The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan generated banner headlines and outpourings of grief about the dead, but the wounded go largely unnoticed as they attempt to rebuild their lives and battle for benefits. This episode examines gaps between the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs that allow America’s war wounded to fall between the cracks after sacrificing so much for their country.
In an unprecedented move, CBS pulled the plug on its sweeps miniseries The Reagans amid allegations that the movie was biased. Bill Moyers sits down with Salon senior staff writer Eric Boehlert, who reports extensively on politics and media, covering everything from media consolidation to the declining music industry’s fight against file sharing. Boehlert discusses the relationship between Big Media conglomerates and government, and the role it may have played in CBS’s decision.
Then, journalist Doug Henwood discusses the American workforce and dispels some myths about productivity, professional mobility and the middle class. He talks about his book, After the Economy, a dissection of the new economy written with his customary irreverence and acuity. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
For the wounded, war never ends. The scars remain even when the wounds heal. So, in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO, Iago asks Cassio, “What? Are you hurt, Lieutenant?” And the soldier answers, “Aye, past all surgery.”
Our veterans hospitals and nursing homes overflow with such casualties. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan. They keep coming back, and even when the surgery’s done, things are never the same, never quite right again.
In Iraq, for every soldier killed, seven are wounded — 1,300 since May 1. That’s twice as many as were wounded during the war itself.
THE NEW REPUBLIC reports that nearly every night, under the cover of darkness, ambulances meet C-17 and C-141 transport planes flying into Andrews Air Force Base to ferry the wounded to military facilities. The government hasn’t wanted us to see them.
But that’s beginning to change as the numbers mount, and as journalists keep insisting on knowing who are these wounded and what’s happening to them. We have our own report. Here’s NOW’s David Brancaccio and producer Dan Klein.
BRANCACCIO: Homecoming in Fort Wayne, Indiana last month for the National Guard’s 293rd Infantry regiment.
20 miles south, in the town of Bluffton, another young vet from the 101st Airborne came home to a different kind of reception — one that was to leave him and his family nearly destitute.
Jason Stiffler followed a boyhood dream into the army at the age of 18. He was eager to defend his country. In return, he assumed it would take care of him.
JASON STIFFLER: I mean that was part of the agreement that we made on March 23rd, 01 which was when I signed up. I specifically remember that day it was the first thing I asked. If anything happens to me, will I be taken care of?” “Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. Just sign right here.”
BRANCACCIO: in January of 2002, Private First Class Stiffler was ordered to Afghanistan, leaving his wife Jacki and a son, Jason Jr. behind.
One night in April, he was manning a watchtower like this one at the Kandahar airport. That’s when his memory goes dark.
JASON STIFFLER: I really don’t know what happened.
BRANCACCIO: The tower collapsed. It’s still unclear whether it was due to an engineering failure, an attack, or friendly fire. What is certain is that Jason Stiffler fell about 25 feet, suffering seizures at the scene. Eventually, he went into a coma.
BRANCACCIO: What kind of injuries did you end up with?
JASON STIFFLER: Spinal cord injury, head injury. Paralysis. I was a quadriplegic. I couldn’t move anything from my neck down.
BRANCACCIO: At the Intensive Care Unit of the Army Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, a hopeful sign: Stiffler regained some feeling in his arms.
Next came six hard months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Arduous physical therapy helped him achieve limited use of his legs.
A year ago October, he was released from Walter Reed, and placed on the army’s temporary duty list. He was now eligible for medical care and payments from the system the government has set up to help care for wounded vets like him for the rest of their lives, the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Abraham Lincoln supplied its motto: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
The Stifflers say they waited for a promised phone call from the VA that never came. With his physical and mental condition deteriorating, Jason visited the regional VA hospital in Fort Wayne. The hospital had no record of who he was and was able to offer only limited help.
JACKI STIFFLER: They were supposed to make him appointments for the physical therapy. And they were supposed to have him, you know, set and everything after he got out of the Army, to go to the VA. No, none of that was done.
BRANCACCIO: Jason Stiffler, badly wounded veteran of America’s war on terror, was on his own.
JASON STIFFLER: There was a timeframe where I wasn’t getting paid nothing.
BRANCACCIO: How did you make ends meet during that time?
JASON STIFFLER: Well, you know what they told us what they told us? Churches.
JACKI STIFFLER: Churches.
JASON STIFFLER: Family, friends, welfare.
BRANCACCIO: With Jack pregnant with their second child, and working nights at a low wage job, the Stifflers went on public assistance. It was seven months since he had returned from Afghanistan.
JASON STIFFLER: My car got taken away several times. ‘Cause how am I gonna pay the bill? Pay the rent? Pay for gas? Pay for formula? Pay for food?
BRANCACCIO: And with no physical therapy or medical attention, Stiffler was losing the strength he had gained in his legs at Walter Reed. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress. Jacki Stiffler found him on the kitchen floor one night, a wild look in his eyes, pointing his crutch as if it were a gun — a flashback to his combat experience.
JACKI STIFFLER: I had to quit my job because of him going into a flashback. And he was with one of my kids. And I came home at two o’clock in the morning because I worked thirds. I came home early and he was in a flashback and thank God my son was sleeping. But after that I just— I couldn’t work no more.
BRITTON: When we got to Jason and Jacki the first time, Smitty and I walked in, they had an eviction notice on their door.
BRANCACCIO: David Britton lives 20 miles from the Stifflers. He is a Vietnam-era vet who works on a General Motors assembly line in Indiana. When he heard about Jason Stiffler, he knew he had to do something.
BRITTON: We actually talked to their landlord that day. Well, their landlord knew that for them to get help they had to have the paper trail. So they were helping them, even though here’s an eviction notice. That’s when I started really getting very concerned.
