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What Do You Get When You Put Writers in a Room…

“So, do you guys all sit around a table and write the scripts together?”

Writers Diana Son and Charlie Rubin

Diana Son and Charlie Rubin (Law and Order: Criminal Intent)

People used to ask me this and I’d wonder where they got this idea. “The Dick Van Dyke Show”? It couldn’t have been farther from our reality on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”. Not only did we not have a table around which we could all SIT, let alone write scripts together —we didn’t even have a writer’s room. That’s right. No room at the inn. Our showrunner believed in his writers’ abilities to, well, write and that’s what he wanted us to do. It requires a completely different skill set to be able to pitch ideas out loud, respond to other people’s ideas spontaneously, and to cobble together story lines in your head or on a marker board than it does to write. Not to discount that method, many writers do excel at it. Some have reputations for being “great in the room.” I have heard some shows rely on the writer’s room so much they even have exercise equipment in them! But Rene Balcer was not one to have his writers toss out motives for murder while sweating it out on the elliptical.

Instead, each writer met individually with Rene to break story – based on an idea we brought to him or one that he offered to us. Sure, L&O shows are “ripped from the headlines” and we often came in with articles from newspapers, magazines, foreign newspapers we’d found online, etc. But the headline story would serve the purpose of setting the episode in motion. It was just a jumping off point. We couldn’t surprise, unnerve or reward the viewer if we merely added dialogue to stories whose endings they knew. We would twist the story away from the original headline story.

For example, Marlane Gomard Meyer’s episode “Happy Family” was loosely based on the murder of investment banker Ted Ammon. He was found bludgeoned to death in his East Hampton home while in the middle of a divorce and bitter custody battle with his wife. In the end, it was his wife’s plumber-boyfriend with the mile-long rap sheet who was ultimately found to be the killer. We would never do that. In Marlane’s script, the estranged wife’s boyfriend is looked at as a suspect, but so is the nanny, and the wife herself, but the killer turns out to be one of the couple’s adopted sons, who’d been brainwashed by his mother that when she died (she has terminal cancer), their father would send the boys back to the Ukrainian orphanage they’d come from.

Meeting one on one in Rene’s office we would spend hours talking about who the characters were so we would know why they did what they did. Characters that only appeared in one or two scenes still had complicated back stories. That’s what distinguished “Criminal Intent” from the other shows in the franchise. We were to explore the psychological motives of everyone involved. Even the red herrings had plausible, complicated reasons for killing the victim – even though they didn’t. After spending around two weeks breaking story with Rene in his office, we would go off and write our drafts. And when I mean off, I mean off-campus, off-site, off to wherever it was we were most comfortable writing. For some people it was home. For me, it was The Writers Room in the Village, a non-profit urban writer’s colony where writers of every persuasion – novelists, poets, journalists, etc — share a loft space partitioned into, one must say, rather attractive carrels. I discovered it in 1997 and have written every play, and just about every screenplay and TV script there ever since. It is my writing home. I’d email my scripts to Rene from The Writer’s Room and he’d fax the script back with notes. Meanwhile, he’d started meeting with the next writer “at bat.” That’s how I started to think of it. We were batters in a lineup. And it remains, several shows and years later, my favorite way of working.

But after 5 years at “Criminal Intent,” including 2 years under the showrunnership of Warren Leight, the friend who first mentioned the job opening to me so many years ago, I decided to leave. I took a year off to hang out with my kids – including newborn twins – and work on (and not finish) a spec pilot. By the time I was ready to go back on a writing staff, I was to find out that getting on a show in NYC was not going to be as easy as running into a friend on the 1 train.

How a Nice Playwright Like Me Starting Plotting Murder

I am often asked to speak to early career playwrights who, this day and age, accept as fact that they will have to write for TV or film in order to make a living. It’s not even sad but definitely true.

