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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity

John Boehner

John Boehner during the 2013 government shutdown (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My Nation column is called “Midterm Media Meltdown.” The subhed says “The election results reflect a complex reality; the press prefers simple narratives.”

Here’s a piece on “Why Liberals Need Radicals,” though it could have been called “Why Liberals Need (Some) Radicals (and Not Some Others),” that I published in Democracy.

I also did a really long interview with Graham Nash about music and politics and Crosby and Stills and Young (and Joni Mitchell). Graham's fans may have missed it as I haven’t seen it on The Nation homepage, but if you're interested, it’s here.

Lake Street Dive live at Terminal 5
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s show “Grownup Songs” at the Café Carlyle
Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11
Simon & Garfunkel: The Complete Albums Collection
Rereleases of Paul McCartney's Venus and Mars and Wings' Wings at the Speed of Sound

Saturday night I joined a surprisingly enormous crowd of hipsters who had made the hegira from the hipper precincts of Brooklyn to Terminal 5 in the far west 50s to see Lake Street Dive. I saw them at the concert last year in honor of “Inside Llewyn Davis” and like so many people at Town Hall, I was mightily impressed. Then I looked up their EP and their great covers on YouTube and was totally smitten. I thought they were new then, but it turns out they’ve been around since 2004. They were founded in Boston by Rachael Price, who does all the singing, all the talking, all the dancing (since she’s not holding up any instruments) and most (if not all) of the sex appeal. The band also has Mike “McDuck” Olson (trumpet, guitar), Bridget Kearney (upright bass) and Mike Calabrese (drums). They met while attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and are named after a street with many dive bars in Olson's hometown of Minneapolis. (I had thought it might be an “LSD” reference. I’m glad to see it’s not.) Apparently other commitments, including legal commitments to other labels, prevented them from recording for a long time, but in February of this year they put out Bad Self Portraits.

I had no idea they had become so popular. (Neither did they, by the way—they kept marveling at how many people had come to see them two nights a row.) They sure did pack Terminal 5 and demonstrated a powerful connection with their fans. And what an enthusiastic crowd it was. It’s kind of hard to describe their sound. It’s a little bit Amy Winehouse but relying more heavily on jazz and soul than blues. It’s an interesting amalgam of styles and talents that, if you ask me, will only get better as it coheres and grows more self-confident.

Speaking of self-confidence, I returned one more time to the Café Carlyle to sit at the bar and take in John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s show “Grownup Songs.” And while seeing John with just Bucky (and his brother, Martin, on bass and two other guys) was a lot of fun, this show was really something special. It was almost an overdose of charm and good taste and wonderfully presented (and conceived) music. Some of it was written by Molaskey. (I would not put it past either one if Molaskey also wrote some of Pizzarelli’s A+ patter since she comes off so well in that too.) Anyway, the Café Carlyle, while tremendously expensive, is a kind of sacred space for this kind of music, and nobody fills it better than these two. John is so funny and such a great guitarist and not a bad singer, and Molaskey and he have a rapport that is so charming it cannot possibly be real (except on stage). It’s their eighth year there, and if you had to pick one night to spend all your money on a romantic evening—or even a pretend romantic evening—I’d pick this one. (I’d also try to get John to play that Jersey thing when it’s over, which is not the second best song about Jersey, and he is not the second best singer from Jersey, but it is the best song I’ve ever heard written about Jersey—except for all of those written by the guy who wrote ALL of the best ones (and also not including Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl,” of course).  

You may have heard that we finally have something like the complete Basement Tapes that Bob Dylan and The Band recorded in 1967 on a six-disc box set with extensive notes and photos. (There is also a two-CD set if you don’t want to lay out the $120 or so for the complete version.)

Perhaps no unreleased music has ever received the attention that this set received; it literally began the bootleg business. Part of the mystery is derived from the fact that Dylan, at the height of perceived prophetic significance, had a motorcycle accident—we still don’t know how serious—and disappeared from view.

While (apparently) recuperating, he got together with what had once been the Hawks, behind Ronnie Hawkins, and became The Band (because, after all, if they are playing with Dylan, they are The Band) made up of (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and, later, Levon Helm) in the basement of a small house, dubbed “Big Pink” in West Saugerties, New York. They recorded over one hundred songs; many just because they were drunk and/or high and thought it would be fun and a whole bunch because Dylan wrote them and wanted to make them available to others for recording. In 1975, Robbie Robertson put together sixteen of them, cleaned them up, added eight Band songs and released them on Columbia. Everybody loved it, but that’s all we got, save for crappy-sounding bootlegs…until now. 

Thanks to an incredible salvaging effort, including a whole bunch of songs recently discovered recorded in the “Red Room” of Dylan's home in upstate New York. Garth Hudson worked closely with Canadian music archivist and producer Jan Haust to restore the deteriorating tapes and turn it into these six CDs.

Literally everything is here (though the sixth disc is of such low fidelity, it’s here just for completeness’ sake). It’s almost all pretty wonderful and will enrich the lives of anyone who is open to it. I am particularly enamored, for the first time ever, of the fact that sometimes there will be three or four versions of the same song in a row—usually something I can’t stand—but they are so different from one another, that it is both fun and interesting to hear them in a row. Overall, it’s one of the greatest collections of American music by a single source you will find anywhere, reaching the listener from multiple directions, simultaneously: the head, the heart and everything in between. I feel lucky to be alive now that it’s finally available and feel a sense of sadness for all the Dylanites who did not live long enough to experience it.

Also from my friends at Columbia Legacy, we got Simon & Garfunkel: The Complete Albums Collection. It’s maybe the third time you could buy everything they did in the studio together, though it’s been remastered and this collection includes those five records, plus first-time remasters of The Graduate, The Concert in Central Park (recorded in 1981 before half a million people), a double live album from their 2004 reunion tour, plus live albums from 1967 and 1969, both released pretty recently. I love the fact that they come in their original sleeves and that you can listen to the albums as individual historical artifacts—rather than as a collection of songs—as they appear on the box sets. (It also includes the greatest hits record, which strikes me as silly.) Paul Simon has often said he is not so crazy about this music—he finds is both musically and intellectually simplistic—but it’s all pretty damn good in retrospect, if a bit twee on occasion. Again it would be hard for anyone not to like this, even if they’ve got one of the previous box sets. I sure do. The sound is pristine and the packaging brings back the pheromones of the time.

