Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
My new Nation column is The Power of Piketty's ‘Capital’.
It is described as follows: “A brilliant book has named the problem of our time. But will anything change?”
I’ll be at Jazzfest this weekend, weather-permitting. Feel free to email me your NOLA dining suggestions. For those of you in the city, check out the schedule for Harlem Jazz Shrines. It looks pretty fun (and cheap). It’s also got some intellectual meat to it; one more reason I live in the Greatest City…
Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues by Joel Selvin
Review by Danny Goldberg
Anyone fascinated with the history of rock and roll should check out Joel Selvin’s new book Here Comes The Night, The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and The Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues. It’s a deceptively down-beat title because Selvin’s opus is an exhaustively researched love letter to an era of R&B and rock and roll in the early nineteen sixties that created classic music, helped facilitate racial integration on a cultural level and directly inspired the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and decades of subsequent rock and roll artists.
Bert Berns, a brainy and charming street kid from a Jewish family in the Bronx, was a songwriter and producer, who worked closely with The Drifters, Solomon Burke, and the Isely Brothers among others and later an indie label head (Bang Records) who signed Van Morrison, Neil Diamond and The McCoys (“Hang On Sloopy,” also written by Berns).
Berns is known for injecting a Latin music influence into R&B (he’d been a fan of the mambo growing up), for lyrics full of angst, and for uncanny commercial clarity in synthesizing the rapidly changing pop, sounds du jour. (There was a dizzying series of musical trends that had seemingly overnight been injected into the pop music charts in 1963. Selvin writes, “The twist, the bossa nova and surf music all in a year. Who knew anything?”)
Because R&B was shunned by major labels, a number of independently owned companies run by music business outcasts had sprung up in the years after rock and roll burst onto America’s pop scene in 1954. Three major labels, Columbia, RCA Victor and Decca had controlled more than ninety percent of the Top Ten. By the time Berns entered the business in 1960 the power of the majors had collapsed and the indies represented more than two-thirds of the top ten.
While using Berns as its centerpiece, Here Comes The Night is really a far broader history of the era in New York’s R&B business featuring songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Carol King and Jerry Goffin, and Dom Pomus and Mort Schuman, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, genius producer (and later killer) Phil Spector and Atlantic Records partners Ahmet and Nesui Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Atlantic, for whom Ray Charles made his first hits, was the most prestigious of the indies and the company where Berns did most of his work. Selvin quotes Ben E. King fondly referring to the Atlantic partners Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler as “a better class of thieves.” Wexler was Berns’s mentor until they had a bitter falling out the year before Berns’s untimely death in 1967 from congestive heart failure at the age of thirty-eight.
Also prominently featured in Selvin’s demi-monde are mafia figures involved with the record business such as Tommy Eboli and Sonny Franzee and the record executive best known for mob connections, Morris Levy.
It was an era when songwriters ruled, when producers, arrangers and studio musicians were responsible for the sound, and when with rare exceptions artists, despite their visibility to the public, were less important and powerful. Selvin explains, “In 1960, Berns entered an enchanted village inhabited by a tribe of crazy geniuses. They made records and had no idea they were developing an entire school of art. They worked alongside each other. They collaborated, they competed and they copied each other, they stole from one another, they ate and drank together and used some of the same musicians and arrangers on records which they made at the same studios. They kept offices in the same buildings and rode the same elevators together. They were tough desperate men… bottom feeders of the New York music world, hucksters and grifters.”
But some of them, like Wexler and Berns, were also in love with the music and were genuine visionaries. Berns brand of R&B/rock had a particularly strong influence on subsequent rock superstars. Janis Joplin memorably covered Berns’s songs “Piece Of My Heart” and “Cry Baby.” Andrew Loog Oldham selected three Berns songs for inclusion in the early Rolling Stones albums (“Under The Boardwalk,” Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “Cry To Me.”). The Beatles covered Berns’s “Twist and Shout,” the hardest rocking song of their early work.
And the week that Selvin’s book was published, a new YouTube clip appeared of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing a particularly engaging rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl”—a song which had been a hit for Van Morrison on Berns’s Bang Records, forty seven years earlier, in 1967.
Back to Eric...
Bullets Over Broadway
I saw Bullets Over Broadway last night. It has not exactly killed (ouch) with the critics and did not much impress the Tony voters either. It was among the best-looking productions I have ever seen. Sets and costumes were funny, inventive and frequently eye-popping, as the saying goes. The songs were almost all reworked classics from the great days of tin-pan alley and early jazz and R&B, but without much jazz or R&B feel to them. The book, written by Woody Allen, was disappointingly thin—despite the fact that it is based on a brilliant and original premise. (See the movie if you doubt this.) The cast was almost uniformly winning and wonderful, with the exception of the lead, Zach Braff, who was just awful; loud and unconvincing in his over-acted scenes and second-rate, at best, as a singer. He was a clear play for out-of-towners who want to see a “star” on Broadway however miscast and a clear miscalculation on everyone’s part. But otherwise, the actors and singers were a delight. Nick Cordero and Betsy Wolfe were both mini-revelations and will almost certainly grow up to be big stars. Marin Mazzie already is a big star and gets plenty of opportunity to show you why. And Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore does what he does as well as anyone. Brooks Ashmanskas also shows remarkable range in a role that looks like it might have been written for Nathan Lane—which is quite a challenge, but he pulls it off with aplomb. Again, was it fun? Sure was. Was it original? Absolutely. Was it nevertheless a disappointment? Well, it has Woody’s name on it, so yes, but still...
David Bromberg/David Johansen at Town Hall
I caught a David Bromberg Big Band/David Johansen double bill at Town Hall on Friday night. It was a wonderful combination if you grew up seeing both of these guys all the time in the last seventies. They have both given me lessons in how to age, if not gracefully, then intelligently and on their own terms. And both remain committed to their own unique art forms, and at the same time, sense of professionalism before their respective audiences. David Jo was received as well as any opening act as I’ve ever seen and gave a funny and moving performance. Bromberg had some trouble with the drunken shitheads sitting right in front of me, but gave a typically virtuosic performance on multiple instruments, but mostly electric guitar, of which he is a (largely) unappreciated master. He has so much great material, he’s got to leave out most of it, but still a happy time was had by all. They did not play together, however, because David Jo had to leave for another gig. (Amazing, “Buster” is playing the Cafe Carlyle in two weeks. I wonder what the lead singer of the New York Dolls would have had to say about that way back when. I’ll be there though.) Back to Bromberg, he’s had an incredible musical renaissance of late so check out his most recent CDs if you’ve lost track of him, catch him live if you can, and read this really interesting piece about his life in Delaware.
A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert
Back in 1989, Lee Atwater, who played in a band in college and used to make hay of his love of soul and R&B, put on a concert to celebrate the 1988 election of George H.W. Bush over Mike Dukakis. I went to this show. It was one weird show. Big donor Republicans pretending to like music they couldn't stand to suck up to the new head of the Republican Party; great musicians playing for people who looked nothing like the people they usually play for and kept waiting for someone or something to relate.
It was mostly old soul guys with Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie closing the show. Some of it is great and some of it is kind of embarrassing. The opening, Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now,” is wonderful and amazing. Eddie Floyd and Sam Moore are also pretty great. There’s way too much Delbert McClinton, which worries me, because, you know it looks like it’s because he’s a white guy. One does not feel the same way about the Vaughan brothers or Dr. John who are the only white performers not in the band or the Bush Administration.
Also on CD and DVD from the way-back machine is Little Feat’s “Live In Holland 1976” recorded at the Dutch Pinkpop festival. It’s the classic band, Lowell George (vocals, guitar); Bill Payne (keyboards, vocals); Richie Hayward (drums); Paul Barrere (vocals, guitar); Sam Clayton (percussion) and Kenny Gradney (bass), and I’ve never seen any video of them before so it’s a keeper. The performances of “Rock And Roll Doctor,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” “Skin It Back,” “Teenage Nervous Breakdown,” “Fat Man In A Bathtub,” are only okay, it must be admitted, but still, it doesn’t suck.
Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series
Remember Sgt. Esterhaus reminding everybody, “Hey, let’s be careful out there”? Well, now you can watch 144 episodes on thirty-four DVDs of it. The original show, created by Steven Bocho and broadcast on NBC from 1981 to 1987, was pretty great in its day. The excellent ensemble cast (including Daniel J. Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Bruce Weitz, Dennis Franz and Betty Thomas) won it twenty-six Emmys and some people think it’s the best show ever. I’m not one of those people but I wouldn’t say you were crazy if you were. It comes with lots of extras including a history, a bunch of interviews with Bocho and the writers, a gag reel and some episode commentaries.
Also, from the same machine, but not as big a commitment is the first season of “L.A. LAW,” also created by Steven Bochco (with Terry Louise Fisher). It’s twenty-two episodes on six DVDs and it includes interviews with Bochco and the cast members Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker, Alan Rachins, Susan Ruttan and Susan Dey.
Selling Outrage: How the Media’s Lazy Commodification of Anger Devalues Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson
Find out what a society gets angry about and you’ll find out what it thinks, who it cares about, and how fairly—or not—it functions. Does its anger dwell on isolated actions or does it challenge systemic ideas? Is it mostly directed at individuals or institutions? Is it driven from the bottom up or the top down? Does it seek change or simply retribution? Make no mistake, public anger is a necessary element of civil society and can be a public good, but not if it never does any good—if it’s only ever about settling scores, gathering scalps, documenting gaffes, and calling on others to apologize.
But outrage—as merely another form of regularly scheduled programming over time—clouds our perspective and dulls our ability to discern what really matters. For example, it’s no coincidence that you couldn’t escape hearing the names Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling in the media during the past few weeks, but the names Thomas Piketty and Martin Gilens have gone—with rare exception—almost unspoken on cable TV and talk radio.
Bundy, of course, is the white Nevada rancher whose standoff with the federal government earlier this month instantly made him a Fox News cause célebre and was transformed into a passion play of paranoid, anti-government angst that other news organizations soon followed as well. (It also occasioned some of the most crudely inapt historical analogies ever—Wounded Knee?! Gandhi?! George Washington?! Rosa Parks?!). That is, Bundy was a budding right-wing celebrity up until he revealed that his antebellum political beliefs about states’ rights also included a rancid nostalgia for chattel slavery, at which point many (but not all) of his high-profile right-wing devotees quietly abandoned him. And then there’s Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was recorded privately encouraging his bi-racial girlfriend to avoid inviting black people to Clippers games. The ensuing uproar scared off pretty much every one of his team’s corporate sponsors, and left some conservatives predictably trying to paint the racist (and sexist) Sterling as a Democrat. (For the record, he is a registered Republican.)
While these media firestorms raged, however, little attention was paid to folks like Gilens and Piketty, the latter of which just published a book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In it, Piketty’s meticulous research leads to some outrageous—which is to say, outrage-worthy—conclusions about the real impact of capitalistic society and how our nation’s economic growth is fundamentally structured to lead to inequality and concentrations of wealth. On top of that, Gilens just co-authored an academic study that found our democracy increasingly functions more like an oligarchy, where the rich and powerful hold sway over government policy and the rest of us have no say in how our own country works.
To recap, in the past few weeks, we’ve been presented with damning evidence that the American dream is more and more a distant mirage. And yet the media discourse has instead spent this time angrily obsessing over a deadbeat rancher potentially losing some cattle and a slumlord owner potentially losing a sports franchise. While no doubt satisfying and justified, the comeuppance of Bundy and Sterling still won’t do much of anything for ordinary Americans. This inversion of news priorities would be troubling enough as an isolated case, but as Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj point out in their new book The Outrage Industry ($29.95, Oxford), this kind of misdirected anger now happens time and again and suggests a deeper, systemic problem:
“Outrage discourse and programming may be effective at increasing advertising revenue and political support, but our research suggests that the mainstreaming of outrage in American political culture undermines some practices vital to healthy democratic life. […]
“In this arena, issues of import to fans are used for maximum emotional impact, such that tiny niche issues are reshaped into scandals and significant developments that are less ideologically resonant are dismissed as trivial or ignored.”
While this analysis is fairly intuitive, Berry and Sobieraj, both professors at Tufts University, have painstakingly backed up their book’s conclusions with data. Sobieraj, a sociologist, and Berry, a political scientist, are particularly well paired to map the full impact of the outrage media on society and create a taxonomy of its various forms. But before they do, they make a point of dispelling two myths about the level of outrage we experience now.
The first of these might be labeled “it was ever thus.” While outrageous commentary has always been a part of recent Western civilization as a “rhetorical style”—think back to Swift’s A Modest Proposal—the authors claim that its elevation to a “genre” is a relatively new phenomenon seen only in the past 30 years. Likewise, they dispel the notion that constant outrage is simply a by-product of an increasingly polarized populace. Instead, they cite a “perfect storm” of economic, technological, regulatory, and cultural changes, marked by milestones like the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of the Internet, and the relaxing of rules on media consolidation.
The daily audience for outrage, Berry and Sobieraj calculate, now stands at roughly forty-seven million Americans, three quarters of which comes from talk radio. (Cable news accounts for another ten million, and blogs the last two million.) Thanks to its relatively low production costs and ease of syndication across huge corporate entities, talk radio has proliferated at an incredible rate. Between 1998 and 2011, the number of US talk radio stations has more than tripled, from 1,200 to 3,800.
The spoils of this media renaissance haven’t been equally distributed across the political spectrum, though. The most popular talk radio shows in the nation uniformly offer right-wing viewpoints and, perhaps not coincidentally, Berry and Sobieraj point out that nineteen of the top twenty-one talk radio hosts in America are white men. (The other two are white women.) In total, right-wing talk beats left-wing talk by an incredible ten-to-one ratio in airtime every day.
This outsized ideological imbalance in talk radio and elsewhere in the outrage industry clearly presented something of a research challenge. At times, the authors simply could not find comparable left-wing equivalents to the right. In one laugh-out-loud example, the book casually notes that it has matched up in one data set perennial purveyors of bombast Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin against the notorious liberal bomb-throwers on NPR’s Morning Edition and the Diane Rehm show. (I mean, pledge drives are tiresome, but really…)
There are other examples of this trying-too-hard effect. For instance, the book’s survey of major right and left-wing op-ed columnists placed Maureen Dowd in the “liberal” column. Yes, the same Maureen Dowd who consistently praises Republicans and routinely uses gendered attacks to single out Democratic politicians. To lead off Chapter Two, the book dramatically cites a long, execrable quote by “liberal radio host Mike Malloy,” whom I’ve never heard of. Nearly a hundred pages later, you find out that Malloy is carried on just thirteen radio stations nationwide. (Rush is on more than six hundred.)
