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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Insert Hed Here

My new “Think Again” column is called “Two Views of Samantha Power: A Case Study in Conservative Journalism” and it’s here.

My Nation column is called “How Low Will the 'Washington Post' Go?” here.

My Daily Beast column: is “Obama's Savvy Deficit Play” here.

I gave a talk at Google a little while back and they posted here.

Then I had a conversation with a bunch of really smart folk at the Brennan Center for Legal Justice, here.

Alterman appearances next week:

Seattle: April 27, Town Hall, Kabuki Democracy

LA, 1: An KPCC AirTalk Event—Is There Still a Place for Objective Journalism with Eric Alterman and Geneva Overholser, Thursday April 27 in Pasadena.

LA, 2: A Panel on Obama at the LA Times Book Festival as USC, Saturday April 30 at 10:30 (with Katrina).

Alter-reviews:

The new Smithsonian Jazz Anthology

It’s a big moment when the Smithsonian weighs in with a new proposed canon of an American art form, and none so much as with Jazz, America’s most democratic and important native cultural creation. I kept my copy of the first edition for more than thirty years and the the new one, six cds worth, functions as one long argument as almost all of them are newly chosen.

The Anthology, which aptly renews the legacy of Folkways Records founder Moses Asch's commitment to letting the people's music be heard and fulfills the educational mission of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the nonprofit record label of the United States national museum, naturally features the major contributions from Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Parker, Gillespie, Davis and now, Hancock, Corea, Marsalis. With 111 tracks on six cds, nearly eight hours of music and a smart 200-page book of essays tied to each track. (Photos, too, of course.) Because of the respresentativeness issue, it’s really easy to quibble. What good, for instance, is a less than three minute version of Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things?” It’s just silly if you ask me. But arguing with such sets is a big part of the fun—that and learning stuff about artists you thought you knew. You can find out more about it here.

And while you’re working on your Jazz education, I’m pretty sure I can recommend the second edition of Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz. I read the first edition when it came out. But unlike the Smithsonian collection, I don’t plan on comparing them—except to point out that this one is soft-cover and takes you up to the present and that one was hard-cover and only took you up to what was then the present. Back when it came out, it was the best history of jazz available, but today it’s got a great deal more competition, and I can only promise that it will be really good.

Somebody found a tape of 1963 Bob Dylan performance at Brandeis in a trunk belonging to the late music critic Ralph J. Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle and cofounder of Rolling Stone. It’s a nice little set that includes spirited acoustic versions of: "Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance" (incomplete), "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," "Masters of War," "Talkin' World War Three Blues," "Bob Dylan's Dream," and "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues."

I got two Cambridge Companions lately, the one on baseball edited by Leonard Casuto, and Stephen Patridge, is pretty excellent, with inventive essays on topics that would not have occurred to me. What, you ask? Well, baseball in the movies, baseball and mass media, and baseball in Japan and Latin America. The press material is right when it calls it “a unique book for fans and scholars alike.” You can keep it in, um, any room in the house.

The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture is sadly, none of the above. It’s all pretty cursory and I can’t imagine it will be of interest to any scholars. My guess is that it’s been put together for an introductory level undergraduate course that covers the whole of Jewish history, which in my opinion, is a silly idea for a course. But you decide, more here.

Now here’s Reed:

S&P Swings, Market Shrugs, Media Flinches

“I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”– James Carville

When financial ratings agency Standard & Poor’s kicked off this week with its new “negative” outlook on long-term U.S. debt, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the aforementioned Carville quote from his early days working in the Clinton administration. Back then, a Democratic White House was trying to similarly restart a stalled economy in the face of Republican obstructionism, but all Wall Street seemed to want to see in the upcoming budget was a plan to tackle the deficit. Nearly 20 years, two recessions, two wars, two unnecessary tax breaks, and two administrations later, it’s clear a lot has changed, but you wouldn’t have known it from the general tone of the Washington press corps, which breathlessly reported S&P’s ratings downgrade as if the whole country was some spendthrift deadbeat just one bounced check away from bankruptcy.

