Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
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"The Beatles in Mono" 14 LP set.
Depending on your level of obsessiveness, you can say that Apple et al. saved the best for last. These ten albums, plus a three LP set of singles remastered and a gorgeous 108-page book were mastered in an eleven-step process to reproduce the original sound of the albums as perfectly as possible. (It does not include the "Yellow Submarine" soundtrack, "Abbey Road" and "Let It Be" albums, which were originally released in stereo, nor “The Ballad of John and Yoko”). Everything about this set, from the book to the fold-out covers and photography, is Rolls-Royce quality.
The box set is a kind of a test. Vinyl collectors who would be interested in it probably bought the stereo box. But the stereo albums are not really what the boys intended. Most of the mixing of them was done without their presence or even that of George Martin. I attended a listening session this summer at Electric Lady studios where the music was played on an amazing hi-fi set up by McIntosh and in many cases, one felt as if some of these songs were brand new. One or two are faster than you’ll remember from the CDs. Ringo does not scream "I've got blisters on my fingers!" at the end of "Helter Skelter" on the mono mix. But the overall effect was overpowering. We got to ask questions of the engineers and it was quite touching to hear how much reverence went into the creation of these albums. This really is one of the high points of Western civilization, I’m not kidding. The combination of these four young men coming together as they did and combining their extraordinary talents to reach what remain unmatched heights in creative accomplishments is one of the most moving and powerful achievements of modern times. If I believed in miracles, the music of The Beatles would perhaps be number one on my list.
Universal Music Group says they are pressing a million albums, again, an amazing figure since almost everyone who buys it will already have the music. If you are really crazy, you can buy a special cartridge made by Ortofon for these albums only. It’s only $500, which makes this set feel cheap at only $350 on the Evil One.
Of Optics and Objectivity: How Journalism is Failing Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson
We depend upon journalists to tell us what it is that they can see that the public can’t and for the press to bear witness to what the truth really is when the powerful won’t. That’s the duty of the free press in our democracy. But there’s an important qualifier to this relationship for it to work: the press has to actually be looking for the truth—and looking in the right place—for it to work.
Tragically, the press seems increasingly unable to live up that part of the bargain. Instead of offering insightful perspective, the establishment media increasingly exhibits a kind of institutional myopia, one marked by breathlessly near-sighted takes on ephemera and peripheral fixations on the irrelevant. More and more, we’re living in an age of where stagecraft matters as much or more in the media than statecraft, where analysis of the “optics” trumps reporting on actions.
This growing fascination with “optics” reveals a lot about how our press’s news values have been compromised by those that it covers. Back in 2010, Ben Zimmer’s New York Times “On Language” column offered an astute etymological history of the term, one that also speaks volumes about the trap the press has fallen into.
“When politicians fret about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself, we’re living in a world of optics. Of course, elected officials have worried about outward appearances since time immemorial, but optics puts a new spin on things, giving a scientific-sounding gloss to P.R. and image-making.”
Optics is anti-journalism, in other words. What it represents flies the face in of a journalist’s charge to find the truth. It excuses all the basest instincts inherent in spinning, deceiving, and lying to the public. Optics involves passive absorption of news versus intrepid reporting of those who make it. Optics begets theater criticism rather than actual accountability.
And yet, optics have become so embedded into our news culture, particularly in the political press, that seemingly not a day goes by without someone in the media fixating on the pageantry—or lack thereof—of our nation’s leaders, often at the expense of reporting what they’re actually doing in our name. Over at Media Matters, Eric Boehlert does a great job of offering a blow-by-blow account of how the press’s obsession with “optics” has played out in the Beltway in recent weeks.
But it’s not just the political press that is so afflicted. It’s endemic to the media at this point. Consider the reaction earlier this week to the elevator video of Ray Rice viciously assaulting this then-girlfriend. Released on Monday morning by the tabloid site TMZ, this new video quickly went viral, igniting a long overdue media firestorm of condemnation of Rice, for his attack, and of his team and the NFL, for having, respectively, engaged in obvious victim-blaming and doling out a laughable two-game punishment. That slap on the wrist, by the way, even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted was a “mistake,” but nonetheless took no steps to correct. Until that is, Monday afternoon, at which time Rice’s team unceremoniously cut him and the league suddenly decided to suspended him indefinitely from playing anywhere else. Justice, better late than never, right?
Not really. Not when you consider the circumstances that precipitated the NFL’s actions. Think about what had, or, more accurately, had not changed between Sunday and Monday. Did the public, the press, and the league now know more about the assault? Not really. Did the latest video from inside the elevator present damning new evidence? Not at all. (Rice’s defense, that his girlfriend hit him first, could never change the reality that she still ended up being struck unconscious by him.) The facts that everyone knew about that night hadn’t changed, in other words, but what had changed were the optics.
That it took this long for the NFL to act appropriately says all you need to know about the league’s morally bankrupt priorities. But let’s not let the sports media off the hook either. For months, NFL beat reporters showed anemic interest in the story, willingly repeating the talking points thrown their way by Rice’s team and the league. When the league suddenly played dumb about the second video this week, some of the elite sports journalists looked like stooges. Never mind that there was a bigger story here—the NFL has a long history of accommodating domestic abusers. It still took TMZ boldly out-hustling (and, yes, likely out-paying) sports news behemoths like ESPN and Sports Illustrated before the latter were embarrassed into exercising any real broad concern or outrage about Rice's assault. Of course, in minimizing the story for so long, the press all but guaranteed it would take victimizing Janay Rice all over again before her abusive husband would ever get a more deserving punishment.
There’s no excuse for this betrayal, but there is an explanation. The press’s equating of the theatrics of the news with the news itself starts to make sense when you consider it in the context of the profession’s hidebound need to be considered objective. For too many news organizations, being fair and objective has morphed from exercising news judgment about who is—and isn’t—telling the truth to treating everyone’s point of view equally and leaving it to the public to figure out. As a result, the appearance of being fair has become a handy crutch for the establishment media; an easy way to proclaim neutrality and fend off claims of bias while abetting lazy arguments and shallow, he-said, she-said reporting. In other words, the root of this optics obsession originates from within. Journalists—particularly those in high-profile jobs—pay so much attention to optics because they have been trained to think about their own coverage in the very same way. And nowhere is the mirroring more evident than in our political coverage.
Thus, it’s much easier to find endless, fleeting meta-takes of how the president delivers a speech or what he says at a press conference than it is to find trenchant examination of actual policy. But in Washington and elsewhere in the pundit firmament, the hierarchy of what’s considered newsworthy and important has been inverted. There’s little professional esteem to be gained from being right in the long run anymore. (Just ask anyone in the media who opposed the Iraq War.) Similarly, there’s no blowback from being spectacularly wrong on a daily basis. (Consider every neoconservative pundit who supported the Iraq War.) Instead, what gets rewarded most these days are “hot takes” served up 24/7 and the superficial pretense of accountability.
But when the press relies so heavily upon optics, our democratic priorities can easily get scrambled and manipulated. For example, domestic violence plagues our society and millions of Americans are at risk from it every year. And yet institutions like the NFL—with an assist from a compliant press—effectively normalize this epidemic by covering it matter-of-factly, unless, that is, a high-visibility case makes the problem temporarily unignorable. Indeed, if there’s a takeaway for the NFL from the Rice incident, it’s that the media can be played for fools right up until they are humiliated for not doing their job. (The Onion sums up the league’s lesson learned more bluntly here.)
At the same time, our country is now poised to rekindle a war against a terror group in the Middle East, despite the fact that Homeland Security officials say it poses no threat of attack in the United States. Untold billions of dollars will be spent and untold Iraqi (and possibly Syrian) lives will be lost in the campaign to “degrade” and “destroy” ISIS. And yet, an estimated 16,800 Americans die annually from domestic violence-related homicides. Of course, it's not a simply matter of doing one or the other, but it's the sense of proportion that's out of whack. One crisis is so close, so pervasive, and thus so commonplace that the media elite can't be bothered with it, while the other is so far away, so regionalized, and thus so exotic that it sucks up all the media oxygen.
Again, it’s not hard to find the optics blindly driving the difference. The press frenzy over ISIS’s gruesome videotaped beheadings of two U.S. journalists all but begged the president to do something. And the Washington media establishment has never been known for shying away from more war. A few shrewd observers have noted that ISIS’s grisly YouTube taunting is all about setting a trap for the U.S., one that depends upon our national preoccupation with seeing evil everywhere and looking tough in response for it to work.
Sadly, it would seem our enemies know us better than we know ourselves. Thanks to the veil of fear the media has drawn across the country recently, we stand on the verge of having to learn the same painful, costly truths in Iraq yet again. And whether or not we ultimately “defeat” ISIS militarily likely won’t matter much to the Beltway press in a few years anyway. By then, it will have grown bored and moved on to the latest shiny object, like the 2016 presidential election or the next group of extremists anointed to take ISIS’s place as our nation’s number-one threat. And on and on it goes.
Safe to say, this vicious cycle of short-sighted coverage and bankrupt accountability doesn’t make for very pretty picture of the efficacy of objective journalism. Bad optics, one might even say. But we’re unlikely to see a change anytime soon. Not until we realize that a far bigger threat to our democracy occurs when the press spends too much time consumed with what little it can already see, and too little time trying to seek out so much of what it can’t.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Bill Luker Jr.
Message: Your phrase "revanchist foreign policy of Russia" is typical of so-called leftists who spend too much time at the clubs, and too much of their excessively large legacies from rich parents, listening to Jorma Kaukonen and reveling in the "cultural freedom' they enjoy in the US. And as you should know, that is ALL we have left. You and they have completely failed to understand why Russia might react negatively to being surrounded by NATO bases and anti-missile sites, expending relentlessly since 1991, after being told by the US that it would not expand and militarily threaten the Russian homeland. You and they apparently do not understand the nature of fascism in this country, and its insatiable desire for imperial expansion, even to the point of involving us in a Eurasian war, and possibly a Third World War. But here's something you WILL understand: I and many others will never give one fucking dime to The Nation as long as the medium-blue assholes, never-could-be rockers and record nerds like you—who've never lifted a finger on behalf of anyone, as you continue your never-ending quest for empty notoriety and self-aggrandizement—continue to pollute the pages of a once-proud publication that stood four-square against Western aggression and expansionist catastrophes. Please let Katrina van den Houvel know this, as well. Maybe she'll get a clue.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the beginning of the end for Roger Goodell.
Go here please to read my column this week, on why firing David Gregory won’t actually change Meet the Press.
Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.
I don’t have much this week. I saw Jorma Kaukounen at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend, where he was joined on acoustic guitar by the great Barry Mittelhoff and G.E. Smith. The room was so crowded (and I am so old) despite the $85/$100 cover that I had to sit on the floor in the back corner near the merch table for most of the show, so I couldn’t see. But I could hear. And Jorma has not lost a beat at 72. And the crowd was most appreciative and engaged. Generally I prefer electric Hot Tuna, but when you hear “Hesitation Blues” and “I Know You Rider,” played so exiquisitely in so intimate a room, it feels churlish to complain and I so won’t.
A couple of recommendations: I reviewed the first volume of Country Funk when it came out a couple of years ago. There’s a volume two now, “Country Funk Volume II 1967-1974,” from Light in the Attic, with newly re-mastered, featuring cuts by Bob Darin, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Willie Nelson and more. It’s a nice package with a comic with story by Jessica Hundley along with Jess Rotter's illustrations and the music is mostly stuff you won’t find anywhere. My favorite is “Rising Sign” by Jim Ford, who Sly Stone once called ''the baddest white man on the planet,” but it’s all kinda interesting and fun
Also I wanted to add my voice to all those recommending the new collection of long short stories and novellas by Stephan Zweig under the title, The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig. It’s 720 pages of pure surprise and I’m grateful to the Pushkin Press for bringing it out and helping me to figure out why I’ve been hearing that name for so many years, and finally delving in. You won’t regret it you do too.
Beltway to Obama: More Fear, Please!
By Reed Richardson
There really is a pathology that lurks within our elite media discourse when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. At the root of this pathology sits a well-cultivated neurosis about our country’s esteem, its place (rank) in the world. This insecurity, in turn, breeds an almost incessant neediness for displays of machismo and dominance and aggression from our political leaders. And precisely because the U.S. military serves as the biggest hammer in the world, it has become all too easy for lazy members of the media in this country to view every crisis overseas as a stubborn nail in need of some swift flattening.
In other words, ours is a nation where patience and diplomacy have fallen out of favor among an establishment that is now far more interested in rapid response and confronting the latest mortal enemy with “kinetic action” (the kind that involves Hellfire missiles, carrier groups, and, ultimately, an infantry division or three). The unrestrained id version of this mindset—via, naturally, Fox News—can be viewed here . As a result, our cable news talk shows and national op-ed pages have developed debilitating case of selective listening, one that tunes out context and deliberation in foreign policy discussions and only really tunes in when it’s being warned what to be afraid of.
But what happens when the president doesn’t reflexively indulge in saber-rattling hyperbole? When he doesn’t take every excuse to deploy our vast arsenal of weaponry? When doesn’t reliably offer up fear-based Pavlovian signals for the pundits? Well, as the past week demonstrated, the establishment freaks out.
Take, for instance, this jingoistic op-ed by John McCain and Lindsey Graham that the New York Times took it upon itself to run. At this point, McCain and Graham have so consistently beat the drums of war for so long I think of them as the Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr of the Senate’s war hawks. The notion that this pair would offer up any insights beyond ‘Bomb Country X now’ is silly, and yet the Times gave them a platform.
After knocking around Obama for “reactive half-measures” and endowing the brutal jihadist group Islamic State with everything but evil superpowers, Graham and McCain made this it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren’
That didn’t stop the Washington Post ’s Dana Milbank from writing his own hyperventilating column . Pivoting off of a Russian-inflamed civil war in Ukraine and another grisly beheading by the brutal jihadist group Islamic State, Milbank also appears confounded by Obama’s lack of tough-guy histrionics. His column’s lede perfectly captures his up-is-down thinking: “President Obama is not worried. And that is unnerving.”
Of course, it’s not that Obama isn’t worried. On multiple occasions, and again at the Baltic Summit this week, the president expressed his concern about the alarming advances of the Islamic State and Russia’s revanchist strategy of fomenting unrest in its neighbor. What’s unnerving to Milbank is that Obama isn’t matching the level of outrage of the establishment’s conventional wisdom. To help maintain this ruse, Milbank notably omits any mention of the steps Obama has already taken in response to these crises— a wave of tough economic sanctions on Russia and an ongoing campaign of limited airstrikes on IS positions in Iraq. Nor, apparently, does Milbank read his colleague at the Washington Post , Walter Pincus, who has some great behind-the-scenes reporting on the alliance building that the administration has undertaken across the region to box in IS and ultimately defeat the group.
To Milbank and his Beltway compadres, though, it is Obama’s leadership specifically that is lacking. Exhibit A: the president’s damning public admission last week that the US “didn’t have a strategy yet” on dealing with IS inside Syria. To say that one day and then turn around the next and reassure Americans that they’re safer than ever before amounts to “happy talk” per Milbank. However, if you set aside the outrageous boogeyman-type coverage that predominates in the most of the press, you find that, again, Obama is right .
What’s more—and this is important—there’s been a wholesale inversion of how the establishment defines hubris and overconfidence. No doubt, Obama owns his share of ill-advised military misadventures, among them a futile “surge” in Afghanistan and a misguided faith in a morally repugnant and counterproductive drone policy. But it’s only when he chooses a relatively cautious approach to a foreign threat like IS that he gets branded a naïve and dangerously optimistic president a la Bush. Eleven years ago, what constituted dangerous “happy talk” from the White House looked very different and took a staggeringly higher toll, but it took years for the Beltway pundits to come out of their defensive crouch and figure this out.
This reminder of Bush’s dreadful legacy would no doubt be considered a cheap partisan shot by the National Journal ’s Ron Fournier, a bust of whom will no doubt one day adorn the Newseum’s “Both Sides Do It” installation. Right on cue, Fournier’s column this week predictably flays Obama for a lack of leadership, which admittedly isn’t much of a surprise since he writes a version of this same column at least once a month . (This stubborn lack of editorial creativity on the part of Fournier long ago reached the point of easy parody.)
