Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

The Pretense of Balanced Debate: Behind the Media's Blackout of Antiwar Views

Antiwar activists gather at the White House

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

Marcus Roberts’ twelve-piece band at The Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center
The Heath Brothers at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center
Once Upon a Time in America at the New York Film Festival

Marcus Roberts brought an impressive array of musicians with him to the Appel Room last weekend for a show he called Piano Masters of Melody. The PMMs in question were Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, and Chick Corea. The band, The Modern Jazz Generation, featured Rodney Jordan, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums; Alphonso Horne and Tim Blackmon, trumpets; Ron Westray, trombone; Corey Wilcox, trombone and tuba; Ricardo Pascale, saxophone; Tissa Khosla, baritone and tenor saxophones; Stephen Riley, tenor saxophone; and Joe Goldberg, clarinet.

The set itself was made up of just-beneath-the-radar compositions by the featured PMMs, with newly commissioned arrangements by members of the TMJG, though Marcus did a stunning “Round Midnight” solo on piano. Overall the presentation, while sharp and tight, was rather formal—which strikes me as a reflection of Roberts himself. It was lovely as always to be in The Appel (formerly Allen) Room, but I thought it could have swung a bit harder.

That was not the case with the wonderful set I caught at Dizzy’s Club the next night with Jimmy Heath, Albert “Tootie” Heath, David Wong, and Jeb Patton playing timeless riffs as if they had been invented on the spot just for the fun of it. Close your eyes and you think time had stopped. Jimmy carries jazz history on his shoulders with remarkable agility for a guy born in 1926 and who made his career playing with Dizzy, Parker, Miles, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Gil Evans and, well, one could go on. While his younger brother “Tootie”—born in 1935—played with Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Art Farmer, Sonny Rollins, Nina Simone—you get the point. It was simultaneously a celebration of longevity, the power of musical creativity to keep one looking, sounding, and I’m guessing, feeling young, and joyous music. One thing, though. People need to know that if you’re going to go to Dizzy’s, you have to shut up let people listen, even if you yourself, lady in the red dress, are too stupid to appreciate it yourself. Here is the upcoming schedule for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Before going to Dizzy’s, I spent a thrilling 5.5 hours at the 52nd New York Film Festival with a brand-new print of Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America, not only restored to original edition—not the bowdlerized version released in the United States—but with an additional twenty minutes of found footage. What an incredible film this was: a Jewish Godfather, only more violent (and to be fair, filled with a few more clichés), but just as ambitious and in many respects just as beautiful. The cast includes Robert De Niro, James Woods and Treat Williams—who were all there to help introduce the new Williams print, and Elizabeth McGovern, my distinguished former student Jennifer Connelly (who was 13 at the time), Joe Pesci, Danny Aiello, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, and who knows who else. A terrific Ennio Morricone score adds to its haunting quality. This version is about to be released on Blu-ray but what a thrill to see it on that big beautiful screen. Here and here are the Times’s write-up of the highlights of the festival. So far I have only been able to see two or three films in the press screenings, and I hope to have more to say next week. In any case, here is the schedule, if you’re in town.

Finally, my friends at the Library of America have released a The Civil War Told by Those Who Lived It in a four-volume boxed set edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Brooks D. Simpson, & Stephen W. Sears. The collection is a tribute to the question asked by Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore: “Has there ever been another historical crisis of the magnitude of 1861–65 in which so many people were so articulate?” The set has been available before but not boxed and so fancily presented with four pull-out posters featuring full-color maps by expert Civil War cartographer Earl McElfresh.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

The Pretense of Balanced Debate: Behind the Media's Blackout of Antiwar Views
by Reed Richardson

There is a central conceit to how the establishment press covers policy debates in this country. In essence, it’s a broad skepticism that there is really that much to debate in the first place. The roots of this incuriosity can be traced back to the mechanisms of mainstream journalism itself. Rather than shoulder the burden of exploring important issues head on, our media elite has decided it much prefers to come at things obliquely, using the political parties as proxies to set the boundaries of discourse.

This strategy has come at a dear cost to our democracy, though. While relying upon partisans to frame every debate has allowed the press to maintain a pose of balance and neutrality, it has also trained the press to look only at the politics of every fight at the expense of the policies and principles behind it. Is it any wonder, then, that a jaded, cynical press corps now suffers from an acute case of “both sides do it” syndrome? That it routinely misinforms the public by misinterpreting the motives of various political actors and conflating their policy goals? That, in reaction to a falsely equivalent outrage at partisan acrimony, it consistently advocates for its own agenda, one marked by chimerical “grand bargains” and unrealistic compromises?

The upshot of all this is a Beltway media elite that sees political parties mostly as fungible items and consistently seeks to narrow the spectrum of debate between them as often as it can. As a result, the press often lends its imprimatur to certain (often conservative) policy solutions deemed “serious” within DC conventional wisdom—as in, “everyone knows” we have to cut Social Security and Medicare to deal with the federal debt. Yet, as frequently as this groupthink occurs on the domestic policy front, it really can’t compare to the single-mindedness of the elite media’s views on US foreign policy.

As Leslie Gelb, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, explained earlier this year, there really is only one answer to every foreign policy crisis here in the US. As someone who also supported the Iraq War in its early stages, Gelb readily acknowledged an ugly truth about our discourse: the only way to maintain credibility in foreign policy and media circles is to advocate using military force (5:40 mark in this video). If you don’t, your viewpoint simply gets disappeared from the debate. “People dismiss you. You don’t get asked to testify on the Hill. You don’t get asked on most television shows,” he notes. In short, Gelb confirms what we’ve already known for years—our media establishment’s default position on foreign policy is pro-war.

If you have any doubts about this, one need only look at our current news landscape, where heated coverage about the “imminent” terror threats from groups like ISIS and Khorasan lead the TV news broadcasts and run above the fold nearly every day. All too often, pundits from both the left and right have marched in lockstep with the war drums, all the while ignoring sober rebuttals and disregarding troubling omens about what might lay ahead. Consequently, much of our “debate” over bombing ISIS and arming the so-called moderate rebels in Syria has bordered on the absurd.

Case in point, this PBS NewsHour segment on dealing with ISIS from earlier in September. Here Mark Shields, the purported liberal counterweight to New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, offered up a rather a cold-blooded pronouncement:

“Who are the troops who are going to be there to guarantee stability, order and some sense of justice in the areas?

"You can't do that with airstrikes. I mean, airstrikes are wonderful."

Shields’ comments, which it’s worth noting didn’t merit even a raised eyebrow from Brooks or the NewsHour host, exemplifies how the debate over our latest war is being conducted entirely on pro-war territory. It serves as a reminder of the folly of expecting a legitimately robust war debate to occur within a narrow band of establishment thinking. Indeed, it’s not an understatement to say that our media has failed our democracy over the past few weeks, routinely skipping right past the first-order discussion of if we should go to war or not, to instead obsess over when and for how long.

Perhaps nowhere was this phenomenon more evident than on the ultimate distillation of Washington establishment thinking—the Sunday morning TV news shows. Since August 31, right after the first grisly ISIS beheading video appeared, nearly 100 different guests of an identifiable partisan persuasion have appeared on one of the five major Sunday morning news programs to talk about the ISIS terror threat. By my count, 53 of them were affiliated with the Democrats, while 44 were linked to Republicans. (This list includes administration officials, members of Congress, and pundits with a recognized ideological bent.)

This ratio represents something of a break from recent tradition, as a multi-year analysis by the New York Times’ Upshot blog found conservatives have typically outnumbered liberal guests on the Sunday morning news shows by a roughly inverse proportion, 57 to 42. But despite this apparent turn toward more ideological even-handedness, the actual war debate on Sunday morning has been anything but fair. In fact, it’s been a near total blackout of war dissenters. During the hours and hours of ISIS discussion over the past few weeks by these nearly 100 different voices, only one guest bluntly questioned the wisdom and necessity of going to war in the first place…and she was given not even three minutes of airtime to make the case for doing something other than bombing more Middle Easterners. (That guest happens to be editor of The Nation.)

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Now, it’s true that a large majority of Americans currently support the president’s ongoing US airstrikes on ISIS targets. (After all anxiety-inducing coverage of late, this trend is hardly surprising.) Nevertheless, the public remains highly dubious of this war. The same CNN poll this past week also found a solid majority of the public still oppose sending in US combat troops on the ground. But even more telling, nearly two-thirds of the public lack confidence that the US can achieve its goals in the fight against the terrorist group.

Moreover, there’s noticeable skepticism on Capitol Hill as well. The recent House vote to provide military materiel to Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS did pass 273–156, but that means more than 36 percent opposed it. (Nearly 43 percent of the Democratic caucus voted “Nay.”) When the same measure came before the Senate, it passed with a larger majority, but still 22 Senators voted against it. And note these amendments were tucked into the larger, must-pass Continuing Resolution, which funds the government through the rest of the year.

All told, that means one-third of the members in Congress balked at a key part of the President Obama’s ISIS war plan and roughly the same percentage of the public has registered their opposition to airstrikes. Don’t these constituencies deserve more than to have their views effectively shut out of the highest-profile news platform in the Beltway?

Indeed, to watch the past few Sunday mornings on TV was to be treated to a surreal case study in the establishment’s pro-war bias. Just moments after Katrina vanden Heuvel’s lonely call for diplomacy, for example, you could witness Democratic strategist James Carville offering up this macabre rant :

“We're still bombing them. Does any sane person think that 13 years from now we're not going to still be bombing them?

“Of course we are. And if you listen to what Secretary Gates said, we're—and maybe we have to be. Maybe there is no alternative to—other than bombing people, but we're getting in the middle of four—count them—four civil wars here.”

The ease with which Carville endorses endless war and consigns thousands of Middle Easterners to death is breath-taking and inexcusable. Sad to say, this is what normally passes for left-wing argument on Sunday mornings, thanks to the media’s penchant for inviting an almost endless parade of Democratic hawks on the air. And yet, as gruesome as his views are, Carville at least took it upon himself to call for Congress to hold a vote on going to war in Syria, which is more than most guests bothered to do.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy made a similar argument in favor of holding a vote on a new AUMF on both CNN’s State of the Union and NBC’s Meet the Press in the past few weeks. Though he voted against arming the Syrian rebels, Murphy’s objections to acting without a new authorization are merely technical and not philosophical, however. And to give you an idea of the handmaiden’s role many within Congress believe it should play in this war debate, consider Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s complaisant attitude on the Sept. 21 episode of Face the Nation:

“So the question I think comes what kind of authorization of use of force we give the president? And when we go back after the election that has to be a major point of debate.”

Retroactive and accommodating aren’t exactly the kind of terms one would hope a full-bore, substantive war debate from Congress would evoke. But on Sunday mornings, this kind of talk is considered eminently reasonable.

If only to creating more interesting, dynamic television, you might think the bookers on the Sunday morning news shows would consider a more diverse guest list. Of course, anti-war Democrats in Congress haven’t exactly been profiles in courage lately. Few are rushing to the microphones or camping out in green rooms demanding airtime to publicly question the war effort. Still, strong skeptics of the war like Reps. Raul Grijalva or Alan Grayson would set the conditions for a war debate that would be much more healthy for our country. Especially when the Sunday morning status quo involves jovial, pro-war bonhomie like that between GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Dem. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger on CNN’s SOTU back on Sept. 21:

“Well, I was going to say, I agree with everything Dutch said.”

Later, Ruppersberger returned the sentiment:

“And I agree with Adam, too.”

Of course, Democrats and Republicans have articulated differences of opinion about how best to deal with the terror groups in Iraq and Syria. Rarely, however, are these conversations edifying beyond seeing which one can scare the public the most. This bizarre moment between Dem. Rep. Adam Schiff, GOP Rep. Peter King, and host Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, is symbolic of how quickly the super-villain rhetoric can get ratcheted up:

SCHIFF: “We can't take our eye off the ball, because al Qaeda, the al Nusra franchise in Syria, poses a more immediate threat to our homeland than ISIS does at the present. They're trying to work with AQAP bomb makers to smuggle on bombs on our planes. We cannot lose sight of that threat. That's really the more immediate threat to Americans—“

KING: “Adam, I would disagree. I would say they're all a threat. They're equal threats. They're coming at us and we have to be on our guard at all times. If ISIS went into Australia, they could certainly come into the US. In 2011, they attempt to attack Fort Knox. So, all of them, I say, are threats we cannot let our guard down at all.”

WALLACE: “Gentlemen, you have thoroughly scared me. Congressman King, Congressman Schiff, thank you both. Thanks for coming in today.”

In something of an ironic twist, the most skepticism of the war that you will find on Sunday mornings occurs on Fox News. On several occasions over the past month, Wallace has pointed out the public’s doubts about the war and questioned the efficacy of the administration’s strategy. Even George Will has mustered tepid resistance to parts of the Obama war strategy, as he did this past weekend on Fox News Sunday when he characterized intervening in the Syrian civil war as “a recipe for another protracted failure.” But of course these criticisms are all in service of Fox News’s larger twin goals of a) tearing down the president at every opportunity and b) rekindling the neoconservative fantasy of an even wider war—with ample US “boots on the ground”—in the Middle East.

The gravitational pull of this last course of action is unmistakable at this point. In fact, a large majority of Americans now anticipate US combat troops will one day be deployed to fight ISIS directly. And, frankly, why wouldn’t they think this? Since even before the president committed to airstrikes, voices throughout the media elite were agitating for him to do more. And once loosed, the machinery of war is almost impossible to shut down, even after 13 years. Often, the only things that stand in its way are tough questions from the press and a public dissatisfied with the answers that they get in return.

Tragically, there’s rarely enough of the former to provoke the latter these days. But that suits the establishment just fine. Coincidentally, on the Sept. 7 installment of Face the Nation, Henry Kissinger summed up what he thought were the ideal conditions under which our democracy would decide major national security issues, like whether or not to go to war:

“I would anyway prefer it if both parties had a comparable policy in that respect and disagreed mostly on tactics. We shouldn't tell the American people that there's one—that there are two absolute solutions.”

A two-party debate that only has one, pro-war side? Sounds like just the kind of news show for a Sunday morning.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The mail:
Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa, CA


Good column this week [“Their Brand is Crisis…”]. As usual. Really. Maybe it is best you not have a blog. I think blogging may be destroying the art of writing. Anyway...

One thing I find very interesting is the "100% of GPD!" debt hysteria.

Most of the people I know have mortgages that are 2-5 times what they make in a year. No one freaks out about that! And this is despite the fact that none of my friends control their own currency. And note: the federal debt was higher after WWII and it is far higher in Japan and has been without any kind of a debt "crisis."

But what I wanted to bring your attention to is what I think is the most brilliant thing that Matt Yglesias ever wrote. I seem to be the only person in the world who is so impressed, but I think he nailed it with an analogy between Fix the Debt who want to reduce the deficit with entitlement cuts, and hypothetical Quakers who want to reduce the deficit with military cuts:


There is something similar between the deficit crowd and the education "reform" crowd. I remember listening to a lecture by Alfie Kohn where he asked what would happen if all the children "passed" their standardized tests. His answer was that the establishment would freak out. They would claim that the test was obviously too easy. How I think this relates to the deficit debate is that this group too doesn't want a balanced budget. I'm sick of hearing how teachers are just looking out for their jobs, when those in the education "reform" movement are doing the same thing. (Of course, the funders get to push their anti-union ideology.) That also applies to the budget crowd. Not long ago I wrote about a CRFB Social Security calculator where even if you made the program solvent for 75 years, it still didn't let you "win." It told you that it still wasn't solvent for an infinite time horizon. You can see what I mean in the Afterword of this:


There is no pleasing these people. And that is because they lie about what they are trying to do.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

Read Next: For Austerity Hawks, Good News Must Still Be Bad News.

Their Brand Is Crisis: For Austerity Hawks, Good News Must Still Be Bad News

Alan Simpson (left) and Erskine Bowles

Alan Simpson (left) and Erskine Bowles. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My new Nation column is called “Bloomberg Beyond the Billions.” It’s about the mayor and the mogul.

The Eagles (with JD & The Straight Shot) at Madison Square Garden
Steely Dan at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester
The Tedeschi Trucks Band at the Beacon

Last Thursday night, James Dolan, CEO of Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden, booked his own band into the opener’s slot.  This was a pretty crazy thing to do except that:

A. He matched it with a gimmick to set the Guinness Book of World Records record for most kazoos ever played at one time, which he appeared to accomplish, giving everyone a kazoo who came to the concert and then leading a group of celebrities and the early arrivers during the song “Governor’s Blues,” which includes a kazoo solo and then “Happy Birthday to make sure. As a result of making it into the record books, he promised to give “$100,000 for ALS research, so OK on that.

B. The Times Sunday sports section the week before indicated that the more interest Dolan takes in his band, the less he is likely to take in the Knicks, which is something almost all New Yorkers can agree would be a good thing.

C. Perhaps he will also take less of an interest in this, which would also be a good thing.

D. Truth is, the band wasn’t bad at all, especially in its taste of obscure but deserves-to-be-revived material. Apparently the Eagles made Dolan read a long list of rules afterward to ensure that nobody played their kazoos once they came onstage, and since the opening act was actually booked for 7, rather than 8, there was no real harm done.