Finally, we also got two remastered re-releases of early Paul McCartney and Wings albums. I have a theory that each Beatle had one great album and one near-great album in them and that was it. After that, each album only had a decent song or two but was otherwise uninspired. They needed both the cooperation and the competition for the magic to make its appearance. John’s Plastic Ono Band is great and Imagine is near-great. George’s All Things Must Pass, is the best post-Beatles album ever, and Living in the Material World, is not bad at all. Ringo’s Ringo, which is, in some ways, an actual Beatles album, is also great. The near-great part of my theory kind of breaks down with Ringo, though I suppose he must have also put out a good album at some point. I seem to remember Beaucoups of Blues was not bad.

Paul’s great album is Band on the Run. His near-great album is Venus and Mars. (I also like McCartney a lot, but it’s more like half an album.) I remember when these two albums came out; people thought they could now look forward to Paul being great again and a lifetime of almost Beatles quality music from the Cute One.

Band on the Run got the re-release treatment two years ago, and now here is V & M, and while it is not quite as good—Band is good enough to be a Beatles album—it’s enormously satisfying on its own. Wings at the Speed of Sound, however, has a couple of decent songs, “Beware My Love,” and “Time to Hide,” some throwaways and more than few that should have been strangled in their respective cradles (“Let ’Em In,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Warm and Beautiful” and “Cook of the House” for starters…).

Both have been released in a variety of formats. I got the two-CD standard edition, with the original remastered album, and the second CD includes bonus audio made up of material including demos and unreleased tracks. The V & M bonus material is excellent and every Beatles person will want this collection. As for WATSOS, well, the extras don’t help much either. But if you know someone with really bad musical taste, it will make a fine gift.

This reminds me, John P. and Jessica M. resurrected Paul’s “Heart of the Country,” and it was better than I remembered it, even if I’m guessing they chose it so John could tell his “Bucky and I played guitar for Sir Paul” bit for the umpteenth-million time...

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity
by Reed Richardson

Since 2008, it has become a biennial ritual in the political press. In the aftermath of every election—no matter the outcome—the media establishment carefully explains that the Republican Party will now have to move to the center, accept compromise and govern more responsibly. And each and every time—no matter the circumstances—the Republican Party ignores this counsel and instead becomes more extreme, more intransigent and more antagonistic toward governance.

You would think that, by now, the press would have learned this lesson. That after six years of getting it wrong, the press would have figured out that a relentless GOP campaign of unswerving opposition—launched mere hours into the Obama presidency—would never be so easily relinquished.

After its drubbing in the 2012 election, you'll recall, the GOP commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to conduct a post-mortem on the party’s mistakes. When they were released to much fanfare in March of 2013, the final recommendations of the Growth and Opportunity Project were lauded by Beltway pundits as “bold” and “comprehensive” and received some egregiously positive and credulous coverage. The Republicans, so went the DC thinking, had finally woken up. To remain relevant, the party could no longer afford to substitute xenophobia, obstruction and anti-government nihilism for a policy agenda. And among the most notable and newsworthy of the GOP project’s priorities, it’s worth remembering, was this:

“We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.”

It didn’t take long, however, before this clarion call to solve one of our nation’s biggest challenges—implicitly by working with the recently re-elected President Obama—was drowned under a riptide of GOP nativism. In fact, in their progress “check-up” one year later, the GOP report’s authors omitted any mention of immigration reform—like the whole idea of supporting its passage had never even happened. On the GOP’s website, a series of congratulatory quotes from conservative leaders about the GOP’s progress in Hispanic outreach trotted a lot of vague marketing spin about better “engagement.” The phrase “comprehensive immigration reform” was, again, nowhere to be found.

Did the establishment media make a point of noticing the party’s huge feint toward the center on immigration reform over the past year-and-a-half? Not so much. Months after barely noticing that the Republican National Committee’s Director of Hispanic Outreach had quit in protest over the GOP’s “culture of intolerance,” major news organizations could still be found regurgitating party press releases and glossing over the growing anti-immigrant tenor of GOP rhetoric and its policies.

The same phenomenon played out with fiscal policy as well. After pushing our fragile economy to the brink of disaster during the 2011 debt ceiling fight, the Beltway conventional wisdom told everyone that a chastened, post-2012 Republican Party wasn’t about to do that again. But then last fall, there did it again. Even worse, in fact, as a small band of fringe conservatives were able to hijack the party leadership and shut down the federal government for more than two weeks, costing the country billions. All as part of the GOP’s years-long, quixotic quest to repeal Obamacare.

True to form, the press seemingly did its level best to avoid holding Republicans accountable for this negligent economic stewardship. Emblematic of this flawed coverage last year were analyses that indulged in vague blaming of “Washington” and “lawmakers” and that crassly tallied up the “winners” and “losers” of the crisis without ever bothering to note the chaos inflicted on the lives of so many Americans. Rather than preventing the next paralyzing government showdown, the media’s toothless response last October actually made another one more likely, by normalizing the GOP’s recklessness as just another symptom of Capitol Hill gridlock. As a I wrote at the time:

“Stripped of any reportorial continuity, each crisis simply gets treated as sui generis. Divorced from a broader narrative, ongoing dysfunction begins to seem endemic to government itself. Neither is true. Debt limit threats, government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, sequester cuts: all of these are merely different varietals of the same, poisoned austerity fruit. Likewise, these crises do not naturally spring from, but are in fact artificially inflicted upon Washington, D.C.—and by extension, the country—by a Republican Party intent on delegitimizing every aspect of our federal government.”

Despite all this evidence, the media somehow still think the Republicans will change and become “serious” about governing again. After the GOP stormed to victory in the most recent midterms, a handful of Republican politicians said as much, pooh-poohing the notion of using another budget shutdown as leverage against the president. Right on cue, the media still started singing the same old song. Never mind what happened after 2008, 2010, or 2012. This time—this time—things will be different in Washington.

Wishing doesn’t make it so, though. This past week, for instance, GOP Rep. Steve King was already hinting at the Republican brinksmanship to come. In what amounted to several not-so-veiled threats, he talked of shutting down the government again if President Obama took executive action to deal with immigration. And while King is well known for his outrageous, extremist views, his bluster shouldn’t be taken as mere idle chatter from a powerless backbencher. Recall that last summer, Speaker John Boehner basically handed the legislative reins over to King and Rep. Michele Bachmann to shape the House’s draconian border security bill. Moreover, King is proudly and publicly allying himself with Senate gadfly and obstructionist par excellence Ted Cruz, who was the prime mover in last fall’s sixteen-day government shutdown.

