Friday, March 17, 2006
Crawling away from wreckage with hair ablaze
I am based in Beirut, Lebanon, better known to Americans as the terror capital of the world in the 1980s for its rampant lawlessness and kidnappings. Thankfully, the civil war that lasted some fifteen barbarous years ended in 1991. But Lebanon is still a dangerous place.
A series of mysterious bombs have killed or maimed several politicians and journalists I knew well, none more so than a remarkable and courageous woman named May Chidiac, a fearless Maronite Catholic journalist who I came to admire during the war years.
Back then, May was a field reporter for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. In recent years, she has come to be known throughout the Middle East as a kind of Barbara Walters. She is fiercely independent and has made many enemies through her opinionated commentary and TV news reports.
Her last broadcast came six months ago when she poured scorn on Lebanon's powerful neighbor, Syria. Her televised discussion focused on alleged Syrian involvement in a series of assassinations in Lebanon. A few hours later, May was blown up by a bomb attached to the underside of her SUV.
She was sliced to shreds, somehow crawling way from the wreckage with her hair ablaze.
"I saw my hand attached to my arm with a small piece of skin," she told me. "But I hoped that they could save my hand." In fact, she lost her hand and half of her arm as well as most of her left leg. She was also covered in terrible burns and her body was peppered by shrapnel wounds.
For months, my friend and respected colleague has been subjected to grueling physical therapy at a special rehabilitation center near Paris. For tonight's show, we talked about how she survived the bomb attack and her valiant effort to eventually return to the screen to tell stories that matter.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Debating 'Roe vs. Wade for Men'
When I blog for this show, I'm always curious to know if the subject will actually motivate people to engage in a debate. Turns out my original story about the case they're calling "Roe vs. Wade for Men"
generated a lot of interest.
It's about a lawsuit arguing men should have the right to reject the responsibilities of fatherhood -- including getting out of paying child support. A national men's rights group backing the suit argues a woman gets to decide if she wants to have a child, give it up for adoption, or have an abortion, while the man has no control.
In the lawsuit, Matt Dubay, a 25-year-old from Saginaw, Michigan, is suing his ex-girlfriend, 20-year-old Lauren Wells. They had a baby girl who is now eight months old. Dubay says he told Wells up front he did not want to be a father. And he doesn't feel he should have to pay $560 per month in child support. Here's a sample of your responses:
He was intimate with her and is responsible. Can you imagine the financial impact of allowing men to avoid child support! It is already a problem. He needs to pay.
Posted By Ted, Dallas, Texas
The main question is whether or not the man has a right to any say in the outcome. What if the woman wanted an abortion and the man wanted the child? Would the man have a say in that circumstance? Or would the woman have all the choices without any regard to the wishes of the man?
Posted By Frank, Columbus, Ohio
He says it's about trying to extend to men the freedom of choice the Supreme Court decision gave to women. Really? What statement fails to realize is that women must deal with the situation because of biology. Hence, the choice to make a decision, because they cannot walk away from this reality. When men have the ability to become pregnant, then the same choices should be extended. If men currently are extended the same choices, then it is assuming that they will have choices which will affect a women's body. Where is the equal justice in that?
Posted By Margaret, Orlando, Florida
This is really a matter of "equal justice under law" and needs to be sent to the Supreme Court. Look at it this way -- if a woman becomes pregnant she has the following options open to her:
(1) Abort; or,
(2) Rear child; or,
(3) Place for adoption
The man, in the case of pregnancy, has the following options:
(1) Pay support; or,
(2) Marriage and support; or, if this lawsuit is successful,
(3) Flee or otherwise refuse
As it stands now, the only options open to men are #1 and #2; and #3 is right-out illegal in most places. What this lawsuit does is open up equity for men in this matter -- since men cannot become pregnant themselves, this gives the man a similar "opt-out" option that the woman currently has. Regardless of personal morals, this is an intensely important issue, and may well drive legal doctrine in this country for decades.
Posted By Phil, Waterloo, Iowa
You can watch my full report on this story tonight on the show. It will be followed by a debate on this subject. And you can read my original blog post here
. Feel free to leave more of your thoughts in the space below.
