Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.
1) Eve Alterman on Governors Ball, 2014
2) Eric on Jazz@Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis plays “Modern Ellington.”
3) Eric on the new nine cd Mosaic box set of the complete Louis Armstrong RCA/Columbia years live
4) A few words about Loudon Wainwright III
So if you were really old, like yours truly, and went to Governors Ball last weekend, unlike yours truly, you would have gone to see acts like the Strokes, Jack White, Vampire Weekend, and maybe Outkast and your review might have looked like that by Times critic, Jon Parales. But if you were a sixteen year old sophomore at Bronx Science and were not allowed to go on Friday because of a combination of debate team obligations, a paper due on the issues raised by the film, “The Lemon Tree,” and an incident a few weekends ago that required at least one night of grounding, (and that was generous) and also did not have what her really old father considered to be even remotely decent taste in music, then your review might look like the below.
Governors Ball, 2014, by Eve Alterman
Governors Ball 2014 was an experience filled with heat, pot, overpriced booze, and a diverse crowd full of ages from fourteen to mid forties. The music ranged from indie, to pop, to rock, to EDM, to rap. In past years, Governors Ball has been gated more towards indie and folk music, but as it’s audience has grown, it has become more mainstream -- for the better. Having a larger variety of musical categories was not only strategic, but made Governors Ball enjoyable for almost anyone.
I could not attend Day 1, but the best performance out of Day 2 and Day 3 was definitely Axwell and Ingrosso. They were the last act of the night on Sunday, competing for headliner with Vampire Weekend. Not only was their lightshow phenomenal, but the energy of the crowd mixed with the drop of their new songs and hit singles made for an unforgettable experience. They kicked the night off with one of their new songs “This Time” which was fresh and got the crowd excited. About ten minutes in, they set off fire works and – like the fireworks – the crowd erupted. Each song was different from the next, and the energy never ceased. Everyone in the crowd forgot about the heat, their dehydration, and their aching limbs and just jumped and danced until they finished their set with their hit single “Don’t You Worry Child.”
The next highly enjoyable performance was Tyler the Creator with surprise appearances from Jasper and Taco. Tyler the Creator concerts are often looked upon with distaste because of the aggressiveness of the crowd, the nonstop mosh pits, and the over-all offensive language. However, all of that aside, Tyler the Creator, who performed with Earl Sweatshirt, Jasper Dolphin, and Taco --- members of Odd Future. was one of the only artists of the entire weekend who actually engaged with the crowd and allowed his personality to come through in his performance, including his usage of the word “fuck” 37 times between songs, by this reporter’s count. He made comments about people he saw in the crowd, his thoughts on the festival, and even has some fun with a bra that was thrown at him mid-way through his act. For Tyler-lovers, this made his performance much more enjoyable, because it made the experience much more personal. His energy and the crowd’s energy stayed high and most everyone knew the words and knew what they were getting into when stepping in front of The Big Apple Stage.
Childish Gambino also brought his A-game to Governors Ball 2014. Starting off with an acoustic hook from “Centipede” and then switching to “Crawl” from his latest album Because the Internet, Childish Gambino illuminated the Honda Stage with explosions of fire and bass. About half way into his set, he invites Chance the Rapper and together they do a verse to the song “Worst Guys” as a treat for the crowd. The verse itself was great along with the excitement in the crowd. He ended his set with “Bonfire” from his previous album Camp, with outrageous amounts of fire and explosions only making his performance more memorable and entertaining.
Lastly, both Skrillex and J. Cole (both major headliners) left their talent at home. High expectations brewed for these superstars and they ended up being mediocre at best – J.Cole hitting the mark a lot closer than Skrillex.
Skrillex was the last major headliner of Day 2 and he honestly did not end the night strongly. His graphics were poor and could have probably been constructed one of my computer science classes. They featured dancing “memes” that had absolutely nothing with his set and mostly confused the crowd. His use of lazers was only alright, and the high energy due to anticipation in the beginning of the night quickly died down because the crowd could not tell when he was switching from song to song. The similarity between each song was so great that distinguishing when one song ended and the next one began was almost impossible. As the night progressed, the crowd started to get more and more spread out and roomy, because so many people were leaving. Skrillex gets an overall B-, and to those on molly, maybe a B.
J.Cole did a little better than Skrillex. His songs were easy to dance to and he made the crowd laugh occasionally, but the energy was absent. Most people knew the words to his songs but he in no way made them want to dance, jump, or even really sing along. J. Cole sounded nothing like he does in any of his recordings, and not in a good way. His articulation was poor and it was often difficult to understand what he was saying. However, his ultimate feel was smooth but the crowd’s energy maxed out after some swaying and the occasional hands up. J.Cole gets a B+.
The Governors Ball experience overall was an A, on top of a variety of great music, the food was also spectacular (especially for a festival) and the acts were pretty well organized. The artists mostly stayed on time and it was easy to move from one stage to another. Governors Ball 2015 is highly recommended.
Ok, back to the old man....
What a thrill it was to see the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis draws play a bunch of excerpts from the longer and most ambitious works by Duke Ellington, all written in the latter part of his career. Ellington’s later work is generally treated like Albert Eistein’s final decades; people admire the ambition but tend to wish he had stuck to what he did best, and what established his genius as a young man. Wynton and Jazz@LC solved this problem not only by “cherry picking from its already deep well of Ellingtonia with arrangements that shed light on the depth and complexity of the maestro's all-modernistic-all-the-time corpus,” but also by helping us appreciate the works with Wynton’s wonderfully idiosyncratic explanations of the contextual background of the music, which made it just about the most enjoyable master class on jazz and cultural history I’ve ever attended. The repetoire featured rarely heard movie classics including music from Anatomy of a Murder and Paris Blues, alongside selections from some of Ellington’s most revered mid-century works, Far East Suite, Black, Brown & Beige, The Clothed Woman, and more. Ellington. It was a lot of work to curate this concert, as the Duke wrote over 3,000 compositions during his career, and issued alive and dead, over 800 albums. But it sured paid off for the rest of us. More of what’s left this year and a preview of next year’s Jazz@LC schedule, here.
Who can follow the Duke? Just one man of course, and thanks to my friends at Mosaic Records, I get to talk about him. The release of the nine cd box set,“The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars,” is pretty great news for Armstrong fans. As with Ellington’s late period, smart folk tend to write off later-Louis as so much clowning around and even alleged Uncle-Toming. Call me a philistine, but I’ve always preferred Louis’ RCA period. And now that Mosaic, whose devotion to archival excellence is literally unmatched in any musical category, has collected his live performances from 1947 to 1958, my case has been made over and over and over.
This first-ever compilation is the first to span this range of Louis' career, and as they explain, “It is rich with new discoveries and legendary omissions.” They restored missing solos and removed fake applause. They tracked down the earliest, most authoritative sources for the music and cleaned-up everything to the best of their ability using state-of-the-art techniques. And they corrected a great deal of misinformation regarding discographical details, even if they do say so themselves.
Included in the box is the famous Town Hall concert from May 17, 1947 that set the style for the small group music he'd make from that point on. That date came from the French RCA tapes that Sony along with a newly discovered Carnegie Hall date from November 1947 whose masters had been previously mislabled and never released before. The sound is terrific. There are sessions from the Netherlands eight or so years later, undated, but understood to be part of the "Ambassador Satch" sessions,” rescued back in the day by George Avakian rescued back in the day by George Avakian, shows from Milan, two months later, a date from LA in January 1956 that only pretended to be live but was actually recorded in a the studio. There’s The Great Chicago Concert from June 1956, long out of print, and a concert from Newport in 1956, with four previously unissued performances. There’s even an Avakian recording a rehearsal session with the All Stars in the afternoon and during the evening concert, three attempts at "St. Louis Blues" with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. (The recording equipment caught everything, including a camera breaking down, Bernstein chatting up the audience, Louis playing encores to keep the fans happy. ) And then there's Newport 1958, with nearly no overlap from 1956. Only three tracks have ever been heard from this and it included a reunion with Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett. The whole set is here.
But wait, there’s more: Edward R. Murrow interviewing Louis in Paris; a performance, previously unissued, of Louis in London; and two tracks from a 1956 date in Ghana that have not been previously released, and even more than that, but I’m exhausted. Typical of Mosaic, they have corrected details about the time and place of certain recordings where the original recording companies played fast and loose with the details, and restored recordings to their original condition when we discovered the official releases might have been cobbled together from as many as five different sources.
The box comes with an exhaustive essay by Ricky Riccardi, archivist for the Louis Armstrong and a new discography that sets many records straight, along with many vintage photographs. It ain’t cheap of course, but it’s awesome and when the limited release is gone, it’s gone forever.
On Monday night I saw Loudon Wainwright workshop a one-man show at Manhattan's Westside Theatre about his dad called “Surviving Twin,” which he calls a "posthumous collaboration" the late Life magazine columnist, Loudon Wainwright Jr. Since it was the first night of a workshop performance, I think one is not supposed to judge too much, but I will say this. It’s free, and there will probably room if you drop by. And if you like Loudon, you a) are going to like this, b) derive further insight into is ahem, unique pysche and artistic inspiration, c) be surprised at how well this old Life magazine columnist’s work holds up. Who would have thought It runs for three more Mondays and you can find out more, here.
OK, I’m done, but two things last (unpleasant things) that (unfortunately) forced themselves on me owing to the power of the Internets.
1) The Daily Caller editors and its clueless correspondent J. Arthur Bloom does not understand the meaning of the word, “retraction.” Read the first sentence of this silly piece. Then read this piece by me. No retraction anywhere.
What jerks those people are. (Addendum: I see now that Bloom has dropped the word “retraction” and replaced it with “correction.” This is just as false. There was no “correction.” And there is no acknowledgement of the change. And he identifies me as being with The Nation, rather than The Daily Beast, where the piece I wrote appeared. These people can’t behave honestly or honorably even when they know they are being watched. Oh and the headline is ungrammatical. It should read "The Media Finally Get" not "Gets." Media is a plural noun. Morons.)
2) And speaking of jerks, this deeply offensive quote passed through my computer as well: "The body of Israel is fetid in the back room of American Jews. They haven’t been there but it’s stinking up the joint, and it pollutes their view of the world. Max Blumenthal tried to tell them what it is, but the Zionists ran him out of town using the Nation.” Get it? Jews are “fetid” of body. “The Zionists,” in the form of yours truly, “ran Max Blumenthal out of town.” Amazing. Old fashion bodily-based Jew-hatred combined with moronic conspiracy mongering in two successive sentences. Can you guess who wrote it? Nope, not David Duke. Not Louis Farrakhan. Not even Jean Marie Le Pen (who is actually more eloquent than that). Rather it was Phillip Weiss, proprietor of Mondoweiss.com, showing his true colors. The policies of Israel’s government may be in many respects, indefensible both with regard to its Arab minority and to the Palestinians living under brutal (and unlawful) occupation on the West Bank, but no one should stand silent for this kind of ignorant hate-speech. Words have consequences and none have been worse in history than those of hateful anti-Semites.
The Bergdahl Saga as a Window Into Journalistic Transparency
by Reed Richardson
Years ago, media critic Jack Shafer adroitly staked out the perils and the peculiar calculus of the DC media’s lazy habit of letting sources speak off the record. Granting anonymity is a necessary evil of reporting in rare occasions, yes, but it’s universally understood that less disclosure and transparency is anathema to journalism’s goal of informing the public. And to abuse this practice is to fundamentally change the nature of what you’re reporting. Or, as Shafer bluntly puts it, analogizing the famous Japanese saga Rashomon: “the identity of a story’s sources is as important as what the sources said.”
The past two weeks, another saga has played out across the national media as the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has sparked both backlash and counter-backlash. Not surprisingly, much of the narrative of the Bergdahl coverage—fueled by innuendo and hearsay—has raced ahead of the facts. There have been numerous cases of the press failing to do its due diligence when it comes to vetting claims about Bergdahl and the terms of the deal for his release. But there are two specific examples I want to explore that provide a vital lesson on the media’s broader, contradictory impulses on transparency.
The first of these was a New York Times front-page story from last week. Written by Helene Cooper at the early stages of right-wing’s campaign to label Bergdahl a “deserter,” the story includes several long, unflattering quotes from two of his former platoon mates. But more importantly, Cooper also offers up a rare peek behind the journalistic sourcing curtain in this passage:
“He wouldn’t drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds,” Cody Full, another member of Sergeant Bergdahl’s platoon, said in an interview on Monday also arranged by Republican strategists. “He was always in his bunk. He ordered Rosetta Stone for all the languages there, learning Dari and Arabic and Pashto.” [emphasis mine]
It’s instructive how little narrative effort had to be expended here by Cooper to add this phrase, yet how much important context this same phrase provided readers. The pair’s petty gripes about Bergdahl’s personality as well as their tenuous claims about the search for him leading to the deaths of six U.S. soldiers now make more sense given the orchestrated nature of their interview. So, one cheer for Cooper and the Times for arming their readers with this extra helping of transparency.
Why only one? Because it’s clear the Times could have done more if full, robust disclosure were the goal. Why not publicly name the “Republican strategist,” for example? BuzzFeed, to its credit, didn’t shy away from pointing out that said strategist was Richard Grenell, a former aide to hardcore neocon and sneering Obama critic John Bolton. Hmm, that might be worth knowing. (It wasn’t like his role was a well-kept secret either; one of the interviewed soldiers publicly thanked Grenell for his help on Twitter.) But an even more frustrating revelation later came to light in the Times’ public editor’s column this past Monday, when we learned even more damning details from Cooper about the two sources in her story:
“They both had clearly been coached, though, and had the same answers to my question about whether they thought the United States shouldn’t have traded the five prisoners for Bergdahl. At that question, they both said, ‘I don’t want to get into the politics of this, but. …’”
Oy. In other words, these aren’t fellow soldiers merely getting help from a GOP insider to tell their own stories, instead they’re willing, partisan proxies tactically engaging a political spin war against the administration. That’s the real scoop here. And the sharp journalistic instincts Cooper displays to pick up on this are precisely what readers of the Times are presumably paying for, and that editors of the Times are presumably touting as the paper’s competitive advantage. Which is why leaving out this key context makes no sense. It goes right to the motives and trustworthiness of these sources. What’s most disheartening here is that the cause of greater journalistic transparency neatly dovetails with the paper’s long-term interests—telling more of the story would have made for a newsier, more shareable (i.e., more profitable) story—and yet the Times still pulled its punches.