Of course, another government shutdown would prove to be but a skirmish if the party followed through on the numerous calls within its ranks to unleash political thermonuclear war by impeaching the president. If, as expected, Obama does finally take executive action in the coming weeks on immigration—just as previous GOP presidents have done before, I should add—several House Republicans are already on the record arguing in favor of impeaching him for it. This thirst for political vengeance isn’t just the case of a few vocal House Republicans popping off; the conservative grassroots are firmly behind it. A recent Democracy Corps poll, for example, found that a slim majority of GOP voters want Congress to consider starting impeachment hearings on the president right now. Among self-identified Tea Party voters—who will make up a key part of the GOP’s 2016 presidential primary electorate—the prospect of impeaching Obama immediately triumphs by a two-to-one margin.

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The fact is it’s far more likely that conservatives don’t want the Republicans to try their hand at governing. They see the mandate as a chance to undo as much of the past six years as possible. So, when the press portrays the political reality in Washington as something less ominous, less foreboding, it does the public a grave disservice, as Jay Rosen noted in this incisive post at his PressThink blog:

“Asserted as a fact of political life, ‘Republicans must show they can govern’ is a failure of imagination, and a sentimentalism. It refuses to grapple with other equally plausible possibilities. For example: that declining to govern will produce so much confusion about lines of responsibility and alienation from a broken political system that voters can’t, won’t, or in any case don’t ‘punish’ the people who went for obstruction.”

This is “objective” political journalism as its most insidious—projecting its can’t-we-all-get-along, centrist biases onto a increasingly hard-right party that has learned it can use the Beltway media's “both sides do it” framing as political cover. Thanks to this false balance in the press's political coverage, Republicans know they will rarely be held accountable for their unprecedented obstruction and reckless brinksmanship. Likewise, it works in their favor when the press overdoses on ambiguous complaints of “gridlock” and fuzzy talk of governmental dysfunction, by depressing voter turnout at the polls. Couple that smaller, more Republican midterm electorate with the GOP’s ruthless, state-level redistricting tactics, and you have a party that has managed to build an entrenched majority in the House and a stalemate in the Senate, all without having to compromise on a single piece of major legislation and without having had much of a policy agenda other than reflexively opposing the president at every turn.  

In other words, with all of these factors working in their favor, why in the world would the Republicans ever bother to change? You might call the GOP crazy, but it’s not insane. No, that honor goes to a political press corps that keeps on enabling Republican extremism year after year and then can’t figure out why our broken democracy never gets any better.

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

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

Read Next: Eric Alterman on the midterm media meltdown.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, Revisited

The Berlin Wall in 1990

The Berlin Wall in 1990 (Jurek Durczak)

Editor’s Note: Twenty-five years ago today, Eric Alterman pointed out in the pages of The New York Times that our so-called foreign policy “experts” were wrong about the Berlin Wall, among many other things. Here’s what he wrote at the time.

The Soviet Union embarks on a second revolution and reaches out for peace with the West; East Europeans demand freedom and democracy; East Germans tear down the Berlin Wall and flee their country. These and other amazing changes erupt in world politics, and not one of America's foreign policy gurus comes within a country mile of predicting them. In fact, most foreign policy elites have spent the last few years explaining them away and counseling the West to do nothing. It has been a long and rocky road for America's foreign policy elite since Mr. Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Not since Copernicus, perhaps, have so many been so wrong so frequently with so little humility….

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Throughout Europe, governments, businesses and citizens' groups are forging a new order. Yet, virtually alone within the splendid isolation of the Metroliner corridor, the U.S. foreign policy elite is mired in its stagnant, Brezhnevite mindset.

Read the full text of Eric’s op-ed here. To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Next: No, the Demolition of the Berlin Wall Was Not the End of Socialism

An Altercation Veterans Day Message

US Soldiers in Iraq

(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

I won’t be saying anything in public about the recent events regarding this blog. I may have something to say in the future, but I’m sitting tight for the moment and I apologize to those I am disappointing. In the meantime, I made some comments a few weeks back in this article, which provide some perspective about the difficulties the issue raises. Alas, I underestimated them.

The Real Thing on Broadway
The holiday gift-buying guide begins: Mister Ed, The Jeffersons, Merv Griffin and the Stones.

Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing has always been one of my favorite plays and I thoroughly enjoyed the Roundabout’s revival, currently on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater. It stars Ewan McGregor, who is thrilling, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is not thrilling, but who is luminously excellent in her part in ways that McGregor is not. It also stars Cynthia Nixon, of whom I am usually a fan, but who is woefully miscast in this and does not ever really even get her accent right. (Josh Hamilton is quite good in a smaller role.)  You’ll not find a play with wittier dialogue than this one. It simply could not fail to entertain, and with McGregor in the main role, it actually sparkles. But as other reviewers have also noted, his performance lacks the sadness, the disappointment, the boredom that underlies a middle-aged loss of the power and bravery of youth. (Believe me, I know of what I speak.) So it’s a fun play, with scintillating, smart dialogue and entertainment galore, as the saying goes. But it’s not the masterpiece that we’ve seen before, sadly.

The holiday gift-giving guide begins:

Well, my friends at Shout! Factory have been busy reviving some of the more painful memories of my childhood, alone in front of the TV while everyone else was out having fun. Foremost among these are Mister Ed: The Complete Series, to be released on December 9. It’s six seasons, 143 episodes, 3,480 minutes and twenty-two discs of a talking horse saying “Wilburrrrrrr” a lot, and it’s pretty well-written. They are also about to release The Jeffersons: The Complete Series. That is a Norman Lear show and hence, helped set the standards for innovative TV in its day.  It is an incredible ten seasons, 253 episodes, 4,440 minutes on thirty-three discs. The amazing cast includes Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, and Marla Gibbs, with guest stars Sammy Davis, Jr., Gladys Knight, Reggie Jackson, Billy Dee Williams, among many others. It’s still kind of weird to see how many cliches were necessary to communicate the lives of working class black people to white America in those days (1975-1985) but that makes it more interesting to watch today.

