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What Passes for News | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

What Passes for News

We've got a new "Think Again" column called "The DHS Report: Torturingthe Truth," here and I've got a new Nation column about the New York Times company, the Boston Globe and the craziness of the current situation in the newspaper business called "The Newspaper Biz: More Poison Please?" here.

Also, here on The Daily Beast, I criticize a Times story that pretends to be about Obama selling out, but in fact is about the fact that the Times chose to put a story on its front page that has a theme but absolutely no substance. And in this piece, I refute yet another round of sloppy and misleading charges that Izzy Stone was a spy.

The finalists for the Mirror award for covering the media wereannounced this week and my work appeared in two categories: Best SingleArticle--Traditional for "Out of Print" (The New Yorker), and BestCommentary--Digital for a series of columns on the legacy of the Bushwar against the press for the Center for American Progress, which arehere. All of the nominees can be found here.

Speaking of Izzy, Marty Peretz has a very typically charming Marty-likepost about Izzy here. Don Guttenplan, whose biography of Stone is aboutto be published, informs me regarding it that

In 1964, which is to saylong after, so Peretz now says, Izzy had destroyed his credibility bywriting The Hidden History of the Korean War, and at a point when only'the comrades' supposedly cared what he had to say, his collection The Haunted Fifties, received a rave review in Dissent, both for its 'lucid and crisp' style and for the writer's intellectual integrity. Stone, Dissent's reviewer assured his readers, 'has not permitted his pages to serve as an intellectual pastorate for oppression.' The reviewer was a young Harvard social studies lecturer named Martin Peretz.

I read "The Note" so you don't have to.

If there is a phenomenon on earth more annoying than the cutesy, cloying faux-knowing tone that ABC's "The Note" employs to delineate the daily inanities that animate Washington's insider conventional "wisdom," Ican't recall encountering it. Today's version begins thusly: "Is there anenhanced communications technique out there? Some black site where theObama White House can take the narrative to keep its messaging safe? Isit legal to waterboard a storyline?"

It somehow manages to descend further from there. "If something positive will come out of expending political resources on this sort of peering backward,what exactly might that be? Was this part of anybody's plan?" Underthe category of "something positive" Mr. Klein might wish to consult alegal dictionary under the term "rule of law." Amazing as it is tobelieve, these guys don't want this story. They want the entire"torture" debate to go away, so they can focus on the really fun stufflike whether Obama is "mad enough" about AIG. We cannot help but notethat when these bozos complain about the "backward looking" nature ofinvestigations, they are simultaneously seeking to exculpate themselvesfrom their role in empowering these crimes with the mindlesscheerleading that so frequently characterized their coverage,particularly that of ABC News...

Funny, though I don't think they intended it that way.

Don't forget the broader context (since Karl Rove doesn't): "Mr. Obamaacts as if no past president--except maybe Abraham Lincoln--possesses his wisdom," Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "Asuperstar, not a statesman, today leads our country. That may winshort-term applause from foreign audiences, but do little for whatshould be the chief foreign policy preoccupation of any U.S. president:advancing America's long-term interests."

Recall that Mr. Klein's predecessor, Mark Halperin, acted as a kind ofcut-out for Rove, praising his genius and peddling his political wares.One would think that in a new era where Rove's creation has been left intatters, that is at least one area that Klein would have known betterthan to try to imitate.

Wait, this gift just keeps on giving. Klein writes "Even Secretary ofState Hillary Rodham Clinton could be coaxed into playing politics onthis one." For the life of me, I can't tell if that's faux-stupid orjust plain stupid. Can you?

This week on Moyers:

As the demand grows for a new Pecora commission,the 1930s investigation into the causes and effects of the GreatDepression, Bill Moyers speaks with economist Simon Johnson and Ferdinand Pecora biographer and legal scholar Michael Perino. Simon Johnson is a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a professor at MIT SloanSchool of Management, and Michael Perino is a professor of law at St.John's University and has been an advisor to the Securities and ExchangeCommission. Also on the program, the Journal profiles Steve Meacham, aMassachusetts community organizer fighting to keep working people intheir homes.

From ANP:

"Road to Ruin: Burned by Brokers." Economists, politicians, and punditsrefer to "toxic assets" as if they are some unspeakable stew bubbling ina barrel behind an old warehouse. But "toxic assets" are actuallymortgages and, by extension, houses and the people who live in them.Sandra Berrios is one of millions facing the prospect of ballooning loanpayments forcing her and her family from their home. The bank that lenther the money is getting hundreds of millions in TARP money, but thefederal dollars flowing to the bank show no sign of trickling down toSandra's level.

"Credit Card Industry Defeated For Now." Hidden penalties, sudden interest rate hikes, and deceptive language are just a few of the questionable tactics used by credit card companies to extract money from increasingly stressed consumers. Now, some on Capitol Hill are trying toregulate the more abusive practices. With bills actually moving throughboth houses of Congress, the credit card lobby is finding itself on thedefensive, and turning out in force to oppose the legislation.

