Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
My newest Nation column is “Theater of the Absurd” with a subhed:
“In the wake of the Paris attacks, moral idiots play their predictable roles.”
So I’ve lost Reed. It’s shame as his work was terrific—better, on some occasions, than my own—but he could no longer justify the time. In the meantime I’ve decided to add a bit of content in the form of list-making. I always liked making lists. They are fun and they don’t take too long to write or to read. I meant to do the two below for gift-giving purposes last year but we had some personnel changes at The Nation that made it difficult to post in late December and early January. Also I was kinda lazy, which is a shame, because I think 2014 was the best year in human history for box sets. It’s amazing how hard the sequencing was in terms of picking my favorites. How hard it was to choose between the Beatles, Bruce and the Basement Tapes! Mike Bloomfield is really high on the list because that box set did such a great job of making a historical argument and of putting his career in context, especially the specially made documentary. The Allman Brothers are a little lower than they would otherwise be because most of that box was out on separate releases already and in some cases, higher quality audio. Simon & Garfunkel would be higher if there were any new material there. Leonard Cohen would be higher were there not a glut of recent Leonard Cohen live recordings and cds. Ditto Sinatra: London. The Miles at the Fillmore is beloved by many who think Miles did not make a very wrong turn after Bitches’ Brew. (After, not before...) That’s why I listed the 1960s set ahead of it, despite inferior sound quality. I mean that was the greatest post-Ellington, post-Basie band ever assembled in this view—from a strict standpoint of musicianship (though I am tempted to make an argument for the final iteration of the Allman Brothers Band, I will resist). Anyway, too late for the holidays but in time for the Grammys, is the below. More lists to come.
Best Retrospective Box Sets of 2014 in rough order:
The Beatles in Mono Vinyl Box Set
Bruce Springsteen: The Original Albums Remastered Volume I
Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes Complete
The Led Zeppelin re-releases
Mike Bloomfield: From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
The Allman Brothers Band: The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings
The Kinks: The Anthology , 1964-71
The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars
The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions
Leonard Cohen: Live in Dublin
The Complete Simon and Garfunkel
Miles Davis, All of You: The Last Tour, 1960
Emmylou Harris, Songbird
Uncompromising Expression: Singles Collection
Little Feat: Red Gumbo: The Complete Warner Brothers Years, 1971-1990
Miles at the Fillmore - Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3
My Favorite Albums of 2014 (but not in order except for first few, and even those are not in literal order because they cannot really be compared and one’s feelings change over time).
The Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theater, October 28, 2014, (4 CDs, website sale only)
Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems
Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes
Reflector, Arcade Fire
Pink Floyd, The Endless River
D’Angelo, Black Messiah
The Thompson Family
Rosanne Cash, The River & The Thread
The Black Keys, Turn Blue
Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
Sonny Rollins, Road Show, Volume III
Chick Corea, Trilogy
Beck, Morning Phase
Another Day, Another Time Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis
Sturgil Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Bryan Ferry, Avonmore
Big Star, Nothing Can Hurt Me
Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle
Bob Seger, Ride Out
Government Mule, Dark Side of the Mule
Common Ground - Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play And Sing The Songs Of Big Bill Broonzy
Tuesday night, 400 of my closest friends and I saw an extraordinary performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Appel Room called "The Nearness of You." The show was in honor of the late Michael Brecker, who before he died at age 57 myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer in which the bone marrow stops producing enough healthy blood cells, won more than a dozen Grammy Awards and played with a who’s who of musicians who want to play with great musicians. At this benefit, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, Jack DeJohnette, and brother Randy, fronting a terrific 15 piece band of Brecker’s friends and musical associates put on a moving and powerful show, but also an educational one. Usually these benefits are unbelievably tedious while one is forced to sit through endless thank-yous, auctions, begging for more money and sucking up to rich people. This one, however, was a model of good taste and concise speeches. Meredith Viera, Robin Roberts and Susan Brecker were the only speakers and none went on a minute longer than necessary to pay tribute both to Michael and to the work of Azra Raza, MD, and Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD. Dr. Raza is director of the Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS) Center at Columbia University Medical Center, to whose work the funds raised by the show will be given. Taylor, who had the flu, sang “The Nearness of You” and "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight." He added that “Michael saved my life and probably a lot of other people. He led me to freedom, really from addiction, and showed a number of us the way." Simon played “Still Crazy” and “The Boxer,” which was not enough but really nice, and the show closed with everyone signing “ "Shower the People,” albeit apparently unrehearsed. The Michael Brecker Quindectet was directed by Gil Goldstein was given plenty of time with Randy Brecker and DeJohnette, among others, to shine; a lovely night all around.
So the exciting news this week was the announcement of three 50th anniversary shows by the “core four” members of the Grateful Dead at Soldier’s Field in Chicago this July. It will be their only shows and so I and many others, will have to spend our July 4th weekend in Chicago. I hope it’s not too hot. To prepare, I’ll be spending time with recent Dave’s Picks and Dick’s Picks re-releases. The former are put out by the Dead themselves and are really only available by subscription because the limited editions always sell out. (See here) I think I am caught up on reviewing the most recent releases. Dick’s Picks, however, come from my friends at Real Gone Music; the company that makes even the most obsessive of music collectors feel stupid about what they have forgotten. Their most recent shows include Dick’s Picks Vol. 12—Providence Civic Center 6/26/74 & Boston Garden 6/28/74. The excellent press material notes that “The first disc picks up the second set from Providence three songs in, featuring a short jam that leads into what many have labeled the most extraordinary live version of “China Cat Sunflower” ever recorded, complete with a sublime transition (“Mud Love Buddy Jam” a.k.a. “Mind Left Body Jam”) into “I Know You Rider.” The revelatory moments continue throughout the Providence set, highlighted by a dazzling, 15-minute “Spanish Jam.” But the second set of the Boston show—which appears here complete, beginning on CD two after a superb encore performance of “Eyes of the World” from Providence—is the one that has passed into legend among Dead fans (that it begins with a rare performance of Phil Lesh and Ned Lagin’s electronic music piece “Seastones” gives you an idea of what an adventurous night this was). The set boasts one of the most renowned live jams of the band’s career, a flawless, 14-minute “Weather Report Suite: Prelude/Pt. 1/Pt. 2-Let It Grow” leading into a 27-minute “Jam” that is simply one of the most far-ranging, telepathic improvisations ever played by, well, anybody. That this set also includes a separation of the “Sunshine Daydream” section from “Sugar Magnolia” for only the second time ever is just gravy. Out of print for years and a must for your Dead collection (oh, and did we mention this was a Wall of Sound concert?)! (Please note: Real Gone is also reissuing, in a limited-edition 300-unit run, the long out of print Dick’s Picks Vol. 35, which presented 1971 concert tapes discovered on Keith Godchaux’s houseboat.)” You can still get that, I think.
I also discovered the soul singer Jackie Moore from Real Gone. She began her recording career in 1968 with singles on the Shout and Wand labels, but made it (a little) big(ger) with Atlantic Records in 1970. There are 21 tracks recorded between November 1969 and June 1972 plus a 1973 album all together now on The Complete Atlantic Recordings, a 2-CD, 30-track set with 14 previously unreleased tracks and all remastered. Check her out. I found her to be a wonderful surprise.
I also want to plug a couple of photo books: The first is Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression, which is a companion to the cd box set listed above to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Blue Note Records. Published by Chronicle Books, the text is by Richard Havers, who also wrote the remarkably similar Like Verve: The Sound of America (2013) which was published last year for the same reason. There are forwards by Wayne Shorter, Don Was, and Robert Glasper, but the real fun is are the photos of the album covers, posters, flyers/ads, press releases, notes on various sessions, etc, which provide hours of fun, educational perusing, especially with the music on.
I am also enjoying (and should have recommended before the holidays) Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography, a companion to an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art published by Yale University Press. The museum recently acquired the core collection of Strand's prints from the Paul Strand Archive, and the book not only reproduces these on 250 plates but also features a number of essays and debates about the work, so you will learn a lot. It’s big and heavy like coffee table photography book should be, but definitely worth your time and money if you don’t already have an earlier Strand collection.
Finally, I want to celebrate the return of, and mourn the end of Foyle’s War, one of my favorite shows of the past few years. And hey, if you want to see it, you have to go to Acorn TV as apparently PBS does not have it. The final three feature-length films begin on Monday, Feb. 2nd and run for the next two weeks. The show has been around since 2003, but has only picked up steam in recent years as people got to know it. There are total of 28 shows to which you can look forward if you’ve somehow missed it beginning from the start of the second world war through the dropping of the atom bomb. The final season takes place in 1946 London.
And finally, finally, before the break, I saw Bob Seger at the Garden, at 69, has great hair. I was jealous. He’s got guys in his band who have been there since 1969, Chris Campbell on bass, Alto Reed on sax since 1972, Grand Funk Railroad's Don Brewer. “Ride Out” on Capitol is his first from the studio since 2006. He spoke of the “good message” of Steve Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand,” a Steve Earle and sang another one about global warming and third about his fireman brother-in-law and did a few others too. The J. Geils Band opened the show with an 45-minute set and were surprisingly great, given that I smoked pot for the first time in my life at one of their shows at the Academy of Music literally 40 years ago. Peter Wolf is definitely defying time.
But back to Bob. Bruce did not appear, magically, as he did the last time Seger played the Garden, but the sheer number of great songs the guy has is astounding if one doesn’t think about it in advance. (Though he only has one move: fist in the air. I could live without that.) But still. Look at this setlist. No wonder his GH collection is up there with the Eagles on the best selling albums of all time. Here’s what he played: "Roll Me Away," "Tryin' to Live My Life Without You," “Night Moves,” “Mainstreet,” “Beautiful Loser,” “Like a Rock,” “Against the Wind,” "The Fire Down Below," "Come to Poppa," “We’ve Got Tonight,” "Turn the Page," "Old Time Rock and Roll," “Hollywood Nights,” "Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” and that’s only what I remember, which is a factor of my advanced age, rather than any continued abuse of illegal substances.
Read Next: Eric Alterman on Jazz at Lincoln Center and Reed Richardson's tips for navigating the upcoming 2016 election.
Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.
There’s not been an Altercation in a while, so here are a few pieces I’ve put up of late.
The former activist and New York public advocate discusses his first year as mayor.
Why is the political coverage in The New York Times so lame?
Mario Cuomo’s Patchwork Quilt In his electrifying 1984 convention speech, Cuomo forged a new liberal vision drawn from his own ethnic experience. (From The Cause, my history of postwar American liberalism)
Moyers's most significant legacy is that he treated his audience as adult citizens of a republic. (From the second to last time Bill retired, but sadly, this time it’s for real.)
New York Winter Jazzfest
The Complete Sopranos on bluray
Sinatra in London
“The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions.”
I made it to Jazz@Lincoln Center twice last week. First, at Dizzy’s I saw Marcus Roberts’ Modern Jazz Generation, one of the most exciting developments in jazz right now. First of all it’s nice to see that Roberts can sustain so ambitious an undertaking. I recently reviewed Roberts’ MJG a few months ago when they played the Appel Room, and, at Dizzy’s, they demonstrated considerable growth both in terms of musicianship and internal communication. The musicians are almost all quite young, and they mesh quite nicely but when it comes time to solo they play as if they've been waiting an entire lifetime to shine. The set was devoted to Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, Horace Silver and a sparkling Chick Corea song from “My Spanish Heart,” my favorite album of his. I look forward to more meshing on their part, both musically and across time and space.
But the most amazing thing about the show was the warm-up act, eleven year old, Bali-born Joey Alexander. (He only played the early show because the late show would have been past his bedtime.) He began with Monk and then moved into Coltrane and elsewhere in the canon. It was jaw-dropping. It actually made me reconsider the possibility of human achievement. How this cute kid can understand what he is playing well enough to interpret what he did—much less play it, given the complication of say “Giant Steps,” was, and remains, almost impossible to fathom. After the show, he and his mom told me that he had been playing since he was 7 and he had even played Rose Hall. Check him out here. He’s an amazing phenomenon.
Later that week, I caught a performance by Wynton Marsalis and the orchestra. It was not my favorite period of jazz but I really appreciated the degree to which Wynton integrated historical context into his introductions of each piece. (The concert was based on a lecture in the six-part series Wynton gave at Harvard called “Hidden in Plain Sight: Meanings in American Music that began in 2011.) As the press material explained, the show was designed to “explore the roles of orchestral instrumentation and the expansion of harmonic prospects, the evolution of the rhythm section, and the distinctiveness of the master composers and arrangers involved. At the forefront of this celebration are Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Bill Challis, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Eddie Durham, Chico O’Farrill, and Gil Fuller,” and ended with Dizzy. Even a serious jazz fan might not be familiar with all of these folks and few people besides Wynton, and professional jazz historians would have known all about them. I was particularly ignorant about the role that Don Redman played in the birth of jazz. Actually, I was ignorant about more of than I knew. (And did you know that Eddie Durham invented the electric guitar?) The Jazz@LC schedule is here
The night before, I caught a couple of performances at the Minetta Lane Theater by David Murray and various accompanists as part of the New York Jazz Winterfest, now in its 11th year, and coincides with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference and the Jazz Connect conference, and so is filled with jazz cognoscenti. Murray, who was in town from Paris and/or Portugal, made the most of his return, by playing sets with three different bands, including “The David Murray Clarinet Summit w/ Don Byron, David Krakauer, and Hamiet Bluiett,” which was the highlight in my opinion, the “David Murray Infinity Quartet with Saul Williams”” and “David Murray w/ Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington,” There might have been more, but that was the best I could do. It was spiriting so see so many people waiting in freezing cold to get in to hear such demanding music. I love David Murray but, like say, Chick Corea, he is so versatile, it would be hard for anyone to love all of it. The festival has turned into another reason however, that this is the greatest city in the world, even when freezing.