Finally, I am really (really) enjoying MPI Home Video’s The Merv Griffin Show, 1962-1986, which I used to watch when the 4:30 movie was not something I wanted to see. It’s 2,520 minutes on twelve discs and includes, believe it or not, long interviews with and performances by Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Whitney Houston, Jerry Seinfeld, the Everly Brothers, George Carlin, Willie Mays, Aretha Franklin, Salvador Dali, Timothy Leary, Ray Bradbury, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, Ronald Reagan, Robert Kennedy, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, Ingrid Bergman, Jayne Mansfield, and the final interview with Orson Welles, who died just a few hours after the show, among many, many others. The discussions are relaxed, respectful and informative and never cloying the way so many interview shows are today. There’s also some great music. It’s a really terrific collection and anyone interested in the culture of that period will find it a rewarding one.

And finally finally The Rolling Stones have started a new series on CD, Blu-ray and DVD. The one I’ve got is from Eagle Vision From the Vault: Hampton Coliseum, from 1981. The show was on Keith’s birthday—wonder if he knew—and is a pretty damn good show, reasonably well-recorded visually, given the limitations of the time, but with excellent acoustics. For me the highlight is “Just My Imagination” into “Twenty Flight Rock” into “Going To A Go-Go,” but there’s also a mess with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” at the end and a great “Under My Thumb” as the opener.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

So Long at War, We’ve Forgotten Where It Started and Can’t See the End
by Reed Richardson

Ninety-six November 11ths ago: Americans were celebrating. No, celebrating is the wrong word. Better to say rejoicing, as in re-experiencing joy after a long stretch without much of it. Europe was rejoicing, too, even more so, as it had by far gotten the worst of it, but the US had paid a toll too. Though the signing of the official peace treaty was still months away, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month nearly a century ago, the guns of war literally fell silent, marking the real end of what had been the most efficiently bloodiest chapter in world history to date. The New York Times headline summed up the finality of the moment with an appropriately direct front-page headline: ARMISTICE SIGNED, END OF THE WAR!

Sixty November 11ths ago: Armistice Day was now officially Veterans Day, thanks to an act of Congress. The decision to change holiday’s name was made to broaden its focus and honor all those who had recently fought in World War II and Korea. In the Federal Register, President Eisenhower noted that commemorating November 11 wasn’t just about paying tribute to those who had served in the military, but was also about “redirecting ourselves to the cause of peace.” This was no boilerplate sentiment from the man who had led the Normandy Invasion; at that point, our nation had been at war for seven of the past fourteen years.

This November 11th, however, we’re entering our fourteenth consecutive year at war. And yet, an unprecedented thirteen Veterans Days removed from peacetime, it’s still increasingly hard to foresee a Times headline proclaiming a permanent peace. War has now become so normalized in our country that it serves as little more than background noise, both in politics and in the press. Even when we do wind down a major war, it gets little more than a relatively sleepy headline from the likes of The New York Times.

In fact, we’ve been at war for so many years that the media is now in the midst of ignoring our nation’s longest war for a second time. Twelve Veterans Days ago, you’ll recall, the war in Afghanistan was already being neglected by the press, who had begun to dutifully follow the Bush administration pivot to selling its disastrous invasion of Iraq. When Obama ran for president in 2008, he famously promised to refocus on the fight against the Taliban. His post-election surge of troops into Afghanistan drew more media attention with the Iraq War winding down. However, the establishment press proved too distracted with gaffes and optics during the 2012 election to notice the surge’s final results, which by the fall of that year were clearly little more than a complete failure. Perhaps that’s why the press moderators at the four presidential debates only asked one question about the war in Afghanistan across two of the debates. And why, in the other two debates, the word “Afghanistan” got but one mention.

That the media would prove so incurious and uninterested in our prosecution of the war in Afghanistan in a year when more than 300 American service members died was shameful. It also explains why, all too predictably, Afghanistan has faded even further from the press’s radar in the years since, especially during the recent run up to our newest war in the Middle East. This, despite the fact that our latest foreign enemy, ISIS, has killed but two Americans so far (plus one has died in the mission fighting them), while the war in Afghanistan has now claimed 2,350 US veterans’ lives in total, forty-nine of them this year.

How bad has this media myopia gotten? According to a search of the TV news archive, for all of 2014 the number of mentions of “Afghanistan” on the network news evening broadcasts and the five Sunday morning news shows is less than half of that for “ISIS” and “ISIL,” even though the latter terms had never appeared until a few months ago. (One specific example: NBC Nightly News has mentioned Afghanistan 115 times this year, but ISIS and/or ISIL 271 times.)

Similarly, while questions about the threat of ISIS were common fodder for press moderators during the recent midterm debates, only one question about Afghanistan appeared among nearly two-dozen debates in the eleven most competitive races. Credit Tim Carpenter of The Topeka Capital-Journal for asking the Kansas Senate candidates—Independent Greg Orman and Republican Senator Pat Roberts—if the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq justified all the blood and treasure expended. Both of their answers were a muddle of equivocation, but the American people aren’t so undecided. Roughly two-thirds of us agree that the war in Afghanistan and the (previous) war in Iraq simply weren’t worth it. These examples, one would think, would serve as powerful reminders to all of us that war never turns out as expected and wars of choice rarely turns out well.

Of course, it’s a nice sentiment when major media figures pay tribute to the sacrifices that generations of veterans have made, but retweeting old Defense Department profiles pictures isn’t enough. It’s of much greater service to our country—and to our veterans—when journalists do their actual job. Because if the press shirks its duty to ask critical questions about our military operations abroad, and to hold leaders accountable when they fail to achieve their promised goals, it makes it that much easier for our nation to make the same fatal foreign policy mistakes over and over again.

Not coincidentally our latest war in Iraq and Syria has already provided ominous examples of a mission gone awry, much like the unraveling we’ve seen recently in Afghanistan. And though the administration maintains that US combat operations on the ground isn’t an option in Iraq and will be officially cease by the end of this year in Afghanistan, the idea that the US won’t still be engaged in at least one, if not two combat wars come next Veterans Day is a tragic joke. Already, there are subtle signs that reality will play out differently. Leaving 10,000 troops Afghanistan and doubling the U.S. military presence in Iraq to 3,000 simply makes it that much easier to excuse and execute the next escalation.