So how were the Eagles? Well, with Hell having frozen over twenty years ago, they manage to get along just fine and recreate those gorgeous harmonies and unbeatable hooks like nobody’s business. Don Henley’s voice is just slightly huskier but it is still a thing of beauty. And with all that money coming in, the production values are first rate so it’s pretty hard to have a bad time with them.

This tour is built around “The Story of the Eagles” documentary and this was kind of a live documentary, with lots of explanation from Don and Glenn about how everything came together (and them came apart, and then together, and then apart, etc).

It was nice to have Bernie Leadon in the band, at least for part of the show, even though he left the band under really unhappy circumstances.  And unlike the last time I saw them, when they wore suits, they were dressed in casual Eagles-type flannel, which reduced the cognitive dissonance on songs like “Doolin-Dalton” and particularly “Take it Easy.”

Anyway, Frey and Henley began the show alone together with “Saturday Night,” and were then joined by Leadon for the Dillard & Clark cover “Train Leaves Here This Morning.” Timothy B. Schmit shows up next for “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Followed by Joe Walsh for a re-arranged “Witchy Woman,” followed by “Tequila Sunrise,” and they were off:  “Already Gone,” “Best of My Love,” “Lyin' Eyes,” “One of These Nights,” “Take it to the Limit,” some other stuff, then “New Kid in Town,” “Heartache Tonight,”   “Life's Been Good,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Hotel California,” “Take it Easy,” “Rocky Mountain High,” and “Desperado.” Their Greatest Hits was the best-selling album of all time for quite a few good reasons. What kind of person would you have to be to have a bad time at that show?

A few nights earlier, actual Altercation friend, Robert Redford, accepted the 2014 Global Environmental Leadership Award from the Walden Woods Project, and the band played to raise money for the cause, which was founded Henley nearly 25 years ago and has done great things ever since.  All of the following, which was part of Henley’s introduction, happen to be true,  a real rarity at such events:

“Bob Redford was an environmentalist long before the well-being of our natural resources became an international concern. Throughout his extraordinary career as an acclaimed actor, director and producer, he has devoted himself to myriad environmental initiatives too lengthy to enumerate. Redford has stated, ‘I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise what is there to defend?’ I can’t agree more. Whether he is defending the integrity of the public lands we leave as our legacy to future generations; whether he is lobbying Congress for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fighting for the protection of the dwindling herds of America’s iconic wild mustangs or advocating for measures to curb climate change, he puts the full measure of his time and talent, and the force of his convictions, behind all the compelling environmental causes he supports.” You can go to walden.org for further information on the Walden Woods Project.

Steely Dan have been around even longer than the Eagles. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker began collaborating on music at Bard College in late 1967 before deciding that it would be a cool idea to name a band after a dildo in William Burroughs Naked Lunch. This did not happen until around 1972 when they released “Can't Buy A Thrill.” Back then, the band had right-wing lunatic, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitar, but thankfully by 1975, he was already gone. They toured with Michael McDonald in the band for a while, and released great album after great album, but gave it rest in 1980, not unlike the Eagles, They did not put out another studio album for 20 years. But they’ve been back ever since, between solo projects, projecting contempt for nearly everyone and everything but the music they (and those musicians they admire) create. (Read Fagen’s recent book, Eminent Hipsters, if you think I overstate.

Anyway, Sunday night they played their last show of their “Jamalot Ever After” tour with a three-night stand at the at the beautifully remade Capitol Theatre out somewhere in Westchester, which is actually a good place to see them because:

A. the sound in the place is terrific;

B. they are sort-of from Westchester and sort-of live there, or at least Fagen lives, or so his friends tell me

C. people actually got out seats and were dancing in the aisles and how often do you see that for a band whose audience no longer even has to bother with babysitters?

Walter Becker insisted that this was the best Steely Dan band they ever had and who I am to argue with that? I’ve seen them five or six times (plus the Dukes of September), and I never heard these songs sound so powerful. The three back-up singers were a vision and the four-man horn section was pretty awesome too. Song-selection was right on the mark and Fagen sounded pretty excellent. He was awfully mean to the guy who showed too much excitement in the front row, though, and while I sympathized with him—the guy was awfully annoying—I ended up feeling the guy’s pain at the pain and humiliation he experienced at being yelled at in front of the entire audience.

At both the Eagles and Steely Dan, nobody was allowed to take out their cell phones and the staffs were all over them as if they had a weapon in their hands. It was weird. This was not the case at the Beacon where Butch Trucks, one of the two or three greatest guitarists alive, played one of four shows he and his wife Susan Tedeschi were doing. Derek is awesome, but the material is only so-so. “Midnight in Harlem” is a great song. Their version of Derek and the Dominos’ “Keep on Growing” was pretty fine too—with Jimmy Herring joining on guitar. But I still don’t see the point of breaking up the mighty Allman Brothers Band for this. They’re good, for sure, but a long way from great, much less the greatness that is the ABB....

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Their Brand Is Crisis: For Austerity Hawks, Good News Must Still Be Bad News
by Reed Richardson

There’s a key scene early on in Rachel Boynton’s fantastic documentary about the 2002 Bolivian presidential election that sets up the movie’s premise (and title). In it, Tad Devine, a smooth-talking advertising guru with the Democratic political consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum, lays out the overarching theme his group has developed for “Goni,” the wealthy, globalization-loving mining magnate who has hired them to save his struggling campaign. In the face of the country’s ongoing economic upheaval, Devine urges Goni to embrace the uncertainty and use it as a weapon against his rivals. (Go to 10:30 mark.)

“I think the most important thing we can do is to be dedicated to this message and to figure out how we can get all this paid media, TV advertising to fit the frame.…And the frame for us is crisis. That’s our brand.”

In the end, this carefully crafted trusted-leader shtick worked. Barely. Goni won by a whisker over the democratic socialist candidate Evo Morales. But, as the documentary makes clear, this victory left Bolivia no better, if not worse off. (Goni resigned and fled the country barely a year later, after several violent crackdowns on anti-government protestors eventually stoked widespread outrage. Morales went on to win the presidency in 2006.) This “brand of crisis,” it turns out, was little more than a clever campaign ploy manufactured by the powerful to push unpopular economic policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.

If this framing sounds familiar, it should, because it sounds a lot like the lopsided debate in this country about how to fix the federal debt. Indeed, pretty much since the day President Obama took office, the “very serious” establishment in Washington has been up in arms about the federal debt “crisis.” (A conveniently timed epiphany, to be sure, since a vast majority of our current debt was caused by Obama’s predecessor.) Mesmerized by the cranky “bipartisan” stylings of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles—who never met a social insurance program they didn’t want to cut—and propelled along by “nonpartisan” advocacy groups like Fix the Debt—which boasts of its ties to CEOs and gets its funding from the debt fear-mongering billionaire Pete Peterson—the centrism-loving Beltway media has fully absorbed the notion that our debt problem must be in “crisis” and that entitlement cuts must be the solution.

During the depths of the Great Recession, theirs was an easy argument to make. Thanks to the financial crisis, the budget deficit was exploding with and an actuarial surge of aging, retiring Baby Boomers loomed. Even President Obama bought into the rhetoric (if not all the policy prescriptions) of the debt Cassandras. He was the one who appointed Simpson and Bowles as co-chairs of the fundamentally flawed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, lending legitimacy to the dreadfully misguided idea that we could nurture a struggling economic recovery while starving it at the same time.   

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Buying into this brand of crisis was a big strategic mistake, however, because it led to his strategic bumbling of the 2011 debt ceiling fight. For his troubles, Obama got a Budget Control Act that unnecessarily prolonged the misery of poor and middle-class Americans and yet it won him little acclaim among the debt hawks in Washington and the media elite. All pain, no gain, in other words. This shouldn’t have come as a great shock, though, since this Beltway species is always on the lookout for a chimerical “grand bargain,” one where the rich (maybe) take a haircut on their last few dollars earned and the rest of us take a bath on things like healthcare and retirement savings. Until that kind of deal, there’s only one kind of news about the debt: bad.

Obama, at least, seems to have learned this lesson, albeit belatedly. When he finally said last year “there is no debt crisis,” it felt like a direct rebuke of the Washington establishment. They deserve to be called out, because theirs is the rigid, unthinking perspective. Over the past 18 months, numerous economic indicators have delivered surprisingly good news. But good luck hearing about it from the debt hawks in Washington.

Last fall, for example, during the government shutdown Niall Ferguson took to the friendly confines of the Wall Street Journal editorial page to instead agitate for the real problem with our federal government: debt. And while he begrudgingly acknowledged our rapidly shrinking deficit, he dismissed it with a quick “True…” formulation that is a favorite way to prevent inconvenient facts from tripping up one’s argument. Instead, he boldly claimed: “Only a fantasist can seriously believe ‘this is not a crisis.’” But in a telltale sign of letting his beliefs get the better of his arguments, Ferguson mistakenly said net interest payments on the federal debt were roughly 8 percent of GDP annually. It’s an egregious error, one that you would’ve thought he would’ve caught since elsewhere in his column Ferguson noted that the 2013 annual budget deficit was only 4 percent of GDP.

Brad DeLong did catch it, however. But unlike Ferguson, DeLong noted that the real fantasy is to believe in this crisis rhetoric. Instead, he calmly made the case that, thanks to low inflation and interest rates, the nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio is quite stable right now. What’s more the debt is actually a profit center rather than a drag on our economy, helping it recover from a still-lingering actual fiscal crisis.

Make no mistake, the economy is healing slowly, and, with it, our budgetary red ink. Take, for example, the rapidly shrinking deficit. The budget sequestration, for all its many ills, has significantly reeled back the deficit in the past few years. So much so, that our spending-to-revenue gap is now a third of what it was when Obama took office. Last month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the annual budget shortfall will be $400 billion smaller through the next decade than its previous estimate just four months earlier.

But in the world of folks like Alan Simpson, these positive developments don’t matter, even when they put the lie to their own overblown hysteria. Consider Simpson’s utter incoherence when Salon confronted him earlier this year with his 2011 prediction that an economic debt crisis would happen “within two years.”

“Oh, sure. You know, I’ve made a lot of wrong predictions in my life – I don’t suppose you have. I said I don’t know when the tipping point will come. But it will come. And somebody said: Well, what is the tipping point?

“And the tipping point is very clear. Forget the deficit — that’s going down. We should all be pleased with that. None of us are; I’m not going to lose any sleep about the deficit going down. But when the deficit is going down and the debt is continuing to go up automatically, where we borrow money every day … And that’s going up. It’s now 17.3 trillion …” 

It’s hard to even count the number of logical contradictions in these two paragraphs. Facts that don’t fit his crisis narrative simply don’t compute to Simpson. Good news, the kind that might necessitate a careful, nuanced rethinking of debt policy alternatives, just doesn’t register, though it should. But don’t just take my word for it. If you’re looking for a genuine nonpartisan expert to rebut to Simpsons’s scare tactics, check out what William Gale of the Tax Policy Center had to say earlier this month:

“Long-term fiscal policy is not a crisis. It is not even the most important issue facing the economy this moment—strengthening the recovery is—and the fiscal situation should not stand in the way of changes along those lines.”

Of course, it’s no secret which brand—Simpson's hyperventilation or Gale's sobriety—attracts more attention from op-ed pages and cable talk shows. Prominent National Journal columnist Ron Fournier has certainly cast his lot with the former. In fact, Fournier has become such a Chicken Little on the issue that he has bizarrely equated debt crisis denial with climate change denial, ignoring the many economists who publicly disagree with him in the process.

So, when the latest CBO report came out this summer, he naturally penned a column with the not-so-subtle headline: “Fiscal Doom: What You Weren't Told About the Latest Budget News.” Blasting the “sugar high of good news,” he made a point of also dishing out the “scary news”—that this year’s CBO projection estimated our debt would roughly equal the size of our GDP in 25 years. Why is this scary? Fournier doesn’t really say; he just leaves it to the reader to guess.

One explanation involves the now infamous Reinhart-Rogoff paper that purported to show that a country whose debt surpasses 90 percent of GDP experiences sharply lower growth rates. But that paper’s errors have now been thoroughly documented

Maybe it’s just the big number that scares Fournier. Fortunately, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman—not someone whose intellectual rigor reminds me of a climate change denier—addressed this point in a column over a year ago. (Its not-so-subtle headline: “This is Not a Crisis.”) As Krugman pointed out, Britain has average a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 100 percent for most of its modern history. “The point is not that we should completely ignore issues of fiscal responsibility,” Krugman explained. “It is that we are nowhere near fiscal crisis…So budget deficits, entitlement reform, and all that simply don’t deserve to be policy priorities, let alone dominate the national discussion the way they did for the past few years.”

Eh, never mind all those wonky details. Or the fact that the CBO’s projections change all the time (and, as we’ve seen, lately they’ve been changing for the better). To Fournier, this debt crisis fixation remains his lodestar. It has already pre-determined our future, as well as our policy response. “Higher taxes, fewer entitlements,” Fournier wrote. “It's going to happen sooner or later, painfully or more painfully, and nobody in charge in Washington seems to care.”

This obsession with “pain” is a common tic among the debt crisis brethren. The zeal with which they describe the necessity for rolling back Medicare benefits and pushing back the Social Security retirement age often feels almost sadistic. It's also increasingly misplaced, because with Medicare too—one of the biggest boogeymen of the debt hawks—the news just keeps getting better. In fact, the latest Trustee report estimated that the Medicare hospital fund is now solvent through 2030, a date four years later than last year’s estimate. What’s more, this is a 13-year improvement over the projection in 2009, before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

What’s fueling this? Even more good news. Medicare spending keeps slowing down. As a result, The New York Times recently noted that the 10-year budget projections for Medicare costs have been reduced downward for six consecutive years. (To see this trend in action, check out the Times’ interactive graphic here.) In fact, the CBO’s 2006 Medicare cost estimate for 2016, which was projected to be roughly $15,300 per person annually, is now expected to be $4,000 less based on this year’s projections. As the Times points out, if that savings is extrapolated out to 2020, it totals $700 billion, which would do more to cut the debt than several other ambitious policy proposals (that have little chance of passing Congress).

You’ll hear no cheers from Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson about this, though. Last week, he warned everyone to “curb your enthusiasm” on the Medicare cost reductions. Ostensibly a liberal, Samuelson has an uncanny knack for siding against left-wing policy prescriptions, especially when it comes to entitlements. He looks hard to find the grey lining and, true to form, he sandwiched the recent good news on Medicare between two slices of doubt in an almost comical manner:

“Let’s not get carried away.

“True, the savings are significant. Still, they don’t alter the nation’s central budget problem…”

This literal framing of the debt crisis message around evidence to the contrary speaks volumes. Perhaps that’s why Samuelson goes on to suggest a number of different theories of why these encouraging healthcare spending numbers may not last. Surely something else—something bad—is going on here is the unmistakable subtext.

But as the CBO has already pointed out, this trend began before the Great Recession and has continued well into the recovery. And while it’s too soon to definitively attribute much of the Medicare savings to the effects of Obamacare, it’s notable that the law includes several incentives and programs to bend the cost curve further downward.

All good reasons, in other words, to think these positive trends are more permanent and could even accelerate future deficit reduction. Which is even more of rationale to avoid adopting radical policies that unnecessarily damage our fragile economy and sacrifice our nation’s social safety net just to satisfy an austerity campaign driven by the media and political elite. Much like Bolivia found out the hard way, that brand of crisis only sells more misery.

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: Sequestration Is Austerity, but Not Enough for Simpson and Bowles.

Of Optics and Objectivity: How Journalism Is Failing Our Democracy

Ray and Janay Rice

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

"The Beatles in Mono" 14 LP set.

Depending on your level of obsessiveness, you can say that Apple et al. saved the best for last. These ten albums, plus a three LP set of singles remastered and a gorgeous 108-page book were mastered in an eleven-step process to reproduce the original sound of the albums as perfectly as possible. (It does not include the "Yellow Submarine" soundtrack, "Abbey Road" and "Let It Be" albums, which were originally released in stereo, nor “The Ballad of John and Yoko”). Everything about this set, from the book to the fold-out covers and photography, is Rolls-Royce quality.

The box set is a kind of a test. Vinyl collectors who would be interested in it probably bought the stereo box. But the stereo albums are not really what the boys intended. Most of the mixing of them was done without their presence or even that of George Martin. I attended a listening session this summer at Electric Lady studios where the music was played on an amazing hi-fi set up by McIntosh and in many cases, one felt as if some of these songs were brand new. One or two are faster than you’ll remember from the CDs. Ringo does not scream "I've got blisters on my fingers!" at the end of "Helter Skelter" on the mono mix. But the overall effect was overpowering. We got to ask questions of the engineers and it was quite touching to hear how much reverence went into the creation of these albums. This really is one of the high points of Western civilization, I’m not kidding. The combination of these four young men coming together as they did and combining their extraordinary talents to reach what remain unmatched heights in creative accomplishments is one of the most moving and powerful achievements of modern times. If I believed in miracles, the music of The Beatles would perhaps be number one on my list.

Universal Music Group says they are pressing a million albums, again, an amazing figure since almost everyone who buys it will already have the music. If you are really crazy, you can buy a special cartridge made by Ortofon for these albums only. It’s only $500, which makes this set feel cheap at only $350 on the Evil One.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Of Optics and Objectivity: How Journalism is Failing Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson

We depend upon journalists to tell us what it is that they can see that the public can’t and for the press to bear witness to what the truth really is when the powerful won’t. That’s the duty of the free press in our democracy. But there’s an important qualifier to this relationship for it to work: the press has to actually be looking for the truth—and looking in the right place—for it to work.