Jessica Hecht and Sandra Oh in "Stop Kiss" at The Public Theater Credit: Photo © Michal Daniel, 1999

The year that my play Stop Kiss premiered at The Public Theater, extending three times, making it the longest-running straight play produced at the theater since A Chorus Line – I made less money than I do in one month as a writer/producer for series television. And when the play finally closed –my income stream ended. I had been working as a freelance copywriter prior to the play’s opening. The day the reviews for Stop Kiss came out, prompting my phone to clatter off the hook with friends telling me “You’re the toast of the town!” (not to date myself but my phone looked like this), I was hurriedly writing the last of the Star Trek trivia questions that were due for the SyFy Channel website – a job that I had fallen behind on during rehearsals. Wanting to take advantage of the steam misting off of Stop Kiss’ successful run, I went to L.A. for a week and packed in as many meet and greets with studio and network execs as I could. These kinds of meetings can feel pointless at the time, the writer’s equivalent of kissing hands and shaking babies, but you never know what they will eventually lead to. For me, it was an offer to work on the recently picked-up series “The West Wing”. My husband and I sublet our one-bedroom East Village walk-up and rented a small house in West Hollywood so I could see what it was like to be part of a writing staff. It was, shall we say, a unique experience, not only for me as a neophyte TV writer but for the more seasoned writers on staff, many of whom were playwrights too.

At the end of “The West Wing”’s first season, I decided to return to the East Village. To best convey my rationale, I offer this analogy from real life – that year in L.A. my husband and I attempted to get pregnant, but to no avail. The minute we returned to New York City, our first son was conceived. For the first two years of my son’s life, we continued to live in that one-bedroom walk-up while I wrote two pilots for CBS and adapted Stop Kiss into a screenplay.

One day, when I was on the 1 train headed for the theater, I ran into Warren Leight, the Tony Award-winning playwright of Sideman. Warren was a friend of Eric Bogosian, who was married to Jo Bonney, the director of Stop Kiss. We’d met at a dinner party. Warren told me that he had taken his first series TV job, and was writing for the latest “Law & Order” spinoff, “Criminal Intent” and that they might be hiring a new writer. Maybe I’d be interested? I said “Sure,” thinking that a cop show was about as far out of my range of abilities as platform diving. But a couple weeks later, I got a call from Warren that he’d given Stop Kiss to showrunner Rene Balcer to read, and that Rene wanted to meet me. My agent sent me a stack of scripts to read. I read a dozen of them within a couple days.

There was something powerfully addictive about these stories, as viewers of CI and all the shows in the L&O franchise well know. But even more than the mothership and SVU, I found that the CI scripts stayed so far ahead of you, misdirecting you with such sharpness and outrunning you with such agility, that I couldn’t wait to turn the page. Suspense was not my strong suit and I wondered how I could ever write for this show. But my meeting with Rene went well and weeks later I was offered the job. I was going to be able to live in the city of my choice while working on a broadcast network TV series with a foreseeable future. I would later realize I had no idea how good I had it.
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Diana SonDiana Son is the author of the plays Stop Kiss, Satellites, BOY, R.A.W. (‘Cause I’m a Woman) and others. She has also been a writer/producer for TV series including “Blue Bloods,” “Southland,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and “The West Wing” in addition to writing pilots and the occasional feature film. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 3 sons.

One, Two, Three – Jump!

I was terrified when Elana Levin contacted me to write four blogs for the WGAE website. I’m used to scribbling words for a group of characters played by actors so talented they made every word so much better than it looked on paper. It was great hiding behind them, but I don’t have them to protect me anymore, so I said yes.

I am not a risk taker by nature. I don’t drive anymore, I’m not athletic, and I’ve never bought a lottery ticket. Swimming in creeks or rivers where fish (or even minnows) might be lurking scares me. We rented a house upstate for years. When we walked home from our neighbor’s house after dark I was sure the bats fluttering above were waiting to swoop down and nest in my hair. My husband had his hands full helping me co-exist with nature. I’m from two edgy and wonderful cities, Detroit and New York and I am very comfortable in both places. But nature…yikes! I’ve made some progress, thanks to my husband Tony.