There are a few other blind spots in its scholarly field of vision. In a discussion of outrage as a lobbying strategy, the book looks back at the 2011 Occupy movement and blithely notes the protests “garnered enormous press coverage” during their first few months, a grossly imprecise statement that betrays a lack of context about the mainstream press’s reluctant, often condescending coverage. In revisiting the poisoned media climate during the Clinton administration, the book completely overlooks the Wall Street Journal op-ed page’s potent role in helping conservatives foment outrage and spread scandalous hearsay about the president. And, at times, Berry and Sobrieraj fall victim to old-fashioned nostalgia, bemoaning today’s sensationalized media and lauding the sober voices of journalism’s “golden age” in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. You know, back when the diverse range of viewpoints expressed in the press ran the gamut from middle-aged white men to old white men.
Despite these occasional lapses, Berry and Sobrieraj don’t fall into the trap of a pox-on-both-houses false equivalency in their broader conclusions. Why not? In a word, data. Or as they put it: “[I]s one side really worse than the other? In a word, yes. Our data indicates the right uses decidedly more outrage speech than the left.”
In fact, in studying the two media platforms where conservative voices are the most prominent—cable TV and talk radio—outrage was all but inescapable, having been used 100 percent and 98.8 percent of the time, respectively. Overall, the authors found that right-wing media engaged in fifty percent more acts of outrage, on average, than those on the left (15.57 acts per example vs. 10.32). What’s more, the right employed significantly more of ten of the thirteen types of outrage documented by the pair, while the left most commonly used only two of thirteen types.
The right’s tremendous advantage in the outrage industry is what enabled it to midwife the conservative Tea Party movement five years ago. In the subsequent 2010 and 2012 elections, the book notes that the conservative outrage outlets—Rush, Glenn Beck, Fox News—became the “central nervous system for an insurgency within the Republican Party.”
This wasn’t a one-sided transaction, however. Fostering an amped-up Tea Party political constituency attuned to the latest Obama scandal was also a convenient way to build one’s audience. (Chapter Four of the book is bluntly titled: “It’s a Business.”) But with more competition in the political commentary space comes more pressure to stand out, to keep listeners and viewers tuned in for the newest outrage. Or if that doesn’t pan out, an old one.
Of all the left-right differences uncovered in the book, however, the most striking one was how political anxiety over racism has created a strong persecution complex only among the right-wing audience of outrage media. The research echoes a point Jonathan Chait made in his essay about how race has impacted Obama’s presidency earlier this month. As Berry and Sobieraj explain:
“The experience of being perceived as racist loomed large in the minds of conservative fans. In fact, every conservative respondent asked how he or she feels about talking politics raised the issue of being called racist without even being asked. […]
“All respondents allude implicitly or explicitly to wanting to avoid offending others or engaging in awkward social exchanges, but conservative respondents alone describe feeling wary of being judged negatively as people because of their views.”
This defensiveness has more than a whiff of doth-protest-too-much air to it. In fact, the book cites numerous studies that show this right-wing cohort harbors a much higher degree of resentment toward minorities. For example, a University of Washington study found that Tea Party supporters are “25 percent more likely to be racially resentful.” Likewise, a Ford Foundation-backed study discovered that sixty-two percent of Tea Partiers said discrimination against whites was as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and minorities. When the authors questioned Tea Party members about why their movement attracts so few minorities, the response was telling: “The most common answer we got was, in effect, denial.”
That’s where we are today in America. Conservatives have convinced themselves that liberals routinely employ charges of racism against them in a careless, devious manner, which frees them to ignore the possibility that the claims might have actual historical or empirical merit. This cognitive dissonance plays out, writ small, when the authors interview a conservative named Missy: “It is not criticism of her views that concerns her,” they note. “Instead, Missy’s account suggests that she is afraid that people will think differently of her as a person because of her political views.”
This is exactly backwards. Missy’s political views are the core issue. It sounds glib to say if one wants to stop being mistaken for a racist one should avoid policies that support racism, though it’s nonetheless true. But ensconced in a world of angry, like-minded partisans, Missy and other right-wingers like her feel no need to examine their views for racially-based motives, let alone change them based on what they find. Instead, they simply interpret any challenge from outside her worldview as a personal attack. This breeds a kind of siege mentality, the authors note, which “is mirrored in the work of many conservative outrage hosts, creating a media space that is compatible with, and supportive of, racial resentment.”
This compartmentalized approach to dealing with racism—and the modern conservative compulsion to find the real racists (i.e. Democrats)—is but one of the symptoms of an unbroken cycle of perpetual outrage. It also exacts an opportunity cost on our politics, both figuratively and literally. A political environment polluted by rhetoric mocking the ideological opposition as stupid or evil offers little intellectual space for finding compromise. What’s more, elected officials more concerned with passing purity tests are more likely to grandstand in committee meetings or Congressional speeches rather than spend time actually passing legislation that helps people.
The book offers up some brief recommendations to improve outrage politics, but the authors’ advice seems either too unrealistic or ineffectual to work. It speaks to a remarkable naivete, for instance, when the pair finds it surprising that moderate voices of outrage—an oxymoron if ever there was one—haven’t arisen to counterbalance the left-right narrative. And hoping that a combination of more robust fact-checking and a rollback of relaxed media ownership rules will stem the tide of media anger feels like throwaway ideas with little chance of success.
In the end, what the authors mostly overlook—and we shouldn’t—is what else all this selling of outrage crowds out: legitimate outrage. As Berry and Sobieraj concede, our democracy is a messy and impolitic endeavor, one where righteous anger can be an entirely appropriate response. But all-outrage-all-the-time is enervating, robbing us of a vital tool for checking power or righting a wrong. It’s time we start reclaiming anger for what matters. And though it may sound counter-intuitive, perhaps a good first step to countering all this phony outrage is by directing a healthy dose of the real thing at it.
Anyone insightful of the Middle East knows Arabs are the obstacle to peace with Israel The so-called palestinians have been offered peace dating back to 1937 before they adopted the invented palestinian identity, thru to Bill Clinton's offer in 2000, all rejected.
Instead of lecturing Jews on peace, why don't you go to Gaza & lecture Hamas? Because you're a weak coward & a fraud, which is why you never got anywhere in life. Schmegegge.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Gary Younge: The Unbearable Whiteness of the American Left.
My nation column, “Israel Celebrates a Return to the Status Quo in the Middle East,” is here. I went to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at the Barclay’s Center, but I’m in Spain on vacation with my family, and it’s Passover so you can read about that here. I have nothing to add that would not be mean. Sorry.
Oh, and regarding the Pulitzers, I strongly agree with the choice of The Goldfinch. It’s my favorite novel since Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Give it a try if you have not already.
Can Al Jazeera America Save Cable News?
by Reed Richardson
If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to check out my latest cover story for The Nation. It’s an in-depth look at Al Jazeera America and whether or not the network can redeem what is an increasingly tragic landscape of cable news. (I also wrote a more granular, minute-by-minute comparison of the network's coverage to that of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News on Election Night back in November, if you're interested.)
Notably, right after my story came out, AJAM announced its first layoffs, of a few dozen staffers. While no doubt embarrassing for a network still trying to reach escape velocity, these growing pains aren’t necessarily a bad thing in the long-term. In reporting the story, it was mind-boggling the amount of resources—both full-time staff and freelancers—the network had brought on board for the launch. Ridding itself of some of that temporary, start-up baggage was probably inevitable and wise. So too was the network’s decision to dump its inexplicable devotion to what amounted to token sports coverage, something I noticed (and called out) in my blog post last fall.
Not so encouraging, however, was AJAM’s choice to scale back of its social media-focused half-hour talk show, The Stream, from six times a week to once. Having spent an afternoon watching that show behind the scenes, it seemed to offer a glimpse into a more engaged, democratized future of news discussion, thanks to its hearty use of the show’s hashtag and a second-screen app that deeply integrated viewer Tweets and user-made thirty-second videos into each TV broadcast. Then again, such a web-focused show was perhaps ahead of its time. Though an Al Jazeera English version of The Stream—with different content—is broadcast around the world via the web, AJAM’s edition was blocked by the network to abide by the current licensing rules of US cable providers. Or as the show’s own producers lamented to me, the irony of their situation was not at all lost on them: here in America, The Stream actually doesn’t stream.
Paradoxes like these were the most surprising and tragic elements of the story to me. And while I’m both hopeful for and skeptical of AJAM’s long-term prospects for success, the biggest takeaway in reporting this piece was how inherently problematic and counterproductive the cable TV market can be as a conduit for cable TV news. For example, after the network stubbornly refused to pay for cable carriage for months, AJAM CEO Ehab Al Shihabi acknowledged to me that the network’s recent distribution deal with Time Warner did involve “an incentive plan” (which he nonetheless insisted should not be considered “pay”). But it’s telling that AJAM was willing to bend this far to get onto a cable provider that, while the second-largest in the country, had still lost subscribers for eighteen consecutive quarters as of the start 2014. The proposed Time Warner merger with No. 1-ranked Comcast would no doubt only exacerbate this kind of inverted power dynamic and, as Senator Franken ably put it, be a “disaster” for American consumers.
Given enough time, Al Jazeera America just may be good enough to save cable news, but by the time it does, cable TV itself may not be worth saving anymore.
Reed: After the latest mass shooting on Sunday, this one at a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas by an anti-Semitic, white supremacist, I felt compelled to re-post on Twitter an Altercation column on gun control I wrote not long after the Newtown massacre. It looked at what real gun reform would look like and cost here in the US if we, as a nation, finally decided to confront this self-inflicted health crisis. It prompted this response that I thought worth sharing.
Good article contrasting the different responses towards gun reform between Australia and the US.
Here in Australia there were actually many other massacres prior to Port Arthur. Two occurred here in Melbourne, while another occurred in Sydney. All of these occurred within a ten-year period.
In most every occurrence, Port Arthur included, they were committed by young males with mental health issues with the ability to gain easy access to firearms.
I'm sure the desire to commit these atrocities is there with some young troubled males, however, they are no longer able to gain access to these weapons and therefore the threat has been largely removed. That's not to say it won't occur again, but thankfully it has been almost twenty years since Port Arthur.
It seems that virtually every unfortunate massacre that occurred in the US has been committed by a young troubled male as well so to me that has to be the priority to make it much harder to gain access.
It intrigues me this argument that the criminal element will always have access to these weapons, yes they will, but it is not criminals going around causing massacres, it is troubled young males.
I do hope one day the power of the NRA is reduced and sensible gun reform is passed.
As a father of a young daughter I'm glad to be in a country where she can happily go to school and we don't have to be even remotely worried about anything untoward happening. I sincerely hope that can be the reality over there one day as well.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Peter C. Baker on how turning Kitty Genovese's murder into a parable erased its particulars.
I’ve been travelling, to Jerusalem and back, to Wayne State University in Detroit (and back) and am about to leave for Barcelona and Valencia and so I’ve not seen any music or anything but so dedicated am I to your musical education/edification that I managed to load into my IPod and DVD player, the following:
Looking Into You: A Tribute To Jackson Browne (two CDs) and A MusiCares Tribute To Bruce Springsteen (DVD)
So the Jackson tribute is sure a long time coming. It’s got too many highlights for me to list. Most are pretty much in sync with Jackson Browne-ness without too much tampering. You were not expecting surprises from the likes of longtime Brownites like Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley, Don Henley, J.D. Southerner, etc. Bruce and Patti do “Linda Paloma,” which is kind of crazy, but it works. Lucinda Williams’s “Pretender” is the standout on the CD, but I can’t make up my mind if it’s in a good way or not. Still, there is not enough Jackson Browne music in the world, so this is really nice to have. The Bruce tribute DVD is pretty wide-ranging and your favorites will depend on your tastes. It’s hosted by Jon Stewart and has a pretty amazing tracklist including:
"Atlantic City" Performed by Natalie Maines, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite
"My City of Ruins" Performed by Mavis Staples and Zac Brown
"American Skin (41 Shots)" Performed by Jackson and Tom Morello
"My Hometown" Performed by Emmylou Harris
"Streets of Philadelphia" Performed by Elton John
"Born in the USA" Performed by Neil Young with Crazy Horse
and five songs by Bruce and the band, but no surprises. Excellent quality recording, though.
Any moderate fan will want it, I should think. Also it’s a good organization, so check them out here.
I’ve also been listening to the Legacy edition of the album No Depression, originally released in 1990 and perhaps the founding document of a movement that continues today nearly as vibrant as ever. With this release you get the original album remastered plus twenty-two extraordinary extras, including for the first time on CD, the “Not Forever, Just For Now” demo tape.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was listening to the audio version of “Benjamin Black’s (really John Banville’s) new Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde. It’s pretty good actually, not Chandler, but not crap either. You can read a long review of the novel here from The Guardian. This fellow thinks it’s “an entertaining, note-perfect piece of literary ventriloquism.” Well, ok, I just thought it was pretty good. (But I do agree that it is certainly not “a Robert B Parkeresque fiasco.”)
That’s all. Now here’s Reed:
McCutcheon’s Big Winner: Media Corporations…But Not Journalism
by Reed Richardson
Since last week’s McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, legal scholars and political pundits have spent untold hours examining the Roberts Court’s latest broadside into the already sinking ship of our nation’s campaign finance laws. But half the story has been missing. For all the number crunching of how many extra millions could pour into our elections and for all the strategic predictions of what political groups would enjoy more bequests from billionaires, the discourse failed to look beyond the sources of campaign money to ponder its impact at the destination. If it had, we would have been reminded that the newly attractive "super” joint fundraising committees soon to be coming to a House race near you are but the latest middleman in a political system that is increasingly converting our democracy into a cash-based transaction. What McCutcheon didn’t change, however, is the ultimate benefactor of this SCOTUS-enabled largesse: media companies.