BRANCACCIO: Britton runs his union’s veterans committee. The Stifflers had never been union members or worked on the line. “No matter,” said Britton and his colleagues. UAW Local 2209 ran swap meets and raffles to raise money for them, and brought food and toys at the holidays.
So here’s the question: how can a severely wounded and disabled American serviceman reach such a state that he has to depend on the charity of strangers to survive?
The thing is, the VA has an annual budget of 60 billion dollars. It’s the second largest agency in the federal government — only the Department of Defense is bigger. All the more troubling then that the military’s neglect of Jason Stiffler is no isolated case.
And it’s not always the VA that’s at fault. Here at Fort Stewart, Georgia, reservists and national guard units on active duty were the subject a recent press report shedding light on shameful conditions for hundreds of the wounded and injured.
UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL reported last month that at Fort Stewart, about 600 “sick or injured members of the Army Reserves and National Guard are warehoused in rows of spare, steamy and dark cement barracks in a sandy field, waiting for doctors to treat their wounds or illnesses.”
UPI has also reported that sick and wounded GI’s at Fort Knox were waiting weeks, even months, for medical attention. They were housed “— in Spartan, dilapidated World War II-era barracks with leaking roofs, animal infestations, and no air conditioning in the Kentucky heat.”
One corporal back from Iraq said, “it doesn’t make any sense to go over there and risk your life and come back to this… it ain’t fair and it ain’t right.”
At both bases, the Defense Department rushed in with money and medical personnel after the critical reports appeared.
BISEL: The system’s broke flat. The system is there, it’s in place, and the system will work for you if you know who to get a hold of. You got to know who to make mad to get the system to work.
BRANCACCIO: Billy Bisel is another Indiana veteran of the Afghanistan war. One day he came under mortar fire and dived for cover, breaking a bone in his neck and cracking a disc. Two surgeries later, he had a steel plate in his neck, and hands so numb he couldn’t work his former jobs as a carpenter and welder.
When we met him, he and his wife and two children were living on $450 a month, plus, he says, a one-time after-tax severance from the army of about $7800, money eaten up all too quickly by expenses he incurred moving back to Indiana and just trying to keep up with his rent.
He tried to get a permanent rating from the Veterans Administration that would, he hoped, improve his benefits.
BISEL: I started calling to find out who I needed to talk to when I got home. All right, I was told that I needed to shut up and wait.
BRANCACCIO: They didn’t say, “Shut up.”
BISEL: Yes, they did.
BRANCACCIO: They said, “Shut up”?
BISEL: Literally. Yes. I needed to quit bitchin’, I needed to quit complainin’, I needed to just go home and wait until the paperwork comes in.
BRANCACCIO: 19 months after he got back from Afghanistan, Billy Bisel was still waiting.
In Washington, there’s a Congressman trying to do something to change the system. New Jersey Republican Chris Smith was never a soldier, but he’s fought hard on their behalf, sponsoring legislation to combat homelessness among vets, and to increase funding for the GI bill. Now he’s trying to fix the plight of the wounded.
REP. SMITH: It’s unacceptable. And the challenge that we have now is to ensure that this kind of mistake of not adequately caring for an individual who has served our country never happens again.
BRANCACCIO: Smith’s battle includes pushing for better communication between Defense, the DOD, and Veterans Affairs, the VA.
REP. SMITH: When I was first elected 23 years ago, we passed a bill. It wasn’t my bill but it was a very good bill. Sonny Montgomery and others worked on it, on DOD/VA sharing. When we went back and looked at it over the course of these years, there was almost no sharing. There was like a wall, a line of demarcation between the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration, that really was counterproductive.
BRANCACCIO: There are more problems and they are extreme. For example, according to a report by the American Legion, the average time a vet has to wait to get a medical appointment at a VA facility is seven months.
REP. SMITH: Right now there are major gaps, computers that don’t talk to computers. Missing assessments and medical histories. So that the veteran, unless he or she are really briefed and very effectively briefed, they come out and they go from a situation where they were, you know, part of the military 24/7 to being on their own without a clue, in many cases, as to where do they go if they do need some healthcare or something for treatment.
BRANCACCIO: In August, the WALL STREET JOURNAL ran an article laying bare the problem of wounded and neglected vets — a piece that featured Jason Stiffler.
It prompted a letter to the editor, calling the article “a wake up call.” It was signed Anthony J. Principi, Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
PRINCIPI: It’s a great cause to take care of them. And it hurts like hell when we fail.
BRANCACCIO: A cabinet-level official, Principi is not shy about admitting his department’s shortcomings.
PRINCIPI: We’re getting there but we’re not—it’s not seamless. One of our great challenges, we have information technology systems that are not compatible. I think the VA has world’s finest computerized patient record system. But unfortunately the Defense Department has a different computerized system. And they don’t really talk to one another.
BRANCACCIO: Can you pick up the phone and talk to Secretary Rumsfeld? Is there a system set up?
PRINCIPI: There is a system, and it’s called the President of the United States who is pretty adamant about Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Principi breaking down the barriers between the two departments. I mean, on more than one occasion at a cabinet meeting, the President, somewhat off the cuff, will say to Don Rumsfeld, “How are you and Principi working? Are you two making progress?”
BRANCACCIO: Help us understand really this dual system. A soldier comes back and will probably still be in the other system — the Pentagon system, the military system. You have a separate system altogether.
PRINCIPI: Don Rumsfeld and I care for the same people at different points in their lives. While they’re on active duty, they are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense. So when they return from combat, those that are wounded may go into a military hospital. I now have full-time coordinators from my department in military hospitals to ensure that when they’re discharged — because the nature of their disability precludes them from remaining on active duty — that when they go back home that they’re cared for.
