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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Just for Gaffes: Why the Political Press’s Obsession With Minutiae Is No Joke

Alison Lundergan Grimes

Alison Lundergan Grimes (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My new Nation column is called “A New Documentary Profiles Liars for Hire,” and it’s about a film called Merchants of Doubt that I saw at the New York Film Festival.

And here is a brand new sixty-three page paper, I kid you not, called “Another Milestone For the Mainstreaming of Anti-Semitism: The New American Foundation and Max Blumenthal's Goliath.” It is by someone with whom I am unfamiliar, Petra Marquardt-Bigman, and published by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. It deals with the Nation Books publication named above and the reaction it inspired. I could not bring myself to read it in its entirety but perhaps someone else can and let me know how it turns out. Enjoy….


I don’t have a lot to report this week. I saw The Fortress of Solitude at the Public this weekend, but I need to wait for opening night to tell you how much I enjoyed it. I did see a wonderful show by The Fab Faux at the Beacon that I previewed last week; it was the “John vs. Paul” show and while watching it, it reminded me, oddly I know, of the series my friend Abby Pogrebin is doing for The Forward about Jewish holidays. You can find that here. Why? Because a hall like the Beacon is kind of a temple and having it full of people enjoying, appreciating, and singing and dancing (though not too loudly and annoyingly) to the music of the Beatles played reverently and imaginatively (especially since the post-1966 stuff was never played live) is a damn near religious experience. It supplies the feeling, at least for this Jew, that both Abby and I cannot locate in a Yom Kippur service. They had a horn section and a string section for the Beacon, so I can’t guarantee they will be as great when you see them, but if you want to take my advice, here is their schedule.

What else? On the old fart Blu-ray/DVD/cd release front, we have:

YES—Songs From Tsongas contains two different concerts from YES’s 35th Anniversary Tour in 2004, the last tour to feature the classic line-up of Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman and Alan White. In addition to the originally released Songs From Tsongas show, on Blu-ray and a three-CD set is packed with an additional 70 minutes of never-before-released highlights from Lugano. I still love YES, even though a lot of people think that is a sign of lameness. And indeed, much of the later stuff is lame, but the great stuff is all here and the guys don’t look so bad.

Genesis has a three-CD box set called R-KIVE. I have no idea why it’s called that. This is the first time I have tried to like Genesis, though I do like a lot of Peter Gabriel and some Phil Collins. This collection spans 42 years, and has 37 tracks in historical order the band's compiled, alongside selections from the solo careers of Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, and Mike Rutherford/Mike & The Mechanics. It made me order a copy of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, so I guess it did the trick. I also got a Blu-ray called Back to Front: Live in London from Peter Gabriel on June 24, 2014 at London’s O2 and features a performance of the So album. Another ZZ Top Blu-ray also turned up. This one, Live at Montreux 2013, reminds me a lot of the last one, so if you don’t have that, you might want this.

Finally, there’s a book everybody who has read this far would be happy to have and that’s Danny Clinch: Still Moving (with a forward by Bruce Springsteen). The title is borrowed from Willie Nelson’s “Still Is Still Moving To Me.” The photographs, nicely reproduced, are of Bob Dylan perusing a Spanish-language newspaper in the famed Ambassador Hotel, his two-tone loafers perched upon a table. Willie Nelson, blissed out and beaming in a fog of smoke. (The anti-Semite) Roger Waters eclipsed by the looming fortification of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Gregg Allman walking alone through wet Georgia woods painted in Spanish moss. Tom Waits merrily riding a carousel pony, toy gun blazing. Neil Young fixed in the rear view driving a classic Cadillac through the streets of Nashville, and the like. I would have preferred a historical organization rather than a thematic one, but per usual, nobody asked me. With a list price of $50, it’s actually priced awfully reasonably for this kind of thing, if you are already thinking about gifts.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Just for Gaffes: Why the Political Press’s Obsession with Minutiae and Meta-Coverage is No Joke
by Reed Richardson

Serious question: What do political reporters think voters really care about?

The pat answer, of course, is “the issues that matter to them.” But I don’t buy it. For, if the national political press truly believed that voters are in need of and drawn to coverage of policies that actually impact their lives, it sure does have a funny way of showing it. What the establishment media increasingly serves up to the public instead is a thin gruel of theater criticism and cynical snark. And perhaps the least nourishing ingredient in this journalistic stew is a heaping helping of what the media calls gaffes.

Now, gaffes can come in all shapes and sizes, but what’s most important about them is that the press thinks they’re important. Voters, not so much. Seizing on the inevitable verbal slip-ups or logistical snafus that happen every day in politics just isn’t much of a priority to people who don’t have a decent job or lack access to healthcare or live in fear of the police. For that matter, ever hear a regular citizen call out “What about your gaffes?!” at a candidate town hall or along a campaign rope line?

To the media, however, gaffes serve an important function. They allow it to concoct a broader narrative about candidate or politician that—and this advantage can’t be overlooked—easily fills airtime or column inches. Rather than digging into the full context of a candidate’s rhetoric or analyzing the substance (or lack thereof) of his or her campaign platform—which is much more difficult work—gaffes allows the press to effortlessly remain “objective” through what is essentially meta-coverage. Covering the messaging, not the message. Or, as I noted on Twitter last week: “the press loves to cover gaffes because they offer the pretense of accountability, without having to weigh in on actual policy.”

I wrote that in frustration right after the press’s gaffe-obsessed response to last week’s woeful Kentucky Senate debate. In it, Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes had refused for a second time to say whether she voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012 and her awkward evasiveness, nearly everybody in Washington agreed, was a huge gaffe. So much so, NBC News chief political correspondent Chuck Todd had already claimed on MSNBC’s Morning Joe earlier in the week that her refusal to directly answer the question earlier should have “disqualified” her from the office. To be clear: Grimes was not avoiding tough questions about being criminally corrupt or secretly belonging to some racist or fascist political group—revelations that would have had actual bearing on her fitness for public service. No, she was merely trying to distance herself from a president who has a lousy approval rating in her home state, a time-honored tradition if ever there was one.

