As somebody who has spent a long time in the news business, I tend to follow breaking stories pretty closely. I read the papers, watch at least two news broadcasts, surf news sites on the web and listen to NPR intermittantly throughout the day.
So it was a cold-turkey news withdrawal when I boarded a sailboat in St. Lucia and set sail through the Grenadines for Grenada. For eight days, we were totally divorced from the news. We read nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing. The only news we picked up from the locals on the islands was the latest price of lobster (dear,) and the fact that Cuba was doing well in the World Baseball Classic.
But when we emerged from this news vacuum and caught up, I was frankly surprised to see how little had changed on the front pages. Iraq was still a mess, Bush and Cheney were still insisting that the war was going well, Republicans were still unhappy with Bush and the Democrats were still in search of a message.
The whole experience made me wonder how much of the news business is actually new. It reminded me that news is incremental, like life, I suppose. You can look the other way for a while, and not all that much has changed when you look back. That is either comforting or frustrating, depending on your point of view and metabolism.



It is that time of year again, not quite spring, not really winter, when the self-indulgent, like me, turn to the Caribbean for solace.
This year, it is a sybaritic cruise through the Grenadines, starting tomorrow in St. Lucia, on a bareboat charter with four other friends that will take us to Bequi, Mustique, Tobago Cays, Union Island enroute to Grenada, the spice isle that The Gipper made safe for democracy back in the ’80’s. I suspect that if W. knew the history of that invasion, or took the time to read it, he’d suffer pangs of jealousy. Now THAT was a cakewalk. No nagging issues about missing WMD, no disputed intelligence, no annoying insurgency…just Big Brother to the north enforcing an overnight regime change. Grenada, incidentally, is significantly better off as a result.
Anyway, this is the third consecutive year this gang of super-annuated pirates of the Caribbean has sailed a boat somewhere through the islands. If you are curious about the earlier adventures, pick up the just-out April issue of Cruising World magazine and you can read about the self-indulgence of 2004. That year the target was the annual Antigua Classic Race week: a vintage example of what unlimited money and a sense of romance can accomplish, as long as price is not object.
If you miss it, I’ll post it on the site as soon as it is on the newstands.
I’ll be back in two weeks.

DUBAI DISNEYLAND: Terence Smith commentary on NPR

Click here to listen to Dubai Disneyland Commentary.

ATC Commentary
Terence Smith

“Ski Dubai,” the billboard read as we descended the stairs from the plane into the 80-degree, December night air. “Ski Dubai, Where it Snows Every Day.” And indeed it does, inside a 25-story, windowless building that rises out of the sprawling Mall of the Emirates. The interior is air conditioned down to 29 degrees and fresh, man-made snow covers the short, steep slopes.
Indoor skiing in the desert is just one more eccentric, nature-defying contradiction in gilt-edged Dubai, which also boasts air conditioned golf, chilled swimming pools, over-the-top resorts and scores of skyscrapers, including one, under construction at 160 stories, that is to be the world’s tallest.
An Aspen Institute conference on U.S. and Arab media brought me to Dubai for my first visit two months ago. This was before the state-run Dubai Ports World Corporation caused a furor by trying to take over the management of half-a-dozen east coast U.S. seaports. Like many Americans, I had given little thought to the Disneyland in the desert that is rising along the western shore of the Arabian Gulf. I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I found.
With the price of oil around $60 dollars-a-barrel, hundreds of billions of dollars are flowing into Dubai, which is one of the seven city-states that comprise the United Arab Emirates. Russian mafia money has found its way there as well.
A trillion tons of sand has been dredged up from the sea and arranged offshore to create three new housing developments in the shape of palm trees. A shimmering, shorefront hotel that resembles a spinnaker filled with breeze offers rooms for $1,500 dollars a night and up. Nothing that can be built by man is too grand, too costly or too much for Dubai.
It is a glittery, fashion-crazy metropolis that the designer Giorgio Armani recently dubbed “the new New York.”
An American friend who lives there explained how business works, Dubai-style. The luxurious, seafront apartment he was renting was sold out from under him by the owner, who had paid a million dollars for it a couple of years ago. The Russian buyer arrived for the transaction, inspected the premises quickly and paid on the spot with two-and-a-half million dollars in cash he carried in a suitcase. With that, the Dubai real estate boom edged up another notch.
Beyond ostentatious wealth, Dubai has become a major banking center. It has granted landing and naval visiting rights to the U.S. The Dubai government, which is to say Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, is pro-western and free-market . Dollar-by-dollar, the Emirates are becoming a strategic counter-weight to the more radical Arab regimes in the region and to Iran across the Gulf.
Suddenly, Americans are paying attention to Dubai, trying to decide whether it is friend or foe or something in between. What is clear is that the Emirates are becoming a force to be reckoned with and that the U.S. —Congress included — had better decide what kind of relationship we are going to have with this new economic powerhouse.

