Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
My new Think Again column is called “Real Reporting and Right-Wing Ideology Don’t Mix,” and it’s here.
My Nation column is called “The Rehabilitation of Elliott Abrams,” and it’s here.
Jazz at Lincoln Center presented a real treat last weekend: The Jon Faddis Orchestra, playing the music of Dizzy Gillespie. Jon Faddis probably enjoyed the closest personal connection to Gillespie of any living trumpet player and he picked up not only “Birks’” dedication to his craft but also his penchant for clowning from the stage. I have to say, there was much too much of this the night I saw the band. J. Lo was sitting in the front row and he would not leave her alone. Everyone who came to show late caught hell from the bandleader. None of it was particularly clever and it probably cost the evening at least two numbers. Luckily, when the band did play, they more than made up for it. The first half of the show was made up of new transcriptions from Gillespie's 1940s big band. The second half was devoted to pieces from Gillespie's days as a jazz ambassador in the 1950s. Faddis ran one of the tightest jazz bands of all time when Carnegie Hall was footing the bill and the orchestra he has put together is pretty stellar today. The big thrill of the show—both musically and emotionally—were the songs played by the great Jimmy Heath who just killed on some of the same solos he did over half a century ago alongside John Coltrane. Kinda brought tears to these eyes… More from my friends as Jazz@LC here.
On the old fart music scene, there’s a forty-year anniversary re-release on 180-gram vinyl only of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which long ago introduced teenagers and others to the music of Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin. Lotta talking, but if you don’t have it, you gotta. Nice packaging, too.
And my friends at Sony Legacy have put out Elvis's Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite. It’s two CDs from two 1973 shows plus a dress Rehearsal plus five bonus tracks and a twenty-four-page booklet with rare photos and new liner notes. Again, lotta talking but Elvis fanatics want every second they can get, especially 1973 Elvis fanatics.
For Deadheads, there’s Dave’s Picks, Volume 5, also from 1973 at UCLA. Apparently, it’s already sold out though, so I’m sorry. Read all about how excellent it would be if you could have gotten your hands on one, here. (Big bonus: Bill Walton wrote the liner notes...)
I have also been spending some time with of those British sleuthing shows on DVD and Blu-ray, most recently, "Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries," which stars Essie Davis as a modern woman of the late 1920s operating in a mostly male-dominated detective world. Then there is Stephen Mangan in "Dirk Gently" as a holistic detective, which is pretty goofy. There is also a new season of "Murdoch Mysteries," but to be honest, none compare with the gold standard: "Foyle’s War," which luckily for everyone who hasn’t see it, is now out on "The Home Front Files, Sets 1-6" in preparation for its return in September 2013.
This week’s list:
Philip Roth novels, in order of greatness:
1) The Counterlife
2) Goodbye Columbus
3) Operation Shylock
4) The Ghost Writer (Zuckerman Bound)
5) Letting Go
Philip Roth novels, in order of overratedness:
1) The Plot Against America
Philip Roth novels I sometimes think are a bit overrated but I would not wish to argue the point because they are, in most respects, great:
The Human Stain
First, a quick hat-tip to Cara Forgarty, over at the Organization of News Ombudsmen. She has been kind enough to highlight my blog post about the perilous state of America’s ombudsmen on her organization’s home page. If you’re media-obsessed geek (and who isn’t?) you should check it/them out at newsombudsmen.org.
Secrecy, the Dark Side of Democracy … and Journalism
by Reed Richardson
In the spring of 1960, just barely a year after Fidel Castro had seized power, a Princeton researcher named Lloyd Free conducted a comprehensive public opinion survey inside Cuba. After talking with thousands of Cubans, Free found an overwhelming majority of the public had made common cause with their new leader and his plans for the future and, what’s more, greatly feared a return of the previous, American-backed dictator. Under these conditions, any attempts at fomenting an insurrection would likely result in miserable failure, and the report concluded as much when it was published and circulated in Washington, DC, in July of that year. And that’s exactly what happened almost a year later, we now know, when the CIA disastrously proved Free right.
The woeful anecdote above is paraphrased from Senator Patrick Moynihan’s invaluable little book about our government’s long history of mismanaging information, Secrecy. Though it was published in 1998 and is now a generation old, it’s nonetheless striking how timely the insights from the book remain and scary how prescient its warnings still sound. This is particularly true as we approach the point ten years ago when the US invaded Iraq, a war whose casus belli had likewise already been thoroughly undermined by in-country investigation as well as contemporaneous reporting before the first round was ever fired.
That the conventional wisdom in Washington dismissed all this extensive evidence in favor of some ambiguous spy satellite photos and the chimerical rumors of a few, dishonest grifters is telling. It speaks to a dangerous inversion of how both the government and the media has come to assess and value information—one that now increasingly correlates importance and exclusivity. Playing upon this very same predilection in the media, the Bush White House deftly maneuvered the country into war by spoon-feeding the Washington press corps an unending series of irresistible scoops. If anybody can pull a quote from Hans Blix’s UN report, what it says can’t be that important in other words, whereas an exclusive from Ahmad Chalabi is bound to be far more revealing and thus drive the news cycle.
But the grim anniversary approaching on the calendar isn’t what prompted me to pull Moynihan’s book down off the shelf a few days ago. It was the occasion of this being “Sunshine Week,” an admittedly PR-driven, yet worthwhile effort by a number of open government watchdog sites to get together and discuss just how far down the rabbit hole our nation’s information has descended, and how the public and the press can try get it all out. It culminates with Friday’s National Freedom of Information Day conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
There’s no doubt that one week of emphasis on this issue is not enough. Secrecy is now endemic to our government like never before. Indeed, the vastness of its reach produces through-the-looking-glass moments of Orwellian absurdity. For example, Moynihan noted in his book that when the CIA finally declassified its role in staging a 1954 coup in Guatemala, the agency’s 1994 report still chose to redact some elements, including a passage quoting directly from President Dwight Eisenhower’s public memoirs. Then there’s the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of which were famously leaked to the New York Times in 1971, but which wasn’t officially and fully declassified (including another 2,384 pages) until forty years later. And late last year, when the independent watchdog group National Security Archive tried to follow-up on the progress of implementing new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations, it had to—what else?—submit a FOIA request.
The scope of the secrecy problem confronting us now is staggering, as is the cost to manage it all, which the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) estimated at $11.36 billion in fiscal year 2011. During that same year, the US government took 92,064,862 derivative classification actions, meaning they found some data point in some document, blog post, email, or IM worth making secret. Over the course of a year, that’s the equivalent to classifying something a secret three times every second. Moreover, that total number of annual classifications represents an 11-fold increase over the 8,390,057 made in the fiscal year that ended just a few weeks after 9/11/2001. This runaway train of secrecy is misleading, however, as the ISOO’s 2011 annual report subtly acknowledges that until the Obama administration instituted new rules, few governmental agencies even knew how to track their classification activity, making the reported numbers deceptively low. This, of course, meant that nobody really knew how many secrets the US government was keeping, making it perhaps the best-kept secret of all.
Since 2009, the current administration has made some notable strides in easing our secrecy overload. Responses to FOIA requests and annual declassifications are both on the rise—although the latter is still barely half the rate of classifications—and the backlog of pending declassifications and FOIA requests has declined. But Obama’s oft-touted claim of “most transparent” administration ever is far from living up to the hype. Two recent analyses—from the Center for Effective Government and the Associated Press—find that the federal government is now releasing fewer full versions of information requested and increasingly citing several exemptions, most notably national security, as justification for not complying with requests. As the AP explains:
In a year of intense public interest over deadly U.S. drones, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, terror threats and more, the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times — a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama's first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.
Whether this turning off of the spigot is having a direct effect on the media is hard to say, but it is notable that news organizations are pursuing fewer legal challenges to government secrecy during the Obama administration than during Bush’s second term. (Certainly, the overall decline in newsroom staff size during these years could be playing a major role in the downward trend.) Of note, the “liberal” New York Times has filed nine FOIA lawsuits since Obama took office, while it only pursued three during 2005–09. Fox News, on the other hand, has filed five since 2009 after having sought none during Bush’s second term. But it’s important to point out that the media is involved in only a tiny fraction—between one and two percent, typically—of FOIA lawsuits.
This increasing tension between creating more secrets while trying to shield more of them behind the mantle of things like national security and “deliberative process” has had a perverse effect. By boosting supply and tightening demand, it creates a ready-made market for third-party organizations like Wikileaks to step into and exploit, especially if the press is perceived as having pulled back somewhat from its traditional role of pursuing and publishing secrets. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Private Bradley Manning ended up there after he couldn’t gain any traction with his attempts to leak hundreds of thousands of war documents and secret cables to the Times or Washington Post. And exacerbating all this is the Obama administration’s dreadful record of aggressively prosecuting both whistleblowers and leakers, like Manning, at a never before seen rate.
The Times’ recent track record is illustrative of the dilemma confronting both the press and our democracy. On the one hand, preventing some information from being publicly disseminated may be critical to protecting US personnel and interests in places of danger. But one has to question the real motives behind these requests when, many times, the secret either gets out through other means or the government simply seems to stop caring about them.
This was the case with the Times’s revelation of a heretofore secret drone base in Saudi Arabia, an article which the paper’s public editor discussed last month. Notably, the paper had withheld the base’s location for many months per CIA request, but when a Times reporter finally notified the agency the paper was unilaterally ending its news embargo the CIA didn’t respond. So, one might reasonably ask, what then was really gained by the delay, for either national security or the public’s right to know?
Fed by the default behavior common among almost any bureaucracy, keeping secrets can soon become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a means unto itself. And despite its role as our democracy’s chief source of sunshine, the press—with its long history of liberally granting anonymity and hiding its editorial decisionmaking—has some of this same dark, secretive DNA built into its profession as well. But in a world where there exists too many secrets to even count anymore, the press would be sell served to move away from the business of protecting any of them, whether it’s their own or somebody else’s. And while chasing scoops and exclusives helps in that, that too is a strategy of diminishing, sometimes dangerously wrong, returns.
“Analysis, far more than secrecy, is the key to security,” wrote Moynihan 15 years ago, in what might be interpreted as good advice not just for the healthy future of our democracy but for our press corps as well. “Secrecy is for losers,” he noted in his book’s conclusion. “For people who don’t know how important information really is.”
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Journalists should hold themselves to a higher standard, and so should their ombudsmen, Reed Richardson writes.
My new Think Again column is called “The Terrible Power of Purposeful Ignorance.” It deals with the decision to invade Iraq together with arguments over the sequester and it’s here
I wrote (what is for me, an oddly) confessional piece about my career of being made to feel like an idiot by William F. Buckley Jr. for the Columbia Journalism Review. They called it “Aspiring Line,” and it’s here.
Also, I gave a talk on liberalism at All Souls Unitarian Church on the Upper East Side this past Sunday. They videotaped it and it’s here.
Whose reputation will this hurt the most? Victor Navasky and I had dinner with William Kristol last week after the latter’s Delacorte lecture at the Columbia Journalism School. It was pleasant, insofar as I could tell, for everyone concerned. I sense this would be impossible with anyone with the last name (or married to anyone with the last name) “Podhoretz,” but that has always been the Kristols’ secret, I think: self-confidence, which breeds good manners.
But speaking of Neocons, remember when that Josh Block fellow told Politico that what I had written was “borderline anti-Semitic” because I insisted that AIPAC and its allies were hoping for a US attack on Iran. This actually caused me a lot of trouble and led, ultimately, to my resigning my column from the Forward.
Well, as Ali Gharib noticed, Neocon pundit and newly minted anti-Semit, Max Boot just said the same thing regarding the approval vote for Chuck Hagel. Look here.
Boot writes: "This is a far cry from what Israel—and for that matter America’s Gulf Arab allies—would like to see, which is American air strikes to cripple the Iranian nuclear program." He then keeps digging, adding that "if the 'Zionist Lobby' actually ran American foreign policy—as so many seem to imagine—it is puzzling why such strikes have not yet been undertaken." I'm old enough to remember when saying that pro-Israel groups (and indeed Israel itself) want war with Iran was enough to get right-wingers to accuse you of anti-Semitism. Of course, AIPAC is busy itself pushing (non-binding) hawkish resolutions on Iran, but it's always helpful to have Max Boot clarifying the pro-Israel lobby's goals for us
The next stop on this train will be the attack on that anti-Semite Dick Cheney for using the term “Jewish lobby.”
In between Allman shows, I got out to the Iridium last weekend to see Nicholas Payton joined by Vicente Archer on bass and Lenny White on drums. I was happy to see White, who I first caught as a teenager in the Corea/Clarke iteration of “Return to Forever,” among my first jazz shows at the old Palladium. It was around that time that Miles Davis could be spotted playing trumpet and keyboards simultaneously, something that Payton is now doing on his Fender Rhodes. It was a pretty interesting evening with what felt to me like a decidedly “Bitches Brew” kind of vibe. Anyway, if you live in the city, Sunday nights are a great night to see jazz in the clubs because the bands are held over from the weekend but only the serious fans are out there seeing them. A place like the Irridium when it’s not crowded is almost ideal.
