Did your stockbroker lie to you? In this episode, NOW investigated the insider story of how investors got duped and defrauded and why it may happen again. The previous week, Wall Street got a slap on the wrist, when the Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced a $1.4 billion dollar settlement with ten major Wall Street investment banks. The attorney general billed it as fodder for future lawsuits by investors and investment banks, heralded it as a sign that corporate misbehavior could be put behind them. NOW examined the settlement, revealing the emails and documents never meant to be seen by your eyes, and investigated how investors got duped and defrauded by those at the top.
Next, Bill Moyers interviewed David Grossman, whose ground-breaking books The Yellow Wind and Sleeping on a Wire chronicled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a poignant understanding of both sides, entering the Palestinian and Israeli hearts like no other writer of his time. His book, Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo, is a compilation of ten years of passionate essays in which Grossman addresses the question of whether there will ever be peace in the Middle East as a journalist, a father, and a peace activist discouraged and disheartened by the present-day spiral of violence and death.
Then, Bill Moyers interviewed FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a vocal opponent of further efforts at media de-regulation. Copps made a name for himself traveling around the country holding unofficial hearings prior to the FCC’s scheduled June 2 vote, on whether to eliminate the ban on media cross-ownership and ease other ownership regulations.
Finally, a look back at the 1985 Air India tragedy, where 329 people died in the worst bomb attack ever on a commercial airliner. As the trial of the two men accused was finally beginning, Moyers talked to acclaimed author Bharati Mukherjee about her investigation into the tragedy, as well as terrorism, fundamentalism, and her fiction. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. We were treated this week to a spectacle. A spectacle of lying, fraud, arrogance and greed so audacious as to take your breath away. No, this is not a new episode of The Sopranos I’m talking about. The perps were not Tony, Big Pussy, Uncle Junior, and Paulie. The culprits I’m talking about have, well, more upscale names: Citigroup Global Markets, Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse First Boston, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, US Bancorp Piper Jaffray, UBS Warburg, JP Morgan Securities, Morgan Stanley.
You will recognize these, of course, as the biggest names on Wall Street and they’ve been caught red-handed duping customers; manipulating employees; forging the facts; giving favored treatment to their big-shot pals. After bilking the little guy, they encased his feet in concrete, pushed him overboard and then went out for pizza or, in this case, champagne and caviar. For their sins, these captains of crony capitalism were hit this week with penalties of $1.4 billion dollars which, in their world, is little more than chump change. And guess who the chumps were?
Take a look at an e-mail excavated by prosecutors from Wall Street computers. This one was from Lehman Brothers to a big institutional investor:
LEHMAN BROTHERS E-MAIL: “—yes, the ‘little guy’ who isn’t smart about the nuances may get misled, such is the nature of my business.”
BILL MOYERS: “Never steal anything small” is a given in the house of Tony Soprano. Ditto for the pool where Wall Street sharks swim. None have bigger jaws than Citigroup and its Salomon Smith Barney division, now known as Citigroup Global Markets. Its chairman, Sanford Weill, made himself a billionaire by turning the place into what’s been called “the most impressive money machine in modern times.” The public mantra was integrity. And among the models chosen by Sandy Weill and his foot soldiers was no less than “honest Abe” himself.
But behind the scenes, Citigroup’s example was closer to Tammany Hall than Abe Lincoln’s log cabin. Let’s take a closer look. Sanford Weill was a board member of the telecommunications giant, AT&T. In turn, the chairman of AT&T, Michael Armstrong, sits on the board of Citigroup, chaired by Sandy Weill. So Weill knew in advance that AT&T was considering an IPO, an initial public offering of stock in its wireless division. The higher the value put on that stock, the bigger the profits of both firms.
So Sandy Weill leans on his star analyst, the notorious Jack Grubman, to take a ‘fresh look’ at AT&T. Now Grubman is making $20 million a year and still can’t get his kids into a tony Manhattan nursery school — I’m not making this up — nursery school. So Grubman sends Weill an obsequious e-mail:
GRUBMAN E-MAIL: “There are no bounds for what you do for your children” it comes down to ‘who you know.’ Anyway, anything you could do Sandy would be greatly appreciated — I will keep you posted on the progress with AT&T, which I think is going well.”
BILL MOYERS: Faster than you can say ‘malfeasance,’ Grubman upgrades AT&T to a ‘buy’ rating. Faster than you can spell ‘crony,’ Salomon Smith Barney is named lead underwriter of — you guessed it — AT&T Wireless, earning $63 million in fees. And faster than you can say ‘scratch my back while I scratch yours,’ Sandy Weill donates a million bucks to the nursery school’s foundation and Jack Grubman’s kids begin what will surely be a fine education. Months later Grubman is bragging to his friends.
GRUBMAN E-MAIL: “Once [the] coast was clear for both of us (i.e., Sandy clear victor and my kids confirmed) I went back to my normal negative self — Armstrong [AT&T’s CEO] never knew that we both (Sandy and I) played him like a fiddle….”