Call it a dirty little secret or an inconvenient truth of journalism. But the fact is, whenever more money is introduced into politics, the last check written with that extra cash usually goes to a corporation that is also in the news business. Before McCutcheon effectively broadened the potential impact of large-scale donations last week, its 2010 forerunner, Citizens United, had deepened it, unleashing a colossal wave of political spending on campaign ads in its aftermath. In 2012, nowhere was this windfall more noticeable (or miserable, if you lived in a swing state) than on local TV stations. All told, $3.1 billion was spent on local TV political ads during the last election cycle, a figure nearly 50 percent higher than in 2010 and more than double the last presidential election in 2008. After having struggled for years, many regional media companies and broadcast TV conglomerates were suddenly flush with cash and enjoying healthy revenues again.
The bottom-line lesson was clearly taken to heart by the big media companies. After such a banner election year, a wave of acquisition and consolidation cascaded through the local TV market in 2013, with major corporations scooping up small and independent stations at a furious clip. According to Pew’s 2014 State of the Media report, an incredible 290 TV stations changed hands last year, in deals worth nearly $9 billion, and what might be called the Citizens United effect was clearly driving these media buying strategies, as Pew explains:
[B]roadcasters are looking to buy stations in politically competitive states. Nexstar cited ‘political advertising activity’ as a major reason it bought two Citadel stations in Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa—a crucial caucus state where presidential campaigns spend millions on TV ads. It picked up two more Iowa stations in a separate deal.
Thanks to McCutcheon, big-spending billionaires can now widen the spectrum of their individual candidate donations far beyond just early primary and battleground states. House and Senate campaigns that might have previously flown under the radar could very well experience their own political arms races now. Raising the stakes in this way means local TV stations across the country may soon enjoy some of the same profit-taking attention from big media companies.
But what’s good for local TV’s bottom line and its parent corporation’s stock price doesn’t necessarily translate into good news for the news audience it purports to serve. Indeed, as more local stations are owned or operated by a few, far-flung major corporations, news is increasingly being rebranded, homogenized, and regionalized. While sharing news resources undoubtedly has benefits, it can also devolve into a parody of news channel independence. As of last year, nearly one-quarter of local TV stations across the country no longer produced any original news content.
To be fair, the past few years have witnessed an across-the-board resurgence in local TV news staffing. Likewise, the local TV market’s newshole now stands at near record highs (thanks mostly to an outbreak of pre-dawn morning news shows). Last year, local stations broadcast 46 percent more hours of weekday news than just a decade ago. No doubt, the flood of campaign ads coursing into local TV station coffers lately has been bankrolling a lot this larger investment in news coverage.
Upon closer inspection, however, these positive developments in TV news are merely the silver lining to a much bleaker reality. That’s because the kind of journalism these media conglomerates are tapping their campaign ad bonanza to pay for isn’t worth very much to our democracy in the long run. As Pew noted in its 2013 annual report:
When data from 2012 is compared with stations studied in 2005 and earlier, the amount of time devoted to edited story packages has decreased and average story lengths have shortened, signs that there is less in-depth journalism being produced. Traffic, weather and sports—the kind of information now available on demand in a variety of digital platforms—seems to be making up an ever-larger component of the local news menu, according to the stations studied in 2005 and 2012. Coverage of politics and government, meanwhile, was down by more than 50%.
By the end of 2012, local TV news was devoting a mere 7 percent of its newshole, on average, to covering politics and government, foreign affairs, science, and healthcare combined. For a twenty-two minute evening news broadcast that amounts to barely ninety seconds of airtime, hardly enough time to do all these issues justice. By contrast, coverage of commodified, ephemeral news topics like weather, traffic, and sports jumped to forty percent of local TV broadcasts. Though it might be tempting to dismiss these editorial decisions or to minimize local TV’s impact overall, this coverage imbalance matters, for several reasons.
For one, local TV news still reaches more Americans—71 percent—than any other platform. So, the whittling down of political coverage to a tiny nub—particularly for local and state races—sends a powerfully corrosive signal to a very large audience. The message: campaigns and elections don’t matter to our news organization, so they shouldn’t matter to you either.
This apathy toward covering the public commons is shameful enough, but it becomes outright negligence in a post-Citizens United and McCutcheon world. By ceding their own airwaves to an onslaught of political messages from dark-money 501(c)(4) groups and supercharged party fundraising committees, local TV stations effectively abandon their own viewers, leaving them to guess what’s true and what’s not in a campaign ad as well as who’s really paying for it. Without transparency and accuracy, though, honest governance becomes practically impossible.
But the greatest danger to journalism lies in the corrosive conflicts of interest that rulings like McCutcheon create for media companies. Fearful of killing the golden goose, these large corporations—and, by extension, their affiliates—have every financial incentive to avoid fact-checking the outlandish claims and investigating the secret funders of the campaign ads their stations are being paid handsomely to run. Perhaps not surprisingly, a 2012 Free Press study, "Left in the Dark," found local TV stations reaping millions in ad revenues in five swing-state media markets were guilty of this very behavior. And the report’s conclusion, as sobering as it is prescient, speaks to the fundamental dilemma that still confronts both broadcast journalism and our country after the McCutcheon ruling:
Democracy requires an informed public. But Americans aren’t getting the news they need. Instead, we have a political system whose players are constantly chasing dollars—a system gamed to a point of dysfunction by wealthy, undisclosed donors and media corporations that are all too content to just cash their checks.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
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My new Nation column is called “How Bill de Blasio Is Being Framed” and the subhed is “The NYC mayor as fumbling amateur: this story writes itself, no facts required.”
Oh and speaking of which, congratulations to me, once again, for being nominated for Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications 2014 Mirror Awards competition honoring excellence in media industry reporting. I was nominated for these three Nation columns:
I mention this now because while I have been nominated something like ten times, including three times in one year once, I’ve only won once. And that was the year before they started making it a cash award. I’m taking the odds that the past has taught me, which is why I figure I better mention it now rather than say, in June, when the actual winners are announced. Anyway, read the columns if you like. They appear, to me at least, to hold up pretty well.
I am in Jerusalem for a conference. John Judis explains a bit about it in this interesting piece.
I don’t have much to say today. I did see a lovely show last week at a nice new venue called Subculture downstairs at the venerable Culture Project in the East Village by the even more venerable John Gorka. It was a solo guitar-and-piano performance, though Gorka is sort of a singer-songwriter with an unmistakable baritone and a fine sense of humor, rather than a musical virtuoso. His Land of the Bottom Line has been one of my favorite albums for a really long time and he’s always putting out clover new songs ever since, though it’s hard to keep track, since he lives in Minnesota and moves around record companies. He’s found a happy home apparently, on Red House records and his new album Bright Side of Down is a keeper, as well. It features Red House label mates Lucy Kaplansky, Eliza Gilkyson, Claudia Schmidt and Michael Johnson. It features eleven original songs and one cover (by his late friend Bill Morrissey, "She's That Kind of Mystery") and it sounds just fine live with the spare accompaniment and Gorka’s friendly, witty patter. Still it’s voice and the intelligence of the songs that shines through. Gorka is way high on my list of people who, if justice ruled the universe, would be a damn site richer and more famous than he is. Alas, that won’t happen, but you can look into his music, either with the new record, or LOTHBL, which, he mentioned, is only available now as a download, sadly for we old fogies. Read all about him here.
Why Obamacare Must Always Be Failing in the Right-Wing Media
by Reed Richardson
For the past four years, one animating belief has bound Republicans and the right-wing media together more so than any other—that the Affordable Care Act is, was, and always will be an irredeemable failure. Though the law’s presumed catastrophic impact—on everything from the economy to the deficit to Obama’s chances for re-election—hasn’t come to fruition, it thrums like an ever-present bass line of outrage on the right. To fall out of step with its march for repeal, even if you’re in the Congressional leadership, is to invite inevitable self-recrimination. At this point, almost any action by Oba
Thus, to Republicans, the admittedly awful rollout of the law’s federal exchange last fall was more of a fulfillment of a long-predicted prophecy rather than the result of a poorly executed policy. To be sure, criticism of the Healthcare.gov’s initial problems was deservedly harsh. And intrepid, honest journalism aimed at holding the government publicly accountable for what went wrong—and that didn’t overlook the other, popular aspects of the ACA—undoubtedly helped push the administration to get faster, better results. Yet, plenty of reporting lacked perspective and amounted to little more than hyperbole. Indeed, the right-wing media—and much of the establishment media with it—could muster up precious little of the patience shown for, say, our previous president’s deadly, years-long quagmire in Iraq when came to assessing the long-term prospects of a government website.
Recall that not even one month after its launch, some conservative pundits were already pronouncing the private exchange market as having entered a “death spiral.” Two months in, the popular trope among conservative-minded critics was to liken the website’s problems to Hurricane Katrina or the Iraq War or, sometimes, both. After nearly three months, the failure to hit the initial enrollment projection was billed as no less than "an intellectual crisis for modern liberalism." In what passes as unremarkable irony for the Beltway, the latter charge came in a Washington Post column written by the former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who helped make the case for invading Iraq by concocting the infamous “first sign of a smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud” line. Speaking of intellectual crises…
Nevertheless, right-wingers clung to the federal exchange’s lower-than-anticipated enrollment numbers as proof of the law’s ultimate insolvency. The market had spoken, went the thinking, and it didn’t want what the president is selling. And it’s true that the private exchange’s inauspicious start triggered a cascading series of lowered expectations and deadline extensions on the part of the White House. But as more and more Americans have since signed up, those same enrollment numbers have become a less convenient cudgel, leaving the right-wing looking for alternate angles of attack.
Like a doomsday cult awkwardly faced with an apocalypse that never materialized, conservatives have resorted to trotting out a variety of other reasons why the law is bound to fail. One favorite tactic: so-called Obamacare horror stories, but time and again these anecdotes have unraveled into incoherence, if not distortion. Then there’s the right-wing media’s “Yes, but…” concern trolling, which has cycled through outright falsehoods like "More people have lost their insurance than gained it," arbitrary disingenuousness á la "Medicaid enrollments shouldn’t count," clerical nit-picking with "Not all of them have paid yet!", and actuarial fear-mongering such as "Not enough young people have signed up!" and "Not enough uninsured have signed up!"
As time has passed, these material objections have slowly wilted under scrutiny. The recent sign-up data has demonstrated that initial payment trends aren’t unexpectedly slow, more than enough young people are signing up, and the uninsured rate is dropping significantly.
Then just this week came a series of stunning, though not entirely unexpected, blows to the right-wing narrative. After six months of lagging behind, a surge of literal, last-minute interest pushed the ACA exchange sign-up figure past the CBO’s original target of 7 million enrollees. Hitting such a milestone is huge symbolically, and represents the closest thing to a public accountability moment like an election the law will ever experience. Couple that success with the fact that 9.5 million previously uninsured Americans have now gained access to healthcare. Moreover, the law’s popularity just hit all-time highs in polls from Fox News and ABC News this past week. (In the latter, the ACA’s favorability broke into net positive territory for the first time ever.) And add in for good measure a recent Kaiser poll that found 60 percent now want to keep or fix Obamacare and only one in ten Americans supports the phony Republican policy of “repeal and replace.”
Just a few months ago, this kind of positive news about the healthcare law would have been unthinkable. And despite the reality, it still is among many on the right. The cognitive dissonance the law’s recent success has foisted upon Fox News, for example, can be downright pitiful. In the past few days, Republicans have likewise retreated into denial about their unraveling Obamacare narrative, much like they did in the run-up to the 2012 election. After months of bashing the White House over the law’s low enrollment numbers, the same GOP critics now dismiss the figures as unreliable and accuse the administration of "lying" and "cooking the books." Desperate for any new way to paint the law in a bad light, right-wing news outlets have been than happy to enable this latest addition to the pantheon of right-wing conspiracy thinking. And so now our democracy must endure the shame of “enrollment truthers” too.
Sadly, this isn’t as surprising as it should be. For essentially all of his first term, President Obama’s imminent defeat in 2012 served as a given for the right-wing media. It was the filter through which all facts had to pass. Bad news for Obama’s re-election bid sped through to the base unheeded. Good news for the president, however, got separated out and either ignored or dismissed as unimportant. An astounding defeat at the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act could thus be spun under the assumption that a GOP Congress and President Romney would soon be repealing the law anyway.
But when that arrogance could no longer explain away mounting evidence to the contrary, Republicans undertook a more active, intellectually dishonest approach. Recall the ridiculous Unskewed Polls movement, which nonetheless gained mainstream Republican legitimacy by randomly reinterpreting presidential poll results to better suit the carefully cloistered worldview of the anti-Obama crowd. (After erroneously predicting a Romney victory, the site’s crackpot founder went on to claim, sans any evidence, that Obama’s five-million vote re-election victory margin was the result of voter fraud.) Nor should we forget the “BLS truthers,” a group of Wall Street conservatives—among them former General Electric CEO Jack Welch—who were convinced that the White House had deviously orchestrated a flattering jobs report in the final days of the 2012 campaign to boost Obama’s re-election chances.
This is the sorry state conservatism has sunk to, feebly deploying boogeymen and tinfoil-hat theories to prop up its soggy arguments and root for others’ misery. Make no mistake, adopting this irrational approach has been a conscious choice. By opting out of good-faith legislative efforts and honest discourse for the past six years, the right has intentionally ceded responsible governance to the president and his party. Will the Affordable Care Act ultimately deliver on all its promises? It’s finally making progress, though it will be years before we truly find out. But it’s important to remember where Republicans and the right-wing media have placed their bets. For them, conservatism's success is defined by the failure of Obamacare, but it’s millions of Americans who would now end up paying the price.
CNN and the Phenomenology—Exactly!
NORAD, and the people who are in charge of discriminating radar blips of a flock of geese from an inbound Russian ICBM attack, use the same term—phenomenology.
They compare data from two separate sources: ground-based radars, and satellites looking for thermal signatures of Russian ICBM's being launched to ensure there are no false-positives.
Journalism is supposed to rely on at least two sources before running a story. What CNN is doing—has been doing for time is not journalism, with no quality-control, the information should be regarded as "for entertainment-use only."
