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Left, Right and Wrong | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Left, Right and Wrong

I’ve got a new "Think Again" column called “Left and Right Both Do it? Wrong.” It’s here.

 
Naturally, I am deeply excited to read this 4500 word article on Nascar, as I have long  been critical of the Times’s inability to give this great American sport its due. Do you remember how they failed to put his daddy on the front page when he died? That was an outrage. Here we learn about Junior Dale just what we need to know: “He is very, very introverted,” a publicist says. “He lives alone. He plays video games by himself eight hours at a clip. He’s a multimillionaire, yet he lived alone for months in a 20-by-20 garage loft.” The publicist makes him out to be the Howard Hughes of Nascar. 

More seriously, my friend Michelle Sieff has an op-ed in the Forward here, arguing that the human rights community needs to assess the ideologies of groups like Hamas before judging the actions of their opponents. I could hardly disagree more. In fact, I think this is how “they win”—by getting Western nations to betray their ideals in pursuit of their enemies.  I don’t care what the ideology was of those on the Gaza flotilla. They had every right to be in international waters without having to face the deadly force of the IDF, no matter what they believed. It’s a different story if one of these groups actually has the ability to destroy your state. As Mr. Lincoln may or may not have said, a “constitution is not a suicide pact.” But Hamas does not fall into that category. They can do a lot of damage, of course, but mostly they cause Israel to do damage to itself. Ms. Sieff makes an eloquent case for the opposite view but you can decide for yourself.

Still, let’s not put Michelle in a category with the odious Terry Teachout, who writing a loveletter to the newly belligerent David Mamet--great playwright, moronic political observer--argues that when David Margolick points out that ““Not all Jewish criticism of Israel is self-hatred, and not all gentile criticism is anti-Semitic. Jews who sympathize with the Palestinians are not necessarily neurotic…. And, by the way, not all Israeli crimes are ‘imaginary,’” he is demonstrating “the naïvete with which modern-day liberals like Margolick regard the existential threats that beset Israel? Might this lack of realism on the part of his fellow liberals have caused him to feel that his own liberal politics were equally unreal by comparison with the cold-eyed disillusion of his plays, and that the plays were thus truer to life than his political opinions?”

Speaking of Commentary, Damon Linker does a masterful job of assessing the Pilgrim’s progress of Norman Podhoretz in last week’s Times Book Review, here and while I agree that Balint’s book is excellent, I find him much too kind to Thomas L. Jeffers’s unreadably awful biography of Podhoretz.  Damon likes the early parts, which I might as well, had the author not thoroughly discredited himself with the rest of this nonsensical hagiography.  Here is the review’s final paragraph:

Podhoretz wasn’t wrong to sense a certain nobility in standing up for “one’s own.” Yet his self-defense, to the exclusion of other human values, be they moral, literary or intellectual, has come at a cost. Today Commentary regularly publishes essays that sound, in Balint’s apt words, “like speeches intended to buck up the troops or self-congratulatory sermons to the faithful.” As for Podhoretz himself, he has grown so intolerant of criticism and dissent, so terrified of impending doom at the hands of militant Muslims, and so furious with his fellow Jews that his intemperate rantings are dismissed by all but his neoconservative progeny. The Brownsville wunderkind has ended up an embittered, paranoid crank, standing by and for himself alone.
 

Reed Richardson writes:

 

Hamlet in the Newsroom

 

The arrival of August on the calendar has, in recent years, precipitated the ridiculous staging of an annual Shakespearean melodrama. Starring a certain Wrangler-wearin’ pro football player in the role of conflicted Danish prince, this summer stock production quickly transforms much of the supposedly serious sports media into gossip-hungry Rosencrantzes and Twitter-obsessed Guildensterns. Amidst all this incessant questioning of “QB or not QB,” it was therefore easy to overlook this worthwhile story about the NFL’s changed attitude toward “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet put it, in last week’s New York Times.

Now, no matter how “blunt” the language, just hanging a few warning posters in locker rooms will probably do for preventing long-term brain injuries in NFL players what the current cigarette warning labels have done for reducing smoking among teenagers—that is to say not much. After all, in a sport that lacks guaranteed contracts, there is a powerful incentive to play through almost any injury, despite the risks, especially when the average NFL player’s tenure lasts less than four years.

Nonetheless, give the Times, in general, and reporter Alan Schwarz, specifically, their due. They have continually returned to this issue (Schwarz basically wrote his way onto the Times staff with his coverage of the topic), providing sustained, incisive reporting and a solid statistical grasp of the widespread health risks when many other news organizations and journalists have been content to run anecdotal, one-and-done stories. And, as recently as last fall, the NFL, stealing a page out of the tobacco industry’s “not based on sound science” playbook, had remained unwilling to acknowledge any link between concussions sustained on the field and higher incidences of dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life. That the league has now done an about-face and has even donated money toward concussion research can largely be attributed to the Times’ dogged reporting. (Though, I would point out that the $1 million ponied up by the NFL to study the problem amounts to 0.01282% of its $7.8 billion in annual revenues or, put another way, about $589.62 a brain, based on a 53-man active roster in a 32-team league.)

