PLUMB TUCKERED

Arlington, Va.

The Nation‘s website quotes praise for Eric Alterman as “the most honest…media critic writing today.” It’s hard to imagine how anyone would reach that conclusion after reading Alterman’s August 30/September 6 “The Liberal Media” column, titled, “PBS Adds Insult to Inury,” which heavily criticizes the PBS program I produce, Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered. Honesty requires at least a modicum of accuracy, but Alterman fumbles again and again.

Referring to Carlson, Alterman offers a laundry list of “the purposely inflammatory demagogy of PBS’s newest host.” The hit parade of Carlson comments Alterman offers may indeed run contrary to The Nation‘s editorial positions. The only problem is that Carlson has not uttered a single one of them on his PBS program. We checked. Alterman, who clearly didn’t, seems to have confused Carlson’s PBS program, Unfiltered, with CNN’s Crossfire.

It’s fine to criticize Carlson for his Crossfire comments, but to suggest, as Alterman did, that Crossfire-style comments are a staple of Carlson’s PBS program is just plain sloppy. Now, I wouldn’t dare imagine that Alterman’s sloppiness was in deliberate service of his shaky argument. But it seems to undermine his suggestion that PBS is being overtaken by “conservative demagogy.” His confusion of the two programs is particularly puzzling, given that Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel has appeared on the program twice, including in its inaugural broadcast, and Nation national affairs correspondent William Greider appeared shortly thereafter.

If our program is, as Alterman charges, part of a “far-right campaign” to undermine public broadcasting, The Nation should be indicted as a co-conspirator. The indictment might also include Richard Cohen, Jonathan Rauch, Michelle Cottle, Paul Krugman, Al Sharpton and others decidedly left of center. All have appeared on the program in its short life.

Alterman also calls Carlson and other conservatives on public television “unabashedly partisan and journalistically challenged ideologues.” In our nine shows, Carlson has repeatedly criticized President Bush, the Republican Congressional agenda and the war in Iraq. Unabashed? We certainly hope so. But partisan? In whose service?

As for “journalistically challenged,” well gosh, I certainly would be embarrassed if the factual content of our program was as unreliable as Alterman’s. I would also be embarrassed if we said that The Nation was based in Washington, when everyone knows it can only exist in Manhattan. But Alterman places WETA, the producing station for Unfiltered, in New York, not Washington, where it has been for forty-plus years.

Alterman also wrote that WETA is the producer of the forthcoming Wall Street Journal program for PBS. We’d love the business, but it went to our friends at New York’s WNET, which will begin broadcasting it this month. WNET will, of course, continue to offer its viewers the rabidly right-wing musings of Bill Moyers. After all, a conservative takeover this clumsy needs all the help it can get.

ERIC WAGNER, senior producer
Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered


ALTERMAN REPLIES

New York City

Eric Wagner certainly does have a bee in his bonnet, but just what put it there is unclear. He devotes most of his angry missive to denying an accusation I never made. Nowhere in my column do I even imply that Tucker Carlson made his remarks on his PBS program–any more than I implied that the Wall Street Journal editors read their Lyndon LaRouche-sourced editorials on the air back in 1988. The point was that of all the pundits in all the gin joints in all the world, PBS picked not only one who already enjoys five appearances a week on a commercial cable station but one who thought a case in which recourse was sought for a 3-year-old whose intestines were sucked out was worthy of mockery.

Nor did I have any comments about Carlson’s guest list, so all that complaining is hardly relevant. But since Wagner brings it up, Katrina vanden Heuvel has appeared only once, not twice, on the show, as he falsely claims. And what does the fact that “Richard Cohen, Jonathan Rauch, Michelle Cottle, Paul Krugman and Al Sharpton”–not one of whom has any relationship to The Nation–have to do with anything? (Bill O’Reilly has liberals on his program too; so what?) Finally, even if we grant that there is some sort of point here, does Wagner really wish to brag about, say, Carlson’s O’Reilly-esque treatment of Paul Krugman? On the transcript available at pkarchive.org/economy/PBSCarlsonUnfiltered080604.html, Carlson informed his guest, a New York Times columnist, Princeton economics professor and winner of awards for academic achievement, that he had stopped taking him seriously, and then went on to misportray one of Krugman’s columns. His guest was repeatedly forced to respond to distortions with comments like, “It’s a misrepresentation of what I said…. I didn’t say ‘force’…. No. What I said was…. I didn’t say that…. No, I actually don’t. If you read what I wrote…” And finally, as Wagner surely knows, Bill Moyers is retiring after the election, so his “rabidly right-wing musings” will not be available to anyone but his friends and family. I did, however, confuse WETA and WNET. Sorry about that.

