Quantcast

'Equal' Does Not Equal 'Fair' | The Nation

  •  
Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

'Equal' Does Not Equal 'Fair'


Michael Hastings. (AP Images)

My new "Think Again" column is America Is Much Less Conservative than the Mainstream Media Believe.

My new Nation column is about how little anyone seems to care about the pro-genocide policies in Guatemala pursued by Reagan Administration officials, most particularly Ronald Regan himself, but also especially Elliot Abrams. It’s called “The Upside of Genocide.”

Regarding two deaths this week
I did not know Michael Hastings, but I was on the National Magazine Award jury for which he was nominated but did not win. I did however, write the short description that was read aloud at the ceremony. It read: “Michael Hastings' "The Runaway General” has every element of great magazine reporting in abundance. Hastings’ dogged and diligent interviewing yielded quotes from General Stanley McChrystal and his aides that were so different from the official story that had been published previously that they forced the President of the United States to fire a top commander in wartime. But more than that, Hastings’ used the portrait he painted of McChrystal to open a window on America’s war in Afghanistan. And finally he did so with a prose style so engaging the article had the rare quality of feeling too short… at nearly 8000 words.”

Neither did I know James Gandolfini, but: Once, when I was taking my daughter to trapeze class (or something) at the Chelsea Piers, James and his wife brought his kid. We hung around and listened to our Ipods. Adults could join in but it was (I thought) pretty expensive. Anyway, right before it was over, James ponied up and did the trapeze thing once. It was something to see.

Like a few other Jewish journalists, I was once asked to try out for a role on “The Sopranos.” The call came from Georgina Walken on April Fools day, 2003, but it was not a joke. The day of my tryout was the same day the Iraq war began. I was on a panel at the Cooper Union about the war with a bunch of neocons, but I was not terribly good because I was practicing my lines, which were difficult because the role was to be a mafia pundit, and so a lot of Italian names needed to be pronounced properly. I had not acted in anything since camp in seventh grade when we did a (disastrous) performance of Eugene O’Neil’s “In the Zone.” There were 17 people in the room, including David Chase. I thought I was ok, but they decided to “go in another direction,” which in this case, meant using one of their own writers. They did, however, give a small role to another aspirant, Leon Wieseltier, who managed only one line—“Those motherfuckers”  and blew it, in my opinion.

Meanwhile, many folks, beginning with David Remnick have been proclaiming “The Sopranos” to be the best show of all time as if it were a given. I beg to differ. Here’s this week’s list, in order:

The Wire
Mad Men
The Sopranos
The Odd Couple
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Star Trek
The Simpsons
The Honeymooners
The Larry Sanders Show
Tie between
MASH and The Bob Newhart Show

Alter-reviews:
ZZ Top: The Complete Studio Albums, 1970-1990
The complete Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
GarciaLive Vol. 1: Capitol Theatre and GarciaLive: August 5th 1990 Greek Theater (plus Dave's Picks Volume 6)
Woody Guthrie at 100: Live at the Kennedy Center

I come quite late to the ZZ Top phenomenon. I saw Billy Gibbons play with the Allman Brothers two summers ago and I watched the bearded band close one of Eric Clapton’s guitar fests and I thought he was incredible. Other guitarists say he is best of them all, including the two fellers in band he joined and the guy whose guitar fest he closed. I am not one to judge. But the music on these cds is charming and the guitar work both over-the-top and often awe-inspiring. I also like that they have a consistent sense of humor; something of which neither EC nor the fellows in the ABB could be accused.