BILL MOYERS: And so they fiddled, as small investors got burned. This week, Sandy Weill got his comeuppance, sort of. Citigroup was harshly condemned by prosecutors and will pay the heftiest fine of the settlement, $400 million. Under a form of corporate house arrest, Weill will now have to wear the moral equivalent of an electronic ankle bracelet. The settlement says he can’t even meet with his own analysts without a lawyer present to monitor his ethics.
What Weill and Grubman and others were doing was the name of the game in the high-flying, corrupt, Wall Street of the nineties. To attract the investment of corporations that wanted their stocks highly touted, brokerages pressured their analysts — those are the people who research and evaluate companies — pressured them to give positive ‘buy’ ratings even to stocks they knew were essentially garbage. Scott Cleland belongs to a coalition of research firms with no ties to investment banks. And he’s been calling for Wall Street reform.
SCOTT CLELAND: There was something in the past called a Chinese wall where it was supposed to separate investment banking from research. And they used the euphemism of a Chinese wall, meaning, you know, it could never be breached. Well, over the last ten years, people realized it was a joke. It was a styrofoam Chinese wall that people could move at will.
BILL MOYERS: Case in point: a company called Focal, providing broadband telecommunications. Even as they knew Focal was hemorrhaging money, Weill’s team was telling the public to buy the stock:
GRUBMAN E-MAIL: “If I so much as hear one more f—ing peep out of them we will put the proper rating—on this stock which every single smart buysider feels is going to zero.”
BILL MOYERS: And the reward of deceit? Well, here’s an analyst at Bear Stearns explaining why he gave a positive rating to Internet company SonicWall:
BEAR STEARNS E-MAIL: “I am trying to make them look good—we got paid for this— and I am going to Cancun tomorrow because of them!”
BILL MOYERS: Ordinary retail brokers who sell stocks to the public knew the fix was in. They were the fall guys in the racket.
LEHMAN BROTHERS E-MAIL: “It’s hard enough to be right about stocks, it’s even harder to build customer relationships when all your companies blow up, you knew they were going to, and you couldn’t say anything.”
BILL MOYERS: But the band played on. Analysts had gone from being gatekeepers to cheerleaders even when everyone knew it was all smoke and mirrors. One executive, John Hoffman, at Citigroup’s Salomon Smith Barney revealed that of the 1,169 stocks the firm assessed, only one was rated as “underperforming” and none were recommended as “sells.” In other words, all the stocks, like all the children in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, were above average.
Hoffman knew it was insanity. In these handwritten notes released this week, he scribbled that Salomon Smith Barney’s ratings were the “worst” and “ridiculous on face.” But no one told the public and investors lost their socks because they took Wall Street at its word.
SCOTT CLELAND: Wall Street banks were not looking out for investors. They were looking out for themselves and for their companies that they represented.
BILL MOYERS: Supposedly, the settlement this week restores the Chinese wall. Stock analysts will be isolated from investment bankers. But conflicts of interest are standard procedure on Wall Street. And a healthy dose of skepticism is in order.
SCOTT CLELAND: You know, they tell you “always follow the money?” The regulators didn’t follow the money this time. That’s where the conflict is. That’s where the problem is. And that was left untouched.
BILL MOYERS: Contrition nonetheless remains in short supply on Wall Street. Just like humility. Morgan Stanley’s CEO Phillip Purcell said the settlement this week was in effect no big deal, of no concern to retail investors. This brought a reprimand from the chairman of the SEC, William Donaldson, who said he now doubts Morgan Stanley’s compliance with the settlements or with high standards of behavior.
And the perps? Well, none of the individuals named in the settlement this week, and none of the firms, has to admit any guilt whatsoever. Not even Merrill Lynch, whose share of the $1.4 billion is $200 million. Some of you are old enough to remember that this is the firm that once boasted of bringing “Wall Street to Main Street.” Now we know Merrill Lynch came to Main Street looking for hicks — suckers to be fleeced.
Oh, yes. The chairman of Merrill Lynch, David Komansky, who made over $15 million last year, stepped down the other day with a plan that guarantees him one and a half million dollars a year in retirement. Does he feel any shame over such a generous payout from a firm that bilked its own investors? Hardly. Seems that Merrill Lynch had to fire 20,000 people over the past two years, and this, said Mr. Komansky, without a trace of irony, “took an enormous amount of skill on the part of the management committee.” Then, after his last annual shareholders meeting was over he skipped off to his retirement party at one of New York’s swankiest hotels, joined by other members of the cash-and-carry Nostra.
There’s a postscript to this story. In today’s International Herald Tribune, we read that foreign investors whose money helps drive our economy and creates jobs are getting cold feet about putting their trust in our financial markets. The reason: scandalous corporate accounting and corrupt brokerage houses. So, like the Mafia with its off-the-books economy, these wise guys on Wall Street who enriched themselves hurt everyone else trying to play by the rules.