Of course, the simple fact that S&P is just one of the three main financial ratings agencies and that the other two chose not to reconsider their outlook on the long-term state of U.S. debt was rarely, if ever, mentioned. (Though the judgment of all three is worthy of a large dose of skepticism, a point I’ll get to later.) For instance, the ratings agency Moody’s kept its outlook unchanged this week even though back in January it joined S&P in issuing a vague “warning” about potentially revising its outlook, a doubly hypothetical move full of the same intellectual ambiguity found in those who ridiculously say they’re “engaged to be engaged.” But given the media’s noticeably inconsistent focus on court challenges to Obama’s health care law, this lack of context is sadly not surprising.

Indeed, this was the kind of ready-made story that all objective journalists—and certain editorial page writers in Washington, in particular—love, because it involves a very public and very pox-on-both-houses critique of an inherently political issue from a supposedly independent, unbiased source. The construction of this New York Times day-one piece was typical fare: Quote or two from S&P, quote or two from business analysts reacting to S&P, quotes from the White House disagreeing with S&P, quotes from Republicans using the opportunity to bash Obama, sprinkle in some general deficit numbers and, voila, call it a day. I mean, it practically writes itself.

To be fair, many first-day articles did at least put the outlook revision into some historical context, noting that it last happened during the government shutdown fights of the Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton era. But these mentions were mostly in passing and fairly superficial. They didn’t really examine the two incidents for deeper similarities.

For example, this January 1996 New York Times article, which used that era’s outlook downgrade to pivot to a President arguing for a “clean” debt ceiling bill while House Republicans instead engage in financial brinksmanship, strikingly reads as if it were written just this week. And can there be no better yardstick of how little distance we’ve traveled politically as a country than this budget negotiation quote from then-Speaker Gingrich 15 years ago: “‘We are tremendously apart on basic policy issues,’ like changes in Medicare, Mr. Gingrich said.” Ah, it was ever thus.

But particularly egregious was the mainstream media’s seemingly wholesale failure to grasp that the financial predictive powers of S&P—or any rating agency, for that matter—are no better than what you might find at a Vegas craps table. Indeed, it was as if the rating agencies abysmal track record in the intervening years between 1996 and now didn’t even exist. Good luck finding any mention in straightforward news articles of their failure to foresee the subsequent debt crises in Mexico and Asia, the Internet bubble, Enron’s collapse, the housing mortgage crisis, and their undisputed, unique role as kindling in the Great Recession conflagration (i.e. you can’t spell subprime without S&P). But if you wanted real insight into gauging the value of their outlook, finding plenty of compelling doubters was easy, as long as you knew where not to look.

What’s even worse, however, was that the media’s knee-jerk trumpeting of S&P’s move as significant is an idea that apparently isn’t even shared by the same bond market the agency purports to be protecting. In fact, within 24 hours of S&P’s announcement, the Times was running a follow-up story that acknowledged this contradiction. Nevertheless, the paper still buried the lede and instead teed up that same article with Treasury Secretary Geithner’s continued protests rather than play up the verdict being rendered by a market that “has moved on” and “saw right through the S&P move.”

Unfortunately, the Obama White House fell prey to the same old establishment trap that Carville experienced, so when the Washington Post reported Wednesday that Treasury officials had been privately trying to convince S&P analysts not to go through with their outlook revision, they lent all the credibility needed to feed this unsubstantiated media meme. Plus, the revelation of this clumsy and unnecessary, yet completely mundane, tactic offered the occasion for yet another baseless, right-wing Obama freakout. Like when the National Review not so subtly (or smartly) hinted at Conspiracy! Nixon Quote! Executive Abuse of Power! Watergate?!:

“If I were to try to convince a securities-rating firm not to disclose potentially damaging information about the finances of a corporation in which I had an interest, would that not be a crime? If the firm obliged, would not the SEC look askance?...S&P, bear in mind, is at the mercy of the federal government for its livelihood.”

