Levees Not War
Rebuilding New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast.

Presenting “What Fresh Hell? The Best of Levees Not War, 2005–2015”


The Long-Awaited “Dead Tree” Edition

WFH.alt.2mid“Mark LaFlaur’s genuine love and concern for the future of Louisiana shines throughout this collection of blog posts and interviews.” —Ivor van Heerden, former deputy director, LSU Hurricane Center, and author of The Storm

Dear Readers:

Departing briefly from the usual third person (the “editorial we”), I am very happy to announce the publication of “What Fresh Hell? The Best of Levees Not War, 2005–2015,” a concise, concentrated paperback of what I hope you’ll agree are among the best pieces in Levees Not War over the years since Hurricane Katrina.

So, you see, there’s a reason why you haven’t heard much from Levees Not War in recent months.

What Fresh Hell? brings together 10 years of blogging on war and peace; politics and society in the Obama and Bush-Cheney years; infrastructure; and the environment in a time of extreme weather. This New Orleans–dedicated, New York–based blog, founded in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, now serves up liberal portions of sharp, spirited writing, grounded in a vision of the social contract—a society held together by honoring the Golden Rule—along with interviews with experts, tributes to activists and civil rights leaders, on-the-scene reporting from Occupy Wall Street, and more.

Click here for a PDF of the Introduction and Contents.

BestVectorRetroMicrophoneforInterviews_midArticles Include:

*  Is Katrina More Significant Than September 11?
*  Public Works in a Time of Job-Killing Scrooges
*  “Oil-Spotted Dick”: Cheney’s Oily Fingerprints in the BP Disaster
*  Omigod! Infinite Iraqi Freedom! We’re Never Leaving!
*  Occupying Wall Street with Nurses, Teachers, and the Rest of America’s Middle Class
*  Jindal: From Rising Star to Black Hole

Of particular interest to New Orleans area readers, there is a section titled “In and About New Orleans,” which includes selections on Rising Tide and Mardi Gras, a tribute to Greg Peters, Charity Hospital, and a piece on the New Orleans Burlesque Festival. You’ll also find interviews with Harry Shearer, Ivor van Heerden, and Mark Schleifstein; pieces on the BP spill; the SLFPA-E lawsuit against Big Oil; and a few slaps and punches at Bobby Jindal. 

The $14.95 paperback (354 pages) is illustrated, and by October 1 an eBook edition will be available for only $7.50.

Order now @ your favorite bookseller or online
ISBN 978-0988790933  |  Mid-City Books, $14.95


I hope you’ll like the book—and the blog.

Mark LaFlaur


“Mark LaFlaur’s Levees Not War has been a clear, progressive voice of warning and hope for New Orleans and the surrounding region in New York and the world since Hurricane Katrina, providing incisive news and commentary on the storm, its aftermath, and the rebirth of his hometown.” —Mark Schleifstein, Pulitzer Prize–winning environment reporter, The Times-Picayune, and coauthor of Path of Destruction


Also by Mark LaFlaur, available from Mid-City Books:

EF_KirkusElysian Fields, a novel of New Orleans

Winner of the rare “double crown” of starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and named to Kirkus ReviewsBest of 2013.

Simpson Weems is a 36-year-old aspiring poet whose life has been on hold—to the breaking point. All he needs to fulfill his potential is to move to San Francisco, but he’s torn between his long-held dream of being a great artist and obligations to his aged, ailing mother and his emotionally volatile brother, the all-demanding Bartholomew. Will someone in his family have to die before he can get to California? And how might that be arranged?

“Engrossing . . . Readers will find the author’s portrayal of New Orleans convincing and his characters fascinating and fully developed.”Publishers Weekly

“A wholly involving story with Faulknerian characters in a fully realized setting.”Kirkus Reviews

Mid-City Books, 2013  |  $14.95

ISBN: 978-0615729862


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Rising Tide: Still Standing, Unfatigued, and Enduring


RTX poster from RT-FB.bBack now from New Orleans for the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and Rising Tide X—refreshed and still feeling that positive, creative energy and will to survive and rebuild that we felt at our first Rising Tide (the second annual) in 2007.

We shall see whether there will be any more Rising Tides; if not, the ten-year run ends on a high note, and everyone involved has many reasons to be proud and grateful. If RTX does turn out to be the last one—and even if it doesn’t—the organizers, from 2006 to the present, deserve congratulations and gratitude from the people of New Orleans and vicinity and indeed around the United States. Year after year, since the legendary Geek Dinners in the summer of 2006 (pix here and here), the organizers—all volunteers—have worked overtime to arrange interesting panel discussions on subjects that matter: on the environment, local schools, public safety, Louisiana politics and sports, the BP spill, HBO’s Treme, flood protection, and much more. They have brought in such substantial guest speakers as this year’s civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, historian John M. Barry, Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, actor and activist Harry Shearer, New Orleans geographer Richard Campanella, and and many more. (Click here for RT history.)