As a psychologist was quoted in a recent NYT article, human beings just can't stand uncertainty, especially if it involves fear or danger, which is why a third of the world was glued to this story.
Cable news divisions are small loss-leading parts of vertically-integrated entertainment conglomerates. Each conglomerate has one; CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc., but they all lose money, compared to “Ice Road Truckers,” duck hunters with beards that look like ZZ Top, and “Dancing with the Stars.” They are under tremendous pressure to entertain eyeballs, to keep advertisers. Which is why I don't have a TV.
I appeared as a satellite imagery analyst on CNN and Fox regarding this oxgyen-sucking time warp. They gave me the lines they wanted me to say, and edited out my main point: that the imagery didn't prove anything, therefore stop speculating.
I should have known better, anyone hearing my words would have thought I confirmed their ridiculous speculation.
Anyway, great article!
Reed replies: Tim, thanks for providing a glimpse of how the cable TV narrative sausage gets made. It only confirms my suspicions. And, for blog readers curious to see for themselves, here are links to Tim’s two, recent Fox News hits (here and here) as well as a transcript that includes his appearance on CNN.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
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Alter-reviews: I got next to nothing this week. I did see a historic "A"-less "ABB" show Saturday night at the Beacon. It was not bad at all, but also weird. Since the last four shows were postponed, it is also one of only two of all time. And I saw a strong Drive By Truckers show Thursday night at Terminal 5 in support of "English Oceans," but I just reviewed the acoustic show at City Winery a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been reading Adam Begley’s new biography of John Updike and listening to The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel by Benjamin Black, read by Dennis Boutsikaris for Macmillan Audio, but I will have to report back later on those. Oh and I should mention the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Workbook, which was great back then, and sounds better now. It’s got a second CD with a 1989 performance at Chicago's Cabaret Metro, and a cover of "Shoot Out the Lights." It’s pretty damn noisy.
Oh and I wanted to recommend another book: Anthony Greco's Chomsky's Challenge to American Power: A Guide for the Critical Reader. As much of pain as Chomskyites are in my life, I do admire much of what the man has done, dishonest as he sometimes is. Here is the blurb I was happy to give Mr. Greco: "Anthony Greco's treatment of Chomsky's role in the intellectual debates of our time is among the most thoughtful, and certainly the most comprehensive I've ever encountered. We are all in his debt for his generous—perhaps overly generous—but still tough-minded and intellectually critical reading both of Chomsky himself and of the work of his critics. His ability to put Chomsky's writings in the context of larger historical debates is also to be greatly admired and appreciated by all who have sought to make sense of the man and his extraordinary (and often infuriating) body of work."
And I’ll be speaking at Wayne State University in Detroit the following week, on April 7th should you live around there.
“The Latest in Expert Speculation”: CNN and the Phenomenology of Breaking News
by Reed Richardson
Much has been made about the white-hot supernova of coverage CNN has devoted to missing Malaysia Air Flight 370 in the past few weeks. And rightfully so. It has been both fascinating and alarming to watch a major cable network flail about so publicly. By focusing so much on a story where so little is known, CNN essentially had to liberate itself from traditional standards of newsworthiness. Over the past two weeks, it’s subjected viewers to cravenly-named "zombie" theories, a shameless over-use of its "breaking news" chyron, numerous instances of model plane-play, as well as fanciful notions that black holes or divine intervention might be at work in the plane’s disappearance.
Undoubtedly, these are low points in TV news. But if I were to nominate one moment as the nadir of CNN’s recent coverage, it would be an online article from this past Saturday. It begins with headline so lacking in institutional self-awareness that I first thought it was an ironic joke—"Flight 370: When facts are few, imaginations run wild." But buried halfway down is this revelatory passage, which just might sum up CNN’s entire journalistic philosophy (and business model) better than any strategy memo or fancy speech by network president Jeff Zucker.
"Those are the facts as we now know them. Anything more is theory, speculation—or pure fantasy. Some scenarios are more plausible than others; some have been debunked, and others have not."
At first, this sounds like a serious news organization warning viewers away from rampant conspiracy theories about Flight 370’s fate. But lest you think CNN has suddenly had a change of heart, it abruptly follows that sentence with a sub-head that is little more than a disclaimer so the network can now wallow in these very same theories:
CNN: We’re out of facts, but we’re not letting that stop us! At least we’re being promised the "latest" wild guesses, as opposed to all those theories that have been proven 100 percent wrong. And, of courses, one of the crackpot explanations the network still gives credence to comes from noted aviation non-expert Rush Limbaugh, whose elaborate shoot-down scenario, though preposterous, is admittedly a bit more plausible than God plucking a Boeing 777 out of the sky. And when CNN starts making Rush Limbaugh sound somewhat reasonable, you know things are askew.
To be sure, CNN hasn’t been alone in gorging on Flight 370 coverage. For its part, Fox News has spent hours and hours on the story and, as might be expected, floated a predictably paranoid terrorist plot as well as it own Biblical analogy while speculating. MSNBC joined in on "breaking" non-news too. And during the middle week of March, all three evening news broadcasts led off with reports on the missing plane for four straight nights.
Nevertheless, CNN has unmistakably led the pack in transforming Flight 370 into an all-encompassing news obsession. This is understandable, in a way. Though it likes to tout itself as between (beyond) the left-right partisan shoals, CNN has struggled mightily to attract regular viewers to its ostensibly objective programming. The network’s ratings have eroded sharply in recent years and its editorial direction has grown increasingly unmoored since MSNBC chose to pursue becoming a liberal counterweight to Fox News on the cable dial. These days, when it isn’t digging old Beltway panel shows like "Inside Politics" and "Crossfire" out of hock, it’s adopting "non-fiction" primetime shows like "Parts Unknown" and "Chicagoland" that would be more at home on a reality TV channel like A&E. All that’s left to rely upon, then, is its breaking news advantage, a vestigial remnant of viewer loyalty from more than a decade ago.
This willingness to fixate on one big story and sensationalize it reflects CNN’s growing embrace of the phenomenology of news. It’s an approach that emphasizes the viewer’s experience of singular news events as much, if not more than, the news itself. Thus, a piece of debris off the coast of Australia may or may not be wreckage from Flight 370, but it gets breathlessly reported on, endlessly speculated about, and quickly absorbed into the story narrative nonetheless, even if it’s later ruled out. Facts matter, sure, but so too do things we think we know. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition of "phenomenology:"
Literally, phenomenology is the study of "phenomena": appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view….
[P]henomenology is given a much wider range, addressing the meaning things have in our experience, notably, the significance of objects, events, tools, the flow of time, the self, and others, as these things arise and are experienced in our life-world.
Smaller online news sites like Circa and Quartz have already formalized a similar idea of treating news in a more holistic and individually-centered approach. In 2012, Quartz global news editor Gideon Lichfield, in a blog post entitled "Goodbye to the Beat," elaborated on his thinking:
So instead of fixed beats, we structure our newsroom around an ever-evolving collection of phenomena—the patterns, trends and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in. ‘Financial markets’ is a beat, but ‘the financial crisis’ is a phenomenon. ‘The environment’ is a beat, but ‘climate change’ is a phenomenon. ‘Energy’ is a beat, but ‘the global surge of energy abundance’ is a phenomenon. ‘China’ is a beat, but ‘Chinese investment in Africa’ is a phenomenon. We call these phenomena our ‘obsessions.’ [emphasis original]
But note these smaller news sites’ obsessions are both more expansive and less ephemeral than cable heavyweight CNN’s transient fascination with one missing jetliner. The news memes above are ongoing phenomena rather than merely breaking news. As such, the former allows for sustained, contextual reporting, the latter demands a surge of ad-hoc coverage. So what does CNN get out of going overboard in such an inefficient manner?
In much the same way that the partisan frame of MSNBC and Fox News offers their regular viewers a clear signal of what to expect, CNN clearly hopes that by obsessing over the latest breaking news story, it offers potential viewers a similar assurance. Erik Wemple, media critic at the Washington Post, defended CNN’s "over-coverage" along these same lines this past Sunday on, coincidentally, that network’s weekly media analysis show, Reliable Sources. He cited both the story’s non-ideological and international nature as sitting right in the network’s purported editorial wheelhouse. Network decision makers—in defending their all-in approach to Flight 370—said the same in a New York Times article:
CNN executives note that critics of the coverage tend to be professional media watchers and that the average viewer may see only a few minutes of the coverage a day. Several CNN executives noted that conversations around water coolers and at dinner parties all over the country had been dominated by the story of Flight 370 and possible explanations for its disappearance.
Another story of the moment, the crisis in Ukraine, has also demanded attention, and while CNN has covered developments there, the senior executive acknowledged newsroom decisions had made to emphasize the plane story over Ukraine coverage. [sic]
In this case, the executive said, the CNN president, Jeff Zucker, who has aggressively steered the network toward committing full resources—and airtime—to continuing stories of intense interest, did not issue a memo telling producers to go wall to wall on the plane story. 'It was understood,' the CNN senior executive said.
'One way to define ourselves is to go all-in on stories of human drama,' the executive said.
In the short bursts, stories of "intense interest" can attract big (for cable) audiences if the public’s curiosity is sufficiently piqued. And there’s little doubt that CNN’s flood-the-zone coverage of Flight 370’s disappearance has drawn in viewers. The first week after the plane went missing, CNN’s primetime flagship show AC360 defeated ratings juggernaut Bill O’Reilly for three straight nights, a first in the show’s history. This triumph echoes ratings surges CNN experienced last year for its obsessive focus on the Boston bombing and the infamous "poop cruise." And yet, as the Times article points out, CNN’s high-visibility coverage on those short-lived news stories failed to translate into long-term success. In fact, the network’s average primetime ratings slid to a twenty-year low in 2013.
This highlights the many perils of CNN’s news-as-phenomenon approach. Only a few news stories genuinely capture the broader public’s attention each year. So, relying upon such a scarce resource for programming and ratings can leave a network fumbling for identity when news is slow. What’s more, long absences between the last and the next big story allow viewing habits to atrophy even further. Over time, this kind of itinerant, all-or-nothing editorial strategy can easily fall victim to the law of diminishing returns.
There’s a moral hazard at work here, as well. A news network increasingly dependent upon big, tent-pole stories for its survival will naturally be tempted to sensationalize ordinary events to suit its own purposes. Case in point, last February, when CNN shamelessly manufactured the "poop cruise" into a feces-obsessed TV spectacle. Looking back at its coverage, you can detect the same desperate, grasping-at-straws tone and B-roll burnout that has colored much of CNN’s Flight 370 coverage since initial reports of the plane’s disappearance became old news.
Even when a major story with facts aplenty does arise, a network in need of the next big thing for ratings can be institutionally inclined to push the envelope, which can lead to gross mistakes. CNN, notably, has committed two embarrassing errors on big breaking news stories—the Supreme Court Obamacare ruling and the Boston Marathon bombing—in the past two years. And the steady barrage of unverified information CNN has passed along this past month with barely a caveat has been frightening. Still, these are but venal journalistic sins when compared to the opportunity cost of CNN choosing to sacrifice much of its coverage of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine upon an altar of hijacking hyperbole and transponder talk.
On Monday, the news saga of Flight 370 took a tragic, but inevitable turn toward denouement. Based on unreleased British satellite tracking data, Malaysian authorities abruptly declared all 239 passengers and crew on board effectively lost at sea in the southern Indian Ocean. Then, a few hours later, the search effort was grounded due to bad weather. With its latest obsession now seemingly winding down, CNN has begun wringing its final few hours of ratings gold out of a mystery that has proven stubbornly resistant to informative journalism. Tellingly, CNN’s final breaking news alerts are, in essence, little changed from its first reports two-and-a-half weeks ago: lots of expert speculation, but no real answers.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
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I was among those who helped to organize a group of academics, most Jewish and mostly liberal but not entirely, to oppose all academic boycotts and threats to freedom of discourse when it comes to discussions of the Middle East. We even oppose boycotts of people who like boycotts. Here is a short news story and here is the statement and list of those so far involved.
I saw no shows this week except the Allman Brothers Band, who were much improved from the previous weekend, I’m guessing, due to the presence of David Rudd in the audience.
As far as new stuff goes, I got two dual-film SD Blu-rays this week, Joni Mitchell’s Woman of Heart and Mind + Painting With Words and Music and Lou Reed’s Classic Albums: Transformer + Live At Montreux 2000. They have been re-issued in upscaled standard definition with uncompressed stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound. The Joni package is pretty great. The 1998 concert filmed on the Warner’s lot is relaxed and intimate and Joni is in particularly good humor. The documentary is just fine. The Lou Reed package is for Lou fanatics, I’m guessing. The documentary is entirely about Transformer. And the concert is largely devoted to his 2000 album Ecstasy, which is not a terribly significant Lou album. But if you miss him, it will make you feel better.
Also, just about out from Sony Legacy is Miles at the Fillmore—Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3, a four-CD box set recorded just two months after the release of Bitches Brew in April 1970. This is an expanded, remastered edition of the two-LP set Miles Davis At the Fillmore, which consisted of performances from the four nights of shows at the Fillmore East (where Miles opened for Laura Nyro). Now they’ve got 100-plus minutes of previously unreleased music all of it sounding better. The three additional bonus tracks add another thirty-five minutes of music, recorded in April 1970, at the Fillmore West where Miles was on the same bill as the Dead.
There’s a thirty-two-page booklet that accompanies the box set provides a context for Miles’ new sound, with an essay by Michael Cuscuna, who was a first-hand witness (as a disc jockey for WPLJ-FM.) The band is Chick Corea on electric piano, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette (all of whom had been at the core of the Bitches Brew sessions recorded in August 1969), plus tenor and soprano saxophonist Steve Grossman, and percussionist, flutist and vocalist Airto Moreira, with Keith Jarrett on organ and tambourine at the Fillmore East. It’s an extraordinary document of a crazy time and some unique music making. But it’s also a matter of taste. I keep trying to stay for the ride, but I get off the bus after "Bitches’ Brew." Those who stayed with Miles to the end will love this thing.