Being uncomfortable is good, sometimes. My high school drama director cast me as science prodigy Tillie in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” – dyed my hair mousy brown, wore polyester and baggy knee sox as I cradled my dead rabbit at the end of the play. My mom’s best friend didn’t recognize me. Great moment for the girl usually cast as the ingénue. My college boyfriend Michael was determined that I get my license. He taught me to drive. Yes, I did drive for awhile. Grace Bavaro sent me from the restaurant to the TV studio. My friend Nancy Williams Watt generously encouraged me to add my voice to the voices of the Guiding Light characters. Super bosses Paul Rauch and Ellen Wheeler would often call me in on Friday and tell me I’d be doing a very different job at Guiding Light on Monday. I always lamented the fact that I never had time to “train” for any of these jobs. My husband watched me freak out and then witnessed my wonder when I realized how great it is to learn something new. Not that I mastered every job, but it’s so exciting to go into a dark, scary place, turn on the light and see that it’s not so scary after all.

Children play with dog

photo by Tony Hurst

And it’s fun to help someone else get over their fear. Our landlady upstate asked us to keep our two big dogs Scout, a curly coated retriever, and Annie, our beautiful German Shepherd, on leash when we walked the road – turns out our two little neighbor girls were terrified of dogs. We kept the dogs in check, but the girl’s curiosity outweighed their fear. They were frequent and welcome visitors. At first they yelled “Put Pointy Ears (Annie) in the house” as they came up the road. But after a short time, they reached out their little hands to pet curly Scout. Finally they got to know old Pointy Ears. Little girls and big dogs became fast friends. Eventually they got a dog of their own!

I know that it’s time to challenge myself. I wish I would have prepared in certain ways – learned to type, kept my license, finished my degree…but then, maybe the ride would’ve been different. More sensible, but less fun… Truthfully there’s very little I would change about my experiences.

I’m grateful to the people who thought outside the box when I couldn’t, who gave me a little push. I’m glad I took a breath and said yes to this writing assignment. I learned that I want to take more chances! Thank you for having me here for the last few weeks. I had a really good time.

Pancakes at Polonia and Sandwiches with Scout…

Tradition: “The handing down of stories, beliefs and customs from generation to generation”.

Pizza Jeffrey Tastes

Pizza by Jeffrey Tastes

My Detroit nieces visit their native NY every year. I call and ask what they’d like to do while they’re here. Their response – “Pizza at Delizia”…”go to China Fun” …walk to the “little park” (as little girls they played in the big sprinkler at John Jay Park on hot summer days). They also loved visiting the Guiding Light studio, mostly because of the vending machine on the 4th floor! We do something new every year – a play, a museum, a walk on the High Line. But a Delizia slice, China Fun veggie dumplings and the little park are mandatory.

Those are our NY traditions. My sister and I always meet at the Grand Central clock and start walking. Our NY tradition…

During my early New York years my phone rang every Sunday at 10 am. My dad, “casually” checking in, and hopefully bringing me a funny story from home – the best ones involved his younger sister, my Aunt Fran and Cousins Bill, Rob and Jane! When he died, my phone rang at 10am on the Sunday after I got home from his funeral. It was Aunt Fran, well aware of our Sunday morning tradition.

Detroit is a town that has been through so much turmoil, we treasure the sharing of laughter and stories and tradition – which usually involve food! One of my favorites I shared with my friend Margie. We worked at Kresge’s in downtown Detroit during high school. Friday was payday and once we’d pocketed our fat paychecks we’d hurry over to Coney Island for lunch.

Right after GL was cancelled. Margie and I (with sisters Susie and Janice) paid a late night visit to the Coney Island. I’m so glad we did because Margie died suddenly six weeks later. She was a Guiding Light viewer, by the way. She got her patients at the VA hospital in Detroit hooked on GL. After she died, Susie found a bag of Soap Digests in her room, with GL articles flagged. Margie was stunned when we were cancelled. “What will I do when I’m working Thanksgiving or Christmas? My patients like to watch the holiday shows.”

