Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
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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.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
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.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form
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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.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
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.
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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.
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Read Next: George Bush's legacy is alive and well in Iraq.
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1) Eve Alterman on Governors Ball, 2014
2) Eric on Jazz@Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis plays “Modern Ellington.”
3) Eric on the new nine cd Mosaic box set of the complete Louis Armstrong RCA/Columbia years live
4) A few words about Loudon Wainwright III
So if you were really old, like yours truly, and went to Governors Ball last weekend, unlike yours truly, you would have gone to see acts like the Strokes, Jack White, Vampire Weekend, and maybe Outkast and your review might have looked like that by Times critic, Jon Parales. But if you were a sixteen year old sophomore at Bronx Science and were not allowed to go on Friday because of a combination of debate team obligations, a paper due on the issues raised by the film, “The Lemon Tree,” and an incident a few weekends ago that required at least one night of grounding, (and that was generous) and also did not have what her really old father considered to be even remotely decent taste in music, then your review might look like the below.
Governors Ball, 2014, by Eve Alterman
Governors Ball 2014 was an experience filled with heat, pot, overpriced booze, and a diverse crowd full of ages from fourteen to mid forties. The music ranged from indie, to pop, to rock, to EDM, to rap. In past years, Governors Ball has been gated more towards indie and folk music, but as it’s audience has grown, it has become more mainstream -- for the better. Having a larger variety of musical categories was not only strategic, but made Governors Ball enjoyable for almost anyone.
I could not attend Day 1, but the best performance out of Day 2 and Day 3 was definitely Axwell and Ingrosso. They were the last act of the night on Sunday, competing for headliner with Vampire Weekend. Not only was their lightshow phenomenal, but the energy of the crowd mixed with the drop of their new songs and hit singles made for an unforgettable experience. They kicked the night off with one of their new songs “This Time” which was fresh and got the crowd excited. About ten minutes in, they set off fire works and – like the fireworks – the crowd erupted. Each song was different from the next, and the energy never ceased. Everyone in the crowd forgot about the heat, their dehydration, and their aching limbs and just jumped and danced until they finished their set with their hit single “Don’t You Worry Child.”
The next highly enjoyable performance was Tyler the Creator with surprise appearances from Jasper and Taco. Tyler the Creator concerts are often looked upon with distaste because of the aggressiveness of the crowd, the nonstop mosh pits, and the over-all offensive language. However, all of that aside, Tyler the Creator, who performed with Earl Sweatshirt, Jasper Dolphin, and Taco --- members of Odd Future. was one of the only artists of the entire weekend who actually engaged with the crowd and allowed his personality to come through in his performance, including his usage of the word “fuck” 37 times between songs, by this reporter’s count. He made comments about people he saw in the crowd, his thoughts on the festival, and even has some fun with a bra that was thrown at him mid-way through his act. For Tyler-lovers, this made his performance much more enjoyable, because it made the experience much more personal. His energy and the crowd’s energy stayed high and most everyone knew the words and knew what they were getting into when stepping in front of The Big Apple Stage.
Childish Gambino also brought his A-game to Governors Ball 2014. Starting off with an acoustic hook from “Centipede” and then switching to “Crawl” from his latest album Because the Internet, Childish Gambino illuminated the Honda Stage with explosions of fire and bass. About half way into his set, he invites Chance the Rapper and together they do a verse to the song “Worst Guys” as a treat for the crowd. The verse itself was great along with the excitement in the crowd. He ended his set with “Bonfire” from his previous album Camp, with outrageous amounts of fire and explosions only making his performance more memorable and entertaining.
Lastly, both Skrillex and J. Cole (both major headliners) left their talent at home. High expectations brewed for these superstars and they ended up being mediocre at best – J.Cole hitting the mark a lot closer than Skrillex.
Skrillex was the last major headliner of Day 2 and he honestly did not end the night strongly. His graphics were poor and could have probably been constructed one of my computer science classes. They featured dancing “memes” that had absolutely nothing with his set and mostly confused the crowd. His use of lazers was only alright, and the high energy due to anticipation in the beginning of the night quickly died down because the crowd could not tell when he was switching from song to song. The similarity between each song was so great that distinguishing when one song ended and the next one began was almost impossible. As the night progressed, the crowd started to get more and more spread out and roomy, because so many people were leaving. Skrillex gets an overall B-, and to those on molly, maybe a B.
J.Cole did a little better than Skrillex. His songs were easy to dance to and he made the crowd laugh occasionally, but the energy was absent. Most people knew the words to his songs but he in no way made them want to dance, jump, or even really sing along. J. Cole sounded nothing like he does in any of his recordings, and not in a good way. His articulation was poor and it was often difficult to understand what he was saying. However, his ultimate feel was smooth but the crowd’s energy maxed out after some swaying and the occasional hands up. J.Cole gets a B+.
The Governors Ball experience overall was an A, on top of a variety of great music, the food was also spectacular (especially for a festival) and the acts were pretty well organized. The artists mostly stayed on time and it was easy to move from one stage to another. Governors Ball 2015 is highly recommended.
Ok, back to the old man....
What a thrill it was to see the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis draws play a bunch of excerpts from the longer and most ambitious works by Duke Ellington, all written in the latter part of his career. Ellington’s later work is generally treated like Albert Eistein’s final decades; people admire the ambition but tend to wish he had stuck to what he did best, and what established his genius as a young man. Wynton and Jazz@LC solved this problem not only by “cherry picking from its already deep well of Ellingtonia with arrangements that shed light on the depth and complexity of the maestro's all-modernistic-all-the-time corpus,” but also by helping us appreciate the works with Wynton’s wonderfully idiosyncratic explanations of the contextual background of the music, which made it just about the most enjoyable master class on jazz and cultural history I’ve ever attended. The repetoire featured rarely heard movie classics including music from Anatomy of a Murder and Paris Blues, alongside selections from some of Ellington’s most revered mid-century works, Far East Suite, Black, Brown & Beige, The Clothed Woman, and more. Ellington. It was a lot of work to curate this concert, as the Duke wrote over 3,000 compositions during his career, and issued alive and dead, over 800 albums. But it sured paid off for the rest of us. More of what’s left this year and a preview of next year’s Jazz@LC schedule, here.
Who can follow the Duke? Just one man of course, and thanks to my friends at Mosaic Records, I get to talk about him. The release of the nine cd box set,“The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars,” is pretty great news for Armstrong fans. As with Ellington’s late period, smart folk tend to write off later-Louis as so much clowning around and even alleged Uncle-Toming. Call me a philistine, but I’ve always preferred Louis’ RCA period. And now that Mosaic, whose devotion to archival excellence is literally unmatched in any musical category, has collected his live performances from 1947 to 1958, my case has been made over and over and over.