"Stress Tests for Wall Street -- What About the Billions in off-the-BooksToxic Assets." At the center of President Obama's overhaul strategy forWall Street are the "stress tests" which will be applied to allfinancial institutions. But how accurate will the test results be? Thatwill depend on whether the treasury takes off-balance-sheet assets intoaccount, experts say.

Alter-reviews:

I've been watching the blu-ray of the first season of Star Trek thisweek. Yesterday I watched both parts of Menagerie. It was terrific ofcourse, and looked and sounded real sharp, as blu-ray does. You can watchit "enhanced" as I have been or "original" where it looks so cheesy youcan't believe anyone ever took it remotely seriously. You can alsoeasily toggle back and forth. (You get every episode of the first season(29 in all) in not one but TWO formats: original version or with updatedspecial effects. The bonus features include special pop-up trivia andpicture-in-picture video commentaries.

The set also includes an interactive tour of the starship Enterprise, Billy Blackburn's rare on-set home movie footage, a featurette on the remastered project, and much more. All of these features were on The hybrid HD-DVD/DVD release in 2007, though if you've got that, it's just a question BR-or no. Ifyou've managed to resist Star Trek until now, well, I don't know what Ican say.

The Mail:

Steve Thorne
Somewhere in California

It's clear from reading the "Torture: Who Knew" document helpfullylinked by Specialist Cornwell, that the DoD and DHS personnelinvolved with the crimes described by FBI agents had no interestwhatsoever in gathering information. That treatment was inflicted topunish the detainees. Somebody was upset and wanted to punish thosebelieved to be responsible for that upset. No other explanation iscredible. The guards and "interrogators" who committed these actsdeserve the same punishments meted out to their counterparts in 1945.

Sandy Goodman
Rockville, MD

Mr. A,

I'm a long time reader of your columns. But I've never read onethat I agreed with more than the one in the Daily Beast attackingthe New York Times's inane story about Obama caving in on hiscampaign promises.

You sure are correct when you write that "the only things itsreporters find that Obama has caved on are things nobody knew hecared about in the first place," like cutting farm subsidies, gettinginsurance companies to pay more veterans' health costs and setting up a Social Security commission.

The only thing I disagree with you on is the assault weapons ban. Twomonths ago, Attorney General Holder told reporters Obama wanted "tore-institute the ban on the sale of assault weapons" as he "indicatedduring the campaign." But given his very full plate, Obama can letthat one can wait for a more opportune moment.

As for your criticizing the Times reporters quoting an "expert"nobody ever heard of, I'm with you all the way. I've never seen orheard of Leonard Burman. In fact he's one of the few public officialsand think tank wonks I've ever looked up who doesn't even rate hisown entry in Wikipedia.

Let Burman worry that Obama is selling out. No one anyone ever heard of seems to have joined him. After just 90 days in office, I figure, like you do, that the president is doing damn well and that this time, The Times has it all wrong.

By the way, why did that very good column of yours appear in TheDaily Beast instead of in Altercation?

Timothy Barrett
Louisville, KY

Last week, Goldman Sachs announced it will sell additional stock to repay the TARP money it received last year. Goldman posted $1.8 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2009. That's right, the company that created collateralized debt obligation securities (CDOs), that is the single largest contributor of financial talent to the Fed, and whose name is synonymous with big finance and investment banking says it can soon repay the taxpayers $10 billion. This shouldbe great news for the economy.

However, the money from the U.S. wasn't a loan. It was a stock purchase. The taxpayers bought $10 billion in preferred stock that must pay a 5% annual dividend until it is redeemed. That sounds like a rather sound investment in arguably the most nimble financial player in the market. But the taxpayers don't get a say in when its shares are redeemed. That was left up to Goldman.

Who made that deal? Henry Paulson did when he was Treasury Secretary. Paulson marked the fourth CEO of Goldman to join government service and the second to serve as Treasury Secretary. Paulson was also CEO during the years that Goldman created CDOs. Now he has a book deal with Business Plus to write an insider's account of the U.S. economic crisis. You can't get any further inside than Paulson.

But, back to the Goldman Sachs deal. Paulson, under Bush and Company, didn't come to Goldman's rescue alone, Warren Buffett was the other white knight. Buffett paid $5 billion for preferred stock, too. But his deal yields a 10% dividend. Apparently, Secretary Paulson left some money on the table. Now you might think that Goldman would rather eliminate a 10% dividend shareholder before a 5% dividend shareholder. But you would be wrong. Buffett didn't have any strings attached to his investment limiting executive compensation like the taxpayer deal.

