Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March 31: Give 'Em Hell, Barry!

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Kudos to NBC's Chuck Todd for incorporating history into his report last night: In his stand on two of the Big Three U.S. auto companies, President Barack Obama is essentially doing what President Harry Truman did with Big Steel almost 60 years ago.

Clearly someone had to act, because General Motors and Chrysler haven't been doing it themselves. The glory days when Lee Iacocca rescued Chrysler (with the help of a federal bailout) are long gone. The Chrysler history that goes back to the late 1800s may end with a whimper.

Then there is General Motors, the gold standard of American business for so many years. Then, former CEO Roger Smith began a battle with the unions that continues today. (For South Floridians, that battle serves as a reminder of the late-1980s struggles between Eastern Airlines and its machinists union, struggles that eventually brought that airline down.)

Obama blamed CEO Rick Wagoner for the GM-union battle, and Wagoner has resigned from his post. Like Chrysler, Wagoner's GM relied too much on the behemoth, gas guzzling vehicles until it was almost too late.

(On a personal level, I blame Wagoner for getting rid of Buick's most profitable and fuel-economical models, including the Century, which my family has driven in one form or another since 1976.)

Can GM and Chrysler save themselves by turning leaner and greener? Obama, at least, has given them that chance.

Monday, March 30, 2009

March 30: Bravo, Carvalho; Back Down, UTD

By Sylvia Gurinsky

I was wrong.

Contrary to my prediction, Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho not only has not disgraced himself on the job, but he's doing quite well, thank you. The latest example is his commendable decision to waive six days of pay and $30,000 in benefits to help keep district workers on the job.

Four school employee unions have agreed to give up several work days for the remainder of the school year to save money for the district. United Teachers of Dade, at least so far, is not among them. When Rudy Crew was superintendent and UTD battled with him and the school board, the union looked to be ahead of everyone else; that has changed with a worsening economy and Carvalho and the other unions' actions.

UTD, which cleaned up its reputation very nicely after the mess Pat Tornillo left, is losing the political capital and goodwill it had and gaining a negative reputation with its current hardheadedness.

Even the Broward Teachers Union seems to be backing down for now and accepting the contract that county's school district is offering.

There are times to pick battles. For United Teachers of Dade, now - at least with Carvalho - is not that time.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

March 26: Geithner Gets the Hang of the Job

By Sylvia Gurinsky

A round of applause for U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. After those early stumbles, it became clear today he's gotten the hang of the job.

Geithner proposed a lot more regulation for this country's financial system:


What's become clear is that the financial system is far more complicated than it was even during the Great Depression. While that crisis brought about new regulations to protect banks and consumers, this crisis has focused attention on the other parts of the system.

Those other parts acted like a bunch of gamblers in Las Vegas, starting, really, during the 1990s, but really picking up steam in this decade. Because of this, the biggest investors in the system - the majority of the American people - suffered.

Today, Geithner clearly explained what happened and why, as well as what needs to be done about it. Bravo. Now, it's up to Congress to enact the reform.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

March 25: Leave Class Sizes Alone

By Sylvia Gurinsky

The theme for fighting the actions of this year's Florida Legislature seems to be "Leave It Alone."

The latest battlefront for that motto is class sizes.

In 2002, Florida voters approved a constitutional measure to limit class sizes.

Now, State Representative Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel (west-central Florida), wants a new ballot measure that, in typical Florida House Republican fashion, messes with the numbers.

CS/HJR 919 would have voters go to the polls next year to decide on a measure that would have the class size limits be based on the "average number of students at school level" instead of the maximum number of students. The House Education Policy Council is hearing the bill as this is being written.

Weatherford and others who support this measure have both short memories and a disregard for parts of the state larger than Wesley Chapel, population 5,700 as of the 2000 Census (but growing). There's Miami, population 362,400 in the same census, and Tampa (303,000).

It was the larger communities in this state that were fighting for the class size ballot measure, which has eased overcrowding in schools across the state. Smaller class sizes generally lead to more attention and better grades for students, and if Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist have gotten to thump their chests over education improvements in Florida, the lower class sizes are a big reason why.