Republican Vaporware: Four years later, the GOP Still Isn’t Serious About Replacing Obamacare
by Reed Richardson
Perhaps no issue illustrates the modern Republican Party’s policy nihilism than its phony promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Four years ago, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law and ever day since then—as well as most of the year leading up to it—the GOP has taken every opportunity to object to, fear-monger against, or openly sabotage the law. How shamelessly lopsided is this effort? Earlier this month, House Republicans surpassed the half-century mark in repeal votes, without ever having moved a single ACA replacement plan out of committee. For a party that opposes everything done by government, there's little interest in the old political adage ‘you can’t beat something with nothing.'
This isn’t to say the Republicans don’t pretend to have alternatives to Obamacare. They too have realized that only a small minority of the public has any interest in going back to the pre-ACA status quo. (A Commonwealth Fund survey from 2010 found more than 70 percent of Americans wanted “fundamental changes” or “completely rebuil[ding]” of the US healthcare system) As a result, the party occasionally rolls out a “new” alternative plan to Obamacare, as they did this week, to avoid charges of hypocrisy. And as usual, the use of the term “plan” is more than generous. For, as this Washington Post curtain-raiser explains, the latest replacement amounts to little more than regurgitated dogma and recycled policy boilerplate. Among the highlights of this latest stab by the GOP at serious, legislative gruntwork were these:
“…House leaders will begin to share a memo with lawmakers outlining the plan…”
“The Republicans’ plan is hardly intended as a full replacement of the federal health-care law…”
“…vetting suggestions over long lunches… The group has met once every two weeks…”
“…the early outline is a blend of four previous GOP bills…”
“…will provide members with a PowerPoint presentation on the GOP plan and will later hold sessions to collect feedback on how the recommendations went over at town hall meetings…”
So yes, four years on, House Republicans are still putting about as much intellectual effort into replacing Obamacare as they might for, say, planning a surprise farewell party for a beloved co-worker. Still, this Kabuki show serves its main political purpose: providing the GOP with a simplistic, chimerical policy it can present to the public while simultaneously attacking the admittedly complex, real-world ACA. In the world of software development a magical idea like this—one that will solve all your problems but that has no chance of coming to fruition—has a name: vaporware. And whether this kind of disingenuous marketing takes place in Silicon Valley or on Capitol Hill, the press has a duty to call it out for the phony, disingenuous marketing that it is.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Microsoft has long been accused of being one of the biggest abusers of vaporware. In fact, charges that the company was distorting the marketplace with vaporware led a federal judge to overturn Microsoft’s 1995 antitrust settlement with the Justice Department. In the decision, Judge Stanley Sporkin concluded that these bad-faith efforts on the part of Microsoft—which he said only served to unfairly stifle competition and distort the choices facing consumers—ran counter to the “public interest.”
Part of the press’s job is to ensure that the same fate does not befall our democracy’s marketplace of ideas. All too often, however, the DC press corps rewards the GOP’s transparent grandstanding on Obamacare with naïve credulity. How else to explain the aforementioned WaPo article drawing this conclusion: “A complete health-care overhaul remains the GOP’s overarching goal.” On what basis can a reasonable person, let alone a political journalist, conclude this? That might be what a high-level House Republican says, but all the evidence of what the party has done since 2010 contradicts this.
Indeed, to closely revisit the GOP’s previous proposals for replacing Obamacare is to be reminded of how shockingly inadequate each of them has been. The first iteration of these, a 2009 GOP House amendment to the ACA, was so poorly conceived it would have increased the number of uninsured Americans by two million over ten years. At the same time, this plan would have fallen nearly $40 billion short of the deficit savings achieved by Obamacare. This embarrassing outcome apparently proved so traumatic that the GOP has notably refused to submit any of its subsequent Obamacare replacement plans for CBO analysis. Of course, not subjecting their own ideas to independent analysis hasn’t stopped them from grossly misrepresenting other CBO reports on the ACA’s mostly positive, long-term impact.
Nor has it has stopped the Republicans from trying to finagle the CBO’s imprimatur by other means. Take, for instance, Georgia Congressman Tom Price, who has repeatedly pushed a fantastical healthcare reform scheme that offers stingier subsidies and then refuses to raise any taxes to pay for even these meager benefits. Though this is the kind of unapologetic deficit spending President Reagan might have loved, it’s a deal-breaker for a Republican Party that now willingly shuts down the government. Thus, Price’s plan hasn’t even made it out of subcommittee in the GOP-friendly confines of the House. There’s always a way around an inconvenient truth for conservatives, however. In Price’s case, it involves arranging an unrealistic, back-of-the-envelope estimate of deficit savings from a former CBO director-turned-conservative think-tanker, and then letting the right-wing media misrepresent that wild guess as having been "measured by the CBO."
The other Obamacare alternative plans on offer mostly dredge up tired conservative shibboleths: standard tax deductions for healthcare costs, medical malpractice reform, expanded Health Savings Accounts and selling insurance across state lines. As health policy experts Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll have detailed, the Republican Study Committee’s "grab bag of old ideas" would do little to make healthcare more accessible or affordable for most Americans and almost nothing to address the millions of uninsured. No matter, Politico was ready and willing to give anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist space in its magazine to tout the RSC plan as "a host of smart reforms."
To be clear, this isn’t about stifling dissent. It’s about encouraging the press to take an active role in critically assessing how the motives of the two political parties line up with respect to Obamacare. This is especially germane since it’s becoming increasingly clear that the future of the law will be the seminal issue of the 2014 mid-term elections. Though a strong majority of the public now supports a “keep and fix” approach to the law, the GOP’s ongoing neglect of any serious healthcare reform betrays its preference—for demagoguing rather than legislating. Ordinarily, this obstructionism would spell electoral doom. But if the press willingly plays along with the “replace Obamacare” charade, the public just might not notice the difference. And Republicans just might find that, in the end, they really can beat something with nothing.
Las Vegas, NV
One for Dr. A., one for Dr. R.
Excellent piece from The Nation on how Republicans (and, lest we forget, their media toadies) have sung this song about Russia before. Thus, two points. One, read Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. If the Republican Party has not been trying to destroy this country, what has it been doing? You have noted the January 20, 2009, meeting in which Republicans agreed to oppose everything the president proposed. If these people are not at least indictable and prosecutable for treason, then what are they? Two, in honor of his saying that it isn't the media's job to report on the falsehoods spread about Obamacare, but rather it's the president duty to correct them, I coined a term for beltway media: chucktodds. You are welcome to use it because it is very apt. And don't forget their rear-kissers around the country when you do.
Reed, I am an almost lifelong Nevadan and have written a great deal about Harry Reid. Years ago, I did a piece for salon.com about how Dubya actually coined a good word because it perfect describes Reid: he's misunderestimated. He didn't change the Senate rules because he couldn't until he had the votes; then he did. Anything that has passed that has been truly useful has had to be done over united Republican opposition in the Senate, and it is Reid who has done it.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Nation in the News: If Democrats Want to Win in 2014, They’ll Need a Real Economic Agenda.
My new Nation column is called "The Right Loses It Over Russia—Again" and it notes that "Conservative hysteria over Putin's aggression in 2014 is eerily reminiscent of right-wing reaction to a previous Crimean adventure, at the dawn of the Cold War.
Spring Quartet at Rose Hall
Reed and I did not post last week so I have a number of shows to discuss. Two of them took place at Jazz@Lincoln Center. The first was a show of the Spring Quartet at Rose Hall featuring drummer and composer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Leo Genovese and bassist/vocalist, Esperanza Spalding. The warm-up was Cecile McLorin Salvant and she was wonderful. It’s the second time I’ve seen here at Rose Hall and each time, her goofy sartorial style threatens to overwhelm one’s impression of her but then she starts to sing and the beauty, self-discipline and intelligence of her delivery causes a feeling of near-hypnosis. This was completely uncaptured on the one CD she put out but the way she re-interprets songs you thought you never needed to hear again is awe-inspiring. And in such a large hall at such a young age, well, wow.
As for the headliners, they were a real band despite the generational divide separating the veterans DeJohnette and Lovano from the youngsters, Genovese and Spalding. They communicated wordlessly and mostly effortlessly, switching around on instruments on occasion. It required one to pay really close attention to appreciate this communcation and catch the threads that connected the musicians and the throughts they were articulating—a big risk in such a big hall. This is not a criticism but it is a contrast however, with the alleged opener, who simply commanded that attention.
Jim Caruso's Cast Party
A week later, I returned to Jazz@Lincoln Center, this time to the beautiful Appel Room, which is the Allen Room renamed in honor of a multi-million dollar gift, and for a show called "Jim Caruso’s Cast Party." Apparently, this show has been running for ten years at Birdland where it is more of a spontaneous thing and probably benefits from the alcohol being served, but boy was it fun the night I saw it.
Caruso is an old-fashioned, old-New York cabaret entertainer and, together with the pianist Billy Stritch, they hosted a truly wonderful set of singers on songs from old movies as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. They were joined by dancer Jeffry Denman, singers Natalie Douglas, Clarke Thorell, Jane Monheit, the wonderfully funny and evocative impressionist Christina Bianco, and the legend, Marilyn Maye.
There were too many highlights to even begin to do justice to them. Bianco’s vocal parodies of divas from Shirley Bassey to Ethel Merman to Babs to Adele were hysterical and powerful at the same time. And what a thrill it was to hear Maye, at 85, at the top of her game showing everybody else how it’s done but with a generosity of spirit and power in her voice.
The next American Songbook show will be Mark Mulcahy on March 19 at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. I learned about him on a really fascinating Terry Gross interview and I plan to try to check him out as well.
I also made two trips to City Winery last week. The first was a small show to celebrate the release of the Drive-By Truckers twelfth album, “English Oceans” on ATO. I don’t know why it’s called that. It’s a pretty silly name for an album from a band from Alabama, if you ask me. It’s the first one that’s come out since ex-DBT Jason Isbell put out his terrific album and if I were in the DBTs, I might consider it a challenge. If so, it was met in “English Oceans” in which dreamboat hillbilly Mike Cooley steps up and writes half the album with Patterson Hood, on whose shoulders one would have expected the band to rest.
Hood and Patterson did this show on their own for an WFUV broadcast, though at one point they thanked WFMU. It was especially intimate because you had to skip the Oscars to see it. And after they played the album, they came back for a few DBT classics and a splendid time was had by all. The album, as always, is pretty great too.
A few days later, I got to see the Cowboy Junkies again. What a combination of depression and exhilaration this band is. Margo Timmons can turn any room into her living room and share stuff with the audience as if we were really friends. I’ve been seeing this band for nearly thirty-years and they have grown so mature and knowing it’s kind of wonderful and kind of weird. Their music is hypnotic and works best when it’s familiar—which is part of the reason their covers are almost always so great. The shows were divided between their recent “Nomad Series” along with their excellent rock opera, “The Kennedy Suite,” about the JFK assassination. It’s an odd, impressive piece of work, odder still when you consider how Canadian the musicians all are. The second set featured Margo talking about Bruce and growing up with him and then singing “Thunder Road”—which I was ready to never hear again as long as I live but which made me tear up the way she sang it.
Allman Brothers Band
Last and definitely not least, you may have heard that the mighty, mighty, but about to be deceased Allman Brothers Band have begun their final fourteen shows at the Beacon Theater last weekend. I saw Saturday night’s show and plan to see the next three Saturday nights as well. Come say hello if you’re there. If you’re not there—or when it’s finally, tragically, over, you can watch a new release of the September, 1991, Japanese TV show, “Live At Great Woods” show from the relatively brief Dickie Betts/Warren Haynes/Allen Woody era with a nice acoustic set in the middle. It’s much better than the crappy version I’ve been watching before this one came out, but unfortunately there’s no Blu-ray. The band has also released a two-CD set “Play All Night: Live At The Beacon Theatre 1992.” This is the same band as above, and I found it weird that they would pick this show since the Warren Haynes/Derek Trucks version of the band is not only the present (about to end) one but also one of the greatest musical ensembles since the great Miles Davis bands and given the fact that they record every show, and are so frequently joined by special guests—the two Clapton Beacon shows are as good as blues guitar ever gets—going back to Dickie’s era is weird especially since Greg gives every impression of hating the guy.
Two possible explanations: 1992 was the beginning of their extended run of shows, now topping off at 234. Second, some of this stuff is really standout, even compared to the zillions of version you’ve already heard. I was actually taken aback upon hearing it for the first time. Finally, Alan Paul has just published an oral history of the band called One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. These guys play a hell of a lot better than they talk, and so I would have thought it was only of interest to obsessives likes yours truly but lo and behold, it’s number ten on the NYTBR best seller’s list, so that shows you how wrong you can be.
Rhino's Little Feat Box Set
Finally, finally, the box set of the week is Rhino’s Little Feat extravaganza:
"Rad Gumbo: The Complete Warner Bros. Years 1971-1990," which is thirteen CDs, including nine studio albums between 1971 and 1990 plus “Waiting for Columbus” and two CDs of outtakes that appeared on the previous box set and pretty reasonably priced for all that. The last box set—"Hotcakes & Outtakes: 30 Years of Little Feat,” which was four CDs released by Rhino in 2000—was pretty great but it spent a little too much time on the post Lowell George period, which is fine if you just want to go “join” the band live but can not stand up to the genius of the period that made the band a staple of pretty much every intelligent record collector’s collection throughout the seventies. George had a fatal heart attack in 1979, so as good as Hotcakes was, it’s good to have everything in one place. Little Feat was to the seventies as The Band or the Birds were to the sixties—an influence that helped to define an entire genre, and what a fun genre it was.