At the other end of this spectrum of course is Rose Hall, Jazz@LC’s “house of swing.” This weekend, I’m excited to be going to see the great Jon Faddis pay tribute to his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, with special guests Ignacio Berroa, drums; NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, tenor saxophone; Pedrito Martinez, congas; and Steve Turre, trombone and conch shells (3/8 only). You can look it up.
And speaking of Miles, I think Eagle Rock has issued the first bluray of a live performance by the man. ]. This concert from July 8, 1991 was his last many appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival and took place only a few months before his death Happily, while it’s quite late in his career, its not “late Miles” funk etc. Instead, persuaded by Quincy Jones and Claude Nobs to take part in this tribute to his great friend Gil Evans, who had passed away in 1988 and with whom he made such wonderful and beautiful music. Not many pyrotechnics—save sartorily, but we get Miles plus Kenny Garrett (saxophone) & Wallace Rooney(trumpet, flugelhorn). Quincy Jones conducting the Gil Evans Orchestra and the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band with the addition of Benny Bailey (trumpet, flugelhorn), Carles Benavent (bass) and Grady Tate (drums).
Here’s a video of Summertime.
Speaking of Europe, we are also in the middle of the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Rendezvous with French Cinema. I saw a bunch of movies while the rest of you were working and stuff. What did I think was great? The Girl From Nowhere/La fille de nulle part was great. Here’s a description: “Lost in a maze of his philosophizing while trying to write a book, a retired math teacher is forced to deal with the real world when he must rescue a young woman from the clutches of a thug outside his Paris apartment. What the teacher doesn’t know is that this woman may be his muse, a mystical agent or an angel of death."
Granny’s Funeral/Adieu Berthe: L’enterrement de meme was pretty fun, as was You Will Be My Son/Tu Seras Mon Fils. Meanwhile, Renoir, about the final years of the painter’s life, was beautiful.
I think these will all see releases in the coming year
OK, back to music, People who only know me through the blog think I go out an awful lot. I don’t actually agree and, and in my defense, I will point out that I would have been really happy to see Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale at the Bowery Ballroom, Corb Lund at Joe’s Pub, James Hunter somewhere hipsters go in Williamsburg and Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, together with Richard Thompson at the Beacon. With regard to all of the above, I stayed home and listened to the new albums. And I liked each one of them. They are all kind of comfortable--Hunter rocks a little more, Emmylou and Rodney are a bit more earnest, Lund is pretty damn funny and Miler and Lauderdale just have a good time together. You can look up the details but if you are familiar with any of the above, this is good stuff compared to their other stuff and so you have my permission to go ahead and press “buy.”
As for reading material while you’re listening to your new music, I came across this new nearly 900 page Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop by a fellow named Dylan Jones and it’s really smart and funny. It’s almost crazily personalistic but the voice is an engaging and knowledgable one, despite the inevitable disagreements his taste will inspire. Apparently he’s the editor in chief of British GQ, and so he’s wants to get all this useless knowledge off his chest and into your head. You can guess in which room it belongs. It’s also pretty funny, and not only because he devotes 12 full pages to Ringo.
Over at the Library of America site, they are offering free (!) downloadable audio versions of ten selections by Sherwood Anderson stories, read by acclaimed storywriters Charles Baxter, Robert Boswell, Deborah Eisenberg, Patricia Hampl, Siri Hustvedt, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, Antonya Nelson, and Benjamin Taylor. (I actually spent quite a bit of time downloading them, but they never found their way into my iTunes file, for some reason. Anyway, they have just published a volume of Anderson—surprising how long it took—as the former Mad Man and small businessman wrote some of the best and most influential work of his era and beyond. This volume collects for the first time all the books of stories he published in his lifetime—Winesburg, Ohio (1919), The Triumph of the Egg (1921), Horses and Men (1923), and Death in the Woods (1933)—along with a generous selection of stories left uncollected or unpublished at his death.
The Library has also finished up its Philip Roth collection, with two books. One is called Nemeses and features Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, Nemesis. The other is Novels 2001-2007 and features The Dying Animal, The Plot Against America, and Exit Ghost. To be honest, this is some of Roth’s weakest work. I liked, though many hated, The Dying Animal. I did not love, though many did, The Plot Against America. As for the rest all have especially strong moments, but also some painful to read, weaknesses. And none can be compared to the Roth masterpieces that began with Goodbye Columbus over a half century ago. (That book reads as if brand new by the way.) Anyway, completists will want these two books. Otherwise, I would suggest you begin much, much earlier.
Finally, there is also an LOA book of writings about the War of 1812. This strikes me as an odd notion, but I’m sure will reward further study….
You can start with Sherwood Anderson, here.
Inspired by last weeks listapalooza, I decided to add a regular feature of one list of things about which I care, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else does.
Today's List: Songs that if I'm at the Beacon, and the Allman Brothers start playing them, I’m in a good mood, in order:
"One Way Out"
"You Don't Love Me"
"Ain't Wastin' Time No More"
"Into the Mystic"
"Move to the Outskirts of Town"
"Trouble No More"
"Nobody left to Run With Anymore"
And if they're stretching;
"Dazed and Confused"
Looking Back, Moving Forward
by Reed Richardson
We in the media like to think of ourselves as hardy souls, out there lustily exercising our First Amendment rights in search of truth and in defense of democracy. In reality, we tend to be a tetchy, moody, thin-skinned lot. Whoever first said “nobody likes a critic” left off the other, more precise half of the adage: “least of all a journalist.” Indeed, asking a reporter to run a correction on an article of theirs typically ranks right up there with inquiries as to how much money they make and questions about the frequency of their spouse’s libidinal gratification in terms of thoroughly unwelcome newsroom solicitations. But if we’re all in the business of producing the first draft of history, why is there so little interest in reviewing and revising the draft?
Human nature is the short answer. We all build psychological constructs to help make sense of the world around us. But journalists, who must compile facts and contact sources and conceive narratives for every story, perform this kind of how-it-all-fits-together thinking every day. No surprise then, that we get pretty good at it. Or, more accurately, we think we’re pretty good at it—much better than the public. That confidence, though, becomes its own insidious trap, one that can easily propagate through a news organization. Gather all these individual cases of self-regard together, add on top of them another set from folks even more stubborn and self-assured—let’s call these people, I don’t know, editors—and then top it all off with thin layers of institutional rigidity and executive arrogance from the masthead; when you do, it’s a wonder the press even runs corrections at all.
Sadly, this is only a slight exaggeration. In 2007, the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism examined 3,600 metro newspaper articles and contacted one source for each, looking for errors. Not only did the study find these articles riddled with inaccuracies, they went nearly untouched by admissions that this was so. As Jack Shafer of Slate wrote at the time: “[A]bout half of the stories for which a survey was completed [69 percent of the 3,600] contained one or more errors. Just 23 of the flawed stories—less than 2 percent—generated newspaper corrections. No paper corrected more than 4.2 percent of its flawed articles.” (italics mine)
Getting these facts right obviously matters, even if it’s just spelling someone’s first name properly, as the New York Times repeatedly failed to do while Madeleine Albright was the then Secretary of State (49 errors produced 3 corrections). The press’s woeful track record here should set off warning bells, though. Consistently fumbling the little, easily verifiable stuff suggests big, tough-to-confirm points are even more susceptible to laziness and willful disregard for the truth.
All of which brings me to the topic of media ombudsmen. I know, I know. Listening to a media critic opine about ombudsmen, whose job also involves critiquing news organizations, has all the trappings of some kind of meta-navel-gazing experiment gone awry. Akin to trying to understand those impenetrable collateralized debt obligations—a bet on a bet on a bet—that sent our economy spiraling into crisis four years ago. But if you care about the state of the press in our country, you should care about the perilous state of ombudsmen too.
Don’t get me wrong, theirs mostly is a rarefied existence, of which I understand. Due to the exigencies of an increasingly cutthroat news business, regional metro newspapers and local TV news channels can’t and, honestly, shouldn’t be expected to dedicate a full-time salary to the luxury of having an independent critic poring over their coverage. On the other hand, if yours is a newspaper or TV network with a national or international reach and especially if you have aspirations of charting the nation’s policymaking and political process, then the cost of employing one person who can offer honest, real-time feedback on your reportage is an investment in your reputation that, if done right, more than pays for itself.
That is not how Washington Post published Katharine Weymouth sees it, clearly. Her recent announcement this past week that she was not replacing outgoing ombudsman Patrick Pexton was telling, not just the decision itself, but in how she justified it.
Those duties are as critical today as ever. Yet it is time that the way these duties are performed evolves.
We will appoint a reader representative shortly to address our readers’ concerns and questions. Unlike ombudsmen in the past, the reader representative will be a Post employee. The representative will not write a weekly column for the page but will write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns, with responses from editors, reporters or business executives as appropriate.
The logic on display here is blurry, to say the least. What would have prevented Weymouth from hiring another ombudsman, who mainly writes for the web? Well, nothing, of course. She tries to couch this as an evolution of the position, a move toward greater transparency, when it fact it is anything but. Instead, she’s gutting the two fundamental pillars of any ombudsman position’s authority, its freedom from editorial influence and its finite working relationship.
Even more disingenuous, Weymouth, probably for the first and last time ever, notes all the outside media writers who “will continue to hold us accountable for what we write.” I’d love to take that as an endorsement of my work, but no doubt she and her editorial leadership will judge my and any other external critiques as worthy of as much attention as what the Post paid to get them. Cleverly, Washington City Paper has called her bluff, starting a new “Washington Post Ombudsman” column of its own. But its initial foray is so small-bore and provincial, it seems as if it’s more about tweaking the Post’s nose than engaging in broader analysis.
To be sure, the Post’s newly named reader’s rep, Doug Feaver, has a wealth of newsroom experience, having worked on several different beats. But again, how motivated will he be to publicly upbraid a coworker’s performance if there stands a chance he might one day be working above, beside, or beneath that same person? Certainly not much, which seems to be what prompted NPR ombudsmen Edward Schumacher-Matos to author a thorough evisceration of what is little more than a penny-pinching, micro-managing move on the part of Weymouth and the Post. “Little more than a customer relations person,” is what Schumacher-Matos rightly labels Feaver’s new position. It’s a recipe destined to turn the reader’s rep into the go-to-guy for that subscriber in Prince George County whose morning copy of the Post consistently fails to show up in the driveway. But if you’re looking for someone who will boldly wade into a deconstruction of the newspaper’s insistence on false balance when, say, reporting on the sequestration deal, you’re likely barking up the wrong tree.
Even more noteworthy, Schumacher-Matos compares the divergent path that our national press has taken toward autonomous in-house criticism versus that of the rest of the world [sic]:
Curiously, while the American news media cowers and pulls back, unable to believe in itself, the increasingly free press in so many other parts of the word are adding ombudsmen and improving standards. Even in some places without a long tradition of free press, there is a growing recognition of the link between good public information, on the one hand, and economic development and democracy…
I am on the board of the international Organization of News Ombudsman and have watched with delight as the number of ombudsmen has taken off in countries such as India, Bangladesh and South Africa. According to Stephen Pritchard, the president of ONO, Colombia now has 14 ombudsmen working just in television — each with a weekly half-hour show—and Mexican television has five. When Lord Justice Leveson issued his report last November on the phone hacking scandal in Great Britain, he cited having an independent ombudsman as a "best practice" to respond to public complaints.
So what happened? Why have ombudsmen turned in an increasingly endangered species? In an insightful post, Jack Shafer, now at Reuters, points out that the position has sort of fallen through the cracks because it lacks a dedicated constituency invested in its success. Newsrooms, the target of their ire, tolerate ombudsmen as occupational hazards if they don’t despise them outright as unctuous practitioners of 20/20 hindsight. The public, whom they purport to serve, barely notice them partly because they rarely see the ombudsmen making a difference or taking their side. This leads Shafer to larger and more uncomfortable question—Have US media ombudsman sealed their own fate by repeatedly pulling their punches?
Candidly, the answer is yes. But neither irrelevance nor extinction need be the only fates for ombudsmen. Case in point: the New York Times. Margaret Sullivan, its “public editor,” as the Times calls it, since last summer has thankfully chosen to take a more worldly rather than parochial approach to her job. As such, she’s confronted a number of big-picture problems of journalism that transcend just her employer, like false equivalency, transparency, the too cozy relationship with our country’s national security apparati, and—lookee here!—corrections, with a refreshing open-mindedness. While I don’t always agree with where she comes down on an issue, I’m almost always encouraged by the trajectory of her thoughts getting there. But most impressive is the turnaround she engendered from her predecessor, Arthur Brisbane.
Brisbane’s tenure was marked by a kind of overly cautious, hidebound thinking that draws legitimate questions about any news organization’s real commitment to this kind of oversight. (After all, the hiring process for these few ombuds positions typically involves so much back-and-forth with prospective candidates that any publisher already knows much of what they can expect before the first column’s ever written.) The nadir of Brisbane’s reign no doubt occurred last January when he inexplicably titled a column “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” only to essentially conclude ‘maybe.’ Roundly and rightly mocked, Brisbane’s take endorsed a feeble journalistic posture that prioritizes deference over diligence, balance over candor.