This first-ever compilation is the first to span this range of Louis' career, and as they explain, “It is rich with new discoveries and legendary omissions.” They restored missing solos and removed fake applause. They tracked down the earliest, most authoritative sources for the music and cleaned-up everything to the best of their ability using state-of-the-art techniques. And they corrected a great deal of misinformation regarding discographical details, even if they do say so themselves.
Included in the box is the famous Town Hall concert from May 17, 1947 that set the style for the small group music he'd make from that point on. That date came from the French RCA tapes that Sony along with a newly discovered Carnegie Hall date from November 1947 whose masters had been previously mislabled and never released before. The sound is terrific. There are sessions from the Netherlands eight or so years later, undated, but understood to be part of the "Ambassador Satch" sessions,” rescued back in the day by George Avakian rescued back in the day by George Avakian, shows from Milan, two months later, a date from LA in January 1956 that only pretended to be live but was actually recorded in a the studio. There’s The Great Chicago Concert from June 1956, long out of print, and a concert from Newport in 1956, with four previously unissued performances. There’s even an Avakian recording a rehearsal session with the All Stars in the afternoon and during the evening concert, three attempts at "St. Louis Blues" with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. (The recording equipment caught everything, including a camera breaking down, Bernstein chatting up the audience, Louis playing encores to keep the fans happy. ) And then there's Newport 1958, with nearly no overlap from 1956. Only three tracks have ever been heard from this and it included a reunion with Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett. The whole set is here.
But wait, there’s more: Edward R. Murrow interviewing Louis in Paris; a performance, previously unissued, of Louis in London; and two tracks from a 1956 date in Ghana that have not been previously released, and even more than that, but I’m exhausted. Typical of Mosaic, they have corrected details about the time and place of certain recordings where the original recording companies played fast and loose with the details, and restored recordings to their original condition when we discovered the official releases might have been cobbled together from as many as five different sources.
The box comes with an exhaustive essay by Ricky Riccardi, archivist for the Louis Armstrong and a new discography that sets many records straight, along with many vintage photographs. It ain’t cheap of course, but it’s awesome and when the limited release is gone, it’s gone forever.
On Monday night I saw Loudon Wainwright workshop a one-man show at Manhattan's Westside Theatre about his dad called “Surviving Twin,” which he calls a "posthumous collaboration" the late Life magazine columnist, Loudon Wainwright Jr. Since it was the first night of a workshop performance, I think one is not supposed to judge too much, but I will say this. It’s free, and there will probably room if you drop by. And if you like Loudon, you a) are going to like this, b) derive further insight into is ahem, unique pysche and artistic inspiration, c) be surprised at how well this old Life magazine columnist’s work holds up. Who would have thought It runs for three more Mondays and you can find out more, here.
OK, I’m done, but two things last (unpleasant things) that (unfortunately) forced themselves on me owing to the power of the Internets.
1) The Daily Caller editors and its clueless correspondent J. Arthur Bloom does not understand the meaning of the word, “retraction.” Read the first sentence of this silly piece. Then read this piece by me. No retraction anywhere.
What jerks those people are. (Addendum: I see now that Bloom has dropped the word “retraction” and replaced it with “correction.” This is just as false. There was no “correction.” And there is no acknowledgement of the change. And he identifies me as being with The Nation, rather than The Daily Beast, where the piece I wrote appeared. These people can’t behave honestly or honorably even when they know they are being watched. Oh and the headline is ungrammatical. It should read "The Media Finally Get" not "Gets." Media is a plural noun. Morons.)
2) And speaking of jerks, this deeply offensive quote passed through my computer as well: "The body of Israel is fetid in the back room of American Jews. They haven’t been there but it’s stinking up the joint, and it pollutes their view of the world. Max Blumenthal tried to tell them what it is, but the Zionists ran him out of town using the Nation.” Get it? Jews are “fetid” of body. “The Zionists,” in the form of yours truly, “ran Max Blumenthal out of town.” Amazing. Old fashion bodily-based Jew-hatred combined with moronic conspiracy mongering in two successive sentences. Can you guess who wrote it? Nope, not David Duke. Not Louis Farrakhan. Not even Jean Marie Le Pen (who is actually more eloquent than that). Rather it was Phillip Weiss, proprietor of Mondoweiss.com, showing his true colors. The policies of Israel’s government may be in many respects, indefensible both with regard to its Arab minority and to the Palestinians living under brutal (and unlawful) occupation on the West Bank, but no one should stand silent for this kind of ignorant hate-speech. Words have consequences and none have been worse in history than those of hateful anti-Semites.
The Bergdahl Saga as a Window Into Journalistic Transparency
by Reed Richardson
Years ago, media critic Jack Shafer adroitly staked out the perils and the peculiar calculus of the DC media’s lazy habit of letting sources speak off the record. Granting anonymity is a necessary evil of reporting in rare occasions, yes, but it’s universally understood that less disclosure and transparency is anathema to journalism’s goal of informing the public. And to abuse this practice is to fundamentally change the nature of what you’re reporting. Or, as Shafer bluntly puts it, analogizing the famous Japanese saga Rashomon: “the identity of a story’s sources is as important as what the sources said.”
The past two weeks, another saga has played out across the national media as the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has sparked both backlash and counter-backlash. Not surprisingly, much of the narrative of the Bergdahl coverage—fueled by innuendo and hearsay—has raced ahead of the facts. There have been numerous cases of the press failing to do its due diligence when it comes to vetting claims about Bergdahl and the terms of the deal for his release. But there are two specific examples I want to explore that provide a vital lesson on the media’s broader, contradictory impulses on transparency.
The first of these was a New York Times front-page story from last week. Written by Helene Cooper at the early stages of right-wing’s campaign to label Bergdahl a “deserter,” the story includes several long, unflattering quotes from two of his former platoon mates. But more importantly, Cooper also offers up a rare peek behind the journalistic sourcing curtain in this passage:
“He wouldn’t drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds,” Cody Full, another member of Sergeant Bergdahl’s platoon, said in an interview on Monday also arranged by Republican strategists. “He was always in his bunk. He ordered Rosetta Stone for all the languages there, learning Dari and Arabic and Pashto.” [emphasis mine]
It’s instructive how little narrative effort had to be expended here by Cooper to add this phrase, yet how much important context this same phrase provided readers. The pair’s petty gripes about Bergdahl’s personality as well as their tenuous claims about the search for him leading to the deaths of six U.S. soldiers now make more sense given the orchestrated nature of their interview. So, one cheer for Cooper and the Times for arming their readers with this extra helping of transparency.