Bush, Weatherford and others in the G.O.P. have squawked about funding the measure, but it's been worth the results. The Florida Legislature should keep hands off the class sizes. As this year's motto goes, Leave It Alone.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

March 24: With Fingers Crossed......The Marlins Finally Have Tomorrow

By Sylvia Gurinsky

With fingers crossed and bats, balls, gloves and shovels at the ready, it looks like the Florida Marlins can finally get started building that new ballpark.

Yesterday, nine Miami-Dade commissioners decided to give the Marlins something they haven't had in 15 years:


They've had an insecure future in South Florida since the baseball strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series and the trust of a lot of baseball fans. Then, after the 1997 World Series win, Wayne Huizenga pulled out the rug from under the franchise with that fire sale. Despite the 2003 World Series win, the Marlins have never really gotten that trust back.

Now comes the chance to try again, if the naysayers will let the franchise do so, and if team owner Jeffrey Loria lives up to his promises.

Play ball!

Monday, March 23, 2009

March 23: Leave Florida's Department of Community Affairs Alone

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Ah, the reliable things: Death, taxes and the ability of the Florida Legislature to come up with something devious and damaging each year.

This time, it's legislation that would either eliminate or weaken the state's Department of Community Affairs, Florida's government environmental watchdog, and transfer most of the responsibilities to the Department of State, which, as you will recall, has one botched U.S. presidential election in its history (Though current Secretary of State Kurt Browning is not to blame for that.).

Keep in mind that many legislators get lots of campaign checks from big developers. The big developers aren't getting much business these days - something about the economy going south - and they'll try anything. Especially with suitors as willing as lawmakers.

Never mind that Florida's environment, which could play a role in the state's economic recovery, would get ruined in the process.

So far, it looks like the Florida Senate isn't as hard-charging on the legislation as the Florida House. Hopefully, both the Senate and, if necessary, Gov. Charlie Crist will put the kibosh on this plan.

The Department of Community Affairs has been a consistent success story in Florida. The Florida Legislature should leave it alone.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 19: Sounding the Alarm About the Future Of the Press - And "Silent Stinkers"

By Sylvia Gurinsky

This is Sunshine Week, when newspapers generally communicate with the public about the importance of freedom of the press.

This week, there's an added incentive: The importance of the existence of the press.

It's ironic that this is the week that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer chose to end its print edition and go to the Web. The Rocky Mountain News closed entirely a few weeks ago. Other papers, including The San Francisco Chronicle, have their immediate futures threatened. In South Florida, both The Miami Herald and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel are in trouble, with layoffs by the Herald last week and more expected by the Sun-Sentinel.

Earlier this week at a luncheon in Tallahassee, Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters' Committee For Freedom of the Press and a longtime champion of free press and First Amendment rights, spoke about the dangers faced by not having the press working in the public's favor. Florida Public Radio's "Capitol Report" played some of her words:

"The mainstream media's been heavily involved in efforts to protect whistleblowers and other confidential sources through state and federal shield laws and whistleblower protection, so that people who have information about government or institutional malfaesance can come forward. When they can't get anyone in the government to do what needs to be done to correct the problem, they go to the media, the media protects those sources and the public knows what's going on.....They (media companies) spent a lot of that money fighting for the public's right to know what its public and private institutions were up to. They spent that money on your behalf.....Now, you may have noticed your local media have hit hard times. They're doing much worse than the economy as a whole, if that's even possible, but they are. I'm afraid. I'm very afraid that these folks won't be able to continue this battle. And who's going to suffer? We all will."


Also mentioned on Monday were a collection of bills that could prove perilous during the Florida Legislature's session.

They're known as "shell bills," but there's nothing pretty about them. They are bills that present a general purpose and don't have much detail when they're filed, but the devilish details are added later.

The First Amendment Foundation has a more detailed nickname for these bills: "Silent Stinkers:"


Once upon a pre-Internet time, the Society of Professional Journalists, an organization I've been part of for 19 years, had a motto on a T-shirt: "If the press doesn't tell you, who will?" There are some others - but only some.