6.2_RisingTidePosterIt shows what a solid public platform Rising Tide has become, that on Saturday, about halfway through the environmental panel, “Category 5 General” Russel Honoré appeared as a surprise guest speaker to join the panel: Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Bob Marshall, and Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network. (General Honoré was RT8’s keynote speaker in 2013.) More about the environmental panel to follow.

Thanks are due also to Xavier University for generously hosting the last five conferences (since 2011), and to all the benefactors who have contributed financially to support the conference; their generosity made it possible to keep the ticket prices low—this last conference was free—and to defray the travel and lodging costs for guest speakers.


Rising Tides Through the Years

Rising Tide X Is Aug. 29, Tenth Anniversary of Katrina (2015)

Come to Rising Tide 9 in New Orleans on Sept. 13 (2014)

Live-Blogging from Rising Tide 8 in New Orleans (2013)

Rising Tide 8 Update: “Category 5 General” Russel Honoré Is Keynote Speaker (2013)

Rising Tide 7 Is Sat. Sept. 22 at Xavier (2012)

Live-Blogging from Rising Tide 6 (2011)

Live-Blogging from Rising Tide 5 in New Orleans (2010)

Rising Tide III in New Orleans Aug. 22–24: A Conference on the Future of New Orleans (2008)

Making Blogging Sexy: Rising Tide 2 (2007)

Katrina Bloggers Unite! Rising Tide 2 is August 24–26 in New Orleans (2007)


Rising Tide X illustration by Lance Vargas; Rising Tide I poster by Brad Jensen/Icon Visuals.


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Ten Years After, and Looking Ahead


A Time for Celebration, but Not for Complacency


Has it really been ten years already? Indeed it has: a long ten years. And the work of rebuilding, the labors of love and determination, dedication, devotion, and sometimes of desperation—aided by countless volunteers from all around America and the world—are incalculable, and we hope that what they have rebuilt and reinforced will last for a very long time to come. Merci beaucoup.

We wholeheartedly join in celebrating the New Orleans area’s rebirth and rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood that ensued—we’ll be there this weekend for the 10th annual Rising Tide conference and other events. We are grateful for the efforts of elected officials to dedicate funding for the rebuilding, and we welcome President Obama and FEMA director W. Craig Fugate and others to New Orleans to participate in the events.

At the same time, while the eyes of the world turn to remember and honor this anniversary—this momentous event so charged with tragic intensity, such widespread human suffering—we remain worried, skeptical about the long term. We feel compelled to sound a cautionary note about coastal Louisiana’s environmental predicament and the state’s political submissiveness to the oil and gas industry. Consider that even as President Obama is launching efforts “to reduce carbon emissions and slow the impacts of climate change” (in the words of WhiteHouse.gov), his administration has also given Shell Oil permission to drill in the Arctic. What we need is a new (early period) Huey P. Long for the environment.

Katrina10Now, this Katrina 10 weekend, the politicians, even the most eco-friendly among them, will spellbind us with reassuring words we want to hear, about resilience (Mayor Mitch Landrieu will say the word at least 189 times), accomplishments and promises delivered that make their administrations look good, and perhaps rightly so, but they all hesitate to stand up to ExonMobil, Shell, BP, and other oil and gas giants. If it weren’t so, wouldn’t the oil companies pay more than a pittance in corporate taxes?

I would ask you to respect this important time of remembrance by not inserting the divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.”

—Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, letter to President Obama, Aug. 26 

We could not disagree more. Since we read it in the paper a few days ago, we haven’t been able to stop thinking about the very serious facts that Oliver A. Houck of Tulane Law School laid down in a letter to the editor of The New York Times:

How to Save a Sinking Coast? Katrina Created a Laboratory” (front page, Aug. 8), in which I am quoted, understates the seriousness of Louisiana’s predicament and its conflicting responses.

Whitehall Canal, in the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary.Jeff Riedel@NYTThere is no hope of restoring the coastal Louisiana we once knew. Sea rise is accelerating, the substrate is collapsing, and the oil and gas industry has torn the surface to shreds. Some 50 miles of marshes that protected New Orleans are largely gone. The Mississippi no longer carries sediment loads sufficient to offset these losses. We can maintain a few salients like New Orleans and create several deltas. That’s the best-case scenario.

Like many coastal areas, however, Louisiana continues to try to have it both ways, promoting restoration as well as more development on soils that are sinking more rapidly than anywhere in North America. The state’s future is the state’s choice, of course, except that, in the end, nature will have its say. The question is whether we face that fact and deal with it. The answer is not just what we do with the Mississippi. It is what we do with ourselves.