Stuff: So I've been watching the Sopranos: The Complete Series on bluray. It's 28 discs, 4980 minutes and I can't believe:
a)the incredible visual definition of the actors;
b)how well written the first season was;
c)how young Tony was, and I guess how young I must have been since James Gandlofini and I were born the same year.
Enough time has passed to appreciate just how great this show was and how groundbreaking was its dramatic trajectory. Among the features include interviews with cast, crew, celebrities, filmmakers, critics, and academics, as well as never-before-seen archival footage from the groundbreaking series. - Two roundtable interviews with the cast and crew - Two-part interview with David Chase—Lost scenes—25 audio commentaries with the cast and crew
I’ve also spent some time with a new 3 CD/DVD Sinatra box called “Sinatra: London,” from my friends at Capitol/UMe. The shows, which have not been released before, took place during several weeks in spring of 1962, when Sinatra traveled to the U.K. to record “Sinatra Sings Great Songs From Great Britain.” It turned out to be the only album Sinatra would ever record outside of the United States. The box includes session material from the album, a 1962 BBC “Light Programme” radio special with introductions to each song by Sinatra himself, a 1953 live session for BBC Radio’s “The Show Band Show,” and a Royal Albert Hall concert from 1984. The DVD features is yet another unreleased Sinatra show from the period at Royal Festival Hall, with a “A Foggy Day” from a 1970 show appearance also at the same Hall. It comes with a nice 60-page booklet with an essay by Ken Barnes, who was there for all of it, along with two exclusive art print reproductions of original London concert posters, and a studio panorama from the 1962 recording sessions.
If your interest was kindled (original meaning) by the J@LC Orchestra show mentioned above, then you might want to pursue the music of that period with yet another sterling and extremely generous collection from Mosaic called “The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions.” This limited edition nine CD box set restores to pristine condition the great Charlie Parker'sDial Sessions, recorded between 1946 and 1947 which included among so many others, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Howard McGee, Wardell Gray, J. J. Johnson, Duke Jordan, Teddy Edwards, Teddy Wilson, Errol Garner, Tommy Potter and Max Roach. This set was originally made available in Japan 20 years ago but this is the first time you could get it except at crazy import prices, if you could find it at all.
What was Dial? Count on Mosaic, not only for their engineers, but also for their historians.
Dial founder Ross Russell, who owned the Tempo Music Shop, described as a West Coast Mecca for jazz lovers,” launched the label shortly after the Musician's Union lifted its ban on recording. Major labels were not eager to pay royalties for the first time, and this opened the door to indie entrepreneurs like Russell. Dial relocated to New York (where Parker moved as well.) The earliest tracks in the set, recorded in New York, were originally done for Comet and acquired years later by Dial. They include a Red Norvo show in June 1945, featuring Bird and Diz, Flip Phillips, Teddy Wilson, Slam Stewart, and Specs Powell and J.C. Heard alternating. At the other end, Mosaic throws in some Dexter Gordon sessions from 1947, recorded in LA, with Teddy Edwards among others. Naturally, there’s a great booklet with a 1995 essay by Russell himself. And the sound is hard to believe, given the recording technology available at the time. Mosaic is a real national treasure.
Oh, and finally, I wanted to mention that this coming this coming Tuesday, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Bobby McFerrin, among others will be headlining a benefit for cancer research at Columbia University Medical Center. The concert will honor the memory of the late sax man Michael Brecker, who played with all of them, but died in 2007 at 54 of MDS when he failed to find a match for a bone marrow transplant. The show, which will be at Rose Hall, will also support the work of Azra Raza, and Siddhartha Mukherjee, director of the Myelodisplastic Syndromes Center and a researcher at the MDS Center respectively. (Mukherjee won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.) The show is happening at the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. More here.
Caveat Lector: Your 2015 Guide to 2016 Presidential Primary Coverage
by Reed Richardson
It has begun.
Now that the calendar has officially turned to 2015, any remaining pundit coyness or pretense of reporting restraint on the part of the political press can be jettisoned. What was mere Beltway background noise will now start to slowly compete with (and drown out) other political storylines. From now until November 8, 2016, media coverage of the race for the White House will proceed to eat up the news hole at an accelerated pace.
Still, the first GOP presidential debateis a full nine months away, which means we’re still firmly ensconced in the “invisible primary” stage of the 2016 presidential election. As I’ve written previously, the campaign news of consequence being made in this period is much more to difficult to find and report. It requires steps like tracking private soirées with well-heeled donors, connecting the dots of campaign staff hiring, and getting on the ground at small, distant gatherings of the party faithful. In other words, it demands an active, aggressive approach to campaign journalism, which can be an increasingly rarefied trait in an era where poll write-ups and social media snark rule the media landscape. Which is why in the year before an election year, differentiating between actual 2016 election news and needless horserace speculation isn’t always so easy.
Point #1: Don’t put much stock in polls.
One year ago, polls showed Hillary Clinton with a huge lead over any potential 2016 Democratic rival and a pack of dozen-plus GOP candidates mostly mired in the single digits. Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that nothing much has changed. Yet, that well-established stability didn’t stop media organizations from commissioning dozens of polls in the intervening year. Nor will it slow them down going forward, since the 2011 GOP primary polling demonstrated that a lifetime of campaign booms and busts can happen in the months before the Iowa caucuses. But, since we’re not currently in the midst of either the President Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani administrations, it’s important to remember that odd-year presidential polling is of limited predictive value.
Which is why breathless reports of poll momentum in 2015 deserve a lot of skepticism. Like, for example, this craven attempt by CNN to hype its latest poll results, which purportedly show Jeb Bush “rocket[ing]” to the lead of the GOP field. True, Bush’s 23% mark means his 13%-point lead over Gov. Chris Christie is statistically significant. The political significance is much less clear, however. Because what CNN never bothers to mention is that when Mitt Romney is included in other GOP primary polls, Bush quickly drops back into a statistical tie with the rest of the pack, which strongly suggests these polls are merely measuring name ID rather than actual political preferences.
Moreover, this latest CNN poll was conducted right after Bush announced he was “exploring” a presidential run, which prompted a surfeit of mostly positive stories in the press. Not coincidentally, in their book about the 2012 election, “The Gamble,” political scientists Lynn Vavreck and John Sides found that news coverage consistently drove, rather than reacted to the Republican primary candidates’ surges in the polls. In a close race between 10 or more candidates, even a small “observer effect” by the media will be able to swing the 2015 polling narrative on who’s up and who’s down. (And for those who find volatile polls too scientific, there’s always this completely subjective, six-byline National Journal ranking of the GOP field.)
Point #2: Pay even less attention to “gaffes.”
After the Dallas Cowboys’ comeback victory at Detroit last Sunday, Gov. Christie’s awkward celebratory bear hug of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones rocketed across social media. Predictably, hot takes from the political press soon ensued. Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren took to Twitter to quickly lower the boom on Christie’s electoral chances in the state: “good bye Michigan primary.” (And yes, she was serious.)
This is, to put it bluntly, nuts. Yes, Christie has driven the New Jersey economy into the ditch and his policies would make matters worse in Michigan too, but come on. Not only is the Michigan primary 14 months away, for that matter it’s also an entire NFL regular season and two Super Bowls from now. Nevertheless, fleeting moments like these are catnip for pundits who are constantly on the lookout for ways to demonstrate their political savvy. (Worth noting: there are legitimate ethical concerns about Christie accepting all these free trips to Cowboys games from Jones, who business dealings with the Port Authority.)
In a way, gaffes are the original clickbait. But common sense tells us that they don’t really matter to voters. And political science agrees. The only people that really care about gaffes, then, are political operatives and the political press. Which is why, for example, it’s not worth reading facile op-eds devoted solely to out-of-context nitpicking of Hillary Clinton’s comments. As with almost all gaffe coverage, it can be boiled down to a shameless attempt by the press to avoid a substantive policy critique. In Clinton’s case, it’s also a way for the establishment media to gin up controversy in a Democratic primary that looks unlikely to produce sufficient drama for big ratings.
Point #3: Beware of “savvy” analysis that ignores the obvious.
This is of particular importance in 2015, since a lot of political reporting will devolve into speculating about who will or won’t be running in 2016. Even though most of these campaign decisions are telegraphed far in advance, the Beltway media loves to pretend otherwise. And more often than not, they’re deductive powers are proven to be ridiculously (and repeatedly) awful.
Take, for instance, these three related CNN headlines about Donald Trump’s “serious” presidential ambitions, put in chronological order:
-Trump ‘more serious than ever’ about 2012 run (3/10/2011)
-Trump ‘seriously considering’ 2016 bid (12/14/2014)
I look forward to the network’s chastened, fourth installment in this series later this spring. (On a related note, I have a breaking news alert to pass along to CNN: the word “gullible” was accidentally left out of the latest edition of Webster’s dictionary.)
Or consider this pitiful May 2007 exchange between ABC News’ Diane Sawyer and former Vice President Al Gore. Time and again, Sawyer tried to find some wiggle room in Gore’s weary, steadfast denials about running for president in the 2008 election 18 months away. The interview, which—ironically—was supposed to be about Gore’s new book on the corrosion of democratic discourse, ended with Sawyer stooping to journalistic self-parody: “But to dig not very deep, once again, at my peril here…I just want to say, Donna Brazile, your former campaign manager, has said, If he drops 25 to 30 pounds he’s running. Lost any weight?”
As far as unwitting self-recriminations go, “But to dig not very deep, once again,” might be my all-time favorite way to describe the Beltway establishment.
To be fair, Sawyer wasn’t the last pundit to deploy this inane, beltline analysis. Just this past weekend, in fact, Brit Hume Tweeted out this bit of political wisdom about his former Fox News colleague Mike Huckabee: “Re: Huckabee, watch his girth. You'll know he's moved from exploring to running when it begins to shrink.” Or maybe, just maybe, the fact that he voluntarily gave up a lucrative TV gig is a more realistic indicator of his actual presidential plans. Then again, that’s a pretty obvious point, one that doesn’t require brilliant insights from a cable news anchor.
Point #4: Don’t be distracted by talk of white horse candidacies.
Nobody loves a stunning plot twist more than me. Running a presidential campaign, however, is not something one just switches on overnight or at the last minute. It takes a monumental amount of hard work and just as much preparation. Nevertheless, there’s nothing that intrigues the political press more than the prospect of high-profile politician disavowing any interest in running for president and then changing his or her mind.
For the past year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has consistently sworn off any interest running for president in 2016. Still, the media keeps asking her. Over and over. How bad has this parlor game become? So bad that the Washington Post’s chief political handicapper, Chris Cillizza, recently claimed to have found a loophole in her denials, noting that: “when given the opportunity to definitely rule out running for president—past, present, or future—Warren didn’t do it.” That’s right, he wrote past. Who knew Warren could be deviously planning a presidential run in 2012? Hell, let’s make it 1980 if we’re going to entertain Bizarro world presidential match-ups.
Time-traveling Draft Warren fantasies aside, back on Earth the signs of a real U.S. presidential campaign commence with all the high drama of a corporate tax filing. Thus, you’ll notice little pundit talk or Twitter trends about Jeb Bush resigning from all his corporate boards. But the kind of nuts-and-bolt reporting that ferrets this information out offers far more valuable insight into a politician’s real White House plans than his or her diet or Shermanesque rhetoric. (In addition, this kind of reporting can also provide much richer detail on how, as in Bush’s case, a candidate’s past business entanglements can seriously undermine their presidential hopes.)
Likewise, all the chatter this past week of a return to the presidential trail from two-time loser Mitt Romney should be viewed with heavy skepticism. Though anonymous sources may be breathlessly telling news organizations like Politico that he’s “serious" and “open to the idea” of running in 2016, much of the coverage of Romney’s re-entry amounts to rich donors playing the media. I can think of nearly 66 million reasons why he won’t be running a third time. But if he actually goes through with it, he certainly won't wait around and parachute back into the race late in the fall.
Point #5: Follow the people, the money, and the money people.
The year before the actual presidential primaries begin involves a lot of infrastructure building on the part of presidential campaigns. Email lists, donor networks, state coordinators: all these need to be in place to have success in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond.
Although campaign staff stories lack a certain sex appeal, they’re often a leading indicator of a politician’s ambitions. Sen. Rand Paul hasn’t officially declared he’s running in 2016, but the campaign staff he’s already hired makes his announcement all but a formality. What’s more, staff departures can be just as important as arrivals, as they can signal to others who the perceived stronger campaigns are. Back in November, when Paul successfully poached the top digital operative of Sen. Ted Cruz—a potential 2016 rival—it sent a subtle, yet important message about the perceived strengths of the two presidential bids.
Staying power is paramount for a candidate who wants to survive the great winnowing that happens during the first few 2016 primary contests. Four years ago, after a surprise victory at the (completely meaningless) Iowa straw poll, cable news touted Michele Bachmann as a supposedly rising presidential prospect. But less heralded news reports about her campaign’s money and people problems told a different story. Her campaign’s weak fundraising in the third quarter and the mass resignation of her New Hampshire staff in October portended an early exit. Sure enough, after a sixth-place finish at the Iowa caucuses, she quietly disappeared from the race just a few days into January.
What Bachmann lacked was a billionaire backer like Foster Friess or Sheldon Adelson. These wealthy conservative spent millions to single-handedly keep the campaigns of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, respectively, afloat four years ago. For 2016, the price tab for winning the GOP nomination is expected to be north of $75 million. Which is why coverage of the 2015 battle for the benefactors, already underway, is key to understanding which Republicans have a real shot at making it to next summer’s GOP convention.
On the Democratic side, there’s little doubt that Hillary Clinton can amass a prodigious campaign war chest; the Clintons’ ability to tap wealthy individuals and corporations is, by now, well established. Instead, the more interesting storyline to follow is how her Wall Street connections might offer a political opening on the left to an insurgent Democratic challenger like Bernie Sanders. Indeed, MSNBC noted this week that Sanders has reshaped the Senate Budget Committee in a way that could provide him a natural campaign springboard for a more populist economic message.