As you’d expect, Fournier takes the same shots at Obama that the rest of the Beltway centrists crowd. He claims Obama’s “dithering” helped “spawn the ISIS wave,” but presents no proof of this bold assertion. In a clever bit of no-win logic, he dings the president for dismissing ISIS as a junior-varsity level threat last year, and then dings Obama again for ignoring a group that he said wasn’t a threat in the first place. And the Fournier shakes his venerable head at Obama for being “incapable of leading anybody to a solution.”
So what should have Obama done differently in Syria a year ago to fix everything, one might ask? (I mean, besides striking a courageous diplomatic deal that rid that nation of its chemical weapons, a success Fournier conveniently omits.) Or, for that matter, what might that “solution” to the region’s sprawling sectarian unrest have looked like? Ah, but the answers to these questions are an intellectual burden that Fournier never even attempts to carry. He just knows leaders lead by leading, through leadership. And Obama ain’t one of them.
Like Milbank, Fournier, in his zeal to complain, minimizes the actions Obama currently is taking to stop IS’s spread in Iraq in order to further fixate on the president’s rhetoric :
“Despite ordering airstrikes against ISIS targets, Obama doesn't seem to agree that Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq pose an unprecedented threat to America.”
Fournier can’t even give Obama credit for actually doing something without couching it in as a backhanded insult. Also note he isn’t even brave enough to say whether he approves or disapproves of the airstrikes, wants more or less of them or anything else. Again, actual policy isn’t Fournier’s cup of tea. So instead he just moves on to quibble over Obama’s refusal to say IS represents an unprecedented threat, one he later characterizes as “existential.” Needless to say, this is goddam ridiculous. By definition, every new threat is unprecedented, which is to say nothing about how we should respond to it. More obviously, it is 100% wrong to imply IS will ever threaten the very existence of the United States. Yet this over-the-top language is what simple-minded Beltway critics seem to value more than anything else in a president.
Indeed, at times, this need for a good-guy, bad-guy foreign policy narrative can fully overwhelm a pundit’s journalistic instincts. Case in point, this atrocious Frank Bruni column , where the very headline gives the game away: “Obama’s Messy Words.” In it, Bruni practically begs for the president to shovel ominous scaremongering and saber-rattling braggadocio at the press.
For example, Bruni seems baffled by Obama’s perfectly innocuous observation that the current threat from IS pales in comparison to the one posed by the old Soviet Union. He simply cannot engage with the rational conclusions one might draw from it. “Set aside the question of how germane the Cold War example is,” Bruni says, right before reciting a list of IS’s grisly depredations. The point of this scare tactic? To infantilize the press and the public: “[T]he last thing that you want to be told is that it’s par for the historical course, all a matter of perspective and not so cosmically dire. Where’s the reassurance — or the sense of urgency — in that?”
Again, grok what Bruni is saying here as a member of the press—to paraphrase Col. Nathan Jessup: “I can’t handle the truth.” Personally, I think this country is better served with a president who exercises a little more circumspection and candor before massively overreacting to the foreign enemy du jour . After having just recently concluded a decade of mismanaged, unnecessary war, don’t we deserve a commander-in-chief that maintains his composure, instead of uttering outrageously provocative, off-the-cuff statements that only make matter worse and that he later regrets? (Sad to say, our current Vice President clearly shares the same affliction .)
But Bruni doesn’t stop there. Sounding like some soulless corporate image consultant who enables rather confronts the powerful, he practically recoils at Obama’s acceptance of rather tepid limits on U.S. power.
“He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that ‘America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything’; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.
“But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R.
“Message.” “savvy.” “P.R.” Gack.
That any journalist would express a desire to essentially be manipulated instead of told the truth, however banal it may be, is chilling. To read the whole thing is to get a sense that Bruni was emotionally lashing out at the president, channeling the entire Beltway’s disgust at his unwillingness to stick to the normal U.S. foreign policy script. But it was his absurd “notes of defeatism” remark that made clear the media establishment has now fully bought into the idea that Obama’s presidency, much like the tail end of Jimmy Carter’s, is mired in a kind of intractable malaise. Unable to get any actual legislation through the Republican House, the only thing left that Obama actually could do was start another war somewhere. And here he’s not even keen to do that. What a failure.
This “malaise” narrative—and the myths that surround it—actually plays a key role in the foreign policy pathology I spoke of at the beginning. As Rick Hertzberg reminds us, the “crisis of confidence” speech he helped Carter write in 1979 [excerpted here ] never actually mentioned the word “malaise.” (That term was attached to it after the fact.) Nor was it the disaster that history tells us it was. In fact, Carter’s speech was quite popular . His approval numbers shot up 11 points overnight and the White House received an outpouring of positive mail. It was only after Carter clumsily sacked most of his Cabinet in the days that followed that elite opinion turned against him and the speech, and eventually the public’s disapproval followed as well. And while on one hand, that moment foreshadowed the end of Carter’s political career, Hertzberg argues that the speech and its aftermath also had a long-lasting ripple effect on the relationship between the president and the press.
“The speech was a truthful and prescient diagnosis of what was wrong with the country and what in many ways continues to be wrong with the country,” Hertzberg says, looking back. “A side effect was the discrediting of candor about unpleasant truths and the enshrinement of ‘optimism.’”
This “optimism” is not the hard-earned optimism that Carter spoke of at length in that same speech 35 years ago. Nor is it the measured, look-at-the-big-picture optimism that Obama stands accused of falling victim to today in dealing with Russia and the Middle East. Instead, the prevailing ‘optimism’ that has reigned over our foreign policy establishment for the past few decades—with disastrous results—is that of Reagan and of Bush. It’s a flawed American Exceptionalism that operates a de facto foreign policy of violence driven by a never-ending plague of manufactured threats. This pathological insecurity is all about pursuing vengeance abroad rather than justice, choosing condemnation of enemies over cooperation with allies. But perhaps the greatest danger of all is when it convinces the American public and the press that the most frightening thing we have to fear is when our leaders tell us the truth.
I agree with you, but want to bring something to your attention.
The established mass-media (NYT, WaPo, etc.) are so strong that they are able to make the public believe lies. I lived in Finland before and during the Iraq war and could see how the U.S. public was led to believe that Saddam Hussein was connected with the 9/11 and had WMD, but at that time at least the European media was not 100% following the USA's line. Since then a lot has changed.
USA and EU mainstream media now work in unison. Even people like you believe that Assad used chemical weapons, although there are very serious investigators who show otherwise—it's simply an old and forgotten story. The propaganda jumps to any new "facts" to justify whatever new war needs to be fought.
The MH17 [airplane downing] was used to justify sanctions against Russia. This wasn't so long, but it seems the issue is forgotten by those who used it and now they are pushing for new ways to escalate the conflict, although there are serious doubts that the initial reports, which were true - it looks like the Ukrainian army might have something to do with it, but nobody reverses the sanctions - there can be only push for more...
To me it is clear that some people decide to make Ukraine a NATO member and would do anything to achieve their goal.
All the best fighting with the strong propaganda machine!
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Arcade Fire and Television live at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn
Summerstage’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival
What a show: I missed the unicorns, but luckily arrived just in time for Television. I didn't know Richard Lloyd wasn't in the band anymore until I saw them on stage. I looked it up during the show and found this, which explained it. I’ve seen the band three or four times in the past three decades and I can’t see that much has been lost. They were terrific Sunday night, playing in one of the biggest halls. I imagine, they’ve ever been in. Terrific guitar work by Tom Verlaine and his new, non-Lloydish friend and a slightly deeper, but no less mournful romanticism in Tom’s voice. But I think the curtain was brought down on them as they were about to encore with "Elevation" which they inexplicably did not play. That was done not Arcade Fire, but for the really annoying dj so it was a real loss.
TAF were just wonderful The opening night of TAF, they had Buster P as a guest in the encore slot. Also this guy in a tux, showing the rest of us up yet again. On Sunday night they were joined for an encore by David Byrne dressed up for Tim Burton movie Overall, it was a thoughtful, exciting, party band. What more could one want. All those masks and cannons filled with glitter and an audience all dressed up in formal wear, and costumes and face-paint and making rock n roll look like the utopian dream it once was. (I did not know that crowds dressed up for their shows since I had only seen them at the NOLA jazz fest. What a fun crowd. Also what great restaurants. I was feeling a little Brooklyn envy all night for the first time ever. Here is a “real” review by the Times’ Nate Chinen; pretty heady stuff for a daily review. Anyway, see both of these bands if you can.
Saturday, I came back to the city for Summerstage’s wonderful “Charlie Parker Jazz Festival” up in Harlem and got to see some great music amongst a really diverse and appreciative crowd. The highlight, unavoidably, was Wallace Roney’s nineteen piece orchestra playing of unrecorded Wayne Shorter pieces that were intended for Miles Davis but never recorded. Read all about it here. Thanks to Summerstage for this and so many great shows in the city’s parks this, and every summer. The second day’s lineup, in the East Village, was also really impressive but I had a date in Brooklyn.
The Washington Post Op-Ed Page Wants More War (Again)
by Reed Richardson
To read the Washington Post’s op-ed page at the end of this summer is to have a distinct sense of déjà vu. Just like this time last year, Post pundits gnash their teeth and warn us that Obama’s foreign policy is broken and the U.S.’s reputation around the world is shot, but that the best way to definitely fix both is for our country to start bombing Syria.
Of course, in 2013, the target of our Tomahawks was to be elements of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime. After Assad’s use of chemical weapons last August, in the midst of that country’s intractable civil war, the Post’s editorial board and plethora of its op-ed columnists—both liberal and conservative—came out strongly in favor of a military strike as a response. When Obama took a “go slow” approach that rejected airstrikes and instead focused on a diplomatic effort to rid Assad of his WMDs, the paper was unsparing in its criticism. The Post—along with much of the Beltway—bemoaned that Obama’s “credibility”—along with our country’s—was sunk.
That the Post’s op-ed page would prove a friendly redoubt for war hawks aggressively pushing for US military action around the world is no surprise. After all, the paper’s editorial board was a big cheerleader, and then staunch defender of, the US invasion of Iraq. (As far as contrite apologizer for, not so much.) It’s safe to say that it channels the neocon proclivities of the Beltway conventional wisdom like no other publication. If there’s a “serious” case for war to be made, in other words, the Post will take up the challenge.
Sadly, few recent presidents have proven themselves up to the challenge of resisting the cri de couer of the neocons. So, when Obama—with an assist from a reluctant Congress—decided to forego military action last year, it was almost like Washington had entered a parallel universe when it comes to foreign policy. There’s one big advantage of this alternative reality. It offers us a chance to review the Post’s arguments in retrospect as the path not chosen and compare them to the same arguments the paper is making today. Tellingly, the specious logic and lousy predictive power of the Post’s hawks from a year ago don’t wear well.
Take, for instance, the paper’s response to the rise of the Islamic State, one that amounts to stubbornly doubling down on its war stance from last year. In fact, two weeks ago, the Post editorial board breezily expanded US ambitions to now include the bombing of two different parties in the Syrian civil war: “[T]he United States should focus on weakening and eventually eliminating the toxic entities that are destroying the region and threatening vital U.S. interests: the Islamic State and the Assad regime.” Earlier this week, the Post’s editorial board followed up with an unabashed column whose headline says it all: “The Obama administration must put boots on the ground to stop the Islamic State.” It stopped short of calling for an "invasion," but perhaps just because it's saving that column for September.
Speaking of which, what did the Post have to say last September about the role of the Al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS in the Syrian civil war? Back when the paper was calling for the US to decapitate Assad? In a Sept. 7, 2013 column entitled “Syria’s al-Qaeda Threat” the Post pretty much shrugs its shoulders at the Sunni extremists:
“The strength of the al-Qaeda forces has been exaggerated. …Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who has travelled extensively inside Syria, reports that al-Qaeda and mainstream rebel forces are largely separated from each other and control different pieces of territory. She says that the jihadists are less interested in defeating Mr. Assad than in establishing a safe haven. […]
“Many who have joined the al-Qaeda groups did so not because of their ideology, but because they were better funded and supplied. The Islamic State of Iraq depends heavily on foreign fighters.”
(Side note: You might remember the 26-year-old O’Bagy from subsequent news reports last fall. That’s when she was being fired from that analyst job for lying about having a PhD and failing to disclose she was being paid by one of those “mainstream” Syrian rebel groups to lobby on its behalf. This is the kind of objective expert the Post was relying on to help make its case for war.)
Over the past few months in Iraq, of course, we’ve seen the devastating results of what happens when a Sunni extremist force bolstered by an influx of émigré soldiers faces only token in-country military resistance. As a result, the Post has quickly changed its tune about the strategic threat posed by this group.
“Now the Islamic State is well-funded, with steady revenue from oil fields it has captured and, as we’ve learned recently, ransom payments; it is well-armed, including with captured U.S. weaponry; and it is highly ambitious.”
About those foreign fighters, which the Post all but scoffed at a year ago? Well, now…
“They are training hundreds of foreign terrorists, including from Europe and the United States, who could easily slip back into their home countries with malign intent.”
And note: not one pundit at the Post has pondered the gains ISIS might have made in the past year had the US intervened last fall and significantly degraded the Assad regime’s capabilities. Without the Syrian army acting as a bulwark, what threats might we be facing now? How much worse might the conflict in Syria have gotten? These are a fundamental questions that, obviously, we can never answer for sure. But if our recent history in Iraq is any guide, the results would not have been better than what we're facing today.
Certainly don’t look to Post columnist Charles Krauthammer for these answers. Last September, he called for a “sustained campaign,” one that would lay waste to the entire Syrian air and air defense forces and shift the balance of the civil war. Shift it to what, exactly, he never goes into much detail about, and his emphasis on having a “strategic plan” in case of “blowback” includes no mention of potentially leaving a power vacuum to be filled by radical Sunni extremist groups like Islamic State.
No great shock, really. Last year, Krauthammer also took great pains to condescendingly dismiss the chemical weapons deal Obama got Assad to agree to. He repeatedly ridiculed it, saying it had “about zero chance” of working. Ahem. Then, two weeks ago, Krauthammer churned out an intellectually dishonest column that tried to completely invert the president’s resounding success ridding Syria of chemical weapons: “To this day, Obama seems not to understand the damage he did to American credibility everywhere by slinking away from his own self-proclaimed red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons.”
This, too, is another important point that has all but disappeared from the Post’s saber-rattling Syria discourse. By removing chemical weapons from the country, Obama also removed the threat of WMDs accidentally falling into the hands of jihadists like Islamic State. Had the US resorted to a massive air campaign like Krauthammer wanted, there’s virtually no chance the strikes could have successfully eliminated Assad's chemical weapons stockpile. The upshot of that course of action, then: a weaker Assad, a stronger ISIS, and WMDs spread around the countryside, at greater risk of falling into terrorists' hands.
But wait, there’s even more disingenuousness. One of the other major arguments for intervening last year centered on the helping moderate rebels take power. And right on cue, Post columnist David Ignatius conveniently trotted out the now perennial “moderate Syrian rebels are at a turning point” column during the height of the last year’s debate about bombing Assad. (Here’s the latest iteration from earlier this summer.) If only the U.S. would unleash airstrikes and arm the moderates, Ignatius told us, the good guys in Syria could capture Damascus, win converts within the Syrian Army, and execute an orderly transition. Again, left unsaid was any real plan to deal with other rebel groups like Al-Nusra or ISIS, who also oppose the moderate rebels and might exploit the resulting turmoil for their own purposes.
One year later, Ignatius is now devoting his rhetorical energies to warning of the rise of the Islamic State (he hasn’t mentioned Assad’s name in a column since early June). Also of note, he’s now taken to describing the Free Syrian Army—those same moderate rebels he touted as on the verge of victory last year—as a “haphazard” ally.
To point out the moderate rebels’ ongoing difficulties is to be met with another common meme. If only the dithering Obama had acted earlier, if only he’d armed the FSA at the outset, then, then, we’d have wrapped up this war and installed with a moderate, pro-Western government capable of defeating ISIS years ago. But this too is neocon fallacy, one that rests upon a overly simplistic view of the region's politics.