Pancakes by RobertBanh

Pancakes by Robert Banh

At Guiding Light, we shared traditions with our audience…the Bauer BBQ, the funny Thanksgiving, the Christmas crawl… We also had traditions that involved pajamas, Munchkins, Ivory soap, red wine… After GL, my new traditions include pancakes at Polonia with David and sandwiches with my beloved dog Scout (and Tony, my husband). Scout’s tail would thump extra hard when I walked in with that Ottomanelli’s sandwich on Fridays. She loved traditions!

So many have spoken out since the latest soap cancellations were made public last week/ Spoken angrily, emotionally and eloquently… I hope the cancelled shows find a new home. I hope we support the four shows that remain. As for bringing us more “information”– soaps serve information with comfort, continuity and a little escape on the side. We remember the letters – the pregnant teens who wished for a brother like Frank, the woman with Down Syndrome who assured us that Fletcher and Holly’s baby would be okay, women who saved their own lives after Bert Bauer and Lillian Raines saved theirs with early detection for cancer, mothers who learned to speak English watching soaps. About that young demo networks are seeking. The world is scary these days. You think kids are only interested in hunks and train wreck TV? The kids who came to GL wanted to meet the dads, the uncles and the big brothers – the guys they could count on. We all, young and old, want something we can count on every day.

“When we are good, we change people’s lives.” – Jerry ver Dorn. What a responsibility and what a joy. Soap opera might be transitioning but it has to survive somehow. It’s part of our American storytelling tradition.

New York, Unplugged (Title by Tony Hurst)

Some people know a great deal about many things. I know…one or two. Number one – don’t get so electronically “plugged in” that you forget to look around. I just learned how to text and as of today, own nothing that has “I” in front of it. When I walked into the Guiding Light studio with a Blackberry, one of our production coordinators laughed. With good reason… the Blackberry is in a drawer and I chat on my old flip phone, which my colleague Liz wryly refers to as “retro”. I do appreciate technology. I love e-mailing friends at five am, reading my nieces Facebook postings and even chatting on Twitter. But I’m glad I’m a latecomer to the technology game. Being too plugged in would’ve distracted me from my favorite hobbies – eavesdropping, talking to strangers, perusing restaurant menus and looking into apartment windows. It’s amazing what you can see and hear out there in the world when you’re paying attention. It’s particularly true in NY. So much life spills out onto the sidewalks… where to look first? Some days it’s hard to look. But more often than not I see something, hear something or meet someone who changes my life. Imagine if I’d been texting when I walked by the dog adoption group on First Avenue – I wouldn’t have seen Scout. If my husband Tony had been checking his e-mail in the elevator he wouldn’t have seen me when the door opened – hmm, I’ll have to ask him how he feels about that.

Here’s the second thing I know. Don’t be afraid to venture out on your own. If you can’t go to an event without a date you’ll miss some great events. Me, I’ve always loved going to the theater alone. On a Saturday afternoon in 2001 I bought myself a ticket to see “Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine” by Warren Leight. I’d loved “Side Man” and was looking forward to seeing John Spencer on stage. Halfway through Act One, I noticed the man next to me writing in a notebook. During intermission, Nosy Nelly (me) asked about the notebook. Turned out he was a critic who worked for a paper in New Jersey. We chatted about the play and John Spencer. End of show, Phil kindly mentioned that he generally gets two tickets to the plays he reviews and would be happy to take me as his guest if I’d be interested. I gave him my number at the studio and we said our goodbyes. I couldn’t go the first time Phil offered the extra ticket , but I was free the second time he called. My friend Danielle insisted on walking me to the theater. She wanted to make sure she could ID Phil in case I turned up missing the next day. I think they discussed this at my 50th birthday party. Well, one play led to another and another – good, bad, first runs, revivals, Broadway, off B’way and across the Hudson. I don’t get to the theater alone quite as often these days, but I can’t complain. Thanks to Phil I’ve seen so many wonderful plays. “Kimberly Akimbo”, “Curtains”, “God of Carnage” – and of course “Shining City”. We had to walk around the block after that one!