BILL MOYERS: It’s been another week of hope and despair in the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. Abu Mazen was sworn in as the first Palestinian Prime Minister. Although he’s said to be someone all the parties can deal with, some Arafat supporters accused him of being the handpicked choice of Israel’s Ariel Sharon and President Bush.
Abu Mazen is a vocal opponent of terrorism, but here’s what he’s up against: Just hours before his swearing in, a suicide bomber struck Mike’s Place, a pub in Tel Aviv, a few yards from the American Embassy killing four and wounding more than 50. Within hours, Israeli military assaulted a Palestinian stronghold in Gaza. The fiercest attack there since the Intifada began 31 months ago. In the midst of all this violence, the long-awaited peace plan, known as “the road map,” was officially presented this week. President Bush called for cooperation.
PRESIDENT BUSH: It is important for all parties to assume the necessary responsibilities to achieve the conditions so that peace can happen.
BILL MOYERS: This roadmap, called “breathtakingly ambitious” by one State Department correspondent, is a step-by-step blueprint crafted by the Quartet on the Middle East, four international mediators: the United States, Russia, the UN and the European Union. But in truth, it will be the Palestinians and Israelis who make it work or not.
David Grossman is here from Jerusalem to talk with me about these events. He’s the best-selling Israeli writer whose work has been translated into 20 languages. He’s a controversial figure at home, often in hot water, for seeing a Palestinian point of view; for criticizing Sharon; and proposing Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. But he has one son finishing his service in the Israeli Army, another about to begin, and is himself a former Army Reservist committed to Israel’s survival. He first appeared on NOW a year ago soon after publishing his highly praised novel, Be My Knife. His new book is a collection of essays, Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo. Welcome back.
DAVID GROSSMAN: Nice to be back.
BILL MOYERS: First, let me just ask you a question about writing in a war zone. You’ve been writing the last year since you were previously with us. What is it like to write in those conditions?
DAVID GROSSMAN: Maybe it’s the only way for me to keep sane in such a crazy violent reality because when you live your life for so many years, as we do, in a catastrophe zone there is such a tendency, you know, to shrink and to narrow or minimize the surface of the soul that comes into contact with the exterior that is so threatening and frightening.
And you know, I feel that so many of the important qualities of life are being neglected and we are deprived of the most important things. Like, you know, delicacies, and wants, and feelings. So many things become impossible to handle, and so it’s so difficult to feel something because it’s so painful to feel. By writing, I can regain those qualities. I can remember that everything has different points of view. Every story has different angles to look at, that there are nuances to things. I can remember the most important things that are worth fighting for.
BILL MOYERS: When you look up from your computer or your desk, and look at the news, and hear about the road map, do you take some hope?
DAVID GROSSMAN: Some hope, of course, because it’s the first change for the better in 31 months, as you mentioned. And there is a chance now, a slight window of opportunity. But at the same time, I see all the dangers, all the threats to this fetus — embryo of hope that we have there. And I think there are very few Israelis or Palestinians today who are really cheerful. We have a proverb, a saying, in the Hebrew: “He who has been bitten by snake is suspicious of a rope even.” And we all, Israelis and Palestinians, have been bitten by previous disappointments.
BILL MOYERS: It’s also true that every effort at peace in the past has been greeted by a new wave of violence. And we saw it again this week. Has anything really changed?
DAVID GROSSMAN: Well the extremists are even more extremist. The moderate are fewer. That’s what makes me a little reluctant to come here and to cast some optimism, as I would like to do. Because every progress in this process generates more and more extremists. People who are threatened by the possibility that things will change for the better. It’s strange to say that, but the extremists are afraid that if there will be a peace process, both sides will have to make heavy concessions, heavy compromises. And they don’t want it. Don’t like it.
BILL MOYERS: What do the right-wing extremists in Israel fear?
DAVID GROSSMAN: Well, they are afraid that Israel will have to separate from the occupied territories which they regard as our historical land and property. Israel will have to evacuate settlements, many settlements. Israel will have to give up parts of Jerusalem — the historical, the religious Jerusalem that every Jew has deep affinity to. The Palestinians are afraid, and rightly so, that they will have to give up, for example, the idea of the right of return because I do not think that we can have a sustainable, viable peace if the right of return would be implemented. So both sides have a lot to lose. Both realistic assets and dreams. But it’s very difficult to give up dreams as well.
BILL MOYERS: The Israeli officials say they can’t even talk about withdrawing from the occupied territory until the Palestinians stop the terrorist raids. Can Abu Mazen stop the terrorists? Didn’t they, this week, try to send him a message to say, “Look, you’re not in charge. We’re in charge of what we do.” Are the Israelis hoping for what can happen because Abu Mazen has not the power to stop the terrorists?
DAVID GROSSMAN: He does not have the power. And it’s not a realistic request for him to stop terror. And unfortunately, if we want to have a real sincere peace dialogue, we can ask him only to do 100 percent of the effort to stop the terrorism. But we cannot condition all the continuation of the process in total cessation of terrorism. This will not happen. It will not happen.