Point #6: The ideological media primaries are important.
How much attention MSNBC pays to Sanders this year could have an significant impact on his decision to mount a challenge to Clinton. That’s why watching its coverage of him and Clinton and, similarly, observing how Fox News covers the Republican presidential hopefuls can be instructive. In this pre-POTUS election year especially, ideological news organizations and political pundits act as a kind of first-order proving ground for their party’s prospective candidates; a place to be tested in an mostly friendly environment and hone his or her message. This will be even truer in 2015 than four years ago, as the RNC plans to more tightly control media involvement in what will be substantially fewer primary debates.
Because of this, it’s worth knowing the media lay of the land. On the right, it’s no secret Fox News president Roger Ailes desperately wanted Christie to run in 2012. Over at theWall Street Journal editorial page, they don’t care much for Rand Paul and they loathe Ted “Iowa caucuses by way of Texas” Cruz. (I mean really loathe him.) The Washington Post’s resident right-wing primary obsessive, Jennifer Rubin, doesn’t much care for Cruz,likes Bush and Rick Perry, but seems to hate Paul with the heat of 10,000 suns. This is a notable turnaround for Rubin, since four years ago she trained her obsessive fire on Perry, before transforming into Mitt Romney’s obedient lapdog.) Naturally, Rush Limbaugh disagrees with all these establishment voices, loves Cruz, and doesn’t think Jeb Bush is a conservative.
On the left, the partisan media has mostly responded to the supposed inevitability of a Hillary Clinton campaign with ambivalence. The Nation has certainly made the case against pre-emptively anointing her the nominee. But the magazine has also tried to come to grips with her unique, historic standing in the party right now. In the end, left-wing media arguments about her personal baggage—her husband, her name, the “dynasty” factor—won’t be reason enough to dissuade Democratic voters if they think she stands a good chance of winning. (The same goes for Jeb Bush on the right, incidentally.) But her Wall Street and foreign policy baggage just might slow her down enough to give someone else a chance. After all, the fatal flaw in her 2008 primary campaign wasn’t whom she was married to; it was her 2002 vote in favor of a pointless, disastrous war in Iraq.
Point #7: Every election is different.
Journalists love analogies and political journalists even more so. But news stories that try to force-fit this next election into a convenient historical frame are hallmarks of lazy thinking. So no, 2016 will not be like 2008 or 1988. Or even 2012, for Republicans. The best news coverage over the coming year will recognize this and strive to dig deeper than rehashed poll roundups and hashtagged gaffes. Instead, it’s about finding the stories behind the stories, the ones that reveal how our democracy really works (or, all too often, doesn’t) and that stake out in clear terms the real-world impact of the choice voters will face in the voting booth next year.
Final note: This will be my last regular blog post here. Accordingly, I must take a moment to express my deepest gratitude to Eric for letting me write here weekly for the past four-and-a-half years. His hospitality has been nothing short of fantastic. Though I would never presume to say replaced the great Charles Pierce as guest blogger, I at least like to think I kept well tended the intellectual fires that he lit. And I’d also offer a shout-out to the dozen-plus interns—the names of whom escape me—who patiently helped post my portion of the blog over the years. Like Ted Hart, our current intern, they’ve all been great. (Follow Ted on Twitter here or, better yet, offer him a job.)
Blogging here for you has been a pleasure and a privilege, as they say. It’s also been a lot of damned hard work and opened numerous other doors for me, which I look forward to pursuing. I still plan on writing longer articles for The Nation occasionally. As for blogging, going forward you can find more of my media criticism over at Medium.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
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Read Next: Eric Alterman on the trouble with TNR
My new Nation column is called “The Trouble With Democrats.”
I’ve written quite a bit about The New Republic over the years, though nothing since Marty Peretz was forced out and it ceased to be a problem in my life. I’ve chosen not to say anything of substance regarding Chris Hughes and the current conundrum he has created because I think the issues raised are too complex for me to do justice to them in just a column, and most of what I would say now, I’ve already said (except to note that I thought it was quite a good magazine post-Peretz, albeit one that no longer served the role it historically claimed for itself; and it’s a shame that it will cease to exist). Anyway, I’ve taken the opportunity of today’s blog post to collect a bunch of articles, columns and sections of books I’ve written that are available on the web and provide links to them. I hope those interested in the topic find them to be useful and/or interesting:
1. Thanks, first of all, to Salon for republishing the TNR chapter from Sound and Fury, first published in 1992, updated in 1999, under the title: “The truth about the New Republic: Kinsley, Krauthammer, Oliver North and a liberal magazine’s demented war on liberalism.”
2. The American Prospect re-upped my history of the Marty Peretz era of TNR from 2007 under the title: “The New Republic Was In Trouble Long Before Chris Hughes Bought It.”
3. Under the title “You’ve Got to Hate and Fear,” I excerpted the story of The New Republic and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, from my 2003 book, What Liberal Media?
4. In The Nation, in 1997, I wrote about the role of TNR under Michael Kelly’s editorship in a piece called “TNR: The Long Goodbye.”
5. And here are a few additional columns I wrote about the magazine:
'The New Republic': Bad for the Jews (The Nation, 2009);
The Problem With Peretz (The Nation, 2010);
How Peretz Undermined Liberalism (The American Prospect, 2011).
There were more, but these were the ones specifically devoted to the magazine. For those who are interested, I recommend taking a look at my history of postwar American liberalism, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.
Eric Reed and company play Basie at the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center
Hot Tuna at the Beacon Theatre
The master pianist Eric Reed put together a terrific program last weekend honoring Count Basie that he called “Swinging the Blues” at the Appel Room. It featured vocalists Brianna Thomas and Kenny Washington, bassist Gerald Cannon, drummer McClenty Hunter, together with tenor saxophonists Eric Alexander and Tivon Pennicott. The selection gave everyone a chance to shine, particularly on the duets between Thomas and Washington. A number of the tunes were Basie only due to transitive properties, seriously “Perdido”? But the arrangements all offered new insights on old chestnuts, as the saying doesn’t go—even “Yesterday” from the disastrous Basie album of Beatles song managed to swing somehow, and Reed showed himself to be a charming and erudite host for as illuminating and entertaining a ninety minutes as one could hope to enjoy. Here is the Jazz at Lincoln Center schedule for the coming months.
Hot Tuna did its annual Beacon show Saturday night, and this has become a ritual to some of us. This year was special because it celebrated Jack Casady’s seventieth birthday and featured Marty Balin, a Jefferson Airplane founding member, along with the great Barry Mitterhoff, RNC band leader G.E. Smith, and Larry Campbell, his wife, the vocalist Teresa Williams, rounded out by drummer Justin Guip.
OK, to be honest, Marty Balin was a little embarrassing. He sounded pretty good, vamped it up on vocals as if he were Tom Jones and Tuna and company were just member of his backup band. He sang “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds,” a really silly choice of Airplane material, I thought, and then “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” Balin and his band opened the second set with songs with lyrics that the later Paul McCartney would be embarrassed to sing. But that passed quickly enough.
Meanwhile, back with Hot Tuna, Teresa Williams really shined on “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” both of which were spot-on. So, too were her vocals and the band’s musicianship on the long, slow “Sugaree” they played right afterwards. Right from the start with “Hesitation Blues,” the band, overall, was in great shape, as they almost never have both G.E Smith or Larry Campbell, helping out Jack, Jorma and (the unfairly underappreciated) Barry Mitterhoff, and you could tell that they all really appreciated the opportunity both to sit back and occasionally cut loose, led, of course by Jorma’s tasteful and decidedly unpyrotechnical lead work. You can read all about them here.
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Bruce Springsteen: The Album Collection Vol. 1, 1973-1984 (eight CDs)
Leonard Cohen: Live in Dublin (three CDs/one DVD)
The Complete Welcome Back, Kotter and WKRP in Cincinnati on DVD
New James Brown and Bob Marley concerts on DVD and Blu-ray, respectively
Side Show on Broadway
Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings released Bruce Springsteen: The Album Collection Vol. 1 1973-1984, which, as the good people at Columbia put it, is a boxed set comprised of remastered editions of the first seven albums recorded and released by Bruce Springsteen for Columbia Records between 1973 and 1984. All of the albums are newly remastered (five for the first time ever on CD) and all seven are making their remastered debut on vinyl. The seven albums are recreations of their original packaging and the set is accompanied by a 60-page book featuring photos, memorabilia and original press clippings from Springsteen's first decade as a recording artist. Bob Ludwig, working with Springsteen and longtime engineer Toby Scott, has remastered these albums, all newly transferred from the original analogue masters using the Plangent Process playback system.
I assume everyone who wants these albums already has them. And many of us have the remastered Born to Run and Darkness from those box sets. So the question this box set asks, is how different are the remasters from the originals. The answer is amazingly so. It’s not as if you’ve never heard The River or The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle before, but you’ve never heard them like this. The difference is stunning, even shocking. Usually I can work with Bruce on, but these remasters make that impossible, demanding attention, showing me new things in songs I’ve heard a billion times. And the booklet is really fun too, with lots of clips from days of yore. So, yes, I’d say it’s worth it and you’ll appreciate your investment.
So Leonard Cohen’s artistic rebirth is one of the more inspiring stories of my lifetime and one I feel genuinely privileged to have been alive to witness. I’ve been teaching a class where we are studying his lyrics (together with those of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell), and I do think he is unequaled as a lyricist and, at 80, a wonder of this world. There’s been a lot of product coming out of Leonard’s tours of the past few years. This new collection, recorded at Dublin's O2 Arena in September 2013, is the most complete, stretching over three CDs and a single DVD or Blu-ray. If you’ve not seen the tour, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It has three hours of music including bonus live tracks recorded in Canada in 2013 on the video. The concerts themselves were as close as I can remember to a religious experience as an adult. You need the actual Leonard Cohen for that, but this is, I suppose, as close as you’re going to get.
I was exactly the right age for Welcome Back, Kotter, which was funny, charming and (mostly) socially progressive in a class-based way that was unusual for ’70s television. Now, thanks to our friends at Shout! Factory, we’ve got 2,280 minutes on sixteen discs of Sweathog mayhem, cheap one-liners and a really young John Travolta. Sure it’s silly but there’s nothing really on television these days anyway, once you get past premium cable, so what the hell?
Many people a little younger than myself feel the same way about WKRP In Cincinnati, which Shout! Factory has also made available as a complete series that comes in at 2,250 minutes on thirteen discs. The show is silly beyond words, but thanks to the patience and investment by Shout!, almost all of the original music for the show has been cleared. Loni Anderson got her start on this show, so I don’t know if that’s a recommendation, but it too, has its charms, to say nothing of a soundtrack that includes Bruce, the Stones, the Dead, Elvis Costello, The Cars, Wings and The Police, which brings back the time in happy, non-Reaganite way. (See Rich Gallagher’s letter for another excellent sitcom recommendation below.)
Shout! has also put out an extended edition of the DVD of the famous James Brown
Live at the Boston Garden: April 5, 1968 that has historically been credited with keeping the peace in Boston on the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination. It’s an extraordinary document and more than a little spooky. It’s over two hours and includes and includes speeches by James Brown, Boston City Councilmember Tom Atkins and Boston Mayor Kevin White, as well as performances by Marva Whitney and Bobby Byrd. It’s not something I’d want to watch more than once, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. It was filmed in black and white and sound quality is iffy at best. Finally, Eagle Rock Entertainment has released a DVD of a Rockpalast, taping of a show from Bob Marley’s final tour in Dortmund’s Westfalenhalle in 1980. Marley already had cancer but he didn’t know it. I found this show really depressing, but it’s got all the hits. It’s called Uprising Live!, as that album had just been released.
Also, I saw Side Show at the St. James Theatre last week. The musical by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, about conjoined twins based on the lives of the real-life twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who grew to being vaudeville stars in the 1930s Born in England, they were sold off to a traveling freak show before being discovered by an on-the-make talent scout, and lots of stuff happens before they achieve stardom, but not, alas happiness.
Get it? Actually, it was pretty great, as all the reviews have pretty much agreed. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett as the twins are breathtakingly great and the freak-show cast, a scary but compelling cast of cast-offs as you’ll ever see. Pretty great music, too, albeit with a little filler.
Get it? Actually, it was pretty great, as all the reviews have pretty much agreed.
The annual John Lennon tribute I mentioned last Friday night. I have no review of it, but I did want, again, to mention the excellent cause it benefitted: The Theater, which you can learn more about if you go to LennonTribute.org. Also, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is showing the second Eric Rohmer re-release of the season and it’s the delightful A Tale of Winter (Conte d’hiver, 1994) which is not my favorite of Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons.” That would be A Summer’s Tale (1996), but A Tale of Springtime (1990) and Autumn Tale (1998), are also among my favorite films of all time. The new print, which I assume will shortly be on DVD, Blu-ray, etc, is gorgeous.
And a happy 80th birthday to Ruth Alterman!
How “Both Sides” Framing Undermines the Senate Torture Report
by Reed Richardson
After several years and numerous bureaucratic roadblocks, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence finally published a—shortened, partially redacted—report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program during the years after 9/11. Though it amounts to less than 20 percent of the actual 6,000-page investigation, the 528-page executive summary still presents an exhaustive, damning indictment of our democracy sacrificing its principles. Along with previously unknown examples of detainee torture and abuse by the CIA, there’s also overwhelming evidence of rampant misinformation if not outright deception about the torture program on the part of the agency. No doubt, the actions the report describes, done in our name, will forever be a stain our country’s legacy.
Nevertheless, as laudable as this report is in terms of transparency, it is still severely compromised in terms of actual accountability. With no real examination of the culpability of the Bush White House in crafting the torture policy and no political will to prosecute the outrageous wrongdoing of those who carried it out, there’s little actual precedent here to dissuade future (or current) administrations from the same flawed, moral calculus on torture’s acceptability. But the Senate probe’s narrow, self-limiting scope and the Obama administration’s half-hearted commitment to justice, respectively, aren’t the only things to blame for this. The establishment media has also played a key role in undermining even this feeble attempt at reckoning with our torture era.
