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Comforting the Comfortable, Afflicting the Afflicted | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Comforting the Comfortable, Afflicting the Afflicted

My Think Again column is about Politico’s choice of the top ten media stories of 2012. I find Politico to be quite silly for any number of reasons, but here is just one of them.

My Nation column is called “Putting Stories Into the World.” It’s about about Nathan Englander, Nora Ephron, and the Night of the Murdered Jewish Poets, under Stalin, in 1952 and it’s here.

I also wrote a letter to the editor of The Nation, as I sometimes feel compelled to do, even though it is a blockhead move. It’s behind a paywall and so you can’t read Phyllis Bennis’s reply, but I did, and it’s my considered opinion that you’d be doing both Phyllis and yourselves a mitzvah by skipping it. Anyway, here’s my letter:

To the editor:

There is something I don’t understand about Phyllis Bennis’s editorial regarding Israel and Hamas, The latter, I would note is a totalitarian organization devoted to terrorism, Jew hatred, kidnapping, the oppression of women etc, and the destruction of Israel, and was lobbing hundreds of rockets into Israel proper (not the West Bank). This led, as we all know, to Israel’s attack on Gaza, where Hamas rules.

Now, one may not approve of Israel’s reaction to these facts, I sure don’t. Indeed, I believe them to be profoundly counter-productive just as believe Israel’s entire occupation policy to be so. But in Bennis’s editorial you will find no mention of any of the above. Israel, once again, appears to be attacking and oppressing Palestinians for no good reason. Or perhaps because it’s just fun. Who knows, as the issue is never engaged.

I have to wonder. Just who are such editorials supposed to convince? Certainly nobody in Israel is going to listen to voice that evinces no concern whatever for the safety of its citizens. And why is Hamas given a pass for its horrific behavior and rhetoric? A recent report by Human Rights Watch, for instance, details cases of alleged torture and deaths in detention, a lack of due process and trial of civilians in military courts. A Mr. Abdel Karim Shrair, was executed in May 2011 for allegedly collaborating with Israel, based, according to HRW, on confessions apparently obtained through torture. In the words of Stork, HRW's deputy Middle East director, “After five years of Hamas rule in Gaza, its criminal justice system reeks of injustice, routinely violates detainees' rights." Where, pray tell, is the outrage?

And what of what its leaders say about Jews—not “Israelis” Jews. I could give literally thousands of examples but how about this one: “Our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging and grave,” the according to the organization’s charter. “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.” Does that sound like a party with whom one might negotiate a lasting peace?

One can disagree with the degree of importance one attaches to such statements, but to completely ignore them entirely is to ignore reality and in this view, at least, morality. Just what practical value it has also escapes me.

Sincerely,
Eric Alterman
Nation columnist

And look: The Guardian asks a good question: On New Year's Day, artist Yoko Ono took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, saying simply 'Imagine Peace'. Money well spent? Will Yoko Ono's New York Times ad help bring world peace?

Alter-reviews: The Rascals at the Capitol in Port Chester (12/21) and the Fab Faux at City Winery (12/27).

Just before Christmas, I took the train out to Port Chester to meet Petey to see one of six Rascal reunion shows at the new, beautifully restored rock palace of my youth, the Capital Theater. Conceived, produced, kick-started and promoted by Steve Van Zandt, the show, called The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream Reunion Project,” is what they are calling a "BioConcert"

The Rascals must have really hated one another when they broke up, because it took 40 years for them to even consider playing together. This production (co-produced, and with lighting by Marc Brickman, is not exactly a play—rather it’s a chronological concert with filmed reminisces by the members of the band appearing on the screen behind them—tells the story of the band and covers every significant musical moment. It recalls the Four Seasons Broadway musical, Jersey Boys, but reflects a sixties sensibility rather than a fifties one. It also has a great deal in common with the new David Chase movie, Not Fade Away.

Anyway, the Rascals made some great music and all of it, and more, was here. They were a hybrid of working-class soul, blues and pop, together with fun and political idealism. Drugs and egos, naturally got in the way, and while the breakup is skirted over, this concept of the “bioconcert” is a good one. Stories help. Meanwhile, the band played and sang quite well, though Petey and I were both quite partial to Felix Cavaliere’s songs over those sung by Eddie Brigati. I think it may return, perhaps, one day on Broadway, but in the meantime, it’s good to remember to “shout it from the mountains and out from the sea. People everywhere just gotta be free.”

Fun fact: In 1997, The Rascals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Steve Van Zandt. David Chase saw it and decided to cast him on "The Sopranos."