This time ten years ago, we all experienced this same kind of fundamental negligence on the part of the press when our nation entered a disastrous mistake of a war in Iraq. Now, I’m not about to declare that a small cadre of muscular ombudsmen pointing out the rightfully skeptical contemporaneous reporting of the time could have stopped that war. A more haunting question, though, is: Would the Bush administration have invaded if every newspaper and TV news network in America had fully laid bare its false pretenses? Probably so is my answer, but sadly, we never got to find out, since the press’s credulous reporting, including, notably the Times’,invariably marched in lockstep with the White House’s war-making effort.
As far as errors go, you can’t get bigger. But here again, the reluctance of major news organizations to reexamine their flawed coverage and account for it was both widespread and deep-seated. The Times’ effort, its May 2004 editor’s note—not an apology—was perfunctory and supercilious at best. It took pains, up top, to point out “the enormous amount of journalism we are proud of,” which lent the whole thing a “But other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” air to it. What’s more, it completely omitted the most notorious culprit of bias, Judith Miler. At a mere 1,145 words, it also ran 6,087 words shorter than the Times’ five-bylined, magnum opus of self-flagellation about fabulist Jayson Blair from one year earlier. As Greg Mitchell notes in this blog post from this past Tuesday, then Times executive editor Bill Keller only agreed to publish it to rid himself and the paper of “distractions.” Coincidentally, one of these thorns in Keller’s side was the paper’s public editor, Daniel Okrent, who did a much better job, on his own, of exposing the paper’s many mistakes in the run-up to war. In his insightful conclusion, though, he went further, wisely tying the purpose of learning from the past to making those lessons the focus of the future:
The editors' note to readers will have served its apparent function only if it launches a new round of examination and investigation. I don't mean further acts of contrition or garment-rending, but a series of aggressively reported stories detailing the misinformation, disinformation and suspect analysis that led virtually the entire world to believe Hussein had W.M.D. at his disposal.
This is journalism’s day-in, day-out burden. We get almost as many things wrong as we do right. Often, it helps to have someone else there to remind us that in those mistakes is yet another important story to tell. Only by looking back, though, will we ever be able to tell it and, this time, get it right.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
For more Alterman best-of lists, see last week's post, "My Favorite Things: God Bless America Edition."
My new 'Think Again column is called "Republicans Ignore the Evidence About Higher Taxes on the Wealthy," and it's here.
Alter-reviews: Peter Wolf, The Mavericks and WHN
So, Monday night I stopped by Hill Country Barbeque for some excellent guess-what and to listen to a bunch of radio old-timers reminisce about the good old days when New York had an AM country radio station, WHN, which it did between 1973 and 1987. I originally discovered the station looking for Mets games, but it turned out to be the best thing on if you were in a car and didn't have an FM radio. The panel, moderated by Ed Salamon, former WHN Program Director and author of the new book WHN: When New York Went Country was pretty good humored, and most of the audience was made up by former employees of the station, and everyone had a nice cozy feeling. One problem: Alan Colmes was on the stage, but none of the other people seemed to know him.
I had to leave early before the music started because hey, THE MAVERICKS are back together with their first album in seven years, and were playing an insanely crowded show at the Bowery Ballroom. They are really too popular for such a small hall, though not as popular as they should be, because well, okay, the music's great and fun, but Raul Malo has one of the greatest voices of any singer alive and most singers before that. I think he sounds a lot like Elvis. Others say Roy Orbison. The new album is called In Time, and what can one say, it's a Mavericks album. Act now.
The night before I went to City Winery to see Peter Wolf, for the first time since I saw J. Geils with Scott and Paul and the Palladium and we all smoked pot for the first time in 1975. (It's okay, my kid doesn't read this.) We actually didn't get too far with the pot, as we heard something about cops when we were in the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet. Anyway, they were among the greatest live bands ever and Peter Wolf remains a charming, energetic entertainer and storyteller. Sunday night he paid tribute to his roots which stretch from John Lee Hooker to Sonny Rollins to Merle Haggard. One of the world's great DJs, he is an awesome storyteller. One of them actually ended with Hooker watching Lassie and telling the teenage Wolf: "Man, that is one smart motherfucking dog." The band had nice chops and the solo material is first rate, even without Jagger, Haggard and Shelby Lynne, et al. The most recent one got a real workout. It's called Midnight Souvenirs.
So Reed told he wouldn't have anything this week owing to deadline pressure, and I didn't want anyone to feel they had come here for (next) to nothing, so in honor of Ted Cruz, I, too, made a bunch of lists. Mine's not of Harvard commies but a patriotic list of some of the things that make this country great; at least if you're me. I'm sure I forgot stuff, so don't yell at me. (They are not in any particular order.)
My Favorite Things: God Bless America Edition
Francis Ford Coppola
All About Eve
His Girl Friday
It's a Wonderful Life
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Dazed and Confused
Crimes and Misdemeanors
The Godfather II
One Two Three
This is Spinal Tap
The Maltese Falcon
The Big Sleep
F. Scott Fitzgerald
James M. Cain
E. L. Doctorow
"The Odd Couple"
"The Bob Newhart Show"
"The Larry Sanders Show"
"Curb Your Enthusiasm"
"Eastbound and Down"
"Freaks and Geeks"
"The Johnny Cash Show"
"The Dick Van Dyke Show"
"Bill Moyers Journal"
"I Love Lucy"
"The West Wing"
The Beach Boys
Solo rock performers:
Billy Joel (just barely)
Simon and Garfunkel
Jazz performers and composers:
Miss Peggy Lee
Jimmy Dale Gilmore
Townes van Zandt
One (or so)-hit wonders:
Redbone, "Come and Get Your Love"
Tommy Tutone, "8675309"
Dean Friedman, "Ariel"
Zanger and Evans, "In the Year 2525"
King Missile, "Jesus was Way Cool"
Stories, "Brother Louie"
Shocking Blue, "Venus"
Brewer and Shipley, "One Toke Over the Line"
Bobbie Gentry, "Ode to Billy Joe"
Jeannie C. Reilly, "Harper Valley PTA"
Norman Greenbaum, "Spirit in the Sky"
Lee Michaels, "Do You Know What I Mean"
Archie Bell and the Drells, "Tighten Up"
Left Banke, "Walk Away Renee"
Electric Lighthouse, "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes"
Swinging Medallions, "Double Shot of My Baby’s Love"
Bobby Fuller Four, "I Fought the Law"
? and the Mysterians, "96 Tears"
Marmalade, "Reflections (of my Life)"
Bruce Springsteen, "Glory Days"
Nancy Sinatra, "These Boots Are Made For Walking"
Beastie Boys, "Fight for Your Right to Party"
Madonna, "Material Girl"
Cyndi Lauper, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"
Paul Simon with Chevy Chase, "You Can Call Me Al"
Mick Jagger and David Bowie, "Dancing in the Streets"
Should be (much) more famous than they are:
Loudon Wainwright III
Kate and Anna McGarrigle
Whatever happened to:
Terrance Trent DÁrby
Bonus: Best and worst baseball moments, post 1962. (I was born in Flushing, FYI...)
Cleon Jones catching the ball on one knee (1969)
Ron Swoboda catching the ball sideways (1969)
Seaver strikes out nineteen, sets record (1970)
Tom Seaver strikes out Dave Winfield at Yankee Stadium with bases loaded on 3-2 to get 300 Ks, (1985)
Bill Buckner’s blown grounder (1986)
Sox beat Yankees in game seven (2004)
Endy Chavez’s catch (2006)
R.A. Dickey wins Cy Young (2012)
Jimmy Qualls singles with one out in the ninth (1969)
Seaver is traded (1977)
Carlos Beltran looks at three and two (2006)
Madoff is arrested, (2008)
Dickey is traded (2012)
Opening Day (2013), alas.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
For a better take on Washington gridlock, the media should look at proven psychological differences between Republicans and Democrats, Reed Richardson writes in the last Alterman post.
My Think Again column is called "The Mainstream Media Is Missing the Point." It attempts to contrast the obsession with Tiger and Barack's golf game, with say, the lack of attention shown to the conservative billionaire/corporate purchase of the think tank world to spout the nonsense that keeps them rolling in dough. It's here.
And it's taken me thirty-seven years to build a column around my favorite Bruce song, but here we finally go. It's called "They've Got the Fever..." and it's here. (It's a long story, but I do feel responsible for getting Bruce to include it on "18 Tracks," ["The Promise," too, as it happens] though the version on my funeral playlist is the one from Winterland in 1978.)
Not in Its Right Mind
by Reed Richardson
Journalism in this country has a problem. OK, it has lots of problems, which just this past week ranged, alphabetically, from Allen, Mike all the way up to zone coverage, flood the. But it was the Beltway media’s all too predictable hand wringing over the looming sequester and the inability of the two parties to come to a “grand bargain” that reminded me of one of its most important—and most overlooked—failures. Our political press simply does not understand how the American right-wing thinks, or to be more accurate, how differently it thinks.
This is no mere rhetorical flourish. There’s now a critical mass of scientific evidence that shows the minds of conservatives are literally structured differently than liberals. While neither ideology is immune from psychological phenomena that can muddy reality and cloud judgment—effects like motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and selective exposure—study after study finds that conservative thought processes are measurably more rigid and inflexible. In addition, surveys show that conservatives are noticeably more likely to embrace flawed, irrational arguments to bolster their beliefs and they’re more resistant to encountering or trusting any new evidence that might contradict said beliefs. This fundamental, cognitive disparity between liberals and conservatives can’t help but ripple through our political discourse, affecting every electoral campaign, every legislative battle, every committee meeting. And yet the Washington press corps, whose explicit job it is to tease out and explain the motives behind our government’s political stakeholders, demonstrates almost no curiosity or comprehension of how ideology and psychology interact with one another.
In his fantastic recent book, The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney addresses this very disconnect. In it, he explains how the failure to take into account these psychological differences amounts to a kind of professional negligence on the part of the press:
[T]hat response, too, is a form of denial—liberal denial, a doctrine whose chief decision is not so much the failure to accept facts, but rather, the failure to understand conservatives. And that denial can’t continue. Because as President Obama’s first term has shown—from the health-care battle to the debt ceiling crisis—ignoring the psychology of the right has not only left liberals frustrated and angry, but has left the country in a considerably worse state than that.
That the press would almost uniformly suffer from its own cognitive blind spot on this issue is perhaps understandable. Objective journalism’s ethos, after all, is rooted firmly in the Enlightenment ideal, which holds that the presentation of facts and revelation of truth represents the best pathway to winning an argument and/or gaining a consensus. Unfortunately, a wealth of political science has proven that people think and process information in a much more complicated, nuanced, and self-interested manner. Worse yet, we now know that dedicated attempts to highlight a myth or conspiracy theory in order to debunk or disprove it can actually backfire and end up reinforcing the falsehoods instead.
Needless to say, these observations present a rather awkward dilemma for mainstream media newsrooms. Well-meaning, overworked journalists already have enough to worry about without piling on the uncomfortable notion that, even if they do their jobs well, they might actually be making the public more, rather than less, misinformed. Nevertheless, Mooney points to plenty of evidence of what he dubs the “smart idiots” effect, where the “politically sophisticated or knowledgeable are often more biased, and less persuadable, than the ignorant.” Out of its own moral self-interest, the elite political press rejects or ignores this potentiality. Instead, it operates from an a priori Enlightenment bias—a somewhat ironic (and misplaced) faith in the rationality of its audience.
Once you understand that this is the media’s foundational belief, it’s much easier to understand why, from the perspective of conservatives, the establishment media has a perceived liberal bias. Because the journalism profession shares the same tendency toward Socratic exploration and logical persuasion that liberals do, they both think the same way. In other words, the shared bias between the establishment media and the American left-wing isn’t one that is accurately measured along a political spectrum but rather a cognitive one.
This is not to say other elements of society don’t have a cognitive tendency more aligned with conservatives—the military, speaking from experience, certainly does. But the press, and the political press especially, routinely misses this important disconnect when covering debates like the sequester. Hence, readers get served up over-simplified analysis that treats politicians from the left and right almost as commodities, heaping equal scorn on both as “unserious” about compromise. Sure, their ultimate goal—policymaking and power—is the same, but the way the two sides go about it is completely dissimilar.
Conservatives, scientific studies show, perceive the political world in a more black and white way, where ideologies engage in zero-sum battles for resources and dominance. But as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes of this worldview: “If you think about politics in a Manichaen way, then compromise is a sin. God and the devil don’t issue many bipartisan proclamations and neither should you.” Time and again, the Beltway media glides right past this basic tenet of conservative thinking only to blame Democrats and Republicans equally when yet another grand bargain that one side never sought in good faith in the first place fails to materialize.
Likewise, this myopia also involves misinterpreting the relationship between the parties and the stakes involved in political negotiations. In the current sequester fight, for instance, brute-force deficit reduction was the claimed policy prize, but the way Democrats and Republicans have approached refining it to be more fair belies the vastly different motives driving their actions.
