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99 and a Half Just Won't Do... | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

99 and a Half Just Won't Do...

My new "Think Again" column is called “The Era of the 'One Percent'” and it’s here.

There’s a Le Monde Diplomatique podcast about my new article in that paper, here.

Oh, and this for The Guardian on "Occupy Wall Street."

Alter-reviews:
I went to a few events at The New Yorker festival last weekend. By far the most interesting was David Remnick’s interview of Jonathan Franzen. (I am a big Franzen booster.) Anyway, it was all pretty interesting, but the moment of actual drama came when Franzen was discussing David Foster Wallace and told Remnick that Wallace felt free to make stuff up for his non-fiction, including, particularly his famous cruise piece for Harper’s. Assuming that’s true, it makes my not-nearly-as famous cruise piece for The Nation (“Heart of Whiteness,” about the National Review cruise to Alaska) perhaps the funniest piece in recent history about a cruise that is also true. I know that it’s not for me to say, but it was funny, thanks in large measure to how funny those National Review folks were. But anyway, I’m not sure Franzen should have said it, and Remnick appeared awfully surprised, but he also mentioned that Wallace never published any non-fiction in The New Yorker.

The other news is that Franzen is writing a four-season, thirty-year version of The Corrections for HBO.

So I went to see George Thorgood last week at BB King’s, for the first time since I saw him at the Bottom Line in 1977 or so. First thing that happened was the guy next to me wanted to discuss Neitzsche, I swear. (He was ABD in German intellectual history, I think.) When I told him I was partial to Gramsci in certain circumstances, he lost interest. Anyway, Thorogood. Well, the set has hardly changed since I last saw it.  That was just fine with me, the old songs are still great and George still plays ‘em like they’re new. Still, he’s got a new cd which is a tribute to Chess Records, appropriately called “2120 South Michigan Ave” which could have used a bit more love, since it’s pretty great too.

But on to the main events. This being the season when the record companies are readying their holiday big ticket items, there are a quite a few of them. So get your wallets ready for:

Pink Floyd: The Discovery Studio Album Box Set 
I have done my due diligence, people, and listened to every single one of these. 14 albums—all of their studio work-- digitally remastered by James Guthrie. They sound just incredible and are, believe it or not, rather modestly packaged to fit into a nice box with a booklet devoted to Floydish artwork and full lyrics to all the albums in the sleeves. (Packaging and booklets created by the band’s long-time artwork collaborator Storm Thorgerson).

All of the albums have stuff worth listening to on them. And one aspect of Floyd’s music that has often been overlooked is the quality not only of their musicianship, but also of their melodies. This turns out to be true on the soundtracks, which most people probably have not heard—I hadn’t—but is most evident on the masterpieces, Dark Side, Animals and Wish You Were Here. (The Wall has some of their best work—“Comfortably Numb” is by far my favourite song—but also some of their worst and most self-indulgent.) “The Division Bell” and “Meddle” also turn out to be totally underrated. There’s been an awful lot of Floyd re-releases, but this clears up all the studio albums for you,...well, except for:

All these other new releases that are coming out, “Immersion” versions and “Experience” versions of the key albums, or so they say. The first of these being the insanely over the top The Dark Side Of The Moon - Immersion Box Set. This album was on Bilboard’s top 200 for pretty much my entire adolescence and then some. (Fifteen years they tell me.) I don’t know of any album that’s ever been given this kind of treatment before but I suppose given its complexity and central place in the canon, it’s the right one. (A personal note: My predecessors in my freshman dorm room actually painted the whole room with the Dark Side cover. I don’t want to draw any conclusions, but I think they might have been taking drugs.) In any case, this set comes with 6 discs of rare and unreleased audio and video material, plus a new 40 page oversized bound booklet, a book of original photographs edited by Jill Furmanovsky, and a bunch of other stuff. The highlight, besides the album is the live at Wembley version from 1974. There are also other mixes, quad mixes, bluray and DVD, early mixes, later mixes, concert films, documentaries... it all gets a little crazy, but it shines on... I think my predecessor roommates will really dig this, if they are still alive.