Why only one? Because it’s clear the Times could have done more if full, robust disclosure were the goal. Why not publicly name the “Republican strategist,” for example? BuzzFeed, to its credit, didn’t shy away from pointing out that said strategist was Richard Grenell, a former aide to hardcore neocon and sneering Obama critic John Bolton. Hmm, that might be worth knowing. (It wasn’t like his role was a well-kept secret either; one of the interviewed soldiers publicly thanked Grenell for his help on Twitter.) But an even more frustrating revelation later came to light in the Times’ public editor’s column this past Monday, when we learned even more damning details from Cooper about the two sources in her story:
“They both had clearly been coached, though, and had the same answers to my question about whether they thought the United States shouldn’t have traded the five prisoners for Bergdahl. At that question, they both said, ‘I don’t want to get into the politics of this, but. …’”
Oy. In other words, these aren’t fellow soldiers merely getting help from a GOP insider to tell their own stories, instead they’re willing, partisan proxies tactically engaging a political spin war against the administration. That’s the real scoop here. And the sharp journalistic instincts Cooper displays to pick up on this are precisely what readers of the Times are presumably paying for, and that editors of the Times are presumably touting as the paper’s competitive advantage. Which is why leaving out this key context makes no sense. It goes right to the motives and trustworthiness of these sources. What’s most disheartening here is that the cause of greater journalistic transparency neatly dovetails with the paper’s long-term interests—telling more of the story would have made for a newsier, more shareable (i.e., more profitable) story—and yet the Times still pulled its punches.
Still, this imperfect, half-hearted effort at revealing how the media narrative sausage gets made is an encouraging step toward accountability. And it stands in stark contrast to my second example—the impenetrable, ethically malleable punditry of the National Journal’s Ron Fournier. A longtime vice provost at the David Broder School of Beltway Media Centrism, Fournier’s shtick of touting chimerical policy compromises while incessantly ankle-biting Obama is well established. And the president’s decision to swap Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees elicited a similarly predictable response from Fournier entitled “‘I’ve Had Enough’: When Democrats Quit on Obama.” But what intrigued me about his latest “Why Won’t Obama Lead?!” diatribe was an aside he provides about his sources:
“In the 18 months since I began writing columns focused on the presidency, virtually every post critical of Obama has originated from conversations with Democrats. Members of Congress, consultants, pollsters, lobbyists, and executives at think tanks, these Democrats are my Obama-whispers.”
Out of curiosity, I went back and read these columns (the things I do for readers!), and he’s right. Or, I should say, I'm guessing he's right, because he almost never names all these disappointed Democrats. In a way this isn’t surprising because Fournier, not long after he started writing this column, breezily informed his readers that source transparency would be ritually sacrificed in exchange for candor. The silver lining, I guess: at least he was transparent about the lack of transparency we could expect from him:
“Going back to my first political beat, covering Bill Clinton’s administration in Arkansas and later in Washington, I’ve had a practice that is fairly common in journalism: A handful of sources I deal with regularly are granted blanket anonymity. Any time we communicate, they know I am prepared to report the information at will (matters of fact, not spin or opinion) and that I will not attribute it to them.”
Now, I firmly believe journalists who immerses themselves in a beat don’t need to attribute every little fact they know to be true from their reporting to a named source (or any source at all, for that matter). And, as I’ve already conceded, ferreting out important, closely-held details sometimes demands granting anonymity to sources, especially when dealing with an increasingly secretive government. But this isn’t what Fournier is describing here. Instead, this “blanket anonymity” he’s doling out is just a clubby way of laundering his agenda through Washington sources who have no fear of being held responsible for their actions or words.
But even in this, there’s a catch. For, if you read through Fournier’s columns, you won’t just find a dearth of named sources, you’re lucky to find any quotes at all—anonymous or otherwise. And those few instances where he does cite an anonymous source are hardly “matters of fact, not spin or opinion.”
For example, last October, at the nadir of the Obamacare exchange rollout, Fournier used an email subject line from an over-reacting “senior Democratic consultant” as the lede to one of his Cassandra-like missives. The quote read simply: “Dem Party is F*****d.” I could be wrong, but that sounds kind of opinion-y. Yet the email’s tone fit within Fournier’s incompetence-at-the-White-
Fournier seems to recognize how unseemly all this unattributed backdoor sniping of the president has become. Thus, in this week’s column about Bergdahl, he notably lifts the veil on another one of his journalistic “practices” in his own defense:
“Few frustrated Democrats are willing to complain openly. I grant them anonymity, which creates a problem: Readers, for good reason, don't trust anonymous quotes. One way to avoid deluging readers with unnamed Democrats is for me to digest their complaints along with other reporting to shape my columns and tweets.” [emphasis mine]
I am Ron Fournier, I am large, I contain multitudes, I am become “Democrats complained to me privately…”
This is a professional journalist, I remind you. Someone who is now apparently so self-conscious about relying upon idle, DC chit-chat as his source material that he’s decided to further conceal this rather than, you know, trying to use fewer anonymous sources. No need to worry your pretty little head, dear reader, about a “deluge” of unnamed Democrats—and what happened to that “handful of sources” caveat?—Fournier’s going to absorb what they tell him and you’ll just have to trust that he got it right.
As grossly problematic as Fournier’s journalistic approach is here, in a way I’m glad he publicly admitted to it. It perfectly captures how the Beltway conventional wisdom feedback loop works—a friendly DC pundit known for airing anonymous critiques of the president attracts even more anonymous critics, whose opinions are then digested and then excreted out into the discourse. And tomorrow, the cycle begins anew.
Stand Fournier’s decision up against what Cooper did at the Times and you’ll see two journalists moving in opposite directions along the transparency spectrum. The latter is taking steps, albeit haltingly, toward serving up more honest, forthright reportage, while the former has chosen to channel an invisible chorus of unaccountable voices that merely stir the media pot. If you want to know which of these our democracy needs more of, just ask Sgt. Bergdahl.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Good column [“The Roberts Court’s Stealth Campaign Against a Free Press”] and depressing. Just remember that it takes four votes to grant a petition of certiorari. The Supreme Court's process for considering petitions and the voting is opaque. Risen may have gotten three votes for all we know. Justices interested in the issue may have not seen Risen’s case as the one they wanted to decide. There is always the risk, with the Roberts Court, that the reactionary majority will take a case for one ostensible reason and run with it to accomplish another political objective. Judges sympathetic to the press may have felt that taking the case risked more downside than good, despite Mr. Risen’s woes.
