What A Week For News

This was quite the week to begin a new job in the news business but, as they say, timing is everything.

As I write this, the fugitive suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing has just been taken into custody, the search for more victims of the Waco fertilizer plant explosion goes on and the man whose visionary creation for a national general interest newspaper, Al Neuharth, has died.

Although I began my career working for a series of small newspapers in New York, Florida and Illinois, it was USA TODAY — where I worked for nearly 24 years — that made my career. Thanks to the newspaper, I traveled the country and the world covering the biggest news of the day. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.

But the news business, as we know, eventually changed. A few years ago, I left to join the online world with AOL News and then The Huffington Post. And now, in this most momentous week for news, I begin the latest — and arguably the most exciting — phase of my journalism career as senior executive producer for digital news for the new Al Jazeera America.

We are just getting started and won’t launch until later this year. There is much work to do until then but I hope you will follow our progress and check us out when we make our debut.

In the meantime, read the release about myself and my colleague Tony Karon here.

History Has Been Made

The news just broke: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is lifting the military’s ban on women in combat. The move will open hundreds of thousands of front-line positions to women, clearing away the daunting career barriers that have been in place since a 1994 rule that prohibited women from being assigned to small ground combat units (of course, thousands of women have been “attached” to such units and the world did not end).

I have covered this issue for more than two decades and wrote about military women’s long slog toward acceptance, most recently here.

No doubt, social conservatives will decry the move as the end of civilization and at least one gadfly will use the announcement to raise funds for her questionable organization. But women are already on the front line and this nation could not go to war without them.

It was true back in 1999, when I shared a leaky, muddy tent in Albania with women warriors during the Kosovo War:

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And it remains true to this day in Afghanistan.

Bravo to the Pentagon for lifting the already irrelevant ban on women in combat.

The Last World War I Veteran

The nation will observe Veterans Day this weekend without a single American survivor of the First World War alive to mark the occasion. Yet as we approach the 100th anniversary in 2014 of the “war to end all wars,” you will doubtless hear much about Frank Buckles, America’s last doughboy.

I interviewed Buckles on his West Virginia farm in 2007 when is was 106 years old. At the time I featured him in a USA TODAY cover story, he was one of four known surviving veterans of World War I.

Photo by H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

Soon after, I was offered a book contract to write about his Zelig-like life, which the publisher wanted in a hurry given Buckles’ advanced age. While the deal fell through, the book proposal eventually fell through, an outline I prepared of his Zelig-like life came in handy when I wrote his obituary for AOL News four years later when he was 110.

One of the first stories I covered for The Huffington Post was Buckles’ military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. In a nod to the new multimedia world we all now live in, I used my iPhone to shoot a clip of the honor guard removing the coffin from the caisson.

Before the funeral, though, I led the reporting on Buckles’ daughter’s insistence that he lay in honor in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. Having covered President Ronald Reagan’s state funeral, I knew that would be highly unusual given that only 32 national figures had been similarly honored. One of my articles, an exclusive interview with the family of one of the most highly decorated soldiers of WWI, contributed to the decision by congressional leaders to deny the request.

Buckles lives on in the fight over dedicating a national memorial to World War I veterans in Washington. Before he died, his daughter and a Michigan filmmaker wheeled him into a U.S. Senate hearing room to speak in favor of nationalizing a modest monument to District of Columbia residents who fought in the war. But as I reported, local officials — whose constituents died and still die for their country without a vote in Congress — revolted and the monuments backers are now looking to establish their memorial elsewhere on the National Mall.

Recalling Another Vice Presidential Campaign

Last week’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan got me thinking of another national campaign I covered a dozen years ago that also saw two running mates square off in Danville, Ky. I’m talking about the historic 2000 election that not only ended in the Florida recount but pitted incumbent Vice President Dick Cheney against the first Jewish candidate on a major ticket, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. The Democrat-turned-Independent is retiring this year but in the fall of 2000, he was a hot political commodity and I was the reporter USA TODAY assigned to travel on his plane during the fall campaign.

