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'No' Was All He Said... | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

'No' Was All He Said...

My new “Think Again” column is called "Bad Things Happen Someplace, Muslims Involved" and it’s here. It’s about how little conservatives care about truth.

My Forward column is called “Yale Acted Correctly in Axing Anti-Semitism Initiative” but is about more than that, and it's here.

Any my Daily Beast column is calledWhy Obama’s Base Won’t Revolt,” and its here.

I saw a pretty wild Allman Brothers show at the Beacon last night. It was a benefit for Hep C research and awareness, sponsored somehow by Merc. I don’t know the details of who got paid and who didn’t regarding the band, etc, but it featured Natalie Cole singing Change is Gonna Come, and the Weight (blowing the final verse), and the first verse of “Whipping Post.” Crosby and Nash doing about five songs, all of them except “Teach Your Children” sung by Crosby. Phil Lesh (doing Shakedown St. Sugaree, Franklin’s Tower) and Billy Gibbons for the final encore of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. It was a four hour show so, you can imagine …

I tried to make it out to see U2 last week but literally could not get out of town because of the traffic, so I consoled myself the next night by going to see Marc Cohn at Citi Winery, one of my favorite places in this or any other city. I love Marc’s album of songs from 1970 that came out last year—I recently read David Browne’s book about the music of that year but I like Marc’s album better—but the dude only played one song from it—same one the Allman’s played actually, “Into the Mystic.” So I got a crash course in Cohn’s catalogue, with which I was unfamiliar and it’s pretty damn good. His fans sure love him. It was a really strong, warm vibe in the room and  a really fine show. I was shocked to learn that that Shayne Fontane guy who jumped around too much when he was in Bruce’s non-E Street Band in 92/93 is Cohn’s guitarist and has been for 14 years. He doesn’t jump around so much and plays quite well these days. (But after seeing Derek and Warren last night, I can’t throw around these superlatives too promiscuously. Those guys are just the greatest.)

Here’s Reed.

Nobody’s Right if Everybody’s Wrong?

If the media coverage of the ongoing debt-ceiling debacle during the past few weeks has proven anything, it’s that the operating principles guiding our nation’s establishment media make it woefully unfit to serve our democracy’s most urgent needs. Day after day, the press’s general unwillingness to move beyond its overly broad and simplistic, “both parties are at fault” theme—despite almost continual capitulation by Democrats and near interminable intransigence by Republicans—once again reveals that its stubborn obsession with maintaining a pose of political neutrality renders it almost incapable of tackling complex policy issues anymore.

Instead, what news consumers get is a steady diet of superficial, empty-calorie reportage. In this case, this translates into lots of mostly useless, anonymously sourced backroom details, plenty of confusing numerical discussions about which plan cuts how much (but with little to no context of how or why), and heaping helpings of so-called analysis that merely bemoans Congress’s lack of bipartisanship. In essence, it is the journalistic equivalent of finding a man standing outside a burning building with an empty gas can in one hand and a book of matches in the other and reporting on where he bought the gas, how many matches he has left, and why the people now trapped inside the blaze kind of had it coming.

Still, when it comes to journalistic transgressions, the major media organizations’ preoccupation with breathless, behind-the-scenes, “tick-tock” stories and facile comparisons between this trillion-dollar-plan versus that one are but venial sins. More damaging is the profession’s faux-centrist proclivity for splitting the political difference on every topic no matter what the circumstances, what the New York Times’ Paul Krugman rightly called out this week as “the cult of balance.”

Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating—offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent—because news reports always do that.

[…]

What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism; no way for most voters, who get their information on the fly rather than doing careful study of the issues, to understand what’s really going on.

In other words, if you fill the news hole with enough Capitol Hill beat reporters, political columnists, and news pundits echoing the same trite, pre-packaged meme, pretty soon the public will have a much harder time telling an entitlement-slashing hawk from a revenue-generating handsaw (even if the southerly political winds are blowing in the Democrats’ favor). That despite all this media misdirection, the public still seems to grasp the larger point—that conservative Republicans are holding the nation’s economy hostage purely to advance their ideology—is nothing short of a miracle.

How did we get to this point? Well, to hear the punditocracy tell it, it’s because our political leaders aren’t strictly governing inside a wondrous, hail-fellow-well-met framework of comity and bipartisanship, which long ago became the establishment media’s gold standard for how our democracy should function. This fascination makes perfect sense, since objectivity and bipartisanship are concepts that grow from the same overly timid and blithely equivocating rootstock. Ironically, the most common characteristics of this mythical political culture—an utter disdain for heeding one’s constituents and a ridiculous mania for forging untenable political partnerships—are actually born out of strong, anti-democratic tendencies, as others have notably pointed out.