Still, this imperfect, half-hearted effort at revealing how the media narrative sausage gets made is an encouraging step toward accountability. And it stands in stark contrast to my second example—the impenetrable, ethically malleable punditry of the National Journal’s Ron Fournier. A longtime vice provost at the David Broder School of Beltway Media Centrism, Fournier’s shtick of touting chimerical policy compromises while incessantly ankle-biting Obama is well established. And the president’s decision to swap Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees elicited a similarly predictable response from Fournier entitled “‘I’ve Had Enough’: When Democrats Quit on Obama.” But what intrigued me about his latest “Why Won’t Obama Lead?!” diatribe was an aside he provides about his sources:
“In the 18 months since I began writing columns focused on the presidency, virtually every post critical of Obama has originated from conversations with Democrats. Members of Congress, consultants, pollsters, lobbyists, and executives at think tanks, these Democrats are my Obama-whispers.”
Out of curiosity, I went back and read these columns (the things I do for readers!), and he’s right. Or, I should say, I'm guessing he's right, because he almost never names all these disappointed Democrats. In a way this isn’t surprising because Fournier, not long after he started writing this column, breezily informed his readers that source transparency would be ritually sacrificed in exchange for candor. The silver lining, I guess: at least he was transparent about the lack of transparency we could expect from him:
“Going back to my first political beat, covering Bill Clinton’s administration in Arkansas and later in Washington, I’ve had a practice that is fairly common in journalism: A handful of sources I deal with regularly are granted blanket anonymity. Any time we communicate, they know I am prepared to report the information at will (matters of fact, not spin or opinion) and that I will not attribute it to them.”
Now, I firmly believe journalists who immerses themselves in a beat don’t need to attribute every little fact they know to be true from their reporting to a named source (or any source at all, for that matter). And, as I’ve already conceded, ferreting out important, closely-held details sometimes demands granting anonymity to sources, especially when dealing with an increasingly secretive government. But this isn’t what Fournier is describing here. Instead, this “blanket anonymity” he’s doling out is just a clubby way of laundering his agenda through Washington sources who have no fear of being held responsible for their actions or words.
But even in this, there’s a catch. For, if you read through Fournier’s columns, you won’t just find a dearth of named sources, you’re lucky to find any quotes at all—anonymous or otherwise. And those few instances where he does cite an anonymous source are hardly “matters of fact, not spin or opinion.”
For example, last October, at the nadir of the Obamacare exchange rollout, Fournier used an email subject line from an over-reacting “senior Democratic consultant” as the lede to one of his Cassandra-like missives. The quote read simply: “Dem Party is F*****d.” I could be wrong, but that sounds kind of opinion-y. Yet the email’s tone fit within Fournier’s incompetence-at-the-White-
Fournier seems to recognize how unseemly all this unattributed backdoor sniping of the president has become. Thus, in this week’s column about Bergdahl, he notably lifts the veil on another one of his journalistic “practices” in his own defense:
“Few frustrated Democrats are willing to complain openly. I grant them anonymity, which creates a problem: Readers, for good reason, don't trust anonymous quotes. One way to avoid deluging readers with unnamed Democrats is for me to digest their complaints along with other reporting to shape my columns and tweets.” [emphasis mine]
I am Ron Fournier, I am large, I contain multitudes, I am become “Democrats complained to me privately…”
This is a professional journalist, I remind you. Someone who is now apparently so self-conscious about relying upon idle, DC chit-chat as his source material that he’s decided to further conceal this rather than, you know, trying to use fewer anonymous sources. No need to worry your pretty little head, dear reader, about a “deluge” of unnamed Democrats—and what happened to that “handful of sources” caveat?—Fournier’s going to absorb what they tell him and you’ll just have to trust that he got it right.
As grossly problematic as Fournier’s journalistic approach is here, in a way I’m glad he publicly admitted to it. It perfectly captures how the Beltway conventional wisdom feedback loop works—a friendly DC pundit known for airing anonymous critiques of the president attracts even more anonymous critics, whose opinions are then digested and then excreted out into the discourse. And tomorrow, the cycle begins anew.
Stand Fournier’s decision up against what Cooper did at the Times and you’ll see two journalists moving in opposite directions along the transparency spectrum. The latter is taking steps, albeit haltingly, toward serving up more honest, forthright reportage, while the former has chosen to channel an invisible chorus of unaccountable voices that merely stir the media pot. If you want to know which of these our democracy needs more of, just ask Sgt. Bergdahl.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Good column [“The Roberts Court’s Stealth Campaign Against a Free Press”] and depressing. Just remember that it takes four votes to grant a petition of certiorari. The Supreme Court's process for considering petitions and the voting is opaque. Risen may have gotten three votes for all we know. Justices interested in the issue may have not seen Risen’s case as the one they wanted to decide. There is always the risk, with the Roberts Court, that the reactionary majority will take a case for one ostensible reason and run with it to accomplish another political objective. Judges sympathetic to the press may have felt that taking the case risked more downside than good, despite Mr. Risen’s woes.
Very good post on the Robert's Court and the Free Press. One item stuck me. From your piece:
"[I]t all but validated a Justice Department lawyer’s outrageous analogy that citing such privilege is the equivalent of receiving drugs from a source and then refusing to testify about it."
In such a case, would I not have a Fifth Amendment right not to testify? So DOJ is actually arguing that I have less rights as a journalist than a drug arrestee! Either Risen is party to a crime and can't be compelled to testify, or Risen is not party to a crime and has the right not to testify about journalistic sources. I would argue for both, but DOJ sees neither.
Anyway, thanks for the great work.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Friday night I stopped by what is now called the Appel Room at Jazz@Lincoln Center, and by any name, still the most beautiful venue to see an intimate show in New York—or actually anywhere I know—to catch a show of standards by John Pizzarelli’s quartet joined by Jane Monheit. John is most often joined by his terrifically talented wife, Jessica Molaskey, and sometimes by his obviously amazing dad, Bucky Pizzarelli, who is still picking at eighty-eight but did not play Friday night. (His brother Martin did, on base.) Mom and dad were in the audience, though. (What a weird family to get along so well.) Anyway, John has had plenty of opportunity to learn that specific New York cabaret style charm and his story telling had the effect of enhancing the nearly flawless delivery of the Sinatra, Ellington, Gershwin, etc. classics he and Monheit chose. (His “Sir Paul” imitation is also first rate.) Anyway, what can one say? Great music, professionally and occasionally inspired delivery. Monheit was onstage for the entire show and the band was well-rehearsed and tight as well. I did miss Ms. Molaskey. Speaking of Duke, there’s an all Ellington program at Rose Hall this weekend and a wonderful way to end the season.
Last week I mentioned that every show I go to (it sometimes feels like) has either Warren Haynes or G.E. Smith on guitar. Well, this week, on Saturday, I saw a band with Warren Haynes on guitar. Last night (Tuesday) I saw a band with G.E. Smith on guitar. Ok, well Saturday was cheating because it was the same band I saw earlier in the week. The second SummerStage in Central Park show of “Phil Lesh and Friends,” with Haynes, John Scofield, John Medeski and Joe Russo put on by the folks at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester whose amazing roster has really cut down on the shows within walking distance of my apartment, alas. It was a lot like the first one, though the set list was completely different. Last night, also in Central Park, SummerStage had its annual gala where wealthy folks pony up to ignore the great music that people work hard to provide for them. Last night, after the presentation of “The People & Parks Award” and the ensuing speeches, Smith’s band took the stage, looking a great deal like the band Southside Johnny puts together and calls “The Poor Fools,”—or did two weekends ago in Amagansett anyway—except this one had Jon Leventhal on lead guitar, to accompany a great group of (mostly) New York singers and songwriters on various Beatles songs. The lineup featured Jon Batiste, David Broza, Paula Cole, Marshall Crenshaw, Southside Johnny, Willie Nile, Teddy Thompson and Philip Bailey, lead singer of the Earth, Wind & Fire, who really got the rich white folk um, dancing. In case you didn’t know, SummerStage is New York’s largest free performing arts festival, bringing over 100 performances to eighteen parks throughout the five boroughs. Every year we reach more than 300,000 New Yorkers and since its inception in 1986, more than six million people have enjoyed SummerStage and so if the awards ceremony was a bit self-congratulatory, it feels a bit silly to complain, though I wish people would pay more attention to great band and performers they got to see.
Also this being New York, you have a choice this and next week between Open Roads, the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s Italian film festival, and the Israel Film Center’s festival at the Upper West Side JCC (and elsewhere). I have not managed to see any of the films yet, but it’s a great opportunity if you happen to be in the city. (And look, it’s also the Blue Note Jazz Festival, already begun. My goodness, there is too much to be done here.)
Speaking of the JCC, after last night’s show, I went to the Shavuot all-night study-with-cheese cake celebration they put together every year and thought to myself that it’s a weird but often wonderful critical intellectual culture into which I happen to be born and what a shame it is that pretty much only orthodox Jews ever encounter it. Someone, I guess me, should write a book about it.
The Roberts Court’s Stealth Campaign Against a Free Press
by Reed Richardson
Sometimes, it’s the battles not fought that matter just as much. On Monday, the Supreme Court proved this point once again when it refused to grant certiorari to an appeal from New York Times reporter James Risen, who is facing a Justice Department subpoena to divulge confidential intelligence sources cited in a chapter of his 2006 book “State of War.” By refusing to hear Risen’s case, the Court let stand an ominous Fourth Circuit majority ruling that not only dismissed the very idea of reporter’s privilege, it all but validated a Justice Department lawyer’s outrageous analogy that citing such privilege is the equivalent of receiving drugs from a source and then refusing to testify about it.
This kind of overaggressive stance by the Obama administration when it comes to pursuing leaks and punishing whistleblowers is, sadly, nothing new. But by unceremoniously refusing Risen’s appeal, the Roberts Court shined a brief spotlight on its own, quiet role in undermining First Amendment protections for the press.
There’s no denying that, by refusing the Risen case, SCOTUS missed a long overdue opportunity to revisit one of the most confusing, poorly established decisions related to press freedom in our nation’s history—the 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes case. While that 5–4 ruling forty-two years ago did not find journalists enjoyed special Constitutional privileges when protecting sources, an ambiguous concurrence by Justice Lewis Powell and a strong dissent offered free press advocates something of a backdoor victory.
The implications of this are still being felt. For example, a lower federal court judge’s decision quashed the DOJ subpoena of Risen in 2011 by specifically citing Powell’s concurrence. And during Risen’s appellate hearing one year later, Fourth District Appellate Judge Albert Diaz complained that Branzburg’s precedent was “clear as mud.” Still, SCOTUS chose to punt, leaving US journalism—and investigative, accountability journalism, in particular—exposed to the whims of overzealous prosecutors with little more than a hodgepodge of ineffective state media shield laws for protection.
The passivity is noteworthy because the Roberts Court has gained a reputation for deliberately inviting and then accepting key cases on legal grounds that it deems unresolved. This careful picking and choosing of landmark cases has left the Court’s overall track record of overturning precedent deceptively low, but the upshot of its radical nature is unmistakable. (Also of note in the Risen case: Chief Justice Roberts is assigned as the Fourth Circuit advisory judge, which means he would have played a key role in the Court’s decision to either grant—or deny—certiorari to Risen’s appeal.) Indeed, though Justices Scalia and Ginsburg rarely come down on the same side of a SCOTUS decision, both have publicly said that the Roberts Court is guilty of “judicial activism.”
Even one of the court’s most objective, long-time observers, Linda Greenhouse, who covers SCOTUS for The New York Times, agrees. Recently, she wrote a scathing op-ed cataloguing the Roberts Court’s radical approach to jurisprudence. Whether eviscerating workers’ rights while empowering the reach of corporations or rolling back civil rights protections while emboldening religious interventionism in public policy, the five-justice conservative bloc on the Court is, according to Greenhouse, “driving it into dangerous territory.”
“The problem is not only that the court is too often divided but that it’s too often simply wrong: wrong in the battles it picks, wrong in setting an agenda that mimics a Republican Party platform, wrong in refusing to give the political system breathing room to make fundamental choices of self-governance.”
To be fair, SCOTUS refuses to hear hundreds of cases each year, so attaching motives to one particular case of inaction like Risen’s can be a tricky proposition. It is also true that, since 2005, the Court has, in general, taken up very few cases that deal directly with the media. One of these involved the FCC suing NBC over Bono saying “fucking brilliant” on air at the Golden Globes—not exactly the Pentagon Papers. What’s more, even in those few cases, the implications of the Court’s rulings have been studiously narrow.
Compare that to the Roberts Court’s broader fascination with free speech cases—dozens of them in the past nine years—and the cause of the free press looks like a First Amendment stepchild. Indeed, the Court’s “blind spot” toward the press is very real and very harmful argued attorney Theodore Boutros Jr. in a Wall Street Journal column last week:
“[T]he Supreme Court has repeatedly spurned cases brought by journalists over the last decade, while it has simultaneously issued a powerful string of decisions protecting the First Amendment rights of just about everyone else. Most famously, in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the court struck down campaign finance laws banning corporate independent expenditures. ‘Speech,’ the court said, ‘is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people.’ In ‘a republic where the people are sovereign,’ the court emphasized, ‘the ability of the citizenry to make informed choices…is essential.’"
Perhaps nothing else exemplifies the Roberts Court’s antipathy toward the media better than its disingenuous Citizens United decision. As University of Florida law professor Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky points out in her in-depth analysis “Not a Free Press Court?” the conservative bloc of the Roberts Court is deeply suspicious, if not hostile to, the idea of the media as the “Fourth Estate.” And the intellectual heart of this anti-press stance, she explains, is cleverly buried in the majority’s argument in Citizens United, like a legal landmine waiting to be triggered.
In effect, the Court’s decision in that case plays one First Amendment freedom off of the other, tearing down the notion of special Constitutional privileges for a free press in order to build a phony construct of more equitable free speech (even though these new free speech privileges didn’t accrue to people but to wealthy corporations). In something of a tragic, anti-democratic two-for-one, the Court’s right-wing majority managed to both further expose our political system to the corrupting influence of money while simultaneously undermining the press’s ability to hold elected officials accountable and root out said influence. Journalism is just another form of speech, in other words, just another product to consume. Consequently, our government doesn’t owe it any more deference than the cheap junk being sold on the shelves of a big box store. As Lidsky writes:
“[T]he Court, however, apparently sees no relevant differences between media corporations like NBC and non-media corporations like Wal-Mart: both peddle their wares to the public motivated solely by profit. Indeed, at times the Court's descriptions of the media seem to go beyond skeptical to antagonistic. Though Citizens United is not a press case, it certainly gives little cause for hope to those who argue that the First Amendment gives distinctive rights to the media under the Press Clause.”
The unmistakable conclusion, then, is that the Roberts Court hasn’t felt compelled to take action on Constitutional questions about the press because it’s perfectly happy with the status quo. Lower court decisions that side with an Obama Justice Department more than willing to employ aggressive legal tactics to stanch leaks and intimidate reporters suits the conservative majority on SCOTUS just fine. As does a feckless Congress unwilling to conduct real oversight of our surveillance state and unable to pass anything more than a symbolic version of a federal media shield law.