I tell you more than that. Even when peace is achieved — and I hope that it will be achieved some time in the future — even then we shall still have to live with terror. It is horrible. But this is a fact because if there is peace, it means that there has been a massive compromise, a painful compromise. And that means many angry, frustrated, fanatic elements on the Palestinian side. Also on our side.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see the right wing in Israel, the religious right wing allowing any Israeli government to withdraw those settlements from the occupied territories? Settlements that are on land the religious zealots say God gave them?
DAVID GROSSMAN: It’s very unlikely to happen. But in that case I think that it will be the time of the Labor Party in Israel, of the left in Israel to come in and to join Mr. Sharon if he is so generous and will do that. The left and the center in Israel must come in and join him and support him. And he has a majority if these elements join the government. He has a majority in Israel. And I’ll tell you something that might surprise you: You know that 80 percent of the Israelis are willing to support a Palestinian state and are willing to support the final lines of the Israeli concessions which all Israelis are aware about.
One thing they don’t want, they don’t want the left to do it in Israel. They want Sharon to do it because they say Sharon knows how to do it. He will embitter the life of the Palestinians before giving it to them. And if that’s what it takes to make a compromise, okay, I will support Sharon for that. Because I think that Sharon now is the only person in Israel who is able to carry out the harsh and painful compromises that it takes to achieve some stability.
BILL MOYERS: The religious right in this country, President Bush’s strong constituency of supporters, thinks the settlements in Israel, they’re on land God gave to the Jews. And neither the UN nor Russia have the right to argue with God.
DAVID GROSSMAN: Yes. Yes, well, that means that we shall never have peace there. That means that we turn this conflict that until now is still a political conflict and can be solved in practical realistic ways, we turn it into something that is total, that is absolute. We’re talking absolute terms. And when we’re talking absolute terms…
BILL MOYERS: A religious—
DAVID GROSSMAN: …the religious absolute terms. Then any solution might be total and fatal for either side. But if someone is a real friend of Israel, as those Christians in America are, I think they should do what real friends do in such situations — and this is to remind us what is our real interest. They must force us to do the right thing.
Now, the plan of the road map is a realistic reasonable plan that does not jeopardize Israel, not at all. It talks about things that can be done, that should be done. And may I tell you I think that this process will not succeed if America only presents the road map, or tries to mediate in a kind of gentle way. No. I’m afraid that if we want really to have a stabilized situation there must be a massive international intervention in our area.
I know Americans don’t like this idea because it means your kids and your money. But maybe there are some good aspects for them because the turbulence in our area causes you so many troubles and puts you in so many impossible dangerous situations that maybe it will not be such a bad deal for you to invest some years of being there, of monitoring this very fragile peace to be, and taking care of all those hostile elements in the area.
BILL MOYERS: But when you call for massive intervention on the part of the Americans and others, are you talking about actually putting troops there as peacekeepers between the Palestinians and the Israelis?
DAVID GROSSMAN: Yes. And I think this is something that both sides eventually will agree upon. Now it seems very far-fetched. But the time will come that both sides will realize that they cannot solve this problem alone. They just cannot do it.
BILL MOYERS: You end the book with two facts. One, more than a quarter of Palestinian children now suffer from malnutrition. Two, Israeli schoolchildren will soon be taking special courses in early detection of suicide bombers. What’s the connection?
DAVID GROSSMAN: We doom ourselves to this vicious circle, that our children will kill their children and vice versa. And we are stuck in this hermetic bubble of animosity. And there is wonderful justification for each side to justify what he does or inflict on the other side. But in the meantime, we are all being suffocated in this hermetic bubble. And I want to start to breathe. I just want to start to breathe the air that we should breathe, the air that we deserve to breathe.
BILL MOYERS: The book is Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo. David Grossman, thank you for being with us.
DAVID GROSSMAN: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: My next guest is one of five people who, from one month to today, will decide an issue crucial to democracy in America. Most of you probably don’t even know what’s about to happen, but the Federal Communications Commission is going to decide whether any one media company can control more than 35% of the nation’s audience or own the newspapers and television stations in one market.
Michael Copps is one of those five commissioners on the FCC. He has almost single-handedly conducted a series of public hearings around the country, inviting citizens to speak up on the issue. With the clock ticking, he’s been calling for even more public hearings. But the chairman of the FCC, Michael Powell says nothing doing. Welcome to NOW.
MICHAEL COPPS: Thank you, sir.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve been dismissed, if I may so, in some quarters as a, quote, “solitary impotent voice in the wilderness crying out against an unstoppable juggernaut of media ownership deregulation.”
MICHAEL COPPS: That’s depressing. I don’t think so. I think we need to have a real media dialogue in this country. And I had hoped that we could generate it before we do this vote. I’m not so sure that we can do that now. But I’m gonna do my dead-level best in the next month remaining to do it. But we’ve got to get hold of this at some point. We’re talking here about the future of the Internet, TV, and radio. We’re talking about our democracy. We’re talking about teeing up issues that the American people need to be talking about and want to talk about.