Searching for closure in the lower Ninth Ward
The story assignment was simple -- a reality check on the effort to recover the bodies still buried in debris more than half a year after Hurricane Katrina.
I have lived in New Orleans nearly three months now. And working on this story, it struck me. Does the rest of the country realize only half the debris left by Katrina has been removed from Louisiana? Do they realize hundreds of bodies are still unaccounted for?
I drive by blocks and blocks and blocks of splintered homes every day, with people dressed in hazmat suits walking in and out of the houses they are gutting. But the real emotional button for much of New Orleans is the legion of people still listed as missing.
The Family Assistance Center puts the number at 1,495 people and dropping. No one really believes that many bodies will be found. That would more than double Katrina's death toll.
The state medical examiner estimates there are probably 400 people who died who haven't been discovered. Sad reality, most of them probably never will be. Authorities here suspect many washed into the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, or some bayou.
That doesn't mean crews aren't looking. Every day, cadaver dog teams get up, and in tedious fashion, they walk from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood. The monotony is broken every now and then when a dog makes a positive "hit" -- meaning it senses human remains or body fluid deep beneath debris.
It is grisly work. It is time-consuming. And it is important. Debris from areas like the lower Ninth Ward can't be removed until all suspect areas have been thoroughly checked.
It is going to take months to finish. People in charge tell me the effort to find bodies could still be going on even as we memorialize the first anniversary of Katrina next August.
Firefighters, dog teams, medical personnel, and others privately debate just how many more bodies will be found. Their answers may shock you. The low end -- in the teens. The highest number I have heard is about 60. That means a lot of families with missing loved ones will never get closure.
Help wanted fighting wildfires: No hotheads need apply
March is supposed to be a quiet month for wildfires. That's why the Aerial Firefighting Institute holds its annual training school this time of year in Safford, Arizona, for pilots of SEAT planes, or single-engine air tankers.
The pilots of these planes typically are the first-responders to wildfires. Get on the fire, and get on it fast, are words these firefighters live by. If you don't see them and the fires they're fighting on TV, then that means they are doing their job.
While P3 air-tankers "bomb" the big fires, SEAT pilots attack the small ones before they get big. In theory, at least, that's how it's supposed to work. But lately, there have been so many big fires that SEAT pilots are fighting them alongside the "bombers."
The SEAT "attack fighters" are single-seat, modified crop-dusters that can drop 800 gallons of water and fire retardant while flying high speeds in tight locations. This is risky business that requires lots of training. No cowboys allowed here. Only experienced pilots with a cool head need apply.
Apparently, they won't let hotheaded Italians fly either. That would be me. I'm so bummed they won't let me go for a ride. LEGAL issues they say.
Well, it's pretty cool to see the training from the ground. Anybody out there ever want to be a crop-duster or aerial firefighter? With the early start to this season, they may very well be hiring.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
'You look like a kid'
Hearing that Mike Wallace is going to be stepping back from his work at "60 Minutes" was surprising to me. It's not that he doesn't deserve a little let up in his schedule. He has certainly earned as much time off as he wants. It's just that for as long as I can remember I've spent Sunday nights with him. Not literally, of course.
To me, "60 Minutes" is still the best news magazine program on broadcast television. It's the only show I rush home to see, even when I know my TiVo is going to record it anyway. It's the only show I listen to on the radio, if I am in a car when it's on.
It's only recently that I've come to know Mike and his amazing wife Mary personally. I flew down to Florida this weekend to attend a dinner with them for a charity they support. I actually got to sit between Mike and Mary, and it was such an incredible treat.
"You look like a kid," was the first thing Mike said to me when I saw him Saturday evening.
"That's because he is a kid compared to you," Mary quickly chimed in.
When Mike told me he was going to be 88 years old this year, I did a double take. I couldn't believe it. He looks amazing, and has far more energy than I do.
I've been reporting now for 15 years, and there are days I wonder how long I can keep this pace up. News is a tough business. It's hard on your family. It's hard on your brain. It's hard on your body. But Mike Wallace has been at the top of his game for decades, longer than I have been alive. If I could have half the career Mike Wallace has had, and will continue to have, I would consider myself a very lucky man indeed.