BRANCACCIO: It’s an important first step toward making the system work, one taken after the negative media attention.
One of the fulltime VA benefits coordinators is former army infantryman Chris Reid. Reid has a prosthetic right arm and right leg, terrible souvenirs of a firefight in Somalia in 1993.
Now he works at Walter Reed helping other wounded soldiers make the transition back to civilian life.
REID: Yesterday I came by. We filled the paperwork out so that is downtown being processed. Concerning his benefit and that should be done soon.
I think everyone would agree with me to make sure all our young men and women are taken care of concerning benefit both dual with VA and DOD and let them be briefed on those benefits that’s available to them. Because if they’re not told about it, then they end up going home and out in the wilderness lost and not being aware. And hear about it by word of mouth.
BRANCACCIO: 23-year-old Roy Gray was delivering food to his buddies in Iraq when mortar fire hit his truck. Shrapnel pierced his left thigh — he almost bled to death.
GRAY: I look up and I see my leg and I didn’t know if it was still attached. Or what was going on. It was like crooked, every which way but right.
BRANCACCIO: The wards of Walter Reed are peopled with vets with life-altering injuries, many of the kind that would have resulted in death in earlier wars. But American fighting men and women are surviving terrible wounds like never before, thanks to faster evacuation procedures, better equipment and medicine. In fact, quality of treatment is not the issue here, either at military or VA hospitals.
WHITE: If you look at the doctors and the nurses and the staff people in a VA hospital, they provide excellent quality care.
BRANCACCIO: Todd White won four medals serving in the Vietnam War. He’s now the National Vice Commander of the American Legion, the country’s largest veterans’ organization. He also volunteers at veterans hospitals where he’s seen the care close up.
WHITE: The problem has always been trying to get that veteran in there to finally begin accept— or getting this quality care. And yes, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare and it’s unfortunate.
BRANCACCIO: Funding is also an issue, according to a coalition of veterans groups. It has calculated that next year, the VA will fall 1.8 billion dollars short of meeting the medical needs of veterans if Congress approves the current plan.
REP. SMITH: There’s been chronic underfunding for years. And if you bleed a system long enough, and starve it long enough, you begin to have problems with infrastructure. Buildings begin to crumble. And we have an infrastructure, a bill that we’re trying to get passed that would provide, you know, about $500 million each year to fix and repair a crumbling infrastructure that, you know, needs to be repaired. It’s worth saving.
BRANCACCIO: After Jason Stiffler’s story became front page news, his rating from the VA came through at 100% disability. He and his family, which now includes a baby daughter, Angel, receive $2900 a month from the VA. He credits the media attention.
So does Billy Bisel. After an article in the FORT WAYNE JOURNAL GAZETTE about his case, Bisel heard from the VA and the very day we showed up with our camera, a letter arrived with his permanent disability rating, which increased his payment from $450 to $1400 a month.
For Congressman Chris Smith, doing right by America’s veterans is simply a matter of justice.
REP. SMITH: I think the biggest risk is the moral obligation and the sacred duty that we have to care for, as Lincoln said, for him who was born this nation’s battle, and for his widow, and for his orphan. That is a sacred obligation that we can’t ever lower our guard, or diminish our response, even one iota.
BRANCACCIO: Smith recently held a hearing, the sixth one in less than two years, he says, about trying to improve conditions for the sick and injured leaving military service.
One captain in the army reserve who has served for 10 years spoke up to question whether the military was making good on its promises to new recruits. Her name? Arvilla Stiffler, Jason Stiffler’s mother.
ARVILLA STIFFLER [at hearing]: As a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves and after witnessing my son’s journey, I feel if recruiters would inform new recruits the consequences if injured included an expectation to become frustrated with a system that leaves you below the poverty line, forces you on food stamps and into a welfare system and lastly will make you wait long periods of time to receive medical care, I ask you would you sign up?
JASON STIFFLER: I was defending our country cause of September 11th. So why should I have to? Why should any soldier, at that matter? If they’re gonna send us over there they should take care of us.
ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW.
We’re working longer and harder, but are we getting ahead?
HENWOOD: The record of upward mobility in the United States is not anywhere near as happy as a lot of people would like to think.
ANNOUNCER: Life after the new economy.
MOYERS: You know the story by now: CBS picks up a sure thing, a dramatic series about Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Can’t lose. Hollywood actor becomes popular President with wife co-starring at his side. A natural.
CBS even teases us with a few clips to create buzz, including hints of shadows in an otherwise sunny story.
One excerpt suggested Reagan was suffering from early Alzheimer’s while still the Commander-in-Chief.
Here’s how it played on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT:
ACTOR PORTRAYING REAGAN: What’s your name?
ACTOR PORTRAYING MCFARLANE: Robert McFarlane. I’m your National Security Advisor. Perhaps you don’t remember me.
ACTOR PORTRAYING REAGAN: No, I don’t.
MOYERS: Then the earth shook. The Republican National Committee read CBS the riot act. The right wing talk circuit erupted. Reagan partisans poured into the streets of cyberspace.
Listen to this e-column from a Cornell graduate student:
“The portrayal of Reagan is outrageous and false. The Hollywood Left’s consistent perversion of history is a transparent attempt to camouflage its own traitorous judgment over the past 40 years.”
The President of CBS, Les Moonves, ordered a scalpel put to the script.
But the howls continued and on Tuesday of this week, CBS dumped the series off on its little sister cable channel, Showtime, where, if it airs at all next year, few viewers are likely even to know how to find it.
“Gippergate sure to take a toll on CBS,” reported VARIETY, estimating the network would lose millions of dollars on the move. But will CBS get those millions back another way?