Very good post on the Robert's Court and the Free Press. One item stuck me. From your piece:
"[I]t all but validated a Justice Department lawyer’s outrageous analogy that citing such privilege is the equivalent of receiving drugs from a source and then refusing to testify about it."
In such a case, would I not have a Fifth Amendment right not to testify? So DOJ is actually arguing that I have less rights as a journalist than a drug arrestee! Either Risen is party to a crime and can't be compelled to testify, or Risen is not party to a crime and has the right not to testify about journalistic sources. I would argue for both, but DOJ sees neither.
Anyway, thanks for the great work.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Friday night I stopped by what is now called the Appel Room at Jazz@Lincoln Center, and by any name, still the most beautiful venue to see an intimate show in New York—or actually anywhere I know—to catch a show of standards by John Pizzarelli’s quartet joined by Jane Monheit. John is most often joined by his terrifically talented wife, Jessica Molaskey, and sometimes by his obviously amazing dad, Bucky Pizzarelli, who is still picking at eighty-eight but did not play Friday night. (His brother Martin did, on base.) Mom and dad were in the audience, though. (What a weird family to get along so well.) Anyway, John has had plenty of opportunity to learn that specific New York cabaret style charm and his story telling had the effect of enhancing the nearly flawless delivery of the Sinatra, Ellington, Gershwin, etc. classics he and Monheit chose. (His “Sir Paul” imitation is also first rate.) Anyway, what can one say? Great music, professionally and occasionally inspired delivery. Monheit was onstage for the entire show and the band was well-rehearsed and tight as well. I did miss Ms. Molaskey. Speaking of Duke, there’s an all Ellington program at Rose Hall this weekend and a wonderful way to end the season.
Last week I mentioned that every show I go to (it sometimes feels like) has either Warren Haynes or G.E. Smith on guitar. Well, this week, on Saturday, I saw a band with Warren Haynes on guitar. Last night (Tuesday) I saw a band with G.E. Smith on guitar. Ok, well Saturday was cheating because it was the same band I saw earlier in the week. The second SummerStage in Central Park show of “Phil Lesh and Friends,” with Haynes, John Scofield, John Medeski and Joe Russo put on by the folks at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester whose amazing roster has really cut down on the shows within walking distance of my apartment, alas. It was a lot like the first one, though the set list was completely different. Last night, also in Central Park, SummerStage had its annual gala where wealthy folks pony up to ignore the great music that people work hard to provide for them. Last night, after the presentation of “The People & Parks Award” and the ensuing speeches, Smith’s band took the stage, looking a great deal like the band Southside Johnny puts together and calls “The Poor Fools,”—or did two weekends ago in Amagansett anyway—except this one had Jon Leventhal on lead guitar, to accompany a great group of (mostly) New York singers and songwriters on various Beatles songs. The lineup featured Jon Batiste, David Broza, Paula Cole, Marshall Crenshaw, Southside Johnny, Willie Nile, Teddy Thompson and Philip Bailey, lead singer of the Earth, Wind & Fire, who really got the rich white folk um, dancing. In case you didn’t know, SummerStage is New York’s largest free performing arts festival, bringing over 100 performances to eighteen parks throughout the five boroughs. Every year we reach more than 300,000 New Yorkers and since its inception in 1986, more than six million people have enjoyed SummerStage and so if the awards ceremony was a bit self-congratulatory, it feels a bit silly to complain, though I wish people would pay more attention to great band and performers they got to see.
Also this being New York, you have a choice this and next week between Open Roads, the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s Italian film festival, and the Israel Film Center’s festival at the Upper West Side JCC (and elsewhere). I have not managed to see any of the films yet, but it’s a great opportunity if you happen to be in the city. (And look, it’s also the Blue Note Jazz Festival, already begun. My goodness, there is too much to be done here.)
Speaking of the JCC, after last night’s show, I went to the Shavuot all-night study-with-cheese cake celebration they put together every year and thought to myself that it’s a weird but often wonderful critical intellectual culture into which I happen to be born and what a shame it is that pretty much only orthodox Jews ever encounter it. Someone, I guess me, should write a book about it.
The Roberts Court’s Stealth Campaign Against a Free Press
by Reed Richardson
Sometimes, it’s the battles not fought that matter just as much. On Monday, the Supreme Court proved this point once again when it refused to grant certiorari to an appeal from New York Times reporter James Risen, who is facing a Justice Department subpoena to divulge confidential intelligence sources cited in a chapter of his 2006 book “State of War.” By refusing to hear Risen’s case, the Court let stand an ominous Fourth Circuit majority ruling that not only dismissed the very idea of reporter’s privilege, it all but validated a Justice Department lawyer’s outrageous analogy that citing such privilege is the equivalent of receiving drugs from a source and then refusing to testify about it.
This kind of overaggressive stance by the Obama administration when it comes to pursuing leaks and punishing whistleblowers is, sadly, nothing new. But by unceremoniously refusing Risen’s appeal, the Roberts Court shined a brief spotlight on its own, quiet role in undermining First Amendment protections for the press.
There’s no denying that, by refusing the Risen case, SCOTUS missed a long overdue opportunity to revisit one of the most confusing, poorly established decisions related to press freedom in our nation’s history—the 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes case. While that 5–4 ruling forty-two years ago did not find journalists enjoyed special Constitutional privileges when protecting sources, an ambiguous concurrence by Justice Lewis Powell and a strong dissent offered free press advocates something of a backdoor victory.
The implications of this are still being felt. For example, a lower federal court judge’s decision quashed the DOJ subpoena of Risen in 2011 by specifically citing Powell’s concurrence. And during Risen’s appellate hearing one year later, Fourth District Appellate Judge Albert Diaz complained that Branzburg’s precedent was “clear as mud.” Still, SCOTUS chose to punt, leaving US journalism—and investigative, accountability journalism, in particular—exposed to the whims of overzealous prosecutors with little more than a hodgepodge of ineffective state media shield laws for protection.
The passivity is noteworthy because the Roberts Court has gained a reputation for deliberately inviting and then accepting key cases on legal grounds that it deems unresolved. This careful picking and choosing of landmark cases has left the Court’s overall track record of overturning precedent deceptively low, but the upshot of its radical nature is unmistakable. (Also of note in the Risen case: Chief Justice Roberts is assigned as the Fourth Circuit advisory judge, which means he would have played a key role in the Court’s decision to either grant—or deny—certiorari to Risen’s appeal.) Indeed, though Justices Scalia and Ginsburg rarely come down on the same side of a SCOTUS decision, both have publicly said that the Roberts Court is guilty of “judicial activism.”