But Constitutional protections for a free press mustn’t be held so cheaply that they rely solely upon vague promises from a supposedly repentant Attorney General. Administrations change, after all, and once they do, Justice Department guidelines are no longer worth the paper they’re printed on.
That said, it will probably take a change in administrations before we can restore the Constitutional respect due to the press. Indeed, journalism likely dodged a bullet this week based on the current ideological posture of SCOTUS. Had it accepted Risen’s appeal, the conservative majority might well have triggered its Citizens United’s tripwire, forever cementing Branzburg’s tarnished legacy and the Obama administration’s anti-whistleblower mindset. And while I have little faith that the next occupant of the White House—even a Democratic one—will drastically roll back its adversarial approach to the media, I also know that until the 5–4 votes on the Roberts Court start going the other way, ensuring a free press that can hold the powerful to account without interference from the government won’t happen.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: Turn the NRA’s Weapon Against It.
My most recent Nation column is “Global Warming’s ‘Useful Idiots’” and it asks the question “Why do ideologues who would leave the country vulnerable to catastrophe enjoy prestigious posts in journalism?"
1) Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools
2) Phil Lesh and Friends
3) 2014 RRHOF Ceremony on HBO
I saw two shows this week, both of which were endorsements of the taste I developed in high school. The first was Southside Johnny with his Poor Fools band, joined by G.E. Smith, at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. There are few things more fun in life than a great bar band in a great bar. The Poor Fools are unique I think because of the versatility of the their talents on different instruments. Literally everybody in the band played the drums at one point, and almost no one played fewer than three instruments, some as many as five. Often times they would move over either to the keys or the drums or a guitar part of the way through the song. It was loose and tight at the same time, especially when G.E. was making up those solos on the spot. (I still have not forgiven him for the RNC convention gig, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire and enjoy his chops.) The set was varied between Southside classics, recent songs written for the pretty excellent Poor Fools album, and old, re-worked chestnuts. (Then again, the Southside classics were reworked too.) “Fever” had a new tempo and “I Don’t Want to Go Home” felt sublime in ways I can’t remember feeling before. The Talkhouse ain’t cheap but everybody had a great time, and I didn’t even have a drink! See if they are coming around to you (and check out that CD) here.
Last night Phil Lesh and Friends and a few thousand Deadheads took over Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. Phil has some pretty impressive “friends”: Warren Haynes and John Scoffield on guitar and John Medeski on keyboards, for starters. I can’t make up my mind about Warren’s voice. I used to hate it, but it’s growing on me. He sang “Stella Blue” last night and while there is nothing like Jerry’s voice, it was powerful and moving in its own way. Of course the band was terrific, not tight at all and equally at home with long jams and fun rave-ups. “Shakedown Street” was my favorite among the latter and “I Know You Rider” among the former. I got there late and so I missed the opener, the Velvet’s “Rock and Roll.” (It’s becoming a thing for all bands to pay tribute to Lou at NY shows.) The show was produced by the same folks who re-opened the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, haunt of my misspent youth, the Brooklyn Bowl and this incredible Labor Day weekend festival in Arrington Virginia (or is it West Virginia; they tell me it’s near Charlottesville…) that I would go to, if my friends were not such old farts. Anyway, Phil and Co are still doing that residency thing at the Capitol and the Brooklyn Bowl, so I don’t see how anyone can have a bad time.
I saw the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame show when it took place at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn not long ago. It went on forever. HBO has done the world the great favor of editing it down to at much more manageable three hours and fifteen minutes and it will be broadcast over and over beginning this Saturday evening. The performer inductees were Nirvana, The E Street Band, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Peter Gabriel, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens and KISS, and Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham were the non-performer inductees. I watched the advance on DVD and while I am unhappy that the E Street Band speeches, including Bruce’s, were run over “Kitty’s Back”—which for me, was the highlight of the night—hearing all those speeches was hard work that none of you have to do. The “Nirvana” part of the show was pretty great—especially with Joan Jett on “Teen Spirit”--even though to call a band without Kurt “Nirvana” is sacrilege. I also really enjoyed the tribute to Linda Rondstadt with Carrie Underwood, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks. You will be a bad person if you don’t enjoy that. I have a soft spot for Cat Stevens even though he talks so much; he could have been one of the early members of the E Street Band. The Peter Gabriel part of the show was pretty good too—the “uncoupled” ex Mr. Paltrow was actually pretty funny in his intro and Youssou N’Dour joining him on “In Your Eyes” got the night moving well. Thankfully, Kiss could not get it together enough to perform, though Tom Morello’s case for them is a better one they deserve, sucking as much as they do. There was no “jam” at the end, however, because Vini Lopez and David Sancious went on forever and killed the schedule. Paul Shaffer lead the orchestra, and I did not notice Warren Haynes or G.E. Smith in it, which makes it unusual for the recent gigs I’ve seen, but they were just fine.
Anyway, thanks to HBO for saving this night forever. Bruce’s speech is quite moving and the show had something for everyone. Alas, the best way to see it is probably in your living room.
Finally, West 77th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Ave, which would be the block I live on if I lived on 77th, is now “Miles Davis Way.” Do you have a street named after Miles in your town? I didn’t think so.
Guns: The Four-Letter Word of US Public Health Policy
by Reed Richardson
You’ve likely never heard of Dr. Vivek Murthy. But in the wake of yet another mass shooting last Friday, his story is worth knowing. Dr. Murthy, you see, is President Obama’s nominee to be the next Surgeon General, the top medical professional in our government. But despite a stellar resume and endorsements from dozens of medical and health organizations, his nomination has been on hold since February and will likely never see the light of day in the full Senate until after the midterm elections. The simple reason? Once upon a time, Murthy had the audacity to say that gun deaths in the US are a “public health problem.”
That’s right, in this country, the prospect of a public health official stating the obvious about something that takes 32,000 lives each year is enough to be deemed controversial. At least by the NRA, that is, which made it quite clear to Republican Senators that it deems Murthy’s statement an unqualified threat to its increasingly expansive view of the Second Amendment. Never mind that Murthy has since come out and explicitly said he would not focus on gun violence were he to be confirmed. So thoroughly has the gun lobby co-opted federal policy that even this kind of public genuflecting by Murthy has made no difference. To paraphrase the old NRA propaganda slogan: Guns don’t kill political nominations, lobbyists who sell and market guns do.
This regulatory capture doesn’t just impact Congress, however, it includes the press as well. Take, for example, this Politico story on Murthy’s stalled nomination from last Friday. From its insider-y “NRA stalls surgeon general pick” headline down through its obeisant body copy, the article exemplifies how the Beltway press consistently increases the gun lobby’s leverage through its journalistic framing of their influence. Indeed, to read this story is to get the sense that NRA board members can actually vote in the Senate. (Technically not true, but close enough.) Not until the ninth paragraph is the GOP even mentioned.
But by denying the Republicans agency in this way, the press only muddies the line connecting the party’s actions to the lobbyists who drive it. This doesn’t foster greater political accountability; it damages it. What’s more, it makes it easier for conservatives to distract the press on the few occasions—like last Friday’s horrendous massacre—where the debate over gun violence can’t be easily ignored by the media.
The consummate example of the right-wing’s misdirection is its Orwellian insistence on disappearing guns from the gun policy debate through the mental health policy ruse. Dr. Michael Bader from the Institute for Change comprehensively lays out the right’s playbook in this prescient essay, which was written after the 2012 Newtown massacre, but save for a few changed details, could just as easily have been written today:
"Debates over gun control vs. mental illness after a mass shooting are ridiculous kabuki dances that defy reason but have become so ingrained in our culture that their essential irrationality is invisible."
While the mainstream media acts more as unwitting enablers of this effort, right-wing pundits are more than willing to aid and abet this change-the-subject agenda. Among the leaders in this campaign to shift the narrative to mental illness is Fox News’ “Medical A-Team” columnist, Keith Ablow. Time and again, Ablow, who’s somewhat notorious for his ugly analogies, has a seized upon a mass-shooting event as an opportunity to disabuse his readers of what they’re seeing with their lying eyes. Take, for instance, this passage from the bizarre column he wrote on Tuesday:
“Let me also say, [Elliot] Rodger’s murderous rampage had nothing to do with guns. Zero. He killed three of his victims with a blunt object and knife or machete. He injured others with his car. To all anti-gun nuts: Can we agree we aren’t going to outlaw hammers, knives and cars?” [emphasis mine]
In Ablow’s mind, the three people viciously gunned down in service of Rodger's racist and misogynist fantasies don’t even figure in his calculus. Their fates contribute absolutely nothing to the debate. Guns simply aren’t the issue here, Ablow wants his readers to think, except that the evidence clearly shows that firearms played the fundamental role in Rodger's plans for violent revenge. Indeed, as Rodger wrote in one of his online screeds: “My first act of preparation was the purchase of my first handgun.”
This selective memory on the part of Ablow isn’t altogether surprising. Last December, after the Obama administration announced two landmark
Never mind all that, though, it’s the mental illness aspect of mass shootings we should focus on, Ablow and other conservatives proclaim. But as you might expect, this is mostly just empty rhetoric from the right. Certainly, Republicans in Congress have proven to be conveniently committed to better access to mental healthcare in the days after a massacre and then not so much when it comes time to actually voting for it. Even the GOP’s latest cosmetic legislative effort, which notably wouldn’t take away gun ownership rights from the severely mentally ill, has little chance of passing in a House committed to protecting the NRA hindquarters at all costs. Indeed, marvel at the callous, lack of urgency in the GOP's public rumination on the bill, captured by Roll Call:
“I think leaders will fight on this, but it’s very possible they don’t know where the conference is, and they want to avoid any situation where mental health is primarily hitched to the gun debate,” said [Joe Kasper, spokesman for GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter].
“Maybe they’ll find room in between tragedies to start having a conversation about mental health,” Kasper continued. “It’s definitely overdue. I think a lot of people recognize that. … If you were to ask Mr. Murphy and Mr. Hunter, they’d tell you that time was yesterday.”
To be fair, finding room “in between tragedies” as the GOP flack so artlessly put it isn’t so easy when the House’s legislative calendar for a whole lot of yesterdays has been packed with an agenda that involves taking the same pointless votes more than fifty times. But it’s not just the opportunity costs of the right’s quixotic campaign against Obamacare that figure in our nonexistent gun violence debate, it’s the irony that the president’s healthcare reform law offers a great way to address the very problem Republicans say we should be focused on. In fact, we could ensure better mental healthcare for nearly one-million Americans almost overnight, if only the seventeen Republican governors who refused to expand Medicaid in their states reversed their decision.
Connecting these dots, however, isn’t something an establishment media obsessed with partisan conflict and gamesmanship does well. Its surge-purge coverage of gun violence evinces little interest in the daily epidemic of firearm deaths our country endures. As violent crime has dropped precipitously, the press's bias for sensationalism has caused it to lose interest in gun policy as well, even though the real story about gun deaths is a much more complicated story. Thus, someone like Fox News’ Ablow can feel safe in building intentionally misleading analogies between gun violence and mental illness without running afoul of the discourse. Consider this shameless bit of intellectual legerdemain from his column last year:
“Moreover, shooting victims don’t come close to the body count from untreated mental illness in the United States. There are tens of thousands of suicides in the United States every year. The rate of suicide has risen at least 15 percent in the last ten years.”
What method, you may ask, do more than half—nearly 20,000 in total—of all annual suicides use? Good question. The answer is, guns, of course. You’d be hard pressed to learn that fact from folks in the right-wing media like Ablow, though, who like to disappear guns from this aspect of gun violence as well. And while conservatives have succeeded in distracting the mainstream press by endlessly trumpeting the correlation between mass shootings and mental illness, they never acknowledge the broader, incontrovertible link between more guns and more suicide and more guns and more homicide.
To craft public policy aimed at the tools of violence rather than just its underlying causes makes no sense, cry conservatives. And to illustrate this, the right routinely relies upon a favorite bit of reductio ad absurdum logic—which got a re-airing this past week after the Rodger massacre—the old saw that cars kill people, so do stupid liberals want to ban cars now? Huh? Do they?! In reality, however, we craft demand-side solutions to achieve policy outcomes all the time. And there’s a precious irony to this cars-kill-more-than-guns argument, since next year, US deaths from car accidents, which have been trending downward for years, are projected to drop below gun deaths for the first time. What's behind this success? Simply put, a dedicated, decades-long regulatory and research effort by the federal government—in partnership with the automotive and insurance industries—to push for safer cars, while simultaneously enforcing more restrictions on driving them. In other words, the very opposite of what has happened over the past few decades with gun policy. Sadly, this critically important narrative rarely gets aired in the press or discussed by the Very Serious People in our nation’s capital.
All of which brings us, fittingly, back to Dr. Murthy and the gun lobby’s stonewalling of his nomination. In a way, his saga represents a microcosm of what’s been missing from our national health policy debate about guns and, consequently, how little progress we have made. After all, as any doctor will tell you, you can’t begin the process of healing if you can’t even admit that you’re sick in the first place.
Dear Mr. Richardson:
As a retired VN & Desert Storm veteran of the Army and a military family advocate for nearly 40 years, rare is the journalist who can actually frame how the mainstream media distorts reality concerning how our veterans receive their hard earned benefits from the DVA.
Thank you for your clarity, cogent presentations and insight into how certain portions of media spin have failed to hit the mark concerning this latest hot-ratings-producing scandal.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Dave Zirin: Pure Poison: The UCSB Shooting, Ray Rice and a Culture of Violence Against Women.
I don’t have much this week as I’ve had some medical issues, now solved, but I did want to mention three things:
1) Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago Review Press)
This is a collection of more than fifty interviews Cohen conducted between 1966 and 2012. And if you think LC is even a fraction as important to one’s sanity as I do, you’ll be interested to see what’s in it. I wouldn’t trust everything in it, of course. If one could, it wouldn’t be Leonard. Here’s the kind of thing he says: “I don’t care what people call me, whether you call it folksinging or some people call it a priestly function or some people see it as a revolutionary activity or acidheads see it as psychedelic revolution or poets see it as the popularization of poetry.”
2) Billy Joel’s A Matter of Trust—The Bridge to Russia (Deluxe)
My friends at Legacy have released a nice two CD/two DVD package of Captain Jack’s 1987 Russian concert tour. It’s a nice package, all in red of course, and includes a documentary about the tour that running on Showtime now. Obviously it depends on how you feel about the guy; nobody was uncooler when I was in high school, but as one matures, one can learn to appreciate uncoolness, not for its own sake but for (admittedly modest, but entirely real) genius that lies beneath it. This one has all the hits—along with that stupid “Don’t take any shit from anyone” at the end of the show. That was silly.