Training draws scrutiny after Marine drowns
"If he was such a good swimmer, how did he drown during a training exercise with the Marines?" That is what I asked myself when I was first assigned the story of Staff Sgt. Andrew Gonzales...and I am still asking myself that question.
Gonzales was a strong swimmer. His wife called him a "fish." All he ever wanted was to be a Marine Drill Instructor. After accomplishing that goal, he was handpicked because of his water survival skills to train to become a Marine Combat Water Survival Instructor. But just six days into training, he died. How did it happen?
According to the Marines' preliminary investigation, Gonzales was in an exercise where instructors grab students to simulate being grabbed by a distressed swimmer. Three times, Gonzales failed to escape his instructor's hold. According to the report, witnesses heard Sgt. Gonzales yelling "let me go" several times that morning.
Shortly before his final breath, Gonzales was "breathing rapidly" and "visibly uncomfortable," according to witnesses.
So why did Staff Sgt. Gonzales have to die? How tough is too tough when it comes to training?
It's the Marines' policy not to allow a rest in between rescue exercises like Gonzales was performing. It's also their policy not to let the student go until he's successfully performed the exercise. Gonzales died after his third attempt. Four marines are now charged with dereliction of duty and two of them face more serious charges of manslaughter and negligent homicide. They have not entered a plea yet.
One former marine we spoke with for our story, which airs tonight, says the training has to be tough in order to turn out tough marines. "This isn't the boy scouts," he said. Sgt. Gonzales refused to get in the swim tank the morning he died, but he was told to "get in the pool or be dropped from the course," according to the investigation. An hour later he was dead.
Do you think the Marines should reconsider how tough they are on their recruits and others in training? Where do you draw the line?
The man behind 'Roe vs. Wade for Men'
When I walked up to a modest home in Saginaw, Michigan, yesterday morning and knocked on the door, I expected a loud and emotional greeting from the man inside. After all, he's launched a lawsuit that's grabbing headlines
and could have national implications. As it turns out, I met a soft-spoken man, but what he has to say could impact how men are held accountable when they father a child.
Matt Dubay is 25 years old. He's single. And for now, he wants to keep it that way. But Dubay is also the father of an eight-month-old girl named Elisabeth. And that's the problem. Dubay is suing his ex-girlfriend, 20-year-old Lauren Wells, because he believes he shouldn't be forced to pay $560 a month in child support.
"During the time we were seeing each other, I made it very clear to her that I was not ready to be a father, and she made it very clear to me that she was incapable of becoming pregnant because of a condition," Dubay told me.
The ex-couple's battle here in Saginaw has become the centerpiece of a national campaign to allow men to reject the responsibilities of fatherhood. A rights group called The National Center for Men
is backing the lawsuit, calling its legal crusade "Roe vs. Wade for Men," after the landmark Supreme Court decision that gives women the legal right to an abortion.
Dubay told me that he feels he was shut out. "She was given the right to have an abortion, keep the child, put the child up for adoption, and whatever she chooses, I have to go along with....Under our laws, our constitution, that doesn't seem right to me."
Women's rights groups insist men like Dubay are not being forced into parenthood. They say child support payments are a fair, and modest, alternative to the lifetime commitment of being a father. But when I met with Dubay's lawyer, Jeff Cojocar, at his office near Detroit, he insisted the lawsuit isn't trying to create an easy way out for men. He says it's about trying to extend to men the freedom of choice the Supreme Court decision gave to women.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Diagnosing 'Missing White Woman Syndrome'
Natalee Holloway, Lori Hacking, Laci Peterson. The list goes on and on and on.
When pretty, young women -- especially white ones -- are killed or disappear, media storms often follow. There is no polite way to say it, and it is a fact of television news. Media and social critics call the wall-to-wall coverage that seems to swirl around these events, "Missing White Woman Syndrome."
That was the phrase invoked by Sheri Parks, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, during our interview yesterday. The phenomenon is characterized by critics as a short and cynical equation: Pretty, white damsels in distress draw viewers; missing women who are black, Latino, Asian, old, fat, or ugly do not.