Even one of the court’s most objective, long-time observers, Linda Greenhouse, who covers SCOTUS for The New York Times, agrees. Recently, she wrote a scathing op-ed cataloguing the Roberts Court’s radical approach to jurisprudence. Whether eviscerating workers’ rights while empowering the reach of corporations or rolling back civil rights protections while emboldening religious interventionism in public policy, the five-justice conservative bloc on the Court is, according to Greenhouse, “driving it into dangerous territory.”
“The problem is not only that the court is too often divided but that it’s too often simply wrong: wrong in the battles it picks, wrong in setting an agenda that mimics a Republican Party platform, wrong in refusing to give the political system breathing room to make fundamental choices of self-governance.”
To be fair, SCOTUS refuses to hear hundreds of cases each year, so attaching motives to one particular case of inaction like Risen’s can be a tricky proposition. It is also true that, since 2005, the Court has, in general, taken up very few cases that deal directly with the media. One of these involved the FCC suing NBC over Bono saying “fucking brilliant” on air at the Golden Globes—not exactly the Pentagon Papers. What’s more, even in those few cases, the implications of the Court’s rulings have been studiously narrow.
Compare that to the Roberts Court’s broader fascination with free speech cases—dozens of them in the past nine years—and the cause of the free press looks like a First Amendment stepchild. Indeed, the Court’s “blind spot” toward the press is very real and very harmful argued attorney Theodore Boutros Jr. in a Wall Street Journal column last week:
“[T]he Supreme Court has repeatedly spurned cases brought by journalists over the last decade, while it has simultaneously issued a powerful string of decisions protecting the First Amendment rights of just about everyone else. Most famously, in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the court struck down campaign finance laws banning corporate independent expenditures. ‘Speech,’ the court said, ‘is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people.’ In ‘a republic where the people are sovereign,’ the court emphasized, ‘the ability of the citizenry to make informed choices…is essential.’"
Perhaps nothing else exemplifies the Roberts Court’s antipathy toward the media better than its disingenuous Citizens United decision. As University of Florida law professor Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky points out in her in-depth analysis “Not a Free Press Court?” the conservative bloc of the Roberts Court is deeply suspicious, if not hostile to, the idea of the media as the “Fourth Estate.” And the intellectual heart of this anti-press stance, she explains, is cleverly buried in the majority’s argument in Citizens United, like a legal landmine waiting to be triggered.
In effect, the Court’s decision in that case plays one First Amendment freedom off of the other, tearing down the notion of special Constitutional privileges for a free press in order to build a phony construct of more equitable free speech (even though these new free speech privileges didn’t accrue to people but to wealthy corporations). In something of a tragic, anti-democratic two-for-one, the Court’s right-wing majority managed to both further expose our political system to the corrupting influence of money while simultaneously undermining the press’s ability to hold elected officials accountable and root out said influence. Journalism is just another form of speech, in other words, just another product to consume. Consequently, our government doesn’t owe it any more deference than the cheap junk being sold on the shelves of a big box store. As Lidsky writes:
“[T]he Court, however, apparently sees no relevant differences between media corporations like NBC and non-media corporations like Wal-Mart: both peddle their wares to the public motivated solely by profit. Indeed, at times the Court's descriptions of the media seem to go beyond skeptical to antagonistic. Though Citizens United is not a press case, it certainly gives little cause for hope to those who argue that the First Amendment gives distinctive rights to the media under the Press Clause.”
The unmistakable conclusion, then, is that the Roberts Court hasn’t felt compelled to take action on Constitutional questions about the press because it’s perfectly happy with the status quo. Lower court decisions that side with an Obama Justice Department more than willing to employ aggressive legal tactics to stanch leaks and intimidate reporters suits the conservative majority on SCOTUS just fine. As does a feckless Congress unwilling to conduct real oversight of our surveillance state and unable to pass anything more than a symbolic version of a federal media shield law.
But Constitutional protections for a free press mustn’t be held so cheaply that they rely solely upon vague promises from a supposedly repentant Attorney General. Administrations change, after all, and once they do, Justice Department guidelines are no longer worth the paper they’re printed on.
That said, it will probably take a change in administrations before we can restore the Constitutional respect due to the press. Indeed, journalism likely dodged a bullet this week based on the current ideological posture of SCOTUS. Had it accepted Risen’s appeal, the conservative majority might well have triggered its Citizens United’s tripwire, forever cementing Branzburg’s tarnished legacy and the Obama administration’s anti-whistleblower mindset. And while I have little faith that the next occupant of the White House—even a Democratic one—will drastically roll back its adversarial approach to the media, I also know that until the 5–4 votes on the Roberts Court start going the other way, ensuring a free press that can hold the powerful to account without interference from the government won’t happen.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: Turn the NRA’s Weapon Against It.
My most recent Nation column is “Global Warming’s ‘Useful Idiots’” and it asks the question “Why do ideologues who would leave the country vulnerable to catastrophe enjoy prestigious posts in journalism?"
1) Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools
2) Phil Lesh and Friends
3) 2014 RRHOF Ceremony on HBO
I saw two shows this week, both of which were endorsements of the taste I developed in high school. The first was Southside Johnny with his Poor Fools band, joined by G.E. Smith, at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. There are few things more fun in life than a great bar band in a great bar. The Poor Fools are unique I think because of the versatility of the their talents on different instruments. Literally everybody in the band played the drums at one point, and almost no one played fewer than three instruments, some as many as five. Often times they would move over either to the keys or the drums or a guitar part of the way through the song. It was loose and tight at the same time, especially when G.E. was making up those solos on the spot. (I still have not forgiven him for the RNC convention gig, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire and enjoy his chops.) The set was varied between Southside classics, recent songs written for the pretty excellent Poor Fools album, and old, re-worked chestnuts. (Then again, the Southside classics were reworked too.) “Fever” had a new tempo and “I Don’t Want to Go Home” felt sublime in ways I can’t remember feeling before. The Talkhouse ain’t cheap but everybody had a great time, and I didn’t even have a drink! See if they are coming around to you (and check out that CD) here.