We need a free and independent press more than ever.

CORRECTED: March 18: Paulson, Bush Should Get Blame On AIG Bonuses - And Where Was the Media?

(Note: This column has been updated to include Congress' participation.)

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Why is new Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner getting the blame over the bonuses given to AIG executives? He didn't negotiate the deal.

His predecessor, Henry Paulson did. And Paulson's boss, President George W. Bush, signed off on it. So did Congress.

The AIG bailout deal was approved last fall, in the middle of the presidential campaign and the general collapse of the economy. Somehow, the fine print over the bonuses given to AIG executives didn't get out until a few days ago.

Perhaps CNBC missed that fine print while their commentators were shouting. And where was the rest of the business media, at least the part that wasn't being laid off or bought out? Even the stellar "Frontline" documentary a few weeks ago on the economic collapse didn't mention the details of the AIG bailout.

But the person who has the most to explain is Paulson. In the middle of its collective teeth-gnashing, Congress needs to call Paulson and tell him to come clean on what he did with AIG and why he did it - and come clean about their own actions. Meanwhile, Geithner deserves to be let out of the doghouse.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 17: Israel: Those Who Do Not Remember the Past......

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Never mind Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran. The Jewish people have a way of being their own worst enemy.

Israel is truly about to go through its self-inflicted darkest hour with the coming of Benjamin Netanyahu's government. He plans to appoint a foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is a racist and under investigation for white-collar crimes.

Netanyahu plans to appoint a national security chief, Uzi Arad, who is currently forbidden from entering the United States because of an investigation of a former Pentagon official for sharing classified information about Iran.

And Netanyahu plans to appoint himself finance minister. There has never been any such thing as a Likud government with a sound economy in Israel. Ever.

It creates headaches for Israelis who don't agree with their policies, not to mention allies such as the United States, not to mention Jews all over the world who want to see peace and stability in the Middle East.

This incoming government won't bring it. Not unless there's divine intervention.

Passover is coming soon, but it feels more like Tisha B'Av - the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, in which the Second Holy Temple was destroyed, and much of Jerusalem with it, and the Jewish community scattered to the winds for centuries. When people pray on that fast day, they see that the Jewish people did as much damage to themselves as the Romans did to them, with sinning, infighting and corruption.

It is obvious that Netanyahu, with his government picks, has learned nothing from that story.

So here's another prayer: That the reign of the far-right in Israel will be as brief as possible, and that cooler -and smarter - heads can save both the Jewish state and the peace process.

Monday, March 16, 2009

March 16: CNBC's Exploding Truck

By Sylvia Gurinsky

News watchers may remember a time when NBC News had egg on its face, in 1992.

With newsmagazines as the TV trend du jour at the time, NBC's "Dateline" aired a report that questioned the safety of General Motors trucks. What NBC didn't tell the public was that they'd strapped incendiary devices to the backs of trucks to try to create an explosive effect. GM sued, NBC apologized, and correspondent Michelle Gillen, who came from South Florida television with a reputation for stellar investigative reporting and should have known better, eventually lost her network career (She is at Miami's WFOR-Channel 4 today.).

Today, it's financial channel CNBC that's the company's problem child.

Sound and fury by CNBC correspondents (and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart) aside, the question needs to be asked: What, exactly, is CNBC's role supposed to be?

Is CNBC supposed to cover business, providing sound reporting? Or is it supposed to be an advocate, a business cheerleader?

Is CNBC supposed to go by the standards and practices of NBC News (which were revised after what came to be known as the "Dateline fiasco")?

People are hungry for facts - without hype. The understanding here is that CNBC has not provided them before and during this economic crisis, or when its reporters have provided them, they've been literally shouted out by commentators more interested in making noise and being buddy-buddy with Wall Street.

In other words, the economic crisis is CNBC's exploding truck story, because the network didn't cast a critical enough eye on Wall Street or Washington.

Mark Hoffman is the president of CNBC. He's a journalist, so he knows something about standards and practices.