Elvis Presley, Young Man With the Big Beat 
This box set is really a beautiful thing. Oversized, like the Dark Side box, it contains five cds documenting the Elvis explosion of 1956 with two cds of digitally remastered RCA masters, another of live performances from that year, including a complete  previously unreleased show concert from the Municipal Auditorium, Shreveport, Louisiana, another of outtakes and an interview cd and advertisements. What is most striking about this set, however, is the care that’s been given to the lovely 80-Page color 12 x 12 book with 12-month day-by-day chronology of that year, which is filled with pictures and momentos and historical artifacts and documents. It’s a kind of Elvis historian’s dream, and there’s a ton of other stuff too, including an original size replicas of: RCA's first ever poster for Elvis YOUNG MAN WITH THE BIG BEAT; Mosque Theater Poster; Venus Room Flyer for The New Frontier Hotel Appearance 1956; original RCA order form for Heartbreak Hotel; unique Colonel Parker letter and Cotton Bowl Ticket Stub. Really, it’s as wonderful and crazy in its own way as six cds of Dark Side of the Moon. And hey, the music, well, hey, if you’ve got the Original Fifties Masters (as I do) you still could justify it on the basis of the packaging alone. As a gift, well, it’s an awfully safe bet for anyone with any taste at all.

Another big ticket item for the season is:

Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Episodes I-VI) [Blu-ray] 
I like the classy, understated packaging. The movies, if you ask me, are rather hit and miss. A significant portion of the dialogue is actually embarrassing. (I am a “Star Trek” man myself.) If you read the Amazon comments, the base is furious about this set, but as a casual viewer, it’s pretty cool in surround sound. There are a gazillion extras on the two bonus discs and again, these fall inside an imaginary galaxy of people sufficiently fanatic to watch them but not sufficiently fanatic to complain. Good luck with that. Still a nice gift, if a slightly risky one…

Less elaborate, but hardly less central to contemporary culture is the bluray/DVD release of:

The Lion King
This is my kid’s favorite movie, which I find amazing because she’s all into horrible rap music and Justin Bieber and I would have thought much too sophisticated for a Disney cartoon. But I watched it with her and it’s pretty good. Apparently though, it’s different from the original and Lion Kingers are upset with that too. I can’t really get involved.

More next week…

Now here’s Reed:

How the Wall Street Protests Occupy the Media’s Blind Spot 
By Reed Richardson       

At times, you almost have to pity our establishment media. Whenever it encounters events that defy easy political or cultural explanation, like the ongoing anti-corporate occupation of Wall Street, its standard objective journalism playbook turns out to be more hindrance than help, leaving it stumbling and scrambling to catch up.

Step One in this media playbook is always the same: Ignore it. Not reporting on an event is, of course, the most fundamental editorial decision a news organization can make and, in many ways today, it’s also the safest. After all, thanks to the mainstream press’s unfortunate habit of stampeding from one soon-to-be-unembargoed “scoop” to the next, there exists little risk in avoiding more complicated stories that nobody else is bothering to cover either. Just as an above-the-fold, front-page exclusive can trigger untold gallons of ink and terabytes of content in follow-up coverage, so too can the noticeable absence of a story convince the rest of the press that it's OK for them to overlook it as well.

Translated, this means that the dearth of Occupy Wall Street news coverage during the protest's first few days was not the result of some corporate conspiracy to stifle radical thought. The reasons were more mundane than that. Instead, the protests simply fell into a gaping blind spot in modern journalism’s objectivity-based viewpoint, one where the inherent biases don’t tilt toward the political left or the right as much as they favor things like authority, celebrity, hostility, and brevity. Perhaps NPR executive editor Dick Meyer best summed up the conventional wisdom when defending his organization’s continued disregard for the Occupy protests well over a week after they’d begun: “The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.”