So what, pray tell, “potentially damaging information” did the S&P report suddenly reveal about the U.S. government’s finances, you might ask? Well, let’s see, that would be nothing. The only new thing in the S&P’s supposedly damaging outlook from Monday was its changed opinion about our nation’s political ability to tackle its financial situation, the details of which are all widely known and publicly available. And as for those Republicans who were quick to embrace S&P’s dour assessment, did it ever occur to them what kind of intransigent political behavior might have led S&P to become so pessimistic in the first place?

As for the supposedly clever point about S&P’s compromised position viz-a-viz the federal government? First off, there’s the fact that whatever lobbying Treasury officials did, it didn’t work. But more importantly, while we’re on the subject of conflicts of interest, why conveniently omit the existence of an even larger, more relevant one—that securities-rating agencies are anything but independent or unbiased because their “livelihood” is based on a inherently flawed, ratee-is-payee business model, one that precipitated the financial crisis three years ago and that the federal government’s recently passed financial reform law is currently set to invalidate by next summer. Unless, that is, the rating agencies furious lobbying efforts to stop this and other new regulations prove successful. And yeah, good luck, reading about that in any front-page story this past week.

I’m not a believer in reincarnation, but sometimes I have to wonder. If we’re willing to relive the exact same political fights, repeat the same policy mistakes, and recreate the exact same flawed media coverage, then just maybe there’s something to it after all. But instead of Carville’s choices, in my next life I think I’d want a job where no matter how badly I screw up or how wrong my predictions turn out to be, I still get paid well and people listen to me. Nice work if you can get it.

The mail:
Frederic B. McNally
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In reply to Neil Lambert of Joplin just my little contribution regarding support for Barack Obama and how he demeans any challenge to his claim to be the titular head of the Democratic Party as President of the United States of America after he ridiculed every member of the coalition that put him into office in 2008 and which he did nothing to help with sops thrown their way but instead went out of his way to "kick the dog" and bring smiles to the faces of private equity partners at his soiree in Greenwich, CT.

Neil sounds like the classic Democrat in Name Only as with Jim Webb.

The problem isn't all Christians, just the fundamentalists who want to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state. Not all Jews, just those with knee jerk support of all things Israel without thinking about the impact of policies at variance with democracy. Not blue collar because that isn't it when they vote against the Democratic Party to shill out for Republicans. Not small business because the interests of Main Street were ignored by the Obama administration to bail out the "too big to fail" crony banks populated by donors to the Democratic Party. Not high school graduates when more support for community college expansion benefits the blue collar workers. Not the true Southerners who realize who lost the Civil War.

Martin Henderson
Woodstock, NY
Eric,

You should be ashamed of yourself for offending Mr. Neil Lambert of Joplin (letter, April 15). Whatever it is that you said or wrote, the poor fellow is obviously distressed, and you have an obligation to make things right. And if you won't, I will, so you don't have to. Speaking as a self-hating WASP of (partially) Scotch-Irish background, I regret anything I have ever spoken, written or thought that poked fun at, ridiculed, or attacked my fellow tribesmen. Any such statements are clearly, as Mr. Lambert says, attempts to "silence those who disagree with the orthodoxy that was not there before the year 2000." I well remember that year, when we all received our dogma sheets from Party HQ. Little did we know then that disparaging words, straight or ironic, would be felt as a kick in the groin, causing their recipients to be fearful of exercising their First Amendment rights to speak out. Now, thanks to Mr. Lambert's letter (and similar comments by Governor Palin) I now know better. For having caused him and his fellows such pain, I am truly sorry.

Billy Cummins
Lakewood

Read the message from Neil Lambert, the self-described tea partier, and have to ask why he was a Democrat in the first place. Clinton lost him? Why?

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