Hoffman needs to go on the air - at CNBC, on NBC - and on the Web and let readers and viewers know exactly what those standards are for CNBC. And as the parent network did 17 years ago with the truck, Hoffman needs to give a "mea culpa" for CNBC's failings in covering the economic meltdown.

This time, the consequences for CNBC's abdication of its journalistic duty are even more dire than "Dateline's" were.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

March 12: Madoff Plea Must Lead To More Probes

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Bernard Madoff's guilty plea does not and cannot end the story.

The federal investigation of his family and his co-workers must continue. Can one man be responsible for a staggering $65 billion swindle? It's hard to believe, and the answer is: Maybe not.

An investigation of the failings of the Securities and Exchange Commission in pursuing the case against Madoff until so much had been lost must also be done. Apparently, Madoff's scheming happened during a 25-year period, which means there's a lot of blame to go around.

The issue of restitution may be more complicated, given the list of people and organizations that lost money. Class-action suits are already being filed, and that may be the best bet.

Any efforts at laws to protect investors who have been swindled may be met by cries of "It's their choice to invest their money." However, the list of those affected is so vast - including charitable foundations - that some compensation is in order. Somehow, jail doesn't seem enough of a punishment for Bernard Madoff.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

March 11: Games Elected Officials Play

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Here's why daily newspapers are needed: These two stories came to this commentator courtesy of The Miami Herald.

First, the National Rifle Association has horned in on legitimate efforts to get official congressional representation in the District of Columbia:


Anyone who lives in D.C. should be angry at how this has become a "Christmas Tree" bill for the NRA. How about a new version of the Boston Tea Party - D.C. residents can throw the NRA supporters in Congress into the Potomac River?

On the State of Florida level, here's a link to Myriam Marquez' column about the legislature's mischief:


There's not much to add, except that the Department of Community Affairs must be preserved; if such a bill gets out of the legislature, Gov. Charlie Crist must veto it, as well as any further efforts to wreck Florida's environment.

Whether in Congress or Tallahassee, enough games from elected officials.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

March 10: Wanted: More Of the Cooler Heads, Less Of the Hot Air

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Air bags - the kind on television and radio, not the kind in cars - are getting a lot of attention these days.

Air bags like Rush Limbaugh and Randi Rhodes. Air bags like the increasingly verbally militant cast of CNBC, which is supposed to be in the business of reporting financial news.

It's happening at the same time community media - print and broadcast - are struggling through their worst time since the Great Depression. While more people are reading daily newspapers - albeit online and for free - than ever before, those papers are more in danger of going out of business.

However, go back to the first part of that last sentence: More people are reading daily newspapers than ever before. Also, more people are heading to outlets such as National Public Radio and PBS broadcasts for news and information.

That means more people want honest, detailed, fair and accurate information.

So let's put the kibosh on all those people who are saying newspapers or journalism are dead. In this country, where the press is the only profession protected by the Constitution, we don't have that option. We have the obligation to save good journalism. For this country's future, we need cooler heads, not hot air.

Monday, March 9, 2009

March 9: Too Big Not To Fail?

By Sylvia Gurinsky

The expression "Too Big To Fail" has been bandied about as the primary reason behind government bailouts of various major companies.

But what if their size is a reason for their current troubles?

One only needs to look at the large companies that grew and grew, and are now out of business (Circuit City, as of yesterday), filing for bankruptcy (you name it) or laying off employees by the thousands (General Motors, for which bankruptcy may be the next step). Then, there are the major media companies......

During the 1990s and even the early part of this decade, many of them grew big. But they didn't grow smart, with sizable companies gobbling up smaller ones at will and others ( Starbucks) opening seemingly on every block. Except for a brief time in 2001-02 in the wake of the crisis at Enron, there has been no oversight.

So far, there has not been enough of a push for oversight from Congress, which is still lambasting CEOs for their excesses, but hasn't said or done enough about tightening regulations on everything from housing to banking to how big Big Business gets.

The bailout idea is starting to get old; it no longer sustains Wall Street, and Main Street is sick of hearing about it.