Tragically, the press seems increasingly unable to live up that part of the bargain. Instead of offering insightful perspective, the establishment media increasingly exhibits a kind of institutional myopia, one marked by breathlessly near-sighted takes on ephemera and peripheral fixations on the irrelevant. More and more, we’re living in an age of where stagecraft matters as much or more in the media than statecraft, where analysis of the “optics” trumps reporting on actions.

This growing fascination with “optics” reveals a lot about how our press’s news values have been compromised by those that it covers. Back in 2010, Ben Zimmer’s New York Times “On Language” column offered an astute etymological history of the term, one that also speaks volumes about the trap the press has fallen into.

“When politicians fret about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself, we’re living in a world of optics. Of course, elected officials have worried about outward appearances since time immemorial, but optics puts a new spin on things, giving a scientific-sounding gloss to P.R. and image-making.”

Optics is anti-journalism, in other words. What it represents flies the face in of a journalist’s charge to find the truth. It excuses all the basest instincts inherent in spinning, deceiving, and lying to the public. Optics involves passive absorption of news versus intrepid reporting of those who make it. Optics begets theater criticism rather than actual accountability.

And yet, optics have become so embedded into our news culture, particularly in the political press, that seemingly not a day goes by without someone in the media fixating on the pageantry—or lack thereof—of our nation’s leaders, often at the expense of reporting what they’re actually doing in our name. Over at Media Matters, Eric Boehlert does a great job of offering a blow-by-blow account of how the press’s obsession with “optics” has played out in the Beltway in recent weeks.

But it’s not just the political press that is so afflicted. It’s endemic to the media at this point. Consider the reaction earlier this week to the elevator video of Ray Rice viciously assaulting this then-girlfriend. Released on Monday morning by the tabloid site TMZ, this new video quickly went viral, igniting a long overdue media firestorm of condemnation of Rice, for his attack, and of his team and the NFL, for having, respectively, engaged in obvious victim-blaming and doling out a laughable two-game punishment. That slap on the wrist, by the way, even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted was a “mistake,” but nonetheless took no steps to correct. Until that is, Monday afternoon, at which time Rice’s team unceremoniously cut him and the league suddenly decided to suspended him indefinitely from playing anywhere else. Justice, better late than never, right?

Not really. Not when you consider the circumstances that precipitated the NFL’s actions. Think about what had, or, more accurately, had not changed between Sunday and Monday. Did the public, the press, and the league now know more about the assault? Not really. Did the latest video from inside the elevator present damning new evidence? Not at all. (Rice’s defense, that his girlfriend hit him first, could never change the reality that she still ended up being struck unconscious by him.) The facts that everyone knew about that night hadn’t changed, in other words, but what had changed were the optics.

That it took this long for the NFL to act appropriately says all you need to know about the league’s morally bankrupt priorities. But let’s not let the sports media off the hook either. For months, NFL beat reporters showed anemic interest in the story, willingly repeating the talking points thrown their way by Rice’s team and the league. When the league suddenly played dumb about the second video this week, some of the elite sports journalists looked like stooges. Never mind that there was a bigger story here—the NFL has a long history of accommodating domestic abusers. It still took TMZ boldly out-hustling (and, yes, likely out-paying) sports news behemoths like ESPN and Sports Illustrated before the latter were embarrassed into exercising any real broad concern or outrage about Rice's assault. Of course, in minimizing the story for so long, the press all but guaranteed it would take victimizing Janay Rice all over again before her abusive husband would ever get a more deserving punishment.

There’s no excuse for this betrayal, but there is an explanation. The press’s equating of the theatrics of the news with the news itself starts to make sense when you consider it in the context of the profession’s hidebound need to be considered objective. For too many news organizations, being fair and objective has morphed from exercising news judgment about who is—and isn’t—telling the truth to treating everyone’s point of view equally and leaving it to the public to figure out. As a result, the appearance of being fair has become a handy crutch for the establishment media; an easy way to proclaim neutrality and fend off claims of bias while abetting lazy arguments and shallow, he-said, she-said reporting. In other words, the root of this optics obsession originates from within. Journalists—particularly those in high-profile jobs—pay so much attention to optics because they have been trained to think about their own coverage in the very same way. And nowhere is the mirroring more evident than in our political coverage.

Thus, it’s much easier to find endless, fleeting meta-takes of how the president delivers a speech or what he says at a press conference than it is to find trenchant examination of actual policy. But in Washington and elsewhere in the pundit firmament, the hierarchy of what’s considered newsworthy and important has been inverted. There’s little professional esteem to be gained from being right in the long run anymore. (Just ask anyone in the media who opposed the Iraq War.) Similarly, there’s no blowback from being spectacularly wrong on a daily basis. (Consider every neoconservative pundit who supported the Iraq War.) Instead, what gets rewarded most these days are “hot takes” served up 24/7 and the superficial pretense of accountability.

But when the press relies so heavily upon optics, our democratic priorities can easily get scrambled and manipulated. For example, domestic violence plagues our society and millions of Americans are at risk from it every year. And yet institutions like the NFL—with an assist from a compliant press—effectively normalize this epidemic by covering it matter-of-factly, unless, that is, a high-visibility case makes the problem temporarily unignorable. Indeed, if there’s a takeaway for the NFL from the Rice incident, it’s that the media can be played for fools right up until they are humiliated for not doing their job. (The Onion sums up the league’s lesson learned more bluntly here.)

At the same time, our country is now poised to rekindle a war against a terror group in the Middle East, despite the fact that Homeland Security officials say it poses no threat of attack in the United States. Untold billions of dollars will be spent and untold Iraqi (and possibly Syrian) lives will be lost in the campaign to “degrade” and “destroy” ISIS. And yet, an estimated 16,800 Americans die annually from domestic violence-related homicides. Of course, it's not a simply matter of doing one or the other, but it's the sense of proportion that's out of whack. One crisis is so close, so pervasive, and thus so commonplace that the media elite can't be bothered with it, while the other is so far away, so regionalized, and thus so exotic that it sucks up all the media oxygen.

Again, it’s not hard to find the optics blindly driving the difference. The press frenzy over ISIS’s gruesome videotaped beheadings of two U.S. journalists all but begged the president to do something. And the Washington media establishment has never been known for shying away from more war. A few shrewd observers have noted that ISIS’s grisly YouTube taunting is all about setting a trap for the U.S., one that depends upon our national preoccupation with seeing evil everywhere and looking tough in response for it to work.

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Sadly, it would seem our enemies know us better than we know ourselves. Thanks to the veil of fear the media has drawn across the country recently, we stand on the verge of having to learn the same painful, costly truths in Iraq yet again. And whether or not we ultimately “defeat” ISIS militarily likely won’t matter much to the Beltway press in a few years anyway. By then, it will have grown bored and moved on to the latest shiny object, like the 2016 presidential election or the next group of extremists anointed to take ISIS’s place as our nation’s number-one threat. And on and on it goes.

Safe to say, this vicious cycle of short-sighted coverage and bankrupt accountability doesn’t make for very pretty picture of the efficacy of objective journalism. Bad optics, one might even say. But we’re unlikely to see a change anytime soon. Not until we realize that a far bigger threat to our democracy occurs when the press spends too much time consumed with what little it can already see, and too little time trying to seek out so much of what it can’t.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The mail:
Bill Luker Jr.
Denton TX

Message: Your phrase "revanchist foreign policy of Russia" is typical of so-called leftists who spend too much time at the clubs, and too much of their excessively large legacies from rich parents, listening to Jorma Kaukonen and reveling in the "cultural freedom' they enjoy in the US. And as you should know, that is ALL we have left. You and they have completely failed to understand why Russia might react negatively to being surrounded by NATO bases and anti-missile sites, expending relentlessly since 1991, after being told by the US that it would not expand and militarily threaten the Russian homeland. You and they apparently do not understand the nature of fascism in this country, and its insatiable desire for imperial expansion, even to the point of involving us in a Eurasian war, and possibly a Third World War. But here's something you WILL understand: I and many others will never give one fucking dime to The Nation as long as the medium-blue assholes, never-could-be rockers and record nerds like you—who've never lifted a finger on behalf of anyone, as you continue your never-ending quest for empty notoriety and self-aggrandizement—continue to pollute the pages of a once-proud publication that stood four-square against Western aggression and expansionist catastrophes. Please let Katrina van den Houvel know this, as well. Maybe she'll get a clue.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the beginning of the end for Roger Goodell.

Beltway to Obama: More Fear, Please

President Obama

(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Go here please to read my column this week, on why firing David Gregory won’t actually change Meet the Press.

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.


I don’t have much this week. I saw Jorma Kaukounen at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend, where he was joined on acoustic guitar by the great Barry Mittelhoff and G.E. Smith. The room was so crowded (and I am so old) despite the $85/$100 cover that I had to sit on the floor in the back corner near the merch table for most of the show, so I couldn’t see. But I could hear. And Jorma has not lost a beat at 72. And the crowd was most appreciative and engaged. Generally I prefer electric Hot Tuna, but when you hear “Hesitation Blues” and “I Know You Rider,” played so exiquisitely in so intimate a room, it feels churlish to complain and I so won’t.

A couple of recommendations: I reviewed the first volume of Country Funk when it came out a couple of years ago. There’s a volume two now, “Country Funk Volume II 1967-1974,” from Light in the Attic, with newly re-mastered, featuring cuts by Bob Darin, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Willie Nelson and more. It’s a nice package with a comic with story by Jessica Hundley along with Jess Rotter's illustrations and the music is mostly stuff you won’t find anywhere. My favorite is “Rising Sign” by Jim Ford, who Sly Stone once called ''the baddest white man on the planet,” but it’s all kinda interesting and fun

Also I wanted to add my voice to all those recommending the new collection of long short stories and novellas by Stephan Zweig under the title, The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig. It’s 720 pages of pure surprise and I’m grateful to the Pushkin Press for bringing it out and helping me to figure out why I’ve been hearing that name for so many years, and finally delving in. You won’t regret it you do too.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Beltway to Obama: More Fear, Please!
By Reed Richardson

There really is a pathology that lurks within our elite media discourse when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. At the root of this pathology sits a well-cultivated neurosis about our country’s esteem, its place (rank) in the world. This insecurity, in turn, breeds an almost incessant neediness for displays of machismo and dominance and aggression from our political leaders. And precisely because the U.S. military serves as the biggest hammer in the world, it has become all too easy for lazy members of the media in this country to view every crisis overseas as a stubborn nail in need of some swift flattening.

In other words, ours is a nation where patience and diplomacy have fallen out of favor among an establishment that is now far more interested in rapid response and confronting the latest mortal enemy with “kinetic action” (the kind that involves Hellfire missiles, carrier groups, and, ultimately, an infantry division or three). The unrestrained id version of this mindset—via, naturally, Fox News—can be viewed here . As a result, our cable news talk shows and national op-ed pages have developed debilitating case of selective listening, one that tunes out context and deliberation in foreign policy discussions and only really tunes in when it’s being warned what to be afraid of.

But what happens when the president doesn’t reflexively indulge in saber-rattling hyperbole? When he doesn’t take every excuse to deploy our vast arsenal of weaponry? When doesn’t reliably offer up fear-based Pavlovian signals for the pundits? Well, as the past week demonstrated, the establishment freaks out.

Take, for instance, this jingoistic op-ed  by John McCain and Lindsey Graham that the New York Times  took it upon itself to run. At this point, McCain and Graham have so consistently beat the drums of war for so long I think of them as the Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr of the Senate’s war hawks. The notion that this pair would offer up any insights beyond ‘Bomb Country X now’ is silly, and yet the Times  gave them a platform.

After knocking around Obama for “reactive half-measures” and endowing the brutal jihadist group Islamic State with everything but evil superpowers, Graham and McCain made this it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren’ t-so-tragic modest proposal: “No one is advocating unilateral invasion, occupation or nation-building. This should be more like Afghanistan in 2001.” Ahem.  In the end, their arguments were so shot through with shameless ambiguity and superficial justifications that Peter Beinart deftly ethered the whole thing here .

That didn’t stop the Washington Post ’s Dana Milbank from writing his own hyperventilating column . Pivoting off of a Russian-inflamed civil war in Ukraine and another grisly beheading by the brutal jihadist group Islamic State, Milbank also appears confounded by Obama’s lack of tough-guy histrionics. His column’s lede perfectly captures his up-is-down thinking: “President Obama is not worried. And that is unnerving.”

Of course, it’s not that Obama isn’t worried. On multiple occasions, and again at the Baltic Summit this week, the president expressed his concern about the alarming advances of the Islamic State and Russia’s revanchist strategy of fomenting unrest in its neighbor. What’s unnerving to Milbank is that Obama isn’t matching the level of outrage of the establishment’s conventional wisdom. To help maintain this ruse, Milbank notably omits any mention of the steps Obama has already taken in response to these crises— a wave of tough economic sanctions  on Russia and an ongoing campaign of limited airstrikes  on IS positions in Iraq. Nor, apparently, does Milbank read his colleague at the Washington Post , Walter Pincus, who has some great behind-the-scenes reporting  on the alliance building that the administration has undertaken across the region to box in IS and ultimately defeat the group.

To Milbank and his Beltway compadres, though, it is Obama’s leadership specifically that is lacking. Exhibit A: the president’s damning public admission last week that the US “didn’t have a strategy yet” on dealing with IS inside Syria. To say that one day and then turn around the next and reassure Americans that they’re safer than ever before amounts to “happy talk” per Milbank. However, if you set aside the outrageous boogeyman-type coverage that predominates in the most of the press, you find that, again, Obama is right .

What’s more—and this is important—there’s been a wholesale inversion of how the establishment defines hubris and overconfidence. No doubt, Obama owns his share of ill-advised military misadventures, among them a futile “surge” in Afghanistan and a misguided faith in a morally repugnant and counterproductive drone policy. But it’s only when he chooses a relatively cautious approach to a foreign threat like IS that he gets branded a naïve and dangerously optimistic president a la Bush. Eleven years ago, what constituted dangerous “happy talk”  from the White House looked very different and took a staggeringly higher toll, but it took years for the Beltway pundits to come out of their defensive crouch and figure this out.

This reminder of Bush’s dreadful legacy would no doubt be considered a cheap partisan shot by the National Journal ’s Ron Fournier, a bust of whom will no doubt one day adorn the Newseum’s “Both Sides Do It” installation. Right on cue, Fournier’s column this week  predictably flays Obama for a lack of leadership, which admittedly isn’t much of a surprise since he writes a version of this same column at least once a month . (This stubborn lack of editorial creativity on the part of Fournier long ago reached the point of easy parody.)

As you’d expect, Fournier takes the same shots at Obama that the rest of the Beltway centrists crowd. He claims Obama’s “dithering” helped “spawn the ISIS wave,” but presents no proof of this bold assertion. In a  clever bit of no-win logic, he dings the president for dismissing ISIS as a junior-varsity level threat last year, and then dings Obama again for ignoring a group that he said wasn’t a threat in the first place. And the Fournier shakes his venerable head at Obama for being “incapable of leading anybody to a solution.”

So what should have Obama done differently in Syria a year ago to fix everything, one might ask? (I mean, besides striking a courageous diplomatic deal  that rid that nation of its chemical weapons, a success Fournier conveniently omits.) Or, for that matter, what might that “solution” to the region’s sprawling sectarian unrest have looked like? Ah, but the answers to these questions are an intellectual burden that Fournier never even attempts to carry. He just knows leaders lead by leading, through leadership. And Obama ain’t one of them.

Like Milbank, Fournier, in his zeal to complain, minimizes the  actions  Obama currently is taking to stop IS’s spread in Iraq in order to further fixate on the president’s rhetoric :

“Despite ordering airstrikes against ISIS targets, Obama doesn't seem to agree that Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq pose an unprecedented threat to America.”


Fournier can’t even give Obama credit for actually doing something without couching it in as a backhanded insult. Also note he isn’t even brave enough to say whether he approves or disapproves of the airstrikes, wants more or less of them or anything else. Again, actual policy isn’t Fournier’s cup of tea. So instead he just moves on to quibble over Obama’s refusal to say IS represents an unprecedented threat, one he later characterizes as “existential.” Needless to say, this is goddam ridiculous. By definition, every new threat is unprecedented, which is to say nothing about how we should respond to it. More obviously, it is 100% wrong to imply IS will ever threaten the very existence of the United States. Yet this over-the-top language is what simple-minded Beltway critics seem to value more than anything else in a president.

Indeed, at times, this need for a good-guy, bad-guy foreign policy narrative can fully overwhelm a pundit’s journalistic instincts. Case in point, this atrocious Frank Bruni column , where the very headline gives the game away: “Obama’s Messy Words.” In it, Bruni practically begs for the president to shovel ominous scaremongering and saber-rattling braggadocio at the press.

For example, Bruni seems baffled by Obama’s perfectly innocuous observation that the current threat from IS pales in comparison to the one posed by the old Soviet Union. He simply cannot engage with the rational conclusions one might draw from it. “Set aside the question of how germane the Cold War example is,” Bruni says, right before reciting a list of IS’s grisly depredations. The point of this scare tactic? To infantilize the press and the public: “[T]he last thing that you want to be told is that it’s par for the historical course, all a matter of perspective and not so cosmically dire. Where’s the reassurance — or the sense of urgency — in that?”