They also released The Essential Eric Carmen, a thirty-track retrospective of the legendary singer/songwriter’s four-and-a-half decade career. Remastered carefully from the original analog recordings, it reaches back to his first recordings out of the teenage garage up through the undeniable highlight—the brilliant Raspberries—and then a few hits like “All By Myself” and then a whole bunch of other stuff which, if you’re like me, you will not have heard and you might like (but not nearly as much as Billy Joel, except for the Raspberries stuff.)
How the Media’s VA “Scandal” Coverage Is Making the Same Old Mistakes
by Reed Richardson
After six years of embarrassing boom-bust cycle coverage in pursuit of the next big scandal, you’d think the establishment media would’ve learned something by now. But as the ACORN, Black Panther, Fast & Furious, IRS and Benghazi storylines have proven over and over, the temptation to go all in on the latest Thing-That-Will-Doom-Obama-
Late last month, another dramatic story surfaced that has sent ripples through Washington. In a story headlined “A fatal wait,” CNN reportedly uncovered outrageously long appointment delays in the Phoenix Veterans Affairs health system, which a former doctor there shockingly claims cost forty veterans their lives while waiting for care. What’s more, the story detailed an elaborate cover-up by VA employees to hide the broken appointment system and massage the wait time numbers, a metric that figures in the calculation of bonuses for VA employees. News of similar “secret wait lists” and neglected veterans at more than a half-dozen other VA facilities around the country have since come to light.
These are, without a doubt, serious allegations. The prospect of veterans being denied timely access to necessary healthcare is outrageous, the prospect of even one veteran dying because of this delay even more so. After two, simultaneous decade-long wars, we owe it to our military men and women from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to fulfill the promise of proper care after the battle, while still continuing to care for those older vets from earlier eras. This promise is, after all, our nation’s foundational social compact, as the first governmental pension system established in the US was set up to benefit veterans of the Civil War. And no amount of “mad as hell” exclamations, whether from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, or President Obama, really matter if this compact is allowed to be broken.
However, as more and more of the VA story has emerged, it’s increasingly clear that a credulous press corps has once again allowed political grandstanding and dubious claims to run ahead of actual evidence. First and foremost among these failings, the CNN whistleblower’s disturbing claim of forty veterans dying, which has already begun to fray. In fact, as of last Thursday, a VA Inspector General had reviewed seventeen of those supposedly fatal cases and ruled out wait times as contributing to their deaths in every one of them. Reputable news outlets, like NPR, have been careful to couch these death claims as “not yet been proved.” But still today, reports among some of the usual right-wing suspects haven’t been so diligent; the slippery “as many as forty veterans died” meme has now been firmly entrenched in the narrative.
As is often the case when news organizations indulge in flood-the-zone coverage, much of the reporting has a parachuted-in feel to it. As a result, a lot of what readers and viewers have gotten is a very narrow view of the VA, with little background on the Obama administration’s overall track record serving the veteran community.
For example, few reporters bother to note the great strides made by the VA in the past few years in shrinking a massive claims backlog. (That backlog—which Obama inherited, by the way—further ballooned in late 2010 after the White House decided to finally do right by thousands of Vietnam veterans and accept more claims for PTSD and Agent Orange exposure.) Nor has much attention been paid to the administration’s striking success in reducing the chronic problem of veteran homelessness, which has been cut by twenty-four percent since 2010. And if the central issue under scrutiny right now is a healthcare system’s inability to match its supply with patient demand, might it be worthwhile context to note that the VA will be serving one million more patients by 2015 than it did when Obama first came into office? But rare is the news story that rounds out its scandal focus with a look at the broader challenges facing the VA. Even when I come across a well-reported, nuanced story about the agency’s recent ups and downs, I have to get past an oversimplified, scandal-hyped headline to do it: “Obama Has Every Reason to Fix the VA. Why Hasn’t He?”
Perhaps inevitably, the DC press corps’ fetish for horserace coverage has also crept in. Over at the National Journal sister site, Defense One, we saw even less context and more shoddy narrative framing this past week. With a shameless, clickbait headline, it ran a story suggesting that the “VA scandal” could be worse than—wait for it—Benghazi! Of course, the “veteran Democratic strategist” quoted saying this is no doubt only a “veteran” of political campaigns, since he refers to the VA as the “Veterans Administration,” a name the agency hasn’t officially had for twenty-five years. Not to worry, the reporter makes the same mistake. Though the story at least hedges “veterans dying” as an allegation, there’s no mention of the VA IG investigation that has also so far disproven all those claims. And then, true to form, the reporter devotes the kicker paragraph to the potential impact of those alleged dead veterans on the Democrats’ chances in the midterm elections. Classy.
As the coverage of the VA’s problems began to coalesce, right on cue, right-wingers jumped on board with their own agenda to push. Just how obviously political has the issue become? Consider the transparent absurdity of this PR two-step from last week. On Thursday, a group called the Concerned Veterans of America demanded the “immediate resign[ation]” of VA Undersecretary of Health Dr. Robert Petzel as retribution for the agency’s problems. Not even twenty-four hours later, however, the same group dismissed Petzel’s actual resignation as a “meaningless gesture.” Such transparently phony behavior on the part of the CVA might come as less of a shock when you learn it has received $2 million of its funding through the dark money network of the Koch brothers.
Conservative outrage artists like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh have wasted no time either. They’ve already used the VA as an excuse to, respectively, revisit the Obamacare “death panels” canard and compare the VA backlog to Nazi genocide. Never mind that all their railing about the poor quality of “government-run healthcare” is a lie. As with Medicare, VA care is among the best in the country. It’s better administration and greater access to that care that are the issues that need fixing at the VA. Gee, I wonder how conservatives feel about putting more resources into the VA to do just that.
Surprise, surprise, they’re against it. Back in February, the Senate GOP killed a $21-billion funding bill that would have opened or expanded more than two-dozen VA medical centers. The reason? It was an “election-year ploy” by Democrats that cost too much. (It seems there is a connection between the VA and Benghazi stories after all, since Congressional Republicans repeatedly cut funding for embassy security in the years before the 2012 attack on our compound in Libya.) This isn’t anything new—blocking funding for vets has become something of a habit among the GOP on Capitol Hill.
Of course, these votes don’t excuse misconduct or failures at the VA, which, if proven, should be dealt with harshly and promptly. And members of Congress from both parties are right to be concerned about what’s been unearthed about the VA recently. But falling victim to shallow, speculative coverage that haplessly fuels a partisan witch-hunt isn’t the answer. For, when mainstream news coverage routinely mischaracterizes the extent of misconduct or failure while ignoring the actual conditions that make misconduct and failure more likely, it becomes derelict in its duty to the public. This is the trap of “scandal journalism”—being obsessed with the theatrics leads to overlooking the facts. It’s all distraction and no solution. All of us, especially our veterans, deserve better.
Thanks for the article [“The Two Faces of Climate Change on the Washington Post’s Op-Ed Page.”] I always enjoy your fearless posts on the mainstream media establishment's indifference and inaction towards climate change. This line made me chuckle:
"But while one can reasonably claim to be uncertain about matters of pure faith, like, say, the existence of God or a serious House Republican plan to replace Obamacare, one cannot by definition be neither a believer nor a denier of fact."
Brilliant writing. I'll share this with all of my colleagues and friends. Patiently waiting for your next post.
Keep up the great work,
Outstanding piece! The Washington Post's duplicity on climate is a global shame.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: Reining in the Surveillance State.
Last week I responded to Michael Walzer’s attempt to articulate a “left” foreign policy position on the Dissent website; you can read our exchange here. And my new Nation column, “Obama’s Pundit Problem: Critics like Maureen Down of the Times live in an Oz-like dream world,” is no longer behind a paywall.
David Johansen/Buster Poindexter at the Cafe Carlyle
I somehow missed the fact that Johansen had been invited to bring “Buster” to the Carlye last Halloween. He did an interview with Vanity Fair about it at the time, which you can read here. I have been seeing variations of Johansen for nearly forty years now. It’s a weird thing to say but he is a lot more talented than he lets on. I say this because if all you heard was his scratchy voice and greatest hits, you’d think he was pretty good and that would be that. But the man is so versatile, it’s uncanny. First came The New York Dolls, about whose legend much has been written. They were not much on their instruments, but they oozed fun and charisma and a certain kind of decadence/chanciness that was crucial to the music reinventing itself in the early seventies. The first “David Johansen” album, which followed, is still pretty great, as is the much-later released Live at the Bottom Line, which I remember listening to the night it was broadcast on WNEW-FM and wishing I could be there (but I was too young, alas). Since then, David has acted a bunch (his performance in “Scrooged” is the highlight), toured playing folk songs with The Harry Smiths, and stood in for Muddy Waters (sort-of) in the late Hubert Sumlin’s band, where it was uncanny how much this skinny white guy sound like the 300 pound plus Howlin’ Wolf. Throw in Buster—the audacious creation of a cheaply tuxedoed lounge act not unlike the persona Tom Waits adopts on Night Hawks at the Diner—but with an emphasis on fun obscure jump blues and corny jokes and the man looks more and more like a kind of wonder. And though he has many devoted fans, the numbers are not anywhere where they should be. (He is kind of like Randy Newman, or before his death, Warren Zevon in this regard.)
Anyway, Johansen is at bottom a performance artist, and as Buster he has all the room he needs. Before an appropriately fancy crowd on Friday night—I saw Gay Talese and Nick Pileggi at one table, the great Danny Goldberg at another—Buster put on a typically virtuoso show at the Carlyle. He has found a line where the shtick complements, rather than overwhelms the music. (It helps that the band is really tight.) And as with the Carlyle’s biggest stars, it’s the kind of show that works if you’re sixteen (as my daughter, who went with me, happens to be) or ninety-six. Here’s hoping he gets a long stay there soon, as the man deserves to make a decent living and with the death of Lou Reed—to say nothing of Bobby Short—the title of Mr. New York is open and ready to be claimed.
The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series
My deepest gratitude to my friends at Shout! Factory for its release of the nineteen DVD box set, The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series. My top-ten list of favorite shows of all time fluctuates a bit but this show, which aired from 1972 to 1978, is almost always on it. The deadpan humor, the marvelously realized characters and the empathy for life’s goofballs makes almost every episode a feel-good experience, to say nothing of the wonderfulness of Suzanne Pleshette, all complementing the deadpan humor of Newhart. It’s nearly impossible to stay in a bad mood when you’re watching these. I can’t wait to take the box out to the beach this summer and binge. This solid package includes interviews with Newhart, Jack Riley, Bill Daily, Peter Bonerz and Michael Zinberg, as well The Bob Newhart Show 19th Anniversary from 1991, the original unaired pilot, audio commentaries, a gag reel and a handsome forty-page booklet. It won’t be out until later this month but you can preorder it in lots of places and my guess is that it will show up early. Do yourselves a favor…
Dave’s Picks Volume Ten
The Dead’s Dave’s Picks Volume Ten is taken from the final night of a three-night run at a little club in LA called "Thelma" on Sunset Strip in December, 1969. They had just released Live/Dead and were getting ready to put out Workingman's Dead and there sure was a lot of Pigpen. "I'm A King Bee," "Hard To Handle," "Good Lovin'" and a thirty minute plus version of "Turn On Your Lovelight." Mastered in HDCD from the original soundboard recordings produced by Owsley Stanley, featuring the once lost, now found, first reel. People who love this period of the Dead will not want to be without, though, given how quickly theDave’s Picks series sells out, many will be if they don’t already subscribe to the this handsomely packaged series.
More Box Sets You Might Want
Here’s a bunch of CD box sets and re-releases that might excite you more than they excite me. I won’t judge you harshly if that’s the case.
First is the eight-CD Black Sabbath: The Complete Studio Albums (1970-1978). It’s in a clamshell box and the set contains all of the studio albums Black Sabbath recorded for Warner Bros. Records during the nineteen-seventies, all of which sold rather well, so I guess a lot of people liked them. Apparently they are still around, too, as they began a North American tour on March 31 with a show at Barclays Center.
Another new box is The Alan Parsons Project—The Complete Albums Collection, which is eleven CDs and includes The Sicilian Defence, the notorious never-released fifth APP album. (It was, says my press kit, “an aggressive musical response to stalled contract negotiations. Composed and recorded over an intense three-day marathon session at Super Bear Studios in France (during the same period Eve was made), The Sicilian Defence is a complex and challenging work, full of atonality and dissonance. Delivered to Arista in March 1981, the masters were locked away and the controversial recordings unheard for three decades. While an edited version of one of the album's tracks, "Elsie's Theme," was included as a bonus track on an expanded edition of Eve, The Sicilian Defence is being released for the first time in its entirety for this collection.”
The box itself is based on masters overseen by Alan Parsons and each of the albums is presented, in facsimile vinyl replica wallet sleeves released between 1976 and 1987 with original album track-listings intact, along with rare photos, many previously unpublished. (Parsons had worked as assistant engineer on the Beatles' Abbey Road and Let It Be and engineered Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, so the “project” movies in an interesting direction. The Scottish rock band Pilot—“Ho, ho, ho, it’s magic. You know. Never believe it’s not so”—provided the core group of musicians for the Alan Parsons Project with Ian Bairnson (guitar) playing on every APP album, David Paton (bass and vocals) appearing on all albums except Gaudi, and Stuart Tosh (drums) playing drums on Tales of Mystery and Imagination and I Robot before joining 10cc and being replaced by Stuart Elliott (Cockney Rebel drummer). My favorite is the classic, Tales of Mystery and Imagination from 1976.
The Two Faces of Climate Change on the Washington Post Op-Ed Page
by Reed Richardson
In case you missed it, the sobering reality of climate change presented us with a “holy shit moment” this week. The vast West Antarctic Ice Sheet, two scientific studies revealed, is now past the point of no return; its six glaciers doomed to break apart thanks to a massive surge of warm water being pulled southward by greenhouse gas-fueled winds. The amount of water unlocked by the melting of these glaciers has the potential to raise sea levels by as much as four feet in just a few centuries, sooner if global warming continues to accelerate. That news comes on the heels of another dire United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that warned that sea levels are already rising right now and could increase by as much as three feet by the year 2100 when glacial melting from Greenland is factored in.
Sadly, the political willpower in Washington to take action in the face of this ongoing, man-made crisis is missing. The Obama administration must partly take the blame for this inaction. For too long it has let addressing climate change slip to the bottom of its to-do list. (Although, to be fair, it has showed a lot more willingness to tackle the issue of late.) And while a few Democratic Senators have also worked to ensure legislative apathy, there’s no doubt that the near lockstep intransigence of Congressional Republicans is the number one reason our nation has been unable to craft solutions substantial enough to address this growing threat.