Last night Phil Lesh and Friends and a few thousand Deadheads took over Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. Phil has some pretty impressive “friends”: Warren Haynes and John Scoffield on guitar and John Medeski on keyboards, for starters. I can’t make up my mind about Warren’s voice. I used to hate it, but it’s growing on me. He sang “Stella Blue” last night and while there is nothing like Jerry’s voice, it was powerful and moving in its own way. Of course the band was terrific, not tight at all and equally at home with long jams and fun rave-ups. “Shakedown Street” was my favorite among the latter and “I Know You Rider” among the former. I got there late and so I missed the opener, the Velvet’s “Rock and Roll.” (It’s becoming a thing for all bands to pay tribute to Lou at NY shows.) The show was produced by the same folks who re-opened the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, haunt of my misspent youth, the Brooklyn Bowl and this incredible Labor Day weekend festival in Arrington Virginia (or is it West Virginia; they tell me it’s near Charlottesville…) that I would go to, if my friends were not such old farts. Anyway, Phil and Co are still doing that residency thing at the Capitol and the Brooklyn Bowl, so I don’t see how anyone can have a bad time.
I saw the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame show when it took place at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn not long ago. It went on forever. HBO has done the world the great favor of editing it down to at much more manageable three hours and fifteen minutes and it will be broadcast over and over beginning this Saturday evening. The performer inductees were Nirvana, The E Street Band, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Peter Gabriel, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens and KISS, and Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham were the non-performer inductees. I watched the advance on DVD and while I am unhappy that the E Street Band speeches, including Bruce’s, were run over “Kitty’s Back”—which for me, was the highlight of the night—hearing all those speeches was hard work that none of you have to do. The “Nirvana” part of the show was pretty great—especially with Joan Jett on “Teen Spirit”--even though to call a band without Kurt “Nirvana” is sacrilege. I also really enjoyed the tribute to Linda Rondstadt with Carrie Underwood, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks. You will be a bad person if you don’t enjoy that. I have a soft spot for Cat Stevens even though he talks so much; he could have been one of the early members of the E Street Band. The Peter Gabriel part of the show was pretty good too—the “uncoupled” ex Mr. Paltrow was actually pretty funny in his intro and Youssou N’Dour joining him on “In Your Eyes” got the night moving well. Thankfully, Kiss could not get it together enough to perform, though Tom Morello’s case for them is a better one they deserve, sucking as much as they do. There was no “jam” at the end, however, because Vini Lopez and David Sancious went on forever and killed the schedule. Paul Shaffer lead the orchestra, and I did not notice Warren Haynes or G.E. Smith in it, which makes it unusual for the recent gigs I’ve seen, but they were just fine.
Anyway, thanks to HBO for saving this night forever. Bruce’s speech is quite moving and the show had something for everyone. Alas, the best way to see it is probably in your living room.
Finally, West 77th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Ave, which would be the block I live on if I lived on 77th, is now “Miles Davis Way.” Do you have a street named after Miles in your town? I didn’t think so.
Guns: The Four-Letter Word of US Public Health Policy
by Reed Richardson
You’ve likely never heard of Dr. Vivek Murthy. But in the wake of yet another mass shooting last Friday, his story is worth knowing. Dr. Murthy, you see, is President Obama’s nominee to be the next Surgeon General, the top medical professional in our government. But despite a stellar resume and endorsements from dozens of medical and health organizations, his nomination has been on hold since February and will likely never see the light of day in the full Senate until after the midterm elections. The simple reason? Once upon a time, Murthy had the audacity to say that gun deaths in the US are a “public health problem.”
That’s right, in this country, the prospect of a public health official stating the obvious about something that takes 32,000 lives each year is enough to be deemed controversial. At least by the NRA, that is, which made it quite clear to Republican Senators that it deems Murthy’s statement an unqualified threat to its increasingly expansive view of the Second Amendment. Never mind that Murthy has since come out and explicitly said he would not focus on gun violence were he to be confirmed. So thoroughly has the gun lobby co-opted federal policy that even this kind of public genuflecting by Murthy has made no difference. To paraphrase the old NRA propaganda slogan: Guns don’t kill political nominations, lobbyists who sell and market guns do.
This regulatory capture doesn’t just impact Congress, however, it includes the press as well. Take, for example, this Politico story on Murthy’s stalled nomination from last Friday. From its insider-y “NRA stalls surgeon general pick” headline down through its obeisant body copy, the article exemplifies how the Beltway press consistently increases the gun lobby’s leverage through its journalistic framing of their influence. Indeed, to read this story is to get the sense that NRA board members can actually vote in the Senate. (Technically not true, but close enough.) Not until the ninth paragraph is the GOP even mentioned.
But by denying the Republicans agency in this way, the press only muddies the line connecting the party’s actions to the lobbyists who drive it. This doesn’t foster greater political accountability; it damages it. What’s more, it makes it easier for conservatives to distract the press on the few occasions—like last Friday’s horrendous massacre—where the debate over gun violence can’t be easily ignored by the media.
The consummate example of the right-wing’s misdirection is its Orwellian insistence on disappearing guns from the gun policy debate through the mental health policy ruse. Dr. Michael Bader from the Institute for Change comprehensively lays out the right’s playbook in this prescient essay, which was written after the 2012 Newtown massacre, but save for a few changed details, could just as easily have been written today:
"Debates over gun control vs. mental illness after a mass shooting are ridiculous kabuki dances that defy reason but have become so ingrained in our culture that their essential irrationality is invisible."
While the mainstream media acts more as unwitting enablers of this effort, right-wing pundits are more than willing to aid and abet this change-the-subject agenda. Among the leaders in this campaign to shift the narrative to mental illness is Fox News’ “Medical A-Team” columnist, Keith Ablow. Time and again, Ablow, who’s somewhat notorious for his ugly analogies, has a seized upon a mass-shooting event as an opportunity to disabuse his readers of what they’re seeing with their lying eyes. Take, for instance, this passage from the bizarre column he wrote on Tuesday:
“Let me also say, [Elliot] Rodger’s murderous rampage had nothing to do with guns. Zero. He killed three of his victims with a blunt object and knife or machete. He injured others with his car. To all anti-gun nuts: Can we agree we aren’t going to outlaw hammers, knives and cars?” [emphasis mine]
In Ablow’s mind, the three people viciously gunned down in service of Rodger's racist and misogynist fantasies don’t even figure in his calculus. Their fates contribute absolutely nothing to the debate. Guns simply aren’t the issue here, Ablow wants his readers to think, except that the evidence clearly shows that firearms played the fundamental role in Rodger's plans for violent revenge. Indeed, as Rodger wrote in one of his online screeds: “My first act of preparation was the purchase of my first handgun.”