One of the ways to clean up the mess is exactly that - clean up. Reforming how businesses acquire and manage each other would be a good start. We're finding out that these collapsing companies were too big NOT to fail.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

March 4: Accountability Goes Both Ways, Governor Crist

By Sylvia Gurinsky

In yesterday's State of the State address, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said:

I urge you to pass legislation requiring school districts to spend 70 percent of their budgets in the classroom for our students and teachers, and to instill transparency by requiring school districts to provide dollar-by-dollar details online. Floridians deserve to know how their hard-earned dollars are being spent, and parents have a right to demand accountability. And I ask you to consider, as I have proposed, increasing per-student funding - Florida's children deserve it.

Amen, but such accountability goes both ways. It's needed from the state, too.

Between the proposed budget released by Crist and what the Florida Legislature does, Floridians still get the feeling that they don't know exactly where their dollars go - especially with all those tax cuts Crist and lawmakers keep harping about.

Local school districts, colleges and universities have spent the last year cutting and cutting and cutting critical programs. There is not much more for them to cut. It has gotten to the point where parents have gone on hunger strikes and students and teachers have staged protests.

They've given their share of blame to local administrators, but they're starting to turn their eyes - rightly - toward Tallahassee. That's exactly where the focus belongs.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

March 3: Who Can Blame Alvarez?

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Can anyone blame Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez?

Frustrated with the City of Miami's latest shenanigans in the Florida Marlins' ballpark deal, Alvarez has instructed that no further county action will take place until the city sorts itself out.

Miami, unfortunately, has a history of this sort of thing. Its haggling over the Orange Bowl prompted Miami Dolphins' owner Joe Robbie to get out and go bankrupt building his own stadium during the 1980s. One glance at articles about the Marlins' stadium fight from the days when John Henry owned the team shows similar hijinks from city commissioners that are taking place now. The Baltimore Orioles and University of Miami football Hurricanes have also been affected by this sort of thing. Is it something in the water at Dinner Key?

Aside from Commissioner Marc Sarnoff's last-minute chess move in the commission meeting that was supposed to decide the Marlins' fate from the city's perspective, there is the incredible disappearing commissioner, Michelle Spence-Jones, who could have taken five minutes from her maternity leave to call in her vote at that commission meeting but didn't, and is now demanding $500 million for Overtown for a "yes" vote, according to The Miami Herald. What courage!

If city commissioners really feel that badly about a deal, here's a suggestion: Go back to the beginning, put it on the ballot and let voters decide. As for the Marlins, they should table negotiations until the economy improves and then see if there are any other U.S. cities interested in giving the welcome that, after 15 years of stadium futility, the team deserves.

Whether one is a baseball fan or not, South Florida has had enough of this soap opera.

Monday, March 2, 2009

March 2: Hasner's Actions Smack Of Bigotry

By Sylvia Gurinsky

What would the reaction be if a member of the Florida Legislature tried to say members of the Jewish community could not gather in Tallahassee for a celebration of their history and culture?
Angry, and justifiably so.

Yet, a Jewish member of the Florida Legislature - House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach - seeks to deny that right to members of the state's Muslim community.

According to the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald, Hasner has sent an e-mail to Jewish lobbyists, calling on them to oppose Florida Muslim Capitol Day:


Hasner is having a knee-jerk reaction to the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza - a conflict the Muslims planning to gather in Tallahassee have no responsibility for and have taken no part in.

That doesn't seem to matter to Hasner, however. For a man who is one of the legislative leaders, he seems to lack knowledge of Florida's Muslim population - who they are, what they do and how they contribute to the state.

Considering the history of persecution and hatred Jews have faced, it is more important that Jews practice derech eretz and not turn that persecution and hatred on others. That is a lesson Hasner apparently hasn't learned.

Commendably, other lawmakers seem to not be picking up the banner of bigotry that Hasner is waving.

Tonight at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie, Rabbi Bob Alper and comedian Azhar Usman are presenting their "Laugh In Peace" program. Before the legislative session starts in Tallahassee tomorrow, Hasner might want to take a flight down and catch the show. It's clear he needs it.