As George Washington University political science professor Marc Lynch pointed out earlier this month, the Syrian civil war is a hornet’s nest of competing factions who are constantly forming and dissolving loose alliances. “The idea that these rebel groups could be vetted for moderation and entrusted with advanced weaponry made absolutely no sense given the realities of the conflict in Syria,” he noted—ironically—on the Post’s Monkey Cage blog. In fact, Lynch characterized the Syrian civil war as having “the worst profile possible for effective external support.” But no, folks like Ignatius would have you believe in the fantasy that shipping an arsenal of ultimately unsecured weapons to an undisciplined fighting force would have solved all our problems. Just like that worked out so well in Iraq…
And then there’s Jennifer Rubin, who rarely fails to turn the crackpot punditry up to 11. A year ago, Rubin practically had flecks of spittle coming off her Post opinion pieces devoted to Syria. In one particularly notable rant, she demanded the Assad regime be destroyed and harangued Obama as a spineless leader who has “no stomach for complex military situations.” Keep in mind, her nuanced solution to Assad’s chemical weapons attack was to bomb another country altogether. In between insults, Rubin went on in that same post to say: “Moreover, one of the prime concerns — jihadists getting chemical weapons — would be alleviated if we destroyed the chemical weapons caches.”
Curious as to her opinion a year later, when all of those caches have been destroyed and “one of the prime concerns” about jihadists has been resolved? Well, if you’re looking for her to give the president credit, then you don’t know Jennifer Rubin. In a recent column, she conveniently ignored that the threat from WMDs has been eliminated and instead castigated Obama, saying his “lackadaisical attitude toward the growing jihadist threat is reminiscent of the pre-9/11 days.” In a subsequent critique of Obama’s Syria policy, Rubin—a big fan of George W. Bush— uncorked a sentence that should immediately be inducted into the conservative chutzpah hall of fame: “It would be as if we knew the chances of a 9/11 were real and growing, but insisted we do nothing to head it off.” Indeed, that would be gross incompetence, wouldn’t it?
That Rubin’s over-the-top diatribes aren’t really taken seriously is beside the point. By giving her an op-ed platform, the Post lets her play an outsized role in defining the Overton window of respectable discourse, pushing it ever rightward. This allows the editorial board’s seemingly less strident war advocacy to come across as more restrained, downright sensible, when, in fact, the actual policies differ very little.
Even worse, wrapping the Post’s hawkishnewss in a veneer of moderation enables it to avoid any real accountability for past op-ed prognostications. But excuses like “everybody thought Saddam had WMDs” simply aren’t acceptable if your paper is the one leading the charge for war. And lest we forget, the whole reason President Obama now has to confront an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is because its forerunner—Al Qaeda in Iraq—flocked to the region to fight a disastrous, falsely justified US intervention there.
The Post's tragic legacy in abetting the Iraqi invasion doesn’t get brought up in polite Beltway debate anymore, however. Similarly, the Post’s pundits find no need to address the flawed reasoning and obvious contradictions inherent in this year’s case for military intervention in Syria versus last year’s. It’s telling that now that Obama has allowed a very circumscribed military mission in Iraq (and soon, possibly in Syria), the newspaper’s hawks still aren’t satisfied. Never mind that his caution has been vindicated nearly as often as their militaristic zeal has been proven wrong. That the Post’s op-ed page will almost always figure out a way to endorse more war is no mystery anymore, but why anybody really listens to it anymore is.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
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Isabel Rose, “Trouble in Paradise,” (and live at the Stephen Talkhouse)
Junior Brown at City Winery.
Emore Leonard, Library of America
It’s hard to know exactly wha to make of Isabel Rose. Her promotional material asks “What happens when you toss Katy Perry, Ann-Margret and Bette Midler into a blender?” with the answer being Ms. Rose. I dunno. I love Ms. Margaret; can go either way on Midler and got off the bus long before Katy Perry got on. I do really like Rose though. Her cd, “Trouble in Paradise,” is a unique mixture of styles that do not always coalesce comfortably, but emerge in the end as a thorougly charming experience.
One thing I really (really) like about Rose is her willingness to stretch not only the conventions of cabaret style performance, but also the so-called “Great American Songbook,” which is undoubtedly great, but definitely needs extending beyond the pre-“Yesterday” era. Produced by Bob Rock and back by a big Vegasy orchestra, she breathes new life into some wonderful songs that you may not have remembered that you love. Among my favorites are:
Lot of Livin’ To Do
Things We Do For Love *
Love Will Keep Us Together *
She closed her spirited set at the Talkhouse (in Amagansett) with that shlocky song and like most of the set, it was also pretty wonderful. Rose changed her glamorous outfits as often as Diana Ross, had a biggish band and back up singers who shimmied with her and played straight-woman to her double and triple-entendres. The place was packed—so packed that my seats were given away, alas—which surprised me, since the cd wasn’t even released yet, but her familiarity with the crowd gave the evening the feel of a strangely sexy bat-mitzvah—albeit with a killer band and an unforgettable chick singer. More about the lady and her music here.
The night before I took in an old friend, Junior Brown, at City Winery. I often think that the best thing about Texas is the way it travels east, though it’s also the worst thing about it. Anyway, Brown is very much a Texan, but the funny, open-minded laugh-at-himself kind. While not as funny (or as Jewish) as Kinky Friedman, he’s an incredible musician and his four-piece band (with his wife Tanya Rae on acoustic rhythm and a guy banging on just a single snare drum and occasionally one cymbal) he makes music that sounds twice as large as that. The songs are almost all funny and clever and usually danceable in a Texas by way of Hawaii kind of way. (A crowd favorite every time I’ve seen him has been “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead.”) Brown plays his patented “Guit-Steel”, a double-necked guitar combining standard guitar with steel guitar, allowing him to switch instruments quickly in mid-song while singing and gives his songs a sound that belongs only to him. Catch him if you can. Shows coming up at the City Winery, whether in the city, Chicago, Nashville or Napa, can be found here.
Finally, I’m jumping the gun on this a bit but perhaps you need something fun and fat to read in these final lazy, hazy daze of summer. If so, our friends at the Library of America have just the thing for you: ELMORE LEONARD: Four Novels of the 1970s edited by Gregg Sutter.
I am quite proud of myself for having had the good sense to go see Leonard read at Barnes & Noble on his final trip to the city as he was one of the greatest living American writers until he was no longer living; also a quite charming man. He was, most importantly, one of the most prolific of novelists, and so this three volume series will be hard to pick. (It was apparently done in consultation with the author.) When you’ve read as much Leonard as I have, it’s hard to match the titles to the stories. I’m pretty I sure I remember Fifty-Two Pickup, less sure about Swag, Unknown Man No. 89, and The Switch , and the plot summaries don’t help much, because it’s characters that make the difference. And even the worst of them—I’m looking at you Freaky Deaky —is still a lot of fun. The book also contains a newly researched chronology of Leonard’s life, prepared with exclusive access to materials in his personal archive. It’s a great addition to the LOA canon, but I’m still wondering why they appear to be insisting on waiting to do Ed Doctorow until he is no longer around to be celebrated for it.
If It’s Sunday, It’s Meet the (1%) Press
by Reed Richardson
You almost feel sorry for David Gregory. To have your high-profile media perch so publicly and unceremoniously yanked out from under you has to be humiliating. After nearly two decades of working for NBC, this is the thanks you get? It speaks to the cutthroat, ephemeral world of TV news stardom, where, in the network’s eyes, if your career trajectory isn’t rising, it’s necessarily falling, and fast. Sure, with Gregory as host, Meet the Press’s ratings were down—waydown—but to not even get the dignity of an orderly transition, a farewell show? After nearly six years, to just be there one week and suddenly gone the next. Like I said, you almost feel sorry for the guy. Almost.
The reality is, Gregory needs no pity. He has plenty of reasons not to worry about his future— $4-million dollars worth of reasons , reportedly. That’s how much NBC News is paying him to opt out of his contact. To not do his job anymore. So, unlike pretty much every other 43-year-old laid-off TV journalist, who would struggle to ever find a decent-paying job in news again, Gregory gets to walk away with the kind of lucrative golden parachute usually reserved for CEOs and pro sports coaches. And, if you’re curious, average pay for a news reporter in the U.S. as of May 2013 was $44,360 , which means Gregory’s walk money is roughly equivalent to paying the full-time salaries of 90 journalists for an entire year.
To be clear, I’m all for companies honoring their contracts with labor as well as holding journalists accountable for the quality of their journalism. So, if NBC News agrees to pay Gregory all this money and he turns out to not be very good at this job, then the network deserves to feel the pain of its unwise choices. But Gregory’s abrupt, costly departure from MTP should also serve as yet another a reminder of the fundamental dilemma facing most TV news networks when it comes to how they value their Sunday morning shows.
Part of this is the undeniable opportunity cost of the host of Meet the Press or This Week or Fox News Sunday collecting a paycheck that could otherwise fund whole sections of a newsroom. In an era when mass layoffs and shrinking budgets are de rigueur , to pay any journalist a seven or eight-figure salary smacks of misplaced priorities . Of course, network executives try to justify these outrageous sums by noting that the Sunday news shows, like their morning chat show and nightly news show brethren, remain advertising cash cows. So, the argument goes, they compensate the personalities that helm those properties accordingly. Which means that Gregory’s case is hardly new: in 2012, NBC News flushed hundreds of potential journalists’ salaries down the drain to pay Today co-host Ann Curry $10 million to leave that show before her contract was up.
This personality-driven approach, news divisions claim, does pay dividends. For a decade-and-a-half, Today reigned over the morning ratings (and raked in cash) thanks to the rapport between Matt Lauer and Katie Couric. Likewise, a generation ago, Sunday morning viewers reliably tuned in to watch David Brinkley’s wry, erudite take on the issues when he hosted This Week. And Tim “Little Russ” Russert’s long-running, regular-guy, Buffalo Bills-obsessed shtick as host of MTP helped him become a perennial ratings champ and earn him unofficial status as “The Mayor” of the Beltway. (At its peak in 2007, MTP , with Russert as host, NBC pulled in $60 million a year in advertising.)
But when networks willingly place so much emphasis and so many resources on elevating and compensating the show’s host in sole pursuit of ratings, the show’s fortunes become too tightly intertwined with the who and not the what of its broadcast. This feeds a creeping arrogation of authority to whoever’s sitting in the host chair. Rarely does it make for better journalism, and Russert is perhaps the best example of how this approach compromises the premise of the show. That’s because, for all of his tough-guy, tough-questions legacy, Russert was, in reality, more of a willing enabler of government spin than a hard-nosed challenger of it. His trademark style of catching guests in the act of hypocrisy merely served as a fig leaf of accountability, one that too often left unasked more important policy questions.
As a result, most Sunday news show hosts serve as purveyors of the Washington conventional wisdom as much as, if not more than, the officeholders they’re purportedly covering. Meet the Press , and with it the whole Sunday morning news show genre, has devolved into a kind of cloistered, clubby, faux-accountability chinwag, one where a rich and powerful host mostly asks gentle questions of rich and powerful politicians about things that mostly only matter to rich and powerful viewers. (Or, even worse, rich and powerful journalists and pundits simply talk amongst themselves.) Voices and issues considered outside the mainstream—or in D.C. parlance, “not serious”—end up either marginalized or completely disappeared from the discourse. Need more proof? Look no further than the Sunday news show advertisers, a list of which is routinely populated by multinational conglomerates and defense contractors. ( Boeing exclusively sponsors the Meet the Press news app .) These companies know that the ‘programming’ they’re selling adjacent to on Sunday morning isn’t about to question the status quo.
While Gregory could never match Russert’s mega-watt screen presence, he nonetheless followed in his predecessor’s too-clever-by-half and insular journalistic footsteps. That’s why Gregory so publicly used his MTP perch to parrot 1% talking points about the need to cut Medicare and Social Security, so that regular Americans could feel more “pain.” That’s why one of his few notable attempts at confrontation— holding up a 30-round magazine to NRA chief Wayne LaPierre in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting —backfired into a PR debacle. That’s why one of his shows’ few real moments of newsmaking— the endorsement of same-sex marriage by Vice President Joe Biden —happened because of a guest intentionally going off-script rather than succumbing to Gregory’s tough questioning. That’s why by far the most memorable moment in Gregory’s tenure at MTP —and quite possibly his journalistic career to date—was his disturbing, thinly veiled attack on the kind of adversarial journalism that he never bothers to do.
Plenty of smart people have proposed good ideas for resuscitating the value of Meet the Press and its ilk. But the essential problem to be corrected can really be boiled down to making the Sunday morning shows more about the journalism and less about the journalists . It would require democratizing and diversifying viewpoints; more actual reporting, less speculative posing. Of course, to re-orient MTP ’s focus off of political palace intrigue would necessarily jeopardize the loyalty of the audience that lives and works in and around said palace. But recapturing such a prominent news platform for the interests of the rest of the country should be a risk worth taking for TV news organizations that enjoy the privilege of using public airwaves to make their money.
Unfortunately, we know which path NBC News has chosen to follow. Chuck Todd, the network’s named replacement for Gregory, currently works as NBC News’ chief political handicapper and launched his career in Washington working at The Hotline, a prototype of insider-y, horse race-obsessed publications like Politico. No surprise then that Politico Playbook blogger Mike Allen, pre-eminent Beltway tout and steadfast shill for corporate America , recognized in Todd a kindred spirit, admiringly describing him as someone with a “love of the game” that would attract a loyal following among “newsmakers” and “political junkies.”
Whether or not Todd can reverse the damage done to Meet the Press ’s ratings by Gregory remains to be seen. But when it comes to the impact of the new MTP host’s journalism, I have little doubt that the powerful in Washington will notice much of a difference.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
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I would have called this column, “John Dean, John Dean, We know just what you mean,”
John Dean, John Dean, You said it all so clean.”
Instead it was headlined “Government Whitewashing Didn’t Stop With Watergate” and yes, August 9 should be a national holiday….
And in honor of that imagined holiday, here’s Altercation “friend” Harry Shearer inhabiting Nixon in a verbatim comedic re-creation of Nixon's poignant last 6 minutes before he resigned the Presidency, on August 8th, 1974.’
Gershon Baskin , has initiated a campaign to buy 5,000 tons of Israel farm-surplus potatoes and send them to Gaza. The money must be raised by Sunday. Here is the explanation with a link to the contribution.
I wanted to give a shout out to the Music Maker Relief Foundation—the non-profit record label which supports traditional southern musicians living in poverty—on their 20th anniversary. They are celebrating with a book coming in September, a 2-CD set also a museum exhibition at the NY Public Library, and a Lincoln Center performance which you already missed. Tim Duffy has been called “a modern-day Alan Lomax” for having founded MMRF as a 501c3 to support artists in their communities and has put out almost 150 albums. He's dispersed grants in the thousands for instruments, heating oil, medications, and CDs for these artists to sell at their shows. Many of the artists have made debut or comeback records in their 60s, 70s, or 80s, many playing for festival crowds or traveling to Europe for the first time in their lives, realizing life-long dreams! The 2CD collection includes Etta Baker, Boo Hanks w/ Dom Flemons, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ironing Board Sam, John Dee Holeman, and Guitar Gabriel, the latter of whom inspired the non-profit. Go here to learn more, please.
I also wanted to give an additional shout out to Liveright Books for its recent publication of Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream: The Complete Novels.
At over 1300 pages this set of novels makes for an enormous commitment on the part of the reader but it more than justifies itself. The Roth story is almost too weird to be believed. If you’ve read Call It Sleep, then I probably don’t need to say any more. If you haven’t, then immediately read Adam Kirsch’s terrific but stupidly titled essay in Tablet, In the meantime, look at these blurbs.
“The Ur-novel at the heart of American literature—Mercy of a Rude Stream is a towering astonishment.” (Junot Diaz)
“Mercy is a rare species of literary epic: an autobiography that doubles as a historical novel. The action of Mercy—set primarily between 1914 and 1928 but interlaced with dispatches from the 1980s and '90s, and including intermittent reflections of the years in between—encompasses nearly the entirety of the twentieth century…Mercy is an epic of the outsider, a chronicle of self-survival and self-discovery and the realization of the self.” (Joshua Ferris, from the introduction)
“Mr. Roth's frisson of regret provides a poignant gloss on one of the most moving and unusual of American fiction careers.” (Kenneth Turan - Los Angeles Times)
“Henry Roth has only two peers in American-English Jewish fiction, Nathanael West and Philip Roth.” (Harold Bloom)
“As provocative as anything in the chapters of St. Augustine or Rousseau.” (Stefan Kanfer - Los Angeles Times Book Review)
“The literary comeback of the century.” (Jonathan Rosen - Vanity Fair)
“[Mercy of a Rude Stream] is like hearing that Ralph Ellison is publishing a new novel forty-two years after Invisible Man or J. D. Salinger is preparing a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye.” (Leonard Michaels - New York Times Book Review)
“A wondrous, disturbing, and ruthlessly honest chronicle of the complex and often wrenchingly twisted process of assimilation. The sheer dynamism generated by the writer's act of memory and confession is awe-inspiring.” (Hedy Weiss - Chicago Sun-Times)
Sensitive fellow that I am, I also really enjoyed Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel, by Anya Ulnich which I read in one sitting. It’s a little precious Brooklyn, but it’s wonderfully evocative and honest and teaches you things about life that only its author knows. Here is Ayelet Waldman’s review that convinced me to read it.