BILL MOYERS: In February, I think it was, several members of Congress wrote to Chairman Powell asking for more hearings and saying that the FCC has failed to publicize what’s at stake. The letter says, quote, “The elimination of the media ownership rules merits a thorough and complete examination by the public. But most Americans have no idea that such sweeping change is under consideration.”
MICHAEL COPPS: The Pew Research folks did a survey a few weeks ago. And they said more than 3/4 of the American people have not heard of this issue. There’s two reasons for that I believe. Number one is the commission has not done the outreach job as it should have. And I think when we’re dealing with an issue so profound that it affects every American and what they see, hear, and read in the media, that we have an obligation to go out and tell them about it; and go out and look at local media markets, like I’ve been trying to do, to see what the reality of the situation is out there rather than just sitting around waiting for comments to come in from the regular lobbyists. But we haven’t done that. So that’s one reason. The second reason is the inability to get the big media network attention.
BILL MOYERS: How many of these public forums have you held so far?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, I’ve attended somewhere between eight or ten. I’ve held a couple of my own despite the fact that the FCC won’t give me any money to advance these or to go in and rent a room where I have a microphone.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a budget for this? There’s no budget for this?
MICHAEL COPPS: I have been given no budget for this.
BILL MOYERS: How are you paying for it?
MICHAEL COPPS: You get a limited travel allotment. And it is pretty limited. So I’m using that to go around to these forums. And given a choice between a hearing on a shoestring and no hearing, I’ll take the hearing on a shoestring every time. So that’s what we’re trying to do. These things are not well-advanced, yet we go into an area and four, five, six hundred people will turn out to testify.
BILL MOYERS: But Commissioner—
MICHAEL COPPS: Or to hear.
BILL MOYERS: Commissioner Powell has said you don’t have to travel the country to know what America thinks on issues like this.
MICHAEL COPPS: Yes, they call it horse and buggy, an anachronism, and foot-stomping. I call it pulse-taking. I think I don’t believe that all expertise resides within the beltway in Washington, DC. They seem to think they can get these comments in from the usual players, and suspects, and organizations and there’s nothing else out there. But when you go out into the media market, there are journalists that have been around for a long time, there are broadcasters, there are academics, and there are just plain citizens who are very concerned. And you do get new facts. You do get a new perspective. No question about that.
BILL MOYERS: Is there time between now and June 2nd to involve the public officially so that at least the voice of people gets heard?
MICHAEL COPPS: When this was launched last September I said to my colleagues, “If we really commit to doing something now, and go out and have our hearings, and really encourage the compilation of an adequate record, then maybe we’ve got a fighting chance to get something between now, and such time as the chairman calls a vote.” He hadn’t identified June 2nd at that particular time. But now we’re a month away and I don’t think so — no — I don’t. Not only do we not have all our answers, we haven’t asked all the questions that need to be asked. This is not just some little mechanical thing about numbers, or a little decision about numbers of stations. This is something that has very widespread and profound implications.
BILL MOYERS: I’ve actually heard from conservative groups, right-wing groups, alarmed that the concentration of media power in the handful of a few corporations interested only in profit has led to what they call a sewage running through American homes. You know, the lowest common denominator, vulgarity.
MICHAEL COPPS: That’s something we have to look at. Is there, mayhap, a relationship between the rising tide of media consolidation on the one hand, and the rising tide of indecency on the airwaves? As I said, I don’t have the answer. But I don’t think we should be rushing pell-mell to vote before we at least tee up the question and try to do a little bit of credible research to see if there’s something to that.
BILL MOYERS: What I hear you saying is this issue hasn’t been examined.
MICHAEL COPPS: No, it hasn’t. There are just huge ramifications for you, and for me, and for everybody watching this show, and everybody in America that need to be dealt with before this is going to be. You know, we do this review — it’s called a biennial review — every two years. But this is not something that we’re just going to be able to fix if we get it wrong in two years. This is the mother of all biennial reviews. Suppose that we vote on June 2nd on the basis of the inadequate record that we have now. And suppose, simply for the sake of argument here, that we make a mistake. How do you put the genie back in the bottle?
BILL MOYERS: What is the role for Congress here? Is there a role for Congress?
MICHAEL COPPS: Oh, sure. Congress writes the Telecommunications Bill. We’re responsible. My job is not to make policy or make law. My job is to implement the law as passed by Congress. Now, it’s not always 100 percent clear what the intentions are there. But I think by and large it is. And I think what really motivates and gives life, and gives force to that Telecommunications Act, is the fact that 112 times in that law appears the term “public interest.” My job is to protect the public interest, not the financial interests of any group, not anybody else’s interests, but protect the public interest. And that translates into those things we were talking about at the outset of the show.
BILL MOYERS: But Chairman Powell says that the Communications Act, which we all operate under now, was written in 1934. That’s the year I was born. That was in the first 1/3 of the 20th Century. We’re in the first part of the 21st Century, and he said those old rules are anachronistic in this kind of world.
