 3, you likely will be limited to one stop. Otherwise, follow the Rule of Three — any combination of stops at malls and local stores that adds up to parking three times. This will minimize shopping hassles and keep you energized for your next shopping adventure — assuming you’ve followed our advice and gotten out of the garage.

As a bonus, taking seriously all of the above will better prepare you for handling similar advice offered by local television and newspapers.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


This country gives its citizens the greatest freedom under the sun to express themselves. So why are they so tongue-tied when it comes to the country’s festering problem of income inequality?

The U.S. has a genius for producing things. We out-produced our enemies and won World War II. We are inept, though, in distribution. We have yet to figure out how to spread the fruits of our labor.

After World War II we were instrumental in getting a whole continent on its feet. But only recently did we take initial steps toward getting impoverished sick Americans on their feet and out of packed emergency rooms.

It took a Pearl Harbor for America to truly get to work. What will it take for a successful war on inequality? The country once declared war on poverty. Then it surrendered.

Inequality is at least now part of the national conversation, and the president gave a major address about it. But how long will that last? Americans are notoriously impatient. They tire quickly of subjects and search eagerly for the next new thing. The press especially has an insatiable appetite for fresh angles.

Economic inequality does not lend itself to quick fixes. It will be a long haul, and the country’s best minds must be recruited to address it.

For starters, both political parties should agree to dedicate the next presidential election to in-depth debate of the issue. Call it the inequality election. Potential presidential candidates in both parties should be preparing to tell voters even now how they intend to tackle the issue. Their programs should be a centerpiece of the presidential debates.

Progress on solving income inequality is vital to the nation’s health and the well-being of tens of millions of Americans. Every public-policy resource should be mobilized for the priority the issue deserves.


After many years as a journalist—investigating presidents, congressmen, and labor union officials, examining the military-industrial complex, civil rights and social justice issues—I never imagined that the most challenging and rewarding story would be about my own family.

Growing up in San Antonio, I knew little about my Kallison grandparents in whose home my mother and I lived for the first twelve years of my life. They were two of 23 million men, women and children—two million of them Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe—who surged into the United States from 1880 through 1920—and they rarely spoke of their pasts.

Why hadn’t I asked them about their early lives: Where in Russia were they born? What was it like living as Jews under the autocratic thumb of an oppressive czar? How did they escape from Russia? Why did they come to Texas? How did they grow their harness shop into the largest farm and ranch supply business in the Southwest? How did a Jewish merchant become a path-breaking Texas rancher? I had plenty of opportunities to ask those questions and many others. Yet I knew more about Sam Houston and his victory in the Texas War of Independence from Mexico than I did about my own grandparents’ escape from a different revolution in Russia.

I have discovered that my lack of knowledge about my forbearers is not an unusual phenomenon. Like the Kallisons, millions of American families have poorly documented and preserved their past—a loss for the families themselves and for a wiser understanding of our nation’s history. With the Internet and digitization of so many primary source documents, unearthing your family’s past now is possible even for amateurs with limited computer skills.

Key to the exploration of my roots was a Google search of the Kallison name followed by a letter-writing campaign to those who shared it. Of the 100 letters sent, several bore fruit. One distant cousin provided a family history tracing a common ancestor to the tiny Ukrainian village of Ladyzhinka. Googling that town name led me to the Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago where photographs on headstones revealed identities of unknown ancestors in our family photos: my grandfather’s older and younger brothers, Jacob and Samuel Kallison and their mother Dina Elloff Kallison.

Using ancestry.com and fold3.com (formerly footnotes.com), I accessed ships’ logs, census documents, military records, marriage and death certificates, fifty years of city directories, and even high school and college yearbooks. Those primary sources yielded invaluable information about my grandfather, his extended family and the world in which they lived. The census documents alone were a treasure trove of information. Beyond names, addresses, ages, occupations, income, immigration information, and citizenship status, they revealed who could read and write in English, who suffered the loss of a child, who had servants or took in borders, even who owned a radio in the early 20th century.

At Newspaperarchives.com, I found a story on published poll tax lists noting that Nathan Kallison was among those who paid for the “right” to vote in Texas in 1911. Spanning decades, I found hundreds of ads for the Kallisons' downtown store and their Bexar County ranch showing the growth of the family’s dual enterprise. Even the local society pages yielded important minutiae from the everyday lives of Nathan and Anna Kallison and their four children: Parties attended; piano recital pieces; debating team topics; roles in school plays; membership in religious, charitable, and community organizations. Together, they gave me a unique picture of who the Kallisons were and what they valued.

For anyone interested in delving into their own family’s past, agencies at all levels of government are digitizing records. It surprised me to discover that in 1927, during Prohibition, the U.S. government indicted my grandfather and Uncle Morris Kallison for violating laws against the production, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages. I read the court transcript and looked at the photographic evidence against them using digitized National Archives records. I also easily accessed Bexar County, Texas’s amazing collection of online files. Among the land records, licenses, and agreements, I found the 1902 contract for the first parcel of land purchased by my grandparents–who as Jews were denied that right in the Russia of their youth. My grandfather signed his name in Hebrew script; my grandmother, with an “x.”

I now realize that the most important history of our country is not found in the grand events of wars and presidencies, but rather in the everyday lives of our citizens: how they worked hard to support their families; how they coped with hardships, discrimination, and human tragedy; and how they contributed to their own communities and nation. There has never been a better time to research your own family’s past. That is the story only you can tell.

[Nick Kotz’s book The Harness Maker’s Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas was published recently. Kotz has received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, the National Magazine Award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award, among others.]

Saturday, December 7, 2013


I noted with more than passing interest that the funeral procession to honor Nelson Mandela would make a ceremonial stop in Soweto, the former all-black township near Johannesburg. I visited Soweto in the 1970s. It was a memorable visit because I was smuggled in. The smugglers were government critics who satisfied my curiosity to see Soweto by cramming me into the rear of an auto and warning me to crouch and keep my face hidden. In those days, it was illegal for whites to set foot in the black township.

Mind you, I was an American journalist out to see Soweto by visiting an American government-financed library in the township. Never mind, racial-mixing rules trumped everything in those days. Concealed in the back of that car, I became an instant advocate for Americans to see for themselves the evils of apartheid. At the time, it was popular to make South Africa a pariah and to have absolutely nothing to do with the place. I thought that was misguided when it prevented people from witnessing what can happen when racism runs amok.

South Africa at the time was a political-science freak, where a minority ruled the majority by enforcing an almost inhuman form of segregation in everyday life. You didn’t need to be a particularly perceptive observer to realize that the days of apartheid were numbered. I recommended to my friends that by all means they should visit South Africa, and not to delay as the place was certain to explode. I reckoned without the genius of Nelson Mandela.