Making the GOP’s climate change-denying job easier: a diffident, often dismissive press corps. Indeed, when not ignoring the issue altogether, the establishment media—and the Beltway punditocracy in particular—has played a key role in aiding and abetting the right wing’s denialism through stilted, he-said-she-said story framing. Widespread journalistic negligence of this breadth and depth should frustrate all of us. But no single news organization’s take on climate change rises to the level of inexplicable duplicitousness quite like Washington Post op-ed page.
Case in point, on Monday, the Post’s editorial board unabashedly hammered Republican Sen. Marco Rubio for his shameless perpetuation of climate change skepticism. Rubio’s comments, which marked a clear step backward away from the scientific consensus, coincidentally came last Friday during an interview where the senator not-so-humbly said he was “ready to be president." The Post, not mincing words, rightly called out Rubio’s misrepresentations and said his embrace of such falsehoods made him unfit for the Presidency:
“It is one thing to invite a debate about the best policy to address rising global temperatures, a problem no country can tackle on its own. It is another to dismiss the evidence that ‘these scientists’ have compiled—‘a handful of decades of research,’ Mr. Rubio derisively called it—to show that humans are driving much of that warming.”
This rhetorical courage on the part of the Post’s editorial staff isn’t unusual. To their credit, they’ve long used the paper’s highly influential platform to champion the fight against global warming. All of which makes the Post’s willingness to host a number of climate change ditherers and outright deniers on its op-ed pages that much more puzzling.
Of those, George Will sticks out as a climate change denier of the highest order, someone much more visible and voluble on spreading misinformation than Sen. Rubio or almost any other “hoax”-hyping Republican in Washington. Indeed, Will’s dissembling on climate change got so bad at one point in 2009, you may recall, that it prompted fellow Post columnist Eugene Robinson, the Post’s weather blog, and two reporters in the news pages to all call him and his lies out—by name.
He’s by no means moved on or wised up since then. Back in February, there he was, throwing out more disingenuous talking points like “the climate is always changing,” which I would note is almost the exact same phrase that Sen. Rubio used—“our climate is always changing”—last week when the Post lambasted him. But notably missing from those series of rebukes to Will four years ago or from his column three months ago was a direct rebuttal from Fred Hiatt’s own editorial page.
Unfortunately, Will is not alone. In his Washington Post column this week, conservative Charles Krauthammer scoffed at the notion that climate change is “settled science,” without bothering to note the actual, overwhelming truth as reported by the Post. Instead, he boldly reiterated his stance as a so-called climate change agnostic: “I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier.” But while one can reasonably claim to be uncertain about matters of pure faith, like, say, the existence of God or a serious House Republican plan to replace Obamacare, one cannot by definition be neither a believer nor a denier of a fact.
Moreover, for someone who claims not to have chosen a side on climate change, Krauthammer’s mind sounds fairly settled, since he allows no acknowledgement of the broad scientific consensus and instead cherry-picks data where the only perceivable goal is to feed climate skepticism. For example, he drolly points out that, in all of 2012, only one hurricane made US landfall and that 2013 saw the fewest Atlantic hurricanes in the past thirty years. Take that, climate Cassandras! While both of these facts are accurate, they’re also arbitrary and completely lacking in context. What he conveniently leaves out are the broader, global trends at work, like the unquestionably dramatic rise in ocean heating and the correspondingly fast disappearance of Arctic sea ice. And said post compels the Post to run an almost column-length letter-to-the-editor debunking Krauthammer, one wonders what is the point of giving his shoddy thinking the imprimatur of the paper in the first place?
Alas, these climate change know-nothings on the Post op-ed page has recently been complemented by climate change do-nothing and do-littles. On Monday, for instance, so-called liberal columnist Robert Samuelson melodramatically dropped on the climate change discussion what he purported to be a big ol’ truth bomb: “We have no solution.” But, as Media Matters notes, his fatalistic language, while not only false, only further serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that is a) helplessly reductive and b) only gives comfort to those skeptics who don’t believe climate change merits action anyway. Bizarrely, Samuelson actually does offer up an important framework toward a solution—a carbon tax—at the end of his column.
Setting aside Samuelson’s self-refuting argument, it’s notable that one month ago the Post’s editorial page was singing the exact opposite tune, calling for immediate, unequivocal action on climate change:
“The experts leave little doubt about the right response: Cut pollution to head off the worst possible consequences and prepare for the risks the world is unlikely to avoid, given its inability to slash emissions quickly. Delaying action, they note, reduces the world’s options and affords vulnerable people less time to cope.”
Even those conservative columnists at the Post who aren’t ideologically opposed to the science of climate change can have an undermining effect on the debate of what to do about it. For example, Michael Gerson’s forthright column aimed at debunking the climate conspiracy theorists in his party nonetheless engages in subtle innuendo and false choices. In it, he poses a lot of “questions” about climate change that have been already answered and characterizes the necessarily hard-to-swallow medicine of science-based solutions to global warming as naïve or unrealistic.
“Some scientists have displayed an artificial certainty on some matters that seems to cross into advocacy. Others assume that the only way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions is a strict, global regulatory regime — an economic and political judgment that has nothing to do with their actual expertise."
Expert scientific advocacy for a worldwide solution, heaven forfend! Maybe it’s just me, but that seems like exactly the sort of idea we should be considering in the face of a global climate crisis. After all, following the wait-and-see, take-it-slow approach Gerson advocates is exactly what got us into this dire situation, and what the Post’s own editorial page forcefully rejects.
But thanks to this continued editorial indulgence, the Post op-ed page effectively cancels itself out time and again when it comes to addressing the ominous risks we’re facing from climate change. Now, I get the paper’s desire to provide a broad range of viewpoints from across the political spectrum. Both conservatives and liberals should, of course, always be free to write or say whatever they want in a free society. But this doesn’t mean that any one side or ideology should be free from the consequences of what they write in the marketplace, especially if they willfully distort scientific fact or traffic in lies.
Recently, other esteemed newspapers have begun to draw some individual limits around what they’re willing to publish regarding climate change, in order to protect the intellectual honesty of what goes out under their paper’s name. This is as it should be, as the press's role shouldn't be to unnecessarily provoke a debate based on false claims. It’s time for Fred Hiatt and the rest of his editorial page staff to critically reassess the depth of their commitment to telling the truth as well. If the Post really wants to make a difference in addressing our man-made climate change crisis, the best place to start might be in its own op-ed pages.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Janet Redman, Emira Woods, John Cavanagh and Foreign Policy In Focus: What’s Wrong With the Electrify Africa Act.
On the Dissent website this week, Jeff Faux and I responded to Michael Walzer’s attempt to articulate a “left” foreign policy position. You can read that here.
I assume my Nation column is still behind a paywall, but maybe not, depending on when you read this. It’s called “Obama’s Pundit Problem,” with the subhed: “Critics like Maureen Dowd of the Times live in an Oz-like dream world.” You can (maybe) read it here.
Jazz Fest 2014
My myriad mishaps notwithstanding, I did manage to catch three afternoons of music at this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival after my accident. Here’s what I saw:
The secret to having a great time at Jazz Fest, in this man’s opinion, is to spend as much time as possible inside the tents: gospel, blues and especially jazz whenever possible. Outside in the sun, people tend to drink a lot and not pay too much attention to the music. Also this week was really hot. Inside the tents, they have chairs, a lovely soft mist coming from the roof, a carpet on part of the floor to soak up the echoes and people who are paying attention.
I caught a few minutes of the end of Cowboy Mouth’s set. They were horrible.
In the Jazz Tent, Nicholas Payton played backed by guitarist Derwin Perkins, bassist Braylon Lacy and drummer Russell Batiste Jr. Per usual of late, Payton played both trumpet and keyboards, occasionally simultaneously. He also sang. I could have lived without that. Every song was a number, beginning with “1” and ending with “6.” He was followed in the tent with a set by Pharoah Sanders. The veteran of Coltrane’s late band was a great deal more melodic than I expected and his band, pianist William Henderson, bassist Nathaniel Reeves, and drummer Joe Farnsworth. moved along marvelously, joined by trumpeter Marlon Jordan on a beautiful version of Billy Eckstein's' "I Want to Talk About You." It was a beautiful sound and it didn’t hurt that Sanders looks a lot like what you would expect Moses to look like, if he had been black, which maybe he was,
Sadly, I did not see as much of Sanders as I might have because I had invested in Charles Bradley in the Blues Tent. Charles, who is sixty-five years old, puts on a show that draws heavily on the old James Brown/Wilson Pickett/Otis Redding school of performance, which makes sense because he is their peer, and he did not get a chance to enjoy himself as a soul star for much of his life which has been no picnic, I’m telling you. He was ok, but the songs and the screaming and the sweat ran together. Also, maybe this is my fault, but I found it weird that his whole band was white.
I caught part of a blues tent set by the Joe Krown Trio featuring Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Russell Batiste, Jr. They were also ok. Then, to try to get a decent spot for Bruce, I headed over to the big stage to see the set before his, the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars. They were pretty fun.
How was Bruce, you ask? Well, they do love Bruce in New Orleans ever since his apparently amazing post-Katrina appearance when the festival almost didn’t happen. I saw him two years ago and it was a wonderful performance and it was crazy crowded, but since it was the first weekend and a Sunday night, well, it was not nearly as crowded as it could be. This was not true this year, which was on a Saturday night, second weekend, and the most crowded place I’ve ever been, outside a subway.
Thing is, a lot of people were drunk and only sort of curious about Bruce and so I found myself constantly distracted in a way that would be impossible at an actual Bruce show. The set itself did lean heavily on New Orleans kinda stuff. It began with "High Hopes"—the only song he played from that album and then threw in a bunch of Seeger Session songs like "Jesse James" and “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Time and Live?” Rickie Lee Jones showed up and sorta sang backup with joining up with Patti. And for me, the highlight was the duet Bruce did with John Fogerty on “Green River” and “Proud Mary.” That was a treat. And the crowd sure did love Bruce when he went deep on “Hungry Heart.” I realize it’s snobbish of me but I’m tired of shows that include “Badlands,” “Promised Land” and “Thunder Road.” (I can live with having seen 250 versions of “Born to Run.” I found it odd that Bruce dropped “Kitty” and “E Street” from the printed setlist and put in “The River,” which is a great song, but not nearly so much fun for a Jazz Fest audience. Also Steve was not there, and so that energy was missing. Of course it was still Bruce, who never does any show lower than an A—and that’s what this was, though it came close to an A when he threw in a slow, mournful "When the Saints Go Marching In" and followed it with a raucous "Pay Me My Money Down” before doing a boring “Thunder Road.”
On Sunday, I had one of those discoveries that makes Jazz Fest such a treat: something called “James Andrews and the Crescent City All Stars.” I don’t know a thing about them except how much fun they were (in the blues tent again) and also that Mr. Andrews’s wife had pipes that amazed everyone during her tribute to Etta James. The way people reacted reminds you that you go to see the big acts but it’s the people you never heard of that make it so memorable. One moment you were just sitting there; the next it was a joyful celebration of life.
Though they often get a bad rap at Jazz Fest, the big bands do tend to rise to the occasion. I’ve never seen The Arcade Fire before, but they are pretty much the only newish band I really like. (Though Lake Street Dive has real potential.) They were closing out their “Reflektor” world tour and were wonderful. They entered the big stage in a conga line dancing to "Iko Iko," followed by a second line of dancers in enormous papier-mâché masks that included the current and few ex-presidents, Pope John Paul, all of whom appeared to enjoy "Here Comes the Night Time (Part I). In a too short ninety-minute set, we got "Here Comes The Night Time," a rendition of "Neighborhood No. 3 (Power Out)," "Rebellion (Lies)," and “Funeral.” Next Win Butler announced, correctly, "This is one of the last places in America that's its own place, but for the rest of us, there's this song,” as the band launched into "The Suburbs."
Given that it was Sunday and the field was not nearly so crowded as the day before, I found people paying a lot more attention to the band than they had the day before. There were no loud drunks or stupid wisecracks; just a lot of singing and dancing to some wonderful music. As the show ended, the band walked into the crowd joined by the Pinettes Brass to ”Iko Iko” once again. Boy were they fun.
Together with Alejandro Escovedo and Lyle Lovett, neither of whom I saw owing to my traffic accident, Robert Earl Keen held up the Texas end of things. "What could be better than good food, good drink and good weather?" How about a new version of the Dead's "New Speedway Boogie?” Plus a really long closer beginning with those immortal words: "Sherry was a waitress at the only joint in town/She had a reputation as a girl who'd been around" Pretty great, and I wish I heard more. But The Arcade Fire and scheduling did not permit.
How great is Jazz Fest? To see TAF and a little bit of Robert Earl Keen, I had to skip Chick Corea and the Radiators and Bobby Womack.
For the closer, I opted for Aaron Neville and his band, featuring saxophonist Charles Neville, in the Blues Tent over John Fogerty on one field and Trombone Shorty on another, as well as the Terrance Blanchard Group in the Jazz Tent and who knows what else. It did not feel like a bad choice. He came to the stage twenty minutes after the show was supposed to begin, but just as I was getting there, and did a lovely "Summertime" into "Everybody Plays the Fool" and John Hiatt's “It Feels Like Rain." Until last year, the Neville Brothers had traditionally closed Jazz Fest, but they split it up last year when Aaron wanted to play solo and his three brothers, Cyril, Charles and Art, performed separately, billed as the Nevilles. This year it was Mr. “Tell it Like it Is.”
Aaron played the king of seventies set that Rod Stewart would sing if he had better taste. In addition to the above, we got "What's Going On?" "Ain't No Sunshine," "A Change Is Gonna Come," plus "Three Little Birds" and "Stir It Up." Jason Neville showed up to sing "Hercules" and "Give Me the Beat Boys," which was followed by “Sara Smile,” "Down by the Riverside," and "When the Saints Go Marching In," which sounded a lot different than the way Bruce played it. He closed with a bone-chilling "Louisiana 1927," which would have been a great closer. But he came back as he has every show for the past fifty or so years to "Tell It Like It Is," and stuck around for an a cappella version of "Amazing Grace," and sent everybody home with "One Love," with Cyril Neville showing up to sing along.
I had planned to include Charles Bittner’s photography in my coverage, but it turned out that his camera equipment did not survive my car crash—something we did not learn until it was too late. Almost everything that could have gone wrong did for me this year, and yet I still am very much looking forward to coming back next year. Jazz Fest is a national treasure. I’ve talked only about the music but of course the food was wonderful and amazing and the people, without exception, incredibly friendly and helpful and there was lots of stuff to buy that you almost certainly couldn’t buy anywhere else. Jazz Fest is heavy on corporate sponsorship (Shell, Acura, Samsung) but it wears it pretty lightly. Nowhere else do you see so much of the best of this country’s culture on display in one place. It’s enough to make a patriot out of you.