TERENCE SMITH is a former media correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Dept. of Responsibility

There seems to be a bull market these days in acceptances of responsibility.
Yesterday alone there were two from the top ranks of the Bush Administration. Vice President Cheney assured Fox’s Brit Hume that, since the shotgun was in his hands, he was responsibile for shooting his friend, Harry Wittington.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress and a battery of television interviewers that while he had been let down by Michael Brown of FEMA and others, he took full “official and personal” responsibility for his department’s pathetic response to Hurricaine Katrina.
Several weeks ago, President Bush acknowledged the inescapable fact that he was responsible for the entire Federal response to Katrina.
But what does it mean, in our system, to accept “full responsibility?”
Not much, apparently. With the exception of the hapless “Brownie,” the others are still in office, drawing their pay and doing a “heck of a job.”
In truth, such acceptances are empty expressions of the obvious.
They are cold comfort to the victims, whether of Katrina, Iraq or the botched Medicare prescription drug program. Unlike a parliamentary system, where the relevant official resigns after a major failure, unlike Japan, where the code of conduct has had more permanent results, in the U.S., the official accepts responsibility and moves on.
In the U.S. system, the truth only has consequences in the ballot box, and only to those who stand for re-election. Doesn’t seem often enough, does it?


What a colossal set of misjudgements and unintended consequences have been set in motion by the Danish cartoon controversy!
The Danish paper that originally published the cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed had the law and western tradition of free expression on its side. What it didn’t have was much common sense, editorial judgement or taste.
The cartoons, after all, are sophomoric, crude and deeply offensive to some observant Muslims. It was silly to publish them in the first place. If the point was to reinforce freedom of expression in Denmark, it was a point that didn’t need reinforcement. If the point really was to embarrass the Danish government, it certainly succeeded in that. U.S. news organizations that decided, after some debate, not to run them were right. It would have been a needless provocation when the images are so widely available on websites everywhere.
I recognize that the violent and murderous mob reactions around the globe have been at least partly aggravated by political groups and even governments that want to underscore the yawning cultural gap that separates the Arab and Muslim world from the west. Think of those that would benefit from persuading the “Arab Street” that indeed the west is on a “crusade” to demean and diminish muslims, and you have the list of agitators.
In Doha, Qatar, last week, I was interviewed on Al Jazeera television about the controversy. The anchor asked me if I thought the international community could or should pass a law or convention barring the publication of patently offensive commentary like the cartoons. No, I said, it couldn’t and it shouldn’t. Each side — the west and the Aram and Muslim world — will have learn to live with the traditions and philosophy of the other. Besides, what we really need is an international law legislating good judgement, respect and taste on the part of journalists and politicians alike. I’m afraid that is too much to hope for.


