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Archive for March, 2011

Triangle Fire: 100 Years Later and More Work To Be Done

One hundred years ago on March 25, 1911 a fire erupted on the top floors of a shirtwaist factory in a Manhattan that in just 30 minutes took the lives of 146 workers, mostly young women. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire sparked reform in workplace health and safety as well as a drive to organize garment workers, but 100 years later workers are still struggling for safe workplaces and a voice on the job.

The fire and its aftermath remade the American workplace. Dozens of fire safety laws– basic things like requiring fire exits– were adopted as a direct result of worker organizing inspired by this tragedy. It built public support for the nascent union movement that created the middle class. Collective bargaining is what enabled American workers to achieve a comfortable standard of living.

Today, from Wisconsin to NYC the right to collective bargaining is being threatened. 250 writers and producers working in nonfiction TV voted to join the Writers Guild and bargain collectively for better pay and healthcare . But employers like ITV and Lion TV are now refusing to recognize their employees’ democratic choice to negotiate a contract collectively. Learn more about the movement to change non-fiction TV at

For a comprehensive look at the Triangle Fire in the context of contemporary worker struggles around the country visit the AFL-CIO’s blog to read and watch their feature “The Triangle Fire: Still Burning Before Our Nation”.

Triangle Fire, a documentary written by WGAE member Mark Zwonitzer, was aired on PBS to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. Click here to watch it online at the American Experience website.

Today and over the following few days there will be events around the country to commemorate the tragedy and catalyze support for improving workers rights. Please visit the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition’s site for a calendar of events.
Elana Levin is Director of Communications for the Writers Guild of America, East. Thank you to the Transport Workers Union site for letting me paraphrase the opening paragraph of your article “Struggle for Workers’ Rights Continues 100 Year Later” which is an excellent read.

In Defense of NPR

Come on now: Let’s take a breath and put this NPR fracas into perspective.

Writers Guild Members and Sesame St. Cast Delivers Petitions to Congress

PBS writers and Sesame Street cast deliver petitions to Congress

Just as public radio struggles against yet another assault from the its long-time nemesis — the right-wing machine that would thrill if our sole sources of information were Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and ads paid for by the Koch Brothers — it walks into a trap perpetrated by one of the sleaziest operatives ever to climb out of a sewer.

First, in the interest of full disclosure: While not presently committing journalism on public television, the two of us have been colleagues on PBS for almost 40 years (although never for NPR). We’ve lived through every one of the fierce and often unscrupulous efforts by the right to shut down both public television and radio. Our work has sometimes been the explicit bull’s eye on the dartboard, as conservative ideologues sought to extinguish the independent reporting and analysis they find so threatening to their phobic worldview.

We have come to believe, as so many others have, that only the creation of a substantial trust fund for public media will free it from the whims and biases of the politicians, including Democratic politicians (yes, after one of our documentaries tracking President Clinton’s scandalous fund-raising in the mid-90s, the knives were sharpened on the other side of the aisle).

Richard Nixon was the first who tried to shut down public broadcasting, strangling and diverting funding, attacking alleged bias and even placing public broadcasters Sander Vanocur and Robert MacNeil on his legendary enemies list. Nixon didn’t succeed, and ironically his downfall was brought about, in part, by public television’s nighttime rebroadcasts of the Senate Watergate hearings, exposing his crimes and misdemeanors to a wider, primetime audience.

Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich tried to gut public broadcasting, too, and the George W. Bush White House planted partisan operatives at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in an attempt to challenge journalists who didn’t hew to the party line.

But what’s happening now is the worst yet. Just as Republicans again clamor for the elimination of government funding and public broadcasting once more fights for life, it steps on its own oxygen line. The details are well-known: how NPR’s development chief Ron Schiller stupidly fell into a sting perpetrated by an organization run by the young conservative hit man James O’Keefe, a product of that grimy underworld of ideologically-based harassment which feeds the right’s slime machine. Posing as members of a phony Muslim group, O’Keefe’s agents provocateurs offered NPR a check for $5 million — an offer that was rejected.

But Ron Schiller couldn’t leave it there. Unaware that he was speaking into a hidden camera and microphone, and violating everything we’re told from childhood about not talking to strangers, he allowed the two co-conspirators to goad him into a loquacious display of personal opinions, including his belief that Tea Partiers are racist and cult-like. As the record shows, more than once he said he had taken off his “NPR hat” and was representing himself as no one other than who he is. His convictions, their expression so grossly ill advised in this instance, are his own.

Ron Schiller is a fundraiser, not a news director. NPR keeps a high, thick firewall between its successful development office and its superb news division. The “separation of church and state” — the classic division of editorial and finance — has been one of the glories of public radio as it has won a large and respectful audience as the place on the radio spectrum that is free of commercials and commercial values.

If you would see how this integrity is upheld, go to the NPR website and pull up any of its reporting since 2009 on the Tea Party movement. Read the transcripts or listen to its coverage — you will find it impartial and professional, a full representation of various points of view, pro and con, Further, examine how over the past few days NPR has covered the O’Keefe/Schiller contretemps and made no attempt to cover up or ignore its own failings and responsibilities.

