Good Reads: From John Kerry's first year, to the cost of the poor, to political reporting

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes a look at John Kerry's first year as secretary of State, lessons from the island nation of Kiribati about global warming, how much government spending goes to the poor, protection for US media, and a reporter's view on covering Gov. Chris Christie.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Brussels.

Veteran foreign-policy reporter David Rohde, who landed one of his two Pulitzer Prizes while working for the Monitor, looks at John Kerry’s first year as secretary of State in The Atlantic magazine.

While it is early in his term, Secretary Kerry’s turn could end up outshining Hillary Rodham Clinton’s time in Foggy Bottom, Mr. Rohde argues. “[I]t’s looking more and more possible that when the history of the early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again,” writes Rohde.

The comprehensive article does not stint on cataloging Kerry’s quirks, including what Rohde calls the “grandiosity and ambition that make Kerry so insufferable to some journalists and senators.” But Rohde credits Kerry for being the driving force behind a flurry of diplomatic initiatives including reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, brokering a deal with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons, and holding high-level talks with Iranian diplomats.  

The global warming lessons from Kiribati

Some Americans still wonder if global warming is real, but not the residents of the island nation of Kiribati, where rising water levels are expected to force a mass evacuation in 20 years, according to a story in Bloomberg Businessweek by Jeffrey Goldberg.

Kiribati is a collection of 33 islands in the central Pacific where nearly half the nation’s 103,000 residents live on a strip of land less than half a mile wide. Even before the rising ocean covers the available land, it will “infiltrate, and irreversibly poison, their already inadequate supply of fresh water,” Mr. Goldberg writes.

Island President Anote Tong is searching for a place to move his citizens and recently purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji. Mr. Tong wants to attract investment to his island nation but, as Businessweek notes, “It’s difficult to attract investment to a place that might soon drown.”

Is government beholden to the rich?

Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson takes a hard look at the popular notion that the White House and Congress are manipulated to serve major corporations and wealthy individuals. While acknowledging that the wealthy do get tax breaks and regulatory advantages, these “are small potatoes in the larger scheme of things,” Mr. Samuelson contends.  

Using data from a recent Congressional Budget Office report, he argues that “what we actually have is government that’s beholden to the poor and middle class” and which redistributes money from the young and well-off to the “old, needy and unlucky.” Excluding interest payments, slightly more than half of government spending goes to individual benefits and health care with the elderly getting 60 percent of that nearly $1.3 trillion. Of the money spent on benefits and health care for the rest of the population, the poorest fifth of households received half the dollars spent. 

Samuelson’s sobering conclusion is that “so many Americans have become dependent on government that consensual change is difficult and, perhaps, impossible.”

Why reporters in the US need protection

In many places around the world, the practice of journalism is truly dangerous, notes Paul Steiger, former editor of The Wall Street Journal and founder of ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit journalism organization that has won two Pulitzer Prizes. 

“Reporters, editors, photographers, and publishers are still threatened, beaten, and murdered, often with impunity,” Mr. Steiger said in a recent speech while accepting an award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

While noting that reporters working in the United States are still much better off than colleagues in danger zones abroad, Steiger warned of “new barriers to our ability to do our jobs” imposed by the Obama administration. Among his worries: the use of phone records gathered by the National Security Agency to track down those who have been talking to reporters and the practice of barring news photographers from events attended by the president and then distributing government-paid photos. As Steiger said, “If we are going to be credible admonishing abusers of journalists abroad, we can’t stand silent when it is going on at home.”

Covering New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Extremely loud and incredibly close is how Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Matt Katz describes his experience covering New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie since 2011 for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The story in Politico magazine is worth a read for the glimpse it gives of the governor who, at this early date, tops the list of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates in a recent CNN/ORC International poll.  

Mr. Katz and his fellow local reporters get to see Mr. Christie in what he calls “revealing, off-the-record, end-of summer” visits to Jersey Shore bars and “profanity-infused Christmas party conversations at the governor’s mansion.” 

The reporter admits that he and his colleagues are used as props by Christie. And, like the Obama White House, Christie’s press operation is on hand to produce its own videos of events and blast the nuggets out to media outlets. “My biggest competition is not other reporters; it is the man himself,” Katz says. “He is his own news outlet.”

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