So how might Goldman explain to its large institutional shareholders why it would prefer unfettered executive compensation and pay a 10% dividend to Warren Buffett rather than pay off Buffett and limit salaries to a reasonable level? Talent! Goldman can't keep the "best and the brightest" unless it pays exorbitantly for them. In the long run, Goldman says the shareholders will be better off.

How about a little more complication: Business Week has reported thatGoldman's numbers may be a little off. You see, Goldman switched from a fiscal year ending November 30th to a calendar year on January 1, 2009, as required of bank holding companies. So what happened to the $780 million in losses reported for December 2008? Poof. They don't show up for the first quarter of 2009 and didn't show up in the report for the last financial quarter of 2008. Also, since all the banks have been allowed to value the CDOs themselves, their reportedlosses from these investments are suspect anyway.

Just how important is the freedom to pay overly generous executive compensation that banks, and the Fed, would risk further financial disruption to get out from under the government thumb? Ask JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. They each reported huge profits for Q1 2009 ($2.1 and $3 billion respectively) and also intend to soon repay TARP. Maybe the Fed should just call itself Wall Street South.

Brian Donohue
Desolation Row

CFO suicide and "Alice in Financeland" -- can anyone throw a light ofsanity onto it all? I hear an old, almost-forgotten voice calling mefrom Desolation Row.

In times like these, poets are even more indispensable than usual.

Carl Cole
Muscle Shoals

Except for a week-long festival in July and an occasional CD release, live music pretty much sucks in my town despite its reputation for recorded music. Very few of us benefitted from the big names at the studios (although I did see Levon Helm play in a local club, way back when). So it wasn't too surprising that I had to go 50 miles east to Decatur to see two local bands, Barrelmouth and Sons of Roswell. These guys rock and while Barrelhouse sounds like what you'd expect from the Shoals, Sons ofRoswell, not so much. It's good to see that the legacy continues and that these guys can really play live!

Richard Paddock
Chatham County

Mr. Pierce,

I am assured by one of those things you play (a Constitutional Lawyer) that impeachment is not illegal for someone's bad acts prior to being appointed to the bench. It happens that one of the penalties is being removed from the office currently occupied, when the bad acts (high crimes and misdemeanors) were performed. The other penalty is that the convict is prohibited from holding office under the U.S. government for ever after. As in now, in Mr. Bybee'scase. Same holds true for the remainder of the Bush administration who took part in this banal (evil) activity. They can be impeached and convicted for the crimes they committed in office, and would lose pensions and other emoluments as well as being prohibited from further holding office.

Greg Panfile
Tuckahoe NY

Ben Cronin takes me to task for describing Lord Pierce as 'snarky.' I plead guilty of ill-considered adjectivation and throw myself on the mercy of the court. The true foolishness is ascribing any adjective at all to Pierce other than 'great.'

(*begin irony*)

That said, it is repetitively and gratuitously redundant to both be ready to engage in verbal fisticuffs at the mere notion that someone, somewhere might be thinking about dropping a hat, and describing oneself as Boston-area Irish Catholic. I lived in the region for 35 years and have seen The Departed three times, and nothing is less surprising than hearing, as a result of one word directed to a third party, the scream 'cauksucka' and knuckles striking cheekbone, so to speak.

So this half-Italian apologizes profusely and leaves the bar with one eye glancing backward. Be warned, though, that I got a .34 gun in my pocket for fun and a razor in my shoe, yet nonetheless hope y'all find that wooden leg you shipped up there for ;-).

Michael Green
Las Vegas, NV

Now that InJustice Clarence Thomas has grafted responsibilities into the Constitution to go with those pesky rights, a story, and perhaps an apropos one in light of the recent death of the beloved Phillies announcer Harry Kalas--and if that looks like it has no connection, think again.

A few years ago, on ESPN, Roy Firestone had an interview show and his guest was Vin Scully, now in his 60th year with the Dodgers and truly the poet laureate of broadcasting. Firestone asked Scully about Deion Sanders saying he played two sports for the money, and if one paid him enough, he would play only one.

Scully shifted in his seat because he prefers to avoid controversy and personalities. Finally he said something like this: "We hear a lot in our society about rights, but not enough about obligations and responsibilities. Sanders had the right to say that, but he had an obligation and responsibility not to."

I thought that was well put. Vin is politically conservative, but at least he acknowledged Sanders's right to say that, which is more than Thomas would do. This means that an 81-year-old baseball broadcaster understands the Constitution better than a Supreme Court justice. But speaking for Dodger fans, I wish to say that you can't have Vin for the Supreme Court. We are keeping him, and we certainly won't tolerate trading him to the court for Clarence Thomas. Saving the country might mean something, but having him broadcast for the Dodgers means more.

Pat Healy
Vallejo, CA

Hey, Pierce, no need to hire a brass band. Just get a solo trumpet player to serenade the bastards with El Degueello. "No quarter," as The Duke said in Rio Bravo. (Note: this is not to be confused with this Degueello, although "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" always cheers me up.)

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