Again, grok what Bruni is saying here as a member of the press—to paraphrase Col. Nathan Jessup: “I can’t handle the truth.” Personally, I think this country is better served with a president who exercises a little more circumspection and candor before massively overreacting to the foreign enemy du jour . After having just recently concluded a decade of mismanaged, unnecessary war, don’t we deserve a commander-in-chief that maintains his composure, instead of  uttering outrageously provocative, off-the-cuff statements  that only make matter worse and that he later regrets? (Sad to say, our current Vice President clearly shares the same affliction .)

But Bruni doesn’t stop there. Sounding like some soulless corporate image consultant who enables rather confronts the powerful, he practically recoils at Obama’s acceptance of rather tepid limits on U.S. power.

“He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that ‘America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything’; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.

“But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R.

“Message.” “savvy.” “P.R.” Gack.

That any journalist would express a desire to essentially be manipulated instead of told the truth, however banal it may be, is chilling. To read the whole thing is to get a sense that Bruni was emotionally lashing out at the president, channeling the entire Beltway’s disgust at his unwillingness to stick to the normal U.S. foreign policy script. But it was his absurd “notes of defeatism” remark that made clear the media establishment has now fully bought into the idea that Obama’s presidency, much like the tail end of Jimmy Carter’s, is mired in a kind of intractable malaise. Unable to get any actual legislation through the Republican House, the only thing left that Obama actually could do was start another war somewhere. And here he’s not even keen to do that. What a failure.

This “malaise” narrative—and the myths that surround it—actually plays a key role in the foreign policy pathology I spoke of at the beginning. As Rick Hertzberg reminds us, the “crisis of confidence” speech he helped Carter write in 1979 [excerpted here ] never actually mentioned the word “malaise.” (That term was attached to it after the fact.) Nor was it the disaster that history tells us it was. In fact, Carter’s speech was quite popular . His approval numbers shot up 11 points overnight and the White House received an outpouring of positive mail. It was only after Carter clumsily sacked most of his Cabinet in the days that followed that elite opinion turned against him and the speech, and eventually the public’s disapproval followed as well. And while on one hand, that moment foreshadowed the end of Carter’s political career, Hertzberg argues that the speech and its aftermath also had a long-lasting ripple effect on the relationship between the president and the press.

“The speech was a truthful and prescient diagnosis of what was wrong with the country and what in many ways continues to be wrong with the country,” Hertzberg says, looking back. “A side effect was the discrediting of candor about unpleasant truths and the enshrinement of ‘optimism.’”

This “optimism” is not the hard-earned optimism that Carter spoke of at length in that same speech 35 years ago. Nor is it the measured, look-at-the-big-picture optimism that Obama stands accused of falling victim to today in dealing with Russia and the Middle East. Instead, the prevailing ‘optimism’ that has reigned over our foreign policy establishment for the past few decades—with disastrous results—is that of Reagan and of Bush. It’s a flawed American Exceptionalism that operates a de facto foreign policy of violence driven by a never-ending plague of manufactured threats. This pathological insecurity is all about pursuing vengeance abroad rather than justice, choosing condemnation of enemies over cooperation with allies. But perhaps the greatest danger of all is when it convinces the American public and the press that the most frightening thing we have to fear is when our leaders tell us the truth.

The Mail

Konstantin Kostov
Stockholm, Sweden

I agree with you, but want to bring something to your attention.

The established mass-media (NYT, WaPo, etc.) are so strong that they are able to make the public believe lies. I lived in Finland before and during the Iraq war and could see how the U.S. public was led to believe that Saddam Hussein was connected with the 9/11 and had WMD, but at that time at least the European media was not 100% following the USA's line. Since then a lot has changed.

USA and EU mainstream media now work in unison. Even people like you believe that Assad used chemical weapons, although there are very serious investigators who show otherwise—it's simply an old and forgotten story. The propaganda jumps to any new "facts" to justify whatever new war needs to be fought.

The MH17 [airplane downing] was used to justify sanctions against Russia. This wasn't so long, but it seems the issue is forgotten by those who used it and now they are pushing for new ways to escalate the conflict, although there are serious doubts that the initial reports, which were true - it looks like the Ukrainian army might have something to do with it, but nobody reverses the sanctions - there can be only push for more...

To me it is clear that some people decide to make Ukraine a NATO member and would do anything to achieve their goal.

All the best fighting with the strong propaganda machine!

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

The ‘Washington Post’ Op-Ed Page Wants More War (Again)


An ISIS guard in Syria (Reuters/Stringer)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.


Arcade Fire and Television live at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn
Summerstage’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival

What a show:  I missed the unicorns, but luckily arrived just in time for Television. I didn't know Richard Lloyd wasn't in the band anymore until I saw them on stage.  I looked it up during the show and found this, which explained it. I’ve seen the band three or four times in the past three decades and I can’t see that much has been lost. They were terrific Sunday night, playing in one of the biggest halls. I imagine, they’ve ever been in. Terrific guitar work by Tom Verlaine and his new, non-Lloydish friend and a slightly deeper, but no less mournful romanticism in Tom’s voice.  But I think the curtain was brought down on them as they were about to encore with "Elevation" which they inexplicably did not play. That was done not Arcade Fire, but for the really annoying dj so it was a real loss.

TAF were just wonderful The opening night of TAF, they had Buster P as a guest in the encore slot. Also this guy in a tux, showing the rest of us up yet again.  On Sunday night they were joined for an encore by David Byrne dressed up for Tim Burton movie Overall, it was a thoughtful, exciting, party band. What more could one want. All those masks and cannons filled with glitter and an audience all dressed up in formal wear, and costumes and face-paint and making rock n roll look like the utopian dream it once was. (I did not know that crowds dressed up for their shows since I had only seen them at the NOLA jazz fest. What a fun crowd. Also what great restaurants. I was feeling a little Brooklyn envy all night for the first time ever. Here is a “real” review  by the Times’ Nate Chinen; pretty heady stuff for a daily review. Anyway, see both of these bands if you can.

Saturday, I came back to the city for Summerstage’s wonderful “Charlie Parker Jazz Festival” up in Harlem and got to see some great music amongst a really diverse and appreciative crowd. The highlight, unavoidably, was Wallace Roney’s nineteen piece orchestra  playing of unrecorded Wayne Shorter pieces that were intended for Miles Davis but never recorded. Read all about it here. Thanks to Summerstage for this and so many great shows in the city’s parks this, and every summer.  The second day’s lineup, in the East Village, was also really impressive but I had a date in Brooklyn.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

The Washington Post Op-Ed Page Wants More War (Again)
by Reed Richardson

To read the Washington Post’s op-ed page at the end of this summer is to have a distinct sense of déjà vu. Just like this time last year, Post pundits gnash their teeth and warn us that Obama’s foreign policy is broken and the U.S.’s reputation around the world is shot, but that the best way to definitely fix both is for our country to start bombing Syria.

Of course, in 2013, the target of our Tomahawks was to be elements of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime. After Assad’s use of chemical weapons last August, in the midst of that country’s intractable civil war, the Post’s editorial board and plethora of its op-ed columnists—both liberal and conservative—came out strongly in favor of a military strike as a response. When Obama took a “go slow” approach that rejected airstrikes and instead focused on a diplomatic effort to rid Assad of his WMDs, the paper was unsparing in its criticism. The Post—along with much of the Beltway—bemoaned that Obama’s “credibility”—along with our country’s—was sunk.

That the Post’s op-ed page would prove a friendly redoubt for war hawks aggressively pushing for US military action around the world is no surprise. After all, the paper’s editorial board was a big cheerleader, and then staunch defender of, the US invasion of Iraq. (As far as contrite apologizer for, not so much.) It’s safe to say that it channels the neocon proclivities of the Beltway conventional wisdom like no other publication. If there’s a “serious” case for war to be made, in other words, the Post will take up the challenge.

Sadly, few recent presidents have proven themselves up to the challenge of resisting the cri de couer of the neocons. So, when Obama—with an assist from a reluctant Congress—decided to forego military action last year, it was almost like Washington had entered a parallel universe when it comes to foreign policy. There’s one big advantage of this alternative reality. It offers us a chance to review the Post’s arguments in retrospect as the path not chosen and compare them to the same arguments the paper is making today. Tellingly, the specious logic and lousy predictive power of the Post’s hawks from a year ago don’t wear well.

Take, for instance, the paper’s response to the rise of the Islamic State, one that amounts to stubbornly doubling down on its war stance from last year. In fact, two weeks ago, the Post editorial board breezily expanded US ambitions to now include the bombing of two different parties in the Syrian civil war: “[T]he United States should focus on weakening and eventually eliminating the toxic entities that are destroying the region and threatening vital U.S. interests: the Islamic State and the Assad regime.” Earlier this week, the Post’s editorial board followed up with an unabashed column whose headline says it all: “The Obama administration must put boots on the ground to stop the Islamic State.” It stopped short of calling for an "invasion," but perhaps just because it's saving that column for September.

Speaking of which, what did the Post have to say last September about the role of the Al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS in the Syrian civil war? Back when the paper was calling for the US to decapitate Assad? In a Sept. 7, 2013 column entitled “Syria’s al-Qaeda Threat” the Post pretty much shrugs its shoulders at the Sunni extremists:

“The strength of the al-Qaeda forces has been exaggerated. …Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who has travelled extensively inside Syria, reports that al-Qaeda and mainstream rebel forces are largely separated from each other and control different pieces of territory. She says that the jihadists are less interested in defeating Mr. Assad than in establishing a safe haven. […]

“Many who have joined the al-Qaeda groups did so not because of their ideology, but because they were better funded and supplied. The Islamic State of Iraq depends heavily on foreign fighters.”

(Side note: You might remember the 26-year-old O’Bagy from subsequent news reports last fall. That’s when she was being fired from that analyst job for lying about having a PhD and failing to disclose she was being paid by one of those “mainstream” Syrian rebel groups to lobby on its behalf. This is the kind of objective expert the Post was relying on to help make its case for war.)

Over the past few months in Iraq, of course, we’ve seen the devastating results of what happens when a Sunni extremist force bolstered by an influx of émigré soldiers faces only token in-country military resistance. As a result, the Post has quickly changed its tune about the strategic threat posed by this group.

“Now the Islamic State is well-funded, with steady revenue from oil fields it has captured and, as we’ve learned recently, ransom payments; it is well-armed, including with captured U.S. weaponry; and it is highly ambitious.”

About those foreign fighters, which the Post all but scoffed at a year ago? Well, now…

“They are training hundreds of foreign terrorists, including from Europe and the United States, who could easily slip back into their home countries with malign intent.”

And note: not one pundit at the Post has pondered the gains ISIS might have made in the past year had the US intervened last fall and significantly degraded the Assad regime’s capabilities. Without the Syrian army acting as a bulwark, what threats might we be facing now? How much worse might the conflict in Syria have gotten? These are a fundamental questions that, obviously, we can never answer for sure. But if our recent history in Iraq is any guide, the results would not have been better than what we're facing today.

Certainly don’t look to Post columnist Charles Krauthammer for these answers. Last September, he called for a “sustained campaign,” one that would lay waste to the entire Syrian air and air defense forces and shift the balance of the civil war. Shift it to what, exactly, he never goes into much detail about, and his emphasis on having a “strategic plan” in case of “blowback” includes no mention of potentially leaving a power vacuum to be filled by radical Sunni extremist groups like Islamic State.

No great shock, really. Last year, Krauthammer also took great pains to condescendingly dismiss the chemical weapons deal Obama got Assad to agree to. He repeatedly ridiculed it, saying it had “about zero chance” of working. Ahem. Then, two weeks ago, Krauthammer churned out an intellectually dishonest column that tried to completely invert the president’s resounding success ridding Syria of chemical weapons: “To this day, Obama seems not to understand the damage he did to American credibility everywhere by slinking away from his own self-proclaimed red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons.”

This, too, is another important point that has all but disappeared from the Post’s saber-rattling Syria discourse. By removing chemical weapons from the country, Obama also removed the threat of WMDs accidentally falling into the hands of jihadists like Islamic State. Had the US resorted to a massive air campaign like Krauthammer wanted, there’s virtually no chance the strikes could have successfully eliminated Assad's chemical weapons stockpile. The upshot of that course of action, then: a weaker Assad, a stronger ISIS, and WMDs spread around the countryside, at greater risk of falling into terrorists' hands.  

But wait, there’s even more disingenuousness. One of the other major arguments for intervening last year centered on the helping moderate rebels take power. And right on cue, Post columnist David Ignatius conveniently trotted out the now perennial “moderate Syrian rebels are at a turning point” column during the height of the last year’s debate about bombing Assad. (Here’s the latest iteration from earlier this summer.) If only the U.S. would unleash airstrikes and arm the moderates, Ignatius told us, the good guys in Syria could capture Damascus, win converts within the Syrian Army, and execute an orderly transition. Again, left unsaid was any real plan to deal with other rebel groups like Al-Nusra or ISIS, who also oppose the moderate rebels and might exploit the resulting turmoil for their own purposes.

One year later, Ignatius is now devoting his rhetorical energies to warning of the rise of the Islamic State (he hasn’t mentioned Assad’s name in a column since early June). Also of note, he’s now taken to describing the Free Syrian Army—those same moderate rebels he touted as on the verge of victory last year—as a “haphazard” ally.

To point out the moderate rebels’ ongoing difficulties is to be met with another common meme. If only the dithering Obama had acted earlier, if only he’d armed the FSA at the outset, then, then, we’d have wrapped up this war and installed with a moderate, pro-Western government capable of defeating ISIS years ago. But this too is neocon fallacy, one that rests upon a overly simplistic view of the region's politics.

As George Washington University political science professor Marc Lynch pointed out earlier this month, the Syrian civil war is a hornet’s nest of competing factions who are constantly forming and dissolving loose alliances. “The idea that these rebel groups could be vetted for moderation and entrusted with advanced weaponry made absolutely no sense given the realities of the conflict in Syria,” he noted—ironically—on the Post’s Monkey Cage blog. In fact, Lynch characterized the Syrian civil war as having “the worst profile possible for effective external support.” But no, folks like Ignatius would have you believe in the fantasy that shipping an arsenal of ultimately unsecured weapons to an undisciplined fighting force would have solved all our problems. Just like that worked out so well in Iraq

And then there’s Jennifer Rubin, who rarely fails to turn the crackpot punditry up to 11. A year ago, Rubin practically had flecks of spittle coming off her Post opinion pieces devoted to Syria. In one particularly notable rant, she demanded the Assad regime be destroyed and harangued Obama as a spineless leader who has “no stomach for complex military situations.” Keep in mind, her nuanced solution to Assad’s chemical weapons attack was to bomb another country altogether. In between insults, Rubin went on in that same post to say: “Moreover, one of the prime concerns — jihadists getting chemical weapons — would be alleviated if we destroyed the chemical weapons caches.”

Curious as to her opinion a year later, when all of those caches have been destroyed and “one of the prime concerns” about jihadists has been resolved? Well, if you’re looking for her to give the president credit, then you don’t know Jennifer Rubin. In a recent column, she conveniently ignored that the threat from WMDs has been eliminated and instead castigated Obama, saying his “lackadaisical attitude toward the growing jihadist threat is reminiscent of the pre-9/11 days.” In a subsequent critique of Obama’s Syria policy, Rubin—a big fan of George W. Bush— uncorked a sentence that should immediately be inducted into the conservative chutzpah hall of fame: “It would be as if we knew the chances of a 9/11 were real and growing, but insisted we do nothing to head it off.” Indeed, that would be gross incompetence, wouldn’t it?

That Rubin’s over-the-top diatribes aren’t really taken seriously is beside the point. By giving her an op-ed platform, the Post lets her play an outsized role in defining the Overton window of respectable discourse, pushing it ever rightward. This allows the editorial board’s seemingly less strident war advocacy to come across as more restrained, downright sensible, when, in fact, the actual policies differ very little.

Even worse, wrapping the Post’s hawkishnewss in a veneer of moderation enables it to avoid any real accountability for past op-ed prognostications. But excuses like “everybody thought Saddam had WMDs” simply aren’t acceptable if your paper is the one leading the charge for war. And lest we forget, the whole reason President Obama now has to confront an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is because its forerunner—Al Qaeda in Iraq—flocked to the region to fight a disastrous, falsely justified US intervention there.

The Post's tragic legacy in abetting the Iraqi invasion doesn’t get brought up in polite Beltway debate anymore, however. Similarly, the Post’s pundits find no need to address the flawed reasoning and obvious contradictions inherent in this year’s case for military intervention in Syria versus last year’s. It’s telling that now that Obama has allowed a very circumscribed military mission in Iraq (and soon, possibly in Syria), the newspaper’s hawks still aren’t satisfied. Never mind that his caution has been vindicated nearly as often as their militaristic zeal has been proven wrong. That the Post’s op-ed page will almost always figure out a way to endorse more war is no mystery anymore, but why anybody really listens to it anymore is.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

If It’s Sunday, It’s Meet the (1 Percent) Press

David Gregory

David Gregory with Brian Williams at a panel for NBC News in 2010 (Reuters/Phil McCarten)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.