To Todd and his ilk, though, this alleged gaffe spoke volumes about Grimes’s character and made her an easy target for lampooning by her opponent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. When confronted about his specious reasoning in a subsequent Facebook Q & A, Todd backed off his judgment a bit (“disqualifying for some voters” was his new formulation), but still defended his over-the-top analysis as reflecting “political reality.” But for all his cynicism, Todd still tries to have it both ways. For, later in the same Facebook chat he said he was “sick” over the fact the McConnell camp had already stuck his Grimes-bashing soundbite into a campaign ad.

“Political reality,” of course, is what the press itself creates. Todd believes Grimes made a big gaffe because the DC conventional wisdom—which he both participates and marinates in daily—agrees with him. Under the guise of being objective, the press wants to deny itself any agency in manufacturing and perpetuating said reality. It likes to pretend it’s just calling ‘em like it's seeing ‘em, all the while ignoring the fact that the very act of seeing a gaffe is a subjective choice.

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That the line between the political media and the campaigns they cover grows ever more blurry really shouldn’t come as much of a shock to folks like Todd, though. It’s a perfectly predictable outcome, precisely because the press has increasingly adopted the perspective of a political operative rather than a voter when covering campaigns and elected officials. And to the operative, politics is less about governance—ideas and proposals and policy—and more about the horserace—optics and messaging and tactics. So, to cater to this audience, the political press increasingly relies upon polling, gaffes stripped of context, and oppo research for its storylines. In effect, its “objective” news values are being slowly co-opted by the partisans it covers. It turns out that when you gaze long into gaffes the gaffes also gaze into you.

Indeed, the Beltway media has so inculcated this insider’s framing that it becomes almost impossible for any of them to see past the messaging in order to devote proportional coverage to those issues that really matter. Thus, when Mitch McConnell repeatedly dodges questions about the reality of climate change, the press barely notices. Likewise, when McConnell pushes 13 egregious falsehoods about the Affordable Care Act in less than five minutes during last week’s debate, Todd can muster up no more outrage than to say that that moment should disqualify the senator…from being majority leader. Keep in mind that, if McConnell got his way and shut down Kentucky’s state-run insurance exchange, it would revoke healthcare for 500,000 residents of his state. But to those in the establishment media like Todd and NBC News’s legacy hire and resident bro, Luke Russert, his radical, misguided comments were simply another gaffe, just like Grimes’s, and merely grist for the false equivalency mill.

When the national press behaves in this way, it has a pernicious, trickle-down effect on local media as well. Consider, for example, the Des Moines Register’s surreal recap of last week’s Iowa Senate debate. For almost the entire story, the reporter stays fixated on the optics of the debate and rehashing the supposed gaffe the Democratic candidate, Rep. Bruce Braley, madeseven months ago. Finally, down in the eleventh paragraph, the you find one lonely token sentence on policy: “The pair sparred over Social Security, national security and health care.” But that was but a cruel tease, as right after it the story jumps right back to 20 more paragraphs on zingers and comebacks and body language without giving readers any idea of what the respective candidates’ actual positions are on Social Security, national security, and healthcare. In a long article about an Iowa Senate debate, in other words, the public was left with literally no idea of what the Iowa Senate debate was about.

This Register story’s glaring omissions and superficial focus serve as a simulacrum of the past few months of myopic midterm campaign coverage. Ultimately, these upside-down news priorities do more than just frustrate readers—they endanger our democracy. They starve the citizenry of information about actual policy differences between the parties and candidates, while simultaneously gorging the public with empty-calorie coverage about meaningless minutiae and petty political squabbles. With control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the media owes it to the American people to fully explain the real-life stakes of the choices on the ballot next month. Sadly, too much of our political press is intent on offering coverage that strictly goes for gaffes, but the price the rest of us will pay for this journalistic negligence is no laughing matter.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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Read Next: The Beltway Hops Aboard Leon Panetta's Book Tour.

Immaculate Criticism: The Beltway Hops Aboard Leon Panetta’s Book Tour

Leon Panetta

Leon Panetta (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

Katrina and I did a long interview with Jackson Browne before his two terrific shows at the Beacon last week, which you can find here.

The New Yorker Festival, 2014

Once upon a time I got invited to speak at New Yorker Festivals and hence was invited to whatever else I wanted to see. Now, having fallen down in the world, have to promise to write about them here and sometimes I even have to ask really nicely. But it’s worth it. This year’s festival—the 15th—was really great. Here’s what I saw:

Susan Morrison interviewed Randy Newman at the Gramercy Theatre early Friday evening. It was an incredibly warm and interesting interview. Randy was incredibly touched by the appreciation shown to him by the audience and he played and sang for 45 minutes after the interview, including a funny/brilliant song about Mr. and Mrs. Putin. I got to talk to Randy at the party the next night and tell him fan-like stuff, which I hate to do, but could not help it. (He wrote my yearbook quote; I took my mom to see him in 1975.) And he was incredibly gracious. I asked him who’s done his favorite interpretation of his work and he said Nina Simone.

David Remnick interviewed David Chase, Junot Diaz, and Sam Lipsyte about New Jersey. This started at 10, and I was already pretty tired so I didn’t stay that long. I realized I didn’t really give a shit about New Jersey. One funny thing that happened was when Remnick tried to get Lipsyte to talk about Philip Roth and Lipsyte answered by talking about Bruce Springsteen. Also, Chase was pretty moving talking about his parents, but again, interesting guys, boring topic.

David Remnick interviewed Larry David. This was really great and everybody there had a great time. Fortunately, the New Yorker had Alexandra Schwartz write it up, so I don’t really have to. Highlights:

1. “David was expelled from Hebrew school for acting out, though he barely got the chance to enjoy his freedom before the rabbi, like Pharaoh, changed his mind: ‘My mother went to the school and blew him, I think, because they took me back two days later.’”

 2. “After college, David worked as a chauffeur for an elderly woman with impaired vision (career advice: ‘I can’t say enough about a blind boss’) and as a bra salesman.” (I am skipping all the Seinfeld stuff because I never really could stand the thing.)