With this as the governing calculus for newsworthiness, it’s no surprise that a people-powered, grassroots movement like Occupy Wall Street failed to generate much in the way of media attention initially. Indeed, only after the second and third criteria in Meyer’s aforementioned four-part test began to be met did the press begin covering the protests, and then only as little more than an idle curiosity. (In NPR’s case, their belated interest in the protests coincidentally emerged right after “prominent person” Michael Moore made a visit to Zuccotti Park and then went on CNN to talk about it. For other media outlets, it took several flagrant and well-documented incidents of excessive use of force, or “great disruption,” by the police, which show little signs of abating, before they took real notice.) By that point, the public and some critics were already questioning the relative paucity of news coverage of the protests. But because our mainstream press is far too supercilious to admit that it has overlooked an important story, it tiptoed into the story late through another time-honored media tradition, or what I call Step Two: Covering the non-coverage.

This meta-navel gazing by the press is essentially a further hedge against really reporting on the story itself. This isn’t about looking outward to answer the questions “Who are these people?” and “What are the protests all about?” Instead, it’s about looking inward, as a profession, and obsessing over questions like: “How coherent is the movement’s messaging?” and “Are these protests worthy of the media’s time?” The problem with seeking out answers to the latter rather than the former is that these leading questions are where real journalistic bias creeps in. For, it is but a short trip from this conceited stance to Step Three: DiminishDisrespect, and Dismiss.

This phase is all about reflexively rationalizing the earlier absence of coverage, sometimes spitefully so. And right on cue, the evolving tenor of the Occupy Wall Street coverage began to transfrom from one of restrained curiosity to one of almost sneering condemnation last week. Of course, the media’s modus operandi of utterly marginalizing alternative viewpoints is, by now, well known (cf. Iraq War, run up to): Single out one or two extreme positions for the day story, send a cameraman out to film some of the more fringe characters for cable talk show B-roll footage, add in some scornful commentary from the pundits and thoughtful tut-tutting from the talking heads back in the studio and, voila, a “dirty hippie” meme is born.

But again, it’s a mistake to view this phenomenon through the narrow prism of the left-right political spectrum. Indeed, such a construct makes for some laughable claims, like Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto’s weak attempt to paint the New York Times as being liberally biased toward the Occupy protestors based on the slender reed of one retweet by an assistant managing editor. This ridiculous assertion is especially hard to square since the Times has engaged in some creative front-page editing with regard to police clashes with the protestors and that it let one of its prominent business columnists take his reporting cues on the protests from a CEO acquaintance who was worried for his “personal safety.” These examples are journalistic tells, surely, but certainly not liberal ones. It’s the side of authority, power, and the establishment that is getting an extra finger on the scale here from the Times. The Daily Worker, it surely ain’t.

Likewise, when Foxnews.com publishes a similar “expose” about Philadelphia Daily News newsman Will Bunch’s ties to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters—which is publicly available information—there’s no there there. Bunch’s recent Daily News coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests certainly reads as sympathetic to the protestors but his nuanced airing of their concerns only looks unfair when compared to the rest of the media’s jaundiced eye. (It also occurred to me that the Foxnews.com author might not have even read past the headline of the Daily News article in question, since she later shows off her exhaustive research skills by quoting from the cover flap of Bunch’s most recent book.) Bunch’s boss, editor Larry Platt does get quoted, but it’s not exactly helpful to the article’s premise either: “Our pages should never be home to 'he said/she said' neutrality. Instead, [reporters] will be explicit adjudicators of factual disputes, and [they]’ll be free to draw conclusions from [their] reporting.” That’s a starkly different attitude than you’ll find at the Times or most other news publications and I submit that the Daily Newsreaders are better served because of it.

Now that the Occupy Wall Street movement has ticked off the final two boxes of the establishment media’s definition of newsworthiness—by spawning large, spinoff protests all across the country and rallying around a concise, media-savvy slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent”—more of the press is finally beginning to explore both the protests and poignant tales of the protestors in earnest. But the vicious media cycle and the lingering stigmas that still mark the Occupy Wall Street were not random chance. Indeed, it’s important to understand that they are a feature, not a bug, of how mainstream objective journalism now functions in our democracy. It will keep happening again and again until something changes. And that really is a pity, for more than just the press. 

The mail
KC
Delmar, NY

It's been a long time since I've written. But following the recent coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests had me shaking my head and has prompted me to write. . . .

At first, it seemed there was little to no coverage of the protests at all. But then, the stories seemed to follow the usual arc:

"A group of mainly young, unkempt, disorganized protesters shouting grievances over everything from the execution of Troy Davis to the treatment of animals to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan camped out in downtown Manhattan this week, ostensibly to "Occupy Wall Street." Some, dressed as "undead corporate zombies" complete with pale makeup and fake blood smeared on their faces marched slowly down Broadway. However, their purpose seemed uncertain, with their message incoherent and the protesters themselves splintered into a variety of sub-groups, some protesting foreclosures, others touting the benefits of going vegan, many shouting anti-war slogans and still others, citing a vast international financial conspiracy, calling for the abolition of the Federal Reserve Bank and the IMF. In some cases, protesters preached the destruction of government entirely, to be replaced by "direct democratic action" through the use of the internet. As one protester told me, 'we are each our own government. And together we can govern ourselves. We don't need corporations to tell us what to eat.'"

The above is fiction. I made it up myself, including the quote at the end. But it sure looks a lot like many of the stories I had seen on the protests (for a great example, check out Sorkin's piece in the NYT this week).

But then I came across this, by Will Bunch, on HuffPo. This caught my eye:

"Now I'd successfully lobbied my editors at the Philadelphia Daily News to send me up here, but they loaded me down with questions. What do the protesters want, exactly? Why is this different from all the other left-wing protests? Why now? And be sure to write about all the fringe people -- the Ron Paul fanatics and the bandana-wearing anarchists and what not."

And then I realized why all the stories seem to be the same:  there's already a "narrative" in place; a template, if you will, for covering protests in America. Lazy reporters (and their editors) go out looking for facts that support (or fit) that simple narrative: Disorganized? Check. Incoherent message? Check. Young, dirty and unkempt (this one applies only to left-wing protests; in the case of right-wing protests, such as Tea Party events, point out instead that the crowd was "mainly white" and/or packing heat)? Check. Odd costumes (zombies on the left, Paul Revere colonials on the right)? Check. Weirdos spouting bizarre conspiracy theories? Check.

This template serves to belittle the protesters ("He-he - look at all those dirty hippies saying all sorts of crazy things") and discount their efforts ("they're  disorganized and incoherent; they don't even know what they want"). And, of course, since we've all seen this movie before, and know how it ends - that is, with nothing changing - why should we bother paying attention now?

This "coverage" by the Fourth Estate is nearly as much a problem as the corporate influence and political corruption that is at the center of Occupy Wall Street. . . . I don't know if it's laziness, stupidity. . . or if they've been bought out and corrupted as well, but reading Sorkin's report and watching what (little coverage) I've seen on TV underscored that the way a "story" is reported (by a supposed "liberal media" no less) can be as important as the story itself.

Anyway, I found it refreshing (and enlightening) to read Bunch's reporting - not only on the OWS protest, but on how he was directed to report it. . . .

P.S. Should you decide to post this publicly on your blog, I'd prefer to keep my name out of it. Call me "KC" if you'd like, but I have mouths to feed and a job I'd like to keep. . . . Thanks.

P.P.S. I'm with you on too much Pigpen in the E-72 shows. Haven't bought the new release, though I would like to hear that "Dark Star>Other One". . . .

Joseh Colangelo
St Catharines, Ontario

Boy what a great life you have and I love your long term perception-we're never to old to rock n roll.  Having been recently disabled I decided I had to start doing something before I hit the deep six or go crazy in the meantime so I clipped a coupon from a local Music conservatory that had a special on lessons and at 56 am beginning to do something that I wanted to do since I saw Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan's show 50 years ago.  So given that everything old seems to be new again or I think I am finally doing the right thing guitar lessons are in order.  I have had one class and can't wait to develop callouses on my finger tips-those strings hurt when you have the soft hands of a typist. Heard any tips about how to harden finger tips in your travels?  In any case I just hope these short stubby fingers can stretch out enough to play a c chord.  Is that asking for to much?
Cheers,
RR
Eric replies: “No on the C, yes on the F, I’m afraid..”

Eric Paul Jacobsen
West Saint Paul, MN

I agree with nearly everything Reed Richardson says, but I don't believe the word "objectivity" has been debased beyond redemption, despite the appalling civil cowardice of corporate journalistic professionalism.

A lie is a lie, and there is nothing subjective about it.  If you can prove that a statement conflicts with the facts, then that statement is false - objectively false.

It is a bad idea to propose that journalists be "fair" rather than "objective" - as if these virtues were in any way incompatible, which they are not.  Indeed, every time I hear somebody on Fox News repeat that PR firm's vacuous trademark, "Fair and Balanced," I shudder to imagine what would happen if we rejected objectivity altogether and replaced it with a subjective esthetic of "fairness."  This is where we get the "fairness" of equal time for centrists and right-wingers - to the exclusion of the left.

The notion that one cannot be both "fair" and "objective" at the same time is a central feature of false objectivity.  This is why journalists are expected to pretend that they have no opinions, because it is assumed that being "objective" means not to have any opinions at all.  On the contrary: We all have opinions, and journalists should not pretend otherwise.  Being objective means not the absence of opinion, but the presence of research and an honest, thorough investigation of the facts on the ground.  Presenting a many-sided treatment of the facts and having an honest opinion about them are not mutually exclusive.  On the other hand, pretending that you have no opinion - or affecting a carefully triangulated pose between the center and right goalposts of establishment opinion, which amounts to the same thing - is no excuse for failing to do any investigative research, though I suspect there are many lazy corporate journalists who believe it is one.

Like Richardson, I am sure, I mourn the demise of the Fairness Doctrine and the failure of public broadcast media to provide diverse and challenging points of view, according to their original mission.  However, even if we expand the principle of fairness to include a robust commitment to diversity and to alternative visions, it is still not enough to replace the principle of objectivity in its original, honest sense.  Fairness without truth is nothing but a good intention.  We discover what fairness really is, or ought to be, only when we know the relevant facts.

Michael Green
Las Vegas, Nevada

Dr. A., heaven knows, I agree with your policy positions.  But I think of the many Democrats who spent the entire health care debate beating up Obama for not introducing a more liberal bill.  What ended up happening?  First, he got the best bill that he could have gotten, period, and anyone who doesn't know that is so ignorant of what was going on and what these members of Congress do and think that I really don't have the patience to deal with them.  Second, while the left busily bashed him, the Tea Party sprung up, and rather than attacking them, we stayed in our circular firing squad.

Now, that is not to say that I expect or want you just to go along with what Obama wants.  It is to say that when my friends on the left criticize him for not sticking with the policies we want, it might be useful first to look in the mirror, because then they will see who bears far more responsibility for the failures they now decry.

Ken Kirby
Junction City, Oregon

Eric,
I won't be so gauche as to dispute taste with you, but every time you express your dislike of Pigpen it just makes me wonder what's up with that.  I have a theory that a big part of the band's core sound and style emerges from the musical interaction between Garcia and Pig, starting in their jug band phase and extending right up through to the end of Pig's life.  This interaction seems especially important for the process of Garcia finding his own distinctive voice as a guitarist.  Moreover, friends who saw the band in the old days have told me that Pigpen's numbers were the show-stoppers, that when he came to the mic a the front of the stage you knew you were in for it.  Obviously there's more to the story than that - like the Pranksters, for starters - and much musical development beyond 1972.  But honestly I just don't get your disaffection.  I can't make sense of someone liking the Grateful Dead but not liking Pig, the guy once introduced quite aptly by Bob Weir as the "dog-suckingest man in show business."   Amidst all the extravagant psychedelia, he's the heart and soul of the band up through mid-1971 at least, which is when he first got too sick to travel.  I think there's a quote from Phil in some interview from the 80s where he says that the band's live performances had been ossifying since Pig's death.  Interesting notion to reflect upon.  I hope you can go back to the early years and give him another chance.

By the way, I caught Furthur in Eugene this evening and was pleasantly surprised by their energy and musicianship.  Great songs, great singing.  Thanks for listening.

Steven Nelson
Renton, WA

In my perusing the Fox news site I ran across this editorial on the front page.  When I went back to find it again it was buried a few links down.  I couldn't believe it.   It is the only balanced editorial that I have ever found.

 

 

Oh, and an easy fast to those who are fasting…

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