Last night I went to 92 Street Y for a long-postponed evening with Claudia Roth Pierpont, Nicola Krauss and the man himself in honor of Pierpont’s book, Roth Unbound. Pierpont gave a clever talk about the role of music, silverware and, um, women in his work. It was a brilliant defense and should make all those people who complain about alleged misogyny in his work feel silly, but of course it won’t. Nothing will. Ms. Krauss gave a long, personal, deeply heartfelt introduction, which was quite moving and then Roth read two long sections from Sabbath’s Theater. This was really something. Sabbath has always been among my least favorite of his later works, especially among those that everyone thinks is great. (I am also not a fan of The Plot Against America.) Anyway, the sections Roth read—none of the dirty parts—were so beautifully rendered and simultaneously true and poetic and powerful, I was left speechless.
The other point that needs mentioning is how beloved and respected Roth has become among American Jews. It’s so deeply ironic that I need to write a book in which it is a major theme... and so I better stop writing this right now.
Read Next: Eric Alterman: Obama’s Pundit Problem.
Alas, the coverage I had planned of the 2014 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival will be a few days late and a few dollars short owing to an unhappy confluence of events. First, I expected to rely on my excellent nephew, Adam Franklin, to cover the first weekend, but Adam’s grandfather passed away that same weekend and he did the right thing, so if you want to read about weekend one, I suggest David Fricke’s coverage in Rolling Stone, which is almost as good as young Adam’s would have been.
I had also planned on covering all four days of the second weekend (together with the luminous photography of The Nation’s own Charles Bittner). Nobody died but I did completely total my rental car when I missed a stop sign looking for a parking lot just outside the festival. (If you ever get in a major accident in New Orleans in a non-commercial area, you can expect to wait at least three hours for the cops to show up and take down all your information, before also handing you a summons. You can also expect everyone involved to be super nice.) So that took all day and I missed all of Thursday.
Then I hoped to have it all written up for this morning but when I woke up at 5:00 am Tuesday, (after spending an unhappy day with Delta), it was not for Zabar’s French Roast or Jon Stewart (or the Mets, depending on the season), but for an impacted kidney stone. I have never been fond of bloggers who blog from their bathrooms—Hello Andrew Sullivan—and so I will just say that a) these things hurt like Hell; b) I actually felt lucky though, because if it had happened at Jazzfest or on the way home, oy—I don’t even want to think about it, and c) the staff at St. Lukes Hospital at 120th and Amsterdam is really wonderful (though this may be the Vicodin talking). I spent thirteen hours there and came out all fixed, the write-up/photo extravaganza will have to wait until tomorrow or the next day.
Sorry. Now here’s Reed:
On Benghazi and the Right-Wing Media’s Never-Ending Quest for “Smoking Guns”
by Reed Richardson
After more than a dozen public hearings, nearly fifty Capitol Hill briefings, and the production of tens of thousands of pages of documents for five different overlapping Congressional committee investigations—the cost of which for the Pentagon alone has run into the millions of dollars—the American people learned this past week that they now, finally, will be able to get to the truth about the White House cover-up of Benghazi. Or, at least, that’s how it's been predictably portrayed by the right.
But if anything is a sure bet in politics these days, it’s that the latest scandalous detail about the Obama administration seized upon by conservatives will end up being just as devastating as the previous scandalous detail seized upon by conservatives—which is, of course, to say not at all.
Nevertheless, Fox News—who else?—led the charge last Wednesday, bringing reliably outrageable Sen. Lindsay Graham on the air to be reliably outraged about White House emails shaken loose by a conservative watchdog group’s lawsuit. Not mincing words, Graham called the email from White House aide Ben Rhodes “damning,” and soberly claimed: “We now have the smoking gun.” (If you want an accurate take on the importance—or, more accurately, lack thereof—of these emails, I’d recommend reading these takedowns at Mother Jones and Slate.)
Of course, Graham has famously not-minced-words before. Last fall, he loudly touted Lara Logan’s scathing 60 Minutes report about Benghazi, calling it a “death blow” to the White House’s narrative of the attack and its aftermath. Of course, that was before Logan’s whole story unraveled into a pile of tangled conflicts of interest and fabulist bravado, costing Logan both her job and her reputation. (But as we learned this week, not before she turned to Graham out of desperation to try to save her story.)
Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer joined the over-the-top-metaphor party this past week as well. Just weeks after ruefully admitting that the “clock had run out on Benghazi,” he was back with a vengenace labeling the newly unearthed emails no less than “the equivalent of what was discovered with the Nixon tapes.” To hear a conservative invoke the biggest presidential scandal of our nation’s history in reference to this White House doesn’t exactly shock the conscience. Even less so when you learn that Republican politicians and right-wing pundits had already compared Benghazi to Watergate at least a dozen times before.
One of those making this comparison to Nixon’s malfeasance was a former adviser of Nixon’s, right-wing xenophobe Pat Buchanan. And to be fair, Buchanan had already beat Graham to the Benghazi “smoking gun” talking point by a year and half. Just days before the 2012 election, Buchanan identified an Aug. 16 State Dept. cable about security risks at the Benghazi consulate as “the smoking gun.”
Though the claim was quickly debunked, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, not to be out-outraged, weighed in last May. In a somewhat surprising move, he dismissed the GOP’s unbridled obsession with the Sunday morning talking points of Susan Rice. But, in keeping with his well-known reputation for understated, intellectual rigor, Goldberg went on to cite “an arsenal’s worth of smoking guns” and, as proof, vaguely recited some things one might learn after ten seconds of Googling the Benghazi attack and investigation.
For good measure, it was also around this time last year that a columnist in the Baltimore Sun lumped the Benghazi investigation together with the now-debunked IRS scandal as Obama’s “Katrina moment.” This “Obama’s Katrina” meme, if you’re counting at home, has now been slapped on nearly a dozen events by conservatives, rivaling even the Watergate allusions. The lesson being, I guess, that as far as presidential screw-ups go, recent Republican presidents really have set the standard.
The dubious track record of conservatives claiming to have found the “smoking gun” that will take down Obama even awakened Fox News’s sleepy in-house media critic, Howard Kurtz. In a column last Friday, Kurtz allowed that he didn’t think the recent White House email revelations amounted to a “smoking gun.” In addition, he obliquely acknowledged his network’s single-minded obsession with Benghazi conspiracies. And yet, he carefully avoided practicing, well, actual media criticism on whether or not his own network has in fact been engaging in outrageous, unfounded speculation:
“Critics say Fox News has relentlessly hyped the Benghazi story to turn it into a scandal. Whatever your view, that aggressive coverage has made it easier for rivals to dismiss each report as just another incremental development.”
“Whatever your view” being the new way one says: “I’d rather not get my boss mad by telling the truth, thank you very much.”
And make no mistake: the accusation that Fox News is “relentlessly hyping” Benghazi is a perfectly legitimate criticism to describe a cable news network that is now a) selectively airing only questions of the White House that involve Benghazi and b) pleading with meteorologists to confront Obama about the issue. When other news networks don’t give in to the same, 24/7 orgiastic impulses as Fox's Bill O’Reilly complains their Benghazi coverage is “minimal.” Never mind that the daily White House press briefing last Thursday was dominated by Benghazi questions, as it was this past Monday.
That’s why a cheer no doubt erupted across the right-wing media when House Speaker John Boehner announced last Friday he will convene a new, joint select committee to investigate Benghazi all over again. Over at Fox, they did their best to excuse Boehner dragging Congress and President Obama back through the process, in laughably sympathetic, he-didn’t-have-any-choice rationalization:
“Republican leaders had hoped to avoid long hearings on Benghazi in the midst of an election cycle focused on domestic issues. But it looks like the revelations are enough to head that way.”
Left out of this explanation: that Boehner has been meticulously orchestrating the House Benghazi strategy for maximum political advantage from the get-go. As far back as a year ago, Politico was marveling over what it called Boehner’s “biggest fixation.”
Could there possibly be any other reasons Republicans in Congress and their counterparts in the conservative media might want to re-ignite their torches over Benghazi? What recent headlines—like this, perhaps?—about the Obama administration’s other purported disaster might now be backfiring on conservatives? How else might the GOP achieve the rare political trifecta of publicly bludgeoning the current Democratic resident of the White House as well as the party’s past and likely future nominees? If you want evidence of the Manichean narratives being crafted by Republicans in Congress and propelled forward by right-wing news outlets, look no further than this convenient pirouette by Fox News back to Benghazi over the past month.
Granted, the conservative outrage feedback loop is now a permanent part of the media landscape, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have a deleterious impact on so-called objective news coverage. For example, even in Politico story that accurately picks apart the latest Republican talk of a Benghazi cover-up, the Beltway media can’t help but legitimize the conservative conspiracies by indulging in its age-old, horse-race obsession: How will this affect the 2016 narrative?
“And yet in truth, if I were a Republican strategist (which I’m not), I would advise conservatives to scandalize away. I’d also advise the Koch brothers and other deep-pocketed conservatives to underwrite the [Benghazi Industrial Complex] as the messaging campaign for 2016 gets started. Not because they’re ever going to prove anything nefarious (though hey, you never know), but they may well be able to successfully if cynically exploit the soft spot in Hillary Clinton’s ambitions for the White House: her utter disgust with the Washington political game and the willingness of the media to play along.”
You’d think that, by now, the Washington press corps would have learned. That they would’ve grown tired of the embarrassment attached to enabling the right’s unending series of false narratives and inflated scandals. After all, I seem to recall another famous example of conservatives up in arms about a “smoking gun” and a “mushroom cloud,” one that turned out not to be true either, but cost that this country far more than Benghazi ever could.
Fort Lee, NJ
Hi Mr. Richardson,
For me it was a breath of fresh air to read the hard copy of your "investigation" of AJAM. I enclose an email sent to my many E-Pals, who in general are Israeli boosters from the left & right. A few have started to think positively about AJAM and web AJ English.
I fall in the left boosters of early Zionism, being 84. That did not stop me from following AJ English for many years.
Thank you for your front-page article. Will keep up with them.
In reply to Lisa Andrea:
I would say that Mr. Alterman is quite successful. There is no such thing as an invented Palestinian identity, as Palestine has been in existence for longer than Judah and Israel. In fact, from a genetic background, the Palestinians are more than likely the descendants of converted Jews from long ago.
As a Jew of Ashkenazi descent myself, I bet my genetic pool is muddied by many disparate genes.
Anyway, I do agree that the Arabs do not want peace, as well as the current Israeli leadership.
Finally, only a schlemiel (or maybe a schlemazal?), would call Mr. Alterman a coward and schmeggege.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen: Cold War Against Russia—Without Debate.
My new Nation column is The Power of Piketty's ‘Capital’.
It is described as follows: “A brilliant book has named the problem of our time. But will anything change?”
I’ll be at Jazzfest this weekend, weather-permitting. Feel free to email me your NOLA dining suggestions. For those of you in the city, check out the schedule for Harlem Jazz Shrines. It looks pretty fun (and cheap). It’s also got some intellectual meat to it; one more reason I live in the Greatest City…
Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues by Joel Selvin
Review by Danny Goldberg
Anyone fascinated with the history of rock and roll should check out Joel Selvin’s new book Here Comes The Night, The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and The Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues. It’s a deceptively down-beat title because Selvin’s opus is an exhaustively researched love letter to an era of R&B and rock and roll in the early nineteen sixties that created classic music, helped facilitate racial integration on a cultural level and directly inspired the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and decades of subsequent rock and roll artists.
Bert Berns, a brainy and charming street kid from a Jewish family in the Bronx, was a songwriter and producer, who worked closely with The Drifters, Solomon Burke, and the Isely Brothers among others and later an indie label head (Bang Records) who signed Van Morrison, Neil Diamond and The McCoys (“Hang On Sloopy,” also written by Berns).
Berns is known for injecting a Latin music influence into R&B (he’d been a fan of the mambo growing up), for lyrics full of angst, and for uncanny commercial clarity in synthesizing the rapidly changing pop, sounds du jour. (There was a dizzying series of musical trends that had seemingly overnight been injected into the pop music charts in 1963. Selvin writes, “The twist, the bossa nova and surf music all in a year. Who knew anything?”)
Because R&B was shunned by major labels, a number of independently owned companies run by music business outcasts had sprung up in the years after rock and roll burst onto America’s pop scene in 1954. Three major labels, Columbia, RCA Victor and Decca had controlled more than ninety percent of the Top Ten. By the time Berns entered the business in 1960 the power of the majors had collapsed and the indies represented more than two-thirds of the top ten.
While using Berns as its centerpiece, Here Comes The Night is really a far broader history of the era in New York’s R&B business featuring songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Carol King and Jerry Goffin, and Dom Pomus and Mort Schuman, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, genius producer (and later killer) Phil Spector and Atlantic Records partners Ahmet and Nesui Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Atlantic, for whom Ray Charles made his first hits, was the most prestigious of the indies and the company where Berns did most of his work. Selvin quotes Ben E. King fondly referring to the Atlantic partners Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler as “a better class of thieves.” Wexler was Berns’s mentor until they had a bitter falling out the year before Berns’s untimely death in 1967 from congestive heart failure at the age of thirty-eight.
Also prominently featured in Selvin’s demi-monde are mafia figures involved with the record business such as Tommy Eboli and Sonny Franzee and the record executive best known for mob connections, Morris Levy.
It was an era when songwriters ruled, when producers, arrangers and studio musicians were responsible for the sound, and when with rare exceptions artists, despite their visibility to the public, were less important and powerful. Selvin explains, “In 1960, Berns entered an enchanted village inhabited by a tribe of crazy geniuses. They made records and had no idea they were developing an entire school of art. They worked alongside each other. They collaborated, they competed and they copied each other, they stole from one another, they ate and drank together and used some of the same musicians and arrangers on records which they made at the same studios. They kept offices in the same buildings and rode the same elevators together. They were tough desperate men… bottom feeders of the New York music world, hucksters and grifters.”
But some of them, like Wexler and Berns, were also in love with the music and were genuine visionaries. Berns brand of R&B/rock had a particularly strong influence on subsequent rock superstars. Janis Joplin memorably covered Berns’s songs “Piece Of My Heart” and “Cry Baby.” Andrew Loog Oldham selected three Berns songs for inclusion in the early Rolling Stones albums (“Under The Boardwalk,” Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “Cry To Me.”). The Beatles covered Berns’s “Twist and Shout,” the hardest rocking song of their early work.
And the week that Selvin’s book was published, a new YouTube clip appeared of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing a particularly engaging rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl”—a song which had been a hit for Van Morrison on Berns’s Bang Records, forty seven years earlier, in 1967.
Back to Eric...