I am also spending some time with a new, impressively wide-ranging history of the record biz, Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy for Thomas Dunne Books, and a new history of pop music called Yeah Yeah Yeah by Bob Stanley for Norton, which purports to tell “The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce” but does not begin to do justice to Bruce and so I am suspect….
Speaking of Bruce, here are some books I just noticed together on my shelf: Guess the subject:
Working on a Dream
Talk about a Dream
Bruce Springsteen and the Runaway American Dream
And here are a few tweets I don’t feel like rewriting:
The first issue of BOSS (Bi-Annual Online Journal of Springsteen Studies) http://boss.mcgill.ca/issue/view/8
That schmuck, Chris Christie, subsidized this place and attacked Bruce for refusing to play at its opening. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/13/nyregion/revel-atlantic-citys-newest-and-largest-casino-is-closing.html?emc=edit_ur_20140813&nl=nyregion&nlid=46904619 …
An unhappy anniversary, thanks to Stalin's madness http://www.thenation.com/article/171974/putting-stories-world …
You Say You Don't Wike it, I say you’re a wiar… wiar..http://us.yhs4.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?hspart=ironsource&hsimp=yhs-
Could this be the end of MoDo's unbearable columnizing? A boy can hope http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/media/2014/08/8550514/maureen-dowd-joins-emnyt-magazineem-ahead-major-redesign …
Ranking US presidents, properly http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/25376-us-presidents-reconsidered-by-death-toll …
Contender for most idiotic comment of the century, future decades included: It's like the Beatles all in one person," http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/08/ted-cruz-for-president/375825/ …
The Black Album: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ethanhawke/boyhood-the-black-album …
What Ferguson Teaches Us: That Media Passivity is Service Journalism for the Powerful
By Reed Richardson
Boil it down; journalism tells you a story. Better yet, more of a story. Even better yet, more of a story clearly. What happened? Who did it? To whom? When? How? And why? As you move down that list, however, those questions get increasingly tougher. The press isn’t a judge or jury, of course. It can’t—and shouldn’t—presume guilt. Yet it can damn sure list the dramatis personae. Offer background. Give context. Tell you the stakes. There’s a bigger picture here it can—and should—say. Here’s how you can see it too.
Right now, there’s a big picture issue unfolding in Fergusion, Missouri. Lots of them, actually. The rampant militarization of the police, clear racial prejudice between white police and the mostly black citizenry it’s supposed to protect, rampant violations of the First Amendment. All of these. And a few intrepid journalists have put themselves on the front lines, literally, of these issues. Their coverage has been drawn back a curtain. They’ve re-awakened us to how broken our country still is in many places.
But theirs has been a rare bright light in an otherwise dark void. So much of the mainstream media has been treating the police killing of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, and the protests that it has ignited, as a local story. That is, if they’ve covered it at all. And this speaks to a much larger, systemic problem within journalism.
It’s about the default mindset that colors much of the press. How it too often hesitates, vacillates, equivocates in the face of power. How it tells you this important detail in a way that obscures that one. That’s breaking the compact. That’s taking a side. Yes, this sometimes takes the form of a partisan bias. But most of the time, it’s simpler than that. Most of the time, when journalists pull their punches, it’s the status quo that gets the benefit of the doubt. The powerful already enjoy many advantages in this country. Count a too deferential, too credulous press corps among them.
This passivity manifests itself in ways big and small. To simply ignore a story—like the impending 2008 economic collapse—is one way. Routinely burying a story contradicting the conventional wisdom—like the case against WMDs in Iraq—is another. So is a heavy reliance on government sources—who trade their access for the chance to peddle anonymous spin and unverifiable scoops. And then there’s the granular level timidity that pollutes the language journalists use in their writing everyday.
The last of these can sometimes be the hardest to detect. It’s easy to develop a blind spot. Certain stilted turns of phrase, certain establishment-friendly narrative frames are so popular that journalists now employ them almost instinctively.
Case in point: this Fox TV news report on the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, in Ferguson, Missouri last Friday:
“A shooting in Ferguson has tensions riding high between residents and police. Saturday afternoon, a police involved shooting occurred at the Canfield Green apartment complex in the 2900 block of Canfield. A teenager was shot and killed. An officer from the Ferguson Police Departmentwas involved in the shooting.
At the request of the Ferguson Police Department, the St. Louis County Crimes Against Person Unit is taking over the investigation of the shooting. The police officer involved in the shooting has been put on paid administrative leave.” [emphasis mine]
On Twitter, Media Matters’ Jamison Foser made an astute observation about the counterfactual: “Hard to imagine a black guy killing a cop being described simply as ‘involved in the shooting.’ I’m sure it’s happened, but…” I called this ambiguous phrasing a shameless example of “passive voice” that distorts the truth.
Now, grammatically speaking, what I wrote wasn’t really accurate. Most of the highlighted sections above are not in the passive voice. And in my research for this post, I discovered linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum, who routinely corrects these kinds of mistakes on his blog, Language Log. He’s even written a sort of anti-pedantry manifesto: “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive.” In it, he takes on George Orwell’s classic on clarity in writing “Politics and the English Language.” (In an ironic twist, Pullum calculates Orwell’s essay uses the passive one-and-a-half times more than the average writer.) In addition, Pullum carves up one of journalism holy scriptures, Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” Time and again, he cites examples of S&W unfairly maligning the passive voice.
Point taken. The passive voice gets a bad rap in journalism. Indeed, it can serve as a kind of red herring, a superficial standard that distracts the press from what it should really avoid: intellectual and narrative passivity. When reporting intentionally divorces actor from action; the who from the what, it puts distance between the reader and the story. Adopting the formless, gormless language of officialdom, which can deny agency and muddy the narrative, forces the reader to infer rather than be informed. It raises as many, if not more, questions than it answers. It risks misinterpretation. Who shot whom? All we’ll tell you is a police officer was involved.
To be clear, this wasn’t an isolated example. Plenty of news organizations adopted this same affected, procedural language when discussing Mike Brown’s death. One could argue this kind of phrasing is a harmless affectation. I disagree. Over time, this subtle, yet endemic bias toward the voice of authority functions like death by a thousand cuts. It drains stories of their novelty, while at the same time helping to mask a systemic problem, like unarmed black men being accosted and shot dead by white men or police with guns. Search the coverage of the deaths of Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin, or, from just this past Tuesday,Ezell Ford and you this familiar, ambiguous sentence in all three: “A struggle ensued.”
Sadly, this happens all too often across journalism. One of my pet peeves: the media’s preference for using the maladroit phrase “a gun went off” to describe accidental shootings. Absolving human error from the equation imbues these (often deadly) incidents with a natural disaster feel. As if we’re helpless in the face of the epidemic of gun deaths plaguing this country.
Similarly, when the New York Times changes a headline after the fact to be less clear about an Israeli airstrike, it speaks volumes about our national discomfort with challenging the foreign policy status quo. That was the case last month following a deadly attack in Gaza that left four boys dead. Within a few hours after publishing a story with this headline: “Four Young Boys Killed on Gaza Beach” the Times backtracked, and ran this sickeningly mealy-mouthed alternative instead: “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife.” And while it’s true the Times has a reputation for loving these two-part headline constructions, there’s little doubt some editor felt the first version might provoke the paper’s powerful pro-Israel audience. So, ambiguity to the rescue!
Politicians and their pundit enablers do this all the time, of course. Ronald Reagan pioneered the use of the ne plus ultra of passive, gutless excuses—“mistakes were made”—nearly 30 years ago. As the Iraq war descended into chaos, George W. Bush embraced the phrase too. In fact, it’s become such a well-worn chestnut among the no accountability crowd in Washington that books have been written on it. And this compulsion to shirk blame and weasel out from under the truth is a hard habit to break, apparently. Just this week, Times columnist and war cheerleader David Brooks trotted out this surreal howler about Iraq: “The last four presidents have found themselves drawn into that nation…” That’s right, the most powerful country on the planet simply has no self-control when it comes to the prospect of bombing or invading a Middle East country. So much for American Exceptionalism.
Over in England, the BBC has a news platform, Newsround, aimed at children aged seven to 11. Back in 2006, after a gruesome school shooting here in the U.S.—which, tellingly, is all but forgotten by now—the network offered some editorial guidance on how to cover unsettling news for this audience. The solution? Strive for a kind of antiseptic, watered-down coverage by following these two important precepts: “don’t dwell on the details” and “use passive constructions.” So, as a helpful example, the guidance noted the BBC would report: “Five girls have died.” rather than “The man went in and shot five girls.” Sound familiar?
In other words, what would be considered infantilized news coverage by the BBC is what American news audiences are treated to everyday. This dumbing down and spiffing up of the news takes a toll. Each day, it slowly eats away at the truth and ever so slightly widens the chasm between the powerful and the powerless. Boil it down: journalism tells you a story. But the story’s not worth much if, by telling us more, it ends up saying less.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
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Dear Mr. Richardson—Thank you for your article in The Nation [“High Price of Surveillance…”].
In Chalmers Johnson's book "Nemesis—The Last Days of the American Republic" he states the republic is failing because of the breakdown of constitutional law and militarization. I think government surveillance of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, without a court order, is a sign of the breakdown of constitutional law, a violation of the fourth amendment.
One thing that is totally absent from the great writers of our time, who provide marvelous descriptions of problems with our democracy and also provide well-thought-out solutions, is nobody writes a blow-by-blow, step-by-step, description of how to implement a solution. Since you are such a deep thinker and an articulate writer, perhaps you can change that long-time practice.
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1) The Allman Brothers Band: “The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings,” six cds
2) John Coltrane, “Sideman,” three cds
3) The “Legendary Count Basie Orchestra” live at the Blue Note
Together with “Eat a Peach”—much of which was recorded at the same shows, The Allman Brothers Band's double album, “Live At Fillmore East,” has long been one a handful of iconic rock albums and no collection could be considered complete without it. Drawn from four shows on March 12-13, 1971, it so impressed Bill Graham that he decided that the band—which had sold next to no records at the time—would be the ones to close the hall, which they did months later, with a long set that began at 3:00 am.
In the past, if you wanted to collect more than just the above—the performances that were played that weekend but not recorded, you would have found them scattered among the following:
Duane Allman Anthology, Volume 1, Polydor, 1972/1986
Duane Allman Anthology, Volume 2, Polydor, 1974/1987
Dreams, Polydor, 1989
The Fillmore Concerts, Polydor, 1992
The Allman Brothers Band: (Deluxe Edition), Mercury, 2003
Eat a Peach (Deluxe Edition), Mercury, 2006
Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective, Rounder, 2013
I actually did all that, but most sane people did not. Now, for the rest of you there is a lovely boxed six-cd version The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings which contains fifteen versions of the these songs—including the very first show of the weekend--that you would not have even if you did all of the above. The credits are cleaned up too, so now we know that we are listening to Rudolph ‘Juicy” Carter on saxophone and Bobby Caldwell on percussion on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” The set lists do not change much. But the playing sure does overseen by executive producer Bill Levenson, who was responsible for the Dreams box which got the band restarted on its current-about-to-end journey, it comes with an essay by band historian John Lynskey. Tom Dowd’s original mixes have been redone but not so much that you would notice—even if like me—you’ve been listening to the SACD for the past few years. People who do not appreciate the band, including those with whom I happen to live with, may mock you for wanting so many versions of “Statesboro” and “You Don’t Love Me.” (I could actually use a few more of “One Way Out.” But you must ignore them. Music has rarely been played better than this and history demands that we respect it, as this terrific box set does.)
Less ambitious but still most definitely of note this week is the release of “Sideman: Trane's Blue Note Sessions,” which is a three cd collection of Coltrane’s sessions for Blue Note Records from 1956-1957. He was member of the Miles Davis Quintet and also regularly played with Thelonious Monk at the time and combined self-discipline and creativity in a fashion that few have before or since. This set, conceived by former Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall, collects Trane’s work-for-hire sessions for Blue Note in one place for the first time. The albums in question are given over to Paul Chambers (Chambers' Music, a.k.a. High Step, and Whims of Chambers), Johnny Griffin (A Blowing Session) and Sonny Clark (Sonny's Crib). It’s all in mono, and this will be the first time you can find the Clark cd so mixed. The book-style package –which will fit in your cd case, includes a 34-page booklet with an essay by Ashley Kahn.
When I squeezed into a sold-out Count Basie show at the Blue Note on Sunday just before the band came on, I was feeling pretty crowded space-wise. Then I looked up on stage and I could hardly believe how many people were up on stage. I saw the actual Count Basie at Carnegie Hall about thirty years ago, not long before he died in 1984 joined by Ella Fitzgerald on vocals and Joe Pass on guitar. This was not as great as that. Not much is. The Basie band has traditionally been considered to be the home of the most talented of players and the material they play is a kind of urb-jazz that may have stopped with time a long time ago, but sounds as great as ever today. Now directed by Scotty Barnhart, this band has any number of great players—too many to mention, really and the point is not the individuals, whoever they may actually may be, but the machine they turn into together. Add them all up and they have about a thousand years of experience and chops and emotional and musical intelligence. The repertoire is actually surprising too. It all drew on Basie history but with compositions and arrangements by people who have by and large gone unsung in jazz history; that’s what was on display last weekend at the Blue Note last week. You should hope you get the chance to see them in your town soon, too.
John Stewart and Stephen Colbert may take a lot of vacation time every August, but I take my reporting responsibilities seriously, and so I plan to head out to Guild Hall, the jewel of East Hampton, at least twice in the next few weeks. First is this weekend when they’ve put together an awesome bill of sax man Josh Redman with The Bad Plus. Then, on August 22, there’s the return of the good/bad fun of “Celebrity Autobiography” reading with unofficial Mayor of the Hamptons, Alec Baldwin, and its no less unofficial Queen, Christie Brinkley, among many others, attempting to do justice to the literary talents of Vanna, Sly, Burt and Loni, some Jonases, and a bunch of other people who could have afforded to hire better ghost-writers—or ghost-writers at all. The Guild Hall asked is here should you be in the area.
The High Price that Surveillance Costs the Press and Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson
It is a truism of covering Washington: each White House is more closed off and antagonistic toward the media than the last one. Press secretaries say less and less of value, while “senior administration officials” spin more and more. And perhaps nowhere is this trend more amplified than in the national security and intelligence arena, where every subsequent administration ups the ante at both keeping and creating more and more secrets, making the job of the press reporting on these critical issues ever tougher. But these are the waters journalists wade into knowingly, so it can be tempting to dismiss any of their complaints about how hard their job is now as routine bellyaching. Perhaps a frustrated press corps would just be wise to heed the advice of Jason Robards’ Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men, “…rest up 15 minutes, then get your asses back in gear.”
If only it were that easy. Indeed, consider how much really has changed for journalism since that ominous scene on Bradlee’s front lawn, where Woodward and Bernstein had moved the conversation to avoid possible White House-directed bugging inside their boss’s house. Behavior that was probably overwrought paranoia 40 years ago has increasingly become de rigueur for national security reporters today in light of government surveillance capabilities that can easily draw connections between journalists and their sources using phone metadata and email history, as well as track their respective movements through the cellphones in their pockets.
Tellingly, two of the biggest whistleblowers in U.S. history, one from that era and one from this one, have had radically different experiences when it came to maintaining their anonymity. Deep Throat—the high-ranking FBI official Mark Felt—successfully escaped public identification for 32 years before voluntarily revealing his key role in guiding the Washington Post ’s blockbuster Watergate coverage; Edward Snowden, on the other hand, was so confident that our nation’s global spy network would figure him out he followed an irreversible path that involved outing himself less than a week after the first stories about NSA spying broke. (No doubt the vastly different scale of their leaks played a big role in their respective ability/inability to keep their identities hidden as well.)