The parent company Viacom, which owns a galaxy of media properties, has billions of dollars resting on whether a White House, Congress, and FCC controlled by Republicans allow it to grow even bigger. Les Moonves says taste, not politics, dictated his decision.
But earlier this year, explaining why CBS intended to air a controversial series about Adolf Hitler, Moonves was singing a different tune. Quote: “If you want to play it safe and put on milquetoast, then you get criticized… There are times as a broadcaster when you take chances.
Clearly this is a case for Eric Boehlert. Eric Boehlert writes extensively about politics and media for SALON, the online magazine. Before that, he wrote for BILLBOARD MAGAZINE and ROLLING STONE. This is his first time on NOW. Welcome.
BOEHLERT: Thank you. Good to be here.
MOYERS: The famous CBS eye blinked.
MOYERS: This was not a time to take chances, right?
BOEHLERT: Oh yeah I mean it was such a strange finale to all this. I mean, 99 times out of 100 if you have a controversial story or miniseries and you’re getting some flack, you know, CBS was willing to make some cuts, to make some edits. And then you put it on the air, people watch it. People say, “What was the big fuss?” or “That was sort of dopey.” And CBS gets, you know, 20, 30 percent ratings boost because of all the buzz.
And then they move on. But the idea that they would essentially cancel it— I mean it’s going to be on Showtime. But the idea that they would punt it after they made it and screened it and sold the advertising. It’s just unheard of in this business.
MOYERS: I have to declare a bias. I personally loath these made-for-television movies where Hollywood takes license with recent historical figures to exploit them anyway they want to. I mean what Oliver Stone did to Lyndon Johnson— that was not the Lyndon Johnson I knew. Do you have any sympathy for the Reagan people who say this is unfair and a distortion and not the Ronald Reagan that they knew?
BOEHLERT: Well, there may be minor distortions throughout it. I mean, but the idea that a docudrama, a miniseries on network TV is gonna be some sort of factually perfect rendition is absurd. I mean they’ve been making movies about the Kennedys and the Roosevelts, as you mentioned, LBJ and Nixon.
And it’s not history. It’s a screenwriter working off some biographies trying to come up with some interesting dialogue so people won’t turn the channel. So the idea that, you know, you’re gonna fact check, you know, sort of a cheesy miniseries is absurd. That’s not the standard that has ever been used in the past.
MOYERS: So what’s going on here? What’s your own take on it?
BOEHLERT: Well, politics is clearly in play. I mean, the head of CBS said politics didn’t have anything to do with this. It was taste, they weren’t happy with the final product. But, you know, they all screened it in October and they were happy with the product. I mean, there was just this barrage of criticism from the Right, it—
MOYERS: 80,000 letters they got. The Republican National Committee, I mean, I have the letter right here… The chairman of the Republican National Committee says, “Those graduating from college this year were only about five years old when President Reagan left office and this broadcast will have a significant impact on their understanding of his legacy.”
BOEHLERT: Well, I mean, that’s silly. This movie was made — CBS skews very old — this movie was made for people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are interested in Reagan. The idea that, you know, 18, 19 years olds are gonna be camped around the CBS on Sunday night, on Monday night to watch this is silly. And the idea that if something flashes on a small screen, particularly a young viewer who’s so media savvy today, is gonna see something on a TV screen and take it as gospel is absurd. So the argument is sort of silly but of course they’re able to rally the troops and they got tens of thousands of phone, you know, e-mails and telegrams and they scared, you know, CBS stiff.
MOYERS: Scared them or what grounds?
BOEHLERT: Scared them that, you know, this is hardball and a) maybe we’ll organize a boycott—
MOYERS: Now what this conservative group actually wrote and said that they were going to boycott any advertiser—
MOYERS: —that bought time in this series.
BOEHLERT: And, you know, there’s a history of that. I mean, there’s tradition of that. If something… you know, a couple of years ago Dr. Laura, a famous talk show host on radio, she was gonna get a TV show and — she’s very conservative very, you know, very religious — made some very anti-inflammatory remarks about gays, and gay groups pressured the television company and they were gonna threaten a boycott to the advertisers anyone that was on that show.
But what’s different is that she had been on the air. She had said many outrageous things and advertisers could either choose to be a part of it or not. With CBS, the movie never aired. No one knew what was on it and people were gonna threaten, you know, a boycott on something no one had ever seen. Again, it’s never played out like this before. These are all new rules.
MOYERS: You go to the Web sites that were created to protest this. You find people saying, “Well this series is showing that Reagan was divorced. It’s showing that Nancy Reagan set up his schedule by consulting an astrologist. It’s suggesting all kinds of things about Reagan that just don’t fit the official view of reality.”
BOEHLERT: Right. They’re all true. I mean, you know, the idea that he wasn’t somewhat detached, the idea that Nancy Reagan wasn’t a powerful figure in that White House for eight years. I mean, if you just go back and read real-time reporting during the 80s, all those things are common knowledge.
MOYERS: In fact, Congressman John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, has written CBS, tongue in cheek, to complain that the series does a disservice to the country because it’s not negative enough about the Reagan presidency.
BOEHLERT: Yeah and that’s the old— The strange part is this is, you know, critics pointed out a couple quotes that they swore Ronald Reagan never said and CBS was more than willing to yank those. But this was about the portrayal — that was the key word in this whole controversy. They didn’t like the way he was portrayed.
That’s a wonderfully, you know, amorphous word. It gives you all sorts of room to make complaints about how someone is portrayed. Basically, it wasn’t nice enough, really, in the bottom line. The movie was not nice enough. It wasn’t historically inaccurate. There wasn’t any radical take on the Reagan presidency.