Democrats, who hold a more ambivalent view of deficit reduction, floated what they saw as a reasonable meet-you-more-than-halfway offer to Republicans. The GOP, though, displayed zero willingness to accept a deal that, by any logical measure, would be mostly a win for them. Instead, they’re proposing an all-or-nothing deal that gives no quarter to Democrats. Why? “Who really knows?” and “Arggh, same old gridlock!” seems to be the some of the popular mainstream media conclusions. But what’s never mentioned is that the Republicans’ intransigence—on this and almost every other fiscal issue—is wrapped up in a complete myth. That is, they believe keeping tax rates low somehow magically pays for itself, increases net revenues and reduces the deficit over time. Of course, this is absolutely false and even President George Bush’s main economic adviser, who called its adherents “snake oil salesmen” pushing a “miracle cure for what ails the economy,” has acknowledged this.
Nevertheless, this lower taxes=higher revenues fallacy has become an article of faith among Republican party leaders, and damned if they’ll violate the sanctity of it again (as is obvious from Speaker Boehner’s recent “the President got his higher taxes” rhetoric, they feel they already betrayed it in the fiscal cliff deal). So, the reason the sequester cuts will happen can be summarized by a fairly basic psychological explanation: Republicans hold low taxes for the rich as too sacred to compromise, whereas Democrats don’t hold deficit reduction sacred enough to cave completely. The former is predicated on falsehood and irrational certainty, however, whereas the latter is redolent of pragmatism and unabashed self-preservation.
Once you start to view political negotiations through the prism of how the ideologies shape each side’s thinking, their behavior becomes less of a frustrating mystery. But to bring this kind of scientific nuance to political coverage is to no doubt attract an outpouring of criticism from conservatives, many of whom already have a tenuous relationship with established theories like evolution and climate change. To accept that conservatives really do think differently does not, as Mooney explains, mean that “Republicans are somehow bad people or less intelligent.” But, by the same token, it does allow journalists to take seriously the prickly reality that today’s “Republicans really are more doggedly misinformed” about the major issues confronting our country. As he sums up in his book:
Republicans and Democrats really think about facts, about reality itself differently…[this] has dramatic consequences for policy; but perhaps even more momentous implications still for the tone and the assumptions we bring into political ‘debates.” In particular, an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ approach to journalism and the adjudicating of facts may simply be intellectually irresponsible. It may be just a ruse to go about this in a bipartisan way.
In the end, the media owes it not just to the country, but to intellectually honest conservatives, to gain a better understanding of how psychology bears down on political ideology. Especially if it’s to point out how often the right gets things wrong.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
I really liked your column this week and I think it is important stuff. The Progressive Caucus puts out a lot of good policy proposals and they are systematically ignored by the major media—this has been especially appalling regarding their budget. The argument is always the same: they are out of the mainstream; their ideas can't become policy. But the same is true of, say, Paul Ryan's budget. And yet things like it get blanket coverage.
I think the reason for this is that journalists are generally socially liberal but economically conservative. (This goes right along with What Liberal Media? where Eric even notes that a much stronger case can be made that the media is socially liberal.) My thinking (for what it's worth) is that if a country has relative economic equality, all of the social issues tend to fall in place. And if you don't have this, you're going to have major social issues, regardless of what the law is. In other words: raising the minimum wage is far more important than repealing DADT, even though I hated that policy.
It was strange that there was a Tea Party Response to the SOTU address when Marco Rubio is a favorite of the Tea Party. But I think it is wrong to say that he is not a moderate Republican. Rubio is not an outlier in his Party. We can say that moderate Republicans are in no sense moderate. Or we can say that the modern Republican Party banished all moderation from itself. But the really scary thing about modern American politics is that Marco Rubio is typical of one of the two major political parties.
(Last week Jonathan Bernstein [I think!] asked if liberals would rather have a reasonable Republican Party or if they'd rather it continue on and allow the Democrats to win more elections. Who could not be for a reasonable Republican Party?! Does anyone doubt that no matter how crazy the party gets that the major media will continue to treat them as if they are reasonable?)
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Sure, we should hold Israel to certain standards on human rights, but don't forget about the human rights violations of Hamas, Eric Alterman writes.
My new “Think Again” column is called “The Mainstream Media Is Gobbling Up Conservative Crazies” and it’s here.
And I did a short piece for Columbia Journalism Review on Arthur Krock and Joe Kennedy. It’s called “The journalist and the politician.”
Among the deeply annoying things the story about that insanely large cash prize won by Leon Wieseltier is that I was asked to audition for the same Sopranos role. Neither of us got it—they used one of their own writers—but Leon got that great cameo, instead (at which, by the way, he sucked, sorry to say. Two lines and they were weak as hell). I’m pro-Leon, however, as a writer, which is unusual among people I know who don’t also write for him (or sign their names to his prose). (Oh and, stay classy, Marty.)
Ronnie Dworkin, Rest in Peace.
Back to the Middle East, here’s Gershom Gorenberg on Judith Butler and speaking at Brooklyn College on BDS.
And here is an article about Hamas’s human rights record in Gaza. I’m happy to hold Israel to as high a standard of respect for human rights as possible. But how weird is it that so few people on the left, especially people who call themselves feminists like say Ms. Butler and The Nation’s Phyllis Bennis do not appear at all interested in the oppression of women (or men, for that matter) by these pro-terrorist, pro-torture, anti-women, anti-Jew, anti-gay, anti-human rights, anti-religious freedom extremist Islamic radicals. Read the article below, by the Inter Press Service and see if you disagree that leftists and liberals (especially feminist liberals and leftists), and people devoted to human rights and freedom of expression might have a few reasons for concern here.
(Oh, and this article does not even address the “Arbitrary Arrests, Torture, Unfair Trials “ described in this 43 page report by Human Rights Watch, “Abusive System: Criminal Justice in Gaza,” which documents “extensive violations by Hamas security services, including warrantless arrests, failure to inform families promptly of detainees’ whereabouts, and subjecting detainees to torture. It also documents violations of detainees’ rights by prosecutors and courts. Military courts frequently try civilians, in violation of international law. Prosecutors often deny detainees access to a lawyer, and courts have failed to uphold detainees’ due process rights in cases of warrantless arrest and abusive interrogations, Human Rights Watch found.”)
Okay, back to the women ...
“Gaza is becoming increasingly radicalised as Hamas continues its crackdown on civil liberties, press freedom and the rights of women. In the last few weeks a number of journalists have been arrested and accused of being involved in 'suspicious activities,' several detainees shot dead by police during arrest attempts, and female students asked to abide by a strict Islamic dress code.
“Hamas is on a gradual track of the Islamization of Gazan society, which goes against their early promises,” Dr. Samir Awad from Birzeit University near Ramallah tells IPS. “Most people in Gaza, even the most conservative, oppose this. Gazans are already very conservative and they don’t need Hamas dictating their religion to them.”
Women have borne the brunt of the crackdown. Gaza’s Al Aqsa University has announced that female students will be required to wear full traditional Muslim garb, from head to toe.
Some female students have expressed outrage, claiming that the new demands are in violation of their public freedom. They say that already female students are modestly dressed but that some prefer wearing pants and a long overcoat rather than a burka, abaya or hijab.
In the past, Hamas has banned women from riding on the backs of motorbikes, from smoking water pipes, and men from working in female hair salons—saying such practices were immodest. Not all bans, however, have been imposed uniformly.
“Hamas has also banned mixed parties and mixed activities as well as enforcing other restrictions on women but not on men. Gaza’s entire seashore has practically been confiscated by Hamas as if it is their private property and they decide who can access the area and when,” Awad tells IPS.
The dress code decision has also further undermined the latest unity efforts between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA)-affiliated Fatah movement.
PA Minister for Higher Education Ali Jarbawi stresses that Hamas’s decision is illegal and cannot be implemented. He wrote an official letter to Al Aqsa’s president stating the illegality of the move which he said also violated Palestinian government decisions.
Dr. Faiq al-Naouk, advisor for managerial affairs at Al-Aqsa University responded saying that the controversial decision would be implemented only gradually as an act of “goodwill” before it becomes mandatory.
“Hamas’s increasing radicalization is one of the sticking points for Fatah and Hamas being able to form a unity government,” says Awad.
Hamas has cracked down on other civil liberties too in the past few weeks. New Star, the annual Palestinian version of American Idol, was recently banned by the Islamist group on the grounds that it was “indecent” and violated conservative interpretations of Islam.
Producer Alaa Al Abed lashed out at the decision, of which he was only informed at the last moment, saying the ban prevented Gaza’s twelve contestants from competing in the second round of the competition.
“This is more serious than Hamas just killing fun in Gaza—they are limiting the freedoms of the people, according to their whims,” al-Abed says.
Teenage girls and women can only rarely be seen singing in public, but men are encouraged to sing, without musical instruments, about the glory of Islam and fighting Israel.
Journalists are also facing censure. Hamas has carried out a wave of arrests of Palestinian journalists in the coastal territory, accusing them of being involved in “suspicious activities.” Palestinian human rights groups say internal security services in the Gaza Strip have stepped up harassment of journalists in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) distributed a list of media workers it said had been arrested, and condemned the seemingly coordinated campaign, which Hamas officials deny.
Hamas interior ministry spokesman Islam Shahwan says his ministry guarantees freedom of the press, and says recent detainees were charged with recognisable offenses. He says they had admitted to charges that they “threatened the security of the community.”
The ministry added that “those persons are not journalists at all. Even those who work as journalists use this field as a cover to carry out suspicious acts.” The Palestinian media freedoms watchdog Mada issued a statement claiming abuse of those detained as well as confiscation of property and searches.
Gaza’s Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights has expressed concern over the repeated use of lethal and excessive force by Hamas police following the death of several individuals during attempts to arrest them.
The organisation called on the Hamas authorities to use reasonable force to arrest people suspected of breaking the law, and further called for investigation into the conduct of the police officers involved.
“Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty,” says Mezan.
Alter-reviews: Southside Johnny, Richard Thompson and George Saunders:
So last week, in celebration of their new CD, Songs From the Barn, I caught Alterman doppelganger Southside Johnny with his newish band the Poor Fools at City Winery. They were joined by G.E Smith, who will have to continue to atone for his gig as the band leader at Mitt Romney’s Republican convention, but who added a great deal to the band. The appealing thing about the Poor Fools is how loose a band they are. People double and triple on different instruments, occasionally during the same song. They mix up old blues, soul and country songs together with classic Southside, though—interestingly—none of the latter appeared until the very end of the show. Most of it was classics, sometimes obscure classics, like “Something You Got,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Stand by Me,” and “You Are So Down Home Girl.” The SSJAJ songs included “Trapped Again,” “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” “Fever” and I forget what else. The rest was from the new album recorded in a converted barn by Jon Bon Jovi.
Oh and I met the famed Kid Leo for the first time at the show. I believe I was not the first person ever to say to him: "Round for round, pound for pound, there ain’t no finer band around. Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band" live… in the past thirty-five years.
I saw Richard Thompson at Joe’s Pub last week, too. Joe’s is a sufficiently intimate venue so that you can actually watch Thompson’s fingers move up and down the guitar neck. It’s an amazing sight. I’ve been taking electric guitar lessons lately, though I still can’t play a barre chord—and I just could not believe what Thompson can do with that thing. It’s like watching Sonny Rollins on sax, but if you have an idea of how hard it is, it adds to the experience. Anyway, he had an amazing drummer with him and a perfectly decent bassist and handled the obnoxious drunken Wall Street guys (I’m guessing) in the club with considerable aplomb.
Most of the show was stuff from Thompson’s new cd, which is called “Electric,” and for which I am still waiting, but it sounds like all the rest of Richard Thompson, which means it’s smart and funny and musically interesting. (I can’t really tell much about a song when I hear for the first time live.) There’s a double-disc version of for sale too. I’m sure that’s even better and if you buy it and disagree, well, you can write it all down in a tear-stained letter.
Finally, I had never read George Saunders before all the mishigas of late about how he’s America’s greatest writer etc. Is he? I can’t say. Well, actually, no. But he’s awfully good. And he reads his own work wonderfully, which you can hear if you listen to the Tenth of December: Stories, something I unreservedly recommend.
How the Media Skews its State-of-the-Union Response Coverage
by Reed Richardson
To give you a sense of how ridiculous the media’s coverage of the State-of-the-Union response is right now, I offer up a short quiz. From the statements below, I challenge you to figure out which one was uttered by Sen. Marco Rubio during the official Republican response, and which one was said by Sen. Rand Paul, who gave the “Tea Party Express” response:
On American Exceptionalism…
GOP A: America is exceptional because we believe that every life, at every stage, is precious, and that everyone everywhere has a God-given right to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them.
GOP B: People say America is exceptional. I agree, but it’s not the complexion of our skin or the twists in our DNA that make us unique. America is exceptional because we were founded upon the notion that everyone should be free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
On “more government”…
GOP A: More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them.
GOP B: President Obama believes government is the solution: More government, more taxes, more debt.
On trillion-dollar deficits…
GOP A: The real cause of our debt is that our government has been spending 1 trillion dollars more than it takes in every year.
GOP B: All that we are, all that we wish to be is now threatened by the notion that you can have something for nothing, that you can have your cake and eat it too, that you can spend a trillion dollars every year that you don’t have.
On government hurting not helping…
GOP A: [B]ecause many government programs that claim to help the middle class, often end up hurting them instead.