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, the Constitution was passed even before you and I were born — 1789. That’s not anachronistic. These are enduring values and enduring virtues that we are talking about, that we are trying to preserve through the law. They are not anachronistic. There’s a proud, wonderful, heritage in journalism. There is still is a proud, wonderful, heritage in broadcasting. And there are a lot of broadcasters out there, I think, who are wonderfully motivated and interested in serving the public interest. I go around and talk to them a lot. But less and less are they captains of their own fate; and more and more are they victims of this kind of bottomline, quarterly report mentality. And I understand that. I mean, I understand they live in a commercial culture and a business culture. But this is a special industry with a special charge — administering the public airwaves. Nobody owns these airwaves. There’s no TV company or radio company that owns the airwaves. The people of the United States of America own the airwaves.
BILL MOYERS: There are five commissioners: three are Republicans and two are Democrats. Is this going to be a straight party vote?
MICHAEL COPPS: It’s not a straight party issue — let me begin by saying that. I think in Congress it’s bipartisan. We’ve had two hearings in the last eight or ten weeks, one in the United States Senate, one in the House of Representatives. Interestingly, both of them were called to discuss telecommunications, the big Bell telephone companies and all. But it quickly evolved into meetings with a lot of attention on media ownership. But I heard their concern in the Senate hearing — not just from Democrats. And I, you know, I knew Senator Hollings, and Senator Dorgan, and other people like that have been concerned about this on the Democratic side. But I heard from Senator Lott, I heard from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. You’ve seen some of the letters urging Chairman Powell to slow down a little bit signed by Republican Senators: Senator Snowe, Senator Collins, Senator Allard. So it’s not a partisan issue in Congress. I hope it’s not a partisan issue at the FCC.
BILL MOYERS: What can someone do who wants to be heard on this issue — for or against it?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, you can get in touch with the FCC. We’re at FCC.gov.
BILL MOYERS: FCC—
MICHAEL COPPS: FCC.gov on the Internet.
BILL MOYERS: G-O-V?
MICHAEL COPPS: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Commissioner Michael Copps, thank you for joining us on NOW.
MICHAEL COPPS: Delighted to be here. Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: Connect to NOW with Bill Moyers online at pbs.org.
Fraud on Wall Street: the latest on the scandals rocking the investment world and hitting your wallet.
Learn more about the past and future of the elusive search for peace in the Middle East.
Bharati Mukherjee: the life she made for herself and a complete list of her works. Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
BILL MOYERS: Sometimes, as we heard earlier from David Grossman, novelists find a true story so gripping they forsake the reverie of imagination to write about it as journalists, as if they were old-fashioned gumshoe reporters. That happened to my next guest, Bharati Mukherjee.
Many of you have no doubt read one or more of her acclaimed novels among them, The Tiger’s Daughter, or my favorite, Jasmine, and her latest, Desirable Daughters.
But take a look at this book, written by Bharati Mukherjee and her American-born husband, Clark Blaise. The Sorrow and the Terror was published in 1988, and it’s a powerful work of investigative journalism that the two of them undertook in 1985, after a bomb exploded on an Air India flight from Canada to India. More than 300 people died in what, at the time, was the worst terrorist act in aviation history. It has taken 18 years for that mass murder to come to trial. Testimony against two suspects began just this week in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Canada’s far west coast.
Mukherjee’s exploration of this chilling prelude to 9/11 was an unexpected turn for a woman born to privilege in Calcutta. She came to America in 1961 to study writing and was supposed to go home to an arranged marriage. But she and Clark Blaise fell in love and married after two weeks, living first in Canada and then the United States in a union that has lasted now for 40 years.
Bharati Mukherjee was in town the other day and I met to talk with her about her work. You and your husband spent over a year investigating that tragedy, and produced this book, The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy. I think of you, of course, as the novelist you are. I don’t think of you, or Clark, your husband, as investigative journalists. Why did you spend so much time on this?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I had no idea that the book would turn out to be a detective book about who actually financed the bombing, and who were members of the five-member terrorist cell that actually pulled it off. It was meant to be simply about the bereaved.
BILL MOYERS: The victims were mostly women, weren’t they? I mean, you interviewed a lot of the widowers, and the survivors?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: The widowers. Yes. This was the first plane that left for India after school closings for the summer. So, the plane was packed with women and children. The good immigrants, the good Canadians, who wanted to keep up relationships with their grandparents back in India. Who wanted to, you know, take dance lessons with special teachers in Indian cities. And I might have been on that plane if I had not moved to the U.S. in 1980. I would very definitely have been on that plane. And a good friend of mine, a woman that I’d gone to college with in Calcutta, died on that plane. So, it was a very personal kind of grief for me.
BILL MOYERS: Who were these terrorists?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: These were people of Sikh religion, who used militant tactics, terrorist tactics, in order to establish in Punjab, the state of Punjab in India, a religious theocratic state for the pure Sikhs, the re-baptized Sikhs. They didn’t want anyone who was impure, even within their religion. And they were very, very anti-Hindu, and anti-everyone else. They were called Khalistanis, called themselves Khalistanis. And they were able to, in temples, Gurdwaras — later on with 9/11, I realized, [Muslim terrorists] in mosques — do fundraising at an enormous scale, a terrifying scale.