With the candidate on his 2000 vice presidential campaign plane

From Bangor, Maine, to Seattle and every swing state in between, I was with Lieberman 24/6 (the Democratic veep press corps was the only one that got off for the Jewish sabbath). I reported on the highs — watching in the studio as he did his schtick on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart  and Late Night With Conan O’Brien — and the lows — charges “the moral conscience of the Senate” turned partisan and fickle on the campaign trail. And I was at Gore-Lieberman headquarters in Nashville on Election Night, reporting  on the team that covered the fallout that ended more than a month later at the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark decision Bush v. Gore.

A few years later, I traveled to Manchester, N.H. to cover Lieberman’s lackluster campaign for the top job in the 2004 presidential election and, a few weeks later, wrote about his decision to call it quits and stay on Capitol Hill.

Over the years, I’ve weighed in on Lieberman’s ability to infuriate his once-fellow Democrats, his neoconservatism , the political view of his fellow Orthodox Jews and his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Whatever you think of Joe, after 24 years in the Senate, all I can say is gey gezunterheyt, which is Yiddish for “go in good health.”

The Religion Factor

As we await the first debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, issues of religion and politics resonate in this election just as they have in previous elections. Whether it is Romney’s Mormon faith or the insistence of some that Obama is a secret Muslim, faith matters to many voters.

That was the case in the 2008 cycle, the first time Romney made a run for the White House. I traveled on the Massachusetts governor’s campaign plane in the days leading up to Super Tuesday, meeting up with him in Salt Lake City at the funeral of the prophet of the Mormon Church. The trip was a cross-country sprint that included stops in the Midwest, a Super Bowl watch party in the lobby of a Nashville hotel (the campaign gave out New England Patriots caps to the traveling press but the New York Giants pulled off a stunning win anyway), an airplane hangar rally in Long Beach, Calif., and a red eye back to Boston to await returns on Super Tuesday. As we know. Sen. John McCain was the Republican victor that day and Romneysoon pulled out of the race.

Two months before his first presidential campaign ended, I was in Key West, Fla., at the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life. The invitation-only retreat featured some of the nation’s leading journalists, including E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Mike Allen of Politico, syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker and Michael Barone of U.S. News & World Report and Ross Douthat, then of The Atlantic and now a columnist for The New York Times.

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

At the time, Romney was preparing to make a major speech about his Mormon faith to counter the unease felt then — and now — by many evangelical voters. So it was fitting that one of the sessions at the conference featured political scientist John Green discussing his research on how religion might influence the 2008 presidential election. The points discussed, including a Q&A session with the journalists, is worth revisiting as we enter the final weeks of the 2012 election.

You can read the transcript here. Be sure to read all the way down to the part where I talk about evangelicals and Reform Jews and the meaning of being “pro-Israel.” Republicans and Democrats are still arguing over which party should get that label, as I have written about for The Huffington Post on several occasions.

National Women’s History Museum Investigation 2012

My love of history has fueled my interest in museums over the years and has led to some of the most interesting stories I’ve written. In 2011, I did an article on the National Women’s History Museum and its efforts to placate conservatives in Congress.

I went on to cover other things but carried some nagging questions as to why the project, which had been talked about for more than a decade, seemed stalled. Those questions led to a two-month investigation by myself and Huffington Post colleague Christina Wilkie.  Our search of internal documents and public records, along with interviews with NWHM staff, board members, charity watchdogs and even Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep, the museum’s most prominent supporter, revealed a history of mismanagement and potential conflicts of interest.

You can read our story here. It would soon prompt doubts from Congress and financial supporters but it also lit a fire under the museum’s board. Two months after our investigation ran, NWHM announced a series of changes in response to our findings.

I spoke about the investigation to Megan Kamerick of KUMN, New Mexico public radio. Check it out here.

‘The Death of the Newspaper?’

Al Jazeera English asked me to do its show, Inside Story Americas, to talk about the changing media landscape — something I happen to know a little bit about. It was a good discussion with Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi and Clay Shirky, a new media expert who teaches at New York University. Anand Naidoo was our host.

You can watch it here.