GOP B: Big government makes it more expensive to put food on the table. Big government is not your friend. The President offers you free stuff but his policies keep you poor.
On balanced budgets…
GOP A: What the country really needs is a balanced budget.
GOP B: That’s why we need a balanced budget amendment.
On immigration reform…
GOP A: We are the party that embraces hard work and ingenuity, therefore we must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future.
GOP B: We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest.
On school choice…
GOP A: Let the taxes you pay for education follow each and every student to the school of your choice.
GOP A: We need to give all parents, especially the parents of children with special needs, the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice.
On gun control…
GOP A: We are the party that adheres to the Constitution. We will not let the liberals tread on the Second Amendment!
GOP B: We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country. But unconstitutionally undermining the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.
If you guessed Rubio was GOP A and Paul was GOP B, well, you were only half right. For the first four questions, that was the case, but for the last four, I switched the order. If you were able to discern the razor-thin variations in conservative thinking on all eight questions, congratulations, Glenn Beck has some lakefront property in his $2 billion libertarian fantasy camp he’d like to sell you. But for most people the themes echoed over and over in these two speeches were practically interchangeable.
Now, the main point of this exercise wasn’t to just to highlight the striking rhetorical similarities between Rubio, the GOP’s currently anointed golden boy, and Paul, someone more recognized as having extreme right-wing views. Fortunately, some in the media are finally catching on to the fact that Rubio’s personal charm and reliably smooth delivery (OK, it’s not that reliable) masks a consistently hard-right voting record, a record that demolishes the idea that he’s a middle-of-the-road conservative, let alone a moderate. (And as this VoteView polarization ranking shows, Rubio and Paul closely caucus together on nearly every issue.)
As a result, an absurd phenomenon occurred Tuesday night. After President Obama finished his State of the Union address, the media effectively allowed the Republican Party to double-dip its response, offering up two supposedly separate critiques of the president that contained almost exactly the same tired canards and vague platitudes. For a movement that only garnered eight-percent support among the American people in a recent poll—roughly the same amount that have reported seeing a UFO—the Tea Party unquestionably enjoyed an outsize presence in the post-SOTU media wrap-up.
True, Paul’s “Tea Party” response, wasn’t carried live by any of the broadcast and cable TV networks, like it was in years past, a welcome reflection of the movement’s severely diminished popularity. However, there was still a network pool coverage camera present, so the media could later build separate stories around the video outtakes of Paul’s speech. And indeed, many news organizations did just that, treating the Rubio and Paul speeches as independent events from separate entities, even though Paul referenced the GOP as “we/our party” seven times in his speech, while Rubio only spoke of his party four times.
To quibble about allowing Republicans a second, even smaller 13-minute-long bite of the post-SOTU news apple can seem petty when the president just got more than an hour of wall-to-wall TV news attention. I don’t begrudge them their First Amendment right; I’m all for a vibrant marketplace of ideas. Still, to the victors go the spoils. When Republicans start winning presidential elections again then they can enjoy the longer, louder megaphone our media confers on this event. That they don’t get equal time is not anyone’s fault but their own. But when the media allows the GOP to masquerade the same talking points under the banner of multiple conservative arguments, they’ve allowed Republicans to effective gamed the system and compromise their news judgment.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Washington press corps’ total disinterest in mining any SOTU responses from the left. Sure, the number of progressive Democrats who would be willing to go on the record critiquing Obama’s speech is probably small, but if a viewpoint with eight-percent support can merit a whole separate speech/news story, then surely the media could find the time to quote some liberals who objected to his gradual timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan or who were highly suspicious of the president’s drone policy claims or who were “upset” at the notable omission of labor unions from his speech.
In fact, all three of the above serious policy critiques from progressives were there ripe for the media’s picking, and yet none of these were given any near the same amount of oxygen as the Tea Party’s warmed-over response received. Among the establishment media, there exists little appetite for broadening the policy discussion window further to the left. (Similarly, the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s sensible, practical, pro-growth plan to replace the sequester has been similarly ignored by the Beltway media in recent weeks.) But if the press is really interested in fostering a fair and lively debate, it can’t afford to think of the left as synonymous with Obama while treating the right’s opposition as multi-faceted and worthy of excessive attention. To do that is for the media to fail the test of our democracy.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
This morning I received an e-mail from a Mr. Richard Behar, who says he is a contributing editor to Forbes and who, like apparently hundreds of people (most of whom were anti-Zionist but be that as it may), objected to something he read in the piece published on the Open Zion website yesterday, "Brooklyn College And The BDS Debate."
As you can see from the below, I tried to answer his question politely and get rid of him, repeatedly, until he informed me (after publishing my e-mails without even asking permission) that he planned to write a column about them. Since I have nothing to hide in this respect, but do not believe that Richard can be trusted to treat the exchange fairly and honestly—and moreover, he has already demonstrated that he does not believe in the privacy e-mail communication—I thought I'd put up the entire exchange here, so that (in the unlikely event that) he really does waste even more time writing about me, interested parties—again, I imagine that the existence of such a person might be a stretch—can judge for him or herself. Eric Alterman.
I just read your column (from yesterday) in the Daily Beast, and—as a longtime investigative reporter—was quite surprised to see that you could make such a sweeping indictment of a country without providing any backup to readers. Specifically:
"It is true, of course, that Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinian people breeds hatred rather than a desire for cooperation with their oppressors..."
WOW. Please see my attached Comment if/when you get a chance, and I hope you will consider taking me up on my challenge.
In my view, you should have backed this up to begin with. But it's hardly too late.
Thanks and all best regards,
Eric to Richard:
Here you go, sir.
For a "longtime investigative reporter," this shouldn't have been so hard to find.
but happy to be of service,,,,
Richard to Eric:
Wow, that's quite nasty of you.
Happy to read, but it's not what you've written previously -- it's the backing up of a sweeping indictment in a current column. I should think any "distinguished" journalism professor would know that.
Then again, the Nation has been anti-Israel in almost a knee-jerk way ever since the early days of Navasky, and it looks like you are a regular columnist there.
Eric to Richard:
Yes, well, as you might have guessed, I don't really believe I need any lessons in good journalism from you.
Or if I do, there's no evidence of it from your comment.
But I do wish you all the best life.
Now let's both move on, shall we?
Richard to Eric:
Oh, gosh. LOL. And I now see you are quoting the UN and other groups that are so provably biased against Israel that one could demonstrate that with one's eyes closed. Suggest you read the speeches of HRW's founder and longtime head, Robert Bernstein, who split with the group specifically over its obvious and over-the-top bias against Israel.
You're on the wrong side of history.
Eric to Richard:
Again, thanks for the advice.
Can I get back to work, now?
Or do you have additional instructions for me?
Richard to Eric, headline:
Yes, moving on, sir... you're a fool, a coward, and deceptive toward readers
Eric to Richard:
Yes, well, at least I don't bother people I don't know by calling them names like a second-grade school child.
but how about fucking off now, ok?
I've got work to do....
Eric to Richard (upon seeing that Richard had published my correspondence on the Daily Beast comments without asking permission):
I see you published my e-mails without asking my permission.
Any more lectures you might like to offer on journalistic ethics, sir?
If I gave a shit, I'd have them taken down. But since they reveal you to be such a moron, I'm happy to leave them there.
Let's hope we're done now.
Richard to Eric:
Take them down if you want. I may be doing a Forbes column on it/you anyway. The e-mails were not off-record, AND since you were so dismissive and insulting of me, I thought they should be published. I pity your students, "proud" professor.
Eric to Richard:
All my private correspondence is off the record. You did not write me for my comments for Forbes magazine. You wrote me asking for evidence for something I wrote and I was kind enough to waste my time responding, (since it turns out, you are, alas, a moron).
But do me a favor. Send this e-mail to your editor and see if he or she thinks it appropriate to publish my private e-mails (or even characterize them) without my permission and against my instructions.
I guess that’s moot now. Publish away, sir.
Eric Alterman and Reed Richardson discuss Bruce Springsteen, Fox News and more in their latest post.
My Think Again column: “Pity the Poor Folks at Fox News.” It’s here.
My Nation column: “The Missing Link in Obama's Liberalism.” It’s here.
And a special extra: “Brooklyn College and The BDS Debate” done for OpenZion.com and that’s here.
Actually, I don’t feel like doing any reviews this week. I saw Richard Thompson at Joe’s Pub the other night but I’ll give the CD another week to arrive before I write about it. I tried to see the Greg August Four by Six Sextet at Smoke last night but they had no seats and so I went home. (He’s in JD Allen’s band so that’s a good sign.) Tonight I’m looking forward to another Southside Johnny show at City Winery but I’ll write that up next week with Mr. Thompson. I guess I want to mention that I recently finished listening to the newly rescued James M. Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress, which was a lot of fun, and a labor of love for Hardcase editor Charles Ardai, read by Amy Rubinate for Harper Audio. Check it out.
What Fox News Lost in the 2012 Election
by Reed Richardson
In both politics and the media, one might be tempted to look back at all the turbulence of the past year and claim that the events of 2012 didn’t really change anything. In Washington, DC, after all, the GOP neither gained nor lost power; Speaker Boehner was—and still is—Speaker Boehner, and the same goes for President Obama. Likewise, in the TV news ratings battle, Fox News retained its overall standing as the most-watched cable network with CNN and MSNBC fighting it out for second. At the ballot box and over the airwaves, one might argue, the status quo remained intact.
For a few days in the election’s aftermath this past November, this Pollyannaish take was popular among Republicans, and understandably so. However, once a full accounting of the demographic and ideological challenges facing the party became clear, it didn’t take long for some clear-eyed members of the GOP to backpedal from this unjustifiably positive spin. What had been a realistic expectation—back in the summer of 2011—of a return to a grand unified Republican government somehow unraveled into a second term for Obama, a squandered opportunity to take over the Senate, and a diminished (and increasingly unmanageable) majority in the House. Even now, months later, the high price the GOP paid just to maintain this status quo is still being tallied up.
And now with each passing day, we’re learning the same goes for the GOP’s media handmaiden, Fox News, whose perch on top of the cable TV news heap has become increasingly wobbly. In the weeks after its avant-garde, on-air Election Night meltdown, the network’s primetime ratings began a steep slide. Competing shows at CNN and MSNBC, on the other hand, held on to their audience and have grown even more competitive in the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic. Then, last week we learned the ratings for Fox News’ high-profile primetime shows hit a 12-year low in this demographic. For a network already known for having the oldest audience in cable news, these ratings trends suggest an ominous demographic reckoning had begun.
But beyond the morbid reality of what it might actually mean when Fox News “loses” viewers, the network has also begun voluntarily purging some of its on-air talent as well. In something of a long overdue bout of damage control, Fox News recently rid itself of expensive contracts with Sarah Palin and Dick Morris, two on-air “contributors” whose political acumen was consistently demonstrated to rank somewhere down around fatuously self-involved and gloriously stupid. To hail these moves as a major turn toward moderation is to set the bar for intellectually honesty and competence laughably low.
Indeed, Fox News has accompanied these departures with some arrivals that might actually qualify as further losses in net intellectual capacity. For instance, just this past week, the network scooped up hard-core right-winger Erick Erickson, recently cut loose by CNN, whose most notable contribution to our national discourse involves famously slurring Supreme Court Justice David Souter as a "goat-fucking child molester." Not long before that, the network had hired former Representative Dennis Kucinich, a consistently ineffectual far-left member of Congress who will no doubt serve as a handy liberal foil for Fox conservatives to beat up under the pretense of a “fair and balanced” discussion, a la Alan Colmes. The latest news that Fox is also in discussions to hire former Playgirl model and Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, a right-winger whose moderate posing fooled few, is perhaps best summed up by Brown’s now infamous Twitter insight: "bqhatevwr."
But beyond the cratering ratings and pundit Whodunit, there’s another element working against Fox News, one that makes expanding its graying, shrinking audience that much tougher. Just this week, Public Policy Polling released its annual poll studying which TV News networks the voters trust the most (and least). Here again was more bad news, as Fox News reached an all-time low in credibility. (Granted, PPP’s only been conducting this poll since 2010.) PBS, by contrast, was the big winner, trumping all others with a 52 percent to 29 percent trust-to-no trust ratio.
At the zenith of the Tea Party movement three years ago, PPP had found that Fox News was enjoying a robust 12 percent net positive trustworthy rating (49 percent trust, 37 percent no trust), the highest by far of any network tested (all the others were in net negative territory). But by the time GOP primaries arrived last winter, that figure had slumped to a 3 percent net positive rating. Trying to help the GOP wring every last drop out of every phony, overblown Obama scandal during the presidential campaign didn’t help matters, as the network’s trust factor has now sunk to a 5 percent net negative rating (41 percent trust, 46 percent no trust).
To put Fox News’ 17 percentage point drop in context, over the same three-year period ABC, CBS, and NBC News all saw small upticks of around five percentage points in their trustworthiness, while CNN experienced a minor, 3 percentage point blip downward. (PBS along with MSNBC and Comedy Central were only been included in PPP’s past two surveys.)