In keeping with my commitment to nostalgia at the close of 2012, I also caught a show by the Fab Faux at City Winery. It was the first of four nights, and while I assume they get a little tighter with each show, they nevertheless did the music proud. Every time I see the band, I am bowled over by how many great (and interesting) songs the Beatles composed. And of course these guys are not an imitation band—they are not even really a tribute band—they are more like the Dark Star Orchestra and The Dead. The exception being that most of these songs were never played live by the Beatles or any combination thereto. The songs are the same and the arrangements quite similar, but there is plenty of room for innovation inside of them. I’d say it’s all but impossible not to have a good time when they’re up there, particularly if you are lucky enough to see them at a venue as intimate and well-stocked, food and wine-wise, as City Winery. You can read more about them here

Now here’s Reed:

Comforting the Comfortable, Afflicting the Afflicted
by Reed Richardson

It’s long been accepted as an unofficial motto of our nation’s press that journalism should look to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But what’s often overlooked is that this rather high-minded phrasing originated within Finley Peter Dunne’s satirical criticism of the arrogant exercise of power that characterized the “yellow press” a century ago:

The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead, and roasts them afterward.

This, of course, is not the world we live in right now, for good and for ill. As a whole, our country’s media environment is now undoubtedly far more professional, diverse, and egalitarian. Yet, with big-city newspapers radically scaling back or barely surviving in a diminished digital form, once-great national magazines disappearing from the newsstands, former powerhouse cable TV news networks struggling mightily, and the media, as a whole, suffering from record levels of mistrust by the public, Dunne might not even recognize the denuded, defanged, and detached American press corps of today.

Indeed, rather than being known for muckraking run amok and stoking a war based on scant evidence and false pretenses, our current media elite is now most notable for an objectionably false objectivity, one that rendered it too feeble to stop a war based on scant evidence and false pretenses. The past election, wherein one presidential campaign openly declared war on reality, proved to be yet another example of how far the pendulum has swung away from Dunne’s era. And though one of the breakout journalism themes of the past year was the so-called rise of fact-checkers, it’s worth tempering any optimism in these pursuits after reading this post-election review by Glenn Kessler, who writes “The Fact Checker” column at the Washington Post:

"Some commentators said after the election that fact checkers had failed because politicians kept saying misleading things. That’s ridiculous. Fact checkers are not trying to change the behavior of politicians. We are simply trying to inform voters." [emphasis mine]

Excuse me, but isn’t a free press holding those who are governing accountable and ensuring they then act in accordance with the wishes of the governed the ever-loving point of the First Amendment? And why bother with “Pinnochio” analogies in the first place if the goal isn’t to shame public officials who lie and exert some influence on their future rhetoric? This is, by definition, is the press’s role in keeping our democracy healthy and to foreswear it is “ridiculous.” But don’t just take my word for it, here’s a fairly smart guy named Thomas Jefferson:

The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.

To learn of this kind of backward, timid thinking on the part of a prominent member of the Washington press corps not only suggests a dereliction of one’s constitutional duties, it speaks to a tacit endorsement by the media elite as a whole. Its corrosive effect is then compounded when coupled with the by-now standard “both sides do it” trope that colors so much of modern political journalism. Again, Kessler:

Indeed, after more than 30 years of writing about Washington institutions, we believe there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of twisting the facts and being misleading when it suits their political purposes. So if a politician believes he or she has a winning argument that moves voters—such as attacks on Romney’s Bain record—then there is little motivation to drop that argument simply because a journalist says it is misleading.

This last sentence should trigger alarm bells inside the head of every political journalist—most certainly someone like Kessler, who believes he enjoys such a regal perch in the Beltway media that he gets to pretentiously employ the first person plural—and begs the question: And why is that?

But as Kessler’s comments strongly suggest, he doesn’t really seem troubled by the press’s perceived toothlessness in stopping the deluge of talking points, political misinformation and campaign spin that warps our discourse. It’s simply not his job to fix that. He merely delivers information to voters, and what they do with it, well, that’s up to them. But it’s all too convenient that he only chooses to mention and then defend himself against “some commentators,”—whom, in a classic, intellectually cowardly move, he declines to identify by name—whose supposed critiques fault him for something he doesn’t even think is his job.

Contrast this passive attitude with the principles outlined in the “Misinformation and Fact-checking” study from the New American Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative last year. In it, authors Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler document, over and over, that simply providing the public with the facts regarding an issue—“informing voters” as Kessler put it—is frustratingly ineffective and, sometimes, makes things even worse. So, they propose using fact-checking as more of an assertive corrective, one that doesn’t rely upon a proxy—the public—as its lever of action.