It’s done this by once again letting the architects and apologists for the CIA’s torture program redefine the issue into a contrived “debate” about its efficacy. This has been the right-wing’s modus operandi for years—co-opt the press into ignoring the universal moral repugnance of torture in favor of a narrow, Machiavellian parsing of whether or not it produces actionable intelligence. Admittedly, the latter argument is much more comfortable terrain for the media, since it offers a convenient neutral ground from which to report (i.e., “senior administration officials say torture works, critics say it doesn’t…”). This wishy-washy “both sides” stance does little for readers even when discussing mundane policy debates, but it does a real disservice to the public when the subject matter involves defining down a supposedly bedrock American principle via rhetorical dissembling.
In fact, pretty much since its existence was revealed the CIA’s interrogation and detention program has enjoyed broad support inside the Beltway. Pushback from an incurious and submissive Washington press corps was notably rare when Bush was in office; many just dutifully repeated his unsubstantiated claims while adopting his administration’s Orwellian euphemism for the word torture. (To be fair, a few intrepid national security reporters did a commendable job in puncturing the veil of secrecy and learning the truth.) And to this day, the DC media establishment still serves up an all-you-can-stomach buffet of moral relativism, obsessive fear-mongering, and, courtesy of Fox News, good old-fashioned American jingoism.
One of the loudest of these Beltway cheerleaders, though, has been former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen. Over the past few years, he has essentially gone all in on torture, writing a fawning book on the CIA’s interrogation program and occasionally stepping into the Post’s op-ed breach whenever he felt the need to push what are, in fact, inaccurate anecdotes about thwarted terror plots. Naturally, the publication of a massively detailed investigation into the CIA’s torture program—one that would seriously threaten his worldview—set him off. And so, there was Thiessen on the eve of the Senate report’s release this week, pre-emptively attacking the report and defending the CIA with a new Post column about how waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammad led the CIA to target Adnan el Shukrijumah, an Al Qaeda commander (who happened to be killed just this past weekend by Pakistani forces). It almost goes without saying, but, yes, Thiessen’s argument falls apart in the face of the SSCI report’s actual findings on Shukrijumah, which start on page 358.
OK, this kind of pushback was to be expected. Normalizing torture has literally been Thiessen’s meal ticket, and he conveniently occupies one of several Post columnist slots apparently reserved for former Bush staffers. But he was by no means was alone in his campaign. In fact, as the SSCI report’s release drew nigh, a critical mass of former CIA and top-level Bush administration officials suddenly re-emerged across the media landscape. Many of the same names the country learned not to trust thanks to little things like chimerical WMD evidence and the disastrous Iraq War got a warm welcome back to the mainstream media’s op-ed pages and news shows to defend the agency’s torture program. (Torture and the Iraq War are not unrelated.)
Indeed, everyone, was rallying ’round the CIA’s waterboards, it seemed. There was George Bush, on CNN; Dick Cheney, in The New York Times; the CIA officer who destroyed the videotapes of agency torture, in The Washington Post; and don’t forget former CIA director Michael Hayden, in The Wall Street Journal and on Morning Joe and on Face the Nation and on NBC Nightly News and probably on a random street corner in Washington right this minute, hectoring passersby about how our nation’s security necessitated odious things like rectal feeding. The latter’s all-out enthusiasm for rebutting the Senate report finally made perfect sense once you saw its 37-page Appendix 3, which was solely dedicated to cataloguing the many times Hayden lied to Congress.
In this era of instant oppo research, it wasn’t a great shock to learn that these torture apologists even started their own, clumsily-named rebuttal website: CIASavedLives.com. But after perusing the site, where it lists the dozens of media platforms these folks have graced in the past few days to attack the report, you have to wonder why they bothered. With a compliant media seeking narrative “balance,” they’ve certainly had no trouble finding opportunities to amplify their counter-programming.
That the press would end up enabling these attacks on the torture report isn’t that unexpected, sadly. That’s because the Senate report found the media was an all too willing conduit for a CIA propaganda campaign back when the torture program was active. Whether it was selectively leaking classified info to gin up sympathy for the agency or feeding the media made-up terror plots to justify the inhumane treatment of the detainees, the CIA clearly played the mainstream press. And the mainstream press mostly played along, whether by passing along inaccurate claims of torture’s success or repeating false chronologies to support those claims. (Two specific examples of this cited in the Senate’s report involve The New York Times and Dateline NBC.) At times, the media acted more like an extension of the agency’s Office of Public Affairs than a watchdog of the government.
Not surprisingly, these embarrassing revelations didn’t get much airtime within the mainstream media itself. CNN’s “top takeaways” from the torture report, for example, completely ignored the press’s often subservient relationship with the CIA. But to dwell merely on the unspeakable horrors inflicted upon detainees—many of whom were totally innocent—by our government is to miss the other half of the torture story. That’s the half that more directly impacts our democracy going forward, since the Senate’s report also lays bare just how corrupt and broken our system of oversight and transparency is. When CIA officials can privately speak of the “Glomar figleaf” they used to uniformly stonewall every FOIA request and when they can joke to one another about the hypocrisy of proclaiming everything a state secret while simultaneously “planning to reveal darn near the entire [torture] program” to friendly reporters, it’s clear there’s bad faith on top of immoral policy. Recognizing this matters. A lot. Because there’s no duty on the part of the press to tell both sides of the story if one side is merely trying to enlist the press into spreading lies and misinformation on its behalf. To be complicit in these torture apologist’s propaganda efforts even after their deceit has been revealed transcends run-of-the-mill false equivalence; it’s tantamount to journalistic malpractice.
That’s why any self-congratulation over what is, at best, a piecemeal attempt at reconciling our nation’s recent torture regime should be avoided. We’ve put no real, lasting mechanisms in place to prevent it from happening again precisely because we haven’t fully learned the painful lessons of how it happened the first time. One interesting solution came from ACLU Director Anthony Romero, who argued in a New York Times editorial that Obama should pre-emptively pardon everyone involved in approving and executing the CIA’s torture program—including former President Bush—as a way to emphasize torture's illegality. Of course, such a move would unleash a vitriolic outpouring of right-wing outrage so intense it would make impeachment hearings look like a Sunday picnic. What’s more, the idea would be a non-starter with a president whose one-way vision of justice only looks forward and not backward. But, as a thought experiment, it’s worth considering, if only to reinforce the moral culpability of everyone involved in enabling torture in our name. And as long as we’re handing out imaginary pardons for that, we should save one for the media too.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich
Dear Eric, I haven't written to you in some time, but I'd like to make a recommendation for a holiday season DVD box set. I know it's from before you were born, but "Sgt. Bilko - The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series" was a groundbreaking television program which won three consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards for Best Comedy Writing (and 8 Emmy Awards in all). You can read my review here: http://www.hometheaterforum.com/topic/335646-sgt-bilko-the-phil-silvers-show-the-complete-series/.
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Steve Tyrell at the Café Carlyle
Tammy Faye Starlite at Joe’s Pub
Some Beatles-related stuff
Steve Tyrell’s run at the Carlyle is now in its eleventh year, since he was chosen to replace the (nearly) immortal Bobby Short. It was a gutsy choice at the time, since Tyrell was a relative newcomer to the cabaret scene, having spent most of his career behind the scenes as a producer and arranger before, somehow, he got the luckiest of breaks by getting to sing on the soundtrack on Father of the Bride and becoming middle America’s favorite wedding singer for that first dance.
That sounds a little snotty, but I don’t mean it to be. Tyrell is a terrific entertainer and a multifaceted musical historian. When I first heard his voice, it put me in mind of Tom Waits and Dr. John, but it’s gotten smoother and no longer sounds at all out of place singing something like “This Guy’s in Love With You” (which he does exquisitely). I knew of some of his work as a producer with Blood, Sweat & Tears and others of a more Tin Pan Alley orientation from having heard the stories he’s told at past gigs. I didn’t know, however, how much experience he got as a young man at Scepter Records working with the Brill Building greats who helped invent rock ’n’ roll.
At the opening night of this year’s holiday run, called “That Lovin’ Feelin’,” he began with the standards, but then, I was quite pleased to see, he self-consciously sought to expand the “Great American Songbook” into the BB era, relying on King and Goffin, Leiber and Stoller, Mann and Weil, etc., and making them sound both new and classic at the same time. He forgot a few lyrics, but a splendid time was guaranteed for all, regardless of age (but not of wealth, of course). You can even take your parent and/or grandparents and nobody will leave unhappy.
You never know what you’ll get when you go see Tammy Faye Starlite, except a great voice, a heart-felt respectful but sometimes mocking imitative performance and a steady stream of dirty jokes. I’ve seen Tammy as Mick, as Nico, as Marianne Faithfull, and at Joe’s Pub on Saturday night, as Loretta Lynn. She had a great Hank Williams loving-band (with Lenny Kaye on pedal steel) and worked the room like she owned it. And while she was funny and played tricks on members of the audience, she was never anything but fun. And yes, the lady does have pipes (and cojones, which are necessary if one is going to go up against Loretta). And the cost is about a tenth of the Carlyle’s. So at those rates, how can you not have fun?
I’ve been getting more stuff than I can write about today for the gift-giving guide, but I will do an extra long one this week or next. I won’t be reviewing the new George Harrison box, because I didn’t get the box and have never heard some of it, but regarding the individual re-releases, All Things Must Pass is one of the great albums of all time, and everyone should have it, and it now sounds better than ever and is pretty cheap. Extra Texture and Dark Horse are better than I remember them, but very much hit or miss. They are cheap, though, and if you listen in the right mood, you won’t hate yourself for buying them.
And I wanted, finally, to say it’s time again this Friday for the Theater Within’s tribute to John Lennon at Symphony Space, the thirty-fourth year it’s happened. Theatre Within is a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to furthering the performing arts as a positive social force. This year, they’ve already announced Debbie Harry, Kate Pierson, David Johansen, Joan Osborne, Marshall Crenshaw, Amy Helm, Rich Pagano and Ben E. King. I’ll be there, and if you go to LennonTribute.org, you can be too.
Blaming the Victim, Excusing the Powerful: What Real Institutional Media Bias Looks Like
by Reed Richardson
To fulfill the promise of a free press in our democracy journalism can’t be satisfied with assuming the posture of looking down on the powerless. Instead, journalism, at its best, should be—must be—about punching up at the powerful.
Most, if not all, individual journalists wholeheartedly agree with this ideal. And yet, time and again it’s easy to find examples of an institutional media bias that undermines this ethos. By consistently favoring the status quo and reflexively deferring to authority, news organizations that should be exposing and condemning abuse, prejudice and corruption all too often end up excusing, justifying and perpetuating it.
As a result, celebrities, corporations and government officials all command an outsized influence in the traditional media. This phenomenon isn’t new, but the magnitude certainly is. As never before, these entities are able to mobilize a veritable army of handlers, lawyers and flacks to soothe, shape and, spin the press into accepting their version of reality—no matter how tenuously related to the truth it might be.
This fundamental bias marks the central thread that runs through the coverage of everything from Bill Cosby to Ferguson to the US drone strike program. Stripping away each of those storylines’ unique details reveals the same flawed core: a media that grants the benefit of the doubt to the establishment and that saves its cynicism for the voiceless. In a way, this bias acts as a kind broad enabler of all prejudice, allowing whatever latent inequalities exist in the status quo to go unchallenged, if not outright defended. Thus, institutionalized sexism, racism and militarism enjoy a sympathetic ear in the press precisely because they are institutionalized.
Take, for example, the collective mea culpa amongst the media establishment for having ignored for so long the numerous sexual assault claims against Bill Cosby. Sure, the damning case against Cosby received attention from Philadelphia and People magazines in 2006, not long after he settled a civil lawsuit that included thirteen other anonymous victims. (The latest number now stands at nineteen victims.) And website Gawker brought up the allegations again back in February.
But these are the exceptions, not the rule. In perhaps the most telling example, former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker failed to find room for the many rape allegations of Cosby in his 500-page biography that came out in September. Other major profiles of Cosby in The Atlantic, in 2008, and The New Yorker, a few months ago, quickly whisked the sex assault claims into a corner of the story and moved on. In a recent New York Times column, David Carr commendably called out these examples, as well as his own whitewashing of the Cosby persona:
“Mr. Cosby was (mostly) out of view, his lawyers pushed back and tried to knock down every story and victim, and no one in the media seemed interested any longer. Mr. Cosby was old news, he had been investigated but never criminally charged, and there seemed to be little upside to going after a now-ancient story.”
In his attempt at absolution, however, Carr misses a larger point here. He, like the male authors of the three previously mentioned profiles of Cosby—Whitaker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Kelefa Sanneh—all entered their assignments with an editorial agenda that didn’t have a convenient place to put these claims. Though Whitaker has since admitted he was wrong to overlook the charges, the book, which relied upon access to and cooperation with Cosby, was essentially compromised from the start. So, in all of these stories, really, there was an institutional construct biased against exploring the sexual assault narrative.
Last month, Coates addressed this in what amounts to a must-read intellectual correction of his own flawed 2008 essay. In it, he bravely lays bare his own rationalizations for glossing over the Cosby rape claims. But in doing so, he also reveals a lot about the broader editorial decision-making that goes on in the press and how it can so easily can default to self-censorship when it comes to holding the powerful accountable:
“Despite my opinions on Cosby suffusing the piece, there was no opinion offered on the rape accusations. This is not because I did not have an opinion. I felt at the time that I was taking on Cosby's moralizing and wanted to stand on those things that I could definitively prove. Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists. But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person's word over another—it requires you take one person's word over 15 others….
“A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby's moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I'd ever written.”