And though Fox News continues to lead all comers as the “most trusted” TV news network (34 percent)—thanks to its near monopoly on conservative viewership—it once again dominates PPP’s rankings as the “least trusted” name in news (39 percent) as well. No other network comes close to eliciting this kind of love/hate relationship. MSNBC, for example, only earns an 8 percent to 14 percent most-to-least trusted score. CNN gets 12 percent and 13 percent, respectively. And because few voters can abide having no opinion of Fox News’ credibility, the network has become something of uncanny bellwether of someone’s political persuasion:
“We continue to find that Democrats trust most TV news sources other than Fox, while Republicans don’t trust anything except Fox,” said Dean Debnam, President of Public Policy Polling. “News preferences are very polarizing along party lines.”
This is perhaps the clearest evidence yet of epistemic closure on the right. However, to say it’s just Democrats that don’t trust Fox News would be to grossly miss the point. In fact, the PPP survey shows that there’s now a broad array of Americans that simply don’t believe Fox News can be trusted as a news organization. (Keep in mind, though, that some of the poll’s subsets have smaller sample sizes that can introduce volatility into the data.) To pour through this year’s credibility poll is to discover that one can make these two rather amazing statements:
- Majorities of Democrats, liberals, Independents, moderates, African-Americans and those between the ages of 30 and 65 do not trust Fox News.
- Pluralities of men, women, Hispanics and even whites do not trust Fox News either.
Who’s left? Well, mostly just people over 65 and conservatives—in other words, the Fox News audience. But even in this last redoubt of Fox News loyalty, however, the ranks are starting to break. And this is perhaps the scariest part of the PPP data if you’re Roger Ailes. In the course of the 2012 presidential campaign and its aftermath, the most significant erosion of trust in Fox News occurred among mainstream conservatives.
In fact, Fox News’ trustworthiness among those who self-identified as “somewhat conservative” fell by a net of 27 percentage points over the past year. (“Very conservative” folks lost faith in Fox News too, according to PPP, by a net of three percentage points, but that’s not statistically significant.) Where the network was once trusted by 65 percent of this cohort last January, as of last week a bare majority—52 percent—now felt the same way. Similarly, distrust in Fox News by these conservatives has nearly doubled, from 18 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2013. MSNBC, by the way, didn’t see any similarly sized net fluctuations among its viewers by ideology, while CNN, notably, saw a huge net drop in trustworthiness (-52 percent) among the “very liberal” and a smaller drop (-20 percent) among “moderates.”
These kinds of figures should worry any network president. CNN, for its part, has already begun a top-down retooling, bringing in former executive producer of NBC’s Nightly News and Today show Jeff Zucker and cashiering several pundits who'd long passed their expiration date. (One hopes Zucker sees the PPP data as further proof that CNN’s previous attempts to achieve pundit balance with folks like Erickson severely damaged the network's brand among a core segment of its audience.)
As for Fox News, well, its longtime president Roger Ailes just signed a new four-year deal with the network a few weeks before Election Day. Savvy timing, that. As a result, any legitimate attempt at undoing the damage wrought by vanishing viewers and corroded credibility during the past year will fall to the same man who unwittingly orchestrated the damage in the first place. Of course, there’s always the possibility that these disaffected mainstream conservatives will sulk for awhile and then eventually tune in all over again, ready to accept a little rebranding and to be mobilized by the latest outrage. But that’s no longer a bet Fox News has no chance of losing.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Re: James' comment as to Bruce, "...I've never been a giant fan." Sorry, this tells me all I want to know about him. Honestly. How could you be serious about music and rock and say this? In the pantheon of rock music, if one could find a more superlative, exciting, meaningful, entertaining and noble body of work than Springsteen's, where would it be? You were merciful that James was finally "blinded by the light," but really. In my alternate universe that has another career and actual time, I would become a female rock critic writer and set all these dummies straight.
Eric Replies: "You know, the difference between the greatness of Bruce Springsteen and that of Neil Young as someone once explained to me back in college: Bruce makes you think you, too, can be as great as he is; Neil makes you think he is really no better than you are to begin with. Remember that."
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is called “It’s Not Really ‘Krugman vs. the World’” and it’s rather critical of Joe Scarborough and his fellow Villagers, here.
I also thought I’d recommend Thomas Mallon on Richard Nixon in The New Yorker.
And in the “Well Said” department, there this:
Rolling Stone speaks with My Morning Jacket's Jim James, who recently "came to [a] realization."
RS: You're a big Neil Young fan. Are you into his current work?
JJ: The last Neil Young record I really enjoyed was Prairie Wind. I thought that was a fucking beautiful record. I like everything that Neil does. Neil's a big hero of mine, but I really came to this realization: I saw Springsteen in Louisville, and I've never been giant Springsteen fan. I only liked things here or there and I wasn't like a giant fan. I saw him in Louisville and he was fucking phenomenal! It was like seeing the sun shine for the first time or something. It was like he was so positive and it felt like every motherfucker in that place was his best friend. You know he touched everybody. He was crowd surfing. He was fucking running around and shit. When you see Neil [Young] and Bob [Dylan], they're, like, all pissed and you feel like they don't give a fuck if you're there or not. I'm so sick of that, and seeing Bruce I was like, "Fucking-a, man! Thank you! I paid a lot of money to be at this fucking show and you care I'm here." It was just, like, such a revelation.
If you’ve not yet discovered Foyle’s War, well, then I rather envy you. Acorn media is ready with six dvds they are calling The Home Front Files, Sets 1-6 Michael Kitchen stars as Christopher Foyle, the laconic detective chief superintendent of a coastal English town, investigating crimes on the home front as World War II rages. The 22 mysteries in this collection follow the course of the war and its aftermath from 1940 to 1945. It’s really charming and lots of fun and never insults your intelligence. Every one of these episodes can be watched more than once after you’ve learned who did it (and if you’re my age, forgotten). Acorn has also released Maigret Complete Collection I n which the great Michael Gambon stars in PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! Adaptations of Georges Simenon’s classic detective novels, originally broadcast on in the early 1990s. Minnie Driver is in it too. It’s four dvds. And finally the Acorn people have also re-issued the Wodehouse Playhouse Complete, three series of the BBC show based on the great writer’s silly stories. I’ve not watched it yet but it’s six cds and the reviews give it high marks. You can find more information about all of them here and I think you can sign up to stream them as well.
A Lonely Spot in a Lonely War
by Reed Richardson
When trying to gain historical perspective on any event as vast and complex as a war there are a number of narrative structures that an author can use. The wonkish approach might focus on legislative and administrative aspects, digging into the seemingly endless documentation that accompanies every nation’s entry into major conflict to get the insider view. The biographical take—a popular one—establishes a dramatis personae and then follows these characters throughout, similarly using their experiences and utterances as a prism through which the reader can view the unfolding story. And then there’s the less common strategy of planting one’s narrative flag on a piece of ground, taking up residence, and letting the story eventually occupy it.
This last idea, that sometimes a place can more powerfully tell a tale than the people or policies or ideas that do battle there isn’t new. Asking a hill, a valley, a beach, a town to carry a broader perspective on a war can easily devolve into an exercise in forced symbolism, of trying to make too much about too little, all of which is to say that it is not an easy thing to pull off successfully. Jake Tapper, in his exhaustively detailed book about one lonely corner of the War in Afghanistan, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (Little Brown, $29.99), manages to do it with aplomb, however.
The funny thing is Tapper, a longtime member of the DC press corps who just became CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, might not necessarily agree. It’s clear from his book tour interviews that his interest in tale of Combat Outpost Keating arose when his veteran journalist’s curiosity unexpectedly collided with his newfound sense of life’s fragility. (As he tells it, he was literally holding his one-day-old son, Jack, while still in the hospital, when he first saw TV news reports of the massive, bloody battle where hundreds of insurgents nearly captured COP Keating.) His intentions, in others words, didn’t begin with the idea of detailing the intelligence failures, strategic stubbornness, tactical arrogance, and historical ignorance that has colored (and still colors) our messy,12-year-plus endeavor in Afghanistan.
This hesitancy on the part of Tapper to embrace his own book’s larger critiques remains. After all, one does not spend years researching and exploring the ponderous reasons why a dozen-plus men died and many more were wounded over several years at an exposed location like COP Keating and then slap a rather clichéd, gung-ho subtitle on the book without some forethought. As a marketing decision, I get it, but as an honest description of the larger lessons a reader might learn from reading it, Tapper is pulling his punches here.
This is perhaps not surprising. Tapper has a track record of being an at times pious, self-flagellating member of the media-is-liberally-biased club. (I took him and fellow self-confessor Mark Halperin to task for their baseless assertions here in this space last August.) More recently, Tapper took umbrage at Obama’s rather obvious criticism of the Beltway media’s facility for false equivalence. His rather facile response: “False equivalency is a thing, sure. But so is false ‘false equivalency,’” was a classically dismissive retort. Later, he claimed the comment was a “joke” and that “pols don’t make the best media critics.” Again, what Tapper didn’t do was try to engage the argument in an intellectually honest way.
In The Outpost, though, you can tell that, through the hard work of reporting COP Keating’s story arc across three-and-a-half years and through the eyewitness accounts of hundreds of regular soldiers, Tapper’s tetchiness about bias and Beltway instincts for hidebound objectivity aren't driving the story structure. So, from the book’s very first scene, from its very first sentence even, it’s clear that Tapper isn't merely serving up glorious patriotic shades of red, white, and blue. From the get-go, he foreshadows the violent climax that was ultimately going to befall the 53 soldiers stationed on a tactically disastrous piece of ground in a dangerously remote part of Afghanistan: “It was madness.”
From here, the reader is treated to literally hundreds of pages of the history of COP Keating leading up to the final fateful attack in October 2009. He tracks the ebb and flow of four different cavalry companies into and out of Nuristan, a rugged, punishing province in northeast Afghanistan where Keating and several other small American outposts have been set up to stem the tide of insurgents oozing back and forth across the nearby border with Pakistan.
Tapper does yeoman’s work trying to keep the constantly rotating cast of characters straight as the years pass by, but at times there are so many names being bandied about, both American and Afghani, that it becomes hard to focus. Likewise, the intense combat set pieces he describes leading up to the final battle, of which there are many, are often impossible to visualize. This down-to-the-man detail is impressive—as is his unflinchingly visceral, sometimes clinical, description of battlefield wounds and death—but it is in service of what larger need to the story, you find yourself asking occasionally. His granular exposition no doubt shows off his reporting chops, but too much of it can become trap, a quicksand of data that buries and disorients the reader.
Even so, Tapper slowly introduces a larger context into what will finally shape the fate of COP Keating. As one company replaces another, the outpost’s efficacy erodes, as it becomes harder and harder to sustain and protect it. Certainly, the numerous schisms and centuries-old grudges that plague Nuristan (a place so stubbornly riven with clannish feuds that Tapper dubs it: “the Afghanistan of Afghanistan”) contribute to the ever-evolving insurgent resistance that can’t abide the outpost’s presence. But time and again, Tapper demonstrates how another antagonist is working against the troops’ mission and their very survival: the war in Iraq.
For a good portion of the book’s scope—from early 2006 to early 2009—it’s evident that whatever our intervention in Afghanistan ever accomplished was in spite of the Bush administration not thanks to it. Throughout most of Bush’s time in the White House, Iraq was assigned four to five times more combat brigades. (To put this in context geographically, Tapper notes that at one point an ISAF brigade of a few thousand soldiers was responsible for a piece of Afghanistan roughly the size of Virginia.) The helicopter shortage, still not corrected 10 months into Obama’s administration, actually contributed to the demise of COP Keating—with not enough air assets available to evacuate the base earlier, it gave insurgents time to amass a huge stockpile of men and materiel.
Indeed, by the time George Bush makes a brief, personal cameo in the book, to comfort a wife of a company commander severely wounded during an 2008 IED attack just outside the outpost, there’s an justifiably earned sense of outrage on the part of the reader (if there wasn't one already). Bush’s sunny optimism: “Rob will wake up and when he does, I will meet him in person again,” to an emotionally fraught spouse of a wounded soldier is, on the one hand, understandable. In war, things rarely work out happily, though. Three weeks after meeting the president, Capt. Rob Yllescas’s wife watched her husband suffer a massive stroke. She decided to take him off life support. He died quickly.
By the time Obama takes office, the outpost’s high toll in lives lost and energy expended to keep it is obviously not worth the cost, to everyone involved. Yet a combination of theater shortages and military inertia conspire to keep it hanging around, even after its usefulness to the local population is thoroughly spent. This inertia, Tapper rightly points out, has several causes, one of the most mundane, but psychologically potent, is the U.S. military’s counterproductive habit of posthumously re-naming its combat facilities after fallen soldiers. As a result, the idea of closing or pulling back from a place like COP Keating (named for a popular first lieutenant who died in a driving accident during a perilous resupply mission), in conversation, effectively sounds like a discussion about abandoning a fellow soldier on the battlefield. Such emotional reasoning surely wouldn’t affect military decision-making, but Tapper demonstrates otherwise.