We’ve arrived at an age where our nation’s spy agencies not only want to “collect it all” but can and do. Such an omniscient surveillance state, coupled with the Obama administration’s unprecedented pursuit of whistleblowers, poses a uniquely difficult dilemma for national security and intelligence reporters. In effect, they are forced to operate in a kind of through-the-looking-glass reality where both nothing and everything is a secret. In such an environment, one might expect fewer and fewer sources inside the government to be willing to risk talking to the press, meaning more and more of what our government does in our name becomes shrouded from public view. And, in fact, a new joint study from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch released last week, entitled “With Liberty to Monitor All” finds this to be exactly the case.
“Whether reporting valuable information to the public, representing another’s legal interests, or voluntarily associating with others in order to advocate for changes in policy, it is often crucial to keep certain information private from the government. In the face of a massively powerful surveillance apparatus maintained by the US government, however, that privacy is becoming increasingly scarce and difficult to ensure. As a result, journalists and their sources, as well as lawyers and their clients, are changing their behavior in ways that undermine basic rights and corrode democratic processes.”
The report, which is worth reading in its entirety, offers a broad, ambitious analysis of electronic surveillance’s impact on the press, on due process and the law, and our democracy in general. Based on interviews from 92 individuals—including dozens of veteran journalists and lawyers, as well as several current and former U.S. government officials—the report lays out a strong case that our nation’s overzealous surveillance state has become increasingly counterproductive and has compromised the rights and principles it purportedly protects.
Its section on the journalism is especially alarming. It reveals a natsec press corps mired in a kind of journalistic torpor, suffering from a drought of sources and struggling to implement a raft of new digital privacy countermeasures (many of which still have little to no ability to prevent government monitoring). Numerous national security reporters talk of the surveillance state’s chilling effect on their reporting and there’s clearly large opportunity costs to all the extra work involved. After all, it takes a lot of time to find and recruit new sources as well as to learn and master the use of encrypted communications; time that could be better spent uncovering government misconduct and informing the public.
This last point is a crucial one. Though journalists adopt (correctly) an adversarial role when reporting on the government—particularly important when sniffing out the many hidden corners of the national security apparatus—it’s important to remember that this is in our government and our country’s best interests. As Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post investigative reporter Dana Priest puts it in the report: “What makes government better is our work exposing information.” And this need for the press to act as a check against government misconduct or abuse of power becomes even more critical when the White House and Congress routinely fail to exercise any real oversight .
One of the most common arguments made in defense of the country’s current surveillance system is that critics can’t name one person who has really been harmed by it, even when it frequently oversteps its already feeble constraints. And it a strict sense they’re right; it’s very difficult to identify specific individual Americans whose lives have been damaged by it. (Although I’d say these Muslim American leaders clearly pass the test.) This report, however, stands as a clear rebuke to the “I’ve got nothing to hide, so who cares?” crowd because it demonstrates that it’s not merely individuals, but whole systems within our democracy itself that are collectively suffering. Freedom of the press, the right to privacy, due process, political accountability: more than any one person, it’s these bedrock principles of our nation that are being eroded away by an all-seeing, all-knowing national security posture.
Of course, spy agencies are supposed to spy. Accordingly, the report offers up numerous, common-sense recommendations for re-ordering secrecy and surveillance policy. Coincidentally, there was actually some encouraging news on this front out of Capitol Hill this week. The latest iteration of the USA FREEDOM Act put forward, if passed, would take real, substantive steps toward rolling back onerous bulk collection of records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the egregiously prejudicial National Security Letters. (Troublingly, the bill would exempt the FBI from oversight on so-called “back door searches,” a controversial surveillance tactic that the agency could employ to track whistleblowers who are in contact with journalists without obtaining a warrant.)
Arriving roughly one year after the first Snowden leaks, the ACLU/Human Rights Watch report offers a vital reminder of how much we’ve learned about our government’s surveillance programs since last summer. But it also highlights how far we have to go to strike the right balance between government secrecy, press freedom, and individual privacy, since many other flawed areas of overreach highlighted by the report—in particular, surveillance conducted under Section 702 and Executive Order 12333 authority—still have no proposed solution on the horizon. While the knowledge we’ve gained over the past year has undoubtedly made it tougher for journalists, lawyers, and lawmakers to do their job, having the scales lifted from our eyes is unquestionably better for all of us. Now that we know the high price our democracy is paying to accommodate this vast surveillance state, it’s up to us to do something about it. For, as the Bradlee character also pointed out in that same scene in All the President’s Men: “Nothing’s riding on this…except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
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Just read your piece on climate change reporting (“Blinded Me With Balance…”), and thought you might be interested (or at least entertained) by my own reflection (u.afp.com/Godzilla) after five years as a Paris-based science-&-environment reporter for Agence France Presse.
As an international news agency, we of course confronted all the questions you raise. While we never laid down specific agency-wide guidelines on how to deal with global warming ‘sceptics’, AFP has long had a firm policy of evaluating climate change stories on the basis of scientific merit. As a result, we never gave much oxygen to what were—for anyone who bothered to look closely—attention-seeking charlatans and/or& industry-fed flacks. I’m American, but looking at the U.S. from afar on this issue during the last eight years, I kept asking myself: when will mainstream media in the U.S. wake up? It took far too long, but the sleep-inducing spell seems finally to have broken (except, of course, chez Fox News). At a personal level, I struggled as a beat reporter with a different quandary: whether I could do my job with integrity having rather quickly come to the conclusion that climate change was a monumental—the monumental—threat of our times. Indeed, in mid-2009 I nearly cashed in my chips as a journalist, thinking that I might be able to communicate that reality more effectively in another guise. But long exchanges with colleagues, scientists and activists finally convinced me that honest, conscientious reporting on the science and policy—including, of course, foibles and failures—was the best way forward.
I'm blown over by the crystal clarity of your article (“From Hobby Lobby to Climate Change…”) exposing the incompetence, even the complicit deception, of the media regarding birth control* decisions passed on by men who have no conception (pun intended) of what a woman goes through in carrying a fetus as well as nurturing that child for the rest of its life. It truly is an attack on women, probably on "uppity" women who threaten their incompetence at their jobs. Nowhere have I seen it written (might be, but I haven't seen it) the simple fact that prohibiting contraception makes abortion even more likely.
*I refer to it as "pregnancy control" because that's what it is.
Somewhere in medical school I heard an instructor refer to pregnancy as a "parasitic infestation," because, technically, the implanted fetus is a parasite.
All that aside, you've inspired me to subscribe to The Nation again.
I look forward to further developments in your expose of the media's dereliction of duty. Free press should not include false press; right-wing fallacies (phallusies?) are too quick to deny women's experience or even existence—thanks for pointing out the few mentions in Alito's opinion.
SCROTUS's—Supreme Court (Really?) of the United States needs its own bias exposed—especially that of Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Roberts. I think Thomas may be impeachable—he sure stretches anyone's notion of appropriate or "good behavior."
Please forgive my bordering-on-the-obscene commentary, but I am really pissed by these bullies dicking us around. Did I mention that I am a woman?
Hobby Lobby's hypocrisy is even more evident that most of its merchandise is made in China, where abortions are forced. Enough rant for now.
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My new Nation column is called “ Don’t Know Much About History .” The subhed is: “The architects of our foreign-policy disasters would prefer we simply forget the past.” Guess what it’s about…
Here are the Alter-reviews:
1) The Alvin Brothers
2) CSN and CSNYY
3) Loudon Wainwright and David Bromberg
4) “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Nutty Professor”
5) New Jewish history and biography from Indiana University Press
1) Being a serious fan of the Blasters, I went to see the Alvin Brothers, Phil and Dave, promote their first studio album in thirty years, "Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy." The brothers have obviously not always gotten along so great, but two years ago when Phil was touring in Spain, he went to a local hospital for an infection from an abscessed tooth. Dave was informed that he was dead, and then informed that irreversible brain damage had caused his throat to swell virtually closed, his heart stopped and his vital signs flat-lined.
Anyway, Phil is somehow fine now—he loves his Spanish doctor--and the experience inspired both men to suck it up and start recording and touring together again. At the City Winery show, Dave did most of the talking, but was (to me, anyway) surprisingly deferential to Phil. Repeatedly he referred to the Blasters as Phil’s band, in which he briefly played and sang, (even though he wrote almost all their great material). True, Phil has a great voice—his version of “Please, Please, Please” delivered on its nearly impossible promise, but Dave is the genius. Highlights of the show included “Border Radio” and Leiber and Stoller’s “One Bad Stud” and of course, the instant classic “What’s Up With Your Brother,” but not, I say disappointedly, “American Music.” They were backed up by one of Dave’s bands. I’ve not gotten the cd yet but it can’t be anything but totally excellent. And if you want to hear more of their story, check out the interview they did with Terry Gross and listen to the new cd, upon which Phil sounds really terrific, though when you load it into iTunes, it comes up as just “Dave Alvin.”
2) Rhino’s CSNY 74 box set is one of the two big historical items of summer. (The other one is the complete 1971 Allman Brothers Fillmore shows.) I’m not saying that any cd package could be worth this wait—forty years is an awfully long time—but it is beautifully packaged and incredibly rich, including in newish material that has even bypassed most of the best-circulated bootlets. The audio is a pristine sounding 40 song set, divided between acoustic and electric sets and the video has 8 performances on it. I got the bluray audio, which sounds incredible, especially given the circumstances of the recording. And the 188 page booklet is well-written as well and generous, in terms of data and and photos, well beyond the call of duty. Fourteen year old yours truly bought tickets to the 77,000 person Roosevelt Raceway show with the Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell that September but I could not find a ride and so I had to sell them. Perhaps that was ok, since it ended up being a 12-hour show and began 3 hours early. But on these recordings, the band is terrific despite the fact that they could hardly speak to one another and were constantly worried about getting ripped off. (It was perhaps the first outdoor stadium tour—at least they say it was.) The guitar work of Stephen and Neil especially is one of the under-rated pleasures of a decidedly over-written era. (I guess coke overconsumption does not interfere with great guitar work.) It’s really superior in every way to 4 Way Street—every way except for the fact that it took four damn decades to arrive.
In celebration of the set, but also because they like to, CSN (minus Y) played three nights at the Beacon recently. I caught the opening show, which was surprisingly titled toward new material. Much of it was first-rate, though I find it difficult to enjoy music the first time I hear it. Stills’ guitar was just as solid as ever, backed up by Shane Fontayne, who has calmed down quite a bit since he played with Bruce, thankfully. The harmonies were (just about) as nice and vibes actually better than ever. The music, of course, is timeless (even without Y). These guys are a really good argument for getting old—though not such a good one for being young and famous and rich. Oh and they’re good sports too. Check out this Jimmy Fallon appearance if you’ve not already.
3) I saw two old reliables at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett David Bromberg and Loudon Wainwright, well, not together. Loudon’s show was whatever the WASPish word is for “mispucha” performance featuring Martha Wainwright and Lucy and Suzzy Roche. Loudon is just an amazing fellow for the way he has created this extended family and turned it into art and gotten everybody to go along, despite well, quite a few actions and undertakings that would have daunted—or perhaps even torn lesser families asunder. Everybody sounded great, especially Suzzy, upon whom I have a crush now going on about 36 years. Loudon looks distinguished with a white beard and his new stuff sounds like his old stuff, which is to say, smart and funny. The annual appearance in Amagansett gives the rest of us a chance to be glad we have our families and not his—albeit without the talent. You can hear him singing about his dog, here. The new album Haven't Got The Blues (Yet) will arrive in September
And since returning to performing live after 22 (or so) of retirement, David Bromberg and his band continue to offer a continuing master class in musical versitility, craftmanship, showmanship and good fun. It was a thrill to be so close to the stage at the Talkhouse and watch the man’s fingers move up and down those frets with equal parts imagination and self-discipline. Everyone in the band is terrific and if they’re not exactly tight, they make up for it in spades with chops and good humor. The material, as always, was first rate and Bromberg gets funnier as he gets older with that deadpan delivery and the now properly aged white blues voice. Go see these guys if you get the chance. Trust me. And the newish, but rather oldish sounding sort of ur-David Bromberg album is called “Only Slightly Mad,” if that’s as close as you can get. More here
4) On the merchandise front, there’s a brand new Criterion collection bluray/dvd package of “A Hard Day’s Night.” I shouldn’t really have to say more. It’s funny, sure, and creative and fun as hell. Andrew Sarris called it “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” In the documentary, Roger Ebert, who says he’s seen the movie 25 times, calls it “essentially orgasmic” today and compares it to “Casablanca” as well as Welles’ masterpiece. Well, OK. Most interestingly, from a historical viewpoint, I think the boys were already approaching, perhaps had already approached their melodic (through certainly not creative) peak with “All My Lovin’,” “Can’t ` Love,” “If I Fell, and especially, “I Should Have Known Better,”—an absolutely perfect song. Most people don’t think this happened until much later, but the proof is here. And now it’s got a gorgeous new 4K digital restoration, approved by director Richard Lester, with three audio options—a monaural soundtrack as well as newly created stereo and 5.1 surround mixes supervised by sound producer Giles Martin at Abbey Road Studios—presented in uncompressed monaural, uncompressed stereo, and DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray. I learned a lot from the “making of” documentary – “You Can’t Do That”: The Making of “A Hard Day’s Night,” a 1994 documentary by producer Walter Shenson including an outtake performance by the Beatles--which demonstrates, to an amazing degree, the casualness of the Beatles’ collective genius; one of the greatest of great things to happen in the twentieth century, or at least in my lifetime. [Did you know John and Paul wrote the title song pretty much to order and did so overnight because they needed a title song set to that title? I think they could have called it “You Can’t Do that” which was the song they cut from the band’s performances and was made available for the first time in this terrific documentary] Were I more a religious (and less grammatical) person, I would call them a miracle. (Funnily, Phil Collins compares it to the Old Testament.)
Plus that, you get all this:
– Audio commentary featuring cast and crew (dual-format only)
– In Their Own Voices, a new piece combining 1964 interviews with the Beatles with behind-the-scenes footage and photos
– Things They Said Today, a 2002 documentary about the film featuring Lester, music producer George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (dual-format only)
– Picturewise, a new piece about Lester’s early work, featuring a new audio interview with the director (dual-format only)
– The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), Lester’s Oscar-nominated short (dual-format only)
– Anatomy of a Style, a new piece on Lester’s methods (dual-format only)
– New interview with author Mark Lewisohn (dual-format only)
– PLUS: An essay by critic Howard Hampton and excerpts from a 1970 interview with Lester (dual-format only)
And being a longtime Francophile, I’m not ashamed to say that Jerry Lewis’s masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor” (1963), is one of my all-timers. The new Blu-ray/DVD combo, the box includes excerpts from the “Nutty Professor” script (written by Mr. Lewis and Bill Richmond); a hardcover selection of “Nutty Professor” storyboards; a facsimile of “Instruction Book for Being a Person,” the slim volume Mr. Lewis wrote, had bound and distributed to the movie’s cast and crew; a CD of 12 “phony phone calls” made by Mr. Lewis between 1959 and 1972; DVDs of “Cinderfella” (1960), a Lewis vehicle directed by Frank Tashlin but revised in the editing by its star; and the 1962 film “The Errand Boy”. So there’s that. I saw Jerry speak last year at the 92nd Street Y. It was one of the weirdest nights of my life. But the news was that he repeatedly denied that he was playing Dean in TNP, but like so much of what he said that night, it was nonsense.
5) I’ve been doing a lot of research in Jewish history of late and it leads me to want to write a short thank-you note to Indiana University Press, which, as scholars of the topic are well aware, punches way above its weight—or the weight of almost any other press in this category. I’ve had the occasion to spend some time with three recent publications of unique and significant value in recent weeks. They are The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan by Mel Scult, an emeritus professor at Brooklyn College, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence by my good friend and teacher, Rabbi Shai Held and In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine by Jeffrey Veidlinger, who teaches history and literature at the University of Michigan. Scult has already written a biography of Kaplan and so is able to combine his history with an inquiry into the meaning and (continueing relevance of his thought; though, I would argue that defines the beliefs of most American Jews, though precious few are aware of this. Rabbi Held’s book is strictly a theological examination of Heschel’s thought and a demanding one at that. It will no doubt reward the careful reading it requires. Heschel has become a kind of popular symbol of Jewish political liberalism in the sixties but not only is this misleading as matter of history, it does not begin to do justice to the religious and theological context out of which this action—“praying with his feet” as he called it—arose. Held does that and much more. I’ve not had time to delve into Veidlinger’s book yet, but its reviews have been superlative.