The President’s annual State of the Union address is coming up. It is one of those rare moments in the political calendar when the networks are willing to interrupt their diet of reality shows for a serious discussion of where the country is or should be going. And, as usual, it will be followed by a Democratic response, this year by Tim Kaine, the newly-minted governor of Virginia, whose principal credential is that he is not currently on anyone’s list for higher office.
But what will he — and the Party — have to say? Do the Democrats have an alternative strategy for running the country? I’ve been listening and I certainly haven’t heard it. Yes, House Minority leader Nancy Pilosi keeps repeating her mantra about the Republican “culture of corruption” on Capitol Hill and yes, the man from 2,000, Al Gore, has been calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the Administration’s domestic wiretapping program… but to little effect.
The search for a Democratic Party program is so desperate, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who would like to be its standard-bearer in 2008, is running a contest on his website asking for “ten words that define the party’s message.” He’s got his own list, including such chestnuts as “meaningful opportunity, personal security and individual responsibility.” Hard to argue with those, but they seem unlikely to mobilize the masses.
The timing for a full-throated Democratic counter-attack to the Republican agenda would seem to be irresistible. The Administration is being battered in the polls on everything from the deficit to the lobbying scandals to its mismanaged execution of the Medicare prescription drug plan. This is an election year, with at least the chance to crack the Republican monopoly in Congress, and yet the Democrats are curiously quiescent.
The reason, I think, is Iraq. Like Senator John Kerry in the 2004 campaign, the party has so far been unable to explain credibly what it would do differently to extricate the U.S. and its soldiers from that quagmire. None of its presumed potential candidates, Hillary Clinton included, can point to a way out of a conflict that has cost more than 2,300 lives and, according to Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, will ultimately drain the treasury of one-to-two trillion dollars. The best the Democrats have managed so far is a resolution in the Senate declaring that the administration’s Iraq strategy needs to change and that 2006 is the year to change it.
That’s a position, not a policy. And until the Democrats find their voice on Iraq, the public may not be prepared to listen to them on much else.


Update on Terence Smith

The text below was posted byJim Romenesko on his widely-read website yesterday.

Posted By: Jim Romenesko

I asked Terence Smith about his “NewsHour” retirement and the next chapter of his life. Here’s his reply.

At my initiative and after nearly eight years with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, I have stepped down as Media Correspondent and Senior Producer.

I’ll continue to be available to contribute to the broadcast as a Special Correspondent, but I expect to spend more time writing, speaking, traveling and teaching.

In addition, I am already contributing commentaries to National Public Radio, publishing free lance pieces, moderating panels and serving on boards ranging from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science.

I have launched a website,, and a blog, of course, and will continue to fill in as a substitute host on The Diane Rehm show on NPR. Beyond that, I want to save plenty of time for tennis, skiing and sailing.

You asked about my thoughts about the industry.

After 20 years in print with The New York Times, and 20 in television with CBS and PBS, I see the news business as more vital, more central and more troubled than ever. The industry is changing with frightening speed, booming in a few sectors like public radio and the internet, hurting economically in others such as newspapers and network news, and under pressure ethically throughout. But at the same time — we shouldn’t lose sight of this — it is vastly more diverse, professional, educated and influential than it was when I first went to work with a bunch of other white guys as a reporter for the Stamford Advocate in Connecticut straight out of college. I think American journalism gets more intriguing, more important and more challenging all the time.

Last month, for example, I was in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates at an Aspen Institute forum on U.S. and Arab media that looked hard at the stereotyping, intolerance, bigotry and outright ignorance that emerges in each side’s reporting on the other. The 31 participating journalists and academics, Americans and Arabs alike, held up a mirror to each other and found more similarities than differences.

Next fall, I am scheduled to be at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, conducting a 10-day journalism seminar for reporters in that incredible country. Also in the fall, I will spend two weeks on the campus of my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, as journalist-in-residence, among a generation that is better educated and more questioning than any that have come before.

Finally, I have in mind two books, one on the Middle East and one on the Chesapeake Bay, that I would like to get written in the next couple of years.