It was by most indications, based on the seven or eight minute trailer, a sort of a campy take on the Reagan marriage. But the idea that it was wildly off-base doesn’t hold ground. But it wasn’t nice enough so people didn’t like how Ronald Reagan was portrayed and that… If you’re gonna argue about how someone is portrayed, that just opens a whole new realm in terms of not censorship but cultural debate. This is how someone has to be portrayed or else.
MOYERS: You say that this is unprecedented, that there have been protests and boycotts.
MOYERS: But nothing like this has ever happened. CBS says they’re shocked that anybody would suggest they did this because they want the White House, the Congress and the FCC to approve their request to get bigger, to buy more stations. You’ve been covering this field of media ownership and media conglomeration for a long time now. Do you believe CBS when they say this had nothing to do with it?
BOEHLERT: I don’t think it was the driving factor. I think the ownership rules are so important. CBS the parent has spent so much money along with ABC and NBC and Clear Channel and all the major media companies. They have spent the last year pouring money into Washington in terms of paying lobbyists and trying to get their way with these media ownership rules.
They’ve had some pretty serious setbacks in Washington in the last six months. They’ve been sort of shocked by the grassroots response. So I don’t think it was the driving factor, but you don’t want to mess with this. I mean, this is ownership. This is billions of dollars. And, you know, I saw the historian Richard Reeves on TV this week saying CBS is scared and they should be scared of Conservatives and Republicans in Washington.
I mean, they control the levers of power in the House and the Senate and the White House and the FCC. If you’re running that kind of company, you do not want to step out of line. You don’t want to create a fight with these people. And this is serious business. Many documentary movies about President Reagan is really not serious business. What is serious business is ownership rules and be able to buy and sell more and more properties. That is the bottom line. And that had to be in the back of everybody’s mind, executives at CBS.
MOYERS: Well even as we speak, Viacom is in violation of the FCC regulations. Viacom reaches more of the country than the law says you’re supposed to reach. They’re in violation right now. They obviously don’t want to jeopardize their lobbying in Washington.
BOEHLERT: They got sort of dispensation and, you know, Murdoch has gotten it too. They’re in violation but the FCC is saying, “Well, let’s wait and see how everything shakes out and then we’ll decide who has to sell what, if anything.” So yeah, like I said, you know, they’ve suffered these setbacks in Washington there’s a very powerful sort of grassroots backlash against the media consolidation.
MOYERS: But two million people wrote the FCC and Congress this summer to protest the FCC’s taking the lid off.
BOEHLERT: And so Washington is very important for all of these companies and never more so now. So your allies in Washington on the media consolidation issue are the Republicans. The Republican FCC is on your side on this and the Republican White House is on your side. They want to see Viacom and others be able to buy essentially as much as they want. So if that’s your best, biggest partner in Washington for this gigantic, you know, ownership battle, why would you want to upset them?
MOYERS: Why don’t mainstream journalists who work for these big companies report more on what’s happening in Washington on this issue?
BOEHLERT: Well, I think some of them are in a tight spot. I mean, there was a fascinating debate over the summer when the FCC made its ruling and then there was this backlash. And it was invisible on network television as you know and only later did some of the newspapers sort of jump on it. You know, if I wasn’t writing for SALON, if I was writing for a company that was playing this game that wanted part of the media ownership, I’d be a lot more careful about what I write about.
I don’t think it’s openly discussed in the newsroom, “Don’t write about this. Don’t write about that.” It’s obvious. You know if you want a job, if you want to advance, let’s not upset our boss and do story after story about how the media conglomerates sort of fell on their face in terms of this lobbying effort and were shocked by the consumer backlash.
MOYERS: Are you saying that this is outside the narrative the proper narrative that we journalists set for ourselves? What our owners are doing, what our bosses are doing— media as power, not media as journalism?
BOEHLERT: Well, it shouldn’t be out of the— it should not affect what you write and what you cover and the news that you gather, but of course it does. I mean, it’s a business, you know, journalists and mostly up and down the east coast, I mean… those are professionals, those are white collar, you know, employees, you know. This is serious business and it pays pretty well for a lot of people. Why would you want to step on toes if, you know… You’re not going to go a story meeting and say, “We’ve got to do this, you know. We’ve got to do a story about how our, you know, parent company has just botched, you know, this lobbying campaign in Washington” And, “Gee, isn’t fascinating that two million people have written the White House?” Yeah, you cover it once, you cover it twice, you don’t stay on it for weeks and weeks, I mean.
MOYERS: I take this story of happened with CBS and the Reagans as central to the emerging relationship between big media and the state, between corporations and government. Do you see it that way?
BOEHLERT: Well, it is sort of disconcerting in terms of how close they’ve become. I mean, we’ve seen that ever since 9/11. And we saw it with the coverage of Afghanistan and certainly with the coverage of Iraq. During the war, I mean, there was a certain feeling of “us,” you know, “NBC, ABC, us, you know, we and the government. We’re all in this together, this is our war. Here’s our coverage. Here’s what happened today on the battlefield.”
It’s very unusual, you know, the flag flying and the decals and the things like that. And now, I think it’s more troubling now in terms of what’s happening with it in Iraq. I, you know, I turn on the cable TV and, you know, there’s very little coverage. I mean, the White House complains that there’s this drumbeat of negative coverage about Iraq. You know there was a blackhawk helicopter that was shot down today, you know. I turn on CBS, CNN, I had to wait 40 or 50 minutes to see anything about that and that’s an all-news cable channel. I think they’re sort of taking their page from the White House which is, “This is a long war. There will be bumps but when the bumps come up, it’s not that big a deal. It’s not that big a deal if, you know, 26 or 27 soldiers died this week. This is a, you know, we’ll give it three or four minutes an hour and then we’re on to the Laci Peterson trial.”
