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All or Nothing: The Press and Its Out-of-Balance Skepticism | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

All or Nothing: The Press and Its Out-of-Balance Skepticism


Scene from Woody Allen's "Manhattan." (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

My new Think Again column is called “Indiana Is the Latest Skirmish in the Conservatives’ War on Knowledge” and it’s about Mitch Daniels’s energetic censorship efforts as Governor of Indiana, aimed primarily, but not exclusively, at Howard Zinn.

I noticed this ranking of all 50 of Woody Allen’s films. I’ve seen all of them except Blue Jasmine and first of all, #5 is really #1. But also, way underrated on this list in addition to “Manhattan” is: "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Scoop," the first part of "Celebrity," and "Play it Again, Sam." I also love "Deconstructing Harry" but that's a personal thing. (It's a hate letter to Philip Roth, who ended up with Mia Farrow, so there...) Overrated on this list: "Radio Days," "Shadows and Fog," "New York Story," and "Broadway Danny Rose," which is great, but nowhere near as great as say, "Crimes and Misdemeanors," which I would put # 3, but only because Annie Hall was so original and wonderful in its moment. Otherwise I'd put it at #2; one of the few genuine masterpieces of contemporary cinema. And I'd also argue that Woody, having three of these, has more than any of his peers...

Alter-reviews: Williamstown Theater Festival and Mass MOCA

No music etc, this week, except to say I saw a wonderful production of Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood—a play that somehow eluded me before, even though I am an enormous fan of Stoppard as a playwright, though not so much as a writer of movie scripts—and it was just wonderful, as was especially, Kate Burton, in the starring role. Nobody alive writes as clever plots and sparkling dialogue as Stoppard does and when it’s done well, it’s near perfect theater. And it was done well by the Williamstown Theater Festival, which is sort of on the Williams College campus, and I don’t know if they are always so great, but if you need to be in the Berkshires, as I did, well, this turned out to be a great idea. And so, did, by the way, the family visit to Mass MOCA in North Adams. I am not a big fan usually of contemporary art but this place was brilliant. It’s a fantastic space and the exhibitions were both fun and thought-provoking. I totally think whoever is in charge of Mass MOCA should be offered the job of running LA MOCA since that seems to be open and I’m guessing, pays a ton more money.

Now here's Reed, who is in especially good form today...:

First, a point of personal privilege: Almost exactly three years ago, I did my first regular post for the Altercation blog. At the time, a huge exposé was laying bare our runaway national security state, Republicans were stubbornly vowing to repeal Obamacare, and the planet was suffering from record-breaking heat. OK, so not much has changed, but thanks again anyway to Eric for letting me stick around too.

All or Nothing: The Press and Its Out-of-Balance Skepticism
by Reed Richardson

The events of this past Wednesday laid bare one of the most infuriating problems with our establishment media—it’s knack for selectively applying skepticism at all the wrong times for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, to compare the press’s snide, cynical stance toward Obama’s “middle-out” economic speech with the all-too-credulous tone it took toward the status quo on the Amash-Conyers amendment vote was to witness an institution failing in its democratic duty twice.

Channeling their inner, easily distracted teenager, many in the Washington press corps couldn’t wait to proclaim Obama’s detail-heavy speech on middle-class economic issues and income inequality “BOHHH-RING!” before it even started. This pre-emptive backlash (forelash?) among the objective press was particularly visceral. What’s more, it was strikingly similar to the smug critiques emanating out of the right-wing media.

Leading things off Wednesday morning, Chuck Todd at NBC News snarkily spoke of feeling “deja pivot,” which elicited approving nudges and winks from the Breitbart hive. ABC News’ political insider blog, The Note, led off with the not-so-subtle headline “Obama Pivots to Economy…Again,” before listing nine previous pivots, a total that fell 10 pivots short of conservative columnist Salena Zito’s count. The National Journal’s Ron Fournier dismissed the speech in a Tweet as nothing of consequence (“Move along.”), which was very close to where the Republican Party’s oppo hit came out: “speeches don’t create jobs.”

But perhaps no one, in the objective or right-wing press, captured the Beltway antagonism toward Obama’s speech quite like The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank. His column characterized the president’s return to a consistent economic message—one the president himself pointed out in his speech—as a case of the White House being “fresh out of ideas” and going into “reruns.” In a neat trick, Milbank stuck Obama in a Catch-22, crediting his ideas as worthwhile, but then faulting him for not coming up with different ones to appease intransigent House Republicans.

“But while that message remains relevant, Obama is now facing a Republican opposition that, by House Speaker John Boehner’s own account, is measuring its success by how many laws it can undo. There’s no longer serious talk about a grand bargain that could reform entitlement programs and the tax code. Legislators and administration officials have little hope of doing more than short-term skirmishing over the debt ceiling and mindless spending cuts in the ‘sequester.’

“If he’s to break through the resistance, Obama will need some bold new proposals. That’s why his speech returning to the oldies would seem to confirm that the White House has given up on big achievements.”