His ability to peacefully reconcile the races must rank as among mankind’s monumental achievements.

Soweto Township

Thursday, December 5, 2013


I was thrilled to see the head, “Promotion of 3 Editors Is Announced At The Times” in the paper’s Dec. 3 issue. Not that I knew any of them; it’s just that I have a hobby of sorts collecting the ways newspapers deal with editorial titles.

My personal favorite is “associate editor.” This all-purpose designation can be, and has been, bestowed on anyone in the newsroom, from the lowliest to the loftiest. I’ve never met a coherent job description of “associate editor;” as reliable as any probably is someone who associates with editors, but newspapers won’t ever say that.

The Times story about the three promotions illustrates the problem the press has with clarity in describing its internal operations.  Almost immediately the reader learns that there were three “masthead promotions” that continue the paper’s “emphasis on digital initiatives and enterprise reporting.” Pray tell, what is a “masthead promotion” or for that matter “digital initiatives,” “enterprise reporting” and “long-form journalism”, another Inside Baseball term that was undefined.

The promotions were announced by Jill Abramson, identified in the story as the paper’s executive editor. Once upon a time a paper’s top editor was known as the Editor, but that has fallen by the wayside and at some papers the title of Editor has been given to the editor of the editorial page. The top editor of the Wall Street Journal, believe it or not, is the managing editor, Gerard Baker, but he also bears the more exalted title of “Editor-in-Chief of Dow Jones.”

The Times’ masthead lists one managing editor, three deputy managing editors and five assistant managing editors. The difference between deputy and assistant is never explained.

Newspapers have more pressing problems than sorting out job titles. But now and then it would be nice if they demystified their operations and told readers in plain English what’s going on.


While many Americans feasted over Thanksgiving, CBS’s 60 Minutes had a meal of a different sort, eating humble pie for its misleading Oct. 27 segment on the attack on the Benghazi embassy that took the life of the U.S ambassador to Libya. The program both apologized to viewers and corrected the record.

No CBS correspondent reported the flawed information. Instead, a lying source did. The lying source – one who deliberately makes up information – is every news organization’s nightmare. I know of none that employs lie detectors, so it’s a matter of using old-fashioned skepticism to spot and weed out the phonies. And then, it’s up to the news organization to come clean, admit the error that slips into a news report and correct the record. Unfortunately, too many corrections are so grudging they fall short of adequately informing the public of the facts.

60 Minutes deserves credit for a forthcoming admission of error in having given credence to a lying source. 

The program’s correction and apology are in marked contrast to the silence of members of Congress who exploited the Benghazi tragedy to score political points. Iowa Representative Steve King, for example, in his typical understated way, declared without supporting evidence that, “if you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you’re going to get in the zone where Benghazi is.”

King and other congressional rabble rousers need to take lessons from CBS and 60 Minutes on how to show proper respect both for the public and for the facts.

Herb Strentz: FORGET JOHN 3:16, IT’S ALL ABOUT BOB 7:14!

Say your prayers! According to a Des Moines, Iowa, Register news report, Robert Vander Plaats — perhaps the most prominent spokesman for the state’s religious right — is soon into another resurrection, as a candidate for public office, rallying his troops around scripture, Chapter 7 Verse 14.

The Register didn’t say which 7:14 — so it might have been the Book of Bob. News stories, however, seldom provide details or questions about Plaats pronouncements. He pretty much gets a free ride from the Iowa press, and national press, too, when wrong about the Constitution or anything else.

But a check of the Good Book found the Vander Plaats campaign theme, right there in II Chronicles 7:14: “(I)f my people…will humble themselves…and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sin…”

To get the campaign under way, Vander Plaats wants the faithful in his Family Leader organization to set their smart phones to remind them of 7:14, every day at 7:14 a.m. and 7:14 p.m.

A few things about the scriptural and the temporal 7:14:

1. The verse, in the eyes of the true believers, targets the rest of us of course. We’re the ones, not they, who have it all wrong.

2. Regardless of the time of day and the nonsense about how the Iowa GOP is a full-spectrum party, the Vander Plaats candidacy is consistent with the three Rs of today’s Republicanism — right wing, reactionary, religious fervor.

3. The 7:14 selection is consistent with how we cherry pick scripture to make a point. In the preceding verse of 7:13 it’s clear that Jehovah isn’t all warm and fuzzy; He threatens to “shut up the heavens so there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land, or send a plague among my people.”

Verse 7:13 is not the sort of message for the campaign of a would-be U.S. Senator, the post Vander Plaats may be seeking — although it does hint at the dysfunctional nature of Congress.

In leafing through the Bible for various takes on 7:14, the quest begins with Genesis 7:14 (Noah loading the ark), and ends with Revelation 7:14 (the saints washing their robes white in the blood of the Lamb). A journey of rescue and redemption, as it were.

In the Books of Daniel and Isaiah the 7:14 selections offer what Christians read as prophecies of the coming of Christ, but those are matters of theology, not the in-your-face ideology promulgated by the religious right.

And there are a few misses. Ten of the 39 Old Testament books have no Chapter 7, and the Book of Esther ends Chapter 7 at verse 10 with the impaling of Haman — a bit too gruesome, even for the Iowa GOP campaign trail.

In the New Testament, by my count, 17 of the 27 books end before a Chapter 7.

So it is back to the Old Testament for 7:14s that the rest of us might find reassuring. For example, Zechariah 7:14 is a clear prophecy of the ruin that the religious and political right have brought to the Iowa judiciary, Iowa education and other once-treasured foundations of the Hawkeye state:

“The land they left behind them was so desolate that no one traveled through it. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate.” Can’t beat that for a summary of Iowa’s religious right and its slash and burn politics.

And, from one familiar with tribulations, Job 7:14 speaks to how the Vander Plaats crowd scares many of us: “…you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions.”

Ezekiel 7 chimes in, too, against the religious right: 7:11, “none of the people will be left,” and 7:14 “…my wrath is on the whole crowd.”

The Psalmist at 7:14 may be in accord with birth control and Planned Parenthood: “Whoever is pregnant with evil conceives trouble and gives birth to disillusionment.”

Ecclesiastes 7:14 brings some sense to the issue: “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore no one can discover anything about their future” — regardless of how many daily reminders you get about Bob 7:14.


We have a gourmet cook in our family.