However, if you want to find an honest, insightful critique of this potentially catastrophic quagmire, the mainstream media is the last place to look. It has grown too preoccupied with the theatrics and rhetoric of leadership to pay much attention to where we’re being led. So the task increasingly has fallen to few outspoken veterans, who aren’t afraid to speak up on behalf of their brethren on active duty. Count retired US Army General Dan Bolger among them. In his new book, Why We Lost, Bolger pulls no punches, taking on the madness of a militarized foreign policy trapped by a fixation with sunk costs and obsessed with turning an endless series of mythical corners.

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What our active duty military and the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were asked to accomplish was effectively impossible, Bolger explains. Unless, he points out, the US is willing to become a multi-generational occupying power and engage in decades of intractable empire enforcement. Or, as he put it to The Guardian this week:

“That’s what the mistake is here: to think that we could go into these countries and stabilize their villages and fix their government, that’s incredible, unless you take a colonial or imperial attitude and say, ‘I’m going to be here for 100 years, this is the British Raj, I’m never leaving.’”

Neither the previous nor the current occupant of the White House would ever publicly commit to decades, if not a century, of war, but, in effect, that’s where our nation is headed. Sadly, most of the press couldn’t be bothered to notice. But this disinterest does a disservice to all of us—veterans included. For, the idea that ten or twenty or even ninety-six November 11ths from today, Americans might still be fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no end and no peace in sight, is a story we can’t afford not be told.

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

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

Read Next: Who’s Paying the Pro-War Pundits?

Corporate Media Companies Are the Real Winners in the 2014 Midterms

Rand Paul

(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My new Nation column is called “What Are Republican Donors Thinking?” It asks the question: “One has to ask: Why are these people so stupid?” and was published for subscribers last Wednesday night. Paul Krugman wrote a column this morning asking: "If they're so rich, why aren't they smarter?" It’s five days later, but because I was paywalled—everybody knows it’s a great idea to paywall a column about the media—and Paul was not, he wins again.

The Allman Brothers final Beacon Shows
John and Bucky Pizzarelli at the Café Carlyle
Buster Poindexter at the Café Carlyle
Rudy Van Gelder 90th birthday celebration at Dizzy’s and Blue Note’s 75th anniversary singles box set.

I saw the Allman Brothers twice in their final run at the Beacon (and anywhere else). The first night was sublime, at least after “Jessica,” in the second set. The final night, you may have heard, they played three sets, ending at about 1:30, and were so terrific they made the whole thing even sadder. I got into a mini-argument with Steve Earle because he thinks the Tedeschi Trucks Band has great material and is poised to become the next great jam band. I think their material is really weak, but that they are poised to become the next great jam band. That’s because Derek is probably the most exciting and expressive guitarist alive, and never more so than when he is playing with Warren Haynes and Gregg Allman—whom I have thought to be the world’s greatest white blues singer for the past forty or so years—is on vocals. The whole thing is so damn annoying. Nothing besides Bruce has ever been as reliably great as the Allman Brothers at the Beacon, and now it’s gone. But thanks to my great friend Danny, I must have seen at least thirty of them, and while the ones with Clapton and Phil and Bob were thrilling, Tuesday night’s was the best. You can read about that here.

Ironically enough, the following night, (on little sleep) I got to see two more really great guitarists at much closer range and without so much emotion, but still, John Pizzarelli and his 88-year-old dad, Bucky played a marvelous set at the Café Carlyle. John’s patter is almost as good as his playing, which is, as the saying goes, really saying something. He is charming and funny and self-effacing, affectionate toward his old man but also teasing in a way that includes all of us. There was considerable potential for disappointment owing to the last-minute absence of the luminous Jessica Molaskey, and I have to say, no one was more disappointed than I was. But I was taking my mom, and you know, good Jewish boy and also, and when old people make plans, they really can’t handle change. (Though John mentioned that when he called Bucky to ask him to substitute for Jessica, he already had his tux on.) Anyway, what Thanksgivings these people must have. (I’m assuming no seders.) The highlights of the show for me were the opening numbers, all Ellington, but played unlike Duke ever did. Bucky’s fingers are a wonder at this age, even if his patter is mostly a series of growls. And what versatility! After the show, I told John about the Allmans the previous night. He said that if I had told him earlier, they would have done “Elizabeth Reed.” I half believed him.

Still as perfect an evening as Pizzarelli squared at the gorgeous (and of course, really, really expensive) Carlyle is, I’ve now seen John twice in the past few months without Jessica, and if you read this review, you’ll see why as lucky as I may feel, I’m still kinda mad. They will be there through November 22

If I had a time machine, I would go back and kill Hitler, of course, among a lot of other things, but I would also like to stop by a New York Dolls show at the Mercer and casually mention to that cross-dressing punk, David Johansen that a few decades hence, he will be wearing a cheap tuxedo and playing the Carlyle in character as lounge lizard with impeccable taste in oldies moldies and goldies that almost nobody would ever hear performed live were it not for the said character, “Buster Poindexter,” with composters ranging from Gordon Jenkins (“New York’s My Home”), Frank Loesser (“I Believe in You”), and O.V. Wright (“Eight Men Four Women”). I wrote about his previous one-night only engagement at the Café and now, as per my advice, they gave him five nights. He was wonderful the night I saw him, looking like Eddie Haskell but sounding like Howlin’ Wolf. The band sparkled and the jokes fell flat—just as they were supposed to—and a splendid time was had by all. Judging by the house, I think Buster’ll be back there at least once a year from now on, maybe more, and if you’re looking for a fun special occasion, well, you could do a lot worse things with all that money.

Oh, and I do want to give a shout-out to Rudy Van Gelder, who had a 90th birthday this week and was celebrated by Concord Records at Dizzy’s with a show by the Jason Ross trio featuring the awesome young Melissa Aldana on sax and Mike Rodriguez on trumpet playing classics from the RVG re-issue series in honor of Prestige Records’ 65th birthday. That was fun, especially a swinging, albeit Sunny-less, version of “St. Thomas,” that had the house rocking. And it reminds me that as part of Blue Note’s ongoing 75th birthday celebration, it has a released a lovely box set of 75 singles from the label’s history called Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression. Curated by the author of the accompanying book Uncompromising Expression, Richard Havers, it’s got a lot stuff I don’t remember hearing before, and it’s nicely packaged in a slim box with a 48-page booklet with photos and a discography. It covers the years 1939 to the present, and I can’t imagine anybody who’d be disappointed with it as a present, especially for oneself.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

The Biggest Winners of the 2014 Midterms: Corporate Media
by Reed Richardson

No matter who prevails this Election Day, one tiny constituency can already lay claim to a landslide win. Thanks to our nation’s increasingly unregulated campaign finance rules, large media corporations once again enjoyed a tidal wave of political ad spending this midterm election, and none more so than the rarefied ownership of our nation’s local TV stations. But when it comes to the long-term health of both journalism and our democracy, these robust news profits are nothing but a hollow victory.