MOYERS: I was intrigued that a couple of weeks ago CNN — you mentioned CNN — ran a very favorable documentary to the first George Bush. Took him back to the World War II scenes where he was in fact a brave man. Nobody, particularly Republicans, complained that CNN ran a flattering documentary and recently Showtime ran a docudrama about this George W. Bush and portrayed him as the hero of 9/11. Nobody complained then. What does that say to you?
BOEHLERT: Well, it says if you’re, you know, if the portrayal is heroic, all bets are off and particularly the portrayals of a heroic Republican. I mean, that Showtime movie was really, I mean, that was a piece of work. I mean, it was written by, you know, an avowed, you know, Republican Bush backer gave Bush money. He was having trouble with the screenwriting, the screenplay, so Karl Rove invited him to the White House. He had a 60-minute sitdown with the President who basically said, “Here’s how it happened on that day.”
And people who watched it who pay attention who have studied what happened on that day and the days after sort of laughed. I mean, this is not what happened, I mean, they did not show President Bush reading to elementary students for 30 minutes after the second plane hit. They did show the Bush White House, you know, obsessed with Al Qaeda and terrorism from the day they came into office which is not true. There’s no basis on that, in fact, to the opposite.
So this was a wonderfully rosy portrayal and, you know, made up dialogue. I mean, some of it was based on fact. And everyone, not a peep, you know, people liked it and it was a rosy portrayal.
MOYERS: But does it concern you that this fusion between entertainment and politics between journalism and real— I mean, you can turn on television tonight and see journalists playing themselves on cable channel dramas.
You can see movies about the con men of journalism Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass at THE NEW REPUBLIC. I mean, I don’t know where fiction starts today and journalism begins.
BOEHLERT: Right, and of course next week we’ll see the Jessica Lynch docudrama.
They hear about the Jessica Lynch story as it was originally portrayed. And then they hear well maybe that’s not true. And then they see this movie on NBC.
But then they see she’s coming out herself saying, “No, it wasn’t true.” So what are people to make of all this? I mean, do you believe her or do you believe NBC or do you believe the Pentagon?
So it is hard to tell this sort of entertainment, news, and politics, they’ve all sort of been mixed together. And in some sense, you can come up with a fascinating product sometimes. But what the danger is — particularly when politics and news, or politics and entertainment are sort of hand in hand and you have what we had last week — is essentially running CBS out of town for daring to portray, you know, Ronald and Nancy Reagan as not being nice people 24 hours a day.
MOYERS: What do you think, finally, are the stakes in this fight over ownership over whether a handful of media companies can get bigger and bigger?
BOEHLERT: Well, I think we’ve seen the downside this week with the whole Reagan fiasco and that, I mean, Viacom wants to own even more. They want to own even more local stations that they can, you know, program and say this is what we’re gonna put on the air.
And if they’re gonna sort of turn and run at the slightest hint of controversy and they want to own even more. And so we’re gonna have two or three companies essentially owning the programming and yet, as they get bigger and bigger they sort of have less and less guts to stand up to people. I mean, it could just be a disaster.
MOYERS: Eric Boehlert, SALON.com. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS: war profiteering. Who’s getting those big fat contracts to rebuild Iraq?
BAKER: It’s who you know. It’s what you know. It’s how much information you have about what services are required.
ANNOUNCER: Will businesses with cozy ties to the White House make out like bandits? Next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org.
Are we keeping our promises to soldiers? Find out more.
Add your war memories to our Veterans Day scrapbook.
Tell us what you think about the cancellation of the Reagan miniseries.
Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
BRANCACCIO: It’s been a week of the kind of headlines that economists and politicians in power dream about.
First, word that the economy grew from mid-summer to fall at the highest rate since 1984. Then today, news that unemployment fell a tad in October, with the number of new names on employer payroll, double what economists were expecting.
The stock market has had a good 2003; the S&P 500 Index is up 20% this year.
But let’s look under the hood at another key economic stat that attracted headlines this week: productivity. It was way up last quarter, part of a two-year spurt not seen in half a century.
Yesterday, Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan described the increases as, quote, “startlingly large.” Productivity increases are nice because they can represent the kind of growth that leads to higher wages without inflation.
But there’s another side to productivity. It can mean the same amount of work done by fewer people often working longer hours for less money.
Doug Henwood joins us to help us understand what’s going on. He is editor of LEFT BUSINESS OBSERVER, and his new book, AFTER THE NEW ECONOMY, looks at the truth behind some of our myths. Doug Henwood, thanks for joining us here on NOW.
HENWOOD: Thanks for having me.
BRANCACCIO: Give us a sense of where we are, with our working lives. Here, now, in the 21st Century. There are challenges of the low-wage work. But what about, you know, with some new skills, some education, maybe those workers can lift themselves up into the middle class? Or maybe their children could.
HENWOOD: Well, if they’re lucky. But the record of upward mobility in the United States is not anywhere near as happy as a lot of people would like to think. Most people stay roughly in the income category they were born into, that their parents occupied.
And the United States isn’t particularly mobile compared to other countries. We think of this as the great land of upward mobility, but it’s really not that much more mobile in either direction than western Europe. And we also have a very, very large low-wage workforce. About the largest in the northern hemisphere.
And also people don’t exit from that very quickly. They just sort of stay there for much of their working lives. It’s not really a point of entry into the labor market. But for most people, where they’re going to have a long-term residence.
BRANCACCIO: I mean, surely we all know people who grew up in poverty and moved on to middle class and beyond. But you’re saying that actually this isn’t representative? Or it’s just not as true as we think it is?
HENWOOD: It’s not as true as we think it is. And if people move, they move a notch. They don’t move four or five notches up the ladder.