Isabel Rose, “Trouble in Paradise,” (and live at the Stephen Talkhouse)
Junior Brown at City Winery.
Emore Leonard, Library of America

It’s hard to know exactly wha to make of Isabel Rose. Her promotional material asks “What happens when you toss Katy Perry, Ann-Margret and Bette Midler into a blender?” with the answer being Ms. Rose. I dunno. I love Ms. Margaret; can go either way on Midler and got off the bus long before Katy Perry got on. I do really like Rose though. Her cd, “Trouble in Paradise,” is a unique mixture of styles that do not always coalesce comfortably, but emerge in the end as a thorougly charming experience.

One thing I really (really) like about Rose is her willingness to stretch not only the conventions of cabaret style performance, but also the so-called “Great American Songbook,” which is undoubtedly great, but definitely needs extending beyond the pre-“Yesterday” era. Produced by Bob Rock and back by a big Vegasy orchestra, she breathes new life into some wonderful songs that you may not have remembered that you love. Among my favorites are:

Lot of Livin’ To Do
Things We Do For Love *
Love Will Keep Us Together *

She closed her spirited set at the Talkhouse (in Amagansett) with that shlocky song and like most of the set, it was also pretty wonderful. Rose changed her glamorous outfits as often as Diana Ross, had a biggish band and back up singers who shimmied with her and played straight-woman to her double and triple-entendres. The place was packed—so packed that my seats were given away, alas—which surprised me, since the cd wasn’t even released yet, but her familiarity with the crowd gave the evening the feel of a strangely sexy bat-mitzvah—albeit with a killer band and an unforgettable chick singer. More about the lady and her music here.

The night before I took in an old friend, Junior Brown, at City Winery. I often think that the best thing about Texas is the way it travels east, though it’s also the worst thing about it. Anyway, Brown is very much a Texan, but the funny, open-minded laugh-at-himself kind. While not as funny (or as Jewish) as Kinky Friedman, he’s an incredible musician and his four-piece band (with his wife Tanya Rae on acoustic rhythm and a guy banging on just a single snare drum and occasionally one cymbal) he makes music that sounds twice as large as that. The songs are almost all funny and clever and usually danceable in a Texas by way of Hawaii kind of way. (A crowd favorite every time I’ve seen him has been “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead.”) Brown plays his patented “Guit-Steel”, a double-necked guitar combining standard guitar with steel guitar, allowing him to switch instruments quickly in mid-song while singing and gives his songs a sound that belongs only to him. Catch him if you can. Shows coming up at the City Winery, whether in the city, Chicago, Nashville or Napa, can be found here.

Finally, I’m jumping the gun on this a bit but perhaps you need something fun and fat to read in these final lazy, hazy daze of summer. If so, our friends at the Library of America have just the thing for you:  ELMORE LEONARD: Four Novels of the 1970s  edited by Gregg Sutter.  

I am quite proud of myself for having had the good sense to go see Leonard read at Barnes & Noble on his final trip to the city as he was one of the greatest living American writers until he was no longer living; also a quite charming man. He was, most importantly, one of the most prolific of novelists, and so this three volume series will be hard to pick.  (It was apparently done  in consultation with the author.)  When you’ve read as much Leonard as I have, it’s hard to match the titles to the stories. I’m pretty I sure I remember  Fifty-Two Pickup, less sure about  Swag, Unknown Man No. 89,  and The Switch , and the plot summaries don’t help much, because it’s characters that make the difference. And even the worst of them—I’m looking at you  Freaky Deaky —is still a lot of fun. The book also contains a newly researched chronology of Leonard’s life, prepared with exclusive access to materials in his personal archive. It’s a great addition to the LOA canon, but I’m still wondering why they appear to be insisting on waiting to do Ed Doctorow until he is no longer around to be celebrated for it.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

If It’s Sunday, It’s Meet the (1%) Press
by Reed Richardson

You almost feel sorry for David Gregory. To have your high-profile media perch so publicly and unceremoniously yanked out from under you has to be humiliating. After nearly two decades of working for NBC, this is the thanks you get? It speaks to the cutthroat, ephemeral world of TV news stardom, where, in the network’s eyes, if your career trajectory isn’t rising, it’s necessarily falling, and fast. Sure, with Gregory as host, Meet the Press’s ratings were down—waydown—but to not even get the dignity of an orderly transition, a farewell show? After nearly six years, to just be there one week and suddenly gone the next. Like I said, you almost feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

The reality is, Gregory needs no pity. He has plenty of reasons not to worry about his future— $4-million dollars worth of reasons , reportedly. That’s how much NBC News is paying him to opt out of his contact. To not do his job anymore. So, unlike pretty much every other 43-year-old laid-off TV journalist, who would struggle to ever find a decent-paying job in news again, Gregory gets to walk away with the kind of lucrative golden parachute usually reserved for CEOs and pro sports coaches. And, if you’re curious, average pay for a news reporter in the U.S. as of May 2013 was $44,360 , which means Gregory’s walk money is roughly equivalent to paying the full-time salaries of 90 journalists for an entire year.

To be clear, I’m all for companies honoring their contracts with labor as well as holding journalists accountable for the quality of their journalism. So, if NBC News agrees to pay Gregory all this money and he turns out to not be very good at this job, then the network deserves to feel the pain of its unwise choices. But Gregory’s abrupt, costly departure from MTP should also serve as yet another a reminder of the fundamental dilemma facing most TV news networks when it comes to how they value their Sunday morning shows.

Part of this is the undeniable opportunity cost of the host of Meet the Press or This Week or Fox News Sunday collecting a paycheck that could otherwise fund whole sections of a newsroom. In an era when mass layoffs and shrinking budgets are de rigueur , to pay any journalist a seven or eight-figure salary smacks of misplaced priorities . Of course, network executives try to justify these outrageous sums by noting that the Sunday news shows, like their morning chat show and nightly news show brethren, remain advertising cash cows. So, the argument goes, they compensate the personalities that helm those properties accordingly. Which means that Gregory’s case is hardly new: in 2012, NBC News flushed hundreds of potential journalists’ salaries down the drain to pay Today co-host Ann Curry $10 million to leave that show before her contract was up.

This personality-driven approach, news divisions claim, does pay dividends. For a decade-and-a-half, Today reigned over the morning ratings (and raked in cash) thanks to the rapport between Matt Lauer and Katie Couric. Likewise, a generation ago, Sunday morning viewers reliably tuned in to watch David Brinkley’s wry, erudite take on the issues when he hosted This Week. And Tim “Little Russ” Russert’s long-running, regular-guy, Buffalo Bills-obsessed shtick as host of MTP helped him become a perennial ratings champ and earn him unofficial status as “The Mayor” of the Beltway. (At its peak in 2007, MTP , with Russert as host, NBC pulled in $60 million a year in advertising.)

But when networks willingly place so much emphasis and so many resources on elevating and compensating the show’s host in sole pursuit of ratings, the show’s fortunes become too tightly intertwined with the who and not the what of its broadcast. This feeds a creeping arrogation of authority to whoever’s sitting in the host chair. Rarely does it make for better journalism, and Russert is perhaps the best example of how this approach compromises the premise of the show. That’s because, for all of his tough-guy, tough-questions legacy, Russert was, in reality, more of a willing enabler of government spin than a hard-nosed challenger of it. His trademark style of catching guests in the act of hypocrisy merely served as a fig leaf of accountability, one that too often left unasked more important policy questions.

As a result, most Sunday news show hosts serve as purveyors of the Washington conventional wisdom as much as, if not more than, the officeholders they’re purportedly covering. Meet the Press , and with it the whole Sunday morning news show genre, has devolved into a kind of cloistered, clubby, faux-accountability chinwag, one where a rich and powerful host mostly asks gentle questions of rich and powerful politicians about things that mostly only matter to rich and powerful viewers. (Or, even worse, rich and powerful journalists and pundits simply talk amongst themselves.) Voices and issues considered outside the mainstream—or in D.C. parlance, “not serious”—end up either marginalized or completely disappeared from the discourse. Need more proof? Look no further than the Sunday news show advertisers, a list of which is routinely populated by multinational conglomerates and defense contractors. ( Boeing exclusively sponsors the Meet the Press news app .) These companies know that the ‘programming’ they’re selling adjacent to on Sunday morning isn’t about to question the status quo.

While Gregory could never match Russert’s mega-watt screen presence, he nonetheless followed in his predecessor’s too-clever-by-half and insular journalistic footsteps. That’s why Gregory so publicly used his MTP perch to parrot 1% talking points about the need to cut Medicare and Social Security, so that regular Americans could feel more “pain.” That’s why one of his few notable attempts at confrontation— holding up a 30-round magazine to NRA chief Wayne LaPierre in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting —backfired into a PR debacle. That’s why one of his shows’ few real moments of newsmaking— the endorsement of same-sex marriage by Vice President Joe Biden —happened because of a guest intentionally going off-script rather than succumbing to Gregory’s tough questioning. That’s why by far the most memorable moment in Gregory’s tenure at MTP —and quite possibly his journalistic career to date—was his disturbing, thinly veiled attack on the kind of adversarial journalism that he never bothers to do.

Plenty of smart people have proposed good ideas for resuscitating the value of Meet the Press and its ilk. But the essential problem to be corrected can really be boiled down to making the Sunday morning shows more about the journalism and less about the journalists . It would require democratizing and diversifying viewpoints; more actual reporting, less speculative posing. Of course, to re-orient MTP ’s focus off of political palace intrigue would necessarily jeopardize the loyalty of the audience that lives and works in and around said palace. But recapturing such a prominent news platform for the interests of the rest of the country should be a risk worth taking for TV news organizations that enjoy the privilege of using public airwaves to make their money.

Unfortunately, we know which path NBC News has chosen to follow. Chuck Todd, the network’s named replacement for Gregory, currently works as NBC News’ chief political handicapper and launched his career in Washington working at The Hotline, a prototype of insider-y, horse race-obsessed publications like Politico. No surprise then that Politico Playbook blogger Mike Allen, pre-eminent Beltway tout and steadfast shill for corporate America , recognized in Todd a kindred spirit, admiringly describing him as someone with a “love of the game” that would attract a loyal following among “newsmakers” and “political junkies.”

Whether or not Todd can reverse the damage done to Meet the Press ’s ratings by Gregory remains to be seen. But when it comes to the impact of the new MTP host’s journalism, I have little doubt that the powerful in Washington will notice much of a difference.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

How Media Passivity Is Service Journalism for the Powerful


Ferguson, Missouri (AP photo, Jeff Roberson) 

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

I would have called this column, “John Dean, John Dean, We know just what you mean,”

Or perhaps

John Dean, John Dean, You said it all so clean.”

Instead it was headlined “Government Whitewashing Didn’t Stop With Watergate” and yes, August 9 should be a national holiday….

And in honor of that imagined holiday, here’s Altercation “friend” Harry Shearer inhabiting Nixon in a verbatim comedic re-creation of Nixon's poignant last 6 minutes before he resigned the Presidency, on August 8th, 1974.’

Gershon Baskin , has initiated a campaign to buy 5,000 tons of Israel farm-surplus potatoes and send them to Gaza. The money must be raised by Sunday. Here is the explanation with a link to the contribution. 


I wanted to give a shout out to the Music Maker Relief Foundation—the non-profit record label which supports traditional southern musicians living in poverty—on their 20th anniversary. They are celebrating with a book coming in September, a 2-CD set also a museum exhibition at the NY Public Library, and a Lincoln Center performance which you already missed. Tim Duffy has been called “a modern-day Alan Lomax” for having founded MMRF as a 501c3 to support artists in their communities and has put out almost 150 albums. He's dispersed grants in the thousands for instruments, heating oil, medications, and CDs for these artists to sell at their shows. Many of the artists have made debut or comeback records in their 60s, 70s, or 80s, many playing for festival crowds or traveling to Europe for the first time in their lives, realizing life-long dreams! The 2CD collection includes Etta Baker, Boo Hanks w/ Dom Flemons, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ironing Board Sam, John Dee Holeman, and Guitar Gabriel, the latter of whom inspired the non-profit. Go here to learn more, please.

I also wanted to give an additional shout out to Liveright Books for its recent publication of Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream: The Complete Novels.

At over 1300 pages this set of novels makes for an enormous commitment on the part of the reader but it more than justifies itself. The Roth story is almost too weird to be believed. If you’ve read Call It Sleep, then I probably don’t need to say any more. If you haven’t, then immediately read Adam Kirsch’s terrific but stupidly titled essay in Tablet, In the meantime, look at these blurbs.

“The Ur-novel at the heart of American literature—Mercy of a Rude Stream is a towering astonishment.” (Junot Diaz)

Mercy is a rare species of literary epic: an autobiography that doubles as a historical novel. The action of Mercy—set primarily between 1914 and 1928 but interlaced with dispatches from the 1980s and '90s, and including intermittent reflections of the years in between—encompasses nearly the entirety of the twentieth century…Mercy is an epic of the outsider, a chronicle of self-survival and self-discovery and the realization of the self.” (Joshua Ferris, from the introduction)

“Mr. Roth's frisson of regret provides a poignant gloss on one of the most moving and unusual of American fiction careers.” (Kenneth Turan - Los Angeles Times)

“Henry Roth has only two peers in American-English Jewish fiction, Nathanael West and Philip Roth.” (Harold Bloom)

“As provocative as anything in the chapters of St. Augustine or Rousseau.” (Stefan Kanfer - Los Angeles Times Book Review)

“The literary comeback of the century.” (Jonathan Rosen - Vanity Fair)

“[Mercy of a Rude Stream] is like hearing that Ralph Ellison is publishing a new novel forty-two years after Invisible Man or J. D. Salinger is preparing a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye.” (Leonard Michaels - New York Times Book Review)

“A wondrous, disturbing, and ruthlessly honest chronicle of the complex and often wrenchingly twisted process of assimilation. The sheer dynamism generated by the writer's act of memory and confession is awe-inspiring.” (Hedy Weiss - Chicago Sun-Times)

Sensitive fellow that I am, I also really enjoyed Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel, by Anya Ulnich which I read in one sitting. It’s a little precious Brooklyn, but it’s wonderfully evocative and honest and teaches you things about life that only its author knows. Here is Ayelet Waldman’s review that convinced me to read it.

I am also spending some time with a new, impressively wide-ranging history of the record biz, Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy for Thomas Dunne Books, and a new history of pop music called Yeah Yeah Yeah by Bob Stanley for Norton, which purports to tell “The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce” but does not begin to do justice to Bruce and so I am suspect….

Speaking of Bruce, here are some books I just noticed together on my shelf: Guess the subject:

Working on a Dream
Runaway Dream
Talk about a Dream
Bruce Springsteen and the Runaway American Dream

And here are a few tweets I don’t feel like rewriting:

The first issue of BOSS (Bi-Annual Online Journal of Springsteen Studies) http://boss.mcgill.ca/issue/view/8

That schmuck, Chris Christie, subsidized this place and attacked Bruce for refusing to play at its opening. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/13/nyregion/revel-atlantic-citys-newest-and-largest-casino-is-closing.html?emc=edit_ur_20140813&nl=nyregion&nlid=46904619 …

An unhappy anniversary, thanks to Stalin's madness http://www.thenation.com/article/171974/putting-stories-world …

You Say You Don't Wike it, I say you’re a wiar… wiar..http://us.yhs4.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?hspart=ironsource&hsimp=yhs-

Could this be the end of MoDo's unbearable columnizing? A boy can hope http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/media/2014/08/8550514/maureen-dowd-joins-emnyt-magazineem-ahead-major-redesign …

Ranking US presidents, properly http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/25376-us-presidents-reconsidered-by-death-toll …

Contender for most idiotic comment of the century, future decades included: It's like the Beatles all in one person," http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/08/ted-cruz-for-president/375825/ …

The Black Album: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ethanhawke/boyhood-the-black-album …

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

What Ferguson Teaches Us: That Media Passivity is Service Journalism for the Powerful
By Reed Richardson

Boil it down; journalism tells you a story. Better yet, more of a story. Even better yet, more of a story clearly. What happened? Who did it? To whom? When? How? And why? As you move down that list, however, those questions get increasingly tougher. The press isn’t a judge or jury, of course. It can’t—and shouldn’t—presume guilt. Yet it can damn sure list the dramatis personae. Offer background. Give context. Tell you the stakes. There’s a bigger picture here it can—and should—say. Here’s how you can see it too.

Right now, there’s a big picture issue unfolding in Fergusion, Missouri. Lots of them, actually. The rampant militarization of the police, clear racial prejudice between white police and the mostly black citizenry it’s supposed to protect, rampant violations of the First Amendment. All of these. And a few intrepid journalists have put themselves on the front lines, literally, of these issues. Their coverage has been drawn back a curtain. They’ve re-awakened us to how broken our country still is in many places.

But theirs has been a rare bright light in an otherwise dark void. So much of the mainstream media has been treating the police killing of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, and the protests that it has ignited, as a local story. That is, if they’ve covered it at all. And this speaks to a much larger, systemic problem within journalism.

It’s about the default mindset that colors much of the press. How it too often hesitates, vacillates, equivocates in the face of power. How it tells you this important detail in a way that obscures that one. That’s breaking the compact. That’s taking a side. Yes, this sometimes takes the form of a partisan bias. But most of the time, it’s simpler than that. Most of the time, when journalists pull their punches, it’s the status quo that gets the benefit of the doubt. The powerful already enjoy many advantages in this country. Count a too deferential, too credulous press corps among them.