Blinded Me with Balance: How the U.S. Media Gets Science Coverage Wrong (& How It Can Get It Right)
by Reed Richardson
The press, as a rule, has never been an institution that spends a lot of time looking inward. Deeper-level questions about how it covers an issue or a topic rarely rise to the level where they’re allowed outweigh the exigencies of today’s deadlines and headlines. Journalism is the so-called first draft of history, after all, with heavy emphasis on the word “draft.” And such a granular, ephemeral emphasis on the here and now is ill-suited to noticing larger, long-gestating changes in a story or narrative and incorporating those changes into one’s reporting.
All this is to say that what the BBC has undertaken in the past few years is quite incredible. For a global news organization to publicly admit that its coverage of a critical news topic was sub-standard is remarkable in its own right. But then for it to devote exceedingly precious resources—both time and money—to better understand the subject matter and how it can be covered more accurately is, well, almost unheard of. (That the BBC is a publicly-funded news trust rather than a subsidiary of a large profit-driven multinational no doubt allows it to engage in this kind of editorial self-examination, but I digress.)
This past week, the BBC released the final installment of its multi-year review, the focus of which primarily centered on how well the network fulfilled its mission of impartially covering science. After years of inquiry, which included commissioning an independent analysis of its science coverage by academics and hosting numerous in-house science tutorials for 200 of its senior staff, the BBC came to grips with reality. In doing so, it belatedly joins what was already a widespread acceptance of climate change in the European media . Which is why the BBC’s common-sense conclusions should be required reading in newsrooms across the U.S.:
“[I]mpartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, which may result in a ‘false balance’. More crucially it depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given. In this respect, editorial decisions should be guided by where the scientific consensus might be found on any given topic, if it can in fact be determined. […]
“This does not mean that critical opinion should be excluded. Nor does it mean that scientific research shouldn’t be properly scrutinised. The BBC has a duty to reflect the weight of scientific agreement but it should also reflect the existence of critical views appropriately. Audiences should be able to understand from the context and clarity of the BBC’s output what weight to give to critical voices.”
These conclusions, the BBC goes on to note, are of particular importance when covering climate change and evolution, where there exists overwhelming scientific agreement on the basic facts. Going forward, BBC says that it will take care to give “due weight” to scientific theories without being bound to offer an equal counterpoint where none is merited. Imagine that, a media organization thinking first and foremost about the mission of informing readers rather than maintaining a contrived veneer of political neutrality.
It’s just the kind of fresh thinking the media could use here in the U.S. Here, sadly, TV news networks are still actively trolling for climate deniers to put on the air. As Media Matters documented two weeks ago, a clumsy editor at CNBC accidentally outed that network’s attempts at providing a friendly platform for climate-change-is-a-hoax shtick . This disregard for the facts isn’t much of a surprise, however, as CNBC routinely gives climate change deniers a majority of airtime on the issue.
Over at Fox News—to no one’s surprise—newsroom leadership has long taken a dim view of the scientific consensus on climate change and insists on giving “critics” equal—if not more—coverage. Or, as then Washington bureau chief Bill Sammon put it in afrantic 2010 email memo to his staff:
“…we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.” [emphasis in original]
There is a kind of audacious, Orwellian purity to Sammon’s warning: “it is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as fact.” But it fits perfectly with a cable network whose ultimate purpose isn’t to present facts to its viewers so much as it is to package an alternate reality for them. To assert there is a climate change “debate,” as Sammon put it, isn’t just a feature of Fox News, though. It’s standard practice among a wide swath of the establishment media that seeks intellectual shelter in equivocating, on-the-other-hand coverage. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that Fox News’ climate change coverage was misleading 72% of the time, but also that CNN’s was too nearly one-third of the time. MSNBC’s coverage, by contrast, was rated as accurate by the UCS nearly all of the time. And lest you think it’s just TV news doing this, think again. Major newspapers and wire services do it too.
Scientists have certainly noticed the media’s propensity for false balance. In anaggregating survey of nearly 400 climate scientists , published in 2010 by German scientists Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch, they said journalists reach out to a scientist claiming climate change is a hoax almost as often as they contact a scientist claiming climate change is real and an impending disaster. (On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being very likely contacted, the “hoax” source averaged a 4.9, while the median score for the “real, disaster” source was 5.6. See Q’s: 58 & 59.) This, despite the fact that the same survey found zero climate scientists said climate change was “not at all” happening and less than two percent said climate change was “not at all” the result of man-made causes (Q’s: 20 & 21).
This particular survey by Bray and von Storch offers a window into the polarized state of scientific debate in the media. That’s because it has become something of a touchstone for climate deniers, who have tried to conflate its findings of specific disagreements in the scientific community on the mechanisms and impacts of man-made climate change with the idea that no consensus exists on the broader question of anthropogenic climate change. Two major surveys of climate scientists put the consensus figure at97% , which is the number NASA endorses as well. The latest UN IPCC report from last fall varies a tiny bit from this, using a 95% confidence number.
Nevertheless, a pair of ‘consensus truthers’ was given ample room on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page recently to try to undermine the idea of climate change by specifically citing the Bray and von Storch survey as proof that the 97% consensus is a “myth.” Not surprisingly, the op-ed’s co-authors—one of whom is president of the oil and gas-industry funded Heartland Institute—failed to mention the most salient findings I cited above. And notably, two weeks after that column was published, Dennis Bray himself published a rebuttal post on the Klimazwiebel blog. In it, he called out theJournal op-ed’s claims about his survey as “inaccurate if not outright false” and lamented that his work had been co-opted for partisan purposes and circulated around the world as proving something that it doesn’t.
As the old Mark Twain adage goes, though, Bray’s truth on his blog will never catch up to the jet-fueled distortions of climate deniers in the mainstream media. Even if they somehow did, numerous studies have found that attempts at debunking myths are, in fact, counterproductive; they produce a ‘backfire effect’ that only serves to strengthen belief in the myth. For evidence of how stubbornly embedded phony scientific beliefs can become, one need only look to the climate skeptics’ conference being held at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas this week. Sponsored by—looky here—the Heartland Institute, the conference’s keynote speaker on Tuesday was Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who, in his speech, proceeded to run through a whole host of easily disproven conspiracies about global warming, acid rain, and water fluoridation. Rohrabacher, I might point out, sits on the House Science Committee.
Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan has noted that once a scientific issue gets interwoven with politics, the former often gets subsumed by the latter. Or, as he explained at The Upshot after the Hobby Lobby case: “identity often trumps the facts.” The media’s role in at the intersection of science and policy has been a frequent point of inquiry for Nyhan, and his 2010 study of the myths propagated during the Clinton and Obama health care reform debates offers up very similar conclusions to the BBC survey:
“[U]ntil the media stops giving so much attention to misinformers, elites on both sides will often succeed in creating misperceptions, especially among sympathetic partisans. And once such beliefs take hold, few good options exist to counter them—correcting misperceptions is simply too difficult.”
Some American news sites are catching on to this. The Los Angeles Times, for example, took a small, but important step last fall when it declared it would no longer run climate change denial letters to the editor . Paul Thornton, the Times’ letters editor, explained his decision as a matter of journalistic integrity: “I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page…saying "there's no sign humans have caused climate change" is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.”
Similarly, the PhD chemist Nathan Allen, who is the moderator of Reddit’s popular/r/science discussion board chose to ban climate change denying commenters recently. Although controversial, removing what, in the end, amounted to just a handful of people who had been mostly lobbing insults made a huge difference. Where before discussions were routinely hijacked by paranoid, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, now there is serious, substantive debate about the facts of climate change and other scientific topics. The experience left Allen convinced more can be done and, in a column for Grist last December, he issued a challenge to the press: “[I]f a half-dozen volunteers can keep a page with more than 4 million users from being a microphone for the antiscientific, is it too much to ask for newspapers to police their own editorial pages as proficiently?”
The simple answer should be “no.” After all, nonpartisan media watchdogs cheered theTimes decision as a long overdue re-assertion of the primacy of facts as the basis for all journalism, whether it’s in the news or opinion pages. Nevertheless, a misguided sense of objectivity still colors much of the American media’s news judgment, which is likely who no other major newspaper has followed suit. And climate skeptics, aided by the usual suspects in the media, have been quick to exploit the media’s timidity and claim their dissenting views are being unfairly suppressed.
The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. And that’s the problem. By essentially leveling the ground for climate deniers, the press neutralizes the scientific consensus by converting the discussion into one of politics and beliefs. This is more comfortable, familiar terrain for the press because it allows it to avoid value judgments about the validity of each side’s arguments. But when every fact can be grounds for a debate, then there really are no facts anymore. In such an environment, it’s little surprise then, that compromise is impossible and nothing much gets done in Washington anymore either.
Choosing to do nothing about climate change is, of course, still a choice, just as choosing not to acknowledge the scientific consensus about climate change is one as well. In the face of such a fundamental global threat, however, both choices are increasingly untenable. The BBC was wise to recognize how its flawed editorial decisions were playing into this calculus and that it could do better by its global audience. As watchdog of the biggest greenhouse gas-producing nation in our planet’s history, the American media bears an even larger burden in how it covers climate change. But if it continues to forsake its responsibility to the truth, the notion that ours is a free press equal to (or better than) the rest of the world’s media will just be yet another tragic case of false balance.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
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1) Randy Newman’s “Faust” at City Center
2) Richard Thompson at The Irridium
3) Henry Kissinger says something crazy
Lucky yours truly, I got a last minute ticket to see the only New York performance of Randy Newman’s adaptation of Goethe’s “Faust” at City Center, a one-night-only concert directed by Thomas Kail, as part of the City Center Encores! Off-Center series. Randy came out dressed in a devil’s costume—apparently fooled by the rest of the cast that they would be in costume too. He introduced the piece by explaining, which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1995, by explaining, “This is my version of Goethe’s ‘Faust.’” “His ‘Faust,’ of course, is a masterpiece. I read the classic comic book, and I concur.” He then wondered aloud whether his version would stand with Goethe’s in the Western canon for hundreds of years as well. “Only time will tell,” he mused.
OK, perhaps not. Perhaps only a few of the songs are even at the top of Newman’s incredible canon. But the piece, as performed by Newman as Lucifer (or “Luci” as God calls him), Laura Osnes, Tony Vincent, Isaiah Johnson, Vonda Shepard and Michael Cerveris, together with a wonderfully evocative and funky 16-memberBroadway Inspirational Voices, under the direction of the choirmaster Michael McElroy, and a perfectly fine mini-orchestra, got everything out of the play’s music there is—even including the wonderful album version with all the LA singer/songwriter star power on it.
The plot is a contemporary version of Goethe’s story, but it takes place in South Bend, Indiana on the Notre Dame campus (with a side trip to Central America). The highlight, no contest, was a beautiful duet by Randy and Vonda Shepard of the sappy masterpiece, “Feels Like Home,” the applause for which literally stopped the show. I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to see it performed again, but buy the album. Also Newman’s recent recordings of his old stuff which has been appearing on Nonesuch of late and is, like Newman, a reliable bittersweet pleasure and also a cultural treasure.
Speaking of which, thanks also, I think, to PBS’s “Front and Center” program, a small number of lucky folk got to see the amazing Richard Thompson (and bass and drums) at the intimate Irridium club in Times Square on Monday night. What a thrill it was to be able to witness up close the man move his fingers up and down the frets. Thompson is perhaps the most impressive guitarist I have ever seen who is not famous for being a “guitar god.” He works pretty hard too, given that he is the only guitarist in his band. I think the reason he is not spoken of in the same sentences as Clapton, Allman, Gibbons, Vaughan, etc is that his music is not blues-based. It’s English/Scottish folkie music, electrified. And while the songs are clever and intricate, not so many of them are hummable. Some, however, are beautiful, “Dimming of the Day,” which he did not do and “Wall of Death” which he did. “Tear-Stained Letter” is always a rave and that was the first encore. Anyway, watch the show and amaze yourselves. If you need a primer on RT, start with the divorce album he did with his ex, Linda Thompson, “Shoot Out the Lights.” It is the third best divorce album of all time, in this opinion, after (of course) “Blood on the Tracks,” and “Tunnel of Love.”
Before going to the show, by the way, I went to a pretty interesting panel at Thompson/Reuters about World War I, moderated by my friend Sir Harold Evans, which was going fine until Henry Kissinger made the crazy statement that all five wars entered into by the US since World War II had been so with the country united. Speaking from the back of the audience, I expressed my (polite) amazement at this fact, given that Iraq I and Iraq II were incredibly contested from the start, and Vietnam was only approved of because we were so profoundly lied to. Kissinger did not really reply and Harry could not really hear the question so the response was most unsatisfying. Depressing as all hell, I gotta say, but it gave me an idea for a column and the food was pretty good, so ok, onward. (I see there is video here. I come in at about 65 minutes, though it does not really work out well because Harry could neither see nor hear me and “Dr. Kissinger,” as everybody annoyingly called him, was able to easily evade the point.)
Oh and to you BDS folk: My guess is that if you’ve lost Noam Chomsky….
From Hobby Lobby to Climate Change: How the Media Enables the Right-wing’s Politicization of Science
by Reed Richardson
We’re at a particularly hyper-partisan moment in our country. As such, one would think the existence of a scientific consensus on a policy issue would offer the mainstream media a welcome oasis from the mirage of social media myths and the desert of dueling soundbites that all too often crowd out informed comment. Using such a consensus as a no bullshit baseline, an objective journalist could more honestly explore opposing arguments, measure them against evidence, and judge their veracity. This is no small thing, because if modern journalism is to continue to live up to its Constitutional promise, it can’t merely be about telling the who, what,when and where of the world anymore, it must go beyond that to explain the how and why.
But time and again, the establishment media fails at reaching this higher bar. Instead of contextualizing policy debates by weaving in extant scientific knowledge or academic research, the national press all too readily churns out formulaic stories filled with superficial horserace reporting. A press corps so consistently unmoored from facts becomes very vulnerable, however, when one of our nation’s two political parties undertakes a proverbial war on science. With very little effort, policy debates can get hijacked and devolve from discussing relevant facts to a lobbing ad hominem insults. This simple-minded journalistic approach renders the underlying science of any issue moot. But it’s a safer career move, since it just wouldn’t do well for an “objective” journalist to always be pointing out that, on issue after issue, one party has become fully detached from scientific reality. In a “both sides do it” media culture, no party or ideology can ever lose legitimacy, no matter how crackpot its ideas about how the world works.
Exhibit A in the mainstream media’s failure to execute this due diligence is its consistently ill-informed climate change coverage. Even though an overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and man-made, the media rarely, if ever, treats this mountain of evidence as a given. Instead, it treats this reality very much like a battle of opinions or, more accurately, of belief systems: Liberals believe in climate change, conservatives don’t. Climate change is not an ideological principle or a policy outcome about which reasonable people can disagree, though; it’s an observable phenomenon. So when the media enables anyone to deny the existence of climate change, it is tantamount to journalistic malpractice.
Nevertheless, this malpractice happens every single day. Whether pigeonholing global warming as a niche topic,soliciting denialist voices and granting them an outsized platform, or outright disappearing of the crisis, the press regularly plays into conservatives’ hands, helping them manufacture dissent and sow confusion amongst the public even though none exists in the scientific community. Among Tea Partiers, disbelief in anthropogenic climate change has become something of an article of faith, so much so that, contra the parable of Noah, no amount of catastrophic warnings can change their stubborn minds. And in much the same way that Pope Urban VIII’s Vatican concocted an “investigation” to disprove Galileo’s proof of a sun-centered solar system, right-wing denialists have cooked up numerous alternative climate change theories that neatly conform to their worldview, but which all fall apart under scientific scrutiny.