Bullets Over Broadway
I saw Bullets Over Broadway last night. It has not exactly killed (ouch) with the critics and did not much impress the Tony voters either. It was among the best-looking productions I have ever seen. Sets and costumes were funny, inventive and frequently eye-popping, as the saying goes. The songs were almost all reworked classics from the great days of tin-pan alley and early jazz and R&B, but without much jazz or R&B feel to them. The book, written by Woody Allen, was disappointingly thin—despite the fact that it is based on a brilliant and original premise. (See the movie if you doubt this.) The cast was almost uniformly winning and wonderful, with the exception of the lead, Zach Braff, who was just awful; loud and unconvincing in his over-acted scenes and second-rate, at best, as a singer. He was a clear play for out-of-towners who want to see a “star” on Broadway however miscast and a clear miscalculation on everyone’s part. But otherwise, the actors and singers were a delight. Nick Cordero and Betsy Wolfe were both mini-revelations and will almost certainly grow up to be big stars. Marin Mazzie already is a big star and gets plenty of opportunity to show you why. And Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore does what he does as well as anyone. Brooks Ashmanskas also shows remarkable range in a role that looks like it might have been written for Nathan Lane—which is quite a challenge, but he pulls it off with aplomb. Again, was it fun? Sure was. Was it original? Absolutely. Was it nevertheless a disappointment? Well, it has Woody’s name on it, so yes, but still...
David Bromberg/David Johansen at Town Hall
I caught a David Bromberg Big Band/David Johansen double bill at Town Hall on Friday night. It was a wonderful combination if you grew up seeing both of these guys all the time in the last seventies. They have both given me lessons in how to age, if not gracefully, then intelligently and on their own terms. And both remain committed to their own unique art forms, and at the same time, sense of professionalism before their respective audiences. David Jo was received as well as any opening act as I’ve ever seen and gave a funny and moving performance. Bromberg had some trouble with the drunken shitheads sitting right in front of me, but gave a typically virtuosic performance on multiple instruments, but mostly electric guitar, of which he is a (largely) unappreciated master. He has so much great material, he’s got to leave out most of it, but still a happy time was had by all. They did not play together, however, because David Jo had to leave for another gig. (Amazing, “Buster” is playing the Cafe Carlyle in two weeks. I wonder what the lead singer of the New York Dolls would have had to say about that way back when. I’ll be there though.) Back to Bromberg, he’s had an incredible musical renaissance of late so check out his most recent CDs if you’ve lost track of him, catch him live if you can, and read this really interesting piece about his life in Delaware.
A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert
Back in 1989, Lee Atwater, who played in a band in college and used to make hay of his love of soul and R&B, put on a concert to celebrate the 1988 election of George H.W. Bush over Mike Dukakis. I went to this show. It was one weird show. Big donor Republicans pretending to like music they couldn't stand to suck up to the new head of the Republican Party; great musicians playing for people who looked nothing like the people they usually play for and kept waiting for someone or something to relate.
It was mostly old soul guys with Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie closing the show. Some of it is great and some of it is kind of embarrassing. The opening, Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now,” is wonderful and amazing. Eddie Floyd and Sam Moore are also pretty great. There’s way too much Delbert McClinton, which worries me, because, you know it looks like it’s because he’s a white guy. One does not feel the same way about the Vaughan brothers or Dr. John who are the only white performers not in the band or the Bush Administration.
Also on CD and DVD from the way-back machine is Little Feat’s “Live In Holland 1976” recorded at the Dutch Pinkpop festival. It’s the classic band, Lowell George (vocals, guitar); Bill Payne (keyboards, vocals); Richie Hayward (drums); Paul Barrere (vocals, guitar); Sam Clayton (percussion) and Kenny Gradney (bass), and I’ve never seen any video of them before so it’s a keeper. The performances of “Rock And Roll Doctor,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” “Skin It Back,” “Teenage Nervous Breakdown,” “Fat Man In A Bathtub,” are only okay, it must be admitted, but still, it doesn’t suck.
Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series
Remember Sgt. Esterhaus reminding everybody, “Hey, let’s be careful out there”? Well, now you can watch 144 episodes on thirty-four DVDs of it. The original show, created by Steven Bocho and broadcast on NBC from 1981 to 1987, was pretty great in its day. The excellent ensemble cast (including Daniel J. Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Bruce Weitz, Dennis Franz and Betty Thomas) won it twenty-six Emmys and some people think it’s the best show ever. I’m not one of those people but I wouldn’t say you were crazy if you were. It comes with lots of extras including a history, a bunch of interviews with Bocho and the writers, a gag reel and some episode commentaries.
Also, from the same machine, but not as big a commitment is the first season of “L.A. LAW,” also created by Steven Bochco (with Terry Louise Fisher). It’s twenty-two episodes on six DVDs and it includes interviews with Bochco and the cast members Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker, Alan Rachins, Susan Ruttan and Susan Dey.
Selling Outrage: How the Media’s Lazy Commodification of Anger Devalues Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson
Find out what a society gets angry about and you’ll find out what it thinks, who it cares about, and how fairly—or not—it functions. Does its anger dwell on isolated actions or does it challenge systemic ideas? Is it mostly directed at individuals or institutions? Is it driven from the bottom up or the top down? Does it seek change or simply retribution? Make no mistake, public anger is a necessary element of civil society and can be a public good, but not if it never does any good—if it’s only ever about settling scores, gathering scalps, documenting gaffes, and calling on others to apologize.
But outrage—as merely another form of regularly scheduled programming over time—clouds our perspective and dulls our ability to discern what really matters. For example, it’s no coincidence that you couldn’t escape hearing the names Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling in the media during the past few weeks, but the names Thomas Piketty and Martin Gilens have gone—with rare exception—almost unspoken on cable TV and talk radio.
Bundy, of course, is the white Nevada rancher whose standoff with the federal government earlier this month instantly made him a Fox News cause célebre and was transformed into a passion play of paranoid, anti-government angst that other news organizations soon followed as well. (It also occasioned some of the most crudely inapt historical analogies ever—Wounded Knee?! Gandhi?! George Washington?! Rosa Parks?!). That is, Bundy was a budding right-wing celebrity up until he revealed that his antebellum political beliefs about states’ rights also included a rancid nostalgia for chattel slavery, at which point many (but not all) of his high-profile right-wing devotees quietly abandoned him. And then there’s Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was recorded privately encouraging his bi-racial girlfriend to avoid inviting black people to Clippers games. The ensuing uproar scared off pretty much every one of his team’s corporate sponsors, and left some conservatives predictably trying to paint the racist (and sexist) Sterling as a Democrat. (For the record, he is a registered Republican.)
While these media firestorms raged, however, little attention was paid to folks like Gilens and Piketty, the latter of which just published a book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In it, Piketty’s meticulous research leads to some outrageous—which is to say, outrage-worthy—conclusions about the real impact of capitalistic society and how our nation’s economic growth is fundamentally structured to lead to inequality and concentrations of wealth. On top of that, Gilens just co-authored an academic study that found our democracy increasingly functions more like an oligarchy, where the rich and powerful hold sway over government policy and the rest of us have no say in how our own country works.
To recap, in the past few weeks, we’ve been presented with damning evidence that the American dream is more and more a distant mirage. And yet the media discourse has instead spent this time angrily obsessing over a deadbeat rancher potentially losing some cattle and a slumlord owner potentially losing a sports franchise. While no doubt satisfying and justified, the comeuppance of Bundy and Sterling still won’t do much of anything for ordinary Americans. This inversion of news priorities would be troubling enough as an isolated case, but as Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj point out in their new book The Outrage Industry ($29.95, Oxford), this kind of misdirected anger now happens time and again and suggests a deeper, systemic problem:
“Outrage discourse and programming may be effective at increasing advertising revenue and political support, but our research suggests that the mainstreaming of outrage in American political culture undermines some practices vital to healthy democratic life. […]
“In this arena, issues of import to fans are used for maximum emotional impact, such that tiny niche issues are reshaped into scandals and significant developments that are less ideologically resonant are dismissed as trivial or ignored.”
While this analysis is fairly intuitive, Berry and Sobieraj, both professors at Tufts University, have painstakingly backed up their book’s conclusions with data. Sobieraj, a sociologist, and Berry, a political scientist, are particularly well paired to map the full impact of the outrage media on society and create a taxonomy of its various forms. But before they do, they make a point of dispelling two myths about the level of outrage we experience now.
The first of these might be labeled “it was ever thus.” While outrageous commentary has always been a part of recent Western civilization as a “rhetorical style”—think back to Swift’s A Modest Proposal—the authors claim that its elevation to a “genre” is a relatively new phenomenon seen only in the past 30 years. Likewise, they dispel the notion that constant outrage is simply a by-product of an increasingly polarized populace. Instead, they cite a “perfect storm” of economic, technological, regulatory, and cultural changes, marked by milestones like the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of the Internet, and the relaxing of rules on media consolidation.
The daily audience for outrage, Berry and Sobieraj calculate, now stands at roughly forty-seven million Americans, three quarters of which comes from talk radio. (Cable news accounts for another ten million, and blogs the last two million.) Thanks to its relatively low production costs and ease of syndication across huge corporate entities, talk radio has proliferated at an incredible rate. Between 1998 and 2011, the number of US talk radio stations has more than tripled, from 1,200 to 3,800.
The spoils of this media renaissance haven’t been equally distributed across the political spectrum, though. The most popular talk radio shows in the nation uniformly offer right-wing viewpoints and, perhaps not coincidentally, Berry and Sobieraj point out that nineteen of the top twenty-one talk radio hosts in America are white men. (The other two are white women.) In total, right-wing talk beats left-wing talk by an incredible ten-to-one ratio in airtime every day.
This outsized ideological imbalance in talk radio and elsewhere in the outrage industry clearly presented something of a research challenge. At times, the authors simply could not find comparable left-wing equivalents to the right. In one laugh-out-loud example, the book casually notes that it has matched up in one data set perennial purveyors of bombast Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin against the notorious liberal bomb-throwers on NPR’s Morning Edition and the Diane Rehm show. (I mean, pledge drives are tiresome, but really…)
There are other examples of this trying-too-hard effect. For instance, the book’s survey of major right and left-wing op-ed columnists placed Maureen Dowd in the “liberal” column. Yes, the same Maureen Dowd who consistently praises Republicans and routinely uses gendered attacks to single out Democratic politicians. To lead off Chapter Two, the book dramatically cites a long, execrable quote by “liberal radio host Mike Malloy,” whom I’ve never heard of. Nearly a hundred pages later, you find out that Malloy is carried on just thirteen radio stations nationwide. (Rush is on more than six hundred.)
There are a few other blind spots in its scholarly field of vision. In a discussion of outrage as a lobbying strategy, the book looks back at the 2011 Occupy movement and blithely notes the protests “garnered enormous press coverage” during their first few months, a grossly imprecise statement that betrays a lack of context about the mainstream press’s reluctant, often condescending coverage. In revisiting the poisoned media climate during the Clinton administration, the book completely overlooks the Wall Street Journal op-ed page’s potent role in helping conservatives foment outrage and spread scandalous hearsay about the president. And, at times, Berry and Sobrieraj fall victim to old-fashioned nostalgia, bemoaning today’s sensationalized media and lauding the sober voices of journalism’s “golden age” in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. You know, back when the diverse range of viewpoints expressed in the press ran the gamut from middle-aged white men to old white men.
Despite these occasional lapses, Berry and Sobrieraj don’t fall into the trap of a pox-on-both-houses false equivalency in their broader conclusions. Why not? In a word, data. Or as they put it: “[I]s one side really worse than the other? In a word, yes. Our data indicates the right uses decidedly more outrage speech than the left.”
In fact, in studying the two media platforms where conservative voices are the most prominent—cable TV and talk radio—outrage was all but inescapable, having been used 100 percent and 98.8 percent of the time, respectively. Overall, the authors found that right-wing media engaged in fifty percent more acts of outrage, on average, than those on the left (15.57 acts per example vs. 10.32). What’s more, the right employed significantly more of ten of the thirteen types of outrage documented by the pair, while the left most commonly used only two of thirteen types.
The right’s tremendous advantage in the outrage industry is what enabled it to midwife the conservative Tea Party movement five years ago. In the subsequent 2010 and 2012 elections, the book notes that the conservative outrage outlets—Rush, Glenn Beck, Fox News—became the “central nervous system for an insurgency within the Republican Party.”
This wasn’t a one-sided transaction, however. Fostering an amped-up Tea Party political constituency attuned to the latest Obama scandal was also a convenient way to build one’s audience. (Chapter Four of the book is bluntly titled: “It’s a Business.”) But with more competition in the political commentary space comes more pressure to stand out, to keep listeners and viewers tuned in for the newest outrage. Or if that doesn’t pan out, an old one.
Of all the left-right differences uncovered in the book, however, the most striking one was how political anxiety over racism has created a strong persecution complex only among the right-wing audience of outrage media. The research echoes a point Jonathan Chait made in his essay about how race has impacted Obama’s presidency earlier this month. As Berry and Sobieraj explain:
“The experience of being perceived as racist loomed large in the minds of conservative fans. In fact, every conservative respondent asked how he or she feels about talking politics raised the issue of being called racist without even being asked. […]
“All respondents allude implicitly or explicitly to wanting to avoid offending others or engaging in awkward social exchanges, but conservative respondents alone describe feeling wary of being judged negatively as people because of their views.”
This defensiveness has more than a whiff of doth-protest-too-much air to it. In fact, the book cites numerous studies that show this right-wing cohort harbors a much higher degree of resentment toward minorities. For example, a University of Washington study found that Tea Party supporters are “25 percent more likely to be racially resentful.” Likewise, a Ford Foundation-backed study discovered that sixty-two percent of Tea Partiers said discrimination against whites was as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and minorities. When the authors questioned Tea Party members about why their movement attracts so few minorities, the response was telling: “The most common answer we got was, in effect, denial.”
That’s where we are today in America. Conservatives have convinced themselves that liberals routinely employ charges of racism against them in a careless, devious manner, which frees them to ignore the possibility that the claims might have actual historical or empirical merit. This cognitive dissonance plays out, writ small, when the authors interview a conservative named Missy: “It is not criticism of her views that concerns her,” they note. “Instead, Missy’s account suggests that she is afraid that people will think differently of her as a person because of her political views.”
This is exactly backwards. Missy’s political views are the core issue. It sounds glib to say if one wants to stop being mistaken for a racist one should avoid policies that support racism, though it’s nonetheless true. But ensconced in a world of angry, like-minded partisans, Missy and other right-wingers like her feel no need to examine their views for racially-based motives, let alone change them based on what they find. Instead, they simply interpret any challenge from outside her worldview as a personal attack. This breeds a kind of siege mentality, the authors note, which “is mirrored in the work of many conservative outrage hosts, creating a media space that is compatible with, and supportive of, racial resentment.”
