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Where Have You Gone, William Safire? | The Nation

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The Liberal Media

Where Have You Gone, William Safire?

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Perhaps the most frightening recent political development--more frightening even than the rising ratings of the lunatic Glenn Beck--is the manner in which the crazies to and for whom Beck speaks have managed to hijack our national discourse. Seeing obviously disturbed individuals screaming insupportable epithets at their representatives would have been expected to repel most Americans and increase sympathy for Barack Obama (just as the excesses of the antiwar movement made President Nixon more popular). And yet, inexplicably, these hysterical hyenas who call our president a Nazi, a Commie and a Kenyan have had exactly the opposite effect on their fellow citizens. A poll published this summer found that, among independents, a plurality of 35 percent to 16 percent felt that the outlandish opposition to President Obama had diminished their support for healthcare reform.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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I can't explain this. But I can observe that it has pushed the mainstream media further to the right. Throw in Beck's hounding out of office Obama's green jobs adviser, Van Jones, together with the successful, multipronged hit job on ACORN, and you have the makings of yet another panic among media mavens eager to double down on their pandering to the ref-working right-wingers.

"Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by non-ideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, to Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander. "Even the suspicion of a bias is a problem all by itself," says the same Mr. Rosenstiel to Clark Hoyt, public editor of the New York Times. "We are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It's particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view," worries Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli as he instructs his staff to beat the dying horse of the ACORN story. The Times, meanwhile, is judged to be demonstrating "insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio," according to its managing editor, Jill Abramson.

Note that there is no consideration here of whether the whining right-wingers have any substance to their case. The mere fact of their unhappiness is evidence enough, and reporters and editors are guilty as charged. Note also that nobody seems to remember that these same newspapers spent much of the past decade repeating and amplifying the lies and distortions of the Bush administration and its allies--and the decade before that parroting Gingrichite attacks on Bill Clinton--and the decade before that praising the genius of... well, you get the picture.

We've seen where this cravenness leads. The Times humiliated itself by inviting conservative counter-intellectual William Kristol onto its op-ed page. At the time, editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal dismissed criticism as "intolerant," "absurd" and indicative of a "weird fear of opposing views." But, of course, Kristol soon proved his critics correct with his willingness to play fast and loose with facts in support of his ideological teammates, whether in Washington, Baghdad or Anchorage (which apparently qualified him as an ideal candidate for the Post op-ed page, where he now appears). Bernard-Henri Lévy identified the essence of Kristol's anti-intellectual modus operandi after meeting him in the offices of The Weekly Standard in 2004. Upon Lévy's mention of "an article crammed with the vilest gossip" about Clinton, Lévy wrote, Kristol appeared annoyed. "Don't jump to the conclusion that I believe in it, he seems to be saying. That's just the deal, you understand--supporting a crusade for moral values is just the price we have to pay for a foreign policy that we can defend as a whole." Lévy quite properly found this ethos intellectually offensive. "Because you're in agreement about Iraq, do you have to force yourself to agree with the death penalty, creationism, the Christian Coalition and its pestilential practices? When I have dinner with someone in a restaurant, do I have to order all the courses on the menu?"

I raise this issue today because the hiring of Kristol was portrayed as "Pinch" Sulzberger's attempt to match the magic of the pick by his father, Punch, of William Safire, who died recently, for the op-ed page nearly four decades earlier. Both were hacks when hired, argued the apologists, and yet Safire evolved into the most feared and respected pundit of his time.

After a disastrous beginning, Safire learned to use his extensive political contacts, knowledge of the political process and felicitous prose to school the rest of the punditocracy in how to make one's work matter. He cajoled, he flattered, he threatened and sometimes he shaded the truth. Safire once bragged to me that he always wrote "105 percent of what I know." He made some egregious mistakes and wrote more than a few indefensible columns, none more so than his repeated insistence on a bogus pre-9/11 Prague meeting between Mohamed Atta and the head of Iraq's intelligence service. (This falsehood, to the lasting shame of the newspaper of record, has never received a correction.) But overall Safire was a conservative with an open mind and a deep commitment to civil liberties. When his right side offended, he cut it off, as with his eloquent and ferocious opposition to the Patriot Act and his harsh treatment of George H.W. Bush for coddling Saddam Hussein.

Safire was unpredictable, not because he did not have fixed conservative beliefs but because--unless the subject was Israel--he allowed his facts to speak louder than his prejudices. He was, in short, everything contemporary conservatives are not. And though I knew him rather distantly, I like to think that he, too, would be ashamed of his colleagues' willingness to pander to a counter-intellectual like Kristol, much less the lunatic Beck.

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