So, after 40-plus years in daily journalism, and suddenly freed from the familiar demands of a daily deadline, I find there is no shortage of things I want to do, only the time to do them.

Redskins Advance

The Washington Redskins’ victory against Tampa Bay tonight demonstrates that a brilliant defense can be better than an average offense, and that Washington is, indeed, a more cheerful, upbeat, optimistic place when the ‘Skins are winning. On to Seattle.



The leadership changes announced at the Wall Street Journal this week are more than another shuffle in the executive suite. The Dow Jones board of directors voted to replace journalism’s power couple — Peter Kann and his wife, Karen Elliott House, chairman and publisher respectively, with 47-year-old Richard Zannino, a senior Dow Jones executive, and a player to be named.

Peter and Karen are both journalists, very fine, Pulitizer-prize winning journalists, who were examples of Dow Jones’s long tradition of promoting journalists from the field to the front office. Mr. Zannino, who seems to be widely liked, is a businessman pure and simple. His major professional credential is his experience with Liz Claiborne, Inc. He may be exactly what the beleaguered Dow Jones needs at this difficult time in the newspaper business, and no doubt he will carry out the cost cutting and other measures that Wall Street wants to see, but something has been lost in this transition.

Having watched both Peter and Karen in the field, I have a sneaking suspicion that both were better reporters than executives. Perhaps now they will have time to get back to what they do best. They are a class act.

An Unanswered Question

An Unanswered Question

I have a problem and I need President Bush to help solve it. I still don’t understand — really understand — why we went to war in Iraq.

Even after the President’s series of speeches on Iraq, even after the apparently successful parliamentary elections in that beleaguered country, I am still left with this nagging feeling that I don’t know the whole story of why we went into Iraq in the first place. And I can’t feel any sense of confidence about the whole exercise until the President clears that up.

Originally, of course, the President told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the security of the United States. Frankly, I never understood that. Even if he did have such weapons — as most western intelligence agencies apparently believed he did — he had no means to deliver them 5,000 miles to U.S. shores. WMD’s might have threatened Saddam’s own people, possibly his neighbors and conceivably Israel, but not the United States. And with U.S. planes patrolling his skies and U.N. arms inspectors nosing about, even his neighbors had little to worry about. He was, as the saying goes, “in a box.”

Recently, President Bush conceded that the pre-war intelligence on which he based his rationale for the war was wrong. But he said he would have attacked Iraq anyway, because 9/11 changed his view of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. But how did it change his view, given that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11? The President didn’t say.

Mr. Bush still describes Iraq as the central front in the war on terrorism. That certainly wasn’t the case before we attacked Iraq. Afghanistan was the central front, Al Qaida was the enemy and Osama Bin Laden was its commander.

The President also tells us that a free, independent and Democratic Iraq will serve as a beacon for reform throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Perhaps. But it is by no means clear that a genuine democracy will in fact emerge in Iraq. History shows few examples where Democratic government has been imposed at the point of a gun.

So I am left with that nagging feeling that there were other reasons that motivated Mr. Bush and his advisers in the first place. Reasons they believed, but could not, or did not, articulate. Remember the determination with which they approached the invasion? All through the previous summer and fall, the Pentagon was shipping tens of thousands of U.S. forces per month to staging areas around Iraq. The President repeatedly said the decision to go to war had not been made, but practically it had. Were those troops really going to turn around and come home? They were there and they needed a war to fight.

So what really motivated that fateful decision? Was it a son wanting to finish a job his father had started with the first Gulf War in 1991? Was it a geopolitical move to project American power into an oil-rich region? Was it a desire by the world’s sole superpower to flex its muscles? Was it part of a grand design to impose a kind of Pax Americana? Was it to make the region safer for Israel? Or was it part of a broad, neo-conservative strategy to confront militant islamists head-on?

I don’t know. But if one or all of these factors moved the President originally to commit this nation to such a bloody and expensive enterprise, I wish he would tell us. We deserve to know.