Much Stronger Flood Protection for New Orleans Metro Area

Now, in the ten years since Katrina, some substantial improvements have been made to the area’s flood protection system. Congress has allocated $14.5 billion to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild, reinforce, and install new protections. Times-Picayune reporter Mark Schleifstein describes it as “a $14.5-billion network of levees, floodwalls and pumps that nearly eliminates flooding for most so-called 100-year events and substantially reduces flooding from much larger hurricanes.” The Corps is also spending about $1.2 billion to improve the city’s drainage system, which accounts for the major work currently being done along Napoleon, Jefferson, and other avenues under which closed culverts convey excess water out of the city. The new system stood up well against Hurricane Isaac in September 2013; experts said that without the post-Katrina reinforcements, Isaac could have flooded the city as badly as the disastrous Hurricane Betsy of 1965, which struck almost exactly forty years to the day before Hurricane Katrina.

There have been other important structural changes that should improve the area’s safety from flooding. One of the main “delivery systems” of the inundation of New Orleans and vicinity was the convergence of the Intracoastal Waterway with the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO, known locally as Mister Go): The convergence forms a funnel that directs storm surges from Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain directly at the heart of Orleans Parish, a low-lying bowl between the river and the lake, enclosed by levees. This danger was predicted before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built MR-GO in the 1950s and ’60s. Following Katrina, a closure structure was built across MR-GO at Bayou La Loutre, completed in July 2009. Closer to New Orleans, a strong $1 billion, 1.8-mile surge barrier was constructed to close the funnel at the convergence of the Intracoastal Waterway and MR-GO. This barrier, completed in 2011, was designed to prevent storm surges from entering the Industrial Canal and Intracoastal Waterway—and, hence, reinforces New Orleans and vicinity’s defenses against flooding.

So, naturally we are grateful for the federal and state funding that has made these major improvements possible. And yet we remain skeptical for the future, doubtful of the realism and practicality of the state’s legislature, which continues to allow the oil and gas industry free rein. A lawsuit against 97 oil companies brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E) in July 2013 was strangled by Gov. Bobby Jindal and a compliant majority of the Louisiana legislature.

Will New Orleans, Est. 1718, Live to Have a 400th Birthday?

John BarryA former vice president of the flood authority, historian John M. Barry (right), mentions that lawsuit and the environmental catastrophe that it could have helped ameliorate in an authoritative overview he wrote for The New York Times titled “Is New Orleans Safe?” (Barry and the lawsuit were profiled by Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine last October: “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.”) In “Is New Orleans Safe,” Barry says that it is technically, geologically possible for New Orleans to survive despite the odds, if the right steps are taken, partly by “living with water” and also by intelligent use of diversions to rebuild sedimentary deposits from the Mississippi River.

But then he gives a sober assessment:

. . . the political reality is that taxpayers around the country are not going to be sending Louisiana tens of billions of dollars anytime soon, especially while Louisiana’s politicians avoid dealing with another major cause of land loss.

Oil, gas and pipeline companies have dredged an estimated 10,000 miles of canals through the coast; ensuing salt water intrusion killed plants, without whose roots land dissolved. Companies also sucked so much material from below ground that the surface sank. . . .

On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, there will be much congratulating over how far the city has come. Mayor Landrieu has declared rebuilding over and is preparing to make New Orleans an international showpiece for its 300th anniversary in 2018. If the city and state focus on the one existential threat they face. New Orleans could have a sustainable future. But if focus dissipates, if politics blocks action, the 300th anniversary will most likely be the last centennial the city celebrates.

And so, if you see an elected official during this weekend’s events in New Orleans, please urge him or her to help press the oil and gas industry to share in the efforts to rebuild a sustainable coast for Louisiana. It’s not easy but it’s not as naive or impossible as it may sound. Ask them—they’re people too—to shift toward renewable energy sources, to give up some of their profits, or look beyond their next reelection, and to support the practicable, realistic projects that geologists and engineers have devised that could slow the degradation and help regenerate the wetlands around southern Louisiana.

Some ideas for coastal restoration can be found in our interviews with Ivor van Heerden, Harry Shearer, Mark Schleifstein, and in the Coastal Conservation Conversation panel held at Loyola University in New Orleans in August 2014. For the nitty-gritty of paying for the state of Louisiana’s master plan for coastal restoration, click here for a PDF of “Turning Coastal Restoration and Protection Plans Into Realities: The Cost of Comprehensive Coastal Restoration and Protection,” published by the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy on August 18, 2014 (discussed at the Loyola panel mentioned above).

Sorry, didn’t mean to bring you down. Just trying to keep it real. In medieval and renaissance banquets there was often a skull on the table as a reminder to the guests (memento mori). We’re just trying to help make sure that there is a four hundredth birthday for the great, low-lying city we love so dearly.

Now, let’s pass the bottle and celebrate a job well done . . .


Further Reading:

Is New Orleans Safe? by John M. Barry (New York Times)

Ten Years After Katrina (New York Times interactive)

Mapping Katrina and Its Aftermath (New York Times interactive)

Rebuilding Nature in Wake of Katrina (NYT slide show)

A decade after Hurricane Katrina, new books, new insights, old memories (New Orleans Advocate)


Wetlands photo and John M. Barry photo by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.