BILL MOYERS: It’s uncanny how you wrote, even then, in the mid-1980’s of airport security failures. Of political extremists, plotting under the guise of religion. I mean, this should have been a wake-up call for us.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: This should have been. But I think that the white establishment, at that time, in the late 80’s in Canada, after this happened in 1985, and throughout the 90’s in the United States, always assumed, quite wrongly, that these dark peoples with their homeland feuds will maybe raise funds here, but will take their terrorist activities back to their own countries, and get their enemies back in their own countries. It never occurred to them that maybe every American, every Canadian, could also be caught up in these conspiracies.
BILL MOYERS: You and your husband, Clark Blaise, burrowed yourself into this world that created this act of terrorism. And you were threatened, weren’t you? Several times? Didn’t you receive death threats?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes. We were denounced from the Sikh temples in big cities in North America, and put under death threat. And I really thought for at least two years that I was going to die a violent death at the hands of these cells.
BILL MOYERS: These were sleeper cells in Canada?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes. We didn’t even know the phrase—
BILL MOYERS: No.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: “Sleeper cells,” in those days. And actually, they had been in places like New York and New Jersey, and California, too. But—
BILL MOYERS: Sikh cells?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes. Doing The Sorrow and the Terror, I discovered very rich ophthalmologists, for example, in American cities who would say, “Six days of the week, I give to the U.S. government, and I earn a lot of money, and I pay my taxes if I have to. But one day a week I give to Khalistan.” We tracked the money and we zeroed in on the man who financed the bombing. And after, it’s taken 15 years for that man to have been detained in a Canadian, a Vancouver jail.
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn about the mentality of the terrorist?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Most importantly, I think it was about the fear of the religion in Diaspora. Modernization is what the group of terrorists and fundamentalists, religious fundamentalists, were afraid of. They were afraid that girls — Canadian Sikhs, American Sikhs — girls in tight sweaters and boys in fast cars, would somehow not follow the rules that the religion had set, or the society — religious society — had set. And that, therefore, the religious leaders would lose control.
BILL MOYERS: That seems to be such a parallel between what we’ve learned about the terrorists who — the Muslim terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center — attacked the Pentagon, that it was the modernizing of their religion that they most despised the United States for encouraging.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Right. I mean, I sat there on 9/11 watching the two planes hit— the second plane hit the World Trade Center buildings, and I said, “My goodness, this is on a mega-scale, a replication of what we had witnessed, experienced, discovered, in the June 1985 terrorist bombing of Air India jet.” And it seems to me, though, that a lot of people don’t understand that we have a very different kind of enemy with the fundamentalists than we did during the Cold War. That when the U.S. or the West was fighting the Soviet Union and its buffer states, satellite states, they were talking the same kind of language. And that the culture of battle between opposition, battle between the West and the Soviet Union, was on a very different plane than what we have with the Islamic fundamentalists, the people who believe in Jihad. It’s a wholly different language.
BILL MOYERS: But you take for granted, don’t you, because of your previous work, the presence of continuing sleeper cells in America?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Oh, absolutely, and I think that these sleeper cells are going to proliferate in number and that the hatred, unexamined hatred against Americans and America, is going to increase a hundred-fold.
BILL MOYERS: What does all this do to the new immigrant experience?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: It certainly makes it much harder for my students from Muslim countries at Berkeley for example to feel as though they belong. This is a tilt time in our culture. And it’s, you know—
BILL MOYERS: A tilt time?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Well, that we don’t know what the rules are anymore. We don’t know what is ahead of us. There’s no pattern, no tradition that we can fall back comfortably on, or to comfort us — that we can seize to comfort us. And so as we are improvising rules on how to behave.
BILL MOYERS: Improvising is the immigrant’s art of course. It’s the means of survival. You have shown that both in your real life and in the characters of your many novels.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I have tried very hard as a novelist to say, “Novels are about individuals and especially larger-than-life individuals.” My protagonists are very feisty characters. And, you know, that there is no one unified story about the immigrant experience or the immigrant passage. What I hope I’ve done in Desirable Daughters is show how fractured the responses to that whole odyssey of moving, pulling up your roots from your original country, and re-rooting yourself in an adopted country.
