My fondest memory of Eddie Adler—one of many I will cherish—is from more than twenty years ago, on a beautiful June day in London (and if you watched any of the recent TV coverage of the Queen’s soggy Jubilee celebration, you know how rare those pretty June days in Britain can be).
It was a Sunday afternoon, and we spent a couple of hours walking through Hyde Park searching for the son of a friend of Eddie’s. He was supposed to be participating in one of several softball games American ex-pats were playing in the park’s expansive fields of green. We never found him but had a great time, just shooting the breeze. Eddie spoke of the time he and his family lived in London while he worked on a TV series; I recalled the brief period I had been a schoolboy in the UK, a naïve kid from upstate New York thrust into grown-up land and awestruck by the country’s history.
That was it, that’s all—just a pleasant walk on a nice day, but memorable. I was always improved in Eddie’s presence, as was anyone who ever had the pleasure of his company. He served four terms as the Writers Guild East’s president, a term as vice president and a remarkable 16 terms in all on the Guild council, a feat that puts him on the side of whatever angels watch over those writers with iron pants, unstinting patience and a devotion to this union and its members. These qualities Eddie had in abundance; the antidote to the aches and pains of union work was his abiding natural wit, kindness and ebullience of spirit.
Eddie was working as a New York City cabdriver, the latest in a string of odd jobs that had ranged from short-order cook to numbers runner when his novel, Notes from a Dark Street, was published in 1962. The attention the book received helped him get work as a TV writer. A native New Yorker—of the Brooklyn persuasion—he never made the full-time move to the West Coast, except occasionally to pitch and woo at the networks and studios (I suddenly remember being with him in LA once when he was working on a TV movie with James Garner).
Instead, he made his bones working on a number of series in the sixties and seventies, shot in New York, that used the city as character as much as backdrop: The Nurses, with Zena Bethune; the legendary East Side/West Side, produced by Arnold Perl and David Susskind, starring George C. Scott as an NYC social worker and Cicely Tyson; Hawk, featuring a young Burt Reynolds as an Native American detective in the Manhattan DA’s office (I’m not making that up); and N.Y.P.D., a series, also produced by Perl and Susskind, that was stark and honest about New York cops a quarter century before NYPD Blue hit the air.
In the eighties, among other projects, Eddie worked on Night Heat, a cop show in which Toronto stood in as a forlorn substitute for New York, and one of my old favorite escapist pleasures, The Equalizer, starring the dapper and seemingly implacable Edward Woodard as a former agent for a CIA-type service turned private detective doling out justice, protection and compassion. Just like in real life.
All these characters and story lines sprang from the imagination of a diminutive, bearded New Yorker with boundless energy, just the right amount of irascibility and a happy dedication to work, friends and especially family—he got such great joy from his two sons, Tony and Joe, and his remarkable wife, Elaine, a potter and force of nature all her own—Mother Earth to us all.
Together or singly, Eddie and Elaine were a delight. Once I forgot that my then wife and I had a dinner date with them. I was on deadline and it simply had slipped my mind. The phone rang. “Where the hell are you?” Eddie growled and after a couple of minutes of feigned indignation, accepted my wimpy excuse. A discount florist had opened in my neighborhood; the next day I sent over two dozen roses. Eddie and Elaine reacted to the slightly less-than-prime blossoms as if they were rubies. Never again did I forget the chance for a meal with them. Each was priceless, in every sense of the word.
The Adlers lived and rollicked in a narrow East Village townhouse, but Elaine died in 2003 and Eddie never fully recovered from the loss. His last few years were spent in Jenkinstown, Pennsylvania, memories shrouded in dementia. It was a privilege to know him and I will miss his love and camaraderie. To paraphrase what John O’Hara wrote upon hearing of the sudden passing of George Gershwin, Eddie Adler died on June 8, 2012, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.
Joe Berlinger’s back is against the wall. Last week the independent filmmaker, already facing crushing debt from legal bills, was dealt a major blow in his continuing fight against the third-largest company in America: Chevron.
It’s a battle that epitomizes the hardship individuals face trying to challenge corporate giants that punch back with a knockout force of high-powered lawyers and unlimited cash.
What’s more, Berlinger’s struggle continues to raise serious First Amendment issues and – as we approach the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision – throws yet another spotlight on the increasingly pro-business stance of the nation’s legal system.