Hors D’Oeuvres:
Red Ruby Potatoes with Crème Fraiche and Caviar
Babaganoush and Pita Breads
Chicken Liver Pate and Assorted Crackers
Artichoke Spread
Filo Cups Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Honey Beets
Filo Cups Stuffed with Brie and Onion Relish
Grapes with Honeyed Goat Cheese and Pecans
Gourmet Grilled Cheese with Date Nut Bread and Brie

Langoustine and Grilled Shrimp in Red Pepper Sauce Over Puff Pastry Shells

Principal Meal:
Roasted Turkey
Grilled Salmon
Stuffed Pork Loin with Loganberry Pepper Sauce
Vegetable Lasagna
Turkey Divan
Quinoa-Stuffed Red Peppers with Black Beans and Eggplant
Lentils with Carrots and Celery
Mashed Potatoes and Gravy
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Potato Latkes with Apple Sauce and Sour Cream
Cheesy Potatoes
Macaroni and Cheese
Cheesy Cauliflower
Corn Pudding
Dressing with Raisins, Apples and Nuts
Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Carrots
Green Beans with Oregano and Slivered Almonds
Broccoli Salad with Grapes, Provel Cheese, Red Onion and Almonds
Cranberry and Orange Relish

Assorted Breads

Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream
Pecan Pie
Pumpkin Cake Roll with Cream Cheese Filling
Cream Puffs
Cheese Cake
Zucchini, Pumpkin and Chocolate Breads

                                                            Rose Schmitt at Rest

Monday, November 25, 2013


Critics of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program are so cocksure they know what’s wrong with the deal they even know what went on in the minds of John Kerry and Barack Obama when they negotiated it. In the view of various talking heads, the Obama administration wanted, more than anything, to distract attention from the mishandling of the Affordable Care Act. In other words, the agreement with Iran gives the administration relief from its health-care critics. Except that it doesn’t.

It would be interesting to know whether the administration took its European Union negotiating partners into its confidence about the so-called Affordable Care Act strategy. Likely not -- it seems far-fetched that the administration would tie the unrelated health care and Iran negotiations together. But when speculating about motive, anything is possible.

That’s the difficulty with attributing motive. It simply is impossible to know a person’s motive without cracking open the individual’s head and examining his lobes. In other words, there is no way to divine motive. You can know what a person means from what he says and does but speculating about motive is just that – speculation. And fruitless. But too much of journalism consists of discussion about motive. Witness the talk about why the administration concluded the negotiations with Iran the way it did.

The agreement the parties hammered out is complex. So let’s hear what disinterested experts think about it. But spare us more talk about what John Kerry and Barack Obama secretly had up their sleeves.


This caption, in its entirety, accompanied a photo in a recent edition of the New York Times: “Geno Smith was sacked by Jairus Byrd and had a passer rating of 10.1 in the Jets’ loss to the Bills on Sunday in Buffalo.”

No clue of whether a rating of 10.1 is good, bad or indifferent. For that matter, no clue to the meaning of “passer rating.” If you Google passer rating, you encounter mumbo-jumbo complete with equations, mathematical symbols and unenlightening text.

I once asked a professional football coach to explain the finer points of the “quarterback rating,” a close cousin of the “passer rating.” The coach evaded the question. The Times ducked the question in its caption, too, presumably either because no one in the office could explain it or because it would take so much space it would send the sports department over-budget.

I learned from an ESPN web site that there is such a thing as the Total Quarterback Rating and that ESPN “dedicated 2011 to examining one of the most crucial positions in all sports – the quarterback.” The entry reports that “each play has a different level of contribution to winning and each play illustrates a different level of quarterback contribution to winning in each situation. Coaches want to know this; players want to know this; and fans want to know this.”

Only if they have an incurable addiction to filling their minds with meaningless trivia. Most fans seem to understand that they can live rich and fulfilling lives without the ins and outs of passer ratings and even the Total Quarterback metric.

Here’s hoping the press doesn’t sense a void here that it intends to fill.

Monday, November 18, 2013


Oh, if David Belin were alive this week!
There he’d be -- brilliant and earnest and sort of awkward -- on the Today Show and Face the Nation and CNN and maybe, even, the Daily Show. Still sharp and bow-tied at 85, with his off-kilter little smile and distinctive voice and odd tic in his eye, he’d in his lawyer-like way cite fact after fact to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone on that awful day 50 years ago when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
David Belin was sure about a lot of things -- that children were to be nourished, that friends were forever, that education was everything, that music soothed the soul, that women had equal rights -- but he was most sure of this: That there was no conspiracy to kill the President. Period. Absolutely. For certain.

And if anyone knew the facts, it was David.

David Belin -- my lawyer, my business partner, my friend -- was in 1964 appointed assistant counsel for the Warren Commission, which President Lyndon Johnson established to investigate the shooting of Kennedy. David’s assignment was specific: Determine if the president was killed by a single gunman; determine whether there was a conspiracy to assassinate. He interviewed everyone, went over every detail, looked into every background and concluded Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone. And that was the finding of the commission. That job finished, in 1975 he was appointed executive director of The Rockefeller Commission, which investigated CIA doings in the United States -- including any CIA knowledge of the assassination.

So David Belin knew more about the death of John F. Kennedy than any other person except Lee Harvey Oswald. And Oswald was dead.

He certainly knew more than Oliver Stone. David was infuriated by Stone’s “JFK,” the 1991 movie that implied the killing was part of a conspiracy. The mention of Stone would make his blood boil and send him into a monologue about truth. He said there were at least 100 mistakes in the movie, errors of omission and commission, and he chronicled them all. In testimony in 1996 to the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board, he called the movie “the greatest electronic cover-up fraud ever perpetrated on America’s movie screens.” He called it “a hoax, a smear and pure fiction that rivals...Nazi propaganda films.”

You knew where he stood.

 David wrote two books about the assassination -- “November 22, 1963: You Are the Jury” and “Final Disclosure: The Full Truth About the Assassination” -- and he asked me to read the manuscripts. The detail was mind-numbing, but always backed up by records and documents and witnesses. Anyone who plowed through the books would be convinced -- but it took a lot of plowing to get through them.

When he wasn’t dealing with the conspiracy-theory crowd, David was involved in everything in Des Moines. It was hard to find a place to sit in his large office at the law firm, where he padded around in his stocking feet. The couch, the chairs, the floor, his desk all were piled high with book chapters, legal briefs, files on the wealthy families he represented, correspondence, clippings on this and that, notes on ideas and politics and all the many things he wanted to talk about, often all at once. But ask him for something, and he could go to the right pile, dig down a couple of feet, and produce the paper. His office was a mess, but his mind was tidy.