Of course, “grand bargains” are rarely struck in Washington (and are even more rarely worth the cost of striking them, especially, it seems, for liberals). But when the inevitable specter of partisanship does raise its head in the midst of a heated political battle, the establishment press all too often heads for the fainting couch. Rather than wade into the admittedly more tricky waters of assessing the merits of competing policies, the press uses partisanship as a convenient excuse to simply train its fire on the supposed failings of the political process. In fact, the press unconsciously lapses into this shallow, pox-on-both-houses criticism so often that it has become a cliché—even The Simpsons memorably lampooned the phenomenon in one episode using the pre-recorded “inane chatter” of the DJ 3000:

DJ 3000—“It looks like those clowns in Congress did it again. What a bunch of clowns.”

Radio disc jockey—[chuckling in amazement] “How’s it keep up with the news like that?”

If you think no one in the press can be that dense, you obviously don’t watch enough cable news. But this stunning lack of self-awareness among Beltway media types and op-ed columnists is remarkably common. What’s more, it has disturbing and far-reaching consequences beyond that of failing journalism’s basic duty to accurately inform the public. This equal-opportunity assault on all parts of the government and all sides in a political argument actually serves to undermine democracy itself. It leaves the public increasingly bitter, apathetic, and disengaged from its duly elected representatives (which only a fraction of the public bothered to vote for in the first place). If this is the only message being repeated ad infinitum by the media—no matter which party is in charge or what policies they pursue—is it any wonder that great swaths of our nation no longer have any faith in our federal government or the political process?

Of course, a healthy skepticism regarding political power and authority is just that, healthy, but the anti-government rhetoric and increasingly incendiary behavior we’re seeing lately goes beyond this. The press, however, in its zeal to stay above the fray, inadvertently stokes these incidents and effectively picks a political side when it chooses to paint the whole of government with the same broad brush. Indeed, it is precisely the kind of incessant “Washington is broken” coverage that serves to reinforce the core message of the extreme conservative Republicans currently gambling with the nation’s fiscal future.

In other words, “nobody’s right, everybody’s wrong” may seem like an objective or balanced way for the press to cover a political issue like the debt ceiling crisis when it is, in fact, anything but. And in the long run, our democracy will suffer because of it.

The mail
Cheryl Haaker
Albuquerque
Greg Springer of Forney, TX probably IS a teacher, based on the reputation of Texas schools. His being unable to spell simple words** is bad enough, but in this century, not knowing how to click the spell check icon, or see the little red under-dots is inexcusable. Some of it may just be careless typing - but again, see "spell check": that will generally catch simple typos.

Then there's the grammar, the way he strings together cliches beloved by the reactionary right into a semi-coherent rant. Maybe he's not actually "brainwashed", but he does a good imitation.

Springer will probably argue that he's an "algebra" teacher, not an "English" teacher. I've been hearing this load from teachers for over three decades now, and it's still not funny. What Springer and those other guilty parties are saying is that they're not educated people. And, as noted, they're too stupid or lazy to use the in-your-face technology on their computer screens.

Sadly, they represent the best this country is willing to pay for to prepare our next generation. Third world, here we come!

Terry
Cheyenne
Are we sure Greg Springer's letter wasn't one of those phony send-ins by one of the Republican propaganda machines?  If Springer actually is an educator like Mr. Alterman, the word dependency would be correctly spelled and the "ideas" expressed would follow a thread of logic.

One chasing a dream backed by a little knowledge and risk-taking spirit does not always become rich.  Those who are rich may have become so by educated preparation and gambling on the dream or did not.  I am one who happens to think that patriotism may not be the only refuge of a scoundrel, because there sure are a lot of folks who seem to judge those of less means and privilege as unworthy humans who deserve to be underprivileged and down on their luck. I sure support the safety nets in America that would give people in that position a leg up.

But I'll play along.  Let's say that these educated, risk-takers are are more elite form of American and more admirable.  Guess your idea is that the hard-working middle class workers and working poor should bear the tax burden of the United States because I sure notice the political leaders with these the-rich-are-better ideas want only the privileged elite to get the tax breaks.  No paying a fair share or proportionate share with these hallowed few.  They need more of the all they have because their inherent "entitlement" is being blessed, having it easier, having it all, and, naturally they deserve more.  (I just had to drip with that sarcasm, sorry.)

Love that Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independance, and Constitution dearly.  I do think it best to share when you have an actual idea.  Thanks for printing that letter, though, Eric.

Sure loved the musical data this week.  I would dream of seeing Raul Malo, and you know how I love Paul.  Happy summer.

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