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Rising Tide X Is Aug. 29, Tenth Anniversary of Katrina


DeRay Mckesson, Social Justice Activist, Is Keynote Speaker

We are registered and all kinds of psyched for the 10th annual Rising Tide conference—“the premier annual new media conference in the GulfSouth”—to be held on Sat., Aug. 29, at Xavier University in New Orleans. Admission is free,  and the lineup is great. Check it out.

The keynote speaker will be civil rights activist (detail of) DeRay Mckesson Sid Hastings:for WDeRay Mckesson, a former school administrator recently profiled by The New York Times Magazine for his organizing genius in using Twitter and other social media to publicize police violence in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Charleston, and beyond, and in popularizing the Black Lives Matter movement. Rising Tide organizer Mark Moseley says Mckesson is “at the forefront of an innovative digital movement to expose and resist systems of racial oppression.” (More about DeRay Mckesson and the NYT profile below.)

Another guest speaker we’re eager to hear—we met him at an RTX planning meeting in May—is former New York Times reporter Gary Rivlin, author of the new Katrina: After the Flood, recently published by Simon & Schuster. Rivlin has been praised by Nathaniel Rich as “a sharp observer and a dogged reporter . . . unerringly compassionate toward his subjects.”

Panel Discussions on Environment, Transportation, and Schools

RTX poster from RT-FB.bIn the great Rising Tide tradition, there will be informative talks on such perennial concerns as the environment, and education, and transportation in New Orleans.

The environment panel—of keen interest to this blog—will be moderated by Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (based in Lafayette) and including Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Bob Marshall (now of The Lens, formerly of The Times-Picayune) and Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network. (Click here to see Anne Rolfes and Bob Marshall at Rising Tide 6 in 2011, commenting on the BP oil spill.)

The talk about transportation around New Orleans—“a conversation about how New Orleans makes infrastructure an obstacle course”—will be moderated by Megan B. Capone of Public Transit Tuesdays, with Dan Favre of Bike Easy, Rachel Heiligman of Ride NOLA, Jeff Januszek of Fix My Streets, and Amanda Soprano from #NOLATwitter.

The education panel, “Education in New Orleans: The Next 10 Years,” is moderated by Dr. Andre Perry, columnist and 2014’s keynote speaker, and brings together Amanda Aiken, principal of Crocker Elementary; Sharon Clark, principal of Sophie B. Wright Charter School; Karran Harper Royal, parent advocate; Jamar MckNeely, CEO of the Inspire Network; Dana Peterson, deputy superintendent, Recovery School District; and Lamont Douglass, parent and PTA member at Wilson Elementary.

Among other attractions, BrassyBrown.com—“Where women of color are first in line”—presents Black Women Writers, “10 Writers for 10 Years”; Cynthia Joyce, editor of the new anthology Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina; Scott Sternberg talks politics; and Dr. Beth Blankenship surveys social services and domestic violence issues in post-Katrina New Orleans.

And there’s much more. See the Rising Tide blog for further details about the program and the participants, how to register—it’s free—and more.

Click here for Levees Not War’s live-blogging and other coverage of Rising Tide, since 2007.


Johnetta Elzie & DeRayMckessonNYTMag

More about DeRay McKesson

In a profile of Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie in The New York Times Magazine (shown at MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse in St. Louis) titled “Our Demand Is Simple: Stop Killing Us,” Jay Caspian Kang writes about the protests in Baltimore following the death-by-police of 25-year-old Freddie Gray:

One protester was DeRay Mckesson, a 29-year-old former school administrator who has spent much of the past nine months attending and catalyzing such protests, from Ferguson, Mo., last summer and fall, to New York City and Milwaukee in December, to North Charleston, S.C., in April. Mckesson, who is from Baltimore, had returned to his hometown not long after Gray’s death to join the protests. . . .

Since Aug. 9, 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department shot and killed Michael Brown, Mckesson and a core group of other activists [including Johnetta Elzie] have built the most formidable American protest movement of the 21st century to date. Their innovation has been to marry the strengths of social media—the swift, morally blunt consensus that can be created by hashtags; the personal connection that a charismatic online persona can make with followers; the broad networks that allow for the easy distribution of documentary photos and videos—with an effort to quickly mobilize protests in each new city where a police shooting occurs.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Mckesson and Elzie have helped launch the National Police Violence Map at MappingPoliceViolence.org, a collection of data on police violence fatalities—at least 197 black people have been killed by police so far in 2015—for which they were honored with the PEN New England 2015 Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award.

Rising Tide has had many distinguished keynote speakers over the years, solid authorities on all kinds of important subjects—from historian John M. Barry and and Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré  to actor Harry Shearer and Treme creator David Simon—but this year’s guest speaker may be one of the most compelling yet. Mckesson will certainly bring a brave and passionate commitment to social justice and a can-do spirit about democracy that we all need to hear.


Click here for links to previous Rising Tide posts here at Levees Not War. We’ve been going, as often as possible, since 2007, and we hope to see you there.