But he would drop everything to lecture or argue or debate about the assassination. (After one of his books came out, he was on the Today Show and was interviewed by Bryant Gumbel. Gumbel welcomed him, and David responded. “May I call you Byron?” he said. “I guess so,” the usually unflappable Gumbel responded after a flummoxed pause. Laughing, Gumbel later told me, “What was I going to do? Take up half the time by explaining to him that my name is Bryant and then having him apologize?”)

David Belin died on Jan 17, 1999, at age 70. He had been at the Mayo Clinic for his annual physical, and in the middle of the night he fell in his hotel room and hit his head. He was in a coma for 12 days.

I immediately drove to Rochester with Gary Gerlach, the third partner in our company that owned the Ames (Iowa) Tribune and some other publications. David lay in his bed, hooked up to monitors and tubes, deep in that coma. Some were optimistic that he would awake, would recover, would live to argue another day.

“May I see him alone?” I asked a nurse.

She let me.

I walked in. I took his hand and held it firmly in both of mine. I leaned over to whisper in his ear. “David,” I said, “I think there was a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy.”

He didn’t rise up and smite me. He didn’t squeeze my hand. He didn’t blink.

I walked out knowing that he would not awake.


The press is fascinated by anniversaries, especially those that are divisible by five or ten. A 50-year anniversary is especially doted on, which may be why such a fuss is being made over the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The well-told story of his death at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald is being told again and again and again, although there is essentially nothing new to relate.

It’s understandable why the anniversary story is a press staple. It costs little to dust off old coverage and count on faded memories to make it seem fresh. Moreover, the facts about Oswald’s life are so out of the ordinary they make fascinating retelling—a father he never knew because he died months before his birth, a vagabond existence, 22 different home addresses and a dozen different schools by the age of 17, a three year defection to the Soviet Union, an apparently unstable mother.

Nothing has emerged over the past 50 years to challenge the basic fact that an unstable loser, acting alone, took Kennedy’s life. The press habit of observing anniversaries by rehashing the past does have the downside of reviving doubts about the facts of the assassination and giving credence to discredited conspiracy theories.

When the current revival of interest in Kennedy’s death fades, the press and the public should ask themselves: What news of significance has been revealed? That fundamental question deserves an answer that the press, in thrall to its habit of observing meaningless anniversaries, refuses to address.

Gilbert Cranberg: LESSONS FROM LEYTE

I was headed down a road on Leyte in the Philippines toward a firefight I could hear in the distance when I was surrounded suddenly by crowds of panicked GIs running in the opposite direction. They were in full-scale retreat in a route that ended only when officers ordered us to dig in in a clearing for the night. It was a night punctuated by rifle fire from unnerved soldiers convinced they saw Japanese snipers in the surrounding palm trees.

The incident was a momentary military setback in the fight against Japan during the Pacific war. There weren’t many such ignominious headlong U.S. retreats in the Pacific war, setbacks which had no lasting significance and did not affect the outcome of the Leyte campaign. But it certainly made a short-term impression on us, confident as we had been of our military superiority.

Looking back at that defeat, it occurs to me that it makes a pretty good metaphor for the current struggle over the Affordable Care Act.

The law is mired in controversy, and in the view of some, headed for a debacle. But just as we gloomily licked our wounds on Leyte and things seemed bleak, it’s clear now that we were victims of misleading short-term thinking. The next morning on Leyte, the troops who had looked so beaten and frightened drew on their underlying strength and went into battle with renewed purpose.

This country is resourceful and resilient. It knows how to overcome adversity. The problems to overcome with the Affordable Care Act are minor compared to obstacles we have conquered innumerable times. Providing affordable health care for Americans is a worthy objective, and we have the talent to do it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: TIME TO REPAY A DEBT

When Japanese forces captured the Philippines early in the Pacific war they forced General Douglas Macarthur to flee. When he did, in 1942, he melodramatically vowed, “I shall return.” He did, in 1945, and I was among the GIs who accompanied him.

Macarthur returned to the Philippines on the island of Leyte. He splashed ashore not far from Tacloban, the island’s capital, now mostly rubble from Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the place.

U.S. military forces routed the Japanese, but not without help. The Filipino men who assisted us were lean and fit and had remarkable stamina. They sure-footedly carried our heavy equipment on slippery trails that soon exhausted the much bigger men in our outfit. Never once did I hear a Filipino complain about the backbreaking loads they bore, which they seemingly did with ease.

I am not aware that we ever paid the people who helped us. Or even thanked them. Now it is payback and thank you time. Anyone who begrudges the help being given the people of Tacloban should remember how Filipinos pitched in to assist U.S. troops during World War II. It has taken some time to repay the debt, but we should do it gladly.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


The mantra at “60 Minutes” in the wake of its botch of the Benghazi story is that “you have to take responsibility”. The program’s definition of responsibility leaves a lot to be desired.

A key part of being responsible is to make every effort to inform members of the public who were misinformed by a faulty news account that it was in error. CBS made a reasonably forthright admission Nov. 10 that its report on Benghazi a couple of weeks ago was not reliable. The admission, however, was at the very end of the Nov. 10 edition of “60 Minutes”. The retraction was not preceded by any notice to viewers that a correction was in the works and would follow. The public had to watch the conclusion of a couple of football games, at least 10 commercials and several segments of “60 Minutes” before the correction was aired. It’s as though CBS did its best to make sure that as few members of the original audience for the Benghazi misinformation would witness the admission of error.

“60 Minutes” severely damaged its credibility by relying on a source who fabricated information. Staffers should have done a better job of checking out the source’s veracity. The correction, however, was entirely in the hands of “60 Minutes” staffers. They controlled its content and when it aired. And on that score “60 Minutes” failed as miserably as it did when it failed to verify flawed information from a major source.

The public should not have to hurdle obstacles to obtain access to corrections, retractions and apologies. CBS News should have been far more upfront in its handling of the Benghazi misstep. Burying admissions of error is not the way to take responsibility.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Some things are true but false – that is, the facts are accurate, but the omission of essential information creates a misleading impression. A recent example: the report in the Nov. 7 New York Times about how the Iowa town of Coralville rebuffed an effort by Charles and David Koch to kick out of office the mayor and city council members of Coralville for amassing too much debt.

The headline, “Iowa Town’s Vote Delivers Rebuke to Kochs’ Group” was accurate as far as it went; the difficulty was that it did not go nearly far enough. It, and the accompanying story, withheld from readers the essential information that Coralville is not just any Iowa community, but as the accompanying map shows, it abuts Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa and of the most liberal electorate in the state. Many university faculty, staff and students live in Coralville. While technically a separate entity, Coralville is as integral a part of Iowa City as Greenwich Village is to New York City.