The public policy ramifications of this media failure hit home again this past Monday. That’s when the Roberts Court’s conservative majority ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, a craft retailer that sued the federal government for infringing on its religious freedom. At the core of the company’s objections was its claim that four of the 20 methods of contraception mandated by the Afforable Care Act are abortifacients (i.e. they terminate an in-progress pregnancy).
The good news: just like climate change, there was an overwhelming scientific consensus about this claim. Let’s be totally clear—the idea that IUDs and morning-after pills are abortifacients is clearly rejected by medical science. And no less than the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Health, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, and the Mayo Clinic agree. To all of these organizations, to whom we trust to regulate, advise, and train our nation’s professional healthcare providers, pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg is successfully implanted in the uterus, so IUDs and Plan B morning-after pills are contraceptives. Full stop. So, case dismissed, right?
The bad news, of course, was that there was an overwhelming scientific consensus about this claim, and just like with climate change, conservatives on the court simply didn’t care. Never mind that the medical facts in the case strongly suggested Hobby Lobby had no real standing to sue in the first place. In fact, on page 9 of Justice Alito’s majority ruling, we find this inconvenient truth conveniently tucked away down in a footnote:
“The owners of the companies involved in these cases and others who believe that life begins at conception regard these four methods as causing abortions, but federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation.”
The whole Hobby Lobby case, in other words, was built upon a willfully accepted fallacy. Monday’s Supreme Court decision wasn’t a victory for religious freedom over the government as much it was a triumph of religious belief over science. (There’s also rank hypocrisy and disingenuousness at work here as well. Hobby Lobby’s employee retirement plan invests in the very pharmaceutical companies that make emergency contraception. And up until two years ago, Hobby Lobby’s health insurance plan actually offered IUDs and Plan B. Only after being contacted by a right-wing legal group—hunting for a proxy in their fight to weaken Obamacar—did the company conveniently discover its religious objection.)
Nevertheless, right-wing and “pro-life” supporters have so successfully muddied the facts about contraception, the press demonstrated little interest in correcting them. Case in point, the New York Times’ big, lead story on the decision, which whistled right past the plaintiff’s key claim:
“The health care law and related regulations require many employers to provide female workers with comprehensive insurance coverage for a variety of methods of contraception. The companies objected to some of the methods. “No one has disputed the sincerity of their religious beliefs,” Justice Alito wrote. The dissenters agreed.
“The companies said they had no objection to some forms of contraception, including condoms, diaphragms, sponges, several kinds of birth control pills and sterilization surgery. Justice Ginsburg wrote that other companies may object to all contraception, and that the ruling would seem to allow them to opt out of any contraception coverage.”
Notice something missing here? For some reason, the Times tells us all about which specific contraceptives Hobby Lobby doesn’t object to, but we never learn which ones they do object to, and more importantly, why, and if their objections had any scientific merit.
The Washington Post’s Supreme Court write-up at least included more specifics than the Times, but its scattershot approach leads it to fall back into the same old false equivalence framing:
“Some businesses object to offering contraception at all, while others, like the companies that brought the challenge to the Supreme Court, say offering certain types of birth control, such as IUDs, make them complicit in abortion.”
[…11 paragraphs later…]
“In this case, the companies’ owners say that four of the 20 contraceptives approved by the FDA work after an egg has been fertilized and thus are abortifacients. While many, if not most, doctors and scientists disagree, Alito said the point is that the owners believe offering such services—such as the morning-after pill and IUDs—violates their religious faiths.”
Notice, again, how Alito’s whole justification for ruling against Obamacare rests upon what the Hobby Lobby owners believe. Does the Post pushback on this citing expert medical analysis? Does it point out a lot of people believe a lot of crazy things with no basis in fact but they still don’t merit a judicial carve-out from federal health regulations. Not really. It equivocates with “many, if not most doctors and scientists disagree,” an intentionally squishy qualifier that offers little more than the pretense of context.
Tellingly, mainstream media coverage, overall, wasn’t much better than Fox News. This was how they didn’t get it right: “Dozens of companies, including Hobby Lobby, claim religious objections to covering some or all contraceptives. The methods and devices at issue before the Supreme Court were those the plaintiffs say can work after conception.” In fact, the latest research suggests that IUDs and Plan B actually don’t work after conception. But even if they do, it’s important to remember that the scientific consensus clearly says that preventing a fertilized egg from implanting is not an abortion. In fact, the Affordable Care Act is explicitly forbidden from funding coverage for abortions. That “dozens of companies” are making—or, more precisely, making up—an argument to the contrary shouldn’t be worth a bucket of warm spit when it comes to crafting public health policy.
This doesn’t stop some conservatives from trying to have it both ways—to both dismiss scientific consensus while pretending its on their side. Back in May, for example, GOP Senator Marco Rubio even went so far as to claim the “science is settled” that life begins at conception. No sir. Others on the right have tried to polarize the medical definition of pregnancy, claiming it is “an odd insistence” of “the Left” without mentioning all the nonpartisan medical professional organizations that endorse this same conclusion. Getting points for chutzpah and projection, one obtuse conservative snarkily dinged the “anti-Science Left” for failing to recognize that you can’t produce a life without a fertilized egg. Of course, you can’t produce life beyond a few cells unless that fertilized egg is implanted in a woman’s uterus, but then disappearing women out of the discussion of contraceptive choice and reproductive rights is another common tactic among the right. On a related note, Alito’s 49-page opinion only mentioned “woman” or “women” 13 times.
By failing to honestly address the science at the root of the Hobby Lobby case, the media has fallen for the same old conservative spin that, for years, has also corrupted its climate change coverage. In a way, it mirrors the actions of the Roberts Court’s conservative majority, which similarly granted greater weight to the plaintiffs’religious interpretation of medical science than to actual medical science itself. Sadly, this brazen act of judicial corporate activism was compounded by a tragic failure of explanatory journalism. And thanks to the latter, the public is less informed about broad consequences of the former. As now almost anyone—or anything, for that matter—can construct a so-called religious freedom if science and the evidentiary process need not be involved in defining the boundaries of said freedoms.
The Hobby Lobby case has set us upon a dangerously slippery legal slope. By endowing for-profit companies with unprecedented rights over their employees and unheard of freedoms from federal regulations, conservatives have set the conditions for future corporate discrimination as well as delegitimization of the government. But it is also a broader, cautionary tale about how poorly the mainstream media holds conservatives accountable for their often specious scientific claims. Facts are the most precious currency of journalists, but if they aren’t willing to speak scientific truth to power—whether it’s on reproductive rights or evolution or climate change—it’s not just the press’s reputation that suffers. We all do.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
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My most recent Nation column is about punditry and Bill de Blasio’s fiscal stewardship of the city and is called “Can a Liberal Mayor Be Financially Responsible?”
I also did a piece about the current (horrific) state of Iraq punditry for Billmoyers.com and it’s called “Eric Alterman Warns: Pundits and Partisans Are Up to Old Tricks in Iraq.”
And I wrote a letter to the NYTBR about the Allman Brothers Band, no really, I did.
Also, there were three letters about me in The Nation this week. I suck according to one of them, but am cool according to the other two. They are printed below.
1) Carlene Carter live at the Cutting Room and on cd
2) Hot Tuna and Leon Russell at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester
3) Elvis Costello at Carnegie Hall
4) Led Zeppelin I-III remastered.
* Carlene Carter has had quite the life. Daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter, step-daughter to the Man in Black and a singer with The Carter Family, while at the same time, becoming pregnant and married at 15 (and now boasting seven grandchildren), she’s kind of a country song without even opening up her mouth.
I saw her sing in Montreux with her then-husband Nick Lowe and Rockpile (in a bill with Mink Deville and Elvis Costello) and she was quite something back then and her mouth made her persona non-grata in Nashville. Today she is quite something else (as is Nashville, come to think of it). A pretty orthodox country singer, she is embracing her heritage and her extended family’s honored place in the music. Supported by her husband Joe Breen on vocals and another guy who she said was also her roadie, she gave a charming performance at the Cutting Room, a short while back in support of her fine album, “Carter Girl,” which naturally features her stepdad’s old friends, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and the excellent Elizabeth Cook, produced by Don Was. It’s old and new at the same time and almost always in good ways. (And I got to go with the beautiful and talented Tammy Faye Starlite [playing her charming self].)
* I also made it out to Port Chester, where promoter Peter Shapiro has remade (and re-imagined) the rock hall of my misspent youth, the Capitol Theater. It’s gorgeous now and the sound is spectacular. Leon Russell did a decent set of mostly rock standards with a few Leon Russell songs thrown in, before Jack and Jorma came on just before ten. Barry Mitterhoff was oddly absent—to me he has been just as much a part of the band as those guys for the past decade (at least)—but Larry Clark and his wife Teresa were on hand and the band sounded nice and full on the pretty songs like “I See the Light,” and “Sugaree,” which is becoming a standard among jam bands. They sounded noisy as hell on their power trio stuff like “Rock Me, Baby.” (I lack the words to say how much I prefer former, but I appear to be in a minority of Tuna fans in that regard.) They did not do any Airplane songs, but it’s a marvelous thing if you live in the burbs, to be able to drop by so beautiful a hall and see a show like that. I’m not sure they deserve it. But anyway, Jack and Jorma have a new website with lots of HD recordings for sale, among other things, and you can find that here. If you want to see the impressive schedule a the Capitol, or just ogle the hall, you can do that here.
* Elvis Costello played Carnegie Hall debut as a headliner for the first time this week. I saw him Tuesday night. (I say “as a headliner” because he did join Spinal Tap there in 2001, "Gimme Some Money.”)
It was, in many respects, a pretty remarkable performance. Elvis surrounded on the big, formal stage by six guitars and a keyboard, Elvis played song after song after song, alone on stage for over two hours. He ran the gamut of his forty-or-so year songwriting career and the audience proved enormously appreciative even from way up in the cheap seats. Dressed in a black suit and black shirt with a white fedora, Elvis told stories and sang his heart out (so to speak) and you wouldn’t think his voice has the range it does--at least emotionally, but he certainly took his material seriously. Old fart that I am, I enjoyed the oldest material the best--scorching versions of “Watching the Detectives” and “I Want You” and a lovely “Allison.” The only cover—“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”—sounded like old, angry Elvis rather than avuncular, dad-of-twins Elvis of today.
* What is there to be said about Led Zep after all this time. They invented a genre, revolutionized stadium shows, sold 300 million records, behaved really badly especially with fish and groupies around if legend is to be believed. My friends at Rhino have just released deluxe editions of their first three albums remastered by Jimmy Page in various versions that include:
-Single CD - Remastered album packaged in a gatefold card wallet.
-Deluxe Edition (2CD) - Remastered album, plus a second disc of unreleased companion audio.
-Single LP - Remastered album on 180-gram vinyl, packaged in a sleeve that replicates the LP's first pressing in exacting detail. (For example, III will feature the original wheel and die cut holes.)
-Deluxe Edition Vinyl - Remastered album and unreleased companion audio on 180-gram vinyl.
-Digital Download - Remastered album and companion audio will both be available.
-Super Deluxe Boxed Set - This collection includes:
—Remastered album on CD in vinyl replica sleeve.
—Companion audio on CD in card wallet.
—Remastered album on 180-gram vinyl in a sleeve replicating first pressing.
—Companion audio on 180-gram vinyl.
—High-def audio download card of all content at 96kHz/24 bit. (Live tracks are 48kHz/24 bit).
—Hard bound, 70+ page book filled with rare and previously unseen photos and memorabilia.
—High quality print of the original album cover, the first 30,000 of which will be individually numbered.
—Led Zeppelin will also include a replica of the band's original Atlantic press kit.
I got the deluxe cd versions. How do they sound today? Well, pretty great, though I did not a/b them with the old versions, and anyway, I imagine it’s impossible to recreate the shock of 1969 when they were blowing up speakers in everybody’s basement rec room. The first album comes with a hitherto unreleased 1969 show from Paris with a15-minute version of "Dazed And Confused,” and a much too long “Moby Dick.” (Though to be fair, all versions of “Moby Dick” are much too long.)
The other two cds have alternate mixes and backing tracks but just a smidgen of unreleased songs and no new live performances. Even so, if you’re a fan of the band, you’ll find these irresistible and if you’re not, well, it’s right place to start and see if you still feel that way. For my money “Immigrant Song” is one of the half dozen great riffs of all time, just a notch below “Layla,” “Satisfaction,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Born to Run,” (and I also love “Drive My Car,” but that may be a bit more subjective). Anyway, you get two versions here.
Here are those Nation letters I mentioned above:
Thank you for this outstanding issue, featuring Edward Snowden, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Reich and Eric Alterman. Yes, “there’s no place like Washington,” as Alterman says in “Obama’s Pundit Problem”; but there is, thankfully, also no publication like The Nation—and no one like Alterman to speak truth to power and to those of us without power who long for the truth. He’s the only journalist I trust; he takes up and articulates my causes—always something I believe in, know to be true, and care about, but am too… impotent to take on. I depend on him and on The Nation.
Kudos to Eric Alterman for speaking truth to pundits like Maureen Dowd. Her use of the president’s first name from his youth, as in the cited headline (Is Barry Whiffing?), has always struck me as belittling, meanspirited and unbecoming in a supposedly serious writer. It was overdue that Alterman, a professional colleague, spoke out. He reminded us as well about how complex a president’s tasks are, carried out in the face of unending Republican recalcitrance (and/or racism). Thank you, Mr. Alterman.
CHARLES B. GREENBERG, MURRYSVILLE, PA.
Too bad that the writings of Eric Alterman on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement [“Letters,” May 26] and the FLAME ads that often appear in the magazine are nearly indistinguishable. Eric has been so helpful on so many other subjects; it is a real pity to see him so wrong on BDS. It reminds me of the defenders of South Africa and the “constructive engagement” of Reagan.
MICHAEL KOIVULA, SPRINGFIELD, ORE.
The Media’s Disappearing of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Program and Why It Matters
by Reed Richardson
In Syria, the Obama administration just achieved an unprecedented foreign policy success in WMD nonproliferation, but you likely didn't hear about it. Nine months after entering into joint negotiation with the Russians and Syria’s tyrannical President Bashar al-Assad, the last of that country’s 1,300 tons of declared chemical weapons began a journey to a chemical weapons-eating ship in the Mediterranean for destruction by the US. This follows the rapid destruction of all of Syria’s chemical munitions last fall. And while a dozen chemical weapon facilities inside Syria still remain to be destroyed, Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of teh Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), was uncharacteristically upbeat about what the US-brokered deal had just accomplished in the middle of the Syrian civil war:
The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation. Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes.
This successful dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program by the US has been matched by an almost as successful disappearing of the news of it by the Beltway media, however. What there was of so-called straight news coverage felt strangely perfunctory. While the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times did run their own articles about the final handoff of Syrian chemical weapons, they hardly gave it front-page treatment. The LA Times’ story ran on page A3 on Tuesday; the Post and the NY Times stories ran on Monday, on pages A6 and A8, respectively. But that looked like flooding the zone compared to cable news coverage. A search of Fox News and CNN archives turns up no on-air discussion of the news and only a single online story each (Fox News merely ran the AP wire story). MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow did do a short, smart segment on the implications of this diplomatic triumph on Monday, but, notably, all three nightly news broadcasts simply ignored the news that same evening.
To be fair, foreign bureaus of U.S. news organizations are routinely stretched thin, especially right now thanks to the concurrent rise of the violent ISIS uprising in Iraq, which has consumed most of the overseas media oxygen. But there’s little doubt that this disinterest is also fueled by a broader narrative bias that has captured the DC conventional wisdom of late—the portrayal of the Obama foreign policy as weak and incompetent. Indeed, it’s telling that the Obama administration’s striking, nonproliferation success in Syria has been met with such a deafening silence by so many of the same Beltway pundits and politicians who loudly scoffed at Obama’s plan last September.
Case in point: Senate Republican hawks like Bob Corker, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham. The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker called the deal a “complete failure” as recently as three months ago. As for the Bomb-sey twins McCain and Graham, in their never-ending pursuit of applying US military materiel to every problem overseas, they blasted the administration’s chemical weapons deal as “provocative weakness” and a “diplomatic blind alley” before the ink was dry. “We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon,” the pair boldly declared in a press release last September. Now that Assad has signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention and handed over his chemical weapons to a strong multi-lateral alliance, has anyone from the press bothered to ask McCain or Graham if they still feel the deal sends the wrong message to Iran? But you know the answer to this already.