Top photo of DeRay Mckesson by Sid Hastings for The Washington Post. Rising Tide X illustration by Varg. Photograph of DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie by Christaan Felber for The New York Times Magazine.


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We Support Nuclear Agreement with Iran


Atom PeaceOn Thursday, April 2, in Lausanne, Switzerland, the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that negotiators had reached an agreement on key elements of a detailed and comprehensive framework to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

From the outset, we have supported the idea of the United States negotiating with Iran, after decades of estrangement and suspicion, and seeking both to peacefully reduce that nation’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon and to lift the sanctions on that nation. We are impressed by what we have heard in President Obama’s explanation of this historic agreement (or blueprint of an agreement), as well as in the remarks of Secretary of State John Kerry and Javad Zarif. Even though they are making many substantial concessions, the Iranians appear to be pleased with the framework announced yesterday.

Among the key provisions:

  • Iran has agreed to not enrich uranium over 3.67 percent for at least 15 years.
  • Iran has agreed to not build any new facilities for the purpose of enriching uranium for 15 years.
  • Iran’s breakout timeline—the time that it would take for Iran to acquire enough fissile material for one weapon—is currently assessed to be 2 to 3 months. That timeline will be extended to at least one year, for a duration of at least ten years, under this framework.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, including to Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz and its former enrichment facility at Fordow, and including the use of the most up-to-date, modern monitoring technologies.

Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund spoke to Rachel Maddow last night and hailed the agreement as an excellent and comprehensive agreement.

As far as we can see, the United States is not having to give up anything (except an unwillingness to negotiate), and in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, Iran is agreeing to a comprehensive system of safeguards, international inspections, monitoring, dismantling of centrifuges, reductions of plutonium stockpiles, etc.

This agreement has been worked out not only between the U.S. and Iran but with the active participation of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China. All nations’ foreign ministers have expressed approval of the basic framework announced on Thursday, April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign secretary, said in a statement:  “This is well beyond what many of us thought possible even 18 months ago and a good basis for what I believe could be a very good deal.”

Click here for a New York Times timeline of Iran’s nuclear program.

Give Peace—and Negotiations—a Chance

We just pray that the negotiators will be able to complete their work without obstruction by opponents. Illustrious members of Congress, and Republican presidential hopefuls, now would be a good time to not do something stupid. If you have no alternative plan, then don’t stand in the way. Let’s remember that the world is better off because President Ronald Reagan was willing to meet face-to-face with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss reductions in nuclear arms—there was substantial opposition to the Reykjavík summit at the time (1986)—just as critics opposed peace talks between Israel and Egypt, and President Nixon’s traveling to China, etc.

We should also note that President Obama and Secretary Kerry, with diplomatic assistance from Russia, succeeded in persuading Bashar al-Assad to agree to the destruction of all of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons. Obama—who has been a vocal proponent of nuclear nonproliferation since his first days in the U.S. Senate—also signed the New Start Treaty of 2010 with Russian president Dmitri A. Medvedev, with help in the Senate from then-senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).


Further Reading

Hiroshima, 65 Years On: “Countdown to Zero” (LNW, 8/6/10)

Nagasaki, Not Forgotten (LNW, 8/9/10)

Disarmament Experts Clarify Film’s Position on Nuclear Power (LNW, 8/13/10)

Timeline on Iran’s Nuclear Program (New York Times)

On Iran, Obama Gets His Breakthrough,” by Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, 4-2-15

Kerry, the Negotiator,” by Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, 3-17-15


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At the Intersection of Jon Stewart and Brian Williams



Jersey BoysBrian Douglas Williams and Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz both went to high school in New Jersey and held common, low-level jobs before working their way to the top of their respective, and interrelated, professions.


“Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War.” —Jon Stewart on Brian Williams, The Daily Show, Feb. 9, 2015


Last week we wrote a piece in defense of Brian Williams, little realizing it was probably already too late, even as other revelations of his storytelling were coming forth, and the social media pile-on was getting heavier by the minute. Then, this Tuesday, Feb. 10, we learned that not only is Williams being put on a six-month, unpaid leave by NBC management, but, even more distressing, Brian’s friend and ours, the widely beloved Jon Stewart, has announced that later this year he’ll step down from his anchor desk on The Daily Show at Comedy Central’s “World News Headquarters in New York,” the job he has held for 16 years. (“Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show”)

It seems to say something about the nature of our society and culture these days that as Jon Stewart announces his departure, a satirical comedian is very likely the most trusted source in news—at least to an entire, younger generation to whom the name Brian Williams is, maybe, vaguely familiar. As media columnist David Carr of The New York Times wrote, “Oddly, Mr. Stewart will leave his desk as arguably the most trusted man in news.”

(In more sad news this week,  David Carr himself died just last night at The New York Times after hosting a Times Talks conversation at The New School in New York with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and NSA whistleblower Edward J. Snowden about the new film Citizenfour, directed by Poitras. Click here for a clip of that Times Talks appearance.)

jonstewartDave Itzkoff of The New York Times wrote, “For a segment of the audience that had lost its faith in broadcast and print news outlets or never regarded them as sacrosanct in the first place, Mr. Stewart emerged a figure as trusted as Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.”