Coralville, in other words, is an atypical Iowa town, and its resentful reaction to the effort by the Koch Brothers to throw their weight around was to be expected. The surprise in the story was that the New York Times considered a predictable election outcome to be newsworthy.

Friday, November 8, 2013


I did a double-take when I read in the Nov. 5 New York Times that at the trial for the life of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, “Many of the Egyptian journalists who were allowed inside the trial chanted repeatedly for Mr. Morsi’s execution.”

That item appeared in the 13th paragraph of the 30-paragraph story. If ever a lead was buried, that was. Granted, the behavior of the press may have been normal for Egypt, but the Times is edited for an American audience and such behavior here is decidedly abnormal.

It is so beyond the norm that American news organizations should register their disapproval if only to show how a free and ethical press should conduct itself.

It wasn’t clear from the Times account whether the so-called journalists who demonstrated at the trial were on assignment or were spectators. If the former, that should be disclosed so that readers understand fully Morsi’s plight. If those who demonstrated did it on their own time they have a lot to learn about journalistic detachment.

Some journalists in this country have chosen to be propagandists rather than trustworthy reporters of facts. The sight of Egyptian so-called journalists clamoring for Morsi’s head is a useful reminder of where that kind of perverted journalism can lead.


To hear George W. Bush tell it, he is having a marvelous retirement—painting, bike riding, golfing, attending ball games, dining with friends. If he reflects on the carnage he left in his wake in Iraq, it doesn’t show. An article in the Nov. 3 New York Times on Bush in retirement mentions that Bush goes bike riding with wounded Iraq war vets but seems otherwise unmindful of the war. As a Bush friend told the Times, “He’s comfortable with the decisions he made. He doesn’t obsess about his place in history.”

Indeed, why should he dwell on the Iraq war? After all, it left only 4,486 American soldiers dead, 32,000 wounded and some 100,000 Iraqis killed. As wars go, there have been worse.

Many Americans seem to share that unconcern. The war was sold on a falsehood – that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction – but instead of outrage that no weapons were there to be found, Americans simply shrugged and awaited the next scandal. Nor was there outrage when, instead of heads rolling at the Central Intelligence Agency for incompetence, the head of the CIA, George Tenet, was rewarded with one of the nation’s highest medals.

The two-party system and two houses of Congress are both supposed to keep the country out of unwise or unnecessary wars. But both parties and both houses were steamrollered into voting overwhelmingly to attack a country that had done the U.S. no harm. Worse, the case for war was based on misinformation. And to make matters worse still, the country’s press, which is supposed to smoke out deception, fell hook, line and sinker for the lies and heavily supported going to war.

The country too readily allowed itself to be hoodwinked into war. But it’s never too late to learn from mistakes. Congress needs to undertake a full-scale review of how the country got itself into the misbegotten Iraq war, and that includes the part played by the press. The families of the deceased and maimed should be demanding it. George W. Bush should be the star witness, to be followed by every member of his administration and leaders of the opposition party who favored the bloodshed: They need to explain themselves.


Between now and Dec. 7, when the current Medicare enrollment period ends, insurance agents will be trolling for customers hoping to snag unsuspecting seniors for their Medicare Advantage Plans. Medicare Advantage was created in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration as a step toward privatizing Medicare. Thus far, some 13 million seniors have been enrolled in the private plans.

The lure: more money. Medicare Advantage plans have been paid as much as 14 percent more per enrollee by Medicare, or about $1,200 per person per year, compared with what traditional Medicare pays for its beneficiaries. Some of the differential goes for perks like gym memberships, but also for higher profits for the insurance companies participating in Medicare Advantage.

The differential is being eliminated by the Obama Administration. And it’s about time. As David Lipschutz, a lawyer for the Center for Medicare Advocacy, has said, “These cuts are a matter of equity. Those 75 per cent of members in traditional Medicare should not be subsidizing the care of those 25 per cent of beneficiaries who are in MA plans.”

But don’t expect those who profit from the differential to go quietly. I listened the other evening to what seniors can expect from a salesman for a Medicare Advantage plan. To hear him tell it, Medicare Advantage is the only option available.

It is not. But the TV ads and speakers making the rounds of retirement homes would have you believe otherwise.

So hold on to your wallets and remember that traditional Medicare is a good deal seniors fought hard to obtain and that should not be jettisoned readily.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Rand Paul, the libertarian U.S. senator from Kentucky, gave fresh meaning to “libertarian” when it turns out he or a staffer took liberties with Wikipedia entries by passing them off as his own. MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow described the plagiarism on her program the other night, to which Paul responded with lame references to “footnotes”, as though he had simply omitted credit that properly belonged in a footnote. Not so; the use of Wikipedia’s entries, without credit, borrowed important themes from what the online encyclopedia had published about a couple of films – “Gattaca” and “Stand and Deliver.”

That said, it’s not always clear when and how to cite material from reference sources. But it is generally regarded as a no-no to borrow verbatim chunks of language, without attribution, as Paul or his speechwriters did.

As surprising as the plagiarism, is the source. Movie films? And not notable or authoritative movies, at that. Paul and his staffers must have been shocked that anyone even noticed this petty theft.

If Paul even had anything to do with it. Political candidates usually are too busy to craft their own speeches. Rand Paul may have been as much of a victim in this plagiarism incident as Wikipedia and members of Rand Paul’s audience.

Speechwriters labor in the shadows and do not usually get the credit or blame they deserve. Rand Paul’s reliance on a couple of movie scripts happened to be picked up by Rachel Maddow (or by one of her writers) and then was reported in the New York Times. Who was Paul’s nameless speechwriter and how did Wikipedia get into the act? It would be interesting to know, if the press would only identify the actors.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: TED CRUZ, MEET BOB RAY

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is widely regarded as super-smart, and he has the academic credentials to prove it: an undergraduate cum laude degree from Princeton, and a Harvard law school degree, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review. Alan Dershowitz of the law school faculty, no admirer of his ideology, pronounced him “off-the-charts brilliant.”

If Cruz is so smart, why is he spending so much time in Iowa, where he visited three times in recent months? The state has practically no electoral votes and little clout at the Republican national convention. Of course, its caucuses lead off the presidential nominating parade, and the press gives that inordinate attention. But the press is bound to realize one of these days that hardly anyone attends the caucuses and those that do are not of the caliber you would want to recruit for a gene pool.

Some of the same Iowa Republicans who attend the caucuses adopted not long ago a Republican Party platform that called for shipping the United Nations out of the United States, abolition of the Internal Revenue Service and ridding the country of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Iowa also is home to a proven statewide Republican vote-getter, Robert Ray, who was governor from 1969 to 1983. Ray is so popular Des Moines streets are named for him. But not once during Cruz’s visits to Iowa did he stop to pay his respects to Bob Ray.