Then reverse the situation and contemplate how, say, Fox News would handle a similar incident if they were the target of a sting. Would their coverage be as “fair and balanced” as NPR’s? Would they apologize or punish their outspoken employee if he or she demeaned liberals? Don’t kid yourself. A raise and promotion would be more likely. Think of the fortune Glenn Beck has made on Fox, spewing bile and lies about progressives and their “conspiracies.”

And oh, yes, something else: Remember what Fox News chief Roger Ailes said about NPR executives after they fired Fox contributor Juan Williams? “They are, of course, Nazis,” Ailes told an interviewer. “They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view.” When the Anti-Defamation League objected to the characterization, Ailes apologized but then described NPR as “nasty, inflexible” bigots.

Double standard? You bet. A fundraiser for NPR is axed for his own personal bias and unprofessionalism but Ailes gets away scot free, still running a news division that is constantly pumping arsenic into democracy’s drinking water while he slanders public radio as equal to the monsters and murderers of the Third Reich.

Sure, public broadcasting has made its share of mistakes, and there have been times when we who practice our craft under its aegis have been less than stalwart in taking a stand and speaking truth to power. We haven’t always served well our original mandate to be “a forum for debate and controversy,” or to provide “a voice for groups in the community that may be otherwise unheard,” or helped our viewers and listeners “see America whole, in all its diversity.” But for all its flaws, consider an America without public media. Consider a society where the distortions and dissembling would go unchallenged, where fact-based reporting is eliminated, and where the field is abandoned to the likes of James O’Keefe, whose “journalism” relies on lying and deceit.

We agree with Joel Meares who, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, expressed the wish that NPR had stood up for themselves and released a statement close to the following:

“Ron Schiller was a fundraiser who no longer works for us. He had nothing to do with our editorial decision making process. And frankly, our editorial integrity speaks for itself. We’ve got reporters stationed all over the world, we’ve won all sorts of prizes, we’ve got an ombudsman who is committed to examining our editorial operations. If you think our reporting is tainted, or unreliable, that’s your opinion, and you’re free to express it. And to look for the evidence. But we will not be intimidated by the elaborate undercover hackwork of vindictive political point-scorers who are determined to see NPR fail.”

That’s our cue. Come on, people: Speak up!

Bill Moyers is a veteran broadcast journalist and managing editor of Public Affairs Television. Michael Winship, former senior writer of Public Affairs Television, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Union members and activists (including Sesame Street cast) deliever Save PBS and NPR petitions to Congress

Union members (including PBS writers and Sesame Street cast members) bring petitions to Save PBS and NPR to the Capital

Telling the Difference

post it note with "Serenity now" written on it.Writers have a reputation for being heavy drinkers, which is handy, because if there’s one bit of prayer-shaped wisdom writers should bear in mind, it’s the Serenity Prayer. This came to mind during a recent family vacation in Florida, not because of the ready availability of rum-based drinks, but because of something my niece said. I was being typically, if not charmingly, irascible—complaining about something relating to my current writing project, and she said, “Is it something you can change?” I said “Not really,” and she responded, “Then don’t worry about it.”

Normally this is the point at which I’d mutter “G’way kid. You bother me,” and shove her into the nearest canal. Because, really, what do 16-year-olds know about anything, other than irritating text-message abbreviations? Yet something made me stay my shoving hand. She had a point. So I returned from vacation with something more than just a truly ugly pair of camouflage water shoes. I returned with a better attitude, and my work was the better for it.

Sure, my improved faculties may have had something to do with shaking off seasonal affective disorder with three concentrated days of sun and physical activity, but I prefer to think of the boost as an act of sheer mental will (because I am self-aggrandizing and borderline delusional—which, coincidentally, is why I feel qualified to pass advice along to you).

The writing world is positively lousy with things you cannot change. Your script may be similar to something that was unsuccessfully pitched before, which poisoned the water. Your script may be similar to something already in production, which you couldn’t have known. It may bear no resemblance to anything that was ever done before, but it contains the word “orangutan” which triggers a traumatic memory of Every Which Way but Loose in a primate-phobic development exec. Maybe you wrote your query using Times New Roman, but the president has decided that, “Font-wize, we’re not looking at anything Times New Roman this year.” And maybe, just maybe, your script is brilliant and they simply don’t get it.

Focus on the stuff you can control—foremost being your writing. If you do your due diligence there—work through your concept, identify and correct the flaws, hammer out your structure, write and rewrite and get some notes and then rewrite some more—you’ll be covered.

You may still get rejected. You probably WILL still get rejected. But if you’ve focused all of your energy on your end of the process, at least then you can say, “Well, it just wasn’t for them,” and it won’t be just an excuse. When it’s an excuse, you’ll know it, deep down. It’ll make you sick, and your writing won’t improve, and meanwhile you’ll drive yourself nuts worrying about whether the agent you met with liked your socks (she didn’t). However, if you stick to the stuff you can change, your writing will be better, you’ll be happier, and eventually someone will take notice.

This is the last of my posts for the WGAE blog, and I’d like to thank the guild for having me. Once I got over the absurdity of letting a not-very-successful member of a guild full of amazing, award-winning writers pontificate about writing, I found that I enjoyed pretending to know what I’m talking about. And, judging from the positive responses I’ve gotten, I’m a little like Alice from Alice in Wonderland—I generally give very good advice (though I very seldom follow it). And now that it’s over, I can get back to my MOST important Internet writing job: spouting terrible puns on Twitter. Thanks for listening.