The box includes:
Little Feat (1971)
Sailin' Shoes (1972)
Dixie Chicken (1973)
Feats Don't Fail Me Now (1974)
The Last Record Album (1975),
Time Loves a Hero (1977)
Waiting For Columbus - Live (1978)
Bonus Disc from Waiting for Columbus: Expanded Edition
Down On the Farm (1979)
Let It Roll (1988)
Representing the Mambo (1990)
Outtakes from Hotcakes and Outtakes (2000)
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema
And finally, finally, finally, the reason March in the city has been great in the past is not only the Allmans at the Beacon but also the annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I did not make it to any of the press screenings this year and so have only had the chance to see three films so far: Sébastien Betbeder’s clever debut, “Nights With Theodore,” Nicole Garcia’s “Going Away” and Katell Quillévéré’s haunting and painful “Suzanne.” All were worthwhile in particular ways, but I mention them, not only because if you’re in town, you should check out the schedule, but because after “Suzanne,” which ends with a Nina Simone version of the song, Quillévéré explained that she was inspired to write the story after seeing Leonard in concert three years ago and it was so powerful an experience she took it with her and made a movie out of it. The movie is not the song, of course, but I’ve felt similarly rapturous about the three LC shows I’ve seen since the great man returned to performing, and I find it kind of wonderful that seeing him perform—just about the most religious experience I’ve ever had—inspires others to create art in their own lives and work.
Nuclear-Option Fallout: Better Democracy, Same Old Media
by Reed Richardson
When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid exercised the “nuclear option” last November, there arose a chorus of howls from the DC establishment. By daring to allow executive branch appointments and judicial nominees—but not for the Supreme Court—to be advanced with a bare majority rather than a 60-vote threshold, Reid was accused of no less than coarsening American democracy. Weighing in on Fox News, the Beltway’s Archbishop of High Dudgeon, George Will, minced no words:
“‘The founders knew that democracy had to be more than counting noses, more than simply adding up majorities. They had to come up with a way to measure intensity, which the filibuster does,’ Will said. ‘It's a sad day for what used to be a great deliberative body.’”
Not surprisingly, the same people who poured out their collective outrage at Reid’s alleged transgression were also conveniently uninterested in explaining how the world’s greatest deliberative body had been reduced to farce thanks to unprecedented Republican obstruction. This “intensity” that filibusters supposedly measured, which Will and other pundits championed, had long since been perverted into an anti-democratic cudgel deployed at the whim of individual Senators. Since the GOP couldn’t defeat President Obama at the ballot box, they instead chose to wage a guerrilla war of attrition on his choices to run our government. And aiding and abetting these efforts has been an establishment media that routinely disappearsthe word “filibuster” from its news reports.
Four months later, the impact of invoking the nuclear option is becoming clear, although you don’t hear much about it in the press—possibly because it’s proving to be a boon for our government. After years of unnecessary brinksmanship, the Senate is finally starting to consistently address the dangerous backlog of judicial vacancies, having approved 16 federal judges since November. Nevertheless, the number of nationwide vacancies still stands at 89. (Of note: 35 of those vacancies are classified as “judicial emergencies,” 32 of which arose since Obama took office in 2009.) Seemingly buoyed by this potential for progress, the White House—which, to be fair, has been dreadfully slow in identifying nominees—has put forward a record-high 64 nominations since the beginning of the year.
But at what cost to the Senate’s storied tradition is this post-nuclear option efficiency? One example of what we’ve “lost”: Last week 41 Republican Senators opposed the nomination of Pedro Delgado Hernandez, Obama’s judicial nominee to the federal district court of Puerto Rico, in what would have been a successful filibuster last October. Instead, the Democrats easily invoked cloture and his nomination moved ahead to a final vote. There, Hernandez narrowly won approval, squeaking by in a vote of 98–0. That’s right, a judge that just passed with unanimous Senate approval would have been filibustered without the nuclear option.
In a nutshell, this episode captures how broken the Senate had become and how worthwhile the nuclear option has proven to be. In short, it has rekindled the promise of responsible Senate governance. Hernandez’s case is not isolated either, as more than half of the 13 District Court nominations approved since December have garnered 90-plus votes, and all but one of those has passed with filibuster-proof margins. Who knows how many of these clearly qualified candidates would have been otherwise held up simply because of Republican spite? Just a hunch, but I think I know which interpretation of the Senate's rules the Founders would find objectionable. (This is, of course, after someone explained to them what a filibuster is in the first place, since it’s not to be found in the Constitution.)
The risks of a short-staffing the upper echelons of our executive branch also came to the fore last week as the situation in Ukraine reached crisis level. At a moment when the international community confronted a cross-border incursion by a nuclear state, it was notable that, after more than 500 days, the Senate still hadn’t approved the White House’s permanent pick for Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security. As this Carnegie Endowment analysis found, the primary objection—from Sen. Marco Rubio—to Rose Gottemoeller’s nomination had all the shameless hallmarks of “extreme partisanship.” Tired of the GOP’s endless stonewalling and prompted by the pressing need to fill a key diplomatic post, last week the Senate finally approved Gottemoeller 58-42, thanks, again, to the nuclear option.
These long overdue exercises in government functionality don’t mean the Senate is merely a rubber stamp on everything Obama wants, however. Despite the histrionic posturing of the all-access-filibuster crowd, the unfortunate tradition of keeping qualified executive branch candidates languishing in the Senate nonetheless continues by other means. In fact, more than 50 ambassadorial nominees—including those for nations like Canada and Saudi Arabia—are now stuck in the Senate awaiting confirmation votes. The reason? Brazen GOP payback for Reid’s nuclear option. Or, as Republican Senator Lamar Alexander whined to the Washington Post, much like a bully trying to justify his misbehavior after the victim finally retaliates:
“If Senator Reid hadn’t manufactured a crisis and changed the rules, this wouldn’t have happened…He brought this all on himself, and it’s all his fault.”
One might think the DC press corps would see right through such a childish, transparently false excuse. No such luck. Indeed, last Thursday, Politico penned what might be an instant classic in their missing-the-damn-point oeuvre, entitled: “Harry Reid has no apologies.” Though it sounds like it might engage in a sober examination of what the nuclear option has wrought in terms of improved governance, instead this “analysis” mostly offers Republicans a platform to bash Reid as dictatorial and Putin-like as well as lacking in leadership. (Which is it, fellas? I thought Putin was your party’s idea of a strong leader?) And you know the game is fixed when the authors trot out GOP claims like this with nary a hint of irony or pushback:
“Reid’s hardball tactics and coarse rhetoric have quickly made him perhaps the most reviled politician among conservatives. And in Washington, Republican senators say it has only helped tear down an institytion meant to foster bipartisanship. McConnell and the GOP are vowing to return order to the Senate if they regain the majority this fall.” [emphasis mine]
“Foster bipartisanship,” of course, being a favorite term in the DC vernacular, akin to “compromise,” which means “doing whatever Republicans want, all of the time.” But most outrageous about what Politico does here is the naïve narrative it pushes about the GOP’s disingenuous plans for the Senate if it were to take back the chamber in this year’s mid-term elections. In fact, just three days before this story came out, the New York Times talked to none other than Mitch McConnell about this very topic:
“As he looks ahead to the possibility of leading the Senate, Mr. McConnell is promising a more open floor, with senators from both parties able to offer amendments. He says committees would be given more independence and authority to advance legislation. While he would not commit to reversing the limit Democrats put on filibustering White House nominees last November, he said the idea would be on the table if Republicans took charge. [emphasis mine]
"On the table," LOL, as the kids say. Yep, Mitch McConnell is “vowing” to stand up and, well…kinda, sorta, possibly consider reversing the nuclear option. Maybe. Who can say? Certainly not Mitch, even though it would likely be up to him and him alone. No matter, I’m quite sure that when the Republicans do eventually retake the Senate and, predictably, choose not to undo the nuclear option, the press will readily accept whatever explanation given without any uncomfortable questions about legislative tyranny or party hypocrisy. Who knows, maybe that’s what it will take for our media to finally figure out that the nuclear option was good for our democracy after all.
Good morning, Dr. Richardson!
I enjoyed your article about big media falling for hoaxes over and over again (man, that is some toilet!!). As far as I have been able to tell, even the major TV news stations and papers no longer fact check. That went the way of copy editing and simple spelchek. [Edit: I see what you did there.]
But seriously, while you are justifiably concerned about the impact of easy foolability on journalism and journalists, the impact on the public is also unfortunate. With our news being wrong on so many things, big and small, it becomes easy to justify selecting only the factoids that you WANT to believe, and disregarding the rest as "probably wrong again."
Or tuning out the news entirely and navigating purely by your gut and coffeeshop conversations with the like-minded.
Reed replies: I’m often tempted by your suggestion, but as a media critic, tuning out the news entirely presents something of a professional hazard. And I’m taking it as a compliment, but, for the record, I don’t have a PhD.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Nation in the News: Katrina vanden Heuvel discuss the crisis in Ukraine on MSNBC.
My new Nation column is called "Whodunit? Liberals?" (From celebrity deaths to the crisis of the middle class, it's all their fault.)
1) Maude Maggart at the Café Carlyle
I fell in (unrequited) love with Maude Maggart many years ago when she would make regular appearances at the Algonquin Hotel. That much-lamented space is no longer and now Maude has made the move uptown and eastward to the rarified confines of the Café Carlyle, where she made her debut on Tuesday night. As Maude has gotten older, she has grown more confident, more charming, more beautiful and her voice richer and more controlled. Working both in the (helpfully) pedagogical mode of Andrea Marcovicci, Maude is wonderful both at discovering previously unknown gems and giving her audience mini-lessons on their historical (and often times) emotional context. But she is also all about her wild family. She does not mention her famous sister, Fiona Apple, but she is enthralled by her grandmother, a Ziegfeld girl, who, at 65, married a “toad” thirty years her junior, her grandfather, a big-band vocalist and saxophonist, and her parents, who met during a 1970 Broadway run of Applause. (I love the way she talks about her dad.)
Tuesday night’s performance began with three songs from black and white movies about the middle period between falling in love and being in love. Many of her stories focused on the antics of her grandmother and some of the more colorful friends of her father. She closed the formal set with one of the most beautiful renditions of Over the Rainbow I’ve ever heard and then came back for some Irving Berlin to a deliriously appreciative audience. Maude will be at the Café for the rest of the week. If you’re not in the city—and rich (the cover is $70)—you can pick up her new CD Speaking of Dreams, which will be released on April 8. Her previous ones are here.
2) Bobfest 30th Anniversary Show—Rerelease on Blu-ray, DVD and CD
It sure took a while but we finally have a hi-def video version (with remastered audio) of the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration on Blu-ray, DVD and CD. The former two include forty minutes of previously unreleased material including behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage, interviews, etc.
The concert took place on October 16, 1992 at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bob Dylan's first Columbia Records album. It began with the worst version of Like A Rolling Stone by John Mellencamp and a woman who wouldn’t stop screaming, of all time. It had a lot of filler and crappy versions of songs designed to plug CBS artists too. But much of it was just sublime.
Among the performers were Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Lou Reed, The Clancy Brothers, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, George Harrison (then making his first US concert appearance in eighteen years) and many, many more. Just some of the highlights include:
It Ain't Me Babe - June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash
Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues - Neil Young
All Along the Watchtower - Neil Young
Love Minus Zero/No Limit - Eric Clapton
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right - Eric Clapton
You Ain't Goin Nowhere - Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Rosanne Cash and Shawn Colvin
Absolutely Sweet Marie - George Harrison
My Back Pages - Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison (which is one of the greatest bands ever assembled and an absolutely wonderful performance. It even made it onto my funeral play list.)
I don’t see how you can live without it. Info on the “Deluxe Edition” is here.
3) Johnny Winter Four-CD Box Set
Johnny Winter also played at Bobfest. People I know tell me that Winter is among the greatest guitarist they’ve ever seen and perhaps the most underrated. Sony Legacy is seeking to strengthen this argument with a new four-CD box set that collects fifty-six tracks from twenty-seven albums on a gazillion different labels as well as previously unreleased live cuts from 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival and other places.
True To The Blues: The Johnny Winter Story also includes performances, with Winter, by Michael Bloomfield, Dr. John, Willie Dixon and Walter “Shakey” Horton, Muddy Waters and his band featuring James Cotton, “Pinetop” Perkins, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, among many others.
Journalism’s Real Hoax Problem
by Reed Richardson
On Saturday, as the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine was unraveling and opposition protestors began overrunning the presidential palace, one damning detail of the deposed president’s excess spread like wildfire across the Internet. It was a photo of his toilet, a regal-like throne covered in resplendent, jewel-like tiles and adorned with sculpted lion’s heads. Among other photos of Yanukovych’s faux Spanish galleon restaurant, vintage car collection, personal zoo, and golf course, the garish commode succinctly spoke to the oligarchic corruption fueling the opposition’s outrage. There was only one problem: the toilet retweeted around the world by thousands of people—including former New York Times editor and current Mashable executive editor Jim Roberts, actually sits inside a two-bedroom apartment in Cyprus. (If you care to see Yanukovych’s actual toilet, gold feet and all, check out #29 in this photo array.)
Halfway across the world in Venezuela, similarly violent anti-government protests are still taking place. And though Venezuela’s President Maduro threatened some independent press outlets, including CNN, over their supposed anti-government coverage and temporarily shuttered some social media sites, plenty of reports about the protest still got out. They, too, came with their share of bogus elements. As this CNN slideshow documents, several popular (and graphic) images of the Venezuela conflict widely distributed online were, in fact, lifted from other recent street protests in Bulgaria, Chile, Syria and Brazil.
Of course, major news stories have always been shadowed by exaggeration, rumor, and conspiracy. (A crazy, 9/11 Truther still thought it necessary to crash the most recent Super Bowl’s post-game press conference.) But these days, anyone with a smartphone and a social media account can be both a reporter and publisher with a potentially instantaneous global reach. Not coincidentally, almost every big breaking news event now occasions fake photos or fabricated storylines that can metastasize across the Internet long before the truth gets sorted out. That a few bad actors might exploit this new technology to exaggerate or manipulate isn’t surprising given human history. That a gullible public might unwittingly magnify their impact isn’t surprising given human nature. Together, they create a fertile ground for perpetrating hoaxes on the media, which presents an increasingly thorny dilemma for modern journalism: How to embrace an increasingly egalitarian ethos of newsgathering without undermining the press’s integrity and legitimacy in the long term?
This is particularly important since the value proposition many news organizations now cling to—having lost their monopoly on distribution—is one of trusted authority. We check the facts, we talk to the sources. Unlike some random, anonymous Twitter account where you’re liable to get the equivalent of news placebos, a worldwide news network like CNN, the thinking goes, is a reliable source precisely because of its professional adherence to standards, its infrastructure, its institutional history.