My guess is that Cruz is not finished with visiting Iowa. If he is truly smart, he would make time for Bob Ray. He might learn from Ray that the way to win the affection of Iowans is to welcome all comers -- conservatives, moderates and even Democrats.

On his most recent visit to Iowa Cruz went pheasant shooting with Iowa’s extremist congressman, Steve King. Cruz should realize that King is an atypical Iowan. For a slant he won’t get by palling around just with right-wingers, he should try giving the unassuming Bob Ray a call. He is in the Des Moines phone book.

Monday, October 28, 2013


You can take a calculator to the ill-considered U.S. invasion of Iraq for the sickening numbers -- a cost of $1 trillion and nearly 5,000 American lives lost. No calculator, however, can add up the underlying losses. As Mark Danner wrote in the Nov. 7 New York Review of Books, "Before the war, Iraq was void of an anti-American Islamic jihadist movement; today Iraq is filled with thousands of motivated Islamic guerrillas, many of them veterans of the Iraqi army the United States dissolved, who have taken up arms not only against the Shia government the U.S. helped put in place but against the regime of Bashar al-Assad across Iraq's western border. Before the war Iraq served as a rival and geostrategic counter to the Islamic republic of Iran, for three decades the United States' main adversary in the Middle East; today 'liberated' Iraq is a staunch ally of Iran, the nation that, along with Russia, is now aiding most actively that same Assad government. Together, Iraq's Shia government and Sunni opposition are fueling both sides of Syria's civil war, and that civil war, in turn, through a perverse 'boomerang effect,' is further destabilizing Iraq -- all to the detriment of U.S. interests."

The people who talked the U.S. into invading Iraq -- and remember, it was both parties and some of the country's best foreign-policy thinkers who supported the war -- couldn't possibly have anticipated the complicated outcome. Which remains the best reason for the U.S. to keep to the sidelines in Syria's convoluted civil war. Memories of the ill-fated invasion of Iraq have contributed to the paralysis of U.S. will, as it should. Irony of ironies, George W. Bush's biggest blunder might well have been keeping Barack Obama from making one of his own.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


I listened with amazement as Rachel Maddow of MSNBC read the Newark Star-Ledger’s editorial denunciation of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then, in the same editorial, the paper’s endorsement of Christie for re-election. I wondered what kind of dishonesty this was. Until I read the editorial. Seldom have I read a more deeply forthright editorial endorsement than the Newark Star-Ledger’s Oct. 20 left-handed tribute to Christie.

The paper dug a hole for itself at the outset when it described Christie as “much better at politics than he is at governing”, and then lamented how the property tax burden “has grown sharply on his watch,” how he is “hostile to low-income-families” ,“sabotaging efforts to build affordable housing.” There was more: “A catastrophe on the environment,” he called “a cease-fire in the state’s fight against climate change.” And oh, yes, the governor’s claim to have fixed the state budget is “fraudulent.” For good measure, “By removing two qualified justices from the Supreme Court without good cause, he threatened the independence of judges at all levels, and provoked a partisan stalemate that has left two vacant seats on the high court. This was a power grab gone wrong.”

“Why then, are we endorsing him for a second term? Because his challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, is a deeply flawed candidate.” Rachel Maddow neglected to mention Buono or why the Star-Ledger swallowed its considerable misgivings about Christie. I admire Maddow’s commentaries a great deal, but the piece about the Star-Ledger’s endorsement was not her best work. It was, in fact, as unbalanced and misleading as the Star-Ledger’s editorial was fair.

There are at least a couple of ways to go on endorsements: pretend the election is a contest between good and evil, or present the candidates as they impressed you, warts and all.

The Star-Ledger’s warts and all approach deserves to be taught in journalism schools as a model. It’s especially admirable in light of Christie’s refusal for four years to have anything to do with the paper’s editorial board, the first governor in the state’s history to do so.

(Editor’s Note: The Newark Star-Ledger editorial is reproduced below.)

Newark Star-Ledger Editorial Board
on October 20, 2013 at 12:01 AM, updated October 20, 2013 at 12:03 AM

 Gov. Chris Christie is the most remarkable political talent America has seen since Bill Clinton. If you haven’t witnessed his performance at a town hall meeting yet, make a point of it. You will come away convinced there is a sensible middle ground in America after all.

Equally impressive is his skill at playing Trenton’s inside game. Faced with Democrats in solid control of the Legislature, he’s managed to split them down the middle by seducing a handful of pliant party bosses whose self-interest compelled them to hitch their wagons to his.

The surprise is that his achievements have been only modest. He signed an important reform to contain pension and health costs, but it was mostly done before he arrived. He signed a useful tenure reform last year, but it is a weak version that still protects bad teachers with seniority. His reorganization of the higher education system is promising, but untested.

Balance that against his measurable failures, and you have to conclude he is much better at politics than he is at governing.

The property tax burden has grown sharply on his watch. He is hostile to low-income families, raising their tax burden and sabotaging efforts to build affordable housing. He’s been a catastrophe on the environment, draining $1 billion from clean energy funds and calling a cease-fire in the state’s fight against climate change.

The governor’s claim to have fixed the state’s budget is fraudulent. New Jersey’s credit rating has dropped during his term, reflecting Wall Street’s judgment that he has dug the hole even deeper. He has no plan to finance transit projects and open space purchases now that he has nearly drained the dedicated funds he inherited from Gov. Jon Corzine.

His ego is entertaining, but it’s done damage as well. By removing two qualified justices from the Supreme Court without good cause, he threatened the independence of judges at all levels, and provoked a partisan stalemate that has left two vacant seats on the high court. This was a power grab gone wrong.

The public gives him top marks for his handling of Sandy, but the record is mixed. Why would his administration park NJ Transit trains in a low-lying area where they flooded, causing $120 million in damage? Why did the federal government have to strong-arm the state to include more relief for renters and Spanish-speakers than Christie had proposed? And why should anyone believe taxpayers got the best price on refuse removal when the governor awarded a no-bid contract through a political friend?

Our own view is that Christie is overrated. His spin is way ahead of his substance.


Why then, are we endorsing him for a second term? Because his challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, is a deeply flawed candidate.

Begin with education. Buono’s close alliance with the teachers union is a threat to the progress Christie is making in cities such as Newark and Camden. She is hostile to charter schools, which now educate nearly 1 in 4 kids in Newark.

An authoritative national study showed that students in the charters are learning more, which explains why 10,000 Newark families are on waiting lists. Yet Buono cannot bring herself to acknowledge that the charters have helped. She sponsored a bill that would basically slam the brakes on new charters by requiring voter approval of each one. She is making a status quo argument in the face of persistent failure.