As we now know, it was not a matter of time. Years would pass, books would be written, and no one in the mainstream press would feel the need to commission such an exposé, even as Cosby prepared for a TV comeback. The charges would have likely remained an embarrassing annoyance for Cosby had someone outside of the legacy media not chosen to take a stand. It fell to a stand-up comedian, Hannibal Buress, to shine a bright, public spotlight on the many claims of Cosby’s sexual assaults by making them a standard part of his act. And to the media establishment’s shame, it was only after the video of Buress’s bit on Cosby went viral that it finally found interest in the story.
Even when the traditional media did notice, one could hardly feel encouraged by the listless response. For instance, this video of Bill Cosby browbeating an Associated Press reporter represents a microcosm of how tepidly the press can perform its duty. To its credit, the AP publish its very mild questioning of Cosby about the many sexual assault claims against him. But to watch this interview is not to witness a media organization proudly fulfilling its role as champion of the powerless. Instead, the experience gives off the distinct whiff of one part of the establishment effectively apologizing to another for daring to ask an absolutely necessary, yet uncomfortable question.
But these are mostly sins of omission. The disappearing of Cosby’s many alleged assaults has also been accompanied by a sadly typical rallying to Cosby’s defense in the press. Right-wing blowhard Glenn Beck, ever the even-tempered gentleman, sickeningly re-appropriated the term for the what was done to the victims and instead made the outrageous statement that it was Cosby who was “raped” in the aforementioned AP video. Rush Limbaugh, faithful guardian of the sexist, male subculture, made sure to falsely diminish the accusations against Cosby down to one woman, while also concluding the multi-decade pattern of assault is all part of some grand, left-wing conspiracy on the part of CNN. And speaking of that network, one of its news hosts, Don Lemon, managed to a pretty good Limbaugh impersonation on his own. During an interview with one of Cosby’s victims, Lemon implied she didn’t do enough to fight back against the alleged assault, asking her why she didn’t bite Cosby’s penis during forced oral sex. (Lemon later apologized.)
Not to be outdone, Fox News got its licks in questioning the accusers’ credibility. Couched as a legal examination of the claims, Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett authored a piece that trafficked in specious, “he-said, she-said” reasoning, ignoring, for example, the relative scarcity of false rape charges—between 2 and 8%—to instead bring up the infamous Duke lacrosse rape case to helpfully cast doubt on Cosby’s many accusers. What’s more, Jarrett expressed skepticism at the accusers’ motives for coming forward now, all while conveniently neglecting to point out that many women don’t report a sexual assault right away (and some never do) because they know we live in a society where people like Jarrett happily write columns that make a point of discounting those claims.
This same type of victim-blaming by the traditional media isn’t confined to sexual assault cases, of course. As we’ve seen during the past few months, it also plagues incidents like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, where a policeman gunned down an unarmed Mike Brown with no repercussions. In the aftermath of deaths like these—which are depressingly common—the media scrutiny almost reflexively falls on the victims rather than the police, especially if the former come from a poor or minority neighborhood. That assumes the traditional media notices at all, since the events in Ferguson have shown that, just as with the Bill Cosby rape allegations, social media led the news conversation and mainstream media coverage followed.
But in this race to catch up with and surpass Twitter, the press often ends up parroting the same leading questions that are used elsewhere to dismiss the powerless. What was the victim wearing? (Was it something controversial, as Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera insinuated, like Trayvon Martin’s hoodie?) Did the victim bring it on themselves through their behavior? (Were they, as The New York Times put it about Mike Brown, “no angel”?) Does the victim’s family or upbringing somehow suggest the police aren’t to blame? (Did the father have a criminal record of domestic violence, as Cleveland.com made sure to share about the12-year-old victim of a police shooting Tamir Rice?) To many victims of sexual assault, these questions are chillingly familiar.
By adopting this language and these narratives on issue after issue, the traditional media effectively man the barricades for the authority’s point of view. So when community anger boiled over regarding the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, it occasioned a spate of predictable tsk-tsking from the media last week. A perfect example of this was CNN’s condescending, navel-gazing coverage of the protests last Monday night, which drew a rather incisive, on-air critique from one Ferguson protestor. (The point proved so durable, it was repeated en masse to a CNN correspondent covering a protest in New York City the following night.) With a compliant, “not all cops”-spouting press corps in place, it makes it that much easier for miscarriages of the justice system to be passed off as justice and that much harder for real accountability to ever take place.
Make no mistake, something is clearly wrong with our law enforcement system when statistics show that police kill black males at a rate 21 times greater than white males. But there’s little chance of a necessary policy change occurring as long as the FBI, by default, classifies every police-shooting victim as a “felon” and the media willingly play along with the charade.
The same phenomenon plays out in media’s obedient mindset toward victims of US drone strikes. By default, the Obama administration labels anyone killed in a signature strike a “militant,” language that the media obligingly repeats to this day. And as Steve Coll noted in his recent New Yorker profile of the drone strike program, US officials brook no dissent even during the few times that the accuracy of their attacks is obviously questionable. For example, after a March 2011 drone strike on a Pakistani jirga resulted in the deaths of forty-one people—many of whom were documented as local Pakistani tribesmen and local police unaffiliated with the Taliban—the Obama administration stubbornly stuck to its standard, only-bad-guys-die spin. And, yes, the press dutifully repeated it:
“All of the dead were ‘terrorists,’ an anonymous American official told the Times. ‘These people weren’t gathering for a bake sale.’ The Associated Press quoted an anonymous official offering the same talking point: ‘This was a group of terrorists, not a charity car wash.’”
Finding anything other than government talking points, once again, requires looking beyond the usual suspects in the traditional media, to organizations like The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, an independent, nonprofit news group based at City University London. Back in October, it reported that only 4% of drone strike victims in Pakistan have been named as Al Qaeda members. And just last week, TBIJ, in partnership with human rights group Reprieve, published another investigative report that found, since US drone strikes began, 1,147 people were killed in Yemen and Pakistan in an attempt to target just 41 members of Al Qaeda. It defies logic to think no innocent civilians died in these attacks. Nevertheless, many media outlets in the US continue to enable characterizations of the drone program—almost always at the behest of anonymous U.S. officials—as “precise” and “surgical.”
In a just society, getting blown up by a Hellfire missile, or struck down by a policeman’s bullet or attacked by a serial rapist shouldn’t be met with mere silence or a collective shrug of the shoulders for the victims. Likewise, the exercise of state-sanctioned violence done in our name—whether explicit or implicit—must never simply rest on the word of the powerful. It deserves full, unflinching accountability from a robust, engaged watchdog. Increasingly, alternative news platforms are stepping in to fill that role. That’s good news for the rest of us, but bad news for a media establishment too invested in protecting the powerful to notice that it might soon be among the powerless as well.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form
Read Next: Eric Alterman on the midterm media meltdown.
Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.
My Nation column is called “Midterm Media Meltdown.” The subhed says “The election results reflect a complex reality; the press prefers simple narratives.”
Here’s a piece on “Why Liberals Need Radicals,” though it could have been called “Why Liberals Need (Some) Radicals (and Not Some Others),” that I published in Democracy.
I also did a really long interview with Graham Nash about music and politics and Crosby and Stills and Young (and Joni Mitchell). Graham's fans may have missed it as I haven’t seen it on The Nation homepage, but if you're interested, it’s here.
Lake Street Dive live at Terminal 5
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s show “Grownup Songs” at the Café Carlyle
Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11
Simon & Garfunkel: The Complete Albums Collection
Rereleases of Paul McCartney's Venus and Mars and Wings' Wings at the Speed of Sound
Saturday night I joined a surprisingly enormous crowd of hipsters who had made the hegira from the hipper precincts of Brooklyn to Terminal 5 in the far west 50s to see Lake Street Dive. I saw them at the concert last year in honor of “Inside Llewyn Davis” and like so many people at Town Hall, I was mightily impressed. Then I looked up their EP and their great covers on YouTube and was totally smitten. I thought they were new then, but it turns out they’ve been around since 2004. They were founded in Boston by Rachael Price, who does all the singing, all the talking, all the dancing (since she’s not holding up any instruments) and most (if not all) of the sex appeal. The band also has Mike “McDuck” Olson (trumpet, guitar), Bridget Kearney (upright bass) and Mike Calabrese (drums). They met while attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and are named after a street with many dive bars in Olson's hometown of Minneapolis. (I had thought it might be an “LSD” reference. I’m glad to see it’s not.) Apparently other commitments, including legal commitments to other labels, prevented them from recording for a long time, but in February of this year they put out Bad Self Portraits.
I had no idea they had become so popular. (Neither did they, by the way—they kept marveling at how many people had come to see them two nights a row.) They sure did pack Terminal 5 and demonstrated a powerful connection with their fans. And what an enthusiastic crowd it was. It’s kind of hard to describe their sound. It’s a little bit Amy Winehouse but relying more heavily on jazz and soul than blues. It’s an interesting amalgam of styles and talents that, if you ask me, will only get better as it coheres and grows more self-confident.
Speaking of self-confidence, I returned one more time to the Café Carlyle to sit at the bar and take in John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s show “Grownup Songs.” And while seeing John with just Bucky (and his brother, Martin, on bass and two other guys) was a lot of fun, this show was really something special. It was almost an overdose of charm and good taste and wonderfully presented (and conceived) music. Some of it was written by Molaskey. (I would not put it past either one if Molaskey also wrote some of Pizzarelli’s A+ patter since she comes off so well in that too.) Anyway, the Café Carlyle, while tremendously expensive, is a kind of sacred space for this kind of music, and nobody fills it better than these two. John is so funny and such a great guitarist and not a bad singer, and Molaskey and he have a rapport that is so charming it cannot possibly be real (except on stage). It’s their eighth year there, and if you had to pick one night to spend all your money on a romantic evening—or even a pretend romantic evening—I’d pick this one. (I’d also try to get John to play that Jersey thing when it’s over, which is not the second best song about Jersey, and he is not the second best singer from Jersey, but it is the best song I’ve ever heard written about Jersey—except for all of those written by the guy who wrote ALL of the best ones (and also not including Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl,” of course).
You may have heard that we finally have something like the complete Basement Tapes that Bob Dylan and The Band recorded in 1967 on a six-disc box set with extensive notes and photos. (There is also a two-CD set if you don’t want to lay out the $120 or so for the complete version.)
Perhaps no unreleased music has ever received the attention that this set received; it literally began the bootleg business. Part of the mystery is derived from the fact that Dylan, at the height of perceived prophetic significance, had a motorcycle accident—we still don’t know how serious—and disappeared from view.
While (apparently) recuperating, he got together with what had once been the Hawks, behind Ronnie Hawkins, and became The Band (because, after all, if they are playing with Dylan, they are The Band) made up of (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and, later, Levon Helm) in the basement of a small house, dubbed “Big Pink” in West Saugerties, New York. They recorded over one hundred songs; many just because they were drunk and/or high and thought it would be fun and a whole bunch because Dylan wrote them and wanted to make them available to others for recording. In 1975, Robbie Robertson put together sixteen of them, cleaned them up, added eight Band songs and released them on Columbia. Everybody loved it, but that’s all we got, save for crappy-sounding bootlegs…until now.
Thanks to an incredible salvaging effort, including a whole bunch of songs recently discovered recorded in the “Red Room” of Dylan's home in upstate New York. Garth Hudson worked closely with Canadian music archivist and producer Jan Haust to restore the deteriorating tapes and turn it into these six CDs.
Literally everything is here (though the sixth disc is of such low fidelity, it’s here just for completeness’ sake). It’s almost all pretty wonderful and will enrich the lives of anyone who is open to it. I am particularly enamored, for the first time ever, of the fact that sometimes there will be three or four versions of the same song in a row—usually something I can’t stand—but they are so different from one another, that it is both fun and interesting to hear them in a row. Overall, it’s one of the greatest collections of American music by a single source you will find anywhere, reaching the listener from multiple directions, simultaneously: the head, the heart and everything in between. I feel lucky to be alive now that it’s finally available and feel a sense of sadness for all the Dylanites who did not live long enough to experience it.
Also from my friends at Columbia Legacy, we got Simon & Garfunkel: The Complete Albums Collection. It’s maybe the third time you could buy everything they did in the studio together, though it’s been remastered and this collection includes those five records, plus first-time remasters of The Graduate, The Concert in Central Park (recorded in 1981 before half a million people), a double live album from their 2004 reunion tour, plus live albums from 1967 and 1969, both released pretty recently. I love the fact that they come in their original sleeves and that you can listen to the albums as individual historical artifacts—rather than as a collection of songs—as they appear on the box sets. (It also includes the greatest hits record, which strikes me as silly.) Paul Simon has often said he is not so crazy about this music—he finds is both musically and intellectually simplistic—but it’s all pretty damn good in retrospect, if a bit twee on occasion. Again it would be hard for anyone not to like this, even if they’ve got one of the previous box sets. I sure do. The sound is pristine and the packaging brings back the pheromones of the time.
Finally, we also got two remastered re-releases of early Paul McCartney and Wings albums. I have a theory that each Beatle had one great album and one near-great album in them and that was it. After that, each album only had a decent song or two but was otherwise uninspired. They needed both the cooperation and the competition for the magic to make its appearance. John’s Plastic Ono Band is great and Imagine is near-great. George’s All Things Must Pass, is the best post-Beatles album ever, and Living in the Material World, is not bad at all. Ringo’s Ringo, which is, in some ways, an actual Beatles album, is also great. The near-great part of my theory kind of breaks down with Ringo, though I suppose he must have also put out a good album at some point. I seem to remember Beaucoups of Blues was not bad.
Paul’s great album is Band on the Run. His near-great album is Venus and Mars. (I also like McCartney a lot, but it’s more like half an album.) I remember when these two albums came out; people thought they could now look forward to Paul being great again and a lifetime of almost Beatles quality music from the Cute One.