3. “‘It occurred to me one day, Would I have sex with a Palestinian?’ he told Remnick. ‘I thought, Sure. And what if, when we were having sex, she shouted all these anti-Semitic things? It wouldn’t bother me in the least!’ That particular reverie led to ‘Palestinian Chicken,’ an episode, in “Curb”’s eighth and latest season—please, Larry, let it not be the last—that stages the Israel-Palestine conflict as a standoff between a Jewish deli and a neighboring Palestinian chicken joint in Los Angeles.”[Eric adds: David mentioned that this probably the world’s favorite “Curb episode.” I would like to try and take a little credit for Larry coming up with the idea because, ten years ago, I did an long interview with him and I told him I did not find it credible that he would not sleep with that beautiful woman in her dressing room (when he had permission from Chery) just because she had a picture of George W. Bush on her shelf. Larry replied. “You’re right, it’s funny but not credible. Hell, I’d sleep with a Holocaust denier.” A few weeks later, Larry called me and asked if I planned to use that line because if I didn’t he wanted to use it again as his ID for a piece of his that Vanity Fair was publishing. I said I didn’t see how I was going to be able to work it into a piece on Hollywood and Democratic fundraising and so I gave it back to him. Holocaust denier becomes Palestinian sexy lady—plus sexy lady and her sister—and you get the great Chicken episode.]

4. Audience Questions: “These started out normal enough. Had David had any mentors when he was coming up in the comedy scene? No! Would he consider going to Comic Con, just down the street, maybe as the caped lawyer he played on ‘Seinfeld’? Not likely—‘I hate costumes. Even as a kid, I never wore a costume on Halloween.” What did he have to say about ‘Curb’’s obvious Jewishness? ‘Jews think that all the time,” David said, grinning. ‘They think no one else will get it, that it’s a secret show just for them.’” [Eric adds: Hey wait a minute. I asked that question. And it’s a good question. And he didn’t answer it. But he was funny. Still I want an answer. Does he think Jews and Gentiles see Curb differently and does that affect the writing?]

5. Then this: “A young woman approached the microphone to let David know that she had recently ‘recommended’ someone for a job at her office, a reference to a ‘Curb’ episode from Season 6 in which Larry ‘recommends’—wink-wink—a director he dislikes to Richard Lewis to avoid pissing the guy off. The woman was distressed; her ‘recommendation’ had been read as a real recommendation, sans scare quotes, and the person she disliked was starting at work on Monday. What did David think about that? ‘You’re an idiot!’ David crowed. The woman began to protest. ‘O.K., fine,’ he said, in what seemed intended as a nominally conciliatory gesture. ‘You learned a lesson.’”

6. And this: “The final interrogator stepped to the mic. In a brash, performative voice, she told David that she had been working on a project to support human happiness across the globe, and would he be interested in being one of the first people to look at it? ‘Nope!’ cried David, and the meeting was adjourned, to much applause.

You can read that whole article here. Interestingly, it skips the part that got the British tabloids all excited. That was this:

7. In her interview with Vanity Fair, Jennifer Lawrence said of Larry: “I’m in love with him, and I have been for a really long time,” she said. “I worship Woody Allen, but I don’t feel it below the belt the way I do for Larry David.” When Remnick read the quote aloud, Larry replied “Smart kid. It’s a shame that I’m about 40 years older than she is.” As for the “below the belt” comment, he added: “Maybe she’s referring to her knees.”

I didn’t get to see Jane Mayer interview Edward Snowden via Skype but you can see it here.

I wanted to see Susan M. interview David Johansen/Buster Poindexter—which everybody said was great—but priorities at home dictated that I go see the “Cats vs. Dogs” debate that took place simultaneously. The New Yorker covered that too. My (Cat) side lost, I’d say thanks to the brilliant, albeit sneaky presentations by Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell. Ariel Levy did a fine job for the Cat side but ended up being overpowered. Sorry, but Jill Abramson was embarrassing, but apparently, the audience was so biased that it did not cost her side the argument as well it should have. The Times is in much better hands with its current cat-loving Executive Editor.

Here is some Gopnik:

“Not only are all dogs Democrats and all cats Republicans but all dogs are Jewish and cats are goyishe,” he offered. “Dogs are like Jewish people: they feel guilty, and they act guilty. They revel in the demonstration of guilt.” “Mr. Gopnik, don’t pander to the bench,” Judge Remnick cautioned.

And some Gladwell:

“This whole debate has massive national-security implications,” he said, before describing how he had once experienced canine heroism when he was on a flight that was grounded because of a bomb scare. As the plane sat on the runway, the baggage was unloaded, and a dog tirelessly sniffed every last suitcase, something, he asserted, a cat would never do. “Why are cats so resolutely indifferent to pulling their weight in the war against terror?” he asked. “How many lives have been needlessly put at risk? We are engaged in a life-or-death struggle in the West, and the cat is sleeping on the sidelines.”

Ms. Levy:

“Cats teach you the truth about intimacy: you can never know what is in the mind of another being.” Cats are called commensal domesticates, Levy reminded the jury, which means they choose to live with humans, but they can revert back to feral state. She went on to quote Thorstein Veblen, “The cat lives with man on terms of equality. By contrast, dog has a gift of unquestioning subservience and a slave’s quickness in guessing his master’s moves.” “I say, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Cats!”

Shame on Adam, however, for holding up a photo of Nixon with a tiger and Kennedy with a dog. Ever heard of “Checkers” fella? If it hadn’t been for that damned dog, we would never have invaded Cambodia.

Then I went to see eight comedians, including Patton Oswalt, Todd Barry, Susie Essman, Jena Friedman, Al Madrigal, Marc Maron, Morgan Murphy, and Baron Vaughn. I don’t feel like writing it up, but I will say, I was sitting next to a nice guy from Boston who had brought his 12-year-old daughter. Bad, bad move, Mister. She will likely never recover from Morgan Murphy alone.