They began back in 1969 and are now in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with more than ten million records sold. This is pretty decently priced at about sixty bucks list and each cd comes in a wallet sleeve that faithfully reproduces the original artwork, including the gatefold designs used for Tres Hombres and Tejas. The set presents, for the first time on CD, the original mixes for ZZ Tops’ First Album, Rio Grande Mud and Tejas. See for yourselves.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis predated my years wasted watching television. I learned about Bob Denver’s myriad talents from “Gilligan.” But “Dobie” holds up infinitely better. Created and written by Max Shulman and adapted from Shulman’s short stories, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis premiered on CBS in 1959 and was beloved in an ironic way by cool people long before everything was. It starred all-American guy, Dwayne Hickman, plus Denver as Dobie’s beatnik friend Maynard G. Krebs, Frank Faylen, Florida Friebus, a wonderful Tuesday Weld, believe it or not, Warren Beatty and Sheila James. Guest stars included Rose Marie, Bill Bixby, Yvonne Craig, Richard Deacon, Norman Fell, Ronny Howard, Sherry Jackson, Sally Kellerman, Michael J. Pollard, Michele Lee, Steve Franken, Jo Anne Worley. (Remember her?) Shout! Factory, in collaboration with The Max Shulman Trust is releasing the entire series in a 21 dvd box set with all 147 episodes from 1959-1963, plus special bonus features including original rare pilot footage, bonus episodes from Love That Bob! (The Bob Cummings Show) and The Stu Erwin Show. Have a ball …

GarciaLive Vol. 1: Capitol Theatre and Garcialive 2: August 5th 1990 Greek Theater

The first of these sets is a three CD collection culled from a two shows at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey on March 1, 1980 recorded by a multi-tracked on a 24-track mobile rig for WNEW's broadcast of the early show. WNEW, for those who don’t know, was the greatest radio station of all time onceuponatime. This makes for a much higher sound quality than many of the previously released JGB shows, though the song selection and musicianship is typically first rate. I particularly love his “Tangled Up in Blue.” (The Robert Hunter vocals, though, I dunno.) The second release is two CDs, a much later iteration of the band and includes Bela Fleck on "Midnight Moonlight.” The packaging is just fine. (The same company, ATO, has also released The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver, but I found this disappointing. Perhaps you will not.)

While we’re here, I should also say that if you enjoyed the PBS broadcast of the Kennedy Center centennial tribute to Woody Guthrie, (or especially if you missed it, or could not stand the pledge breaks and did watch it on dvr as would have been wise,) you might want the CD/DVD package recently released by my friends at Legacy. It’s not as great as “A Vision Shared” but few things in life are. It does have performances by Rosanne Cash, Tom Morello, Lucinda Williams and a wonderful "You Know The Night" by Jackson Browne, which he wrote from one of Woody’s letters to his wife. It’s called “Woody Guthrie at 100: Live at the Kennedy Center.”

Also, I almost forgot to mention Dave's Picks Volume 6, the newest in the limited edition of Dead shows that sells out almost entirely by subscription, so if you want one of these or any in the future, you better register at http://www.dead.net/, This one is 2 complete shows with never-before-heard material from 2/2/70 Fox Theater, St. Louis, MO and 12/20/69 Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco. Lotta Pigpen, if that’s your thing, it certainly isn’t mine. (Jesus, it’s a 35 minute “Lovelight.”)  Good mix though; great “Dark Star.” See you at the movies. 

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

“Equal” does not Equal “Fair”
by Reed Richardson

Recently, opponents of same-sex marriage have been complaining that every major news organization in the country is essentially ignoring them. Now that just 4 in 10 of Americans oppose legalizing same-sex marriage, anti-SSM groups have developed a sudden appreciation for the tyranny of the majority, arguing that their point of view is in no way getting the corresponding level of media exposure. And guess what? Just this week, the Pew Research Center released a two-month news analysis confirming a heavy tilt toward pro-gay marriage sources throughout the mainstream media (even on Fox News!). So, case closed, the “liberal media” strikes again, right?

Wrong.

All too often, a logical fallacy plagues the thinking about modern journalism—it’s this idea that fair coverage necessarily means striving for equal coverage. Admittedly, in an era where harried journalists now routinely do more with less and a million online press critics have bloomed, it can be hard to resist the temptation of the easy “he said, she said, leave it there” story formulation. But simply doling out representative portions of opposing ideas or arguments and trusting the public to figure it all out is a crude, self-defeating strategy. It reinforces the notion that professional journalism is a commodity and that its practitioners shouldn’t be in the business of making value judgments or adding context to the news they report.