This passivity manifests itself in ways big and small. To simply ignore a story—like the impending 2008 economic collapse—is one way. Routinely burying a story contradicting the conventional wisdom—like the case against WMDs in Iraq—is another. So is a heavy reliance on government sources—who trade their access for the chance to peddle anonymous spin and unverifiable scoops. And then there’s the granular level timidity that pollutes the language journalists use in their writing everyday.

The last of these can sometimes be the hardest to detect. It’s easy to develop a blind spot. Certain stilted turns of phrase, certain establishment-friendly narrative frames are so popular that journalists now employ them almost instinctively.

Case in point: this Fox TV news report on the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, in Ferguson, Missouri last Friday:

“A shooting in Ferguson has tensions riding high between residents and police. Saturday afternoon, a police involved shooting occurred at the Canfield Green apartment complex in the 2900 block of Canfield. A teenager was shot and killed. An officer from the Ferguson Police Departmentwas involved in the shooting.


At the request of the Ferguson Police Department, the St. Louis County Crimes Against Person Unit is taking over the investigation of the shooting. The police officer involved in the shooting has been put on paid administrative leave.” [emphasis mine]


On Twitter, Media Matters’ Jamison Foser made an astute observation about the counterfactual: “Hard to imagine a black guy killing a cop being described simply as ‘involved in the shooting.’ I’m sure it’s happened, but…” I called this ambiguous phrasing a shameless example of “passive voice” that distorts the truth.

Now, grammatically speaking, what I wrote wasn’t really accurate. Most of the highlighted sections above are not in the passive voice. And in my research for this post, I discovered linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum, who routinely corrects these kinds of mistakes on his blog, Language Log. He’s even written a sort of anti-pedantry manifesto: “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive.” In it, he takes on George Orwell’s classic on clarity in writing “Politics and the English Language.” (In an ironic twist, Pullum calculates Orwell’s essay uses the passive one-and-a-half times more than the average writer.) In addition, Pullum carves up one of journalism holy scriptures, Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” Time and again, he cites examples of S&W unfairly maligning the passive voice.

Point taken. The passive voice gets a bad rap in journalism. Indeed, it can serve as a kind of red herring, a superficial standard that distracts the press from what it should really avoid: intellectual and narrative passivity. When reporting intentionally divorces actor from action; the who from the what, it puts distance between the reader and the story. Adopting the formless, gormless language of officialdom, which can deny agency and muddy the narrative, forces the reader to infer rather than be informed. It raises as many, if not more, questions than it answers. It risks misinterpretation. Who shot whom? All we’ll tell you is a police officer was involved.

To be clear, this wasn’t an isolated example. Plenty of news organizations adopted this same affected, procedural language when discussing Mike Brown’s death. One could argue this kind of phrasing is a harmless affectation. I disagree. Over time, this subtle, yet endemic bias toward the voice of authority functions like death by a thousand cuts. It drains stories of their novelty, while at the same time helping to mask a systemic problem, like unarmed black men being accosted and shot dead by white men or police with guns. Search the coverage of the deaths of Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin, or, from just this past Tuesday,Ezell Ford and you this familiar, ambiguous sentence in all three: “A struggle ensued.”

Sadly, this happens all too often across journalism. One of my pet peeves: the media’s preference for using the maladroit phrase “a gun went off” to describe accidental shootings. Absolving human error from the equation imbues these (often deadly) incidents with a natural disaster feel. As if we’re helpless in the face of the epidemic of gun deaths plaguing this country.

Similarly, when the New York Times changes a headline after the fact to be less clear about an Israeli airstrike, it speaks volumes about our national discomfort with challenging the foreign policy status quo. That was the case last month following a deadly attack in Gaza that left four boys dead. Within a few hours after publishing a story with this headline: “Four Young Boys Killed on Gaza Beach” the Times backtracked, and ran this sickeningly mealy-mouthed alternative instead: “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife.” And while it’s true the Times has a reputation for loving these two-part headline constructions, there’s little doubt some editor felt the first version might provoke the paper’s powerful pro-Israel audience. So, ambiguity to the rescue!

Politicians and their pundit enablers do this all the time, of course. Ronald Reagan pioneered the use of the ne plus ultra of passive, gutless excuses—“mistakes were made”—nearly 30 years ago. As the Iraq war descended into chaos, George W. Bush embraced the phrase too. In fact, it’s become such a well-worn chestnut among the no accountability crowd in Washington that books have been written on it. And this compulsion to shirk blame and weasel out from under the truth is a hard habit to break, apparently. Just this week, Times columnist and war cheerleader David Brooks trotted out this surreal howler about Iraq: “The last four presidents have found themselves drawn into that nation…” That’s right, the most powerful country on the planet simply has no self-control when it comes to the prospect of bombing or invading a Middle East country. So much for American Exceptionalism.

Over in England, the BBC has a news platform, Newsround, aimed at children aged seven to 11. Back in 2006, after a gruesome school shooting here in the U.S.—which, tellingly, is all but forgotten by now—the network offered some editorial guidance on how to cover unsettling news for this audience. The solution? Strive for a kind of antiseptic, watered-down coverage by following these two important precepts: “don’t dwell on the details” and “use passive constructions.” So, as a helpful example, the guidance noted the BBC would report: “Five girls have died.” rather than “The man went in and shot five girls.” Sound familiar?

In other words, what would be considered infantilized news coverage by the BBC is what American news audiences are treated to everyday. This dumbing down and spiffing up of the news takes a toll. Each day, it slowly eats away at the truth and ever so slightly widens the chasm between the powerful and the powerless. Boil it down: journalism tells you a story. But the story’s not worth much if, by telling us more, it ends up saying less.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail

David Ellis
Northern California

Dear Mr. Richardson—Thank you for your article in The Nation [“High Price of Surveillance…”].

In Chalmers Johnson's book "Nemesis—The Last Days of the American Republic" he states the republic is failing because of the breakdown of constitutional law and militarization. I think government surveillance of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, without a court order, is a sign of the breakdown of constitutional law, a violation of the fourth amendment.

One thing that is totally absent from the great writers of our time, who provide marvelous descriptions of problems with our democracy and also provide well-thought-out solutions, is nobody writes a blow-by-blow, step-by-step, description of how to implement a solution. Since you are such a deep thinker and an articulate writer, perhaps you can change that long-time practice.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

The High Price That Surveillance Costs the Press and Our Democracy

Edward Snowden

Former National Security Agency Analyst, Edward Snowden (AP photo) 

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.


1) The Allman Brothers Band: “The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings,” six cds

2) John Coltrane, “Sideman,” three cds

3) The “Legendary Count Basie Orchestra” live at the Blue Note

Together with “Eat a Peach”—much of which was recorded at the same shows, The Allman Brothers Band's double album, “Live At Fillmore East,” has long been one a handful of iconic rock albums and no collection could be considered complete without it. Drawn from four shows on March 12-13, 1971, it so impressed Bill Graham that he decided that the band—which had sold next to no records at the time—would be the ones to close the hall, which they did months later, with a long set that began at 3:00 am.

In the past, if you wanted to collect more than just the above—the performances that were played that weekend but not recorded, you would have found them scattered among the following:

Duane Allman Anthology, Volume 1, Polydor, 1972/1986
Duane Allman Anthology, Volume 2, Polydor, 1974/1987
Dreams, Polydor, 1989
The Fillmore Concerts, Polydor, 1992
The Allman Brothers Band: (Deluxe Edition), Mercury, 2003
Eat a Peach (Deluxe Edition), Mercury, 2006
Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective, Rounder, 2013

I actually did all that, but most sane people did not. Now, for the rest of you there is a lovely boxed six-cd version The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings which contains fifteen versions of the these songs—including the very first show of the weekend--that you would not have even if you did all of the above. The credits are cleaned up too, so now we know that we are listening to Rudolph ‘Juicy” Carter on saxophone and Bobby Caldwell on percussion on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” The set lists do not change much. But the playing sure does overseen by executive producer Bill Levenson, who was responsible for the Dreams  box which got the band restarted on its current-about-to-end journey, it comes with an essay by band historian John Lynskey. Tom Dowd’s original mixes have been redone but not so much that you would notice—even if like me—you’ve been listening to the SACD for the past few years. People who do not appreciate the band, including those with whom I happen to live with, may mock you for wanting so many versions of “Statesboro” and “You Don’t Love Me.” (I could actually use a few more of “One Way Out.” But you must ignore them. Music has rarely been played better than this and history demands that we respect it, as this terrific box set does.)

Less ambitious but still most definitely of note this week is the release of “Sideman: Trane's Blue Note Sessions,” which is a three cd collection of Coltrane’s sessions for Blue Note Records from 1956-1957. He was member of the Miles Davis Quintet and also regularly played with Thelonious Monk at the time and combined self-discipline and creativity in a fashion that few have before or since. This set, conceived by former Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall, collects Trane’s work-for-hire sessions for Blue Note in one place for the first time. The albums in question are given over to Paul Chambers (Chambers' Music, a.k.a. High Step, and Whims of Chambers), Johnny Griffin (A Blowing Session) and Sonny Clark (Sonny's Crib). It’s all in mono, and this will be the first time you can find the Clark cd so mixed. The book-style package –which will fit in your cd case, includes a 34-page booklet with an essay by Ashley Kahn.

When I squeezed into a sold-out Count Basie show at the Blue Note on Sunday just before the band came on, I was feeling pretty crowded space-wise. Then I looked up on stage and I could hardly believe how many people were up on stage. I saw the actual Count Basie at Carnegie Hall about thirty years ago, not long before he died in 1984 joined by Ella Fitzgerald on vocals and Joe Pass on guitar. This was not as great as that. Not much is. The Basie band has traditionally been considered to be the home of the most talented of players and the material they play is a kind of urb-jazz that may have stopped with time a long time ago, but sounds as great as ever today. Now directed by Scotty Barnhart, this band has any number of great players—too many to mention, really and the point is not the individuals, whoever they may actually may be, but the machine they turn into together. Add them all up and they have about a thousand years of  experience and chops and emotional and musical intelligence. The repertoire is actually surprising too. It all drew on Basie history but with compositions and arrangements by people who have by and large gone unsung in jazz history; that’s what was on display last weekend at the Blue Note last week. You should hope you get the chance to see them in your town soon, too.

John Stewart and Stephen Colbert may take a lot of vacation time every August, but I take my reporting responsibilities seriously, and so I plan to head out to Guild Hall, the jewel of East Hampton, at least twice in the next few weeks. First is this weekend when they’ve put together an awesome bill of sax man Josh Redman with The Bad Plus. Then, on August 22, there’s the return of the good/bad fun of  “Celebrity Autobiography” reading with unofficial Mayor of the Hamptons, Alec Baldwin, and its no less unofficial Queen, Christie Brinkley, among many others, attempting to do justice to the literary talents of Vanna, Sly, Burt and Loni, some Jonases, and a bunch of other people who could have afforded to hire better ghost-writers—or ghost-writers at all. The Guild Hall asked is here should you be in the area.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

The High Price that Surveillance Costs the Press and Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson

It is a truism of covering Washington: each White House is more closed off and antagonistic toward the media than the last one. Press secretaries say less and less of value, while “senior administration officials” spin more and more. And perhaps nowhere is this trend more amplified than in the national security and intelligence arena, where every subsequent administration ups the ante at both keeping and creating more and more secrets, making the job of the press reporting on these critical issues ever tougher. But these are the waters journalists wade into knowingly, so it can be tempting to dismiss any of their complaints about how hard their job is now as routine bellyaching. Perhaps a frustrated press corps would just be wise to heed the advice of Jason Robards’ Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men, “…rest up 15 minutes, then get your asses back in gear.”

If only it were that easy. Indeed, consider how much really has changed for journalism since that ominous scene on Bradlee’s front lawn, where Woodward and Bernstein had moved the conversation to avoid possible White House-directed bugging inside their boss’s house. Behavior that was probably overwrought paranoia 40 years ago has increasingly become de rigueur for national security reporters today in light of government surveillance capabilities that can easily draw connections between journalists and their sources using phone metadata and email history, as well as track their respective movements through the cellphones in their pockets.

Tellingly, two of the biggest whistleblowers in U.S. history, one from that era and one from this one, have had radically different experiences when it came to maintaining their anonymity. Deep Throat—the high-ranking FBI official Mark Felt—successfully escaped public identification for 32 years before voluntarily revealing his key role in guiding the Washington Post ’s blockbuster Watergate coverage; Edward Snowden, on the other hand, was so confident that our nation’s global spy network would figure him out he followed an irreversible path that involved outing himself less than a week after the first stories about NSA spying broke. (No doubt the vastly different scale of their leaks played a big role in their respective ability/inability to keep their identities hidden as well.)

We’ve arrived at an age where our nation’s spy agencies not only want to “collect it all” but can and do. Such an omniscient surveillance state, coupled with the Obama administration’s unprecedented pursuit of whistleblowers, poses a uniquely difficult dilemma for national security and intelligence reporters. In effect, they are forced to operate in a kind of through-the-looking-glass reality where both nothing and everything is a secret. In such an environment, one might expect fewer and fewer sources inside the government to be willing to risk talking to the press, meaning more and more of what our government does in our name becomes shrouded from public view. And, in fact, a new joint study from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch released last week, entitled “With Liberty to Monitor All”   finds this to be exactly the case.

“Whether reporting valuable information to the public, representing another’s legal interests, or voluntarily associating with others in order to advocate for changes in policy, it is often crucial to keep certain information private from the government. In the face of a massively powerful surveillance apparatus maintained by the US government, however, that privacy is becoming increasingly scarce and difficult to ensure. As a result, journalists and their sources, as well as lawyers and their clients, are changing their behavior in ways that undermine basic rights and corrode democratic processes.”

The report, which is worth reading in its entirety, offers a broad, ambitious analysis of electronic surveillance’s impact on the press, on due process and the law, and our democracy in general. Based on interviews from 92 individuals—including dozens of veteran journalists and lawyers, as well as several current and former U.S. government officials—the report lays out a strong case that our nation’s overzealous surveillance state has become increasingly counterproductive and has compromised the rights and principles it purportedly protects.

Its section on the journalism is especially alarming. It reveals a natsec press corps mired in a kind of journalistic torpor, suffering from a drought of sources and struggling to implement a raft of new digital privacy countermeasures (many of which still have little to no ability to prevent government monitoring). Numerous national security reporters talk of the surveillance state’s chilling effect on their reporting and there’s clearly large opportunity costs to all the extra work involved. After all, it takes a lot of time to find and recruit new sources as well as to learn and master the use of encrypted communications; time that could be better spent uncovering government misconduct and informing the public.

This last point is a crucial one. Though journalists adopt (correctly) an adversarial role when reporting on the government—particularly important when sniffing out the many hidden corners of the national security apparatus—it’s important to remember that this is in our government and our country’s best interests. As Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post investigative reporter Dana Priest puts it in the report: “What makes government better is our work exposing information.” And this need for the press to act as a check against government misconduct or abuse of power becomes even more critical when the White House and Congress routinely fail to exercise any real oversight .

One of the most common arguments made in defense of the country’s current surveillance system is that critics can’t name one person who has really been harmed by it, even when it frequently oversteps its already feeble constraints. And it a strict sense they’re right; it’s very difficult to identify specific individual Americans whose lives have been damaged by it. (Although I’d say these Muslim American leaders clearly pass the test.) This report, however, stands as a clear rebuke to the “I’ve got nothing to hide, so who cares?” crowd because it demonstrates that it’s not merely individuals, but whole systems within our democracy itself that are collectively suffering. Freedom of the press, the right to privacy, due process, political accountability: more than any one person, it’s these bedrock principles of our nation that are being eroded away by an all-seeing, all-knowing national security posture.

Of course, spy agencies are supposed to spy. Accordingly, the report offers up numerous, common-sense recommendations for re-ordering secrecy and surveillance policy. Coincidentally, there was actually some encouraging news on this front out of Capitol Hill this week. The latest iteration of the USA FREEDOM Act put forward, if passed, would take real, substantive steps toward rolling back onerous bulk collection of records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the egregiously prejudicial National Security Letters. (Troublingly, the bill would exempt the FBI from oversight on so-called “back door searches,” a controversial surveillance tactic that the agency could employ to track whistleblowers who are in contact with journalists without obtaining a warrant.)

Arriving roughly one year after the first Snowden leaks, the ACLU/Human Rights Watch report offers a vital reminder of how much we’ve learned about our government’s surveillance programs since last summer. But it also highlights how far we have to go to strike the right balance between government secrecy, press freedom, and individual privacy, since many other flawed areas of overreach highlighted by the report—in particular, surveillance conducted under Section 702 and Executive Order 12333 authority—still have no proposed solution on the horizon. While the knowledge we’ve gained over the past year has undoubtedly made it tougher for journalists, lawyers, and lawmakers to do their job, having the scales lifted from our eyes is unquestionably better for all of us. Now that we know the high price our democracy is paying to accommodate this vast surveillance state, it’s up to us to do something about it. For, as the Bradlee character also pointed out in that same scene in All the President’s Men: “Nothing’s riding on this…except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail
Marlowe Hood

Just read your piece on climate change reporting (“Blinded Me With Balance…”), and thought you might be interested (or at least entertained) by my own reflection (u.afp.com/Godzilla) after five years as a Paris-based science-&-environment reporter for Agence France Presse.