But Tapper’s book finally delivers on its full promise—not just the one on its cover—in the final 150 pages. Here he marshals a more even-handed balance of gritty, day-to-day outpost life with the high-level strategic back-and-forth of the new Obama administration and new ISAF Commander, Stanley McChrystal. By demonstrating how McChrystal’s initial public politicking (or bumbling, take your pick) created friction between him and the White House, Tapper follows these ripples all the way back down to COP Keating, which is forced to stay in place still longer as a PR move to appease Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the run up to national elections. Finally, after numerous false starts and missed deadlines, the official date was set to pull Black Knight Troop of 6-4 Cav out of the outpost: October 4, 2009.
The insurgents attacked at dawn on October 3rd.
Tapper’s account of the horrendous, 12-hour siege of COP Keating is well done, almost cinematically so. Indeed, if Hollywood is able to sell a tactical-heroism-within-a-
Of course, the tragic irony is that all this blood and treasure was finally spent to merely survive at a lonely place the US military was planning on abandoning 24 hours later. (After an expedited evacuation of the outpost, B-1 bombers destroyed the rest of COP Keating in the days following.) If this isn’t a microcosm of the contradictions plaguing our nation’s current plan to hang around in Afghanistan, to little discernible positive effect, for another two more years I don’t know what is. In the book’s “Epilogue” chapter, Tapper tiptoes up to endorsing the same frustrations. In what, one suspects, serves as a kind of proxy for his own feelings, he quotes a “recently retired general” with experience in Afghanistan:
“The wars of the twenty-first century have been outsourced by the American people to our government in D.C. and to our military,” he said. “With an all-volunteer force, the American people are no more connected to our armed forces than the Roman citizens were to the legionnaires. And now we even pay for wars with tax cuts. So, whose war and whose Army is it?”
The general hoped that at least some members of the public would, through reading this book, come to a greater understanding of just what war entails, just what sacrifices mean. “I worry it is becoming too easy for the United States to use force,” he added. “There are not enough domestic constraints.”
I’m not one to say Tapper is so sly as to use an off-the-record comment by a U.S. military general to precisely endorse the liberal military policy critique offered by Rachel Maddow last year in her excellent book, “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power” (Crown publishing, $25), but damned if that isn’t exactly what he did. Indeed, “drift” might best describe the aimless, overlooked strategic operational posture of most of the Afghanistan War during Bush’s tenure. Obama’s leadership, which bought into its own surge myth, has certainly had more direction, but suffers from “haste” and “sloth” in exactly the wrong directions. For reference, here’s my review of Maddow’s book from last April, which included this pertinent quote from her book, which is strikingly familiar:
The ropes we had used to lash down presidential war-making capacity, bindings that by design made it hard for an American president to use military force without the nation’s full and considered buy-in, have been hacked at with very little appreciation about why they were put there in the first place.
Maddow took more of a hybridized, policy-and-people approach, Tapper stuck to a place, but what’s notable is that their different intellectual paths both arrived at the same conclusion. Like COP Keating, too much of our country’s military policy today is tactically defendable but not strategically or even morally defensible. Sure, we can drop bombs on just about anybody anywhere in the world, but too often we don’t bother with much forethought about why or the long-term aftereffects of who else might suffer.
So, yes, you might say this book about a lonely place in a lonely war serves as a record of the oft-ignored, valorous sacrifices made by the men and women in our armed services in Afghanistan. But for anyone—even the author—to stop there, and merely think of it as a lengthy paean to military bravery and all those who paid the ultimate price would be a real mistake. For, this book’s real, unstated value should be to stand as an indictment of how cheaply we hold this precious national resource and how cavalierly our national leaders behave in their continued willingness to spend it.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is a sad lament for lack Republican voice in the media and a tribute to Joel Kotkin’s brilliant analysis of that terrible problem. It’s called “The ‘Virtually Voiceless’” and it’s here.
In my Nation column, I offer my dissent in the MSM celebration of Andrew Sullivan. That’s here.
Alter-reviews: Jazz at Lincoln Center “Birth of the Cool” celebration, Miles Davis Bootleg release, Volume II, Nixon in China….
Tempted to say I had a “cool” weekend at Jazz at Lincoln Center last week, but I’m not quite that corny. Anyway, this J@LC Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis spent the weekend playing a set that was half Gerry Mulligan and half John Lewis, who, together with Miles and with arranger Gil Evans most prominently, came together to take jazz in this new direction in the late 1940s. Both Lewis and Mulligan had played with the orchestra—I saw a wonderful show with Lewis in the late 90s—but this show did what J@LC does best, which is to marry the classic with the contemporary. In this case, it did so through the combination of the Orchestra and the 26-year-old NOLA pianist Jonathan Batiste. The show also benefited enormously from Wynton’s skills as a host speaking both historically and personally about the musicians and the composers in between each song. Seeing jazz in Rose Hall—the only concert hall in the world built specifically for jazz—is like seeing a classical music concert except that people are not so dressed up. Wynton’s personality helps a great deal in transforming this big beautiful hall into a “house of swing.”
I have to say, however, I am partial to the much more intimate Jazz@LC Allen Room, both for its intimate size and its wonderful view of Columbus Circle behind the musicians. And the following night, I got to see pianist Bill Charlap lead not only fine band but also offer a history of jazz lesson with the great Basie sax man Frank Wess, national treasure, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, singer Mary Stallings and vibraphonist Steve Nelson. He had his regular band, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Kenny Washington, along with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Gary Smulyan, trombonist Jason Jackson, Bob Stewart (tuba), and Jeff Scott (French horn). They played plenty of Lewis and Mulligan, augmented by any number of tunes, and again, benefitted from Charlap’s commitment to giving the audience some context for the songs and their arrangements as well as the amazing musicans and the georgous music proper respect.... It was almost perfect night, except that they don’t let you bring drinks into the hall.
For more from J@LC, go here, please.
And speaking of Miles: Since there really is a Miles Davis, there is always more Miles, and my friends at Sony Legacy have found and cleaned up a new edition of the Miles Davis Bootleg Series from Miles's Third Great Quintet, known also as the "Lost" Band of 1968-1970 and featuring Miles, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, a band that never recorded in the studio. It’s the nucleus of the “Bitches Brew” band, which, in my Philistinic opinion, is where the whole world started going to Hell. (Right afterward, that is, I like the album a great deal.) Anyway, this band was recorded in three separate concerts including sets at the Antibes Jazz Festival, in Stockholm, as part of "The Newport Jazz Festival In Europe," plus a 46-minute performance at the Berlin Philharmonie, which is included on a color DVD. What’s not to like? Well, perhaps the packaging, but I’ll let you know about that all-important factor once it’s out.
And there’s no reason for anyone to trust my judgment when it comes to opera, but John Adams’s Nixon in China is really a lot of fun and Nonesuch has just released the Metropolitan Opera's performance it with the composer conducting, on Blu-ray and DVD together in one package. It’s staged by Peter Sellars, and stars James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, a role he created at the opera's world premiere in 1987. Great? I dunno. But fun, yep, especially for what it does to Henry. Check it out. Nothing sounds better than Blu-ray.
Guns vs. Butter
by Reed Richardson
Tune into any recent Sunday morning news panel or peruse the op-eds of esteemed Washington insiders these days and you’re likely to hear the same refrain: “Entitlements” simply must be fixed, solved, saved—take your pick—lest they mortally wreck our country’s future. Though these same folks typically exercise their rhetorical muscles by engaging in aggrieved, psychodrama analogies or squeezing every last drop out of the political horserace, when they do deign to examine actual policy, they seemingly can’t help but break out their rusty abaci to try to deliver nothing but bad news about Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
As such, even the occasion of the presidential Inauguration this week presented the perfect venue to publicly bemoan the costs of our social safety net. That President Obama did not avail himself of this opportunity did not sit well with some in Washington. That he actually had the gall to champion these programs instead of making “hard choices” that would whittle away at them drew cries of “collectivism” from some quarters. This is merely disingenuous posturing, though. For all this media agita over our non-discretionary fiscal obligations is, notably, never accompanied by a similar, big-picture focus on the largest line item in our discretionary spending—the defense budget.
Indeed, for every ten times a supposedly serious member of the Beltway media advocates trimming Social Security benefits or calls for boosting Medicare’s eligibility age, odds are they won’t have made even a single mention of our immense defense budget. That budget, by the way, though a bit smaller than it was during peak of the Iraq war, is still bigger than the next ten largest countries’ defense expenditures combined.
To really understand the asymmetrical mindset at work here one need only look at the drastically different ways the media looks at raising the debt ceiling versus the looming sequestration cuts. The former was broadly accepted among pundits as a reasonable lever Republicans could pull to force a long overdue debate about reining in government spending (rather than a extreme, hostage-taking tactic aimed at undermining the social safety net). By contrast, public debate over the sequester’s heavy defense cuts has been universally focused on avoiding the cuts and putting money back in. For a country in the midst of a fiscal crisis, these contradictory positions speak volumes about our national priorities.
Granted, the 2011 Budget Control Act’s $500 billion in sequestration cuts to the Defense Department over the next decade are the epitome of crude, reckless policymaking. This was, of course, by design. Everyone recognizes that slashing veteran’s benefits and military pay at the same rate as bloated procurement programs and weapons systems of dubious value is a bad idea. What’s missing, however, is any mainstream political debate about how to replace the sequester’s slash-it-all-and-let-DoD-sort-it-out approach with more reasonable, merit-based cuts.
The Project for Defense Alternatives released such a strategic review—called “discriminate defense”—last fall. It roughly matches the sequestration in terms of budget savings—$550 billion through 2022—as part of its plan for a more efficient post-Afghanistan War military that is only 20 percent smaller than today’s. This is by no means draconian, as it would take a cut of nearly twice that size over the same duration just to bring the defense budget in lines with its historical average.
If you’ve never heard of this plan, you have a pretty good excuse. Both Capitol Hill politicians and Beltway pundits rarely demonstrate any appetite for critically examining the defense budget the way they do domestic spending. Certainly, highlighting fraud, waste, and abuse within Medicare and Medicaid are valid ways to ensure our government functions properly. But good luck hearing much talk from the same Sunday morning crowd about the necessity of “cutting back” the untold billions frittered away by the DoD, like $640 billion it will spend over the next decade on maintaining a redundant and increasingly obsolete nuclear weapons arsenal. Then there’s the $190 billion in cost overruns for the scandal-plagued F-35 fighter program. Or what about the $500-million Littoral Combat Ship that, belying its name, the Congressional Research Service recently concluded was “not capable of surviving a hostile combat environment.” We’re ordering a fleet of 20 of those.
As a result of this skewed groupthink, the establishment media is undoubtedly defining the political boundaries of reasonable debate on the budget and, despite their claims of objectivity, are pushing a set of defense-friendly policy prescriptions that closely align with conservative ideology. Case in point, our punditocracy’s continued enchantment with former GOP vice presidential nominee Representative Paul Ryan. That the media allows Ryan to maintain a reputation as a “brilliant,” “numbers guy” who is honestly concerned about the national debt is a sad joke. This, after all, is the same Ryan who is willing to end Medicare as we know it to lower the deficit, yet his 2012 “Path to Prosperity” budget tried to shovel more money—$7 billion, to be exact—at the Pentagon than even its profligate procurers has asked for. (That same budget would have cut $11 billion from veterans benefits and, notably, didn’t even include the word “veteran.”)
This myopia on the part of Congress isn’t excusable but it is explicable. They’re getting paid—in the form of campaign donations—to protect defense spending from the same kind of scrutiny that befalls the social safety net. As Jill Lepore’s insightul essay in this week’s New Yorker demonstrates, a not insignificant portion of Capitol Hill views defending the defense budget as a kind of noble cause, albeit one that undoubtedly provides handsome financial windfalls:
“There are some in government who want to use the military to pay for the rest, to protect the sacred cow that is entitlement spending,” [House Armed Service Committee Chair Buck] McKeon said, in his opening remarks, referring to Social Security and Medicare. “Not only should that be a non-starter from a national-security and economic perspective, but it should also be a non-starter from a moral perspective.” Cuts should be made, he said, not to “the protector of our prosperity” but to “the driver of the debt.”
That an inconvenient fact like Social Security does not contribute one dime to the national debt doesn’t register with someone like McKeon isn’t surprising. Especially not when he believes, or at least says he believes, he’s on a moral mission to preserve the funding of the defense of our nation. Which also has the added side effect of preserving his funding, as McKeon’s top ten political donors all come from the defense industry.
But who will lobby on behalf of those who rely, or who will rely—almost everyone, in other words—on our nation’s social safety net at some point? In our democracy, the press should increasingly be the ones accepting that duty and broadening that discussion. Unfortunately, our media elite have become inured to their own one-sidedness involving what we spend our immense wealth on and why. When it comes to choosing between satiating our military and satisfying our citizenry their preference is all too clear. The former should get whatever it wants and the latter, well...let them eat yellowcake.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new “Think Again” column is called “Is Contemporary Conservatism Just ‘Payola’?” and it’s here. (Hint: it’s yes….)
A blast from the past: Journalists traveling on National Review cruises and writing articles about the funny people they encounter there have appeared in the past month in New York magazine and a couple of years ago in The New Republic. I did one in 1997, and since David Foster Wallace's famous cruise piece turned out to be largely fictional (according to Jonathan Franzen) I nominate it as the funniest (true) cruise piece, (though others may differ, as they so often do...). It’s called “Heart of Whiteness”—as we went to Alaska—and you can read it here.