And this has been true for many, many decades. But, you know, we have the widest distribution of rich and poor in the developed world. And surprisingly the smallest middle income category in the developed world. Which is, of course, exactly the opposite of what most Americans would think.
BRANCACCIO: What would account for this?
HENWOOD: Well the best predictor of your own education is your parents’ level of education. The best predictor of your income is your parents’ income. And there are reasons for this. If you’re born into a lower middle class family, say, you’re going to probably go to schools that aren’t as good as people who are further up the income ladder.
You’re going to grow up in a household that doesn’t have books. You’re not going to develop the connections that people need to get to move up in the world. Certainly people do it. There’s no doubt about it.
But it the odds are really, really against you.
BRANCACCIO: You’re full of surprises here, Mr. Henwood. You also just mentioned that the middle class is small? I mean, I’ve seen those statistics. The ones that show that if you ask Americans most of them say they’re middle class.
HENWOOD: Yes, you’re right. Many Americans, a very large majority of them, probably think of themselves as middle class. But if you look at— if you define this strictly in income terms, incomes you know, around the average, we have the smallest percentage of our population in that middle income category of any of the developed countries from which the numbers exist.
BRANCACCIO: So we may not be as upwardly mobile as we think. Our middle class is smaller than we think. But surely we’re a productive bunch. I mean, we get a lot of work in a short amount of time, we Americans.
HENWOOD: Well, we work a lot. There’s no question about that. But the absolute level of productivity, what an American worker produces in a year is sort of in the middle of the pack of the rich countries. Places like Sweden and the Netherlands actually produce as much or more in a year.
BRANCACCIO: Well, I was looking in your book and I saw a graph there about work hours necessary to make average yearly family income.
HENWOOD: It’s almost a straight shot upwards, about 45-degree angle. We know that our average incomes have been rising. But what we don’t know is that we’re working a lot harder to get that.
You talk to almost anyone who works at an office or a factory these days and there are fewer hands on deck. But people are almost expected to do more work. Somebody leaves or somebody gets laid off, you know, somebody else will take up that job in addition to his or her own job.
And I think that is throughout the whole economy. We’ve had, I think the productivity numbers really underestimate the length of time people are working to provide this miracle of productivity. Because what they measure is what people are paid for. Not the actual hours that they put in.
And in a lot of cases, for example, in the computer industry, the government statistics assume that white-collar worker work 35 hours a week. Now, no one in the computer industry would find that anything but hilarious.
BRANCACCIO: In fact, for anybody who ever wanted a little bit more vacation, it looks like the United States may not be the place to be.
Do you see these statistics? On average, the Swedes get 25 to 35 days off. The Italians about 30, a lot of countries 30. What about the United States?
HENWOOD: Well, we have very short vacations, maybe an average of two weeks and there’s no legal mandate to offer vacation. A lot of Western European countries, even southern— Latin American countries, they mandate four weeks of vacation, paid vacation, a year.
There’s no such mandate in the United States. And even people who are entitled to vacations, according to surveys, a lot of people don’t take them, because it is perceived as a lack of dedication to the work effort. And they’re reluctant to appear lazy.
We have the longest— among the longest work years in the world. If you look at the number of hours a worker puts in in a year.
The only comparable country would be South Korea, where they probably work slightly longer. Japan used to be ahead of us. But they had their recession, and they’ve fallen down.
BRANCACCIO: But what is it? The Protestant work ethic? Or are we just diligent people?
HENWOOD: Well, I think it’s the Protestant work ethic. A lot of Americans, yeah, really are driven by work. To the point I think where it really damages their own lives. But it’s also that we have a very large low-wage sector. But we don’t have a lot of benefits.
A lot of the things that we— Americans complain about high taxes. But we have relatively high taxes and don’t get that much for it. You know. In other countries people will have good benefit systems — healthcare taken care of, reasonable income security if they lose their jobs. We don’t have any of that here to speak of. We have to work very, very hard, very long hours just to make ends meet in a lot of cases. We have low wages, low benefits. And that inspires people— forces people to work very hard.
BRANCACCIO: Even with all these fancy computers, computer networks, robots and so forth, we’re still working these long hours.
HENWOOD: Yeah, well, that’s one of the paradoxes of this productivity revolution. The statistics say productivity is rising. But I think a more colloquial definition of productivity — one ordinary people would think of — would be being able to produce more stuff.
BRANCACCIO: How much I get done in a given day.
HENWOOD: Right. And we’re not taking the dividends of that productivity in the form of relaxing. You know, you’d think that productivity means that machines are doing more of our work for us. But in fact we’re working longer hours and productivity is an abstraction.
BRANCACCIO: Well, your book is called AFTER THE NEW ECONOMY. Is that what is after the new economy? These longer hours and technology not helping as much as advertised?
HENWOOD: Well, it’s kind of hard to say what’s after the economy. I think we’re in this phase of longer term economic trouble. I think we’re still thinking of it as kind of a conventional business cycle. And the recovery is just not coming, or it’s coming very slowly.
And certainly some of numbers are looking up. There’s no question about that. Although the job market is the last place these numbers are looking up. I don’t want to be one of those people who are complaining about foreigners taking our jobs. I think in many cases they’re getting better jobs than they would have otherwise. And a lot of the people who are getting jobs in India, actually are doing very well compared to what they would have had if it weren’t for these outsourced jobs.
It’s too bad that Americans are losing their jobs. But I don’t want to like set this sort of “they’re stealing our lunch” kind of rhetoric. But if you actually look at the kinds of jobs that have been created here and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will be created over the next decade, it’s nothing like these high-tech fantasies.
Sure we’ve got things like systems analysts and senior managers. But those are really in the minority — maybe a third of the top new jobs in the next decade. What are far more prevalent are things like cashiers, home-help aids, truck drivers. Really low-wage, in many cases.