Just how robust are they, though? The final numbers aren’t known yet, but the figure for political ad spending this election cycle up through mid-October was $1.3 billion, according to a Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) analysis. And that left out the final few weeks of frenzied political crunch time, which might mean the total could reach or surpass the 2010 mark of $2.1 billion.

But even if the total for TV political ad dollars comes in slightly lower than during the last midterms, local TV stations may still end up reaping more money. That’s because, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, they’re capturing an even greater share of TV ad spending this cycle. After getting four out of five political ad dollars in 2012, local TV has enjoyed a near monopoly in 2014, attracting an astounding 95 percent of TV political ad spending.

The reason? In a world of increasingly polarized media consumption, local TV looks to be the last remaining news platform that attracts larger numbers of viewers across the ideological spectrum. In fact, no other source of political news is listed among the top 3 preferences of liberals, conservatives, and moderates alike. As a result, a recent Pew survey found that roughly half—49 percent—of all Americans say they get news about politics and government from their TV, more than any other source or channel. CNN, with 44 percent, comes in second and Fox News, at 39 percent, comes in third. As for the big three broadcast networks, they only attract around a third of Americans, and a mere one in four look to MSNBC for political news. For campaigns looking to reach the broadest possible voting audience, local TV has increasingly become their best bet.

Coupled with Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, this evolution in partisan TV viewership has essentially thrown open the political advertising floodgates to local TV stations. This trend has not gone unnoticed by media conglomerates. Last year, in preparation for another banner season of campaign ad-driven profits, media companies engaged in a station-buying frenzy. As this Los Angeles Times article notes, these big media corporations made no secret that they were targeting TV stations in swing states like Iowa and Colorado, where political ads can sometimes run non-stop in the final few weeks of a campaign:

All told, media companies spent $8.8 billion in 2013 to purchase 290 TV affiliates, a three-fold increase in station acquisitions from 2012. What’s more, a vast majority of this activity involved just a few big players in local media ownership, companies like Sinclair, Nexstar, Media General, and Tribune. As a result of this massive consolidation, the top five media companies now own one out of every three TV stations across the country. That’s up from roughly one out of seven a mere 10 years ago. In addition, thanks to years of relaxed FCC ownership rules (some of which were recently tightened), in many communities big conglomerates have effectively gobbled up multiple channels, narrowing the news perspective considerably. Now, joint service agreements between local TV stations in the same city or region exist in half of the nation’s media markets, nearly double the amount from 2011.

As these few media companies broaden their national footprint in search of profitable political ad dollars, news quality and diversity can often suffer. When the decision makers for more and more TV stations reside in another part of the country, it’s tempting to devote less and less focus to complicated local issues. It’s simply more profitable to load up the five o’clock newscast with generic news packages produced at a partner station or by a team back at the corporate parent. Which is why it comes as a shock, but perhaps not a surprise, to learn that as of last year one out of every four TV stations in this country produced no original news content.

Recycling political news from across—or out of— town is bad enough. But the dirty little secret about local TV is that it barely covers politics or government at all anymore. According to Pew’s 2013 State of the News Media study, local TV devoted, on average, just 3 percent of its daily broadcast to politics and government in 2012. That works out to less than 40 seconds in a typical half-hour news program. So, if half of the country really is getting its political news from local TV, it really ain’t getting much of it.

The irony of all this is that the daily news hole for local TV—which is now around 4.5 hours a day—has never been bigger, thanks to a longtime trend of stations pushing pre-dawn newscasts earlier into the morning. What mostly fills this airtime, though, is ephemeral, commodified news focused on weather, traffic, and sports. Of course, during the homestretch of an election, political coverage might naturally tick up. But as I noted back in 2013, how effective can a few minutes of political news a day be against a backdrop of hours of wall-to-wall campaign advertising?

“The political ads that now swamp local TV programming every other year increasingly get little pushback from the local TV news that they appear adjacent to. SuperPACs and 501(c)(4) ‘dark money’ groups are no longer counterprogramming local TV news political coverage; they are effectively supplanting it. A voter who sees a scurrilous claim about a candidate in a campaign ad during the five o’clock news, in other words, stands very little chance of learning whether the charge is true or not from the journalists who precede and follow that ad on the air.”

To the corporate owners of local TV stations, this is not a bug, but a feature of our political system. They increasingly rely upon this lucrative advertising revenue to boost their bottom line. As such, there’s strong management incentive to both appease and not alienate these potential advertising customers. These motivations, no matter how many promises to the contrary, can’t help but shape news decisions. As this Los Angeles Times article found, the Tribune Company’s Des Moines affiliate, WHO-HD, chose to add an extra hour of local news from 4 to 5 p.m. this year, to create more ad opportunities for that state’s hotly contested Senate race. As WHO station manager Dale R. Woods put it: “We changed our business model a little bit to accommodate the political demand.”

Note the language there—“business model” rather than “news programming.” When local TV station executives think of their news broadcasts more as “inventory” to advertised around and less as chances to inform viewers or hold the powerful to account, then they’re no longer serving the public first and foremost, they’re selling to it. Moreover, when the local TV station is merely a line item on the balance sheet of a vast national corporate network, the institutional pressure to put revenues before civic duty only grows stronger.

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Let’s not overlook that all of these big media companies have other agendas—often political ones—besides just making money. Consider the biggest independent TV station broadcaster in the country, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which now owns one of every nine U.S. TV stations and more than 50 stations in states with competitive races this cycle. Sinclair, which achieved its top-ranked status after an aggressive acquisition campaign, is well known for its decidedly right-wing viewpoints and for requiring that all of its stations broadcast a half-hour long Swift-boating documentary about Sen. John Kerry during the last days of the 2004 presidential campaign. But that was no isolated incident. Sinclair also replaced regular network news programming with long “documentaries” that were little more than campaign propaganda for Republicans in the run up to the 2010 and 2012 elections as well. And one look at the broadcaster’s long history of political contributions, which go overwhelmingly to Republicans, should make it clear which party’s candidates Sinclair wants to win on Election Day.