This selective memory on the part of Ablow isn’t altogether surprising. Last December, after the Obama administration announced two landmark
Never mind all that, though, it’s the mental illness aspect of mass shootings we should focus on, Ablow and other conservatives proclaim. But as you might expect, this is mostly just empty rhetoric from the right. Certainly, Republicans in Congress have proven to be conveniently committed to better access to mental healthcare in the days after a massacre and then not so much when it comes time to actually voting for it. Even the GOP’s latest cosmetic legislative effort, which notably wouldn’t take away gun ownership rights from the severely mentally ill, has little chance of passing in a House committed to protecting the NRA hindquarters at all costs. Indeed, marvel at the callous, lack of urgency in the GOP's public rumination on the bill, captured by Roll Call:
“I think leaders will fight on this, but it’s very possible they don’t know where the conference is, and they want to avoid any situation where mental health is primarily hitched to the gun debate,” said [Joe Kasper, spokesman for GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter].
“Maybe they’ll find room in between tragedies to start having a conversation about mental health,” Kasper continued. “It’s definitely overdue. I think a lot of people recognize that. … If you were to ask Mr. Murphy and Mr. Hunter, they’d tell you that time was yesterday.”
To be fair, finding room “in between tragedies” as the GOP flack so artlessly put it isn’t so easy when the House’s legislative calendar for a whole lot of yesterdays has been packed with an agenda that involves taking the same pointless votes more than fifty times. But it’s not just the opportunity costs of the right’s quixotic campaign against Obamacare that figure in our nonexistent gun violence debate, it’s the irony that the president’s healthcare reform law offers a great way to address the very problem Republicans say we should be focused on. In fact, we could ensure better mental healthcare for nearly one-million Americans almost overnight, if only the seventeen Republican governors who refused to expand Medicaid in their states reversed their decision.
Connecting these dots, however, isn’t something an establishment media obsessed with partisan conflict and gamesmanship does well. Its surge-purge coverage of gun violence evinces little interest in the daily epidemic of firearm deaths our country endures. As violent crime has dropped precipitously, the press's bias for sensationalism has caused it to lose interest in gun policy as well, even though the real story about gun deaths is a much more complicated story. Thus, someone like Fox News’ Ablow can feel safe in building intentionally misleading analogies between gun violence and mental illness without running afoul of the discourse. Consider this shameless bit of intellectual legerdemain from his column last year:
“Moreover, shooting victims don’t come close to the body count from untreated mental illness in the United States. There are tens of thousands of suicides in the United States every year. The rate of suicide has risen at least 15 percent in the last ten years.”
What method, you may ask, do more than half—nearly 20,000 in total—of all annual suicides use? Good question. The answer is, guns, of course. You’d be hard pressed to learn that fact from folks in the right-wing media like Ablow, though, who like to disappear guns from this aspect of gun violence as well. And while conservatives have succeeded in distracting the mainstream press by endlessly trumpeting the correlation between mass shootings and mental illness, they never acknowledge the broader, incontrovertible link between more guns and more suicide and more guns and more homicide.
To craft public policy aimed at the tools of violence rather than just its underlying causes makes no sense, cry conservatives. And to illustrate this, the right routinely relies upon a favorite bit of reductio ad absurdum logic—which got a re-airing this past week after the Rodger massacre—the old saw that cars kill people, so do stupid liberals want to ban cars now? Huh? Do they?! In reality, however, we craft demand-side solutions to achieve policy outcomes all the time. And there’s a precious irony to this cars-kill-more-than-guns argument, since next year, US deaths from car accidents, which have been trending downward for years, are projected to drop below gun deaths for the first time. What's behind this success? Simply put, a dedicated, decades-long regulatory and research effort by the federal government—in partnership with the automotive and insurance industries—to push for safer cars, while simultaneously enforcing more restrictions on driving them. In other words, the very opposite of what has happened over the past few decades with gun policy. Sadly, this critically important narrative rarely gets aired in the press or discussed by the Very Serious People in our nation’s capital.
All of which brings us, fittingly, back to Dr. Murthy and the gun lobby’s stonewalling of his nomination. In a way, his saga represents a microcosm of what’s been missing from our national health policy debate about guns and, consequently, how little progress we have made. After all, as any doctor will tell you, you can’t begin the process of healing if you can’t even admit that you’re sick in the first place.
Dear Mr. Richardson:
As a retired VN & Desert Storm veteran of the Army and a military family advocate for nearly 40 years, rare is the journalist who can actually frame how the mainstream media distorts reality concerning how our veterans receive their hard earned benefits from the DVA.
Thank you for your clarity, cogent presentations and insight into how certain portions of media spin have failed to hit the mark concerning this latest hot-ratings-producing scandal.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Dave Zirin: Pure Poison: The UCSB Shooting, Ray Rice and a Culture of Violence Against Women.
I don’t have much this week as I’ve had some medical issues, now solved, but I did want to mention three things:
1) Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago Review Press)
This is a collection of more than fifty interviews Cohen conducted between 1966 and 2012. And if you think LC is even a fraction as important to one’s sanity as I do, you’ll be interested to see what’s in it. I wouldn’t trust everything in it, of course. If one could, it wouldn’t be Leonard. Here’s the kind of thing he says: “I don’t care what people call me, whether you call it folksinging or some people call it a priestly function or some people see it as a revolutionary activity or acidheads see it as psychedelic revolution or poets see it as the popularization of poetry.”
2) Billy Joel’s A Matter of Trust—The Bridge to Russia (Deluxe)
My friends at Legacy have released a nice two CD/two DVD package of Captain Jack’s 1987 Russian concert tour. It’s a nice package, all in red of course, and includes a documentary about the tour that running on Showtime now. Obviously it depends on how you feel about the guy; nobody was uncooler when I was in high school, but as one matures, one can learn to appreciate uncoolness, not for its own sake but for (admittedly modest, but entirely real) genius that lies beneath it. This one has all the hits—along with that stupid “Don’t take any shit from anyone” at the end of the show. That was silly.
They also released The Essential Eric Carmen, a thirty-track retrospective of the legendary singer/songwriter’s four-and-a-half decade career. Remastered carefully from the original analog recordings, it reaches back to his first recordings out of the teenage garage up through the undeniable highlight—the brilliant Raspberries—and then a few hits like “All By Myself” and then a whole bunch of other stuff which, if you’re like me, you will not have heard and you might like (but not nearly as much as Billy Joel, except for the Raspberries stuff.)