Band on the Run got the re-release treatment two years ago, and now here is V & M, and while it is not quite as good—Band is good enough to be a Beatles album—it’s enormously satisfying on its own. Wings at the Speed of Sound, however, has a couple of decent songs, “Beware My Love,” and “Time to Hide,” some throwaways and more than few that should have been strangled in their respective cradles (“Let ’Em In,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Warm and Beautiful” and “Cook of the House” for starters…).
Both have been released in a variety of formats. I got the two-CD standard edition, with the original remastered album, and the second CD includes bonus audio made up of material including demos and unreleased tracks. The V & M bonus material is excellent and every Beatles person will want this collection. As for WATSOS, well, the extras don’t help much either. But if you know someone with really bad musical taste, it will make a fine gift.
This reminds me, John P. and Jessica M. resurrected Paul’s “Heart of the Country,” and it was better than I remembered it, even if I’m guessing they chose it so John could tell his “Bucky and I played guitar for Sir Paul” bit for the umpteenth-million time...
Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity
by Reed Richardson
Since 2008, it has become a biennial ritual in the political press. In the aftermath of every election—no matter the outcome—the media establishment carefully explains that the Republican Party will now have to move to the center, accept compromise and govern more responsibly. And each and every time—no matter the circumstances—the Republican Party ignores this counsel and instead becomes more extreme, more intransigent and more antagonistic toward governance.
You would think that, by now, the press would have learned this lesson. That after six years of getting it wrong, the press would have figured out that a relentless GOP campaign of unswerving opposition—launched mere hours into the Obama presidency—would never be so easily relinquished.
After its drubbing in the 2012 election, you'll recall, the GOP commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to conduct a post-mortem on the party’s mistakes. When they were released to much fanfare in March of 2013, the final recommendations of the Growth and Opportunity Project were lauded by Beltway pundits as “bold” and “comprehensive” and received some egregiously positive and credulous coverage. The Republicans, so went the DC thinking, had finally woken up. To remain relevant, the party could no longer afford to substitute xenophobia, obstruction and anti-government nihilism for a policy agenda. And among the most notable and newsworthy of the GOP project’s priorities, it’s worth remembering, was this:
“We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.”
It didn’t take long, however, before this clarion call to solve one of our nation’s biggest challenges—implicitly by working with the recently re-elected President Obama—was drowned under a riptide of GOP nativism. In fact, in their progress “check-up” one year later, the GOP report’s authors omitted any mention of immigration reform—like the whole idea of supporting its passage had never even happened. On the GOP’s website, a series of congratulatory quotes from conservative leaders about the GOP’s progress in Hispanic outreach trotted a lot of vague marketing spin about better “engagement.” The phrase “comprehensive immigration reform” was, again, nowhere to be found.
Did the establishment media make a point of noticing the party’s huge feint toward the center on immigration reform over the past year-and-a-half? Not so much. Months after barely noticing that the Republican National Committee’s Director of Hispanic Outreach had quit in protest over the GOP’s “culture of intolerance,” major news organizations could still be found regurgitating party press releases and glossing over the growing anti-immigrant tenor of GOP rhetoric and its policies.
The same phenomenon played out with fiscal policy as well. After pushing our fragile economy to the brink of disaster during the 2011 debt ceiling fight, the Beltway conventional wisdom told everyone that a chastened, post-2012 Republican Party wasn’t about to do that again. But then last fall, there did it again. Even worse, in fact, as a small band of fringe conservatives were able to hijack the party leadership and shut down the federal government for more than two weeks, costing the country billions. All as part of the GOP’s years-long, quixotic quest to repeal Obamacare.
True to form, the press seemingly did its level best to avoid holding Republicans accountable for this negligent economic stewardship. Emblematic of this flawed coverage last year were analyses that indulged in vague blaming of “Washington” and “lawmakers” and that crassly tallied up the “winners” and “losers” of the crisis without ever bothering to note the chaos inflicted on the lives of so many Americans. Rather than preventing the next paralyzing government showdown, the media’s toothless response last October actually made another one more likely, by normalizing the GOP’s recklessness as just another symptom of Capitol Hill gridlock. As a I wrote at the time:
“Stripped of any reportorial continuity, each crisis simply gets treated as sui generis. Divorced from a broader narrative, ongoing dysfunction begins to seem endemic to government itself. Neither is true. Debt limit threats, government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, sequester cuts: all of these are merely different varietals of the same, poisoned austerity fruit. Likewise, these crises do not naturally spring from, but are in fact artificially inflicted upon Washington, D.C.—and by extension, the country—by a Republican Party intent on delegitimizing every aspect of our federal government.”
Despite all this evidence, the media somehow still think the Republicans will change and become “serious” about governing again. After the GOP stormed to victory in the most recent midterms, a handful of Republican politicians said as much, pooh-poohing the notion of using another budget shutdown as leverage against the president. Right on cue, the media still started singing the same old song. Never mind what happened after 2008, 2010, or 2012. This time—this time—things will be different in Washington.
Wishing doesn’t make it so, though. This past week, for instance, GOP Rep. Steve King was already hinting at the Republican brinksmanship to come. In what amounted to several not-so-veiled threats, he talked of shutting down the government again if President Obama took executive action to deal with immigration. And while King is well known for his outrageous, extremist views, his bluster shouldn’t be taken as mere idle chatter from a powerless backbencher. Recall that last summer, Speaker John Boehner basically handed the legislative reins over to King and Rep. Michele Bachmann to shape the House’s draconian border security bill. Moreover, King is proudly and publicly allying himself with Senate gadfly and obstructionist par excellence Ted Cruz, who was the prime mover in last fall’s sixteen-day government shutdown.
Of course, another government shutdown would prove to be but a skirmish if the party followed through on the numerous calls within its ranks to unleash political thermonuclear war by impeaching the president. If, as expected, Obama does finally take executive action in the coming weeks on immigration—just as previous GOP presidents have done before, I should add—several House Republicans are already on the record arguing in favor of impeaching him for it. This thirst for political vengeance isn’t just the case of a few vocal House Republicans popping off; the conservative grassroots are firmly behind it. A recent Democracy Corps poll, for example, found that a slim majority of GOP voters want Congress to consider starting impeachment hearings on the president right now. Among self-identified Tea Party voters—who will make up a key part of the GOP’s 2016 presidential primary electorate—the prospect of impeaching Obama immediately triumphs by a two-to-one margin.
The fact is it’s far more likely that conservatives don’t want the Republicans to try their hand at governing. They see the mandate as a chance to undo as much of the past six years as possible. So, when the press portrays the political reality in Washington as something less ominous, less foreboding, it does the public a grave disservice, as Jay Rosen noted in this incisive post at his PressThink blog:
“Asserted as a fact of political life, ‘Republicans must show they can govern’ is a failure of imagination, and a sentimentalism. It refuses to grapple with other equally plausible possibilities. For example: that declining to govern will produce so much confusion about lines of responsibility and alienation from a broken political system that voters can’t, won’t, or in any case don’t ‘punish’ the people who went for obstruction.”
This is “objective” political journalism as its most insidious—projecting its can’t-we-all-get-along, centrist biases onto a increasingly hard-right party that has learned it can use the Beltway media's “both sides do it” framing as political cover. Thanks to this false balance in the press's political coverage, Republicans know they will rarely be held accountable for their unprecedented obstruction and reckless brinksmanship. Likewise, it works in their favor when the press overdoses on ambiguous complaints of “gridlock” and fuzzy talk of governmental dysfunction, by depressing voter turnout at the polls. Couple that smaller, more Republican midterm electorate with the GOP’s ruthless, state-level redistricting tactics, and you have a party that has managed to build an entrenched majority in the House and a stalemate in the Senate, all without having to compromise on a single piece of major legislation and without having had much of a policy agenda other than reflexively opposing the president at every turn.
In other words, with all of these factors working in their favor, why in the world would the Republicans ever bother to change? You might call the GOP crazy, but it’s not insane. No, that honor goes to a political press corps that keeps on enabling Republican extremism year after year and then can’t figure out why our broken democracy never gets any better.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form
Read Next: Eric Alterman on the midterm media meltdown.
Editor’s Note: Twenty-five years ago today, Eric Alterman pointed out in the pages of The New York Times that our so-called foreign policy “experts” were wrong about the Berlin Wall, among many other things. Here’s what he wrote at the time.
The Soviet Union embarks on a second revolution and reaches out for peace with the West; East Europeans demand freedom and democracy; East Germans tear down the Berlin Wall and flee their country. These and other amazing changes erupt in world politics, and not one of America's foreign policy gurus comes within a country mile of predicting them. In fact, most foreign policy elites have spent the last few years explaining them away and counseling the West to do nothing. It has been a long and rocky road for America's foreign policy elite since Mr. Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Not since Copernicus, perhaps, have so many been so wrong so frequently with so little humility….
Throughout Europe, governments, businesses and citizens' groups are forging a new order. Yet, virtually alone within the splendid isolation of the Metroliner corridor, the U.S. foreign policy elite is mired in its stagnant, Brezhnevite mindset.
Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.
I won’t be saying anything in public about the recent events regarding this blog. I may have something to say in the future, but I’m sitting tight for the moment and I apologize to those I am disappointing. In the meantime, I made some comments a few weeks back in this article, which provide some perspective about the difficulties the issue raises. Alas, I underestimated them.
The Real Thing on Broadway
The holiday gift-buying guide begins: Mister Ed, The Jeffersons, Merv Griffin and the Stones.
Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing has always been one of my favorite plays and I thoroughly enjoyed the Roundabout’s revival, currently on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater. It stars Ewan McGregor, who is thrilling, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is not thrilling, but who is luminously excellent in her part in ways that McGregor is not. It also stars Cynthia Nixon, of whom I am usually a fan, but who is woefully miscast in this and does not ever really even get her accent right. (Josh Hamilton is quite good in a smaller role.) You’ll not find a play with wittier dialogue than this one. It simply could not fail to entertain, and with McGregor in the main role, it actually sparkles. But as other reviewers have also noted, his performance lacks the sadness, the disappointment, the boredom that underlies a middle-aged loss of the power and bravery of youth. (Believe me, I know of what I speak.) So it’s a fun play, with scintillating, smart dialogue and entertainment galore, as the saying goes. But it’s not the masterpiece that we’ve seen before, sadly.
The holiday gift-giving guide begins:
Well, my friends at Shout! Factory have been busy reviving some of the more painful memories of my childhood, alone in front of the TV while everyone else was out having fun. Foremost among these are Mister Ed: The Complete Series, to be released on December 9. It’s six seasons, 143 episodes, 3,480 minutes and twenty-two discs of a talking horse saying “Wilburrrrrrr” a lot, and it’s pretty well-written. They are also about to release The Jeffersons: The Complete Series. That is a Norman Lear show and hence, helped set the standards for innovative TV in its day. It is an incredible ten seasons, 253 episodes, 4,440 minutes on thirty-three discs. The amazing cast includes Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, and Marla Gibbs, with guest stars Sammy Davis, Jr., Gladys Knight, Reggie Jackson, Billy Dee Williams, among many others. It’s still kind of weird to see how many cliches were necessary to communicate the lives of working class black people to white America in those days (1975-1985) but that makes it more interesting to watch today.
Finally, I am really (really) enjoying MPI Home Video’s The Merv Griffin Show, 1962-1986, which I used to watch when the 4:30 movie was not something I wanted to see. It’s 2,520 minutes on twelve discs and includes, believe it or not, long interviews with and performances by Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Whitney Houston, Jerry Seinfeld, the Everly Brothers, George Carlin, Willie Mays, Aretha Franklin, Salvador Dali, Timothy Leary, Ray Bradbury, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, Ronald Reagan, Robert Kennedy, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, Ingrid Bergman, Jayne Mansfield, and the final interview with Orson Welles, who died just a few hours after the show, among many, many others. The discussions are relaxed, respectful and informative and never cloying the way so many interview shows are today. There’s also some great music. It’s a really terrific collection and anyone interested in the culture of that period will find it a rewarding one.
And finally finally The Rolling Stones have started a new series on CD, Blu-ray and DVD. The one I’ve got is from Eagle Vision From the Vault: Hampton Coliseum, from 1981. The show was on Keith’s birthday—wonder if he knew—and is a pretty damn good show, reasonably well-recorded visually, given the limitations of the time, but with excellent acoustics. For me the highlight is “Just My Imagination” into “Twenty Flight Rock” into “Going To A Go-Go,” but there’s also a mess with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” at the end and a great “Under My Thumb” as the opener.
So Long at War, We’ve Forgotten Where It Started and Can’t See the End
by Reed Richardson
Ninety-six November 11ths ago: Americans were celebrating. No, celebrating is the wrong word. Better to say rejoicing, as in re-experiencing joy after a long stretch without much of it. Europe was rejoicing, too, even more so, as it had by far gotten the worst of it, but the US had paid a toll too. Though the signing of the official peace treaty was still months away, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month nearly a century ago, the guns of war literally fell silent, marking the real end of what had been the most efficiently bloodiest chapter in world history to date. The New York Times headline summed up the finality of the moment with an appropriately direct front-page headline: ARMISTICE SIGNED, END OF THE WAR!
Sixty November 11ths ago: Armistice Day was now officially Veterans Day, thanks to an act of Congress. The decision to change holiday’s name was made to broaden its focus and honor all those who had recently fought in World War II and Korea. In the Federal Register, President Eisenhower noted that commemorating November 11 wasn’t just about paying tribute to those who had served in the military, but was also about “redirecting ourselves to the cause of peace.” This was no boilerplate sentiment from the man who had led the Normandy Invasion; at that point, our nation had been at war for seven of the past fourteen years.
This November 11th, however, we’re entering our fourteenth consecutive year at war. And yet, an unprecedented thirteen Veterans Days removed from peacetime, it’s still increasingly hard to foresee a Times headline proclaiming a permanent peace. War has now become so normalized in our country that it serves as little more than background noise, both in politics and in the press. Even when we do wind down a major war, it gets little more than a relatively sleepy headline from the likes of The New York Times.