Buono opposes the Newark teacher contract, which freezes the pay of the worst teachers and grants bonuses to the best. She wants a traditional union deal, in which no distinction is made. She would return control of the schools to Newark, which would spell the end of Superintendent Cami Anderson’s promising stewardship.

Understand that President Obama endorses the reforms Christie has pushed. This is not a right-wing conspiracy; it is a bipartisan movement that’s based on promising results for disadvantaged kids. Buono would stand in the way.

Her alliance with the unions would also threaten progress made in containing the cost of public workers. She voted against the pension and health care reform, and supports the practice of allowing public workers to accumulate pay for unused sick days. She would cap the total at $7,500, but even that reveals a mindset that is discouraging.

Another big concern: Buono lacks the strategic savvy to be a successful governor. She commands little respect among fellow Democrats, who have abandoned her in droves, with nearly 50 elected officials endorsing Christie. She is a loner in the Senate who derides political bargains as “back-room deals.”

She picked a pointless fight in June by choosing a party chairman who was vehemently opposed by most Democratic leaders, and she was then forced into an embarrassing retreat. Her choice as lieutenant governor is a little-known union leader with no experience in elected office, and a spotty voting record.

Down in the polls by 30 percentage points early in this race, Buono has made no adjustments. She is openly disdainful of party bosses like George Norcross, but lacks any plan to govern without them.

Her critique of Christie centers on property taxes and jobs, but she lacks a convincing strategy to do any better herself. She has a long list of expensive plans, from universal preschool to more aid for public colleges. But she can’t name a single spending cut beyond the traditional promise to attack “fraud and abuse.”

If this is the end for Buono, remember that she didn’t lose this on her own: The Democratic Party punted on this race.

Its major players were scared to challenge Christie, and only Buono showed the conviction to stand up to him. If anyone should be ashamed in the wake of the crushing defeat the polls predict, it is the lethargic and compromised party establishment, not the lone woman who took up the challenge.

Buono has long been a sturdy voice for progressive causes. She was a key player in establishing paid family leave, protections against bullying and revamping the school aid formula.

As governor, she would allow gay couples to marry, raise the minimum wage and stop the baseless attacks on the courts. She would raise taxes on incomes greater than $1 million, and restore at least some of the property tax rebates that Christie cut. She would also restore funding for Planned Parenthood, and sign strong gun legislation. On each of those issues, we are with her.

But our endorsement goes to Christie, despite the deep reservations. He has refused to speak with The Star-Ledger editorial board for four years, the first governor in either party to do so. But we are shaking off that insult because our duty is to the readers, and our goal is to help them decide which button to push.
In her editorial board meeting, Buono simply did not make the case.

The endorsement of Christie comes with the hope that Democrats hold control of the Legislature to contain his conservative instincts. It is especially important that Democrats hold the Senate to block him from remaking the Supreme Court in his image, a move that would doom urban schools and affordable housing efforts.

Christie has said little about his plans for a second term. Our fear is that he could veer rightward to impress Republican base voters in the 2016 primaries, by reviving his plan to cut income taxes for the rich, by escalating his campaign to strong-arm the Supreme Court, or by picking a fresh fight with the unions. Our hope is that he sticks to a bipartisan agenda, and we’d suggest he start by addressing his biggest failure: the rising burden of property taxes.

As for Buono, we can offer only this consolation: She had an impressive run in the Legislature, and deserves praise for being the only Democrat with the moxie to step in front of this train.


How much of the slow start for the Affordable Care Act was deliberate? That is, not computer glitches but sabotage by groups determined to make the government’s health care program fall on its face?

The Nation magazine reports that health insurance brokers have mobilized to create obstacles for community groups organized to inform the public about how to enroll in the government program. Georgia, prodded by insurance brokers, enacted a law to prevent individuals from providing advice “concerning the benefits, terms and features of a particular health benefit plan.” That sounds like an infringement on the First Amendment, but commercial speech has fewer safeguards than ordinary speech.

Look for critics of the Affordable Care Act to leave no angle uncovered as they seek to create an obstacle course for would-be enrollees. Consumers should not have to endure this simply to obtain protection against the high cost of medical care for their families. What’s needed is a strategy by consumers to counter the saboteurs whenever and wherever they strike. Organizations dedicated to gutting the Affordable Care Act should know that they are in for a battle when they seek to deny anyone access to health care.

A potentially costly battle, at that. The saboteurs should be served notice that anyone denied access to health care – and thus to a potentially life-saving surgery – can seek compensation from those whose actions are knowingly and deliberately intended to bar them from coverage. The law has long recognized a variety of torts for wrongful interference with commercial transactions. These or other measures could provide the foundation for redress.  

Health care can well be regarded as a human right. The Koch brothers and others determined to prevent access to the right ought to be made aware that they may well be held accountable.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Physicians make plenty of medical mistakes; perhaps as many as one in five patients is misdiagnosed. Worse, each year an estimated 50,000 hospital deaths could have been prevented with proper diagnosis.

An article in the Oct. 20 New York Times suggests a way to minimize medical error: take a skeptic with you to the doctor’s office--yourself. “If we are to control our own destinies,” wrote the Times, “we have to switch our brains back on, and come to our medical consultations with plenty of research done, able to use the relevant jargon.”

In my experience, patients can contribute a lot to diagnosing their conditions. Not long ago, multiple neurologists diagnosed me with Parkinson’s, largely on the strength of my gait. After a lapse of many months, and having noticed no change, I questioned the diagnosis and wondered if there were a more objective way to spot Parkinson’s than by studying how a person walks. I was informed about a reliable non-invasive test that measures dopamine in the brain. I arranged for the test. Presto! No Parkinson’s.

Some time before, an acquaintance was diagnosed by a leading medical center with cancer of the spine. Extreme surgery that carried grave risks was recommended. Enter a maverick West Coast pathologist who studied the medical history and biopsy, disagreed vehemently with the cancer diagnosis, and argued strongly against surgery. Years later, the patient is still cancer-free.

Granted, this is anecdotal. But when a patient is told by the best brains in the business that his only chance is high-risk surgery, it’s time to switch our brains back on.


I was saddened that Iowa Senator Charles Grassley was among the 18 die-hard crazies to vote to support a continued government shutdown and threatened default on its debt obligations. Saddened because Grassley knows better. He pretends to be a hayseed, but is actually a reasonably sophisticated and well-informed lawmaker. Well enough informed to know that the cause he championed was disastrous for the country.