This compartmentalized approach to dealing with racism—and the modern conservative compulsion to find the real racists (i.e. Democrats)—is but one of the symptoms of an unbroken cycle of perpetual outrage. It also exacts an opportunity cost on our politics, both figuratively and literally. A political environment polluted by rhetoric mocking the ideological opposition as stupid or evil offers little intellectual space for finding compromise. What’s more, elected officials more concerned with passing purity tests are more likely to grandstand in committee meetings or Congressional speeches rather than spend time actually passing legislation that helps people.
The book offers up some brief recommendations to improve outrage politics, but the authors’ advice seems either too unrealistic or ineffectual to work. It speaks to a remarkable naivete, for instance, when the pair finds it surprising that moderate voices of outrage—an oxymoron if ever there was one—haven’t arisen to counterbalance the left-right narrative. And hoping that a combination of more robust fact-checking and a rollback of relaxed media ownership rules will stem the tide of media anger feels like throwaway ideas with little chance of success.
In the end, what the authors mostly overlook—and we shouldn’t—is what else all this selling of outrage crowds out: legitimate outrage. As Berry and Sobieraj concede, our democracy is a messy and impolitic endeavor, one where righteous anger can be an entirely appropriate response. But all-outrage-all-the-time is enervating, robbing us of a vital tool for checking power or righting a wrong. It’s time we start reclaiming anger for what matters. And though it may sound counter-intuitive, perhaps a good first step to countering all this phony outrage is by directing a healthy dose of the real thing at it.
Anyone insightful of the Middle East knows Arabs are the obstacle to peace with Israel The so-called palestinians have been offered peace dating back to 1937 before they adopted the invented palestinian identity, thru to Bill Clinton's offer in 2000, all rejected.
Instead of lecturing Jews on peace, why don't you go to Gaza & lecture Hamas? Because you're a weak coward & a fraud, which is why you never got anywhere in life. Schmegegge.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Gary Younge: The Unbearable Whiteness of the American Left.
My nation column, “Israel Celebrates a Return to the Status Quo in the Middle East,” is here. I went to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at the Barclay’s Center, but I’m in Spain on vacation with my family, and it’s Passover so you can read about that here. I have nothing to add that would not be mean. Sorry.
Oh, and regarding the Pulitzers, I strongly agree with the choice of The Goldfinch. It’s my favorite novel since Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Give it a try if you have not already.
Can Al Jazeera America Save Cable News?
by Reed Richardson
If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to check out my latest cover story for The Nation. It’s an in-depth look at Al Jazeera America and whether or not the network can redeem what is an increasingly tragic landscape of cable news. (I also wrote a more granular, minute-by-minute comparison of the network's coverage to that of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News on Election Night back in November, if you're interested.)
Notably, right after my story came out, AJAM announced its first layoffs, of a few dozen staffers. While no doubt embarrassing for a network still trying to reach escape velocity, these growing pains aren’t necessarily a bad thing in the long-term. In reporting the story, it was mind-boggling the amount of resources—both full-time staff and freelancers—the network had brought on board for the launch. Ridding itself of some of that temporary, start-up baggage was probably inevitable and wise. So too was the network’s decision to dump its inexplicable devotion to what amounted to token sports coverage, something I noticed (and called out) in my blog post last fall.
Not so encouraging, however, was AJAM’s choice to scale back of its social media-focused half-hour talk show, The Stream, from six times a week to once. Having spent an afternoon watching that show behind the scenes, it seemed to offer a glimpse into a more engaged, democratized future of news discussion, thanks to its hearty use of the show’s hashtag and a second-screen app that deeply integrated viewer Tweets and user-made thirty-second videos into each TV broadcast. Then again, such a web-focused show was perhaps ahead of its time. Though an Al Jazeera English version of The Stream—with different content—is broadcast around the world via the web, AJAM’s edition was blocked by the network to abide by the current licensing rules of US cable providers. Or as the show’s own producers lamented to me, the irony of their situation was not at all lost on them: here in America, The Stream actually doesn’t stream.
Paradoxes like these were the most surprising and tragic elements of the story to me. And while I’m both hopeful for and skeptical of AJAM’s long-term prospects for success, the biggest takeaway in reporting this piece was how inherently problematic and counterproductive the cable TV market can be as a conduit for cable TV news. For example, after the network stubbornly refused to pay for cable carriage for months, AJAM CEO Ehab Al Shihabi acknowledged to me that the network’s recent distribution deal with Time Warner did involve “an incentive plan” (which he nonetheless insisted should not be considered “pay”). But it’s telling that AJAM was willing to bend this far to get onto a cable provider that, while the second-largest in the country, had still lost subscribers for eighteen consecutive quarters as of the start 2014. The proposed Time Warner merger with No. 1-ranked Comcast would no doubt only exacerbate this kind of inverted power dynamic and, as Senator Franken ably put it, be a “disaster” for American consumers.
Given enough time, Al Jazeera America just may be good enough to save cable news, but by the time it does, cable TV itself may not be worth saving anymore.
Reed: After the latest mass shooting on Sunday, this one at a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas by an anti-Semitic, white supremacist, I felt compelled to re-post on Twitter an Altercation column on gun control I wrote not long after the Newtown massacre. It looked at what real gun reform would look like and cost here in the US if we, as a nation, finally decided to confront this self-inflicted health crisis. It prompted this response that I thought worth sharing.
Good article contrasting the different responses towards gun reform between Australia and the US.
Here in Australia there were actually many other massacres prior to Port Arthur. Two occurred here in Melbourne, while another occurred in Sydney. All of these occurred within a ten-year period.
In most every occurrence, Port Arthur included, they were committed by young males with mental health issues with the ability to gain easy access to firearms.
I'm sure the desire to commit these atrocities is there with some young troubled males, however, they are no longer able to gain access to these weapons and therefore the threat has been largely removed. That's not to say it won't occur again, but thankfully it has been almost twenty years since Port Arthur.
It seems that virtually every unfortunate massacre that occurred in the US has been committed by a young troubled male as well so to me that has to be the priority to make it much harder to gain access.
It intrigues me this argument that the criminal element will always have access to these weapons, yes they will, but it is not criminals going around causing massacres, it is troubled young males.
I do hope one day the power of the NRA is reduced and sensible gun reform is passed.
As a father of a young daughter I'm glad to be in a country where she can happily go to school and we don't have to be even remotely worried about anything untoward happening. I sincerely hope that can be the reality over there one day as well.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Peter C. Baker on how turning Kitty Genovese's murder into a parable erased its particulars.
I’ve been travelling, to Jerusalem and back, to Wayne State University in Detroit (and back) and am about to leave for Barcelona and Valencia and so I’ve not seen any music or anything but so dedicated am I to your musical education/edification that I managed to load into my IPod and DVD player, the following:
Looking Into You: A Tribute To Jackson Browne (two CDs) and A MusiCares Tribute To Bruce Springsteen (DVD)
So the Jackson tribute is sure a long time coming. It’s got too many highlights for me to list. Most are pretty much in sync with Jackson Browne-ness without too much tampering. You were not expecting surprises from the likes of longtime Brownites like Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley, Don Henley, J.D. Southerner, etc. Bruce and Patti do “Linda Paloma,” which is kind of crazy, but it works. Lucinda Williams’s “Pretender” is the standout on the CD, but I can’t make up my mind if it’s in a good way or not. Still, there is not enough Jackson Browne music in the world, so this is really nice to have. The Bruce tribute DVD is pretty wide-ranging and your favorites will depend on your tastes. It’s hosted by Jon Stewart and has a pretty amazing tracklist including:
"Atlantic City" Performed by Natalie Maines, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite
"My City of Ruins" Performed by Mavis Staples and Zac Brown
"American Skin (41 Shots)" Performed by Jackson and Tom Morello
"My Hometown" Performed by Emmylou Harris
"Streets of Philadelphia" Performed by Elton John
"Born in the USA" Performed by Neil Young with Crazy Horse
and five songs by Bruce and the band, but no surprises. Excellent quality recording, though.
Any moderate fan will want it, I should think. Also it’s a good organization, so check them out here.
I’ve also been listening to the Legacy edition of the album No Depression, originally released in 1990 and perhaps the founding document of a movement that continues today nearly as vibrant as ever. With this release you get the original album remastered plus twenty-two extraordinary extras, including for the first time on CD, the “Not Forever, Just For Now” demo tape.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was listening to the audio version of “Benjamin Black’s (really John Banville’s) new Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde. It’s pretty good actually, not Chandler, but not crap either. You can read a long review of the novel here from The Guardian. This fellow thinks it’s “an entertaining, note-perfect piece of literary ventriloquism.” Well, ok, I just thought it was pretty good. (But I do agree that it is certainly not “a Robert B Parkeresque fiasco.”)
That’s all. Now here’s Reed:
McCutcheon’s Big Winner: Media Corporations…But Not Journalism
by Reed Richardson
Since last week’s McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, legal scholars and political pundits have spent untold hours examining the Roberts Court’s latest broadside into the already sinking ship of our nation’s campaign finance laws. But half the story has been missing. For all the number crunching of how many extra millions could pour into our elections and for all the strategic predictions of what political groups would enjoy more bequests from billionaires, the discourse failed to look beyond the sources of campaign money to ponder its impact at the destination. If it had, we would have been reminded that the newly attractive "super” joint fundraising committees soon to be coming to a House race near you are but the latest middleman in a political system that is increasingly converting our democracy into a cash-based transaction. What McCutcheon didn’t change, however, is the ultimate benefactor of this SCOTUS-enabled largesse: media companies.
Call it a dirty little secret or an inconvenient truth of journalism. But the fact is, whenever more money is introduced into politics, the last check written with that extra cash usually goes to a corporation that is also in the news business. Before McCutcheon effectively broadened the potential impact of large-scale donations last week, its 2010 forerunner, Citizens United, had deepened it, unleashing a colossal wave of political spending on campaign ads in its aftermath. In 2012, nowhere was this windfall more noticeable (or miserable, if you lived in a swing state) than on local TV stations. All told, $3.1 billion was spent on local TV political ads during the last election cycle, a figure nearly 50 percent higher than in 2010 and more than double the last presidential election in 2008. After having struggled for years, many regional media companies and broadcast TV conglomerates were suddenly flush with cash and enjoying healthy revenues again.
The bottom-line lesson was clearly taken to heart by the big media companies. After such a banner election year, a wave of acquisition and consolidation cascaded through the local TV market in 2013, with major corporations scooping up small and independent stations at a furious clip. According to Pew’s 2014 State of the Media report, an incredible 290 TV stations changed hands last year, in deals worth nearly $9 billion, and what might be called the Citizens United effect was clearly driving these media buying strategies, as Pew explains:
[B]roadcasters are looking to buy stations in politically competitive states. Nexstar cited ‘political advertising activity’ as a major reason it bought two Citadel stations in Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa—a crucial caucus state where presidential campaigns spend millions on TV ads. It picked up two more Iowa stations in a separate deal.
Thanks to McCutcheon, big-spending billionaires can now widen the spectrum of their individual candidate donations far beyond just early primary and battleground states. House and Senate campaigns that might have previously flown under the radar could very well experience their own political arms races now. Raising the stakes in this way means local TV stations across the country may soon enjoy some of the same profit-taking attention from big media companies.
But what’s good for local TV’s bottom line and its parent corporation’s stock price doesn’t necessarily translate into good news for the news audience it purports to serve. Indeed, as more local stations are owned or operated by a few, far-flung major corporations, news is increasingly being rebranded, homogenized, and regionalized. While sharing news resources undoubtedly has benefits, it can also devolve into a parody of news channel independence. As of last year, nearly one-quarter of local TV stations across the country no longer produced any original news content.
To be fair, the past few years have witnessed an across-the-board resurgence in local TV news staffing. Likewise, the local TV market’s newshole now stands at near record highs (thanks mostly to an outbreak of pre-dawn morning news shows). Last year, local stations broadcast 46 percent more hours of weekday news than just a decade ago. No doubt, the flood of campaign ads coursing into local TV station coffers lately has been bankrolling a lot this larger investment in news coverage.
Upon closer inspection, however, these positive developments in TV news are merely the silver lining to a much bleaker reality. That’s because the kind of journalism these media conglomerates are tapping their campaign ad bonanza to pay for isn’t worth very much to our democracy in the long run. As Pew noted in its 2013 annual report:
When data from 2012 is compared with stations studied in 2005 and earlier, the amount of time devoted to edited story packages has decreased and average story lengths have shortened, signs that there is less in-depth journalism being produced. Traffic, weather and sports—the kind of information now available on demand in a variety of digital platforms—seems to be making up an ever-larger component of the local news menu, according to the stations studied in 2005 and 2012. Coverage of politics and government, meanwhile, was down by more than 50%.
By the end of 2012, local TV news was devoting a mere 7 percent of its newshole, on average, to covering politics and government, foreign affairs, science, and healthcare combined. For a twenty-two minute evening news broadcast that amounts to barely ninety seconds of airtime, hardly enough time to do all these issues justice. By contrast, coverage of commodified, ephemeral news topics like weather, traffic, and sports jumped to forty percent of local TV broadcasts. Though it might be tempting to dismiss these editorial decisions or to minimize local TV’s impact overall, this coverage imbalance matters, for several reasons.
For one, local TV news still reaches more Americans—71 percent—than any other platform. So, the whittling down of political coverage to a tiny nub—particularly for local and state races—sends a powerfully corrosive signal to a very large audience. The message: campaigns and elections don’t matter to our news organization, so they shouldn’t matter to you either.
This apathy toward covering the public commons is shameful enough, but it becomes outright negligence in a post-Citizens United and McCutcheon world. By ceding their own airwaves to an onslaught of political messages from dark-money 501(c)(4) groups and supercharged party fundraising committees, local TV stations effectively abandon their own viewers, leaving them to guess what’s true and what’s not in a campaign ad as well as who’s really paying for it. Without transparency and accuracy, though, honest governance becomes practically impossible.
But the greatest danger to journalism lies in the corrosive conflicts of interest that rulings like McCutcheon create for media companies. Fearful of killing the golden goose, these large corporations—and, by extension, their affiliates—have every financial incentive to avoid fact-checking the outlandish claims and investigating the secret funders of the campaign ads their stations are being paid handsomely to run. Perhaps not surprisingly, a 2012 Free Press study, "Left in the Dark," found local TV stations reaping millions in ad revenues in five swing-state media markets were guilty of this very behavior. And the report’s conclusion, as sobering as it is prescient, speaks to the fundamental dilemma that still confronts both broadcast journalism and our country after the McCutcheon ruling:
Democracy requires an informed public. But Americans aren’t getting the news they need. Instead, we have a political system whose players are constantly chasing dollars—a system gamed to a point of dysfunction by wealthy, undisclosed donors and media corporations that are all too content to just cash their checks.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: It’s Time the CIA Gets Some Serious Oversight.