In fact, we’ve been at war for so many years that the media is now in the midst of ignoring our nation’s longest war for a second time. Twelve Veterans Days ago, you’ll recall, the war in Afghanistan was already being neglected by the press, who had begun to dutifully follow the Bush administration pivot to selling its disastrous invasion of Iraq. When Obama ran for president in 2008, he famously promised to refocus on the fight against the Taliban. His post-election surge of troops into Afghanistan drew more media attention with the Iraq War winding down. However, the establishment press proved too distracted with gaffes and optics during the 2012 election to notice the surge’s final results, which by the fall of that year were clearly little more than a complete failure. Perhaps that’s why the press moderators at the four presidential debates only asked one question about the war in Afghanistan across two of the debates. And why, in the other two debates, the word “Afghanistan” got but one mention.
That the media would prove so incurious and uninterested in our prosecution of the war in Afghanistan in a year when more than 300 American service members died was shameful. It also explains why, all too predictably, Afghanistan has faded even further from the press’s radar in the years since, especially during the recent run up to our newest war in the Middle East. This, despite the fact that our latest foreign enemy, ISIS, has killed but two Americans so far (plus one has died in the mission fighting them), while the war in Afghanistan has now claimed 2,350 US veterans’ lives in total, forty-nine of them this year.
How bad has this media myopia gotten? According to a search of the TV news archive, for all of 2014 the number of mentions of “Afghanistan” on the network news evening broadcasts and the five Sunday morning news shows is less than half of that for “ISIS” and “ISIL,” even though the latter terms had never appeared until a few months ago. (One specific example: NBC Nightly News has mentioned Afghanistan 115 times this year, but ISIS and/or ISIL 271 times.)
Similarly, while questions about the threat of ISIS were common fodder for press moderators during the recent midterm debates, only one question about Afghanistan appeared among nearly two-dozen debates in the eleven most competitive races. Credit Tim Carpenter of The Topeka Capital-Journal for asking the Kansas Senate candidates—Independent Greg Orman and Republican Senator Pat Roberts—if the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq justified all the blood and treasure expended. Both of their answers were a muddle of equivocation, but the American people aren’t so undecided. Roughly two-thirds of us agree that the war in Afghanistan and the (previous) war in Iraq simply weren’t worth it. These examples, one would think, would serve as powerful reminders to all of us that war never turns out as expected and wars of choice rarely turns out well.
Of course, it’s a nice sentiment when major media figures pay tribute to the sacrifices that generations of veterans have made, but retweeting old Defense Department profiles pictures isn’t enough. It’s of much greater service to our country—and to our veterans—when journalists do their actual job. Because if the press shirks its duty to ask critical questions about our military operations abroad, and to hold leaders accountable when they fail to achieve their promised goals, it makes it that much easier for our nation to make the same fatal foreign policy mistakes over and over again.
Not coincidentally our latest war in Iraq and Syria has already provided ominous examples of a mission gone awry, much like the unraveling we’ve seen recently in Afghanistan. And though the administration maintains that US combat operations on the ground isn’t an option in Iraq and will be officially cease by the end of this year in Afghanistan, the idea that the US won’t still be engaged in at least one, if not two combat wars come next Veterans Day is a tragic joke. Already, there are subtle signs that reality will play out differently. Leaving 10,000 troops Afghanistan and doubling the U.S. military presence in Iraq to 3,000 simply makes it that much easier to excuse and execute the next escalation.
However, if you want to find an honest, insightful critique of this potentially catastrophic quagmire, the mainstream media is the last place to look. It has grown too preoccupied with the theatrics and rhetoric of leadership to pay much attention to where we’re being led. So the task increasingly has fallen to few outspoken veterans, who aren’t afraid to speak up on behalf of their brethren on active duty. Count retired US Army General Dan Bolger among them. In his new book, Why We Lost, Bolger pulls no punches, taking on the madness of a militarized foreign policy trapped by a fixation with sunk costs and obsessed with turning an endless series of mythical corners.
What our active duty military and the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were asked to accomplish was effectively impossible, Bolger explains. Unless, he points out, the US is willing to become a multi-generational occupying power and engage in decades of intractable empire enforcement. Or, as he put it to The Guardian this week:
“That’s what the mistake is here: to think that we could go into these countries and stabilize their villages and fix their government, that’s incredible, unless you take a colonial or imperial attitude and say, ‘I’m going to be here for 100 years, this is the British Raj, I’m never leaving.’”
Neither the previous nor the current occupant of the White House would ever publicly commit to decades, if not a century, of war, but, in effect, that’s where our nation is headed. Sadly, most of the press couldn’t be bothered to notice. But this disinterest does a disservice to all of us—veterans included. For, the idea that ten or twenty or even ninety-six November 11ths from today, Americans might still be fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no end and no peace in sight, is a story we can’t afford not be told.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
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Read Next: Who’s Paying the Pro-War Pundits?
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My new Nation column is called “What Are Republican Donors Thinking?” It asks the question: “One has to ask: Why are these people so stupid?” and was published for subscribers last Wednesday night. Paul Krugman wrote a column this morning asking: "If they're so rich, why aren't they smarter?" It’s five days later, but because I was paywalled—everybody knows it’s a great idea to paywall a column about the media—and Paul was not, he wins again.
The Allman Brothers final Beacon Shows
John and Bucky Pizzarelli at the Café Carlyle
Buster Poindexter at the Café Carlyle
Rudy Van Gelder 90th birthday celebration at Dizzy’s and Blue Note’s 75th anniversary singles box set.
I saw the Allman Brothers twice in their final run at the Beacon (and anywhere else). The first night was sublime, at least after “Jessica,” in the second set. The final night, you may have heard, they played three sets, ending at about 1:30, and were so terrific they made the whole thing even sadder. I got into a mini-argument with Steve Earle because he thinks the Tedeschi Trucks Band has great material and is poised to become the next great jam band. I think their material is really weak, but that they are poised to become the next great jam band. That’s because Derek is probably the most exciting and expressive guitarist alive, and never more so than when he is playing with Warren Haynes and Gregg Allman—whom I have thought to be the world’s greatest white blues singer for the past forty or so years—is on vocals. The whole thing is so damn annoying. Nothing besides Bruce has ever been as reliably great as the Allman Brothers at the Beacon, and now it’s gone. But thanks to my great friend Danny, I must have seen at least thirty of them, and while the ones with Clapton and Phil and Bob were thrilling, Tuesday night’s was the best. You can read about that here.
Ironically enough, the following night, (on little sleep) I got to see two more really great guitarists at much closer range and without so much emotion, but still, John Pizzarelli and his 88-year-old dad, Bucky played a marvelous set at the Café Carlyle. John’s patter is almost as good as his playing, which is, as the saying goes, really saying something. He is charming and funny and self-effacing, affectionate toward his old man but also teasing in a way that includes all of us. There was considerable potential for disappointment owing to the last-minute absence of the luminous Jessica Molaskey, and I have to say, no one was more disappointed than I was. But I was taking my mom, and you know, good Jewish boy and also, and when old people make plans, they really can’t handle change. (Though John mentioned that when he called Bucky to ask him to substitute for Jessica, he already had his tux on.) Anyway, what Thanksgivings these people must have. (I’m assuming no seders.) The highlights of the show for me were the opening numbers, all Ellington, but played unlike Duke ever did. Bucky’s fingers are a wonder at this age, even if his patter is mostly a series of growls. And what versatility! After the show, I told John about the Allmans the previous night. He said that if I had told him earlier, they would have done “Elizabeth Reed.” I half believed him.
Still as perfect an evening as Pizzarelli squared at the gorgeous (and of course, really, really expensive) Carlyle is, I’ve now seen John twice in the past few months without Jessica, and if you read this review, you’ll see why as lucky as I may feel, I’m still kinda mad. They will be there through November 22
If I had a time machine, I would go back and kill Hitler, of course, among a lot of other things, but I would also like to stop by a New York Dolls show at the Mercer and casually mention to that cross-dressing punk, David Johansen that a few decades hence, he will be wearing a cheap tuxedo and playing the Carlyle in character as lounge lizard with impeccable taste in oldies moldies and goldies that almost nobody would ever hear performed live were it not for the said character, “Buster Poindexter,” with composters ranging from Gordon Jenkins (“New York’s My Home”), Frank Loesser (“I Believe in You”), and O.V. Wright (“Eight Men Four Women”). I wrote about his previous one-night only engagement at the Café and now, as per my advice, they gave him five nights. He was wonderful the night I saw him, looking like Eddie Haskell but sounding like Howlin’ Wolf. The band sparkled and the jokes fell flat—just as they were supposed to—and a splendid time was had by all. Judging by the house, I think Buster’ll be back there at least once a year from now on, maybe more, and if you’re looking for a fun special occasion, well, you could do a lot worse things with all that money.
Oh, and I do want to give a shout-out to Rudy Van Gelder, who had a 90th birthday this week and was celebrated by Concord Records at Dizzy’s with a show by the Jason Ross trio featuring the awesome young Melissa Aldana on sax and Mike Rodriguez on trumpet playing classics from the RVG re-issue series in honor of Prestige Records’ 65th birthday. That was fun, especially a swinging, albeit Sunny-less, version of “St. Thomas,” that had the house rocking. And it reminds me that as part of Blue Note’s ongoing 75th birthday celebration, it has a released a lovely box set of 75 singles from the label’s history called Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression. Curated by the author of the accompanying book Uncompromising Expression, Richard Havers, it’s got a lot stuff I don’t remember hearing before, and it’s nicely packaged in a slim box with a 48-page booklet with photos and a discography. It covers the years 1939 to the present, and I can’t imagine anybody who’d be disappointed with it as a present, especially for oneself.
The Biggest Winners of the 2014 Midterms: Corporate Media
by Reed Richardson
No matter who prevails this Election Day, one tiny constituency can already lay claim to a landslide win. Thanks to our nation’s increasingly unregulated campaign finance rules, large media corporations once again enjoyed a tidal wave of political ad spending this midterm election, and none more so than the rarefied ownership of our nation’s local TV stations. But when it comes to the long-term health of both journalism and our democracy, these robust news profits are nothing but a hollow victory.
Just how robust are they, though? The final numbers aren’t known yet, but the figure for political ad spending this election cycle up through mid-October was $1.3 billion, according to a Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) analysis. And that left out the final few weeks of frenzied political crunch time, which might mean the total could reach or surpass the 2010 mark of $2.1 billion.
But even if the total for TV political ad dollars comes in slightly lower than during the last midterms, local TV stations may still end up reaping more money. That’s because, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, they’re capturing an even greater share of TV ad spending this cycle. After getting four out of five political ad dollars in 2012, local TV has enjoyed a near monopoly in 2014, attracting an astounding 95 percent of TV political ad spending.
The reason? In a world of increasingly polarized media consumption, local TV looks to be the last remaining news platform that attracts larger numbers of viewers across the ideological spectrum. In fact, no other source of political news is listed among the top 3 preferences of liberals, conservatives, and moderates alike. As a result, a recent Pew survey found that roughly half—49 percent—of all Americans say they get news about politics and government from their TV, more than any other source or channel. CNN, with 44 percent, comes in second and Fox News, at 39 percent, comes in third. As for the big three broadcast networks, they only attract around a third of Americans, and a mere one in four look to MSNBC for political news. For campaigns looking to reach the broadest possible voting audience, local TV has increasingly become their best bet.
Coupled with Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, this evolution in partisan TV viewership has essentially thrown open the political advertising floodgates to local TV stations. This trend has not gone unnoticed by media conglomerates. Last year, in preparation for another banner season of campaign ad-driven profits, media companies engaged in a station-buying frenzy. As this Los Angeles Times article notes, these big media corporations made no secret that they were targeting TV stations in swing states like Iowa and Colorado, where political ads can sometimes run non-stop in the final few weeks of a campaign:
All told, media companies spent $8.8 billion in 2013 to purchase 290 TV affiliates, a three-fold increase in station acquisitions from 2012. What’s more, a vast majority of this activity involved just a few big players in local media ownership, companies like Sinclair, Nexstar, Media General, and Tribune. As a result of this massive consolidation, the top five media companies now own one out of every three TV stations across the country. That’s up from roughly one out of seven a mere 10 years ago. In addition, thanks to years of relaxed FCC ownership rules (some of which were recently tightened), in many communities big conglomerates have effectively gobbled up multiple channels, narrowing the news perspective considerably. Now, joint service agreements between local TV stations in the same city or region exist in half of the nation’s media markets, nearly double the amount from 2011.
As these few media companies broaden their national footprint in search of profitable political ad dollars, news quality and diversity can often suffer. When the decision makers for more and more TV stations reside in another part of the country, it’s tempting to devote less and less focus to complicated local issues. It’s simply more profitable to load up the five o’clock newscast with generic news packages produced at a partner station or by a team back at the corporate parent. Which is why it comes as a shock, but perhaps not a surprise, to learn that as of last year one out of every four TV stations in this country produced no original news content.
Recycling political news from across—or out of— town is bad enough. But the dirty little secret about local TV is that it barely covers politics or government at all anymore. According to Pew’s 2013 State of the News Media study, local TV devoted, on average, just 3 percent of its daily broadcast to politics and government in 2012. That works out to less than 40 seconds in a typical half-hour news program. So, if half of the country really is getting its political news from local TV, it really ain’t getting much of it.
The irony of all this is that the daily news hole for local TV—which is now around 4.5 hours a day—has never been bigger, thanks to a longtime trend of stations pushing pre-dawn newscasts earlier into the morning. What mostly fills this airtime, though, is ephemeral, commodified news focused on weather, traffic, and sports. Of course, during the homestretch of an election, political coverage might naturally tick up. But as I noted back in 2013, how effective can a few minutes of political news a day be against a backdrop of hours of wall-to-wall campaign advertising?