One obvious way of demonstrating your newsroom’s journalistic rigor is to not fall for hoaxes in the first place. CNN has been doing that with its user-generated iReports from Venezuela—of the 2,700 submissions it received last week, it could confirm less than five percent. And yet, CNN and others proved once again this past week that they’re also not impervious to the irresistible allure of a clickbait hoax. To be fair, it wasn’t alone, as more than thirty news outlets jumped all over a radio morning show prank that had suburban Atlantans protesting Justin Bieber’s potential move into the city. This embarrassing episode for journalism came on the heels of another successful hoax—perpetrated by ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel—about a wolf prowling the Sochi Olympic Village dorms. That one took in esteemed news outlets like New York Magazine and The Washington Post. (To be fair, ABC News seems to have known about this stunt ahead of time and kept quiet; not exactly ethical behavior.)
It’s easy to brush off these lapses in due diligence as inevitable or inconsequential. No news organization is perfect, after all. They all get things wrong from time to time. But that lets the press off too easy. For it really does matter when the same “share first, check later” mentality that social networks get dinged for starts to seep into so-called establishment journalism. It’s indicative of a longstanding problem plaguing the professional media here in the U.S. as well as around the world: a nagging credulity.
There’s a thread that connects a blithely rebroadcasted snippet of dubious Justin Bieber news to larger transgressions, however. The Beltway media’s negligence in vetting the Bush administration’s Iraq WMDs claims might be considered the biggest and most tragic hoax of our generation. More recently, the mainstream press has taken to dutifully repeating the latest horror story trotted out about ObamaCare. Time and again, these tales have proven to be misleading at best and outright lies at worst. Much like a phony photo on Twitter that’s impossible to remove, these false narrative-reinforcing stories simply can’t be corrected with as much verve as they were originally promoted. So, when one political party embraces an alternate universe that thrives upon doctored reality, a media hidebound by objectivity becomes their helpful accomplice.
In the end, a tragic irony results. The very same naïveté and carelessness that the powerful rely upon to manipulate the press is likewise used as proof that the press isn’t deserving of broad protection to do its job. This can stratify the press and leave strong accountability journalism in the hands of an increasingly cloistered group. Case in point, the DOJ’s recently released guidelines for requesting records or surveilling the press. Its constant reference to “members of the news media” comes across as extremely establishment focused and suggests a very circumscribed approach to who the government considers worthy to be called a journalist. This is especially troubling after DNI Clapper’s recent Congressional testimony suggested “freelance journalists” could be considered “accomplices” rather than Constitutionally protected members of the fourth estate.
The responsibility to the truth should always be paramount to the press. Given the enhanced ability of anyone to find and broadcast the truth these days, however, a more open, transparent approach to how and where we get the news is necessary. But as we define out who journalists might be, we can’t define down what journalism really is, lest we find our country again falling victim to a great big hoax.
High Point, NC
Thank you for your thoughtful, well-written truth [“Ted Cruz is Trolling Congress”]. I so agree with you. And while your colleagues in the fourth estate continue to fail miserably at their jobs, at least you have taken the time to discuss Cruz' depravity and its frightening impact on American governance. He's a truly despicable human being and he knows it. Once again, thank you. I really appreciated your article.
Thank you so much for stating the truth about journalism in this day where lies are never corrected. The people don't know what's really wrong with our country, or they think they do because they watch Fox News. Wouldn't be wonderful if news show made sure it was true. If some lied like Ted he couldn't get away with and the papers too. The news would be such a treat and so much fun real reality! Thanks again.
Ted Cruz is ten-times smarter than you midgets - fact!
You are the political status quo...schiffer is the status quo...Obama is the status quo....bush is the status quo. You're all owned by elite bankers and oil corporations that really run this country.
Ted cruz is the first man to threaten the status quo and you people all feel threatened. You're exposed.
Reed replies: Dan, I agree that money can play a pernicious role in influencing politicians, which is why I feel it worth noting for the record that 10 out of the top 20 political contributors to Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign just so happened to be elite bankers and oil corporations. So, about that “threaten the status quo” bit…
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Stephen F. Cohen writes about media malpractice in the West's coverage of Russia and Ukraine.
I’m in Rio, but I’ve left you with a few reviews.
1) Michael Bloomfield Box Set
Remember when I recommended There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream by the jazz pianist with the PhD in American studies Ben Sidran—(I'll bet he doesn't support BDS)—well I want to recommend it again, a) because it's great, and b) because it tells the story of the musical friendship between Michael Bloomfield and Barry Goldberg. This story was retold in the documentary I reviewed last summer, Born in Chicago, which I hope has since seen wider release.
Why am I saying all this again?
Because SONY Legacy has released a beautiful box set devoted to Bloomfield’s career. Perhaps you’ve never heard of Mike Bloomfield. You’re not alone. Here are a few quotes:
“The first time I saw Michael play guitar…it literally changed my life enough for me to say, ‘this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’” - Carlos Santana
“Best guitar player I ever heard.” - Bob Dylan
“The future of rock guitar was in ‘East-West.’ At one point or another you’re hearing what would become the Grateful Dead, Santana, the Allman Brothers, Crazy Horse, Television and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.” - Dave Alvin
"Mike Bloomfield is music on two legs." - Eric Clapton
The box is titled “From His Head To His Heart To His Hands. It’s a 3CD/1DVD set anthology produced and curated by Al Kooper (who played with Mike Bloomfield on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited sessions in 1965 and the Super Session album in 1968). It’s a nearly perfect artifact, containing everything anyone ever heard from Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag, tracks with Muddy Waters and Janis Joplin, Highway 61 band outtakes, and much much more. Among them: Bloomfield's first demos for John Hammond Sr. in 1964 and his final public performance, and a track from the 1980 Bob Dylan concert in San Francisco where Dylan introduces him in what would be one of his final appearances anywhere.
Directed by Bob Sarles, Sweet Blues: A Film about Michael Bloomfield combines vintage audio interviews and live performance footage of Bloomfield with newly lensed reflections on the artist from the guitarist's friends and fellow musicians. It’s a heartbreaking story but a profoundly important one for the history of both rock and the blues and I, for one, am grateful to Kooper and company for telling it in so complete and sensitive a fashion. You also get a 40-page booklet with lots of photos extensive liner notes by musician and lifelong Bloomfield fan Michael Simmons.
Who, after all this enthusiasm, is Mike Bloomfield, you ask. Here’s a short bio from the people at Legacy:
Born in Chicago in 1943, Mike Bloomfield learned blues guitar as a teenager hanging out in the clubs of the South Side, where he "played with every living musician who played electric blues" in real time with masters like B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Big Joe Williams and many more) from 1959 into the early 1960s.
A blues artist, Bloomfield was a prodigy who assimilated jazz and world musics into his fluid improvisations. As a final cog in the wheel of the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band, one of rock's first interracial bands and one of the blue's first experimental ensembles, Bloomfield helped open new vistas of cultural and musical possibilities in 1965-66.
Bloomfield, who'd been signed in 1964 by legendary A&R man John Hammond Sr., was called into duty as a session guitarist for Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album. The results, particularly the single "Like A Rolling Stone," took rock radio in a whole new direction while Mike Bloomfield went to work on the Butterfield Band's psychedelic blues masterpiece, East-West (1966), a landmark recording combining elements of blues, jazz, psychedelia, Eastern music and more.
Bloomfield founded The Electric Flag, an experimental soul band fronted by horns and humming with high energy, in 1968. That same year, he sat in for the Grape Jam disc in Moby Grape's sophomore double album and collaborated with Al Kooper on the platinum-selling Super Session LP.
From 1968-69, Bloomfield would continue to release innovative, guitar-heavy works, including his debut solo album It’s Not Killing Me and My Labors with Electric Flag member Nick Gravenites. His career was later highlighted by session work including Muddy Waters’ Fathers And Sons and Janis Joplin’s solo debut I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! As well as recorded sit-ins with Woody Herman and Tracy Nelson.
If any of the above appeals to you, I promise you will be glad you got this set. It deserves any and all of the awards for which it is even remotely eligible.
2) Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin box sets
Rhino has put together two extremely decently priced four-CD collections you might need if your collection is light on either one: Otis Redding, The King Of Soul, and Aretha Franklin, The Queen Of Soul. The former coincides with the 50th anniversary of Redding s first album, Pain In My Heart, which helped define the Stax/Memphis sound. This box set has ninety-two songs he sang before that fatal 1967 plane crash on the heels of his biggest hit, “Dock of the Bay.” There isn't anything special in this set, except of course endless, affordable, great music.
Ditto with The Queen Of Soul, which celebrates Aretha’s best years: those at Atlantic Records between 1967 and 1976. It’s got eighty-seven songs arranged chronologically, covering the albums I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Aretha Arrives, Lady Soul, Aretha Now, and Soul 69. And yes, it’s got "The Weight" with Duane Allman on slide, along with "Spirit in the Dark" from Aretha Live at the Fillmore West (1971). You also get some Amazing Grace (1972). And like the Otis, it’s cheap. Go to it.
3) Two new/old Dead releases
Two new/old Dead shows have also been released recently. Dave's Picks, Volume 9, features the complete show from May 14, 1974 at Adams' Field House at the University of Montana in Missoula. It's pretty great—especially the "Scarlet Begonias" and the twenty-two-minute "Playing in the Band," but it's also sold out at Deadnet so you better sign up for future releases or explect to pay a lot of money on Amazon.com. Fret not, however, my friends at Real Gone Music are continuing their re-release of the Dick's Picks series with Number 20: 9/25/76 (Capital Center, Landover, MD) and 9/28/76 (Onondaga County War Memorial, Syracuse, NY). Two songs short of two complete shows—and those two songs, "Bertha" and "It's All Over Now," were played at both shows, so they appear on the set at least once—the collection boasts five hours-plus of music in 1976 following Mickey Hart's return after a twenty month absence.
4) Bernard Malamud and Susan Sontag Library of America collections
Library of America has graced us with two volumes—nearly 1,800 pages in all—of Bernard Malamud's novels and stories of the 1940s and 1950s (volume 1,800 pages) and of the 1960s (volume 2,992 pages).
So Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) is one of the big four (Singer, Bellow, Roth) and in some ways, the most influential, if only for his influence on the latter two. He is the last of them to be so honored but if you are unfamiiar, well, now is the time. He is best known to real Americans for his first novel, The Natural (1952). It’s perhaps the great American Baseball novel, but it is a pretty odd duck in the Malamud oeuvre as it’s Jew-less. Beginning with the The Assistant (1957), Malamud’s grocer’s family and the mysterious drifter who comes to rob, and then to work at, his store, created a kind of template for the rest, perhaps the most famous of which is The Magic Barrel, a deep fable about a rabbinical student and the matchmaker who leads him to an utterly unexpected bride.
In the 1960s—volume 2—I am looking forward to A New Life (1961), “a satiric campus novel set in the Pacific Northwest (based on the author’s experiences at Oregon State), in which native New Yorker Seymour Levin finds himself confronted not only with a new landscape but with erotic intrigue, university politics, and an appointment that isn’t quite what he had expected it to be.” The Fixer (1966), lately in the news, is the blood-libel story retold and Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (1969) follows the comic misadventures, sexual and otherwise, of a failed American painter in Italy. I read that one thirty years ago. Volume 2 also has the brilliant “The Jewbird,” And I’ve only scratched the surface.
LOA has also released Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s.
I have mixed feelings both about many of Susan’s works as well as her making it into the canon, so to speak. It contains Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will (1969), On Photography (1977), and Illness as Metaphor (1978), with six previously uncollected essays including studies of William S. Burroughs and the painter Francis Bacon and a series of reflections on beauty, aging and the emerging feminist movement.
Ted Cruz is Trolling Congress; It’s Time the Media Calls Him On It
by Reed Richardson
In the accountability-free zone that passes for Sunday morning news shows, it takes a lot for a politician to generate any kind of pushback from their intellectually malleable hosts. So, it passes as noteworthy when Bob Schieffer, host of CBS News’ Face the Nation, recently followed up on a ridiculously false statement by one of his show’s guests, Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
BOB SCHIEFFER: All right, lemme—lemme go back to one thing and—the question I asked you was, "Would you ever conceive of threatening to shut down the government again?"
SEN. TED CRUZ: Well, as I said, I didn't threaten to shut down the government the last time. I don't think we should ever shut down the government. I repeatedly voted—
BOB SCHIEFFER: Well—
SEN. TED CRUZ: —to fund the federal government.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Senator—
BOB SCHIEFFER: —if you didn't threaten to shut down the government, who was it that did? I mean, but we'll go on—
Not exactly withering cross-examination, to be sure. But what even the transcript of the absurd exchange doesn’t fully capture, though this video clip does, is Schieffer’s astonishment—to the point of outright amusement—at Cruz’s brazen embrace of an obvious lie. The clubby world of DC punditry depends upon an unspoken agreement of plausible deniability between both pundits and politicians. So when one of the latter so clearly and consistently leaps off the cliff of reality, members of the former who try to stick with the equivocating, “both sides” script risk being taken down as well. That someone like Schieffer could be reduced to near giggles by Cruz’s duplicitousness symbolizes how timid and soft the Washington press corps has grown. And it reveals how ill-prepared the media is to deal with someone like Cruz, whose shtick is naked, intellectual dishonesty.
Put more simply, Cruz is little more than a Congressional troll. Since his election fifteen months ago, he has embarked upon a non-stop campaign of willful antagonism, privileged contrarianism, and unabashed self-aggrandizement. Trolls peddle phony outrage and crave undeserved attention and, not coincidentally, Cruz’s political toolkit contains just two elements: monkey wrenches and soapboxes.
As just one among 100 in the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” Cruz tends to get written off by the press as merely a colorful, mostly harmless crank. The Senate’s precarious legislative process and the House’s deep polarization, however, means Cruz’s disingenuous obstructionism makes an already dysfunctional Congress even more unpredictably combustible. All last summer, he ran a traveling political medicine show for the FEMA-camps-and-Benghazi-conspiracy crowd, touting the potential for repealing Obamacare as part of the impending government budget showdown. Though his trolling was an obvious fundraising and publicity stunt with zero chance of success, Republicans in Congress went along with his no-win scenario, taking the whole of the federal government down with his party in October.