This is what our election cycles have devolved to, however. To elect our nation’s leaders, wealthy 1-percenters and mega-corporations have been given carte blanche to secretly fund organizations that spend obscene amounts of money advertising on TV stations owned by other mega-corporations and wealthy 1-percenters. In short, our political finance system has become little more than an income redistribution model for the ultra-rich and a no-lose proposition for big media corporations. That’s why, on Election Night, they’ll no doubt be plenty of champagne toasts in media boardrooms as well as eager anticipation for 2016. But for the rest of us, we’ll once again be left with the bitter dregs of a democracy that gradually grows more disconnected and less accountable to the needs of average Americans.

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

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

Read Next: Misguided Media Hysteria Pervades the 24/7 News Cycle

Misguided Media Hysteria Pervades the 24/7 News Cycle

Airline cabin cleaners at LaGuardia

Airline cabin cleaners demanding more protection in the fight against Ebola, at LaGuardia Airport (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

The Country House
The Fortress of Solitude
New re-releases of Led Zeppelin
Eric Clapton and Monty Python on Blu-ray

I saw two plays recently. The Country House, which stars Blythe Danner, is referred to by critics as an updated mash-up of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Seagull but takes place in Williamstown in the present and features an acting family and a lot of unfulfilled sexual yearning. Playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the Manhattan Theatre Club production is directed by Daniel Sullivan and features one the best ensemble casts I can ever remember seeing, including the adorable Sarah Steele, David Rasche, Kate Jennings Grant, Eric Lange and Daniel Sunjata as the hearthrob.  It’s a great “play” and the kind of Broadway experience that, as this wonderful script makes clear, is an increasingly endangered species.

Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude is one of my favorite books of the past twenty years and one of the best novels ever written about either New York City—in this case Brooklyn—and the transporting power of popular music.  It was an awfully ambitious musical at the Public Theater. The book, published in 2003, is a complicated chronicle of a Jewish boy growing up in a largely African-American Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s a little hard for me to judge the play’s book because it’s drawn directly from a book I regularly teach (at Brooklyn College, no less) and know parts of by heart. Much has been omitted, naturally the main storyline remains intact. What is decidedly most awesome about the play though is the music—it’s awesome because music is the perfect way to communicate a story that is in part about the power of music (and the power of its loss) and awesome because the music itself—a combination of soul, funk, punk and rap is awesome with some to spare, especially the soul ballads, which carry a great burden on their shoulders if you’re familiar with the novel. It’s a limited run, so go quickly if you’re going to go.

The Led Zeppelin reissue campaign continues with reissues of Led Zeppelin IV (the third best-selling album in U.S. history sayeth the publicity people) and Houses Of The Holy. As with the previous deluxe editions, both albums have been newly remastered by guitarist and producer Jimmy Page and are accompanied by a second disc of companion audio comprised entirely of unreleased music related to that album. There are lots of formats but I got the two-CD deluxe edition of both. They are what they are. Great to many, the Devil’s spawn to many others.  I have gone in both directions depending on my age and the song. I still wish “Stairway to Heaven” had never been imagined (or stolen depending who you ask)—I prefer the version by Little Roger and the Goosebumps—but I think Led Zep got better as they went along, at least through Physical Graffiti, so I think these are pretty great, if you fast-forward through “Stairway.” Both albums have been remixed and the

Led Zeppelin IV deluxe edition includes unreleased versions of every song heard on the original album including alternate mixes of "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Four Sticks," mixes of "The Battle Of Evermore" and "Going To California" heavy with guitar and mandolin, and a horrid, alternate version of You Know What. Houses Of The Holy comes with seven unreleased tracks on the companion audio disc, including rough and working mixes for "The Ocean" and "Dancing Days,” the guitar mix backing track for "Over The Hills and Far Away" and a version of "The Rain Song" without piano.

On the new Blu-ray front, I’m happy to have received Planes, Trains and Eric by Eric Clapton and his band. I could live without all the interviews in between the songs documenting life on the road during part of his 2014 tour of Japan and a few other places like Bahrain. I mean who cares. I could also live without yet another acoustic “Layla” and the lamer cuts like “Wonderful Tonight” and  “Tears In Heaven.” But the fast forward button saves this thing. Just listen to “I Shot The Sherriff,” “Crossroads” and the rest and it’s a fine thing to have around.

I was originally pleased to see a Blu-ray of the reunion of the Monty Python folks at the O2, London. It’s called  Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go, and I would have loved to have been there—they sold out ten shows—but seeing it on TV makes one think about one’s own mortality and who needs watching Monty Python? Not this aging Python fanatic. I’ll stick to the originals, but perhaps you won’t. Many of the classics are apparently here, including the Dead Parrot, the Lumberjack Song, the Spanish Inquisition, Spam, Nudge Nudge, Argument, the Four Yorkshiremen, the Bruces and with a sing-along of “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” as the grand finale.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

The Hum of All Fears: How Misguided Media Hysteria Pervades the 24/7 News Cycle
by Reed Richardson

Terrorism. Gun deaths.

Federal debt. Mortgage fraud.

Ebola. Not expanding Medicaid.

Missing airliners. Climate change.

Within too much of modern journalism, a perverse news calculus is at work. That which has little likelihood of ever harming or impacting us enjoys a steady stream of intense, breathless coverage, creating a constant background buzz of dread. By contrast, the banality of actual, everyday crisis gets routinely ignored, subsumed under a media tide of sensationalist speculation. As a result, we’re trained to be most scared of what should scare us least.

It’s hard not to see this behavior as another unwelcome legacy of the post-9/11 era. Following that attack, the press willfully denuded its own accountability powers and engaged in broad (but not uniform) credulity during the lead-up to the Iraq war. Those mistakes are by now well documented, of course. But what still stubbornly remains is the fearful tone of coverage that so famously accompanied the Bush administration’s false claims.

Of anyone in the press, New York Times journalist James Risen may be best suited to speak to this climate of ongoing fear. After all, he has played a singular role in puncturing our government’s post-9/11 veil of secrecy and misconduct, and for his troubles he’s become a target of a government investigation that threatens to jail him if he doesn’t reveal his confidential sources. But this kind of egregious overreach by our federal government is simply de rigueur today, as he noted on CNN’s Reliable Sources recently:

“Oh, I think fear sells. And I think, unfortunately, it's easy to do a lot of fear-mongering and get ahead politically in the United States. You know, terrorism is a real threat, but we shouldn't be overstating it.… That's what bothers me the most is we've allowed ourselves to become terrorized. And we've done that to ourselves.”