BILL MOYERS: You have dealt so often with that theme of the divided soul. I guess you could only do that if you had the claims of two cultures resting on your imagination.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes. You don’t know how much of the old world thought patterns to get rid of or to allow to wither away, and how much of the 21st century in the United States, with all its frenzied disruptions, to adopt. And, like myself, my characters are always in between. They are trying to balance the two and sometimes the scales tilt one way, sometimes another. But if I were finding an absolute fixed balance, I think I would be a less interesting person and a more tiresome writer. It’s that constant disruption, not knowing what I want, where I belong, that feeds my energy.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you call your book Desirable Daughters?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Because in Hindu societies, especially overprotected patriarchal families like mine, daughters are not at all desirable. They are trouble. And a mother who, as mine did, has three daughters, no sons, is supposed to go and hang herself, kill herself, because it is such an unlucky kind of motherhood to have. And I wanted then to play on also the sexy looks of the three sisters in the book. That sex itself is the form of tool for revolution that enables these three sisters in the novel to break out and make their own lives. Some of them decide, finally, not to break out, and they come back to the fold. But my protagonist, whom I am very fond of, you know—
BILL MOYERS: Tara?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Tara has an arranged marriage. And her husband becomes the sort of Bill Gates of the Indian community in Silicon Valley, makes a lot of money. But she decides, “this is not the lifestyle in a gated community, affluent but fixed, that I want.” And so, she lights out on her own, divorces this poor man in a headstrong fashion, and she goes into the Upper Haight area of San Francisco where I live. She moves into my apartment, and she takes on a lover, live-in lover, who is a Hungarian-American, ex-biker, ex-hippie, and current Buddhist Zen retrofitter, taking care of retrofitting earthquake-prone houses in San Francisco. And so, you know…
BILL MOYERS: Love was always the first product of globalization, right?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: But she says, Tara says, talks about, “The most refined radar system in the world, the Hindu virgin protection.” Tell me about that.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I had never walked on the street alone when I was growing up in Calcutta. Up to age 20, I had never handled money. You know, there was always a couple of bodyguards behind me, who took care if I wanted — I needed pencils for school, I needed a notebook, they were the ones who were taking out the money. I was constantly guarded. And I’d never been in a room with a male not related to me prior to coming to the coeducational classroom in Iowa City. It was that kind of, even a lustful, look would not only dishonor me, but would also dishonor my father.
BILL MOYERS: You would have felt right at home in the Baptist culture in Texas in the 1940’s and 50’s.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: All right.
BILL MOYERS: What was it that enabled you, a very young woman, to say to your patriarchal father that you were not going to take his blueprint for your life? You were not going to come back from writer’s school in Iowa and marry the man that he had chosen for you, that you were going to take your own future by the nape of its neck and make it for yourself.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: In some ways, it was hormones. I feel in love with a guy because he had blue eyes and he was a nice guy. And I hadn’t seen blue eyes before that. And I was lucky. Someone up there protects me. And I’ve always thought that there are no accidents in life, and that all coincidence is convergence. And so, somehow my desire, unacknowledged desire to be a permanent member of the new world where I was having to make the rules up as I went along coincided with my falling in love with someone so totally outside the Brahmanic pale of civilization—
BILL MOYERS: The caste system of India.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Totally, the caste system of India.
BILL MOYERS: All coincidence is convergence? I mean, that sounds very Presbyterian.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: It’s Presbyterian, plus it’s also the fractal theory in mathematics. And that every little curve in a bay, let’s say little inlets, the shorelines, every little dip and jut is somehow planned because of other forces. And the whole, I really am very moved, though I’m coming at it out of the Hindu traditions. I’m very moved by chaos theory, and that sense of energy, that quantum physics. We don’t really, in Hindu tradition, have a father figure of a God. It’s about cosmic energy; a little spark of which is inside every individual as the soul.
BILL MOYERS: A Universe charged with deity.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes. Charged with deity, and if you didn’t want the deity, then a Universe charged with energy. And that constantly builds, maintains itself for a while, and then disintegrates, and then starts all over again. But because most of us can’t deal with visualizing energy, I guess, the scholars, or priests, down over the centuries had created a whole soap opera of gods with all their soap opera of domestic squabbles, and attentions.
BILL MOYERS: And you have in the fly leaf of your book this Sanskrit verse. Read that for me.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: “No one behind, no one ahead. The path the ancients cleared has closed. And the other path, everyone’s path, easy and wide, goes nowhere. I am alone, and find my way.” This was a very important verse, Sanskrit verse that I’d discovered by way of Octavio Paz, being translated by an American translator and literary critic, Elliot Weinberger. And the book of Octavio Paz poems, in which this occurs, was given to me by a Bolivian graduate student at the University of California Berkeley. That, to me, is globalization.
BILL MOYERS: It really is.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: You know, how I say I have inherited the whole world’s legacies. I’m gonna claim all that inheritance from everywhere in the world.
BILL MOYERS: The book is Desirable Daughters. Thank you very much for joining us Bharati Mukharjee.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Next week, we’ll have a special edition of NOW, a conversation with Bill Gates, the world’s wealthiest man, on what may be the world’s greatest challenge.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that of the five million babies who die within their first month, 98% are from poor countries. What do those statistics tell you about the world?
BILL GATES: It really is a failure of capitalism. You know, capitalism is this wonderful thing that motivates people and causes wonderful inventions to be done, but in this area of diseases, of the world at large, it has really let us down.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for NOW. Thanks for watching. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 10, 2015.