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Brackets, Brackets, Everywhere | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Brackets, Brackets, Everywhere

I’ve got a new “Think Again” column called “NPR and O’Keefe: Déjà Vu All Over Again,” and it’s here.

Alter-reviews:

First things first: If you’re going to be in the city anytime soon, go see the new production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia which opens on Broadway tonight at the Barrymore Theater. I saw the original, in 1995, and remember loving it. I think it was more elaborate than this one and some people thought it better but I can’t remember. I only know this one is great and made me feel grateful that Tom Stoppard was ever born. It’s a magnificent combination of intellectual stimulation, entertaining banter and profound moral challenge. How he does it, time after time, well, there’s just about nothing like him. You can read about the guy here.

Lucinda Williams’ new album, Blessed is her best in a while; my favorite since the wonderful Essence. I saw her do a spirited set at Webster Hall the other night and the new stuff fit right in with her best work. At this point in her career, she’s reached the point of an Elvis Costello or a Steve Earle where she just has too many great songs in her catalogue to give you everything you want. (I particularly missed the classics from Lucinda Wiliams.) The new songs, however, sounded just as warm and powerful as the old ones. On the album they are smartly produced, but live they work in a more visceral way. You can read all about the record here.

I also caught a lovely solo performance by Randy Newman at Town Hall. It’s hard to know how much of his self-hatred shtick is real. If I had written as many brilliant songs as Randy, I’d feel pretty good, about that anyway. He’s become a kind of Hollywood icon for his gooey movie work, but the “real” material is as bitter and biting and brilliant as ever. It’s also, I’ve noticed, impossible for anyone else to play. Randy has just released his second “songbook” volume, in which he plays his old songs on solo piano. When I heard it, I ordered the first one, which had somehow slipped by. If you are unfamiliar with his work, these are a good introduction, but you’ll want more. Info about the record is here.

And the oldies just keep coming. Rhino has released Concert for George on bluray. If you don’t have it, it’s really one of the best purchases you could ever want to make. It’s beautiful music and quite moving. Had I known about the show, it would have been worth a trip across the pond. The lineup is stellar and the vibe is sad and beautiful, but the music is really first rate. It’s a big part of the reason that George is my favorite these days, retrospectively. The BR is pretty cheap, too, here.

Legacy has released a 40th anniversary edition of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. It’s still great, and while there is no new material from the vaults, it comes with two documentaries: Songs Of America—originally broadcast on CBS, this TV special is comprised of footage of the 1969 tour and a new one, about the making of Bridge, featuring new 2010 interviews with Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Roy Halee and more key principles involved with making of the album.

A bit newer on the old scale is Billy Joel playing the final show done at Shea Stadium. It’s not exactly hard to find live versions of most of these songs, though perhaps not with Billy looking this gray. The highlight is the emotional appearance of Paul McCartney for “I Saw Her Standing There.” (I saw McCartney’s opening of Citi Field where Billy returned the favor on the same song.) Also included in the show are Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, John Mayer, John Mellencamp, Steven Tyler and Roger Daltrey, though for a few of them, you have to watch the extras, not the show. It’s a good setlist and it’s well played. Billy tones down the shlock and lets his terrific catalogue do the work. The cd comes with a dvd, and the bluray, which I’ve not seen, comes on its own. Read all about it from some Billyophiles, here.

And don’t miss Yep Roc’s re-release, after twenty years out of print of Nick Lowe’s best album, Labor of Lust. It’s a perfect little eighties pop record, not quite as clever as its predecessor, “Jesus of Cool,” but with much stronger and more memorable memories: a real time capsule.

Sadly, the “Rendezvous with French Cinema” is over at the Film Society of Lincoln Center French film. My favorites were Hands Up (A tender, engaging and bracingly militant drama from director Romain Goupil: a story of youth, solidarity and contemporary France, with Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and a terrific cast of children. A Chechen woman named Milana, recalls the story of her near-deportation from France at the age of ten and the plan her young classmates hatched to save her) and Service Entrance, (A stockbroker (the marvelous Fabrice Luchini) lives a peaceful, boring existence in 1960s Paris with his socialite wife (Sandrine Kiberlain)-until some exuberant Spanish maids move in upstairs. With Carmen Maura and Lola Dueñas). I think both will get released here, but I don’t really know that. Now it’s time for New Directors/New Films but I can’t give you much guidance on those. The only one I saw was “Happy, Happy,” which sounds like that Star Trek episode from the first season where Spock falls in love with that blonde girl and when he gets an order from Kirk to return to the ship, says, “I don’t think so…” But in fact… (Anne Sewitsky’s nimble directorial debut represents a rare achievement in independent film: an intelligent, adult comedy that is truly funny. Kaja and Erik are a 30-something couple with a young son, living a rather dull life in the Norwegian countryside). Seeable, but also missable. Make up your own minds, people, the schedule is here.