Risen’s right, of course. He was referring to the ever-widening maw of our sprawling national security apparatus. But take a further step back and his language could just as easily be applied the now non-stop saturation crisis coverage that colors so much of our national discourse. This constant hyping of the next dire threat to our-way-of-life-as-we-know-it has conditioned the media’s response. So much so, that when President Obama didn’t immediately begin hyperventilating over the threat posed by ISIS, some in the media establishment practically begged for him to scare them more.

Over time, this mindset weaves a fabric of fear into the language of the news. It becomes a kind of journalistic currency; its frightening narratives a handy frame of reference for viewers. Particularly in the world of cable news, with its constant pursuit of “BREAKING” and “DEVELOPING” news events (and the goosed ratings that go with it), the coverage exudes an almost desperate need to lurch from one crisis or disaster or epidemic to another. Thus, at the beginning of October—coincidentally, just after the inflection point where news interest in ISIS was surpassed by Ebola—one could witness a kind of official meme handoff on CNN, when it ran this ridiculous chyron: “Ebola: The ISIS of Biological Agents?”

Needless to say, Fox News has mastered the art of fear-mongering news coverage. Indeed, given something as easy to manipulate as Ebola—a potentially deadly disease from third-world, African countries—it takes the network a mere matter of days to, first, stoke fear and outrage with its opinion-makers, and then, turn around and cover that fear and outrage with its supposedly straight reporting. (Behold one of the most recent examples.) But credit to Roger Ailes, he knows that single-issue fear manufacturing won’t get the big ratings when even CNN is cross-pollinating threats. So no surprise, for sure, when Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace recently engaged in a “lightning round” of hypothetical nightmare scenarios on his show, including an idea that is amounts to a hat trick of right-wing fears: the combination of Ebola, terrorism and illegal immigration.

To be fair, CNN and—yes—even Fox News have also had inspiring, admirable journalistic moments of late when it comes to Ebola coverage. CNN’s media criticism show, Reliable Sources, pointedly addressed and debunked a lot of misleading and frightening news reports on the disease. And other recent commentary and reporting at CNN has done a thorough job of calling out the public and political overreactions to Ebola. And Fox News’s Shep Smith, in a monologue that quickly went viral, provided a much-needed counterpoint to the “hysterical voices” and conspiracy theorists playing on the public’s fears for political gain.

But let’s be real here. These calls for calm are mere voices in the wilderness, drowned out by a wave of other coverage that shows little of the same journalistic diligence. A cynic might find even these moments of courageous pushback against panic a bit contrived and self-serving, as they never seem to get around to pointing out their own network’s seminal role in unnecessarily spreading misinformation and anxiety. In fact, one would be hard pressed to think of a better definition of tragic irony than this CNN chyron, which, during the height of the network’s overblown coverage two weeks ago, oh-so-innocently asked: “Is there an epidemic of fear over Ebola?”

Oh, but it’s easy to pick on cable news networks, you might say. They’re always trying to over-pressurize coverage, so it’s unfair to use them as examples of panicked coverage throughout the rest of the press. If only this were true. For example, I could find no news take on the disease quite as disturbing and reckless as the seemingly blood-smeared Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover “Ebola is Coming,” which looked more like a poster for the latest horror movie than the front a respectable newsmagazine.

Not to be left out, The Wall Street Journal editorial page offered its own unique justification for giving in to the Ebola freakout. Journal op-ed columnist Bret Stephens (that is, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Bret Stephens, to my alma mater’s eternal shame) gives a bravura performance in right-wing logic, turning out an outrageous essay on Ebola that manages to be both anti-intellectual and condescending. In it, he distills down the rationalizations that color so much of our fear-based media coverage:

“The chance of your dying of ordinary flu this season considerably exceeds the chance of your contracting and dying of Ebola. But so what? … Rationalist that I am, I have a hard time seeing Ebola as the next Spanish flu. But rationalism shouldn’t exclude reasonableness, and the reasonable answer to Ebola is to address reasonable public fears about the safety of the planes they fly and the hospitals where they are treated. The alternative is a further erosion of trust, and a potential epidemic of fear, nearly as dangerous as an exotic African virus now on our shores.”

It’s really worth unpacking Stephens’s contemptible reasoning here. His cavalier “But so what?” stands as perhaps the clearest testament to anti-journalism around. He is literally endorsing the idea that the public and our politicians should ignore reality when it comes to making personal and policy decisions. What’s more, he implies the press should go along with this irrational behavior. Yes, yes, the experts and the research and the facts all argue against things like a travel ban and a mandatory quarantine, to which Stephens essentially replies: whatevs. Let’s instead give in to our “dumb” instincts and just be reasonable—a word that, of course, has a long, ignoble history of being used to excuse discrimination, injustice, and fear of others.

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Make no mistake, the consequences of a press corps with such a warped set of news values are real. Over at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, authored a sobering column this past week on the societal costs of so grossly misjudging risk. In it, he made the clear-cut, actuarial case that people acting on Ebola-based fears—like choosing to drive rather than flying—will end up killing far more Americans than the disease itself.

“While the number of people likely to get or die from Ebola in the United States will almost certainly be tiny, tens of millions of Americans are already victims in an epidemic of fear that is sure to contribute to sickness and death among many.… The vast majority of those who will be harmed in this epidemic will suffer directly from the serious health impacts of fear itself.”

That some of our nation’s political leaders freely engage in this kind of ignorant recklessness is bad enough. But when the press—the supposed bulwark of truth in our democracy—routinely enables and even encourages this careless behavior, things get even worse. For this journalistic malpractice—whether it’s hyping distant threats like Ebola and ISIS or ignoring imminent ones like climate change and gun violence—erodes the public trust in the press and has a corrosive effect upon our ability to govern ourselves. When it comes to the news we produce and consume in our democracy, it’s increasingly clear that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

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: "Isolated Cases of Reason at Fox Unlikely to Become Epidemic."

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.


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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Editor’s Note: This blog post originally included a passage linking to a paper by Petra Marquardt-Bigman titled "Another Milestone for the Mainstreaming of Anti-Semitism: The New America Foundation and Max Blumenthal's Goliath." After a review, we concluded that this paper did not meet our standards as source material and so the link and the passage were removed by the editors.

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.

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