Finally on Sunday, I went to see Deadhead par Excellence, Nick Paumgarten interview Neil Young. Turned out to be almost entirely about cars, like Neil’s new book. It was a pretty wry, low-key interview. Here’s the highlight (imagine slides) and from memory:

NP:  So that’s the hearse you used to drive?

NY: Yep

NP: So that was the one you called “Mort?”

NY: No, that’s the hearse with no name....

OK, that’s it.

I’ve been in a real Beatles mood lately. There’s the wonderful mono box I mentioned recently and I just got a new coffee-table book in the mail yesterday, Beatles: Here, There, and Everywhere, which is kind of fun, and not that expensive for a coffee-table book, and it reminds me to remind people that if you can see The Fab Faux, you should. They are less a “tribute band” than a band of great musicians playing great, great music that all happens to be by the Beatles (much of it, never performed). I’m seeing them this weekend at the Beacon with the Hogshead Horns and the Creme Tangerine strings for a “John vs. Paul” extravaganza. Just look at this crazy poster and you’ll see that the benefits will not only be for Mr. Kite.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Immaculate Criticism: The Beltway Hops Aboard Leon Panetta’s Book Tour
by Reed Richardson

I hope Leon Panetta isn’t paying his book publicist much.

With our current media establishment, he really needn’t bother. I mean, why pay for uniformly glowing coverage of his new memoir, Worthy Fights, when just about everyone in Washington has proven so willing to provide the same thing for free?

Of course, this kind of White House tell-all is catnip inside the Beltway. Obsessing over the latest ex-official’s book, and mining it for catty comments about former bosses and colleagues to be breathlessly repeated ad nauseam, is a time-honored media tradition. It’s now a lucrative business model too, and savvy pols looking to cash in on their public service understand their role in this symbiotic relationship—to move more merchandise, they need meet this news cycle demand with a supply of juicy quotes. For instance, recall the press’s selective fixation on the relatively small number of Obama critiques in the recent best-selling memoirs by Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates.

In Panetta’s case, though, this over-eager reception from the media elite has surpassed even those two books and extended to lionizing the man himself. Indeed, the overweening admiration collectively heaped on both Panetta’s book and the man himself in the past week would be enough to even make a softball interviewer like Larry King blush in embarrassment.

Dan Balz, for example, in his Washington Post column “The Take” let us know that Panetta’s book, which takes critical aim at President Obama’s foreign policy and leadership style, was no less than a “public service.” And that Panetta is someone “unmatched in public life,” who “called things the way he’s seen them in Washington, combining wit, laughter and a zeal for political rough-and-tumble with the tough-mindedness of someone who came to get things done.” Geez, Dan, save something for the blurb on the paperback edition.

Over at The New York Times, Peter Baker offered up a (relatively) more restrained account of Panetta as truth-telling seer, calling him “typically frank, occasionally feisty.” But, as if to make up for this unseemly display of self-control, Baker’s story went on to dutifully recite nearly every one of the book’s digs at Obama with minimal pushback or critical analysis of the man making them. Baker’s colleague at the Times, columnist David Brooks, was not so demure, however, lauding Panetta as “warm, engaging, down to earth,” and a “great public servant in our current, ungreat era.”

Susan Page, at USA Today, was only slightly less effusive in her praise during her “exclusive,” which didn’t seem very exclusive since Panetta was talking to damn near everybody this week. At times, she just cut out the middleman and handed the microphone over to Panetta himself, who happily offered up humblebrag quotes like this one from deep in my-greatest-weakness-is-caring-too-much territory:

“‘Look, I’ve been a guy who’s always been honest,’ Panetta says. ‘I’ve been honest in politics, honest with the people that I deal with. I've been a straight talker. Some people like it; some people don’t like it. But I wasn’t going to write a book that kind of didn’t express what I thought was the case.’”

Eat your heart out, Col. Nathan Jessup.

Panetta’s no-nonsense, “Can you handle the truth I’m dishing out?” shtick certainly impressed National Journal’s Ron Fournier. As someone whose infatuation with the supposed neglect of presidential superpowers is well known—and has long since justified easy parody—Panetta’s critique of Obama’s leadership style and amorphous advice for him to “engage” more represented nothing short of a Vulcan mind-meld for Fournier. Not surprisingly, Fournier wrote a column rehashing Panetta’s talking points and, for good measure, he quoted Balz’s fawning column at length in it.

Even a mild attempt at offering a balanced take on Panetta’s book managed to fully miss the point, as when Post columnist Dana Milbank chastised Panetta for showing a stunning “level of disloyalty” to Obama. This is, again, an establishment lament, a kind of ‘can’t-we-all-get-along’ bemoaning of insider-on-insider conflict. Former government officials shouldn’t be bound be some kind of elitist code of silence—they owe their allegiance to the public and the truth, as Conor Friedersdorf argues. But did Panetta live up to the latter? Who knows, because a distracted Milbank never bothers with a critical assessment of Panetta’s actual character or the merits of the book’s arguments.

Here’s how wholly surreal things got this past week. Unrepentant hacks like Peggy Noonan and Dick Morris actually demonstrated less wanton credulity about Panetta’s motives and arguments than most of the serious, establishment press.

So what’s really behind this weird, Beltway love-in for Panetta? At its core, an innate tribalism. After nearly 50 years working in and around Washington, Panetta is recognized by the establishment as one of its own—a consummate DC insider. Longtime Washington Post columnist David Ignatius calls him a “pragmatic man of the center,” which is perhaps the highest compliment one can give inside the Beltway. And within this world, exercising power effectively is its own reward, regardless of the ends achieved or principles compromised:

“But Panetta’s summa came in 2009, when Obama tapped him for the unlikely role of CIA director. The new president understood that the agency needed a skilled politician to rebuild its standing, and Panetta was an inspired, if surprising, choice. He quickly allowed himself to be co-opted by the agency’s prickly career officers (who excel at that, and at tormenting directors who refuse the chalice). He then went on a jihad against the CIA’s enemies, starting with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had made the mistake of calling Panetta a liar. She never did that again. Panetta recounts the ‘ugly struggle’ with Dennis Blair, the retired admiral who, as director of national intelligence, was Panetta’s nominal boss and mistakenly thought he could impose the chain of command on a veteran Washington infighter.”