Just think about that for a minute: Cronkite and Murrow. We’d agree, it’s a fair comparison.

As Jason Zinoman of the Times wrote in “A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor”:

“The Daily Show” didn’t just offer insightful, cutting analysis, clever parody and often hard-hitting interviews with major newsmakers. For an entire generation, it became the news, except this report could withstand the disruption of the Internet far better than the old media. If anything, the web only made “The Daily Show,” with its short segments, more essential. Every time a political scandal exploded or a candidate made headlines or a cable fight went viral, the first thought for many viewers was: I can’t wait to see what Jon Stewart will say about this.  [emphasis added]

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Surely the status of being the most trusted man in news is one that Brian Williams wanted for himself, and it may once have been possible, but now that trust may be irretrievable. Further revelations have appeared about Williams’s whoppers, fabrications, outright lies, that make it hard to insist that he should be allowed to stay in his big chair. Even as we went to press with our piece last Friday (we learned later), The Guardian was reporting that New Orleans residents were calling into question some of Brian Williams’s tales about his time covering Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath—some of the very coverage for which we were expressing gratitude.

We said last week, “We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.” A comment from AdHack on the cross-posting of “In Defense of Brian Williams” at Daily Kos answered that quite clearly:

It’s coming out now because Williams told his dishonest recollection of being shot down last Friday, after repeatedly being warned by NBC brass to stop it, and a bunch of military veterans called him on it, which was reported by Stars & Stripes and then picked up by other media. The question really should be: Why did it take so long for this to get out? Veterans have been trying to get out the truth for quite some time. 

Thanks to AdHack for that clarification. We have not found other sources attesting that NBC executives had told Williams to stop telling the tale about being shot down, but AdHack seems to know what he’s talking about.

Not the Only Tale-Teller with a Big Megaphone

We agree, though, with a Carla Wallach of Greenwich, Conn., the writer of a letter to the editor published in The New York Times on Feb. 12:

How sad that the NBC brass couldn’t see that all the brouhaha regarding the news anchor Brian Williams had nothing to do with his work. His fudging the truth regarding the helicopter incident was nearly an act of personal vanity, which is not a rarity among celebrities. So he was not on the helicopter that was fired on, as he claimed, but in one behind it: that’s close enough to death for me. A six-month suspension is too severe. People will have forgotten about the incident in less ethan a month. I will be among those welcoming him back. 

Nightly News with Brian WilliamsTrue, it doesn’t seem fair, especially when you consider the massive lies told in recent years and decades by government officials—too numerous to mention—and that there is an entire network with “News” in its name that does nothing but lie and distort, 24/7. But NBC Nightly News is and should be held to a higher standard of integrity. (See “Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” at The New Republic.)

We just hope we’ll see Brian Williams back on the job in not too long a time. And, again, the attention he helped bring to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was needed then and is needed still.

On a happier note, it’s Mardi Gras time, y’all (Tuesday, Feb. 17). Let the good times roll . . .


Further Reading

Jon Stewart Will Leave ‘The Daily Show’ on a Career High Note” (NYT 2/11/15)

A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor” (NYT 2/10/15)

Kings of Their Crafts, but on Divergent Paths: Brian Williams’s and Jon Stewart’s Common Ground,” by David Carr, New York Times (2/11/15)

Brian Williams’ reports on Katrina called into question by New Orleans residents,” The Guardian (2/6/15)

NBC’s Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest,” Stars and Stripes (2/4/15)

Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show” (NYT 2/11/15)

Brian Williams Scandal Prompts Frantic Efforts at NBC to Curb Rising Damage” (NYT 2/11/15)

Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” by Nicole Hemmer, The New Republic (2/13/15)


Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central


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In Defense of Brian Williams, New Orleans’ Loyal Friend



Now He Really Is Under Fire

The veracity of the leading network news anchor, Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, is in question—by his own fault—and now the sharks and wolves smell blood. A feeding frenzy ensues.    [ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Williams has apparently fabricated a story in which a military helicopter he was aboard in Iraq in 2003 was shot down. Other accounts say that his helicopter was never fired upon. He apologized on air on Wednesday night with a less than candid account, and critics aren’t satisfied—but we don’t care.

We Stand with Brian

Our confidence in Brian Williams is not shaken, and we called NBC Nightly News (212-664-4971) to say please keep him on the air. E-mail NBC Nightly News at nightly@nbc.com. We do not claim that he’s done nothing wrong—it looks pretty clear he repeatedly told a lie, with embellishments—but he has done so much good, particularly for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, that “all is forgiven.”