It was this past May when my friend and colleague Bill Moyers and I first wrote about Berlinger’s documentary “Crude” and its legal troubles. The film tells the story of how Ecuadorians challenged the pollution of rivers and wells from Texaco’s drilling in the Lago Agrio oil field, a rainforest disaster savagely damaging the environment and the local population’s health that’s been described as the Amazon’s Chernobyl. When the petrochemical behemoth Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001 and attempted to dismiss claims that it was now responsible, the indigenous people and their lawyers fought back in court.
In May, federal judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered Berlinger to turn over to Chevron more than 600 hours of raw footage used to create the film. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit limited the amount of footage to be turned over (although it still amounts to more than 500 hours) but ordered Berlinger to submit to depositions.
Now, on January 13, that same court ruled, as reported in The New York Times, that Berlinger “could not invoke a journalist’s privilege in refusing to turn over that footage because his work on the film did not constitute an act of independent reporting,” and that the argument “that he was protected as a journalist from being compelled to share his reporting materials was not persuasive.” As evidence, the court said that the film “was solicited by the plaintiffs in the Lago Agrio litigation for the purpose of telling their story, and changes to the film were made at their instance.”
Berlinger responded, “While the idea for ‘Crude’ was pitched to me by Steven Donziger, one of the Lago Agrio plaintiffs’ lawyers, this was not a commissioned film. I had complete editorial independence, as did 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair, who also produced stories on this case that were solicited by Mr. Donziger. The decision to modify one scene in the film based on comments from the plaintiffs’ lawyers after viewing the film at the Sundance Film Festival was exclusively my own and in no way diminishes the independence of this production from its subjects. I rejected many other suggested changes and my documentary ‘Crude’ has been widely praised for its balance in the presentation of Chevron’s point of view as well as the plaintiffs’.”
Were mistakes made, errors in judgment? Perhaps. But the court’s ruling fails to fully understand the nature of news and documentary reporting and will have a chilling effect on journalists who constantly receive information and suggestions from sources representing a variety of interests and points of view. It’s the professional journalist’s job to sort through them on the way to determining the truth. As Moyers and I wrote in May, “This is a serious matter for reporters, filmmakers and frankly, everyone else. Tough, investigative reporting without fear or favor – already under siege by severe cutbacks and the shutdown of newspapers and other media outlets – is vital to the public awareness and understanding essential to a democracy.”
Just as dismaying about this latest ruling is the endless sinking feeling that the courts more than ever are stacked against the individual seeking redress against big business. In the 39 states where judges are elected, corporate cash has poured into judicial races – contributions have more than doubled in recent years, prompting Sandra Day O’Connor to say, “No state can possibly benefit from having that much money injected into a political campaign.” And in the federal courts, well, suppose Berlinger’s case were to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. A recent Fortune magazine cover proclaimed it “the most pro-business court we have ever seen,” and, as the Times more understatedly noted last month, “It is clear … that the Supreme Court these days is increasingly focused on business issues.”
In case you missed the Times story over the holidays, it was headlined “Justices Offer Receptive Ear to Business Interests.” Scholars at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago prepared a report analyzing nearly 1,500 Supreme Court decisions across almost six decades. It found that, “The Roberts court, which has completed five terms, ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time, compared with 46 percent in the last five years of the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, and 42 percent by all courts since 1953.”
According to the Times’ Adam Liptak:
The Roberts court’s engagement with business issues has risen along with the emergence of a breed of lawyers specializing in Supreme Court advocacy, many of them veterans of the United States solicitor general’s office, which represents the federal government in the court. These specialists have been extraordinarily successful, both in persuading the court to hear business cases and to rule in favor of their clients.
Many of these lawyers work for or with the US Chamber of Commerce and its National Chamber Litigation Center, which calls itself “the voice of business in the courts on issues of national concern to the business community.”
The Times reported:
The chamber now files briefs in most major business cases. The side it supported in the last term won 13 of 16 cases. Six of those were decided with a majority vote of five justices, and five of those decisions favored the chamber’s side. One of them was Citizens United, in which the chamber successfully urged the court to guarantee what it called “free corporate speech” by lifting restrictions on campaign spending.
The court’s independence – and historic skepticism about the needs of corporate America – are relics of the past. Here’s what was in a 2007 edition of BusinessWeek magazine:
Robin S. Conrad, head of the Chamber of Commerce’s litigation arm, notes that the judicial branch offers an alternative forum where business can seek changes it has failed to win from other branches of government. In the 1990s, the chamber and other business groups made this a vital part of their tort reform strategy on a state level, pouring money into local judicial campaigns to reshape state supreme courts and, ultimately, state laws. Now with a US Supreme Court that’s not allergic to business cases, the approach is playing out on a national level….