To anyone outside of the DC establishment, the above pattern of behavior would strongly suggest a self-serving recklessness. But note how Ignatius subtly frames these actions to Panetta’s credit. These actions also raise troubling questions. One obvious one: might then-Speaker Pelosi have been justified in publicly calling then-CIA Director Panetta a liar? Seems a highly relevant question worth answering for a number of important reasons, but especially if so much has been invested in Panetta’s character as the moral foundation for his criticisms. To Ignatius, however, the question doesn’t even merit revisiting, not when he can marvel at someone so adept at manipulating bureaucratic power. By the way, the answer is yes, Panetta did lie.

This is the Leon Panetta you didn’t hear about in the past week. The one who is notorious for falling captive to the parochial interests of his current duty station. Thus, while in charge of a CIA desperately in need of reining in, he nonetheless became incensed when the Justice Department merely considered criminal prosecutions of CIA agents that had conducted torture. (A course of action that, sadly, never happened.) Similarly, Panetta squeals in his book about the budget cuts the Defense Department had to endure during his time there and how Obama made little effort to roll them back. But the press that mindlessly repeats this critique conveniently overlooks that those cuts—also known as the sequestration—were specifically added to the 2011 budget deal as a poison pill for Republicans. That Obama would try to free the GOP from its side of the debt bargain makes zero political sense, but in Panetta’s myopic view, it’s just another example of the president’s feckless disengagement.

As for all the supposed candor Panetta dishes out? Well, his friends in the Washington also seem to have forgotten how it so often comes across as reckless rhetoric if not outright deception. For example, remember the time as Defense Secretary that Panetta inexplicably linked the Iraqi invasion to 9/11 and the war on Al Qaeda? Or how about the time he mistakenly told Afghan President Hamid Karzai—twice—that the US planned to leave 70,000 troops in the country through to 2014 (more than twice the actual number). And let’s not forget Panetta’s even more alarming comments last year, when he both lied and obfuscated about the scope of the US drone strike program, raising more questions about his role in it.

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In fact, as Michael Cohen explained last week in a Daily Beast column—one that got far less attention than the former Defense Secretary’s numerous front-page profiles and TV hits—Leon Panetta represents a lot of what is wrong with Washington. As Cohen notes:

“There is more here, however, than just DC-style situational loyalty. In Panetta’s obsessive focus on the politics of national security, his fetishization of military force and his utter lack of strategic vision, what is also evident is the one-dimensional foreign policy thinking that so dominates Washington—and which Panetta has long embodied.”

No surprise then, that Panetta’s biggest beefs with President Obama involve moments where the president dared to diverge—even briefly—from the hawkish conventional wisdom that pervades Washington.

In choosing not to attack Syria last fall following his “red line” comments and in acceding to Iraq’s demands for a full withdrawal of US troops (an agreement brokered under President Bush, you might recall), Obama showed weakness and damaged our nation’s credibility, Panetta alleges. That the US Congress and the Iraqi parliament, respectively, also opposed Panetta’s preferred course of action seems to be of little consequence to him. For real DC operators, democracy is merely a nuisance to be gotten around, I guess. But such Machiavellian instincts make his book’s calls for Obama to “engage” more with Congress ring hollow.

Likewise, Panetta notably describes Obama as having “lost his way” in the past two years, but he “may have found himself again with regard to this ISIS crisis.” That Panetta’s disappointment with the president’s foreign policy so closely correlates to the US pulling out of Iraq and winding down the surge in Afghanistan is no coincidence. Neither is his assertion that our latest military escapade in the Middle East—what he ominously calls a “30-year war”—offers the potential to resurrect Obama’s leadership before leaving office.

The upshot: Panetta fully subscribes to an aggressive foreign policy mindset where waging endless war equals exerting leadership. But such a position seems so unremarkable inside the cloistered world of the Washington establishment that it literally isn’t remarked upon. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. The Beltway press had a choice in how it covered Panetta and his book. And, in fact, it has shown on at least one occasion the distinct ability to aim tough skepticism at a White House memoir.

Of course, there’s a big caveat to this example: The Price of Loyalty, the 2004 re-telling of former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s tenure in the Bush White House. Written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, and drawing upon copious notes and documentation, this as-told-to tell-all portrayed Bush as a thoroughly disengaged leader and provided stunning evidence that his administration was already plotting the removal of Saddam Hussein a mere 10 days into office. Arriving as it did at the beginning of the 2004 presidential primary season, Democrats like Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Wesley Clark seized on its revelations as evidence of Bush’s Iraqi WMD deception and called on Congress to investigate.

O’Neill enjoyed a spate of coverage, but the attention on his book disappeared from the media landscape almost as quirky as it appeared. Over at The Weekly Standard, the editors couldn’t help gloating that, after a mere 48 hours, coverage of The Price of Loyalty had fizzled out and gone “poof.” This was thanks, in part, to dismissive, condescending columns within the media elite like this one by Slate’s Michael Kinsley, which barely mentioned Bush’s impure intentions about Iraq and ended by calling O’Neill an “idiot.” No labeling of his book a “public service” from this crowd.

But perhaps the most illuminating contrast between Panetta’s recent victory lap though Washington and O’Neill’s rougher ride comes courtesy of The Washington Post. In a Jan. 15, 2004 editorial entitled “Mr. O’Neill and Iraq,” the paper offered up what now looks like the Bizarro version of last week’s beatification of Panetta, right down to its flip-flopping over the value of blunt, off-the-cuff comments and its sober tut-tutting of anyone who indulges in lazy second-guessing about the president's leadership:

“The question is: Who is doing the misleading. During his rocky tenure as Treasury secretary, Mr. O’Neill proved to be a loose cannon, sometimes spooking financial markets with wild remarks, sometimes holding forth with extreme confidence on subjects, such as African development, about which he knew little….