In a particularly rich nugget of hypocrisy, Howard Kurtz, an analyst at Fox News, says, “The admission raises serious questions about his credibility in a business that values that quality above all else.” We will not dignify that remark with a response other than to say consider the source: that’s about what we’d expect from fair and balanced Fox News, without which arguably there would have been no Iraq War for Brian Williams to report from. Other conservative voices are piling on. (Just check #BrianWilliams on Twitter—or, better yet, don’t bother.)

There is a tradition of news anchors going to places in the news, among the most famous of which was CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam in 1968 (transcript here), followed energetically by Dan Rather. (Rather went so often to dangerous places—such as to Afghanistan in 1980—that he acquired the nickname “Gunga Dan.”) Such on-the-ground reporting from war zones is often courageous, is surely good for ratings, and brings an enormous spotlight to the place or the issue in the news. It was in this tradition that Williams was in Iraq in 2003. (The New York Times’s television reporter Alessandra Stanley gives a well-rounded overview here. More below.)

In response to Williams’s admission of error (though not of lying) there is much righteous indignation and moral outrage, some of which has elements of accuracy. Of course, many competing news outlets would love to see the leading network news program weakened, its ratings and standing lowered, its anchor disgraced, possibly removed, as CBS anchor Dan Rather was dumped in 2004 following a dubiously sourced report about George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.

brian_williams_katrinaWhat we do know is that we and the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have great reason to be steadfastly grateful to Brian Williams for keeping the national spotlight firmly fixed on the region during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005. Williams camped out in the Superdome the night before Katrina made landfall, and was on the ground to report the damage and the resulting flood after the federally built levees and outflow canal walls failed.

For months, for years, he reported about New Orleans and environs, its struggles, successes, setbacks, and brave efforts and plucky initiatives to keep the good times—and life itself—rollin’. On the first anniversary of Katrina, on August 29, 2006, Williams took President George W. Bush on a walking interview through the Lower Ninth Ward—a Q&A in which Brian was visibly not taken in by Bush’s rosy account of things. (Transcript here.)

Brian-@-bayou1And in April 2010, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew out and killed 11 workers, Williams reported live from Venice, Louisiana (around the “birdfoot”). On the fifth anniversary of Katrina (August 29, 2010), he anchored three straight nights of news reports from New Orleans and interviewed President Obama, Brad Pitt, and Harry Connick Jr. (Other national networks also commemorated the event with special reports, and Anderson Cooper too was a reliable, loyal friend to New Orleans and environs.)

NBC, through coverage by the late Tim Russert, Martin Savidge, environmental reporter Anne Thompson, and Rachel Maddow at sister network MSNBC, has consistently been the network most dedicated to keeping public attention on Louisiana’s environmental struggles. Brian Williams has been the most prominent and consistent of those nationally broadcast voices.

There are more reasons than these why NBC should hold steady and not even think about making Williams step down, but his loyalty to New Orleans and vicinity explains why we are willing to look the other way and remember that he is not the only prominent person of whom factual integrity is expected who has let the public down.

Damage Control, and Reputation Repair

To be sure, Brian Williams is very well compensated: The New York Times reports that his latest contract for serving as managing editor and chief anchor of NBC Nightly News reportedly brings him $10 million a year. That kind of money could help a lot of jobless, hungry families. (He’s not the only American with an extremely large salary.) Maybe he could create some goodwill by donating one of those millions to the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, and maybe another to Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). Just a thought. (We, too, in our own modest way, contribute to those organizations.)

Brian, Illegitimi non carborundum

A member of our staff who minored in “cod Latin” reminds us of the well-worn phrase Illegitimi non carborundum—“Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (a motto often used by General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in World War II).


Click here for a news media contact list.


With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale,” New York Times (2/5/15)

After a Decade Building Trust, an Anchor Starts a Firestorm With One Wrong Move,” Alessandra Stanley, New York Times (2/5/15)

Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq,” New York Times (2/4/15)


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Honoring Rev. King, Recommending “Selma”




“Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland.

“The threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishing of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything.” 

—“Our God Is Marching On!”, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965


Selma: A Hard-Won Turning Point in the Civil Rights Movement

We inserted the advance-screening disc of the new film Selma into the DVD player last night with some trepidation, hoping to like the film, but fearing it would be heavy-handed, simplistic, or possibly loose with the facts, but to our great relief we found it to be none of these. Selma is really good, and we highly recommend it.

The film is focused on a significant turning point in the long Civil Rights movement, when, in February and March 1965, activists decided to make Selma, Alabama, the place to dramatize black disenfranchisement. Of 15,000 potential black voters in Selma, 325 were registered, compared to 9,300 of 14,000 eligible whites. The county sheriff, James G. “Jim” Clark Jr., was a known hothead who wore a lapel pin reading “Never.” Activists knew they could rely on him to overreact and escalate the situation.

The activists’ goal was to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery (once the capital of the Confederacy). The 54-mile march would take them along route 80, the Jefferson Davis Highway. On March 7, some 600 marchers were driven back by police and troopers with tear gas, nightsticks, and bullwhips from crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge over the Alabama River. Seventeen people were hospitalized. A second attempt, joined by King, was aborted. The third march was successful. Some 3,200 left Selma on March 21; four days later, 25,000 arrived in Montgomery. (The excerpts above are from King’s speech to the marchers after they had reached their destination.)