And certainly not high skill jobs of the future that most people think are compensating for it. There are what, like three times as many truck drivers as there are people— computer programmers. And that’s not going to change any time significantly.
BRANCACCIO: Now, you do paint a pretty grim picture of what’s really going on in the American economy as you see it. Do we leave it there? Is there anything that you would like to see done to sort of move the debate forward, move conditions forward, if that’s indeed how we live in this country?
HENWOOD: Well, I think the first step to progress is just seeing the way things— the way they are, and stripping away the myth-making. So, that’s, I think, the most urgent task. But I would, you know, I have I guess a fairly conventional socially democratic— social democratic political agenda, you know. I’d like to see higher minimum wages, more unions, better social benefits, national health care. You know, those sorts of things that are almost ruled out now of polite political discussion. And they work very well.
And we have a almost $11 trillion economy. We can certainly afford it. But they’re just considered impossible. And that’s the kind of thing that respectable people don’t bring up in public.
BRANCACCIO: But how? I mean, it’s sort of like I’ve asked you, how do you play the flute, and you said, “Well, you run your fingers up and down the keys in the right order.” How, if that is, indeed the goal—
HENWOOD: Takes a lot of practice, too.
BRANCACCIO: Lots of practice, lots of practice. But indeed, if that is a goal, strengthening unions’ rights and more universal health care, how do we get there, do you suppose?
HENWOOD: Well, it’s certainly not easy. We have a very demobilized population politically. People have very low expectations of what politics can achieve. And now, you know, I think after California, I think the “throw the bums out” mentality is in the ascendancy.
But that’s all a very negative agenda. And California, I think, is a perfect example of this box that American politics is in. You have a state with severe constraints raising revenues. People still expect relatively high levels of public services.
And there’s no money to pay for it. And people have a very hard time, you know, connecting the dots in there. And California, I think, is an extreme version of the thing that goes on nationally. People like to hear about tax cuts and tax relief.
And the government is a big burden. The government’s the problem, you know. That Reagan quote still, I think, infects a lot of our political thinking. But it’s really the, you know, without that, we’re all condemned to continue this life of stress and overwork and having trouble making ends meet.
BRANCACCIO: The book is called AFTER THE NEW ECONOMY. Doug Henwood, thanks for stopping by NOW.
HENWOOD: Thanks for having me.
MOYERS: From our in-box to yours, stories David and I have been filing away in case you missed them. Including stories about the state of working America.
This one: the Department of Agriculture reports that in almost four million families last year, someone went hungry because the family couldn’t afford to buy food—That’s a 22 percent increase from 1999.
BRANCACCIO: Here’s another one: THE GUARDIAN of London sent a reporter to Ohio to check up on middle America. He reports that Ohio’s 11 million households made over two million visits to food charities last year. That’s up 18 percent from the year before. Ohio has lost one out of every six factory jobs.
MOYERS: Kentucky changed governors this week and that’s not all. The Louisville COURIER-JOURNAL reports that Kentucky is starting to charge twenty to thirty dollars a month for kids enrolled in state health care plans for families of the working poor. A spokesman for the state calls it, quote, “a way to educate families about the value of health care and the cost of health care.”
BRANCACCIO: Curling up with a General Accounting Office report may not be your idea of romance on a cozy November night, but here it is: The GAO says overly clever corporate tax shelters SAVED businesses 85 billion dollars last year. Let me rewind and say that again: Abusive corporate tax shelters are COSTING the government 85 billion. But what could the government possibly do with an extra 85 billion?
MOYERS: If you have some time on your hands, Uncle Sam is looking for a few good men and women to sit on draft boards. You may be surprised to realize that draft boards still exist because the draft was abolished in 1973. But the government is trying to fill the vacant seats on existing boards through a Web site urging people to “Serve Your Community and the Nation.” What’s going on, you may ask? Well, according to the online magazine SALON, some experts are suggesting that the number of military personnel needed for an extended occupation of Iraq might outstrip the supply of volunteers.
BRANCACCIO: Promotions in the news: the man who stage-managed the Bush administration’s media campaign against Saddam last spring will be doing the same thing against the Democrats next year.
Jim Wilkinson was responsible for the impressive communications center the U.S. military built for its media briefings in Qatar. Now the Texan is embedded in midtown Manhattan, where he’ll be running communications for next summer’s Republican National Convention over here at Madison Square Garden.
MOYERS: There’s a new twist in the outsourcing story we reported on last summer.
The accelerating trend in American business to send computer and clerical jobs overseas just hit a speed bump. The SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE has a story that The University of California Medical Center was held hostage last month by a data entry worker in Pakistan. It seems she hadn’t been paid by a Texas subcontractor who was working for the Florida outfit brought in by the California company originally hired to handle the medical center’s records.
She threatened to post patients’ confidential files on the Internet unless she got her money. She finally did. But, says a hospital spokesman, “We’ll have to live with this risk on a daily basis.” Outsourcing, you might say, to the fourth power.
BRANCACCIO: And remember the other day when the Justice Department went around raiding Wal-Marts, looking for illegal immigrants? You might have thought that would be a black eye for the biggest employer in the country. Well, don’t presume. Wal-Mart’s stock went up three-quarters of a percent that day. The mystery of why that happened has now been solved by the TEXARKANA GAZETTE. The Texas paper quoted business observers suggesting that the FBI raids gave Wal-Mart a bounce by reminding the public that the Christmas shopping season is about to get into full swing.
MOYERS: Words escape us. But not the links to the original stories. Connect to NOW’s revamped website for the full bibliography. That’s it for NOW. David and I will be back next week. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on August 13, 2015.