“The wisdom of waging war in Iraq is a legitimate and important topic of political debate. But the Democratic candidates do no favors to their positions when they accept, uncritically, a half-unsurprising and half-dubious account, for no better reason than that it fits their prejudices.”

This final warning is wise advice, indeed. Too bad that when it comes to Washington insiders who are all about spewing vague bipartisan platitudes and fueling an endless state of war, the same Beltway press can’t see past their own prejudices to follow it.

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: The Elephant in the Room With Leon Panetta.

Media Culpa: The Politics of Personal Deconstruction

Gary Hart

Gary Hart (Department of Defense photo/Dave Wilson)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My new Nation column is "A Tale of One City by David Brooks"—The “one city” is the New York dreamed of in Mr. Brooks’s imagination.

Chick Corea and the Vigil Live at the Blue Note and with Christian McBride and Brian Blade on “Trilogy” (three CDs on Concord Records)
New (old) Dead releases
The Roundabout Theater’s “India Ink” by Tom Stoppard (and some other stuff).

Chick Corea has twenty Grammys, but what really makes him unique is the incredible range of his compositional and musical ability. Corea brought one of his many bands, “The Vigil” to the Blue Note for a week of shows, which, for the present includes saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Tim Garland, guitarist Charles Altura, bassist Hadrien Feraud, drummer Marcus Gilmore, percussionist Pernell.  They are all amazing in their own way and while the band is usually understood to be a kind of fusion thing—a successor to “Return to Forever,” the show I saw was pretty jazz and Latin focused, which was a pleasant surprise.  Among the highlights for yours truly was the new composition, “Royalty,” a Corea-penned tribute to drummer and bandleader Roy Haynes, whom Corea calls his “hero, mentor and friend” whom he first met in 1967 when he joined the Stan Getz quartet. (The band’s drummer is Roy’s grandson.) The rest of the show was heavily flamenco/tango/Spanish influenced and while it was the first set of the run, everybody left pretty happy.

What I really hope to see soon, however is Corea playing with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, and doing the kind of classic jazz and Corea compositions that appear on his new live triple-CD “Trilogy.” It’s the kind of jazz one yearns for if one is, like yours truly, stuck in the past, both in terms of mid-century compositions and Corea’s earlier career—“My Spanish Heart” is my personal favorite—albeit updated and reimagined by three terrific and telepathic players. Highlights of this delightful collection include  “Fingerprints,” Corea’s “Spain,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and a gorgeous “Someday My Prince Will Come” with Gayle Moran Corea on vocals closing out the three CDs and leaving one very much wishing to go back to the beginning.

In recent Dead release news, there’s a new enormous 1990 box that I’ve not heard, but one of the highlights is a March 29 show at Nassau Coliseum that featured Branford Marsalis in the second set. It’s three CDs and called Wake Up To Find Out, which is appropriate because it has a terrific “Eyes of the World,” and also an awesome “Dark Star.” Blair Jackson wrote about this pairing: “Of all the guest musicians who shared the Dead’s stage through the years—and they were many and varied—none embodied both the Dead’s adventurous, questing spirit and their obsession with beautiful melodies and accessible structures quite like Branford did.”  Deadheads are also listening to Dave’s Picks, 11, Wichita, 1972. It was the only time they ever played there and they throw in a few songs from Oklahoma City 11/15/72. It’s that’s your period, then, you probably should have subscribed to the series, since that’s the only way to get Dave’s Picks before they sell out. And if you missed out on that, and have the same taste in Dead shows that I do, then you will want to check your collection and make sure you already have “Grateful Dead: Dick's Picks Vol. 15—Raceway Park, Englishtown, NJ 9/3/77.” If you don’t then, by all means, thanks Real Gone Music, because they’ve just re-released it. It was an amazing and historic show, I can tell you, from what I remember. There were like, a billion people there and the Dead played three sets after Marshall Tucker and the New Riders. Patty, Sarit and I waited for like, four hours for Rachel Malina and Jolie Goodman, who we were nice enough to drive there and they NEVER came back. (Don’t ask me what they were doing. They ditched us as soon as we got there.) Well, they came back eventually, but not in time for Patty to get to her job at the market the next morning so we left them there, in Englishtown, and gave Rachel’s scary dad the bad news when we got home the next morning. (It was a 24-hour trip.) So by all means, you will want this show. I can still remember how great Keith’s piano sounded—it made my migraine go away. (I was afraid to ask anyone if they had any aspirin because, you know, it was a Dead show....) As to what I don’t remember, Real Gone reminds me: “It was also the first show after the release of Terrapin Station, and several numbers (the title track, ‘Samson and Delilah’ and ‘Estimated Prophet,’ which segues into a really unusual and stellar "Eyes of the World") surface from the album. ‘The Music Never Stopped,’ ‘Peggy-O,’ ‘Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo’ and ‘He's Gone’ are all given what could be characterized as definitive renditions as well, and the band closes the night by playing ‘Truckin’’ for the first time in two years before the ‘Terrapin Station’ encore.” So thanks guys.

PS “Dave” will be doing a live chat today at 4:00 about the 1990 box which I imagine will remain up if you check in afterward, here.

Whenever I see a play by Tony Kushner, he gets my vote for “World’s Greatest Living Playwright.” But whenever I see a Tom Stoppard play, I switch my vote to him...until I see another Tony Kushner play. Anyway, for the next while, it will be Stoppard, who gets extra points as a playwright, in my opinion, for having crappy politics (which makes him harder to like than Tony, whose politics I mostly share). Stoppard’s play India Ink is now getting its New York premier from the Roundabout Theater at the Laura Pells Theater and while it’s not A+ Stoppard, it’s good enough Stoppard to be nearly great.