At one point it seemed that he would forswear far-right politicking in the interests of constructive bipartisanship. As the ranking Republican on the influential Senate Finance Committee, he was in a position to create consensus on health care and other important issues. And for a time it appeared that he would be a useful force for across-the-aisle cooperation. But that proved ephemeral. As the political lines hardened, Grassley reverted to his rock-ribbed roots.

Most Iowans are not so out of touch with reality that they favored continuing the government shutdown and defaulting on the country’s debts. Grassley’s vote amounted to support for both propositions. He even said that not paying some of the debt would not be all that bad. This is a fiscal conservative?

Grassley usually is considered a safe bet for re-election. His inexcusable vote to continue the shutdown and his cavalier attitude toward a government default ought to shake up Iowans into taking a hard look at Grassley’s fitness for office. Democrats ought not to take Grassley’s re-election for granted. They should field a candidate with appeal to the many independents in the state and spend the money to make Grassley sweat for a change.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: WANTED: A WAR ON PIMPS

Sarasota, FL is a city of 32,000 with eye-catching architecture, award-winning beaches and a rich cultural life. Into this idyllic picture on Oct. 13 intruded a 44-page advertising-free special section of the local paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (daily circulation 118,000; Sunday 134,000), to tell a scuzzy story of life in Sarasota few Sarasotans knew existed.

The section, “The Stolen Ones,” was an often sordid account of how young women, children really, become trapped in lives of degradation as they are sold for sex. The centerpiece of the feature is Moe, whose downfall began with her rape by her stepfather when she was younger than 10. From there, she fell into a life of prostitution and drugs. There are references to pimps in this deeply reported account, but not enough. Pimps are the true villains of the sex trade, cunning psychologists who know how to prey on the insecurities of young women and, ultimately, to enslave them.

Admittedly, getting pimps to speak on the record would be difficult. Even so, I wish the Sarasota paper had turned a stronger, more piercing, spotlight on these key actors in the downfall of too many young women.  “The Stolen Ones” refers to an Eric Bell of nearby Bradenton, includes his photo and describes him as a pimp who “lured underage girls from bus stops and forced them into prostitution.” Bell ended up in prison, but how many more Bells are still prowling the streets of Bradenton and Sarasota? Police ought to have a good handle on the pimps in their towns, and the press ought to identify them, complete with addresses and where they hang out.

Libel suits you say? I say not. Pimps are libel proof. They are among the lowest forms of human life, and thus have no reputations that can be damaged. The press can afford to be fearless in uncovering and reporting the identities of pimps in their communities, complete with their photos.

It would be a real public service for news organizations to post “Not Wanted” photos of known pimps in their circulation areas, explaining the harm they cause and urging their removal in the interests of creating a “Pimp-Free” town.


Time magazine, or more accurately, one of its columnists, James Poniewozick, made an important journalism point in the publication’s Oct. 21 issue. Poniewozick observed that the habit of news organizations to seek to appear neutral sometimes leads them to twist the news. “This month’s fiscal crisis,” he wrote, “is one such situation. One party (in fact one wing of the Republican Party), seeking the delay or elimination of Obamacare, precipitated a government shutdown and threatened a default on U.S. debt. Period. There was no corresponding threat or demand on the Democratic or White House side."

“What do you do,” he asked, “when the facts of a situation are such that to describe them accurately will make you sound biased?” You do exactly what Poniewozick did, to his credit, and call it the way you see it.  

According to Poniewozick, “Much of the big-picture news coverage has been clear on this. But as the crisis dragged on, more news stories framed it as old-fashioned gridlock between two equally culpable, stubborn, useless sides.” Time cited stories in the Washington Post, CNN and Politico it said were in the latter category. Or as Time wrote in the head on Poniewozick’s piece, there are times “when blaming both sides isn’t accurate news.”

Time performed an important journalistic service in running Poniewozick’s column, giving it good play and putting a hard-hitting head on it.


The U.S. military isn’t often regarded as a model for child-rearing practices in this country, but that could change once the findings reported in the Sept. 26 New York Review of Books become widely known. The findings:

“….there is one group of Americans that receives high-quality government-subsidized child-care services, including day care, preschool, home-visiting programs and health care: the U.S. military….[T]hese comprehensive programs aren’t designed to create obedient little soldiers. Instead, they use a play-oriented approach to help bring out children’s individual cognitive and social capacity. This may help explain why military children score higher on reading and mathematics tests than public school children and why the black/white achievement gap is much lower than it is in the general population. Since the military child-care program was created in 1989, the government has repeatedly declined requests to fund an in-depth evaluation, perhaps because if the effects were known, all Americans would demand these programs for their children too.”

I was a military conscript for two and a half years during World War II and despised every minute of it. After all, the military is based on totalitarian values; obedience above all else. That said, for me, military service was a worthwhile experience, so much so that I have become a believer in compulsory military service. In my experience, the chief value of such service is the way you are compelled to associate with people from very different walks of life. Military service is the great leveler, where people from varying segments of society come to know, value and depend on each other.

The educational benefits to military families are an added value. The government may not want to measure and tout that value, but the nation is well served by it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Three physicists contributed to the work for which the Nobel prize in physics was awarded this year. They are Peter W. Higgs, Francois Englert and Robert Brout. However, only two of the three –Higgs and Englert – actually won the Nobel. Brout, poor fellow, won nothing, not even a slice of the $1.2 prize money. The New York Times, after describing Brout’s work, explained that he, a professor at Cornell University, “might logically have shared the Nobel if he were alive today; the prize is not awarded posthumously.” Brout died in 2011.

That makes no sense. The prize is awarded not for longevity but for work done during a professional lifetime, which can be over a period of years. Science celebrates human reason. It borders on the irrational for two scientists to co-discover a major breakthrough and if one of them dies prematurely, for the survivor to reap all of the rewards and honors while the deceased receives perhaps a footnote. Death should not be allowed to erase a talented person’s accomplishments. By all accounts, Brout’s contribution was Nobel-worthy and he, or his heirs, deserved the recognition, and his fair share of the cash.

Pulitzer Prizes are awarded more logically. Deceased persons are eligible for awards for the work they performed. Period. Death is not a disqualifier.

Nobel prizes are governed by the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will. It’s ironic that the brilliance of the work celebrated by the Nobel prizes is not matched by the thinking that went into Nobel’s will. By ruling out posthumous awards, the will denies recognition to some of the world’s most creative minds. In fact, both of this year’s Nobel Laureates in physics could well have been made ineligible by the passage of a bit more time, inasmuch as Peter Higgs is 84 and Francois Englert is 80.

So for what it is worth, let’s hear it for Robert Brout, who was cheated by death out of his fair share of the limelight.