Jazz now and then, live and not: The New York Winter Jazz Festival, The David Murray Big Band with Macy Gray at the Irridium; The Clifford Brown & Max Roach Emarcy Albums on Mosaic (vinyl only.)
I caught night one of the New York Winter Jazz Festival last weekend and saw three terrific sets. The first was by Cat Russell, whom I discovered, I imagine along with many others, because of Terry Gross’s enthusiasm for her, and she’s a wonderful throwback to what was, in most respects, a better time. Great voice. Great taste. Real presence. You can read about her here. (I also saw her in the band with Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, and she really helped make that night, especially the closing vocal on “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” however it is supposed to be spelled. Next came the Monty Alexander Harlem-Kingston Express who I now see have a live album I have to buy as soon as I finish writing this. Monty’s had a long career, but I just got back from Jamaica, and while there is nothing like Bob Marley, I heard enough Marley while I was there to last a few months at least. Anyway, Monty’s got some Marley, some Harry Belafonte and everything in between. And what a party the band was having onstage, defying category or else defining a new one. That was followed by Don Byron who has also made a living defying category—my favorite set of his was a tribute he did one night to Sly Stone—but Friday night was pretty straight-ahead. (Le) Poisson Rouge was full by this time and it made one, temporarily, optimistic about the future of live jazz, though if you read Ben Ratliff in the Times, you’ll see that it’s a bit easy to fool oneself. For more on Don Byron, go here. (Hey wait a minute, how crazy is this? I want one of these too. Look up Mickey Katz if you’ve never heard of him) some wonderful shows.
Sunday night I caught a really weird show. I tend to feel guilty about how little attention I give to contemporary jazz musicians in favor of the ones upon whom I was originally schooled. One of the few exceptions to my failure, however, has been the amazing career of David Murray, who reminds me (and I suppose a lot of people) more of John Coltrane than anyone alive with the exception of Ravi Coltrane, both in regard to his originality and audacity. He does so many different things, many of them at the same time, it’s impossible to keep up with all of them. (I see 150 albums, are only the ones under his name.) At the Iridium on Sunday night, he had not only an amazing big band, but also Macy Gray. Ms. Gray is what she is. Fortunately, Sunday night she was in a pretty good mood, and the band was loose and in a good mood, and the Iridium is nice, intimate venue; it was a night like no other, save perhaps the shows on Friday and Saturday. There was some jazz, some funk, some R&B, and some stuff I’d hate to try to describe, though it apparently included lyrics by Ishmael Reed. But it was all pretty fun.
(And by the way, Lou Reed was sitting across the room a bit from me with Hal Wilner. The last time I saw Lou at a jazz show, it was at the Village Vanguard for a Marcus Roberts show, and his dates were Henry Kissinger and Vaclav Havel, who was still running that country of his at the time. When they left, Vaclav and Kissinger got into one car and Lou had to get into another one, so I don’t know how much they all three actually hung out together.)
Back to my retro-emphasis, the good news is that the folks at Mosaic are back on track. A few weeks ago I reviewed the marvelous new Mingus concert collection on CD, and now, on vinyl, we’ve got a beautiful new collection of the marvelous Clifford Brown & Max Roach Emarcy Albums. It is not uncommon for people to say that if “Brownie” had not been killed in the car accident at age 26, we might be speaking his name in the same hushed tones we say “Miles.” This is his best work and most important work and Mosaic has done its usual fine work. It’s four LPs and limited to 2,500 copies based on the original analog masters, which were remastered and pressed on 180-gram vinyl. The sessions included Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt, but the focus is on Brownie and Roach. As the (terrific) liner notes by Bob Blumenthal note, "the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet created one of the very greatest string of small-group recordings in jazz history, worthy of consideration alongside the Hot Fives and Sevens of Louis Armstrong and the quintets of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis." Really people, I lack the words. Nice photos by Chuck Stewart and Francis Wolff, too. More here.
Grand Bargain Hunting
by Reed Richardson
A lot of what passes for political punditry in Washington these days amounts to what I’d call intellectual big-game hunting. This tendency manifests itself through a compulsion to seek out the largest prey imaginable when trying to solve our nation’s problems. Chasing down more plentiful, more manageable, and more readily available quarry simply doesn’t hold much appeal, not when there are vague hints of an elephantine “grand bargain” lurking somewhere far off in the distance. The not so subtle implication: the bigger the game, the better the hunter, the broader the mind.
But there’s a critical flaw in relying upon this trophy-hunting approach time and again. Grand bargains, like elephants, are actually quite rare for good reason. The many disparate elements that naturally comprise them make them a) difficult to fully comprehend—as this old Indian fable about six blind men and an elephant illustrates—and b) vulnerable to accomplishing a lot of things poorly instead of one or two things well.
Thus, we can’t be allowed to simply raise taxes, extend unemployment, or authorize the paying back of our debts without this cohort shoehorning massive cuts to the social safety net into the debate. Thus, we can’t simply implement common sense limits on guns without wrangling video games and armed schools into the mix. Thus, when it comes to climate change, we don’t even consider a straightforward carbon tax and have instead settled on the worst of all grand bargains—doing absolutely nothing. No doubt, right now we’ve arrived at a moment where a preponderance of our national media elite believes that only great, big, all-encompassing policy fixes can save us. And pity the politician who doesn’t agree.
Pick a recent David Brooks column or something from the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and you’ll encounter this grand bargain obsession close up. But perhaps no one has better embodied how this fetish for complex, comprehensive solutions can morph into convoluted, even contradictory advice from National Journal’s editorial director, Ron Fournier. This is from a Fournier column this past week where he calls upon President Obama to step up to the plate:
First, the political landscape is ripe for bold ideas and big change: The public is overwhelmingly discontented with the direction the country is headed, and is craving outside-the-box leadership. In times of tumult, voters are likely to forgive a president, if not reward him, for compromises made in service of solutions. And if Americans can ever again be summoned to a spirit of shared sacrifice, this would be that moment.
Just two months ago, though, with Obama’s re-election literally just hours old, Fournier was singing a decidedly different tune:
First, lower expectations. Obama promised voters he would change the nature of politics in his first term. He failed. Rather than promise the unattainable, Obama needs to acknowledge the difficulty of tasks ahead, starting with curbing the nation’s debt.
Mandates are rarely won on election night. They are earned after Inauguration Day by leaders who spend their political capital wisely, taking advantage of events without overreaching. Obama is capable—as evidenced by his first-term success with health care reform. But mandate-building requires humility, a trait not easily associated with him.
The intellectual tension between these two bits of insight from Fournier is sufficient to replace a main support cable on the George Washington Bridge. (And, not for nothing, but Fournier’s sideways suggestions of Obama’s arrogance reach back years.) Setting aside his clichés and shopworn themes, though, there is a common thread to Fournier’s thinking here that is seen in other pundits of the same ilk. To me, it lays bare the glaring inconsistencies and oxymoronic logic involved in grand bargain hunting. It also begs some questions. So, I engaged in a Twitter conversation with Fournier:
OK, not much of a conversation, really. That follow-up question went unheeded. That’s too bad, because I am genuinely curious to hear Fournier’s response. Judging by the rest of the article and his curt, somewhat dismissive one-word Tweet, though, I suspect it’s difficult for him to answer because he, like many other Beltway pundits, is essentially reverse engineering political policy. He/they start by outlining the mechanics and maybe some broad characteristics of their grand bargain ideal and then try to work backwards to figure out the corresponding policy elements. Actually, that’s not quite true, because all too often these Beltway pundits don’t really bother with the heavy lifting of figuring out how the concomitant parts of these grand bargains would work, or if they would work at all.
In Fournier’s column from last week, when tiptoeing up to the point of having to advocate specific policy prescriptions, he, like many other Beltway pundits, suddenly starts shoveling warmed-over platitudes that mean nothing:
[P]olls show a majority of voters want Washington to address guns, debt, and the climate. True, there's no easy agreement on exactly how to solve the problems, but events of the past few weeks have at least galvanized the country behind the need for answers.
This section, which follows hard on the heels of Fournier’s whiplash inducing “big change” and “compromise” paragraph might best be described as the editorial equivalent of the meatpacking industry’s pink slime. That is to say, a lot of it is merely filler, and is so overly processed that it holds no intellectual value anymore for his audience. On complicated issues like these, to essentially say “people disagree” with little to no context is endemic to this strain of facile punditry, however.
To be fair, Fournier does finally come close to endorsing one actual example of policy solution later in his piece:
Banning semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles is favored by a minority of voters, just 44 percent, making it a test of Obama's ambition: The way to leave his mark on the guns issue is to support an assault-weapons ban and use the bully pulpit to shift polls in favor of it.
The jig is up here. Alighting on a warmed-over policy reform that was already the law of the land for ten years before expiring almost ten years ago—one that was so riddled with loopholes to ensure passage that it was rendered completely ineffective, I might add—hardly qualifies as big, bold change with compromises in service of solutions. Indeed, the latter rendered any chance of the former moot.
Now, Obama does seem intent on avoiding the law's previous mistakes and bolstering any new ban’s potential effectiveness through a package of accompanying reforms like high-capacity magazine bans and universal background checks. But real political courage wouldn’t stop there. Instead, the president would seek to not just slow the growth of guns in our nation but shrink it altogether, by, say, refusing to grandfather in the millions of rapid-fire, military-style rifles currently in the US and buying them up to take them out of circulation permanently. But these details aren’t what grand bargain hunters are really about, despite their rhetoric, because such a policy, though proven to be quite effective in Australia, wouldn’t provide the Republicans to chance to achieve what Fournier says should preferably be a “win-win” solution for both sides.
Of course, the notion that a party sworn to defeating the president the day he first took office would ever entertain anything other than a zero-sum approach to legislative battles with the White House is laughable. I mean, there’s now a faction of the House GOP that is so entrenched that its members reflexively vote no against their conscience. There’s an advantage to pundits for maintaining a certain naivete, though. If one doesn’t get lost in the weeds of the how and the why political actors disagree, then it’s much easier to make a supercilious appeal for everyone to just, you know, stop disagreeing so much.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Fournier and other grand bargain-loving pundits have warmed to the recent, PR-driven resurrection of the No Labels bunch. (Fournier, doing his part, has written three rather fawning stories on this group in the past week alone.) Founded two years ago, No Labels says it wants to “move America from the old politics of point-scoring toward a new politics of problem-solving.” Just last week, it announced as members 25 Congressional backbenchers (no one from a party leadership position and there’s only one subcommittee chair among them) plus former Utah Governor Jon Hunstman. Its “problem-solving” agenda, however, is noticeably light on discussing anything other than structural reforms and mostly its members seem to be motivated by the lonely, unhappy existence brought on by their career choice.
Fournier’s affinity for No Labels is no doubt strong because he attempted something similar in 2006, becoming the co-founder of the short-lived, bipartisan political community site HotSoup.com. Like No Labels, HotSoup and the other bi/non-partisan group Americans Elect, which crashed and burned last spring before it could nominate a presidential candidate, are notable for looking at our policymaking process and fixating mostly on process at the expense of the policymaking. Fond of the old Tip-and-Ronnie-drank-together-after-work approach, these groups find common cause with grand bargain hunters in the media because both willingly mistake better comity for better polity.
For example, here’s Fournier’s latest take on a No Labels gathering—“In Congress, Compromise is a 4-Letter Word.” (Compromise about a specific issue, of course, is never mentioned. The concept is treated more as an amorphous end-all, be-all in itself.) This bipartisan portrait is equal parts faux outrage and why-can’t-we-all-get-along kvetching and no doubt sounds a lot like a group of compromise-happy DC pundits convening to talk shop and BS at a Georgetown cocktail party. At times, I almost think Fournier, too, might have caught on to the pomposity of the proceedings, especially when he gives this group more than enough rope to hang their egos with:
Most lawmakers want to change Congress, at least in the abstract, [Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David] Cicilline says. But real reform on issues such as redistricting, filibusters and campaign spending are harder won. Like an unwelcome guest, reality silences the table—until Cicilline jump-starts the conversation with the smallest measure of optimism. “By the way,” he says, “just having a chat like this is monumental.”
God love ya, Representative Cicilline, but let’s be clear here—just having some very expensive drinks with other House members, some of them Republicans, at a tony restaurant on Central Park South is in no way shape or form monumental. It is conceit masquerading as sacrifice. It is not going to improve the lot of the American people tomorrow, or the next day, or even ten years from now. Like it or not, that has always and will always come from performing scutwork like winning elections and leveraging that political power bestowed by the voters, both inside and outside Capitol Hill.
This is perhaps the most important lesson Fournier and many others in our opinion media firmament need to learn. To routinely bemoan our messy exercise of partisan politics in relentless pursuit of some contrived, chimerical bipartisan solution that bundles all our problems up into one neat package is to present the public with a false choice. In the end, the institutional arrogance of grand bargain hunting not only shortchanges the very real impact politics has on people’s lives, it ignores the growing ideological extremism of this country’s right wing. And worst of all, it undermines the very foundations of democracy itself.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.