The plot is this: “Set on two different continents and in two different eras, Indian Ink follows free-spirited English poet Flora Crewe on her travels through India in the 1930s, where her intricate relationship with an Indian artist unfurls against the backdrop of a country seeking its independence. Fifty years later, in 1980s England, her younger sister Eleanor (Tony and Golden Globe Award® winner Rosemary Harris) tries to preserve the legacy of Flora's controversial career. Little by little, Flora’s mysterious past is revealed, as is the surprising story of two people whose connection lives on through art.” Weird, huh? Acting is quite good and the sets are wonderful. It comes with a warning that the “production features nudity and is therefore recommended for audiences over 16 years of age” but I found this to be disappointingly overplayed.

Oh and hey, a lot of people I know who were really smart really liked Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Lucky them. All 45 episodes, plus the Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, have been meticulously remastered from the original film elements and are available for the first time in HD. Thank Shout! Factory for Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series Blu-ray box set so if you’re that kind of person, this set’s for you. (Turns out, I’m not, but I tried...)

Also this: Tonight I will be doing a BDS event at the CUNY Grad Center (Rooms C203-205, concourse level), at 6:30 with Susannah Heschel and Todd Gitlin, timed to the CUNY doctoral students’ vote on a proposal before them. Here and here are a couple of articles dealing with the issue and the CUNY vote.

Also this coming weekend is the New Yorker Festival, and my friend Susan Morrison wants you to know that she will be interviewing Randy Newman, which will be great, and Buster Poindexter, who will also be playing, so how great is that? Get the details here. It’s a terrific schedule this year. And hey, that reminds me, Buster is coming back to the Cafe Carlyle, which is a really great evening, if you’re either really rich or in need of an extra special occasion.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Media Culpa: The Politics of Personal Deconstruction
by Reed Richardson

It’s a natural question to ask as we head into the final stretch of another election. To partake of all the petty parsing, optics obsessing, and scandal saturating that colors so much coverage of modern politics is to inevitably wonder: Where did it all go so wrong?

Matt Bai, national political columnist for Yahoo News, offers up his answer in a new book All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid (Knopf, $26.95). While paying reverence to the holy trinity of campaign journalism—The Making of the President 1960, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, and What It Takes—Bai zeroes in on the sudden political flameout of Democratic presidential frontrunner Gary Hart in 1987 as the turning point. But it’s really the last of that troika, Richard Ben Cramer’s seminal profile of the ’88 campaign, that serves as the primary inspiration for Bai’s book. In the preface, for example, Bai recounts making a personal pilgrimage to essentially seek Cramer’s blessing. And to his credit, Bai grasps what has been lost on most of those in the political press who aspire to follow in the footsteps of What It Takes:

“But most often they mistook the point of Richard’s work; where he was most interested in illuminating worldviews and reconstructing the experiences that shaped them, his disciples were increasingly obsessed with personalities and unflattering revelations, the portrayal of politicians as flawed celebrities.”

This is critique is spot-on. Bai, however, is too diplomatic to name names (besides, occasionally, his own). But when it comes to the superficial, gaffe-obsessed, personality-driven dramaturgy that has gripped campaign journalism of late, one need look no further than Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin. His own inane triad of books documenting the past three presidential electionsThe Way to Win, Game Change, and Double Down: Game Change 2—serve as perfect case studies of a political press drowning in minutiae, palace intrigue, and “winning the news cycle.” Ironically, back in 2007, Halperin penned a fatuous column that blamed his own journalistic myopia (along with that of his Beltway colleagues) on what is mostly a misinterpretation of Cramer’s book:

“I’m not alone. [What It Takes’] thesis—that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office—has shaped the universe of political coverage.…

“But now I think I was wrong. The ‘campaigner equals leader’ formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.”

Halperin’s mea culpa was short-lived. Bai, however, seems to be after a longer lasting apologia. Indeed, at times, his book comes across as self-confession, where he’s seeking penance for his own past journalistic sins, the origin of which he traces back to what he believes is the more lasting lesson from Hart’s downfall. That it heralded a new, more prurient, less substantial era in the political press. Or, as he more flamboyantly puts it:

“[T]he story of Hart and the blonde didn’t just prove to be Hart’s undoing; it was the story that changed all the rules, a sudden detonation whose smoke and soot would shadow American politics for decades to come.”

This kind of purple prose and clichéd exaggeration—all the rules, really?—diminishes rather than burnishes this book’s real value. In a later example of this flair for the melodramatic, he characterizes the Miami Herald scoop of Hart’s possible infidelity as “the very moment when the walls between the public and private lives of candidates, between politics and celebrity, came tumbling down forever.” (For a fuller taste of the book, Bai published excerpts of it recently in The New York Times Magazine.)

Over-the-top language like this feels especially off-putting precisely because Bai has done yeoman’s work in pulling together a compelling and freshly reported narrative of an oft-overlooked moment in American political and journalistic history. The book reminds us that many of the structural elements of the 24-hour news feeding frenzy that we’ve grown accustomed to—pop-up satellite dish farms and paparazzi-like stakeouts—hadn’t yet been deployed to cover a presidential campaign scandal before Hart’s. Likewise, a political press corps that had willfully ignored the extramarital affairs of public figures like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had never before engaged in public, on-the-record questioning of a candidate’s sex life until Donna Rice’s name emerged. So when all these phenomena suddenly converged on the Hart story, one gets the palpable sense from Bai’s narrative that the press’s ground rules had unquestionably shifted, seemingly overnight.

New reporting and insightful context help flesh out that narrative as well. Thanks to Bai’s meticulous fact-checking, we learn that the Hart scandal’s timeline is mostly a myth. The conventional wisdom always had it that Hart challenged the press to find any dirt on him with his now legendary “follow me around” comments to E.J. Dionne in The New York Times Magazine. So, it was in taking him up on this offer that the press subsequently uncovered his affair with Donna Rice and the damning photo of her sitting in Hart’s lap, with him wearing both a mischievous grin and a T-shirt emblazoned with the oh-so-unfortunate name of the boat, “Monkey Business.” As Bai notes, this narrative conveniently absolved the press from culpability over digging into Hart’s personal life—after all, he had been arrogantly asking for it. (Even more telling, Bai finds the reporters involved in outing Hart’s affairs are complicit in perpetuating this myth.)