I think I forgot to recommend the audio version of Allison Pearson’s I Think I Love You. It’s really delightful and also wise, and quite sympathetic to the craziness of young teenagers—which is useful in some households I know—but also even to David Cassidy. If Nick Hornby had a vagina… I can hardly think of higher praise. (Quite well read, too, particularly given the different types of people and ages and time changes…)

And a couple of notes: I saw two Allman shows this week: Saturday night when they played “Live at the Fillmore” in honor of the 40th anniversary of its recording and Tuesday night when they were joined by Steve Earle. Because of Steve, I got to sit on the stage, kitty-corner from Jaimo. The mix was not perfect from where I sat but it was really interesting to see three drummers work together in such syncopated harmony. Also, Warren and Derek are really nice guys, especially Warren who was really nice to my kid a few years ago backstage at a Nancy Pelosi fest and she still remembers. Steve played “Devil’s Right Hand” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” with the band, and it’s amazing that Dylan didn’t write that song for Greg to sing. Closed with “One Way Out” one of the greatest songs of all time, with Robert Randolph playing too. They’ll be there through the 26th.

And last night I went to a premier of The Music Never Stopped. Sappy but really moving and also largely true. And kudos again to my friend Jon Adelstein who, years ago, brought Oliver Sacks to his first Dead show and got this whole ball rolling.

Now here’s Reed:

Bracketology

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when no small percentage of our media coverage becomes obsessed with all things bracket-related.

Coincidentally, the Washington Post unveiled a new website layout this week and, among the changes of note, it now groups its opinion writers and columnists into, if you will, one of two brackets—“left-leaning” or “right-leaning.”

This effort, WaPo managing editor Raju Narisetti says, “makes it easier to find and respond to what interests you.” Over at Gawker, however, they disagree, and fear that this classification system leaves little room for nuance, iconoclasm and free thinking:

“There are also left and right-leaning news feeds and Twitter feeds, to more fully ensure that no one ever be forced to encounter an opinion contrary to one's own. This, at last, is the full realization of the simplistic and rotten Washington journalistic ethos: as long as we have an equal amount of ‘left’ and ‘right,’ we are completely and totally balanced, and insulated from any legitimate criticism. True journalistic perfection. Anyone whose beliefs fall anywhere outside of these boxes is simply not to be taken seriously.”

While I wholly sympathize with most of the above sentiment on the macro scale, I just don’t think this assessment is completely accurate in this particular case. Putting a “right-leaning” label on the columns of Charles Krauthammer’s or a “left-leaning” moniker on those of Harold Meyerson is to simply state the obvious. I submit that no one who reads either or both of them regularly—whether to agree or disagree with the opinions expressed—is going to be put off by this new categorization. And anything that makes it easier to identify—even in the least bit, as is the case here—the ideology behind the opinions being expressed in the media, I’m all for.

However, whereas Gawker’s Nolan is worried that the WaPo’s new policy will further abet the ghettoization of ideas, I’m more concerned that it will foster the misrepresentation of them. That’s because, in establishing their simple, left or right ideological brackets—even with the weaselly “leaning” appellation—the paper was faced with some of the same categorization dilemmas—albeit geographical ones—that confront the NCAA Selection Committee every year.

Indeed, a small part of March Madness’s annual tradition now includes marveling at which schools have been stuck in seemingly randomly placed, ill-fitting brackets and thus have to play games on far-flung courts thousands of miles from home. For example, this year, Duke is inexplicably the No. 1 seed in the West bracket and would play its regional final in Anaheim, while my alma mater, Boston University, was assigned the No. 16 seed in the Southwest and will play its first-round game in Tulsa. (Look out, Kansas!) So, even in a system with dozens of choices, a matchup-based classification system can still turn out to be a fairly blunt and inefficient instrument.

As you might imagine, the somewhat crude nature of this bracketing is only heightened when the available choices are shrunk down to the rigid, either/or Boolean logic that now classifies the WaPo’s opinion writers. While “right-leaning” columnists like Krauthammer, Marc Thiessen, Michael Gerson and George Will rarely stray too far from conservative orthodoxy and so are relatively well-placed, newly minted “left-leaning” pundits like Richard Cohen and Dana Milbank can hardly be counted upon as a consistent repositories of liberal thought, as countless examples prove.