Tonight I’ll rush out of work, grab that M86 bus going west, then take the 8th Ave local to 42nd street. As I reminded my husband this morning, I have theater with Phil. This will be the 73rd show we’ve seen together, thanks to his generosity – and my nosiness. We’re friends. As the years have rolled along, we’ve added Jazz in July, Christmas Morning Coffee. If we never saw another show, we’d still have our traditions. As Phil says, “Good for us… are we lucky, or what?” I know I’m lucky. So…no ear buds just yet. Windows to peer into, people to meet. Try it. Maybe you’ll adopt a wonderful dog, meet your future partner…or just see someone who inspires a character in your next project, or even better becomes a character in the story of your life.

P.S. – the Technology Gods rapped me on the knuckles for this one. My phone and my internet were out for the first part of the day today!

Crossing Town on the M86

I took the M86 bus west early this morning. A trip made seven days a week for months while writing Guiding Light. We started our work day at the Starbucks on 86th and Columbus, armed with the shiny, pink flowered schoolgirl notebooks we’d buy from Jay at the deli across the street. I still have that stack of notebooks under my couch, covered with dust and dog hair. I haven’t bought a notebook since.

Riding through the park I thought about two things as I watched the first dog run of the day. Two worries. The task of writing this blog and the fact that I was heading to meet a young person at the above-mentioned Starbucks who wanted my advice about television writing. I’ve never written a blog before. I HAVE spoken to young people about daytime television, many times over the years. They generally find my story amusing – the fact that my waitress job led me to my 17 year gig at Guiding Light. They’re impressed by the jobs I held there (lots) my Emmy (one) and the fact that I loved my work so much. But they wanted solid tips… advice. The truth is, some wonderful people gave me a chance. I showed up, accepted assignments, made my deadlines and was so damn happy they let me stay. When it ended, I staggered out of the studio, back into my “real” life, did my best to keep walking and talking, and finally got an office job just as the money ran out! What am I going to say to Nicole? Why didn’t she get in touch with one of the writers still writing TV? They could talk to her about sustaining and surviving in this business. I don’t even know Nicole very well. I’m not a television writer anymore. The flowered notebooks are under the couch. What do I say? Okay, I’ll buy the coffee. It’s the least I can do after wasting her time this morning.

Nicole arrives. I buy the coffee. She’s looking for answers. I ask her questions. What is she writing? What does she watch on TV? What did she study in school? Premed, then Columbia film school. Wow. I’m surprised by the stuff she’s working on and interested in her take on daytime. A friend calls while we’re there. When I explain our meeting she says “talk her out of it! Tell her to run back to med school.” I can’t. I am more practical than I used to be – keep your day job, money stress is paralyzing. But if you want to write, do it. Say you’re a writer. Don’t be shy. Take a class, work on a web series….I can’t talk her up to my EP and try to get her a sample deal. But I won’t tell her not to go for it. This could be a great time for young writers. Shows are tumbling left and right but still, exciting things are happening. Out of the ashes… I am dazzled by the people who are pouring their hearts into making web series. We still want to tell stories. The audience still craves them. We’ll have to tell them differently, we won’t make that 80’s and 90’s money… but stories will be told. And something tells me that Nicole – or Danielle or Brett or the Rebeccas or Nidhi or Michelle or David or Kimberly – one or two or all of them – could be the Irna, Agnes, Bill or Claire of the future. Why not?