I think the critics are a lot right. And I think they are a little wrong.
People in the news business, in my professional experience of nearly 30 years, are like people in every profession. They wrestle with questions of right and wrong, fairness and accuracy, perception and reality. Some are good at it. Some aren't.
I've never, not even once, seen a story spiked because the victim was not attractive enough or the wrong race. But I've seen plenty of stories fall by the wayside, pushed down and out of the show, because a consensus develops that says, "You know, I don't think our viewers are very interested in this case."
Is that racism or realism? We can't cover every murder, but ignoring them all or reporting just statistics seems irresponsible. So how should we decide whose life or loss is covered?
Monday, March 13, 2006
'They can smell the danger'
We landed in the Texas panhandle this morning to news that wildfires have scorched 650,000 acres here since Sunday.
To be honest, I've been having a hard time wrapping my head around that figure. It's just too massive to comprehend.
As we chased the fires this morning, we drove some 60 miles from Amarillo to Borger to Pampa to Miami -- the land was charred as far as the eye could see. And what we've seen is only a fraction of what has burned.
Which brings us to Miami. This is a town of 588 people along Highway 60. The wildfire has reached the northern ridge of this town and dozens of firefighters are battling the rugged terrain to keep the flames from rolling in.
High winds blow the smoke over the ridge into Miami. Residents might not be able to see the low-moving flames, but they can smell the danger. I was standing on top of the ridge watching the firefighters work and right behind me you could see the town where some residents have put sprinklers on their rooftops.
West Texas wildfires are fast-moving. I can't emphasize that enough, and you probably have to see a wildfire erupt to get a true sense of how quickly they can move. We saw flames rise from the smoldering ground twice in 15 minutes. Firefighters were able to smother them quickly because they were close by.
So for now, the town of Miami is safe. But the volunteer firefighters on patrol here aren't letting their guard down.
Three little words that changed a war
Improvised explosive device.
It's probably safe to venture that just a few years ago most Americans had never heard those three little words used together in one phrase.
Now, those words are invoked daily in news stories and military briefings, as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have proven to be the deadliest weapon against U.S. troops in Iraq. Some 930 U.S. troops have been killed by these bombs, and 9,627 wounded.
Just as sectarian violence is on the rise in Iraq, with civilians now in the crosshairs of these explosive devices, the Pentagon is stepping up its efforts to deal with the IED problem. Officials are fond of saying there is no "silver bullet," no single solution. And they appear to be right.
Soldiers are trained to look for IEDs, but these weapons can be hidden in a pile of trash, in the carcass of a dead animal or in a cement curb at the side of the road. The Pentagon wants to spend more than $3 billion to develop new technologies to detect IEDs, but insurgents constantly change their bomb-making practices, so that each time there is a new U.S. detector, new types of bombs appear.
And now, the military has turned to the FBI to get help with forensic science and detective work, as they look for networks of bomb-makers and their funding sources as they try to dry up the deadly pipeline for these devices.
Search thy neighbor
Who's your neighbor? Do many of us really know much more than "Hi, how are ya?" about the people next door?
Well, Steve Prator, the sheriff of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, has made it his mission to get to know some of his new neighbors. He's trying to do background checks on hundreds of Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in his jurisdiction -- the area around Shreveport, Louisiana, about a five hour drive from New Orleans.
But Sheriff Prator is infuriated that FEMA refuses to release the names, social security numbers and dates of birth on the evacuees who are getting FEMA funds to stay in Shreveport-area hotels and shelters. We talked to him about this issue for the show.
The sheriff is convinced that a lot of the evacuees are criminals. To back up his claim, he points to 33 evacuee names he got from an informant. The sheriff ran background checks on those evacuees, all of whom are in the Shreveport area, and found they all had criminal records and a combined total of 340 prior arrests.FEMA maintains that federal privacy law prevents the agency from releasing any personal information about evacuees to law enforcement.
But Sheriff Prator points out that people in federally funded public housing developments have to go through background checks, and he doesn't see why it should be any different for evacuees living in FEMA-paid hotel rooms and shelters.