As a result, what the Post ends up with is anything but the “completely and totally balanced” opinion page that Gawker laments above. Instead, what you get is what the paper’s opinion page has long suffered from—a platform where an abudance of entrenched right-wingers line up against one or two honest-to-goodness liberals plus a few ill-fitting others. That supposed “nuance,” “inconoclasm” and “free thinking” that Gawker so desperately longs for? Well, Milbank, Cohen and others like them are often straining to provide it through the delivery of equal opportunity criticism and an all too often slavishly centrist, a-pox-on-both-your-houses point of view.

But unless there’s a mechanism where a “left-leaning” pundit could have one of their individual columns “declassified” or even re-branded as “right-leaning” should its point of view wander (and vice versa for “right-leaning" pundits), then the not-so-reliably liberal ideas of Milbank, Cohen, et. al., are being unfairly pigeonholed. And by unfair, I not only mean to them personally, but to the liberal viewpoint they purport to represent as well. The danger being that their not-so-reliably liberal opinions soon take on the same time-honored “even the liberal…” debate-shifting role long associated with not-so-reliably liberal magazine The New Republic.

In a way, Gawker’s Nolan is right, perhaps just not in the way he thinks he is. The Washington Post’s new opinion-page classification system is symbolic of a significant problem currently confronting the media, in general, and the Beltway press, in particular. But the flawed nature of the Post’s new opinion-page “brackets” aren’t due to the fact that they will actually allow the paper to achieve any kind of artificially-enforced ideological balance or prevent it from taking seriously anyone whose opinions fall outside a neat, left-right paradigm. No, the problem stems from the fact that because of its pre-existing rightward tilt of its stable of columnists and its new, imprecise left/right classifications, the Washington Post’s opinion page will portray itself having taken a real step toward transparency and fairness when, in actuality, its crude partisan taxonomy will enable the distortion of the latter without really much of a commitment to the former.

A better solution for the Post’s opinion page would have been to opt for more individualized disclosure, instead of settling for the crude “leaning” monikers it employs, and by that I mean real, pertinent disclosure. Like the permanent coupling of a pundit bio with each column, divulging, for example, their education, work history, organizational relationships, personal political beliefs and possibly even their recent voting record, which in the “left-leaning” Milbank’s case, would include the fact that he voted for Republicans in the past three presidential elections. Or maybe include a sidebar that also includes each pundit’s public stances on various policy topics, which in Cohen’s case, could include his not-so-liberal positions on torture, affirmative action, abortion, the case for the war in Iraq, etc. All of this is information that, as a reader looking to suss out the motivations behind a columnist’s opinions, I’d want to know. What’s more, it would help to obviate the danger of policy debates becoming surreptitiously lopsided under the fig leaf of equal “left-” and “right-leaning” airtime and/or editorial space.

In other words, some type of initial bracket-setting is necessary to set the conditions for competition, whether it’s in the NCAA tournament or in the marketplace of ideas, and so in that respect I applaud the Post's tentative first step. Still, the Post, the press in general, as well as the public should keep in mind that it is exactly that, a first step in a longer, never-ending process, one that the health of our democracy depends upon.

The mail:
Michael Green
Las Vegas, NV
So much to discuss!

First, to NPR, and to a point that some may be missing—but not to my wife, who has spent decades in development and fund-raising. When you are in that line of work, you do not (repeat, not) ever (repeat, ever) discuss politics with a potential donor—and if the donor wants to discuss it, know how to parry and bump off. Also, a friend of mine who has done a lot of political work for lefty groups made the equally important point: when you have right-wing nuts out there like these people, you do not give them ammunition. If you want to discuss your political views with someone, make sure it's someone you know really well. Two strikes here. Throw in how badly she botched the deserved firing of Juan Williams, and strike three for NPR CEO Vivian Schiller.

Now to David Broder. Any man's death diminishes me. I couldn't help but recall how Broder decided he didn't like Harry Reid, thought he was incompetent, said so and made up news about him—namely, that Democrats would oust him as their Senate leader. When they responded by unanimously signing a letter to the editor supporting Reid, Broder's reply was snotty and dismissive of their honesty. High priest of journalism? Maybe at one time. In the end, though, I was thinking of John Stacks's biography of James Reston in which he quotes some Reston admirers, especially Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, saying that he stayed too long in the column-writing game. So did Broder, and while his death diminishes me, the last years of his work diminished himself.

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