ERIC ALTERMAN


CHAVEZ PACKS HIS COURT

Washington, DC

Alexander Cockburn questions my criticism of President Hugo Chávez’s efforts to control Venezuela’s Supreme Court [“Beat the Devil,” July 12]. Under a new law that Chávez signed, his slim Congressional majority can name a dozen new members to the Court and can dismiss existing members on the slimmest of pretexts. In short, it can both pack and purge the country’s highest court. But as Cockburn sees it, Chávez is merely doing what “FDR did, and for the same reason: that the Venezuelan court has been effectively packed the other way for decades.”

Cockburn’s suggestion that Chávez is unpacking a court that was packed by his predecessors ignores the fact that all the justices currently on Venezuela’s Supreme Court were selected in 1999 by a National Constituent Assembly dominated by Chávez’s own supporters. The comparison with FDR is still useful, however, only not in the way Cockburn suggests. FDR’s effort to pack the US Supreme Court was widely repudiated and his “reform” bill failed. The Senate Judiciary Committee, dominated by Democrats who supported FDR’s New Deal programs, thought it unwise to undermine the independence of the judiciary in this way. As they explained:

We are told that a reactionary oligarchy defies the will of the majority, that this is a bill to “unpack” the Court, and give effect to the desires of the majority…. [But] it is essential to the continuance of our constitutional democracy that the judiciary be completely independent of both the executive and legislative branches of the Government…. [This bill] would subjugate the courts to the will of Congress and the President and thereby destroy the independence of the judiciary, the only certain shield of individual rights.

What would Cockburn say if President Bush and the Senate Republicans tried adding five new Justices to the Supreme Court? Surely he wouldn’t call such a move a mere “irregularity,” the term he uses for Chávez’s court-packing scheme.

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO, executive director,
Americas Division, Human Rights Watch


COCKBURN REPLIES

Petrolia, Calif.

FDR or no FDR, the Congress of the United States would certainly use its power to impeach any Supreme Court that ruled that people who overthrew a democratic government in a military coup and abolished the Congress and the Constitution could not be prosecuted. Impunity for coup leaders really undermines the rule of law, as Vivanco would concede if he really cared about the law.

Aside from the Warren exception, the US Supreme Court has always been packed with bigots and scoundrels, and I’d welcome any unpacking the other way. Alas, as the late Walter Karp convincingly argued, FDR wasn’t really serious in his packing bid, merely waving it as a distraction from the failure of his New Deal, which was saved only by war. The fact that the Venezuelan court was originally packed by a pro-Chávez assembly undermines Vivanco’s argument; the man who picked most of the justices then, Luis Miquilena, later went over to the opposition and brought his judges with him. So much for the “independent” judiciary that Vivanco pretends to defend.

But let’s get real: Before the decisive rejection of the recall by the voters on August 15, Vivanco and his cronies in the NED/State Department were hoping that the current court would rule against the government in any electoral dispute, as did the US Supreme Court in 2000. Vivanco is an ambitious NGO functionary playing a predictable role in the undergrowth of Empire.

In the intense national and international campaign to discredit the government of Venezuela, the Human Rights Watch report and its public relations campaign constituted a partisan and–for a human rights organization that is supposed to be politically neutral–entirely inappropriate intervention. Vivanco’s conduct is a paradigm of everything that was correctly stigmatized by Arundhati Roy in her recent devastating commentary on the corruption of NGOs.

Her trenchant remarks can be found at www.counterpunch.org/cockburn08282004.html.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN