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Iowa and the High Cost of Low Living | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Iowa and the High Cost of Low Living

My new Think Again column is called “Conservatives Prefer Reagan Fantasies to Reality (And So Did Reagan)” and it’s here.

I did a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review called “The Girl Who Loved Journalists” about the Stieg Larsson trilogy, which I very much enjoyed, and that’s here.

I did an interview with a German newspaper on the future of media and it’s called “Blood on the Newsroom Floor: The video” here.

And for the Daily Beast, I wrote up “What Liberals Want From Iowa's Caucuses” here, which you can still read, if you want to, but it’s ok if you don’t.

My friends Steve Earle and Allison Moorer are doing a five-week residence at City Winery (with friends) and the Wall Street Journal was nice enough to say “he's part of a lineage of country songwriters who, like Townes Van Zandt and Johnny Cash, never could toe the line.” I went to the Winery twice in the past couple weeks. Most recently I caught up with Little Feat, whom I’d not seen since the passing of Lowell George back in 1979. Now led by Paul Barrére and Billy Payne, they’ve reformed and play Dead-like, well actually, Furthur-like shows (sans drummer Richie Hayward who died of penumonia in 2010), including some of the same songs, like “The Weight” and “Long Black Veil,” which makes them, like the Allmans, a roots/blues/jazz/traditional Americana outfit. Larry Campbell sat in on fiddle the night I saw them and nobody was sorry to be there. They played three sold out nights.

A week or so earlier, I was quite happy to be there for one of the four sold out nights by the Fab Faux, who are pretty much a guaranteed good time as well as musically ambitious without being pretentious. It’s a long way from seeing McCartney at Yankee Stadium and this is mostly a good thing. The songs are played more inventively and the stage patter is less annoying. Of course there are no voices like Paul’s or George’s or John’s, but it’s a pretty damn good cure for a bad mood. You can watch them play “Hey Bulldog,” something I’m pretty sure the Beatles would not be playing if they were all alive and together today, here.

In between those two shows, I caught the first night Gov’t Mule’s two night annual trip to the Beacon for New Year’s Eve. I was not there the night they played “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” which strikes me as a truly inspired choice. But I did see them open with a Parliament/Funkadelic song with the horrible title of “Maggot Brain,” which was pretty crazy, and it segued into Pink Floyd’s “One Of These Days” and “Fearless.” Funnily enough, they were joined by the Fab Faux guitarist Jimmy Vivino and did a really sweet “Working Class Hero,” which the great and deeply underrated Mr. Haynes has recently convinced the mighty Allman Brothers Band to play as well. Next, Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo, who was also in town for a City Winery gig, came on for from “Smokestack Lightning” into “John The Revelator.” Both guitarists stuck around for the encores of “Politician” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” into “For What It’s Worth.” Again, this music is, like Duke Ellington, “beyond category,” a bastardized, mongrelized American invention shared by the Dead, the Allman Brothers, late Miles, Hot Tuna, Little Feat, David Bromberg, and the spinnoff bands of each of these. It deserves to be celebrated, but not so much that the celebration detracts from the unpretentiousness of the music. The Mule site is here. Get Warren’s album if you don’t already have it.

And meanwhile, the Allmans are coming back to the Beacon for ten shows and Furthur for eight, both in March. You know where to find me

Now here’s Reed:

Why the Iowa Caucuses Are Bad for Journalism
by Reed Richardson
Let me say this up front. I was born and bred in a state that neighbors Iowa (Go Unicameral!), so I take no small amount of oblique umbrage at anyone who dismisses the voters there through snide, corn-shucking, country-bumpkin, tent-revival stereotypes. This is intellectual laziness at its worst and any broad-brush presumptions about how “all Iowans think this” or “all Iowans do that” shouldn’t be tolerated. (Sorry, Meredith Wilson.)

That said, I don’t buy this stubborn notion that voters in Iowa and a few other arbitrarily chosen states are somehow especially worthy of one-of-a-kind quadrennial access to presidential candidates and concomitant amount of media saturation that comes with them. This is, to paraphrase one of Wilson’s most famous lyrics, “Trouble with a capital T.”

True, these routine candidate pilgrimages to Iowa and New Hampshire allow for retail politics at their most elemental. But, by the same token, this hidebound early-primary rota enables candidates who would prefer to overlook or downright ignore the actual crises facing the country as a whole and instead focus their undue attention on more provincial concerns. As far as democratic processes go, the current presidential primary system is inherently flawed and, as we saw these past few weeks, ripe for outside manipulation. But there’s one other strike against it that is rarely mentioned, it’s bad for journalism as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for healthy doses of old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting and hearing the real-life stories of Iowans can provide invaluable context. But all too often what goes on in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses involves the media merely trading one journalistic cocoon for another. Saturating just a few critical locations with reporting assets is a necessary evil when trying to, say, cover an imminent war in a foreign land that has little concern for freedom of the press. But when the high concentration of journalists populating the Des Moines Marriott Downtown brings to mind Baghdad’s Al-Rashid Hotel just before the kickoff of Desert Storm 21 years ago, one has to wonder if news consumers aren’t being served up a product that is similarly narrow and subject to pack journalism groupthink.

Even when not congregating cheek by jowl in the Des Moines Marriott’s bar, which turns into something like the media equivalent of a Great Rift Valley watering hole during the African dry season, there’s a strong possibility of treading the same, well-worn journalistic ground. For a snapshot of how this plays out along the Iowa caucus campaign trail, check out this surreal experience documented by a reporter from The American Prospect this past Monday:

In Marshalltown the previous night, I watched as The Washington Post's Jason Horowitz rushed to intercept The Atlantic's Molly Ball as she turned her tape recorder on a voter he had already selected for a profile. After a Mitt Romney event Thursday in Mason City, a reporter friend and I noted that we had both previously interviewed Beth, a high-school teacher from Clear Lake. We watched as yet another writer thrust a notepad forward to document how she was a committed Santorum voter while remaining intrigued by Romney.

These episodes might be laughable if it they weren’t easily trumped by even more ridiculous examples. And in some respects, this really isn’t surprising, since, based on Tuesday night’s vote count, there ended up being only 80 or so actual caucus voters for every member of the media in Iowa in recent weeks. (For the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday the voter-to-journalist ratio will only be roughly double that.) And during many small town campaign stops, this already low ratio shrinks down to the point where inverts, and the media actually outnumber everyone else.

The stilted nature of these moments, when candidates make small talk with a few Iowans primarily to be seen by the media making small talk with a few Iowans rather than to have actual conversations, fool few with regard to their authenticity. Iowans, are genuinely knowledgeable and quite able to ask insightful questions, but all too often both candidates and journalists essentially treat them as props or proxies. Constrained within the norms of this traveling Kabuki show, the media can easily fall into the trap of playing along, needing as it does a constant stream of pixels and video content.

Jay Rosen, over at his PressThink blog, makes several astute observations regarding this contrived aspect of the Iowa caucuses. Particularly how the media now plays a critical role in not merely covering the caucuses but in perpetuating and validating their importance in our political infrastructure:

The Iowa Caucuses are presented as a news event, a mini-election with an informational outcome, a winner. But what they really are is a ritual, the gathering of a professional tribe, which affirms itself and its place in our political system by staging this thing every four years…Yeah, [the press] created this thing but we bring it to you as if it would happen without us. (emphasis original)

Even more problematic, the press increasingly focuses on a disconnected, meta-analysis of its own caucus coverage (or lack thereof), spinning untold stories, video packages, blog posts, and Tweets out of the gossamer of what others in the media are (or aren’t) saying. It creates an endless feedback loop, one that obsesses over who’s up and who’s down according to the conventional wisdom (manufactured again, mostly by the media) and emphasizes expectations over actual results.

Reuters media critic Jack Shafer sees in the political press’ preoccupation with score-keepingmany similarities to sports reporting. And because the Iowa caucuses enjoy much of the same, year-long buildup as the Super Bowl, it’s telling that the respective press corps tend to cover acandidate’s campaign trail visit and the big game’s annual Media Day—both manufactured events of dubious news value—in much the same manner. And though Shafer is drawing a different analogy here, he arrives at much the same conclusion about the Iowa caucuses’ true value as Rosen:

The reason we hear so much about the caucus is because it matters a lot to the press corps, which should—but doesn’t—downplay the event into something less meaningful than a coin toss.

At least the Super Bowl changes locations every year, whereas our presidential campaigns are stuck in the same old rut. The media’s willingness to revisit Iowa and New Hampshire again and again is understandable, however. In much the same way that sports has become fascinated with statistics, the temptation of all that election data going back for decades is almost too much for political reporters to gainsay. That returning to Iowa again and again also makes the historical parallels that much easier to draw doesn’t hurt. That these comparisons rarely hold up under scrutiny doesn’t matter.

This was much in evidence this past Tuesday night. As CNN’s John King constantly toggled back and forth between the 2008 and 2012 county-by-county results on his “Magic Wall”—with the help of a telestrator, naturally. Watching it for awhile I got the same distinct sense of can’t-help-ourselves statistical gorging that often accompanies sports broadcasts. That Romney eked out a victory, but didn’t do any better than he did four years ago was treated as big deal by much of the media—a “devastating blow” according to one hyperventilating Fox News columnist. And Santorum’s close second has already earned him plenty of credulous coverage and talk of ‘momentum.’ And what feeds these tenuous memes? Assumptions within the media that the voters’ calculus hasn’t changed much because their location hasn’t either.

The reality of what happened or, more accurately, didn’t happen in Iowa Tuesday night is both less and more complicated than this, however. First off, for all the allegedly dramatic twists and turns along the way to Tuesday night, the best funded, most disciplined GOP presidential campaign still claimed victory, albeit a narrow one. The frontrunner remains the frontrunner—especially, it’s worth nothing, among those willing to put money on it. On the other hand, Romney’s closest opponents—Santorum and Paul—continue to lack either the finances and personnel or a broad enough ideological base within the party to mount a serious, long-term campaign. And hyping inherently flawed candidates as legitimate contenders based on one or two unique electoral contests only weakens the press’s standing in the long run.

Foregone conclusions rarely sell newspapers and attract eyeballs, though. Making the results in Iowa matter matters most to the media, even if history demonstrates the state has a decidedly mixed record in predicting the eventual nominee. So, moving the first test of our presidential nomination process out from between Sioux City and Davenport and into a wider rotation of states would do more than just encourage debate on a larger set of issues. It would also force our political press to work outside of its comfort zone and help to avoid the trap of the media having a vested interest in promoting an event it is covering.

In other words, we really did give Iowa a try, to paraphrase "The Music Man" one last time. But now it’s time for our democracy and our media to try somewhere else.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

The mail:
Diane Lake
Rockford
Mr Alterman,
I missed the link to write you so I wrote the editor. In case you don't see that I will tell you directly. I feel real reason for Politifact naming Lie of the Year over observing Ryan's bill as ending Medicare is not due to rightwing pressure.

Everyone saw the 'journalists' swoon like pre teen girls over the bill and Ryan himself. Ryan, to them, was almost at Chris Christie status in their eyes. A hero and an awesome guy. They deride the president for his intellect and sneer professor about him. Not a real guy. But, they insist that Ryan is a true intellect and in this case, being smart (as they see it) is okay.

Jouralists got laughed at and made fun of for their collective swoon and insistence that Ryan was an intellectual over the kill Medicare bill. They refused to accept that the bill was an ode to Ayn Rand. That Ryan was not brave and smart and true but, an Ayn Rand zombie and his bills are odes to her cult of crazy.

Politifact is, afterall, written by Journalists. The pressure was from fellow journalists who want to save Ryan's reputation. To discredit the left, as they always are doing. They needed ammo to use as the reason to discredit the left and to save Ryan as a hero and so brave.

Robert Humphries
Estero, FL
Iraq lessons
Thank you for reminding us of some of the reasons we went to war in Iraq.

Two items I would add to the discussion:

1) Bush pushed the war path during an election time so Democrats had to fall into a 'patriotic' mode or be crushed by the shameless chicken-hawk Republicans.
2) The press LOVED the war idea since it would mean great TV and print media viewership. I suggest you research the "Bloom Mobile" that ABC or NBC, I believe, built to cover the war first hand, utilizing the genius of the Pentagon's embed program.

Keep hitting the war motif that the U.S. seems to love—Vietnam should have been recent enough to have given us second thoughts about going into Iraq. Senator Byrd gave a great speech just before the war on many of the points you are making.

David Drasin
West Lafayette IN
You do the best job I know on the press, so I send you these items! Thanks for your work and Happy 2012.

I thought I would paste the letter I sent to the NY Times public editor yesterday concerning their reporting on the push in Indiana for a `right to work' law. But then a friend sent me a quote from Martin Luther King relevant to this. So I paste this first:

This is cut and pasted from the AFT page of MLK's statements on labor and unions here:

"In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right to work.' It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote."
—Speaking on right-to-work laws in 1961

*****

Now here is my email to the public editor:

I live in Indiana, so was delighted (at first) to see that you had a major article today on Indiana (front page of Business section) on the issue of the Indiana legislature considering passing a right-to-work law.

This is an important issue that is arising throughout the country, and having prominent space devoted to the topic in fact seems of national importance.

Unfortunately, the reporter only interviewed people whose opinions were not only predictable, but managed to avoid giving information that might help a Times reader come to an evaluation of the merits of the issue. Just because the Republican speaker calls having the possibility of a union shop `the last barrier to job creation in Indiana' or asserting [with no documentation] that `those charged with bringing new jobs to Indiana have given us very specific evidence that at least a third to a half of businesses looking for where to move take Indiana off the table because we’re not a right-to-work state' does not mean he is telling the truth (see, for example, the misinformation during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003!). And the article stops on quoting such comments.

In fact, one Indiana newspaper (and, as far as I know only one) decided to do some reporting on this matter--and to be fair, they did find one example (although even there the executive was never asked point-blank whether they would definitely build in Indiana once this bill were passed).

On the other hand, it is no surprise that the AFL-CIO leader would say that this bill would have a harmful effect.

By now the Times should know better than to accept or disseminate predictable quotations and consider that a news article. Upon reading the article, I felt I had learned nothing new.

P. S. The article recalls that one of governor Daniels' first actions on assuming his office was to eliminate collective bargaining for state employees (which is indirectly related to the right-to-work issue). I would have been interested in being given information on how this has affected state employees, especially whether there were any willing to criticize the governor's actions and give their names.

But that was not there either.

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