“The political ads that now swamp local TV programming every other year increasingly get little pushback from the local TV news that they appear adjacent to. SuperPACs and 501(c)(4) ‘dark money’ groups are no longer counterprogramming local TV news political coverage; they are effectively supplanting it. A voter who sees a scurrilous claim about a candidate in a campaign ad during the five o’clock news, in other words, stands very little chance of learning whether the charge is true or not from the journalists who precede and follow that ad on the air.”
To the corporate owners of local TV stations, this is not a bug, but a feature of our political system. They increasingly rely upon this lucrative advertising revenue to boost their bottom line. As such, there’s strong management incentive to both appease and not alienate these potential advertising customers. These motivations, no matter how many promises to the contrary, can’t help but shape news decisions. As this Los Angeles Times article found, the Tribune Company’s Des Moines affiliate, WHO-HD, chose to add an extra hour of local news from 4 to 5 p.m. this year, to create more ad opportunities for that state’s hotly contested Senate race. As WHO station manager Dale R. Woods put it: “We changed our business model a little bit to accommodate the political demand.”
Note the language there—“business model” rather than “news programming.” When local TV station executives think of their news broadcasts more as “inventory” to advertised around and less as chances to inform viewers or hold the powerful to account, then they’re no longer serving the public first and foremost, they’re selling to it. Moreover, when the local TV station is merely a line item on the balance sheet of a vast national corporate network, the institutional pressure to put revenues before civic duty only grows stronger.
Let’s not overlook that all of these big media companies have other agendas—often political ones—besides just making money. Consider the biggest independent TV station broadcaster in the country, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which now owns one of every nine U.S. TV stations and more than 50 stations in states with competitive races this cycle. Sinclair, which achieved its top-ranked status after an aggressive acquisition campaign, is well known for its decidedly right-wing viewpoints and for requiring that all of its stations broadcast a half-hour long Swift-boating documentary about Sen. John Kerry during the last days of the 2004 presidential campaign. But that was no isolated incident. Sinclair also replaced regular network news programming with long “documentaries” that were little more than campaign propaganda for Republicans in the run up to the 2010 and 2012 elections as well. And one look at the broadcaster’s long history of political contributions, which go overwhelmingly to Republicans, should make it clear which party’s candidates Sinclair wants to win on Election Day.
This is what our election cycles have devolved to, however. To elect our nation’s leaders, wealthy 1-percenters and mega-corporations have been given carte blanche to secretly fund organizations that spend obscene amounts of money advertising on TV stations owned by other mega-corporations and wealthy 1-percenters. In short, our political finance system has become little more than an income redistribution model for the ultra-rich and a no-lose proposition for big media corporations. That’s why, on Election Night, they’ll no doubt be plenty of champagne toasts in media boardrooms as well as eager anticipation for 2016. But for the rest of us, we’ll once again be left with the bitter dregs of a democracy that gradually grows more disconnected and less accountable to the needs of average Americans.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
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The Country House
The Fortress of Solitude
New re-releases of Led Zeppelin
Eric Clapton and Monty Python on Blu-ray
I saw two plays recently. The Country House, which stars Blythe Danner, is referred to by critics as an updated mash-up of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Seagull but takes place in Williamstown in the present and features an acting family and a lot of unfulfilled sexual yearning. Playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the Manhattan Theatre Club production is directed by Daniel Sullivan and features one the best ensemble casts I can ever remember seeing, including the adorable Sarah Steele, David Rasche, Kate Jennings Grant, Eric Lange and Daniel Sunjata as the hearthrob. It’s a great “play” and the kind of Broadway experience that, as this wonderful script makes clear, is an increasingly endangered species.
Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude is one of my favorite books of the past twenty years and one of the best novels ever written about either New York City—in this case Brooklyn—and the transporting power of popular music. It was an awfully ambitious musical at the Public Theater. The book, published in 2003, is a complicated chronicle of a Jewish boy growing up in a largely African-American Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s a little hard for me to judge the play’s book because it’s drawn directly from a book I regularly teach (at Brooklyn College, no less) and know parts of by heart. Much has been omitted, naturally the main storyline remains intact. What is decidedly most awesome about the play though is the music—it’s awesome because music is the perfect way to communicate a story that is in part about the power of music (and the power of its loss) and awesome because the music itself—a combination of soul, funk, punk and rap is awesome with some to spare, especially the soul ballads, which carry a great burden on their shoulders if you’re familiar with the novel. It’s a limited run, so go quickly if you’re going to go.
The Led Zeppelin reissue campaign continues with reissues of Led Zeppelin IV (the third best-selling album in U.S. history sayeth the publicity people) and Houses Of The Holy. As with the previous deluxe editions, both albums have been newly remastered by guitarist and producer Jimmy Page and are accompanied by a second disc of companion audio comprised entirely of unreleased music related to that album. There are lots of formats but I got the two-CD deluxe edition of both. They are what they are. Great to many, the Devil’s spawn to many others. I have gone in both directions depending on my age and the song. I still wish “Stairway to Heaven” had never been imagined (or stolen depending who you ask)—I prefer the version by Little Roger and the Goosebumps—but I think Led Zep got better as they went along, at least through Physical Graffiti, so I think these are pretty great, if you fast-forward through “Stairway.” Both albums have been remixed and the
Led Zeppelin IV deluxe edition includes unreleased versions of every song heard on the original album including alternate mixes of "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Four Sticks," mixes of "The Battle Of Evermore" and "Going To California" heavy with guitar and mandolin, and a horrid, alternate version of You Know What. Houses Of The Holy comes with seven unreleased tracks on the companion audio disc, including rough and working mixes for "The Ocean" and "Dancing Days,” the guitar mix backing track for "Over The Hills and Far Away" and a version of "The Rain Song" without piano.
On the new Blu-ray front, I’m happy to have received Planes, Trains and Eric by Eric Clapton and his band. I could live without all the interviews in between the songs documenting life on the road during part of his 2014 tour of Japan and a few other places like Bahrain. I mean who cares. I could also live without yet another acoustic “Layla” and the lamer cuts like “Wonderful Tonight” and “Tears In Heaven.” But the fast forward button saves this thing. Just listen to “I Shot The Sherriff,” “Crossroads” and the rest and it’s a fine thing to have around.
I was originally pleased to see a Blu-ray of the reunion of the Monty Python folks at the O2, London. It’s called Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go, and I would have loved to have been there—they sold out ten shows—but seeing it on TV makes one think about one’s own mortality and who needs watching Monty Python? Not this aging Python fanatic. I’ll stick to the originals, but perhaps you won’t. Many of the classics are apparently here, including the Dead Parrot, the Lumberjack Song, the Spanish Inquisition, Spam, Nudge Nudge, Argument, the Four Yorkshiremen, the Bruces and with a sing-along of “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” as the grand finale.
The Hum of All Fears: How Misguided Media Hysteria Pervades the 24/7 News Cycle
by Reed Richardson
Terrorism. Gun deaths.
Federal debt. Mortgage fraud.
Ebola. Not expanding Medicaid.
Missing airliners. Climate change.
Within too much of modern journalism, a perverse news calculus is at work. That which has little likelihood of ever harming or impacting us enjoys a steady stream of intense, breathless coverage, creating a constant background buzz of dread. By contrast, the banality of actual, everyday crisis gets routinely ignored, subsumed under a media tide of sensationalist speculation. As a result, we’re trained to be most scared of what should scare us least.
It’s hard not to see this behavior as another unwelcome legacy of the post-9/11 era. Following that attack, the press willfully denuded its own accountability powers and engaged in broad (but not uniform) credulity during the lead-up to the Iraq war. Those mistakes are by now well documented, of course. But what still stubbornly remains is the fearful tone of coverage that so famously accompanied the Bush administration’s false claims.
Of anyone in the press, New York Times journalist James Risen may be best suited to speak to this climate of ongoing fear. After all, he has played a singular role in puncturing our government’s post-9/11 veil of secrecy and misconduct, and for his troubles he’s become a target of a government investigation that threatens to jail him if he doesn’t reveal his confidential sources. But this kind of egregious overreach by our federal government is simply de rigueur today, as he noted on CNN’s Reliable Sources recently:
“Oh, I think fear sells. And I think, unfortunately, it's easy to do a lot of fear-mongering and get ahead politically in the United States. You know, terrorism is a real threat, but we shouldn't be overstating it.… That's what bothers me the most is we've allowed ourselves to become terrorized. And we've done that to ourselves.”
Risen’s right, of course. He was referring to the ever-widening maw of our sprawling national security apparatus. But take a further step back and his language could just as easily be applied the now non-stop saturation crisis coverage that colors so much of our national discourse. This constant hyping of the next dire threat to our-way-of-life-as-we-know-it has conditioned the media’s response. So much so, that when President Obama didn’t immediately begin hyperventilating over the threat posed by ISIS, some in the media establishment practically begged for him to scare them more.
Over time, this mindset weaves a fabric of fear into the language of the news. It becomes a kind of journalistic currency; its frightening narratives a handy frame of reference for viewers. Particularly in the world of cable news, with its constant pursuit of “BREAKING” and “DEVELOPING” news events (and the goosed ratings that go with it), the coverage exudes an almost desperate need to lurch from one crisis or disaster or epidemic to another. Thus, at the beginning of October—coincidentally, just after the inflection point where news interest in ISIS was surpassed by Ebola—one could witness a kind of official meme handoff on CNN, when it ran this ridiculous chyron: “Ebola: The ISIS of Biological Agents?”
Needless to say, Fox News has mastered the art of fear-mongering news coverage. Indeed, given something as easy to manipulate as Ebola—a potentially deadly disease from third-world, African countries—it takes the network a mere matter of days to, first, stoke fear and outrage with its opinion-makers, and then, turn around and cover that fear and outrage with its supposedly straight reporting. (Behold one of the most recent examples.) But credit to Roger Ailes, he knows that single-issue fear manufacturing won’t get the big ratings when even CNN is cross-pollinating threats. So no surprise, for sure, when Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace recently engaged in a “lightning round” of hypothetical nightmare scenarios on his show, including an idea that is amounts to a hat trick of right-wing fears: the combination of Ebola, terrorism and illegal immigration.
To be fair, CNN and—yes—even Fox News have also had inspiring, admirable journalistic moments of late when it comes to Ebola coverage. CNN’s media criticism show, Reliable Sources, pointedly addressed and debunked a lot of misleading and frightening news reports on the disease. And other recent commentary and reporting at CNN has done a thorough job of calling out the public and political overreactions to Ebola. And Fox News’s Shep Smith, in a monologue that quickly went viral, provided a much-needed counterpoint to the “hysterical voices” and conspiracy theorists playing on the public’s fears for political gain.
But let’s be real here. These calls for calm are mere voices in the wilderness, drowned out by a wave of other coverage that shows little of the same journalistic diligence. A cynic might find even these moments of courageous pushback against panic a bit contrived and self-serving, as they never seem to get around to pointing out their own network’s seminal role in unnecessarily spreading misinformation and anxiety. In fact, one would be hard pressed to think of a better definition of tragic irony than this CNN chyron, which, during the height of the network’s overblown coverage two weeks ago, oh-so-innocently asked: “Is there an epidemic of fear over Ebola?”
Oh, but it’s easy to pick on cable news networks, you might say. They’re always trying to over-pressurize coverage, so it’s unfair to use them as examples of panicked coverage throughout the rest of the press. If only this were true. For example, I could find no news take on the disease quite as disturbing and reckless as the seemingly blood-smeared Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover “Ebola is Coming,” which looked more like a poster for the latest horror movie than the front a respectable newsmagazine.
Not to be left out, The Wall Street Journal editorial page offered its own unique justification for giving in to the Ebola freakout. Journal op-ed columnist Bret Stephens (that is, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Bret Stephens, to my alma mater’s eternal shame) gives a bravura performance in right-wing logic, turning out an outrageous essay on Ebola that manages to be both anti-intellectual and condescending. In it, he distills down the rationalizations that color so much of our fear-based media coverage:
“The chance of your dying of ordinary flu this season considerably exceeds the chance of your contracting and dying of Ebola. But so what? … Rationalist that I am, I have a hard time seeing Ebola as the next Spanish flu. But rationalism shouldn’t exclude reasonableness, and the reasonable answer to Ebola is to address reasonable public fears about the safety of the planes they fly and the hospitals where they are treated. The alternative is a further erosion of trust, and a potential epidemic of fear, nearly as dangerous as an exotic African virus now on our shores.”
It’s really worth unpacking Stephens’s contemptible reasoning here. His cavalier “But so what?” stands as perhaps the clearest testament to anti-journalism around. He is literally endorsing the idea that the public and our politicians should ignore reality when it comes to making personal and policy decisions. What’s more, he implies the press should go along with this irrational behavior. Yes, yes, the experts and the research and the facts all argue against things like a travel ban and a mandatory quarantine, to which Stephens essentially replies: whatevs. Let’s instead give in to our “dumb” instincts and just be reasonable—a word that, of course, has a long, ignoble history of being used to excuse discrimination, injustice, and fear of others.
Make no mistake, the consequences of a press corps with such a warped set of news values are real. Over at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, authored a sobering column this past week on the societal costs of so grossly misjudging risk. In it, he made the clear-cut, actuarial case that people acting on Ebola-based fears—like choosing to drive rather than flying—will end up killing far more Americans than the disease itself.
“While the number of people likely to get or die from Ebola in the United States will almost certainly be tiny, tens of millions of Americans are already victims in an epidemic of fear that is sure to contribute to sickness and death among many.… The vast majority of those who will be harmed in this epidemic will suffer directly from the serious health impacts of fear itself.”
That some of our nation’s political leaders freely engage in this kind of ignorant recklessness is bad enough. But when the press—the supposed bulwark of truth in our democracy—routinely enables and even encourages this careless behavior, things get even worse. For this journalistic malpractice—whether it’s hyping distant threats like Ebola and ISIS or ignoring imminent ones like climate change and gun violence—erodes the public trust in the press and has a corrosive effect upon our ability to govern ourselves. When it comes to the news we produce and consume in our democracy, it’s increasingly clear that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
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