Selma_posterThe persistence of the civil rights activists in Selma—aided by televised images of horrifying police brutality against peaceful demonstrators—led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 1965 Voting Rights Act may sound familiar: it was recently eviscerated by five conservatives on the United States Supreme Court on the dubious grounds that federal, legal protections of voting rights for minorities are no longer needed. (See “Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past” LNW 6/26/13.)

About the Film

David Oyelowo’s performance is strong and steady—he portrays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a fallible human being—and the supporting cast of actors playing Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), John Lewis (Stephan James), the Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), and Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) are convincing and well cast. One strength of the film is that it shows a hard-working and committed network of activists, sometimes in conflict, of which King was the leader, but, naturally, not everyone always agreed with his priorities or methods.

Some good dramatic tension is shown in repeated disputes between members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (founded following the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56), of which King and Abernathy and others of their generation were leaders, and the younger Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly pronounced “snick”), which played a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington and Freedom Summer (1964). Some of the younger activists had lost patience with King’s insistence on nonviolence—particularly after the murders and beatings by white supremacists during Freedom Summer—and some accused him of Uncle Tomism and derided him behind his back as “de Lawd.” A less impatient member of SNCC was its chairman, John Lewis (now Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga.). At Selma on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, his skull was fractured by an officer’s nightstick; the scars are still visible.

One weakness in the film was needlessly inflicted by the difficult Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. estate (his children, Martin, Dexter, and Bernice). The producers of this film—including Oprah Winfrey, who appears in the film—were not allowed to use direct quotations of King’s speeches. “The intellectual property wasn’t available to us,” said the film’s director, Ava Duvernay. Thus, David Oyelowo must paraphrase what King said. And many of his speeches are hotter, more radical sounding—more like Malcolm X (who also makes an appearance in Selma)—than the more polished and scripture-infused oratory of the historical Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

We cannot imagine what harm could be done by allowing the producers of a film that honestly, admiringly portrays the courageous work of Rev. King to use his words. (Perhaps the heirs were displeased by the film’s not hiding—but not depicting, either—the fact of their father’s extramarital affairs.) Even with the formidable influence of Oprah Winfrey, who must have tried to persuade the heirs to allow use of his words, perhaps the price demanded was too high, but in any case permission to quote the civil rights leader was not granted.


Historians, too, have questioned the film’s depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as obstinate, delaying, more of an obstacle than an ally, who insists on doing things on his own schedule of political convenience. Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Johnson is good, however, and even if the film’s depiction is contrary to some historical facts, the president’s obstinacy is not extreme, and in the end he bows to the forces of history on the march. (The photo above shows MLK, LBJ, and activists Whitney Young and James Farmer in the Oval Office in 1964 before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)

Historian William Manchester records the kind of federal assistance the real LBJ sent after Alabama governor George Wallace asked for help in protecting all the outside agitators (including many clergy) who were pouring in in response to MLK’s invitation to join in the march from Selma to Montgomery:

[LBJ] complied by sending 1,863 federalized national guardsmen, 250 U.S. marshals and FBI agents, two regular Army MP battalions, demolition experts to search the roads and bridges ahead of those making the hike, and helicopters to hover overhead. In addition, the hikers were provided with huge tents for overnight stops, a 600-gallon water truck, latrine trucks, ambulances, trucks for rubbish, and scout cars to set up campsites in advance. 

—William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932–1972 (p. 1060)


Selma to Montgomery in Photographs

Two excellent photo portfolios are A Long March into History: Stephen Somerstein Photos in ‘Freedom Journey 1965’ in The New York Times and “The Long Road,” photographs by Steve Schapiro in The New Yorker online.


More about Civil Rights at Levees Not War:

Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past (6/26/13)

The (GOP-Driven) Decline of Black Power in the South (7/11/13)

Mississippi’s Runoff and Memories of Freedom Summer (6/26/14)

Marching on Washington for Economic and Social Justice (8/29/13)

Read All About the 1963 March on Washington (8/27/13)

In Honor of Medgar Evers and Res Publica (6/12/13)

“There Is a Creative Force in This Universe”: The Poor People’s Campaign, 40 Years before Occupy Wall Street (1/16/12)

How the World Has—and Has Not—Changed in 50 Years: Portraits of Courage, Struggle, and Defiance (1/6/12)

. . . or just click MLK


Color photograph above, showing David Oyelowo as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., from Selma (2014). Black-and-white photographs below by Stephen Somerstein, Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, 1965. The first photo shows John Lewis of SNCC, center, and, behind him to his right, Andrew Young of the SCLC (later U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta). Click on any picture to see a ten-photo slideshow. “Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein” is on view at the New-York Historical Society through April 19, 2015.


front line

walking by

white onlookers

walking in Montgomery


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