It was President Calvin Coolidge who in 1925 famously declared, “The chief business of the American people is business,” a sentiment this Supreme Court and much of the American judicial system would stoutly embrace. But ironically – especially for journalists and filmmakers like Berlinger – he made the remark in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Its title: “The Press Under a Free Government.”
Truth and freedom, Coolidge said, “are inseparable.” There is “no justification for interfering with the freedom of the press, because all freedom, though it may sometime tend toward excesses, bears within it those remedies which will finally effect a cure for its own disorders.”
Among the many TV ad jingles sadly cluttering my brain since childhood (although useful in trivia contests) is the one that went, “The finest apples from Apple Land/Make Mott’s Apple Sauce taste grand!”
A branchful of the juicy, singing fruit would belt it out at the end of commercials that urged us to use applesauce to accompany meats, slather onto bread, spoon on top of ice cream, spackle drywall, you name it.
The Mott’s commercials were especially meaningful where I grew up because we lived in Apple Land — western New York State, not far from the town of Williamson, where workers at a Mott’s factory have been out on strike since May 23rd.
The job action was started by 305 working men and women, members of Local 220 of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Whether they win or lose could play a role in determining the future of organized labor — and the vanishing American middle class.
Mott’s purchases between six and seven million bushels of New York apples every year — more than half of all the apples produced in the state — and has gone through a number of acquisitions and consolidations since Samuel R. Mott, a Quaker who made his own apple cider and vinegar, founded the company in 1842.
Today it’s owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), based in Plano, Texas. Ever since the takeover, union members claim, the family spirit at the factory that once included an effective worker-management safety committee, Christmas parties, Easter hams and company picnics has been destroyed. Corporate greed, they say, has marched in with a vengeance.
I first met Bruce Beal, Local 220’s recording secretary and a member of its executive board at an AFL-CIO meeting in Albany, NY, last week. (Full disclosure: I’m president of the Writers Guild of America, East, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.) We caught up again on the phone, just as he and fellow strikers were seeing off a delegation of members headed out to an informational picket at a Dr. Pepper Snapple facility in Illinois.
Beal said he and the other union workers were shocked when DPS — despite a profit of $555 million on sales of $5.5 billion last year — demanded massive contract concessions; among them, slashing wages by $1.50 an hour, the elimination of pensions for new employees, a 20 percent reduction in their 401K’s and a change in their health plan Beal says would force members to pay out of pocket an additional $6000-8000 a year.
In an official statement playing on the region’s economic hardship, the company declared that, “DPS workers in Williamson enjoy significantly higher wages than the typical manufacturing employee in Western New York… As a public company, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all of its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities.”
Bruce Beal dismissed the DPS argument as “a line of bull… They don’t give a rip about their employees, just lining their pockets is all they’re concerned with.” He points to Larry Young, the company’s CEO, whose salary has risen 113 percent over the last three years to $6.5 million, and says that workers were told that they were nothing more than a “commodity, like soybeans… When we talked about how the company’s demands would cause our members to lose their homes or have their cars repossessed, they looked right at us and said, ‘You are living beyond your means.’”
Beal says the union has heard that other profitable businesses are discussing the strike and saying that if DPS wins, they, too, will demand massive concessions. But as Local 220’s president Mike LeBerth told The New York Times, “Corporate America is making tons of money — this company is a good example of that. So why do they want to drive down our wages and hurt our community? This whole economy is driven by consumer spending, so how are we supposed to keep the economy going when they take away money from the people who are doing the spending?”
Trucks will now be pulling up to the Mott’s factory gate with this year’s crop. Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, said its members will have to cross the picket line: “When apples are ripe, they have to be harvested, and growers will be delivering this year’s apple crop to the Mott’s plant as usual… It is not done as a sign of support or a gesture of disrespect to either side.”
According to Bruce Beal, “Our fight is with the company and not with the farmers. They have to make a living, too.” He urged anyone interested to go the strikers website, www.mottsworkers.org, for more information or to contribute to their Hardship Fund. Others have suggested a boycott of all of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group’s products, which also include 7 Up, Hawaiian Punch and Canada Dry.
Meanwhile, DPS refuses to come back to the bargaining table and on Monday, August 30, the workers will mark Day 100 of their strike. Maybe they can get the singing apples from those vintage TV commercials to change their tune and learn some good old-fashioned labor songs. Like the one that asks, “Which Side Are You On?”
Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.