The existence of media watchdogs and fact-checkers may reduce the incentives for political elites to promote misleading claims. In this way, fact-checking can both increase the reputational costs of creating misinformation and limit its dissemination.

The failure to do precisely this is the real, substantive criticism that was leveled at the mainstream media (and at fact-checking sites like Kesslers) during the past year. In a lengthy essay, Huffington Post’s Dan Froomkin recently called out the press for its stubborn unwillingness to make any honest, contextual distinctions about the asymmetric dishonesty of the Romney campaign. Quoting Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein, Froomkin writes:

"If voters are going to be able to hold accountable political figures, they've got to know what's going on," Ornstein said. "And if the story that you're telling repeatedly is that they're all to blame—they're all equally to blame—then you're really doing a disservice to voters, and not doing what journalism is supposed to do."

Ornstein said the media's failure led him to conclude: "If you want to use a strategy of 'I'm just going to lie all the time', when you have the false equivalence meme adopted by a mainstream press and the other side lies a quarter of the time, you get away with it."

A small-bore, context-free, artificially balanced press corpse really only serves the interests of the powerful, though. In effect, it’s a long-term recipe for mostly preserving the status quo. Occasionally, it might allow for tweaking the stakes just a bit. But as the fiscal cliff deal just demonstrated, even when the well-off are—finally, barely—asked to pitch in a bit more after decades of enjoying all the gains in our society, some in the media—OK, Fox News—can’t help but fear we’re not doing enough to comfort the comfortable.

The next few months of press coverage leading up to yet another fiscal deadline will be all about the other half of this equation—how to afflict the afflicted. With Obama having admirably pried loose some (but not near enough) extra revenue for the unemployed and poorest Americans in this week’s fiscal cliff deal—all without having swallowed counterproductive austerity measures or entitlement cuts—you can bet Beltway pundits are now hellbent on not letting him get away with this a second time. Hence, as a harbinger of memes to come, you’ll see more columns like this one from the Washington Post’s David Ignatius.

Full of condescending bombast and Washington insiderese like “fiscal reforms that every thoughtful member of [Obama’s] team knows are necessary,” Ignatius’s writing reads like a dispatch from an alternate universe where Obama commands almost dictatorial powers and an extremely right-wing, intransigent House Republican caucus doesn’t exist.

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Here, only fixing the deficit and slashing entitlements through grand bargains matter. So much so that Ignatius has the temerity to churn out a breathtakingly obtuse statement like: “Unfortunately, Obama has been playing a waiting game on fiscal issues ever since he became president.” Yes, “unfortunately” is right, as tens of millions of Americans still suffering through a wounded economy can attest, although you won’t be confronted with inconvenient realities like “recession” and “unemployment” by Ignatius. No matter that the recovery is still perilously fragile, unemployment is still historically high, and many Americans are relying upon our social safety net for their very survival: “It’s Obama’s job to lead the party toward entitlement reforms and other policies that will be painful but necessary.”

These “entitlement reforms” and “other policies” as Ignatius euphemistically calls them, are by and large spending and benefit cuts that will—no surprise—be “painful” mostly just for disadvantaged Americans and a besieged middle class. Still, it has become an article of faith among the upper echelons of the media elite that Medicare, Social Security, and the federal debt are imminent crises that demand—hence the use of “necessary”—sacrifice from every American.

Never mind that countless, contemporaneous examples from Europe—the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Spain—have shown that piling painful austerity measures on top of a smoldering economy only douses the flames of demand and increases the misery of the least well-off. Never mind that thYesterday, we swore in the most diverse Congress in American history. The 113th Congress includes 101 women, 45 African Americans and 31 Latinos. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) became the first ever openly gay Senator, and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), the first open bisexual elected to the House. Also, Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) became Congress' first Hindu American, and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) is now the first Buddhist to serve in the Senate. 

 

But diversity doesn't necessarily translate to action. John Nichols appeared on Democracy Now! this morning to lay out what our lawmakers needs to do to escape gridlock and become productive once again—from filibuster reform in the Senate, to presidential pressure in the House.e pundits’ ominous warnings, year after year, that we are “turning into Greece” and that our national debt will spike inflation are so much hyberbole. Never mind all this evidence, in other words, the Washington press corps just knows that things like food stamp and welfare program cutbacks, smaller Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, and hollowing out Medicare are the fastest pathway back to economic health. And if we ever do manage to get back to a point of a robustly growing economy despite the damage that will likely be done to the poor and middle class along the way, I have few doubts that the Beltway media would join right in the chorus that demands we restore the tax cuts for the 1.5 percent of Americans who just had them raised.

Sadly, I think Mr. Dunne would agree with me.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here.

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