The intrinsic value of a free and independent press in our democracy, however, isn’t about transmitting information the public. Instead, it’s about guiding the public toward deeper truths and wiser decisions. And to live up this greater responsibility, the profession of journalism long ago made a philosophical choice, and a liberal one at that. It adopted the intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment as its structural framework. As a result, our press’ ethos rests on pillars like documentary evidence, source attribution, open dialogue, and an egalitarian bent toward the powerless over the powerful. These analytical tools are best used to uncover fresh perspective on the world around us. If the press is to really do its job, it can’t merely function like a giant mirror, always offering up an unthinking reflection of society at large. It must also enjoy the freedom to explore more broadly and deeply, to find the microscopic or mountaintop view.

For instance, in a 2012 Gallup poll, 46% of Americans expressly rejected evolution, instead professing to believe God created the earth in its present form at one moment within the last 10,000 years. While this figure may alarm you (it certainly does me), it is unquestionably a fact worth reporting. And yet this does not mean our professional press is also duty bound to reflect this widespread skepticism of evolution in its science reporting. To maintain a cohesive narrative, the media has struck a bargain with itself—and by extension, the public—that it is willing accept some fundamentally proven realities as givens. So, if an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence says the world is closer to 4.5-billion years old or that climate change is real and man-made, the press should not feel it necessary to inject doubt into its science reporting to appease the half of the country that might disagree because of spiritual reasons.

Likewise, as scientific consensus evolves, so too do societal norms. And just as the press can be seen as being on the leading edge of accepting the former, it often absorbs the latter more quickly than the general public as well. A good example of this would be the civil rights movement. In the summer before the signing of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, public opinion stood at remarkably similar levels to where approval of same-sex marriage is today, with a bare majority supporting it. While I couldn’t find any contemporaneous analyses similar to Pew’s on the prevalence of pro and anti-civil rights sources in news articles, there is anecdotal evidence that the major news organizations had assumed a central role in pushing the movement’s momentum. Former Los Angeles Times correspondent Jack Nelson recalled his own history reporting on the movement as well as the press’s ownership of the issue in a 2001 essay in Human Rights magazine: 

"Before the civil rights movement, the way blacks were treated by the law—and the way most newspapers and other news organizations dealt with that treatment—made a mockery of almost every principle lawyers and journalists professed to believe in. Then, as a changing news media began to show the whole country how the law was applied—or misapplied—in the South, public opinion cried out for change.”

But what the critics of the press’s coverage civil rights or climate change or gay marriage never acknowledge is the longstanding role the media had played in bolstering the status quo. Indeed, it’s a bit rich for people like Brian Brown, head of the anti-SSM group National Organization for Marriage, to proclaim his outrage about a lack of media coverage during the past few months when his viewpoint enjoyed complete and utter dominance in the press since, well, forever. The downfall of the same-sex marriage opponents’ esteem in the eyes of the public and the press shouldn’t have come as a shock, however. Once public sentiment on the issue reached near parity—thanks in large part to a generational shift in opinion—anti-SSM forces tried to litigate their morality back into the government. That was their biggest mistake.

In California’s landmark Prop 8 case (which will hopefully be decided by the Supreme Court next week), the plaintiff’s attorney David Boies stripped away the pseudo-intellectual window-dressing and scare tactics of the anti-SSM argument.

"Remember, unlike abortion, the court is not creating a new legal right," [Boies] said. "This is a right that has been well recognized for 100 years in terms of the right of individuals to marry. And all that's at issue here is, can the State of California take away that right depending on the sex of your intended partner?…Is there a rational base for that distinction? Can you prove that it harms heterosexual marriage? Children? Can you prove it harms anybody? Why do you make these people suffer if it doesn't help anybody?"