Linking Iran to Syria has been a frequent tactic among opponents of the deal, and no one has done so with quite the white-hot vigor as the Washington Post’s resident Iranophobe, Jennifer Rubin. “Gone is the demonstration of resolve meant to signal seriousness about chemical weapons,” Rubin wrote at the time of the deal. “Gone is any deterrent effect to Iran.” In May, when the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons hit a temporary snag, she leapt to the conclusion that: “Assad has demonstrated for the world, and especially for his overlords in Tehran, that you can use WMDs, stay in power, promise to give them up and then keep some.”
So what, pray tell, was Rubin’s response to the good news from this past weekend? Close to panic, especially since Syria’s WMD capitulation inconveniently arrived just weeks before the final deadline of the P5+1 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. In a ridiculous column titled “Who is the Nonproliferation President?”, Rubin skates right by the success in Syria, instead making the Orwellian claim that Obama has actually “lost ground” when it comes to nonproliferation and that Iran will benefit from his supposed callousness.
Incredibly, she chooses to do this by contrasting Obama’s record with that of his predecessor, in a ham-fisted attempt to rehabilitate President George W. Bush’s foreign policy reputation. You remember Bush, the guy who helped ignite a Sunni-Shia sectarian civil war and introduce the precursor of ISIS into Iraq when he invaded it based on phony intelligence about anon-existent WMD program. As opposed to the current president, who wisely did not insert US troops into the midst of a Sunni-Shia sectarian civil war in Syria and yet who still managed to end that country’s very real WMD program.
This is patently silly, which is why Rubin must resort to some breathtaking leaps in logic. First and foremost, she commits a giant sin of omission, having the gall to tout Bush’s nonproliferation record without ever mentioning a little country called North Korea, the negligent handling of which ranks as perhaps the biggest nonproliferation foreign policy mistake in a generation. (Even neocon Fred Kaplan called Bush’s failed North Korea policy “Rolling Blunder.”) Then there’s her consistent ability to obfuscate historical facts to misinform her readers. For example, she characterizes Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s decision to voluntarily give up WMDs as vindication of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. In truth, the real trigger behind Gadhafi’s decision was the seizure of physical evidence of his WMD program by British and US intelligence as part of an international nonproliferation initiative. One not dissimilar to the cooperative effort that just got Syria to give up their WMD program as well. Funny, that.
This deception matters because Rubin, along with most of the other Beltway critics of Obama’s Mideast foreign policy, have always hedged their bets on the Syria deal, never doubting it would not work, but dismissing it as pointless, just in case. This group, I’d note, does not include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Rubin typically defends against all comers. On Meet the Press this past Sunday, Netanyahu said Obama struck a “good deal” in negotiating the demise of Syria’s chemical weapons. (I’d love to read Rubin’s denunciation of Bibi’s dangerous naiveté, but I’m not holding my breath.) Instead, she and others argue that the deal does little to achieve the ouster of Assad and ameliorate the humanitarian crisis of the war. Furthermore, they note that, as an alternative, the regime has simply turned to weaponizing industrial chemicals like chlorine gas—which are not banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention—in “barrel bomb” attacks on rebels and civilians. These are valid points, but here too, they demonstrate a startling narrow view of foreign policy strategy.
For one, these critics never acknowledge that Assad’s use of chlorine gas in this crude manner, while horrible, is much less effective than deploying military-grade chemical weapons and, as defense experts have noted, smacks of desperation. Nor do these same hawks consider the potential value of OPCW inspectors—who are still on the ground in Syria—collecting contemporaneous proof of Assad’s war crimes. Gathering this kind of evidence could present an opportunity to charge Assad in international court and/or exert further diplomatic pressure on Russia and Iran to push their client-state into a ceasefire.
The preferred neoconservative alternative of US-led airstrikes, though satisfying the Beltway’s empty, knee-jerk need for “leadership,” would have been no guarantee of success, either. In fact, that was a point repeatedly made by the U.S. military’s top officer last summer. Indeed, it likely would have only hardened the resolve of Russia and Iran, exacerbated the potential for collateral carnage by the US, and no doubt slammed shut the chance for an orderly removal of WMDs. Why is this last point particularly important? Because the successful removal of all of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and munitions has now eliminated a nightmare scenario where extremist groups like ISIS capture them, either by chance or through a full-on successful coup of Assad.
If that seems unlikely, consider that the former scenario almost happened last week, when ISIS insurgents gained control over one of Saddam Hussein’s old chemical weapons complexes at Muthanna in southern Iraq. Fortunately, post-Desert Storm inspections carried out by UNSCOM—a kind of prototype for the OPCW—had rendered all of these weapons useless years ago, long before Bush invaded. (Of course, this story still led some of the dimmer bulbs among the right-wing media to mistakenly declare that ISIS had just proved Bush’s claims about Iraqi WMDs were right all along.)
Tragically, this powerful lesson from Iraq, and now from Syria—that diplomatic efforts can often accomplish what a military attack never could—still hasn't sunk in among the armchair generals of the Beltway. Thanks to an admixture of institutional and ideological biases, our foreign policy debate remains dangerously out of whack in the press. Diplomatic triumphs rarely make the front page or get discussed on air, yet war cheerleaders can write endless op-eds and enjoy a lifetime pass to cable news green rooms. It’s no great shock, then, that many of the same pundits who disastrously predicted an easy triumph in Iraq more than a decade ago are still around. Even less surprising, that they were once again proven wrong by Obama’s chemical weapons triumph in Syria this past week.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Today is all Reed...
The Beltway Media Gets the Iraq War Band Back Together
By Reed Richardson
One measure of the health of a nation’s discourse is how well it holds accountable its political and thought leaders. Do the men and women with a track record of getting things stupendously wrong ever have to face the music for their words and deeds? Do their arguments and opinions correspondingly suffer in the marketplace of ideas? Or do these same people keep getting free passes despite the sorrow they’ve sown? And do they continue to enjoy broad acceptance as serious, legitimate thinkers despite plenty of evidence to the contrary?
A brief survey of the US establishment press over the past few weeks is all it takes to get a clear answer on just how sclerotic, insular, and narrow-minded our country’s foreign policy discussions are. Ever since the ISIS-fueled insurgency started an unraveling of northern Iraq, mainstream news organizations have dredged up almost every neoconservative pundit and old Bush foreign policy hand still alive to pontificate on how Obama should fix, or has caused, this crisis. A crisis that, ironically, they helped to foment through an unnecessary, decade-long war based on false intelligence. Indeed, it has been mystifying, if not somewhat unsurprising, to watch how quickly the Beltway media has blithely rehabilitated the reputations of those responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis.
The past week, in particular, has felt like 2002 déjà vu. So many of the same old neocon faces marching to the same saber-rattling beat on the same news shows. The experience is almost reminiscent of those ;old, late-night K-Tel commercials selling compilation albums of songs by bands long since forgotten, and for good reason. I say almost because those commercials offered more historical context than most of the mainstream press does for these Iraq War neocons. After all, when was the last time you heard a talk show host or op-ed columnist even mention that Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol, and Paul Wolfowitz brought us such classic lines as “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” “This is going to be a two-month war, not an eight-year war,” and, my personal favorite: “I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq.”
Last month, it was Robert Kagan who kicked off the No Accountability 2014 Iraq War reunion tour with an epic, 12,700-word essay: “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.” ;Covering almost the complete back catalog of neoconservative historical thought, Kagan’s overlong riff ran in The New Republic, a somewhat fitting evocation of the magazine’s infamous role providing intellectual cover to the pro-invasion left 12 years ago. Notably, though, discussion of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq—which were supposed to be seminal triumphs of neoconservative foreign policy, remember—only amounts to a few grace notes in Kagan’s bloated opus. Even in those few lines where he does address the war, his treatment of it is laughably benign, criminally disinterested. War, what is it good for? Kagan’s answer: Eh, who knows?
“At the end of the day, George W. Bush’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein, whether that decision was wise or foolish, was driven more by concerns for world order than by narrow self-interest.” [emphasis mine]
While Kagan may be too much of a coward to admit the obvious, the American public isn’t—a majority now feel removing Saddam Hussein wasn’t worth the trillions of dollars and lives lost. But has this strong public sentiment, which also includes opposition to military intervention in neighboring Syria, translated into an uptick in anti-war viewpoints being presented in the news? One might think those few souls who defied the DC conventional wisdom and warned of the dire consequences wrought by invading Iraq would be hot media commodities today, with recent events having proven them right yet again. Think again. Instead, it’s neocons like Kagan who get almost unlimited space to repackage their militaristic policies for a new generation.
But that’s just where it starts. Last week, thanks to the sudden successes of the ISIS insurgency—which already seem to be fading—Kagan’s “much-discussed” essay begat a long, flattering profile in the New York Times. Though the Times does at least lump Kagan in with a group of “largely discredited neoconservatives,” the paper nonetheless expends the next thousand-plus words largely bestowing credit back upon him, his life, and his work. Indeed, the only critics quoted by the Times of Kagan’s neoconservative—or as he now prefers to call it, “liberal interventionist”—policies are, I kid you not, his father, who thinks his son is too easy on Obama, and his wife, who is portrayed as a demanding editor of his writing. Talk about the kid glove treatment. To be fair, one can’t accuse the Times of engaging in false balance in this article.
Kagan, you may recall, was a co-author, along with Bill Kristol, of a seminal bit of war propaganda put out by the Weekly Standard back in the fall of 2002. Tellingly, its headline—as noted by the punctuation—was not a question: “What to Do About Iraq.” Similarly, Kagan and Kristol’s plan—“American ground forces in significant number are likely to be required for success in Iraq”—was not a solution. As for skeptics of their plan, the pair had little interest in hearing all their overly dire predictions:
“It is almost impossible to imagine any outcome for the world both plausible and worse than the disease of Saddam with weapons of mass destruction. A fractured Iraq? An unsettled Kurdish situation? A difficult transition in Baghdad? These may be problems, but they are far preferable to leaving Saddam in power with his nukes, VX, and anthrax. As for the other arguments, the effort to remove Saddam from power would no more be a "diversion" from the war on al Qaeda than the fight against Hitler was a "diversion" from the fight against Japan."
This damning paragraph—all of which has come to pass except, most notably, the existence of any WMDs—should have been enough to banish Kagan and Kristol and countless others from the op-ed pages and green rooms of Washington, D.C. for the rest of their lives. But never let it be said neoconservatives lack for hubris. For, this week Kristol and Fred Kagan, Robert’s brother, penned a Weekly Standard column that eerily echoed the one from 12 years ago, right down to its unquestioning, self-assured headline: “What to Do in Iraq.”
Once again, the neocon answer to instability in Iraq is “regular US military units, on the ground.” But the most outlandish part of this column comes in its conclusion. There, Kristol and Kagan try to skip past years of failed strategy in order to re-ignite the same old fear-driven military response:
“Now is not the time to re-litigate either the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or the decision to withdraw from it in 2011. The crisis is urgent, and it would be useful to focus on a path ahead rather than indulge in recriminations. All paths are now fraught with difficulties, including the path we recommend. But the alternatives of permitting a victory for al Qaeda and/or strengthening Iran would be disastrous.” [emphasis mine]
Who would fall for such a transparent attempt by Kristol and Kagan at avoiding accountability for their mistakes while simultaneously advocating we repeat them? Turns out, most of the Sunday morning news shows, which played host to a plethora of Iraq War architects and cheerleaders, this past weekend. Back on the same old media stages folks like Kristol and Wolfowitz, John Negroponte and Ryan Crocker comprised a neocon chorus blaming the Obama administration for the Iraqi unrest and calling for a “muscular” response. As for contrition on their part? Not happening.
And it kept spreading. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this past Monday, there was Paul Bremer, the man who summarily disbanded the Iraqi Army in 2003 in one of the biggest strategic blunders of the war, happily holding court and advocating for “boots on the ground.” Not to be outdone, POLITICO had the temerity to quote Doug Feith blithely lecturing Obama about how to execute foreign policy. Left out of the article—that Feith was the man most responsible for both manipulating the pre-Iraq war intelligence and botching the post-war planning. And lest we forget, Feith’s office in the Pentagon was also in charge of running Abu Ghraib prison. But yeah, let’s get their brilliant advice on what Obama isn’t doing right.
Senator John McCain, perennial seeker of foreign bomb targets and favorite DC media gadfly, also got plenty of press—OK, that’s not that unusual—when he called for the resignation of Obama’s entire national security team. (Just check out the photo accompanying this National Journal article to get a sense of McCain ensconced in his natural Capitol Hill environment.) It’s just the kind of click-ready headline that the Twittersphere eats up. What the press never bothers to mention is McCain’s hypocrisy here, since he not once called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation during three-and-a-half years of gross negligence running the war. Oh well, it’s not like people were dying back then, right?
Don’t forget the throwback stylings of torture apologist Marc Thiessen either, who was writing speeches for Rumsfeld during the run-up to the Iraq War. On Monday, he too weighed in with an op-ed in the Washington Post unironically entitled “Obama’s Iraq Disaster.” However, Thiessen didn’t have to call in any special favors in the media to get his column published. That’s because, like many others in the Bush administration diaspora, he failed upward after leaving the White House, landing a high-profile gig in the media as a ;Post columnist. And like almost every other member from the Bush neocon glory days, Thiessen made a point of blasting Obama this week for “squandering” a supposed victory in Iraq. This he did while conveniently disappearing the years of quagmire that preceded Obama’s tenure as well as George Bush’s role in signing the Status of Forces Agreement that was actually responsible for removing all US forces from Iraq. It’s rank, right-wing revisionism: Iraq was so much older then, it’s younger than that now.
Last, but certainly not least, we heard once more from the neocon capo di tutti capi, Dick Cheney. Thanks to the reliably-conspiratorial Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Vice President Cheney, along with his war hawk protégé daughter, Liz, got to fire off a mendacious hit piece on Obama’s foreign policy so intellectually dishonest as to border on parody. The column’s subhead alone—“Rarely has a U.S. President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many”—radiates unintentional irony with enough force to power a small city. Of course, Cheney’s goal here isn’t to engage in a real debate, as evidenced by the dog’s breakfast of right-wing memes he desperately heaves at the president:
“American freedom will not be secured by empty threats, meaningless red lines, leading from behind, appeasing our enemies, abandoning our allies, or apologizing for our great nation—all hallmarks to date of the Obama doctrine. Our security, and the security of our friends around the world, can only be guaranteed with a fundamental reversal of the policies of the past six years.”
All this matters to our foreign policy debate because it demonstrates that conservatives like Cheney, Kristol, Kagan, et al. aren’t really grappling with past mistakes or the current facts on the ground, they’re just recycling the same policies for the future. They’re angry, bitter old men (and women) upset about having been so publicly proved wrong. But rather than trying to learn from the painful lessons of Iraq, they remain stuck on the idea of deploying the hammer of military force to the nail of whatever brown people they don’t happen to like at the moment.No doubt, this kind of policy ossification on the right is bad for our discourse, but sadly it comes in handy for opinion page editors and cable show bookers who want to consistently offer up the pro-war side of the debate (with or without pushback from ideological opponents). This interplay between neocon foreign policy and media exposure produces a self-reinforcing effect, argues Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb. As someone who also supported the Iraq War in its early stages, Gelb readily acknowledges an ugly truth: the only way to maintain credibility in the foreign policy establishment is to push for using military force (5:40 mark in this video). Pro-war pundits and politicians get more press, in other words, which further shifts the Beltway debate more toward war, which, in turn, creates a greater incentive for pundits and politicians to be more pro-war, so they can get more press…
In the end, the song remains the same. And it leaves our democracy at risk of revisiting the same foreign policy disasters. But as Andrew Bacevich argues in his eloquent rebuttal to Robert Kagan in Commonweal, the deafening silence of the neocons on their legacy in Iraq should be a disqualifying trait: “without accountability there can be no credibility.” It’s a standard that the media should hold itself and its sources to as well. The architects of the last Iraq War who are trying to ignite the next one need no platform and deserve no encore.
Correction: In my post two weeks agoon the Roberts Court’s stealth campaign against a free press, I mistakenly misspelled Prof. Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky’s name as Larissa. My apologies to Prof. Lidsky.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: George Bush's legacy is alive and well in Iraq.