But precisely because Schwarz has done yeoman’s work on this issue, reporting without fear or favor, I also recalled a disheartening (and somewhat disturbing) online discussion he gave to Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year. At the tail end of that interview, when asked a very natural question—whether or not he would let his own three-year-old son eventually play football, knowing what he does about the long-term health risks—Schwarz somewhat surprisingly demurred. Suddenly, the well-versed, knowledgeable reporter was replaced by an unsophisticated, equivocating father, with the latter seemingly not privy to the wealth of information on the topic possessed by the former. “It’s my job to cover the issue,” Schwarz declared, “It’s not my job to decide or even discuss how I will let the issue affect my family.” To not discuss it publicly, I could see, but to not decide how would such a thing would affect his family?

When pushed by the CJR interviewer to acknowledge that, actually, it probably was his responsibility, as a human being and father, to decide and guide his son’s choice in such a situation, Schwarz claims that he couldn’t even contemplate such a scenario lest his internal objectivity might be compromised. Then, moments later, he backtracks somewhat and, in a contorted fit of logic, says this:

 
“So I would probably let him play because if I didn’t it would compromise the reporting. It would compromise the trust that others and even the league may have in me. Now, I would not send him out to slaughter, but getting one concussion is not that big of a deal—it just isn’t. And to suggest otherwise is incredibly irresponsible. So if my kid gets one concussion then yeah, he doesn’t play anymore probably. […] And if I didn’t allow him to play then yeah, it would be harder to cover this story in my own mind. I believe that the cost to others of my not being able to cover the story as well would be greater than the cost of my kid getting one concussion and never playing again. […] And I can’t tell my kid he can’t play, because then what am I going to tell the league? What am I going to tell my editors? It doesn’t work. It’s dissonant.”

 
There’s a lot to unpack here, but, en toto, this is perhaps one of the best distillations of today’s conventional wisdom about media ethics and why it undermines journalism in the long run. In this world, reporting can only be fair if it, a priori, appears to be fair. This standard has been inculcated to the point where even otherwise excellent journalists like Schwarz have been trained to mistrust their own journalistic abilities, even when presented with hypothetical situations that don’t offer any obvious and direct conflicts of interest, like, say, if his son played in the NFL. Also, notice that the potential conflicts of interest mentioned by Schwarz tellingly run in one direction, toward the more powerful group in the dynamic. To wit, he emphasizes how not letting his son play would be perceived by his bosses at the Times and the NFL, but not how letting his son go ahead and play might look biased to his readers.

 

To Schwarz and many others like him, journalistic objectivity has become an ideal unto itself; a pious calling that often expects heavy sacrifices from its practitioners and, increasingly, its practitioners’ families, in order to maintain an unblemished veneer of neutrality. (And while Schwarz may downplay the risks of letting his son suffer a single concussion while playing football as “not that big a deal,” a sentiment I would share when it comes to my own two sons, when he also admits that after that threshold is reached he would prohibit his son from playing anymore, his words suggest otherwise.) This is unfortunate, as its long-term net effect is to hermetically seal off members of the media from the subjects they cover, which then drives the press coverage toward falsely equivalent “he said, she said” stories that offer readers no real insight. Or, as Hamlet put it: “thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.”

 

Alter-reviews: 

 

I caught a Raul Malo show  last week at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. It was a wonderful show. I’ve never seen Raul phone it in, but this was a night when his parents were there, and so he really let go on the crooning. Nobody, and I mean nobody has a more beautiful voice than Malo. And his musical range while not unlimited, is pretty wide, going from Tex Mex to pure country to some pretty serious rocking out. You would not believe how sexy “Guantamara” can sound, particularly when it goes on forever.  (Did I mention what a great little band he has?)  The set was light on Maverick material, but there was enough to send everybody home happy. Catch him if you can.

Also, don’t miss Rosanne’s version of Ode to Billy Joe. Sublimity, thou is this.

The mail:

Greg Panfile
Scarsdale NY

With all due respect for a better writer with great taste in music, I think Charles misses the point on this one. It's not about a person wanting power... how can you know what any person *wants*, anyway?  It's about an ambiguously worded law from *1993* that in one place allows gathering certain information, and in another explicitly mentions four other kinds, but omits that one kind.  Rather than 'roll over' to the "power seeker," the Justice Department took the higher road and ruled that the information can't be accessed.

The information in question is the equivalent of being able to take photos of you driving your car down a public street, or gathering telephone dialing information, both of which they can already do without a court order.  So the worst case scenario here is that they're treating the Intertubes as a public place equivalent to the street or phone lines, and not allowing information online to be more private than that, and clarifying a power that was already granted in a poorly written law from 17 years ago.  Given the fact that there's a yahoo claque of about 25% of the country who fears that Obama is the stalking horse for a bunch of nonwhite socialist terrorists who Don't Love America and are Soft On Terrorism, this is pretty lightweight stuff to hold against him... some sense of perspective is clearly in order.  Who is the alternative?  Is he or she better?  Answers:  Palin or Romney, and hell freaking no.

 

 

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