Nicole and I finish our talk and go our separate ways. I hope I encouraged her without giving her false hope. I hope she has a story to tell. I’m feeling lighthearted and hopeful myself, with a couple of stories rattling around in my head. I buy myself a pink flowered notebook from the deli before I get on the 86 going east.
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Jill Lorie Hurst was raised in Detroit in the 60’s and 70’s, the daughter of a mother who watched CBS soaps and a father who loved New York. She studied theater and English at Wayne State University. She moved to New York in 1982 and started a ten year gig as a waitress in the garment district before finding a home at Guiding Light. Jill spent 17 years with the CBS soap as a receptionist, a writer’s assistant, a script writer, script editor, breakdown writer, story producer and finally, part of the co-head writing team until the show went off the air in September 2009. When CBS deactivated her ID, Jill spent 15 months or so wandering the city streets before settling into an assistant job in Manhattan. She has recently joined the writing team of Venice the series and is working on her first play. Jill lives in New York City with her husband Tony, dog Jocko and cat Molly.

A few months after I turned 21,

A few months after I turned 21, I quit my job writing ads for college textbooks, and began my life as a freelance writer. I managed to get assignment writing about comedy in New York, which meant I got to hang out in comedy clubs and watch a hundred self-loathing guys self-destruct. I also stumbled upon an “all-girl comedy troupe” called the High Heeled Women.

We went out for drinks after their performance .I’d written jokes for comics, I knew a little about how to structure a sketch, and given my expertise, they agreed to pay me ten dollars an hour to write for them. Or with them.

There were four High Heeled Women, but two of them, Mary and Cassandra, wrote the act. None of us had air conditioning so we used the Blimpie’s on West Tenth Street as our office. Mary laughed at everything I said, Cassandra was less animated. Once in a while she’d nod and say, “Funny.” In hindsight, they were good cop/bad copping me. We’d start a sketch, I’d come up with a good one-liner, Mary would laugh, and Cassandra would shake her head. “Why would my character say that?” “Because it’s funny?” I’d reply. She was appalled. Cassandra had been with Second City, she’d performed improv with people who’d gone on to superstardom, she’d played in front of more drunks than I could imagine. Along the way, she’d developed a code.

Comedy came from character. If you wrote a joke that wasn’t true to the character, you were cheating, or “schmuck-baiting the audience.” You also needed to have “conflict.” One character has to have something the other character wants. I was reeling. The comics I’d written for, they just wanted one-liners that could get the drunks to listen. Cassandra wanted one-liners that made “internal sense” to the character, furthered the plot, and still got the drunks to take their hands off their neighbors’ laps.

It was not a dream job. Ten dollars an hour didn’t go very far, sometimes checks bounced. Also, for the first year, my credit read as follows: “the girls write all their own material.” Even so, Mary and Cassandra were the first actors I wrote for. The idea that lines could not be randomly distributed among the actors on stage was annoying at first, but over time I internalized it. I learned about “ticker moments”, about high jokes and low jokes and how to pair them (“blow me” sounds funniest in a high British accent, or an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice). I learned to make sure nightclub owners paid in cash.

After a while, Cassandra began to feel she’d shortchanged herself. Others in the group were booking all kinds of work because of the material we’d crafted for them; meanwhile Cassandra no longer had a signature piece in the show. I started to write a monologue in her voice, about a neurotic woman facing a romantic conflict, between her high feminist ideals and her low desires. Arnold Schwarzenegger courted her in the bit by saying “blow me.” Eleven times. The first night Cassandra performed it, she killed. Anytime anyone else performed it, they died. As Cassandra had taught me, the audience always knows when they are being schmuck-baited.
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Warren LeightWarren Leight is the show runner and Executive Producer of the FX drama Lights Out. Formerly, he has been the show runner and Executive Producer of HBO’s Emmy-nominated In Treatment (Peabody Award, Humanitas nomination), and Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Warren’s play “Side Man” won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play, and was a 1999 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. Other plays include No Foreigners Beyond This Point (Drama Desk nomination), Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine (ATCA nomination), and the book to the musical Mayor (Drama Desk nomination). Warren was the former President of The Writer’s Guild of America, East, and is a current member of the Dramatists’ Guild councils. Warren was raised in New York City. He lives with his wife and daughters in New York.

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 NonFictionUnited.org.

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.
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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.