As an international news agency, we of course confronted all the questions you raise. While we never laid down specific agency-wide guidelines on how to deal with global warming ‘sceptics’, AFP has long had a firm policy of evaluating climate change stories on the basis of scientific merit. As a result, we never gave much oxygen to what were—for anyone who bothered to look closely—attention-seeking charlatans and/or& industry-fed flacks. I’m American, but looking at the U.S. from afar on this issue during the last eight years, I kept asking myself: when will mainstream media in the U.S. wake up? It took far too long, but the sleep-inducing spell seems finally to have broken (except, of course, chez Fox News). At a personal level, I struggled as a beat reporter with a different quandary: whether I could do my job with integrity having rather quickly come to the conclusion that climate change was a monumental—the monumental—threat of our times. Indeed, in mid-2009 I nearly cashed in my chips as a journalist, thinking that I might be able to communicate that reality more effectively in another guise. But long exchanges with colleagues, scientists and activists finally convinced me that honest, conscientious reporting on the science and policy—including, of course, foibles and failures—was the best way forward.

Martina Rippon
Madison, WI

I'm blown over by the crystal clarity of your article (“From Hobby Lobby to Climate Change…”) exposing the incompetence, even the complicit deception, of the media regarding birth control* decisions passed on by men who have no conception (pun intended) of what a woman goes through in carrying a fetus as well as nurturing that child for the rest of its life.  It truly is an attack on women, probably on "uppity" women who threaten their incompetence at their jobs. Nowhere have I seen it written (might be, but I haven't seen it) the simple fact that prohibiting contraception makes abortion even more likely.

*I refer to it as "pregnancy control" because that's what it is.

Somewhere in medical school I heard an instructor refer to pregnancy as a "parasitic infestation," because, technically, the implanted fetus is a parasite.

All that aside, you've inspired me to subscribe to The Nation again.

I look forward to further developments in your expose of the media's dereliction of duty.  Free press should not include false press; right-wing fallacies (phallusies?) are too quick to deny women's experience or even existence—thanks for pointing out the few mentions in Alito's opinion.

SCROTUS's—Supreme Court (Really?) of the United States needs its own bias exposed—especially that of Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Roberts. I think Thomas may be impeachable—he sure stretches anyone's notion of appropriate or "good behavior."

Please forgive my bordering-on-the-obscene commentary, but I am really pissed by these bullies dicking us around. Did I mention that I am a woman?

Hobby Lobby's hypocrisy is even more evident that most of its merchandise is made in China, where abortions are forced. Enough rant for now.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

Blinded Me with Balance: How the US Media Get Science Coverage Wrong (& How They Can Get It Right)

Fox on Climate Change

Fox New coverage of the climate change debate. (screen grab)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My new Nation column is called “ Don’t Know Much About History .” The subhed is: “The architects of our foreign-policy disasters would prefer we simply forget the past.” Guess what it’s about…

Here are the Alter-reviews:

1) The Alvin Brothers

2) CSN and CSNYY

3) Loudon Wainwright and David Bromberg

4) “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Nutty Professor”

5) New Jewish history and biography from Indiana University Press

1) Being a serious fan of the Blasters, I went to see the Alvin Brothers, Phil and Dave, promote their first studio album in thirty years, "Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy." The brothers have obviously not always gotten along so great, but two years ago when Phil was touring in Spain, he went to a local hospital for an infection from an abscessed tooth. Dave was informed that he was dead, and then informed that irreversible brain damage had caused his throat to swell virtually closed, his heart stopped and his vital signs flat-lined.

Anyway, Phil is somehow fine now—he loves his Spanish doctor--and the experience inspired both men to suck it up and start recording and touring together again. At the City Winery show, Dave did most of the talking, but was (to me, anyway) surprisingly deferential to Phil. Repeatedly he referred to the Blasters as Phil’s band, in which he briefly played and sang, (even though he wrote almost all their great material). True, Phil has a great voice—his version of “Please, Please, Please” delivered on its nearly impossible promise, but Dave is the genius. Highlights of the show included “Border Radio” and Leiber and Stoller’s “One Bad Stud” and of course, the instant classic “What’s Up With Your Brother,” but not, I say disappointedly, “American Music.” They were backed up by one of Dave’s bands. I’ve not gotten the cd yet but it can’t be anything but totally excellent. And if you want to hear more of their story, check out the interview they did with Terry Gross and listen to the new cd, upon which Phil sounds really terrific, though when you load it into iTunes, it comes up as just “Dave Alvin.”

2) Rhino’s CSNY 74 box set is one of the two big historical items of summer. (The other one is the complete 1971 Allman Brothers Fillmore shows.) I’m not saying that any cd package could be worth this wait—forty years is an awfully long time—but it is beautifully packaged and incredibly rich, including in newish material that has even bypassed most of the best-circulated bootlets. The audio is a pristine sounding 40 song set, divided between acoustic and electric sets and the video has 8 performances on it. I got the bluray audio, which sounds incredible, especially given the circumstances of the recording. And the 188 page booklet is well-written as well and generous, in terms of data and and photos, well beyond the call of duty. Fourteen year old yours truly bought tickets to the 77,000 person Roosevelt Raceway show with the Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell that September but I could not find a ride and so I had to sell them. Perhaps that was ok, since it ended up being a 12-hour show and began 3 hours early. But on these recordings, the band is terrific despite the fact that they could hardly speak to one another and were constantly worried about getting ripped off. (It was perhaps the first outdoor stadium tour—at least they say it was.) The guitar work of Stephen and Neil especially is one of the under-rated pleasures of a decidedly over-written era. (I guess coke overconsumption does not interfere with great guitar work.) It’s really superior in every way to 4 Way Street—every way except for the fact that it took four damn decades to arrive.

In celebration of the set, but also because they like to, CSN (minus Y) played three nights at the Beacon recently. I caught the opening show, which was surprisingly titled toward new material. Much of it was first-rate, though I find it difficult to enjoy music the first time I hear it. Stills’ guitar was just as solid as ever, backed up by Shane Fontayne, who has calmed down quite a bit since he played with Bruce, thankfully. The harmonies were (just about) as nice and vibes actually better than ever. The music, of course, is timeless (even without Y). These guys are a really good argument for getting old—though not such a good one for being young and famous and rich. Oh and they’re good sports too. Check out this Jimmy Fallon appearance if you’ve not already.

3) I saw two old reliables at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett David Bromberg and Loudon Wainwright, well, not together. Loudon’s show was whatever the WASPish word is for “mispucha” performance featuring Martha Wainwright and Lucy and Suzzy Roche. Loudon is just an amazing fellow for the way he has created this extended family and turned it into art and gotten everybody to go along, despite well, quite a few actions and undertakings that would have daunted—or perhaps even torn lesser families asunder. Everybody sounded great, especially Suzzy, upon whom I have a crush now going on about 36 years. Loudon looks distinguished with a white beard and his new stuff sounds like his old stuff, which is to say, smart and funny. The annual appearance in Amagansett gives the rest of us a chance to be glad we have our families and not his—albeit without the talent. You can hear him singing about his dog, here. The new album Haven't Got The Blues (Yet) will arrive in September

And since returning to performing live after 22 (or so) of retirement, David Bromberg and his band continue to offer a continuing master class in musical versitility, craftmanship, showmanship and good fun. It was a thrill to be so close to the stage at the Talkhouse and watch the man’s fingers move up and down those frets with equal parts imagination and self-discipline. Everyone in the band is terrific and if they’re not exactly tight, they make up for it in spades with chops and good humor. The material, as always, was first rate and Bromberg gets funnier as he gets older with that deadpan delivery and the now properly aged white blues voice. Go see these guys if you get the chance. Trust me. And the newish, but rather oldish sounding sort of ur-David Bromberg album is called “Only Slightly Mad,” if that’s as close as you can get. More here

4) On the merchandise front, there’s a brand new Criterion collection bluray/dvd package of “A Hard Day’s Night.” I shouldn’t really have to say more. It’s funny, sure, and creative and fun as hell. Andrew Sarris called it “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” In the documentary, Roger Ebert, who says he’s seen the movie 25 times, calls it “essentially orgasmic” today and compares it to “Casablanca” as well as Welles’ masterpiece. Well, OK. Most interestingly, from a historical viewpoint, I think the boys were already approaching, perhaps had already approached their melodic (through certainly not creative) peak with “All My Lovin’,” “Can’t ` Love,” “If I Fell, and especially, “I Should Have Known Better,”—an absolutely perfect song. Most people don’t think this happened until much later, but the proof is here. And now it’s got a gorgeous new 4K digital restoration, approved by director Richard Lester, with three audio options—a monaural soundtrack as well as newly created stereo and 5.1 surround mixes supervised by sound producer Giles Martin at Abbey Road Studios—presented in uncompressed monaural, uncompressed stereo, and DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray. I learned a lot from the “making of” documentary – “You Can’t Do That”: The Making of “A Hard Day’s Night,” a 1994 documentary by producer Walter Shenson including an outtake performance by the Beatles--which demonstrates, to an amazing degree, the casualness of the Beatles’ collective genius; one of the greatest of great things to happen in the twentieth century, or at least in my lifetime. [Did you know John and Paul wrote the title song pretty much to order and did so overnight because they needed a title song set to that title? I think they could have called it “You Can’t Do that” which was the song they cut from the band’s performances and was made available for the first time in this terrific documentary] Were I more a religious (and less grammatical) person, I would call them a miracle. (Funnily, Phil Collins compares it to the Old Testament.)

Plus that, you get all this:

– Audio commentary featuring cast and crew (dual-format only)

 In Their Own Voices, a new piece combining 1964 interviews with the Beatles with behind-the-scenes footage and photos

– Things They Said Today, a 2002 documentary about the film featuring Lester, music producer George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (dual-format only)

– Picturewise, a new piece about Lester’s early work, featuring a new audio interview with the director (dual-format only)

– The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), Lester’s Oscar-nominated short (dual-format only)

– Anatomy of a Style, a new piece on Lester’s methods (dual-format only)

– New interview with author Mark Lewisohn (dual-format only)

– PLUS: An essay by critic Howard Hampton and excerpts from a 1970 interview with Lester (dual-format only)

And being a longtime Francophile, I’m not ashamed to say that Jerry Lewis’s masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor” (1963), is one of my all-timers. The new Blu-ray/DVD combo, the box includes excerpts from the “Nutty Professor” script (written by Mr. Lewis and Bill Richmond); a hardcover selection of “Nutty Professor” storyboards; a facsimile of “Instruction Book for Being a Person,” the slim volume Mr. Lewis wrote, had bound and distributed to the movie’s cast and crew; a CD of 12 “phony phone calls” made by Mr. Lewis between 1959 and 1972; DVDs of “Cinderfella” (1960), a Lewis vehicle directed by Frank Tashlin but revised in the editing by its star; and the 1962 film “The Errand Boy”. So there’s that. I saw Jerry speak last year at the 92nd Street Y. It was one of the weirdest nights of my life. But the news was that he repeatedly denied that he was playing Dean in TNP, but like so much of what he said that night, it was nonsense.

5) I’ve been doing a lot of research in Jewish history of late and it leads me to want to write a short thank-you note to Indiana University Press, which, as scholars of the topic are well aware, punches way above its weight—or the weight of almost any other press in this category. I’ve had the occasion to spend some time with three recent publications of unique and significant value in recent weeks. They are The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan by Mel Scult, an emeritus professor at Brooklyn College, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence by my good friend and teacher, Rabbi Shai Held and In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine by Jeffrey Veidlinger, who teaches history and literature at the University of Michigan. Scult has already written a biography of Kaplan and so is able to combine his history with an inquiry into the meaning and (continueing relevance of his thought; though, I would argue that defines the beliefs of most American Jews, though precious few are aware of this. Rabbi Held’s book is strictly a theological examination of Heschel’s thought and a demanding one at that. It will no doubt reward the careful reading it requires. Heschel has become a kind of popular symbol of Jewish political liberalism in the sixties but not only is this misleading as matter of history, it does not begin to do justice to the religious and theological context out of which this action—“praying with his feet” as he called it—arose. Held does that and much more. I’ve not had time to delve into Veidlinger’s book yet, but its reviews have been superlative.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Blinded Me with Balance: How the U.S. Media Gets Science Coverage Wrong (& How It Can Get It Right)
by Reed Richardson

The press, as a rule, has never been an institution that spends a lot of time looking inward. Deeper-level questions about how it covers an issue or a topic rarely rise to the level where they’re allowed outweigh the exigencies of today’s deadlines and headlines. Journalism is the so-called first draft of history, after all, with heavy emphasis on the word “draft.” And such a granular, ephemeral emphasis on the here and now is ill-suited to noticing larger, long-gestating changes in a story or narrative and incorporating those changes into one’s reporting.

All this is to say that what the BBC has undertaken in the past few years is quite incredible. For a global news organization to publicly admit that its coverage of a critical news topic was sub-standard is remarkable in its own right. But then for it to devote exceedingly precious resources—both time and money—to better understand the subject matter and how it can be covered more accurately is, well, almost unheard of. (That the BBC is a publicly-funded news trust rather than a subsidiary of a large profit-driven multinational no doubt allows it to engage in this kind of editorial self-examination, but I digress.)

This past week, the BBC released the final installment of its multi-year review, the focus of which primarily centered on how well the network fulfilled its mission of impartially covering science. After years of inquiry, which included commissioning an independent analysis of its science coverage by academics and hosting numerous in-house science tutorials for 200 of its senior staff, the BBC came to grips with reality. In doing so, it belatedly joins what was already a widespread acceptance of climate change in the European media . Which is why the BBC’s common-sense conclusions should be required reading in newsrooms across the U.S.:

“[I]mpartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, which may result in a ‘false balance’. More crucially it depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given. In this respect, editorial decisions should be guided by where the scientific consensus might be found on any given topic, if it can in fact be determined. […]

“This does not mean that critical opinion should be excluded. Nor does it mean that scientific research shouldn’t be properly scrutinised. The BBC has a duty to reflect the weight of scientific agreement but it should also reflect the existence of critical views appropriately. Audiences should be able to understand from the context and clarity of the BBC’s output what weight to give to critical voices.”

These conclusions, the BBC goes on to note, are of particular importance when covering climate change and evolution, where there exists overwhelming scientific agreement on the basic facts. Going forward, BBC says that it will take care to give “due weight” to scientific theories without being bound to offer an equal counterpoint where none is merited. Imagine that, a media organization thinking first and foremost about the mission of informing readers rather than maintaining a contrived veneer of political neutrality.

It’s just the kind of fresh thinking the media could use here in the U.S. Here, sadly, TV news networks are still actively trolling for climate deniers to put on the air. As Media Matters documented two weeks ago, a clumsy editor at CNBC accidentally outed that network’s attempts at providing a friendly platform for climate-change-is-a-hoax shtick . This disregard for the facts isn’t much of a surprise, however, as CNBC routinely gives climate change deniers a majority of airtime on the issue.

Over at Fox News—to no one’s surprise—newsroom leadership has long taken a dim view of the scientific consensus on climate change and insists on giving “critics” equal—if not more—coverage. Or, as then Washington bureau chief Bill Sammon put it in afrantic 2010 email memo to his staff:

“…we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.” [emphasis in original]

There is a kind of audacious, Orwellian purity to Sammon’s warning: “it is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as fact.” But it fits perfectly with a cable network whose ultimate purpose isn’t to present facts to its viewers so much as it is to package an alternate reality for them. To assert there is a climate change “debate,” as Sammon put it, isn’t just a feature of Fox News, though. It’s standard practice among a wide swath of the establishment media that seeks intellectual shelter in equivocating, on-the-other-hand coverage. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that Fox News’ climate change coverage was misleading 72% of the time, but also that CNN’s was too nearly one-third of the time. MSNBC’s coverage, by contrast, was rated as accurate by the UCS nearly all of the time. And lest you think it’s just TV news doing this, think again. Major newspapers and wire services do it too.

Scientists have certainly noticed the media’s propensity for false balance. In anaggregating survey of nearly 400 climate scientists , published in 2010 by German scientists Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch, they said journalists reach out to a scientist claiming climate change is a hoax almost as often as they contact a scientist claiming climate change is real and an impending disaster. (On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being very likely contacted, the “hoax” source averaged a 4.9, while the median score for the “real, disaster” source was 5.6. See Q’s: 58 & 59.) This, despite the fact that the same survey found zero climate scientists said climate change was “not at all” happening and less than two percent said climate change was “not at all” the result of man-made causes (Q’s: 20 & 21).

This particular survey by Bray and von Storch offers a window into the polarized state of scientific debate in the media. That’s because it has become something of a touchstone for climate deniers, who have tried to conflate its findings of specific disagreements in the scientific community on the mechanisms and impacts of man-made climate change with the idea that no consensus exists on the broader question of anthropogenic climate change. Two major surveys of climate scientists put the consensus figure at97% , which is the number NASA endorses as well. The latest UN IPCC report from last fall varies a tiny bit from this, using a 95% confidence number.