How the Media’s VA “Scandal” Coverage Is Making the Same Old Mistakes
by Reed Richardson
After six years of embarrassing boom-bust cycle coverage in pursuit of the next big scandal, you’d think the establishment media would’ve learned something by now. But as the ACORN, Black Panther, Fast & Furious, IRS and Benghazi storylines have proven over and over, the temptation to go all in on the latest Thing-That-Will-Doom-Obama-
Late last month, another dramatic story surfaced that has sent ripples through Washington. In a story headlined “A fatal wait,” CNN reportedly uncovered outrageously long appointment delays in the Phoenix Veterans Affairs health system, which a former doctor there shockingly claims cost forty veterans their lives while waiting for care. What’s more, the story detailed an elaborate cover-up by VA employees to hide the broken appointment system and massage the wait time numbers, a metric that figures in the calculation of bonuses for VA employees. News of similar “secret wait lists” and neglected veterans at more than a half-dozen other VA facilities around the country have since come to light.
These are, without a doubt, serious allegations. The prospect of veterans being denied timely access to necessary healthcare is outrageous, the prospect of even one veteran dying because of this delay even more so. After two, simultaneous decade-long wars, we owe it to our military men and women from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to fulfill the promise of proper care after the battle, while still continuing to care for those older vets from earlier eras. This promise is, after all, our nation’s foundational social compact, as the first governmental pension system established in the US was set up to benefit veterans of the Civil War. And no amount of “mad as hell” exclamations, whether from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, or President Obama, really matter if this compact is allowed to be broken.
However, as more and more of the VA story has emerged, it’s increasingly clear that a credulous press corps has once again allowed political grandstanding and dubious claims to run ahead of actual evidence. First and foremost among these failings, the CNN whistleblower’s disturbing claim of forty veterans dying, which has already begun to fray. In fact, as of last Thursday, a VA Inspector General had reviewed seventeen of those supposedly fatal cases and ruled out wait times as contributing to their deaths in every one of them. Reputable news outlets, like NPR, have been careful to couch these death claims as “not yet been proved.” But still today, reports among some of the usual right-wing suspects haven’t been so diligent; the slippery “as many as forty veterans died” meme has now been firmly entrenched in the narrative.
As is often the case when news organizations indulge in flood-the-zone coverage, much of the reporting has a parachuted-in feel to it. As a result, a lot of what readers and viewers have gotten is a very narrow view of the VA, with little background on the Obama administration’s overall track record serving the veteran community.
For example, few reporters bother to note the great strides made by the VA in the past few years in shrinking a massive claims backlog. (That backlog—which Obama inherited, by the way—further ballooned in late 2010 after the White House decided to finally do right by thousands of Vietnam veterans and accept more claims for PTSD and Agent Orange exposure.) Nor has much attention been paid to the administration’s striking success in reducing the chronic problem of veteran homelessness, which has been cut by twenty-four percent since 2010. And if the central issue under scrutiny right now is a healthcare system’s inability to match its supply with patient demand, might it be worthwhile context to note that the VA will be serving one million more patients by 2015 than it did when Obama first came into office? But rare is the news story that rounds out its scandal focus with a look at the broader challenges facing the VA. Even when I come across a well-reported, nuanced story about the agency’s recent ups and downs, I have to get past an oversimplified, scandal-hyped headline to do it: “Obama Has Every Reason to Fix the VA. Why Hasn’t He?”
Perhaps inevitably, the DC press corps’ fetish for horserace coverage has also crept in. Over at the National Journal sister site, Defense One, we saw even less context and more shoddy narrative framing this past week. With a shameless, clickbait headline, it ran a story suggesting that the “VA scandal” could be worse than—wait for it—Benghazi! Of course, the “veteran Democratic strategist” quoted saying this is no doubt only a “veteran” of political campaigns, since he refers to the VA as the “Veterans Administration,” a name the agency hasn’t officially had for twenty-five years. Not to worry, the reporter makes the same mistake. Though the story at least hedges “veterans dying” as an allegation, there’s no mention of the VA IG investigation that has also so far disproven all those claims. And then, true to form, the reporter devotes the kicker paragraph to the potential impact of those alleged dead veterans on the Democrats’ chances in the midterm elections. Classy.
As the coverage of the VA’s problems began to coalesce, right on cue, right-wingers jumped on board with their own agenda to push. Just how obviously political has the issue become? Consider the transparent absurdity of this PR two-step from last week. On Thursday, a group called the Concerned Veterans of America demanded the “immediate resign[ation]” of VA Undersecretary of Health Dr. Robert Petzel as retribution for the agency’s problems. Not even twenty-four hours later, however, the same group dismissed Petzel’s actual resignation as a “meaningless gesture.” Such transparently phony behavior on the part of the CVA might come as less of a shock when you learn it has received $2 million of its funding through the dark money network of the Koch brothers.
Conservative outrage artists like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh have wasted no time either. They’ve already used the VA as an excuse to, respectively, revisit the Obamacare “death panels” canard and compare the VA backlog to Nazi genocide. Never mind that all their railing about the poor quality of “government-run healthcare” is a lie. As with Medicare, VA care is among the best in the country. It’s better administration and greater access to that care that are the issues that need fixing at the VA. Gee, I wonder how conservatives feel about putting more resources into the VA to do just that.
Surprise, surprise, they’re against it. Back in February, the Senate GOP killed a $21-billion funding bill that would have opened or expanded more than two-dozen VA medical centers. The reason? It was an “election-year ploy” by Democrats that cost too much. (It seems there is a connection between the VA and Benghazi stories after all, since Congressional Republicans repeatedly cut funding for embassy security in the years before the 2012 attack on our compound in Libya.) This isn’t anything new—blocking funding for vets has become something of a habit among the GOP on Capitol Hill.
Of course, these votes don’t excuse misconduct or failures at the VA, which, if proven, should be dealt with harshly and promptly. And members of Congress from both parties are right to be concerned about what’s been unearthed about the VA recently. But falling victim to shallow, speculative coverage that haplessly fuels a partisan witch-hunt isn’t the answer. For, when mainstream news coverage routinely mischaracterizes the extent of misconduct or failure while ignoring the actual conditions that make misconduct and failure more likely, it becomes derelict in its duty to the public. This is the trap of “scandal journalism”—being obsessed with the theatrics leads to overlooking the facts. It’s all distraction and no solution. All of us, especially our veterans, deserve better.
Thanks for the article [“The Two Faces of Climate Change on the Washington Post’s Op-Ed Page.”] I always enjoy your fearless posts on the mainstream media establishment's indifference and inaction towards climate change. This line made me chuckle:
"But while one can reasonably claim to be uncertain about matters of pure faith, like, say, the existence of God or a serious House Republican plan to replace Obamacare, one cannot by definition be neither a believer nor a denier of fact."
Brilliant writing. I'll share this with all of my colleagues and friends. Patiently waiting for your next post.
Keep up the great work,
Outstanding piece! The Washington Post's duplicity on climate is a global shame.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: Reining in the Surveillance State.