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In fact, Hart’s infamous “follow me around” quote wasn’t published until after the Herald had gotten its tip, staked out Hart’s DC townhouse, and then confronted him about his relationship with Rice. (Another nice bit of reporting detail: Bai finds out that this infamous quote had been cut by an editor during an early draft and Dionne had it reinserted it later.) It was only because a pre-publication version of the story was circulated to newsrooms that the Herald was able to insert the quote at the last minute into its initial scoop. In other words, the Herald had started snooping around Hart’s sex life before he’d told them to, but it pretended otherwise.

As for the anonymous tip to the Herald that set the wheels of fate in motion? Bai breaks new ground here too, by finally tracking down and reporting who made it. Turns out it was Dana Weems, a jealous acquaintance of Donna Rice. More than 25 years later, her blithe, half-hearted apology for spitefully ruining Hart’s career is perhaps emblematic of how fully our society has normalized invasive press coverage of so-called political scandals.

Nor, frankly, does Bai find much, if any, contrition from anyone in the press who played a major role in Hart’s unraveling. This betrays the book’s over-cooked investment in the impact of its central story. Rather than “changing all the rules,” this moment would have been more accurately portrayed as a notable point along a continuum of changes in political coverage. In fact, one could argue two other media events from that same year—the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the Robert Bork nomination fight—have influenced media coverage and the “politics of personal destruction” as much as, if not more than, Hart’s story.

At times, misplaced nostalgia gets the better of Bai. In his campaign to tarnish the post-Hart era of journalism, he indulges in some rank ‘golden age’-ing of the era that preceded it:

“Before the mid-eighties, which stories got on the air, and how prominently they were featured, depended almost entirely on their objective news value—that is, how relevant they were to the public interest. But now that calculation had a lot more to do with immediacy; suddenly a story could be captivating without being especially important.”

To believe this is to ignore the reality that an overwhelming white, male, establishment viewpoint defined for decades what did and didn’t have “objective news value.” As a result, many, many voices were simply shut out of our democracy. On CNN’s Reliable Sources this past weekend, host Brian Stelter pushed this point and Bai, somewhat disingenuously, replied: “I didn’t write manifesto.”

This highlights the other valuable, but mostly unintended, takeaway of Bai’s book—the perils of a press corps with an agenda it doesn’t own up to. In the cast of Hart, the press covering him clearly didn’t like him and it showed. To read Bai’s accounts of how the Woodward and Bernstein-inspired younger members of press corps disdained the more sober, less hail-fellow-well-met vibe coming from Hart is to see a collision of interests in the making.

Only a few months into Hart’s campaign, and the political press was already dwelling on his personality rather than his policies, constantly knocking him as “cool and aloof,” a “loner,” and, worst of all, “weird.” (Hmm, does this remind anyone of the press’s coverage of another campaign?) That a petulant press corps would inevitably begin digging into the long-time rumors of Hart’s extramarital affairs wasn’t pre-ordained, but sure became more likely the longer the campaign lasted. (And in an ironic twist, no one probably knew more about Hart’s dalliances than Bob Woodward himself, who had hosted Hart as a roommate for a time during his Senate career, when Hart did little to hide his having a D.C. “girlfriend.”)

Bai does an admirable job of holding up to the light how an already hostile press rationalized its interest in the “womanizing” angle. Or to use the phrase from one of the book’s chapter titles, all these rumors were “out there” and so were fair game. Time and again, this facile reasoning is given by reporters to excuse asking Hart uncomfortable questions about his marriage. Even legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee buys into it, saying that if the Post hadn’t done it, someone else would have—a classic intellectual dodge. That Hart, out of principle, refused to dignify these questions only feeds the aggrieved press’s curiosity. And in classic case of compromised objectivity, almost all of the reporters covering the Hart sex scandal said they felt anger toward Hart, as if his conduct was somehow coercing them into lowering their journalistic standards.

But Bai is guilty of his own biases with respect to Hart. He clearly likes the man. This fondness manifests itself in different ways. For one, he over-estimates Hart’s electoral chances against George H.W. Bush in 1988 in order to engage in a little wistful “What might have been?” alternative history-making had a Hart White House come to pass. This affinity for Hart is also understandable because Bai is a member in good standing of the Beltway entitlement reform caucus. (A position I’ve criticized in the past.) And Hart was the prototypical New Democrat, someone who likely would have tried to “fix” Medicare and Social Security in ways that undermined the social safety net.

Comparing his gentle treatment of Hart today to his coverage of John Edwards in 2007 is to see Bai avoiding the trap of tabloid coverage but still indulging in flippant character deconstruction of a different kind. In a lengthy, 2007 profile that Bai references in his book, he looked at Edwards’ plan for lifting up the poorest Americans and where it fit on the policy spectrum. (Too far to the left for Bai’s taste, mostly.) And yet Bai still can’t help but traffic in an uber-cynical, meta-campaign take on someone who, for all the personal faults later exposed, was genuinely interested in helping a vast majority of forgotten Americans:

“So, in an odd way, building a campaign around poverty—while at the same time calling for an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, which thrills liberal partisans—turns out to be a very shrewd primary strategy, after all. It’s not that Edwards doesn’t believe in what he’s saying; it’s just that he surely knows, at the end of the day, that it isn’t really a liability, either.”

This kind of damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t paradox sounds an awful lot like the game-within-the-game media narratives that Hart faced and Bai rails against in his book. Indeed, Bai accurately notes that the no-win questions that the media was asking about Hart’s sex life are precisely what finally doomed his campaign.

In the end, Bai reiterates that the press makes its own choices on coverage and has agency over what narratives it decides to emphasize and ignore. For Bai, that means closing out his book by choosing not to ask Hart if he really did have an affair with Rice. But that’s a question long since rendered moot by history. Instead, we should be more interested in how Bai and others in the political press will figure out which questions they should—and shouldn’t—ask going forward, so that our democracy doesn’t end up being sorry for the answers it did—and didn’t—get.

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: A Tale of One City by David Brooks.

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.

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