In the end, the presiding judge laid one evidentiary hammer blow after another upon the sham evidence and fake outrage opposing same-sex marriage in his exhaustive, 136-page decision. Afterward, even an objective press could see the tide had turned. Anti-SSM leaders like Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins were left spouting flimsy talking points about defending the culture of traditional marriage and grasping at straw man threats like no-fault divorce, both of which, as Boies pointed out, have little or nothing at all to do with the gender of one’s spouse.

No doubt, opponents of same-sex marriage should enjoy their Constitutional right to believe whatever they wish and practice the marriage rituals of their respective religions free from government interference. Nevertheless, when their legal, societal, and physiological reasons to oppose same-sex marriage all fall apart, then the slippery definition of morality becomes their last and only redoubt of defense (and even that appears to be falling apart). At this point, for the press to keep giving anti-SSM groups equal coverage in the press amounts to tainting a well-researched article on the dangers of global warming with a raft of creationism myths

Groups of NOM's ilk will likely cry that this squelches debate, but giving less time to specious arguments based on phony claims and ad hominem attacks actually frees up media oxygen for more productive viewpoints and insightful discussions. Indeed, this kind of unapologetic intellectual gatekeeping, coupled with more intrepid reporting, would make for a much fairer press and a healthier democracy. In the specific case of the same-sex marriage, fairness will finally be achieved when gay and lesbian Americans are granted equal treatment under the law. But when it comes to news coverage, reflexively treating all sides equally in this or any other debate is often the furthest thing from fair. Indeed, it can be its own form of tyranny.

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

The Mail:
Charles Kaiser
Manhattan

Dear Reed,

"But if the insidious influence of cash on our Congress is the real culprit, an alarmingly incurious Beltway journalism should be considered an un-indicted co-conspirator."

This attack on Bob's incuriosity is, I think, rather unfair, given the title (and subject) of his immediately previous book:

So Much Damn Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.

Have you read it?

All Best, Charles Kaiser

Reed replies:
Charles,

The quote from my review you cite does not specifically call out Robert for incuriosity—but instead identifies a broader community for criticism—for a reason. Of course, not every single member of the DC media suffers from this myopia about money's influence on Congress. And because I immediately followed the sentence in question with a long block quote from the book that, I felt, was making very much the same point (although perhaps not as bluntly), I thought it clear I was agreeing with the author about his critique, not accusing him of the very same failure. If that wasn't how it came across, then I guess that's on me for not making my point effectively.

Regarding So Damn Much Money, yes, I'm familiar with it. And in retrospect, readers interested in this topic would have been better served if I had mentioned Robert's earlier book when establishing his background/bonafides. But my mission here was to review Robert's latest book. And to my mind, the analytical expectations I had for Act of Congress—based on its subtitle—were never fully realized. In fact, I was tempted to argue that his latest book could have been improved by including more context from his previous one, but I've never been a big fan of using an author's own work against them. So, I didn't.

Geoffrey Zoref
Washington DC

You think "Let Em In" is a terrible song? I quite like it. The lyrics are rubbish, as are many Wings' lyrics, but I quite enjoy the beat. It's certainly not worse than Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, that's for sure.

Mike Dickenson
Bluff City, TN

Doc,

The reason Drudge is rated so high is because people don't know what real jornalism is. They are used to Fox News and other things. There aren't many investigative reporters left. Even 60 Minutes just does either profiles or they become a shill for a new book release. Also once something is wrong, I hear he takes it down.

I've tried discussing things on Facebook with people who read Drudge and watch Fox news and you can't. 95% of the time I just ignore them now.

Mike Pinder is the reason the 1970 Moody Blues is better. He wasn't their best song writer but the music was never as good when he left the band.

Also The Benefit of Mr Kite was largely a John song. I don't think there are many other John songs that Paul does. He should though, his name is on the song writing credits too. I know that Paul plays his songs note for note....but that is what the audience wants.

Eric replies:

Ever see the Lampoon lyrics to Sgt. Pepper?  I remember this one.

“For the benefit of Mr. Kike

There will be a missile strike

On Lebanon….”

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.