Nevertheless, a pair of ‘consensus truthers’ was given ample room on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page recently to try to undermine the idea of climate change by specifically citing the Bray and von Storch survey as proof that the 97% consensus is a “myth.” Not surprisingly, the op-ed’s co-authors—one of whom is president of the oil and gas-industry funded Heartland Institute—failed to mention the most salient findings I cited above. And notably, two weeks after that column was published, Dennis Bray himself published a rebuttal post on the Klimazwiebel blog. In it, he called out theJournal op-ed’s claims about his survey as “inaccurate if not outright false” and lamented that his work had been co-opted for partisan purposes and circulated around the world as proving something that it doesn’t.

As the old Mark Twain adage goes, though, Bray’s truth on his blog will never catch up to the jet-fueled distortions of climate deniers in the mainstream media. Even if they somehow did, numerous studies have found that attempts at debunking myths are, in fact, counterproductive; they produce a ‘backfire effect’ that only serves to strengthen belief in the myth. For evidence of how stubbornly embedded phony scientific beliefs can become, one need only look to the climate skeptics’ conference being held at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas this week. Sponsored by—looky here—the Heartland Institute, the conference’s keynote speaker on Tuesday was Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who, in his speech, proceeded to run through a whole host of easily disproven conspiracies about global warming, acid rain, and water fluoridation. Rohrabacher, I might point out, sits on the House Science Committee.

Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan has noted that once a scientific issue gets interwoven with politics, the former often gets subsumed by the latter. Or, as he explained at The Upshot after the Hobby Lobby case: “identity often trumps the facts.” The media’s role in at the intersection of science and policy has been a frequent point of inquiry for Nyhan, and his 2010 study of the myths propagated during the Clinton and Obama health care reform debates offers up very similar conclusions to the BBC survey:

“[U]ntil the media stops giving so much attention to misinformers, elites on both sides will often succeed in creating misperceptions, especially among sympathetic partisans. And once such beliefs take hold, few good options exist to counter them—correcting misperceptions is simply too difficult.”

Some American news sites are catching on to this. The Los Angeles Times, for example, took a small, but important step last fall when it declared it would no longer run climate change denial letters to the editor . Paul Thornton, the Times’ letters editor, explained his decision as a matter of journalistic integrity: “I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page…saying "there's no sign humans have caused climate change" is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

Similarly, the PhD chemist Nathan Allen, who is the moderator of Reddit’s popular/r/science discussion board chose to ban climate change denying commenters recently. Although controversial, removing what, in the end, amounted to just a handful of people who had been mostly lobbing insults made a huge difference. Where before discussions were routinely hijacked by paranoid, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, now there is serious, substantive debate about the facts of climate change and other scientific topics. The experience left Allen convinced more can be done and, in a column for Grist last December, he issued a challenge to the press: “[I]f a half-dozen volunteers can keep a page with more than 4 million users from being a microphone for the antiscientific, is it too much to ask for newspapers to police their own editorial pages as proficiently?”

The simple answer should be “no.” After all, nonpartisan media watchdogs cheered theTimes decision as a long overdue re-assertion of the primacy of facts as the basis for all journalism, whether it’s in the news or opinion pages. Nevertheless, a misguided sense of objectivity still colors much of the American media’s news judgment, which is likely who no other major newspaper has followed suit. And climate skeptics, aided by the usual suspects in the media, have been quick to exploit the media’s timidity and claim their dissenting views are being unfairly suppressed.

The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. And that’s the problem. By essentially leveling the ground for climate deniers, the press neutralizes the scientific consensus by converting the discussion into one of politics and beliefs. This is more comfortable, familiar terrain for the press because it allows it to avoid value judgments about the validity of each side’s arguments. But when every fact can be grounds for a debate, then there really are no facts anymore. In such an environment, it’s little surprise then, that compromise is impossible and nothing much gets done in Washington anymore either.

Choosing to do nothing about climate change is, of course, still a choice, just as choosing not to acknowledge the scientific consensus about climate change is one as well. In the face of such a fundamental global threat, however, both choices are increasingly untenable. The BBC was wise to recognize how its flawed editorial decisions were playing into this calculus and that it could do better by its global audience. As watchdog of the biggest greenhouse gas-producing nation in our planet’s history, the American media bears an even larger burden in how it covers climate change. But if it continues to forsake its responsibility to the truth, the notion that ours is a free press equal to (or better than) the rest of the world’s media will just be yet another tragic case of false balance.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

From Hobby Lobby to Climate Change: How the Media Enable the Right Wing’s Politicization of Science

Hobby Lobby

(AP photo/Ed Andrieski) 

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

1) Randy Newman’s “Faust” at City Center
2) Richard Thompson at The Irridium
3) Henry Kissinger says something crazy

Lucky yours truly, I got a last minute ticket to see the only New York performance of Randy Newman’s adaptation of Goethe’s “Faust” at City Center, a one-night-only concert directed by Thomas Kail, as part of the City Center Encores! Off-Center series. Randy came out dressed in a devil’s costume—apparently fooled by the rest of the cast that they would be in costume too. He introduced the piece by explaining, which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1995, by explaining, “This is my version of Goethe’s ‘Faust.’” “His ‘Faust,’ of course, is a masterpiece. I read the classic comic book, and I concur.” He then wondered aloud whether his version would stand with Goethe’s in the Western canon for hundreds of years as well. “Only time will tell,” he mused.

OK, perhaps not. Perhaps only a few of the songs are even at the top of Newman’s incredible canon. But the piece, as performed by Newman as Lucifer (or “Luci” as God calls him), Laura Osnes, Tony Vincent, Isaiah Johnson, Vonda Shepard and Michael Cerveris, together with a wonderfully evocative and funky 16-memberBroadway Inspirational Voices, under the direction of the choirmaster Michael McElroy, and a perfectly fine mini-orchestra, got everything out of the play’s music there is—even including the wonderful album version with all the LA singer/songwriter star power on it.

The plot is a contemporary version of Goethe’s story, but it takes place in South Bend, Indiana on the Notre Dame campus (with a side trip to Central America). The highlight, no contest, was a beautiful duet by Randy and Vonda Shepard of the sappy masterpiece, “Feels Like Home,” the applause for which literally stopped the show. I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to see it performed again, but buy the album. Also Newman’s recent recordings of his old stuff which has been appearing on Nonesuch of late and is, like Newman, a reliable bittersweet pleasure and also a cultural treasure.

Speaking of which, thanks also, I think, to PBS’s “Front and Center” program, a small number of lucky folk got to see the amazing Richard Thompson (and bass and drums) at the intimate Irridium club in Times Square on Monday night. What a thrill it was to be able to witness up close the man move his fingers up and down the frets. Thompson is perhaps the most impressive guitarist I have ever seen who is not famous for being a “guitar god.” He works pretty hard too, given that he is the only guitarist in his band. I think the reason he is not spoken of in the same sentences as Clapton, Allman, Gibbons, Vaughan, etc is that his music is not blues-based. It’s English/Scottish folkie music, electrified. And while the songs are clever and intricate, not so many of them are hummable. Some, however, are beautiful, “Dimming of the Day,” which he did not do and “Wall of Death” which he did. “Tear-Stained Letter” is always a rave and that was the first encore. Anyway, watch the show and amaze yourselves. If you need a primer on RT, start with the divorce album he did with his ex, Linda Thompson, “Shoot Out the Lights.” It is the third best divorce album of all time, in this opinion, after (of course) “Blood on the Tracks,” and “Tunnel of Love.”

Before going to the show, by the way, I went to a pretty interesting panel at Thompson/Reuters about World War I, moderated by my friend Sir Harold Evans, which was going fine until Henry Kissinger made the crazy statement that all five wars entered into by the US since World War II had been so with the country united. Speaking from the back of the audience, I expressed my (polite) amazement at this fact, given that Iraq I and Iraq II were incredibly contested from the start, and Vietnam was only approved of because we were so profoundly lied to. Kissinger did not really reply and Harry could not really hear the question so the response was most unsatisfying. Depressing as all hell, I gotta say, but it gave me an idea for a column and the food was pretty good, so ok, onward. (I see there is video here. I come in at about 65 minutes, though it does not really work out well because Harry could neither see nor hear me and “Dr. Kissinger,” as everybody annoyingly called him, was able to easily evade the point.)

Oh and to you BDS folk: My guess is that if you’ve lost Noam Chomsky….

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

From Hobby Lobby to Climate Change: How the Media Enables the Right-wing’s Politicization of Science
by Reed Richardson

We’re at a particularly hyper-partisan moment in our country. As such, one would think the existence of a scientific consensus on a policy issue would offer the mainstream media a welcome oasis from the mirage of social media myths and the desert of dueling soundbites that all too often crowd out informed comment. Using such a consensus as a no bullshit baseline, an objective journalist could more honestly explore opposing arguments, measure them against evidence, and judge their veracity. This is no small thing, because if modern journalism is to continue to live up to its Constitutional promise, it can’t merely be about telling the who, what,when and where of the world anymore, it must go beyond that to explain the how and why.

But time and again, the establishment media fails at reaching this higher bar. Instead of contextualizing policy debates by weaving in extant scientific knowledge or academic research, the national press all too readily churns out formulaic stories filled with superficial horserace reporting. A press corps so consistently unmoored from facts becomes very vulnerable, however, when one of our nation’s two political parties undertakes a proverbial war on science. With very little effort, policy debates can get hijacked and devolve from discussing relevant facts to a lobbing ad hominem insults. This simple-minded journalistic approach renders the underlying science of any issue moot. But it’s a safer career move, since it just wouldn’t do well for an “objective” journalist to always be pointing out that, on issue after issue, one party has become fully detached from scientific reality. In a “both sides do it” media culture, no party or ideology can ever lose legitimacy, no matter how crackpot its ideas about how the world works.

Exhibit A in the mainstream media’s failure to execute this due diligence is its consistently ill-informed climate change coverage. Even though an overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and man-made, the media rarely, if ever, treats this mountain of evidence as a given. Instead, it treats this reality very much like a battle of opinions or, more accurately, of belief systems: Liberals believe in climate change, conservatives don’t. Climate change is not an ideological principle or a policy outcome about which reasonable people can disagree, though; it’s an observable phenomenon. So when the media enables anyone to deny the existence of climate change, it is tantamount to journalistic malpractice.

Nevertheless, this malpractice happens every single day. Whether pigeonholing global warming as a niche topic,soliciting denialist voices and granting them an outsized platform, or outright disappearing of the crisis, the press regularly plays into conservatives’ hands, helping them manufacture dissent and sow confusion amongst the public even though none exists in the scientific community. Among Tea Partiers, disbelief in anthropogenic climate change has become something of an article of faith, so much so that, contra the parable of Noah, no amount of catastrophic warnings can change their stubborn minds. And in much the same way that Pope Urban VIII’s Vatican concocted an “investigation” to disprove Galileo’s proof of a sun-centered solar system, right-wing denialists have cooked up numerous alternative climate change theories that neatly conform to their worldview, but which all fall apart under scientific scrutiny.

The public policy ramifications of this media failure hit home again this past Monday. That’s when the Roberts Court’s conservative majority ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, a craft retailer that sued the federal government for infringing on its religious freedom. At the core of the company’s objections was its claim that four of the 20 methods of contraception mandated by the Afforable Care Act are abortifacients (i.e. they terminate an in-progress pregnancy).

The good news: just like climate change, there was an overwhelming scientific consensus about this claim. Let’s be totally clear—the idea that IUDs and morning-after pills are abortifacients is clearly rejected by medical science. And no less than the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Health, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, and the Mayo Clinic agree. To all of these organizations, to whom we trust to regulate, advise, and train our nation’s professional healthcare providers, pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg is successfully implanted in the uterus, so IUDs and Plan B morning-after pills are contraceptives. Full stop. So, case dismissed, right?

The bad news, of course, was that there was an overwhelming scientific consensus about this claim, and just like with climate change, conservatives on the court simply didn’t care. Never mind that the medical facts in the case strongly suggested Hobby Lobby had no real standing to sue in the first place. In fact, on page 9 of Justice Alito’s majority ruling, we find this inconvenient truth conveniently tucked away down in a footnote:

“The owners of the companies involved in these cases and others who believe that life begins at conception regard these four methods as causing abortions, but federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation.”

The whole Hobby Lobby case, in other words, was built upon a willfully accepted fallacy. Monday’s Supreme Court decision wasn’t a victory for religious freedom over the government as much it was a triumph of religious belief over science. (There’s also rank hypocrisy and disingenuousness at work here as well. Hobby Lobby’s employee retirement plan invests in the very pharmaceutical companies that make emergency contraception. And up until two years ago, Hobby Lobby’s health insurance plan actually offered IUDs and Plan B. Only after being contacted by a right-wing legal group—hunting for a proxy in their fight to weaken Obamacar—did the company conveniently discover its religious objection.)

Nevertheless, right-wing and “pro-life” supporters have so successfully muddied the facts about contraception, the press demonstrated little interest in correcting them. Case in point, the New York Timesbig, lead story on the decision, which whistled right past the plaintiff’s key claim:

“The health care law and related regulations require many employers to provide female workers with comprehensive insurance coverage for a variety of methods of contraception. The companies objected to some of the methods. “No one has disputed the sincerity of their religious beliefs,” Justice Alito wrote. The dissenters agreed.

“The companies said they had no objection to some forms of contraception, including condoms, diaphragms, sponges, several kinds of birth control pills and sterilization surgery. Justice Ginsburg wrote that other companies may object to all contraception, and that the ruling would seem to allow them to opt out of any contraception coverage.”

Notice something missing here? For some reason, the Times tells us all about which specific contraceptives Hobby Lobby doesn’t object to, but we never learn which ones they do object to, and more importantly, why, and if their objections had any scientific merit.

The Washington Post’s Supreme Court write-up at least included more specifics than the Times, but its scattershot approach leads it to fall back into the same old false equivalence framing:

“Some businesses object to offering contraception at all, while others, like the companies that brought the challenge to the Supreme Court, say offering certain types of birth control, such as IUDs, make them complicit in abortion.”

[…11 paragraphs later…]

“In this case, the companies’ owners say that four of the 20 contraceptives approved by the FDA work after an egg has been fertilized and thus are abortifacients. While many, if not most, doctors and scientists disagree, Alito said the point is that the owners believe offering such services—such as the morning-after pill and IUDs—violates their religious faiths.”

Notice, again, how Alito’s whole justification for ruling against Obamacare rests upon what the Hobby Lobby owners believe. Does the Post pushback on this citing expert medical analysis? Does it point out a lot of people believe a lot of crazy things with no basis in fact but they still don’t merit a judicial carve-out from federal health regulations. Not really. It equivocates with “many, if not most doctors and scientists disagree,” an intentionally squishy qualifier that offers little more than the pretense of context.

Tellingly, mainstream media coverage, overall, wasn’t much better than Fox News. This was how they didn’t get it right: “Dozens of companies, including Hobby Lobby, claim religious objections to covering some or all contraceptives. The methods and devices at issue before the Supreme Court were those the plaintiffs say can work after conception.” In fact, the latest research suggests that IUDs and Plan B actually don’t work after conception. But even if they do, it’s important to remember that the scientific consensus clearly says that preventing a fertilized egg from implanting is not an abortion. In fact, the Affordable Care Act is explicitly forbidden from funding coverage for abortions. That “dozens of companies” are making—or, more precisely, making up—an argument to the contrary shouldn’t be worth a bucket of warm spit when it comes to crafting public health policy.

This doesn’t stop some conservatives from trying to have it both ways—to both dismiss scientific consensus while pretending its on their side. Back in May, for example, GOP Senator Marco Rubio even went so far as to claim the “science is settled” that life begins at conception. No sir. Others on the right have tried to polarize the medical definition of pregnancy, claiming it is “an odd insistence” of “the Left” without mentioning all the nonpartisan medical professional organizations that endorse this same conclusion. Getting points for chutzpah and projection, one obtuse conservative snarkily dinged the “anti-Science Left” for failing to recognize that you can’t produce a life without a fertilized egg. Of course, you can’t produce life beyond a few cells unless that fertilized egg is implanted in a woman’s uterus, but then disappearing women out of the discussion of contraceptive choice and reproductive rights is another common tactic among the right. On a related note, Alito’s 49-page opinion only mentioned “woman” or “women” 13 times.

By failing to honestly address the science at the root of the Hobby Lobby case, the media has fallen for the same old conservative spin that, for years, has also corrupted its climate change coverage. In a way, it mirrors the actions of the Roberts Court’s conservative majority, which similarly granted greater weight to the plaintiffs’religious interpretation of medical science than to actual medical science itself. Sadly, this brazen act of judicial corporate activism was compounded by a tragic failure of explanatory journalism. And thanks to the latter, the public is less informed about broad consequences of the former. As now almost anyone—or anything, for that matter—can construct a so-called religious freedom if science and the evidentiary process need not be involved in defining the boundaries of said freedoms.

The Hobby Lobby case has set us upon a dangerously slippery legal slope. By endowing for-profit companies with unprecedented rights over their employees and unheard of freedoms from federal regulations, conservatives have set the conditions for future corporate discrimination as well as delegitimization of the government. But it is also a broader, cautionary tale about how poorly the mainstream media holds conservatives accountable for their often specious scientific claims. Facts are the most precious currency of journalists, but if they aren’t willing to speak scientific truth to power—whether it’s on reproductive rights or evolution or climate change—it’s not just the press’s reputation that suffers. We all do.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.


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