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This kind of analysis is, sadly, not an ironic joke. On issue after issue—the sequester, the debt ceiling, the farm bill, Social Security benefits, immigration reform—the White House and Senate Democrats have offered up significant compromises (often far too significant) only to have their efforts thrown back in their faces by Congressional Republicans, while the political media shakes its collective head and blames “gridlock” on “both sides.” But where, pray tell, is this press’s broad scrutiny of the president’s opposition in Congress?  What, if any, “bold new proposals” are the House Republicans passing that the President is ignoring?

Certainly not any from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who tried to pre-empt the president Wednesday by pushing out a memo entitled “Three Ways to Immediately Grow Jobs and Strengthen the Middle Class.” Cantor’s trifecta? His own set of golden oldies. First, approve the potentially calamitous Keystone XL pipeline, a project that the State Dept. estimates will create a mere 35 permanent jobs. Next, urge the Senate pass the House’s three-month-old SKILLS Act, which is little more than a sop to tech industries seeking to hire cheaper foreign workers. Finally, he reprised the old “drill, baby, drill” mantra of 2008, disingenuously conflating increased offshore oil exploration with lower gas prices, which, time and again, experts say is a myth.

What of the larger House Republican’s tireless dedication to passing jobs legislation?, a curious journalist might have asked—but notably didn’t. Well, he or she can view a list of 15 Republican “Jobs Bills Stalled in the Senate” on the caucus’s official website. Of course, a skeptical reporter might start to question the sincerity of the GOP’s outrage at the Senate when he or she notices this list was posted 638 days ago, and that every one of the links to the pollution-enabling and regulation-gutting legislation from the previous Congress is now dead.

To be fair, the House GOP’s website also has a whole button solely devoted to its jobs plan, which entices you to click it with a promise of “Get all the details here.” That’s true, if by “details” you mean one sentence each of talking points on 10 empty policy platitudes like “Fostering Innovation,” “Expanding Education Opportunity,” and the ever-popular “Reining in Red Tape.” At least the press won’t be bothered with having to sift through an hour-long speech, I guess. And need I really mention that the House GOP’s strategy for lowering health care starts off with: “Repealing ObamaCare…”

When the previous president stuck to his guns on an issue and orchestrated political events to build support for them, the press swooned and called it “leadership.” When Obama does it, the press resents his repetition and castigates the president for being “in campaign mode.” Make no mistake, the press should bring with it a healthy skepticism to all of its reporting, even more so when covering those in positions of power, most especially the President. But almost all of the acid poured on Obama’s economic message this week wasn’t about the substance inside his speech, but the spin outside of it. The viability of his policy solutions didn’t interest many pundits, the majority of which instead chose to take umbrage with the fact that he’s proposed many of these same ideas before. To be clear, there are substantive questions that even liberals should have about Obama, both with the overall scope of his jobs plan as well as his follow-through. But cynicism for cynicism’s sake was pretty much all the establishment media gave us this week on his jobs speech.

Though there was plenty to go around, far too little skepticism carried over to the press’s reporting on the House vote to roll back the NSA’s unprecedented spying authority. Though prompted by a rare bipartisan House coalition comprised of the flanks of both the left and right wing, the media seemed cool to this group’s embrace of radical anti-centrism.

The Washington Post, for example, tried to play it straight, but too easily fell into the arms of anonymous “U.S. officials” who carefully defended the NSA program. Even worse, the article then quotes an ominous warning from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who claims that the Amash-Conyers amendment “risks dismantling an important intelligence tool.” That would be the same DNI Clapper who previously lied to Congress about what our intelligence agencies were actually collecting, an incredibly salient point that goes to his trustworthiness as a source and a detail that the Post, inexplicably, failed to mention.

The New York Times analysis of the amendment, which was defeated 217-205, was likewise full of quotes and devoid of almost any of the paper’s previous, more skeptical reporting. Why, for example, didn’t the Times directly include or, at the very least, link to its extremely valuable story on the secret legal rulings used to justify the NSA’s expansive powers from earlier this month? Such context would have provided a much more appropriate counterweight to the government officials’ unsubstantiated claim this week that “Denying the N.S.A. such access to data will leave the nation at risk.”

But at least the Times avoided spouting the intelligence community’s now standard talking point about the NSA program having foiled “at least 50 terror plot across 20 countries,” as the Associated Press’s write-up did. This claim, routinely presented to—and by—the press sans evidence, has been called dubious by numerous sources, not the least of which are three U.S. Senators. But that detail somehow didn’t merit inclusion in the AP’s “Big Story” on the amendment vote.

These little omissions are symbolic of much broader problem, a perverse inversion of skepticism within the press. The basic facts of how much intelligence our government really collects about us—in our name—remains a mystery, whereas the cutthroat reality that our middle class faces is all too obvious. Yet our media shows little interest in asking the hard questions about the former, and all too eager to lazily critique the value of discussing the latter. But this selectively all-or-nothing coverage increasingly leaves the public, and our democracy, with nothing at all.

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

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