In the past week, Cruz pulled two more variations on this same reckless behavior. While Senate Republican leaders had already accepted the necessity of passing a clean debt limit bill and were willing to let Democrats approve it with a simple majority, Cruz nearly blew up the process by threatening a filibuster at the last minute. Facing yet another publicity disaster, not to mention risking the full faith and credit of the nation’s financial system yet again, twelve GOP Senators reluctantly voted for passage. And while disaster was temporarily avoided in that case, Cruz likely killed off the House’s numerical advantage on immigration reform when he unexpectedly stuck the incendiary “amnesty” label on Speaker Boehner’s broad principles for reform last week.
Of course, no one should shed tears for folks like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell when they have to publicly confront the embarrassment of the GOP’s slouching towards Bethlehem. And if the Republicans’ refusal to address immigration before next fall’s midterm elections costs it seats in the House or its chance for the majority in the Senate, so much the better. But make no mistake, Republican self-immolation on this scale means millions of Americans are burned in the backdraft.
Sadly, the press rarely connects the dots on the long-term, real-world damage of Cruz’s legislative sabotage. In fact, his tactics have so mesmerized the media that what would otherwise be unprecedented intransigence by the rest of the GOP caucus gets normalized. For example, there was this New York Times story last week, which soft-peddled Cruz’s key role in sparking the potential debt ceiling disaster but that gave credit to Senate Republican leaders for having “rescued” the aforementioned debt ceiling vote. Politico, as only it can do, one-upped the Times with a long, behind-the-scenes process story that also glossed over Cruz as provocateur and instead featured this laugher of a quote from Senator John McCain about Mitch McConnell’s “yea” vote: “I must say it was a very courageous act.” Yes, inside the Beltway, it takes “courage” for the Senate Minority Leader to vote for a bill to pay for things that Congress has already spent money on.
The usual suspects, apathy and ignorance, are no doubt contributing factors in the political press’s unwillingness to call out Cruz’s spiteful grandstanding. I suspect subconscious bias is at work as well. The "Everybody hates him" reputation Cruz has now firmly and deservedly established sounds an awful a lot like the old newsroom shibboleth about objectivity—that when both parties are complaining about your reporting that’s a sure sign you’re doing it right. If you’ve ever wondered how far afield from honest governance a politician can wander before the “objective” media finally calls out his or her bullshit, Ted Cruz looks to be the ongoing case study.
This kind of journalistic negligence emboldens other extremist Republicans in Congress to sow even more dysfunction, though. In addition, the lack of public accountability only serves to discourage more rational members of the GOP who might otherwise be tempted to leverage intra-party pressure in stopping the needless obstruction. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that the fear of facing a primary threat on the right from the next wannabe Ted Cruz—whom the press will lavish with uncritical attention—has reduced some feckless House Republicans to concern trolling with their Congressional votes, as part of what’s being called the “vote no, hope yes” caucus.
In the end, this is the most pernicious effect of Cruz’s trolling—the way his deceitful behavior disconnects political rhetoric and action from the good faith of those Americans he represents—and more importantly—how it impacts those Americans he doesn’t. Any press corps that proclaims to be a beacon of truth and accountability in a free society should feel compelled to call out these anti-democratic tactics for what they are. Failure to do so really is no laughing matter.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Michelle Orange writes about British political satire and its American progeny.
My new Nation column is called What Ailes the Media? (A biography by Gabriel Sherman clarifies the Fox impresario’s role in his network’s deceptions.)
Alter-reviews: Jason Isbell, Suzy Bogguss, Steve Earle, Loser’s Lounge and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
1) Jason Isbell
I’ve seen a lot of music of late and felt pretty lucky to have done so. It began with a performance of Jason Isbell and his terrific band at the American Songbook series at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Jason put out what many people think is the most worthwhile album of last year, Southeastern, and I see that he won all kinds of awards. The show was being filmed and the full 400 Unit, named after after the psychiatric ward of a hospital near Muscle Shoals, (with horns flown in from Birmingham that day) and while the show had a certain amount of hyper-seriousness, it also rocked in a way that justified all of the accolades and then some. Isbell has a remarkably winning stage presence and a fine band, and the songs sound even better live. Yes, "Cover Me Up" and the powerful "Elephant" kicked proverbial posterior but my favorite was the unlikely encore of “Can You Hear Me Knocking.” We can all look forward to many more such albums and shows, now that Isbell has straighened out his life and has an excellent fiddler/wife Amanda Shires to keep him on the straight and narrow. Check out the rest of their schedule.
2) Suzy Bogguss
A second recent highlight of my music-going year so far was the Highline show to celebrate the release of Lucky, Suzy Bogguss's 12-song album of Merle Haggard songs. Merle is one of the weirdly under-rated songwriter, which is particularly odd, given that he has sold more records than almost anybody else on earth and nobody disputes what a terrific singer he is. But there it is and so Suzy Bogguss’s idea to bring her beautiful voice and appropriate reverence to these songs was an inspired idea. The performances themselves are beautiful and she had her band with her from Nashville and, while the performances were loose—it was their first gig—they had depth and warmth—a lot like Suzy’s voice. The highlights, if I were forced to pick them, were "I Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink," and "Today I Started Loving You Again."
And Suzy’s fine new album reminds me of another fine one from my good friend Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread, whom I’ve not seen perform in a while, but it’s a beautiful meditation on the South and Rose’s relationship to it, both through her father’s story as well as her own. The Times magazine profiled Rosanne here.
3) Steve Earle
The following night, I got to visit on the first of my friend Steve Earle’s residency at City Winery. Each show of the four he’s doing with a special guest—Steve’s last T-Bone Burnett-produced album, The Low Highway, is great too. These shows, however, are based on songs requested by fans on the website and then picked from a bowl by Steve on stage. It’s a gimmick but a good one because it allows him to go deep in a way that might otherwise appear to be an act of (just) ego. Here he gets to do that but he gets to look like a great guy—and to tell all those great stories again—at the same time. I fear the next three shows are all sold out though, so you’ll have to keep your eyes out for Steve somewhere else.
4) Loser’s Lounge
A night later, I made it to Joe's Pub for the first of the Loser's Lounge five show tribute to the Velvet Underground. This too made me feel awfully lucky to live in the greatest music city in the world and stupid for not going to all of the Loser's Lounge shows. It also reignited my admiration for the weird and wonderful talents of Tammy Faye Starlight, as Nico. What is "Loser's Lounge," you ask? (Loser's Lounge is "a bi-monthly tribute show based in NYC where local talent pays homage to the pop music greats of the past.") Next up is their Carly Simon vs. Linda Ronstadt show...
5) The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Oh, and the kid went to see Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (with Wynton Marsalis) performing its first family concert of the year: Jazz For Young People Family Concert: Who is Dave Brubeck? at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. She said it was great but I could not get much more out of her than that. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s schedule is here.
Toward Better Invisible Primary Press Coverage: Fewer Polls, More Policy
by Reed Richardson
The purpose of the press in a free society is to advance the public’s awareness along a continuum of information and context. What defines the value of news is how far along between the starting point of the unknown and the ending point of ubiquity a story takes us. When journalism gets stuck on either of these polar opposites, then, it betrays one of the fundamental expectations of its audience: “Tell me something I don’t know.” This is precisely the dilemma plaguing the Beltway media’s mostly worthless coverage of the 2016 “invisible primary” right now.
The blame for this failure falls squarely on the political press. Its insatiable appetite for the next candidate, the next campaign, the next election invariably leaves it straining to cover races so far in the future there’s little to no actual news yet. So it must simply create some, which is where the press’s heavy, institutional bias for process stories and horserace coverage kicks in. This fascination with “Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s in? Who’s out?” necessitates a correspondingly simplistic dramatis personae of winners, losers, favorites, and underdogs, all cast as part of series of flimsy, poll-driven passion plays. The end result is that the Beltway establishment keeps trying to repackage as news the same old story that we’ve already known for months, if not years: Hillary Clinton is the Democratic front-runner and there is no Republican front-runner.
Nonetheless, every news organization wants to recycle this narrative to own the news cycle for a few days. No surprise then, that since the beginning of November, there have been ten national polls conducted on the 2016 presidential primary field. They’ve all confirmed the very same thing, even though each of them tries to interpret a blip down for Chris Christie or a blip up for Mike Huckabee as something other than statistical noise. This CNN poll from last month at least admitted that, two years out from Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton is crushing every other potential Democratic candidate and the GOP field is “a pack of potential White House contenders with no obvious frontrunner.”
How silly have these attempts to find a fresh narrative gotten? Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney—who denied any interest in a 2016 run to The New York Times nearly a dozen times—was for some reason included in a Boston Globe poll of the New Hampshire primary. That he was leading with a small plurality in the poll speaks to just how pointless these surveys are right now. But then again, without them, you can’t write completely absurd columns with obvious, click-bait headlines like: "Mitt Romney in 2016?"
Even the conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat emphasizes “There…is…no…GOP…frontrunner.” Not so fast, rebuts another pundit, who somewhat unconvincingly points to a BetFair market snapshot where Marco Rubio bests Jeb Bush 16.4 percent to 12.8 percent to be the GOP nominee. Hard to believe a 3.8 percent lead is yellow jersey worthy at this stage of the presidential race. Plus: here’s what a real prediction-market front-runner looks like: just a year or so out from Election Day 2008, BetFair gave Hillary Clinton a 45 percent chance of becoming the next president.
The fact is that during the next eighteen months betting markets and polling results invite a superficial, zero-sum understanding of the 2016 campaign. As Joseph Jackson noted in his 2002 paper, The Party Animal: The Front-runner in the Presidential Invisible Primary: “[I]invisible primary media coverage correlates strongly with preference poll standings, but does not correlate as well with the winning the nomination.”
A perfect example: in March 2006, ABC News’s political insider blog The Note published its first invisible primary rankings of the 2008 field. Looking back on it reveals the political press’s embrace of conventional wisdom and lack of real foresight. Sure, it was correct when it gave John McCain the best chance at being the GOP’s nominee, but it ranked as runner-up then-Virginia Senator George Allen, a man whose political career would be essentially over within the year. And of the eleven names listed as potential Democratic nominees, one was notably missing: Barack Obama. Consider the GOP’s most recent primary season, when polls registered five different front-runners, along with a Ron Paul surge and Michele Bachmann boomlet. This turbulence fueled a boom-bust cycle of press coverage, which caused much of the press to overlook the steady consistency and massive infrastructure edge of Mitt Romney, the eventual winner.
This polling instability looks to be the rule rather than the exception. Since 1980, primary candidates who led in the early fall before the primaries have gone on to become the party’s nominee just six out of thirteen times. In the three most recent elections, the early polling in August or September has a very poor track record in predicting the competitive primary winner, missing in 2004 with Gephardt (Kerry), in 2008 with Guiliani (McCain) and Clinton (Obama), and in 2012 with Perry (Romney).
Now, it’s true that there is news being made during the invisible primary, but it’s not to be found in obsessing over front-runners and also-rans. Instead, the stories of real long-lasting value would look at how 2016 candidates are quietly building donors, hiring staff, and adopting policies that will make them more appealing and accessible to primary constituencies. So, rather than waste time and resources on meaningless polls comprised of party cattle calls and head-to-head match-ups, news organizations and the public would be better off listening to someone like Georgetown University political science professor Hans Noel when trying to maximize the impact of their coverage.
Noel, the author of The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform explained in this 2011 Columbia Journalism Review interview that the press needs to shift away from its general campaign mindset this far removed from Election Day:
In a primary election it’s so much more about the terrain, and the metaphor of the horse race can’t capture that. If the narrative were structured in terms of, the party’s having a hard time deciding which kind of candidate it wants to have—which I do see from time to time—that would be much more useful, I think. It’s harder, because you don’t have just one person to talk about. And you can’t just run off a poll and use that as a springboard for a story. But I think it’s possible to do it.
Note here the phrase that cash-strapped news presidents and non-stop deadline-pressured editors hate to hear: “It’s harder.” Still, several news organizations have dedicated resources to the invisible primary beyond just their standard insider-y coverage. With one party’s front-runner all but assured (until she’s declares otherwise), it’s not surprising then that seven different news organizations now have a reporter or producer fixated on covering Hillary Clinton. But as the Times’ initial stab at this demonstrated last August, a heavy emphasis on the Clinton persona can come off as tenuously connected—at best—to her political aspirations.
As an alternative, Noel suggests taking an inverted approach to covering both a front-runner like Clinton as well as the nascent GOP field. Rather than cover a Clinton or a Rand Paul in Iowa, news organizations should cover the constituencies Clinton or Paul are talking to in Iowa. “It’s daunting to say, go and understand a whole state,” Noel acknowledges. “It’s harder than it is to follow around a particular candidate. But that is the place where the questions need to be asked.” The same approach could be taken with policy issues before Congress, Noel adds. “You could also, for example, assign whoever is paying attention to congressional politics to keep track of the discussion there. And in general, try to find as many possible ways to divide things into coverage areas that lead to people making the decision.”
This Associated Press analysis of liberal Democrats’ somewhat uneasy relationship with Hillary Clinton's politics shows how an outside-in approach to a notoriously hard-to-cover subject can provide enlightening context. Similarly, the press should take a cue from Senator Carl Levin, who pointedly asked Hillary Clinton her position on the Iran sanctions bill currently being debated in Congress. Getting her to state on the record she’s in favor of giving diplomacy time to work was a genuinely valuable public service, one that could have long-lasting implications during the 2016 primary and general election campaigns. Wouldn’t prospective Democratic primary voters likewise be interested in Clinton's specific positions on financial reform and the constitutionality of the NSA’s metadata collection program? Similarly, wouldn’t GOP primary voters, say, want a clear position on comprehensive immigration reform from Gov. Scott Walker?
Unfortunately, these important questions, and many others, will likely go unanswered if the national press continues to favor a superficial, zero-sum approach to the 2016 campaign for the next two years. For a profession that likes to demand transparency from politicians, there’s an irony to press coverage that merely offers a veneer of clarity. It’s time to start lifting the veil of pointless polling that keeps too much of the invisible primary hidden from the American people.
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